bookmark_borderRevised Comments Moderation Policy

I recently announced a comments moderation policy which included this:

5. This blog has a philosophical focus; the editors and authors aren’t interested in debating with readers who think philosophy is worthless or cannot understand the value of clearly defined terms. Comments along those lines will be blocked.

UnitedAndy objected:

I guess the biggest objection I have would be to point 5. I can’t see how any semi-reasonable person could hold to scientism or ending PoR, for example, but I’m just as sure that advocates for the value of philosophy ought to defend it from criticism, particularly given how pervasive this philosophy-bashing attitude has become by prominent people. I can see how naysaying philosophy in most contexts on this blog would be to distract from the issue at hand, but I think there are cases where the value one places on philosophy is hugely relevant (e.g. scientistic criticisms of religion). Moreover, I think there’s something to celebrate that philosophy is uniquely placed to self-justify itself and that involves dealing with foundational challenges of its worthiness.

Although I initially replied saying I just doesn’t desire to rehash this on the blog, I’ve spent some more time thinking about it. I’ve decided UnitedAndy is correct. Accordingly, I’ve deleted point 5 from the moderation policy. In case anyone is wondering, exactly zero comments were blocked due to point 5.

bookmark_borderDissatisfaction with Many Arguments for and Against Dualism

Victor Reppert recently posted on his blog the following quotation of Susan Blackmore:

How can objective things like brain cells produce subjective experiences like the feeling that ‘I’ am striding through the grass? This gap is what David Chalmers calls ‘the hard problem.’ …It is a modern version of the ancient mind/body problem – but it seems to get worse, not better, the more we learn about the brain… The objective world out there, and the subjective experiences in here, seem to be totally different kinds of things. Asking how one produces the other seems to be nonsense. The intractability of this problem suggests to me that we are making a fundamental mistake in the way we think about consciousness – perhaps right at the very beginning.
Susan Blackmore, ‘What is consciousness?’, Big Questions in Science, in Harriet Swain (ed.), Big Questions in Science, (Jonathan Cape, 2002), p. 29-40.

This quotation reminds me of why I am dissatisfied with so many arguments for and against dualism. I am not an authority on the mind/body problem so take what I am about to write with a grain of salt, but in my experience most of the arguments:
a. Amount to a statement of incredulity; or
b. Beg the question.
Now, with all due respect to Susan Blackmore (whose work I have not read), the passage just quoted seems to amount to nothing more than a statement of incredulity, as opposed to an actual argument. If physicalism is true, then the mind just is the brain and, it would seem, there is no subjective experience ‘in here.’ It’s not clear to me how that statement of credulity is supposed to be any more compelling than the following:

The problem of mind/brain interaction seems to get worse, not better, the more we learn about the brain… Nothing mental happens without something physical happening. The idea of mental ‘substance’ existing wholly apart from arrangements of physical matter seems to be nonsense. Even if there were a mental ‘substance’ existing ‘out there’, how, precisely, does it interact with arrangements of physical matter?

Why is Blackmore’s passage supposed to be any more compelling than what I just wrote? What have I missed?
In spite of everything I’ve written above, I still think there is a good evidential argument against naturalism based on consciousness. At the same time, I also think there is a good evidential argument against theism based on mind-brain dependence. This suggests to me that the issue is far more complex than simple quotations of supposed ‘hostile’ authorities would seem to suggest.

bookmark_borderChristian Emotional Coercion

Steve Hays at Triablogue writes:

I don’t owe transgender soldiers any more gratitude than I owe squeegee bandits. Don’t do something I didn’t ask you to do, want you to do, or approve of, then pretend you were doing it for me. Don’t attempt to put me in your debt against my will. Your emotional coercion is illegitimate.
I’m going to put aside the topic of transgender soldiers, and ask that any comments on this post do the same.
Instead, I want to point out that, with just a small amount of editing, Steve’s words would probably sum up the way all non-Christians, not just atheists, feel about our supposed ‘debt’ to Jesus for dying on the cross.
I don’t owe transgender soldiers Jesus any more gratitude than I owe squeegee bandits. Don’t do something I didn’t ask you to do, want you to do, or approve of, then pretend you were doing it for me. Don’t attempt to put me in your debt against my will. Your emotional coercion is illegitimate.
There. Fixed it for him.

bookmark_borderNew Comments Moderation Policy in Effect

In order to maintain a high quality of discussion in the comments box, I have made the executive decision to moderate all comments on all posts.  This decision is effective immediately.
The following policies are in effect.

  1. Anonymous comments are prohibited. Only registered users with verified email addresses may comment.
  2. There is no word limit on comments other than whatever limitations of the Disqus commenting software (if any).
  3. You are welcome to link to other sites, including your own, so long as the link is clearly relevant to the original post (OP). We don’t care if the linked site is critical of our position, but we do care that the link is relevant.
  4. Personal attacks of any kind are not tolerated. Along the same lines, comments which are only or mostly about another person, rather than arguments, will be blocked.

bookmark_borderWhy the moral argument fails

Of all the arguments for the existence of God, there is one argument (or one style of argument) that I have never had any sympathy with and never understood why anyone has any sympathy with, and that is the moral argument. It seems to me and has pretty much always seemed to me (at least as long as I have reflected on the issue) that the claim that moral phenomena depend for their existence on God is pretty clearly false. I want to emphasize that this is not just an intuitive reaction, it is a considered judgement. The idea that God is somehow the foundation of moral reality strikes me as one of the strangest, not to mention most unfortunate, ideas that humans have ever come up with.
By “moral argument” I mean to include any argument that involves any claim that some aspect of moral phenomena depends on God, or any inductive argument to the effect that some aspect of moral phenomena makes it more likely that God exists. Of course, there are many types of moral argument, and, limited as I am, I cannot hope to have exhaustive knowledge of every version of every argument that falls under the umbrella of “the moral argument.” What I can say is that I have never come across anything that falls under that umbrella that has seemed remotely convincing. But lest this become merely an exercise in Jason expressing uninteresting biographical facts about himself, I will try to explain what is so unconvincing about the moral argument.
None of what I am saying here should be taken to imply that I don’t think that moral arguments can’t be interesting, sophisticated, or important. I have learned quite a bit about morality by considering moral arguments for the existence of God. And there is no doubt that very skilled and insightful philosophers have produced interesting versions of the moral argument. What I want to say has nothing to do with the intellectual sophistication or significance of moral arguments. Furthermore, I cannot hope to address what is wrong with every instance of a moral argument. But what I can do is point to a fundamental problem that, I believe, lies at the heart of any suggestion that moral phenomena are evidence that God exists.
Let me start by removing one potential misunderstanding. One might claim that every concrete individual thing that exists depends for its existence on God. Thus, if God does not exist, then the states of affairs, actions, experiences, etc. that are the bearers of moral properties would not exist and so there would be no moral properties. I doubt that such a claim can be substantiated, but, regardless, it misses the point. This kind of dependence is irrelevant to the moral argument. The moral argument identifies a type of property, moral properties, and claims that these would not exist if God did not exist and that therefore their existence indicates that God exists. If this argument depends on the claim that no concrete thing exists and no properties exist if God does not exist, then this is no longer a moral argument. The moral argument claims that there is something special about the moral realm that indicates the existence of God, not that everything indicates God’s existence. If the existence of every individual thing and every property is evidence or proof that God exists, then first, we don’t need a moral argument, and second, there is nothing special about moral phenomena, as opposed to other phenomena, that indicate that God must exist. Furthermore, the kind of dependence currently under discussion is not the right kind of dependence. It is one thing for the things that bear moral properties to depend for their existence on God, another thing for moral properties themselves to depend on God. It is the latter claim that underlies the moral argument.
One reason that the moral argument is a failure is the Euthyphro problem, which, in my considered judgement, decisively shows that God does not have the power to create moral properties. (If you are interested, you can read this paper, which explains, in part, why I think this.) But, in addition to this, there is something that I think of as a more basic and fairly obvious point, which I want to make here.
Here is the point: that particular actions, states of affairs, experiences, etc. have the moral properties that they do have does not depend on God because God’s existence is irrelevant to those features that plausibly give actions, experiences, and etc. their moral properties. It is easier to see this with an example of an act for which there is almost universal agreement about its moral status. So, consider the moral status of child torture. That the torture of small children is morally wrong depends on the fact that torturing a child causes severe undue suffering. It does not depend in any way on the existence of God and it is very unclear how God’s existence, or anything God could do, could make a difference to the moral status of child torture. Such facts as that children exist and that some people are capable of torturing children might depend on God. But that torturing children is wrong is not a fact that could depend on God. And by this I mean that so long as there are children, it is wrong to cause them unnecessary suffering. God could do nothing to change, and his existence could have no implications for, the moral status of child torture.
I realize that pointing out that something is obvious to me is hardly an argument. But two points: First, I doubt that I am the only one who has this reaction, the only one for whom it is obvious that God’s existence is irrelevant to morality. Second, because of this, it is incumbent on those who wield the moral argument to explain precisely how morality does depend upon God. It is not enough, for example, when employing the moral argument, to just claim, as William Lane Craig has done, that if God does not exist, there is not a sound foundation for morality. If you are going to defend the moral argument, you need to explain both how the lack of God would eliminate moral phenomena and how the presence of God guarantees their existence. Any defense of the moral argument should explain, for example, how it can be that something like child torture would, in the absence of God, be morally unproblematic.
I have read many professional papers that attempt to articulate and defend some version of the moral argument. But I have never encountered so much as an attempt to explain how God’s non-existence would imply that child torture is morally unproblematic. Nor have I encountered concerted efforts to explain why the moral status of any action, person, or state of affairs would be affected by God’s non-existence. All too frequently defenders of the argument say things like the following, from William Lane Craig:

on the atheistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental by-products of nature that have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth*

But for an attempt to prove that without God, moral properties do not exist, such claims are utterly useless. It is merely an assertion of the conclusion. Given that we are talking about human beings, the bearers of mental states such as pleasure and pain, beings that are capable of making decisions and who value making their own decisions, who conceive of themselves as beings that persist through time and make plans accordingly, the, as Derek Parfit puts it, “animals that can understand and respond to reasons”, there is every reason to think that, even if God does not exist, human beings are morally significant. If all the above features of human beings are not sufficient to make us morally significant, it is very unclear how God could change that. So why should we think that, in an atheistic universe, there is nothing special about humans? What would account for that? Craig does not tell us.
God could change some things. An all-powerful being could make it so that children do not suffer when they are subjected to torture. Indeed, an all-powerful being could completely eliminate suffering. But this would not change the fact that it would be wrong to cause a child to suffer needlessly. The fact that torturing a person causes intense suffering is already, all by itself, enough to make it prima facie wrong to torture a person. It is not at all clear what role there is for God to play with respect to the deontological status of inflicting torture on small children.
If we think otherwise, that is, if we think that only God could make child torture wrong, then we must make the case that God’s existence makes a difference. We must therefore answer the following questions: What could the existence of God have to do with the wrongness of torture? What does the existence of God add to the situation that would account for its wrongness? If the fact that torture causes severe physical and emotional suffering is not sufficient to make it wrong to torture innocent children, then what could God do to make it wrong?
Let’s take a look at one (admittedly not very sophisticated) example of an apologist employing a a moral argument (Why talk about it if it is not very sophisticated? Mainly because I find it very annoying that people can so confidently assert things for which there is no ground whatsoever. In addition, I think that in its failure to even attempt to address the points that must be addressed by any moral argument, it is indicative of a larger trend.)
In this article, Frank Turek says the following,

In an atheistic universe there is nothing objectively wrong with anything at any time.

Why does Mr. Turek believe this?
First, let’s consider what an odd claim this is. To say that some act is objectively wrong is to say that there are overriding reasons to not engage in that act and that these reasons are objective. To say that they are objective is to say that the existence of these reasons does not depend on the reactions, beliefs, or judgements of any subject (individual or collective). So, if we believe that some things are objectively wrong, we believe that there are reasons for action and that some of these reasons are overriding in the sense that they are stronger than other reasons with which they may compete. So, if we believe that nothing is objectively wrong, we believe that there are no objective reasons for action that are overriding in the sense describe above.
At first glance, there does not appear to be any reason to think that in a world without God there could not be such reasons. Consider, for example, the act of rape. If God does not exist, rape is still wrong. Consider the facts that rape is a violation of a person’s autonomy and causes severe emotional and physical suffering. Even if God does not exist, these facts about rape would still be true. On the assumption that these provide us with overriding reasons not to rape, even if God does not exist, rape is still wrong. And if we thought that these do not provide us with overriding reasons not to rape, what difference would God’s existence make?
If you think that in an atheistic universe nothing is objectively wrong, then you think that these facts about rape (that it violates autonomy and causes severe emotional and physical suffering) do not provide us with overriding reasons to not engage in rape. That is a very odd thing to believe. In addition, you must believe that God can do something that somehow makes it the case that rape is wrong (or maybe that his mere existence can make it the case that rape is wrong). This is also a very odd thing to think. On this view, an act of rape, considered in isolation from God (i.e., considered merely as an action in a context in which God and his capacities are not present) is not wrong. So, on this view, God has the capacity to take an action that is not wrong (considered in and of itself and in isolation from God) and make it wrong. How does God do it? What kind of power is that? Turek does not answer these questions and has nothing to say about how God is able to accomplish this amazing feat. Turek’s is a very strange view.
So, there are two reasons that the view that Turek expresses, namely that in a universe without God there is nothing objectively wrong, is so odd: (1) It implies that facts such as that an act causes severe undue and uncompensated suffering are not sufficient to make an act morally wrong, and (2) It implies that God has the special and unexplained ability to take an action that would otherwise have no moral properties, and make it have moral properties.
Given the strangeness of the view, someone who want to defend it should provide something by way of argument in its favor. So, what does Turek offer? Not much. Here, as far as I can tell, is the sum total of the considerations that Turek offers in favor of the thesis that without God there would be no morality:

If material nature is all that exists, which is what most atheist’s claim, then there is no such thing as an immaterial moral law.  Therefore, atheists must smuggle a moral standard into their materialistic system to get it to work, whether it’s “human flourishing,” the Golden Rule, doing what’s “best” for the most, etc. Such standards don’t exist in a materialistic universe where creatures just “dance” to the music of their DNA.

One thing that I will briefly mention and then set aside is that it is a mistake to claim that atheism is committed to the claim that material nature is all that exists. Turek seems to recognize this, hence his use of the word ‘most.’ I don’t know if most atheists think this (I don’t), but even if it is true that most atheists think it, this is irrelevant to the issue of whether moral phenomena depend on God.
Another quick point: It is not clear what an immaterial moral law is. For that matter, it is not clear what a moral law is or what it would have to do with the existence of moral properties. It is telling that Turek does not believe that it is necessary to clarify in any way what ‘immaterial moral law’ is supposed to mean.
The main problem with Turek’s attempt here is that he does not in any way address the two points I made above. He does not explain why the intrinsic natural features of an action such as rape (e.g., that it causes severe suffering) are not sufficient to make the action morally wrong. More generally, he does not explain why the features that an action has independently of God are insufficient to ground the action’s moral properties. And he does not explain how the existence of God can make an action, e.g., morally wrong when, in the absence of God, the action would have no moral properties whatsoever. I don’t think that any moral argument can do either of these things. Again, I have not seen every version of the moral argument that does so. If you know of an argument that is more successful, please let me know.
It is unfortunate that apologists such as Turek believe that they need hardly defend their bold claims about the dependence of morality on God. I hope that those who, like me, are very skeptical of the moral argument can do more to push back against the unjustified presumption that God is intimately connected to morality.

*This quote comes from a debate that Craig had with Paul Kurtz, published in Is Goodness Without God Good Enough? I offered more extensive criticism of Craig’s use of the moral argument here.

bookmark_borderWhat Atheists Do Not Believe

In a recent discussion here at SO one commentator posted some claims about what atheists must believe. These claims are commonly made, not just by this particular individual, but by many theists, including some who should know better. I quote some of the claims from those posted comments below, in bold, and reply by stating what atheists need and need not think.
The atheist worldview largely includes beliefs:
– In effects without causes (e.g. a Big Bang with no known or explicable cause).

Since it is a tautology that every effect has a cause, no atheist denies that every effect has a cause. What atheists are likely to deny is that every entity or every event has a cause. Many atheists would accept that there are ultimate brute facts, that is, things or occurrences that are not caused by, dependent upon, a mode or attribute of, supervenient upon, reducible to, or epiphenomena of anything else. A brute fact just inexplicably is. Thus, for an atheist who is also an naturalist, the ultimate facts of nature, whatever they are, are regarded as brute facts. Put simply, for the naturalist, the universe is a brute fact. For the theist God is a brute fact. The theist does not think that God is caused by, dependent upon, a mode or attribute of, supervenient upon, reducible to, or an epiphenomenon of anything else. God just inexplicably is. So, the naturalist is not making any sort of claim about brute facts that the theist is not also making. Indeed, unless causal chains stretch back ad infinitum, any causal account, naturalist or theist, will have to stop with some reality that is not explained but taken as a brute reality. So, a theist who criticizes atheists for appealing to brute facts is either being disingenuous or fails to realize that by positing God as the final reality he is doing the same thing.
– That the precise settings of all the universal constants (e.g. speed of light, force of gravity), without which this universe would not exist, were “dialed in” by accident (and invented multiverse theory as a pathetic attempt to try to explain all this).
Actually, as opposed to the theist, the atheist, qua atheist, does not claim to know how the values of the fundamental constants were determined. The atheist sees that as a job for the physicist. The atheist will not endorse an account that those values were “dialed in” by accident unless that is the account given by physicists, and, in that case, the theist’s argument is with the physicist, not with the atheist. As for multiverse theories being “pathetic” and “invented,” perhaps theists should contact Max Tegmark and other highly reputable cosmologists that support versions of the theory and inform them that they are wasting their time on an “invented” theory (supposedly “invented” in some sense other than the way that all theories are invented).
Perhaps the reply would be that any physical ultimate would be only one of indefinitely many conceivable alternatives, the vast majority of which would not be “life friendly.” Therefore, any physical theory that would explain the fine tuning of the fundamental constants would simply raise the problem again, requiring an explanation of how the fundamental terms of that theory were finely-tuned. But if this is a problem for any theory postulating a physical ultimate, it is equally a problem for any theory (like theism) that postulates a non-physical ultimate. Unless the ultimate entity you posit is logically necessary (and lots of luck with arguing that), it will be logically contingent. However, anything logically contingent, and postulated as an ultimate reality, will, necessarily, be only one of an indefinitely numerous of conceivable alternative ultimates.
In particular, if our ultimate posit is a supernatural entity (e.g. God), then that posit will only be one of an indefinitely numerous set of other possible ultimate supernatural entities. Of that set of putative supernatural ultimates, only a tiny minority will have the power and the desire to create a finely-tuned universe fit for organic life. Therefore, any theist that raises the problem of a finely-tuned universe needs to confront the problem of a finely-tuned God. How, of all the conceivable ultimate supernatural entities we “could” have had, were we so impossibly lucky as to get one that wanted beings like us and had the power to create the necessary conditions.
The upshot is that the “fine tuning” problem is necessarily insoluble by anyone. ANY ultimate posit (God, the universe, or whatever), if logically contingent, necessarily has indefinitely many equally logically possible alternatives that “could” have existed instead.
– That the first life sprung from non-living material (something never observed in nature or duplicated in a lab).
When was creation by God ever observed in nature or duplicated in the lab? Theists also believe that life sprang from non-life. But wait. Isn’t God alive? Even if God is “alive” in some obscure sense, God’s life is not biological life. Therefore, theists are just as committed as naturalists to saying that biological life arose from something non-biological. How did it happen? Here is the theist’s “account:” God said “Let there be life!” (pause for drum roll) POOF! There was life! Such an “account” is operationally equivalent to admitting ignorance. So, the real opposition here is between looking for a scientific account and settling for disguised ignorance.
– That the first living thing accidentally mutated multiple complex systems (e.g. nutritional identification acquisition and digestion; reproduction) pretty darn quick, like before it died.
Wow. Straw man, anyone? It would really help to be familiar with at least some of the literature before making wild and irresponsible claims about what origin of life researchers say. An intelligent critique of origin of life research would at least be familiar with works such as:
The Spark of Life, by Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada
The Emergence of Life on Earth by Iris Fry
Origins of Existence by Fred Adams
The Origins of Life by John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary
Genesis by Robert M. Hazen
The Vital Question by Nick Lane
A critique can only be effective if addressed towards what is actually said, not the critic’s fantasy of what is said.
– That you and something like a bacteria are distant cousins.
The news is not that you and something like bacteria are cousins. The news is that you are descended from something like bacteria. This is not atheist dogma, but scientific fact. Deal with it.
– That existence is an accident, largely meaningless and certainly with no eternal significance.
Is existence an accident? What is meant by “existence,” and what is meant by “accident?” If human existence is what is meant, and “accident” means “pure chance” (whatever that means), then, no, existence is not an accident. Evolution holds that the human species is a product of natural selection just like any other species. The “chance” aspect of natural selection comes down to the presence of phenotypic variants that are fitter in a given environment. If, for instance, the environment is drying (as in the Sahel region south of the Sahara), there is no known mechanism that would call forth precisely the right adaptation for a given organism to survive in those desiccating conditions. Therefore, it is said that variation is “random” with respect to a given environment. However, that does not mean that the process does not occur in the context of lawful physical processes. Further, the selection process itself is not random, but is caused by the selective advantage conferred by phenotypic features in a specific environment.
Probably what is really meant by saying that life is an “accident” is that, according to atheists, it was the product of impersonal natural forces and not planned, e.g. by God. Absolutely, atheists say that. However, it is a massive and egregious non-sequitur to hold that this makes life meaningless (see below). It is question-begging to imply that a life with no “eternal significance” cannot be meaningful. BTW, I guess a soul being tormented in hell can derive comfort from contemplating that its life had “eternal significance.”
– That there is nothing good or bad about life (or of death), for good and bad are meaningless terms in cosmological/biological evolution.
– That likewise, there is no good or bad in the behaviors of life forms.
– That the atheist has no reason for defending life, even *his* life, other than to say he’d *like* to keep it. Just as he might *like* chocolate. Or *like* a certain car or home decorating style. Just varying degrees (and price tags) of matters of taste. [Atheists however have been known to disagree with this accurate description.]
There are so many questions begged here it is hard to know where to begin. Maybe I should just counter by noting that nothing, nothing at all commits an atheist to the claim that life is meaningless or that there is no moral good or bad. It would have helped if the above assertions rested on anything resembling argument, but since they do not, I will just have to make counter-assertions.
Unless “meaning” is defined in an entirely question-begging way so that it entails theism, an atheist’s life can be rich with meaning. If “meaning” means things like enjoying deep personal relationships, having intrinsically rewarding work and hobbies, serving good causes bigger than yourself, showing compassion and contributing to the common good, enjoying the beauties of nature and art, and even spiritual experience (The symphonies of Anton Bruckner give me far deeper spiritual experiences than I ever got sitting in a pew.), and so forth, then, the atheist can enjoy such things as much as anybody. No, the atheist does not believe in eternal life, but he or she regards as childish the idea that to be meaningful life must last forever.
As for moral goodness and badness, again, anyone that thinks that these cannot be real for atheists must define ethical terms in a question-begging way. Atheists just cannot see how being commanded by an all-powerful being can make anything good or bad. Even if we are told that such a being is essentially good, we don’t see why you can’t have the goodness without the God. Here, once again, it would help if the critic had actually read some of the ethical and meta-ethical proposals of atheists, rather than concocting straw men out of his own malice. A good place to start would be any of the books by Erik Wielenberg, but this suggestion assumes that such critics as I have addressed here are interested in rational debate and not just in issuing sneering put-downs.

bookmark_borderPodcast 5: How Should We Evaluate the Christian Worldview?

In Podcast 5, I briefly review some key points from Podcast 3 and Podcast 4, and then I discuss how to evaluate the Christian worldview:
Some key points in Podcast 5:

  • Religions are basically systems of religious beliefs.
  • The core of a system of religious beliefs is a worldview.
  • A worldview can be understood in terms of a general problem-solving scheme.
  • A worldview can be understood as the answers to four basic worldview questions.
  • Although there are many versions of Christianity, there is just one Christian worldview.
  • Critical Thinking involves analytic thinking.
  • Critical Thinking involves healthy skepticism and caution about wishful thinking and emotional bias.
  • Three classic historical examples of wishful thinking are:  the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life, and panacea.
  • The Christian worldview presents Christianity as a panacea.
  • Because the Christian worldview can be analyzed into four parts, there are at least 16 different possible evaluations of Christianity (based on a truth-table analysis of four claims).
  • If just one of the Christian worldview’s answers to a basic worldview question is wrong, then the Christian worldview is a failure.
  • If just one of the Christian worldview’s answers to a basic worldview question is right, then the Christian worldview is partially true, and at least a few basic Christian beliefs would be true.
  • The four answers of the Christian worldview can be further clarified by being analyzed into four statements per answer, so that the Christian worldview can be understood in terms of 16 different claims or statements.

There is a PowerPoint (in a PDF) available with the content of the podcast:
My previous podcasts are available here:
Thinking Critically About: Is Christianity True?

bookmark_borderHinman’s REMEC Argument: DOA

Joe Hinman has (allegedly) posted a second argument for the “existence of God”:
Although Hinman believes that the claim “God exists” is NOT literally true (but is only “metaphorically true”, whatever that means), he has included the phrase “existence of God” in the title of this latest post, implying that his second argument is an argument in support of the existence of God:
Bowen-Hinman Debate (Existence of God) my argument 2
But his second argument is NOT an argument for the existence of God, nor for the “reality of God” (whatever that means), nor for the rationality of “belief in God” (whatever he means by that phrase).
Rather, Hinman’s second argument, which I call REMEC (Religious Experience Meets Epistemic Criteria), is an argument for an UNCLEAR claim about the UNCLEAR notion of “religious experience”, and so Hinman has attempted to pull a huge bait-and-switch move, and has failed to even attempt to argue for the existence (or reality) of God.

(1) we trust perceptions that work for us in navigating the world

(2) we judge by criteria Regular, Consistent, Shared (inter-subjective)

(3) RE fits this criteria

(4 ) enables “navigation” (the point of the criteria) 

(5) :. we are warranted to trust RE as indicative



You can tell that this is NOT an argument for the existence of God by the fact that the word “existence” (or “exists”) does not appear in the conclusion, and because the word “God” does not appear in the conclusion.  Furthermore, the word “existence”, and the word “exists”, and the word “God” do not appear in any of the premises of this argument!!  Because the words “God” and “existence” and “exists” appear nowhere in this argument, I judge this argument, which was supposed to be an argument for the “existence of God”, to be DEAD ON ARRIVAL, just like the first argument (the ABEAN argument) that was presented by Hinman.
There is nothing so sad and so pathetic as an argument for the “existence of God” that never once mentions God or existence.  An argument for the existence of God cannot possibly FAIL any faster or more completely than such an argument.  It is the all-too-common presentation of such sad and pathetic arguments for God that convinces me that theism is unworthy of belief.  Norman Geisler’s pathetic case for God by itself is sufficient to warrant serious doubt about the existence of God.  Hinman’s pathetic ABEAN and REMEC arguments provide more reason for skepticism about God.
I’m tempted to say that the REMEC argument is a SPODS (a Steaming Pile of Dog Shit), but some of the readers and contributors here at The Secular Outpost do not like me to make such harsh criticisms, so I will refrain from doing so now.  However, I will be making some strong criticisms of this so-called “argument”.
Like the ABEAN argument, REMEC is VERY UNCLEAR, too unclear to seriously and rationally evaluate.  Because this is NOT an argument for the existence of God, and because this argument is VERY UNCLEAR,  I’m not going to attempt to evaluate the truth of the premises or the logic of the argument.  I’m just going to point out problems of unclarity, and hope that someday Mr. Hinman will learn how to present a clear and intelligent argument for his views.
“We trust perceptions that…”
What does the word “trust” mean in this premise?  There is no definition or explanation by Hinman of what this means, but it is crucial for the success of this argument that we know precisely what “trust” means in this premise.
What does the word “perceptions” mean in this premise?  Is it possible to “perceive” something that does not exist?  If it is not possible to perceive something that is non-existent, then the use of the word “perception” is question begging in this context.
that work for us in navigating the world”
What does this phrase mean?  This is a very vague idea.  Miracle diets and bogus natural remedies are sold to millions of naive consumers on the basis of testimonials about how some powder, elixir, or pills are ones  “that work for us”.  I wouldn’t spend one nickel on such bogus products without a good deal more clarity and specificity than that.  The phrase “navigating the world” is more poetry than science, and is hardly the sort of phrase that allows for confident judgments and conclusions, apart from provision of a definition or a clear explanation of this concept.
“we judge by…”
This is a very sloppy start to this sentence.  What Himan means here is this:
We judge some unspecified aspect of religious experience by…
Some aspect of religious experience is apparently going to be evaluated, but the aspect is left unspecified, making this sentence UNCLEAR.
Furthermore the concept of “religious experience” is problematic, so this phrase is in need of definition or clarification.  Hinman makes an attempt to clarify the meaning of this problematic phrase:
RE: Religious Experience. umbrella term including mystical experience, born again experience and others.
Hinman gives us one general category of religious experience (i.e. “mystical experience”) and one specific type of religious experience (i.e. “born again experience”), and then adds the open-ended phrase “and others”.
This is NOT a definition of “religious experience”.  Hinman leaves us completely in the dark as to WHY “mystical experience” and “born again experience” should both be categorized as “religious experiences” and as to WHY we should treat these two kinds of experiences as being similar or related to each other.
Furthermore, the addition of the phrase “and others” leaves the door open to a wide variety of other kinds of experiences being categorized as “religious experiences” even though we have been given NO HINT as to how to determine whether some specific experience is or is not properly considered to be a “religious experience”.
So, Hinman leaves the central concept of this argument, namely “religious experience”, VERY UNCLEAR.  This gives us sufficient reason to declare REMEC to be DEAD ON ARRIVAL, even if we ignore the fact that REMEC is clearly NOT an argument for the existence of God in the first place.
According to Hinman, some unspecified aspect of “religious experience” (whatever that means) is to be evaluated in terms of
“...criteria Regular, Consistent, Shared…”
But Hinman makes no attempt to define or clarify what these “criteria” consist of, and that makes an already UNCLEAR premise VERY UNCLEAR, because he is now basing his argument on a set of UNSPECIFIED criteria.  There is a footnote attached to this premise, and so I expected to find some definition or clarification of these UNSPECIFIED criteria in the article that the footnote pointed to:
I took a look at this article and discovered the following important facts about it:

  • There is NO MENTION OR USE  of the word “regular” in this article.
  • There is NO MENTION OR USE of the word “consistent” in this article.
  • There is NO MENTION OR USE of the word “shared” in this article.

In other words, not only is Hinman too intellectually lazy to provide clarification of these key “criteria” in his presentation of REMEC,  but he sends us on a wild goose chase to read a long article on epistemology that does not mention or use any of the words Hinman uses to specify his key epistemological criteria!  If these criteria are false or faulty, then Hinman’s REMEC argument FAILS.  But we have no way to evaluate these epistemic criteria because Hinman doesn’t bother to spell out any of his epistemic criteria.
This failure to specify the epistemic criteria upon which REMEC is based is sufficient reason by itself to judge REMEC to be DEAD ON ARRIVAL, and to declare premise (2) to be VERY UNCLEAR.
Given that Hinman’s REMEC argument never mentions God or existence, and given that Hinman fails to define the central concept of the REMEC argument (i.e. “religious experience”), and given that Hinman fails to specify the content of the three key epistemic criteria, upon which REMEC is based, we now have three good reasons to declare REMEC to be DEAD ON ARRIVAL:

  • Neither God nor existence are mentioned ANYWHERE in REMEC
  • The central concept of REMEC (i.e. “religious experience”) is left UNDEFINED and VERY UNCLEAR
  • The contents of the key epistemic criteria upon which REMEC is based are left UNSPECIFIED

There is no point in me continuing my critique of REMEC.  It is a sad and pathetic bit of reasoning that is VERY UNCLEAR and that fails to address the main question at issue. I will not waste another minute of my time examining and thinking about this argument.
As with Norman Geisler’s sad and pathetic and VERY UNCLEAR case for God, Hinman’s arguments provide us with a good reason for skepticism about the existence of God.  Theists have had thousands of years to perfect their case(s) for God, and yet it is all-too-common to find really bad arguments and cases for God, even by educated people who ought to know better than to present such crap to the public.

bookmark_borderGod’s nature does not make his commands non-arbitrary

Many modern defenders of the divine command theory frequently claim that God’s commands are not arbitrary because they flow from his essential nature. Their argument is bad. That a commander issues consistent commands based on his/her own character does not mean that those commands are not arbitrary. Whether a command is arbitrary depends on whether there are reasons for the command. That commands are based on the commander’s nature tells us nothing about whether there are reasons for the commands.
Consider an imaginary supernatural being who we’ll call Zupater. Zupater is an omnipotent and omniscient creator. He is like the God of theism except that whereas the God of theism is essentially loving, Zupater is essentially hateful. Zupater hates everyone and everything (except for himself). He creates mortal beings and issues commands that flow from his essential nature. One of his commands is as follows: “Thou shalt torture small infants.”
Are Zupater’s commands arbitrary? If we believe that the fact that God’s commands are grounded in his essential nature entails that his commands are non-arbitrary, then we must say something similar about Zupater’s commands. Zupater’s commands flow from his essential nature just as much as God’s commands flow from his. So, if God has reasons for his commands, then Zupater has reasons for his.
However, it is false that Zupater has reasons to command that we torture infants. Indeed, the opposite is the case; Zupater has overriding reasons to not command that we torture infants. The fact that torture causes severe undue and unnecessary suffering provides Zupater with overriding reasons to not command that we torture infants. So, what we should say about Zupater is that it does not matter that his commands flow necessarily from his nature; his commands are ungrounded in reasons and thus they are arbitrary.
But if the fact that Zupater’s commands flow from his nature is not sufficient to make his commands non-arbitrary, then the fact that God’s commands flow from God’s nature are not sufficient to make God’s commands non-arbitrary. Here is the argument in premise-conclusion form:

  1. If God’s essential loving nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary, then Zupater’s essential hateful nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary.
  2. Zupater’s essential hateful nature does not provide him with reasons for his commands.
  3. Zupater has no reasons for (at least some of) his commands (e.g., he has no reasons to command the torture of infants).
  4. Thus, despite the fact that his commands necessarily flow from his essential nature, Zupater’s commands are arbitrary.
  5. Thus, it is not the case that Zupater’s essential hating nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary.
  6. Therefore, it is not the case that God’s essential loving nature provides that his commands are non-arbitrary.

This argument shows, quite conclusively, that whether a command is non-arbitrary is not a function of the nature of the one who issues the command. And this makes sense since, as I indicated above, whether a command is arbitrary depends only on whether there are reasons for the command. Whether there are reasons for a given command is independent of the character traits of the commander. I think that the reason that this frequently goes unnoticed is that we often fail to take notice of the distinction between reasons and motives, so I will say a few things about this distinction.
A reason (or ground) of a belief or decision is a factor that counts in favor of that belief or decision. As Derek Parfit has pointed out, this definition is not very helpful since, when we try to explain the notion of counting in favor of we cannot do so without talking about reasons. But this is not a problem. Reason is probably a primitive concept in the sense that it cannot be helpfully defined in terms of other concepts. As Parfit points out, “We must explain such concepts in a different way, by getting people to think thoughts that use these concepts. One example is the thought that we always have a reason to want to avoid being in agony.” (On What Matters, Volume 1, p.31). A motive, on the other hand, is something that explains a decision or belief. Reasons justify; motives explain.
Reasons justify decisions and beliefs in virtue of counting in favor of those decisions or beliefs; motives explain actions, decisions, and beliefs, in virtue of being psychological states of the agent who performs the action, makes the decision, or has the belief. It is possible for one’s motive to be a reason, but that does not entail that motives and reasons are the same. It is equally possible for one’s motive to fail to be a reason. That I have a motive does not entail that this motive is a reason because that I have some psychological state that explains my decision does not entail that there is anything that counts in favor of my decision. Zupater might command that we never brush our teeth or use mouthwash because he loves the smell of bad breath. But while this shows that Zupater has a motive for this command, it does not follow that he has a reason. The mere fact that he enjoys the smell of bad breath does not count in favor of his commanding that sentient and autonomous beings undermine their own health and well-being. Indeed, it seems that such a command would be unreasonable in the sense that there is no ground for it, nothing that counts in its favor (and much that counts against it).
That God is essentially loving gives us information concerning the kind of motives he will act on. But that he has loving motives does not entail that he has reasons any more than the fact that Zupater has motives entails that he has reasons. If we do not acknowledge the distinction between reasons and motives, then the responses of DCT’s defenders to the arbitrariness problem will appear compelling. Once our attention is drawn to it, however, we can see the weakness of their position.

bookmark_borderThe Physical Realization of the Mental

Here is a handout for one of my classes. Readers here might find it interesting as well. The class read the “Great Debate” on the Secular Web between Andrew Melnyk and the two Christian philosophers Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliafero. This is my explanation of Melnyk’s idea of the physical realization of the mental, which to me is quite plausible.
Mind is defined functionally. A Functional Definition is a definition of something not in terms of its constituents, but in terms of what it does. For instance, since we now have Nooks and Kindles, we would no longer define “book” in terms of being constituted by paper pages and a cloth or paper binder. We would define “book” as “anything that serves to present extended text in a convenient form for reading.” It no longer matters whether a book is composed of processed tree carcasses or of chips and circuits. What matters is what it does.
A functional definition of “mind” would be like a functional definition of “kidney,” where a “kidney” is anything, organic or mechanical, that performs the filtering functions to remove impurities from the blood. A mind is therefore anything, of whatever constitution, that performs the mental functions of thinking, feeling, perceiving, etc. The realizer of a mind would be that thing, whatever it is and however constituted, that performs those mental functions.
According to the theory of the physical realization of the mental, for human beings, the brain is the realizer of all mental functions. In other words, the human brain (or, more accurately, certain subsystems of the human brain) is the human mind because, for humans, it is the brain that performs all mental functions. For human beings, mental activities are a subset of their physical activities.
Since the brain is a physical system then, of course, it performs mental functions physically, i.e. by chemical and electrical causal processes. The brain therefore performs the mental functions in the same general sense that the organs of the alimentary canal perform the digestive functions or that the organs of the respiratory system perform respiratory functions. The brain, in short, is our mental system.
Advantages of the Theory of the Physical Realization of the Mental: Because “mind” is given a functional definition, the problem of multiple realizability does not arise, as it did with the old mind/brain identity theories. A mind is anything that performs mental functions, whether, e.g. it is a human brain, an ET’s brain, or an electronic brain. Further, physical realization solves the problem of mental causation. If mental events are physical performances, then, their causal powers are not mysterious. If noticing that my checking account is low is something that I do with my brain, then it is not mysterious how that awareness (realized as a physical state) causes my next action of deciding to transfer money from my savings account. If mental events just are a kind of physical event, then they can enter into the cause-and-effect nexus just like any other physical events.
Possible Disadvantages: But don’t our mental states have many properties that physical states just cannot have? For instance, cannot a thought be, say, brilliant or humorous? It would be a very odd thing to say that a process in my brain, which is just chemistry and physics, is brilliant or humorous. If thoughts and brain processes have different properties, then they cannot be identical, so the theory of the physical realization of the mental must be false.
But consider an analogy: Singing is a physical process. It is something done entirely with the vocal apparatus, such as the lungs, diaphragm, the larynx, the tongue, etc. Yet we often speak of a particular singing performance, as, say, poignant or enthralling. Of course we would not describe movements of the diaphragm or larynx as poignant or enthralling. A music reviewer and a physiologist would describe a singing performance very differently, but this does not mean that singing is not a purely physical performance. Roughly speaking, the physiologist is concerned with the objective aspects of the singing—how it is physically accomplished. The reviewer is concerned with the subjective aspects of the performance—how it sounds to a listener.
Likewise, we may distinguish between the objective neurological process of thinking and the understood content of the thought. It is essential not to conflate how we think with what we think. How we think is with the physical apparatus of the brain; what we think can be anything. Unsurprisingly, an entirely different vocabulary applies to the intentional objects of our thoughts, such as concepts, ideas, hypotheses, etc. than to the physical process of thinking. For instance, we can think of abstract, non-physical objects such as numbers. We use physical processes to think about non-physical things.* Further, the concepts we employ to understand non-physical things like numbers are very different from the ones we use to understand chemical and electrical processes.
*Why not? Does a driver of fat cattle have to be fat?