Thursday, March 29, 2012

Is God supernatural?

A redated post. 

I wouldn't even necessarily call God supernatural. There could conceivably be a science studying God's actions, based on which we could make predictions. If God would let us, we could even perform experiments on Him. What's wrong with this idea?

Actually, if you say that what we mean by supernatural is that it won't fit in to a mechanistic order, then of course God is supernatural. That's how Lewis defined it. But does everyone understand the term "supernatural" in that way? It seems like a lot of baggage is brought into the use of this term.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Nominating oneself for intellectual sainthood

A redated post. 

One feature of freethought literature that has always annoyed me is the way in which nonbelievers tend to nominate themselves for intellectual sainthood. This is something I noticed going all the way back to reading Russell's "The Value of Free Thought," an essay that, in one sense, has influenced me more than any other piece of philosophy or theology that I have ever read. I have spent a lifetime working hard at being intellectually honest, with mixed results. Russell promises that you can be a free thinker if you just liberate yourself from the force of tradition and the tyranny of your passions, but from what I read of Russell's life, he wouldn't have been happy on Vulcan. "I thank God (figuratively, of course) that I am not as other men. I apportion my beliefs to the evidence."

It is all well and good to point out the emotional underpinnings of religous belief. But to suggest that unbelief has no emotional underpinnings is to indulge in a massive self-deception. This links to Telic Thoughts discussion of P. Z. Myers.

Vallicella debunks Krauss

Vallicella on Krauss. He also responds to a piece of classic Bulverism: If you criticize scientistic nonsense, you only do that because you are motivated by religion.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tim McGrew on the Dwindling Probabilities Argument

Someone brought up the Dwindling Probabilities Argument. If you are going to defend that one, you have to take on Tim McGrew.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Arguments that Don't Mix: Loftus Edition

It occurs to me that Loftus's attempt to define faith as necessarily irrational, and his OTF, can't be combined. 

I take it one of the things I have to decide whether I am a candidate for the outsider test for faith is to decide whether not I am a person of faith. According to this definition of faith, I would have to conclude that I have no faith whatsoever. I used to use the word "faith" to describe some of my beliefs, but on this analysis, apparently I have been misusing the word. At least, I don't do this knowingly. There are no beliefs that I have, of which I would say that the evidence made the denial of what I believe more likely than what I believe. 

If I don't have any faith, what that means is, of course, that it would be pointless for me to take the Outsider Test for Faith. If you define faith this way, the only conclusion I can reach is that I don't have any faith, and so have no business taking the test, since I have no faith to test. 

The only people who are candidates for the test are fideists, and those guys are, ex hypothesi, content with irrationality. If the OTF is designed to show that their beliefs are irrational, it is kicking an open door, and it surely won't convince them of anything they don't already know. 

So, you have to choose, John. Either give up on the OTF, or stop developing these definitions of faith. Your arguments don't mix.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

List of Catholic Scientists

How does this affect the claim that science and religion are in conflict.

Swinburne's case for God


Is there a general conception of God?

Here is some discussion on Debunking Christianity.

I had been in a discussion on a prior thread with Cole, who had argued that in the absence of very strong, overwhelming evidence for God (perhaps, the kind that ought to persuade everyone), one should suspend judgment on the existence of God. I had argued that this is existentially impossible. People have to act as if God exists, or not. So, even in the absence of overwhelming evidence, a judgment call is necessary. This choice is partially a matter of evidence, but also can be, at least partially, determined by pragmatic considerations. Now, at this point I was referring to a general conception of God, not a concept that is tied to any revelation or interpretation of that revelation.

John replied by saying:

Yep, Vic is correct. We have to make a choice. We have to live as if Allah exists,
or as if Allah does not exist. There is no neutral position. I mean, what do you really have to lose if you believe and you are wrong? Well, that might differ from person to person. Here I am not talking about heaven and hell, but about the course of life on earth.

Such a provincial argument not even Vic gets it. ;-)

My reply was that:

I believe that Allah exists. Allah is the Arabic word for God, just as Dios is Spanish for God, and Dieu is French for God, and Gott is German for God. I am a theist, therefore, I believe that Allah exists. No problem.

John then said:

Such a typical disingenuous reply that is Vic, unless you are a Muslim. Are you? Do you believe the Koran? Of course you don't.

I then said

No, Muslims are my fellow theists. You are conflating the question of Allah with the question of how Allah might have revealed himself. In point of fact, the word "Allah" was in place as the word for the high god of Arabia before Muhammad picked it up.

If you accept belief in God, then you have to decide whether some revelation is true, or if there was one. But this is no way detracts from the fact that neutrality on the question of God is de facto impossible. You either act as if God existed, or as if God did not exist. You act as if Christianity is true, or as if it was not.

C. S. Lewis accepted theism first, then he had to decide whether or not there was a revelation.

John then said:

But Vic, you don't believe in Allah because Allah revealed himself in the Koran. He is a different god who did different things, has different characteristics, and denies ever doing some of the things your god claims to have done. You don't even believe in Yahweh, the tribal god of the Old Testament. As far as I can tell only a small number of people have ever believed in the god that you believe in. That you share a belief in a creator god with other theists is acknowledged. But when you claim to believe in their gods and they claim to believe in your god that is not in fact the case, since these gods different, sometimes significantly different.
So to say you believe Allah exists is empty disingenuous rhetoric. What you should say instead is that both you and Muslims all believe in a creator god.

He then posted new thread claiming that I had taken a preposterous position, repeating his usual mantra that defending religious beliefs makes smart people look stupid.

I suppose I was replying to his literal words, rather than to what I might have taken his meaning to be. What he meant was the deity revealed in the Qu'ran when he used the word "Allah." I sometimes drive my family members crazy by responding to their literal words and ignoring the obvious subtext.

 But my prior discussion wasn't about a God of any particular revelation, it was simply the idea of a being that is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good. I think there is a general conception of God, and people can subscribe to that notion without adjudicating the question of any particular revelation. C. S. Lewis did this when he became a Theist but not a Christian. John's initial comments are an objection to what I said only if my use of the term "God" made essential reference a Christian conception of God. So, in order to say what he said, he had make an assumption about what I was using the word "God" in a way that referred to a specific revelation. I think there is a general Judeo-Christian conception of God, which is developed in detail in different ways by the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. The word for this being, in Arabic, is Allah. I think you can use the word "God" without indicating whose revelation one accepts. Is there any reason to think my claim here is false? With this in mind, I can't see that my comments were preposterous.

John had to ignore the context of my comments in order for his original criticism to work.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

An Old Maverick Philosopher post on the Lewontin and Nagel quotes from my book

I am redating this post, which links to this Vallicella post. 

Is all the obstinacy, all the recalcitrance in the face of evidence, on the side of the Christians in religious debates? Try this statement by Richard Lewontin, which I quoted in my book:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community of unsubstantiated just-so stories [in evolutionary biology] because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material causes, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who believes in God can believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that Miracles may happen.

I mean, again as I pointed out in my book, what if a Christian were to say this:

Our willingness to accept biblical teachings that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between faith and unbelief. We take the side of Scripture in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the existence of unsubstantiated just so stories in Scripture, because we have a prior commitment to Scripture's inerrancy. It is not that the methods and institutions of biblical study somehow compel us to accept only interpretations which are in accordance with the Bible's inerrancy, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to biblical inerrancy to create a method of biblical study that [produces explanations that are consistent with inerrancy, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, our commitment to inerrancy is absolute, for we cannot allow doubt to get its foot in the door. For anyone doubting the Word of God in any respect will end up doubting it in all respects.

Wouldn't people say, "See those irrational Christians, they are prepared to believe the Bible no matter what."

And this one by Thomas Nagel:

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much 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, hope that I'm right about my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.

What if a Christian were to say that he or she was afraid of atheism using similar terms. Wouldn't the atheists be all over that Christian, claiming once again that this is an admission that Christians only believe what they believe as a result of wishful thinking?

Atheists very often come across to me as being incredibly intellectually arrogant, and I think even if I were to become an atheist tomorrow, I could never persuade myself that this kind of arrogance is justified. And yes, I have criticized similar views on the part of Christians as well (the "there are no atheists" position).

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A dialogue with Articulett on Debunking Christianity

A: Think of a religion that you think of as harmful or cult-like-- Think of how you see that religion. Do you think members of those faiths could benefit from understanding how you (an outsider to that faith) see their faith? Do you think of your non-belief in that faith as being subject to the OTF as well? If not, why do you think non-belief in your religion does?

V: If there is an Outsider Test that works, then it has to work for all propositions. My belief that thetans do not exist would have to be subject to it, but I am not terribly worried.

A: Aren't all babies born without supernatural beliefs until cultures indoctrinate them? --hence non-belief is the default position!

V: Are you kidding? Babies don't make a natural-supernatural distinction, so it's not the case that they start by filtering out beliefs on the grounds that they involve the supernatural, until Mommy and Daddy take them to Sunday School.

A: Do you have a better method for getting people to look objectively at their supernatural beliefs?

V: People should scrutinize all their beliefs. If you believe that a Miracle Diet formula will make you lose weight, that belief should be questioned, even though the makers of the formula are not literally claiming that it works via supernatural causation.

A: If not, why should anyone care that a religionist thinks the OTF is "epistemologically flawed"?

V: Good epistemology is good epistemology, and bad epistemology is bad epistemology. Whether the person doing the epistemology is a believer or an unbeliever is irrelevant. But, again, you're not listening. I said that the OTF is flawed only on some construals.

A: You have a vested interest in protecting your faith; you imagine your salvation hinges upon doing so. Moreover, you think "faith is good" and that your god hands out extreme punishments to doubters.

V: This is a world-class example of circumstantial ad hominem. It is also a straw man. I've said over and over again that I'm an inclusivist with universalist sympathies.If I became a nonbeliever, and it turned out that Christianity was true after all, I wouldn't be automatically damned. Why do you insist on putting words into the mouths of Christians?

A: I think you are fine with believers in other faiths using it... you just don't want to think about the implications it has on your own faith. It's your faith that is "epistemelogically flawed", Victor. You believe in a god who demands that you believe in the right unbelievable story or be punished forever. Moreover you are told this god is good and that you must worship him. This makes your belief as flawed as a Muslim's-- more flawed even... they don't need to try and make sense of a 3-in-1 god or pretend that believing in such a being is monotheistic!

V: I think everyone should consider the positions they hold from perspectives outside their  own. That goes for Christians, atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Scientologists, Muslims, Republicans, and Democrats.

R D Miksa's blog on taking over the outsider test for faith

Here is the blog. Miksa argues that the OTF, properly interpreted, supports theism, supernaturalism, and intelligent design.

The central issue surrounding the OTF is whether Loftus is justified in putting nonbelief in a special, default category, or whether it is just one more position on the intellectual map, as it were. That's what the Outsider Perspective is supposed to be about. Otherwise I can go outside of Christianity by taking an Islamic perspective, or outside of Buddhism by taking a Christian perspective. Or I get get outside the atheist perspective by taking a Christian point of view.  But there is no question of getting completely outside, in other words, off the intellectual map entirely. You can go outside of here by going there, but you are still going to be somewhere. Wherever you go, there you are.

On the other hand, Loftus isn't just talking about getting outside of where you are to start from somewhere else to see what happens as a thought experiment. Rather, he thinks that the modern scientistic nonbeliever's position just is the Outsider Perspective, and as such it deserves a default status. Unless a religious view can justify itself to someone who adopts that perspective, then it ought not to be believed. But there is no corresponding evidential requirement that falls upon the atheist. One is only justified in getting inside a religious position unless you can justify yourself to The Outsider (with or without the hat).

My criticisms amount to the claim that it's a fudge to put the nonbeliever in that kind of privileged position.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Atheist Brian Leiter says Christian philosophy is on the rise

A redated post.

That darned God delusion isn't going away in the philosophical community. HT: exapologist

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Reply to Loftus on the argumentum ad Kierkegaard

This kind of reminds me of what I used to call the argument ad Kierkegaard. You can't defend the rationality of Christianity, I've been told,  because Kierkegaard says that Christianity is a leap of faith. So what?
In the Catholic Church, it's actually heresy to be a fideist.

Vatican I, recognizing elements of truth and falsehood in both
rationalism and fideism, adopted a mediating position. Against the
fideists it affirmed that reason, by its natural powers, could establish
the foundations of faith and the credibility of the Christian revelation
(DS 3019, 3033). And against the rationalists Vatican I attributed
the full assurance of the act of faith to the power of divine grace
enlightening the intellect and inspiring the will (DS 3010). The act
was therefore reasonable without being a deliverance of pure reason.--Avery Dulles.

I can play that game too. Here's a Thomas Nagel quote:
It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm
right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there
to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
-Thomas Nagel

See, atheists admit that they are motivated by a fear of religion. Thomas Nagel says so, and he's an atheist. You don't want to let me get away with this? Then you can't use the kind of argument  you're using here.

Don Macintosh replies to Parsons on Miracles

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


What bothers people about Romney is that, on the issue that the Republicans want to make a central issue in the campaign, Obamacare, Romney can't make the argument that any other Republican can make, which is the argument that the individual mandate is wrong on principle because it's socialistic. We know that he signed and supported an individual mandate in Massachusetts. He can oppose Obamacare on the grounds that it isn't the sort of thing the federal government should do, as opposed to the states. But he can't say that the individual mandate is wrong on principle, but that is what most Republicans believe. So we know Obama is going to ask Romney what, exactly, is wrong with his health care bill, and then what can Romney say?

Lovell's dissertation on Lewis

This can be downloaded here. This was the dissertation I was thinking of writing initially, before I focused in on the Argument From Reason.

Monday, March 05, 2012

A new paper on Hume on Miracles

Which ends up being critical of Hume's conclusion, but defends him against some charges along the way.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Some notes on Loftus' definition of faith

John Loftus offers this definition of faith.

John Loftus: "Faith is an attitude or feeling whereby someone attributes a higher degree of probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for."

He goes on to say:
I further argue that reasonable faith is an oxymoron because having faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities, which again, is what all Christians do in practice. 

I replied by saying;

This strikes me as a simple error in linguistic philosophy. If Christians develop and use the term "faith" then you have to pay attention to what that linguistic community means by it. Irrationality isn't part of the meaning of faith. It may be that, in believing their religion and in having faith, they commit irrationality, but this is contingent on the evidence being different from what they suppose it to be.

If you assessed the evidence and you thought that Christianity was probably true, you could still have faith. This would be true if you were right about the evidence or wrong about the evidence. You can't presume your assessment of the evidence to define words that Christians use. Link.

And he in turn said: 

Sure we can, and we do.

Definitions of words couch arguments in disguise. In our arguments we demand a different definition of "faith" because our definitions more accurately describe what we see from believers around the world in their respective sects. It's the same phenomena all over the globe.

When it comes to evaluating the strength of the evidence for a claim, any claim, my definition works just fine. After all, we're not just talking about a word but a concept, one that should apply to everyone and not just Christians, otherwise you are special pleading. Agreement among Christians isn't a criteria for how a word is used anyway, especially since the debate over the word has been framed in the western world by Christianity.

All you need to do, Vic, is say that what you have concluded is more probable than other alternatives and that you do not claim a higher probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for.

Can't do that?

Why not?

I can say that. I can say that I do not hold any beliefs that I consider to be less probably true than their denials. If I thought they were less probable than their denials, I wouldn't believe them. 

Now, I suppose, given lottery paradox considerations, I probably should say that I hold some beliefs as probably true which are actually probably false. But, for every belief I hold, I consider the belief to be more probably true than its denial. Yet, I maintain that I have faith in the existence of God. 

Nor does it seem plausible to me that I can only truly have faith if, in fact, I have mistakenly assessed the evidence. It doesn't seem plausible to me that when someone exhorts me to have faith in God, that what they are exhorting me to do is to make an error in my assessment of the evidence.

Now, I don't think Loftus wants to say that everyone who has religious faith recognizes the irrationality of their beliefs in the act of having faith. That would be implying that all those who have faith are fideist, and understand their position to be fideistic. But, they don't. Thomas Aquinas, C. S. Lewis, and William Lane Craig explicitly do not understand faith in this way. They think that they hold reasonable beliefs, but nevertheless they believe that they exercise faith anyway. 

The trouble is that if you make a characteristic part of a definition, you implicitly say that you couldn't use the term unless it the characteristic were present. Suppose whiteness had been part of the definition of being a swan. If that were the case, then we couldn't possibly have discovered black swans in Western Australia. The black birds we found over these would not have been white, and therefore would not be swans. But since, when we encountered these black birds, we called them swans and rejected our previously accepted idea that all swans were white. 

If you think that no one has a reasonable faith, that doesn't license you to make unreasonableness part of your definition of faith unless you are prepared, in case you do encounter someone who has reasonable faith, to say "OK, that's reasonable, so it can't be faith." In other words, in the (unlikely?) event that Loftus should change his assessment of the evidence concerning Christianity to correspond with that of William Lane Craig or Richard Swinburne, he would then have to say "Fine, Christian belief is reasonable, but what that means is that these people don't have faith. They have something else instead, such as knowledge. The are making a linguistic error by describing themselves as having faith."

What Loftus wants to say that, in fact, religious believers, in the course of having faith, believe things that are less probable than not to be true. I take it he is implying that there are objectively valid probability assessments for beliefs, something I am kind of skeptical about. Probability theory tells us how to go from one probability to another based on evidence, via Bayes' theorem. What it doesn't tell you is where the initial probabilities are supposed to come from in the first place. If we can't use personal probability assessments, as some people have maintained, the where are we supposed to get our probability assessments in the first place? Does Loftus have an epistemic probability theory that he thinks works?

A good definition of faith has to be one that language users of various persuasions can agree on. Loftus' account could succeed as a description of faith (this is what happens every time someone has faith) but it can't be a definition of faith.  

Further, a definition of faith needs to fit with our use of the term outside of religion. For example, a manager might have faith in his ace pitcher after he walks the first two batters. Now, faith does need to be in spite of something, but it doesn't need to be irrational, at least in this context.  The manager could have good reason to retain confidence in his pitcher despite his walking batters in the beginning of the game. 

I am speaking here as a fussy analytic philosopher, and not as a Christian apologist.

Thursday, March 01, 2012