bookmark_borderJ.L. Schellenberg’s Wisdom to Doubt, Chapter One: The Subject Mode

This is the first in a planned series of blog posts reviewing J.L. Schellenberg’s important book, The Wisdom to Doubt.
The first chapter of Schellenberg’s book is valuable to anyone who wants to think clearly about unrecognized evidence, including the implications of unrecognized evidence for arguments from silence and cumulative case arguments. See why.
Continue reading “J.L. Schellenberg’s Wisdom to Doubt, Chapter One: The Subject Mode”

bookmark_borderLINK: My Guest Post at Randal Rauser’s Blog

UPDATED: Part 2 is now available.
Randal Rauser was kind enough to allow me to write a guest post for his blog. The post is about the consequences of skeptical theism and is going to be published in two parts. The first part is available now, the second will be available in a couple of days.
Here is Part 1
And Part 2
I know that he is frequently the recipient of this kind of praise, but it bears repeating: Randal is to be admired for seeking out and interacting with people who hold positions very different from his own. To be honest, though, he and I agree about a great deal. I told him once that I think that we agree about just about everything except the existence of God. We definitely agree about the value of carefully considering the arguments of those with whom we disagree and the need for civil and reason-based dialogue.

bookmark_borderChad Gross’s Review of my Debate with Frank Turek

Chad Gross at Truthbomb Apologetics has written a fair, open-minded review of my debate with Frank Turek:

“Lowder’s debate style is very similar to that of William Lane Craig. He begins with the contentions he intends to defend and then supports them with his arguments. This should be modeled by all those who desire to debate successfully…. It was obvious, especially in the case of Lowder, that the debaters were familiar with their opponent’s position and written work…. Lowder majored on content. It was evident that Lowder had over prepared for the debate and, as a consequence, was unable to cover all his material as he would have preferred…. This debate was pure mind food.” (boldface mine, I love that sentence)


bookmark_borderIf Jesus had been a Republican…

It seems like a good time to re-post and update this.
If Jesus had been a Republican…
He would have said:
“Render unto Caesar. And if thou catchest an illegal immigrant, render him also, yea, limb from limb.”
“Blessed are the rich, who are the ones who REALLY inherit the earth.”
“Love thy neighbor, unless he criticizeth thee. Then shouldst thou treat him scurrilously, yea, even unto mocking his disability.”
“Woe unto ye parasites who work in the public sector—ye instructors of children, ye dousers of conflagrations, and ye arresters of scofflaws—for thy unions shall be busted and thy pensions curtailed.”
“Suffer not the little children to have health insurance.”
“Blessed art thou if thou art in the womb, for the full power of the state shall protect thee.  But if thou be born, thou art on thy own, kid!”
“Blessed are the 50% who are the makers, but woe unto the other 50% that are takers, parasites, and useless eaters!”
When he fed the 5000 he would have charged two shekels for a fish and one for a loaf.
He would have told the lepers to depend upon the miracle of the free market to deliver them affordable health care.
He would have told the parable of the ten wise congressmen who supported subsidies to Big Oil, and the ten foolish congressmen who favored subsidies to wind and solar.
Feel free to add your own!

bookmark_borderScience and Religion: Four Models

I recently spoke at Christ the King Lutheran Church near the Rice University Campus. The topic was “Science and Religion.” This, of course, is a very big topic. How to deal with it in a single short presentation? I think the first thing to do is to some models for simplifying the multifarious complexities here. Also, by “religion” I will mean “monotheistic religion.” I offer the following four models:
1) Warfare: This is the view given classic expression by T.H. Huxley (paraphrasing): “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every new science like the serpents strangled by the infant Hercules.” In other words, science and religion, in the current jargon, are a “zero sum game,” with each advancing only at the expense of the other. Science and religion are simply incompatible. They make contradictory claims, so that you must accept one or the other, with no possible compromise or middle ground. For instance, religion says that the earth is young and that all species were created in the six days mentioned in the Book of Genesis. The facts of geology and evolutionary science, on the other hand, flatly contradict such claims, and provide overwhelming evidence for the scientific rather than the religious claims. It follows that religion can only play an obscurantist role, blocking scientific progress, and, therefore, all rational people will unceremoniously give religion the boot. Science wins, and religion goes into the “superstition” bin.
The warfare view was, and is, favored by those with a really big ax to grind against religion, such as some of the so-called “new” atheists. It has the appeal enjoyed by all simplistic reductions of complex issues. No need to fret over details, subtleties, or nuance. Science good; religion bad. Of course, the Warfare model is based on a stereotype that reduces religion to its narrowest, most dogmatic, and most fundamentalist expressions. As scholars have shown at length, even Darwin’s Origin was received by religious thinkers with reactions ranging from horrified condemnation to enthusiastic acceptance. Darwin’s strongest supporter in the U.S. was Asa Gray, Professor of Botany at Harvard, and a Christian of the Congregationalist denomination. Yes, there are regions of the U.S. where hard-core fundamentalists are so loud and aggressive that one might be excused for mistaking these views for the views of religious people in general. However, in an age of extreme polarization, it is essential for rational people to resist the urge to judge any group by its worst representatives.
2) Cooperation. This is the view opposite to the Warfare model. It sees religion as supporting science and science as supporting religion. In the jargon, the relation is win-win, not a zero-sum game. On this view, religion has historically supported science by offering assurance that the universe is rationally designed and thus is amenable to inquiry by the human mind. A rational God will create a rational world, one that operates in accordance with knowable laws, and he will also design the human mind to have the capacity to understand the order of nature. Proponents of this view argue that it is no accident that modern science arose in Christian Europe, but, rather, modern science was a legacy of Christian rationalism.
Science, in turn, supposedly helps religion by revealing natural facts that are highly suggestive of divine creation or intelligent design. To consider just one instance, physics discloses that the values of fundamental natural constants, like the gravitational constant, are so “finely-tuned” that even a tiny alteration of these values would make impossible the existence of a complex universe of the sort that can support intelligent life. Since we know of no reason why the constants had to have these values, or any within the narrow range of values that would be “life-friendly,” we may infer as the most probable explanation that these values were intentionally chosen by a being, like the theistic God, who wanted a complex universe capable of supporting intelligent life.
The Cooperation Model faces at least as many problems as the Warfare Model. Was religion, Christianity in this case, the inspiration for the European beginnings of modern science? Theoretical science and mathematics (much of it quite sophisticated) began in pagan Greece centuries before Christianity. Science and technology were more advanced in China than in Europe until the seventeenth century. Should paganism and Confucianism be given the credit? Christianity was certainly not a sufficient cause of modern science, since Christianity had flourished both in the European West and in the Byzantine East since the fourth century without producing a scientific revolution in either locale. Neither was Christianity a necessary condition for modern science since there is no feature of early modern science, not even the experimental method, that was not anticipated by ancient scientists.* Correlation is not causation, and the fact that modern science began in Christian Europe is not per se evidence that modern science is in any significant sense a product of Christianity. Further, early modern religion was rife with superstition. The Churches, both Protestant and Catholic, were obsessed with demonology and witchcraft. Many Protestant sects were millenarian if not Messianic. Prima facie, such a milieu contained at least as many elements hostile to the rise of scientific rationality as conducive to it.
*Historians of science have thoroughly debunked the idea that experimental methods were not used by ancient scientists. See, for instance, David C. Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science, 2nd Edition, pp. 362-364. The few examples given by Lindberg could be augmented at length.
As for those religious apologists who seek evidence for God in science, if you look closely at their arguments, you see that their premises are never strictly scientific, but, rather, they must always appeal to tendentious or dubious assumptions and intuitions. For instance, proponents of “fine tuning” arguments must assume that ultimate brute facts can be objectively probable or improbable in some meaningful sense. They must assume, for instance, that the value of the charge of the electron must be extremely improbable if this is an ultimate brute fact, i.e. a fact that cannot be subsumed under any more basic theory or explained by more basic facts. The reason they give is that we can imagine seemingly infinitely many other values that this constant could have had, so there is a vanishingly small probability that it would have precisely the value it does have, unless something (or someone!) gave it that value. However, if we reason this way, then all ultimate, brute posits must have the same probability, namely, one over infinity or zero. This is because for any ultimate contingent (i.e. not logically necessary) fact, it will always be possible to imagine an infinite number of other possible states of affairs that could have existed instead, and the quantity of one (or any finite number) over infinity equals zero.* It does not matter whether this putative ultimate fact is an electron with a specific charge or a specific cosmic fine-tuner (e.g. the Christian God). Each will be one out of infinitely many possibilities, and so each will have the same probability, i.e. zero. If the electron needs a fine-tuner, so does the fine-tuner.
*Note that when the possibilities are infinite, then a zero probability for one of those possibilities does not mean that it is impossible.
3) No Overlap. In his book Rock of Ages, Stephen Jay Gould argued that science and religion should be viewed, in his wording, as “nonoverlapping magisteria, a rather clumsy phrase for a simple idea. The idea is that science and religion, rightly conceived cannot conflict, because each is sovereign in its own sphere, and those spheres do not overlap. On Gould’s theory, science deals with the realm of fact, those objective states of affairs that can be verified by scientific methods. The age, size, and constitution of the universe, for instance, fall within the purview of science. True, religious texts have made claims about such matters, but, according to Gould, when it does so it steps out of its true and proper sphere and intrudes into that of science. The proper realm of religion is the realm not of fact but of value.
Gould holds, as did the philosopher David Hume, that you cannot infer values from facts; from what is we cannot make any determination of what ought to be. Religion, therefore, has value as its proper study. The job of religion is to tell us what matters, that is, what our values should be. Religion tells us what is meaningful and good. Science cannot inform us of such things. For instance, we know that nature is often ruthless. Stronger chicks will often push their weaker siblings out of the nest so that they alone can enjoy their parents’ attention. However, we cannot infer from such natural facts that we should be ruthless. Those, like the Social Darwinists of the nineteenth century who tried to elevate the Darwinian struggle for existence to a moral system, were abusers of science who appropriated scientific findings for ideological ends. So long as science and religion both respect their boundaries and play only their proper roles, no conflict can occur.
But on whose authority do we say that religion cannot concern itself with fact? Indeed, Christianity seems to require certain historical claims, most notably that Jesus of Nazareth bodily rose from the dead. As Paul pointedly puts it (I Corinthians, 15:17), “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile….” The Apostle’s Creed, for instance, makes a number of ostensibly factual claims, e.g. that God the Father is the “Maker of heaven and earth.” That God is the Creator of all things is held even by those who do not espouse the literal six-day creation of the young-earth creationists. Should we take the doctrine of divine creation as merely metaphorical, as symbolic language with the purpose of encouraging an attitude of reverent appreciation of the natural world? We are to see nature as if created by a benevolent being? One would hardly need to be a fundamentalist to see such a suggestion as a negation of theistic belief rather than an explication of it. Theism regards God as a person, capable of acting, and, indeed, as the creator and sustainer of all that is. If God is only a metaphor for, e.g., the sacredness of the world, then what we really have is a form of pantheism, which may be fine, but will be difficult to identify with anything resembling the historical forms of theism.
Further, who is to say that science can say nothing about value? On the contrary, the theory and practice of medical science is based on the idea that there are natural states of health or well-being that are intrinsically valuable, and that disease is bad because it disrupts such states. In fact, Aristotle’s account of eudaimonia, human flourishing, is, in its basics, just as valid today as 2300 years ago. Human flourishing consists of mental and physical health, a modicum of prosperity, and success both as a rational agent and as a social being. Such a state is intrinsically valuable and desirable, that is, it is intrinsically worthy of being valued and desired by us. But surely, someone might object, such a state of flourishing is a non-moral good. What about specific moral goods such as kindness, justice, and generosity? An ethical naturalist could say that moral value supervenes on non-moral value.  That is, an act has moral value only insofar as it promotes non-moral values such as flourishing or some aspect of flourishing. Generosity, for instance, is morally good, because generous persons devote their time and resources to making their communities better in some ways. On such a naturalistic view, then, it will be an objective fact that some acts promote non-moral goods and some do not. Therefore, we can have empirical criteria for moral acts.
For these reasons, the No Overlap Model seems no better than the Warfare or Cooperation Models.
4) Uneasy Coexistence: My view of the relation between science and religion is that they exist, and must exist, that is, in a state of uneasy truce that one side or the other will sometimes violate. Science and religion must coexist since neither is going away anytime soon. Zealous atheists who want to drive the last nail into the coffin of Christianity (I used to be one of those) are simply talking moonshine. When confronted with particularly egregious examples of Christian obscurantism (e.g. creationism) or an especially blatant instance of Christian hypocrisy (e.g. protecting pedophile priests) one may be excused for groaning, as I have, “Two thousand years of Christianity are enough!” Well, maybe, but it ain’t happening. Christianity will continue to bury its undertakers for the foreseeable future.
Science is actually the more fragile of the two. They say that we live in a scientific age, but the vast majority of people know little about the facts of science and less about its methods. Many of my students—college students—get glazed eyes when I start to talk about anything too “sciency,” and if I put an equation on the board, some begin to experience heart palpitations. Since science is a black box to most people, it is easy for crackpots, ideologues, and special pleaders to coat their subterfuge with a patina of scientific-sounding jargon, skewed statistics, and fake facts, and fool the majority into thinking that self-serving junk is science. Big tobacco pioneered this technique back in the Fifties. When science increasingly indicates that your product is gruesomely killing hundreds of thousands of your customers, yet that very product is bringing you wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, what do you do? You attack the science. You find some bitter and unsuccessful scientists and pay them big bucks to conduct “research” that exonerates your product. Most people cannot tell the difference between self-serving junk science and the real thing. Add that the purveyors of junk science pour huge amounts into politicians’ campaign coffers, and real science has an uphill battle.
Under the influence of anti-science ideologies (e.g. postmodernism, radical feminism, “intelligent design” creationism) and/or big money interests (e.g., Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Coal), science has been attacked in recent decades, and now certainly has less prestige in American society than it had, say, fifty years ago. Are we heading for a new Dark Age? I think not. Science will stick around, if only because it gives us so many goodies (i-Phones, etc.). So, if we are to have a future with both science and religion, how will they get along? Will they get along?
Mainstream religion has already made major concessions. Recent popes have emphasized that evolutionary theory is not at odds with Catholicism. Likewise, most Protestant denominations have no problem with evolutionary theory or big bang cosmology. Further, most theologians now realize the folly of “God of the gaps” apologetics, and no longer try to locate God’s activity in the in the domains not (yet) explained by science. As science progresses and gaps are closed, gap-apologists must beat a hasty and undignified retreat. Scientifically sophisticated believers such as John Polkinghorne have made their peace with science. Many millions of believers have not, however, and in places like Pakistan and Texas, where extreme forms of belief predominate, there will be continued obscurantist activism.
Even mainstream religion may find that advances in some fields of science threaten core beliefs. For instance, neuroscience, one of the most important and rapidly progressing sciences, operates on the regulative assumption that who we are and what we are, the very essence of our “selves,” is a product of brain function. Cartesian souls are still defended by some philosophers, but they have no place in scientific theory. Can religion, even mainstream religion, be easy with the idea that there is no soul or spiritual element of the human person and that every thought and feeling, and even our spiritual urgings, are products of the brain? This may be a pill even harder to swallow than evolution, since it is one thing to say that the human body evolved, and something else to say that the mind is a physical function, like digestion, and that humans contain no spiritual essence.
In the end, with neuroscience as with evolution, religion will have the choice: bite the bullet or become obscurantist. When science and religion conflict, science always wins, but the saving grace is that when science wins, religion need not lose. It will lose if it takes the obscurantist path, but the fact is that religion can progress also. As noted above, four centuries ago even the most mainstream religious bodies were obsessed with demonology and witchcraft. Can anyone doubt that it was the progress of scientific rationality that led even the most religious people to see witch-burning as superstitious folly? Can anyone doubt that religion was greatly improved by casting off its morbid obsession with demons and witches? Maybe, then, this is the key to a healthy relationship between science and religion. Perhaps science can be seen not as a potential enemy but as a gift of God, a gift that challenges religion and calls it to grow and expand. Religion, left to itself, tends to ossify. Maybe it needs a deep challenge every now and then to keep it honest, vibrant, and relevant.
What should the role of science be with respect to religion? Most scientists have no interest in either promoting or debunking religion. Some do, of course, and there is no reason why a scientist cannot take an interest in religion, either supportive or in opposition, the same as anybody else. There is no reason why a scientist should not step out of the lab and enter the arena as a public intellectual. It only becomes a problem if scientists compromise their science in the interest of apologetics or anti-apologetics. This has happened; scientists, being human, can succumb to ax-grinding agendas. In general, I think that the attitude of scientists towards religion, or any doctrinal or ideological scheme, should be the one epitomized by the slogan on my favorite T-shirt: “Science does not care what you believe.” Science has its own agenda and no responsibility whatsoever to either promote or debunk any other agenda. That is what makes science truly threatening to ideologues—not that science opposes their doctrinal infatuations, but that science just does not care.
Yes, science can have a corrosive effect on ideologies. Philosopher Daniel Dennett famously called Darwinism “universal acid” because it can threaten many dogmas, whether they are found in the First Baptist Church or the Harvard Faculty Club. Yet, despite the fulminations of anti-Darwinians, evolutionary theory was not designed to follow any goal other than that of explaining the diversity of life on Earth. And understanding the physical universe is the role, the only role, of science. The proper attitude of the scientist, qua scientist, towards religion should therefore be neglect—neither benign neglect nor malign neglect. Just neglect.

bookmark_borderUnapologetic Review – Part 10: Evaluation of Reason #9

In Part 9 of this series, I asserted that  the main argument in  Unapologetic is Reason #9, and I argued that Reason #9 invoved the following assumptions:

5. ANY claim that is based on faith cannot be reasonably defended.

6. Philosophers ought NOT recognize and participate in an alleged sub-discipline of philosophy that uses reason to examine ONLY claims that are based on faith.

Premise (5) is a reason in support of premise (6), and premise (6) is a reason in support of premise (1d) in the main argument.
Main Argument – Revision 5:

1d..IF philosophy of religion is using reason to examine ONLY the claims of religion and ALL of the claims of ALL religions are based on faith, THEN philosophers ought NOT recognize and participate in the philosophy of religion (as an alleged sub-discipline of philosophy).

2a. Philosophy of religion is using reason to examine ONLY the claims of religion.

3b. ALL of the claims of ALL religions are based on faith.


4a. Philosophers ought NOT recognize and participate in the philosophy of religion (as an alleged sub-discipline of philosophy).

 Premises (1d), (2a), and (3b) work together to form a valid deductive argument for the conclusion (4a).
Here is an argument diagram showing the logic of the main argument in Unapologetic with the conclusion of the argument at the top, and the supporting premises beneath the conclusion (for a clearer view of the diagram, click on the image below):
Reason #9 - Later Analysis
The argument constituting Reason #9 is UNSOUND, because each of the three premises of the argument is FALSE.
The second premise of the main argument in Unapologetic is this:
2a. Philosophy of religion is using reason to examine ONLY the claims of religion.
It is true that much of what philosophy of religion is concerned with is evaluating the truth (or probability or reasonableness) of “the claims of religion”.  However, it is NOT true that these are the ONLY issues about which philosophy of religion is concerned.
Philosophy of religion is also concerned with “theories of religion” which are often secular or naturalistic in nature.  Karl Marx asserted that “religion is the opium of the people”, and Sigmund Freud asserted that religion was the result of wishful thinking in response to fears about natural forces and death.  Evaluations of such general claims and theories about religion are part of the work of philosophy of religion, but these two secular theories about religion are obviously NOT “the claims of religion”.
Philosophy of religion is also concerned with evaluating views and claims that are opposed to religion and religious beliefs:

  • agnosticism
  • atheism
  • naturalism
  • religious skepticism
  • secular humanism

In examining and evaluating these non-religious or anti-religious ideas, philosophy of religion is NOT directly concerned with evaluating “the claims of religion”.
Also, philosophy of religion is concerned with the clarification of religious concepts:

  • What does the sentence “God exists” mean?
  • What does the word “faith” mean?
  • What does the word “miracle” mean?
  • What does the word “religion” mean?
  • What does the phrase “necessary being” mean?

These words and phrases are related to “the claims of religion”, because in order to understand some of “the claims of religion”, we need to understand the meanings of these words and phrases.  However, analyzing the meaning of a word or phrase related to a claim made by a religion is NOT the same thing as evaluating the truth of “the claims of religion”.
Thus, premise (2a) of the main argument constituting Reason #9 is FALSE, and therefore the main argument in Unapologetic is UNSOUND.
The third premise of the main argument in Unapologetic is this:
3b. ALL of the claims of ALL religions are based on faith.
It is true that many of the claims of many religions are accepted by many people “based on faith”.  However, it is NOT true that ALL of the claims of ALL religions are accepted “based on faith”.
There is some unclarity in the concept “based on faith” that needs to be dealt with now.  Being “based on faith” is not an intrinsic or objective property of claims.   Claim X can be accepted by person A “based on faith” while at the same time claim X is accepted by person B based on reason, based on facts and evidence.  Thus, a claim being “based on faith” is RELATIVE TO specific persons (or to specific groups of people), and claims are not in-and-of-themselves “based on faith”.  Even if every human being who has ever lived accepted claim X “based on faith”, it would still be possible that in the future, one human being will one day come to accept claim X based on reasons and evidence.
Some of “the claims of religion” are historical claims.  Christianity claims that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem in the first century.  This is an historical claim.  Perhaps it is the case that most Christians accept this claim “based on faith”.  However, because this is an historical claim, it is very likely that some Christians believe this claim on the basis of reasons and historical evidence.  In any case, because this is an historical claim, it is a claim that can be evaluated using reason.  The fact that many or most Christians accept this claim “based on faith” does NOT imply that the claim cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by reasons and evidence.
Some of the claims of religion are scientific claims.  Christianity claims that all human beings descended from a single pair of humans.  This is a scientific claim, so even if most Christians accept this claim “based on faith”, it is quite possible that some Christians believe this claim on the basis of reasons and evidence.  In any case, because this is a scientific claim, it is a claim that can be evaluated using reason.  The fact that many or most Christians accept this claim “based on faith” does NOT imply that the claim cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by reasons and evidence.
Some of the claims of religion are ethical or moral claims.  Christianity claims that one ought to treat others in the way that one wishes to be treated.  This is a moral claim or principle, and moral principles can be evaluated on the basis of reason, which is what philosophers do in the sub-discipline of ethics.  So, even if most Christians accept this moral principle “based on faith”, it is quite possible that some Christians believe this moral principle on the basis of reasons and evidence.  In any case, because this is an ethical or moral claim, it is a claim that can be evaluated using reason.  The fact that many or most Christians accept this claim “based on faith” does NOT imply that the claim cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by reasons and evidence.
Some of the claims of religion are metaphysical claims.   Christianity claims that “God exists”.  This is a metaphysical claim, so even if most Christians accept this claim “based on faith”, it is quite possible that some Christians believe this claim on the basis of reasons and evidence.  In any case, because this is a metaphysical claim, it is a claim that can be evaluated using reason.  There is a sub-discipline of philosophy that is focused on evaluation of such claims; it is called  “metaphysics”.  The fact that many or most Christians accept the claim that “God exists” “based on faith” does NOT imply that the claim cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by reasons and evidence.
The religion of Christianity, at least, makes historical claims, scientific claims, ethical claims, and metaphysical claims.  Such claims are subject to evaluation by reason, even if most Christians accept these claims “based on faith”. It is nearly certain that some Christians believe some of the claims of the Christian religion based on reason, based on consideration of relevant reasons and evidence.
Premise (3b) appears to be FALSE based strictly on consideration of the Christian religion.   However, this premise makes a generalization that is supposed to apply to ALL religions, not just to Christianity.  So, if we include dozens of other currently practiced religions in the scope of (3b), then it seems very unlikely that ALL of the claims by ALL of the religions are accepted “based on faith” by ALL of the adherents of a given religion.
Buddhism, for example, is very empirical in character.  Buddhism emphasizes careful observation of one’s own behavior and thoughts and feelings as the basis for confirming at least some of the teachings of Buddhism as well as the basis for learning about oneself and how to improve one’s life and one’s character.  Also, the concept of “faith” does not appear to play a central role in Buddhism in the way it does in Christianity.   Perhaps there are some Buddhists beliefs that most Buddhists accept “based on faith”, but it seems rather unlikely that ALL Buddhist beliefs are accepted “based on faith” by ALL adherents of Buddhism, in view of the empirical character of Buddhism and in view of the fact that the concept of “faith” does not appear to play a central role in Buddhist thinking.
Given that there are dozens of religions in the world right now, it seems very improbable that ALL of “the claims”  of ALL of these religions are accepted “based on faith” by ALL of the adherents to those religions (i.e. that all adherents to religion X accept all of the claims of religion X based on faith).  So, premise (3b) appears to be FALSE both in view of what we know about Christianity, and also in view of the fact that there are many different religions, including some that appear not to place much emphasis on belief that is “based on faith”.
I have argued that the two clear definitions of “faith” provided by Loftus are both wrong.  However, even if Loftus failed to correctly analyze the meaning of the word “faith” as it is used in ordinary language, we can reasonably take his proposed definitions as stipulative definitions, as clarifications of what Loftus means when he uses the word “faith”.   So, we should consider interpretations of premise (3b) that are based on the two clear defintions proposed by Loftus:  confirmation bias and irrational trust.
‘Confirmation Bias’ Interpretation:
3b-CB: ALL of the claims of ALL religions are based on confirmation bias.
‘Irrational Trust’ Interpretation:
3b-IT: ALL of the claims of ALL religions are based on irrational trust.
All of the previous objections apply to both of these interpretations of premise (3b).   The Christian religion makes historical claims, scientific claims, ethical claims, and metaphysical claims, and such claims are subject to evaluation by reason.  Since such claims are subject to evaluation by reason, it seems extremely unlikely that ALL Christians accept ALL such claims of Christianity “based on confirmation bias” or “based on irrational trust”.
Since confirmation bias is a widespread human tendency, and since irrational trust is a fairly common human failing, it is likely that many Christians accept many claims of Christianity based on either confirmation bias or irrational trust, but it is almost certain that SOME Christians accept SOME claims of Christianity based on the consideration of relevant reasons and evidence, and not based on confirmation bias or irrational trust.
If we understand the scope of (3b) to include ALL religions, then the claim becomes extremely improbable, based on these interpretations of the phrase “based on faith”, even ignoring the counterexamples from the Christian religion.  So, I conclude that premise (3b) of the main argument in Unapologetic is FALSE, and therefore that the main argument in Unapologetic  is UNSOUND.
Premise (2a) is FALSE because of a mistaken understanding of philosophy of religion, which wrongly narrows the scope of issues in that field to ONLY the evaluation of “the claims of religion”.
Premise (3b) is FALSE because of a failure to understand that being “based on faith” is not an intrinsic or objective property of claims, and because of a HASTY GENERALIZATION from the fact that many or most Christian believers accept most Christian beliefs “based on faith” to the universal generalization that ALL believers of ALL religions accept ALL of the claims made by their respective religions “based on faith”.
Thus, at least two of the premises of the main argument of Unapologetic are FALSE, making this argument UNSOUND.
Loftus does not just assert premise (1d); he gives a reason in support of this premise:

6. Philosophers ought NOT recognize and participate in an alleged sub-discipline of philosophy that uses reason to examine ONLY claims that are based on faith.


1d..IF philosophy of religion is using reason to examine ONLY the claims of religion and ALL of the claims of ALL religions are based on faith, THEN philosophers ought NOT recognize and participate in the philosophy of religion (as an alleged sub-discipline of philosophy).

Premise (6) is FALSE, and thus it fails to provide support for premise (1d).  The reason why premise (6) is false is because, as I have explained above, being “based on faith” is NOT an intrinsic or objecctive property of claims; a claim can only be “based on faith” for a particular person or group of persons.  Thus, even if every Christian accepted a particular claim X “based on faith”, it might well be possible for claim X to be accepted (or rejected) on the basis of reasons and evidence; it might well be possible to confirm or disconfirm claim X on the basis of reasons and evidence.

If it is possible for a claim to be confirmed or disconfirmed on the basis of reasons and evidence, then it would obviously be REASONABLE to use reason to evaluate that claim.  Therefore, even if a particular claim was accepted by every Christian believer “based on faith”, that claim might well be one that it is reasonable to evaluate based on reason, by a careful examination of the relevant reasons and evidence for and against that claim.

For example, even if every Christian believer accepted the claim “God exists” on the basis of faith, this is still a metaphysical claim which can be evaluated on the basis of reason, by a careful examination of the relevant reasons and evidence for and against this claim.  The fact that some people accept a claim “based on faith” does NOT imply that the claim that is so accepted is beyond hope of being evaluated on the basis of a careful examination of the relevant reasons and evidence.

Thus, a sub-discipline of philosophy that focused on ONLY claims that SOME PEOPLE have accepted “based on faith” would include in it’s scope many claims that it would be reasonable to evaluate on the basis of reason, by a careful examination of the relevant reasons and evidence.  Therefore, premise (6) is false, and Loftus has failed to provide us with a good reason to believe premise (1d).

Furthermore, given this insight about what it means for a claim to be “based on faith”, it seems fairly clear that (1d) is also FALSE, and therefore we have a third reason for concluding that the main argument of Unapologetic is UNSOUND.


UPDATE  on 01/18/17:

One more example of an important issue in philosophy of religion that goes beyond evaluating “the claims of religion” is this question:

What is the relationship between FAITH and REASON?

Although Christianity presents faith as something that is good and admirable, there is no generally agreed upon view among Christian believers or Christian theologians about the relationship between faith and reason.  Thus, when a Christian believer asserts a specific claim about the relationship between faith and reason, this claim is NOT a claim of the Christian religion, nor is it a claim of any other non-Christian religion.  Therefore, when philosophers of religion use reason to evaluate a particular view of the relationship between faith and reason, they are NOT evaluating one of “the claims of religion”.

Note also that since the issue of the relationship of faith and reason is central to Reason #9, when Loftus supports and defends Reason #9, and when I raise objections to Reason #9, we are both engaging in philosophy of religion.  In fact, the arguments of Loftus and my objections generally concern the relationship of reason and faith, and thus our arguments, both pro and con, are generally concerned with an issue that is a paradigm case of an issue in the philosophy of religion.

Therefore,  the central argument by Loftus in Unapologetic is an argument dealing with a paradigm case of an issue in philosophy of religion.  In addition to being an UNSOUND argument, this argument is self-undermining.

bookmark_borderThe True Cost of Fundamentalism: Women’s Health

In an editorial titled “Women at Risk,” today’s Houston Chronicle presented some very alarming facts:

  • Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world according to a report in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Between 2010 and 2014 the rate at which Texas women died from complications related to pregnancy doubled…”
  • Texas has the highest number of people without medical insurance in the country. In Texas, Medicaid, for the few that qualify for it, only covers a woman while she is pregnant and for sixty days after. “As a result, too many poor, uninsured women who have pre-existing conditions—such as high blood pressure, obesity, substance abuse, mental health issues, diabetes—go untreated before and after pregnancy, putting them and their babies at higher risk for complications.”
  • “Texas is in the top tier of states in pre-term and low birth-weight newborns; about 50,000 preemies a year.” Further, Texas ranks third, behind New Mexico and Mississippi in the number of teenage pregnancies.
  • “The loss of family planning clinics in Texas has, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, has resulted in a 27 percent spike among women who have lost access to contraception…According to a study by The Texas Policy Evaluation project, Texas women are more likely than their counterparts in other states to end a pregnancy without medical assistance.”

Put simply, the State of Texas is waging a war against women. This is not partisan rhetoric, but a sober statement of the unavoidable conclusion implied by these facts. Texas has conducted a furious vendetta against Planned Parenthood, the Affordable Care Act, and Medicaid expansion. Planned Parenthood is the single largest provider of contraception in the country. Preposterous laws designed to place onerous restrictions on abortion clinics have worked just as intended. Over half of Texas clinics that provided abortions have been shuttered just since 2013. There is not a single such clinic between San Antonio and El Paso. The consequences of these actions are dire, as the above statistics show beyond a reasonable doubt.
Why? Are people in Texas just that much worse than people elsewhere? Having lived in Texas for twenty years now, I sometimes think that native Texan, the late, great Molly Ivins may have had a point when she said (paraphrasing) that Texas people are just like people everywhere else, only more so. When Texans are nice, they are the nicest people you could meet; when they are mean, they shame the rattlesnakes. Really, though, it does not take a Ph.D. in sociology to see that what is wrong with Texas is what is wrong with my home state of Georgia. What do Texas and Georgia have in common? Well, they are southern states, former members of the Confederacy, and each with a long, disgraceful history of Jim Crow segregation. Most obviously, though, what ties them together is a devotion to fundamentalist religion, the doctrine of the religious right, characterized by extreme social conservatism, biblical inerrancy, young-earth creationism, and an aggressive program of political activism.
The Texas State Legislature is largely constituted of fundamentalists elected to office by fundamentalists. The lieutenant governor of Texas is Dan Patrick, a true zealot, whose main agenda item for the current legislative session is his “bathroom bill,” intended to harass transgender people. The opposition to Planned Parenthood is obviously red meat that Texas politicians throw to their fundamentalist base. Fundamentalists oppose abortion, of course. Their opposition has nothing at all to do with being “pro life” in any meaningful sense (see the above-stated facts). Long ago, Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury pointed out the real motivation for their animus: They want promiscuous women to be punished by having to endure unwanted pregnancies. Punishing and controlling women is the thing; even minimizing abortion is not their main aim. After all, the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies is to make effective contraception readily available, but they are against contraception too. One dimwit opined as follows on TV (probably available on YouTube): “Back in my day, a girl would prevent pregnancy with an aspirin pill. She would hold it between her knees.” Hee hee! You’re a card, bubba! That’ll teach them whorin’ harlots!
So, fundamentalism has a cost, a terrible one, and women pay for it with their health and the health of their children. In the Age of Trump progressive secular people are in a “target rich” environment. So much is going so wrong that it is hard to know where to direct your attack. Should you zero in on the climate change denialists, the neo-racists, the anti-immigrant fanatics, the gun fetishists, the Putin apologists, the fossil fuel bullies, the Koch brothers, or whom? There is no worthier or more important target than the fundamentalism of today’s religious right. It is the rotten, evil ideological heart of the right-wing extremism that now passes for conservatism in the U.S. Fight it. Fight fundamentalism when it raises its ugly head in school board meetings. Write letters to the editor. Call it out on social media. Support science. Join and support (with money and/or your time) groups that oppose the fundamentalist agenda, groups like Planned Parenthood or the ACLU. Vote. VOTE goddammit! As always, the adage holds: “The only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

bookmark_borderA Puzzle About Morality and Rationality

NOTE: This post has been edited since it was originally published in light of a very important observation from commenter Angra Mainyu. His comment revealed that I made an error in my original presentation of the puzzle. If you would like more information about this issue, please see the third footnote at the end of this post.
In the comment thread for my post about Derek Parfit, many of us have been talking about whether a person can ever deserve to suffer. In one comment, Keith Parsons made the following very interesting observation:

Aristotle said that no one can claim to be ignorant of the “universal,” that is, the basic principles of right and wrong. Surely, even Assad knows that bombing, gassing, and starving innocent people is wrong, despite any self-serving justifications he tells himself. When people choose to do what they know is wrong, then they are failing to act as rational agents, and we rightly morally censure them.

I am inclined to agree with Keith about this, but I think that his comment suggests a puzzle that is worth thinking about.
Before I get to the puzzle, I need to make some preliminary remarks and clarifications:
Because I think that my points are better made with a fictional person (not to mention that I find Assad’s actions atrocious and don’t really want to talk about them in any context that is not dedicated to condemning and/or stopping Assad), I am going to change the example. My example involves Ralph, a stock-broker who steals money from his elderly clients even though he knows that it is morally wrong to do so. Call Ralph’s immoral act ‘RA.’ [If you don’t like this example, you can let ‘RA’ stand for any immoral action you choose.] So, let’s grant that Ralph knows that RA is morally wrong. Let’s assume what I take to be true, namely, that to say that an action is morally wrong is to say that there are (at a minimum) strong reasons to not engage in the action. And we’ll understand ‘reason’ to refer to any factor that counts in favor of some course of action or inaction. So, to say that Ralph knows that RA is wrong is to say that Ralph knows that there are factors that count strongly in favor of not engaging in RA.
With that out of the way, the following question arises: Why does Ralph do what he knows to be morally wrong? Presumably, as Keith’s comment about self-serving justifications suggests, and given that he is a rational being (by which I mean a being who acts on what he takes to be reasons), Ralph has his reasons. By this I mean that Ralph believes that there are factors that count in favor of his engaging in RA. Of course, that he believes that there are such factors does not imply that he is right, and indeed he is not right; there are no such factors that count in favor of Ralph’s engaging in RA. But, given that Ralph is rational and that he engages in RA, he must believe that there are such factors. So, even though he believes that it is wrong for him to engage in RA, Ralph also believes that he has reasons to engage in RA.
So, what is the puzzle? Well, first notice that it doesn’t seem like we have yet accounted for the fact that Ralph engages in an action he knows to be wrong. We have two claims:
(M) It is morally wrong for Ralph to engage in RA.
(O) Ralph has reasons to engage in RA.***
Ralph believes both (M) and (O). However, (M) and (O) conflict and point to different outcomes. If Ralph is motivated by (M) (or the factors that count in favor of Ralph’s not doing RA), then he will not engage in RA. If he is motivated by (O) (or the factors that, as Ralph believes, count in favor of Ralph’s doing RA), then Ralph will engage in RA. So far, then, we don’t have an explanation for why Ralph engages in RA. We need something else. Presumably we have left something out of our account of why Ralph engages in RA. What we have left out is that Ralph believes that, in his situation, it is permissible for him to engage in RA; i.e. Ralph believes that it is permissible to respond to the reasons that, as he believes, count in favor of his engaging in RA despite the fact that it would be morally wrong for him to engage in RA. Maybe we should say that he believes that his reasons for engaging in RA are stronger than his reasons for not engaging in RA. Regardless, on the assumption that Ralph is rational, I don’t think that we can account for Ralph’s decision to engage in RA unless we attribute some such belief to him. But if Ralph does believe something like this, then he believes:
(P) It is permissible to engage in an action that is morally wrong if there are (strong enough) reasons that count in favor of so-acting.*
(P) gives Ralph a way of adjudicating the conflicting reasons that, as he believes, are present in his case and which are referred to in (M) and (O). So, if Ralph also believes
(Q) There are (strong enough) reasons that count in favor of Ralph engaging in RA.
then he will be motivated to engage in RA.
But it is hard to read (P) as anything other than a moral belief. That is, the ‘permissible’ in (P) refers to moral permissibility. If that is right, then we have a puzzle. Since we know that Ralph knows that RA is wrong, we know that he believes (M). But if he also believes (P) and (Q), then he believes,
(T) It is morally permissible for Ralph to engage in RA.
So, it looks like Ralph believes both (M) and (T), but then Ralph believes a contradiction since it is impossible for ‘(M) and (T)’ to be true.
You might be inclined to dismiss this as a genuine puzzle because you think that we should not regard Ralph as a fully rational person. But this is actually the point: It looks as if the puzzle arises only when we assume that Ralph is fully rational. This is true, at least, on the account of rationality that I have been assuming in this discussion. What I am assuming is that a rational being is one that always acts on what she believes to be reasons. Thus, when a rational agent acts, she believes that there are factors that favor her action and she acts on those factors.**
So, if we assume that Ralph is rational, we get the puzzle. Here it is again, stated more briefly: Given that Ralph is rational, when he engages in RA, he believes that he has reasons for doing so. The assumption that Ralph believes (M) and (O) [that it is morally wrong for him to RA and that he has reasons to RA] shows us that the fact that Ralph believes that he has reasons to RA is not enough to account for his actually engaging in RA. Given his beliefs (M) and (O), he is at an impasse because he does not know what he should do, all things considered. The best way to account for the fact that Ralph does engage in RA is to assume that he believes (P) and (Q). This allows him to break the impasse and conclude that, once everything has been considered, he should engage in RA. But if he believes (P) and (Q), then he believes (T) and so he believes (M) and (T), which is a contradiction. But it is not rational to believe a contradiction.
So, on the assumption that Ralph is rational, it follows that he is not rational.
I am not convinced that this is a genuine paradox. I think that it is a puzzle that has a solution. The solution that I prefer it to reject the account of rationality that I assumed while generating the puzzle. I think that to be rational it is not enough that a person believes that there are reasons that count in favor of her actions. To be rational, a person must appropriately respond to the reasons that are actually available, regardless of what she believes about her reasons. But I wonder what other people think.

*There are other principles that will do. For example, he could believe (W) It is required to engage in an action that is morally wrong if there are (strong enough) reasons that count in favor of so-acting. But (W) is not very plausible. Ralph could believe any claim which implies that, at least in relevant circumstances, it is not morally problematic to engage in an immoral act. The point is that Ralph needs some principle that tells him that responding to the factors that, as he believes, favor his engaging in RA even though engaging in RA is immoral.
**She probably also has to believe that these factors constitute good reasons, but I think we can ignore this for now.
***The original version of (O) was as follows: (O) Ralph ought to engage in RA. Angra Mainyu pointed out, I think correctly, that we often use the word ‘ought’ when we are talking about what we should do, all things considered; sometimes this is called the “overall ought.” Since Angra is right about this, my original version of (O) was, at the very least ambiguous and so I need to adjust my presentation of the puzzle. What follows is my account of the problem that I created for myself and how I fixed it.
The upshot of Angra’s observation is that if the ‘ought’ of ‘Ralph out to RA’ is the overall ought, then if Ralph believes that he ought to engage in RA, then he believes that he reasons for engaging in RA that outweigh whatever reasons he has for not engaging in RA. That is, to say that Ralph (overall) ought to engage in RA is to say that, once everything has been factored in, what Ralph ought to do is engage in RA. But if this is the case, then we don’t need (P) or (Q). Ralph’s believing that he ought to engage in RA does the job; that is, it accounts for why Ralph, being rational, engages in RA.
So, we need a version of (O) that does not carry the implication that, all things considered, Ralph ought to engage in RA. My new version of (O), which is Ralph has reasons to engage in RA, does the trick. This is what I had always intended to say, but, since I was a bit sloppy, I ended up saying something ambiguous and potentially quite different from what I intended (not to mention incoherent). I’ve changed (O) in the text above and made some minor changes to the body of the post that were necessitated by that change. My thanks to Angra Mainyu for pointing out the problem.

bookmark_borderRetributivism, Punishment, and Moral Value

In the comments on another post , the contrast between retributivist and consequentialist models of punishment came up. Here is a thought-experiment I present to my classes on this contrast.
Suppose that in lieu of life-imprisonment for major crimes, the technology exists to plug offenders into a Matrix-like situation: they are to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives in a completely virtual reality. Suppose that you are in charge of determining the character of the virtual reality environment for offenders. To make things simple, suppose you have two basic choices:

(A) A virtual paradise – simulated natural beauty, sensations of pleasure and physical comfort, diverse and varied opportunities for exploration, access to a wide variety of intellectual resources (books, movies, etc.)

(B) A virtual wasteland – a simulated world that is bleak, barren, boring, sparse, colorless, and physically uncomfortable (sensations of extreme cold or heat, hunger, etc.).

Which virtual reality do you think is morally appropriate for the worst criminal offenders?
Of course, if offenders knew they would end up in the virtual paradise, this would defeat the deterrent purpose of punishment, so we can stipulate that everyone but you believes offenders will be subjected only to the virtual wasteland. In fact, if the prohibition of cruel punishment were to be abolished, you could even make the virtual wasteland into a virtual hell, where offenders will suffer nothing but torment until death (after which, according to many theists, things will only get worse).
It is also necessary, for this thought experiment, to stipulate that offenders cannot be disconnected once they are wired in – attempts to do so would kill the person.
It is also necessary to stipulate that each offender will be the sole “inhabitant” of the virtual world – offenders will not share their virtual prison with any other real individuals, though perhaps the world might be stocked with artificial inhabitants (what, in computer gaming parlance would be classified as NPCs).
So, if no positive consequentialist purpose would be served by subjecting offenders to the virtual wasteland rather than the virtual paradise, then are there any remaining moral considerations that would suggest the right thing to do is to choose the wasteland over the paradise?
Speaking for myself, I used to lean toward the retributivist model. The thought of, essentially, rewarding people for egregiously immoral behavior by wiring them up to the paradise situation just seemed wrong. I imagined an offender thinking something like “Hah! I killed all those orphans and they said they were going to send me to a wasteland, and look – this place is awesome! I wish I had killed even more of those kids!” It is hard not to feel revulsion at the character of such a person, even if it never leads to the performance of any further objectionable actions. I would like to say that having such a character is somehow intrinsically bad. But the more I have thought about how to justify such a stance, the less I feel able to do so. States of character just don’t seem to have intrinsic value or disvalue. Instead, they seem to have only instrumental value insofar as they will affect the ways people interact with or respond to others. But since there are no others in the virtual reality, no states of character have any moral value at all anymore. The states of character would be objectionable if they were to exist in someone who is still embedded in the real world, but for someone who will never interact with the real world ever again, whatever states of character they may have are morally irrelevant.
Is there anything in the virtual environment that WOULD have intrinsic and not merely instrumental value? I incline toward the view that only positive or negative experiential states (pleasure, pain, happiness, unhappiness). In a world with only one sentient individual, there is no right or wrong (unless the concept of self-wrong makes sense) – only good and bad. The choice to put someone in a permanent virtual reality in which they are and forever will be the only inhabitant, therefore, is nothing more or less than the choice of whether they will be in a morally better or a morally worse world.
What becomes, then, of the concept of desert? Doesn’t the offender deserve the worse world? I have come to think, though, that the concept of desert is not plausibly isolable from contexts of future interactions with others. When someone is given what we think they deserve, this signals affirmation of certain strategies of interaction that we value or disvalue.

bookmark_borderGraham Oppy: Yes, There Really Is Such a Thing as Expertise in Philosophy of Religion, and, No, You Can’t Get it from Pop Philosophy of Religion Books

Note: The following post is written by Graham Oppy and posted with his permission.
Suppose I wanted to learn all about quantum gravity, starting from a position of total ignorance. How likely is it that there is a book that physicists could recommend to me that I could read, and that would give me the knowledge that I’d like to have? On the one hand, I have to be able to understand the book; on the other hand, the book has to be sufficiently sophisticated for me to acquire genuine knowledge from it.
Perhaps some scientists think that there must be pop philosophy of religion books that play the same kind of role that is played by pop science books. But, in my view, you can’t come to a genuine knowledge of the science simply by reading pop science books. (And this despite the fact that there are pretty uncontroversial results in science. Sure, you can get a nodding acquaintance with results from pop science books; but this does not mean that you have a genuine understanding of the science.)
No doubt my opinion is warped by my views about reason and argument: I think that even most professional philosophers of religion don’t really understand how to assess arguments and how to evaluate the rationality of the beliefs of those with whom one vehemently disagrees. (If you are interested in a topic in philosophy of religion, you almost certainly don’t want arguments; what you want to know about is the relevant evidence and the range of best competing theories. In order to make use of this knowledge, you don’t need to know anything about arguments; rather, you need to know how to weigh the theoretical virtues of competing theories.)
Despite what many well-known scientists (and philosophers) claim, there really is such a thing as expertise in philosophy of religion.