Monday, 16 June 2014

The 'Faith' Debate

Believe me, it was this big
There has been much consternation among theists caused by Peter Boghossian's book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. Consider, for example, this list of rather splenetic reviews. Former believer Eric Macdonald discusses why he thinks Boghossian's definition is 'silly' here and here. Although the book is clearly aimed at non-believers, offering advice on how to 'talk people out of their faith' or, as Michael Shermer puts it in the foreword, to 'reprogram minds [something Orwellian about that!] into employing reason instead of faith, science instead of superstition', theists are, probably understandably, upset by it. After all, if you are told that you are only pretending to hold what you consider to be your most deeply held beliefs, I think you have every right to feel aggrieved! And this does appear to be what Boghossian tells the faithful when he defines faith as:
pretending to know things you don’t know (Kindle Locations 262-263)
Frankly, this seems a needlessly antagonistic conception of faith, but in context I think it's clear that it is part of a strategy to move people of faith to see things from without their worldview; instead of saying you have faith that God exists, for example, imagine that you instead say I pretend to know that God exists. Not very subtle, perhaps, but it's hard to argue that a significant number of believers do actually pretend to know things they don't. When I believed, that was exactly what I did, on the advice of theist friends (if the 'leap of faith' could be described as 'pretending to know', which I think it can). Biologos contributor Ted Davis agrees when he says that many Christians do match the stereotype of the unjustified leap of faith. And debates that long predate the new atheists presuppose an opposition between justified belief and something that is, at least, less justified; consider Clifford's exhortation that 'it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence' and William James's rejoinder,  'The Will to Believe', in the late nineteenth century. James describes his piece, written in 1896, as:
an essay in justification of faith, a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.
This gap between merely logical intellect and faith is what Boghossian is attacking, so this is not some fresh accusation from the new atheists.

One response to Boghossian's definition has been to ask for empirical evidence that this is what faith is. Empirical evidence is not necessary to explore concepts, and philosophers specialise in concepts. The SEP article on faith explores faith without feeling the need to support the discussion with empirical evidence that these concepts conform with what theists claim faith is. It's a discussion of the history of ideas as it relates to the concept of faith. Christians are quite entitled to explain how they conceive faith if they disagree with the concepts as discussed (as we shall see), and they don't need to produce statistical population analyses to support their ideas; likewise, neither do non-believers like Boghossian. Empirical evidence may be used to discount particular concepts of faith, for example, but no-one could seriously suggest that Boghossian's definition does not derive from some part of the concept of faith. In that event, he is quite at liberty to exploit it for his 'evangelical' aims. Its success, however, will surely be limited by its application to individual believers.

I confess, it does seem to me to be an accurate description of one type of faith, even if it's pejorative. What I think it communicates is the volitional element of faith, hinted at by James above, without which religious faith becomes rather supererogatory; it is important that a person wills their assent to a religious belief, rather than simply responds with belief  to the normal empirical inputs of the natural world. There is no virtue in my believing that I am sitting at my desk typing this blog, but there is virtue, supposedly, in a theist's believing in Jesus, or Allah, or Jehovah, and so on. Now, to be fair, universalism exists, which suggests that ultimately this does not matter, but the most prevalent forms of religion the new atheists like Boghossian address surely do differentiate between believers and non-believers, with bad consequences for non-believers (or, at least, consequences that are not as good).

For me, any account of faith needs to make sense of this distinction; it will not be good enough to say tu quoque. For example, some may draw an analogy between competing religious faiths and competing scientific theories. Scientific theories are often (some would say, always) underdetermined by the data, so we cross an epistemic gap when we commit to one theory or another just as the religious believer does when she commits to a religious worldview. But this seems to render faith rather empty; if atheists are 'faithful' too, just what is it that is so virtuous about being a theist?

We do not think there is any virtue in believing one scientific theory over another; we accept that some people evaluate the evidence differently. Of course, some people don't value evidence, but I take it theists are not arguing that evidence is not important in establishing beliefs. Theism suggests there are some real consequences to the very act of believing something. And again, this is not because of the consequential acts of their belief, although they sometimes point to these things in justification. The belief distinguishes the faithful from the faithless in a way that makes the former praiseworthy, for some reason.

When people disbelieve scientific theories, we might criticise them for not applying rigorous scientific principles to their reasoning; for example, climate change denialists and anti-vaxxers. Of course, people can still believe scientific principles without being rigorous scientifically, and we may criticise them for that. But with faith the method does not define its ultimate worth. After all, the religious account accepts there are many who practice a faith but are wrong in the content of their belief. The method itself is not what wins god's rewards; it's important what the faithful actually believe. This seems unfair, since some of our beliefs, including many religious ones, seem to arise more from the environment we grow up in than from any impartial, supposition-free method of knowledge acquisition.

Religious faith is complex, that much is true. The SEP lists seven broad characterisations of faith:
the ‘purely affective’ model: faith as a feeling of existential confidence
the ‘special knowledge’ model: faith as knowledge of specific truths, revealed by God
the ‘belief’ model: faith as belief that God exists
the ‘trust’ model: faith as belief in (trust in) God
the ‘doxastic venture’ model: faith as practical commitment beyond the evidence to one's belief that God exists
the ‘sub-doxastic venture’ model: faith as practical commitment without belief
the ‘hope’ model: faith as hoping—or acting in the hope that—the God who saves exists.
The last three certainly appear to concord somewhat with Boghossian's characterisation, if we allow that pretending to know is an accurate way to describe believing beyond the evidence, which is what is communicated by doxastic venturing and hoping.

The SEP notes that Christians consider faith a gift from God and, as I indicate above, something:
...requiring a human response of assent and trust, so that people's faith is something with respect to which they are both receptive and active. 
The article also notes a similar tension to the one between concluded belief and willed belief, between the supposed 'gift' of faith and the willed venture.

Blogger aRemonstrant has helpfully compiled some Christian definitions of faith. Keith Ward says it's 'the practical commitment to a relationship with God that will progressively transform your life, liberating it from hatred, greed and ignorance, and enabling it to become a more effective mediator of transcendent beauty, joy, compassion and benevolence'. Well, maybe, but either this can occur regardless of what the faith is in, or it presupposes that the faith is not misplaced. How does one know it's not misplaced? In the same book Ward says 'the test of genuine belief in God is whether or not your life is directed towards sharing in and learning to increase in the world around you beauty, bliss and goodness'.

This is odd, since it seems to link faith (or at least 'genuine' faith) with its consequences. But we know many people who say they have 'faith' whose lives do not appear to be directed towards sharing in etc, and many non-believers who do appear to meet that test. One assumes, though, that Ward restricts genuine believers to just the small subset who believe in the right god, and whose lives are directed towards sharing in etc. Indeed, he accepts that many religious believers are full of selfishness, spite, ambition and ignorance; he wants religion to transform them, but until they are transformed presumably they will not be rewarded with the fruits of 'genuine' faith.

John Polkinghorne says:
Religious faith does not demand irrational submission to some unquestionable authority, but it does involve rational commitment to well-motivated belief.
As far as I can see, Polkinghorne's motivations for belief might go beyond scientific evidence, but he contends it is still  justified; just before the above quote he says:
...the beliefs of religious belief are sufficiently well-motivated for them to be able to commit themselves, despite knowing that in principle they may be mistaken.
This could be interpreted in two ways, I think. Committing to a belief in the knowledge that it could be mistaken looks very much like 'pretending to know things you don't know'. I think Polkinghorne though is talking more about how scientists mediate between theories; thanks to the underdetermination problem mentioned earlier, we often have insufficient data to choose between theories, so theories are adopted tentatively and considered provisional in principle. The motivation for that adoption is justified, but beyond the evidence. But it's not clear just how provisional a person's faith can be to qualify as genuine, and we seem to be flirting with the tu quoque again; if well-motivated religious beliefs are no different in principle to other well-motivated beliefs, like scientific ones, then everyone is faithful and there is no need to be a theist. Polkinghorne is careful to distinguish between the two, however; again in the same book he says:
Religious knowledge is much more 'dangerous' than scientific knowledge, for it can imply consequences for the way we live our lives, requiring not only the assent of the intellect but also the assent of the will.
There is that volitional element again, and consequences à la Ward. And here Polkinghorne seems dangerously close to drawing an ought from an is. More importantly, he distinguishes religious knowledge as being more 'dangerous' than scientific knowledge.

This highlights the dilemma for the faithful: as soon as someone like Polkinghorne makes such a distinction then a non-believer can attack it as an epistemic gap that justifies the characterisation of 'pretending to know'; but if they don't draw the distinction, then we are are all full of faith, and a non-believer is as virtuous as a believer.

A couple more 'faith' definitions taken at random to illustrate the problem:
By faith, then, as a first approximation, we mean trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true, in the face of difficulties.
Either the 'difficulties' are peculiar to faith, in which case there is a gap non-believers can attack, or they are difficulties we all face when we conduct our daily lives, in which case we are all really believers.
The Bible knows nothing of a bold leap-in-the-dark faith, a hope-against-hope faith, a faith with no evidence. Rather, if the evidence doesn’t correspond to the hope, then the faith is in vain, as even Paul has said.
Confirming evidence against hope is open to the charge of confirmation bias, to which we are all subject. But again, if the faithful are simply humans suffering from the cognitive problems to which we are all subject, why the reward for being subject to one set of biases, and not another? Why should one be rewarded for landing on the supposed one true belief amongst many competing ones because one has been given a hope based on one's upbringing, which is arbitrary?

None of these accounts of faith adequately tackles this problem, so non-believers are left wondering what exactly faith is that makes it so special while leaving it immune to the sort of attack Boghossian launches. Even Eric's analysis throws no light on the problem; perhaps because the problem is insoluble; his notion of faith as a worldview is something that is:
...not only epistemic. It has other dimensions of meaning that [Boghossian] has a vested interest in ignoring. It’s called confirmation bias, and he falls into this particular trap throughout the book. Of course, he has faith in his wife. He just calls it trust, even though trust is an aspect of faith, and perhaps the more important aspect.
Well, perhaps; but then Boghossian and I are faithful too, like the Pope! Well not exactly like the Pope, since he has no spouse. But there's the rub; the target of the faith is important.

I hasten to add, this is no endorsement of Boghossian's book, which I have not read in its entirety because its writing doesn't appeal. I'm not persuaded that faith is a cognitive sickness; I suppose it's possible we could describe humanity as suffering from a pandemic of cognitive sickness, but the processes involved seem so fundamental to what makes us human, it would cast everyone as sick, and that hardly seems helpful. My difficulty, after all, is providing an adequate account of the distinction between the faithful and the faithless. To me the faithful are simply mistaken, not sick. I'm no psychiatrist, though, I hasten to add.

But this means that believers too will need to establish much more rigorous (not more verbose, they could hardly be more verbose) accounts of faith than any I've seen if they want to persuade non-believers that there is nothing to the charge that they are 'pretending to know'. Some of us have personal experience that that is exactly what it is!

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Saturday, 7 June 2014

Hume on Miracles

Many people take David Hume's argument against miracles as discounting the possibility of miracles, or somehow loading the dice against theism. Consider Craig Keener in his 1248 page magnum opus Miracles:
[Hume] argues, based on “experience,” that miracles do not happen, yet dismisses credible eyewitness testimony for miracles (i.e., others’ experience) on his assumption that miracles do not happen. (Kindle Locations 4325-4326)
I will argue that to succeed logically [Hume's] approach must presuppose atheism or deism. (Kindle Location 4320)
Thus, on the usual reading of Hume, he manages to define away any possibility of a miracle occurring, by defining “miracle” as a violation of natural law, yet defining “natural law” as principles that cannot be violated. (Kindle Locations 4680-4682)
I cannot see that Hume assumes miracles do not happen, nor that he requires a presupposition of atheism or deism, nor that he defines natural law as principles that cannot be violated; the conclusion of his argument is simply that a rational person would not believe a miracle claim. This, though, is based on his view of knowledge acquisition; the argument itself looks valid to me (see below), if I'm reading him right, so to attack Hume one would have to attack the premises of his argument and show it to be unsound. The argument does not, in fact, rule out miracles a priori, but if someone agrees with his account of knowledge acquisition (which account does not exclude theists, though they might not consider it exhaustive) he shows that they would not believe miracle claims, if they were being rational.

Has a miracle occurred? Just to consider this question is to allow that miracles are not ruled out a priori. If, for example, a miracle is defined as a supernatural event, as it commonly is, and a person thinks the supernatural is impossible, they would conclude that miracles are impossible. This ‘hard naturalist’ argument goes something like:
Premise 1  Miracles are violations of natural law
Premise 2 Natural law is eternally inviolable
Conclusion Miracles never occur
Natural law has developed over the centuries and seems likely to continue to develop, so the problem is: we don’t know what the natural laws are precisely, so when an event violates the natural laws as we understand them, we do not know if this is because we have the natural laws wrong or because the event is genuinely supernatural. The hard naturalist above would counter that this is just an epistemological problem; in principle, there are inviolable natural laws, so in principle supernatural events are impossible. But a posteriori we have not confirmed their inviolability, so this is just an assertion. A believer in miracles could simply assert in response that natural law is just very rarely violated.

Hume takes a more subtle approach. Only our experience guides us in ‘matters of fact’, he writes in ‘Of Miracles’. Bear in mind his famous 'fork':
All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic ... [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought ... Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.
The distinction between 'relations of ideas' and 'matters of fact' is similar to the a priori/a posteriori distinction, and is commonly made by philosophers; Descartes drew a similar distinction in his method of doubt, for example. So we take into account all our (sometimes competing) experiences and draw conclusions about the world from them in proportion to the evidence they supply. If our conclusions are based on ‘an infallible experience’ we consider this a full proof for the future; if not, we proceed as cautiously as our past experience dictates. Hume is describing here how people generally behave, and perhaps should behave; by weighing the available evidence; that weighing is surely the source of the word rational, with its ‘ratio’ root.

Hume discusses human testimony, and agrees that there is a ‘useful conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses’. Experience tells us that memory is ‘tenacious’, people are usually truthful and being caught lying is shameful. Testimony can be false, but very well attested reports are a ‘proof or a probability’ that an event has occurred. If that most unusual event, a miracle, occurs, and the testimony is so good that it would normally be considered a proof, we have a ‘proof against proof’.

Hume's argument, then, does not rely on a premise that testimony is unreliable per se, although this is often mentioned when he is brought up; consider theologian Randal Rauser here, in response to a miracle sceptic:
Mike is apparently invoking an epistemic principle like this:
Testimony skepticism principle (TSP): Carefully documented testimonial evidence has negligible evidential value because testimony has been shown to be unreliable.
While testimony can be unreliable (and that is an important part of Hume's argument - see P4 below) this does not mean it has 'negligible evidential value'; in fact, Hume specifically says well attested reports can be a 'proof' that an event has occurred:
And as the evidence, derived from witnesses and human testimony, is founded on past experience, so it varies with the experience, and is regarded either as a proof or a probability, according as the conjunction between any particular kind of report and any kind of object has been found to be constant or variable.
But since Hume defines a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’, which have been established by our ‘firm and unalterable experience’, there can be no better argument from experience than the one that supports the laws of nature . Hume invites us to weigh two arguments from experience; this is not an a priori matter, but an empirical one. A rational person must agree, then, that the chances of the natural laws being wrong are less than the chances that the best imaginable testimony could be wrong. So Hume’s argument is more like this:
Premise 1 The evidence for matters of fact are established by empirical enquiry
Premise 2 Both natural law and testimony are matters of fact
Conclusion 1 The evidence for natural law and testimony is established by empirical enquiry
Premise 3 Empirical enquiry records those things that occur reliably, without violation, as natural law
Premise 4 Empirical enquiry shows that testimony is often reliable, but not without violation
Premise 5 A rational person believes matters of fact in proportion to the evidence gathered by empirical enquiry.
Conclusion 2 A rational person believes a violation in testimony is more probable than a violation of natural law
Premise 6 Miracles are a violation of natural law
Conclusion A rational person always believes a violation in testimony before she believes a miracle has occurred
A note on P6; other definitions are available. Some say that divine intervention, while supernatural, does not necessarily violate natural law. But without the unusual stamp of a violation, any other divine event would appear to fall more properly under the notion of divine providence, covering the orderly conduct of the cosmos. Although in a footnote Hume says:
Sometimes an event may not, in itself, seem to be contrary to the laws of nature, and yet, if it were real, it might, by reason of some circumstances, be denominated a miracle; because, in fact, it is contrary to these laws. Thus if a person, claiming a divine authority, should command a sick person to be well, a healthful man to fall down dead, the clouds to pour rain, the winds to blow, in short, should order many natural events, which immediately follow upon his command; these might justly be esteemed miracles, because they are really, in this case, contrary to the laws of nature.
...which suggests that any divine intervention is miraculous. Even if an event does not seem contrary to natural law, it could still be. P3 derives from this famous sentence:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.
Keener surely agrees with P3 when he says:
Natural law is, after all, merely our construct of how nature functions. (Kindle Locations 4675-4676 - my emphasis)
...but then says:
If one chooses to define natural law in such a way as to make variation from it impossible, one has simply redefined words about reality rather than made an argument, and someone else could counter by redefining “miracle” as part of that reality. (Kindle Locations 4676-4677) 
But Hume clearly doesn't define natural law to make variation impossible; he defines it as Keener does. It should hopefully be clear by now that Hume is not defining natural law as uniform and inviolable; he is saying what we experience as uniform and inviolable we call natural law (it is 'our construct', to use Keener's words) - an important difference because it means natural laws can be violated - we can be wrong about the uniform and inviolable.

Keener cites many critics objecting to Hume's definition of miracle in P6. That is fine, but theists seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place; either miracles are part of the natural world, in which case their effects can be monitored like every other natural event, and evidence accumulated in favour or against, or they're not, and Hume's definition appears closer to anything they might offer. A miracle needs to be an exception, not prosaic, and this definition communicates this well, so I will use it for the purposes of this discussion.

The argument looks perfectly valid to me, with no hidden assumption of atheism; it simply states what Hume takes to be how humans acquire knowledge, be they theist or atheist. There is no premise that states that miracles do not happen. They may happen, in fact, but, the argument says, a rational person could not accept any report of them happening.

P1 Hume draws from his ‘fork’, which, as we've seen, distinguishes between abstract reasoning, like mathematics, and matters of fact – the a priori and a posteriori. Hume is firmly setting miracles in the domain of a posteriori arguments, and would reject the hard naturalist argument presented further up, since it is not an a posteriori argument. The premise can be attacked on the grounds that there are ‘other ways of knowing’; in particular, revelation, intuition and religious experience. If there is another justification than empirical enquiry for belief in matters of fact, the argument would be unsound, and to some there is a certainty to some matters of fact that does not submit to empirical proof. Consider these quotes from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience from theists:
I don't think I ever doubted the existence of God, or had him drop out of my consciousness.
What I felt on these occasions was a temporary loss of my own identity, accompanied by an illumination which revealed to me a deeper significance than I had been wont to attach to life. It is in this that I find my justification for saying that I have enjoyed communication with God.  
The suggestion is that there are supernatural things we know a priori and not a posteriori, so the fork should be a trident. It’s conceivable too that we know natural things a priori, but that is not important in this scenario; what is important is the claim that supernatural facts are not discovered empirically. This objection can be addressed by tightening the argument; we replace ‘matters of fact’ in P1, P2 and P5 with ‘matters of natural fact’. This is stretching Hume’s words a little, but it is still a pretty close reflection of Hume’s argument. This still rules out believing miracle testimony since, if the premises are correct, the communication of any miracle claim is natural (testimony is communicated naturally), so its reliability is tested empirically, and empirically it must be less reliable than natural law. The only defeater here would be to establish non-natural testimony, which leads us to the second objection.

The original argument might be attacked on the grounds that empirical enquiry reveals supernatural facts among the natural facts. Hume asks us to reject the greater miracle, and the ironic title of J. L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism hints at something. Mackie writes:
...I hope to show that [religion’s] continuing hold on the minds of many reasonable people is surprising enough to count as a miracle in at least the original sense. (p.12)
The ‘original sense’ here is ‘something surprising or marvellous’ (p.11), but the very survival of churches to the present day, the faith professed by the ‘many reasonable people’ down the centuries, and the wisdom and miracles recorded in holy books could amount to a testimony which is a miracle in itself. So, the argument goes, a reasonable person should consider it a greater miracle that this ‘testimony’ be wrong than that the laws of nature are violated. Is it not a more parsimonious explanation of this long history that some supernatural agency does intervene in unusual ways occasionally, and testifies through the Bible or the Quran, for example, and delivers revelations and experiences to people whose testimony survives, supernaturally?

This is possible, and the history does call for an explanation. The objection attacks P3, suggesting that empirical enquiry does not just record regularities as natural law, but also records irregularities from the natural law as, at least, marvels, and at best, miracles. Keener raises a similar objection, saying Hume's argument is:
...a circular argument that excludes the evidence of the claim supposedly under consideration and other claims like it. (Kindle Locations 4387-4388)
The point is, I think, that P3 excludes the violations which are under debate, automatically disallowing miracles. But, as discussed, Hume's argument simply states what humans do: we call regularities 'natural laws'. There is no circularity, just a description of the processes involved, and an observation of the respective evidences. In any case, it's easy to adjust Hume's premise to account for some irregularities and completely sidestep the objection:
Empirical enquiry records those things that occur reliably, almost without violation, as natural law
After all, even well-established natural laws such as Newton's continue to be used as natural laws even though we know that the movement of Mercury, for example, does not conform to them (and with Einstein we obviously have a new more accurate understanding of natural laws). Science accepts we have an incomplete and tentative understanding of the natural laws, and this is very much in keeping with Hume's epistemology, which is a sceptical approach to enquiry that fall short of Descartes extreme approach to knowledge - the method of doubt. Nevertheless there is still a large asymmetry between the evidence for the regularities (the physical sciences) and the evidence for the irregularities (historical enquiry and theology), and that asymmetry is increasing, so the objection is unconvincing. There is less and less space left for miracles.

The ‘miracle of theism’ claim also falls foul of Hume’s further objections. To employ these in Hume’s order: firstly, despite the claims of supernatural intervention there does seem to be an available natural explanation for even the most successful religion. Great intelligence is no barrier to deception nor indeed to self-deception, and ardency can be a sign of an ulterior motive or that reason is no longer being applied to a person’s beliefs. To prefer any natural explanation does imply that natural explanations must be more likely than miracles, but given miracles’ status as exceptional events evoking wonder and awe, compared to providence, this is not an unreasonable assumption. Secondly, humans derive a great sense of ‘surprise and wonder’ from miraculous reports and this feeling pre-disposes us towards believing them and repeating them. Thirdly, many miracle reports date from pre-industrial times, reported and written down by people who were ignorant of many natural facts about the world. Their credulity is excusable, and perfectly natural.

Fourthly, there is such a diversity of religious belief in time and space that any miracles used in the service of any religion are outweighed by the miracles used in the service of all the others. The maths seems inescapable; the resurrection of Jesus testifies that Christ is the son of God, but many believe that the prophet Mohammed mounting a flying horse testifies against Jesus’ divinity. Miracles are also used in the service of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and more. So even if the supernatural is allowed, the evidence for any subset of miracles is outweighed by the evidence of the remainder. If miracles are supposed to testify to something vaguer than a religion’s specific claims, the less power it has to persuade. The less a miracle is attributable to a particular religion, the less pertinent it is to that particular religion’s claims.


I'm sure this does not exhaust the objections to Hume’s logic, but simply detailing hundreds of miracle claims does not cut the mustard, unless the weight of all that evidence outweighed our 'firm and unalterable experience' of the natural law; needless to say even a book of 1248 pages does not come close to that; the theist would have to surmount all the evidence of all the physical sciences. This is really unlikely, so theists should save their breath and attack the premises of Hume's actual argument instead. Stories of 'miraculous' recoveries from illness, for example, while heart warming, will simply never outweigh the evidence for the natural laws.

One further twist: what if one experienced an event that looked miraculous? If our senses are natural, our own ‘testimony’ is subject to the same objection Hume presents – a rational person would believe the weight of evidence that our senses are more likely to be wrong than the natural laws, as currently understood. I confess I wonder if I could dismiss such an experience, if it is particularly convincing! After all, many have been  hoodwinked by charlatans and I'm just as susceptible to a vivid experience as the next man. Ultimately, though, unless there is some unambiguous way to distinguish natural from supernatural events, one should dismiss miracle claims and even miracle experiences.

This has obvious ramifications for many theistic claims. Consider the resurrection; many theists have made great efforts to establish the historicity of the resurrection. At this remove, Hume's argument would suggest that this is impossible on empirical grounds, and it's hard not to disagree. Note that theists are not obliged then to not believe in the resurrection; if they think they have non-empirical grounds, or a method to distinguish natural from supernatural experience, this is open to them. But unless theists can remove testimony from the realm of the a posteriori, miracle testimony should never be used as the justification for miracle belief, even by them.


Chappell, T. (2011) The Philosophy of Religion , Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Cottingham, J. (ed.) (2008) Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell Pub..

Keener, Craig S.. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Mackie, J.L. (1982) The Miracle of Theism, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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Sunday, 23 February 2014

Concluding Comments - 2014 Greer-Heard Forum

A panel discussion concluding the Greer-Heard Forum.

Excellent response by Tim Maudlin to William Lane Craig's assertion that moral objectivity requires theism, @ c30mins, who also makes a good point about blind luck in his concluding comments.

"Let a thousand flowers bloom", Craig says in his concluding comments, which I tend to agree with, although theism does not have a good record on that score!

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Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Rosenthal on Murray

Mooch the cat

Following my previous post on William Lane Craig's question of the week, Animal Pain Re-visited, I wondered about the distinction that Michael Murray drew between first order and higher order mental states. I could see that Murray was right in the sense that there is a debate about the distinction, but I couldn't see he was right about what that distinction entailed. In particular he wrote:
Do we know that any of the possibilities I describe (that animal pain is like blindsight—experienced but not felt (response 1)—or like “lobotomy pain”—felt but not undesirable (response 2)) are true in the case of animals? Absolutely not. But do we know that they are not the case? I argue that we don’t. That is, for all we know, animal pain works as described in one of those options. The scientific data do not resolve the philosophical question. And thus we don’t know if we have a problem of animal pain.
Do people disagree about this? Yes. However, I think that most scientists who think about these questions do not have the full range of distinctions that philosophers of mind do when reasoning about these matters. So I think that the scientists who disagree don’t fully appreciate the relevant philosophical subtleties. (However, some neuroscientist/philosopher collaborations have been looking at exactly such issues, indeed suggesting that the prefrontal cortex plays just the sort of role I suggest when it comes to phenomenal consciousness—whether of pain or other sensory states. See for example, Lau and Rosenthal, “Empirical Support for higher-order theories of conscious awareness,” Trends in Cognitive Science, August 2011, vol. 15, no 8.) - my emphasis
Murray says that Lau and Rosenthal's paper suggests that the prefrontal cortex 'plays just the sort of role' he suggests - that is, that pain is experienced but not felt, or felt but not undesirable - so animal pain should not count as evil.

Having read Lau and Rosenthal's paper, I still could not see that it supported this view. However, I may not have understood it (!), so I asked philosopher of mind and co-author of the paper David Rosenthal if he cared to comment on it. He very kindly gave me this response, which I quote in its entirety; I think it speaks for itself:
Mark Jones has kindly called my attention to a blog post by Michael Murray about pain and nonhuman animals, at  In that post, Murray appeals to higher-order-thought theories of consciousness, such as that which I have advanced ( and, in particular, to "Empirical Support for Higher-Order Theories of Conscious Awareness", coauthored by Hakwan Lau and me, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 8 (August 2011): 365-373.
I have written a few remarks in that connection and sent them to Mark Jones with my permission to quote them.
The term 'phenomenal consciousness', as currently used in philosophical, psychological, and neuropsychological research, is used to cover both the qualitative character of mental states--e.g., what differs between seeing red and seeing green or between a pain and a tickle--and the subjective awareness that goes with conscious cases of such states.  The point of most higher-order theories of consciousness--including the one I have advanced in many writings and the version Lau and I defend by a very compelling array of empirical findings--is that these two factors do not always occur together.
The appeal to phenomenal consciousness, therefore, is theoretically loaded in an unfortunate way, tying together two mental phenomena--qualitative character and subjective awareness--that need not cooccur.  In the context of Murray's post, it effectively begs the question.
The qualitative character of pain, e.g., can occur without subjective awareness.  The pain, with its qualitative character, would be a first-order mental state; the subjective awareness on our theory--supported by a very great deal of empirical work--can occur distinctly, and is a higher-order state whose content is in some suitable way directed onto the first-order pain state. Genuine pain can, and does, occur without being conscious.
But the qualitative character of pain--even in the absence of subjective awareness--is plainly a bad thing.  It impedes pleasurable activity and enjoyment and other mental processing, it distracts and commands attention, and it impedes a very great many normal bodily processes. Pain can occur without being conscious pain, and because of the effects of such nonconscious pain, it counts by any reasonable definition as suffering, often very intense suffering.  Suffering need not itself be conscious.  
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.
Lau & Rosenthal appeals to prefrontal cortex in humans as the likely neural mechanism for the higher-order processes that result in subjective awareness.  There is solid empirical evidence that this so for primates generally and likely in many other mammals.  But that finding for humans does not preclude other neural mechanisms' being responsible for such higher-order awareness in other animals.  The studies have not been done so far except for primates.  So prefrontal cortex is not known to be necessary for subjective awareness--of pain or any other types of mental state--for nonprimates generally.
(End quote)

Of course, I understand Murray's point that his appeal is only one suggestion he is making to mitigate the problem of evil, and others may be successful, but I think this one approach, championed by Craig in at least one debate, does not work and should be abandoned.

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Monday, 3 February 2014

Craig adds to the Pain

Mooch the cat (and friend)

In a debate with Stephen Law, William Lane Craig claimed that science shows that animals aren't aware of the pain they are in, and this might be an answer to the perennial theistic problem of evil. It's not at all clear to me how that follows, and Stephen Law subsequently pointed out, with the help of a film made by skydivephil, that Craig simply had the science wrong anyway. Jerry Coyne also posted on the subject, noting:
But there’s no difference between feeling pain and being aware that you’re feeling pain. Pain is a “quale” (plural “qualia”)—a conscious and subjective sensation—which demands awareness, unless it’s simply a sensation that you have learned (or evolved) to avoid.  But if you’ve learned or evolved to avoid it because it’s unpleasant, then you are indeed aware of feeling pain! Finding a sensation unpleasant demands sufficient consciousness to experience qualia.
I tend to agree, although I could concede there may be a difference between the pain felt by animals that have self-awareness about pain, like humans, (what Craig calls third-level pain) and those that don't (second-level pain). However, I cannot see that self-awareness alone renders the pain morally relevant. Oddly Craig did ask himself this question on a question of the week some time ago:
So let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that Murray has got it right about the science concerning animal pain: sentient animals do experience pain, but they (apart from the higher primates) are not aware that they are themselves in pain. What ethical implications for the treatment of animals would this affirmation have?
The only answer I can see him offering is this:
Inflicting unjustified pain on animals would be morally prohibited to us by God. Yes, remember that on the view we’re discussing, sentient animals do experience second-level states of pain, which should not be needlessly inflicted. So stunning animals before killing them for food is, indeed, a good idea. Even with regard to animals which do not experience second-level pain, the theist can maintain that we should not needlessly impair or kill them.
...which appears to concede that animal pain is morally relevant (it's 'a good idea' to avoid it), even if his distinction between second-level and third-level pain stands.

Craig has now added a follow-up with a response from Michael Murray, who originally drew the distinction. Craig seems to think the strongest point that Murray makes is:
...that non-human animals do not have a first-person perspective on their experiences, including experiences of pain, that is to say, they cannot adjoin to their experiences the prefix “I think/feel that. . . ,”so that animals, even if in pain, are not aware that they are themselves in pain.
Once again, he does not argue here why that makes the pain morally irrelevant, but he does think that:
Dr. Murray shows that his critics have not shown that animal suffering of a morally significant sort really exists.
That's a pretty weak claim; likewise one presumes that Craig and Murray also think that no-one has shown that baby suffering of a morally significant sort really exists either, if the distinction is simply that the organism cannot adjoin to their experiences the prefix "I think/feel that...". Further, it is a betrayal of the cautionary principle: that if animals, and babies, display the symptoms of pain, we should assume they are feeling pain.

Murray appeals to the possibility that animals have pain without any “negative-feeling”, based on reports of humans that have reported such a thing after disruption to their prefrontal cortexes. Well I'm no scientist, so I will leave that one to them, but it seems far from clear why we need to prove the precise nature of animal pain before we consider it relevant to our moral calculations. Murray's argument is simply that:
...perhaps most animals do not experience negative-feeling-pain (because they lack a PFC).
But either animal pain is not negative, in which case avoiding it is neither a good idea nor a bad idea, contra Craig above, or it is a negative, in which case the problem of natural suffering is not answered by this argument.

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Friday, 13 December 2013

Universities UK Legal Opinion

There has been a lot of hubbub in the UK press and elsewhere about Universities UK's guidance notes on imposed segregation at University hosted events; bizarrely, they think it is sometimes permissible. See posts from, for example, Nick Cohen, and Ophelia Benson. The BBC reports:
The case study involves an external speaker invited to talk about his orthodox religious faith who subsequently requests segregated seating areas for men and women.
The guidance states that university officials should consider both freedom of speech obligations, as well as discrimination and equality laws when considering the request.
Universities UK says: "If neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area were also provided, it might in the specific circumstances of the case be appropriate for the university to agree to the request."
UUK have now published the legal opinion of Fenella Morris QC to support their stance. The key paragraph appears to be no.8:
As set out above, universities that make decisions about the arrangements for external speakers, are required to strike a balance between competing rights and interests. In doing so, they will be obliged to have regard not only to the statutory duty imposed by Parliament in relation to freedom of speech, but also the great importance placed on freedom of speech both in the European jurisprudence and in the HRA. Further, whether the reason advanced for placing a stipulation of segregation of an audience for a particular speaker relies upon the fact that it is the manifestation of a religious belief, two rights – Articles 9 and 10 – will be invoked. These two important rights must be balanced against a right of freedom of association of those who do not wish to be segregated while hearing a particular speaker. Although it would be too simplistic to suggest that the two former rights will always outweigh the latter, it is likely that in many cases the significance of the two former rights will be greater than the latter in terms of where a person sits in order to be part of the audience for a particular speaker if not allowing segregation would prevent the speaker appearing. (my emphasis)
This does seem to go further than many people would think is allowable in a liberal society, I think. Note that the advice does not here mention gender segregation, so the effect of it is to allow the possibility (indeed, to say it is likely) that racist or homophobic speakers should be allowed to dictate how a British University hosts an event, segregating black from white, or heterosexual from homosexual, if their views are religious.

I have to say that there may be some truth to this opinion, since we are talking about a balancing of rights. But to me it shows how dangerous it is to allow religious freedom to trump other freedoms; there really does need to be a hierarchy of rights in such circumstances, and freedoms based on our immutable nature must be given precedence over freedoms based on more mutable beliefs.

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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Unfair Discrimination Ruling Upheld

The Christian guesthouse owners who advertised their double bedrooms as available only to “heterosexual married couples” have lost their appeal to the Supreme Court. The BBC reports the following reactions:
Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, said: "Sexual orientation is a core component of a person's identity which requires fulfilment through relationships with others of the same orientation."
Mike Judge, from the Christian Institute, said after the hearing: "What this case shows is that the powers of political correctness have reached all the way to the top of the judicial tree, so much so that even the Supreme Court dare not say anything against gay rights."
Gay rights group Stonewall said in a statement: "We are pleased that the Supreme Court has defended the laws protecting gay customers that Stonewall fought so hard to secure.
"Some might suggest that, rather than pursuing this case, a far more Christian thing to do would be to fight the evils of poverty and disease worldwide."
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so the following is a layman's interpretation of what has been reported. 

This is good news for all supporters of equal rights, and confirms that the religious consciences of those who offer services to the public cannot be used as an excuse to discriminate unfairly. The press release does note, however, that "The Court’s judgment does not favour sexual orientation over religious belief: had the Respondents refused hotel rooms to the Appellants because of the Appellants’ Christian beliefs, the Appellants would equally have been protected by the law’s prohibition of discrimination". The appellants claimed that they were not discriminating on sexual orientation but on the couple's married status (they were not married, in their Christian eyes), but in law since civil partnerships must be treated as marriages, there is nothing else on which the couple can lawfully discriminate:
Regulation 3(4) [of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007] provides that for the purpose of the provisions defining whether discrimination has taken place, when comparing the treatment of two people, the fact that one is a civil partner and the other is married is not a material difference in the circumstances.
The appellants also claimed freedom to manifest their religion under Article 9 of the ECHR. To this, the Court said:
EASOR’s interference with those rights is justified as a proportional means of achieving a legitimate aim: the protection of the rights and freedoms of people such as the Respondents.
Obviously there is a trade-off of rights necessary when applying the law, and thankfully the Courts are dismissing attempts to unfairly discriminate on the grounds laid out in the legislation. This can result in indirect discrimination, against the bigoted, but also against those who unfairly discriminate on religious grounds. I assume that even though religious conscience is protected by the legislation, it is deemed subsidiary to the discrimination against the gay couple because in this circumstance the first is deemed indirect discrimination and the second direct. By the same logic, a gay couple who refused to allow Christians to stay in their guesthouse on the ground of their religious homophobia would also find the courts ruling against them.

So this ruling is not evidence that sexual orientation is given priority over religious conscience in the hierarchy of rights (if this reading is correct). Nevertheless, I do fully expect believers and religious leaders to claim persecution based on this result!

The full judgement is here.

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