bookmark_borderVictor Stenger Died

Stenger was an early supporter of the Internet Infidels; we occasionally exchanged emails. Trained as a physicist, Stenger was also interested in the philosophy of religion. Many of his writings were at the intersection of physics (or, more broadly, science) and religion.
As I reflect upon my numerous interactions with him about responding to theistic arguments, it seems like we more often disagreed than we agreed. I, for one, was very critical of his debates with William Lane Craig. (See here.) In no particular order, here were some of our disagreements.
1. Big Bang cosmology and whether the universe came from “nothing.” Like other atheist scientists (such as Isaac Asimov, Peter Atkins, and Lawrence Krauss), Stenger defended the idea that the universe could (did?) come from “nothing.” For example, commenting on Krauss’s book, Stenger wrote:

The “nothing” that Krauss mainly talks about throughout the book is, in fact, precisely definable. It should perhaps be better termed as a “void,” which is what you get when you apply quantum theory to space-time itself. It’s about as nothing as nothing can be. This void can be described mathematically. It has an explicit wave function. This void is the quantum gravity equivalent of the quantum vacuum in quantum field theory.

As is/was the case with Asimov, Atkins, and Krauss, however, it turns out that what Stenger meant by “nothing” is actually something. By definition, it is philosophical nonsense to talk about absolute nothing ‘having’ anything (such as having energy, a wave function, etc.), as if “nothing” were an object capable of having properties (such as mass, location, etc.). In this sense, one might say that Stenger and company are/were literally talking past their theistic critics–they are/were both using the same word (“nothing”) but in totally different ways. Or, to put the point another way, what we have here is the “illusion of communication.”
2. The “Multiverse Objection” to Fine-Tuning Arguments. Is the multiverse hypothesis a good objection to cosmic fine-tuning arguments for God’s existence? Stenger argued “yes” whereas I argued “no.” (See Stenger’s books for his argument; see here for mine.)
3. The “Lack of Evidence Argument” (LEA) for God’s nonexistence. Stenger thought that this was a good argument, but I argued it was not, even if we assume that there is absolutely zero evidence for God’s existence. (See here.) Consider recent attempts to scientifically test whether prayer actually works. As Stenger correctly noted, recent scientific studies have failed to confirm the efficacy of prayer. Stenger argued that this result, by itself, is an example of the lack of evidence for God’s existence and so is evidence against God’s existence. Two points.
First, I agree that the lack of scientific confirmation of answered prayers is some evidence against God’s existence, but I don’t think it’s the “killer” argument Stenger (and some other atheists) make it out to be. (Why? See here.)
Second, Stenger understated the evidence about prayer and so made his case weaker as a result. While Stenger appealed to what we might call “negative” evidence (the lack of evidence for answered prayer), he ignored the “positive” evidence (evidence we do have which is less surprising  on naturalism than on theism). This positive evidence includes: (a) the fact so much in medical science is intelligible without any appeal to answered prayers or other forms of supernatural agency; and (b) the history of medicine contains no examples of answered prayers replacing a naturalistic explanation for healing. (a) and (b) are more probable on the assumption that naturalism is true than on the assumption that theism is true and so are evidence for the former and against the latter.
In spite of these (and other disagreements), however, I greatly respected him and am sad that he is gone. He will be missed.

bookmark_borderBiola’s / Talbot’s Doctrinal Statement

William Lane Craig teaches at Talbot Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) University. (Some readers may not know that Josh McDowell graduated from BIOLA or that Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict helped convert Craig to Christianity.)
Here is the doctrinal statement he, J.P. Moreland, and the other faculty must agree with:
Note their blunt description of eternal torture of non-Christians in the afterlife:

All those who persistently reject Jesus Christ in the present life shall be raised from the dead and throughout eternity exist in the state of conscious, unutterable, endless torment of anguish. (emphasis mine)


bookmark_borderDraper’s Reply to Welty

Philosopher Greg Welty wrote a brief response to Paul Draper’s brief summary of his position regarding God and the burden of proof. Here is Draper’s reply to Welty.

Greg Welty has written an interesting reply to my post on “God and the Burden of Proof”.  He does a very good job of explaining my argument (for which I am grateful), but then he gets into some trouble.  My reason for pointing this out is that it will, I think, help to clarify my argument.
Crucial to my argument is that theism is a specific version of supernaturalism and so is intrinsically less probable than supernaturalism.  Welty disagrees.  He says that “supernaturalism could be one among many ways to be a theist . . . . For instance, perhaps the only things that exist are (immaterial) perceivers and their ideas, and there is no matter, and God is the most important Perceiver of all. That would be a form of theism, but it wouldn’t be supernaturalism (as defined by Draper).”  On the contrary, idealist versions of theism are in fact forms of supernaturalism as I define that term.  I define “supernaturalism” as the view that the mental world existed prior to ANY physical world and caused ANY physical world to come into existence.”  On this definition, a supernaturalist could be a dualist about the mental and the physical.  But she could also be an idealist.  She could, for example, be an identity idealist like George Berkeley, who believed that physical objects exist but are just collections of ideas.  In other words, for identity idealists, the physical is a subtype of the mental.  A supernaturalist could also be an eliminative idealist, denying that physical objects even exist.  I allow for this by using the word “any” in front of “physical world” in my definition.  (Saying, for example, that “any trespassers will be shot” does not imply that there are any trespassers.)  Similarly, naturalism as I define it is compatible with dualism, identity physicalism, and eliminative physicalism.  So there is symmetry, contrary to what Welty thinks.  My definition of “theism” does say that God creates “the” physical world, so I assume that a theist is by definition not an eliminative idealist and does not think that God has for all eternity had a physical body.  My apologies to anyone who actually takes seriously those two options!
Welty’s second objection to my argument just changes my definition of atheism.  I admit my argument won’t work if you change my definitions!  By “atheism,” I just mean the denial of theism. Granted, this doesn’t fit perfectly with common usage, but it is one meaning of the term, and in any case that’s why I was careful to define my terms before stating my argument.
Welty’s third objection isn’t really developed but he’s in good company in making it.  Alvin Plantinga, for example, agrees with him.  Plantinga and Welty (and Locke and Leibniz) can’t imagine how the physical could produce the mental.  Yet somehow they can imagine the mental producing the physical.  I have a physicalist colleague who objected to my argument because he has the exact opposite intuition.  He can imagine the physical producing the mental (he sees or thinks he sees this happen in nature), but he can’t imagine how mere thinking could bring into existence a physical object (he never sees such magic happen in nature).  Of course, what we see happen in nature is irrelevant to the *intrinsic* probabilities of naturalism and supernaturalism.  If substance dualism is true, then I agree it’s hard to imagine how the mental could produce the physical or vice versa since (arguably) that seems to require bringing something into existence out of nothing.  If physicalism or idealism is true, then it’s easier to imagine either bringing about the other.  In either case, we have symmetry between naturalism and supernaturalism, which is all I need for my argument.

bookmark_borderCritical Thinking and Skepticism

In a recent post advocating the end of Philosophy of Religion, John Loftus commented that PoR classes are often taught with the primary goal of teaching students to think critically,  and he objected that “Teaching students to be critical thinkers is very important but teaching them to have a skeptical disposition is more important.”
I would argue, however, that (a) skepticism is good and rational only to the extent that it arises out of critical thinking and conforms to the principles and standards of critical thinking, and that (b) teaching students to be critical thinkers is the best way to promote rational skepticism.
I noticed that a book quoted by Loftus in the above post was co-authored by the leading skeptic Michael Shermer.  It would be worthwhile to consider what Shermer has to say about skepticism, and then to think about how his ideas about skepticism relate to critical thinking.
First of all, Shermer’s brief statement about skepticism on his website emphasizes critical thinking.  In the very first paragraph critical thinking is mentioned in the first sentence and in the last sentence:
THE SKEPTICS SOCIETY is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific and educational organization whose mission is to engage leading experts in investigating the paranormal, fringe science, pseudoscience, and extraordinary claims of all kinds, promote critical thinking, and serve as an educational tool for those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint. Our contributors—leading scientists, scholars, investigative journalists, historians, professors and teachers—are top experts in their fields. It is our hope that our efforts go a long way in promoting critical thinking and lifelong inquisitiveness in all individuals. [emphasis added]
Clearly Shermer sees a close connection between skepticism and critical thinking.
At the end of Shermer’s brief statement about skepticism, he makes the following comment:
The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.
Shermer does not endorse skepticism in general.  What he endorses is a particular form or kind of skepticism that he calls rational skepticism.  This kind of skepticism, like an aristotelian virtue, is the mean between the extremes of pure skepticism and credulity.
The above comment corresponds to similar ideas in Shermer’s longer essay  A Skeptical Manifesto.  Shermer quotes Carl Sagan and then makes a concluding comment:
Carl Sagan summed up this essential tension (in Basil, 1988, p. 366):
It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.
There is some hope that rational skepticism, and the vigorous application of the scientific method, can help us find this balance between pure skepticism and unmitigated credulity.
Note that Shermer distinguishes between “pure skepticism” and “rational skepticism”.  So, skepticism is not good in and of itself.  The sort of skepticism that is worthy of being promoted is rational skepticism or what is sometimes called healthy skepticism.
But what IS rational skepticism?  Given the close association of skepticism to critical thinking, an obvious answer to seriously consider here is that rational skepticism is skepticism that arises out of critical thinking and that conforms to the principles and standards of critical thinking.
It is all very well to say that one values healthy skepticism or rational skepticism, but one needs to spell out in some detail what the differences are between irrational skepticism and rational skepticism before this very general and abstract goal can be understood, pursued, and achieved.  The principles and standards and skills of critical thinking provide a useful framework and provide the details needed to flesh out this very general and lofty aim.
Shermer does give us some hints as to what he means by rational skepticism. One big hint is his theme of avoiding the extremes of gullibility and credulity on the one hand and closed-mindedness on the other.  So rational skepticism means:
– being open-minded, not closed-minded or dogmatic.
– being discriminating about believing claims, theories, and viewpoints, not gullible and credulous.
These are great ideas that we should promote whenever possible, but these ideas are still fairly abstract; to understand and actually put these aims into practice requires more details and specifics.  What better way to clarify and explain these ideas in terms of details and specifics than to teach the concepts, principles, standards, and skills of critical thinking?
Let’s start with the contrasting concepts of being open-minded as opposed to being closed-minded and dogmatic.  An important part of teaching critical thinking is teaching about these key concepts.  One does not successfully teach students to become critical thinkers unless one helps students to be open-minded and to avoid being closed-minded and dogmatic.  One does not successfully teach students to become critical thinkers unless one helps students to be discriminating about believing claims, theories, and viewpoints, and to avoid being gullible and credulous.
Three important intellectual standards of critical thinking are” breadth, completeness, and fairness.  All three of these standards relate to being open-minded.  Breadth is concerned with looking at a question from multiple points of view, when multiple points of view are relevant to the question at issue.  Issues often cut across disciplines, and when they do, it is best to look at the question from the point of view of different relevant disciplines.
Issues often involve different groups with different and potentially conflicting interests.  When dealing with such issues, a critical thinker will try to look a the issue from the points of view of the different groups involved.  Fairness comes into play in such issues, because it is unfair to simply ignore the rights, needs, and interests of some groups who are involved with an issue, while taking seriously the rights, needs, and interests of one or more other groups who are involved in that issue.
Any analysis or evaluation of a claim, theory, or point of view that ignores some relevant viewpoints is incomplete.  Thus the standard of completeness reinforces the standard of breadth.
Some of the intellectual virtues that are part of being a critical thinker are also related to being an open-minded thinker:

  • Intellectual Humility
  • Intellectual Integrity
  • Intellectual Empathy
  • Fairmindedness

One cause of closed-minded thinking is intellectual arrogance.  If a person views themselves as the fount of all truth and knowledge and wisdom, then they will probably not be very interested in listening to the thoughts and views of other people.
Another cause of closed-minded thinking is intellectual hypocrisy, which is often manifested in the frequent use of double-standards.  A high bar is set for the beliefs and views of people and groups with which one disagrees or whom one dislikes, while a much lower bar is set for the beliefs and views of people and groups with which one agrees or whom one likes.
Intellectual empathy involves a willingness to temporarily set aside one’s beliefs and assumptions in order to try to see the world from someone else’s point of view.
Clearly, if we help students to develop these important intellectual virtues, we are also helping those students to avoid dogmatism and closed-minded thinking.
What about being discriminating about what one believes? What about avoiding gullibility and credulity?  The intellectual standards of critical thinking all play a role here.  Let’s just consider a few key standards:

  • Clarity
  • Accuracy
  • Relevance
  • Logicalness

Advertisers and sales people often rely on vagueness and ambiguity to manipulate consumers.  So, the habit of demanding clarity, of looking for vagueness and ambiguity goes a long ways towards reducing one’s gullibility and credulity.  Accuracy is another standard that has similar impact.  False or inaccurate claims are often used to persuade and manipulate people.  So, the habit of checking the accuracy of claims goes a long ways towards reducing one’s gullibility and credulity.  Con artists and demagogues often play on people’s fears, anxieties, and prejudices.  But when they do, they usually say things that are irrelevant to the question at issue, or are making illogical arguments.  Thus, the demand for logically correct reasoning goes a long ways towards reducing one’s gullibility and credulity.
Gullibility and credulity can be viewed as thinking that involves a lack of discrimination.  Discrimination requires evaluation, and evaluation implies the use of standards, at least rational evaluation implies the use of standards.  What better standards to use for evaluating beliefs, theories, and viewpoints than the standards of critical thinking?
Another important aspect of critical thinking is analysis, breaking thinking down into its intellectual components:

  • Questions
  • Points of View
  • Purposes
  • Information
  • Assumptions
  • Concepts & Theories
  • Implications & Consequences
  • Interpretations & Inferences

In order to be discriminating about beliefs, theories, and viewpoints, one must be able to take a bit of thinking and break it down into its component parts, and understand the thinking in its broader context and setting.   We don’t just want clarity concerning claims.  We also want clarity concerning the questions at issue, and concerning relevant concepts, and we want clarity about assumptions, even if some important assumptions were left unstated.  We want clarity about the purpose or purposes for the thinking-what is the problem or goal that motivates the thinking?
The intellectual standards that are important to a critical thinker,  are put to best use when the thinker can skillfully apply the standards to the elements or components of thinking.  Analysis is actually essential to clarity.  In order to be clear when one is raising an objection to an argument, it is important to be able to distinguish between objections to the truth or accuracy of a premise on the one hand, and objections to the validity or cogency of the reasoning.  A good critical thinker will examine both the truth and clarity of the premises of an argument, and also the relevance of the premises to the conclusion, as well as the logicalness of the reasoning in the argument.
So, if one is interested in being a rational skeptic, then one will be interested in the following general purposes:
– being open-minded, not closed-minded or dogmatic.
– being discriminating about believing claims, theories, and viewpoints, not gullible and credulous.
These general purposes can be explicated and clarified in greater detail and in useful and practical ways by making use of basic aspects of critical thinking:

  • Intellectual Standards (e.g. clarity, accuracy, relevance)
  • Intellectual Components (e.g. information, concepts, assumptions)
  • Intellectual Virtues (e.g. intellectual humility and fair-mindedness)

Critical thinking thus provides a necessary intellectual framework and also much practical guidance that is useful for clarifying, specifying, and putting into action the general purposes of rational skepticism.

bookmark_borderThe Worst of C.S. Lewis

Victor Reppert posted this quote from Lewis on his Dangerous Idea blog:
From C. S. Lewis’s essay “Christian Apologetics, ” found in God in the Dock

“I have sometimes told my audience that the only two things really worth considering are Christianity and Hinduism. (Islam is only the greatest of the Christian heresies, Buddhism only the greatest of the Hindu heresies. Real Paganism is dead. All that was best in Judaism and Platonism survives in Christianity.) There isn’t really, for an adult mind, this infinite variety of religions to consider. We may [reverently] divide religions, as we do soups, into ‘thick’ and ‘clear’. By Thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of Thick religions. By Clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Ethical Church are Clear religions. Now if there is a true religion it must be both Thick and Clear: for the true God must have made both the child and the man, both the savage and the citizen, both the head and the belly. And the only two religions that fulfil this condition are Hinduism and Christianity. But Hinduism fulfils it imperfectly. The Clear religion of the Brahmin hermit in the jungle and the Thick religion of the neighbouring temple go on side by side. The Brahmin hermit doesn’t bother about the temple prostitution nor the worshipper in the temple about the hermit’s metaphysics. But Christianity really breaks down the middle wall of the partition. It takes a convert from central Africa and tells him to obey an enlightened universalist ethic: it takes a twentieth-century academic prig like me and tells me to go fasting to a Mystery, to drink the blood of the Lord. The savage convert has to be Clear: I have to be Thick. That is how one knows one has come to the real religion.”
I note that Dangerous Idea and other sites of intelligent Christian commentary often (still) take on the “new” (now not so new) atheists. Their complaints against the “Gnus” as Victor amusingly calls them, are various. However, among the themes are these: The new atheists make breathtaking, sweeping statements that blur distinctions, ignore nuance, gloss over technicalities, and, in general, bloviate broadly on the basis of unfair and, indeed, fatuous stereotypes. Now, such irresponsible propagandizing is surely censurable wherever it occurs. Right? After all, important issues need to be discussed carefully and with due attention to the complexities and subtleties that inevitably attend such matters. Right?
Well, not, apparently, if you are C.S. Lewis. In one paragraph, Lewis reduces the choice of religions to two, Christianity and Hinduism, and then neatly disposes of Hinduism. Wow! Such a feat must surely be either (a) the most brilliant piece of religious analysis ever written or (b) utter poop.  Rather than offer a dismissal even hastier that Lewis’s (although I think it would be much more justified in this case), I will just ask a few questions. Is it sensible to dismiss Islam as a Christian heresy? How would Lewis distinguish between a heresy and a distinct religious tradition?  What are his criteria? Likewise, was the Buddha just a Hindu heretic? Does that do justice to the teaching of the Buddha?  Does Christianity retain all that is best in Judaism? Does that mean that what is retained in Judaism but excluded from Christianity is just dross?  If so, then Christianity must be an improvement of Judaism, and not a Jewish heresy, while Islam is a Christian heresy, but not an improvement, right? Is Lewis right that there is a greater gap between sophisticated Hindu thought and ordinary Hindu practice and belief than there is between sophisticated Christian theology and ordinary Christian practice and belief?  Could the ordinary church-goer enlighten us about the double procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, or the importance of the distinction between homoousion and homoiousion? Isn’t it revealing that the title of the work from which this quote comes is God in the Dock?” After, all, isn’t this one of the many places where Lewis is playing the role of a lawyer and using whatever rhetorical flourishes, oversimplifications, and biased statements that will promote his case?

bookmark_borderTowards a Rational Paganism

Recent discussions here at SO have focused on the future of philosophy of religion (if any), and some have queried where the field might go if, to some extent, it moves away from its traditional theistic/Christian emphases. I have maintained that certain discussions have pretty much played out. By now we know the arguments for and against the existence of God, and all of their recent refinements and reiterations. These have been copiously discussed and their statements and rebuttals rehearsed repeatedly and competently. Neither side has gained a decisive advantage. As an atheist, I naturally feel that atheists have had the better of the debate. Theists obviously will feel otherwise. At the end of the day, though, John Hick’s conclusion seems warranted: The world is such that it may be rationally interpreted in either naturalistic or religious terms. Maybe it is time to let that issue lie and recognize that both theism and atheism are reasonable options that may be espoused by reasonable people.
If we are looking for new directions for philosophical reflections on religion, what are the possibilities? I propose one topic here. Perhaps philosophers of religion can find something more fruitful to do than to endlessly agonize over the credentials of theism. In fact, when we consider the whole history of the human race, theism (monotheism) is a fairly recent innovation. Polytheism and animism are vastly older. Of course, due to aggressive proselytizing (not to mention dungeon, fire, and sword), the various monotheisms successfully supplanted the older religions over much of the earth. However, this conquest was not completed in Europe until about a thousand years ago, and there are signs that the victory of God over the gods might be only temporary.
One possible direction for PoR is to investigate the implications of pre-Christian, indeed, pre-monotheistic forms of religiosity. Is a rational paganism or animism possible today? At a deeper level would be the investigation of the nature of the sacred—how it is to be understood and what are its implications? For instance: Does a naturalistic perspective imply that, literally, nothing is sacred?  Is the category of the numinous simply disposable? Can it be explained away, e.g., a by-product of human evolutionary history? How should the theistic religions respond to the fact that the numinous seems to be a category too broad, too deep, and too ancient to be contained within a monotheistic context? Have not the historical attempts to so restrict it been instances of religious imperialism? As Hick thinks, do the various religions represent different attempts to partially conceptualize an ineffable sacred reality? Must religious pluralism be recognized as the inescapable implication of an enlightened understanding of the vastly multifarious human attempts to approach the sacred?
In recent decades, both in this country and elsewhere, there has been a tremendous resurgence of interest in pre-Christian paganism. Now, let me say right away that, frankly, some of this stuff looks pretty flaky to me, not much different from the trance channeling or crystal healing of the New Age nonsense. I won’t say which parts look silly, since I see no need to give gratuitous offense to anyone. Any broad cultural movement is bound to have some asinine or offensive exemplars. Should any Christian be tempted to sneer at fatuous or disturbing forms of paganism, however, pagans have a cornucopia of tu quoque examples to gather from the 2000-year history of Christianity.
My purpose here is to outline the nature of a rational paganism, one that makes contact with ancient paganism, so far as it can be reconstructed, and tries to recapture the immediacy and accessibility of the sacred, but which places paganism within the context of modern science and modern ethical norms. I don’t anticipate going back to some of the institutions or practices of ancient pagans—serfdom and human sacrifice, for instance. Neither can I imagine going back to a literal belief in Thor with his hammer or one-eyed Odin with his spear. I certainly do not think that the stories of the Prose Edda are any sillier than some of the things literally believed by fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. However, a pagan fundamentalism is not desirable either.
First, a bit of history. I concentrate on the Scandinavian and Teutonic pagans of northern Europe for purely personal reasons. They are my ancestors. Among surnames, “Parsons” is about as English as you can get. The English, of course, are descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, who lived on the Baltic shores of Germany before invading Britain in the 5th Century. Over time, the Anglo-Saxons mixed with the indigenous Celts. The Danes invaded in the 9th Century, and, though checked by Alfred the Great, they were ceded nearly half of England—the Danelaw. In 1066 the Normans invaded, and, though they spoke French, their ancestry was Norse. So, the forebears of the English people were Celt, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian.
Before they were Christians, my ancestors were pagans. The Scandinavians and the Anglo-Saxons worshipped Tiu (Tyr), Woden (Odin), and Thor; some of our weekdays are still named after them. The Celts had their own pantheon, and their priests were the famous druids. We know something about the Germanic/Scandinavian and Celtic mythologies and cultic practices. There are Roman records, such as Tacitus, and the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas written down by Christians in the 13th Century. Also, we know of some pagan religious practices from the condemnations the Church made against them. For instance, we know that pagans worshipped at remote shrines on the hills or in the woods, and that they venerated natural objects such as stones, trees, and springs. As is well known, some of the pagan festivals were taken over and remade as Christian holidays. One of the most important still retains its name derived from the pagan goddess Eostre.
But what were the common beliefs and day-to-day religious practices of the pagan people of northern Europe?  That is hard to know in any detail, since pagan peoples were preliterate and since the Christian Church suppressed pagan belief and practice. To a large extent we must rely upon imaginative reconstruction when we ask about the customs and beliefs of preliterate peoples.
Surely, the religion of the northern pagans was in many ways similar to the beliefs and practices of the pagan Greeks as recorded in the Iliad. For Homer’s Greeks, the gods were accessible. Even the high Olympian deities often appeared to mortals and interacted with them in various ways, as when gray-eyed Athena appears to Achilles to admonish him not to kill Agamemnon. Achilles is not at all awed or particularly surprised by this theophany. Admittedly, as the son of a goddess he was more frequently in contact with deities than most, but, still, he reacts as if such encounters were nothing extraordinary. The more minor deities were as near as the rivers, woods, and mountains. You could hardly go through a day without at some point coming into the presence of a god or demigod. The divine was ubiquitous.
When the northern peoples were converted to Christianity, the gods had to give way to God. Instead of innumerable deities, there was only one, and this God was one of infinite majesty and infinite power. However, such attributes also made him infinitely distant from the mundane. By contrast, Thor was a good ol’ boy. With his red beard and big hammer, he, like his worshipers, liked nothing better than to administer a good butt-kicking and then sit down to an enormous feast washed down with tubs of beer. The Christian God, in his awesome, solitary splendor, was remote, distant, and far above earthly things. Of course, the Church, recognizing that the people still hankered for gods and goddesses that were near and approachable, made innumerable saints to mediate between God and humans. Indeed, some saints seem to have been syncretized with pagan deities.
There was one big catch, though. You could not approach the divine on your own. You had to do it through the Church, using Christian priests and Christian liturgy. No freelance worshipping. You had to worship in a church and in public, not hidden in the woods somewhere so that nobody could see what kinds of abominations you might be practicing. The Church held the Keys to the Kingdom and jealously guarded them. Particularly forbidden was any form of “idolatry,” such as worshipping natural objects or forces. For pagans, the divine is where you find it, and it can be found all around—in the voices of the wind, in the waxing and waning of the moon, in the mysteries of sex and childbirth, in the grandeur of mountains and the sea, and in the cycle of the seasons. The Church, however, strictly cautioned against the worship of the creation rather than the Creator.
So, for those of us for whom Christianity is no longer a live option, yet to whom it seems that an experience of the numinous is a vital human concern, can we revive something of the religious awareness of pre-Christian people? I suggest below some characteristics of a rational paganism:
1)  A modern-day paganism would have a pantheistic worldview. Pantheism regards the cosmos itself as the only object commensurate with our capacity for awe and wonder. The opening lines of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series perfectly capture this sense:
“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplation of the Cosmos stirs us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know that we approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
In the pantheist’s view, there is no more genuinely religious feeling than the awe that many notable scientists have expressed when they reflect on their subject matter. The sublimely beautiful peroration that ends Darwin’s Origin would be another expression of this experience:
“There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been breathed into a few forms or into one; and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Pantheism explicitly rejects any notion of the supernatural or the transcendent, and instead regards the sacred as natural and immanent. It repudiates the idea that there is a non-physical reality “behind” or “beyond” the universe. Stories about gods and goddesses might have rich symbolic and artistic value (see below), but they are not to be taken literally. Pantheists reject the idea of sacred supernatural persons and instead find the sacred in nature and in the experience of deep connections with other sentient beings. Proper worship for the pagan does not consist in bowing, kneeling, or prostrating oneself before an anthropomorphic super-person, or in making prayerful supplications to such putative beings.
The elevated sense of wonder and awe in contemplation of the night sky or the vastness of mountains, sea, or desert, or of the perfection of a single small creature, is, for the pagan, a far truer worship. Moments of true, deep connection with other sentient creatures, human or non-human, likewise bear a numinous quality and likewise evoke a response of awe and gratitude. Great art or music can elevate as much as nature. Speaking personally, I have found far more of the divine in the symphonies of Anton Bruckner than I ever did in innumerable Sunday mornings sitting in church pews.
William Wordsworth captured beautifully in “Tintern Abbey,” the “sense sublime” that pagans have experienced:
“And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.”
2) Pagans recognize the power, beauty, and indispensability of myth. The word “myth” is unfortunately denigrated these days. Often you see editorials or other polemical pieces that will castigate “myth” by putting it in opposition to “fact.” As I tell my classes, however, when the topic comes up, myths are stories that are true but not factual. That is, some stories can teach us deep truths even though they never really happened. The best literature rises to the status of myth. Huck Finn and Jim never rafted down the Mississippi, but the lesson of Twain’s masterpiece is deep: Huck, the archetypical, ignorant, “po’ white trash” southerner, the very kind of person identified as most virulently racist, comes to recognize that Jim’s humanity is equal to his own.
Actually, my tastes favor an artist despised by Twain: Richard Wagner. I consider Wagner’s four-opera sequence Der Ring des Nibelungen to be humanity’s single greatest artistic achievement. Period. What makes it so incomparably great is not only its musical genius, but Wagner’s brilliant synthesis of the Norse/Germanic mythology to convey a profound lesson about the nature of power and how powerless it can be when moral authority is squandered. Wotan stoops to treachery, deceit, and greed to win Valhalla for the gods, and so abjures his role as the protector of honesty and fair play. Once his moral authority is lost, not even Wotan, the most powerful being in the world, can make things right, and his complex schemes to correct things all collapse and the gods are doomed. Wagner, in short, drew upon great myth to create a great myth of his own.
Paganism recognizes that myth has a power to touch the deepest elements of the human psyche and to mold our awareness if deep truths in a way that no bland statement of fact or even logical argument can. To modify an insight of H.L. Mencken’s: A single great myth can be worth a thousand syllogisms. We need syllogisms, of course. Nothing can take the place of logical argument. Further, there are contexts in which carefully crafted logical arguments can be tremendously effective. Still, humans were story-tellers for ages before they discovered science or philosophy. Great myths tell us deep truths about who we are and how to live and what is right. Paganism celebrates the great myths and encourages people to discover and enjoy them.
Of course, the biggest danger with myth is that you might become so enamored of your myths that you start taking them literally. How do you enjoy myths but avoid the temptation to start taking them literally? Well, there really is not much danger that even a true Wagner-phile like me is going to start thinking that there really were Teutonic gods who stood around Valhalla singing splendidly to each other. Still, as the history of religion abundantly demonstrates, many people have taken their myths at face value. There is no easy or obvious solution here, but maybe you can keep reminding people of the bad things that happen when myths are taken literally. When people start taking their myths literally, persecution, or at least obscurantism, can’t be far down the road. Even polytheism, though it was historically far more tolerant than monotheism, can engage in persecution. Let’s not forget that Socrates was condemned by a polytheistic society on the contradictory charges of being an atheist and of introducing new gods.
3. Paganism sees humans as biological organisms, that is, as natural products of a natural universe, and not as having been planned, created, or intended any more than any other organic creature. Clearly, humans have capacities than no other animal has. Some humans can do integral calculus; some can understand The Critique of Pure Reason; some can compose in iambic pentameter. No nonhuman animal can do these things (and neither can most humans). Yet paganism accepts fully the conclusion of Darwin’s Descent of Man, that human capabilities developed by an evolutionary process from animal ones. Humans are in fact related, in the most literal sense, to all other living things. Humans are part of the biosphere, and so part of the cosmos. The cosmos is not something separate from us. We are a small but integral part of it, no more and no less than the quark, the jaguar, or the Milky Way.
It follows that pagans reject the idea of a non-physical spirit, mind, or soul. Souls are needed only if brains are not enough, just as God is needed only if nature is not enough. Paganism affirms the sufficiency of the physical.
The upshot of these affirmations is that being human grants one no special privilege to despoil, abuse, or waste any part of nature. Here are some points pagans will think it is wise to ponder:
In less than one human lifetime the earth’s human population has tripled to 7.1 billion.
By the middle of this century, the human population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion.
By mid-century the world will need 70% more food production.
Ocean acidification, a consequence of fossil fuel burning, dissolves calcifying plankton, which lie at the base of the ocean’s food chain.
While the human population explodes, about 25% of mammal species are endangered as well as 43% of amphibians, 29% of reptiles, and 14% of birds.
A third of the world’s fisheries are fished out or degraded.
40% of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed or degraded.
Are these trends sustainable? Indefinitely? Will science save us as it has so often in the past? The world’s food supply is now entirely dependent on scientific agricultural methods, chemical fertilizers, insecticides, etc. Can we count on continued innovation—GMOs maybe—to keep us fed? Will we be able to feed 10 billion? 20 billion?
Maybe, in fact, some of the above claims are alarmist and overstated, and things are not that dire. Wasn’t Paul Ehrlich’s pessimistic prophecy The Population Bomb proven wrong? But even taking the most optimistic view would seem to imply only that we can postpone the date that the Malthusian chickens will come home to roost. Someday—maybe in the lifetimes of some of those now living and maybe not—the earth will reach its carrying capacity. What then?
Of course, paganism offers no panaceas, but its emphasis on the fundamental connectedness of humans with other organisms and the broader cosmos implies that it is vitally important to ask how human goals and activities impact other organisms and the earth itself.
4) Paganism will be non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal, non-institutional, non-authoritarian, and non-evangelizing. There will be no pagan popes, bishops, ayatollahs, caliphs, or rabbis. It should hardly need saying that pagans will respect total equality of the sexes. Pagan leaders will not have the role of enforcing an orthodoxy or imposing authority of any kind. As with any coherent group, there will be a commonality of belief and perspective among pagans, and these will be reinforced by teaching and example. However, pagan belief will not be frozen into dogma or ossified into a creed. Pagans will not seek converts. Their attitude will be one of total tolerance towards any group or persons similarly willing to tolerate them.
Will pagans build churches and hold weekly meetings, while bored kids squirm, exasperated moms reproach, and anxious dads check their watches to see how long to kickoff time?  I hope not.
As I see it, pagans would form informal communities, like the early Christians. In general, the aim of pagan religiosity would be to return a sense of enchantment and delight in the experience of the natural world—as the romantic poets attempted, but without their antiscientific animus. Pagans would also restore a sense of sacred time and space—as many modern pagans have already attempted to do. Since prehistoric times the changing of the seasons have been celebrated: The summer solstice, the autumnal equinox, the winter solstice, and the vernal equinox. Also, certain places have been seen as particularly evocative of the divine. I recently saw the Angel Oak, near Charleston, SC.  Beats any church I have ever been in. Finally, the bonds that attach us to other sentient creatures, human and nonhuman, need to be celebrated and affirmed.
Lots more could be said on all these points, of course. But this is meant merely as an outline and an adumbration of principles and topics for further discussion. I imagine that evangelical Christians will see pagan religiosity as a thin gruel, an overly-refined, artificial consolation for tea-sipping secular intellectuals who can’t quite face up to the consequences of their atheism. To be perfectly honest, this is just how I viewed the liberal Christian religiosity of many of my professors at Candler School of Theology (Emory University) in the 1970s. They could not believe the old creeds, but they could not quite give them up either. Likewise, I think that hardheaded atheists will see the position I have sketched here as a mushy attempt both to have cake and to eat it. They will advocate being made of sterner stuff and rejecting dopey musings about “the sacred.” Embrace the void, they will say. Create your own meaning, since there is none “out there,” and don’t get all misty and Sagan-esque on us, going on poetically about the cosmos. Sheesh.
In response, I deny that there is anything the least bit softheaded about paganism. Hey, are you calling Ragnar Lothbrok a pansy? He’ll chop your gizzard out and feed it to his raven. No, I think that a rational paganism of the sort I outline here is a tough-minded response to what I regard as two facts: (1) The universe, of which we are a part, is a physical system that obeys physical laws and all causes are physical causes. (2) The numinous is a category universally recognized and respected across cultures and across time. It is not going away, and those who have encountered the numinous in some context regard it as deeply significant. Rational paganism is a way of accommodating both these truths in a way that does not diminish either one.

bookmark_borderTheistic and Atheistic Conversation Killers

Both theists and atheists can make statements which are “conversation killers.” Here are two recent examples from the Blogosphere.

On the atheistic side, James Lindsay recently wrote this.

On that basis, and others like it, it is very difficult to see the matter of theism as something to treat seriously as a philosophical object. We shouldn’t. It is a theological object, and theology is only “pseudo-philosophical,” as Carrier puts it, and pseudo-academic, as I outlined above. No one is required to take such a thing seriously or engage its “best” arguments, as if it has any, as if the real contenders haven’t already been dealt with thoroughly and repeatedly, and as if any argument stands up to the simple and straightforward question that’s been waiting for them all along: “Where’s the evidence?”

But because the idea that we should engage any position’s best case is generally true in philosophy proper, and all academic debate, it is an easy value to turn into a false virtue. The principle simply doesn’t apply here because theology is pseudo-academic, though. Misapplying it as a false virtue, a moral value defining a particular kind of thinker, I think, is exactly what apologists for the philosophy of religion are doing, and I think it constitutes a confusing and unproductive avenue in the conversation that should not continue.

Victor Reppert characterizes Lindsay’s position as, “I’m right; you’re an idiot; so let’s shut the discussion down” (see here). Elsewhere, Reppert asks, “What can you say to someone who wants to shut discussion down?” In response, Lindsay clarifies that this is a close but not perfectly summary of his position:

You are very nearly correct, Victor. It’s not, though, that I want to shut this discussion down (how Orwellian). I just want it to draw to its natural conclusion, if a decade (or century) or more late in getting there.

So Lindsay’s position might be better summarized as: “Theism is obviously stupid (false), so let’s stop having serious conversations about it.”

On the other side of philosophical “aisle,” a reader of Victor Reppert’s blog named Ilion wrote something very similar from the theistic side.

“What fellowship has darkness with light?”

*All* God-deniers are intellectually dishonest with respect to their God-denial. Thus, it is as logically impossible to have a “dialogue” with atheists about God, or “religion”, as it is to have one with you over any of the things you choose to be intellectually dishonest about, such as socialized medicine … for you *will not* acknowledge any of the unwlecome (to statists/leftists such as yourself) truths about it.

I have no idea why Ilion brings up socialized medicine in reference to me (or why he calls me a “statist” or “leftist”), since I’ve never written publicly about any of those things. In any case, the conversation killer is obvious. All atheists are “intellectually dishonest” with respect to their God-denial.
In case there was any doubt about whether Ilion intended to make such a sweeping generalization, he removed that doubt in a follow-up reply.

JJL: “So if Linday’s position can be summarized as “I’m right, you’re an idiot,” yours would be, “I’m right, you’re a liar.” Correct?
It has nothing to do with me, nor with whether I am right. It has to do with the fact that you (plural, collective, inclusive) are intellectually dishonest, which is worse than mere lying.

My position is: “You’re intellectually dishonest. Correct that, and then we’ll see whether you have anything worthwhile to say.”

JJL: “If that is truly your position, then I can’t think of why any atheist would want to dialogue with you.

I’m crushed: people who are worse than liars may not want to “dialogue” with me … because I insist upon dropping the intellectual dishonesty first.

bookmark_borderThe End of PoR – Part 2

John Loftus has begun laying out his views on PoR in greater detail on his website.  I’m going to comment on a few key points that he makes in a recent post:

What Exactly is My Proposal For Ending the Philosophy Of Religion Discipline in Secular Universities?

It will probably take me a few posts to cover a few points made by Loftus. First,  I will discuss some points by Loftus that relate PoR to critical thinking.
I have a special interest and background in critical thinking.
My first course as a philosophy major was in the summer of 1981 at Sonoma State University.   I received credits in philosophy for attending an International Conference on Critical Thinking, held on the campus of Sonoma State University under the leadership of Dr. Richard Paul, a philosophy professor at Sonoma State University, and a leading figure in the Critical Thinking movement. That was the first of a number of annual conferences on Critical Thinking that I would attend.  At Sonoma State University, I took an Introduction to Critical Thinking course from Dr. Richard Paul.  I did well in the course and became a teaching assistant to Dr. Richard Paul and helped him teach sections of Introduction to Critical Thinking.  Through Dr. Richard Paul I learned a good deal about the theory and practice of critical thinking, as well as about the relationship of Critical Thinking to education, again both in theory and in practice.
Thanks to Richard Paul, I also was able to meet several philosophers and educators who were involved in the critical thinking movement as well as in the informal logic movement.  I met one of the founders of the critical thinking movement, Dr. Glaser, a psychologist who formulated the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Test.  I also met two leaders of the informal logic movement: Ralph Johnson and Tony Blair (I would later go on to do graduate study in philosophy under Ralph and Tony at the University of Windsor in Canada).
I also have learned about critical thinking from: Michael Scriven (Primary PhilosophyReasoning), Gerald Nosich (Reasons and Arugments, Learning to Think Things Through), Howard Kahane (Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric), Vincent Ruggiero (Thinking Critically about Ethical Issues, Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking), Harvey Siegel (Educating Reason, Relativism Refuted), Robert Ennis, (“The Ennis-Weir Critical Thinking Essay Test” with Eric Weir, Critical Thinking, Prentice Hall), and Alec Fischer (a leader of the critical thinking movement in Britain: Critical Thinking: An Introduction, The Logic of Real Arguments).
At the University of Windsor I was a teaching assistant for a Critical Reasoning class that used the text by Ralph Johnson and Tony Blair (Logical Self-Defense).  As, a graduate philosophy student at UC Santa Barbara, I helped Dr. William Forgie teach large courses in Critical Thinking, and I was the official note taker for Dr. Francis Dauer’s course in Critical Thinking (Critical Thinking: An Introduction to Reasoning, Oxford Univ. Press).  I also taught an upper-division philosophy course on The Theory of Critical Thinking at UC Santa Barbara.
I have a long-standing interest and background in critical thinking and the relationship of critical thinking to education.
Some points about critical thinking and PoR by Loftus:
First, I am proposing that secular PoR professors stop teaching their classes according to “the received model” of teaching. The received model, the one I used in my college classes, is that as instructors the main goal is to help students learn to think critically. The class could be on ethics or philosophy or the philosophy of religion, but for the most part these classes are little more than extensions of an Introduction to Critical Thinking class. The subject matter is important, since there is specific factual content to teach the students for each class, like Aristotle’s view on ethics for an Ethics class, or Plato’s Forms for a Introduction to Philosophy class, and Anselm’s Ontological Argument for a Philosophy of Religion class. But the main goal is the same, to teach students to think critically, no matter what the subject matter is before them. [emphasis added] […] What’s wrong with the received model is that we end up with nothing more than a critical thinking class with the PoR as it’s subject matter. While it’s true that teaching in this manner may affect some attitudinal change in the students, if the goal is to teach critical thinking then do it in a critical thinking class.
I don’t see a problem with the “the received model” of teaching PoR, at least not with this aspect of the model.  Critical thinking is at the heart of both education and philosophy.  In my view the main goal of almost every college course should be to help students learn to think critically.  Certainly the main goal of every introductory philosophy course should be to help students learn to think critically,  and more specifically to help students to think critically about philosophical issues, to think critically within the discipline of philosophy.
If an instructor succeeds at getting students to (temporarily) remember some facts and terms related to philosophy of religion (What is a teleological argument? What is a cosmological argument? What philosophers or writers have put forward versions of teleological argument?  What philosophers or writers have put forward versions of a cosmological argument? How do the different versions of cosmological argument vary from each other?  What are some common objections to teleological arguments?  What are some common objections to cosmological arguments? etc.), yet fails to help the students to think critically about religion and religious beliefs and practices, and key issues in the philosophy of religion, then that teaching effort should be considered a failure.
Helping students to think critically about historical issues or about scientific issues or about health issues might not be central or essential to a PoR course, but helping students to think critically about religious and philosophical issues and philosophical issues about religion ought to be a central, if not the central, objective of a PoR class.  There might well be aspects of critical thinking that should receive greater attention and be explored in greater detail in a PoR class than in a standard critical thinking class, but teaching intellectual principles, theories, skills, tools, and methods should take priority over teaching specific content.
More points by Loftus on relationship between critical thinking and teaching PoR:  
My call to end the PoR stems from Dr. Peter Boghossian, who has challenged the “received model” in his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists: “We need to train educators not just to teach students how to think critically, but also how to nudge attitudes about faith on their downward spiral” (p. 177). Teaching students to be critical thinkers is very important but teaching them to have a skeptical disposition is more important. “Anyone can develop a critical thinking skill set,” he says, even people who are pretending to know things they don’t know (p. 220). [emphasis added]
It is a mistake to see the promotion of critical thinking as some sort of alternative to the promotion of a skeptical attitude.
First of all, one thing we do NOT want to promote is UNCRITICAL skepticism.  Skepticism has historically been used to support Christianity and the status quo.  When reason and rationality threaten the firm position of Christianity or of the ruling elite, one weapon is to cast doubt on the ability of humans to figure out what is true and what is false.  Skepticism is wielded as a weapon to cut down rational criticism and objections to religion and to self-serving rulers and regimes.
Some of the most irrational groups in our society are deeply skeptical.  There are White Supremacists who are skeptical about the holocaust.  There are creationists who are skeptical about science and the theory of evolution.  There are shit-for-brains right-wing commentators who are skeptical about global warming.  Skepticism is NOT the answer to the problem of human irrationality.  What we need is critical skepticism, skepticism that arises out of critical thinking and that is constrained by the standards and principles of critical thinking.
I identify myself as a skeptic.  I believe that my skepticism is largely a product of my cynicism.  I am a skeptic because I am a cynic.  What I mean by that is that I view the problem of human irrationality as a deep, serious, and widespread problem. The problem is not that there are a few foolish people around, a few nut jobs here and there.  The problem of human irrationality is huge and it infects and affects everyone.
Furthermore, there are dozens of different aspects of human irrationality, so there is unlikely to be a silver-bullet solution.  There are multiple psychological forces and tendencies built into our brains that prevent us from being fully rational.  There are multiple social forces and tendencies that prevent us from being fully rational.  There are the idiots and fools on AM radio.  There are the idiots and fools preaching from thousands of pulpits each Sunday.  There are the corporate dominated mass media that give us “Business” news, but no sections devoted to “Workers” or “Employees”, and that make a profit by skimping on actual investigations of actual problems and substituting government propaganda and celebrity gossip and photos of disasters for actual journalism.
I’m delighted that many teachers and professors have taken an interest in critical thinking, but the sad reality is that most teachers and professors who claim to value critical thinking cannot provide a clear explanation of what critical thinking is, nor do they have any clear and specific ideas about how to promote or measure improvement in the thinking of their students.  We all LOVE critical thinking, whatever the hell that means.
To be a big fan of critical thinking, one must be a cynic.  If human thinking is just fine as is, then critical thinking can be, at most, icing on the cake of human rationality.  But given a cynical view of human beings and human society, critical thinking is our one hope of salvation in a world filled with irrational people, who are constantly engaging in bad epistemic practices, habits, and tendencies.  I am a skeptic because I believe that human irrationality is a BIG PROBLEM not just in the world, but in the USA.  Not just in the South, but also the North.  Not just in the North, but in my state (Washington).  Not just in my state, but in my city and in my community, and in my family, and in me.  My skepticism and my appreciation for critical thinking both are grounded in my cynicism.
More importantly, promoting critical thinking is the best way to promote skepticism.  As I said before, we DON’T want to promote uncritical skepticism; there are already enough nut jobs around doing that on AM radio every day.  We want to promote critical skepticism, skepticism that arises out of critical thinking and that is constrained by the standards and principles of critical thinking.  But critical thinking does promote healthy skepticism.
First, a critical thinker demands reasons and evidence for claims, conclusions, theories, and points of view.  That is a basic aspect of critical thinking.  This is also part of what it means to have healthy skepticism.  A person who is a rational skeptic demands reasons and evidence for claims, conclusions, theories, and points of view.
From The Art of Asking Essential Questions by Richard Paul & Linda Elder (p.6) :
3. Questioning Information, Data, and Experience.  All thoughts presuppose an information base.  Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the background information (facts, data, experiences) that supports or informs it.  Questions that focus on information in thinking:

  • On what information are you basing that comment?
  • What experience convinced you of this? Could your experience be distorted?
  • How do we know this information is accurate?  How could we verify it?
  • Have we failed to consider any information or data we need to consider?
  • What are these data based on?  How were they developed?  Is our conclusion based on hard facts or soft data?

Second, when information is presented in support of a claim, theory, or point of view, a rational skeptic will often question or challenge the truth or accuracy of that information.  This is also an important aspect of critical thinking.  A critical thinker is aware of the possibility that false or inaccurate information is often presented as being fact, and a critical thinker will thus often question or challenge the truth or accuracy of information presented in support of a claim, theory, or point of view.
From Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life by Richard Paul & Linda Elder (p.69):
Some Key Questions to Ask
One of the most important skills in critical thinking is that of evaluating information.  The skill begins with the important recognition that information and fact, information  and verification, are not the same thing.  It requires also the important recognition that everything presented as fact or as true is not.  A third important recognition is that the prestige or setting in which information is asserted, as well as the prestige of the person or group asserting it,  are no guarantee of accuracy or reliability.   Consider the following, very helpful maxim: An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious–just dead wrong. =======================
Third, often when a person gives evidence or reasons in support of a claim, theory, or point of view, they do not explicitly state all of their relevant premises and assumptions.  So, a person who is a rational skeptic must be sensitive to this and actively seek to uncover and clarify unstated assumptions that constitute part of the argument or justification for a particular claim, theory, or point of view.  This is also an important aspect of critical thinking: the identification, clarification, and evaluation of assumptions.
From: The Art of Asking Essential Questions by Richard Paul & Linda Elder (p.6):
6. Questioning Assumptions.  All thought rests upon assumptions.  Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand what it takes for granted.  Questions that focus on assumptions in thinking include:

  • What exactly are you taking for granted here?
  • Why are you assuming that?  Shouldn’t we rather assume that…?
  • What assumptions underlie our point of view?  What alternative assumptions might we make?

Fourth, a critical thinker is willing and able to suspend judgement on an issue, to wait until all of the relevant facts, reasons, and arguments have been considered, analyzed, and evaluated.  If a judgment must be made prior to having all of the relevant information and reasoning, or prior to a full and careful examination of the evidence and arguments, then a critical thinker will form a belief only tentatively and will understand that such a belief is uncertain and only probably true to some degree and subject to re-evaluation as additional evidence and reasoning becomes available.  Similarly, a person who has a healthy sort of skepticism is willing and able to suspend judgment on a question at issue until all of the relevant facts and reasons are available and have been carefully considered and evaluated.
From Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life by Richard Paul & Linda Elder (p.411):
PREJUDICE  A judgment, belief, opinion, or point of view–favorable or unfavorable–formed before the facts are known, resistant to evidence and reason, or in disregard of facts that contradict it.  Self-announced prejudice is rare.  Prejudice almost always exists in obscured, rationalized, socially validated, functional forms.
From same book (p.90):
When we consider the issue at hand from every relevant viewpoint, we think in a broad way.  When multiple points of view are pertinent to the issue, yet we fail to give due consideration to those perspectives, we think myopically, or narrow-mindedly.  We do not try to enter alternative, or opposing, viewpoints.
Humans are frequently guilty of narrow-mindedness for many reasons: limited education, innate sociocentrism, natural selfishness, self-deception, and intellectual arrogance.  Points of view that significantly disagree with our own often threaten us. It’s much easier to ignore perspectives with which we disagree than to consider them, when we know at some level that to consider them would mean to be forced to reconsider our views.
In the same book, a quote from William Graham Sumner (p.396):
The critical habit of thought… Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators and are never deceived by dithyrambic oratory.  They are slow to believe.  They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other.  They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery.  Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens. (Folkways, 1906)
Fifth,  a critical thinker is aware of the seriousness and breadth of the problem of human irrationality, and is aware of the many problems and pitfalls that humans face, both psychologically and socially, in trying to be rational and reasonable and just.  There are many bad epistemic practices, habits, and tendencies among human beings, so a critical thinker is cautious and somewhat pessimistic about the rationality and quality of the thinking of others and also of his/her own thinking.  A person who has a healthy skepticism is also aware of the many obstacles and pitfalls and temptations that incline humans towards bias and distortion and irrationality in their thinking.  A person who has a healthy skepticism is aware of the real possibility, even the probability, that bias and irrationality may have infected a given bit of thinking by others or from his or her own head.
From Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life (p.415)
UNCRITICAL PERSON   One who has not developed intellectual skills; is naive, conforming, easily manipulated, dogmatic, easily confused, unclear, closed-minded, careless in word choice, inconsistent, unable to distinguish evidence from interpretation. 
Uncriticalness is a fundamental problem in human life, for when we are uncritical, we nevertheless think of ourselves as critical.
From same book (p.402):
HUMAN NATURE  …Our primary nature is spontaneous, egocentric, and strongly prone to the formation of irrational belief.  It is the basis for our instinctual thought.  People need no training to believe what we want to believe: what serves our immediate interests, what preserves our sense of personal comfort and righteousness, what minimizes our sense of inconsistency, and what presupposes our own correctness.  People need no special training to believe what those around us believe: what our parents and friends believe, what is taught to us by religious and school authorities, what is repeated often by the media, and what is commonly believed in the nation in which we grow up.

bookmark_borderOne Problem with Swinburne’s Case for God

In The Existence of God (2nd edition, hereafter: EOG), Richard Swinburne lays out a systematic cumulative case for the claim that it is more likely than not that God exists.
I have a specific objection to the third argument in this case, but I believe this objection throws a monkey wrench into the works, and creates a serious problem for the case as a whole.
To understand my objection, it is important to understand the general logical structure of Swinburne’s case for the existence of God. It is always natural and tempting to immediately focus in on the question of the truth of the premises of an argument for God, so in order to get a clear grasp on the logical structure of Swinburne’s case, it may be best to FIRST consider that structure apart from the specific content of the premises of the arguments in his case. The content of the premises will be important to make my objection, so we will get to the specific content at a later point.
One key idea in Swinburne’s logic is that we begin from a state of ignorance in which we are to imagine that we know ZERO empirical claims (both facts and theories). Swinburne thus controls the flow of empirical data, introducing one fact at a time, and arguing that in each case (with the exception of the problem of evil)  that the added fact increases the probability of the hypothesis that God exists.
The basic strategy is to (1) put forward an empirical fact, (2) show that the empirical fact is more likely to be the case if God were to exist than if there were no God, (3) conclude that the fact increases the probability of the hypothesis that God exists above the a priori probability that God exists (i.e. the probability based on ZERO empirical facts), then (4) introduce a second fact, (5) show that the second fact is more likely to be the case if God exists (and the first fact is the case) than if God does not exist (and the first fact is the case), (6) conclude that the second fact in conjunction with the first fact increases the probability that God exists above the probability based on the first fact by itself, (7) put forward a third fact, (8) show that the third fact is more likely to be the case if God exists (and the first two facts are the case) than if God does not exist (and the first two facts are the case), (9) conclude that the third fact in conjunction with the previous two facts increases the probability of the hypothesis that God exists above the probability based on just the previous two facts, and so on…slowly increasing the probability of God’s existence with each new fact.
Swinburne changes the strategy a bit when he gets to the argument from religious experience (in Chapter 13 of EOG), but the above pattern of reasoning is supposed to hold up until that point, and the above pattern of reasoning, filled in with the empirical facts that Swinburne has selected, is supposed to get us to the point where the probability of the existence of God is about .5 (meaning there is about a 50/50 chance that God exists).
Swinburne uses Bayes’ theorem to justify key inferences in his reasoning, so I will reformulate the above description of the logical structure of Swinburne’s case in terms of conditional probability statements.  Let’s use the letter e for evidence, plus a number to indicate which empirical claim we are talking about in the sequence of empirical claims introduced by Swinburne.  Thus, e1 represents the first empirical  claim in Swinburne’s case, and e2 the second empirical claim, and so on.
g: God exists.
k: [tautological background knowledge – analytic truths, truths of logic, math, and conceptual truths]
The probability of e1 being the case given that God exists is written this way:
P(e1|g & k) 
Here is how we represent the idea that the first factual claim is more likely to be the case if God exists (and we have only tautological truths as background knowledge) than if God does not exist (and we have only tautological truths as background knowledge):
P(e1|g & k) > P(e1|~g & k)
From this Swinburne makes use of Bayes’ theorem and infers that e1 provides evidence that increases the probability that God exists, over the a priori probability that God exists (the probability based on ZERO empirical facts):
P(g| e1 & k) > P(g| k)
Then Swinburne introduces a second factual claim e2. Again Swinburne argues that this factual claim is more likely to be the case if God exists than if God does not exist (now assuming e1 as part of our background knowledge, for after consideration of the first argument we are no longer completely ignorant of all empirical facts):
P(e2|g & e1 & k) > P(e2|~g & e1 & k)
From this Swinburne makes use of Bayes’ theorem and infers that the addition of this second empirical fact to the first empirical fact has again increased the probability of the existence of God, over what it was based on just the first fact by itself:
P(g| e2 & e1 & k) > P(g| e1 & k)
Then Swinburne introduces a third factual claim: e3. Again Swinburne argues that this factual claim is more likely to be the case if God exists than if God does not exist (now assuming both e1 and e2 as part of our background knowledge):
P(e3|g & e2 & e1 & k) > P(e3|~g & e2 & e1 & k)
From this Swinburne makes use of Bayes’ theorem and infers that the addition of this third empirical fact to the first empirical fact has yet again increased the probability of the existence of God, over what it was based on just the first two facts:
P(g| e3 & e2 & e1 & k) > P(g| e2 & e1 & k)
There are problems and objections that can be raised against each of the particular arguments that Swinburne uses to get up to the point where the probability of the existence of God supposedly reaches the halfway mark, but this post will focus on the third argument in the systematic cumulative case that Swinburne presents: The Teleological Argument from Spatial Order (hereafter: TASO).
TASO can be stated fairly briefly:
(e3) There is a complex physical universe that is governed by simple natural laws and the values of the constants of the laws and of the variables of the universe’s initial conditions make it probable that human bodies will evolve in that universe.
(g) God exists.
Remember, this is NOT a deductive proof for the existence of God.  (e3) is put forward NOT as a conclusive reason for (g), but merely as evidence for (g); (e3) is an empirical claim that is supposed to increase the probability of (g) relative to the probability of (g) based on just the two previous empirical claims:
(e1) There is a complex physical universe.
(e2) There is a complex physical universe that is governed by simple natural laws.
One problem is that it is not clear to me that (e3) is in fact true.  The fact that human bodies evolved once in this universe does NOT imply (by itself) that it was probable that human bodies would evolve in this universe.  I think a good deal of argumentation and evidence would be required to establish the truth of (e3).
Another more important problem with (e3) is one that Swinburne himself mentions and briefly discusses: “What reason would God have for taking an evolutionary route?” (EOG, p.188).  Swinburne goes on to talk about the beauty of the long cosmological “evolution” of the universe, and the beauty of plants and animals that resulted from the long history of biological evolution.  But this is all beside the point. God, being omnipotent and omniscient, could have brought about all of the beautiful plants and animals on earth including human beings in the blink of an eye.
God had no need to use the natural biological process of evolution, and no need to build such a process into the fabric of the universe.  The story in Genesis makes much more sense than evolution as the way that God would create animals and humans.  If there really was an omnipotent and omniscient person, then that person could have brought about all life on earth in an instant.  Most importantly, doing so would have bypassed hundreds of millions of years of animals suffering and dying from disease and parasites and predation and injury.  A huge amount of animal suffering was involved in the natural process of evolution, so a perfectly morally good person clearly would NOT have used evolution to produce human bodies when there was a much better solution ready at hand: create plants, animals, and humans instantly, as in the book of Genesis. So, it seems clear to me that contrary to Swinburne’s view, (e3) does not provide evidence in support of the existence of God, even assuming (e3) to be true.
But there is a deeper problem here than just the inductive inference from (e3) to (g).  What do we need to know in order to determine that (e3) is true?  I think we have to know, or have good reasons to believe, that the theory of evolution is true, and I think we have to know, or have good reasons to believe that the Big Bang theory of the universe is true.  What do we need to know in order to determine that the theory of evolution is true and that the Big Bang theory is true?  I think we need to know at least a little about: chemistry, biology, physics, paleontology, geology, cosmology, and astronomy.  We might not need to be experts in any of these scientific fields, but we need to have some grasp of some key facts, concepts, and theories in these areas of knowledge.
Furthermore, since the theory of evolution has been generally opposed by many Christian and Muslim religious believers, we need to have given some consideration to the problem of the apparent conflict between science and religion.  For example, if the Pope were to declare that evolution is a false theory, would that be a sufficient reason to reject this theory, even given all of the scientific evidence we have supports the theory?  What if the Bible clearly teaches that God created the world 6,000 years ago, is that sufficient reason to reject the theories and findings of geology and astronomy that indicate the age of the earth to be billions of years?  Unless one has done some thinking about science vs. religion, I don’t see how one can be fully justified in believing the theory of evolution. In sum, to have a justified belief in the theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory, one must have a bit of knowledge about the history and philosophy of science, in addition to knowing a good deal of scientific facts, concepts, and theories from several scientific disciplines.
OK.  Here is the big problem.  In order to know that (e3) is true, one must have a good deal of knowledge about science and about a number of important scientific disciplines, including a good deal of basic facts, concepts, and theories from a variety of scientific disciplines.  This means that the background knowledge that is in play in evaluating this third argument has grown exponentially.  A large portion of human knowledge has been pulled back into the picture, and Swinbure has completely lost control of the flow of data.  Because of the significant amount of empirical facts, concepts, and theories that are required to determine whether (e3) is true,  it is difficult to distinguish between such a sizable collection of information and knowledge and our normal everyday background knowledge.
One very important implication of this is that the problem of evil has itself been pulled back into the picture.  Knowing that the theory of evolution is true involves knowing that there has been hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering from disease, injury, parasites, and predation.  Swinburne’s strategy was to put off the problem of evil until after several empirical facts that favor the existence of God had been put forward one at a time, and the probability of the existence of God had been bumped upward several times.  But since the problem of evil has come rushing back in with just the third argument, it is no longer clear whether his logical strategy can work.  At any rate, the problem of evil cannot be dealt with after three or four more factual claims have been put forward in support of God’s existence.  The problem of evil must be faced as part of the consideration of the significance of (e3).

bookmark_borderPot, Meet Kettle

This is from Steve Hays on the Triablogue blog.  He writes:

In my experience, internet atheists typically act like lawyers. Lawyers only argue their side of the case. And they use whatever argument is convenient. …
It’s funny how utterly hidebound and anti-intellectual they are. That’s why they regard it as treasonous when a real philosopher like Thomas Nagel let’s [sic] down the cause by honestly considering the other side of the argument–even though that’s precisely what a philosopher is supposed to do. That’s called critical sympathy.

I realize people have difficulty seeing their own faults, but this is blindness on another level.