If you are an atheist in Texas, you can never be bored. There is always something interesting going on. Our Governor, Rick Perry, has declared that August 6 will be a day of “prayer and fasting” with a big prayer meeting at the Houston Reliant Center. Now, from what I see on TV, several days of fasting might be good for some of the governor’s “bigger” supporters. The prayer stuff though is a bit more dubious. The prayer meeting will be paid for by something called the American Family Association, an organization deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its hysterical anti-gay rhetoric. One representative of the AFA said that Nazism was a gay movement and that most of the top Nazis were gay. Gee, all I ever knew about the intimate details of those guys was from the old Spike Jones song: “Hitler has only got one ball. Goering has two, but very small. Himmler is somewhat similar….” Anyway, the prayer meeting will definitely be exclusively for Christians (ix-nay on the Uslim-may or Ewish-jay stuff), and, one surmises, only for Christians of a certain type.
An interview with me is appearing today on the “Think Atheist” radio show. They tell me that “The show will air at 5PM Pacific/8PM Eastern but then be available to stream from our archive immediately after it concludes.”
I’m not always comfortable being publicly identified as an atheist.
The label is accurate enough; I don’t think that any God or other supernatural entities exist. But the word “atheist” has other connotations as well, and I don’t always want to take them on board or fight against them.
For example, in a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education that quotes me, there is this paragraph:
Now, the deeper question may be whether science can ever flourish in Muslim countries without complete independence from religion. Edis, who is an atheist, considers this the defining quality of Europe’s Scientific Revolution, what allowed science to develop without constraints. Other scholars agree that scientific autonomy is needed, even though an entirely naturalistic understanding of the world cuts deeply against the grain of Muslim culture.
When I read it, I immediately wished the author hadn’t identified me as “an atheist.” I probably would have preferred “not religious.”
One problem is that I know how far too many Muslims react to the word; “atheist” has connotations of “enemy” as well as someone opposed to all that is True and Good. I would like Muslims to allow scientific institutions more autonomy in their countries. Once I am identified as “an atheist,” my arguments to that effect become worse than irrelevant—they actually harm any cause I would be seen to support.
But also among non-Muslims, the “atheist” label can poison the well. Even in academic writing, I regularly come across disclaimers that while the author is not devout, they disavow the dogmatic certainty displayed by atheists as well. To some degree, this is invidious stereotype-mongering. But the fact is, the stereotype is out there. Once I’m described as “an atheist,” people feel free to assume all sorts of (usually negative) things about me.
Annoying, but I doubt there’s much I can do about any of this.
John Loftus’ latest anthology, The End of Christianity has been printed by Prometheus and is now being distributed. I have an essay in the book titled “Hell: Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine.” (BTW, John and Victor Reppert are having a knock-down-drag-out squabble on their respective blogs–Debunking Christianity and Dangerous Idea–about what John calls ‘the outsider test of faith.’ The imbroglio now seems to be generating rather more heat than light.)
First, apologies if I am boring the hell out of everyone but a few of us fanatics with yet another sequel on naturalism and norms. It is just that I think the issues are very important, and I have gotten such terrific feedback on these points, that I am going to post a couple more replies to Philip K. and Dianelos.
my favorite scenes in any movie is the very instructive one at the end of The Godfather, Part II, where Al Pacino as Michael Corleone is shown sitting all alone at Christmas, recalling a Christmas of many years before. Most of the friends and family in his recollection are either dead, several killed by him, or will no longer speak to him because they hate or fear him. A life of plots, murder, and lies has gotten him wealth, power, and utter misery. He has it all and he has nothing. At a much lower artistic level, consider the women in Sex and the City (I am basing this judgment on the two or three episodes I ever watched). They have beauty, intelligence, education, wealth, and a degree of freedom that hardly any women throughout history have enjoyed. Yet they are utterly miserable? Why? Because they are nincompoops. They consistently make irrational, selfish, self-deluded decisions and are then astonished and appalled when things turn out the way they always do. Aristotle would fully agree: Crime does not pay, and neither does stupidity.
We usually debate weighty issues on SO, but I thought I would offer something a bit lighter. For fun I am writing a memoir (I was inspired by Bill Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid) of growing up in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia in the ’50’s and early 60’s. These are my religious reminiscences. Names have been changed.
Mom and Dad were both practicing Christians. Grace was said before every meal. Mom read us Bible stories at bedtime. We were church members and regular attendees. The teachings of Protestant Christianity were gently inculcated and never disputed. Yet, their religion was remarkably undogmatic and had nothing of a fanatical, crusading, or fundamentalist spirit. Dad had scientific training (he had been a chemistry major who could do both qualitative and quantitative analysis before turning to journalism) and had no problem at all with an earth of great age or with Darwinian evolution. I was taught to tolerate other religions. I never heard a word of prejudice against other faiths from either parent. In fact, I remember Dad correcting me if I made fun of loudmouthed, hysterical preachers on the radio (You know, the ones who would scream about sinners going to someplace called “hay-ull” and who could turn “Jesus” into a word of four or five syllables, something like “Jay-eee-zuss-uh.” Ooops! Sorry, Dad! I’m doing it again).
I was raised a Presbyterian, not that that made much difference. As one wag observed, in the Deep South there was only one Protestant religion, Methobapterianism. The message was pretty much the same whether you went to your church or a friend’s. My best friend was a Baptist, and I went to his church a few times. The only difference I could tell was that his preacher was quite a bit louder and the services did not end as promptly as Presbyterians liked. The hymns were pretty much the same, as was the message and the worshippers looked and acted very similar.
Our church, Alexander Memorial Presbyterian, was middle-of-the-road in every way. It was middling in size, in theology, and in the socio-economic status of its congregation. The pastor, the Reverend Hanks, was a good, gentle, intelligent, and wise man, but even drier and more colorless than the usual Presbyterian minister. His sermons were dreadfully, painfully, unutterably dull and only redeemed by the fact that, unlike those of his Baptist counterparts, his homilies were strictly limited to twenty minutes. Even had he been a gripping speaker, it would have been hard to pay attention. Some churches now have padded pews; we could only dream of such luxury. Our pews must have been designed by old-fashioned, pinch-penny Scottish Calvinists who scorned the comforts of the flesh, and who harbored the odd idea that parishioners could focus on eternal truths when their butts were killing them. I would fantasize about inventing inflatable dress pants that would allow you to pump up a built-in seat cushion. Another and worse distraction in the winter was that my feet would freeze. You had to wear dress shoes made of thin leather and dress socks that were about the thickness of two-ply toilet tissue. The church’s heating system warmed the air around your head adequately, but the floor was always like mid-winter in northern Greenland. I would look occasionally to see if my feet were actually encased in solid blocks of ice, which is what they felt like (“Stop fidgeting!” Mom would sharply whisper). Between a pew that clearly was designed to mortify the flesh and severely frostbitten feet I received little edification from Rev. Hanks’ messages.
Being geeky, I probably read the Bible a good deal more than most children do. Actually, while Rev. Hanks was going on about tithing or volunteering for church committees or something equally stimulating, I would sometimes look for the sex and violence in the Old Testament, and there is plenty of it there. Genesis alone had nudity, incest, “sodomy,” masturbation, adultery, and lots of patriarchs “knowing” their wives (and sweethearts) and “begetting” lots of offspring. There was also a great deal of smiting and punishing and cursing in the OT, as when the prophet Elisha curses the children who made fun of him (II Kings, Chapt. 2) and two she-bears come out of the woods and maul forty two of the children. The Old Testament God was clearly a pretty scary guy. I imagined him as a sort of celestial Dirty Harry, fixing a steely gaze on sinners, backsliders, and uppity heathen while intoning in basso profundo “Go ahead, punk. Make my day.”
This image was reinforced by the popular biblical movie epics of the time, like The Ten Commandments and Sampson and Delilah, which always had lots of scenes of God, or his human agents, dishing out judgment on intransigent pharaohs or arrogant Philistines. The scene from The Ten Commandments with the angel of death, manifested as a green smog, smiting the first born of the Egyptians was pretty eerie. I still like to see the scene from Sampson and Delilah where sweaty, oiled Victor Mature, playing the blinded and humiliated Sampson, is dragged into the temple of the idol Dagon for the amusement of the assembled horde of Philistines. He prays to have his strength restored by the Lord. The crowd laughs as he begins to push on one of the temple’s supporting pillars. The laughter suddenly dies when the pillar noticeably shifts a bit. Soon, in a scene of spectacular devastation, the whole temple collapses onto the shrieking Philistines. It was hard to escape the impression that, though they preached a God of love and forgiveness, people really liked a God who kicked keister.
On the whole, though, as a kid I experienced religion as a benign influence. It did not seem to be the highly divisive and polarizing force it is now. The religious precepts I was taught were about being a decent person, treating others with kindness and respect, being honest and truthful, and that sort of thing. Nobody ever told my parents how they should vote or beat a drum for political causes. There were no frothing indictments of those who disagreed with us, or fanatical insistence upon rigid points of doctrine. I even recall as a teenager participating in a church-sponsored program where we visited Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish places of worship and spoke to the priests or rabbi. The aim was to make us more aware and more tolerant of other traditions. Perhaps I went to an especially enlightened church, but I doubt it. I think that religion was just not something people tended to wear on their sleeves as they do now, and people were a lot less eager to foist their views off on you. There was a live-and-let-live ethos which I wish we could get back.
I’m going to make two objections to standard justifications of the correct answer to the Monty Hall problem. The conclusion to an unsound argument can still be true, so if I’m successful at showing that there is a problem with the reasoning supporting the accepted answer to the problem, this will not show that the accepted answer is false, just that the justification of the answer is faulty.
At a high level, the two objections are that the standard justification (1) begs the question, and (2) commits the fallacy of equivocation. I’m more confident of the first objection, but the second objection might well turn out to be the more interesting point. It is unclear to me, at this point, whether either objection will be successful.
It might be the case that the objections I raise point to unstated assumptions, and that the argument can be fixed simply by making explicit an unstated assumption. It has been pointed out by others that there are often various unstated assumptions in the presentation of the Monty Hall problem that are required to make the reasoning for the accepted conclusion deductively valid.
For example, one must assume that the placement of the car prior to the selection of a door by the contestant was done randomly, and that each door had an equal chance of having the car placed behind it. If, contrary to this assumption, the car was always placed behind door #1, then it would obviously be best for the contestant to always select door #1 and always stick to that initial selection.
Similarly, if the placement of the car was done in such a way that there was an 80% chance that it would be placed behind door #1, then always selecting door #1 and always sticking to door #1 would be the best policy for a contestant. Thus, in order to prove that switching is the best strategy, the assumption must be made that the placement of the car is done at random and that each of the three doors has an equal chance of having the car placed behind it.
One must also assume that there is no switching of the location of the car and goats after the initial placement of them prior to the game. One must assume that Monty Hall knows which door the car is behind. One must assume that the contestant does not have X-ray vision (like Superman) or infrared vision (to detect the body heat of the goats) or super-sensitive hearing (so that, as Jim Lippard pointed out, one could hear a goat behind one of the doors).
One must assume that Monty Hall will not lie to, or blatantly deceive, the contestant, for example by opening a door with a life-size picture of a goat that blocks the contestant’s view of the car behind the picture (although some misleading of the contestant is allowed). One must assume that God does not intervene and transform the car into a goat or vice versa. These very specific assumptions need not all be made explicit, because more general assumptions can cover a multitude of sins or, rather, preclude many odd ways of messing up the problem, so that the accepted answer will follow from the stated assumptions.
Let me start my first objection with a critique of the probability tree diagrams. The diagrams abbreviate a sequence of events. A more detailed sequence would look like this:
1. A car is placed behind one of the three doors, and a goat is placed behind each of the two other doors.
2. The contestant makes an initial selection of a door (in this case, door #1).
3. Monty Hall opens one of the other two doors, revealing a goat behind the door (in this case, door #3)
4. Monty Hall offers the contestant the option to switch to the other remaining door (in this case, to door #2).
5. The contestant makes a final selection of a door (in this case, choosing between door #1 and door #2).
6. The door chosen by the contestant in the final selection is opened, revealing whether the car is behind that door.
7. If the car is revealed to be behind the door chosen by the contestant in the final selection, the car is then given to the contestant.
There are thus, at least seven different events that occur in temporal sequence, and thus the entire event occupies at least seven different moments or points in time. Since each of the seven events requires a measurable period of time to occur, there are at least seven periods of time here.
There is no indication of the passage of time in the probability tree diagrams. However, with the passage of time, come the possibility of new information. Assuming that the contestant is a normal human being and is conscious during each of the seven events, the contestant is constantly having experiences during the seven events, and thus is constantly receiving new information throughout the duration of the seven events. As the information available to the contestant is constantly growing, the probabilities of various events are also changing, from the point of view of the contestant.
Most people recognize that at the time the contestant makes the initial selection of a door (in this case, selecting door #1) the probability that the car is behind that door is 1/3, and many (most?) people believe that the information received by the contestant after the initial selection changes the probability that the car is behind the door that was initially selected. This is, on the face of it, in keeping with the general principle that new information can affect the probability of an event (as with my example of the prediction that it will rain tomorrow).
This suggests to me that the probability tree diagrams are ambiguous, in that it is unclear at what point the probability of 1/3 is being assigned to the statement that “The car is behind door #1”. Was this probability assigned prior to the initial selection of door #1? immediately after the initial selection of door #1? or after Monty Hall has opened up door #3 to reveal a goat behind that door?
If the information the contestant gets from Monty Hall is irrelevant to the probability of the statement “The car is behind door #1”, then I suppose it does not matter which of the above three points in time is intended, since the probability would be the same whichever point in time is intended. But it seems to me to beg the question to simply assume that the information received by the contestant when Monty Hall opens door #3 is irrelevant to the probability of the statement “The car is behind door #1”. This is the point of disagreement between the many who are inclined to say that the probability of winning by sticking with door #1 changes from 1/3 to 1/2, and the few who insist that the probability of winning by sticking with door #1 starts out as 1/3 and remains 1/3 even after Monty Hall has revealed a goat behind door #3.
In other words, since the disagreement appears to be over whether the information received by the contestant when Monty Hall opens door #3 is relevant to, or has an impact on, the probability of the statement “The car is behind door #1″, it is incumbent upon a defender of the accepted answer to the Monty Hall problem to show that this information is irrelevant or has no impact on the probability of the statement ”
The car is behind door #1″.
Since the probability tree diagrams make no reference to the passing of time, and fail to distinguish between probability assessments made at different points in time during these events, I don’t see how the diagram can possibly address the main question at issue. I suppose a verbal explanation of the diagram could provide the missing temporal aspect of this problem, but such an explanation, I believe, would show the diagram to be ambiguous.
Now to address the verbal reasoning in support of the accepted answer. I thought I was going to object to the validity of the logic of the argument, but on a closer look, my objection seems to focus on a specific premise:
6. If the contestant sticks with the door that was initially selected, then the probability of the car being behind the finally selected door is equal to the probability of having initially selected the door with the car.
This premise appears to bridge the gap in time between the initial selection of a door by the contestant, and the final selection of the door by the contestant. What assumption warrants the bridging of this period of time? the idea that the probability remains stable through the period of time in question?
Is the assumption that the contestant receives no information during that period of time? That would be a bizarre assumption, and it would contradict any straightforward reading of the problem (since the contestant at the very least needs to hear Monty Hall offer the opportunity to switch to the remaining other door). Is the assumption that the new information received by the contestant–during the period of time between the initial selection and the final selection–is irrelevant to the probability of the statement “The car is behind door #1”? In that case, premise (6) begs the main question at issue.
It might well be the case that (6) is true, and I think I know how to defend the truth of (6), but as the argument stands, without further elaboration and justification, it appears to me to commit the fallacy of begging the question.
My recent exchange with Taner on ethical naturalism (EN) prompted a good bit of stimulating comment and criticism. I’ve been out of town for a couple of weeks and away from blogging, so I have not been able to reply to each comment as it arrived. Rather than attempt to do so now, I would like to address the issue that seems to me to be at the heart of much of the discussion: How do naturalists justify norms? The prima facie problem is this: Norms tell us what should be, not what is. Many philosophers accept Hume’s argument that a recitation of the facts, however detailed or nuanced, cannot entail an “ought.” Hume concluded that “ought” is something we bring into the discussion as a consequence of our feelings, our feelings of approbation or disapprobation as he often puts it.
Hume’s subjectivism is a form of moral antirealism. That is, for the subjectivist, moral judgments, though they take the form of factual assertions, cannot really assert facts. “Murder is wrong,” though superficially similar to “Fluorine is a halogen,” does not assert that an objective property, wrongness, somehow attaches to the act of murder. Rather, saying that murder is wrong is a roundabout way of expressing the collective sense of revulsion we feel towards heinous acts (I call Hume an “intersubjectivist” because he invokes the collective rather than individual sentiments). Moral realism, on the other hand, holds that judgments like “murder is wrong” or “abortion is wrong” are assertions capable of being true or false. Rightness and wrongness are objective properties (perhaps non-natural ones) of acts, volitions, intentions, or whatever is the subject of moral judgments.
EN is a form of moral realism. Ethical naturalists hold that true moral judgments express facts. The true judgment that an action is good expresses the fact that the act really does tend to promote objective value. Educating children, for example, is good because it tends to promote the objective value of human well being. What, then, constitutes value and what makes it objective? A value is the basis of a norm, and, concomitantly, a norm is a rule that admonishes us to perform acts that tend to promote the realization of what we value. For instance, the norm “always practice safe sex” tells us to practice behaviors that tend to promote the objective value of health. Ethical naturalists therefore justify norms by their actual tendency to promote objective value like health. For the ethical naturalist, a norm is simply information about how a value may be actualized. Norms are not distinct from facts. A normative assertion is a factual assertion: If you want to promote the realization of value V (e.g., health), then do X (e.g., practice safe sex). Thus, for EN, ethical imperatives are hypothetical, not categorical.
All of this would have horrified Kant, of course. For Kant a genuinely ethical imperative must be categorical. It must be binding on all rational creatures qua rational. A merely hypothetical imperative is not binding on someone who rejects the desideratum specified in the antecedent clause of the hypothetical imperative: “If you want x, then do y.” For instance, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man repudiates happiness, and prefers to be spiteful despite the fact that living spitefully deprives him of happiness. In this case, the norms that tell us to promote happiness would not apply to that person. He does not even value happiness for himself, so why should we expect him to desire happiness for others? For Kant, a genuinely ethical injunction cannot depend on our contingent desires (as, e.g., for happiness), but must be dictated by reason itself.
I think that most critics of EN find it unsatisfactory because, at bottom, like Kant, they want a categorical imperative, and EN can only provide hypothetical imperatives. Value for ethical naturalists can only be value for creatures of a certain organic constitution who, in virtue of that constitution, will find certain things valuable. Further, ethical naturalists think the Kantian idea that a substantial account of norms can be derived from pure practical reason is a fantasy. Indeed, speaking for myself, I find the whole idea of a categorical imperative, one binding on all rational creatures qua rational, to be extremely dubious. As Kant recognized, a norm based only upon what pure reason gives us has not got much to go on. Indeed, since it can have no contingent basis, it must be based only upon the pure abstract form of universal moral law. The result is the famous, and vacuous, injunction: Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law. But practically any scheme of deranged wickedness can be made consistent with this rule. Nazis, the Taliban, and the Khmer Rouge could all declare that their maxims (e.g., “repress all non-Aryans”) should be universal law.
“Pure reason” then can tell us precious little about which norms to adopt. A sufficient ground for norms will have to specify some substantial set of values, so we are back with the question of where values come from. For ethical naturalism values are empirical discoveries. We find that humans do in fact flourish when they live in certain ways and enjoy certain circumstances. What is valuable for human beings is therefore whatever is conducive to, or constitutive of, human flourishing. It follows that on EN values are objective. Humans flourish in certain conditions and not others. That is a fact. It is not a matter of choice, or, at least, not entirely. If someone says that they are happier letting their brain rot watching garbage TV (apologies for the redundancy), then that person is wrong, just as wrong as someone who says that a diet of Whoppers and Twinkies is as good for you as a balanced diet.
“But why should I care for human well-being, even my own?” demands the Underground Man. When someone asks a question like this, what is he really asking? Is he asking what makes human well-being valuable? As Aristotle points out at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, you can justify a good by showing that it is conducive to another good, and that good by showing that it leads to another, and so forth. However, when you come to the highest good—that good that lies at the end of chain of justifying goods—there is no further to go. If human well-being is found to be the summum bonum, then there can be no further or higher good to justify its goodness; we simply find it to be that which is valuable for its own sake and not for anything else. This will be the case for any summum bonum in any system of ethics.
What the Underground Man really seems to mean is this: What moral obligation do I have to value human happiness? Most moralists, Peter Singer, for instance, hold that we are morally obligated to care for the well being of others, for instance starving children in impoverished countries. Indeed, Singer holds that we are so strongly obligated that we should be willing to significantly simplify our own lifestyles so that we can devote more (if not most) of our income to Oxfam. Can EN support the judgment that we are morally obligated to care for the wretched of the earth, or can it only say that we do, in fact, care for them?
I’ll bite the bullet. If someone says honestly (and is not just being an asshole) that he does not care for human well-being—not even his own—then I do not see how EN can rationally engage that person and convince him to follow any norm. As I say, for EN norms are hypothetical imperatives; they have a tacit antecedent clause “If you value human well-being.” If someone honestly and consistently rejects that antecedent, then, as an ethical naturalist, I can offer no argument to persuade that person to follow ethical norms. I have no categorical imperative to impose on them. What I can do is to test the honesty and consistency of that person’s rejection of human well-being.
I am reminded of a story about a student in an introductory ethics class who turned in a brilliant paper defending ethical nihilism. The professor graded the essay and returned it to the student. The professor commented: “Brilliant paper. It is cogently argued, clearly written, effectively organized, and well-researched. One of the best undergraduate essays I have received. Grade: F.” The understandably chagrined student inquired about his grade and the professor merely shrugged and said “I just don’t like you and I was in a bad mood when I graded it.” Pretty soon, of course, the student realized what the professor was getting at: If you honestly reject morality, you have no grounds for complaint when you are treated unfairly. (According to the story the professor changed the grade to “A” when the student got the point). People who declare themselves indifferent to human well-being, even their own, could also be put to such tests.
In my experience, to get people to do the right thing, you do not convince them to have certain values, but remind them of what they do in fact value. One of the chief justifications of the study of the humanities is that great works of literature and art engage us in such a way that they make us confront our real values and to make decisions about what really is important in life. For instance, reading the Oresteia makes you confront what you really feel about vengeance. Aeschylus masterfully makes you feel Clytaemnestra’s obsessive hatred and rage, and the terrible satisfaction she feels when she gluts her (justifiable) outrage in hacking Agamemnon. Aeschylus shows that vindictiveness devours you from the inside like a parasite, until it consumes you entirely. You cannot read the Oresteia without having to confront your feelings, your true feelings, about vengeance. Great art and literature, by engaging our emotions at a very deep level, have the power to penetrate self-deception, pretension, and ideology to make us confront what really, fundamentally matters to us. Philosophical argument is a very weak tool, far inferior to literature, when it comes to reminding people of their true values.
Indeed, how would any system of ethics argue with the Underground Man? If you tell him that God wants him to care for himself and other people, he could just as easily reply that he does not care what God wants and why should he? If you respond that God will send him to hell if he does not do what God wants, you are merely threatening him, not engaging him in ethical debate. Ethical naturalists could threaten too, though we lack the sanction of eternal punishment. Really, if there are no categorical imperatives, all norms in any ethical system will be hypothetical imperatives, and can be rationally rejected with the rejection of the value named in the antecedent clause. The upshot is that EN seems to be no worse off when it comes to formulating and inculcating ethical norms than any other ethical system.