bookmark_borderPhilosophy (eye-roll)

I don’t expect analytic philosophy of religion to be able to settle much about a God, any more than I’d expect an analytic philosophy of botany to be able to tell me how to obtain a banana.

Whenever you think you might have a nice armchair argument for atheism, the cure is simple. Summon a few theistic philosophers and they’ll pick it apart. And vice versa.

You’d think that since it’s long been clear that all philosophy of religion is capable of doing is to cancel itself out, we’d have moved on to better things. But no, that’s not how the human species does things. We’ll bake the planet because we can’t conceive of anything other than business as usual. We’ll save the economy by pouring trillions into a parasitical financial sector. We’ll . . .

Oh, I give up. It’s galling that a species so incapable of consciously changing its ways considers itself rational. At least wasting time on the God of the Philosophers is fairly harmless.

bookmark_borderTrilemma Update

On my blog, I have recently returned to working on an analysis and evaluation of the Trilemma argument for the deity of Jesus:

http://crossexamination.blogspot.com/search/label/Trilemma

Post #8 and on: Does the evidence from the synoptic Gospels for the premise that “Jesus claimed to be God” hold up under closer examination?

Posts #4 – #7: Most leading Jesus scholars reject the assumption that the Gospel of John is a reliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus, so we can safely ignore about 90% of the evidence that McDowell gives in support of the premise “Jesus claimed to be God”.

Post #3: A number of the passages McDowell cites from the Gospel of John are either unclear or irrelevant in relation to the premise that “Jesus claimed to be God”.

Posts #1 and #2: Introduction to, and analysis of McDowell’s Trilemma argument.

bookmark_borderQuantum drivel for ID

As a rule of thumb, never trust anything coming from a non-physicist with the word “quantum” in it. Hell, be wary even when it comes from a physicist. For example, don’t too easily trust philosophical musing about quantum physics emanating from the first generation of physicists who were inventing quantum mechanics. They were just trying to figure out what the blazes was going on, and inescapably they went down many blind alleys in the process. That’s how it goes.

Here’s an example of quantum drivel, from the intelligent design crowd, no less.

Feser notes that Heisenberg’s understanding of Aristote’s notions of potency and act is not precisely correct in several ways, but he points out that Heisenberg understood that classical hylomorphic understanding of nature anticipated some of the “counterintuitive” aspects of quantum mechanics.

. . . In my view, we are in the midst of a philosophical revolution. Like the materialist ‘Mechanical Philosophy’ revolution in the 18th century, the 20th and 21st century philosophical revolution is driven by contemporaneous advances in science. It began with quantum mechanics in the early 20th century, is now shaking the foundations of biology, and in time will cast aside simplistic materialist theories of the mind.

This bullshit is from Michael Egnor, the scientifically ignorant neurosurgeon in the ID camp who also fancies himself a philosopher. Read all of it.

I teach quantum mechanics in the morning, and then check pseudoscientific websites in the afternoon, where I invariably find people who couldn’t do a real quantum mechanical calculation to save their lives pontificating about What It All Means. This pisses me off.

bookmark_borderNon-drinkers of bottled water

I’m going to give a talk next month on atheists and stereotypes next month. It occurs to me that “atheist” is not a natural kind, and I’m wondering if the following analogy might help to bring this across.

People who don’t believe in a God are like people who don’t drink bottled water. Statistically speaking, the group might have some noticeable characteristics, but you’re still lumping distinct subgroups together. People who refuse bottled water might be, statistically speaking, more likely to be environmentally conscious. But only some people refuse bottled water because it is environmentally a bad idea. There are also others who stay away from bottled water for entirely different reasons: because it’s a waste of money when tap water is just as good, because they can’t afford it, because they just haven’t developed the habit, etc. etc. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to generalize about non-drinkers of bottled water as if this was a coherent, natural grouping of people.

Similarly, people do not believe in God because of all sorts of reasons. Some are skeptical about popular religion, and it spills over into all kinds of God-talk. Some are at home in a scientific subculture where nonbelief is routine. Some think religion is a social evil. Etc., etc. There are differences between people who join local atheist clubs, and people who do not believe but are indifferent to religion. People who go without God in an academic environment are different from people who shed religion as part of a political movement. “Atheists” are not a natural, coherent group.

bookmark_borderDoes God Hate Women?

I’ve just read Does God Hate Women? by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. They very effectively point out how conservative religious doctrines on gender roles subordinate women.

I got the book not just because of Benson and Stangroom’s excellent reputation as no-nonsense skeptics, but because I wanted a single go-to source I can use or cite as representative of secular liberal opposition to conservative religious insistence on confining women to the domestic and reproductive realm. Does God Hate Women? works very well for this. Not only does the book capture the disgust religious subordination of women often provokes among secular liberals, the philosophical background of the authors lets them develop a case that has more depth than just an elaboration of discomfort.

The book does not do everything. For example, it will probably resonate little with readers who do not already take a secular liberal point of view. And its arguments opposing group rights and setting aside concerns for cultural integrity are cursory. They will not convince too many who do not already emphasize liberal individualism in their moral outlooks. But all this is not any criticism of Does God Hate Women?. Addressing all such concerns in detail is not the job the authors set for themselves. Instead, they appear (quite sensibly) to keep their argument short and to the point. If the very real suffering presented in the book will not move readers to stand more firmly against conservative religious demands to constrain the lives of women, little else will. A more in-depth analysis of multicultural views, for example, would of dubious relevance to that task.

Now, having said that, I do like indulging in thinking about what counterarguments conservative religious people might have. (It’s altogether good that a book provokes such questions; it does not have to answer them.)

Religious figures talk about the equal dignity but complementary natures of men and women. But men remain in control of public life. Women are restricted in the life options open to them, not just in matters such as careers but even intimate matters such as a choice of mate. Those of us with a secular liberal point of view are not much impressed with allegedly divine authority as a reason for social arrangements. We also tend to celebrate choice, control, and even self-invention. So we usually see traditional gender roles, especially as manifested in Islamic societies, as oppressive.

Still, the argument can’t end there. Consider what could happen if we were able to take the liberal insistence on personal autonomy, choice, and self-authorship to a further limit. Right now, the choices available to us are still restricted. For example, we have no easy way to choose our own personality. Many of us try, with limited success, through self-help literature or Prozac. We attempt to not just evaluate possible life goals, but also to change the sort of person we are—which would affect the way we evaluate our options. Let’s say that the technology of self-adjustment becomes much cheaper, routine, and easily available. Imagine that we can pop a pill not just to choose our mood, but change our “happiness set-point,” as some transhumanists desire. We have access to choices that are so consequential that they change how we respond to our choices.

The result, I suspect, would be a kind a liberal vertigo. We would begin to lose a sense of stability, a background we can hold relatively fixed while evaluating more trivial choices. Indeed, choices would flatten out, with personality traits being as easily accessible as brands of toothpaste. Even rationality would not help much. We might be able to think about a best choice against a stable background of goals and values. But now some of our choices include popping a pill or rewiring our brain in such a way as to see our choices very differently. We might even see that if we rewired ourselves, we would be perfectly happy with choices that are not attractive to us with our current personality. How, then do we choose, especially if external signposts like a divine moral order are not available? Choice, taken to the limit, leads to vertigo, which is much like paralysis.

A conservative religious person, then, can perhaps argue that we should not overemphasize choice. If we are not to beg the question in favor of secular liberalism, we should not do this. Being traditionally religious means valuing some of the unchosen aspects of our lives and our persons. Indeed, especially where religion is concerned, the unchosen and change-resistant aspects of our identities can be most central to who we are. If we must use the language of choice, then conservative religion offers a more radical choice: the choice of opting out of the liberal game of submitting as much as we can to individual choice. Such a radical choice can be attractive. In some ways, it is similar to radical critiques of our hypercommercialized consumer culture. Many of us want an option to opt out of a life that demands that every choice become similar to a choice between five hundred flavors of toothpaste.

Moreover, even a secular liberal who wants to avoid vertigo can be sympathetic to some parts of this religious response. We need, perhaps, a balance between choice and stability. And more sensible secular liberals have other arguments they can appeal to, besides a desire to maximize choice come what may. But once liberals concede this, then the argument starts over what kind of balance is best. Conservative religion offers a different sort of balance—a stable way of life that is in fact attractive to many people. Why should they prefer a liberal position that, for their taste, goes too far in the direction of vertigo?

I am not sure that there is any universal answer to such a question. From where I stand, given my interests and aspirations, secular liberalism makes a good deal of sense. Politically, I will work toward what in this context I see as an emancipation of women (and men). Others will see things differently, and I don’t think this is remediable by finding the right sort of argument. We are political competitors, and that is all.

bookmark_borderThe New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason

Vic Stenger’s new book, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason is now out. It’s an affirmation of the “New Atheism” by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and Stenger, including responses to some of the critics.

I’m not going to say a lot about the book, other than recommending it as a very good statement and defense of the new atheism specifically. I remain ambivalent about the new atheism—I favor a more disillusioned form of nonbelief—but Stenger makes a case that will have considerable appeal for those of us with a more optimistic temperament.

As a disclaimer, I should add that Vic is a friend, that some of my work comes in for both criticism and praise in the book, and that I provided feedback to Vic during the writing process. So I might be a bit too involved for a reader to think that I can give an evenhanded assessment of the book. Still, I hope the book will do well, and I think it’s very good to have a single, straightforward defense of the new atheism available.

bookmark_borderDeath

Most nonbelievers think there is something absurd about the denial of death. Sam Harris expresses this view well:

We live in a world where all things, good and bad, are finally destroyed by change. Parents lose their children and children their parents. Husbands and wives are separated in an instant, never to meet again. Friends part company in haste, without knowing that it will be for the last time. This life, when surveyed with a broad glance, presents little more than a vast spectacle of loss. Most people in this world, however, imagine that there is a cure for this. If we live rightly—not necessarily ethically, but within the framework of certain ancient beliefs and stereotyped behaviors—we will get everything we want after we die. When our bodies finally fail us, we just shed our corporeal ballast and travel to a land where we are reunited with everyone we loved while alive. Of course, overly rational people and other rabble will be kept out of this happy place, and those who suspended their disbelief while alive will be free to enjoy themselves for all eternity.

So yes, things change. And denying death does have an air of almost obvious absurdity about it.

But then again, our cat died yesterday. I’m in an emotionally turbulent state and will remain so for a while. (He was eighteen and a half, and had a good and comfortable life, by cat standards. Nonetheless, he’s dead and something—someone—I cared deeply about has been ripped out of the fabric of my daily life.) In my current state of mind, I’m no mood to gripe about any comfort anyone might get from even the most absurd beliefs about death.

As I age, I increasingly harbor echoes of useless skills. Somewhere in my brain, only half-forgotten, lurks expertise on software no one has used for two decades, hints of ideas in physics that never panned out, traces of books that I never should have read in the first place. That’s just trash that accumulates. But there are also memories of people and pets I will never see again—not just explicit pictures but also patterns of response, an ability to predict what someone would have done in some situation. I have low-resolution copies of personalities lodged in my brain. And I would not get rid of all this if I could, even though it may not help or can even hinder how I respond to what I encounter today. The memories are all that remains, in many cases.

With time, maybe the clutter takes over. Certainly, the sense of loss does. My father tells me that the problem with living as long as he has (approaching 80 now) is that too many of his friends have died. Every year the clutter gets larger, and more valuable.

I don’t see much to do about all this than to shrug and carry on. But I can also see that a lot of people will be unsatisfied with life as one damn thing after another and then you die. They may perceive that as a problem, and be attracted by supernatural claims that propose a solution. And if so, arguing about such matters need not accomplish anything worthwhile. Right now, I miss my cat. Arguments are just beside the point.

bookmark_borderWe don’t care

In both the United States and Turkey, the two countries I can observe most closely, the strength of conservative religious movements has a lot to do with how the religious are better at organizing care-giving and social solidarity compared to more secular people.

In the US, much care-giving is linked to churches. From pastoral visits to the sick to church members pitching together to help a recently unemployed member, especially if you’re relatively poor or in reduced circumstances, churches are often the best help you can count upon. In the US, churches are our social safety net. Christian volunteerism is our exception to possessive individualism. We do not believe citizens owe anything to each other as fellow citizens, but we help out others within and through our congregations. Even if you want more middle-class versions of care-giving or social solidarity, such as a support system for college students, it will be religious organizations that attempt to meet the need. The largest student organizations on our campuses are church-affiliated. We are ruthless competitors in the secular public realm (which is little but the marketplace) but caring human beings in a religious environment.

Turkey is much the same. The public realm consists of a dog-eat-dog marketplace and its extension in government, which is naturally wholly corrupt. Care takes place in the context of ethnic, regional, but especially religious solidarity. Especially if you’re poor, religious involvement is critical to your chances to get support beyond an extended family network. There is little in the way of unions or other secular organizations that can support mutual aid. And it is no surprise that middle class and upwardly-mobile needs for care and support are also met by religious groups. College students, for example, if involved with religious orders, can count on decent housing, tutoring help, and a supportive social environment. Indeed, there are religious groups that pay special attention to recruiting needy students by caring for their needs. Secular public alternatives, when they exist, are usually starkly inferior. After all, citizens are on their own as citizens, but as believers, they have access to care.

If we care about secularism as a real-life political option—not some abstract legal deliverance of liberal political philosophy—we have to think about how to care for each other without depending on the kind of thick, suffocating social connections modeled on congregations. It used to be that the political left was deeply concerned about just such matters. In these postmodern times, I am not so sure anymore. We may be very liberal, and firmly committed to the separation of church and state. Nonetheless, by and large, we just don’t care.

bookmark_borderChristian creationists for freedom of speech

And now, the Christian creationists—intelligent design proponents in this case—come out in defense of freedom of speech. That is, they decry the “Darwinist” persecution of alternative points of view.

How many intellectuals and media conveyers will defend free speech and the importance of an unfettered debate of ideas? Fewer and fewer. We are witnessing in America a kind of academic French Revolution, where leading opinion is fratricidal, enraged, fanatical — and then overthrown to make room for a newer fanaticism.

. . . the tawdry campaign of Darwinists to misrepresent and punish those scientists and science writers who dissent from Darwinism, or merely are known to associate with dissenters. . .

etc. etc.

I suppose I should be encouraged that religious conservatives feel the need to defend their positions using liberal rhetoric.

bookmark_borderMuslim creationists for freedom of speech

We often hear of Muslims demanding restrictions on free speech, to prevent religious sensibilities from insult.

In fairness, here is a group of Muslims standing up for free speech. They are, in fact, enraged about Western and secularist restrictions of freedom of speech. They demand that

THE DARWINIST DICTATORSHIP SHOULD APOLOGIZE

o For banning and burning anti-Darwinist books,

o For refusing to permit any contrary opinions,

o For removing scientists holding opposing ideas from their posts,

o For forcing students to give answers in favor of the theory in university exams,

o For deceiving the world with countless hoax fossils,

o For concealing Cambrian period fossils for 70 years and for still hiding every new fossil discovery since they constitute evidence for Creation,

o For concealing the impossibility of even a single protein coming into being by chance,

o For portraying only hoax skulls as evidence of the so-called evolution of man,

o For so long imposing the lie that mutations cause evolution,

o And for deceiving all of humanity, admitting a biased lie and nonsense, and violating the human rights of all mankind by disseminating that nonsense.

There. That should make us all feel better now.