Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong (about Ethics)

Every few days I find something on the internet to blog about. I start typing, and then I get busy and give up on it. I will try to do better with today’s entry: Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong (about Ethics). Catchy, huh?

So, I like the stuff Coyne posts, and mostly I agree with it. I wish that I were in a position that I could make my colleagues take some responsibility for their friendly, no-strings-attached, totally-not-supporting-right-wing-crazies, and they-never-tell-me-what-to-conclude-even-though-strangely-all-the-many-opinions-I-have-that-directly-contradict-everything-they-believe-never-see-print Templeton money. Thus, I say with respect, Coyne is here totally wrong about objectivity and truth in non-scientific contexts.

Let’s begin.
Coyne is respectfully disagreeing about scientism, the view that science is the only way to acquire objective knowledge of external reality. His friend Eric McDonald disagrees and argues for the existence of objectivity or truth in other areas besides science.
Coyne writes about McDonald's post (forgive the long quotation, but I want to be fair),
His post, “On the strangely beguiling notion of scientism,” takes the stand that there are indeed ways to apprehend objective truth beyond the purview of science, and that those who claim otherwise are guilty of scientism.
We still disagree about this. I’m sorry to say that Eric’s piece, like nearly all pieces on scientism, fails to make a case for (or even give more than one example of) “truth” apprehended by other than scientific means—and I’m defining “science” as the combination of empirical observation, reason, and (usually) replicated observation and prediction that investigates what exists in the universe.
I’ll be brief here, as I’ve posted a lot on this topic lately, but I want to discuss what Eric sees as “objective knowledge” that goes beyond science.
It’s “moral knowledge”:
And though Jerry Coyne (this is one of the small number of areas where he and I differ significantly in our approach to things) may dismiss ideas concerning value as matters of opinion, it is very doubtful that girls in Afghanistan, who have acid thrown in their faces or see their schools being destroyed, share that view. It is not just a matter of opinion that their right to learn should be recognized and honoured; how we establish what can justly be considered objective moral understanding is something worthwhile considering.
. . .
Now I agree, of course, that throwing acid in the face of Afghan schoolgirls for trying to learn is wrong. But it is not an “objective” moral wrong—that is, you cannot deduce it from mere observation, not without adding some reasons why you think it’s wrong. And those reasons are based on opinions. In this case, the “opinion” is that it’s wrong to hurt anyone for trying to go to school. In other words, Eric claims that moral dicta are objective ones, on the par with the “knowledge” of science.
But such dicta are not “truths,” but “guides for living”. And some people, like the odious Taliban who perpetuate these crimes, do disagree. How do you prove, objectively, that they’re wrong? You need to bring in other subjective criteria.

The problem with “objective” moral truths is much clearer in less clear-cut cases. Is it objectively true that abortion is wrong, or that a moral society must give everyone health care? You can’t ascertain these “truths” by observation; you deduce them from some general principles of right and wrong that are, at bottom, opinion. (Of course, some opinions are more well-founded than others, and that’s what philosophy is good for.)

What precisely is Coyne’s position and reasoning? As far as I can tell, he agrees that certain actions (throwing acid in an Afghan girl’s face for going to school) and people (the Taliban) are morally wrong, but that his agreement or disagreement with McDonald is only a matter of their sharing certain subjective attitudes towards those actions and individuals. What reasons does Coyne offer for his opinion about morality?

Some people (e.g. the Taliban) disagree about the morality of these actions.
Therefore, there is no fact about the morality of these actions.

This is a strange argument coming from a leading voice in the debate with creationists. Clearly those odious individuals disagree about science, but we would not conclude that there is no objective truth in science but only opinion. Clearly, there is more going on. The second point:

“How do you prove, objectively, that they’re wrong?”

So, it is not the mere fact of disagreement that troubles Coyne, it is that he can find no common ground that one could use to prove to the satisfaction of the Taliban that their actions are wrong.

Still, I don’t think this helps much since Coyne himself has shown how difficult it is to find common ground with the creationists in order to convince them that they are wrong. We need not convince the Taliban that they are wrong, just as we need not convince the creationists that they are wrong, in order for there to be objective facts for them to be wrong about.

Coyne’s appeal to problem cases is a red herring. If one were to judge the objectivity of science only by appeal to its most problematic cases (e.g. string theory), one would similarly come to the conclusion that science also is not objective. The fact that there are cases in which we do not have answers is irrelevant as well since every living discipline has problem cases about which more research is needed.

Thus, what we need is a set of procedures or a method that can be used to show objectively that one is right. That is, we need something akin to the scientific method which relies not on the intuitive judgments or subjective opinions of the arguer in order to establish the claims. For example, we would not like to be caught in a debate on the ethics of torture only to have each side bellow at the other that their opinions are right and the other side’s are obviously wrong, as judged by some direct perception or intuition. In science, that independent arbiter is experiment, double-blinded and peer-reviewed, to show that the conclusion does not depend on anything purely internal to an agent.

Indeed, this is a challenge of moral epistemology, to find such an independently verifiable means of testing ethical claims. However, now Coyne has changed the subject from one of the reality or objectivity of ethical claims to our knowledge of those ethical claims. We may lack a clear method for adjudicating disputes about ethics, but it in no way follows that there is no objectivity or truth about ethics. We do not know, for example, whether there is intelligent extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the universe (Let’s hope so because “there’s bugger all down here on earth.”), but it does not follow from this lack of knowledge that there is no fact about the existence of such life. The fact that we do not know, that we may never be in a position to know, does not prove that there is no objectivity or truth.

Still, Coyne says, we need a method. The difference, he would no doubt claim, is that while we do not now know the answer to this question about extraterrestrial life, we do know how we could go about looking for it, and we would know what sorts of things would count as evidence for or against its existence. So, the scientist is apparently one up on the ethicist in having some idea what those methods are, but this is still irrelevant because the existence of standards for verifying or falsifying claims tells us nothing about reality. Epistemology and metaphysics, knowledge and reality, are distinct, and we cannot conclude from our inability (perhaps even a permanent inability) to formulate objective standards for knowing morality that there is no objective moral reality at all. The “How do you know?” question is a good one to ask, but it tells us nothing about the existence of objective reality.

But perhaps we can see what some methods in philosophy and ethics might be. Before that, one more quotation:

In other words, Eric is committing here the very sin he decried (as I recall) in Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape: he is saying that there are scientifically establishable truths about ethics. And if that’s true, then let Eric tell us what those truths are—without first defining, based on his taste, what is “moral” and “immoral.” Let him give us a list of all the behaviors he considers objectively immoral.

I don’t know McDonald’s critique of Harris, but I included this to be funny. Please tell us, Dr. Coyne what are all the scientifically establishable truths about science? If there are such truths, Coyne should be able to “give us a list of all” of the ones he considers to be true and all those he considers to be false. Allow me to reiterate, we do not need to know what the truths are in order to know that there are truths. If we did, then science (indeed investigation of any kind) would be pointless. Are there objective truths to discover about the world? We don’t know until we can first say what they are, but, having stated them, we now find ourselves with no need to attempt to discover them.

Wait, sorry. I think what Coyne was trying to say was that McDonald should be able to state in principle what sorts of claims are “scientifically establishable” in ethics. Obviously, if these claims were scientifically establishable, they would not be non-scientific claims, as McDonald says they are, so Coyne appears to be demanding that McDonald explain which non-scientifically establishable claims are scientifically establishable. I have rarely seen a question so begged.

Still, I cannot help feeling dirty, what with the quoting and all, so I will get back to the epistemic issue. Perhaps Coyne would be happy enough with moral skepticism. He might be better off saying that there are objective truths in ethics but no one is ever in a position to say what they are given the lack of intersubjective standards of verification. A reminder:

You can’t ascertain these “truths” by observation; you deduce them from some general principles of right and wrong that are, at bottom, opinion. (Of course, some opinions are more well-founded than others, and that’s what philosophy is good for.)

Should we be skeptical? It depends on what you mean by 'skeptical', of course. At any rate, we need not think that no ethical claim is any better justified than any other. We need not be extreme or Pyrrhonic skeptics. For example, as Coyne notes, philosophy is good for establishing ‘opinions’ as better founded than others. We should, of course, always be cautious and recognize the potential for fallibility in our method. And here’s where we get to the methods of philosophy and ethics. We use reason and argument based on some general principles, perhaps, but often these are based on intuitive judgments of individual cases.

Isn’t this just more subjectivity and opinion? No. How do we know that modus ponens is a valid form of argument? Modus ponens is the following argument form: If p, then q; p; therefore q. This argument form guarantees that true premises will result in a true conclusion, and our judgment of this is not based merely on popular opinion. It is based not on popularity, but on careful consideration of the concept of the conditional.

Psychologists have studied conditional reasoning using the Wason selection task and have shown that undergraduates are more likely to view the fallacy of affirming the consequent as valid than they are to view the valid argument form of modus tollens as valid. Affirming the consequent goes like this: If p then q; q; therefore p. Something like 70% of subjects apparently (given the structure of the selection task) believe that this is valid. Yet we can see that it is not. Here is a parallel argument. If you are driving legally, you must be 16 or older (in America without a learner’s permit etc.). Suppose you are 16 or older. Does it follow that you are driving legally? Obviously not, you might not have a driver’s license; you might be drunk; you might not be wearing your prescription eyewear.

On the other hand, modus tollens (considered by fewer than 10% of the subjects to be valid) is valid. Modus tollens goes like this: If p, then q; not q; therefore not-p. And we can see that this is valid by considering that the conditional indicates a necessary condition (that is, a condition without which the antecedent would not occur). So, using our previous example, we know that being 16 or older is a necessary condition for driving legally. It follows from this that if you are driving legally, you must be 16 or older. Now, consider what happens when the necessary condition is not met. In that case, the possible fact it is necessary for, the driving legally, cannot obtain. In short, supposing you are not over 16, you cannot drive legally.

This reasoning is not difficult to follow; it is familiar to everyone. I do not know how to characterize it. Is it deduction from general principles? Well, there clearly are general principles involved, but the role of the examples is essential in getting people to recognize those principles. In any event, it is not just opinion. Should I use all caps? If Coyne wants to tell us that these principles are just opinions, then he must be willing to agree that other people might have different opinions about basic logic, and so there is no possibility of arguing with, reasoning about, anything at all.

Moreover, consider what Coyne is claiming here. Ethics is merely a matter of opinion. What is the basis of this view? Is it also just opinion? If so, it is not my opinion, so I am perfectly within my rights to reject it. Is it society’s opinion? Not likely. We have consistent public opinions that rely on belief in objective moral fact. We don’t just outlaw murder because we do not prefer it; we outlaw murder because we think it is wrong (because of harm [another moral concept] to innocents [still yet another moral concept] etc.). So, it is not society’s opinion that ethics is mere opinion. Perhaps it is the opinion of the community of experts treated as knowledgeable (!) about such matters? If so, again ethics is not considered mere opinion; if one polls philosophers and ethicists one will find they believe ethics to be objective. So, if Coyne is correct that ethics is a matter of opinion, he must provide some argument for that conclusion that is based on something other than his own opinion.

But still, perhaps we can establish that science is the best way of discovering the truth about reality. If so, everything else would be second-rate. Such an argument would not show that ethics does not traffic in objectivity and truth, but it would puncture the ethicist’s pretensions. Actually, probably not. Most ethicists and philosophers are well aware, better than anyone else, of the limits of their methods. Still, can we establish that science is the best way of discovering objective truth about reality?

Coyne is aware of this argument since he quotes McDonald making exactly this point:

I want to differ with Eric on one other point: his claim that there’s no way to show a priori that science provides truth about reality. (Well, I agree with him in principle, but think it’s completely irrelevant as a criticism of science.):

[There follow quotations from various philosophers noting that the superiority of the scientific method is not itself a scientific question.]

Eric should be careful here, because he’s beginning to tread the road paved by people like Alvin Plantinga—theologians who try to drag science down to the level of faith because science can’t justify logically that it can finds truth.
My answer to this claim is this: “so fricking what?” While philosophers draw their pay by arguing interminably about such stuff (and achieving nothing by so doing), science goes ahead and accomplishes things: we find out what causes disease and then find cures; we put people on the Moon; we build computers and lasers. In other words, by assuming that there are external truths that are apprehended by science, we accomplish what we want to do, including alleviating suffering that no faith-healing could ever relieve. The tuberculosis bacterium is not an illusion. I don’t give a rat’s patootie for the philosophers who tell us that we can’t justify science’s ability to find truth by a priori lucubration. Let them squabble while science moves on. The success of science justifies its assumption of objective truths and its program for apprehending them.

Ahoy, mateys, it’s the dangerous and elusive (well, not really) slippery slope. If we think that science is not capable of justifying itself, then we will soon be like Alvin Plantinga denying evolution, rejecting science, and whatnot; it will be dogs and cats living together, the end of the world. But, as to his substantive answer, “so fricking what?” The what is that one cannot justify science (or induction, in Hume’s terms) in scientific terms on pain of circularity. We could appeal to the success of science on pragmatic grounds (and I would as well), but the point is that this appeal is itself not a kind of scientific knowledge. If it were, the justification would be circular and hence not really a justification at all. The point is that apologists for science must rely on some reason other than science to justify use of science. No one (except the aforementioned Plantingeans) wants to take your science away. At least no one around here does. I have no dispute with this pragmatic justification of science; I am as big a fan as you will find of science and the scientific method. This is not to say that we should not do science, or that science is not effective. But that’s not the issue. The point is, again, that even those who advocate for the superiority of science must base that argument on some non-scientific reasoning. That reasoning is, in this case, reasonable, but it is also absolutely essential if one is to justify science. Thus, there must, if science is to be trusted, be objective truth and knowledge of non-scientific matters (here, the epistemology of science).

One more attempt: Anyone who uses reason and argument to critique philosophy and philosophical method must, in the end, just be engaging in more philosophy. That’s not an attempt to reject science. Neither is it an apology for religion or superstition. It’s a simple recognition of the need for reason and argument that is not purely scientific or observational.

Let’s consider one last possibility. Coyne analogizes morality to religion, and, God forbid, I wouldn’t want to do that. Still, there might be an objection that the intuitive judgments about ethics differ from intuitive judgments about philosophy (and these self-referential arguments about morality and science) and logic. There are, of course, many poor arguments in ethics, just as there are poor papers in science journals, but at bottom there are principles of ethics that seem no less certain than the principles we rely on in these arguments for objective philosophical truth (such as, for example, the pragmatic argument for the value of science).

One such principle is the principle of equality: We should treat everyone in the same way provided there is no relevant difference between them.

I know that Coyne would love this example since it makes use of vague language and requires interpretation to apply. What is it to treat people the same way? Should I give everyone in the universe a size extra large Santa sweatshirt because I am buying one for my brother for Christmas [sorry, dude]? Clearly not. The ‘relevance’ clause also involves considerable potential for abuse. Are African-Americans or women relevantly different from white men so that I am justified in refusing to hire them? Presumably not. However, the vagueness and interpretation are necessary for the statement to have the status of truth. One should resist the temptation to critique the equality principle on the grounds of vagueness or interpretability because such a critique would be implicitly accepting the principle and only disagreeing about its application. There are not likely to be universally correct moral claims such as “Do not kill”. Correct principles will have to be abstract and general, such as the equality principle, in order for them to be true. Does 1 + 1 = 2? Obviously, but if you take one water droplet and add it to another water droplet, you don’t have two water droplets, you just have one bigger water droplet. Does this silly example show that our fundamental mathematical understanding is incorrect? No, we just have to recognize the limits of application of universally true principles. Readers are free to come up with counterexamples to the equality principle, but I would bet that all of them are questions of application, not questions of the truth of the claim.

So, in the end, philosophy is unavoidable no matter how we try. ("Oh, Lord, how I did try!") And ethics is as reliable a part of philosophy as any other (or approximately so). It’s not anti-scientific to believe this, and it’s not superstitious or religious either. There are, as they say, more things [objective truths, that is] in heaven and earth, [Dr. Coyne], than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I apologize if I have run on at too great a length, but for one brief afternoon I have time to do what I want. So, here it is. I hope that it was at least worth the effort.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance and Mitt Romney

So Willard “Mitt” Romney has lost, and I still never learned what the hell “Mitt” stands for.

After a campaign full of the most outrageous, repeated, shameless lies on virtually every subject imaginable, Romney can finally return to his love of lying to his family. Also, evading taxes and buying show horses. (Who wants to bet against him revising his current-year tax return to take his effective tax rate down to 9% from 14%?) It is hard to imagine why he ever felt any need or desire to be president. I would enter the realm of speculation if I were to guess, and none of the answers the campaign gave can be trusted. Going down in history as the most flagrantly dishonest, insincere politician in American politics may not have been his goal, but it might well be the result of his campaign. One aspect of the Romneys did strike me as sincere and genuine, however, and that was their utter contempt for ordinary Americans and disregard for their struggles. How, I wondered, could someone as privileged as Mitt Romney treat 47% of America as beneath contempt? (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I have been part of that group as recently as two years ago when, while working 60-80 hours/week, I was eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit on my measly Lecturer salary. This is because my state government believes in Freedom!) My theory is that it is based on cognitive dissonance and the tendency for people to reduce their cognitive dissonance. First, an example.

I lift weights and have lifted weights for about two decades. I have type 1 diabetes, which caused me, when I got it, to lose 40 pounds of muscle over the course of one year before I was diagnosed. In addition, I have suffered just about every type of muscle, tendon, ligament injury not requiring surgery known to humanity. Still, while I had diabetes and had not been diagnosed, I went to the gym and attempted to lift weights despite being so tired that it felt as though I would fall asleep on the weight benches. (I was also finishing my dissertation and working my first full-time teaching job.) Some of my other injuries have been rotator cuff tears, chondromalacia (a prearthritic condition in my knees), something called ‘frozen shoulder’, and, most recently, tendinitis (not counting all the other minor aches and pains that come with weightlifting). Through all of this I continued to lift weights. (I’ve found the best injuries are the ones where the doctors say, you can keep training even if it hurts; the training won’t make it worse. I hate the injuries when I have to stop lifting. I’m looking at you, tendinitis.)

Why do I bring up this story? Because of the difficulties I have had in keeping up my weight-training, I have a really hard time sympathizing with obese, overweight, or out-of-shape people. When people say they don’t have time to go the gym or that they have some problem that makes it hard to exercise, I can’t fathom it. I am engaged in reducing cognitive dissonance.

According to Wikipedia,
Cognitive dissonance is the term used in modern psychology to describe the feeling of uneasiness when holding two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously.

One consequence of this is that people who do something that is considered wrong are more sympathetic to people who also done it.
Here’s one of the examples of cognitive dissonance reduction from the Wikipedia page. People will tend to :

Justify behavior that opposed their views: Students judge cheating less harshly after being induced to cheat on a test [The assumption is that no one believes that cheating on a test is morally acceptable.]

The converse of this is that people who resist the temptation to cheat tend to judge cheaters more harshly. People may be reasoning thus: I could resist cheating, so everyone could resist cheating, so they must be bad people for cheating. In my case, I have constantly had temptations to quit lifting weights, but I have not done so, and so it is very difficult for me to feel any sympathy for people who don’t exercise. It’s easy to think: I’ve managed to stay in shape despite all these challenges, so you should be able to as well. When other people struggle with things that I have managed to do, I can feel the dissonance of believing that my struggles were not so great after all (but they felt terrible!) compared to others or I can conclude that these other people are lazy or just plain weenies (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan. With all the campaign cash you get, you'd think he could buy a bicep. Or is it all soft money?)

The Romneys appear to believe that they succeeded despite considerable struggles. Witness this story about an interview [] with Anne Romney. Similarly, in his famous 47% video, Mitt makes the rather implausible claim that he did not receive help in his business career from his father (because he had become wealthy enough himself to donate his inheritance that his father left him). No doubt they did struggle. Everyone struggles in one way or another, at one time or another. I’m sure that raising 5 boys was difficult, especially for someone with MS. My mom had 3 boys, and I’ve always said she was a saint for it. (Of course, she was also a public school teacher.) The Romneys believe they had to struggle with financial hardship as well, selling off stock to survive, living in a small apartment, and the rest. Most of us could wish for that kind of hardship, but still, it seemed difficult to them. Given their perception of their own difficulties, they probably reasoned as I am tempted to: we managed to overcome our difficulties, so other people should be able to overcome their financial difficulties as we did. The fact that they have not done so indicates that they are shiftless layabouts happy to live off the work of other, more productive citizens. The alternative is to think that the Romney’s struggles were not so great after all, that other people have things much worse than they did, or that others lack some advantages they had. Nobody wants to think those things, that they are privileged and succeeded primarily because of their advantages, so they blame the 47% for their own poverty.

There must be at least one other factor at work, of course, since lots of wealthy people sympathize with the poor. I think there must be an implicit comparison group and a lack of exposure to true suffering. If the Romneys only compared themselves to other rich people, they might not recognize their advantages. If they are not exposed to the truly needy, they can write off their struggles more easily. (Today I watched a man with one leg negotiating a 5 lane street in his walker. Come on, dude: Pull yourself up by your own bootstrap!) Lack of exposure to the real suffering of the poor in America clearly enables a lack of empathy as well.

I like to think that there is a lesson of some sort in all this. Our struggles are rarely as bad as we think they are? We should be more aware of the world outside our (comparatively privileged) purview to develop empathy for those worse off than ourselves? The American people can see through the lies of an overprivileged jerk? I’ll leave that for another day, and now hope that Mitt Romney, crying bitter tears into his silken pillows, learns a decent empathy for at least some Americans: wealthy, failed Republican presidential contenders. It would be too much to hope that he can extend that circle of empathy any further.

On a somewhat related note, I was as amazed as anyone that Karl Rove et al. fully bought into their own bull$%#t about Romney’s popularity. As any good drug dealer knows, never sample your own product. I had always had Rove pegged as a con man, not a true believer. I guess even con men can fall for their own cons if they run them long enough.

Friday, August 31, 2012

This is McCoy. This is what he looked like when we got him from an animal shelter in Memphis in 2004. We called him McCoy, and nicknamed him “Bones” or “Bonesy” after the doctor on the old Star Trek, because bones seemed to be all there was of him that first day. “McCoy” rhymed with “good boy” too; since he was so fragile and afraid, we wanted just hearing his name to sound like praise.

If we hadn’t put in a request for him, the shelter would have put him down because of his heartworms. The shelter guesstimated his age at anywhere from 6-9 based on his grey muzzle and the nubbins that remained of his front teeth. Unfortunately our puppy Sunny kept attacking him so we found him a home with someone who seemed reliable. We got him back about three years later when the reliable home turned out not to be so reliable after all. We had to treat him for heartworms again, and this time kept him since you can’t give away a 9/12-year old dog. He was happy with us and didn’t like change much, and we didn’t want to stress him out more by moving him out again. That was 5 ½ years ago.

After another treatment for heartworm, he put on a lot of weight and looked better. Here’s a picture of him soon after we got him back.

He loved his ball games and he could build up a lot of momentum, at 95 pounds, chasing after his ball. And he didn’t have brakes. He played ball until the last week of his life. We’d said as long as he could still play ball, we’d know that he was happy.

Here he is climbing on the couch for a hug. He was afraid of a lot of things: leashes, obedience lessons, going places in the car. But there were lots of things he liked, such as walks in the woods, especially if the nearby hunters had left a dead deer to rot. He was always on the lookout for a snack, whether it was a deer leg, some peanut butter crackers I left in my backpack, or a sheep that he was supposed to be herding. We sometimes called him the ‘hopeful monster’ because he always thought there might be a snack for him or a little bit of attention from us.

Here he is a couple of years ago in his favorite spot under the desk. Note that there is no room for our feet.

When people urge me to consider the fragility of life, I think of McCoy. McCoy held onto life tenaciously; for him it seemed anything but fragile sometimes. I sometimes joked that McCoy had actually lived forever, and that every ten years something mysterious happened to his owners so that he ended up in an animal shelter ready for a new family. It doesn’t seem so funny now, but it did sometimes seem that he would keep going forever. Other times, when he had trouble standing or moving his back legs, we could see what a struggle it was for him. But he always seemed happy to keep trying and to stay with us just a little longer.

He wasn’t brave or smart. He was not noble or wise. He wasn’t even a particularly dignified or grand old fellow. He was just a big, ungainly goofball of a dog. He was our friend for a long time, almost as long as any pet we’d ever had, and he was fiercely loyal and loving.

Here he is with our son on the floor. We worried that our son might hurt him accidentally, and McCoy often seemed worried about that little thing crawling around on the floor, or later racing madly about the house. We worried that he might accidentally hurt our son, but he was always very careful.

McCoy was unique and special but also completely typical. He was absolutely generic in his uniqueness. In every city and town in America there are dogs just like McCoy who need love and will return it. We’ve rescued animals that lived only a few weeks or months. Our animals remind us every day of how fleeting life is. We never know how long any of us will have. We rescued McCoy over 8 years ago, an old duffer of a dog no one in their right mind would think had much time left, and we had him, even with his time away from us, for over five years. Sometimes you get to be happy and with friends for a lot longer than anyone would think. Before he met us his life must have been unspeakably hard, but he had a good life with us. It is always over far too soon, but we had some good times together.

I don’t like to think about his slow decline, the years-long battle with myelopathy as he lost control of his back end. Every day this summer we wondered if he could get up, whether that was the day we would have to give up on him. It was last week that it all became too much for him. The end was sudden even though the decline had been slow. One day he ate only a peanut butter sandwich the toddler left on the table; the next he couldn’t eat at all. The next morning when we woke, planning a last trip to the vet, he was already gone.

He loved us and we loved him, and in the end that’s all I really have to say.

Goodbye, McCoy. Good boy.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Universals and an Argument for the Existence of God: More on Edward Feser's The Last Superstition an Unpublishable Review, part 2

This post is the second installment in a review of Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition, a polemic against the New Atheists, their movement and their beliefs. In this installment I discuss Feser's presentation of an argument for the existence of God based on the existence of universals or abstract objects.

Universals are properties or features common to many individual things or concrete particulars, as philosophers call them. An example makes this a whole lot clearer. Bob is a tall human being with a limp. Bob is the particular thing that instantiates (are instances of), exemplifies (are examples of), partakes of, or participates in certain attributes or features which are not strictly parts of himself, and in his case these are the properties humanity, tallness, and gimpiness (the limp being not a thing that Bob has like a coin in his pocket but a feature or aspect of Bob’s gait which itself a property of Bob). Now, there are philosophers who think these features are real aspects or features of the world, and others who deny this. There are so many subtle distinctions among the different beliefs one can have about these supposed features of the world, and the reasons for and against each such position, that even the most basic introduction to the question takes about 65 pages in Michael Loux’s excellent introductory volume Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (which I highly recommend). So it is difficult for Feser, and it is more difficult for me, to provide any fair, balanced, and complete explanation of this issue. So, I will settle for a link to this excellent article by one of my former teachers on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Properties and the following brief categorization of the views. Some of my terminology is standard, but I'm not sure about the term "conceptualism", and I make no attempt to comprehensively describe the alternative positions.

Features of concrete particulars are real properties that are shared among these particulars.

Two subcategories of Realism are Platonism and Aristotelianism.

These features are real properties that exist independently of the individuals that have them.

These features are real properties shared by individuals but they depend on those individuals and cannot exist without any instantiations.

There are no such features; there are no shared properties that particulars instantiate.

Two (non-exhaustive) subcategories of Nominalism are trope theory and conceptualism. This is not all the ways one could be a nominalist, but they are worthy of mention given Feser's argument.

Trope theory
There are features that particulars have, but these features are themselves individual or particular (so there is no such thing as a redness that is shared among all red things, but each individual red thing has its own particular redness).

There are no universal features of particulars; categorizations of particulars under the same type (red things) is only an idea in people’s minds. There is no external or real feature of the world that justifies the categorization into types of things; the categorization is taken as basic.

My point here is not really to attack or defend these positions, but to note the distinction between different positions that Feser does not distinguish and which lead to incoherence in his conclusions.

Feser argues for the existence of abstract objects, universals, that exist independently of their instantiations. Feser presents a set of arguments for Platonism, ignores the arguments for the other side, and fails to distinguish different attitudes towards universals which, if noted, would undermine his conclusions. Feser talks about the reasons for the reality of universals but almost none of the problems with them. Presenting only the arguments for your own side but not addressing the arguments for the other side is like claiming to have won a basketball game while only mentioning your team’s score. Yeah, a hundred points is a lot, but. . .

More problematic is Feser’s incoherent view of universals. His arguments for the existence of universals focus on the Platonic notion of abstract objects (the famous Platonic Forms) that exist independently of any instantiation of them. Feser recognizes there are problems with this view and endorses an Aristotelian account of universals without noting that his arguments for them are inconsistent with the Aristotelian concept of them. He can either have the arguments he provides or he can have the Aristotelian he tries to draw from those arguments, not both.

I will attempt to support the above claims in the following post. First, I will outline the Augustinian argument Feser backhandedly endorses. Then I will explain why the premises are actually inconsistent with his Aristotelian account of universals. Then I will show why this argument does not prove the existence of God because treating universals as ideas in God’s mind does not resolve the difficulties in the concept of universals.

Feser introduces the following Augustinian argument for the existence of God as one Alvin Plantinga says must be taken seriously. I assume this means that Feser also thinks it is sound, but there are two levels of plausible deniability here. First, saying that Plantinga endorses it does not mean Feser endorses it. Second, saying that we should take the argument seriously is not the same as saying it is sound. Still, if we are not to think the argument is sound, then Feser is just jerking us around. So, I'm going to assume Feser is not jerking us around. Here's the Augustinian argument following my own standardization.

1. If universals exist, they must exist either as abstract objects, universals that depend for their existence on their instances, concepts in imperfect or in perfect minds.
2. Universals exist.
3. Universals cannot exist as abstract objects.
4. Universals cannot exist as universals that depend for their existence on their instances.
5. Universals cannot exist as concepts in imperfect minds.
6. Therefore universals must exist as concepts in perfect minds.

An abstract object is an object that exists in some Platonic third realm, as a kind of individual thing that exists in the abstract. Potential examples of abstract objects include the number 1, the meaning of sentences, propositions, perfect geometrical figures. The first premise obviously looks a bit like a false dilemma. Why think these are the only ways that universals might exist? I include these because they are the views that Feser implicitly or explicitly argues about. Feser runs together the Platonist and Aristotelian accounts of universals, but I will treat them as distinct since Feser’s failure to distinguish them undermines his argument.

I should take a moment to define the terms I introduced: “perfect minds” and “imperfect minds”. An imperfect mind is either a finite mind, such as a human one, that cannot cover the entirety of the universe in both time and space, or that cannot conceive all possible propositions or all possible mathematical truths. I also wanted to convey the problem that a finite mind might make mistakes in its categorization of objects into groups, and that this could cause problems if one tries to define the existence of properties as being only concepts in minds (thus, an infinite but still fallible mind will not do the trick). If a mind failed to adopt a grouping that we intuitively take to be legitimate, then the property at issue would not exist, and that’s clearly not an acceptable result. So we need to distinguish the kind of mind we have and the kind of mind God is purported to have. There may well be only the one perfect mind, or there may be an infinite number, but I’m not concerned with that claim because I don’t think ultimately solving the problem of universals by appeal to any perfect mind is going to work.

Feser argued for premise 2, the existence of universals, at some length in an earlier chapter of the book. In particular, Feser argues for Platonism. Platonic objects are abstract entities that exist independently of any instances, that can exist without instances. For example, if all physical triangles are imperfect in some way (the angles total something very slightly different from 180 degrees), but triangularity is still real, then triangularity exist independently of any instance. Feser argues for the this view of universals as things that exist independently of any instances. Hence, Feser, in his argument for the existence of universals, argues for a particular view of them, and that I indicate in premise 4.

What are Feser’s arguments for the existence of Platonic universals? There are several, but they all focus on the truth value of claims that Feser thinks can only make sense if universals exist independently of their instances. For example, mathematics, geometry and logic are thought to involve true statements yet none of the terms need refer to any physical existents. If so, then these entities exist independently of their instances (since they exist but possibly have no instances). There are difficult and complex arguments in many areas of philosophy (philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of language) that dispute Feser’s claims, so it is not easy to be as sanguine as Feser that we should accept the conclusions. Nonetheless, I will not worry about these arguments since I am not writing a metaphysics textbook.

Feser does acknowledge that there are problems with Platonism, problems that may or may not be debilitating, and then claims that Aristotelianism provides a better account of universals. Now, these forms of realism about universals are inconsistent with respect to the existence of uninstantiated universals. Platonism says that these abstract objects exist, independently of their instances, in a third realm distinct from our minds and from the physical world. This view causes all sorts of ontological and epistemic problems. By contrast, Aristotelianism says that there are no uninstantiated universals. So, if you argue for the existence of uninstantiated universals, you cannot then take those arguments to support Aristotelianism. If Aristotelianism is the correct view of universals, then it cannot be because the arguments Feser presents are convincing. Still, in chapter 2 of his book, Feser endorses an Aristotelian account of universals despite having just made arguments against it (by arguing for the existence of uninstantiated universals). Perhaps it is because of this inconsistency that Feser then almost-endorses the Augustinian argument for the existence of God. He may be unhappy with the earlier realist solutions to the problem of universals and adopts a different one, especially since he thinks it can be used to prove the existence of God. And if he endorsed either of the other two views of the universals, he would not be able to use them to attempt to prove the existence of God.

In short, Feser thinks we have to accept that there are universals and he thinks that they must exist independently of their instances, so he needs an account of universals that does not endorse either Platonism or Aristotelianism. Existing as ideas in God’s mind is, then, Feser’s way out of his dilemma. If universals are concepts that exist in God’s mind, then they can be objective (God’s mind being perfect after all) and real without entailing all that problematic stuff about a Two Worlds ontology that Plato had. Plus, they get to exist even if there are no instances since God can think about things that do not exist. The problem is that this “solution” contains the worst aspects of Platonism and conceptualism.

Here are some problems with universals that Feser's solution does not actually solve.

One problem for Platonism is how finite, physical, limited minds can gain information about the world of abstract universals. If these items exist in a Platonic heaven (i.e. without any instances), how could we come in contact with them, how could we know they exist, how could we know facts about reality that depend on them? Plato offers only metaphors (the myth of the cave, the divided line, etc.) in trying to explain how we know them. Other Platonists, such as Kurt Godel and Gottlob Frege, have not been much more help. However, as problematic as Platonism is, placing the ideas in God’s mind does not solve these problems. God’s mind is at least as inaccessible as Plato’s heaven. We have no more access to God’s mind than we do to Plato’s world of the Forms, so Feser’s solution does not solve problems of knowledge for universals.

Feser thinks that communication would be impossible if there were not Platonic universals that constitute the meanings of at least some of our terms. There certainly is a good case to make that nominalism can provide no adequate substitute for cases of apparent abstract reference (e.g. “Blue is a friendlier color than red.”) If universals are ideas in God’s mind, however, communication becomes again mysterious. Communication would only be possible if we could refer to ideas in God’s mind. Yet, since we lack any access to God’s mind, these ideas cannot show how communication is possible. It’s mysterious enough how I could refer to an idea in someone else’s mind; it is completely mind-boggling to consider how I could refer to an idea in God’s mind. The degree of difficulty involved in referring to ideas in God’s mind is so great that it would seem to be impossible. Hence, on Feser’s Augustinian proposal, communication is apparently impossible.

Since universals must exist objectively in order to allow for communication, knowledge and the rest, we have to ask: Are God’s ideas objective? One might think so, but answering this question raises a parallel to the classic Euthyphro dilemma (are actions good because the gods love them or do the gods love them because they are good?). Do objects instantiate the universals they do because God conceives of them as doing so? Does God impose universals on the world by his choice? If so, then God can have no reason for ordering the universals as he/she does. (If Fido was a dog this morning could God make Fido a cat this afternoon if God only changed the way he conceived of Fido?) Or does God conceive things as he/she does because they are objectively like that? It’s obvious that if we are to take God’s conceptions as objective, they must be based on an independently existing reality, on independently existing universals. If not, then the distribution of universals to objects must be completely arbitrary and God must have no reason for conceiving of objects as he/she does.

Similarity/one over many:
The problem that universals are primarily introduced to solve, that objects appear to be similar or resemble each other in certain respects, is not really solved by appeal to ideas in God’s mind. Do objects resemble each other because God conceives them as similar, or does God conceive them as similar because they bear an objective resemblance to each other? If we take the former answer, God’s categorizations must be brute unexplainable facts (which is the same answer the nominalist gives, so there is no advantage for the Augustinian here). The answer must again be, for reasons given above, that God must recognize objective resemblances rather than create resemblances. Hence, we must have some other view of the similarity objects appear to have to each other.

This is not to say that the other solutions to the problem of universals are good, but trying to solve the problem by appeal to God does not help matters. It’s possible that one could solve these problems by fiat, and simply claim that the nature of God’s mind is such that these problems are solved. But if you allow that then you might as well allow the Platonist or the conceptualist to solve the problems in the same way. Ultimately, you get nowhere by appeal to God to solve this problem.

In sum, Feser argues that there must be universals understood as Platonic, abstract objects. Then he claims that the best view is Aristotelianism about universals which entails that universals are not Platonic, abstract objects. Then he presents an argument for the existence of God as ideas (and hence not universals or abstract objects) that exist in God’s mind. Thus, according to Feser, universals are apparently all of the following: abstract objects that exist independently of any instance (Platonism), universal resemblances that depend for their existence on their instances (Aristotelianism), and ideas in the mind of God (and hence not independent entities). Feser seems to settle on the last response, but that response does not seem to resolve any problem that universals might be introduced to solve.

One of the oddest facts about Feser’s discussion of nominalism and realism about universals was the weight he placed on it. Somehow nominalism is to blame for the excesses of liberalism, atheism, the sexual revolution, the murdering of millions of helpless babies, and, no doubt the Holocaust and the evil that is Def Leppard too. This is a peculiar stance since some of the most cogent nominalist positions were put forward by theists (most famously, William of Ockham) and many contemporary atheist and materialist philosophers are realists. Bertrand Russell was perhaps the 20th century’s most famous atheist and also a realist (at least in his Problems of Philosophy). Most importantly, there seem no links of entailment or likelihood between any of the supposed social ills and the philosophy of nominalism; nor do there appear to be particular historical connections among them. What could the belief that there are no universals have to do with immorality? Perhaps Feser believes that nominalism entails moral nihilism or relativism, but you can still believe there are individual good or bad actions (tropes), just that there are no universals that explain a resemblances among them. Even if one particular argument that God exists would be rejected by nominalists, it does not immediately follow that they reject the existence of God. So, even if nominalists reject Feser's arguments, there is no necessary connection between nominalism and any moral ills at all.

Since this post has been technical and mostly no fun at all, I wanted to give one more example of the conservadroid mind at work for its sheer humor value. In his second chapter, on the topic of the ancient Greeks, before talking about the universals which are important to the arguments I just discussed, Feser mentions Socrates and his execution. His thoughts on Socrates and the analogy to contemporary politics and society once again indicate the peculiar sense of persecution and victimization so often found on the political right in America. Feser writes,

Socrates (469-399 B.C.) vigorously opposed the Sophists and the moral corruption they had fostered within the Athens of his day. . . When put on trial by a jury of 500 of his fellow citizens for purportedly denying the gods of the city and replacing them with new ones, and in general corrupting the youth . . . he defended himself, Plato tells us, by claiming that he was divinely called to lead others to the improvement of their souls. Naturally, this democratic assembly had him executed. (Today, they’d probably just denounce him as a “neo-con” or part of the “religious right” and haul him off for multicultural sensitivity training.) (p. 31)

Just to get this straight, Feser is claiming that the great iconoclastic thinker Socrates, who was executed for his heretical views on the polis and the nature of the gods, is the equivalent of the religious right, who ran all of the Bush domestic policy and are one of the most powerful domestic interest groups in American politics, and the neo-cons, who ran American foreign policy for the entire Bush era (and who not only have not been reeducated but have, despite demonstrable falsehoods that led the U.S. into a war in Iraq, remained mysteriously unindicted) Let’s just have a little comparison of Socrates, the religious right, the neo-cons, and the new atheist movement.

Accused of atheism and impiety


Religious right
No; they’re the ones making these accusations

New atheists

Had no political power

No—they had a prominent role American foreign policy for years

Religious right
No—one of the most powerful interests in American politics

New atheists
Yes; just for example, there is only one openly non-theist in Congress

Represented a minority opinion

Maybe, but not really in political circles

Religious right
Yes, the religious right is not a majority, but Christians are a majority and the religious right is disproportionately influential because they are seen as representing Christians

New atheists

Committed to critical thought, doubt, and questioning established beliefs


Religious right
It is to laugh.

New atheists

Argued for inconvenient truths that those in power did not want to hear


Religious right
Is that milk coming out of your nose?

New atheists

Said that the gods spoke to him to encourage him to tell the truth

No; pretty clear they have no divine mandate to tell the truth

Religious right
Yes; they claim a direct line to the divine, but not in any way Socrates would recognize*

New atheists
No but they do see themselves as bringing the truth to people

Was executed for his ‘crimes’

No; strangely unindicted for potential war-crimes

Religious right
No; historically these are the executors not the executes

New atheists
Not lately

So, Feser’s sense of persecution is so strong that he perceives the most politically powerful elements of America, with which he is aligned, as being powerless, besieged by political correctness and crushed under the boot-heel of postmodernist literary theorists and Michael Moore (also on p. 31). Compared to this, the dissociation from reality of Feser’s religious views is fairly mundane stuff.

*In contrast to the contemporary religious right, Socrates never relies on divine inspiration for any of his claims. In the Ion Socrates ridiculed the poets for their inability to defend their beliefs, ironically suggested they must be divinely inspired. Have you ever seen a cogent defense of the religious right’s views? Must be divine inspiration. Socrates doesn’t claim divine knowledge; in fact he denies that anyone has divine knowledge.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Atheism and Dogmatism

Reading an issue of Smithsonian magazine the other day, I came across a strange article on an artist (Barbara Kruger) bringing some important message to our politicians in Washington. Apparently an artist was going to fix our broken political system by bringing a one-word message to our politicians (appropriately contextualized in some visual image). Here’s the first paragraph:

Barbara Kruger is heading to Washington bearing the single word that has the power to shake the seat of government to its roots and cleave its sclerotic, deep-frozen deadlock.

It’s hard to imagine a more pompous, even delusional, idea than that one word can change the reasoning of our elected representatives without, presumably, changing their various interests and incentives. So, what is this magic word? I had to read all the way to the end of the article to find out, but you, dear reader, get the answer immediately:

The magic word with the secret power that is like garlic to Dracula in a town full of partisans. The word is “DOUBT”.

To this I reply with William Butler Yeats’, The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I realize the point of this article is to advertise some museum’s artistic installation (the Hirschhorn in Washington, D.C.; I recommend avoiding it), and that no rational being could actually believe that one word could change the world. There was adequate reason to doubt the seriousness of the author when he/she describes part of the installation:

It was up there, dominating the top of the work, a line written in the biggest, boldest, baddest letters. The central stack of words is superimposed over the brooding eyes and the advancing shoes of a man in what looks like a black-and-white movie still. His head is exploding into what looks like a blank white mushroom cloud, and on the cloud is written: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.”

The author (Ron Rosenbaum) asks Kruger, the artist: “Where’d you get that quote?”

Let us get this straight, the Smithsonian glossy advertisement for various allegedly publicly funded museums hires someone who does not remember, or never knew, the most famous quotation from 1984? And the artist so awes him that we will rush to be told that that George Orwell fella was really onto something there. It’s obvious that we’re not going to get an informed and intelligent description of how art can change the world. Nonetheless, the article slouches towards its ending:

With the absence of doubt, each side clings to its values, devaluing the other side’s values, making any cooperation an act of betrayal.

But do they revalue their own values in devaluing the other side’s valuation of its own values? This is false equivalence and “both-sides-do-it-ism”. The Democrats and Republicans are each equally certain of their own beliefs and each equal in refusing to compromise with the other.

Quickly, then, why is it stupid to think that this one-word art exhibit will completely alter partisanship in Washington, D.C.?

• It’s not true that both sides do refuse to cooperate. Obama borrowed virtually every major public policy that Republicans espoused just a few short years or even months before, and yet somehow the Republicans managed to vehemently oppose their own ideas (both individually and collectively). The refusal to cooperate is almost entirely on one side.

• There is absolutely no reason to think that any change in politicians’ level of certainty will materially affect their behavior. Even if they are not absolutely sure they are correct, they might still oppose each other in just as partisan manner as before they were less certain.

• It is unrealistic to think that people’s behavior will change without some change in their underlying system of beliefs, their interests and allegiances, the interests and allegiances of their constituents, and the incentives for their behavior. It doesn’t matter much how certain politicians are that they are correct, they will still act the same way if they will get voted out of office for not acting that way.

• Less certainty on the part of the Democrats, assuming that is even possible, especially might lead them to give in even more to the Republicans. The best lacking all conviction is as much a part of the problem as the worst being full of passionate intensity. Excessive uncertainty can lead to paralysis just as much as partisanship can.

It is nothing more than a fantasy that politicians will change their behavior based on a single word no matter how artistically presented.

But all of that is not my present point. My point is to critique the final absurdity of the article:

The conversation about doubt turned to agnosticism, the ultimate doubt.
She made clear there’s an important distinction between being an atheist and being an agnostic, as she is: Atheists don’t doubt! “Atheists have the ferociousness [what, ferocity ain’t a word no more?] of true believers – which sort of undermines their position!” she said.

“In this country,” she added, “it’s easier to be a pedophile than an agnostic.”

Indeed, I sh*t not upon thee, good reader. This is Kruger’s claim, and most self-evidently true it is. Pedophiles frequently announce their pedophilia proudly during interviews with national magazines. It is also obvious that agnostics are thrown in prison for decades, cast out of decent society (assuming they are no longer pursuing successful football coaching careers or being on uncomfortably close terms with those who are), labeled as child predators and sometimes rendered homeless by virtue of restrictions on living within a given distance of anything that might conceivably ever attract a child. And, finally, we know that agnostics in prison are highly likely to be killed or assaulted by other prisoners who were agnosticized as children. Nothing really compares to the ostracism of an agnostic in American society. It’s worse than the Bataan death march! [This is a private joke based on a This Modern World cartoon by Tom Tomorrow that I have never been able to find online.]

Unless she’s talking about being a Catholic priest, in which case being agnostic would be problematic.

Overlooking the absurd persecution complex, we note that Kruger is making a category mistake. She thinks that our society continually demands certainty of us when, in reality, no certainty is possible on this issue. She thinks that atheists, by claiming to believe that there is no god, must be dogmatic in their adherence to their belief, and the only way to maintain the proper humble attitude towards our lack of knowledge is to remain agnostic. Let’s use the term ‘Dogmatism’ for the attitude of certainty, closed-mindedness, unwillingness to countenance evidence against one’s position or revise one’s belief given evidence, and willingness to force one’s beliefs on others (by, for example, legislating public displays of fealty to one’s belief system as fundamentalist Christians tend to do). But dogmatism is not a part of atheism any more or less than it is part of theism or agnosticism. Dogmatism is not a belief, or even a system of belief, but an attitude toward belief and so it is logically independent of whatever belief one has. One can be a dogmatic theist, atheist, or, even, agnostic.

People who become atheists (or ‘deconvert’) have often done so precisely because they were open-minded and willing to revise their beliefs when they realized the evidence did not support them. It’s a stretch to imagine that once this deconversion occurred, atheists suddenly became closed-minded. Saying one does not (and perhaps cannot) know that God exists does evince uncertainty about the existence of God, but one might also feel subjectively so certain that we cannot know that God exists that one does not consider counterevidence (that we do know that God exists or that God does not). Contrariwise, we could be perfectly undogmatic in our theism or atheism. A theist who was willing to revise her believe in light of evidence could be much less dogmatic than Kruger, who appears happy to generalize about all who disagree with her on the basis of no evidence at all. Who then is the dogmatist—the atheist or the agnostic who vilifies her without evidence?

This story would be funny were it not so commonplace a view. Some months ago my mother-in-law announced during a discussion of religion that she “could stand to have an agnostic in the family but never an atheist.” Since I thought I’d made it fairly clear that I was an atheist, I found this a bit disconcerting. I have even harbored suspicions that her husband was an atheist. So why did she say this? (Was I being excommunicated?) I never found out precisely, but I think it was for the same reasons Kruger gives. She thinks that atheists are just as dogmatic as the most fundamentalist Christian, and, possibly based on stereotypes of atheists one finds in the press (especially among the Fox-newsians), that atheists are contemptuous of ordinary Americans.

In short, it’s not just an artist with an inflated ego and a penchant for inappropriate analogies who thinks atheists are all dogmatic. It appears to be one of the common, and undeserved, pictures of us, and that image provokes significant dislike among even thoughtful people. Indeed, dogmatism is so contrary to ideals of tolerance and understanding in the liberal mind that considering atheism to exemplify that dogmatism provides reason enough to reject it for those among us who most value tolerance and pluralism. I do not see a solution to this problem when few mainstream figures are free to make the case for atheism, to show that atheists are reasonable and rational people, and, generally, to provide living counterexamples to the stereotype of the close-minded atheist. Those, such as Richard Dawkins, whose main public role is to argue for atheism are easily caricatured as strident, anti-religious fundamentalists simply because they only appear in public in the role of atheists. Many public figures are atheists, but, aside from youtube videos, they never get much chance to talk about it on television—bad for ratings, no doubt—and thus the atheist struggle for recognition proceeds without much in the way of a mainstream media voice and with little opportunity for the ordinary people to see atheists as reasonable people much like themselves.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fantasy Fiction: A Fray of Antagonists

With the recent success of certain epic fantasy novels, I thought I would try my hand at the genre.

Sir Anton van Pulowicz took one last look at the army just coming into view over the horizon. He turned back to the castle and canvassed its defenses. Its walls were massive and substantial enough to withstand a long bombardment; they were well-perforated with arrow slits from which archers could pepper any attacking army. Its moat was deep and murky, with ripples across the surface from unknown creatures moving just beneath. All of these defenses would do little good against a determined attack given how badly outnumbered defenders were. If the invading army planned a long siege, the castle had few enough provisions and no hope of relief.

Anton nodded at the gate guards and paced over the moat’s drawbridge, marched past the portcullis, and stalked through the tunnel beneath the murder holes. His stride halted abruptly in the audience chamber. Long-buried memories suddenly flooded his consciousness. The castle at Hauxford had been the site of both his greatest triumph and his greatest loss.

As a youth, barely out of his teens, he had won the joust and the melee during the great tournament of Hauxford. His victory led to his knighting by the Viscount de Crowsey, but when he went to celebrate his victory, he found his love, the maid Ysmene, kissing his cousin Galabrad, her gown badly askew. Anton had turned on his heel and joined the campaign against the Pursanii during the War of Convictions. He could not count the compromises he had made in service of the crown’s extermination of the natives of Pursane. Yet his loyalty to the king had been rewarded with higher and higher offices, and now he had been given command of the garrison at Hauxford. Had he not been so driven by anger and jealousy, he never would have embarked on that genocidal course in the first place. But, after he embarked on the campaign, his honor would not let him betray his vow to his sovereign.

Reliving that fateful morning and the purity of his victory reminded him of hope and innocence. This time he would not let bitterness cloud his judgment. With little hope of relief, Anton needs must avoid a siege. The invading army was led by Manard O’Lethe, a veritable giant of a man, brutal but vain. If Anton could tempt Manard, Man to his few friends, into single combat, Anton was sure he could emerge victorious, if perhaps not whole. Anton had watched Man fight, had fought beside him for years until the deplorable affair of drunken Le Vint and his accident at dinner with the goat cheese and makerouns. Man was overconfident, too aggressive, and telegraphed his blows; he relied too much on his enormous size and strength advantage. That alone was enough to destroy most men. Stepping into a circle with the giant was often so terrifying that the battle was won before the first blow was struck.

However, there was one thing Anton was good at, and that was killing men. Perhaps even Man. If he could somehow prod O’Lethe into single combat, Anton could save the garrison. He did not like to think about the sacrifice he might have to make to survive such a battle, but it would be worth it if he could save his hold on Hauxford and his recruits.

First, though, he needed a shield. His own had been smashed to flinders in the last battle as they retreated to Hauxford manor. His audience chambered was festooned with the detritus of a decade of military campaigns and tournaments. Anton looked over the escutcheons and weapons hanging on the wall. He could not even remember how he had acquired most of them. An enormous black blade carved with indecipherable runes, nearly as tall as Anton, hung behind the dais. To the left hung the Three Hearts and Three Lions shield of the Son of the Carl of Holger. Farther to the left hung another shield, seven stars and seven stones and one white tree. To the right hung a lion rampant on red and gold. To the right hung the de Crowsey rooster, rampant on a red background, the Bantam of the Bloodfields. He took down the de Crowsey rooster, a reminder that he had unhorsed the viscount’s son in that long-ago tournament. Anton’s wearing this shield would enrage O’Lethe. O’Lethe had always contended that Anton had not deserved the victory. This shield and, perhaps some needling about O’Lethe’s role in the affair of the makerouns, would be enough to push O’Lethe beyond reason. O’Lethe’s well-known failures of self-control was Anton’s only hope to save his keep and his people.

Anton secured the shield on his arm and went to stand beside the murky moat to await the arrival of the advancing army.

Then he was eaten by a crocodile.

What do you think? Another 10,000 pages or so and I've got a million dollar fantasy epic?

Monday, July 2, 2012

One Angry Philosopher

Last week I was summoned for jury duty and so I had to sit for 3-4 hours reading a book while other people were actually asked to serve on juries, so it was not a tremendous imposition on me (although I did have to get a substitute to administer a test for me). I even got to bring home a “Juror” sticker to put on my 2-year-old’s shirt. He loves stickers, and I liked the idea that people might think he had actually served on a jury. I imagine he would be an improvement on the average American.

Still, there was one thing that bothered me about the experience. They administered a swearing-in for the group to swear an oath to do our duties as jurors. You can probably guess how my story ends. The oath basically said that jurors would do their best to uphold their responsibility as jurors, be without bias in decision, etc. “so help me God.”

Obviously, then, when we were asked to say “I do”, I couldn’t affirm that. Nobody paid any attention to me, and probably most of the people were only half listening anyway. In some sense the swearing-in was just a meaningless formality, but it illustrates how pervasive religion is in important aspects of American public life. Moreover, the addition, “So help me God,” is otiose or nonsensical.

First, it’s clearly unnecessary. The oath has only to do with doing one’s epistemic best. The oath is a deontological construct put purely in terms of internal strivings of the agent, not in terms of consequences or actual reality. If the oath were to discover the truth, or render an accurate verdict, that might reasonably be thought to require God’s aid since we have no absolute certainty about the criminal or direct access to the criminal act. But the oath was given reasonably in terms of trying to uphold our responsibilities as jurors, and we don’t need God’s help to do that.

In fact, second, it doesn’t even make sense to ask God for help in doing that. If we are not already doing our best, then God cannot make it so that we are doing our best because then God would be doing that for us. If God is required to assist us, then we clearly have not done our best and have failed in our oath and no action on God’s part can make it so that we tried any harder to fulfill our obligations. If on the other hand, we are doing our best, then God’s assistance is completely unnecessary for we have already fulfilled our oath. It is not even logically possible to ask for God’s help in fulfilling this oath since the oath is to do something that is entirely, and necessarily, under our, and only our, control.
Perhaps my argument is unfair to theists. Christians tend to think of God as a stern but loving father who approves of good moral behavior and frowns on immoral behavior, and so God’s influence operates indirectly through our own beliefs and attitudes given God’s approval or disapproval. God’s presence is more like the presence of our parents (deceased or not) whose standards we try to live up to. Perhaps, then, the reference to God is primarily there not as a literal request to God to help us accomplish something that is completely and only within our power. Instead, this admonition is to request God to be present in our minds so that God’s peering over our shoulder encourages us to do our best.

However, either God is not present, and the idea of God is what pushes us to do our best, or God is present, and our fear of God influences us to try just a little harder. If it’s the former, then appeal to God could be nothing more than a reminder to focus on our idea of God, and that idea then helps us to try harder. If it is our idea of God that allows us to do our best, then God is not necessary for that. If it’s the latter, if we are calling on God to be actually present in our minds exerting some influence over us, then we have given up the idea of our own autonomy and responsibility.

I won’t review the role of religion in public life and the rather obvious violation of separation of church and state involved. But what I always find disturbing is the degree to which the public utterances and affirmations of faith are fundamentally senseless. People who believe should be the ones most disturbed by the nonsensical nature of the oath. Unsurprisingly, however, no one really thinks about what they are saying. The fact that the oath mentions God is enough to keep the religious happy, and not enough to upset the vast majority who take it to be a meaningless formality. This episode just illustrates one more way in which people are expected to abide by an inherently nonsensical religion without question.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mitt Romney Faces Difficult Questions

After a week in which Governor Mitt Romney has apparently refused to answer direct questions about his stance on SB 1070 the Arizona immigration law, that he earlier touted as a model to the nation, about his stance on President Obama’s executive order called Dream Act Lite which would redirect enforcement of immigration law to not to expel those who have lived in America since they were children in the United States illegally, about the specific ways in which he would alter the health care reform legislation, and about even whether he was actually appearing at a fundraiser with noted Birther and blustering hairstyle Donald Trump, who has himself advertised the fundraiser. Some have speculated that is trying to avoid taking a position on controversial issues in order to avoid alienating any part of the electorate in the hopes that the poor economy in itself will result in Governor Romney’s election.

The following is a transcript of an interview on CNN’s Talk of the Talk in which Romney campaign advisor Bertram Wooster III faced tough questions from a visibly exasperated Boledad O’Sanchez on Wednesday.

O’Sanchez: Is Donald Trump hosting a fundraiser for Governor Romney? If so, is Governor Romney going to appear at this fundraiser or not?

Wooster: We need to focus on the kind of questions that matter to the American people, like “How much of a failure is President Obama?” and “Why hasn’t Obama led the Republicans in Congress to real bipartisan reforms?”

O’Sanchez: But wouldn’t you have to report the fundraiser to the SEC? What is the point of hiding this information since it will come out soon anyway?

Wooster: You’re assuming that Governor Romney, as a candidate for President, would have to report his fundraisers.

O’Sanchez: Are you saying that Governor Romney is no longer running for President?
Wooster: You’re oversimplifying what is a very complex and difficult issue, and I think the American people should know that we are committed to moving forward in a bipartisan way to solve the challenges that face America in a comprehensive and detailed manner, unlike President Obama who has repeatedly failed to provide the leadership necessary to move the country forward.

O’Sanchez: I thought it was fairly clear in the Republican primary that Governor Romney was running for President.

Wooster: Governor Romney stands by whatever he said in the primaries even if he, and I, cannot remember what he said. The general election is a chance for us to present Governor Romney to the American people in a new light.

O’Sanchez: But he is running for President, isn’t he?

Wooster: Boledad, that’s just the kind of gotcha question that you in the media love to ask, instead of asking important questions that matter to the American people, like, “Did Obama really eat a dog and does he still eat dog?” I have to remind you that President Obama has failed in his presidency to bring people together in a bipartisan manner to do things the Republican party wants him to.

O’Sanchez: As president, you mean?

Wooster: That’s not as simple a question as you make it out to be. I think the American people are tired of these meaningless media distractions and gotcha questions. The American people understand what it is that Governor Romney is trying to do, and we are confident that they will agree with us.

O’Sanchez: By voting for Governor Romney on election day?

Wooster: Once again, you are asking for a simple answer to a complex question that requires bipartisan cooperation of the kind that President Obama has repeatedly failed to provide.

O’Sanchez: But Governor Romney will, as president?

Wooster: I don’t understand why you keep asking a question that I and the entire Romney campaign have answered repeatedly, and we have shared our ideas with the American people.

O’Sanchez: Well, we’re out of time. The Mitt Romney campaign may or may not have a platform, but if he does, then he won’t tell us what it is. And he may not even be running for president.

[Sorry, but I cannot find a link to the program that led to this satire.]

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Three Shorters for First Half of June

Shorter Mitt Romney: I didn’t really want to serve in Vietnam. I just liked the uniform.

Shorter Bobo Brooks: More giant statues of dead white men to cow the populace, please!

Shorter Paul Krugman (no link—he says this every day):
Why can’t you short-sighted, self-interested baboons do what’s best for America and listen to me? Wait . . . I think I just answered my own question.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Edward Feser, The Last Superstition, an Unpublishable Review, part 1

I had this weird idea, since I blog about atheism some, that I might look at the theist books that have been written in response to the new atheist movement. So I ordered a book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, that was highly touted in its Amazon reviews (which, admittedly, could have been written by his friends), to see in what way the new atheists were fundamentally wrong, overly-simplistic, misguided, and just plain wrong. (I wrote ‘wrong’ twice. That’s just how wrong they are!) I thought it might be fun if there were some ridiculous arguments to pick apart.

This book operates in the tradition of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberals Are the Real Big Poopyheads! (no, not that one, the first one). Feser either is part of the right-wing movement or he knows them well, because the book constantly pushes the victimization of all right thinking people by the atheists running the universities, the media, and the government. (They’re even hiding under your bed!) I must confess I was forced to skim some of the more tedious parts. The preface, for example, is a typical polemic about gay marriage undermining our God-given moral values, secular humanism destroying our society, etc. The true surprise in this volume is the extent to which he insults the intelligence, scholarship, and character of his atheists (on pages viii, ix, xi, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 19 on the first 20 pages [and that doesn’t include distortions or problematic interpretations of their ideas]), especially in the context of accusing his opponents of acting superior and insulting theists. Clearly, he commits ad hominem fallacies and strawmen, but the irony is his use of ad hominem attacks on someone while accusing the opponent of committing ad hominems. This style of reasoning deserves a special name, and I’ve come to think of it as a defining feature on the right. The website Sadly, No has the motto: "It’s always projection." Since it takes other fallacies as subsidiary parts, it cannot be taken as a subset of another fallacy, so I propose to call it the “Double Wingnut” because wingnuts are doing exactly what they are accusing the other side of doing. "Look at how condescending and insulting that uneducated dolt is being!" (I cannot help having the feeling that even diagnosing the fallacy counts as a triple wingnut, but I refuse to get any more self-referential.)

Given the quantity of these insults, one wonders what the purpose of the book is. It purports to present a more convincing argument for the existence of God than the new atheists have addressed, or even could address. But, again, given the excessive insults, it cannot be intended to reach the atheists themselves, or anyone sympathetic to the atheist position, and it is unlikely to appeal to anyone in the broad middle of American political or religious thought (for example, claiming "Its [the rejection of the Aristotelian scientific and metaphysical picture] logical implications can also be seen in today's headlines: in the abortion industry's slaughter of millions upon millions of unborn human beings. . ."). Given these outrageous assertions, the work cannot reach out to people of good conscience who disagree (since, apparently, atheists, or even just non-Aristotelian theists, are moral monsters) or to those as yet undecided on the issue. Thus, I believe the purpose of the book is to preach to the choir, to salve the egos of the converted who feel disrespected and humiliated by those smarty-pants atheists with their English accents and academic credentials.

As part of the Goldberg tradition, a Goldberg variation if you will, Feser wants to convince you, dear wingnut reader, that it is really those liberal, atheist academics with their fancy degrees and awards and prizes who are actually stupid, whereas you, the semi-literate mouth-breather, are the true illuminated ones. Anyway, reading this book is slow going because so much of it is aimed at massaging the egos of the morons [heavens, I'm so hostile and dismissive!] who constitute his primary audience, and it takes a considerable amount of time actually to get to some of the arguments for the existence of God. I have not done a word count, but it certainly seemed that more words were devoted to gratuitous insults than to actually presenting arguments for the existence of God.

Since it is impossible to refute his points one at a time in a blog post, I thought I would pick out three instances indicating his rather questionable insinuations and inferences.

1. In the preface, Feser attributes the following quote to Richard Dawkins on critics of evolution:

They are “ignorant, stupid, insane and wicked” (Feser p. xi), and this is “evidence of [Dawkins’s] arrogance and intolerance” (as Dawkins himself says in this article).

What Dawkins actually wrote, in an article titled “Ignorance Is No Crime”, is the following (which I also quote from the above link):

"It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)."

The review (reproduced here) continues, (I couldn’t find the original online.)

If that gives you offense, I'm sorry. You are probably not stupid, insane or wicked; and ignorance is no crime in a country with strong local traditions of interference in the freedom of biology educators to teach the central theorem of their subject. I recently toured East Coast radio stations, doing phone-ins. I came away optimistic. I had expected hostile barracking from creationists with closed minds. Instead, what I found was genuine curiosity and honest interest. I got sincere questions from intelligent people who really wanted to know because they had literally no education in evolution.

This is clearly not insulting the vast majority of Americans; he is insulting people in the creationist movement who study the issue of evolution enough to understand (apparently) the evidence yet continue to disbelieve in evolution. Most ordinary folk in America who do not believe in the theory of evolution have never had a chance to learn the basic facts (believe me, this is true) and so are, by dint of lacking knowledge, by definition ignorant of the vast amount of evidence for the theory. Some sophists, such as Duane Gish and Henry Morris, who appear to have studied evolution and travel the country arguing against the theory are something other than ignorant. I cannot agree with the “insane” (although there is some moral failing here), but I actually think it’s a more complicated matter of self-deception and motivated error. So, Dawkins’s statement left out some slightly more charitable options, but he was not insulting the common people who do not know the evidence for evolution as ignorant because people who do not know this evidence are, by definition, ignorant of it. (And, as far as I'm concerned, it's not possible to insult Duane Gish too much!)

Still, perhaps Dawkins missed the diagnosis of the sophists running the creationist movement. However, I would like to refer back to Feser’s purported Dawkins quote. Feser claims he called them “ignorant, stupid, insane and wicked” when Dawkins actually said they were “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).” I don’t know the source of Feser’s misquotation (although it seems to have dropped the “or” in translation on many Christian apologetics websites, and Feser, presumably, got it from some such source and added the “and” himself to make it more grammatical), but if he cannot tell the difference between an “and” and an “or” (or did not check the quotation for accuracy), then he is in no position to be writing a book involving logic (or research).

2. The second example is from Feser's first chapter on the topic of Antony Flew’s conversion to deism. The chapter begins with the anecdote of that famed atheist’s conversion late in life. Feser does not address most of the significant reasons philosophers had for questioning Flew’s conversion. Mark Oppenheimer, writing in the New York Times Magazine explains reasons to have doubts about the provenance of 'Flew’s' book. It raises many reasons to doubt that Flew wrote this book himself. For example, the new book does not address arguments Flew himself made in the past. There is no indication that the author is aware of Flew’s arguments or has any explanation for why Flew’s view might have changed. Most telling to me is Flew’s unfamiliarity with the authors that “his” book makes primary use of in its arguments. Indeed, Flew essentially confessed, in the interview with the author of the NY magazine article, to not writing or remembering much of what was purported to be primarily his own work. I don’t care much for authority; religious belief depends more on authority and revelation than does atheism. So, my point is It’s unfortunate if Flew was misused by religious friends, as it appears, in order to advance their agenda. I do not place any particular value on authority, so I care little whether Flew changed his mind. But my point now is to critique Feser’s conclusion from the episode:

This episode illustrates, in several respects, the main themes of this book. In their condescending assumption that belief in God could only be the product of wishful thinking, stupidity, ignorance, or intellectual dishonesty; in their corresponding refusal seriously to consider the possibility that that belief might be true and the arguments for it sound; and in their glib supposition that the only rational considerations relevant to the question are scientific ones, rather than philosophical; in all of these attitudes Flew’s critics manifest the quintessential mindset of modern secularism…[i]t is a mindset that echoes the closed-minded prejudice and irrationality it typically attributes to religious believers themselves.

Of course, Oppenheimer does none of these things. He does not assume that belief in God could only be the product of wishful thinking etc. Instead, he considers Flew’s older writings, interviews Flew about ‘his’ newer writings, asks about the inconsistencies, finds Flew unable to respond to them at all (merely admitting to the inconsistency upon prodding) and unable to even recognize the authors that ‘he’ used copiously in ‘his’ own book. Could the reasons given in the book be good ones? The Times author never says, but what looks increasingly clear is that they were not Flew’s reasons. And that is the subject of the article.

What of the other critics who concluded that Flew must have been senile before reading ‘his’ book? That is not so clear. It could be that the ground covered by intelligent design and cosmological arguments is so well known that they thought it unlikely that ‘Flew’s’ book could provide convincing new reasons to accept them. Given Flew’s previous philosophical work and acumen, and, perhaps, the known inadequacies of the arguments, the best explanation for his conversion might be given in terms of psychological debilitation and manipulation by religious friends. There is good reasons to doubt that Flew was the author of these works, and the ‘condescending’ attitudes of the atheists might reflect this article as much as their preexisting beliefs about the arguments ‘Flew’ presented.

There is some possibility that some of the critics were rejecting ‘Flew’s’ arguments out of hand. It’s not obvious that this is closed-minded. No one has time to read everyone else’s work. Am I close-minded for thinking that Absolute Idealism is an untenable philosophical position despite my never having read Professor M.Q. Snerdley’s learned dissertation on the topic? Not really. The arguments in the given field are mostly well-known, and philosophers (or professional atheists) have worked out their views on them in some detail.

Moreover, Feser is a bit carried away by his rhetoric. How does this episode illustrate anything about atheists’ “glib supposition that the only rational considerations relevant to the question are scientific ones, rather than philosophical” (Feser p. 2)? Seriously, where did that come from? No one quoted said anything about scientific considerations superceding philosophical ones. Some noted Flew’s exposure to recent scientific ideas all came through the religious friends who may have presented evidence to him in a misleading or biased way. Science is clearly relevant to the intelligent design argument, so there was some mention of science in the Flew affair, but no one insinuated that science alone was relevant to the issue.

More generally, Feser takes great offense at the condescension, hostility, and distortions of the new atheist movement while condescendingly distorting their position and reasons. This is the classic Double Wingnut. He drips scorn for the opposition on the basis of their scornfulness. No doubt some atheists responded scornfully in their heart of hearts or in the innermost recesses of their atheist bastions, but he does nothing to address the actual published work on the issue.

3. The third incident illustrates that Feser is writing not just an anti-atheist screed but also a political screed against a perceived atheist-dominated liberal political agenda. So, he connects his book to ongoing political events. This third illustration of the author’s poor presentation of opposing positions involves his claim that atheists ("secularists," as he styles them--although secularism is clearly a distinct position from atheism) see themselves as rational and moral, rather than as the deeply corrupted, hell-bound, Satan’s-sex-slaves that they are. He writes,

[S]ecularists took to defining themselves as members of the “reality-based community,” in contrast to the purportedly “faith-based community” of religious believers.

No doubt many atheists would see things this way, but he inaccurately describes the origin and use of the term “reality-based community”. Here’s the quotation from Ron Suskind talking about his interviews with members of the George W. Bush administration, including an anonymous aide, before the 2004 presidential election:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The phrase was adopted by political liberals in opposition to the Bush administration as a kind of badge of honor unwittingly bestowed upon them by their opponents. People on the political right tended to view this as an erroneous claim, especially because the quote was anonymous. Liberals liked the idea of being interested in studying reality, understanding it, and devising carefully-crafted responses to it. The Bush administration, on the other hand, created their own reality by their actions. The Bush’s advisor’s phrase had a weirdly post-modern feel to it, but the moniker was taken as an honorific rather than an insult by liberals who believed the Bush administration was insufficiently interested in the study of objective reality and so acted without adequate understanding of it with catastrophic results, as predicted by said members of the reality-based community. Thus, the label was taken by liberals, not secularists; it was adopted as indicating an opposition to their political opponents, not religious believers; and it was contrasted not with “faith-based community” (which would imply an unfortunate contrast between faith and reality) but with the “reality-creating community” of the Bush administration (although those words were never used). Instead, the phrase “faith-based” is a term introduced by the George W. Bush administration to apply to religion, and justify spending federal funds on religious groups, despite the establishment clause of the first amendment that prevents the establishment of a religion (which is taken by most, but not the right wing legal “scholars”, as a prohibition against endorsing religion over non-religion).

Feser’s errors here individually are minor, but they are symptomatic of his general laxity with respect to the opinions and arguments of his opponents (indeed, exactly the same sort of laxity that he accuses his opponents of). These minor errors suggests a failure to make critical distinctions, to paint all opponents with a broad brush (conflating atheists with liberals) despite important distinctions among them, and basing those critiques on things the atheists never said. All of these problems are a disheartening beginning to a work for which I had some hope.

These three examples illustrate a general trend that led me to the following conclusions:
First, the book is polemical. Its purpose is to attack the opposing position, and it is not necessarily going to be fair and considered in doing so.

Second, the book revels in ad hominems. By focusing on the condescension and attitudes of the atheists, one distracts from the arguments and evidence for and against theism (whether this is his purpose or not). While we all enjoy a good ad hominem diatribe against our opponents, these attacks are gratuitous, unseemly, and, largely absent from the books (at least the Dawkins and Dennett books) that he critiques. Even if he were correct about the character, scholarship and intellect of his opponents, these facts would have no bearing on the truth of a position from claims about the individuals espousing it.

Third, Feser cleverly lowers the bar for argumentative quality in the book. If one focuses on the condescension of one’s opponents, one does not need to make one’s arguments fully convincing. All one has to show is that the condescension is unwarranted, and one can do that by showing that a reasonable perhaps might accept them, not that any reasonable person must accept them.

It remains to be seen whether these arguments can meet these standards. That will be the topic for further posts.