Sunday, 31 July 2016

Philipse on Theism - Revealed or Natural Theology?

In God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason, Herman Philipse examines what he considers to be the best arguments for God today. As we saw in his preface, he plans to examine Richard Swinburne's arguments for God.

In Chapter 1, though, he wants to establish 'that for religious believers, natural theology has an epistemological priority over a revelation and revelation theology' (p.3). Natural theology is the approach that Swinburne takes.

Philipse draws the common distinction between natural theology and revealed theology. Natural theology can be examined through evidence available to everyone, non-believers included. As the SEP explains, it 'aims to adhere to the same standards of rational investigation as other philosophical and scientific enterprises, and is subject to the same methods of evaluation and critique'. Philipse defines revealed theology as 'the endeavour by believers to interpret and systematize the contents of texts that are considered divine revelations, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Vedas, or the Book of Mormon' (p.3).

Richard Swinburne himself points out that there is another notion that is now considered popular, particularly among Protestants:
Religion, they will tell us, is a matter not of affirming creeds, but of a personal relationship to God. The religious man may tell us that he knows that he at any rate has such a relationship, and that he knows what he means when he says that he has this relationship; on these points he ‘cannot be mistaken’. (The Coherence of Theism, p.6)
Philipse examines perhaps the most well-known defence of this sort of position, Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Objection, in Chapters 3 and 4.

Philipse notes that most believers come to their belief because they are brought up in a religious tradition; the truths of it are a given. But these days we are exposed to scientific knowledge that often contradicts such received opinions, and are also made aware of the full diversity of other received opinions. Consequently, it is necessary to appeal to the arguments of natural theology if one aims to be rational and reasonable.

Establishing the epistemological priority of natural theology is also important so that non-believers can engage on a level playing field with believers; that is, they should both be approaching the subject using the same tools to analyse and justify their beliefs. This is not to exclude the possibility that divine revelation occurs and people may know something about God apart from natural theology. But it is to suggest that when we justify our beliefs in public discourse, we do not need to appeal to that divine revelation, and, in fact, the knowledge derived from natural theology is better in some way than other methods. For example, someone may know that they haven't murdered someone, but if accused of murder they must defend them-self in court by appealing to methods that everyone can access; simply appealing to their inner knowledge that they are innocent will be insufficient.

Philipse gives 6 reasons for thinking that natural theology has epistemological priority over revelation, which I summarise as:

(A) There are contradictions within revealed texts.
(B) Many revelations are shown by science to be untrue.
(C) Many revelations are based on sources and cultures that are not considered divinely inspired, leading to...
(D) Revelations contain nothing that could not have been established without divine assistance.
(E) Revelations contain moral norms which many of us now find unacceptable.
(F) The revelations of other religions provide a potential defeater for a believer in divine revelation.

I would endorse this list, although in my experience (A) is pretty hard to categorically establish. With a narrative like the Bible the language is ambiguous enough to prevent the establishment of a formal contradiction. Just consider Philipse's first example; the supposed contradiction between Paul describing Jesus' resurrection as spiritual rather than corporeal, as maintained by subsequent Christian tradition:
Paul seems to deny that Jesus was resurrected with his earthly or physical body, arguing that he was raised with a new, spiritual and heavenly body (sooma pneumatikon), since ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’. (p.5)
 Paul's words 'sooma pneumatikon' and 'flesh and blood' allows for multiple interpretations; see this discussion by William Lane Craig, which includes this quote from Robert Gundry:
The soma denotes the physical body, roughly synonymous with 'flesh' in the neutral sense. It forms that part of man in and through which he lives and acts in the world. It becomes the base of operations for sin in the unbeliever, for the Holy Spirit in the believer.
And 'flesh and blood' is considered synonymous with 'frail human nature'! Craig concludes that 'we have seen that Paul's evidence serves to confirm the gospels' narratives of Jesus's bodily resurrection'. So clearly he sees no contradiction here, and one might expect similar analysis from apologists on other claimed contradictions.

Generally, though, I think the accumulation of Philipse's reasons gives us good reason to doubt revelation. To counter this general conclusion, I think I would point to the vital role that testimony plays in our knowledge creation, and that biblical revelation cannot be dismissed any more than can be the many non-biblical revelations that are handed down to us. For example, we have established a sophisticated education system which pre-supposes the validity of handing down common knowledge, mostly documented in textbooks; we don't expect anyone to literally support all these 'revealed' truths.

I think, however, that we should have to justify this knowledge if it turned out that around the world we were teaching different truths from radically different textbooks. The project of science has been to universalise knowledge, so that textbooks converge. If natural theology were any better than revealed theology, one might expect it to achieve a greater convergence too. I think that, in the sense that the conclusions of natural theology are more modest than those of revealed, perhaps it does. A discussion for another time, maybe.

Read more »

Monday, 23 May 2016

Craig on Animal Pain *Again*

Mooch and friend

I've written before on William Lane Craig's curious views on animal pain, which amount to a dismissal of it as a phenomenon we need to worry about morally. Here I discussed the views he put forward in a debate with Stephen Law, that suggested that animal pain, following work done by Michael Murray, did not exacerbate the problem of evil for theists, and here I followed up that post with a statement by one of the co-authors of a paper that Murray used to support his findings, philosopher of mind David Rosenthal, who countered Murray and Craig:
Anybody who insists that pain and its attendant effects are not very bad for the creature even when the pain is not conscious pain seems to me to be looking for an excuse not to bother with what is plainly a significant case of suffering.  There is no sound empirical reason nor any or valid theoretical reason to count pain as suffering only if the pain is conscious.  This is simply a matter of defining suffering away by stipulation.
In a new Question of the Week entitled Animal Consciousness Once More, Craig again dismisses animal pain. Joshua, having examined the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, is concerned that this puts animals on the same footing (before God) as humans:
If animals do have the same states of consciousness as we do, that animals have the same value and importance, biologically speaking, than us.
The Cambridge Declaration says, amongst other things:
...the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
In his reply, Craig says this:
...there is no evidence that animals other than the higher primates have a consciousness of self that enables them to think I myself am in pain. That has huge implications for the problem of animal suffering and so-called natural evil. For even though animals may have an awareness of pain (are conscious), they are not aware that they themselves are in pain (are not self-conscious) and so do not suffer as we do.
He draws the distinction between awareness and self-awareness, which I think is an important distinction, but one that does not mean we can discount awareness. The curious thing about this answer is that Craig concedes that higher primates have a consciousness of self, so presumably he thinks that chimpanzees etc are moral agents, and he already has a significant problem to address.

But, in any case, his 'answer' does not cut the mustard because, as Rosenthal says above, it's the suffering that should be the concern for us as moral agents, not the sense of self. I think it's plausible that a sense of self might change the quality of pain, but it's possible that lacking a sense of self might make awareness of pain worse. For example, lacking self-consciousness one would always be living in the moment - there would be little sense of pain passing, just happening. As self-conscious beings we can often endure periods of pain and comfort ourselves with it passing, or with rewards of future pleasure.

Craig explicitly denies that suffering is morally relevant, instead suggesting that moral obligations simply arise from God's mandate:
Lacking God as a foundation for objective moral values and duties, the naturalist must find something in animals themselves to warrant their ethical treatment. That will be their awareness of pain. ... This naturalistic attempt to ground ethical treatment of animals is doomed to failure, however, since not all animals are sentient--not to speak of rainforests and oceans! A sound environmental ethic, including the ethical treatment of animals, will be grounded in the creation mandate given by God to man to steward the Earth as God’s good gift.
(Note that Craig even bizarrely suggests that rainforests and oceans don't deserve any ethical consideration under naturalism, because naturalists can only ground morality in awareness of pain. Even if they did (and other considerations can be brought in), clearly rainforests (if we're just talking about the wood) and oceans (if we're just talking about the water) wouldn't deserve any ethical consideration per se, but since they are the very environment of many forms of life that can feel pain, they obviously would deserve ethical consideration. Conversely it seems obvious that his morality, if grounded in God's mandate, is arbitrary. If God has imposed a moral duty on us to look after rainforests and oceans as we should look after humans, then will Craig save a tree before a person? Perhaps God has instructed him to protect humans before trees; but is he really committed to a morality that is simply dictated by God? Well, of course, he is!)

The questioner, while confused, is bringing up a significant problem for theists. Why are humans exceptional? Craig's answer seems to be because of self-awareness. But not self-awareness per se, I guess, but self-awareness as evidence that humans have a self or soul that is the object of moral considerations. But even if that's the case, in this quote Craig concedes the problem of animal pain, because he says 'not all animals are sentient'. No naturalist would deny that, but even Craig allows that some animals are sentient, so he has not successfully drawn a distinction between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, so the problem of animal suffering remains.

Read more »

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Philipse on Theism - Preface

In God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason, Herman Philipse examines what he considers to be the best arguments for God today.

In the preface he notes that the arguments produced in analytic philosophy of religion in the last fifty years are worthy of consideration. His reasons for addressing religion are:

  1. The world's population is growing, and the demographics are against the secularist. The non-theist minority is getting smaller and smaller, in global terms.
  2. Globalisation means that cultures are mixing more, and this brings incompatible beliefs together more. The cognitive dissonance this produces causes more religious conflicts than we have seen in the past.

He also sets out his approach; he will be considering beliefs, not rituals; he doesn't want to be accused by believers of not attacking the best cases for theistic belief, so he will consider some of the arguments of D. Z. Phillips and Alvin Plantinga. He will spend most time, however, looking at the arguments for 'bare theism' by Richard Swinburne. This is because:

  1. The monotheism that Swinburne defends is common to the three great Judaeo-Christian religions.
  2. Swinburne's strategy seems the most promising to Philipse, since Swinburne pursues a natural theological approach to the question (compared with, for example, the foundationalist approach of Plantinga). As Philipse puts it, 'If he exists, that god is a divine person with many kinds of causal powers, whose existence can best be argued for on the basis of his alleged empirically detectable doings' (p.xiii).

Swinburne eschews a proof of God, but considers his existence highly probable.

Philipse notes that many religious beliefs have been refuted by modern science, such as origin of Earth stories, which means the 'intellectually responsible believer' cannot rely solely on scripture. For the believer, three interlocking dilemmas, he says, arise:

  1. Between (a) cognitive and (b) non-cognitive interpretations of religious beliefs. For example, does 'God exists' amount to a proposition that can be assessed for truth or falsity, or not? For an interesting discussion of non-cognitive approaches (often called Wittgensteinian), see this post by Stephen Law.
  2. If (a) is chosen, then between (c) evidential/rational support for beliefs, and (d) a non-evidential/rational approach. Under (d), Philipse will consider what he thinks is the most promising approach, offered by Plantinga, of a basic warrant for religious belief.
  3. If (c) is chosen, then between (e) following a method of gathering evidence and reasons that is 'quite unlike the methods used by scientists and scholars when they investigate a factual hypothesis of existence' (p.xv) and (f) following a method like the scientific methodology.
Philipse thinks that Swinburne offers the most sophisticated solution to dilemma 3 above, and, given the title of his book, this seems to be the best place to consider religious belief 'in the age of science'.

Part 1
In Chapter 1 he argues that religious faith can only be grounded by natural theology (that is, on the basis of natural facts).

In Chapter 2  he summarises the history of natural theology.

In Chapters 3 and 4 he addresses Plantinga's 'reformed objection' to natural theology.

In Chapter 5 he investigates the type of rationality in which natural theology should engage.

In Chapter 6 he considers if religious faith can be refuted, or not.

Part 2
Chapter 7 explores the problems that analogical language introduces for the religious believer.

Chapter 8 examines the properties of the putative monotheistic god.

In Chapter 9 considers the predictive power of the god hypothesis.

In Chapter 10, he sees if theism has predictive power, can it avoid being refuted?

Part 3
Chapter 11 examines the problems that face a Bayesian like Swinburne.

Chapters 12 to 14 consider the accumulative probabilistic arguments for theism.

In Chapter 15 he assesses the argument from religious experience.

The Conclusion then attempts, based on what has been discussed, to answer the question 'which view concerning religious matters has the best credentials: theism, agnosticism, some version of atheism, or perhaps a polytheistic creed?' (p.xvi).

What I think is excellent about the book is that, like a bus driver late for his dinner, Philipse relentlessly drives the reader towards a particular destination. This destination is atheistic, of course, as might be expected (he makes no bones about arguing from this viewpoint). This is probably a weakness too, since I'm sure many a theist reader will insist on stopping the bus and heading off down another road. For example, Jim Slegle in his review of the book accuses Philipse of not just adopting an atheistic approach, but a scientistic one, and of 'taking the unreflective, knee-jerk reaction to religious claims, ‘informed’ by the biases and urban myths of contemporary culture'. This seems an uncharitable interpretation to me, especially considering that Philipse is quite open about the project of assessing god based on modern science, which approach surely Swinburne and many theists would concur, to a degree?

More reasonably, Father Andrew Pinsent suggests that in discrediting the methods of theology Philipse is in danger of discrediting the sciences of more complex phenomena, such as biology and zoology, and the humanities in general. Which would include philosophy and presumably Philipse's own book too! Well, perhaps, and I know of a few atheists who would agree that philosophy should be jettisoned too, but I still think that rational analysis of concepts allied with an acknowledgement of the power of science can yield results, even if it struggles to be falsifiable (not the defining criterion of science, in my opinion). 

Pinsent concludes that Philipse attempts too much, and that may be a valid criticism. I found his reasons for the tight focus mostly convincing, so the book should still give theists pause to consider carefully the route they have followed in the past, and the one they follow in the future.

Read more »

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Do People Choose What is Good for Them?

From Blick
Jerry Coyne has a post up titled How Iranian women would dress if the theocracy disappeared. It shows a number of (western) fashionably clad Iranians from the 1970s. It seems obvious that (some) women would dress differently if there were no theocracy in Iran, although there is perhaps an implicit assumption behind the title that the women depicted before the theocracy are free from societal coercion, which seems unlikely; we are all subject to conformation pressures, after all. An apologist for Islam might point out that the extra flesh displayed by the 70s women indicates sexism in the 'western' East just as the covering of flesh indicates sexism in the modern-day Islamic East. As one of the commenters, Heather Hastie, says, "Things are better in the West, but there are still big problems.".

I think a *diversity* of dress is indicative of a free society, but we observe that humans are clubbable animals so they are not making these choices in a vacuum (if they are making choices at all, pace free will debates). Some people might choose to show more flesh, some might choose to show less flesh; the reasons for their choices can range from fashionable to political.

Serious scholars have observed that some women *chose* to don the veil in the 1970s ("In the 1970s, often to the consternation of parents and siblings, certain progressive young Arab women voluntarily donned the veil." - Should we defer to the autonomy of these women in the choices they make? Or should we complain that their choices are somehow malformed? What is to stop the Muslim apologist suggesting that it is women in the West who are slaves to culture?

These questions give me a chance to discuss some philosophy of well-being. Some think that final values (those things we *should* pursue) reside in objective things, like life, knowledge, community, health, wealth and so on; Martha Nussbaum argues for a flavour of this.  Others argue that we should simply satisfy our preferences; Harriet Baber, for example. Simplistically, the problem with the first idea is determining what that list is, if it is objective. One problem with the second idea is: what to do if people 'prefer' to embrace normally 'illiberal' things, like the veil - we should not object because we should let people follow their preferences? An objection to this sort of preferentism is that preferences can be malformed in some way; these so-called 'adaptive' preferences might, therefore, pose a problem for preferentists. They may, for example, cause difficulties if we want to improve the conditions of people in apparently straitened circumstances. I shall examine those difficulties and illuminate them through Nussbaum’s arguments and Baber’s replies.


Preferentism, or ‘preference-satisfaction welfarism’ (Barber, 2014, p.47), is the theory that final value resides in a person’s well-being, and well-being is delivered by satisfying a person’s preferences. By final value I mean what people should rationally direct their efforts to attaining; as Baber says, ‘what’s basic or fundamental, good in and of itself’ (The Open University, 2014a, 0:30). It contrasts with hedonism, which also proposes well-being as the final value, but delivers it with happiness; and with objectivism, which instead suggests there is an objective list of things in which final value resides, such as life, knowledge, community, health and so on. Preferentism benefits over objectivism in avoiding the dangers of an authoritarian imposition of values that are not universally agreed upon, but opens itself up to charges of relativism – perhaps anything could have final value under this theory.

The meaning of adaptive preferences is not altogether clear. Alex Barber says a ‘person’s set of preferences is adaptive if he or she has taken it on in response to limited options’ (Barber, 2014, p.63). But some of these preferences appear unproblematic, such as someone wanting to be a football referee rather than playing, say, because they lack footballing ability. Nussbaum’s conception of the term reflects her theory: she suggests an objective list of capabilities that all humans should have and want. These ‘Central Human Capabilities’ (Nussbaum, 2001, p.154) include things like being able to have good health, being able to laugh and play, and being able to enjoy a life of normal length.

Nussbaum writes:
People’s liberty can indeed be measured, not by the sheer number of unrealizable wants they have, but by the extent to which they want what human beings have a right to have. (p.160)
Presumably the perfectly free, then, will want Nussbaum’s capabilities. So if someone does not want the capabilities that, she suggests, constitute basic human rights that would reflect their lack of liberty. For example, any preference that threatens the ability to have good health reflects a restriction on that person’s freedom to choose, so would be adaptive. And while considering Amartya Sen’s work, Nussbaum mentions ‘life-long habituation’ and says ‘most of the interesting cases do involve life-long socialization and absence of information’ (p.161).

The Problem

Nussbaum thinks that adaptive preferences pose a problem for preferentism because they prevent us from challenging institutions that threaten the capabilities she considers central, because ‘some existing preferences are actually bad bases for social policy’ (p.154). In particular, she is addressing the limited options women have in many societies. Her approach recognises the deeply-ingrained nature of certain power structures so that even the victims of those power structures consider them desirable.

This hints at a wider concern about preferentism: that without some objective standard it’s difficult, if not impossible, to push for change where people express satisfaction with the status quo.


Harriet Baber, following J.C Harsanyi, draws a distinction between a person’s manifest preferences (those they express and reveal by their behaviour) and their true preferences. For a person’s preferences to be true, she says:

1) they must be fully informed, so that those that result from misinformation are deformed;
2) they ‘must be free in the broadest sense’ (Baber, 2007, p.107), so that those that manifest as a result of high passion, for example, are deformed;
3) they cannot derive from moral obligations.

Baber thinks Nussbaum ignores the distinction between manifest and true preference above and also the ‘dispositional nature of preference’ (p.108); that our behaviour sometimes does not reveal our true preferences - for example, many will shop at Claire’s Accessories when they might rather shop at Tiffany’s. Baber says that:
"Adaptation" is irrelevant: if I want something, getting it is good for me regardless of how I came by that desire; if getting what I choose does not benefit me, it is because what I chose is not something that I want. (p.110)
Baber denies that the genesis of a preference matters, whilst also allowing (in the 3 points above) that a preference’s genesis can be flawed – an apparent contradiction.

The quote does reflect preferentism’s ‘apparent ass-backwardness’ (The Open University, 2014a, 10:20), which suggests that what is good is what we prefer, not that we prefer what is good. What follows is that an individual’s true preference does not represent an unjust state of affairs; which further suggests that people’s true preferences define the justice or injustice of institutions.

Adaptive True Preferences?

Baber argues plausibly that we all have a preference ranking, and that to choose, and to express, a sub-optimal preference does not show that the preference is deformed or adaptive; someone may just consider it the choice that achieves the best outcome in the circumstances. People ‘have a certain fundamental character represented by their preference rankings’ (9:55), revealed if someone jumps at an opportunity if given it. She cites evidence from Nussbaum’s work to show that Nussbaum’s subjects (Nussbaum makes a study of women in non-western cultures) do betray a series of preference rankings, since they jump at the chance to exercise political power when given the chance. The extent to which people would jump at such opportunities, Baber says, exposes how unjust a state of affairs is.

So here she presumably agrees with Nussbaum that some preferences are bad bases for social policy. Ultimately, however, Baber is still committed to a final set of preferences that is fundamental, and Nussbaum can target those preferences as adaptive whilst granting that expressed preferences can change according to circumstance. Consider the following diagram:

Pa to Pz is a person’s ordered set of preferences, Pz being the final preference;
Pm to Pz measures the injustice a person suffers, per Baber;
Pz to P? is the putative adaptive preference suggested by Nussbaum, suggesting an additional injustice.

Preference Inception

Baber speculates:
...if [Jayamma] were offered a promotion or a raise she would jump at it, since there is no reason to think that she is any different from most people who prefer more money to less money and would rather not spend their days hauling bricks if other options were available. (Baber, 2007, p.111)
Well, perhaps, but the notion that some people are not driven by money and prefer simpler, more basic, work is not so outlandish that Baber can assume this is not the case for Jayamma. Baber thinks it’s a fundamental preference of her own that she would never like to go shopping for clothes (The Open University, 2014a, 9:40). Presumably she goes shopping for clothes occasionally, but that is just a manifest preference; her true preference is never to go shopping for clothes. It seems likely that the subjects of Nussbaum’s research, like Jayamma, also only occasionally go shopping for clothes. Jayamma may have a manifest preference to occasionally go shopping, because of her limited options; but her true preference may be to go shopping or to not go shopping (like Baber); we don’t know.

But should we believe Baber when she says she doesn’t want to go shopping, and not Jayamma, if that’s what she says? Nussbaum has an account that can answer this, whilst Baber’s seems inadequate.

Either way, manifest or true, Nussbaum can suggest the preference has been habituated, and there is another preference (P?) which the subject is not free to prefer. And she could suggest that Baber’s true preference is habituated too. Maybe her upbringing has prevented her from appreciating the joys of shopping; perhaps she has had an ascetic, academic upbringing that has prevented her from appreciating some of the finer things of life, like beautiful clothes?

Baber says that Nussbaum ‘doesn’t seem to realise how little room to manoeuvre most of us have’ (The Open University, 2014b, 3:30). According to Baber we all have revealed preferences that change according to the room we have to manoeuvre, but we also have true preferences that are, if not cemented in, still our final preferences.

But those final preferences are dispositional and ultimately down to the individual, as Baber concedes when she recounts the story of the Harvard academic who has chosen to spend her time counting blades of grass rather than something more apparently worthwhile, like teaching her students or writing papers. In the end, being a preferentist, she says ‘...De gustibus. Keep counting.’ (The Open University, 2014a, 12:00).

Unjust Institutions

But some true preferences seem to result from institutions that are obviously unjust. Baber struggles with the example of human trafficking and the story of Srey Mom, for instance, ‘rescued’ by Nicholas Christof from a brothel, but who then returned to it. ‘It is not so clear’, she writes, ‘that it would have been better for Srey Mom to go back to her village or get an honest job sewing sneakers’ (Baber, 2007, p.120). This is the same problem I suggested might arise with Jayamma. We just don’t know what someone’s true preference is, and it’s possible Srey Mom’s state of affairs is her truly preferred state of affairs or just a manifest preference.

This presents two problems for the preferentist:

1. While Baber maintains that the difference between manifest preference and true preference is the measure of how much a person would change their circumstances, given the option, (Pm-Pz), we don’t know what that is ahead of time, so it’s difficult to know what actions to take to relieve individual situations.
2. Even if we grant the preferentist account, it is resistant to any objective measurements, such as health indicators and life expectancy. While preferentists must commit to satisfied preferences being the good, there will be no impetus to improve those measures (except insofar as people prefer them).

As a straight matter of fact, then, if one’s goal is to improve those indicators, preferentism has a problem. Baber would reply that our goal should not be to improve those indicators, per se. Even if the preferentist grants some adjustment to people’s revealed preferences for problems in their provenance, ultimately the preferentist is committed to prioritising autonomy, from wherever it springs, over any objective measures of well-being. In the end, a preferentist like Baber must bite the bullet and accept that a human-trafficked prostitute’s situation can be just.


Preferentism would deliver a world where people’s autonomy is observed and a wide range of diverse lifestyles and cultures would be accommodated and respected. However, it presents an epistemic problem when we are confronted with an apparent case of injustice – is it really unjust? And, further, it is plausible that individual autonomy is good, but the notion that what we choose just is good relies on an idealised self rather than the messier self of real life; we are none of us causa sui, and we have all been habituated to a degree.

As a liberal Millian type of character, I want to encourage self-expression, even if it doesn't reflect my values - in fact, *because* it doesn't reflect my values. But simply deferring to agents' autonomous wills does not seem workable without some anchoring in our state of being; some recognition of our human condition must be included in any account of rational action to avoid a rational relativism which can be destructive to human lives. So I'm a little sceptical when folk claim how things would be, given the removal of some obstacle to freedom, even if we agree that the obstacle (like theocracy) should be removed; unadulterated choice is still not available, and something like Nussbaum's 'Central Human Capabilities' is needed if we are to navigate our way toward a healthy society.

Baber, H. E. (2007) ‘Adaptive preference’, Social Theory and Practice, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 105–26.
Barber, A. (2014) Reason in Action (A333 Book 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Nussbaum, M.C.. (2001) ‘Nussbaum on adaptive preferences and women’s options’ in Barber, A. (ed) (2014) Reason in Action (A333 Book 2), Milton Keynes, The Open University.
The Open University (2014a) ‘Baber on welfarism and adaptive preferences (Part 1)’ [Audio clip], A333: Key questions in philosophy. Available at (Accessed 11 Jan 2015).
The Open University (2014b) ‘Baber on welfarism and adaptive preferences (Part 2)’ [Audio clip], A333: Key questions in philosophy. Available at (Accessed 11 Jan 2015).

Read more »

Wednesday, 13 January 2016


Liberalism poster, by Floris van den Berg

Read more »

Monday, 21 December 2015

Richard Dawkins FOR Children Believing Santa Claus, Christian Apologist AGAINST

The common perception of Richard Dawkins is of a baby-eating, kitten-crushing ultra-realist, denying fun to everyone, especially children. See here, here, here and here, for example, in which various papers accuse him of wanting to deny all the fun of Santa Claus to the kiddy-winks, and MP Tom Watson calls him a 'soulless bore' for wanting to 'ban fairy tales'.

In fact, Dawkins sees some values in fairy tales; as he explained:
Fairy stories might equip the child to reject supernaturalism when the time comes … Santa Claus again could be a very valuable lesson because the child will learn that there are some things you are told that are not true. Now isn't that a valuable lesson? Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have had the desired effect in some cases, because after children learn that there is no Santa Claus, mysteriously they go on believing that there is a God.
So the media caricature of Dawkins is wide of the mark again, even if he is still somewhat Professor Yaffle-like.

William Lane Craig has weighed into this momentous and seasonal debate with a new Q&A, in which he recommends children are not led to believe in Father Christmas, but to 'make-believe' him:
Saint Nicholas was a historical figure, an early church bishop. We can teach our children about who he was and explain how people like to make-believe that he comes and brings children presents today at Christmas time. Children love to make-believe, and so you can invite them to join in this game of make-believe with you. When you see a Santa at the shopping mall, say, “Look, there’s a man dressed up like Saint Nicholas! People pretend that he is Saint Nicholas. Would you like to tell him what you want for Christmas?”
Hoorah for Xmas! Ho-ho-no! There's a pretend Santa over there! Would you like to tell pretend Santa what you want for Christmas? 'What the hell for?' might be the reasonable reply.

How nice it would be if the media advertised the religious who want to banish magic and fun from the festive season as much as they do puppy-murdering atheists.

Craig's parenting has led to some unhappy friends, I suspect:
My daughter said that our policy of telling the children Santa is make-believe led to “some interesting conversations” at school with children who said that Père Noël exists. “No, he doesn’t!” Oops! I find it rather ironic that it was our children who were the free-thinkers and sceptics when it came to Santa Claus. Best to tell your children that while we know Santa is a just a fun, make-believe figure, they shouldn’t upset other parents who haven’t been so honest with their children as we have.
So Dawkins is less the killjoy than Craig on this occasion; one can imagine the other parents advising their kids not to listen to Craigs Minor. Stop spoiling the magic, WLC! At one point he seems to be channeling Dawkins when he says 'Maybe the whole Christmas story is a myth which thinking adults should outgrow'. Hallelujah! But, sadly I think he means the story of Saint Nicholas, not the Nativity.

Nevertheless, good to see Craig instilling some scepticism in his children; maybe they can carry that through to their religious beliefs too.

Read more »

Friday, 27 November 2015

Atran on Coyne

Jerry Coyne recently posted a piece called 'Once again, Scott Atran exculpates religion as a cause of terrorism', complaining about Scott Atran's apparent apology for religion in a recent article in the Guardian. A typical taste of Coyne's complaints:
When I read Atran’s brand of Islamic apologetics, and when I think of the terrorists’ cries of “Allahu Akbar” that accompanied their Kalashnikov fire, and when I ponder why young men out for just “a good time, a cause, and brotherhood” would do these deeds knowing they were surely going to die (and probably believing that, as martyrs, they’d attain Paradise), and when I think of the other deeds they do—the slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, apostates, atheists, and gays, and of the way they treat women like chattel, raping their sex slaves and stoning adulterers—when I think of all this, and the explicitly Islamic motivations the terrorists avow, I have to ask people like Atran: “WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO MAKE YOU ASCRIBE ANY OF THEIR ACTIONS TO ISLAM?”
Perhaps fair enough, although I'm not sure I fully understand Atran's position; this article suggests he does acknowledge that motivations aren't entirely political:
Some officials speaking for Western governments at the East Asia summit in Singapore last April argued that the Caliphate is traditional power politics masquerading as mythology. Research on those drawn to the cause show that this is a dangerous misconception. The Caliphate has re-emerged as a seductive mobilizing cause in the minds of many Muslims, from the Levant to Western Europe.
Atran appears to have commented on Jerry's piece, saying:
I recommend some of the commentators, as well as the principal author, read some of our scientific papers inScience, PNAS, BBS, and reports of others in Nature, You might also glance at articles and editorials in the NY Times, Foreign Policy, Wall Street Journal etc. I never made an argument that “religion” is not a cause of terrorism. “Religion,” in fact, is as empty a notion (scientifically speaking) as “culture.” What I said is that the propositional content of some religious canon is not a principal predictor for may joining Al Qaeda (and now ISIS), and that, the principal predictors have to do with social network factors. Intel and military have used these finding to help break up those networks. Counter canon narratives have done absolutely nothing at all to stop violence or dissuade ISIS volunteers. In other findings, most recently reported in PNAS and NATURE, we detail how commitment to strict sharia of a form practiced by the Islamic State Caliphate, and Identity fusion (a particular type of social formation), although independent (largely uncorrelated) interact to predict costly commitment to costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying.
Mr. Coyne, like Mr. Harris, are not interested in the science, at least on this issue, but in continuing their declamations against “liberal apologetics.” Neither has ever had any dealings with volunteers or fighters from ISIS and Nusra (accepted perhaps reformed ones in safe settings), they have never been to the frontlines of combat zones to see for themselves what motivates fighters. They have never systematically interviewed or psychologically tested volunteers for such movements. And they have never tried, or been asked by those actually fighting ISIS or Al Qaeda to help in the fight because their proposals are, quite frankly, ridiculous. They are like angry children who believe that yelling at the top of their lungs will change the world. Like many politicians and pundits, willful ignorance of the science that bears on this issue is understandable (good argument is, by and large, used for persuasion and victory in social discourse, not discovery of the reason). The sad thing is that their followers believe they have scientific credentials that must give them knowledge ot support their arguments. But even Nobel prize winners have no special insight into social and political affairs, and their views should be scrutinized without passion by their peers (wishful thinking, I know).
It's again difficult to tell what his position is, because he denies that he argues that '“religion” is not a cause of terrorism" (apologies for the double negative) but goes on to describe it as an empty notion (scientifically speaking), and to cite 'social network factors' as the principal predictor of joining 'Al Qaeda (and now ISIS)', which together appear to suggest that he is arguing that religion is not a cause of terrorism. I've posted this comment:
Thanks for making this comment. I assume it’s genuinely Scott Atran! It would be helpful if you could recommend one or two links that you think particularly address the issues raised here. You say that you ‘detail how commitment to strict sharia of a form practiced by the Islamic State Caliphate, and Identity fusion (a particular type of social formation), although independent (largely uncorrelated) interact to predict costly commitment to costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying’. Apologies, but I don’t understand what that means! So bear with an interested bystander for a mo, if you can.
I think as a layman I can appreciate that a frankly perverse organisation like ISIS has multifarious causes; obviously billions of religious people don’t behave that way, so ‘religion’ is not explanatory in that sense, and might be, as you say, an ’empty’ notion. But a similar observation could be made about the term ‘politics’ and yet no-one would deny (or would they?) the political motivations of communism as an important factor in Stalin’s actions, for example. Perhaps the vast majority of communists would not have indulged in purges, so it would be correct to say that there is some other predictor of those particular actions. Nonetheless, the communism played a part, is it reasonable to say?
Furthermore, just about every theist I’ve met would not recognise their religion as an empty notion.
This suggests that saying that ‘religion’ is an empty notion in *some* sense is a weak rejoinder to anyone who argues for or against the effects of religious beliefs, and unlikely to persuade either the irreligious or the religious that religious beliefs should not be criticised (or praised).
So someone who thinks that way can accept your (no doubt firmly supported empirically) view that ‘the principal predictors [for joining Al Qaeda (and now ISIS)] have to do with social network factors’, whilst still decrying the deleterious effects of religious beliefs within the complex matrix of factors that have caused these phenomena.
For example, it seems silly to claim that religious beliefs could be used to predict who would commit acts of terrorism in the Northern Ireland troubles (both Protestants and Catholics did, of course). But it would surely be fair to point out the role that religion played in the underlying complex mix of history and culture that brought those two communities to that point.
For another example, it seems to me that one can differentiate between the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the one on Bataclan by reference to a particular religious doctrine – blasphemy. The CH attack is more obviously religiously motivated than Bataclan, prima facie. You seem to be saying that your research suggests that both attacks are predicted more by social network factors than religious ones, and I bow to your superior knowledge on that. But how could Charlie Hebdo be *singled out* for attack (amongst the enormous Western infidel media pack) if it weren’t for their particularly blasphemous (according to Islam) actions? This is surely an attack where the religious belief is ‘critical’ to the motivations of the terrorists. The Bataclan attack, less so, imo, but still an underlying, important, factor.
It is this sort of specificity of action that, again, to a layman like me, would not occur without the religious doctrine. And you perhaps acknowledge this when you say that the content of religious beliefs aren’t a ‘principal predictor’; are they a secondary one?
So the question from a complete ignoramus like me who wants to understand the differences between you and Coyne is this: Coyne suspects you would not even ‘ascribe any of [the terrorists] actions to Islam’. It’s still not clear from your comment how you respond to his question. Even if the religious doctrines aren’t a principal predictor of *who* acts, do you acknowledge that they do effect the behaviour of jihadists in Syria and in attacks on the West? If you do, and I get the impression you might, then I’m not sure what Coyne is saying that you disagree with. Is it just the emphasis he puts on ‘religion’ when these atrocities occur? He clearly cites other factors – ‘disaffection, the need to feel part of something greater than oneself, innate aggression of young males, and, yes, the mishandling of many Middle Eastern situations by the West’, so he’s not denying those other causes. Just because people bemoan one factor does not mean they discount all others.
If, on the other hand, you don’t think such doctrines have an effect on terrorist behaviour, I should like to see the papers that support that conclusion, in the (perhaps forlorn!) hope that I could understand them.
If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading, and apologies if I misconstrued your position!
It's interesting that Atran says that 'Counter canon narratives have done absolutely nothing at all to stop violence or dissuade ISIS volunteers'. This doesn't counter Coyne's complaints about religious causes, but it does perhaps point to why Atran is frustrated at 'New Atheists'; their complaints are pointless, because attempts to change religious views have not worked, according to whatever metrics Atran has used in his studies.

That may be true in Atran's studies, but the idea that societal progress cannot be made by addressing deleterious religious beliefs seems to deny the last 200 years, from the Enlightenment onwards, which has seen a secular, rational, scientific push-back against such beliefs that has had a civilising effect. Now, to be fair, many religionists would deny that this civilising effect is particularly secular, rational or scientific, but for me the evidence is pretty overwhelming.

I do wonder what 'counter canon narratives' have been attempted, because, as far as I can see, not so much has been done to counter the blasphemy narrative since CH. Indeed some western countries still outlaw it! So a meaningful counter canon narrative would have to be substantial and accord religion a lot less respect than just about every country, including in the west, does currently. Until we see this happening I suspect many of us will still see plenty in religion to complain about.

Read more »