bookmark_borderAtheist converts after mock-prayer is “answered”

In the news:

A self-confessed atheist has become a believer after mocking God by sarcastically praying for his mother to win the lottery. However, his joke prayer was amazingly answered as the next day his mother won $1 million on the New York Lottery Sweet Million game.

Sal Bentivegna, 28, who did not previously believe in God, had sarcastically asked his mother to “ask your God for a million dollars”.

However, his mother Gloria Bentivegna, follows the Catholic faith, and staying true to her belief refused to ask God for such a thing.

Taking his joke further, Sal then prayed out aloud saying, “God, I don’t know if you’re real or not, but if you are there, please let my mother win a million dollars.”

He added, “If Jesus wants me to believe in him, that’s what he’ll do”.

The following day his mother bought a “Lotto Tree” of unscratched instant win tickets from her Church’s charity auction. Sal was then left absolutely stunned when he found out his mother had won a million.

Realizing that the odds of his mother winning were so farfetched, Sal has now become a firm believer.

I credit Bentivegna for putting his money where his mouth was (or, in this case, putting his mother’s money where his mouth was?), but I have to wonder at his reasoning. Forget the question of why he would think his “answered prayer” would be so improbable given atheism as to overthrow it; I’m curious why he would think it proof of Jesus, of all gods? Look at some of the other items in the news, like this one:

A 14-year-old girl from Russia was so scared of the May 21 doomsday and rapture prediction made by Harold Camping that she committed suicide the same day, investigators said Wednesday. The teenager wanted to choose death rather than be among the ones suffering on earth after the rapture.

Where was Nastya Zachinova’s miracle? Even if we suppose that every low-probability “answered prayer” really is a miracle, their spotty distribution, and variation from the wonderful to the banal to the abhorrent, suggests the truth of some polytheistic religion like Asatru, rather than Christianity. If I were Bentivegna, I would not see the realization of his mock-prayer as the kind of thing that Jesus would do, all while allowing the children to suffer (and I’m sure many Christians will back me up on this); if one insists on drawing a religious conclusion from such an ultimately banal “miracle,” I would say it sounds more like the kind of thing a mischievous Loki would do.


Well, I’m still here.

It also occurs to me that I would have very little opportunity for direct evidence of the Rapture a day after the promised date. I don’t have many friends or colleagues who would be good candidates for being taken up in the air.

Maybe if I were to go down to the supermarket and it seemed especially uncrowded? I’ll have to see what happens. I shouldn’t run out of milk until Tuesday.

bookmark_borderResponse to Taner


Thanks for the long post and the many insightful points and queries.

Since Aristotle is the founder of naturalized ethics, it is really important that we get him right. Aristotle does not base his ethics upon “human nature,” but what he calls “the human function.” (Sorry, I don’t know the Greek) The human function comprises the way of living for which nature has suited humans. That is, just as the Great White Shark is suited (as the Richard Dreyfus character says in Jaws) to swim, eat, and make little sharks—and to do these things very well—so nature has also adapted us to live a certain way and to do it well. What humans are uniquely well-suited to do is to live the life of a rational being in a political society with other rational beings. That is, just like other organisms, nature endows the human creature with potentialities which, when fully actualized, permit that creature to fulfill a particular set of functions in an optimal manner.

There is a crucial difference, however, between the way those potentialities are actualized in humans and the way they are actualized in most other animals. A shark does not have to practice at being a shark (so far as I know). The shark develops its sharky potentials automatically and unreflectively. With humans, however, it takes hard work, discipline, and practice. Learning to be human is a lot like learning to play the piano. The intellectual and moral virtues for Aristotle are the distinctive, habitual practices whereby humans achieve excellence in fulfilling their natural function. Those who practice the moral virtues (i.e., those who are courageous, temperate, just, generous, etc.) are precisely those who will, in general, have the greatest success in living harmoniously and fruitfully with other people.

Aristotle recognized as clearly as anyone else that the vast majority of human beings do not live virtuous lives. If “human nature” is how we spontaneously act, without training and discipline, then “human nature” is often at odds with the fulfillment of the human function. We all too often spontaneously pursue the greedy or myopic ends. A human must learn to be, e.g., courageous or temperate by doing courageous or temperate acts, says Aristotle, just as we learn to play the piano by practicing. The upshot, then, is that the standard for Aristotle is the human function—what nature has suited us to do, not “human nature”—what people in fact tend spontaneously to do. Happiness, eudaimonia, is defined not in terms of what people actually do, but in terms of what they are distinctively suited to do, that is, to live lives of intellectual and moral excellence. Aristotle’s concept of happiness is akin to Maslow’s idea of self-actualization. Those few self-actualized persons (like, say, Socrates) who do live the life for which we are best suited are the ones who are genuinely happy, even when their lives are difficult. Fools, on the other hand, cannot be happy even in the midst of pleasures. Better to be Socrates having a bad day than Sarah Palin having a good one.

It is also very important not to read alien or anachronistic notions into the Aristotelian view of teleology. For Aristotle, teleology is a thoroughly naturalistic concept; indeed, telos is a distinctive feature of physis (nature). There is no sense in which for Aristotle (as opposed to the Christian Aristotelians) that natural ends are intended, planned, or chosen. Indeed, some top Aristotelian scholars like my mentor at Pitt, Jim Lennox (also an expert on Darwin) see no contradiction at all between Aristotelian teleology and Darwinian evolution. Why are sharks so well suited by nature to swim, eat, and make little sharks? Why are they so well adapted to perform these functions and thus achieve their telos to be a top predator? Aristotle could only say that they were so adapted by nature; after Darwin we can explain how it happened.

The upshot is that even a post-Darwinian ethicist can identify natural states that, when achieved, constitute flourishing for the human organism. We can also recognize that humans do not attain that state automatically or by instinct, but only by choice and habituation. Even modern-day naturalists can recognize a standard other than how the majority of humans do act. We can recognize as valuable things other than what the majority do value (John Stuart Mill got confused on this point in Utilitarianism). Thus, the majority may value watching Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, and Survivor (I am appalled to know people with Ph.D.’s who do), yet it is not just snobbery to say that a steady diet of such stuff will make you less happy and well off in the long run. Read a good book, or at least switch over to the Discovery Channel every now and then. A mind is a terrible thing to waste watching meretricious, moronic shit. You really will be happier if you develop your mind instead of lazily letting it deteriorate on a diet of intellectual junk food.

But might we not remake the human function? Indeed, is this not just what Aldous Huxley imagined in Brave New World? By the year A.F. (After Ford) 632, a combination of genetic engineering and operant conditioning has transformed humans into docile, hedonistic, agreeable, conformist, fun-loving creatures who live a life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll and hardly ever cause any problems for the authorities. Even their religion (weekly “solidarity services”) consists of taking drugs and having orgies. All great art and music is, of course, kept strictly hidden, surreptitiously enjoyed only by the World Controllers. Even the alphas, the most intelligent caste of people in BNW, were kept emotionally immature and strongly discouraged from engaging in independent thinking or forming deep emotional attachments (there are no families and total sexual promiscuity is the rule).

Now I was seventeen years old when I first read BNW, and I had a hard time seeing a downside to it. The solidarity services in particular sounded much more interesting than our Sunday services at Alexander Memorial Presbyterian. Now, of course, the way that people live in BNW appalls me, but should it? If, like John the Savage in the novel
, I were brought into BNW from outside, would I have any basis for complaint about their way of living? It would horrify me that Shakespeare and Beethoven were unknown. But, hadn’t people been changed so that they could no longer understand or appreciate Shakespeare or Beethoven; great art and music would be confusing or painful for them. People’s capacities had been changed. The human function had been changed. If the human function sets my standard, what right have I to complain or criticize?

Something that John Stuart Mill said that was not confused was that goods differ qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Bentham said “pushpin (bowling) is as good as poetry” if it gives the same amount of pleasure. Mill recognized that poetry might give a kind of pleasure that is so qualitatively different from the form that bowling gives, that it is misleading to try to weigh them in the same quantitative scale. Still, it might be possible to compare them. How? Ask someone who enjoys both bowling and poetry to tell you which one they would sacrifice if they had to give one up. Mill says that the qualitatively superior pleasure is the one genuinely preferred (and not preferred, say, because of an ideological or religious mandate) by one who has had a full experience of both.

At one time in my life I listened to music like Black Sabbath (I did mention that I was once seventeen). I have since listened to Mozart. Having had experience of both, I judge that Mozart is (infinitely) qualitatively superior to Ozzy Osbourne. If you have had experience of the sorts of superficial pleasures of the inhabitants of BNW, and you have also experienced the real depth and meaning, it is not arbitrary to judge that the latter are, objectively, qualitatively superior to the former. The people in BNW are still human and are compelled to lead an emotionally and intellectually stunted life, a life inferior to the one they could have been allowed to live. We can therefore rationally oppose any plans to change human beings so that they are constrained to live in such a stunted state.

What, though, if we discovered a different species, one truly incapable of the sorts of fulfillment and pleasures we find most enriching? Suppose, for instance, we discovered intelligent beings that were naturally adapted to a eusocial lifestyle, like honeybees? Among these eusocial beings, a worker really would experience her greatest fulfillment and well-being in serving the Queen. An ethical naturalist would have to say that many of our values, such as our notions of individualism and autonomy, simply would not and could not be values for such creatures. Would not such beings—entirely reasonably—have a very different set of values and duties? Indeed, the Good for these beings would be different than the Good for humans. For us it is self-fulfillment; for them it is serving the Queen. In short, ethical naturalism seems to imply that values are species-relative. I see no real problems with that.

As for our views of non-human animals on a naturalistic perspective, there is no reason why the well-being of members of other species cannot or should not also be important to us. My cats’ well being is more important to me than the well being of very, very many human beings. Given a choice between saving my cats and saving a lifeboat full of right-wing radio pundits, TV preachers, and Tea Partiers, I’d save the kitties and let the lifeboat of idiots go to the bottom. I would sleep like a baby that night. Indeed, I would argue that an important part of human happiness involves valuing the happiness of at least some kinds of animals.

Note: I will not be posting or commenting on this site for the next couple of weeks. I do appreciate responses, and I will be able to reply when I am communicado again.

bookmark_borderIt worked for Aquinas, but would it work for us?

I want to pull something Keith Parsons just said from out of the comments, since it ties in nicely with some questions prompted by one of the books I’m currently reading. Keith said:

. . . collapsing the fact/value distinction does not need neuroscience; it goes back to Aristotle. Really, the idea that there is a fact/value dichotomy has only become entrenched in ethics since Hume’s “discovery” that you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” Ancient, medieval, and early modern ethicists almost always took for granted that the “good for man” is a natural condition and that ethical duties aim at actualizing that naturally good state. Christianity did not change this fundamental outlook; it just added that the highest state of human happiness is one in communion with God. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” said Augustine. The “fact/value” distinction would have puzzled Aquinas as much as Aristotle.

This is all very reasonable; I won’t dispute it. But will this work for us—for post-Humean, post-Darwinians with no use for teleology superimposed on nature?

The way I understand it, in such an Aristotelian framework, moral “ought”s do not just fall out of a description of what is good and harmful for humans as we find ourselves. An Aristotelian can also make sense of a question like “what ought human nature to be?”—their conception of nature is infused with teleology (final causes and whatnot) which helps them to identify when human nature goes off-track. A Christianized Aristotelianism can make this even clearer. It can avail itself of conceptions of Natural Moral Law which is, even if imperfectly, inscribed in human nature as we find it. Moreover, it can portray human nature as corrupted (in ways depending on whatever interpretation of Original Sin they prefer). So it isn’t just about human nature; actual human nature itself is subject to moral criticism depending on how it deviates from an ideal in the mind of God. (I can also give Muslim Aristotelian examples, but in these parts, this is probably more familiar.)

But what happens when human nature is understood as just a fact within nature in general, with no teleology to supply a moral context? After Darwin, human nature is an accident—a set of brute biological facts spit out by a notoriously nonteleological evolutionary process, all set in the context of a nonanthropomorphic physical universe devoid of any overarching purpose. This is one of those things that bothers, for example, intelligent design proponents when they object to a conception of nature that reduces to mere physical chance and necessity.

So, say a secular philosopher wants to ground morality in facts about human nature. What recourse does she have in responding to questions that require an evaluation of human nature itself? A Christian or a Muslim can make sense of the statement that humanity is not what it ought to be. What can the secular, modernized Aristotelian do?

Now, I am sure this isn’t a pressing question most of the time. Ordinary, relatively uncontroversial notions of what is good or harmful for human flourishing may be perfectly decent tools for a secular moralists for many questions we are likely to encounter.

But not all of the time. What happens if you discuss a science fiction story in an ethics seminar, and some of the students take the side of the aliens in their conflict with the human species? If you extend “good for humans” to “good for sentient life,” do you not end up with a concept that is too thin to do any moral heavy lifting? (The question of why we should care about others just gets magnified.)

What happens when you discuss animal rights, or claims of moral concern about wilderness that need not even contain any sentient life? If you try to translate all that to concerns about the psychological well-being of humans, aren’t you indulging the very anthropocentrism under challenge?

What happens when you encounter possibilities of radically changing human nature by means of technology, especially biotechnology? Tinkering around the edges of, say, our reproductive biology, might still be discussed in terms of concepts of flourishing and suffering rooted in our present biology. Even that strains arguments based on “human nature.” But what about prospects of acquiring so much control over our biology and psychology and every way of being in the world that the very idea of human nature becomes impossibly unstable? In such a fluid, vertigo-inducing environment of radical choices that can alter our nature and moral intuitions at every step, what use is “good for humans” as a guide?

I think such examples suggest that “human nature” can only be a part of the story when it comes to understanding moral oughts. And that is fine—a partial success is still nothing to sneeze about.

But there is a subtext to such concerns for those of us interested in arguing about gods. That is, a theist can easily portray the partiality of such an account as a defect. After all, morality understood relative to primary needs of humans as we find ourselves is still relative—such a morality does not have the overarching, absolute, ideal-in-the-mind-of-God quality that the One True Morality must have. And by denying overarching teleology to nature, secular moralists are refusing to avail themselves of a very obvious solution to their problem.

This doesn’t bother me. As far as I see, people value certain things, and this valuing is always in the context of their particular interests and agreements. I expect these to be plural, conflicting, incommensurable, and unstable. In the absence of supernatural teleology, I don’t expect to discover a secular analogue of a One True Morality.

But for many secular moral thinkers, this sort of thing is, apparently, a problem. If so, can we really say we see a way out? What prospects can a modernized, non-teleological Aristotelian offer? (Keith?)

bookmark_borderAmerica’s Clairvoyant Founders

All too often, I succumb to the temptation to think that America’s Founding Fathers (peace be upon them) were merely human. I entertain heretical thoughts, such as our Holy Constitution being a superannuated eighteenth century relic. In my darkness of unbelief, I imagine that important parts of the Holy Constitution are structurally antidemocratic, and I sometimes even suspect that document may be better scrapped rather than our having to patch it up with another boatload of amendments.

But that would be to underappreciate the superhuman qualities of the Founding Fathers (pbut). It turns out, for example, that they foresaw the future with a clairvoyance that cannot be accounted for by godless materialists. As laid out in “The Founders’ Unchanging Principles of Liberty,” one of the many amazing documents brought to us by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, the Founders (pbut) in the eighteenth century perfectly anticipated and endorsed the political program of the Christian Right of the twenty first century.

Verily, a miracle indeed.

bookmark_borderWhat is wrong with Sam Harris

I regularly gripe about Sam Harris here. When I’ve had more lengthy pieces to write, I’ve written against his ignorant approach to Islam, and expressed ambivalence about those aspects of the “New Atheism” associated with Harris.

But if I’m going to keep griping, it might not be a bad idea to rehash specifically why I think the popularity of Harris should be embarrassing for nonbelievers. This mainly because a common response to public criticism of religion is is that the critic has misunderstood religion in general, or is ignorant of the specific traditions criticized. In Harris’s case, the accusations are correct. And since Harris is in a position where he legitimately represents the attitudes of many nonbelievers in the US, it may well be fair to say that American nonbelief often proceeds from a misunderstanding of religion.

(There is some irony here. The New Atheists often say they are justified in their focus on conservative, even fundamentalist beliefs, since these are the most popular. They wave away defenses of religion that represent liberal views and traditions with more intellectual depth. But I have found myself in situations where I have had to ask fellow academics not to dismiss what I call science-minded nonbelief out of hand, just because its most public representatives include very visible scholarly disasters such as Harris.)

So, let me revisit the case where Harris annoys me the most—when he portrays Islam as an essentially violent religion by quoting violent passages from the Quran.

First of all, even trying something like this betrays unfamiliarity with the scientific and scholarly literature on religion in general. Violence is almost never some direct manifestation of the “plain meaning” of religious texts. Most fundamentally this is because religious texts are very often exceptionally unstable in meaning. If there is a theological orthodoxy, this is enforced by means that make a mockery of any naive claims to context-free plain meaning. And even when there is an orthodoxy, most ordinary believers are theologically incorrect. That is, their actual (often tacit) beliefs in everyday contexts, especially when unreflective action is called for, usually diverge very markedly from official beliefs about the supernatural agents of their tradition. I don’t see how anyone who is a serious student of religion could get away with naively predicting violent behavior by examining the ancient texts of a religion. That sort of thing gets beaten out of you as a graduate student, if you even make it that far.

Second, Harris is not just making sweeping general pronouncements about the evils of faith. He is making sweeping claims about a specific tradition, Islam. And few of his pronouncements about Islam are such that they could be taken seriously by a student of that religion. In particular, he shows no awareness of the different and competing processes in today’s varieties of Islam that impose a context on the Quran and thereby render the text meaningful. Simply, how Harris imagines the Quran “says” things has little to do with the many ways Muslim communities interpret texts and conceive of sanctified political action. Ugly and often dangerous as Muslim-associated violence is today, Harris provides no analysis of it that is even superficially plausible. Again, this is because he is demonstrably ignorant of the relevant scholarly literature on what is hardly an obscure subject.

Criticism of religion has to demonstrate some minimal level of competence in the context of religious studies to deserve being taken seriously at all. Harris’s work just does not make the grade.

This is not a one-off thing. In his latest book, Harris makes a big deal of some neuroimaging studies that he interprets as collapsing the fact-value distinction. But that line of argument is not new. I remember philosophers who paid close attention to neuroscience in the late 1990’s debating the matter then; and even with the poorer quality data back then, it was obvious that moral reasoning had a strong cognitive component. And it was already pretty clear that a naive monistic moral realism a la Harris was not the most plausible way to understand out moral perceptions and moral lives. A moral pluralism that deploys metaphors such as a “moral ecology” was the better option then, as it is now. But again, Harris shows no awareness of the most relevant debates: he charges in as if his naive, half-assed view was somehow obviously correct.

All this is enormously frustrating for those of us who bother to do our homework. Worse, it makes it more difficult for those of us who want to see closer connections forged between the natural sciences and the humanities, and who argue that a naturalistic, scientific picture of us being-in-the-world is far better at making sense of human experience than a more traditional, transcendence-seeking picture. Ham-handed attempts like Harris, especially when they get a lot of attention, makes our lives more difficult, because we have to persuade our colleagues that we are not just less loud proponents of a fundamentally flawed approach. Certainly, looking at Harris’s work, it would not be hard to conclude that scientific naturalism is not yet another attempt to shove the world into an ideological straightjacket.

There is more that bears repeating. The self-image of many nonbelievers todays is that of people who reject supernatural beliefs after a process of reasoned criticism. If that is not just empty self-congratulation, we should be demanding at least awareness of the relevant science and scholarship among those who we put in a position of intellectual leadership. Again, Harris does not make the grade. The most dominant note I see in his work is moral posturing. And while that has fed a kind of righteous anger against faith-based nonsense among nonbelievers, I’d be a lot happier if we were more careful to demand intellectual quality alongside the righteous anger.

bookmark_borderLears reviews Harris

Historian Jackson Lears has a damning review of all Sam Harris’s books in The Nation magazine: “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris.”

It’s not a perfect takedown. Lears can’t resist reaching into the liberal religious apologetic bag of tricks (oh, he’s not addressing real religion, which is the more sophisticated and more experiential stuff), plus indulges in traditional humanities-based suspicion of science (which manifests itself as bashing “positivism” and “reductionism”).

But if you can get beyond the obligatory 10% posturing-content, it’s 90% on target. Harris has been consistently producing work that is intellectually shoddy.

It is discouraging that Harris has become so popular among American nonbelievers. This means, unfortunately, that Harris cannot be set aside as an unrepresentative crank. His popularity shows that a large part of the US atheist population is far from its self-image as defenders of science, reason, and secular liberal values.

It is more than just carelessness that has resulted in Harris—a terrible example of scholarship and a consistent producer of dubious reasoning—becoming a legitimate atheist icon. He threw red meat to the flock of nonbelievers, aggressively telling us what we wanted to hear. In return, too many of us responded as uncritically as the fundamentalists we love to scorn.

bookmark_border30-cubit-tall Adam

I used to have a principle not to be overly discouraged about any insanity I might observe in the US. After all, something similar but worse was bound to have taken place in Turkey. I could then be happy I didn’t live there.

With the increasingly entrenched right-wing nature of US public life over the past couple of decades, I can’t hold this principle consistently anymore. We now routinely do things here that I would find out of place in a low-income, half-ass-democratic, fervently Islamic country.

But every now and then, my old practice of reading Turkish news to make me feel better about the US in comparison works again.

Just this morning I was reading about the state of universities in Turkey. And one example being discussed was a textbook written by a biology professor in “9 Eylül” University (a decent enough, long-established public university, in the more liberal Western part of the country). Apparently, this biology professor mentioned that Adam was 30 cubits tall in his textbook. But later, he had second thoughts and removed the reference. The reason, however, was not its biological absurdity. It was that he decided that the degree of reliability of the tradition of the 30-cubit Adam was not high enough (as ascertained by the clergy/scholars) to include it.

We’re fortunate to have a thoroughly secular academic culture in the US. It’s not just that fewer science professors believe religious bullshit—though a minority, many do—it’s that letting that interfere with your professional activities is a sure way to destroy your academic reputation. And reputation counts.