Saturday, September 29, 2012

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Debunking the Defeasibility Test

I have added new material to this post.

In this exchange, David Marshall asks for a debate concerning the Outsider Test for Faith, and Peter Boghossian refuses to begin such dialogue in because Marshall does not give an adequate answer to the question "What would it take for you to lose your faith?"

What Boghossian is applying was defined by Matt McCormick as The Defeasibility Test. The claim here is that unless the believer is willing to indicate what kinds of considerations would cause him to lose his faith, discussion is useless and the believer should be regarded as terminally irrational. This has also been endorsed by Loftus.

Now this, to some, has a reasonable ring to it, harking back to Flew's Falsification Challenge. But I am going to argue that the way it is being employed by McCormick and Boghossian is misguided. 

First, I am convinced that there are three factors involved when people make religious decisions. The first is their evaluation of publicly available evidence, evidence that we can all examine. This would be the usual set of reasons we all talk about in the philosophy of religion: the theistic arguments, the problem of evil, the problem of hiddenness, etc. The second factor is one's personal experience. This will differ from person to person and is not available for public inspection. The third is the pragmatics of belief. Some people might be very adversely affected by becoming an atheist, or a theist, and those factors are also relevant for people to consider when they are trying to decide what to believe. 

First of all, suppose someone has indicated that they think that there are good theistic arguments, but they also think they would remain a fideistic believer if those arguments were shown to be faulty. If they are in fact bad arguments, wouldn't showing that this is so be worthwhile? Is the only goal of dialogue conversion to atheism? 

Second, if I am right, not all of the considerations that go into a reasonable person's choice as to whether or not to be a believer are open for public debate. If I, for example, had a direct experience of God, I can't cause you to have one, too. All I can do is testify to my own experience, and you may or may not believe me. 

Plantinga's Purloined Letter example is relevant here. All the public evidence may support the claim that I stole a damaging letter, but I may nevertheless know perfectly well that I didn't steal it.  

Third, not all considerations with respect to one's own beliefs with respect to God are even introspectively obvious.  If we had asked a subsequent de-convert what it would take for them to give up their faith, I am not sure they could have predicted the scenario that led them to change their mind. 

Fourth, some atheists are committed to indefeasibility. Are they terminally irrational?

It is an important conviction of mine that discussion and defense of what I believe is not primarily aimed at the conversion of my discussion partner. I know perfectly well that reasons on both sides of the issue of something like God are far more complex that what we can encompass in a single discussion. Many of my most gratifying discussions with people with opposing views have largely been taken up with the descriptive task, that is, getting and giving a clearer understanding of the relevant issues and our respective positions than we had going in. 

I remember once giving my first philosophy paper at the Pacific division of the APA. When I returned to the Pacific APA an undergraduate student came up to me and gave me a paper he had written for an undergraduate philosophy journal, which had what I would now recognize as an "internet infidel" flavor to it. I sent him several paragraphs critiquing what I took to be the naive philosophy of science that his paper embodied. I heard nothing from him for  few years, and then received an e-mail indicating that he had become a Christian, and thanking me for my courteous response. Humbling, surely, but I had no idea that this would happen, nor was I especially concerned about trying to convert him. 

I am inclined to agree with Lewis that apologetic discussion is about following the argument where it leads. It is not about judging our opponents, or persuading them. Those sorts of transformations involve  far more than intellectual assent, though assent is involved and reasons are relevant. But I am not going to be trapped in a version of "What arguments do I have to win with you to make you agree with me." Since it hasn't happened, I don't know what I would do if I saw the evidence differently. And neither do you.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A statement from my first published paper

Here is the link to it.

The theistic hypothesis has test implications for a wide variety of phenomena, and for this reason there are many other types of evidence to consider when trying to decide whether or not to be a theist. Making miracles in general, or some particularmiracle (such as the Resurrection of Christ) into an experimentum
crucis seems clearly to be unwarranted.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Could it be Satan?

A redated post.

My daughter is writing a paper on the problem of evil, and asked me what I thought of the attempt to explain natural evil as a species of moral evil. In the literature on the problem of evil, moral evil is thought to be the result of the actions of creatures do wrong. Examples of this would be Hitler’s slaughter of the Jews, the party purges of Stalin, the murders of Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper, but also would include less dramatic evils such as the sins I have committed today. Natural evil is evil that does not result from the actions of creatures, such as earthquakes, floods, being struck by lightning, illness, old age, etc.
In the case of moral evil, a solution looks to be available. God, it seems, has an interest in free obedience, and by free I mean that obedience that is not determined or controlled by God himself. (See my discussion of Star Trek in a previous entry). But in order for God to open the way obedience that is free in this sense, God must refuse to control the outcome of our choices, but if he does that, then he risks the possibility that disobedience. I realize this involves rejecting the claim that free will and determinism are compatible. If freedom and determinism are compatible, then God could have created the World of Mr. Rogers, the world in which everyone freely does what is right.
Plantinga’s Demon Scenario
For the sake of this discussion, I will assume that the problem of moral evil is answerable in terms of human free will. This still leaves the serious problem of explaining natural evil. In Alvin Plantinga’s The Nature of Necessity, he mentions the idea that all evils are broadly moral evil, because while some evils are the result of human free choices, other evils are the result of the free choices of non-human creatures. He writes:
But another and more traditional line of thought is pursued by St. Augustine, who attributes much of the evil we find to Satan, or to Satan and his cohorts. Satan, so the traditional doctrine goes, is a mighty non-human spirit who, along with many other angels, was created long before God created man. Unlike most of his colleagues, Satan rebelled against God and since has been wreaking whatever havoc he can. The result is natural evil. So the natural evil we find is due to free actions of non-human spirits.1

Now, Plantinga points out that for Augustine, this appeal to Satanic agency is an attempt to provide a theodicy, that is, to provide a true explanation for why God permits suffering. A defense, on the other hand, is an attempt to refute some version of the argument from evil. That may involve providing the actual explanation for the existence of evils, but it may not. The argument from evil Plantinga is discussing here is often called the logical problem of evil; it involves the claim that theists, in believing both that there is a God and in also being a realist about the evils in the world, the theist is implicitly contradicting himself. All we need to refute this argument is to provide a possible scenario according to which God and the evils in this world co-exist. Plantinga therefore claims that the demon scenario meets this requirement, and therefore, he claims the logical problem of evil stands refuted.

Over the years, and largely due to the work of Plantinga, attention has shifted from the logical problem of evil to the probabilistic or evidential problem of evil. The idea is that while it is possible that God existence is compatible with the suffering and evil we find in the world, nevertheless, it can be argued that evil in the world makes God’s existence improbable, or that that evil and suffering is strong evidence against the existence of God. In response to this argument, Plantinga says:
(The demon scenario), for example, involves the idea that the evil that is not due to free agency, is due to the agency of other rational and significantly free creatures. Do we have evidence against this idea? Many people find it preposterous; but that is scarcely evidence against it. Theologians sometimes tell us that this idea is repugnant to “man come of age” or to “modern habits of thought.” I am not convinced that this is so; in any case it does not come to much as evidence. The mere fact that a belief in unpopular at present (or at some other time) is interesting, no doubt, from a sociological point of view; it is evidentially irrelevant. Perhaps, we do have evidence against this belief, but if we do, I do not know what it is.2

I recall a conversation in my office with Plantinga when I was a fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame in which Plantinga told me that even though he presented the scenario as a possible scenario, he considered demonic influence to be the real explanation of many of the evils in the world. Certainly this explanation has biblical support, as is evident from reading Job or the Gospels. It also has the support of an obscure popular British theologian from the middle of the past century, a guy by the name of..uh..uh..Lewis. (See the Animal Pain chapter of The Problem of Pain).

Atheist philosopher Keith M. Parsons, in his book God and the Burden of Proof, however, offers two criticisms of the demon scenario as a defense against the problem of evil. He writes:

But how is this even possible? What would it be like to bring about natural evils? Natural evils are caused, so far as we can tell, by the same fundamental laws of nature that explain all other natural phenomena. Earthquakes are caused by the same tectonic processes that produce majestic mountain ranges; pathogens and parasites evolved according to the same kittens and butterflies, weather systems that bring balmy breezes to one region bring tornadoes to another. The causes of natural evil are thus so intimately involved with (and often identical to) the causes of all other natural phenomena that to cause natural evil, it would seem necessary to cause nature.
But in that case, what becomes of the doctrine of God as creator? At best we would seem to have a kind of dualism reminiscent of Manichaeism—a heretical movements in the late Roman Empire that viewed the cosmos as the creation of eternally opposed good and evil principles. If the demon scenario is thus inconsistent with the doctrine of God as creator, it cannot be of any use to Plantinga, not even as a bare possibility.3

He goes on to say:

A further difficulty with Plantinga’s argument is his assumption that free will could have the sort of absolute value he thinks it might have. As we saw earlier, ordinary moral judgments do not grant such a value to the possession or employment of free will. For instance, if I knew that a terrorist, of his own free will, planed to plant a bomb on an airliner, I would feel obliged to do everything in my power to inhibit him from exercising his free will in that way. How then is it possible that God could be justified in allowing Satan to run amok? How is it consistent with the goodness of God not to have placed greater restrictions on Satan’s freedom?4

So I’m going to put the question to my commentators, having presented both sides of the argument. Are at least some natural evils due to the influence of Satan and his minions? Or not?

1 Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974) p. 192. He references “The Problem of Free Choice”’ in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 22 (New York: Paulist/ Newman Press), pp. 71ff.; and Confessions and Enchiridion tr. and ed., by Albert C. Outler (Philadelphia: Westminister Press), pp. 341-6.
2 Plantinga, p. 195.
3 Keith Parsons, God and the Burden of Proof (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1989) pp. 123-124.
4. Parsons, p. 124.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Brain Wars

Here is the Amazon entry for Beauregard's new book.

The brain can be weighed, measured, scanned, dissected, and studied. The mind that we conceive to be generated by the brain, however, remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume, and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet it is as real as neurons, neurotransmitters, and synaptic junctions. It is also very powerful.

—from Brain Wars

Is the brain "a computer made of meat," and human consciousness a simple product of electrical impulses? The idea that matter is all that exists has dominated science since the late nineteenth century and led to the long-standing scientific and popular understanding of the brain as simply a collection of neurons and neural activity. But for acclaimed neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, Ph.D., along with a rising number of colleagues and others, this materialist-based view clashes with what we feel and experience every day.

In Brain Wars, Dr. Beauregard delivers a paradigm-shifting examination of the role of the brain and mind. Filled with engaging, surprising, and cutting-edge scientific accounts, this eye-opening book makes the increasingly indisputable case that our immaterial minds influence what happens in our brains, our bodies, and even beyond our bodies. Examining the hard science behind "unexplained" phenomena such as the placebo effect, self-healing, brain control, meditation, hypnosis, and near-death and mystical experiences, Dr. Beauregard reveals the mind's capabilities and explores new answers to age-old mind-body questions.

Radically shifting our comprehension of the role of consciousness in the universe, Brain Wars forces us to consider the immense untapped power of the mind and explore the profound social, moral, and spiritual implications that this new understanding holds for our future.

The Brain Fallacy

A redated post.

I've been revising a paper of mine that I did in England in response to Carrier, and I have added this section, on what I call the brain fallacy:

But more than that, here again we find Carrier explaining one kind of mental activity in terms of another mental activity and then explaining it “naturalistically” by saying “the brain” does it. My argument is, first and foremost, that something exists whose activities are to be fundamentally explained in intentional and teleological terms. In order for talk about the brain to play its proper role in a physicalistic (non-intentional and non-teleological in the final analysis) analysis of mental events, we have to be sure that we are describing a brain that is mechanistic and part of a causally closed physical world. What I wrote in response to Keith Parsons, who had said that we could take what in Philosophia Christi applies here as well: (Parsons had argued that we could simply take all the characteristics that I wanted to attribute to the non-physical mind and attribute them to the brain).
But we should be careful of exactly what is meant by the term “brain.” The “brain” is supposed to be “physical,” and we also have to be careful about what we mean by “physical.” If by physical we mean that it occupies space, then there is nothing in my argument that suggests that I need to deny this possibility. I would just prefer to cal the part of the brain that does not function mechanistically the soul, since, as I understand it, there is more packed into the notion of the physical than just the occupation of space. If on the other hand, for something to be physical (hence part of the brain) it has to function mechanistically, that is, intentional an teleological considerations cannot be basic explanations for the activity of the brain, then Parsons’ suggestion (and Carrier’s as well-VR) is incoherent.
I think that a many people fail to see the difficulties posed by the arguments from reason because they think they can just engage in some brain-talk (well, the brain does this, the brain does that, etc.) and call that good. I call that the brain fallacy. The question should always be, “If we view the brain as a mechanistic system in the full sense, does it make sense to attribute this characteristic to the brain?” Using brain-talk doesn’t mean that the work of physicalistic analysis has really been done.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Coyne attacks Nagel

Here is a discussion of Jerry Coyne's reply to Nagel. He considers it outrageous that an atheist would admit any legitimacy whatsover to Intelligent Design.

Nagel's review of Plantinga's newest book


The path to total skepticism

The path to total skepticism might go like this. We should believe only what we can prove to be true. However, proofs have premises, and we can demand proof for those premises. The premises of the proof of the proof will need proof, as well as the premises of the proof of the proof of the proof, not to mention the premises of the proof of the proof of the proof of the proof. This can go on forever, and therefore we can never reach a point where we can rest in our knowledge. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

C. S. Lewis's Vision of Heaven: Positively Desirable?

A redated post. There is a comment on here from Leah Libresco, back when she was an atheist.

One weakness that Christians have in the modern times, I believe, is providing a vision of heaven that really motivates people. I have often heard it said that the vision of heaven is boring. It must be admitted that Christians have often associated heaven with what seem to many of us to be boring images: harps, clouds, and effeminate figures with wings. At least Islam offers the Celestial Playboy Mansion.

As Kenny Chesney puts it:

Everybody wanna go to heaven
It beats the other place there ain’t no doubt
Everybody wanna go to heaven
But nobody wanna go now

Heaven for many of us is negatively desirable; it is an alternative to eternal punishment and extinction, which seem to be the options. I think Lewis is the one thinker that has done the best job of giving us a picture of heaven that is positively desirable. This is an essay by Charlie Starr, published in the New York C. S. Lewis Society bulletin, which discusses Lewis's views of heaven.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

On Kant's Moral Argument

A redated post.

Kant doesn't say that in order to be moral, you have to be religious. He is someone who thinks that other sorts of rational arguments about God don't decide the question either way (first cause arguments, arguments from evil, etc.) So, on his view, we are left with a choice of believing the world to contain a God, of believing in free will or not , and in believing that humans survive death.
On earth as we know it, virtue and happiness are not proportional. Virtuous people are sometimes miserable, nasty people are sometimes happy. (Think of all the murder cases which are never solved.)
Religious world-views presume the existence of a universe in which there is a future life in which happiness is apportioned according to virtue. Whether it is through a last judgment, or through a law of karma that puts you back on this earth either in good shape or in bad shape depending on your deeds, good prevails and evil fails, eventually.
Or you can accept a naturalistic world-view in which there is no mechanism for balancing the cosmic scales of justice. If wrong triumphs in the course of a lifetime, which is certainly seems to, then the story ends, people die, and feed the worms with no recompense for injustice. Hitler and Mother Teresa are in the same condition. They are dead.
The Kantian argument here strikes me as a distant cousin to Pascal's Wager. In Pascal's wager, you are looking at your own prospects, and "betting" on the world-view that pays off better. (Pascal, like Kant, was addressing the undecided. If your belief system is like that of Richard Dawkins, making yourself believe for either Pascalian or Kantian reasons is not an issue). The difference between the Kantian wager and the Pascalian is that you are "betting" on the world-view that will give you the most moral encouragement. You are not just betting on your own self-interest,, as you are in Pascal's Wager. Kant doesn't assume that you can't be moral without God. Pure practical reason tells you what is right and wrong, according to Kant. However, Kant maintains that you since can't settle the question of God any other way, you ought to choose based on the moral encouragement provided by each world-view.

Sometimes being moral is hard. In fact, all actions with moral worth are, according to Kant, done from duty as opposed to being done in accordance with duty, which means that when you do those actions, your inclinations or emotions are pulling you the other way. In other words, perfoming actions of moral worth, like breaking up, is hard to do. Is it more conducive to making the hard moral decisions we have to make to believe that there is no cosmic justice, or to believe that there is cosmic justice. Kant thinks the choice is a no-brainer, practical reason enjoins us to view the world as cosmically just, and therefore to accept the doctrines of God, freedom, and immortality.

Kant's moral argument for God

Here is Kant's version of the moral argument.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

This is a nice critique of Loftus

Loftus says that Satan would be stupid to rebel against God if he were to exist. But, on another post, he says he would not worship an omnipotent being if he were to exist.

From Randal Rauser.

Nonreligious bases for morality: Is this all there is?

In an important sense, there are two moral motivations that seem to me to be independent of religion. One is our desire to function socially. We want others to treat us well, so we do the same to others. The other is our sympathy and empathy for others. Atheists, like everyone else, have social interests, and natural sympathy for others. But the question then arises, is that all there is to morality?

Darwin, power, and discrimination

 Suppose you lived in a society where certain people were treated as inferiors. The justification this treatment is "It's a dog eat dog world, and as Darwin said, it's survival of the fittest. We have the upper hand, and we have to power to make these other people do what we want. Who's to say that there's anything wrong with that?"

The Declaration of Independence says that we were endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. If you replace the word "creator" with "evolution" in that statement from the declaration, you end up with nonsense. We clearly didn't evolve equally. So, how would you argue against discrimination from a Darwinian perspective? 

Relativism and Divine Commands

It's going to be difficult to be a relativist if you think there is a God who gives binding commandments. If relativism is true, then different individuals or groups think of something as right or wrong, and if so, there is no place for saying that they are really wrong. It is just your opinion or your group's opinion against someone else's opinion. But what if someone in your moral community has the status of God? Could an adulterer say to God "Yes, you say adultery is wrong, but I don't see anything wrong with it myself. Who's to say which of us is right about adultery?" (It's too bad you are not here to hear me give this last statement with my Bill Clinton voice). 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Robin Collins on ID

A redated post. 

This is a paper by Robin Collins, who seems sympathetic to the overall goals of ID but does not consider it to be a scientific theory per se.