The blogosphere at its most enjoyable: “Aristotle’s Revenge”

Over the last few days I’ve been reading (and occasionally contributing to) a lengthy blog thread entitled A Central “Argument” in Feser’s Final Chapter, “Aristotle’s Revenge” « Choice in Dying. The starting point was a back-and-forth between Erin MacDonald, the thoughtful author of the Choice in Dying blog, and Edward Feser, an intemperate advocate of Aristotelianism and Roman Catholic “natural law”. The comments provide an excellent contrast between those who believe that teleology of some kind is inescapable, and those who feel that at best it’s a consequence of the way that our language reflects our intentional stance (cf. Dan Dennett), and at worst it’s just a crude attempt to smuggle in a purposive deity. Good clean philosophical fun. Recommended.

What makes you feel good is not necessarily effective

A code to yesterday’s piece: Some of the Christian bloggers asserted that “What is needed in the face of all this is a more assertive proclamation of the value of our faith than many Episcopalians, especially clergy are comfortable giving.” To this, I would point to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and in particular:

It is not clear that arguments against atheism that appeal to faith have any prescriptive force the way appeals to evidence do. The general evidentialist view is that when a person grasps that an argument is sound that imposes an epistemic obligation on her to accept the conclusion. Insofar as having faith that a claim is true amounts to believing contrary to or despite a lack of evidence, one person’s faith that God exists does not have this sort of inter-subjective, epistemological implication. Failing to believe what is clearly supported by the evidence is ordinarily irrational. Failure to have faith that some claim is true is not similarly culpable.

So while it may make you feel better, it’s unclear that such proclamations will actually make a dent in secularism…..
Tip o’the hat to John Loftus.

The fear of irrelevancy

After reading a few Christian blog and Facebook pieces today, I just had to vent. Please excuse.
Please forgive this atheist if he finds it hard to take US Christians seriously when they talk about experiencing “hostility” and worry about possible irrelevance. Christianity remains the dominant culture of the USA, even if its adherents are better at talking the talk than walking the walk. As we saw in Tucson, the president of the country is comfortable using language which completely excludes non-believers, and many other national leaders are unhesitant in describing the US as a Christian country.
Even though 6% of the country may describe themselves as atheist, how many of our representatives do so? Not only could an atheist not be elected to the Presidency; even the deist Thomas Jefferson would be unelectable today.
So when a (very few) atheists voice the kind of sentiment that Christians have been dishing out for years, it seems disproportionate for Christians to complain. OK, vilification of atheists rarely comes from the Anglicans or the Methodists, but why should atheists have to sort out the distinctions between the many different groups that all describe themselves as Christian?
It seems to me that the problems faced by religious moderates have little do do with atheists. There have always been atheists and agnostics in the US, and if they are more visible today it is because modern communications technology is giving them a voice and a community. Secularism may provide a convenient windmill at which to tilt, but in the long term fighting that battle seems futile. Surely TEC and CofE should be trying to figure out how to reach those who are inclined to belief, including other Christians. If you’re trying to sell more wine, your new customers are probably going to be beer-drinkers – not teetotalers.
PS Please drop the term “militant atheist“. In matters of religion, militancy is what we’re seeing in Nigeria or Pakistan today. Publishing a book is not an act of militancy.

Acting on one's beliefs

Over at CommonSenseAtheism, Luke just posted the following question:

Imagine you have a blue pill and a red pill, and you must swallow one of them right now and not the other.
If you take the red pill, you will die immediately. If there is an afterlife, all your sins will be pardoned and you will spend eternity there. If there isn’t an afterlife, you will just be dead.
If you take the blue pill, you will live a long, happy, and fulfilling life on Earth. You won’t die early of illness or injury. You will be an asset to society. But if there is an afterlife, you will not partake in it when you die. When you die you will cease to exist, even if there is an afterlife for everyone else.
Which pill will you choose?

Yes, I know that it’s contrived. And yes, believers will reject it in various ways; one approach is to argue that only a deity could implement this, and their deity would never do so. And one can also view this as a kind of “reverse Pascal’s Wager”, and reasonable people agree that the Wager is a crock.
But I still think it’s a usefully provocative thought-experiment. Obviously non-believers will all take the blue pill, but how about the rest of you?

"…you haven't been paying attention…"

The media (blogosphere and MSM) has been discussing the latest Pew findings that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most believers. Dan Dennett offered his explanation in the NY Daily News yesterday, and at the end he mentioned a phenomenon he’s been studying recently:

My colleague Linda LaScola and I are currently studying [pastors who no longer hold the beliefs they are professionally obliged to preach, but go on executing their duties], and when discussing our first pilot study of closeted non-believing (or other-believing) clergy, we often heard two jokes about the seminary experience that was part of the training of most clergy: “If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven’t been paying attention,” and “Seminary is where God goes to die.”

It's not a question of how vs. why; it's about what.

Andrew Sullivan links to a soothing piece of accommodationism by Francis Collins at BigThink, and announces that it makes complete sense to him. I guess he’s taking things easy on the weekend, because Collins is as illogical as ever. Dissecting the bit that Andrew cited:

Why is it that, for instance, that the constance <sic> that determines the behavior of matter and energy, like the gravitational constant, for instance, have precisely the value that they have to in order for there to be any complexity at all in the Universe. That is fairly breathtaking in its lack of probability of ever having happened.

With all due respect, this is an appallingly naive use of the word “probability”. We have partial (and probably inaccurate) information about some properties of the region of space-time that is accessible to us. We construct models based on this information, from which we hypothesize further properties of the universe. Some of these are potentially testable, as we gain access to new data; others concern things that are intrinsically unknowable: beyond our epistemic horizon.
But probability doesn’t enter into it. If by “probability” Collins means likelihood, is he assuming random distributions of various constants? Since we don’t understand the causal relationships between the various properties involved, we have no way of knowing what kind of variability is possible. And of course there’s the fact that any universe containing sentient observers like us must be complex (otherwise we wouldn’t be here), and so our observations are necessarily constrained. Whether he takes a frequentist or Bayesian view, Collins has no rational basis for assuming a “lack of probability”.

And it does make you think that a mind might have been involved in setting the stage.

Why? We have direct experience of a relatively small number of minds. So far, all are products of neurological activity in animal brains. Depending on how one extends the definition, it’s possible that a mind might have some other kind of substrate, such as a computational system. What is quite clear is that we have no evidence of anything resembling a mind at any larger scale, or using any non-physical implementation. Is Collins claiming to know what it would mean for a mind to change physical laws or constants? I’m not holding my breath….
The most plausible explanation for Collins’ impulse to attribute things to “a mind” is a reversion to animism, to attributing agency to natural forces that we don’t understand. We gave up on the idea that Thor or Vulcan was responsible for catastrophic storms and earthquakes, and most of us no longer think that schizophrenia is due to demonic possession. And yet Collins reverts to the habits of a pre-scientific time by personifying the workings of the cosmos.

At the same time that does not imply necessarily that that mind is controlling the specific manipulations of things that are going on in the natural world. In fact, I would very much resist that idea.

Well at least that’s something. Most religious believers seem quite happy to make the leap from Prime Mover to Jehovah, with no evidence whatsoever. And yet…

I think the laws of nature potentially could be the product of a mind. I think that’s a defensible perspective.

I guess that the question for Collins is exactly what he means by “mind”. What is the relationship between a “mind” as he uses it here and the (evolved) patterns of behavior that we observe in brain-shaped collections of neurons?

The value of truth

Bill Vallicella describes himself as a “Maverick Philosopher” and a “recovering academician”. Perhaps if he sought to recover the rigor and discipline of academic philosophy we would be spared nonsense like his latest piece on Christopher Hitchens and death. Here’s his conclusion:

What would Hitch lose by believing? Of course, he can’t bring himself to believe, it is not a Jamesian live option, but suppose he could. Would he lose ‘the truth’? But nobody knows what the truth is about death and the hereafter. People only think they do. Well, suppose ‘the truth’ is that we are nothing but complex physical systems slated for annihilation. Why would knowing this ‘truth’ be a value? Even if one is facing reality by believing that death is the utter end of the self, what is the good of facing reality in a situation in which one is but a material system?
If materialism is true, then I think Nietzsche is right: truth is not a value; life-enhancing illusions are to be preferred. If truth is out of all relation to human flourishing, why should we value it?

The argument here seems to be, in matters that lie beyond our epistemic horizon, why should we not prefer “life-enhancing illusions” to “truth”? As a general rule, when a writer ends a piece with a question, and offers no answer to the question, you should be suspicious. In most cases, there are perfectly obvious answers to the question, but to actually trot them out would undermine the rhetorical flourish that the author is seeking. Or it’s a way of disguising an Argument From Personal Incredulity. Either way, it’s a cheap trick.
It is clear that we do – and should – value truth in matters of fact and evidence. (If Dr. Vallicella disagrees, I would like to see how he deals with everyday life.) We don’t need to invoke any heavy-duty metaphysical notion of Truth; ordinary, everyday, consensus-based, empirical testable varieties of truth are good enough. Evolution has endowed many lifeforms, including humans, with a variety of powerful tools for detecting truth and falsehood and for storing the outputs of these tools. At the same time, evolution has exploited these capabilities by enabling other lifeforms to trick and defeat these tools. We have plenty of examples, from flowers that mimic insects to pool sharks in Atlantic City.
Truth-detection, truth-deception: it’s an evolutionary arms race. And in humans this competition has spread from the purely biological to the cultural. We can see this in the value placed on skepticism about poorly-supported truth claims, and the adoption of various mechanisms – jury trials, double-blind tests, peer-reviewed papers – to try to minimize the likelihood of subjective bias and self-delusion. And societies that emphasize these values – in law, medicine, science, technology, commerce, and so forth – tend to flourish.
So the proposition that “truth is out of all relation to human flourishing” seems groundless. And when Dr. Vallicella asks, “what is the good of facing reality?”, the answer is pretty clear: because that’s what humans do. It’s not a question of “what good is it” – you might as well ask “what is the good of living?” It’s a brute fact. We face reality, and try to establish truths about it. Our ability to do so affects our success in surviving and passing on our genes (and culture) to the next generation. We each encounter different elements and aspects of reality, but we have no choice about facing the reality which we encounter.
Presumably the self-styled “maverick” (a word that has forever been tainted by McCain and Palin) is referring to hypotheses which lie beyond the epistemic horizon: matters about which, as he says, “nobody knows what the truth is”. If we don’t know what the truth is, what is the harm of adopting “life-enhancing illusions”? There are three obvious retorts.
The first is that, empirically, our truth-judgement capabilities aren’t wired to detect which questions fall into which category. We don’t simply turn those brain centers off when a transcendental topic pops up. This means that we cannot avoid bringing our usual arsenal of critical tools to these subjects. And, historically, we have done so, and it has kept armies of theologians and apologists in business.
Secondly, suspending notions of truth in these areas doesn’t really help, because there seems to be a vast range of alternative “life-enhancing illusions” on offer. Which should we choose? Perhaps Dr. Vallicella feels that it doesn’t matter: any comforting story is better than the stark reality of an indifferent universe. But these are not unencumbered choices: each is embedded in a rich network of cultural, social, and dogmatic propositions and norms, many of which definitely DON’T fall into the “nobody knows what the truth is” category. How does one choose? Are truth and reason irrelevant? Such considerations make a nonsense of the purported dichotomy of “life-enhancing illusions” vs. “truth”.
And finally, there is the inconvenient truth that the epistemic horizon keeps on moving. Five hundred years ago, witchcraft, fairies, ghosts and demonic possession were things that “everybody” knew to be true. Perhaps a Victorian ancestor of Dr. Vallicella would have described seances and spirit communications as “life-enhancing illusions”. Today, I assume that if Dr. Vallicella developed symptoms of “possession”, he would expect to be treated medically for schizophrenia.
We have always warped our everyday notions of truth and evidence to accommodate irrational “life-enhancing illusions”. As the epistemic horizon expands, it takes time and effort to roll back these distortions. Today we treat parents who rely on prayer to heal their sick children as criminals, rather than respecting their antiquated “life-enhancing illusions”. Yet many religious believers (Roman Catholics and Moslems) still hold that they should not be accountable to civil courts, and the evidentiary rules that have been adopted to make the search for truth more reliable. Such ideas are intrinsically divisive, and have no place in a heterogeneous society.
Dr. Vallicella’s “life-enhancing illusions” are not free. They have baggage. And they are incompatible with a commitment to reason. They do not “enhance” my life, nor that of countless others.

Quitter! (And about time too.)

I was worried that MrDeity was getting a little stale in Series 3, but they’ve just bounced back with a wonderful piece to finish the season:

Perfect timing, right after Easter, to remind us how illogical (and immoral) the whole Original Sin/Redemption nonsense is.

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

I just finished Rebecca Goldsten’s latest work, and I can’t wipe this silly grin off my face. This is the kind of book that makes my toes curl with delight: witty, arch, thought-provoking, funny, familiar, relevant, and deeply satisfying.
As in her previous novels, such as The Mind-Body Problem, Goldstein uses the stereotypical figures of academia to explore philosophical questions. A young professor escapes from the mad world of a Harold Bloom-like figure and writes a response to William James and Sigmund Freud entitled “The Varieties of Religious Illusion” (get it?). It includes an appendix listing 36 arguments for the existence of God, together with a crisp rebuttal to each. In this era of the “New Atheists”, this ensures that the book becomes a best-seller, catapulting the bewildered professor into the heights of academe, and culminating in a ferocious debate with a theist that includes all of the arguments that this reader would hope to make in a similar situation! And this narrative, with many fascinating twists and turns, is wrapped up in a novel complete with an appendix(!) on 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. With the addition of the subtitle, “A Work of Fiction”, this becomes the delightfully misleading title for the book as a whole.
Is it wrong of me to hope that some theist will read the title, assume that it’s a response to Dawkins, Dennett et al, buy it sight unseen, and be confused, angry, and – possibly – enlightened?