Wednesday, November 28, 2012

my moral epistemology

STR Place used to have this deal where every Tuesday they'd post a challenge that Christians (mostly young Christians) could attempt to answer, then the following Thursday (ideally, but not actually in every case), Brett Kunkle would respond to the challenge and say what he thought of everybody else's responses.

One day, Amy Hall posted a challenge about how intuition can't prove objective moral values. The challenge came from a fellow named "Doubting Eric" who originally brought up the challenge on Twitter. Brett came along a few days later and posted his response to the challenge.

Doubting Eric and I discussed the topic in the comment section, and I just wanted to post one of my comments here because it explains some of my moral epistemology.


Doubting Eric,

Thanks for your response. In the interest of making this conversation manageable, I’m going to try to keep my response short.

First let me so that of course I don’t take your disagreement with my view as a personal attack on me. That goes without saying, and I’m sure you don’t take my challenges to you to be personal attacks either. We’re debating our disagreements on the nature of morality, and that’s it.

This is all not part of the objection I made that started this whole discussion, so I don’t want to argue about how inconsistent I might be living as an atheist.

The reason I asked you all those questions about your post on homosexuality is because I think the things you said there revealed that even though you deny the existence of objective morals, you still perceive them as if they were objective. They at least APPEAR objective to you. I think that in unguarded moments, when the subject is not the existence of objective morals, you do believe in them. Your statements make no sense unless you do. For example, you hold other people to them. You expect other people to know about them and to live by them, and when they don’t, you behave as if those people have done something they ought not to have done. You think the morals you perceive actually apply to other people. But if they are merely subjective, then they do NOT apply to other people. So even though you deny that morals are objective, they at least APPEAR objective to you.

I think you are just like a person who, although they perceive an external world that appears to be real, they nevertheless think it’s all in their head. A person who denies the existence of the external world does not stop perceiving it as if it were real. They just deny that what appears to be so really IS so.

“Why should I think our moral sense is a source of a priori knowledge?”

Yes, that is the central question in this discussion. Let me explain in a little more detail why I think our moral perceptions belong in our a priori foundation of knowledge.

All a priori knowledge is knowledge we have that isn’t derived from anything else. We don’t infer it from other knowledge we have. Rather, we know it simply by reflecting inward and grasping it or “seeing” it.

But there are three kinds of a priori knowledge…

1. Things we know because of our first person awareness.

If you think of a number between one and ten, you know immediately what number you’re thinking of just because you’re thinking of it. You don’t need evidence to tell you what number you’re thinking of because you know it directly. You know that you’re thinking, feeling, and perceiving, and you know what you’re thinking, feeling, and perceiving simply because you have first person private access to the content of your own mind.

2. Things we know because they are rationally grasped.

The previous category included things we know about the content of our own minds. But this category includes what we know about reality outside of our minds. These include math, geometry, and the laws of logic. We know that 2 + 2 = 4. We know that if straight lines intersect, the opposite angles must be equal. We know that if two propositions contradict each other, they can’t both be true at the same time and in the same sense. The laws of logic are the basis upon which everything else is proved, so the laws themselves can’t be proved. To attempt proving them would be to engage in circular reasoning. But to understand them is to believe them. Likewise, with geometry, you can simply reflect on something and know with certainty that it’s true. You don’t have to test anything to discover that opposite angles of intersecting lines are equal. You don’t have to get a bunch of examples, measure each one, and discover there’s a high probability that it’s true in every case. You can just “see” that it’s universally true merely by reflecting on it and rationally grasping it. The same is true with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

3. Things we know because that’s just the way a normally functioning mind works.

There are many things that go in this category, including the uniformity of nature, that our senses give us true information about the external world, that our memories give us true information about the past, that there are other minds, that ought implies can, that you have an enduring self, that Ockham’s razor is a valid thumb rule, that time exists, and that causation exists. None of these things can be proved. If you’re familiar with David Hume’s An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, you’ll know why. Take the uniformity of nature, for example. The uniformity of nature is what tells you that the future will resemble the past or that experience can tell you what the world is like. It’s what allows you to engage in inductive reasoning. It’s what allows you to learn from experience. It’s what allows you to calculate probabilities. It’s what allows you to extrapolate from what you observe to what you don’t observe. The entire scientific method depends on this principle. It’s why testing things in the lab have relevance to the way the world works outside the lab. But it can’t be proved. If you appeal to past experience to say that since it’s always worked in the past that it must be the way things really are or that we should expect it to continue to work in the future, you are begging the question since you’re using the principle to justify the principle.

What all three of these categories have in common is that they are a priori. 1 differs from 2 and 3 in the fact that it’s knowledge about the self whereas 2 and 3 are knowledge about reality outside the self. 3 differs from 1 and 2 in that it’s possible to be wrong about the items in 3, but it’s not possible to be wrong about the items in 1 and 2.

I believe morality goes in the third category because it shares certain properties in common with the items in 3, which properties are the very reason they go in that category. Those properties include:

a. None of them can be proved.
b. It’s possible to be wrong about each of them.
c. Every normally functioning mind apprehends them.
d. It’s prima facie unreasonable to deny them.

All four of these things are true about morality. Morality cannot be proved. It’s possible that there are no objective morals, even though we perceive them. Every normal person perceives them (which is why we consider sociopathy to be a mental illness). It’s prima facie unreasonable to deny them, which is evident in the fact that we all find it counter-intuitive to deny them and none of us can live consistently with the belief that they aren’t real.

Now let me respond to some of your objections.

However, since we can’t test a priori knowledge against anything to see if it is true, it could actually be untrue.

If you’ve followed me so far, you can see that this statement is true in the case of the third category of a priori knowledge, but it’s not true in the case of the first two categories. For example, it is possible that I could be wrong in thinking I’ve got a computer on my lap (I could be dreaming or plugged into the Matrix), but it’s not possible for me to be wrong that I’m at least perceiving what I take to be a computer in my lap. It is possible that I just now came into existence and all the memories of what appears to be a past that actually happened were merely built in when I came into existence. But it is not possible for the law of non-contradiction to be true.

I’ve granted that it’s possible our belief in morality is wrong. But the mere possibility of being wrong doesn’t make it a reasonable thing to deny. After all, the mere possibility that my sensory perceptions are all in my head doesn’t make it reasonable to believe there’s no external world. The mere possibility of solipsism doesn’t make solipsism reasonable. Now, I think it’s unreasonable to deny the existence of objective morality. I think we should assume the world is just as it appears to be unless we have good reason to deny that it is. This is just common sense realism. If it looks like there’s a difference between right and wrong, then you should assume there is a difference between right and wrong unless you have good reason to think otherwise. Mere possibility isn’t sufficient reason for doubt.

I want to know why I should think that moral intuition is a sort of knowledge that cannot be questioned.

I’m not saying it’s knowledge that can’t be questioned. While we can be certain about the items in 1 and 2, it’s at least possible that we’re wrong about the items in 3. What I’m saying is that it’s more reasonable to affirm them than to deny them.

Is it a source of reliable knowledge?

Yes. All of the items in category 3 are known in the same way. If you doubt one, you bring the others into question since to doubt them is to doubt the reliability of that particular way of knowing. So if you doubt morality, you throw the external world into doubt. If it’s reasonable to believe in the external world, then it’s just as reasonable to believe in morality.

Concerning the external world, you said we can justify it because we have independent attestation from our various senses. Our sense of sight, smell, feel, hearing, and taste all tell us the same thing. But that won’t do because all of these perceptions are perceptions of one and the same mind. Your perceptions agree just as much when you’re asleep as they do when you’re awake. And they would agree just as much if you were plugged into the Matrix. The are not actually independent of each other since they are all products of the same mind. All that follows from the fact that they agree with each other is that your mind is consistent.

Can the law of non-contradiction be tested independently? No, it needs itself for the idea of “testing” to have any meaning.

I hope you don’t doubt the law of non-contradiction just because it can’t be tested. I think that you not only know the law of non-contradiction is true, but you know it with such absolute certainty that it’s not even possible for you to be wrong about it.

That’s about all I have to say.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The use of ridicule in atheistic evangelism

There was a time when people valued a good productive conversation in which ideas were exchanged, people understood each other, and arguments were challenging.  Whenever these conversations turned to anger, ridicule, and vitriol, it was thought that the conversation had degenerated.

As long as I've been involved in apologetics, there have always been people who seemed to be capable of nothing more than spouting vitriol, invective, and insult.  You couldn't reason with them.  You couldn't have a civil or rational conversation with them.  The internet is still full of people like that.  YouTube is overrun by them.

But things have changed.  Ridicule and emotional outbursts are no longer limited to random people on the internet.  Now, even the most intelligent and educated atheists are advocating it.  Here is Richard Dawkins encouraging his followers to ridicule Christians (especially Catholics):

When I first started noticing intellectuals engaging in this kind of behavior, I lost respect for them.  I had a hard time taking them seriously.  I automatically assumed that if somebody was acting that way that they were unsophisticated and didn't have much of value to contribute.  It made me not want to read their books because I didn't value their input.  I assumed they were just like the people I had run into on message boards and YouTube.

And that made me curious why they would behave that way.  It seemed counter-productive.  In The God Delusion, Dawkins said his purpose was to convert religious people into atheists (p. 28; my review).  I couldn't understand why he would advocate ridicule if he really wanted to win Christians over.  It seemed like that would just turn them off and make them not even want to read his book or hear his arguments.  My suspicion was that Dawkins had been humiliated for years by people (even his fellow atheists), calling him a coward for refusing to debate William Lane Craig, and he was just lashing out.  He wanted other people to join him in order to reinforce his feeling of superiority.

But then I read a couple of blog entries on Debunking Christianity by John Loftus.  The first one was called "The era of the angry atheist is over." He cited Richard Dawkins as early as 2002 saying, "Let's all stop being so damned respectful."  Then he called it a "strategy."  The goal, apparently, was to wake people up--to get them talking and debating, to get fence-sitters to change their minds, to get atheists to be open about their atheism.  Loftus, who calls himself a pragmatist, argued in this blog entry that the era of the "angry atheist" is (or ought to be) over because the strategy no longer works.  It alienates Christians.  But then he said there are still plenty of reasons to engage in ridicule because, as Richard Carrier argued, "it does have an effect."

The second blog entry I read by Loftus was called "Christian scholars are defending me?  Now I know I'm doomed."  This one was even more revealing.  In this piece, Loftus cites Jeffrey Jay Lowder and Richard Carrier who disagree on the usefulness of ridicule. Lowder thinks it is counter-productive, and Carrier thinks it is productive.  Loftus' own position is that it's kind of productive, but not if it's over-used.  The purpose, according to Carrier, is to get people to change their minds by shaming them into it.  Loftus gives a lucid explanation of how it works:

What PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins are counting on when they use the Courtier's Reply are numbers.  In a society where there are more non-believers than believers, that reply would take its toll on believers because people gravitate toward the opinions of others.  That is to say, people are conforming creatures, most of us.  We don't want to be viewed as strange, weird, or people on the fringes of society.  So if what we believe is ridiculed by a majority of people then we will seek to resolve our cognitive dissonance by reassessing what we believe because of this ridicule.  Ridicule works, but only if there are large numbers of people who do it compared to the numbers of others who believe differently

Loftus himself does not advocate ridicule (at least not to the same degree as Myers, Carrier, and Dawkins), partly because it works by peer pressure rather than reason, which is a bad role model for skepticism, and partly because he thinks it doesn't work that well since atheists don't have enough people to make it effective.

I find this pragmatism very interesting.  The goal is to convert people to atheism, but apparently the means aren't that important.  Whatever works.  It doesn't matter whether you change your mind because reason dictates that you should or if you change your mind just so you can fit in, not feel stupid, be one of the "brights," etc.  The important thing is that you're an atheist. If arguments aren't enough, then use peer pressure.  I'm surprised that people who pride themselves on their use of reason and their elevation of science and evidence over faith and emotional appeals would think this way.

Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer have this Kindle book called True Reason, which is a collection of essays by various people who argue that the New Atheists' attempt to take the intellectual high road is pretentious.  I'm inclined to agree with them.  If Richard Carrier is right that ridicule works in getting people to convert to atheism, then there are a lot of atheists in this movement who are atheists because they were shamed into it and not because reason is on their side.  Think about that the next time you carefully lay out a multi-step logical argument, and the only response you get is, "You're an idiot!"

Friday, September 14, 2012

God doesn't make mistakes

Today on Twitter, the following conversation took place:

[random citizen] to Kristin Chenoweth:  I got told I'm going to hell for being gay.  This isn't true, is it?

Kristin Chenoweth to [random citizen]:  Nope.  He doesn't make mistakes.

Me to Kristin Chenoweth:  Kristen, do you think ANYBODY goes to hell?  Do you think there IS a hell?  Do you think Hitler was a mistake?

Kristin Chenoweth to me:  Um.  Please tell me you're not comparing the two.  Don't be cray cray.  And try and have a nice day.

Me to Kristin Chenoweth:  My point is that the mere fact that God doesn't make mistakes is no reason to think nobody goes to hell.  I'm not cray cray.  :-)

Me to Kristin Chenoweth:  But don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that gay people go to hell; I'm just saying your rationale is fallacious.

After that last comment, she blocked me.  I thought I would flesh out my argument here for a couple of reasons: (1) because this "God doesn't make mistakes" argument comes up a lot in this context, and (2) because I may get some heat from some of Kristin's fans, and since there's not enough room on twitter to explain myself, I can explain myself here and post a link there in case anybody says something to me.

Kristin is basically making this argument:

1.  Whatever God does, it is not a mistake.
2.  God made gay people.
3.  Therefore, gay people are not a mistake.
4.  If somebody is not a mistake, then they will not go to hell.
5.  Therefore, gay people will not go to hell.

The problem is that this argument proves too much.  If you take it to its logical conclusion, you would have to conclude either that God did not make Hitler or that Hitler is not going to hell.  You can show that by taking Kristin's premises to their logical conclusions, like so:

1.  Whatever God does, it is not a mistake.
2'.  God made Hitler.
3'.  Therefore, Hitler was not a mistake.
4.  If somebody is not a mistake, then they will not go to hell.
5'.  Therefore, Hitler will not go to hell.

Now, if Kristin insists that Hitler WILL go to hell, then she's either got to deny 2' or 4. She's got to deny either that God made Hitler or that if somebody is not a mistake that they will not go to hell.  It is not likely that she will deny that God made Hitler.  Being a Christian, Kristen believes that God made everybody.  She has no choice, then, but to deny either that Hitler is going to hell or that not being a mistake is any reason to think somebody will not go to hell.

This is just simple logic.  Kristen's response in suggesting that I'm "cray cray" for "comparing the two," is also a typical response.  But it's not a rational response.  It's an emotional response.  It's a frequent one that comes up a lot in the context of same sex marriage and other issues dealing with homosexuality, so I better respond to that one, too.

It is true that I made a comparison (or at least an analogy) between gay people and Hitler.  But I didn't make any comparison that anybody ought to be offended by.   I did not say, for example, that gay people are bad just like Hitler is bad.  The only thing I am claiming they have in common is that God created them both.  If Kristin agrees with me that God created everybody, then she will have to agree with me that God created both Hitler and gay people since they are all people.  There is no reason for any gay people to be offended by that.  In fact, I would make the same comparison between myself and Hitler.  We were both created by the same God.  I am not insulting myself by making this comparison, and I am not insulting gay people by making that comparison either.

Kristin's response is the kind of silliness you get when people emote rather than think.

conscience and moral intuition

Up until today, I have thought that conscience and moral intuition were roughly the same thing.  But as I was sitting here thinking about it, I noticed a difference.  Of course this difference depends on how the words are actually used and what people actually mean by them.  After all, words are defined by their use, and maybe people do use them interchangeably.  But I don't, which I just noticed as I was reflecting on it.  Lemme explain the difference.

Your conscience is what makes you feel incumbency.  It makes you feel the weight of your moral obligations. It accuses you and acquits you.  It makes you feel guilty when you've done wrong and it makes you feel justified when you've done right.

But your moral intuitions tell you more than that.  Your moral intuitions tells you what's right and wrong, not just for you, but for everybody else.

While your conscience can make you feel like you shouldn't do something, your moral intuitions tells you that nobody else should do it either.

I think your conscience is informed by your moral intuition.  The reason your conscience makes you feel guilty after an action is because your moral intuition tells you that it was wrong.  The reason your conscience makes you feel like you should do something is because your  moral intuitions tells you that you should.

This may be why there's this fuzzy connection between feelings and morals.  Our conscience is our feeling about morals and our relationship to them, but our moral intuitions are not feelings.  That's why it's possible to think something is wrong and not care.  It's also why it's possible to feel guilty even when you know you're not guilty.

What do you think?

Related subject:  Emotivist objection to arguments for morality

Monday, August 20, 2012

Todd Akin and why I don't like political discourse

Most of us are fairly reasonable in our every day lives when it comes to every day things.  But when it comes to politics, reason is out the window.  And this is especially true during election season.  Greg Koukl calls it "the silly season," and for good reason.

I don't like to talk about politics with friends (or even with strangers) because there is so much emotion and so little careful thought.  Fair-mindedness is completely out the window.  The object, it seems, is to demonize your opponent as much as possible with the use of dysphemisms, slander, ad hominem, poisoning the well, insinuation, exaggeration, misrepresentation, and every fallacy in your arsenal.  If your opponent says something that could in the least way be taken in more than one way, it is expected that you take the least charitable interpretation and run with it.

That is what is going on with Todd Akin, the republican congressman from Missouri.  Everybody is shocked and offended by what he said about rape, pregnancy, and abortion.  But there is a slew of misinformation out there about it.  For example, one of the earlier articles on CNN claims that Akin said legitimate rape rarely results in pregnancy.  The CNN article substantiated their headline with quotes.  But then later on, you have this article on Yahoo News claiming that Akin said that legitimate rape cannot make you pregnant.  And if you hang out much on the internet, you'll see people running with this false information.  It has gone viral.  I attempted to correct somebody earlier today, and his response was, "Sorry, no. He says it's impossible - hence a reason abortion is not needed in rape cases. The article is very clear."  Once ignorance takes hold, it is stubborn.

Many people are also offended by his use of the phrase, "legitimate rape."  Apparently, they are interpreting him as if to say there is such a thing as "illegitimate rape," or that there are different kinds of rape.  A more charitable interpretation is that "legitimate rape" is meant to be contrasted with a situation where somebody claims to have been raped when they in fact were not raped.  And there is nothing to be offended by in this case because women do sometimes falsely accuse men of rape.  I know somebody personally who has done that, and who admitted it.  So "legitimate rape" is nothing to be offended by, yet people are going nuts about it.

Regardless of whether Akin said pregnancy is impossible or just rare in cases of legitimate rape, I see no reason for anybody to be offended.  Akin either had his facts wrong or he did not have his facts wrong, but what on earth is there to be offended by?  Where is the insult?  Akin claims that he got this information from some doctors.  Perhaps he considered the doctors to be authorities on the subject.  Perhaps he got the mistaken impression that studies had been done on it.  It is not a crime to have your facts wrong, and if you're getting medical information from doctors, you can hardly be considered a meanie for believing them.  Say Akin was factually wrong if you want, but it's silly to be all up in arms as if he's said something offensive. (BTW here is an article that explains where the idea came from.)

Even Mitt Romney has jumped on the band wagon, acting as if he's appalled and offended by what Akin said.  I really think Romney is just playing the game.  Of course he's got to distance himself from Akin since Akin is public enemy number one right now.  Romney is a politician, and he's doing what politicians do.  You cannot take these people seriously.

Akin himself is playing the game!  He issued an apology, saying that he "misspoke." But if you read the apology, he is not at all clear about what he is apologizing for.  Does he regret his use of the term "legitimate rape"?  Or does he regret his claim that rape victims rarely get pregnant?  He doesn't say. If he "misspoke," then what did he mean to say?  Or what should he have said?  He's simply acting on political expediency.  He's doing damage control.  He may not even know himself why everybody is upset.

Honestly, I suspect people are not as offended as they let on.  What's going on here is typical political silliness.  A republican said something that could be construed in a most heinous way.  Liberals are jumping at the opportunity to demonize a republican, so they're making the most out of it that they can, to the point of distorting the facts.  They're pretending to be so offended that they can hardly stand themselves. And conservatives are playing along.  They're acting like they're just as offended so they can distance themselves from the public enemy and not go down with the ship.  It's all a game, and I absolutely hate the game.

A lot of people are offended that Akin is pro-life even in the case of rape.  Now this I can understand.  It does seem heartless to deny an abortion to somebody who has been raped.  It seems calloused to force a rape victim to carry the offspring of her rapist.  I'm surprised so much of the outrage is directed at Akin's use of the phrase "legitimate rape," and the claim that rape victims rarely get pregnant (or falsely that they can't get pregnant) rather than being directed at his position on abortion for rape victims. (And by the way, for those who are under the false impression that Akin thinks rape victims can't get pregnant, what on earth do you make of his opposition to abortion for such people? Don't you have to get pregnant before you can get an abortion?)

But this opposition to abortion, even in the case of rape, follows from the primary argument for the pro-life position:

1.  It is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being.
2.  Abortion takes the life of an innocent human being.
3.  Therefore, it's wrong to have an abortion.

The unborn are no less human just because of how they were conceived or who their parents are, so if you are against abortion because it takes the life of an innocent human being, then you should be against abortion in the case of rape, too.  Granted, rape is traumatic, and granted being forced to carry the offspring of your rapist adds insult to injury.  But in what world is it morally justified to take the life of an innocent human being in order to spare another human being emotional trauma?  Think about it.  That is the primary justification that is being offered for why rape victims should be permitted to have abortions--because it spares them severe emotional trauma.  If the unborn really are human beings just like the rest of us, then emotional trauma is not an adequate justification for having an abortion.  The only reason people are offended by the suggestion that abortion should be banned even in the case of rape is because they have not fully appreciated what the pro-life position is or why people are pro-life.  Even a lot of pro-life people don't seem to fully grasp it (which puzzles me).  I suspect they don't really think the unborn are just as much members of the human family as the rest of us.

Try a thought experiment.  Suppose a woman who got pregnant because of rape decided that, by golly, she was going to keep the child.  But when the child was born and turned out to look just like her rapist, she couldn't handle it anymore.  She tried for a few days, and finally, she drowned her baby in the bathtub.  Would you excuse her on the basis that she was only trying to spare herself the emotional trauma of seeing the offspring of her rapist? She just killed her own baby!  That shouldn't be allowed.  Babies don't deserve to die even if their fathers are rapists and even if their existence causes their mothers emotional trauma.

Thankfully, there's at least the option of adoption once a baby is born.  But a person might say that once the woman has chosen not to have an abortion, it is wrong for her to go back on that after the baby is born.  It's wrong for her to kill her baby because she has already agreed not to.  Somebody did once say this to me when I brought up the above thought experiment.

In answer, let's try another thought experiment.  Let's suppose a pregnant women who was raped decides to keep her baby.  But then after a few months, when she starts to 'show,' she decides it's too much for her. The pain is too deep, and the turmoil is overwhelming.  Does she then have the right to change her mind and abort the pregnancy?  Well, if we take the above reasoning to its logical conclusion, you'd have to say 'no.'  Having chosen to keep the baby, she can't then turn around and have it killed.  But I suspect the person who gave me that answer would say 'yes.'  As long as it hasn't been born yet, she should be allowed to have an abortion.  But that falsifies the above reasoning.  It isn't really because of the choice she made that she shouldn't be allowed to kill her baby once it's born.  Rather, it's because once it's born, it's a full member of the human family, and emotional trauma is just not an adequate justification for taking the life of a full member of the human family, especially an innocent one.  That takes us back to what I originally said.  If the unborn are just as much members of the human family as the rest of us, then emotional trauma is not an adequate justification for taking their lives either.

So go ahead and be offended by Todd Akin's opposition to abortion even in the case of rape.  But instead of droning on and on with gasps of shock, wallowing in your emotional frenzy, deal with the arguments.  Think a little.  Offer a rational refutation.

And I know this is too much to ask and that nobody will listen to me, but be fair-minded.  Consider what your opponents are saying.  Listen to them.  Don't misrepresent them.  If they truly are being offensive, you don't have to make stuff up to prove it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The gulf between the infinite and the finite

Today, I heard somebody use the phrase, "near infinity" or "nearly infinite" or something like that.  I don't remember who said it or what the context was, but that phrase jumped out at me.

If you think about it, it's impossible for any finite number to be nearly infinite.  Take any finite number you want, be it ever so large.  If you double that finite number, you still will not have reached infinity.  If you multiply it by a thousand, you still will not have reached infinity.  So no finite number is near infinity.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

ad hominem, no true Scotsman, and arguments from authority

I just thought I'd write a quick note on the ad hominem and no true Scotsman fallacies, because I've noticed a lot of people being confused by them.

A lot of people confuse an insult for an ad hominem fallacy.  Ad hominems do often involve insults, but they don't necessarily, and not all insults are ad hominems.  If I said that you're a man, and therefore your opinion on abortion cannot be trusted, I'm using an ad hominem argument, but I'm not insulting you.  Calling you a man is not a criticism.  It's just an observation about you that is irrelevant to the soundness of whatever argument you have for or against abortion.  If you gave me an argument against abortion, and my reaction was to call you an idiot, that is not an ad hominem.  That's just an insult.  It only becomes an ad hominem if I say something like, "Since you are an idiot, you must be wrong about abortion."  An ad hominem is when you point to something about a person that is irrelevant to the soundness of their argument or the truth of their point of view, but you offer it as evidence against their point of view or the soundness of their argument.

A lot of people lately have been accusing Bart Ehrman of the No True Scotsman fallacy, but they are confused about what the fallacy is.  A fellow named Jason Goertzen had this to say in the comment section of Ehrman's piece called "Acharya S, Richard Carrier, and a Cocky Peter (Or: "A Cock and Bull Story")":

I lost count of the number of times you felt the need to point out that "no serious scholars" (a variant of the No True Scotsman fallacy, given how strenuously you define what you mean) believes x, or y; to the person who wants to be convinced, this isn't adequate.

Ehrman doesn't dismiss people as being serious scholars because they deny the existence of Jesus.  A fellow named Steve Bollinger said on his blog:

But it's not merely that Ehrman declares the discussion to be over; he states as well, on no firm basis whatsoever if you ask me, that no accredited professor in the Western World "who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics" disagrees with him.  That already puts Ehrman into no-true-Scotsman territory.

Ehrman doesn't dismiss these people because they deny the existence of Jesus, so this is not the No True Scotsman fallacy.

Here is an illustration of the fallacy:

Jim:  No Scotsman would ever tell a lie.

Bob:  But Dan is a Scotsman, and he tells lies.

Jim:  Dan is not a true Scotsman.

Bob:  Why do you say that?

Jim:  Because no true Scotsman would ever tell a lie.  The fact that he tells lies proves that he's not a true Scotsman.

The No True Scotsman fallacy trades on a distinction between an analytic truth and a synthetic truth.  If being honest were part of what it meant to be a Scotsman, then when Jim says no Scotsman would ever tell a lie, he's not making a synthetic statement.  He's making an analytic statement.  He's giving us part of the definition of a Scotsman.  If he's right, then Bob is stating a contradiction.  Saying that Dan is a Scotsman who tells lies is equivalent to saying, "A person who tells no lies, actually does tells lies."

The No True Scotsman fallacy only comes into play when statements like "No Scotsman would ever tell a lie" is a synthetic statement.  Jim isn't saying that it's part of the definition of a Scotsman that they don't tell lies.  He's saying something that happens to be true about Scotsmen, but it's not a necessary truth.  It's not part of the definition.  In fact, it's possible that a Scotsman could tell a lie even if none ever have.  In that case, Jim is committing a fallacy when he objects to Dan being a Scotsman merely on the basis that Dan tells lies and no true Scotsman tells a lie.  If you reason that way, then you're basically just dismissing the possibility of counter-examples to your claim.  Jim is treating a synthetic statement as if it were an analytic statement.

In the case of Bart Ehrman, he has claimed that most of the mythicists who deny the existence of  Jesus are not credentialed scholars.  For that, he is being accused of committing the No True Scotsman Fallacy. But to be guilty of the No True Scotsman fallacy, Ehrman would have to be saying that the reason these mythicists are not credentialed scholars is because they deny the existence of Jesus.   It would have to go something like this:

Bart:  No credentialed scholar of the New Testament would ever deny the existence of Jesus.

Robert:  But D.M. Murdock is a credentialed scholar, and she denies the existence of Jesus.

Bart:  The fact that she denies the existence of Jesus is precisely why I say she is not a credentialed scholar.

But that is not how Ehrman has been arguing.  Rather, he's been saying that she and most mythicists are not credentialed scholars because they do not have advanced degrees in the relevant areas, they are not published in peer reviewed academic journals, and they don't hold teaching positions at any colleges or universities on the relevant subjects.   A person might still accuse Ehrman of the No True Scotsman fallacy on the basis that every time somebody comes up with a counter-example, Ehrman changes his definition of what counts as a "credentialed scholar" so as to dismiss the counter-example.  But so far, to my knowledge, this has never happened.  These are not arbitrary criteria for what counts as an expert meant to exclude people who deny the existence of Jesus.  I remember when I had to write papers in college, pretty much all of my professors, whether in philosophy or history, demanded that our secondary sources be academic.  I remember one of my philosophy professors specifically said that we could not quote from a web page called "Joe's Automotive and Existential Philosophy."  Credibility in our sources mattered, and we had to use scholarly sources.

But let's suppose it turns out that Ehrman argues something like this:  Since most mythicists are not credentialed scholars, their opinion on the existence of Jesus is false, or their arguments against the existence of Jesus are unsound.  If he argues that way, then he's not committing the No True Scotsman fallacy.  Rather, he's committing an ad hominem fallacy.  A person's credentials are irrelevant to whether their point of view is true or their argument is sound.

A person's credentials are not completely irrelevant in this whole debate, though.  They are relevant only in cases of arguments from authority.  If you cite Richard Dawkins as an authority on the cosmological argument, then that is a fallacious appeal to authority because he has no expertise in the subject.  But if you quote Richard Dawkins as an authority on the subject of gene replication, then that is not a fallacious appeal to authority.  He actually is an expert in the subject of biology.  An appeal to authority is only a fallacy if the authority you appeal to is not an expert on the subject you cite him on.  If somebody is actually an expert in the subject of the New Testament or historical Jesus studies, then their opinion is relevant.

But some people will claim that any appeal to authority is a fallacy since it's the argument the authorities use that count, and not the mere fact that they are authorities.  I vaguely remember Robert Price going so far as to say there are no authorities when it comes to the historical Jesus.  I think he may have a point.  The opinions about Jesus in academia are diverse.  If the experts disagree, then it's fallacious to quote one of the experts to support a view that's actually controversial among that expert's peers.  On the other hand, there are a handful of things about Jesus for which there is a strong consensus among experts, e.g., he was baptized by John the Baptist, he had disciples, he preached about the kingdom of God, he used parables in his teaching, he was known for being a miracle worker, and he was crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate.

In his recent podcast, Price said he had written a pieces called "Paradigm Policemen," where he criticized Bart Ehrman for vociferously defending the status quo.  Price made what I thought were some good points, but I think he went too far.  It is true that the mere existence of a consensus does not mean the consensus is right, and it's true that if we stick to consensus and never dare to challenge it, that we stifle progress.  After all, we can point to moments in our history when paradigms were overturned, often with much difficulty.  The Copernican Revolution is one of the most famous examples.  Price thinks it's a mistake for Ehrman to criticize mythicists merely on the basis that they are going against the current consensus on the existence of Jesus.  I think he's right, but on the other hand, I do think consensus counts for something.

Most of us are not experts in any field.  We're armchair theologians, armchair philosophers, armchair historians, armchair biologists, etc.  Most of our education comes from reading books, not doing our own research.  Many of us read books and think that counts as doing research.  But really, for the majority of our educations, both formal and informal, we rely on the findings of experts.  If consensus counted for nothing, then our educations would be worthless.  We could read a dozen books on the historical Jesus or evolution and still not know anything.

Sometimes, if you're writing on a historical point of view, it is too tedious to spell out the arguments for every little piece of evidence you bring forth.  Even scholars, when writing on the historical Jesus, will appeal to studies that other scholars have done on some small point, then use that small point as part of their case for their point of view.  It helps when there's a consensus because then you can use that piece of information in your case without too many people raising objections about it.  If consensus didn't matter, or if expert opinion didn't matter, then we would never be able to build on information discovered by other people.  Everybody who wrote on any subject in history or biology would have to start from scratch.

I think we should lean in favour of the experts, especially when there's a consensus, but we should not do so dogmatically.  We should be willing to go against consensus when we ourselves have done enough research or have been adequately persuaded to hold a differing opinion.  I can't tell you what's adequate. You have to judge that on a case by case basis, and in a lot of cases, it's subjective.  But I don't think we should fault mythicists merely on the basis that they are in the minority.

However, I think it is appropriate to point out that there is a strong consensus among experts on the existence of Jesus to people we run into on the internet because most of them haven't done any research.  They've watched Zeitgeist and just took their word for it.  If they're going to just take somebody's word for something, then they should take the word of those who are actually credentialed scholars.  It's appropriate to bring up the consensus for a lot of those people because they may just not know any better. Two or three years ago, I got an email from somebody who had just seen Religulous with Bill Maher.  Apparently, Maher had brought up the whole myth thing, which was completely new to the person who emailed me.  She did a quick google search, found a short article on Religious Tolerance about Jesus and Horus, and was convinced.  This was all new to her, and she wanted to see what I'd think.  I think she half expected me to be surprised.  I think it was perfectly appropriate for me to point out that almost every single New Testament scholar or historical Jesus scholar believed that Jesus really existed, and that it wasn't even a serious debate in academia.

I'm rambling, aren't I?  Okay, I'l stop.

Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier

With those two names in the subject line, I'm bound to get a huge boost in readers in a short amount of time.  I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said, though, so I'm just going to post links to the back and forth.  This is mostly for my own benefit so I don't have to go hunting around later if I want to read it all again.

Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman

"Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic" by Richard Carrier (I'm going to include a link to page 16 so I don't have to click through 16 pages to get to the comment section.  Yeah, I know there's a link directly to the comment section on each page, but the link isn't working for me.)

"Acharya S, Richard Carrier, and a Cocky Peter (Or: 'A Cock and Bull Story')" by Bart Ehrman

"Fuller Reply to Richard Carrier" by Bart Ehrman

"Ehrman's Dubious Replies (Round One)" by Richard Carrier

There are also some other blogs responding to each of them.

In response to Bart Ehrman

"The historicity of Jesus: Bart Ehrman responds to Richard Carrier (sort of)" by Jerry Coyne

"The Bible Geek" by Robert M. Price.  <--this is a podcast.

In response to Richard Carrier

"A Look at Richard Carrier's Critique of Bart Ehrman: Part One" by Eric Chabot

"A Look at Richard Carrier's Critique of Bart Ehrman: Part Two" by Eric Chabot

"The Death of Richard Carrier's Dying Messiah" by Thom Stark

"The Torturous Death of Richard Carrier's Dying Messiah" by Thom Stark

Mythtic Pizza and Cold-cocked Scholars" by R. Joseph Hoffman.  This one isn't really much of a response to Richard Carrier.  I included it because it's entertaining reading, but it's really just a snarky commentary on mythicists reactions to the Carrier/Ehrman drama.

There are others that I didn't include because I didn't think they contributed as much to the conversation or they lacked entertainment value.  If there are others you'd like to include, put them in the comment section.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Affirming the consequent and predictive value

In the hard sciences, the ability of a theory to make accurate predictions is taken to count in favour of that theory.  Let's use gravity as an example.  Although on earth, nobody had ever dropped a feather at the same time they dropped a heavy dense object and observed them falling at the same rate, the theory of gravity predicted that they should fall at the same rate if you eliminate all the forces (especially air friction) and drop them in a vacuum.  Since then, the theory has been tested by dropping feathers and bowling balls together in vacuums and found to be true.  The feather and the bowling ball do drop at the same rate in a vacuum where there is no air resistance.  That counts in favour of the theory of gravity.

Criminal investigators use this kind of reasoning, too.  For example, when somebody flees, that's taken as evidence of their guilt because fleeing is exactly what we'd expect from somebody who's guilty.

Historians also use this kind of reasoning.  I can't think of an example off the top of my head, but if I did, the scenario would be pretty much just like the criminal investigator scenario above.

This type of reasoning appears to commit one of the most basic formal fallacies called "affirming the consequent."  It takes this form:

1.  If P, then Q.
2.  Q
3.  Therefore, P.

In the case of gravity, the reasoning would look like this:

1.  If the theory of gravity is true, then a feather and a bowling ball should drop at the same rate in a vacuum.
2.  A feather and a bowling ball DO drop at the same rate in a vacuum.
3.  Therefore, the theory of gravity is true.

This whole principle of predictive value seems to depend on this fallacy:

1.  If theory X is true, then effect Y should be observed.
2.  Effect Y is observed.
3.  Therefore, theory X is true.

Don't get me wrong, though.  I'm not trying to argue that the predictive value of a theory does not count in its favour.  What I suspect, instead, is that it's not a deductive argument, and it's a mistake to characterize it as such.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Historical Jesus and evolution; mythicism and intelligent design

I just finished reading Did Jesus Exist by Bart Ehrman yesterday. There is an interesting parallel between the intelligent design vs. evolution debate and the mythicist vs. historicist debate.

99% or more of the experts in the field of biology and evolution subscribe to the theory of evolution, and although intelligent design advocates would like to be taken seriously, the overwhelming consensus among credentialed scientists in the field prevents it. People often point out the strong consensus in an effort to discredit intelligent design as "going against science." Intelligent design advocates think we should "teach the controversy" because intelligent design should be judged on its merits, not a false appeal to authority or consensus.

More than 99% of the experts in the field if New Testament history think Jesus existed, and although mythicists would like to be taken seriously, they can only gain a foothold on the internet among laymen. Christian apologists point out the strong consensus among experts in an effort to discredit mythicists, but mythicists insist that you can't arrive at truth by counting noses, and their arguments should be taken seriously.

There are a couple of differences, though. First, there are more peer reviewed academic articles published by mythicists (almost exclusively by Robert Price) than there are by intelligent design advocates. Second, while there is only one credentialed scholar in New Testament studies (Robert Price) who currently subscribes to the mythicist position, there are several credentialed biologists who currently subscribe to intelligent design. There are some people who are experts in related fields, though. Richard Carrier is an expert in ancient history, and Steven Meyer is a philosopher of science.

The reason I'm writing this is to try to get people to be consistent. If you think a strong consensus matters in the case of Jesus' existence, then don't casually dismiss the significance of the consensus when it comes to biology. If you think your case should be judged on its merits when it comes to intelligent design, then then judge the mythicist position on its merits, too.

If you think intelligent design should not be taught in school just because it hasn't gotten a foothold in the scientific community and that the predominant scientific view should be taught on a given topic and that time shouldn't be wasted on obscure theories that hardly anybody believes, then you should be consistent and say the mythicist position should not be taught either since it hasn't gotten a foothold in New Testament historical studies, and the predominant historical view is that Jesus existed, and teachers shouldn't waste time addressing obscure theories that hardly anybody believes.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

If there is no God, then there are no objective moral values

I tried to find some really old posts I made on beliefnet back in the day, and I found this thread: "The use of reason in religion" on the UU section of beliefnet. This was one of my earliest attempts to defend the premise that God is necessary for objective morality, going all the way back to 2001. My thoughts really haven't changed on the subject, although I might present the arguments a little differently. Anyway, this begins on post 25, and later in the thread I get into a debate over it with somebody named ksagnostic. Here it is:

I really don't know how to approach this situation or even if I should. I'm afraid that in my effort to explain myself, I'll end up saying even more things that will need explanation. I'm not even sure what it is you're not seeing. I'm going to try, though.

First, what is the difference between saying, "If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist," and saying, "If we don't believe God exists, objective moral values do not exist"? The difference lies in the fact that it's possible to believe something and be wrong. It's possible to believe God exists and yet God does not exist, and it's possible to believe God does not exist, and yet God exists. So if God and objective moral values exist, a person who does not believe in God can believe in objective moral values and be right. What I am saying is that it is possible to believe in objective moral values and to actually be moral without believing in God, but it is not possible to be moral if God does not exist because if God does not exist, then there are no objective moral values. If there are no objective moral values, then nobody is moral. I am not claiming that God's existence creates a moral authority. I am claiming that for objective moral values to exist, God's existence is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient. It's possible for God to exist and yet there are no objective moral values, but it's not possible for objective moral values to exist and yet there is no God.

I think if I explain what I mean by objective moral values, it should answer some of your other questions. In general, an objective truth claim is a claim about the object, and a subjective truth claim is a claim about the subject. I have a little thumb rule to help me tell the difference between a subjective truth claim and an objective truth claim.

If two statements that contradict each other can both be true, then the statements are subjective. If two statements that contradict each other cannot both be true, then the statements is objective.

Lemme give some examples. Take the two statements, "Ice cream tastes good," and "Ice cream tastes bad." These two statements contradict each other, but they can nevertheless both be true. Why? Because one statement is made by a person who likes ice cream, and the other statement is made about a person who does not like ice cream. Furthermore, the statements are not about the ice cream; the statements are about the tastes of the people making the claims. When a person says, "Ice cream tastes good," he's saying that he likes the way ice cream tastes. It's a subjective statement. The person making the claim is the subject, and the ice cream is the object.

Now take another two statements, "Blue Bell makes ice cream," and "Blue Bell does not make ice cream." These two statements are objective because they cannot both be true. No matter who makes the statements, they cannot be true because they are about the object, Blue Bell, and not the subjects making the claims.

Another test you can use to figure out whether a statement is objective or subjective is by asking whether or not it's possible for the statement to be false. You see, subjective statements can never be false; only objective statements can. That's why we think it's silly for people to argue over whether or not ice cream tastes good. There's no objective truth to it. One person likes it and the other doesn't. But it makes perfectly good sense for two people to argue over whether or not Blue Bell makes ice cream. Any argument two people have presupposes that there is some objective truth to the matter because if there is not, then the argument is pointless and silly.

So you see, claiming that people disagree on their moral views does not prove that there is no objective truth to the matter. In fact, it would be pointless for people to argue over a moral issue unless both parties agree that there is some objective truth to the matter. You can test yourself to see whether or not you think morality is objective or subjective by picking some moral position you feel very strong about and asking yourself if those who disagree with you are wrong. If you say they are wrong, then you believe in objective moral value. If all you can say is that they are different, but not wrong, then you probably do not believe in objective moral value. Furthermore, take whatever that moral position of yours is and ask yourself if it's possible for you to say, "A is right," and another person say, "A is wrong," and yet neither of you is incorrect. If you say that you cannot both be right, then you believe in objective moral value. If you say that you can both be right, then you do not believe in objective moral value.

Take rape for example. If I say "rape is wrong," and another person says, "rape is right," is it possible that neither of us is wrong? Is the statement about the act of rape, or is the statement about our personal preferences? If you say it's about rape, then you're a moral objectivist. If you say it's about our personal preferences, then you're a moral relativist. If it's about rape, then they cannot both be true. If it's about personal preferences, then they can both be true for the people making the claims.

I totally agree that if God doesn't exist, societies and individuals can nevertheless form moral standards to live by, but those moral standards would not be objective. You claim that societies and cultures determine right from wrong, which is a statement of moral relativism some call "society says" relativism.

Here's a question to consider, though: If societies set moral standards, what if two societies have moral standards that contradict one another? For example, what if one society says rape is right and the other society says rape is wrong? Can they both be right? If one of them is wrong, then there is some objective truth to the matter, and it is not determined by the beliefs of either society. That's the nature of objective truth claims. They are not determined by our beliefs because it's possible for us to believe things that aren't true.

If you believe the moral set by society are objective, then how do you deal with the fact that different societies contradict one another in their moral truth claims? More basic than that, though, what determines what the moral law of the society is? Does it depend on some guru the society invests with authority to make moral claims? What if some people in the society disagree? Are they wrong or just different? Does the majority rule?

Another thing to consider is that if the morals of societies are objective, that means moral revolutionaries, people we have historically considered heroes, are actually immoral people. Everybody who has tried to put an end to the values of their society were immoral people because they went against the morals of their society. That includes people like Martin Luther King Jr. It includes abolitionists. That's another thing to consider. Almost every society in history has had some form of slavery. Do we say they were wrong or just different?

If "society says" relativism is true, then there's no moral principle that transcends cultures, and therefore, there's no basis upon which to condemn moral atrocities in other societies. That was the argument the nazi's used during the Nuremberg trials. They were acting in accordance with the morals of their society. But you see, even they were inconsistent, because while claiming moral relativism, they were at the same time saying that those who were judging them were wrong. Moral relativists are often inconsistent. They'll say something like, "Stop pushing your morals on me," and you might ask, "Why?" Then they'll say, "Because everybody defines morality for themselves, so it's wrong for you to push your morals on other people." But do you see the contradiction there? First the person says that everybody defines morality for themselves, but in the same breath they claim it's wrong for one person to push their morality on somebody else, and they mean it's objectively wrong. You might want to respond with, "If it's wrong for one person to push their morality on somebody else, then why are you pushing that moral view of yours on me?" You see, the person who claims that morals are relative is trying to push their moral on the other person that it's wrong to push morals on other people. So it's almost impossible for moral relativists to live consistently with their views. That's why I really doubt that most people who claim moral relativism really are moral relativists. I think almost all people believe in objective moral values. It's just a matter of finding something they feel strongly about. That's why I asked you to think of something you feel strongly about - especially something you get emotional about. Then consider those who disagree with you and ask yourself if those people are wrong or merely different.

So if objective moral values exist, in other words if statements like, "rape is wrong," are objectively true, and if they are true even though some think they are false, then why is God's existence necessary? Why is it necessary for God to exist in order for objective moral values to exist? Why is it that if God does not exist, that objective moral values do not exist? This is one of those things that seems intuitively obvious to me, but is nevertheless hard to explain. It's like trying to prove that the law of non-contradiction is true. It's perfectly obvious and easy to see, but it's hard to make it clear to somebody else who doesn't see it. Having heard my explanation of what it means for moral values to be objectively true, you may already see it, but I'm going to try to explain it anyway.

A moral law is prescriptive. Rather than describing what is the case, moral laws prescribe what ought to be the case. They are imperatives that are in the form of a command. To say that something is right is to say that you ought to do it. You have an obligation or duty to do it. Feed your children. Likewise, to say it is wrong is to say that you ought not do it. You have an obligation or duty not to do it. Don't drown your children.

Whenever people have a moral disagreement with one another where each thinks the other has a moral obligation to behave in a particular way, there's a tendency for them to respond with the question, "Sez who?" This is a legitimate question. It's a challenge. The person asking the question is challenging the other person on their authority to make moral imperatives. He's saying, "Who are you to tell me what to do?" I think this challenge betrays an understanding on the part of the person making the challenge that without a legitimate authority there simply is no moral imperative. We're free to live autonomously. If no one "sez," then we have no moral obligation.

Morals have oughtness. Only persons impose duty and obligation on other persons, so there must be a personal being over us. Otherwise, there are no objective moral values. Without God, we are left with nihilism or relativism, both of which are forms of moral non-realism.

Moral oughtness implies purpose. There is a goal to which we are obligated to aspire, so our lives have purpose. The purpose of our lives is (at least in part) to obey moral imperatives. But for there to be purpose to our lives, there must be a personal being whose purpose it is for us to obey the moral laws.

But what kind of authority would be required for an imperative to be morally binding on us? Obviously, this authority must be higher than the government because we all have, at one point or another, a disagreement with what the law sez. We all think the law is wrong at some point. But the law can't be wrong if the government is a legitimate authority for deciding right and wrong. They would, by definition, always be right. So we see that things are not morally wrong simply because they are illegal, and they are not morally right simply because they are legal. If that were the case, then we'd all be immoral to ever try to change the law. Therefore, if there is an objective moral law, there must be a moral lawgiver whose authority is higher than that of any human government.

To say that something has meaning, value, or worth is to say that it means something to somebody, is valued by somebody, and that it's worth something to somebody. If there is no God, then whatever meaning and value we attribute to life is only relative. It only has meaning and value to us, but it has no objective or intrinsic meaning and value. Only persons ascribe meaning, value, and worth, so if people have intrinsic value and worth (meaning that we'd have value and worth whether other people cared about us or not and whether we cared about ourselves or not), then there must be a necessary transcendent personal being who invests us with value and worth.