Friday, July 10, 2020

Closing the door to refugees, including Christians

Apparently Trump is not the supporter of religious freedom he claims to be.


Thursday, July 09, 2020

How do we decide who comes to America?

 When we consider who can enter our country, should we consider the happiness of our citizens primarily, or should the happiness of potential immigrants also be considered? 

Why our children (and my students) don't think there are moral facts


Difficulty and Ethical Truth

A theory like  utilitarianism is a serious attempt to get the right answer on issues like immigration. It says that the correct policy is the one that produces the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. And since illegal immigrants enjoy pleasure and suffer pain, their pleasure and pain counts just as much as the pleasure and pain of a US citizen.

Now maybe utilitarians are wrong, but it is one way to approach the issue. 

It is important not to confuse the difficulty of finding an answer with the lack of moral truth. Difficult moral issues take work to think through, and not everyone is going to agree. But that doesn't mean that no one has it right, or that there is no "right" to be found. 

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Drawing the line on statues

Washington and Jefferson were slaveowners, and Lincoln didn't really believe that black people were equal, though he opposed slavery. Yet these people's contributions seem to make it worth keeping their statues up. But the same kind of argument can be made on behalf of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee, though there is a difference of degree here. Nevertheless, this does raise the question, where do you draw  the line, and why? 

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Josh McDowell's Maximum Sex

What difference does religion make to morality? 

Sexual morality seems to be the most obvious area in which religious believers differ from nonreligious people.  When I was young, Christian groups had a lot of leaders had presentations defending traditional Christian views on sex. But they seemed to spend a lot of time arguing that saving sex for marriage was good for you in the long run, so it wasn't presented as something you just do just because God says so. I remember Josh McDowell doing a presentation at ASU entitled Maximum Sex, the idea being that sex within marriage is "maximum" because it fits best with the way God designed us. 

On the other hand, traditionally people appealed to religious beliefs to justify our belief that everyone should be treated equally. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are CREATED equal, and were endowed by the CREATOR with certain inalienable rights. But what if we weren't created? Do we still have inalienable rights?

Does the law of noncontradiction apply to moral statements?

Moral statements include such statements as "It is wrong to inflict pain on little children for you own amusement." Is this relative? Suppose you and Hannibal Lecter are having a disagreement about whether or not it is OK to invite someone over for dinner, shove them in the oven, and cook them AS dinner. When Hannibal tells you he has no trouble with the idea, can  you honestly look  him in the eye and say "Well that disgusts me. But who am I to say what's really right or wrong?" But unless the law of noncontradiction can apply to moral statements, isn't that what you have to say? 
Suppose there is a God who has actually said that certain things are wrong. Would that make it the case that it was really wrong, or is God's opinion no better than anyone else's?

Relativism: There are no moral facts

If relativism is true, that means that there are no moral facts, and no means no. That applies to serial murder as well as to premarital sex. NO statement about what ought or ought not to be done can be objectively true or false. ALL of them are relative either to personal preference, or to societal preference. 

Friday, July 03, 2020

Two Kinds of Religious Influence on Morality: General and Specific

Religion can affect morality in a couple different ways. One way is through general religious beliefs, such as the belief in a life after death of some kind where the outcome is calibrated to conduct in this life (heaven and hell, or reincarnation), the idea that a Being who is interested in whether people act rightly or wrongly is in control of the universe, the idea that God created human being in order for those humans to behave in certain ways, etc.
One way to understand the difference this might make for morality is to consider what it is like to deny all these claims. If you say there is no God, no life after death, and perhaps even no free will, the implication is that what whether a person is a serial killer or a great human benefactor, the final outcome of your life is to go out of existence when you die. Hence serial killers and saints end up in the same condition. In addition, on some atheistic views, we are purely physical beings, and hence our actions are all determined by the laws of  physics. Given the prior positions of the physical atoms that make us up and make up the rest of the universe, when we act, we could not have done otherwise from what we did. If that is so, then it seems a little difficult to say that anything that anyone does is really their fault, or is to their credit, since serial killer and public benefactor alike do exactly what nature caused them to do.
This might lead you to think that no nonreligious people have any morals, but the fact is that they are still motivated by two things: 1) natural sympathy for others and 2) the social  usefulness of moral behavior. 
However, there is another kind of religious moral influence, and that is the specific teachings of particular religious groups which they take to be revealed by God. But they differ on how they interpret these. People often think of strictures against homosexuality when they think of these things. (The Bible also says "Thou shalt not murder," but this isn't, for the most part, an issue between religious and nonreligious people). Some religious groups think that homosexual conduct is wrong AND that homosexual orientation is a disorder that they should do everything the can to fix through, for example conversion therapy. The second view is that homosexual conduct is wrong, but homosexual orientation is a condition that doesn't need to be fixed, it just means that God has called that person to a celibate life. (Hence a gay person can come out as gay without being condemned just for having that orientation, so long as you don't engage in any homosexual acts). The third view is that a properly committed gay relationship, along the lines of the traditional  Christian heterosexual marriage can be God's will for some people of homosexual orientation. 

Thursday, July 02, 2020

The Outsider Test for Faith, and News

John Loftus, as we all know, uses an argument which he calls the Outsider Test for Faith. He claims that since people are influenced by where they were born as to what their religious beliefs are, you should believe only what you can prove objectively from the point of view of an outsider (that is, someone who holds no supernatural beliefs whatsoever.)  He thinks that since no supernatural claims meet that standard, you therefore ought to become an atheist.
But other beliefs seem to depend on where you were born. For example, my belief that the United States is good and not evil depends on the fact that I was born in America. If I were born in an Arab country,  I might think of the US as Satan America.
Not only that, but even our belief that there is a physical world is affected by where we were born. In India,  you are more likely to have the belief that our experience of the physical world is Maya, or illusion. Do you believe that there is a real physical world? 
Though I wonder if there couldn't be a case made for the Outsider Test for News. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Trump's disrespect for the disabled

Trump not only mocked a disabled reporter, he got his brother, who suffered from cerebral palsy and died at the age of 42, disinherited, and tried to get take away his grand-nephew's health insurance, who also suffers from cerebral palsy.

My friend Joe Sheffer had cerebral palsy and passed away in 1989, at the age of 36, so this infuriates me even more than most things Trump has done.

And then there's taking braille off the elevators at Trump Tower.

This is about his niece's forthcoming book.

Her antipathy towards her uncle long predates his foray into populist rightwing politics. When Trump’s father, Fred Trump Sr, died, his will distributed his estate among his children and their offspring with the exception of his son Fred Trump Jr. The children of Fred Jr objected that they had been included an earlier will, written before Fred Sr was diagnosed with dementia, and took legal action.
Mary told the New York Daily News that her aunt and uncles “should be ashamed of themselves”. And soon after the lawsuit was filed, Trump changed a health insurance policy so that Fred Jr’s grandson, who had cerebral palsy, lost coverage. Eventually the lawsuit was settled and the child regained health insurance.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Left and Right

If you want a good compendium of what people on the right believe, this is good, from Chad McIntosh. 

On the liberal side, this is Dustin Crummett's  presentation.

If you believe what a conservative believes, should you support Trump. That is the challenging question I am struggling with. I would like to argue that you should not vote for Trump even if you believe everything McIntosh believes. I think I am right, though, concede all of McIntosh's position, you should still prefer Biden to Trump.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Orange Man Great, or Orange Man the Best We Can Do

It seems to me that there are different ways of supporting Trump. One kind of supporter is the real MAGA supporter who really thinks that talking about grabbing the you-know-what was just locker room talk, who thinks that all the self-absorbed twitter posts have a deep and valuable purpose, who think that children in cages was just law and order, who think that his relationship with the Russians wasn't just not a conspiracy, it was wrong to even start counterintelligence investigations into it, who thinks that not only wasn't the call to Zelensky not sufficient grounds for removal from the Presidency, it was a perfect call, who think that Trump's leadership with respect to COVID-19 is really good, (and the virus is all China's fault), who think that when he tweeted about shooting looters he was just affirming our Second Amendment rights. This is the Orange Man Great perspective.

I think this viewpoint is delusional, in much the sense that Dawkins wrongly thinks that belief in God is delusional.

But other people think that even though Trump isn't the Best of All Possible Leaders, he is preferable to anything the Democrats have to offer. This might be due to his anti-abortion activity, or because of his court appointments, or because of his tax cuts, his deregulation policies, etc., he is preferable to the alternative. In addition, he, unlike McCain and Romney, actually won his election, being better at appealing at the emotional level to people than his Republican predecessors. Still, he has plenty of failings, but they will support him and vote for him anyway, holding their nose with respect to some things.

The prevailing defense against the impeachment case was that, yeah, Trump did something wrong in his dealing with the  Ukrainians, but it wasn't sufficient for the drastic step of removing the President from office. But the Trump campaign is doing its best to try to get everyone to forget that.

But those in the second category have to be concerned that Trump will continue to make foolish comments and actions that will throw away the November election, if it has not been thrown away already. Showing as much compassion for COVID victims as George W. Bush would have shown might have been sufficient to given him an edge over Biden, but that is not the leader that we have. Making foolish comments about opening up a cold case against a television commentator for murder is another unforced error. The lead the Biden has over Trump in the polls, both nationally and in the battleground states, is the result of Trump's mistakes. He was taken of Twitter by his campaign in the waning days of the 2016 campaign (the most brilliant move in the history of Presidential campaigns).  The only hope he has of re-election is if the campaign makes the same decision for him NOW. But there is no way they can insist on that at this point, now that he is a sitting President.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

When American Christians were Socialists

Does Christianity have socialist overtones? When I was young, communists were the bad guys, who were atheists, so the idea was that you should be the opposite of that, namely, Christians and supporters of capitalism. But do Christianity and capitalism go together?

This is from a book by Page Smith entitled Rediscovering Christianity

"It is the main purpose of this work to demonstrate what should never have been in question, namely, that Christianity has always been resistant to capitalism, to the "spirit of capitalism," to capitalism in whatever form it presented itself."

This a link to an essay in Sojourners called "When American Christians were Socialists." 

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Trump or Jesus?

"Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer ... Yes, Mayor Koch, I want to hate these murderers and I always will. ... How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!"--Donald Trump, 1989.
Matthew 5:43-48 New International Version (NIV)
Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Let me ask one more time. Who is right, Trump or Jesus? At most, only one of them can be.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Access Hollywood and the Smoking Gun: Why is it different today?

 Historically, ordinary Democrats and ordinary Republicans thought of themselves as engaged in an in-house quarrel amongst people who agree on certain basics, such as the rule of law, freedom of speech and the press, etc. Thus, Republicans would prefer to be ruled by Democrats than by Fascists, and Democrats would prefer to be ruled by Republicans than by Fascists. Further, it was thought better to have someone win of decent character who is from the other party than have someone of bad character from one's own party win. Now, I think, a lot of people are in doubt about this. Republicans and Democrats see the elections in apocalyptic terms--the other party threatens civilization as we know it, so we have to win, no matter who we have on our side and who they have on theirs. I have been struggling to figure out why, for example, the Access Hollywood tape was no absolutely curtains for Trump, the way the Smoking Gun Tape was curtains for Richard Nixon. And the only thing that comes to my mind is that in Nixon's time politics was an in-house quarrel between people who thought they believed the same things and differ about how we go about getting those things done, while now, for many, politics is, like Star Wars, a simple tale of good and evil, and losing to the other side the worst that could possibly happen.

The George Floyd Defense

Has anyone been actually suggesting a "George Floyd defense" (a descendant of the Twinkie Defense) for people who commit property crimes in the wake of the George Floyd incident? Who actually has said this? I don't mean a generalized "people on the left," I mean real statements by real people.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Is this conservatism?

Trying to get a fix on what exactly constitutes a genuine conservative position seems to be getting harder and harder these days. The "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush is an interesting idea--the idea that the government should encourage private agencies to help the poor rather than do it themselves. But what about this, from conservative Christian activist Rebecca Friedrichs.

We should look to the past. So, let’s just take the free lunch program that we have in our schools. It started out being pushed by the unions and their friends for poor children. Well, 28 years ago, I had two students in my class on free lunch. Today almost every single child is on free breakfast and free lunch. So what the unions are trying to do, they’re pushing something called community schools. And in these community schools, we’re giving children free health care, we’re giving them free food, free emotional support, and by the way free political indoctrination for their parents. And so, if these unions and their friends, their politicians, get their way, they would like our schools to be open 24/7. They want to replace the family and families raising their children with our own virtues, they want to replace that with the state. With union-controlled government-run schools. That’s dangerous. That’s communism when you think about it.

This is discussed here on an atheist website.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Is there a charitable interpretation for this?


This is my translation.

"If we test fewer people for coronavirus, fewer people will be diagnosed with it, and if they die, fewer of their death will be attributed to the coronavirus. They'll be just as dead, but at least the coronavirus numbers won't get higher, and it won't hurt my re-election prospects."

Uncharitable? Sure. TDS? Maybe,  But how do you interpret it?

An officially pro-choice church: The United Church of Christ


Other churches, surely, do not agree with them.

Why Pluto lost it planet status

Why Pluto lost its planethood.


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The age of the earth

Here is some discussion on Christianity and the age of the earth. But there are those who think that the Bible requires you to believe that the earth is only about 6000 years old. What that means is that light from stars more than 6000 light years away must have been created by God in mid-flight. 
This is a defense of the young earth position.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Is materialism the ultimate in science denial?

But, more seriously, it seems to me that there have to be in existence unitary selves in existence in order for the rational and mathematical inferences necessary for science to take place. Some single entity has to entertain successive thoughts in order to, say, prove the Pythagorean Theorem, or infer natural selection from finch beaks on the Galapagos Islands. If there is no single, unitary being called Charles Darwin who observes the beaks, and then creates a theory to explain how the beaks turned out to be the way they are, then no one actually ever finds out that evolution is true. The materialism that is supposed to be based on the successes of the scientific enterprise is actually inconsistent with the possibility of science. It is as if science-lovers have forgotten that scientists have to exist in order to have science, and their materialism, taken to its logical conclusion, is the ultimate in science-denial. (Chesterton would love this).

Sunday, April 26, 2020

If naturalism is true, do I really exist?

I don't see, how, if naturalism is true, there can be "me" now. I can't see how they can believe in a metaphysically real entity that ceases to exist when a person dies. If naturalism is true, I think you'd have to conclude that there were no persons in the first place.

             Susan Blackmore: 

Each illusory self is a construct of the memetic world in which it successfully competes. Each selfplex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is something inside that is in charge.
Steven Pinker: 
Each illusory self is a construct of the memetic world in which it successfully competes. Each selfplex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is something inside that is in charge. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

What does causation look like in a world without design?

Consider what happens when I am at the bottom of a mountain and rocks are falling down the mountain in an avalanche. Will the rocks avoid my head because they want to spare me, or hit me because they think I deserve to get my head smashed in? No, they will blindly follow what the laws of physics require that they do, given their trajectory and velocity. If physical determinism is true, the laws and facts, which are blind to purposes of any kind, guarantee all future states. Any even that occurs other than those which the laws and facts require would be, in fact, in a significant sense, miraculous. But what if the physical level is not deterministic, on the basis of some quantum mechanical indeterminism? Even there, a cause which introduces design at the basic level of analysis still introduces a miracle to the blind universe.

Consider the falling rock example once again. What if I look up to see the avalanche headed straight for me, and I see no way of escape. I am, I conclude, certain to be crushed by the rocks. But then, to my surprise, the rocks veer away from me and go someplace else. Probably as a Christian, I would see this as a divine miracle. But even if I were not a Christian, I would at the very least see this change in the direction of the rocks as the work of someone with a mind, and the technological capability of redirecting the pathway of the rocks, perhaps some benevolent aliens from another planet. 

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The argument from reason and the triangular garden

Consider, for example, a person who figures out the area of her triangular backyard garden using the Pythagorean Theorem. She decides how much of various kinds of seeds to purchase, in part, because of the area she has calculated for the garden she is going to plant. So, protons, neutrons, and electrons in her body, not to mention other protons, neutrons and electrons, are in certain places because of her knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem. The Pythagorean Theorem is the ground of the beliefs she comes to hold, which produce considerable effects in the physical world. But, if the physical is causally closed, how does the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem have to do with the occurrence of her belief as a psychological event? Protons, neutrons, and electrons are determined, not by the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem, but by the physical laws governing protons, neutrons and electrons. The Theorem is not in space and time, but protons, neutrons, and electrons are affected only by things that are in space and time. Therefore, if naturalism is true, she cannot have used the Pythagorean Theorem to lay out her backyard garden. Since she did use the Theorem, naturalism is false.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Nagel on Dennett, with some further explanation from Lewontin

I am reminded of the Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Dennett asks us to turn our backs on what is glaringly obvious—that in consciousness we are immediately aware of real subjective experiences of color, flavor, sound, touch, etc. that cannot be fully described in neural terms even though they have a neural cause (or perhaps have neural as well as experiential aspects). And he asks us to do this because the reality of such phenomena is incompatible with the scientific materialism that in his view sets the outer bounds of reality. He is, in Aristotle’s words, “maintaining a thesis at all costs.”


‘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 the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, 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 for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow 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 explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, 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 could believe in God could 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.1 [Emphasis in original.]

What if someone were to say that about the Bible? 

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.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Does abortion take a human life?

Does abortion take a human life? Well, it results in a death, and that death is the death of a member of the species homo sapiens, not canis familiaris or felis domesticus.

But does taking the life of a species member have the same moral gravity as taking the life of a two-year-old, as the hard pro-life line implies? Given that to get an abortion a mother stops providing a life support system for another life, with the potential for harm to herself in so doing, this is a relevant factor in decreasing the moral gravity of abortion. Another is the fact that the fetus, at least until very late in the pregnancy after most abortions have already taken place, this is another factor that, to my mind seriously mitigates the gravity of abortion. So I am disinclined to use murder rhetoric to talk about abortion. There is, I suppose a sense we could attach to the word "murder" which applies to any instance in which we take the life of a member of homo sapiens and there is not sufficient justification to support the action as at least morally equivalent to the alternative action. But I think the word has connotations that go beyond that definition, which I prefer to avoid.

At the same time, just because the biographical life of the fetus has not begun, and it only has its biological life, does that mean that nothing is lost in an abortion? I know the hard pro-choice position tries to defend this, but I cannot. I think there is a significant loss when something that develops through a natural process into a human person, and is a human entity, is destroyed. So, abortion is bad, though under conceivable circumstances it may not be wrong, in that the alternative action, carrying the pregnancy to term, may do more harm than abortion. But, I suspect, these cases are not in the majority. Most abortions, I think, are less moral than the alternative.

Nobody is going to be satisfied with this. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

How many abortion question are there? Actually five

I actually think there isn’t one question of abortion (are you pro-life or pro-choice. There’s five (!). 

Here are the theses at issue:
1) Is abortion bad? That is, to it cost something from a moral standpoint that should require serious moral considerations in order to justify it? (I think obviously yes, but not everyone on the pro-choice side agrees).

2) Are abortions wrong? Here we are looking at it from the standpoint of moral decision-making. Under what circumstances, if there are any, are abortions justified from a moral standpoint.

3) Is anti-abortion legislation morally appropriate? In particular, should we be putting people in jail to prevent abortions? This issue determines whether the pro-life or pro-choice label can be applied, as I understand it.

4) Is anti-abortion legislation constitutionally feasible? You can give pro-life answers to 1-3, but then say that since Roe was rightly decided as a matter of Constitutional law, we would need an amendment to overturn it. Of course, pro-lifers typically think that Roe was the product of a departure from the One True Jurisprudential Theory, which is Scalia-style originalism. So if we get enough Scalia-style originalists on the Court, we should be able to get Roe overturned and then abortion legislation will be determined by democratic choice on a state-by-state basis.

5) Should we prioritize abortion as a reason for voting? I have heard the argument that even if I agree with the Democrats on all other policy questions, even if I think that the Democratic candidate is a decent guy (or gal), and I think the Republican candidate is the biggest jerk that ever walked this earth, I ought to vote for the Republican candidate in order to save those babies.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Just the facts, ma'am

At a time when we need facts the most, we have a President who has yet to affirm three indisputable facts: 1)  that he did not get the turnout for his inauguration that his predecessor Obama did when he was elected, 2) that Hillary beat him fair and square in the Popular Vote (even if you think the Electoral College is just great, claiming that Hillary only won the popular vote because of illegals voting is a refusal to come to terms with indisputable facts), and 3) am that illegal Russian interference in the US election took place, and was aimed at enhancing his election prospects against Hillary in hopes of either putting him in office or undermining the legitimacy of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Facts matter, and they matter now more than ever. And having a President who is not on speaking terms with facts is one of the most devastating features of the present crisis.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Daniel Dennett and the Skyhook ban

In an exchange on the Argument from Reason between myself atheist philosopher David Kyle Johnson, both in the volume C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con, and in a subsequent exchange I had with him in Philosophia Christi; there emerges a significant issue as to exactly what the argument from reason targets. In Lewis’s book Miracles he calls the target position naturalism, and he contrasts that with supernaturalism. For Johnson, naturalism is the view that the natural world is whatever makes up the universe. Hence, he says, “if a person believes that the mental is a fundamental element or property of that which makes up the universe, and believes that the mental is causally operating at the basic level, then that person is a naturalist.”
But I think there is more to it than that.  There is a significant viewpoint in philosophy and science which is very insistent on denying that the mental operates at the basic level. As I have indicated earlier, this thrust is largely responsible for the increased popularity of atheism since the publication of Origin of Species. The problem is, as I pointed out with the example of the rocks falling down on my head, for most of nature the mental is not thought to be anything that operates at the physical level, and it is widely held that nothing other than the initial position of the basic particles, whatever they and the laws that govern those basic particles, constitute a closed system of causation, and nothing other than these can determine where, for example, the particles in my left arm will be on Sunday morning. Thus even if I could truly say “I went to church on Sunday because I believe the teachings of Christianity and wanted to worship God,” I cannot explain the presence of the atoms and molecules in my body in ways that do not, in the last analysis, reduce down to the mindless movements of fundamental particles in accordance with the laws of physics. In the last analysis, the laws of physics, not the rules of conduct by which I live my life, govern the actions of the basic particles of my body.
When I wrote my book defending the Argument from Reason, I entitled it C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, obviously in response to Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Interestingly enough, Jim Slagle entitled his book about arguments of this sort The Epistemological Skyhook, which again makes reference to Dennett’s book. The reason for this is not hard to understand. For Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea is that in explaining the world, we must operate from the ground up, not from the top down, using cranes instead of skyhooks. As he explains:
Let us understand that a skyhook is a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design and apparent design is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless, mechanicity.
On the other hand,
A crane, in contrast, is a subprocess or special feature of a design process that can be demonstrated to permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection, and that can be demonstrated to be itself the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product of the basic process, (p. 76, italics in original)
              Now, I was very surprised to see Johnson, in our most recent exchange, characterize Dennett’s resistance to skyhooks as an argument that divine minds are not causally operative. He writes:
For example, he takes naturalists’ arguments that divine minds are not causally operative to be arguments that human minds are not causally operative. This is especially clear when he quotes Dennett talking about Darwin. Reppert thinks that his skepticism about “meaning” entails that he is eliminating human mentality from the natural world; but Dennett makes I absolutely clear that he is talking about meaning “in the existentialist sense” (as in “the meaning of life,” or “the purpose of the world”). Darwin argues that the world was not designed for a purpose (like the creation of intelligent life) by an intelligent designer—not that it lacks mentality at the basic level.
            Dennett is an atheist, and of course a member of the “four horsemen,” of New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens being the others, but Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is not primarily an atheist polemic. The Darwinian critique of divine design is for the most part presupposed throughout the book. Instead, Dennett spends most of the book criticizing people who aren’t religious believers, but somehow are shy about applying the Dangerous Idea; people like Searle, Gould, Penrose, and Chomsky. They may be philosophical naturalists, but they fall into viewpoints that involve skyhooks, and thus they are inconsistent naturalists whose nerve has failed.Most importantly, Dennett insists on applying the Skyhook Ban to every area, including our understanding of mind.
            Long before Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, explicates the Skyhook Ban in an essay entitled “Why the Law of Effect Will Not Go Away,” where is explicitly applies the Ban to our account of the mind.
Psychology of course must not be question-begging. It must not explain intelligence in terms of intelligence, for instance by assuming responsibility for the existence of intelligence to the munificence of an intelligent creator, or by putting clever homunculi at the control panels of the nervous system. If that were the best psychology could do, then psychology could not do the job assigned to it.
            Well, what “job” is Dennett assigning to psychology? He claims that the social sciences, which are intentional in nature, depend on the science of psychology. But the task of psychology is to explain intelligence, and it has to explain in terms of a universe which at its base lacks intelligence. Whether we explain intelligence in terms of intelligent design, or by putting homunculi in the nervous system, (that is, providing a ground-level intentional explanation that does not appeal to a transcendent being), we would be committing what Dennett would later deride as a skyhook.
            What I have called C. S. Lewis’s dangerous idea, by contrast, is the idea that a consistent application of the Skyhook Ban to the mind undermines the very explanations that thinkers need to apply to their own reasoning in order for it to provide a rational foundation for what they believe. If none of our beliefs can be traced back to skyhooks, then reason is explained away. Thus, if the watchmaker is really blind, then Dawkins wouldn’t know that it. But since we do have knowledge, (a claim you can’t abandon without undercutting science) and we do form beliefs based on reasons, the skyhook ban cannot be fully and completely implemented.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Against the blind watchmaker

The title of one of Richard Dawkins’s books is entitled The Blind Watchmaker, but its subtitle is How the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a World without Design. The subtitle, it seems to me, makes a paradoxical claim. On the one hand, it maintains we ought to draw the conclusion that the world lacks design. On the other hand, the subtitle suggests that he has reached this conclusion through examining the evidence of evolution, but examining the evidence is a process designed to discover the truth. In fact, Dawkins is fond of contrasting his own methods for reaching conclusions with methods based on faith, which to his mind involve a lack of design. But if the world really is without design, how is this possible? Of course, it could turn out that the paradox is resolvable. But the attempt to ban teleology from the bioverse, but then to insist that one’s own convictions are justified because a kind of teleological explanation can be given for these convictions, is a fact that, at the very least stands in need of explanation.
The paradox is certainly not Dawkins’s alone. Bertrand Russell maintained that we were products of forces that had no prevision of the end they were achieving, and that we were accidental collocations of atoms, yet insisted that, if it were to turn out that God did exist, God was in fact remiss for providing us insufficient evidence for his existence, again implying that human beings are the sorts of beings who can choose one belief over another believe because the evidence for one is better than the evidence for the other.
One apparent resolution to this paradox is to make the point that the design Dawkins professes to be absent from the world is divine design, coming from a being transcendent to the universe. What he does not intend to deny, perhaps, is human design, functioning within the physical universe and having no transcendent source. 
However, this response is not sufficient. To understand why, we have to look at what causation looks like in a world without design. Consider what happens when I am at the bottom of a mountain and rocks are falling down the mountain in an avalanche. Will the rocks avoid my head because they want to spare me, or hit me because they think I deserve to get my head smashed in? No, they will blindly follow what the laws of physics require that they do, given their trajectory and velocity. If physical determinism is true, the laws and facts, which are blind to purposes of any kind, guarantee all future states. Any even that occurs other than those which the laws and facts require would be, in fact, in a significant sense, miraculous. But what if the physical level is not deterministic, on the basis of some quantum mechanical indeterminism? Even there, a cause which introduces design at the basic level of analysis still introduces a miracle to the blind universe.
One could reply that one pattern of movement on the part of basic particles is the acceptance of evidence, while another pattern of movement of basic particles is the rejection of evidence. But evidence is not a fundamental force in the universe, at least as understood by science. The basic causes of the universe operative in the universe, at least according to standard science, operate blindly, with to quote Russell, no prevision of the end they are achieving.
Indeed the impetus toward atheism in over the past 160 years has been powered by Darwin’s theory of evolution and the plausibility of replacing explanations in terms of design with design-free explanations, the idea that time, chance variation, and natural selection can produce results that might appear on the face of things to be the result of intelligent design. Indeed, Dawkins remarked, reportedly, remarked to A. J. Ayer that “although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In the intellectually fulfilled atheist world, it is still possible to talk about “design” in the biosphere, but that design-talk is not literally true, since such design claims are merely placeholders for an account in terms of blind forces such as random variation and natural selection.
Darwinian biology replaces or promises to replace design explanations with non-design explanations in it diachronic explanations of how rational agents come into existence, going from no life at all, to one-celled living things, to animal life, and finally to the transition from animal life to humans with the mental capacities we possess. But this leaves us with a puzzle. It looks as if evolution has brought into being creatures who act for reasons. But does that mean that natural selection and random variation have brought into existence a kind of causation that is not blind? Prior to the arrival of humans, or whoever the first beings in the universe are who act for reasons, causation in the universe was blind, according to the standard model. But new kinds of causation do not just pop into existence. So, the materialist picture has to be that, in the final analysis, no one really acts, or thinks, or believes anything for a reason. Hence the process that produced the mind of Richard Dawkins, and the atoms and molecules in Dawkins’s brain when he concludes that everything is the work of a “blind watchmaker” are equally blind. On the face of things, this would tend to undercut the claims of people like Dawkins that their scientific beliefs, unlike the beliefs of, say, creationists, are formed by evidence and therefore are more justified than those of their opponents. If they are really consistent in their understanding of the world, they have to conclude that their own beliefs are caused in the same blind way as those of the creationists. Just as claims about the design of, say, the human eye are not literally true, claims that an agent has concluded anything based on evidence, should, if people like Dawkins and Russell are right, are also not literally true.
There is at least an apparent conflict between the claim that the world proceeds, at its base, in a non-purposive manner, and the claim that there are rational agents who form beliefs on the basis of rational evidence. Arguments that attempt to show that a) this conflict is real and not merely apparent, and b) it constitutes a reason for rejecting in which all causation is ultimately blind, can be regarded as versions of the argument from reason.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Hard Determinism

The hard determinist doesn't say we don't make choices, but they just say that we don't know the causes of our actions, and if we knew them, we would realize that the ultimate reason why we did this and not that had to do not so much with a choice of our own, but instead has to do with a series of events going back to, say, the Big Bang. Once the Big Bang banged, whatever happened after that had to happen, given the laws of physics. If that is really true, are people still responsible for their actions? 

Sunday, February 09, 2020

No more punting to impeachment!

Unfortunately, the Justice Department punts to impeachment as a reason why a President can't be indicted. Given the partisan nature of the last two impeachments, I think this punt is a mistake. A free and independent Justice Department is our best defense against a truly rogue President (had Spiro Agnew become President, that would be an example we could all agree on). If there's a case to be made against a President, he should be indicted and go through the court system like any other citizen. It would be hard even for partisans in the House and Senate to avoid removing an indicted and convicted President.

The autonomy objection to religious morality

The autonomy objection to religious morality puzzles me. If you think there is a perfect being who loves you, and who has some clues as to how to live a better, more moral life, would you be foolish not to take them? On the other hand, if no such being exists, that would be another matter.

On hypocrisy

If there are high moral expectations on people, and people think they can benefit from appearing to others as if they meet those high expectations (whether they do or not), that of course opens the door for hypocrisy. The only sure cure for hypocrisy is to lower your standards to such an extent that most people meet the standard easily. But then, you have low moral standards. Is that a good thing?

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Nonconsequentialist moral theories

I think there is some connection to consequences in many nonconsequentialist ethical theories. For example, people who look to God's commandments typically think that God is pretty smart, and that the reason God commands what he does it that the consequences will be the best in the long (eternal) run.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Support for Trump: The Conservative Shibboleth

Nowadays, the shibboleth for conservatism is support for Trump.

Judges 12: 1-15 12, 4 Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.

5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, art thou an Ephraimite? If he say Nay;

6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Any real convictions?

Does anyone doubt that Trump would support abortion on demand, open borders, and socialism if it benefited him personally to do so?

The simplest explanation for everything Trump does is in terms of his ego. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Are morals objective?

The question is whether, if you are asking whether something is right or wrong, whether claims about that can be correct or incorrect. It is true that everyone has their own views about what is moral and what is not. But people have their own views about things like whether there was really a moon landing, or about whether vaccines should be avoided because they cause autism, or whether Trump withheld aid to Ukraine because he was trying to obtain and advantage against Biden in  his re-election campaign. Nevertheless, i think we would all agree that some has to be right about these claims, and someone has to be mistaken. The same is true about the question of whether an omnipotent being actually exists. Some very reasonable and intelligent people take opposite positions on this question, but I think most of us would say that either there is one or there isn't. 
But what about questions of what is right or wrong. This can include vexed questions about whether abortion is justified, and under what circumstances, whether we ought to have the death penalty or not, whether animals have rights which give  us a reason to stop eating meat, whether premarital sex, or  homosexual sex, or extramarital sex is wrong, etc. But is also a moral question as to whether it is acceptable, was the case in America before the civil war, to bring people over to our country and keep them as slaves, or whether it is acceptable to allow discrimination in the area of restaurants or housing, or whether is acceptable to use sexual harassment as a way of maintaining male domination in the workplace, or indeed whether it is acceptable to invite someone over for dinner, shove them in the oven, and cook them as dinner. Unless moral objectivity is true, then all of these concerns are simply relative to individual preference of societal preference. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

How would you answer someone who questions the heart of ethics?

 According to the BBC guide to ethics, "At the heart of ethics is a concern about something or someone other than ourselves and our own desires and self-interest. Ethics is concerned with other people's interests, with the interests of society, with God's interests, with "ultimate goods", and so on. So when a person 'thinks ethically' they are giving at least some thought to something beyond themselves." But someone might question why we ought to give any consideration to anything beyond ourselves. How would you reply to someone who raises that question about ethics? 

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Explaining reasoning away

People rightly fear that we will interpose a God-explanation where a scientific explanation might be provided which would provide us with more prediction and control over the event in question. But in reasoning, if we interpose nonrational explanations to account for our reasoning, we are in fact explaining reasoning away. If we say that I believe in evolution because of the evidence, but then the explanation I provide for coming to hold this belief is a bunch of irrational neurons blindly following the laws of physics or acting on blind and brute quantum-mechanical chance, I am saying that in the last analysis I didn't really come to believe that evolution is true because there is good evidence that evolution is true. I cannot really say "I followed the evidence, and those creationists didn't." Both of our beliefs were caused in the same irrational way.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Need to impeach

The Democrats want impeachment, but the Republicans need it.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

The paradox of Dawkins' title

The title of one of Richard Dawkins’ books is entitled The Blind Watchmaker, but its subtitle is How the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a World Without Design. The subtitle, it seems to me, makes a paradoxical claim. On the one hand, it maintains we ought to draw the conclusion that the world lacks design. On the other hand, the subtitle suggests that he has reached this conclusion through examining the evidence of evolution, but examining the evidence is a process designed to discover the truth. In fact, Dawkins is fond of contrasting his own methods for reaching conclusions with methods based on faith, which to his mind involve a lack of design. But if the world really is without design, how is this possible? Of course, it could turn out that the paradox is resolvable. But the attempt to ban teleology from the bioverse, but then to insist that one’s own convictions are justified because a kind of teleological explanation can be given for these convictions, is a fact that, at the very least stands in need of explanation.