09 December 2016

Bill's miracle

I had a lengthy and spirited discussion today with Randal Rauser over on his blog about a story he told regarding an acquaintance of his named Bill Muller. You can read the full story on Randal's blog (as well as read my discussion with him in the comments) but I'll summarize it here:

Bill was on his way to Cameroon in West Africa with a choir group, carrying items that had been requested by local missionaries. He was concerned about being caught up in customs and having to pay duty fees for the items. When things began to look grim after an inspector requested to see receipts for all the items (which Bill didn't have), a young agent arrived on the scene who, in a remarkable coincidence, turned out to be the son of a family Bill had stayed with in Cameroon many years ago. The young agent then allowed Bill to pass through customs swiftly. Bill went on to attribute this to divine intervention. As Randal says in introduction of the post, he doesn't take this to be a miracle in the sense of a suspension of natural law, but as a "sign of God’s presence and action in the world." I'll admit I'm not clear on the distinction. How is it a sign from God if, evidentially, it's indistinguishable from coincidence?

Regardless, here's the key point of contention: Is Bill rational to believe that this was orchestrated by God? Randal insists that he is. I insist he is not.

A Rabbit Hole of Evidential Proportions

Over the course of our discussion, Randal sought to challenge me on my belief in evidentialism (which, if you're unfamiliar, is a school of epistemology). I found this a bit frustrating, for a few reasons.

First, evidentialism is a robust school of philosophical thought that has an abundance of academic resources behind it. A fruitful discussion on the topic is well beyond the scope of a blog-comment debate over a completely different subject. And while I'm versed enough to discuss the overarching concepts and why I've found them persuasive, I have no delusions of being an academic philosopher; accordingly, if Randal (or anyone else) wants to have a robust debate on the topic of evidentialism, I'm probably the wrong person to talk to. 

But more importantly—and this is a big one—my argument is not contingent on accepting evidentialism. You do not have to be an evidentialist to think I'm right about this one. You do not have to think that evidence is the only way of justifying beliefs, or agree with me about the distinction between beliefs and assumptions (which was a sticking point between Randal and me). To that extent, I found Randal's baiting on the topic to be a red herring. You do have to agree with me on some broader epistemological assumptions if I'm going to persuade you that Bill was, indeed, irrational to believe that God orchestrated his fortuitous encounter. But you most certainly do not have to agree with all my beliefs about epistemology, and you definitely don't have to be an evidentialist.

Let's assume a few things

So what assumptions do I make? I'll go through one by one. I'll start with what I imagine would be the most contentious point first.

1. The most parsimonious belief is also the most rational

The principle of parsimony is summarized in Occam's Razor—colloquially stated as "the simplest explanation is usually the correct one". More academically, it can be stated as "do not multiply assumptions beyond necessity". This simply means that we should not invoke circumstantial, causal, or theoretical assumptions that are not necessary to explain a phenomenon or event.

For example, Sean Carroll did an entertaining bit some time ago about the moon being made of cheese. He said that the moon-cheese apologist would keep claiming that moon-cheese is not ordinary cheese, but cheese with all kinds of special and unique properties. It's perhaps impossible to prove that the moon is not made of this mysterious space-cheese, but everything we know about the moon is adequately explained on the theory that it is made of rock. There is no missing information that is filled by positing special moon-cheese composition. It's a superfluous assumption. Parsimony simply says that the rational thing to do is avoid superfluous assumptions.

Parsimony is not a logical argument. It can't prove the moon is not made of cheese. It simply tells us that unless we have some data that is unexplained by the current theory, we have no reason to posit any additional assumptions... like space-cheese. 

2. Bill's experience can be explained without supernatural causation

Remarkable coincidences like Bill's are rare, but they do happen. Improbable, certainly, but not impossible by any stretch of the imagination. It might be worth noting here that people seem less enthusiastic about remarkable coincidences that end badly, but remarkable coincidences certainly swing both ways. But here's what's most important point to remember: Bill's supernatural account is being added on to the more mundane (but still remarkable) natural explanation. It's a superfluous assumption not needed to coherently, logically, and completely account for the circumstance.

3. Confirmation bias makes us more likely to interpret events in accordance with our beliefs

It's not surprising that Bill attributed the coincidence to the Christian God, since he's a Christian. It would have been much more surprising if Bill had a sudden and strong conviction that the remarkable circumstance was the result of ancestral spirits, Chthulu, or Luck of the Irish (I have no idea if he's Irish or not).

4. The fact that a belief can fit an event after the fact is not evidence that it was the cause

If Bill was a Pagan, he might have claimed it was ancestral spirits that helped him. If he were a Buddhist, he might have concluded it was Karma. If he were a Scientologist, he might have concluded it was Tom Cruise (or something). There are literally an infinite number of beliefs that can be imposed upon this circumstance. The fact that a belief 'fits' in this post hoc manner is not, in itself, evidence that it was the cause.

5. Bill should have considered these things, but failed to

Bill had plenty of rational reasons not to attribute his fortune to God:
  • It's not necessary
  • God is no more explanatory than an infinite number of arbitrary post hoc explanations that 'fit' the circumstance 
  • Belief that God orchestrates circumstances like this is not, in itself evidence that God orchestrated this particular circumstance
Because Bill failed to consider these things, his belief is most parsimoniously explained as simple confirmation bias—which, by definition, is an irrational thought process. Therefore, in the absence of evidence that provides justification for the additional assumption of supernatural causation, Bill was not rational to attribute his experience to God. It really is that simple. 

07 December 2016

God does not have morally justifiable reasons

Over the next few posts, I'd like to revisit some small parts of "An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar" that were tangential to the central topics but nonetheless inspired me to reflect on them. 

For this post, I'd like to examine the refrain that God has morally sufficient reasons for doing... well, lots of things that seem to run counter to the idea of the universe being created, with humans in mind, by a benevolent deity—the indifference of nature to suffering, the hostility of the universe, etc.

Incidentally, this post was partly inspired by the following tweet exchange between the authors of that aforementioned book (click to enlargify):

Schieber is arguing that God is responsible for the suffering in the world, because he could have made a sinless world with free will—like we're presumably being promised in Heaven—but chose not to. Rauser's response is that the atheist has to show that God does not have morally sufficient reasons for going about things the way he apparently has.

I'll take that challenge.

Theists can't have their cake and eat it too, here; if we are going to define a consistent moral ontology on theism, we can't arbitrarily toss it aside when it appears that the purported architect of it all doesn't like to play by the rules as we have come to understand them. If the theist wants to claim that God is privy to rules we are not which allow Him to arbitrarily violate what we understand to be the basic concepts of that moral ontology, then they've only established that the theistic moral ontology is fundamental ineffable and thus meaningless.

Imagine Joe has created a board game and has invited some friends to his house to play it. Joe spends ten minutes going over the rules, and everyone in the group agrees to play by them. A ways into the game, the players begin getting frustrated because sometimes Joe appears to randomly disqualify or penalize players. Players are penalized or disqualified even when they are carefully playing by the rules. When the players complain that the game's rules appear random, Joe simply tells them it will all become clear in the end, after the game is over. Everyone gets up and leaves, because Joe is being a dick—it's impossible to play a game when, from the players' vantage point, the architect of the game can arbitrarily change or violate the rules.

In other words, it's impossible to claim that God has 'morally sufficient reasons' without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Our entire understanding of moral ontology—particularly the theistic type, which, like a Sith, deals in absolutes—depends on us being able to clearly and consistently describe what constitutes a moral good, a crime of omission, or a crime of commission. One of the few things that most any moral philosopher could agree upon is that if one has the capacity to prevent or alleviate suffering, and doing so presents no risk of harm or even inconvenience to oneself whatsoever, then preventing or alleviating that suffering is precisely what one is morally obligated to do. If we could appeal to some inexplicable or ineffable 'rule' which would allow us to be justified in looking the other way, we'd be doing nothing more than showing that the entire ontology was a facade.

05 December 2016

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — the review, part 7 (with final thoughts)

Rauser and Schieber wrap up the book with a chapter on biological evolution and the integral role that suffering and death play in the cycle of life. Schieber argues that the fact of evolution should be surprising on theism (since God could have instantaneously brought complex life into existence), and that the ubiquity of suffering inherent to the evolutionary process poses a strong challenge to the theist concept of a maximally good creator. Why would a benevolent creator employ such a callous process?

First, a very minor nitpick with Schieber: he defines evolution as being unguided, implicitly (but not explicitly) to accommodate those who believe in the pseudoscience of intelligent design. But I've never liked the language of "unguided"; evolution is guided by survival and reproduction—the non-random selection of randomly varying genes.

Alternatives to evolution?

Rauser objects to Schieber's assertion that if atheism were true, evolution would pretty much have to be true because we're not aware of any other viable options. Rauser's objection is that "given the past track record of scientific theory failure (falsification, abandonment, etc.), we ought to withhold assent in the final correctness of neo-Darwinian evolution."

Schieber rightly objects that evolution by natural selection is far and away our best option now, but I think he could have hammered Rauser harder here. Darwinian evolution is, outside of quantum mechanics, the most robustly supported scientific theory in human history. The evidence is overwhelming and converges from countless independent fields of scientific inquiry. The probability that it will be overturned wholesale for some completely new theory is so marginal as to be pragmatically impossible. It's trivially true that all scientific knowledge is provisional, but we can also express confidence in scientific theories based on the weight of evidence. Evolution by natural selection is one that we can hold with as much confidence as reasonably possible. 

However, I'll grant Rauser a tiny bit of leeway by nitpicking Schieber here: we might not expect, on atheism, to find evolution by natural selection per se—that is, I don't think Darwin could have sat in his office like a philosopher and reasoned his way to natural selection on a presumption of atheism. But we'd certainly expect to see something like evolution by natural selection: a wholly natural process that involves both random and non-random variables and requires no outside mind or designer to guide it.

No pain, no gain

Schieber raises an argument here I hadn't considered: that even if we grant that God had decided to implement evolution by natural selection, God did not fine-tune our experience of pain to be oriented only toward survival and reproduction. We can experience many different types of pain that are not directly oriented toward those biological 'goals', from torture to being burned alive to dying slowly of a painful infection. On the atheistic view, Schieber reasons, we aren't surprised to see such phenomena because they're more or less byproducts of the messy process of evolution. On theism, God could have fine-tuned our experience of pain to mitigate needless suffering—but chose not to.

At this point, I want to recall a criticism of mine regarding Rauser's argumentation that I've mentioned a couple of times previous in this series: the notion that God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing something to happen. Rauser is careful to concede that we don't—and don't have to—know what those reasons are; God's moral reasoning may lie permanently beyond our mortal epistemic horizon. Rauser argues this on a matter of principle.

And that is precisely the path he takes here. When Schieber suggests that it is a great burden the theist finds themselves saddled with to assume that in every instance of superfluous pain or suffering God must have a morally sufficient reason to allow (or cause) it, Rauser simply disagrees, saying "[If] God exists then it follows naturally that every evil has a moral justification." He later remarks that he is attempting to "show that theism is perfectly consistent with the evidence [Schieber provides]."

Schieber's tactic is to press Rauser to explain how the reality of suffering can be squared with the concept of a benevolent creator. But this is a hopeless tactic because, as I've discussed in earlier parts of the series, Rauser will always argue that the evidence underdetermines the existence and/or moral character of God. God's moral reasoning, so Rauser concludes, is indeed beyond our epistemic horizon—accordingly, the exact reasons for any particular observable state of reality, including the presence of gratuitous suffering, is implicitly justified by some ineffable divine motive. 

Unknowable truths

I think Schieber does effectively press Rauser toward the end of the chapter. He summarizes his argument in a wordy but poignant riposte: "once we say that we're not in a position to make judgment calls about the kinds of things God is likely to permit to occur on account of all the unknowns, we also rob ourselves of being in a position to make informed judgments that our favorite theodicy is not outweighed by other reasons within that unknown-to-us section of God's epistemic iceberg." He later expounds, "If we're to endorse this skeptical attitude about moral reasons to avoid key inference in arguments from evil, then it needs to be consistent and recognize that all we're doing is punting to mystery."

I concur strongly with Schieber here; he's very close to the conceptual arguments I've presented several times throughout this review series. Rauser's rather weak rejoinder is that we know some of God's motivations, just not all. He further argues that "whatever additional reasons God may have must be consistent with what has already been revealed." But this doesn't address the substance of Schieber's argument, and it presents a further problem.

The problem Schieber is raising is that the mystery of God's being to which Rauser frequently appeals entails that our understanding of moral good may not track with God's understanding moral good—and indeed, Rauser himself conceded this in chapter 4 in suggesting that our moral intuitions may be misguided. This concept was, incidentally, defended by my occasional interlocutor Steven Jake on his blog The Christian Agnostic in a post entitled "God is not good". In the post, he argues that our conceptualization of morality is at best analogous to God's, rather than unequivocal. He argues,
Remember that God, as classical theism has conceived of him, is not a being among beings, or an agent among agents. He is not, as many contemporary theologians have promulgated, simply a person with all good attributes maximized. That is to say, he is not a being with the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence etc. No, he is being, he is existence, he is goodness etc., and his being is his goodness which is his power which is his knowledge. So the significance of this to our discussion is that God is not a creature among creatures, or a being among beings, or a person among persons, or an agent among agents, or an existent among existents, therefore it seems that God is not one among many, and thus is not part of any moral community. This seems to entail that God is not a moral agent. That is to say, there are no moral obligations or duties that God needs to fulfill, and therefore he cannot be seen as morally virtuous nor unrighteous. Again, these terms simply don’t apply unequivocally or literally to God. God cannot be morally good or evil, the way we use these terms, any more than God can be corporeal.
My objection to Steven's post was that without an unequivocal, unambiguous conceptualization of what God's moral goodness is—that is, an unequivocal moral ontology—it's impossible to know to what extent it is dis/similar from our everyday usage of the concept. And that, quite unintentionally on his behalf, is the trap I think Rauser falls into here. Rauser wants to claim that God's reasons are ineffable, yet should track with the assumption that God is a maximally good being. But without being able to clearly define, much less have access to, God's understanding of morality, theologians have no basis for describing any of God's actions as un/justifiable simply because an unequivocal foundation of moral ontology is not there in the first place. God may be "maximally good", but even Rauser's account of moral intuitions leaves us without a confident understanding of what, exactly, "maximal good" is in the first place.

Closing thoughts on Walk into a Bar

I've greatly enjoyed reading this book, and I have to extend a generous thank you to Randal for sending me an early review copy. Randal and I have had our differences, but it heartens me that we've been able to put those differences aside and foster a relationship of mutual respect that allows for irenic, yet spirited, conversation. Both authors did a fine job in this book, and I do not think a clear winner emerges. Schieber did not approach several arguments as I would have, but I always found his arguments thought-provoking. And while it should come as no surprise that I was largely unpersuaded by Rauser's arguments, he nonetheless forced me to think through my own positions in ways I had not considered, and I gained a greater insight into the nuances of his own positions. This book is light-hearted (beware of abundant dad-humor), yet the discussion is vigorous and touches well on several topics that could themselves quite easily fill entire volumes and/or many hours of discussion. 

One final note. When Randal contacted me about reviewing the book, I told him that I was already planning to purchase it. He suggested that if I like the book, I could simply gift a copy. So if you'd like a copy, message me on The A-Unicornist Facebook page and I'll get one to you right away—first come, first serve.

I hope you've enjoyed the review. Because this has been a lengthy series, I'm going to put it in a PDF document and share the link on DropBox. Stay tuned!

02 December 2016

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — the review, part 6

Do mathematics reveal a designer?

Rauser takes aim at atheism in this next section of the book by positing that the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics is evidence that a rational mind is behind the design of the universe. This is a favorite topic of mine (as I'm a big fan of cognitive linguist George Lakoff and his book Where Mathematics Comes From, which posits a wholly physical and cognitive origin of mathematics), and Rauser stumbles out of the gate with his very first erroneous example—one that to my surprise, Schieber does not object to. 

That example is the famed Fibonacci number sequence. The contention is that this number is readily observable, as Rauser claims, "throughout nature, ranging from the spiral structure of seashells and pinecones to pinwheel galaxies". He then makes a similar claim about the numbers pi and phi (closely related to the Fibonacci sequence), claiming that examples of them are abundant in nature. The problem is, this is not actually true. There is ample literature on this common misconception, so I'll simply leave some references: [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8]. Even the claim that the "golden ratio" is abundantly found in human architecture is a myth. It's disconcerting to see Rauser begin with examples that aren't just wrong, but are easily found to be so with cursory research. It's equally disconcerting that Schieber did not pounce on this opportunity to thoroughly and aggressively undermine Rauser's argument. Instead, the authors spend several pages debating whether Rauser's examples are actually evidence for God—which they cannot be, since they are not actually true in the first place. And frankly, I see no reason to give this argument any further attention.

Mathematical mapping

Rauser's second argument is that "the extraordinary degree to which mathematics generally maps onto physical reality" is evidence that a rational mind designed the universe. He opines, "This calls out for an explanation, and a mind is precisely the kind of explanation that accounts for the phenomenon." Schieber's rebuttal in this section is on track. He says, "I think you are right to appeal to a mind when thinking about the relationship between mathematics and the sciences, but I think you've got the direction of explanation backward." He later expounds, "we impose various systems of mathematics onto our prior accumulated observations and come up with elegant explanations that both fit the data and make predictions about future observations." As the stalemate between the authors arises again, I find myself remembering the thesis of Lakoff's work: that the embodied mind maps mathematical concepts through metaphor. This is a rich topic unto itself and I strongly recommend further reading.

My own objection to Rauser, again, is conceptual in nature. He hastily concludes that a rational mind would impose a mathematical structure onto the universe; but per Lakoff, much of our understanding of mathematics derives from our embodiment and neural structure. It's not clear, then, how an unembodied mind (not withstanding its many other conceptual ambiguities) would think about mathematical concepts, nor is it clear that our embodied understanding of mathematical concepts would overlap with these, for lack of a better term, "divine mathematics". Rauser is again, despite his objections to Schieber elsewhere, relying on a heavily anthropocentric conceptualization of God to make his point. This exposes a pattern with Rauser's argumentation I find frustrating: God is sufficiently ineffable and mysterious in his omni-being when Rauser wants to insist that evidence underdetermines His existence or nature, and sufficiently humanlike when Rauser wants to invoke natural theology or speculate about His motives. This could have been avoided if Rauser had given us a less ambiguous conceptualization of God to begin with. 

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — the review, part 5

There's been a story making the rounds recently that NASA was apparently way off in estimating the number of galaxies in the observable universe; previous estimates were around 100 billion; it's more like 1 to 2 trillion. That raises the number of stars in the observable universe to a mind-shattering 700 sextillion. It's literally an inconceivable number.

This observation carries with it some thought-provoking implications. Most of the observable universe is just an incomprehensible vast void. There are hundreds of known planets in our corner of the galaxy, but Earth is the only one we know for certain to be hospitable to life (though some others could be). Here's another thought: there are more black holes in the universe—those massive destroyers of worlds—than humans that have ever existed.

Most of the universe is cold, empty, and inhospitable for life. One amusing video from Fraser Cain of Universe Today asks "Where can I take off my space helmet?" The answer is that unless you're on Earth, you probably should keep it on. Another video from famed astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson asks how long we could survive on each planet in the solar system. The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not very long at all unless you're on certain parts of the Earth's surface. Appearing on conservative talk show Hannity's America, the late Christopher Hitchens opined,
[You] want your god to take responsibility for the huge number of collapsing stars and imploding galaxies and destroyed universes and failed solar systems that have left us in this tiny corner on the one planet in this petty solar system that can support life some of the time on some of its surface. And you want a creator who filled this earth with species, since life began 99% of which are now extinct already...and this is some design, isn't it?
The universe, by and large, is inhospitable to life—especially intelligent life like our own. Is this something we ought to expect to be true on theism? Is it consistent with a maximally loving, all-knowing creator? Or does the evidence favor atheism—that is, we should expect an indifferent, mostly deadly universe if there is no God? Schieber's thesis is as follows: "Given that there are many more ways for a universe to be, in general, hostile to life than for a universe to be, in general, friendly to life, generally hostile universes make up a much larger slice of possibility pie than do friendly universes." After a bit of back and forth, Rauser summarizes his reply as, "A mind-numbingly large universe that is almost completely hostile to sentient life may not serve our immediate interests, but that's quite different from claiming it doesn't serve God's."

Unpacking a familiar argument

Rauser is using a line of argumentation that we have seen earlier in the book (with regard to "massive theological disagreement"), and one we'll see again with regard to the problem of suffering later on. The core concept underpinning his argumentation (and, I'm truly trying to by as charitable and accurate as possible here) is that an evidential argument like Schieber's underdetermines the existence and/or character of God. Rauser speculates that God could create the universe "out of love", or even to "provide the human species [...] an extraordinary challenge to explore and discover"; but he qualifies these statements by saying, "I wouldn't be surprised if the universe was created for many reasons. But my rebuttal to you doesn't depend on me knowing those reasons."

In part 3 of this review, I talked about the difficulties I have with conceptualizing God having "motivations" or "reasons". Whatever those terms mean to us, it seems clear to me that they cannot possibly mean the same thing when describing a perfect, timeless, changeless, omnipotent, omniscient, unembodied mind (whatever that is). Our motivations and reasoning reflect subconscious desires (does God have those?), uncertainty, risk, sacrifice, and many other such things that would seem queer to ascribe to an omni-being. The notion that God would want to create a vast, empty universe to provide us with a "challenge", or because it gives us a neat view (provided humans take a hundred thousand years before developing the technology to observe it) seems like a trivially anthropomorphic conceptualization of a being whose qualities could never be described using such mundane language. It's also ironic to hear this argument from Rauser, given that by this point in the book, he's chided Schieber several times for hastily anthropomorpizing God. To his credit, Schieber seems to press Rauser on this front, calling Rauser's explanations ad hoc and insisting that if "the reason(s) for which the universe was created are not available to us, we are not entitled to posit it as a serious explanation for the observations under consideration".

The contention can be summarized as follows: Schieber wants to start with a set of assumptions about God's identity, motivations, qualities, etc., and extrapolate observable predictions. Rauser's counter is that God's motivations are essentially ineffable, but that God could have any number of reasons for creating the universe as it is.

My complaint with Rauser's approach—in addition to the conceptual problems outlined above—is that it tells us nothing about what we should expect if the God of classical theism exists. Because God can have essentially any arbitrary reason to do anything, the observable universe can never tell us anything about God at all. No matter what universe we found ourselves in, the evidence would always underdetermine the existence and/or character of God. Rauser unwittingly applies an undercutting defeater to related arguments regarding the apparent design or "fine-tuning" of the universe. If the observable state of the universe underdetermines God's existence or motivations, then complexity or beauty cannot be—as they often are—used to argue that God must have designed the universe.

29 November 2016

An interjection: did Randal Rauser do his readers a disservice by co-authoring a book with a layperson?

Over at Debunking Christianity, a blog I once frequented authored by someone I once respected, there's been a controversy over the fact that the book I'm currently reviewing, An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar, was co-authored by Justin Schieber—someone who has no formal training in theology. The implication is that this makes the book too lopsided, because Randal Rauser is a doctoral-level academic theologian. Was he picking low-hanging fruit by co-authoring his book with a layperson?

First, I'm highly confident from my reading of the book that Schieber was by no means out of his depth, and that Rauser himself would laud the discussion as spirited and thought-provoking. (And, contrary to what my readers might expect, I don't think a clear "winner" emerges from the book.) Furthermore, the book is intended for laypersons, not academics. But the question here is broader: do laypersons have any business engaging academics in the first place?

Everyone is a layperson in some respect. It's worth noting that questions of theology and philosophy do not confine themselves to those fields. They overlap with cosmology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary biology, anthropology, history, and much more. The most influential book to my own view of philosophy was Philosophy in the Flesh, a book written by George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist (co-authored with Mark Johnson, an academic philosopher). William Lane Craig is an academically trained philosopher and theologian, but he regularly engages in debates on cosmology, evolution, cognition, history, and other related subjects. Many of his past debate opponents are people like Sean Carroll, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, none of whom are academic theologians or philosophers. This does not prevent these interlocutors from being widely read on these topics and fully prepared for a spirited, substantive engagement with Craig.

For Rauser's part, his degrees are in theology. He does not possess a formal degree in philosophy, history, or any field of science. But does that mean that he is unable to meaningfully and substantively contribute to discussions on those topics? Of course not. Like Schieber, Rauser is himself broadly read and draws his views from a diverse background that undoubtedly expands well beyond his formal education.

Degrees are certainly valuable, to a point. But a degree does not prove someone a good critical thinker, a skilled debater, or a broadly read autodidact. How many of us could even pass any of our college exams ten years later? A formal education, while a pre-requisite for most academic positions, does not guarantee that one experienced a pedagogy that ensured the breadth of information studied was even retained in the first place, much less to the extent that it could be applied years or decades later. Personally speaking, as a personal trainer by trade I have learned far more from hands-on experience and practically-applied continuing education than I ever did sitting in a classroom memorizing flash cards for over 200 muscles of the human body while I formally studied exercise science. Further, some of the most incompetent trainers I've ever encountered were quite well-credentialed.

There is nothing that prevents a layperson from substantively challenging an academic, provided that both are widely read critical thinkers. Indeed, I feel that in some cases, the queries of an outsider can help penetrate an insular culture among academics. Schieber will not be co-authoring an academic paper with Rauser on (say) theories of the Personhood of the Trinity. Such nuanced musings of theology are the domain of academics in the field. But he proves himself more than capable of tackling the kind of broad conceptual questions with which any reflective layperson should engage, and a perfectly suitable interlocutor for the intent of An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar.

27 November 2016

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 4.2

The implications of moral intuition

Rauser's moral argument is strongly dependent on the notion that we can intuitively access purely objective moral truths, just as we can intuitively access our sensory perception. He says, "I can just see that 2+2=4 and that the sky is blue, and I can just see that particular actions are morally good and praiseworthy and others are morally evil and condemnable." When Schieber challenges Rauser on how this hypothesis can be squared with what Richard Dawkins referred to in The God Delusion as the "shifting moral zeitgeist"—changing cultural attitudes toward the moral context of various actions—Rauser suggests that our moral intuitions can be mistaken, just as our sensory perception can be mistaken.

However, I think Rauser overlooks several relevant differences between moral and sensory intuitions (as an aside, I'd argue that mathematics are not intuitive at all, but that's a rabbit trail for a later chapter). We have developed a rigorous method to help us discern accurate sensory data from inaccurate sensory data: science. Our sensory perception can be shown in many cases to be objectively mistaken through a process of empirical inquiry. However, not only does no such methodology for discerning the accuracy of moral intuitions appear to exist, it seems that one has never so much as been coherently conceptualized. Rauser insists on several occasions that he "knows" certain acts are "evil", but he doesn't tell us how his presumption of knowledge could be either substantiated or undermined.

All Rauser should need to do however, is imagine himself living in, say, colonial America. He might intuitively defend slavery with the same conviction he'd likely condemn it with today. But how could colonial Rauser test his presumptions and come to the correct intuition? Would 31st century Rauser, with his bionic limbs and laser-cannon eyeballs, hold any other moral intuitions in such profound contrast? Tellingly, Rauser doesn't offer a means by which we could gain insight into such matters.

Schieber attempts to illuminate Rauser's dilemma by suggesting he imagine himself in Abraham's shoes, perceiving God as commanding child sacrifice. Rauser suggests that in modern times, he'd think himself mentally ill. But he avoids directly responding to Schieber's hypothetical. Was Abraham right to intuit God as justifiably commanding such an unspeakable act? Rauser believes his current theological presumptions prevent him from entertaining such a horrible act. But could he not be subject to a profound calling, a voice or vision he deemed too real to chalk up to hallucination, that challenges his theological presumptions and moral intuitions? Rather than erecting a defense here, Rauser deflects by suggesting that this is a similar problem on Schieber's view.

And when he does, I feel Schieber concedes too much. He concedes that "If I were to fall under the radical delusion of thinking that the desire to rape or torture are the kinds of desires that, when introduced our increased, tend to fulfill desires rather than thwart them, and that therefore rape or torture could, in certain circumstances, become obligatory, I'd also seek help from a mental health professional." I think that in conceding this, Schieber lends too much credence to the notion that acts are intrinsically right or wrong. As we've seen, our moral judgments—even regarding heinous acts— are necessarily contextual, precisely because moral questions deal with the interests of cooperative, interdependent conscious creatures co-existing in a social hierarchy. Acts with intrinsic moral value do not exist.

Moral skepticism

Rauser wraps up the chapter by echoing Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN). Essentially, Plantinga claimed that since evolution is directed toward survival, and not necessarily truth, naturalism fails to provide us a reason to trust our cognitive faculties. He challenges Schieber thus: "what is your basis for thinking that you track moral facts successfully, that they yield genuine moral knowledge?"

At this point, the conversation begins to feel like—to borrow an analogy from Tim Minchin—two tennis players try to score perfectly executed shots from opposite ends of separate tennis courts. The authors never came to an agreement on what moral facts are, much less how we attain knowledge of them. While he never committed himself as such, Schieber presented a view of moral ontology that comports more with utilitarianism or consequentialism, in which moral values and obligations are those which objectively further or hinder the well-being of self-interested, interdependent, unequal conscious beings. Rauser, conversely, believes that moral truths exist like scientific truths—independently not only of our ability to discern them, but indeed independently of our very existence. And while Schieber believes we can assess the moral value of a proposition by exploring how the desires that motivate them reflect values we as a obligatorily gregarious society ought to promote or condemn, Rauser believes that we can assess the moral value of a proposition purely through intuition. 

This chasm between our interlocutors only grows as the topic broadens. Since Randal is committed to the belief that moral truths are purely objective, he finds a moral analog of Plantinga's EAAN persuasive. Schieber's moral ontology is completely different, and it's a safe bet he rejects Plantinga's EAAN, so he appears to view this part of the discussion as a red herring. Regrettably, Schieber allows himself to be drawn into a weak defense of naturalism, suggesting that it's likely that evolution directs us toward true propositions rather than false ones.

I find Plantinga's argument profoundly unpersuasive, simply because it's irrelevant. We have well-developed empirical methodologies of testing our beliefs about the world, of looking for repeatable patterns, of identifying cognitive errors and biases. The only alternative to assuming our cognitive faculties are at least generally reliable—and I really do see this as a true dichotomy—is radical skepticism, which entails that no knowledge is even possible. Furthermore, we've already seen that Rauser defends a version of theism in which God's ultimate motivations are hidden from us, even to the point that he feels God could have justifiable reasons for misleading people (whether by commission or omission) about religious truth; on this view, it's plausible that God could have morally sufficient reasons for deceiving us about any matters of our perception of reality—including moral truth. Rauser unwittingly provides an undercutting defeater to his own moral ontology.

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Part 3
Part 4.1  

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 4.1

Chapter 4 features one of the most critical topics in the discussion, and a major reason I am an atheist: moral facts, values, and obligations. Schieber takes the important step of noting that the view he defends, desirism, is but one of many options available to non-believers—and it's worth noting here that I do not think desirism in itself provides a satisfactory account of moral values and obligations. Rauser takes the view that our intuitions give us access to purely objective moral facts (though he concedes that our perception of said facts may be mistaken from time to time, as is the case with sensory perception). This will likely be my longest critique of any chapter in the book. I want to discuss what I see as the limitations of desirism, and flesh things out a bit with my own view of moral ontology. I want to talk about some of the strengths and limitations of Rauser's approach, particularly with regard to his implicit claim that acts themselves have an intrinsic moral dimension. And of course I want to talk about how this all involves God (or not), and its implications within the contexts of specific religious doctrines - most obviously the Christian religion to which Rauser subscribes. Accordingly, I'll divide the discussion of this chapter into two posts.


Schieber takes the lead here, outlining his view of desirism: that we deem certain things "good" or "bad" depending on whether the actions to which they lead are actions we have good reasons to either promote or discourage.

Rauser attempts to undermine Schieber's thesis by correctly noting that many actions to which we ascribe moral weight are pretheoretical, in that they do not find us reasoning from premise to conclusion. Conscious desires may well have little to do with moral actions. I'd actually go so far as to suggest that the overwhelming majority of our moral actions are pretheoretical, and that most moral reasoning acts as either rationalization or condemnation of our actions after the fact. For example, behaviors that reflect a mother's instinct to nurture and protect her newborn are generally viewed as good, though it's almost certain that most mothers do not have to consciously deliberate whether such actions are morally right and/or obligatory.

However, I think that the form of desirism Schieber outlines allows for subconscious desires to guide our actions. A theologian might suggest that a mother's empathy is a God-given trait; a biologist, like famed zoologist Frans Dr Waal, would say it's a trait that evolved through natural selection (notably, these views are not necessarily incompatible). But both would agree that the mother does not engage in such behaviors through any conscious deliberation. What's germane to the discussion is how we evaluate behaviors as good or bad, and the role desires actually play in such scenarios. I think Schieber is correct to argue that discussions of morality require us to examine the relationship between competing desires. But I also think Rauser is right to press him on the morality of behavior itself, simply because in my view, desires (whether conscious or not) can only be seen as good or bad to the extent that they manifest in actual interpersonal actions.

What I think is missing from Schieber's presentation of desirism is a broader social and evolutionary context. Humans are, as the aforementioned Frans Dr Waal described in his book Primates and Philosophers, obligatorily gregarious. For a litany of evolutionary reasons, species which foster inter-group cooperation are at a distinct survival advantage. Certain cooperative behaviors may be deeply instinctive, like a mother's nurture; others may be learned. What's important is that we recognize that humans possess the following traits:

· Self-interested - most humans have a desire to survive and avoid or minimize bodily harm, pain, and stress.
· Unequal - humans display a wide spectrum of physical and intellectual capabilities that renders some better suited than others for certain tasks. This biological inequality (not to be confused with civil inequality) is the foundation for our social hierarchy.
· Interdependent - the benefits of group living are so vast that it's inconceivable that all but a few could, or would desire to, live in complete isolation in nature. Every aspect of our emotional and physical health, our comfort, and our happiness is in some respect crucially dependent on our species' need to cooperate, specialize, and share.

Group living requires us to both be cognizant of others' needs and interests as well as willing to compromise some of our own interests. To give a trivial example, there's a strong biological part of me that wants to have sex with lots and lots of women. But I compromise that desire for the sake of a monogamous relationship with my wife, because the benefits of a supportive, monogamous companionship far outweigh (to me) casual intercourse with some arbitrary number of women (assuming I was actually suave enough for that to happen). My wife and I each have our own interests apart from one another, and our interdependent relationship allows us to better fulfill interests we both deem most important to us (such as committed companionship). It's generally considered wrong to cheat on one's spouse. That's because a monogamous relationship is a form of social contract, in which we agree to make certain sacrifices for a mutually beneficial good. One of those sacrifices is that we're not allowed to break the trust at the core of the companionship. The desire to have sex with other partners can present a clear conflict of interest and lead to behavior that could erode the companionship—possibly permanently and completely.

Private Killum

Let's try to see how these concept gel in the context of an example the authors use in the book. "Private Killum" has captured a Nazi soldier and, rather than letting him go or turning him in to command, Killum tortures and murders the officer. What foundation can we use to evaluate the morality of Killum's actions? Schieber suggests that since Killum's desire to kill and torture conflicts with desires that we as a society have "good reason to promote", he has done an impermissible act. Rauser suggests that the act itself is intrinsically wrong, and he can know this intuitively. I'm afraid I find both explanations wanting.

Rauser's account fails to consider circumstances in which the act might be construed as morally correct. Let's say that both Killum and the officer are in turn captured by a notorious Nazi General, whom I'll call Schwartz. General Schwartz is furious at the officer for failing his duty to the Reich and allowing himself to be captured. Schwartz wants to make an example of him. He takes the two to a school full of Jewish children. He says that unless Killum tortures and kills the officer, he will execute the children. Killum is aware of Scwartz's notoriety, having heard several stories about him mercilessly killing innocent people, even children. Killum does not desire to torture and kill the officer, but he is convinced that it is the only hope of sparing the children's lives. He doesn't know this with certainty; Schwartz may execute the children anyway. But he consents to torturing and murdering the officer in the hope that Schwartz will keep his word.

Would Killum be right to kill the officer? I think that while there may be some disagreement ("you can never trust a Nazi!"), most rational individuals could see how the act could be viewed as justifiable. This undermines Rauser's claim in a crucial way: the act does not possess any intrinsic moral property—rather, our moral judgment of the act is contextual.

Before moving on, allow me to use a much simpler scenario. In the beginning of the chapter, the authors agree that the very concept of "murder" entails an unjustified killing. This is, ironically, an important concession on Rauser's part. The act in question is "taking the life of another person against their will". There are contexts in which we can imagine this act is justified — self defense or war, for example. But there are other scenarios in which we feel the act is not justified, and we deem it "murder". The inescapable implication is that it is not the act that is intrinsically right or wrong; rather, we judge the morality of the act contextually. Once we've established this important obvservation, much of Rauser's defense unravels.

It's tempting to view certain acts as intrinsically right or wrong simply because we often have a tough time imagining a context in which it was right. Intuitively it seems prima facie obvious that certain atrocities are morally wrong. We have to be pretty creative, for example, to imagine a scenario in which child rape could be considered right. I'd suggest another scenario in which General Schwartz demands that Killum rape one child, or Schwartz will execute all of them. Suddenly an act that often seems black and white can be seen as contextually justifiable.

Rauser here could argue that such scenarios are simply a case of a "lesser of two evils". Both outcomes are morally wrong, but forcing one child (or one man) to suffer is preferable to the murder of many children. But a secular view of morality does not require us to attach any such properties to acts in any intrinsic way; we can rationally detest the torture or rape as an act that brings undue harm to another—the type of acts which are incompatible with a cooperative, interdependent social hierarchy—while still acknowledging that the alternative outcome is even worse. And importantly, Rauser would nonetheless be conceding that an acts evilness, as he might describe it, is not fixed or absolute but must be evaluated contextually. On page 106, Rauser says, "In my view it is clear that it is always wrong to torture, kill, and mutilate the the POW. For all the difficult cases one encounters in the moral life, there are nonetheless many other cases in which an ethical judgement is clear and unqualified, and to my mind this is one of them." This view seems clearly incompatible with the argument I've presented—that there are plausible circumstances in which the act could be morally justified, and arguably even obligatory.

"Good reasons"

Unfortunately I don't find Schieber's position convincing, either. He says we must weigh desires based upon what he says are "good reasons" society has to promote or condemn them. He also suggests that some desires have a "tendency to thwart other desires", while other desires have a "tendency to fulfill other desires", and that the moral content of desires must be evaluated based upon their relationship to other desires. He says, as an example, that "we can still say the desire to rape is a bad desire—a desire that a good person would not have—because it tends to thwart other desires. 

Schieber leaves a lot of questions unanswered here. First, it's not entirely clear why "thwarting/fulfilling desires" is intrinsically a good or bad thing. For example, he might say that the desire for a mutually respectful, lifelong, monogamous companionship thwarts desires to rape, or even treat others callously or indifferently. Conversely, companionship may fulfill desires for intimacy, trust, and financial stability (among other things). Indeed it seems that all desires exist in some state of competition. It may be that examining a desire's relationship to other desires is necessary to determine whether it is good or bad, but it's certainly not sufficient

But the bigger elephant in the room is that desires can only relate to moral concerns to the extent that they manifest in behavior. Desires are passive, and often subconscious—forming with little or no awareness from our conscious minds. Further, we can and often do hold conflicting desires. A part of me may want to beat up someone who is rude to me; but I may desire more strongly to avoid bodily risk to myself, lose the respect of my peers, and stay out of court (or jail). I'm afraid Schieber is oversimplifying when he states that "good people" will not have x desires. Good people may have lots of violence or cruel desires, but they may not act on them because those desires are outweighed by other considerations. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment showed that even "good people" can be conditioned to act with unapologetic callousness and cruelty given the right considerations. It's my view that the very idea of characterizing people as "good" or "bad" is a naive oversimplification of the complex interacting factors that motivate people's behavior. 

Worst of all, though, are his vague statements about values or behaviors that "society has good reason to promote/condemn". Now, fundamentally, I agree with this. I believe in objective moral values, but in Sam Harris' sense of moral good being objectively in the better interests of us and/or society at large—I absolutely reject Rauser's characterization of moral objectivity as some kind of purely objective truth that would exist with or without group-living conscious creatures. It's not clear to me at all what statements of moral value or obligation can even mean when separated from the intersecting issues of self-interest, interdependence, and biological inequality. Like the God of classical theism, my beef with Rauser over moral objectivity is conceptual. However, Schieber doesn't give us much to go on regarding what might constitute society's "good reasons"—or, more specifically, why we ought to consider some reasons "good" and others "bad". Is he endorsing utilitarianism? Consequentialism? I feel that it's hard to get away from such schools of meta-ethics, and that desirism is, on its own at least, a bit too shallow to provide a satisfactory account of moral values and obligations.

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An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 3

The third chapter finds our authors discussing the problem of "massive theological disagreement", or mtd - why does such a multiplicity of religious faiths exist, and why is faith plagued by such deep disagreements often over fundamental conceptual issues, if God desires us to be in a sartorial relationship with Him? Following some tangential discussions about what constitutes religiously motivated violence, Schieber formalizes his argument:

· Premise 1: On the denial of theism, the observation of mtd is likely.
· Premise 2: On the affirmation of theism, the observation of mtd is unlikely (or less likely).
· Conclusion: the fact of mtd supports atheism more than it supports theism.

The discussion, after a time, begins to fall into somewhat repetitive trappings: Rauser or Schieber constructs an analogy to explain why massive theological disagreement either conflicts or comports with the God of classical theism; they spar a bit over the analogies, then shift focus to another explanation in hopes of refining their argument. Schieber generally maintains that the widespread theological disagreement we observe in the world — particularly considering that it may contribute to inter-religious violence — appears to conflict with the classical theism conceptualization of God as a maximally loving being who desires his creations to enter into meaningful, sartorial relationships with Him; Rauser's approach is to suggest that we can't understand the motivations or reasoning of an infinitely living and wise being — that God may have justifiable reasons for allowing, or even facilitating, massive theological disagreement (in coming chapters, Rauser will use variations of this argument on several different topics). The stock each of the authors places in real-world analogies is directly proportional to the stock each places in the underlying conceptual framework the analogy is meant to illuminate.

Schieber, in my view, misses a crucial opportunity here. Rauser is correct to suggest that God's motivations may lie beyond our epistemic horizon, which is why he employs weak language like "there are many reasons God may have for allowing doctrinal disagreements". However, this is because of a crucial weakness in Rauser's fundamental conceptualization of God, which I touched on in the first part of this book review. Essentially, the only reason Rauser can maintain that God could have sufficient reasons to allow for widespread theological disagreement is because the core concept of God he presented relies on equivocal use of language — we don't know about the reasoning and motivations of an omni-deity because it's a vaguely defined concept in the first place, so much so that it's not even clear what it means for God to have "reasons" at all.

To understand my argument here, I'll use the concept of motivation in itself. When we humans talk about motivations, we generally are directed toward goal-oriented behavior that will lead to some desirable outcome The outcomes we seek have complex desires behind them, many of which we are likely not even consciously aware of (such as culturally conditioned desires to seek certain types of physical beauty). We incur a high degree of uncertainty (since our desires may prove misguided, or out behavior will not realize them) and generally believe that the outcome we seek will fulfill our desires more effectively than some alternative outcome.
But what could it mean for a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful, timeless and changeless being to have "motivations"? Such a being has no unconscious desires (or, quite arguably, no desires at all - for what else could "perfection" entail?), no uncertainty, cannot alter its behaviour to seek better outcomes, and faces no possibility of failure.  The very concept of motivations, whatever it precisely means when tethered to such a being, is certainly different in crucial ways from our common understanding and usage of the concept. This makes Rauser's claims insurmountably problematic, in my view. Contention over God's reasons and motivations are meaningless unless those concepts are being employed unequivocally.

Schieber does attempt to push Rauser toward what is, in my view, a more intellectually honest approach: we should clearly lay out what we ought to expect to observe given theism or atheism, then test those expectations against reality. Of course, since God is never defined in unequivocal terms, there's always plenty of room to retreat to conjecture. What Rauser will never be ableto offer on a presumption of theism, which Schieber can offer on a presumption of atheism, is precisely what Schieber lays out over the course of the chapter: what specific observations we ought to expect given those competing assumptions. While Schieber can confidently describe what we might reasonably expect to observe in the world if there is no God, Rauser is forced to rely on ad hoc rationalizations. He spends most of the chapter trying to poke holes in Schieber's analogies rather than offering a clear set of expectations regarding what we should observe given theism, and I believe that goes right back to the problem of classical theism's inherent ambiguity. A God so vaguely defined that it can fit into any possible world only serves to bolster Schieber's point of view.

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