bookmark_borderAmerican Ignorance

Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim
“A new national survey by the Pew Research Center finds that nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) now say Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Only about one-third of adults (34%) say Obama is a Christian, down sharply from 48% in 2009. Fully 43% say they do not know what Obama’s religion is.”

U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey
“On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.”
“More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

In addition, fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism. And only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) correctly answer that most people in Indonesia – the country with the
world’s largest Muslim population – are Muslims.”

bookmark_borderA Scientific Question? Part 10

One way of understanding “science” is that it is concerned with the discovery and verification of facts. But, what is a “fact”? The word “fact” has different meanings or shades of meaning, depending on what it is that we are contrasting with “fact”. One important distinction is that of fact vs. theory.

D. Fact vs. Theory

What I have in mind here is the idea that direct observations are where the rubber meets the road in science. Theories can be tweaked, revised, and even rejected, but “facts” or direct observations are not so easily adjusted or rejected.

This distinction is clearly of importance, but it cannot be used directly to distinguish between science and non-science, because science definitely involves both observational claims and theoretical claims. In Rocks of Ages, Stephen Gould briefly describes science:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. (ROA, p.4)

…the net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). (ROA, p.6)

What we want most from science is true theories about how the world operates, not just true observations about things and events in the world. So, we cannot define science as being limited only to the discovery and verification of observational claims or to just “facts” as opposed to theories.

The question of the existence of “God” would seem to be more a theoretical issue than one resolvable by direct observation. This is in part because God is supposed to be a spirit, a bodiless person. Given this conception of God, we cannot expect to see, hear, touch, smell or taste God, at least not in any literal way.

Furthermore, philosophical arguments have been offered for and against the existence of God, so it would seem that such arguments need to be examined and taken into consideration. Even the rejection of all philosophical attempts to determine the truth of this matter will, presumably, be based on some sort of theory about the nature of philosophical inquiry and about the epistemology of religious beliefs.

Arguments for and against the existence of God are based on empirical facts or generalizations. So, the existence of God can be viewed as a theory that is an attempt to explain various facts or observations.

Since science encompasses both observational claims and theories that attempt to explain the observations, we cannot remove the existence of God from the scope of scientific inquiry on the basis of the view that the question “Does God exist?” is a theoretical question, rather than one that can be resolved directly by observation.

But is the claim that “God exists” a scientific theory? According to Richard Swinburne, scientific explanations must be distinguished from personal explanations and in empirically-based arguments for the existence of God, it is a personal explanation that is being given for the phenomena. Swinburne also argues that personal explanation cannot be reduced to scientific explanation. So, if the claim that “God exists” is put forward as a personal explanation for empirical facts or generalizations, then this is not being put forward as a scientific explanation.

If the claim “God exists” is not being put forward as a scientific explanation for empircal facts and generalizations, but is instead being put forward as a personal explanation for empirical facts and generalizations, then this might be a good reason for concluding that “God exists” is not a scientific theory or hypothesis.

So, here is a possible line of reasoning for the view that the issue of the existence of God is not a scientific question:

1. The claim “God exists” is being put forward as a personal explanation for empirical facts and generalizations, and not as a scientific explanation for empirical facts and generalizations.
2. If the claim “God exists” is being put forward as a personal explanation for empirical facts and generalizations, and not as a scientific explanation for empirical facts and generalizations, then the claim “God exists” is not a scientific theory or hypothesis.
3. If the claim “God exists” is not a scientific theory or hypothesis, then the question “Does God exist?” is not a scientific question.
4. The question “Does God exist?” is not a scientific question.
I don’t know if this is a sound argument, but it does seem to be one worth thinking about.
One weakness of this argument is that it seems to be dependent on the particular historical circumstances of the types of arguments that have been given in the past for the existence of God.
Even if all of the traditional arguments for God are indeed in the form of personal explanations, it still seems possible that some new argument could be constructed in the future that would be radically different and instead be in the form of a scientific explanation. For this argument to be persuasive, one would need to have some reason to believe that this possibility is either extremely unlikely or just not possible.

bookmark_borderAnother loss for Turkish secularism

Turkey recently had a referendum on constitutional changes, in which the ruling party enjoyed a crushing victory.

The Western press, to the extent it paid attention, was preoccupied with questions such as whether this was a victory for democracy, and whether it was a victory for Islamism. The answer to both is yes. Western powers need not worry: the ruling Islamists in Turkey are loyal economic neoliberals, and they are far from the ridiculous bomb-tossing image of Islamism promoted by our holy warriors against Islam. They are the democratically legitimate voice of a majority in Turkey, even if you have to qualify that by observing that democracy is as debased in Turkey as other third world countries, such as the United States.

A more interesting concern was aired among secular intellectuals in Turkey as part of the lead-up to the referendum. This was more than the usual alarm-raising about the future of Turkish secularism. After all, the Turkish version of military-backed secularism is already just about dead; there is no point in continuing to worry about it. The worry I hear more often these days is that the Erdoğan government is turning increasingly dictatorial, using democracy as a device for imposing a tyranny of the majority. The way things are going, living a secular life is going to be increasingly difficult in a country where the institutions of the state are heavily influenced by religious brotherhoods, and religious solidarity networks are major factors in both the formal and informal economy. The proposed (and now approved) constitutional changes included measures to bring the judiciary under closer government control. Secularists worry that by undermining whatever (already compromised) independence the judiciary possesses, the modified constitution gives an even freer hand to a government bent on making Islam the touchstone of political and cultural legitimacy.

All of this is reasonable. If I were still living in Turkey, I’d be worried about much the same things, and I’d be joining in the usual futile gestures including voting against the Islamists.

But I haven’t lived there for nearly a quarter of a century, and looking from the outside, I have to say that Turkish secularist worries also come across as the whining of a privileged class that has lost its commanding position.

The means of cultural reproduction, no less than economic production, are fiercely contested in politics. There are many possible property regimes and institutional arrangements, and changes in them have consequences about the creation and  distribution of wealth. I see nothing illegitimate in engaging in politics on such a basis. But similarly, culture and religion is also a strong motivation for many people’s political engagement. There are many possible institutional arrangements regarding culture and the state, and changes in these arrangements alter the landscape of reproductive fitness for culture. Once upon a time in Turkey, cultural Westernization and secularism were privileged. This has become less so of late, and there are no signs of change in that trend.

There is a secular liberal conviction that somehow secularity ought to be privileged, to the extent that it should shape the public sphere while shunting religion off to a domain of private worship. Turkish religious conservatives, like their brethren from other countries and religion, naturally grant no force to such a conviction. All whining aside, this is a political contest. And in Turkey, for now, and as usual, the secularists have lost.

All anyone with sympathies to Turkish secularism can hope for is that the secularists will keep trying, and that in the future their ideas may remain alive enough to regain influence if the opportunity arises. The likelihood of this appears, however, to be diminishing with every year.

bookmark_borderThe Sentence “God exists” – Part 4

In Part II of The Coherence of Theism (revised edition), Richard Swinburne discusses the idea of a “contingent God”. This is because the characteristic of “necessary being” makes it so that, according to Swinburne, the concept of “God” cannot be defined in ordinary and non-stretched words. So, in Part II, Swinburne sets aside the property of being a “necessary being” to show that the other characteristics implied by the word “God” can be clarified and understood in terms of ordinary words understood in a straightforward and non-metaphorical way.

In order to try to show that the sentence “God exists” expresses a coherent claim, Swinburne analyzes the concept of “God”, and then starts with one piece of the concept and slowly builds back up to the full concept, adding back one piece at a time, and arguing at each step of the way that “X exists” expresses a coherent claim, where the “X” includes one or more pieces of the concept of “God”, as understood by Swinburne (technically, “God” is a proper name, so Swinburne is actually showing that the sentence “A divine being exists” expresses a coherent statement, where “divine being” is a category that includes persons who have a certain set of characteristics).
Here are the pieces:

  • an omnipresent spirit (Chapter 7)
  • who is perfectly free and is the creator of the universe (Chapter 8)
  • who is omnipotent (Chapter 9)
  • who is omniscient (Chapter 10)
  • who is perfectly good and is a source of moral obligation (Chapter 11)
  • who is eternal (Chapter 12)

Swinburne’s first step is to show that the sentence “An omnipresent spirit exists” expresses a coherent claim. The second step is to show that the sentence “An omnipresent spirit who is perfectly free and who is the creator of the universe exists” expresses a coherent claim.
The description keeps expanding until Chapter 12, where Swinburne tries to show that the sentence “An omnipresent spirit who is perfectly free and is the creator of the universe, and who is omnipotent and omniscient, and who is perfectly good and a source of moral obligation, and who is eternal exists” expresses a coherent claim.
I’m not clear why Swinburne chose to begin with the characteristics “an omnipresent spirit” , because it would make more sense to start with the characteristics that he believes constitute the logical core of the concept of “God”, namely omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect freedom.
Swinburne argues that the remaining characteristics are logically implied by these key characteristics:
…a person who is eternally perfectly free, omnipotent, and omniscient will have the other divine properties which I have considered. He will be an omnipresent spirit, creator of the universe, perfectly good, and a source of moral obligation. (COT, p.232)
So why not start out with the sentence “An omnipotent person exists” or “An omniscient person exists” or “A perfectly free person exists”? According to Swinburne, the characteristics called out in these sentences logically imply the other characteristics (omnipresent, spirit, perfectly good, creator of the universe), so it seems more efficient to first show the core concept of “God” to be coherent, and then show that that core concept implies the other characteristics.
I would have first tried to show that this sentence expresses a coherent claim:
(1) A person who is eternally omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free exists.
If I accomplished that task, then I would use that conclusion to show that the following sentence also expresses a coherent claim:
(2) A person who is eternally omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly free, an omnipresent spirit, the creator of the universe, perfectly good and a source of moral obligation exists.
Instead, Swinburne begins with a sentence that includes some characteristics that are not part of the logical core of the concept of “God”:
(3) An omnipresent spirit exists.

bookmark_borderThe “Hard Problem,” Physicalism, and Theism

The discussion on “The X that created the universe” raised some interesting points, especially the exchange between Ted Drange and Dianelos Georgoudis on consciousness. There were two points of disagreement: (1) Whether, and in what way, consciousness is a problem for physicalism and (2) whether theism has a problem explaining consciousness. Dianelos and other advocates of the “hard problem” of consciousness assert that science has made, and perhaps in principle cannot make, progress on the question of why there should be consciousness at all. The argument is that even if we solve the “easy” problem of learning all the neurological correlates of conscious experience, i.e., even when we come to know precisely what the brain is doing when we have conscious experience, we are not put one bit closer to understanding why such processes issue in conscious experience.
When anyone erects a priori barriers to the expansion of scientific explanation into some domain, there is a deeply entrenched idée fixe at work. This conviction can be an item of religious dogma, or it can be a deeply entrenched intuition. With the hard problem, though religious agendas are certainly waiting in the wings, I think the idée fixe is a deep intuition. The intuition seems to be the same for David Chalmers that it was for Descartes: Consciousness just seems to be so very different a type of thing that physical stuff that we just feel, very deeply, that matter, however intricately arranged, cannot underlie consciousness. Consciousness seems truly sui generis, something uniquely unique that surely must be ontologically distinct from matter.
However, as Gilbert Ryle showed long ago—a lesson that has yet to sink in—the mind is not any kind of a thing at all. There are no minds. There is thinking, feeling, sensing, imagining, emoting, etc., but there are no minds. Sensing, feeling, introspecting, and all of the phenomena we group under “consciousness” are functions of brains, or, if you prefer, they are activities we perform with our brains. Thinking is like digesting, it is a series of functions that could probably be carried out in any number of ways with a considerable diversity of mechanisms, but which we happen to do with certain protoplasmic hardware. It is misleading even to speak of “sensations” or “perceptions” since this makes of think of these as things. It would be better, if less elegant, to use a gerundive form and speak of “sensings” or “perceivings.” The gerundive form would remind us that what we have here are processes or happenings, not stuff. Qualia are therefore adverbial modifications of a sensory process. I do not sense yellow; I sense yellowy. Sounds funny, but, as we all know, ordinary language often masks philosophical and scientific truth.
Is there an a priori objection to the claim that sensing, thinking, emoting, etc. are things that we do with our brains? It would have to be a very strong a priori reason since prima facie, if I see material beings thinking, which I do all the time, the obvious conclusion to draw is that material beings can think. Well, maybe the argument is not that matter, in principle, cannot think, but that science can never explain why it does. But why think this? Robert Merrihew Adams argues that science cannot explain consciousness because there seems to be no prospect of ever discovering a covering law that tells us that such-and-such types of material organization will always result in the production of consciousness. Adams is almost certainly right that no such covering law will be found. It is probably the case that there are just too many ways to produce consciousness, and each is so complex, that no useful covering generalization can be found. This is entirely to be expected, though. Laws are used to explain at simple and general levels. When things get complex, scientific explanation is generally not of the covering law sort, but in terms of detailed causal accounts. Why do are the Alps shaped in the remarkable and dramatic ways that they are? Geologists explain the alpine orogeny in terms of thrusting and faulting, which were caused by the collision of the European and African tectonic plates. There is no reference to laws, though, of course, at a considerable explanatory distance, it is assumed that the laws of chemistry and physics are ultimately the cause.
The upshot is that, as William Lyons notes, when we are dealing with explanations of complex things, “why” questions and “how” questions tend to run together. You explain why the Alps have their particular shape by showing how it got that way. You explain why train tracks do not buckle when summer heat causes the metal rails to expand by showing how they are constructed to allow the expansion in hot weather. Lyons continues:
It seems likely that scientists could explain how, neurophysiologically and biochemically, the parts of our brain causally relevant to consciousness are put together and function in relation to one another, then ipso facto the scientists will have explained how the parts function together so as to generate consciousness. In David Chalmers’ terminology, it seems likely that if scientists can solve all the easy problems about the conscious brain then, ipso facto they will also have solved at least part of the hard problem (Lyons, Matters of the Mind, p. 206).
I think Lyons is right. If and when the “easy” problem is solved, then the “hard” problem will simply wither away. This is because the “hard” problem is not really a scientific or philosophical problem; it is a psychological one. Because our first person world is so different from the third person world we know through science, it just feels like the former cannot be explained in terms of the latter, but once we have the explanation, the feeling will eventually fade. The brain causing (or, I prefer, realizing) thought will be like what Hume said about the way all causal relations would look to the newly created Adam. At first to Adam everything would look like a miracle. After a while, though, you get used to the way things operate and are no longer astonished when things happen the way they regularly do.

What about point (2)? Is explaining consciousness a problem for theism? Dianelos and other theists say it is not because theism postulates consciousness as a primitive or ultimate term of their theory. This, of course, makes consciousness not just unexplained but inexplicable. Actually, such a maneuver is theism’s stock-in-trade. If your basic postulation is the existence of a conscious, all-powerful being, you relieve yourself of vast labors of explanatory work. Why are there birds? The poor naturalist has to give a long, laborious, and very incomplete story about the evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs in the late Jurassic. The Creationist just says that on the fifth day God said “Let there be birds!” and POOF! The air was full of birds! Why is there human consciousness? Again, the naturalist has to give a long, laborious, and inevitably incomplete story. The theist just says “God is already conscious, and he just makes humans that way. End of story.” That is how theism explains anything God supposedly does. You explain human consciousness, birds, or anything by postulating an Occult Effect Explaining Entity that is given the power to produce whatever it is that needs producing. Neat trick. I just cannot help thinking that it gives theism an advantage over naturalism that is the same kind of advantage that theft has over honest toil.

bookmark_border“Retirement” Responses

My “retirement notice” from philosophy of religion posted a couple of weeks ago has drawn an amazing and entirely unexpected amount of comment on Prosblogion, the Leiter Report, Debunking Christianity, and Dangerous Idea. My! I’ve gone viral! Seriously, I thought that maybe a dozen people would be interested in my decision, and since most of them read Secular Outpost, I put the notice here, and I am simply astonished at the attention it got. If only my books had been read by that many…

I have not had the time or the interest to read the, literally, couple of hundred comments on these posts. I did look over a few and noticed that some amateur thinkers who apparently have never read anything I wrote got very personal and nasty. My response: PHBTTTTHHH!!!!–or whatever approximates a contemptuous razzing noise.

Actually, I would like to respond to one question by the poster on Prosblogion, who asked:

“[W]hat do these philosophers [i.e., like me, who think that the “case for theism” is vacuous] think is happening to those philosophers who do top-notch work in other fields but who are also orthodox Christians? Do they have a theory? If their theory is indeed “compartmentalized insanity”, have they looked into the psychological research on this? And what do they make of some of their smart atheist colleagues, like Quentin Smith, David Lewis, and William Rowe, who don’t share their disdain for their theistic counterparts?

These questions deserve answers. What about those philosophers who do top-notch work in other fields besides the philosophy of religion, but who are orthodox Christians? Are they like the cranks Kurt Vonnegut described in Mother Night whose minds operate like well-oiled machines but have a couple of teeth missing on a small cog so that every now and then they jump, jerk, and emit steam before resuming normal operation? Do they suffer from “compartmentalized insanity?” Some might, but in general I’d say no.

From the fact that I judge the “case for theism” to be empty, which I do, it does not follow that I regard theists with disdain or hold that all Christians are irrational, which I don’t. In An Interpretation of Religion, John HIck argues that naturalism is a completely rational and legitimate worldview and that the arguments of natural theology are unsound, at least insofar as they are aimed at arguing nonbelievers into belief. On the other hand, religious people are also perfectly reasonable in having a religious interpretation of their experience, i.e., in postulating a transcendent reality. My thoughts exactly. I freely admit that, as Alvin Plantinga once asserted, a Christian may be doing his “epistemic best”in adhering to his faith. Likewise, I am doing my epistemic best in judging the theistic and apologetic arguments to be without substance.

Really, should anyone be the least surprised that with respect to metaphysical questions, like theism vs. naturalism, perfectly honest, reasonable people, following their best lights, might draw opposite conclusions? Metaphysics is ineluctably speculative. In doing metaphysics we are attempting to infer the ontology that would provide the best account of our experience as a whole. Given the variability of that experience, who could reasonably expect unanimity in the inference?

bookmark_borderThe X that Caused the Universe

The Kalam cosmological argument includes this bit of reasoning:

1. The universe began to exist.
2. If the universe began to exist, then something (other than the universe) caused the universe to begin to exist.
3. Something (other than the universe) caused the universe to begin to exist.

This reasoning seems fine to me. The universe did not come from nothing; it came from something. The disagreement between atheists and theists is (or should be) over the nature of the something from which the universe came.

For atheists, the X that caused the universe to come into being was something that was unthinking or impersonal, whereas for theists the X that caused the universe to come into being was something personal or mental. The universe is the product of a person or mind, according to theism, and it is not the product of a person or mind, according to atheism.

One qualification needs to be made here. From an atheistic or naturalist point of view, the universe could be the product of a person or mind so long as that person or mind was itself produced by purely physical or impersonal forces, or so long as the ultimate source of a causal chain of persons (that produced the universe) was some unthinking and impersonal thing.

A similar qualificaiton needs to be made about theism. From a theistic viewpoint, the universe could be the product of an unthinking or impersonal thing so long as that unthinking or impersonal thing was brought about by a mind or person, or so long as the ultimate source of a causal chain of unthinking or impersonal things (that produced the universe) was some mind or person.

Alas, it appears that the difference between atheism and theism concerning the origin of the universe, is not as clear and straightforward as one might wish. Atheism is compatible with the universe being the product of a person or mind, and theism is compatible with the universe being the product of an unthinking or impersonal object or force. The disagreement is really about the ultimate source of the universe.

So, even if we can definitively establish that the cause of the existence of the universe was a mind or person, that would not be sufficient to rule out atheism, for that person or mind might in turn be the product of unthinking and impersonal forces. Similarly, even if we can definitively establish that the cause of the existence of the universe was some unthinking or impersonal force of nature, that would not be sufficient to rule out theism, for that unthinking or impersonal force of nature might in turn be the product of a mind or person.

bookmark_borderBurning Question

Does anyone else find it drolly ironic that the goofball Florida pastor who wants to burn the Qur’an has the same name as a member of Monty Python? When I hear that Terry Jones says he will burn a Qur’an , I expect it to be a skit with a Terry Gilliam cartoon and some ersatz cardinals intoning “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Maybe the best way to handle this whole imbroglio would be with ridicule and satire. Maybe somebody should organize an alternative event in which copies of Going Rogue are incinerated.

Naturally, private citizens, religious groups, and government officials have spoken out against the book burning. However, the tone of these critics has been so urgent and emphatic–occasionally almost hysterical–that I find myself wondering if they do not protest too much. Why give so much attention to the moronic stunt of a few dozen Florida peckerwoods whose cumulative I.Q.’s would barely reach room temperature?
Of course, the planned burning is odious, but I wonder if the tone and volume of the condemnation do not also indicate a degree of intimidation. Are we afraid of what Muslims might do in reaction? There have already been anti-American demonstrations in Kabul and Indonesia in anticipation of the event. Are people so insistent that the Qur’an burning not take place out of fear of Muslim outrage? If so, we need to make absolutely clear what we consider sacred: Freedom of speech, even when it is odious, and even when it is the speech of a bigot or a halfwit. We need to make very clear to the “Muslim world” that we hold sacred the principle that we might disagree strongly with everything someone is saying, but defend to the death his right to say it. Shame on us if we let threats frighten us into retreating from that principle.

bookmark_border“An Amoral Manifesto”

The philosopher Joel Marks has an interesting article, “An Amoral Manifesto,” in the latest Philosophy Now.

He argues for a kind of amoralism (which seems correct to me). He also affirms the theistic argument that without a God, there cannot be the kind of (hard) morality as we usually understand it. That also seems to me to be correct. Hence, since there is, in all likelihood, no God, there is also no morality.

All of this I can mostly agree with. The interesting part is that he’s recently been deconverted from a belief in morality, and compares it with being deconverted from God-belief. I’ll be curious to see how Marks develops this further.