Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Nietzsche Was a Prophet

One reason the 19th century atheistic German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is so interesting is that he was exceptionally clear-sighted about the consequences of the European embrace of atheism, particularly the consequences of atheism for traditional morality.

There's a popular conception current today that one doesn't need to believe in God to have moral values or to be good, and of course, in one sense that's true. Anyone can hold whatever moral principles one wishes, but the problem for moderns is that without an objective standard of morality or goodness no values one chooses to live by are any more "right" or "wrong" than any others.

If atheism is true a man can choose to always tell the truth, but had he chosen instead to always lie he wouldn't have been morally wrong, he'd just be different. Without a transcendent, objective standard of right and wrong morality is just a set of subjective preferences, and no one's subjective preference is any more authoritative than anyone else's.

Moreover, without a transcendent moral lawgiver there can be no ultimate accountability for the moral choices we make. Thus, when Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa both died their fates were the same - extinction. There was no real accountability for their choices so what does it matter whether one chooses the path of a tyrant or a saint?

Nietzsche saw all this clearly. In his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols he wrote:
[The English] are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. . . . In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing . . . what a moral fanatic one is. . . .We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one's feet. . . .

Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole. . . . Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, [nor] what [is] evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth—it stands and falls with faith in God.

When the English actually believe that they know "intuitively" what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion: such that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, such that the very conditional character of its right to existence is no longer felt.

For the English, morality is not yet a problem.
It might be noted that Nietzsche wasn't denying that people can hold certain values without God, he was saying that Christian moral values have no purchase in the absence of belief in God. This is true, but what values do we hold in society that we do not owe to a Christian worldview?

Our belief that all people are equally valuable and that racism is wrong derive from the belief that we are all created in the image of God and that God loves each of us equally.

Our moral repugnance at the sexual abuse of vulnerable women stems from the Christian belief that women are not second class in the eyes of God but have dignity and worth in their own right.

Our alarm at reports of children being separated from their families at the Mexican border stems from the Christian belief that families are instituted by God as the basic unit of society and that it's wrong to interfere with the family without good reason.

Our moral horror at acts of cruelty stems from the Christian belief that we are enjoined by God to treat others with dignity, respect and kindness because God loves them.

None of these beliefs are the products of pagan philosophy nor of what's called evolutionary ethics. Neither racism nor abuse of women nor cruelty to others is "wrong" on either view. In fact, it's difficult to understand what it even means to say that something is wrong if there's no accountability. To say that something is "wrong" is to say little more than that "most people don't like it."

But what does Nietzsche mean by that enigmatic last sentence, "For the English, morality is not yet a problem"?

Western society has built up a certain moral momentum. Even though the train has gone over the cliff it still continues to hurtle forward for a time, but it can't last. When Nietzsche wrote these words the moral consequences of the "Death of God" had not yet been realized. Things were going on as before. People just assumed that some things were right and others were wrong even though they no longer had any basis for making these judgments.

Like a dissolute heir they were living off their Christian inheritance, but the moral capital accumulated during the centuries of Christian hegemony won't last forever.

As Dostoyevsky wrote a bit earlier than Nietzsche, "If God is dead then everything is permitted." If there's no God watching, there's no reason why the Nazis shouldn't seek to exterminate the Jews. If there's no God watching, there's no reason why the Hutus shouldn't slaughter the Tutsis. If there's no God watching there's no reason why anyone with power should refrain from imposing his will on other human beings - to cheat them, degrade them, torture them, or kill them - if he so desires.

Perhaps we are slowing waking up to the fact that by abandoning God we're abandoning the only foundation we can have for what we call morally good behavior. We're dissolving the fabric that holds our society together. Perhaps we're beginning to realize that morality is becoming a problem. Modern man has no good answer to these questions.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics

There was an interesting exchange during the interview with philosopher Brad Monton posted yesterday (A Refreshingly Open Mind Pt. II) that went like this:
So what sort of scientific evidence would be compelling enough to change your mind?
It would be evidence for mind as a fundamental feature of the universe. As far as I'm concerned, God would have to be a purely mental entity, not connected to physical reality in the way that we are through our bodies.

So if we could discover some kind of evidence that mind is fundamental, then that would go a long way toward making me a believer. And if we could find evidence that the physical world isn't causally closed—that not only is mind a fundamental entity, but it likewise plays a causal role in the structure of the world—then that would also be compelling evidence for the existence of God.

Now, if it is found that mind plays a role in our brain processes alone, that by itself wouldn't make me believe in God, though it would certainly make me more open to the idea. But if we were to discover that mind is intervening in other places in the world besides our brain processes, then that would pretty much be the smoking gun.
Monton's reply brought to mind this VP post from a few years ago:

Physicist Sir James Jeans, contemplating the fact that the universe seems so astonishingly conformable to mathematics, once remarked that God must be a mathematician. It would indeed be a breathtaking coincidence had the mathematical architecture of the cosmos just happened to be the way it is by sheer serendipity.

Here's a lovely video that illustrates just one example of how mathematics seems to underlie the very fabric of the universe. The video describes how the geometry of nature so often exhibits what's called the Fibonacci sequence:
In 1959, the physicist and mathematician Eugene Wigner described the fact that mathematical equations describe every aspect of the universe as "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics."

Mathphobic students may wince at a statement like this, but it gets worse.

Physicist Max Tegmark has more recently claimed that the universe is not only described by mathematics, but is, in fact, mathematics itself.

To suggest that everything ultimately reduces to a mathematical expression is another way of saying that the universe is information. But if so, information doesn't just hang in mid-air, as it were. Behind the information there must be a mind in which the information resides or from which it arises. In either case, so far from the materialist belief that matter gives rise to everything else, it seems more likely that matter is itself a physical expression of information and that the information expressed by the cosmos is itself the product of mind.

In other words, it just keeps getting harder and harder to agree with the materialists that matter is the fundamental substance that makes up all reality. Materialism just seems so 19th century.

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Refreshingly Open Mind (Pt. II)

On Saturday we looked at the first part of a very interesting interview at Salvo magazine with philosopher of science Bradley Monton in which Monton, an atheist, expresses support for Intelligent Design.

He said at the end of the portion included on Saturday's post that his open-mindedness has been rewarded with calls by some of his colleagues at Colorado State University for him to be fired. This is, of course, a ridiculous response, one typical of narrow-minded people so insecure in their own convictions that they fear having them subjected to open and critical examination.

Anyway, I'd like to post some highlights today from the rest of the interview. The interviewer's questions are in bold font and excerpts from Monton's answers follow:

You've written that intelligent-design arguments have made you less certain of your atheism. What would it take to make you abandon it altogether?
Some people have come to believe in God on the basis of divine revelation, which is intellectually legitimate, as far as I'm concerned. I wish that I could have that sort of profound revelatory experience because then I could stop struggling with philosophical arguments and the extent to which the fine-tuning of the universe points to a creator. But the fact is that I haven't. A lot of other people haven't either, which leaves us searching for alternative forms of proof.

I don't find the historical evidence for Christianity—or any other religion, for that matter—especially compelling. It's not that this sort of evidence is definitely flawed; it's just that it isn't compelling enough for me. Absent revelation and historical evidence, the best place to find God, in my opinion, is in science, and that's one of the reasons I'm so motivated to think about intelligent design.

So what sort of scientific evidence would be compelling enough to change your mind?
It would be evidence for mind as a fundamental feature of the universe. As far as I'm concerned, God would have to be a purely mental entity, not connected to physical reality in the way that we are through our bodies.

So if we could discover some kind of evidence that mind is fundamental, then that would go a long way toward making me a believer. And if we could find evidence that the physical world isn't causally closed—that not only is mind a fundamental entity, but it likewise plays a causal role in the structure of the world—then that would also be compelling evidence for the existence of God.

Now, if it is found that mind plays a role in our brain processes alone, that by itself wouldn't make me believe in God, though it would certainly make me more open to the idea. But if we were to discover that mind is intervening in other places in the world besides our brain processes, then that would pretty much be the smoking gun.

[My note: This is a fascinating answer inasmuch as there's a growing number of physicists who believe that reality is indeed fundamentally mental rather than material, i.e. that mind, not matter, is what's ultimately real. I wonder what Monton thinks of this.]

Are there other atheist scientists out there who believe that intelligent-design arguments hold some merit?
Thomas Nagel comes to mind as someone who feels that intelligent-design arguments have value, even though he's an atheist and not inclined at all to believe in God. In his new book Mind and Cosmos, he pushes for a teleological theory of reality, which is different from the standard naturalistic science view, but also different from the intelligent-design hypothesis.

Nagel's view is that the universe is fundamentally goal-oriented. It has this teleological structure to it that we will someday discover through scientific investigation. Part of how Nagel argues for his theory is by positively citing the arguments of intelligent-design proponents, which he believes support the existence of his teleological structure rather than a designer.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Refreshingly Open Mind

Salvo magazine has reprinted an interview with philosopher of science Bradley Monton in which Monton, an atheist, expresses surprising support for Intelligent Design, the view that life and the cosmos give very strong reasons for believing that they have both been designed by an intelligent agent or agents.

Here are a few highlights. The interviewer's question are in bold font and excerpts of Monton's responses follow:

What makes you take intelligent design (ID) seriously?
....I find the arguments of the opponents of ID too emotionally driven and not as intellectually robust as one would hope. I get upset with my fellow atheists who present bad arguments against intelligent design and then expect everyone to believe that they have somehow resolved the debate with these bad arguments.

Why do you think some scientists refuse to take intelligent design seriously?
....I would say that some atheists exhibit a fundamentalism that prevents them from even imagining that someone reasonable, rational, and intelligent could hold views different from their own.

You write in your book that you don't fully endorse intelligent design. In your opinion, what are some of the weaknesses of ID?
At one time, I would have said that the greatest weakness was the failure of ID proponents to put a theory on the table that makes testable predictions, but that all changed with Jonathan Wells's book The Myth of Junk DNA. In it, Wells predicted that this purported junk DNA—these stretches of DNA in our genome that many scientists had claimed were useless—would be purposeful for the structure of human biology.

Well, within the past year or so, empirical investigation has confirmed that there is in fact much less junk DNA than scientists had previously thought. It's just a great example of a testable prediction that was made by a proponent of intelligent design that turned out to be successful.

Then why can't you fully support intelligent design?
I still believe that ID scientists need to do a lot more in terms of testable predictions. I recognize that this is difficult to do. I'm not saying it's an easy project. However, it sure would be nice if they had more of a full-fledged research program that led to the development of theories in science. I think this is possible, though it's incredibly difficult to come up with new scientific theories that result in a paradigm shift....

So what are the strengths of intelligent design?
The main strength is that it is getting people to think very carefully about the extent to which there is scientific evidence for either God or some other creator. Plus, the specific arguments themselves are interesting and important to consider. For example, I find Michael Behe's investigation into irreducibly complex biological systems an extremely compelling line of inquiry, even if it turns out to be a flawed argument. It simply helps the progress of science to put arguments such as Behe's on the table.

The same goes for the more physics-based fields of intelligent design, such as the work being conducted by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards. They believe that our universe is ideally suited not just for the existence of life, but also for observability. Why is there a correlation between the regions of the universe that are habitable by creatures such as us and regions that are suitable for making observations and learning about the universe?

That's an interesting question, but as far as I know, no atheist-minded physicist had ever thought about it before Gonzalez and Richards came on the scene. Advocates of intelligent design get people thinking in new ways about science and scientific investigation.

Do you think intelligent design should be taught in public schools?
I think it could be pedagogically useful to do so, certainly. What I know from being a teacher these past thirteen years is that it's wrong to ignore matters that students may have heard about or are certainly going to hear about in the future.

For example, did you know that the California teacher guidelines for K–12 students state that if a student asks about intelligent design, he should be told that it doesn't belong in the science classroom—that he should talk to his family or pastor about it instead?

Shutting down discussion and debate in this fashion is bad pedagogy. Teachers should be forthright about all of the evidence and tell students that issues regarding the origin of life are still open for debate.

Do you think academic freedom is limited for non-tenured proponents of intelligent design?

There certainly are documented cases of professors getting in trouble for putting forth intelligent-design ideas, and I think that's really unfortunate. The academy should be about respecting ideas, however controversial they might be. Once you screen people on their ability to be intellectually sophisticated, they should be allowed to pursue the issues they want to pursue, even issues that go against the current orthodoxy—that violate the standard canons of how thinking should be done.

Intelligent design should be allowed in the academy because most of the proponents of intelligent design are intellectually sophisticated. There's no doubt about it. People such as Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells should be allowed to pursue empirical and philosophical investigations in whatever way they think best leads to truth.

How have other academics responded to your writings and statements on intelligent design?
The degree to which I have been attacked is actually pretty ludicrous. I gave a public lecture on intelligent design here at the University of Colorado, and a number of the school's biology professors demanded that I be fired. One such professor, Michael Klymkowsky, went so far as to organize his own public lecture in response to mine.

Unfortunately for him, his lecture ended up being a mess, misrepresenting my views and then failing to make arguments of its own. At the beginning, the audience was mostly on his side, but by the end they didn't know what to think because his arguments were so weak.

So I've received preposterous critiques such as that one, but I've also had a lot of support, especially from philosophers who don't have a dog in the intelligent-design fight. They haven't gone to great pains to investigate ID, but they appreciate my open-minded perspective.

They have also told me that they are disturbed by the narrow-minded and emotionally driven attacks on the part of the philosophical and scientific critics of intelligent design. It has been quite heartening to receive that kind of support.


There's more to the interview and you can read the entire Q&A at the link. There are a couple of additional questions to which Monton gives what I think are fascinating replies, and I'll discuss these a bit on Monday.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Why Muslims Believe Jerusalem Belongs to Them

In an article at PJ Media Raymond Ibrahim explains the grounds upon which Muslims base their claim to Jerusalem. Ibrahim writes:
An Islamic preacher who recently appeared on official Palestinian Authority television made all the usual angry remarks that Muslims often make concerning Israel’s right to exist, particularly in the context of its claim to Jerusalem.

His comments may suggest to the casual Western listener that “by rights,” and as a matter of universal justice, Jerusalem belongs to Muslims.

However, the comments are laden with religious and historical references and observations that only Muslims might understand, and of which none accord with Western notions of universal rights and justice.

This is especially evident in the cleric’s assertion that Jerusalem “is a religious, Sharia, and historical right of the Muslims, and of no one else but them.”

Why is Jerusalem a “religious” right for Muslims? Because Islamic tradition teaches that one night in the year 610, Muhammad -- miraculously flying atop a supernatural horse-like creature (al-Buraq) -- visited and prayed in it.

Why is Jerusalem a “Sharia” -- or legal -- right for Muslims? Because according to all interpretations of Islamic law, or Sharia, once a territory has been “opened” to the light of Islam, it forever belongs to the House of Islam, or Dar al-Islam.

This leads to the third, and most telling “right”: that Jerusalem is a “historical right of the Muslims” because in the year 637, Muslim Arab armies “opened” -- that is to say, conquered -- Jerusalem.
In other words, according to Ibrahim, Muslims believe that once they've conquered a city or territory, once a city or territory has been exposed to Islam, it's forever destined to be Muslim. It cannot ever be reconverted or reconquered.

This only applies, of course, to lands and peoples conquered by, and converted to, Islam. Anything conquered by say, Jews, in their numerous wars against their Arab neighbors must be handed back to Muslims, but anything conquered by Muslims belongs to Muslims forever.

How convenient. How unpersuasive.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Suicide Culture

There's been a lot written about what's wrong with our culture in the wake of the recent suicides of celebrities Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and, earlier, Robin Williams. Some attribute it to mental illness and no doubt that plays a role, but that answer only pushes the question back a step. What's at the root of so much mental illness?

I wonder if the underlying malady isn't, at least in part, the same for many suicide victims as it is for many mass killers. Perhaps the fundamental problem is that modern society has failed to imbue people with a sense that our lives are meaningful, that they amount to anything. We often hear instead that we're just blobs of protoplasm, products of impersonal forces, that we exist for a moment and then are gone forever, like the light of a firefly.

We're just dust in the wind, we're told, and neither we nor anything else really has any significance or purpose. We're bereft of any reason to hope that there is or could be anything more to our being here. The sole purpose of human existence is, to quote biologist Theodore Dobzhansky, "to live, to leave more life" and then get out of the way. That's the unhappy legacy of modern secularism.

I'm not saying this is the only reason, and certainly not a conscious reason, behind every suicide or mass murderer, but I do think that a culture which has stripped away any sense of genuine transcendence leaves people with a profound emptiness. It promises them that that emptiness can be satisfied with consumer goods, sex, success, music, drugs, whatever, but these turn out in the end to be false gods and false hopes. Many of the people who are choosing to end their lives have all of these things in abundance, yet they're still empty inside.

Human beings yearn for transcendence, our psyches need it like our body needs solid food, but modern culture throws us a stick of cotton candy and promises us that it's as nourishing as it is sweet. It's a lie.

Writer Caroline D'Agati says:
Every human being must at some time confront the same disease that claimed Anthony, Kate, Robin, and every other person who takes his or her life: meaninglessness. Why are we here and is this life worth living? It’s a sobering thought.

Friedrich Nietzsche—another struggler—said that anyone with a “why” to live could endure almost any how. These wealthy, accomplished people had some of the most marvelous “hows” anyone could imagine. Yet none of it could make up for the lack of “why.”

Those with everything are often no different. The highest highs show us that, no matter what we achieve or acquire, the hopelessness doesn’t go away. Both the king and the pauper stare life in the face and see that it’s merely “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
D'Agati goes on to write,
As Kate, Anthony, Robin, and so many other entertainers show, even giving joy to others, in the end, is not enough. So in the end, why bother? How can we not be defeated when we set our eyes on the brokenness of this world? The answer: to fix our eyes on another world. The writer C.S. Lewis famously said that, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” If we believe this life is all there is, the darkness will blind us to the majesty and beauty of life.

Suicide is the tragic, but reasonable response to being confronted by life’s reality with no salve of deeper meaning to bandage the wound. This is why a life without God, no matter how grand, will always leave our hearts unfulfilled.
Augustine, writing almost two thousand years ago, recognized the problem. In his autobiographical Confessions he exclaims to God, "You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You."

As our contemporary moderns are discovering to their pain, nothing else is working very well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Absolute Equality

Samuel Gregg at The Federalist argues that the American obsession with equality is dangerous and potentially fatal to our democracy. Drawing on Alexis de Toqueville's magisterial study of 19th century America, Democracy in America (1835/1840), Gregg wonders whether American democracy's emphasis on equality might not eventually make the whole experiment come undone.

He writes:
Democracy’s emphasis on equality helps to break down many unjust forms of discrimination and inequality. Women gradually cease, for instance, to be regarded as inherently inferior. Likewise, the fundamental injustice of slavery becomes harder and harder to rationalize.

At the same time, as Tocqueville scholar Pierre Manent has observed, democracies gravitate toward a fascination with producing total egalitarianism. Democracy requires everyone to relate to each other through the medium of democratic equality. We consequently start seeing and disliking any disparity which stems from an inequality of conditions. Equality turns out to be very antagonistic toward difference per se, even when differences are genetic (such as between men and women) or merited (some are wealthier because they freely assume more risks).
In other words, we've made equality a kind of golden calf to which we bow down and worship. If equality is good, we've decided, then total, absolute equality must be better. Thus, we find ourselves obliterating all distinctions and all judgments of better or worse. We don our social and psychological Mao suits, loath to acknowledge any differences among us.

But this obsession with equality as sameness cripples our ability to inculcate virtue:
The idea of virtue implies that there are choices whose object is always good and others that are wrong in themselves. Courage is always better than recklessness and cowardice. But language such as “better than,” or “superior to” is intolerable to egalitarianism of the leveling kind. That’s one reason why many people in democratic societies prefer to speak of “values.” Such language implies that (1) all values are basically equal, and (2) there’s something impolite if not downright wrong with suggesting that some purportedly ethical commitments are irrational and wrong.
Virtue, however, is inseparable, in the U.S., at least, from Christianity. Thus, if virtue is to be diluted to a kind of bland "values clarification" Christian religion must be emasculated, shrunken to a meaningless series of church suppers and insipid sermons.

This is ironic since the concept of human equality is rooted in the Christian belief that all men are created by God who cares equally about each of us. No naturalistic or secular ground for the doctrine of human equality exists, it's not derivable from Darwinism nor secular reason, and indeed, prior to the rise of Christianity the notion of human equality would've been unintelligible.

The concept of equality before God (and before the civil law), however, has in our secular age been conflated with the concept of absolute sameness which is no part of its original meaning. Unless we return to that original meaning, Gregg argues, we will lose not only the concept of equality, but also whatever remnants of virtue remain as well as the religious belief that grounds both virtue and equality.

When that happens tyranny and the loss of our liberties will not be far behind.

Read more of Gregg's argument at the link.