bookmark_borderProfessor Craig on Theistic Hypotheses

In 2018 I posted on SO a review of Tim Crane’s book The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View:
Crane argues that atheists have largely misunderstood religion by regarding it as a sort of cosmological hypothesis, one that makes insupportable claims about the creation of the universe via the supernatural acts of a divine agent. By thus construing religion as a sort of spurious proto-scientific cosmology, atheists justify relegating it to the bin of irrelevance and irrationality. However, says Crane, religion should not be seen as any sort of hypothesis, but rather as consisting of the “religious impulse” and “identification.” The religious impulse is the drive to recognize a transcendent order that is both factual and normative. God is posited as real and his will is taken as defining right and wrong. “Identification” is the desire to belong to a community that defines itself in terms of a set of beliefs and practices and which understands the world in terms of those beliefs and practices. What unites these two elements is a shared experience of the sacred, which promotes a strong sense of identity. Atheists miss these points by dismissing religion as a crackpot cosmology and religious believers as superstitious.
In my comments on Crane’s claims, I note that if atheists are mistaken in regarding theism as a quasi-scientific hypothesis, this is not a gratuitous error, but is due to the fact that leading religious apologists defend theism as such a hypothesis. Defenders of “intelligent design” theory such as William Dembski and Michael Behe present their concepts of “specified complexity” and “irreducible complexity” as scientifically legitimate concepts. In The Existence of God, Richard Swinburne employs Bayesian confirmation theory in defense of his theistic hypothesis and appeals largely to the criterion of simplicity, which, of course, is a standard of theory choice in the natural sciences. William Lane Craig’s Kalaam cosmological argument is developed and defended in the context of physical cosmology. These considerations seem to justify the characterization of the theistic hypothesis as “proto” or “quasi” scientific.
However, such a designation is not really important. The important point is that theism is defended as a hypothesis. Whether that hypothesis is classified as “scientific,” “quasi-scientific,” or “metaphysical” is not of primary importance. In my review I make the point that, as John Hick argues in An Interpretation of Religion, the reasoning underlying religious  belief is primarily interpretive and not hypothetical. Hick says that the universe is religiously ambiguous in the sense that there are no facts that compel a religious or a naturalistic interpretation. The arguments for and against the existence of God are not compelling, and their conclusions may be reasonably rejected. Perfectly reasonable people may therefore disagree about the existence of God.
If Hick is right, what follows? Perhaps both atheists and religious apologists should cease their efforts to devise polemical weapons to bludgeon the other side into submission since we should know by now that this will not work. We should instead seek a more nuanced and informed view of belief and unbelief. We might actually learn something from each other!
In a 2018 podcast of “Reasonable Faith,” Kevin Harris interviews Professor Craig about Crane’s book and my review of it:
Jeff Lowder drew my attention to this just recently, and I would like to respond to it here.
Professor Craig argues that, while theistic hypotheses are explanatory, it is “tendentious and inaccurate” to characterize them in general as “semi-scientific” or “proto-scientific.” Craig does admit that the ID theorists regard their hypothesis as scientific. However, they claim that their arguments for intelligent design are religiously neutral, so I err in identifying this hypothesis as a specifically religious or theistic hypothesis.
ID theory is religiously neutral? How can that be when it was developed and promoted explicitly as part of an aggressive apologetic program? Well, to avoid church/state entanglements, ID theorists note that the designer could be something other than the God of Christian theism–something like Plato’s Demiurge, or the “Q” Continuum from Star Trek, maybe. This lawyerly ruse has no bearing on the philosophical issue, however. Could the designer be God? Of course. The most charitable reading of ID is therefore that it is an argument for a disjunction of mutually exclusive and exhaustive designer hypotheses, including the theistic hypothesis as one disjunct.
As for Swinburne’s and his own hypothesis, Craig says that they are not scientific or quasi-scientific because they posit a personal cause rather than a naturalistic one. Scientific explanations are in terms of natural laws and initial conditions, but theistic hypotheses posit a personal agent who creates by acts of volition. However, it certainly seems that, in principle, there could be scientific confirmation of a personal cause. Suppose, for instance, that the famous Hubble image of the Eagle Nebula—the “pillars of creation”—were accompanied by glowing gas in the form of Hebrew letters, light years wide, proclaiming “I, Yahweh, did this.” In this case, we would have outstanding scientific evidence of a personal cause. So, as a general demarcation criterion, the personal/impersonal distinction does not work.
Craig and Harris then have this exchange:
KEVIN HARRIS: Just to be more specific, when he [me] mentions you here, again, he says, “Craig’s Kalaam argument is specifically and explicitly a cosmological claim presented within the context of physical cosmology.”
CRAIG:Right. And it doesn’t appeal to a theistic cosmology or an alternative to contemporary cosmology. It appeals to the normal cosmological model that is affirmed by secular scientists. So it is not in any way positing God as a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis.
Craig’s statement here is a non sequitur. A scientific theory need not be an alternative to another theory, but could subsume it. Theory T2 subsumes theory T1 when T2 provides a deeper and more inclusive explanatory framework that accounts for T1’s empirical success within its domain while locating that domain within a larger one that T2 covers. Advances in science often occur when a new theory does not just replace an old one, but places the old theory in a broader and deeper explanatory context. Thus, Carnot’s theories were subsumed by the thermodynamics of Kelvin and Clausius. Craig’s theistic hypothesis appears intended to provide a deeper and more inclusive explanation than physical cosmology. Physical cosmology is not falsified by Craig’s theistic hypothesis, but rather is subsumed by it. Craig’s theistic cosmology aims to go beyond physical cosmology and tell us why there is a universe at all. So, the fact that Craig does not present his hypothesis as an alternative to physical cosmology, but intends to provide a deeper context for it, does not disqualify it as “quasi-scientific.”
However, since nothing much really turns on it, let’s concede the point for the sake of argument and say that Craig’s hypothesis is a “metaphysical” hypothesis rather than a “scientific” or “quasi-scientific” one. The real problem identified by Crane is that religious belief is identified as any kind of hypothesis. Crane implies and Hick argues that the reasoning underlying religious belief is interpretive rather than hypothetical. That is, the reasoning supporting a religious worldview is more like understanding a text than confirming a hypothesis. We do not understand a text by confirming piecemeal hypotheses about its meaning. Rather, we seek a reading that will give us the most coherent understanding of the text as a whole. Likewise, for religious people, their faith is what, for them, makes the most coherent and comprehensive sense of their total experience. Nothing compels such a judgment; it is inevitably personal and subjective, but not unreasonable. Similarly for atheists. Nothing compelled me to become an atheist. Rather, a naturalistic worldview is the honest and authentic articulation of my total experience and knowledge.
Craig objects that if Crane is right, then he, Swinburne, Steve Meyer, William Dembski and other defenders of religious hypotheses must misunderstand religion, which he regards as implausible.
Craig does not reply to Hick’s view directly, but chiefly expresses surprise that I have supposedly so softened my view of theism that I am now willing to endorse Hick’s view that religious belief can be as rational as naturalism. (n.b., Actually, I have always regarded some religious belief as rational and some definitely not.) What, then, do I have against the apologetic enterprise that he represents? Why do I harshly characterize it as an attempt to “bludgeon” opponents into submission? After all, he is only trying to show that his belief is rational and not to show that atheists are irrational. Why do I persist in seeing the apologetic enterprise as coercive, i.e. as an effort to show not just that their belief is justified, but that mine is not? That is not his aim at all.
I honestly do not know what to make of Craig’s claim here. Does he regard his Kalaam argument as a refutation of atheism? I cannot read his presentation and defense of that argument in any other way. In this case, the argument is not a modest claim about what he is justified in believing, but the much stronger and more aggressive claim that atheism is demonstrably false and groundless. In other words, he seems to be arguing that he is right and that atheists are dead wrong. Atheists, of course, have often argued that they are right and that Craig is wrong. The debate between apologists and atheists therefore does appear to have an oppositional and aggressive character; it is not about what one may believe but what others must believe. However, if I have been misreading Craig all these years, and his aim all along has only been to affirm the rationality of his view and not to debunk mine, then I would suggest that Hick’s position provides a much better basis for such a softer and gentler apologetic.
Finally, Craig invites listeners to look at my debate with him on the existence of God to see if I did indeed effectively criticize his theistic arguments. I also would like to extend that invitation. (I think that Craig is referring to our debate at Indiana University in February 2002, not the earlier one at Prestonwood Baptist Church.).

bookmark_borderCalvinists Needed!

I was raised a Presbyterian, and I think that debating predestination with my Sunday School teachers was one of the main things that pushed me towards an interest–and finally a career–in philosophy. However, there are still many things about the doctrine that I do not understand. I am presently teaching a graduate-level survey of the history of ideas and we are covering the Reformation, with readings from Luther and Calvin. Below is a portion of some notes I plan to post for my students:
The greatest emphasis of Calvin’s theology is the majesty of God. God’s sovereignty is absolute. The universe and everything in it reflect the glory of God, and everything that happens occurs to serve the glory of God. Even the most atrocious actions of the wicked serve the will and purpose of God in the long run. Indeed, God is constantly active in the world to the extent that everything can be seen as an instrument of God’s activity and a product of his will. Even Satan and his devils acted upon God’s command. However, does this not implicate God in the occurrence of evil, since no evil thing can happen without his active involvement?
The problem of God’s responsibility for evil becomes particularly acute when we consider the famous (or infamous) doctrine of predestination. Calvin held that God has foreordained some for salvation and others for damnation. Since God is all-powerful, whatever he ordains must take place. Nothing any human can do can alter God’s eternal decrees. Those who are saved are saved by the irresistible action of the Holy Spirit. Free will has nothing to do with it. The spirit moves those elected for salvation and they must believe the Gospel, and so will be saved. However, if the lost can do nothing to alter their fate, does this not imply that it is God, not the sinner, who is responsible for the sinner’s terrible fate?
One possible way of avoiding blaming God for the fate of the lost is to say that God has foreordained their damnation but not predetermined it. God grants free will to all human beings, but, left to their own devices, all will fall into sin. All humans are therefore corrupt and deserving of hell, but God mercifully chooses to save some. Those he chooses to save are no more deserving than those not chosen. God’s reasons for choosing some and not others are wholly mysterious and unknowable. As for the unsaved, God does not force them to sin, but he leaves them in the state of sinfulness and disobedience which they have chosen for themselves. Therefore, God is not to blame for the fate of sinners, but is to be praised for his mercy in saving some.
First, are these points accurate, so far as they go? Second, according to Calvin, are humans individually responsible for their own corruption, or is corruption the condition into which we are all born, consequent upon the fall of Adam and Eve? Frankly, I find Calvin somewhat confusing on this point. Finally, Calvin says that God shows his mercy by saving some and not others. Some of my students are sure to object as follows: If ten people are drowning and I can easily save them all but only save four, would I not rightly be blamed for not saving all rather than praised for saving four? Would not the same blame attach to a God who only saves some when he could just as easily save all? I have read Calvin’s answers to questions like these, but I am still not completely clear on his responses. Any elaboration or clarification would be appreciated by me and by my students.

bookmark_borderContempt: It’s Not All Bad

NOTE: This is a portion of a paper I read at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association last February. It is a revision of an earlier SO post “Contempt: A Qualified Defense.”
In January 2017, I was pleasantly surprised to see an op/ed by a professional philosopher in The Houston Chronicle. Karen Stohr’s timely and insightful essay “Our new age of contempt is on full display,” was first published in the New York Times. Professional philosophers, like other academics, tend to communicate eagerly with their peers, less eagerly with students, and less eagerly still with the general public. This is too bad since the role of the public intellectual is a vital one.
Stohr argues that in the 2016 presidential election, contempt for the opposing candidate and his or her supporters became mainstream, no longer expressed privately, but blared across television, social media, and the Internet. Messages of vicious contempt even festoon wearing apparel (e.g., a T-shirt worn by one attendee at a Trump campaign rally: “Reporter, rope, tree. Some assembly required.”). Stohr argues that such pervasive and strident expressions of disdain are dangerous:
…it [public expressions of contempt] threatens the foundations of our political community by denying the central moral idea on which that community is based—that everyone has a right to basic respect as a human being.
The cure is not to return contempt for contempt, but to repudiate it entirely:
The only real defense against contempt is the consistent strong and loud insistence that each one of us be regarded as a full participant in our shared political life, entitled to hold all others accountable for how we are treated.
What makes contempt so dangerous? Stohr distinguishes between contempt and anger. Anger is directed at some specific action, aspect, or attitude of a person; contempt rejects the whole person. Even the most devoted couples are sometimes angry with each other. However, marriage counselors say that when genuine contempt crops up between spouses, a marriage has little chance of lasting. When you disdain someone you dehumanize and objectify that person, Stohr argues. You no longer regard him or her as a moral agent to be rationally engaged, but as an object to be scorned or an obstacle to be overcome. In a political context, you no longer regard the ones you scorn as fellow citizens, united, despite disagreements, in pursuit of common good, and approachable in good faith through open dialogue and debate. On the contrary, you despise them, and only want to see them beaten.
But why can’t those who have been the objects of contempt simply reciprocate the attitude? Why, for instance, should not refugees, immigrants, or transgender persons simply return the disdain in full measure towards those who have disdained them? Stohr argues that the contempt of the powerful is powerful, while the contempt of the powerless is negligible. To return contempt for contempt is a battle that the marginalized cannot win, and so they only hurt themselves if, by engaging in expressions of contempt, they help to legitimize such discourse. As Stohr puts it:
In an environment where contempt is an acceptable language of communication, those who already lack social power stand to lose the most by being its targets.
So, reciprocation is not a winning strategy for those who have been marginalized by contempt. At a deeper level, as noted above, the expression of contempt in a public context is intrinsically objectionable. If we truly believe in democratic process in which all are to have a voice, then we will not use disdainful language to dismiss anyone from that process; rather, we will insist that all be included as participants. Therefore, Stohr says that we must work to banish all public expressions of contempt:
Contemptuous political discourse, with its pernicious effects on mutual respect, should never have become mainstream. For the good of our country, we must make every effort to push it back to the shadows where it belongs.
Disdainful language should be eliminated from public discourse and we should insist on respect for all.
All? Really? I am absolutely as appalled as Stohr that expressions of contempt have become the default mode of our political discourse. I and a coauthor have published a book that decries the decay of civility in our culture, a decay typified by a presidential campaign that vilified and scorned every perceived critic, even stooping to the mockery of a reporter’s disability.
Nevertheless, I think that Stohr’s recommendation of elimination goes too far. I hold this for three reasons. Before turning to these, let me state what I consider contempt to be. “Contempt,” which I hold to be synonymous with “disdain” or “scorn,” is an attitude of utter disregard, combining anger and disgust, directed towards someone or something judged to be in some sense egregiously bad. Typically, a human being is judged contemptible if he or she exhibits extreme and apparently irremediable defects of character or inveterate disrespect for the most basic norms of decency. Scorn for such persons is therefore a moral judgment of maximum astringency based upon a perception of extreme moral delinquency.
I object to Stohr’s position on the grounds that (1) It is impractical, (2) expressions of contempt, in the form of mockery, ridicule, or satire are in fact very effective weapons for good, and (3) the truly contemptible have dehumanized themselves; in their disdain for basic human decency and respect they have disqualified themselves from the context of civil and rational discourse.
(1) Stohr seems to hold that expressions of contempt should be like discussions of sex between proper Victorians. Such discourse was to be conducted sotto voce behind locked doors so as not to scandalize the servants. I am permitted to tell my wife, e.g., exactly what I think of some public figure, but not to express it in a public context.
It is indeed regrettable that the private/public distinction has so far decayed in our day, largely due to ubiquitous access to social media and the Internet. The impersonal nature of these media tends to undermine the inhibitions that have long surrounded face-to-face communication. For instance, people responding to each other in online comments regularly abuse and insult each other in the harshest terms, frequently using scurrilous language. Decorous inhibitions about revealing personal feelings in public have also atrophied. Add to this the palpable coarsening of our public culture over the years, and these factors combine to substantiate the perception of increased incivility.
Again, one may regret these developments, but such regret does not return the genie to the bottle. Stohr’s admonitions to play nice might have been effective when conversations were held in drawing rooms between ladies and gentlemen, but now it seems far too little and far too late. We live in an age where harsh, bitter, and derisive comment is the norm.
We can (and should) individually resolve to rise above this abysmal norm in our communications, but the idea that decency will break out all over in the foreseeable future seems far-fetched. I devoutly hope for a return to a modicum of civility in our public discourse, and maybe this is all that Stohr really wants, rather than the unrealistic idea that the language of contempt can somehow be “pushed back to the shadows.” A more feasible aim would be to establish islands of civility in the seas of hostility, and work over time to increase the number and size of these islands. There is no question that the volume of vicious contempt in current public discourse is dangerous. When we cannot talk to each other, soon we fight.  However, it is not clear that the total elimination of contemptuous discourse is desirable, even if possible.
(2) In 2008 a distinct danger threatened the American republic. For some reason, Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a person capable of rational thought and sound judgment, picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin, woefully vacuous and unqualified, would, if elected, have stood only a heartbeat away from the presidency. However, it was our very good fortune that talented comedian Tina Fey was a dead-ringer for Palin, and Fey’s wickedly effective impersonation of Palin was both very funny (“And now I will entertain you with some fancy pageant walking…”) and right on the money. No somber editorializing by The New York Times or hand-wringing on MSNBC would have been nearly as effective as Fey’s satire in revealing Palin’s inanity and incapacity. As H.L. Mencken observed, one horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.
We do not know if Fey’s brilliant satire was instrumental in the defeat of the McCain/Palin ticket in ’08. (Alec Baldwin’s equally devastating portrayal of Trump, was, alas, clearly not sufficiently effective.) However, the self-important, the self-righteous, and the powerful always fear becoming the objects of derisive laughter. The one thing that anyone who covets respect cannot afford is be made to look ridiculous. Nothing punctures pomposity or pretension, or shines a brighter light on the squalid motives behind self-justifying rhetoric than trenchant satire. Satire does not tell us that someone is a hypocrite, fool, or rascal; it shows what they are and gives us that best of all laughs, the laugh that comes with the recognition of stark truth. Further, laughter gives you the courage and the hope needed to fight. No one trembles before a naked emperor.
And make no mistake, there is nothing nice about satire such as Fey’s and Baldwin’s. Such satire is ridicule. It holds its target up to derision. It is contemptuous. Can we have civility if we countenance such satire? I think so, if we follow some basic rules.
First, only satirize the powerful. Don’t make fun of the little guy. When it was learned that Donald Trump’s election was largely due to rural whites, it was tempting to lampoon his supporters as “rubes,” “yokels,” or “rednecks.” Don’t. Lampooning the high and mighty is a way of speaking truth to power; lampooning the little guy is only a cheap and degrading laugh. I loathed the scene in Bill Maher’s film Religulous, where he ridicules a truck-stop chapel and its attendees. When an articulate, educated, and wealthy entertainer mocks the honest piety of simple people, he only debases himself.
Second, condemn in no uncertain terms any ridicule or derision directed by the powerful or privileged against the marginalized. When the over-privileged members of a university fraternity put on blackface and hold “ghetto” parties to ridicule inner-city black people, they are behaving contemptibly. Let one of those pampered and overprivileged guys try to live in a mean-streets neighborhood, and suffer the thousand-and-one hassles inflicted on the poor.
Third, don’t ever make fun of something that somebody cannot help. If you laugh at ignorance, make sure it is the willful ignorance of the intelligent, not the ignorance of those who cannot help it.
Finally, recognize that strong or even passionate disagreement is not a reason to disdain someone. Reasons and arguments that look knock-down to you will always appear weaker to someone with a different starting point. Also, mirabile dictu, you might be wrong, or at least not obviously right. On most important issues rational disagreement is not only possible but to be expected.
3) Some people really are contemptible: The conman who cheats an elderly victim out of her life savings; a bishop who shields a pedophile priest, leaving him free to abuse again; a CEO who dismisses urgent safety concerns in favor of profits, resulting in the gruesome deaths of workers; powerful, wealthy, and famous men who exploit their position to engage in sexual assault or harassment; demagogues who acquire power by cynically manipulating the fears, ignorance, and prejudices of voters. Is it really desirable to be on civil terms with such persons? Some people do not deserve civility; they deserve contempt. We do not dehumanize such persons by regarding them with the contempt they deserve. They have already dehumanized themselves. By their monstrous callousness, utter selfishness, and disregard of the most basic principles of decency, they in effect remove themselves from the human moral community. For such persons, only the language of contempt serves to judge them fairly.
If, in our public discourse, we refrain from speaking of thoroughly contemptible persons in the language they deserve, what do we say about them? Do we speak of them as merely misguided or oblivious? Do we say that they are well-intended but mistaken in how to achieve their laudable aims? Do we rebuke those who speak of them derisively or satirize them? By our refusal of candor, how do we avoid appearing to extenuate contemptible behavior? True, there are times when excessive candor can be harmful. Yet, there have to be times and places for candor, for calling contemptible things and persons, by their correct names. Stohr would remove such candor from public discourse, and I see this as dangerous. My rule, then, is this: Let civility be your default mode, i.e., start by treating everyone civilly. Continue to do so until they themselves reject civility by committing monstrously uncivil acts, and then speak of them as they deserve.

bookmark_borderThe Holy Bible, King Don Version

I was so inspired by the photo of Donald Trump holding the Bible that, further inspired by a Stephen Colbert skit, I have decided to post selections from the King Don version of the Bible. So, here is the word of God, er, Don, er….
The Creation Story:
          In the beginning it was fabulous. What God did was incredible. See, it was dark. Really dark. So dark you couldn’t believe it. And God said “Somebody turn on the lights!” And guess what? A good Republican angel turned on all the lights, and it was just incredibly bright. And God created the Garden of Eden. Eden was beautiful. Just beautiful. Like Mar-a-Lago. Great golf courses. Fabulous food. Then God created Adam and Eve, who were naked except for their MAGA hats. Eve, she was hot, I tell you! And then Satan, obviously a Democrat, came along and told Eve that she and Adam did not have to work and that the Welfare State would take care of them. So, God was pissed off and took Adam and Eve’s MAGA hats and kicked them out of Eden. They became Democrats and had to go west of Eden to live in California.
The Beatitudes:
Blessed are they that kiss my ass, for they shall not be fired.
Blessed are the dictators, like Putin, Erdogan, Modi, Kim Jong Un, and Li Jinping. They don’t put up with any shit. Love ‘em.
Blessed are the producers of fossil fuels. Global warming is a hoax.
Blessed are KFC and McDonald’s. Fried chicken and hamburders are the best!
Blessed are the cops who crack heads and use choke holds, for they shall be called the Children of Trump.
Blessed are the bigots, white supremacists, immigrant-haters, and gun-totin’, pickup-drivin’, Confederate flag-displayin’, MAGA-hat wearin’ bubbas, for they are my base.
The Twenty Third Psalm:
The Lord is me; I shall do what I want.
I lie down with porn stars,
And comfort them with greenbacks.
And lead my critics to courts of law.
I renew my Twitter rants daily, for my name’s sake,
And lie like there’s no tomorrow.
Even though I walk through the valley of Democrats,
I will fear no evil because Mitch McConnell is with me.
My lickspittles and lackeys they comfort me.
I spread a table of chicken and burgers
In the presence of fake news reporters.
My head is richly orange,
And I like women whose D-cups runneth over.
Bigots and bubbas will love me,
Even if I shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.
And I will dwell in the house of Me forever.

bookmark_borderAugustine Versus Hypatia (Part II)

This is the continuation of the imaginary dialogue between Augustine and Hypatia begun in the last post.
Moderator: I fear that the discussion once again is descending into mutual recrimination. To get us back on track, let me get back to a point that was raised earlier. It seems to me that one real strength of orthodox Christianity is the doctrine of the incarnation, which unites spirit and flesh. Orthodoxy banished the extreme dualism of Gnosticism and Manichaeism, an unattractive idea that spawns superstition and repudiation of the physical world. Augustine, would you care to comment”
Augustine: Yes indeed. Christianity in general, and I in particular, have been charged with the introduction of the “Dark Ages,” a period of supposed ignorance and credulity in which blind faith replaced reason and science was despised and ignored. On the contrary, by regarding the physical world as the creation of a rational God, and not the repository of darkness and evil, we laid the conceptual foundations for modern science. Had dualism triumphed, with its deprecation of the physical, modern science could not have arisen. Unbelievers who pride themselves in their devotion to science have Christianity to thank for the science which they idolize.
Hypatia: Whatever the “official” position of Christianity, in practice, Christians have been the most rabid dualists. Extreme Christian asceticism flourished in the late Roman Empire of our day. These ascetics practiced atrocious self-flagellation and mortification of the flesh, enduring the greatest rigors of self-torture in the effort to overcome the flesh and rise to God. St. Anthony lived in the desert and would throw himself naked into a thorn bush when Satan would tempt him with lascivious visions of beautiful women. St. Simeon Stylites lived on top of a pillar for many years, enduring all weather conditions and imposing the most severe deprivations on himself. Far from being objects of revulsion, these crackpots were deeply revered—note the “saint” before their names!—and held up for admiration and emulation. Actions speak louder than words, and when you look at what Christians actually did, you see that repudiation of the earthly and the physical were points of pride for them and that they were the most assiduous haters of the flesh.
Augustine: The rigors of the ascetics were neither gratuitous nor unwarranted. When a society is as besotted with carnal pleasures as was the Empire of our day, strong medicine is needed. As I said in my Confessions, when I arrived in Carthage, I found a hissing cauldron of lust, and Carthage was hardly atypical. Sex, power, and money were the true gods of our world, as they are today, and the “decadence” of Rome was a reality, even after it became nominally Christian. Asceticism and monasticism were the natural and salutary responses to a world mad with sinful indulgence. Did some of the ascetics go too far? Surely, but their excesses were mirror images of the excesses of sin.
Hypatia: But the cure for excess is not excess in the opposite direction, but reason and moderation. When excess is answered with excess, they do not cancel each other out, but synergize against reason. Really, though, the ascetics were only the spear-tip of the thrust against the flesh. Far more significant and lasting in its harm was the animus of the church “fathers” against those beings who, for them, were the quintessential embodiments of the flesh and its temptations—women. As meticulously detailed by the brilliant scholar Uta Ranke-Heinemann, in her searing indictment Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, the church “fathers”—and especially you, Augustine—taught hatred and fear of women, and, concomitantly, a morbid, indeed pathological, attitude towards sex.
Augustine: Nonsense. I merely held that sex should be for its natural purpose, which is procreation. Any use of sex that thwarts the procreative process is an unnatural perversion of its God-ordained purpose. Or do you deny that sex is for procreation? Is it not obvious that sex is for the maintenance of the human race?
Hypatia: As Mr. Darwin taught us, what any natural adaptation is “for” is that it functions so as to increase the reproductive fitness of the organism. Consider sex. Why is sex fun? The fact that it is fun seems to have been missed by you and the other “fathers.”
Augustine: Another smear.
Hypatia: Since reproduction requires sexual union it stands to reason that those organisms who find sex intensely pleasurable will seek to engage in it more often, and therefore enhance their chances of producing offspring. Further, a population of enthusiastic breeders, other things being equal, will very probably outbreed one of indifferent reproducers. Finding sex highly pleasurable is therefore an adaptive feature that was favored by natural selection, both at the individual and the group level. In that sense, sex, and specifically sexual pleasure, is “for” reproduction.
Augustine: And that is precisely why the experience of sexual pleasure for its own sake, and not with the intention of procreation, is an unnatural abuse and misuse of the divine gift of sex. It is like chewing food to get the savor of it and then spitting it out to avoid the nutrition.
Hypatia: Ah, so chewing gum leads to hell.
Augustine: Ridicule seems to be your main weapon.
Hypatia: There is nothing wrong with ridiculing the ridiculous, and your doctrine of what sex is “for” is preposterous. You commit a fallacy of division, saying that what is good for a whole must be good for each of its individual parts, i.e., what is good for a species is good for the individual organisms that constitute that species. In particular, what is good for the preservation of the human species must be the same as the good for each individual man and woman. Reproduction is, of course, necessary for the preservation of the human species, but that does not mean that it is necessary or even always desirable for every individual man or woman. What an individual human being is “for” is the happiness and well-being of that individual. Full stop. Sex therefore serves its purpose for the individual when it promotes the happiness and well-being of that person. Full stop. If the Church says otherwise, then it opposes the happiness and well-being of humans.
Augustine: Your statement makes absolutely clear the blinkered view of unbelievers. I emphatically affirm human happiness, but I realize that genuine fulfillment cannot be found in the striving for worldly goods, but only by faithful obedience to the eternal law of God. Our final and ultimate felicity will be the union of the faithful with God in the hereafter. Pagans who can see no farther than the earthly life think that earthly goods are sufficient for happiness. This view leads to sin and perdition.
Hypatia: Eternal happiness or misery are concepts a bit too rich for my blood. As I see it, a doctrine is to be rejected if it leads to pain and misery in this life. Let’s see what your sex-phobia and misogyny did to ordinary men and, especially, women. Did you not say that a woman is useful to a man only for the begetting of children (Aquinas later added housecleaning too)? She was not given to Adam to help him till the soil because she is lacking in physical strength, and a man would have been better. Neither is she a good companion. Conversation with a male friend is better. Women, in your view, are of no significance for the life of the mind. As Ranke-Heinemann put it:
Thus Augustine was the brilliant inventor of what Germans call the three K’s (Kinder, Küche, Kirche—children, kitchen, church), an idea that still has life in it, in fact it continues to be the Catholic hierarchy’s primary theological position on women.
As for sexual pleasure, you regarded it as per se evil, but as necessary for procreation, and therefore that even married couples should experience sexual pleasure only when they are wholly motivated by the desire for procreation. As you put it with casuistic precision: “What cannot occur without lust should not, however, occur because of lust.” As Ranke Heinemann aptly comments, Catholic sexual morality—largely shaped by you—has “…warped the consciences of many men and women. It has burdened them with hairsplitting nonsense and striven to train them as moral acrobats instead of making them more humane and kinder to their fellow human beings” (back cover)
In other words, Augustine, you stigmatized sex and denigrated women. Innocent and natural pleasures, chief sources of delight in this vale of tears known as human life, are relegated by you to the status of, at best, necessary evils to be avoided whenever possible. It is hard to imagine a doctrine more anti-human, more opposed to joy, more stifling of exuberance, less conducive to a full, rich, and happy life. As for women, we struggle to this very day to overcome the sort of disparagement you typified. Even now, in the twenty-first century, when women have achieved the highest accomplishments in every field of human endeavor, and proven more than capable of meeting every challenge, even now we struggle against the stereotypes you so eloquently promulgated.
Augustine: Well, if I may be allowed to get a word in edgewise into your tirade, my views on sex were not the product, as you seem to imply, of the neurotic maunderings of a sour celibate. I know about sex from knowing myself. I was as much a libertine and sensualist as anyone. Lust raged constantly in my mind, and no one knows better than I how terrible it is to be a slave to lust. It was not I, but a Greek of the classical age who said that when his desires ebbed in old age he felt like one freed from an insane and tyrannical master. I emphatically reject that I am opposed to joy and pleasure. I merely maintain that spiritual joy is greater than any sensual joy and that the pleasure of the soul is vastly more satisfying than the pleasure of the body. There are higher things and lower things. The higher things of mind and spirit are what give us the truest, deepest, and most abiding satisfactions. Or do you reduce everything to the physical, so that humans are just animals and can aspire to nothing higher, nobler, and uplifting—pleasures that refine and purify rather than besmirch and degrade?
Hypatia: How bizarre to think that pleasures of the mind require us to despise those of the body! I have known both kinds and unashamedly revel in them. Surely, those are to be pitied who can experience only sensual pleasure and know nothing of the joys of intellectual discovery or of beauty or of the sacred depths we may encounter in art and nature. Even more stunted however, are those who, oppressed by a neurotic and obsessive sense of sin and shame, foul the wellsprings of joy, and try to stifle their own sexual feelings. Having denied themselves sexual pleasure, they then devote themselves to denying it of others. These are the true sexual perverts, the ones obsessed with controlling the details of others’ sex lives. Those who cannot enjoy the satisfactions of mind, beauty, and spirit are to be pitied. Those pious hypocrites who cloak themselves in a devotion to “higher” things are actually devotees of the basest pleasure of all, namely the pernicious pleasures of self-righteousness and the manipulation of others by the inculcation of guilt and self-loathing. These are not to be pitied, but despised.
Augustine: You are shameless and offensive, and I see no purpose in continuing this conversation.
Moderator: In an effort to salvage some wisdom from what, despite my efforts, has become a personal exchange, may I ask each of you to sum up your position, and, let me emphatically implore you not make personal remarks. Augustine, will you go first?
Augustine: Certainly. If you recall, my intention from the beginning was to focus on ideas. The Lord disclosed even to pagans that there is a higher, more beautiful, and richer reality than the material. Yet, for them, that reality was out of reach, though they strove for it by undergoing years of rigorous intellectual training. The Lord, in His great wisdom and unbounded mercy, has seen that humans yearn for goodness and beauty, but are prisoners of sin that poisons their minds and will, and makes their striving vain. Thus, knowing that we cannot come to Him, He came to us, making himself a human being, born of woman, to redeem us from our sins and lead those who believe to Him. Why do not all bow to Him and accept his grace? Because the flesh is not weak, but strong, strong, and only rigorous discipline can contain it. When lust is unrestrained it rages in the mind, as I know only too well; indeed, it is a conflagration that burns through every scruple and principle and even destroys rationality. Surely no fact of human life is plainer than the devastation that lust has wrought—the powerful it has brought low, and the lowly it has ground into the dust. Unbelieving libertines do not set people free by destroying sexual restraint, but condemn them to the bondage of shame, disease, poverty, and despair. Only Christ can quiet the raging in our minds and limbs and give us the tranquility of self-discipline and turn our minds to higher things.
Moderator: Hypatia?
Hypatia: Sorry. I was bemused for a moment, sincerely dumbfounded by the idea that life presents us with so simple a dichotomy: Either monkish restraint or unbounded libertinism. No other options. I am afraid, Augustine, that you never really gave up your Manichean dualism…
Moderator: Please! No personal comments! Please stick to philosophy!
Hypatia: But sometimes the personal is the philosophical! Augustine invokes a religious philosophy that, he thinks, authorizes him to tell other people what is their most personal and intimate business. The institution he helped found, the Roman Catholic Church continues to this day the tradition of celibate old men telling women what they must do with their bodies. When your “philosophy” intrudes into my womb, then it inevitably becomes a personal issue. I have only one basic moral principle: human happiness. As I said earlier, what each of us is for is our own fulfillment and well-being. Women have known all along, without being instructed by men, that sex is double-edged. We are the ones who bear the consequences of the sexual exploitation and irresponsibility of men. Women are the ones who have had to suffer the double standard that punishes women’s sexual impropriety severely while male impropriety is shrugged off. I am afraid that religion has been the primary enforcer of that double standard, and so, in so many places in the world, it continues to this very day. Indeed, it is hard even to imagine what the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—would look like if truly purged of sexism and patriarchy. I am not sure they would even be recognizable.
Augustine’s religion is just as binding to the mind as to the body. Do not let creeds do your thinking for you. The human mind, if freed from dogma, is a marvelous instrument that can reach from the smallest atom to the vastness of intergalactic space. Free your mind and your body from gloomy and repressive superstitions. Women: Love yourselves, and find the truth with your own minds in defiance of centuries of denigration by the likes of Augustine. No force in the world is more powerful than your own free minds.
Moderator. Okay. Well, thanks to both of you for participating in this, er, vigorous exchange.
Augustine: It was an honor, if not exactly a pleasure.
Hypatia: For me it was an honor and a pleasure!

bookmark_borderAugustine Versus Hypatia (Part I)

For the edification of my students, and for fun, I have written some dialogues that resurrected figures from the past and allowed them to debate. I set these debates as part of programs on “The Afterlife Broadcasting Company.” I assume that the participants have become aware of intellectual developments since their day. Here I have tried to be as true to Augustine’s views as I could. We know quite a bit about Augustine but much less about Hypatia. Therefore, I have had to imaginatively reconstruct her views. Since the dialogue is rather long at over 5000 words, I have divided it into two parts so as not to try readers’ patience too much.
Moderator: Prepare for fireworks! Tonight we have in the studio Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415), philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, educator, and pagan martyr. Her opposite number is her contemporary, St. Augustine, philosopher, theologian, and Bishop of Hippo (354-430). Both of our guests tonight were citizens of the late Roman Empire, living in the days of the final collapse of the Western Empire, the topic our previous guest Mr. Gibbon wrote about so eloquently. The Roman Empire was made officially Christian by the Emperor Theodosius in 391, but pagan intellectuals and academies continued to exist, more or less tolerated for the time being. Hypatia herself was the victim of intolerance. In the year 415 she was killed…
Hypatia: Murdered. Atrociously. By a mob of Christian fanatics who had been incited by the odious Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria…
Augustine: May I ask the moderator not to spoil the discussion by permitting the injection of emotion and name-calling. I was hoping for a calm, rational exchange.
Hypatia: Did I raise my voice? That I was murdered by a mob of Christian fanatics is a plain fact that I stated in a calm, rational manner. That Patriarch Cyril was odious is, of course, a value judgment, but one I am happy to support. Indeed, his actions shocked and appalled many Christians.
Augustine: Yes, I was one of the ones shocked and appalled.
Moderator: I think that we can agree, then, that Hypatia’s murder was an atrocious and inexcusable act. However, to focus our discussion on ideas, let’s look at another area of at least potential agreement between the two of you. Hypatia, you were a neoplatonist philosopher. Augustine, you also were deeply influenced by neoplatonism. What exactly is “neoplatonism?”
Hypatia: Neoplatonism, as the name implies, is a philosophy that is based upon and arises from the metaphysical theories of Plato, particularly his theory of the Ideal Forms. As developed by neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichos, Proclus, and myself, we conceived of all of reality as an emanation from a transcendent, ineffable One that lies beyond all human categories and distinctions, and even beyond being. Reality, which flows from the One, is a hierarchical structure, with Mind as a more fundamental reality than matter, fundamental in the sense that that the order and organization of material things, their intelligible natures, are to be understood only in terms of ideal, transcendent patterns. The human is a material being, but possessed of a spiritual soul that is the pure and abiding essence of the human person. The goal of philosophy is to guide the individual soul upwards from its material prison, through a process of intellectual enlightenment, aimed at a return of the soul to its true home, the realm of mind and spirit.
Moderator. Wow. I am not sure that I understand much of that. I think, indeed, that one of our earlier guests, Aristotle, would question whether it is entirely intelligible. Nevertheless, I take it, Augustine, that your philosophical orientation is essentially in agreement?
Augustine: Yes. I think that God inspired Plato, Plotinus, and other pagan thinkers and showed them a part of the truth. They correctly perceived a reality beyond the material, but for them ultimate reality was an abstract principle, a theoretical entity that is no more personal than the modern theories about quarks and electrons. We Christians realized that the highest form of reality is a person, a being that thinks, feels, judges, decides, and plans. God can hear the prayers of even the humblest soul and is bountiful in His grace and mercy. Neoplatonism is an elitist philosophy that offers an intellectual path to salvation, one open to only the select few who have had the great good fortune to have had an elite education. Pagan intellectuals scorned Christianity as “a religion of women and slaves.” What for them was its greatest weakness was in fact its greatest strength. Salvation is not for a few privileged intellectuals but for one and all…
Hypatia: Yes, salvation is open to all—except for the myriads of human beings who, by your own doctrine, are predestined to eternal torment in hell. Your “God of mercy” has, for inexplicable reasons, created a universe in which a few are saved by irresistible and seemingly arbitrary grace, while the rest are consigned to the worst possible fate, a fate thrust upon them by “original sin” transmitted from two distant ancestors whom they never knew. I cannot think that omniscience and perfect goodness working through eternity could not have come up with a better plan than that.
Augustine: Typical! Instead of falling on your knees to thank God for his gracious salvation given through Christ, you presume to judge Him with your fallible human intellect! Much has been hidden from the “wise” such as yourself, and disclosed only to the eye of faith. It is not for us to question God’s judgments, only to defer to them and accept them humbly. I believe in order that I might understand.
Hypatia: Your incuriosity is staggering. One thing you do not have much faith in is reason. As one much later Christian, Mr. John Locke put it with admirable candor, all of you Christians follow reason until you get to something you cannot explain. You then call it a “mystery” and say that you have to accept it on faith! What you call a “mystery” I call “nonsense,” and what you call “faith” I call “credulity.” Indeed, your whole theology is an incoherent pastiche of ideas stolen from Greek philosophy and forcibly conjoined with the mythology of Hebrew religion. That is because you want two inconsistent things from this chimera you have created: You want your God to have the respectability of a metaphysical principle that will meet the rigorous standards of philosophy, yet he must also be a Zeus-like being who is enthroned in heaven like an earthly monarch, and like a human tyrant, he dispenses his favors to those who truckle to him and smites those with the courage to defy him. There is a great deal of smiting in your scriptures.
Augustine: Clearly, you have an incapacity to understand allegory. The Holy Scriptures were not written by or for philosophers, but for everyone. Therefore, they have meaning at different levels. The literal meaning speaks to the pious and humble, but the learned and wise can see a deeper and richer meaning. For instance, the beautiful story of the Prodigal Son can be understood by anyone, but the wise can see beyond its literal meaning and understand it as an allegory for the glorious plan of salvation whereby God’s supreme love justifies us despite our defiance of him. Like the Prodigal, we think we are capable of living on our own, without God or his grace and mercy. Our deepest sin is pride, superbia, the arrogance of thinking that we are sufficient for ourselves. Fools! We are so bound to sin that our choices are only sinful choices and even our intellectual powers are bound by sin. Only God can set us free. We know this to be true if we look in our own hearts. We see that we are restless and in turmoil. Tranquility eludes us, even if we are gifted with all good earthly things. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God. We know God by knowing ourselves and seeing in Him the final and supreme satisfaction of our yearning for truth, meaning, and beauty.
Hypatia: So, there is one revelation for hoi polloi, and another for the “wise and learned!” And who is the elitist? Worse, it is simply dishonest to dismiss every atrocity and absurdity, with which the Christian/Judaic scriptures overflow, by calling them “allegory.” The fact is, as the earlier guest Mr. Thomas Paine pointed out in his brilliant polemic The Age of Reason, the scripture of your alleged religion of love is filled with the most repugnant and degrading cruelties, and, as Mr. Paine so judiciously observed, those who worship a cruel God become cruel people. Cruel like you, Augustine. Did you or did you not say that “heretics” such as the Donatists should be forced back into the orthodox fold, by means of physical violence if necessary?
Augustine: Note that I recommended mercy and spoke against the use of the horrible tortures of the day such as the rack and red-hot irons…
Hypatia: Yes, as I recall you said that beating them with rods would do. Let’s see, was that metal rods or would mere wooden ones suffice? Yes, you were an angel of mercy.
Moderator: To prevent the discussion from devolving further into mutual recrimination, let me see if I can shift us back to a more philosophical orientation. History is irrelevant to neoplatonism. It is a metaphysic of eternal relationships between transcendent entities and between the transcendent and the material. For the neoplatonist, the material world has always existed as an eternal emanation from The One. Salvation, for the individual, is, in fact to escape the temporal and the material and involves the mystical union of the soul, purified of all earthly dross, with its ultimate source, The One. It is the “flight of the alone to the alone” as Plotinus poetically describes that mystical merging. It is a state of ineffable ecstasy that even Plotinus only experienced a few times. Indeed it may require more than one lifetime to achieve. Christianity, on the other hand, affirms certain historical occurrences as its fundamental truths. As St. Paul said (I Corinthians, chapter 15), “if Christ be not risen, our faith is in vain.” The Apostle’s Creed affirms that the world is not eternal, but was the creation of God in time. Also the incarnation, via the virgin birth, and the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ all are affirmed as actual, historical occurrences. Doesn’t Christianity, then, represent a crucial divergence from neoplatonism, and, indeed, all of Greek philosophy? Isn’t this an affirmation of the value of the world rather than a repudiation of it, as the neoplatonists recommended.
Augustine: Yes indeed. Christianity definitively repudiates the dualism of spirit and matter, and the association of all that is good with the former and all that is evil with the latter. God loves the physical universe; He created it. Most profoundly, he incarnated Himself as a physical being, the flesh-and-blood human being Jesus of Nazareth, born of a woman like any other man. Orthodoxy, in opposition to all Gnostic heresies, affirms that Christ was both fully God and fully human. In Him the divine and the human natures are perfectly combined without division or disunity. God unites his eternal nature with our earthly nature as an act of supreme love to reconcile sinners with Himself.
Moderator: But this is a point I have never understood. If God becomes incarnate as a human, then what happens to the creator and sustainer of the universe? Does he simply disappear, so that there is no longer a transcendent God but only an immanent one, one fully incorporated into the material world?
Augustine: No, this is why the doctrine of the Trinity is so vital. God the Father remains in His eternal glory. It is God the Son who is God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are not incarnated.
Moderator: So, Christians believe in three Gods?
Augustine: No! God is three persons united in one substance.
Moderator: But how do we understand this?
Hypatia: You cannot. The whole doctrine is a morass of incomprehensibility.
Augustine: What?!? You neoplatonists had your own trinity—The One, Mind (Nous) and the World-Soul.
Hypatia: We did indeed recognize three distinct realities, with The One as being the primordial reality and with Mind and the World-Soul as emanations from The One. We did not commit the gross error of uniting these into a single being of three distinct “persons”—a concept that makes no sense at all. Further, the idea of an incarnation is just as absurd. It is what a later philosopher called a gross “category mistake” to think that the divine and the fleshly can be combined. They are defined as opposites so that being one by definition excludes the other. To speak of the divine as becoming flesh makes no more sense than saying that the number seven is living next door to you or that the set of integers votes Republican.
Christianity is guilty of many intellectual sins, but putting incomprehensible metaphysical formulae at the center of a creed and then requiring, on pain of damnation, assent to the unintelligible, is its greatest offense.  To his credit, your successor, Aquinas, admitted that the doctrine of the Trinity was incomprehensible, but said that it should be accepted on faith. But you cannot accept, even  by faith, what is for you not even a concept. If I told you that you must accept, on faith, that “Twas brillig and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” what would be the content of your “belief?” How would such a “belief” differ from unbelief?
Augustine: Yet the world is full of adumbrations of the Trinity. Our very minds contain the trinity of being, knowledge, and love. We know that we are, we love that we are, and we know that we love. These three elements of our selves are distinct yet live within one consciousness and in the closest relation with one another. We see, therefore that parts of our selves can be distinct yet united into one consciousness. Our very souls mirror the triune nature of God, and that trinity of being, knowledge, and love constitutes the image of God in us.
Hypatia: Pardon me if I fail to grasp the analogy. The only human beings that are multiple persons are those who suffer from an extreme form of psychosis. Is the Christian God insane? That would explain a lot.
Augustine: Arrogance and insult are the best you can do? Allow me to point out the intellectual hypocrisy: Hypatia and the neoplatonists talk about the “One,” which is beyond all human descriptions and concepts, and so is incomprehensible. Sauce for the gander. They are the last ones who should charge Christians with incoherence.
Hypatia: Tu quoque is the best you can do? We persecute no one and threaten none with hell if they reject the idea of The One. As philosophers, we say that if you find a concept unreasonable, then by all means reject it. We disagree with other schools of philosophy, but we do not condemn them. Christians, however, display their charity by directing rancor and violence at those who split theological hairs with them. Christians violently persecuted and killed each other over whether the Son was homoiousios or homoousisos with the Father. Literally, an iota’s difference was a matter of life and death.

bookmark_borderIs Racism America’s Original Sin?

It has been over a year since I contributed to Secular Outpost. Multiple responsibilities and distractions took me away. I would like to return to SO with a post that is somewhat tangential to our usual discussion topics here, but the issue is so important that I think we need to discuss it whenever we can:
I am an old white man. What can I say about racism? Whatever I say, I am sure it will not be enough, since I have not experienced the daily reality of marginalization and humiliation in overt and subtle ways. Nevertheless, each of us must try to gain what wisdom and insight we can. Racism is a toxin that poisons every aspect of society. Nothing that we do is left untouched and undistorted by racism. Every institution, public and private, is affected by it. If I may speak in a theological vein, racism is the original sin of America that was with us in the beginning and in every succeeding generation has done its insidious work to prevent the realization of liberty and justice for all. Law, politics, business, medicine, religion, education, and even our leisure activities are skewed by racism. Unlike Augustine’s concept of original sin, racism is not passed on biologically. Small children seem to be immune to it. Yet the pervasiveness and intractability of racism is such that we may say, speaking metaphorically, that it is stamped into the cultural DNA of American society.
But haven’t things improved? Have we not made steps in the right direction? Surely we have. I am old enough to remember travelling by car across the South from Atlanta to Houston in the early sixties. The trip took us through some of the more paleolithic areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, where service stations still had separate “colored” restrooms and restaurants defiantly posted “whites only” signs.
In Atlanta, the city that prided itself in being “too busy to hate,” restaurateur (and future governor of Georgia) Lester Maddox brandished ax handles to chase black people out of his establishment. Governor George Wallace stood in the door at the University of Alabama to deny entrance to black students. In Neshoba County, Mississippi, three civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan with the connivance of local “law enforcement.” In Birmingham, the Klan blew up a black church, murdering four young girls. Surely, we must think, we have come a long, long ways since those terrible days.
Then George Floyd was lynched. Who needs the Klan when cops can casually murder a helpless black man in a major city in broad daylight and obviously expect no punishment? And Floyd was just the latest in a long, disgraceful series of such incidents by the very officers appointed to “serve and protect” us. And the perpetrators nearly always have walked free, many not even being fired by their departments. Small wonder Floyd’s murderers arrogantly expected impunity. When it comes to race, America is like the hamster on its exercise wheel; we run and run and get nowhere.
So, what, if anything, can old white people like me do to improve the situation? Well, obviously we can tolerate no racism on the part of our public officials. Learn to recognize all the code words and dog whistles for racism, and be aggressively intolerant of those that use them. When you hear a politician calling for “law and order,” remember the history of that phrase. It is a classic dog whistle. That locution became popular during the Nixon years in response to the perceived threat of black crime and violence. Politicians who touted themselves as “law ‘n’ order” candidates were reassuring white voters that they were all for cracking black heads.
Call out racists when they try to claim the moral high ground. When someone responds to the slogan “Black Lives Matter” by piously intoning that ALL lives matter, don’t let them get away with it. People who say that are really just hypocritically invoking a moral platitude to disguise their refusal to admit that black lives really are valued less.
And in America today black lives really are valued less. Face that fact. Consider environmental racism. When a dirty, polluting plant, like a cement mixing facility is being located somewhere in town, guess whose neighborhood is chosen. I live in Friendswood, TX, a well-off, predominately white neighborhood. No mixing plants near me. The shocking fact is that zip code is one of the most reliable predictors of life expectancy in the Houston area. Not only do black and brown people have to live with pollution, they often are in food deserts, where the nearest grocery stores with healthy foods are many miles away. The shockingly greater mortality of the COVID-19 pandemic in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods is indicative of the underlying poorer health of residents and their greater difficulty in getting access to quality healthcare. Also, higher paid workers have largely been able to telecommute, but those in “frontline” jobs like postal or home healthcare workers, have no choice but to work in environments with a higher risk of exposure.
What about confronting your own racism? Touchy subject. Many of us, myself included, would be seriously offended if called a racist. In fact, I would consider it a defamation of my character. In my classes I make every effort to make everyone feel comfortable and included. I have gotten extremely positive feedback from students of all races and ethnicities. Many have taken multiple classes from me, and quite a few have earned outstanding grades. I am proud to have known these students and to have made a positive impact on their lives.
Still, to be perfectly honest—and we all have to be perfectly honest if we are going to make any progress—it would be a miracle if I, a white man in a society that devalues nonwhite lives, had never unconsciously absorbed any racist assumptions or attitudes. What do I do about it? Do I monitor my thoughts constantly and obsessively review everything I say to see if there is any tincture of prejudice? Do I engage in rigorous self-censorship, repressing any thought that might betray bias? Do I repent in sackcloth and ashes or wear a hair shirt? That sounds like the way to make yourself a neurotic, not a better person.
I think that the way to confront your own racism is to treat it like you would any other irrational thought or impulse. First, you have to notice it. Do you get angrier when a black person is rude to you than when a white person is? Do you expect more deference from people of color? Do you unthinkingly expect a black or brown professional to be less competent than a white one? When you hear about a holdup on the local news, do you automatically assume that the criminal was black? It is hard not to. Every time you watch local news, you are likely to see at least one video of young black men committing a robbery or break in. It is easy to think of crime as having a black face, but we forget that the overwhelming majority of white collar criminals are white. Bernie Madoff, the Wells Fargo crooks, and the Enron con artists stole more than armies of street criminals.
When I see security camera footage of a black teenager pistol whipping a convenience store clerk, it makes me mad. And it should. But you should be much angrier when the criminal is a wealthy white man who went to an elite university and occupies the executive suite of a large corporation and has bilked innocent people out of their life savings or retirements. Remember that a great deal of the really rotten stuff in the world is done by rich white people. Rich white people pollute your air and water, corrupt Congress with bribes and legions of lobbyists, gouge you for your insulin, bribe officials at top universities to admit their dimwit children, exploit dodges and loopholes to shift the tax burden onto you, bust unions, create monopolies, slap harassing lawsuits on ordinary people who have the temerity to stand up to them, and—should they (mirabile dictu!) ever actually be charged with a crime—are insulated from punishment by a phalanx of lawyers.
So, if racist thoughts or feelings bubble up into consciousness, or you find yourself making racist assumptions, confront them with reason, not guilt. For me it helps to remind myself that nearly everyone who has caused me any problem in life was white.
It also helps to have friends, not just casual acquaintances, but genuine friends who are not white. For many years, until his untimely death at the age of 56, one of my closest friends was a black man who was the son of a single mom who raised him and his brothers in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood. Gerry was an amazing human being. I thought that I knew something about the history of the Second World War, priding myself on having read a few dozen books. Gerry had read ten to every one that I had read. Add to that his exhaustive knowledge of cinema and classical music. You could ask Gerry about the best performance of any piece in the classical repertoire, and he would name the conductor and orchestra. I followed his advice many times in my music selections, and was never guided wrong. But Gerry also knew how to enjoy good food, good company, and a big laugh. Gerry had the greatest laugh of anyone I have known; it was an unrestrained eruption of pure mirth. God, I miss him.
OK, well those are my thoughts for now. I am sure that they are not profound: Do not tolerate racism in yourself or others. Confront irrationality with truth and reason. Have friends, real friends, who are people of color. Let me add that when black or brown people talk to you, listen to what they are saying. Really listen, even if what they are saying rubs you the wrong way. Especially if it rubs you the wrong way. They may be wrong. Just because someone is black does not mean that they can’t be talking nonsense. On the other hand, maybe they are saying something that you need to hear.
I am old. Racism is not going away in my lifetime. Probably not in yours, but as Voltaire said at the end of Candide, we must all tend our gardens. We must make the difference we can make.

bookmark_borderDo We Need a Finely-Tuned God?

I have recently had a most interesting e-mail exchange with Professor Jason Waller of Kenyon College. His new book Cosmological Fine-Tuning Arguments will be coming out soon from Routledge. While, of course, I do not accept the fine-tuning argument  (FTA), I think Prof. Waller’s treatment is, by far, the best defense of it that I have seen to date. Here is the blurb I offered for the book:

Jason Waller’s Cosmological Fine-Tuning is exactly what is needed by anyone interested in this fascinating topic. He has mastered the technical issues and presented them clearly and accurately. The argument is judicious, fair, and nuanced and the conclusions are solidly supported. Highly recommended.

In a recent book of my own, Polarized: The Collapse of Truth, Civility, and Community in Divided Times (Prometheus Books, 2019), written with my old friend the Rev. Dr. Paris N. Donehoo, in my introductory remarks I offered a brief statement of the reasons that I am an atheist. It included these lines:

As for “fine tuning,” the argument is that, of all the possible ultimate, uncaused physical realities that might have been, we were, given naturalism, impossibly lucky to have one that permits our existence. Therefore, there must have been an a supernatural intelligent designer to actualize life-friendly conditions out of those vastly numerous possibilities. My reply is that, by precisely the same reasoning, of all the possible ultimate, uncaused supernatural entities that conceivably could have been, we were impossibly lucky to get one that both wanted our existence and had the power to create and control a physical universe so that it would produce us. Any posited ultimate (logically) contingent fact—natural or supernatural—will necessarily be only one of infinitely many alternative realities that were equally logically possible. Sauce for the gander. The upshot, on my view, is that it is meaningless to speak of objective probabilities of ultimate posits. Whatever exists as the ultimate, uncaused reality is neither probable nor improbable. It just is.

I sent these lines to Prof. Waller and he kindly sent a detailed response. Below is part of his reply:

…[T]he claim that we were impossibly lucky to get the right kind of god is really interesting.  I have two general thoughts about this claim.  First, the fact that the supposed god wanted a fine-tuned universe is part of the hypothesis itself.  As an analogy, suppose that we found strange crop circles in a corn field and are developing hypotheses to explain the appearance of exactly these particular shapes.  One hypothesis is the Alien Hypothesis (AH) on this hypothesis there are otherwise unknown aliens who had some unknown reason for creating exactly this shape in the cornfield. This is not overfitting the hypothesis to the data because the only reason for supposing that such aliens exist is to explain this phenomenon.  So it would be a mistake, I think, to claim that we were impossibly “lucky” to get aliens that wanted exactly the shape we happen to find.  The hypothesis under consideration includes the claim that the aliens wanted this shape.  In much the same way, if there is some weird graffiti on my car one morning I suppose that there is some youth who had some unknown reason for making this exact design.  Simply positing a youth who vandalizes cars or an alien who makes odd shapes in cornfields is really not going to help because it is presumably more likely that such a person or being would NOT desire the outcome than would desire it.  So we have to include the claim that the unknown person or being desired this outcome in the hypothesis itself.  Second, I think it is a major mistake for the theist to claim that the god is a contingent brute fact reality.  I absolutely agree with you that if our two hypotheses are (B) a brute fact universe or (B+) a brute fact god who made a contingent universe, then the first is theoretically simpler and so is to be preferred (all else being equal.) Much like positing a brute fact universe creating machine that made only one universe offers no theoretical advantage.  The best approach for the theist, I think, is the claim that the god is metaphysically necessary meaning that it exists in all possible worlds.  That way the same fine-tuning question cannot be raised again at the level of the god thing.  Why does the god thing exist?  It has to–it exists in all possible worlds.  Now the naturalist can make the same move without giving up on the contingency of our universe.  Of course, the naturalist could say that this is the only metaphysically possible universe and so it exists in all possible worlds.  But then we would need to radically rethink our modal intuitions.  To get a contingent universe it seems as though we either need the universe to be a brute fact or we need a necessary being with free will.  Otherwise, its Spinoza.

Here I would like to offer my response back. Perhaps I am missing something, but I do not see how incorporating the power and desire to create a finely-tuned universe into the hypothesis will help.
Let FT be the hypothesis that the universe, with its fundamental physical constants, was created by a god (a supernatural person) with the power and desire to create a universe of that specific nature.
Let VC be the values of the fundamental physical constants.
Let K be background knowledge.
Defenders of the FTA claim that VC is evidence for FT. In that case:
p(VC/FT & K) × p(FT/K)
p(FT/VC & K) = ——————————————————————
p(VC/FT & K) × p(FT/K) + p(VC/~FT & K ) × p(~FT/K)
Now we might raise a question about  p(VC/~FT & K ). We could argue that we really do not know what this value is yet, basic physics being not yet complete, or we could argue that physical processes, such as a selection process among multiple universes could explain fine-tuning (Prof. Waller considers such hypotheses in his book).
It seems to me, though, that the real problem is with p(FT/K). What is the background knowledge here? If FT is an ultimate posit, that is, is posited as an ultimate brute fact lying at the end of every explanatory chain, then, in that case, K can only contain tautological information, i.e. necessary truths. Necessarily—by definition—an ultimate brute fact is logically contingent. It is the ultimate reality—as a matter of fact—but it does not have to be. As a contingent fact, what other possibilities might have been instead? Normally, we would limit those other possibilities by appeal to background knowledge, but here we have extremely exiguous background information, limited strictly to necessary truths. It appears, then, that any possible state of affairs might have been the ultimate, original reality. Borrowing from my ex-professor John Earman’s example about what might emerge from naked singularities, the original existent might have been a single argyle sock, a patch of brown liquid, or a TV set playing Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech on endless loop. We are presuming that we have NO information to rule out any such possibilities.
So, if FT is an ultimate, brute posit, and if K contains only necessary truths, how do we assess p(FT/K)? We have two choices here: (1) We say that FT, like all ultimate posits, has no objective probability. This is the option I support. However, the FTA is all about assigning probabilities to ultimate posits. That is the whole motivation for the argument. If ultimate posits do have objective probabilities then, option (2) is to assess the probability of FT given only K. Prima facie that probability would be zero since there are infinitely many other possible ultimates (note that a probability of zero does not mean impossibility when the sample space is infinite). Hence we do seem to face the problem of fine-tuning with respect to FT as for any posited ultimate. Why this with just these properties out of the infinitely many alternatives? To posit a super-fine-tuner would lead to an infinite regress. So, the need for a finely-tuned universe is replaced by the equally urgent need for a finely-tuned god.
Here many philosophers would appeal to alleged metaphysical necessities to make some ultimate posits more probable than others. Thus, Richard Swinburne appeals to simplicity to argue that the God of theism is the most probable ultimate posit. However, post-Kant we know that metaphysical assumptions are slippery things. If theists are free to invoke the assumptions that support their side, then non-theists have that same freedom. Thus, Paul Draper uses the criterion of “modesty” to argue that naturalism is a more plausible ultimate posit. If, in the end, the FTA comes down to whose metaphysical assumptions we accept, non-theists can confidently expect that theirs will be as good as any—by God!
Many theists would follow Prof. Waller in regarding God as existing in all possible worlds. As it so happens, this is an issue I addressed in my last post before this one, so I will just refer back to that.

bookmark_borderThe Possible Worlds Argument

This is somewhat more technical than our usual posts here at Secular Outpost. However, we have always thought of SO as a serious site for serious thinkers, and not for the usual invective that pollutes too much of the Internet. So, here is my take on the possible worlds version of the ontological argument.
Possible Worlds Version:
1) “God” =df “a perfect being.”
Premise: Definition of “God.”
2) If a perfect being exists, then that being exists in every possible world.
Premise: Perfection cannot exist contingently, i.e. only in some possible worlds but not in others.
3) If a perfect being exists, then that being necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 2; definition of “necessarily exists.” A necessary being is one that exists in every possible world.
4) If it is possible that a perfect being exists, then that being possibly necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 3; principle of modal logic. If p ⊨ q, then ◊p → ◊q.
5) If it is possible that a perfect being exists, then that being necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 4; principle of modal logic: ◊□p ⊨ □p (If something is possibly necessary then it is necessary.).
6) It is possible that a perfect being exists.
Premise: Assumption.
7) A perfect being necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 5 and 6 by Modus Ponens.
8) God necessarily exists.
Conclusion: From 1 and 7; definition of “God.”
9) God exists.
Conclusion: From 8; principle of modal logic. □p ⊨ p (necessarily p entails p.)
            The crucial premise here is #6. It sounds innocuous enough. Surely it would seem closed-minded to deny that it is even possible that a perfect being exists. However, if God is defined as a perfect being, and perfection cannot exist contingently, then if God exists, God exists necessarily. In symbols, (∃x) Gx → □(∃ x) Gx. Further, if it is possible that God exists, then it is possible that God exists necessarily: ◊(∃x) Gx → ◊□(∃x) Gx. However, by an accepted modal principle, if something is possibly necessary, then it is necessary. Therefore, if God possibly exists, then he necessarily exists: ◊(∃x) Gx → □(∃x) Gx. So, to concede that God even possibly exists is already automatically to concede that God necessarily exists! Anyone who disputes that conclusion will therefore want to resist conceding premise 6.
What, though, besides not wanting to accept the conclusion, would motivate us to reject premise 6? Consider the following proposition G:
G: There exist one or more possible worlds containing gratuitous evil.
“Gratuitous evil” is evil that is so bad that no all-powerful, all-good being would permit it. An all-good being would prevent it and an all-powerful being could prevent it. Therefore, any possible world containing an all-good and all-powerful being will contain no gratuitous evil. Conversely, any possible world containing gratuitous evil will not contain—and necessarily will not contain—an all-good, all-powerful being. Put another way, if there are possible worlds that contain gratuitous evil, then, necessarily, no perfect being exists in that world, since a perfect being, by definition, is all-powerful and all good. Since God is defined as a perfect being, then, necessarily, God does not exist in any possible world containing gratuitous evil.
If you accept Proposition G, then you hold that there exist possible worlds (one or more) containing gratuitous evil. In such worlds, God necessarily does not exist. If God necessarily does not exist in such worlds, then it is not even possible that God exists in such worlds. But if there are possible worlds in which God necessarily does not exist, then it is not even possible that God exists in every possible world. Therefore, whoever accepts Proposition G, will reject premise 6, and so will reasonably reject the possible worlds version of the ontological argument.
Yet acceptance of Proposition G has even worse consequences for those who define God as existing in every possible world. If, by definition, if God exists, then he exists in every possible world, and if, necessarily, there are worlds in which God does not exist (i.e. he cannot exist in those containing gratuitous evil), then God does not exist! So, anyone who accepts Proposition G, and who also accepts the definition of “God” given in the above version of the ontological argument, may easily construct an argument disproving the existence of God!
So, then, the matter comes down to which of the following propositions you accept:
It is possible that a perfect being exists.
It is possible that gratuitous evil exists.
If you accept the first of these propositions, then the above argument proves the existence of God. If you accept the second of these propositions, then you do not accept the sixth premise of the above argument, and so you do not have to accept its conclusion. Further, if you accept the second of these propositions and you accept the definition of “God” as a being who, if he exists, must exist in every possible world, then you can disprove the existence of God so defined.
I regard it as eminently reasonable to accept the second of the above propositions. Prima facie it seems easy to imagine worlds in which the balance of evil over good is so great that no perfect being would permit the existence of such a world. For instance, it seems possible that a world might exist in which all sentient creatures, innocent or guilty, suffer eternal torment in the afterlife. In such a world, there is no salvation, and the innocent all suffer eternally along with the guilty. If such a nightmare world is possible, then it seems that no morally perfect and all-powerful being would exist in such a world. Hence, this would be a possible world in which God does not exist.