Thursday, November 26, 2009

Religion: some definitional problems

Jacinta: I just want to point out that this concern with 'the existence of evil' or 'the problem of evil', a concern that maybe Williams has, and Plantinga and other theistic philosophers, is itself a problem for secularists - and a major one.
Canto: Yes, we tend to look beyond good and evil. Nietzsche's title resonated with me from an early age, and I've been deeply suspicious of those terms ever since.
Jacinta: Yes and this is by no means a rejection of morality, it's a recasting of morality - not so much in less objective terms, but in less transcendent terms. And it goes back a long way. The ethics of Aristotle, as I recall, were all about human flourishing - what he called eudaimonia. Examine what it is that humans need in order to flourish, to be at their best, and try to create those conditions. That's at the heart of morality.
Canto: Yes, and even religious intentional communities follow that advice. They create all sorts of rules and prohibitions, while also accentuating the positive forces required, to create what they see as a harmonious, flourishing community. Of course, the problem is that many outsiders see those communities as stifling and deadening. In other words there is disagreement about what makes a community truly flourish. Essentially, a disagreement about morality.
Jacinta: Ok, let's get back to the Williams essay. The idea that nobody has ever established that the existence of a BOO is logically inconsistent with the existence of 'evil' - supposing this to be true - would surely only excite a confirmed theist. The fact remains that the existence - in spades - of unwarranted suffering, not only for humans but for every other species capable of suffering, is a huge problem for believers in BOOs. Why would a creator-BOO create such an extraordinarily messy, painful, harsh, frustrating world in which, to take, one example, billions of sperm cells are released to their deaths on a regular basis in order that a few occasionally manage to fertilize egg cells?
Canto: Ours not to reason why, mate.
Jacinta: So enough about evil...
Canto: Williams next looks at Grayling's definition of religion. Now, definitions of religion are notoriously disparate and contentious. Grayling doesn't attempt anything too comprehensive, but the definition he provides is fine as far as it goes - and I might add that his definition is clearly an attempt to focus on what he sees as the problem of religious belief:
 ‘by definition a religion is something centred upon belief in the existence of supernatural agencies or entities in the universe; and not merely in their existence, but in their interest in human beings on this planet; and not merely their interest, but their particularly detailed interest in what humans wear, what they eat, when they eat it [etc.]’[7]

Unsurprisingly, Williams takes issue with this definition, but his reference to non-theistic Buddhists, Deists, Aristotelians, Pantheists, etc, as examples of the 'religious' who sit outside Grayling's definition, seems to me ridiculous. Anti-theistic Buddhists are probably not religious by definition, Aristotelians surely aren't, and I'm not sure at all about Pantheists. The point is, Grayling is looking at the heart of religious belief, not at the flaky, intellectualized edges. And certainly he would be backed up by many an analyst of religion in terms of the centrality of the supernatural entity's intense interest in human affairs. This isn't just the case for BOOs, but for ancestor spirits and other forces and entities in religious belief systems around the globe.
Jacinta: Yes, religion may be notoriously difficult to define, but we've come to know well enough what its most unhealthy aspects are. You're not likely to find them in Deism, Pantheism or Buddhism.

Text being criticized: 'Contra Grayling', by Peter S Williams

Reminder: BOO = Benevolent Omnipotent One.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Contra Williams 1: on BOOs and the arbitrary nature of nature

Canto: Peter Williams is a Christian philosopher who has written an essay, 'Contra Grayling: A Christian Response to Against All Gods'. The Grayling book was published in 2007, so the essay is quite recent.
Jacinta: In his introductory remarks, Williams points out that Grayling's objection is to the irrationality of religous belief or beliefs, rather than their falsity. Williams feels that this overly minimizes the importance of the true/false distinction, but I don't think this is a vital issue. To me, Grayling's decision to focus on rationality is due to the well-known difficulty to prove the non-existence of a supernatural being, or effect, or state of affairs. Instead of getting bogged down in particular, peculiar details, better to look at the broad sweep of reality as we have come to understand it, especially as developed over the past few hundred years by a growing community of scientists, researchers, theorists and analysts, and to measure the rationality of belief systems against that growing consensus.
Canto: Maybe - I detect a problem there with rationality being almost defined as concurrence with consensus. In fact,Williams is right to say that truth should not take the hindmost, but that leaves us in the near-impossible position of testing the truth of every crackpot metaphysical notion that anybody could come with at any time. Overall rationality must have some place.
Jacinta: Well argued, mate. But now I want to consider this quote from Williams, which includes a quote from Grayling:
Grayling nevertheless recasts even so traditional a de facto objection to theism as the logical problem of evil as a de jure objection to its rational respectability: ‘To believe in the existence of (say) a benevolent and omnipotent deity in the face of childhood cancers and mass deaths in tsunamis and earthquakes [is an example of] serious irrationality.’[4] Grayling does nothing to elaborate an actual argument to this effect, and he appears to be ignorant of the fact that: ‘philosophers of religion have cast serious doubt on whether there even is any inconsistency involving the appropriate propositions regarding evil and God’s alleged properties.’
Canto: De facto and de jure? Please explain.
Jacinta: Hmmm, well the general sense, I think, is that there are objections to particular facts, and there are blanket objections which amount to a general law. The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga makes much of this distinction, but I'm not so much interested in this right now as I'm interested in the so-called 'problem of evil'.
Canto: Yes, let me get stuck into that one. Williams takes the 'logical problem of evil' straight from Plantinga, but the fact is, no modern secular philosopher raises the 'problem of evil' when discussing religion - and neither does Grayling in the above quote. He is looking at the 'problem of needless suffering', it seems to me, or the problem of the unfairness of nature, or of fate. Grayling doesn't mention 'evil' in this quote, and I doubt if it features heavily in his book. The concept of 'evil' is outmoded in philosophy, and most certainly in psychology. It is a barrier to effective understanding. What Grayling is on about is exactly what Darwin was on about when he famously wrote:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.
Nobody would wish to claim that these wasps are evil, nor that the situation itself is an evil one. For a start it would be of no use to our understanding of the situation.
Jacinta: Yes, Darwin and Grayling are bringing our attention to the amoral facts of earthly existence, in which there's a superabundance of pain and suffering and death and destruction, with the thin thread of life weaving itself forward through it all. And all Williams has to say is 'that isn't an argument, or even the beginning of an argument, against the existence of a BOO.'
Canto: A BOO?
Jacinta: A Benevelont Omnipotent One, of course.
Canto: Well done, Jass. And the point is, logic or no logic, rational or irrational, many people find the large-scale existence of unwarranted suffering a more than sufficient reason for rejecting the existence of a BOO.
Jacinta: Yes, and I think the onus is very much on the believer to provide rational grounds for believing in a BOO, given the amoral facts aforementioned. I think Grayling's statement, quoted above, would be given wide assent by secularists, though I'm not entirely comfortable with the term 'serious irrationality', given that I'm not overly impressed with the 'rational/irrational' distinction. The claim that what some philosophers of religion wrongly describe as 'the problem of evil' is logically consistent with a BOO seems to me overly technical and point-missing. But we might look at that further next time.
Canto: Boo to that, I say.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

finishing a task, and preparing for another

now this looks interesting...

Jacinta: Okay, so the ever-complacent reviewer Luke Pollard next tells us that Williams 'discusses' the view that 'explaining the prevalence of religious belief in evolutionary terms negates any truth that it may hold', a view he attributes to Daniel Dennett. He provides us with no further detail about the discussion however.
Canto: Well I would think that explaining religious belief in such terms almost requires you to be an unbeliever.
Jacinta: Mmmm, maybe. I'm not so sure about that. I would rather object to the use of the singular - religious beliefs vary enormously and are often contradictory. Further, I think most religious believers never even consider their beliefs in terms of truth or falsity. They're just part of the belief system they're brought up with. Once you're thinking in terms of truth and falsity, you're on your way toward adopting scientific methodologies, and simple faith is already starting to crumble.
Canto: Yes, and I think Dennett is right, if that's his position, though I think he would phrase it quite differently.
Jacinta: Quite. Anyway, Pollard goes on to praise Williams for engaging with the 'new atheist' arguments in a logical, constructive way, unusually for a popularist book. However Pollard doesn't give us any real evaluation of any of these arguments, so when he writes of 'a new level of civilized debate' offered up by Williams, we can only take his word for it.
Canto: Or not, as the case may be.
Jacinta: Quite again. So he goes on about Williams' precise and logical style, again without providing evidence, but hey it's only a one-page review, but he really ends it on a bum note, saying that because it is well-written it will 'probably be burned as heretical'.
Canto: What the... So what is he saying, that atheists, or 'new atheists', hate well-written books on religion by Christian philosophers and prefer to burn them rather than engage with them, and like to employ the religious term 'heretical'? Yes, complacent really is the word for this Pollard guy, Jass. Or maybe fatuous.
Jacinta: Yes and don't you just love the way religious 'thinkers' constantly project religious terminology onto secularists, like describing them as obsessed with heresy, or having faith in science... But now it's time to get onto the real thing, not a review but a real philosophical essay by Peter S Williams.
Canto: Yes, I've already found much to get stuck into in Williams' attempt to rebut A C Grayling's claims in Against all Gods. Unfortunately we haven't read the Grayling book, but we've read a few polemics against religion in two of Grayling's essay collections, The Form of Things and The Heart of Things, and we've read an excerpt of Against All Gods, the essay 'Can an Atheist be a Fundamentalist', which is reprinted in the Christopher Hitchens-edited The Portable Atheist. So we're quite familiar with Grayling's overall position...
Jacinta: And essentially in agreement with it, I'd say. So let us sally forth into the fray.
Canto: Oh, sally, let's.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

some assumptions about Peter S Williams' probably bad arguments

Canto: I've just found an essay by our Peter Williams, online. It tries to get stuck into one of our heroes, A C Grayling, who has apparently written a book, Against All Gods. 
Jacinta: Oh, yum, we must read that, and we must have more fun with this Williams bloke.
Canto: Okay, let's go then. Apparently in his Sceptic's Guide to Atheism, Williams goes through all the atheist arguments in detail.
Jacinta: Yes, but what does he mean by the atheist arguments. I mean some arguments, like the design argument, are arguments for the existence of God, whereas the problem of evil argument is an argument against the existence of God...
Canto: Well, according to Pollard, he examines the 'faith is the root of all evil' argument and finds it without foundation, naturally.
Jacinta: What? That's not an atheist argument. Oh, he must be talking of the title of Richard Dawkins' TV doco. Come to think of it, that was a bad choice of title. Of course faith isn't the root of all evil. If we have to talk of 'evil', and I find the term almost as useless as 'sin', then surely we agree that it has many roots. I've never heard an atheist arguing that faith is the root of all evil. Ever. I mean, not a smart atheist.
Canto: A bright?
Jacinta: Of course, there's the Hitchens argument that 'religion poisons everything', but that has a completely different logical form from 'religion is the root of all evil'.
Canto: Mmm, let's see, the second proposition has the form 'all a comes from b', the first proposition has the form 'b causes a', or something like that - where 'a' means 'evil' and 'b' means 'religion'. I was never really that good at logic.
Jacinta: Anyway, they're largely rhetorical claims, not full-blown rational arguments. Next.
Canto: Pollard says that 'the argument that science leaves no room for a God is also dismissed'. And that's all he says about that one!
Jacinta: Mein gott, we are going to have to buy the book. You know I don't like to provide funds for these guys.
Canto: What gets me is how Pollard talks about 'a God', when the use of the indefinite article demands that 'god' shouldn't have a capital. Is Pollard just ignorant of grammar, or is that he can't bear to write 'god' without a capital even when grammar demands it? Methinks it's the latter.
Jacinta: Well-spotted Canto - the guy's a full-on scabby-kneed believer!
Canto: Let's keep to the arguments. The next one's a beaut. Williams, according to Pollard, debates 'whether the 'Who designed the designer?' argument is logically valid, or even coherently expressible'.
 Jacinta: Wow - that sure is a beaut. Talk about self-serving. Of course it's coherently expressible, as well as logically valid. But of course, Williams' ploy will be to argue for an idea of god so vague, so 'beyond our ken' that the term 'designer' just doesn't cut it...
Canto: Let's not assume, Jass. Let's just say that prima facie it doesn't sound like a promising approach. Anyway, we'll finish off this review of the review of A Sceptic's Guide to Atheism next time, and then we'll get into the real meat - Williams' actual essay contra Grayling.
Jacinta: Fabulous.

Friday, November 13, 2009

critiquing Williams still: religion and propositions

Jacinta: So does this Peter Williams acknowledge other forces pushing westerners away from religious belief besides the supposedly destructive effects of logical positivism upon all and sundry?
Canto: Maybe he does, but this review suggests that he sees positvism as the main culprit. He doesn't appear to recognise the diversity of forces you've outlined, nor the diversity of positions adopted by the so-called new atheists. And get this, he reckons, or maybe Luke Pollard, the reviewer, reckons that 'positivism had to die for atheism to live'. What do you make of that?
Jacinta: Sounds like one of Dan Dennett's 'deepities'. It's rubbish - Lucretius was an atheist some two thousand years ago, without the assistance of positivism's corpse. This sounds like very lame philosophizing to me.
Canto: Presumably he's talking about 'new atheism', but it isn't really a new movement, it's more like a new confidence, as we find so much more in the way of scientific findings to arm ourselves with, and solid arguments, and a growing number of articulate people to connect with, people who aren't willing to cease and desist until theists come up with some answers, which they have so far so clearly failed to do.
Jacinta: Well, I've now read the review, and it does seem to me he's imagining that this issue is somehow about logic. He thinks that logic is on his side, but it's not a matter simply of logic - and logic isn't on his side either. For example - and admittedly I can't do his argument justice from reading a one-page review of his book - he says, in Pollard's words, that logical positivism renders 'the unverifiable God hypothesis meaningless' - but, further, he claims that the response 'there is no god', is also meaningless. So positivism, he claims, is useless one way or the other. But let's jettison positivism [which was a much more complex approach than this outline suggests] and simply look at the propositions 'God exists' and 'God doesn't exist'. I doubt that many people, new atheist or otherwise, would claim that these propositions are meaningless. The claim that something doesn't exist is perhaps easier to deal with. 'Santa doesn't exist', 'fairies don't exist', 'Superman doesn't exist', we accept these propositions to be meaningful, and in a sense, true. I say 'in a sense' because there is a sense, also, in which they are false. Most of us know what Santa looks like, we can generally agree on a description of him, and we accept his existence as a social/cultural construct. In fact it's because we know that Santa is a construction, a product of our 'collective imagination', along with Superman and fairies and so forth, that we can assent to the negative propositions above-mentioned. In fact, it's as difficult to prove that these beings, or any other beings concocted by our imaginations, have no real existence, as it is to prove that gods have no real existence. Gods have no logical status over and above any other beings of our devising. So logic isn't going to provide us with any answers here. I think we need to look at empiricism and probability.
Canto: Well said, and by empiricism, I suppose you mean indirect evidence for God's existence rather than direct evidence, since there isn't any of that.
Jacinta: Yes, but I won't go into that here, I want to stick with critiquing Williams as far as I'm able.
Canto: Ohh, I love the way you critique, Jass, and I'd like to show off my critiquing skills too. Let's do it together.
Jacinta: I though you'd never ask my sweet. Time to retire, or why don't we do it in the road?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Will the real scepticism please stand up? Why religion is failing.

Peter Williams, Christian philosopher - keep smiling while you can, Pete, we ain't finished with you yet

Canto: Well Jacinta today I was out and about and I bought a copy of Philosophy Now, the July/August issue, a bit out of date, and I immediately started looking for fodder on religion and its enemies - I wonder why that might be?
Jacinta: It seems we're both hooked, mate, we're addicted to getting infuriated by this subject.
Canto: Yes, it is thrilling in a blood-boiling sort of way. While there's no greater liar than an indignant soul, a bit of indignation does get the analytic juices flowing.
Jacinta: It's a paradox, but I must say I find the whole new atheism stuff quite exciting to witness and be part of. Where will it all end?
Canto: Funny you should say that, because of course many believers of the combative sort are actually trying to play it up as a great big yawn - tired old arguments, crass polemics. ignorance, smugness, shallowness and so forth. Of course they usually tell rather than show us how misguided and limited these soi-disant new atheists are, but I've been reading this Philosophy Now mag, and it has a review of a new book by Peter Williams - a professional philosopher and Christian apparently - called A Sceptic's Guide to Atheism.
Jacinta: Don't tell me - more playing fast and loose with the treasured concept of scepticism.
Canto: Afraid so, but we'll still proudly proclaim ourselves as sceptics. Anyway I found this review deliciously infuriating because it was totally uncritical. Remember the reviewer's name, Luke Pollard, described as a writer interested in ethics and philosophy of religion. He might be worth hunting down.
Jacinta: Yes, another for the trophy cabinet...
Canto: Well this Williams fellow comes up with much of the same old junk - that the new atheists have nothing new to say, that they're an intellectually unimpressive bunch, and that atheism isn't actually rising but falling. He also seems to think that, in the more logical debates, the theists have the best arguments, but we don't get a chance to see that in this review.
Jacinta: Yeah, well, if he could show that, he'd really be achieving something. I've read all the traditional arguments for the existence of gods, and they've all been shot down in flames many times over.
Canto: Well Jacinta, we'll fire a few more bullets into those corpses before this blog is through, but Luke Pollard says that Williams' presentation of the philosophical arguments constitutes the best part of the book.
Jacinta: Are you saying we're going to have to buy this book to refute his arguments?
Canto: Perish the thought. None of the arguments are new, and they can all be found online somewhere, as solidly presented as they can be - you know how clogged cyberspace is with believers.
Jacinta: Did you say he found atheism to be declining?
Canto: Apparently he 'sourced a variety of polls' and found that 'lack of belief in a God may be declining world-wide, but is growing in parts of the West'.
Jacinta: Ha! What a weasel word. It may be declining, but then again it may not! That's meaningless. But then he's definite about it growing in the west.
Canto: Especially in the Vatican, no doubt.
Jacinta: That whole 'analysis' is meaningless, surely. I could 'source a variety of polls' in the next half an hour, to come up with any finding that suited me. Also, outside the West, it seems to me, everyone is a believer in some form of religion - 100%, more or less. There's no lack of belief. So how can the number decline from zero?
Canto: Yes, it's very doubtful. I think there's firm evidence of belief's decline in Australia at any rate. And can you guess the reason Williams gives for this decline of belief in the West?
Jacinta: Let me see. Television? State-controlled secular education? Sex and drugs and rock n roll? Affluenza?
Canto: Visionate more loftilywise, Jacinta. The cause is logical positivism.
Jacinta: Oh dear, methinks this guy has been drinking too much philosophy.
Canto: No, it's all positively logical Jass. The logical positivists, he claims, had this naively empiricist bent which apparently infected the rest of us, claiming that what couldn't be empirically verified through the senses was meaningless. Therefore God was meaningless. And people like Dawkins have bought into this uncritically.
Jacinta: An intriguing piece of bullshit. The rise of atheism in the west, to me, has been a gradual, complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. I think education has had much to do with it, and the promotion of diversity, individualism, critical thinking. and in respect of Christianity, a growing scepticism about 'sacred' texts, a greater understanding of how they come to be written, a recognition of the variety of religions and their competing claims, and a growing scientific understanding, which leaves little room for a personal god, and which has progressively refuted religious truth claims [about human specialness, our planet's centrality in the universe and so forth]. I further think that, as more is known about religious and 'spiritual' beliefs as psychological phenomena, the more common scepticism - I mean real scepticism, not the scepticism implied in this book's title - will become.
Canto: Amen to that.