Saturday, August 11, 2007

Answering Ernie on Desire Utilitarianism

This past spring, as my diablogue with Ernie was winding down, there were several topics that were brought up that were just left hanging. One of these was a list of Open Questions on Desire Utilitarianism that Ernie posted. Desire utilitarianism (DU) is the theory of morality that I had brought into our discussion. Ernie addressed the questions to Alonzo Fyfe, the originator of DU, but only for "stylistic reasons". I thought I would take a crack at answering Ernie's questions.

A. Most and Strongest

As I understand it, one of your foundational assertions is that:

“Individuals always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires.”

Yet, I consider that statement trivially falsifiable. For example, my pigging out on chocolate cake last week was a single minor desire that trumped my many desires to look good, lose weight, and act responsibly. At best, one could perhaps claim that people always act “to fulfill the most or strongest of their desires.” At worst, it might be true that people simply act in accordance with their “momentarily strongest desire.” How do you justify such a seemingly counterfactual claim?

Ernie gave the answer himself: people act according to their most and strongest desires at each moment, even though the momentary strength of a desire may be different than its usual value. How do we measure the strength of a single desire or the net strength of a set of desires? I would suggest we can only do so by observing their actions, given their beliefs and other background information. In this sense, Alonzo's statement is true almost by definition.

However, suppose we had another mechanism (say, some kind of brain scan) that would allow us to measure the strength of individual desires. Suppose further that we could then identify cases where individuals acted such as to thwart rather than fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, contradicting the claim under consideration. Assuming we had good reasons to believe that our measurements were accurate, would that prove an insurmountable obstacle to desire utilitarianism? No, not yet. For instance, we might find that individuals are still most likely to act according to the most and strongest desires, with the probability of so acting being related to the absolute net strength of those desires. DU would be compatible with such a finding (and in fact, I would not be so surprised if this were the case.) If it were found that actions are not correlated or are inversely correlated with the net strength of momentary desires, that would be a problem, but this seems quite unlikely. A more troubling, possibly fatal, finding would be some other causal factor (beyond desires and beliefs) involved in the formation of intentions. How such a factor would impact DU would depend on the nature of that additional causal factor.

B. Praise and criticism

You seem to explicitly eschew coercive measures from your consideration of ethics since they require “power.” Yet, do not praise and criticism themselves require at least “soft power” (i.e., moral authority) to be effective? If so, might not “hard” and “soft” power in reality be two ends of a continuum, that need to be analyzed as a whole?

I think Ernie is simply mistaken here. Alonzo has not completely rejected coercive measures, nor do I recall him ever basing his opposition to coercive measures simply because they involve power. In fact, Alonzo does recognize and analyze a spectrum of responses to good and bad desires and actions.

For instance, while Alonzo is tentatively against capital punishment, this is based on (inconclusive) empirical evidence that seems to suggest that societies that use capital punishment do not promote a universal aversion to killing that would tend prevent violent crimes. But this stance is open to correction on empirical grounds and is in no way based merely on an aversion to power.

Similarly, Alonzo has said that some wars can be justified. If war is not the exercise of power, the term would be virtually meaningless. So, to say that he eschews coercive measures and has not considered the full spectrum of power is plainly incorrect.

On the other hand, coercive measures do have their own problems and there are reasons to limit their use. Alonzo has addressed that in Why Worry About Morality?, among other places.

C. Inter-community enmity

When asked about slavery, I believe you said a moral individual would not wish to enslave another because encouraging such a desire towards might backfire towards the enslavement of that selfsame individual. But, what if the other person was being enslaved due to an attribute that the individual in question did not possess (e.g., dark skin)? [After all, that is pretty much exactly what the white Virginians did to the minority black slaves several hundred years ago.] Does DU provide any basis for considering such slavery wrong, even though it successfully fulfilled the “most and greatest” desires of the dominant white majority for several generations?

Desire utilitarianism does not say that simply fulfilling the most and strongest desires is good. This is addressed on page 11 of Alonzo's book, on the very first page that describes desire utilitarianism. Desires are evaluated according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. This is a very basic point, and the fact that Ernie (apparently) missed it is troubling, considering he has referred to his questions here as reflecting "very serious flaws" with DU.

The (relatively mutable) desires of the dominant white majority thwarted the (relatively immutable) desires of the minority black slaves. Further, the basis of this discrimination (skin color) was both immutable and irrelevant. We have good reasons for condemning discrimination on such a basis in order to prevent the same or other kinds of discrimination on similarly immutable and irrelevent grounds: gender, national origin, hair color, handedness, or whatever. (I excluded religion from that list only because religious beliefs are comparatively mutable. I excluded sexual orientation because I do not want a disagreement over its mutability to distract from my point.)

So, DU does provide a basis for considering slavery wrong: the desire to enslave others thwarts the desires of those others. Further, people ought to condemn slavery (and lesser forms of discrimination) based on skin color because skin color is only one of a number of arbitrary categorizations that can become the basis for discrimination (including slavery).

D. Shaping desires

DU appears to implicitly assume that it is possible to shape the desires of others. However, it also seems to implicitly assume that it is impossible for us to shape our own desires. Is that true? If so, how do you justify that distinction? If not, then what moral obligation (if any) do we have for how we shape our own desires?

Again, Ernie is simply wrong here. DU does not implicitly or explicitly assume that individuals cannot shape our own desires. I suggest reading Alonzo's post Becoming a Better Person.

As far as moral obligations go, my interpretation of the term "obligation" in the context of DU refers to desires and actions that we have particularly strong reasons to promote (if they are good) or inhibit (if they are bad) in ourselves and in others. If we do not meet these obligations, others have strong reasons (obligations) to promote or inhibit them in us.

E. Knowing desires

You make a compelling case that it is sometimes possible to know desires to a high degree of accuracy. Do you in fact assert that we have (or at least can have) sufficient knowledge of desires (either our own or others) to accurately make moral judgments? More precisely, under what circumstances can we be confident we have sufficient information? And what is our moral obligation when we lack such information?

Here I will just supply several relevant quotes from Alonzo:

I have encountered a similar issue with respect to the desire utilitarianism that I have defended here. One of the more frequent objections that I receive says that desire utilitarianism must be rejected because, if desire utilitarianism were true, some moral questions would be difficult to answer. The objector makes the completely unfounded assumption that a moral theory would make all moral questions easy to answer, and that desire utilitarianism must be rejected for its failure to do so.

I would argue for rejecting any theory that distributes answers to moral questions like answers to scientific questions. Some of them are easy to answer. Some are difficult. Some may even remain outside of our ability to answer forcing us to live in a universe with some measure of moral uncertainty. Yet, over time, we have the ability to make moral progress as we make scientific progress, never quite arriving at perfect moral knowledge (just as we will always lack perfect scientific knowledge), but getting closer over time – as long as religion doesn’t muck things up by insisting on teaching moral (scientific) myth.


Even within science, there is always a maximum potential level of description. We can only know answers within a certain degree of certainty. Below that, we cannot go. There is no reason to demand that a theory of ethics must give us perfect precision on all issues. All we can expect is that it give us as much precision as is possible.

If you know of a way to get more moral precision using another method (one that doesn’t simply make things up), then that theory is obviously to be preferred over the theory I defend here. Without the possibility of finding greater precision elsewhere, then this is the best we can do.

I answered this question in part in the essays on pornography. Desire utilitarianism is substantially a theory on what value is – a relationship between states of affairs and desires. We can lament about our inability to come up with precise answers to all moral questions. However, this will not change the fact about what value is. We simply have no choice but to make decisions in the face of imperfect information.


F. Non-physical reality

You appear to assert that desires are “ontologically real” because they can usefully predict behavior, even though they are not directly observable. By that same token, could one similarly assert that “spiritual experiences” (e.g., conversion, conviction, etc.) are also real, since they can also provide useful guides to behavior? Why or why not?

I am not sure how Alonzo would answer this. (To be sure, that is true of everything; I do not and cannot speak for him.) But I would answer it this way: first, spiritual experiences, if real, would inform our beliefs and affect our desires, but desires would remain as the sole reasons-for-action that exist and desire utilitarianism would still be a valid formulation of morality. Desire utilitarianism is compatible with the existence of a god or gods; however, these would merely be additional agents with desires, possibly with superior knowledge of and ability to act according to good (or bad!) desires.

The question of whether "spiritual experiences" are real or not, and whether God is real or not, are separate questions from whether desires are real or not. We have good reasons to believe that desires are ontologically real. We have (I believe) only poor reasons to believe and good reasons to disbelieve that spiritual experiences exist (in the sense of being an indication of a spiritual reality in the sense generally meant by theists). But, in any case, the answers to these other questions are not particularly relevant to desire utilitarianism's usefulness as a theory of morality.

G. Cultural relativism

I believe you assert that our desires (and thus morality) are a product of our upbringing and social institutions, and are thus merely constrained — not determined — by genetics. If that’s the case, is it ever meaningful to speak of making moral judgments between societies? Or does morality only exist within the context of shared institutions?

The connection between desires and morality under DU is not quite so direct as Ernie's opening might suggest to some people. Ernie may not have intended such a direct connection here, though his earlier question about slavery seems to imply it.

Remember that in DU a mutable desire is determined to be good or bad according to whether or not that desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires. An action is determined to be good (or bad) according to whether a person with good desires (or bad desires) would perform that action in its context. These are universal principles. They reflect a sort of ideal, an ideal contingent on desires that actually exist, but not necessarily one that we can completely and accurately identify (as discussed above). And, since the context of our actions necessarily changes over space and especially time and since desires themselves change over time, some actions chosen by a good person will likewise vary, while others will be more stable.

In other words, desire utilitarianism is both universal and contextual. It is universal because actions are evaluated independent of the agent; the same rules apply to everybody. It is contextual, or relative, because actions must be evaluated according to their context. Culture may or may not be a significant part of the context for a particular action. An action is not moral simply because it is traditional in a culture.

H. Scope of desires

More generally, what exactly is the scope of the network of desires I “ought” to optimize? From your definitions, it would seem that the practical scope is either i) “those individuals who might have the power to aid or thwart the fulfillment of my own desires,” or ii) “those individuals whom I have affection for, and thus intrinsically desire their fulfillment.” Is that correct, or am I missing something?

This is a question to which I am afraid I have probably contributed confusion. And I am not sure that I can entirely clear that up. But I will do my best.

First, the universality described in the previous section is relevant here as well. In fact, I originally wrote the middle paragraph in the previous section here, before deciding to use it to answer the previous question.

While I am not sure that I can explain why, the concept of optimizing a network of desires that Ernie and I originated and discussed seems not to have been very helpful. Perhaps it is simply the practical problems involved. At least Ernie's question as formulated presupposes operating within this narrower concept of a network of desires, and it is apparently the practical difficulties of this narrower concept that leads Ernie to ask how far our concern should spread. But as a theory of morality, DU is concerned with universal answers, even while acknowledging the practical difficulty in obtaining some of them.

A second reason that this question may be ill-formed is that DU is a descriptive theory of morality. That is, it supplies a definition for describing things as morally good or bad. It does not itself prescribe certain actions, other than to note that we have reasons to promote desires that lead to certain actions (which in turn will promote other desires). The scope of our concern, then, is a practical matter for which we must make choices and which others may attempt to give us reasons to expand or contract.

I. Counter-cultural choices

What if I live in a society which places social censure on behavior I consider morally good, say 1950’s America which forbade inter-racial marriage? In that context, is the “moral” action to act in accord with societal judgement? Why or why not?

Under DU, the morally good action is that action that a morally good person would choose. A morally good person is a person whose desires tend to fulfill or not thwart other desires (both her own and others'). Societal judgment can be wrong. So can your judgment. Which action is truly moral is independent of either of these.

On the other hand, we do have reasons to promote both the desire to discover what is good and the desire to do what is good even when society is generally mistaken about what is good. If someone made a good faith effort to determine the morally good action and it conflicted with societal norms, and especially if those societal norms did not appear to be similarly based on careful consideration, I would encourage that person to act according her beliefs.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Trying Another Perspective

Can I suggest to my theist readers a thinking exercise? Try to look at the world and understand it under the assumption that there is no God. What can you think of that makes more sense that way? What makes less sense? What just makes different sense? What would you do differently? What would you do the same?

(It is very important for purposes of this exercise not to try and imagine how the world would be different if there were no God. The idea is to take the world as it is, not as you imagine it might be.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Was Paul a Heretic?

In the debate between Christians and skeptics over the truth or falsehood of Christianity, one fact that is entirely uncontroversial is that Christians exist, and have existed in some form or another since the first century. However, a wide variety of beliefs have been held under the umbrella of Christianity, including diverse heresies (at least, so called by the supposedly orthodox). Part of the challenge facing both Christian apologists as well as skeptics is to trace those beliefs back to their origins — accurately. Christian apologists are generally attempting to show that the surviving orthodoxy is an accurate reflection of the truth. Skeptics are generally trying to show that the development of Christianity can be explained (and in fact, can be best explained) without recourse to supernatural involvement.

These tasks are complicated by several confounding factors. We have no contemporaneous records of the life of Jesus, at all, certainly nothing written by him. The sources we do have are almost entirely from Christian writers, and many of the writings that were judged heretical were destroyed, so in fact we have only a subset of the Christian writings. Further, among the surviving Christian writings, we know of many that were pseudonymous, that is, not written by whomever was claimed as the author. And not only were entire books and letters forged, but scribal alterations both intentional and unintentional were common as well, raising questions even about works whose authorship is generally considered authentic. In most cases, the earliest copies we have of most of the New Testament (other than tiny scraps) are from several hundred years after they were written. Finally, it can be difficult to dissociate ourselves from the views that have become generally accepted over the past 1600-1900 years to see how earlier interpretations may have differed.

Careful work can overcome some of the difficulties. For instance, by analyzing the commonalities and differences between various manuscripts, some variant readings can be rejected as (very probably) inauthentic. In other cases the choice between variations is more difficult. Rather than exploring that kind of difficulty, though, I would like to describe something more along the lines of overcoming interpretations that have held sway for most of church history. The particular event I have in mind is the resurrection.

The bodily resurrection of Jesus is arguably the linch pin of modern conservative Christian belief, an importance than I would guess extends a good way into moderate Christianity as well. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:14 that if Christ was not resurrected, the Christian faith is in vain. And there has been a correspondingly substantial amount of verbiage generated by people on both sides of the question, presenting arguments about whether this event occurred. Certainly this was an issue that I felt important to look into both during and after my decision to give up my Christian beliefs.

Now, I mentioned the difficulty that can be associated with overcoming a settled picture of what really happened. I definitely had the idea (an idea commonly repeated in church) that the Bible was a harmonious collection of writings that revealed the truth about God, Jesus and ourselves. We may not always understand the meaning, but we knew it was true. (Think about the implications of that for a moment.) That mental stance works against raising certain kind of questions.

One of the questions that I never thought to ask was, why does Paul, who wrote so much of the New Testament and especially the earliest parts of it, say so very little about the life of Jesus or even anything that Jesus was reported to have said? And, specific to the question of the resurrection, does he say anything that supports the events as portrayed in the Gospels?

The most important passage from Paul's writings in answering this question is 1 Corinthians 15, especially verses 3-11, in which Paul says Christ died, was buried, was raised and then appeared to a number of people, including Peter, the twelve, then to 500 people, then James, then the apostles and finally to Paul himself. (I will say, parenthetically, that some scholars suspect that some parts of this list, or perhaps all of it, may have been due to later non-Pauline additions, the reasons for which are a bit convoluted and not at all conclusive. That is not important to the approach I am describing.) While brief, this seems to provide support for the later reports in the gospels. There are, however, two important points to be made about this description.

First, Paul says that Christ appeared to all of these people, and the word used for all of these appearances is the same; that is, Christ appeared to everyone just as he appeared to Paul, which we know from both Paul and the author of Acts to have been a vision, not a physical, embodied interaction. Second, while Paul mentions death and burial followed by a resurrection, there is no mention of any empty tomb. This might seem like a minor omission, but in fact it is significant. Among the various Jewish sects, for instance, some believed in a bodily resurrection, while others believed in a purely spiritual resurrection (and still others did not believe in any resurrection), so it is an entirely legitimate question to ask if Paul might have been envisioning a spiritual rather than bodily resurrection, a resurrection in which there may not have been physical evidence. The fact that Paul describes Christ's appearance to all of the witnesses listed in this passage in the same terms as his appearance to Paul (which was clearly a vision) already provides some support for this possibility.

In fact, the end of I Corithians 15, starting with verse 35, provides additional evidence for this position, as Paul describes the difference between our earthly natural bodies and the spiritual bodies we will be given by God. This was the subject of a chapter written by Richard Carrier in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (a collection edited by Robert Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder). Since Carrier's treatment of this issue covers fifty pages, I will not pretend to provide anything like a fair summary in one or two paragraphs. I will, however, mention that parts of his argument involve words he believes have been poorly translated from the Greek, so that English translations are misleading on some points. As an example, in verse 51, English translations typically read something like "we will all be changed" which might appear to support the idea that our one body is changed at the resurrection. Carrier writes that a more proper translation would be "exchanged", an important difference in this context. If this were the basis of his entire argument, that might appear pretty thin, but (as you might expect from a fifty page explanation) he brings in quite a bit more support than that. I mention that because someone going and reading the passage in English might conclude that some of those verses provide clear evidence against Carrier's position, when in fact he does address those objections.

An important part of his argument, though, is to look at what kinds of concerns the Corinthian church must have had to lead Paul to answer as he does. There does not appear to be a question on the part of the Corinthians that Jesus was resurrected. Rather, their question appears to be how they can be assured that they will also be resurrected. Carrier attempts to demonstrate that if Paul was describing a bodily resurrection, he would have provided a different sort of answer than he does, an answer more similar to the answers offered by (for instance) the Pharisees who did believe in a bodily resurrection (a belief presumably shared by Paul before his conversion). Because Paul does not answer in this way, but instead develops an entirely different line of argument centered around the differences between two kinds of bodies, Carrier concludes that Paul did not believe that our earthly bodies would be resurrected, but that we would be given new spiritual (heavenly) bodies. Further, Jesus' resurrection was of the same kind as ours will be (Paul says), so his resurrection was also a spiritual one. However, in this view, there would have been no physical evidence of resurrection, since the empty shell of a physical body would have been left to rot, thus explaining the lack of substantial description of any post-resurrection events.

Carrier then looks at the gospel accounts of the resurrection, and notes that by the time of the latest gospels, Luke and John, there is an increasing emphasis on a bodily resurrection. In these later accounts, Jesus displays his wounds and allows them to be carefully examined, strongly implying that his resurrection body is the same body that was killed. This appears to be a departure from the view Paul held. When Origen later wrote in support of the idea of a resurrection into a new, spiritual body, these views were considered heretical. Yet Origen's views appear to be essentially similar to the views Paul himself propounded.

In fact, it is difficult to explain how Paul could hold to a two-body resurrection scheme if he were aware of the stories of bodily resurrection that were later recorded in the gospels. On the other hand, if those stories are later legendary developments, Paul's position is much less problematic. Of course, then we were left with explaining how those stories might have developed, which, as it happens, is what Carrier spends the second part of his chapter doing. (That takes a further forty pages, by the way. There are also thirty-five pages of end notes for that single chapter.)

Nor is this the only discrepancy between Paul's theology and that described by the later gospels and by other apostles. These kinds of difficulties make a great deal of sense when we view the development of Christianity as a human effort lacking divine guidance or, in some cases, evidential basis.

By the way, Richard Carrier has an FAQ for his chapter, available online here. One of the more interesting things he describes there is how Origen's position was purposefully and admittedly misrepresented by another early church figure (Rufinus) to give it a more orthodox flavor.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A History of God

Today, after reading it on and off for several weeks, I finally finished A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong started her adult life by becoming a Roman Catholic nun, but left after seven years, earned a degree at Oxford, taught modern literature, and became a well-known commentator on religious affairs. "A History of God" traces the various conceptions of God in the Abrahamic religions from the precursors of Judaism to the present day.

To summarize the book very briefly, the initial chapters describe the polytheistic belief systems out of which Jewish monotheism emerged roughly in the middle of the first millenium BCE, especially during the period of captivity in Babylon, though of course the process was a gradual one and it would be impossible to point at a particular time when it occurred. Armstrong does not devote much attention in the text to describing how this picture of the development of Judaism came to be, a picture substantially at odds with what I was taught in the church, though I have since gathered a similar picture to Armstrong's from other sources. Readers only familiar with what is taught in conservative churches would likely find this picture and its lack of justification (in the text of the book) unsettling, but I think that in broad outline it accurately reflects modern scholarship.

In any case, Armstrong moves on quickly to the emergence and early development of Christianity, and then the disputes over the doctrine of the Trinity. This includes not only the disagreements in the Latin branch of the church that came to a head in the fourth century and led to the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed which affirmed that Jesus was "of the same substance" as God (against the views of Arius), but also the diverging views of the Greek branch of Christianity that adopted a radically different conception of God, a view that emphasized an ineffable, unknowable view that was grounded more in experience than doctrine.

After a chapter describing the origin and early history of Islam, Armstrong shifts from describing the major religions mostly (but not entirely) in isolation to describing parallel developments in the conception of God within those religions. The first of these she describes as "The God of the Philosophers", wherein God is conceived in abstract terms and is distant, almost entirely separated from and unaffected by reality as we experience it. In contrast, "The God of the Mystics" represented almost a polar opposite view, where God existed only subjectively in human experience, mostly inaccessible to reason. In both cases, it was often Islamic thinkers that led the way, perhaps because Islamic societies were enjoying a great deal of economical and political success and stability.

Later, the Reformation prompted a "return" to earlier, simpler beliefs among Christians, even as the beginnings of a technological revolution in the West were changing the structure of society. Similar changes occurred in Islam, though in that case the causes were related more to the Mongol invasions as well as conflict with Western Christians. Jews saw at this time renewed persecution by Christians, being expelled from cities across Europe, and this led to revisions in their beliefs as well.

The last few chapters of the book describe the effects of the Enlightenment and exploding scientific understanding that, for the first time, led to serious consideration of the possibility that God may not exist. While some thinkers were happy to leave the idea of God behind entirely, others developed fresh conceptions of God that (somewhat like the mystics) rejected a literal, objective, separate existence. Still others clung ever more tightly to the idea of a supernatural person, regardless of the philosophical and evidential problems associated with the idea, culminating in the modern fundamentalist Christian movement.

Armstrong herself seems particularly sympathetic to the mystical, experiential conceptions of God, berating (very gently) the philosophically naive conceptions that typify both modern believers and those who reject God entirely based on those same naive conceptions. And I must say, I was previously unaware of the full diversity of beliefs that have been held under the names of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I was frequently surprised by the early recognition of various difficulties by early theologians and the sophistication of their solutions. Early Islam in particular was very successful not only in bringing improvements to the developing Arab culture and in co-existing peacefully with Jewish and Christian believers, but also in examining and refining their views of God. And yet...

As I wrote the previous paragraph, I used the word "sophistication" and noted to myself its shared origins (I assume) with "sophistry". Throughout the bulk of the development of the religious traditions that Armstrong is describing, the existence of God was basically just assumed, and all of the effort was expended to describe God, or to say why God could not be described. Various people attempted to solve the problem in radically different ways (viz. the difference between the philosophical and mystical conceptions), and occasionally individuals would vacillate between them as they came to understand the deficiencies of each view. The philosophical God existed, but could not be described and could not interact with a world that was so far below its (not "his") perfect, timeless simplicity. The mystical God, on the other hand, existed only in our minds. The personal, immanent God (and especially the doctrines of Incarnation and the Trinity in Christianity) more familiar to us today ran afoul of apparent philosophical and logical difficulties. Solutions to one problem introduced others.

Further, Armstrong describes how these various developments were affected by their historical context. The development of monotheism in Judaism occurred as the Jewish nations were overcome by first the Assyrians and then Babylonians. Christianity developed during a time of apocalyptic expectations of Jews under Roman rule. Islam developed out of the social ills that were plaguing the Arab transition from nomadic life to their success as merchant traders. As I mentioned before, important developments were related to technological and cultural changes, invasions, persecution, colonization and other non-religious factors.

As I see it, the early conception of a supernatural, personal God was correctly recognized to be untenable by those that gravitated to the philosophical and mystical understandings. It would be difficult for me to say that the God of the mystics does not exist because their conception of God, one which has no objective existence, is so foreign to my own conception. Still, belief in this purely internal, subjective entity grew out of experiences aimed at understanding a God that originally was thought to exist objectively. Without that foundation to start from, this move to mysticism seems misguided. Still, I acknowledge that a mystic might mean something so radically different by "God" that we could not easily have a meaningful conversation on the subject.

Similarly, the philosophical view effectively removes God from examination. Proponents of this view were reduced to describing everything that God is not, eventually settling on describing God as Nothing (a view fairly similar to some forms of Buddhism). Practically, while an intellectually stimulating exercise, this form of God-belief seems otherwise somewhat sterile, and the reasons to believe in such a God reduce to philosophical arguments like the necessity of a First Cause.

These kinds of beliefs were formed mostly during periods of relative economic, social and political stability. They were challenged by periods of unrest, when people wanted a God who could act in the real world. Sometimes, especially for the mystical variants, they were re-adopted when it seemed apparent that God was not acting in the real world. (Jewish Kabbalah mysticism is one example whose growth was stimulated by the tribulations of Jews in Christian Europe.)

The changing conception of God, then, has reflected the context and the needs of believers. To my mind, this reflects poorly on the reasons to believe in God, but Armstrong looks at the problem from a different angle. The summary from the inside jacket sums it up nicely:

Armstrong suggests that any particular idea of God must &mdash if it is to survive &mdash work for the people who develop it, and that ideas of God change when they cease to be effective. She argues that the concept of a personal God who behaves like a larger version of ourselves was suited to mankind at a certain stage but no longer works for an increasing number of people. Understanding the ever-changing ideas of God in the past and their relevance and usefulness in their time, she says, is a way to begin the search for a new concept for the twenty-first century. her book shows that such a development is virtually inevitable, in spite of the despair of our increasingly "Godless" world, because it is a natural aspect of our humanity to seek a symbol for the ineffable reality that is universally perceived.

While I do not agree that any present despair is due to being godless per se, I do agree that belief in God will likely persist and change for some time. In any case, Armstrong has produced a valuable and thought-provoking account of the history of belief in God, and I recommend reading it.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Trust? No, Verify!

I have not been much in the mood to write recently, but I came across a few things tonight that I thought I might mention.

The Box Turtle Bulletin is a blog I follow that deals primarily with social and political issues related to homosexuality. There have been some noteworthy developments recently, including increasing support for the end of the DADT (Don't Ask, Don't Tell) policy in the military. Also noteworthy are a pair of conferences in Southern California, one held by Exodus International, a Christian organization dedicated to helping people overcome their homosexuality, and another by, an organization dedicated to helping people recover from the "help" they got from organizations like Exodus International. Three former Exodus leaders issued apologies this week for the harm they felt their efforts had caused.

My purpose is not discuss any of that in any detail. Rather, the path that lead to this post began with a short post on Box Turtle Bulletin titled Focus on the Family Predicts the Future that pointed out a brief article on Citizen Link (by Focus on the Family Action) describing the conferences. The Citizen Link article states that about 100 people attended the conference, even though that conference did not start until tonight and no pre-registration numbers are available. It also characterized the conference as a protest, which is contrary to the stated purpose of the conference. Finally, the Citizen Link article concludes with a quote from Randy Thomas, the executive vice president of Exodus, who says, "We are always in ongoing communication with people who disagree with us, people with similar testimonies... We definitely will be in communication with them." Yet it was the founders that extended an invitation to dinner to the leaders of Exodus, an invitation that apparently went unanswered. (And, I note also that the article provides no link or other identifiable information about that would allow readers to find out more about that organization or its conference.)

Now, it is certainly possible that the attendence figures were an honest mistake, and it is certainly possible that there is, has been, and will continue to be dialogue initiated by Exodus International, even if this one particular dinner invitation is not accepted. There is reason to be concerned about the accuracy of the Citizen Link article, the intentions of its author(s) and the claims of Exodus International, but nothing necessarily beyond honest mistakes, incomplete information and heavy spin. This was just the first step on my path.

After I read the brief article on Citizen Link, I glanced at the sidebar to see what other kind of content they have on their website. In the section "Focus on Social Issues", they have a sub-category called "Origins". I had never really thought of Focus on the Family as being much involved in the whole evolution vs creationism thing, though I have heard some minor rumblings recently. So I decided to check out what they had to say.

The first article in the "Features" section is titled Evolutionist Admits False Assertions Against Critic of Darwin's Theories. This article was from Agape Press, "Reliable News from a Christian Source". Since I had just been looking into a case where a Christian source had been making questionable claims, what would I find here? I had not heard anything about this.

Well, it turns out that the article was nearly two years old, and it describes an article written by Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education. She had written the article for California Wild, a magazine published by the California Academy of Sciences, describing efforts by a certain Larry Caldwell to introduce anti-evolution, pro-creation materials into a California school district. Larry Caldwell, an attorney and activist in that area, said that many of her claims about him were false and quickly filed a libel lawsuit.

Several of Scott's statements did turn out to be incorrect. That is, while Caldwell was involved in the efforts to introduce the materials into the school district and while he had done some of things that Scott had reported, there were other people involved as well and some of what Scott had attributed to Caldwell was in fact done by others. She issued corrections in the next issue of the magazine. While Scott should have been more careful, there is little reason to believe that she was being purposefully misleading. (The charge of libel would have been very difficult to support.) It is unfortunate that the original article is no longer available on the California Academy of Sciences website, because several writers commenting on the case reported that a number of claims Caldwell made against Scott were factually incorrect; that is, that he made false claims about the content of her article. If true, the irony would be substantial.

The article on Agape Press describing these events is pretty heavily spun. But it includes several statements that are quite humorous to those who have paid attention to the efforts of creationists to promote their ideas: "He [Caldwell] feels even pro-evolution scientists must realize that the integrity of their position is at stake when false allegations and misinformation take the place of fair, rational, and well-informed debate." And, "What Caldwell is hoping, he adds, is that the proponents of Darwin's theories will realize the need to stick to the truth." These statements are humorous because they apply so accurately to creationists. Some of the clearest examples of this can be found in the practice of "quote mining", a technique whereby quotes from scientists are taken out of context (often with critical information elided) so that they appear to cast substantial doubt on evolution. This practice is so common that whole collections of them have been cataloged: the Quote Mine Project contains many examples and references to other similar lists.

Quote mining is not restricted to the anti-evolutionists. Another debate in which this tactic has seen substantial use is the debate over whether the United States was founded on Christian principles (or is a Christian nation, or other similar variations). Just tonight, Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist discusses an article written in his local newspaper by a Baptist minister, Vernon Lyons. Lyons' article argues that the United States was and is a Christian nation in some important respects. Hemant is planning to write a rebuttal and asked for suggestions.

Lyons closed his article with a quote from a Supreme Court decision (Church of the Holy Trinity vs. the United States) in 1892:

Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian. This is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation...we find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth. These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.

I had not heard of that one before. It does sound fairly compelling, doesn't it? But is it accurate? There are a number of so-called quotes on this subject that are floating around that appear to have been simply made up. And there are those ellipses in the middle of a quote — always a danger sign. A quick visit to Google searching for that last phrase, "mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation", gives as the first two hits two articles explaining the background of this quote. While you can get the details there, the most important word in the second part of the quote that is a clue to the original context and intent of the sentence is "unofficial".

Searching for "embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind" yields an article about a number of fake and questionable quotes that were published by David Barton, quotes that he has since admitted were fake or at best questionable. The first half of the quote included in Lyons' article is one of the fake quotes. (Barton is associated with WallBuilders, a Christian organization "dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history..." It's pretty easy to forget something that never happened.) While the inaccuracy of the quotes has now been acknowledged, the damage has been done. They have been repeated far and wide, and continue to be repeated long after they should have been discarded.

Now, many people who repeat these quotes believe they are giving accurate information; they are misinformed and sometimes ignorant of important facts, a condition which is an almost inevitable consequence of being human. No doubt I have written something here that, while I believe it to be true, is not. Even in the normal course of honest discourse, people will make mistakes and for this reason alone it is valuable to double-check important claims. But as you will see if you read through the quote mining examples and the fake quotes, these are cases where the only reasonable explanation is deliberate misrepresentation by somebody.

I am in no way claiming that these kinds of examples invalidate everything that is ever said by Christians. That would be absolutely preposterous. Neither am I claiming that atheists never commit these sorts of unintentional errors or deliberate deceptions. What I do want my Christian readers to understand, and to see through some of the examples listed here and in the referenced articles, is that there is an awful lot of Christian writing, especially on the Internet and most especially that which comes from more fundamentalist sources, that either originates or uncritically repeats blatant falsehoods in support of the beliefs of the authors. (The same might be said about various political writers.) Practice skepticism! Check their sources. Google is your friend.

Friday, June 08, 2007

We Are Children

During the past few days, there has been a confluence of events and of thoughts that have provided me some amount of focus for writing. In my last post, nearly two weeks ago, I described some of the questions that I am trying to answer about where to go with my writing here, and some of the thoughts that contributed to this present smidge of inspiration relate to those questions. But in many ways, the subject is much broader, and the route that I will take to describe it is a bit circuitous.

To start, I should back up to, say, junior high or so. I read a fair amount, and it would have been about that time that I started to pick up science fiction by Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, two of the classic authors of the genre. Naturally I have read far more since then, but I never did get around to reading any novels by Ray Bradbury or Arthur C. Clarke, two of the other most well-known science fiction authors of its early years. (Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke have been called the ABC's of science fiction.) In some ways it was almost embarassing not to have read anything of Bradbury and Clarke other than a few short stories, and that embarassment was most pronounced when, toward the end of April, the local libraries put on a "Big Read", a week focusing on a single book, in this case "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury. The final event of the week was a talk by Bradbury's friend and biographer, whose name now escapes me. I went with a friend of mine, but still had not read that book or any other of Bradbury's novels, and according to a show of hands, I think I was one of only two people there in that apparently despicable condition.

So, I picked up a copy of "Fahrenheit 451" and read that a few weeks ago. More recently, I checked out "The Martian Chronicles" from the library, which I finally started to read earlier this week. The library had several copies, but I picked the one that looked the oldest. It was printed in 1958; the book was first published in 1946. In this particular edition, there is a Prefatory Note by a Clifton Fadiman (I have no idea who he is) who describes Bradbury as a moralist, and says of the book that Bradbury "is telling us ... that human beings are still mental and moral children who cannot be trusted with the terrifying toys they have by some tragic accident invented."

I think I read that on Tuesday. On Wednesday, a woman I with whom I work, whose stepson is deployed in Iraq, found out that four men from his unit were killed last week. The total number of US servicemen killed broke 3500, a number dwarfed by the number of Iraqi civilians killed by us or, sometimes after having been tortured, by other Iraqis. Regardless of your views about how this situation came to be or how it might now be addressed, it must be acknowledged that the situation is tragic, and that the tragedy is the result of human action (not natural disaster). Nor should we forget Darfur, or honor killings, or secret prisons. We are not yet a century past the Nazi Holocaust, the rape of Nanking, and genocide in Rwanda, to name just a few of the most obvious horrors.

This week also brought the G8 summit in Europe, where President Bush, on behalf of the United States, again refused to participate in any meaningful commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Representatives of the US automotive industry met with senators, urging them not to raise fuel efficiency standards which are already the worst in the developed world. Even China has higher standards than we do. Michael Griffin, the head of NASA, made waves last week for statements made in an interview with NPR where he expressed doubt about whether we should bother to do anything about global warming, despite the dire projections of his own researchers. But, he later clarified, understanding Earth's climate is not part of NASA's mission. True — they removed the study of Earth itself from NASA's mission just last year. Meanwhile, Greenland's ice continues to melt, apparently faster even than predicted by the climate models so maligned by climate change skeptics. Somebody forgot to tell the coal industry, which is pushing for government subsidies for coal liquefaction plants, a process that might ease the demand for oil, but only by doubling CO2 emissions.*

I could go on, of course. In fact, I had originally planned to address just one of the many factors that contributes to problems such as these (and to religious questions), but perhaps later. Instead, let me agree with Jeffrey Spender, a character from "The Martian Chronicles":

We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.

We are mental and moral children.

* There is, apparently, more than one way to turn coal to liquid fuel, and not all produce double the carbon emissions. However, the cost of the less damaging processes is prohibitive.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

New Directions

As my online dialog with Ernie slowly winds down, I have been taking some time to think about what I want to do with this blog, if anything. When I started twenty months ago, my intended purpose was to explain my decision to leave Christianity. After only a short time, most of my effort was diverted into my discussion with Ernie, and though parts of my original explanatory intent peeked through, for the most part I think my original purpose in blogging was unfulfilled. Somewhat ironically, that was the source of some frustration for Ernie, who stated at various times throughout the discussion that he did not really understand the essence of my objections to Christianity.

So perhaps the time has come to return to my original purpose, now with the benefit of additional time of thought and study. As I look back at my earliest posts, I think perhaps I started too quickly with details, without establishing a framework into which the details could be placed, and without a good plan for how to build from a beginning to an end. Should I be writing down a personal history, a sort of spiritual travelogue that includes some of the personal events that led me to ask questions and search for answers? Or should I seek to present what I feel are the best reasons for disbelief, regardless of the path that brought me here? What forms of Christianity should I address? What goals am I reaching toward, what good would such an explanation (hopefully) produce? Is it even worth my time, given my glacially slow writing pace? Can I sustain the effort long enough to produce a quality result, or will I end up leaving things hanging? (That happened too much with Ernie, for instance.)

I am still trying to work out an approach that I think might work, and I do not know yet what that will look like, or when I might be ready.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Drawing to a Close

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

As we draw our diablogue to a close, it is time for some reflection on where we have been. Coming so closely on the heels of similar reflections that led to a change in format a few weeks ago, some parts of this may be repetitive.

First, some statistics. This dialog started in toward the end of 2005, triggered by a comment Ernie left after my post on Solomon's Temple, followed by what I would consider the first posts that were explicitly intended as part of an ongoing conversation, Testable Propositions and A Post-Modern Faith in Jesus. Since then, I have written 68 posts (plus this one) and Ernie has written 66 (if I counted right). That works out to almost 3/4 MB of text, maybe 100,000 words.

As I look back on some of the earliest posts, I wonder if we really got very far, because some of the same issues we have discussed recently were introduced then. Of course, along the way, we have travelled here and there, discussing hell, epistemology, morality and touches of historical and modern Christianity. Obviously we have not come to any major agreement, but perhaps that is not so surprising.

For my part, despite the lack of resolution, this dialog has been helpful in several ways. It has forced me to consider more carefully my reasoning on various issues, especially regarding those issues that are treated in very different ways by different branches of Christian thought. It has driven me to study philosophical subjects more deeply and particularly develop a deeper understanding of ethics and morality. And I hope (perhaps unreasonably) that I have improved my ability to express myself and to engage in a thoughtful yet perhaps somewhat adversarial discussion.

But do I really understand Ernie any better? I suppose I do, yet what I understand does not move me, intellectually speaking. The primary evidence that seems to be important to Ernie apparently relates to changed lives on both small and large scales. That is, that Christianity has (in his view) produced and continues to produce positive changes that indicate that Christianity must be on to something. My response has been, over and over, that this type of evidence is problematic in several ways: that false beliefs can have (some) benefits, that other belief systems also produce positive changes, that attribution of the large-scale changes to Christianity specifically is difficult, that any weighing of the evidence must also include the evil that can be attributed to Christianity, and that the moral contributions can exist apart from the metaphysical beliefs so that other kinds of evidence must be adduced to support those other claims.

If there have been other lines of evidence offered, I do not recall them now. I think Ernie has made some other types of claims, but (perhaps due to the conversational trajectory) has not defended them. Similarly, I have not addressed or supported all of the issues that lead me to disbelief.

I might summarize my major themes as: the disproportionality of the evidence for Christianity to the consequences for disbelief and sufficiency of non-theistic explanations for the evidence that Ernie claims support Christianity. While I have advanced other lines of evidence external to our dialog, I think most of my half of this conversation has fallen into those two grand themes.

I respect Ernie for his recognition of some of the flaws of modern Christianity and his intention to improve it. There is a great deal of room for improvement in this world, and while may disagree with Ernie on a number of points, I appreciate his willingness to engage for so long in an attempt improve our small part of it.

Thanks, Ernie.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Penultimate Thoughts

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief, a dialog that is drawing to a close.

I promised to Ernie that I would write up some reflections on how our dialog has proceeded over the past eighteen months. This is not it.

I have wanted to hear from Ernie more details about his views of the Bible. In our last chat, when I asked about this, Ernie compared the Bible to lab notebooks, written by people "performing real experiments on 'moral reality'" who got "the right answer" even if the standards of evidence are below today's standards. He further compared the process by which scripture was copied and transmitted to the peer review and citation processes of modern science. His claim appears to be that we therefore have comparable reasons to trust scripture as we have for trusting the results of modern science.

I do not agree.

First, when Ernie admits that the standards of evidence were below today's standards but yet claims that they got the right answer, on what basis can he say that they got the right answer? Have there been modern experiments performed according to our modern standards of evidence that verify the Bible's answers about questions of moral reality? If these experiments have not been performed, how can Ernie claim that the Bible contains the right answers? As far as I can tell, Ernie seems to be basing this claim on the success of Western civilization, despite the various problems that exist in tracing this success to the moral claims of the Bible. I am not aware of any modern experiments that would allow Ernie to claim that (according to modern standards of evidence) that the Bible contains the correct answers to questions of morality. In fact, the Bible contains moral instructions that have been discarded by modern believers. This is most clear when examining the moral laws of the Old Testament, but I believe is also true of parts of the New Testament (to varying degrees among different groups).

Second, the Bible contains more than just moral instruction. It also makes claims about the existence and nature of God, of Jesus, of heaven and hell, and so on. Does Ernie claim that these were experimentally verified? How could these experiments be reproduced today? If they cannot, the modern standards of evidence cannot be met.

Third, the process by which scripture was transmitted and eventually canonized has only a vague similarity to the peer review process in science today. Ernie says that "People made claims, others wrote them down, still others decided they were worth copying and transmitting, etc." Without knowing the standards by which such decisions were made, this becomes little more than a popularity contest. An important part of the peer review process today is evaluation of a paper against the very standards of evidence that are important to modern science. Without those standards, standards that Ernie admits were lacking for the Bible, the peer review process loses much of its force.

Now, there were some standards that were supposedly used for the eventual canonization of the New Testament: apostolic authorship, correct doctrine and widespread use. As I have written recently, modern scholarship places considerable doubt on the correct assignment of authorship to a large number of New Testament books. The standard of correct doctrine assumes that there is an independent source of correct doctrine to which the books and letters could be compared. What was that source? Is it still available today? Without knowing what this source was, and without having good reasons to trust in its accuracy, the criteria of doctrinal correctness is in great danger of reducing to question begging. Widespread usage is also problematic. Perhaps if we had good reason to believe that widespread usage was indicative of widespread truth-testing, this might hold some weight. But since some popular books were not included on the basis of doctrinal incorrectness, we have good reasons to believe that popularity was not considered to be equivalent to wide-spread truth testing. (Note too that the doctrinal issues involved often revolved around Jesus' divinity and related concepts that are not open to experimental verification.)

The similarity between the development of the Bible and modern scientific progress is terribly shallow. No matter how many smiley-faces Ernie uses while comparing them, the differences that remain are substantial and important.

As our chat progressed, I claimed that Christianity has had trouble converging. Ernie claims that Christianity is converging, but slowly. He gave as an example of "numerous hard-won convergence points that have enormously broad appeal" the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization that resulted in the Lausanne Covenant. I found this example interesting for several reasons. First, this was a meeting of evangelical Christians, so it already illustrates one of the fracture lines that divides Christians in the world today. Now, Ernie did not claim that this was an example of universal convergence, just "broad appeal", but still this is an important point. The second point of interest is that the Lausanne Covenant affirms "the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice." As far as I can tell, while this statement may have broad appeal, it contradicts Ernie's own stated views about the nature of the Bible. The Lausanne statement does not describe a lab notebook written by fallible humans; it describes authoritive, inerrant revelation.

Ernie and I also discussed Christianity, atheism and secular humanism and their roles in societies. Here there are a few things that I need to clear up. Ernie said, "So, I get the feeling that you're attacking me from both sides. Either you say it doesn't matter that Christianity works, because its false; or else you say it must not work, since its false." This accusation has some merit and I need to answer. I think Ernie's description is misleading because it is not a question of purely working or purely not working. I have tried to acknowledge that there may be some useful contributions of Christianity (so it "works" to some degree). I have also stated multiple times that false beliefs can have some beneficial effects (so again, it "works" to some degree). But I have further claimed that, because it is false (or contains false elements), it will not work as well as belief systems that exclude the false elements. It is possible that this last statement is actually incorrect. Some people have argued that such false beliefs play important roles in social cohesion. While I have to acknowledge that possibility, I also believe that we have good reasons to search for alternatives that do not involve such false beliefs.

Ernie was correct to point out that, to date, there have been no examples of persistently successful societies that lacked some sort of shared religious tradition. Recent trends in this direction, such as in Europe and Japan, are neither pure examples nor have they demonstrated long-term success. It may also be true that secular humanism by itself will prove insufficient to bind a society together. As I just stated in the last paragraph, it may even be true that certain kinds of false belief are inevitable and/or necessary. That possibility raises some interesting questions about how those who recognize the beliefs as false should proceed. But it does not make the beliefs true. Absent other considerations, I would accept societal success as evidence that the beliefs reflect some sort of truth, if perhaps only indirectly. But when we have other reasons to believe that the beliefs are false, and when we also have reasons to expect the false beliefs to have beneficial effects, societal success simply does not carry sufficient evidentiary weight. I will also point out again that societal success (that is, persistence) does not necessarily imply individual well-being.

I had hoped to draw some parallels between this particular interaction and our larger dialog in order to illustrate what I think were some of our larger issues. At this point, I need to wrap this up, so I will simply take care of that in my coming reflections on our dialog.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Chatalogue: End Game

Ernie and I held our third chat last night, a day earlier than planned due to some scheduling conflicts. I will be preparing some commentary this weekend; for now, here is the transcript:

E: G'day.

A: Howdy

E: Thanks for being flexible.

A: No problem

E: Sounds like Wednesday was better for both of us.

E: So, any thoughts about how you'd like the conversation to go this time?

E: [since you seem less than thrilled by last week's trajectory :-]


A: Well, I wonder if you understand my concerns about what kind of conclusions we'd be able to reach.

A: And I am also curious about what flaws you feel exist in Alonzo's descriptions of how DU solves various problems of morality

E: I can see it; I'm not sure I "understand" it.

E: That did raise an intriguing possibility.

E: I wonder if this might actually be more "constructive" if we focused on less on trying to construct a common understanding, but actually defend opposing viewpoints.

E: That is, get adversarial (in content and structure, though hopefully not tone!)

A: Interesting. It seems like we just decided to "restart" with less adversiality (is that a word?)

E: Yeah, but every time I try to build something, you seem underwhelmed by the result.

A: That's true.

E: Plus, it seems like you're more interested in the "adversarial" results (or lack thereof) than in anything mutual we've come up with.

E: So, rather than backing into being adversarial, maybe it would actually be more fun for both of us to tackle it (and each other) head on!

A: Well, I thought our first week's chat was helpful, but last week we kind of settled back into the same groove we had already tried to cover earlier.

E: I concede that I easily get stuck in lecture mode.

E: Perhaps debate mode would be more mutual.

A: Maybe.

E: Unless you have a lecture prepared, for the sake of equal time? :-P

A: :-)

E: Do you have any claims you'd like to articulate and/or defend?

A: Grrr... trying again.

E: or even an inquisition you'd like to put me through...

A: Let me back up, and say first, that I am not sure that further discussion on morality seems likely to be that helpful.

A: The reasons I believe (or don't believe) what I do (or don't) are not grounded on what provides a basis for morality, so even if you could show that there were no foundation for morality without a benevelent moral purpose,

A: I am not sure it would matter that much to me. (Not that I believe that is true.)

E: Or, put another way, your commitment to "truth" is actually foundational, not merely instrumental to morality.


A: Hmm, I am not sure I would have put it that way. Just stop at "commitment to truth is foundational".

E: Okay, fair enough.

A: Does that make sense?

E: It does, though it somewhat conflicts with an operational/consequential definition of "truth."

A: Why?

E: What is the basis of your commitment to truth? In terms of what do you define truth?

E: My metric has been 'The truth is what works' (even if "what works is not the truth").

A: When you say, "the truth is what works", I would take that to mean that the truth is what lets us make accurate predictions about the world.

E: sure

A: There need be no moral judgement attached to those predictions.

E: Sure.

A: So I still don't see where the conflict is.

E: But, it gets back to what you mean by "truth is foundational".

E: Not a strong conflict, just a request for clarification.

E: Since truth about human beings is difficult to evaluate apart from moral considerations (though not impossible).

A: Why?

E: Well, in my worldview, all human action has a moral dimension.

E: It is related to purpose and happiness, at the very least.

A: So, you assume a moral dimension, so it then becomes difficult to interpret people without it.

E: Right.

E: To me, it would be like trying to interpret subatomic particles while ignoring charge.

A: That kind of seems like question begging.

E: Again, my point was that it is *hard* for me to understand how you define truth.

E: So, how about you show me?

A: The reason that we attribute charge to subatomic particles is that we observe particular kinds of behaviors of those particles.

E: RIght, we interpret their behavior as being due to charges we label as "positive" and "negative."

A: I do think that it is sensible to talk about morality because we can observe various things about how people behave.

E: As I interpret human behavior in terms of positive and negative attributes I label "love" and "hate."

A: Sure. I hope I have communicated that I do actually think that there is a basis for making moral statements.

E: Right.

E: But, getting back to the epistemic question.

E: Our original definition started with assertion that 'truth is good'.


E: If we don't assume that, we need a slightly different starting point.

A: I still agree with that, but I don't see us making any real progress from that starting point.

E: Fair enough.

E: So, can you propose an alternate starting point?

E: [new link, same article;]

A: Well, I am still curious, in a non-adversarial way, in hearing you further explain you views on scripture and why it's "good"

E: I think of Scripture much like I think of Newton's Laws.

E: More precisely, like Millikan's Notebook.


E: The standards of evidence are far below what we'd accept today.

E: But, they got the right answer. :-)

E: Which implies to me that they were in fact performing real experiments on "moral reality", and obtaining useful data.

E: And thus, by incorporating their data into my models I achieve better predictive power than if I ignore or discount that data.

E: Did you drop off?

A: Nope, just listening.

E: [i got a weird message saying you signed on, which is why I asked].

A: Weird.

E: anyway, that's the essence of my argument

A: So, scripture could be reproduced by anyone able to perform the same experiments?

A: (Not in exact detail of course)

E: Sure, to the limits of historical correspondence?

E: .

E: That's what most of the charismatic movement is about, after all. :-)

E: Back to the second goalpost: most of it is due to a small group of old guys from a particular ethnic background wandering in the desert, coming back with paradigm-shattering reports that are difficult to reproduce, but validated by their peers, and prove to have extraordinary explanatory power.

E: Because of that, I tend to believe that their experiences were genuine, and their reports trustworthy -- despite the fact that many counterfeits have presented with similar claims.


A: In what ways were the reports validated by their peers?

E: The process of scripture formation was originally organic, and only later hierarchical.

E: People made claims, others wrote them down, still others decided they were worth copying and transmitting, etc.

E: Not entirely unlike our Citation Rank process for scientific papers.

A: Do you have reason to believe those other people actually selected papers for their actual truth value rather than some other characteristic?

E: Do we ever? :-)

E: Peer-review is only as good as the quality of the peers.

A: Yes, but today we know something about the quality of the peers.

E: And the metrics for selection are more complicated than one might think.

E: Only for fields where we're already expects, unfortunately.

A: Then, we have some information, but it is not necessarily that positive.

E: Otherwise, we're simply trusting in the institutions.

E: :-)

E: That's why my espitemic model makes explicit claims about the nature of communities, and relational trust.

A: I think the scientific process is very much one in which arguments from authority are not supposed to be powerful.

E: (which makes it hard to separate from morality :-P )

E: Since when? :-)

E: What that really means is that scientists don't accept arguments from authorities *outside their paradigm*

E: Within a paradigm, we are continually citing authorities.

E: The Particle Data Book, Newton's Laws, the Standard Model, etc.

A: They accept (not always immediately, but eventually) arguments that are consistent with the data.

A: And they are judged by that standard.


E: Again, within a given paradigm.

A: I don't think a similar standard was used for scripture.

E: How can it not be?

E: It was a different paradigm, but obviously people had one.

A: Why should we trust that paradigm?

E: Again, why do we trust any paradigm?

E: More importantly, in which -ways- do we trust the results of those paradigms?

A: We trust science because it works. It has produced results. These results have substantial agreement.

A: There is not a comparable level agreement amongst Christians about doctrine.

E: Can you quantify that statement?

E: Or does it depend entirely on how you define various terms?

A: I think in the entire history of Christianity, there have been and continue to be major disagreements about what it means.

E: As opposed to the history of science? :-)

A: Science converges.

A: Christianity hasn't.

E: Last I checked, the vast majority of Christians still hold to the Nicene Creed.

E: Science tends to discard ideas far faster :-)

E: Believe it or not, Christianity also converges.

E: One fascinating example for me is the charismatic movement.

A: Different pockets converge to different places.

E: Again, how is that different than science?

E: Before the 1960's, the charismatic movement was a fringe Pentecostal set of denominations.

E: In the 1980's, it was enormously controversial.

E: Now, it is more-or-less accepted as normal and healthy by virtually every denomination.

E: There's numerous hard-won convergence points that have enormously broad appeal, e.g.

A: I am not so sure about that, actually. Maybe by some people within every denomination, but not by everybody. It's just another way to split.

E: You miss the point.

E: In the 1980's, there were a huge number of ideologues talking about how charismatic gifts were of the devil, and how anyone who practiced them should be cast out of the church.

E: Now, it is only a handful of relics who would make such claims, and most of those do so quietly -- for they know they'd alienate a bunch of their supporters and colleagues.

E: It is like believing in a Steady State universe -- only those with a huge ego investment in that belief persist in it.


E: To be sure, we don't converge on *everything* -- but then again, neither does science.

E: But, the church has in fact converged on a great many things, at least to the "majority extent" -- which is all we get out of science, either. :-)

E: We just have an annoying tendency to amplify our controversies.

E: Still there?

A: Yes and no...

E: I get the impression that you feel any of the "common beliefs" of Christianity (and western culture) are "obvious", so Christians shouldn't get any of the credit for having discovered and converged upon them.

A: Some were also discovered by non-Christians. Some were not discovered by all Christians. Some were wrong. The signal is not strong enough to overcome the disconfirming evidence.

A: (Or, sometimes, significant lack of evidence.)

E: Which brings us back to whether you think the success of Western culture and morality is a notable discovery, on par with Newton's Laws.

A: I don't think it was that concentrated and unique.

E: I've never claimed that Christians had all truth, or were always correct; just that it is the most successful paradigm, among other less succesful ones.

E: Further, need I point out that while Christian societies have had mixed results, atheistic ones have been uniformly disastrous?

A: They have had other problems.

E: Other than moral ones?

A: It may be true that Christianity and other religions play a beneficial role while being false. That's something I'm still chewing on.

E: So, I get the feeling that you're attacking me from both sides.

E: Either you say it doesn't matter that Christianity works, because its false; or else you say it must not work, since its false.

A: It's not just Christianity that works in that sense though.

E: (wait, that came out wrong)

E: What sense must it work? Can you come up with a consistent standard, that you'd be willing to judge atheism against?

A: Atheism entails too little.

A: People with vastly different views can still be atheists.

E: Well, do you have a foundational alternative to Christianity you'd propose building society around instead?

A: Secular humanism

E: Or are you just tearing it down because you think it deserves to die, and you really don't care about the consequences?

E: Secular humanism is almost as vague as atheism.

A: Stalin and Pol Pot, while atheists, were not secular humanists.

E: Okay, sure.

E: But they at least managed to run a country.

E: There is zero evidence that secular humanists can actually manage to maintain social cohesion while being true to their values.

E: At least that I've seen -- I'd be willing to be confronted by facts I've overlooked.

A: How would you describe Japan and Scandinavia? They are among the most "atheistic" countries in existence right now.

E: Huh?

E: Sure, if you consider Confucianism atheism, but that grossly mistates the case.

E: Japan is bound together by far more than secular humanism, as you well know.

E: And Norway is hardly secular in the strict sense, even if people are skeptical or organized religion.


E: "Norwegian religious expression is largely private; whereas most individuals state that religion is important to them, this is not generally expressed through active religious participation in organized communities."

E: Besides, you do realize that all secularized societies are slowly committed genetic suicide, right?

A: And the religious societies are doing so much better?

E: Well, yeah.

E: At least by that crude metric, the world population is still increasing.

A: But, is increasing population a good thing at this point?

E: Compared to the alternative?

A: yes

E: Look, any society that fails to have children is eliminating itself from history.

E: I would consider that counter-productive.

E: And, it is in fact creating a huge age crisis in Japan, as I'm sure you've heard.

E: I'm not saying that the excessive breeding of African Muslims is a good thing, but at least you gotta give em credit for trying to stay alive.

E: Well, I do; I'm not sure where your morality fits into this.

E: So, we should wrap up.

A: yep

E: Do you want to take a stab at defining secular humanism for next time, and how it obviates the need for a consensus around my Deistic Hypothesis?

A: I'm not really sure I'm interested in continuing, actually.

E: Sorry to hear that.

E: I apologize if my more adversarial tone today didn't help things.

E: But, perhaps that is wisdom on your part, to recognize the futility of dead-horse beatings.

E: still there?

A: yes

A: I don't think we're going to get anywhere.

E: So, maybe we should simply try to end well.

E: Perhaps we could each write up our reflections on how we thought things went, just to wrap things up.

A: Sure. It might be a couple days, though.

E: No hurry; I'm gone all weekend anyway.

E: Perhaps if we can get our respective Conclusions posted, we can chat about them one last time next Thursday.

A: We can discuss that (privately) after they are posted, I suppose.

E: To be honest, it would be something of a relief to have this over; though, I'll miss being connected to you this tightly.

E: fair enough

A: Thanks, Ernie. I'll be in touch.

E: 'later

A: bye

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Remonstration of Conversational Trajectory

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.



  1. That G/NOD is a singular, well-defined entity covering all of humanity.
  2. That the moral rules governing G/NOD are *discovered* more than they are *invented*.
  3. That those rules are in principle discoverable by human beings in the right circumstances
  4. That there is such a thing as virtuous character, which is always better than vicious character.
  5. That it is always rational to do that which is virtuous.

Is it your position that these are true statements that must either be derived or assumed? If not, why are they important?

I disagree that DU must assume all of them. (1) through (3) may be assumptions but they are hardly earth-shattering; only (1) is at all difficult. (4) is derivable. (5) may be false, but I may be misunderstanding. Rationality has to do with using reason. This seems to be saying that, using reason, all people will always find that virtuous actions will best satisfy (the most and strongest of) their own desires. DU does not assume this, entail this, or require this. But maybe I am misunderstanding, since this interpretation requires importing some assumptions that may not be correct.

My larger complaint about this whole approach is that there are multiple tenuous connections chained together in series: the importance of Christianity to Western civilization, the role of ontological and ethical claims in that contribution, the admitted possibility that contra-factual beliefs play an important role in such contributions, the mere consistency of those claims with a barely characterized "benevolent purpose" when the claims do not otherwise require such an additional entity, ...

I spent a couple of hours last night trying to write a response to our chat. During the chat, I wanted to let you continue to see where things were going and we may not have gotten far enough to really see that, but so far, my perspective on this is not really any different from your previous attempts in our diablogue. After a lot of work, we'll have only a very weak, tenuous conclusion.

I'm not sure that's helpful.

I introduced UU and DU as ethical theories that require no external "benevolent purpose" or "deity", no mysterious metaphysical claims, in constrast to your claim that such additional elements were essential. DU particularly relies on only a small number of ontologically basic elements: desires, beliefs, intentions and intentional actions. Their existence does not seem controversial. DU does appear to solve a number of issues that plague other ethical theories. Alonzo recently summarized them in Evaluating Moral Theories. While I agree that there may be practical difficulties at this point that could benefit from further exploration, this is enough to satisfy me (at least for now, knowing what I know) that no additional entities are necessary. Demonstrating that the above statements are consistent with (and even derivable from) the existence of a benevolent purpose is unconvincing when the statements are also consistent with its non-existence (or when the statements are not demonstrably true, as (5)).

Can you offer some reason to expect that the direction we are taking will be more fruitful than what it appears to me?