Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Labels that define me

2014/06/03

This post was originally inspired by a very animated discussion with Jamie Ian Swiss in the this 2012 episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

Long-time readers of this blog have learned something of my political views, my personal life, and various other things. But one thing I may never have explicitly done is lay out how I think these things interconnect.

For example, I am an atheist and a humanist. Some people think that “humanist” is just a euphemism for “atheist”, since most people who label themselves humanists are also atheists. But there is an important difference. In this article, I will briefly trace out some of the connections.

First, at the root, I consider myself a humanist. Though I consciously took on the label only a short time before beginning this blog, I think it has basically formed the basis of my approach to life since I was very young. As Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” That captures my two core values: compassion and the pursuit of understanding. To me, that is what humanism boils down to. (Notice that this definition doesn’t imply atheism.)

Now, I think the best way to pursue understanding is through scientific skepticism – I am a skeptic. I once quoted Steve Novella (of the above-mentioned podcast, Skeptics Guide to the Universe) defining skepticism: “Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.” It’s not hard to form a belief; the trick is to filter good beliefs from bad ones. Skepticism is the toolkit for successful filtering.

One of the least important of my labels is atheism. This label simply means that nobody has yet convinced me that any god exists. It is one of many results of applying skepticism to claims that come at me. (Others of more consequence include accepting evolution, rejecting homeopathy, avoiding health fads, and a current push to learn more about Bayesian reasoning.) Though it has little importance in my epistemology, I would say that it is socially important. Atheists in some countries live under threat of violence and death. Even here in Canada, we are sometimes the targets of bigotry and hostility. So it is important for those who can safely do so to visibly identify as atheists (at least), so that others become aware of our existence and our normal humanness.

Another label that I like to hold is that of scientist. I am still very junior in this pursuit, and claim no particular prowess in it, but it is (in my mind) one of the most noble applications of skepticism, and I hope someday to contribute something significant to human knowledge through my scientific work.

I also have far more personal, less philosophical labels. I am a Mills by descent, and I have close ties with my family through shared traditions, history, and simple familial love. I am a daddy – a label whose meaning evolves as my children (now 4 and 6) develop into ever more amazing and surprising people. In no particular order, I am also a husband, a writer, a homeowner, a teacher, a son, and many other things. I try to exercise these parts of my identity in a way that aligns with my core values – values that come from my personal background and are defined, to some extent, by the main labels “humanist”, “skeptic”, and “scientist”.

There is much more to say about identity and labels, but I think this will suffice for now.

Duty and futility

2013/02/02

Oh, woe is me!

Anyone who has been watching me eke through the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge (put forth by Luke Muehlhauser) over the past year and a half may have noticed that my postings have become more and more sporadic.

I could claim real-world interference with my writing, but that would be a distraction. The fact is, I am rapidly losing my motivation.

I did not undertake the challenge expecting it to change my mind. But my experience of Luke’s writing and podcasting (+here) suggested that this challenge would put in front of me the most thought-provoking apologetics, rather than the appalling works I had previously run across. I had read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity before I had even heard of humanism and begun self-identifying as such; Lee Strobel’s Case for a Creator as I was beginning to explore things and identify as a humanist; and most recently John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, which I reviewed in a series of five posts on this blog (1 2 3 4 5). Summary: apologetics in print have seemed as self-congratulatory and vacuous as the more degenerate online discussions of atheism versus Christianity (from either side).

Anyway, having appreciated and occasionally been challenged by the balance and pursuit of truth (as opposed to confirmation) that Luke exemplified, I had hopes that these authors he was pointing me to (none of whom, Christian or atheist, I had read before) would at least make me pause for thought, and perhaps puncture one or two of the more comfortable, self-satisfied conclusions I was happy to hold.

But I find that the atheist arguments are familiar and seem sound, and the apologists’ arguments are familiar and easily refuted. They set up straw men of real atheist positions, and subject their own arguments to only the flimsiest tests. I enjoy being proven right as much as the next guy, but it’s disappointing that this challenge isn’t more challenging. Is it because I actually do have the right answer already? Is it because I’m too close-minded to see the value in the opposing arguments, or the flaws in the atheist arguments? Either hypothesis is consistent with the superficial details of the experience.

 

I know that an open mind is necessary in order to grow toward truer belief. But I can’t help think of the prayer experiment I undertook with our Mormon missionary friends back in Edinburgh. They said to pray honestly for insight, I tried it, I got not message from Heaven. They said to keep trying until I got a message. But to keep asking the same question until the answer comes out the way you want is not the way to truth. So I ended that experiment. If I ever get reason to believe that it’s worth trying again, I will, but until then I have a reasonable conclusion based on honest testing.

I feel like the same thing is happening with Christian apologetics at large. I had a suspicion that there wasn’t any knock-down argument for God, based on my previous experience. I have tried out the best arguments, recommended by what seemed to me to be an open-minded, thoughtful source. And they’ve failed to stir my doubt-o-meter. Case closed?

Not quite. The problem is, I’m really just halfway through the Challenge. I still have a book by Swinburne and one by Craig to wade through, in addition to two further atheist offerings. And that’s after I finish the current book – a dense pack of essays ranging from transparently vapid to impenetrably opaque, without offering any illumination.

I can’t plead the excuse sometimes used in clinical trials – that people seem to be suffering or dying from one leg of the experiment – for halting early. I’m just really, really tired of wading through garbage philosophy, in the interest of fairly testing what is really a very low-probability hypothesis. (Christianity is only one of many popular theistic hypotheses of roughly equal prior probability; and all of them are but a subset of the domain of logically possible deistic hypothesis).

So this is my dilemma. I am engaged in an exercise that feels increasingly futile. And yet, as part of my duty to the pursuit of truth, I cannot reasonably beg off the remaining part of the exercise. So I should carry on. But, knowing that my state of mind is increasingly opposed to the whole endeavour, I’m not sure I can claim to be fairly evaluating the ideas I’m coming across.

I’m tempted to leave off – take an indefinite hiatus. But that isn’t really a solution is it? It’s just an escape.

I’m tempted to just skim through the remaining books. But that isn’t really an honest fulfilment of my original resolution to fairly examine the claims.

I’m honestly puzzled here. I think I’m procrastinating toward the hiatus solution by default. There’s always something more interesting to do/read/whatever than this. Perhaps I should skip to the next book (an atheist collection – perhaps a bit more palatable), to help get back in the mood for the project.

What do you do when you have a task that (a) has no deadline or external pressure to finish, (b) feels futile or pointless, but (c) you feel some sense of duty or responsibility to complete? Have any of you undertaken this challenge or something similar? How did you overcome (or succumb to) the hurdles you encountered?

Do you have any insight that would let me see the problem in a different light, perhaps resolve the dilemma more easily?

The precariousness of libertarian free will

2012/09/01

I’d like to give you a glimpse of how I view free will and why.

This will not be a strictly formal philosophical argument. I have to admit some non-rational reasons for holding the position I hold. (Not irrational, I hope – I try not to contradict myself or the evidence, but you can’t ground every motivation in a reason that is itself grounded. Sooner or later, you have to accept something just because.)

I’ll start with a label: I am a determinism agnostic. I mean, I really don’t know whether our universe is completely governed by deterministic laws of cause and effect, or if there is some corner of real non-determinism in it. Not only that, I suspect it will forever remain impossible to know this absolutely.

Certainly a great deal of the universe’s behaviour is deterministic, from the cosmic-scale laws of gravity to the microscopic laws of cellular biology and chemistry. But is there some corner of indeterminacy? Some part of the universe’s behaviour that isn’t completely pre-destined based on prior causes? Some think the quantum world gives us that, in the apparently random variations of position or velocity observed at the smallest levels. In counterpoint to this idea of undirected indeterminacy is the hope of many that we – and perhaps other, more powerful players in the universe – have a ‘get-out-of-determinism-free’ card in the form of libertarian free will.

I don’t know. Looking at the trend of our understanding of the universe, and acknowledging my own aesthetic inclinations, I would guess not. I suspect it’s determinism all the way down. But I don’t know.

So does that mean I have no way to really decide whether or not we have libertarian free will? That I’m just going with my gut on this?

I’ll be honest: that’s part of it. But I also have two more substantial reasons for sticking with my compatibilist stance: one epistemological and one pragmatic.

The epistemological reason is this: it is possible to have positive evidence that event A is caused by event B; but it is impossible to have positive evidence that A is not caused by anything. Positive evidence for B causing A would be something like this: I usually observe A to follow B, and when I run an experiment to manipulate whether B occurs or not, I find A only occurring after B, but not after other events*. But what would show that A has no causal determiner? Nothing. Literally. The best I can ever hope for on that score is that, after a whole lot of honest searching, I fail to find some causal determiner of A. I can never be sure that a causal determiner isn’t just around the corner, and I can never exhaustively test all of the possible causes. So my best proof is nothing – no actual evidence contradicting the idea that A is undetermined, but no evidence confirming the idea either.

So libertarian free will can, in principle, be shown not to exist; but it can never, even in principle, be shown to exist.

Which brings me to the main pragmatic reason for preferring a compatibilist over a libertarian approach to free will. Someone who adopts a libertarian stance must beware the day that evidence is found to undermine that stance. Some function central to questions of free will may be found to have a clear, irrefutable physical cause – decision-making, execution of intentional action, whatever**. Libertarians are banking on the immediate physical exercise of free will having no determinate physical cause, but as described above they can never prove it. They can only declare that it hasn’t yet been disproven.

The compatibilist is safe in two ways. First, as mentioned above, it is impossible to conjure positive evidence against determinism. Second, even if such proof were possible, the compatibilist is not committed to determinism. Compatibilism simply claims that meaningful free will is compatible with a deterministic universe, not that it requires such a universe.

So, on the one hand are the libertarians, who could lose a key foundation of their stance any day if the right evidence is discovered. This seems to be a very precarious position to be in. On the other hand are the compatibilists, whose stance is secure under any empirical evidence that we might reasonably anticipate.

That, in a nutshell, is why I prefer a compatibilist stance:

  1. It is more aesthetically pleasing to me. In other words, my gut leans in that direction.
  2. It is more empirically supportable: any evidence on the question is either inconclusive or supports determinism.
  3. It is more pragmatically reliable: knowledge about the real world is very unlikely to undermine the stance, while such knowledge could easily undermine the libertarian stance.

So what does the world look like from this perspective? How do I fit myself into this picture as a meaningful actor in my own life? I’ll try to give you some answers on that soon. Stay tuned. For now, why don’t you let me know what you think? Do you agree? If you agree, do you lean toward compatibilism or do you still prefer to bet on libertarianism? What, honestly, do you think influences your view of free will?

Footnotes:

* There are more subtleties to demonstrating causality, and it would never be absolute proof that A is caused by B, but it is possible to get strong evidence in favour of that hypothesis.

** Indeed, such evidence may already be trickling in. For example, there was a study in 2008 and another in 2011 that showed the “moment of decision” as experienced by individuals could be anticipated by a machine watching brain function (see here and here for details).

Evolving Free Will

2012/08/25

Usually, when arguing a point of religious philosophy, a writer will offer some premises and then argue that they support a particular conclusion. And often, especially with the theistic philosophers, the premises themselves fall apart when I look at them. So I dismiss the argument and move on.

But I have discovered something interesting while reading through offerings in the Ultimate Challenge. I’ve discovered that, even if I provisionally accept the premises, I can have fun with the argument. It doesn’t always have to go the way the original writer takes it. In keeping with my naturally inquisitive character, I thought I’d try articulating one or two of these byways.

The first was inspired by Greg Ganssle’s use of libertarian free will as “evidence” for theism over naturalism. Here is the basic structure of the argument:

Premise 1: Libertarian freedom exists.

Premise 2: Libertarian freedom is more compatible with theism than naturalism.

Conclusion: All else being equal, we should prefer theism over atheism.

Now, Premise 1 is easily dismissed as unproven. In fact, I suspect it is unprovable. So the conclusion collapses without even looking at Premise 2. But let’s see what we can do with Premise 2 anyway, shall we?

Anatomy of the premise

First, I think Premise 1 entails two further premises:

Premise 1a: There is a freedom ether – some realm or substance that can carries or bestows libertarian free will.

Premise 1b: There is some means by which a physical human being could access the freedom ether, thus becoming able to act without being fully caused to act.

If we take these as given, do we need to accept Premise 2? Well, a Christian creator god could be expected to plug humans into the freedom ether (provided it isn’t a Calvinist god). But we haven’t yet looked at what to expect from a naturalistic perspective.

So, as a naturalist, what would I expect from a universe that (1a) contained a freedom ether and (1b) had some means for humans to connect to it?

Well, it seems to me that the capacity to do an end-run around the clockwork universe would provide a selective advantage – one that would be stronger the more complex an organism’s brain is (so that it could evaluate the different options in its “choose-your-own-adventure” universe). So, if the means referred to in Premise 1b is something that could be acquired by genetic variation, we should positively expect evolution to plug humans into libertarian free will, sooner or later.

Now the whole question now looks slightly different. Given premises 1a and 1b, which seems more likely: that an all-powerful god exists that is inclined to grant its creatures libertarian free will, or that the means exist for evolution to grant humans libertarian free will?

Oh, I don’t really know which is more likely. In all this, I have been studiously ignoring the various metaphysical problems I have with the very idea of libertarian free will. But I think this line of argument casts considerable doubt on what Ganssle (and probably others) seem to think is a clear path from libertarian free will to theism.

And it was a fun thought experiment to try out.

Contending with Christianity’s Critics

2011/07/18

This post introduces the fourth book in the philosophy challenge that Deena and I began last year.

Contending with Christianity's Critics

Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

  • ISBN: 978-0805449365; ISBN10: ; B&H Academic; Pages: 304; [Amazon]

Edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig

This book contains a collection of essays by various apologists, responding to various criticisms of Christian belief.

The previous apologetic book in the series began with high ambitions and a promising premise. In this book, our expectations were set low from the opening paragraph. The editors begin their introduction by pointing out that the recent popular “New Atheist” books are less philosophically and historically solid than much of atheist philosophy, previously and currently. It is these New Atheist books that the current volume aims at.

I can understand the desire to counter the more prominent voices, rather than the stronger ones. And I am sure that, aside from Deena and me (and the others who have accepted Luke’s challenge), very few atheists will be reading this book. It is aimed at other believers and apologists, not at atheists. Nevertheless, the admission that this book aims philosophically low disappointed us.

On the other hand, we looked forward to at least one essay in this volume: Daniel Wallace’s piece critiquing Bart Ehrman on the reliability of the New Testament as a record of historical events. I mentioned in my review of Ehrman’s book that I would like to see what arguments are raised against it, because I am unqualified and not strongly motivated to see for myself any errors he commits. Perhaps this essay would help balance my impression?

Anyway, this is a book of essays, so I will review them individually (for the most part). I will maintain a list of links here pointing forward to the reviews as they go up:

Part 1: The Existence of God

1. Dawkins’s Delusion, by William Lane Craig

2. At Home in the Multiverse? by James Daniel Sinclair

3. Confronting Naturalism: The Argument from Reason, by Victor Reppert

4. Belief in God: A Trick of Our Brain? by Michael J. Murray

5. The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism, by Mark D. Linville

6. Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence, by Gregory E. Ganssle

Part 2: The Jesus of History (single review for whole section)

7. Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity, by Robert H. Stein

8. Jesus the Seer, by Ben Witherington III

9. The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line, by Gary R. Habermas

10. How Scholars Fabricate Jesus, by Craig A. Evans

11. How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament? by Daniel B. Wallace

12. Who Did Jesus Think He Was? by Michael J. Wilkins

Part 3: The Coherence of Christian Doctrine

13. The Coherence of Theism, by Charles Taliaferro and Elsa J. Marty

14. Is the Trinity a Logical Blunder? God as Three and One, by Paul Copan

15. Did God Become a Jew? A Defense of the Incarnation, by Paul Copan

16. Dostoyevsky, Woody Allen, and the Doctrine of Penal Substitution, by Steve L. Porter

17. Hell: Getting What’s Good My Own Way, by Stewart Goetz

18. What Does God Know? The Problems of Open Theism, by David P. Hunt

(I will also provide a summary of the volume at the end.)

Dogma of naturalism?

2011/06/27

Here is a brief digression from my Ultimate Challenge series. I guess reading philosophical agruments makes me imagine that I am a philosopher. If any of you are actually trained in philosophy, please let me know how the following argument is wrong.

People often say that science is dogmatically committed to the idea that everything that exists is physical.

This claim bugs me. It feels wrong.

Not wrong like a straw man – there are many atheists, naturalists, and scientists who probably fit the claim. But I’ve always had this sense that naturalism sort of “falls out” from what science is.* It’s not this whole extra assertion tacked on alongside things like “remove bias where possible” and “keep hypotheses simple”.

I’ll admit it – my discomfort with the claim is personal. I am a scientist, and I am a naturalist. When someone says that scientists or naturalists are committed to the a priori claim that supernatural causes do not exist, I feel like I’ve been accused of something slightly dirty. Something that I am innocent of.

This post is an attempt to examine the claim. I want to clarify the concepts for myself, in case I am not, in fact, innocent of what they accuse me of. I also want to share my understanding with you, my readers, so you can point out any errors in my thinking.

So let’s start with this question:

Can anything non-physical exist?

Like good philosophers, we’ll begin by exploring what “physical” and “exist” mean from a scientific viewpoint. I hope that my definitions – and the reasoning that flows from them – will be acceptable more generally among naturalists, but the only thing I promise you is that these are the definitions that I currently work under.

Okay, let’s start with “physical”. What does it mean to be physical? What sorts of things are physical? I’m going to use a definition that fits neatly with how science examines things. Here goes:

Anything that has observable effects is physical.

Science examines the physical universe. And, broadly conceived, science can be used to probe anything for which we can generate observations, from atomic interactions, to planetary orbits, to human behaviour, to … whatever. If you can record an observation about it, it is accessible to the methods of science. And thus, it is part of the physical universe (as science conceives it).

Now, the above definition of physical is still a little too vague. What does it mean to observe something? Scientists use a multitude of tools for observation, from their own senses, to obvious “scientific” instruments such as microscopes, telescopes, barometers, rulers, and stopwatches, to less obvious instruments like surveys, explosives, and blocks of glass. When I say “observable”, I mean anything that could, in principle, affect the measurements we make using these or any other conceivable measuring instrument. In other words,

 All and only things that can interact causally with the world we experience are physical.**

Wait a minute. This seems a wee bit dodgy. Under this definition, a whole lot of stuff most of us call non-physical seems to suddenly be classed as physical. After all, ghosts, gods, and souls are often claimed to be non-physical, but if any of the claims about them are true they certainly affect the world in ways we can notice. Do we really want to call these immaterial things physical?

Maybe not, but consider the alternative. Remember that anything that can interact causally with the world we experience is within the realm of scientific investigation, at least in principle.

So either these things – ghosts, gods, souls, etc – are defined as non-physical, in which case science is able to investigate the non-physical (because it can investigate them, through their effects on the physical world), or these things are physical (for this particular pragmatic definition of “physical”), and science remains limited to investigating the physical. I recognize that these things are special to many people, but I have yet to see a good definition that divides physical things which have effects in the world from non-physical things which have effects in the world.

So I’ll stick with a definition of physical that aligns with scientific methods.

Second, what do we mean by exist? I’m going to keep this simple and pragmatic.

All and only things that can interact causally with the world we experience exist.

Because if it can interact with the world of our experience, then clearly it exists. And if it can’t affect or be affected by this world, then its “existence” is irrelevant, and basically meaningless, as far as I’m concerned.

So now we have our definitions. What do they tell us about the question?

 Can anything non-physical exist?

I’m sure you already see where this is leading, but let’s make it even more clear by substituting our definitions for the words themselves:

Can anything [that cannot interact causally with the world we experience] [interact causally with the world we experience]?

Of course not. Problem solved. Well, not just yet.

Let me anticipate two of the objections that I’m sure have leaped to your minds, then I’ll open the floor for discussion.

1. There’s no philosophy here, just careful selection of definitions.

Absolutely correct. (Though much of the groundwork of philosophy – as with science – is in pinning down definitions.) But note that I didn’t pull my definitions out of thin air, or generate them specifically so I could support my conclusion. The definition of “physical” is grounded in the way science is done. It may not be your definition. It may not fit with anyone’s intuitive idea of “physical”. But it is a definition that is on the table when we’re discussing science and scientific materialism. And the definition of exists … well, this has a more informal motivation, perhaps, but I don’t think it’s entirely arbitrary. If anyone objects to it, please let me know of some reason we should care about the existence of something that can’t, even in principle, interact with the world of our experience (or accept the non-existence of something that does interact with the world).

2. This doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existence of gods, souls, etc.

Quite right. By redefining these things as physical, I have not altered their properties, or the fact of their existence or non-existence.

But remember – this essay was not meant to argue for atheism, or to suggest that entities traditionally conceived of as non-physical do not exist. My line of thought was exclusively aimed at helping decide whether naturalism – the claim that only physical entities exist – is an extra assumption of science (a dogma, if you will), or whether it is an automatic consequence of more basic aspects of science.

I think I have shown that it is not an extra, separate dogma. In fact, I think I have shown that metaphysical naturalism (not just methodological naturalism)* is an automatic consequence of defining “physical” in a scientific sense, and defining “exists” pragmatically.

Now, since I am not a trained philosopher, I need some feedback. What have I overlooked? What have I screwed up here? Or, if I’ve got this right, who else has come up with this reasoning before me? I know I’m not the only one to think of it.

Footnotes:

* Note that, when doing science, we use methodological naturalism – that is, we’re free to believe that other stuff exists, but what we’re studying in science is just the natural (physical) stuff. People who identify as naturalists (such as me) go further, to metaphysical naturalism – the claim that there actually probably is no other stuff besides what’s physical.

** Yes, I know there is still vagueness in these definitions. If you think the remaining vagueness is terminal to my argument, let me know. Otherwise, I plead the requirements of brevity as an excuse to be less precise and wordy than a proper philosopher would be.

A new challenge

2011/06/13

Luke Muehlhauser, over at Common Sense Atheism, set a challenge early last year: The Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge. He challenges his readers to read several books discussing two worldviews: Christian theism, and atheism. About ten thousand pages of (primarily) philosophical arguments, divided roughly equally between those defending Christianity and those defending atheism. These are the best presentations, in Luke’s opinion, of the two sides.

It is an admirable undertaking, but far beyond my ambitions as a casual philosopher, both in the level of some of the books, and the sheer volume.

Never fear! A couple of months later, Luke came out with an abridged version of the challenge.

The basic idea (in either version of the challenge) is to encourage people to challenge themselves to read the best arguments for an opposing worldview to the one they currently hold.

This sort of activity appeals to Deena and me. Similar reasons have, in the past, led us to check out Christianity Explored at a local church in Edinburgh, to attend a philosophy book group organized under the Humanist Society of Scotland, to become involved through the student humanist group with the Chaplaincy Centre at the university there, and to invite Mormon missionaries into our home for a series of discussions.

So, starting late last spring, we began working our way slowly through the more manageable list of eight books – four apologetic, four atheistic.

We’re going slowly. At times I’ve been tempted to give up, for various reasons. I may tell you more about that in a later post.

For now, I just want to lay out the situation.

As I write this, we are working our way through the fourth book, a collection of apologetic essays. Going in to this exercise, I would say that I held three main positions that are relevant to the question being debated in these books:

  1. I was a negative atheist. By this I mean that I was unconvinced by existing arguments purporting to demonstrate or support the existence of any god. I was not particularly convinced by (or committed to) definite claims about the non-existence of a god.
  2. I was an enchanted naturalist. A naturalist in that I thought that everything that exists (ie, interacts causally with the world I experience) is natural (as opposed to supernatural). This is also known as physicalism. Enchanted because I think the universe presented to human experience through the naturalist lens is beautiful and exciting.
  3. I took all religious beliefs, systems, dogmas, etc. to be products of human minds – through wishful thinking, hyperactive agency detection, pareidolia, misunderstanding of probability, political and social pressures to conform, a desire to externally codify innate moral sense, etc.

I don’t want my use of the past tense in that list to suggest that I no longer hold those positions. I just mean that, at that time, those were my positions, as closely as I can remember. When we’re done the challenge, I’ll check my state of beliefs and see if any of these points has shifted appreciably.

So, next up, I will start posting my reviews of the books we have read. I won’t necessarily do a point-by-point philosophical analysis, but I do want to share my overall impressions, as well as any belief-shift that each book occasions. Of course, there will be individual points that I’ll want to discuss in more detail.

Here are the eight books, as Luke presents them:

And here it is, my Ultimate Truth-Seeker Challenge (Easy Version):

  1. Bart Ehrman – Jesus, Interrupted (304 pages). A leading Biblical scholar explains the basic facts of Biblical scholarship, and why they undermine conservative Christian views.
  2. C. Stephan Layman – Letters to Doubting Thomas (240 pages). Presented as a series of letters between a Christian and an atheist, this book presents a case for God not based on the usual arguments but on why God is the ‘best explanation’ for the way things are. A careful and respectable case for God’s existence.
  3. Guy P. Harrison – 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God (354 pages). Each brief chapter explains one of the 50 most common reasons people give for believing in a god, and summarizes why skeptics are not persuaded by that reason.
  4. Paul Copan & others – Contending with Christianity’s Critics (304 pages). Eighteen major apologists respond to the New Atheists and other contemporary critics of Christianity.
  5. John Loftus & others – The Christian Delusion (385 pages). Michael Martin writes: “Using sociological, biblical, scientific, historical, philosophical, theological and ethical criticisms, this book completely destroys Christianity.”
  6. William Lane Craig – Reasonable Faith (416 pages). A leading Christian philosopher’s defense of theism and Christian doctrine, with all the standard philosophical and historical arguments.
  7. Richard Swinburne – Is There a God? (144 pages). Many philosophers think Richard Swinburne has given the best evidential case for God ever conceived. This slim and attractive book is Swinburne’s own attempt to make his arguments accessible to the layman.
  8. Richard Carrier – Sense and Goodness Without God (444 pages). A comprehensive case not just for atheism but for a full, enriching, purposeful, and moral naturalistic worldview.

I will begin soon with a discussion of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted, which is in the “atheist” category. In the meantime, I’m curious what people think of Luke’s list. If you’re interested, don’t forget to head over to his blog to see the discussion of the books there.

As I post my reviews, I will link to them from here:

[Added 2013 April 24:]

For those who are still following along, you may have noticed one or two sidetracks – not exactly reviews of the texts above, but lines of thought clearly connected with them. I’ll keep a list here for anyone interested:
  • Evolving Free Will – Inspired by an assertion in one of the essays in Contending with Christianity’s Critics. This post looks at how we might expect evolution to interact with libertarian free will, if such a thing were possible.
  • The precariousness of libertarian free will – I reflect on the main reasons why I take a compatibilist approach to free will. (Sort of connected with the previous item.)
  • Duty and futility – In which I ponder the value of carrying on once it has become clear that the Christian apologists in the series are largely leaning on the same tired old arguments.

And, just for completeness, here are some books I have picked up as a result of issues raised in the Challenge:

  • Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. I picked this book up so I could more fully evaluate the claims made by Daniel Wallace in his essay from the fourth book in the series. (Wallace’s essay is about this book, not Ehrman’s other book, Jesus, Interrupted, which began this Challenge.)
  • Proving History by Richard Carrier. This book I wanted to read because it addresses historical claims from a Bayesian perspective. (Ultimately, in a follow-up volume, it aims to address questions of this historicity of Jesus.) Bayesian reasoning is a mathematically rigorous way of determining the probabilities of claims (how credible we should think they are) based on evidence available to us.

Ephemeral or Eternal?

2011/03/20

Jim at Agent Intellect has just passed on a very interesting philosophical musing from the Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella. Here is a taste:

The problem with time is not that it will end, but that its very mode of being is deficient. The problem is not that our time is short, but   that we are in time in the first place. For this reason, more time is no solution. Not even endlessly recurring time is any solution. Even if time were unending and I were omnitemporal, existing at every time, my life would still be strung out in moments outside of each other, with the diachronic identifications of memory and expectation no substitute for a true unity.

Like Koheleth’s lament that all is ephemeral, this is an age-old lament at the ephemeral nature of existence.

The Maverick Philosopher takes the common theistic route of invoking eternal life as an escape clause from this existential malaise. I can certainly sympathize.

I prefer, however, to grapple a little more deeply with this ephemeral existence. Not just “make the most of your time while you have it” – an option that is clearly open to anyone, regardless of belief or disbelief in an eternal afterlife. But actually constructing an attitude toward meaning that embraces and incorporates the temporary nature of life.

It’s difficult. We seem to be born to deny death and transience. Accepting them is unnatural. Against our nature.

But then, it is unnatural to reduce the fat, salt, and sugar in our diets. It is unnatural to set aside our prejudices and consciously grant all people respect and dignity. Like these exercises, I think the attempt to come to terms with transience is an ultimately rewarding – even liberating – one.

What do you think? Do you think that acceptance or transience is opposed to belief in an eternal afterlife? Is it, in fact, virtuous to try to accept our transient existence, or is it better to seek an alternative, a solution to the problem of our transience?

Common Sense Atheism

2010/02/16

I want to recommend to you all a wonderful blog I’ve recently encountered.

Common Sense Atheism is written by Luke, a philosopher and former Christian.  I find his posts thoughtful and challenging, and balanced in a way that I aspire to but have yet to achieve.

One thing that sets his blog apart is that several of his posts are updated regularly – indexes of various types.  There’s the list of atheism debates – currently listing over 500 debates, with links to (where available) online audio, transcripts, or other materials.  There’s an Atheism FAQ.  And a list of episodes of his own podcast, Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot.

There’s more too, of course.  He is quick to criticize bad arguments made by atheists – for example, the “But who made God?” rejoinder to the cosmological argument.  He even has an ongoing elucidation of one place where Dawkins gets it very wrong.  He has a post clarifying the different ways to be an atheist.

From what I’ve seen, he is much better than most of us at setting aside his tribal monkey instincts and seeing the other side of an issue.  He isn’t convinced by religious arguments, but he’s not afraid to acknowledge that they aren’t all invalid.

Anyway, check him out and let me know what you think.

On moral obligation

2010/01/05

One complaint levelled against entirely naturalistic worldviews is this:

What is the basis of morality? By what right can you expect anyone to follow moral rules, if there is no transcendent reality to ground them in? 

I have had a very engaging discussion of this (and related issues) with Ken Brown and other commenters on his blog, and have posted some of my own thoughts here. Ken and colleagues are coming specifically from a Christian perspective. (I have yet to see them give a satisfactory justification for how a “transcendent reality” solves the problem – but that’s a topic for another time. As is the whole burden of actually demonstrating that such a reality exists – which would seem to be a prerequisite if one is to pin one’s entire moral philosophy on it.)

I thought I might pick out the key points of my answer here.

First, I come back to a very pragmatic position: most of the key elements of morality (love, fairness, honesty, nonviolence, etc) are built into most humans. (This fact has very interesting naturalistic explanations in the context of evolution as a social species, but that too, is a topic for another time.) So we have a useful basis for discussing moral issues without either an esoteric knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of morality or a belief in a transcendent basis for moral claims. This is the basis of secular government: we build our society on the foundations we all share.

Second and more important, how I can derive another’s obligation from my “relativist” moral stance? Very cautiously and humbly. For most cases where someone says “there ought to be a law”, there probably oughtn’t. Law – the formal, coercive expression of our shared moral principles – is a blunt instrument that should not be used to solve all problems.

But even aside from the law, I do expect people to act morally, and I reserve the right to hold them accountable when they don’t. How do I do this? What gives me, a relativist with no ultimate explanation for right and wrong, the right to project my moral judgments on others? Why should someone else do the right thing rather than some other thing? The most honest answer I can give is very simple:

People should do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. 

I know that’s not very philosophical or subtle. But, so long as we all share a basic sense of right and wrong, it’s sufficient for the vast majority of life’s decisions.

And for those issues where we don’t instinctively agree on the right answer – abortion, euthanasia, drug control, etc – pretending that a hypothetical transcendent realm holds the answer does not seem to solve things. It may give some people a sense of self-righteousness to bolster their support of one position, but it is useless in seeking a practical solution or persuading people who believe in a different hypothetical set of transcendent moral truths (or folks like me who doubt such a set exists at all). In these cases, we have to fall back on the nasty, brutish, fallible strategy of using rhetoric and reason to pursue the best solution and persuade each other of it.

Photo credits:

Justice statue on Old Bailey, London: from Wikipedia, shared by user Erasoft24 under Creative Commons Attribution licence 2.5.


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