Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Christmas Gift from William Lane Craig: 5 Lumps of Coal

William Lane Craig has written a short piece, A Christmas Gift for Atheists -- Five Reasons Why God Exists, for Fox News in which he suggests that atheists wish nothing more than to believe in his morally stunted magical sky-man. So he offers a Christmas Miracle, evidence that the magical sky-man exists.

For atheists, Christmas is a religious sham. For if God does not exist, then obviously Jesus’ birth cannot represent the incarnation of God in human history, which Christians celebrate at this time of year.

If there is one thing that distinguishes Craig from other Christian apologists, it is his intellectual fraudulence. OK, so that doesn’t really distinguish him from lots of others, but he is a fraud. He’s smart enough to know exactly why what he’s saying is dishonest, but he says it anyway. First, Craig knows that most atheists don’t think of Christmas as having any religious significance whatsoever and, a fortiori, do not see it as a religious sham. In this atheists are like 100% of the people I saw at the Wal-Mart Tuesday night, Christmas Eve, stripping the shelves to keep their toy-hungry kids satiated for a few weeks. Wal-Mart shoppers are fairly religious as Americans go; they just don’t see any connection between the secular celebration of Christmas and the supposed birth of the incarnation of their magical sky-man. Second, Craig knows that there is no evidence that Jesus was born in late December. He knows that Christmas is just a pagan holiday, Saturnalia, adapted by the Christians so that Romans would feel comfortable joining their religion. And if the story of divine incarnation in the gospels is inaccurate, then we have no reason to trust that there even was a divine incarnation at all (especially given the more extreme nature of the claim). The only religious sham here, then, is that perpetrated by religious cognoscenti who know better but let those Christians innocently believe that their savior was actually born on December 25th. Instead he pretends that the Christians are just reasonably choosing this arbitrary time to celebrate the purported event. Of course, there is no legitimate historical evidence for the birth of their savior at all, at any time, but that won’t stop Craig. In short, atheists do not see Christmas as a religious event, sham or not, but Craig is perfectly willing to let Christians have false, or unjustified, beliefs about Christmas if it keeps them safely in the Christian fold.

However, most atheists, in my experience, have no good reasons for their disbelief. Rather they’ve learned to simply repeat the slogan, “There’s no good evidence for God’s existence!”

“Most atheists.” I see. Does Craig have statistics on atheists’ lack of reasons? Obviously not. But even if they have reasons, no doubt Craig would not count these as good reasons. Still, Craig only makes the claim about most atheists in Craig’s experience. Who could doubt what his experiences have been? Maybe the only atheists he meets are squirrels in the park and voices in his head, and they certainly have no good reasons for their beliefs. If you qualify something in just the right way, it’s almost as though you haven’t said anything at all.

In any event, Craig pretends that atheists need to have just as good reason to disbelieve in God as Christians need to believe in God. Presumably Craig remains doubtful about the existence of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and a teacup floating in space around the sun on an orbit directly opposite the earth. No one can have reasons to think that these things don’t exist either, so it only makes sense to place the burden of proof equally on those making the claim that something does not exist and on those making the claim that something does exist. Craig is subtly, but illegitimately, trying to shift the burden of proof onto the atheist.

In the case of a Christian who has no good reasons for what he believes, this slogan serves as an effective conversation-stopper. But if we have good reasons for our beliefs, then this slogan serves rather as a conversation-starter.
The good thing is that atheists tend to be very passionate people and want to believe in something.
The atheist who merely repeats this slogan after having been presented with arguments for God’s existence makes an empty assertion.

Not necessarily. The atheist might fairly think the reasons are not good ones. Still, if Craig purports to have evidence for the existence of God, we should examine it. What, pray tell, are these reasons that should satisfy the world’s atheists? Please explain them in 100 words or so each so as not to test the intellects of Fox’s audience of mouth-breathing morons.

So what reasons might be given in defense of Christian theism? In my publications and oral debates with some of the world’s most notable atheists, I’ve defended the following five reasons why God exists:

Look! Pointless chest-thumping! He has publications! And has debated some of the world’s most notable atheists! Perhaps he mentions this because Richard Dawkins refuses to debate him given his rather morally monstrous defense of God’s commands in the Old Testament. Dawkins’s refusal to debate Craig shows why my assertion that Craig believes in a magical sky-man is accurate. He really believes the crazy stuff described in a millennia-old book of myth and fantasy. No ‘metaphysical ground of being’ for Craig; there literally is a person who commands people to kill innocent children, and that’s not only okay with Craig but something any atheist should want to believe as well.

1. God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe. Given the scientific evidence we have about our universe and its origins, and bolstered by arguments presented by philosophers for centuries, it is highly probable that the universe had an absolute beginning. Since the universe, like everything else, could not have merely popped into being without a cause, there must exist a transcendent reality beyond time and space that brought the universe into existence. This entity must therefore be enormously powerful. Only a transcendent, unembodied mind suitably fits that description.

Theists tend to avoid, not embrace, this way of presenting the cosmological argument because to evaluate an inference to the best explanation, we have to consider simplicity, proportionality, and even the possibility of causal mechanisms. He wants us to believe in a supreme, infinitely good, wise, powerful, and intelligent being who exists outside time and space but created the universe. Since Craig’s hypothesis does not assert merely a cause but an intelligent being with several other qualities unrelated to the causation of the universe, the hypothesis is clearly not the simplest possible. Since nothing about our finite universe requires an explanation in terms of an infinite cause, his hypothesis is infinitely out of proportion to the evidence. Since we literally can have no conception of what it would mean for a mind, or anything else, to exist outside space, and especially time, Craig’s explanatory hypothesis is not even conceivable, let alone the strongest one possible. The God hypothesis is extravagant and apparently inconceivable. Finally, we have no idea how a being outside time and space could create a universe. Thus, the divine explanation is anything but the best possible one.

What other explanation could compete with the divine creation hypothesis? One possibility is that the universe (or the multiverse) has simply always existed and thus does not need an explanation. Craig claims the scientific and philosophical reasons show that the universe had a beginning. The evidence that our universe had a beginning in a singularity in space-time that expanded as a Big Bang is strong, but that does not mean that there is no alternative dimensional multi-verse in which our universe is only one part. Another possibility is that space-time itself began to exist with the singularity itself and so it makes no sense to ask for a cause (causation being a spatio-temporal notion) for the universe. Another view is that we should reserve judgment on the best explanation for the existence of the space-time singularity. Perhaps some string theory or theory of everything will ultimately provide an explanation superior to the magical sky-man hypothesis. Certainly any of these is more plausible--more conceivable and less extravagant--than the God hypothesis. Even the most extravagant physical theories, the multi-dimensional string theories, do not have the unnecessary additional properties such as being outside space and time, being personal, and having the properties of infinite intelligence, wisdom, and beneficence.

2. God provides the best explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe. Contemporary physics has established that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent, interactive life. That is to say, in order for intelligent, interactive life to exist, the fundamental constants and quantities of nature must fall into an incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range. There are three competing explanations of this remarkable fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design. The first two are highly implausible, given the independence of the fundamental constants and quantities from nature's laws and the desperate maneuvers needed to save the hypothesis of chance. That leaves design as the best explanation.

This hoary old argument, in a fancy new lab coat, is easily dismissed. No one has established that the mere logical possibility of different values for these fundamental constants and laws implies anything about their actual probability. Is it a miracle that I have not turned into a chicken in the last second? Clearly my turning into a chicken is logically possible, but highly improbable. Until the Fine-Tuning aficionados can offer a probability estimate (based on anything other than logical possibility) for the range of these values, they are offering a mathematical argument with undefined variables. The argument only works if we think that the values our universe has are unlikely compared to other possible values but all the argument establishes is that different values are logically possible. The probability of a conjunction of variables is multiplicative, so the more such conjuncts you add, the less probable the conjunction is. However, to get the probability of the conjunction, you have to have defined values for the probability of each conjunct. Without that probability, there can be no resultant probability for the conjunction. You cannot multiply an undefined value by an undefined value and get a defined value. It’s a little like arguing that there must be a designer that caused you to have brown hair and blue eyes (given the nearly infinite shades of different colors they could be) without providing any probability estimate for your hair being brown or your eyes being blue. If it turns out the probability of each of these is high, then the probability of the conjunction would also be high. But, most importantly, the probability of the conjunction (for example, having brown hair and blue eyes) is undefined if the probabilities of the conjuncts (the individual facts, for example, having brown hair) are also undefined. The Fine-Tuning aficionados have left out the probability values necessary for their argument to work; instead, they substitute mere logical possibility. The unknown probability of variable one being as it is times the unknown probability of variable two. . . does not result in an infinitesimal probability but an unknown probability.

In any case, whatever happened to the all-powerful creator? The divine Fine-Tuner cannot create a perfect universe full of life from near its moment of creation but has to monkey around with the parameters of the laws in order to produce a universe with only one (or a relative few) tiny, temporary islands of life? As David Hume noted, the hypothesis that the designer is perfect, or close to it, is unjustified. The designer could be a child with an extra-dimensional universe-making kit, a first-time designer of universes, a senile or even long dead designer, one in a line of rather uninspired designers, each borrowing from the ideas of others. Is our universe the best the Supreme Being can do? Conscious, intelligent, moral beings seem to have existed only on this tiny blue marble in an enormous expanse of space and time, for only 1/50,000 of its existence. Most of that universe is not even visible to us. About 68% of the mass/energy of the universe is dark energy and another 27% is dark matter. This matter/energy does not appear to interact with the rest of the universe except gravitationally, so the kinds of interactions necessary for life (especially of the conscious, rational kind) are apparently not even possible. At best 5% of the matter in the universe is even the right kind of stuff to have life occur in it. [These theories could be wrong, of course, but that doesn’t make the rest of the situation any better.] Worse, the only intelligent, conscious life with the possibility of divine reward has existed in the last 2,000 years (since Jesus) of life here on earth. So, God created a universe with the purpose of creating the last 2,000 years of human history (or 2/5,000,000,000 of earth’s history) in the hundreds of billions of stars in hundreds of billions of galaxies for nearly 14 billion years. If I were infinitely powerful, wise, good, and intelligent, I think I could make intelligent, conscious life a little more common, or at least make it appear a little more quickly, provided I wanted it in the first place. [And don’t tell me that God wouldn’t perform this sort of miracle since the argument at hand is that the creation of the universe is itself essentially a miracle.] On the other hand, perhaps conscious, intelligent life is spread throughout the universe despite the appearance of vast expanses of uninhabitable planets, stars, and vacuum? Perhaps that life is hidden away from our eyes in the 95% of the universe that is dark matter/energy? Presumably each such planet, and all the dark matter and energy, gets its own incarnation of God in order to provide them an opportunity for heaven. I suppose, however, that all the dark matter beings would be out of luck since, I have it on good authority, Jesus is white. I suppose the non-Earth cultures are no worse off than all those humans from non- and pre-Christian cultures who have never had a chance to learn of their sole chance at salvation. That is to say, God might just have doomed them to an eternity of suffering for no reason other than an accident of birth. That’s about right for Craig’s God. In short, the magical sky-man hypothesis does not seem the best explanation for our rather life-deficient universe.

3. God provides the best explanation of objective moral values and duties. Even atheists recognize that some things, for example, the Holocaust, are objectively evil. But if atheism is true, what basis is there for the objectivity of the moral values we affirm? Evolution? Social conditioning? These factors may at best produce in us the subjective feeling that there are objective moral values and duties, but they do nothing to provide a basis for them. If human evolution had taken a different path, a very different set of moral feelings might have evolved. By contrast, God Himself serves as the paradigm of goodness, and His commandments constitute our moral duties. Thus, theism provides a better explanation of objective moral values and duties.

Craig endorses, apparently, the divine command theory of morality, a theory rejected by philosophers and theologians since Socrates and the Euthyphro. Christian philosopher Gottfried Leibniz says it is a theory that makes God a bully or a tyrant. Here’s a nice article by Louise Antony on it. [Link to Antony article] Perhaps the simplest way to refute Craig is to ask how the existence of a divine lawgiver explains objective morality. Are there objective moral rules because God threatens us with eternal punishment for violating them and promises us eternal reward for adhering to them? If that is the sole basis for morality, then God is nothing but a tyrant as Leibniz noted. More reasonably, God has a reason (at least according to theism) to give the commands he did rather than others. These reasons are the basis of objective morality. So theist and atheist alike suppose there are objective moral values that exist independently of God. Craig’s questions about how, on the atheist’s view, we come to have these moral feelings are completely beside the point.

“God Himself serves as the paradigm of goodness” Craig writes, and I am at a loss to know what this means. This statement is trivial if God defines morality in the way Craig appears to be suggesting. It would only be meaningful to say that God is a paradigm of goodness if goodness were logically independent of God. I assume that Craig thinks God is like the meter-rod in Paris; we measure whether and to what degree something is good or bad by comparing it to God just as we measure something’s length by comparing it to the meter rod. It’s obvious that God is not a standard we can carry about with us, unless we rely on some farcical ancient book. (Is that a God in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?) Then I can follow Jesus' moral example, as Daniel Tosh jokes, by setting people on fire and sending them to hell. Moreover, the meter rod analogy is weak since the meter at least measures something that exists independently of the rod. Perhaps the best analogy would be the rules of a game such as chess. There are rules governing how one must play chess, and they are objective, but the only force they have is over people who choose to play chess. You can break the rules of chess and then, by definition, you are no longer playing chess. The rules of chess could have been completely different and there could not be a reason to prefer one set of rules to another. The rules would not pick out the game of chess as we know it, but there would be no objective reason to prefer one game to another. However, it is not true that we can select any system of morality at all with equal justification. Morality is not arbitrary in the way the rules of chess are; morality has an objective reality that gives force to the commands independently of any divine threat or promise. God could only meaningfully be a paradigm of morality if morality exists independently of God.

4. God provides the best explanation of the historical facts concerning Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Historians have reached something of consensus that the historical Jesus thought that in himself God’s Kingdom had broken into human history, and he carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms as evidence of that fact. Moreover, most historical scholars agree that after his crucifixion Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by a group of female disciples, that various individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death, and that the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection despite their every predisposition to the contrary. I can think of no better explanation of these facts than the one the original disciples gave: God raised Jesus from the dead.

Naturally, historians believe none of this. But why should the opinions of historians even matter to claims of the supernatural? If historians agreed that someone presented himself as a prophet or otherwise divinely connected, we would not think that person or even his or her following required special explanation. No one asks for a divine explanation for the historical facts concerning Apollonius of Tyana, or other wandering miracle-workers who were common at that time, despite the stories about him closely paralleling those of Jesus. The best explanation of these Jesus stories is that people at the time were simply credulous. One wonders if Craig thinks the best explanation for alien abduction stories is that aliens are actually abducting drunken rednecks in remote locations before returning them to earth smelling of booze.

Please note the way Craig produces a subtle, and fallacious, appeal to the authority of the original disciples. Do we know that the original disciples believed that Jesus returned from the dead? No, we do not. We know that there must have been followers of this new religion, but we have no idea what those people believed. We do have gospels written by people within a couple of centuries of the purported events, but no serious religious scholar believes that the names on the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) actually wrote them. I know that Craig believes that these disciples wrote the gospels because he made the claim in one of those awful Lee Strobel books (The Case for Christ, I think it was). When I ask people in departments of religion whether Craig’s claim is true, they mostly just laugh. Historians think there is no testimony from eyewitnesses that Jesus did any of the things he is purported in the gospels to have done and that there is no need of divine explanations for these mundane facts.

5. God can be personally known and experienced. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Down through history Christians have found through Jesus a personal acquaintance with God that has transformed their lives.

What does God taste like anyway? (Mmmm . . . minty!) Personal experiences,of course, imply nothing about the existence of God. Scientologists often have life-changing subjective experiences. Does that imply that thetans and Xenu exists? The fact that people have certain subjective experiences is no evidence that something real corresponds to them. Didn’t Craig just mention this above in the context of dismissing the connection between atheists' subjective states of mind and objective morality? Apparently, Christian experiences are valid, but the experiences of every other religious or non-religious person are to be rejected.

The good thing is that atheists tend to be very passionate people and want to believe in something. If they would only put aside the slogans for a moment and reexamine their worldview in light of the best philosophical, scientific, and historical evidence we have today, then they, too, would find Christmas worth celebrating!

Craig continues his insinuation that atheists are emotional but not rational people. Sadly, No’s slogan: “It’s always projection!” seems to apply here. After examining Craig’s reasons, we can see which side is using slogans and which is examining the evidence clearly. Atheists are perfectly happy celebrating holidays based on our love for other humans and our belief in the worth of this life. We don’t celebrate because we fear that a tyrannical sky-man will burn us for eternity in hell if we don’t sing loudly enough. A celebration based on mutual love and respect is worth more than one based on worship for Craig’s magical sky-man. And most Christians know that too.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thomas the Tank Engine: The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Child Labor

“Who are you?”

“I am Edward, the new number two.”

“Who is number one?”

“Thomas is number one. You are Percy, number six.”

“I am not a number; I am a Really Useful Engine!”

The Prisoner was the apotheosis of socially conscious television, a sometimes postmodern critique of the paranoia of the cold war. The village, in The Prisoner, is a prison for apostates of the cold war era national security state. Most inmates are hopeless, resigned to their fate; some, from cowardice or desire for comfort, work for the spymasters. Yet the Prisoner (played by Patrick McGoohan), virtually alone in his implacable in his desire to escape, by his success proves the lack, in the others, of a will for freedom. Each of us can escape our bonds, but most of us fail, and we fail because we lack the will truly to try. On the other hand, the Prisoner abjures pure license, recognizing that true freedom is not a simple lack of inhibitions or uncontrolled passion. The lesson of The Prisoner is that the village is everywhere, within everyone, but only the dedicated few exercise the freedom to escape their village. We are each of us prisoners of ourselves, of our fears and self-imposed restrictions, and our freedom to escape those depends only on our will to escape.

Still, The Prisoner was flawed. Perhaps it aggrandized negative freedom, freedom of the individual from state interference, at the expense of positive freedom, freedom that comes from cooperation with others. But, despite its flaws, The Prisoner at least prizes the genuine moral of liberty.

Some television programs, in contrast, prefer to indoctrinate our children into subservience and obedience to their capitalist masters. This insidious instrument of capitalist oppression is, of course, Thomas and Friends. A morbidly obese capitalist demands mindless obedience from his child-like charges while providing neither pay, vacation time, education, guidance, nor emotional support. An island, isolated from modern civilization, is governed according to the mad whim of the aforementioned obese capitalist. A group of train engines, to all appearances children or mentally disabled adults, but nonetheless fully conscious aware beings, are effectively enslaved by their capitalist master. Most insidiously, these child-like engines fervently contribute to their own subjugation.

A typical episode goes something like this:

Sir Topham Hatt: Thomas, I have a job for you.

Thomas: What is it, sir? You know I only want to be a Really Useful Engine.

Hatt: I want you to pick up a lion at the docks and take him to the zoo.

Thomas: Yes, sir!

Thomas chugs away to the docks. Cranky the Crane, vicious misanthrope, or at least mis-train-ist, grudgingly entrusts the lion in a cage into Thomas’s care.

Thomas: Thank you, Cranky!

Cranky: Get lost, punk.

Thomas travels along the track toward the zoo. As he passes a large forest, Thomas thinks that the lion might want to go outside briefly. Thomas stops and opens the crate and lets the lion loose. No driver, fireman, or engineer is there to correct or prevent Thomas from performing this rash act. Thomas, at times like these, entirely lacks the adult supervision necessary to prevent from endangering himself or others. Mostly he endangers others because trains aren’t really susceptible to harm in the same way humans are.

The lion runs away. Thomas, disappointed that the lion left, continues to the zoo. “Oh, no! Sir Topham Hatt will be cross,” Thomas thinks. “Maybe the lion went to the zoo on his own.”

Thomas arrives at the zoo. Sir Topham Hatt is there waiting for Thomas and the delivery of the lion.

Hatt: Thomas! Where is the lion? Your crate is empty.

Thomas: I let him out to see the village, and he ran away.

Sir Topham Hatt: That was a terrible mistake, Thomas. I am most disappointed in you.

Thomas: Has the lion killed unsuspecting Sodorites because of my incredible lack of foresight? Are you disappointed because I irresponsibly endangered everyone on the island of Sodor by loosing a giant carnivore into the neighborhood? Should I learn to put myself in the position of others and think about what is best for them, and thus learn not to endanger them or otherwise act irresponsibly?

Hatt: No, I am angry because you disobeyed me and caused confusion and delay.

Admittedly, Thomas and Hatt are not prone to discussing the ethical foundations of their work, but moral judgments in the books are always founded on the approval or disapproval of Sir Topham Hatt. This is unforgiveable enough when your moral arbiter is Aslan the (apparently vegetarian) Lion, the avatar of God himself. Even Aslan must have reasons for his moral pronouncements or be simply a tyrant or bully. But when the sole source of moral approbation or disapprobation is the capitalist overseer of the railroad, there is no hope that children can learn any lesson except blind obedience.

Continuing, Hatt says: Thomas, you must find him!

Hatt refuses to provide any further guidance to Thomas as to how he might complete this task, and most especially does not enlist the aid of any qualified experts who might help with the problem that his own awful judgment created. Instead, he angrily dismisses Thomas, placing the entire burden on him, a train with a child’s mind.

Thomas chuffs away. “How do I find the lion?” He returns to the village and begins looking. He looks in the mines, the beach, and the woods. He has no clue where to find the lion, and Hatt has provided no help.

Eventually he meets Edward, a kindly older engine. Thomas asks: Edward, have you seen a lion? I let him go near Knapford and now I can’t find him.

Edward: You did what? Go to the zoo and ask for a zookeeper, and then return as quickly as possible to Knapford I will go there first to evacuate the people.

Thomas retrieves a zookeeper, returns to Knapford, and miraculously finds the lion sunning himself near the station. The zookeepers capture the lion and Thomas finally delivers him to the zoo.

As you can see from my absolutely accurate description of life among the engines of Sodor, the island is capitalist’s paradise. The engines, and other animate machines that perform virtually all the labor on the island, are perfect slaves to the capitalist. The engines are either children or mentally child-like with no desires or interests beyond being Really Useful Engines, subordinating their wills to the whims of their overseer. Their only desires are to work; they are willing, even enthusiastic, tools of the capitalist oppressor. They are male or female, but have no sexual desires or ability to reproduce sexually (or so it appears; none of the engines is related to any of the others and no baby engines are ever seen). Their needs are simple; only the shelter of a roof over their heads and enough coal and water to function. They have all the mental life of a human simpleton, but they want nothing other than to work. They receive neither pay nor vacations. They own neither belongings nor property. In short, they are enslaved children. But the most salient fact of their lives is their subordination to the will of the overseer. They see their only goal as the success of the capitalist, represented by Sir Topham Hatt. The greatest cruelty of the capitalists who enslave these children, give them no future or hope beyond the strictures of their island community and the rails upon which they must travel, and then watch as their charges enforce his discipline on themselves. The greatest trick the slave-master ever pulled was convincing his slaves to think of his will as their own, to enslave themselves.

Completely unprepared for the world around them, our child-like protagonists predictably, inevitably fail in the arbitrary, and often unexplained, tasks given them only to be excoriated by the fat-cat capitalist for their, in reality Hatt’s, failure. The train then feels humiliated by the completely undeserved upbraiding. The engine never is taught why his/her action is wrong but is blamed only for disobedience to the capitalist. No one is ever taught to feel for those harmed by their actions. The lesson is clear: blind, unquestioning obedience to your superiors is the only moral action, and one is valued only insofar as one is a ‘really useful engine’ capable of working selflessly for the benefit of the tyrant.

Conservatives worry about the politically correct programming of our children, that our children are indoctrinated by the gay or LGBT community, by feminists or atheists. If only this were so! Unfortunately, the ubiquitous and much-beloved Thomas the Tank Engine teaches a lesson far more pernicious for a free society; it teaches willing servitude to our corporate masters. Thomas and Friends seduces our children into relinquishing their will to another and undermines the possibility of self-determination for our future generations. They are not our children’s friends, but their oppressors. Thomas is the opiate of the children, and voluntary servitude is the lot of its addicts. Parents of the world unite -- in rejection of the train’s propaganda -- you have nothing to lose but your children's chains!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Academia and Colloquia

Academics are forever giving presentations at conferences or at one university or another. It’s common enough that departments devote significant percentages of faculty salary to travel budgets. Yet these presentations at conferences and colloquia are almost uniformly, let’s say, crappy. This presents a puzzle: why do people spend so much time to present papers of dubious merit to so many different audiences, almost no members of which have the slightest knowledge of the subject of the presentation? My guess is that this activity has to do with making connections with other philosophers who can advance one’s career. For now, let me establish the uniformly low quality of these presentations from a sampling of my previous semester. As an aside, I would like to note that, while I’ve sometimes thought that philosophers are people who have never come within a mile of empirical research, this semester has shown me that this is not always the case. Sometimes the problem is that they should never be allowed near it either.

This past semester I attended the following lectures. I won’t identify the speakers because I don’t want to embarrass them, but also because the point is that these problems with the presentations are completely commonplace and the speakers don’t really deserve any special criticism for the flaws in their presentations. That is, while I am going to be callous and cruel in the following comments, I don’t think the people doing these presentations were any worse than the thousands of others who do them throughout academia.

One presentation was on language and representation that attempted to find the roots of representation, and hence misrepresentation, in some simpler (non-mental) ability that might then partially explain the variety of (mental) representational abilities humans have. Her idea was that (non-human) animal signals are predictions of their behavior that evolved or developed in order to influence the behavior of other animals. For example, a dog Fido growls at another dog Spot not to tell Spot that Spot should stay away from Fido’s bone (lest Fido bite him), but Fido’s growl simply predicted that Fido would bite Spot if Spot tried to take the bone. Thus, Spot could respond (more or less mechanically) to a predictive signal (as a kind of natural sign, in Grice’s terms) rather than as a complex representational state (e.g. Fido knows that Spot wants the bone; Fido wants to prevent Spot from taking the bone; Fido warns Spot not to try to take the bone, etc.). The speaker then tried to locate a point in evolutionary development where this ability, without more complex representational abilities, occurs. The idea was that if one could find this kind of predictive but not representational ability in a non-human animal, she would be able to then build up to true representation in humans. Here is where she ran afoul of the empirical evidence. She claimed that non-primates had this ability but not the more complex ability to deceive or misrepresent.

Unfortunately, the speaker had apparently never met a dog. If she knew any dogs, or did any research in comparative ethology, she would have known that dogs bluff. Dogs will growl at each other to warn each away from something even if they do not follow through with an attack. (This is so obvious that if you have two dogs, you’ll see it every few days in a dispute over a toy or treat. Dogs also deceive and hide things from other dogs.) I’m fairly sure there’s lots of research on this, and on deception in non-primates. The ‘prediction, not representation’ paradigm might ultimately work, but to establish it, one would need to find a clear case of one without the other and show how the less complex ability could lead naturally to the more complex by means of natural selection. My point is that, while there may be some merit to her ideas, the presentation was rather marred by a lack of basic research on an important empirical issue.

A second presentation was a libertarian on political philosophy. He had discovered empirical research on ignorance and apathy in voters and the correlation between these and race and socio-economic status. His conclusion: It’s a good thing most of these people don’t vote; we should probably do what we can to make them less likely to vote and definitely not increase their likelihood of voting. Of course being poor, female, or a minority decreases the chances one will know or care about politics and elections. So, the conclusion was that we should not go out of our way to include the disaffected non-voters into the system since that would result in less informed electorate overall. It takes an almost deliberate perversity to look at a system in which certain groups are systematically excluded or underrepresented in the political process, notice that they have little knowledge of this process and mostly don’t care about the outcomes (because no one in the political arena much represents their interests), and then, instead of concluding that we should give them something worth voting for (or some hope that their votes will matter to our politics), concluding that we are better off if they don’t vote.

The speaker had got hold of political science research that, as far as I could tell from his examples, showed that, people were largely wrong about some given bit of esoteric political information (e.g. George W. Bush supported X policy to help the poor -- who would have thought? Can you name the current Speaker of the House of Representatives? Is it Elmo or Donald Trump?). Then he concluded that the people were generally uninformed (and, in particular, that their lack of information correlated with socio-economic class, race, and gender). So what? These kinds of academic studies are a blight on the academic landscape; they take people’s ignorance of something esoteric and suggest it implies major ignorance of important cultural, social, or economic issues. In fact, given the speaker’s ‘evidence’, it was amazing that poor, black, women managed to vote at nearly 100% for the black guy for president. One would have thought they would vote for Romney thinking that Romney was a Kenyan socialist. It’s clear that ignorance of some individual piece of legislation or office holder is basically meaningless in representing the general knowledge of the electorate. Of the two major parties, which supports economic policies that are slightly less inimical to the interests of the poor and working class? Everyone knows the answer to this. The studies that pretend to show different are basically just wankery. Leaving that aside, even taken on its own terms the reasoning was crazy: if people don’t know or don’t care about their government and politicians, the solution is to give them reason to care and information and the ability to get more information about them. The solution is not to keep them out (or de facto exclude them by taking no positive action to encourage them) of the political process altogether. And don’t tell me that the speaker was just being realistic about an imperfect electorate: the dude’s actual proposed solution was to get rid of the electoral college and randomly select some few thousand voters every 2 years to do all the voting for us. Yeah, that’s going to happen.

The best part was when a student asked, without apparent irony, whether we should institute some kind of literacy test for voters to make sure only the right ones were allowed to vote. The speaker was very receptive to the idea. I’m sure there’s no historical precedent for this idea, nor any way that it might go wrong.

In a third presentation, we were treated to another libertarian. This time the talk was about harming the dead. He did not mean blowing away zombies but doing things that harm people who no longer exist. This argument comes from Epicurus who said that “Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” The basic idea from Epicurus is that we cannot be harmed by being dead because there is no subject to be harmed (or we cannot experience the harm, which I will skip because it’s less convincing to me). So, is there a possible subject of the harm of death? Maybe the person before his/her death (the ante- or pre-mortem person), not the post-mortem (nonexistent) person, is the one harmed (apparently this response is the standard solution to the problem given by Jeffrey Rosenberg). In fact, our speaker mentioned this interpretation and then, strangely, never even addressed that response to Epicurus’s argument. It’s the old, “Mention a problem for my theory up front and then conveniently forget to solve it,” gambit. (You might think it’s crazy to mention the problem if you are only going to ignore it, but philosophers like to know that you understand the problems with the position or argument you are defending. They mostly don’t really expect genuine solutions.)

Instead he talked about the particular harm of breaking promises to the dead. He focused on traditional theories of why breaking promises is wrong and then tried to show that the theories could not give a reason why breaking a promise to the dead is wrong. This is a nutty strategy since it assumes that at least one of these theories of promise-breaking is correct, and we all know that we’ve got basically no good philosophical theories of anything. Thus, the fact that none of the theories applies appropriately to the dead does not prove that the dead cannot be harmed by a broken promise. It might just mean that our theories of promise-breaking are, all of them, wrong. Notwithstanding the pointlessness of the whole strategy, even if it made sense, the speaker’s arguments all failed because he never addressed the aforementioned claim that the ante-mortem person is the subject of harm. And, because the speaker never even addressed the most common explanation for how there is a subject of harm, the speaker failed even on his own terms. I’ve got just one more thing about the weirdness of his conclusion.

Weirdly, the speaker thought we should keep promises to the dead despite the fact that they are not harmed by our promise-breaking. The only reason, on his view, we should keep our promises is because of the harm such disrespect would cause to living people since living people care about our current practices of promising and respecting the wishes of the deceased. Why do people care about whether people will keep promises to us after we are dead? If so, then we find this harmful when we are alive because we think breaking promises to us after we are dead would harm us. And, of course, the Epicurean has just argued that this belief is irrational. But, if that’s the reason people are upset about promise-breaking to the dead, then the Epicurean should not respect these irrational wishes but should view this as another opportunity for education (as Epicurus did in his general argument that death is not harmful). The point of Epicurus’ argument is revisionist; he wants to change people’s attitude toward death, so the Epicurean should want to adjust people’s attitude towards keeping promises to the dead as well. Why does the Epicurean try to change people’s attitudes about the harm of death but not try to change the, equally irrational on their view, attitude towards promise-keeping to the dead? Living people will be very upset if we break promises to the dead and won’t trust us to keep our word to them (the currently living) when they are dead. But our speaker never thought to ask: Why would these people be upset at us for breaking our word to the dead if, in fact, no one is harmed when we break our word to them? The obvious fact is that people are upset about others breaking promises to them when they are dead is because they think they will be harmed if promises made to them are broken. It makes no sense to care about their irrational beliefs about promises to the dead if you do not also care about their irrational beliefs about posthumous harms in the first place. The right Epicurean strategy is to teach us not to worry about breaking promises to the dead, not to cater to their irrationality (assuming, as the Epicurean does, that it is irrational).

You might as well shout at people in Church that their prayer is useless because God does not exist (because Epicureans want to change people’s minds) and then refuse to take the Lord’s name in vain because it might upset people. The two beliefs come as a piece: if it’s useless to pray, then it’s not bad to take the Lord’s name in vain.

These lectures were not in any way unrepresentative of those given as long as I have been around philosophy and philosophy departments. And despite their obvious flaws, these talks weren’t completely useless. Attendees learn a little bit about some otherwise unfamiliar areas of philosophy. Presenters talk about their research with a receptive audience, and presumably we all come away better informed with more research ideas bubbling away in the seething cauldrons of our creative unconscious. The author comes away with some valuable criticism from a small group of mostly uninformed semi-experts. The visiting lecturer gets a small payment (usually; some of these pay a lot, but some pay nothing at all) and a short vacation and a chance to talk to old friends. Maybe there’s a bit of socialization. The problem is not that they are useless but that the ratio of good ideas to time spent is very low for almost everyone. I would do better reading an article in my field (or an introduction to a different field) rather than listen to one of these lectures. The author would get better feedback sending the paper to a single interested expert.

So what justifies the time and effort of these lectures? The only purpose I can see that justifies the effort is networking and making connections. Academic philosophy operates largely according to (as a friend of mine called it) good old American know-who. Philosophers’ evaluations play a role in hiring and tenure decisions. To take just one example, big-time philosophers do not write generic letters of recommendation for graduate programs; they write a letter specifically to a friend (not necessarily even on the hiring committee) at the university where a student is applying. And their friends listen and respond in kind. The relationship is incestuous, with people knowing each other having more influence than do apparently objective factors. A much better student who happened not to know an influential philosopher would be less likely to gain acceptance than some worse students who do. It allows for implicit bias; people tend to prefer those who are like them, and so tend to give preference to relatively affluent white male students. Thus, the influence of networks of philosophers creates unfair and biased decisions about acceptance into graduate programs, and decisions involving hiring and tenure. The insidious part is that the people with influence do not see this as a problem; they think that the old-boys’-network is the best way to conduct business. They trust their own judgment about other philosophers and their work (more than they trust statistical or other evidence), and they don’t think they should lessen the influence of their own judgments. This situation cannot be changed by those who have little or no influence (by definition). The only way change can come is if people without influence, who see the inequities in the system, become influential (by their own merit, presumably) and change the culture from the top. But people who become successful within such a system are extremely unlikely to change that culture since it is the one they see (rightly or wrongly) as quite properly rewarding them. So, the waste of people’s time every few weeks is a small price to pay for the ability of philosophers to increase their influence and bring people within their network of influence.

I’m not offering a solution. I suppose we would be better off if academic colloquia were ended. Perhaps if our socialization came only at blind-reviewed conferences the role of networking could be reduced. But, alas, I’m in no position to effect that change. I suppose we all like an excuse to visit friends on someone else’s dime. And networking might help long-term research if philosophers who actually do work on the same questions meet. If there’s no other way to find people working on the same questions you are, then giving presentations might be a necessity. Still, to the extent that this practice supports the networks of personal influence, it is a mildly pernicious part of academia. It would be better if there were a way to do without it.

My apologies to anyone whom I have unfairly maligned in the above. I hope I understood all the papers presented and explained them fairly (even if too briefly).