bookmark_borderOppression? False Consciousness?

Many nonbelievers are convinced that Islam subjugates, even oppresses women. Now, there’s a certain carelessness in such blanket descriptions. The Islam of the Taliban and that of the Bosniaks are quite different. Still, we can identify a historical mainstream within Islam, and observe that this mainstream upholds patriarchal social ideals.

I guess for many of us, traditional Islamic practices concerning women come close to our defining examples of oppression: the condition of slaves, or battered women, for example. In such examples, we’re fairly sure about oppression, because we can put ourselves in the position of slaves or battered women, and it looks like that they are in miserable circumstances. This is true even if they do not get terrorized when they “behave well.” Imagination and empathy are perhaps not entirely reliable. But if slaves or battered women can securely express themselves, they often affirm that they feel oppressed and would like to escape their circumstances.

As always, there are complications. What, for example, if a slave or a battered woman has internalized their status? If they think of themselves as naturally inferior, or even deserving of suffering? They might deny that they are oppressed. They might, in fact, choose to remain with their master or husband even if other options became available.

In such a case, we might suspect some sort of false consciousness. Such slaves or battered women have inaccurate views of the world and those possibilities that are open to them. They have adopted moralities that undercut themselves. Secular liberals may well see this false consciousness as an especially nasty form of oppression, amounting to installing your jailer in your brain.

Indeed, such examples may inspire liberals to intervention. The circumstances that lead to oppression have to go, even if this means denying choices inspired by false consciousness. Slavery or battery severely stunts the capabilities and potentialities of people. Intervention to enhance individual capabilities seems acceptable.

Now, there are some clear-cut Islamic analogues to such situations. If a fourteen year old girl is given away in arranged marriage as a fourth wife and treated as a household and sex slave, that comes very close. Even if she was not treated as a slave, but merely had to live under a particularly cheerless version of traditional Muslim patriarchal strictures, we may well want to call her oppressed.

But then, many devout Muslims would agree. A marriage such as that might formally fit traditional Islamic law, but they would say that divine law is supposed to be animated by the spirit of justice that pervades the Quran. Such cases should be seen as an abuse of Islamic social ideals. Drug abuse, for example, does not invalidate secular liberal views about personal choice—it complicates them. Liberals may well treat drug use as a choice that predictably reduces individual capabilities, and favor policies that discourage drugs. Similarly, examples of abuse do not automatically invalidate mainstream Islamic gender ideals. Even a conservative Muslim could easily say that the practices exposed by such examples are condemned by “true Islam,” since they violate duties of protection imposed on males, and undermine the ideal of family harmony. So we need to address not extreme examples but ordinary devout Muslim families, looking at cases where women are subordinated in practice and in ideal, and where there are few religious objections.

Secular liberals can do this. We put ourselves in the position of women in patriarchal Muslim families, and notice that we’d chafe living under male authority. Furthermore, we don’t just have to rely on our empathy and imagination. There are Muslim women who have been in such circumstances, but who have also taken the opportunity to escape. Their experiences and arguments lead us to think that there is some degree of oppression here, and that a more gender-liberal social order would be a good idea. Furthermore, this is not a matter of a few individuals. More expansive views of women’s rights have made some inroads in Muslim populations.

Beyond this, however, the analogy to slaves or battered women becomes more strained. For we also find many Muslim women who defend patriarchal ideals. It is not so clear that we can describe them as suffering from false consciousness.

A common phenomenon throughout the Muslim world now is is women visibly turning to a more conservative religiosity. Sometimes this includes more feminist reimaginings of traditional practices. But by and large, the result is a reaffirmation of a patriarchal family and social ideal. Lots of women, even from more secularized family backgrounds, put on the veil and join groups of other women to ponder scripture and attempt to live a more devout and authentically Islamic life. Very often, alongside piety, they focus on cultivating traditionally feminine versions of virtues such as patience, humility, sacrifice, and submission. They put on veils because they want to enact modesty and become more modest in the process. They intend to transform themselves to become more virtuous, as virtue is understood in their cultural context. There are certainly some practical reasons to take the veil. For example, the conspicuously virtuous woman faces less harassment when in public in a Muslim society. (Veiling, in this respect, increases capabilities.) But the primary reasons for veiling expressed by pious women are religious.

Perhaps all this is false consciousness. After all, these women mistakenly believe in supernatural endorsement of their moral ideal. And in some respects, their way of life means reduced capabilities for women. The ideal of the virtuous Muslim woman handicaps women’s ability to be active in the public sphere. For example, women have been very significant in supporting Islamic reform movements, but their role has typically been limited to calling others to Islamic virtue. In effect, pious women activists support an ideology that limits their own capabilities of political participation.

On the other hand, it is hard to say that pious Muslim women are being made miserable. Piety has its own satisfactions, and many prefer it to more secular alternatives.

Moreover, if we are speaking of capabilities, we should ask: capability to do what? Not all human capabilities are mutually reinforcing or even compatible. A tight-knit family and community life, permeated by piety, supports different capabilities than a secular, liberal, individualist way of life. It values various capabilities differently.

So I think we should resist the temptation to diagnose some kind of false consciousness. If pious women suffer from false consciousness, this is no minor matter. Reorienting themselves is not a matter of removing a few false beliefs and reconsidering a few moral ideals while leaving more fundamental aspirations intact. The changes required go deep into who they are and who they want to become. They demand a radical rethinking of the life they want to live. It is not a matter of getting rid of a jailer installed in the brain; ripping out religious commitments that are integral to pious women’s identity would mean a major personal transformation.

Personal transformation, however, is prime religious territory. Orienting oneself to a moral ideal—through study of scripture, inspiration through stories of heroes and saints of the faith, living daily life in ways that affirm piety and commitment—this is exactly the sort of thing religions have been very good at. And it is very hard, if at all possible, to try to decide between rival comprehensive moral ideals from a neutral point of view. Secular liberalism is not a neutral standpoint; it is a competing perspective. Today, some women of Muslim backgrounds are attracted to a more liberal individualist way of life. But then many are attracted to a more pious and patriarchal conception of virtue a
nd personhood. Conservative Islamic spirituality works for many people. This is what they want. Moreover, most Muslims are far from purists about their piety or their liberalism. Very often, people are drawn to aspects of many ways of life, and they end up trying to fashion hybrids.

So I am uncomfortable with the statement that Islam subjugates or oppresses women. I don’t think it’s defensible as it stands. You have to add a lot of qualifications and caveats to narrow the statement down to describe a circumstance that fits. And when you do that, you let all the air out of the original condemnation.

As a relative, limited judgment, we might still get some honest use out of “oppression.” Iranian women from a liberalized subculture found themselves oppressed after the Islamic revolution. Secular Turkish women are not deluded to think that their interests are threatened and capabilities narrowed by the creeping Islamization of their country. But even then, I don’t it’s legitimate for them to speak of all women being threatened by Islamization, especially as women’s activism is a major driving force behind Islamization movements today.

I think a better context for talking about Islam is that of political competition. Just because Muslim piety can so powerfully shape interests and ideals, it does not ring true to think of it as oppressive or as a variety of false consciousness. Nonetheless, Islamic piety invariably includes ideals of human interaction that conflict with secular liberal ideals. If secular liberalism works for us, we have damn good reasons to oppose Islamic movements. That is enough; we do not also need to portray Islam as some kind of universal evil.

bookmark_borderCatholic monarchism

This video is getting attention on some secular blogs now. I must say, it’s surprising to see that Catholic anti-democracy views still survive, in the US especially. But here it is: a four-minute defense of rule by a Catholic monarch as a political ideal.

It has a kind of semi-insane coherence characteristic of some of the worst political ideas. Randroid atheism would perhaps be a nonbelieving analogue.

Update: this looks real. Visit

bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 4

Although the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University does not provide a single sentence (in the first four chapters of The God Delusion) defining or explaining what he means by a “scientific hypothesis” or by a “scientific question”, there are a few comments and phrases here and there that give a hint at what he had in mind. It is difficult, however, to assemble a complete definition or explanation out of the few crumbs that Dawkins leaves behind.

A scientific question is a question to which the idea of evidence is applicable.

Dawkins is opposed to PAP (Permanent Agnosticism in Principle) style agnosticism about the existence of God. So, his description of PAP, gives a clue as to why Dawkins thinks the question “Does God exist?” is a scientific question:

The PAP style of agnosticism is appropriate for questions that can never be answered, no matter how much evidence we gather, because the very idea of evidence is not applicable. The question exists on a different dimension, beyond the zones where evidence can reach. (TGD, p.47, emphasis added)

This suggests that one reason Dawkins views the God question as a scientific question is that he believes the idea of evidence is applicable to this question. In other words, evidence can be used to settle the question, or to provide us with a rational basis for preferring one possible answer over another.

Another comment by Dawkins about PAP, makes a similar point in different words:

PAP agnostics aver that we cannot say anything, one way or the other, on the question of whether or not God exists. (TGD, p.51, emphasis added)

The concept of relevance is implied here: we cannot say anything that is relevant to answering the question. If we can say something that is relevant to settling the question, then we can say something that provides a reason for accepting one possible answer over another possible answer. Providing reasons in support of a possible answer is closely related to the idea that evidence is applicable to answering the question.

This might work as a necessary condition of the concept “scientific question”, but it will not work as a sufficient condition. Evidence is also used to resolve historical and legal questions, such as: Was Jesus of Nazareth crucified by the Romans in the 1st Century? Did OJ Simpson murder Nicole Brown Simpson? Science might make a contribution towards answering some historical and legal questions, but historical and legal reasoning and methods must ultimately decide such issues, taking whatever relevant scientific information that is available into account.

Also, although “evidence” is not used to settle mathematical questions (mathematical proofs are required for that), it is used to support mathematical hypotheses. Swinburne gives the example of Goldbach’s conjecture that every even number is the sum of two prime numbers (Coherence of Theism, Rev. ed., p.45). It was rational to believe this to be true (apart from a mathematical proof) on the basis of the evidence that it held true for every one of the many even numbers that has been examined. Thus, evidence is applicable to legal questions, historical questions, and mathematical questions, as well as to scientific questions.

A scientific question is a question that is answerable in principle, if not in practice.

Again, consider how Dawkins describes PAP:

The PAP style of agnosticism is appropriate for questions that can never be answered… (TGD, p.47)

Dawkins quotes from Huxley, an advocate of PAP style agnosticism:

“… I… had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble”. (TGD, p.49)

Here is another comment from Dawkins about PAP:

The question [about whether God exists], for PAP agnostics, is in principle unanswerable (TGD, p.51, emphasis added)

So, for Dawkins, a scientific question is one that is answerable in principle, if not in practice. Again, this will do as a necessary condition for the concept of a “scientific question” but it does not work as a sufficient condition. Any question that is worth thinking about should be answerable in principle, otherwise thinking about that question would be a waste of time. Historical questions, legal questions, and mathematical questions are answerable in principle too, not just scientific questions.

Science is not the only field in which questions are sometimes answered, and the unanswered questions in these other fields are usually unanswered because of practical obstacles (such as that the evidence currently available is insufficient to support a firm conclusion) rather than because the questions are in principle unanswerable.

Furthermore, it is not clear how we are to determine whether a question is in principle answerable or unanswerable. Until some clear test or criteria are spelled out for making this distinction, so that we can put questions into one bucket or the other, this necessary condition for being a “scientific question” is not very useful or helpful.

bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 3

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts some interesting and controversial claims about the epistemology of religious belief, especially the belief that God exists. He asserts that this belief is a scientific hypothesis, that the question at issue is a scientific question, and that the correct answer to the question is a scientific fact.

A Scientific Hypothesis

…’the God Hypothesis’ is a scientific hypothesis about the universe…
(TGD, p.2, emphasis added)

…the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other.
(TGD, p. 50, emphasis added)

A Scientific Question

Either he [God] exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question
(TGD, p.48, emphasis added)

A Scientific Fact

…God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe…
(TGD, p.50, emphasis added)

Because Dawkins has been the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford since 1995, it is no surprise that his chapter on “Scientific Investigation” provides a clear and plausible explanation of what he means by a “scientific hypothesis”. Actually, there is no such chapter in The God Delusion, but in the Chapter subsection (there are more than 50 subsections in the book) on the nature of science, Dawkins does give a solid explanation of what is involved in scientific inquiry; except that, there is no such subsection. But he spells out a good analysis of the concept of a “scientific hypothesis” in a few paragraphs in Chapter Two….wait; no he doesn’t.

To be honest, there is not a single sentence, at least in the first four chapters of The God Delusion (the Chapters where Dawkins deals with the question of the existence of God), in which Dawkins defines or attempts to clarify what the phrase “scientific hypothesis” means, or any other related phrase (“scientific question” or “scientific fact”). So, the interesting claim that Dawkins makes in the area of epistemology of religious belief, is left as clear as mud.

Any philosopher who attempted to publish an article defending the claim that the question of the existence of God was “a scientific question” while providing no definition or clarification of the term “scientific question” would not only fail to get published, but would likely be advised to return to school to learn some basic skills in philosophical reasoning. That is the advantage of publishing a popular book about the existence of God: one need not worry about getting past peer reviews by people who can reason well.

Before I attempt to clarify either what Dawkins had in mind, or to do my own analysis of the concept of a “scientific question”, I will argue that when Dawkins makes a similar claim about belief in miracles, his own example reveals this claim to be false.

In discussion about NOMA (Stephen Gould’s presentation of the idea that science and religion/theology deal with very different sorts of questions and thus science has no relevance for determining the truth of religious/theological beliefs), Dawkins asserts that miracle claims should be investigated scientifically and only scientifically:

The presence or absence of a creative super-intelligence is unequivocally a scientific question, even if it is not in practice – or not yet – a decided one. So also is the truth or falsehood of every one of the miracle stories that religions rely upon to impress multitudes of the faithful. (TGD, p.58-59, emphasis added)

Did Jesus have a human father, or was his mother a virgin at the time of his birth?…Did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? Did he himself come alive again, three days after being crucified? There is an answer to every such question, whether or not we can discover it in practice, and it is a strictly scientific answer. The methods we should use to settle the matter, in the unlikely event that relevant evidence ever became available, would be purely and entirely scientific methods. (TGD, p.59, emphasis added)

On the face of it, Dawkins’ epistemological claim about miracles has a better chance of being correct than his epistemological claim about God, because miracle claims concern observable events in the physical world, whereas the belief in God is a belief about the existence of an invisible, intangible, non-physical person or mind.

Scientific investigation seems more likely to have something to say about observable events in the physical world than about invisible, intangible, non-physical persons. So, if Dawkins’ claim about epistemology of miracles is wrong, then we should be very skeptical about his epistemological claim on the question of the existence of God.

Here is an example from Dawkins of how scientific investigation could resolve the status of a miracle claim:

…imagine, by some remarkable set of circumstances, that forensic archaeologists unearthed DNA evidence to show that Jesus really did lack a biological father. Can you imagine religious apologists shrugging their shoulders and saying anything remotely like the following? Who cares? Scientific evidence is completely irrelevant to theological questions. …Neither DNA nor any other scientific evidence could ever have any bearing on the matter, one way or the other.
The very idea is a joke. You can bet your boots that the scientific evidence, if any were to turn up, would be seized upon and trumpeted to the skies.
(TGD, p.59)

While this example does indeed cast serious doubt on NOMA, especially the idea that science can have nothing to say about religious/theological questions, it also shows that miracle claims cannot be evaluated “purely and entirely” by means of “scientific methods”. Miracle claims are often historical claims, and any miracle claim about an alleged event in the life of Jesus is necessarily an historical claim, so unless historical investigation can be reduced to scientific investigation, then Dawkins’ strong claim looks very dubious.

A bit of reflection about the example that Dawkins gives will show this to be a very serious difficulty for his epistemological claim about miracles. Finding a bit of human DNA that has indications that the person from whom the DNA came had no father does not settle the question “Did Jesus have a human father?” nor does it answer the question “Was Jesus born to a mother who was a virgin at the time of his birth?” In order to answer those questions, we need DNA from Jesus, not just from any random person.

How might we come across DNA from Jesus? Suppose that dried drops of human blood were found on the Shroud of Turin, and the DNA in that blood showed evidence that the person from whom the blood came had no biological father. We still need to ask the question, “Were these drops of blood from Jesus?” otherwise, the DNA evidence has no relevance to our theological questions, which are questions about Jesus.

One way of trying to connect the Shroud of Turin to Jesus, is to argue that the particular wounds indicated by the image on the Shroud are strikingly similar to the wounds that Jesus received when he was beaten, scourged, and crucified. I’m not impressed by this argument, but I can imagine the evidence for these correspondences being stronger and clearer. It is, at least in principle, possible to find such evidence plausibly linking a shroud to Jesus of Nazareth.

However, we are making some important assumptions here. Was Jesus of Nazareth an actual historical person? If so, when and where did Jesus live? If so, was Jesus in fact crucified by the Romans? If so, what sort of beatings and wounds were inflicted upon Jesus as part of the crucifixion? Was Jesus nailed to the cross, as most depictions of the crucifixion show, or was he tied to
the cross, as many other victims of crucifixion were? These are clearly historical questions. The main evidence comes from the Gospels, but there is also some archeological evidence, and some other historical sources that must be taken into consideration.

It seems fairly obvious that these historical questions require historical investigation, that is, the use of historical evidence and historical methods for dealing with that evidence. Biochemistry and physics simply will not answer these historical questions.

So, yes, DNA evidence could conceivably become relevant to the “theological” question, “Was Jesus born to a mother who was a virgin at the time of his birth?” So, NOMA is false. But, no, the use of methods that are “purely and entirely” scientific methods will never yield an answer to this question, because in order for DNA evidence, for example, to be relevant, the DNA sample must first be connected to Jesus, and the job of doing that connection belongs to historians and requires the application of historical methods to historical evidence.

Dawkins own example refutes both NOMA and his own strong epistemological claim about how we should investigate alleged miracles, especially the traditional historical miracles used to promote religious belief. Thus, we should be very skeptical about Dawkins epistemological claim concerning the power of science to settle the question “Does God exist?”

bookmark_borderWhy I am a Retributivist (sort of)

Philosophers, even when old dogs (well, I’m 57), should be able to learn a few new tricks. My mind has changed on a number of issues in just the last few years. For one thing, two books, Hilary Kornblith’s Knowledge and its Place in Nature and Robert Fogelin’s Walking the Tightrope of Reason, disabused me of my former naïve, knee-jerk internalism, and I am now an unabashed epistemological naturalist and externalist. Another change of outlook was not brought about by philosophical reading. I think it was the George W. Bush administration that did it. I have become a moderate retributivist in my view of punishment and its justification. In a debate with William Lane Craig twelve years ago, I roundly condemned every form of retributivism as barbaric and irrational. What good, I demanded, is served when the wicked are made to suffer, not because of any justifying good, like deterrence or reforming the offender, but simply because they are deemed to deserve to suffer? I think that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Rice, Wolfowitz, Feith, Ashcroft, Gonzales, and that whole gang of stock villains straight from Central Casting helped me gain the insight.

Why should despicable people who have done incredibly rotten things suffer for their misdeeds, even if their suffering does not reform them, edify them, deter them or anyone else, or lead to any good consequence? Because they deserve it. Full stop. It is not that allowing the vile to prosper and grow old, fat, sassy, unrepentant, and unpunished conflicts with our ethical intuitions. It is much deeper than that. We simply cannot live with it. Suppose that someone gets roaring drunk, takes to the road at a high speed and causes a terrible accident that kills three teenage girls. The police screw up and do not take him into custody. The next day he catches a plane back to his native Nepal—and lotsa luck ever getting him back for prosecution. This really happened here in Houston just recently. Or think about Charles Keating, who presided over the Savings & Loan debacle in the 1980’s. I saw a clip of him leaving the courtroom during one of his trials, and a frail elderly lady blocked his path. “Mr. Keating,” she quavered, “You took all my life’s savings and now I have nothing.” Keating gave her a sneer and brushed past. He is now out of prison and has never admitted to any wrongdoing. My late, great colleague Stephen Rosoff co-authored a book Profit Without Honor that details the cases of dozens of white-collar criminals whose avarice, cruelty, and callousness almost defy belief. Don’t read it if you are off of your blood pressure medicine.

One of our deepest moral convictions is that the good deserve rewards and the bad deserve punishment. This conviction is probably hardwired, a genetic heritage of our primate past. It is so deep a conviction that I would say it is what Hume called a natural belief. Hume recognized that there were some beliefs—such as the existence of an external physical world and that other people have minds—that are spontaneous, non-inferential, and impervious to skepticism. Much more recently John Searle characterized such beliefs as “default beliefs.” Like the default settings on a computer, they are the beliefs that simply come with an operating human mind, and, unlike a computer’s setting, very hard (I’d say impossible) to change. I think certain moral convictions are default settings, that is, they unavoidably come into play whenever we engage in ethical discourse or reflection. Moral language that lacked the basic notion of desert—that the good deserve reward and the bad deserve punishment—just would not be moral language. It would be like trying to discuss baseball and never mentioning pitching.

Further, our deepest convictions about desert and punishment simply cannot be given a consequentialist justification. Surely it is a good thing that Adolf Eichmann, the coordinator of Hitler’s “final solution” to “the Jewish problem” was captured, put on trial and punished, even if his punishment did not reform him or anyone and even if it deterred no future crimes. Consider Josef Mengele, the “angel of death” at Auschwitz, responsible for the insane “medical” experiments on inmates. Is it not outrageous that he escaped justice for decades and eventually died in a drowning accident in the late 1970’s? Would be not still be equally outraged were we somehow assured that capturing, trying, and punishing him would have served no ulterior good? The utilitarian’s preachments about all pain per se being bad, and justified only by its consequences, have a noble and high-minded sound. In comparison, the retributivist, in saying that some pain is good per se sounds primitive, vindictive, and plain mean.

Things get even worse when we think about the possibility of hell. If retribution is good, and some
escape it in this life, would it not be good if they were punished in the next life? I would have to give this a highly qualified “yes.” What qualifies it is this: Some punishments are too horrendous to be inflicted on anybody, however rotten they are. We have not always felt this way. Just a few centuries ago in the most civilized societies, criminals were regularly broken on the wheel, burned at the stake, drawn and quartered, torn apart with red-hot pincers, thrown to wild beasts, stoned, impaled, etc. We, at least in liberal democracies, no longer subject even the worst criminals to such treatment. Why? It is not that criminals have gotten any better; we have. We no longer respect the
lex talionis, the demand for strict and equivalent retaliation—an eye for an eye. Even here in Texas we are beginning to see a difference between justice and payback. Sure, we have executions about as often as Dallas has 100 degree days, but we do not hack the ax-murderer to death, we use lethal injection, which is supposed to be painless.

So, a hell of eternal torment is a bit too rich for my blood, even now that I am a retributivist. The traditional doctrine of hell retains the doctrine of lex talionis in its full fury. What about a non-traditional hell? In The Problem of Pain C.S. Lewis hints at an idea of hell that seems appealing to me. Lewis, like Jean Paul Sartre (and I bet this is the first time that those two have ever been compared), seems to think that it is the people in hell who make it hellish. Surely, if you had a place occupied by brutal dictators, sadistic serial killers, slave traders, pedophiles, talk radio pundits, TV preachers, and big oil company executives—that would be hell, even if the accommodations were luxurious. Imagine then, hell as a sort of giant Las Vegas casino, with no torments and lots of degrading pleasures, and occupied by really rotten people. I would have no objection to a lengthy sentence (not eternity) in such a hell for many miscreants.

Okay, then, I am now a retributivist. I don’t like it, but there it is. Someone please talk me out of it.

bookmark_borderConversations from the Pale Blue Dot

I want to recommend Luke Muelhauser’s Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot [iTunes] podcast on philosophy of religion and metaethics. The podcast does not always have the best sound quality, and Luke occasionally makes rookie mistakes like forgetting to turn off the intro music track, but he is a good interviewer, his discussions are deeper than most others I have heard in this medium, and his guest list is impressive, including such heavyweights as Graham Oppy, Wes Morriston, Evan Fales, Nick Trakakis, Erik Wielenberg, Andrew Melnyk, and our very own Taner Edis.

bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 2

Is the question “Does God exist?” a scientific question? I don’t know about you, but this topic is giving me déjà vu all over again. This is basically the question that was posed by Logical Positivists early in the twentieth century, and they in turn were following in the footsteps of David Hume, basically updating and clarifying “Hume’s Fork” from his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1772:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion. (ECHU, Section XII, Part III)

So the question of the day, focused on by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, goes back at least as far as Hume, from writings published well over two centuries ago.

Actually, the Logical Positivists (at least as represented by A.J. Ayer) asked somewhat broader questions: Are metaphysical questions factual questions? Are ethical questions factual questions? The Logical Positivist answer was “No” to both of these broad questions, and thus they discarded two major sub-disciplines of philosophy as worthless, considering such philosophical investigations to “contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” The question “Does God exist?” was tossed out as just one among many other unanswerable metaphysical questions.

My recent posts on the sentence “God exists” are concerned with another Richard, namely Richard Swinburne, a philosophical opponent of Richard Dawkins, and those posts have focused on Swinburne’s claim that “God exists” is a sentence that makes a coherent statement.

The first thing Swinburne does in support of his claim is to consider the viewpoint and arguments of Logical Positivism, especially the argument presented by Ayer in Language, Truth, and Logic. This is one area where both Richards are in agreement. Dawkins and Swinburne agree that the sentence “God exists” is a factual claim, contrary to the view of Ayer and other Logical Positivists. The question keeps coming up: Hume in 1772 (and Kant in 1781), Ayer in 1935, Swinburne in 1977, Dawkins in 2006.

So, what is a “scientific question”? Here are some possible answers to consider:

1. A scientific question is just a factual question.
2. A scientific question is a particular kind (species) of factual question.
3. A scientific question is just an empirical question.
4. A scientific question is a particular kind (species) of empirical question.

bookmark_borderBest philosophy of religion books since 2000?

An old Prosblogion post asks its readers to name the top ten (or so) philosophy of religion books since 2000. I’m curious what readers here think. Which books do you think have made the greatest contribution to the subject since then? Note that I’m not necessarily asking which books you think have been the most influential within the professional field of philosophy of religion—if you think a book disregarded by the academy has made a real contribution to the subject itself, by all means list it.

And yes, if your own books are that good, you should set modesty aside and list them!

bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 1

The question “Does God exist?” has generally been considered to be a philosophical question. It has, in fact, generally been considered to be a paradigm case of a philosophical question.

However, some people believe that science has much to contribute towards answering this question, and many people believe that philosophy has not only failed to provide an answer to this question, but that there is little or no hope that philosophy will provide an answer to this question in the coming decades or centuries. Thus, the claim that science has much to offer us on this matter is of significant interest.

In his best-selling book The God Delusion (2006), Richard Dawkins argues that atheism is highly likely to be true, i.e. that it is highly improbable that God exists. But Dawkins is not a philosopher, and he believes that he has presented a scientific argument against the existence of God. Furthermore, Dawkins plainly asserts that “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis, like any other” and that “God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe…”(TGD, p.50)

About the alleged resurrection of Jesus, Dawkins asserts that the “methods we should use to settle the matter…would be purely and entirely scientific methods.” (TGD, p.59). He makes this claim in the context of a general discussion about the relevance of science to the evaluation of religious beliefs, so Dawkins would presumably be willing to make the same assertion about the question “Does God exist?” That is to say, he would hold that the “methods we should use to settle the matter” of the existence or non-existence of God would be “purely and entirely scientific methods”. If so, then it would appear that Dawkins holds the view that the question “Does God exist?” is strictly a scientific question and is not a philosophical question.

Is Dawkins correct here? Is the question “Does God exist?” a scientific question? Is it a question that we should attempt to resolve by the use of methods that are purely and entirely scientific methods? If so, does this mean that many have been mistaken in holding this question to be a philosophical question? Alternatively, is this a philosophical question that science can help to answer?

In order to evaluate Dawkins view of the nature of the question “Does God exist?” we need to first have a clear understanding of the key concepts:
– What is a “scientific question”?
– What are “scientific methods”?
– What is a “philosophical question”?
– Do some well-known questions fall into both categories?
– Is it possible for a question to fall into both categories?

bookmark_borderJoylessness or family values?

Here’s a photo that’s a part of a story run by The Daily Mail, “The Talibanisation of British childhood by hardline parents”:

The caption: Joyless: A Muslim family stay covered up as the[y] bathe on a British beach.

The “joyless” assumption is understandable. After all, they’re all wrapped up in clothes that restrict movement; such clothes hardly seem appropriate attire for frolicking around on a beach. Determined to follow religious rules, they deny themselves the pleasures of running and swimming unencumbered. Joyless indeed.

But I’ve seen my share of conservative Muslims bathing, ridiculous attire and all. They don’t seem all that joyless: this group in the photo also seems to be having fun.

The clothing, in fact, is not the only difference noticeable in the photo, when compared to a beach scene composed of half-naked Westerners. The people in the beach scene are not dispersed, doing their own thing or acting in small groups. They are standing close to one another, even though there is room to spread out. In all likelihood the photo depicts an extended family, enjoying the beach together.

A conservative Muslim might well say that this is exactly the point: a beach is a joyful occasion for this family. They might look at a beach scene of Westerners and be more impressed with the lack of large family groups; they might be inclined to interpret it as a sad scene of individual isolation rather than joyful enjoyment of a beach.

In this view, the restrictive clothing is not an arbitrary imposition, but a vital device to protect the integrity of the family in public circumstances. In an isolated family compound, free from the public gaze, all the protective clothing would come off. But in a public environment, particularly a non-Islamic environment full of all sorts of temptations and dangers to the structure of the family, protective measures are necessary.

Secular liberals often look at conservative Muslims, and perceive them as oppressed by all sorts of onerous and arbitrary restrictions on their personal freedom. Maybe. But conservative Muslims often see themselves as protecting their families—the proper context in which a fully human, emotionally satisfying life can be led. They can even perceive liberal Westerners as acquisitive automatons, pursuing individual ambitions, oppressed by their lack of strong human connections but not even aware of the fact.