Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How infinity breaks a moral calculus

It has been a long time since I've blogged anything, and it's been a longer time since I've blogged anything about mathematics and its impact on theological thinking, but it has come time to change that.

The issue that started my thoughts along the present course relate to Islamic Jihad, but because I think it's a very complicated topic, I will reserve commentary on it until later. For my purposes, the odious Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) will serve as a useful point of reference, and so I will use that for the time being (largely because it's simpler than Jihadism).

The case I want to make is one I've been making ever since I saw two members of the Westboro Baptists interviewed by Russell Brand on his own show, perhaps a year ago or thereabouts, in which I finally connected with at least one of the reasons that members of the Westboro Baptist congregation are acting in love with their despicable demonstrations. You can see that interview here, if you'd like. The representatives of the church make it quite plain that their motivation is one based in love and how they arrive at that conclusion.

Before continuing, let me make a note that I am aware that it is possible, if cynical to assume, that the bottom-level motivations of the WBC may be largely financial gain, but that does not necessarily imply that the majority of the membership of the WBC believes something other than what they say. It is vastly more economical and honest simply to assume that the angry rubes believe what they say they believe.

But, But... Love?

Yes, love. I think the true-to-their-word members of the WBC are motivated to engage in all of their hatefulness out of love. No doubt this is controversial, and to unravel the apparent paradox, we have to take a diversion into the infinite.

Every number is smaller than most

One of the main themes I wanted to convey with my book Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly, published around this time last year, is that infinity is non-intuitive not just in "how it works" but also in how big it is. Even without getting to infinity, because the counting numbers, 1, 2, 3, and so on, including 0 if we like since it counts empty sets, we arrive at the mathematical fact that every number is smaller than most. Here's some of how I put it in the fifth chapter of Dot, Dot, Dot, that whole chapter being dedicated to this peculiar idea.
In English, we only have names for numbers that are conceivably useful, with some extensions using prefixes attached to -illion after a time. By the time we reach numbers with a few scores of digits, we also run out of names for them except in special cases, even if we can represent them numerically. We have a name for huge numbers like the googolplex (the number written with a one followed by the number of zeroes that is a one with one hundred zeroes after it), but what do we call, for instance, the number with one less zero than that? That idea—that we've only named numbers that are, to speak very vaguely, conceivably useful—provides the clue to finding salience in our concept of “large numbers.” We can call numbers “large” when they're relatively large given the context.

These numbers we're naming, or even the ones beyond names, though, are not large in an absolute sense as mathematical abstractions devoid of context. While one quadrillion (one thousand trillion, that is, one with fifteen zeroes following it) dollars constitutes a very large number of dollars, one quadrillion is nothing compared against the vast majority (almost all, as it turns out) of the natural numbers. If we take any “large” number, say one quadrillion, and multiply it by one hundred, the result obviously dwarfs our original “large” number by one hundred to one, casting a shadow over what it meant to be “large” in the first place. But there's no mathematical reason that we have to limit ourselves to multiplying by one hundred. We could multiply by a quadrillion, or multiply by a quadrillion a quadrillion times, by which time our original “large” number is lost in a sea of far, far larger values. When we realize that one quadrillion was chosen arbitrarily, meaning that any number, including a quadrillion multiplied by itself a quadrillion times, could replace our initial choice with the same implications, we get an idea of what is meant by every number being very small.

These abstractions are hard to understand and very high-minded, bordering on the feel of nonsense. Sometimes it is useful to try to get our heads around these numbers, but this is very difficult to do. For instance, one quadrillion is roughly the number of grains of refined, white sugar that could be hauled in 134 full-sized (53-foot) tractor-trailers. That's (kind of) a lot of sugar, but bear in mind that this number is only 1,000,000,000,000,000 in our condensed notation.

To get an idea of the size of a quadrillion multiplied by itself a quadrillion times, we'd have to have a one followed by fifteen quadrillion zeroes just to write the number in the same very condensed notation (incidentally, this number is still inconceivably smaller than the googolplex). In 12-point font on standard 8.5-inch by 11-inch paper (with one-inch margins), printed on both sides of the paper, just writing down a quadrillion multiplied by itself a quadrillion times requires a stack of papers filled entirely with zeroes roughly 250,000 kilometers thick, that is, reaching 65% of the way to the moon! Again, that's just writing the number down in a standard, somewhat condensed notation.

Bear in mind again that writing down a quadrillion merely takes roughly two inches on one line of the page and yet represents the number of grains of sugar that could be carried by a small fleet of full-sized semi-trucks. Now remember that even a ridiculously, impossible-to-understand large number like a quadrillion multiplied by itself a quadrillion times is a pittance that amounts to essentially nothing. Indeed, a number represented by a book of concatenated zeroes reaching from here to the sun or to the Andromeda Galaxy, which are hardly any distances at all, leave a quadrillion to the quadrillionth power minuscule beneath even potential notice (and are still themselves inconceivably smaller than the googolplex, which has more than a thousand quadrillion times more zeroes than the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe).

The fact of the matter is that these numbers, when bereft of real-world context, are impossible to call “large.” Indeed, they are unimaginably small. Incredibly, this smallness is a property that applies to every single number there is. Even more incredibly, this implies, as we've discussed, that against the infinite, every number is equally small, which is to say infinitely small.
In simple terms, because we have infinitely many counting numbers, and any counting number we might think of is only so big, every number is smaller than most. Think about it for a second: the biggest number you can think of has only that many numbers coming before it but infinitely many to come after it, so the proportion of numbers no bigger than your number is, to cheat for simplicity, "your number divided by infinity," which is zero (or infinitesimal). NB: Of course I know you can't divide by infinity and how this has to be understood in terms of limits, which is why I said we're cheating for simplicity.

Measuring experience

Also controversial is the idea that we can measure experience, but I think this notion has enough real-world salience to be getting on with without having to elaborate endlessly into philosophical diversion about what it means to measure experience or how it might be done. I think we all have a sense that better is better, worse is worse, and that somehow over the span of our conscious experience, more better is better, more worse is worse, and that there's some vague notion of a calculus going on here that could, in principle, account for that idea.

If we agree to run with the idea that we can measure experience, however crudely, then we have the sense of what it means to put well-being and suffering into a metric that allows us to compare various possible outcomes of conscious experience. In other words, we get a sense that "the good life" actually means something measurable. And once we agree to be able to measure the quality of conscious experience, we are ready to start discussing how infinity, in the forms of Heaven and Hell, breaks a moral calculus.

Life is finite

It seems to be uncontroversial, despite various religious beliefs to the contrary, to say that life, at least as we usually conceive of it, is finite. Whether it starts at conception, some other prenatal stage, birth, or what-have-we, it starts at some point of time. Then it ends at death, and whatever religious beliefs we might hold insisting that we do not really die, it is utterly beyond dispute to recognize that our body, the life we are currently living, starts and ends at roughly identifiable moments in time (I know, this is complicated too, but... honestly).

If our lives are finite--and they are--then the total quantity of our living conscious experience is also finite. Although it's unlikely to be real, any extension of our conscious experience beyond our lives takes place in an afterlife, which takes place after life, and thus isn't a part of it. I've said all of this, of course, to carefully navigate tiresome bullshit around an obvious point: whatever our lives entail, the total good or bad that we experience in it only adds up to so much, to a finite value.

Afterlife is (conceivably) infinite

Though not every tradition accepts this idea, many embrace the idea that Paradise, and its attendant bliss, is eternal, as are the torments of Hell. These ideas are key selling points for religions because they tap into a very human desire to avoid suffering and find bliss, whatever that might mean, and to maintain that state as long as possible. In other words, for many traditions, the good-life score of Paradise is positive infinity, and the good-life score of Hell is negative infinity. These ideas resonate immediately with people, even if they do not make sense.

So let's summarize the big points we've established so far:
  1. Living conscious experience is finite;
  2. Afterlife conscious experience is alleged to be infinite, usually polarized to perfect goodness or absolute badness; and
  3. Every (finite) number is smaller than most.
Infinity breaks a moral calculus

Surely you already see it, then. If someone absolutely accepts and believes in the ideas of a literal Heaven or Hell, with its attendant infinite reward or limitless misery, then that person has introduced into his moral calculus an element that completely outweighs any and all living experience, no matter how good or bad it might be. Once we tack on various dogmas and other supertruths concerning what merits someone admittance into Paradise or condemns them to the Fire, we have on our hands a moral calculus that can only admit one path to ethical reasoning: that which maximizes the chances of someone going to Paradise and/or avoiding Hell maximizes good.

Let that sink in for a moment. For a member of the Westboro Baptist Church who truly believes that homosexuality is a sure condemnation to Hell, no amount of suffering by any number of homosexual, bisexual, or other decent people--no amount at all--compares with the suffering of even one of them going to Hell, or instead, repenting of their "sin" and reaching Paradise. If a Westboro Baptist congregant follows Jesus' instructions to love one another, even those they find loathsome, the only loving course is to do everything, no matter how heinous, to try to change even one of their minds. In other words, for all their hate, it is entirely possible that their real motivation is love, and the reason is that their moral calculus is completely perverted by pretenses on the infinite.

All life is finite

This isn't redundant. This is the state of affairs that motivates both the WBC and the Jihadis that I started out talking about. It isn't that this person, that homosexual, the other sinner, or whoever, lives a finite life. It's that we all live a finite life. Add finite to finite to finite to finite for as many as you want, so long as that amount is actually a "many," i.e. also finite, and what you end up with is still finite. That is, to be specific, the aggregate experience of all seven-point-some-odd billion of us and the billions more to come is finite, which is to say that it is smaller than most values.

Especially, it is smaller than infinity, obviously and by definition. So, if the torment for a single person in Hell is infinite, or the reward for a single of the Saved in Paradise is infinite, untold, unimaginable suffering in the lives of every single living human present and future literally doesn't matter in comparison. On a moral calculus that includes infinite reward or infinite punishment, literally any amount of suffering inflicted upon any number of people (and animals) is perfectly justified and can be said to be motivated by love if the goal of the behavior inflicting that suffering is to bring even one person into the proposed right way to believe to earn Paradise and avoid the Fire. Read that sentence again.

People believe this

The question, then, is whether or not anyone in the world actually believes such things, and I believe that question has an obvious and resounding affirmative answer. The Inquisition said it was motivated by that very belief, for instance, and on the Russell Brand show, the representatives of Westboro Baptist affirmed it. Along with a particular complication, it is likely that the "extreme" end of Jihadis all embrace this peculiar vision of the universe as well. That is, not only do I think people believe these ideas; I believe a lot of them do.

Take, for instance, this short piece, written a few days ago on the CEMB, Ex-Muslim, forum by "Toona," who describes his upbringing in a Jihadist environment. He describes exactly what I've been trying to tell people at least for the last year, what people like Sam Harris have been going on about for more than a decade: people really believe in moral calculi involving infinite reward and punishment and use the resulting warped motivations to be as nearly perfectly horrible as human beings can be.

Jihadism

I said from the outset that Jihadism is a little more complicated than the case of the WBC, and the reason is the specific character of the doctrines of martyrdom in Jihadist Islam (or really, in Islam generally, not that everyone believes all of them). Those characters provide the martyr with specific benefits, benefits that "Toona" rightly identifies as being selfish motivations. The martyr gets a more glorious road to Paradise; the martyr gets special rewards in Paradise; the martyr secures a direct path to Paradise for many of his chosen kin (this last point probably being the most alluring, even more than the alleged "72 virgins" thing, for a variety of well-established psychosocial reasons).

What that means is that Jihadism is slightly more complicated via a self-serving element than the twisted other-serving idea of love that the representatives of the WBC painted for Russell Brand (though I suspect there are self-serving reasons contained within the WBC's approach as well--like that God will punish those who don't take every opportunity to try to save others from hellfire by whatever means might be necessary). That doesn't remove the other-serving notions within Jihadism, though, as "Toona" makes clear for us:
Think about it like this: the eternal fate of just one person is a far more important matter than the temporary suffering of the thousands of people that are killed in these attacks. I would rather save one person from being tortured in the worst way possible for trillions and trillions of years than to prevent the premature death of the thousands of lives that are lost in these attacks. The idea of eternal hell was so terrible that everything else paled in comparison.
What to do about it

The first and most important thing to do when it comes to dealing with religious beliefs of infinite reward and punishment, and the right and wrong ways to find or avoid them, is to stop pretending people don't believe them or that they're not legitimately part of the religions that teach them, a favorite hobby-horse of the Left. People do, and once people believe them, their moral calculus is skewed by them in a way that follows perfectly logically from even a childlike understanding of the infinite. The results are predictable, and the ways we can deal with it when it arises (e.g. with ISIS) are limited.

Another thing to do is realize that these people aren't bad people at the level of their motivations. Their motivations are "good." It's the moral reasoning informing those motivations that is skewed, and it is skewed by unsupported beliefs. Those beliefs are always held on faith, and so one extremely important thing to do is to continue to help people realize that faith is not a reliable way to support a belief. (This, of course, will not be terribly effective on most extremists and will have to work from the outside inward, but acknowledging that fact doesn't negate the importance of this action as much as beg for a strategic way to employ it.)

If we realize where these people are coming from, we're more likely to be able to successfully help them out of their faith. So long as we persist in pretending that people's beliefs cannot be that erroneous, we're likely to be hopeless, left reacting to reactionaries we refuse to understand.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The moral angle of apologetics for the philosophy of religion

I, along with John Loftus and Peter Boghossian, with Jerry Coyne too, have been saying for a while now that the philosophy of religion isn't just on the rocks, it's a field that needs to lose academic respectability. It is, as I like to put it, theology in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.

The primary reason I think we should see the philosophy of religion this way is summarized best by something that Keith Parsons, a philosopher deeply involved with it, said a few years ago, quoted here by Dan Fincke from January 2011. Parsons wrote,
One of the things the really active conservative Christians covet enormously, more than anything else, is intellectual respectability. And they think they have found it in some of the arguments from these philosophers of religion.
This, indeed, is a problem, and I think secular philosophers of religion, probably unwittingly, encourage it. That the philosophy of religion as a recognizable subdiscipline of philosophy only dates to post-WWII, as John Loftus has pointed out, quoting philosopher (of religion) Graham Oppy from his recent interview that really got this ball rolling, drives home this point further. Theology's alleged philosophical renaissance, which William Lane Craig is proud to note whenever he gets the chance, seems to have been part and parcel of the ascendance of the separate identification philosophy of religion. (We should note that all theology has is "philosophy," or pseudo-philosophy, as Richard Carrier puts it.)

At any rate, John's estimable and ambitious series is underway, having changed from a five-part series to a six-part, to keep it more digestible. Those parts can be found here:
These are worth taking a look at, and I think they will constitute a nontrivial part of the cultural shift away from giving religious views undeserved respect by breaking the spell that lets them pretend that they are properly academic topics. (Nota bene: Strictly speaking, they are academic, by definition, but they're not properly so as they do not hook properly to reality while pretending that they do. Investigating fiction, which is obviously somehow separate from reality, is properly academic, as is studying reality itself, but conflating the two endeavors isn't properly academic. It's solipsistic sophistry playing professor. I see theology, and by extension a very wide swath of the philosophy of religion, as being pseudo-academic, much like an elaborate philosophical inquiry into the nature of spells and magical artifacts in Dungeons and Dragons would be.)

The purpose of my present post is to mention something I made in a comment on Part Two of John's series and elaborate upon it a bit. In brief, I think that apologists for the philosophy of religion utilize a value, which is to say a moral case, to defend the field's sense of legitimacy, and I think this is likely to be a bad way to justify this direction of study. Thus, I want to present and question that value. I wrote,
I think they [apologists for the philosophy of religion] work very hard to create a moral position out of one idea in particular: We should always engage the best arguments for a philosophical position. They turn this concept, as I said, into a matter of moral reckoning, which is to say into a (false?) virtue, which is to say something to be valued "for its own sake" (scare quotes because I don't accept the validity of that line of moral reasoning, but others do). With a value like this, they are influential in effecting the goal [of providing a sense of legitimacy to the philosophy of religion], which is making people care about PoR when ... they shouldn't. (emphasis added)
I want to question that highlighed assumption. Should we always engage the best arguments for a philosophical position, at the risk of being bad or unfair to the field in question if we do not?

This, by the way, seems to be the main appeal made by secular philosopher of religion Paul Draper and his amateur acolytes, who have significant online presence and tend to beat people over the head with this assumption, insisting that anyone who fails to apply this maxim is a bad or disingenuous academic, even a partisan or an apologist (quelle ironic).

I, of course, think we should do this, as seems obvious, but only when it is appropriate. Thus, it isn't the academic value itself but the scope of its application that I am really questioning.

The relevant distinction is one that is outlined by the Courtier's Reply, which I feel apologists for the philosophy of religion are giving, despite their denial. They insist that the only way to understand whether questions about theism--a central concern of the philosophy of religion--are valid is to consider them on their own terms and giving them at least equal attention as arguments for naturalism (my thoughts about that here). The principle in question doesn't immediately seem to qualify as a Courtier's Reply, but I think it applies. Specifically, as the Rational Wiki puts it,
Denunciation of this particular fallacy [the Courtier's Reply], however, is quite easy to misuse. Whenever one is told to read more about a subject that he disagrees on, it is easy to accuse one's contradictors of giving a "Courtier's Reply". The element of the Courtier's Reply that is being forgotten here is that it asks the questioner to "read more" about a subject that begs the question. (emphasis original)
Thus, I need to convince anyone who will believe me that the maxim as applied to theism, that we should treat it seriously, begs the question. I don't think this is actually controversial anymore, though. Since, as Loftus puts it--and I agree--what underlies theism is bogus, even taking theism seriously in philosophical terms is begging the question (while insisting it isn't). Loftus writes,
[T]here are some uncontested facts about faith that secular philosophers should teach their students, such as, faith isn't a legitimate answer to these questions and that all arguments on behalf of religion are nothing more than special pleading. Basing something on faith or logical fallacies is simply not teaching students correctly. (bold added to a claim Loftus has defended numerous times on his blogs and in his books)
And he goes on,
The primary reason is that faith has no basis, and secondarily because there is no reason to invite faith into a state run secular university. We are proposing to teach the truth to students. 
And he quotes Peter Boghossian with his own annotation,
Educators have given faith-based claims preferential treatment. In the classrooms "It is taken for granted that faith-based claims are invulnerable to criticism and immune from further questioning" in the so-called "soft sciences" like sociology, philosophy, anthropology, etc. "This intellectual rigor mortis is not allowed to occur across all disciplines." In the hard sciences like mathematics, chemistry and biology "challenging claims and questioning reasoning processes are 'intrinsic to what it means to teach students to reason effectively'." So Boghossian says, "This needs to end" (p. 188). Educators in all disciplines of learning should grant faith based conclusions "no countenance. Do not take faith claims seriously. Let the utterer know that faith is not an acceptable basis from which to draw a conclusion that can be relied upon" (p. 189).
Really putting it plain, Loftus wrote in the first part of his series,
To teach it correctly the professor should tell the truth about the lack of epistemic status of faith. Faith has no intellectual merit. It is not a virtue. It has no method. It solves no problems. It is not worthy of thinking people.
On that basis, and others like it, it is very difficult to see the matter of theism as something to treat seriously as a philosophical object. We shouldn't. It is a theological object, and theology is only "pseudo-philosophical," as Carrier puts it, and pseudo-academic, as I outlined above. No one is required to take such a thing seriously or engage its "best" arguments, as if it has any, as if the real contenders haven't already been dealt with thoroughly and repeatedly, and as if any argument stands up to the simple and straightforward question that's been waiting for them all along: "Where's the evidence?"

But because the idea that we should engage any position's best case is generally true in philosophy proper, and all academic debate, it is an easy value to turn into a false virtue. The principle simply doesn't apply here because theology is pseudo-academic, though. Misapplying it as a false virtue, a moral value defining a particular kind of thinker, I think, is exactly what apologists for the philosophy of religion are doing, and I think it constitutes a confusing and unproductive avenue in the conversation that should not continue.

Friday, August 1, 2014

At the end of reason lies an invitation to pretend

Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins,” Stanford anthropology professor T.M. Luhrmann wrote for the July 26 edition of the New York Times Sunday Review, in an apparent attempt to articulate where, or perhaps why, we should simply throw in the towel and give up the quest for knowledge. “FAITH,” introduced in all capital letters by Luhrmann, offers the invitation not just for us to extend ourselves beyond the limits of reason, where those exist, but also so that we can pretend facts don't matter when it comes to clarifying what “really matters to us,” and how it might be accessible by contemplating the “ridiculous,” like “bikinis on the out-of-shape.”

INFORMED SKEPTICISM, not faith, asks people to consider that the evidence of their senses (and biases of their thought processes) is wrong. It is faith, however that asks people to “believe that their minds are not always private; that persons are not always visible; that unseen presences should alter your emotions and direct your behavior; that reality is good and justice triumphant.” And informed skepticism should raise a red flag on every one of those things, not just because they are wildly improbable—and it doesn't matter that Luhrmann notes that people often recognize the unlikeliness of their patently dubious beliefs because it is common that they are accepted uncritically—but because every one of them is laced with the potential for consequential failure.

There's something more insidious than the usual kind of sinister in believing that the contents of our minds are not always private, something Orwell spoke to lucidly, even if his dystopian landscapes now lie mostly beyond our “boggle line.” Even without taking into account the potential for real and exploitable paranoia—that NSA story is still big, isn't it, and how many "false flags" do we have left to hear about this year?—even without that, there is nothing glamorous, eloquent, or comforting about the idea of inescapable surveillance that penetrates even into the most secret recesses of our mental lives. Much, indeed possibly all, of our mental activity lies outside of our conscious or moral control, and faith asks us to accept a tower of guilt for all of it, built brick by brick on a superficially comforting and politically useful lie. Indeed, since this invitation to imminent supervision is hinged upon judgment upon the contents of our minds, and of our own doom as a result, the invitation is menacing and thus despicable, the kind of trick a flailing parent at his wit's end or smarmy huckster would try to pass off in a desperate attempt to wheedle control over another.

For all in it that isn't yet more superintendence, there's nearly nothing worth commenting upon concerning the invitation faith sends to believe in invisible persons, though, for besides being silly, it isn't clear what anyone should do with it. Such invisible persons aren't only invisible, they are plainly powerless, indistinguishable from blind luck in their efficacy upon our fortuity. Asking someone to pretend such helpful, or in some cases harmful, invisible agents are there, presumably to sway the circumstances around them, is inviting them to pretend that there might be help when there is none.

It is enticing, admittedly, to consider the idea that unseen presences, perhaps persons and perhaps not, can alter our emotions and behavior, not least because it is partly true. The myriad unseen influences, both internal and external, that can, as J.K. Rowling put it in the mouth of Hogwart's potions master Severus Snape, “ensnare the mind and bewitch the senses” are complicated and often intractable. Faith asks us to believe things about them, though, that anyone who disparages deception should reject. If we are to live carefully and intelligently, spurning the spurious and seeking to get things right, we must be vigilant to skip the invitation to ascribe attributions that lie outside of what we can know to the phenomena we experience.

Included in that vein, of course, our want for goodness and justice is of profound worth and should be encouraged, but it is an unctuous invitation to shirk our moral accountability to each other to believe that these forces are built into the fabric of reality. They are not. They are up to us, both as human constructs and as constructs important to humanity. We cannot take the lure of the easy road, of setting them aside for the universe, or some imagined God, to sort out on its own, for those are the very seeds of moral evil and abject injustice, seeds that reliably bear the most rotten fruits on the most twisted vines.

If God, imaginary or not, is unknowable, then we are under an intellectual and moral obligation not to make believe otherwise. “Many struggle, at one point or another, particularly in a pluralistic, science-sophisticated society, with the despair that it all might be a sham,” Luhrmann insightfully notes about religious belief, somehow missing that, so far as we can honestly profess to know, it is all a sham. She muses, following Soren Kierkegaard, that “if faith is...a leap into the unknown, perhaps being clear about what is foolish makes people feel safer about where that leap might land them,” but fails to note that accepting claims of truth on faith is itself foolish, on the far side of the contemporary default for the boggle line.

What faith asks of us is to set aside and surrender our better judgment, our caution, and our reasonably informed skepticism of the mountains of bull and sinkholes of bias that surround us. The place where reason ends is not where faith begins. The place where reason ends is where questions and hard work reside, and faith asks us to skip those responsibilities to ourselves, each other, and our future generations, to put up our feet and pretend, pretend, pretend they don't matter.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The end of the philosophy of religion is coming

John W. Loftus, author of a such estimable books as Why I Became an Atheist and The Outsider Test for Faith has called on his blog for the end of the philosophy of religion and has begun to do so in a clear, concise, and organized fashion, starting with part 1 (of 5) here: On Ending the Philosophy of Religion Discipline. Give it a look. The guard is changing, and it's about time.

I will probably be adding thoughts to this as it develops, but for now, I'm just getting the ball rolling by linking to John's fabulous beginning.

For those who don't realize, John Loftus is a former preacher who was training to be a Christian apologist, and he holds three masters degrees in fields related to religious studies and philosophy (of religion). That is, he's an excellent candidate for rallying this charge.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Understanding Richard Dawkins's controverisal "mild" tweets in under one minute

Trigger warnings or something: sexual assault, including on children.

A short, poignant, Socratic thought experiment to clarify two of Richard Dawkins's recent controversial tweets by exposing important nuance in an issue that isn't exactly black and white. Play at your own risk. Abusive, inappropriate, and disruptive commentary, deemed by my sole and personal discretion, will not be tolerated on this post.


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Imagine you've been captured by a sadistic maniac, and he insists you will be sexually assaulted. But to make it more fun for him, he demands you choose the manner of your own rape, provided only that whatever you choose is truly unwelcome to you, on threat of far worse if you abstain or try to cheat. What would you choose?
Congratulations, you now understand "mild rape."
Pause for a moment to decide if you are condoning rape by choosing any possible outcome that recognizes that there are, indeed, worse possibilities.
Congratulations, you now understand Richard Dawkins's "mild rape" tweet.

Now replace yourself in the above scenario with any child who is to be sexually assaulted in some way. This child need not necessarily be your own. For purposes of the thought experiment, the choice is yours, knowing it defaults to worse than the absolute worst thing you can imagine for the child if you abstain or try to cheat. What do you do?
Congratulations, you now understand "mild pedophilia."
Pause for a moment to decide if you are condoning the sexual assault of the child by choosing any possible outcome that recognizes that there are, indeed, worse possibilities.

Congratulations, you now understand Richard Dawkins's "mild pedophilia" tweet.
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Post script: If you remain angry at the use of the word mild for something you feel is universally horrible, I hear you. Within the universe of [universally horrible thing], though, what word other than "mild" applies to the least severe end of the spectrum of its possible manifestations?

Nota bene: The point of this exercise was not to explain why Richard Dawkins chose the examples that he did, neither to defend nor excoriate those choices. That's a separate matter. I urge you to read Michael Nugent's recent, short, and levelheaded post on the entire matter, which touches upon those issues amongst other important, germane ones, including the very big point, "But yesterday has also shown yet again how some people can use online media to unfairly harm the reputation of a good person."


Edit: The wording of this post has been altered from its original very slightly to increase clarity by removing a superfluous parenthetical.

William Lane Craig talking bizarro

Yesterday morning, I woke up to find that someone had sent me William Lane Craig's most recent Q&A piece on his website, Reasonable Faith. It's question #380, Bizarro Ontological Arguments, and I encourage you to read it here on your own because I don't want to reproduce almost any of it here but do want you to know why I'm saying what I'm saying.

In very short, a question comes in from an "agnostic undergraduate philosophy student," a topic that in general could merit a couple of chapters in a book about the sinister relationship between philosophy and theology, and asks about "ontological" arguments for God's existence, which Richard Dawkins correctly identified in The God Delusion as being word games that don't consider a single datum from reality. Ontological arguments for God basically provide a definition of God and then an argument that the thing being called God must exist for some "metaphysically necessary" reason. This question is specifically about the modal ontological argument, which is probably a waste of time in every regard unless someone is studying modal logic and wants to understand why it doesn't matter when it comes to something like the existence of God (though this second part is often ignored).

Craig answers in his typical fashion, all pomp and no circumstance, starting off this way, which is most of what I'll need to share to make my brief comments at the end.
It’s admittedly very difficult for the theist to provide any proof of the key premiss [sic] in the ontological argument, to wit
1. It is possible that a maximally great being (aka God) exists.
For that reason, Plantinga thought initially, at least, that the argument, though sound, is not “a successful piece of natural theology.” Nevertheless, Plantinga rightly insisted that the argument does show that belief in God’s existence is perfectly rational. For the person who accepts (1) is being entirely reasonable in his modal judgments. I think that counts as success in justifying a “reasonable faith.” For that reason I usually simply leave it to my audience to answer the question, “Do you think that it’s possible that God exists?” The concept of maximal greatness or of a maximally great being (a being that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent in every possible world) seems perfectly coherent and therefore possible.
A few quick comments before moving on.
  1. One of the themes of Dot, Dot, Dot, my second book, was arguing that I don't think it is at all clear what "maximally great being" means or that such a thing is possible. In short, neither within the finite or the infinite do we find any mathematical reason to suggest that there is a point that is "maximally great." There is a way that seems to be able to be reconciled, but it's just weird and, like everything else Godly, ad hoc and smarmy.
  2. It looks like Craig relies upon an appeal to ignorance in arguing for God, something of the possible, therefore..., line, and that he isn't ashamed to admit it.
  3. I want to draw your attention to (as I will comment later), "I think that counts as success in justifying a 'reasonable faith.'"
I really can't bring myself to quote any more of Craig's claptrap here (including the part where he brings up Bizarro Superman, hence my title), so if you want to see what I'm talking about, please look for yourself. He goes on an on about metaphysical possibility and metaphysical necessity--the working objects of modal philosophy, after all--throughout the piece, bringing it up something like ten times in only a few hundred words. Granted, it's central to the topic at hand, but the point I want to make more broadly is that it isn't central to anything else. In fact, other than as a philosophical exercise, it's probably apropos of nothing.

I draw two things from this commentary on Craig's Q&A. Those, the clearest lessons I can think to draw from this, are
1. "Reason" is not enough
We must have good reasons to believe our ideas hook to reality, which doesn't fly for ideas just because we can think them and find them coherent, or even that they're metaphysically possible or necessary. Craig's qualifier for "reasonable faith" seems to be that faith can be come to by reason (so long as someone starts in the right place, which is, really, at faith). Reason, though, in this context is just what leads us from a set of premises to a set of conclusions, along with some speculating about the premises themselves. This isn't enough. To really get at reality, which is not necessarily the goal of thinking but is the goal of thinking about reality, one's premises must be far more solid than anything theology has to provide (Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit?! Sensus divinitatis?! Come on! Give me a break!).

2. We really shouldn't trust anyone who appeals to metaphysical importance. 
Those people are talking about ideas, and the importance means "important to this set of ideas following from certain presuppositions," or, in the case of Christians, "important to the way I make sense of the world, and necessary for these ideas to be coherent." They don't necessarily have anything to do with reality at all, and we shouldn't trust people who are confused on this point.

Honestly, I hope this young philosophy undergraduate, who identifies as "agnostic" and yet felt it appropriate to contact William Lane Craig, perhaps the world's most notorious Christian apologist, for philosophical answers, is not bamboozled by ideas alone and dodges the trap he seems to be trying to avoid.

Some concerns about "Atheist TV"

Immediate honesty: I've got a number of projects going on right now and have not had the time to properly investigate this "Atheist TV" thing, produced by American Atheists, that is supposed to start today. I will try to make my commentary general, then, and am asking not to be blasted in the comments for a lack of due diligence before saying something--I already know. I'm just voicing some concerns about the general concept.

More honesty: I don't enjoy watching television and haven't done so in any meaningful way in over a decade, so I will not be watching "Atheist TV" even as a "homework" assignment. I have no inclination to watch television, part of this being wrapped up in my concerns about Atheist TV. (And I know this puts me significantly out of touch with the TV-watching public.)

That said, let me point out that I have a few concerns about "Atheist TV," which starts broadcasting today, ostensibly with the goal of increasing visibility of atheists and their ideas while providing entertaining and informative programming for this growing demographic of people. Providing funding for American Atheists seems reasonable to guess is a goal of the channel as well, which if correct is a significant source of its own obvious concerns.

Religious TV

The first and most obvious one is about a worry that it will be done horribly, horribly wrong. I write this, to make an analogy, in full mind of my experiences growing up (late teens and early twenties) watching TBN/CBN (Trinity/Christian Broadcasting Network--the channel 700 Club (recognizable as Pat Robertson) comes on). I don't know how much that channel did to undermine my Christian beliefs, but it certainly made me realize how wingnut and awful Christian beliefs can be, and that right alongside the fact that it can be broadcast in a sense that constitutes a highly effective money-raking and propaganda machine. In short, I was horrified by that channel.

Given our ages, my brother and I would watch TBN, sometimes for hours at a stretch, in rather the same way that someone not indoctrinated to it might watch FOX News now. (I'd compare this to watching horror films, but that's not right because it is much more apparent that those films are fictional and don't usually make someone angry.) In fact, my brother and I would play "TBN Olympics," which involved watching TBN together until one of us lost it and started yelling at the television. Whoever yelled first lost and had to do some trivial favor for the other. The yelling, incidentally, almost always sprung up for us during the creationism shows that I think existed to fund the establishment of the Creation Museum Theme Park in Kentucky. The parallel to this will be discussed below and truly terrifies me.

At any rate, at its worst, Atheism TV could effectively be religious TV for the non-religious, with all the attendant problems. One of those is that instead of serving the goal of making atheists more visible and approachable to religious people, it could make us look like a cloistered bunch of something... (angry, science-promoting, religion-trashing, argumentative snobs, to lay out my biggest fear).

Echo Chamber

Another concern is that a television station dedicated purely to atheisty content--whatever that is--will set up an echo-chamber effect whereby what appears most is that which is self-congratulatory to ourselves. It also makes an open door to pushing the various ideologies--yes, ideologies--that are becoming more and more readily identifiable with brand "Atheism," which should not even be a brand.

This could be my ignorance, not really knowing the mission of the television station or how it will manifest, but I find it hard to imagine what would go on "Atheism TV" other than this kind of programming, which will mostly be interesting only to those who are already atheists (and considered like Heathen Broadcasting Network to those who aren't). The oft-repeated analogy that "atheism is a religion like 'off' is a television channel" springs to mind immediately and rather horrifyingly because Atheist TV is the opposite of off.

This raises the point about the audience, which is also a concern. Humans are very ideological beasts, and we're very keen on finding that which confirms what we already think. The natural audience for Atheist TV is exactly people looking for that kind of confirmation, something that careful and reflective people should be on guard for, not welcoming.

Guilt by Association

However well it is done, there are certain members of the community at large (meaning everyone, not the peculiar and misguided idea going by the horrible monicker "the atheist community") who absolutely see atheism as a religion and an ideology. This television channel will encourage that error, absolutely and undoubtedly, no matter how often or perfectly anyone, including the people on it, denies it. This, by the way, alone would distinguish Atheism TV from something aimed more broadly as secular and/or educational television in a way that I think can only be thought of as problematic.

Particularly, what this will lead to, almost completely reliably, is that whatever kind of programming ends up on Atheist TV will be seen as a part of the "atheist ideology," one that not only competes with, say, Christianity, but that is anathema to it. This runs a serious risk, particularly in the vein of science programming (which people seem to hope runs on Atheist TV), of widening and deepening the gorge between people of faith and their acceptance science. If they see science even more plainly as being associated with atheism, which they already associate with evil, that's not a win for Atheist TV or for humanity.

A plain and simple unintended consequence of promoting science under the banner of atheism is that it will make those who distrust atheists (both as people and as a "religion") distrust science even more than they already do. This is the parallel to my youthful rage at creationism television shows being on TBN. Imagine young Christians watching actual science programming on Atheist TV and raging at it, as a game even. I don't know if it will happen, but the potential is there for this to be part of the fallout of Atheist TV.

I don't know how this needle can be threaded, if it can be at all. This one is pretty substantial, and it extends beyond just science denialism among the conservative factions of evangelical Christianity (and the rest of it where it threatens belief directly). It extends into the political as well, particularly since we have many outspoken atheists (some of whom will be all-but-certain regular faces on the channel) who are overtly identifiable with liberalism (or worse, progressive leftism, which often gets mistaken for liberalism). This runs a serious risk of creating a greater political rift in the United States between the conservative religious and everyone else and will fuel--not harm--their fundraising campaigns while providing them with ample fodder for candidates to whip up a heady froth in their base.

(Of note, not all atheists are anything like enlightened in their political views, though they often think otherwise. As atheism utterly lacks any substance of its own--it is a position marked only be disbelief in one kind of thing--the gap is always, always filled with other actual things, science, "reason," politics, and whatever else. It's inextricable from pushing atheism as a thing because atheism is not a thing.)

Star power 

Star power is already a huge problem within "the atheism movement," one serious enough to make us all pause to reconsider if having an organized "atheism movement" is a good idea at all (I think it is not). It's also a problem that shouldn't exist, in the ideal, but must because we're still humans and still use reputation as a major source of social valuation. Star power translates directly into jockeying for fame and position, which is awesome for encouraging pettiness, among other more serious social problems.

I find it hard to talk about this without being potentially unfair and harsh to particular individuals, though, so I will not say more about it.

Television and Greed in General

I have a friend that works in television for one of the "educational" channels that frequently gets mocked now for being nothing like educational. Whatever the intentions of Atheist TV, it will be competing for attention with everything else out there. Since programming costs money, this competition can get both pretty fierce and, in the financial sense, necessary at some point or on some level, and that's where my friend's perspective really comes out to play.

My friend once explained to me the priorities in television programming decisions, among other things, while asking me questions for a show they were planning to make (and did make, as it turns out) because I happened to be quite knowledgeable about the particular topic that he was assigned to "do research" upon for the show (scare quotes to imply the usual plus a reason to be scared, truth be told). To summarize his point, "sexy" is the only word that matters, taking that to be construed broadly--beautiful locations, beautiful people, exotic, boundary-pushing, risky, and so on. Other things of seemingly relevant value like quality, accuracy, and truthfulness were, on his radar, almost immaterial when it came to what goes on television. They are, in the television business, he explained, selling images.

This leads us to see (combined also with what will constitute a swath of "star power"--beautiful, edgy, flippant, over-the-top, figureheaded, etc.) that if Atheist TV ends up (by greed or necessity) going the way of much of television, we can expect something not too far from a caricature of "atheism," as if it is a thing, though the caricature definitely will be, being publicly passed off and broadcast for what actually represents people who don't believe in any gods. This is another narrow ledge for Atheist TV to tread, and whatever they think, they don't have Gandalf pulling any strings for them in the quest.

Could Be Done

I don't say this all in gloom and doom. It could be done. It could work. It might be only of enough interest to attract people who are seeking exactly this kind of material on the Internet anyway, in which case it is hardly different from what's already going on except that it's put into a single stream with some program direction behind it. My mom tells me that one of my peculiar talents is in finding lots of possible ways things could go wrong and then over-thinking them, after all, so I may be speaking far too soon.

I'm saying, to be clear, though, that I have some pretty serious concerns with the concept of "Atheist TV" in general, and I personally cannot imagine any way for them to thread the needle and walk the tightrope in front of them without falling into the chasm of unintended consequences.