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.

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — review index
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.

Desirism


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.

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — review index

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.

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — review index

25 November 2016

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 2

Note: I'm blogging remotely from the sunny shores of Jamaica, using the Blogger app on my phone. The app kind of sucks, so unfortunately my first few posts on this book will likely have some formatting issues until I can get back to my desktop later this weekend. Til then, enjoy!

Chapter 2: God, Faith, and Testimony

Faith is a tricky subject, and one that I feel is too frequently subject to equivocation. What is faith? What does it mean to believe something "on faith", and when is it ir/rational to do so?

The second chapter begins with a cursory overview of the concept of faith. Rauser suggests that it can be held to mean either a faith, as in "the Christian faith", or it can mean something equivalent to trust. Schieber rightly opines that most non-believers would simply prefer to use the word "trust" in such contexts, but I feel he missed an opportunity to ride Rauser a bit harder. I would add that the religious concept of faith is, in my experience at least, most often used when evidence is not only absent, but unobtainable in principle.
For example, if I say that I have faith in my wife, it's a statement based on a preponderance of background evidence - her established behaviour and demonstrations of sincerity, tenacity, and trustworthiness. When a Christian claims to have faith in the truth of central tenets of their religion, they are often based on claims that cannot be evidentially substantiated - the resurrection, blood atonement, ancient accounts of miracles, etc. To then simply equate religious faith with "trust", as Rauser does ("whichever you prefer!" he quips) does a disservice to both terms.

I'm also disappointed to see Rauser use this approach as means of trivializing the difference between believers and non-believers: "There is no view-from-nowhere that allows us to test our beliefs apart from faith". Rauser is equivocating, and I think Schieber missed an opportunity to press him harder; it's true that we cannot test our beliefs apart from certain assumptions, but we can critically examine what those assumptions are and whether they're really necessary or even useful. Such awareness of the necessity and utility of assumptions is a far cry from the concept of religious faith, in which specific doctrinal beliefs are held, as Richard Dawkins famously quipped, in spite of - or even because of - a lack of evidence.

The value of testimony

Rauser has on many occasions argued that it is rational to believe in the existence of God based solely upon the testimony of others. In this discussion, the authors weave through several analogies and  qualifiers - testimony from whom, under what circumstances, etc.

I've spent quite a bit of time discussing this argument here at The A-Unicornist, and it should come as no surprise that I remain largely unpersuaded. However, I think Rauser makes a valid point: simply that in principle, one can rationally assent to theism, or even specific religious claims, based on testimony alone. In such circumstances, one would have to be unaware of defeaters that could undermine one's epistemic confidence. In practice though, I think that is a more difficult bridge to cross. Schieber rightly notes that since many non-believers are aware of "the variety and conflicting nature of testimony regarding supernatural entities in general and God in particular, most have good reason not to grant mete testimony much weight - if any at all".

Perhaps my time as a non-believer has colored my outlook, but I have a difficult time imagining any rational adult human in our modern society who is utterly oblivious to the fact that belief in God - and especially specific religious doctrines - is controversial, and who is committing to remaining in such a state of blissful ignorance by avoiding potential exposure to contrarian ideas. I certainly agree with Rauser that testimony can be viewed as a form of evidence that can in principle increase one's confidence in the likelihood of God's existence; however, the elephant in the room is that this is true of literally any and all claims about reality. I see no reason to give testimony about the God of classical theism (much less any particular doctrine of Western monotheism) any more weight than any arbitrary epistemic claim. On the contrary, given my background knowledge of theological disagreements as well as cognitive biases that may lead one to accept the testimony of others uncritically, I feel I have strong reason to be highly skeptical of religious testimony.

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — review index

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 1

Note: I'm blogging remotely from the sunny shores of Jamaica, using the Blogger app on my phone. The app kind of sucks, so unfortunately my first few posts on this book will likely have some formatting issues until I can get back to my desktop later this weekend. Til then, enjoy!




An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar is a bit of a challenge to "review" in the conventional sense. It's not a polemic, and because of its unique format in which propositions are immediately challenged on both sides, trotting through the book and offering point by point rebuttals would be largely redundant. To the extent that I can review the book broadly, I'm satisfied to summarize that it is, by and large, a refreshing take on a stale genre. It's all too easy for theists and atheists alike to read and/or write within their own echo chamber, so Walk into a Bar (as I'll refer to it for the sake of brevity) provides ample opportunity for readers on both sides of the pew to challenge their biases as they progress through the book. If the book has any weaknesses, it's that the conversational format can both leave substantive topics underdeveloped (for the pragmatic sake of expediency, since any of the major topics covered could themselves comprise an entire book), and - as is human nature - the interlocutors have a tendency to get a bit sidetracked from time to time before said pragmatism nudges them to refocus. But this is a minor complaint in what is, generally speaking, a very refreshing and illuminating take on well-trodden religious and theological debate.

For my commentary, I'm going to divide my posts according to its seven chapters. Instead of taking the easy and perhaps obvious route, which would just be to side with Justin Schieber and pile on objections to Randal Rauser's arguments, my goal is to interject my own thoughts into the discussion while offering constructive criticism on where I think both interlocutors could have offered better arguments. I can confidently say that while I find Schieber to be an eloquent, educated, and cordial interlocutor to Rauser, I certainly find myself disagreeing either with his arguments or his approach from time to time. Likewise, while I unsurprisingly disagree with Rauser's theistic beliefs, I think he presents some strong arguments that ought to, at the very least, cause any intellectually honest atheist to more carefully consider the scope and implications of their arguments. And of course, I want to take care to limit my scope of analysis, if only because I don't want my commentary to be perceived as an excuse for dismissing the book entirely. In case I haven't made it clear enough already, let me state it unequivocally: with its brisk pace and provocative content, this book is well worth reading for yourself.
So, without further ado, let's dive into the first chapter: Why God Matters.

Chapter 1: Why God Matters

The fact that this discussion began with the interlocutors establishing the definition of God they would be discussing (that of classical theism - a necessarily existent, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, maximally good, and non-physical being) shows, to my point of view, the difficulty facing the theist here. Rauser wants to persuade the skeptic that the God-concept is one that should be taken seriously. But Schieber could have more or less stopped the conversation here and thoroughly challenged Rauser on the conceptual coherency of things like non-physical minds, necessary existence, morality divorced from the interests of interdependent conscious creatures, transcendent causation, and omni-paradoxes. Perhaps that was simply beyond the intended scope of the dialogue, but as a staunch advocate of ignosticism, I think a heavy burden lies upon theists to coherently define the God-concept well before any dialogue about its relevance to our daily lives can take place. 

A possibly silly example of conceptual incoherency pops up when Rauser recalls the old joke about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; Schieber responds, lightheartedly, "twelve", to which Rauser replies, "since angels have no spatial extension, the correct answer is an infinite number!" But since the concept of dancing entails the movement of a body in space, what does it even mean to describe the "movement" of a non-spatial being? This type of paradox is echoed by Schieber when he mulls over the conceptual ambiguity of an invisible pink unicorn ("I'm always left puzzling over exactly what shade of pink is compatible with being invisible").

Both authors seem eager to move beyond what they perceive as caricatures of theism that compare belief in God to fairies and invisible pink unicorns, agreeing that such rhetoric is simplistic and unsophisticated. And while I agree, broadly, that such rhetoric can be and often is used to dismiss theistic belief in a cavalier and condescending manner, I'm not quite ready to concede that the comparison is as off the mark as the authors indicate. That's because, like invisible pink unicorns and fairies and ghosts and Santa Claus, the greatest problem with theistic belief is not evidential, but rather conceptual. Be it an intellectual failing on my part or not, I can no more make sense of a non-physical mind that exists beyond the confines of space-time (whatever "beyond" can mean when untethered from spatio-temporal meaning) having casual influence over the physical world than I can an immortal fat man telepathically knowing the deeds of children and traveling the world house by house in his flying, reindeer-powered sleigh. To me, it's not that the God-concept is infantile, the way belief in Santa might be; rather, it's that both concepts appear to me to be fundamentally absurd - the Santa concept being fanciful, and the God-concept contingent upon equivocal use of human language. I'm not inherently hostile to the notion that the existence of a God could matter; but without a clear conceptual underpinning of the concept, it's hard to pinpoint what is even being discussed, much less why I (or anyone) ought to care.

Having said all this, I'm forced to set my objections aside and concede the definition of God as given in classical theism for the sake of further discussion. 

Hoping that God exists

Schieber concedes that, granted the assumptions they agreed upon about what God is (however loaded and ambiguous they may be, in my view), it's reasonable to hope that God exists. Schieber suggests that this might allow us access to moral enlightenment and "life-changing experiences" that might not otherwise be possible. Rauser suggests that God's existence would also be "a good in itself", but I fail to see the relevance of that statement to the central question being explored - whether God's existence ought to matter to us.


I can't quite get on board with Schieber so readily, though. Again, I'm not inherently opposed to the idea that I should hope God exists; but even if I'm so generous as to set aside my many challenges to the conceptual coherency of classical theism,  I still think there are reasons to be skeptical of God's relevance to our lives.

The first is that it's not clear that God's morality aligns with our own understanding of the concept. Indeed, while Rauser himself rejects divine command theory, the popular theological notion that morality follows from God's commands - which in turn follow from his own maximally good nature - challenges our moral intuitions when holy books are rife with God commanding his followers to commit atrocities. It could be that our limited, mortal understanding of morality fails to capture, in some crucial way, the true nature of morality. It could follow that God's interests do not necessarily align with our own. Schieber is also vague in his use of "profoundly spiritual and life-changing experiences". Profound how? Life-changing in what way? I'll touch more on this topic later when the authors discuss the problem of suffering, but suffice to say for the time being that before I can accept that I ought to hope for God's existence, it'd be nice to know precisely what I'm hoping for.

On Hitchens

One point both authors agree on is that the late Christopher Hitchens' description of God as a tyrannical despot is a bit over the top. Schieber thinks the master/slave rhetoric obscures a real issue with the existence of God - our lack of privacy, since God knows our thoughts - but Rauser views this as stemming from a hastily anthropomorphic conceptualization of God.

I think Rauser is right, but only partly so. If we accept his claim that "God simply knows all true statements from eternity" (it's hard for me to see how Rauser would escape a free will paradox in this circumstance), then it's true that God is not quite like a "celestial North Korea", as Hitchens deadpanned. But this is a prime example of a common problem: the God of theologians being divorced from the God of the common believer. Christians present God as a being who watches over us and, in the afterlife, will judge us according to our deeds; and given scriptures like "any man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart", it's difficult to conclude that Hitchens' rhetoric about "thought crimes" is off the mark.

This raises an important question. Should I hope that the vaguely defined God of classical theism exists? Or should I hope that one of the more anthropomorphic conceptualizations of God put forth by various religions (including Christianity) exists? The former leaves me confused as to what I should be hoping for; the later leaves me sympathizing with Hitchens' desire for autonomy and liberty.

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — review index

20 November 2016

Reflections on a Trump Presidency (or, I seriously can't believe it)

While the rest of the world was fussing over the latest 'controversy' our President-elect created on Twitter, I began to reflect on my own disbelief over the outcome of this election. I mean, if I'm grieving for our country's future, I'm definitely still in the first stage: denial. I truly cannot believe that this man, who made the news this week by, among other things...

  • Settling a lawsuit for running a fraudulent university
  • Hiring a possibly racist fake-news mogul as his chief strategist
  • Keeping his business ties despite glaring conflicts of interest
  • Backpedaling on several of his major campaign platforms
  • Complaining on Twitter about the diverse cast of Hamilton pleading with the Vice-President-elect to be their advocate
  • Complaining on Twitter (again) about Saturday Night Live being mean to him
... is actually going to be our President. The highest office in the land and the most powerful single person in the free world. I can't. Fucking. Believe it. 

Why, though? Why can't I believe it? I wasn't happy about Bush's dubious victory over Al Gore, nor his victory over John Kerry, but I certainly wasn't in a state of complete disbelief. I thought Bush was wrong, in some cases dangerously so. I thought his opponents were more intelligent and qualified, but I could at least understand and empathize with the conservative point of view that got him elected. Not so with Trump. 

I've read the stories from Rust Belt voters who backed Trump because of economic uncertainty. But I can't believe people were naive enough to think Trump — or anyone, for that matter — could actually spearhead a revival of coal and/or manufacturing jobs. This is partly because throughout his campaign, Trump has never actually articulated anything resembling a policy position. How would he bring coal jobs or manufacturing jobs to the United States? He doesn't seem to actually know to increase demand for domestic coal and manufacturing jobs, which is problematic because the data doesn't support his rhetoric [1, 2]. 

I've heard from Trump supporters worried about immigration and Islamic terrorism. But I can't believe people are so quick to forget that there hasn't been an orchestrated terrorist attack in the United States in over 15 years, and that ISIS is primarily concerned with conquering and managing territory in the Middle East. Nor can I believe that people are ignorant enough to buy into the rhetoric that illegal immigration is 1) on the rise (it's not), and 2) a threat to American jobs (it's not) [3]. Point of fact: deportation of illegal immigrants has increased under Obama [4]. And I certainly can't believe that anyone, anywhere, was stupid enough to think that Trump is literally going to build a giant wall spanning our Southern border — that it's even possible, much less feasible, much less that it would actually do anything, since most illegal immigrants enter America legally — and only about half of them are Mexican anyway [5]. 


I really can't believe that Trump won the support of evangelical Christians — that they really think he's one of them. The same guy who openly boasted about cheating on his wife and groping women, who has been caught lying to a degree that can only be consider pathological [6, 7], who called a book in the Bible "two Corinthians" after saying the Bible was his favorite book [8] and then defended himself by blaming Tony Perkins [9], whose positions on abortion (one of evangelical conservatives' core issues) are amorphous and often very liberal [10]... he's being championed by evangelical conservatives as someone who will fight for their values. 

I can't believe that Trump's statements about a "Muslim registry" — renewed this week, but stated during his campaign — weren't met with widespread outrage, even among conservatives. What if he'd said "We're going to create a national register for Jews!"? Heck, the idea of a Christian registry is famous end-times folklore among evangelicals (just check out the Left Behind novels). 

Ironically, Trump's grandiose, vague, and unrealistic promises leave us with little idea of what to expect from his Presidency. He's said he wants a massive tax cut — one that will mostly benefit the very rich. But it would add so much to the deficit that it's quite possibly that conservative deficit hawks will reign him in. He's promised to dismantle major government organizations like the EPA and the DOE, but that's basically impossible [11, 12]. He's already waffled on his repeal of the Affordable Care Act [13], something he vehemently ranted about during his campaign. 

Trump was elected on promises that he can't possibly keep. He's repeatedly shown himself to be shockingly ignorant of major policy issues, both foreign and domestic. He's thin-skinned, constantly whining about others' criticism or mockery being "unfair". That he's vastly out of his depth should have been readily apparent on the campaign trail, well before he won the Republican primaries. I can respect conservatives being strongly opposed to Hillary Clinton, but Trump? That's your guy? A whiny, narcissistic, unapologetically womanizing ignoramus? I can't believe it.

This election was democrats' to lose, and they lost it hard. After six years of an obstructionist congress, democrats could have campaigned aggressively against republicans' pettiness and stubbornness and appealing to moderate conservatives' desire for strong national security and a growing economy. Instead, they got cocky — surely the electorate wouldn't be duped by this clown. But, as has happened many times before, people voted decisively against their own better interests, wooed by ideological posturing in lieu of substantive reform. Now we're stuck with this fish out of water for the next four years. At least his thin skin will provide ample fodder for late night comedy.

10 November 2016

I'll be reading and reviewing the new book from Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber

Randal Rauser was very kind to offer me an early copy of his collaboration with Justin Schieber, An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar..., which I've been very much looking forward to reading.

Because of its unique format, I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to go about reviewing and commenting on the book; I'm going to have to dig into it first. This is a different kind of book — a kind of book I wish there were a lot more of. It's a dialogue instead of a monologue, which to some extent will undoubtedly render superfluous my likely thoughts on some of Randal's arguments, because I expect Justin will be doing a fair bit of that heavy lifting. I don't necessarily expect to agree with Justin entirely either, of course, but it'll take some tact for me to choose which arguments I most wish to engage. What I hope to offer is not just a series of predictable objections, but thoughts on both interlocutors' approach and ways in which I think they succeeded or could have approached the dialogue differently.

With the obvious caveat that I literally just unpacked the book this evening when I got home from work, I feel comfortable offering a provisional recommendation simply because I've been following both of these gentlemen for some time now, and they're both as erudite as one could hope for in their respective areas of expertise.

In any case, I suspect I'll do a sort of walking review and commentary and engage with the book as I read it — taking care, of course, to choose my excerpts carefully so as not to spoil the meat of the content. It's late and I'm exhausted from a long day of work and weightlifting, so I'm going to have to start reading over the weekend.

09 November 2016

In the aftermath of Trump's upset, some levity for my liberal friends

When Obama was elected in '08, it was against a backdrop of idealism, of reversing the trend of Bush — unnecessary wars, ballooning deficits, tax cuts for the rich, weakening of medicare and medicaid, threats to women's rights. What ended up happening was politics as usual. Even in the first two years with a democratic congress, Obama struggled to pass legislation with "blue dog" centrist democrats. And Obama was no saint — he was unable or unwilling to break up the "too big to fail" banks that drove us into a massive recession, he didn't close Guantanamo Bay, and he has presided over highly controversial drone attacks that have cost thousands of civilian lives.
So it will be with President Trump. He's not going to build a giant wall or enact a mass deportation of immigrants or ban Muslims from entering the U.S. All of those things have massive cost, logistical, and human rights obstacles. There will probably not be a sweeping repeal of the Affordable Care Act, because it's brought the uninsured rate to a record low. Rove V Wade isn't going anywhere even with the appointment of a conservative justice or two, because that's not how it works — there has to be precedent to overturn a ruling that's been repeatedly upheld for 40 years. Nor is the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage going anywhere, for the same reason.
Personally, I'm more concerned about conventional conservative policies I disagree with. I'm concerned about environmental deregulation that favors multinational corporations, the weakening of unions, and sweeping tax cuts that balloon the deficit and primarily benefit the ultra-rich. I'm concerned about draconian laws that make access to contraception and family planning more difficult for women. I'm concerned about even more stupid gerrymandering from the House. But Trump, too, faces a divided republican legislature that will make the passage of new laws and reforms difficult. There is not a unified republican platform, and Trump's positions have historically been amorphous — and very often quite liberal.
Many voted for him because he was the republican on the ticket. But those who voted for him out of fear and xenophobia and bigotry are in for a disappointment. You can't turn back the clock on gay rights. Immigrants are an essential part of what makes our nation "great". Muslims are not our enemies. You can't turn a blind eye to the increasing threat of climate change, nor the reality of civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter and the reforms in police accountability happening at the local level. Despite the best efforts of some, our country will keeping moving forward to be "greater" — not backward to some lost halcyon days.
This should also be a wake-up call for the left — white rural Americans decided this election, and if liberals want to change minds and influence people, they have to connect with them, even as our country becomes ever more diverse.