Encore #8: Perhaps not the strongest argument ever?

For some reason that now escapes me, I found myself in early 2008 reading An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Michael Murray and Michael Rea (published by CUP in the same wide-ranging series as my Gödel book). I can’t say that I much rated the book. Partly that’s because it seemed to have little to do with the religion of most ordinary church-goers; and partly because many of the arguments seemed dreadful, to use a technical term. I was particular entranced by this one:

Philosophy of Religion 4: Lord, Liar, Lunatic (March 30, 2008)

Pp. 75–80 of the Murray/Rea Introduction contain a rather extraordinary episode which I can’t forbear from commenting on.

They consider the following argument — they call it the “Lord-Liar-Lunatic” argument — for believing the Jesus of Nazereth was divine. Jesus claimed to be divine. The claim is either true or false. If the latter, either Jesus knew it was false, and was a liar. “On the other hand, if he unwittingly falsely claimed to be divine, then he was crazy.” But

the influence of Jesus’s teaching … has been enormous. Literally millions of people have found peace, sanity and virtue in orienting their lives round his teachings. … All of these facts together make it seem very likely that Jesus was neither so wicked and egomaniacal as to try deliberately to deceive others into thinking that he was divine, nor so mentally unbalanced as to be fundamentally confused about his own origin, powers and identity. If Jesus was not a liar or a lunatic … then there is only one alternative left: his claim to divinity was true.

Which really is a quite jaw-droppingly awful argument. Suppose we grant that Jesus claimed himself to be fully divine (I thought that was actually contended by some biblical scholars, but let it pass). And suppose he did so fully sincerely even though he wasn’t divine. Then he was indeed badly deluded. But what on earth is the problem with that? History is full of people suffering from some “crazy” delusions yet functioning very successful in other domains of life.

Murray and Rea assume that you can’t be so badly off beam as to believe yourself divine when you aren’t and still count as fully sane: it isn’t, they argue, the sort of thing you can make a straight mistake about, at least if “divine” is used in the “perfect being” sense. OK: let’s agree with Murray and Rea: if Jesus was not divine, but believed he was, then he was not fully “sane”. But — to repeat — of course delusions of various kinds are entirely compatible with functioning successfully in all sorts of ways: being a great painter or architect, say, or being a great mathematician or chess player, surely. And why not be being an inspirational moral teacher? Bad cognitive mulfunction in one area is compatible with managing spectacularly well in other areas: indeed (who knows?) it could even contribute to the successes.

Imagine a world of many messianic preachers, some indeed deluded as to their own divinity (well, there’s been a fair bit of it around over the centuries — it’s a mental virus that can infect people, it seems). Most preach a variety of messages that fall on stony ground. Some preach messages that “catch on” temporarily, but in a quite horribly destructive way. But  let’s suppose that, picking up on ideas already in the air, one charismatically preaches in a way that strikes a chord with his contemporary listeners; the message is taken up, embroidered, mixed in with other themes his followers, and propagated; and this time, let’s suppose “millions of people [find] peace, sanity and virtue in orienting their lives round [these precipitations of] his teachings”. But the fact that one such preacher happens to initiate a benignly propagating message [if that’s what we think Christianity is — of course, that’s the subject of a different argument!] isn’t any evidence at all that the originator’s pretensions to be divine are any less deluded that those of his less successful colleagues. Given enough different shots at it, and given  our apparent human propensities to be caught up by religious ideas, some deluded preachers were more or less bound to strike lucky.

Murray and Rea write that “the Lord-Liar-Lunatic argument seems to us … to be stronger than some contemporary critics have given it credit for being”. I do find that an astonishing thing to say. The argument is quite transparently hopeless.

And it still strikes me as transparently hopeless despite some of the comments the original posting received!

Ruse gets a beta minus.

Philosophers don’t get asked often enough to write for the newspapers and weeklies: so it is really annoying when an opportunity is wasted on second-rate maunderings. Michael Ruse writes in today’s Guardian on whether there is an “atheist schism”. And he immediately kicks off on the wrong foot.

As a professional philosopher my first question naturally is: “What or who is an atheist?” If you mean someone who absolutely and utterly does not believe there is any God or meaning then I doubt there are many in this group.

Eh? Where on earth has that “or meaning” come from? In what coherent sense of “meaning” does an atheist have to deny meaning?

It gets worse. Eventually a lot worse.

If, as the new atheists think, Darwinian evolutionary biology is incompatible with Christianity, then will they give me a good argument as to why the science should be taught in schools if it implies the falsity of religion? The first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America separates church and state. Why are their beliefs exempt?

That is so mind-bogglingly inept it is difficult to believe that Ruse means it seriously. Does Ruse really, really, think that the separation of church and state means that no scientific fact can be taught if it happens to be inconsistent with some holy book or religious dogma?

Ruse is upset by the stridency of Dawkins and others, and there is indeed a point to be argued here. But it is ironic that philosophers often complain that Dawkins misrepresents too many practising Christians (or Muslims, or whatever). For related misrepresentations — if that’s what they are — are to be found in more or less any philosophy of religion book. I blogged here a while back about the Murray/Rea introduction, and remarked then about the unlikely farrago of metaphysical views it foisted upon the church-goer, views which have precious little to do with why you actually go to evensong or say prayers for dying, and which indeed deserve to be well Dawkinsed.

Blackburn vs Polkinghorne

In my post about the LHC, I mentioned John Polkinghorne (that’s the Reverend Professor Sir John Polkingorne to you). He taught me quantum mechanics a long time ago, and he was a terrific lecturer and expositor. Since then, he’s become perhaps a more famous theologian than scientist, and keeps writing books trying to square his distinctly conservative theology with science. They are philosophically pretty awful. For a fun read, try my colleague Simon Blackburn lambasting a couple of Polkinghorne’s books.

Postcard from Siena – 2

In the little piazza beneath our window, children have been celebrating their first communion. Being Italy, the occasion is marked before and after by a lot of noise, clanging bells and a brass band, and the inevitable gathering for food and wine. There are proud parents and grandparents, and the youth of the village dressed more for a party than for a solemn occasion. No doubt, it all means different things to different people: but these occasions are just part of village life, and I suspect that many of the participants are just comfortable through long familiarity with participating in religious services (with more or less regularity, more or less enthusiasm), and don’t worry too much about what it all means. It is what you do, and it ceremoniously links the occasions of life with the eternal verities.

It’s a salutary reminder for philosophers who are wont to over-intellectualize religion. That was part of my beef about the Murray/Rea book on the philosophy of religion which I blogged about here. They seem to take Christian belief, at any rate, as essentially replete with detailed metaphysical commitments (commitments articulated by early Councils of the Church imbued with late Greek philosophy), and so feel that defending the coherence of religious practice involves having to dodge and weave their way through some pretty murky metaphysics. Somehow I don’t think that the local signore going along to say their rosary think of it quite like that.

Anyway, back to logic. I’ve pretty much finished correcting IFL: I’ll just make a new pdf file of the whole book from the FrameMaker files and check through that again and then I’ll send it off and forget about it. So there’s time for the serious stuff again — after all, I am supposed to be on sabbatical research leave! I’ve brought a couple of books with me for when I’m in a logical mood, Steve Awodey’s Category Theory (because I want to give it a second chance and get another perspective of the role of the concept of an adjoint functor in category theory), and Charles Parsons’s Mathematical Thought and Its Objects (because I have agreed to write a critical notice of it). So the plan of action is to comment a bit here on the Awodey book — but just as a consumer, so to speak, representing one segment of his target audience (i.e. someone who knows a little logic and wants to get to know a bit more about category theory). And I’ll start blog-reviewing the Parsons book too, which looks as if it should be a pretty rewarding read. So watch this space.

Philosophy of Religion 15: Enough already!

Suppose a first year student wrote this (about mind-body substance dualism):

There are no very persuasive arguments against dualism … Dualism is commonly mocked rather than argued against.

Then we’d berate this exhibition of sheer ignorance. We’d send the student away with a long reading list. Start, say, with the second chapter of Armstrong’s classic Materialist Theory of the Mind. Or perhaps chapters II to V (over fifty pages of careful unpicking and assessment of various arguments, pro and con) of Smith and Jones’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (yes, folks, it is still in print after 22 years: buy, buy while stocks last!). And we can, of course, add a lot more. The reason the vast majority of contemporary philosophers of mind reject naive substance dualism has nothing to do with mockery, and everything to do with the fact that that there are so many weighty problems with it that it has long since become, at the very least, a badly degenerating research program.

But that quotation doesn’t come from a first year student but from Murray and Rea’s book, at p. 266. I boggled when I read it, and despair. It really is pretty difficult to take authors who can write something like that seriously any more. My patience is at an end, so I’m going to stop. I’ll not say anything then about their feeble discussion of “evolutionary models of religious beliefs”, where they don’t even mention Dan Dennett. And I’ll not say anything about their equally feeble discussions of the status of morality.

This is not a good book. In fact, as readers of this blog will have come to suspect, I think it really is overall a rather bad, too often weakly argued, one. It is published in a prestigious series, and — especially since student texts don’t tend to get widely reviewed — it could end up being widely read (no doubt a lot more widely read than my Gödel book which rubs shoulders with it in the series!), corrupting the minds of the youth. What was CUP thinking of?

Philosophy of Religion 14: Miracles?

Those who are getting fed up with me banging on and on about the Murray/Rea Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion and are waiting for some serious stuff can rest easy. This will be the penultimate post on that book. And then it’s back to Absolute Generality (as I must finish that and write a review in the next few days). Maybe I’ll also post something elementary and expository here on Galois connections if I can sort an annoying bug in my thinking. And — if the discussion goes well enough tomorrow — I’ll post the informal talk on Szabo on “Believing in things” here too. And there’s more in the pipeline. I will return to logic matters, promise!

But in the meantime, back to Murray and Rea’s Ch. 7, “Religion and science”. There’s a central section on miracles, which makes some sound points against arguments which purport to show too quickly that the very idea of a miracle is incoherent. I won’t discuss those. They then offer the following suggestion: a miracle is “an event (ultimately) caused by God that cannot be accounted for by the natural powers of natural substances alone”. OK, let’s work with that.

Could we have evidence of the occurrence of such events? Murray and Rea imagine being present at the parting of the Red Sea (assuming it happened for the sake of argument). “If we were present for the occurrence of the event, none of us would think it more plausible that this event is to be explained by no-cause rather than a supernatural cause. … In this context it seems very plausible that the event was caused by a supernatural agent looking to rescue the Israelites.” Not so. Don’t Murray and Rea ever read any science fiction? Sure, in the described context it seems very plausible that the event was caused by some non-human agency of super-human powers. But — to borrow from the immortal Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — a Vogon constructor fleet is just as good as a hypothesis as something supernatural, if that means divine (which it does in the context). In fact it’s a better type of hypothesis, because we have some inkling how something like a Vogon constructor fleet might pull off the trick of parting the Red Sea (big engineering works being its forte) and have no clue at all about how a disembodied being gets to do major physical interventions.

Of course, if you already believe in God and don’t already believe in Vogon constructor fleets, then of course you’ll be inclined to put down the parting of the Red Sea to the first, not the second. But overlooking the possibility of rival hypotheses (not about Vogons in particular, of course, but of super-human but non-divine agency) is not exactly an intellectual virtue! The point remains that being present at the parting of the Red Sea at most gives you evidence of super-human agency, and no more. It is no evidence per se of the supernatural or divine. And hence no evidence per se of a miracle defined as an event caused by divine agency (unless you already have an argument that the only super-human agency is divine — which of course we haven’t).

But of course, most of us aren’t present at such events anyway. Beliefs in miracles usual rely on testimony. And discussions of miracles usually consider how to weigh up the likelihood of reliability of testimony when what is testified is in itself highly unlikely (and, perhaps, we also know we are in area where fraud, wishful thinking, and foolish credulity abound). Weirdly, Murray and Rea opt not to discuss this at all. For arguments of this sort “involve an examination of the integrity of historical evidence for the occurrence of particular miracles that is more appropriate for the domain of history than philosophy”. Eh? Really? So much for the philosophical discussions of testimony, then.

Philosophy of Religion 13: Big Bang vs Steady State

In the 1950s and earlier 1960s, there was quite wide support for the Hoyle/Gold/Bondi “steady state” cosmology as a rival to what we now think of as a Big Bang model. The basic idea is that the universe, on the big scale, “looks the same” at every time, as well as in every direction. And this temporal isotropy is reconciled with the observed recession of the galaxies by postulating the continuous creation of matter, to keep the matter density of the universe constant over time. (The creation rate needed is surprisingly low: about one hydrogen atom in the volume of a skyscraper per hundred years.) This is one of those beautiful ideas in physics which ought to have been true. But the discovery in the later 1960s of the cosmic microwave background radiation — not easy to reconcile with steady state theory, but predicted as the “echo” of the Big Bang on the standard cosmology — led to the abandonment of the theory by all except a few diehards. (Qn: has anyone written a Lakatosian history of this episode?)

I don’t at all see that the steady state theory is incompatible with ideas about divine creation, if you buy a view of an eternal God who is “outside” our universe’s time frame. But I suppose that the Big Bang theory fits more immediately with a biblical view of creation (taking the Genesis story about “days” of creation with a huge pinch of salt!).

Suppose a religious apologist noted that the Big Bang theory (compatible with the bible) was eventually preferred to the steady state theory, and wrote:

Here is a case in which a conflict between science and religion was resolved by science retreating and adopting a position more congenial to a religious persective.

That would, of course, be an utterly absurd way of describing the situation, pathetically clutching at straws. “Science” in no way “retreated” (and certainly didn’t retreat “in a conflict between science and religion”, as if religion won the day). The steady state theory was never the only scientific game in town, and it was of course more scientific work that settled the battle of conjectures in favour of an inflationary cosmology. No retreat at all, but a resounding triumph for the theoretical cosmologists to be able to develop their hugely general theories to the point where esoteric empirical findings could get traction.

That claim above, however, is actually a quotation from Murray and Rea (p. 196, in case you think I’m making this up). To find that in a philosophy book is really quite extraordinary, and beggars belief.

Well, they do qualify their claim:

Of course, scientists did not retreat from the steady state model because it was incompatible with religion. … Nonetheless, this case shows us just one somewhat recent instance in which conflict between science and religion was resolved and in which religion did not simply back down and revise its claims.

But that’s still a bizarre way of describing the situation. A scientific theory that was inconsistent (let’s suppose) with biblical stories about creation was proposed and then pretty quickly refuted — all without reference to religious concerns. That’s not a case of “resolving a conflict”, which suggests give and take between battling factions. Rather a scientific theory came and went, and it turned out that one particular potential locus of conflict wasn’t there after all. To talk here of science “retreating” remains an outrageous misdescription.

Philosophy of Religion 12: Evil and the ad hoc

Chapter 6 of the Murray/Rea book concentrates on the familiar argument that the existence of a “Perfect Being” God can’t be squared with the amount of apparently utterly superfluous evil to be found in this sublunary world.

Half way through the chapter, Murray and Rea make a distinction between what they call a defence (”a possible reason, without concern for its believability, why God might permit evil” — “a defence aims just at demonstrating the possibility of God’s coexisting with evil”), and a theodicy (“a believable and reasonably comprehensive theory about why God might have permitted evil of the amount and variety we find in our world.”).

That’s an excellent distinction to make. But they miss the opportunity to add that a “defence”, so called, is of course typically no defence at all; it’s just an ad hoc patch with no virtue other that saving the appearances. A classic version of this sort of “defence” is found, of course, in Plantinga’s daft ruminations about transworld depravity and so forth. This game-playing is of no more value to the struggling Perfect Being theist than any other bout of ad hockery used to save theories from potentially fatal anomalies. And students should be told so. The philosophy of science in particular has, post Lakatos, a rich literature on what makes for an ad hoc move, and why such moves are intellectually disreputable and to be roundly criticized. It would have been good to see Murray and Rea engage with this literature and similarly lambast ad hoc “defences” in the debate on the problem of evil. But they don’t.

Anyway, we needn’t take mere “defences” seriously — once the Perfect Being theist is reduced to relying on those, he’s as lost as anyone else in a badly degenerating research programme who has to rely on ad hockery to fend off final refutation.

So what about the theodicies that Murray and Rea consider?

  1. The punishment theodicy Evil is a result of divine punishment for human wrong-doing. Murray and Rea don’t like this, but they are almost offensively gentle about this horrible idea. Visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children just makes out God to be vilely vindictive.
  2. Natural consequence theodicy Some evils are just the natural consequences of wrong doing. But as Murray and Rea note, that doesn’t even get into the right ball-park for explaining the vast amount of suffering produced in the world without the intervention of moral agents.
  3. Free will theodicy It is a good that there are free agents, and some free agents will (regretably) go wrong. But as Murray and Rea note again this doesn’t get into the right ball-park for explaining natural evil. And of course, it doesn’t get God off the hook even with respect to the actions produced by free agents. A powerful enough ominiscient being could snuff out a few conspicuously evil agents, a Hitler here, a Stalin there, and nudge down the amount of evil.
  4. Natural law theodicy. Evil arises out of preconditions that must be in place for creatures to exercise their freedom. But this smacks of ad hockery again. We haven’t the foggiest reason to suppose that a world with free agents has to be a world with particularly nasty terminal cancers. Why shouldn’t God have created a world with a patchwork of laws of relatively local extent (actually some like Nancy Cartwright think that is what he created!) which allows rather less suffering? And if that means intervening a bit more to keep the show on the road, well an omnipotent being who cared could do and would do that. As, in effect, Murray and Rea note.
  5. Soul-making theodicies We need some evil around to build a bit of moral character. But again, that’s a quite ghastly idea, that a baby’s terrible suffering should be there to help me make my soul better. And of course, there isn’t the foggiest reason to suppose that all the evil there is in the world is needed for those supposed good purposes. Again, Murray and Rea are rather offensively silent on this singularly nasty idea.

So where have we got to? We’ve five theodicies mentioned, and even by Murray and Rea’s own count, four of them are hopeless, and the fifth is equally bad.

Very oddly, however, they sum up the situation at the end of the chapter like this: “Are the arguments against the existence of God … powerful? Some think so. However, as we have seen, these arguments rely on assumptions that are open to some serious challenges. How serious those challenges are is a matter for each of us to decide.” Which is inept, twice over. Firstly, it misrepresents how their arguments have actually gone. But worse, beginning students — as Murray and Rea must know — don’t need invitations to “decide” for themselves. They need precisely the opposite, injunctions to follow arguments carefully, and apportion their credences to the weight of arguments. Especially in this sort of area, students are only too willing to avail themselves of any get-outs.

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