Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Necessity of Evil?

The faithful like to think they have the moral upper hand on non-believers. This is usually because they believe there is an objective morality, somehow personified (is that the right word?) in their version of god. It's not clear to me how a god being the embodiment (again, is that the right word?) of 'good' establishes an objective morality, but let's see if we can run with it. 

I've seen theists say to deniers of objective morality, that to torture a child for fun is always wrong, so let us examine this knotty problem. (The 'for fun' is a little problematic, because it could defy accurate definition.)

Moral 'laws' are not constraining laws, in the way that physical laws are, they're normative - they can be overridden, but, we feel, they *should* be observed. This seems to make them a little worthless to me, but nevertheless, let's continue. For a morality to be objective, it would be recognised by everything under all circumstances; in other words, it wouldn't be *contingent*. Regardless of the viewpoint, one could identify the normative behaviour. This universality, I think, should apply to everything; you, me, trees, rocks. One could say that rocks, being inanimate objects never have the chance to operate with moral considerations. But one could imagine that a rock, having rolled down a hill and pinned an innocent child to the ground and caused much pain might be being immoral. It cannot do anything about it, agreed, but nonetheless, it *is* torturing a child. Perhaps the apologist would deny that this is 'for fun'? Perhaps, but it's certainly to no purpose, and if that's not 'for fun', I'm not sure what is.

OK, so the apologist says, don't be silly, these 'laws' cannot apply to things lacking agency, or the ability to do anything about it. Right, so they're not universal, they're just universal for, er, homo sapiens? And other animals, too, perhaps, but we'll figure that out later. Let's accept that, and carry on. Mackie says in his 'Ethics' that 'the device of morality is beneficial because of certain contingent features of the human condition'. On this I think he concurs with many ethicists. This has always seemed to me an obvious point about morality, and renders a universal objective morality unobtainable. History would seem to bear this out, but let's not be too empiricist about this, and explore further. 

To torture a child for fun is *always* wrong? Or can we think of a circumstance where this could be OK? I think we can. Imagine we are observing two rooms set up by some James Bond villain. In one, there are ten children, in the other 50. If no child in the first room tortures another child 'for fun' within the day, then the 50 children in the other room will be tortured. If I know kids, there will be some fun-filled victimisation going on sooner or later, so I guess the 50 kids are safe. More to the point, as observers, we must *hope* for the torture of a child for fun, to achieve the preferred outcome. Hang on, what's that? We want a child to be tortured for fun? Surely that's objectively wrong? Well, no, it's *contingent*, like all other morality.

Let's be charitable, and allow the apologist to say, hey, unrealistic thought experiments aside, it's *wrong* to torture kids for fun! You just *know* it's wrong. Well, I guess, we do, practically *all* the time. It's clearly *not* universal, but let's allow some leeway, and say that it *is* objectively wrong. Nevertheless, kids are tortured for fun everyday in this world, so it *does* happen. In fact, in the theists' world-view, their god is *allowing* it. Why would he do that, him being the embodiment (?) of good, and all that? The closest to an explanation of this conundrum is, to sum up centuries of theodicy, 'for the greater good'. So evils are allowed to occur to achieve greater 'goods'. But that means... that 'torturing children for fun' is for the greater good. Which means it's not objectively wrong, surely? Well, your guess is as good as mine, but I suppose we've stumbled upon the Euthyphro dilemma.

With such confused moral thinking, is it any wonder that abuses occur as we've seen reported in Ireland. If a doctrine acknowledges that evil is *required* for the greater good, why wouldn't the believers of that doctrine think that these evils are *inevitable*. I think only *humanitarian* instincts, which thankfully come to the fore in the vast majority of theists, prevent it. It's *human* values that conteract these bankrupt *theist* values.

One would hope that these abuses are confined to Ireland and the recent past, but one fears the worst; is it the logical outcome of a doctrine that preaches the *necessity* of evil?

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Monday, 18 May 2009

Yet More on Faith - Fish Fingered

From Stanley Fish's article in the New York Times:
The theological formulation of this insight [reasoning without assumptions is impossible] is well known: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11). Once the act of simply reporting or simply observing is exposed as a fiction — as something that just can’t be done — the facile opposition between faith-thinking and thinking grounded in independent evidence cannot be maintained. Pking gets it right. “To torpedo faith is to destroy the roots of . . . any system of knowledge . . . I challenge anyone to construct an argument proving reason’s legitimacy without presupposing it . . . Faith is the base, completely unavoidable. Get used to it. It’s the human condition.” (All of us, not just believers, see through a glass darkly.) Religious thought may be vulnerable on any number of fronts, but it is not vulnerable to the criticism that in contrast to scientific or empirical thought, it rests on mere faith.
This is classic pomo style defence of religious thought, and whilst the argument is trivially true (in the sense that at bottom we all have to make assumptions a priori) it *isn't* the point of the reason/faith divide. The point is that the religious *do* use reason themselves, so they *do* adopt the same assumptions as the non-theist. But here's the rub; *except* when it comes to their privileged god belief. So the theist takes on board the assumption of reason, not unreasonably, and then discards it for one *particular* belief. This strikes me as inconsistent at best and dishonest at worst. What has Stanley Fish used to formulate his anti-reason attack if not reason itself? Any other tool than *reason* and it would have been a series of wildly unconnected thoughts of no relevance to the point in question (no jokes, please, tempting though it is). To attack *reason*, therefore, is self-defeating. All that non-theists ask is that theists apply the same critical thinking to their religious belief as they would to all their other beliefs.

It's also wrong historically, since most people in the past would have felt, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that everything around them was testament to the truth of the god concept. Homo sapiens had good *reason* to believe there were greater movers at work. It was the way his mind constructed a believable narrative about his situation.

More dangerously, to take a realisation about our epistemology (that we have no reason to assume reason!) and extend it to allow belief without reason is simply a recipe for conflict. Without allowing reason its supremacy, we simply have no conflict resolution mechanism. Well, other than violence, I guess.

And once again we have a theist defending the notion of faith without evidence, contradicting Catholic doctrine, and other theists, like Polkinghorne. Is it any wonder the non-believer has to spread his attacks wide, only to be accused of attacking the wrong target? There are so many different versions of superstitious belief, it is a Sisyphean task.

It really is about time the theists got together and sorted their story out. Do they believe for good reason, or not?

Fish continues:
So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.
It is more reasonable to believe that religion is an inferior way of knowing because:  
  • It hasn't *demonstrated* any advantage over reason when it comes to taking advantage of reality; quite the opposite.  
  • The religious way of knowing has led to numerous unsubstantiated and conflicting claims about the world. Logic compels us to say that they cannot *all* be right, so we must exclude at least all but one. Which are we to choose?

Why would a god make believing in him such an unreasonable proposal?

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Saturday, 9 May 2009

Crucifixion or Freedom?

I’m grateful to Useful Idiot  for pointing out the Roman Catholic definition of faith, of which, despite being baptised RC, I was unaware! I blame my parents.

Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature.

And further:

Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives."31 "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt."
Para 157

It’s a very puzzling concept as stated, and needs a little unpacking. Not all Christians seem to observe this definition; for example, as I’ve discussed, Anglican priest John Polkinghorne bases his faith on what he considers to be good evidence and Monsignor Rodney Strange holds the (perhaps heretical) belief that *doubt* is linked to faith.

Para 150 seems most analogous to Polkinghorne’s position and, as such, is vulnerable to the same argument I used against him. If a god has revealed the whole truth to one then ‘faith’ is simply following the *reasonable* course of action – why that should be rewarded with an eternity in heaven is obscure. To be fair, perhaps it’s a reward for the searching, the openness to the idea of god? But we all know many people who have searched long and hard for the divinely revealed truth. I was a theist and searched for it, but didn’t find it. I know of ex-theists who haven’t found it. Many a theist appear not to have found it! 

‘Free assent to the whole truth’ is required, invoking, I suppose, the theist’s favourite explanans, free will. Why would anyone say ‘no’ to faith if god has revealed the truth to one? Insanity would appear to be the only answer to that, or perhaps a healthy dislike of all the do-gooders one would have to spend eternity with.

Perhaps the divinely revealed truth isn’t quite as straightforward, or argument-ending, as I’m assuming? This brings us to Para 157; it starts off well – ‘Faith is certain.’ Good. That’s settled it. Founded on the very word of god blah blah... fair enough. Understand that. Then a very odd sentence:

To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, 

This seems to be suggesting there *is* something obscure about divinely revealed truth.

but "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives."

But this straightaway contradicts this impression. "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives." (quoting St Thomas Aquinas) is plain; once one has been exposed to the divinely revealed truth bathed in divine light one will have no doubt. It’s *better* than natural reason.

So Catholic faith raises a number of questions:

  • The evidence is overwhelming that we are prisoners of our own, sometimes flawed, perceptions, yet Catholics ask us to believe that in this one case, our perceptions can be trusted *absolutely*, presumably because god is all-powerful, supernatural etc. This is an *extraordinary* claim, but could be backed up by *extraordinary* evidence. Unfortunately it isn’t. The weight of evidence suggests no divinely revealed truth is being regularly revealed to good, honest folk; contrarily, various incompatible beliefs are being revealed to people around the world, almost as if these ideas came from... inside their heads. Where is the extraordinary evidence for divinely revealed truth?
  • If one grants there is divinely revealed truth, why would anyone *not* freely assent to it? I’ve never met anyone who said, ‘Yeah, I saw the divinely revealed truth, bathed in divine light – it was incontrovertibly the whole truth. But I said no, not interested. I’m a contrary bastard.’
  • Why the reward for assenting to faith if the truth is certain? This is equivalent to the question in Life of Brian; ‘Crucifixion or freedom?’ It is literally a no-brainer, and hardly something that a god should be rewarding.

Compared to the ‘faith overcoming doubt’ definition of Hebrews 11.1, the Catholic definition seems *even more* logic defying. It does, however, explain why many theists are so confident in their faith. Phenomenal experiences can be very powerful and believable (well, what else do we have!), and the fact that phenomena themselves are, in fact, rather ethereal is not apparent to any of us. How could someone distinguish between a brainstorm apparently revealing the divinely revealed truth and the actual divinely revealed truth (if there were such a thing)? Well one couldn’t, so one would be tempted to accept it. A great exercise of will and reason would be needed to disabuse oneself of the notion, in fact.

Not that, to be honest, I’ve actually met anyone who has admitted such a thing; in so many words, anyway :-).

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