The Problem of Silence

There is an activity popular amongst those who consider themselves tolerant or “enlightened” that occurs at meetings and gatherings both public and private.  This is is known as a “moment of silence.”  It takes place at the same time as what would traditionally be a prayer.  However, those demanding this moment of silence believe that a prayer to any particular god is an act of prejudice as there may well be those in attendance who worship a god other than the one to whom the majority would be praying.  In their benevolence and understanding, in their supreme tolerance of others, these people choose the moment of silence as a way to show their respect for all faiths.  I think this practice is at best foolish and at worst insulting.

This video should highlight the problem, but let me make it as clear as possible.  There is little in the way of “respect” shown to someone’s god when you 1) don’t let them say it’s name out loud, and 2) grant equal “respect” to other gods, you know, the ones who don’t exist for the believers.  All you can succeed in doing is belittling the beliefs of the devout, and this should not be surprising.  After all, how other than a veiled insult can someone take the suggestion that their god, the real one(s), is the same as all the false gods that adherents to other religions think exist?  It is ridiculous to think that anyone even could take such a situation any differently if they’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening.

Think about it.  Say that you’re a Muslim, and you believe Allah is the One True God.  What you have is a situation where the people leading the moment of silence saying both that it is appropriate for others to pray to false gods, to flaunt their status as an infidel in your face, and that you yourself should afford such behavior some measure of respect.  Who are these people to demand something so absurd of someone?  Of course, the same goes for an adherent to any religion that holds that it is wrong to worship false gods, that being most of them.  Certainly, Christianity is one of those religions, the first one, two, or three (depending on how you count them) of the Ten Commandments dealing with that very thing.  It is foolish to think that any Christian who takes the Ten Commandments seriously would be comfortable with this moment of silence that grants false gods the same respect as God.  I mean, duh.

Worse, the only people who might not be upset about this, the only people who might appreciate such a situation, are the very ones for whom such a demonstration of “respect” is wholly unnecessary.  That is, it is only those people who are comfortable with other people worshiping different gods, who take no offense at such activity, that would be okay with this generic “moment” in the first place.  I mean, if I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god, then I don’t think it’s a big deal that everyone gives respect to my god!  For that reason, this attempt at pacification and tolerance is pointless in relation to the only people for whom it might be acceptable.

Then we have the issue of non-believers and those who might believe in a god but just don’t like him.  For atheists, the demand that they take a moment to show respect for nothing is just strange.  What could the point of that be?  Surely it can’t be to show respect for gods they don’t think exist.  How insulting, how patronizing and condescending, it would be for an atheist to pat someone on the back and say, “You go ahead and pray to your imaginary friend.”  Even worse, if that’s possible, would be for the individual who believes but refuses to give respect to the deity.  Imagine someone who looks at the world with its various catastrophes, e.g. the floods, hurricanes, genocide, raping of babies, and the burying of women up to their necks in the sand for the purpose of crushing her skull with rocks until she is dead, out of “respect” for a god no less, and has concluded that no amount of evil could exist without a designer, an infinitely powerful fiend whose sole desire is to torment and cause suffering.  That person almost certainly has no desire to show respect for that god, and yet this is exactly what this moment of silence demands of her.  That’s absurdity of cosmic levels.

This demand for a moment of silence can only be made by those who are woefully ignorant or just jerks who don’t care about or respect the actual beliefs of others.  Let’s cut this crap out.

*Lest there is any confusion, I do not have in mind here anything like the similarly-called “moment of silence” used as an opportunity to remember the dead at funerals and memorial services or anything of that nature.

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Good Without God

Mitch Daniels after an award ceremony

Image via Wikipedia

There is a common argument used against atheists by theists of various types that concerns the supposed inability of an atheist to do the right thing without the belief in some sort of deity that is looking down and keeping watch over all of us.  It is so common, in fact, that it seems to me that the people who use it do so without being aware of the consequences of such an argument, that they themselves would be doing all sorts of awful things if they didn’t think that some god were somewhere keeping track of all they do.  Or maybe they do get it, but, if this is the case, that, to me, makes those making such an argument simply terrifying individuals.

Though examples of this argument are ubiquitous, one such example, via Pharyngula, comes from an interview of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels on the site, a website for Channel 15 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  The relevant portion reads thus:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

I don’t want to venture too far into the idea that Stalin’s, Hitler’s, or Mao’s actions were the result of their atheism.  Certainly, the idea that Hitler was an atheist has been refuted countless times along with his supposed commitment to Darwinian evolution.  Further, the assertion that any of these individuals’ actions were the result of some lack of a belief in gods just strikes me as bizarre.  But, really, the important point here is that the argument that these people represent atheists in general, as if there is some necessary connection between those actions and atheism, is clearly fallacious and patently wrong.  This can be easily demonstrated by the fact that these individuals are rare, but atheists are abundant.  Even the idea that these men are the solely responsible for “[a]ll the horrific crimes of the last century” is so obviously demonstrably wrong as to be laughable.  All that said, we can set that aside, because that’s not the main point I want to address here.

Daniels suggests that “if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.”  I cannot begin to imagine what the justification for such an assertion might be.  After all, if it is true, as Daniels clearly implies, that without some “eternal standard” there is no meaning, nothing that “matters,” then why would power matter?  Why is power the one thing that is valuable in the valueless world of the atheist that exists in Daniels’ imagination?  Surely it is not because there is something intrinsically valuable to power, for, according to Daniels, without some god there is no intrinsic value to anything.  So whence the value of power?

I’m guessing that Daniels would say that power is valuable to people, and that’s where the source of this value lies, in the subjective tastes of the individuals.  But then this entire argument falls apart.  People value all sorts of things besides power.  Most of all they value the relationships they have with others.  If there is one thing we know about our species, it is that we are groupish.  We are desperate for those relationships with others that are called things like family, friendship, and love.  We definitely value that stuff.  But, if that’s true (and it is), then this idea that we are all going to become tyrannical despots if we don’t believe that God (Allah, Zeus, whatever) is looking down from Heaven (wherever) is just bullshit.  It just turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to maintain any sort of close relationships when you’re trying to control everyone around you.  Just look at Daniels’ own examples.  Man, was anyone more paranoid than those guys?  Was anyone more lacking in some sort of genuine friendship than Stalin and Hitler?  Those guys saw betrayal all around them both in the faces of betrayers and those most loyal to them.  Since most atheists are normal people with families and friends, it seems a safe bet that what they find valuable is the same thing as most all other humans:  relationships with others.  Power is simply further down the line in their interests.

Having said that, most atheists aren’t governors, either, a position for which “powerful” seems an apt description.  It might be that Daniels himself would be some maniacal dictator if he lacked a fear of God’s Wrath, that fear keeping him from merely seeking positions like governor and, potentially, president (Daniels’ name is one that is thrown around when considering future presidential candidates).  It might be a good thing that Daniels believes the way he does.  Or, better yet, it might be that we shouldn’t vote people obsessed with despotism into positions of great power.

And that leads me to my big point.  The people who say that we cannot be good if we do not believe in some god are suggesting that the only reason we don’t rape babies, stab mothers, commit genocide, etc is because of some kind of supernatural influence.  My response to these people is simple:  what kind of psychos are you hanging around?!  You are certainly hanging around some crazy psychos if your impression of people is that their belief in God is the only thing preventing them from killing you in your sleep.  If you make this argument without seeing this implication, then you should stop making it since you’ve now been explicitly shown the absurd position you’re taking.  If you already saw this, if you believe about yourself that you’d be a baby-raping, mommy-stabbing, genocide-committing monster if your god weren’t around, then, for your god’s sake, don’t move next door to me!  I don’t want you around my kids and mom when you happen to have a bad day and slip.  And if you are that kind of monster, I’m telling you in no uncertain terms that you’re the freak, the one who is unusual, not those of us who don’t sit frustratingly fantasizing about all the horrible things we would do if only God weren’t around to stop us.

If the only thing preventing you from committing acts of tremendous horror is your belief in some deity, seek help, please, for all our sakes.  Regardless, I can tell you that while you might be teetering on the edge of committing acts of atrocity, most of us just don’t have some strong desire to put people in ovens, and, hence, just don’t need the Fear of God in us to prevent us from doing such things.

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A Quick Note on the Ethics of Vaccine Denial

For some reason that completely eludes me, an unusually high number of people seem to have jumped on the anti-vaccine bandwagon.  I’m not going to say anything here about the safety and efficacy of vaccines since so many others have done a fantastic job of that, and I would end up doing little more than copying and pasting their posts.  For anyone unsure of the science behind vaccinations, I would strongly urge that you become a regular reader of  In short, vaccines both work and are safe.  This is especially important now as we are in the midst of a pandemic as a result of the H1N1 virus, the so-called “swine flu.”  The danger posed by this new version of H1N1 makes vaccinations all the more important at this time.

Let me do a very brief rundown of why vaccinations are more than a great idea.  Vaccinations have the potential to save numerous lives, including those of children.  Last week, the CDC says that there were 35 flu-related pediatric deaths reported.  Of those, 27 were confirmed to be cases of H1N1.  Seven others were not subtyped, so it is not known if these were H1N1, though it is possible.  Only one of those deaths is known to not be a case of H1N1.  Further, "Since April 2009, CDC has received reports of 234 laboratory-confirmed pediatric deaths:  198 due to 2009 H1N1, 35 pediatric deaths that were laboratory confirmed as influenza, but the flu virus subtype was not determined, and one pediatric death associated with a seasonal influenza virus” (  (Please note that this link is updated with new information each week, so I cannot guarantee that the quote will appear past December 6.)  The point of all this is that children are dying from the flu, and overwhelmingly, the version that is killing them is the H1N1 strain.  As such, the need to vaccinate children against this more dangerous strain of the flu should be clear.

With the above in mind, the question now becomes what kind of damage is done by being an anti-vaxxer.  I’ve written before on here about the ethical element of belief.  In short, actions have moral consequences.*  Beliefs inform actions.  That is, you act in the ways you do because of a particular set of beliefs.  If it makes sense to say you should act in some way, then you need to have the appropriate beliefs that would give rise to such actions.  Clearly, then, you should believe certain things as well.  For brevity, let’s cash this out as saying you should only believe those things for which you have good reason.  Certainly in terms of medicine, I’m going to take it to be uncontroversial that “good reason” is evidence.  The case of anti-vaxxers makes it very clear why all of this matters.

If you go about telling people that vaccinations are dangerous, and that you have evidence this is the case, you are putting them at risk.  Perhaps worse, you are putting the children around them at risk as well.  As the numbers above show, this virus is killing many more children than the typical flu.  What the evidence also overwhelmingly shows is that vaccines are both safe and efficacious.  If you disagree, you had better have a lot of hard evidence and numbers, because, unless you do, that means that holding such beliefs is immoral.  And by hard evidence I don’t meant what Jenny McCarthy said, or what some guy claiming to be an infectious disease specialist on Fox News said.  I mean you had better have actual numbers and peer-reviewed studies that show those numbers are legitimate, because the evidence in favor of the safety and efficacy of vaccines is staggering. 

When you tell someone that they and their kids should avoid a potentially life-saving treatment on the basis of bad reason, you are putting children at risk.  You are doing something wrong.  You are doing something immoral.  If you believe things that would put you in a position to unnecessarily increase the risk to children’s lives, especially in such a dramatic fashion, you are doing something immoral.  I want this to get through as it seems so few people consider the consequences of what they’re doing.

I get the strong impression that people don’t get the full weight of what they’re doing here.  This is not a political issue.  This is not a time to worry about saving face because of your past stated beliefs.  This is not some kind of game.  People are dying over this.  Children are dying in greater numbers than usual.  Again, this virus is worse than the typical flu.  The numbers don’t lie.  Before you tell someone, even off-handedly, that vaccines are dangerous, that they cause autism, that they have mercury in them, or whatever other piece of garbage you’ve picked up off the street, think about what you’re doing.  Think about the consequences.  Check your facts.  Before you tell someone something that could put their child in the grave, make sure what you’re saying is right.  If you don’t, at least some of the responsibility for what happens to those children is on your shoulders.




*This is, of course, assuming you buy into there being some kind of morality.  I am not interested in the meta-ethical foundations of any particular system here.  As long as some moral system works, then what I’m saying follows.

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H.E. Baber’s Object of Ultimate Impotence

H.E. Baber recently wrote an article for the Guardian entitled “Unverifiable God is still good.”  In this article she makes a number of claims that I find incredibly problematic, such as a strange conflation of the notion of philosophical zombies and the distinction between a world in which God exists and one where He does not, the implication that Hume was a verificationinst, and the suggestion that that verificationism is the “bogey” of the religious believer.  I will not address the first two questions here, and on this last question I will be brief so as to get to a couple of important points raised in the rest of the article.  Talking about the concern over verificationism, Baber asks the (supposedly) difficult question, “What is the difference between an invisible, intangible, hidden God who makes no difference to the way the world works and no God at all?”  She does not explicitly answer this question.  Rather, she attempts to make the argument that such the question of God’s existence is intelligible by comparing it to the question of philosophical zombies.  For those reading this who are unfamiliar with either verificationism or the notion of philosophical zombies, do not worry.  I don’t think it matters here.  Put simply, the answer to Baber’s question, assuming one has some clearly defined concept of God that allows for Him to be invisible, intangible, hidden, and make no difference to the way the world works (admittedly a criterion tough, and perhaps impossible, to fill), the answer is simple.  The difference is that in one case you have something, namely God, and in the other you do not.  Whether or not that thing is detectable is irrelevant to the fact that it either exists or does not.

That out of the way, there are other issues about this article that need to be addressed.  The first one is this assertion by Baber:

I never expected religion to provide any practical benefits, so I have never been disappointed. And, like most educated Christians, I do not believe most of the empirical claims associated with Christianity. I do not believe that the universe came into being just a few thousand years ago. I do not believe that humans or other animals were created their current form or even that God had some hand in "guiding" evolution. I do not believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of Middle Eastern history, or that any of the miracles it reports actually occurred, or that the wisdom literature it includes is a suitable guide to life. I do not believe that the existence of God makes any difference to the way the world operates or that religious belief should make any difference to the way we live.

I do not think this in any way this represents the views of most “educated Christians.”  In fact, I have never personally met a single Christian who holds anything like this view.  The empirical claims of the the Bible are false?  The existence of God makes no difference to the way the world operates?  Belief in God should make no difference to the way we live?  Not only have I never met anyone who holds this view, I do not think even Baber holds it.  That last point on the list is pretty broad:  “…religious belief should [not] make any difference to the way we live.”  I am not at all sure I even know how she means this.  Certainly, she would not have written this article if she did not believe in God, and that writing seems to be some aspect of her life.  I mean, it looks like Baber has put forth quite a bit of effort into defending this particular belief in her life, and that is directly the result of her belief.  In fact, there is no way to enumerate all the things that Baber has done in her life because of her belief that would have been different had she not held such a belief.  That’s the nature of belief in general, as has been pointed out before on this blog.  Beliefs inform our actions in that each action we take is based upon a particular set of beliefs, however mundane.  When someone puts a key in a door to unlock it, it is because they hold a certain set of beliefs which may or may not be justified or true.  That person has to believe that their senses are getting the world right, that keys unlock doors, that the door is locked, that this key is the one that will unlock this door, that the lock on the door is not broken, and on and on.  So, of course, all of our beliefs do and should make a difference in the way we live.  I really have no idea what it means for Baber to say otherwise.

Someone might suggest here that what Baber intended was how one should view morality, but that does not seem to be true either.  If I believe God prefers my behavior to be one way rather than another, that seems to be a religious belief that affects what I think I am morally obligated to do.  I do not know how much of the Bible Baber wants to throw out, but, as she calls herself a Christian, it seems that at least she would want to keep Christ’s moral teachings.  In that case, as someone who holds that Christ’s teachings were in some way better than others, and as Christ is related to God in some significant fashion, then one should live their life differently on the basis of that set of beliefs.  So, no matter what you take Baber to mean, this idea that religious beliefs should make no difference to the way we live is just wrong.

Then there’s this whole business of educated Christians not believing the empirical claims of the Bible in general.  I think this is just a false statement as survey after survey shows that Christians of all levels of education take things like the virgin birth, Christ rising from the dead, and any number of miracles to be true.  I do not know how Baber wants to cash out “educated Christian” here, but it looks like the only way she could do this is to play the “No True Scotsman” game and declare that anyone who held those beliefs was not really an “educated Christian.”  Otherwise, there is just no way to say this statement is true as, empirically, Christians with educations do hold the beliefs Baber declares they do not.

Next I want to address a point that I just find strange.  After making the case that the version of God in which Baber believes has absolutely no effect on anything, she poses the question:

…what is the point of believing in such a God? Why would anyone even want to believe in a God who makes no difference: a God who does not answer prayers, give our lives "meaning," or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.

I would take it that, assuming the belief was true, the reason one would want to believe it is because, in general, one wants to believe true things.  But I do not know that “want” has much of anything to do with that.  What I mean is, someone might prefer to believe in a god who saved babies from fires, healed amputees, and would provide us with a pleasant after-life.  That might be the thing in which someone wants to believe.  However, if there is no reason to do that, if, for example, they think that God does none of those things yet does, in fact, exist, then their wants would be irrelevant.  They would believe in what they thought was true, regardless of whether or not it was preferable, in the same way one “believes in” hurricanes and nuclear bombs even if it was preferable that those things did not exist.  With that in mind, I just find this whole line of thinking strange, and I just cannot see what Baber is getting at when she asks why anyone would want to believe in a god that makes no difference.

In the end Baber says she believes because:

God is the ultimate aesthetic object, ultimate beauty, glory and power, and that the vision of God embodies the quintessence of every aesthetic experience and every sensual pleasure. Religion is an escape from the world–not because the world is bad but because it isn’t good enough. Pleasures are fleeting and no matter how intense any aesthetic experience is, it could always be more intense. The vision of God is the asymptote they approach.

I confess that I do not follow this at all.  Baber has already declared that God, her version of God, at least, “does not answer prayers, give our lives ‘meaning’, or imbue the universe with purpose, reveal moral truths, strengthen us to fight the good fight or, in some sense, ground values.”  So how is this the “ultimate aesthetic object”?  How is it beautiful, this thing that does nothing and cannot be experienced?  How does it have glory or, more importantly, power?  What does it even mean to talk about ultimate power having no influence on anything?  What sensual pleasure is there in a thing that is in no way able to be sensed?  And what does it matter if the world “isn’t good enough”?  In what way does that serve as evidence for God’s existence?  And how is the world better, how is it good enough, with a god in it that is wholly impotent? 

To me, it appears the the vision of God Baber spelled out as the object of her belief earlier has none of the attributes that she claims serve as her reasons for belief in God.  As such, I find that her conclusion follows in no way from the rest of her argument, the result being that nothing of any substance is said in the entire article.

I don’t know what Baber had in mind when she wrote this article.  What I do know is that this argument is the kind that I hear from time to time from the intellectual elite who do believe in God.  They claim to have such belief, but their god in no way reflects anything like the God in which other believers put their faith.  Even worse, when they begin to spell out what their god is and why they believe in any such thing, all you end up with is a group of words with little to no real meaning.  In the end, it looks like they are not saying anything at all.

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Hume Was Right about Miracles

In a recent article in New Scientist Hugh McLachlan took on both David Hume and Richard Dawkins in their analysis of miracles.  Dawkins, of course, follows Hume here, so it really is just Hume’s argument, though McLachlan says that Dawkins goes further than Hume does in his claims.  I think such is debatable, though I also think that such a debate is not very interesting, and writing about it here would get in the way of what I think is the larger issue.  Still, since I think I can make a case that Dawkins follows Hume very closely here, I will treat McLachlan as only criticizing Hume in this post.

McLachlan starts by stating Hume’s definition of a miracle from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:  a miracle is "a violation of the laws of nature…a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent."  For my purposes I would rather use the latter part of that quote.  The reason is that the first part is really a description of a miracle by Hume rather than a proper definition, and there is quite a bit left out between those first seven quoted words and the rest.  So, to quote Hume without the ellipsis, “A miracle may be accurately defined, a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”

McLachlan starts immediately by saying that Hume’s definition is contradictory.  He writes, “The very notion of a miracle is either unintelligible or it has a meaning other than that given by Hume.”  He thinks that this is the case because anything that happens within nature cannot be a violation of of natural law. 

I would argue that, by definition, "laws of nature" are universal laws of the form "if A, then B", or "all As are Bs". Logically, they cannot be violated or transgressed, not even by God. If, even on one occasion, for whatever reason, there was an A without a B, then it would not be true to say "if A, then B". What had been thought of as a natural law would in fact not be one.

But, of course, this misses the point Hume was making.  The idea of natural law that Hume was using refers to the way things would behave were there nothing outside of nature interfering with the causal chains within nature.  God, as traditionally understood, is not within nature, but outside it.  (For our purposes I will just refer to Hume’s “Deity” as God as that is the deity that Hume had in mind, and this avoids confusion with some other notion of a god as inside nature, or nature itself, or whatever.)  This is what allows God to speak the universe into existence, stand outside of time, stand outside of space, etc.  God is not natural; He is supernatural.  So, if something outside of nature sticks its finger into the world and changes events, this is a violation of natural law in that things are now different from how they would have been had the rules that govern events within nature been allowed to happen without intervention.

What McLachlan has done is to attempt to use different notions of miracle, God, and even natural law than were intended by Hume.  Further, I think it is fair to say that Hume was relying on the common usages of those words rather than some strange, specialized definitions.  As such, it is strange and a little ridiculous that McLachlan should attempt to shift the definition in the way that he does in order to say that Hume has made some sort of logical error.  There is no error here.  Once you understand what Hume meant by natural law, and almost everyone reading Hume does as it is the common usage, then his description of miracles as being a violation of those laws, as an event that goes against what would be the case were events left alone by outside, supernatural beings, is perfectly reasonable.  There is nothing like the internal contradiction suggested by McLachlan.

At this point it gets even weirder, and, in my opinion, more dishonest. 

Here I should explain why Hume was talking about miracles in the first place.  His position was that, because miracles violate natural law, it is always going to be the case that some explanation that does not rely on violations of natural law are more likely than a miraculous event.  So, given the options of believing that someone flew without the assistance of any sort of device and believing that reports of that flight are the result of some event that doesn’t violate natural law, it is more reasonable to go with the latter.  That is, it is more likely that someone lied, someone hallucinated, someone was fooled, or that someone was simply mistaken, than it is that a person was able to fly under their own power.  For this reason, we are never justified in believing that miracles occurred.  The alternatives that do not violate natural law are always more reasonable.  And I would like to say that most everyone already buys into this in their everyday life.  I don’t know anyone who would take me at my word if I told them that I saw a man flying.  They might believe that I believe I saw a man fly, that I am not intentionally deceiving them, but they would not believe that there really was a man flying by will alone.  And that is exactly the position they should take.  I think we would find it odd and worrisome if someone believed that a man flew merely on the word of someone they knew.

McLachlan brings up Richard Dawkins’ assertion that it is absurd to believe that Jesus really was born of a virgin.  Dawkins asserts that it is much more likely that something else occurred than a virgin actually having a child.  McLachlan responds to that in this way:

If Jesus was born of a virgin, it does not follow that a law of nature was violated. To say "if A, then B" is not to say that there will be a B only if there is an A.

For instance, human clones could be born of virgins – without violating a universal law. In the Humean sense of a violation of a law of nature, virgin births and the examples of "miracles" that Dawkins gives are not, if they occurred, necessarily violations of natural laws. They are uncommon, possibly astonishing, but as Hume himself said when he was defending suicide, all that occurs is natural, whether or not it occurs frequently.

This to me smacks of dishonesty.  Of course Dawkins was not referring to clones.  Of course Dawkins would not take that to be miraculous, and neither would the proponents of Christianity who maintain that Christ’s birth was, in fact, a miracle.  I will say more about this at the end, but if McLachlan’s purposes in writing this article have anything to do with defending religious beliefs from being labeled irrational, he has not done so here.  On the contrary, what he has done is belittle them by misrepresenting them in such a patronizing fashion.  Christians think there is something different from Christ’s birth and the process of cloning an organism and implanting that fertilized egg in the womb of a virgin.  Clearly, the latter is not literally miraculous, and I am skeptical that anyone would suggest otherwise.  To equate these two kinds of events is not only to misrepresent Dawkins, it is to misrepresent the beliefs of the religious as well.

From here McLachlan attempts to show that one can accept scientific explanations alongside with miraculous ones, and that miracles can even have scientific explanations.  He says that “some people might think of ‘miracles’ as particular juxtapositions of events, each of which has a correct and acceptable scientific explanation.”  As an example of this he talks about the Azande tribe:

Consider the Azande, an African tribe whose members believe all deaths and misfortunes are caused by either witchcraft or sorcery. Suppose a falling branch kills someone. On one level, the tribe accepts a scientific account of the incident in terms of, say, the effect of termites on wood. But on another level, they ask why did it come about that the particular person happened to be standing under the tree when the branch happened to fall?

We are unlikely to ask that particular question, and unlikely to accept their particular explanation, but it is not at all clear why we should say that questions of that sort are inappropriate. There is no apparent clash with science or hostility to it, as the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard, who studied the Azande, was keen to stress.

Except, of course, there is a clash with a scientific explanation of the event, regardless of what anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard might say.  Though such an explanation might not be immediately available to us, there is some physical description of the events that took place, of the natural causal chain that led that person to be standing under that branch at that time, and there will be no room for either witchcraft or sorcery.  There will be no place in that explanation for spell-casting or voo-doo dolls.  Moreover, it is irrational for anyone to think that bad mojo was to blame given the lack of evidence in favor of that position and the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

But it’s worse than that.  It just makes no sense to label an event with a fully naturalistic explanation as “miraculous,” which is exactly what McLachlan says is acceptable.  If that is the case, what could a miracle even be?  What does the word even mean?  How could we distinguish between miraculous events and non-miraculous events?  By attempting to justify the belief in miracles and reconcile such with scientific explanation, McLachlan just goes off the rails and leaves the reader without any idea what he even thinks a miracle might be.

At this time I want to say something about McLachlan’s motivations.  It is clear that he is attempting to reconcile religion with science.  This has become a major pastime for some religious individuals and those sympathetic to their plight.  The first paragraph of McLachlan’s article reads:

These days most people think it unscientific to believe in "miracles", and irreligious not to believe in them. But would the occurrence of miracles really violate the principles of science? And would their non-occurrence really undermine religion? David Hume and Richard Dawkins have attempted to answer these questions in their different ways, but I am not convinced by their arguments, and for me they remain open questions.

His goal is to leave open the possibility that belief in the miraculous and belief in scientific explanation are compatible.  But in the process of attempting that argument, he had to change the definition of ‘miracle’ to something unspecified and unrecognizable.  Further, he had to reduce the miraculous beliefs of many of the religious to a caricature of those beliefs, something in no way generous to them.  And this is the problem I see over and over in these kinds of arguments.  In order to achieve some kind of compatibility the positions of both sides have to be altered to such a degree that the characterization offered in no way line up with the actual positions that are supposed to be reconciled with each other.  The result is something that is insulting to all sides, and that includes the reputation of the person attempting the reconciliation.  This is the primary reason why so many of these kinds of arguments fail, and this one is no different.

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Evolution Does Not Defeat Naturalism

Alvin Plantinga is one of those philosophers that the ID crowd likes to name-drop when attempting to justify their positions.  Recently, he published a short five-page essay entitled "Evolutions vs. Naturalism," and subtitled, “Why they are like oil and water.”  The gist of the essay, obviously, is that Plantinga thinks that evolutionary theory is the downfall of philosophical naturalism.  He writes, “Evolutionary naturalism, therefore—the belief in the combination of naturalism and evolution—is self-refuting, self-destructive, shoots itself in the foot.”  Some of you reading this might find this puzzling and wonder just how Plantinga’s argument works.  After all, evolutionary theory is often considered to be the metaphorical final trumpet call of naturalism defeating other ontologies (though, personally, I would suggest some caution before sounding the victory), certainly not its refutation.  I’ll do my best to explain Plantinga’s position before making the case that he is wrong.

Here is how Plantinga’s argument goes:  First, Plantinga says that naturalists are materialists.  That means that our beliefs are just neurochemical reactions, wholly material with no input available from anything outside purely naturalistic means.  Next, he says that evolutionary theory explicitly says that it is our behavior that is adaptive in that our ancestors were those whose behavior was adapted to leave behind offspring that survived.  So what we have now are brains that produce behaviors that are adaptive.  These brains, then, are what cause beliefs, meaning that beliefs are purely the function of some neurophysiology that is the result of evolutionary pressure to produce behaviors that result in organisms who leave behind offspring who leave behind offspring, etc.  So far, so good.  Now, here is where the “problem” arises.  Plantinga says there is nothing within this system that cares a whit as to whether or not those beliefs are, in fact, true.  All that matters is that they are adaptive.  As such, there is no guarantee that they are right, but only that they proved successful.  Here, he quotes Patricia Churchland when she writes:

Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in the four F’s: feeding, fleeing, fighting and reproducing. The principal chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive … . Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organism’s chances of survival [Churchland’s emphasis]. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.

From this Plantinga concludes, “What [this] tells us is that the neurophysiology that produces those beliefs is adaptive, as is the behavior caused by that neurophysiology. But it simply doesn’t matter whether the beliefs also caused by that neurophysiology are true. If they are true, excellent; but if they are false, that’s fine too, provided the neurophysiology produces adaptive behavior.”  Because of this, assuming evolutionary theory is right, we have no reason to think that any of our beliefs are true at all.  And if this is right, we don’t even have a good reason to think that evolutionary theory is right.  All we are left with is a deep and pervasive skepticism.  Plantinga writes:

If evolutionary naturalism is true, then the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable is also very low. And that means that one who accepts evolutionary naturalism has a defeater for the belief that her cognitive faculties are reliable: a reason for giving up that belief, for rejecting it, for no longer holding it. If there isn’t a defeater for that defeater—a defeater-defeater, we could say—she can’t rationally believe that her cognitive faculties are reliable. No doubt she can’t help believing that they are; no doubt she will in fact continue to believe it; but that belief will be irrational. And if she has a defeater for the reliability of her cognitive faculties, she also has a defeater for any belief she takes to be produced by those faculties—which, of course, is all of her beliefs. If she can’t trust her cognitive faculties, she has a reason, with respect to each of her beliefs, to give it up. She is therefore enmeshed in a deep and bottomless skepticism. One of her beliefs, however, is her belief in evolutionary naturalism itself; so then she also has a defeater for that belief. Evolutionary naturalism, therefore—the belief in the combination of naturalism and evolution—is self-refuting, self-destructive, shoots itself in the foot. Therefore you can’t rationally accept it. For all this argument shows, it may be true; but it is irrational to hold it. So the argument isn’t an argument for the falsehood of evolutionary naturalism; it is instead for the conclusion that one cannot rationally believe (emphasis his) that proposition. Evolution, therefore, far from supporting naturalism, is incompatible with it, in the sense that you can’t rationally believe them both.

So where does this leave us?  Is Plantinga right?  Does evolutionary theory really rule out naturalism?  I don’t think so.  First, it just doesn’t seem to be the case that evolutionary pressure is the basis for most of our beliefs.  Certainly, some of them might be hardwired into us and, thus, the direct result of evolution.  Some obvious examples might be that snakes are dangerous (study has shown that it is very difficult to make most people comfortable with snakes, even those that aren’t dangerous to humans), flowers are safe (it just turns out that it’s difficult to condition most people to be afraid of flowers, even those that are poisonous), that loud noises indicate danger, and things like that.  But cases like these don’t seem to be the bulk of our everyday beliefs.  For those we need to look at the behavior that underlies belief-formation.  Then the question becomes this:  Is it likely that a process that systematically creates false beliefs will be adaptive?  Here the answer just seems to be “no.”  If I have some behavioral system that is responsible for generating the majority of my everyday beliefs- those that aren’t hardwired into me- and if that system is put together in such a way that the bulk of those beliefs are wrong, how could it possibly work that such beliefs would result in my successful navigation of the world such that I would be likely to leave behind offspring who share my behavior of systematically generating false beliefs?

Let’s look at some of the examples that Plantinga offers in terms of false beliefs that are adaptive.  In Warrant and Proper Function, Plantinga suggests a scenario that involves a hominid Paul and a hungry tiger.  In such a case the proper behavior (in terms of success defined as surviving long enough to produce offspring who survive) is to run away from the tiger.  But, several different beliefs could result in such behavior:

Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely that the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. . . . . Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. . . . or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a regularly recurring illusion, and, hoping to keep his weight down, has formed the resolution to run a mile at top speed whenever presented with such an illusion; or perhaps he thinks he is about to take part in a 1600 meter race, wants to win, and believes the appearance of the tiger is the starting signal; or perhaps . . . . Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behavior.

This kind of behavior fits nicely with the earlier description that I gave of hardwired beliefs which might be adaptive, but it does not in any way address the question of how a system that consistently generates false beliefs could be adaptive.   In fact, from what I’ve seen, Plantinga never addresses this issue, and it is not hard to see why.  There is no good way to explain why any process that generates many false beliefs would be likely to be adaptive in any significant sense.  A mechanism that produces false beliefs might cause a specific adaptive behavior (e.g. running from the Tiger because you believe it is the signal to start a race), but there is no good reason to believe that the same mechanism that generates one accidentally adaptive false belief will produce consistently adaptive behaviors.  Such a mechanism would produce an enormous variety of beliefs, mostly false and incoherent, and those beliefs would, in turn, produce behaviors which were in no way tied to the external world.  There is just no way for such a system to engender the success and survival of some organism.

Plantinga goes wrong in that he never considers that we do not arrive at the majority of our beliefs by way of some specific evolutionary pressure.  Rather, most of our beliefs are the result of a belief-generating mechanism.  It is the mechanism, then, that is adaptive, and the beliefs that fall out of it must produce behaviors that allow us to successfully navigate the world.  While it might be the case that specific false beliefs could lead to behavior that is adaptive, it seems highly unlikely that a system which produces beliefs that influence behaviors that were not themselves the result of evolutionary pressures could systematically produce false beliefs which still helped the organism survive.

There is, of course, the larger issue from which Plantinga suffers in that he presumes that if God created us, then we can trust that our beliefs are true, but I’ll save that for another day.

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About the Moral Obligations of Beliefs

It seems that a lot of people have the idea that everyone should be entitled to believe “whatever they want.” I think there’s a big problem here. There is, of course, the issue of whether or not it makes any sense whatsoever to talk about believing what we “want.” The process of belief formation is complicated and not fully understood. But, whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be the case that we can simply choose our beliefs. If you disagree with this, I would offer a simple challenge: choose at this moment to believe that the entity writing this blog is, in fact, a hyper-intelligent chicken wearing a sophisticated human suit for the purposes of fooling actual humans. I think it’s safe to say that no one reading this can succeed in such a task. As such, it would appear, prima facie, that, however we form beliefs, it is not the product of mere choice.

But there is a different issue with the idea that we should be able to believe whatever we want, one that seems more important. While it might not be the case that we can explicitly choose our beliefs, it does appear that we have at least some control over what we accept as the foundation of our beliefs. That is, some of us require some level of evidence or good reason while others do not. At least, it looks like some people don’t require what would widely be considered reliable evidence. Finding some quote on the internet that flies in the face of current research and hard data doesn’t seem to be much in the way of “evidence,” so anyone using that as the basis for their belief must be doing something other than requiring such as the basis for their beliefs.

This issue raises an obvious question: are we under some sort of obligation to only allow a certain class of thing to serve as the foundation of our beliefs? I think we are. That is, I think we are morally obligated to only allow those things which have a good evidential basis or are based on good reason to serve as the grounding of our beliefs. Of course, like anything else, we need some reason to think this is the case, so here is my reasoning on this issue.

The things that we accept as groundings for our beliefs, at least in large part, determine the actual beliefs we hold. Beliefs inform our actions. That is, they serve, (again) at least in large part, as a determining factor in the actions we take. This can be demonstrated easily. One need only imagine a scenario where an action is taken. Then ask the question “Why this and not something else?” For example, why did I put my key in the ignition of my car? At least a part of the answer to this will involve my belief that such will result in my car starting. If I didn’t believe that my car would start by doing such, I likely wouldn’t put my key in the ignition (assuming there isn’t some other pressing reason for doing so). With the above in mind it seems reasonable to suggest that our beliefs are one of, if not the primary, determining factors of our actions.

Actions have consequences, and our awareness of those consequences make us morally obligated to act in the appropriate manner. This is not to endorse some version of consequentialism, deontolgy, or any other ethical system. A recognition that actions have consequences is a primary component of all ethical systems, so what I’m saying is relevant to all of them. Recognizing, then, the moral component of acting appropriately, the role beliefs play in determining actions, and the way in which what we accept as adequate grounding for beliefs determines how beliefs are formed, it seems clear that what we accept as reasons for believing things has a moral component. So, and here’s the big conclusion of this, we are morally obligated to only accept as grounding for beliefs those things which are justified by good reason. Shortened, but recognizing the steps taken to get there, we can say this: we are morally obligated to believe only those things for which we have good reason.

So, what are the consequences of this? Looking at some timely issues, we can see just how devastating it can be to believe things without evidence. Take for example the recent proclamation by the Pope that condoms actually contribute to the problem of AIDS in Africa. Taking him at his word that he genuinely believes this, it turns out that the Pope has no good reason for believing any such thing. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that condoms dramatically decrease the risk of spreading very many STD’s, including AIDS. That means that those individuals looking to the Pope for guidance are much less likely to use condoms, and, hence, the spreading of AIDS is likely to increase because of the Pope’s actions. The Pope should have made sure he had good evidence for his beliefs before commenting on the issue. What he did was immoral in that there is a great amount of evidence on this issue, and none of it indicates that the Pope’s belief was in any way justified. Therefore, in this instance, we have a clear example of the Pope’s immorality, and it is the result of his not using evidence or good reason as the foundation of his beliefs.

The above example may seem extreme in its reach, and someone might think that it doesn’t really matter if they have good reason for their beliefs as they can’t have the same kind of widespread effect. However, it is not the scope of the consequences of the Pope’s actions that allow for them to have a moral component. Many of our actions have moral content, and, for most of us, we do not have the reach of the Pope. The point, then, is that for any action we take that has any moral content whatsoever the beliefs that inform that action should be grounded in good reason. If they are not, we are behaving immorally, and we should be judged accordingly.

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