bookmark_borderSkeptical Approaches to Miracles – part 3

There are a number of philosophical and epistemological objections to miracles. The first philosophical critique of miracles that I will consider comes from Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza was given the Hebrew name “Baruch” at birth, but began using the equivalent Latin name “Benedict” after he was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam in 1656, on the charge of atheism. Spinoza believed in God, but his conception of God was not that of traditional theism. His concept of God is closer to pantheism, with some significant qualifications.

His primary philosophical work is Ethics Demonstrated in a Geometrical Manner (completed 1675, first published 1677). Spinoza was influenced by Descartes, particularly in the aim of constructing a philosophical system by logical inferences from a foundation of clear definitions and self-evident axioms, in imitation of Euclidean geometry. Ethics is not an easy read, and I won’t pretend to have read more than a few selected excerpts from it.

Spinoza’s discussion of miracles is mostly to be found in another book: Theological-Political Treatise (hereafter: TPT). This is an easier read that Spinoza’s Ethics. It does not attempt to present his thinking in the “Geometrical Manner”. Here is the blurb from the back cover of my copy of the book:

Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (1670) is one of the most important philosophical works of the early modern period. In it Spinoza discusses at length the historical circumstances of the composition and transmission of the Bible, demonstrating the fallibility of both its authors and its interpreters. He argues that free inquiry is not only consistent with the security and prosperity of a state but actually essential to them, and that such freedom flourishes best in a democratic and republican state in which individuals are left free while religious organizations are subordinated to the secular power. His Treatise has profoundly influenced the subsequent history of political thought. Enlightenment “clandestine” or radical philosophy, Bible hermeneutics, and textual criticism more generally.
I plan to generally follow Norman Geisler’s historical survey of objections to miracles, in his book Miracles and the Modern Mind (Baker Book House, 1992, hereafter: MMM). Here is how Geisler summarizes Spinoza’s argument against miracles (MMM, p15):

1. Miracles are violations of natural laws.
2. Natural laws are immutable.
3. It is impossible to violate immutable laws.
4. Therefore, miracles are impossible.

Geisler raises four objections to this argument (MMM, p.21):

* Spinoza’s argument begs the question.
* Spinoza’s determinism is self-defeating.
* Scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe supports belief in miracles.
* Scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe shows that Spinoza’s pantheism is mistaken.
Does Geisler accurately summarize Spinoza’s view of miracles? Are Geisler’s objections correct and compelling?

To be continued…

bookmark_borderFaith and Reason – part 2

In “Does It Matter Whether Theism is Reasonable” (a short Chapter in the book, The Existence of God, 1965, Cornell University Press), Wallace Matson points out the difficulty involved in trying to rationally justify being rational:

Well, what can be said to someone who explicitly rejects reason? One might point out that very likely he does not reject it altogether; he wants evidence that the house he plans to buy is not infested with termites, he wants his sick children to be treated by competent physicians rather than by quacks, etc.; hence, he is inconsistent in accepting rational canons in all spheres of interest save one [i.e. concerning God or religious beliefs]. But this will not do, for the obvious retort is that consistency is a rational criterion, which is just what he is rejecting.
The situation is a queer one. It appears that there is no possibility of proving to the irrationalist that he should not be irrational, because any proof we might offer would, if cogent at all, presuppose canons of logic and evidence, and in consequence would be circular. You cannot checkmate a man who refuses to play chess.
(The Existence of God, p. 242-243).

This is a recurring theme in epistemology: the problem of trying to justify basic principles of logic and evidence without making use of the very same principle(s) in the justification. The long-standing problem of induction, for example, might be stated as the problem of justifying inductive reasoning without begging the question by making use of inductive reasoning in the justification.

There is a real puzzle or difficulty that Matson is pointing out, but the above statement is too quick and dirty to draw the conclusion that there is no hope of rationally justifying being rational.

First, there is vagueness and unclarity in the term “consistency” that needs to be fixed. One might reasonably use different methodologies and criteria depending on the subject matter that one is dealing with. The scientific method may not be appropriate to apply to historical questions or to philosophical questions. Criteria for evaluation of mathematical or logical proofs might not be adequate for dealing with scientific questions. Historical and scientific methods might not be adequate for dealing with moral issues. Use of different methods and criteria for evaluation of claims and theories does not appear to involve logical inconsistency. Different subject matters may require different methods and criteria.

On the other hand, if logical consistency refers to the fundamental principle of non-contradiction, the idea that logical contradiction is to be avoided, then there really is no alternative available. Whether one is trying to figure out an issue in history, science, philosophy, or religion, logical contradiction must be avoided for the sake of meaning and coherence. If the claim “God exists” does not rule out “It is not the case that God exists”, then there is no coherent meaning to “God exists” (unless you reduce this to a purely subjective claim about the feelings of the speaker, e.g. “I have positive and hopeful feelings about the universe”.) If the claim “Jesus rose from the dead” does not rule out “Jesus died and never came back to life.” then the former claim has no coherent meaning. Once you allow logical contradictions in an area of thinking, meaning and coherence are eliminated.

This sort of logical consistency (avoiding logical contradictions) is a rational criterion that is accepted by the irrationalist in most areas of thought, otherwise no meaningful and coherent communication would be possible. So, the irrationalist does accept this criterion of rationality, and it is reasonable to point this fact out to an irrationalist. Furthermore, if the irrationalist insists on discarding this principle in the area of religious belief, you can point out how this leads to incoherence and the destruction of meaning in relation to religious claims or beliefs.

bookmark_borderReligious discrimination?

In creationist and intelligent design circles, there’s long been a conviction that in scientific institutions there’s a climate of persecution against “dissenters from Darwinism.” This is not entirely imaginary; after all, in science, we tend to think that especially religiously-inspired anti-evolutionary stances are a sign of professional incompetence.

Lately, I’ve ben running into an occasional piece taking this to the next level. Since our judgments of incompetence are bound to influence career-related decisions such as the granting of tenure, some creationists are charging that this is illegal discrimination on religious grounds. If colleagues look askance at you because you’re one of the tiny minority of natural scientists who have Intelligent Design sympathies, well, that’s a “hostile work environment.”

I doubt if it would go anywhere, but it could be interesting to see if anyone tries to make a real legal case based on such an approach. Meanwhile, it’s yet another example of conservatives exploiting liberal and left-wing lack of imagination—the tendency to construe all injustice in terms of prejudice against identity-groups.

bookmark_borderBooze, sex, godlessness

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is putting up billboards saying things like “Keep Religion OUT of Politics” and “Imagine No Religion.”

Interestingly, a news story about this mentions that

The five sites chosen by the organization were changed after CBS Outdoor said they had to be 1,000 feet from any schools or churches

A sort of requirement that I’d expect to be applied to liquor stores and adult bookstores.

Mind you, if godlessness was as attractive to people as booze and sex, FFRF wouldn’t have to put their billboards up…

bookmark_borderUnsecular Democrats

The Democratic Party is having an Interfaith Gathering tomorrow, and the Coalition of Secular Voters are expressing their disgruntlement at their exclusion.

I can see the need to put up a fuss. But I hope no one is naive enough to think secularist complaints can have more than a superficial effect on the Democrats.

I’m a college professor. Most people I hang around with are upper-middle-class liberal secularists. Many look forward to the possibility of an Obama presidency and a Democratic Congress. After so many years of Republican-dominated insanity, that’s understandable enough. But I have my doubts that even if the Democrats win, this will translate into much of a victory for American secularism.

Polls indicate that among religious orientations, secularists are the most dependably Democratic constituency. But apparently the Democrats have decided that their image of being the secular party is hurting them. So they are trying to convince the American electorate that they are just as religious as the competition. I suspect that their political calculation is correct. After all,

  • Given the Religious Right, even a more religiously-colored Democratic party will remain the choice for secularists. We have nowhere else to go.
  • Secularists are a disorganized, ineffectual constituency. We cannot punish the Democratic party for favoring more faith-based politics. So we hold no threat politicians need to pay attention to.
  • Even though the Democrats are conservatives (as opposed to reactionaries), they have a larger potential appeal to working class economic interests. The American working class is generally religious and at least suspicious of “elite” secularism. Many vote Republican for cultural reasons. Democrats may need to throw secularists under the bus to woo back some more numerous constituencies.
  • Many Americans are not just religious but actively opposed to any social influence of the godless. They define their moral ideals against an often-caricaturized secular dark side. This is not mere bigotry. Religion and irreligion has moral consequences, and it is legitimate to vote in support of moral and cultural interests. To court devout voters—not die-hard religious rightists but others who might otherwise vote Democratic—it may make good sense to signal that the Democratic party favors the religious over the secular.

In balance, there may still be reasons to count Democrats as better for secularism, even if they position themselves as the other faith-based party. Eddie Tabash, for example, argues that with the Supreme Court hanging on a 5-4 thread, a Democratic president is a much better outcome. A Republican will almost certainly appoint a judge who would allow government to favor faith over non-faith, while Democrats have been reliable on church-state separation.

Probably so. But even there, I don’t think the argument is as strong as Tabash makes it out to be. All this assumes that the Democrats will continue to be committed to the mid-twentieth century judicial tendency toward strict separation, acting against the nineteenth century informal establishment of Protestant Christianity. The time of that tendency is long past. Especially with the Catholic-Protestant political divide being largely a thing of the past, we can expect the move toward a new form of informal establishment to continue. Democrats may well decide that the way to stop a Republican drift is not to hold onto an outmoded and discredited strict separation, but to channel informal establishment in a direction friendlier to Democratic religious constituencies. Opposing Republicans, Democrats might uphold a vision where America is not so much a Christian nation as a nation of faith.

Secularism is the not the only concern in an election, and neither is the US Presidency the only important race. In November, I will vote Democratic, including Obama. I will not, however, volunteer any effort or donate any money. I have many political interests, including secularism, stopping environmental degradation, and moving away from free-market fundamentalism. I don’t trust the Democrats in general to do better than too-little-too-late or Republican-lite on any of these fronts.


My grandmother recently died. That was sad for those of us who loved her, but no great surprise. She was 88, in failing health, and she had had a good life.

But the process of her dying was perhaps unnecessarily difficult. She had a massive stroke which destroyed her left brain hemisphere. Her wishes for a situation like this were very clear, both in terms of explicit paperwork and statements to family and friends. She did not want heroic measures to keep her “alive” in a situation where her quality of life was to be negligible. So we took her home, arranged for hospice care to keep her as pain-free and comfortable as possible. And then we withheld all food and water, and waited out the week or so until she slipped away.

My family is not religious. (You can get some diffuse newagey supernaturalism, but not much.) My grandmother herself was a thoroughgoing nonbeliever. And it did come up in conversation, after it became clear that her stroke was devastating, leaving no hope of any kind of recovery, that some kind of euthanasia would have been the best option. That was the view of my grandmother about such situations, and her explicit preferences for herself in case such an event were to happen. That was what her husband, and all the family thought. But this option was not legal. My aunt even remarked that we were allowed to treat animals more humanely than humans in end-of-life situations in the state of California.

Now, I am not a bioethicist. I have some awareness of debates over euthanasia and terminal situations, but no expertise. It’s possible that there are compelling secular arguments against euthanasia, though I have not encountered them. Furthermore, it’s possible that even if euthanasia was the best option in my grandmother’s situation, it would be a bad idea to allow it as a matter of general public policy. I am inclined to think otherwise, but I could be persuaded I am wrong. But I am convinced that the rationale for most existing relevant laws in the United States does not really turn on secular considerations. At heart, there’s a religious conception of humans behind our laws, whether it comes down to explicit considerations about the soul or fuzzier pronouncements about “human dignity.”

I resent being subjected to such a religious view of life and death. My grandmother’s quasi-alive last weeks were gut-wrenching for the family, but that’s not something I can complain too much about. I can’t demand that death be easy. But I still resent that my family, who has nothing to do with organized religion if we can help it, were so constrained by what I suspect are religiously motivated concerns.

bookmark_borderFaith and Reason

A nephew was recently visiting here in the Northwest, up from California. He is an atheist in a public junior high school with students who are mostly Catholics and Evangelical Christians. His skeptical and anti-religious views have not been warmly received by other students. So, he was asking me for some ammunition to take back to California for anticipated debates and discussions with Christian students next school year.

I didn’t want to overwhelm him with dozens of issues and arguments and a large stack of books, so I decided to focus in on just one topic, for now. Epistemology seemed like the most logical place to start, specifically the topic of faith vs. reason. There is no point in arguing about God, Jesus, the Bible, or creationism, if the people you are talking to have no interest in being rational, and care nothing about facts, logic, evidence, scholarship, and objectivity. A good first move is to talk about faith and reason, and about how beliefs should be evaluated.

A quick skim of some books on atheism produced a number of articles that dealt with the concept of faith and how it relates to reason. I found three brief discussions that were helpful:

“Does It Matter Whether Theism is Reasonable?” by Wallace Matson
(The Existence of God, 1965, Cornell University Press, p.242-244)
“God and Faith” by B.C. Johnson
(The Atheist Debater’s Handbook, 1981, Prometheus Books, p.95-97)
“God and Reason” by Michael Scriven
(Critiques of God, edited by Peter Angeles, 1976, Prometheus Books, p. 100-105)

Four longer discussions of this topic also appeared to be useful:

“Religion and Reason” by Richard Robinson
(Critiques of God, edited by Peter Angeles, 1976, Prometheus Books, p. 120-124)
“What’s Wrong with Believing on Faith?” by Douglas Krueger
(What is Atheism?, 1998, Prometheus Books, p.207-218)
“Reason Versus Faith” by George Smith
(ATHEISM: The Case Against God, 1979, Prometheus Books, p.95-124)
“The Establishment of Dogma” by John McTaggart
(Faith, edited by Terence Penelhum, 1989, Macmillan Publishing Company, p.155-165)

I plan to dig deeper into books and websites on Christian apologetics, to see what I can find from a Christian viewpoint on this topic, and to see whether the above skeptical discussions of faith and reason are adequate to deal with what Christian apologists have to say on this subject.

Does anyone have a recommendation for articles (internet or otherwise) on faith and reason?

bookmark_borderCan we stop at metaphor?

“It should be seen as a metaphor.” That has has to be one of the the most common moves to save a supernatural belief from criticism. If educated people can no longer take the Bible at face value, well, maybe the creation stories, miracles, and so forth are all metaphorical. If astrology looks brain dead, it still might be a good source of psychological metaphors. Mystical writings come across as drivel? They may be metaphors nudging us toward an indescribable God.

But it’s also worthwhile to ask if it’s possible to push reinterpretation all the way, to have ancient supernaturalistic beliefs become metaphors for natural occurrences. Lawrence Bush, for example, in Waiting for God, worries that even in the most liberal religions, it’s overwhelmingly tempting to have the metaphors turn into supernaturalism.

He may have a point. I like supernatural storytelling: fiction with occult themes, or novels that play with religious stories. Some of my favorites are graphic novels. Many a night I sit down with a John Constantine, Hellblazer or a Lucifer by Mike Carey. So I also checked out the Promethea series, which has won awards, and is written by Alan Moore, who can be really good. It has an occult/high magic theme. But in this case, though J.H. Williams draws it beautifully, Moore loses his sense of humor and gets all preachy. The result is more earnest New Age bullshit than I’m willing to tolerate, especially when you get some serious physics-abuse thrown in. Oh yes, everything is supposed to be a metaphor, but it’s also all too clear that the New Age bits are supposed to be real at some level.

Sigh. Maybe the best thing is to stay away from even the ultraliberal reinterpretations of religion, because the overwhelming majority of people will take it to be saying something deep about the universe, not human aspirations.