Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Reasons for Unbelief

A recent Pew survey found that the number of Americans who don't believe in God or who are unaffiliated with any religion is continuing to increase. The survey listed the reasons, and I have to say (and I hope no one is offended by this) the reasons seem pretty weak for such an important epistemic commitment:

Consider just the reasons for unbelief (I'm surprised, btw, that the problem of suffering didn't make the list since it's probably the best reason for skepticism out there.).

1. Learning about evolution. There's no incompatibility between evolution and God. Many theists believe in both. In fact, as philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out, the conflict really lies between naturalism (atheism) and evolution. If evolution is true then our rational faculties have evolved to help us survive, not necessarily to lead us to truth. Those who believe both atheism and evolution to be true have no basis for trusting their reason to lead them to truth, especially metaphysical truth. But if that's so they have no basis for trusting their reason when it leads them to conclude that either atheism or evolution are true. If God exists, however, then we have grounds for thinking that God has caused our reason to evolve to lead us to truth.

2. Too many Christians doing unChristian things. Even if it were granted that many people fall short of what we might expect of them (who doesn't?) what does that have to do with whether or not God exists? God's existence doesn't depend on whether people who believe He exists live consistently with that belief. One shouldn't confuse belief that God exists with a particular religious expression of that belief.

3. Religion is the opiate of the people. Even if it were granted that religion misleads or stupefies many people that's also irrelevant to the question whether God exists. The truth of theism is one thing, the truth of a particular religion, or religion in general, is something entirely different. It's ironic, parenthetically, that the opiate claim is taken from Karl Marx. If anything has stupefied the masses, as well as the intelligentsia, over the last one hundred years it has been atheistic Marxism.

4. Rational thought discredits religious belief. Even if it were granted that many religious beliefs cannot withstand rational scrutiny that has nothing to do with whether theism itself is rational. The claim that theism is discredited by rational thought is simply false as many, if not most, philosophers, both theist and atheist, have acknowledged.

5. Lack of evidence for a creator. This objection is as puzzling as it is common. There are numerous arguments that constitute evidence for a creator. At least two forms of the cosmological argument (the kalam argument and the argument from contingency of the universe), the argument from cosmic fine-tuning, and the moral argument are all strong arguments whose conclusions assert the existence of God.

6. Just don't believe it. I think this objection might better be stated, "I just don't want it to be true that God exists." If someone doesn't want theism to be true, of course, nothing will persuade him or her that it is.

I suspect this deep desire for a naturalistic world is the fundamental reason for most unbelief today. The other reasons listed above certainly don't seem to constitute adequate explanations of it.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Why Study Philosophy?

In the course of my teaching I sometimes encourage students to consider an undergraduate philosophy major or minor because I believe that a study of the questions philosophers address provides the most important background a thoughtful and intelligent student could acquire.

Students often ask, though, what they can do with a degree in philosophy. My reply is that most majors don't do anything professionally with their degree, but rather they find it excellent preparation for the sorts of careers they do choose to pursue. Employers in most occupations prefer to train their employees themselves in the skills they'll need, and most professions require graduate level work in a specific field. Undergraduate philosophy prepares a student well for either path.

A friend sent along a link to a post by Dr. Roy Clouser, author of the outstanding book The Myth of Religious Neutrality, and professor of philosophy at Trenton State College, in which he addresses these same questions. His post is entitled Why Major in Philosophy? and it contains a lot of good advice for a young high schooler or undecided undergrad who thinks they might enjoy philosophy but who isn't sure if it will prepare him or her for making a living. Clouser writes:

For most students arriving at college, philosophy is the one subject they've never had before so it's natural that it's one of the last they consider majoring in. It's also natural to wonder what the major is good for--after all, few people ever plan to be professional philosophers! Yet, year after year, students switch their major to philosophy, and others tell us they wish they'd discovered it sooner so they could have done so.

What these students discovered - surprising as it sounds - is that philosophy is the single most useful major in the entire undergraduate curriculum! (Yes, useful!)

It's true, of course, that not many people become professional philosophers. But neither do most history majors become historians or English majors go on to become novelists. The fact is that most students don't pick a major because they plan to make their living in that field. They choose a major based on their interests and on how well it will prepare them for the widest possible number of occupations after college. If you are deciding that way too, we can say this for certain: If you have the interest, philosophy is best possible major - hands down.

Let me explain.

Philosophy deals with theories about the most basic beliefs and values that people have. These include topics like the nature of reality and human nature, the nature and sources of knowledge and morality, the proper structure for society and government, and the nature of religious belief. It also studies theories about the nature of science, art, language, and law. In this way, every philosophy major is exposed to the most influential interpretations of the most important issues people face across the entire spectrum of human experience.

But more than simply learning about these issues, philosophy includes a keen training in logic and critical thinking - in the ability to argue and debate the truth of the various theories and viewpoints that are studied. It sharpens one's ability to spot difficulties, pose questions, and to weigh the evidence for and against the reasons given for any view on any topic. (A bank V.P. once told me that his logical training was the most valuable thing he got in his entire undergraduate education - even more valuable than his business courses.)

Even from this short description you may be able to see why a philosophy major is the best possible background for anyone who wants to deal with the public or who wants to write - whether as a novelist, or news reporter. It is also the very best major for those thinking of pursuing any sort of career in religion. And it should come as no surprise that law schools consider it the best background for the Law SAT and a career in law. (Speaking of standardized tests, the highest GRE scores consistently come from three majors: math, physics, and philosophy.)

But there's more. It seems that a solid background in the influential viewpoints over a wide range of issues, and an ability to think logically about them, is also splendid training for a career in business according to several top business schools. But what may be most surprising of all is that the records of some of the best medical schools show philosophy as the undergraduate major of some of their most outstanding alumni!

So, if you have doubts about the major that's best for you - especially if you are presently an undeclared major - why not make an appointment at the philosophy department to talk over your interests with one of our faculty? Philosophy might, at least, be the ideal minor subject for you even if you decide not to major in it.

I offer only one caveat. Philosophy departments, like departments in any of the humanities, often are loaded with instructors who favor a particular school or style of philosophy. Some of these styles may be deadly dull to students who expect their philosophy experience to be an exciting intellectual excursion into the best that's been thought and written about life's most important questions. The student contemplating a major or minor in philosophy would do well to check out what approach the department is inclined toward before committing him or herself to signing up.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Unkillable Myth

William and Mary anthropologist Barbara King recently reviewed a new book by Alistair McGrath titled The Big Question: Why We Can't Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God, and criticized him for perpetuating what she calls the "unkillable myth" to which theists cling. The "myth" she has in mind is the conviction among many thoughtful people, theists and atheists alike, actually, that unless there is a purpose to the cosmos in general there can be no ultimate meaning to individual human existences.

King, who is herself an atheist, writes:
Here, yet again, is the unkillable myth, the persistent blind spot about atheism that apparently no amount of explaining can make go away. No matter how lucidly atheists explain in books, essays and blog posts that, yes, life can and does for us have meaning without God, the tsunami of claims about atheists' arid existence rolls on and on.

Where does this persistent (is it also willful?) misunderstanding come from?
Well, to answer her question, it derives from several sources, I think, one of which is the writings of atheists themselves.

McGrath cites a couple of those atheist writings, and King quotes him, but she remains unpersuaded by the quotes. She says that just because there's no meaning to nature or the universe it's illogical to conclude that individual lives have no meaning. She posits two steps that theists take to arrive at this conclusion:
First is the understanding, emergent from evolutionary theory, that neither the universe as a whole, nor we humans within it, have evolved according to some plan of design. Cosmic evolution and human evolution unfold with no guiding hand or specific goals. Most atheists do accept this, I think.

Second is to embrace as a logical next step the idea that our own individual lives have no purpose or meaning. Do you know of any atheists who believe this? I don't.
Perhaps King doesn't read much atheist literature, but there are plenty of well-known atheist philosophers, novelists, and filmmakers who believe this. A partial list would include Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Bertrand Russell, Hemmingway, Somerset Maugham, Woody Allen, and Jurgen Habermas.

To quote just one of these writers, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that "unless the point of life is to suffer, life has no point."

King adds:
Nor do I recognize the scientific communities of which I am a part — both online and offline — in McGrath's insistence that a "sense of cosmic pointlessness haunts many today, particularly within the scientific community."
But what about these famous words from Nobel Prize recipient Steven Weinberg?
...the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature .... We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair.
Or the insistence of the late Will Provine that,
There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death….There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will.
Or the words of another Nobel recipient Francis Crick:
‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’
What do any of these brilliant scientists mean if not that man is insignificant and that his existence has no more point or purpose than that of an insect?

Space precludes quoting other scientists such as Sigmund Freud, Bernard Rensch, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Hawking, inter alia.

King continues:
An anthropological perspective teaches us that we humans are a quintessentially meaning-making species. We create love and kindness (hate and violence, too), and also work that matters. We recognize and protect (or, too often, harm) our sense of connection to other animals, to plants and trees, to all of nature's landscapes. What are those acts if not ones of meaning and purpose?
There are a couple of things to be said about what she asserts in the previous paragraph. First, an illusion of meaningfulness is not the same thing as real meaningfulness, subjective meaning is not the same as objective meaning, and proximal meaning is not the same as ultimate meaning.

Anyone can insert meaning of the illusory, subjective, proximal kind into his or her life, but this is like an elderly lady in the rest home who finds great satisfaction in doing jigsaw puzzles all day, who experiences delight every time she inserts the right piece and is pleased when she finishes. Then she dismantles it all, puts it back in the box and begins the next one. The puzzles give her life meaning of a sort, but what she does doesn't really matter. It just allows her to stave off boredom.

If meaning is something we make up then meaning is merely a pretend fiction, like a child's imaginary friend. We may think our lives matter, but how could they if everything ultimately perishes? Unless what we do matters forever it doesn't really matter at all. To insist that life is meaningful even though we all hurtle toward extinction is just philosophical whistling past the graveyard.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Couple of Puzzlements

For as long as I can remember the left has been reminding us of the plight of the black underclass in America. Indeed, liberals may be said to have been the conscience of the nation on this issue. Black communities suffer from unemployment, bad schools, poverty, drugs, family breakdown, crime, etc. If someone were to suggest that blacks have it pretty good in the U.S. compared to almost anywhere else in the world, that blacks have come a long way since the days of Jim Crow, etc. they'd be hooted down by liberals and progressives for their naivete and insensitivity.

Yet, when Donald Trump stands before a white audience and repeats basically what the left has been saying for over fifty years, when he affirms that blacks suffer all the disadvantages the left has claimed they have, Hillary Clinton tweets that his statement "is so ignorant it's staggering."

It seems that for people like Hillary no matter what Trump says he's wrong for no other reason than that it's him that's saying it. What did he say about the plight of many blacks that was "ignorant"? What did he say that liberals, and conservatives, haven't been saying for decades?

It's interesting that in much of the subsequent criticism of Trump's speech no one actually tries to refute him on the basic facts, they only offer the rather juvenile retort that he's "ignorant," or question his sincerity, or quibble about the venue in which he said it:
To object to Trump's speech on the grounds that because it was delivered before a white audience his argument is therefore somehow invalid is absurd. Do his critics think that unless a couple hundred African Americans are physically present in the auditorium that African Americans can't be moved by Trump's message? Do they think that African Americans won't hear the message unless they're in the same room as Trump? Do they actually think African Americans don't own televisions and computers?

Or could it be that they know that a lot of African Americans really are wondering what indeed they have to lose by voting Republican and this possibility is making them increasingly nervous?


The nation was outraged that Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte and some friends committed vandalism in Rio and lied about it to the police. He's since been punished emotionally by public opinion and financially by being stripped of endorsement contracts. He may have ruined whatever future he might otherwise have had because of his dishonesty.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly lied to the nation about matters both great and small with the frequency and compulsiveness of a Tourette's sufferer. She's arguably been criminal in her handling of the nation's secrets, and her recklessness and negligence may have gotten people killed. Yet she's very possibly about to be rewarded by the American public with the presidency of the United States.

Why are people outraged over an athlete's relatively venial lie but seemingly indifferent to Mrs. Clinton's chronic flouting of the law and lies about far more serious matters?

Perhaps Mr. Lochte should announce that he's a registered Democrat and take to wearing an I'm with Her button and and probably all will be forgiven.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Fortuitous Flukes

Nobel Prize winning biologist Francis Crick once said that "Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see (in their microscopes) was not designed, but rather evolved."

It's no wonder Crick thought biologists had to keep reciting this mantra to themselves. It seems so counterintuitive that the miniscule structures they've discovered over the last fifty years are the product of a mindless, purposeless, accidental processes. The design intuition, as protein biologist Doug Axe calls it, is so powerful in biology that biologists, when incautious, find themselves frequently slipping into language redolent of purpose and engineering.

As an example of one of those structures consider ATP synthase. ATP synthase is a cluster of molecular machines which manufacture a molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is to cells what gasoline is to cars. It provides the energy for everything the cell does. Here's a short video which shows how ATP is produced by ATP synthase. Bear in mind that the video simplifies what is in fact a much more complex process:
This system must have evolved quickly soon after the first cells appeared and without the benefit of eons of random genetic mutation. To think it evolved purely by blind chance is something like thinking that if you put all the separate component parts of an iphone in a blender and ran the blender enough times you'd get a functional iphone. It's possible, in the same way that anything not logically contradictory is possible, that there are such fortuitous flukes, but it takes an awful lot of faith - blind faith, actually - to believe they've happened.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Vetting Immigrants (Pt. II)

Yesterday I called attention to a column in NRO by former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy who argued that there's no constitutional proscription on banning immigrants who hold to an ideology antipathetic to American culture or values.

I'd like to continue with McCarthy's article today. He states that:
You are not supposed to connect the dots and ask, “Well, how is it conceivable that any sharia-adherent alien could faithfully pledge allegiance to our Constitution?” .... Sharia is not religion. Sharia is a totalitarian societal structure and legal corpus that anti-American radicals seek to impose. Yes, their motivation for doing so is their interpretation of their religion — the fundamentalist, literalist construction of Islam. But that does not make sharia itself a matter of “religion” in the Western sense, even if vast numbers of Arab Muslims — for whom there is no cognizable separation of mosque and state — say otherwise.
By an almost logical necessity Sharia adherents must wish to ultimately establish a theocracy in which everything is subordinated to the principles of Islam. This is certainly not freedom of religion or of speech but quite the opposite. Nor can a sharia adherent agree to the principle that all persons are equal under the law nor that women are in all relevant respects equal to men. Quite simply, a sharia-inclined theocrat cannot consistently support the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution.

McCarthy writes:
Two things flow from this. The first involves immigration. As we’ve previously demonstrated, there is no constitutional prohibition against considering religion in deciding which aliens to allow into the United States — immigration is a privilege, not a right; and our Constitution is security for Americans, not a weapon for aliens to use against Americans. Nevertheless, even if there were a constitutional bar against “religious tests,” sharia is not religion. There are no constitutional constraints against excluding aliens on grounds of anti-American political ideology. Excluding anti-Americans from America is common sense and was regarded as such for much of our history.

In a time of radical Islamic threat to our national security, Donald Trump is right to propose that aliens from sharia-supremacist areas be carefully vetted for adherence to anti-constitutional principles. Leftists — those notorious disciples of the Framers — claim this is unconstitutional. When shown it is not, they claim that it is against our “tradition” — being, you know, big fans of American tradition. When shown that this is not the case either, when shown that our history supports ideological exclusion of anti-Americans, leftists are down to claiming, “It is not who we are” — by which they always mean it is not who they are, and who they would force the rest of us to be.
It's the repeatedly asserted goal of radical Muslims to use democracy as a means to enable them to gradually acquire political power so that politicians, out of concern for their political viability, will pass laws that impose sharia.

It's not hard to imagine how this could be achieved. When the population of Muslims gets large enough they'll be seen as a voting block that needs to be appeased and catered to just like other such groups. To keep them loyal to the party in which they form a formidable part of the base their demands will be acquiesced to whenever that party is in power. At first these demands might seem minor, like freeing their schools from certain regulations, or allowing Muslim communities a measure of legal semi-autonomy so that they can impose sharia on their own people.

Eventually, as Muslim mayors and councilmen are elected to office sharia will be imposed city-wide, by fiat or ordinance, and a nation, which has for the last eight years looked the other way as its laws and Constitution were flouted time and again by its president and candidates for president, will have a hard time invoking the Constitution as a restraint on the inexorable imposition of sharia. Indeed, something like this transformational process is already well along in Europe.

McCarthy packs much more into his column. He explains, for example, how the left came to endorse the position that we should allow radicals to freely immigrate into the U.S. It's as interesting as it is important.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Vetting Immigrants (Pt. I)

Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has written a powerful essay in National Review Online on the idea of vetting Muslim immigrants that I highly commend to you. He begins by denying as utterly false the notion that barring immigrants is by itself unconstitutional:
The U.S. Constitution allows barring would-be immigrants who would subvert our Constitution. Imagine an American government official, interviewing an alien seeking admission to our country from, say, Syria:
U.S. official: “Will you support the United States Constitution?”

Syrian alien: “Well, sure, except that I believe the government should be overseen by a caliph, who must be Muslim and male, and who must rule in accordance with Islamic law, which no man-made law may contradict. None of this ‘We the People’ stuff; Allah is the sovereign. Non-Muslims should not be required to convert to Islam, of course, but they must submit to the authority of Islamic law — which requires them to live in the second-class status of dhimmitude and to pay a poll tax for that privilege.” “I also believe women must be subservient to men, and that men are permitted to beat their wives if they are disobedient — especially if they refuse sex, in which they must engage on demand. There is no such thing as marital rape, and proving non-marital rape requires testimony from four male witnesses. Outside the home, a woman should cover herself in drab from head to toe. A woman’s testimony in court should be worth only half of a man’s, and her inheritance rights similarly discounted. Men should be able to marry up to four women — women, however, are limited to marrying one man.” “Oh, and Muslims who renounce Islam should be put to death . . . as should homosexuals . . . and blasphemers . . . and adulterers — at least the ones we don’t let off with a mere scourging. The penalty for theft should be amputation of the right hand (for highway robbery, the left foot is also amputated); and for drinking alcohol, the offender is to be scourged with 40 stripes.” “There are a few other odds and ends — you know, jihad and whatnot. But other than that, will I support the Constitution? Sure thing.”

U.S. official: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on a second. That’s not supporting the Constitution. That would be destroying the Constitution.”

Syrian alien: “Yeah, maybe so. But it’s my religion.”

U.S. official: “Oh, your religion. Why didn’t you say so? I thought you were spouting some anti-American political ideology. But as long as you say it’s your religion, no problem. C’mon in!”
This conversation is impossible to imagine because . . . it would be honest.
Sally Kohn, a commentator at CNN, has apparently already accepted dhimmi status. She recently rebuked Trump for his wish to control Muslim immigration by claiming that there are lots of Muslims who embrace sharia who are also progressives.

This sounds oxymoronic, and Kohn has been hammered on twitter for her remark. Sharia and progressive are, or certainly should be, mutually exclusive descriptors. There's now a tongue-in-cheek petition circulating to get Kohn, who is herself a Jewish, lesbian feminist, to spend a week in a sharia-compliant country to see what she thinks of the progressive treatment Jews, women and gays receive there. Apropos Kohn's belief that sharia is compatible with progressive political views, last month I wrote the following (slightly amended):
One thing I think we can say about sharia is that it's not what Westerners would call "moderate" or "progressive."

Suppose you found yourself among a group of people which, it eventually became clear to you,...
  • held approximately the same views about gays as the Westboro Baptists, only worse.
  • held approximately the same views about women as Jim Crow era southerners held about blacks.
  • held approximately the same views about Jews as did the Nazis.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of religion as medieval inquisitors.
  • held approximately the same views about freedom of speech as the North Korean government
  • held approximately the same views about human equality as advocates of the Hindu caste system.
Would you call the group "moderate"? Would you call them "progressive"? Yet these are views held by large numbers of mainstream Muslims, not just in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, but in Europe and the U.S. A Pew poll found that a majority of American Muslims prefer sharia, and one in four accepts the use of violence against other Americans who give offense to Islam, for instance, by caricaturing Mohammed.
I intend to look at some other aspects of McCarthy's NRO piece in tomorrow's Viewpoint. Meanwhile, I hope you'll read his column.