Friday, May 31, 2013

Almost Persuaded. Why?

As a musical accompaniment to this discussion, I am linking to the Louvin Brothers' rendition of the traditional hymn "Almost Persuaded."  A most remarkable singing sensation from the 50s and the early 60s, though nearly forgotten now. Although I like their music, I'm sure I would differ with them theologically. This is from Lewis's Surprised by Joy: 

Then I read Chesterton's Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember that I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive "apart from his Christianity." Now, I veritably believe, I thought — I didn't of course say; words would have revealed the nonsense — that Christianity itself was very sensible "apart from its Christianity." But I hardly remember, for I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me. Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. "Rum thing," he went on. "All that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once." To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not-as I would still have put it — "safe," where could I turn? Was there then no escape?

Now, why would an "outsider" like this "hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew" think that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was anywhere near being surprisingly good? Because, in the ancient world, when there is a strong mythological element, you don't find the people who present myth providing lots of times, places and dates. Supernatural claims are not typically embedded in carefully constructed writing aimed at conveying reality. Myths do not occur in recorded history, and stories like Apollonius of Tyana, for example, include things like Apollonius showing up in Nineveh seven centuries after it had been demolished.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Some discussion of burdens of proof (based on a dialogue on Debunking Christianity)

The thread is here. 
That gets down to some very basic issues in epistemology. I did my doctoral work at a highly secular university philosophy program, but the epistemologists and probability theorist that I worked with, who certainly were not religious people, thought that classical foundationalism was a very problematic doctrine, and that the idea that a limited range of beliefs belonged in the "core" while other beliefs had to be proved by evidence, is in fact an unsupportable position.
As a result, they were in general skeptical of the claim that one particular position as opposed to another had "THE burden of proof." To say that the burden of proof lies on one side or another that we know always, what beliefs can be accepted without proof and which ones need to be demonstrated, and that project doesn't look to be achievable. Descartes, for example, said that he would doubt everything and believe only what could be proved, and most people think his project didn't work. He started by doubting sense experience and then had to appeal the theological arguments to defend his belief in an external world. Hume's empiricism left him in a position where he had to "justify" the idea that the future will resemble the past simply by appealing to custom and habit. In other words, we really don't have justification for it. In other words, Hume avoids having to justify the belief that the future will resemble the past by claiming that belief this belief doesn't have the burden of proof.
From this one could conclude that you can show that just about any belief is unjustified simply by putting a heavy enough burden of proof on it. If you could only justifiably believe in the external world if you could prove that you aren't a brain in a vat, that might prove difficult.
So, for example, as I learned Bayesian theory, a popular theory was that prior probabilities were subjective, and that people who had different one could in theory eventually come to a consensus by adjusting their probabilities as evidence came in, but the idea of a "proper starting point" or "correct priors" was considered misguided. One of my teachers (again a religious nonbeliever) said that "you are justified in believing what you already believe, unless you have good reason to change your beliefs." I remember asking him about Descartes method of doubt, and in response he mentioned an ancient Greek skeptic who sat on the marketplace wagging his index finger because he couldn't believe anything. In other words, what I learned from the study of epistemology led me to the conclusion that fixing the burden of proof is pretty difficult, and that it is hard to discover a "proper" position for the burden of proof. There are relative burdens of proof that different individuals have for certain claims, but a "correct" location for the burden of proof seems to me difficult to justify.
So, for example, when I first encountered the Outsider Test for Faith, it looked to me as if it was another case of implying classical foundationalism, or perhaps, applying classical foundationalism to religious belief in a way that it is not applied to other types of beliefs, and some of my early responses to the OTF came from this perspective.
If you think the key to refuting religious belief is to inculcate a proper epistemology, which results in a proper location of the burden of proof, then I am likely to be pretty skeptical of that enterprise, and my skepticism comes not from my religion, but rather from widely held views in epistemology that I got from secular philosophy teachers. I'm not saying that these epistemologists couldn't be wrong, but it might take a little work to convince me that they are wrong. 

  • Friday, May 24, 2013

    Defining success from the standpoint of evolution

    If we succeed in passing on our genes to the next generation, have we succeeded in life? If we fail to do so, have we failed in life? From an evolutionary standpoint,  this  is the definition of success. But is it really? 

    C. S. Lewis and the Desire Not To Have Been

    Some people question whether one could find personal extinction desirable. But C. S. Lewis seems to have. 

    How far was this pessimism, this desire not to have been, sincere? Well, I must confess that this desire quite slipped out of my mind during the seconds when I was covered by the wild Earl's revolver. By the Chestertonian test, then, the test of Manalive, it was not sincere at all. But I am still not convinced by Chesterton's argument. It is true that when a pessimist's life is threatened he behaves like other men; his impulse to preserve life is stronger than his judgment that life is not worth preserving. But how does this prove that the judgment was insincere or even erroneous? A man's judgment that whisky is bad for him is not invalidated by the fact that when the bottle is at hand he finds desire stronger than reason and succumbs. Having once tasted life, we are subjected to the impulse of self-preservation. Life, in other words, is as habit-forming as cocaine. What then? If I still held creation to be "a great injustice" I should hold that this impulse to retain life aggravates the injustice. If it is bad to be forced to drink the potion, how does it mend matters that the potion turns out to be an addiction drug? Pessimism cannot be answered so. Thinking as I then thought about the universe, I was reasonable in condemning it. At the same time I now see that my view was closely connected with a certain lopsidedness of temperament. I had always been more violent in my negative than in my positive demands. Thus, in personal relations, I could forgive much neglect more easily than the least degree of what I regarded as interference. At table I could forgive much insipidity in my food more easily than the least suspicion of what seemed to me excessive or inappropriate seasoning. In the course of life I could put up with any amount of monotony far more patiently than even the smallest disturbance, bother, bustle, or what the Scotch call kurfuffle. Never at any age did I clamor to be amused; always and at all ages (where I dared) I hotly demanded not to be interrupted. The pessimism, or cowardice, which would prefer nonexistence itself to even the mildest unhappiness was thus merely the generalization of all these pusillanimous preferences. And it remains true that I have, almost all my life, been quite unable to feel that horror of nonentity, of annihilation, which, say, Dr. Johnson felt so strongly. I felt it for the first time only in 1947. But that was after I had long been reconverted and thus begun to know what life really is and what would have been lost by missing it.

    C. S. Lewis Surprised By Joy,  p. 116. 

    Thursday, May 23, 2013

    Camus on Suicide

    There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. 

    -Albert Camus

    Tom Gilson replies to Barbara Forrest on Naturalism

    This is Tom Gilson's critique of a Barbara Forrest essay in defense of naturalism. I had linked to the essay and suggested that it was a huge exercise in begging the question.

    Friday, May 17, 2013

    Why naturalism excludes the supernatural

    The problem with naturalism excluding the supernatural is that, at least in one sense, it's trivially true. Of course if everything is natural, then the supernatural is excluded. But that doesn't tell me, by itself, what is natural and what is supernatural. If God could be a theoretical entity in a scientific explanation, then we could say that whatever appears in a scientific explanation is natural, and therefore God is a natural entity. If you say God can't be a theoretical entity in a scientific explanation, then you have to come up with characteristics of God that require God's exclusion.

    Thursday, May 16, 2013

    What would physical proof of God look like?

    Would would it be like to physically prove that there is a God? It seems to me that whatever appeared to us physically, we could draw the conclusion that whatever it is, it isn't God? It would, for example, have to occupy space, but God is not supposed to be a being with a location. 

    The Stanford Encyclopedia Entry on Naturalism

    Written by well-known naturalist defender David Papineau. 

    Wednesday, May 15, 2013

    A rebuttal to the wishful thinking objection

    The Wishful Thinking Argument seems to be becoming more prevalent these days. My inclination is to say "circumstantial ad hominem" and be done with it. But it may not be quite that simple.

    Here is a discussion of it.

    Saturday, May 11, 2013

    Friday, May 10, 2013

    Law Contra Dawkins on the Value of Philosophy


    The Trouble with Materialism

    A redated post.

    This is a follow-up to my previous post, The Concept of Matter

    I see a fundamental problem that is going to plague any materialist account of the mind. Materialists often piggy-back the case for materialism on the success of reductive analyses in science. But let's take one of the most successful scientific reductions, the reduction of heat in a gas to the mean kinetic energy of that gas. From one perspective, this reduction appears to explain heat away, in particular the element of heat that feels warm. By knowing that the air molecules are moving faster we can infer nothing about the fact that people are more likely to take their jackets off when that happens. They also feel warmer. But that, says science, is not an intrinsic feature of heat that is what happens to human minds in the face of heat. By siphoning off secondary qualities to the mind, the mechanistic reduction of heat is enabled. But when we get to the mind, we have no place to siphon of the "mental" properties.

    Edward Feser writes:

    One result of this is that materialists have, in the view of their critics, a tendency to give accounts of mental phenomena that leave out everything essential to them: qualia, consciousness, thought and intentionality get redefined in physicalistic terms, with the consequence that materialist analyses convey the impression that the materialist has changed the subject, and failed genuinely to explain the phenomenon the analysis was supposed to account for. This is arguably the deep source of the difficulties that have plagued materialist philosophies of mind. If the materialist conception of explanation entails always stripping away from the phenomenal to be accounted for anything that smacks of subjectivity, meaning, or mind-dependence, then a materialist “explanation” of the mind itself will naturally seem to strip away the very essence of the phenomena to be explained. Being, at bottom, attempts to explain the mental in terms that are intrinsically non-mental, such would-be explanations appear implicitly to deny the mental; that is to say, they end up being disguised forms of eliminative materialism. Some professedly non-eliminativist philosophers of mind come close to admitting this: Fodor, for instance, has famously written that “If aboutness (that is, intentionality) is real, it must really be something else.”

    A Short Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (Oxford; Oneworld, 2005) pp. 172-173,

    This results in an interesting phenomenon; materialist philosophers attempt to give an account of some mental phenomenon. But either they implicitly bring in the very concepts they are trying to explain materialistically, or they give an account of the mental phenomenon in which the phenomenon to be explained isn’t recognizable. A good example would be Richard Carrier’s critique of my book where time after time he claims that intentionality can be explained in physicalistic terms while using one intentional concept after another to explain intentionality!

    Thursday, May 09, 2013

    More on atheism and reproduction


    Therefore, the empirical irony remains: The more Atheism is flourishing numerically, the more Religion(s) are winning out evolutionarily.

    If there's a God, he seems to sport a certain sense of humour...

    HT: Bob Prokop

    Lynne Baker's self-refutation argument against eliminative materialism

    Here. Materialist philosophers are loth to accept this kind of argument against eliminativism, in my view, because if it proves to be correct, then if it turns out that reconciliations between our mental life and materialism fail, there is no fall-back position, and "retentive" materialists would actually reject materialism in order to believe in science.

    Sunday, May 05, 2013

    Does Kierkegaard's "leap of faith" support the atheist idea that faith is belief without evidence?

    One would have thought that the atheists at least have Kierkegaard on their side on this issue. But maybe not. 

    The article winds up with a discussion of Kierkegaard's notion of the leap of faith. This mind tend to make one think that faith means the irrational acceptance of of a proposition with no evidence.SK says faith is irrational and that it's achieved by an irrational leap. Yet one must note that the leap itself is an epistemological ploy, it's an attempt to get over the final chasm which can't be bridged by evidence or logic. The road up to the final gap can be paved with argument and reason. One can make a find philosophical diving board to prepare for the leap. The point at which one makes the leap can be narrowed. The leap is always there. Even in the world view there are epistemic blind alleys from which there are no returns. So in the final analysis there is no basis to the atheist straw man definition of faith as "believing things without evidence."

    Thursday, May 02, 2013

    There. Somebody said it!

    Exactly what people swear up and down that Dawkins never said. 

    Somehow—and this will never happen, of course—it should be illegal to indoctrinate children with religious belief.- Jerry Coyne

    The argument from divine hiddenness: A noseeum argument at best?

    1. Suppose that God exists—that is, suppose that
    there is a perfectly powerful, perfectly wise
    being who loves us like a perfect parent.
    2. God is mostly hidden from people: Our evidence is inconclusive; religious experience of the interesting and unambiguous sort is rare.
    3. There is no good reason for God to remain hidden.
    4. If God is mostly hidden and there is no good reason for God to remain hidden, then one of
    the following is true:
    a. God exists but, like a negligent father, does not love us enough to make himself known.
    b. God exists but, like an inept lover, lacks the wisdom to appreciate the importance or proper way of revealing himself to us.
    c. God exists but is too weak to reveal himself in the ways that he should in order to secure his relational goals.
    5. Premises (1)–(4) are inconsistent.
    6. Therefore: God does not exist.

    Can Steven Wykstra's critique of  noseeum arguments, which he develops in response to the problem of evil, be applied here? 

    In the Midwest we have "noseeums" — tiny flies which, while having a painful bite, are so small you "no see 'um." We also have Rowe's inductive argument for atheism. Rowe holds that the theistic God would allow suffering only if doing so serves some outweighing good. But is there some such good for every instance of suffering? Rowe thinks not. There is much suffering, he says, for which we see no such goods; and this, he argues, inductively justifies believing that for some sufferings there are no such goods. Since it gives such bite to what we cannot see, I call this a "noseeum argument" from evil. ("Rowe's Noseeum Arguments from Evil", in The Evidential Argument from Evil, p. 126.)

    In other words, if we can't see why God would not make himself more obvious, is that sufficient grounds for rejecting his existence? Should we expect to know the answer to this, if theism is true?

    Wednesday, May 01, 2013

    Lovejoy on Behaviorism

    This is a 1920s precursor to the argument from reason.

    HT: Steve Hays.

    Motive arguments and Mutual Assured Destruction

    My claim is that everyone's belief choices are partly the result of reflection, and partly the result of motives, of which none of us are fully aware. No one side in the discussion has a monopoly on rational or nonrational motives. So motive arguments are a wash, and if they are introduced in place of actual arguments, the result is mutual assured destruction, since each side can "bomb" the other with an equal measure of motive arguments, and blow up the discussion permanently.