Friday, February 28, 2014

Book Review: True Reason

“True Reason,” a collection of essays edited by Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer, is an excellent, must-read book on the popular level. Directed against New Atheism, this collection has several highlights. There are 19 essays, and I don’t plan to review each one individually. Gilson and Weitnauer take the first two essays, respectively, to frame the issue. The mission of the book, they say, is to open the reader’s eyes in the arena of rationality. The New Atheists often use “reason” as a buzzword, or some kind of synonym for “atheism,” but this usage is often inappropriate. Further, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) claim is that Christians (and other theists) are operating irrationally, acting only on an unexamined faith which is, by definition, contrary to all logical thought. I think Gilson and Weitnauer here are largely successful; the reader will understand precisely the aim of the book.

There is a now-famous essay by William Lane Craig that has been reprinted, with permission, from another work. Craig makes short work of the “best” of New Atheist guru Richard Dawkins’ arguments against God. If one is already familiar with Craig’s essay, then she can skip on to the next: otherwise, it’s highly recommended.

Gilson takes the time to answer the question, “Are theistic arguments logical?”, and he does so in a case-study format. Examining the Craig-Sam Harris debate concerning the “moral landscape” and the foundations of morality, Gilson skillfully (and fairly) shows that, whatever one thinks of the truth of Craig’s contentions, it was Craig, not Harris, engaging in rational discourse (more than once, Gilson took pains to point out that Craig might be entirely wrong and Harris correct—his only point was to show Craig was being rational, while Harris refused to engage the argument).

One of the essays I found to be most fascinating was David Marshall’s on John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith” (hereafter OTF). OTF is as follows:

1.     “People who are located in distinct geographical areas . . . overwhelmingly adopt and justify a wide diversity of religious faith due to their particular upbringing and shared cultural heritage, and most of these faiths are mutually exclusive.
2.     To an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns.
3.     Therefore, it is highly likely that any given religious faith is false.
4.     In practice, one should hence test one’s religion ‘from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.’” (p. 77)

Now, the point of Marshall’s essay is to show that Loftus’ contention that OTF is opposed by Christians because they know Christianity will fail is demonstrably false, historically. This we will return to in a moment. First, Marshall casually mentions that (3) doesn’t follow from (1-2); I think, however, we can rescue OTF pretty easily from this malady. Consider:

OTF1. If, to an overwhelming degree, one’s religious faith is causally dependent on brain processes, cultural conditions, and irrational thinking patterns, then it is highly likely their religious belief is false.

It’s worth noting Loftus might resent this oversimplification, because he wants to include all other religions as live options for complete pictures. So let’s include that fact in our consideration of (OTF1). Marshall mentions that (OTF1) is nonetheless an example of the genetic fallacy (p. 78). I think this is less than clear. Why? Because Loftus includes, in (OTF1), that irrational thinking patterns have helped causally inform particular religious beliefs. Surely we wouldn’t want to say, given that such-and-such a belief is formed in an irrational manner, that it is just as likely true as false? If I bang my head into the wall four times, and announce that on this basis I now am a devotee of the Easter Bunny, you’re just as likely to suspect I have a concussion as anything else—but surely you (nor I) don’t thereby gain some support for the premise that the Easter Bunny is real. I think that, all things being equal, if a belief is formed for irrational reasons, we can safely say, epistemologically, that there’s no reason to regard it as true, and even some reason to say it is false.

The crucial question then becomes two-fold: Are all things equal?, and Do people form their belief in God in an irrational thinking pattern? The latter question demands that we see reason to think that we have been irrational in our thinking about God. That will require an account of rationality and that our belief in God has arisen from something contrary to rationality (or irrationality). As Alvin Plantinga has argued, it’s not even clear this can be done without appealing to the de facto question of whether or not God exists. The former question is evidential: we can only conclude that our religious beliefs are false or very likely false if we don’t have countervailing evidence (of course, if we already have these evidences, it’s very unlikely we meet condition [2] of Loftus’ argument, and so [OTF] doesn’t really have any application for us).

The rest of Marshall’s essay, however, is an excellent discussion on other world religions and conversions. I was especially happy to see his reference of the great African scholar John Mbiti. One should charitably read Marshall at this point in saying that other world religions do in fact contain shadows of truth; the true God’s witness of Himself in the real world, even if it has been diluted and perverted.

Lenny Esposito has an excellent work on the argument from reason. Recent conversations I have had with believers indicate that many Christians are now viewing the argument from reason as one of the most powerful for confirming their faith and using in conversations. Referencing Victor Reppert and C.S. Lewis before him, Esposito carefully explains why he thinks that God is the ultimate foundation for reasoning and logical rationality. The idea is that naturalism is purported to account for reasoning, but naturalism doesn’t seem to be able to get us the ability to actually reason, just something approximating it (like a laptop computer or a smartphone, for example). He asks an important question: “In a universe where only physics and chance are at play in shaping its inhabitants, why should we believe that we can discover truth by reason?” (p. 101) It’s a question that must be answered by the naturalist.

David Wood continues, discussing the explanatory bereft-ness of atheism. Some people may see this as a scandalous claim, but Wood thinks it follows using the issues of the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the argument from consciousness, the arguments from reason and logic, the argument from induction, and the argument from value. Essentially, naturalism has no explanation for any of these things.

Marhsall later has another essay, this time with Tim McGrew, on a historical perspective on faith and reason. Anything with Tim McGrew in it is going to be good. They infer, “Faith, in this sense, is not irrational, but it does involve trust . . . trust in other people” (p. 150). In McGrew’s typical style, it is a true historical investigation into what believers have said and thought about faith—and they show it’s not a blind leap in the dark. Additionally, they show that early Christian figures, like Origen, were all too ready to appeal to available evidences and reasoning to show or to defend what they believed (p. 156).

Chapter 13 is perhaps the most relevant essay to the popular level today. It is on whether or not there is a true conflict between science and Christianity. Sean McDowell attempts to tackle this issue. After listing several Christians in a historical survey who supported and furthered science to great effect, he addresses the issue of Galileo, and how that has been misrepresented to a degree (p. 193). McDowell correctly identified the root of the argument/problem: it’s not science vs. religion, but theism vs. naturalism (p. 195). He then turns, a la Plantinga, to showing that there is a conflict, after all: the conflict of the religious view of naturalism with science itself (pp. 196-97). At the very least, it will raise questions that true seekers cannot merely brush aside. The next essay involves Gilson triumphantly declaring that McDowell “demonstrated” that there is no conflict, but I don’t really think that’s an overstatement of the case!

The essay by Matthew Flannagan on the purported genocide of the Canaanites was brilliantly done. Essentially, Flannagan argues that there is some reason to think that, in the ancient near east, hyperbolic language was employed. This is because Joshua and Judged are to be taken as one unit, and if one does that, he will discover that “Joshua conquered the whole land and yet Judges states that much of the land was unconquered” (p. 258). The idea is not that there’s a contradiction, but that it disappears when we understand the literary devices and intent that the authors had.

Glenn Sunshine provides a much-needed look at Christianity and slavery, and Weitnauer finishes off with concluding thoughts in an epilogue. I thought they achieved their objective very well: exposing the arguments of the New Atheists as generally shallow (as they stand), and that Christians do engage in reasonable debate, even if it should turn out that Christian belief is false. I heartily recommend it to every reader, Christian or not. One thing that bothered me: I hate endnotes. I am the kind of guy who wants to read the (sometimes key) insights revealed in a footnote, or to see the source of the note. I’m not going to go back and forth on the endnotes, and I’ve often forgotten how a note relates to the text if it’s at the end. I know it’s a popular-level book, but hey. J

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Discussion on Cultural Relativism and Morality

Cultural relativism about morality is not a popular academic position, but it is a position one hears in discussions with the “man on the street” when it comes to morality and ethics. Sometimes it is helpful to look at the consequences of certain views. The following example comes from Harry Gensler:

(CR) “The good” in morality is socially approved by the majority of the relevant society.[1]

Now we should examine what would be true if (CR) is true. Let’s take this claim, for example:

(INF) The norms set up by my society about what is good couldn’t be mistaken.[2]

At first glance, most people are inclined to reject (INF), even if they embrace (CR). If, as shorthand for (CR), we substitute the phrase “socially approved” for “good,” however, we will see (INF) is very nearly a tautology. It’s difficult to see how, if good is socially approved norms, that it could also be contrary to them. “So what?” you might think. “That’s an interesting fact about CR, but I don’t see a problem.” Consider the following argument:

1.     If (CR), then (INF).
2.     If (INF), then no moral progress is possible.
3.     If no moral progress is possible, then the abolition of slavery in the American south did not constitute moral progress.
4.     Therefore, if (CR), then the abolition of slavery was not moral progress.

We’ve already defended (1) above, (3) is true by definition, and (4) is an entailed conclusion. (2) is a crucial premise, but it too can be defended. (INF) stands for “infallibility,” because it means that the moral norms reached by a society cannot be mistaken (though people could be mistaken about what the social moral norms are, it nonetheless follows that if, in reality, there is some particular social moral norm, on CR, it cannot be incorrect). Supposing (CR) to be true, imagine a moral reformer (like Wilberforce in England) crying out against the morality of slavery. It’s not just impractical, or annoying, or the like: it’s morally wrong! Yet, Wilberforce would just be mistaken, just as much as the man who insists that his favorite TV show is the correct favorite TV show to have. Now, certainly, moral change is possible, in that all it takes is Wilberforce changing the minds of the people, and a new social norm forms. But it is still not anything like moral progress. It’s really more like fashion sense. In moral progress, we (as individuals or societies) move away from activities that are wrong and move to those that are right (or so we hope). We don’t think, for example, that slavery is wrong now, but it was perfectly acceptable back then.[3] We really believe that slavery was a shameful spot on our country’s history, and that it should not have taken place. We believe the moral reformers were morally praiseworthy. In short, we really believe we made moral progress.

Moral progression means moving closer to that objective moral standard. If that is the case, what is your objective moral standard? We have seen it cannot be culture. For if we embrace moral progress, it follows by modus tollens that we reject (CR)—and, incidentally, (INF). It seems the best explanation of morality is an objectively existing God.

[1] Harry J. Gensler, Introduction to Logic, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010), 40.

[2] Ibid., 41.

[3] A further argument can be made that, depending on particular norms, Wilberforce, in our example, would actually be the one in the wrong, morally. This is because society may (in our example) plausibly have taken it that having slaves forcibly removed from them (that is, the government forcibly ending slavery) violates a fundamental moral right to slavery, so that Wilberforce would be advocating for that which was morally wrong. It wouldn’t matter that he would eventually be vindicated—on (CR), he was just morally wrong, and so blameworthy. This counterintuitive notion is laughable, but it’s all the more reason to reject (CR).

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Apologetic Tuesday: Evaluating Claims

How should we evaluate claims or arguments? Many times it can be difficult to see where to begin. I’m not sure there’s any one place that someone must start in evaluating claims. What follows, however, are some of my suggestions for evaluating claims. You may find one tactic or another helps clarify the issue. Clarity is always good, because it helps your response!

1.     What is the claim stating?

This is important. If you are not even sure what’s being claimed, how can you refute (or accept) it? Here’s an example: “There’s no good evidence for God.” What does this mean? Does this mean there are no facts in virtue of which God’s existence is made more probable than without them? Does this mean there may or may not be such facts, but that one is not justified in accepting God’s existence on that basis? Does this mean there’s no scientific evidence for God? Does this mean that there are no facts in virtue of which it is rational to believe in God? For me, at least, whether or not I agree with the claim depends on which sense of the claim is meant: essentially, it depends on what the claim is actually stating.

2.     What are the implications of the claim?

This usually comes after one understands the claim itself. It essentially asks, “What follows if the claim, as I understand it, is true?” Many times, this is unstated by the person making the claim. Sometimes this is because it is obvious. Other times the ambiguity helps: it might imply several objections without the person having to do any of the work. Suppose we understand the claim “there’s no good evidence for God” as meaning there’s no scientific evidence for God. What follows from that? Is it supposed to follow that God does not exist? Is it supposed to follow that one is unjustified in believing in God? Sometimes the claims are not ambiguous regarding their implications, but the claim just doesn’t have the implications the objector thinks it does.

3.     What are the presuppositions of the claim?

Every claim has presuppositions. This is not a bad thing. However, this does not mean that a claim’s presuppositions are unassailable. Suppose we take the claim “there’s no good evidence for God” as meaning no scientific evidence, and suppose we take this claim to imply that, therefore, no one can know that God exists. Is there a presupposition there? Yes, there must be, since no valid form of deductive inference follows from the claim to the implication. So we must supply some other premise, namely something like: “If there is no scientific evidence for something, then there’s no reason to think it is true or is known.” Now the implication follows, but there’s a problem. Why think the proffered presupposition is true? You don’t have to prove it false here. The one offering the argument must give good reasons why she thinks it’s true (presumably, scientific ones that are also non-question-begging).

4.     Does the claim meet its own standard?

Many times claims cannot even meet their own standard. In that case, the claim is called self-referentially incoherent. Take the presupposition “if there is no scientific evidence for something, then there’s no reason to think it is true or known.” Let us subject it to its own standard: is there scientific evidence for that claim? It seems not; it doesn’t seem to be the type of claim that can be evaluated by the scientific method. If there is no scientific evidence for the claim, what follows? If we regard the presupposition as true, then it means that there’s no reason to think the presupposition is true or known, which means you have no reason to accept the statement. In fact, if we have no reason to say we know it, then presumably (on most accounts) we cannot say we know it, and (on most accounts) we regard it as false (or at the very least undetermined, and so unhelpful). In that case, if it’s false, it’s false, and if it’s true, it’s false.[1]

5.     Are there any good reasons to take the claim as true?

After all this, it’s helpful to try to figure out if there are any good reasons to take the claim as true. Even if something is unambiguous, its implications drawn validly, presuppositions explored and defended, and meets its own standard, it doesn’t follow that one should actually believe it. Now we turn to the evidential standpoint. Take the claim, “There’s no scientific evidence for God.” That’s far from clear. Most Christians will make a crucial mistake here. They will assume a “burden of disproof” as it is called. If you can pull it off, it’s a great strategy, since if you’ve disproven something, then it’s certainly not true. However, it lets the objector off the hook too easily. They must show good reasons to think their claim is true. All you have to do in refraining from belief in those claims is to criticize their arguments for their claim.

Too often, Christians are drawn in to arguments where the unbeliever or skeptic never has to defend her claims. She can simply pass on a one-liner from a meme and watch you try to do all the work. No longer!

[1] The reason I say “on most accounts” is because, in theory, someone might give an account of some type of foundational beliefs that include this presupposition as a belief that does not need any reasons in order for someone to take it as true. However, this is a route most scientists (and people in general) will not take, and even if it is, it will take a pretty good argument for us to think that the presupposition should be taken to be this kind of basic belief.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Debate Review: Sean Carroll vs. William Lane Craig: God and Cosmology!

The debate on God and cosmology at the Greer-Heard Forum (hosted by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) was extremely interesting. Representing the Christian side was William Lane Craig, and representing the skeptic side was cosmologist/theoretical physicist Sean Carroll. This was an exceptional debate (though it could have been better), in part because Carroll did better than Lawrence Krauss. Since this debate was concerned mostly with cosmology and whether or not it acted as evidence for God’s existence, much of it was over my comprehension. As a result, what follows is a basic overview, and I will undoubtedly fail to represent some aspect of the science correctly (I’ll do my best to keep that to a minimum). As anyone who reads me knows, however, I will interact with the philosophy involved.

Craig wants to contend that contemporary cosmology makes God’s existence considerably more probable than it would be without it. This just means that he believes the evidence of cosmology functions itself as evidence (though now we are using “evidence” in two different ways: the first way to mean scientific evidence and the second to mean a more general, philosophical evidence). Craig claimed that in doing this, one is not employing contemporary cosmology to prove that God exists, but to support theologically neutral premises in arguments with theistic conclusions/implications. What Craig does here is appeal to only two main arguments for his subject. Many past critics of Craig should thusly be mollified (as a common complaint against Craig is that he simply presents too many arguments).[1] The arguments given are the kalam and teleological.

1.     If the universe began to exist, then there is a transcendent cause that brought the universe into existence.
2.     The universe began to exist.
3.     Therefore, there is a transcendent cause that brought the universe into existence.

Craig initially takes (1) to be obvious, focusing on (2). He gives two lines of evidence to support that the universe had a beginning: evidence from expansion of the universe and evidence from the second law of thermodynamics. The absolute beginning of the universe is predicted by the standard model, and has not been avoided; in fact, it [an absolute beginning] has been only strengthened, Craig contends. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin [BGV] theorem predicts there will be a boundary; either something is “beyond” the boundary or not. If not, then the boundary is the beginning. If something is beyond the boundary, that it will be that thing that is the beginning. Craig also appeals to the quantum region to point out that, among other things, it remains problematic why the universe transitioned to the state in which it now is some 13.7 billion years ago, and not some other time, say from eternity (or even not at all). I think this is a very powerful argument, and one that Carroll may not have even understood, since no response was ever given. Moving to the next line of evidence, given the naturalistic assumption that the universe is a closed system, then heat death will follow (from expansion). Why, if the universe has existed forever, is it not now in a cold, dark state of heat death? The universe cannot have existed forever; there was an absolute beginning a finite time ago. Carroll’s solution is that the overall condition of the universe is a state of equilibrium, but we are in a baby universe in a state of disequilibrium. The production of such universes is conjectural (and, according to Craig, a violation of the unitarity of quantum theory). There are irretrievable natural laws from the mother universe.

The fine tuning argument (teleological) is how Craig usually does it. Craig addresses the objection that since we live in a finely tuned world, we shouldn’t be surprised that the world is finely tuned by using Boltzmann brains as a counter-objection. This objection is stating that there will be many more universes in which there are no actual observers such as we are than universes where there are such observers; of these non-observer universes, there will be many Boltzmann brains, brought about by thermal fluctuations. Therefore, on the whole of probability, it is far more probable that we would find ourselves as Boltzmann brains than the observers that we are, if a multiverse scenario were true.

It’s Sean Carroll’s turn, and his goal is not to win a debate. There’s no talk about what role God might have played in bringing the universe about, because it’s not taken seriously. He explains naturalism as all there is. He claims that naturalism works: 1. It accounts for all we see, 2. There is evidence against theism, 3. Theism is not well defined. Caroll wants to challenge (1) by saying that is false. He claims that a counterexample is the no boundary quantum cosmology model. It is completely self-contained and so comes without a transcendent cause. He wants to talk about BGV theorem—description of spacetime breaks down (our ability to describe the universe’s time gives out, so that there may be a beginning or it may be eternal). God of the gaps is charged against Craig. Here’s the problem with Carroll charging Craig with God-of-the-gaps: it’s just not true. Craig is making cosmological arguments from cosmological evidences; he’s not offering God as an explanation for a lack of arguments. This suggests that either Carroll does not understand God-of-the-gaps or he does not understand what Craig is arguing. Given Carroll’s previously professed ignorance of much of Craig’s work I am assuming the latter (I also think that is more charitable).

Carroll offers 5 reasons against fine-tuning: 1. There may not be a fine tuning problem. 2. God doesn’t need to fine-tune anything. 3. The fine-tunings you think are there might only be apparent. 4. Other naturalistic explanations: multiverse. 5. Theism fails as an explanation for fine-tuning. This criticism boils down to the fact that theism does not comport with what Carroll would expect. (He may be confusing predictive models with actual explanations.) For instance, Carroll thinks religious beliefs would be universal if theism were true. Carroll finishes his first speech with science of the gaps, ironically.

Craig’s second response: Craig points out many of these things are not relevant, since the topic is God being rendered more probable by evidences from cosmology, not God being a predictive model for cosmology, and the like. Craig responds in the criticism of the first premise of the kalam by saying it’s only required that the universe didn’t pop into being uncaused out of nothing. This is crucial, and this is one point Craig takes for granted that Carroll clearly does not understand (not because he’s unintelligent, but because it’s not self-evident to many). The reason Craig says this is because of the way the first premise is worded. Recall, the first premise of the kalam is:

1.     If the universe began to exist, then there is a transcendent cause that brought the universe into existence.

The only way to deny this is to affirm that the universe began to exist and yet had no transcendent cause. Most of Carroll’s critique centered on his affirmation of an eternal universe, and the other part was that he didn’t like the terminology, “pop into being.” The second part is just semantic, not analytical or metaphysical, and the first part is irrelevant. It would be relevant to the second premise, but not the first. This is why Craig explains that these other models offered by Carroll do not show the universe does not come into being, and there’s nothing in the theory that explains why that model exists rather than not.

Craig says most cosmology colleagues agree fine-tuning is real. It is no part of the fine-tuning argument to assert that the purpose of the fine tuning is us. There may be other forms of life in the universe, and even if not, low entropy is essential to discoverability of the universe (which makes sense on theism).

Carroll claims, in response, that Craig misunderstands the science. While Craig tends to quote or closely paraphrase Carroll, Carroll will not afford the same courtesy, often making simplistic caricatures. Carroll thinks that the primary reason we embrace causality is purely physical observation. This is a major issue that’s going to prevent him from embracing the causal principle. Carroll brings up Guth saying that he thinks that the universe is very likely eternal but no one knows. This won’t work, because Carroll strongly implies that Craig’s references to BGV are somehow invalid or inaccurate; but it is in this letter to Craig that Vilenkin confirms Craig has interpreted BGV correctly. So essentially, the move is nothing more than an appeal to authority, with literally no argument behind it.

In Craig’s final speech, he emphasized that nothing is not anything and so it is inconceivable metaphysically! This was to correct Carroll’s understanding of the justification of the causal principle.

In Carroll’s last speech, he was dismissive of the actual arguments or objections. Carroll ends his speech with four minutes of people not becoming theists because of arguments. He insists there’s no longer any reason to embrace theism, and you have three options: 1. Deny science. 2. Accept science but deny the implications (confusing science with metaphysics). 3. Assess the human condition and give up belief in God.

In the Q&A portion, Carroll got a question about free will; he states that we do have free will as emergent. It is not libertarian, but compatibilist. But “free will” seems to be a language game. It’s a description, a useful fiction since if he can know all the particles, they determine what he does. Craig parlays this into an objection against naturalism, since even the affirmation of naturalism is a-rational. Carroll does agree with Craig, actually saying religion ought to be relevant to all areas of life, which is absolutely correct.

All things considered, Carroll didn’t do much to show that the evidence from cosmology, used in non-theological premises in philosophically deductive arguments with theistic implications, does not render God’s existence more probable than if it were not present. He did not understand the first premise of the kalam, and offered no reason to think the second was false, or inscrutable, or otherwise anything but correct. In the fine-tuning argument, Carroll did argue by making a slightly obscure reference to other models that avoid Boltzmann brain scenarios (or at least, make them less prevalent). While it wasn’t explored, it at least counts as relevant. And in Carroll’s argument that the world is not what he would expect were theism to be true, he was, in principle, trying to be relevant again here. I think he was unsuccessful in showing his claims of fine-tuning being illusory, and made no attempt to offer justifications of why we should think theism as a predictive model is the correct way to approach the problem, or why we should think that Carroll’s particular inclinations would be what anyone else would expect.

Conversely, I think Craig, overall, did a good job explaining why this renders God’s existence more probable than it would have been if the evidence was not there. My one criticism is that Craig said it would be “vastly” or “considerably” (or some such word) more probable. I don’t doubt this is the case; I just would have liked to see some Bayesian reasoning, or, at the very least, just some basic explanation of why the degree of probability is raised in the way Craig needs it to be. As far as I could tell, if Carroll could have found some way of saying that the evidence from cosmology does raise the probability of God’s existence, but only slightly, he would have won. Perhaps, given the deductive nature of the arguments, if the premises are even more than slightly more plausible than their negations, then the conclusions follow, which conclusions significantly imply theism more than if they were not present. So perhaps even my one criticism of Craig is flawed. It’s late. What do you guys think? Did Carroll do a good job? Could Craig have done better?

Here's another review by Wintery Knight! Check it out!

[1] Though it’s worth noting that the “too-many-arguments” objection loses force the more one hears about it, given that Craig has been giving largely the same exact arguments for years.