December 18, 2010

Comparative apologetics

In a recent debate with Christopher Hitchens, Tony Blair said the perpetrators of witch hunts and the Inquisition were not practicing the "true religion." I could as well claim that Stalin and his ilk were not practicing true secularism. I have every bit as much authority to rule on what is true secularism as Blair has to rule on what is true religion.

Some people who do good things do them for religious reasons. I don't have a problem with that proposition. I have a problem with the inference from it that religious beliefs are thereby justified. If you're going to insist that the atrocities do not discredit religion, you cannot then use some charities to credit religion without blatant special pleading.

One thing that muddies nearly every debate like this is a supposition that the choices boil down to just religion or non-religion. And that is clearly absurd. It is obvious to all but anti-religious bigots that there are lots of different religions and that some are better than the others. Likewise there are lots of  different secularisms, and some of them are better than others, too. That does not by itself rule out the possibility of there being good reasons to prefer one over the other, but it ought to establish a prima facie case against demonizing either one.

Possibly the day will come when either religion or secularism vanishes from human history. It does seem improbable, and certainly is not going to happen within the next several generations. Whether it never happens or happens only a long time from now, in the meantime we're going to have to get along with each other somehow.

December 5, 2010

Reflections on quantum defiance of classical logic

A commitment to rational inquiry gave us science. Science seems to have returned the favor by trashing classical logic, without which rational inquiry is impossible.

Reality at the quantum level apparently defies the laws of noncontradiction and excluded middle. There are things you can say about, for example, an electron that are, take your pick, either both true and false or else neither true nor false.

This is regarded in some intellectual circles as good news. In these circles, irrationalism is a virtue because rationalism is for fascists, and if the axioms of logic can be ignored -- as nature itself seems to ignore them -- then irrationalism  is justified. This is akin to the creationist argument that evolutionary theory was falsified when Piltdown man was proved to be a hoax. Superficially, quantum defiance seems a bit more respectable, but it does not withstand close scrutiny any better.

A tempting counterargument is that considering the history of science, we are scarcely justified in supposing that any current theory is the last word to be had on its subject. Eternal truths are the stuff of religion, not science. Some discovery next week or in the next century could force a revision of quantum theory that restores its consistency with classical logic. However, nothing that might possibly happen for all we know can count as evidence against anything that we do know is happening right now. Current theory, scientific or philosophical, has to explain current observations.

When science quarrels with philosophy, philosophy is bound to lose, but there does not have to be any quarrel if philosophy gets its act properly together.

The axioms of logic were never supposed to be about reality per se. They are supposed to be about how we should think. Truth and falsity are characteristics of propositions, which are instantiated only in statements. If the axioms apparently  do not apply to an identifiable category of statements, then we can make an exception for that category if all else fails.

The existence of black swans in Australia does not falsify the observation that all swans in the rest of the world are white. Exceptions do not prove rules, and they do not disprove them, either, as long as they are called exceptions. They would not be  exceptions without the rules. All swans are white except for some in Australia. No problem. As long as we are not in Australia, then it's still the case that all swans are white. And as long as we're not discussing quantum mechanics, the axioms of logic are in force.

Alternatively, we could say that the axioms apply to all meaningful statements and thereby define what makes a statement meaningful. Perhaps statements about quantum physics are not actually meaningful. It is claimed, after all, that no one really understands quantum physics. Maybe that's why.

November 25, 2010

Random reflections

(A few not-entirely-connected thoughts jotted down during a slow night)

Whenever an ideological war is going in, anyone whom both sides hate is almost certainly doing something right. And no matter the cause, those who demonize their opponents are not helping it.

Demonization is an easy charge to make, which could be why the usual defense is simply to ignore it and go on as if nobody had made it. If for any reason it cannot be ignored, there is always a fallback defense that the adversary actually did do something demonic. In terms of effect on public opinion, it will rarely matter whether the perpetrators were truly representative of the opposing  viewpoint. If you're already pretty sure that the average environmentalist is at least a closet luddite, then eco-terrorism is just environmentalism taken to its logical conclusion.

The protracted conflict is not between the good and the evil or between the wise and the foolish. Nor is it between the altruists and the self-centered, or between the prometheans and the luddites. Those skirmishes do happen continually, but they are subsidiary battles in the greater war, which is between mythos and logos, one side of which as the advantage of having convinced so many that the war is a figment of the other side's imagination.

As the abortion debate has been derailed by relabeling it as between pro-life and pro-choice, so has mythos versus logos been derailed as faith versus reason or religion versus science. In both cases the new labels do identify salient points that the debate has to address, but the result of focusing on them is both sides ignore the real  fundamentals on which the controversy hinges. The downside is that the war will continue indefinitely because nobody is allowed to win. The upside is that nobody can lose, either. The fight goes on interminably and everyone on both sides can feel honorable for keeping it going. Neither faith nor reason can ever or will ever be discredited, and there is no way to make either life or personal freedom look like something no one should be defending.

As with most human dichotomies, mythos and logos are nowhere instantiated in pure form. They encode emphases, not discrete activities. The emphasis in mythos is on received wisdom. A myth, whether in classical form or in some other kind of story, provides tradition-approved answers to our questions. We know they are the right answers because the wisest among our ancestors accepted them; otherwise they would not have passed them along to us. Having received these answers with this kind of endorsement, we had better accept them, too, and pass them along in our turn to our descendents.

Mythos was first instantiated in classical myths because, in pre-literate cultures, stories of that sort were easy to remember and to transmit across generations. They could also evolve easily as the need presented itself. Realization of this evolutionary capability seems to have contributed to the widespread supposition that most or all myths, though currently nonfactual, originated as factual stories about real people and real events.

Logos is the idea that we of the current generation can, may, and should use our own minds to critique any received wisdom and, in the event we find it wanting in any respect, seek and critique alternatives. It tends to be equated with science in the modern world because that is where logos has led most of its followers in recent centuries. But the emphasis is on the intellectual self-sufficiency of people living now. We can do our own thinking, and we have every right to do it, notwithstanding any debt we may owe to our predecessors for pointing us in the right direction.

There is no necessary conflict. It does not follow that there is, on some appropriate construal of each, necessarily no conflict. Armstrong and Gould say that mythos and logos answer different questions. Who made that decision? Logos says we should think for ourselves. To accept the thesis of separate magisteria is to forfeit the game to mythos for those questions that mythos says  are its own just because logos has not yet succeeded in answering them to everyone's satisfaction.

Mythos is not just about deference to authority and logos is not just about free thought.

Dialogue is impeded by the semantic multivalence of "myth." For more than a few skeptics it means more or less "pack of lies."

"Skeptic" itself has the same problem. To some it's just the rejection of religion. In philosophical discourse a skeptic is one who believe that knowledge is unattainable, for all of us and about anything, or practically anything. For members or friends of the Skeptic Society or Committee for Inquiry, skepticism is a general attitude of scientific rationalism, identified by some of its critics as "scientism."  

Skepticism per se is just a "show me" attitude, the position that someone's say-so is not sufficient evidence for the assertion under discussion. The paradigmatic skeptic is a conscientious juror. The prosecutor says, "This man is  guilty." The juror responds, "I don't think so, but I'm prepared to change my mind if you have enough evidence."

A stance of "I don't think so, and nothing that you show me could make me think so" is a kind of skepticism, but not the kind advocated by most of us who call ourselves skeptics. It is good to maintain a distinction between skepticism and doxastic intransigence.

Mythos offers answers and presumes their acceptance. Logos questions answers but without necessarily doubting them. Logos regards many current answers as matters of established fact, just not infallibly. Mythos is not necessarily infallibilist, but any infallibilism is necessarily a mythos. (Not all notions of necessary truth are notions of infallibility.)

It is not clear on Armstrong's account whether it is appropriate even to ask which mythos one should buy in to. Assuming that it may be asked, the apparent answer is "whatever works for you," but then what is the criterion for working? Maybe if it makes you feel good, then it works? The 9-11 hijackers probably felt great in their final moments. Armstrong says it's a bad mythos if it motivates people to inflict pain on others. Nobody gave her any authority to make that ruling. The old Hebrew myths had no problem with genocide.

And some Christians still don't. Armstrong says Christianity got that way only after it tried to assimilate logos. She says you cannot even try to rationalize religion without making a mess of it. Well, yeah, some of us have noticed that, but we did not infer from that, that religion should be exempt from rational analysis.

Just how are we supposed to think about religion if not rationally? Armstrong tries to answer: You're not supposed to think about religion. All you're supposed to do with it is practice it. Let's look at that. She says religion (if it's the right kind, i.e. the kind she approves of) says you should do this and should not do that, but it does not say you should believe this and should not believe that. An awful lot of religions beg strenuously to differ with her, but let's leave that aside for the moment. Religions differ as to their praxises. One will say, "You should do X." Another will say, "No, you should not do X, you should do Y instead." Am I to choose one or the other without giving my choice any rational consideration? If that is even possible, it is at least not obviously possible.

In any situation where we must choose among two or more options, there are only two ways to do that. One is to be purely arbitrary or as close to it as we can get. I suspect Armstrong would not recommend that, but the only alternative is some kind of if-then thinking. But that is logos, no matter how you cut it. Even a genuinely random choice is logical in the final analysis. Suppose there are only two religions and I'm going to choose one by tossing a coin. Then I'm saying, "If heads, I choose that one, if tails, I choose the other." And there is logos again.

Mythos and logos are not exclusive, and we cannot use just one or other, with perhaps a handful of trivial exceptions. That does not mean one is always better or that one is ever better. But it is possible that one should always be preferred whenever there is a conflict, and the nonexistence of conflict cannot be established by fiat. For any question that mythos seems to answer, we should at least ask whether logos has anything to say on the subject, and if anyone says no it doesn't, then we may ask why not and demand a better answer than "Everyone says so." That begs the question anyway, because the argument to consensus is a mythos strategy.

According to Armstrong, throughout ancient times, whenever an old myth stopped working (whatever "working" meant), people would swap it for a new one. What is that, if not logos? "If the old one doesn't work then get a new one" sounds mighty logical to me. Logos has the be built into any mythos that guides people's decisions. "If it's the seventh day, then don't do any work. If your baby is male, then circumcise him. If that woman is a witch, then kill her."

It is more debatable whether, in any useful sense, mythos is built in to logos, but it is a fact that some mythos is an inseparable part of any practice of logos, not excluding pure science or even mathematics. Even in those cases, though, logos prevails in the end -- as it does in the domain of mythos, it we are to take Armstrong's word for it.

Any dispute that cannot be settled by reason must be settled by coercion or else not settled at all. The coercion need not be violent, but it will be whenever lesser means are ineffective. Settlement is not always necessary, but its avoidance requires tolerance. Tolerance may be a virtue, but it is unavoidably and irreducibly handicapped against an intolerant adversary. When only one  side is willing to compromise, that side will lose every time. The other side is guaranteed victory.

Socrates said no one knowingly does evil. Most people probably think he was just as naive as could be. And so what if it's true, if there is no way to educate them, as usually seems to be the case?

People can hardly be blamed for supposing that happiness requires getting what they want, and that virtue will sometimes cause unhappiness insofar as it may require delay of gratification. Given that we're inclined to think that way, then it's no wonder so many people are convinced that virtue is sometimes contrary to our self-interests. And from this, it seems to follow that a purely rational person will not always be virtuous. This is a mistake, but the proof will not fit into a sound bite.

October 8, 2010

Still learning after all these years

I began my formal studies in philosophy almost five years ago. In 60 years of living, I had formed plenty of opinions on most of the core issues that philosophers study. I could only hope that I was still open-minded enough to recognize any mistakes I'd made if they  were brought to my attention.

Epistemologically, I was a foundationalist, but I knew that some philosophers thought foundationalism was indefensible. I hoped I would admit it if I discovered some good reason to think they were right. I still think foundationalism is correct, but I also think it has not been defended very well. Its critics objections have not been adequately addressed, at least in any commentary I have come across so far.

I thought the Christian god was provably nonexistent, but maybe my proof had a fallacy I'd failed to notice. I hoped I could see it if that ever came to my attention. It did. It is not easy to make Christianity logically coherent, but it can be done. It then become eminently reasonable to question it on grounds of parsimony, but that is a separate issue.

My studies have forced some revisions in my thinking about science. I had to read Kuhn for a class in the philosophy of science. I had heard about him. No one who defends science against its critics can long remain unfamiliar with the name. I expected to disagree with him, and I did. Vehemently. Part of the assignment was to turn in questions or comments on each chapter. I gave the instructor many pages of vitriolic ranting. The instructor was patient. "Just read it again," she counseled, "and keep thinking about it." I read it again, and some of it started to make sense. I read it one more time, and more of it made sense.

Kuhn makes many points that are well taken, but he does not make them as well as a better writer could have made them. It may or may not be his fault that he gave so much aid and comfort to the enemies of science, but he himself was no enemy. He didn't get everything right, but what he got wrong was often as much about metaphysics as about science proper.

Science is a human activity, invented and carried out by human beings, no more infallible in its deliverances than are its practitioners. Scientists are not collectively executing some algorithm guaranteed to generate true results. Neither, in nearly all cases, are they philosophers, notwithstanding that their degrees identify them as doctors of philosophy. None of this implies that science has no epistemic advantage over other systems purporting to inform us about reality.

On scientific laws

We had to call them something, but it should have been something other than "laws." If it's too late to change the terminology, maybe it's not too late to reconsider what we mean by it.

Historically, a law, whether enacted by human government or alleged to have been enacted by God, is a rule that people are told they must comply with but that, as free agents, they can disregard if they choose to do so. What makes these rules laws as opposed, say, to mere suggestions, is that the issuing authority has the means of effecting unpleasant consequences on those who choose to  disregard them. The object of punishment is to make you wish you had not violated the law, but it cannot actually prevent you from committing the violation.

The laws of nature, though, cannot be disregarded or violated by anyone (except, according to some religions, by God). There is no penalty for violating the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics. Punishment would be pointless, because it would never be imposed. It does not mean anything to speak of penalties for violations if violations cannot happen.

What we call nature's laws are just a few observed regularities and constancies in the workings of nature. Naturalists do not suppose that the laws were imposed, i.e. enacted by any authority. They regard the regularities and constancies simply as certain basic facts that explain all other facts that we observe.

August 29, 2010

On worldviews

Adult worldviews are hard to revise. They should be. Evolution should have wired is, and apparently did, to think both "Don't fix it if it isn't broke" and "If someone tells you it's broke, they're probably trying to trick you." The emphasis is on "probably." People who never revised their worldviews no matter what would not have survived except in paradise. The other extreme is pure gullibility. That doesn't work, either.

We have to believe it possible that can be wrong, or that something we used to believe because it was true no longer is true, notwithstanding that it was supposed to be always true. But there is a world of difference between "possibly mistaken" and "really mistaken." What should it take to convince us that we actually have made a mistake? In epistemological jargon, what constitutes, or ought to constitute, a defeater?

No one has found a good algorithm yet. There is no way to guarantee that you're doing the right thing either to change your mind or not to change it. The only guarantee besides death and taxes is that the longer you manage to postpone death, the more mistakes you will make. People live long not by avoiding mistakes but by avoiding certain kinds of mistakes. Some mistakes are invariably fatal, but most are not, and evolution has given us instincts for usually avoiding the fatal kind.

August 19, 2010

On award-winning journalism

I have critiqued two of Lee Strobel's books, The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith, elsewhere on this site. I have not read his The Case for a Creator and don't plan to anytime soon, but he has produced a video summary of it, which somebody put on YouTube ( I watched it. I don't feel like taking the time to discuss it in any depth, but I do have this one observation I'd like to post, and that is about the continual reminders we get about the awards he won as a journalist.

This could sound like sour grapes, since I never won any awards when I was a journalist (with one trivial exception irrelevant to these comments). But sour grapes usually come from people who didn't get something they thought they were entitled to. I don't believe I ever deserved any awards. My work at its best was only competent. I freely admit that. But I could see what those who did win needed to have in order to win, and it was not superior intelligence. Nor was it critical-thinking skills. A journalist who has those qualities can surely use them to advantage, but they are not requisite for award-winning work as a journalist.

Strobel claims that in his youth, around the time he decided to become a journalist, he reasoned that if evolution is true, then there is no God. He also claims to have reasoned that if there is no God, then ethical principles are irrelevant. He thought morality was superfluous and, if ever it was inconvenient, then it could be ignored without consequence.

These statements prove nothing at all about either atheism or evolution. What they prove, by his saying them, is that Lee Strobel, in his youth, was a stupid, ignorant asshole. Perhaps, after he became a Christian, he stopped being an asshole, but he makes it apparent in the video that nothing else has changed.

July 16, 2010

My conservatism

My political philosophy does not fit any conventional taxonomy. I regarded myself as a liberal in my younger days, but found myself more and more in sympathy with conservatism as I transitioned into middle age. I usually call myself a conservative these days, although I support almost nothing that is supported by those currently identified with conservatism.

The following are among the principles that I regard as definitively conservative.

1. If a society has always done something in a certain way, there is probably a good reason for it.

2. One thing society has always done has been to change when change was necessary. In any case where this did not happen, that society no longer exists.

3. There is no default justification for innovation. When any members of a society say a particular change is now necessary, the burden of proof is on them.

4. The intended outcome of a proposed change is never sufficient to justify its adoption.

5. In any evaluation of present policy, it is always a fallacy to infer intended purpose from observed consequences.

July 3, 2010

'That's not us'

It is easy for skeptics to condemn religion universally. From our perspective, none of them is any more  defensible than any of the others.

We can say, "We've seen what faith can do to skyskrapers." The typical Muslim or Christian can reply, "That's not my faith you're talking about."

Very well. There are kinder, gentler religions than those that we like to rail against, and we need to appreciate they that they are the ones that attract most of the people who have any religious inclinations. And yes, the typical Christian is not a Bible-beating fundamentalist who thinks evolution is contrary to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

But is that all the justification any religion needs? That they don't want to kill infidels, or that they are not hostile to science?

During the last season of The West Wing, the Jimmy Smits character, Matt Santos, told a staffer something like, "I was hoping that we could meet a higher ethical standard than avoiding indictment." Apologists for liberal religion might want to give that some thought.

July 2, 2010

Philosopher kings? Kings no. Philosophers yes.

I am in total sympathy with people who think philosophy is  a complete waste of time. For most of my life, I was one of those people. I changed my mind for only one reason: I discovered that I had been doing philosophy all my life, just without knowing that it was philosophy.

Here are some philosophical questions:

  1. People opposed to abortion say human life begins at conception. Is that true?
  2. If the answer to question 1 is yes, how do we know?
  3. Whatever the answer to question 2, is there any possibility we could be wrong?
  4. If the answer to question 1 is no, then when does it start?
  5. Whatever the answer to question 4, is there any possibility we could be wrong?

Seeking answers to these questions is hardly a waste of  anyone's time. What really bothers most people about a philosophical approach to them is that philosophy offers no guarantee of supporting the answers they want, particularly the one answer they want most of all: a negative answer to question 5.

But there is more. Modern political correctness insists that, with certain specified exceptions such as racism, all opinions are equally worthwhile so long as they are sincerely held. No reasoned defense is necessary, but if one is offered, then any argument to a preferred conclusion is automatically valid. For one's own side in any debate, philosophical reinforcement is otiose, and for the other side it is irrelevant.

The result of these and other trends is that the fires of American political debate are now mostly  incendiary and not at all illuminating, We are becoming threatened with the thing democracy's  adversaries have warned against since classical times, the degeneration of majority rule into mob  rule. The enactment of specified rights is supposed  to guard against this eventuality, but no law can  be proof against obdurate ignorance -- ignorance not just of pertinent facts but of how best to reason from facts to defensible opinions.

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people can be no better than the people, and in particular can be no wiser than the people. Our government may derive its just powers from the consent of the governed, but that it can also derive unjust powers the same way.

When enough people become convinced that there is no important difference between a right and am entitlement, when enough of them come to believe that if all men are created equal, then so must their opinions be equal, when a majority get it into their heads that the government's  primary function is to do whatever they want it to do, then we will have meanly lost our last best hope.

We won't have philosopher kings because we won't have kings. We believe we have outgrown them as a civilization. We think we're grown up enough now to govern ourselves, making our own decisions.

But philosopher kings were actually a good idea, not because kings were a good idea but because enlightened intelligent government was a good idea. Plato was an elitist, an anti-populist. He sounded no fanfare for the common man. But at least in his utopia, genuine wisdom was a requirement for gaining and exercising political power. If we don't make it a requirement now, then the consequences won't be good just because 50 percent plus one of us asked for them.

January 28, 2010

No new atheism

During the last decade, within the space of about two years, three books defending atheism became bestsellers. Never before had the advocacy of disbelief gotten so much public attention, and there was suddenly much talk of a "new atheism."

Aside from all the attention paid to the books, there was nothing new about it. Nothing but the books' commercial success, and their coverage by mainstream journalists, was unprecedented. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and later Christopher Hitchens had nothing new to say against God or religion in general or against Christianity in particular, or in favor of skepticism or the habits of mind leading to skepticism. It had  all been said before. These four just happened to say it well enough to sell more books than atheists usually can sell. It is likely that they benefitted from a confluence of other market forces as well, but the point is, there was nothing new about the kind of atheism they were defending.

But then, they were not the ones calling it the "new  atheism," either. I have no idea when or by whom that label was  invented, but it's easy enough to see why the religious community liked it. There was a clear implication that the old atheism, whatever it might have been, had failed. Otherwise, there would have been no need for a new atheism, right? The unbelievers wouldn't have fixed it if it hadn't been broken. However, since there was not really anything new being said, no new counterarguments were needed. The defenders of faith just recycled all the old apologetics and declared victory like they've always done.

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