bookmark_borderAway in June

I’m off to a conference in Ireland, and I’ll be doing some touristing around while I have the chance. And when I get back, I take off again, now to California, in a few days.

We’ll see if anyone else picks up the slack, or if this will be a quiet June on this blog.

bookmark_borderWhat’s wrong with faith per se?

It’s easy to get pissed off at religion, particularly the conservative monotheistic variety. Think of the Catholic hierarchy, or your favorite set of mullahs. Get your blood boiling over the misogyny, the homophobia, and the general attitude toward sexuality that is always stuck in ancient agrarian social realities. Roll your eyes at the boneheadedness regarding medical options, indifference toward the natural environment, and inability to extend genuine concern beyond the pale of orthodoxy.

How much of this, however, can be blamed on belief in supernatural entities per se, and not just the historical accident that our religions have had some very obnoxious supernatural characters on offer? How much is the attitude of faith responsible for, above and beyond what our religions have happened to encourage faith in?

After all, religion is remarkably flexible, and examples that do not fit the conservative monotheistic mold are not difficult to find. My guess is that we can make a very long list of liberal, humane attitudes that we would want a properly secular moral outlook to endorse, and that practically everything on that list would be in principle adoptable by a religious movement, if it is not so already. It’s very hard to sustain a general statement like “religion is misogynist.” Even if you point out that the most influential religions have very often been so, it’s next to impossible to disentangle this from historical considerations that have little to do with the bare notion of supernatural agents, or the simple attitude of faith.

So instead imagine a religion that is as close to a humane, liberal ideal as it gets. But then take these moral qualities you are positive towards, and imagine that a religious community were to strengthen their commitment to these ideals by believing that their God or gods endorsed exactly these humane attitudes. Imagine that these positive moral qualities were reinforced by the demand that believers take them by faith. What could still be wrong?

Let me throw out a few possibilities. (With any luck, commenters will supply others.)

  • Supernatural faith is inherently authoritarian. I’m not too sure about this one. There are too many historical examples of dissident faith standing up to broader social authority.
  • Faith is inflexible, inhibiting necessary change. Well, if you’re conservative, discouraging change is not necessarily a bad thing. But even if it was, there are again too many examples of flexibility in faith. Some people either invent slightly different faiths and split off from the main faith, or significantly reinterpret the demands of a faith. Religion can be very flexible and full of social innovation.
  • Belief in supernatural agency is antithetical to attaining genuine knowledge and enjoying it benefits. Possibly. I certainly don’t want leaps of faith involved in chemistry or civil engineering. But that doesn’t say much about the argument that some narrowly circumscribed intellectual domains should be kept separate from religion, but not others. A humane religion may allow us to both enjoy the benefits of knowledge and the social coherence an overall umbrella of faith may provide.
  • An attitude of worship is inherently beneath the dignity of humans. I don’t believe in strong versions of “dignity,” but I’m sympathetic towards this. Any proper worship seems to involve an element of self-abasement. I find this hard to understand; if, for example, I were to be convinced that the universe has a creator, I would still have a hard time in prostrating myself or praying to this creator. On the other hand, if other people have a more worshipful temperament, well, so be it. I’m assuming, after all, that they have a very humane faith overall. Worship, in that context, seems fairly harmless.

I could go on, but the picture should be clear. I’m inclined to think, right now, that my objections to supernatural faith per se, stripped of the actual religious beliefs we’re historically stuck with, are fairly minor league.

There is one possibility that may change this picture. That would be to show that somehow there is a stronger coupling than I’ve been assuming between the obnoxious aspects of organized religion and the very notion of supernatural faith. In that case, imagining a fully humane religious movement would be an interesting exercise, but also a very artificial one. Supernatural faith, then, might not directly bolster inhumane, illiberal attitudes, but it might still indirectly provide support.

I don’t have a good argument for such a strong coupling, however. I’m not even sure I’d know how to start.

bookmark_borderRobin Collins on the Fine-Tuning Argument

Sorry for another long absence. I’ve been working on a project, and a draft of part of it is below. I present part of Robin Collins’ defense of the fine-tuning argument (FTA) and a brief response. Comments would be appreciated.

Statement of Collins’ Argument

…we will focus on his defense of the FTA against what Collins calls “the atheistic single universe hypothesis”: “According to the atheistic single-universe hypothesis, there is only one universe, and it is ultimately an inexplicable, ‘brute’ fact that the universe exists and is fine-tuned (Collins, 2003: 123).” Collins states his version of the FTA against the atheist single universe hypothesis (ASUH) as follows:
Premise 1. The existence of the fine-tuning is not improbable under theism.
Premise 2. The existence of the fine-tuning is very improbable under the atheistic single universe hypothesis.
Conclusion: From premises (1) and (2) and the prime principle of confirmation, it follows that the fine tuning argument provides strong evidence to favor the design hypothesis over the atheistic single universe hypothesis (Collins, 2003: 125).
The “prime principle of confirmation (PPC)” is defined by Collins:
Simply put, the principle says that whenever we are considering two competing hypotheses, an observation counts as evidence in favor of the hypothesis under which the observation has the highest probability (or is the least improbable). (Or, put slightly differently, the principle says that whenever we are considering two competing hypotheses, H1 and H2, an observation, O, counts as evidence in favor of H1 over H2 if O is more probable under H1 than it is under H2.) Moreover, the degree to which the evidence counts in favor of one hypothesis over another is proportional to the degree to which the observation is more probably under the one hypothesis than the other (Collins, 2003: 123-4; emphasis in original).
Collins regards his first premise as relatively uncontroversial. Surely, it seems, a perfectly good God would want intelligent, conscious beings to exist, and so would create a world friendly to the development of such life. Collins thinks that most criticisms will be directed at the second premise. For instance, atheists could argue that since there is only one universe, the idea that the fundamental constants of nature are improbable is meaningless. In this case the PPC could not be applied to favor theism over the ASUH, since, on this latter hypothesis, there is no probability, high or low, that the universe is fine tuned, and so the fact of fine tuning cannot be more probable given theism than given the ASUH.
I have argued in favor of the ASUH:
The assignment of meaningful probabilities upon the hypothesis of atheism is…difficult. If atheism is correct, if the universe and its laws are all that is or ever has been, how can it be said that the universe, with all of its “finely tuned” features, is in any relevant sense probable or improbable? Ex hypothesi there are no antecedent conditions that could determine such a probability. Hence, if the universe is the ultimate brute fact, it is neither likely nor unlikely, probable or improbable; it simply is…If we were in a position to witness the birth of many worlds—some designed, some undesigned—then we might be in a position to say of any particular world that it had such-and-such a probability of existing undesigned. But we simply are not in such a position. We have absolutely no empirical basis for assigning probabilities to ultimate facts (Parsons, 1990: 182).
So, if there is no meaningful sense in which the “finely tuned” features of the universe are either probable or improbable given the ASUH, then those features cannot confirm theism over atheism.
Collins replies that the sense of probability relevant to the FTA is epistemic probability, which he characterizes as follows:
Roughly, the epistemic probability of a proposition can be thought of as the degree of confidence or belief we rationally should have in the proposition. Further, the conditional epistemic probability of a proposition R on another proposition S—written as P(R/S)—can be defined as the degree to which the proposition S of itself should rationally lead us to expect that R is true. Under the epistemic conception of probability, therefore, the statement that the fine tuning of the cosmos is very improbable under the [ASUH] is to be understood as making a statement about the degree to which the [ASUH] would or should, of itself, lead us to expect cosmic fine-tuning (Collins, 2007:355; emphasis in original).
In other words, the relevant question is this: Given only the information contained within the ASUH—that only one universe exists as an ultimate brute fact—and no other information at all (such as the fact that we are alive, and so the universe must be life-friendly), to what degree should we rationally expect the basic constants of the universe to be finely tuned?
Collins answers that the rational expectation of fine-tuning given only the ASUH is much lower than it would be given theism. He imagines a disembodied being who is highly intelligent and thoroughly familiar with the laws of physics as known today, but who does not know whether the actual values of the physical constants are such as to allow complex embodied life (CEL). Collins says that such a being would have a much greater rational expectation that those constants would fall within the range permitting CEL given theism than given the ASUH:
…it is not difficult to see that the conditional epistemic probability of a constant of physics having a CEL-permitting value under the [ASUH] will be much smaller than under theism. The reason is simple when we think about our imaginary disembodied being. If such a being were a theist, it would have
some reason to believe that the values of constants would fall into the CEL-permitting region…On the other hand, if the being were a subscriber to the [ASUH], it would have no reason to think the value would be in the CEL-permitting region instead of any other part of the “theoretically possible” region R. Thus, the being has more reason to believe the constants would fall into the CEL-permitting region under theism than the [ASUH], or put differently, the existence of a CEL-permitting universe is more surprising under the [ASUH] than theism (Collins, 2007: 356).
In short, the finely-tuned features of the universe are more probable (rationally expected) given theism than given the ASUH, so, the PPC tells us that the existence of those features counts much more strongly in favor of the hypothesis of theism than the ASUH.
My Response
Collins’ chief disagreement with the proponents of the ASUH will be over whether we can have rational expectations about ultimate metaphysical posits. The ASUH posits the primordial condition of the universe, encompassing the universe’s initial state and its physical laws, as ultimate brute facts. To posit something as an ultimate brute fact is to say, inter alia, that it is not caused by, derived from, reducible to, composed of, conditioned by, an epiphenomenon of, or supervenient upon anything else. In other words, an ultimate brute fact is a sheer given: A basic or primordial reality that is not in any sense dependent upon or explicable in terms of any antecedent or more fundamental reality. This means that proponents of the ASUH regard the values of the constants as ultimate brute facts or hold that those values are determined by deeper laws (perhaps to be described by the vaunted “Theory of Everything”) which themselves are posited as ultimate brute facts. If the finely-tuned nature of the universe is thus an ultimate brute fact, then there can be no objective basis for regarding any value of those constants, or any range of those values, as having any probability at all. As defenders of the ASUH see it, rational expectations must have a rational basis, that is, some information of a theoretical or empirical nature to provide grounds for the expectation. Yet, when we are talking about ultimate posits, then, ex hypothesi, all such information has been withheld. Therefore, it seems that we must say that the values of the constants are neither probable nor improbable; they just are. In that case, as the proponent of the ASUH sees it, the only rational expectation of the values of the constants is that they will be whatever we find them to be.
Collins, however, does think that there can be a rational basis for an expectation of the values of the constants given ASUH. He appeals to the principle of indifference, which he characterizes as follows:
Applied to the case at hand, the principle of indifference could be roughly stated as follows: when we have no reason to prefer any one value of a parameter over other, [sic] we should assign equal probabilities to equal ranges of the parameter given that the parameter in question directly corresponds to some physical magnitude (Collins, 2003: 129; emphasis in original).
He next shows how this principle would apply in forming our rational expectation about the value of the gravitational constant:
Specifically, if the “theoretically possible” range (that is, the range allowed by the relevant background theories) of such a parameter is R and the life-permitting range is r, then the probability is r/R Suppose, for instance, that the “theoretically possible range, R, of values for the strength of gravity is zero to the strength of the strong nuclear force between those protons—that is, 0 to 1040G0, where G0 represents the current value for the strength of gravity. As we saw above, the life-permitting range for the strength of gravity is at most to 109G0…Thus, assuming the strength of the forces constitute a real physical magnitude, the principle of indifference would state that the equal ranges of this force should be given equal probabilities, and hence the probability of it the [sic] strength of gravity falling into the life-permitting region would be at most r/R = 109/1040 = 1/1031 (Collins, 2003: 129).
It appears, then, that if we accept the principle of indifference, and given only the ASUH, our rational expectation that the values of the gravitational constant would fall within the CEL-permitting region would be only about one in 1031, a very small expectation indeed.
Many objections have been raised against the principle of indifference. Some of them are rather technical, and an examination of these and Collins’ responses is beyond our scope here (see Collins, 2003). Unquestionably, there are contexts where, when properly restricted, the principle of indifference is useful in solving certain problems and performing certain calculations of probability (see, e.g., Applebaum, 1996: 52-3). The crucial question is not whether that principle is ever useful, but whether it can do the metaphysical heavy lifting that Collins wants it to do. Clearly, it is quite a leap to think that a principle useful in certain rather modest and restricted contexts can provide information in such an outré context as providing rational expectations about what we would otherwise deem metaphysical imponderables.
Can we have rational expectations about ultimate metaphysical posits? It may help to note that the defenders of the ASUH have one thing in common with theists—each group posits something as a brute, inexplicable, metaphysical ultimate. For ASUH supporters, it is the primordial state and laws of the universe; for theists it is God. John Hick states this point clearly:
It is true that no naturalistic theory can account for the existence of the universe, or for its having the basic character that it has; this simply has to be accepted as the ultimate inexplicable fact. But religion also has its ultimate inexplicable fact in the form of God or a non-personal Absolute. And the skeptical mind prefers to rest in the mystery of the visible world without going beyond it to a further invisible mystery (Hick, 2004: 111).
Further, it seems that in either the naturalistic or the theistic case we can imagine possible worlds in which things are different. We can imagine possible worlds in
which the values of the fundamental physical constants are other than they are in the actual world. Likewise, we seem to be able to imagine possible worlds in which something other than the theistic God would be the ultimate, uncaused, brute supernatural reality. Indeed, it seems that there could have been (i.e., there seem to be possible worlds in which) one or more of an indefinitely numerous set of supernatural entities could be the ultimate existent(s) instead of the theistic God. Maybe, for instance, there could have been Platonic ideas, or a neo-Platonic One, or a being totally indifferent to created beings, or, tragically, a lonely god who yearns for companionship, but does not have the power to create.
The upshot is that if it is possible to have rational expectations about which of a range of possible worlds is likely to be actualized, where do we stop? If someone insists that we are very, very lucky—impossibly lucky—to have a universe as “life friendly” as the one we inhabit, and therefore there must have been a supernatural fine-tuner to set things up, don’t we have to ask why that same reasoning should not apply to putative supernatural beings? Why is it, that of all the ultimate, uncaused supernatural beings that might have existed, we were so impossibly lucky as to get one that was a personal being who, amazingly, just happened to want creatures like us and also had the power to do the fine tuning? Instead of solving the fine-tuning problem, doesn’t the hypothesis of theism merely set it back a step? Instead of a finely-tuned universe we seem to need a finely-tuned God. If the former is wildly unlikely, then why not the latter? If the universe is rationally unexpected, then why not God?
Theistic philosophers have historically recognized the force of such queries and have attempted to obviate them by countering that the theistic God is in some sense uniquely ultimate so that his existence is not a metaphysical mystery in the sense that any other postulated ultimate would be. Some have postulated that God is logically necessary or is the only being that is its own sufficient reason. Some, like Richard Swinburne (1979) argue that the hypothesis that posits God as the ultimate inexplicable existent is a simpler hypothesis than any other, and therefore more a priori likely. Each such suggestion has very serious problems that we do not have space to pursue here (but see Mackie, 1982, Parsons, 1989, and Oppy, 2006).

bookmark_borderPerceiving Moral Truths? Part 2

Here is an example of moral reasoning that appears to illustrate the theistic theory of ethics and moral reasoning proposed by Dianelos Georgoudis:

1. God is kind and loving. (directly perceived truth about God’s moral character)
2. An action is morally good if and only if it makes the moral character of the person performing the action more like God’s character. (fundamental normative assumption)
3. Giving generously to the poor and hungry people of the world would make my moral character more kind and loving. (factual claim?)
4. Giving generously to the poor and hungry people of the world would make my moral character more like God’s. (inference from 1 and 3)
5. Giving generously to the poor and hungry people of the world would be a morally good action for me to perform. (inference from 2 and 4)

On the face of it, the presence of premise (2) appears to confirm Hume’s Law, the idea that an “Ought” statement cannot be derived from an “Is” statement, that a moral judgment cannot be validly deduced from purely factual or descriptive statements.

Georgoudis appears to need a normative principle, namely premise (2), in addition to factual or descriptive claims, namely premises (1) and (3), in order to reach the moral judgment in the conclusion (5).

However, it is perhaps a bit hasty to conclude that Hume’s Law prevails in this case. Consider the following line of reasoning:

6. Figure X is a triangle. (factual claim)
7. A figure is a triangle if and only if it is a three-sided plane figure.
8. Figure X is a three-sided plane figure.

The presence of premise (7) might lead one to think that (8) cannot be validly deduced from (6) alone. But, in fact, (6) alone does logically entail (8). Premise (7), since it gives a correct analysis of the meaning of the word “triangle” is a logically necessary truth, an analytic truth. So, (7) is not required to make the inference valid. The explicit statement of premise (7) might make the inference from (6) to (8) more clear or more obvious, but because it states an analytic truth, it is not essential to the validity of the argument.

So, one question that needs to be answered in order to determine whether the above example of moral reasoning confirms Hume’s Law, is whether premise (2) is an analytic truth. If (2) is an analytic truth, then it is not essential to the validity of the argument.

A second question that needs to be answered in order to determine whether the above example of moral reasoning confirms Hume’s Law, is whether premise (2) is a purely factual or descriptive statement. If so, then all of the premises of the argument would, it seems, be factual or descriptive statements, while the conclusion is a moral judgment.

bookmark_borderAnti-evolution political ad

For non-USAnians who might be reading this, I have to point out that all the US is not as crazy as this (Alabama). Or perhaps I should phrase that differently. We may well be all as crazy as Alabama Christian conservatives, but we’re not always crazy in exactly the same ways. California-crazy is different from Alabama-crazy and so forth.

bookmark_borderHigh weirdness by H-Net

Academia can be a rich source of weirdness. Personally, I’m fascinated by paranormalist physics-abuse as it percolates through popular culture, and, let’s face it, quite a few places outside of physics. Here’s a lovely example: somebody presented a paper at a conference called “The Semiotics of Time.” From the announcement on H-Net:

Some scientists believe that viral DNA dispatched from an alien cosmic civilization has been transferred into the DNA of earth’s organisms. In relation to this idea of ancient viral DNA, but not in support of its alien dispatch, a published paper presented at the 34th Annual Meeting (October, 2009) of The Semiotic Society of America (SSA), an interdisciplinary professional organization grounded in the logic of American philosopher and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce, is now available online at no charge at

. . . the Peircean theme of crystallized mind, the Egyptian transformation of the dead King into a hybrid pyramidal form of millions, and the four-faced ancestral transformation of the early Chinese Yellow Emperor may point to the polyhedral form of an ancient lambdoid virus, suggesting the possibility of afterlife horizontal gene transfer and viral lytic replication (cloning) from here to eternity. The semiotic approach also explores the backward-in-time aspect of quantum observations, as well as the ascent/fall ontological structure of consciousness as framed by Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger in relation to Heidegger’s thought. Put simply, mind may act as a cosmic unifying force.

Visit the web site; it’s thoroughly crazy. And fun. At least occult weirdness is a break from monotheistic varieties of mind-rot.

bookmark_borderIf religion were to fizzle out

Chris Hedges’s column today, “After Religion Fizzles, We’re Stuck With Nietzsche” claims that mainstream Christian and Jewish religion is in decline, and that the kind of secular options that might replace religion are nothing to be enthusiastic about.

I think he underestimates the resilience of religion—particularly the right wing, magical-thinking, enthusiastic forms of religion he does not have much use for. It looks like conservative Christianity and Islam will continue to go strong, ensuring that the worst of monotheism will always be with us.

Still, if Hedges is right that the more moderate forms of monotheistic religiosity are in decline, it is worth asking whether this is a good thing. Nonbelievers tend to think so; usually I have little sympathy for the empty “sophistication” of liberal theologies. But socially liberal decline might not be so good a thing. I suspect Hedges may be right in that we don’t have a serious secular alternative to put in place. Secular thought has certainly proved incapable of putting up much resistance to neoliberal madness.

Oh well, with any luck civilization will collapse and all this will be moot. If I’m really lucky, civilization will collapse only after I’m dead.