Sunday, April 29, 2007

Can you see what it is yet?

Post script to previous "The Jesus light" post. The line "Can you see what it is yet?" was a little joke with myself re. the great Rolf Harris. Then I found this.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Jesus light

Last night I spoke at the Durham University Debating Society. The motion before the house was “This house believes Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life.” Proposing were philosopher Prof. Richard Swinburne, the Bishop of Edinburgh Brian Smith, and a Seventh Day Adventist Minister called Don.

What I found especially interesting about the debate was the Bishop’s approach. He deliberately eschewed argument and appealed instead to personal experience – an experience relating to what he called “the meaning of life”.

I’ve seen this done before, but the Bishop was particularly good at it. He started with jokes, but then gradually began to speak more softly and with feeling. In our quietest moments, he said, each one of us – yes, even a cynical atheist – is aware, deep down, of a light. It’s an awareness of something fundamentally good, of a yearning to be something better than we are. This something is... Jesus. Sombre nodding from the Christian Union contingent. When the Bishop sat down, there was moment of quiet, reflective calm before the applause broke out.

How do you respond to that? Get all logical and sceptical on him, and you come across as a coarse bully, someone insensitive to one of the deepest insights available to humanity, an insight that, yes, even a cynic like me has, though I might try to deny it.

Well, here’s what I said. How could I have done better?

I started by pointing out something surely undeniable – that religion has a quite extraordinary ability to get even very smart, well-educated people to believe ridiculous things. Sixty years ago, the view that the entire universe is just six thousand years old was the view of a tiny band of religious crackpots. It’s now held by some 100 million Americans. Some of these people, I pointed out, are much smarter than anyone in this room. Many are college educated. Yet religion has the power to convince them not just the universe is six thousand years old, but also that this is good science. Wow!

How does religion manage this amazing feat? There are lots of factors. One is the subtle arts of psychological manipulation. Anyone who has seen Derren Brown’s TV show will know that, with the right techniques, it’s possible to shift people’s beliefs in some very weird directions. Funnily enough, religion has developed many of these same techniques. It’s had thousands of years to refine them. It is very, very good at applying them.

One of the psychological mechanisms it takes advantage of is the power of suggestion.

A while ago I did some research into UFOs for a children’s critical thinking book I’m writing (publishers, please get in touch). I came across a very interesting story involving a strange light seen over a nuclear power station being built in the U.S. back in 1976. The light appeared night after night. The local police had witnessed it. One said, “it was about half the size of the moon, and it just hung there over the plant.” Another policeman described the object as “twenty times” the size of a plane that happened to fly past. Even a local magistrate described something fiery, rectangular, and “about the size of a football field” hanging over the power station.

Two reporters went down to join the growing, excited audience and see the mysterious light for themselves. Sure enough it appeared. The journalists decided to approach in their car, but as they drove towards it the light receded. Eventually they gave up the chase, stopped, and got out of the car. The photographer pulled out his telephoto lens, took a closer look and said, “Yep, that’s Venus alright”.

Suggest to people that a light is an enormous fiery object, and, in many cases, that's what they'll see. UFOlogy provides many amazing examples of the phenomenon.

Just like the Bishop, many religious folk will take me gently by the hand, look deep into my eyes and say, in a calm, steady voice, “Stephen, in your quietest moments you’re aware of something, aren’t you? You might try to deny it, but you know there’s something down there, at the bottom of your soul, don’t you? It’s a light, isn’t it? A small, still light. Can you see it there, glimmering? Look closer... Closer still… See…? Can you see what it is yet…? It’s Jesus, isn’t it?” And as I stare more and more closely, the recognition finally breaks over me: “Oh my gosh! Yes… yes…. it really is Jesus!”

Or is it Venus?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Clarity, continental philosophy, and bullshit

I posted this under the Nigel Warburton interview below, but thought it also worth posting properly...

There's a sort of Hegelian story about reason, the Enlightenment, the French revolution and the Terror, and later, with Lyotard etc., the Holocaust, to which many in the continental tradition sign up.

On this story, reason, as understood by Enlightenment thinkers - and also by today's analytic tradition - is in reality something rather crude and, to some extent, oppressive (even just another form of power). Indeed, it is reason (thus understood) and the Enlightenment that are ultimately responsible for the horrors of both the guillotine and Auschwitz.

I guess that's what anonymous is alluding to when he connects philosophical clarity to "the Terror"?

There's a certain sort of "continental" bullshit artist that, having become familiar with this narrative, then plays the following game:

1. Alludes knowingly to the narrative, so that those also familiar with it can feel clever and "in the know", while those unfamiliar with it feel excluded and ignorant (a bit like when a clique are all intimately familiar with a particular film, and keep riffing on it and referencing to it, while those not familiar with the film are excluded)

2. Never clearly explains the narrative, because then someone might spot that it is, in fact, 95% bullshit.

3. Peppers their discussion with lots of historical references - the more obscure the better - so as to impress the layperson with their sophistication and learning.

4."Critiques" analytic philosophers from the perspective of this narrative, suggesting they are unsophisticated, coercive, insensitive to the historical nuances, etc. etc., but without ever bothering actually to provide any justification for any of these charges at all.

5. When challenged or questioned, talks jargon, or switches to some other feature of the narrative, so that their opponent quickly becomes confused and loses track of the conversation, while those familiar with the narrative can again share a feeling of cleverness and being "in the know".

I used to give these people the benefit of the doubt - after all, I thought, perhaps they really are on to something. I tried to figure out what this something might be.

But having become rather more familiar with this narrative myself recently, and the five techniques outlined above, it has become increasingly clear to me what a bunch of wa**ers these people really are.

Not all "continental" philosophers, by any means. But there are certainly a few...

Of course, analytic philosophy has its own brand of wa**er.

Bill O'Reilly interviews Richard Dawkins

Here's Dawkins talking to Fox News' right-wing Catholic Bill O'Reilly.

Interestingly, O'Reilly plays the relativist card, "Well, it's true for me that Jesus is God", as well as aiming a blunderbus-full of crap [typical Fox style] in Dawkins' direction, including atheism is just as much a faith position, and (paraphrasing) "Well, how do you explain why the universe exists, then? Until you come up with an answer, I'm sticking with Jesus!"

Not surprisingly, Dawkins struggles a bit to cope with it all. My question is, what would have been the best responses to O'Reilly?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Morality dependent on religion?

BTW there's also a great article by Hauser and Singer here on this same theme.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

INTERVIEW: Nigel Warburton

Nigel Warburton is senior lecturer in philosophy at The Open University. He is one of the world's foremost popularizers of philosophy, and has a particular gift for explaing things clearly. His books include Thinking from A to Z (about to come out in its 3rd edition this summer), Philosophy: The Essential Study Guide and The Basics of Essay Writing.

As the issue of clarity came up in the comments on a recent blog of mine. I asked Nigel five questions about clarity (questions in bold).

At the top of your website the Virtual Philosopher you quote John Searle: "If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself". What is clarity, and why is it important in philosophy?

Clarity is expressing yourself in a way that allows readers to follow what you are saying. It minimizes the risk of misinterpretation. Clarity contrasts with obscurity. Obscurity leaves at least some readers in the dark about your meaning. I like the quotation from Searle. I like another quotation from the author Robert Heinlein too: 'Obscurity is the refuge of incompetence'. Obviously in some sorts of writing obscurity doesn't matter so much: some writers want to be interpreted in a variety of possibly contradictory ways. But Philosophy shouldn't be like this.

Clarity is important in Philosophy because life is short. Another reason why it is important is that many lightweight thinkers are attracted to Philosophy because it seems to promise them power through looking clever. Hiding behind a veil of obscurity is one way in which such people have traditionally duped their readership. Philosophy thrives on debate: if you can't understand what someone is saying the collaborative aspect of philosophy is likely to wither and much ink will be spent on the vexed question of what a particular philosopher could possibly mean by his or her oracular pronouncements. All that before we ever get on to the important question of whether what that philosopher said was true or worth saying. Philosophy thrives on debate and discussion, but if you don't really know what someone is trying to say, how can you discuss it?

Clarity in Philosophy involves clarity at the level of 1) words, 2) sentences, 3)paragraphs, 4) arguments, 5) illustrations, and 6) underlying thought. This list is not exhaustive, but these six features are all important.

1 ) At the level of words, there is no excuse for obfuscation through polysyllabic abstraction (i.e. hiding behind long words). Some writers write Philosophy as if they were paid by the syllable with bonus payments for including untranslated Latin. They also use jargon which may or may not clarify meaning. For a spectacular example of obscurity through excessive use of jargon, see Martin Heidegger's Being and Time (almost any page).

2) Then at the sentence level, passive constructions or convoluted syntax can obscure meaning.

3) Poor use of paragraphs often indicates poor argument structure.

4) Philosophy involves building a case for a conclusion. The reader needs to be able to see how evidence, argument support the conclusion which purportedly follows from them. For examples of this kind of clarity, take a look at René Descartes' first 'Meditation' or John Stuart Mill's chapter on Free Expression in On Liberty.

5) Illustrative examples help most readers, even the highly sophisticated ones, to understand generalizations. When philosophers omit examples or applications of their ideas they sometimes float off into realms of imprecision - not all their readers will be happy to float off with them.

6) Some philosophers have a nose for the subject and what matters. Others don't. Those who don't can be particularly difficult to understand because it is very hard to see why they are bothering to think or write about a particular topic at all.

If I find something is said very unclearly, can I really be confident the author doesn't understand it him or herself?

No. It is possible that the person saying it is just not a very good writer or speaker. But, on the other hand, obscurity cannot be good evidence that someone does understand something. My own experience has been that I've understood philosophical ideas far better once I tried to explain them to someone else. Teaching bright students, preferably students who aren't afraid to ask difficult (or obvious) questions is one of the best ways to get straight about an idea.

Might the lack of clarity in the writing of some philosophers be due to the fact that what they are are dealing with is so deep? As we peer further into the depths, so the shadows inevitably grow deeper?

The history of philosophy includes many examples of beautiful clarity about deep subjects. Think of the writings of David Hume, for example. More recently, Thomas Nagel and Daniel Dennett have demonstrated that it is possible to write clearly about some of the most difficult philosophical problems about the mind; Jonathan Glover and Peter Singer have done the same in the area of ethics. Sometimes philosophers have to say very clearly 'we are in the dark about this'. They might choose to communicate this indirectly rather than stating it directly. But that need not involve obscurity of language, nor even of meaning.

Philosophers in the analytic tradition sometimes accuse those in the continental tradition of a lack of clarity. Why is that? Is there any justice to the accusation?

One reason is that some so-called continental philosophers have inherited a style of writing from Hegel that leaves readers floundering, confused or pretending that they understand when they don't. I think that some post-structuralist writers were charlatans who conned a generation (though this has been more of a problem in literature and fine art courses than in philosophy). If you don't believe me, read Sokal and Bricmont's brilliant exposé. But obviously not all continental philosophers fall into this category. Besides, it isn't always obvious who is to count as a philosopher in the continental tradition: Descartes, Kant,, Schopenhauer, Frege, and Wittgenstein were all born on the European continent...each in their own way was capable of a high degree of clarity.

Even among the more poetic philosophers, though, such as Soren Kierkegaard, there are ways of showing things rather than saying them which can be clear. The different voices within Either/Or explore contrasting positions from within and we are not meant to read what is said as literally Kierkegaard's view: I take it that Kierkegaard's meaning lies in what is shown rather than what is straightforwardly said in this book. But he is not perversely obscure in the way that some philosophers are, despite dealing with 'deep' topics. Or, to take another example, Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness adopted the obscurity of phenomenological jargon, but through his brilliant use of extended examples and thought experiments manages great and memorable clarity in places in that book. We can forgive a philosophical writer who is sometimes obscure if he or she provides us with insight and occasional clarity; but obscurity can never be a virtue in Philosophy.

What would be your five key tips for thinking and writing clearly?

1) Care about being understood.
2) Read George Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English Language' (1946). It has excellent practical advice about writing to be understood.
3) Use examples. These can be highly imaginative and creative. This will force you to think through what you mean by generalisations and will also help your readers to understand what you mean. If you want your writing to be impressively obscure, don't descend from abstraction and use as much jargon as you can.
4) Know what your conclusion is, how your reasons and examples support it and your response to obvious counterarguments and counterexamples. If you don't know that, how can you expect your readers to work out what you are saying?
5) Don't bullshit. Most people know when they are doing it. If you don't, you are probably in the wrong subject.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Review: The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten

Here's a review of Baggini's The Pig That Wants to be Eaten that I did for The Guardian.

The original review contained a silly slip which I have fixed here (serves me right for hacking the text about last thing at night before submitting it. If you want to spot the error - go to the original here).

Do you remember having a rather disturbed night's sleep about a month ago? That was the night I stole your brain. After landing my flying saucer in your garden, I crept into your bedroom and surgically removed your sleeping brain. I whisked it to my laboratory back on Pluto and connected it up to a supercomputer running a virtual-Earth program. This computer is currently feeding into your brain the same patterns of electrical stimulation that used to be produced by your sense organs, when you still had some. So it seems to you as though you're still on Earth. But everything you seem to observe around you, including this newspaper, is actually virtual. You've been brain-snatched.

How can you tell this hasn't happened: that what you're experiencing now isn't virtual? It seems you can't. But if you can't tell whether this newspaper is real or virtual, then how can you be said to know it's real? This is a famous philosophical thought experiment. In just a few sentences, it seems to demolish something we would ordinarily take entirely for granted: our knowledge of the world around us. Thought experiments can induce an overwhelming sense of intellectual vertigo. What we thought was the firm ground beneath our feet suddenly crumbles and we're left dangling over a void.

Some of the most famous arguments and problems in philosophy are based around thought experiments. Bizarre stories about brain-transplants, runaway trams, concrete sheep and invisible gardeners abound. In The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, Julian Baggini has collected together 100 entertaining examples. The format is essentially the same as that first successfully introduced by Martin Cohen's 101 Philosophy Problems. Each thought experiment is set up in one or two paragraphs, followed by a few hundred words of thought-provoking discussion. Baggini offers us a tempting smorgasbord of some of the most baffling, weird and occasionally downright creepy scenarios ever envisaged.

Not every example is taken from the world of philosophy. The story of the pig that wants to be eaten is based on Douglas Adams's talking cow in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, a beast that presents itself to diners as the main course before parting with "A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so ... I'll just nip off and shoot myself." Would there be anything morally wrong with killing and eating an animal genetically engineered to want to be eaten? This is certainly an intriguing question. As Baggini points out, the mere fact that most of us find the idea of killing and eating such an animal revolting doesn't establish that we would be morally wrong to do so.

A word of caution. First-year philosophy undergraduates often fail to see the point of thought experiments. "How can such fanciful stories reveal anything of importance?" they ask. "After all, there are no talking pigs, are there?" Well, if one of the aims of philosophy is to establish what is true in principle, as opposed to what's merely true as a matter of fact (that's supposedly the job of empirical science), then even a merely possible counterexample will do. Suppose I claim that the only reason it's wrong to kill and eat pigs, and animals generally, is that they don't want to be killed and eaten. If you can come up with a hypothetical animal that wants to be killed and eaten, but that it would still clearly be wrong to eat, then you have refuted my claim. Whether or not any such animal actually exists is irrelevant to its effectiveness as a counterexample.

Still, there are reasons to be cautious about thought experiments. They often appeal to our philosophical "intuitions", to what it "feels right" to say about the situation described. But intuition can be a fickle thing. The philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that some thought-experiments are little more than "intuition pumps". Indeed, by subtly changing the spin on the story, you can sometimes elicit quite different intuitions. But even while you ponder to what extent your own philosophical intuitions are to be trusted, you can still enjoy these mind-boggling tales from the outer limits of thought.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Another myth about atheism

Here is a Guardian Face to Faith Piece by Nicholas Buxton. It perpetuates a whole series of myths about atheism and the Enlightenment.

Buxton is in fact more or less quoting from Rowan Williams' Dimbleby Lecture in which Williams claims that only a religious tradition makes "possible a real questioning of the immediate agenda of a society, the choices that are defined and managed for you by the market." Buxton would have us believe only the religious ever really question our shallow commercial culture. They alone are the "free thinkers".

As an atheist philosopher who has spent half a lifetime asking such questions as whether there’s a God, whether life has meaning, what makes things right and wrong, whether there may be life after death, and whether there is anything beyond the material, I find it surprising that Buxton and the Archbishop would pretend that it’s only from the perspective of a religious tradition that such questions ever get asked.

The great religious traditions do not have a monopoly on addressing the most fundamental and challenging issues. They share that honour with the secular, philosophical tradition (which is, of course, also older than the Christian tradition).

And one advantage of a more philosophical approach to such questions (which certainly doesn’t rule out religious answers, of course) is that it doesn’t prejudge the issue. Rather than approaching such questions in a genuinely critical, open-minded way, religious enquirers have often already made up their minds: they’ve already decided that only a religious answer will do. In the hands of the faithful, questions like “What is the meaning of life?” may be asked, not in the spirit of sincere, open-minded enquiry, but merely as the opening gambit in an attempt to recruit more true believers.

Perhaps we need more philosophy, not more religion.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bruce Anderson on "moral necessity of Christianity"

Here, by the way, is Independent columnist Bruce Anderson recently repeating the same tired old neo-con guff that I tackle in the post below, but with the added point that only a robust Christian culture can withstand the onslaught of Islam.

That Anderson has been reading the U.S. neo-cons is perhaps suggested by the following passage (read it, then compare it to the quotes from Bork, Himmelfarb and Kristol about our "moral capital" being "depleted" in my post below).

" point should have occurred to the adherents of [atheism], at least in a Christian country. Even if they reject faith, it might be better if not too many others followed their example. In the West, we have a vast cultural and intellectual heritage. But our ethical heritage is sadly depleted."

Here too is Melanie Phillips promoting the same "to hell in a hand-basket" neo-con line. Her main point seems to be that only the religious are prepared to really fight (Islam) and die for what they believe.

The post below is taken from my book The War For Children's Minds. Anderson inspired me to put it up.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The dependence of morality on religion

Is religious belief indispensable to a healthy and prosperous society? That morality cannot survive without religion is a perennial worry. Even the Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (1694-1778) would not allow his friends to discuss atheism in front of his servants, saying,

I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife to believe in God. I think that if they do I shall be robbed less and cheated less.

Here, too, is Democrat senator Joseph Lieberman echoing George Washington:

As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose… George Washington warned us never to 'indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.

Even Adolf Hitler insisted that "[s]ecular schools can never be tolerated” because a morality that is not founded on religion is built “on thin air”.

But of course the claim that morality is causally dependent on religious belief - that it will not (or at least is unlikely to) survive without it - is an empirical hypothesis. It’s not enough just to make this claim. We are owed some grounds for believing that it is true. What’s the evidence?

It’s at this point, of course, that reference is typically made to the moral malaise: “Look,” say the defenders of the view that religion is socially necessary, “at how religious belief has dwindled since the Enlightenment, and particularly since the Sixties. And look at how, over the same period, amorality and crime have dramatically increased, to the point where the fabric of society is beginning to unravel. Isn’t it clear that there is a causal relationship between the two? Isn’t it becoming more and more obvious that morality can’t be sustained without religion?

It’s not obvious at all. Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that while there has been a rise in, say, crime and teenage pregnancy, particularly since the Fifties, there have also been some huge moral improvements, including the development of women’s rights, the combating of racism, and a growing respect and concern for the environment and the other species with which we share this planet. It’s easy to focus on the bad and overlook the good. Conservatives tend to misrepresent any change in morality as a loss of morality.

But having said that, it’s undeniable that, say, crime has increased. Can’t this be put down to the loss of religious belief?

Establishing a strong causal connection between the loss of religious belief and the rise in crime is not easy. Yes, religious belief may have reduced across the West. But there have been many other changes too.

Here’s just one example. People are far more mobile, are far less tied to and rooted in a particular local community, than they used to be. Many homes now stand empty during the day. As a result, there’s far less awareness of who is up to what down my street. My father tells me that when he was a kid, if he misbehaved a few streets away from his home, the news would travel back to his mother across the rear garden fences before he got back for tea. Tightly knit local communities are effective at suppressing delinquency and crime. Their loss is clearly as much due to economic factors as it is any decline in religious belief and practice.

And yet it’s confidently asserted by neoconservatives that it’s loss of religious belief and practice that is primarily to blame for the rise in crime and delinquency. How do they know that?

In any case, in the U.S. religious belief hasn’t dwindled that much. 96% of Americans still claim to believe in God. 43% of them say they attend church weekly. In many cases the brand of religion they sign up to is fundamentalist.

And yet, compared to far less religious places like Japan, Canada and Western Europe, the U.S is in many respects suffering far worse problems in terms of crime and delinquency. It’s certainly not that obvious that America’s problem is fundamentally one of a lack of religion. Nor is it that obvious that what it needs above all is even more religion. Perhaps what it needs is more of what Western Europe has got: a decent welfare system and less endemic inequality.

I don’t claim that is the solution, by the way. I’m merely pointing out that the obviousness of the suggestion that the cure for the West’s moral malaise is more religion is debatable, to say the least.

What’s also potentially embarrassing for the view that morality can’t be sustained without religion is the fact that a great many atheists seem at least as well-behaved and morally concerned as is the typical religious believer. I know it’s anecdotal evidence, but I am an atheist, most of my friends are atheists, and none of us seem remotely disposed to dodge our taxes, vandalize phone boxes or steal from the local supermarket. And our kids seem fairly well-adjusted too. In fact, many atheist philosophers (such as Peter Singer) are very passionate ethicists, often at least as passionate in their ethical commitments as their religious counterparts.

Doesn’t all this rather nail-down the coffin lid on the suggestion that morality can’t be sustained without religion?

Arguably not. Neoconservatives typically make one of two moves at this point. The first I call the “moral capital” move; the second, the “lower orders” move.

The “moral capital” move

Daniel P. Maloney, the editor of First Things, admits in an article in American Prospect that atheists are often well-behaved. But he insists this is only because they are living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion. When the moral capital of the old religious culture is finally exhausted, morality itself will collapse.

Religious people are the first to admit that many religious people sin often and boldly, and that atheists often act justly. They explain these ethical atheists by noting that when atheists reject the religion in which they have been raised, they tend to keep the morality while discarding its theological foundation. Their ethical behaviour is then derivative and parasitic, borrowing its conscience from a culture permeated by religion; it cannot survive if the surrounding religious culture is not sustained. In short, morality as we know it cannot be maintained without Judeo-Christian religion.

Irving Kristol agrees:

For well over 150 years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeoise society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy.

Gertrude Himmelfarb (who, incidentally, is married to Kristol) also favours the view that we are

…living off the religious capital of a previous generation and that that capital is being perilously depleted.

So too does Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert K. Bork:

We all know persons without religious belief who nevertheless display all the virtues we associate with religious teaching…such people are living on the moral capital of prior religious generations… that moral capital will be used up eventually, having nothing to replenish it, and we will see a culture such as the one we are entering.

30-12-07, Bishop Richard Harries appeals to "moral capital" in todays' Observer: "...many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has essentially been built up by our Christian heritage... How far are we living on moral capital?" (p.25)]

This is certainly a convenient explanation for the legions of well-behaved, ethically-committed atheists you’ll find living contentedly in places like Canada and Western Europe. The only reason they aren’t all amoral degenerates yet, and that their societies haven’t finally slid into moral oblivion yet, is that they’re living off the inherited religious capital built up by previous generations. The move is convenient because it renders the claim the morality is dependent upon religion unfalsifiable, at least in the short to medium term. No matter how civilized and well-behaved these swathes of ethical atheists might happen to be, they can be sweepingly dismissed with “Ah, but that’s only because the religious capital hasn’t run out yet.”

But perhaps the most serious difficulty with this move is that it’s simply unjustified. Why suppose all these ethically committed atheists are living off the religious capital built up by previous generations, and that this capital must inevitably run out, with disastrous consequences? What’s the evidence for this claim? We are offered none. Except of course for some vague hand-waving in the direction of the moral malaise. But as it’s precisely the moral malaise argument that morality can’t be sustained without religion that this “religious capital” claim is supposed to salvage, the moral malaise argument can’t then be used to support the religious capital claim. That’s would be circular reasoning.

The “lower orders” move

Another popular move is to suggest that these “ethical atheists” tend to be middleclass, intelligent and well-educated. Perhaps they can get by, morally speaking, without religion. But that’s not to say that religion isn’t necessary to keep the lower orders in check. The thought that, “If only we could get those working-class yobs from the council estate down the road to believe in God, perhaps they would stop vandalizing our phone boxes and stealing our cars,” has an enduring appeal.

This is a pretty elitist point of view, of course: we can get by without religion; the common rabble can’t. Many liberals would no doubt prefer it not to be true. But the truth is not always what we would like it to be. It’s not enough to deal with this suggestion simply to condemn it on “politically correct” grounds or to mount an ad hominem attack on those putting it forward - “You’re a bunch of arrogant elitists!” Those making the claim may indeed be a bunch of arrogant elitists. They may still be right.

A better response is to ask, again, why we should think the “lower orders” move is true. What’s the evidence?

True, there’s evidence that religious belief can have a positive impact on social behaviour. Statistics suggest that U.S. cities with high church membership rates have lower rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse than those with low membership rates. But that’s not yet to say religion is necessary if morality is to survive. It’s not to suggest, as Kristol and Strauss do, that without religion, society will, or will probably, fall apart. That’s a much stronger claim.

Nor is it to say that, while religion can have a positive effect, other things might not be even more effective at combating social disorder. When philosophy-in-schools programmes have been tested in schools - including, crucially, schools with a high proportion of their intake from the economically disadvantaged - the improvements in terms of self-esteem and social behaviour have been dramatic. So it may be that philosophy is actually far more potent than religion in this respect.

In short, the positive evidence that even the common rabble can’t get by, or even are unlikely to get by, without religion is weak.

(for a longer version of this post that tackles many more awful neo-con arguments, see final chapter of my book The War For Children's Minds.)

The God of Eth (part 3)

In The God of Eth, I point out that many of the popular arguments for belief in God (e.g. intelligent design, fine-tuning, first-cause, etc) are actually just as much arguments for an all-evil creator as an all-good one, for they give us no clue at all as to God's moral character.

In response to The God of Eth, some (e.g. Richard Swinburne, in conversation) have suggested that there is an important asymmetry between the evil God and good God hypotheses. There is, they suggest, powerful evidence for a specifically good God that is not mirrored by evidence for an evil God.

Here are two examples:

The argument from miracles. There is evidence that miracles occur. People receive miraculous cures of afflictions and diseases, for example. The Catholic Church has investigated and confirmed many examples. Why would an evil God perform them?

Argument from religious experience. People have religious experiences. And what they report of the experience is invariably positive. They report an experience of something immeasurably good, for example. Not pure evil.

So here we have evidence for a good god not mirrored by evidence for an evil one.

My response

How strong is this evidence?

Well, even if we admit that these miracles are legit and that the experiences are indeed of supernatural origin, I would question whether they support the good god hypothesis more than the evil god hypothesis. Here’s why.

Assuming there is an evil god, he may not want people to know he is evil. It may be in his interests to pretend to be good. In fact, he might mess with our minds in the following way:

First, appear to these people over here. Appear in a very positive way, in religious experiences, visions and so on. Provide proof of your existence by performing positive miracles. Say, "I am the one true God who alone must be believed and obeyed."

Second, appear to those people over there. Appear in a very positive way, in religious experiences, visions and so on. Provide proof of your existence by performing positive miracles. Say, "I am the one true God who alone must be believed and obeyed."

Also, tell them some things which contradict what you told the first group (say, that Jesus wasn't God, just a prophet).

Now just stand back and watch the entirely predictable carnage as each group attacks the other confident that they have the all-powerful, all-good god on their side. Huge amounts of suffering result! Just what evil god is after.

When we look at how religious miracles and experiences are distributed throughout the world, well, this is exactly how they are distributed, isn’t it?

If I was a good god, the last thing I would do is behave in such a way – especially as, being omniscient, I would know what would happen.

So it seems to me that miracles and religious experiences are better evidence for an evil god than for a good god.

So who wants to maintain that, while belief in an evil God is just silly (which it surely is), belief in a good god is still fairly reasonable? If so, why?

Monday, April 9, 2007

James and "The Will to Believe"

Another section - feedback please...

Many people believe in God believe while acknowledging that their belief lacks strong grounds. They believe anyway, despite the insufficient evidence. They have faith.

Not everyone is impressed by this sort of faith. The 19th Century mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford argues that it is actually morally wrong to believe on the basis of insufficient evidence. Clifford says, “it is wrong, always, everywhere and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”. As Clifford supposes that those who believe in God believe on the basis of insufficient evidence, he considers their belief immoral.

William James attacks Clifford’s view, insisting that we are sometimes right to believe, even when the evidence is inconclusive. In The Will to Believe, he argues that this is precisely the situation regarding belief in God.

Though James is a scientist, he thinks that science has its limitations. There are circumstances, he thinks, when a scientific approach to deciding what to believe can be harmful. Below is one of James favourite illustrations of this point.

The mountaineer example

Suppose that you are a mountaineer. To return safely home you must leap a chasm. The chasm is wide, and the evidence you will make it not particularly strong. In order to succeed, you need to feel confident. Hesitate and all will be lost.

So, despite the fact you are not entirely justified in believing you will make it safely across the chasm, it is nevertheless a sensible thing for you to believe, particularly as the belief will make it more likely that you will succeed.

James concludes that Clifford is mistaken. It is sometimes sensible to allow what James calls our “passional nature” – our interests, hopes, desires and fears - to influence what we believe, even though there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief.

Live, forced and momentous

When is it legitimate to allow our passional natures to rule our beliefs in this way? James says the following three conditions must be satisfied:

First, we must be faced with a choice between options that are live. A live option is one that is genuinely a possibility for us – it is one we can at least take seriously. Believing in Zeus or Santa Claus are not live options for most contemporary adults. On the other hand, believing in the Judeo-Christian God, or in the existence of life on other planets, are genuine possibilities.

Second, the choice must be forced. A forced choice is one where you have to choose one way or the other. For example, I cannot help but choose between having an ice cream today or not having an ice cream today (though of course I might put the choice off for a while). I have no option but to do one or the other of these things. The choice between travelling to Africa or India, on the other hand, is not one I am forced to make.

Third, the choice must be momentous. A momentous choice is one that will have a major impact on your life. The choice to have children is a momentous one, obviously. As is the choice of an ex-alcoholic to have a drink.

All three of these conditions are satisfied in the mountaineer example. The choice is between live options. It is also forced: either you believe or you fail to believe. And the consequences are momentous. To leap without belief may be fatal. Under these circumstances, thinks James, there is nothing wrong with allowing your passional nature to lead you to belief.

According to James, we face a similar choice when it comes to religious belief. The choice between believing and not believing is forced. It is also momentous: depending on which choice you make, your life will no doubt go very differently. And, in the case of Christianity, both choices are live for many of us.

So, under these circumstances, says James, it is legitimate to allow our passional natures to lead us to belief.

An objection to James’ defence of religious belief

I think we should concede that there are circumstances in which allowing our “passional natures” to determine what we believe is indeed the right thing to do. However, it is debatable whether this is the case when it comes to many religious beliefs.

Consider a rather different religious belief - the belief that the entire universe is about six thousand years old. Approximately one hundred million Americans currently hold this belief. The fact is (though few of them would accept this) that there is little evidence to support their belief and overwhelming evidence against it. Is it, nevertheless, entirely legitimate for them to hold it?

It seems the three conditions James says are necessary if we are to allow our “passional natures” to determine belief are satisfied. The choice between believing and not believing in a six-thousand-year-old universe is forced. It is also, for many, momentous. Given the option is also live, is it, then, acceptable for people to allow their hopes and desires to lead them to believe that the universe is six thousand years old?

Surely not. Given the weight of evidence, these people really shouldn’t believe what they do. Indeed, isn’t there something rather irresponsible about anyone who would allow their beliefs to be shaped in this way, given the evidence available to them?
James would probably agree. He says

"...the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve." [my italics]

That the universe is more than a few thousand years old is, presumably, something most of us are now able to figure out intellectually. At least beyond reasonable doubt.

The moral carries over to belief in God. If the evidence for and against the existence of God is more or less evenly balanced, then perhaps it is acceptable for us to allow our “passional natures” to lead us to religious belief.

But, if, as most atheists maintain, the evidence is actually stacked heavily against belief in God, then James’ “will to believe” does not extend to belief in God.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Mirror puzzle - solution?

What follows is my own suggested solution to this puzzle - scroll down for the puzzle (I note several of you offer much the same solution)

We noted before that, in a sense, mirrors don’t reverse anything. So why do we say they reverse left-to-right, but not top-to-bottom? Well, if the mirror before you was replaced by a sheet of glass, and you were to stand behind the glass in just the position your mirror-self seems to stand, then while your head would still be at the top and your feet at the bottom, your left hand would be over to the right, where your right hand appears in the mirror, and your left hand would be to the left, where your left hand appears. That is why we say the mirror reverses left-to-right, but not top-to-bottom.

But notice that we have just taken something for granted: the axis about which we rotate you when we imagine you over there behind the mirror. When we turn something round, we rotate it about an axis. A spinning top, for example, rotates around a vertical axis. A car wheel rotates around a horizontal axis. When we imagine you over there in the position your mirror-self seems to be in, we mentally put you there by rotating you about a vertical axis. But what if we were to get you over there not by rotating you around a vertical axis, but a round a horizontal axis? Then you would be stood on your head. And, compared to your mirror image, your left and right sides would not then be switched round. Your left hand (the one with the watch in the diagram) remains to the left. Which is also where your left hand appears in the reflection. But top and bottom are now reversed. Your head appears where your feet are in the image.

It seems the reason we say mirrors reverse left and right but not top and bottom is due to the fact that we take for granted a particular axis of rotation. But we could just as easily choose a horizontal axis. Then it would be true to say that a mirror reverses top to bottom but not left to right.

So yes, it is true to say mirrors reverse left to right, but only if we choose a vertical axis of rotation. Choose a horizontal axis and they then reverse top to bottom.

Of course, this raises the question of why we take the vertical axis for granted. The answer, presumably, is that people are not in the habit of flying through the air like birds and settling on their heads. When people normally rotate, it is almost always about a vertical axis. So we just took for granted a vertical axis of rotation in this case too.

So this puzzle about why mirrors do what they do is generated by our not noticing what has been taken for granted. To solve the puzzle, we need to take a step back and start questioning what we took for granted.

When only philosophy will do

Notice that, if this solution (or part solution) is correct, we certainly didn’t have to any scientific research into how light and mirrors behave. Nor did we have to investigate how our brains work. Even if we had done that sort of scientific research, it still wouldn’t have solved the puzzle. In order to solve this puzzle, we need to stop doing science and start doing philosophy. It is a puzzle that is solved just by thinking.

People sometimes assume all questions can be answered by science. They would assume that the mirror puzzle must have a scientific solution. But it turns out that the mirror puzzle is a puzzle that science cannot solve. It seems that, sometimes, only philosophy will do.

The Door Puzzle

There is similar puzzle about doors. Walk though a door that opens on your left and turn round to come back through it, and the door now opens on your right. But pass through a door that opens at the top (like a cat-flap) and turn to come back through it and the door still opens at the top. Why does passing through a door reverse the way it opens from left to right, but not from top to bottom? What explains the difference?

The solution is much the same as for the mirror puzzle. When you pass through a left-opening door and turn around to come back through it, you would normally rotate about a vertical axis. But what if you were to rotate about a horizontal axis, and you floated back through upside down? Then the door that opened on the left would still open the left on the way back though it, but a door that opened at the bottom would now open at the top. We say that left and right are reversed but not top and bottom only because we take for granted a particular axis of rotation.

In space, where we are weightless, the axis of rotation about which we choose to rotate when turning to come back through a door is less likely to be the vertical axis. You could just as easily spin about a horizontal axis instead. So, after years in space, it might seem as natural to you to say that a door that opens at the top opens at the bottom when you come back through it as it does to say that a door that opens on the left opens on the right when you return though it.

For creatures that live in a weightless environment, where it is as easy to rotate about one axis as the other, perhaps neither the mirror puzzle nor the door puzzle would even be puzzles.

God of Eth (part 2)

Before we return to mirrors, Alex has posted a very good comment on the God of Eth (scroll down).

Alex says: I’m surprised that some one as distinguished as your self sees this as a tidy reversal on the theists arguments.

Well I admit the God of Eth is as it stands a thought experiment designed simply to provide a challenge - to give believers a jolt, if you like. There are innumerable moves that might be made to defend God, and it is hard to anticipate them all in one short article (well, it's impossible).

Theists may conclude the argument must therefore be weak and inconclusive. But that would a mistake I think. After all, there are innumerable moves that might be made to defend belief in an Evil God, too, far more than I mentioned (try coming up with your own - it's fun). Yet it remains blindingly obvious to anyone with eyes to see that there is no such being. The question is: why isn't the same true of the good God hypothesis?

Alex then says. The all evil God experiment unravels for this very simple reason: Evil is the perversion of an already extant good.

I am aware of this move, of course. It's broadly Augustinian. But this also looks reversible, doesn't it? I can say "Good is just the absence or perversion (from evil God's point of view) of an extant evil." Make up some examples for yourself: Good sex is just evil sex plus consent and respect; good pain is just evil pain that also provides useful knowledge.

Seems to me that maybe the only reason it looks to you like evil things are merely a perversion of extant goods is that you have your good-God glasses on. Put my evil-God glasses on and everything switches. What grounds do you have for thinking you're wearing the right glasses?

In fact, there may be an asymmetry here that you could exploit, but you need to do much more work to bring it out.

But in any case, even if you are right about this asymmetry, you objection still assumes a great deal. You say:

God is necessarily not subject to any standard.

But actually, a standard of good and evil independent of God's judgement is something even many Christians accept (because they know about Plato's famous Euthyphro dilemma - ask e.g. Leibniz). And once we acknowledge such an independent standard, it is then open to evil God to approve of what is independently evil in exactly the same way as it is open to good God to approve of what is independently good.

So, not withstanding the possible reversibility of "evil is a perversion of good", your objection also assumes something that even many Christians, for good reason, reject.

Having said that, it was a very interesting try. Maybe it could be developed further...

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Mirror puzzle

Take a look at yourself in a mirror. Now imagine yourself actually standing where the mirror-version of you appears to be standing. Of course, your mirror-self’s head is still at the top and their feet are at the bottom. But notice that their left and right sides are switched round. Raise your left hand and wiggle your fingers. It is the right hand of your mirror-self that wiggles their fingers. Mirrors reverse left-to-right. But not top-to-bottom.

But why do mirrors reverse the left-to-right, but not top-to-bottom? What accounts for this peculiar asymmetry? Some of the world’s greatest minds – including that of the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato – have struggled with and been defeated by this infernal mystery.

Notice that this left-right switch still happens no matter which way up you happen to be. Lie on your side in front of a mirror and see the result. It Is still your left and right sides that are switched round, not your head and feet. Nor does it matter which way round the mirror is. Turn it upside down. The effect is exactly the same.

Sometimes people suppose the effect must be due to our having a left and a right eye, rather than a top and bottom eye (as perhaps some aliens do). But that is not the explanation. Cover one eye, leaving yourself with just the other, and the asymmetric reversal remains.

Can science solve the mirror puzzle?

Might science solve the mirror puzzle? In particular, is the explanation that light is reflected differently left-to-right than it is top-to-bottom?

It seems not. Draw a clock face held up in front of a mirror and draw arrows linking each number on the clock face with the same number reflected in the mirror.

The arrows show that the way the mirror reflects is entirely symmetrical in every direction. The arrows do not cross over top to bottom. But neither do they cross over left to right. It is not as if a mirror reflects rays of light differently depending on whether they are coming from your left and right sides rather than your top and bottom. The light is reflected in the same way no matter where it happens to land on the mirror.

So the puzzle has absolutely nothing to do with how light is reflected off the surface of the mirror. Indeed, the puzzle is not a scientific puzzle at all. Even when we know all the scientific facts about how mirrors and light behave, that still leaves the mystery of why mirrors reverse one way and not the other.

The more we grapple with this mystery, the deeper it seems to become, and the more they seem to take on an almost magical quality. Just why do mirrors do what they do? The profound sense of bafflement raised by this question is typical of that raised by philosophical problems more generally.

What's the solution?

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Augustine on evil

Here is a draft chapter I am working on. All feedback gratefully received.


QUOTE: … were it not good that evil things should also exist, the omnipotent God would almost certainly not allow evil to be…

Although Augustine was born and died in Hippo, North Africa, he spent much of his life travelling around the Mediterranean world. Augustine wrote, in effect, the first autobiography – his Confessions – detailing the development of his thinking. Augustine’s confessions are entertaining and frank, and include details of his sexual adventures. Augustine apparently used to pray “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”

Augustine’s main philosophical achievement was to take the philosophy of Plato (chpt XX) and Plotinus (chpt XX) on the one hand, and the Christian belief system on the other, and marry the two together. The marriage is not quite one of equals – while Augustine thinks philosophy important, its role is secondary to religious revelation. Where philosophy fails to fit with Christian dogma, it is philosophy that must change.

So successful was Augustine in getting Plato’s philosophy incorporated into Christian thinking that many Christians are unaware that significant parts of their belief system derive not from the Bible, but from Ancient Greece.


Christians Jews and Muslims have traditionally conceived of God as being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. One of the most difficult puzzles facing anyone who believes in such a being is to explain why there is so much evil in the world. In particular, why is there so much suffering? Why would God allow wars and holocausts? Why would he inflict immense pain and suffering upon human beings through disease and natural disasters?

If God is good, surely he wouldn’t wish for this suffering to exist. If he is all-knowing then he knows it exists. And if he is all-powerful, he can prevent it. So doesn’t the existence of this suffering provide us with very good grounds for supposing that there is no such God?

Theists have struggled with this problem for centuries, and have devised a number of ingenious solutions (though the extent to which any of these solutions are successful is debatable).

Here I sketch out Augustine’s attempt to explain evil.

Two problems of evil

In fact there are at least two problems of evil. The first is the logical problem of evil. It begins with the thought that the claim

(1) There exists an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God

is logically inconsistent with the claim

(2) Evil exists

Clearly, (2) is true. Therefore (1) is false.

Note that the amount of evil in the world is irrelevant. This argument rests on the thought that God’s existence is logically incompatible with the existence of any evil at all.

Perhaps this version of the problem of evil is not such a very great problem. In order to deal with it, it would do to show that an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God might allow some evil, perhaps for the sake of a greater good.

A different problem, called the evidential problem of evil, says, not that (2) is logically incompatible with (1), but that (2) provides good evidence against (1). The amount of evil does now become relevant. Even if we acknowledge that an all-powerful, all-knowing God might have created a world with at least some evil in it (perhaps for the sake of some greater good), surely he would not have created a world with this much suffering in it?

We can sharpen the problem by noting that God will presumably not allow any unnecessary suffering to exist. There must be a good reason for every last ounce of it. But when we start to consider the enormous quantities of suffering the world contains - including the millions of years of animal suffering that occurred before we humans even made an appearance (including the literally unimaginable suffering produced by the several mass extinctions that have wiped the majority of species from the face of the Earth) - doesn’t it become overwhelming improbable that every last of ounce of suffering can be accounted for in this way?

A simple-free will explanation

One of the standard explanations of suffering is to appeal to free will. We are not helpless automata, but free agents capable of make our own free choices and acting upon them. As a result of God having given us free will, we sometimes choose to do bad things. We start wars, for example. And so a great deal of suffering may result from our having free will. However, it is better that we have free will. Free will is a very great good that far outweighs the evil it sometimes causes.

One problem with this explanation of evil is that it explains only moral evil – the evil that free agents create, such as wars, murder, and so on. It fails to explain natural evil, naturally occurring disasters and diseases such as earthquakes the Black Death, and cancer.

Augustine’s free-will explanation

Augustine presents a version of the free will explanation that does attempt to account for the suffering brought about by natural disasters and diseases.

Augustine’s explanation begins with Biblical story of the Fall. God created a perfect world within which Adam and Eve had free will. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve chose to turn against God and sinned. Their sin had two key consequences.

First, it brought about the corruption of human nature, so that every subsequent generation inherits their sin. This is the doctrine of “original sin”.

Secondly, it brought about the corruption of God’s creation. It is here that we find the root cause of today’s natural diseases and disasters. Such evils did not exist before the Fall. They too are the consequences of an act of free will.

So, it is not wrong that mankind now suffers. We have brought this suffering upon ourselves through our own sin. True, God could have prevented our suffering, but only by denying us freewill, which is a greater good. So the world is, on balance, better than it would have been without free will, despite the consequences.

And of course God does also hold out to us the offer redemption and release from the suffering we have caused ourselves.

An objection

Augustine’s attempt to deal with the problem of evil remains popular. Many Christians continue to accept it. But it does face some obvious objections.

Perhaps the most obvious is that Augustine’s explanation rests on a belief that science has since revealed is false – that we are the descendants of the Biblical Adam and Eve. If Adam and Eve never existed and the Fall never took place, then they cannot be used to explain the suffering caused by natural diseases and disasters. Nor, of course, can they be used to explain the millions of years of animal suffering that are now known to have occurred.