Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

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 …

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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.

Philipse on the Immunization of Theism

July 14, 2017

In Chapter 10, Philipse examines the need — at least according to him — for theologians to “immunize” their theology from science, by which he means that they have to make it so that their theories cannot be disconfirmed by future scientific discoveries. The main issue that undercuts pretty much all of this chapter is, again, that natural theologians and any theologians who are attempt to approach their theology empirically and scientifically ought to be as worried about future scientific examinations disproving them as, well, scientists are … which is to say, not one bit. Philipse seems to want to put theology in general into a bind. He wants to argue that theology can’t be respectable unless it accepts the standards and methods of science, but then should theology actually attempt to do so insists that it can’t be taken seriously in science unless it meets higher standards than general scientific theories have to. In short, if theologians promote more conceptual theories, he’ll dismiss them as not being scientific, but if they promote empirical or scientific theories, if Philipse can come up with any explanation that isn’t supernatural he will claim that those are to be preferred to even the empirical and naturalistic theological theories. At which point, if theism accepts the moves, there is no way for theism to win even if it’s true. But there’s no reason for a naturalistic theologian to accept that there is a problem if it is possible for future scientific discoveries to impact their theory, nor is there any reason for a conceptual theologian to accept that their proofs need to be empirical or scientific in order to be respectable.

Here, Philipse is trying to use the argument of “God of the Gaps” to argue that natural theologians need to immunize their theories against potential future scientific refutation of their explanations. The problem is that the “God of the Gaps”, when it’s used as an argument at all, doesn’t work that way. The basic “God of the Gaps” is simply noticing that theistic explanations were used in a lot of places, and then science came along and replaced them with actually better explanations. If this is used as an argument, it’s an inductive one that says that since scientific explanations have replaced theistic explanations so often in the past, we should presume that for any phenomena where we want to use a theistic explanation we should probably just wait for a scientific one instead of doing that. This is, of course, an invalid argument that at best only means that if you want to promote a theistic explanation for a certain phenomena you need to provide a reason other than “Science can’t explain it” … which we probably should be doing anyway. And if a natural theologian has an explanation for a phenomena that requires there be a God and has reasons for thinking that God is the best or a good explanation of that phenomena, they should not be at all concerned about the possibility that science might come up with a better theory at a later date. Yes, it might … and it might not. We can only assess what is the best explanation looking at what we know now, not by what might happen later. So the need for immunizing theism from future scientific discovery seems to not be a need after all.

However, Swinburne tries to do so, arguing that there are some phenomena that are too weird or too big to be handled by science. I’m not going to talk about the “too big” argument, because that’s essentially cosmological arguments and, well, it’s better to handle that by looking at those arguments specifically and seeing if they work than by worrying over whether science could ever find an explanation for those phenomena. I will talk a bit about the “too weird”, which is basically miracles, and Philipse focuses on the Resurrection as a specific example to look at to purportedly prove his case.

Philipse’s argument is essentially this: if we accept Swinburne’s idea that miracles are too weird to fall under science, then we have to accept that they are, well, improbable given what we know about the world. That’s rather the point of a miracle. But if they really are that “weird” and improbable, then if we are told about one or see something that might suggest that it actually happened, what we probably should do is doubt that the event happened rather than proclaiming it a miracle. Thus, the very characteristics that would cause us to classify it a miracle should also cause us to be skeptical that it actually happened.

This might sound good at first, but when we put it into the context of Hume’s argument which inspires it, we can see the problems with it. Recall that Hume’s argument was, essentially, that miracles are so improbable that no matter how trustworthy we think a witness is it is always more probable that they were lying or mistaken than that the miracle actually happened. Philipse is more generous, conceding that we might be able to have a witness or set of evidence reliable enough to establish a miracle, but that that standard has to be enormously high given that we are talking about a miracle. But the problem is that these arguments smack of denying that an event occurred only or at least primarily because they don’t like the implications of that event actually happened. Sure, they talk about probabilities so as to make it sound more reasonable, but remember that for Hume he would have argued that for someone that you think is completely reliable, has no reason to lie, and who was definitely in a position to affirm that the event happened, it would still be more probable to deny that the event occurred than to accept that a miracle actually happened. Ultimately, then, the argument seems to translate to “If this event occurred, it would be a miracle, and therefore I will deny that the event occurred”. But you can’t deny that an event happened just because you don’t like the implications if it did. You can’t argue that the reliability of someone’s testimony is determined by whether or not you want to believe that the event they’ve testified to actually happened, or that someone’s senses must have been deceived just because of what they saw. Ultimately, that really seems like an argument that you will deny all possible evidence because you don’t like the conclusion that evidence leads you to.

We can see this more fully when we look at Philipse’s analysis of the Resurrection. Philipse wants to jump through all sorts of hoops to deny that the event occurred, but all he ends up doing is showing us what we ought to already know: we don’t have enough direct evidence to accept that the Resurrection actually happened. We, at least in modern times, don’t have anything like direct testimony from a reliable witness or set of witnesses that were in an appropriate position to witness the event. Instead, we have second-hand testimony passed down primarily by word of mouth until it was written down, which allows for corruption and the introduction of false and misleading testimony and evidence into the record. So we have reasons to doubt that the event happened independently of what actually happened … or, at least, to say that the evidence we have for it isn’t sufficient to establish that the event actually happened.

Now, if Philipse could argue that it is the “oddness” of the event that drives our skepticism, then he’d have a point … but that’s not what drives our skepticism. Yes, we tend to demand stronger evidence for stranger beliefs, but as it turns out a “miracle” being ascribed to a purportedly supernatural being is less improbable than if it is being ascribed to a natural being. For example, in a series like the Elenium or the Amber series we’re not going to blink an eye if someone casts a magical spell, but we’d be dragged completely out of immersion if, say, Jack Ryan did that. Since Jesus is purportedly a supernatural being, His being involved in a miracle is consistent with what we’d expect from such a being. No, what makes us skeptical about the Resurrection is less its oddness and more its importance: it is absolutely critical to Christianity that it happened, and so those skeptical of Christianity are going to peruse it in detail before accepting it. In general, it is always at least a combination of oddness and importance that drives how easily we will accept certain claims. If someone said that Jesus ate fish on a particular day, we wouldn’t subject that to any scrutiny. But if someone argued that a certain important event depended on Jesus eating fish on a particular day, we in general would want to make sure that we had really good evidence that that did, indeed, happen on that day.

And as we saw above, “oddness” isn’t really “improbable”, but is instead more “inconsistent”. If, say, someone said that I ate fish on a particular day, that would strike at the “oddness” criteria, even though people eat fish every day. The reason is that _I_ don’t like fish, and so I don’t eat it very often. So someone being told that about me would find it puzzling and would want more evidence before accepting it. And if my eating fish that day mattered for some reason, then that inconsistency might even drive them to strongly doubt that as confirming evidence. This is why Jesus performing or being part of a miracle is less odd than, say, my doing it would be; it is consistent with our expectations for a supernatural being like Jesus and inconsistent with our expectations for a natural being like myself.

So this defense of “oddness” doesn’t work. Ascribing supernatural actions to a supernatural agent won’t trigger than criteria in our skepticism. The Resurrection triggers skepticism because it is a important event that we have little solid evidence for, not because someone being raised from the dead is just that odd. And even if it was, demanding exceedingly high standards of evidence can only be seen as an attempt to set the bar so high that the atheist need never accept that a miracle or the Resurrection ever occurred, which is not a reasonable position to take, and is a position that no theist need accept. Ultimately, the best way for a theist to approach the arguments in this chapter is to simply refuse to accept the presumptions that underlie them, and thus to deny that there is any problem at all, requiring Philipse to put forward far better arguments for them than he has.

Philipse on the Predictive Power of Theism

June 30, 2017

In Chapter 9 of “God in the Age of Science?”, Philipse points out that to count as a scientific theory, theism — or “bare theism” as he likes to insist he is sticking to — must have some kind of predictive power. To be fair here, this is an argument that natural theologians will have to address, so he’s off to a good start. The initial argument is that predictive power as per predicting future events is going to be problematic for theism, at least because it hasn’t really had a lot of that sort of predictive power in the past — a lot of religious assumptions were wrong in the past — and because the conception of God ends up being vague enough that without, at least, importing specific religious concepts it’s going to be hard to tie specific actions to that bare theistic conception of God. Note that this is more my overall summary of the underlying problems; I think that Philipse ultimately makes arguments of this sort, but am not certain if he makes them this explicitly and directly.

At any rate, Philipse eventually concludes that theists are likely going to want to retreat to a notion where, essentially, theism is seen as the best explanation for the evidence we have, even if we can’t use it to predict new discoveries. This becomes much more important and prominent later, but here Philipse wants to question whether we can have any background that we can use to determine the intentions and plans of the intentional being God, so that we can determine that if God existed the world and universe or that any phenomenon in particular is a confirmation or disconfirmation of the theory that God exists. And as usual Philipse attempts to show at least the problems with this — if not to provide reason to think that the theistic theory has no predictive power — by addressing a specific argument of Swinburne’s, that of moral access. The argument is essentially this: there is such a thing as objective morality, and we at least have some ability to determine what is moral and what isn’t. God is by conception ultimately moral, and so will always act in accordance with the highest standard of morality. Thus, the background we can use to assess what things God would or wouldn’t do is to appeal to objective morality as a starting point.

Philipse follows the two standard tactics here. The first is that he starts from assuming that if he can find any other alternative explanation then he’s created a serious problem for the theist, and the second is that he decides to go after and attack the idea of objective morality itself to deny it. Thus, he appeals to evolutionary biology and the assertions of some of them that morality is nothing more than evolved preferences built to promote social structure. The argument always boils down to the idea that if we have a different evolutionary path — if we were all hive creatures like bees, for example — we’d have a radically different sense of what is or isn’t moral. Thus, morality can’t be objective in the way Swinburne wants it to be to work as a background for God.

Well, first, just because some evolutionary biologists and others think this is plausible, it doesn’t mean it is. Philipse would need to do a lot more work to show that this is indeed an argument that Swinburne would have to take seriously. Second, it has serious flaws. The first is that a number of our moral decisions seem to follow more from our intellect than from our biology. For example, vegetarianism is not a moral conclusion that an evolved omnivore would just naturally adopt. Neither is the idea that sexual relations with someone who has entered puberty but is under 18 years old is immoral. As we develop new societies and new technologies, we adapt our idea of morality using our intellect, and it is reasonable to assume that intellect would apply across species. So if we put aside “ought implies can” arguments — where, for example, a carnivore cannot properly consider vegetarianism morally right — it’s certainly not clear that we can’t have a general, intellect-based objective morality. The second is that assigning morality to societal conventions doesn’t work either. Our moral intuitions make a sharp distinction between social conventions and moral claims, and this rather famously is something that psychopaths fail at. So taking that route to eliminate objective morality doesn’t seem all that plausible either.

The real issue is that trying to oppose Swinburne by opposing objective morality is taking a fairly controversial stance. It’s going to need a lot of argumentation to establish this as plausible to anyone who doesn’t already think that there is no such thing as an objective morality of the sort Swinburne holds. And Philipse, in general, seems to think that he can just drop in an alternative theory and say “You could be wrong!” and raise a serious challenge for his theistic opponents, but this isn’t the case. Taking that tack only leaves a debate where both sides — as I just demonstrated above — try to argue that their idea is more intuitively “plausible” than the other idea is. This is not likely to be productive, even if Philipse would bother giving stronger arguments for his claims than the points that he, himself, finds personally plausible.

The question of whether theism is the best explanation for the world we see will come up again and again, so this chapter lays a relatively important groundwork, even if its arguments really go nowhere and we never really have reason to think that theism has no predictive power. In the next chapter, Philipse will talk about attempts to immunize theism from scientific explanation.

Philipse and God’s Necessity

June 16, 2017

So, it’s been a while since I commented further on Philipse’s “God in the Age of Science”, but I am still committed to finishing it one day. I actually haven’t finished reading it yet, because I felt I needed to go chapter-by-chapter and comment on it, and so I’m reading a chapter or two ahead, commenting on it, and then going back to it. So things might change when I read later chapters, but so far that hasn’t really happened.

Anyway, here Philipse is talking about questions of whether or not God can exist necessarily, and again invokes Swinburne as his main source, seemingly both for ways that God can be necessary and for criticism of ways to claim that God’s existence is necessary. This is problematic because Swinburne’s idea of making God’s existence necessary seems to me to be fairly eccentric and esoteric, and so doesn’t seem to comport with the most famous arguments for the necessity of God. Philipse and Swinburne might think that that is a benefit on the basis that the more famous arguments don’t seem to work at all, but I’m not as convinced of that as they are.

At any rate, the move here is to eliminate purely conceptual arguments for God’s necessity and so for his existence. Philipse sets up a purported dilemma for the theologian: either they argue that God necessity is a purely conceptual one like that of numbers and so empirical evidence is neither possible nor required to demonstrate the existence of God, or else they argue that God’s necessity is an empirical matter but then run the risk of all of their arguments for why, say, the universe needs a cause being applied to God. The main issue here, though, off the top is that this does not apply to the theologians who are most likely to argue that God exists necessarily, which are theologians who are more conceptually/philosophically based than empirically/scientifically based. Any purely philosophical theologian is not even going to blink at the first horn of the dilemma, as that is likely one of their main arguments. Philipse may argue that he’s demonstrated that in the “Age of Science” the existence of anything requires empirical evidence, but obviously I’m not convinced of that. So if a philosophical or conceptual theologian actually makes one of these purely conceptual arguments work, I’m certainly not going to be all that concerned that it means that we can’t use empirical evidence to prove the existence of God. The important thing would be proving the existence of God, not how one actually managed that.

And unfortunately the only real argument that Philipse musters against the philosophical theolgian here is one from Swinburne: a purely conceptual God doesn’t seem like one that is worthy of worship. This does not work for Philipse — even though he tries to make it work — because Philipse is clear — and he goes on and on about this in Chapter 9 — that he is after bare theism, which is examining theism at a base level without, say, reading in too much from religious works and texts. But whether or not God is worthy of worship or not is not a proposition of bare theism, but is instead a proposition of religion. If, say, someone proved that an Evil God actually existed and everyone decided that that God wasn’t worth worshipping, that wouldn’t change the fact that God, in fact, actually exists. The key here is that Philipse cannot get away with arguing that a particular conception of God cannot be used because most religions wouldn’t accept it because, nonetheless, that concept would defeat atheism. And so a conceptual God who is necessary in the way numbers are necessary cannot be ruled out because arguably it wouldn’t be worshipped. If it would still count as a theistic God, then it has to count against Philipse’s atheism.

Now, there is an issue here for the natural theologian. The natural theologian is going to want to be able to use empirical evidence to prove the existence of and the properties of God, because that’s pretty much the definition of the field. But what they are going to want to avoid is, in so doing, making God a natural entity. We can restate the dilemma more clearly as this: natural theologians want to be able to look at the natural world to find evidence for the existence and properties of God, but is so doing have to avoid making God an entity just like any other entity, or else it won’t be God anymore. Which, when put that way, is less like a dilemma and more like a challenge: how do we preserve God’s “specialness” while still using evidence from the natural world?

As I said above, I don’t find Swinburne’s answer to that all that interesting, so I’m going to completely ignore it. What I am going to do is take Scholastics’ argument for God and show that it, in fact, manages to, at least potentially, meet that challenge. The idea, let me remind you, is that what we have is a Ground of All Being. Without a Ground of All Being, nothing can exist, and so we know that the Ground of All Being exists. But note that this argument relies heavily on observations of the natural world: things exist in the natural world, and so there must exist a thing that grounds their existence. Thus, we can go out and see if things exist, and if they do then a Ground of All Being exists.

This isn’t all that monumental, of course, but it gets interesting when we start asking what properties the Ground of All Being has to have, because the argument is that not only does this ground the bare existence of things, but also the existence of any positive properties that we observe in the world. So, do we find conscious beings? Then the Ground of All Being must be conscious, and have “perfect” consciousness, because the properties in the natural world are merely reflections of or participate in those ideal properties that the Ground of All Being possesses. Do we find moral beings? Then the Ground of All Being is ideally moral. Do we find agents with agency? Then the Ground of All Being has ideal agency. And so forth and so on.

What we can see from this is that, given that theory, the Ground of All Being — that the theory calls God — must exist necessarily, but all of the arguments for that entity and for its properties are natural/empirical. We know what properties God has by looking at the properties that exist in the world, and then applying them to God, and we know God exists because the natural world exists. This, then, seems to effective go between the horns of Philipse’s dilemma. If it works, of course.

This also answers the question that Philipse raises again, which is why the universe can’t be the thing that has necessity. The answer is that, under this theory, it can, but then it would be conscious, have agency, be moral, be omnipotent, be omniscient, and so on … at which point it would be God for all intents and purposes, and Philipse would be doing nothing more than quibbling over the name.

So, even if we accept that the natural theological approach is the only one that has validity, there are indeed potential ways to answer Philipse’s challenge that don’t rely on Swinburne’s. So we can’t eliminate necessity that easily.

Next chapter Philipse looks at whether the theory of God has any predictive power. He’ll obviously say “It doesn’t” but the hard part is going to be demonstrating that.

The Improbability Trap

May 12, 2017

So, over at Tippling Philosopher, Jonathan MS Pearce posted about doubts about the Easter story, and specifically in this post about naturalistic explanations for the supernatural happenings around Easter. He quotes Bart Ehrman talking about a completely made up explanation where some followers moved the body, got caught by soldiers, attacked, and were killed by them. Ehrman finishes with this:

Is this scenario likely? Not at all. Am I proposing this is what really happened? Absolutely not. Is it more probable that something like this happened than that a miracle happened and Jesus left the tomb to ascend to heaven? Absolutely! From a purely historical point of view, a highly unlikely event is far more probable than a virtually impossible one…

But this is more than “highly unlikely”. There is, in fact, absolutely no reason, even historically, to think that this actually happened other than that it was possible. There are no accounts — at least as far as I know and there is no suggestion that there were in the quote or in the post — that suggest this happened. There are no legends of this happening. There is nothing to suggest that this actually happened. In essence, Ehrman simply made this explanation up. And yet, somehow, he wants us to believe that this completely made up explanation, with nothing to suggest it, is still more probable than what the accounts that we are using to determine that there’s even an event to consider are saying. So you can invent a story that doesn’t align with and is not informed by any of the actual accounts, and if you consider the explanation in the accounts sufficiently improbable you can declare that yours is more probable.

Pearce echos this sort of analysis:

Now, you can claim that some of these interpretations or theories or claims are inherently improbable. They may even be utterly wildly improbable. But that still puts them in the category of being far more probable, and with higher prior probability through precedence, than a dying and rising incarnate god-figure, who prays to himself and sacrifices himself to sit on his own right hand which somehow pays for the sins of humankind, which he created and had ultimate control over, for all of time.

So, again, he can invent interpretations, theories and claims that are wildly improbable and yet are still more probable than the supernatural explanation given in the actual accounts. Given this, it’s hard to see how anyone could ever demonstrate that a “supernatural” explanation is the one that we should accept, even provisionally. After all, in response the naturalist can simply invent an explanation and declare it the winner, simply because it’s naturalistic and doesn’t contradict the evidence. Given that you can almost always come up with an alternative explanation that is consistent with the known facts, this means that the naturalist can always invent an explanation that they can use to claim that the supernatural explanation isn’t the most probable explanation.

Something has gone wrong here, and I blame David Hume.

Hume rather famously made an argument that if someone tells you that they’ve experienced a miracle, it is at least in general more reasonable to argue that the person is lying rather than accept that they really experienced a miracle, no matter how truthful you thought they were, because it was always more likely that they were lying than that they actually experienced a miracle. This was based on the idea that miracles, by definition, are wildly improbable events — that’s how we know that something ought to be called a “miracle” — and so pretty much any other explanation has to be more probable. If it isn’t, then it would be an actual miracle itself. Of course, the problem here is that while miracles are supposed to be wildly improbable for natural or even human agency, they aren’t improbable when interpreted as an act of God. So we have reason to think that God could and would do that, and no reason to think that the cause could be natural or human. Thus, if it happened, it is more probable that God did it than that anything else did. Thus, the improbability argument works against Hume: once we’ve established that the event occurred, any explanation other than God is, by definition, more improbable.

So Hume takes the first step towards denying the event itself using probability. But if you have no reason to think that the person is lying to you or hallucinating, then you have no reason to posit it just because you don’t like or don’t want to accept that that event actually happened. So by Hume’s argument, it is more reasonable to believe that someone you know doesn’t lie and who has no reason to lie to you about this event is lying because if you accept that the event occurred you’d have to accept the supernatural explanation that has consequences that you don’t like. It’s one thing to say that you need more than one person’s word to accept that it happened, or that you disagree with their interpretation of what that event implies, but quite another to say that you don’t think it happened simply on the basis that the consequences of it happening are things you don’t like.

And we can see this carried on in the comments in this post. They consider the supernatural explanation so unlikely that they can prefer any other explanation, but all of those explanations require first dismissing the event itself. In short, they argue that Jesus was never really resurrected, and all of their explanations are aimed at demonstrating that. Now, while it’s true that the evidence for the resurrection isn’t as solid as the account of someone who does not lie, has no reason to lie, and is in a situation where there is no reason to think they were hallucinating, that’s not the argument here. The argument isn’t that the evidence isn’t sufficient, but essentially that the event itself is so outlandish that any explanation other than that the event in question actually happened is to be preferred. And, again, since you can pretty much almost always come up with an explanation that will fit the known facts, this means that there is no way to demonstrate that the event actually happened. Just as Hume could dismiss all evidence up to and including direct testimony from an incredibly reliable source, so to can Ehrman and Pearce dismiss all possible evidence for the resurrection, based entirely on them not thinking that the resurrection happened.

This is what the “improbable” argument is hiding. It’s not an honest intellectual argument, but a way to dismiss and ignore conclusions that you don’t like. At the end of the day, they need to be able to say that there is a way that the supernatural explanation could be more probable than a naturalistic explanation. Given their reasoning in this post, it doesn’t seem like they can do so.

Jerry Coyne’s Sense of Superiority is Tingling …

April 7, 2017

So, Jerry Coyne recently pondered the question of whether religious people are stupid (or “a bit thick”). Or, perhaps, to be totally charitable, more the question of whether someone can be religious and still be called “smart”, as that’s really the question he talks about, but his summary talks about them being in some sense stupid or a bit thick. His answer is, of course, that the religious are at least not smart, are at least partially stupid, and are a bit thick. And as you might imagine, the comments on that post are full of atheists basking in their presumed intellectual and mental superiority, talking about how flawed the reasoning of religious people is and even bringing up the old “It’s a mental illness” and “brainwashed” canards … all of which is based on, at best, them happening to get one answer — albeit potentially an important one — right. Sure, some are pointing out that everyone has potential irrational blind spots, but that hasn’t really made an impact on the atheists there.

So, why does Jerry Coyne think that theists are “a bit thick”?

And many public intellectuals—and virtually all accomplished scientists—are atheists. Why? Because there’s no credible evidence for God. It’s palpably and painfully obvious that religion is a human construct and that the tenets of different faiths are not reconcilable. The things that the faithful say they believe are simply ludicrous. I cringe, for example, when I hear a “smart” person like Rabbi Sacks or the Archbishop of Canterbury profess such stuff.

To me, this means that someone, regardless of how “smart” they seem, is at the very least irrational if they believe in God or the attendant superstitions. It is as if their brain is a jigsaw puzzle with one crucial piece missing: the piece that accepts important propositions in proportion to the evidence supporting them. And to me that kind of irrationality is a form of stupidity, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “dullness or slowness of apprehension; gross want of intelligence.” It’s not that they’re totally stupid; just partially stupid.

Hoo boy.

1) That public intellectuals and scientists — presumably, people that Coyne thinks are smart — are atheists is not evidence that therefore smart people are or tend to be atheists and that that fact is related to their intelligence. There might be something specific in the nature science that makes it so that those people tend towards atheism just from that that has no relation to the purported evidence or lack thereof. Like, I don’t know, naturalism? Coyne’s comment here is like saying that if we discovered that most computer scientists were introverts, and computer scientists are smart people, therefore extroverts aren’t or can’t be smart people. So that first sentence is at best meaningless, and at worst should lead us to wonder if the scientific worldview might be unduly biasing people against theism. So we’d need to look at the evidence.

2) That there’s “no credible evidence” is a claim Coyne needs to support, starting by pointing out what counts as “credible evidence”. And since theism just means “belief in god(s)”, he can’t appeal to the idea that it isn’t convincing to him; that would require it to be a knowledge claim, which I at least don’t make.

3) To say that it is obvious that religion is a human construct implies that he has sufficient evidence of that to demonstrate it to the point of knowledge. But since atheists have made a virtue over never having to prove that God doesn’t exist, colour me skeptical that he actually has that evidence. I certainly haven’t seen evidence that rises to that level.

4) He also — as is his wont — misses that just because it is obvious to him doesn’t mean that it is obvious to everyone. If someone merely doesn’t accept that naturalism is true then they are not going to find it “obvious” that a supernatural entity like a god can’t exist, while a naturalist will.

5) Since most religious people don’t hold that the tenets of faiths other than their own are true, that you can’t reconcile different faiths is not a problem because they aren’t trying to. They think theirs is right and the others are wrong. This might get into an argument over whether the evidence is stronger for their faith than for others, but the idea that the different faiths are reconcilable is utterly irrelevant to that claim.

6) In order to claim that theists are irrational, Coyne would have to know and examine why they maintain that belief, understand their reasons, and address their reasons. Since Coyne has both spent an entire many hours long car ride with Dan Dennett and has compatibilists like Coel constantly try to correct him about what compatibilism wrt free will means and still can’t get it right, this does not seem like something Coyne is capable of doing.

7) Coyne concludes that because theists don’t agree with him on one proposition, that they must therefore be missing the entire faculty that proportions beliefs to evidence … despite the fact that psychologically it would be more likely that in that case if Coyne is right they most likely have some sort of cognitive bias that is interfering here. This would especially be the case if, in other areas, they seem to have no problem apportioning belief to evidence … which would obviously be true for those that Coyne thinks might be smart but who have this odd attachement to religion or theism.

Look at it this way: if someone spent much of their lives worshiping Santa, elves, fairies, or even Zeus, and maintained in all seriousness that Santa delivers presents to Western children at nearly the speed of light each Christmas, you’d think they weren’t playing with a full deck. But somehow it’s okay if they do the same with Allah, Jesus, Muhammad, God, Vishnu, and the like. They can profess such stuff and still be considered “smart.”

But, again, most people don’t believe that, and their cultures consider those things to be false, and so it’s not reasonable to believe them unless you have good reason to. When your culture believes that religion is true, then it’s certainly more reasonable to believe that it is true unless you have good reason not to. Can Coyne offer good reasons not to? The idea that atheists have no burden of proof suggests “No”.

Coyne, essentially, considers theists to be in some sense stupid because we, at best, are wrong about something that Coyne thinks is obviously true. Well, then if we take any position that Coyne holds that others disagree with — free will, scientism, etc — then they would be justified in believing that about him. Thus, we can all get a nice sense of superiority from considering that everyone who does not believe precisely as we do is “a little thick” while we, of course, are not. Alternatively, we can instead consider that maybe they’re wrong, and try to find out where they went wrong, and work with that. We might discover that we are, in fact, wrong. Or they might learn that they are. Or we might discover that the answers aren’t as obvious as we thought they were. At the end, someone might well learn something.

And we obviously can’t have that, right?

Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “History Is Unreliable”

April 5, 2017

So, here are, finally, at the last chapter in Bannister’s book and so the last post Seidensticker will make about the book. As the posts went on, it seemed to me that Seidensticker felt more and more frustrated with Bannister’s book and that it wasn’t providing him with any real arguments to address. This is surprising since presumably before doing this he would have read most of the book to see if it was worth doing chapter by chapter. I mean, I when chapter by chapter with Philipse’s book (which I haven’t finished either commenting on or even reading yet) but there I only started it when I knew there were things that I really needed to talk about and that was one of the books that Coyne insisted all theists had to read, so there was a built in reason for me to take it somewhat seriously. Here, it really looks like Seidensticker picked up the book, thought it might say things, and then started posting on it without checking that or checking if he’d feel that each chapter needed to be looked at, and so ended up very frustrated.

On my side, I knew the posts would be bad starting it, and couldn’t read all of them to see how he’d end. My main frustration here is that Seidensticker doesn’t ever seem to actually defend the purported bad arguments … but, at least, my title is completely accurate (and that inability and/or unwillingness to defend the arguments was kinda the point of my writing these posts).

Anyway, it seems to me that the main issue here is how far one can push the line that the historical evidence we have is insufficient to claim that Christianity is true or that Jesus even existed without risking making all ancient history equally unreliable. The question, then, should turn on whether we have more evidence for other ancient historical figures or stories that we at least consider reliable enough to believe than we do for Jesus and what he did. This is, of course, only going to be a very minor part of this last post.

His complain about Islam is different: “Muslim theology is exceedingly clear that Muhammed was just an ordinary human being.” Yeah, and Mark, the first gospel, makes clear that Jesus was, too. It opens with Jesus being baptized. There’s nothing about Jesus being part of the Trinity or having existed forever. Avoid the Christian dogma, and a plain reading of Mark likewise tells of Jesus as an ordinary human being.

So, let’s go look at the opening to Mark, shall we?

1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,[b] 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”[c]—
3
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[d]

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”
The Baptism and Testing of Jesus

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

So, the opening explicitly states that he was the Messiah, that John the Baptist was preparing the way for him, and that Jesus was the Son of God. I’m not sure how you get “an ordinary human being” out of that, beyond the perfectly compatible with Christian dogma interpretation that Jesus became Man, on any reading, plain or otherwise. In a post where we’re talking about history, it’s not a good idea to start by pointing to a source and badly missing what it actually said.

Bannister declares that to defeat Christianity, you must address Jesus and his claims. He ignores that Jesus didn’t make claims; the gospels say that he made claims. How reliable is that record? And if history is that big a deal, you must acknowledge that historians scrub out the supernatural. Sorry, historians aren’t your friend.

Well, how reliable is that record? If you’re defending a claim that they aren’t reliable enough, you might have wanted to start or stick to that instead of adding the sidebar of the supernatural. And if historians “scrub out” the supernatural, on what grounds do they do that? If they do it simply because it is supernatural, then historians may not be Bannister’s friend, but they would be letting philosophical views dictate their interpretations of history, which is bad for history. About the only real argument that can be made here is that historically speaking we’ve found that these supernatural elements are ones that tend to get added to these sort of stories, so we ought to be skeptical of them. Sure, but that’s a) not what Seidensticker says here and b) isn’t an answer to Bannister’s argument anyway.

Dawkins uses the game of telephone (“Chinese whispers” in British parlance) to show how the Jesus story is unreliable, but Bannister isn’t buying it. He mocks this approach:

We mustn’t think of Thucydides, or Josephus, or Tacitus, or St Luke as carefully interviewing eyewitnesses, reading sources, and weighing the evidence—goodness, no, they were ignorant ancient yokels, relying on what they half-heard, whispered into their ears, after the stories had made their way through a long line of pre-school children, high on sugar and gullibility.

Seidensticker’s initial reply?

Where do you start with someone so afraid of honest skepticism that he hides behind straw man arguments like this? Josephus said nothing about Jesus, and Tacitus wrote in the early second century. Thucydides died in about 400 BCE and so is irrelevant; presumably, Bannister uses him to say that the period produced well-respected historians. So therefore all ancient documents are reliable? Nope, that doesn’t follow.

But it does imply that you can’t merely look at assembled oral histories or ancient histories and declare them unreliable. You need to do something more than merely suggest that ancient historical works are formed by the game of telephone and so distorted so much that they are useless.

Seidensticker, shockingly, actually tries to do that:

Let’s review some of the historical weaknesses of the Jesus story that follow from Dawkins’ example of the game of telephone.

  • There were decades of oral history from event to documentation in the gospels.
  • There is a centuries-long period of Dark Ages from the New Testament originals to our best copies (more here and here). We can’t be certain what was modified during that period.
  • Much of Christianity comes from Paul, who never saw Jesus in person (more).
  • We don’t even know who wrote the gospels (more).
  • The gospel of Luke promises that the author is giving a good historical analysis, but why is that believable? You wouldn’t believe an earnest supernatural account from me, so why is it more believable if it’s clouded by the mists of time?
  • Matthew and Luke copy much of Mark, something that an eyewitness would never do.

I’m not sure how these can be said to follow from Dawkins’ assertion, as these seem to be facts that Seidensticker is mustering to show that the gospels are unreliable. But let’s take these in order:

1) Sure, but that would only mean that there’s a risk that it was overly corrupted through Chinese Whispers. And I’m not sure history says that decades of oral tradition mean that the traditions ought to be considered invalid when determining what historically happened.

2) Yes, that might cause some issues, but again I don’t think enough to invalidate them as historical sources.

3) I’m again not sure why that matters that much, since while he was getting things second-hand presumably he got enough of it from eyewitnesses (I’m not a Biblical scholar and so don’t know how much Paul interacted with the disciples).

4) If Luke says that he is going to make this a historical account, then we ought to at least consider that that is what he’s trying to do, and treat his work as such. Whether we accept what it says or not, we have to treat it like a historical account or an attempted historical account until we have real reason to think otherwise.

5) But neither of them are claiming that. Seidensticker explicitly says in the previous point that Luke is giving a historical analysis, which means that he’s going to gather up various sources — including eyewitnesses if he can get them — and use them to build his account. Matthew was one of those sources. Hardly surprising. And the only gospel that even remotely claims to be an eyewitness account is John’s. So this is an utterly irrelevant point.

So, sure, there are some issues, but they seem hardly damning, and hardly enough to get us to treat them as nothing more than “Chinese Whispers”. And in fact Seidensticker falls into the trap of assuming that these can’t be historical analyses with his fourth point, so he in fact uses the argument Bannister thinks is bad without ever defending it.

He declares that the gospels are biographies. Wrong again—they’re better described as ancient biography, which is a quite different genre. An ancient biography isn’t overly concerned about giving accurate facts but with making a point. (More: Charles Talbert, What is a Gospel? p. 93–98.)

And how do we know that these are that sort of ancient biography? Again, recall that Seidensticker points out that Luke claims to be making a detailed account. In fact, let’s look at what Luke says:

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke’s point, in his own words, is to write it all down in as accurate a way as possible so that the person reading it can be certain that the things that he has been taught are actually true. Seidensticker’s weak “why should we believe him?” counter would indeed be a universal acid of history because it can arguably be said about any work, where they could be either intentionally or unintentionally shading the truth to comport with what they already believe. Sure, we could find inaccuracies and changes that cast doubt on the account, but Seidensticker has no reason to attack the intention, and that intention alone seems to put it more in the range of “history” than of “ancient biography”.

Seidensticker then does his last set of questions and answers:

Jesus really existed; don’t believe Jesus mythicists! I don’t make that argument. I don’t care whether he was a myth or not. My point is that you have no reason to accept the supernatural claims in the gospels.

And again, Seidensticker refuses to defend the actual bad argument, and instead insists that he wouldn’t make that argument. Which pretty much means that he thinks the argument is indeed a bad one. But since some atheists make that argument, all Seidensticker is doing is agree with Bannister that it is a bad argument that atheists shouldn’t make without ever saying it, meaning that people can still deny that it’s a bad argument. Which, again, is not a defense of the argument in any way.

The gospel story isn’t fiction. If it were fiction, why invent these impossible-to-follow moral rules like looking at someone with lust equals adultery? Right—I never said the gospels were fiction. (Though fiction is still probably easier to defend than the supernatural.)

Look, the book is not called “Bad Arguments Bob Seidensticker Makes”. Thus, the book is not all about you. If you don’t want to or can’t defend the arguments, then don’t try. Instead, you damn them with the faint praise of “I don’t make that argument” when you know good and well that some atheists do.

The gospels weren’t myth. Right—they closer to legend. (Jesus probably a legend here; the differences between myth and legend here.)

So you’ll accept that any atheist who says it’s a myth is wrong? That would be very charitable of you … if you, you know, actually said that.

He says that the gospels have lots of place names with details about each, which refutes their being fiction. Right—I don’t say that it’s fiction. This is the Argument from Accurate Place Names fallacy.

Um, that fallacy is very often used to defend the idea that the work can still be fiction even if it includes real places, so that’s hardly something you’d want to mention right after pretty much saying that it’s not fiction. Of course legends and even myths include real places, but the — admittedly bad — argument is that works that put an emphasis on real places ought to be taken more seriously as historically inspired than a simple work of fiction. Which isn’t true. Now, if you find too many fictional places in a work, that’s a good sign that the work is a fiction, but the opposite is not true.

He marvels at the fluency of Jesus’s rebuttals to the bad guys. The story was honed over decades—I should hope that some compelling anecdotes would come out the other end. The stories that flopped didn’t make the cut.

This is a fair point. I’d need to see the original argument — and Seidensticker is lax in quoting or even summarizing arguments — but that the answers were good doesn’t mean that they are necessarily true. Again, fictional characters can make really good arguments, too.

He appeals to the Criterion of Embarrassment (the more embarrassing a story, the likelier it’s true) and gives as an example a passage from Mark in which a man calls Jesus “good teacher.” Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good?” Yeah, that’s embarrassing, and you’ve undercut your claims of deity. And just how is this supposed to give me confidence in the supernatural parts? He notes that Jesus died when he should’ve been a conquering hero. So much for him fulfilling the prophecy of the Messiah, eh?

For the first one, that indeed doesn’t sound all that embarrassing, so I’d go after Bannister on that tack, instead of the rather ridiculous “Jesus can’t really be a deity then!” claim, which seems to me to miss the entire point of Christianity. As for the second one, fulfilling the prophecy in a unique way suggests that it wasn’t simply manipulated to get the right answers, because if it was it would have made a more direct link. Thus, this at least implies that there was or was believed to be a real person who died that way, at least necessitating a change in the interpretation of the prophecy. But, yes, it could still be a legend.

“If we were dealing with theological fiction, one would expect the edges to be straighter, the language more doctrinally polished.” More to the point, we’d expect that if we were dealing with the words of the omniscient creator of the universe. You’ve nicely shown that it doesn’t hang together and could never have been inspired by a perfect being.

But the gospels aren’t the words of the omniscient creator of the universe, as you yourself pointed out in your discussion of Luke. So they could be inspired by a real Jesus who was the Son of God in the sense that his existence triggered the accounts without it having to be the case that God wrote the words for them, as again Luke makes very clear is his intent.

He gives Lewis’s (false) trilemma—the only possible bins to put Jesus in are Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. Wrong again. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t address the obvious genre: not fiction but legend.

Fine. I’ll grant that it could be legend. Any real reason for us to accept that? I mean, we don’t have an account of King Arthur that says that this is someone roughly contemporary trying to make a good historical account, which tends to work against it being mere legend.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to look at here. In summary of the entire series of posts, Seidensticker is generally pretty consistent in not actually defending any of the atheist arguments that he is supposed to be defending. He consistently, in fact, ends up implying that he thinks they’re bad too. That’s … not the way to defend arguments.