bookmark_border22nd century apologetics

I’ve been reading articles that express concern about the rather loony fundamentalism of Sarah Palin, the Republican VP candidate. (For example, Matt Taibi, Sam Harris.) American conservatism is seriously dangerous for the planet, both environmentally, and because some conservatives are crazy enough to start a nuclear war to fulfill their apocalyptic fantasies. (Mind you, the thought of someone like Sam Harris with access to nuclear weapons is also scary.)

Anyway, if (not a small if) civilization manages to survive into the early 22nd century, we can be certain that the fundamentalists will still be around. And their intellectuals (all three of them) will be arguing that since it was so unlikely that civilization would survive the environmental and nuclear threats of the 21st century, it must have been the Hand of God who guided us through and helped us survive.

If, on the other hand, we blow ourselves up or poison ourselves or bring on catastrophic climate change, we can still be certain that there will be fundamentalists alive alongside the cockroaches. And we can also be certain that they will be arguing that the disaster of the 21st century was brought on by liberals and secularists and godless scientists—anyone skeptical of the blend of Jesus and the Free Market they will still be worshiping.

bookmark_borderRepeating history

I’m trying to think of anything recent that is truly new in the landscape of arguments over religion. Depending on how coarse-grained you’re willing to allow comparisons to get, there isn’t a whole lot that is new under the sun.

Philosophy about religion tends to repeat itself this way. It’s hard to come up with a new version of the design argument that either Hume or Darwin doesn’t have something significant to say about. Dawkins’s “a designer that explains complexity would have to be even more complex” argument, for example, has many echoes of older arguments in it. And I remember too many instances where I thought I ran into something new, but was later embarrassed to find out I just didn’t know enough about the history of the debate. For example, I used to think “the good due to having regular laws of nature overrides the unfortunate evil consequences of laws” was an interesting new twist on theodicy. I was an idiot, naturally. It seems the argument was just out fashion, and not appearing as often in the newer literature I was sampling.

Science-flavored arguments also can repeat themselves. There’s a lot in today’s design arguments that could be deflated by some knowledge of the track record of very similar intuitions in the history of science. And a whole lot of what science-minded skeptics say today wouldn’t have been out of place in the nineteenth century.

It’s not like we always stumble over the same territory in our arguments. Today’s philosophers are less likely to attack a transcendent God while relying on a transcendent conception of Reason. And science does its new things as well. One example, I hope, is one of my hobbyhorses—the emphasis on the random element in how the world works, and how this undermines ideas of a purpose behind nature. (Talk of chance and necessity goes back to the Greeks, but our modern ideas of chance and necessity are significantly different.) But I don’t know how much I can push such novel elements. They certainly have not penetrated into any popular awareness.

So, if there is a lot of repeating history going on in our arguments over the gods, what does this mean? I’m not sure, but one possibility is that we’re not really making a lot of progress. The moves and countermoves in the debate are known too well: skeptics and true believers know how to respond before their opposition even finishes their next “new” argument. As a result, science-minded skeptics might tend to complacency, because we already occupy a skeptical subculture. We encounter things like “intelligent design” as a political nuisance rather than an intellectual challenge.

But I’m not sure what that means either.

bookmark_borderChristian politics

I wonder if there’s an indirect reason (on top of the direct reasons) to be concerned about Christian politics in the United States. That is, maybe they’re being too easily preyed upon by business interests, and therefore making life more difficult for all of us who want to avoid predation.

As social animals, we tend to be on our guard against free riders and cheaters. We’ll often go out of our way, even against some of of our more immediate interests, to punish such people. Psychologists also talk about how many people will also try to punish those who fail to punish, or who let themselves be taken advantage of. (We get pissed off at someone who lets another party cut in front, even if they’re back of us in line.)

That may be applicable to the political alliance between the Christian Right and business class conservatives. We’ve ended up with an amazing amount of plunder and corruption, natural in a climate where money is the measure of all things. And politically, this has a lot to do with working class Christian support for the business-driven right wing, even when in the realm of secular interests, the working class get screwed over the worst.

So, it seems to fit the bill. Conservative Christians have been easy prey, and unfortunately their predators have not been satisfied to prey on only Christians.

On the other hand, it’s not like I needed an extra reason to gripe about either fundamentalists or American politics.


There must be some agreement among right-wing “documentary” producers that associating their objects of hate with Hitler is the best way to rally their troops.

First, I saw Expelled, which was full of heavy-handed associations between Nazis and “Darwinists.” And now, I watched the movie Obsession. A DVD was included as an advertising insert in The Chronicle of Higher Education, of all places. Short summary: radical Muslims are the Nazis of today, and those of us dubious about getting on board the neocon crusade against the jihad are the Chamberlain-like appeasers of today.

The movie is embarrassingly propagandistic. (I wonder what Leni Riefenstahl would have thought.) The producers get so caught up in presenting the Daniel Pipes take on Islam that they must not have paid attention to some of what they ended up with. For example:

  • They go on and on about how Islam wants to take over the world, showing clips of all varieties of Muslim preachers (not just loonies) talking about how Islam shall conquer all. Of course, you bloody fools. It’s a missionary religion. Sort of like Christianity. Talking about converting the world to Islam need not imply any sort of violence. You get very similar pronouncements about conquering the world with the Gospel from conservative Christian pulpits all the time. And if the Christian preachers happen to have the book of Revelation on their mind, you can get some very violent imagery about the fate of infidels. It’s religion—who knows what all the drivel will translate to in terms of acts in the real world.
  • They showed a clip of churches being blown up in Bosnia. No mention, naturally, of Christian (Orthodox and Catholic) acts against mosques and other architectural symbols of a Muslim presence in Bosnia. The overwhelming impression the movie projects is a bunch of Muslims brainwashed with Nazi-like propaganda, who blindly strike out against anything Western. Surely the Muslim hordes must be irrational, or evil, or acting out of entirely phantom grievances. After all, they’re complaining about us, the Judeo-Christians, the only true civilization. Such appalling ingratitude, when we endure so much sacrifice to invade their countries out of nothing but the goodness of our hearts, to bestow freedom upon the benighted.
  • Oh yes, they included a clip of Saddam’s statue being pulled down in Baghdad. Nice touch, that one. As far as I’m concerned, any movie that shows that without a sense of irony forfeits all claim to intellectual honesty. But the producers don’t care. They’re playing to the Christian, flag-waving audience.
  • They go to some trouble, at the beginning and end, to mention that it’s a minority of Muslims who are attracted to terrorism, and that they have nothing against moderate Muslims. Fair enough. But it’s not that believable when they drop broad hints that what they call radical Islam is just an intensification of ordinary Islam. Their talking heads, after all, keep lapsing into talking about nasty aspects of Islam, without qualification.
  • Oh bloody hell, I’m not going to go on all night. Practically every scene is a study in the art of lying. Mainly by omission. Their dishonesty manages to taint even the bits that really are disgusting, such as clips from Arab TV stations in full-blown anti-Semitic idiot mode. But nothing has any context, so we’re supposed to believe that all this is a rerun of Nazi Germany. Enough—this is just tiresome.

This kind of propaganda is worrying, particularly if it has any influence. Terrorism associated with Islam and the frightening extent of Arab anti-Semitism are serious concerns. Which is exactly why responses should not get mixed up with the right-wing desire to exploit concerns about Islam to advance their own brand of religio-nationalist fanaticism.

While I’m at it, this necon version of “criticism” of Islam makes life more difficult for those of us who are interested in genuine criticism of Islam. For example, a couple of years ago I was making a conference presentation in Vienna, Austria, based on a paper I co-wrote about pseudoscientific concepts of gender in popular Islam. I then had to field a question from a nuisance of a graduate student who felt the need to demonstrate her political soundness by objecting to a paper critical of Islam being aired (by an American!) in the current climate. I had to explain that no, I was not some kind of neocon, and why the hell was this an issue anyway?

I resent having to spend time on such nonsense. I blame the multicultural Islamophiles, but just as much the crusading Islamophobes. A pox on them all.

bookmark_borderFaith and Reason – Part 3

On the one hand there are the pro-reason folks: atheists, skeptics, naturalists, humanists, and Marxists. On the other hand there are the pro-faith folks: theists, mystics, supernaturalists, religious believers, New Agers, and Existentialists. The pro-reason people are anti faith and the pro-faith people are anti reason. The big question is:

Q1. Which is better, reason or faith?

This is, of course, an oversimplification. Some of the pro-reason crowd thinks that faith has its place in life, and most pro-faith people would object to being characterized as being anti reason. Many would claim that faith and reason do not conflict with each other, and that a person can be both pro reason and pro faith. This viewpoint raises more key questions:

Q2. Is faith a real alternative to reason?
Q3. Do reason and faith sometimes conflict with each other?
Q4. Do reason and faith have separate and distinct intellectual jurisdictions, so that they
can never come into conflict with each other?

Question (Q1) cannot be settled until we have clear answers to two basic conceptual questions:

Q5. What is reason?
Q6. What is faith?

Since we are among the pro-reason crowd, it makes sense to start with (Q5), and then when we have a clear answer to that question, to move on to (Q6). In my previous post on Faith and Reason (08/29/08), I started to look at an important and related question:

Q7. Can we justify rationality?

If we can justify rationality, then we will have a firm pro-reason position to start from in addressing (Q6) and ultimately (Q1). Dealing with (Q7) will also involve answering (Q5). If we can justify rationality, then we will have justified reason, at least in the sense of “reason” intended by the contrast between faith and reason.

To determine whether we can justify rationality, we must first clarify this concept:

Q8. What is rationality?

My dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College edition) gives three different definitions of “rational” that seem relevant:

1. Having or exercising the ability to reason.
2. Of sound mind: sane.
3. Consistent with or based on reason; logical: rational behavior.

Definition (3) seems the best for this context. In trying to justify rationality, we are trying to justify the idea that one should base beliefs and actions on reason or logical thinking. However, the two other definitions also have relevance. It seems to me that what we have here is different degrees or levels of rationality.

There are two main types of mental deficiency: mental disorders, and mental retardation. People who suffer from mental illness are to various degrees irrational. People who are mentally retarded might not be irrational, but they are deficient in rationality. Even so, the mentally ill and the mentally retarded still have or exercise the ability to reason. They too are “rational animals” who are capable of drawing inferences from facts and experiences. They can perceive objects in their environment, remember events, and draw conclusions based on their perceptions, beliefs, and memories. The thinking of mentally ill and mentally retarded people may not in general be as clear and as logical and as well-informed as the thinking of people who don’t have to deal with these conditions, but it is still human thinking.

If we set aside people who have serious mental disorders and people who are mentally retarded, and just consider people who are mentally healthy and normal, then such people are, in general, capable of a greater degree of rationality. Yet we know that “normal” people are not always rational and logical in their actions and beliefs. People of normal mental health and capability are often unreasonable and illogical (How else can we explain the fact that 50% of the US wants McCain to be our next President?). In fact Freud, Marx, and Sartre agree that humans are the “irrational animal” in that human thinking is all-to-often clouded by irrational impulses and drives (e.g. wishful thinking), by false consciousness (socially-fostered delusions that serve to maintain an unjust status quo), and bad faith. So “mentally normal” does not mean reasonable or logical.

At the upper end of the scale, we have mentally normal people who are also reasonable and logical. We could use the positive label “critical thinker” to categorize this sort of person. Just as there are degrees of irrationality among the mentally ill, so there are also degrees of rationality among critical thinkers. Critical thinking involves intellectual skills, habits of thought, intellectual virtues, and experience with conforming thinking to intellectual standards. Some critical thinkers have stronger intellectual skills than others. Some have stronger intellectual virtues than others. Some have more experience than others in conforming thinking to intellectual standards. Some have a clearer grasp than others of key intellectual standards.

To be continued…

bookmark_borderSecularists as another multicultural tribe?

I’m not a political junkie, but I’m beginning to see a familiar sense of panic in some Democratic circles, which might mean a Republican win is likely this November. Christian nationalism may work, once again. So, as far as political secularism is concerned, we’ll get a fast deterioration rather than slow. We should expect, for example, more right wing Supreme Court judges who will usher in a legal regime where government favors religion over irreligion. (It will be generic theism rather than any specific sect that receives endorsement.)

Meanwhile, in Britain, it appears that that quietly, sharia tribunals have been operating. They are empowered to act as binding arbitrators. The report mentions a case in which they have already ruled that male offspring should receive a double share in inheritance.

The first reaction among many, especially secularists, is outrage. It won’t last—people will soon settle down and realize that sharia courts are inevitable if you have a significant conservative Muslim population. In any case, most of us will just get used to having sharia courts around and get on with our lives.

Still, the British situation might point out a solution for American problems. Maybe secularists should claim to be an identity group, or another tribe that can demand its interests be met in a multicultural society. We can have our own enclaves, our own courts where the ten commandments are not displayed, our own neighborhoods where blasphemous material is freely on sale, our own schools where evolution is not under constant pressure.


bookmark_borderBritain vs US on creationism

There is a minor controversy going on in the UK now, concerning Michael Reiss, the education director of the Royal Society. One of the world’s most prestigious scientific societies put an Anglican clergyman in charge of its education concerns, and the result was Reiss coming out in sympathy with bringing up creationism and intelligent design in the classroom. Many critics, including some within the Royal Society, want Reiss fired.

The interesting bit is that Reiss has no problem with evolution, and his expressed support for creationism in the science classroom was classic liberal inclusivism. He was concerned that fundamentalist students were being tuned off to science when their beliefs did not get so much as a mention in school. Nothing in Reiss’s statements contradict the mushy but harmless Church of England clergy stereotype. Some of Reiss’s critics, however, are arguing that a clergyperson was inappropriate for education director of the Royal Society in the first place.

It’s hard not to think of the contrast with the United States. Here, someone like Reiss would generally be ideal as a spokesperson for science education. This is very much a Christian nation, and scientific and educational institutions continually suffer from the perception that they undermine religion. We have to have liberal clergy speak up for evolution education all the time. They’re the only ones who can say something relevant against the creationists, which is that Christianity and evolution are compatible. (Never mind whether this is strictly true. This is politics.) Sure, in the US we also face the risk of liberal clergy getting all fuzzy and inclusive. But that’s a risk we have to take.

Britain is clearly different. You actually have people suggesting a clergyperson should not be the education director for a major scientific society. Worlds apart.

bookmark_borderSkeptical Approaches to Miracles – Part 4

In Miracles and the Modern Mind, Norman Geisler summarizes Spinoza’s argument about miracles:

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.
(MMM, p.15)

Geisler raises four objections to this argument (MMM, p.21). Before considering any objections, however, we need to determine whether Geisler has accurately summarized Spinoza’s thinking about miracles.

The short answer is: No, Geisler has not accurately summarized Spinoza’s argument. However, as we shall see later, Geisler has done a decent job of adapting Spinoza’s reasoning for use in an anti-miracle argument.

Spinoza does not argue against the possibility of miracles. Rather, he assumes that miracles do occur, but argues against defining “miracles” in terms of violations of natural law. In other words, just as Spinoza defines “God” in a non-standard way, he defines “miracle” in a non-standard way. Spinoza is laying out an intellectual path that Deists and Liberal Christians will follow later. Liberal Christians, for example, don’t openly deny or reject the resurrection of Jesus, they just re-conceptualize the resurrection so that it does not involve a dead person literally coming back to life.

Spinoza maintains belief in God, revelation, and miracles, but he redefines these basic religious concepts in an effort to construct a reasonable and logically consistent system of thought. To do so requires that he toss out various traditional theological assumptions along the way, and Spinoza, as an honest-to-goodness freethinker, does so freely. He does his best to follow reason where it leads him (with the exception of seriously considering the option of simply tossing religion aside).

Consider this key passage on miracles from Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise[1]:

From these premises therefore – that in nature nothing happens which does not follow from its laws, that its laws extend to all things conceived by the divine understanding, and finally that nature maintains a fixed and unchangeable order – it most evidently follows that the term ‘miracles’ can be understood only with respect to human beliefs, and that it signifies nothing other than a phenomenon whose natural cause cannot be explained on the pattern of some other familiar thing or at least cannot be so explained by the narrator or reporter of the miracle. (TPT, Chapter 6, paragraph 5)

In other words, all events must conform to natural laws, so the word “miracle” should be defined not as an event that violates a natural law, but as an event that some person, due to ignorance or the limitations of human minds, is currently unable to explain in terms of natural laws. On this proposed definition, Spinoza can continue to believe in miracles, without having to accept the traditional theological assumption that God sometimes intervenes in the world and violates natural laws.

In view of Spinoza’s belief in miracles, and his rejection of the traditional conception of miracles as involving a violation of natural law, we need to formulate Spinoza’s argument a bit differently than Geisler (above):

5. If miracles require the violation of a natural law, then miracles are possible only if the violation of a natural law is possible.
6. The violation of a natural law is impossible.
7. If miracles require the violation of a natural law, then miracles are impossible.
8. Miracles are possible.
9. Miracles do not require the violation of a natural law.

This argument from Spinoza in support of a re-definition of the word “miracle” can be adapted, similar to what Geisler has done, in order to support the skeptical view that miracles are impossible.

To be continued…

1. Theological-Political Treatise by Benedict De Spinoza, edited by Jonathan Israel, translated by Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

bookmark_borderAn Argument for Atheism – Part 3

In Chapter 2 of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gives an argument for atheism. The argument is a chain of reasoning consisting of five inferences. In my previous post on this argument (8/4/08), I pointed out that the first inference in the chain is a non sequitur:

1. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
2. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives late in the history of the universe.

However, this inference can be rescued by the addition of an assumption, and by clarifying claims (1) and (2) to make them more precise:

1a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of at least one million years of gradual evolution.

A. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after the universe began to exist.
2a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives no earlier than at least one million years after the universe began to exist.

This beefed-up version of the first inference in Dawkins’ chain of reasoning appears to be logically valid. But it is not clear that the added assumption (A) is true.

One way to ensure that (A) is true is by defining “the universe” so that it includes everything that has ever existed. On this definition, there could not be any process of evolution going on prior to the beginning of the universe, because any process of evolution requires something to exist; there must be something that is evolving at any given point in the process. On this definition of “the universe”, assumption (A) becomes a self-evident truth.

This way of ensuring the truth of (A) will not work, however, because if “the universe” includes everything that has ever existed, and if God exists, then one of the items included in the collection designated by the term “the universe” is God. Further on in the chain of inferences, Dawkins concludes that,

4. The God Hypothesis is false.

The “God Hypothesis” implies that there is a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it…” (TGD, Mariner Books paperback edition, p.52). Therefore, if “the universe” includes everything that has ever existed, then it would also include every “superhuman, supernatural intelligence” who ever existed. Therefore, any superhuman, supernatural intelligence who designed and created “everything in the universe”, would have also designed and created itself!

But it is logically impossible for person or intelligent being to design and create itself. Thus, on the proposed definition of “the universe”, the God Hypothesis would be a necessary falsehood, and there would be no need for any factual or empirical evidence to refute the God Hypothesis. The God Hypothesis would be analogous to the hypothesis that there exists a four-sided triangle or a married bachelor.

Thus, it is not open to Dawkins to define “the universe” so that it includes everything that has ever existed, for as soon as he adopted such a definition, “the God Hypothesis” would be an analytic falsehood, and his view that this is a scientific hypothesis that is subject to evaluation in terms of factual evidence would be clearly shown to be mistaken.

So, what does Dawkins mean by the phrase “the universe”? This phrase is especially problematic coming from Dawkins, because he takes seriously, and even advocates, the view that there are multiple universes. This is partly how he deals with the Fine Tuning Argument for the existence of God (see TGD, p.169-176):

This objection can be answered by the suggestion, which Martin Rees himself supports, that there are many universes, co-existing like bubbles of foam, in a ‘multiverse’ (or ‘megaverse,’ as Leonard Susskind prefers to call it). The laws and constants of any one universe, such as our observable universe, are by-laws. The multiverse as a whole has a plethora of alternative sets of by-laws. The anthropic principle kicks in to explain that we have to be in one of those universes (presumably a minority) whose by-laws happen to be propitious to our eventual evolution and hence contemplation of the problem. (TGD, p. 173-174)

If there are multiple universes as Dawkins suggests, then the phrase “the universe” is ambiguous.

To which of the many universes that Dawkins supposes exists does this phrase refer? If there are three bottles of wine on my kitchen table, and someone says, “The bottle of wine on your kitchen table has poison in it”, this claim is ambiguous. Which of the three bottles of wine contains poison? Similarly, if there are thousands or millions of universes, then which of those universes does Dawkins have in mind when using the expression “the universe”?

To be continued…