06 January 2017

Let's show that Solipsism is false

Solipsism is the belief that one's own mind is the only thing that can be known to exist. It denies the existence of any external reality—everything you experience is simply a product of your own mind. Nobody really believes this, but it's often propped up by philosophers as some sort of exercise in the limitations of evidential arguments—after all, you cannot use evidence to prove that an external reality exists, because by definition (per Solipsism) your mind would be creating said reality.

It's complete bullshit, and contrary to what some philosophers like to profess from their armchairs, it can be shown to be completely and totally false.

Evidential arguments are one way to show that something is false, but they're not the only way. Another way is a conceptual argument. You can demonstrate that something is false by showing it to be conceptually incoherent, nonsensical, or otherwise semantically ambiguous. Regular readers of this blog will no doubt recall that this is my favored approach to demonstrating the non-existence of a god or gods, particularly like that of 'classical theism'—an approach known as theological non-cognitivism or ignosticism.

It's this conceptual approach that we can use to show Solipsism to be false as well. Solipsism says that only one's own mind can be known to exist. Realism, which (in its various forms) holds that the external world does exist, is what allows us to produce a coherent theory of mind in the first place. We can use empirical inquiry to study minds—through cognitive science, neurobiology, and neurocomputation. We know that what we call 'the mind' is connected to physical brain states. We know that the external world not only gives us information through our senses, but is crucial to conceptual reasoning (see embodied metaphor). The study of the mind is a robust science, and it gives us a clear and coherent theory by which we can know our own minds.

Of course on Solipsism, this evidence can't count, because your mind is fabricating it all. But then what is a mind in the first place? How does the mind fabricate all this data? How is new information, or the perception thereof, acquired? It becomes impossible to say what the mind even is, much less how it works. If the mind doesn't exist in reality as we know it, where (and how) does the mind exist? On Solipsism, these questions are unanswerable. It's impossible to develop a coherent theory of mind, and thus the very word 'mind' loses all meaning.

Solipsism is false. No one believes it, but even as an exercise in philosophy, it's stupid.

26 December 2016

Best of 2016: Game of the year

2016 saw lots of fantastic game releases—Doom, Inside, Far Cry Primal, X-Com 2, Civilization VI, and tons more. Of course, I'm not a professional game reviewer (although, incidentally, I did write for the webzine GameCritics.com for nearly ten years); I just like to game when I have the time. Accordingly, I'm sure some great games have come out that I missed. I did play quite a few great games this year, however, but when it comes to my pick for best of the year, as the great warriors of Highlander declared, "There can be only one."

But first, of course, the biggest disappointment, and the honorable mention.

Biggest disappointment: X-Com 2

I absolutely loved the first X-Com. It was challenging, deep, well-balanced, and incredibly addicting. It could be maddeningly frustrating at times, but only because it was so relentlessly engaging. X-Com 2 made a number of significant changes to the game, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. On paper, it was a brilliant evolution of the first game.

Unfortunately, I just couldn't get around the difficulty curve, which changed so suddenly and drastically as to consistently ruin my entire experience. I would spend a good four or five hours relatively care-free, challenged but not overwhelmed. Then, like clockwork, I'd be thrust into missions with vastly more powerful enemies—often with with strict time limits. Strategy seemed to take a back seat to blind luck. This wasn't a one-off, either; I restarted the game several times and adjusted my strategy to prepare for the harder midgame, but I could never get it right. Worse, the game never clued me in as to what I ought to be doing differently. After the third restart ending with me stuck on another impossibly hard level, I just got sick of it and gave up. 

It may be the case that I just suck at the game. But I definitely didn't suck at the first X-Com, and a buddy of mine who shares my love for the first game also shared my exasperation with the sequel. It's unfortunate, because we both agreed the fundamental changes were very solid. I love a good challenge, and in fact I almost always start games on harder difficulties. But I still like to have fun, and X-Com 2 just stopped being fun. With any luck, I'll revisit it in the future and patches will have smoothed things out.

Honorable mention: Doom

Holy hell... Doom was actually good! Not just good, but, like... really, really good. Id finally recaptured what made the original games so much fun, and it's a great thing that they didn't go with the original vision, which would have made it something more like Call of Duty. Doom is frantic, intense, and rewards quick thinking and quicker reflexes. There's just enough back story to make it interesting, but the game is unapologetic in its absurdity. Id knows that the plot is just an excuse to shoot stuff, and it colors the game without ever getting in the way. Everything about the action just works—the arsenal, the finishing moves, the speed, the variety of enemies, the verticality of the levels—and every hard-won battle makes you want to stop and pump your fist in the air.  Just remember to play this game on the harder difficulties.

Game of the year: Dishonored 2

Around the time the Dishonored 2 came out, I realized I had bought the first game on a Steam sale for like $10 or something, and maybe I should give it a try. I liked it, but it fell short of greatness for me. I thought it had a lot of great ideas, but the execution seemed just a little underwhelming. The world just wasn't big enough and vibrant enough to draw me in, and I never really felt the urge to explore all the different nooks and crannies and discover the varieties of pathways and possibilities open to me. But I liked the game enough that I thought I should try the sequel, and I'm very glad I did.

I spent nearly twice as long in my first playthrough of Dishonored 2 as I did in the first game; I'm currently on my second playthrough, and I imagine there will be many more. The sense of scale is both daunting and empowering; the game rewards exploration in many ways—hidden items, loot, mission clues, and even side quests. Despite generous and patient exploration, I left every level thinking about different routes I'd seen but declined to take, different strategies I could have employed, and different paths through the game's narrative. All these elements were here in the first game, but in the sequel they're fully realized. It's genuinely fun to either wreak chaos on the world, or to slip by unnoticed and discover the creative ways to non-lethally remove each level's target from play.

The game also surprised me with some marvelously creative levels. The Clockwork Mansion is a labyrinth of shifting walls and hidden passageways populated by guards, servants, and deadly machines. The level "A Crack in the Slab" introduces a timepiece that allows the protagonist to peer into the past, shift between the two timelines, and alter the present through their actions in the past. Not all the levels reach such creative heights (I was underwhelmed by the Duke's mansion, for example), but even the more mundane levels are consistently sprawling and filled with things to do and discover.

It also manages to tell a good story and present a well-developed cast of characters. The option to play as either Corvo (from the first game) or Emily (whom Corvo rescued in the first game), as well as the option to play either in "no powers" mode lends a huge variety of possibilities to how the game can be approached. Their stories are not the same, and both can lead to a number of different endings. As in the first game, a non-lethal approach will result in a more optimistic ending—but Inverse reports that the endings offer a broader spectrum of good and bad, and sometimes the non-lethal decisions do not lead to the most desirable outcomes. 

It's a phenomenal game that finds nearly flawless balance between its mechanics, its worlds, and its narrative. It's easily the best game I've played this year, and one of the best I've played... well, ever. 

I don't need you to respect my beliefs

Randal Rauser just wrote a post imploring people to refrain from mocking others' beliefs—because, in his view, beliefs are "an extension of the person"; mocking a person's beliefs, he claims, is mocking the person.

I wrote a response in the comments section essentially suggesting that some beliefs are more deserving of mockery than irenic engagement (anti-vax, young-earth creationism, homeopathy, Holocaust denial, etc.), and that it's not anyone's job to treat any given beliefs with deference by default; rather, it's the job of those who believe to show that their beliefs are worthy of respect by engaging in rational discourse.

After reflecting on my comment though, I think I could take an even stronger stance: the very idea that beliefs need to be respected is fundamentally misguided. It's true that beliefs are, as Randal says, an "extension" of the person—their experiences, biases, values, etc.—but beliefs need not define a person. Moreover, beliefs don't have feelings. They can't suffer indignity. They're just ideas, and ideas can be and often are ridiculous, absurd, false, or cruel. And frankly I have no idea what it even means to say that I "respect" a belief that I think is ridiculous, absurd, false, or cruel.

I don't need you to respect my atheism

I really could not care less whether anyone respects my rejection of theistic claims. If someone chooses to mock my beliefs, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it—chances are they've just completely misrepresented my beliefs anyway, like the meme which claims that atheists believe "nothing magically exploded for no reason". It's intended to be mockery, but it bears no resemblance to what any atheist actually believes, so why should I or any other non-believer be upset about it?

I think this idea that beliefs are things that need to be treated with deference is a marker of insecurity. Why should anyone's beliefs be exempt from satire, mockery, commentary, and criticism simply because it is an "extension" of their personhood? People's beliefs can and do change. No matter how much conviction someone holds in their beliefs, the right argument or evidence can be persuasive. Does a shift in belief on one topic mean that the person has fundamentally changed? That their attitudes, values, and outlooks are now completely usurped by a new paradigm? Unlikely. More likely is a modest shift in perspective related to that particular issue. 

What I do care about is that, if someone wants to change my mind about atheism, they show me the respect of representing my beliefs accurately and engaging my questions and commentary in a substantive, irenic manner. Now, if someone doesn't particularly care about changing my mind and would just rather poke fun at my beliefs (or what they think I believe), that's perfectly fine; after all, there are plenty of times when I'm not concerned with changing anyone's mind myself. And hell, sometimes even irenic dialogue is just as much for the exercise of it all. I don't think anyone who debates with William Lane Craig or Richard Dawkins would expect them to change their minds, and that goes for those all the way down to anonymous Disqus commentators. 

Taking theism down a notch

A central theme in The God Delusion is that openly criticizing religious beliefs has long been considered taboo. We're expected to show deference to others' beliefs, even if we find them absurd or dangerous. Dawkins, along with the rest of the new atheists, deserve credit for helping to erode that taboo, moving religion toward the same marketplace of ideas in which everything else we believe is discussed, disputed, challenged, mocked, and satirized. 

I'm a huge fan of the essay No, you're not entitled to your opinion by Patrick Stokes. He says,

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven. 
But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

You are not entitled to your opinion. You are, as Stokes eloquently observes, entitled to what you can argue for. I certainly respect theists' civil and human right to believe whatever they wish. But if they wish to influence others with said beliefs, then those who do not share them have every right to rigorously challenge them—and that includes ridicule, satire, and mockery. If you're not ready to see your religious beliefs treated the same way our society treats every other idea—contentious, controversial, fair game for all manner of discourse and even derision—perhaps you don't really have as much conviction in the strength of your beliefs as you'd like to tell yourself you do.

16 December 2016

Should we support euthanasia?

A friend of mine recently reported some terrible news: a friend of hers had been in a devastating house fire, suffering severe burns. The woman's son, just two years old, fared much worse—suffering second and third degree burns on over 90% of his body. They were both flown to a burn treatment center in Galveston. Last update I heard on the child: "They'll be able to save his eyelids."

I used to think that losing a child would be the worst thing a parent could go through. It's not. This is. I tried to imagine the absolute hysteria the mother must have felt in learning that her child was on the brink of death in what is perhaps the most painful ordeal a human can experience. If he survives, he could be facing amputations, years of surgeries and rehabilitation, and terrible pain. At two years old. A time for both mother and child that should be filled with joy and wonder and stories about small frustrations that become amusing in hindsight.

It's an absolutely heartbreaking story to hear. When I told my wife the news, and mentioned that the child might survive, she remarked, "Should they want him to?" I don't have an answer, but I think that what this child will suffer if he does survive may be a fate worse than death. He will never lead a remotely normal life. He will likely be permanently disabled and disfigured. He will suffer incomprehensible pain at an age in which he's too young to contextualize it or understand it. If 'good news' amounted to saving his eyelids, I would not be surprised if he'll spend his life blind as well.

Alex suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns on over 90% of his body
We live in a culture in which saving a life is exalted above the quality of life. Elderly individuals are kept alive in bleak existences—my grandmother, who died two years ago at age 93, suffered a broken femur in her final weeks. She had been too weak to even sit upright to eat because of fractures in her spine. When I last saw her in 2013, she said, "I don't know why the Lord hasn't taken me yet." She was ready to die, but our culture was not ready to lend her that dignity. She died in a hospital bed, confused and in pain—a pale shadow of the vibrant, opinionated and loving woman she had been for most of her long life.

I vividly recall Terri Schaivo's controversial right-to-die case. She was in a persistent vegetative state, on a feeding tube and unable to have anything resembling a normal life. I strongly supported her euthanasia. That's because these situations do not just affect the individuals—they affect those around them who have to invest considerable time, money, and emotional energy into supporting them. In many cases, losing a severely disabled loved one comes as a tremendous relief to the family.

Is it not selfish to insist that we drag people on through miserable existence? To me, the right of the infirm or elderly to die voluntary is one that should be without much controversy. Those like the burned toddler are much more difficult cases. Is it selfish to drag this child through years of pain, surgeries, and therapy, knowing that he can never have a remotely normal life, much less a remotely normal childhood, to save him from death? Would death not be a far better fate?

I'd never go so far as to say that I'd support any kind of law mandating that people in such circumstances are 'put down'. But when I contemplate the extraordinary struggle that this poor child's mother will endure should he live, I'm forced to concede that if she wanted to let him go, I would be in no place to deny her that.

There is more to life than merely existing, and a life filled with suffering is no life at all. Perhaps in some circumstances, the best way to save a life is to let it go.

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. 

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.