Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

Does Christianity Not Care About Others?

April 2, 2021

I had originally been planning to talk about something else today, but my growing dissatisfaction with that idea and my ability to express it properly left me open to an alternative … and then Adam Lee provided it in a recent post by, essentially, arguing that at least some parts of Christianity explicitly do not care about others, but only about themselves.  This, of course, will come as a great surprise to most Christians, certainly, given how Christ’s message is quite explicit about caring about others and doing unto them what you would want done unto yourself.  In fact, one consistent criticism of Christians is that they don’t seem to take the admonishments to give all their money away to the poor seriously and so violate Christian principles by not caring about others enough.  So Lee is really going to need to make a really good argument here to pull that off.

Right from the start, the big problem he has is that what spawned this argument was not any explicit argument or discussion about helping others, but was the fact that someone — Erick Erickson — decided to criticize wokeness, something that Christians and assorted others have indeed been talking about for some time.  Lee’s description of the situation is pure rhetoric:

To distract from real issues of justice, the devotees of this right-wing religion are stirring up fear of imaginary boogeymen, like “wokeness”. This term originally signified awareness of racial-justice issues, but – like “political correctness” in the 90s – it’s become a meaningless snarl word for anything and everything that conservatives hate. Another of these right-wing scarecrows is “cancel culture”, which has come to stand for the idea that anyone should face any consequences for expressing abhorrent opinions.

From the start, a lot of people on the left are concerned about “cancel culture”, which is not so much that anyone should face any consequences for expressing abhorrent opinions but more the concern that people are facing a) incredibly serious consequences, like losing jobs and their actual incomes for b) expressing ideas that some very vocal progressives find abhorrent.  And the reason concern there, from my perspective, is that those who advocate for cancelling are pretty vague on what ideas and opinions really count as so abhorrent to justify very harsh and the harshest consequences that are being called for.  Sure, we might think it reasonable to censor people who are explicitly calling for a group to be eliminated, but when the canceling might be extended to people who simply question the policies they are advocating for — because that counts as “eliminating” the group — then maybe things are going too far.  And ultimately, as we look at “wokeness” and “political correctness” we can see the same path:  it starts from something that at least could be reasonable but then expands to things that, at the very least, look silly, and instead of recognizing those appearances and at a minimum defining a set philosophy that can show how those things aren’t silly, they double down on them and attack those who disagree not for being wrong, but for being bigots.  And we cancel bigots, don’t ya know?

So it should be clear that Lee’s definitions here are entirely self-serving.  He is defining the terms based on what works for him, while ignoring what anyone else might have to say or think on the matter, and then classifying all opposition as right-wing bigots because they happen to disagree.  This is indeed quite common as any group that argues for something even remotely right-wing adjacent — no matter how liberal they are of have been — gets classified as “right-wing”.  They can’t simply disagree, they must be shifting to the right, as evidenced by this post by P.Z. Myers where he essentially does that to Glenn Greenwald.  They use ideas about the internal states of people to define their positions, but then define those internal states entirely based on assertions based from their own worldviews and not the worldviews of the people disagreeing with them.  I cannot find a better example of how attempting to rely on empathy is actually a terrible way to do things, because this is precisely when empathy fails:  when someone else has a worldview radically different from yours.  They can’t understand those worldviews, don’t think they should need to try, and so end up simply classifying them as “evil”, and cannot even conceive that they could possibly be wrong.  It is literally equivalent to the child who can’t conceive that the child has information that a person does not, and so that the person will look in the wrong place for the toy that has been moved.  For them, they can’t conceive that someone might have different information than them and so might come to a different conclusion than them, so their disagreement on wokeness or progressiveness must be due to underlying bigotry or deliberate obtuseness.  They can’t conceive that the other person might simply be using that information to come to the wrong conclusion.  That they might be using that information to come to the right conclusion is an idea that they can’t even begin to entertain.

But back to the comment that Lee is going to reply to:

To understand cancel culture, understand this — Christian eschatology says you gain your salvation through a direct relationship with Christ, regardless of others. Secular eschatology says the woke can’t inherit the earth so long as the non-woke are still around and not silenced.
Lee’s first point talks about how Erickson used the wrong word in talking about eschatology there (Lee says he should have used soteriology instead) which is a meaningless point, and his second point is that Christianity has not exactly been known as a bastion of free speech, suppressing speech that disagreed with it, which is a fair point (but one that I don’t think addresses Erickson’s point, which I’ll get into later).  So the first two points are basically throwaway points.  The big key point that Lee wants to address is this:

But the third thing I have to point out, and the real reason I wanted to write this post, is this short but telling phrase:

Christian eschatology says you gain your salvation through a direct relationship with Christ, regardless of others

The only thing this can mean is that Christianity – at least in Erickson’s vision – is a religion for people who care only about themselves. All you have to do is say the magic words, and you’ve fulfilled the requirements that God set out. Securing your salvation is a solely individual matter and requires no consideration or concern for other people.

Wait, what?  That’s the only thing it can mean?  As opposed to the more obvious interpretation that you will gain your salvation as a Christian if you are a proper Christian whether or not anyone else is a proper Christian?  In fact, by Christianity it’s actually probably easier to gain your own salvation if no one else is a Christian because you will be given loads and loads of opportunities to show that you will maintain and stick to your Christian beliefs regardless of what pressures exist for you to abandon.  Erickson contrasts this with wokeness in the sense, it seems to me, that the woke don’t feel that they’ve attained their goals — here referred to as “salvation” — until everyone agrees with them or is woke as well.  In addition, Christians accept that as long as they have a relationship with God that counts whether or not they are openly expressing it, in this case proselytizing about it.  They don’t need to stand on the public square and declare themselves to God, nor do they need to openly condemn others who are falling short or badger them into proselytizing with them.  While they may do that, they don’t need to in order to be Christians.  In fact, some of the most effective Christians at expressing that worldview are the people who just quietly live in their faith and act according to it (who are referred to by people like Lee, in general, as being people who are just generally good people and who don’t get that from their religion).  For the woke, however, being silent about wokeness isn’t enough.  If you don’t call out or condemn others for not being woke and don’t demonstrate your wokeness, then you are falling short of the woke ideal.  You can’t simply not discriminate or be a bigot yourself, you must condemn those who do strongly and cancel those who the call goes out to cancel or else at best you aren’t an ally and at worst a hidden bigot yourself.  So that’s the distinction that Erickson, I believe, is trying to make here.

And in essence this follows, I think, quite reasonably from the atheistic strain of progressivism.  For those who are religious, as Lee will note, this world is not as important as the next world, so it is more important to develop a close relationship with God than to make this world a paradise.  For atheistic progressives, however, this is the only world we have, and so we must make this one as close to a paradise as we can.  People who are not willing to work to make it that way, then, are impeding the goal the progressives have and that they think everyone should have (again, which is common to Christians as well, except that it’s a different goal) and so they know that they cannot achieve their goal without everyone working for it.  I think the more extreme reactions are based on frustration and suspicion.  Frustration that a lot of people seem to be willing to stand by and do nothing or let others carry the burden, in a way that often means that the burden is too great for those who are left and so their measures fail.  Suspicion that they are only playing lip service or are even deliberately working against them in order to maintain their own positions (this is a charge often explicitly leveled against any kind of privileged progressive who doesn’t seem to work hard enough on progressive issues).  So they insist that the collective must act here because without that they will not get the world they want, and as this is the only world they have it really is the case that the others are ruining it for “everyone”, meaning them.

Now, progressives could have a similar individualistic notion to Christianity as expressed by Erickson, by adopting more of a Virtue Ethics approach instead of what looks like the Utilitarian one they advocate for.  They could strive to eliminate bias and bigotry from themselves first and then just go out and act accordingly, and at most “proselytize” in the sense of asking everyone to examine themselves and do the same.  And I do thing that some progressives do have this attitude of trying to improve themselves first and foremost and at least hoping that if most people do this then the problems will go away.  I believe that they are most often referred to by the more socially-oriented progressives as “part of the problem”.

So, no, that actually isn’t all that could mean.  And from there, Lee goes on to engage in even more … creative interpretation:

In fact, to judge from his phrasing, you should distrust anyone who claims that religion asks anything more of you. Anyone who tells you that you have a duty to repair injustice, to overthrow oppressive systems, to help the poor and downtrodden, to show generosity to the needy, to welcome the stranger, to expose the mighty who’ve abused their power… all those ideas are “woke”, anti-Christian, and to be rejected.

Later, Lee will point out that there are a number of Bible passages that contradict that very idea and promote all the things that Lee claims Erickson is clearly rejecting.  All from one quote that is clearly referring to how one does not need other people to be saved in order to gain salvation under Christianity but that under the woke ideology if not everyone is saved then no one is saved.  From this, he concludes that Erickson is really saying that no Christian should ever help anyone else and that it’s unChristian to do so.  That’s some pretty creative interpretation right there.

Lee goes on to call out other Christians for saying the same thing:

If it were only Erickson who thought this way, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this post. But this ideology isn’t just increasingly common, it’s the dominant strain of thought among the religious right.

For instance, this site (which attacks “social justice”, another conservative boogeyman) says, “The biblical exhortations to care for the poor are more individual than societal.” This site adds that the only legitimate role of a pastor is to preach “individual sin and salvation” rather than to criticize “supposedly structural racism”.

The first quote is calling for Christians to give individually rather than to insist that society do so, which doesn’t make the case that we shouldn’t care about others (and, in fact, expresses the exact opposite).  The second quote fits into what I talked about above, where it could be calling for individuals to not be racist instead of taking on the supposed societal and governmental racism (which Lee should approve of as it would require talking about political systems and he’s all about separation of Church and State).  None of these mean that they don’t think that the people, as individuals, shouldn’t care about others or about these issues.  They just say that the duty of religion is to the individual and not to the overall system per se.  Or, in essence, that their moral view is a Virtue Theory.  Well, colour me shocked

And next, of course, is where Lee refutes his own point by pointing all the cases where Christianity, in fact, insists that individuals indeed should care about others:

Now, you could say – and I have – that the Bible itself refutes this idea. In passages like Matthew chapter 25, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus states that helping others isn’t an optional extra but a requirement for salvation (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”). Another famous passage, from James chapter 2, says that faith without good works has no power to save anyone.

So Lee here must be going after conservative Christians who disagree with Social Justice ways of going about this, specifically through services provided by the government.  But he doesn’t have a general argument that he can make here to do so, and the quotes he provides don’t work to establish that.  So all he ends up doing here is insisting that because they don’t want to help people the way he wants to help people, then they must not want to help people at all.  This, of course, ties right back into my earlier point about empathy and how it fails.  The thing is, he could make an argument that his way is the best way to do it and so that if they oppose it without, at least, showing a more effective way of doing it then they would be in effect violating their own religious principles and so should at least take a good long look at themselves to see how they can resolve this issue (especially since for many of them they probably could be even individually doing more than they do).  But this would not allow him to claim that they don’t care about others and would require him to engage directly with their worldview, and that’s something that people relying on empathy have a difficult time doing.

Then he says something so ludicrous that my reaction to it was a main impetus for my writing this post:

However, Christianity the belief system can’t be separated from those who practice it. Even if the Bible were the best book ever written, if millions of people have cited it as justification for acts of horror and bloodshed, we’d logically have to conclude that the Bible promotes evil. It would be absurd to argue that we should ignore the belief system as it’s actually practiced in favor of some purely theoretical version.

To be honest, I think I just realized how this one statement captures the entire woke mindset:  if being a progressive and adopting that belief system doesn’t make you a perfect person, then something must be terribly wrong.  It can’t be an error in the belief system, so it must be that those progressives who fail to live up to that didn’t really adopt that belief system.  Because of course anyone who adopts a belief system will practice it properly, free from error and free from other influences that might cause them to err.

Christianity, ironically, is actually less perfectionist than this.  It accepts that we all sin, and that we won’t practice it perfectly.  It accepts that people may get things in the Bible wrong, sometimes in ways that cause great evil.  It accepts that people can use the Bible to also justify great evil.  As Shakespeare put it in “The Merchant of Venice”:

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

But Lee insists that if a book can produce evil from those whom he himself here admits are misinterpreting it, then it must also be evil.  So if people misinterpret Darwin’s work and get to eugenics, that should completely invalidate evolution, right?  Or at least Darwin’s work, with is the foundation for it, no?  See, the issue here is that Lee isn’t arguing that the views actually do follow from the Bible, like so many other atheists do.  Here, he is conceding from the start that the Bible isn’t expressing that.  He isn’t arguing that it should be less ambiguous to not allow for such errors, given that it’s supposedly the Word of God.  No, his explicit argument is that if someone can misconstrue a belief system so that it leads to evil then the belief system itself is evil.  That … does not seem like a well-motivated argument …

He then tries to move on to show that the supposed attitude of not caring at all about others — by reducing actions to the individual level instead of the societal level — is a common thread in Christianity and even that it is supported by the Bbile:

For obvious reasons, the Christian slave owners of the antebellum era preached that Christianity tells us how to get to heaven, but says nothing about conditions in this world. They taught, as many Christians through history have taught, that this life is just a brief blip before another existence of infinitely greater importance. Salvation is the only thing that matters, and therefore suffering and injustice should be endured, not resisted. (And, to be fair, the Bible supports this idea as well.)

So, let’s look at the two Bible quotes.  The first one is Matthew 5:39, which is basically this (including 38):

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

So this one is an admonishment against the retributive system of morality of the Old Testament.  While there can be a lot of interpretations here, speaking from the perspective of moral philosophy this probably links up to the idea of not responding to evil with evil lest you become evil yourself.  It does, of course, say in general that you should endure suffering and injustice, but doesn’t insist that you shouldn’t do anything to alleviate suffering in others.  Especially since it leads into the later admonishment to love your enemies as opposed to hating them (Matthew 5:43).  So this doesn’t support Lee’s contention, especially in light of other parables such as “The Good Samaritan”.

The next one is actually even more clear that it isn’t saying what Lee thinks it does.  It’s Ephesians 6:5-8:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.

What this says is pretty much in the last line:  do good and obey because everyone will be rewarded for doing good, regardless of their position, so act according to that.  Lee could use this to argue that Christianity doesn’t argue against overturning the unjust practice of slavery and so by that insists that one should not oppose an unjust society, but Mark 12:17 is probably a better example of that:

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.

As it would suggest that they shouldn’t oppose taxation of a purported oppressor.  But it of course can also be interpreted as acting secularly when that is what is required and religiously when that is required, which then wouldn’t preclude toppling unjust regimes as appropriate.  So Lee would have to establish that doing good as per Christianity could never involve opposing injustice at the societal level, and he hasn’t done that … and his quotes don’t do that either.

This idea survived the destruction of slavery, and it’s been used ever since to defend bigotry, plutocracy, and unjust hierarchy. Even if white male evangelicals have all the power and all the wealth, that’s unimportant in the grand scheme of things. The poor and the meek should keep their heads down, concentrate only on their own souls, and accept the world as it is without seeking to change it.

I’m not sure how this links to the quotes that started this, and since Christianity is actually pretty strong on the idea that being poor and being meek is more godly and so those leaders shouldn’t be seeking it, it’s a rather odd statement to make … but it fits with Lee’s overall view of Social Justice and privilege, which explains why he said and focused on it without, you know, establishing that anyone, in fact, actually believes that.  It is, of course, not unreasonable to think that Christianity is advocating that where you are on that scale of power and wealth isn’t all that important to whether or not you are good or a good Christian, and Lee could call out a number of Christian leaders for seeming to seek power and wealth more than godliness, but he almost presents it as a conspiracy theory here where all of the Christian leaders interpret the Bible in ways to justify their own wealth and power and to deny it to their followers.  It is … unlikely that this is widespread, and the simplest answer is more that they are hypocrites that are at worst taking advantage of those common beliefs rather than building the entire theology around it.  And note again that we are quite far afield from where he started.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to recognize this self-serving propaganda for what it is. It’s a last-ditch effort to defend privilege by those who have no better argument than the naked assertion of “God said so.” Nonbelievers and progressive religious people both have solid grounds to reject this idea, and we can both agree that real justice requires a transformation of society, not just of individuals.

So, riddle me this, then:  if we did indeed properly transform individuals, would the society not follow the individuals, especially in a democratic society?  If Lee had shown that the Bible was indeed actually saying that we shouldn’t transform society at all or in those ways, then he’d have a point.  But he didn’t.  All Erickson has done is note that for Christianity we don’t need society to be transformed for our own salvation, whereas for the “woke” society’s transformation must follow our own transformation or else it was, presumably, all for nought.  We cannot be saved under the woke ideology unless society is fully transformed.  That makes the salvation of the woke dependent on the salvation of everyone else.  No wonder they are so bitter that so many people are not as woke as they are.

Lessons from the 28th Silver Bullet

March 5, 2021

So, after talking about his 28th Silver Bullet (that I covered last week), Bob Seidensticker decided to put up some philosophical lessons that followed from it.  So let me look at them here.

The first is that a God that would do this or set this situation up clashes with our ideas of a perfectly moral or loving God (Seidensticker insists on saying that God is immoral and God doesn’t exist and there’s a contradiction in the Bible, which can’t all be meaningfully true).

Let’s start by agreeing that morality is a good thing. (It may seem odd that we must back up this far, but you’ll soon see that we must in this “up is down and eternal torment is good” environment.) Our best examples within society of honesty, compassion, selflessness, or any other moral trait are examples that are often highlighted for us to emulate. It’s not that we don’t know what is morally good. We do know; our problem is our inability to consistently strive for moral goodness.

Remember, Seidensticker is a moral relativist, so it seems odd for him to argue that we can know what is morally good when that would imply knowing that objectively, which we deny that we can know.  This is also problematic because it would suggest that the moral crimes of the past — slavery being the big one — are things that we do indeed just knew was morally wrong and we failed to strive for moral goodness, despite all the arguments made at the time that it was indeed really at least not morally wrong and even that it was morally obligated.  That’s a pretty brave statement to make and runs right into the same issues as “Atheists really know that God exists and are just rejecting it!”.  It’s never a good move to declare for no reason that you know people’s internal mental states better than they do, and especially bad to do so just to score an argumentative point against them.  His claim here is unevidenced and a pretty bad one given his own moral positions.  That shouldn’t engender confidence in his moral analysis.

Take a step back to the foundational idea of Christian salvation. Count the ways it offends our moral instincts.

  1. It’s a human sacrifice
  2. needed to satisfy God’s justifiable rage
  3. at humans being imperfectly moral despite the fact that he made them that way
  4. when he could just forgive any sin, like we do (and like he has done himself).

Now add:

  1. hell as eternal torment for our finite crimes.

For 1), it’s Jesus willingly sacrificing Himself for us, which is something that we tend to consider morally admirable.  For 2), it’s actually to pay off our sins from the claimed just consequences God has given us.  For 3), that we are morally imperfect doesn’t mean that we have to act immorally.  For 4), Seidensticker and many atheists constantly insist that God couldn’t simply forgive some people their sins — like Hitler — without there being some penance, so on the one hand they criticize God simply forgiving sins while here the argument is that He just should do so.  And 5) is the argument from last time:  the claim that no one deserves to go to Hell, which Seidensticker and others had considered long before this specific argument, so we aren’t really learning anything new here, are we?

Now, for most of this I don’t hold to the standard view that my previous paragraph uses as a defense.  I see Jesus as moral exemplar, making the ultimate sacrifice simply because it is right tying into our moral evolution from people who blindly follow moral laws to avoid punishment into people who do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do regardless of the consequences.  I also do lean more towards Hell as containing people for eternity because those who end up there will never repent no matter what, not as a sentence even for those who would or do repent.  So there are other ways to get around Seidensticker’s big issue here that don’t work out the way Seidensticker insists it would have to.  For a lesson from a Silver Bullet, things still seem remarkably open.

This justification for hell doesn’t just seem crazy, it is crazy. A savage because-I-said-so god might have worked for an Iron Age tribe, but today the flaws are too glaring. When Christians also insist that their brutal god is love, the delusion breaks. God can’t be both loving and the author of hell; therefore, he doesn’t exist.

(The Christian response will be, “But you haven’t proven that these are incompatible.” That’s true, but the burden of proof is not mine. An open-minded person, like I try to be, can evaluate Christianity’s claims, but when they don’t satisfy the burden of proof, we’re obliged to reject them.)

If you’re going to claim that there is a contradiction and that because of that contradiction you can say that God doesn’t exist, then the burden of proof is indeed yours.  You really do need to be able to demonstrate that incompatibility.  Especially if you want to insist that these are Silver Bullet arguments that everyone should accept proves God doesn’t exist on the pain of a charge of irrationality.  Seidensticker is making a common atheist “weasel” move of insisting that God doesn’t exist but when challenged on that claim retreating to “I don’t have to prove that!” and then immediately returning to insisting that they know that God doesn’t exist because of their great and wonderful arguments that, nevertheless, don’t actually meet the burden of proof to show that God doesn’t exist.

When I say that human morality is the standard, that’s simply because “moral” and “immoral” are words with definitions. If God’s actions match up with what passes for human morality, then he’s moral. If instead God’s actions would be called immoral if a human did them, then God is immoral.

Well, first, what human morality?  Seidensticker is a relativist, and even taking God out of the picture it is clear that Seidensticker and myself would have radically different secular moralities.  How can he use a relativistic morality to insist that God is immoral?  Especially since some theists would insist that what God does is moral just because it’s what God says is moral.  But if we accept that we humans are bound by some kind of human morality, why would God, not being human, be bound by that morality?  So Seidensticker either needs to talk about an objective morality or say that with Christianity our human morality is the same morality as God uses by definition (again accepting that there is only one morality).  But then it is clear that if God exists He knows what that morality is better than we do, and so using our intuitions to judge His actions seems a bit presumptuous.  So if God as we conceive Him exists, then this is morally right and we are just wrong about that, and if He doesn’t exist as we conceive Him then this is the least of the problems Christians would face.

So many of Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets hit this problem.  A Silver Bullet should be an argument that makes us give up looking for God at all and attempting to prove that He exists, because the argument so strongly establishes that God doesn’t exist.  But like this one, many of them would fall apart if someone could prove that God exists.  So all they should do is encourage people to prove that God exists, as that’s a way to kill the argument completely.  Seidensticker might say he welcomes such attempts, but there is no mistaking the fact that someone doing so would overturn a lot of Seidensticker’s notions and kill almost all of his arguments.  If I can still prove that God exists notwithstanding his Silver Bullets, the Silver Bullets aren’t as Silver Bullety as he thinks.

The second is about us having to not feel compassion for those in Hell while in Heaven, but of course my response showed that all you have to do is understand what is actually deserved and tailor your emotions to that.  If your emotions get in the way of that understanding, then as a Stoic I’m not all that concerned about losing them.

The third is that God suppresses free will:

God is hidden, which is odd because we’re told that he longs for a deep relationship with each of us. Christians rationalize this by saying that God making his existence plain would step on our free will. (No one else’s existence seems to offend our free will, but let’s ignore that.) We must freely give our love to God. But what kind of champion of free will is God if he must override your honest response to hell?

The answer is, of course, in line with my own response that He just needs to perfect you as a moral person, like He is, so you can understand morality properly.  So that’s not overriding a reasonable response to Hell at all.

And the last is a comment that Christians need to reconsider Christianity in light of arguments like his.  However, most of those arguments aren’t that strong and a lot of Christians have and come up with responses to them.  Seidensticker only rejects the idea that Christians already do that because he thinks that the only rational answer is to reject Christianity, but as someone who rejects having to prove his claims he really can’t insist on that.  I am only compelled to come to the same conclusion as he does if his arguments are indeed compelling, meaning that they demonstrate that God doesn’t exist.  That he refuses to accept that burden speaks volumes about his arguments and whether we really need to reconsider our position and align it with his.

Bob Seidensticker’s Silver Bullets: 28

February 26, 2021

So, after my painstaking work in going through his previous 27 entries, Bob Seidensticker has decided to add a 28th silver bullet argument.  This one focuses on the idea that people who end up in heaven will be aware, one presumes, of people who didn’t make it into Heaven, and thus are in Hell, and thus are suffering infinitely for their sins.  Some of these people will be loved ones.  The basic idea, then, is that it seems like no person that we would in no way imagine ourselves to be or that we would in any way want to be could enjoy Heaven knowing that others are damned to Hell, especially if those people were their loved ones.  The emotional reactions we should have, the argument claims, range from at least missing our friends and loved ones to being tormented at the thought of them being tormented.

Seidensticker lists a lot of theological reactions to this, which immediately strikes against this being a Silver Bullet argument for the same reason as many of the other purported bullets:  if there are a lot of theological responses, then it’s not an argument that you can essentially drop the mic on and walk away, as you have to deal with all of the theological responses first.  However, I think this one suffers from another common flaw in his Silver Bullets, which is that this argument cannot be the Silver Bullet argument because it relies on another argument being true first:  that the people who end up in Hell are not, in fact, people who deserve to be there.  If they deserve to be there, then any emotional reaction on our parts that suggests that they don’t deserve it would be a flaw in us, not in God or the idea of Heaven and Hell.  If as expected those who end up in Heaven are perfected, then we wouldn’t have those flaws and so wouldn’t have those feelings.  We would be able to properly assess the situation and, presumably, have the proper emotional reactions to them.

Now, I disagree with those theologians who say that we should look at the people in Hell with happiness for various reasons.  I don’t think that makes sense.  Their arguments tend to be emotional reactions the other way, where those in Heaven delight in being spared Hell.  If those who are in Heaven deserve to be there and those who are in Hell deserve to be there then all we could have is the more intellectual perception of that as fact:  we deserve to be in Heaven, and they deserve to be in Hell.  So we’d have a “calm passion” of understanding, not a hot passion of sadness or glee.

And this argument applies to loved ones as well.  While we might miss loved ones, in general we can and should understand if they cannot be with us for some reason.  And while we obviously would not want to see our loved ones suffer, being upset about them getting the punishment they deserve is indeed a huge flaw in us.  The parent lamenting the tough time their child is having in prison when they were legitimately convicted of murder is understandable, but clearly wrong.  So, again, once we have proper understanding and are perfected, then these things will not ruin our experience of Heaven, because we will be in a state where our flawed emotional states are, at least, taken away.

Now, some might argue that this makes us us not entirely human.  How can we live as beings that do not have emotion?  My answer is, of course, in my name.  I am Stoic-leaning, and so think that it is indeed true that more perfect beings do not have and are not susceptible to the whims of strong passions.  The main reason that Seidensticker and the people in his comment section find being that emotionless so disturbing is because they enjoy feeling those strong emotions.  Strong emotions feel good.  But that doesn’t mean that they’re right.  We can remain compassionate and merciful and caring without having to feel the extremely strong emotions that tend to accompany them.  And with that we would always in fact actually be merciful, compassionate and caring, without any risk of our emotions leading us astray.  While we might lose the pleasure of strong emotions, pleasure is not, ultimately, what makes life worthwhile.  And that would apply even more so in Heaven.  So we would never have pleasures that trump our virtues, and our path to the life and experience worth having.

Which leads to another argument:  what about Hitler?  If he repents, they argue, he could be in Heaven, while someone who, say, merely didn’t believe in God might be in Hell.  How can that be justified and how can can we be happy in a Heaven where that can happen?

To suss this out, we need to look at Virtue Ethics, because this argument depends on a clash between justice and mercy.  The argument is that justice clearly states that Hitler deserves to go to Hell if anyone does, but mercy is about pardoning people and rescuing them from the punishments that they clearly deserve.  So if God forgives Hitler, then who, in fact, could deserve to go to Hell?  And if God doesn’t or can’t, then He can’t be infinitely merciful either.  Yes, the actual arguments are presuming that Hitler will end up in Heaven for being at least nominally Catholic, but that’s not a safe presumption and if God can forgive what Hitler did, one would think that He would forgive someone who just happened to never be told about Christianity but was clearly willing to accept it once they found out about it.  So ultimately the argument, to be in any way sensible, has to boil down to a clash between justice and mercy.

Obviously, this again would be relying on another argument than the one Seidensticker claims is the silver bullet again.  But it’s worth looking at this from the angle of Virtue Ethics since the clearest way to do so is through that angle, since these sorts of clashes are part and parcel of Virtue Ethics.  After all, Virtue Ethics defines virtues like justice and mercy and compassion and so on and then asks us to go out in the world and act on them.  We thus immediately hit the issue of what we should do if one of those virtues demands on action and another demands a different action.

Obviously, we need a method to resolve such conflicts.  Perhaps that’s going to be a compromise position, where we’re a little less just and a little less merciful and some up with an ideal notion.  I don’t think that’s the right approach, though.  What I believe is that once we define what the virtues are, the proper understanding of them will show how they are always consistent with each other.  Thus, there can’t be any meaningful clash between them, properly understood.  So in this case, it’s entirely possible that what Hitler did was so bad that no repentance or act of contrition could spare him from his rightful punishment in Hell.  Thus, mercy could never demand it.  On the other hand, it is also possible that if he was properly repentant that he could indeed deserve mercy, and so justice could be suspended in that case.

But wait, you might ask, how can someone deserve mercy?  Isn’t mercy just ensuring that someone doesn’t get what they deserve?  Well, we can easily say that if Hitler arrived at the Pearly Gates and was still convinced that what he did was right and was completely unrepentant that he wouldn’t deserve mercy.  It seems clear, then, that at least a precondition for mercy is an acceptance that what you did was wrong and a willingness to make up for that.  Without that, then, you would not deserve mercy.  So mercy is not and cannot be unconditional.  So the question is if accepting that what you did was wrong and wanting to make up for it is enough to get mercy, or if there are cases where justice and other virtues can demand more from you, or make it so that the conditions required for mercy can never be met.  I lean towards the idea that mercy would trump the other virtues because it seems to me to be rather inconsistent to refuse to grant mercy to someone who is legitimately repentant and understands that what they did was wrong.  But I admit that the argument that there are some things that mercy cannot forgive and so that justice would demand that we still punish it is a pretty good one.

But does this apply to God?  After all, God is supposed to be infinite in all His properties, including His virtues.  So wouldn’t infinite justice imply that God always punishes actions to the level demanded by justice, and infinite mercy imply that God always relieves people of such punishments?  This returns to the comments above, as infinitely virtuous does not mean infinite in quantity, but instead infinite in perfection.  God would be perfect in His assessments of what is virtuous, including how to resolve potential clashes between virtues.  In line with my above analysis, that would mean knowing when mercy is the applicable virtue or when it’s justice.  And since I argue that we would be perfected in Heaven, we would know that as well, and so know who deserves Heaven and God’s mercy and who doesn’t.

You could reply that this depends on Virtue Ethics, but Virtue Ethics might not be correct.  However, the alternatives actually have an easier time with this because they don’t have explicit and individualize virtues to conflict with each other.  For them, for the most part, virtues are merely names for conditions defined by their overall moral project.  For example, in Utilitarianism mercy would be a name for a set of conditions where sparing someone from punishment provides a greater overall utility, and justice would be a name for a set of conditions where punishing them provides a greater overall utility.  Since these are all justified by utility, you are merciful when utility demands it and just when utility demands it, and utility cannot demand both mercy and justice by definition.  So, in general, properly understood, whatever we use to define things like justice and mercy, they cannot clash.  And so they cannot clash in a way that matters for the argument.

As noted, the main issue here is that this argument depends on other arguments being true.  Most atheists do think that no one deserves Hell — or, at least, that the people who Christianity says will end up in Hell deserve to be there — but that is indeed a separate and hotly contested argument.  This argument depends on that one, and so itself cannot be a silver bullet argument.

Seidensticker has made another post talking about takeaways from this argument.  I’ll make a separate post on that next time.

Final Thoughts on “The Unnecessary Science”

February 15, 2021

So with last week’s look at Chapter 6, I’ve finished my in-depth look at each chapter of the book.  So this is a good time to summarize my overall thoughts on it, both from my own reading, my own posts, and the much-appreciated comments that Gunther Laird has made on each individual post here.

When I first took a look at the chapter titles of the book, I really didn’t expect the book to go as well as it did.  The chapters, frankly, seemed far more like mockery than like humour, and so I expected the book to spend most of its time mocking Feser and people who held his view, and I knew from experience that the view was not worthy of mockery (even though I don’t agree with it myself).  I was pleasantly surprised to find that Laird does indeed take the view far more seriously than his chapter titles would suggest.

That being said, I think Laird makes a mistake in trying to take Feser down from inside his own philosophy rather than simply trying to oppose the general philosophy itself.  To take down a philosophy while playing by its own rules is amazingly difficult to do, especially if it’s a philosophy that has been around for a long time.  The reason for this is that they’ve had a lot of time to see and address any internal consistency issues, and opposing it based on its own assumptions is really just doing that.  So for most of Laird’s objections either Feser has had an argument for it, it’s a natural variant in the view itself (different Scholastics do look at some ideas differently) or it likely isn’t all that important to the philosophy itself.  To find something that important that hasn’t been addressed or that it seems like it couldn’t be addressed is a tall order, and I don’t think Laird did indeed manage to accomplish it.

But the big reason why I think that was a mistake is that even if Laird had succeeded it wouldn’t really have gotten him where he wanted to get.  The two big things, I believe, that Laird opposes in Feser is his theism — the existence of God — and his sexual ethics.  The problem is that those positions are so tightly intertwined with his metaphysics that it’s difficult to separate them, let alone get them to where Laird wants them to be.  As an example, he was at least somewhat appreciative of my attempts to weaken Feser’s sexual ethics, and as I noted there my view was a bit of a trap for most progressives because to make those criticisms I had to accept that the main purpose of sex was indeed for procreation, which is precisely what progressives want to deny.  I also noted that moves to deism work poorly in reference to Feser because he’d have to accept that we’d have a God that could indeed interact with the world and had to still exist but argue that somehow He wouldn’t, which is a much weaker argument.  While it may seem like a great move to take someone down with their own philosophy, it’s usually both very difficult to do and if all it does is find minor inconsistencies it’s also not that interesting either.  A focus on showing that Feser’s science is really unnecessary likely would have served him better, showing that we didn’t need any view like Feser’s as opposed to not needing some of his specific conclusions.

At the end of the day, the book was worth reading, but I wasn’t convinced by pretty much any of its arguments.  Ultimately, they seemed to end up either being misinterpretations of Feser’s view or requirements, or things that Feser didn’t need to care about that much.  I think it might be worth Feser’s time to read and respond to them, but don’t feel that any of them are things that will give Feser all that much pause.

Bob Seidensticker on Objective Morality

February 12, 2021

So Bob Seidensticker has come up with another supposed Silver Bullet argument against Christianity.  He’s splitting it into two parts (and in a comment will have a third), but I don’t have any length restrictions on my posts so I’m going to wait until they’re all posted to talk about them.  Spoilers:  Virtue Theory will play a large role in my reply.

But while we’re waiting, I was poking around in his links and came across this post on objective morality, taking on Greg Koukl.  The post is entitled “Understanding Morality — It’s Really Not That Hard” which is ironic because after reading I can say with certainty that no one after reading it would actually come to understand morality, and Seidensticker himself doesn’t really seem to understand morality either.  So it’s another case of dramatic claim that you had better be right about, and Seidensticker is not right.

Now, this post is really old (it’s from 2013) so Seidensticker might have changed some of his views by now.  That being said, the heart of his view — objective morality doesn’t exist and it’s all social rules/evolved preferences — seems to be maintained, and there are a few common errors in there, so it’s worth examining.  So let’s get started:

He didn’t define them, but I think he would accept William Lane Craig’s definition: “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.”1 That’s a big claim—these are moral values that are somehow grounded supernaturally or transcendentally. Never having seen evidence for supernatural or transcendent anything, I was eager to hear Koukl justify their existence.

Well, not necessarily that, as they could be conceptual truths as I see them which wouldn’t really be supernatural or transcendental.  In fact, the definition of objective pretty much means that, so it’s not that big a claim, especially since science itself produces those sorts of truths.  More importantly, though, it really does seem like morality works that way, at least without devolving into the worst sort of relativism (more on that later).  Surely if everyone who existed came to believe that slavery was morally right, that wouldn’t mean that therefore slavery really was morally right.  The transcendental part could only come in if we argued that morality would still exist even if no moral agents existed, but even though Craig and Koukl and even myself think that true, you don’t even need to accept that given that definition.  Ultimately, it’s not a particularly big claim, nor does it necessarily have the consequences that Seidensticker thinks it has.

From this flabby grounding, he proposes to dismantle what many Christian apologists have admitted is the most challenging problem they face, the Problem of Evil. There is no Problem of Evil, Koukl says, unless there are objective moral values.

Seidensticker does not think that this is the case, although it seems pretty reasonable to me.  Here’s Seidensticker’s description of the Problem of Evil:

The Problem of Evil simply points out a paradox: the Christian imagines (1) a good god who (2) tolerates a world with plenty of evil in it.

In order for this to be true and to be able to generate an actual paradox, it has to be the case that good and evil are facts.  Therefore, we must be able to say that it is factually true that there is evil in the world, and also factually true that a good God wouldn’t be able to produce such a world.  Importantly, what we can only mean here is moral good and evil.  It won’t be pragmatic good or evil, what someone wants to see or what they’d like.  It must be an undeniable fact that this is the case, and to tie it back into the first point it must be true regardless of whether some or even all Christians and all people believe it is true.  A paradox is a logical contradiction, and so to be a logical contradiction it must be necessarily true.  That means that it must be objectively true, too.  So in order to make this work, what morality would say there must be objective as well.  No one could be able to say that they don’t consider those things evil, or don’t consider being good to require eliminating them, and have any reasonable argument whatsoever.

So what is Seidensticker’s move to dodge that?

This is quite simple: you, Greg, would not be called good if (for example) you had the power to diffuse the tectonic energy that caused the 2010 Haiti earthquake that killed 300,000 people, but you didn’t. This is the Word Hygiene argument: the words “good” and “evil” are defined in the dictionary, and we don’t change the definitions when we talk about God. No objective anything is required—the Problem of Evil simply assumes that your god exists for the sake of the argument, takes this idea for a test drive, and runs it off the unavoidable logical cliff.

But if morality is not objective, why can’t we change the definitions?  In order for this argument to work, Seidensticker must be considering the definitions in the dictionary to at least have objective force.  To anticipate arguments later, it can’t be the case that good and evil are considered to be social rules or evolved preferences, because God is not part of our society nor did he evolve as we did.  So God would have to be bound by the same rules we are, but on what grounds would He be bound to those rules?  Only if they are objectively valid and so apply to everyone whether they believe it or not and no matter what their evolutionary history can we say that there is a paradox to say that a good God must diffuse that tectonic energy and prevent that earthquake.  Otherwise, we can argue that while it wouldn’t be good for us to do that, it is good for God to do that, and by Seidensticker’s view of morality we don’t even have to give a convincing argument for that.  Why?  Because that would require that morality is objective.  If Seidensticker is not convinced by our argument, then that doesn’t make us wrong, any more than if we are not convinced by his arguments that doesn’t make him wrong either.  Without objectivity, we don’t have a set and necessarily shared viewpoint to judge right and wrong about.  And if Seidensticker says that we can definitely say that some things are just plain right or wrong, then he walks right into all of the problems with objective morality:  how can we justify a claim that something is just plain right or wrong if someone disagrees?

Seidensticker’s example really does pull the common argument used in the Problem of Evil:  it doesn’t establish the paradox but instead essentially asks if we’d like a God that didn’t do that, or should worship Him.  But Seidensticker tried to make the paradox argument, and you can’t make a paradox argument without it being true by definition.  And so that definition must be objectively true, or else there is no paradox.

Moving on:

So let’s check the dictionary. “Moral” is defined as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior; ethical” or “conforming to a standard of right behavior.” And what are these principles and standards? I suggest that they’re the laws and customs of society. The dictionary mentions no objective, supernatural, or absolute anything. Evolution programs us with moral instincts, and Koukl’s concern vanishes.

As faithful readers will note — such as those reading my analysis of “The Unnecessary Science” — that I hate people trying to use dictionary definitions as arguments in philosophical debates.  That’s as idiotic as using the dictionary to define physics terms and thinking that you’re making a good argument in a physics debates.  The dictionary covers, in general, what people roughly mean, but that’s not enough when you’re wading into a long-standing philosophical debate, because the terms have been analyzed in a much deeper way.  We’re far beyond the simple and by necessity simplistic dictionary definitions, so trying to use that as an argument here is really completely missing the point.

Even worse, it doesn’t support his point.  Yes, the dictionary definition doesn’t say that morality is objective (since there’s still debate on that, I’d be surprised and dismayed if it did).  But it also doesn’t say that it is the laws and customs of society either, or that it is evolved.  At least, it doesn’t in the definition that Seidensticker provides here, and one would think that if he was going to appeal to the dictionary he’d provide the definition that most supports his own view.  So given that his own views aren’t included in the definition, we can presume that he isn’t going to claim that because it doesn’t say that morality is objective that therefore morality isn’t objective.  So he’s going to argue instead that because it isn’t in the definition those who accept objective morality will have to provide evidence and arguments for that.  Which isn’t an unfair demand, actually.  Of course, it also applies to his view, and that’s where his stance is going to kinda fall apart.

The problem with his own argument is that given how we talk about and apply morality it seems incredibly unlikely.  First, for both cases we feel very comfortable arguing that they themselves can indeed be immoral.  We challenge societal rules, laws and customs all the time for their immorality.  Many societies had laws that allowed or even encouraged slavery, and many societies formalized in law discrimination against women and other groups.  We had no problem arguing that they needed to changed precisely because they were immoral.  And we often look at our supposedly evolved moral instincts and note that some of them really do seem to be immoral, such as those that follow from in- and out-group thinking.  Even worse for our evolved instincts, an awful lot of our societal laws and customs exist precisely to restrict our evolved moral instincts to ones that we actually think are moral.  For Seidensticker’s argument to get off the ground, he would have to show that calling a societal law or custom or an evolved moral instinct immoral is wrong by definition.  It would be logically or conceptually invalid to do so.  Since we do it so often and so naturally, that would be a tough sell … especially for someone who is trying to derive what is moral directly from what we naturally or instinctively do.

So he starts from a claim far bigger than the claim that morality is objective, but seems to want us to simply accept that without argument.  But if I deny it, then if relativism is true he can’t call me wrong, but if he wants to claim that I’m just wrong about that he needs to provide an argument that has objective force.

This was apparently a bombshell to Koukl, though I don’t see why. That could be a clumsy paraphrase of my own thinking: that we strive to minimize suffering because our programming (our conscience) tells us to. This conscience punishes us with guilt when we resist it—when we didn’t stop to help someone or when we took an action that caused harm.

Why is this shocking? Greg, isn’t this the way it works for you?

The first problem here is the same as the one above:  it seems that we can indeed conceptually split morality from conscience.  If I grew up in a society where, say, women were barred from working outside the home, I might well feel guilty and like I was doing something immoral if I hired a woman to work for me.  But I’m sure that Seidensticker doesn’t think that what I’m doing is wrong, especially if the rules of society say that I shouldn’t discriminate against women (imagine that I moved from my society to that one).  So even if we accept Seidensticker’s own view, we can and must separate what our conscience tell us from what is really right.

The second problem is that conscience is not as universal as Seidensticker thinks it is.  Psychopaths and sociopaths, for example, likely don’t feel any pangs of guilt at all when they hurt people.  If conscience is what matters, then how can Seidensticker say that their conscience is wrong and his is right?  We certainly think that they are acting in a morally incorrect way and that their consciences are deficient, but you can’t start from a position where conscience is what matters and then say that their consciences are deficient because they don’t agree with yours, or even those of most people.  Again, most members of a society may feel no guilt at possessing slaves or barring women from working outside the home, but that fact in and of itself doesn’t mean that we should therefore consider those who do feel guilt to have deficient consciences … and, in fact, we’d generally consider them to have the better consciences.  But without some standard for morality and so for what our consciences should be making us feel guilty about, we have no way to judge which consciences are better and which are worse, meaning that we ought not rely on our consciences since we can’t tell just how accurate or reasonable they are.

Koukl apparently imagines a dilemma: you must accept either

  • objective morality, with a supernatural or transcendental grounding for morality, or
  • relative morality, where I have my moral truths and you have yours, and I have no ability to criticize.

The problem is that this doesn’t define all the options. It’s a false dilemma. I see no evidence for objective morality (and Koukl doesn’t provide any), but I’m quite happy to criticize moral claims with which I don’t agree.

The question is not whether or not someone can physically criticize moral claims, but instead whether they are justified in criticizing the moral claims of others or those they disagree with.  A past frequent commenter here — Coel — would make the exact same sort of argument:  What do you mean I can’t criticize other people’s moralities as a relativist?  Look, I called that person immoral!  So clearly I can do it!  But the issue isn’t whether or not you can physically do it, it’s whether you have any justification for doing so.  If I have my moral claims and you have yours, then you claiming that my moral claims are really immoral based on yours is, in fact, an invalid argument by definition.  So you’d need to make some kind of argument that applies to both of us.  What does Seidensticker try to appeal to in those cases?

We have a shared (not objective) grounding, since we’re all the same species. We aren’t seeing God’s universal moral truth but rather universally held moral instincts. This explains the facts, and without the handwaving behind a claim of objective morality.

First, as noted above, this would kill the Problem of Evil because God is not of our species and so wouldn’t be held to our moral standards.  Thus, we couldn’t criticize His moral judgements nor call his actions immoral based on a shared grounding that we don’t have.

Second, we also know that that grounding actually doesn’t hold across the species.  I’ve already mentioned psychopaths and sociopaths, but those on the autistic spectrum are noted for not making the same moral judgements as others.  Seidensticker can make a reasonable argument that psychopaths and sociopaths are immoral or at least amoral, but it’s a lot harder to make that sort of argument for autistics (they tend to be, if anything, hyper-moral by our standards).  And that’s not even mentioning all of the really tough moral questions where our moral instincts and intuitions clash, both with those of other people and even with our own.  Thus, there’s actually no real evidence for any kind of universally held moral instincts, especially when we note that some of our supposed moral instincts actually seem to be socialized moral instincts instead.  To make this sort of argument, Seidensticker would have to untangle all of these issues, and he hasn’t even started to do that yet.

Can Koukl have never had an argument about a moral issue? Each person makes a case using the shared moral ideas of our species and culture—that’s how it’s done. Or look at a legislative debate for a more formal example.

Um, if they’re arguing about a moral issue, then it seems that at least for that proposition the moral instincts aren’t doing the work, nor are the cultural laws and customs.  That’s why they’re arguing about it.  But what Seidensticker most misses with his demand that we look at moral argument in the real world is that most people think that there is an absolute right answer to those questions.  That’s both why and how they’re arguing about it, at least in general.  So using that as a justification at the very least also provides justification for objectivists, which is not really what Seidensticker wants to do.

And we’re back to consulting the dictionary. Show me the objective part of the definition of “good” that would make it inappropriate if said by an atheist. We have a common definition for words; that’s how communication works. Where’s the problem?

Again, by his own argument, just because the dictionary doesn’t mention it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  And the argument that someone like Koukl would make for objective morality in general is that they don’t have a way to ground objective morality.  But the real issue is that the theistic interviewer referenced here would have a different definition of good because of their morality that they presumably grounded in God.  An atheist cannot do that.  By definition.  So they need to, at least, do something else.  And if morality needs to be grounded in God to work, then they’d be screwed.  So you’d think atheists would want to look at and respect moral philosophy for providing non-God-based options for morality.  But Seidensticker doesn’t even reference any of them and instead uses the dictionary to define good and evil.

Duh—doesn’t everyone want laws to be in accord with their own views of right and wrong? We make compromises as members of a society, but obviously we’d like the laws to be as in line with our personal morality as possible.

No, we want the laws to be moral.  We judge that on the basis of our personal morality, sure, but we really don’t want to compromise on basic morality when it comes to law.  We aren’t going to compromise and allow a law that we think is immoral to stand, are we?  Seidensticker conflates laws with morality and thinks he’s saying something interesting about morality.  Moreover, the point here is about punishing people for having different views of morality, and our instinctive views about morality consider it strongly immoral to punish someone for having different opinions and tastes than we do.  So morality, even for Seidensticker has to be more than that, and shared species-wide instincts won’t cut it because we still think it immoral to punish someone merely for having different instincts than we do.  So we’d need more than Seidensticker provides here to pull this off.

Koukl ends by encouraging his listeners to listen carefully to make sure the other guy is using moral language and concepts correctly.

Finally—something we can agree on.

Which makes it strange that Seidensticker doesn’t use them correctly here.

The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 6)

February 8, 2021

So after last week’s post, I’m at the final chapter that I’m going to look at in detail (I didn’t find the chapter on alternatives all that interesting, at least for my specific interests).  This chapter dives into the more philosophical issues with the Forms, and is one of the chapters where I have more notes.  Also, since I was at the end of the book, the messier notes.  Let’s see how it works out.

Laird starts with an attempt to make a parallel to Euthyphro that he credits to a blogger called Arithmoquine.  The essence of that argument is that either God commands the Forms to be what they are because those are what they should be, or else the Forms are just the creation of God’s mind.  I think it fairly obvious that the Forms follow from the “mind” of God (as Pure Act) but not in the way that Laird and Arithmoquine think of it.  I don’t think that God is sitting down and consciously trying to work out what He wants the Forms to be.  God would mostly be instantiating things according to various natural processes and instantiations.  You could argue that all possible Forms exist in God’s “mind” and they get joined to objects when those objects come into existence, so God is more assigning the right Forms to the right things when they are created than determining them entirely Himself.  This fits in with Laird’s extrapolation of Feser saying that the Forms are given to objects by their relations between them but the Forms are only there to be joined and are only joined to the objects because they exist as such in Pure Act.

Since Laird’s big challenge here is about God not being able to change them at will, he focuses on a reply that the Forms are logically necessary, and then argues that non-mathematical Forms don’t seem to be logically necessary in that way.  I have two responses here.  The first is that I’m unconcerned if God really could change Forms at any time, because that doesn’t make them arbitrary in the right way to cause a problem.  First of all, as long as God doesn’t generally change the Forms, we can still examine objects for their properties and derive what Forms are there, so the process would still generally be useful.  Second, if God ever did change a Form we would arguably have an intentional explanation for why He did that, allowing us even greater understanding.  And finally even if God could change them, that wouldn’t make them arbitrary for us.  From our perspective, the Forms would be the Forms, and so just as set as any of the laws of physics.  Far from reducing it to nominalism, it would create a realism so strong that even my conceptualism couldn’t assail it:  the Forms exist completely outside of us and are totally determined by God, and so the only valid concepts are those that can align with the Forms.  So if God determines entirely what the Forms are and can change them at any time, that doesn’t seem to be arbitrary in the way Laird needs them to be.

But more importantly, there is an I think interesting sense in which the Forms are indeed logically necessary:  you cannot simply change a Form in place without making it a different Form, at least if you change one of the essential properties.  If you change a property of a Form that is one of those we use to identify that specific Form, then it’s not the same Form anymore.  So in doing this you would at worst destroy the old Form and create a new one to replace it.  Thus, the Forms do have a strong logical necessity to be what they are and nothing else.  So even God could not suddenly change the Form of Squirrel to have different essential properties and have it remain the Form of Squirrel, even if the new Form existed in the same objects and we called it the same thing.  I think that Laird’s attachment to or at least sympathy towards nominialism causes the issue here, because under nominalism all we have are names associated with more or less agreed upon properties, and so if we change the name or change the properties we still have the “same” thing.  Both realism and conceptualism deny that, arguing that if there are different essential properties the concepts or Forms are different even if we call it by the same name (as per my discussions of conceptualism earlier).  So Laird doesn’t see any strong or logical necessity here because for him any of these things are whatever we want them to be, which realists like Feser will deny.

Laird follows on from this by arguing that things adopting Forms changes the supposedly unchanging Divine Mind.  The problem is that it’s difficult to see how this follows.  Something taking up a Form clearly doesn’t change the Form itself, as Laird himself notes.  And something taking up a Form isn’t a mental process for anyone, and so that can’t be what he means.  So he eventually whittles it down to real change, but that’s actually happening in the material world and God is not material.  So I think Laird would have to show that God Himself needs to change in a meaningful way to make this point, and starting from the Forms is not the way to go.

Laird also uses the idea that God would have to ground possible worlds as an argument against it, but himself has to note that all he manages to do is show that we might have an issue telling if this world is a world where Catholicism is correct or a world where it is incorrect.  However, all this does as Laird himself notes is cast some doubt on the historical arguments that Catholicism is correct, which I found unconvincing when such arguments were raised earlier.  I maintain that Feser does not need Catholicism to logically follow from Pure Act, and can completely accept that ultimately that could be incorrect.  Catholicism’s truth, for Feser, is not a metaphysical truth, and so can be wrong without impacting his metaphysics.  Feser might be quite disappointed if someone proved Catholicism wrong, but that would give him no real reason to abandon his metaphysics.

Laird also tries to use the existence of propositions against God, by pointing out that Feser concedes that arguments about the non-existence of humans would be true if humans went out of existence, but that means that such propositions cannot only exist in the minds of humans.  Laird then notes that this would seem to apply to propositions about the non-existence of God.  Except that God supposedly cannot exist and so couldn’t ground them.  So how can those propositions be at all intelligible?  The answer is that there is a difference between the existence of a proposition and its truth value.  For example, it could indeed be true that propositions only exist in the minds of humans and yet that the proposition “Humans do not exist” exists and is intelligible.  It would merely be false if humans existed and non-existent if humans did not exist.  For propositions about God’s non-existence, they also exist inside the Divine Mind, but as noted there cannot be a truthmaker for them because they cannot ever be true, because God must exist and always will exist.  Yes, if God didn’t exist they wouldn’t either, but if God must exist then that’s not an issue, as they will never go out of existence.  That can’t be said for humans.  So I don’t see this as a problem either.

The next point Laird takes up is questioning whether Pure Act needs to be intelligent.  In order to enable the interactions that necessitate Forms and join them to objects, perhaps the thing responsible for doing that doesn’t have to be intelligent either.  After all, it seems like animals like birds and bees can build things and so cause them to have at least some kind of Form, and they don’t have anything like the sort of intelligence that God is supposed to have.  The problem here is two-fold.  First, in order to do what Pure Act does, it has to be able to comprehend the Forms per Feser, and that’s what the animals don’t have.  In fact, it could be argued that the very fact that they don’t comprehend the Forms is what necessitates Pure Act in order to ascribe a specific Form to something when the cause occurs, and the animals do not have that.  Second, intentionality is also required for Pure Act, and bees and birds do not intentionally ascribe Forms to the things they build, and so again comprehension is required.  So it looks like the natural assignment of Forms to objects does indeed require something of at least human-level intelligence.

Laird also asks by what mechanism God can be required to maintain or not maintain things based on the decisions that we humans make.  This would seem to make God far too dependent and servile to our whims.  However, the issue is that things change or don’t change according to the rules established by their Forms and specifically their actualities and potentialities, so it isn’t that God is forced to do things according to the whims of humans, but that the rules as already established mean that that’s what happens when those things interact.  The argument only has any force if it is seen as us using our will to override God’s, and that’s clearly not what’s happening.  If anything, God’s will structures everything so that our will is limited by the rules that He already set up, and so by what He will allow us to do.

Which leads to a question about free will itself:  if the only interactions we can have are those that were structured by God as Pure Act, can we have free will?  Laird uses an example of a novelist writing a novel, and wonders if the characters in the book would still have free will.  My answer is that if they are written as characters who have free will and are making decisions then, yes, they have free will, even though as the novelist moves along they record those decisions.  What happens in the book would be a record of their free decisions, not a determining of them.  So if the characters deliberate and the results of those deliberations determine their actions, then it’s not reasonable to say that they don’t have free will.  In short, God and the novelist are again far enough outside of that world so that their observations and even interactions don’t determine how we should view things from inside the world.  The characters deliberate, even if they are in a novel written by an external novelist.  Humans make choices in the same way.  Note that this is similar to Kant’s response on free will noting that things are only determined at the descriptive level and not at the noumenal.  At worst, this is the opposite, with the world we are in being free even if there is some sort of determinism at the level of Pure Act.

Now, one of the biggest questions for Laird and Feser is the idea that essence and existence are separate, and so that by knowing the essence of something we cannot therefore know that it exists.  Feser needs this to show that we need some sort of Pure Act to combine the two so that anything at all can exist.  Laird, obviously, wants to challenge this.  But to make the move of combining the two raises a number of issues for Laird.  First, them being separate pretty much has to be true for empirical science since if we are going to go out in the world and look for something we’d need to know what we’re looking for first, which requires knowing its essence.  If this wasn’t true, then empiricism itself would be mostly unnecessary and we could easily prove the existence of everything from the armchair.  Second, from there we can also note that this would prove the Ontological Argument valid, as that argument is really an argument that says that if we know the essence of something we can in at least some cases know that it exists.  Laird’s move here would make that a logical necessity.

As for Laird’s main points, he tries to talk about fictional things and notes that existence must be a distinguishing property because that’s the difference between real things and fictional things, and invents a fictional Feser to contrast with the real Feser to demonstrate this.  The problem is that existence cannot be a distinguishing property there because fictional things almost certainly do exist in some sense.  They wouldn’t be bound to anything material, which then would be at least in part how we distinguish them from real things, along with things like efficient causes to distinguish fictional Feser from real Feser.  But fictional things do have to have some sort of existence or else we couldn’t refer to them at all, which then is quite similar to Feser’s arguments for realism as opposed to my conceptualism and nominalism.  Thus, we cannot claim that what distinguishes fictional things from non-fictional things is existence, and so this doesn’t challenge the idea that essence and existence are separate.

That’s all I really want to take up here, which does leave a fair bit of the chapter unanswered but I was only going after the points that really interested me.  Next time, I’ll summarize the book itself.

The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 5)

February 1, 2021

Continuing on from last time, in Chapter 5 Laird is going to look in more detail at Feser’s idea of good and how it relates to moral good.  Essentially, Feser defines moral good as aligning with what is naturally good, in the sense that it best aligns with the Form of the thing and strives for its ideal  Laird’s first argument, as my notes have it, is to challenge and dismiss that definition, but we do have a sense of good and bad as relating to an ideal.  Laird then does say that that sense is a different sense than the moral sense, but Feser actually argues for why natural good aligns to and links to moral good in at least moral agents, and can use design and God’s will to make the full argument.  You could accuse Feser of equivocation in using “good for the individual” as being the same thing as “morally good” and so using the motivation we get from striving for our ideal to motivate us to act morally, but for humans as moral beings we have to include acting ideally morally as part of our true and full form.  In a sense, then, Feser has a better argument for why we, as humans, must be moral than most, since his notion of Forms can easily argue that morality is part of who we are, something that most other moral systems cannot actually do.  Laird also takes on examples of toys and Nazis to try to show weakness or conflict with good as defined by Forms.  He argues that a toy in the shape of a triangle that does not have perfect sides would seem to not be a good triangle, and so would be better if it was more like a triangle even if that would make it a worse toy (by being more dangerous to children playing with it).  He also notes that a Nazi who acts more like a Nazi is a better Nazi and so would be more good, despite being morally inferior.  However, as even Laird admits much of this can be handled by appealing to the specific properties and Form that the thing is trying to achieve, and for Nazis in particular we can easily appeal to humans as moral agents to note that a Nazi, if inherently immoral, is an inferior human being precisely because adopting that stance makes them worse at achieving and respecting the moral being that is part and parcel of them.

The next attempt Laird makes is essentially to talk about how difficult it can be to decide which Form to apply in the first place, or what the Form really is.  We may end up in constant arguments over what Form is instantiated or what properties of the Form matter, leading to problems of redefinition.  However, he starts with an example of someone scribbling something on a bus seat that looks like a triangle, that Feser (Laird argues) would criticize as not being good for not being a good triangle, with the drawer saying that it wasn’t intended to  be one in the first place.  This is, it seems to me, a bit of a distortion of what Feser would say because he would surely recognize that a scribble that was not intended to be a triangle has to be good as a scribble, not necessarily as a triangle.  Yes, there may be cases where someone scribbling a perfect triangle could be held to have done something impressive in accidentally doing that, but if someone didn’t intend to scribble a triangle it wouldn’t be a valid criticism to say that it’s not a good scribble because it didn’t achieve something that it — and scribbles in general — were never intended to achieve.  So Feser should accept the argument that the person wasn’t drawing a triangle, but was instead just scribbling, and so will accept that it not having perfectly straight sides is not an indication that it’s not good.

This, then, carries over to pretty much all of Laird’s other arguments as well, and reveals the key thing here:  in Feser’s view and with the ideas of Forms or even concepts themselves, you cannot merely assert that it has a certain Form or fits a certain concept or that certain properties make up the Form or concept.  You always have to have an argument that works for why any of these things are true.  So any such definitions will have to be objectively defensible.  So in contrast to the Amazon review by Dan Lawler that Laird cites, we aren’t going to go to Feser to determine what the Forms are.  Feser appeals to philosophical arguments and science to justify his ideas of the Forms, so ultimately no simple generic argument that we cannot know the Forms or that his idea relies too much on his own personal assessments works.  It may not be easy to work out what the Forms are, but we can do so, and if Laird or others think that Feser’s ideas of the Form of something is incorrect the best move is to engage that directly instead.

Which then leads to Laird attempting to go after Feser’s notion that the Form of Human Beings includes rationality, which is what he uses to get to the zygote being potentially rational and so deserving of protection.  The first move Laird makes is actually one of my pet peeves, as he tries to use the dictionary definitions of various forms including human beings, to argue that rational doesn’t seem to be there.  This is the same move that Jerry Coyne made in defining knowledge, and it fails for the same reasons:  the dictionary is not a credible source for philosophical concepts, and so its definitions cannot be used as an argument against philosophical concepts.  The dictionary records folk views of concepts that are generally agreed upon and work for everyday reasoning, but obviously those definitions aren’t designed to deal with the more detailed examinations demanded by philosophy.  They’re there to let you pick those things out in the world, not to determine what their real and full nature is.  And philosophically the idea that humans have rationality as an importantly different part of their nature is one that’s pretty well supported.  It may be wrong, but it will take more than the dictionary leaving that out to put a dent in that assessment.

So Laird then turns to questioning whether humans are inherently rational or whether they might actually be merely accidentally rational, meaning that we happen to be rational but it isn’t an integral part of our nature.  He appeals to humans acting irrationally and needed to be trained to act properly and fully rational, but this can be easily countered by pointing out that even when we are not engaging our rational faculties — like when we’re being overwhelmed by emotion — we are still inherently capable of being rational, which is clearly how Feser takes it (since he includes zygotes who are not capable of acting, rationally or otherwise).  What he really ends up doing is arguing that our rationality is taught to us or imposed on us from external sources, and isn’t inherently part of us, but that’s not a very credible argument.  After all, we do learn to act somewhat rationally even without specific training in reason — after all, most people do not take philosophy and so do not learn how to properly reason — and even then the full capacity must be there.  We are not like the vines that can be put to another purpose as a hammock and might even grow on their own into something that someone else can co-opt for those purposes.  Our reason is not instilled in us externally and used by someone else for something other than its original intent.  Reason, in us, is its own intent in us, or so it seems.  So he’d need a much stronger set of arguments to make the case that we should not consider human beings to be inherently rational animals.  And in fact, what separates us from at least most other animals just is our capacity for reason, which is one of the primary functions of a Form.

Laird returns to his Form of Squirrel example to argue for Forms being at least a bit looser than Feser would like, but he makes the same mistake as before by lumping specific behaviours into the Form itself.  But behaviours do not define the Form, but follow from it, since we know that we can have behaviours that violate what is good for us, and so what is our Form.  This is indeed how we decide that a squirrel eating toothpaste is doing something at least less than ideal:  a squirrel can’t survive without eating nutritious food, and so a squirrel who by some process only eats toothpaste despite the fact that it won’t provide it that nutrition can reasonably be said to have some disorder driving that, especially when we can see other squirrels that act more reasonably.  The same can be said for humans:  just because we sometimes don’t act rationally doesn’t mean that we aren’t rational animals, just that sometimes we have flaws that cause us to ignore that fundamental nature.

Laird then tries to argue against the idea that the goal of reason is to produce truth and that truth should be produced for the sake of truth by using the example of a nerd who seeks out all knowledge for the sake of knowledge but then is a complete failure in their everyday life.  Laird uses this to suggest that truth is not important for its own sake, but is instead something that we should pursue insofar is it has practical benefits for us.  Putting aside that his description fits the stereotypical philosopher and so is not something that philosophers will be inclined to accept as a failing, we could easily criticize the nerd not for seeking out knowledge that seems to have no practical value but instead for ignoring something else that is important, which is practical matters.  Yes, Feser does make seeking truth our main goal, but we do need to take care of practical matters as well, if for no other reason that to be able to continue to seek out truth.  So Laird establishes that practicality matters, but that does not justify the move to insisting that it matters more, and Laird needs it to matter more to take on Feser here.

And the last point asks what the point of a rubber ball is:  is it to be a ball itself, or to be a toy for children?  If it’s to be a ball, then it’s possible to make the ball be more like a ball but then less fun for the children to play with, which is the purpose of a toy.  So how do we determine what its purpose is so that we can judge whether it is good or bad?  Is it a toy, or is it primarily a ball?  The first issue with these arguments is that if the ball is human created, then it gets its purpose directly from its creator.  So if I’m making the ball to primarily be a ball, then that’s its purpose and that’s how we judge how well it fits it.  And if I’m making it as a toy for a child, then that’s its primary purpose and it’s on that basis that we judge it.  The natural cases are more tricky because we don’t have direct access to the main purpose for which it was created.  But note that we wouldn’t appeal to whether a particular or even most children like it if it is to be considered primarily as a toy.  They could be incorrect due to a deficiency in them, after all.  While whether children want to play with it is excellent empirical evidence as to whether it is good for that purpose, in theory we could determine it mostly a priori.  It’s just far easier to do the empirical investigation than work it all out a priori.

So that’s Chapter 5.  I’m not going to comment on the last chapter, so next time is Chapter 6 and the last of my commentaries on the chapters in the book.

The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 4)

January 25, 2021

Last time, I looked at Chapter 3, which is the one that had the most overlap with my own analysis.  This time I’m looking at Chapter 4, which takes a tack that is much less interesting and, ultimately, one that I have repeatedly argued in the past is actually a very weak form of philosophical argument.  In response to Feser’s claims that modern morality is deficient, Laird is going to argue that Feser’s natural law ethics is at least as deficient if not more so.

Let me start with the reasons why this is not a very strong argument.  The problem is that there are far too many ways to avoid such arguments.  The first broad category is that the moral system is being misinterpreted, either by the person criticizing it or by the people who decided to use it justify what we think are horrible things.  The other broad category is to essentially bite the bullet and admit that it does justify those things that we think are horrible but ultimately those things really are correct.  The only time, then, that such arguments can really work is when you take something that the person advocating for the theory would find acceptable and show that the view instead actually supports it, and so argue that that person should reject their own theory.  But that’s a personal appeal, not a universal philosophical one.  More importantly, it doesn’t actually prove the theory wrong, and so the theory could still be right.  When you make such an appeal, you would need to appeal to a universal wrong that everyone accepts, and even then biting the bullet would blunt that attack.

Laird relies on two main attacks:  arguing that certain philosophical systems that Feser would not approve of — Nazism and Communism in particular — have links to his natural law theory, meaning here Plato and Aristotle specifically, and also arguing that Aristotle explicitly justifies slavery.  However, to make this entire point pointless, at the end Laird has to admit that all of his arguments are historical and that Feser would not be amiss in demanding that Laird give philosophical arguments to show that the system is indeed false.  Since this is in line with my argument above, it makes the entire chapter pretty much pointless.  Laird says that he will try to give those philosophical arguments in the next chapter, meaning that this one isn’t doing anything other than associating the view with slavery, Nazis and Communism, which is pretty much an argument ad hominem, unless his historical arguments actually work.  So let me take a quick look at them.

The link to Nazis and Communism is pretty much the first sort:  Laird notes that the Nazis used Plato explicitly and that Marx didn’t repudiate Aristolean ideas, but these arguments are pretty weak.  That Marx didn’t explicitly repudiate it doesn’t mean that he used it either, and so it’s hard to see the direct link that Laird would need from Aristotle to Marx, so that we can see that Aristotle when interpreted properly will lead to Communism.  And while he can show the Nazis using Plato directly, it’s way, way too easy to argue that they misinterpreted it and so that, again, Plato properly understood does not allow for their interpretation and so doesn’t justify their philosophical ideas.  The most he can and has made in the chapter is that the ideas could lead to those interpretations, but no one with any philosophical experience at all denies this, especially if we allow for people to misinterpret the ideas as Laird needs to here to make his point.  So he doesn’t make the direct link he needs for this to even work as a historical argument, let alone one we should take seriously philosophically.  And his link from Thomism to similar issues is even weaker, since all he has there is a supposition that it could be used that way, which is far too weak to support any real counter to Feser at all.  He would have been better served, I think, to spend the time he spent on these arguments to showing how the negatives Feser points to are not objectively negatives — ie that Feser calls things negative only because he thinks they’re negative and not because they actually are — or that the negatives that he and Feser agree on are misinterpretations of his preferred moral system.  That would provide a philosophically interesting discussion, which these arguments don’t really manage (admittedly, by Laird’s own admission).

There is one philosophically interesting argument here, which is the argument that Aristotle directly supported slavery.  Unfortunately, Laird’s take on it ends up seeming shallow when he talks about Aristotle’s actual philosophical justification for that stance.  It becomes obvious that Laird pulls that out because he believes that such a thing is so obviously and clearly objectively wrong that any moral system that could possibly allow for it must be wrong.  However, Aristotle’s view didn’t justify slavery in and of itself, but instead justified slavery for those whose natures were such that they had to be slaves by nature.  The first reason this blunts Laird’s argument here is that Aristotleans can argue that the view only justifies slavery if it is true that people can have a nature that demands that they be slaves, and no such people exist, so it’s an irrelevant argument.  It would be like Aristotle’s view advocates that if people can fly by their own power they must follow the same rules for ships for when they are flying.  No matter what you think of such a moral position, it’s irrelevant since no one can do it.

But it’s the second reason that’s more philosophically interesting, because we can ask if the idea that if there were people who had a nature such that slavery was demanded would it be morally wrong in that case?  The example I was pondering was that of the Atans in David Eddings’ ‘The Tamuli”.  These were a race whose sexual selection ended up selecting for maximum strength, size and aggression.  However, the problem with that was that the aggression ended up being completely out of control, and so if left to their own devices they were constantly fighting with each other, in a way that risked wiping out the race.  So one of their kings, seeing the problem, decided to sell the entire race into slavery to the not-very-aggressive Tamuls, who turned them into an army but, more importantly, curbed their aggressive tendencies by, well, not giving them the permission to indulge them in harmful ways, which the book credits with saving their race from extinction.

Let’s put aside for the moment that idea that there might well have been other solutions that would have worked and simply assume here that that king was right and at that point the Atans had the nature of slaves, and the only options for them were to become slaves or be wiped out.  Could we really say that it would be necessarily immoral to treat them as slaves and, in fact, to enslave them?  Given most of the moral systems out there, about the only one that could out-and-out reject it is Kant’s deontological view, and even in his view it isn’t clear that it would be wrong, since it wouldn’t necessarily be people treated anyone else or themselves merely as means and not as ends in themselves (after all, they are taking their nature into account) and the idea that people should be enslaved if their nature dictates that and at no other time and for no other reason actually is universalizable.  To use my own preferred Stoic model, it’s hard to argue that it is vicious to treat someone in line with their actual nature, even if that nature is for them to be a slave.  So while creating people who have slavery as their nature may be immoral, treating such people according to their nature and enslaving them isn’t clearly immoral.  And so that Aristotle’s moral system could come to this conclusion doesn’t actually count against it, and in fact his view seems to handle this sort of situation in a reasonable way and provides a better justification for what we might all agree is the moral move than the others might.

From these two arguments, the charge of justifying slavery against Aristotle has no teeth.  For all practical purposes, it doesn’t, and in the only case where it does it really looks like he might have a point.

This chapter is one that I don’t really think serves much purpose.  If Laird has philosophical arguments and not historical ones against natural law theory, he would have been better off to simply go straight to them and not bother with this as a lead-in, especially since philosophically the most philosophical of his arguments falls completely flat.  But next time we’ll actually look at the more philosophical arguments expressed in Chapter 5.

The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 3)

January 18, 2021

As mentioned last time when I looked at Chapter 2, Chapter 3 of “The Unnecessary Science” focuses on natural law morality and, in particular, its intersection with sexual morality, which I myself examined in detail while reading Feser’s work.  Gunther Laird noted in a comment on last week’s post that we were making very similar arguments, which is in some sense true.  We both are arguing that once Feser makes the — correct in my opinion — moves to allow actions that don’t directly frustrate or pervert a function and to note that reproduction is not merely or possibly even primarily about simply producing a child but instead has to include raising that child to maturity then a number of things that Feser might want to prohibit seem to become at least potentially acceptable.  While there was a vigorous debate over that in the comments, for me it seems that if you are performing a sexual act that is set up to not produce children itself — and thus in theory perverting the faculty — it can’t count unless that in some way risks impeding you in having and raising the children you would be able to have and raise.  So if you do and as far as we know you are going to have just as many children in wedlock and are not risking your existing marriage (adultery) or delaying your marriage (by preferring casual affairs to preparing for marriage and finding a spouse), then in my view it is difficult to argue that it remains an example of perverting the faculty in line with Feser’s later moves.

That being said, it was also noted in the comments there that my interpretation was a bit of a trap for progressives, since while it accepted the arguments that some things that progressives advocated for were not necessarily morally wrong, it also advocated for a much different approach to sex than they would accept.  The reason is that I insist that sex for reproduction is the ideal case, and that reproduction is the main end of sex.  This means that I would at least consider all forms of sex that aren’t aimed at reproduction to be at least inferior to sex for reproduction, which means that, for example, I advocate that if you are not prepared when having sex with someone to marry them if a child results then you shouldn’t have sex with them because not marrying them if a child is produced is morally wrong by natural law (it’s not necessarily such by Stoic morality).  This is something that the progressive idea of sex can’t work with.  It wants sex to not be primarily for reproduction, and for all forms of sex to have equal value, even those that do not and cannot result in children or a marriage for the purposes of raising children.

And so I think one big problem Laird has in Chapter 3 is that he needs to defend that position and while accepting at least the natural law premise must argue that the main purpose of sex is not or need not be for reproduction.  The problem with this is that any such arguments have a very large hill to climb, since it really seems obvious that that is what sex is for.  It makes as little sense to claim that sex’s primary purpose isn’t necessarily for reproduction as it would be to claim that the primary purpose of eating is not to provide nutrition for the body.  Not only is that really what it does, not only is that what we’ve used it for for millenia, but it also is what evolution selected it and its specific traits for.  You can argue that sex for pleasure isn’t necessarily wrong, but not that it’s as important or ideal as sex for reproduction.

The preamble out of the way, let me now move on to my rather long list of specific notes on the chapter.

Laird tries to use an example of wet dreams — also known, I believe, as nocturnal emissions — to argue that since we spontaneously and throughout our life “waste” sperm, then masturbation should be allowed as well.  The issue here is that my understanding of the phenomena was that it was pretty much like bed wetting:  a brief period of time before we learn how to control our body better, with perhaps a bit of a loss of function as we age.  Thus, to argue that wet dreams justify masturbation seems to be same sort of argument as claiming that the fact that sometimes we wet the bed means that it is proper for us to simply urinate in our clothes and bed whenever we feel the need to urinate.  No, just because our body sometimes does something naturally does not give us carte blanche to do similar things intentionally.

Laird’s description of it implies, though, that it isn’t just a matter of a lack of control, but is instead something that occurs throughout one’s life, and so there may be a biological reason to occasionally flush out sperm.  This leads to an argument that can work, by arguing that it would be permissible to masturbate in order to achieve that biological goal in at least a cleaner and more consistent way.  However, the issue here is that this would not allow us to consider masturbation acceptable in general, but would instead only allow it precisely as needed to perform that specific function, which will be quite limited.  In fact, any of Laird’s examples that rely on finding a medical or biological reason for it to be necessary or at least greatly desirable suffer from that counter, which is that if that is the case it must only be done a) as is necessary to provide that function and b) only if there is no other reasonable option.  I believe that Feser’s justification for this would probably be that it is not immoral to subvert a faculty of an organism if the other option is the death of the organism, because obviously few if any faculties of an organism will function if the organism is dead.  But that’s far more limited a set of cases than I think Laird needs here.

(Note as an aside that you could make a comment here that if that’s the defense Feser would use then it opens up an argument that if someone demanded that a person, say, rape someone or else they would kill that person that person would be able to use the same justification to perform the rape.  I think Feser would take the Stoic line here and differentiate cases where your death comes at the hands of another person acting immorally from those where it’s happening due to purely natural causes.  If one acts in a manner that would be considered immoral only because someone else will act immorally if you don’t, your duty as a moral person is to force them to act immorally, not act immorally yourself and absolve them of the moral blame).

So I think the Feser could still blanket condemn pretty much all of the actions that Laird challenges him on here, and allow for certain exceptions in extremely rare cases.  That’s not going to get Laird or progressives in general the sort of sexual ethics that they want, nor will it strike any kind of real blow against Feser.

Laird then turns his attention to marriage with similar arguments, but ones that are a bit stronger because he can try to show that in at least some cases different forms of marriage could be in some cases necessary for actually raising children.  The problem with these, though, is that in general they don’t really work for that purpose.  He suggests that harems could work perfectly well, but the issue there is that even if we had one person who had the resources to raise the children from multiple marriages, children need more than wealth to thrive.  They also need attention, and in most harems there is no real way for the provider to provide the attention each would need.  Polygamy, of course, has similar issues, but Laird does point out that that could have advantages in cases where there is a huge imbalance between the genders.  However, that’s a very rare condition, and even then it might simply be better to increase the number of children per couple and through that and death rates eventually right the imbalance than to advocate for temporary polygamy (and permanent polygamy isn’t justified by that condition).

Ultimately, even progressives have to accept that the best arrangement for raising children is for their needs to be provided by their biological parents as best they can.  In fact, that’s exactly what at least some progressive feminists argued.  A while back, I was involved in a debate on feminist groups about what was called “Choice For Men”, which was the proposal that because women could get an abortion for any reason they wanted — which included that they didn’t want to provide support for a child — and ultimately that the child being born really was their choice that the man should get a chance to choose to absolve himself of support for it as well by giving up all rights to that child.  The best argument against that was that once the child was born it would require support, and that the best people to provide that support were its biological parents.  If this argument is accepted, then it pretty much precludes any of Laird’s examples as being in any way equal to traditional marriage.  Is it possible that we could accept them for a brief time if absolutely necessary?  Possibly, if the only alternative was the extinction of the human race.  Outside of that, there is no good reason to consider them marriages at all.

As an attempt to get same sex marriages into the picture, Laird appeals to a claim of their being a Form of Homosexuality, and so homosexuals getting into relations with members of the same sex and even getting married might well be them actually pursuing their real final end as per their Form.  The problem here is that homosexual acts are behaviours and behaviours follow from Forms and properties, and so it is entirely possible that homosexuals have disordered desires and properties that give them a propensity to act in that particular immoral way, just as someone might have a genetic disposition towards alcoholism without having to possess the Form of the Alcoholic and have drinking themselves into an early death as a final end.  Forms don’t seem to work the way they would need to to let Laird pull this off.  This is on top of the fact that if marriage really has a Form, then it would be about reproduction, which same sex marriages couldn’t conform to anyway.

What he moves onto, then, is trying to argue that marriage itself isn’t really a Form at all, but is instead merely a cultural artifact.  The big issue here is that if he denies that there’s a Form of Marriage, then his arguments for same sex marriage would be taken out as well.  Besides that, Feser derives his Forms from at least his view of nature, so to simply deny a Form exists because it is culturally recognized wouldn’t be a very good argument.  That a culture recognizes something doesn’t mean that it defines it, and if we start from a natural basis for marriage then it being primarily for reproduction, again, seems a pretty safe argument, especially given what I noted above.  As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, there is a difference between the legal definition of marriage and the “real” definition of marriage, and Laird’s attempt to turn the Form of Marriage into a cultural artifact at a minimum risks eliminating that distinction for no good reason.

I debated abortion a bit on the comment sections at “A Tippling Philosopher” and, yeah, I still don’t buy his arguments here.  The two main ones from the chapter and from the comments are that a) if potential rationality is enough to grant the zygote personhood, then sperm and eggs seem to have a similar enough potentiality to grant it to them as well and b) that potentiality and actuality are not the same thing.  The problem with the first argument is that the zygote does seem to be sufficiently different to have its own Form, and so to have different potentialities.  The fact that if nature is left to take its course the most natural progression is for it to end up as a rational being — which is absolutely not the case for sperm and eggs — and that being dependent on someone is insufficient in and of itself to remove rationality or the potential for it (we argued about this a fair bit in the comments on “Tippling”) makes me think that this argument is at a minimum far more complicated to make than Laird would like.

The second argument is a little better, but not the way Laird starts it. He made an argument about Feser ordering a drink and being upset that the waiter instead of bringing ice cubes brought water, which he could then claim had the potentiality for ice and were surely what Feser wanted, right?  My counter was that Feser explicitly asked for the actuality — or at least expected it — and that in that case being given the potentiality was indeed clearly not giving him what he wanted.  The argument though could be used to show that we don’t have to treat potentialities and actualities the same, which then could be used to break Feser’s argument that the potentiality for rationality is sufficient.  Of course, Feser does argue for why the potentiality itself matters, and at the end of the day Laird would need to give a strong argument for why the potentiality is not enough that doesn’t rely on the argument that it would provide an unreasonable burden on the mother or her body.  That …  might be tricky.

Finally, Laird tries to make a link to the idea that Aristotle and Plato at least accepted that under some circumstances infanticide might be allowed to create an inconsistency between that and abortion, by appealing to the principle of totality that I referenced earlier when talking about how you can frustrate a faculty in order to preserve the whole organism.  Here, it would be referring to removing an individual to allow the survival of the entire culture/race, which Laird then notes could work for abortions in at least some cases as well.  The problem with this line is two-fold.  First, as already mentioned, it would only allow it if there is no other choice, seriously limiting its applicability.  Second, why it could be done for infants and not adults is because to do this would require the agreement of the moral agent if they are capable of moral agency, and so for adults they couldn’t be forced into it but would have to agree to it.  For infants, they are not capable of moral choice or agency and so those who are responsible for them would have to make the choice on their behalf.  Thus this doesn’t introduce any real inconsistency.

Ultimately, this is not a good argument to use in defense of abortion because this in no way allows for the woman to have control over the situation and so for it to be her choice.  While we may not be able to compel her to participate as a moral agent, we could certainly consider her to be acting immorally in these cases if she didn’t have the abortion, which is quite uncomfortably close to justifying forced abortions.  If you can’t argue that the choice to abort or not is completely and totally hers, you aren’t defending abortion rights at all.

Next time, Chapter 4, where Laird tries to argue that natural law justifies some moral atrocities itself.

The Unnecessary Science (Chapter 2)

January 11, 2021

Now that I’m through with the background reading of Feser, it’s time to move on to talking about the book that spawned all of this, Gunther Laird’s “The Unnecessary Science”.  When I was reading it, I had a number of points that interested me per chapter and so took a fair bit of notes on the things in each chapter.  For my commentary on the book, then, that means two things.  First, I’m going to examine it chapter by chapter to raise all of those issues.  Second, I’m going to in general refer to my notes on the chapters and so quote and go back and read the chapters fairly little, unless I’m not sure how the points were made originally.  This will, however, introduce the possibility that my notes sum things up too simply and that I’m missing something that I would catch on a re-read.  However, I do have a day job and spending my time being painstaking about each point as if I was writing an academic work is, well, not part of that. I’ll try my best and try not to be too misleading if at all, but this is just a heads up that this isn’t going to be a detailed examination where every interpretation of mine is supported by quotes, nor one where I will go quote-by-quote and examine them in detail.  I’m going to try to hit highlights and present them based on a summary of those highlights.

Chapter 1 is basically Laird setting out his interpretation of what the basics of the Thomist/Scholastic view are, and while there are certain to be quibbles I think it’s close enough to get the discussion off the ground.  Thus, I’m not going to talk about that chapter.  Instead, I’ll leap straight into Chapter 2 which starts out with and basically is about the argument that I find is one that atheists tend to jump to first when dealing with these arguments but is one that really no atheist should actually use because of its implications.  Yes, it’s the standard “Well, even if you establish a God, you haven’t established that it’s the God of your preferred religion!” argument.  Laird, at least, gets it out of the way early so we can focus on more interesting things, but I still don’t see it as a particularly useful argument.

The main reason I disparage atheists who make that move is that if they accept that God as presented it refutes their own atheism.  After all, if they concede that it establishes the existence of a theistic God then if they accept the argument they really shouldn’t be atheists anymore, because they should accept that a theistic God exists and at least not accepting that is pretty much the definition of “atheist”.  At that point, quibbling over which specific religion — if any — best captures that theistic God is, well, diving into theology and Philosophy of Religion, starting from the established idea that there is a God.  So an atheist either should spend their time showing how the argument doesn’t work, or else should be looking for which religious God is the right one instead of trying to denigrate the argument for not establishing specifically which religious God exists.

Laird, both somewhat here but more so later on, does have a way around this, by claiming that the Scholastic Pure Act better supports the idea of a deistic God than a theistic one.  By this, he could maintain that he can still remain an atheist because no theistic God is proven by that argument, only a deistic one.  And this could then follow on from some atheistic arguments about deistic gods, where they can argue that there is no reason for even that entity to exist, as since it doesn’t interfere in the universe anymore it is entirely possible that that entity created the universe and then went out of existence.  This way, then, the atheist can insist that no God or gods exist at all, whether theistic or deistic … as long as they don’t have to accept the idea that Pure Act, at a minimum, must still exist.

Unfortunately, the very arguments that establish the existence of Pure Act also establish that Pure Act must exist and must always exist.  It exists necessarily.  Even if you reject that it must be the hierarchical cause for the existence and continued existence of all things — which Laird would have to here or else it would be a theistic God by definition — it still has to exist because nothing could ever possibly take it out of existence, even itself.  So even if the atheist argues that it doesn’t have to be or isn’t actually doing anything in the universe anymore, it still has to exist.  Thus, the atheist would have to concede that there is a higher power, and would have to concede that it is an intelligent higher power (if they accept the Thomist/Scholastic argument).  All this would mean is that they’d have to believe in an eternally existing intelligent deistic God, which would also likely have to be considered supernatural.  That seems to force most atheists to give up most of the things they wanted to commit to as atheists.

And it gets even worse than that, because by the nature of Pure Act we not only know that it has to exist, we also know that in existing it has to maintain its ability to impact the world.  This is part of its nature and is in fact the very reason it could create the universe at all (or be its cause).  So the best the atheist can do is assert that maybe this thing that created the universe, could change it, and is intelligent just happens to not impacting the world at the moment.  While a case might be made for that, it’s not a very strong one, nor could it actually in and of itself be used against claims that that God either did impact the universe in the past or will in the future.  Given the structure, that purportedly deistic God could at any time become theistic by doing something, anything.  That’s not really much of a deistic God anymore, and so we really should just go ahead and claim that it’s a theistic God, instead of splitting hairs so that atheists can maintain the label of “atheist” for themselves.  Thus, again, atheists had better either engage the argument directly and show how it doesn’t work, or else start looking really hard for which God is the right one.

On that point, the biggest argument Laird makes against Feser in that chapter, as far as I can see, is an argument that says that for Feser’s claim that the God that maps to Pure Act is the Catholic God, Feser needs to make a deductive argument from the metaphysics that establishes Pure Act itself, but Feser doesn’t have such an argument and can’t make one, so he can’t get even reasonably from Pure Act to the Catholic God.  What’s most puzzling about this argument is that Laird himself notes that Feser does not actually hold that stance himself, and yet Laird, to my knowledge, never really makes a good argument for why it would have to be a deductive argument.  The best I can recall is that the argument for the metaphysics is and must be deductive according to Feser, and so Laird might be arguing that establishing which God is the right one must be deductive as well.  But this would seem to make the same problematic move that Descartes made in his epistemology, by assuming that unless our knowledge was certain we couldn’t have it at all.  Laird clearly doesn’t think that all knowledge must be so justified, but it also doesn’t make sense to say that if we know something deductively and a priori that all of the implications and details of that proposition must also be only knowable deductively and a priori, so I don’t really see why I should accept Laird’s argument here and not Feser’s that explicitly separates the question of the right metaphysics from the right religion and argues that we should pick the best religion based on which one aligns best with the metaphysics.

Laird actually does recognize this view of Feser’s and addresses it both a bit here and later (arguing later that other religions seem to fit better).  However, Feser’s argument that the Resurrection fits the sort of miracle that only a Pure Act could accomplish while the miracles of other religions are much less in line with that is not a bad argument, and I felt that argument wasn’t refuted very well, at least in that chapter.  Additionally, there are good reasons to think that Catholicism is the best bet for someone convinced by Scholastic and Thomist reasoning because it is the religion that most directly incorporates that philosophy into its theology.  If we are merely looking for the best bet — and are willing to admit that we might be wrong — then it looks like Catholicism fits the bill better than the alternatives.  So it’s only if Laird insists that we have to be certain and have to find the precise right one deductively that we could doubt that Catholicism is a reasonable and likely the most reasonable candidate for the religion that aligns with God as Pure Act.

While he doesn’t seem to develop it, the most Laird can do here is argue that Feser’s historical evidence is too weak to support his contention, and the evidence is too weak to support that contention for any other religion as well, and so what we ought to do is accept that there is a God but not accept that any religion actually reflects that God.  In short, that we can believe in that God without having to adopt any religion since we can’t know which religion is the right one.  That’s not an unreasonable stance and I think a lot of former atheists could be comforted by the fact that they don’t necessarily have to run out and join a religion if they can’t disprove the metaphysical argument, but unfortunately it actually doesn’t do anything to Catholics who decide that the Catholic religion really is the right one to follow.  While we may not (or may, depending on one’s epistemology) have sufficient evidence to know that the Catholic God is the right one, there would certainly be sufficient evidence to believe that it is.  So we’d move the epistemological issue out one step, moving from not having enough evidence for knowledge but perhaps having enough to believe that a God exists to knowing that a God exists but possibly only having enough evidence to believe that that God is the Catholic God.  This would still be overall a win for theists in general and Catholics in particular.

So it doesn’t look like this argument is all that productive.  Laird really needs to either go after the argument itself, or else change to a strategy of figuring out which religion is the one that reflects the God the argument proves exists.

The next chapter focuses on the ethical implications, including the sexual ones, and so is the first chapter that addresses something that I focused on in detail when reading Feser.  This should be interesting.