May 16

Is everything in the Bible true?

Oxford philosopher Peter Millican, in this free series on philosophy (you should download it and listen to it – it’s free!), raises a very simple challenge to biblical innerancy. I’ve adapted it slightly below:

1. Commanding genocide is not morally praiseworthy.

2. Every act of God is morally praiseworthy.

3. God commands genocide in the Bible.

4. Therefore, not everything in the Bible can be true.

This is just a more formal representation of the type of argument you hear all the time. You may have heard something like, “How can the word of God contain all these atrocities?” I think this syllogism is actually quite powerful (even if we may have to adapt it slightly to meet a few objections).

I can see a few ways out of the problem – say that genocide can be morally praiseworthy when God commands it (huh?), say the bible is not inerrant, or say that not every act of God is morally praiseworthy. I don’t think any theist wants to take the third route, so let’s just consider the first two.

The first is to say that, if God commands it, then genocide is morally permissable and I would assume even praiseworthy. As far as I can tell, that is what Divine Command Theory – the moral theory of William Lane Craig – would entail. I would say we have some real problems with this view, but I’ll save criticism for it unless someone wants to comment and defend DCT.

So, we’re left with the idea that the Bible is not inerrant. And that, whether you’re a theist or not, is a very sensible conclusion.

May 09

Is Divine Freedom Possible?

You will often encounter the idea that freedom can explain away certain problems in theology and the philosophy of religion. One well-known case is Alvin Plantinga’s book, God, Freedom, and Evil. In it, Plantinga provides a counter to the Argument from Evil that many consider devastating. We can see an example of that type of counter argument in this recent post by Alexander Pruss.

So, that’s one way in which freedom is considered important in this area. Another of the major themes in these discussions is the idea that freedom is somehow better than a lack of it, or that freedom somehow makes actions praiseworthy. For example, you may have heard the idea that you have to be able to do evil for good to have any meaning; or if God showed himself clearly, then accepting Jesus Christ in your heart would lose its significance. Consider the following two quotes from William Lane Craig during his debate with Sam Harris:

 If there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything.

His [Harris’s] thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because, on his world view, we have no control over what we do.

Craig clearly thinks that, without agency, we are not morally culpable for good or evil. With that in mind, let’s consider part of the argument from Can God be Free by William Rowe.

One interesting thing about the previously mentioned arguments is that they focus on human freedom. But what of God’s freedom? Is it fair to say that, if God did not act freely, then his creation of us is no more praiseworthy than blinking?

Rowe defends a position held by Leibniz that argues, if God has certain perfections (like being perfectly good), then that entails certain things. One of them is described by Rowe as follows:

Given his necessary perfections, if there is a best world for God to create then it appears he would have no choice other than to create it.

This is because God would otherwise be doing less good than is possible, thus, allowing for there to be a better possible being. Anyone familiar with theology can recognize that a better possible being would be an unwelcome conclusion to traditional theists. That is precisely why Leibniz defended that God would have to create the best possible world and also defended that this was, in fact, that best world. Many will at this point criticize the idea that this is the best possible world; however, I want to focus on freedom.

If God had no choice to create this world, then why are we obligated to praise him? Why are his obligatory actions praiseworthy? I think this problem deserves serious consideration from theists.

In parting, I will note that I see a possible, if non-traditional, way out of the problem. One could maintain that Heaven (or something along those lines) is actually the best possible world. Perhaps you could say the best possible world cannot avoid some amount of freely choosing wrong, so Heaven is the world where it happens only once (Satan). Then, you could say God has created at least one other world freely that is not as good as Heaven – namely, our own world. This would even allow for alien worlds, multiverses, and the like, which some might find attractive. Under this view, it would still not be praiseworthy for God to have created Heaven, but I suppose you could say it is praiseworthy for God to have created us and to allow us into this best of all possible worlds, if we make the cut.

What do you think  of the problem and possible resolution?

May 05

The Power of Belief

It’s time for me to renew my license plates. Luckily, I received a card in the mail with a PIN number, License Plate Number, and some other information I would need to renew them online. Given the many wasted hours spent waiting in line at the DMV over the years, I was grateful for this new alternative.

So, I went to log into the site with the information provided. I was asked for my PIN and plate number (changed). The PIN Number was completely new to me, but I was pretty confident I already knew my plate number. So, using the PIN from the card in the mail, I entered:

PIN: Z908099

License Plate Number: FR6SZL

I got an error message. OK, I thought, perhaps I entered something wrong. This time I entered it again following closely on the card for both the PIN and plate number. Another error message. Again I studied the card to see if I was making a mistake. I couldn’t find one, so I tried again. After another error message, I emailed their help desk. They asked me to email them with my PIN and plate number. I looked again at the card and copied the data into the email.

A short time later, they emailed me back. I had entered my plate number incorrectly; the “Z” was supposed to be a “7.” I looked back at the card and they were right! There was no mistaking it – FR6S7L. Yet, I had looked at the card four times and entered it incorrectly each time. It took an outsider to point out my error.

At some time in the past, I had the belief that my plate number contained a Z in the second-to-last spot. Just by having this pre-existing belief (that wasn’t even a particularly powerful belief), my cognition was significantly influenced. My expectation altered the presentation of reality. It’s important to note just how significant this is. Our belief will change the way our mind perceives things to the point of distorting clear facts. Everyone is susceptible to it.

I think the implication of religion here should be clear. When you think there has been an answered prayer or some sign from God, how is your belief affecting your perception? How about when you continue to practice the faith in which you were raised? The mere existence of these cognitive biases, which are well-attested in psychological literature, does not by itself entail the beliefs are false, but it should give us pause. It should give all of us pause.

So, what is the resolution? How do we guard against this? Well, there probably is no surefire way, but I can offer two resources. One is for everyone and the other is meant for religious people. The first is the website Less Wrong. They focus on how to improve rationality, how to recognize and overcome biases, and they even sponsor Meetup groups in various cities. Looking back over their archives will uncover an amazing amount of resources. The second is called the Outsider Test for Faith, or OTF. The OTF was designed by John Loftus, a former evangelical pastor and student of Sith Lord William Lane Craig, to test the assumptions of our homegrown faith by asking us to try wearing a lens of skepticism. Essentially, Loftus asks religious people to try viewing their own religion with the same level of skepticism they use to view other religions. This brief description doesn’t do the nuances of the OTF justice, but that’s why I provided the link. Check it out.

I consider myself pretty skeptical already, and yet I was fooled doing the simple task of reading a number clearly printed on a card. However sturdy we consider our beliefs, we are susceptible, and it can only help us to improve our rationality by questioning those beliefs.

May 03

Should we celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden?

I learned of Osama bin Laden’s death yesterday morning. I was immediately struck with a sobering thought: I hoped there wouldn’t be a retaliatory strike. As the day went on, I began to hear and read the reactions of others. The majority of emotions could best be described as celebratory. He may have been an immensely condemnable person, but I still find it hard to celebrate the death of anyone.*

I found that some agreed with me, but they were a quiet minority, giving way to the much louder parade mentality of the herd. People seemed joyous, as if some patriotic victory had been won.

I was struck by the oddness of these reactions. But I found at least one blogger on my side. Vjack, at Atheist Revolution, wrote this article, which contains two key points that I was also feeling. First, this does not deter future terrorist activity. Second, and more importantly to me, this brings us closer to the mentality of the terrorists themselves.

 

This does not show the world anything.

One sentiment I’ve heard from several voices was that this act somehow shows the world what happens when they mess with us. It effectively says to would-be terrorists, “We will hunt you down and kill you no matter what it takes.”

There are several problems with this. First, we are dealing with a group of people who engage in suicide bombing. The threat becomes empty against a person planning to kill themselves in the act anyway. Second, threats like these do not deter people from committing violent crimes, as various studies on the death penalty have shown.

This was about revenge, not about deterring future actions. If anything, it provides at least a temporary increase in risk.

 

This does not separate us from a violent mentality.

I would consider there to be a spectrum of reactions to violence. On one end, you have the jubilant reaction. It is shocking to think back to the celebrations that took place when the twin towers fell. On the other end, you have the most ardent pacifist who abhors any kind of violence.

When we celebrate a murder, we move closer to the emotive state of the terrorists, and closer to their worldview in how one ends a conflict. I’m not saying we have to be the pacifist, but if given a choice to have a reaction that moves me toward the terrorist mentality or away from it, I will choose the latter. I will choose it every time.

*I acknowledge that I might feel differently if I had lost someone in the attacks or been more personally affected by the 9/11 tragedy. It’s hard to imagine how one would feel in that situation.

May 02

Some Brief Thoughts on Morality

I have yet to make a grand post which sketches my view on how atheists can have morality. I realize this is a glaring omission; however, when you lose your faith and become an atheist, you then are tasked with building a new worldview. This can take time and you will probably make many mistakes along the way. I know I have made mistakes just in the past year since starting this blog. Bearing that in mind, I’m taking my time to read and consider several views. The leading candidates for me thus far are Rawls-style Contractarianism and Desirism.

For now, I want to briefly discuss the grounding of morality. There has been a lot of discussion following the debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on whether God is the only possible ground for morality. Many will argue this is the case, and I think it’s even the reason C.S. Lewis switched teams. So, let’s consider the problem of grounding morality.

It seems to me that certain theories only manage to compound problems when it comes to explaining morality. For example, a Divine Command theorist rests morality on two questionable assumptions – the existence of God and the existence of divine commands. Even if God exists, it is not clear that it would provide commands. And, of course, you have the very tricky epistemological issue of how to determine what those commands actually are. Most moral theories have such issues of epistemology, but I would say this one is especially tricky.

You could also ground morality in some kind of Platonic form. Maybe morality just exists in some sense, like logic and abstract objects do (at least according to platonists). Again, you are basing morality on something which may not even exist.

Or perhaps morality is grounded in something like well-being, happiness, virtue, etc. Again, there is a lot of vagueness surrounding what these terms even pick out in the actual world.

Can these approaches really be the best solution given our available evidence? These all seem to have problems that could keep them from ever even getting off the ground. With questions of moral ontology, it seems much better to begin with things we already know exist. For example, say you are a city planner and you have to decide where a park should be located. You have one person telling you there is an open field near their house while another person is telling you about a novel they read which takes place in said town. In the novel, a beautiful meadow on a hillside is described and it sounds like the perfect place for the new park. Now, the planner has a decision. Should he use the field or go searching for a possibly fictional meadow? I think many would choose the field.

So, why not ground morality in something more concrete – something we know exists and that we can use to weigh decisions? That is why I tend toward theories that ground morality in something like reason or desire. They are not without their own issues to solve, but we can avoid many of the problems with the traditional approaches. And, if nothing else, at least we know they are real!

Apr 26

ReasonFest ’11

Good news to any people in or around Kansas. The University of Kansas is hosting ReasonFest on May 6-7.

This, the first annual ReasonFest, will be presented by the KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists &
Agnostics (SOMA) featuring a debate between Dan Barker and John-Mark Miravalle on “Does God Exist?” and a full day of secular speakers including Darrel Ray, Tom Clark, Hemant Mehta, James Underdown, and Annie Laurie Gaylor.

A promo video can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PYBWMWQvD8 and information can also be found at http://www.facebook.com/reasonfest.

A Copy of the Media Release, which contains all the info you need, can be downloaded at: https://docs.google.com/leafid=0BwEf3TtQ8SASYzBiYmJiMjUtYmI5Ni00M2QxLWJhOWItNjBhNGYyY2FiMDMy&hl=en&authkey=COKMq8sP

Oh, and if you meet Dan Barker, tell him he omitted a huge part from his book Godless. He talks about coming out to his parents, children, friends, etc., but never mentions the conversation with his wife. All of a sudden he’s remarried and happy. Why the gloss? It was my one complaint from the first half of that book (you can basically skip the second half).

Apr 12

Gospel Truth: Important Contradictions

This is my second post in a series on the New Testament Gospels. My first post was on whether the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses. Now, I’ll turn my attention to the contradictions between the Gospels.

 

Regardless of what anyone says, the Gospels do contain prima facie contradictory statements. Many Christians will at this point turn their efforts to show that these contradictions are only apparent or theologically unimportant. This remains to be seen in many cases. I’ll provide you some interesting examples and a brief look at attempted resolutions. You can decide for yourself if you find the resolutions compelling.

  

Possibility and Probability

When I mention contradictions, the response I often hear is why it is possible for this contradiction to only be apparent. There is a serious problem with this, including from the theist’s perspective. If there is one thing on which most Christians and non-Christians can agree, it is that we should be after the truth. If something in the Gospels is not true, then the Christian should want to know about it, and vice versa.

So then why is possibility a problem? When we are looking at historical documents, we can at best determine what probably happened. We can determine what is most likely given the available evidence or we can conclude there is not enough evidence to say. Possibility is largely irrelevant. If a text lends itself to a straightforward interpretation, for example, if there is no hint of symbolism or exaggeration, then we would need some probable reason to invite hidden meaning. Likewise, if a text seems obviously meant as symbolic or figurative, then we would need some probable reason to conclude it was literal. Consider Jesus’ teaching the he was a light to the world. It is certainly possible he meant that he would turn into a physical lamp for all time, but we would find this interpretation silly. It seems quite clear he is using figurative language and we would need reason to deviate.

So, if someone wants to offer a harmonization for a contradiction, they should provide reasons it is probable, not just possible.

  

Contradictions among the Gospels

Below, I’ve briefly described four contradictions in the Gospel narratives and the resolutions suggested by apologists. I’m not going to provide lengthy opinions on why I don’t find these resolutions compelling, unless requested; in which case, I can provide further details in the comments.

 

The Genealogy of Jesus

The lineage of Jesus is discussed in Matthew 1:2-17 and Luke 3:23-38. The Matthean account provides the lineage from Abraham to Joseph in 39 generations. The Lukan account provides the lineage from Adam to Joseph in 74 generations. So, what are the contradictions? Well, there are two issues. First, in Luke’s account, there are 54 generations from Abraham to Joseph (several more than Matthew). Second, there are altogether different names given at certain points. For example, ask yourself a simple question. Who is Joseph’s (the husband of Mary) father? Is it Heli or is it Jacob?

The most popular resolution for this is to say that one account is the genealogy of Mary, rather than Joseph. The defender of this will often say that men can be subbed for women in genealogies.

Why is this important? The messiah was supposed to be a descendant of King David, so these authors wanted to show this connection in support of their claim. We should wonder, though, how reliable these genealogies are.

 

Jesus’ Teaching Method

We have another problem that can be elucidated by a simple question. Did Jesus teach the crowds in parables or in more direct sayings? According to several verses in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus only taught the crowds in parables; see Matthew 13:10-17, Matthew 13:34-35, Mark 4:10-13, and Luke 8:9-10. Then, contrast this with Jesus’ method of teaching in John. John’s gospel is filled with what are called the “I am” sayings. These are very direct messages, rather than the hidden spiritual meaning contained within parables. I will explore this more in my post on whether John is reliable based on its many differences.

I don’t know whether there is a clear favorite resolution for this, but I would imagine it would try to show that both could be the case. This argument would basically claim that Jesus gave some teachings in parables and some in direct sayings.

Why is this important? If Jesus really spoke to crowds only or predominantly through parables, then we have compelling reasons to question John. Many important theological positions are derived mainly from the clear “I am” sayings of John.

 

The time and date of crucifixion

Again, we begin with a question. When was Jesus crucified? According to Mark, chapters 14-15, Jesus was arrested after the Passover meal and crucified the following day. According to John, chapters 13-19, Jesus was arrested and crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover. The Last Supper in John’s narrative is actually not the Passover Seder, as it is in the Synoptic Gospels. These are different days. A good side-by-side comparison can be found here. The hours for when the crucifixion occurs are also different, but that seems to be of less importance.

Attempted resolutions for this conflict include saying the authors used different calendars or that Jesus and his disciples ate an early Passover meal.

Why is this important? This discrepancy may seem minor. However, it matters quite a bit theologically. Many scholars feel that John deliberately placed Jesus’ crucifixion on the day of preparation for Passover to show him as a symbol for the Passover lamb, which is traditionally slaughtered on that day.

 

Jesus’ demeanor near the end of his life

How did Jesus act during his last hours? Was he fearful and suffering? Was he calm and collected? Well, it depends on what you read. For example, see the suffering portrayal of Mark 14:33-36 and Mark 15:34, in which Jesus cries out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” These are his last words before he dies. This is also contained in Matthew 27:46. Now consider the intriguing narrative in Luke 23:26-46. Jesus does a number of interesting things here which do not betray suffering or agony. He calms mourners, saying, “Do not weep for me.” He shows mercy, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He calms one of those crucified with him, saying, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” And even at the end, he says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Those are his final words. In this portrayal, Jesus knows exactly what is happening, where he is going, and does not seem troubled or afraid. Finally, consider John’s portrayal. Jesus is more authoritative in speaking with Pilate in John 19:11. In this gospel, the final words of Jesus were “It is finished” in John 19:30.

A common resolution is to “mash” these differing accounts together to say they all happened. As Bart Ehrman says, you get the famous seven last words of the dying Jesus.

Why is this important? Understanding this seems very important if we want to understand how Jesus viewed himself and his role of being crucified. This is certainly an important theological question.

 

Conclusion

There are several inconsistencies among the gospels. I have outlined only a few here, but they are quite significant, in my opinion. I encourage you to read the accounts yourself and develop your own opinion on whether or not they can be resolved. I agree with Ehrman that, when we try to create a collage and say that all of these things happened simultaneously, then we rob each author of their individual perspective and theological goals. These differences make much more sense when we consider these authors were from different backgrounds and held different beliefs about the life and message of Jesus. Through their individual gospels, they each express their own views. Bear in mind, these were never written to be part of a canon; they were written to stand on their own.

  

What I did not cover.

I did not cover some major issues with John, the birth narratives, and the resurrection narratives. These will be given in more detail in their own posts as part of this series. There are some other important discussions that could branch off this topic which I also did not cover. These include textual variants in the actual manuscripts and contradictions between the Gospels and other books in the canon. Bart Ehrman is an excellent resource on both. Misquoting Jesus covers textual variants among manuscripts and Jesus Interrupted covers contradictions between various New Testament books, not restricted to the Gospels.

Apr 06

Recent Survey of Philosophers

David Chalmers recently spearheaded a survey on some major topics in philosophy. The survey was extended to top philosophers in the field, as well as some graduate students. You can find detailed results here.

Below, I’ve given each category’s general outcome and specified my own view in red. Feel free to share your thoughts on any of the categories or ask for clarification.

A priori knowledge: yes or no?

Accept or lean toward: yes 662 / 931 (71.1%)
Accept or lean toward: no 171 / 931 (18.3%)
Other 98 / 931 (10.5%)

 

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

Accept or lean toward: Platonism 366 / 931 (39.3%)
Accept or lean toward: nominalism 351 / 931 (37.7%)
Other 214 / 931 (22.9%)

 

Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

Accept or lean toward: objective 382 / 931 (41%)
Accept or lean toward: subjective 321 / 931 (34.4%)
Other 228 / 931 (24.4%)

 

Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?

Accept or lean toward: yes 604 / 931 (64.8%)
Accept or lean toward: no 252 / 931 (27%)
Other 75 / 931 (8%)

 

Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

Accept or lean toward: externalism 398 / 931 (42.7%)
Other 287 / 931 (30.8%)
Accept or lean toward: internalism 246 / 931 (26.4%)

 

External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

Accept or lean toward: non-skeptical realism 760 / 931 (81.6%)
Other 86 / 931 (9.2%)
Accept or lean toward: skepticism 45 / 931 (4.8%)
Accept or lean toward: idealism 40 / 931 (4.2%)

 

Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

Accept or lean toward: compatibilism 550 / 931 (59%) – 2nd choice
Other 139 / 931 (14.9%)
Accept or lean toward: libertarianism 128 / 931 (13.7%)
Accept or lean toward: no free will 114 / 931 (12.2%)

 

God: theism or atheism?

Accept or lean toward: atheism 678 / 931 (72.8%)
Accept or lean toward: theism 136 / 931 (14.6%)
Other 117 / 931 (12.5%)

 

Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?

Accept or lean toward: contextualism 373 / 931 (40%)
Accept or lean toward: invariantism 290 / 931 (31.1%)
Other 241 / 931 (25.8%)
Accept or lean toward: relativism 27 / 931 (2.9%)

 

Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?

Other 346 / 931 (37.1%)
Accept or lean toward: empiricism 326 / 931 (35%)
Accept or lean toward: rationalism 259 / 931 (27.8%)

 

Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?

Accept or lean toward: non-Humean 532 / 931 (57.1%)
Accept or lean toward: Humean 230 / 931 (24.7%)
Other 169 / 931 (18.1%)

 

Logic: classical or non-classical?

Accept or lean toward: classical 480 / 931 (51.5%)
Other 308 / 931 (33%) – Unsure
Accept or lean toward: non-classical 143 / 931 (15.3%)

 

Mental content: internalism or externalism?

Accept or lean toward: externalism 476 / 931 (51.1%)
Other 269 / 931 (28.8%) – Unsure
Accept or lean toward: internalism 186 / 931 (19.9%)

 

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?

Accept or lean toward: moral realism 525 / 931 (56.3%)
Accept or lean toward: moral anti-realism 258 / 931 (27.7%)
Other 148 / 931 (15.8%)

 

Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?

Accept or lean toward: naturalism 464 / 931 (49.8%)
Accept or lean toward: non-naturalism 241 / 931 (25.8%)
Other 226 / 931 (24.2%)

 

Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?

Accept or lean toward: physicalism 526 / 931 (56.4%)
Accept or lean toward: non-physicalism 252 / 931 (27%)
Other 153 / 931 (16.4%)

 

Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?

Accept or lean toward: cognitivism 612 / 931 (65.7%)
Other 161 / 931 (17.2%)
Accept or lean toward: non-cognitivism 158 / 931 (16.9%)

 

Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?

Other 329 / 931 (35.3%)
Accept or lean toward: internalism 325 / 931 (34.9%)
Accept or lean toward: externalism 277 / 931 (29.7%)

 

Newcomb’s problem: one box or two boxes?

Other 441 / 931 (47.3%)
Accept or lean toward: two boxes 292 / 931 (31.3%)
Accept or lean toward: one box 198 / 931 (21.2%)

 

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?

Other 301 / 931 (32.3%) – not familiar enough with the issue
Accept or lean toward: deontology 241 / 931 (25.8%)
Accept or lean toward: consequentialism 220 / 931 (23.6%)
Accept or lean toward: virtue ethics 169 / 931 (18.1%)

 

Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?

Other 393 / 931 (42.2%)
Accept or lean toward: representationalism 293 / 931 (31.4%)
Accept or lean toward: qualia theory 114 / 931 (12.2%)
Accept or lean toward: disjunctivism 102 / 931 (10.9%)
Accept or lean toward: sense-datum theory 29 / 931 (3.1%)

 

Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?

Other 347 / 931 (37.2%)
Accept or lean toward: psychological view 313 / 931 (33.6%)
Accept or lean toward: biological view 157 / 931 (16.8%)
Accept or lean toward: further-fact view 114 / 931 (12.2%)

 

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?

Other 382 / 931 (41%)
Accept or lean toward: egalitarianism 324 / 931 (34.8%)
Accept or lean toward: communitarianism 133 / 931 (14.2%)
Accept or lean toward: libertarianism 92 / 931 (9.8%)

 

Proper names: Fregean or Millian?

Other 343 / 931 (36.8%) – Probably Russellian
Accept or lean toward: Millian 321 / 931 (34.4%)
Accept or lean toward: Fregean 267 / 931 (28.6%)

 

Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?

Accept or lean toward: scientific realism 699 / 931 (75%)
Other 124 / 931 (13.3%)
Accept or lean toward: scientific anti-realism 108 / 931 (11.6%)

 

Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death?

Accept or lean toward: survival 337 / 931 (36.1%)
Other 304 / 931 (32.6%)
Accept or lean toward: death 290 / 931 (31.1%)

 

Time: A-theory or B-theory?

Other 542 / 931 (58.2%)
Accept or lean toward: B-theory 245 / 931 (26.3%)
Accept or lean toward: A-theory 144 / 931 (15.4%)

 

Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don’t switch?

Accept or lean toward: switch 635 / 931 (68.2%) – although there are certain situations where I would not
Other 225 / 931 (24.1%)
Accept or lean toward: don’t switch 71 / 931 (7.6%)

 

Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?

Accept or lean toward: correspondence 473 / 931 (50.8%)
Accept or lean toward: deflationary 231 / 931 (24.8%)
Other 163 / 931 (17.5%)
Accept or lean toward: epistemic 64 / 931 (6.8%)

 

Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?

Accept or lean toward: conceivable but not metaphysically possible 331 / 931 (35.5%)
Other 234 / 931 (25.1%)
Accept or lean toward: metaphysically possible 217 / 931 (23.3%)
Accept or lean toward: inconceivable 149 / 931 (16%)

Mar 21

The Sherlock Holmes Defense

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true. – Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four)

What must the cause of the universe be like? According to William Lane Craig, it must be spaceless, timeless, and personal. In effect, it must be a non-physical, non-temporal mind with causal efficacy and unimaginable power. Notice the word, “must.” Craig isn’t just saying he thinks it’s probable – he thinks it can be shown necessarily through argument. This point generally comes as an adjoinder to the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which Craig explains here.

But does this make sense? This is the question I’ve been debating in the comment thread of On Absurdity: William Lane Craig and Actual Infinites. How can we realistically assert some kind of mind as the cause of the universe?

The argument goes essentially as follows:

As the cause of space and time, this cause must be outside of space and time. If the cause is non-spatial and non-temporal, it must be changeless and immaterial. Now, Craig argues, the only entities which can be timeless or immaterial are either minds or abstract objects. However, abstract objects do not possess causal efficacy. Therefore, it must have been a mind. Next, only a free agent can account for the origin of a temporal effect from a timeless cause. So, it must be personal. So, there you have it – the cause of the universe must have been an immaterial mind.

We arrive at this position from a dilemma. This allows Craig and his defenders to invoke what I’m calling the Sherlock Holmes defense. They boil it down to two options and dismiss one of the options as intuitively absurd. So, however much you may be suspicious of the immaterial mind, it’s all that is left. It must have been a mind no matter how improbable you find that conclusion to be! Let’s consider this dilemma further. Either we have a false dilemma, which we can dismiss, or we have a true dilemma, which I will argue still provides no grounds for a conclusion.

 

What if it is a false dilemma?

In my opinion, the likely conclusion here is that we have arrived at a false dilemma. There are several suspect assumptions that bring us to Craig’s conclusion.

First, we have to decide whether we consider our own universe to be “all of space and time” or whether it is just a universe within some form of external space and time. Craig, to his credit, does attempt to engage in modern science and cosmology to provide support for his premises. He invokes the Big Bang as evidence that all of space and time began at a single point and moment in the finite past. Very few scientists question the Big Bang, though it is far from certain that this is all that exists. For example, M-Theory provides a look into what possibly existed prior to the Big Bang. Proponents of M-Theory might assert that we are a bubble in a sea of universes. This would provide a natural solution to the problem that remains within space and time.

But Craig could then move back and question the cause of all of those universes. He would assert we still have to have a beginning since there could not be an actual infinite. This argument depends on a series of paradoxes – the kind that philosophers love and most people on the street say, “Who cares?” Craig is best known for invoking Hilbert’s Paradox of the Grand Hotel, although, there are a few others he uses. The idea is that actual infinites lead to absurdities, which we can deal with in math, but they simply could not exist in reality. It raises several questions, including, “If the past was an actually infinite series of events, then how would we ever arrive at this moment?” It’s certainly an interesting question, but it is far from decisive in showing this could not have been the case. For example, see a few of Wes Morriston’s responses on actual infinites here and here. These are simply provided to show that the impossibility of actual infinites is questioned among philosophers.

Additionally, Craig’s arguments depend on a certain theory of time. Craig defends an A-Theory of time, but the argument falls apart under a B-Theory. If you don’t know those terms, don’t worry; you’re in good company. This article by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy will get you started with an overview of the issues. B-Theory strikes people as a bit odd – it’s not intuitive – but many feel that special relativity leads us to this view of time. If time is like space, then it is tenseless. It can be measured in relation to other points, but there is no true cardinality.

So, if we could have a beginningless past containing a series of physical, temporal causes, then the problem is gone. The dilemma is not needed, and we can dismiss the notion of an abstract immaterial mind as the creator of everything. This is the route I would take, and I’ve provided some routes to explore in your discussions which I think are fruitful. But let’s delve deeper and consider what would happen if we could not successfully argue any of these points.

 

What if it is a true dilemma?

What if we really do arrive at the decision to make with either a mind or abstract objects, like numbers, acting in a causal role?

I think we are only justified in reaching a standoff with these options. There is no evidence that either thing acts in a causal role. In fact, the very existence of both things is questionable.

But the point of the Sherlock Holmes defense is that it doesn’t matter whether you think a causal, non-spatial, non-temporal mind cannot exist. What matters is that we have a dilemma and we have eliminated one option from consideration since it is impossible. It must be the other option.

In my discussion mentioned earlier, I suggested that minds do not exist apart from brains. I was challenged to show why this was impossible. In the world of logical possibility, this is pretty difficult. That is essentially the point of Russell’s Teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Now, let’s turn the tables a bit. If I am challenged to show that minds cannot cause, then it certainly seems fair to challenge Craig and his defenders to show that numbers cannot cause.

The only real defense I’ve heard of this is that “of course numbers don’t cause anything!” A lot of people probably find this persuasive, but we need an argument that cannot be also leveled at minds. I could say, “of course minds only exist when there are brains!” Even with Artificial Intelligence, there would be some physical “stuff” grounding the mind.

So, this is the challenge for the Craig defenders: Provide an argument against numbers that does not apply to immaterial minds. Without such an argument, this dilemma goes nowhere.

 

Conclusion

To simply assert this dilemma begs the question by assuming minds can play a causal role. We must have some reason to think this. The reason given by defenders is the initial argument I described. Notice this is not empirical evidence; rather, it is a rationalist approach to deduce it purely by logic.

To combat this, I have provided some ways of attacking the premises of the argument to show we never even reach this dilemma and are justified in concluding we have no reason to think minds can cause (or even exist) without brains, at least not in virtue of this argument. If we do not have to reach the dilemma, then the argument does not concern us. This seems like a very reasonable conclusion to me. If we do reach the dilemma, then we are in the very odd stalemate of wondering whether a mind or some abstract object, like pi, caused all of space and time. But, as I’ve said, we really have no reason to prefer one over the other. Intuition about such matters is irrelevant.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with the Sherlock Holmes defense. It’s perfectly valid. However, how often do we find ourselves in a position to eliminate all possibilities save one? This type of argument must have such limited scope. We live in a world of uncertainty, of induction, of inference – to deal with such things requires tools equipped to handle uncertainty. This is precisely why Bayes Theorem has been so successful in gaining support. About such ideas as timeless, spaceless, infinity, and origins of everything, I find it very hard indeed to seriously entertain an argument about certainty. I will be suspicious every time of claims that such things can realistically be deduced. The defender may think he or she has made a Sherlock Holmes breakthrough, but what is the messy trail of assumptions, fraught with uncertainty, that led to that final point?

Mar 11

Bad Apologetics

There are many apologists that I consider to be intelligent who present thoughtful, well-formed arguments. And then, there is the essay Atheism: A Falsified Hypothesis by Brian Colón.

Colon sets out a lofty goal for himself – to prove atheism false. He says that if atheism is false, then theism must be true as a consequence. This is true, in some sense, but we would still be left with the question of what type of theism. I would also consider deism to be in the running, which is probably not the conclusion your typical theist would want. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t even come close to showing that atheism is false. At most, he showed that a few people held unsuccessful views, but I wouldn’t even grant him that.

He lays out his case as follows:

The way I choose to show Atheism false is by showing the self contradictions contained within the Atheistic worldview.

Upon examining his claims, we will see that his argument does not actually accomplish this. The argument may also commit the genetic fallacy, but I would have to hear more explanation of his case to say for sure.

According to a few famous Atheists, here are a few necessary consequences of Atheism. There is no God; there is nothing but the physical world (Dan Barker – Protest sign at the Washington State Capital). Humans are nothing but machines that generate DNA (Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion). Morality is based on the consensus of human beings (Gordon Stein – “The Great Debate: Does God Exist?”).

Wait, so because these atheists say these things are necessary consequences, then that means they are? We could immediately stop reading and dismiss this article because, even if successful, Colon would only show that these specific people had worldviews that needed some alteration. It doesn’t even mean they would have to give up their own atheism! They could simply clarify some points in their worldview. But let’s continue and consider his full case.

If this is true then it would be impossible to account for things such as moral absolutes, laws of logic, or human dignity; three things that we all understand to be indisputable.

Wrong again. These items are hardly undisputable. The general argument in favor of this is, “deep down we all know it,” which is no argument at all. Colon then goes on to elaborate on these three areas – moral absolutes, logic, and human dignity.

 

Moral Absolutes

Every Atheist I’ve ever met believes that murder and rape is evil. But what is evil? I thought all that exists is matter. Is there anything evil about matter?

They could be using a convention of speech when calling something evil. It’s not conclusive that this would entail a real contradiction. For example, I don’t think there is anything evil in the absolute sense many theists propose, but that can’t be drawn out to mean that we are unable to pronounce something right and wrong. There are several ethical accounts held by atheists which could accomplish that goal. This is repeated often and is absolutely ludicrous.

Perhaps evil is just something that we experience as decreasing our happiness. Wouldn’t that mean that since the rapist increases his happiness by raping people, then raping people would be considered good for him? Who’s to say that the rapist’s moral judgments are flawed and ours are not?

Well, this would only apply to a certain kind of utilitarian. And the utilitarian would respond that the rapist is not the only person involved. The utilitarian could still say the moral judgment of the rapist is flawed. Besides, there are several other ethical theories that could also do this without relying on happiness, as I’ve already said.

Once an atheist woman told me that she heard that her co-worker was cheating on his wife with another woman from the office. She told me that she was outraged at how immoral he was and how she lost all respect for him. I asked her “What was so wrong with what he did?” Why does the fact that he’s married make the act of sex with another woman immoral? She simply said “Its just wrong!” I agree, but I’d like to know why it’s ultimately wrong given the Atheistic worldview.

So, because this woman appealed to simple common sense and didn’t give you a philosophically rigorous answer, then that is evidence for your case? How does any of this lead to a contradiction? There are several ways to say this is wrong, and I suspect Colon knows it. He will probably try and wriggle out of the problem by his use of the term “ultimately,” as if the solutions aren’t good enough. I would need clarification on how he defines that term to comment further.

Colon has not supported his view at all. Remember, he is going to prove atheism false. He should be famous for this! Unfortunately for him, the arguments are not successful or persuasive. But let’s look at what this portion of the argument would show even if it were successful. It would entail that these people don’t think there is inherent evil even though they use language as if they do. Well I happen to agree with that. I don’t think there is inherent value in things or objective morality existing like a platonic form. Does that mean atheism is false? I can’t see how. Would it mean that people use loose speech? Yes, what a breakthrough. I can’t believe I ever called myself an atheist.

Now, he might go on to try and say more about how this means atheists can’t really say things are right and wrong, that we can’t have moral obligations, etc. Let’s suppose this were true, even though it isn’t. Would it make atheism false? No. If it is true that we can’t say things are right and wrong and that there really are no moral obligations, then it doesn’t matter if everyone in the world thinks there are. This is not tied to the truth of theism or atheism.

So, we’ve examined point one of three and found no disproof of atheism. In fact, we saw nothing even close to that. I hope the next two are better or I’m going to have to say Colon simply misled us in his opening promise.

 

Laws of Logic

Consider the law of “excluded middle” which says that a proposition is either true or false, there is no third option. What is the ontological foundation of this law? Is this law just a result of the chemical functions in our brain? If so then how is it universal? Is the law material? Of course not! Laws of logic are immaterial abstract entities, the very things that cannot exist if the only thing that exists is matter.

Again, how is this a disproof of atheism? Bertrand Russell, one of the most famous atheists of modern times, held the view of platonism. That is the view that abstract objects do exist, in some sense. In a recent survey of philosophers, this was the most widely held view, gaining approximately 39% of votes. There were more votes for platonism in the survey than for theism, which means necessarily that at least some atheists hold a platonic view about abstract objects. So, for the most popular view in philosophy, this is not a problem and it does not require theism to work.

Dan Barker, in a debate with Dr. James White, attempted to refute this argument by saying that “logic is not a thing.” Well if by thing he means a physical object then I would agree with him. The problem is that he already said that things are all that exist. So according to Dan Barker there is no logic.

To be more precise, we should say that according to Dan Barker logic does not exist in a platonic sense. He could hold a type of nominalist view. But are we really judging the coherence of atheism by a comment made by Dan Barker in a debate? Should we judge the coherence of theism by Colon’s nonsensical article?

Ok, so there are two arguments out of three that do not in the least entail that atheism is false.

 

Human Dignity

Why do people put on a lab coat and argue that people are simply evolved animals, and then say that we shouldn’t treat people like animals? If all that exists is matter, then that would mean that we are nothing but matter as well. If that’s true then why do we believe that humans are worthy of respect?

Yes, we are nothing but matter. This is fairly conclusive.

Keeping Colon’s initial goal in mind, I’d like to make two points. First, there are plenty of reasons to treat people with respect. To pretend there are not simply shows an ignorance of the many ethical theories that do not invoke God. Second, let’s suppose there aren’t any reasons to treat people with respect and people just do it by convention. Does that make atheism false? Of course not! So, both conclusions you can draw from this do not entail that atheism is false.

In a debate with Paul Manata, Dan Barker asserts that human beings are no more important than broccoli. I find it very interesting that the piece of broccoli known as Dan Barker thinks that other certain pieces of broccoli are worthy of love and respect, as if they were something more than just broccoli. Every single day we all treat each other with respect and dignity, and we all know that those who disrespect people ought not to do that. This is true for Theist and Atheist alike. Humans really are worthy of respect. This is inexplicable on the Atheistic Worldview.

Here we have more opinions from Dan Barker in a debate. I can understand people quoting William Lane Craig, and I do it myself. He is a clear leader in Christian philosophy and apologetics. He is widely published in peer-reviewed, scholarly formats. Dan Barker does not have this status. He is not the head of atheism. But let’s pretend that he is and see that the point still fails.

To say that “humans really are worthy of respect” is simply an assertion with nothing offered in support. Colon is probably trusting our intuitions will guide us to this conclusion. Whether things have intrinsic value is hotly debated; it is not simply common sense.

Let’s consider that human beings have no intrinsic value and Dan Barker still treats people with respect. Is this contradictory of him? A few possible reasons for this are that (a) he could simply be following a faulty intuition which happens all the time or (b) he could ascribe to one of the aforementioned ethical theories.

Hmmm, no disproof of atheism there, and that was three out of three.

 

Conclusion

I won’t even bother quoting from his conclusion because it is just a restatement of his three points and a celebration of how great they are. Oh, those atheist fools. Unfortunately for him, none of them have any force, as I have shown.

Colon has trotted out a few popular views, but has offered no insight into philosophically rigorous views. This is a dishonest approach, and this is one of the worst apologetics pieces I’ve ever read. Let’s take one last look at the reasons his claims fail.

Atheists can still provide accounts of morality and logic and give reasons to treat humans with respect. So, his claim that acting this way contradicts atheism is demonstrably false. Even if it were the other way around, and the atheist acted as though these things existed but deep down really thought they didn’t, this apparent contradiction could be resolved. It could only mean they act in a pragmatic way, as many of us do. Does this mean atheism is false? I go about my life as if there aren’t all these completely random forces causing things. However, even though I act that way, I know there is a great deal of randomness to life. Don’t believe me? Read The Drunkard’s Walk. So, does my acting as if randomness doesn’t play a huge role in my life imply that my actions reflect reality? No.

In conclusion, either the atheist can give accounts for acting the way he or she does or the atheist cannot. Neither option entails that atheism is false.

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