Monday, September 19, 2016

Evidence, Design, and Alternative Histories of Science

Some of us are fans of alternative history. There is a whole genre of literature on what might have happened if something had happened that didn't. Some examples:

What if John Wilkes booth had missed?

What if the Nazis had won World War II?

What if Gore had won the 2000 election?

What if Monica Lewinsky had taken her dress to the dry cleaners.

What if the Tartars had not stopped their attacks in Europe?

What if Oswald hadn't made it to the top floor?

With respect to science, it seems as if those who claim that scientific evidence has established something, there has to be an alternative history of science that would have established the opposite.

So, when people like Dawkins say "The evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design", then are they not presupposing the existence of an alternative history of science in which the evidence concerning evolution reveals a universe with design? 

But if this alternative history had taken place, would the design inference have also been dismissed as methodologically unacceptable, and an example of IDiocy? 

Heads I win, tails you lose. 

On the limits of the principle of simplicity

By Alexander Pruss. It's important not to overuse Ockham's Razor.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Cosmic Authority Problem, the Rebellion Thesis, and the Cancellation Thesis

In th final chapter of The Last Word, “Naturalism and the Fear of Religion,” he talks about the role the fear of religion plays in much thought today. In doing so he highlights some Platonistic elements in the thought of Charles Sanders Peirce, who, he maintains, is not the pragmatist that he is typically thought to be. He maintains that people have taken Peirce’s pragmatic theory of belief as central to his philosophy, when he actually maintained that belief (as defined somewhat idiosyncratically by Peirce, oriented around what we act on) had no place in science, which Peirce regarded as the pure pursuit of truth.  What Peirce is presupposing, to which Nagel finds a great deal that is congenial, is the idea that there is an inherent sympathy between our minds and nature that permit us to know it. This involves something that is true of reason itself, and not merely about how we think. This, he believes, moves us toward rationalism as opposed to empiricism in epistemology, and to a position that has what he calls a quasi-religious ring to it. He writes.
I admit that this idea---that the capacity of the universe to generate organisms with minds capable of understanding the universe is itself somehow a fundamental feature of the universe---has a quasi-religious “ring” to it, something vaguely Spinozistic. Still, it is this idea, or something like it, which Peirce seems to endorse in the passages I have quoted. And I think one can admit such an enrichment of the fundamental elements of the natural order without going over to anything that should count literally as a religious belief. At no point does any of it imply the existence of a divine person, or a world soul. 
            Here the fear of religion plays a role. He admits that he, like many secular philosophers, has an aversion to accepting arguments that might lead to religious beliefs.  While religious believers are often accused of drawing their conclusions because of wishful thinking and an unwillingness to give up their cherished religious beliefs, Nagel thinks that the desire to avoid religious conclusions drives many thinkers to accept reductionism and scientism without adequate justification. He writes:
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean the entirely reasonable hostility to certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to association of many religious beliefs with superstition and acceptance of evident empirical false hoods. I am talking about something deeper---namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true, and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally, I hope that I am right in my belief. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
Nagel refers to these desires as the Cosmic Authority Problem.
Sometimes this passage in Nagel is used to as an admission of the irrationality of atheism, a position described by Randal Rauser as the Rebellion Thesis. I do not see this passage as an admission of irrationality. Many Christians hope that there is a God, and want the universe to be a theistic universe. This in and of itself doesn’t prove that they are irrational in believing in God. I hope my wife is faithful, and have excellent reason to believe that she is. However, some in the debate concerning theism maintain that only theists could possibly have ulterior motives for what they believe, while atheists could only deny God because the evidence leads them to do this, that no non-rational motives could possibly be operative in them. This is the “No Nonrational Motive Thesis,” a thesis often held by people who hold what I will call the Wish Fulfillment Thesis. According to the Wish Fulfillment thesis, religious beliefs are invariably held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary through the force of the wish on the part of believers that it be true. The idea behind the No Nonrational Motive Thesis is that the prospect of extinction when we die, and the absence of any given purpose for our existence, is so unhospitable to the human mind that only the absence of good evidence in its favor could possibly motivate anyone to reject religious beliefs. In my view, the Cosmic Authority Problem refutes this contention.
As opposed to the Wish Fulfillment Thesis and the Rebellion Thesis, I am inclined to accept the Cancellation Thesis, proposed by C. S. Lewis in “On Obstinacy of Belief.” He writes:
Thus instead of the one predicament on which our opponents sometimes concentrate there are in fact four. A man may be a Christian because he wants Christianity to be true. He may be an atheist because he wants atheism to be true. He may be an atheist be-cause he wants Christianity to be true. He may be a Christian because he Wants atheism to be true. Surely these possibilities cancel one another out? They may be of some use in analysing a particular instance of belief or disbelief, where we know the case history, but as a general explanation of either they will not help us. I do not think they overthrow the view that there is evidence both for and against the Christian propositions which fully rational minds, working honestly, can assess differently.

            For Nagel, the Cosmic Authority Problem accounts for the “ludicrous overuse” of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. He thinks we should resist the intellectual effects of the fear of religion in much the same way that we should resist the wish to accept religion. However, he thinks that atheists can absorb a belief in irreducible mind-world relations just as one can accept the irreducibility of the laws of physics.  Thus, while he thinks that this irreducibility doesn’t actually support theism, nevertheless the fear of religion leads many naturalistic thinkers to reject this kind of irreducibility. 

Kasparov on Trump and Putin.


Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Atheism's Real Child Abuse

Suppose someone were to make the following argument.
Atheists are guilty of child abuse. People who die in their sins without knowing Jesus Christ are condemned to hell, yet atheists do worse than nothing to insure that their children are saved from this terrible fate. Exposing children to everlasting punishment is child abuse if anything is, far worse than any abuse they might suffer through being sexually abused. So not only are atheists child abusers, their child abuse if far worse than that inflicting on children by child molesters.
There is an obvious rebuttal to such a claim of course. It is that atheists, ex hypothesi, do not believe that eternal punishment is real, so of course they can hardly be criticized for failing to prevent their children from being eternally punished.
But, by the same token, can Dawkins criticize Christians who believe that there is eternal punishment, and present Christianity to their children as true to prevent them from being eternally punished? Given what they believe, what else does he expect them to do? Isn’t Dawkins open to the same rebuttal that could be given to child abuse charge issued by the above hypothetical Christian.
Now, of course, Christians come in different varieties with respect to the doctrine of hell. There are exclusivists, inclusivists, and universalists. But most Christians think that teaching one’s children Christianity will make it more likely that one’s children will be saved. 

Penn Jillette wrote: 

“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
“I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”

Monday, September 05, 2016

What is naturalism, that we should be mindful of it? W. P. Alston quotes O. K. Bouwsma


 Bouwsma has some fun at the expense of some of the contributors to a 1944 volume entitled Naturalism and the Human Spirit, many of whom characterized naturalism in the methodologically scientistic way I have been utilizing. For example, he quotes William Dennes as saying: "There is for naturalism no knowledge except of the type ordinarily called scientific", and responds as follows.

Notice first the form of Dennes's sentence. Mr. Ringling might say: "There is for Ringling Brothers no elephant except of the type ordinarily called big." Does Mr. Ringling intend to deny that there are any little elephants? Does he mean that besides Jumbo and Mumbo there is no little Nimblo? I think he means no more than that there is a difference between big elephants and little elephants, and that Mr. Ringling has no use for little elephants. If you tried to sell him one, he wouldn't buy. He can't use any. Or try this sentence: "For all the boys in our alley, there's no girl but pretty Sally." What, have the boys in our alley seen no girl but pretty Sally? Don't be silly. Of course, they know Helen and Ruth and Betty. It's just a way of saying that above all the girls they know, they prefer Sally. And this is now the way in which we are to understand Mr. Dennes?…In this case…Mr. Dennes might have admitted other types of knowledge too, but would in this instance merely have intended to say: "Well, so long as I have my choice, let mine be scientific"…If Mr. Dennes prefers blondes or gas-heat or lemonade or a hard mattress or scientific knowledge, well, that's all there is to it.

 Bouwsma then goes on to scrutinize a formulation of Krikorian.

 Before we settle these matters, let us inspect Krikorian's sentence. It is: "For naturalism as a philosophy, the universal applicability of the experimental method is a basic belief." Consider the parallel sentence of the vacuum cleaner salesman: "For vacuumism as a philosophy, the universal applicability of the suction nozzle is a basic belief." He may argue to himself: "If I ever give this up, I'll never sell another vacuum cleaner. It is basic." To the house-wife who asks: "And can you use it to dust books?" he replies: "Of course". And when he shows her and finds that it does not do so well, does he deny the universal applicability of the nozzle? No such thing. He may complain that he himself is not skillful, or that what seems like dust to the house-wife is not dust. The universal applicability of the nozzle is now the touchstone of dust. If the nozzle is applicable, it's dust. If it is not applicable, it is not dust. There is much more of this in the essay, but that is sufficient to give the general line.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Where do these conversations go wrong?


What causes these conversations to go wrong? The most common reason is that believers launch into a defense of the faith before finding out anything at all about the skeptic.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Dawkins' answer to someone who has experienced God: You hallucinated


Is Science in Trouble?

Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble. Stoked by fifty years of growing public investments, scientists are more productive than ever, pouring out millions of articles in thousands of journals covering an ever-expanding array of fields and phenomena. But much of this supposed knowledge is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong. From metastatic cancer to climate change to growth economics to dietary standards, science that is supposed to yield clarity and solutions is in many instances leading instead to contradiction, controversy, and confusion. Along the way it is also undermining the four-hundred-year-old idea that wise human action can be built on a foundation of independently verifiable truths. Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex; to escape, it will have to abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society.