Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Ethics of Meat-Eating update

The NYT has posted the finalists for the essay contest I mentioned in an earlier post. Brian Leiter has some interesting comments here. I agree with him with respect to the “partisan (and mostly intellectually lightweight) panel” of judges. None of the so-called defenses selected are very robust. In fact, they come across as almost apologetic.  I disagree with Leiter about it being an unimportant topic for philosophical debate, however. I just don’t think we have the makings of a robust debate in the NYT. Pity.

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Plantinga and Design Discourse, part 2

Let’s turn now to Plantinga’s assessment of Michael Behe’s biological design arguments. Plantinga takes these ID arguments seriously, and I respect him for that. Too often theists embrace the fine tuning argument but dismiss biological ID arguments (maybe because the latter aren’t as ‘respectable’ in scientific circles). But if one accepts the former, so it seems to me, one should a fortiori accept the latter. The appearance of design is even more impressive with respect to biology than with respect to physics. Plantinga is just being consistent here. His evaluation of Behe’s argument is favorable, but modest: it provides some support for theism, but isn’t a slam dunk.

Plantinga then shifts focus from design arguments to what he calls ‘design discourse.’ This is the novel innovation in the book. It is quite natural to interpret what Behe, or his predecessor William Paley, are doing as giving an argument that some feature of the natural world is designed. These design arguments come in different forms: arguments from analogy or inference to the best explanation, for example. These approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. However, what if we interpret what Behe and Paley are doing, not as design arguments, but as design discourse? In other words, what Behe and Paley are doing is not primarily providing us with an argument from which we then infer design; rather they are putting us in a position in which we can perceive design. Plantinga, as he has before, talks about the way we form beliefs in other minds, other peoples’ mental states, the past, etc. We don’t arrive at these beliefs through an argument; we simply perceive them if our cognitive faculties are functioning properly. In a similar way, design discourse puts us in a situation in which we can perceive design in a basic way.

This perception of design is common and compelling. Dawkins admits that the living world displays the overwhelming appearance of being designed (even though he thinks it isn’t). Plantinga also quotes Francis Crick, also no friend of theism, who says: “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved” (p. 257). Plantinga thinks that the reason for this is that what biologists see looks for all the world as if it were designed. This perception of design is so strong that biologists must constantly remind themselves otherwise. I have to say that I’ve experienced this design perception myself. I remember seeing one of those David Attenborough nature programs about a certain type of bio-luminescent fish. Later, while on a long drive, I remember the feeling of utter incredulity that this creature could have evolved by chance. I was certainly familiar with the theory of evolution, and certainly knew what the evolutionist’s comeback would be, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I take it that this is what Plantinga has in mind regarding the perception of design.

But let’s give the evolutionist his due: the beauty of Darwin’s theory is it’s power to explain how creatures which overwhelmingly display the appearance of design, could come about by purely blind, mechanical means. Shouldn’t this cause us to second guess our design perception, regardless of how strong it might be? Plantinga anticipates this objection. Of course, basic beliefs are not immune to defeaters. To use one of Plantinga’s examples, if I seem to see a sheep in a field, I’ve formed the belief “there is a sheep in that field” in a properly basic way. However, if you, the owner of the field, come along and tell me that there are no sheep in the field, but it’s frequented by a dog that can be mistaken for a sheep at a distance, I will have a defeater for my belief that there is a sheep in the field. Now, there are different types of defeaters. If you tell me that there are no sheep in the field, I will have a rebutting defeater for my belief; I will now believe that there are no sheep in the field. But, if you tell me there may be a sheep in the field, but there may also be a dog that is easily mistaken for a sheep, I will have an undercutting defeater. I will no longer be confident that there is a sheep in the field, but nor will I think that there isn’t a sheep in the field. Moreover, undercutting defeaters come in different strengths. For example, one might have a weak or partial undercutting defeater.

Restating our question: does the theory of evolution constitute a defeater of design beliefs formed in a basic way? And if so, is evolution a rebutting defeater or an undercutting defeater? And if the latter, is it strong or weak? Plantinga argues that evolution does constitute a defeater to design beliefs, but it is only a partial undercutting defeater (p. 256). That is to say, it should reduce our confidence in our design beliefs, but not by much. How much is ‘not much’? Plantinga thinks there is no general answer to this question. It’s hard to say how much evolution should reduce our confidence in design beliefs formed in a properly basic way, i.e. by perception. Presumably, however, Plantinga thinks it shouldn’t reduce our confidence enough to make us agnostic on the matter of whether design is present. Far from evolution being a rebutting defeater of design, as Dawkins would claim, we have at best a partial undercutting defeater.

I’m not sure I agree with Plantinga about the degree to which evolution constitutes a defeater of design beliefs. I agree that it’s not a rebutting defeater, but I suspect it’s a stronger undercutting defeater than Plantinga does. In other words, once one is aware of evolution, one has a defeater for one’s design beliefs, i.e. one should have reduced confidence in one’s belief that design is present. To revisit my above example, I see a documentary featuring a remarkable bio-luminescent fish. Upon reflecting on this creature, I’m taken with the belief that it must be designed. I can’t, in that moment, imagine how it might have come about by chance. But then I recall that Darwin and subsequent biologists have explained that much of what looks designed is perfectly explicable in terms of blind physical forces. For all I know, there is a similar explanation for the bio-luminescent fish. I therefore have a defeater for my design belief. My confidence in it is thereby reduced, I would guess by at least half. It’s an undercutting defeater insofar as I can’t say with confidence that it isn’t designed, but neither can I be confident in saying that it is designed. At best, I think we’re left with agnosticism at this stage, barring any further information. So I have to conclude that evolution is a successful defeater for my design belief in this case. Nonetheless, I think Plantinga’s introduction of design discourse is a fruitful way to think about these issues.

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Plantinga and Design Discourse, part 1

I recently finished reading Alvin Plantinga’s new book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. The book is written with Plantinga’s usual clarity and wit and is well worth your time. His thesis is that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. For the purposes of this entry, I want to take a look at Plantinga’s assessment of design arguments, and also what he calls ‘design discourse.’

Naturally, Plantinga addresses evolution, the major competitor to design with respect to a general theory of our existence. Plantinga argues that evolution is compatible with theism; what is incompatible with theism is unguided evolution. He contends, however, that being unguided is no part of evolutionary theory proper, but a philosophical or theological add-on. But isn’t the driving force of evolution random mutations? Yes, but randomness in this context only means that there is no physical mechanism in the organism that detects which mutations would be beneficial and selects them (p. 12). This description is compatible with God, or some other guiding force, selecting mutations that are beneficial for the organism. However, this does add to mutation and natural selection an additional, non-natural, selection mechanism that we arguably cannot detect, i.e. it would be empirically indistinguishable from random mutation and natural selection alone. Thus, even if we grant that the property of being unguided is no part of evolution proper, if simplicity is a virtue of scientific theories, and if the extra hypothesis makes no observable difference, it seems that Ockham’s Razor would apply.

But Plantinga doesn’t see the design hypothesis as superfluous. In fact, he expresses doubts about the efficacy of evolution to produce certain structures, like the mammalian eye. Here he takes up Dawkins argument in the Blind Watchmaker that it is at least possible, i.e not prohibitively improbable, that these structures could have arisen without design. Plantinga appeals to Behe’s irreducible complexity argument which suggests that such structures arising by unguided evolution are prohibitively improbable. He says more about Behe later on and so will I. Note for the moment that Plantinga thinks that the design proponent is in pretty good shape. After all, if one is a naturalist, evolution is the only game in town (p. 24). Complex life simply must have arisen by unguided processes. But the theist has more freedom when faced with these alleged improbabilities; God could have created life in any number of ways, including intelligent design. Yes, but then the main contours of evolutionary theory (which neither Plantinga nor Behe deny) provide some prima facie evidence for naturalism. The probability of evolution on naturalism is 1. It’s probability on theism is at best .5. Special creation is a live option for an omnipotent agent. Thus, if we observe evolution and not special creation, this is more telling in favor of naturalism. Paul Draper has presented an argument to that effect, to which Plantinga responds on p. 51.

Another aspect of Draper’s argument is that evolution exacerbates the problem of evil. Plantinga denies that evolution gives us a novel version of the problem of evil (p. 56). I have to say that I find this counter-intuitive in excelsis. It seems self-evidently true that evolution over billions of years entails far greater suffering than special creation, say, 10,000 years ago. I have no truck with young earth creationism with respect to science, but the theological implications of this position (e.g. no death before the Fall) are arguably what one would expect of a benevolent God’s design. It seems to me that evolution greatly exacerbates the problem of gratuitous evil (Rowe’s fawn times a billion) in a way that special creation, if true, would not. Of course, special creation isn’t true, but again, this seems prima facie to favor naturalism over theism. Plantinga gets around this problem by saying that there are other features of the world (besides evolution and suffering) that, when added to our evidence, swing the probability in favor of theism. Such features include the existence of intelligent, conscious life, the existence of beings with a moral sense, and the existence of beings with the sensus divinitatus. However, if you think that these features are deflationary or can reasonably be explained on naturalistic grounds, then you’re probably going to disagree with Plantinga.

Chapter 7 deals with the fine tuning argument (FTA). Especially interesting is the normalizability objection (pp. 205 — 212) raised by Lydia and Timothy McGrew. The objection, which gets quite technical, goes like this: there are no logical limits to the parameters of the universe. Because the range of values is infinite, there is no way to make the probabilities add up to 1. Contrast this to the odds of rolling a number from 1 to 6 on a six-sided die: 1/6+1/6+1/6+1/6+1/6+1/6=1. Since the odds with respect to the universe do not add up to 1, the FTA cannot be coherently stated. However, Plantinga argues that this objection proves too much. Consider a celestial message that reads “I am the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” This message would have to be in a message permitting range — not too close, not too distant — in order to function as a message. But there are no logical limits on these message permitting values. We have the same problem that we do with respect to the FTA. However, if there were such a message it would certainly be impressive evidence of design. But there is a further objection in the neighborhood: if the range of probabilities is infinite, even if the life permitting range is very large, we would have to say that it is almost certainly designed — the odds against it would be infinite after all. Thus ‘coarse tuning’ is just as improbable as ‘fine tuning.’ Also, we might have to say that coarse tuning arguments are just as good as fine tuning arguments, but this strikes us as counter-intuitive. Plantinga responds by saying that coarse tuning arguments would be good arguments! When dealing with infinite values, our intuitions lead us astray. While this may be so, I find it hard to believe that evidence that the universe is coarsely tuned would be as favorable to theism as evidence that it is finely tuned. But this fits with Plantinga’s modest assessment of the FTA: it provides some mild support for theism. So too, I suppose, would a coarse tuning argument.

I will address some further items of interest from Plantinga’s book in an upcoming post.

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Jesus Lives!

Jesus Lives! Well, at least as far as those marketing his name are concerned. Yes, at this time of year we’re bound to get books and TV specials all about him. These vary widely in quality, so I thought I’d talk about a few: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Let’s start with the good. Bart Ehrman has come out with a new book called Did Jesus Exist? Ehrman has made a lucrative career writing popular skeptical books about Jesus and the gospels, such as Misquoting Jesus and Forged. A prolific and engaging author, Ehrman’s latest venture makes the case that Jesus was indeed a historical person. Unlike his previous works, this one has Ehrman arguing alongside apologists and against so-called mythicists, like Robert Price and Richard Carrier, who argue that Jesus is a mythological figure. I have to say that I’m with Ehrman on this issue. I’ve taken enough New Testament studies courses to know that the majority of scholars, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, claim that Jesus almost certainly existed. Of course, many would argue that the gospels contain legendary material, but that there was a first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus of Nazareth is not disputed. Although mythicism is universally rejected by mainstream scholarship, it enjoys popularity among internet ‘infidels.’ I’ve never understood this phenomenon. It’s always struck me as the atheistic equivalent of young earth creationism. I think Ehrman, an agnostic, is doing his fellow skeptics a service here.

So much for the good. Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor are at it again. A few years ago, they, along with James Cameron, produced a documentary in which they claimed to have uncovered the Jesus family tomb. The tomb in Jerusalem, called the Talpiot tomb, had been actually discovered in 1980 and contained ten ossuaries, or bone boxes, with inscriptions. Among the inscriptions were two Marys, and most intriguingly, Jesus son of Joseph. Of course, all of these are very common first century names. Jacobovici and Tabor commissioned a statistical study to calculate the odds that these names would be found together in the same tomb. The assumptions used to derive these statistics were heavily criticized. For example, the study assumed the rarest variants of the names. But even assuming the 600 to 1 number that the University of Toronto study came up with, we shouldn’t place much confidence in the hypothesis that this is the burial place of the Jesus of the New Testament. Think about it this way: the odds of finding the burial place of one man from the first century are close to zero. All the 600 to 1 figure means in this context is that the hypothesis that we’ve found the tomb of Jesus is 600 times more likely than it was before. But since the prior probability was next to nil, saying it’s 600 times more likely now, still doesn’t mean it’s very probable. But I digress. They’ve now excavated a first century tomb next door, containing two ossuaries with markings they claim are the earliest evidence of Christian belief in the resurrection. The ossuaries are decorated with what Jacobovici and Tabor interpret as Christian symbols: a cross and the so-called ‘sign of Jonah.’ The latter symbol is controversial. It could be interpreted as a fish with a man coming out of its mouth, but it could equally (and perhaps more plausibly) be interpreted as a pillar, vase, or urn with a circular ‘nephesh’, or soul, symbol, which has been found on many other ossuaries of the period. There is also an inconsistency in Jacobovici’s and Tabor’s thesis. They claim that the two tombs are related: in the one, they claim to have found evidence of early Christian belief in the resurrection and in the other, they claim to have found the bones of Jesus. This raises the question: how did the early Christians believe in the resurrection with the bones of Jesus residing next door? Jacobovici says that perhaps they interpreted resurrection in a non-physical sense. Unfortunately, this flies in the face of pretty much all the documentary evidence we have.

Now, the ugly. Thomas de Wasselow, a maverick former art historian at Cambridge, has published a book on the Shroud of Turin called The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection. He argues the Shroud is the authentic burial garment of Jesus. He contends, for various reasons, that it couldn’t be a medieval forgery and that the 1988 carbon date that placed the Shroud in the 14th c. is flawed. So far, there’s nothing new here that self-proclaimed ‘shroudies’ haven’t been saying for years. The novelty of de Wasselow’s argument is to claim that the Shroud explains the early Christian belief in the resurrection. In other words, what the earliest disciples saw, was not the resurrected Christ, but the Shroud itself. This accounts for why the gospel writers claim that the earliest witnesses had difficulty recognizing the risen Jesus. Furthermore, he claims that the Shroud would have been viewed animistically, as a living presence. Based on the Shroud, the disciples formed the belief that Jesus was alive. Thus, sightings of the risen Jesus are reinterpreted as showings of the Shroud. As for how the image got on the Shroud, de Wasselow claims it was a chemical reaction, called the Maillard effect, between vapors leaving the postmortem body and the linen. Again, even though the body was found in the tomb, wrapped in the Shroud, the disciples inferred a resurrection and later gospel writers modified the story to feature an empty tomb. Regardless, of where one stands on the authenticity of the Shroud or the historicity of the Resurrection, this thesis is just plain silly. This is speculative, amateur history at its worst. Therefore, it wins the ‘ugly’ spot, narrowly beating out Jacobivici’s and Tabor’s new TV special, The Jesus Discovery.

So Jesus lives, as long as people stand to make money off his good name. The poor man must be spinning in his grave.

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The Fool Hath Said in His Heart …

“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Psalm 14:1 KJV

Happy April Fools’ Day.  Drawing my inspiration from the Psalmist, I thought it would be particularly fitting to talk about atheism today. In the tradition of Gaunilo, I shall write, as it were, on behalf of the fool. Some atheists might balk at this reclamation of ‘fool.’ We’re ‘brights’ remember? Relax. Don’t get hung up on labels. The fact is, atheism is much misunderstood, and there’s a lot of misinformation about what exactly it is and what it entails. Calling ourselves ‘brights’ and holding ‘Reason Rallies’ is not going to help our public image. It’s condescending to suggest that ‘brights’ have a monopoly on reason; they don’t. I’ve never understood the propensity of ‘free-thinkers’ to rally around a celebrity atheist like Richard Dawkins with cult-like devotion. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Why would we mirror the very religious fervor we criticize? Ironically, like churches, these secular conclaves are usually preaching to the choir. Since the popular proponents of atheism, are, ironically, responsible for many of the misunderstandings about atheism, it’s time to set the record straight.

First, what is atheism? Actually, I think Psalm 14:1 offers a useful definition. Atheism is the claim that there is no God. Whoa! I hear some atheists object: atheism is simply the lack of belief in God, or unbelief. But, of course, simple lack of belief in God, or unbelief, is ambiguous. It describes a range of unbelieving positions. For example, it describes agnostics (people who don’t know if there’s a God), so-called ‘apatheists’ (people who don’t care if there’s a God), practical atheists (people who live as though there is no God), weak atheists (people who don’t think there’s any evidence for God’s existence, but claim that we can’t know that God doesn’t exist), strong atheists (people who claim that we can know that God doesn’t exist), and what I’ll call moderate atheists (people who think that we have good inductive grounds for thinking God doesn’t exist, but these are short of a disproof). So I think we need to define atheism in stronger terms than mere ‘unbelief.’

Why do some atheists have a problem with this stronger claim? I don’t know. It’s baffling to me. But as a cursory tour of popular atheist websites and message boards will tell you, it’s a big deal. But I think if you press these atheists, they actually want to make a stronger claim than that they ‘lack belief in God.’ For example, Dawkins argues like this: Most believers are ‘atheists’ with respect to most of the gods humanity has believed in over the millennia. Take Zeus, for example. Nobody these days believes in Zeus, but surely we don’t want to say that we’re merely agnostic about Zeus’ existence. We’re pretty sure Zeus doesn’t exist. That’s precisely my point. If we’re not merely agnostic with respect to Zeus, we’re making a stronger claim than that we ‘lack belief in Zeus.’ So Dawkins is a ‘moderate/leaning to strong atheist’ (I think he rates himself as a 6.9 on a 7 point scale). Side note: Dawkins is wrong, of course, that believers are ‘atheists with respect to Zeus.’ Believers aren’t atheists in any respect because they believe in at least one God. By definition, they can’t be atheists; atheists don’t believe in any gods. We should be able to agree on that much.

Another way atheist popularizers misrepresent atheism, is to conflate it with naturalism. The two are not synonymous. Atheism is a negation: it says there is no God. Naturalism says that the natural world is all there is. The only sorts of things that exist are natural objects that can be described by our best science. Thus naturalism entails both ontological and epistemological claims. Now, of course, naturalism entails atheism. If you are a naturalist, you are also an atheist. But the converse is not necessarily true; one can be an atheist without necessarily being a naturalist. Alvin Plantinga defines naturalism as the belief that there is no such person as God or anything like God. That seems to be right. By contrast, one could be an atheist with respect to the Judeo-Christian God, but merely agnostic with respect to a deistic god. Likewise, one could be an atheist with respect to an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God, but agnostic with respect to an impressively powerful, knowledgeable, and good god. Granted, atheism and naturalism often go hand in hand, but there’s no logically necessary relationship between them. Also, atheism is not scientism, the view that the only source of knowledge is science. Scientism is arguably the epistemological corollary to naturalism that I mentioned earlier. But atheism simpliciter is not committed to scientism either. However, most celebrity atheists and their followers are committed to scientism, such that the general public can be forgiven for thinking that it’s simply part and parcel of the definition of atheism.

Furthermore, atheism does not necessarily entail hatred of religion or disdain or disrespect for religious people and institutions. The new atheists clearly do disdain religion, but that is an add-on to atheism, not part of the definition of atheism. It’s certainly possible for an atheist to think that religion is, or at least can be, a source of social benefit. It’s also no part of the definition of atheism to claim that theists are irrational for believing in God. This strikes me as one of the major differences between popular atheism and academic atheism. In the academy, at least among philosophers who specialize in philosophy of religion (here I’m referring to atheists who specialize in this field) and epistemology, it is rare to find anyone claiming that belief in God is irrational, or that belief in God cannot be affirmed by any rational person. By contrast, the new atheists say this ad nauseum. But simply repeating a claim doesn’t make it true or even intellectually respectable.

Finally — and this should be obvious — atheism does not equal liberalism. You cannot infer anything about a person’s politics from the mere fact that she’s an atheist. Atheists only agree on one thing: there isn’t a God. They disagree on almost everything else, including politics. Getting atheists on the same page is like herding cats. However, the perception seems to be that atheists are mostly leftists — perhaps remnants of the communist boogeyman — who want to seize political power and remove all references to God, and the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage, that remain in our culture. There is a vocal minority of atheists who fit this stereotype, but most do not. I would never want to remove the vestiges of Christendom from our culture. I resonate with them deeply on a poetic level. Nor would I want to promote ignorance of the Bible. It’s a book everyone should read, if for no other reason than to understand the world in which we live. The Bible should also — dare I say it —  be taught to children (just not in science class). It’s an aspect of education that’s been sadly sacrificed in the name of political correctness. The fact is, atheists don’t clamour for political power. When atheism makes the news, due to legal action in some red state, it’s usually because the religious majority has unwittingly infringed on an atheist’s civil rights. However, I suspect that in the majority of these cases, the parties to the discussion work it out, and it never makes it to the courts, or into the news. But atheists, like any minority, can succumb to the temptation to play the victim and develop a persecution complex. I can’t think of a less helpful approach. What’s needed is clarity about what atheism means and what it doesn’t. Unfortunately, the so-called ‘brights’ are just muddying the issue further.

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