bookmark_borderFaith-based nonbelief

In conservative America—the real America, as some would have it—nonbelief is a liability. Everyone is supposed to be a Protestant, though this might include Catholic Protestants or Muslim Protestants. You are free to go to the church of your choice, but it is very important that you do go to a church of your choice. Protestant individualism still requires public order and personal moral discipline. And this is best provided by a strong religious foundation.

In liberal America, nonbelief is more acceptable. But liberals allow this because they assimilate nonbelief, as well as just about any religion, into a Protestant conception of faith. That is, even the most uncompromising atheism might be well and good, as long as it is held as a form of personal faith. Matters of the gods, liberals think, are decisions of personal worldview and metaphysics. As such, they are private matters, to be sharply distinguished from public matters. When nonbelievers argue that the gods are fictions, basing such arguments on publicly available reasons and evidence, they step out of bounds.

I run into this liberal Protestant framing especially when observing debates over science and religion. Consider the controversy over evolution. The mainstream view is that evolution is good science, and hence public. Good citizens should come to accept such public, verified facts as presented by science. But to suggest that evolution is anything but fully compatible with proper religion (as understood by liberal Protestants) is unacceptable. That would violate the boundary between what is public and private, faith-based worldviews. Those atheists who argue that evolution counts against the gods are out of bounds, while those nonbelievers who think the reality of gods should be decided entirely on metaphysical grounds are models of rationality. If you suggest science has a vital contribution to the debate over supernatural realities, you’ll get accused of “scientism” or “reductionism” or any number of terms that seem vaguely abusive but otherwise hard to pin down. But if you propose to leave matters entirely in the court of armchair philosophizing, with the implication that nonbelief is a faith-based position on all fours with any other, you’ll be seen as the soul of reasonability.

Catholics, Muslims, and others who belong to religions with a strong communal sensibility, often chafe at the requirement that they fit into a Protestant conception of being religious. Nonbelievers might also consider a bit of rebellion. Fitting a Protestant pattern of personal faith allows us a good deal of social breathing space. But skepticism toward the very idea of faith is an important part of most nonbelievers’ intellectual orientation. Being granted grudging acceptance as long as we treat nonbelief as a form of personal faith becomes grating after a while.

bookmark_borderGood philosophy, bad philosophy

I hadn’t thought I would read Simon Blackburn’s Truth: A Guide. For some reason, I had formed the impression that it was a pop-philosophy book. While I think such books are very good things, I do not feel compelled to read them any more than a book on the physics of superheroes.

Then I happened to flip through a copy and found out it was based on Blackburn’s Gifford lectures. That was a good sign, since Gifford lectures are a good way to look into some serious contemporary religious thought. But then it turned out that Blackburn was not a believer, and that his subject had little to do with religion directly. So I got curious and picked up a copy.

It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable philosophy books I’ve read in years. It’s beautifully written, avoiding jargon and pomposity even when exploring difficult territory. It also helps, probably, that my prejudices seem to line up very well with those of Blackburn. It’s rare that I so often agree with a philosopher; it was an interesting experience to have the irritating “no; here’s where you go wrong” soundtrack in my head largely muted for a change. More to the point, the good writing and interesting discussions in the book made me more inclined to change my perspective on those occasions where I didn’t so easily fall in line.

Read it. You’ll enjoy it if you have any interest in the ongoing philosophical wars over relativism and truth. You’ll especially enjoy it if you’re irritated both by Platonic and other metaphysical ways to “solve” the problem and also the brain-to-mush syndrome displayed by too many postmodern thinkers.

And, just to restore me to my usual state of equilibrium, consisting of being pissed off at the whole philosophical enterprise, I should mention Between Naturalism and Religion by Jürgen Habermas, the German big shot. It’ll give me a few references to cite in one or two of my projects, but by an large, it’s a waste of time. It’s badly written, full of unnecessary jargon dressing up ideas that range from the trivial to the implausible. (I suspect that this is not an artifact of translation but a feature of the original German.)

Habermas, as usual, positions himself as a “postmetaphysical” philosopher, but his conception of what a philosopher is supposed to do seems much the same as in the mainstream metaphysical tradition. His views are still haunted by a ghost of transcendent Reason that delivers normative truths. And even a ghost of dualism puts in an appearance in his desultory complaints against naturalism. (Presented, as is customary, as “anti-reductionism.”)

There is one possible exception. Being postmetaphysical, Habermas says, means that philosophy gives up trying to adjudicate between rival metaphysical worldviews. But curiously, this apparently doesn’t so much mean that there is something wrong with metaphysical ways of thinking as that philosophy gives up the ability to criticize claims associated with ways of life, particularly religion, that heavily rely on making metaphysical claims. That’s an interesting point of view, perhaps, though I don’t find it very convincing.

Otherwise, if you like bullshit dressed up in jargon, this book is what you’ve been looking for.

bookmark_borderThe Logic of the Trilemma – Symbolization & Proof

The Premises and Conclusion of the Trilemma in English
The intermediate conclusion–Either Jesus was a liar, or Jesus was mentally ill, or Jesus was God— is not itself a required assumption, because it can supposedly be deduced from the first three premises. So, McDowell’s Trilemma can be stated in terms of five premises and the main conclusion:

1. Jesus claimed to be God.
2. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus knew that he was not God, then Jesus was a liar.
3. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus did not know that he was not God, then Jesus was mentally ill.
4. It is not the case that Jesus was a liar.
5. It is not the case that Jesus was mentally ill.

Conclusion: Jesus was God.
Propositional Logic Symbolization of McDowell’s Trilemma
L: Jesus was a liar.
M: Jesus was mentally ill.
G: Jesus was God.
C: Jesus claimed to be God.
K: Jesus knew that he was not God.

1. C
2. [C ∙ (~G ∙ K)]
É L
3. [C ∙ (~G ∙ ~K)] É M
4. ~L
5. ~M
Conclusion: G
Derivation of the Conclusion from the Premises

The following logic proof shows that the above formulation of McDowell’s Trilemma is a valid deductive argument:

1. C
2. [C ∙ (~G ∙ K)] É L
3. [C ∙ (~G ∙ ~K)] É M
4. ~L
5. ~M …………………………………………../ G
6. C É [(~G ∙ K) É L] ……………………2, Exportation
7. C É [(~G ∙ ~K) É M] …………………3, Exportation
8. (~G ∙ K) É L ……………………………1, 6, Modus ponens
9. (~G ∙ ~K) É M …………………………1, 7, Modus ponens
10. ~G É (K É L) ………………………….8, Exportation
11. ~G É (~K É M) ……………………….9, Exportation
—–12. ~G ………………………..Assumption for Conditional Proof
—–13. K É L ………………………………10, 12, Modus ponens
—–14. ~K É M …………………………..11, 12, Modus ponens
—–15. K v ~K …………………………….Tautology
—–16. L v M …………………….13, 14, 15, Constructive dilemma
17. ~G É (L v M) ………………………….12 -16, Conditional Proof
18. ~~G v (L v M) …………………………17, Material implication
19. G v (L v M) …………………………….18, Double negation
20. (L v M) v G …………………………….19, Commutativity
21. ~L ∙ ~M …………………………………4, 5, Conjunction
22. ~ (L v M) ……………………………….21, DeMorgan’s rule
23. G …………………………………20, 22, Disjunctive syllogism

bookmark_borderThe Logic of the Trilemma

Here is the logic of Josh McDowell’s version of the Trilemma argument found in Chapter 7 of Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Chapter 2 of More Than a Carpenter:

1. Jesus claimed to be God.

2. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus knew that he was not God, then Jesus was a liar.

3. If Jesus claimed to be God, and Jesus was not God, and Jesus did not know that he was not God, then Jesus was mentally ill.

Therefore:

4. Either Jesus was a liar, or Jesus was mentally ill, or Jesus was God.

5. It is not the case that Jesus was a liar.

6. It is not the case that Jesus was mentally ill.

Therefore:

7. Jesus was God.

As formulated here, this is a deductively valid argument (both inferences are valid).

bookmark_borderWhen superstition gets dangerous

I do run into this reasoning from religious right circles: “God promised he wouldn’t wipe us out in quite that way, so global warming can’t be happening (or harmful).” It’s infuriating to see its potential to influence public policy. I’m sorry, but these particular superstitions are dangerous. Unless by some wild stroke of luck they’re correct, they threaten to take the saner part of the population down with them.

bookmark_borderARIS 2008

The American Religious Identification Survey 2008 results are online.

One interesting note. In terms of “belonging,” or self-identification, 0.9% of Americans describe themselves as agnostic, 0.7% as atheist. But when asked about actual beliefs, 2.3% of Americans take an atheist position, while the “hard” and “soft” varieties of agnosticism add up to 10.0%.

Interestingly, there is an additional 12.1% who have a deist, “there is a higher power but no personal God” view. There has been slight growth in the percentage of nonbelievers and unaffiliated since 2001, but nothing significant. It appears that the unaffiliated group had a burst of growth in the 1990’s, but this has pretty much stopped. Make of all this what you will.