Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Richard Carrier on the rampage

I'm going to comment on a screed by Richard Carrier:
You have to wonder if Carrier had to much to drink when he wrote it. It's an attack on Matt Flanagan's Divine Command Theory. In commenting on Carrier's post, I'm not going to get into the weeds of DCT. That's Flanagan's specialty, so I will leave that to him. He can more than hold his own against the likes of Carrier. But much of what Carrier says isn't tied to DCT, per se. 
Before delving into the details, I'd like to make a general observation. Carrier evidently regards atheism as synonymous with secular humanism. His attack on DCT goes way beyond the negative, minimalistic definition of atheism as "nonbelief in God or gods." Rather, he proceeds as though atheism entails social obligations. 
Theology has no salvageable theory of morality. Theists complain atheists have no reason to be moral. But in fact theists have no reason to actually be moral, as in: to elevate compassion, honesty, and reasonableness above all authority, even the authority of their own gods. 
There's nothing inherently wrong with the argument from authority if the appeal is to someone who is, in fact, a legitimate authority figure. 
Unless they covertly adopt a naturalistic moral theory (and most do), they are not actually moral people. They are minions. Theists are essentially the unquestioning gestapo of whatever monster manufactured the universe. Or rather, whatever monster some men made up and duped them into thinking it made the universe. Which means, they are essentially the gestapo of whatever random ignorant madmen wrote their scriptures and now thumps their pulpits with sufficiently fiery claims of special divine communications at bedtime.
Atheists are not actually moral people. They are minions. Atheists are essentially the unquestioning gestapo of amoral physical determinism, which duped them into thinking their beliefs are rational. Which means, they are essentially the gestapo of whatever mindless, random natural process wired their brains and pushes their buttons. 
I’m sorry to say, but that’s the truth. Theism actually has no moral theory.
I’m sorry to say, but that’s the truth. Atheism actually has no moral theory.
This is why.
Hannibal Lecter created the universe? He escaped from a future holodeck simulation and then used a stolen TARDIS to Make the Universe after evaporating God by discovering the Babel Fish? Oh crap. Well, I guess we better get down with murder and elegant cannibalism or else he’ll be angry with us and send us to hell. Because he is now eternal and the supreme being and made the universe. So we can’t deny, his will and character is now the ground of all morality. And, oh yeah. This all totally makes sense.Is that any more sensible than…?
That's an argument from analogy minus the supporting argument. Carrier needs to demonstrate that this is, in fact, parallel to Christianity. All he's done is to stipulate an invidious comparison. 
A cosmic Jewish zombie named Jesus who telekinetically fathered himself by a virgin and now resides in outer space, is possessed by the spirit of a supernal ghost that is in some sort of parallel-dimensioning identical with but distinct from himself and an ancient Canaanite storm god, and promises to make you live forever in an alternate dimension if you symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood, and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that has eternally tainted our mammalian flesh ever since a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. So you better do what he says.

Carrier has strung together a series of caricatures. What does that accomplish? Since it's not an accurate description of Christian theology, how does ridiculing a caricature disprove Christian theology? Let's run through some of these descriptors:


No. The Son is not a part of the cosmos. Rather, he essentially exists outside the physical universe. 


No, Jesus is not an ambulatory, cannibalistic corpse with minimal brain function. Rather, he died, then was not only restored to life, but glorified, so that he now has an ageless, youthful, immortal, disease-free body. His mental faculties are fully intact. 

"telekinetically, telepathically"

Carrier uses this terminology because he thinks telepathy and telekinesis are ridiculous. Yet these are well-attested phenomena.

"fathered himself"

I take it that Carrier is suggesting that's an oxymoron. But that ignores the preexistence of the Son. 

"by a virgin"

A miracle, which functions a sign.

"now resides in outer space"

Where did Carrier come up with that? The Bible doesn't say that. Does Carrier equate the Biblical concept of "heaven" with "outer space"?

"is possessed by the spirit of a supernal ghost"

A ghost is the soul of a dead human being. The Holy Spirit isn't human, and never died. Indeed, the Holy Spirit isn't "alive" in the biological sense. 

"That is in some sort of parallel-dimensioning identical with but distinct from himself"

Carrier's attempt to parody the Trinity. A more accurate analogy would be a mirror symmetry. 

"and promises to make you live forever in an alternate dimension"

If that's an allusion to the intermediate state, then it's not a physical dimension. Discarnate souls don't exist in space. 

If that's an allusion to the final state, then that's not an alternate dimension, but the renewed earth.

"if you symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood"

Most evangelicals don't think you acquire eternal life by celebrating the Lord's Supper. 

"a rib-woman"

Is there something antecedently false about the idea that God made the first woman from a tissue sample of the first man?

"by a talking snake" 

The Hebrew designation is probably a pun that trades on the multiple senses and connotations of the word (snake, diviner, shining one).

"to eat from a magical tree"

The text doesn't indicate that the tree of knowledge is a magical tree. That's like saying the ark of the covenant is a magical box, or that Moses' staff is a magical stick. Rather, what we have is a divinely assigned correlation. These are ordinary objects. They have no special power. The result comes from God, not the object. 

Is Carrier deliberately misrepresenting Christian theology, or is he actually that ignorant? 

And lest we forget, that’s the Jesus who has nothing to say against slavery or the subjugation and disenfranchisement of women
Argument from silence. For that matter, Jesus said nothing against the disenfranchisement of men. It's not as if Roman rule was democratic. Most men had not vote. 
or the execution of homosexuals, other than, at best,
It's striking to see contemporary atheists jump on the bandwagon of "gay rights." I don't recall atheists in the past spearheading the campaign for "gay rights." Were Antony Flew, A. J. Ayer, J. L. Mackie, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow, Charles Bradlaugh, Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Huxley, Thomas Paine, and Alexander White in the vanguard of the "gay rights" movement? Did I miss that? How did this suddenly become a self-evident moral maxim when so many prominent atheists of yore failed to discern it? 
Rather, atheists waited until it was safe to champion "gay rights." Waited until they felt the wind behind their backs. 
 that you shouldn’t invite sluts and homos to legally murder the sluts and homos because that would be hypocritical (John 7:52-8:11, a forgery). 
The fact that the Pericope Adulterae is a scribal interpolation is hardly news. Any standard edition of the Bible will footnote that familar fact. 
Oh no, you are supposed to wait for Jesus to murder them (Matthew 3:12). 
i) To begin with, that text does't single out "sluts and homos."
ii) How does Carrier infer "murder" from that text? It's about eschatological judgment. It doesn't even say God kills them. Rather, that might well be postmortem punishment. Not to mention the figurative imagery. 
And even if God did kill then, killing isn't synonymous with murder.  
if the conditions he imagines existed, rape would be ethical—namely, if it was the loving and just thing to do (and we can imagine scenarios, though Flannagan wisely avoids attempting it: like, maybe, being forced to rape someone lest, the coercer informs you, the victim will be killed instead.
Carrier fails to explain why, from the standpoint of secular ethics, it would be unethical to rape someone if the alternative is the victim's death. If that's a forced option, isn't allowing the victim to be murdered worse than saving the victim's life, even if that entails rape? What is the secular basis for Carrier's disapproval? In fact, Carrier later says:
To successfully argue that “loving and just” decisions are moral requires (i) appealing to the consequences of “loving and just” decisions and the consequences of “unloving or unjust” decisions, and then (ii) appealing to which of those consequences the moral agent prefers. But DCT can accomplish neither, except in exactly the same way ethical naturalism does. Therefore, DCT reduces to ethical naturalism in practical fact. It therefore cannot be an improvement on it.

So he himself stipulates that taking the consequences into account are a necessary element in ethical decision-making. According to his own hypothetical, the end-result of one choice is the death of the victim, while the end-result of the other choice is saving the victim's life–albeit by rape. If ethical decision-making comes down to weighing the respective consequences, then on what secular basis does Carrier conclude that rape would be wrong in that situation?

DCT produces “infantile” moral reasoning, not only by reducing it to obeying what someone else says God wants, rather than applying one’s own critical reasoning to ascertain what is right, but also by eliminating any stable adult motivation to be moral. As atheists well know, from all the theists who terrifyingly admit they would murder and rape everyone but for their fear of hell, this is profoundly immature moral reasoning. 
Where are all the theists who allegedly admit that "they would murder and rape everyone but for their fear of hell"? I haven't encountered them. To begin with, there's no reason to suppose theists in general even want to rape or murder everyone. 
The actual argument is this: if a person would like to commit rape or murder, would he refrain even though he could do so with impunity? It doesn't imply that he in fact desires to rape or murder anyone, much less everyone. Rather, it's a conditional or hypothetical scenario. If someone happens to feel that way about someone else, would he act on his impulse if he could get away with it? It doesn't mean he normally has that impulse. He may never have that impulse. 
Adults reason differently: they won’t murder and rape anyone because they care about them
There's no empirical evidence that atheists care about everyone. Indeed, there's abundant empirical evidence that atheists don't care about everyone. 
In Christian ethics, by contrast, you should treat people justly even if you don't care about them personally. You treat them justly because that's the right thing to do, and not because you care about their wellbeing. You may treat them justly in spite of what you think of them. 
on DCT, you can’t decide God is “evil” and thus to be defied, not obeyed…no matter how evil God is
If an atheist came to believe in the existence of an evil God, would he defy him? That would be pretty foolhardy. 
He never responds to Sinnott-Armstrong’s actual point: which is that either moral facts are wholly unknowable on DCT (and therefore DCT entails we can know nothing about morality, and therefore by definition cannot ground any morality), or they are knowable by virtue of observable properties apart from DCT. But if they are knowable by virtue of observable properties apart from DCT, then they are already sufficiently moral by virtue of those properties. So we don’t need DCT.
In what sense are "moral facts" "observable properties"? In ethics, we apply moral norms to concrete situations. Moral norms or ethical standards are not observable properties. Rather, they are ethical criteria by which we evaluate events or contemplated courses of action. 
Even if God exists, indeed even if a loving God exists, this is of no use to us in ascertaining what is and is not moral. Because He simply isn’t consistently or reliably telling anyone.
Which begs the question. 
So all we have left is the ethical naturalist’s best alternative: an increasingly well-informed moral agent who cares about herself, and a body of advisors who care about her (crowdsourced knowledge, tested and accumulated from past to present). That’s the best you get. You don’t have access to an omniscient advisor. So you have to make do. And that means caring about whether you have enough information (about yourself and the world), and caring how to make the information you get more reliable, and caring whether you are reasoning from that information without logical fallacy or cognitive error. That’s the only way to get closer to the truth in matters of morality. Phoning God simply isn’t an option.

How does that rise to the level of moral realism? 

Notice that this is Flannagan’s moral theory, minus the primitive hocum about sky spirits. 
In classical theism, God is not a "sky spirit." In classical theism, God subsists outside the physical universe. 
DCT is therefore unlivable, even if it were correct. It puts moral truth inside an inaccessible black box, the mind of one particular God, whom we cannot identify or communicate with in any globally or historically reliable or consistent way. We therefore cannot know what is moral, even if DCT were true. 
Which assumes, without benefit of argument, that we don't have access to divine revelation. 
The supernaturalist is stuck in the exact same position as the ethical naturalist: attempting to ascertain from observable facts what the best way is to live. 
It's not the same position if the theist relies on moral intuitions which have their source in natural revelation whereas the atheist relies on moral sentiments that have their source in social conditioning and amoral evolutionary psychology. 
But we cannot demonstrate that the “God” (or “ideal agent”) we have thus modeled in our mind or intuition is the “one true” God or not, except by appeal to natural facts that require no actual God to exist. 
Which disregards theistic proofs that appeal to "natural facts."
Otherwise, we cannot know the God informing the intuition of Islamic suicide bombers is the incorrect God. 
If Muhammad appeals to the Bible to vouch his own prophetic credentials, when, in fact, his message contracts the Bible, then he's falsified his own claims. 
And the most important turning point here, is where theists simply can’t defeat Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma from 2400 years ago. 
i) Even a secular ethicist like Richard Joyce has argued that the Euthyphro dilemma is a failure:
ii) Likewise, in a book which Flannagan recently coauthored with Paul Copan (Did God Really Command Genocide?), they devote two full chapters (chaps 13-14) to the Euthyphro dilemma. 
So Carrier has his work cut out for him. He can't win the argument by taking intellectual shortcuts. 
Because for DCT to be true, what Flannagan needs to say is, “we should obey whatever character God happens to have,” which would mean, we should all be the mass murderers that the God of the Old Testament actually wants us to be.
Which begs the question of whether Yahweh is a mass murderer. 
Or admit the Old Testament God is a demon the worthy of any horror film villain himself, and somehow convince everyone that we are lucky enough that that God just happens not to exist. (Oh wait. Atheists are already doing that.) 
How do you disprove the existence of a Being who, if there is such a God, exists outside the physical universe? What would count as evidence for his nonexistence? 
The commands of a loving and just person is a conceptual category that does not require that person to exist for their commands to be loving and just. If it is good to obey such commands, it is good regardless of whether they are fictional or real.
To the contrary, good commands involve social obligations. We have no social obligations to fictional characters. Nonentities cannot oblige us. 
or not punishing rapists by legally ordering them to continue raping their victims (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). 
That's an inept misinterpretation of the passage. It is dealing with a hypothetical situation in which sex could either be coercive or consensual. There are no witnesses. A Jewish judge has no independent evidence to determine if the sex was coercive or consensual. 
In that culture, loss of virginity made a single woman far less eligible for marriage. So the law represents a practical compromise: either a shotgun wedding or financial compensation in lieu of marriage. 
As I commented for Loftus in The Christian Delusion (p. 101), “any rational would-be rapist who acquired full and correct information about how raped women feel, and what sort of person he becomes if he ignores a person’s feelings and welfare, and all of the actual consequences of such behavior to himself and his society, then he would agree that raping such a woman is wrong.”
That's willfully naive. Serial rapists know how raped women feel, which is precisely why they rape them. They hate women. The psychological damage is intentional. How women feel is a presupposition of the serial rapist. He aims to inflict maximal harm. 


  1. "Is Carrier deliberately misrepresenting Christian theology, or is he actually that ignorant?"

    I don't see why it can't be both!

  2. As I (rightly or wrongly) understand it there are different kinds of DCT. The versions atheists like to attack seem to be voluntaristic versions which emphasize God's arbitrary will. However, there are versions of DCT that are essentialistic rather than voluntaristic. For example, William Lane Craig (admittedly following others) holds to Divine Command Essentialism.

    I wrote in my blogpost God in Relation to Law: Ex Lex, Sub Lego or Sibi Ipsi Lex :

    Divine Command Essentialism: "...holds that values and virtues flow from God's nature, while our moral duties as God's creatures flow from His will as they are expressed in His commands to us. Yet in some sense they also reflect God's nature/essence. It (DCE) seems to be a synthesis of both divine essentialism and divine voluntarism. Such a view 1. affirms God as the standard and paradigm of virtue and goodness, 2. exonerates God from being arbitrary, 3. allowing for (and accounting for) God's ability to act and command in ways that don't obviously or directly flow from God's nature or essence , and 4. nevertheless grounding God's commands in God's nature such that in some sense they always reflect that good nature."

    Many of the objections atheists make against DCT don't apply to Divine Command Essentialism.

    I have external links on my blogpost to W.L. Craig resources on the topic of Divine Command Essentialism.