Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Give them enough rope …

2014/06/17

A law school connected to Christian institution Trinity Western University in BC is facing an odd hurdle.

Certain law societies in Canada (BC, Ontario, and Nova Scotia) are deciding not to allow graduates of the new law school to practice law in their provinces. (More have approved it already without fuss, including my home province of Alberta.) The justification seems to be the discriminatory admission practices of the university. Students must conform to a code of behaviour that excludes gays and unmarried couples who perform certain private acts.

My first reaction is that this is a ridiculous code of behaviour to impose on students, unworthy of an institution that calls itself a “university”.

My second reaction, especially after reading some of the news stories, is that the barrier seemed arbitrary. The news stories focus on the discriminatory rule (eg, here, here, and here). Nobody seems to argue that the students who come out of the program will be unqualified to practice law.

Students who are okay with TWU’s code of conduct may be more likely to oppose the rights of sexual minorities – or they to refuse clients or cases that are contrary to the bigoted position of their alma mater. If that is the problem, then surely the solution is to make individual lawyers to agree to a code of conduct. That way, you address not only the bad eggs coming out of TWU’s law school, but also the bigots that happen to study at more mainstream law schools.

But no – all the quotes in the media seem to centre around how horrible it is that the school has this sexually-discriminatory code for the students.* If this is the problem, then don’t punish the students for their school’s bigoted stance. Find some way to address it with the school. One effective and regulation-free solution would be for all the members of the relevant professional groups to be aware of TWU’s code. They are in a strong position to exert social pressure on new graduates, encouraging them to embrace a more pro-social attitude to the humans they encounter in their professional lives. Given how these votes are coming out, I think the social momentum is already leaning this way.

In the end, my position is the same as Hemant Mehta’s: the school (a private university) should be free to treat its students in this bigoted way; society should be free to criticize them; and its students should be allowed or not allowed to practice law based on their legal qualifications.

I’ll close by pointing to two comments that seem to speak to the content of the program. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada (responsible for accrediting law programs across the country) says

The Special Advisory Committee on Trinity Western University’s Proposed School of Law … concluded that there is no public interest reason to exclude future graduates of the program from law society bar admission programs as long as the program meets the national requirement.

And the Advanced Education Minister in BC, Amrik Virk, said in December,

The Degree Quality Assessment Board reviewed Trinity Western University’s proposed law degree and found that it met the degree program quality assessment criteria for private and out-of-province public institutions.

What do you think of this whole mess? What would be the optimal solution to the conflicting needs of private autonomy and freedom versus upholding equal rights?

Footnote:

* Yes, I am taking the media reports with a grain of salt. Journalists and their audience like a good A versus B narrative, and the secular-vs-religious narrative appeals to both liberals and conservatives – each gets to feel either smugly victorious or self-importantly oppressed.

Atheism and Unitarians 2: the positive

2014/06/09

In my previous post, I highlighted a couple of rather unsavory aspects of Unitarian attitudes from the perspective of an atheist. In this post, I present the other side.

Here is a leaflet that is stuck to our fridge at home:

An atheist leaflet?

An atheist leaflet?

It’s a sentiment that humanists and atheists could easily get behind. This leaflet is from the Edinburgh Unitarian congregation that we were part for the last while we lived in Scotland.

Unitarians are justifiably proud of having shed much of the denominational dogma they once held as a branch of Christianity. The Unitarian principles do not imply belief (or disbelief) in any god. They do not require adherence – literal or otherwise – to any ancient (or modern) text. They do not declare salvation for right believers, or even take a position on the possibility of an afterlife. Individual Unitarians naturally do have beliefs one way or the other, but as a community all they share is a set of very secular values and a desire to build community and do good.

They are a delightfully mixed group – I know Unitarians who are Buddhists, others who are Wiccans, Christians of various stripes, and a good share of atheists and agnostics. For the most part, they manage to forge their common identity through shared values (I would say, shared secular values), and not let differences of belief get in the way. Here are some of the Unitarians we came to know while we lived in Edinburgh.

That's me holding our (then little) daughter, Kaia, up top in the middle.

That’s me holding our (then little) daughter, Kaia, up top in the middle.

Down in front, in the purple stole, is the minister, Maud Robinson. Her sermons sometimes have language suggesting god-belief, but never in a way that made us feel like outsiders for being different, or in any way unwelcome. Once, Deena and I even led a children’s service where we adapted a passage from Dawkins to concretely illustrate our familial connection to chimpanzees (such as the ones that live at the Edinburgh Zoo).

In that group, I felt I was able to engage people in meaningful discussion, challenging some ideas (gently), while mutually affirming others even across deep differences of metaphysical belief. It was a member of that community that introduced me to my good friend, Marc. It was among those Unitarians that we had a celebration of our children joining the human community.

They aren’t all sugar and roses. Sometimes, a Unitarian will let loose an invective. They denounce war and act for peace. They denounce poverty and support public and private welfare efforts. They denounce the ongoing marginalization of same-sex couples in otherwise enlightened countries, and ally with others to change things. There is a strong social justice theme among Unitarians which is quite impressive.

Indeed, despite my complaint in the last post that I feel unable to voice clear objections to some of the silly (and occasionally dangerous) ideas that are expressed, some of my most cherished friendships have grown out of visiting Unitarian churches. I don’t, currently, identify myself as a Unitarian – mainly because it has been over two years since I attended a Unitarian church, but also because of things like the anti-atheist invective that Adam Lee discovered in a book introducing Unitarianism. But for humanists and atheists who want a church-like setting without all the dogma, I suspect a Unitarian church is your best bet for matching values and for not having to hide or set aside your own beliefs.

The Unitarians (like any freethinking community of people) are a diverse lot, and every congregation has a different feel. If you’re in a place where there is lots of choice (we had four Unitarian churches within reasonable access when we lived in Boston, with more in the city if we’d had a car to get to them), then shop around. Otherwise, it still shouldn’t hurt to see what’s nearby.

You might get lucky, as we did in Edinburgh, and have someone like Maud as your minister. Here she is, addressing the Scottish Parliament in their “Time for Reflection”:

(I found this video serendipitously while finding the link to the Edinburgh congregation - and somehow she seems to speak to much of what I wanted to say in this post. Also, note that the Scottish politicians don’t call it “prayer time” or “invocation” – they call it “Time for Reflection”. Such an inclusive and worthwhile title. Good for them!)

 

Atheism and Unitarians 1: the negative

2014/06/07

I am apparently not the only atheist who finds dabbling in Unitarian Universalism* to be a fraught, crazy-making endeavour. They are a good bunch, and generally sympathetic to humanist and atheist ideas and individuals. But sometimes … well, this post explores some of the less palatable elements of Unitarian community, from a humanist/atheist standpoint. A follow-up post will balance the coverage with the positive view of the humanist-Unitarian connection.

The difficulties I’ve had with Unitarians cover a broad range.

On the milder end, I have sometimes felt that the “welcome all comers” attitude of Unitarianism inhibits my capacity to critically discuss disagreements. This is a galling constraint to me. If you and I disagree about something, often it means one of us is wrong, and so I cherish the ability to discuss such differences robustly. That’s the best way for us to discover and correct any errors – whether they are in my stance, or yours, or both. I won’t be able to fully engage in a community – any community – if it isn’t open to self-critique and discussion of this sort.

I should acknowledge that the Unitarians have historically shown great courage in self-reflection and self-correction. Without ever breaking entirely from their religious origins, they have consciously set aside several orthodox Christian beliefs, including the odd doctrine of the trinity (that’s why they’re “Unitarians” – as opposed to “Trinitarians”) and the toxic idea of hell (giving the “Universalist” half of their name). My sense that disagreement isn’t always encouraged is likely as much part of my own perceptions as of the reality before me. Nevertheless, it has dampened my enthusiasm for self-identifying as a Unitarian.

Occasionally, an uglier sentiment arises. Some time ago now, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism described a diatribe being aimed at atheists.

While I understand that Unitarians call themselves “religious”, it is clear both from their principles and their promotional literature that non-belief is well within the circle of beliefs compatible with Unitarianism. Not only that, but on important social issues (such as the same-sex union kerfuffle in Scotland), atheists and Unitarians stand side-by-side against the reactionary forces of traditional religion. Lee, an outspoken atheist and a member of a Unitarian congregation, was incensed by passages in the book A Chosen Faith, promoted by Unitarian organizations as an excellent introduction to their community.

Among the passages Lee cites is this:

Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer “religion-free.” They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion.

It goes downhill from there, comparing modern, outspoken atheists to tyrants of the past century. These comparisons are factually tenuous at best, and far beneath the general tone you find when Unitarians discuss different beliefs. Lee contacts the author of the book to see if he is misreading the intent, but gets a reply that doubles down on the dissing, tarring himself as much of a kneejerk bigot as some of the worst fundamentalists.

Fortunately, I can report that I’ve never come across such repulsive attitudes myself among Unitarian groups.

Not all Unitarians are alike, and in my follow-up post I will point out some of the high points I have encountered in Unitarian/humanist contact.

Footnote:

* I generally abbreviate “Unitarian Universalist” to “Unitarian”. I know some Unitarian Universalists strongly prefer the full name as more descriptive, or abbreviate it “UU” instead. There are good historical reasons for the UUs having this double-barrelled name. But in Edinburgh, the name “Unitarian” was common, so that’s the variant I will stick with for convenience.

Something deeper

2014/01/04

Today’s Calgary Herald has an interesting piece on declining church attendance.

I’m going to leave aside the opening bit, which identifies “six-month-old Angus Smith” as “a devout churchgoer”. I understand the desire to pursue the human interest side of the story. I think it is inappropriate to describe an infant as “devout”, but it’s not something I’m inclined to fuss about just now.

What I’m more interested in here is the article’s suggestion that church attendance may be the cure for today’s spiritual ennui. One Catholic bishop in Calgary, Frederick Henry, says “We’re finding out no matter how many toys and playthings you have … there’s a restlessness for something more and deeper, and I think there’s a bit of a turn to religion to try and develop a spirituality.”

Now, I don’t know about general historical trends. My experience, within my family and among my peers, is that the people around me have always been interested in keeping grounded in the deeper, important things in life. Things such as fostering community and being true to oneself. In my experience, there has always been interest in that “something deeper”.

What the article neglects is that “something deeper” doesn’t have to be “something religious”.

Humanism is a way of focussing on the important things in life without also subscribing to all the beliefs and traditions of religion – beliefs and traditions that many of us cannot honestly accept and certainly don’t identify with.

I agree with Bishop Henry that toys and playthings do not suffice for deep happiness. Oh, I enjoy my toys. The laptop that I’m writing this on, the smartphone that I use for podcast listening on my commute, the Lego toys that my kids and I enjoy playing with – these do enrich my life in various ways. But deeper and more important is connections with people. Sometimes these toys help me make these connections – as in (responsible) use of social media. Sometimes I let the toys get in the way – I tend to get stuck in computer games when there are people I could be visiting with. (I should also point out that it’s within a framework of humanist values that I fight such tendencies in myself.) I’m delighted that so many people can affirm their social values within their chosen religious tradition. I am also delighted that people who cannot accept those religious traditions also have a way to fulfil this very human need.

The Christmas break has been a good reminder for me – a break from routine that is filled with gift-giving and the chance to reconnect with family members that I don’t see most of the year. The gift-giving is an interesting one. When I was young, I was most focussed on getting. It was fun to get new toys. But over the years, I have learned the joy of giving. Now, the most exciting part is thinking of what gifts I can give that will most delight my loved ones. Usually, this has nothing to do with how much money I spend on them. My favorite gift to give this year was a customized version of the Phylo trading card game - a gift that, itself, will encourage socializing.

The growth of humanist and other secular social organizations is beginning to offer a viable alternative to churches. I know that many people – especially but not exclusively younger folks – are looking for a way to connect with people to explore the deeper things in life, and yet do not feel that religious beliefs resonate with them.

And while religious groups are, currently, better at organizing the social side of things, non-religious groups are catching up at a delightful pace. There are two families we have become particularly close to in recent years – one while we lived in Boston and one more recently in Edmonton. We met the family in Boston at a Unitarian church. While this is (obviously) a church, it is philosophically closer to humanism than to traditional religion. The other family we met through a humanist meetup group here in Alberta.

We don’t currently attend regular humanist meetings, but we have the resources at our fingertips to reach out when we want to find like-minded people interested in the same self-examination and reflection, interested in focussing on what really matters. Odds are, you do to: have a look around. Join a Meetup group (or start your own). Participate in online communities. Visit a Unitarian Universalist church if you have one nearby, and chat with people after the service.

I should note that we have also made friends with Christian families, Muslim families, and individuals whose religious affiliation we have simply never bothered to ask. Ultimately, most people are interested in being good people, and I would hate to limit my social circle to only people who are philosophically similar to me. What a terrible example that would set for my kids in an age where global cooperation and fraternity are the keys to a peaceful, productive future.

Anyway, I thought I’d put that out there. If you are non-religious and seeking a community that will help you explore what is important to you, you have options.

If you are religious and seeking a community … well, you’ve always had options, but you too are welcome at most humanist and non-religious social groups, if you would like to try something different.

And of course, religious or not, odds are you know people who are not religious. If you are able and willing to be open about your beliefs, you might be surprised at who around you is non-religious.

Contending with Bart Ehrman

2013/04/29

This post reviews an essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics, the latest installment in the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge that I undertook some time ago. This time I’m looking at Daniel Wallace’s essay “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”.

I was looking forward to Daniel Wallace’s essay, because it is the first to directly address a professional skeptic whose work I’ve seen*. Wallace speaks to Bart Ehrman’s arguments for scriptural corruption – that is, the position that the texts of the Bible as we have them are not the same as those penned by the original first-century authors. He doesn’t address Jesus Interrupted (the book that opened this Challenge), but Ehrman’s earlier book, Misquoting Jesus (MJ from here on). So I had some more Ehrman to read. I didn’t mind – he’s a clear and engaging writer, and it was nice to have an excuse for a sidetrack from the apologetics.

Interestingly, the main disagreement Wallace has with Ehrman isn’t a deep split over how to approach the problem of New Testament studies. They both appeal to the same sort of evidence. They even agree on some key conclusions: of the seven major examples where Ehrman suggests important doctrinal points depend on passages that have been changed, Wallace flat-out agrees with Ehrman on three of them. (That is, Wallace agrees that the passages as we have them were not written by the original authors. He denies that this fact undermines important doctrines.) On the other points, he disagrees in highly technical ways, so that I cannot competently referee the disagreement.

What sort of differences can I evaluate?

Well, Ehrman focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are authentic, and Wallace focusses on the fact that we cannot be sure they are inauthentic.

Call me conciliatory, but maybe they’re both right. Maybe the original texts of the New Testament books were fairly close to what we have today. But, using evidence available to us, we cannot be certain how close, or on what points. A belief in Biblical inerrancy seems to be fatally undermined by the evidence. But it’s likely true that the original authors of the books in the New Testament believed most of the main things Christians today believe about Jesus.

The great lesson I took away from Ehrman’s book is that the evidence that has survived is undeniably altered in some places. There’s a whole lot of evidence that has not survived. (Ehrman and Wallace both talk about “patristic” writings – by early church fathers – that talk about texts we do not have any more.) What changes may have taken place without leaving a paper trail for people like Ehrman and Wallace to follow? All of the key evidence has spent most of its history in the hands of people who were hell-bent on making sure we believe one story: the now-dominant, orthodox story. It is biased evidence. Even knowing that, I’m willing to take it as probably being fairly close to the original, for the most part. But those qualifications (“probably” and “fairly close”) stand.

So much for the philosophical differences. Unfortunately, some of the content of this article is more personal. Wallace’s rhetoric leaves me with strong doubts about his inclination to be impartial. He uses the term “radical” about any view that departs from orthodox Christianity, and anyone who promotes such a view. And he distorts Ehrman’s own claims in rather easy-to-spot ways. Here is one of his main accusations (p152):

“There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” argues Ehrman. Elsewhere he states that the number of variants is as high as 400,000. That is true enough but by itself is misleading. Anyone who teaches NT textual criticism knows that this fact is only part of the picture and that, if left dangling in front of the reader without explanation, is a distorted view. Once it is revealed that most variants are inconsequential – involving spelling differences that cannot even be translated, articles with proper nouns, word order changes, and the like – and that only a small minority of the variants alter the meaning of the text, the whole picture begins to come into focus. Indeed, less than 1 percent of the textual variants are both meaningful and viable.

(As a side note, even before I read MJ, the math of this jumped out at me. Less than 1% of 400,000. Wallace is basically saying, “Ehrman exaggerates. There are only upwards of four thousand meaningful and viable variants in the New Testament texts.” Is that supposed to inspire my confidence?)

And here is a passage from Ehrman that gives the claim Wallace pounces on (pp10-11):

Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.

Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. A good portion of them simply show us that scribes in antiquity could spell no better than most people can today (and they didn’t even have dictionaries, let alone spell check).

Do you notice the immediate context of the line Wallace quoted above? The very next sentence completely undermines Wallace’s claim that Ehrman is alarmist in his rhetoric. Ehrman raises readers’ interest with an impressive statistic, then provides context, encouraging us not to over-interpret that statistic. Wallace claims that “Scholars bear a sacred duty not to alarm layreaders on issues where they have little understanding.” What about undermining a colleague’s credibility with selective quote-mining?

So Wallace is quite willing to use misleading rhetoric to undermine Ehrman’s credibility. But let’s return to the actual claims at hand.

I am open to the possibility that Ehrman overstates the corruption of the biblical texts. Wallace is right that Ehrman would probably sell fewer books if he put more emphasis on the uncertainty and less on the possibility that the texts are altered. On the other hand, Ehrman came to these conclusions from within an evangelical belief system. He was a believer; he learned about the texts; and the evidence forced him against his inclination to reject the inerrantist position he preferred. That gives him far more credibility as an unbiased investigator than those who believe their salvation and self-identity rely on the conclusion they defend.

The question of how unchanged our modern reconstructions of the New Testament are from their original forms is a fascinating debate from a sociological standpoint. But I think I should close by pointing out that, however this debate comes out, it doesn’t really affect the underlying question at issue in the Challenge: does a god – the Christian God or any other – actually exist? If the Greek and Hebrew texts we have today are exactly the words written by the first people to put them to paper, and if those words faithfully record the recollections of the early Christians, it would still just be a report of the beliefs of some ancient people. It would, at best, make the merest smidge of a difference in my estimate of how likely a god is, or the possibility of life after death. It would have no affect on my moral rejection of the idea of substitutiary atonement or the doctrine of infinite consequences for finite actions.

Footnote:
* Yes, a couple of the earlier essays in this book responded to Dawkins. But they were responding to Dawkins’ philosophy (an area of interest to him, but not one where he is an expert), not his science (where he is a recognized leader in his field). This essay takes on Ehrman in his home arena: New Testament studies.

Contending with history

2013/04/26

This is a review of the second section of the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Jesus of History

There are six essays in this section, but my reactions to most of them are similar enough that it really isn’t worth reviewing them separately.

The thing is, they all tend to lean on evidence from within the books of the Bible to support their claims. And that’s just silly. I mean, really? You have a collection of books, culled by a particular religious group from many alternatives and, in several cases, selectively edited in the process. This highly biased set of texts is then used as evidence – sometimes, different books within the set are put forward as independent sources of evidence! – of the theological position of the religious group that collected them.

Now, let’s be fair. If orthodox Christian beliefs do represent a faithful history of early-first-century events, then we would expect to have the books of the New Testament more or less as they exist today. (Perhaps with fewer internal contradictions, but not necessarily error-free.)

But then, if those beliefs are false, given people’s natural tendency to believe, even in spite of evidence to the contrary, it isn’t all that surprising that we have the books of the New Testament as they exist today. Including contradictions.

Now, for some brief responses to the individual essays.

First, Robert H. Stein outlines “Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity”. Some of them sound plausible, others less so. The examples from the gospels – particularly for the “criterion of embarrassment” – tend to be very weak. The only criterion that seems at all persuasive to me is the linguistic one: there are elements in the gospels that point to translation from an Aramaic oral tradition, and that point to a Palestinian geography. So yes, I’ll accept that the oral traditions that were the sources for the (Greek) gospels came from Aramaic-speaking Palestinians. To the extent that the others give anything reliable, it is about elements that skeptics (such as Bart Ehrman) would not disagree with: Jesus existed; he said certain things; he was crucified; his followers started a religion in the wake of his demise that flourished, evolved, and has come down to us as a thousand different communities, all with slightly different takes on slightly different subsets of text and tradition from that time. Unimpressive.

A further barrier to my accepting this approach is the assertion, made for example by Richard Carrier here and here, that the “criteria” approach is bankrupt. It is not a valid historical method for ascertaining reliability. I wonder if he elaborates on this in the next book in our series (The Christian Delusion contains 2 of his essays)? If any historians are reading this, please let us know your thoughts.

Ben Witherington III closes his essay “Jesus the Seer” by reminding us that “who a person is, who a person claims to be, and who others say a person is can be different.” (p111) And yet Witherington hangs all his certainty about who Jesus claimed to be on indirect evidence of what others said he was. Unimpressive.

Gary Habermas, in “The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line”, works back from a small sample of late, non-eyewitness textual accounts, through two or three levels of extrapolation. At each stage, possibilities are exaggerated to certainties with little or no consideration of alternative explanations. At no point is the inherently incredible nature of the resurrection claims even acknowledged, let alone accounted for. Habermas concludes that “this is the argument that has rocked a generation of critical scholars.” (p125) Really? So, are critical scholars recanting their skepticism en masse and accepting the literal resurrection? I can’t say for sure, but the content of Ehrman’s very recent book, Jesus, Interrupted, and the existence of the next volume in our challenge (The Christian Delusion, edited by John Loftus) seem to speak against this claim. Unimpressive.

“How Scholars Fabricate Jesus”, by Craig A. Evans, is an interesting walk through some of the better-known extra-canonical Christian texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas (which, Evans notes, is featured in The Da Vinci Code). While Evans seems to be exaggerating the weight that critical scholars give to extracanonical material, this essay is largely an informative, interesting account of that material. (Note that, at least as Ehrman builds the case in Jesus, Interrupted, this material is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of the Gospels. They can be competently challenged on internal grounds alone.)

Daniel B Wallace’s essay, “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”, is one I was particularly looking forward to, as it directly responds to Bart Ehrman. Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond to Jesus, Interrupted (JI), the Ehrman book that opened the philosophy challenge. Instead, it tackles Misquoting Jesus. I actually took the time to look through the latter book before reviewing this essay. This review will be presented in its own post – there’s a fair bit to chew on there. But, perhaps predictably, my overall conclusion was that Wallace’s arguments are unimpressive.

Michael Wilkins’ essay, “Who Did Jesus Think He Was?”, draws on gospel material to affirm the claim that Jesus saw himself as the same saviour that modern Christians see him as. Interestingly, Wilkins actually weaves in the fact that the Jewish picture of the Messiah presented in the Old Testament, the character expected by Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) is not the messiah that Jesus turned out to be. He suggests that this failure to fulfil the prophecies supports, rather than undermines, the claim that Jesus is the prophesied messiah. It is an odd and quirky approach, but not particularly impressive.

In all, this section was vaguely interesting – particularly Wallace’s essay. But all of the essays suffer from one central shortcoming, in the context of the Ultimate Challenge. By leaning on the texts of the Bible, they give insufficient reason to take any of their conclusions seriously. It is extremely unlikely that a reasonable outsider will accept the claims of any religion, based only on the texts that its adherents pick out as divinely inspired.

It should be noted that the book wasn’t (of course) written for the Ultimate Challenge. It reads more like a book that was written to give believers an excuse to keep believing, if they are worrying about the arguments offered by critics. Sort of an internal apologetics. So I can’t say whether the writers failed at their own goal. I can only say that their arguments fall flat from the perspective of this outsider.

Contending with Dawkins (2)

2012/08/22

This is a review of the sixth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

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

Didn’t we already have this? Not really. Unlike the earlier essay by Craig, Ganssle goes for a much higher-level summary of Dawkins’ argument:

  1. A universe made by God would be different from one made by only natural occurrences.
  2. Our universe fits better with a naturalistic universe than with a theistic universe.
  3. Therefore, our universe is more likely to be a naturalistic universe than a theistic universe. (p75)

Also unlike Craig, I think Ganssle manages to present the argument in a form that Dawkins would be content with. I certainly am. The idea here is to treat naturalism and theism as hypotheses that make predictions about the sort of entities and events we should observe, and compare these predictions against what we do observe.

Unfortunately, Ganssle runs off the rails pretty soon after by playing loose with the idea of “observability”.

Dawkins is disposed to think of detectability in terms of sense experience and the methods of the natural sciences. Something that is in principle subject to scientific investigation is detectable. (p77)

Yes. The methods that centuries of scientific progress have shown to be the best for teasing fact from our own bias are the best methods to use, if our goal is to form conclusions that reflect facts rather than our own biases.

For example, ethical theories can differ from each other in detectable ways. If one theory prohibits lying in every circumstance, while a second theory allows lying under specified conditions, there is a detectable difference between them. … The difference between the theories is also not due to some empirical observations. (p77)

In other words, it is not an observable difference in the sense Dawkins (and any other competent scientist) would mean – the sense that underlies the argument Ganssle so efficiently summarizes at the beginning of his essay.

Now, having excused himself from the hard work of providing real evidence within the framework of Dawkins’ argument, what does Ganssle offer in support of theism over naturalism?

  1. The universe is ordered and susceptible to rational investigation.
  2. It is a world with consciousness.
  3. It is a world with significant free agency.
  4. It is a world with objective moral obligations. (p79)

Let’s take these one at a time. I actually think they are interesting points, though I disagree with Ganssle on both their truth and their relevance to the question at hand. I am therefore indulging in a longer-than-usual post.

1. Order and susceptibility to rational investigation

The first item may point to the argument from reason, that was so opaquely exposited in Reppert’s essay. In the current context, the question is: should we expect an ordered universe more if there is a god, or if there are only naturalistic laws at work? Philosophically, I think this question is tractable. Empirically, I can’t easily think of a test for it.

Interestingly, Ganssle’s discussion smuggles in two completely arbitrary assumptions that carry all of the apparent value in this argument. First, he is assuming not just any god, but a god who is rational, and desires a rational universe. Fair enough – that is the sort of theistic hypothesis he wants to pit against naturalism. But he is not making a parallel assumption for naturalism. He is not looking and noticing that naturalists tend to describe a natural universe that has orderly laws. He just says that “a naturalistic universe, however, would not have to be susceptible to rational investigation.” (p80)

So yes, if you’re pitting a theistic hypothesis that fits our universe (and that many people support) against a naturalistic hypothesis that does not fit our universe (and that virtually nobody would support), then our universe fits better with theism than with naturalism. But if you were to pit an “orderly-god” theism against a “natural-laws” naturalism (a fair comparison), then the apparent advantage here disappears.*

2. Consciousness

I had a lot of thoughts on this section when reading it. Ganssle presents two aspects of consciousness as particularly difficult to cope with naturalistically: the first-person-ness of it, and the intentionality of mental states. These are both non-starters for me. His description of the first-person problem – that I have more immediate access to my own mental states than to anyone else’s – is no more problematic for me than the fact that the domino I push falls over but the one I leave undisturbed does not: physical systems (such as the mental states embodied in our brain) react more immediately to causes adjacent to them (such as other mental states in the same brain) than to causes distant from them (such as the mental states of other brains). As for intentionality, I simply look to the causal chain of connections between the memories and mental states I experience and the physical experiences and objects they are about. To use Ganssle’s example, when I’m thinking about Niagara Falls, those thoughts are causally connected with my memories of being there, and my memories of television shows and conversations I’ve had about the falls. None of these things are problematic under naturalism.

Of course, consciousness is a philosophically thorny topic. What is it? How does it work? These are difficult questions, whatever your philosophical position. He points out, rightly, that it is difficult for naturalists to account for consciousness. He also points out, rightly, that by positing up-front the existence of a conscious creator being, theism has already accounted for a crucial step: how consciousness arises in the universe. What he seems to fail to acknowledge is that he hasn’t really freed theism from the “probability penalty” that comes with trying to deal with consciousness. He’s just put it somewhere else. Naturalism has to deal with it by finding ways for it to arise. (Hint: natural selection is very powerful in generating things that help us survive.) Theism has to deal with it by including a very complex premise up front: the “prior probability” of theism takes a severe hit by including this ill-defined and complex thing called “consciousness” in the definition of its god.

So, consciousness is a problem for theism and naturalism, and I don’t see how we can confidently say it’s worse for naturalism than for theism.

3. Significant free agency

This is a fun one. Free will is one of those issues that seem to hinge on aesthetic preferences rather than anything substantive. I have to thank Ganssle for sparking some new and tantalizing thoughts on this topic, which I’ll defer to another time to discuss. For now, let me summarize what he asserts and how he supports it. First, “A world with significant free agency fits better in a theistic universe” than a naturalistic one. Ganssle clearly means libertarian free agency here. I tend to agree: libertarian free will is less surprising under a theistic view than a naturalistic one.**

He closes this section by saying “they may be right [that there is no such thing as libertarian free will], but the case for libertarian freedom is strong enough that it lends support to the sort of argument I am presenting.” (p84) So basically, he’s saying that if libertarian freedom exists, then his argument stands; many people deny that it exists, but let’s just accept that it does so he can keep his argument. He never actually gives us a reason to believe that libertarian free will exists. Scratch this point.

4. Objective moral obligations

This is another case where his initial premise seems to be legitimate: “A world with objective moral obligations fits better with a theistic universe.” Yes it does. (He even includes a quote from an atheist philosopher agreeing that, if objective moral obligations in Ganssle’s sense existed, then they would lend support to theism.) He also asserts that “To think that objective moral obligations exist is reasonable.” To my dismay and disgust, the one comment he makes in support of this statement is that “It is enough to note that many people think there are such obligations.”

If my premise is true, then the conclusion I hope for is true. I’ll hope my premise is true, and take my conclusion as proven.

Summing up

Ganssle’s bits of evidence are every bit as flimsy as his setup led me to expect. He begins by excusing himself from looking for real (ie, observable, empirical) evidence. Then he leads us through four arguments, all leaning on wishful thinking in various ways. He concludes by reassuring his readers that Dawkins’ best argument “does not deliver”.

Ganssle fails utterly to provide actual evidence for his conclusion, and so leaves the field to actual scientists, who have documented a whole lot of evidence that is less surprising under a naturalistic hypothesis than under a theistic one. Dawkins, for all his lack of philosophical ambition and subtlety, carries the day.

Footnotes:

* I had another thought about the argument from reason, which I won’t elaborate on here. It boils down to this: exactly how ordered is the universe, and how ordered would you expect it to be under the appropriate theistic and naturalistic hypotheses? After all, there certainly seems to be a fair amount of chaos in the universe, from quantum uncertainty to the apparent intractibility of many psychological and sociological phenomena.

** Well, one flavour of theism anyway. I have a Calvinist friend who might disagree. But I would guess that most modern, Western theists would be libertarians, so we’ll let this one pass. But note that this is yet another subtle narrowing of the theism hypothesis, rendering it just that bit more unlikely to begin with.

Contending with evolutionary naturalism

2012/08/16

This is a review of the fifth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism by Mark D. Linville

The point of this essay is clear: evolutionary naturalism (that is, belief in evolution without belief in god) undermines belief in moral truth. (For important subtleties that this summary overlooks, check out the essay yourself.)

Linville does a competent job of arguing that, under the theory of evolution, the human moral sense doesn’t seem to connect causally with any moral order that exists fundamental to the structure of the universe. In other words, evolution undermines the warrant for belief in transcendent moral absolutes.

Here’s the argument in brief: if we evolved, then evolution had just as much chance to shape our moral intuitions as it did to shape our bodies in order to help us survive; therefore, our values have been shaped by our evolutionary history. So we cannot use our moral intuitions as guides to find some moral reality that might underlie reality.

He is basically pointing out the is/ought dilemma: that moral facts cannot be derived from physical facts. David Hume is most famous for identifying this dilemma. Linville’s formulation can be summed up as follows:

Theory X (evolution) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. However, as a statement of physical facts, it cannot be used to justify claims about moral obligation.

Now, Linville’s alternative is of course theistic: if our moral sense was given to us by a god, then our values and beliefs are causally connected with that god’s values and beliefs. Therefore, if such a god exists and gave us our moral sense, we have good reason to trust our intuition that transcendent moral absolutes exist, and we can know about them.

Let me sum up this argument in another way – see if you can spot the problem I spotted:

Theory Y (theistic creation) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. Therefore, it can be used to ground claims about moral obligation.

If you don’t see the problem, let me spell it out: “God did it” buys you no more in terms of moral absolutes than does “evolution did it”. You must insert, either explicitly or implicitly, some further ethical premises. For example, I suspect Linville’s hidden premise here is “God has reliable access to moral absolutes (part of his nature, seen by his omniscience, whatever), and would wish to share those moral absolutes with us by printing them on our moral sense.” For him, and many theists, this may be obvious enough to leave out. For me, it’s a huge bundle of claims that I have absolutely no reason to swallow – from the existence of a creator god to its moral perfection to its intentions regarding the rest of us.

But that’s not all.

Linville frames his arguments regarding evolution in light of atheism. Unfortunately for him, they work just as well under any view that accepts the vast evidence for evolution – whether that view includes a god or not. If we evolved, then evolution will have tinkered with our moral intuitions (ie, built them from scratch). The only way that belief in a god can get you around this is if you assume that your god directly intervened in the construction of your moral intuitions. Neither Linville nor the whole army of Intelligent-Design creationists have offered good evidence to suggest we should accept this.

Oh, Linville and his coreligionists are free to believe that it happened. And, once you take on that belief, the rest may follow. But given the evidence before us, all we know is that evolution happened, and it almost certainly acted to shape our moral intuitions. So we are left with no reason to think our moral intuitions track any transcendent moral absolutes.

At bottom, I think the disagreement I have with Linville is over the value of these transcendent moral absolutes. He seems to think that without them we’re wallowing in a sea of wishy-washy relativism. Certainly, many religious people I have encountered in person and online seem to think this way.

I think that human nature is stable enough. Even if our morality is only reliable relative to the current state of most humans’ moral instincts, we have enough to go ahead with. I acknowledge that I do not have a watertight moral theory that can oblige everyone to follow my pragmatic moral rules. But then, neither does Linville. The weakness of my moral stance is that it is relative. The weakness of his is that it is built on wishful thinking.

Which do you prefer?

Contending with a trick of the brain

2012/08/13

This is a review of the fourth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

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

This essay gives a pretty good account of why we should expect god-belief even in a naturalistic universe. It draws on psychology, evolution, etc. There are well-evidenced biases that suggest the common human intuition that gods exist is unwarranted. That is, a similar intuition could be expected whether or not any god actually exists. After a clear exposition of these biases, complete with a presentation of their epistemological implications, Murray closes with a casual reference to the cosmological argument, and so ends by asserting theism.

This left-field ending reminds me of the closing of Ecclesiastes. (Though in this case I’m less inclined to blame the editors.) My wife, Deena, doesn’t share my sense of the disjunction here, and I recognize that not everyone feels the end of Ecclesiastes is out of place.

Whatever one’s aesthetic take on the final argument, it seems to me to tacitly acknowledge one thing. All the psychological predispositions discussed in the first part of the essay do not provide good evidence for the existence of a god. If they did, the author would have said so rather than reaching out to cosmology to salvage his preferred belief system.

Oh well. At least the biases toward god-belief have been given a mostly unpolluted airing. Baby steps, right?

Contending with reason

2012/08/10

This is a review of the third essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Argument from Reason by Victor Reppert

This is a closely-argued essay which was difficult to follow. Reppert draws on several philosophical terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to me, without explaining them. I will react to what I do understand.

The conceptual setup is intriguing: he points out that there are two types of worldview we can consider: mentalistic and non-mentalistic. Under a mentalistic worldview, mental entities (such as human minds) are considered basic, and other entities (such as trees, rocks, planets, etc) must be explained in terms of mental entities. Under a non-mentalistic worldview, non-mental entities are basic (be they atoms, quarks, superstrings, whatever), and all entities (trees, rocks, minds) must be explained in terms of those basic elements.

This setup is quite interesting, because it taps one of the key differences between naturalistic and theistic pictures of the universe. I am even inclined to let the fundamental either-or fallacy slide. Is “mental vs non-mental” a meaningful division? I would say that, under evolution, there is a very gradual slope of distinctions between things that are clearly non-mental (for example, the behaviour of single-celled bacteria) and things that are clearly mental (human behaviour, and that of some other complex organisms).

At one point, Reppert seems to betray a misunderstanding of the point of science:

Nor could one argue that one should be supremely confident that use of the scientific method will result in an accurate understanding of reality. (p 32)

Who ever claimed this for science? Science is not about establishing absolute certainty; it is about finding the most probable answers, having acknowledged the limits of our unaided senses and intuitions. It is about trying to overcome those limits as far as we can, while realizing that those attempts are constrained by our human nature too. This point is, so far as I can tell, tangential to his main argument. But it still bugs me. Scientists are not trying to claim absolute knowledge. That’s what relgious dogmas are for.

I’m afraid I can’t give a judgment beyond this. There are points where Reppert seems to be confusing personal with metaphysical certainty: he can’t see how we could explain somthing naturalistically, therefore we fundamentally cannot do it. (For example, in the section titled Irreducibility of propositional content). But I can’t say. Sorry I can’t give you more – perhaps a philosopher familiar with the essay could wade in here?

Note this response to the idea of ontologically fundamental mental states, by Eliezar Yudkowski.

Another side of the argument from reason is given in the last essay of this section, which I’ll write about soon.


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