Sunday, March 28, 2010

Grokking Tea Partiers

Having read much recently about Tea Parties and Tea Partiers, I decided to try to grok the Tea Partier last Saturday morning. Fortunately it wasn't Sunday, or I would have had to decide whether I was a Libertarian Tea Partier or a Fundamentalist Christian Tea Partier.

Anyway, I got up in the morning and drove to the donut shop. No walking for me. What do I care if I pollute the environment or add to global warming. Global warming is a hoax created by Al Gore so he could get a Nobel prize and sell books. Pollution was a big deal back when they made that American Indian ad on TV, but the free market took care of that long ago.

When I got to the donut shop, I ordered a dozen donuts even though I didn't really plan to eat them all. The cashier was Indian, so I berated her for taking an American job and probably living on welfare too. But since I wanted the donuts, I bought them from her anyway.

When I got the donuts, I refused to pay sales tax on them. I didn't vote to have a sales tax, so the government should not have the right to charge me for it. She refused to sell me the donuts if I didn't pay the sales tax, and I refused to pay it. We stood staring each other down in silence as the other customers became somewhat restless, no doubt preparing to support me in the event of violence if jackbooted government thugs showed up. For at least a minute, I stood up for liberty from oppression while she represented the hand of tyrannical government. Then I took the sales tax money from the "Take a penny, leave a penny" jar. Another victory for liberty!

After my victory, I tried to get the other customers, several black fellows, to form an impromptu tax revolt, but they wouldn't take up my chant of "Taxation is Slavery!" I'm not a racist, but I began to suspect these were not my kind of people.

On the way out, I saw a homeless guy looking for a handout. I had lots of donuts, but I wouldn't be doing him any favors by giving him one. Like me he should pull himself up by his own bootstraps, go to college with government-subsidized student loans, go to a public, government-supported university, and get a government-supported job and buy his own donuts. People need to do things on their own or they'll never learn.

As I was driving home, I passed a Walk for something. Breast cancer? Who knows. I yelled at the Walkers to go home. Giving to charities is only rewarding people's bad behavior. If people can know that they'll have their breast cancer treatments paid for by charity, why shouldn't they just skip the mammograms and do whatever it is that causes them to get breast cancer in the first place--having breasts or breathing or whatever.

When I got home, I ended up eating all my donuts. I know the elitist medical establishment, the doctors and "experts", say that type-1 diabetics like me should be careful about what they eat, but what do they know? Experts keep selling us things like global warming, evolution and "medicine". We're better off without their carping; they just make that stuff up to stop us from doing anything fun. Anyway, I've been paying for health insurance for years, and it practically pays me to go blind and lose my kidneys. After all, since I've already paid for this health insurance, I might as well get my money's worth.

Thinking about my health insurance reminded me of all those years I'd been paying for death and dismemberment insurance. I must be some kind of chump to pay for something all these years without getting anything in return. The only questions are whether I want the $1,000 for a single limb, and if so which one, or to go for the whole $10,000.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Greatest (Tim Tebow) Story Ever Told

As a partisan of Oklahoma football, I have to hate Tim Tebow. Tebow's self-righteous evangelism is also offensive. But it is the embarrassing man-love showered upon Tebow for his supposed manliness, rugged good looks, sterling character and heroic tumescence (or so I infer from the gushing quality of the various encomiums) that make this story I found linked on Pharyngula particularly entertaining. Here's the most entertaining paragraph.

At the Scouting Combine, the Wonderlic exam is administered to players in groups. The 12-minute test is preceded by some brief instructions and comments from the person administering the test.

Per a league source, after the person administering the test to Tebow's group had finished, Tebow made a request that the players bow their heads in prayer before taking the 50-question exam.

Said one of the other players in response: "Shut the f--k up." Others players in the room then laughed.

I assume I do not have to explain why this is the greatest Tim Tebow story ever told, but I will anyway. Tebow's self-righteousness has been enabled by the sports establishment at his various schools (or academic institutions with which his football-playing was loosely affiliated) that coddles all good players. And the media clearly encouraged these outward displays of piety. So, I am happy to see someone puncture his self-satisfaction.

P.Z. Myers includes the information in the story that Tebow scored a 22/50 on a relatively simple junior high level mathematics exam. Presumably many adults and professional football players perform worse than Tebow on this test, so I won't make fun of him for that (although his poor score indicates a less-than-divine intellect which might cool some of the ardor or deflate some of the engor--er, I mean, turgid, , um..., no, I mean, overblown adulation of his worshipers in the press). I would recommend that Tebow-enthusiasts get a grip on themselves and . . . wait. . . stop their breathless. . . um . . . panting. . . no, never mind.

At the least the derision of Tebow's peers should indicate to the media and journalists that his public expressions of piety are more appropriate for small children and trained animals than they are for a self-determining, responsible adult.

Update: Actually, I was overthinking this. What's really annoying is that he expects other people to pray with him instead of just praying on his own.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stanley Fish on Teaching Ethics in Universities

"When you find yourself in a battle of wits with a Fish, you face an unarmed opponent."--Old Proverb

We had a speaker in the department last night talking about teaching ethics and making ethical decisions in the contemporary university or liberal arts college. She mostly wanted to address some arguments by Stanley Fish in support of his contention that universities should not teach ethics. As usual, with Fish, his arguments were hyperbolic, misguided, directed at strawmen and generally unconvincing. Before discussing them, however, I'd like to make a clarification about teaching ethics and instilling ethical behavior.

Most academic philosophy departments, in which ethicists are housed and in which ethics is taught, do not attempt to encourage people to be ethical but only teach people how best to think for themselves about ethical issues. I think underlying this teaching is a Socratic assumption that once people know what the most ethical way to act is, they will act in that way, so that, if we want people to be ethical, we really need to little more than teach them how to reach the best ethical conclusion. In many respects this is a naive assumption. There are lots of excuses people make to avoid doing the ethically best thing, and I think philosophers should also point these out. And teaching people to be good may also involve learning to identify these excuses and develop responses to them. In addition, people often do not do what they know is the right thing because of, say, weakness of the will. In these cases, the best thing to do may be to inculcate certain habits in people that they learn to follow not so much by rational decision but by custom or habit.

So, with that distinction and the obvious difficulties of teaching a behavior in mind, let's look at Fish's arguments (as best I can remember them from the talk--I'm too lazy to be more careful and get the original Fish paper or book--they're not likely to be worth the effort).

1. Teaching ethics is impossible or useless since an ethics class cannot change people's behavior.
2. Teaching ethics is antithetical to the goal of the academy which is to teach critical thinking. Getting people to act morally involves a kind of dogmatic acceptance of certain rules for action, or a kind of mindless discipleship or follower behavior that could only be accepted if one were not critical.
3. Teaching ethics is not the job of the academy. The academic's job is to teach people to understand and interpret reality, not to try to change it.
4. It is unethical for a university or university official (presumably acting in his/her official capacity) to take a stand on any moral, political or social issue.

Needless to say, when one thinks how ethics classes are actually taught, these objections are seriously misguided. Ethics classes do not attempt to change behavior (and one class of anything has little effect on most students); they do not encourage action or undermine critical thought about ethical questions (quite the reverse); they do attempt to get people to understand reality (in this case moral reality if there is any); they generally don't take stands as part of their classroom curriculum (unless that stand is to encourage critical thought).

Could some of these critiques face a more robust ethical education program (perhaps a university-wide program) that did try to instill ethical behavior in the students. One might ask, if we do not encourage people to be morally good, then what is the point of teaching ethics in the first place?

I do think that universities can instill norms of conduct--although these norms at present tend to be epistemic and discipline-specific--and so it is possible that they might take a more active role in encouraging norms of conduct in society generally. In fact, doing this is unavoidable and, I think, beneficial to society. Universities have limited resources, and so the courses and programs they teach must be chosen based on implicit assumptions about what benefits society (and not just their "customers", the students or employers, although that does play a role and often a problematic one). We teach biology and psychology. These could be used to cure disease or cause it. Yet we do not offer schools of torture, but rather schools of medicine or nursing. This is an implicit moral stand taken by the university based on its, quite correct, assumption that torture is morally reprehensible and nursing/medicine are valuable. Should universities offer schools of torture or cease to teach medicine/nursing in an attempt to remain ethically neutral? It's hard to see why they should; universities exist in society in order to produce well-informed, capable, critical citizens and professionals. Not only is it beneficial to society to produce such people, it is necessary to do so in order to have a moral and functioning society. Producing hardened torturers would severely undermine the mission of universities, and that mission should be an unabashedly ethical one.

Is it impossible to teach students to behave morally? It is entirely possible that this is the case. A person's basic moral character may be based on education that occurred long before he/she comes to a university, and even university-wide education may be unable to change that basic character. I'm not sure this is the case. We certainly need empirical data on this before drawing any conclusions about this. However, there are still two possible benefits to teaching ethics (again in this "change the behavior" sense taught across the university).

First, we can direct preexisting moral character toward good or better ends. If students do have the basic character to be good (let's say they have a suite of virtues considered morally good), then it is still not obvious how they should act. Is it better to be courageous in the face of opposition to your political position or empathetic and compromising in order to achieve a better, but perhaps imperfect, result? Critical thinking about ethics can help one decide such an issue. Indeed, what goals should one work towards given one's preexisting moral character? It is rarely obvious what one should do even if one has a character sufficient to do it.

Second, we can have longer-term effects on society by educating the parents who will raise children according to the parents' moral beliefs. Even if the parents' character is set, they can set their children's moral character according to principles they learn in college. So the university's ethical teachings can have an effect on future generations even if not on the current generation.

I think these goals are worthwhile even if, and this is a big "if", ethical behavior/character cannot be significantly altered once one is in college. There could still be moral benefits achieved by a university-wide focus on instilling moral character and ethical behavior even given this assumption.

Lastly, I think it's obvious that this is not inconsistent with teaching students to adopt a spirit of free inquiry and critical thought. That teaching should be integral to the kind of ethical instruction that helps people to decide what they should do (rather than follow some list of rules by rote) in a complex and dynamic world. This kind of critical thought is necessary for people to become fully capable and informed citizens and persons. Indeed, teaching critical thought, a commitment to free inquiry, non-conformity and self-determination are themselves moral teachings that should be part of the university's goal in teaching ethics.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Yard-without-a-dog-in-it Argument

I have a story that's like this instapundit argument mentioned in this Whiskeyfire post of the video of the teapartiers yelling but not using the relevant epithet. When I was in college one of my philosophy professors claimed to have seen an episode of one of those People's Court shows in which the dispute was over whether the defendant's dog had been going into the plaintiff's yard and digging up the garden. The defendant brought in a picture of the plaintiff's yard without the dog in it. So, whenever I hear of an argument such as this one I think of it as a Yard-without-a-dog-in-it argument.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Teaching Philosophy

I've been thinking about this a bit recently, and I wanted to write it down and maybe get some responses.

Here are my method and goals in teaching. The goals are to get people to think philosophically for themselves about issues of fundamental importance to our understanding of ourselves, reality and our relation to it. This means that I want to get students to think for themselves about philosophy and connect these thoughts to what philosophers have already said about it. The reason the other philosophers' views matter is that they were smart and thought about these things themselves, so reflecting on what they say can help students think better about their own ideas. An ancillary goal of this has to be to teach students a bit about how to read philosophers so they can understand their ideas in order to apply them to their own thoughts.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this method.
The advantages are so obvious that it's almost silly to describe them.
(1) It focuses on what really matters about philosophy. Almost everyone really cares about this fundamental stuff, and these ideas really do matter, so a class that focuses on them is evidently worthwhile.
(2) It should teach students to develop their own ideas, and that's a second fundamental part of education.

The disadvantages are pedagogical, not fundamental to the ideas.
(1) Students are not familiar with this method and so may not see the benefits of it. Often they think it is a distraction from the goal of learning what a philosopher says and reciting that on a test.

(2) Students do have their own idiosyncrasies and so can derail a class discussion with weird or irrelevant ideas. Keeping the students on track is very difficult.

(3) When students commit to an idea in class discussion, especially when it is something they strongly believe, then criticisms of it can be very upsetting. It's generally a good thing to have students interested and happy with the discussion. I do three things to mitigate this. First, I make clear the difference between criticism of an idea and criticism of the person. Second, I remain as neutral as possible on the question and emphasize ways to overcome objections rather than showing one side to be right and the others wrong. This is not always possible. When students present bad arguments or incoherent ideas, it's irresponsible to suggest they are defensible. I can still suggest better arguments or modifications or similar ideas, but when they say God exists because the Bible says it, and the Bible is true because it's the word of God, there's not much to say in defense of this. Third, I make sure they at least have the chance to express their ideas as completely as possible. Some students are just going to get pissed off with this approach, and there's nothing I can do about that except warn them of the approach. In a way, I want them to get upset and come out with some defenses of their views. In reality, many will retreat in the face of criticism rather than try to address it.

(4) This method makes covering material secondary to the main goal, and so I cover a lot less this way than in the more straightforward lecture format. I just have to learn to live with this, and not worry much when they don't learn, say, how Hume responded to the design argument as long as they understand how the argument works and can develop their own criticisms and defenses of it. Imperfect, and some ideas are so fundamental to the arguments that I cannot leave them out, but that's a trade-off I'll accept.

The practical result of this is that I'm considering working with a more sharply limited set of readings for my classes, some pdfs and some things I've written, and a lot more time critically evaluating these ideas and the students' own ideas. I may post more on those readings in future.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Georgia's Sexual Offender Registry

The Georgia Supreme Court upheld the Georgia law (here's a summary) that requires that everyone convicted of "kidnapping or false imprisonment of a minor" to register as a sex offender. The appeal of the law was brought on the grounds that it was cruel and unusual punishment for a non-sexual crime to require this registration, which restricts where people can live, is published so everyone may know that they are "sex offenders" (in quotes because there is no necessity that their crime is sexual) and hence may influence how others, including neighbors and potential employers, treat them. The registered sex offender cannot live within 1000 feet of anywhere that children congregate--this most notably includes schools and public parks. In dense urban environments, it can be quite difficult to live anywhere that is not within 1000 feet of at least one such place. The court's reasoning is interesting. The majority found that this registration is "regulatory, not punitive, in nature."
Because the registration requirements themselves do not constitute punishment, it is of no consequence whether or not one has committed an offense that is 'sexual' in nature before being required to register.

This is a brilliant strategy for future legislation and criminal justice, and I would commend it to everyone. As long as the "punishment" is regulatory, we can justify any such rules without need to be subject to the 8th amendment's bar on cruel and unusual punishment. Here's how it might work. We decide that Wall Street executives have abused the financial system for too long, so we pass a law that any such executive cannot live within 100 miles of any sentient being. Now, the brilliance of this strategy is that, since this is not punishment, we do not have to worry about convicting the executive of anything. That would be necessary for punishment, sure, but not for merely regulating them. But if we really wanted some excuse, we could regulate their living arrangements pursuant to some other law, say the law against jaywalking, and say that any jaywalker who was a Wall Street executive was subject to this regulation. Then all we have to do is convict them on the lesser jaywalking charge in order to subject them to these other regulations.

Antonin Scalia would certainly not object to this since he is on record as saying that torture of terrorist suspects does not violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment since they have not been tried or convicted of anything and are thus not being punished. Similarly, then Scalia should endorse the government employing thugs to break into the home of every Wall Street executive and beating the crap of him/her, his/her family and pets. You might think this is cruel and unusual, but it certainly isn't punishment because we're doing it just for the hell of it.

Here's another strategy for use on the executives. We don't put them in prison per se, we just regulate their movements so that they are required to live within a very small cell in a maximum security penitentiary. You might say, putting them in prison is punishing them, but no, we're only regulating their movements and living arrangements. That's not punishment and is not then subject to these restrictions on punishment. Since it's not punishment, the restrictions need not be relevant to anything for which the executive has been convicted. And, if Scalia is right, it's perfectly constitutional to have the guards beat the crap out of them every day with a baton as long as they're not being punished for anything, but the guards are just having fun and blowing off steam.

I'm just wondering if the legislature could pass some regulations regarding the movements of certain Supreme Court Justices--perhaps requiring that they never come within 1000 feet of a legal case. I'm fairly certain none of them (Scalia and the majority of the GA Supreme Court) has ever been within 1000 feet of common human decency.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Philosopher Tricks--Demand for a Theory (reposted)

As usual, we assume we have a theory that is highly suspect or otherwise obviously inadequate, and we want to avoid conclusive refutation. Suppose our theory is that moral claims are true if and only if Tim Tebow asserts them (the Gator Command theory).

One reasonable way to evaluate a claim about which you are in doubt is to define the claim and then try to argue against it (no kidding!). There are innumerable ways to argue for or against a claim, but one method stands out for how cheap and easy it is, and thus is to be preferred over all others. And that is to demand a theory of the objection to our position and then counterexample (or otherwise refute) that definition.

The correctness of a theory of X is only weakly relevant to the truth of X. If you can develop a good theory of X you can help dispel doubts that X might be an illusion or that the reasons for belief in X are an error of some kind. But a failure to have a theory of X does not mean that X is not real. Indeed, theorizing about the nature of X must come after recognition of the existence or reality of X. Moreover, it is virtually impossible to give a coherent, complete theory of any philosophically interesting item X (or even many uninteresting ones).

Wittgenstein, as we know, made this point, and it doesn't apply just to the Socratic questions about piety, virtue, etc. It applies in even mundane contexts. There is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a game, but it does not follow that there is no such thing as a game. Play the game game yourself. Try to think of anything that all and only games have in common. There are lots of necessary conditions (e.g. being an activity), and lots of sufficient conditions (e.g. being scrabble), but no set of conditions that are jointly sufficient but individually necessary. If you play this game, and find it frustrating, you may realize that even being fun is not necessary for something to be a game.

Or, consider sports. Is there anything that all and only sports have in common? Here's a definition of "sport" from "Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively." (

This is too broad. Construction work is a physical activity, and it is governed by rules. Note the open-ended part of the definition "often engaged in competitively". Just about any physical activity can be engaged in competitively. There are competitive eating contests (hence, physical activities), but eating isn't a sport.

In retrospect, it is obvious that demands for a theory will often fail to be met, not because the item in question does not exist, but because either we cannot figure out what set of conditions make it what it is, or because there is no set of such conditions. This error is obvious, yet it is often overlooked.

My first example is from Russ Shafer-Landau in his introductory article on Ethical Subjectivism in Reason and Responsibility. Shafer-Landau makes exactly this demand-for-a-theory argument against moral realism, saying that one reason against it is that there is no adequate theory of objective moral facts. But the fact that we cannot completely define and explain the existence of objective moral facts does not mean there aren't any; in fact, it's not even much evidence that there aren't any. This inability to give a theory of moral facts could simply reflect our well-known inability to give a complete and correct theory of much of anything.

Here's a case in which a philosopher defends a problematic theory. Brian McLaughlin, writing in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on the topic of Epiphenomenalism, the view that the mind or mental properties (or types) are causally irrelevant, notes that many critics of epiphenomenalism claim that it creates insuperable problems of reference to and knowledge of the mental. But, McLaughlin claims, such a criticism would require that a causal theory of reference or knowledge be correct, and there are problems with causal theories of reference and knowledge.

The problem with McLaughlin's claim is obvious. To say that it is necessary that some particular (concrete, abstract, whatever) be causally relevant to one's belief/utterance in order for that belief to count as knowledge/for that utterance to refer is not to claim that a causal theory of knowledge or reference is correct. I may think that theories of any such thing are impossible to attain, but I may also think that causation is necessary but not sufficient for knowledge or reference (to concrete particulars). So the lack of causation would undermine the possibility of knowledge/reference even though there would not be a causal theory of either.

I don't have a causal theory of sitting, but I'm fairly sure that a necessary condition for one to be sitting on something is that the thing you are sitting on be causally related to you. I don't have a "height" theory of basketball prowess, but I'll wager that being over 3 feet tall is a necessary condition for making it in the NBA (damn you, NBA!).

My final example comes from an article, "Teleology and the Nature of Mental States," in the American Philosophical Quarterly by Scott Sehon.

Sehon argues for a teleological view of action-explanation and, based on that theory, argues against functionalism. The discussion relevant to my point is Sehon's response to the obvious Davidsonian point that nothing can constitute an explanation of behavior unless it is causally responsible for that behavior. Only causation can turn the and of "Jamie was jealous and broke up with his girlfriend" to the because of "Jamie broke up with his girlfriend because he was jealous."

Sehon claims that in order to support the claim that causation is necessary for a correct teleological explanation for behavior, one must believe that a causal analysis of teleological explanations is at least possible. But, he claims, one cannot give such an analysis, primarily because causation is not sufficient for teleology. In other words, one’s mental state can cause a behavior in a deviant way so that we would not say that the behavior was done intentionally but the mental state nonetheless caused it.

There are two glaring problems with this argument. First, no one need claim that there is a causal analysis of intentional action in order to think that causation is necessary for that action. The second problem, related to the first, is that to say that X is necessary for Y (while not implying that there is a theory of Y in terms of X) does not mean that X is also sufficient for Y. So, showing that X is not in fact sufficient for Y has literally no bearing on the claim about X’s necessity for Y.

So, why would anyone make these arguments? Why demand a theory of whatever-it-is that is thought to render your theory inadequate? Because it’s easier than addressing the real issue. Sehon could very easily show that causation is not necessary for an explanation of action if he could give an example in which the supposed intention is not actually a cause but does nonetheless provide a correct intentional explanation. Obviously, there is no such example.

Now we can protect our theory from refutation by always demanding a theory of our objector for whatever theory we propose. So, now, when someone objects that our Gator Command theory of morality implies that Tebow would have no reason for his commands, we can say: To conclude that the Gator's commands are not based on reason is to assume that there could be an objective theory of reasons in morality against which the Gator's commands are to be judged. But given that there is no such theory, this objection provides no basis to undermine our view. Now, declare victory and go home.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Boston Phoenix on Miller's Accommodationism

I found this interesting article in the Boston Phoenix.

Political philosopher James Madison is, perhaps, the confederacy's most important Federalist.

He has opposed counting slaves as full citizens for purposes of representation in Congress and the Electoral College but not for taxation. He has spilled considerable ink in defense of his position in opposition to full representation based on slave populations from slave states.

But lately, there has been a curious turn in the tale. Madison has come under heavy attack from the negro's fiercest defenders: the Abolitionists, a collection of sharp-elbowed intellectuals who have filled the air with provocative broadsides against slavery.

A flush-faced Gouverneur Morris shook his finger at Madison during a tense discussion at the Continental Congress, proclaiming "domestic slavery" to be in "defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity."

In fact, of course, this is satire. The Boston Phoenix article attempts to place biologist Ken Miller between two extremes of thought on evolution and God. One extreme is the creationists, and the other is the atheists. Miller's position is known as Accommodationism, the view that religion and evolution are compatible. And the point of my little (historically poorly-informed) satire is that positioning Ken Miller between two extremes in no way makes his accommodationist position on religion and science correct any more than the 3/5 compromise was right simply because there were opponents on both sides of the issue. And no ad hominems against Miller's critics can change that fact.

The author, Scharfenberg, describes Miller and his attempt to show science and Christianity to be compatible in laudatory terms, even describing a mentor who returned him to Catholicism in his college days as his "redeemer". This is not exactly neutral, but perhaps my worry about his bias is unreasonable and the criticisms of the "New Atheists" are convincing. Sadly, that does not appear to be the case.

But the cell biologist [Miller] also makes explicitly scientific arguments: maintaining, for instance, that quantum indeterminacy — the ultimately unpredictable outcome of physical events — could allow God to intervene in subtle, undetectable ways.

This sort of sly intervention, he argues, is vital to the Creator's project: if God were to re-grow limbs for amputees, for instance — if God were to perform the sort of miracles demanded by atheists as proof of his existence — the consequences would be disastrous.

Apparently this is supposed to be scientific evidence for the existence of God, but it's not clear how it could be. Here's my best guess for how this can be evidence for God's existence based on predictions we would make if God existed.

1. If God existed, God would not want human beings ever to have evidence that God exists.
2. If God's actions were detectable by humans, then there would be evidence that God existed.
3. Therefore if God existed, God would only intervene in ways that were completely undetectable by humans.
4. It is impossible for there to be something that has no effect on the world. (I'm guessing here; Jaegwon Kim calls this "Alexander's Dictum".)
5. The only way for God to intervene in the world without being detected is in probabilistic quantum events.
6. Quantum events are governed only by probability.
7. Therefore the purely probabilistic nature of quantum events is what we would expect if God existed.
8. Therefore the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics is evidence that God exists.

If this is scientific evidence, then I can equally prove that Bigfoot exists by appealing to the utter lack of evidence for his existence. If there were a Bigfoot, he would want humans never to find him. Therefore if Bigfoot exists, we would not have evidence for his existence. So the lack of evidence of Bigfoot is the best evidence for his existence.

This argument is obviously nonsensical excuse-making constructed after it became apparent that there is no evidence for the existence of God. Clearly, if there were evidence, Miller and every other theist would leap on it like flies on s*#t. It's part of the standard Christian belief system that there are miracles of various sorts (by saints, by appeal to saints after their deaths, by Jesus, by God) that confirm the existence of God. That's why the Templeton Foundation funds studies on the effect of prayer on recovery from illness. Because they want to find evidence that God exists in an increased probability of survival for those for whom people pray compared to those for whom none pray.

And that's the more reasonable position. If God were an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful being who would send people to hell for not believing in him (or her), then he would have a moral responsibility to provide adequate evidence for us to believe in him, he would have the ability to provide that evidence and he would know how to do so. So, the existence of a perfect God would imply evidence for His/Her existence, not that there would be no evidence for His/Her existence.

However, the appeal to quantum mechanics is basically a diversion. The fact that physical law is at bottom only probabilistic does not mean if God exists, those statistical laws would not be violated if there were divine intervention. Physicists find that the probabilities for events are constant across large numbers of such events. Even though an individual event may not be determined, but only have its probability fixed only statistically, there are still laws that govern events on a large scale, and if God intervened in quantum events, then it would be impossible for there to be such stochastic laws.

Presumably Miller thinks that God intervenes in quantum events in such a way that the probabilities on a large scale remain the same as they would be without his intervention, but that's not what one would expect from a perfectly good Christian God. Suppose, for example, that cancer is caused by probabilistic quantum events. Since a perfect Christian God would prefer moral Christian believers to others, God would reward their belief and good behavior and would punish disbelief or poor moral behavior. God, then, would prevent or cure the cancers of good Christian believers. This would fit the idea of God intervening only in the probabilistically governed quantum events. But the probabilistic nature of such events does not mean that there would never be violations of those probabilities when there is divine intervention. In this case, one would suppose that good Christians never got cancer, or always recovered from it, whereas non-theists or non-Christians would suffer from them disproportionately. Clearly that would violate a probabilistic law that, say, everyone in circumstance C has an equal probability of getting cancer, or everyone with cancer has an equal probability of recovery. Indeed, we do not find that Christians are much more likely to recover or avoid cancer in the first place. (There have been some studies of the efficacy of prayer or religious social organizations. These mostly show that social organizations, and maybe belief in some set of beliefs or code of living, matters, but they don't show specifically that belief in God is the only way to gain these benefits. Further, they should support benefits for only one specific religion and not all of them, but that is not the case as far as I know.)

Miller, on the other hand, says that we should not expect that Christians would avoid cancer or generally be better off than non-Christians. If this were the case, then we could detect God by such tests, and that would violate his undetectability requirement. (Again, many theists try to find such evidence, but one can only say the evidence is as yet unconvincing. That, I maintain, is why Miller claims that there should not be evidence for God's existence were God to exist.) I'll come back to this argument later, but now my point is that an event's being only probabilistically determined (or probable rather than necessary) is not enough to show that God's interventions in such cases would be undetectable. If God were perfect, and still intervened only when there were statistical probabilities that would allow for such intervention to be undetectable for a single instance. But, at least intuitively, we would expect God to intervene so that His/Her intervention was detectable on large scales. So, the fact that fundamental laws are subject to statistical laws does not entail that one could never detect violations of such statistical laws.

Probabilistic laws are not necessary for undetectability either. God could intervene in otherwise necessary natural laws as long as no one is testing the laws themselves. God's intervention in deterministic laws would be undetectable as long as God made sure no one was trying to detect it whenever God intervened. Perhaps I am too hopeful in thinking Miller, or accommodationists in general, would be offended by the idea of a God who violated our natural laws but only did so when God was sure no one was looking. But if God intervenes in probabilistic laws, that's still an intervention in laws of nature and creates exactly the same problems that might follow for intervention in deterministic laws.

It's obvious that Miller wants the veneer of scientific respectability to be gained by appeal to scientific laws, when it would be clearly excuse-making if we imagined that God might intervene whenever we were not looking. But this "scientific" appeal is irrelevant to his argument; his argument is still transparent excuse-making, just with a thin veneer of quantum nonsense.

But what about Miller's response to the objection that God should intervene for moral reasons. Miller thinks God wants us to believe in him freely, and providing evidence for his existence would undermine that free choice. Here's Miller:

"Suppose that it was common knowledge that if you were a righteous person and of great faith and prayed deeply, all of a sudden, your limb would grow back," he says. "That would reduce God to a kind of supranatural force . . . and by pushing the button labeled 'prayer,' you could accomplish anything you wanted. What would that do to moral independence?"

This is absurd. First, Christians often claim that God (or belief in God) does work wonders, either in one's personal life or in the form of literal miracles. Suddenly, given that there is no evidence of miracles, we conclude that God wouldn't want there to be miracles. If there were miracles, that would be evidence of God's existence. But it turns out the lack of miracles is also evidence for God's existence. Clearly, this is unfalsifiable rationalization for a lack of evidence. Second, why wouldn't God want people to pray to him in order to have their limbs healed? Jesus is supposed to have healed people frequently, and he was perfectly capable of determining whether the people he was healing were sincere and in need and whether they merely wanted to use him. Why couldn't God do as good a job telling the difference between sincere and insincere prayers? The IRS is capable of telling when we're making a real claim on our tax returns, why is God so less knowledgeable than the IRS? Our parents, when we are young, will not let us get away with the mere pretense of an apology, why couldn't God do the same?

Flanders and Swann jokingly say, "Always be sincere, whether you mean it or not." But God could tell whether we meant it when we begged for succor. Deception would be useless; God could enforce sincerity in our prayers if they were to be answered.

More importantly, you cannot undermine someone's freedom by withholding information. People are more free when they have sufficient evidence and less free, or even unfree, when they lack it. Suppose a doctor offered a patient two treatments for her illness. The patient requests information about the success rates of the two treatments, their possible side effects and perhaps their costs. The doctor could not refuse to provide this information on the grounds that such information would undermine her freedom of choice. More information, ceteris paribus, makes us more free.

Can we be morally independent if God always intervenes when we need help? Perhaps moral independence is overrated, but Miller would need to establish that moral independence would be impossible if God answered (sincere) prayers. Is moral independence worth all the suffering that both natural and moral evil cause? This question is especially relevant since natural evils, such as earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions, are caused by God's indirect action, and thus God is the one harming us (since human intervention cannot prevent or change these events).

But I do not think this is necessarily the case. We could be morally independent if God created us to be the sorts of people who always did the morally right thing in every circumstance. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then God should be able to create us this way. And punishing people in order to create moral independence is reprehensible. Next time you're on trial for murder (and how often that happens!), try using the moral independence argument in court and see how far it gets you. It's just not morally acceptable to kill people in order to make other people morally independent. If a parent killed one of his children to make the other learn to care for herself, we would rightly lock that parent away and never let him see his children again.

The final argument Miller gives is a practical argument that supporters of evolution should claim that religion and science are compatible since, if the general public comes to see them as incompatible, this will undermine public support for science.

Scharfenberg summarizes the point this way:

Some of that [opposition] may be rooted in religious devotion. But the real motivation is more practical, Ecklund (Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociology professor at Rice University) says: scientists know that aggressively anti-religious views could threaten public support for scientific research.

It may well be that people will cease to support science, but if the evidence is that they are incompatible, and these scientists are aware of this, then it's irresponsible for them to claim otherwise. In the end, I think, if science and religion were shown to be incompatible (still not a position I have taken in this post) would win out. Science is simply too beneficial for people to reject it in favor of a religion that has never produced any tangible benefits. Presumably Miller actually thinks religion and science are compatible, but these unnamed other scientists appear to be another matter. If they do not think religion and science are compatible, then they are deliberately deceiving the American people if they claim otherwise. Perhaps these scientists are agnostic about the compatibility of science and religion. If so, then they might allow people to maintain their religious beliefs. But even then the responsible position would be for these organizations to endorse agnosticism about the compatibility of religion rather than explicitly endorsing accommodationism as they now, apparently, do.

It is impossible to evaluate the arguments of these unnamed scientists since we are not presented with them, but if this is the entire argument, clearly the better alternative is to educate people about the incompatibility of science and religion so they can rationally decide which to choose. It is always better to stand by the evidence and try to change public opinion rather than avoid confrontation and go along with public opinion in the hopes that things will get better on their own. There are too many examples of regressive social views that were overturned, and public opinion changed, only because people had the courage to argue, protest and put their lives and careers on the line to support the truth. Without any further argument that accommodationism is actually correct, scientists and philosophers have a responsibility not to support it, and even, if the arguments support this, to argue against it.

Update (3/27): Revised for clarity.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Defense of Biblical Praise of Killing Infants

Surfing over to Atheist Missionary, I found a link to a defense of Psalm 137 which praises the killing of babies of Babylonians. Here's a link to the Psalm, so you can get the context. I tend not to get involved in criticism of the Bible. I also mostly do not criticize Native American, Norse or Greek myths. The Old Testament is clearly a work of folktales and mythology that has no greater access to the truth about the world than those of any other ancient peoples. However, Christians often appear to believe that Christianity has a greater moral authority than these other mythologies. In fact, the defense of this passage is totally misguided and self-defeating. Here's the defense.

"How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock," (Psalm 137:9).

Critics often bring up this verse as an attack on the validity of the Bible. But, does the Bible teach that it is okay to kill children? The answer, of course, is no it doesn't. But we must ask what the Psalmist was saying and why he was saying it.

The context of Psalm 137 is the Babylonian captivity. The Psalmist speaks of the captors tormenting the people of God (vv. 1-3), a promise to remember Jerusalem (vv. 5-6), and a curse against the captors (vv. 7-9).

The Psalmist is in exile and had probably witnessed the atrocities committed against his people, babies included. In the revenge-style that was so common at the time, he wishes the same upon his enemy as a description of their utter destruction. Nowhere does it say that God approves of the Psalmist’s request or that he fulfilled it. Just because it is recorded that the Psalmist wrote the imprecation, doesn’t mean it was approved by God.

This defense of the text is reasonable in that it is completely compatible with the claim that the Bible is simply a work of humans, who are prone to all the imperfections and moral failings of humans. However, if one takes the Bible to offer any sort of moral authority, then this argument shifts the goalposts considerably on counts as Biblical authority. According to this criterion, passages not explicitly stated by God should not be considered authoritative and only requests explicitly fulfilled by God can be considered approved by God. Perhaps, then, the Ten Commandments would qualify as still authoritative but passages such as the Psalms do not. One could no longer take Paul's condemnation of homosexuality as authoritative since that is only Paul's word. One could no longer take Jesus' words as authoritative since those words would not have been stated directly by God. Similarly, one would have to abandon claims for authority about the origin of the universe because this is not stated by God but were descriptions of the origin of the world but not told directly by God.

Moreover, if one accepts this move from the word of God to the word of the Psalmist, then one can apply that to any part of the text. When God tells Gideon to kill the Midianites (in Judges 6-9), that need not imply that God tells Gideon to do that, only that someone says that God said that. If the author of Psalms cannot be trusted to have moral authority, then how can the author of Judges have authoritative knowledge of what God has told people to do?

Continuing directly from the previous paragraphs:

It is worth noting that the Old Testament records many atrocities. The fact is that God allowed people their sinful desires and he worked within their culture, even as he does now, as he permits all kinds of bad things to happen.

In other words, God allows his own followers to commit or advocate atrocities. So, the fact that Psalms advocates killing infants does not mean that it's a good thing to do. It could just be the testimony of one freely advocating inhumane action. Again, this completely undermines the idea that anything in the Bible has any moral authority whatsoever. However, continuing directly:

Nevertheless, God introduced what is called the Apoditic Law (Exodus 21:24): an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The Apoditic Law was instituted to prevent the increase of blood revenge, a practice where revenge would escalate out of control between two parties. Since the hearts of the fallen are so wicked and the harsh environment and culture produced difficulties for survival, God has a few options to counter their proclivity towards evil. He can run roughshod over their free will and force everyone to obey him, or he could wipe them all out (he had already done this with Noah's flood), or he could work within the situation at hand. In the case of this psalm, and it's Babylonian captivity context, God chose to work with people and through them instead of violating the freedom he had given them and forcing them to act in a manner that he instructs. Therefore, the Psalmist is expressing his curse against Babylon, a natural response to what his people have already suffered.

This reasoning is bizarre. It's saying that God allows the Psalmist to advocate (and presumably commit) murder of infants because the "fallen are so wicked" that extreme measures have to be taken "to counter their proclivity towards evil." This defense does not undermine the authority of the entire Bible, but it is remarkably inhumane. Killing infants is the only way God can counter the evil of the Babylonians. Obviously, this is an absurd defense of killing infants. You cannot counter the parents', or other adults', proclivity towards evil by killing infants. Expressing a curse against someone is understandable, advocating murder of infants is not. This defense fails to establish any humanity or decency on the part of the Bible.

Finally, the defense concludes with the following laughable passage:

Also, the critics need to provide an acceptable, objective moral standard by which they can criticize biblical morality. It is one thing to complain. It is another to offer a justification for the validity of the complaint. By what right and by what objective ethical standard do the critics offer moral condemnation against Biblical morals? This is a serious question that if not answered by the critics, renders the critics’ complaints moot. After all, you must first have a standard against which to measure good and bad and without a standard, no complaints can be legitimately offered.

First, this changes the subject. It shifts from the moral question of the acceptability of an action to the epistemic question of the standards one has to judge that morality. No one needs to enunciate a moral standard in order to criticize the murder of infants which the Psalmist is advocating. All a critic of this passage needs is the claim that killing infants is morally wrong. I can only conclude from this that the authors believe that killing infants (given those circumstances) is morally correct. Otherwise their defense is completely irrelevant to the issue.

Nonetheless, the rest of this passage is still completely off base. There are perfectly acceptable moral standards independently of the Bible. This passage claims that either there are no objective moral standards independently of the Bible or that it is impossible to know those standards. Clearly, this claim is false lest we be unable to attribute goodness (in any meaningful sense) to God, God's choices, or God's commands. We cannot coherently praise God for being good if what it is to be good is defined by the commands God gives. God might just as well command murder (of Midianites or infants?) as command that one not commit murder, and that command would be equally morally good. To paraphrase the Christian philosopher Leibniz, this would make God nothing more than a bully. The Christian needs there to be objective moral facts independently of God in order for it to make sense to praise God for being good. Put one other way: if morality were determined entirely by the Bible, then there would be no reason to be worried about the passage from Psalms at all, there would be no reason to have to explain away the passage. One would simply accept it as obviously correct to kill infants because the Bible says it. We have to explain it away because we know independently of the text that killing infants is wrong.

Now, I do not have a complete theory of morality, but, as I just argued, no one needs a theory of morality to criticize the Psalmist-defender's position. And, although we need not do so in order to criticize the egregious immorality of killing infants, we can at least note some standards. One should not, for example, harm others unless that harm is necessary to prevent greater harm. Since killing infants harms those infants, and the infants are not on the verge of committing genocide (or doing something at least as horrific as the killing of infants), it is obvious that this Psalm advocates a morally wrong action. The Bible must either endorse this, or it cannot be taken as an authority on morality. Hence, we should either reject the Bible as a moral authority or believe that it endorses killing infants.