Sam Harris, Science, and Morality

I suppose I’m going to preface this post with praise before I get to the criticism of Sam Harris that will follow, even though it seems odd that I should do that.  I guess spending all your time in academia puts you in a certain kind of headspace, that being that you don’t take it as a personal attack when someone criticizes you.  Moreover, you respond to the actual substance of the criticisms and not odd strawmen when you formulate your replies.  That’s not a stab at Harris at all.  I don’t know that he’d react that way to this, and I doubt he’ll actually read it.  Still, I have learned all too well from doing this blog that, often, the people you critique pay less attention to the substance of your criticisms than the mere fact that you criticize some position they hold at all.  Eh…Oh well.  To Sam, and everyone else who reads this, I like your work a lot, and this post should not be seen as reaching beyond its stated subject matter.

Sam Harris recently did a TED talk.  That’s it posted to the right.  The title of the talk is “Science can answer moral questions.”  In that talk he suggested said lots of things, but the main point was, as one can see by the title, that there is nothing to prevent science from addressing moral questions, that morality is not something different in kind from the other things that science examines.  He also posted a response to some of the early comments on that talk, which can be found here.  This post is a critique of that talk and commentary.

At the beginning of his talk, Harris says something quite strange.  He is concerned, at this point, with why we feel the tug of moral obligations in regards to some things, like other people, but not to other things, like rocks.  He says that we don’t feel obligations toward rocks because they can’t suffer. While that might be how someone would justify that, I don’t think that’s at all the right explanation for our not feeling sympathy for rocks but feeling it for other animals, and I think the better explanation we have comes from science, particularly evolutionary psychology. It just turns out that we evolved to cooperate with things like us. Sympathy fosters that kind of cooperation. For that reason we feel sympathy toward things we deem like ourselves.  In that light, we feel the greatest sympathy toward our family, then our tribe, then other humans, then animals most like us, then less like us, and on down to rocks. One easy way to demonstrate this is to trick ourselves into feeling sympathy for something that cannot possibly suffer by playing on those evolved intuitions that guide said sympathies. The easiest way to do this is to anthropomorphize something, anything. I’ll point to the movie AI as an intuition pump, here. Put aside the main robot child, as the whole movie is concerned with whether or not that entity is a person, and think of the other robots in the movie. I’d suggest that that there were not many who watched the film who did not feel deep sympathy for the various robots destroyed throughout the movie. There is a particular scene where a robot that looks little like a human at all beyond a holographic female face is destroyed at the “Flesh Fair.”  The fact that the robot is destroyed with a smile on its face only heightens the feeling the audience has that the robot is a person.  While there is little to indicate anything like suffering going on there, I think most people feel sympathy for that robot, and, indeed, find the entire scene dark and slightly disturbing.  But, of course, it would only be disturbing if the robots were, in fact, the kind of things capable of suffering, and there is little to nothing to indicate anything of the kind.  The point there, of course, is that none of those objects were persons, could be said to suffer, etc. If you disagree, then you’re only proving my point. Put a smiley face on a toaster and have it talk to you, and soon you’ll worry about whether or not it’s in pain when it breaks. And that’s exactly because our sympathies here are the result of "gut feelings" rather than rational deliberation.  We have evolved to feel sympathy toward things that look like us, and this is the source of that sympathy, not some rational deliberation about whether or not things have the ability to suffer in some recognizable way.

The fact is that suffering has long been a problem in philosophy of mind in general.  How do we know anything suffers?  We need to rely on behaviors.  But, of course, the suffering is not to be found in the behaviors themselves.  We can and have created machines that exhibit some of the same behaviors that generally indicate suffering, but no one genuinely thinks that any such thing is occurring.  Mental states just can’t be cashed out in terms of behaviors.  So what are they?  Well, they’re brain states of some sort.  But that does not really answer the question, either, as, were brain states identical to mental states, this would mean something that does not have a brain state identical to the ones people have when in pain were not really in pain at all.  To highlight this, think of meeting an alien.  As it slides down the walkway from its ship, it cuts its tentacle-like appendage.  As it does so, it quickly withdraws that appendage, makes some loud exclamation that is interpreted as a curse, and, in English, says, “Wow, that hurts.”  I think most people would think that creature was really in pain.  And, yet, it surely would have nothing like the brain states we would recognize.  There are ways around this, but the result is that, when we push on it, it is just really hard to say what is and is not in pain.  Once we move to other species, if we are honest, it’s just harder to feel justified in such a claim.  Do chimps feel pain?  Almost certainly.  Do dogs feel pain?  Pretty sure.  Do frogs feel pain?  Uuhhh…  Do flies feel pain?  No idea whatsoever.

The point of all that is just we don’t really have a good way to talk about suffering in other animals.  As such, suggesting we can get around the obvious problem of relying on our guts as guides to sympathy by attempting to ground it in a rational examination of suffering is incredibly problematic.  For these reasons, I just think Harris gets this wrong.

Another big issue I have to raise with Harris is his assertion in the video that "there is no notion, no version, of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not, at some point, reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes."  Man, that is just wrong. Really, only utilitarianism is concerned, at bottom, with that kind of thing. He is certainly wrong, contrary to his explicit assertion otherwise, about the morality that comes out of the big three monotheisms. Worse, I don’t know how he could think otherwise. I really don’t know where he’s coming from on this as it is prima facie not the case, and he does nothing to explain how things could be different from that sort of perspective. In those religions, what makes something good is that it is the result of a will that is in line with God’s.  That is, in order for some action to be moral, it must be the result of a person intending to do what God has commanded.  Of course, how that gets carried out in specific circumstances might be very complicated, but that is the core idea.  Harris seems to miss that entirely as this is a radically different standard for what makes something moral than the description he offers.

So, what kind of changes in conscious experiences are relevant to morality?  According to Harris, they are the ones that lead to increases or decreases in well-being and suffering.  That is, it is good to increase well-being and decrease suffering, and it is bad to decrease well-being and increase suffering.  We can think of these two things being aspects of something like happiness.  In that way, for Harris, being moral increases happiness, and being immoral decreases happiness.  But, again, I need to point out that this is just utilitarianism.  While such a position might be popular, it is hardly the only ethical system out there, and, as many of its big proponents will admit, it is not clear that such a standard is objective in the way that Harris claims.  Even people like Peter Singer have admitted that it’s hard to ground utilitarianism in something beyond tastes and preferences.  (Russell Blackford, funny enough, discusses this in relation to Harris’ talk over at his blog, which you should be reading anyway.)  That is, we can say what makes something moral once we accept acting morally as being something like increasing happiness.  But as to why one should actually act that way, well, it is hard to say beyond the suggestion that it is likely to increase happiness, and that means the one acting morally is more likely to be happy.  So, if you value happiness, promote happiness.  But if you do not already value happiness, then it is tough to say why one should promote it.

Harris suggests what makes something good for a Christian is that it brings you happiness after death, but that’s not true at all. I know of no Christian thinker that thinks anything like that, nor any Muslim, and it does not even look like most Jews believe in any sort of afterlife at all, so it clearly cannot work there.  It might be that getting one’s will in line with God’s results in getting into Heaven, but that is certainly not the goal, and it is not even the kind of thing that can be earned.  That is strictly a matter of Grace.  But, more than that, it does not look like moral systems other than utilitarianism worry about that, either. Look at Kantianism. I think it’s going to be difficult to find a notion of human happiness in the Categorical Imperative. In fact, Kant is clear that we can never be sure if an action that results in happiness is moral, even if it coincides with the Categorical Imperative! That’s just because what makes an action moral is that it is done out of respect for the moral law, and if something makes you happy, you might be doing it for the wrong reason. So, there, not only is happiness not the point, it actually gets in the way of moral reasoning.

He makes the same sort of mistake in his further comments regarding the responses his talk. He writes,

Imagine some genius comes forward and says, “I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.” Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here’s the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is—again, by definition—the least interesting thing in the universe.

Kantian morality “has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings.”  Kant’s morality is about adherence to a moral law for the sake of the law.  Outcomes and experiences have nothing to do with it at all.  They never factor into what makes something moral or immoral.  And yet, contrary to Harris’ assertion, people are and have been intensely interested in Kant for 200 years. Again, it just turns out that his intuitions here don’t represent everyone else’s.  While such a system might be uninteresting to Harris, such systems can clearly hold interest for lots and lots of other people.

Sean Carroll wrote one of the early responses to Harris’ talk.  Harris takes issue with this quote:

But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement? We might use empirical means to measure whether one preference or the other leads to systems that give people more successful lives on some particular scale — but that’s presuming the answer, not deriving it. Who decides what is a successful life? It’s ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question.

How does Harris respond to this?

Again, we see the confusion between no answers in practice and no answers in principle. The fact that it could be difficult or impossible to know exactly how to maximize human wellbeing, does not mean that there are no right or wrong ways to do this—nor does it mean that we cannot exclude certain answers as obviously bad. The fact that it might be difficult to decide exactly how to balance individual rights against collective good, or that there might be a thousand equivalent ways of doing this, does not mean that we must hesitate to condemn the morality of the Taliban, or the Nazis, or the Ku Klux Klan—not just personally, but from the point of view of science.

But this seems to miss Carroll’s point. He was not talking about there being no answer in practice. He was saying that there is no answer in principle to this kind of question that is not arbitrary and based on tastes. And no number of people with similar tastes will ever make it not merely tastes.

The point here is that if you do not already accept happiness as a value, then there seems to be no argument for why one should promote happiness.  The kind of empirical data that Harris can offer assumes the value of happiness, but it cannot demonstrate that a person who is made happy by strange things or motivated by some value other than happiness has made some observational or cognitive error.   This is a problem for Harris because he needs to assume objective value (i.e. the objective value of happiness) in order to make the claim that science is the foundation for objective morality.  But, he can’t make that assumption!  In the end, he wants to say that science can tell us what is and is not moral because it can tell us what makes people more or less happy.  Even granting the latter is true, and I think one could argue that it is reasonable to be skeptical of such a claim, it still cannot tell us what we should do unless we already value happiness.  As such, it just does not look like Harris’ claim that science can tell us what is and is not objectively moral can hold up under any close scrutiny.

I will write a part two to this in the next couple of days where I will examine further the notion of values as tastes, moral relativism, and how I think Harris has gone wrong in mistaking prudential imperatives for moral imperatives.

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Thank God the New Atheists Take God Seriously

defenders of "faith" There’s a bizarre trend that I think needs some comment.  Over and over various people who defend faith in some form keep attributing to the faithful things that almost no one believes.  I’ve talked on here about various “accommodationists,” that is, atheists who defend believers from other atheists, doing this.  But this also comes from apologists for faith who count themselves as believers.  However, when they begin describing their beliefs, the faith that they are defending, it turns out to be a strain of belief that is wildly different from that of any mainstream religion.  Even stranger, it is typically some “New Atheist” that is highlighting the fact that the defender of faith is not defending anything that is recognizable to most believers.

A recent example of the issue at hand comes from ABC’s Nightline program.  It was entitled “Does God Have a Future?”  (The full program can be viewed at the link.)  The participants were, for the non-believers, Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, and Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston represented the believers.  Early in the debate Harris made explicit the concern that the “believers” would talk about a kind of god in which almost no one believes.  He said, “…there are two very different kinds of conversations you could have, here.  We can talk about religion as it is for most people most of the time, and we can talk about what religion could be or should be or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people.  And I just want you to be aware of the difference there, because it could get lost.”  He continues with a list of the distinctions between the description of God that Chopra gives and that of mainstream believers.  Of course, unsurprisingly for people familiar with this kind of debate, this warning about the differences between mainstream notions of God and “sophisticated” ideas of the kind held by Chopra and Houston do nothing to prevent the persistent conflation of these ideas by these two defenders of faith.

Throughout the debate, this issue came up again and again.  Putting aside the sheer absurdity of the nonsense that Chopra dribbled out, at one point he was asked point-blank what he meant by “God,” since he explicitly did not mean anything like the god of any mainstream religion, especially that of the three big monotheisms.  His response was that the world ‘God’ is an acronym that stands for “Generation, Organization, and Delivery,” whatever the hell that means.  He also said that all the mainstream religions at issue are “religions of the past,” that they’re dead.  Of course, Houston was no better.  She suggested that all holy books are, rather than revealed Truth, some sort of dialogue that can be rewritten as need be.  Forgetting about what the use of a book of truth, wisdom, or whatever that could be changed at will to something else, thereby demonstrating that no genuine truth or wisdom was contained therein, could even be, it is just not the case that mainstream believers think their holy books are anything like what Houston describes.  Whatever faith she holds, it bears no resemblance at all to the faith described by mainstream believers.

All of the above is just to bring out the dramatic irony of this situation.  There actually is a group of people who are not condescending to Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  There is a group of people who take the articles of faith proclaimed by the billions of believers on this planet entirely seriously.  The mentioned irony, here, is that this group is not who you would expect.  It is not those people who have taken on the title of “defender of faith,” nor is it those people who claim to be accommodating the believers while telling them that they don’t really believe what they believe in an attempt to dismiss the very real tensions between those beliefs and the positions of those doing the “accommodating.”  Rather, the group taking the beliefs of the vast majority of people of faith seriously, even defending those ideas to the degree that they maintain that those beliefs should be considered as they genuinely are rather than mischaracterized as something potentially more palatable, is that of the New Atheists.  Time and time again these “strident” and “offensive” individuals are the ones we find standing up for the actual beliefs of the “true believers.”

When I hear anyone attacking atheists for being unwilling to keep quiet, allowing theists to believe whatever they want, I am always puzzled.  I genuinely don’t get it.  Ideas should be taken seriously.  Or, even if you have so little respect for someone that you want to pat them on the head as if they are a child scared of the boogeyman, as if you are superior in some significant way that precludes any genuine dialogue with those “foolish” theists, you should not attack others who do not share your pretension and condescension and, as such, have enough respect for believers to engage in genuine discussion instead of patronizing them.

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Reconsidering “Choice”

I just read an interesting review of a new behavioral psychology book, “Addiction: A Disorder of Choice,” by Gene Heyman.  As the review states, the key theme of the book is “that the idea [of] addiction [as] a disease has been based on a limited view of voluntary behavior.”  As a remedy to this limited view, the author draws out the distinction between addiction and diseases such as Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis, the course of which cannot be altered by voluntary behavior.  In contrast, he argues that the success of treatment programs which provide reinforcement for sobriety demonstrates that a key element of addiction is choice- if it were not, incentives just wouldn’t work.   Of course, this suggests that the move toward viewing addiction as a disease rather than a choice is problematic in light of what we normally mean by “disease.”  But, what’s far more interesting to me is the implication that the “disease of choice” thesis has for our concept of “choice.”  This is the issue I will explore further.

The person snorting her first line of coke or dabbing a little bit of heroin does not want to become a hopeless crackwhore or junkie anymore than the person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s wants to lose her memory.   In this way addiction resembles a disease more than a choice.     Most rational people don’t want to destroy themselves, and most addicts start out as rational people who want to feel better.  Addiction is the sum of incremental choices made on an ever-sliding scale of rewards and negative consequences.  It feels good and doesn’t seem that bad the first time, it might seem worse the next time, but it feels even better, and so on and so forth until it is a serious, life-swallowing problem that you just can’t resist.  Except of course, you can resist it, and if and when you do resist it, the negative symptoms of addiction get better.  The same can’t be said of Alzheimer’s.

The possibility of resisting addictive behaviors is what makes addiction a “choice,” but no addict manages to resist indulging unless he has stronger incentives to refrain than to continue.  Of course, as anyone who has studied the philosophy of David Hume can tell you, this isn’t just the way choice works with addicts.  A choice is always determined by competing desires.  This is as true of the martyr debating whether a vow of silence is more important than a cry for help as it is for a junkie debating between one more hit and passing his court-appointed drug test.  We are all slaves to our desires, some of us just have crueler masters.

The fact that actions are determined by desires, and desires themselves are, on some basic level, unchosen, raises a serious question about ultimate moral responsibility.  I’m not going to offer an opinion on that question, but I mention it because this is clearly the issue that motivates the move toward viewing addiction as a disease rather than a choice.  If addiction is a choice and addicts do terrible things, then they are morally responsible for those terrible things.  If addiction is a disease, then addicts shouldn’t be blamed for the “symptoms” of their disease.   Intuitively, I think most of us want to carve out some sort of middle position in between these two extremes.  What’s troubling about addiction is not the content of the desire.   Wanting a line of coke is not like wanting to rape a child.  The problem is the overwhelming force of the desire:   Addicts privilege their fix over all other competing desires, including the desire to fulfill moral obligations to other people.  So, to preserve the intuition that addicts can be responsible for bad things but not be bad people, we are intentionally opaque in the use of terms like “disease”- which addiction really isn’t- and “choice” -which addiction really is, but which implies a level of freedom and self-determination that nobody really has.

I think Heynman is right to characterize addiction as a “choice,” but the word needs to be trimmed of its metaethical weight.  Addicts have a choice because their behavior is determined by one desire, and that behavior could be altered if competing desires become more powerful.   Treatment programs are designed to strengthen the motivational force of these competing desires by focusing the addict’s attention on all of the things that they can keep or get by staying sober and all of the things which they stand to lose if they don’t.  These programs also offer incentives that tip the balance of competing desires by making some desire-fulfillment much easier than other desire fulfillment.  All of this suggests that addiction- both the active problem, and the process of recovery- is not a singular, moral choice.   Choice is never-ending sequence of battles between competing desires.  The fact that treatment programs work by reinforcing certain desires and disincentivizing others should not suggest to us that addicts have much in the way of power or freedom to change on their own.  It simply means that, given the right support and opportunities, they can change. Of course, the same description of choice is equally applied to non-addicts as well.

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What’s Good for the Goose…

Recently on here I’ve been critical of some people with whom I generally agree.  I picked on Michael Ruse for not getting the point of Dawkins’ argument and, while apparently attempting to defend them, patronizing a large set of believers.  I picked on Daniel Loxton for unnecessarily bringing religion into science, and, while apparently attempting to appease them, also patronizing a large set of believers.  Well, now it’s time for me to pick on someone with whom I likely agree on very little.  Stephen Ames is an Anglican priest with PhDs in physics and philosophy of science.  He has written a review of the 2010 Global Atheist Convention that recently took place in Australia.  Though he is clearly attempting to appease everyone, he manages to patronize all those involved in the dialogue he says wants to have.

PZ Myers notes that Ames makes a wholly illegitimate move when he attempts to suggest that the ideals that the atheists at the convention want to hold up as virtuous are really Christian ideals.  At the end of his post, Ames writes,

At the end of her vivid, witty segment Catherine Deveney gave us this word: “Seek the truth and the truth will make you free. Don’t be afraid of death. Be afraid of never having really lived.  Peace be with you.”  These are also deeply Christian themes, at least one being a direct quote.   CD says ‘God is bullshit’ – that is her gig at the comedy festival.  Taking a line from Dan Barker, a speaker at the Convention, this is culturally resonant with speaking about God as a shepherd in Jesus’ own day. But could the truth, life and peace she commends to us enter into a conversation with the truth, life and peace that Christians value?  Catherine Deveney, would you be interested in another gig?

In response to this, Myers says,

There was a phrase I heard all the time when I was living in Utah. If I did something friendly or helpful, the good Mormon would tell me that was mighty “white” of me. It’s the same thing when someone appropriates truth and justice and reason as Christian virtues, and sits around trying to be nice to atheists by telling them how close they come to a Christian ideal.

And they call us the arrogant ones.

I think he nails it, here.  It is absolutely absurd to suggest that truth, justice, and reason, ideas with which all cultures are and have been been concerned long before the rise of Christianity or even Judaism, are somehow uniquely Christian, yet this is what Ames seems to imply.  Even worse, there is no consideration here by Ames of what Deveney had in mind when she spoke of “truth.”  It is highly unlikely that she had in mind anything that is faith-based, and that distinction matters.  By refusing to acknowledge that distinction, and, worse, attempting to hide it by making it equivalent to an explicitly Christian notion of truth, which, of course, is faith-based, Ames is both patronizing and intellectually dishonest.  And this is all for the sake of attempting to find some “common ground,” some way for everyone to just get along.  The problem with this kind of “getting along,” as I’ve said repeatedly, is that you’re not really doing any such thing.  Mischaracterizing and mangling the ideas of those with whom you disagree just so you can obfuscate the disagreement is not getting along at all.

What’s really funny about Ames is that the atheists aren’t the only people on the end of his patronizing stick.  He also acts as if there is nothing legitimate to the idea that Christians believe that non-Christians, like atheists, are going to Hell.  He writes,

There were many speakers who clearly felt that Christians could not affirm the truly good character of an atheist.  This is partly because of questions put to atheists about ‘why be good if there is no God’ or the idea that it is impossible to be good without God.  One of the emotional currents running in the Convention showed up in the cheering and applause whenever a speaker affirmed the possibility of living a good life without religion and especially without the denigration of this possibility by religion.  I have some sympathy for the atheist objection.   It resonates with the scene in Matthew’s gospel, concerning the last judgement.  The sheep and the goats are on the right and left hand of Christ.  The sheep are saved, the goats are not.  This will already be too much for many people.  But I ask you to wait.  It is the criterion that is of interest.  Those who end up at the right hand of God are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison.  The key point is that the text shows these people as never having heard the gospel, as acting without reference to God or Christ or even their own salvation.  The person in need was sufficient motivation.   Atheist friends say to me that this is not the message they have received from the church.  Well there is more to say of course.  But an ensuing conversation would not deprive us of this point from Matthew.

Without getting into a debate on the interpretation of Matthew 25, though it is only fair to point out that many people read this differently, it is simply a fact that it is a central tenet of mainstream Christianity that those who have not accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior are damned to Hell.  There is no way around that.  For Ames to here suggest that all that is needed is more conversation to get past this is quite odd.  It is unclear just how such dialogue could make any difference at all about that.  There does not seem to be any clear way to dismiss the talk of damnation and hellfire in the Bible, and it is a simple fact that lots of religions, not just Christianity, are explicit that there is no way to be good without God, this being the case because being good explicitly involves obeying God’s will.  If you don’t believe in God, it doesn’t look like you can work to put your will in line with His.  As such, there is no way for your to every really be good.  To suggest otherwise is not only patronizing to atheists but also to Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.  This isn’t a problem that can be talked out.  It’s a genuine disagreement.  Pretending otherwise is, again, just dishonest.

What is most annoying about this kind of response is that Ames thinks that he’s the one being rational.  Somehow, somewhere, he got the idea that rationality involved this kind attempt to artificially smooth away tensions.  But that’s not rational at all.  In fact, it’s very irrational.  There is absolutely nothing rational about misrepresenting ideas to make contradictions less apparent.  That’s deception.  Such actions only ensure that no genuine dialogue is even possible, thus defeating the stated purpose of such behavior in the first place.

I want to say something about why I think these people keep falling into this trap, why they keep coming off as patronizing and condescending.  As I’ve said before, it’s because they just aren’t taking these ideas seriously.  It just turns out that some ideas are opposed to each other, and attempting to accommodate all sides only results in being unfair to all sides.  That in no way means we should necessarily be angry or hostile to those with whom we disagree.  But, if all one does is try to cover up the disagreement by changing and distorting the actual content of the ideas in question, then no genuine dialogue or even accommodation has actually occurred.  All you’ve succeeded in doing is showing that you don’t really understand the issues at hand and, worse, that you don’t really respect the players involved at all.  Genuine respect means dealing with ideas as they are actually presented.  That might mean tearing them apart, but there’s nothing necessarily disrespectful about that.  On the contrary, it might be the only way to show genuine respect for both the ideas and the people espousing them.


As an aside, I’ll quickly mention something not so much related to the above but that really annoys me from Ames’ post.  At one point he writes,

And by the way, if someone says God is the source of all that exists, it is not logically possible to ask, ‘what created God?’ There is nothing prior to God to do that creating.  Other objections to this saying about God may be offered but not this one.

But that misrepresents the kind of reasoning that goes on here.  The question “what created God?” comes about whenever someone attempts to justify claim that God is the source of everything.  The claim normally comes about at the end of a line of reasoning from something like the Cosmological argument.  That is, everything needs a cause, and God is the First Cause.  Once that is said, then someone asks “what caused God?”  The reason it is legitimate to ask such a question is because of the premise that led to God being First Cause is that “everything needs a cause.”  If that’s true, then everything needs a cause!  If it’s not true, then there is no need to resort to God as the First Cause.  The point is that the very thing that leads one to say something like “God is the source of all things that exists,” the thing that justifies such an assertion, then requires God, as something that exists, to have a source.  Ames should know this.  That makes the quote above either ridiculously ignorant or ridiculously dishonest.  I can’t tell of which Ames is guilty.

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Yes, It Is Worse When Priests Do It

A couple of weeks ago Andrew Brown over at the Guardian wrote an article on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.  In it he asks what appears to be a somewhat shocking question concerning the outrage over the crimes in question:  “But was the Catholic church unfairly singled out?”  His concern is that the Church has been unduly criticized for the abuse that has been perpetrated by those within its priesthood.  His reasoning for this is that the proportion of abuse by priests is no different than the proportion of similar abuse occurring within other professions.  That’s actually the title of his article, “Catholic child abuse in proportion.”  Given that this is the case, Brown suggests that the treatment of priests is somehow unfair, as there are individuals guilty of similar crimes within the ranks of other professional communities, though they seem to receive less attention and scorn.

I don’t care about Brown’s numbers, so I won’t debate those at all. Let me grant him everything he says as to the raw facts concerning abuse of children.  That being the case, does his conclusion follow?  That is, if it is true that Catholic priests molest children in the same proportion as bankers and plumbers, does this mean that priests, and the Church as a whole, has been treated unfairly by being on the receiving end of heavier criticism.  The answer looks to me to be a very clear “No.”

Catholic priests molesting children in the same proportion as plumbers is a greater failure on the part of the priesthood, and for very straightforward reasons.  Imagine that the professional community under scrutiny is not the priesthood but mathematicians.  Now imagine that the concern surrounding them is not child abuse but is the solving of math problems.  If it were the case that the number of problems answered correctly by the mathematicians was equal to the score of such tests by other professions, we would see that as a failure on the part of the mathematicians, and this would be for obvious reasons.  The job of the mathematicians is to do math.  In that light, we expect them to do that job better than specialists from other areas.  So, if fishermen get just as many math problems correct as mathematicians, the mathematicians have failed.

With the above in mind, it should be easy to see why it is worse to discover that priests are molesting children than taxidermists.  Certainly, it is awful in either case.  However, taxidermists do not put themselves in the position of being considered figures of trust by way of their very job.  They have chosen to enter a field whose entire point is to be good and guide and protect others.  In that respect, they have failed at the very thing for which they are trained when they do vile acts that violate the very trust that is the core of their profession.  That makes their failure much more significant and much greater than if a similar act is committed by those from other careers.

This should be simple and straightforward.  Priests, teachers, doctors, etc, have duties that are different from plumbers and fisherman.  That’s obvious.  Given that those duties revolve around safeguarding those under their care, it should not be a surprise that the criticism of those people is much louder and more angry.  It would be surprising if this were not the case.  So, Andrew, no, no one is being unfair to those priest, nor are they being unfair by criticizing the Church as a whole for hiding such acts.  On the contrary, I don’t think enough has been done, and I’m tired of government agencies giving these rapists a pass just because they say they love the baby Jesus.

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Philosophers, Scientists, and the New Atheism

I am an atheist, and I am sympathetic to the so-called "New Atheists."  I am also a skeptic, and I have a background in philosophy, which means that I adopt a more tentative stance about knowledge and the justification for belief than most of my counterparts in religion and the hard sciences.  Because of my background, I find the recent trend among certain prominent philosophers and public intellectuals to mark out a kind of middle-ground position between hard-atheism and theism to be both disingenuous and alarming.   It is disingenuous because philosophers understand the distinction between questions of knowledge and questions of justification, and it is alarming because they are willing to disregard this distinction for the sake of promoting a politically-attractive position.

The question of God’s existence is incredibly loaded because, if God doesn’t exist, the majority of people in the world derive meaning in their lives from a lie.  For this reason, the capacity for natural science to explain why things happen without appeal to the supernatural is threatening to religion and to religious believers.  After all, if we can explain everything without appeal to God’s intervention, why introduce Him into the equation at all?  Nowhere is this issue more clearly demarcated than in the debate between evolutionists and creationists.  If evolution can explain why we are here, why we feel the way we feel, and why we do the things we do, then it looks as though God’s part in the equation (creation, intelligent design, etc.) is superfluous at best.  Moreover, if the human brain is just one more twig on the evolutionary tree, then there is no good reason to believe that there is some essential, special part of us, such as an immortal soul, which sets us apart and gives us free will and the possibility of life after death.  So, from a purely political perspective, it is easy to understand why the scientific community is cautious about addressing the implications of evolutionary theory.  If believing in evolution means believing in a Godless, soulless world, fewer people are going to find evolution attractive, and many people are going to be wary of teaching evolution to their kids.

Because of these implications, most supporters of empirical science have chosen one of two strategies in debate with religious detractors.  The first strategy is to insist that religion and science are "non-intersecting magisteria", that is, they address different kinds of questions.   For example, religion answers big, important, ultimate questions, such as the meaning of life, whereas science only describes the world as it is.  The second strategy is to grant that a literal interpretation of Scripture contradicts evolutionary theory but to minimize the importance of this contradiction by observing that a non-literal interpretation of the story of Genesis can be compatible with evolutionary theory.  Both strategies offer the promise of peacefully promoting scientific understanding, but unfortunately, in both cases, this peace is won dishonestly.

The first strategy is dishonest because it is plainly untrue that science and religion are non-intersecting.  Science and religion both make objective claims about the observable world, and these claims absolutely have moral implications for how we should live our lives.  It certainly is the case that people with religious worldviews tend to hold a slightly different set of values from people who hold materialist/naturalist worldviews, but this does not mean that the non-religious have no position on how they ought to live their lives, nor does it mean that the religious have nothing to say about how the world works.  On the contrary, the battle between religion and science exists precisely because people on both sides do have answers to both types of questions and those answers contradict each other.  For example, it cannot be the case that prayer both works and does not work, nor can it be the case that spirits exist and do not exist.  If a person is hearing voices, either the voices are coming from evil spirits that must be exorcised by prayer OR the voices are the result of schizophrenia, which must be treated by medication.  The way we answer these questions matters, which is why our grounds for selecting answers -the justifications for our beliefs- matter.

The second strategy, which might be called the "accommodationist" position, does not make any out-and-out false claims, but it is deceptive nonetheless.  It is perfectly true that God could exist as a kind of blind watch-maker who got the evolutionary ball rolling and then sat back for the rest of eternity.  However, a non-interventionist God, while no contradiction to a naturalistic world view, is entirely superfluous to the evolutionary account of the origin of life.   It doesn’t do any explanatory work for the theory.  Moreover, it is patronizing for scientists to pretend that this concession is a real accommodation to people of faith because the kind of God that is compatible with naturalistic evolution is not the kind of God that answers prayers or performs miracles, i.e., it is not the kind of God that most religious people worship.   Most accommodationists don’t see the harm in religious people praying or believing in an interventionist God because they recognize that most people who hold this kind of faith but also believe in evolution do not recognize the internal contradiction.  This makes the accommodationists particularly insidious because they tacitly promote one kind of ignorance (contradictory beliefs) over another, ostensibly more offensive kind of ignorance (religious fundamentalism), rather than risk promoting a more honest but unpopular position.

I don’t claim to know for certain that God does not exist, nor do I claim to know for certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I think that my beliefs are well-justified.  If my beliefs are well-justified, then people who have access to the same information that I have but hold opposing beliefs are not as well-justified.  This is an implication of holding considered opinions:  I cannot apply a standard of justification for my own beliefs but pretend that there is no objective hierarchy of justification for the beliefs of others.  To pretend that people who believe that the Bible is literally true are wrong, but that those who merely believe in an interventionist God are justified is both absurd and dishonest.  But, this is exactly the position upon which the "middle ground" between theism and naturalistic materialism is founded.  It is not a moderate position at all.  It is sophistry, and it is condescending.

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A Brother to Dragons

Job-2 For completely unrelated reasons, I’ve been spending a lot of time around some pretty devout evangelicals lately, and, unsurprisingly, I get into conversations with them about stuff.  One thing that has come up several times is that the Book of Job is some kind of solution to the problem of evil.  I am unsure why this is the thing that has popped up repeatedly.  I don’t think I’m the one bringing it up.  Rather it just comes about organically as part of the conversation.  Regardless of the reasons why, I keep hearing a few things over and over, so they are clearly in the popular treatment of this issue.  With that in mind I want to address a few of these points.

I’ll say on the outset that I don’t see how anyone could see the Book of Job as a solution to the problem of evil.  Certainly, it can be seen as crystallizing the issue, but it’s hard to see how it offers any solution, and that make it hard to see how that could be the point of the book.  Or, rather, it’s hard for me to see it.  Apparently, others have no problem seeing this, but I just find it incredibly strange.

The main point that comes up every time is that God doesn’t actually create evil, even for Job; God is not the source of the evil that befalls Jobs.  What is the source of evil, then, here?  Well, I am told initially, evil comes from our disobedience.  Everyone should recognize that line.  It’s the notion of the Fall.  That’s all fine and well, but that’s not the source of the problem in Job.  In fact, everything is going great for Job in the beginning.  In King James Version the Book of Job begins thus:

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil. And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters. His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east.

At least here, then, we don’t see evil befalling Job because of his sin.  Rather, he is incredibly prosperous before Satan gets to work on him.  In fact, on the contrary, the Book of Job is explicit that Job did nothing wrong at all.  Job’s friends, in fact, tell him that he must have done something to deserve all that befalls him, but they are wrong, and God ends up chastising them for this.  Job has not brought on his evil by his actions.  So, that’s not the problem.

The next issue that often comes up is that no one really deserves any of the good they have, that we all deserve evil because we are all sinful.  The suggestion here is that even if the text does not tell us what Job did wrong, he must have done something wrong.  But this seems to miss something essential about the book, and that is that the text directly contradicts this.  God tells Satan, “Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?”  Here, God calls Job “perfect.”  The point is that anyone looking to peg Job’s downfall on some unmentioned sin is guilty of the same thing that Job’s friends are, and that is accusing Job of sinning when he simply has done no such thing.  There is an irony there, to me, of people claiming to look to this book to gain wisdom and then making the very same mistake that the players in the story do, the ones that God rebukes at the end of the book, but that’s a separate issue.

Then we come to the granddaddy claim, the one to which people want to fall when it becomes clear that the whole “sin as source of evil” won’t work in Job’s story.  The claim is that God merely allows evil to happen, that He is not the source of the evil, and, in that way, the problem of evil is sidestepped. The idea is that, somehow, if God does not directly cause the evil Himself, then He’s off the hook for the problem.  That can’t work in Job, though, and I’ll explain why.  The story that I keep hearing is that Satan is the one who causes all the evil for Job, and God merely lets him do it.  But how does that make things okay?  Let me use an analogy.  Let’s say we have a kindergarten class with a teacher.  Now, let’s introduce a rabid dog.  If the dog comes and attacks the class while the teacher looks on from a distance doing nothing, do we say that the teacher is blameless for what befalls her class?  I can’t imagine anyone saying any such thing.  Rather, we think the teacher has a responsibility to protect her class from the rabid dog, and that includes the bratty students who might have called the dog over in the first place (you know, the sinners).  So it’s just not the case that merely allowing something to happen gets you off the hook in terms of your responsibility.

But it’s worse than that.  This was not some bratty kid calling the dog over and thereby “bringing it on himself.”  This was the perfect student doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing.

But it’s worse than that!  This wasn’t some rabid dog coming from nowhere.  This was a danger well-known and recognized.  God talks to Satan and knows what he is going to do.

But it’s worse than that!  This is the teacher pointing the class out to the rabid dog, making sure they have his attention.  God says, “Hast thou considered my servant Job…?”

But it’s even worse than that!  Job had a “hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side.”  In terms of the analogy, this is like a steel door between the rabid dog and the class, and the teacher calling the dog over, pointing at the children, holding the door opening, and watching while the dog tears the class to pieces.  I find it difficult to believe that anyone hearing of that would suggest that the teacher was somehow not culpable for the violent deaths in her class, and yet that is exactly what those who suggest that God is not culpable for the evil that Job endures are saying.  Whatever is going on in the Book of Job, the idea that God is not responsible for evil merely because he watches from the sidelines while the dirty work is done by another just doesn’t fly.  And I’m not even going to get deep into the issue that God created Satan, thus making it that much more difficult to say that God is not directly involved.  There’s no good analogy for that, but it’s kinda like the teacher above genetically engineering the dog to have a strong jaw and cutting teeth and then intentionally injecting it with rabies.  That would be a whole other post.

If the argument above isn’t persuasive, I’ll just point to the text to defuse the whole line of reasoning that God didn’t cause Job’s suffering:  “Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him…” [emphasis mine].  The book itself says that God did it.  It seems hard to argue with that.

At this point I am usually told that God somehow makes up for all the evil that Job endures at the end by giving him even more stuff than he had at the beginning.  Job 42:12-17 reads,

So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she asses. He had also seven sons and three daughters. And he called the name of the first, Jemima; and the name of the second, Kezia; and the name of the third, Kerenhappuch. And in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job: and their father gave them inheritance among their brethren. After this lived Job an hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, even four generations. So Job died, being old and full of days.

Here I am simply puzzled.  Does anyone take this argument seriously?  Job’s original children all died in a very violent fashion, and this is supposedly remedied by having more children, and this time more sons and prettier daughters.  But so what?  How does having more children make up for having your other kids die?  No, not just die, but murdered.  After all, it was no accident that they died.  Their death was a part of Satan’s plan that had God’s approval.  How does having more kids make up for having ten of your kids murdered violently?  I don’t see how it can.  In this way that the whole idea of God somehow “making it up” to Job by giving him “better” children later  just seems absurd.

And that’s it.  My point here was not really to address the problem of evil in general.  All I wanted to do was say something about the kinds of arguments I’ve been hearing the past couple of months concerning Job in particular.  If I’ve been hearing it a lot from different people in such a short period, I’m guessing that, for some reason, it’s making the rounds in the churches lately.  Whatever the reason it’s on everyone’s mind, these arguments don’t work at all.

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