Sunday 28 December 2014

Divine Command Theory and the Obligations of Atheists

  1. To issue a genuine command requires that you make an honest effort to make the recipient aware that you are the one commanding them (such that a rational person would recognize the authority and authenticity of this command).
  2. God is omnipotent, and thus does everything he makes an honest effort to do.
  3. Therefore, if God has issued someone a genuine command, then he must have made them aware the he is the one commanding them. [1&2]
  4. But if a rational person is aware that God is commanding them, then they are aware that he exists.
  5. Therefore, if a rational person is not aware that God exists, then they have not been issued any commands by God. [3&4]

And of course from (5) it follows that, on divine command theory, rational non-believers have no obligations and can do no wrong. But that's absurd: atheists have obligations just as much as anyone else, so there must be some flaw in the argument. Premise (2) and (4) seem indubitable, so it all comes down to rejecting (1) or rejecting divine command theory.

But premise (1) is very plausible. Imagine getting mailed a note from the government, written in pencil on loose leaf paper, without any official markings, and no name signed at the bottom saying, "you're summoned for jury duty, show up at the court house next Thursday morning". You would throw the paper away immediately, and it would seem rather silly to think you were the recipient of a genuine command, or that you had any obligation to obey. If the commander hasn't even tried to issue the command in such a way that a rational recipient would recognize its authenticity then, though the commanders will has been expressed, this expression doesn't seem to amount to a genuine command. But of course this is what scripture or religious tradition looks like to rational non-believers, and they will be very justified in doubting the authenticity of purportedly divine commands.

Friday 14 November 2014

A Bayesian Response to External World Skepticism

The skeptical argument against the real world hypothesis (RWH) is this:
  1. If I'm not justified in believing I'm not a brain in a vat, then I'm not justified in believing I have hands
  2. I'm not justified in believing I'm not a brain in a vat
  3. Therefore, I'm not justified in believing I have hands
Premise (1) follows from the undeniable closure of justification on known entailment. And so you might try objecting to premise (2) by saying you are in fact justified in rejecting the possibility of being a brain in a vat. You might say, look here I have hands! Here's one, and here's the other. I can feel them, I can touch them: is this not good enough reason to believe they are real? But, then again, if this all was an illusion and you were just a brain in a vat, what would you expect to be any different? Every experience of having hands just as well supports that you have hands, as it supports that you're a brain in a vat being tricked into thinking you have hands.

By the very construction of a skeptical hypothesis (SKH) it has the consequence that, for all possible experiences e, e is just as much expected on SKH as it is on RWH; Pr(e|SKH) = Pr(e|RWH). This is a plausibility rather than a probability judgement, in that the Pr function outputs the level of expectation or surprise we have (or should have) in the operands.

Baysians update their beliefs in accordance with Bayes theorem upon being presented with evidence. And so given that the two hypotheses are empirically equivalent, as long as the priors are also equal, it would be impossible for the Baysian to confirm RWH over SKH on evidential grounds. But now consider how the disparity between two hypotheses grows exponentially as evidence is accumulated, and how much evidence we really have (every experience of every moment of our lives). Even if two hypotheses are empirically equivalent, the same evidence could support one dramatically more than the other if the priors weren't equal. And, given that the two hypotheses are incompatible, we are then forced to reject SKH in favour of RWH. We can, then, happily say that we know SKH to be false. Notice that I am not simply Moore shifting. I am not saying I know SKH is false because I know RWH is true. In fact, even under the assumption that I don't have good enough reason to believe RWH, we still have good enough reason to reject SKH. The skeptical hypothesis is still defeated, even if the real world hypothesis cannot be established. And so, if we could justifiably say that Pr(RWH) is even a little bit greater than Pr(SKH), then we could have a solid answer to external world skepticism.

It all comes down, then, to establishing these priors. Traditionally Baysians address the priors of two competing hypotheses by simply ignoring them. They would say; set the priors to whatever you would like, and given the accumulation of enough evidence one hypothesis will eventually overwhelm the other. If we see a dramatic tendency for one hypothesis to be better evidenced than another, we can inductively infer that this pattern will continue and that future findings will continue to favour the one over the other.

But of course this strategy fails here, since the RWH and the SKH are empirically equivalent. You can gather as much evidence as you'd like, it will never favour one over the other as long as the priors are equal. The Baysian is then left with two options. On one hand he can arbitrarily set the prior probabilities to favour RWH, and in doing so give a rather unsatisfying answer to the skeptic. If all we can muster is an arbitrary rejection of skepticism, then it seems we have failed to offer a genuine response. On the other hand, the Baysian can seek out a priori principles to guide our judgement of priors. There is already one such principle at play, the principle of indifference: in the complete absence of probabilistic information, we should treat the priors as if they are equal. And it is exactly this, or at least something very much like it, that fortifies the skeptics argument.

Notice that this principle is cashed out in terms of what we should do, or what our expectations should be. But what sorts of principles could these be? It seems futile to come up with principles that track the objective probability of a hypothesis. So we should understand these principles as guiding our expectations. But then there is something inherently normative about these principles: they tell us about appropriate expectations to have. An epistemic realist (a term coined by analogy to moral realism) might say that there are simply normative facts governing how we should compare hypotheses. They might say that someone who accepts ad hoc explanations is doing something they simply shouldn't be doing. And it's not because ad hoc explanations are more likely to be false (indeed, it's unclear how such a claim might be defended), but simply that an explanations being ad hoc constitutes reason in of itself to reject it or, at least, be more suspicious of it.

Indeed there are probably many more intrinsically good or bad features for a hypothesis to have, like parsimony, explanitory fit, falsifiability, or even aesthetic appeal.

What we need are a priori principles by which we can favour one hypothesis over another. And this we have. It's naturally thought that parsimony and explanitory power are intrinsically good features for a hypothesis to have. And, being ad hoc or unnecessarily complicated are intrinsically bad features for a hypothesis to have.

Sunday 26 October 2014

God and Moral Grounding

According to the common theistic view of moral ontology, facts about moral value reduce to facts about what God is like. This is an a posteriori property identity claim, that the property x is good is literally identical to the property x is like God's essential nature. As such God is not just one good thing among many, but rather he is the very standard to which all good things measure up. He is, according to this view, what Plato called the Good. Rather than explaining evil, theists typically explain it away. The common analogy is that, just as darkness is the absence of light and cold is the absence of heat, evil is merely the absence of good; the absence of any likeness to God. Just like a hole in your shirt, evil technically doesn't exist. It's not a thing in of itself. Even yet, just as a hole in your shirt will leave you cold, evil can still negatively affect you. Having an absence of God or his likeness in your life will, as it's thought, lead you to ruin.

The motivation for this view is that it explains, or best explains, the nature of morality in such a way that preserves our common ethical opinions. Since God is necessarily loving and kind and just, we get, as a result, that it's good to be loving and kind and just. But there are other essential characteristics of God that don't seem to fit into this paradigm. For example, God is necessarily prudent in that he doesn't thwart his own goals, but rather acts efficaciously to bring about his divine will. God is necessarily rational, in that he doesn't accept or hold propositional attitudes that go against the dictates of reason. And God is necessarily immutable, in that he does not behave inconsistently or arbitrarily from one day to the other. It would be rather absurd to think someone is failing to live up to the moral standard by being irrational, or acting imprudently. There might be a sense in which someone who believes contradictions is doing something objectively wrong, but this isn't a moral wrong. Believing contradictions makes one guilty of foolishness or irrationality, but not of moral wrongdoing. So, it seems, this account of moral ontology must fail.

There are further problems with the attempted explanation of evil. If evil is merely an absence of good, then good and evil must partition all things. Something must either be good, or be in the absence of good; there isn't any third option. But of course this is absurd, the vast majority of actions we perform are neither morally good nor evil. Every choice would become a moral choice, and every action would be morally significant. So again, it seems this account of moral ontology must fail.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Defending Moral Naturalism

There's a trend among religious apologists to lament the supposed moral bankruptcy of non-theistic world views, saying that in the absence of God there is no way to account for moral ontology. And yet, these apologists seem to never actually engage with the ideas within contemporary metaethics. Indeed, they often seem entirely ignorant of what philosophers actually believe about moral reality, let alone why.

I seek to defend moral naturalism, a non-theistic account of moral ontology, against all competitors. Moral naturalists believe facts about morality, that is facts about irreducibly categorical norms, are identical to or constituted by some domain of natural facts. Most often this domain is facts about the flourishing and languishing of sentient beings. That being said, not all naturalists think a full and extensive account of moral ontology can be cashed out. We can be sure that the vast bulk of moral reality is constituted of facts about flourishing and languishing, even if there might be some problems at the fringes of moral experience. As long as the naturalist is aiming at merely identifying constitutive features of morality, and not a complete identity, counter examples lose their bite as long as they are few and far between, at the fringes of our moral experience.

The Conceptual Link

When deliberating what they should do people often forgo moral predicates altogether, and simply talk about the natural features of an action or situation. That it's perfectly natural to talk about morality without ever explicitly mentioning moral terms strongly suggests an intimate connection between moral concepts and the relevant natural concepts. Likewise, people often ask of themselves or others rhetorical questions like "what could it hurt?" That these questions are in fact rhetorical and not intended to be open ended for answering further goes to shows this strong conceptual connection. It is natural for people to speak as if, in the absence of anything that could be hurt or harmed by ones actions, there is not even conceptual possibility that those actions would be wrong. Now, I wont go as far to say that moral language can be reduced to natural language, I agree with the consensus of contemporary philosophers that G.E. Moore put analytic reductions of moral language, natural and non-natural, into the grave. Nevertheless, there is still a clear and resounding conceptual link between the two, which lends a great deal of credence to moral naturalism, and away from every other view.

The Supervenience of Morality on Nature

It's not controversial that moral facts seem to supervene on natural facts. That is to say it seems impossible for there to be a change in the moral features of some action or situation without there likewise being a change in the natural features. On any other view of moral ontology this supervenience is a highly mysterious coincidence. Why would the two be so intertwined across all possibilities as they are? Moral naturalists have an answer. Moral facts supervene on natural facts because moral facts are natural facts. Suppose that after every epic battle between Superman and some invading alien race, Clark Kent came into work the next day all cut up and bruised. After a while, you would start to suspect that Clark Kent just was Superman, that the two were the same person. Similarly, that any change in the moral facts necessitates a change in the natural facts seems to strongly suggest that moral facts are identical to or constituted by natural facts.

The Scientific Advantage

Because moral facts are identical to or constituted by natural facts, we are able to study them with the natural sciences. In fact, the moral naturalist would maintain that scientists have been studying morality for a very long time within the fields of biology, health sciences, psychology, sociology, economics and so on. We study what causes humans (and other sentient animals) to languish; what causes them to become sick, to suffer, or to die. We learn about morality when we study how different economic or government systems promote human flourishing, and which ones lead to languishing. What sorts of societies promote human flourishing. Just as the ancient Greeks studied the morning star, not realizing that their hypothesis and theories were likewise about the evening star, modern day scientists study the flourishing and languishing of humans (and other sentient animals), and thereby discover moral truth whether they realize it or not.

Evolutionary Psychology and Escaping Moral Skepticism

Evolutionary psychology offers us a compelling explanation of why we make the moral judgments we do: because these judgments drove our ancestors to act in ways that were beneficial to their survival and reproductive success. In other words, we make the judgments we do largely because these judgments were adaptive for our ancestors. This explanation carries a great deal of prima facie plausibility, is incredibly parsimonious, and is to some degree amenable to empirical confirmation and falsification. In other words, it has all the markings of a proper scientific hypothesis. On these considerations alone, the adaptive account of human moral psychology is very attractive.

But this adaptive account threatens moral knowledge. As Sharon Street argues in her paper The Darwinian Dilemma, it seems there is no connection between the truth of a moral judgement and its adaptivness. This is quite unlike judgements about physical reality that, if in error, can get you eaten by a predator, or plummeted off a cliff, or dead in a multitude of ways. Moral error doesn't seem to threaten ones chances of survival or reproductive success. And so, given the adaptive account of human moral psychology, we should expect our moral judgments to be largely (if not entirely) false.

Naturalists will be quick to point out that, on moral naturalism, moral error does in fact threaten ones chances of survival. Animals who are significantly in error about what causes and constitutes their own flourishing will not be able to maintain it, and thus die at a greater frequency. So on moral naturalism we can expect our moral judgements to be more or less aimed at truth, even in light of an evolutionary origin. At the very least, we should expect our moral judgements to be more no error prone than our physical judgements.

It seems naturalists are the only ones who can embrace the adaptive account without falling into extreme moral skepticism. And so non-naturalists of all sorts are forced into rejecting the adaptive account, most without any alternative explanation in sight. Theistic views might fair a bit better than the rest, in that they can fall back on a theistic account of human origins. They might say that God is directly responsible for human moral psychology, either by forming it ex nihilio or artificially guiding human evolution. But then they are adding a great deal more to the explanation than is necessary. And this loss of parsimony comes at the cost of an explanation that isn't even amenable to empirical confirmation or falsification. Even if theists can achieve consistency, there is nothing attractive about this alternate explanation.

But even with this, the theistic account explains too much. If God guided the evolution of human moral psychology, then it's very strange that our moral judgements are, in many respects, so error prone. There is and has always been great controversy surrounding ethical topics, and in the present it manifests in topics like abortion, euthanasia, sexuality, racial equality, gender roles, and so on. And, because of this, some significantly large portion of us must be or have been in error about these very important topics. But moral error leads to wrongdoing, something God supposedly wants us to avoid. It's very odd, then, that God would get involved with human evolution but not, as it seems, finish the job. Again naturalists will point out that, just as naturalism wards off threats of skepticism, it still leaves enough room for moral error. After all, evolution by natural selection is a messy, imperfect process. It does not care about our epistemic situation, and selects only by survival. And so on the adaptive account it's not surprising that we would have a handful of controversial topics here and there, where humans are generally not well equipped for discerning moral truth.

And so moral naturalism out competes theistic accounts of moral ontology twofold, and all other non-natural non-theistic views once over. With this, moral naturalism stands as the best account of moral ontology, since it's compatible with (without falling into deep moral skepticism) our best account of moral psychology.

The Ontological Parsimony

Moral naturalism is without the spooky metaphysical baggage of non-natural and supernatural views. It looks to the natural world, rather than to the supernatural, to explain moral ontology and, in doing so, only commits us to the existence of things everyone believes in anyway: the sorts of things a scientifically informed world view would contain. One doesn't need to believe in gods, or platonic forms, or mystical forces to believe in moral reality. One need only recognize objective facts about the flourishing and languishing of sentient beings, to find a solid ontological foundation for good and evil.

Monday 13 October 2014

Skeptical Theism and Divine Deception

Update: I have revised my views somewhat

Skeptical theists maintain that, for whatever reason, we are in no position to conclude from the failure of theodicy that God doesn't (or probably doesn't) have morally sufficient reason to permit the many evils populating our world. But this inference would be valid, as long as our grasp of the moral reasons available to God was a representative sample. And so skeptical theists are committed saying that our grasp of the moral reasons available to God is not representative of all the reasons he actually has. And with this, they are committed to a realm of beyond our ken moral reasons; greater goods and evils that factor into God's decision to permit all this suffering and injustice and horror. Much of moral reality, then, must be hidden from our sight. So the skeptical theist is committed to a sort of moral skepticism: he must think that our ability to grasp moral truth is severely limited. But skepticism is often infectious and difficult to contain.

Justification is commonly understood to be closed on known entailment. By taking the contrapositive, we are left with a premise common to many skeptical arguments; a premise showing how skepticism (or lack of justification) is likewise closed on known entailment:
  1. If someone is not justified in believing Q but knows that P entails Q, then they are likewise not justified in believing P.
Now consider a known entailment:
  1. If God has told me that P and P is actually true, then God isn't lying to me about P.
This is simply true by definition: to tell a lie is just to say something one knows is not true. And God, being omniscient, knows everything. But with these two premises, and a soon to be explored third, skeptical theists are forced into a dilemma:
  1. Skeptical theists are not justified in believing that God isn't lying to them about P
  2. Therefore, skeptical theists are not justified in believing both that God has revealed to them P, and that P is true
God, being morally perfect, is primarily motivated by moral reasons. So any substantial skepticism of moral reasons leads to skepticism of God's motives. This is the intended result of skeptical theism; to undermine our judgements of what sorts of actions God would or wouldn't be motivated to do. But, in doing so, the skeptical theist gives up our ability to judge how God would act in all respects, including, for example, whether or not he would lie.

Just as God has pro tanto reasons to not permit evil, he has pro tanto reasons to not lie. But, according to skeptical theism, these pro tanto reasons might be defeated by beyond our ken morally sufficient reasons to permit the evil, or to lie. Some argue that there can never be a morally sufficient reason to lie, but this is incredibly difficult to defend. It seems very good, for example, for a parent to tell fictitious and fanciful stories to encourage their child's imagination. And every good parent would console their young child, saying everything will be fine when they can't actually be sure of it. A good parent would lie so his child could sleep, and not be haunted all night by worries. Likewise, sometimes doctors mislead their patients into believing the diagnosis is less grim than it really is. They do this out of concern for the patient, so that the patient doesn't lose hope and make his situation even worse. Often times the right attitude can greatly benefit ones chances of recovery, but many are unable to stay positive while fully aware of the harsh reality they face. God might be lying to us, not in spite of his love for us, but precisely because he loves us; because it is in our best interests to be lied to. Unlike the many evils that populate our world, we can easily imagine greater goods that might justify and motivate divine lies.

Even with this said, there are many linguistic acts God could perform that, whether or not they count as lying, still generate the same worries for skeptical theists. For example, in Genesis 2:17 God told Adam and Eve that they would die the very day they ate his prohibited fruit. And, as the story goes, the two lived long and full lives after they ate the fruit. Did God lie? For the sake of my argument, it doesn't really matter. God spoke to Adam and Eve knowing they would take his statement literally, and thus acquire false belief. And throughout history people have been interpreting scripture in many different (and often inconsistent) ways. Someone has to be interpreting scripture incorrectly, and yet God knew this would happen when he first gave the revelation.

Skeptical theists are then left with a severe problem. As long as they're forced into this dilemma, they cannot be justified in believing something by divine revelation. This is a problem for those skeptical theists of a religious leaning, who hold to theological views that can only be justified by appealing to the divine authority of some religious text or other revelation. This would include the bulk of religious doctrine, and as such strip their theistic belief down to its bare bones. They might still be justified in believing in the existence of God by natural theology alone, but the justification for their particular brand of theism, their religion, is wholly dependent upon accepting particular texts or traditions as being handed down directly from God.

Some might think there must be something wrong with my argument. According to the traditional externalist view of justification, all that is required to have justification is that ones belief is formed by some mechanism that tracks truth, or is reliable, or is properly functioning, or something of that sort. As a result, the individual needn't be aware of why or how his belief is justified. But it would be incredibly arbitrary for the skeptical theist to endorse externalism about justification to salvage divine revelation but, with the same breath, turn around and embrace a deep skepticism of moral reasons. After all, he has no more reason to think his religious beliefs are externally justified as he does to think his judgements about moral reasons are. Given that arbitrariness seems sufficient to frustrate justification, it's hard to see how externalist considerations could be of any use for them here.

Saturday 20 September 2014

An Evolutionary Argument for Naturalism

Let's take our intuition, our faculty of memory, our powers of perception and introspection, our powers of deduction and inference, and put them all in a box. This box can be seen, maybe a bit too simplistically, as a machine that produces belief. Somewhere within us, no doubt in our brains, this box receives input from our senses and outputs a representation of the external world. To keep things simple, let's call this amalgamation of neurology our faculties. And, without worrying about how it works, let's worry about whether it works at all. There are different senses in which our faculties can 'work'. We are able to navigate our environment without dying, and that's a sort of success. But it's possible to navigate effectively while being completely wrong about what one is navigating. Our faculties could very reliable for keeping us alive, but be very unreliable for delivering truth. The psychologist might be very interested in the first sense that our faculties are reliable, and want to study it more (maybe with the hopes of replicating them; AI technology is much sought after). But the philosopher is interested in the second, he wants to know whether there is a serious threat of skepticism. It is this latter sense we will be concerned with.

Many think there is an argument against Naturalism and for Theism from the reliability of our faculties. After all, whether or not God was directly responsible for human origins, we can expect he would intervene in some respects. Maybe God doesn't care if we're bipedal or quadrupedal, or whether or not we have a tail or are covered in fur. But God does care about our intellect, and our ability to discover truth. God cares, then, about our brains. And so, on Theism, there is an available explanation for how our faculties might be reliable, in that they were designed to be reliable by God. But on Naturalism, how can this issue be addressed?

The standard scientific explanation is that our brains, along with the rest of us, evolved by natural selection over millions of years from a long extinct ancestral species. And that species likewise evolved from something even older, and so on and so on. Our faculties, then, were produced somewhere along this line of animal evolution. But herein lies the problem. There doesn't seem to be any selective pressure for having reliable rather than unreliable faculties. One might think an animal must know where the water is, know who the predators are, and know what to mate with, to successfully pass on its genes. But this isn't quite right. What matters is that the animal goes towards water when it's dehydrated, hides from predators when threatened, and pursues a mate of its own species. In other words, what matters is the animals behaviour, and not his beliefs. If the animal moves in all the right ways, then his mind can be on vacation and he will survive just as well. As a result, it seems the truth of an animal's belief does not factor into his evolutionary fitness.

Given an alternate evolutionary history, humans might have had a very different understanding of the world. Imagine, in this alternate reality, someone sees a tiger and, thinking it is friendly, tries to befriend it. But, they think, playing tag with it and running away as fast as they can is the best way to befriend it. In their mind, tigers respect fast runners. When they run away, it doesn't matter what was going on inside their head. Their belief about the tiger still motivated the right action, even though it was false. And, if you think about it, there are many ways a network of beliefs could be beneficial but false, but only one way in which they could be true. Maybe instead of thinking the tiger is friendly, this fellow thinks the tiger is lucky. And that seeing a tiger means you will be blessed with finding riches if you run away immediately. I'm sure there are an endless many silly little stories we could tell about why a false belief would cause someone to perform the right action.

But if there are many more ways in which our faculties could get it wrong than right, and if natural selection has no way to differentiate between the two, then we would expect our faculties to become very finely tuned to keep us alive, but not at all reliable for discerning truth. And so the probability of our faculties being reliable
(R) on evolutionary naturalism (E&N) must be very low.

This is where the argument gets interesting, for if we must accept that Pr(R|E&N) is very low, then we must accept that E&N is a defeater for R. But if E&N is a defeater for R, then it is likewise a defeater for all the beliefs we know were produced by our faculties. In a strange twist, we recognize that E&N is beliefs of ours—having been produced by our faculties—and, as such, is self defeating. Since the evolution of man is an established fact, Naturalism must be rejected. Ironically, one of the perceived pillars of naturalistic thought defeats our warrant for believing Naturalism.

Or so some think, but there's more to the matter. However beneficial it is to have the right beliefs, it's even more beneficial to be able to draw the right conclusions. An animal who is able to infer truths about his environment can acquire knowledge of things he has never before experienced, which allows for planning and forethought to guide the animal's behavior. Suppose a species is plucked from their home environment and dropped into one they've never before encountered. Evolution couldn't have possibly equipped them for this new environment, since they only ever evolved to suit their old one. And yet, they might already have crucial knowledge of this new environment simply by making inferences. Clearly this species will survive at a greater frequency than one who doesn't have any such inferential power.

But inference is a garbage in, garbage out process; only true premises guarantee true conclusions. This provides selective pressure for evolution to maximize the number of truths an animal possess, offering him a large pool of premises to safely draw conclusions from. On the other hand, a false belief allows the animal to draw false conclusions (even if the reasoning is flawless). And so to minimize the chance of error, evolution is pressured to weed out falsehoods. Furthermore, false beliefs can have a sort of domino effect: one might allow many in, which in turn might allow many more. And so the pressure to not have false belief is fairly strong.

Looking back, the stories of the fellow and the tiger all involved him having more beliefs than necessary to motivate the right behaviour. If he merely understood that the tiger was dangerous, that would surely be enough. But in thinking the tiger was friendly, he had to have other false ideas of how to befriend it. In thinking it was lucky, he had to have other false ideas about how to pursue riches. Since there is evolutionary pressure to minimize an animal's false beliefs, these over-complicated, false belief structures are actually less likely to be beneficial, and thus less likely to evolve, than the simple truth. And so, given an evolutionary origin, we would actually expect our faculties to be more or less reliable.

That being said, many parts of our faculties (particular intuitions, or other belief-forming mechanisms) are actually quite unreliable. On evolutionary naturalism, scattered cases of unreliability here and there are not at all surprising; evolution by natural selection is a messy, imperfect process. But this isn't a problem because over time we've developed methodologies to help us along. We don’t just blindly follow our gut anymore, but instead put more weight behind the scientific method than behind any single metaphysical intuition. For example, the results of quantum physics are mindbogglingly odd, but we accept them anyway. And even for fields like ethics where intuition still plays a significant role, we have learned to filter out intuitions through thought experiments, and thus aiming at generalized theories.

Over time we have refined the process by which we acquire belief. But if our faculties were designed by someone who cared about our epistemic situation, why would this refinement be necessary? If God exists, why would he leave so many people in the dark for so long? Why would he have left us to pursue false religions, false ethical theories, false medical practices and so on, especially since these areas actually matter? And so, if anything, it seems our epistemic situation strongly supports Naturalism over Theism. Not only can Naturalism explain the reliability of our faculties but, unlike Theism, it can explain the extent to which our faculties are reliable.

Friday 5 September 2014

Conspiracy of Creationism

This post is a bit of fun, all of which is being poked at young earth creationists. A powerful case for evolution can be made all without ever touching the science itself, but rather by making an appeal to theistic authority.

The Pew Research Center did a study of public and scientific opinions on a number of controversial topics, some of which were evolution and religion. From the study we get a number of unsurprising, but telling statistics:
  • 97% of scientists believe in evolution (that living things, including humans, evolved over time)
  • 48% of scientists have some religious affiliation
  • 33% of scientists believe in God
These numbers shouldn't be a shock to anyone, the widespread acceptance of evolution within the scientific community is common knowledge. And it's likewise generally understood that scientists are less likely to be religious or theistic. But now that we have these numbers, we can play with them a bit. Assuming the best case scenario (that only the religious would reject evolution) we get that, at the very least, 93% of religious scientists affirm the theory of evolution. With a similar assumption we can see that, at the very least, 90% of theistic scientists affirm the theory of evolution.

These numbers dispel the myths you hear floating around about evolution in academia, like that scientists believe evolution just to save their naturalistic biases, or because those who doubt it are bullied into silence by their non-religious superiors. Sure naturalism is the majority view within the scientific community, but not by much!

The question I'd pose to creationists, then, is why do so many theistic scientists accept the theory of evolution? It seems that creationists are faced with a daunting trilemma. Are the vast majority of theistic scientists incompetent with science, in that they are rational and honest enough to follow the evidence wherever it might lead, but are simply not well enough informed to see the folly of evolutionary theory? Or are the vast majority of theistic scientists incompetent with reason, in that they are well informed and honest enough, but cannot keep this all straight in their heads and somehow succumb to fallacious reasoning? Or, finally, are the vast majority of theistic scientists well informed and rational, but simply dishonest? Do they know the truth, having made the right observations and having drawn the right conclusions from it, but for some reason or other are lying to the public about their findings? I can't think of any explanation that doesn't paint theistic scientists in an embarrassingly bad light.

The first horn is bold and foolish; surely the vast majority of scientists, people who have devoted their careers and lives to studying nature, are more informed than lay-people. The second horn is almost as rash; surely having undergone many years of education would make someone sufficiently rational. To get to where most scientists are, one must be extremely intelligent and well-versed in critical thinking. The final horn, then, is the least absurd, and yet it's still too much to accept. To think that the vast majority of scientists are lying to the public is crazy enough, but to think that such a large portion those perpetuating this deception are themselves theists is some next level conspiracy theory. I don't see how this is any better than thinking the government is hiding extraterrestrials, or that 9/11 was an inside job.

Then again, maybe the problem is that most lay-man creationists have never set foot in academia, and as such are simply unaware of the frequencies of different opinions of academics. After all, over half of them reported that there was no consensus on evolution within the scientific community.

On a final note, I'd like to put the creationists skepticism in perspective. In defending the historicity of Jesus' resurrection, the popular Christian apologist William Lane Craig wrote "In a survey of over 2,200 publications on the resurrection in English, French, and German since 1975, Habermas found that 75% of the scholars surveyed accepted the historicity of the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb."

Only 75% of scholars accept the historicity of Jesus' empty tomb. The intellectual arbitrariness required to hold to the standard creationist world view is jarring. There is not only a greater percentage of scientists, not only religious scientists, but even theistic scientists who accept evolution, than there is historians who accept such a meager claim that Jesus' tomb was empty on Easter morning. No wonder they're so skeptical of achedemia, they just can't win.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

The Problem of Freewill (an extension of the Problem of Evil)

A common response when faced with the problem of evil is to offer a freewill theodicy. Many believe that libertarian freedom is necessary for very great goods, such as moral agency, spontaneity, or a genuinely loving relationship with God. And, it is thought, unless God violates our freedom, he cannot prevent us from doing evil. God would thus have good reason to permit the bulk of evils that populate our world.

While both premises are often contested, it's sometimes argued that the very patterns and magnitudes of human freedom are themselves evidence against God. As such, the theological problem simply resurfaces. After all, with freedom comes power; power over the well-being of oneself and others. And sometimes it can be quite inappropriate, or even harmful, to give someone this sort of power.

First it's important to notice that freedom isn't an all or nothing deal. Everyone has certain powers and limitations. No human, for example, has the freedom to fly about like Superman (at least not yet). And very few humans have the freedom to bring about war, genocide or famine. Most people don't have nearly that much influence on the world, so clearly these sorts of freedoms are not so important that God should always preserve them.

The question, then, is which actions should we be free to perform? This largely depends on the individual. God himself is a perfect being, and as such it's good for him to have unrestricted freedom, for he will only ever do good with it. God does not struggle with temptation, he fully understands the moral consequences of his actions and, more importantly, he cares. But humans are, for whatever reason, not so impeccable.

Anyone who gives their young child a loaded gun and the freedom to use it at his own discretion is doing something quite evil. Not only is the child ignorant of the potential harm he could cause himself and others, but he isn't even capable of understanding. There is a certain level of maturity one must reach, before one can fully grasp the evil consequences of their actions. Furthermore, even if the child was fully aware of how dangerous a loaded gun is, we still shouldn't expect him to choose wisely. There's a certain level of maturity one has to reach before they're capable of caring about the consequences of their actions. You might think this is silly, of course people care about their best interests. But then, what were you doing as a teenager? Right. Many adults, even, live for the moment and throw caution to the wind, racking up debt they know they wont be able to pay back because they are so focused on the immediate satisfaction.

Of course there comes a time when it would be very appropriate to place a gun in your child's hands, after all you can't learn to use a gun if you're never permitted to touch one. But even then, you still wouldn't give him completely unrestricted freedom. You would teach him gun safety, and appraise his maturity level every step of the way. You personally make sure he's not going to hurt himself or anyone else. And this is how people should acquire freedom: slowly and gradually, as they learn to be responsible with it.

Then again, there are some people whose freedom should be restricted, not because they're ignorant or immature, but simply because they are evil. This is precisely why we jail criminals; if someone proves themselves irresponsible with their freedoms, we take those freedoms away. If someone has a tendency for violence, cruelty, or has a general apathy towards human well-being, then it would be very wrong to place him in any sort of power over others. It would be wrong to allow him to hold a job as a child educator, or a nurse, and it would be especially wrong to let him be a politician.

On theism, one would expect God to give us only as much freedom as we deserve. And yet sometimes children get their hands on guns, and sometimes genocidal maniacs are elected to public office. Many of the most horrific evils brought about by human freedom are the result of undeserved freedom, and as such are doubly problematic to theistic belief. Not only is the evil act itself surprising, but the freedom it was performed in is highly unexpected on classical theism.

The patterns and magnitudes of human freedom do not very well match the patterns and magnitudes of human responsibility, and as such actually constitute evidence against the existence of God just as much as any other seemingly gratuitous evil.

Tuesday 2 September 2014

ECREE and the Argument from Miracles

When faced with miraculous testimonies, skeptics often cite the mantra 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'. In turn believers charge skeptics of being overly skeptical, and arbitrarily setting a higher bar for claims to the supernatural. And, often times, they are right. If you ask most skeptics why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, or what it is to be an extraordinary claim, they usually aren't able to explain themselves very well. But, I think, there is some truth to this mantra, and it can be fleshed out in a mathematically rigorous way. Enter Baye's theorem, which states:
Pr(A|B) = Pr(B|A) * Pr(A) / Pr(B)
Once you're aware of it, all the pieces fall into place. An extraordinary claim is simply one with a very low prior probability. Extraordinary evidence is simply evidence that is very strong, having a very high conditional probability. It's almost self-evident that very improbable events require very strong evidence before we can reasonably accept them, but Baye's theorem shows us why. Suppose A is an extraordinary claim (having very low prior probability), and B is an established fact which isn't incredibly probable or improbable. The ratio Pr(A) / Pr(B) is going to be very close to zero, which will cause Pr(A|B) to be a very small fraction of Pr(B|A). If Pr(B|A) isn't incredibly large to begin with, the fact that B is evidence for A is going to be practically insignificant.

Now let's turn our attention to a particular miracle—probably being the most influential—the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I'll admit, there is interesting evidence for this miracle. It's enough, at least, to catch ones attention. But rationalize belief? I'm not so sure. The problem is precisely that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; while the evidence of Jesus' resurrection seems fairly strong (if similarly strong evidence was presented for a more mundane claim, you would surely be convinced), it doesn't seem strong enough to overwhelm the initial implausibility of the claim.

Think about the sort of claim being made, that someone rose from the dead after three days of rot and decay. In all of our experience with death, people tend to stay dead. Even under ideal conditions where the body has been frozen and there is a team of doctors standing by, resurrection is still incredibly difficult. But in all of our experience with death, never have we observed someone coming back from the dead after three days (excluding this one case). In fact, over a hundred thousand people die every day, and we never see anyone raised as Jesus is said to have been. It then seems we must think that resurrection after three days is really really really improbable.

Apologists will agree to an extent, but say drawing conclusions about Jesus' resurrection isn't fair. This is, after all, supposed to be a miracle, which suggests it occurred by supernatural means. But even here still, one can assume God exists (and has the power to raise the dead), and still point out that it happens (if at all) at a frequency of near zero. Even under the assumption of classical theism, a resurrection of this sort seems incredibly improbable. Apologists will retort that Jesus was a special case; he was, after all, the son of God. But herein lies the problem. If one must assume the existence of a god that wants to raise Jesus in particular, but not anyone else, then they're practically assuming the Christian god. There isn't any other god we know of that would have special reason to bring back this one particular Palestinian, two thousand years ago.

And this is fine for them to assume, given that Christianity itself is a fair assumption. But what isn't permissible is them using the supposed fact that Jesus rose from the dead as evidence for Christianity as apologists typically do. They are committing a sort of question begging fallacy. They want to argue that Jesus' resurrection is evidence for the Christian god, when they must presuppose something very much like the Christian god exists to even establish that Jesus rose from the dead in the first place. But if that's the case, then the fact that Jesus rose from the dead offers nearly nothing in favour of Christianity. It can't raise the probability of Christianity significantly more than what is already granted.

All this is to say that there is still a wide chasm between establishing classical theism, and establishing Christian theism. And, it can only be crossed by showing that the god of classical theism would probably have motive to raise Jesus, in particular, from the dead. But this in of itself seems just as difficult to defend as anything else and, as such, it seems the prospect of defending Christian theism by use of an argument from miracles is bleak.