bookmark_border50 Voices of Disbelief

50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk, is now available.

It turned out to be very good book. I contributed one of the chapters, so I didn’t want to say anything about the book before I read it all through. But now that I’ve done so, I’m impressed. Almost all of the short chapters, which range from personal reflections to more detailed arguments, are both very readable and quite interesting as well. In many cases, I learned something. The wide range of backgrounds of the writers—not just philosophers and scientists but science fiction writers and political activists as well, also make this an intriguing volume.

I’m glad to have been part of this project, and I hope the book does well.

bookmark_borderFairness doesn’t enter into it

Saturday we adopted three kittens from the local animal shelter. But one died overnight. The other two got an emergency vet visit.

We were worried about the other two for the next few days, but they seemed fine. Then, yesterday, another one suddenly collapsed without much warning. We rushed her to the vet, but in a few hours she was dead. The third is now at the vet, and his prospects are not good.

My wife kept saying this was not fair. I kind of understand what she means. On the other hand, I also don’t. Fairness really doesn’t enter into it. That’s just the way things are. Little kittens die suddenly, leaving us emotional wrecks. In the scale of ugliness life can deliver, losing kittens you’ve just bonded with are pretty small, really. I confess, remarking on the fairness of life doesn’t even occur to me. Fairness of human arrangements is one thing—in my cynicism, I often don’t expect fairness, but I don’t have trouble making sense of a complaint that, say, some economic policy is unfair. But life in general? I just have to cope, even if this means for few days I will go around feeling like I’m suppressing a scream every moment of the day.

And the gods don’t enter into it either. If I had a more religious temperament, perhaps I could make more sense of complaining about the unfairness of the universe. I could curse the gods. But how could that possibly help? The universe doesn’t run according to my wishes. Even if I could take seriously the minute possibility that some supernatural agent was in charge, that wouldn’t change.

bookmark_borderThe Strongest Argument for Christianity

In a major departure from my usual debunking mode, I am going to offer what I consider the strongest argument in favor of Christianity. No, let me hasten to assure everyone, I am not going all “Tony Flew” here. I think the arguments for the existence of God, whether considered individually or cumulatively, are totally worthless. Some theistic arguments are inferior specimens of a very dubious genre, i.e., metaphysical argument. The rest are instances of an even worse genre: pure pseudoscience. As anyone can tell from reading my candid little tome Why I am not a Christian, available in the “modern library” of the Secular Web, I regard Christian apologetics as a travesty, a farrago of bad history, inept biblical scholarship, and rampant illogic. Most doctrines of orthodox Christianity to me are as bizarre and incredible as Greek or Norse mythology—and a lot less fun. That said, I think there is one very strong argument for Christianity: The argument from the endlessly astonishing rottenness of human beings.

The train of thought leading to this present essay was set in motion a couple of weeks ago when I was reading in the morning paper the debate before the Supreme Court concerning whether videos showing animals being killed or tortured could be suppressed or whether such restriction violates the first amendment free speech guarantees (I shall not take any position here on that question). The article said that one kind of “entertainment” they were trying to control was something called “crush videos.” Now, crush videos constitute one form of human depravity that I had never heard of, and I wish I still had not. According to the article, such videos feature women in high heels crushing tiny animals to death. I was nearly made violently ill by the idea that any creature biologically classifiable as Homo sapiens would derive pleasure, prurient pleasure, I assume, from watching whores stomp small, helpless animals to death. I really thought that by age 57 I had pretty much heard it all, but I had not.

Now maybe you regard cruelty to animals as deplorable, but just do not have the sort of visceral reaction I get to things like this. Maybe it is man’s inhumanity to man that really appalls you. Well, you don’t have to look far at all to find plenty of that. A friend and fellow WWII buff gave me a copy of Richard J. Evans’ outstanding The Third Reich at War. This is an excellent book that achieves the very rare combination of impeccable scholarship with page-turning readability. I could not read it however. I found it simply too disturbing. We hear so much about the Nazi’s big crimes, like Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, Babi Yar, etc., that we forget about their ordinary everyday atrocities. For instance, after the invasion of Poland (70 years ago last month), the Nazis began to enforce their policy of brutal racial oppression of the untermenschen, i.e., Jews and Slavs. Evans tells about an incident where a Polish peasant picked a fight with a German soldier and wounded him with a knife. In retaliation, the Germans killed everybody in the peasant’s village. However, it was only a small village, and so did not contain enough inhabitants to fill the quota of retaliatory murders that had been set. So, with Teutonic thoroughness, they stopped a passing train, pulled off enough passengers to meet the quota, and shot them on the spot. Such incidents were far from extraordinary. Indeed, they were quite mundane occurrences in Nazi-occupied territories, especially in the East.

A central, indispensable doctrine of Christianity has always been the inherent rottenness of human beings. More formally, this is the doctrine of original sin. Of course, the doctrine of original sin was originally construed by Augustine as a taint passed on biologically from parent to child, starting with Adam and Eve. As a theory of the genetics of sinfulness, the doctrine has always, understandably, elicited derisive howls from unbelievers. When removed from its pseudo-biological garb, however, the idea is quite profound. Augustine held that before the Fall, humans could choose either to sin or not sin. Since the Fall, we have lost the power to refrain from sin, and wallow in bondage to concupiscence, by which Augustine meant all evil desire, not merely the sexual sort. The Reformed tradition called the post-Fall human state one of “total depravity,” by which they did not mean that humans are incapable of any good, but that every aspect of human nature and human life has been infected by sin (see Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, Macmillan, 1964). In other words, nothing human is pristine. No human relationship, institution, or activity is free of corruption, and quite a few are rife with it (e.g., politics, business, religion, and—Dare I say it?—academe). Further, the fallen state is not only a psychological or sociological phenomenon, but a metaphysical one, said Augustine. Put plainly, that means that there is nothing human effort or striving can do to correct the situation; there is no going back to Eden.

The doctrine of original sin is quite ferocious and uncompromising, of course, and gentler souls such as liberal Protestants and humanists have always been appalled by it. Surely, it seems far too gloomy and pessimistic to view humans in general in terms of total depravity. Surely, the Nazis were exceptionally monstrous and those who make or enjoy crush videos are among the outer fringes of the most despicable degenerates. Such behaviors are outrageously offensive to decent people, of whom there are many everywhere. Right? Of course, one determined to portray the human race in a negative light will never lack supporting evidence. However, for all the innumerable infamies committed by humans, we can point to equally numerous acts of kindness, mercy, and compassion. Even heroic acts of goodness are well known and frequent. Surely, the vast majority must practice common decency, or there could be no organized, sustained society at all. If we were as bad as all that, we would be living in Hobbes’ state of nature—where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Right? Aren’t the doctrines of original sin and total depravity simply thinly disguised misanthropy?

At one time I would have answered that last question with a resounding “YES!” Actually, I might still answer the question in the affirmative; what has changed is that I increasingly regard misanthropy as a rational view. A recent show on the History Channel depicted what would happen to the earth if humans were to simply disappear and leave everything else intact. Now I can’t help thinking that the scenario is not a half bad idea. However, even if we concede the liberal and humanistic objections to the doctrine of original sin—i.e., that there are many decent people, and many acts of kindness, and generosity, etc.—that still does not refute the idea of total depravity. Again, total depravity does not mean that there is no good in humanity. It does not deny our ordinary distinctions between good people and bad. It even does deny that there could be moral progress, e.g., that someday we might end slavery worldwide. Rather, it implies that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, everybody is at least a bit rotten (Come on; ‘fess up), and very many are pretty awful (e.g., office tyrants and deadbeat dads), and some (e.g., Nazis and animal torturers) are unspeakably vile.

So, the Christian depiction of the human condition seems to be spot-on. This is one thing Christianity gets exactly right. There is something deeply and seemingly irremediably wrong with us. We stain everything we touch. Even the citadel of reason is breached. As an academic, I long regarded intellect as a very high if not quite the highest good. Now I think it is grossly overrated. I have come to realize that I.Q. and rationality are hardly correlated at all. On the contr
ary, I have discovered the appalling extent to which very many of the smartest people employ their intellectual gifts and high-powered intellectual tools (like analytic philosophy) to create and defend pernicious ideologies and towering lunacies. Maybe worse are those who sell their intellects to the service of the highest bidders. “Reason is a whore,” said Luther, and, by God, he was at least 90% right.

So, chalk one big one up for Christianity.

bookmark_borderUnknown offensive cartoon

I ran into this cartoon in a Turkish news story about a court case. Apparently it inspired some Islamists to bomb (or attempt to bomb; it wasn’t clear) the secularist newspaper that originally ran it:

The offensive bit is the pig dressed in hijab. “AB” stands for the EU; it’s in the context of the apparent enthusiasm of the moderate Islamist party that runs Turkey to join the European Union.

bookmark_borderArgument from diversity

There is a common argument against religious belief that points out the diversity of religious beliefs available. People everywhere almost invariably have supernatural beliefs, but they also believe in all sorts of different religions. Most people follow the faith they were born into. And even though such an accidental circumstance largely determines their faith, they also are very often confident that they have the One True Faith and that others are mistaken to some degree. This seems odd.

I wonder, however, how much of the plausibility of this objection to religious belief derives from liberal individualist assumptions. We would be bothered less if faith didn’t correlate so strongly with circumstances of birth—if, perhaps, faith could be more reasonably seen as a matter of choice. But why would that matter so much? Some people believe, some don’t. The believers, if they take an individualist approach, might argue that they respond to the Holy Spirit (or its functional equivalent in whatever religion they adopt). Their particular circumstances make them more receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Other ways of life, other personal circumstances, happen to set other people at a farther remove to opportunities for spiritual enlightenment. This type of account of individual choice, I think, does seem more plausible to those of us who are secular liberals, even if, on balance, we think that other considerations decisively weigh against supernatural beliefs. But circumstances are just circumstances. Why should circumstances of birth and community count against the truth of a belief more than those individual idiosyncrasies of a life that a believer interprets as making one more receptive to the True Faith?

I suspect that those of us who think of persons as primarily embedded in communities will see no difficulty in affirming their faith while recognizing that it to a significant extent depends on an accident of birth. After all, if some individual characteristics make some people more open to the Holy Spirit, some community characteristics may work the same way. God may choose peoples as easily as he chooses individuals. Maybe Jewish history and community characteristics ensure that Orthodox Jews have more reliable access to divine truths. Maybe a child born into an Orthodox Jewish community enjoys, by virtue of being socialized in the ways of the Chosen People, a closeness to God that is denied to a child of a Buddhist. This is not problematic if it is primarily the community that matters. And I suspect it is our ingrained liberal individualism that makes us more bothered by a Chosen People than by individuals chosen by a Holy Spirit.

I agree that the diversity of supernatural beliefs counts against any notion of a One True Faith. But I also think that it is diversity per se that matters—whether this is due to communities of birth or the varying biographies of individual seekers of enlightenment is less relevant than we make it out to be.


Religious texts are meaningless. That is why they are deeply meaningful.

Religious truths are ever-changing, endlessly adaptable. That is why they are timeless and immutable.

Religions promise Everything. That is why they do not have to deliver.

Religious insights are inexpressible. That is why believers never stop talking.

The gods are absurd. That is why they are immortal.

bookmark_borderAll you need is love?

I had an odd experience last week, when I was part of a panel discussion on Islam and Evolution at Hampshire College.

As part of my presentation, I argued that Darwinian evolution counts against the notion of a supernatural designer, even though it does not strictly imply that there is no theistic God. And I made it pretty clear that I was representing a naturalistic, nonreligious point of view.

I didn’t know exactly what to do with one of the questions afterwards. A man from the audience asked me if I had any children. I said I didn’t, upon which he nodded knowingly and said something about “love.” I don’t remember his exact comment, but the implication was I had to be deficient in the love department, and that I was taking an overly analytical approach to religion. If I had children, presumably, I wouldn’t be so skeptical.

I doubt that. But then I would, wouldn’t I? The whole love business is one of those unanswerable objections—not because it makes a good point, but because quite literally, there is no answer I can give that could satisfy the questioner.

I shrugged it off, and in a minute we went on to another question. Still, there’s something odd about the whole experience. This isn’t the first time that a believer responded to my skepticism by suggesting that I must suffer from some emotional deficiency, though this is the most public incident so far. There is something curious about how, knowing practically nothing about me, some people have felt free to jump to conclusions about some personal lack. I don’t know if I can do anything but shrug this sort of thing off.

bookmark_borderSupernatural Agents

Ilkka Pyysiäinen’s new book, Supernatural Agents: Why We Believe in Souls, Gods, and Buddhas is a very nice addition to the recent literature on cognitive science-based explanations of religious and supernatural beliefs.

Pyysiäinen provides a useful update on what is happening in this fast-changing field, though this is an academic book and some previous acquaintance with the field is probably necessary to get the most out of the book. Still, Pyysiäinen is especially notable in how he has (in previous work as well) emphasized how official, rationalized, and theological religion has drawn on the same cognitive processes underlying folk supernatural beliefs and popular religion. His detailed look at Christian theology and Buddhism as well as common notions of souls and ghosts in Supernatural Agents is illuminating. I highly recommend reading this book and similar literature, which often brings a fresh perspective to debates over gods and ghosts that risk getting caught in the familiar philosophical ruts.

Though it is not his focus, Pyysiäinen even has a few things to say about religious nonbelief today. In his last paragraph, he remarks that

Although the “new atheists” tend to use the word “religion” as if there were a general consensus on what belongs to religion and what does not, this really is not the case. . . In my view, using reflective thinking and the best scientific evidence to continuously reevaluate all kinds of cherished beliefs is far more important than vigorously attacking an imagined totality (a quasi agent of sorts) called “religion.” If “religion” as we know it withers away some day, this will be a by-product of other changes—just as religion once emerged as a by-product.

Read the book to see why Pyysiäinen thinks so.

bookmark_borderFurther Comments on Naturalism and Consciousness

First, I would like to apologize for not getting back to my interlocutors more promptly. I have to do blog postings at times when there are no other pressing duties, and there have been no such times for the past month. My previous post on August 31, “More on Metaphysical Naturalism and Consciousness” prompted much high-quality response, and I find that gratifying. I would like to respond to some of these responses. Unfortunately, it may be another month before I can continue the conversation again.

Dianelos Georgoudis says:

“Keith Parsons says that conscious experiences are activities of physical beings accomplished via the functionality of some bodily part (presumably their brain), and that people digest with some body parts, and experience with some others. The fundamental difference of course is that we observe the stomach digesting, but we don’t observe the brain experiencing. Rather we observe the brain causing behavior.”

In the 1960’s science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage, the micronauts are inside the brain and they see neurons firing. One comments that they have just witnessed a thought. At the time this seemed silly (at the time I was fifteen and was watching the movie largely in hopes that Raquel Welch would disrobe). Now the idea that we can observe a brain thinking or experiencing does not seem silly. In fact, we can witness such occurrences. Brain imaging techniques allow us to witness the brain’s functions better than any micronaut could. When a subject is shown a bright red object, we can watch the visual cortex and observe its activities. When observing brain activities while the subject is having certain experiences, we are observing the brain experiencing. To reply that we are not observing the brain experiencing, but only the physical correlates of experience would be to blatantly beg the question against the physicalist view that experiences are fully realized in physical processes that occur in the brain. On this view, we are observing experiencing in precisely the same sense that we observe the ballerina do a pirouette. A pirouette is something the ballerina does with her muscles and experiencing is something she does with her brain.

Dianelos says:

“Indeed to call consciousness a phenomenon strikes me as a category mistake. Rather, consciousness is what makes it possible for phenomena to exist: In a world without consciousness there would be events but no phenomena.”

A phenomenon is an observable event. If, indeed, we can see someone’s brain in the act of experiencing (through the instrumentality of an imaging device), then such experiencing is an observable event. Even in the first person sense, I am not just aware, but I am aware that I am aware. I do not just perceive; I perceive that I perceive. Thus, perception, for instance, seems to be a straightforwardly perceptible occurrence; I can perceive it in others and I can perceive its occurrence in myself. Therefore, there is no problem at all with talking about the phenomena of consciousness. Further, it is simply false to say that without consciousness there would be events but no phenomena. An event can be observable even if there are no observers to observe it. Likewise, a vase can be breakable even if it is hidden away where no one can break it.

Dianelos says:

“Conscious experiences themselves are clearly not objectively observable as evidenced by the fact that we can’t observe whether thermostats, or for that matter cockroaches or computers, do have them. Similarly we can’t observe a bat’s experience of echolocation.”

Maybe I am misunderstanding, but these statements seem to involve a basic confusion. Thomas Nagel’s point in “What is it like to be a bat?” was that even if we have an exhaustive understanding of how echolocation works, we will still not know what it is like to experience echolocation and therefore will never be able to know what it is like to be a bat. His point was that consciousness has an elusive, ineffable quality—the “what it is like” to have a particular kind of experience—that science cannot capture, and, therefore, that consciousness has properties that necessarily elude scientific accounts. Dianelos seems to be conflating two distinct questions here: (a) Can we observe (e.g., through brain imaging) the bat’s experiencing of echolocation? And (b) Can we experience echolocation in the way that a bat does. The answer to the first is “yes” and the second is “no.”

I am happy to admit that I do not know what it is like to be a bat. I am not sure that I can even really know what it is like to be an Australian aborigine. But if we could observe a bat’s brain as it negotiates obstacles in pitch darkness using echolocation, then, we would be observing its experiencing of echolocation in precisely the same way that we can observe its flapping of its wings. Of course, we do not experience what the bat experiences, since we are not hooked up to its sensory apparatus in the way that it is. However, if the bat’s conscious experiences are fully realized in its brain processes (and surely this is uncontroversially the case with bats, right??) then in observing its brain processes we are ipso facto observing its experience of echolocation. In observing the bat’s experiencing, I do not have to feel what the bat feels any more than I have to do a pirouette to observe the ballerina do one.

Maybe Dianelos’ point is this: We know that the ballerina is doing a pirouette as soon as we see her go up on the tips of her toes. With observing the internal processes of an animal’s brain, however, we have to first establish that the physical process we are seeing is also a conscious process. That is something that has to be inferred, and is not simply observed, like the pirouette. Again, though, the postulation of consciousness can be the best explanation of a set of observations. For pet owners, the inference is well nigh unavoidable. Perhaps the dog who brings his leash does not want to walk, or the cat who brings her toy does not want you to play with her. Maybe also it was a zombie Descartes who uttered “Sum res cogitans.” In principle and in practice, though, inferring the existence of conscious states is often reasonable, and sometimes compelling.

Dianelos says:

“…if explanations in terms of esthetic intuitions can be subsumed under physiological explanation then the former cannot be the *best* explanation. Significantly Keith claims that “ the fact that explanations in terms of A’s subsume explanations in terms of B’s does not mean that B’s do not exist or are not useful, indeed, indispensable, at certain levels of explanation.” I think this is a key point. I agree that the B’s can be useful in some contexts, and even indispensable sometimes as a practical matter. But I strongly disagree that the B’s can be said to exist in objective reality. In the case of gravitational phenomena the currently best explanation assumes the existence of curved spacetime and not of gravitational force fields. Nevertheless people find it useful to continue using Newtonian mechanics and gravitational force fields in many contexts (e.g. while engineering an airplane). But nobody who knows about general relativity believes that gravitational force fields exist in reality.”

There are two points to be made here: First, there is a pragmatic element in what counts as the “best” explanation; it depends in part on the sense of the “why” question we are asking. This was Socrates’ point when he noted that there are two different ways to explain why Socrates is sitting. We can explain it in terms of the pattern of tension and relaxation in Socrates’ muscles, or we can explain it in terms of Socrates’ intentions, e.g., that he is sitting in order to converse with Euthyphro. Which sort of explanation we judge “be
st” will depend upon the sense of our question about why Socrates is sitting. Likewise, if we are asking why an aesthetic judgment is made, we expect an answer in terms of an aesthetic principle, insight, intuition, etc., not in terms of neurophysiology, even if our aesthetic thinking, like all of our thinking, is wholly realized in physiological processes.

The second point is that it simply is not true that, in general, if explanations in terms of A’s subsume explanations in terms of B’s, the B’s no longer exist. If it were true, we would have to say, e.g., that carburetors do not exist (n.b., my knowledge of automobile engines stems from the pre-fuel injection era). We sometimes explain engine function and malfunction in terms of carburetors, though, surely, everything carburetors do can be subsumed under explanations in terms of physics. Maybe Dianelos would bite the bullet and say that, strictly speaking, carburetors do not exist, but I would have to see his argument (and it would have to be a very good argument). In the meantime, there seems to be no reason to deny that artistic creativity exists even if the thoughts of a Beethoven or a Picasso are physically realized as brain functions.

Dianelos says:

“Which brings me back to my pointing out that the fact that the physical universe appears to be causally closed does not imply that it is. If there is a qualitative/personal dimension to reality beyond the quantitative/physical one, then the question arises about the relationship between these two dimensions, a question that has bedeviled dualists for centuries. My argument is that it is entirely possible for the conscious dimension to cause events in the physical plane, while all events on the physical plane are nonetheless causally closed (i.e. can be explained without the need to assume the existence of the conscious dimension).”

Even if there is some conceivable way that the “conscious dimension” could cause events in the “physical plane” without disrupting the causal closure of the physical (and I just do not have time right now to enter into the complexities of this point), surely the following epistemic principle holds:

If it is apparent that p, then we should tentatively conclude that p, unless there are sufficient grounds for thinking that appearances are deceiving here.

If, as Dianelos seems to concede, physical causes apparently are sufficient for all physical effects, then, the thing to do is to conclude, tentatively, that physical causes are sufficient.