bookmark_borderConservapedia on “atheism”

Here’s a fun way to waste half an hour: look over the Conservapedia entry on atheism.

It starts off with a picture of “The perverse and cruel atheist Marquis de Sade in prison,” which is a pretty good indication of the sort of material that is to come. In some ways, it’s a nice one-stop shopping center for calumnies against nonbelief favored by American conservatives. I will admit, it has links to some useful sociological information concerning religious versus nonreligious populations, though it is one-sided and very US-centered. But that’s a minor part of the entry. Naturally, the bulk consists of misconceptions and misrepresentations.

The very existence of Conservapedia is a monument to dishonesty. Many American conservatives go purple in the face railing against political correctness, relativism, politically determined standards of truth, bias, etc. etc. Their solution, naturally, is to exhibit extreme versions of these faults. If they take over a public institution, they will gut it, as with the American government. If they can’t take over, such as with American science, they will seek to form parallel institutions to propagate a religiously correct vision of reality. So we had conservatives complaining about “bias” in Wikipedias treatment of certain subjects such as evolution, and therefore they produced a nicely creationist web site, Conservapedia, as an alternative.

bookmark_borderHow secular can we get?

Take a reasonably secular bunch of people. They don’t participate in the local religious rituals, have a worldly morality that pays no attention to what the religious leaders say, and are inclined to think of sacred stories as a boring genre of fiction. They don’t identify with any particular religion, think religiously colored politics is a really bad idea, and don’t spend much time worrying about “the meaning of life” and existential matters.

Yet I would guess a clear majority among such very secular people will be inclined toward one or more of the following:

  • If pressed, they will agree with sentiments such as “There’s got to be more than this to life” or “there’s got to be a reason for everything that happens.”
  • They will tend to interpret certain odd events in a paranormal, or what I’d call a low-intensity supernatural fashion. Perhaps more importantly, they will respond to anecdotes about paranormal events.
  • They will evaluate beliefs on pragmatic grounds, emphasizing therapeutic value rather than truth.
  • They will be mind-matter dualists, not just in the implicit, folk-psychological fashion that everyone is, but also in some more explicit contexts.

(I could extend the list, but you get the idea.)

None of this adds up to religiosity in any substantial way; it does not even bring us into New Age or “spiritual but not religious” domains. Yet I suspect that such minimal spiritual tendencies characterizes even very secular populations. We know something about what societies without widespread God-belief look like—we even have countries in Western Europe that come close. But we really have no clue what a society dominated by, say, a scientific naturalist outlook would look like.

bookmark_borderAdvertising freethought

There appear to be a number of advertising campaigns going on to promote freethought, for example, AHA’s “Why believe in a god” and Freethought Action.

I suppose these are necessary in the present age and circumstances. But in a more cynical mood (more even than my normal baseline level of high cynicism), I can’t help thinking of the way so many American churches are essentially commercial enterprises that heavily depend on advertising.

bookmark_borderNew Chick Tract

Palestinians are in serious trouble. For decades, they mostly had to worry about the madness due to two monotheisms. Jews thought the land was holy, and Palestinians’ own predominant monotheism, Islam, also insisted it was sacred. Nowadays conservative Christian fanatics in the US are also in on the act. According to Jack Chick, God punishes the United States with catastrophic weather whenever we are insufficiently enthusiastic about oppressing Palestinians.


bookmark_borderFaith and Reason – Part 4

There are some questions about faith and reason that it would be helpful to understand and answer:

Q1. Which is better, reason or faith?
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?

But before we can intelligently answer these questions, we need to get a handle on the basic concepts:

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

In order to get clearer about the concept of reason, I have started to explore the following questions:

Q7. Can we justify rationality?
Q8. What is rationality?

One key concern about (Q7) is whether a justification of rationality is unavoidably circular in nature. We are talking about a rational justification of rationality, so it seems to some thinkers that reliance upon a rational justification presupposes the adequacy or reliability of rationality. So, when a justification of rationality is put forward, one important question to ask is whether the justification is circular or begs the question.

Based on a dictionary definition of rationality, I have pointed to three levels of rationality:

(1) conscious
(2) mentally normal
(3) reasonable

By “reasonable” I mean having some capacity and tendency to think critically. Just as there are degrees of mental illness or mental retardation, so there are also degrees of reasonableness or of being a critical thinker. Critical thinking involves intellectual skills, habits of thought, intellectual virtues, and experience with conforming thinking to intellectual standards. These skills, habits, virtues, and levels of experience occur in varying strengths.

I plan to start by constructing a justification for the lower levels of rationality, to see whether and how such a justification can be produced. Then I will examine whether and how those justifications avoid the problem of circularity. If I can successfully justify Level1 rationality (consciousness) and Level2 rationality (mental normalcy), that might indicate a way to justify Level3 rationality (reasonableness/critical thinking).

So, the next question to tackle concerns the justification of Level1 rationality:

Q9. Can we justify being conscious?

If you were given the choice to be unconscious for the rest of your life, or to continue to be conscious (except for sleep or surgery), would it be better to remain conscious?

Here is a thought experiment on this question. Suppose that a pill has been designed to make a person permanently unconscious, and that in animal and human testing, the ingestion of a single pill has proven to be 100% effective in achieving this objective. Suppose that you came into possession of one of these pills, would you take it? Should you take the pill?

For most of us, the answer is obvious. It would be foolish to take the pill. However, for some people, who are suffering and living in misery, and who have no real prospect of a brighter future, it might make sense to take the pill. Here in the state of Washington, we just voted to approve an initiative legalizing assisted suicide. The idea is that a person who is suffering from a terminal illness should be allowed the choice to end his/her life quickly and painlessly. So, it would seem that there is not just one correct answer to the question posed in the thought experiment. It all depends on the particular circumstances of the person who is making the choice of whether to take the pill.

I would not take the pill, because my life has been a fairly good life, and my prospects for continuing to live a good life are strong. Being conscious allows me to determine goals and objectives, and to make plans to achieve those goals and objectives, and to take actions to follow those plans. Being conscious allows me to enjoy pleasures, have interesting experiences, develop and enjoy relationships with other people, to learn new things, to engage in discussions about philosophy, religion, and politics, to help other people, to love and to care for my wife, my daughters, my siblings, my parents, and my friends. Being conscious allows me to make a positive contribution to my country and my fellow human beings.

In short, if I don’t take the pill and if I continue to be conscious (avoiding permanent unconsciousness) for another decade or more, then I am likely to continue having a good life, including satisfaction of various hopes, desires, duties, goals, and objectives, both of a self-interested nature, and of a moral or other-centered nature.

There is, however, one clear advantage to taking the pill: this would practically guarantee that I would never experience extreme misery and suffering. But the chances are small that my life will take a big turn for the worse and that I will be facing months or years of misery and suffering, and if my life does become one of extreme and prolonged misery, I will probably be able kill myself and put an end to my own suffering. So, taking the pill now is not the only opportunity I will have to avoid years of living in misery.

To be continued…

bookmark_borderCombining evolution and ID

I finished grading another batch of student papers where I get to see what a bunch of smart juniors think of evolution and intelligent design.

As usual, their tendency is to split the difference. Many of them are classic god-of-the-gaps reasoners, eager to insert supernatural powers wherever it looks that there’s something significant that we do not have a complete scientific story about. They also don’t like to go against anything with “science” stamped upon it. So they combine evolution and intelligent design, making a hash of both. They accept evolution (in the sense of common descent) as the best account of the history of life. They tend to go for a kind of non-Darwinian, divinely guided evolution, but in many cases their views are too incoherent to even describe as explicitly guided evolution. But they also want a less vague form of divine involvement, a moment of creation. So they tend to think that their God created life by some sort of miracle, but then turned life over to evolution, to let it sort out its own path. So they describe intelligent design as the best theory for the origin of life, and evolution as the best theory for what came afterwards.

They might think they have the best of both worlds that way, but they might get the worst. It’s an intellectually unstable position. Mainstream scientists are not happy with a miraculous origin of life, and intelligent design proponents do not like to concede that blind natural processes are sufficient for any of the creativity we see in evolution.

bookmark_borderSkeptical Approaches to Miracles – Part 5

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)

Contrary to Geisler’s interpretation, Spinoza does not argue against the possibility of miracles. Rather, he assumes that miracles do occur, and then 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.

According to Spinoza (in Theological-Political Treatise, Chapter 6, paragraph 5) , 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. Thus, we need to formulate Spinoza’s argument a bit differently than Geisler did (above):

Argument for New Definition of “Miracle”

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. We need to add an additional premise and conclusion to the first half of the above argument:

Argument for the Impossibility of Miracles

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.
10. Miracles require the violation of a natural law.
11. Miracles are impossible.

This is not, however, Spinoza’s argument, since he asserts conclusion (9), which is the exact opposite of premise (10) in the argument for the Impossibility of Miracles (hereafter: IOM). Spinoza was arguing that “miracle” should be defined so that such events do not involve a violation of a law of nature, but this argument against miracles is based on the acceptance of just such a definition.

Geisler’s first objection to Spinoza’s argument is that it begs the question. Let’s see if this objection holds up against the IOM argument. Geisler makes six different comments that appear to be related to his “begs the question” charge. I will examine these comments one at a time.

Comment 1: “…anything validly deducible from premises must have been present in those premises from the beginning.” (MMM, p.18)

If I understand Geisler correctly, this is a stunningly stupid comment in support of the charge of begging the question. Geisler’s comment implies that all valid deductive arguments beg the question. But this “proves” way too much. For example, Geisler’s favorite argument for the existence of God, is a deductive version of a cosmological argument. Comment 1 implies that Geisler’s favorite argument for God begs the question. Deductively valid arguments do sometimes beg the question, but many deductively valid arguments do not. This comment provides absolutely no support for Geisler’s charge that Spinoza has committed the fallacy of begging the question.

Comment 2: “…Spinoza has provided no convincing argument..” for “the rationalistic premises” of his argument. (MMM, p.18)

This comment not only fails to support Geisler’s fallacy charge, it actually comes very close to contradicting his objection. In saying that Spinoza has provided no convincing argument for a premise of the IOM argument, Geisler suggests that Spinoza has provided an argument for a controversial premise, but that the argument is defective and falls short of being a solid argument. But if Spinoza has provided an argument for a controversial premise of IOM, then Geisler cannot fairly charge Spinoza with begging the question. The fallacy of begging the question occurs when a controversial premise is simply assumed to be true, without any argument or support being provided for the controversial premise.

If Geisler thinks that Spinoza has given a weak or defective argument for a controversial premise, then Geisler needs to point to that argument and explain why he thinks the argument is weak or defective. Geisler does not do this, so it is actually Geisler who begs the question! Geisler merely asserts that Spinoza has given only unconvincing arguments in support of a basic premise of the IOM argument, without giving any details or explanation or support for this controversial charge.

Comment 3: “Spinoza’s argument…begs the question by defining miracles as impossible to begin with, namely, as a violation of assumed unbreakable natural laws.” (MMM, p.21)

My formulation of the IOM argument does not refer to “unbreakable” natural laws, but the same idea is implied in premise (6):

6. The violation of a natural law is impossible.

Spinoza does not define miracles in terms of violations of natural law. In fact, he argues that it is mistaken to define miracles that way. However, the IOM argument is not really Spinoza’s argument, but is derived from borrowing part of Spinoza’s argument and adding a premise that Spinoza would himself reject:

10. Miracles require the violation of a natural law.

Since Spinoza argues against (10), I assume that he does not also argue in favor of (10). So, if Geisler had doubts about (10), he would be partially correct to say that Spinoza begged the question by failing to provide an argument for the definition of miracles presupposed by (10). However, Geisler does not object to defining miracles as involving a violation of a law of nature. So, the question begging that Geisler thinks occurred, relates to premise (6), not premise (10).

Premise (6), however, does not put forward a definition of “miracle”, and so Geisler is wrong in asserting that a question-begging definition of miracle is being assumed or asserted in the IOM argument. Geisler is making the same mistake here as with Comment 1. It is the combination of (6) and (10) that implies the impossibility of miracles, but neither premise (6) nor premise (10) assumes impossibility of miracles. Thus, neither (6) nor (10) begs the question by assuming what needs to be proven.

Premise (6) is, however, a controversial claim, so (6) needs to be supported by further arguments or reasons in order for the IOM argument to avoid the charge of begging the question.

To be continued…