Saturday, July 31, 2010

Religious trends

That was then:

The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church by Christine Wicker

"The fastest growing 'religious group' in America is non-believers."

Americans' Confidence in Religion Waning, Poll Finds

"In other major findings, the percentage of Americans who believe that religion can answer society's problems is at an all-time low, with only 53 percent saying religion "can answer all or most of today's problems."

This is now:

News Pleas

"Today I'd like to send out three quick pleas for your support of other folk trying to fight the good fight for reason and science...Help the Skeptical Inquirer: Prices of materials have gone up, funding has dropped, and subscribership is actually shrinking. SI might go under if trends don't reverse."

Court Upholds Expulsion of Counseling Student Who Opposes Homosexuality

Here goes another example of the inconsistency of secular institutions:

Court Upholds Expulsion of Counseling Student Who Opposes Homosexuality

So why not expel university counseling students who think that pedophilia and bestiality is immoral? After all, I had several conversations with college students at UNCG that openly admitted that such practices would be moral as long as society agrees to it and legalizes it.

Hector Avalos's Non-Expertise Exposed

In Hector Avalos's response to Steve Hays and me ("Triablogue's Moral Relativism Exposed"), we learn that Hector Avalos is a “Hector of all trades.” A ‘Hector of all trades’ is one who claims that people cannot write on areas outside their expertise and then goes on to write voluminously outside his area(s) of expertise. Hector’s latest foray into fields he is not allowed to write on is the field of metaethics. In Hector’s mind, he is expertly qualified to write on this subject because he read a couple cherry-picked articles that affirmed his prior commitment to ethical relativism. So Hector’s an anti-realist about ethics. This is yet another area where he is in the minority. The view of the majority of trained (and mostly atheistic) philosophers is that moral realism is correct, as this poll shows.

So why does Hector get to write on an area he is not only a non-expert on but is also in the minority of the trained experts in that field? What explains this seemingly blatant hypocrisy? Well it’s because we all know that Christians are stupid. After all, Jason Long told us in his chapter in TCD that atheists have higher I.Q.’s than Christians, and more Nobel prizes to boot. Christians can’t think for themselves, they have to sit down, shut up, and listen to the “experts.” And, if no expert is handy, then Christians must listen to the atheist. Why? Because they have higher I.Q.’s and so are probably right. So because the mere fact that Hector in an atheist, he can write on anything he wishes while I cannot. That’s because being an atheist automatically means that you’re an expert on whatever you write. Atheists are the new priests. The illiterate masses must be told what to think, and how to think. This kind of attitude has never worked for those who imposed it. Atheists like Hector Avalos are sewing the seeds of their own destruction.

I would be inconsistent if I let these facts about new atheists like Hector function as an excuse to ignore his arguments. Avalos’s tactics are frustrating for reasons similar to those pointed out by Kai Nielsen in his “On the Doing of Moral Philosophy.” Nielsen wrote, “What . . . is the use of patience and reason . . . when . . . the prevalence of phonies and yes-men in Academia-along with entrepreneurial types make blatantly evident the fake quality of much of the traditional appeal to reason and intelligence . . . (p. 77).”

Not only do I think Hector’s authoritarian attitude misplaced, his knowledge of the field he’s writing on inept, I think he gives poor arguments for his position and against mine. In this post I’ll assess Hector Avalos’s most recent response to Steve Hays and myself. Steve Hays has already responded to Hector, and so I don’t need to comment on some of Avalos’s response because it was already nicely handled by Hays (e.g., the imprecatory Psalms, teleological morality, etc.) With that, let’s look at Hector’s response and see if the bark is, in fact, bigger than the bite.

Avalos begins with this dialectical set up:
It didn’t take long for Triabloggers to deconstruct their own claim to believe in moral absolutes. In fact, it is very clear now that they are as morally relativistic as anyone else. It just took a few simple questions to help them contradict themselves.
Avalos begins to offer his justification for the above claim by reminding his readers of a question he asked us, and then expanding on it. Hector writes,
Is killing children always wrong? I asked this question of Triabloggers, especially because if killing children is not absolutely wrong, then what is? Someone that believes in moral absolutes would respond with a simple YES. After all, the word “always” is pretty absolute and not ambiguous. Either X is “always” wrong, or it is not.
However right from the get-go we are treated to some of Avalos’s non-expertise in the area of metaethics. Hector’s question is fatally ambiguous. As Ross taught us some time ago, questions like the one asked by Avalos, e.g.,

[1] Is killing children always morally wrong?

is ambiguous between

[2] Killing children is always prima facie wrong;


[3] Killing children is always actually wrong.

Ross’s notion of prima facie duty is fairly simple to understand. To say of some action A that it is a prima facie duty is to say that (i) A posses some morally relevant feature F that counts in favor of a moral agent S doing A and (ii) if F were such that it were the only morally relevant feature of S’s situation, then the A in question would be S’s duty proper. In light of this, moral wrongs receive a similar analysis. An action A is actually wrong just in case A is wrong in practice; wrong in light of all the relevant factual and moral considerations; wrong, all things considered. Prima facie wrongs are wrong-making considerations that always need to be taken into account.

So, the first problem is that Avalos’s questions hides a crucial ambiguity (which is ironic when we consider Avalos’s claim that his question is not ambiguous!), this ambiguity will prove fatal to his argument later. A second problem comes out when we consider Avalos’s claim that someone who believes in moral absolutes would respond to his question with a simple yes. There are two problems here.

The first problem is that the dialectical situation between Avalos and the authors of TID is between moral relativism and moral realism. Moral realism is a claim about the objectivity of moral prescriptions and evaluations. So, moral realism is a claim about the status of moral prescriptions and evaluations. Moral absolutism is a claim about the stringency of moral prescriptions. Moral realism is what is relevant to Avalos’s arguments for moral relativism. Why? Because both absolutism and relativism could be true. Moreover, ethical realism is neutral with respect to the existence of moral absolutes. Moral absolutes are consistent with moral realism, but they are not entailed by moral realism. As atheist Russ Shafer-Landau writes, “Thus ethical objectivism is not, after all, committed to the unbreakable, absolute moral rules. It allows for their existence (if there are any), but is also compatible with views that permit us to break moral rules if the circumstances are dire enough” (Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?, Oxford, 2004, 66). So Avalos is not interacting with the position that is contrary to his relativism, viz., realism, not absolutism.

The second problem is that moral realists can hold divergent views on absolutes. One view is called hierarchicalism. According to this view, absolutes are ranked, and in cases when absolutes conflict, one choses the lesser evil (or greater good). So it would be possible for an absolutist to answer “no” to Avalos’s question. Another view, one more in line with my own, is that not all ethical rules are absolute. Some are means to higher order goods. For example, I do not think it is absolutely (actually) wrong to lie. Lying is prima facie wrong. It is something to always be taken into consideration, but it is not wrong all things considered (take the paradigmatic case of the Nazi at your door who asks if you are hiding any Jews). So Avalos is just showing his ignorance when he acts as if a moral realist or a moral absolutist must claim that all moral rules are absolute. A moral absolutist believes that at least one moral principle or rule is absolute.

So Avalos is off to a bad start. Many ethicists, like Ross, have noted that duties of nonmaleficence are prima facie duties. The fact that I may engage or approve of an action that results in killing children is a wrong-making consideration that I should always take into account. However, it is not an actual obligation (i.e., a duty that has no morally relevant considerations that could count against it). For an obvious morally relevant consideration, suppose the child has a gun and is trying to kill my family. Indeed, Avalos himself notes that this would be a morally relevant consideration. For example, Avalos says that this action is morally permissible:

[4] I have to kill person X because he is pointing a gun at me.

Now, substituting "a child" for "person X," [4] shows that even Avalos doesn’t believe that [1] is always (actually) wrong! So, when Avalos writes,
And who else might answer my question (“Is killing children always wrong?") the same way? We can state now that the following group would answer the question the same way.

Paul Copan
William Lane Craig
Adolf Hitler
Steve Hays
Osama bin Laden
Paul Manata
Josef Stalin
he forgets to put his own name on the list!

Next, I had mentioned that the real wrongness of molesting children just for fun was as obvious as the hand in front of my face. Hector responds thus,
Fine, but why is the absolute immorality of killing children not as “obvious as the hand in front of my face”? “Self-evident” is not proof of objective morality at all. All Manata is saying is that his judgment of what is self-evident to him should be privileged.
Answers are easy to come by:

(i) The objective absolute immorality of anything doesn’t exist in Avalos’s worldview, so it's real wrongness isn't obvious to Hector.

(ii) I used a premise Avalos accepted to show that there are morally relevant considerations to take into account when asking about the wrongness of killing a child.

(iii) Apropos (ii), what possible morally relevant considerations could there be that would allow for molesting and torturing a child just for fun. Even Hector's tortured interpretation of the Psalms has a person "having fun while torturing a child," but this is not logically equivalent to "torturing a child for fun."

(iv) The connection between other normative considerations comes into play. That 1+1 =2 is self-evident, that ~ (A & ~A) is self-evident, and that one ought not molest and torture children for fun is self evident. In response to this Avalos says,
But what if someone else thinks that “Action X is not as obviously wrong as the hand in front of my face”? How do you adjudicate such contrasting judgments when they are both based on nothing more than “being as obvious as the hand in front of my face”?
I believe that revelation is helpful in questions of adjudication. God is in an epistemically superior position to that of our own. Apart from that, what can you say to someone who doesn’t see the actual wrongness of molesting and torturing a child just for fun? Clearly, this person is depraved. He’s not properly functioning. You can offer arguments for the wrongness (which doesn’t mean that your properly basic belief in the wrongness of said action is based on those arguments). Try to teach the person. But if he won’t cry uncle, what’s that supposed to prove? Nothing. If Hector thinks it does, Hector’s argument results in massive, global relativism. What does he say to the person who says that certain truths of math and logic are not obvious to him? Hector would just say that either (a) he is malfunctioning or (b) just doesn’t understand the terms. At the very least, however, the near universal consensus of these things puts the burden of proof on those who would deny it. Even Graham Priest, who argues for some exceptions to the universality of the law of non-contradiction, recognizes this. So, Hector has the burden here (and let's note that while we answered his question, Hector tucked his tail between his legs and ran from my question). His scoffing and chest thumping and pontifications of incredulity do nothing to change this.

Next up is Hector’s weird argument that since (according to him) all ethical statements are tautologies, this proves prove relativism. Avalos ripped this argument off of Kai Nielsen. But Hector overstates Nielsen’s case. Nielsen claims that there are no non-tautologous, synthetic, absolute moral rules which are also definite and clear-cut action-guiding rules (pp. On The Doing of Moral Philosophy, 84, 87-88). But this is tautologous (cf. Kording, “On the Problems of Moral Philosophy,” Reason Papers no. 1, 104)!

Avalos says that,
Part of the evidence that there are no such thing as objective moral absolutes is the fact that one can dissolve any moral statement into a tautology---a completely circular statement.
But not even Nielsen holds this view, as pointed out above. For example, there may be moral rules that may be violated when all things are taken into consideration, so this gets around the claim of Avalos’s that since absolute moral rules are tautologous, then all are. So, since prima facie wrongs are not tautologous, and they can have exceptions, then Avalos is wrong.

Next, consider what tautologies are. Here is an example of a tautology: P v ~P. A tautology is true under any possible valuation. But then how is this an argument for anti-realism? Moreover, take this claim:

[5] One ought not murder an innocent person.

If [5] were a tautology it’s negation would itself be a contradiction. So,

[6] One ought to murder an innocent person.

[6] is not a logical contradiction, it can be understood, it is not logically incoherent.

Now look at this tautologous statement:

[7] ~ (A & ~A)

and compare it’s negation:

[8] ~ ~ (A & ~A),

It is clear that [8] itself is incoherent. Logic tells us that if a proposition is not a contradiction, then neither is its negation. Since [6] is not a contradiction, then [5] is not a tautology, and, therefore, not all ethical statements are tautologous.

Avalos then makes this cocky, yet embarrassing, claim:
And for all their pretense of philosophical sophistication, Triabloggers repeatedly show that they cannot evaluate the philosophical writings to which they refer. Note, for example, that Terence Cuneo’s The Normative Web (2007) does not really address the tautological problem of moral reasoning. Manata shows no “interaction” with Gilbert Harman's “Moral Relativism Defended,” Philosophical Review 84 (1975):3-22.
Of course, Avalos has never even read Cuneo’s book and so he has no idea of what Cuneo addresses (did he just look at the index at Amazon?). Second, why did I invoke Cuneo’s book? It was to show that Avalos’s moral relativism leads to epistemic relativism. Cuneo shows that the parity is so tight that arguments for moral relativism are arguments for epistemic relativism. I then applied Cuneo’s argument to Avalos’s argument for relativism via tautologies. Quite embarrassingly, for all his bravado, Hector cannot evaluate the arguments of his interlocutors. Here is what I wrote:

“Anyway, if this is an argument for moral relativism and against objective moral standards, then it is also an argument for epistemic relativism and against objective epistemic standards. This is because ethical facts or utterances are a species of normative facts or utterances. The parity between the two—ethical and epistemic facts, judgments, evaluations–is tight, as Terrence Cuneo has shown in The Normative Web (Oxford 2007). Cuneo draws attention to a structural isomorphism that obtains between moral and epistemic facts, he also draws attention to several other relevant and necessary features both share. The parity is so tight, at so many relevant areas, that arguments against moral realism would have to be arguments against epistemic realism.

For example, I could respond to Avalos by claiming that objective standards of rationality do not exist and there are only two kinds of people, people who admit to being epistemic relativists, and people who do not. I could use this argument, which is relevantly similar to Avalos’s, to claim that I have “shown” the above: “X is objectively irrational because X is objectively irrational. You cannot rationally differentiate this from its opposite: X is not objectively irrational because X is not objectively irrational.” To the extent Avalos tries to defend realism about objective epistemic norms, he provides answers to his questions against moral realism.”

Perhaps Avalos was confused about my ability to evaluate philosophical works because all he can do is regurgitate what he reads rather than learning the material so well that you can apply it to species of things the material addressed non-specifically. Furthermore, the arguments Harman makes are affected by the argument those like Cuneo and Gowans and Shafer-Landau make.

Relativists ask us to think about how we resolve normal disagreements. For example, Gilbert Harman claims that in resolving moral disagreements it seems like we would want to “locate value, justice, right, wrong and so forth in the world the way that tables, colors, genes, temperatures, and so on can be located in the world” (Harman, “Is There a Single True Morality,” in Moral Relativism: A Reader, Oxford, 170). Harman just can’t see how moral facts “might figure in explanations without having some sense of their ‘location’ in the world” (Harman, Single Morality, 170). Thus, since there are no moral facts “out there,” moral beliefs depend upon the “inner world” of a social group’s beliefs.

In response, we should ask how we would go about resolving this metaethical disagreement. Certainly not like going to the kitchen and looking at the color of the table. So, “By parity of reasoning, [the relativist] should grant that there is no objective truth concerning” relativism (Gowans, “Moral Relativism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Expanding on this point, Russ Shafer-Landau points out that moral facts are normative facts—prescribing how we ought to behave—and they are “similar to another kind of normative fact—epistemic facts” which “concern what we ought to believe, provided that our beliefs are aimed at truth.” (Shafer-Landau, “Ethics as Philosophy,” in Foundations of Ethics, Blackwell, 218).

The relativist is attempting to provide us with good reasons to accept relativism and thinks we ought to accept relativism given these good reasons. This expresses an epistemic principle: you ought to believe what you have good reason to believe. Shafer-Landau rightly notes that this “epistemic principle is problematic because it invokes an entity—a good reason—whose existence is not itself scientifically confirmable,” like the existence of the table is (Shafer-Landau, Ethics, 220). Recall that Harman said we should be able to “locate value, justice, right, wrong and so forth in the world.” Given that epistemological facts are similar to moral facts, Harman should demand that we be able to locate “Epistemic values such as being rational, being justified, and being warranted” in the world too (Cuneo, Normative Web, Oxford, 2). If one cannot find ‘justice’ on the table, why think one can find a ‘justification’ on the table? Therefore, this relativist argument appears to lead to the conclusion that there is no (non-relative) good reason for supposing that relativism is the case. Thus, relativism sows the seeds for its own rationality defeater.

Lastly, Avalos makes an argument that if children go to heaven when they are killed, this means we ought to abort them. I responded, “Really? Derive this conclusion: “It is morally permissible to murder children,” from this premise: “all babies who die go to heaven when they die.” Show the derivation, Hector, justifying each step by rules of logic.” In response to this, Avalos writes:

First, note that Manata changes “kill” to “murder.” Both are not necessarily the same. Killing describes the simple act of taking a life. “Murder” is a moral and legal judgment that a killing is unjustified.


Second, my starting premise does not have to be what Manata demands. I also could use this rationale:

A. It is morally permissible to use any action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

B. Abortion, with its 100% salvation rate, is an action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

C. Therefore, it is morally permissible to use abortion as an action to achieve the highest proportion of saved souls.
First, it flies right over Avalos’s swollen head. Christians, like me, believe that abortion is murder. And, granting our premises, Avalos should too. That’s the fatal flaw in Avalos’s argument. Even if it were true that all children who die go straight to heaven, that would not be a morally permissible reason to murder them. We are not morally or legally authorized by the proper higher moral authority to do so.

Second, Avalos is in no position to know (B). How could he know such a thing?

Third, I deny (A). Where does Avalos get that premise from and why should I believe it. Avalos is trying to take one proposition from my worldview (granted arguendo for the moment) and then tries to draw a conclusion about what I ought to do from that. But his premises are pulled from outside my worldview, so Avalos isn’t showing that my worldview leads to an argument for abortion. He says that a premise of my worldview, when conjoined with premises from outside my worldview, lead to the conclusion that I ought to abort children. But, this is dialectically faulty. Why in the world with Avalos think that I should be rationally or morally persuaded by an argument that conjoins propositions I accept (arguendo) with propositions I do not accept?

Fourth, as Avalos notes, murder can never be justified, and so Avalos’s argument takes us from (if we grant it) true premises to a false conclusion, and so is invalid.

So, Avalos fails. If he has an argument that moves from the premise that children go to heaven when they die to the conclusion that I can murder them, let’s hear it.

Avalos ends with this summary:
I think my mission is accomplished, at least for now. I have shown that Triabloggers pretend to be moral absolutists and objectivists but really are moral relativists, just like everyone else.
Yes, given the above, I think we can safely conclude that this little doggy’s bark is far bigger than his bite.

Venter on the human genome

Here's an excerpt from an interview with geneticist Craig Venter:
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, Jim Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, has said he doesn't want to know which variant of the so-called ApoE gene he has -- it could say something about his risk for developing Alzheimer's, and he's afraid of that.

Venter: That was silliness. At that age? Watson is over 80.

SPIEGEL: Are you interested in finding out what ApoE variant you have?

Venter: I know it. And according to it, I have a slightly increased risk for Alzheimer's disease. But it impresses me little because I could have dozens of other genes that counteract it. Because we do not know that, this information is meaningless.

[. . .]

Venter: Look at this bottle that you have touched -- that's all I need to obtain your entire genetic information.

SPIEGEL: How much would you be able to learn about us by doing so?

Venter: If anything, we don't really know how to read the genome and it can't tell us very much right now. So what's the ethical debate about?

SPIEGEL: The decoding of your personal genome has so far revealed little more than the fact that your ear wax tends to be moist.

Venter: That's what you say. And what else have I learned from my genome? Very little. We couldn't even be certain from my genome what my eye color was. Isn't that sad? Everyone was looking for miracle "yes/no" answers in the genome. "Yes, you'll have cancer." Or "No, you won't have cancer." But that's just not the way it is.

SPIEGEL: So the Human Genome Project has had very little medical benefits so far?

Venter: Close to zero to put it precisely.

SPIEGEL: Did it at least provide us with some new knowledge?

Venter: It certainly has. Eleven years ago, we didn't even know how many genes humans have. Many estimated that number at 100,000, and some went as high as 300,000. We made a lot of enemies when we claimed that there appeared to be considerably fewer -- probably closer to the neighborhood of 40,000! And then we found out that there are only half as many [i.e. humans have a little over 20,000 genes]. I was just in Stockholm for the 200th anniversary of the Karolinska Institute. The first presentation was about the many achievements the decoding of the genome has brought. Then I spoke and said that this century will be remembered for how little, and not how much, happened in this field.

SPIEGEL: Why is it taking so long for the results of genome research to be applied in medicine?

Venter: Because we have, in truth, learned nothing from the genome other than probabilities. How does a 1 or 3 percent increased risk for something translate into the clinic? It is useless information.

SPIEGEL: There are hundreds of hereditary diseases that can be traced to defects in individual genes. You can determine a lot more than just probabilities through them. But that still hasn't led to a flood of new treatments.

Venter: There were false expectations. Take Ataxia telangiectasia, for example, a horrible disease. The nervous system degenerates, and people who have it often die in their early teens. The cause is a defect in a single gene, but it is a developmental gene. If your body is built in the wrong way, then you can't just take a magic pill to rebuild it. If your brain is wired wrong, then it is wired wrong.

SPIEGEL: Who is to blame for those false expectations?

Venter: We were simply always looking at single genes because they were the only genes we had. When people lose their keys at night, they look under the lamp post. Why? Because that's where you can still see something.

SPIEGEL: But the keys are really located in the dark?

Venter: Exactly. Why did people think there were so many human genes? It's because they thought there was going to be one gene for each human trait. And if you want to cure greed, you change the greed gene, right? Or the envy gene, which is probably far more dangerous. But it turns out that we're pretty complex. If you want to find out why someone gets Alzheimer's or cancer, then it is not enough to look at one gene. To do so, we have to have the whole picture. It's like saying you want to explore Valencia and the only thing you can see is this table. You see a little rust, but that tells you nothing about Valencia other than that the air is maybe salty. That's where we are with the genome. We know nothing.

SPIEGEL: Do you think there will be a time when you can extract all this information to yield real medical results?

Venter: For that to happen we need a lot more information: Information about your body's chemistry, your physiology, your complete medical history, your brain and your entire life. We would need to do that a million times on different people and correlate that data with their genetic information.

SPIEGEL: Will that lead in the end to the kind of personalized medicine that genetic researchers have always touted? Each person would get his or her own personal treatment that is tailored precisely to that person's genetic make-up?

Venter: That was another one of these silly naïve notions that was out there. It's not, "Oh, we know your genome, we're going to make this drug for you." That will never happen. It is more important that you use the information in the genome about your personal risks and reduce them through intelligent behavior.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Pre-Wired for Atheism or Theism?

Dr. Valerie Tarico, a contributor to The Christian Delusion explores what we have learned from neuroscience about the loss of faith:
The more we learn about the hardware and operating systems of the human brain--the more we understand about human information processing--the more we glean bits of insight into the religious mind. For example:
  • We humans are not rational about anything, let alone religion.
  • Certainty is a feeling, not proof of knowing. It can fail to materialize even when evidence is enormous, and can manifest itself independently of any real knowledge.
  • The structure of thought itself predisposes us to religious thinking. Given how our minds work, certain kinds of religious beliefs are likely and others are impossible.
  • The "born again" experience is a natural phenomenon. It is triggered by specific social and emotional factors, which can occur in both religious and secular settings (p. 48).

I'll take a brief look at each of these bulleted points one-by-one.
We humans are not rational about anything, let alone religion.
Well now, if we can't be rational about anything, then we can't be rational about that proposition either; thus, a self-referentially incoherent statement. This is easily reversible to, "We humans are not rational about anything let alone atheism."

Nevertheless, if naturalism and evolution were true, and given the conjunction between them, Tarico's comment about rationality would seem to hold since our cognitive faculties would be unreliable. As physicalist philosopher of mind Patricia Churchland has said in her oft quoted paragraph:
Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in . . . feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. The principle [sic] chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organism’s chances for survival. Truth, whatever that is, takes the hindmost. [Patricia S. Churchland, “Epistemology in the Age of Neuroscience,” Journal of Philosophy 84 (October 1987): 548.]
This is exactly what Alvin Plantinga was getting at when he proffered his argument known as the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism. In other words, if naturalism is true, then we can't trust the deliverance of our cognitive faculties. Given this hypothetical problem for the naturalist, not only can we not be rational about atheism, but we can't be rational about anything. This is because given the conjunction between evolutionary processes and naturalism, rationality is not what is important, behaviors that produce survival value is; and the behaviors that bring about survival value aren't necessarily concerned about truth and rationality.
Certainty is a feeling, not proof of knowing. It can fail to materialize even when evidence is enormous, and can manifest itself independently of any real knowledge.
Really? Has Tarico ever heard of apodictic certainty, a logical demonstration of certainty wherein the premises are framed in such a way that the conclusion must follow? It also seems that she is totally unfamiliar with concepts like warrant and defeaters. Nevertheless, if we can't be certain of anything because certainty is based upon feeling, then we can reject everything she says since we can't be certain of any of her statements. This is another self-referentially incoherent statement.
The structure of thought itself predisposes us to religious thinking. Given how our minds work, certain kinds of religious beliefs are likely and others are impossible.
Richard Dawkins agrees with this statement in The God Delusion on pp 180-181 by quoting others who say that we have "a natural predisposition to embrace religious ideas", that "[C]hildren are native teleologists", "native dualists", and "many never grow out of it"; thus suggesting that we are naturally theistic. Of course, Dawkins intimates that this occurred as a result of evolutionary development occurring in a part of the human brain that produced these false beliefs via natural selection because they promoted survival value. However, this is just another example of the atheologians trying to suppress the truth a la Romans 1:18 by denying the truth of Romans 1:19-21.

I wonder if Dr. Tarico also thinks, like Dawkins, that religious belief is a sort of "mind virus"? (The God Delusion, 188) If so, then she believes that humans are inherently religious because our brains evolved to be that way because such false beliefs produced accompanied behaviors that promoted survival value. But because such beliefs are useless in our modern enlightened society, the vestigial mental faculty that once promoted survival value has now been reduced to a "mind virus".

However, why the push to get rid of the religious "mind virus" via rational dialogue since given the naturalist assumptions it was selected for to promote survival value? I mean, how do we know that such things won't promote survival value in our modern society? For example, a religion that encouraged its adherents to have loads of children "works" pretty well to promote survival value if most of the non-religious in the population either doesn't choose to have children, decides to abort them, or doesn't meet the replacement rate. That would qualify pretty well as religious beliefs producing survival value in the modern world. Second, since our minds are naturally wired to believe such supposed nonsense via the very evolutionary processes that gave them to us, why chide theists for what she admits is natural?

Third, why write a book exposing the so-called irrationality of Christian theism since we can't be certain of anything? If we can't be certain of anything, and Dr. Tarico is part of the "we", then she can't be certain of anything either, so why should we listen to her?
The "born again" experience is a natural phenomenon. It is triggered by specific social and emotional factors, which can occur in both religious and secular settings (p. 48).
Dr. Tarico just told us that we can't be certain of anything, but she seems pretty certain of this naturalistic explanation of regeneration. She goes on to further explain per apostate Ken Pulliam,
Cognitive research does offer what is rapidly becoming a sufficient explanation for belief. More and more, we can explain Christian belief with the same set of principles that explains supernaturalism generally. This is a serious blow to orthodoxy--to a religion based on right belief. In the past, one of the arguments put forward by believers was that there simply was no explanation for the "born again" experience, the healing power of Christianity, the vast agreement among believers, or the joy and wonder of mysticism, save that these came from God Himself. We now know this not to be the case. Humans are capable of having transcendent, transformative experiences in the absence of any given dogma. We are capable of sustaining elaborate systems of false belief and transmitting them to our children. We are capable of feeling so certain about our false beliefs that we are willing to kill or die for them (pp. 62-63). [bold mine for emphasis - DSS]
Remember that Dr. Tarico has said,
  • "We humans are not rational about anything, let alone religion."
  • "Certainty is a feeling, not proof of knowing . . . ."
But she just said in regards to the validity of religious experiences, "We now know this not to be the case."

Dr. Tarico says she knows that these religious experiences are not what they claim to be. In other words, she claims to have psychological certainty of this. But she contradicted herself earlier since she says that certainty is only a subjective mental state, not proof that something is actually veridical. Hence, consider the following syllogisms,
P1 - Dr. Tarico knows that religious experiences have naturalistic explanations.
P2 - To know something is to have a high degree of psychological certainty about it.
P3 - Dr. Tarico is psychologically certain that religious experiences have naturalistic explanations.
P4 - Dr. Tarico equates certainty with feeling, not proof of knowing. C - Therefore, since Dr. Tarico equates certainty with feeling, not proof of knowing, then she can't know that religious experiences have only naturalistic explanations.
Or let's consider this syllogism in light of her statement that we aren't rational about anything:
P1 - Dr. Tarico says she knows via rational inquiry that religious experiences have naturalistic explanations.
P2 - Claiming to have knowledge about religious experiences is a religious proposition.
P3 - Dr. Tarico says that we can't be rational about anything, including religious propositions.
C - Therefore, Dr. Tarico can't be rational about her religious propositions.
So please tell me again why I should believe in atheism?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Reply To Paul Tobin On Chapter 6 Of The Christian Delusion (Part 1)

Paul Tobin has started a response to chapter 6 of The Infidel Delusion. His opening article has an introduction and a reply to Steve Hays, and he'll be replying to me and to Paul Manata later. But I want to address some of his comments in that first article, even though they weren't directed at me in particular.

He writes:

Firstly, given my thesis, it is quite strange to see that the “rebuttals” are based mainly on quotations from evangelical scholars and publications with frequent references to my not “interacting” with “evangelical scholarship.” An important point of my article in the book, and something I will continue to emphasize below, is that evangelical scholarship is not mainstream and not supported by a consensus of scholars who do not hold the same pre-suppositional biases.

As I pointed out repeatedly in The Infidel Delusion, the authors of The Christian Delusion often reject the views of most scholars. They sometimes even follow a scholarly minority far smaller than Evangelical scholarship (e.g., the view that Jesus didn't exist). And why limit ourselves to scholarship, if we're to judge the significance of majority opinion? Most of the contributors to The Christian Delusion are atheists. That puts them in a tiny minority among humans in general, both historically and in the modern world. Why do they interpret the evidence we all have access to, related to the existence of God or gods, so differently than such a large majority?

Scholarly opinion often changes, sometimes quickly and sometimes without much or any good reason. In the past, scholarship on Biblical issues was more conservative than it is today. And sometimes modern scholarship takes a conservative turn, as Gary Habermas' research suggests concerning recent resurrection scholarship, for example.

We should keep in mind that Tobin has framed the discussion around Biblical passages he wants to criticize. That would tend to highlight the passages for which we have the least evidence. Conservative scholars often hold a more positive view of those passages because of conclusions reached by means of other passages and other lines of evidence. As I mentioned in response to Robert Price in chapter 10 of The Infidel Delusion:

"Both Christians and their critics appeal to possibilities in some contexts. Something that can be classified as a possibility in one sense can be classified as a probability in another sense. If you isolate a harmonization of two Biblical passages from the larger context of the evidence for Biblical inerrancy, for example, then the harmonization can be considered only a possibility rather than a probability in that situation. But if the evidence for inerrancy is taken into account, the harmonization can be considered probable in that context. All of us are trying to harmonize all of the relevant data in order to maintain a consistent worldview. One system can be more likely overall in spite of the unlikely nature of some element of it when considered in isolation." (p. 146)

As I documented on the same page, Price himself repeatedly appeals to possibilities rather than probabilities. Thus, it's insufficient for Tobin to make comments such as the following:

Secondly, most of the “rebuttals” amount to no more than suggesting or speculating other possible explanations than the ones I have presented. This is something I have pointed out in my book The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager (pp. 212-214) Evangelicals seems to have difficulty understanding the difference between the concepts of possibility and probability- just because an hypothesis is possible does not mean it is the most probable explanation for something.

It's not as though skeptical speculations about how all of the external sources are wrong about the authorship of a Biblical book, how resurrection witnesses hallucinated, etc. commend themselves on their face as the most likely interpretations of the evidence.

If conservative scholars are correct about the larger context of the evidence for Biblical accuracy, then accusing them of appealing to possibilities instead of probabilities in a narrower context doesn't have much significance. Many modern scholars either ignore the larger framework conservatives appeal to or dismiss it as outside the realm of what a historian or New Testament scholar, for example, should take into account. But any conclusion we reach should take all of the relevant evidence into consideration, even if some people categorize some of that evidence as philosophical, theological, or something else other than historical. If a scholar is convinced that Jesus' resurrection is a historical event, for instance, then labeling that conclusion as philosophical or theological doesn't suggest that the scholar in question ought to ignore the implications of the event when considering other historical matters.

And a scholarly trend might be mistaken for some other reason. I would argue that there's a tendency to neglect external evidence while giving too much weight to highly speculative theories based on internal evidence, for example.

The New Testament scholar Craig Keener gives us some examples of unhealthy tendencies in modern scholarship:

"No one familiar with the urban society of the eastern empire will be impressed with the isolation Gospel scholars often attribute to the Gospel 'communities.'...Whereas the conservative [Bible] introductions often arrive at predictably conservative conclusions, they interact with less conservative scholars, whereas some of the traditional critical introductions completely ignore the contributions of conservative scholarship....Besides any skills John [author of the fourth gospel] had acquired, he undoubtedly would have had help; even the most literate normally used scribes, and Josephus’s staff included style editors to improve his Greek. John would have been an unusual writer if he published the work entirely by himself....No other author of antiquity could survive the nit-picking distinctions on which NT [New Testament] scholars, poring over a smaller corpus, often thrive. As a translator of Euripides for the Loeb series notes, Euripides’ 'plays, produced at times widely apart, and not in the order of the story, sometimes present situations (as in Hecuba, Daughters of Troy, and Helen) mutually exclusive, the poet not having followed the same legend throughout the series.' He would not fare well in the hands of our discipline." (The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], p. 42, n. 145 on p. 98, pp. 101-102, 125)

D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, after addressing the external evidence for John's authorship of the fourth gospel, comment that "Most historians of antiquity, other than New Testament scholars, could not so easily set aside evidence as plentiful and as uniform." (An Introduction To The New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005], p. 233)

Tobin writes:

The main point is this, no serious (i.e. non evangelical) scholar today considers the stories in Genesis 1 and 2 to be anything more than different creation myths “cut and pasted” together by a later scribe to form an uneasy narrative.

I don't know why Tobin so often refers to Evangelical scholarship. What about conservative Catholics, Jews, etc.? Since those of us who wrote The Infidel Delusion are Evangelicals, we agree with that segment of scholarship more than others. But Evangelical scholars aren't the only scholars who are generally conservative about the Bible, and liberal and moderate scholars sometimes agree with conservative conclusions.

Near the end of his article, Tobin appeals to the concept that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We responded to that notion in The Infidel Delusion (in chapter 11, in appendix 2, etc.), and Tobin doesn't interact with any of our comments on the subject.

The amoral imperative

Hector Avalos has written another post in which he continues to press his case for the glorious cause of moral relativism. But before I delve into the details, I’d point out, once more, that this is self-stultifying. If moral relativism is true, then what’s the point of making a case for moral relativism? Presumably he’s trying to persuade more people to agree with him. But if moral relativism is true, then there’s no moral obligation to believe in moral relativism. If moral relativism is true, then no one should believe in moral relativism. Avalos keeps acting as if we ought to believe that we ought not to believe anything.

Why does he spend so much time trying to convince other people that moral relativism is true? It’s not as if they have a duty to believe there are no duties to believe. So why does he try so hard to make people agree with him? If nothing is intrinsically right or wrong, then why is it so all-important to believe what he does? Is there a moral imperative to be a moral relativist?

Avalos is living a lie. He can’t bring himself to stare the grim implications of his own position in the face.

On a related note is his desperate effort to create parity between Christian ethics and secular ethics. But, again, what’s the point? He’s in a drag-race to see who can drive over the cliff sooner. Will he beat us? Will he get there before we do? Suppose he does. What does winning amount to if nihilism is the grand prize?

Avalos began his career as a boy-preacher, and at this stage of life he is now an overgrown boy-preacher. Thumping his Word of Godlessness and summoning the faithless to the altar-call of moral suicide.

He’s like an engineer who designs a clever mantrap, then accidentally steps into his own trap. His ingenuity is self-defeating.

Killing children could sometimes be obligatory, according to Triablogue. It didn’t take long for Triabloggers to deconstruct their own claim to believe in moral absolutes. In fact, it is very clear now that they are as morally relativistic as anyone else. It just took a few simple questions to help them contradict themselves.

Notice that he doesn’t show how that is incompatible with moral absolutes. It would only be incompatible with moral absolutes if taking the life of a child was intrinsically evil. Where’s the argument?

I asked this question of Triabloggers, especially because if killing children is not absolutely wrong, then what is?

That’s a question, not an argument. Where’s the argument?

After all, the word “always” is pretty absolute and not ambiguous. Either X is “always” wrong, or it is not.

That’s how he chose to frame the question. But just because that’s how he decides to define a moral absolute doesn’t make it so. Once again, where’s the argument?

Steve Hays:
i) God does no wrong by taking the life of an infant.
ii) There are also situations in which, no matter what you do, some innocent blood will be shed. Should we bomb part of a Syrian city that’s producing a biochem weapon which will be used to wipe out London, even though bombing that part of the city will kill some babies belonging to the resident scientists? Short answer: that might be permissible or even obligatory. But that’s entirely consonant with moral absolutes. Not all obligations are equally obligatory. There are higher and lower obligations. In case of conflict, higher obligations supersede lower obligations.

Hays, in particular, mimics the bin Laden approach to morality on 9-11. On that date, bin Laden was attacking New York, City and Washington DC, the centers of what he perceives as an oppressor of Muslims. His goal was to save Muslim lives.

So, if bin Laden had to kill a few thousand civilians, including children, to save millions of Muslims from American weapons of mass destruction, then Hays would presumably support it. Or is Hays saying that it is just acceptable to kill children when Christian or Western cities are in jeopardy?

i) This very comparison ironically evinces his own lack of elementary moral discrimination.

ii) Apropos (i), his comparison simply presumes moral equivalence between the two cases. But where’s the argument?

iii) The fact that bin Laden may have “perceived” the US as an “oppressor” of Muslims is hardly analogous to my example, which involved a real threat, not an imaginary threat.

iv) Where’s the evidence that, prior to 9/11, the US was going to deploy WMD against Muslims?

v) There is also an obvious moral asymmetry between an unprovoked attack and a preemptive counterattack if we know that a state sponsor of terrorism is developing a biochem weapon which it will use against us. (And, in my hypothetical, I used the word “will,” not “may”).

vi) Also, feeling “oppressed,” even if that feeling is justified, does not ipso facto justify mass murder. That’s morally disproportionate to the grievance.

vii) Moreover, bin Laden hardly treats Muslim blood as sacrosanct. He himself is prepared to shed the blood of fellow Muslims. Jihadis kill Muslims in droves.

viii) Furthermore, not all lives are entitled to the same protection. The life of a schoolyard sniper is not entitled to the same protection as the lives of the students he is gunning down. This goes to the elemental distinction between guilt and innocence.

ix) Avalos is the one who mimics bin Laden by endorsing bin Laden’s view of the US as the real culprit.

x) Finally, since Avalos is a moral relativist, what’s the point of ranking me with Hitler, Stalin, and bin Laden? If you’re a moral relativist, then what’s wrong with being in the same company as Hitler or Stalin?

Avalos is trading on the invidious connotations of Hitler and Stalin, yet since he is, by his own admission, a moral relativist, those invidious connotations don’t correspond to anything objectively evil.

So, what is the difference again between moral relativists and absolutists? It is merely another version of: “I have judged that my deity is right, and yours is not.” Recall that Hays has already told us that just because Allah says something, it does not make it morally permissible.

And I gave reasons for that, which he blows right past.

Moreover, I can find theists who say it is permissible to have fun when torturing children. Consider Psalm 137:8-9 (RSV):

[8] O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
[9] Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

I say "torturing children" because we can suppose that these children would suffer, or not die immediately, if dashed against rocks. So, is this biblical author immoral for Hays or Manata?

I’m struck by Hector’s wooden mistreatment of idiomatic usage. As two scholars explain:

“Every student of the Bible knows that certain expressions are not to be understood ‘literally.’…But consideration of ancient Near Eastern modes of thought and expression is only too easily forgotten in the face of figures of speech which may be construed more concretely. An instance is the horror usually aroused by the imprecation over Babylon: ‘Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’ (Ps 137:9). We need to consider, however, whether these ‘little ones’ ought not to be understood just as symbolically as ‘Mother Babylon.’ The inhabitants of the oppressor-city or the children of the ruling dynasty concretize the continuation of the unrighteous empire (cf. 341-42). In this vein, one might translate: ‘Happy is he who puts an end to your self-renewing domination!’” Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World (Eisenbrauns 1997), 9.

“Yet we should not press the psalm’s metaphorical language. None of the passages that refer to smashing children are simple reports of someone’s action; all come in the words of prophets, apart from this psalm that appeals to the words of prophets. Zedekiah’s sons were not actually smashed on a crag…and it is unlikely that this is what the psalm literally envisages. Middle Eastern writings like to express things concretely rather than abstractly,” John Goldingay, Psalms 90-150 (Baker 2008), 609-610.

I’d add that Keel and Goldingay are hardly committed to the inerrancy of Scripture, so they don’t say this to spare the reputation of Scripture.

In fact, Triablogue does not condemn all enjoyment of baby-killing. Here, they appeal to FEELINGS TO JUSTIFY their scriptures morality:Psalm 137 per Triablogue

“There are people like the Psalmist who, under extreme duress and provocation, really feel that way. They understandably lash out at those who hurt them. Why is Scripture not allowed to even record their feelings?”

A truly inept reading of what I wrote:

i) To begin with, Hector’s statement piggybacks on his wooden misinterpretation of the Psalm.

ii) I didn’t appeal to feelings to justify the verse. Rather, I pointed out that it is morally permissible for Scripture to record what people feel. That is not, of itself, an endorsement of what they feel. Indeed, Scripture routinely records a variety of incidents which Scripture condemns.

iii) When people are grieving, they frequently make intemperate statements. But even though their statements may be wrong, it would also be wrong to reprimand them in their state of grief. That is not the time or place.

Never invite Avalos to a funeral!

Did Hays or Manata feel the same way about those radical Muslims who might have danced in the streets when the Twin Towers went down? Would Hays be as understanding if someone said: “Happy shall you be when you take their children and rape them”? Should we try to understand that person’s feelings the way Triablogue wants us to understand the psalmist’s feelings?

This is a trick question, since the question is predicated on a false premise. He imputes a false interpretation to what I said, then poses a question which assumes his false interpretation.

Muslims would only be entitled to celebrate 9/11 if that attack was a just and proportionate recompense for a suitable provocation. But unless Avalos shares the same outlook as bin Laden (which is apparently the case), the comparison falls flat. In any event, since I don’t share his sympathies with bin Laden, it’s a straw man argument.

And, of course, the text goes beyond “reporting” feelings. Psalm 137 suggests those feelings are justified. Recall also that just thinking about doing a particular act is tantamount to committing that act, according to Jesus (Matt 5:28).

Before we can say what Ps 137 justifies, we have to translate the figurative imagery into a literal proposition. The psalmist is justified in petitioning God to punish Babylon for her wickedness, in compliance with his prophetic threat to do so.

Part of the evidence that there are no such thing as objective moral absolutes is the fact that one can dissolve any moral statement into a tautology---a completely circular statement.

However, Hays claims that he is free of tautologies: The circularity is bogus since that’s a caricature of what I believe. Something is not evil just because God says it’s evil. If God says something is evil, then that ensures the truth of the statement. But that is not what makes it evil. For instance, sodomy is evil because God designed human nature to function in a certain way. Sodomy represents a violation of the way in which we were made to function. That’s not dissolvable into a mere tautology.

Hays is wrong. This claim (also a tired natural law argument) about sodomy IS dissolvable into a mere tautology. Observe:

Step 1: Sodomy is evil because it is a violation of the way in which we
were made to function.

Step 2: A violation of the way we were made to function is evil because
a violation of the way we were made to function is evil.

This is yet another bait-and-switch by Avalos. Let’s compare this with what he originally said:

A. “X is evil because God says X is evil” dissolves into:
B. “Whatever God says is evil should regarded as evil because whatever
God says is evil should be regarded as evil.”

Now let’s compare these two statements:

A. “Sodomy is wrong because God says sodomy is wrong.”
B. ”Sodomy is wrong because it violates God’s design for human nature.”

B is not reducible to A. Rather, B is a way of grounding God’s command in A.

And let’s compare these two statements:

A. The lights went on because the lights went on.
B. The lights went on because I flipped the light-switch.

B isn’t reducible to A. B isn’t circular or tautologous. For the relation is asymmetric. To say the lights went on because I flipped the light-switch isn’t equivalent to stating that I flipped the light-switch because the lights went on.

However, suppose we play along with Hector’s contention for the sake of argument. If, according to Avalos, all explanations are disguised tautologies, then Avalos can’t argue for anything since all of his arguments are reducible to tautologies. In that case, Avalos can’t argue for atheism, or Latino rights, or moral relativism, or Hitler’s “true” motives.

If every explanation can be reformulated as a tautology, then whatever reasons Avalos may give or atheism, his justification is dissolvable into “Atheism is true because atheism is true!”

Hays offers us no “absolute” or “objective” reason why violating what he says is the way we were made to function should be evil. It does depend on a tautology that cannot be differentiated from its opposite (“it’s not evil to violate the way humans were meant to function”).

To the contrary, I gave a teleological explanation, which is certainly an objective reason. To say an air pump pumps air because it was designed to pump hair is an objective reason for why that device pumps air–rather than making popcorn.

But if Avalos is going to assert that teleology has no bearing on morality, then he’s begging the question. If that’s his position, then he needs to present an argument to that effect. Of course, by his lights, any argument he presents is tautologous, which invalidates the argument.

By Hays’ reasoning, penetrating a rectum with a penis is a violation of how God meant humans to function. However, penetrating a human body with a sword, a common way to kill people in biblical times, is acceptable. Apparently human bodies were designed to be penetrated by metal implements, but not by flesh.

i) Needless to say, that grossly oversimplifies the argument against sodomy, which involves a number of interrelated factors–including proper function, the psychological and physiological complementarity of the sexes, the right of children to have suitable role models, &c.

ii) A punishment (i.e. execution) may well be unnatural because the offense is unnatural. The offense introduces an unnatural dynamic into the natural and moral order which, as such, sometimes requires an unnatural solution to restore the status quo ante.

If a malicious neighbor poisons your pet cat, you may need to seek medical intervention. The veterinarian has to go beyond allowing nature take its course, for the course of nature has been artificially diverted by the poisoning. Special circumstances call for special remedies.

Moreover, Hays’ morality rests on an unverifiable claim that he can tell how God has designed us to function.

That’s an assertion in search of an argument. Avalos needs to demonstrate that divine design is unverifiable.

By his logic, we cannot wear glasses on our noses because God designed noses for respiration and smelling, and not for placing glasses upon them.

i) That piggybacks on his previous caricature of the argument against sodomy (see above).

ii) Moreover, needing corrective lenses is a result of the Fall. So that’s an effort to restore the status quo ante.

I see no more evidence that Hays knows what God wants than I see evidence that Osama bin Laden knows what God wants.

That’s not an argument. Rather, that’s an autobiographical statement of his mental state.

As usual, Triabloggers deify themselves by equating their judgments with God’s supposed judgments.

To the contrary, it reflects an appeal to God’s revealed judgment.

Second, my starting premise does not have to be what Manata demands. I also could use this rationale:

A. It is morally permissible to use any action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

B. Abortion, with its 100% salvation rate, is an action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

C. Therefore, it is morally permissible to use abortion as an action to achieve the highest proportion of saved souls.

A takes for granted a purely utilitarian value-system. For Avalos to impute that to prolifers, he would first need to show that prolifers are necessarily committed to utilitarian ethics. Where’s the argument?

B assumes that more individuals are saved if all the individuals from just one generation are saved, rather than some (or many) individuals from each in a long series of generations. Where’s the argument?

In addition, B also assumes that are prolifers are warranted in believing that dying infants are automatically saved. But Avalos would need to show that all prolifers are necessarily committed to that assumption.

Compare this rationale to that offered by Hays to kill Syrian children:

A. It is morally permissible, even obligatory, to kill Syrian children to save London if those children are present in the part of a Syrian city that manufactures biochem weapons.

B. Children are present in the part of a Syrian city that is producing a biochem weapon which will be used to wipe out London;

C. Therefore, it is morally permissible, even obligatory, to kill children present in that part in the part of a Syrian city that manufactures biochem weapons.

Here, the salvation of souls is NOT the intended "higher" goal, but rather the preservation of the bodies of Londoners. The bodies of Syrian children are not held to be as valuable as the bodies of Londoners, but Hays cannot tell us why he made that difference.

i) Avalos is treating London and a Syrian city (let’s say Damascus) as morally equivalent. But in my hypothetical, they are not.

I mention Syria because Syria is a state-sponsor of terrorism. And in my hypothetical, the development of biochem weapons would be used to facilitate terrorism. By contrast, England is not a state sponsor of terrorism, although that may change over time (i.e. Eurabia).

ii) If a hostile state develops biochem weapons to use, without moral justification or adequate provocation, against another country, then that country forfeits some of the immunities to which it would ordinarily be entitled. As I said before, not all obligations are equally obligatory. Higher obligations may override lower obligations.

iii) I don’t reduce human value to the value of “bodies.” Indeed, that type of radical reductionism quickly leads to the denial of any values.

iv) This is not a question of comparative values. For instance, a Syrian may be just as valuable as an Englishman, but if he’s complicit in a criminal enterprise, then he’s no longer entitled to the same immunities. That’s the difference between guilt and innocence. And that distinction is key feature of moral absolutes.

v) As usual, Avalos can’t follow the argument–even when the argument in question is his own argument. I wasn’t comparing the value of life with salvation. I was addressing the question of whether it’s ever morally licit to take child’s life. That was Hector’s question, not mine. For some reason he can’t keep track of his own question.

In closing, I come back to my initial question. Why is Avalos fighting over the putrid corpse of atheism? Why is he trying so hard to convert everyone to the cause of nihilism? Assuming, ex hypothesi, that he won the argument, what’s the value of an argument that negates values?

"Not Just the Minimum"

From Frank Turk.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Inerrancy and iconography

Liberals says the Gospels contradict one another. And they level the same allegation against other “synoptic” books of the Bible (i.e. Samuel/Kings/Chronicles). Conservatives respond by pointing out that the Gospels are selective histories which don’t pretend to give the whole story. That was never their intention, and that's not a precondition of truth.

In light of this it’s ironic to see some opponents of picturing Jesus claim that a picture of Jesus is false because it fails to fully represent the person of Christ. But if that’s the standard of veracity, then liberal critics of the Gospels were right all along.

The ghost of Gosse

I’m going to be commenting on a post by JD Walters:

A charge frequently leveled at theistic evolutionists is that of the inconsistency between accepting both the uniformitarian geological and biological evidence for the age of the Earth and the miracles performed by Jesus and other biblical figures. In the latter presumably God acted by divine fiat, bypassing or overriding the usual creaturely processes by which objects are linked by cause and effect with other objects. Now if-so goes the objection-the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes involved the creation ex nihilo of fully formed loaves and fishes, presumably such that if a person were to examine them without knowledge of their miraculous origin they would seem to be completely normal loaves and fishes, how can we trust the appearance of age and the natural unfolding of Earth's long history that science presents? Can we indeed rule out the possibility, daringly put forward by Philip Gosse, that creation ex nihilo implies a similar scenario to the loves and fishes, except for the entire Universe? Perhaps this world is like a novel in God's mind, where we can enter the story in medias res right from the first chapter, with its world stretching back into the past and on into the future by projecting from the context of that chapter, but with that world only existing as the context of the actual story laid out in the pages of the novel, and nothing more.

That’s a pretty fair statement of the position he’s about to critique. And I’ll be revisiting this statement momentarily.

What, then, is the conclusion of the matter? And what does this have to do with the challenge of ex nihilo to theistic evolutionism? Simply this: although God is indeed all-powerful and can dispose of his creation as easily as we can blow out a candle, the Bible teaches that God is not fickle in his attitude towards creation: once God creates something, even if that something deviates from his purpose and obstructs his will, God does not simply toss it out and start over. This motif of God working with and through creation, together with God's promise that the rhythms of the world would no longer be disrupted as long as the world lasted, allows us to affirm a substantial amount of creaturely autonomy and uniformity. God does not create and destroy things in the blink of an eye, and creation is not just a story in God's mind. God has chosen to make creation both real and good. Even though he is omnipotent, God has chosen to give creation its own 'firmness' or 'solidity' over against his all-powerful will.

Several problems:

i) There is nothing in the theory of mature creation or full-blown Omphalism to suggest that God zeros out the status quo and starts over from scratch.

ii) JD commits a level-confusion. Mature creation and/or Omphalism don’t mean that creation is “just a story in God’s mind.” God embodies his concept of the world in real space and real time. To take JD’s own illustration, if Christ makes a miraculous fish, that fish is still a real fish, and not just an idea in God’s mind.

iii) There is also a direct contradiction between the way JD interprets his supporting material, and the interpretation he is laboring to defend. On the one hand, JD interprets Genesis pretty literally to make his case about God’s “commitment” to creation. On the other hand, JD is attempting to use the conclusion he derives from that interpretation to make room for theistic evolution. However, theistic evolution doesn’t interpret Genesis very literally (to put it mildly).

So JD is using the first hermeneutical approach to justify a second hermeneutical approach which contravenes the first hermeneutical approach. That’s like building the second story atop the first story, then zapping the first story. But in that event, the second story is now resting on thin air. What holds it up? Not the first story. Yet the first story was erected to support the second story.

And the motif does not stop there. In Genesis 3 we have a description of the first humans' disobedience, and God's plan for humans to be his viceroys on earth appears on the verge of collapsing. This would seem to be a good time for God to 'start the level again' in video game parlance, scrapping his creation as a faulty first draft and starting from scratch. After all, what could possibly be gained by continuing to invest in this flawed, disordered creation? Astonishingly, God does continue to invest in his creation and persists in using it to fulfill his purposes. Thus he sets a plan in motion to eventually crush the serpent who incited the first humans to disobedience and restore the humans to a right relationship with him. So much trouble, when God could have wiped everything out and started again! Again we are compelled to ask, why?

When one saves something, one does not destroy it and create something else in its place. Implicit in the very idea of salvation is that what is being saved is preserved. Precisely because of his love of and commitment to his creation, God wanted to save it, this very creation, not throw it away and start again.

Once again, it’s hard to see the relevance of this observation. There is nothing in mature creation or Omphalism to suggest that God is inclined to scrap his creation and go back to the drawing board. The question at issue is what comes before, not what come after. According to mature creation or Omphalism, once the status quo is in place, creation ordinarily continues to operate in cycles. And God ordinarily uses natural processes to work his will.

But the point for now is that the Biblical God is not the sort of God who would create an Omphalos-type world in which things only seem to be what they are, and the reliability of natural processes is constantly in doubt, constantly under siege by the ever-present threat of creation ex nihilo. If there is one thing we know about God from the Bible, it is that once he creates, he commits. Nothing about the creation forces him to commit to it: the initiative and the promise are entirely from the divine side of the relationship, an expression of God's perfect, undeserved love.

Once again, this seems to caricature of the position under review.

i) To use JD’s own example, a miraculous fish doesn’t merely “seem to be” what it is. It really is a fish.

ii) If what JD means is that a miraculous fish seems to be a normal fish, even though it was not the product of a normal process of origination, so what? After all, JD apparently accepts the historicity of that miracle.

iii) How would mature creation or even full-blown Omphalism cast constant doubt over the reliability of natural processes? On this view, creation ex nihilo initiates all of the periodic processes which we subsequently take for granted.

It’s like making a machine that can then make other machines of the same type. The machine-making machine was not, itself, the product of a prior machine. But once the machine-making machine is in place, every subsequent machine is the product of that mechanical process.

iv) JD’s objection also sounds like a sanctified version of Lewontin’s strictures about the “Divine Foot in the door”: “The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

v) I also don’t know how to square JD’s rather rigid commitment to the uniformity of nature with his personal experience. As he said on another occasion:

I was born into a missionary family with ministry in India and Bangladesh before moving East. My father had a powerful conversion experience on the beaches of Goa, India, in which he encountered Jesus asking him to be his disciple. From then on answered prayers, seemingly miraculous conversions and healings followed us wherever we went. To be sure, they didn't happen every day or even very often, but there were times when the experience was just too powerful to ignore.

Christians in China are heavily persecuted for their faith, but they seem to make up for it with an incredibly tally of reported healings, conversions, miraculous escapes, etc. Many people who experienced God's grace firsthand are still around, serving as Pastors and speakers around the world.

The same applies to Africa. Princeton alumni associated with Princeton Evangelical Fellowship often do missionary work there. Last year we had a couple, the husband an engineer and the wife a trained doctor, describe their experiences with spiritual warfare among the Masai people at a meeting. It was simply astonishing to see these well-educated, calm and collected people describe an exorcism as if it was the most common thing in the world. The exorcism had taken place a year ago, but there was no embellishment, no legendary expansion. They simply told it as it happened. They even showed a good-quality DVD recording of the exorcism, in which a person writhing on the ground in agony can be clearly seen, with people praying over him, until he settles down and becomes coherent again, after the attack. Needless to say the person cured became a Christian, as did the witch doctor who put the death curse on him.

vi) Apropos (v), I assume that when JD has a friend or family member who falls gravely ill, he does two things that most Christians do: (a) he recommends medical treatment; (b) he prays for them.

Now, his prayers can include more “mundane” petitions, viz. he prays to God to give the physician wisdom to correctly diagnose and treat the disease, &c.

However, I assume that, failing natural means, he will also pray to God to miraculously heal his sick friend or relative.

We can trust that creation, after careful and critical study and experimentation, will not deceive us about its character as creation.

Was the miracle at Cana “deceptive”? After all, the wedding guests didn’t see Jesus change the water into wine. So they were in no position to tell what “really” happened. To all appearances, this was normal wine. The product of a normal process.

We can trust the scientific evidence for uniformity and antiquity, because it coheres with the character of God as one who creates by the unfolding of his original creation, as opposed to bringing new things into existence every now and then.

What, exactly, would count as evidence for uniformity and antiquity? To use his own example, if the fish that Jesus multiplied appeared to be ordinary fish, then how do appearances point in one direction or another? Evidence of what? If miraculous fish are indistinguishable from ordinary fish, then what residual features indicate the true source of origin–whether natural or supernatural (as the case may be)? Put another way, if the cause is untraceable from the effect, then what does the effect evidence?

Double Standards At Debunking Christianity

Ken Pulliam keeps making comments such as the following at Debunking Christianity:

I read some of the responses to Tarico and Avalos on Tribalogue and it reconfirms in my mind why it is a waste of time to respond to these guys. They remind me so much of J.P. Holding and his followers on TWEB. Sarcasm, insults, using the same argument but switching words, etc. are all signs of non-scholarship. I expect to see some cartoons soon on their site to refute TCD.

Hector Avalos responded:

There are plenty of people out there on the fence who will see precisely what you see. They will compare the invectives that substitute for argumentation at Triablogue with what we do here.

See some examples of cartoons posted at Debunking Christianity here, here, and here. Notice the title of a recent post by John Loftus. And the title of one of Hector Avalos' recent posts. Note the vulgarity and sarcasm in John Loftus' post here. See the post here in which Loftus explains that he's "mad as hell". Loftus opens the post here with the line "As a bit of sarcasm that Voltaire would appreciate let's all praise God for the coming Swine Flu pandemic!" Then there's Loftus' recommendation of sarcasm here. Is that the sort of non-sarcastic, non-insulting, scholarly atmosphere Ken Pulliam is asking for? Pulliam has been on the staff of Debunking Christianity. How could Pulliam work with people who are so sarcastic, insulting, etc.?

He posted at Debunking Christianity under the screen name Former_Fundy. Is "fundy" the sort of scholarly and non-insulting language he's asking Christians to use? In his introductory post at Debunking Christianity, he referred to "brainwashing" and how "foolish" he had been in accepting Christianity:

Since I left Christianity my mind has started to "clear" (from the brainwashing) and I am amazed that I was ever that foolish to believe. Its not a matter of intelligence, though, there are extremely intelligent people who are Christians but there are also intelligent Mormons, Catholics, and members of other faiths as well.

He goes on to refer to the "nut case" who led the Christian university he attended:

The problem with the school is the fact that all of the power has been centralized in one person, beginning with Bob Jones, Sr. who founded the school. His son, Bob Jones, Jr. was IMO, a nut case and often made public statements that were very embarrassing.

Since Pulliam has complained about sarcasm, notice his repeated use of "Dr.", with quotation marks, when referring to James White in the post here.

Earlier this year, Pulliam made the following comments about David Wood:

Unless David Wood has improved greatly, you should have no trouble. His debate with you on the problem of evil was pathetic. He is an embarrassment to the evangelicals.

Would Pulliam classify his assessment of Wood as "insulting"?

Here's something Pulliam wrote at his blog:

Sometimes I think sarcasm and humor are more effective in getting your message across than serious lectures or debates. I probably come across as being a stuffed shirt but in reality I have a great sense of humor.

In the process of commending The Christian Delusion at his blog, Pulliam wrote:

Chapter Ten is by NT scholar Robert Price who, in his own unique and sarcastic way, demolishes the attempts by evangelicals to wiggle out of the implications of biblical criticism.

Recall some of Richard Carrier's comments when The Christian Delusion came out:

He [Hector Avalos] even, BTW, dismisses the Stalin and Mao examples in just two paragraphs that are a model of pwning the Christian with his own Bible; love it)....

I don't begrudge you (Pikeman) or Ben playing the conciliatory, piecemeal, make-nice, "no, we don't think you're deluded, you're just mistaken" card. You can mop up whoever we don't mow down.

You can even tell them you hate us and gosh we're so mean. That neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Just don't lie. I'll do the same: I'll be mean, but I wont tolerate saying anything I don't know to be true (and I'll correct myself whenever I find I'm wrong). That's been my ethic from the beginning, and that won't change.

Does Ken Pulliam think that being "mean" is similar to being "insulting"? How would he respond to a Triablogue post referring to how people are "pwned", how we're going to "mow down" people, etc.? How did he respond to Carrier's chapter on the resurrection in The Christian Delusion, in which Carrier refers to Jesus' disciples as "fanatical" (p. 308), refers to the Jesus of Christianity as "superman" (p. 296), etc.?

Pulliam is contributing to another book against Christianity that's supposed to come out next year. John Loftus is a contributor. So is Richard Carrier. How can Pulliam work with people who are so sarcastic, insulting, etc.?

In another recent thread at Debunking Christianity, Pulliam wrote:

These guys at Tribalogue are not worthy of a response. First, they are not scholars as were the authors of TCD. Second, because they are not scholars they don't understand the issues involved. They just merely presuppose that their holy book is perfect and that anyone who disagrees is of the devil. Third, any response only gives them credibility.

You can understand why he would want to claim some sort of higher ground, and ignore some critics he doesn't want to respond to, rather than defend the unreasonable claims he's made. As I explained in a response to his comments above:

I would suggest that people read The Infidel Delusion and contrast it to the approach Ken Pulliam claims we take. Ken should explain why he considers men like John Loftus and Ed Babinski scholars in a way that's relevant to the current context, and he should explain why the authors are encouraging non-scholars to read their book if only scholars can understand the issues.

Is it scholarly for Pulliam to keep contradicting himself and keep making such unreasonable claims? What's his objective basis for the moral pronouncements he keeps making? Maybe that would explain his inconsistencies.