Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Time Travel and Free Will

This post has grown to ridiculous proportions. I've divided up this too-long discussion into a part 1 and part 2. Part 1 deals with the supposed entailment of determinism from the possibility of time travel. Part 2 deals with the possibility that closed causal loops undermine determinism.

Part 1
It's something of a staple of the literature on time travel that if it's possible, then we must be determined. But I'm not really sure this is the case. David Lewis made this claim in his "The Paradoxes of Time Travel," and it recently appeared in a nice piece in discover by Sean Carroll.

Here's the basic idea: Suppose that I go back in time to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Since Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, it must be that I failed to prevent the assassination. Therefore, it is not possible for me to prevent the assassination, therefore I am determined not to prevent the assassination.

However, it doesn't follow that I am determined to fail or Lincoln is determined to be assassinated just because it in fact happened that he was assassinated. From the triviality, "Que sera, sera," it doesn't follow that what will be necessarily will be. Lewis's and Carroll's conclusion that we are determined does not follow from the fact that some particular thing will happen and even that we know it will happen. I'll explain a couple of terms and try to show why the possibility of time travel does not entail determinism. (Carroll puts this in terms of undermining free will, but that overlooks the compatibilist position that we can be free and determined at the same time.)

Philosophers distinguish de dicto from de re modal claims. Modal claims are claims having to do with possibility or necessity. The claim that I might have been taller is a modal since it is a claim not about what is but about what might be. De dicto modal claims are only about the words and do not involve the essential nature of the thing. Necessarily, bachelors are unmarried, but it is not true that bachelors are necessarily married. It is a matter of definition that for something to count as a bachelor, it cannot be married. But individual bachelors (people who currently meet the definition) are not necessarily bachelors in that they can get married. De re modal claims are claims about the thing and necessary facts about the thing or its essential nature. De re claims have a different scope. There are fewer clear examples of de re modal claims, perhaps none that apply to our ordinary space-time world. The number 2 is necessarily even. Given the nature of the number 2, there is no possibility that it be other than even. It might be that humans are necessarily physical beings if, for example, it is impossible (in some sense) for humans to exist without a physical body.

Given these terms, the determinist position is that our actions are de re necessitated, not de dicto necessitated. The determinist says that necessarily Lincoln dies in 1865, and necessarily, I will not prevent Lincoln's assassination in 1865. However, all we are really justified in saying is that Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, so, necessarily, given that fact, Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Necessarily, Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865, was assassinated in 1865. But it is not true that Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865, was necessarily assassinated in 1865.

This really shouldn't be a surprising result. The present is the future's past, and we don't think it follows that now, on June 29, 2010 I am typing means that necessarily on June 29, 2010 I will be typing. The fact is that Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, but he might not have been.

Or to give a similar example, if I know that I will pass my exam tomorrow, then it is a fact that I will pass it. But it does not follow that necessarily I will pass it. I will but I might not.

Lewis points out that one's preventing Lincoln's assassination in 1865 is not compossible with (possible given the fact that) Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Thus, I cannot prevent the assassination given that it occurred. But compossibility with all facts is not what determinism requires. Determinism requires that an event's not occurring is not compossible with all prior facts. And that does not render Lincoln's assassination determined, only necessitated by the fact that it actually occurred. And that's a relatively trivial claim. (Although if Lincoln's assassination occurred both in my past as part of my history and my present as I travel to the past, this notion of determinism gets more complicated. I'll try to sort this out below.)

Were I to try to prevent Lincoln's assassination by hiding out in the Ford Theater and leaping on Booth when he attempted to sneak in and assassinate the president, I would fail. Since Booth succeeded, doesn't it follow that I necessarily fail to prevent the assassination? No, it follows that I will fail--in fact, if I attempted to save the President, then I did fail--but it does not follow that I necessarily fail.

It may seem that the philosophical distinction above represents a distinction without a difference. If nothing I try prevents the assassination of Lincoln, then how is that different from my not being able to prevent the assassination at all? More generally, how can all this talk of de re necessity and possibility make sense when the only world we have available to us is the actual world, the world in which Lincoln was assassinated and in which I failed to prevent it? What is the point of possibility and necessity talk at all if the only thing we can talk about is the actual world?

The answer to this question is really too long to take up here. The short answer is that it makes sense of statements such as "I might have been taller," since some such statements are true, whereas others such as "I might have been an octopus," or "I might have been the number 1," are false. Without modality -- talk of possibility and necessity -- there's really no way to distinguish true from false claims of these sorts. Talk of unactualized possibles (things that might occur but do not) is a bit iffy for the empiricists among us, but it is nonetheless coherent. A golden mountain is an unactualized possible--it could exist but doesn't, but a round square is an unactualized impossible--it does not exist because it couldn't. Leaving aside theories of what unactualized possibles are, they have uses and truth conditions in our language.

If we admit that Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 and nothing I do or have done prevented it, then how does my supposed freedom--here taken to mean that it is possible that I save him--make any difference? Well, it doesn't make any causal difference to things that occur (that's partly why unactualized possibles are so puzzling), but such talk still makes sense. When Terry Malloy says, "I coulda been a contender," he regrets not actualizing a possibility even though it's a fact that he never was a contender. Had he said, "I couldn'ta been a contender," there would be nothing to regret.

But in cases in which there is a possibility of success, and in which I do not know the outcome, I can still attempt to act. There may be multiple possible things I can do this afternoon, and it makes sense for me to decide which of them to do even though necessarily whichever one I do is the one that I do. My actions render some possibility actual, and leave others as unactualized possibles, but the fact that that fact is not enough to render me unfree.

Note that I am not arguing for the existence of free will or the ability to do otherwise than we do even though I had to make some of my points hypothetically by supposing that I might have acted differently. I do not necessarily think we have free will or are not determined; I'm merely pointing out that such possibilities are consistent with time travel. I'm just claiming that the argument from the possibility of time travel does not establish that we are not free and cannot do otherwise. To say that necessarily we will do as we do, does not entail determinism, that we will necessarily do as we do. To put my point more succinctly: determinism cannot follow from the trivial logical point that necessarily everything that happens happens, and that's all that the possibility of time travel really shows.

Part 2
Carroll talks about closed time-like curves or what Lewis calls closed causal loops. (The classic example is Robert Heinlein's "All You Zombies.") Carroll thinks if these are possible then determinism is not true.

Here's an example of a closed causal loop. One day (call it time t1) I receive a mysterious visitor who gives me instructions for how to build a time machine. I build the time machine (completed at time t2) and go back in time to give myself instructions on how to build it. (In fact, if I'd been lazy, I would have just left it around for myself to find so I wouldn't even have to bother building it as long as I remembered to leave it for myself in the past when I was done with it.) Now, everything in this story is consistent and potentially deterministic. We can suppose that everything in my brain is determined, and there is a complete causal story governing my acquiring the plans, building the time machine, and using it to give myself the plans at t1.

Carroll thinks, however, that if this sort of thing were possible, it would undermine determinism. Determinism, on his view, is the idea that everything that occurs at some time is necessitated by the state of the universe before that time, so that necessarily, if the state of the universe is such and such at time t0, necessarily so and so will occur at time t1. The problem I, the time traveler, create for determinism is that my receiving the plans at t1 (and all my work after that) are not determined by the state of the world at t0 but by the state of the world at t2 when I (deterministically) decide to travel back in time to give the instructions to myself. Thus, causation backwards in time occurs and determinism is undermined.

This kind of causation does violate our ordinary sense of causation and determinism. However, I'm not sure we should conclude that this alone could undermine determinism. Here's an admittedly imprecise analogy: Two particles P1 and P2 exist in two systems S1 and S2. P1 and P2 interact within these systems according to deterministic laws. However, P2 now comes into contact with P1, and P1's movement suddenly is no longer determined simply by the laws and the other parts of S1, it is also determined by P2 (and I suppose by its interactions with S2). It doesn't follow that P1's movements are not determined, just that they are not completely determined by system S1. In ordinary terms, we could just describe S1 and S2 as being part of a bigger system, and so that system would determine P1's motion. In the time travel case we have a system S2 that is in the future, so it cannot be described as part of the same system at the same time with S1. I think all this means is that we have to expand our concept of the system that determines P1 to include future events provided there is a time-line connecting P2 from the future to P1 at an earlier time.

David Lewis talks about personal time-lines as a way of making sense of the backwards causation we would get in time travel. The causation along the time-line is not backwards even though it is backwards from outside the time traveler's time-line. Just as special relativity made us give up the concept of absolute simultaneity, time travel would require that we give up absolute past, present and future. And as long as all personal time-lines are deterministic, then the system as a whole could still be counted as deterministic even though we could no longer define an event as determined in the intuitive way as "necessitated by everything that happened before time t1". We would have to modify it to something like "necessitated by everything that happened before time t1 on all time-lines causally interacting with that event."

So, again, I'm not sure that the possibility of time travel by itself entails or contradicts determinism.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

William James, The Will to Be a Self-Deceived

Theists almost invariably proceed from study of arguments for the existence of God—the cosmological, ontological and teleological arguments—to focus on epistemology. Having failed to prove the existence of God given accepted standards of evidence, they change the standards of evidence. Their belief becomes rational by altering what it means for a belief to be rational. Unsurprisingly, when the standards are lowered for religious belief, they must either be lowered for every belief, which leads to obvious cases showing the new standards are too low, or that lowering must be limited to just theism and thus involve special pleading.

One philosopher who offers a lower standard for rational belief is William James. I started writing a long post on faith and reason and got distracted rereading William James’s “The Will to Believe”. This article, or an excerpt of it, appears in almost every introductory anthology on philosophy, and James is widely respected for his work both in philosophy and psychology. So, it is surprising that he would reason so poorly, but the fact is that James’s reasoning has no real merit and is just a rationalization for his preexisting religious belief.

The conclusion of James’s argument is that it is rational to believe in God or religion even though we do not have sufficient evidence that God exists. It is sometimes rational to believe even if you do not have sufficient evidence, and James thinks we do not have sufficient evidence for religious belief. Note that I will be discussing rationality of belief with insufficient evidence rather than rationality of belief when there is sufficient countervailing evidence. The latter is often part of religious belief, and such a view would be more problematic even than James’s, but it is not my target here.

After introducing the issue, James sets up W.K. Clifford as a foil who argues that “it is wrong always and everywhere to believe with insufficient evidence.” James points out that there are two distinct epistemic goals: acquiring true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs, and that Clifford focuses entirely, in this passage, on avoiding false beliefs and never considers the goal of acquiring true beliefs. This is a good point and argues in favor of stating Clifford’s evidentialist (as we call it) claim more positively as well as negatively. For example, one might follow David Hume’s language and say that we should “proportion our beliefs to the evidence”—for example, assenting when there is sufficient evidence and withholding assent otherwise. But that is not James’s strategy.

The irritant in reading James is that he cannot refrain from irrelevant ad hominem attacks on Clifford, James calls Clifford “nervous” and cites his “fear” of making errors and contrasts this fear with his own hopefulness. But the issue is not Clifford’s emotional state; the issue is whether it is responsible for one to believe something when there is insufficient evidence to think it’s true. More importantly, however, James’s remedy for Clifford’s oversight is far too broad: he counts beliefs as rational when it’s obvious that they should not be. Put another way, a serious consideration of Clifford would involve working on the project of what counts as sufficient evidence given the two distinct goals of rational belief. However, James does not of that; James does not offer standards of sufficiency that approach some ideal compromise between acquiring truth and avoiding falsehood. James wants us to believe when we do not have sufficient evidence, but only pragmatic reasons, to think a claim true. Clifford criticizes those who believe with admittedly insufficient evidence, and James defends them. But James’s considerations are so broadly applicable, that all sorts of patently irrational beliefs count as rational on his account. Perhaps that should be the point of the post today, but I’ll put that aside for another time. For now, I want to note that the flaws James claims to find in Clifford’s position are not as great as James believes.

The problem with sufficiency:

James thinks that we do not have sufficient reason to believe any, or most, of the beliefs that are most fundamental and necessary to our interactions with the world and others. We do not have sufficient reason to believe in the value of democracy and progress or the truth of science or the love of others. And so, we must make a guess, one that helps us survive in our society, take a leap of faith and believe—in democracy, in science, in our loved ones—and in so doing we will benefit ourselves and others, and by our faith we may even make our beliefs come true.

Everyone in our society, James argues, takes certain assumptions for granted, and most of us really have no sufficient reason to think these assumptions are true. Indeed, often the critics of these standard views are better justified in their rejection than we are in our acceptance. For example, Sarah believes that humans landed on the moon. She has never given much thought to the belief, but it is simply part of the background set of beliefs that comprises her social inheritance. She has been told it and taught about it so often that she does not consider that it might not be true, and she cannot consciously bring to mind any evidence that might be used to prove that the moon landing indeed happened. Fred, on the other hand, believes that the moon landing was a hoax and is familiar with the evidence put forth in a documentary on Fox asserting that it was faked. Now Fred can debate with Sarah and reduce her to stuttering disbelief and incoherence by demanding explanations for some supposedly anomalous facts about the videos of the moon-landing. Sarah cannot refute Fred, and Fred can rebut any piece of evidence that Sarah manages to assert. So, isn’t Fred the rational one and Sarah the irrational one? Sarah believes without sufficient evidence, and Fred has evidence of a kind. Yet we think Sarah is right to have the belief she does, and Fred is wrong. How can that be unless it is sometimes acceptable to believe with insufficient evidence?

Here’s how: Sarah’s belief is based on the testimony of multiple authorities who are in a better position to know than she is. Her history teachers who taught her about the moon landing and the textbooks she read are based on the authority of people in a position to know whether the moon landing was real or not. And because she believes based on that authority (even though she may not consciously be able to appeal to that authority in her debate with Fred), she is basing her beliefs on sufficient evidence. Even if she did not learn this information from the reliable sources of teachers and textbooks, it’s likely that her belief is better off than the Fred’s since his arguments, while they might seem compelling to the uninitiated, are not in reality convincing to those with some legitimate knowledge. At worst, supposing Sarah’s belief came from others who were not authorities, did not gain their information from authorities and whom she could not reasonably expect to be authorities, Fred’s belief, since it is based on fallacious reasoning, is no better justified than hers.

James overlooks legitimate forms of justification in claiming that our ordinary beliefs are not based on sufficient evidence. He acts as though legitimate appeals to authority do not exist and that, if they do, we have to be able to consciously state our reasoning in those terms. But this is not how all, or probably even most, justification works. We may have little idea how our eyes work, but we still can know beliefs we form on the basis of our first-hand observation. We may not be able to refute the objections of the skeptic—just as we cannot prove that Descartes’ evil genius does not exist—but it does not follow that our beliefs based on authority or the senses are not sufficiently grounded. James is too skeptical here; he rejects legitimate sources of knowledge and justification.

Our belief in the truth (or justification) of science is similar to the moon-landing case. Not all areas have real authorities, as science and history do, so in those areas the justificatory link breaks down. We are then left with nothing more than an appeal to popularity and no sufficient justification. For example, if we believe in God because everyone around us does, this belief is fundamentally different, although perhaps psychologically indistinguishable to Sarah, from the belief in the reality of the moon landing. People observed and participated in the moon landing and the enormous amount of labor and technology necessary to bring it about; there were intersubjectively verifiable first hand observations and accounts connected to the moon-landing. No one has observed God in a way that could be verified by others in the same position to know; no one is in the kind of authoritative position with respect to God that many are in with respect to the moon landing.

Democracy and progress may be a different matter since this involves normativity (facts about what should or ought to be the case) and there are supposed to be no authorities on normative claims. However, there may certainly be sufficient historical evidence for the improvement of the human condition measured as objectively as possible. So, while it is not necessary for my claim, I think a measured respect for democracy as an instrument of human progress is based on sufficient evidence. The important point is that many claims about politics and history are justified by sufficient evidence.

The third case struck me as particularly out of date. James asks us to consider the man who, through his fervent belief that a woman loves him, despite that belief’s lack of foundation in sufficient evidence, convinces the woman that she does in fact loves him. To the modern ear (mine, anyway), this sounds more like stalking and harassment than it sounds like rational behavior. But, being charitable to James, we suppose that there are steps we can take to engage others socially that, he thinks, do not make sense if we are awaiting sufficient evidence that the other person wishes to engage us socially as well. James imagines the rationalist standing aloof from others awaiting their commitment before making overtures of friendship. But that rationalist must be left out in the cold since none would befriend someone so cold and uncaring.

James’s case here is a strawman, however. We all recognize, based on evidence, that people are basically friendly, and that making friends with people often involves politeness and even overt friendliness. There is nothing irrational in thinking that such gestures are more likely to be returned with friendship than is cold aloofness. Must I believe, with insufficient evidence, that someone is my friend or loves me before I proffer my own friendship or even love? Not at all. I only have to believe, based on sufficient evidence, that such overtures are more likely to be received positively than no such overtures, and that the probability of a positive response and the benefits thereof outweigh the meager costs of being friendly myself (or the higher cost of declaring my love).

There is one further type of case, related to the “faith makes it happen” case, and that is when belief would allow for a positive result when the evidence does not render such a belief rational. I may believe irrationally that I will survive my heart attack, and this belief increases my chance of survival, but if I looked rationally at the evidence, I would conclude that I would not survive. Assuming I took all the actions that someone preparing to die should take, and it is by no means certain that I would since doing so might lessen my irrational belief in my own survival, this would make a genuine case in which my being fully rational would have a worse outcome than the alternative.

However, the problem is that, when you take a standard of belief with insufficient evidence, you cannot limit your belief to just these cases. You cannot know that you are in this position if you base your beliefs on insufficient evidence. And if you base your beliefs only on sufficient evidence, it is too late for you to take advantage of the power of positive thinking here; you already have recognized your low probability of survival. The problem is that, for the small increase in probability of survival in a small number of marginal cases, you have to give up rationality in too many other cases. On balance, belief with insufficient evidence would lead to far more harm than good. The possibility of a gain in an unusual case does not justify reasoning in this way in all the other cases in which it would cause harm. And there’s simply no way to compartmentalize the cases in which the belief with insufficient evidence is ultimately beneficial from the much greater number of cases in which the belief based on insufficient evidence is harmful.

In sum James’s examples do not prove that belief with insufficient evidence is necessary. They simply do not support the idea that we cannot survive if we base our judgments only on sufficient evidence.

This leaves me to respond to James for one further criticism of Clifford. James says that he cannot refuse to believe unless he has sufficient evidence because he thinks: “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.”

James is trying to make his case more plausible by redescribing Clifford’s advice in a way that overlooks its most salient feature. There really is no problem with following a rule that would “absolutely prevent me from acknowledge certain kinds of truth”. For example, there are certain kinds of truths (although I don't really know what a "kind of truth" is--the issue is the conditions under which one accepts the belief, not the "kind of truth" it is) one could have access to by hitting oneself on the head with a baseball bat (or by using dangerous drugs or exposing oneself to radiation or experimental brain surgery or joining a dangerous cult). Surely, it is possible to come to have true beliefs by hitting oneself on the head with a baseball bat that one would not have otherwise. I might, rationally, come to believe that hitting myself in the head is painful, but I might also believe that aliens are stealing my luggage [Thanks, Steve Martin] or that, honest to God, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird should be the US national anthem [Thanks, Jeff Foxworthy], or that the third planet in orbit around Betelgeuse is inhabited by intelligent arthropods with a dozen limbs. Some of these beliefs may be true, and at least some of them I cannot get without experimenting on myself in physically dangerous ways. Yet if I adopted the rule: “Do not come to have beliefs by hitting yourself on the head with a baseball bat (or the other methods described),” I would be denying myself the opportunity to come to have these true beliefs. However, it is emphatically not irrational to follow this rule; it’s about as reasonable a thing as I can imagine that I should not hit myself in the head with a baseball bat (or use dangerous, mind-altering drugs or . . . ) even if this results in me missing out on some true beliefs. For one thing, I would never know they were true. And for another, this method is stupidly dangerous. So, James’ argument against Clifford, that his rule irrationally excludes a means of acquiring true beliefs, is not convincing. One often should exclude some ways of acquiring true beliefs if it is harmful to acquire them in that way (as Clifford tries to show believing with insufficient evidence must be) and if there is no reliable means to distinguish the true from false beliefs one acquires by that means.

Here’s another rule for belief: Do not believe if there is overwhelming evidence that the belief is false. Overwhelming evidence is not the same as certainty, so some beliefs which we have overwhelming reason to think are false will be true. So, according to James’s reasoning, it is irrational to close off this avenue of acquiring true belief. Thus, according to James, we should not follow the rule: Do not believe when there is overwhelming evidence that the belief is not true. Unfortunately for James, rejecting this rule is plainly irrational.

This post has gone on far too long, and I didn’t manage to address several of the issues I meant to. Perhaps I can return to them later. But the summary of my argument today is that William James makes rather embarrassingly poor arguments in attempting to undermine the need for sufficient evidence before one can rationally believe. None of the cases he uses to show that we need to believe with insufficient evidence adequately support his point. James’s criticism, then, is not itself based on sufficient evidence.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Concentration--A Poem

Brow furrowed in concentration,
He puzzles over the machinery of the world.
What does it do?
How does it work?
Why does it do it?
Nostalgic for a time before the world was so hard,
A time nine months ago,
Before he was born.

Friday, June 18, 2010

More on Midgley

PZ Myers leaped on a comment on my earlier post on this Mary Midgley post before I'd even formulated my own response. How he manages this, I do not know. Perhaps he gets more from those squid than simple sexual fulfillment.

The commenter Nick Matzke suggests Myers and I read two of Midgley's books before criticizing her work (at least I think what he means by saying that after reading these works "then we'll talk") and argues that Midgley thinks there's more to life than science, and that those who would use scientific evidence to draw conclusions about something as fundamental as the existence of God miss what's most important about religion.

I'm not arguing about Midgley's overall view, about which I know little, but focusing on this article. Perhaps some of my questions about her meaning could have been answered by reading these other books, but if her audience is limited to those who have read all her books, then she's got a limited readership.

Anyway, Matzke lists four potential benefits of religion.

providing a sense of community
instilling values in children and in themselves
providing a hopeful view of their place in the grand scheme of things (the typical atheist alternative is pretty dour and depressing)
providing an organizational framework for social action, charity, and/or political action

There are two problems with this as a defense of Midgley's article.
The first problem is that, as Myers argues, these are benefits or social goods that do not rely in any way on religion. One of the benefits of the New Atheists is that they are forming exactly the social and philanthropic groups that can achieve these benefits.

The only benefit Matzke mentions that an atheist cannot have is hope for a future afterlife. Unfortunately, such a future life does not exist, and there's no significant evidence that it does. It would be nice to think that there is such a heaven --if it didn't get too boring -- although if there is a corresponding hell for non-believers, then it would be hard to believe a God who treated people in that way was good. The larger question is whether a naturalistic, atheistic worldview can provide as hopeful and happy life as a religious one, and whether that hope and happiness are more rational than the hope and happiness one gets from religion. Although we could not hope for a future afterlife in heaven, we could still hope for human progress here on earth. Theism may, and often does, focus people's attention on that false hope and takes the focus away from the value of life on earth. Not all theists have done this, but I don't think it's a strawman to say that atheism and naturalism more properly focus our attempts at happiness for ourselves and others solely on earth.

The second problem is that I cannot see Midgley's argument in this case as relying on benefits. She argues for respecting religious worldviews, not for recognizing benefits of religion. The factors mentioned could only relate to worldviews if the worldviews included a claim that these benefits are not available without religion. Unfortunately, these benefits are not unique to religion.

Let's assume then that the issue is holism about worldviews. One cannot argue effectively against a religious worldview in isolation since religious believers will have other justifications for their beliefs, and explanations for why their views are not undermined by science. Thus, a complete attempt to refute a worldview must involve giving good reasons to replace these alternative sources with other sources and replace their views about meaning, morality and human life with non-religious views. Interestingly, there is at least one New Atheist who attempts to do this, and that is Owen Flanagan in his The Problem of the Soul.

Strangely, when a professional philosopher who is familiar with all the relevant philosophical literature and who produces a careful, thoughtful and respectful presentation of the alternative non-religious worldview that religious believers could and should adopt, no one ever seems to mention it (Midgley, for example, as far as my internet searches can determine, does not ever comment on him). Perhaps that just means that it's more fun to deal with controversial figures, and it's easier to respond to the arguments of less careful writers. I am not trying to suggest everyone should read some particular author, but it is notable that whenever someone does what the critics of those obtuse and offensive New Atheists insist should be done, that person's work is rarely mentioned.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Prather on New Atheists

I continue to discover articles on the internet accusing New Atheists of all sorts of errors of reasoning. Today's example comes from Paul Prather at the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader.

Prather begins with the standard boilerplate about how sympathetic he is with agnostics, that he himself has doubts sometimes about the truth of Christianity, and whatever happened to the good old days when atheists properly respected and understood Christians and their great contributions to art, philosophy, science, etc. I cannot help thinking that when people write these they are being disingenuous. Would Prather and the others really like Bertrand Russell because he was an expert in the Christian philosopher Leibniz? I suppose that this change in attitude (if it's real) exists because of, rather than in spite of, the increased militancy of the New Atheists. I just cannot help reading this as though "atheist" were replaced by "gay", "lesbian" or "black". I'm not saying that atheism is a special category of people requiring civil protections. However, this nostalgia for a better time in which the proponents of whatever problematic view were quieter about it and did not trouble ordinary, normal people with their demands smacks of the same kind of prejudice. The simple fact is that people with a view, a view that is often not respected in American culture, should argue for it as forcefully as they can, and the feelings of those who might be offended by these demands should not be the primary issue.

Then Prather begins his bill of particulars against the New Atheists. I'll reproduce most of it here.
My objection to the new atheists isn't that they're atheists.

It's that they strike me as hypocrites, which is the charge they unfailingly level, with mixed justification, against the religious. In opposing religion in the manner they do, they betray themselves as possessing the traits they profess to loathe.

They're smug, dogmatic and mean-spirited. They trot out tired, half-truthful stereotypes, and they cherry-pick historical examples of religious wrongdoing while ignoring the innumerable instances in which the faithful have performed great acts of decency and charity.

They pretend that all Christians are bigots prone to violence. They claim that Christians are by definition illogical bumpkins who mindlessly accept fairy tales.

They act as if Thomas Merton and Bob Jones were of one cloth.

As I've said before, I haven't read all the New Atheist stuff out there, and I especially have no desire to defend Christopher Hitchens about anything. That said, this characterization of New Atheists does not seem especially accurate to me. I suspect Prather's problem with this is that, as in any argument, each side brings up the cases that best support their position. But the basic argument against religion is not that all religious people are morally bad or that they all commit bad acts. The basic argument is W.K. Clifford's: dogmatic adherence to a particular world-view is inherently dangerous because one could act or support those who act in harmful ways without any way to know that what you are doing is harmful. Those who value reason and criticism over faith will be able to question their own or others' actions before they harm others, whereas those who believe without sufficient evidence or in the face of evidence, are not able to do that. The faithful have no basis, while remaining faithful, to question their leaders' actions or commands. Hence, the danger of dogmatism is at the heart of New Atheist complaints about religion. This does not mean that atheists are better people than Christians but that fostering questions and criticism enables people to prevent harms (even if people are fallible and do not always prevent them).

Are New Atheists dogmatic themselves? That depends on the atheist and the belief, but there is a difference between a view that explicitly demands unquestioning obedience and one that does not.

Even so, Prather's characterization is a strawman. I really have never read or heard any atheist who says that "all Christians are bigots prone to violence." Shouldn't there be some special penalty for unfairly accusing someone of being unfair? Perhaps it seems that atheists are accusing all Christians of these things to Christians, who identify with that group overall, but I don't really believe the New Atheists are doing this. Moreover, I'm just overwhelmed by Prather's claim: Does he seriously think that New Atheists are unaware of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Obviously he was not a bigot, but he was a Christian. I don't have any problem with him or the myriad others who did good things in the name of religion as moral agents. The point is that people could be equally good if they based their beliefs on rationality and evidence but they would not be prone to the kinds of mistakes that lead to great harms.

I'm less sure that New Atheists cannot be accused of this: "They claim that Christians are by definition illogical bumpkins who mindlessly accept fairy tales." If belief in Christianity is irrational, then all Christians must have at least one irrational belief. But, in all seriousness, no one thinks that all Christians are stupid or incapable of logical reasoning, but in the case of their Christianity, for any number of bad reasons, even intelligent Christians often remain committed to it. To paraphrase something Michael Shermer wrote in Why People Believe Weird Things, intelligent people are about as likely to believe weird things as less intelligent people are. They are just more inventive, and more effective, in their defenses of these weird beliefs. The problem is that people often come to have a weird belief for the wrong reasons and then use their intelligence to find support for those beliefs. This, of course, raises the possibility that atheism is just another weird belief and that those of us who are smart enough to defend it are really just engaging in the same post-hoc rationalization as the smart believers in weird things (e.g. Christianity, religion). I don't think that's the case, but that's a subject for another post.

Continuing directly:
It's absurd, and it's especially grating because it comes from people who flaunt what they consider to be their own relentless logic, superior intellect and brave candor.

Dawkins, for instance, is a retired Oxford University science professor. Hitchens, a prominent journalist, attended Oxford.

No one who presumes to possess grandiose mental gifts should stoop to lumping all believers of all faiths, or for that matter all Christians, or even all Baptists or Catholics, into a single mindless blob.

I wish these atheists would venture, say, into a seminary library. They'd find tens of thousands of volumes written by thinkers great and obscure across two millennia.

They'd find works by scholars who take every word of the Bible literally and works by others who argue that most of the Scripture is made up and that Jesus said almost nothing attributed to him. They'd find every gradation between those extremes.

They'd find the musings of Christians who are pompous, exclusionary and delusional. They'd find Christians who are tolerant and humble and pillars of common sense.

They'd learn that Christians were the driving force behind the establishment of public schools and the abolition of slavery, just as, regrettably, other Christians launched the Crusades.

Christianity is a big, organic, complex system of beliefs with a long, diverse history. It's not just one thing.

I think I've already addressed most of this minus the ad hominems against the atheists. Again, the argument is that dogmatism of the sort fostered by religion in general and Christianity in particular leads to potential harms because it limits the possibility that people might question the decisions of their leaders or the rules they follow. You don't really need to consider the full range of Christian or religious views to understand this argument. And it certainly does no good to consider the good things Christians have done to counterbalance the bad since the argument is not about individual actions or agents. And I really don't understand the logic of committing ad hominems against a group of people whom you are accusing of committing fallacies of reasoning (such as the false generalizations above). We don't have to review all the subtle reasoning of astrologers in order to know that there is nothing to astrology.

The only argument that a Christian (or member of another religion) can make here is that in fact Christianity encourages critical thinking and questioning of the religious text, authorities and all the rest. The problem is that I have never seen a religious group that says this, and it's an explicit part of the monotheistic (esp. Christianity and Islam) religious texts and traditions that one is not supposed to do this, that faith is supposed to be sufficient for belief. In fact, faith is supposed to be a superior reason to believe than is evidence or reason. If there are Christian groups that encourage this kind of questioning of their own leaders, their own texts, etc., then I would think they are mistaken to believe in God, but I would not consider them potentially harmful. But they are at least few and far between.

Most of these arguments about the tone and style of the New Atheists seem to me more directed towards maintaining religion as sacrosanct in that it is acceptable (now, anyway) to doubt religion privately, but one is not supposed to do so publicly or to do so in a disrespectful way. If believers cannot keep their views free from criticism, they want them to be criticized in a way that makes clear that they are still free to continue believing as they do, that belief without sufficient evidence is responsible and respectable. But the New Atheists want to shatter that assumption about faith, the assumption that faith without evidence is worthy of respect. That privileged status for religious belief is the most important part of religion to reject. Only when the light of reason is allowed to illuminate mistaken belief systems, is it possible to come to a more enlightened view.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mary Midgley, Abuses of Science

I read PZ Myers's blogpost on this post by Mary Midgley. I'm not going to address Myers' critique, but here's my take on the article. [Revised for brevity.]

What caught my attention, however, was actually Midgley's second paragraph. Let's quote the first two paragraphs to start.

Science really isn't connected to the rest of life half as straightforwardly as one might wish. For instance, Isaac Newton noted gladly that his theory of gravitation gave a scientific proof of God's existence. Today's anti-god warriors, by contrast, declare that Darwin's evolutionary theory gives a scientific disproof of that existence and use this reasoning, quite as confidently as Newton used his, to convert the public.

In both cases the huge prestige of science is being used not for scientific purposes but to defend an existing general world-view. In both cases that defence is found necessary because this world-view, though prevalent and respected, has been coming under attack. And in both cases the supposedly scientific argument provided is weak. It only convinces people who already share that world-view.

This does appear to be a strawman. I don't know of any atheists (with perhaps some of my undergrads excepted) who will claim that evolution immediately disproves the existence of God. It counts as fairly strong evidence against the idea that life was created by a perfect God, however. So, evolution is not relevant only to creationism but to any of the ID forms of God-belief.

Be that as it may, I think Midgley is actually trying to establish something else here, however. She's suggesting that in some sense religion may not be verifiable/falsifiable in the way that science wishes its claims to be, and perhaps not at all. Or perhaps what she wants to argue is that one can have no evidence for or against religion without already accepting or rejecting a world-view. And, given that religion (or a particular religion) constitutes a world-view, it may be impossible to prove or disprove (or provide evidence for or against) religion or a particular religion. It's all a bit vague. At any rate, the arguments of Newton and the New Atheists, a recent movement to argue against the existence of God and undermine public support for religion, are not useful in doing this since they only appeal to partisans who already agree with the side's basic theist or atheist contention.

But before I go further, please note the utter confusion in the second paragraph. She compares Newton's deism with the New Atheism. She starts by mentioning Newton's claim to have proved the existence of God using science. Then, in the second paragraph, claims that this is a case in which "the huge prestige of science is being used to defend" a "prevalent and respected" world-view that "has been coming under attack". The logic here requires that she be saying that atheism is a prevalent and respected world-view that has been coming under attack. When Newton argues for deism, that's what he's doing.

So when the New Atheists use evolution, they must be using science to support their prevalent and respected position after it has come under attack. That's just plain inaccurate. If Midgley wants to claim that Newton's deism is prevalent and respected, she's probably about half right. Atheism simply is not prevalent or respected at least not by the American public. Perhaps this is true of the British, but I don't think so. If so, more power to them, I suppose.

I don't really have the patience to quote and dissect the basic argument. She argues that evolution only strictly contradicts creationism, and no one's really a creationist (except about 40% of the US population--oops). So arguments from evolution are basically irrelevant to Christianity or theism.

That's not quite right. My view of this is that one primary argument for atheism is a simplicity argument. Without a need to explain something in supernatural terms, we should do without supernatural posits. Evolution then undermines one of the primary items purportedly in need of supernatural explanation. Thus, if we can show that there is no need to appeal to God to explain the origin, nature, distribution and qualities of life, then we lose one reason constantly given in favor of God's existence. Then, without any further items needing supernatural explanation, we can reject the existence of God as being a completely unnecessary (not to say excessive) explanatory posit. Hence, we reject the existence of God.

Now we get to the other part of Midgley's argument, talking about creationism:
Like cargo cults, however, this Bible worship is also a spiritual phenomenon, a message felt in the heart. Despite its confusions, it involves a genuine response to the real wisdom which can also be found in the Bible. Serious attempts to answer it need, therefore, to acknowledge that wisdom. They must try to show ways of combining it with more modern thinking.

Belief in God is not an isolated factual opinion, like belief in the Loch Ness monster – not, as Richard Dawkins suggests, just one more "scientific hypothesis like any other". It is a world-view, an all-enclosing vision of the kind of world that we inhabit. We all have these visions. Though they are always loaded with lumber and often dangerous, we need them. So, when we try to relate and improve them we have to treat each of them as a whole. We would not be right, any more than Newton was, to start by taking our own standpoint as infallible.

The basic form of the argument I am using could be considered scientific although I prefer to consider it a more generally rational argument. Oversimplifying a bit, we should only believe in things when we have a good reason to; otherwise we reject belief in them. But on Midgley's account, we cannot reason in this way at all. Rather, belief in God is a world-view, and thus it is not open to this sort of support or rejection.

I'll skip the bit about combining the wisdom of the Bible with a more modern understanding. I think Myers is basically right about this. But I will talk about the last paragraph. She argues that belief in God is worthwhile in some way even if it cannot be supported or undermined by empirical evidence, at least not in isolation, and so we need to look at the belief as a whole and "improve" it in some way. Now, why should we improve belief in God rather than simply reject it? What is the improvement in that belief that would render it superior to atheist belief? I can see no merit in these proposals except, perhaps, pragmatically, to wean people off their stone-age religion to a less-harmful bronze-age religion. She may think that people are not intellectually or emotionally capable of rejecting religion, but I'm not sure I agree, and I don't see this as sufficient reason to cease criticizing any such religious view even if she's right.

Finally, what's with the "all-enclosing vision" stuff? I think she's saying that each world-view carries with it its own standards of evidence, so we cannot evaluate the world-view against the standards of any other world-view. And if the world-view's standard has no problems with self-contradiction, contradictions with empirical evidence, or absurdity, then, presumably, there is no way to refute that world-view by appealing to those sorts of problem. Thus, empirical evidence only convinces those who start with a world-view that accepts empirical evidence as a means of justification.

If she's serious about this, then she's adopting a thorough-going skepticism. That's not the kind of belief you generally find in a theist or deist or religious thinker. More importantly, I just don't think this view is justified. People even with opposing world-views can recognize the results of experiments, the value of empirical evidence, and the benefits of the modern scientific world-view. Few fundamentalists, for example, forgo medical treatment because science conflicts with their religious world-view.

We patch together our beliefs about the world--our world-views--based on our experiences, and those are not infinitely malleable given our presuppositions. We do have to recognize that belief systems consist of complex sets of beliefs in justificatory relationships. And people will attempt to hold on to some beliefs while modifying others. But that doesn't mean that world-views are infinitely malleable and equally deserving of respect. Some world-views work; some require ridiculous mental gymnastics to maintain in the face of overwhelming evidence and internal contradiction. When the total systems of the atheist and the theist are compared, I believe ultimately any rational person can see which system is better.

I'd like to think that Midgley is merely making this commonplace point about holism and encouraging atheists to be more comprehensive in their arguments, but, given the context in which she defends the viewpoints of even the creationists, I do not think that's her purpose. To the contrary, not all world-views are equal, and we can use empirical evidence to help distinguish them. Irrationality does not count as a defensible world-view.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Adventures of Geniusman, Episode 26: The Spill!

While perusing thousands of pages of documents obtained from the Minerals Management Service, Geniusman--the genius with the intelligence of ten smart people--discovers a potential catastrophe.
"Great Scott!" he exclaimed. "British Petroleum's safety measures on its deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico are clearly inadequate. They are endangering the entire Gulf Coast."
Geniusman rushed to the site of a deepwater drilling rig in his jetcar and confronted the rig's foreman.
"Sir, your blowout preventers are prone to failure, and you have no redundancy measures prepared in case of a blowout. Simple expediency demands you terminate operations until sufficient backup measures have been installed."
The foreman replied, "Sorry, we're just contractors. If you want to stop the drilling, you'll have to take it up with our bosses at BP."
"You could have a spill that would dwarf the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. The livelihoods of tens of thousands of people depend on your shutting this well down."
"My livelihood depends on keeping it running," the foreman said. "Like I said, if you want to change it, you'll have to talk to BP."

Geniusman flew to BP headquarters and pushed his way into the CEO's office. "Your deepwater drilling rigs are completely unprepared for a blowout. A spill could spew billions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It would destroy fragile wetlands, habitats for birds and the way of life for tens of thousands of people."
The CEO looked alarmed. "Do these animals in the Gulf and on the coast have lawyers?"
"No, but--"
"That's a relief. Can the wetlands sue us?"
"No, but the people whose lives you wreck will."
"You're right, Geniusman, this calls for immediate action. I'll have the legal department draw up agreements for cash settlements to people who agree not to sue us. That should keep the costs manageable. And if we get all the Gulf Coast residents to sign these in advance of a spill, which we'll assure them can never happen, we'll save a bundle. Thanks, Geniusman."
"But. . . but. . . the government. . ."
"That's right. The government can fine us. Up to 75 million dollars. That's the amount we save by operating without a safety net in about a six month period. It's cheaper just to pay the fine."
"But what about the public relations disaster?"
"Good point. We'll hire the best PR firm in the world. You're full of great advice, Geniusman."
"No," Geniusman insisted, "I want you to stop the drilling until you can guarantee that it's safe."
"I don't think so, Geniusman. Unless the government changes its policy, we don't have financial incentive to stop drilling."

Geniusman went to the Minerals Management Service to get them to enforce their rules and force BP from drilling. He burst in, "BP's paperwork is not in proper order. You have an obligation to shut them down, or fine them enough so they shut themselves down, until they show they are prepared to prevent a spill and recover if there is one in their deepwater wells."
"I don't know who you think you are to tell me what to do, but BP's paperwork is completely in order."
"I'm Geniusman--I'm smarter than ten smart men (or women). And BP's plan is not adequate. Their recovery plan calls for cleaning oil off walruses. That's not a plan for the Gulf Coast; they just cut-and-pasted their plan for Alaska and called it their Gulf Coast plan."
"Look, I don't care how many smart men you are. Can you offer me a job? After a few years of working here, I'll retire to a comfortable job at BP or one of their lobbying outfits. Why should I risk my future for something to prevent something that will probably never happen?"
"Because it's your job as a regulator to regulate the industry!"
"F*#k that. Now I've gotta date with a lobbyist, and I need to score some blow."

Geniusman bypassed the rest of the government bureaucracy and went straight to the Oval Office. "Mr. President, we need to shut down British Petroleum's deepwater drilling operation until they improve their safety precautions."
The President turned off the remote control on the baseball game he was watching. "Now, hold on, Geniusman, heh, heh. We need that oil. We need ta keep the oil comin' if we want to keep livin' the American way."
"Mr. President, we don't need to shut them down permanently. We just need to force them to make their drilling safer. Here are the documents that show they are unprepared for a spill, and my probability projections of the virtual certainty of a spill within the next few years." Geniusman handed the President a thick manila folder.
The President took the folder and pushed a button on his desk. "Vice, get in here. We got a problem." He turned to Geniusman and settled back in his chair. "So, who ya like in the Series? I got a few bucks to put on a team, but yer a genius. Who's gonna win it?"
Geniusman looked stunned, but before he could answer the Vice President came in.
The President handed him the folder. "Geniusman says BP's drilling in the Gulf isn't safe. What do ya think a this?"
The Vice President glanced at the first document in the folder. "Urr, drilling is perfectly safe. We've got lots of regulators overseeing all this drilling. There's nothing to worry about."
Geniusman responded, "The regulators just aren't paying attention. They're helping the oil companies more than they are protecting the American people. Here, let me show you how lax they are." He tried to point to open the folder.
"Err, no need, no need. We have to work with the oil companies and keep them drilling. The American people need to know that they'll always have enough oil."
"But these oil wells save people pennies. It'll cost a lot more to clean up a spill. These wells can provide enough oil for a few days of American oil consumption. They'll never even notice it."
"Urm, no, no. We have to trust our friends in the oil industry to do the right thing. I know them; they're good people. And you're either with us or against us."
Geniusman recoiled, "Whether they're good people or not isn't the issue. It's the safety of the wells. I can go to the American people and show them the risks."
The Vice President responded, "You can, but that, urm, may be giving material support to terrorists, giving people targets for terror attacks. We've got a place in Guantanamo for people like that."
"But I'm an American citizen!"
"Doesn't matter. Hurrgh, we can do anything we want during a time of war." He waved for the nearest Secret Service agent.
The Secret Service agent came over. "Did you touch the Vice President? If you touched him, that's assault, you know. Possibly treason."
Geniusman left quickly before the Secret Service agent could draw his gun.

Geniusman returned to his Genius Cave. "I'll have to wait until the next President is elected and try again. In the meantime, I'll make my case on television." So, Geniusman called the cable talk shows. The only shows that would take him were Bill O'Reilly's show and the Daily Show.

The Daily Show was funny and informative, but in only three minutes, all the audience learned was that Geniusman was not very funny and was upset about drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. But they all forgot the point of the interview as soon as they saw the bear falling on a trampoline during their moment of Zen. So his last hope was Bill O'Reilly.

O'Reilly opened the segment, "Tonight we have as a special guest Geniusman, who is smarter than ten smart men, and he's got some typical Liberal, alarmist claptrap about oil drilling. Join me in welcoming Geniusman to the Factor."
Geniusman began, "Thank you, Bill. I've got evidence that-"
O'Reilly interrupted, "You're called Geniusman. You're a genius?"
"That's what it says on my mailbox. Now the evidence--"
O'Reilly interrupted again, "So, you're saying that you're smarter than everyone. What makes you so much better than everyone else?"
"I'm not. I just want to show you the evidence--"
O'Reilly interrupted, "Why do you hate the free enterprise system? British Petroleum is just trying to make a buck. What do you have against people making a living?"
"I don't have anything against that. It's just that the way they are trying to make a living is dangerous to the people and environment--"
"So, you're one of those environmental whackos. You are always trying to scare people and use fear to take away people's jobs. You care more about pelicans than people!"
"No, I'm not a whacko, and I don't want to take away people's jobs. I just want the drilling to be safer so people living off the Gulf Coast can keep--"
"Aren't you just another global warming, nuclear power, holes in the ozone layer alarmist? It's always the end of the world with you people. We've been fine so far. Why change?"
"I'm not an alarmist; and we haven't been fine so far, those are all genuine--"
"So, you hate America. 'We're not fine,' that's what you just said. Why do you hate America? Are you a Communist or just a Socialist?"
"I don't hate America. I just--"
"So, you're a Socialist?"
"No, look, it's got nothing to do with that. I just want people to know that--"
"It's the free market. If people don't like British Petroleum, they can buy Shell or Exxon. That's how we get rid of environmental problems by choosing the companies that do the right thing."
"But people don't know about the--"
"Well, that's what we're doing here. We're informing the American people about your fear-mongering about BP."
"It's not fear-mongering, and I haven't had a chance to inform anyone--"
"Well, that's all the time we have for tonight. My viewers are smart folks, and they can decide whether the trust a whackjob like you or the good folks at BP. And now a word from our sponsors, British Petroleum."
And that was it. Geniusman had exhausted his resources. He could only wait for the new President.

Nine months later with the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Geniusman got a ticket and approached the new President during the inaugural celebration.
"Mr. President, I have important information."
"Geniusman, can this wait? We're having a celebration here."
"I'm afraid I need to show you this right away. I was unable to convince the last President, so an environmental catastrophe is only getting closer."
"Ok. Let me see it. What . . . kind of evidence. . . have you got?"
Geniusman handed him the folder. "It's all there. BP is drilling in the Gulf with equipment that is not prepared for a leak or a blowout."
"Thank you, Geniusman." The President looked over the first few pages. "I think we'll need to convene a . . . bipartisan . . . blue ribbon commission with representatives of . . . industry . . . environmental groups and . . . stakeholders in the Gulf."
"But that will take months if lobbyists, oil industry executives and pro-drilling Republicans, who will oppose you on everything anyway, don't manage to water down my recommendations, slow down the investigation further or stop the changes altogether. You don't need any commissions. The information is right there; the MMS has the regulatory power to shut them down. All you need to do is make the MMS actually follow their Congressional mandate."
"I'll take that under . . . advisement, Geniusman, but we need to . . . get everyone on board if . . . we want to have a successful . . . policy. And, I'm sorry, but now . . . I want to dance with . . . my wife."

Geniusman left the President and returned despondent to his Genius Lair. Turning to his sidekick, he said, "Whiz Kid, get my broker. We're going to buy all the stock in British Petroleum we can afford."

[Note the two Tick references/quotations.]
Update: Please note that, of course, this quote is entirely fiction and any resemblance to any persons, corporations, or anything else is entirely accidental.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

David Hart on New Atheists, the Sequel

I've never been good at leaving something alone once I've started it, so I thought I'd add a few, hopefully final criticisms of Hart's article in First Things. First, I'll comment a bit on his criticism of Dawkin's argument, avoid commenting on Christopher Hitchens, and revisit my comments on the tragic sense atheists are supposed to feel.

To summarize my previous post: Hart criticizes New Atheists in the same simplistic terms he claims New Atheists use in their own arguments. He misunderstands the goals and audience of the New Atheists--expecting them to be presenting sophisticated philosophical arguments when they are addressing philosophically unsophisticated audiences with arguments that should resonate with them. I mostly do not read the New Atheists because I am a professional philosopher and do not expect anything philosophically original from them, and Hart is either disingenuous when he says he expects this of them or he is unrealistic in his expectations of popular books.

To begin: Richard Dawkins has a very odd argument about God and complexity. I don't know that I can do it justice, but here's a brief summary of the point from The God Delusion (quoted in wikipedia):
"The temptation [to attribute the appearance of a design to actual design itself] is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable." (p. 158)

He claims the only way we know how to explain the existence of complexity is through evolution primarily by natural selection. And so in order to explain God's complexity we would either require that sort of explanation or some other unknown explanation. And this leads us to have to confront the very problem--explaining complexity--that God's existence was supposed to obviate.

Hart summarizes the argument this way:
But something worse than mere misunderstanding lies at the base of Dawkins’ own special version of the argument from infinite regress—a version in which he takes a pride of almost maternal fierceness. Any “being,” he asserts, capable of exercising total control over the universe would have to be an extremely complex being, and because we know that complex beings must evolve from simpler beings and that the probability of a being as complex as that evolving is vanishingly minute, it is almost certain that no God exists. Q.E.D. But, of course, this scarcely rises to the level of nonsense. We can all happily concede that no complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos and subject to the rules of evolution, exists. But who has ever suggested the contrary?

This is a bit unfair to Dawkins since he does not claim that God evolved, but if your theory requires that the only explanation for something is that it evolved, and the thing did not or could not have evolved, then you lack an explanation for that thing. Dawkins overlooks the whole idea of a self-existent (as Rowe terms it) being, one whose explanation is self-contained in some sense. We do not need to explain why God exists because God is, as a putatively perfect being, the sort of thing that if it exists at all, it must exist. Something that exists and has the property of necessary existence is greater than something that exists but only has the property of contingent existence. (I'm not really convinced that necessary and contingent existence of things are properties of those things, but that's the basic theist idea anyway.) So, Dawkins really should pursue another line of argument here. Still, arguing that Dawkins is mistaken because he misunderstands divine simplicity is, I believe, completely wrongheaded, and that's Hart's strategy.

Hart criticizes the argument (immediately following) while making some gratuitous insults:
Numerous attempts have been made, by the way, to apprise Dawkins of what the traditional definition of divine simplicity implies, and of how it logically follows from the very idea of transcendence, and to explain to him what it means to speak of God as the transcendent fullness of actuality, and how this differs in kind from talk of quantitative degrees of composite complexity. But all the evidence suggests that Dawkins has never understood the point being made, and it is his unfortunate habit contemptuously to dismiss as meaningless concepts whose meanings elude him. Frankly, going solely on the record of his published work, it would be rash to assume that Dawkins has ever learned how to reason his way to the end of a simple syllogism.

Contrary to Hart's insistence, most of this doesn't really mean anything. (Oh no, I'm "dismiss[ing] as meaningless concepts whose meanings elude" me! I must be stupid or uninformed.) I don't know what the "very idea of transcendence" is or how it could entail simplicity, or what it means for God to be the "transcendent fullness of actuality", but it really is clear that God is complex in at least some sense. Maybe God is a single, non-physical substance with no parts or divisions and so is simple in that sense (assuming that is a coherent proposition), but God must be complex if we are to understand God as intentionally designing the universe. Take Leibniz' idea that God chooses the best possible world to actualize: God must hold the ideas of all logically possible universes and evaluate them for goodness, and then choose to create or actualize the one in which this goodness is greatest. That requires a representation not just of the actual complex universe but also of an infinite number of other universes, some of which must be at least as complex as the actual one. If God is capable of representing the universe, then God must have some mental complexity, something internal to God onto which God can map the possible universes. That is necessary for any concept of informational complexity, and so God must have at least that much complexity (of that sort). Similarly, if God is capable of representing all of mathematics, then God must have an infinitely complex internal representation of it. So, you can claim that God is a simple substance (although I've never been sure this is coherent), but you cannot claim that God is not informationally complex.

I'm sure I will be criticized for trying to understand God in human terms or overlooking his divine mystery or something, but this ability to represent or map is just a condition for anything having any information or knowledge of anything. If God doesn't do this, then God doesn't know it. (Maybe God "offloads" representations onto possible universes themselves, which God directly knows in that divinely mystical way. Then God wouldn't need internal representations. Possibly, but you'd have to accept David Lewis's concretism about possible worlds.)

On to my second point: avoiding defending Christopher Hitchens. I've never been impressed by Hitchens, and I don't particularly appreciate him being associated with atheism. Whether he's lying, arguing fallaciously, or just generally being offensive and insulting about the Iraq war, or whether he's doing those things on behalf of atheism, I wish he weren't making any of these arguments. That's why I haven't read his book, and so cannot defend him against Hart's criticisms.

But I am not just going to disclaim any interest in or responsibility for Hitchens. My purpose in mentioning this is to call attention to the following passage in Hart.

To appreciate the true spirit of the New Atheism, however, and to take proper measure of its intellectual depth, one really has to turn to Christopher Hitchens. Admittedly, he is the most egregiously slapdash of the New Atheists. . .

This is bizarre reasoning. Hart admits that Hitchens' arguments are the sloppiest of all the New Atheist arguments, and then insists that these arguments are the most representative of those New Atheist arguments. It's as though I wanted to criticize the Catholic church's stance on sex with altar boys by saying:
X priest has had more sex with altar boys than anyone in the Catholic hierarchy, but to take the proper measure of the pedophilia of the church overall, one has to focus on X.
Or, arguing that Germans are evil because:
Hitler is the most evil German in recorded history, and to take a proper measure of the moral character of Germany, one really has to turn to Hitler. . .
It's a strawman to take an extreme case as representative of a group in general, and Hart is claiming that we must take the most extreme case as the one most representative of the group. It's hard to imagine a more deliberate use of the strawman fallacy. My critical thinking students should thank David Hart for making their next exam that much easier.

Finally, I must regretfully return to my final comment on the argument about how atheists are supposed to feel about the non-existence of God. I had asserted confidently that it couldn't be that atheists were supposed to be missing something metaphysical such as meaning or objective morality, and concluded that it was probably fear of death and nonexistence that New Atheists were supposed to miss. Regrettably, I was mistaken about this. Hart really does think that if God does not exist, life is meaningless and some objective moral rules are upset.

He writes,

The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche. How much more immediate and troubling the force of his protest against Christianity seems when compared to theirs, even more than a century after his death. Perhaps his intellectual courage—his willingness to confront the implications of his renunciation of the Christian story of truth and the transcendent good without evasions or retreats—is rather a lot to ask of any other thinker, but it does rather make the atheist chic of today look fairly craven by comparison.

This could be the first recorded instance of praise of Nietzsche by a Christian apologist, and I think I could be forgiven if I suspected Nietzsche was being used as nothing more than a tool to bludgeon the New Atheists rather than someone genuinely admired. But I am of too suspicious a nature and will let this pass. I do not, of course, know the contents of Hart's mind (or heart, for that matter). The substance of the argument above is only an appeal to emotion--admiration for Nietzsche's courage--rather than cogent argument, so let's move on to see what it is that Nietzsche faced courageously and New Atheists overlook.

Here's the first thing, continuing directly from the above:
Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness.

Hart claims that Christianity set up a system of morality, and rejection of Christianity would require some revolutionary replacement of its morality with a new type of morality. Or, in short, that morality (or our understanding of morality) depends on an overarching worldview such as Christianity, and there cannot be a coherent moral view that does not tie in to or derive from such a view. This is false. Morality does not depend on religion, whether Christian or otherwise. And our understanding of morality does not depend on it either. Take a simple example: no one accepts all the Biblical injunctions--Old or New Testament--we accept only those that make sense to us as good moral rules. Almost no one advocates stoning adulters or drunken disobedient sons. Even the New Testament has rules Christians ignore. Paul required that women submit to their husbands, wear their heads covered at church, and Jesus had some radical stuff to say about caring for the morrow and living in poverty. People test these rules against a preexisting (or logically prior) set of moral beliefs before accepting or rejecting them. So, morality must be independent, and knowable independently, of religion.

No one doubts that the way one is raised can influence one's moral beliefs, and that people raised in (for example) fundamentalist religious cultures will have different particular moral beliefs than people raised in more secular ones. But that does not mean that such a background is necessary for understanding morality. People raised in fundamentalist religious homes are more likely to reject evolution, but it doesn't follow that evolution depends on or is only knowable given some particular cultural background. It is possible to understand morality without accepting any set of religious presuppositions, so when we reject religion, we don't need some radical replacement of a religious worldview. We just need to reason out what the best moral rules are and try to follow them. This is easier said than done, but it's not impossible.

I am not a Nietzsche scholar, so I will not defend him on this, but the times were certainly different then. Atheism was a radical position that freed people from the mistaken moral views of their religion and revalued their values. But, as Hart earlier noted, we are a more secular society now, and we recognize, thanks to Nietzsche among many others, that we can develop a morality without religious input. We don't need Nietzsche's radicalism anymore; what was radical then is commonplace now. In fact, it's almost perverse that Hart wants atheists to reject Christian morality rather than accept that Christianity was simply correct that, say, people should care for others as much as they care for themselves, that we should see nobility in those who suffer as much as we see in those who conquer. These moral insights do not depend on the religion, and they need not be rejected because one rejects the metaphysical systems of theism or Christianity.

But, according to Hart, rejecting Christianity means rejecting much more. Atheism does not just demand a revaluation of values but a recognition of the meaninglessness of life. Hart interprets Nietzsche to be criticizing those like the New Atheists who:
do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

Certainly this is nicely put, but it's not true that meaning depends on God. A mechanistic universe is no more and no less meaningful than a divinely created, purposeful one. That one has been created for a purpose by another being is simply not relevant to the meaning of one's life. Imagine I create a human being in a lab (from chemicals, from quantum "nothingness", or somehow from true nothingness) and give him the purpose to clean my lab. Have I given that creation's life meaning? Is it any more or less meaningful than someone who does exactly the same things with the same enthusiasm (or lack of it) whom I have hired off the street? No, the meaning of this person's life is completely unaffected by whether he was created with a purpose or not. Whatever meaning is, it's not being created with a purpose.

Perhaps one will say that it is God's goodness that determines that his creation of us endows our lives with meaning. But if it is the fact that God created us with a good or correct purpose that makes our lives meaningful, then God's creating us is irrelevant. It's the goodness or correctness of that purpose that does all the work; my life would be meaningful as long as it fulfilled that purpose whether God created me to do it or not.

It may sometimes seem as though meaning is impossible in a mechanistic, cold, uncaring universe where our actions have only limited effects that dissipate into the infinity of the universe, where our plans all come to naught eventually in the heat death of the universe. But this is not relevant; if anything we do matters now, then it matters. That's enough for meaning, and the size and scope of our lives viewed against the infinite size and length of the universe cannot undermine that no matter how it seems to Hart or seemed to Nietzsche. This is not evasion; if what I do matters at all, it is irrelevant whether it matters now or ten million years from now or for all eternity. If it matters at all, that is good enough. (And whether it matters at all is independent of God.)

Atheism need not be bleak, lead to meaninglessness or depression, extinguish the beauty of nature or the goodness of humanity; it need not stifle our creative urges or replace art and poetry with drabness; it cannot destroy our hopes for the future. Atheists only recognize the reality of our universe and our relation to it without spiritual blinders or false hopes. And a world based on reason and love for humanity and all sentient beings in this world rather than a fantastical heaven, one independent of stale dogma and mystical mumbo-jumbo can only have a brighter future.

Breaking News! President Obama Takes S#%t in White House

Dissociated Press--June 3, 2010
Republicans strongly criticized President Obama today for taking a dump in the White House. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said, "President Obama promised a different kind of administration. He promised the cleanest, most open administration in history. Yet here he is dropping a load in the people's sacred house. And how open is the President about this? This is the worst kind of backroom deal. This is hidden away from public view in the President's personal bathroom with no video cameras or reporters present. If the President is going to continue this dirty, fudge-factory business-as-usual in the people's house, then he should at least set up C-SPAN cameras in the Presidential john so that the American people watch him laying his bricks and can judge the defecation for themselves."

A high ranking White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he had not been cleared to discuss fecal matters, said, "This is a perfectly normal biological function, one that presidents have engaged in as a matter of course for generations. No one regrets the need for the unpleasantness of private, biological turd-making any more than the President does. Especially after last night's chili. Since Senate Republicans put a secret hold on Obama's nominee for his personal chef, he's had to rely on rejects from Fox Television's Hell's Kitchen and their cooking does not always agree with the Presidential digestion. Until Washington changes its way of taking dumps, President Obama has no choice but to bake his own brownies in the same way."

Opinions differ on the President's crapping in the White House, but two things are certain: The President will continue to drop deuces in the porcelain throne, and Republicans will continue to criticize him for it.

Inspired by this.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

David Hart on New Atheists for First Things

A friend recommended that I read a book review by David Hart on the so-called New Atheists. I have not read the book, so I cannot make much in the way of substantive commentary. I will comment on what I can of the article, however. (After basically exhausting myself on this post after getting only through about the first half of the article, I bailed out. So comments on half the article is all I've got it.)

Before beginning, I should note that the New Atheism isn't all that new. It's really just a term used to designate a particularly vocal group of atheists whose views, books and arguments have become somewhat fashionable lately. I don't know whether it was just a coincidence of books coming out more or less at the same time (mostly Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens) or whether perhaps the culture is more willing to take atheism seriously and actually consider the possibility that it may be correct. But the ideas and the arguments have a long history, going back at least to Epicurus (not really an atheist, but one who rejected his traditional religion using arguments that feel remarkably relevant today), including prominently Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll. No one should be surprised at the content of the arguments. Perhaps the only difference between these New Atheists and older atheists is that they exhibit a more positive attitude toward atheism or naturalism than have others. But even that is not new to the New Atheists. All the people I cited a moment ago viewed rejection of religion as liberating, not cause for depression but celebration. Still, the name is here, and perhaps there is even a growing movement instigated by this work, so there may be something to the name. (Wikipedia says: "The latest statistics show that a lack of religious identity increased in every US state between 1990 and 2008.")

On to the critique of Hart. Hart begins his review of by citing the "intellectually and morally trivial" arguments of New Atheists in general and describing the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists as a "whole drab assemblage of preachments and preenings". Hart claims that he hoped it "would contain at least one logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument for not believing in God" but found no such arguments. He does allow that "Some of the writers exhibit a measure of wholesome tentativeness in making their cases, and as a rule the quality of the essays is inversely proportionate to the air of authority their authors affect." (It's hardly surprising that people who affect a greater air of authority would also be less tentative in making their claims. In fact, this is almost a triviality. The key in this sentence is that Hart claims these authors "affect" the "air" of authority. What constitutes affecting an air of authority rather than actually being authoritative presumably has something to do with whether they assert things with which Hart agrees.)

Hart then backs up his assertion by giving one sentence descriptions of each article with the description itself being insulting or appending a brief insult to the description. Here are a couple of examples:

Nicholas Everitt and Stephen Law recycle the old (and incorrigibly impressionistic) argument that claims of God’s omnipotence seem incompatible with claims of his goodness. Michael Tooley does not like the picture of Jesus that emerges from the gospels, at least as he reads them.

The first sentence is an example of poisoning the well (describing a position or argument in such a way that one could not reasonably accept it). The second sentence is a strawman, the fallacy of describing an opponent's position in an exaggerated or inaccurate way. Tooley, clearly, does not think that Jesus is just unlikeable, especially just unlikeable on his own reading. I haven't read Tooley's article, but I can guarantee that's not his point. Apparently, the need for tentativeness and "logically compelling, deeply informed, morally profound, or conceptually arresting argument" is only something that applies to people besides David Hart.

It should go without saying that a book written for a popular audience will not include all the subtleties one might hope for in work for an expert audience (a point to which I shall return). Perhaps the flaws in the book come to no more than that although I cannot say whether that's the case. Nonetheless, Hart seeks an explanation for the oh-so-obviously flawed arguments of the book.

For one thing, it seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike. In part, of course, this is because the modern media encourage only fragmentary, sloganeering, and emotive debates, but it is also because centuries of the incremental secularization of society have left us with a shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes

If he really meant the first part of this criticism, he would focus on the media rather than this book. But he still manages to turn a critique of the media into a critique of secularism, if not atheism and agnosticism. Unfortunately, I have no idea what this argument comes to. People do not all share the same religious beliefs. In the US, at least, the Constitution guarantees that each person is free to believe as he or she chooses, and the government can (in theory) favor no position on religion. Moreover, US culture has become increasing multi-cultural, so if one wants to communicate as broadly as possible, then one has to pitch one's discussion to people of all faiths, or of no faith, in order to be convincing.

One might praise this increase in inclusiveness, diversity and tolerance, but Hart thinks this indicates a lack of, as I quoted above, "shared grammar that is perhaps no longer adequate to the kinds of claims that either reflective faith or reflective faithlessness makes." I have no idea what this claim means. Why should it be impossible to express true claims about religion in neutral terms that do not assume some shared background of faith? If it is not possible to make oneself intelligible and persuasive to those who do not share one's faith, then the fault does not lie in the "grammar" of a secular society but in the arguments themselves.

Hart then bemoans the brilliant atheists and agnostics of the past. Here's the quote:
What sad times are these when passing ruffians can say "Ni!" at will to old ladies. Why even those who arrange and design shrubbery are at considerable economic distress at this period in history.

Sorry, the quote is:
The principal source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infidels lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefathers in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants, or a great lover because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel. So long as one can choose one’s conquests in advance, taking always the paths of least resistance, one can always imagine oneself a Napoleon or a Casanova (and even better: the one without a Waterloo, the other without the clap).

Yes, Hart is nostalgic for a time when atheists had to be courageous in order to express their opinions. Perhaps the 16th and 17th centuries were good times to demonstrate your true, courageous, atheist bona fides. Here are a few examples of the treatment of atheists at that time:

How dangerous it was to be accused of being an atheist at this time is illustrated by the examples of Étienne Dolet who was strangled and burned in 1546, and Giulio Cesare Vanini who received a similar fate in 1619. In 1689 the Polish nobleman Kazimierz Łyszczyński, who had allegedly denied the existence of God in his philosophical treatise De non existentia Dei, was condemned to death in Warsaw for atheism and beheaded after his tongue was pulled out with a burning iron and his hands slowly burned.

Perhaps that is not the kind of courage Hart has in mind. Perhaps he only requires the courage of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who (from the same source):
was expelled from Oxford University in 1811 for submitting to the Dean an anonymous pamphlet that he wrote titled The Necessity of Atheism.

Yes, those were the days. Losing one's tongue or even one's education was not cheap, and nothing cheap, as is atheism these days, is worth having.

Hart is involved in the time-honored tactic of concern-trolling, in which the concern-troll voices his or her concern that his or her opponents are too boorish, impolite or otherwise uncivil. It's really not relevant whether these atheists are boorish. Their claims and arguments should be subjected to serious critique (not Hart's flippant rejection), and Hart should stop whining about their behavior.

One thing we can state with confidence. People who constantly lament a lack of politeness on the part of their opponents are the ones who are losing an argument. The ones who complain to the referees about the unfairness of the game are not the ones dunking, they are the ones being dunked on. So, the passive-aggressive appeal to one's opponents to be more civil, is both completely irrelevant to the truth of their claims and a sign of weakness in one's own argument.

But Hart does get serious, so let's be serious with him.

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

One wonders if it's really worth it to be a truly profound atheist if this is the requirement. Does anyone really need to be a truly profound anti-Rastafari? Or is it enough to be a naive and simplistic anti-Rastafari? It is easy to suspect that there is a "No-True Scotsman" fallacy lurking here: anyone who disagrees with Hart's views in a way he views as insufficiently respectful does not actually know the literature in its most sophisticated forms. Still, let's take him to be making an honest claim here and move on to the second sentence.

Here is the fundamental mistake that virtually every critic of the New Atheist movement makes. These New Atheists are not concerned with the beliefs of the intellectual elite but the beliefs of ordinary people. According to most polls, about 40% of Americans believe in the literal truth of Genesis. Is there any point in addressing a book to them and talking about the most sophisticated theologians' views (since those theologians do not believe in the literal truth of Genesis either)? The problem nearly all critics of the New Atheists have is that they think the New Atheist arguments should be addressed to them and their elite, sophisticated view. They aren't. Philosophers are not the audience for these works. If that means the New Atheist authors sometimes miss a subtle point, they may still be effectively critiquing an argument that lots of ordinary people accept or making an argument that ordinary people will accept. I don't mean to excuse fallacious reasoning or anything of the sort, but to criticize the New Atheists for failing to address one's treasured, sophisticated view is simply to miss the point. This isn't about you; it's about the views of a distressingly high percentage of Americans who have patently superstitious beliefs. Actual human beings, not philosophers, often believe in God because the Bible says God exists. So, while it might be nice to address some other argument, or not worry about the tired issues of the fallibility of the Bible, a New Atheist who wants to have an effect on those Bible-believers had better address that argument.

I'll get back to the issue of what the consequences of disbelief are or should be, but for now I want to reinforce my claim about what it is that people believe and why they believe it.

Hart moves on to talk about the "Infinite regress" argument as he calls it. Basically, Hart asserts that New Atheists argue that God does not exist because to appeal to the existence of God to explain the existence and nature of the universe would be unhelpful because one would then need an explanation for the existence of God in terms of something else and so on ad infinitum. Hart then points out that this is a fairly poor argument for the non-existence of God. Indeed, this regress argument is really an objection to one argument for the existence of God. Hart has some other objections that I will quote in a minute, but for now, let me say that I think Hart has the dialectic wrong. I do not have all the relevant literature here before me (and I haven't read everybody's work in any case), but I think the way this goes is that New Atheists argue that there is no need to posit the existence of God to explain anything (appearance of design, existence of universe, etc.). If one does not need to posit the existence of something in order to explain the data, then one should not do it (as a simple application of Ockham's razor). Thus, one should not posit the existence of God. I think that's the argument, and it does not render the "Infinite regress" argument irrelevant. On this understanding of the broad form of their argument, the infinite regress argument, or more accurately the critique of the cosmological argument, is one way of undermining the need for God to explain anything. Hence, this is a legitimate part of a much larger atheistic argument. One, of course, needs to say why there is not something else (say, appearance of design) that needs to be explained. But once one has exhausted all the things that proponents say require divine explanation, then one has at least a fairly compelling inductive argument against the existence of God.

So what about the further critique Hart has of this New Atheist argument? His critique is that their argument is based on (the common) unsophisticated view of the nature of the divinity. That God is just one more thing in a universe of things. He writes:

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

Honestly, I find this hilarious. Are we to suppose that the ordinary folk believe in God, God's creation of the universe, his special purpose for them, and that this plan is revealed through Christianity because "all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such"? Oh, I didn't realize I was supposed to believe in an "absolute plenitude of actuality" as my Lord and savior. Please forgive me, and take my apologies to the essence of being as such while you're at it.

Again, the first issue is that New Atheists do not care about this because no one really cares about this. Do we say that "the absolute plenitude of actuality" created humanity with a plan so that we could obey Its commands and be rewarded with infinite bliss in heaven and punished with infinite suffering in hell if we do not? No one believes this, and New Atheists would render themselves as culturally irrelevant and impotent as professional philosophers and theologians are if they spent any time at all talking about this.

The second issue is whether there is a compelling argument for the existence of God hidden in all this verbiage. The talk of actuality, or pure actuality, or the essence of being as such is highly suspect. First, talk of something's being an actuality or pure actuality relies on a long-rejected Aristotelian physics (or metaphysics). Aquinas relied on Aristotle's distinction between actuality and potentiality in order to argue for the existence of God, and, in particular, claim that things can only come to have an actuality rather than simply a potentiality by being "moved" by something that has that property in actuality. So, potentially hot things become actually hot by being changed by something that is actually hot. This is not, in general, true. Matches become hot without being actually being struck by something hot. Aquinas's assumption is just a piece of outdated and incorrect physics. So any argument that makes such an assumption is flawed.

Do we need to think that things must be "sustained in existence"? Here the argument avoids the well-known fallacies of the simpler versions of the cosmological argument, and claims that we need to look not for a cause (efficient cause, in Aquinas' and Aristotle's terminology), but for something on which everything depends for its existence (or something that explains its existence--more on that later). But here the assumption that there must be a series of such sustainers is simply not, forgive the pun, sustainable. I can see why one might think that for X to come into being there must be a cause for X, but I cannot see one would think that X would wink out of existence were there not something to sustain X in existence. Do we have some empirical evidence that supports this contention? Have we observed things popping out of existence when their sustainer-in-existence disappears? One supposes, then, the claim is a priori. But on what grounds could one make this claim? Is there a contradiction in thinking things might just exist without something, pure being or whatever, sustaining them in existence? It seems perfectly coherent to me to think that even contingent things might simply exist without a sustainer-in-existence.

Does the existence of contingent things require that there be a necessary being (defined as this pure being or whatever) in order to explain their existence, not as caused by something but in some other sense? Perhaps in order to know why X exists, it is not enough to appeal to other contingent beings (e.g. causes) but we must appeal to a necessary being. Appeal to other contingent beings, one might claim, is just not enough because then we have not explained why there is anything at all (that's the best way to make the argument--I don't have time to say why here). To say why there is something rather than nothing takes us outside the sequence of contingencies and asks why there even is a sequence of contingencies at all. This is, as I said (and following William Rowe's introductory book on philosophy of religion), the best form of the argument. However, the principle that everything, including even the fact that something exists at all, must have an explanation is not true.

First, we know it is false for quantum events. (Alas, the quantum mechanics defense--not to be confused with the Chewbacca defense.) Second, we could ask why the principle (Leibniz' principle of sufficient reason) is true. If there is no explanation for why it is true, then the principle is false. The assumption that it must have an explanation could only be justified if we already think that it is true. And if there is an explanation for it, then that explanation would have to invoke some other principle. We must then ask for the explanation for why that principle is true. This begins to look like the whole cosmological argument over again. The principle (PSR) cannot support itself on pain of circularity; and any explanation for its truth, then, must involve a series of further justifications which must either end with a principle that is unexplained or continue ad infinitum.

The third issue is whether this kind of theological talk has any meaning at all. Is it even coherent to talk of something being pure actuality or being as such? I certainly don't know what this is supposed to mean. Does God have all properties in actuality to an infinite degree? I suppose that's what it means to say something purely actual (at least that's what Aquinas appeared to mean). Clearly, that's not what anyone wants. God is not infinitely hot or infinitely angry or moving with an infinite velocity. So, pure actuality and pure being must be something else.

But what? Is pure being something other than just having being or existing? What could that mean but that something exists? Perhaps it means that something has existence but no other property at all. That's certainly impossible.

If God is pure being, does that mean God has more existence than everything else. (Plato and Augustine talked as though this made sense, but I've never seen it.) Everything that exists has being just as much as anything else that exists. I don't have more being, or exist any more, than does my cat. If all Hart means is that God's existence explains itself given his perfection, then at least I can make sense of that (although I am not convinced that this can be used to prove that God exists--see above), but I don't see how this renders talk of "being as such" intelligible. I'm sure I'm not sufficiently profound to count as a legitimate critic of this argument, but at this point, I cannot distinguish any further meaningful claims that we have reason to believe are true. This is where metaphysics starts to become, as Carnap said, poetry (and nothing more).

Lest I lose the thread of this whole argument, and Hart goes on for about another week and a half, I'll stop with one final note. There's been a repeated insistence, by Hart and others, that true, profound, noble and good atheists recognize the tragic loss if God does not exist, and it upsets these critics that the New Atheists do not feel that loss. What is exactly lost is unclear. It's nothing metaphysical such as meaning or purpose or morality or happiness (assumed to have an objective moral dimension). One can have those equally well whether God exists or not. It's not community or fellow feeling or anything social. Again, that's just as possible for atheists as for others. And it's not a subjective state of happiness since atheists can be just as happy as theists by any subjective measure.

I can only think that what's supposed to be missing is the fear of death. These critics want atheists to be afraid of their own future non-existence and regret the loss of an immortal soul and eternal bliss. I suppose I can be a bit bummed out by that lack. But I'm also bummed that there aren't personal jet packs or hover-boards. When you recognize that something is a fantasy, you can be depressed about not having it, or you can work towards the good things that are possible. This is a purely subjective matter. There's nothing morally, epistemically or aesthetically wrong with not being depressed about one's lack of immortality but instead embracing the good things that life does have to give any more than it is objectively wrong to be depressed that there aren't personal jet packs. If Hart wishes us to be disappointed about the loss of something that does not exist, rather than enjoy the things that do, then I'm afraid he's the one who will be disappointed.