Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

Is an Evil God as Plausible as a Good God?

October 19, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philipse on Personal Identity

September 2, 2016

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

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

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

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

Therefore, the empirical account is wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shake up at Freethought blogs

March 15, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do Atheists Denigrate Philosophy?

March 11, 2016

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

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

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

Anyway, he opines this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of “Sense & Goodness Without God”

January 29, 2016

So, I finished reading “Sense & Goodness Without God” by Richard Carrier, and it’s the worst atheist/New Atheist book I’ve ever read … and I’ve read “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Carrier manages to be even more arrogant than Rosenburg, but doesn’t make up for it by having better arguments. In fact, often he doesn’t really have arguments at all, but instead has small sections where he arrogantly tells us just how right he is, while leaving a long, italicized section at the end to tell us all of the things we ought to read to know how right he is, which is often longer than what he actually says in the section. This doesn’t work for either a popular work or for a detailed philosophical work. For the former, as most people won’t, in fact, read those works either he must be appealing to authority — look at all the people who agree with me, I must be right! — or ask them to take it on faith that the arguments are really there and are really devastating if we read them ourselves. For the latter, philosophers might well be willing to or have already read the works, but then what you’re supposed to do is summarize the important points and show how they directly reinforce your point, and then simply cite the works later. Carrier doesn’t do that, and so his actual words aren’t convincing and few will be willing to dive into the massive additional reading that he recommends. It very much seems like Carrier wants us to do his work for him.

If we could consider Carrier a fair commentator on the work of others, this wouldn’t matter quite so much, but Carrier spends a lot of time refuting points that he never really summarizes, and barely quotes. Despite Carrier often railing against quote-mining, all of his attempts to address others are nothing more than his pulling in short quotes out of context and then trying to refute that as if that was entirely the point. If that was entirely the point, then Carrier’s counter-arguments might work, but we ought to be suspicious that that really is the entire point … and, again, Carrier really gives up no reason to do the extra work to think that he’s right. In general, we’d be far better served by reading someone else than by doing the massive amount of work required to get Carrier’s points.

Many of Carrier’s points proving naturalism/materialism seem to boil down to wordy claims of “If I can find a way that it could be natural, then we ought to consider it such”, which has been said better elsewhere and with more credible natural solutions. Some of his arguments are interesting, but not enough to convince me that his view is worth considering to the level that his arrogant prose suggests we should. Also, the book needs updating, because he is very much convinced of things then that he seems to be not convinced of now, such as how he relies on his love for his now ex-wife to say that he knows what love is and entails, which doesn’t seem to be how he sees it now. Sure, the personal life of the author isn’t relevant to an argument unless he uses his personal beliefs as proof of how he just knows something was true that he doesn’t think is true now. Which carries over into his view of science, as he seems to try to claim that we know that science is reliable because it gets things wrong but corrects for it, which might establish that science overall is reliable, but not in the way he wants so that we should prefer any scientific answer because, it seems, science will eventually get it right, and this might just be the right answer. Yeah, if I find a scientific answer sufficiently counter-intuitive and science cannot answer for why my intuitions are wrong, saying “Well, it might be wrong, but it’ll get it right eventually!” is not going to help.

This is book crying out for fisking, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to it. Suffice it to say that there are better books out there to try to argue for materialism, and that even the prose of this book is annoying and hard to get through. It’s a slog to read and you probably aren’t going to learn anything that you couldn’t find out from far more entertaining works. I cannot recommend this work to anyone, even the people it is aimed at.

Philosophy of the Trinity …

November 18, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne is mocking a philosophy conference on the Trinity. He says this:

Given that philosophers are about as atheistic as academics get, it’s even more bizarre that they’re discussing the philosophical implications of a fatuous, made-up theological construct, and that someone is paying for it.

Now, Coyne is not a philosopher. In fact, his knowledge of philosophy is amateur at best. So, you’d think that he’d let philosophers decide what is and isn’t useful philosophy, or makes for a useful philosophical conference. Or, at least, that instead of himself mocking it and saying that it’s useless, he’d at least ask philosophers why they think it’s a useful exercise, and what they think they can get out of it. Surely if, say, a philosopher asked why scientists were studying fruit flies, he’d roll his eyes and expect them to ask scientists why it’s meaningful, and be annoyed if they simply declared that it was pointless based on their own expert knowledge.

That being said, the last time Coyne talked about this he dismissed the comments of two trained philosophers to insist that they were simply trying to protect their turf. So it seems that there is no field that Coyne cannot be a master of with only brief exposure, so much so that he is immune to the comments from people better trained than him on that. This is consistent with how he approaches theology, free will, philosophy of religion, morality and a host of other subjects.

I don’t know what precisely the organizers and participants expect to get out of this examination, but I know enough about philosophy to know that they expect something. And given what Coyne said above, it’s not likely to be a proof of the existence of God. But I guess Coyne’s armchair ruminations trump my over a decade of philosophical study.

Atheism: The Great Nothing

October 7, 2015

For a long time now, P.Z. Myers has been railing against “Dictionary Atheism”, the idea that atheism, in and of itself, means nothing more than a lack of belief in gods and so in and of itself entails no particular philosophical or moral viewpoint. Many of those Myers (and others as well) have complained about are people who say that if they want to promote a specific moral or philosophical view, why don’t they (say) call themselves humanists instead? If they want to promote feminism in atheism, why not do that as feminists instead of trying to argue that those ideas follow from atheism when they really don’t?

Myers has never accepted that, and in light of the shootings in Oregon he’s talking about it again. The argument he’s trying to make in light of comments that you can’t say that the shooter in Oregon was caused to do that by his atheism because atheism itself posits nothing more than that gods don’t exist is this:

Humanity is suffering under a collection of half-assed ethical and moral principles, assembled with no rational foundation but superstition, and with awful, damaging, exploitive rules mixed in with a few good ones. Religion is primitive and lacking in any tools to address deep injustices and correct errors in its formulation. I am all in favor of tearing it down and replacing it with…what? According to Harris, nothing. Atheism has nothing constructive or productive to replace the bad system most people are limping along under — rip it all out and apparently, brute reason can then be trusted to evolve something better.

We need purpose and value and meaning as well, and if a prominent Leader of atheism is saying that atheism doesn’t do that, that’s a declaration that atheism is bankrupt, and has failed totally. It has become a Great Nothing.

Well, atheism always was in that sense, a “Great Nothing”. From the start, one of the stock and standard ways atheists avoided having the burden of proof in discussions with theists was to say that atheism doesn’t have a burden of proof because it was, in fact, simply a lack of belief in the existence of gods, nothing more. The comment that babies, for example, were born atheists and educated into becoming theists relied on atheism being nothing more than a lack of belief in gods. The widely disseminated claim that religious people were just one more god away from being atheists relied on that assumption as well. Atheists, then, for the longest time based a ton of their rhetoric on atheism being, essentially, nothing more than a lack of belief in gods, implying nothing else in and of itself. Nothing morally, so you couldn’t say that atheists were simply immoral. Nothing socially, so you couldn’t lump them in with political groups. Heck, here Myers is insisting that atheists need meaning and value and purpose which has been one of the major criticisms theists raised against atheism: you can’t get to those things from atheism in and of itself. The counter to that is that atheists can get those things from other secular sources, not to insist that atheism, in and of itself, provides all of those things.

So, in a real sense, atheists have been advocating what Myers calls “the Great Nothing” for ages now, and relied on that to make their arguments. Myers himself seems to have adopted some of those arguments in the past, as have many of those who rail against “Dictionary Atheism”. So what, then, has changed? Why has atheism moved from being a perfectly acceptable and reasonable nothing, based on nothing more than a reasonable skepticism that says that you ought not believe something until you have sufficient evidence, to a “Great Nothing” if it doesn’t provide your life with meaning and purpose just from atheism?

In my opinion, it’s all about identity. They’ve formed an Atheist Community, and discovered that, horror of horrors, just having the rejection of the existence of all gods in common doesn’t mean that they agree on everything … or even, sometimes, most things. And a lot of those things are things that are really important to them. But instead of understanding that just because you agree on one thing that you think really important with someone it doesn’t mean that you agree — or need to agree — with them on everything, their response was to insist that those others were just wrong and really, really have to agree with them on that. I agree with Myers that it started from an insistence that atheists were just more rational than theists, and moved on from there … but people like Myers are just as guilty of that presumption as those who insist on the general use of reason are. To pretty much everyone, atheism followed from basic rationality, and those other positions — on all sides of all of the divides — followed from basic rationality as well, and so anyone who didn’t agree with their position was therefore not applying simply rationality.

The problem, then, was not really with atheism itself, but with the idea that skepticism and atheism were identical. They applied what they considered skepticism to various claims, came up with answers — often answers that aligned with their overall worldview, in a similar way to what they accused theists of doing — and then were convinced that those answers were just plain right. And since atheism and skepticism were aligned — which they aren’t — then atheists themselves had to come to the same rationally skeptical conclusions. And when people like Myers were met with push back from people who argued that they were applying pure reason and skepticism to the answer that Myers et al were very attached to … well, you get this:

Reason is not enough. Reason can show you the best way to achieve a goal, but if your goal is mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy, it’ll help you do that, too.

The denigration of reason in favour of emotional or “empathetic” approaches. Except that while reason will help you achieve your goals no matter how horrible they are, to say this implies that you can get goals — and by extension, values and purpose and meaning — without using reason, or aiming for rational goals first. So, then, how do you determine those things? Just by how it feels to you? That’s what gives people the goal of serving God … or mass murder, or denigration of women, or the perpetuation of an oppressive hierarchy. Myers would be forced to claim that those things are not or cannot be rationally proven wrong, that it’s only something else other than reason that can push us into, well, not having those as goals anymore, but that’s, well, rather ridiculous.

From other posts of his, Myers has said something right: for most atheists in this world, becoming an atheist means that you have to find new goals, values, meanings, and purposes, because for most people those were formed intertwined with religion and with God and when you reject that, you have to find something to replace it. But where he is wrong is in insisting that atheism, in and of itself, has a preference for what those things are. Atheism equally supports many worldviews, only excluding — maybe — ones based on religion. Atheism is nothing more than a belief about the state of the world, and so Myers’ comments here are like someone insisting that evolution is a “Great Nothing” if it can’t be used to form some kind of Social Darwinism. If we can’t use evolution to create our values and goals and purposes and meaning in life, what good is it? Well, it’s a true fact about the universe; how we react to that is up to us.

The same thing applies to atheism. Assuming they are right, then they have a belief — or lack of one — about how the world is. That, in and of itself, is not nothing. How we respond to that fact does not follow from it, but is instead something that we have to work out philosophically. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t better or worse answers, but those answers do not follow from atheism itself; just like evolution, atheism itself can’t tell us how to live. It can constrain certain choices if we value the truth and living in accordance with it, but in and of itself it isn’t a worldview and doesn’t create one. There are myriad worldviews compatible with atheism, so maybe Myers needs to find one and take that one on, instead of insisting that there should be One True Atheistic Worldview and trying to force others to conform to it.

The Argument from Theology … again.

September 16, 2015

So, Jerry Coyne posted a post from Dilbert on free will, and again retreated to the argument that those who accept free will in any sense — be they compatibilist or libertarian — are acting like theologians, presumably in that they don’t simply accept his arguments and evidence as being compelling (which, of course, isn’t under their control if Coyne is right) and thus don’t just accept his position.

Leaving out the comic, here’s pretty much all of Coyne’s post:

Dilbert tells Dogbert that doesn’t think we have any—at least of the contracausal, “libertarian” sort.

I like the last panel, which goes along with brain-scanning experiments that give the surprising result that you can predict (with 60-70% accuracy) the results of a binary decision up to ten seconds before the person who “makes” that decision is conscious of having made it. Of course, compatibilists and libertarian free-will advocates have found reasons to dismiss these experiments as evidence for free will. This is one of many ways that such people resemble theologians (another is that they think that belief in free will—even of the compatibilist sort—is, like belief in God, essential to keep society moral and harmonious.)

So, the first point thus says that Dilbert is either a hard determinist or a compatibilist, since compatibilists reject libertarian free will. Thus, what he says in theory can apply to them as well. Of course, he then goes on to strongly imply if not outright state that compatibilists and libertarians reject the Libet experiments simply because they want to dismiss them and don’t like the results, not because there are serious problems with them. He then goes on to add in the other argument about how some might argue that people believing that we don’t have free will might have a negative outcome, in line with his other arguments about how they only reject the positions because of those consequences … the “We all know that this is true, but let’s not let the rubes know because they’ll act badly” argument. All of which many people — including his commenters — have disabused him of repeatedly.

But if we want to go down that route, Coyne’s own behaviour doesn’t flatter him. First, he talks repeatedly about the importance of accepting hard determinism because of the impact he thinks that thinking that we are morally responsible for our actions has on society, especially with regards to punishment of offenders, including but not limited to reasons for the death penalty. While others have pointed out that you don’t need to be a hard determinist to come to the same conclusions about punishment and the death penalty, the big issue here is that if Coyne doesn’t think that his strong stance on those social consequences means that we ought to say that he is only accepting it for the consequences — rather than him, you know, really thinking it true and wanting people to accept that truth because knowing that truth will happen to lead to better results — then there’s no real reason for him to claim that about compatibilists either. If we ought not examine his psychology in order to determine if free will exists or not, there is no reason for him to examine the psychology of compatibilists or libertarians either.

But, even worse for Coyne, it would be quite easy to claim that Coyne’s behaviour is like that of a lot of creationists: come up with something that they think is evidence for their case, and then when people point out that the evidence doesn’t support their position the way they think it does retreat to claiming that they are dismissing that legitimate evidence. Add in a claim that the only reason they disregard the evidence is because it actually proves their view false and they don’t want it to be false, and we can see that this is exactly what Coyne does to compatibilists.

Now, I don’t claim that Coyne really is acting like a creationist. But I do claim that these sorts of arguments are counter-productive and useless. Either the evidence supports the conclusion or it doesn’t. Coyne is either right or he isn’t. Coyne reacts rather badly to people trying to dismiss his arguments on the basis of psychology, but insists on doing it to others, and then — intentionally or no — tries to win through an argument ad hominem by saying “You’re just like those really bad people that you don’t want to be like! Stop being like that! Accept my view!”. Coyne has not established his position strongly enough to insist that everyone must accept it or they just don’t want it to be true, and so are rejecting it irrationally. Some probably are, but Coyne dismisses all who reject his idea. He doesn’t have the evidence to support that strong a claim … which is a bad thing for someone so insistent that we should follow the evidence and come to our beliefs rationally.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

August 28, 2015

The fourth essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy” is “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” by Adam Barkman, which examines issues around the Problem of Evil and responsibility, and even how it is that God can forgive us. Without getting into much detail, it explains reasonably how God forcing people to love Him and be friends with him and never reject him is a logical contradiction for a God that wants people to be free, and also talks about how we need forgiveness and needed Jesus’s sacrifice to wipe out the injustice that we, as fallible humans, must commit (and can never atone for), goes through the various arguments to support natural evil (including the angels and demons one, which he puts far more reasonably than most atheist criticism concedes), and describes the Thomist conception of God pretty well.

But what I want to focus on is, essentially, what’s described in the title, and the idea that with great power comes great responsibility. Barkman points out that being a superhero isn’t a great and wonderful “gift”, because it comes with a great responsibility to use that power to help others. He talks about the Widow’s Mite and points out that she was expected to give less because she had less, and that the rich people were expected to give more because they could. By the same token, Peter Parker is expected and has a responsibility to help others because he has the power to do so, and that power, in and of itself, confers the responsibility to help others. Which is all pretty reasonable except …

… why, then, doesn’t it apply to an omnipotent God? God has the power to end all suffering. Since Peter Parker is expected to intervene in the free choices of the villains and stop them from hurting people, and since that supposedly follows from his just having that power, then why isn’t God expected to save people as well? If Peter Parker is expected to save children from burning buildings because he can, then why isn’t God expected to save every child from a burning building? If you start from “With great power comes great responsibility”, you can’t even argue that God needs to allow people like Peter Parker to act justly, because God could save every child that Peter Parker doesn’t … and, by having that power, is obligated to do so.

Thus, by tying responsibility to power in the way that Barkman does, he pretty much makes the argument for the Problem of Evil, no matter how hard he tries to explain it away. He can’t use the argument of it being demons doing it of their own free will, because Peter Parker is expected to stop villains and even demons from hurting others even though it interferes with their free will. And if Peter Parker — or we — are expected to help those being tormented by natural evil because we have the power to do so then God, having that much more power, ought to be expected to do that as well. There’s no way out for God if you argue that with great power comes great responsibility to use that power to prevent suffering … because God, having the greatest power, would then have the greatest responsibility.

Freethought, freedom and blogs

August 12, 2015

So, there are a lot of things happening at the Freethought blogs network recently. Both Ed Brayton and Ophelia Benson are leaving the network. Ophelia Benson is leaving over a scrap between the bloggers on the network, where many of them called her out for being transphobic in pretty much the same way — and sometimes actually in a nicer way — than they called out people like Tim Hunt and Richard Dawkins for being misogynist, and Benson has not liked that treatment and has explicitly said that she thought that colleagues would have her back … and they didn’t. Ed Brayton is leaving because the controversy of being one of if not the most visible person on the network is getting to be too much for him, both in terms of his health and in his activist work.

People have commented in various places about what this means for the network. P.Z. Myers has decided to try to address those comments in his own inimitable way. He starts with this:

I’ve been reading the obituaries. So many people, friends and foes alike, have expressed their confidence that Freethoughtblogs is dooooooomed, because Ed Brayton has left. It’s all going to fall apart without his iron hand ruling this motley crew! Without him, no one could possibly be interested in reading anything on this network! They only ever read the old white men here anyway, so losing one is an irreparable loss!

Let me quote Jason Thibeault, the Lousy Canuck to explain what the actual concern is:

Another is that I had a few extra days’ lead time on knowing that Ed was leaving. Traffic-wise, Ed and Ophelia both are about a third of this network. Without them, it’s now PZ and The Also-Blogs, at about a 90/10 split. We’re taking a big hit traffic-wise, which results in a big hit money-wise. That big hit money-wise means the server we’re paying for is slightly overprovisioned (which means more stable, yay!) but also means a larger slice of the ad revenue and more likely to result in shortfalls (boo). Shortfalls that will probably be paid out of PZ’s pocket. Shortfalls that probably mean if anything goes sour, we’ll have lean months, maybe even where bloggers get $0 revenue, where even now we’re lucky to get double digits.

They’ve lost a third of their network traffic. One of the things that seems to appeal to both Brayton and Benson is that with their new blogs they will make more money, as Patheos pays more than FTB did and Benson is using this to launch a Patreon drive. As Thibeault notes, the bloggers stand to lose a bit of money on this, with Myers likely being the one to absorb cost overruns like Brayton did to keep things going. FTB was, by its own admission, started to provide a bigger stage to some bloggers of the appropriate stripes and to also potentially make it so that they could earn some money to help them with their causes. If the attention they end up getting is too negative — note that Brayton commented in his post that he felt that the negative attention the network got hurt his activism because some people didn’t want to work with him for reasons varying, I presume, from “We don’t like the people you’re on the network with” to “The attention means that anything we do with you ends up with complaints from others” — then they might want to leave to avoid that, and if it doesn’t pay enough anymore they may have to pursue better paying options. So losing that much traffic with a network designed to generate more traffic for everyone isn’t a good thing at all, and could indeed run the risk of killing the network.

So let’s see how Myers tries to assuage concerns that the network might be having issues:

– Ed never actually “ran” this place — no one did, or does. This is one of those pinko commie anarchies. He managed the books, arranged for the ad services, that sort of thing, but all of the blogs here are autonomous. No boss. Get it? If you’re an authoritarian, maybe not.

– The kind of minimal, managerial oversight needed to keep the lights on has fallen into the hands of the executive committee, a small subset of the people here who handle mundane issues that affect the whole network. Just to let you know how busy the executive committee is, we initially proposed to meet once a month. I don’t think we’ve met in over a year.

It’s not about control. But if you look at what Brayton did, these are things that you do, indeed, need someone to do, and that it works a lot better if you have one person doing that than a committee. About the only thing that the committee would do as well or even better is managing the bloggers: dealing with requests to remove bloggers or add new ones. But it isn’t a better way to manage the books, or to arrange for ad services. That’s better done by one person, with perhaps some oversight. So, no, it doesn’t look like that’s an effective way to replace the things that Brayton did that still need to be done, and no one should be reassured with Myers’ vague “We’ve replaced it with a committee!” response.

– The network is not a vanity project for the white men who set it up. It’s an anti-vanity project. The whole purpose of the network was to leverage our traffic into creating a space for a diverse group of bloggers. They’re still here! Ed and I could drop dead on the spot, and it’ll still keep ticking along.

– Building a diverse network also produces a robust network. There is no single point of failure. By design and by diffusing the leadership all along, there’s no way to take it out with loss of a single blogger (we’ve lost and gained bloggers all along, you know).

Yes, but FTB was started by Myers and Brayton who were, in fact, already known and relatively popular as a way to use their traffic to draw attention to those who were good bloggers but merely need more exposure. To put it in Social Justice terms, Myers and Brayton used their privilege to provide a forum for those who were disadvantaged. With two big draws leaving the network, that doesn’t work out so well. And considering that it was in-fighting that actually caused at least one of them to leave, it’s also not a given that they’ll support each other. You may indeed see posts that either directly or indirectly encourage people to not read a particular fellow blogger. Without the big draws and without them staying mostly neutral, you don’t have enough of a guaranteed push to generate views from other people. This is not a good thing, no matter how Myers spins it.

– We do have to worry about maintaining a volume of traffic to maintain ad rates. But this is a group that does not prioritize making money off their writing (although it sure would be nice…) but on maintaining independence. I’d be writing for free — I was writing for free years ago — and what money we do make is distributed among the bloggers by traffic. There is no central authority skimming off the profits.

But the easiest way to maintain your independence is … to be independent. I, for example, am completely and totally free because my blog is on my own and not part of any network. The only standards I have to follow are the basic ones from WordPress. I owe no one anything. If people like my blog and link to it, I appreciate it but have no obligation to them. If I want to criticize Crude harshly for something he said, either here or on his blog, I can do so and even if he decides to unlink my blog all that means is that I lose some traffic, and since I’m blogging for free that’s all an “Oh, well”.

Look, there’s a reason for bloggers who want to be independent to choose to join a network where, by necessity, they give up some of that independence. The only reasons I can think of to do that — money or exposure — are hurt by two of the biggest draws leaving. What stops others from leaving and perhaps going to Patheos or independent? Considering, for example, and both Miri and Ashley Miller, for example, almost certainly make more through Patreon than the ad revenue from FTB (and it’s mostly stable), and that that comes from their own work and doesn’t depend on and isn’t shared with anyone, why wouldn’t they open up their own site, run their own ads, and make money that way? What does being in the network give them? Especially if they might run afoul of their fellow network bloggers and have being in the network work against them instead of for them.

– do have one serious worry about an ongoing failure. That’s all you people who say you only came here for the PZ and Ed show. You’re doing it wrong — I’m not going to object to you reading my stuff, but the whole point of the network is to give all those other voices a platform. You should go read them.

Maybe they have, and found them wanting. Maybe they aren’t updating enough to make that worthwhile (I can attest to how much of a difference updating can make, as my traffic, miniscule though it is, halved when I went to posting three times a week from posting every day, and I’m still on pace for my best year ever). There may well be reasons why they really don’t want to read the other bloggers, even if it’s something as simple as “They all say the same things as you do, mostly, so there’s no real reason to read them.” And if the in-fighting starts up again, there may indeed be more and more issues with this.

But Myers doesn’t get what the problem actually was here, as he says:

you may have heard, Ed Brayton is leaving FtB. His health has suffered, because he is the point man here, and one of the defining features of the current atheist movement is that it is populated with assholes who hate the idea of any kind of social justice movement, so they’ve been making life hellish for a guy who has had more than enough work trying to keep the lights on and the engines running.

And elsewhere:

This is a network that happily embraces the social justice cause. We select our bloggers from people who are clearly on that side of the cultural divide, and we’re going to kick out anyone who opposes equality for all (we’ve done it once before, and we can do it again). If you do not respect people’s choices, if you try to impose negative views on people’s identities, if you will not tolerate other people’s autonomy, if you think your arbitrary definitions of the ‘right’ sexual orientation, ‘right’ skin color, ‘right’ class, ‘right’ social behavior allow you to judge others, than nope, you really don’t belong here.

On the other hand, this is a freethought network. If you look at that set of boxes and question why society is labeling one set one way and another set a different way, that is appropriate and reasonable. Questioning assumptions and criticizing labels is a good thing; we should be wondering why anyone would even want to dictate the identities of others, and it’s worthwhile to try and puzzle out what criteria others are using to make that decision.

But this latest kerfuffle isn’t from atheists who are opposed to Social Justice. It’s been between those who support Social Justice, or at least claim to. Myers has had to shut down his social threads twice in the past little while, and both times it was because his “cliquish” commentariat were treating someone he liked the same way they treat anyone he didn’t like and who he also saw as “opposes equality for all”. It is certainly the case that those going after Benson saw her as that, and there is reason to think that some of the trans philosophies espoused do that if evaluated in the light of feminist philosophy (in short, feminist philosophy rejects defining what it means to be a woman by the traditional feminine trappings of the patriarchy, but many trans women seem to, in fact, do just that, choosing to identify as a woman because they prefer those trappings to the ones traditionally assigned to men, but if that’s enough to be called a woman then a woman who rejects those trappings but who still wants to be seen as a woman is facing a potential contradiction). The issue isn’t so much with what philosophy or worldview one is fighting for, but with how one is fighting for it. There is no reason to think that with the executive committee in place the FTB bloggers are going to stop fighting with each other, and they will fight with each other over what it really means to oppose equality. It’s harder to figure that out than Myers thinks, as this latest mess demonstrates. So if the blog is going to kick people out who oppose that and make that a stated principle — as Myers just did — then they are indeed going to get calls to kick someone out who seems to some to step over that line, and there’s really no good way to say to someone who thinks that that they’re wrong (if you accept the Social Justice line that those not of a group can’t say what ought to bother that group).

But if FTB really was a Freethought blog, then what it ought to say is that, outside of incredibly egregious and obvious cases, their bloggers can say what they want. If it’s deemed anti-feminist or anti-trans or whatever, then the other bloggers and those concerned about it can then write about that too, free of interference. That their bloggers might disagree sometimes could then be seen as a positive and not a negative, especially if they all disagreed respectfully (which would be difficult for them I admit). The only rule they should have is that you don’t get to say that no one should read a fellow blogger on the network because of that (which you wouldn’t think would be that difficult a rule) and can’t call for their removal on that basis, at least not publicly. So no comments that their view means that they shouldn’t be a part of the network because they “oppose equality”.

Do I think that FTB will die? Not really. It has some momentum and so will likely keep going for a while, up until the point, at least, that Myers leaves. But Myers is clearly clueless about the problems it faces and what is, in fact, responsible for them, and that should not fill those who want the network to succeed with confidence.