My name's Joe. I'm a chemical engineering graduate student and a skeptic. If I told you about chemical engineering you'd probably want to strangle yourself with your keyboard wire, so let's talk about skepticism!
This lecture was all about Descartes and his role as the
first truly Modern philosopher.As was
mentioned last lecture, Descartes split his thinking into philosophy and
theology, the latter of which is based on faith in revelation.Both techniques rely on natural reason, a term I now realize was never succinctly defined
by Descartes.However, his philosophy
was all about epistemology (the study of reason and what kind of knowledge
reason provides), so I suppose the entire lecture was geared towards explaining
natural reason, in some sense.
Descartes was very attracted to mathematics, because it is
so well-established and cut-and-dry.You
have simple self-evidence premises, and conclusions follow logically and
directly from those starting points.He
was dismayed that historical philosophy was nothing like mathematics, but instead
was proverbial castles built upon sand.Everyone had their own poorly-established premises and constructed
arguments via their own haphazard methods. Descartes set out to make philosophy as
rigorous and robust as mathematics.
He started by doubting everything.Following Socrates:the more one learns, the less one knows
(i.e., the more one realizes how little one has actually learned).As such, he takes a position of extreme
skepticism and radical doubt.He canít
even trust his own senses; what if an evil genius was generating false
sensations to trick him?(Professor
Roberts stuck with Descartesí example of an evil genius, but Iíll be
modernizing that to the Matrix.)Now,
this is not skepticism in any useful sense of the term, and of course Descartes
wasnít claiming that he actually believed he was in the Matrix.Rather, Descartes was proposing a thought
experiment to explore consciousness and the idea of the self.Since you canít definitively prove that you arenít
in the Matrix, you have to doubt your senses, at least to some extent.
Descartes could only come up with a single indubitable
ďthingĒ:his own thoughts.Even if he were in the Matrix, the fact that
he was thinking implied that he actually existed.Hence:cogito ergo sum, I think
therefore I am.The only thing Descartes
can trust without reservation is the fact that he is thinking, and this
singular trustworthy thing implies that he exists.(Whew, I was getting worried!)Now that we know we exist, we can move onto
This notion of a ďthinking selfĒ is called a cogito in honor of Descartesí famous
Latin phrase.The cogito exists in a
trustworthy thinking realm separate from the natural world*, because of course
you must doubt the crap out of anything you supposedly encounter in the so-called
real world.So, what is the use of
Descartesí philosophy if it doesnít relate to the real world?Descartes set out to solve this issue by
proving that heís not in the Matrix, and conveniently proved the existence of
god along the way.
*Roberts didnít explicitly
tie this back to the supernatural/natural split from the past few lectures, but
I think the line of continuity is clear.Though a Catholic, Descartes lived in the freethinking and Protestant
Netherlands, was suspected of heresy and even deism, and got his works on the
popeís banned books list, albeit posthumously.
Starting with the cogito, can we safely talk about the
existence of anything else?(Say, god?)Descartes lays out three premises:
ideas have more objective reality
cause of something has at least as much objective reality as its effect.
Objective reality is a measure of
Iím going to give you a peek behind the curtain here.In my notes after these three bullet points,
I scribbled ďWILDLY UNSATISFYING!ĒFor now, letís continue with Descartesí
reasoning from these premises.An
omni-omnent god obviously is going to have the supreme objective reality, such
a god is obviously perfect, and our cogitoís conception of such a god could obviously
only have been caused by a perfect god.Thus, god exists and is perfect.Neither Descartesí own thoughts nor the Matrix could be the source of
the idea of a perfect god, since that would be a less perfect thing causing a
more perfect effect.
can conceive of a perfect god, thus a perfect god must exist, because,
otherwise, how could he conceive of it?This is the basis of the ontological
proof of the existence of god.Ontology is the study of being, and this classic proof posits that the
only reason we can conceive of a perfect being is because such a being
exists.Another quick peek behind the
curtain here:ďTHIS is the basis of the ontological proof?Wow!Ē
Once Descartes has proven that god exists, he can do away
with the Matrix and demonstrate that the real world matters.A perfect god would not deceive his subjects,
because deceit is an ugly and imperfect action.Thus, we can generally trust our senses to accurately respond to
reality.This allows philosophy, notably
science, to proceed as we know it without Descartesí initial paralyzing doubt.
Thatís the general outline of the lecture, so I owe you some
explanations.I have three very serious
issues with Descartesí line of reasoning here.
(1)I need to take
back my first paragraph, because Descartes didnít
in fact define natural reason or explain where it comes from and why he trusts
it (i.e. doesnít doubt it).As I
mentioned last lecture, this is something that I get attacked with often as an
atheist.Of course, I consider theistís
stock response (ďmy god grants me logic and reasonĒ) a complete non-response,
but at least itís something.Descartes provided nothing.Why should we trust our own reason?
(2)So much for
doubting everything except your own thoughts, huh, Rene?Where the heck did those three premises come
from?What is objective reality, why
must causes have more of it than effects, and who says that it is equivalent to
perfection?I doubt each of those
things, personally.What a joke.Itís painfully obvious that he came up with
these premises to force the conclusion that god exists**. Also, take a birdsí eye look at how this
ďargumentĒ goes:I doubt everything, but
thankfully a benevolent trustworthy deity exists, and thus I can more-or-less
trust everything.Yup, just as
rock-solid as geometry, all right.
**I think this is called begging the question, but Iím honestly not
sure.I also know that begging the question or petitio principii is a term that gets
misused practically as much as ad hominem, so Iím hesitant to put my nickel
down and propagate poor logical fallacy identification (or Latin abuse) on the internet.
disappointed by my first real encounter with one of the classical proofs for
god.Hereís the Ontological Proof For
The Existence Of God, kiddos:we can conceive of a perfect being, so a
perfect being (i.e. god) must exist.Well, then. Iíd heard this phrase
before, but either assumed it was a facetious summary or trusted that there was
some ďseriousĒ theology hiding behind it.Well, I clearly thought wrong.Thatís all there is, and the theology behind it (those unsupported and
leading premises from above) actually makes things worse.
It's trivial to come up with a counter-example of this "proof." In my own field (chemical engineering), we think of ideal situations all the time, often
as a first approximation.That doesnít
mean they exist; on the contrary, you can often demonstrate conclusively that
such idealized situations cannot
exist.But, wait, the ontological proof
says they must! Oh noes!
Another thought that stuck me was, perhaps god does exist
but we just arenít actually conceiving of him.Maybe god is just so perfectly perfect that our meager human mind and
consciousness cannot comprehend so great a being.If so, we arenít actually conceiving of a
perfect being, we just wrongly think we are.Iím often told that god is so great or so subtle or so profound that I
just canít comprehend what my religious friends are talking about.How do people who say this, and there are a
lot of them, feel about the ontological proof?Do you need faith that weíre
conceiving of god?Great.
I have a few other nits to pick, but letís just bullet them.
Descartes imparted his
subjective morality onto this supposedly-objectively argument when he
assumed that deceit is imperfect.Says who?Maybe weíre so
insignificant that weíre being deceived by accident or negligence, or perhaps
deceiving us is for a greater good.Also, wasnít the god of the Old Testament deceitful at times?
Arenít we once again
restricting god in a variety of ways?Weíre certainly restricting god to our human notions of perfection,
and I canít imagine that the Protestant theologians who threw a fit over
Realism are going to be happy about that.
Limiting god to being
merely the perfect causer (if
you will) also creates a philosopherís god of sorts.This god certainly doesnít seem like the
god of any real-world religion, but rather feels like an aloof, abstract,
impersonal, mathematical deity.This
is probably why Descartes was accused of deism.
My italicized word choice above
wasnít unintentional, because Iíd like to point out that the Ontological
Argument sounds a whole lot like the Cosmological Argument when
you peer behind the curtain at Descartesí underlying premises.Briefly, the Cosmological Argument is
the one about every effect having a cause, and so there must be an
original uncaused cause:god.Well, thatís precisely Reneís second
bullet, isnít it?Youíre telling me
one of the almighty classical proofs for god includes one of the other
ones as its unstated premise?Really?
As I asked in my notes, THIS is the supposedly Ďsubtle and
profoundí theology behind the arguments for the existence of god?Yikes.Not only does the emperor not appear to have any clothes on, he looks so
ridiculous that I donít know how the courtiers are keeping quiet about it.
This lecture was interesting, and you can probably tell that
it struck a certain righteously indignant nerve in me.Iím trying to keep an open mind, but this all
bugged me on a number of levels.Descartesí strong words about doubting everything and separating faith
from reason were merely that:words.At the first opportunity, he shenaniganned
his personal god right back in there.Now, my reasons for optimism arenít naÔve or pigheaded, because
Professor Roberts pointed out a number of encouraging things.Though Descartes did more-or-less start
Modernism, everyone didnít take him for granted.Rather, everyone began by responding to Descartes.And, Roberts hinted at a number of coming
responses, such as the criticism that Descartesí omni-omnent philosopherís god
is conspicuously more ďthereĒ than even the supposedly deepest unit of his
philosophy (the cogito).He didnít get
into it, and his veiled description of these upcoming critiques was actually a
little confusing, but I hope they ask the question thatís on the tip of my
tongue:why not doubt the existence of
Also, Descartes deserves heaps of praise for making the
world safer still for natural philosophy, i.e. science.Explicitly splitting theology and philosophy
likely did wonders for science, and probably played a huge (though surely
unintended) role in the eventual marginalization of theology.Though his theology apparently infuriated his
contemporaries and his god-via-philosophy still reaches through the centuries
to drive me up the wall, Descartesí contributions to Western thought cannot be
understated and shouldnít be undersold.Iíll plot a function in Cartesian coordinates in his honor at work
Professor Roberts opened the lecture by wrapping up the Western Civ class recap of the Protestant
Reformation. The split between the
Catholic church and the various nascent Protestant sects became permanent,
despite years of warfare and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation was apparently pretty
lame; though bishops were granted more autonomy, little actual change occurred
in Rome. However, Roberts mentioned that a number of
modern-day Catholic theologians believe that counter-reformation theologians
were actually arguing against Aquinas
(that is, for the split between the natural and supernatural), meaning that
they were implicitly supporting the Protestantsí views. This made precisely zero sense to me. Call me a cynic if you must, but I call BS;
this sounds like modern Modernist spin on those theologiansí part. Indeed, I believe Roberts mentioned that the
Catholic church could have been considered an ďenemy to ModernityĒ until very
The lecture next moved onto a few things that kind of blew
my mind: the Peace of Westphalia and
Thomas Hobbes. The Peace of Westphalia
ended the various Reformation wars, but more importantly it granted limited
religious freedom to individuals. I had
no idea that explicit religious freedom was granted so early (mid-1600s) in Europe. Call me an
ugly American if you must, but I thought we had the scoop on that one. To be honest, even the Peace of Westphalia
itself only rang a vague bell in my head, in a Jeopardy-question-I-wouldnít-have-gotten
kind of way.
Equally surprising to me was Robertsí description of Hobbes
and his book Leviathan. I could
not have been more clueless about this stuff; from my perspective, Hobbes was a
stuffed tiger and Leviathan was a Magic card.
Hobbes apparently viewed both politics and religion as human inventions,
and as such strove to explain each naturalistically, speculating that humans
invented religion to explain away the nasty parts of life. He thought that mixing politics and religion
inevitably leads to fanaticism, and so ought to be avoided at all costs. Rather, an earthly god, the Leviathan (i.e. a
strong government based on social contracts), is necessary to rule and avoid
anarchy. This all blew me away, and Iím
not being sarcastic in the least. I had
no idea that people were proposing ideas like this as early as the
mid-1600s. I suppose pessimism about politics
and religion isnít that unexpected, given the horrible warfare surrounding the
Protestant Reformation, but I was nevertheless surprised by how baldly secular
(even atheistic?) Hobbes was.
The lecture then moved onto the positive side of the
Protestant Reformation: the scientific
revolution. Professor Roberts had an
interesting take on the advances of Copernicus/Galileo/Newton, and Iíd like to
spend some time analyzing it even though he sped through it pretty
quickly. He emphasized that Copernicus
removed humanity from the center of the universe, Galileo proposed the concept
of natural laws, and Newton
posited that we live in a clockwork universe.
You donít normally hear it described this way: itís often framed as the Copernican Revolution, implicitly giving the lionís share of the
credit to Copernicus; Galileo typically doesnít get enough credit (which is
saying something), so itís nice to see him get recognition for coming up with
the notion of scientific laws; and Iím pretty sure Roberts is totally wrong
about Newton imagining a clockwork universe, and not just because he was kind
of a religious fanatic in his personal life.
If Iím remembering my science history stories correctly, Newton imagined that god
regularly adjusted the orbits of the planets to fudge potential instabilities
he couldnít resolve in his mathematical models of gravity. It took a later mathematician (Laplace?) to
work through the sensitivity analyses and demonstrate that the orbits are
generally stable without a nudge here or there from our lord and savior. This is all of course a very minor point for
the purposes of these lectures, but Iím a nerd and I like thinking about how to
put these historical scientific developments into perspective.
Anyways, this all links back to Protestantism because,
contrary to Aquinas, these theologians situated god to in a separate unknowable
supernatural realm, leaving the natural world to operate in an explicable
manner without Him. Some viewed this as
a loss of the Cosmos, though others denied this and tried to find god beyond,
or in spite of, science. Roberts once
again described Nietzsche despairing over the loss of the Cosmos, which is
getting pretty old. He contrasted Nietzscheís
pessimism with a modern thinkerís (Mark Lilla) approach that resigns to this
de-Cosmo-fication as a necessity but somehow manages to polish that turd and
make the loss of the Cosmos okay. As my
sarcasm might belie, I think thereís a third way. I donít see why we cannot appreciate the
harmonious and transcendent properties of the natural universe, not throw a
shit-fit that the para/un/supernatural might not exist, and humbly acknowledge
that we donít have all the answers to lifeís mysteries. Is that so crazy? Again:
Cosmos by Carl Sagan, available on DVD and in paperback.
Roberts wrapped up the lecture by opening a discussion of
Rene Descartes. Between this and the
title of the next lecture, I think heís going to be our second looming figure
of the lecture series after Aquinas.
Descartes was very interested in epistemology, the study of
knowledge. His main philosophical
question was: how do we know what we
Roberts actually didnít cover any epistemology in the
lecture (so far as I can tell), but he did describe a key event in intellectual
history. Descartes apparently separated
philosophy and theology, once and for all.
(In case you donít know, what we call science was known as natural philosophy before it was called science.) Descartes had faith via supernatural
revelation in godís existence, and considered rational arguments stemming from
that faith to be theology. However, he
recognized that many people didnít have his faith, and desired to prove godís
existence to these nonbelievers without appealing to faith; hence, philosophy. This sounds like a pretty limited purview for
philosophy, but Iím sure it either was framed around the notion of god or got
expanded as time went on. Indeed, since
Descartesí demarcation, philosophy/science has increasingly dominated and
marginalized theology. Naturalistic
explanations rule the day, even for and about religion (a la Hobbes).
One huge can of worms Descartes-via-Roberts opened but
didnít address was natural reason. Descartes asserted that natural reason exists, and that both theological and philosophical
approaches use it. I have the sneaking
suspicion that this is going to be a huge deal later on (probably as soon as
next lecture), and Iím guessing it will have a hand in getting god into the
philosophy side of things. Iím sensing
the arrival of a stick Iíve been hit with before: what is the source of the reason Iím using to
make my arguments, if not an omni-omnent god?
I think thatís a fair, albeit sardonic, description of the criticism Iím
foreseeing, but hopefully Iím not putting words into Brett or Mattís*
mouths. Weíll just have to see, I guess.
*Programming note:my buddy Matt is joining us!
Now, this felt like a pretty haphazard lecture, but there is
a theme thatís pretty clear with the benefit of hindsight: permanent splits. Protestants from Catholics, the supernatural
from the natural, theology from philosophy.
(Hobbes still feels like he got shoehorned in, but I donít begrudge that
because I found him fascinating.) We
even foresaw the Modernist/Premodernist split, since Descartes was introduced
as the first Modern thinker and the Catholic church got a shout-out for
crashing the Modern party three centuries late.
I think the next lecture will be all Descartes all detime.
This was a tough lecture for me; outside of some standard Western Civ stuff regarding the Protestant Reformation, I struggled pretty steadily throughout it.I feel like I missed some key subtleties in these philosophical concepts, but I think I grasped enough of the gist to soldier on.
Professor Roberts opened the lecture with a description of Realism.This philosophical concept was originally described by Plato, but was deftly co-opted by Aquinas and incorporated into Catholic thinking.The etymology of the term is completely lost on me, because it doesn't seem "real" at all.It is the notion that, contrary to Mr. Ed's philosophy, a horse is not a horse, of course, of course.
Realism posits that a concept of horse-ness exists in our minds separate from actual horses.No one horse exemplifies absolute horse-ness, but all horses are horse-y to various extents and in different ways.I imagine this is the source of the term platonic ideal, but I'm not positive.Though I don't quite grasp this entirely, Roberts emphasized that this conceptualization of horse-ness actually exists in some way.It is in some sense real, and hence the name Realism.Actual horses are some mixture of this big-R Real platonic ideal of horse-ness and the ugliness of the little-r real world.
I have to hand it to Aquinas this time, because Realism makes a whole lot more sense to me after he framed it in terms of god it.Aquinas proposed that god is the source of this ideal conception of horse-ness, and the various non-idealities of actual horses stem from them being in the natural world (blah, blah, the fall, original sin, separation from the divine, etc).I like what Aquinas did here with Realism; it certainly feels a lot better than his supernaturalization of the natural from last time.That said, I have to wonder if there's some retconning going on here.Realism really just doesn't make sense to me without framing this platonic ideal around a god, so I wonder if I'm missing (or if Professor Roberts skipped) something about Plato's original conception of the idea that made it more self-sufficient without a deity.
Professor Roberts next covered Nominalism, a school of thought opposed to Realism.Nominalism states that there's nothing real or even special about these platonic ideals; they're merely names or categories we humans use to describe the natural world.That sounded good to me, but Roberts then focused on an aspect of this philosophy that I really didn't see coming:its compatibility with the notion of an omnipotent god.According to Nominalists, the principles of Realism actually constrain god.In a Realist world, a deity is not free to make a horse any way he chooses; he is confined to the platonic ideal of horse-ness apparent in nature.In a Nominalist world, an omnipotent god is free to do whatever he wants with horses, regardless of humans' conception of horse-ness.
Though I wanted to hear a little more about Realism/Nominalism, Roberts focused on the theological implications of Nominalism and its role in the Protestant Reformation.At the risk of harping on a point, I'll again point out that I really didn't foresee the godly implications of this whatsoever.This is probably my bias against theology creeping in, because this once again struck me as people arguing about how their preconceived notions fit onto evidence."My god dreamt up the notion of horses!" "How dare you restrict my god's power to your puny observations!"Meh.Anyways, though Nominalism influenced church thinking a bit, Aquinas' Realism greatly dominated.
I'm torn on Nominalism, personally.It seems like there's a pretty positive way to view it, but also a very negative way to view it.(Though I'm getting ahead of myself, I have to wonder if this is somewhat analogousóif not precisely parallelóto how some Protestant sects strike me as very good and others scare the crap out of me.)On the plus side, you can say that Nominalism separates god from nature and allows the natural world to be understandable on its own terms.In the minus column, we have a much more inscrutable deity and natural observations not corresponding to the reality that really matters (the supernatural).
A few-minutes overview of your standard Western Civ reasons for the Protestant Reformation followed.All the usual suspects got a shout-out:the printing press allowing easy spread of information, the sale of indulgences, the budding Renaissance, the Vatican getting too involved in politics, the church monopolizing the path to eternal salvation, the Vatican becoming like a state with the pope as king, etc.The one bit I'd never heard (or at least realized) before was that the popes only began to claim infallibility during this period.I'd assumed that was the procedure from fairly early on, but apparently not.No wonder people balked!
Luther and Calvin were heavily influenced by Nominalist thinking.They liked their god omnipotent and unfathomable, and liked the clean break between the natural and supernatural.So we're clear, at least on my perspective:they liked it in the negative way I described above.They considered salvation a gift from god, and believed that it was completely unrelated to and not at all earned by works; after all, these works would occur in the natural world, and so would have no supernatural bearing.They saw faith merely as trust that god will save you.
Immediately after listening, I really didn't see how this related to the Realism/Nominalism debate.I think I see now that the clean break between the supernatural and natural was vital to the early Protestants' inscrutable god who isn't too worried about the natural world.If you'll allow me to try and explain me-from-a-few-days-ago's confusion, I think I was looking at this from a Modern perspective.I wondered why Luther didn't just treat god as a supernatural entity that could miraculously interfere with the natural world at will.The answer to that question is pretty simple:it was only the early 1500s, and hindsight is always 20-20.
One last thing before I wrap up.This aspect of some flavors of Protestantism has always seemed completely abhorrent to me.I find the thought that your actions are irrelevant to your eternal salvation completely repugnant.(If you doubt me, check out the vocab words I'm busting out!)Perhaps I'm missing something, or perhaps this is the latent Catholicism in me talking, but that's my gut response to predestination.Having said that, and ugliness aside, it does make sense.If god is truly transcendent and omni-everything-ent, why would our trifling activities in the dull old natural world matter to anything supernatural?
Protestantism is tough for me, even beyond what I already discussed regarding Nominalism.I appreciate the criticism of the Catholic church and its excesses, I like the democratization of religion that comes along with making scripture important, and I'd argue that the breaking of the Catholic hegemony over the West was ultimately positive (making the continuing bloodshed over it a necessary evil in the fight for religious freedom).But, I find predestination almost literally disgusting.Being a scientist, I also recognize the value of having an expert interpret and distill a large body of complex knowledge for the masses.(Wow, did I really just compare priests to science popularizers?This entry must be getting long, since my brain's apparently gone mushy.)Perhaps this is why I very temporarily gravitated towards Episcopalians on my path to atheism; they do call it Catholic Lite, right?
Lecture 02 - From Suspicion to the Premodern Cosmos
Early in the lecture, Professor Roberts covered some interesting territory about the "suspicion" of religion exemplified by his (if I may) Unholy Trinity of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.As I strongly suspected, my would-be intellectual love affair with these three guys died before it even got started.As you might suspect from the new term "suspicion," their opinions on religion are overwhelmingly negative and pessimistic, and border upon the paranoid and conspiratorial.(He actually didn't specifically mention anything Freud wrote, but, being engaged to a clinical psychologist specializing in empirically-supported treatments, I have little doubt that Freud will drive me crazy as soon as I learn anything concrete about his ideas.)
Marx thought that religion merely masked humanity's true problems; so long as people were obsessed with the false notion of sin, they would be distracted from the real problems they faced.Thus, those oppressors in power had a vested interest in promoting religiosity, since it would occupy and assuage the masses from rising up to address their real-world issues.Hence his famous comment about religion being the opiate of the masses.Nietzsche's equally-famous quip, god is dead, is not nearly as self-explanatory or straightforward to interpret.He had an insane character say it to a crowd of atheists, further proclaiming that [they] all had murdered god.Strange.To explain Nietzsche's point, Professor Roberts introduced the term Cosmos.
Cosmos is a Greek term for the ordered and harmonious universe and its governing principles.It is not merely a synonym for universe, because it comprises the rules governing the universe and perhaps more ethereal "harmonious" qualities the universe might have (such as religion, philosophy, the supernatural, etc).Though Professor Roberts did not mention it, Carl Sagan is his book and film series Cosmos emphasized its opposition to Chaos, which is exactly what you think it might be.For Nietzsche, the death of god is the end of the Cosmos.There is no order, there is no harmony, life is meaningless, and humans are not special.Professor Roberts did not use the term nihilism, but this sounds an awful lot like nihilism to me; indeed, I don't know what else nihilism could be.
For my part, here is where I break from Nietzsche and from this notion of Cosmos/Chaos. He is certainly right that "killing god"óthat is, imagining a universe that was not created by a god who made us in his imageóimplies that we are not significant and harmonious on a cosmic scale, but, so what? On the scale of the universe, nothing is significant; the universe is overwhelmingly empty. And, even if you focus in on the "stuff," everything but hydrogen and helium is insignificant. Our significance exists at the scale at which we exist: the planet earth. I find it ridiculous that Nietzsche decided to despair because he realized that the entire freaking universe didn't exist for him.Isn't this a dressed-up childish temper tantrum?Life's not worth living because the universe wasn't created with you in mind?Boo-hoo.We're also insignificant with regards to the other end of the size scale; should I pitch a fit every time I take an electron microscope image of my research samples?After all, I'm utterly insignificant at the scale of individual atoms.
This makes me think of the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe series. If you haven't read those books, stop reading my blog immediately and go read them. Now that you're back, I'll remind you that the Total Perspective Vortex was the machine that drove you insane by giving you "perspective" of the entire universe and how small a part of it you are. I find this somewhat analogous to what Nietzsche is doing. My response is that we can't have a cosmic perspective, and we shouldn't bother trying. (Especially since Douglas Adams was probably correct that somehow gaining such perspective would destroy your mind.)Let's stick to the perspective that we have, since that's the one that matters.
That's more than enough about me and Nietzsche, so let's get back to the lecture.Professor Roberts next explained Thomas Aquinas' views on the supernatural, which was incredibly enlightening.This clarified a ton of arguments I've had with religious people about the supernatural, Brett in particular.I also had no idea how influential Aquinas was to the church (or to Western civilization in general), though in hindsight I missed a number of pretty obvious clues.All those parochial schools named after him ought to have tipped me off, and I should've seen the name of Brett's blog as a strong hint.
Modernists generally view the supernatural in terms of miraculous violations of the natural order1.Aquinas, on the other hand, sees the supernatural everywhere.He sees love, free will, consciousness, and many other things in the world as manifestations of the supernatural.I would wager that Aquinas would see all the non-mundane portions of the Cosmos as supernatural, and I doubt he would draw a discrete line between the natural and supernatural portions.Indeed, one modern theologian quoted by Professor Roberts quipped that Aquinas supernaturalized the natural.This explains many issues I've had with religious people's take on the supernatural, and I appreciated hearing it enunciated explicitly.It was pretty frustrating to hear someone claim that love or ethics was supernatural, and honestly not have a clue what the hell they meant by that.
1I would also include things like ghosts and spirits that inhabit another world and only partially or occasionally interact with the natural world.But, paranormal would probably be a more appropriate term for that, since such things don't necessarily have a transcendent dimension to them.(Super = above, para = beside.)Actually, paranatural would be a better term.Why is it paranormal instead of paranatural?Weird.
All that having been said, allow me to emphasize that I appreciateónot adoptóAquinas' position on the supernatural. It feels almost entirely extraneous, particularly in light of how Aquinas came up with his views on the supernatural. Aquinas lived and worked during a time when Aristotle's works were being rediscovered by Europeans, after being lost to the West for over a millennium. Aqunias' view of the supernatural derived from his attempt to rectify Aristotle with then-modern thinking. Aristotle's stuff was great, but it had two very significant problems: A. Aristotle was a damn, dirty pagan, B. Aristotle championed the use of reason [rather than god] to achieve the good life. Aquinas solved this dilemma by deftly plugging Tab A into Slot B. Aristotle didn't know about Jesus, so he didn't (couldn't!) know about all these amazing supernatural things beyond mere nature and reason. Thus, Aristotle is all good, but there are also all these other supernatural elements to the Cosmos that Jesus and the early church worked out.
Does this feel a little superfluous or even god-of-the-gappy to anyone else? Aquinas basically looked at the corpus of classical Greek philosophy, decided that it was great, fretted about where god might fit in, and shoehorned supernaturalism on, above, in, beside, and among all the nooks and crannies of the natural world. He's like the anti-Laplace. Napoleon once asked Laplace why his scientific work did not mention the creator god, and Laplace famously replied I had no need of that hypothesis. Stretching the analogy, then-current Christian theology "asked" Aquinas where god might fit in his pagan-rooted philosophy, and Aquinas replied don't you worry, there's plenty of supernatural room in there!
Just to reiterate and clarify, I think I understand Aquinas' take on the supernatural. Moreover, I certainly appreciate it; it shines a flood of light on plenty of arguments I've had with religious people about the supernatural. That having been said, I don't like it. Aquinas didn't look at the situation (the Cosmos, in a word) objectively and say to himself, "hmmm, I think something is missing." Rather, he looked at natural philosophy and asked himself, "whither god?"
Professor Roberts wrapped the lecture up with what he called a quick lesson in Christian theology. Though my ears perked up, I don't have much to say about it. Basically, he went over Aquinas' interpretation of creation, free will, original sin, and the fall. As you might expect from a man who supernaturalized the natural, this was all seen as a supernatural expression of god's grace. Protestants are apparently much more pessimistic in their interpretation of the Book of Genesis, and Nietzsche is of course more pessimistic still. I can't say that I was impressed by my first theology lesson, but I also wasn't surprised. It sounded to me like different people superimposing their beliefs onto a revealed mythology, and then fighting about it.
I hate to end on a down note, because I thought this lecture was really good. I liked the discussion of suspicion, the Cosmos, and the supernaturalism of Aquinas. I really ought to figure out who said that Aquinas supernaturalized the natural, because it succinctly explains his concept and even illustrates my critique of its superfluity.
I hate to start off so pessimistic, but my initial reaction to the first lecture was somewhat ho-hum. I think, or at least I hope, that my overall impression was tainted by the way Professor Roberts decided to wrap up the lecture. I'm still looking forward to the lectures and I don't doubt that I'm going to enjoy them, but something he said near the end of the lecture took some of the wind out of my sails.It's bothering me much less after letting it lay for a day, but, in the spirit of a spirited discussion (that sounded better in my head), I won't edit too much of what I wrote right after listening to the lecture.
Hopping right in, part of my problem with the lecture was Professor Roberts' understandable but disappointing tempering of expectations near the end.He mentioned that his non-religious students have a lot of trouble accepting arguments based on revelation, because such arguments appear eminently irrational unless you have faith in those revelations. He juxtaposed this observation by pointing out that his religious students have trouble with arguments from people like Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, because these thinkers so forcefully attack faith. He assured the listeners that we'd be getting into these issues more deeply later on, but said that his ultimate goal was merely to get each side to see the value in all these arguments, even if they don't agree with them.
If this were a sound recording, I'd insert that record scratching noise right here. Time out! Aren't we already granting religious thought undue special consideration? One side is saying: "hey, I have real issues considering an argument rational if it's based on irrational faith in something irrational." The other side is saying: "hey, I have real issues considering these guys' arguments, because they're big meanies." We're going to pretend that these critiques are equally valid? Wowzers. I certainly understand his sentiment; plenty of people do dismiss their opponents' arguments without seriously considering them.But, per his description of his students' feelings, then only the religious students are dismissing things out-of-hand (and it sounds like they're getting a pass on it, to boot).I hope I'm just jumping the gun and rushing to judgment here, but it's troubling.
If what I've written so far sounds a little harsh, it's possibly because I didn't mention another thinker that Professor Roberts brought up. I've heard the name Kierkegaard before, but I didn't know anything about him. He apparently wrote scathing critiques of other religious thinkers' efforts to rationally explain religion, since it is ultimately based on supernatural faith. I very much look forward to learning about this guy, because it sounds like he noticed the problem that I have with a lot of theology: they want to have their cake (be rational), and eat it (demand irrational faith), too. I'm particularly interested in his ideas, because he'll be defending rather than attacking religion via this line of thinking.
One last attempt to temper my harshness: when I'm saying irrational above, I don't mean dumb or wrong or stupid, I mean not derivable from rational arguments. I don't think appealing to something for which no evidence exists is rational, but of course maybe my mind will be changed by this lecture series.
I'm also struggling with the term "Modernism," despite Professor Roberts' rather extensive efforts to define it. I might try giving this part another listen, or maybe dig into some Wikipedia articles to bolster my understanding of the term. Part of the issue might be sheer bias on my part, because his definitions sounded painfully obvious to me. As he described Modernist ideas, I found myself thinking, "well, duh, what else would you think?" I think I might be a Modernist ... who knew?
Furthermore, his overview of the critiques of Modernism and very brief definitions of Postmodernism rang completely hollow to me. I'm sure some would call this bias, and they might well be right, but I feel like Postmodernism was giving a fair shake during the Science Wars and was soundly rejected. (See Entry 26 for my overview of the Science Wars, which was based largely on a different TTC lecture series.) I suppose Postmodernism was useful in that it tempered some of the more extravagant claims of some scientists (Modernists?), but I don't see why it deserves the kind of attention it still gets. If there's a term for this "tempered Modernism" I'm referring to, I don't know it. Brett is pretty good with these philosophical labels, so perhaps he can chime in with a suggestion. I sure hope it's not Post-Postmodernism.
As a final thought, I'd like to talk a bit about the failure of religion to die out, and that data's use as evidence in the Modernism/Postmodernism debate. In the early 1900s, Modernists claimed that religion would die in the West as Modernity spread inexorably and forged a secular society. Obviously, this did not happen, as the Middle East and the United States have experienced huge upswings in religiosity since the middle of the twentieth century. The interpretation of this is completely up in the air: Modernists call it a fluke, and Postmodernists point at it and yell, "see!"
I wouldn't dismiss this unforeseen rise in religiosity as a fluke, but I also don't see it as evidence that Modernism is wrong or doomed. For one thing, what about Europe and Asia? My limited understanding is that religion is all but dead in most of Europe, outside of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East. The same (secular save for some Muslim influences) can largely be said of Asia, though that's something of a loaded claim because the USSR and China essentially outlawed religion and had/have something akin to state-controlled "religions."
Another explanation that I've heard is that Catholicism and mainline Protestantism are indeed disappearing among your "average" (suburban, middle-class, third-plus generation since immigration) Americans. I don't have the data in front of me, but supposedly the rise in overall religiosity is due to the upswing in Evangelical Fundamentalism, and the steady numbers in Catholicism and mainline Protestantism are due to largely Hispanic immigrants replacing those soccer moms lost to secularism. I don't know how much of this is true and how much is Modernist spin, but it's something I've heard consistently over the years.
Regardless of how you want to explain this rise in religiosity, I disagree wholeheartedly with its Postmodernist "repercussions" (if you will). Professor Roberts suggested that Postmodernists look at this trend and, after niggling the Modernists about being wrong, say "well, I guess we're in a Postmodern world where you have to respect and account for this persistent religiosity." While they're correct that it needs to be considered and dealt with, I flatly reject that Fundamentalism (Islamic and/or Christian) deserve unequivocal respect. In the interest of not opening yet another can of worms, I'll claim without justification that the resurgence and emergence of Islam and Evangelical Christianity as political forces has been a disaster. As such, I completely disagree that the appropriate response is, "oh well, I guess those beliefs are right for those people, and my beliefs are right for me. Que sera, sera."
And, if that makes me an archaic Modernist mired in discredited twentieth century thinking, so be it Ö for now, at least. We'll see if Professor Roberts can drag me kicking and screaming into twenty-first century thought, or we'll see if I'm already here in the twenty-first century but need to find a little-m modern label to affix to my personal philosophy.
Long time no blog! As you can (but probably didn't) see, I've let my blogging slip once again. I've been a lot busier both at work and in my personal life, but the bigger issue is probably that I didn't have anything tangible driving me to continue writing.I had (and still have) plenty of opinions about plenty of things that I feel need some skeptical treatment, but I didn't have anything pushing me towards sitting down and banging out an entry on it.
Hopefully, I've found something to rectify that problem.My friend Brett and I will be blogging along with a lecture series we're going to listen to simultaneously.The series is from The Teaching Company, and is called Skeptics and Believers:Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition.I've listened to a bunch of TTC lecture series, and they're excellent across the board.Though I know it's a pretty hard sell, since it really is like taking a college course in your spare time and it really does make you a gigantic nerd, I'd recommend giving them a whirl.If you like podcasts and/or non-fiction audiobooks, it's not as big a leap to these lectures as you might think.They're expensive as hell to buy, but your local library probably has piles of them sitting around not being checked out.
I'd like to use this Part 00 both to announce the start of this series of posts and to get some preconceived notions and potential biases on the table right at the onset.I'll briefly go over my perspective regarding the Skeptic/Believer question, some thoughts on the course itself, and finally my current opinion on theology and/or the philosophy of religion.
I'm an atheist who was raised Catholic, and Brett is a Catholic who was formerly an atheist.My "deconversion story" is so uninteresting that it hardly can be called a story.The so-called story is almost entirely illustrated by what I called myself as I became an adult:in high school and early college, I called myself a lapsed Catholic; in late college and early grad school, I called myself spiritual but not religious; for the past few years, I've called myself an atheist.The spiritual but not religious phase was, in hindsight, not entirely truthful; I wasn't spiritual in any sense of the word, but I worried that calling myself atheist or otherwise explicitly non-religious would make people think that I wasn't a good person or that I didn't care about Big Questions.To this day, I will often say "I was raised Catholic" rather than "I am an atheist," if I sense that the latter would cause social unpleasantness.I wish I didn't do it, and it always eats me up inside after-the-fact.Nevertheless, I did it just this past weekend when talking to some fundamentalist Christian future relatives of mine.Oh well.
So far as I can tell, drifting away from religion and/or being an atheist has never negatively affected me.I also cannot honestly say that religion (mine or anyone else's) has ever hurt me in any significant capacity.So, I'd like to think that I'm neither unduly biased against religion nor righteously indignant for atheism.
The lectures are by Professor Tyler Roberts of Grinnell College, who I don't know very much about.I'd like to keep it that way, as much as possible.Brett and I both know (by way of some reviews on the TTC website) that Professor Roberts considers himself a skeptic, though he does have a PhD in Theology.I don't know his "path" to religious skepticism, and I really don't want to ahead of time.I'd be surprised if it came up throughout the lecture series (I don't see where it would be appropriate to discuss), but I might be interested in finding it out afterwards.Religious reviewers didn't think his skepticism affected the lectures; on the contrary, some reviewers complained that the course was light on skeptical figures.I don't find that surprising, since it was only possible to be openly skeptical of organized religion somewhat recently in Western Civilization.I'm also not terribly worried about scant representation of the skeptical position, because I feel like I'm fairly versed in it, having consumed a few books by and many interviews with modern atheist thinkers.I'm very interested to hear about historical atheists, particularly since I'm actually having trouble thinking of many.Nietzsche and Marx tentatively come to mind (with boatloads of reservations), but beyond them I'm really struggling.I think people such as David Hume, John Dewey, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, BF Skinner, Albert Einstein, and certain US founding fathers were at least deists, but I'm not sure.
I'd be lying if I claimed that my opinion of theology is anything other than negative, though I will admit (and I hope I always have admitted) that I don't know a whole lot about it.I don't dismiss it outright as nothing but angels dancing on the head of a pin, but I also haven't been remotely impressed by any theology that I have encountered.I can naively (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek-ly) divide the theology I've experienced into three categories:theodicy, science-based theology, and wordplay.I covered theodicy in Entry 37, where you'll find that I was spectacularly disappointed with modern religion's supposed solutions to the problem of evil.I covered what I'm sarcastically calling science-based theology in a couple of places, most directly in Entries 32, 26, 24, and 23.In case it's not clear, I'm here referring to religious thinkers' efforts to reconcile their faith with the scientific method and its findings.This is obviously a huge can of worms to open, and I'm going to leave it closed for now.Suffice to say, my response to these theologians' efforts is to generally agree with their science (though often with serious caveats), and then be generally confused, dismayed, and disagreeable when they get to the religious parts of their arguments.
Finally, I ought to briefly explain my pejorative use of the term wordplay to dismiss the remainder of the theology I've seen.I don't have my thoughts on this formally recorded anywhere, but, if you happen to be meatspace friends with Brett and I, you might find it splattered haphazardly across our Facebook walls.I'm talking about the pithy and concise "proofs" for the existence of god you might have encountered.This is not limited to theology, and is often encountered in general philosophy, as well.The most famous example I can think of it Descartes' cogito ergo sum, or I think therefore I am.Brett once hit me with a theological proof for god or the soul or something that started with a We Think, and it drove me bonkers.Who is We?What does it mean to Think?That is a spectacularly ill-defined premise to start from, and you ought to be reading that "spectacularly" with implied arm gesturing and a facial grimace.The two words we think open myriad questions about humanity, consciousness, free will, logic, and determinism.Statements like this are so open-ended and ambiguous as to be completely meaningless.Don't get me wrong; things like this are fun to talk about and can keep you up at nights, either chatting with friends or banging out Philosophy 101 essay exams.("If Jason and the Argonauts replaced every single board on the Argo during their adventures, is the ship they sailed back in really the Argo?""Dude, you just blew my freaking mind, man!")But, for my money, fun and games are all they are.I frankly don't see the seriousness or usefulness of this kind of theology.
Well, fourteen hundred words are more than enough for an entry that I'm not even bestowing a real number on.("Or is zero actually a number and not just a placeholder, brah?""Woah.""Crunchy.")But, I think it was good to get my theological cards on the table before firing up the lectures.Brett and I have talked about maintaining a fairly ambitious pace through the lectures, but I'm skeptical (heh) of that working out, based on the available evidence that we had that discussion last week and have yet to listen to even the first lecture.JBut, we'll do what we can, and I hope you can bear with us.After all, we're only human.We think, therefore we are Ö busy.
Entry 39: Being an Atheist Means Youíre Pro-Science
Movie-making is clearly an ugly business. Yet another scienceblogging war of words has erupted over a film; this time, itís Bill Maherís Religulous. (Note that Iím about two months late to this party.) Actually, the issue doesnít concern the movie itself, but rather an award Maher received because of the film. The Atheist Alliance International (AAI) decided to give Maher their Richard Dawkins Award (RDA). Here is AAIís description of the honor.
The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.
Sounds reasonable enough, right? Religulous was pretty popular and well-received, so youíd think Maher deserves a spot among the pantheon of notable atheists that is the list of former recipients of the RDA: James Randi, Ann Druyan, Penn & Teller, Julia Sweeney, Daniel Dennett, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
You might think that, but youíd be very wrong. Bill Maher is a complete crank when it comes to medicine. Please donít think Iím overstating this point; heís not merely a shruggie, nor is he merely soft on seemingly-borderline alternative medicine modalities like chiropractic. Heís full out anti-vaccine, recently tweeting ďIf u get a swine flu shot ur an idiot.Ē He promotes dangerous quackery, though thankfully not that often on his shows. He seems sympathetic to HIV/AIDS denialism and even outright germ theory rejection. (Seriously.) In general, he is hostile to science-based medicine whenever the occasion to talk about it comes up.
Allow me to repeat one of AAIís own criteria for their RDA: advocate increased scientific knowledge. You might be able to argue that some of the past recipients havenít exactly hit home runs in this department, but certainly none of them have been as rabidly antiscientific as Maher. Rather than advocate increased scientific knowledge, he actively hinders and counteracts the spread of scientific knowledge. At the risk of belaboring the point, Dawkins himself criticized Maherís views on medicine while he introduced him before wining the award. That might have been good damage control, had the damage not been long done.
The Problem, As I See It
I suppose this is a good problem to have, because it means atheism has gone pretty mainstream. The latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) results put the ďNonesĒ at 15% of the total adult population and 22% of 18-29 year olds. (Nones, a pretty damn clever term, include atheists, agnostics, and deists, but not non-practicing religious people.) These are huge numbers!
Of course, with big numbers come a wide variety of people. The old picture of an atheist spending long hours in a dusty library contemplating the universe and god before ultimately determining and accepting that deities doesnít exist really needs to die a fast death. Some people are atheists because they just donít like religion. Some people are atheists because itís trendy and counterculture. Some people are atheists because they hate religion. Some people are atheists because their friends are atheists. Some people are atheists because The God Delusion convinced them itís a good idea. Some people are atheists because their parents are atheists. And, yes, some huge dorks like me people do still kind of follow that old picture to atheism.
While this is great, it also means that you canít assume that atheists are automatically rational people. (Not to say you ever really could!) If reason didnít lead all atheists to their atheism, then you cannot count on all atheists to be reasonable. I donít know Bill Maher personally, so I donít know what his ďpathĒ to atheism was. But, I know for damn sure that it wasnít anything like skepticism. If it had been skepticism, then he wouldnít be tweeting antivax propaganda and I wouldnít be writing this entry.
Atheism can no longer be lumped with things like Science and Reason and Skepticism by default. This is a more consequential point than you might initially think. There isnít a whole lot to promoting atheism in-and-of itself, in my opinion. Unless you are (i) encouraging people to become atheists, (ii) fighting discrimination against atheists, or (iii) advocating for atheistsí civil rights, youíre overlapping another distinct movement that might not be automatically appropriate. Despite popular assumption and practice, none of the following concerns are inherently atheistic: evolution/creationism, secular government, anti-fundamentalism, science advocacy, or secular morality.
So, we need to be cognizant of the problems with merely promoting atheism. If your only criterion is going to be atheism, then you might be throwing a bunch of other important topics under the bus. The AAI, and to some extent Richard Dawkins, really hung science-based medicine out to dry by celebrating Bill Maher. Sure, he made a popular and funny movie about atheism. But, he also actively and literally promotes the spread of disease. Promoting atheism is important, as is confronting the excesses of religion. That having been said, intelligent design isnít going to kill you. The breakdown of herd immunity, on the other hand, might actually kill you.
Simple, Right? Promote Skepticism Instead!
The obvious answer is to promote skepticism rather than atheism, right? If we view all this like a Venn diagram, skepticism is going to overlap much of what organized atheism strives for. While not directly addressing the metaphysical claims of religion, skeptics generally endorse a naturalistic worldview that is most compatible with liberal religions, deism, and atheism. Skeptics generally favor free inquiry, and would likely support atheists, atheist rights, and secularism as a principle. And, skeptics are of course pro-science.
While this sounds fantastic, skepticism is not immune to its own version of the Maher fiasco. In principle, it ought to be. In reality, skepticism is a movement comprised of real people. No real person is perfectly skeptical; everyone has their own biases and preconceptions and sacred cows. We donít need to look further than the list of past RDA winners for our first example: Penn and Teller. Their show Bullshit! is awesome, but their strong libertarian views sometimes blatantly, drastically, and negatively impact their skepticism. Michael Shermer has the same problem. I wasnít even upset at his last interview on Point of Inquiry; I was just disappointed.
Continuing the analogy to atheism, this is problem may only get worse if skepticism grows in popularity. You have to wonder if cargo cult skeptics arenít going to become a problem. Again, the very ideals skepticism promotes ought to rule this possibility out, but itís not a given that organizations or individual leaders wonít lapse into sloppiness or groupthink. The only solution is to promote skepticism, not individual skeptics or results skeptics currently agree on.
Bill Maher: Serious Business, Unfortunately
The Maher fiasco may not seem like that big of a deal, but I would argue it was important because it highlighted some significant underlying problems for the atheist movement. When some young-earth creationist stuffs intelligent design into classrooms with one hand and erects a plaque of the ten commandments in front of a courthouse with the other, itís easy for everyone to link arms and sing songs and fight the good fight. But, once you enter into any remotely grey area, things get much more complicated very quickly.
Personally, I think this mess was bad enough to really question the strategy of making the promotion of atheism paramount. Iím certainly not suggesting that people should hide their atheism or that atheist organizations should disband. On the contrary, I think we need more outward atheism at both the personal and organizational level. But, the promotion of atheism cannot be done without reserve. Just as our cultural competitors are wrong that atheism=evil, we would be wrong to say that atheism=good automatically.
Promoting atheism is important, but doing so at the expense of science and reason is counterproductive. Without skepticism, other faith-based claims will readily fill the void left by traditional religions.
It's not too often that skeptics are chided for not being stringent enough in their skepticism.Plenty of people claim that skeptics are dogmatic or closed-minded or not truly skeptical, but more often than not this is a desperate attempt to hijack the good* connotations of the label skeptic for their own nefarious purposes.After all, it makes for a nice narrative:"I used to doubt [this], but now I've seen [the light]!"(Where the light might be that UFOs are real, evolution didn't happen, 9/11 was an inside job, global warming is a scam, etc.)Come to think of it, this is another common theme that could use a handy meme Ö
*In a debate, at least.
Anyways, Bruce M. Hood went ahead and did just that in his new book Supersense.That's hardly the only thing he covered in the book, as the subtitle (Why We Believe in the Unbelievable) makes clear.However, this relatively minor point is what I'm going to focus on in this entry.I haven't read Supersense yet, so I feel a little funny discussing it.Furthermore, I feel a little bad criticizing it, because the book seems fantastic by all accounts and has a prominent spot in my Amazon wish list.
All that having been said, I disagreed with a point Hood stressed in two separate interviews I caught recently (on the Point of Inquiry and Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcasts).This isn't a terribly huge deal, but it bugged me a bit and I think the interviewers dropped the ball in not asking Hood about this.That fact alone surprised me enough to open up Word and start typing, because I don't mind fanboy-gushing and telling you that DJ Grothe and Steve Novella regularly ask interviewees tough questions that had popped into my head.But, since these guys missed this point, I guess it's up to me to pick up the skeptical slack**.
**Not to be confused with Slack.
Making Sense of Bruce M. Hood's Supersense
The idea behind Supersense is that the human brain is hardwired to try and make sense of the world.This is obviously a good thing, because it is the basis of intelligence.But, this innate desire for explanations and associations routinely goes too far and results in superstitions and supernatural beliefs.Some coincidences are just that: completely coincidental.If two events only appear connected but are actually random, then there is simply no sense to be made of their (non-)association.This doesn't stop our brains from coming up with something to explain what happened, though.Throw in a few well-known cognitive biases, and people rapidly develop a fine-tuned supersense to explain the unexplainable.
Of course, science was developed for this very reason.Double-blind testing removes any inherent biases in the subject or tester.Statistics and probability can determine if an effect is real or merely perceived to be real.Careful observation eliminates memory and cognitive errors and biases.Reproducibility ensures that the phenomenon wasn't unique or spurious.
While this is all well and good, Hood has some bad news for people championing science and reason.He doubts that people will ever be able to abandon their supersense, because it is such an ingrained part of the human mind.This is certainly pessimistic, but it's tough to argue that he's wrong.I'd be willing to bet that the last physical newspaper ever printed in America will have a horoscope, and I'd also bet that my knee-jerk reaction to a positive prediction for the sign Gemini would be slight happiness.
Hood's other piece of bad news for so-called rationalists is that they're just as irrational as everyone else.And, not just in the instinctive sense I mentioned in the previous paragraph.Skeptics and scientists and atheists all have their own supernatural beliefs without even realizing it.
Out-Skepticking the Skeptics
Would you wear a sweater that was worn by a serial killer?Let's take it a step further: would you eat off plates that Jeffrey Dahmer owned?Imagine that contamination isn't a problem; the items have been perfectly cleaned and sterilized.Many people would absolutely refuse to do anything like this, even if offered money to give it a whirl.Some particularly morbid folks might go the other way, and collect artifacts from famous mass murderers.Either way, virtually everyone will have a strong reaction to an item owned by a serial killer, even if the item is otherwise unremarkable in every way.
This is a spectacular example, obviously.(The experiment sounds like something Richard Wiseman might do, and the macabre people sound like the subjects of a Chuck Klosterman essay.)The phenomenon persists at the personal level, as well.Imagine that your parents accidentally threw away your childhood teddy bear, but purchased a surprisingly accurate replacement on eBay to make up for it.Imagine that your husband lost his wedding band, but had an exact replica made from the same jewelry store where you bought the original.Imagine that someone offered you $1000 to replace the flag from a relative's military burial with an impeccable duplicate.Would you be indifferent to any of these hypothetically perfect replacements?Of course not!
Well then, according to Hood, you believe in magic.There is no physical difference between the original objects and the perfect copies.Thus, any special attributes you ascribe to the originals are completely supernatural.Only your supersense perceives the copies as simulacra.
Since no critique of modern rationalism (for lack of a better term) is complete without mentioning Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins, Hood kills two birds with one stone by scolding Dawkins for fawning over some Darwin artifacts.Apparently, there's a documentary with footage of Dawkins bursting with excitement and inspiration while sitting at Darwin's antique desk (or something like that).According to Hood, this is no different than the faithful being inspired by a religious artifact.After all, it's just a desk.Hood also calls out MIT for having an apple tree supposedly descended from the tree that, according to legend, inspired Isaac Newton to develop his theory of gravitation.Even if the legend and heritage of the tree is genuine, an apple falling from this tree ought to be no more or less inspirational than any other apple.
Sentimental ≠ Supernatural
I'm making out Hood to be a mirthless hardass, and that's definitely not a fair assessment based on the interviews I've heard.I think his point was that everybody, even uber-atheist Richard Dawkins and super-scientific MIT students, has an active supersense.I can't speak for him, but I suspect his point wasn't to encourage everyone to utterly abandon their supersense.I got the impression that he just wanted skeptics to realize that they aren't perfectly applying their skepticism, so maybe they ought to get off their high horse and cut everyone else some slack.
He definitely gave me pause.I love museums, because I get a real kick out of historical artifacts and sites.I'd plant a seed descended from Newton's apple tree in my yard in a cocaine heartbeat, and I'd find it incredibly moving to sit at Darwin's desk.I'd be sad if my fiancťe lost her engagement ring, and I'd be horribly offended if you told me you swapped out my grandfathers' veteran's flags with replicas.In fact, looking around my room, I see tons of items whose value to me is almost entirely sentimental.
And, that is precisely where Hood misses the point.I haven't ascribed supernatural value to these objects; I've ascribed sentimental value to these objects.When I look at these objects, they evoke emotions and memories.The only power these items possess is the ability to elicit completely natural emotions.
People certainly can and do take this idea well into the realm of the supernatural.(The relics of saints and their associated miracles spring immediately to mind.)But, I think you can appreciate the sentimentality of an object without imbuing it with magic properties.Let's go back to the example of wearing a sweater owned by a serial killer.There probably are people who think the sweater is somehow cursed, but I would guess that most people are just repulsed because the sweater makes them think about mass murder.And, in case I'm giving people too much credit, I'll point out that, at the very least, skeptical people wouldn't think the sweater is cursed.
As Hood Pointed Out Himself, No One Is Perfect
Hood is definitely conflating sentimentality and magic.The emotions brought about by seeing or holding an artifact does not mean that you've assigned supernatural properties to the item.You have certainly assigned a nonphysical property to the item in question, but nonphysical doesn't necessarily mean supernatural.***The sentimental item is special because it triggers memories and emotions, not because it is imbued with a ghostly imprint of its previous owner.
***Note that something physical does occur in your brain, namely the emotions and memories and thoughts the item evokes.Don't want you thinking that I'm hoisting myself on my own petard by appealing to a supernatural mind or soul.
Though you might not this so, this issue makes me want to read Supersense even more.I'd like to see how (or even whether) this topic was covered in the book itself.I'm wondering if Hood emphasized this point merely for the audience of the interviews I heard, because this wasn't the only way in which he reproached skeptics.He also called out skeptic/atheists/scientists/etc for being emotionless.Of course, he really shot himself in the foot here:first we're silly for having emotional attachments to things, but then we're too emotionless.Seems like the self-proclaimed skeptic's skeptic isn't being consistent!;-)
Part of me wonders if this wasn't just a PR move.It certainly softens the blow to the credulous, and sounds pretty good to boot:skeptics are just meanies, and they're just as bad as you might be!It's tough to blame him, and to be honest I hope the tactic gave him inroads to reaching gullible people.
When I read Supersense, I'll give you an Entry 38a.For now, I strongly recommend it (based on the interviews and reviews I've heard) with the ultimately minor caveat I've covered here.I hope Hood keeps writing, and I hope he gets involved in the skeptical movement.
You see, these are the kind of things I doubt you can get at other peopleís blogs. A mere five posts after I claim Iím going to try and dial back the length and ambition of my blogging, I decide to tackle probably the thorniest problem in the history of theology. Some might call it foolhardy, others might call it hubris; I call it Entry 37.
Theodicy is a branch of theology that tries to explain the Problem of Evil. The best exposition of the problem is probably the oldest known discussion of it, from Epicurus by way of David Hume (by further ways of Wikipedia and me):
Is god willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is god able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is god both able and willing? Whence then evil?
This issue cannot be explained any more concisely than that. Many people claim that their god is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. However, how could evil exist in a universe managed by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and benevolent deity?
There is no easy answer to this question. Scratch that Ö there are no good easy answers to that question. There are plenty of two word answers that suffice for most people: Original Sin, free will, the Devil. But, these explanations seem porous upon close scrutiny, and moreover they also seem mutually exclusive. As Iíve said before, a pile of crummy arguments does not equal a good argument. That kind of bookkeeping didnít work for AIG, and it doesnít work for theists, either.
Where Iím Coming From
As with Entry 32, the impetus for this entry is the science-faith integration meetings Iíve been attending. Theodicy was the topic of one of the meetings, and I just wasnít impressed by the background reading or the discussion. You always hear about how sophisticated and intricate modern theology is, particularly when youíre an atheist talking to a religious person about something like theodicy. Often, the person youíre talking to will agree that you have a point with regards to other peopleís faith, but their faith is backed up by subtle and profound theology. Reviewers dismissed Richard Dawkinís The God Delusion via this argument so often that PZ Myers coined an internet meme for it: the Courtierís Reply. ďOf course their emperor has no clothes, but we have entire universities dedicated to studying our emperorís magnificent garments!Ē
The background reading was a chapter in Denis Alexanderís Creation vs. Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? The book doesnít seem terribly popular, and as such I havenít been able to find much information about it or its author. Alexander is a Professor at a college in England, and he heads an institute there devoted to researching, publishing, and teaching about ďscience and religion.Ē (The institute is funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Nuff said.) A few reviewers of his book referred to him as an Evangelical Christian, but often angrily or indignantly because they didnít like his positive treatment of evolution. All told, Iím not sure how well-regarded this bookís theology is, nor am I sure what denominational angle Alexander is coming from.
As for the folks at the meeting, Iím again hurting for denominational perspective. To use a loaded term, I suppose I would call them all ďliberal Christians,Ē in that they arenít biblical literalists or creationists or even cdesign proponentsists (except for our friend from Entry 32). Many of them seem to have strong science backgrounds, and theyíre obviously interested in science enough to come to meetings about its intersection with their faith. I have no idea how much theology theyíve read or studied, but they certainly all had much more background knowledge than I do.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I donít know if thereís a good way to approach a discussion of the myriad ways Alexander and the folks in the meeting tried to answer the problem of evil, especially since each could probably be its own entry. (PZís Courtiers are at least correct that plenty of ink has been spilled about those clothes, irrespective of their existence.) There are a lot of supposed explanations, but, from my perspective, they always wind up back at one of the Epicurean paradoxes. In addition, theyíre mutually exclusive for the most part, so they donít stack. Without further ado, letís jump in with both feet.
Some people tried to argue that evil just doesnít exist in a meaningful sense. Some actions or experiences might seem horrible to mere mortals, but they are ultimately good because god is omnipresent and (of course) good. This argument not only fails the smell test, but itís obviously internally inconsistent for Christians. If not evil, then: (i) what tribulations will the afterlife be free from, and (ii) on what basis will a person be judged? Also, you have to wonder why people bother with all the following argumentation, if evil doesnít really exist.
Once the existence of evil is established, the first thing people do is blame it on free will. God wants our love and worship, but it must be freely given to him. However, this collides with both ends of the Epicurean paradox. Even if evil arose solely from manís free will, an omniscient god would still have known it was coming. Furthermore, an omnipotent god would still be able to stop it, if he so chose. Thus, god is the ultimate source of evil and continually allows it to happen. The only way out of this is to declare that free will is absolutely paramount; free will is so great a good that it balances all the evil in the world. That is okay* for now, but weíll come back to it soon.
*Note also that by ďokay,Ē I mean ďconsistent theologically but completely different than what the average person in the pew thinks about god.Ē I distinctly recall being told as a child that Jesus loves me. It would seem that Jesus loves my free will more than me, since his bookkeeping would imply that the freedom someone else could exploit to torture and kill me would be more important than my well-being.
Free will as the source of evil is a biggie, but it has a gaping hole: so-called natural evil. Youíd have to burn a lot of calories to explain how a tsunami is not evil, but youíd have to burn even more to blame a tsunami on humanityís free will. Hence natural evil. The only thing resembling a coherent explanation of natural evil anyone offered was that natural evil is a necessary consequence of the laws god imposed when he created the universe. Of course, this again makes god indifferent to the evil and pain and suffering his laws have resulted in. Weíre back my criticisms of Professor Francisco Ayala in Entry 23: explaining away all the evils of the world by saying ďgod chose to make us via evolutionĒ actually explains nothing whatsoever. It is a complete non-response to the charge.
However, the folks at the meeting assured me that this was no mere patina of abstraction. God works in mysterious ways, and his actions are utterly inscrutable. This is something I heard so often that Iím tempted to try and coin a meme for it, a la the Courtierís Reply**. Of course, this is another non-answer. At best, I suppose it is an appeal to ignorance: we donít know why evil happens, but god surely knows best. (And hopefully heíll be so kind as to clue everybody in when we all get to heaven.) It is also inconsistent with the rest of Christian theology, because Christians are gravely certain about whole lot of other things concerning god and the universe. Am I to believe that god is so mysterious that we cannot comprehend evil, yet weíre positive that homosexual marriage makes baby Jesus cry? How can Christians be so confident of so much, if something as fundamental as good vs. evil is wholly incomprehensible?
**Iíll tell you what I want to do when I hear it: I want to bonk them on the head with something and say ďHomey donít play datĒ like Homey D. Clown from In Living Color. There might be a pithy phrase somewhere in there, but Iím not seeing it.
My apologies for the snark, but Homey really donít play the god-works-in-mysterious-ways game. Letís bring the discussion back to free will. Another bookkeeping-type explanation for evil is that the suffering and pain it causes ultimately brings people closer to god. For instance, CS Lewis famously called pain godís megaphone. So, evil is a net positive because it results in so great a good: leading people to god. However, god desires our freely given love. If he created (or permitted) evil so that we might be driven towards loving him, then he loaded the cosmic dice. So much for free will being all-important. I doubt many theologians would accept the notion that their god is a cheater, so they shouldnít accept this line of argument.
The last major explanation that came up was a simple blaming of the devil, often in relation to original sin or the fall of man. This merely adds a storytelling element to the situations weíve already discussed: an omniscient god would know this was coming, an omnipotent god could have stopped it, and it all happened because man had free will. However, I find it pretty interesting that many people try and make Satan much more than a narrative element. If Satan operates outside of godís province, then youíre no longer talking monotheism***. Yet, if god knows/controls Satan, then weíre back to the problems outlined above (particularly the cheating issue). Iím also getting the distinct impression that this is all some twisted game for god. Our freely-given love is so important to him that horrible evils are permitted so that free will might exist, yet he created natural evils to push us towards him while permitting Satan to run rampant tempting us away from him.
***If youíre keeping count and maintaining monotheism, that would make it quadritarianism. While weíre tallying things up, I heard someone talking about The Word recently. What exactly is The Word, anyways? Iím certainly no expert, but it seems like it might belong in there. So, maybe weíre up to quintarianism. We should try to come up with another one, because sexitarianism is a pretty cool-sounding word. The Virgin Mary springs immediately to mind, for obvious and inappropriate reason.
Those are all the explanations/resolutions I can remember coming up at the meeting. I wonít claim that I was stunning the room with amazing counters and comebacks, but I do recall most discussions ending with either an Epicurean paradox or the god-works-in-mysterious-ways bit. And, every once in awhile, I was reminded that the great theologian George Michael had it all figured out years ago: I gotta have faith-a, faith-a, faith-ah! Frankly, I was expecting a whole lot more out of my first foray into theology. Iíd call the lack of strong arguments stark, and I donít think thatís putting too fine a point on it.
Replying to the Courtiers
The charge that many atheists arenít versed in theology is probably fair. In our defense, I donít know that anyone should expect us to study it. From the perspective of a nonbeliever, studying theology would be rather like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. However, I donít think this invalidates our opinions from the get-go. Iím sure most Christians have no knowledge of Hindu theology (or even the theology of the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam), yet they feel perfectly justified in rejecting the truth claims of Hinduism, and indeed all other religions.
In addition, it seems like a lot of this is a smokescreen. I paid a little attention to the theologian behind the curtain, and I was not at all impressed with him. Moreover, even if Iím missing or mischaracterizing something, there is little doubt that free will is the linchpin of all theodicy. As my first aside noted, this is technically fine but puzzling in practice. I donít know that most Christians recognize or appreciate the importance of free will in their faithís theology. Maybe they do; I simply donít know. However, I do know that Iíd be floored if I asked my grandmother what godís greatest gift is and she replied ďthe autonomy to love him freely.Ē
Well, thatís all I have on theodicy. My parting thought is a quick call back to Entry 32. If you want to know why science requires methodological naturalism, you donít have to look any further than the italicized lines at the beginning of this post. Ask yourself, what is the most parsimonious explanation of those apparent paradoxes?
Entry 36: Peter Singer Pwn3d Richard Dawkins about Vegetarianism
I suppose there isn't anything wrong with my title statement this week, because Peter Singer did indeed get Richard Dawkins to concede that he's wrong about eating meat in a Q&A after one of his lectures. This is something of a big deal, since Richard Dawkins spends most of his time responding to people who are out to catch him in a public "gotcha!" moment. I'm sure there are countless legions of the faithful who would love to stump him and gleefully return to church, bragging about how they slew this New Atheist dragon.
Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins largely agree about atheism, so that's not what I'm talking about here. Peter Singer is a Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Princeton, and he might be the most influential and controversial philosophers alive today. His views on animal rights, world poverty, and abortion are particularly provocative. The particular incident I've been referring to concerns vegetarianism.
I haven't been able to locate a recording or even a transcript of the actual exchange between Dawkins and Singer, but the incident was discussed on an episode Point of Inquiry. In summary, Singer points out that evolution ought to make us realize that "species-ism" is nothing more than an immoral and unjustifiable prejudice. Once we get past the religious belief that humans were specially created by a deity and/or possess a supernatural soul, the moral distinction between a human being and an animal evaporates.
The rebuttal that springs to mind immediately is that human beings are more intelligent or capable than animals, and thus ought to have higher moral standing than other animals. However, this argument quickly falls to pieces when you compare a profoundly retarded human being to a chimpanzee. By any reasonable standard, the chimpanzee is much more of a moral and intelligent agent than the severely disabled human. Arguments like these are what drive Singer to his strong advocacy for animal rights and his support for euthanasia, abortion, and even infanticide.*
*You'll have to see his works for the details of his arguments and positions; I don't know them terribly well, and I disagree with many of them. For my part, this exact argument got me to admit to my undergrad Intro to Philosophy/Ethics Professor that, yes, I was a species-ist. I still admit that, but for what I consider a much more nuanced reason. You'll have to judge for yourself in the next section.
The great apes are the best place to start this discussion, but let's finish going over exactly what happened between Singer and Dawkins. Singer suggested that Dawkins hasn't taken the implications of evolution far enough. The notion of eating a human being is repugnant to most people, as it well should be. Furthermore, many people (Dawkins included) champion the rights and privileges of primates, due to their apparent intelligence and capacity for emotion. Singer then claimed that evolution demonstrates that these distinctions are completely arbitrary. Common descent means that we are ultimately related to all animals. We won't eat a fellow human being because they are like us; that is, we are closely related to them. But, we are also rather closely related to cows. Many societies grant extra, near-human rights to chimpanzees and gorillas because we are closely related to them, but we are also pretty closely related to pigs.
If we draw the line at the species level, then we are merely being species-ists. According to Singer, this is not morally different than when a bigot discriminates along racial, religious, gender, or ethnic lines. Prejudice is prejudice, and it's ugly and immoral.
Dawkins ceded this point to Singer, and admitted to being inconsistent. I believe he has since said that he regrets eating meat, but does so for social and selfish reasons. Some googling turns up evidence that he doesn't take issue with meat from well-treated and humanely-killed animals, but I'm not positive. (Regardless, any meat consumption would still technically be morally inconsistent, per Singer's arguments.) At the risk of oversimplifying or putting words in Dawkins' mouth, I would say that he accepts the validity of Singer's moral argument but does not (or cannot) follow it.
Settle Down, Vegetarians ...
Wow! Richard Dawkins smacked down for not understanding and embracing the implications of evolution. Who could have imagined it? It gets even worse, since he's rejecting this evolution-based morality for one ultimately derived from the vestiges of religion. Damn! And, just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, the attack came from the guy who wrote Animal Liberation, the book that launched countless animal rights extremists' careers.
Let's take a step back and look at Singer's argument. His point is that people who eat meat have arbitrarily drawn a moral line between their own species (homo sapiens) and the rest of the animal kingdom. He claims that there is no objective reason to discriminate between killing animals for food and killing other people for food, because you are ultimately related to all other animals.
I can sympathize with this sentiment. I personally wouldn't eat bushmeat. I often joke about trying gorilla or orangutan meat, pointing out that it would be kind of like eating a person. Without fail, this gets a rise out of people. Apparently, my friends and I aren't species-ists, but we are definitely order-ists. (If you went up to superorder, you'd encompass rabbits, and I suspect most people would be off the wagon and at the dinner table.) Though slightly more inclusive, the placement of our moral line is still arbitrary.
Well, so is Singer's. Though evolution teaches us that we are related to all animals, it also teaches us that we are related to all plants. We are also related to all fungi, protists, bacteria, and even viruses**. You are related to every living organism on the planet, from blue whales to palm trees to smallpox. If Earth happened to seed life on Mars, or visa-versa, then you are even related to Martians.
**This means that, depending on your choice of definitions, we might be related to things that aren't even alive! There is no consensus definition of life, but viruses don't always satisfy all the criteria of some definitions of "living."
Just as humans and primates are not inherently special in a moral sense, animals are not either. If most people are species-ists or order-ists, then evolution neatly demonstrates that Singer and other vegetarians are equally-prejudiced kingdom-ists. Dawkins was wrong to cede the point. Vegetarianism is absolutely not the logical consequence of evolution.
"But wait," Animal Liberation Front extremists scream as they dump paint on hamburgers, "look at my gruesome slaughterhouse videos!" That is a completely separate argument concerning a completely separate issue. Animals have the capacity to feel pain, and you can argue that inflicting pain on something that can experience pain is immoral. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with evolution or species-ism. It would be a distinct moral construct.
Moreover, I suspect this construct would be fraught with its own arbitrary moral distinctions. Plants react to distress; why is that not considered pain? What about the pain experienced by a field mouse going through a wheat thresher? Do the violent death throes brought about by pesticides count as pain for bugs? And, even these considerations ignore the trillions of microscopic elephants in the room: microorganisms. It seems like it would be impossible to construct a non-domain-ist moral philosophy, as our bodies mercilessly destroy countless bacteria daily.
Settle Down Again, Folks
Now, I know that I blithely dismissed a whole lot of philosophical and ethical discussions in that last paragraph. I have no doubt that Singer and plenty of other people have spilled tons of ink constructing moral systems that conclude vegetarianism is the only morally consistent way to live. I'm not aiming to refute those, and I won't even claim that I've addressed them properly.
My point is that species-ism is a frivolous charge to levy against meat-eaters, and furthermore I maintain that common descent is not something from which to construct a reasonable morality. Charles Darwin taught us that all living creatures descended from a common ancestor: we're all cousins, where we comprise all life on earth. You shouldn't accuse a meat-eater of inconsistency between bites of a carrot or mushroom. In terms of evolution, you have both drawn arbitrary lines on the tree of life. One is indeed more inclusive than the other, but both are prejudiced.
Let me again emphasize that I'm not dismissing vegetarianism or Peter Singer's specific moral philosophies out-of-hand. What I'm doing is pointing out that his argument to Richard Dawkins was terrible. Evolution does not provide us with a good argument for animal rights. Singer accused Dawkins of not following Darwin's ideas to their ultimate logical conclusion; on the contrary, Singer hasn't followed his own ideas to their logical conclusions. If you won't eat meat because you're related to the animal it came from, then you'd better not eat fruits or grains either! You also better hope there's no eternal judgment waiting for you, because your immune system is massacring countless relatives every day.
I'm sure Peter Singer and many other vegetarians have fine moral arguments for vegetarianism and/or veganism. I would guess they're based on pain or consciousness; no matter how you define those terms, I'd think most animals are rather close to humans and well beyond plants (which would themselves be well beyond microorganisms). But, this position is not the logical conclusion of evolution, nor does not mean meat-eaters are prejudiced. If you're going to appeal to evolution or anti-species-ism, you'd better be living off rocks.