Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Mystery Solved

Blogger has been in the process of creating an automatic spam filter for comments. The filter is now fully operational--but has been busy removing comments from this blog since well before I learned anything about its existence. One cannot opt out of the automatic filter, but one can visit the spam box and override the filter's "choices."

I have now visited the spam box. Of the 58 comments that have been removed since the filter started working, one was spam. The rest were comments from regular participants on this blog (including one by me--hmm, real discerning filter there). Hence, the mystery of disappearing comments has been solved.

Now that I know about it, I can check the spam box regularly and get legitimate comments put back up on the blog. But since many of you have been persistent in seeking to get your comments posted, I'm not going to go back and override the filter with respect to all the earlier comments that vanished. In most cases this would create redundancy (since you found a way to get you comment posted by breaking it into parts or through sheer persistence). Avoiding such redundancy would require checking each comment in the spam box against the relevant comment thread, which would take much more time and effort that I'm prepared to expend.

In any event, if your comment disappears, chances are that it's the work of this overeager spam filter--and the comment should be restored to the blog as soon as I have a chance to check the spam box. Apparently, however, the filter learns from its mistakes--and so the more that I override it, the less likely it is that your comments will be swallowed up.

Ontological Arguments for God's Existence

St. Anselm, the 11th Century theologian and philosopher (who also served as archbishop of Canterbury), is best known for two things. Among theologians, he is principally associated with his deeply influential understanding of the Atonement--that is, his account of how Christ's crucifixion is to be understood as securing salvation for sinners. But among philosophers Anselm is better known as the author of the so-called "ontological argument" for God's existence (this name for the argument originated with Kant, who is also credited historically with formulating the most telling objection to the argument).

Until fairly recently it was generally assumed that, in his Proslogion,  Anselm offered a single "ontological argument" for the existence of God based on his distinctive formal definition of God as "that than which a greater cannot be thought." Certainly, there is only one "ontological argument" that comes under Kant's scrutiny and becomes the target of his famed (well, famous among philosophers) objection.

That argument runs roughly as follows: Taking "God" to mean "that than which a greater cannot be conceived," let us assume that God in this sense is only an idea in our heads and doesn't actually exist. On this assumption, we can conceived of something that is greater than God--because we can conceive of this God as actually existing, rather than as being nothing more than an idea in our heads (and a God that actually existed would be greater than one that did not). So, on this assumption, it follows that we can conceive of a being greater than that than which a greater cannot be conceived. But, of course, that is impossible. Hence, our assumption has led to a logical impossibility and so has to be rejected. It is not the case that God is only an idea in our head and doesn't exist in reality. Rather, God really exists.

This is the argument that Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, calls "infantile" and frames in terms of a school-yard conversation in which one smarmy kid "proves" God's existence by playing with words in a way that makes the argument sound truly silly. Now it is true that most philosophers look at this argument and think there is something fishy going on. But I think it's also true that most philosophers are grateful that the history of reflection on the argument was shaped by serious engagement. In wrestling seriously with this argument (which is formally valid), critics and defenders alike were forced to refine their understanding of what it means to say that something exists, as well as how this kind of statement differs from saying that something is blue or round. One might even wonder about whether the emergence of formal predicate logic as we know it owes something to the lessons of engaging with Anselm (in the symbolic language of predicate logic, an entity's existence is expressed through the use of what is called the existential quantifier, as opposed to being attributed to the entity as a predicate).

In any event, this ontological argument was criticized by Kant on the grounds that, in his terms, "existence is not a real predicate." Put another way, when we say of something that it exists, we don't add to our idea of a thing. Rather, we say that this idea (described in terms of the "real" predicates), has an instance in the world. Thus, to say of God that He exists is not to add to our concept of God. Since positing existence adds nothing to our concept, an existing God is not conceptually different from a nonexistent one. And so there can be no conceptual incoherence with respect to the latter that doesn't also attach to the former.

(Interestingly, I suspect that Anselm would have some sympathy with Kant's objection, because Kant is describing what existence means in its ordinary usage as applied to ordinary things--and Anselm insisted that "God exists" has to mean something very different from "Eric Reitan exists," insofar as God is taken to be the source of existence--or, in Anselm's language, "that through which" things exist, or from which things derive their being. Very roughly, to say that I exist is to say that I participate in existence itself, which is that through which I derive my being; whereas to say that God exists is to say that God is existence itself, that through which other things derive their being. Anselm furthermore attempted to show that existence itself must also be goodness itself, and by implication must be Godlike in the ways that theists have traditionally thought. Whether this element of Anselm's theology can be developed into an answer to Kant, however, is something I won't explore here.)

In any event, many if not most philosophers after Kant found his objection compelling, and the objection has since been expressed in numerous ways--including by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. While Dawkins makes no serious effort to carefully articulate this line of objection, he does at least quote part of one philosopher's articulation of it. Unfortunately for Dawkins (at least if he cares about his credentials as a scholar), the philosopher he appeals to for this quote is Norman Malcolm. Even more unfortunate for Dawkins, the quote comes from an article, "Anselm's Ontological Arguments," that is justly famous in the history of discussion about Anselm and his case for God. Since (according to his endnotes) Dawkins extracted the quote from an online encyclopedia article, Dawkins apparently doesn't know that this quote comes from an article in defense of Anselm. As such, Dawkins doesn't know that his dismissal of the ontological argument is, we might say, premature. To put the point more bluntly, Dawkins succeeds in completely ignoring the version of the ontological argument that is still alive today (in the sense of having active defenders) largely by virtue of the efforts of the philosopher Dawkins invokes to justify his dismissal of the argument.

It is true enough that Malcolm accepts the Kantian objection to Anselm. But what Malcolm then does (which is what makes his essay historically important) is to point something out about Anselm's original text that philosophers had historically overlooked. If one looks at that text, one sees Anselm wording his argument in a couple of ways, and it reads as if his second version is intended to be just a different way of saying the same thing. In fact, on a cursory reading it looks like the same argument restated slightly differently.

What Malcolm does in "Ontological Arguments" is show that this cursory reading is a mistake. The two arguments aren't different ways of saying the same thing, but different arguments. While there are important similarities, there is a crucial difference as well. And the difference makes a huge difference: By virtue of that difference, Malcolm argues, Kant's famous objection to the ontological argument doesn't apply. Whereas philosophers had widely assumed that Kant had dealt the death blow to the ontological argument in the 18th century, Malcolm not only showed that there was a version of the argument that avoided Kant's challenge, but he then proceeded to develop the argument in an effort to show that it was, in fact, a powerful and compelling argument for the existence of God--far more compelling, in fact, than the version for which Anselm became famous. Others have followed Malcolm's lead (including Alvin Plantinga) in developing so-called "modal ontological arguments" that trace their lineage to Anselm's second argument.

In addition to these arguments that trace back to Anselm (by way of Malcolm's discovery of the second argument), there are various ontological arguments sketched out by Gödel in his notebooks, especially in terms of the notion of "positive properties," that have come under discussion. Interestingly, however, Malcolm's development of Anselm's second argument develops themes that are also found in Gödel's argument. For these reasons I think Malcolm's version of the argument is especially deserving of closer attention. In my next post, then, I will outline Malcolm's argument.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Richard Dawkins, the Neo-Thomist

Of course, the title of this post is kind of a joke. A Thomist is a follower of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose arguments for God Dawkins dismisses as “vacuous” in a couple of pages in The God Delusion (pp. 77-79). This dismissal is—as I’ve pointed out in Is God a Delusion? (pp. 101-105) and elsewhere—based on a mischaracterization of the arguments. He basically attacks straw men. This is not to say that Aquinas’s actual arguments succeed in their aims, but it does say something about the care (or lack thereof) which Dawkins brings to bear on the philosophical arguments for God’s existence.

But in addition to pointing out Dawkins’ exegetical shortcomings with respect to Aquinas in Is God a Delusion?, I also note something else in passing. Speficially, I point out that Dawkins’ mischaracterization of the logical structure of the first two of Aquinas’s Five Ways is particularly egregious because his own argument against theism has the very same logical structure. Here’s how I put it there:

Just as Aquinas did, Dawkins notes that a certain kind of explanation leads to an infinite regress. He insists that an infinite regress explains nothing. And so he concludes that there needs to exist a regress-ending explanation of a different kind (p. 116).
It occurs to me that it might be useful—both for general readers of this blog and for students in my class who are examining Dawkins’ atheological argument—to lay out the parallel between Dawkins’ and Aquinas’s arguments more explicitly. Let’s begin with Dawkins’ argument against the idea that the universe is ultimately explained by an intelligent designer. Here is at least one way to formalize it:

D1. There are instances of “organized complexity” (Dawkins’ term for a complex teleological system, that is, a system comprised of parts whose parts work together to achieve a common end or to make possible a certain kind of coherent activity)

D2. Every instance of organized complexity must be explained either by (a) an intelligent designer or (b) a "self-bootstrapping crane," that is, an uncomplicated mechanism such as Darwiniain natural selection that builds organized complexity gradually. (Dawkins endorses this because he thinks organized complexity is far too improbable to be explained by chance).

D3. Any intelligence capable of designing a given instance of organized complexity must exhibit at least as much organized complexity as what it designs.

D4. Hence, nothing in category (a) can terminate a regress of explanations—and hence be the ULTIMATE explanation—for organized complexity.

D5. An infinite regress of explanations, without an ultimate explanation, explains nothing.

D6. Hence, to explain organized complexity, we must posit something in category (b) to serve as the ultimate explanation.
Now compare this argument with Aquinas’s “First Way”—the way from motion. Keep in mind that for Aquinas, “motion” is a technical term that means roughly the same as what we mean by “change”—except that the focus seems to be on what might be called “positive changes,” that is, changes in which something comes to acquire a property it had previously lacked, as opposed to losing a property it had previously possessed. While the meaningfulness of this distinction can be challenged under some assumptions about the nature of properties, it at least has some intuitive plausibility (changing from being a non-conscious thing to a conscious one seems to involve coming to possess something, whereas changing from being conscious to non-conscious seems to involve losing something). In any event, with this understanding of “motion” in mind, we can formalize Aquinas’s First Way as follows:

A1. There are things that move from being potentially something (say S) to being actually S (from “potency” to “act” with respect to S).

A2. Everything that moves from potency to act with respect to S must have its movement explained either by (a) something else that is itself moved from potency to act with respect to S or (b) something that always actually possessed S (an eternal S-possessor).

A3. Nothing in category (a) can terminate a regress of explanations—and hence be the ULTIMATE explanation—of movement from potency to act.

A4. An infinite regress of explanations, without an ultimate explanation, explains nothing

A5. Hence, to explain motion, we must posit something in category (b) to serve as the ultimate explanation.
Of course, the two arguments are quite different in terms of the substantive premises they adopt. And Dawkins’ argument requires an additional premise (D3) that, structurally, isn’t required for Aquinas’s argument. But other than the need to insert this additional premise D3 (which, by the way, is probably the primary target of critical responses to Dawkins’ argument), the two arguments share the same logical structure.

And this makes it all the more perplexing that Dawkins would fail to accurately represent Aquinas’s arguments. Because at least when he sets himself to the task of constructing his own positive argument for his own conclusion (as opposed to attacking the arguments of others), Dawkins thinks, more than a little bit, like Aquinas.

And that, by the way, is a compliment. (For other, lengthier compliments of Dawkins, see my 2009 post, "The Misguided Desire to Stifle Dawkins," which I wrote when members of the Oklahoma Legislature made a stink about the University of Oklahoma's decision to invite Dawkins to speak on campus as part of its celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

From the Archives: Reflections on the Argument from Design

This week, in my philosophy of religion class, we are looking at the argument from design--that is, the argument which attempts to support the existence of an intelligent supernatural creator by appeal to the apparent evidence of design in the universe. Since I've been busy getting ready for a conference (where I'm presenting a paper critiquing Don Marquis's "future like ours" argument against the morality of abortion), I haven't had the chance to write up a blog post on the design argument.

And so I dust off the following, which appeared on this blog in early 2009. Enjoy!

A number of readers of my book have asked me why I’m as dismissive of the argument from design as I seem to be. My best friend is among them. He finds considerable power in several formulations of the argument, including Indian versions which, based on his descriptions of them, I think I probably need to study.

I am open to being convinced. But there are several reasons why I’m hesitant to give the argument from design too much evidentiary weight in my thinking about theism. First of all, in many if not most of it formulations, the argument’s soundness depends on the scientific facts. Since I am not a scientist, I don’t feel sufficiently qualified to weigh in on the scientific disagreements over which these versions of the argument turn.

Secondly, “God” names something transcendent, that is, a being that exists beyond the empirical world that science studies. As I’ve said before, science simply cannot discern whether there is more to reality than science can discern. Now many defenders of the argument from design in effect deny this, at least in one sense. They proclaim that there are empirical facts about the physical world, facts which have been or can be uncovered and described by science, that are like sign posts pointing to some cause beyond the physical world. Their view is that science can discern that there must be something more to reality than what science studies, even if it can’t actually study this “something more.”

But what this thinking ignores, on my view, is how the scientific method works. Science is methodologically naturalistic. That is, it confronts every empirical phenomenon by looking for a naturalistic explanation of it. This means that scientists, in their role as scientists, will always treat phenomena that haven’t been explained in naturalistic terms, not as signposts pointing towards the supernatural, but as research projects. The majority of scientists will therefore view those who explain these phenomena by appealing to the transcendent as jumping ship from the scientific project.

To propose supernatural explanations before science has finished pursuing naturalistic ones strikes many scientists as not giving science a chance to do its work. And since science can in principle always keep looking for naturalistic explanations, there never comes a point at which it becomes appropriate to say that “science has shown” that a supernatural explanation is best. Instead, from a scientific standpoint the only conclusion to reach is that science hasn’t explained this phenomenon…yet.

Now I don't think that any of this means one can’t or shouldn’t embrace supernatural explanations. What it means is that when you do so, you’re no longer pursuing the scientific project.

For those who doubt the ability of scientists to explain the newest mystery in naturalistic terms, scientists can point to past mysteries, once invoked as reasons to believe in God but since explained in naturalistic terms. They might say, “Give us time. We’ll eventually pull the rug out from under you again.”

The result is an image of theologians in constant retreat, staking their claim on a shrinking island of mysteries and defending the mysteries that remain against the forces of scientific progress. Their God becomes the “God of the gaps” that theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer warned against—the God that we introduce as a quasi-scientific hypothesis to explain the mysteries that the ordinary work of science has so far failed to solve. And as the “gaps” get smaller, it begins to seem to many observers as if scientists are explaining God out of existence.

This image is not wholly unwarranted if one's case for God's existence depends on the existence of such mysteries. And if, furthermore, your religious faith hinges upon some phenomenon remaining inexplicable in scientific terms, you will fight tooth and nail to keep the phenomenon scientifically inexplicable. In other words, you will fight against the efforts of scientists to do what scientists do. You will thus become an enemy of science. And in your efforts to keep science from de-mystifying the ground on which you make your religious stand, you may be led to intellectual dishonesty, or towards bizarre maneuvers to explain away the empirical facts, or even (in the last gasps of resistance) to rejecting the scientific enterprise altogether. When the case for theism is made on this turf, science and religion become enemies in a way that benefits neither.

But the “God of the gaps” defended in this particular turf war is not the God in which I believe. My God is not first and foremost an “empirical phenomenon-explainer” (certainly not in anything like the sense in which the theoretic entities invoked in science are “empirical-phenomenon explainers”).

My God is invoked to explain my religious experience. But when I invoke God in these terms, it's as an alternative to something else I might do with my religious experience—namely, explain it away. By “religious experience,” I mean an essentially non-empirical experience, a deep sense that there is something fundamental lurking behind the ordinary appearances of things, something that is truer than the mechanistic and chance-governed universe uncovered by science, something that transcends my conceptual grasp but feels enormous and inexpressibly good. To borrow Rudolf Otto’s term, it is the feeling of the numinous.

This is a feeling that comes at me from a variety of directions—sometimes all by itself, and sometimes in conjunction with other powerful experiences. I’m talking about those occasions of wonder when I witness love or beauty or tenderness and think, “This is good.” And this sense of goodness transcends the empirical facts in front of me, seeming to reach into a deeper well of reality than what my eyes can see. I can’t reduce this sense of goodness to any empirical property of the world, at least not without, in the same gesture, stripping it of its significance.

I could, of course, appeal to the side-effects of evolutionary forces on the development of the human brain to explain this experience away, rather than invoke some transcendent good in order to explain it. Why do the latter rather than the former?

I do it out of hope. I do it because it confers a special meaning on the world encountered in experience, the world that science seeks to describe. I do it because it also helps make sense of certain other non-empirical experiences without explaining them away (such as my intimate experience of myself as a conscious agent, and my experience of beauty, and my sense of the intrinsic value of persons as persons). I do it because the complex world of living things, which could be nothing but the product of chance and natural selection, thereby acquires a deeper significance: it becomes something intended by love.

I don’t choose this interpretation because the science demands it, but because my moral nature seems to demand it of me. This moral voice inside me calls me to live in hope: the hope that the universe on some fundamental level is not “pitilessly indifferent to the good” as Dawkins maintains; the hope that the universe is better than it would be if the objects of scientific study exhausted what was real. When I encounter rival worldviews which all meet a basic standard of rationality—internally coherent as well as consistent with the entire field of human experience, including the facts discerned by science—my moral voice urges me to favor that worldview which invests greater moral meaning into those same experiences and facts.

In short, my God is not ultimately an “empirical phenomenon explainer” but, rather, a “hope-fulfiller” and a “meaning-bestower.” Belief in this God does involve reading design into an empirical world which allows for such a reading even if it does not demand it. But belief in this God does not in any way hinge upon the existence of empirical phenomena that simply cannot be explained in naturalistic terms.

Belief in a transcendent benevolence, something that would fulfill our hope that the universe is on the side of goodness, does not depend upon science being finally and permanently “stumped” in its efforts to provide naturalistic explanations. Theistic religion in this sense therefore doesn’t see scientific progress as a threat. Because it’s not.

And while I think there are ways to formulate and develop the argument from design which don’t put such reasoning on a collision course with scientific progress, the history of this argument, in terms of its tendency to foment conflict along these lines, makes me wary of it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Aquinas's "Third Way": One Interpolation

Traditional theists believe, among other things, that there exists a “necessary being”—a being that could not have failed to exist—and that this necessary being is the fundamental or ultimate reality which explains the existence of all other things. But in the world of ordinary experience, the world we encounter through our senses, we only encounter beings which appear to be contingent—that is, beings which could have failed to exist. While there are necessary truths about the world we encounter (for example, that given an initial state of affairs and certain causal laws, a subsequent state of affairs must embody certain features), these truths are consistent with nothing actually existing, and so do not imply a necessary being.

Nothing in our ordinary experience fits with such a “necessary” thing. As Hume famously noted, everything that I can imagine existing is something I can imagine not existing. And for Hume, “imagination” is a technical term that refers to our capacity to reorganize the ideas derived from empirical experience in endless ways. As such, imagination refers to a possible way that the building-blocks of empirical experience might be arranged. Hume’s point, then, is that there is nothing in empirical experience from which we can derive the idea of necessary existence.

As such, to believe in a necessary being is to believe in the existence of something that falls entirely outside the world of ordinary experience—and furthermore, to hold that this “transcendent” reality is more fundamental and, in a sense, of greater ultimate significance than the world we encounter through our senses. This transcendent, necessary reality is the source or “creator” of the world we know. In short, to believe in a necessary being is to adopt a kind of religious stance towards the world (at least in one sense of the term "religious").

But can anything justify such a stance, or is it pure fabrication (as some critics of religion are prone to assert with great confidence)? Historically, a number of philosophers have offered arguments in favor of the existence of a transcendent reality characterized by necessary existence. Probably the most famous is St. Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher and theologian whose body of work is typically regarded as the towering intellectual achievement of the Middle Ages.

Aquinas explicitly argues for the existence of a necessary being in the third of his “Five Way” for proving the existence of God. Let me say that, although Aquinas introduces these five arguments as ways that God’s existence “can be proved,” it is pretty clear that the phrase here is intended in a very loose sense. What we get are five arguments, each for a different conclusion. The first concludes that there must exist an unmoved mover, the second an uncaused cause, the third a necessary being, the fourth something that embodies all the “perfections” that other things only approximate, the fifth an intelligence that guides the unintelligent things that exhibit goal-directed behavior. He then tacks on to the end of each argument a phrase such as “and this we name God” or “everyone understands this to be God.”

So, Aquinas is clearly speaking here to an audience of believers who have a robust idea of God—one for which all of these appellations (unmoved mover, uncaused cause, necessary being, etc.) fit admirably. Aquinas is here showing that there are several arguments which support the existence of something which has one or another of the distinctive properties typically attributed to God. But it needs to be remembered that these “Five Ways” are Aquinas’s starting point in a much more expansive case for the existence of the Christian God in which Aquinas believes.

So, what about the “Third Way”? For me, this is the most interesting of Aquinas’ arguments, but it is also the most perplexing. In fact, on an initial reading it seems as if Aquinas is guilty of a logical error. Specifically, it seems as if he moves, without justification, from asserting one proposition (which I will call PN, for “possible nothingness”) to assuming a related one (which I will call AN, for “actual nothingness”). Here are the propositions in question:

PN: “If all existing things are contingent, then it is possible that at some time nothing existed.”

AN: “If all existing things are contingent, then at some time nothing existed.”

While PN seems to be a justified assertion—and while it is the assertion that Aquinas explicitly makes—his argument’s validity depends on asserting AN. Did Aquinas inadvertently slip from one to the other without noticing? Or did Aquinas see (and assume that we would see) that PN, perhaps in conjunction with certain unstated but self-evident premises, implied AN?

Philosophically speaking, the more interesting question is not whether Aquinas in fact saw a sound inference from PN to AN, but whether there actually is such an inference. Is there? If there is, then the discipline of philosophy requires that we interpret Aquinas’ argument accordingly. That is, philosophy calls us to pursue what is called The Principle of Charity—that is, the principle of formulation the arguments of others in their strongest possible form.

Along with many other philosophers interested in Aquinas, I have reflected on alternative ways of justifying the inference from PN to AN in Aquinas’s Third Way. The formulation of the argument that I presented to my philosophy of religion class on Wednesday was the outcome of such reflection combined with an invocation of the Principle of Charity. What follows is a slight modification (for the sake of greater clarity) of what I presented to my class. I have also identified what is a core premise and what is an inference from prior premises.

1. There exist contingent things (core premise)

2. For each contingent thing, it is possible that it not have existed and, hence, that it not have existed at a given time T (core premise)

3. If, for each contingent thing, it is possible that it not exist at a given time T, then it is possible that no contingent things exist at time T (core premise)

4. Therefore, it is possible that at one time no contingent things existed (from 2 & 3)

5. Given infinite time, every possibility occurs (that is, as the timeline moves towards infinity, the probability that some event with a real possibility of occurring does occur at least once along that timeline approaches 1) (core premise)

6. Either the succession of contingent states extends infinitely into the past, or it has a starting point. (core premise)

7. If the succession of contingent states has a starting point, then at one time no contingent things existed. (core premise)

8. If the succession into the past is infinite, then at one time no contingent things existed (from 4 & 5)

9. Therefore, at one time no contingent things existed (from 6-8)

10. Therefore, if all existing things are contingent, then at one time nothing existed (from 9)

11. If at one time nothing existed, then nothing could ever have come into existence and nothing would exist now (core premise)

12. Therefore, it is not the case that at one time nothing existed (from 1 & 11)

13. Therefore, it is not the case that all existing things are contingent (from 9 & 12)

14. Everything that exists is either contingent or necessary (core premise)

15. Therefore, there exists something necessary (from 13 & 14)

The argument as Aquinas presents it actually goes on to distinguish between two ways in which something could be said to exist necessarily (what might be called dependent vs. independent necessity), and then argue for the existence of something with independent necessity. But the part of the argument presented here is enough to digest and reflect on by itself.

Is this the argument that Aquinas intended, or is it merely one charitable interpolation of his words? I can’t say for sure. But either way, it’s an interesting argument for the existence of a necessary being—and it’s hardly silly. Since the argument is formally valid, anyone who wants to deny the conclusion needs to deny one of the core premises (by which I mean premises that are not conclusions derived from subarguments within the broader argument).

So, for those who want to deny the conclusion, which premise are you going to challenge, and on what basis?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Book-Burning News from Green Onion Falls

I want to thank the most faithful follower of my blog for calling my attention to the following news report from yesterday’s Green Onion Falls Herald-Exasperator. Since I think it may be of interest to readers of this blog, I reproduce it here:

Eastburro Congregants Burn Unknown Philosophy Book

by I.M. Fayke
Senior Staff Reporter

Apparently hoping to capitalize on the recent media attention garnered by a miniscule Florida congregation, Phred Fleps and the congregants of the equally miniscule Eastburro Church in central Kansas gathered on Wednesday for their own book-burning event. But rather than toast a holy book, Fleps chose to put to flame a little-known academic book by an Oklahoma philosopher.

The book, Is God a Delusion?, was written by a philosopher aptly described by at least one commenter on Richard Dawkins’ website as “a nobody.” According to the author’s facebook page, the book aims to respond to recent atheist bestsellers, such as Dawkins’ The God Delusion, by showing that “while often neither, religion can be both intellectually respectable and morally benign.”

So why burn a little-known book by an obscure Oklahoma academic that is actually a defense of religion? “This so-called book,” Fleps explains, “is not an innocent defense of religion. I mean, what about my faith? Don’t I have the God-given right to be a malign ignoramus in the name of God? Of course I do! But this guy seems to think that religious faith is acceptable only under certain conditions. And I mean, come on, look at the conditions he requires: Fallibilism? Respect for alternative worldviews? Religion based on hope rather than fear? The guy is defending religion by taking the religion out of it!”

“Besides, the book isn’t entirely unknown. It did get an award.”

When asked about the timing of the book-burning, Fleps denied charges that he was simply hoping to gain attention for himself and his church as Terry Jones had succeeded in doing with the recent Qur'an burning business in Gainesville. “It’s about time," Fleps said, "for right-wing religious extemists to stand up to the real threat to their faith: so-called moderate religion. All those angry atheist attacks on religion were a Godsend. What better way to fill our ranks than to have extremists on the other side frothing at the mouth and calling all religion evil? That’s the way to nurture the kind of us-versus-them polarization that helps put butts in our pews. These moderate, middle-ground types threaten all of that. I mean, the guy even claims that religious people can believe in evolution! This is dangerous stuff and it needs to be denounced.”

When asked if he was upset by the impending book-burning, the author of the targeted book replied, “Not at all. Before this happened sales of my book had completely flatlined. Of course it was never a hot seller. I knew its chances of doing well were doomed the minute I read the Publishers Weekly review. I mean, listen to this: ‘Neither polemical nor defensive, he writes primarily as a logician, rather than a believer.’ The reviewer might as well have written BORING all in capital letters! It’s like they wanted the book to fail! Anyway, like most second-tier authors I obsessively check my Amazon sales ranking, and it’s been plummeting steadily for weeks. Then, all of a sudden, it shoots up from about 1,000,000th in the rankings to 50,000th. Turns out it’s because Fleps bought 20 copies so that every member of his congregation could have their own book to burn. And who knows? Maybe the controversy will inspire a few dozen more sales.”

When confronted with the possibility that the book-burning might actually raise curiosity about the book, thereby increasing interest in the "rational middle ground" that Fleps and his congregation seek to repudiate, Fleps responded by sticking his fingers in his ears and loudly saying “Nyaa nyaa! I can’t hear you!”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Evidentialism and Theistic Belief

One of the most important grounds for challenging religious belief, especially theism, has involved invoking “evidentialism,” that is, the doctrine that one ought never to believe any claim, C, on insufficient evidence. Taken together with the premise that there isn’t sufficient evidence in support of the claim that God exists (a premise denied by not a few theists—but that’s another matter), evidentialism entails that belief in God is illegitimate.

Probably the clearest and most uncompromising articulation of this doctrine was offered by William Kingdon Clifford in the 19th Century. In his essay “The Ethics of Belief,” Clifford argued that all of our beliefs have the potential to affect what we do in ways that, should our beliefs prove false, can be very harmful. As such, belief is not a private affair but a public one, and we have a solemn responsibility to extend belief only to “truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning.” Clifford thus concludes that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for any one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Formulated in such strident and sweeping terms, evidentialism does not appear to be a tenable doctrine. Among other things it would mean that it’s wrong for children to take anything on trust from teachers or parents—and this seems a recipe for the impossibility of children ever arriving at a state in which they could actually engage in the sort of investigative activity that Clifford demands.

Furthermore, this kind of sweeping evidentialism falls prey to the following problem: In order to operate in accord with the evidentialist principle, we need to know what counts as evidence. But how do we arrive at the correct belief concerning what counts as evidence? What evidence do we use?

This is a variant on the problem of the criterion—basically, the problem of ascertaining in a non-circular way what criteria we should use for deciding what to believe. The problem can be summarized as follows: for any proposed criteria for deciding what to believe, one might ask, “Why should I believe that these criteria are the ones I should use?” If we answer this question by invoking the criteria in question, then we have begged the question. If we answer this question by appeal to different criteria, we can then ask the same question about them.

The difficulty that this poses for evidentialism can be emphasized with an example. Assume that “C” is the following proposition: “My senses are reliable.” A sweeping evidentialism would insist that we not believe this on insufficient evidence. But what is to count as sufficient evidence? How could we test the reliability of our senses without appeal to the very senses we are not supposed to trust until their reliability has been established?

This, of course, is the path to a radical skepticism which precludes having any beliefs at all. But, of course, it is impossible to actually live a human life—to make choices, to act on those choices, to form and maintain relationships, to work, etc.,—without having any beliefs. While Clifford rightly notes that our beliefs imply certain actions, it is equally true that our actions presuppose beliefs. Whenever we act, we act as if something is the case. Radical skepticism is therefore pragmatically impossible for anyone who actually gets on with the business of living (as Hume famously noted).

And in this business of living, isn’t it the case that we trust our senses unless and until we have good reason not to—unless they generate inconsistencies of various sorts? More broadly, doesn’t the business of living routinely require that we trust a range of propositions unless and until there is evidence that calls that trust into question? To put this point a bit more formally, the business of living requires that, with respect to some propositions, our “default” position should be belief (that is, we should operate as if the proposition is true unless we are confronted with reasons not to). Evidentialism, by contrast, insists that the default position for every claim C is disbelief or agnosticism. Put bluntly, then, one cannot be a faithful evidentialist of this sweeping sort and still lead a human life.

But a defender of evidentialism could seek to salvage the doctrine by making some distinctions. For example, there is a difference between what we might call “actual belief”—where you are convinced that something is the case, that you've got the truth—and “presumptive belief”—where you are merely operating as if something is the case. The criminal justice system in the US (and elsewhere) operates on the presumption of innocence. That is, if there is insufficient evidence to establishing guilt, the accused is treated as innocent. But everyone has heard stories of juries that quietly harbor the view that the accused is “guilty as hell” while delivering an acquittal. The jurors don’t “actually” believe that the accused is innocent in such cases, but they operate in accord with the presumption of innocence (at least in their role as jurors--they might in their private lives take steps to make sure that their children are kept away from the accused).

A modified evidentialist could hold that what living a human life requires is not that we actually believe that our senses are reliable, but that we presumptively do so. We operate as if our senses are reliable unless and until we encounter sufficient reason not to. And so the modified evidentialist could say that one ought never to actually believe any claim C on insufficient evidence, but that one should be free to presumptively believe a range of things, within certain limits, so long as there is no evidence against these things.

Several issues arise, however, in relation to this modified principle. First, there is the question of the limits within which presumptive belief (if not actual belief) is taken to be legitimate. Here there will be room, I think, for considerable dispute—especially in connections with “meaning bestowing beliefs about the transcendent” (religious beliefs). The evidentialist challenge to theism, then, will have to take a position in this disputed territory, making a case for the view that the class of propositions for which presumptive belief is appropriate excludes belief in God. But if this is what the evidentialist wants to argue, there are a number of important opposing arguments. Since I will be covering a number of these arguments later in my philosophy of religion class (when discussion pragmatic arguments for religious belief), I won't take up this version of evidentialism in detail at this time.

But there is another way of construing the evidentialist challenge to theism that I do want to explore a bit further here. Perhaps the evidentialist challenge to theism is merely targeting “actual” belief, while accepting the legitimacy of presumptive belief. In this case different concerns arise. First of all, as a challenge to theism it is radically attenuated insofar as it leaves space for the epistemic legitimacy of people organizing their lives around a presumptive belief in God.

But second, there is the question of the extent to which our actual beliefs are in our control. When it comes to the reliability of my senses, for example, I don’t just presumptively believe their deliverances. I really believe them. Of course, I could say something along the following lines: “Although living a human life requires that I presumptively believe the deliverances of my senses, I affirm that I have no compelling reason to actually believe them.” But saying this doesn’t make it the case that my belief here is merely presumptive. It remains an actual belief. Converting it into a merely presumptive belief seems beyond my power.

What is not beyond my power is lifting up, alongside this actual belief in the reliability of my senses, the judgment that such actual belief exceeds what is warranted by the evidence and as well as what is demanded by the pragmatic requirements of living (which only requires presumptive belief). Pairing this judgment with my actual belief might produce a kind of "functional equivalent" of mere presumptive belief.

But in that case, we would still need to ask, “On what basis should I believe this judgment about my actual belief in the reliability of my senses?” Is this belief about my belief itself an actual one or is it a presumptive one? And if it is a presumptive one, does that mean we are to act as if our belief is merely presumptive even though it is actual? This will be possible only if there is a discernible pragmatic difference between actually believing C and presumptively believing C. In other words, the behavior you exhibit when you behave as if C is true is different from the behavior you exhibit when by actually believe C is true. But in that case, in what sense are you behaving as if C is true when you presumptively believe C?

Assuming these difficulties can be overcome (and I think they can), acknowledging that what we actually believe is often out of our control forces evidentialists to truncate their evidentialist principle even further. They can no longer say that, on insufficient evidence, presumptive belief can be okay but actual belief never is. Rather, they'll have to say that actual belief can be okay too, so long as we pair that belief with a clear recognition of our fallibility with respect to it—a recognition which serves to generate the functional equivalent of mere presumptive belief.

But now, an evidentialist challenge to theism that makes room for presumptive belief will have to make room for actual belief as well—so long as that belief is paired with fallibilism. In other words, if we follow this path, we no longer have an evidentialist opposition to theism at all. What we have is a challenge to fanaticism.

I suspect very many theists would be very happy to accept that conclusion--because it isn't really a case against theism at all, but rather a case for favoring moderate forms of theism over fanatical ones. And what this shows, I think, is that in order really to have an evidentialist case against theism, the evidentialist would need to argue that presumptive belief in God is illegitimate—in other words, that it is wrong to live as if there is a God.

I think an argument of this sort can be made with respect to what I call (in my book, following Plutarch) “the god of superstition.” And there may be other specific forms of theism for which a case can be made that presumptive belief is illegitimate. But I think it would be very difficult indeed to make this case with respect to every species of theism--for example, the species which conceives of God as that whose existence would (borrowing language from my book) fulfill "the ethico-religious hope" (the hope that, in some fundamental way, reality is on the side of the good).

Monday, September 13, 2010


I can now officially announce that I have in hand a contract for a book co-authored by myself and John Kronen of the University of St. Thomas (in St. Paul). The contract is with Continuum Publishers, as part of its Studies in Philosophy of Religion book series. Continuum is an important London-based academic publisher (its imprint, T&T Clark, is a venerable publishing house responsible for publishing the English translations of the principal works of such theological luminaries as Karl Barth and Friedrich Schleiermacher, so this puts one in humbling company).

The book, God's Final Victory: A Comparative Philosophical Case for Universalism, argues that a doctrine of universal salvation is a better fit with core Christian theological doctrines than any version of the doctrine of hell.

A Recent RD Article, and Some Further Thoughts on Qur'an Burning

In today's Religion Dispatches there are three articles reflecting on the Qur'an burning that was threatened by Terry Jones and the tiny Dove World Outreach Center, not carried out by them, and then ultimately (and predictably) carried out by Fred Phelps and his tiny Westboro Baptist Church. One article reflects on the burning carried out by Phelps and his crew. The other two focus on the symbolism associated with the burning of books: "Virtual Book Burning and Its Consequences," by Laurie Patton, and  "Book Burning and the Scapegoating of Islam," by yours truly.

My original title for the essay was "Book Burning and Sacrificial Scapegoating," which I still favor--in part (of course) because of the double alliteration, but also because I didn't want to merely focus on the ways in which many Americans scapegoat Islam. Part of my point in the article is to call attention to the ways in which many Americans scapegoat "fringe" groups that are really only manifesting their own sentiments.

In fact, I wonder about the real source of much of the expressed outrage against the would-be Qur'an burners.  Much of it is rooted, of course, in the principle that one presumptively ought not to violate or degrade what is precious to others. Much of it is rooted in a desire to see interfaith bridges built rather than burned. Much of it is rooted in a fear of backlash, especially against American soldiers. But these bases for condemnation should, it seems, extend more broadly to the include other visible Islamophobic behavior in the US. And the fact is that, while there is a widespread unity in condemning Qur'an burning, there is at the same time a growing acceptance of overtly anti-Muslim sentiments--most notably in the opposition to building Park51, the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," but radiating beyond this to a more widespread opposition to mosque-building in the US.

And this leads me to wonder just how much of the outrage against the Qur'an burning is a defense mechanism--a desire not to have one's own sentiments exposed in a manner that betrays just how ugly they are.

Not long ago I was reading a copy of the Daily Oklahoman--Oklahoma City's conservative newspaper--and I stumbled across an editorial by the newspaper's editorial staff in which it was declared "common sense" that building a mosque (which isn't actually a mosque but an Islamic community center, now called Park51) at Ground Zero (really a couple of blocks away) was an inappropriate and offensive thing to do (I don't have the editorial in front of me, so I can't repeat the precise wording, except for the use of the phrase "common sense," which sticks with me).

Since it isn't at all clear to me why this should be seen as common sense, I was bothered by the fact that there was no effort to explain why in the editorial. It's as if they were considering a proposal by al-Qaeda to build a recruiting center in the ashes of the World Trade Center.  In fact, I've since encountered a quote from Newt Gingrich that makes exactly this sort of comparison: "Nazis," he said, "don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in New York."

This quote led me to wonder whether Gingrich is out there fighting to have the Christian churches in the vicinity of the Oklahoma City Memorial torn down on the grounds that they are an offense against the victims of the Murrah bombing. After all, Timoty McVeigh moved in radical right-wing militia circles suffused with millenarian beliefs and sympathetically aligned with the Branch Davidians.

Of course, it would be nutty to regard the United Method Church next to the bombing memorial as akin to a Nazi sign on the lawn of the Holocaust Museum. If some offshoot of the Branch Davidians, prone to viewing McVeigh as a religious hero, were to propose building a center near the Oklahoma City bombing site, that would be one thing. But it would show extreme ignorance and prejudicial stereotyping to identify Christianity in general with such a group and to behave accordingly. And it would hardly be common sense to defer to such ignorance and stereotyping--by, for example, insisting that out of respect for those in the grip of false and misleading prejudice, we should pander to their prejudice by deliberately marginalizing and humiliating those who are being prejudicially maligned.

And let's be clear. It would be utterly humiliating to those planning Park51 to be strong-armed into moving their community center--since everyone knows that no other ethnic, religious, or cultural group would generate opposition of that sort. That peaceable Muslim-Americans have been singled out in this way conveys a message--the same general message that Terry Jones was conveying when he expressed a desire to burn the Qur'an. It is a message of profound disdain for a people, an indifference to their dignity based on a false prejudice, one that defines a diverse community in terms of the extreme behavior of a few. But when opponents of Park51 communicate that prejudicial message, it takes place under the shadow of a symbol in which its hatefulness can easily hide: the shadow cast by Ground Zero. Sometimes it takes an equally potent symbol--in this case book burning--to bring the message to light.

And many may not like what that light reveals.

Now let me say that I don't for a minute believe that religions should have a "free pass" from criticism. I certainly don't think that Islam should be free from criticism, any more than I think Christianity should be (although, in both cases, I tend to think that internal criticism is generally more effective than self-righteous better-than-thou pronouncements coming from the outside). But the fact that strip clubs objectify women wasn't invoked as a reason to bar strip clubs from the vicinity of Ground Zero. The fact that betting parlors deliberately profit off human vulnerability towards a certain kind of self-damaging compulsiveness wasn't invoked as a reason to ban betting parlors from the neighborhood. (And yes, there are strip clubs and betting parlors and bars and sex shops all in the neighborhood of the proposed Muslim community center). The fact that the Roman Catholic Church has quietly covered up an epidemic of child molestation wouldn't cause anyone to bat an eye if someone proposed a Catholic community center a couple of blocks from Ground Zero.

Whatever the wrongs of Muslim-American communities in general, they are not the same as those of al-Qaeda. And even if we might be prepared to say that there are maintream ideas or attitudes within Islam that made it possible for al-Qaeda to emerge, the same must be said of Christianity. There are things in mainstream Christianity that help make Dove World Outreach Center and Westboro Baptist Church possible. If Muslim-Americans horrified by 9/11 and its aftermath can be so identified with al-Qaeda as to justify likening a community center in the vicinity of Ground Zero with a Nazi sign on the lawn of the Holocaust Museum, then why shouldn't all American Christians be blamed for the Qur'an burning threatened by Terry Jones and his tiny church and carried out by Fred Phelps and his?

If we say that they shouldn't--if we say that the crimes of Westboro Baptist Church shouldn't be pinned on Christian Americans in general--then we must also concede that the crimes of al-Qaeda are not the crimes of Islamic Americans. Perhaps these would-be Qur'an burners force too many Americans into the uncomfortable realization that if they repudiate the extremists in their own ranks, they must also repudiate the tendency to prejudicially identify entire religious communities with the behavior of an extreme fringe--and so must repudiate their own tendency towards this very kind of prejudice.

I wonder how much of the knee-jerk denunciation of Terry Jones and his flock is really about that realization, and the desire to hide from it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Case Study in Ways of Seeing: Reading Texts

Some of the comments on my previous post called to my attention something I probably wouldn’t have noticed were it not for the substance of the post itself. Specifically, the act of interpreting a “text” (by which I mean to include not only written ideas but spoken ones) is perhaps one of the more familiar cases of the phenomenon I was attempting to characterize in the last post. One’s “reading” of a text is a way of seeing it. And people can agree about what words are on a page and yet disagree about how best to “read” them—about what significance to attribute to the whole message. These disagreements are meaningful even if all agree on what words are on the page (or in the post, etc.).

In any event, I couldn't resist the urge to elaborate on this idea of "ways of seeing" and its relation to "the facts" by using my previous post and different ways of seeing it as an example (since that kind of meta-level self-referential stuff just makes me happy).

Bernard and Burk and Darrell all “saw” my last post (about ways of seeing) differently—and, as is inevitably the case in human communication, all three ways of seeing differed from one another. Bernard "saw" the post (through the lens of Karl Popper) as way of understanding religion that made it hardly at odds with atheism at all; Burk saw it as an extension of the very thing Flew was critiquing—an attempt to avoid taking a stand on a claim of divine existence unsupported by any evidence; Darrell saw it as highlighting the fact that all of us inevitably bring a broader story to our experience, in the light of which we impart meaning and significance to “the facts” of experience.

Again as is inevitably the case, these ways of seeing my post deviated in differing degrees and places from my intentions as the author of the post. In fact, this is one important reason for putting one’s thoughts into words and inviting critique. Part of the reason, of course, is to critically assess the content of what one is saying—to identify places where one’s reasoning is faulty, etc. But part of the reason is to identify places where one needs to refine one’s mode of expression in order for one’s intentions to be more precisely characterized (which is why criticisms that are based on misunderstanding are often helpful, and not something simply to be dismissed).

At the same time, sometimes readings of a text that deviate from the author’s intentions are just fine—even something to encourage rather than bemoan. I'm reminding of some of the great conversations I've had about literature. The sharing of alternative readings is one of the great delights in such discussions--and this delight would be seriously truncated were we all to feel the need to simply focus on what the author intended to say. In cases in which I’ve been privy to conversations about short stories of mine, it has usually been a pleasure to hear how others see the story—often in ways that never occurred to me as I was writing it (but which nevertheless strike me as entirely fitting “readings” of it).

Of course, in philosophical discourse there is often an attempt to communicate a precise idea. But even in such cases others may “read” a text in valuable ways that don’t match the author’s intentions. It is not unusual for me to hear (at conferences or in print) a restatement of my argument that draws out of it insights I wasn’t explicitly thinking about at all and so couldn’t have intended to assert—but which, on reflection, seem to be working as a kind of undercurrent to my thought that has now been brought to light.

Even so, in many modes of discourse (including philosophical ones) authorial intent still operates as a kind of standard against which alternative readings need to be assessed. How closely does our way of seeing the text conform to what the author was trying to say? Sometimes, when the author is dead or otherwise unavailable, this question inspires careful study of the author’s historical and cultural context, as well as of other works by the author, etc., fuelling any number of scholarly activities and debates. Rival scholars can propose very different ways of seeing the text, but unlike those engaged in a more free-flowing conversation about literature, the alternative ways of seeing proposed by the scholars are tied to a standard outside the text. That is, these scholars are making a truth-claim about something that isn't a part of the text but plays a role in their reading of it--specifically, a truth claim about authorial intent.

When the author is alive and accessible, of course, one can always ask the author to clarify what he or she means. The problem, of course, is that the resultant clarification is yet another “text”—one which will likely be amenable to alternative readings or ways of seeing, some of which will be closer to the author’s intentions than others. But the process of clarification is not, therefore, pointless. As authors discover the different ways of seeing their text (by having it actually seen in these ways by various readers), they can fill in details or gaps that can help to rule out gross misreadings and bring it about that readers see the text in a manner ever closer to the author’s original intention.

(Of course, a reading of a text is itself a text that is likely amenable to various readings—a fact which adds an additional layer of complexity to the communicative process).

Let's take my previous post, and one of the comments about it, as an example. In that post, as you'll recall, I made use of the duck-rabbit image--which I'll reproduce here so no one will feel the need to scroll back to the previous post:

I used this image to propose a way of understanding (at least much) religious language (ooh! a way of seeing religion that invokes ways of seeing as the way of seeing! Alright, I'll stop now). I pointed out that there is a difference between offering a description of a specific feature of the image—which will either be accurate or inaccurate, and hence will say something that is true or false by reference to what is there—and seeing the image in a given way (as a duck, or as a rabbit). My claim was that religious language is often about providing an interpretive worldview whose function is to afford a way of seeing the whole of experience (as opposed to describing a feature of it).

What I hoped to do was respond to Flew by showing that there are different ways in which statements can be meaningful. Flew claims that "sophisticated" theists so qualify their claim about the existence of God that it becomes consistent with anything we might observe about how the empirical world is arranged. In so doing, Flew thinks they have rendered their theistic hypothesis meaningless.** My point (following R.M. Hare and John Hick) is that offering a statement that makes a difference in the observable facts is only one way that a statement can be meaningful. Another is to offer a way of seeing the observable facts—and such a way of seeing will be meaningful insofar as it lends a different significance to the facts than they would have under an alternative way of seeing the same facts. But a way of seeing a set of facts doesn't typically add any new facts to the set it is interpreting.

But a way of seeing might very well presuppose a broader context than the set of facts which are being interpreted. It may make assertions about what is true concerning this broader context, even if it is not making assertions about what is included within the set of facts being interpreted. And with respect to these assertions about the broader context we may ask, “Why should I believe that?”

The most critical response to my previous post, offered by Burk, relies on this point. Burk's chief objection (unless I am misreading him) is that theism is a way of seeing the totality of empirical facts that does make such an assertion about a broader context within which the material world studied by science is situated. The most significant such assertion, of course, is “God exists.” But insofar as this assertion is endlessly qualified so as to be rendered consistent with any empirical facts whatever (as Flew claims is the case with "sophisticated" theism), it becomes an assertion for which no evidence is in principle available (at least if we take “evidence” in roughly the scientific sense). In effect, Burk is saying, "Okay, so sophisticated theism offers a way of seeing the whole of experience. But so what? That doesn't negate that it is also making an assertion about reality without any possibility of evidence being adduced in its favor."

This response to my post is rooted in a “way of seeing” what I wrote—or, in more usual terms, a reading of it. Among other things, this reading seems to take my post as an effort to defend theism against not merely Flew’s challenge of meaninglessness but against what has come to be called “the evidentialist challenge”—a challenge to theistic belief (and other religious beliefs) that in its usual form runs very roughly as follows: There is no good reason to believe that theism is true, no signs or indicators that speak in its favor; and in the absence of any such evidence one should presumptively disbelieve. (Since the evidential challenge is the next unit to be covered in my philosophy of religion class, you can expect a more detailed treatment of it soon).

Now I do have things to say about the evidentialist challenge. And I do think that the distinctive character of religious beliefs—that they provide “ways of seeing” the totality of observable facts by appeal to a posited "transcendent" realm—has some bearing on this challenge. But I do not think the mere fact that theistic belief serves as a “way of seeing” the world is sufficient to defuse the evidentialist challenge. It isn’t, for some of the reasons Burk gestures to in his comment. I do, however, think it is sufficient to show a way in which such a belief can be meaningful other than the ways Flew recognizes—and hence as providing the basis for a response to Flew’s challenge of meaninglessness.

Here, then, is one way in which someone can read a text in a manner at odds with the intentions of the author: the scope of an argument can be taken as more ambitious than the author intended.

But here’s the thing. In seeing my previous post as he did, Burk was doing more than merely casting the text in a certain light. After all, what cast that light were his beliefs about something beyond the text—more precisely, beliefs about what I was intending to do or show with my argument. In this case, the beliefs in question happen to be false—but in the very act of misreading my post, Burk exemplifies a point he makes in his remark that is exactly right: a way of seeing a set of accepted truths or facts, while it does not add new truths to the set, might presuppose the truth of something outside the set.

In the case of students in a literature class offering various interpretations of a literary work, such presuppositions are not usually being made. Their alternative readings don't hinge in any way on claims about authorial intent. They’re just offering “free floating” ways of seeing the text. But in the case of various scholarly interpretations of, say, Kant’s Transcendental Deduction, the alternative readings of the text may depend heavily on views concerning authorial intent. And such “transcendent” truth claims could be false.

In other words, since such scholarly readings of a text are rooted in claims about what is true about something beyond the text, it is coherent to talk about misreadings in a way that doesn't seem appropriate when the participants in a book group share their different ways of seeing the novel-of-the-month. The scholar's interpretation requires evidence, because it is not merely a free-floating reading of the text. It is a reading of the text that is paired with the following claim: "This is the reading of the text intended by the author." In fact, scholars often arrive at the reading they do by first considering evidence concerning authorial intentions--and then using that evidence to arrive at a way of seeing the text that they take to be true to those intentions.

I also think the distinction between the way that lay Christians in Bible studies approach sections of Scripture, and the way that biblical scholars do so, is very relevant here. The former involves what I'm calling "free floating" readings. Participants share their readings of a New Testament epistle and others say, "Oh, I hadn't thought of it that way. Here's how I see it." People go home with things to think about, perhaps a bit wiser about the human condition. Biblical scholars, by contrast, marshal evidence of various kinds to arrive at a theory about what the author of the epistle meant in this or that passage. While this theory is a reading of the text, it isn't a free floating one. Rather, it is a reading that makes a truth claim about something beyond the text, in the light of which this reading of the text is taken to be appropriate.

Consider two ways that, on viewing the duck-rabbit image, I might see it as a duck. First, I might approach it as an ambiguous image that can be seen either way, and I just happen to decide to see it as a duck for the moment. But now suppose that the image appears through an opening in one surface of a sealed metal cube. Suppose the surface is considerably broader than the window through which the image is visible, so that it is possible that what I am seeing is part of a broader image, most of which is hidden under the metal surface. Suppose I come to believe that this is in fact the case: the drawing continues beyond the limits of what I can see, with only the "head" visible in the opening. But now suppose I go even further than that. Suppose I become come convinced that what is hidden from view is an oval-shaped body stretching out below and to the right of the visible picture, complete with webbed feet. Now, of course, I see the image in the opening as the head of a duck--but not in a free floating way. I see it in this way because I have situated the visible image in the context of a certain conception of what the "whole picture" looks like.

In this latter case, it is true enough that my seeing the image in the window as a duck does not require me to deny of the image (or attribute to it) any facts not denied of (or attributed to) the image by those who see it as a rabbit. As such, my seeing it as a duck does not involve my making any new factual claims about the image. But I am making a factual claim about what is hidden behind the metal surface of the block. I am claiming that there is more to the image than we can see—and I have the audacity, if you will, to harbor a specific belief about what that “something more” is like.

I suspect that many atheists look at theistic belief in much the way that most of us would be inclined to look at the person who not only sees the image in the metal block as a duck, but does so as an extension of the broader conviction that the visible image is part of a larger one we cannot see (but which the person is happy to attribute details to even so). At least initially, harboring such beliefs seems strange. How could someone be willing, in the total absence of any glimpse of what is underneath the metal, to embrace the view that there is an image of a duck body there? And why would anyone think that such belief is legitimate?

It is in such cases that the evidentialist challenge to religious belief becomes significant. And since that is the topic being covered this week in my philosophy of religion class, it will also be the topic of my next post.

**I actually think Flew overstates his case when he says that the "Believer" in his parable about the invisible gardener has qualified his claim about the gardener so much that the claim has become consistent with any facts whatever. After all, what prompts the "gardener hypothesis" in the first place is a set of fact--a beautiful clearing in the woods, with flowers arranged in a distinctively appealing manner, etc. Were it not for this set of facts, the gardener hypothesis would never have been made in the first place. After all, that hypothesis amounts to a "way of seeing" the clearing. If there is no clearing, then there is nothing to see in that way. And a similar point can be made about theism: Were the elements of human experience radically different than they are--no aesthetic or moral experience, no moments of mystical encounters with the numinous, nothing but chaos in the physical world, etc.--the theistic way of seeing might not make any sense at all. It would be like seeing the duck-rabbit image as the football player attacking a penguin.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What Do Religious Claims Mean?

First of all, let me apologize for neglecting this blog for close to a week. This neglect is in part due to prioritizing time with my family over the Labor Day weekend, and in part due to my energies being directed towards something I hope to make an official announcement about by week's end.

That said, let's turn to something more philosophically substantive. There is an interesting connection between the topic of my philosophy of religion discussion this past Friday--namely, Anthony Flew's famous argument challenging the meaningfulness of religious claims (most notably the claim that God exists)--and the most recent installment in the New York Times philosophy forum, The Stone.

In Sunday's "Stone" installment, the atheist philosopher Tim Crane attempts to provide an honest account of what religion is about and why treating it as so many atheists do--as if its propositions were hypotheses capable of scientific testing--is inappropriate. Now let me begin by saying that my own perspective on these matters differs in important ways from Crane's. But I think he is asking the right questions. And I think he is pointing out some differences between science and religion that need to be taken seriously if we want to understand why, for example, Flew's argument falls flat among so many religious believers.

Of course, in some cases Flew's argument falls flat because the religious believers aren't listening, or they don't care about arguments. But many religious believers do care about arguments and have both listened to and understood Flew's case against the meaningfulness of certain kinds of religious claims--and yet they are unconvinced. The question is why.

Flew directs his argument towards untestable religious claims, claims that are consistent with any empirical observation we might possibly make. He summarizes his case against these religious claims as follows:

Some theological utterances seem to, and are intended to, provide explanations or express assertions. Now an assertion, to be an assertion at all, must claim that things stand thus and thus; and not otherwise. Similarly an explanation, to be an explanation at all, must explain why this particular thing occurs; and not something else... And yet sophisticated religious people...tend to refuse to allow, not merely that anything actually does occur, but that anything conceivably could occur which would count against their theological assertions and explanations. But in so far as they do this their supposed explanations are bogus, and their seeming assertions are vacuous.

The challenge that Flew lays down is specifically directed towards "sophisticated" religious people--those who care about science and its teachings, who care about facts, and who endeavor therefore to offer an account of their faith that is consistent with the facts as we know them. When new scientific discoveries challenge this account of their faith, sophisticated religious people neither reject the facts nor conclude "I guess there is no God after all" or something along those lines. Instead, they revise their account.

But if it really is possible to continually revise the faith to accomodate new facts, doesn't it follow that the underlying core beliefs--such as belief in something transcendent--are consistent with any set of facts we might discover? And if so, doesn't it therefore follow that these underlying precepts aren't saying anything substantive?

Rather than repeat what I say about this in my book, let me address this line of thought the way I do in a forthcoming article (following John Hick's lead), by invoking the famed "duck-rabbit" image:

The point I make in the article is that religious claims, instead of being primarily about what the (directly or indirectly) observable facts are, offer instead a way of seeing the totality of facts--what I call an "interpretive worldview." How does this relate to the above image? Well, with respect to the image above, we can offer descriptions of what is in front of us--for example, that there are two protrusions coming out of the left side of the image that comprise roughly half the width of the entire image at its widest point. In other words, we can describe details accurately or inaccurately in propositions which are therefore either true or false.

But we can also do something else. We can see the image as a rabbit or as a duck. Now there are certain "ways of seeing" that are precluded by the details of the image. For example, I'd be hard pressed to see the image above as a football player attacking a penguin using a wet piece of styrofoam. The details of the image are ambiguous enough to allow alternative ways of seeing--but some ways of seeing are, to put it simply, rather nutty.

The thing to notice about seeing this image as a duck or as a rabbit is this: whether we see it as one or the other does not have implications for what is there in the image to be described. It does, however, have implications for how we interpret the various elements of the image. The protrusions on the left are interpreted as ears or as a beak. The little knob on the right is either a random bump or a nose. In other words, how we see it has implications for the significance that we attach to the various components of the image. But it's the same whole that is being interpreted in different ways. To see it as a rabbit is not to assert that there is some descriptive detail there in the image that someone who sees it as a duck is asserting isn't there.

This is how interpretive worldviews operate in relation to the world we encounter in experience taken as a whole. They offer alternative "ways of seeing" this whole--ways which might postulate this whole as part of a larger whole that lends to it a significance it wouldn't have on its own (one way of understanding what supernaturalism is), or ways which sees the empirical world as the totality of what there is but may still see it in different ways.

R.M Hare, in his response to Flew (at the original panel discussion in which Flew's argument was first presented), is making essentially the same point I'm gesturing towards with the duck-rabbit image when he says that religious beliefs offer what he calls a "blik." A blik is a way of seeing the whole, rather than a claim about the specific details of the whole. Some bliks are sane and some are insane (Hare uses the example of someone who thinks that all English dons are engaged in a vast and brilliant secret conspiracy to bring him to ruin). Whether a blik is sane or not depends on its "fit" with what is being interpreted in its light. And since there is such a thing as a good fit or a bad fit, there are standards (however hard they may be to articulate and apply) for assessing bliks. But the question is whether these standards, when applied to the vast and astonishingly complex universe in which we reside, allow only one blik (a naturalistic one, or a Christian one, or a Buddhist one), or allow several.

One of the difficulties here is that, once you are used to seeing things a certain way, it can be very hard to imagine it any other way--even IF some other way is at least as good a fit as your way of seeing. I think this is particularly true when it comes to interpretive worldviews, which attempt to offer a holistic way of seeing everything that is a part of our lived experience--the physical world encountered through the senses, morality, aesthetics, consciousness, etc.

Of course, as the details of this whole become more clear, some bliks may cease to "fit." Perhaps, one day, if we ever got there, the image would be so clear that all ambiguity would evaporate and there would be only one "way of seeing" the whole universe that fits. But I doubt it, and we'll never get there in any event.

Be that as it may, it should be clear that there is a big difference between the project of clarifying the details of the picture and the task of offering and/or refining a way of seeing it. While the former is meaningful to the extent that it describes (accurately or inaccurately) various parts of the picture--and so says that things "stand thus and thus and not otherwise"--the latter gets its meaning in a different way. In effect, a "blik" makes a difference for how we treat what is observed, how we relate to it, what is appropriate in response to it--in short, a blik makes a difference on a more pragmatic (or moral) level.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Paradox of the Stone and the Challenge of Defining "God"

This week in my philosophy of religion class we are talking about the concept of God. Since I have already expressed my views on how "God" should be defined in Is God a Delusion?, I don't intend to simply repeat myself here. But I do want to say a few words about some common challenges to the coherence of the traditional Western theological understanding of God--which, in the language I use in my book, is a "substantive definition" (one that defines God in terms of a set of properties) as opposed to an ostensive definition (which would define God by metaphorically "pointing," as Schleiermacher does when he defines God as the "Whence" of our feeling of absolute dependence) or a formal one (which sets out a procedure for arriving at divine properties, as Anselm does) or a functional one (which is what I tend to favor).

As I worded it in class, the dominant substantive definition of God in Western theology takes God to be "the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the world who is a transcendent, eternal, and self-existent person."

One common challenge to God thus conceived targets the property of omnipotence, arguing that it is incoherent to attribute this property to anything. Another challenges the co-possibility of divine omniscience and creaturely freedom. Of course, the most historically important objection to theism is the argument from evil, which in some of its forms challenges the possibility of there existing a being characterized by omnipotence and omnibenevolence in a world with the amount and kind of evil we find in this one (I won't consider this challenge here, since I will be devoting considerable attention to it later in the semester).

The main thing I want to consider here is what significance such challenges have for the devoted religious believer. For this purpose, let me focus on the challenge to divine omnipotence. In its most common form, this challenge starts with the so-called Paradox of the Stone, which asks, "Can God create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it?" The argument, roughly, is that however one answers this question one must reject divine omnipotence. Either God can create such a stone, in which case there is something He cannot do, namely lift said stone; or God cannot create such a stone, in which case there is again something God cannot do.

The traditional response to this argument is to define omnipotence in terms of the capacity to do whatever is logically possible--and then to note that it is not logically possible to create a stone so heavy that it cannot be lifted by a being that has the power to lift every possible stone. As such, on the assumption that God is omnipotent, God creating a stone God cannot lift is logically impossible--and since omnipotence is defined as the ability to do whatever is logically possible, the inability for God to create said stone is no restriction on God's omnipotence. It would be like saying that God cannot create a round square or make it true that two plus two equals seventeen.

Of course, if we define omnipotence as the capacity to do even what is logically impossible, then the paradox of the stone is a non-starter. If logical consistency is of no consequence to God, then God could do the logically impossible thing of creating a stone so heavy God could not lift it...and then lifting it (while it remaining true that God could not do so).

But while this solution to the Paradox of the Stone strikes me as sound insofar as it goes, it obscures what I find to be a deeper and more profound question raised by the paradox: Can an omnipotent being limit its power so that it ceases to be omnipotent? And if it can, would a God who did so thereby cease to be God?

How one answers these questions has some very interesting implications. First of all, it has implications for what one thinks about about the idea of "kenosis" that has been proposed (and vigorously debated) by some Christian theologians. "Kenosis" refers to a kind of divine "emptying" that some theologians invoked to help to make sense of the Christian doctrine of incarnation. The question at issue has to do with how Jesus' humanity is to be understood in relation to His divinity. If God is all-knowing, and if Jesus is God, does that mean the baby Jesus was born with a full knowledge of 21st Century string theory and could have explained it at three weeks of age to anyone who might have understood what He was saying?

Some theologians have thought that to answer "yes" to questions of this kind is to strip Jesus of his humanity. To be human involves living a human life--and to be born possessing all the infinite knowledge of the universe pretty much precludes that. Such a being would be a divine being wearing human skin, not a human being at all. But Jesus is supposed to be both fully human and fully God. Is there a way to make sense of this?

Some theologians, inspired in part by Phillipians 2:6-8, suggested that the solution was to suppose that in order to be truly human, the incarnate God "emptied" Himself of at least some divine attributes--in effect becoming limited in knowledge and power, etc. That is, in order to authentically share in the human condition and live in solidarity with God's finite creatures, God didn't just pretend to be a finite creature alongside us but actually took on real finitude.

This idea of kinosis took on different forms among its advocates. Some thought it involved a total abandonment of the divine nature while others distinguished among divine properties--distinguishing God's moral attributes from God's "physical" ones (such things as omnipotence, omniscience, and timelessness) and arguing that the incarnate God preserved the former while abandoning the latter.

What is important to note for my purposes here is that this kenotic theory has implications for how we are to understand divinity. Marilyn McCord Adams, in Christ and Horrors, puts the point in these terms:

If partial absolute kenosis (the theory that Jesus is emptied of God's "physical" attributes but not the moral ones) retains the traditional claim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could not exist without being God, it insists that not all the perfections formerly thought to be essential to Godhead were genuinely necessary to It. So-called physical attributes are allegedly the permanent but contingent possession of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and are contingently had, then abandoned, then repossessed by the Son. Thus, it seems, with respect to some perfections, Godhead essentially includes a capacity for them but not their actuality. (Italics in original)
Here we have a theology which, metaphorically speaking, maintains that God can create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it--that, in other words, it is in the power of God to impose real limits on God's capacity to exercise power (as well as on God's knowledge, eternity, immunity from harm, etc.) but that the God so limited remains God.

Another variant of kenosis can be and has been posited apart from the uniquely Christian concern with making sense of the incarnation. Specifically, some have argued that the very act of creation is an act of the divine imposing limits on itself--that a divine withdrawal and abdication of power is essential for establishing the "otherness" of the created world, thus preserving its status as a reality distinct from God that can evolve on its own terms and eventually acquire (in accord with its own rules) the capacity to autonomously enter into a self-other relationship with God. This is an idea articulated, for example, in the kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum, and it is also expressed in the writing of Simone Weil. Put simply, the idea is that the existence of a universe that isn't simply swallowed up into God requires the establishment of a kind of boundary or demarcation between God and the created world, one which implies limits on what God can do in relation to that world. On this view, in effect, the act of creating the universe is an act of creating a stone that God cannot lift.

The question then becomes, does God remain God after creation if the act of creation necessitates divine limitation? Or, perhaps better, do those who ascribe to theological views like Tzimtzum have to give up calling the object of their religious devotion God? I don't think so, but if not it makes little sense to insist that "God" just means what is expressed in the traditional substantive definition above. The fact is that people who believe in God can disagree about just how essential the various properties ascribed to God in this definition really are.

And someone who thinks God in fact possesses all of the properties identified in the traditional definition may well agree that these properties do not define God. For example, you might well think that my eyes are a particular shade of blue. But suppose someone demonstrated to you that it was physiologically impossible for human eyes to possess that specific shade, given the manner in which eye color arises. Would you conclude that I don't exist? Surely not--because, although you thought I possessed this specific property, it was never a property that you took to be definitive of me.

Likewise, there is presumably room to accept that a certain property you had formerly attributed to God is one you must give up on, without thereby being forced to give up on the claim that there is a God. But this raises in a new way the question of what, precisely, a theist is asserting when they assert that God exists. If someone ceases to be a theist--what, specifically, are they denying that they had once believed? And why is it that some undergo radical reconceptions in their beliefs while still professing to be theists? What is it that they still believe that warrants holding onto the "theist" label?

This is what I think a functional definition--a definition in terms of the role or function God fills in the life of the devoted theist--is helpful for. In class the other day, a student defined God, roughly, as that in which he could place his hope in times that otherwise would call for despair. This is a functional definition. Given this understanding of God, the believer might radically change their idea of God--but so long as God, thus characterized, could be a source of hope in the midst of despair for those who believed in it, it would still qualify as "God."