Link blog: philosophy, presuppositionalism, paradox, media

Buddhism Is More ‘Western’ Than You Think – NYTimes.com
Argues that incomprehensible gnomic sayings are a Western stereotype of what Eastern philosophy is.
(tags: meditation buddhism philosophy paradox)
Inspiring Philosophy and the Laws of Logic: Part 1 – UseOfReason
What could apologists be talking about when they speak of “the laws of logic”? (This is usually part of an argument that God is needed for there to be such laws). Discusses various different logics, what Godel really proved, and a bunch of other stuff.
(tags: philosophy mathematics logic presuppositionalism apologetics godel)
Thin Pinstriped Line: The business of Remembering
Veteran and civil servant “Sir Humphrey” on poppies: “I have grown increasingly concerned at the manner in which manufactured outrage focuses on any organisation or individual that challenges the Poppy status quo, by not wearing one. If you are wearing one only because everyone else is wearing one, then perhaps it is time to ask whether the Poppy has become a victim of its own success.

As we move into the world where we are over a century on from the events of WW1, perhaps the time has come to ask if it is time to evolve the service of Remembrance, and perhaps do it differently. I do feel that the need to remember is always appropriate, but that the means by which a simple silence has become a business and outrage outlet to sell papers is increasingly distasteful. “
(tags: war remembrance poppy politics media)

True Christians, New Christians and Crocoducks

Bring on the crocoducks

Remember Ray Comfort, of Crocoduck fame? Tony Miano, Comfort’s vicar on Earth, made a blog posting in which he argued that the Clergy Project (which tries to help ministers of religion who’ve become closet atheists) was doing the church a favour by ridding it of people who were never Christians in the first place. He also mentioned that atheists know there’s a God really (see previous discussion).

This attracted the attention of the Dawkins massive, mainly because they thought it was written by their arch-enemy Comfort himself, so it got quite a few comments. There was some good stuff. An ex-Christian called The Skeptical Magician had a go at beating the fundies at their own game, arguing from the Bible that he was a real Christian (someone who believes Jesus was the Son of God who rose from the dead) who changed his mind. I stuck my oar in, pointing out that if Miano is right, we can’t know someone’s a Christian until they die. Is Tony Miano a Christian? Well, we’ll have to wait and see, by his definition.

Had the Magician merely said that he was a believer, the first responses from Christians would have been “it’s easy to say you’re a believer, but that doesn’t make you one”. So he gave examples of doing things he would likely do only if he were truly a believer (faith without deeds being dead, as James tells us). He got replies telling him that his faith had been all about “doing” rather than “believing”, therefore his actions were evidence against him being a believer. This is cheating of the “heads I win/tails you lose” sort, as any Bayesian could tell you.

Some presuppositionalists commented, including my old mate the Internet-famous Sye Ten Bruggencate, who invented the Proof That God Exists (Danger! Atheists, don’t click that link!) Presuppositionalists start out sounding as if they might be fun, in a “late night conversation with philosophy students” sort of way: they like to ask for “accounts” of stuff that most people take, if not as a brute fact, then as a reasonable starting point (the evidence of our senses, memory, logic, belief in the sun rising tomorrow and so on). This might lead to an interesting philosophical discussion, but they spoil it all by applying radical scepticism to all views other than their own, which is cheating. If you read their literature, the reason for this is that they’re not interested in a discussion where both parties might modify their views, they just want to force their opponent “below the line of despair” so they’ll turn to Christianity. It’s fun to ask what an “account” would have to look like to satisfy them, and how they “account” for God’s unchangeable nature. They don’t answer, of course, but the point of intervening in such discussions is to defend the philosophically naive marks who’ve never run into Hume and Descartes before, not to change the presuppers’ minds.

But! I’ve never been one of them

Leah Libresco, an atheist blogger who originally started her Unequally Yoked blog when she was going out with Catholic, announced she’d converted to Catholicism because she’d realised that Morality is a Person who loves her. Camels with Hammers did a good summary of ways atheists responded, noting that the best response was probably to point out that she seemed to have missed a few steps in her argument, rather than accusing her of being off her medication.

squid314 wondered about local maximas in belief-space (which is mathematician speak for wondering whether the steps he’d have to take to get Catholicism individually made his new view seem less likely than before, even if once you get there Catholicism is actually more likely than the Official Bayesian Conspiracy Worldview). He noted that he knew quite a few clever people who’d become Catholic, so maybe it was worth looking into. He reported back on his investigation of the Catholic blogsphere in an amusing fashion, which makes me think he’s safe, for now.

A friend of Libresco’s started a thread on Less Wrong’s discussion board on how to thwart the conversion. Someone there was prepared to predict that the conversion won’t stick, as it’s based on metaphysics rather than the unpleasant reality of the Catholic church (Libresco is already wobbling a bit on the issue of homosexuality). We’ll see: I don’t know her well enough to want to bet on it.

I made a few comments on Libresco’s blog: on the Euthyphro Dilemma (ended up going in circles as usual, gave up); pointing out that the Catholic orthodoxy is that God is not morally good (he’s ontologically good, see Camels with Hammers again), making him a poor choice for a virtue ethicist like Leah; and dealing with the usual bad arguments about science.

Link blog: cambridge, funny, philosophy, twitter

War of words breaks out among Jehovah’s Witnesses – Home News, UK – The Independent

For some reason, a bunch of newspapers in the UK have recently noticed that the Jehovas Witnesses are a cult. Nice to see so many people in the comments relating their stories of getting out.
(tags: religion cult jehovas-witness)

Richard Feynman on doubt, uncertainty and religion (subtitled) – YouTube

Feynman! Thou shouldst be living at this hour.
(tags: feynman doubt religion science physics)

Stephen Law: GOING NUCLEAR

A chapter from Law’s “Believing Bullshit” about the tactic he calls “going nuclear”: when the argument is going against you, blow everyone away by saying that “all arguments rest on faith” or “everything is relative” or some other such nonsense. Law anatomises the various forms of this tactic.
(tags: philosophy rationality argument stephen-law presuppositionalism)

Meeting Jesus at Oxford | Commentary | Fortean Times

CICCUs cousins DICCU and OICCU made the Fortean Times. Gripping stuff, with some ideas about why evangelical religion is so appealing to people at the famous universities.
(tags: ciccu religion university oxford cambridge)

An Interview with @AlmightyGod | Friendly Atheist

God has a Twitter feed (@almightygod). Hemant interviews Him.
(tags: religion funny god twitter)

Arguing elsewhere

I’ve not posted for a while, mostly because I’ve been busy discussing elsewhere. Here’s where:

Not a Scotsman in sight

Michael Patton writes about ““How People Become Evangelists of Unbelief” or Leaving (Christ)ianity – An Evangelical Epidemic. I’ve linked to Parchment and Pen before: it’s written by Christians who get it. In this case, what Patton gets is the process involved in leaving Christianity. While his Calvinism commits him to the position that people who leave the faith and don’t come back were never Real Christians, he writes to his fellow believers that “Looking to transcendent reasoning for the problem offers us no practical look at what you and I can do as we are called to make disciples… From their point of view, they truly believed. It would be hard to tell a difference from their faith and ours.” I’ve commented on his post.

Things are also busy down on the Premier Christian Radio forums. There was a bit of a drought for a while, during which most of the discussion was of the “evilutionists, hur hur; creationists, hur hur” variety, but some interesting things have come up recently.

Presuppositionalism again

The presuppositionalism thread I mentioned previously has started up again. I’ve read a bit more philosophy since it went into hiatus, so I think I’m giving a better account of myself in the more recent postings. Comments from people who know more philosophy than me are welcome, though: I don’t expect my opponent to spot my mistakes. You might also enjoy Stephen Law’s argument that presuppositionalists were hit on the head with a rock.

I’m also wondering about the popular Christian statements that God “grounds” things like morality, laws of nature, and logic. I’d quite like to know what it means for something to be “grounded” in this sense. Since we intuitively know what it means for physical objects to be grounded, but explicit arguments that, say, God is necessary for morality to be meaningful don’t seem to work, I wondered if this sort of statement might be an intuition pump (in the bad sense).

Science and faith

There’s also been a fun thread on science and faith. I’ve stuck my oar in, and even managed to quote one of my Bad Arguments postings (provoking the evangelicals to accuse me of worshipping myself, or something: I remember these people had a real thing about masturbation). There was also a discussion on whether scientists and mathematicians who deal with concepts like irrational numbers are hypocritical for saying the Trinity is a silly idea. I did some evangelising for Bayesianism, which was followed by an argument that God exists because we’ve not encountered any aliens yet. All good clean fun.

My inner witness is tingling

In her series on Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science, Valerie Tarico reports on the work of neurologist Robert Burton. Burton argues that “Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of knowing what we know arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.” I thought of Burton’s stuff recently: over on Common Sense Atheism, Luke Muehlhauser linked to William Lane Craig’s Q&A blog. Someone asks whether Craig would still be a Christian if his favourite arguments were defeated or if Jesus’ bones were found, and Craig responds by saying that “even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit’s witness”. Muehlhauser remarks that Craig “doesn’t give a damn about evidence”.

Muehlhauser is right to say that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit cannot be good evidence. People will believe God has caused certain beliefs to arise in them regardless of whether God has or not. It’s hard to see how evangelicals like Craig could disagree with this, since, for example, they presumably do not think that God convinced Muslims to be Muslim, whereas at least some Muslims do think this.

My sensus divinatatis is tingling

Unfortunately for atheists, lack of evidence will only worry evangelicals if they accept that all beliefs should be derived from evidence. Craig, following Alvin Plantinga, does not accept this (although Craig disagrees with Plantinga on Christian theology: Craig thinks that God “witnesses” to people, Plantinga thinks that people have a sensus divinatatis, a faculty which enables them to know things about God). According to Allen Stairs, Plantinga argues that some beliefs are formed legitimately, but without being inferred from other statements which serve as evidence. Take, for example, my belief that I have a headache, or my belief that I can usually trust my senses, or that the world was not created 5 minutes ago with the false appearance of age. Plantinga calls such beliefs “properly basic”, and says there is no good reason not to put belief in God in the same category.

One objection to Plantinga is that this sort of argument proves too much: Matt McCormick wonders whether he might have a sensus atheistus which assures him that anyone who claims to have experienced God is mistaken. This seems weaker than Plantinga’s claim (since it’s not clear where the atheist sense comes from, whereas Plantinga claims his divine sense comes from God), but then, who cares whether the argument goes against you when you have a sensus atheistus? What of other religions where people claim revelations from God? Craig says his job is to use factual arguments to convince those people that their apparent revelations are merely internal experiences. He says this is what atheists should also do with him, though this seems to contradict his earlier statement that such persuasion shouldn’t work on him.

There’s also the problem of the content of this revelation. Just what is included in it, and how can you tell? Christians are a bit reticent about it, in my experience: Sye the presuppositionalist never did tell me whether he could distinguish between knowledge revealed by God and knowledge he obtained by other means, nor did I ever find out whether the Holy Spirit witnesses to robhu that Hebrews is inspired scripture but 1 Clement isn’t.

Craig seems to go further than Plantinga in one important respect. Plantinga’s work, as described by Craig, tries to address the allegation that Christianity is unmotivated or irrational, by shifting the burden of proof onto people who disagree with it: they must show I’m wrong, Plantinga says, I don’t have to show I’m right. Craig goes further, and says that no arguments or evidence should convince him: that’s unmotivated and irrational.

Link blog: christianity, religion, philosophy, cambridge

Atheism, Reason, and Morality: Responding to Some Popular Christian Apologetics

D Gene Witmer on how best to response to Christian presuppositionalists. I ran into one of them online recently, which was fun.
(tags: religion presuppositionalism apologetics christianity philosophy rationality logic induction morality system:filetype:pdf system:media:document)

God is not the Creator, claims academic

In a sense, this isn't news: a lot of the religions that were contemporaries of Judaism had a creation story involving gods making order out of chaos rather than creating the universe from nothing, though I'd previously read that this was referred to in the Bible more obliquely than the this new theory suggests (e.g. water + Leviathan symbolises chaos in Psalm 74). If this idea catches on, it'll be interesting to see the new ideas the Abrahamic religions come up with to harmonise this with science 🙂
(tags: religion bible history christianity creationism creation god chaos)

Plantinga: Religious Beilef as Properly Basic

A nice introduction to Plantinga's ideas. I've not read his books, so I don't know how accurately they're summarised, but it seems to fit with what I've read elsewhere.
(tags: belief philosophy plantinga epistemology christianity religion alvin-plantinga)

PRISMs, Gom Jabbars, and Consciousness

Peter Watts talks about a paper which claims consciousness arose out of the need to chose between conflicting motor impulses.
(tags: consciousness science scifi sci-fi peter-watts)

Demon ready to kill in city church

Magus Shadee (Wiz 5, Necromatic) apparently cast Summon Monster in the big Catholic church in Cambridge. Local clerics of Papem, god of guilt about sex, say they'll summon the City Watch, though it's not clear what they'd do about it. I'd've thought the clerics would be better off casting some defensive spells of their own.
(tags: woo-woo christianity cambridge occult paganism witchcraft)

Christian Presuppositionalism: buh?

I recently had a random encounter with a proponent of Christian presuppositionalism, over on the Premier Christian Radio forums. Presuppositionalism is a pretty odd position: not content with pointing out the evidence in favour of Christianity, as most Christians do, the presuppositionalist apparently reckons that unless you presuppose the existence of the Christian God, you can’t possibly make any sense of the world at all. The original thread the discussion was on got very convoluted (not helped by Ning‘s limit on thread nesting depth: if you ever want to start a social network, don’t use Ning, it’s crap). I started another one over here. My initial posting is below, for my reference and also because I’d like to know what you guys think of it. I’m an amateur philosopher, but I know there are some pros reading. Here’s what I said:

I’d like to clear the decks a bit rather than arguing in circles. I’m kind of new to presuppostionalism. I used to be a reformed evangelical, but more of an evidentialist (now I’m an atheist, as you might have gathered). Here’s what I’ve managed to glean so far:

Presuppositionalism (as advocated by Sye, at least) seems to be the position that it is necessary to presuppose that the Christian God exists in order to make any sense of the world at all. On this view, the Christian God is the only possible explanation for various stuff which we need for the world to make sense, like logic, mathematics, and our apparent ability to reason from specific cases to general cases (“all the copper we’ve seen conducts electricity, so all copper conducts electricity”). (This sort of reasoning is usually referred to by philosophers of science as “induction”, but note that it’s not the same thing as “proof by induction” technique you may have learned in maths lessons). I’ll refer to these things as “logic and stuff”.

<lj-cut text=”Now read on…”> The method of attack used by the presups (I’m now going to start using this abbreviation to save me from RSI) is to present the only possible alternatives as Christianity (of the reformed, inerrantist sort: liberals presumably need not apply) and radical scepticism, the belief that knowledge is impossible. You can see this method at work on the previous thread here, and in Sye’s responses to Stephen Law, an atheist philosopher. This is a bold claim: not only is the Christian God an explanation for logic and stuff, but it’s the only possible one.

Sye himself doesn’t appear to have an argument that Christianity is the only possible explanation. On Law’s blog, he asserted something called “the impossibility of the contrary”, but never made an argument in detail that the contrary is in fact impossible. Instead, his tactic is to attack whatever other possible position his opponent prefers, or, if his opponent won’t commit to a single preferred position, to attack them on the basis that they are using logic and stuff without sufficient grounds to believe that it produces true results.

David Snoke, a Christian professor of physics, has written a critique of presup from a reformed Christian perspective. It’s an interesting article: Snoke also goes into the history of presup ideas and various schools of thought within presup. I’m guessing Sye is more taken with Cornelius van Til than with Alvin Plantinga.

Of course, as I don’t possess the Holy Spirit, I’m unqualified to judge Snoke’s Biblical arguments. Instead, here are a few problems I see with presup:

1. Presups have not established the impossibility of the contrary. If presups were merely to claim that the contrary was unlikely, it might be possible to make an argument if presups could defeat all other known possibilities, but an argument to establish impossibility requires ruling out unknown possibilities as well.

2. Presup does not in fact remove the problems of knowledge that it claims to, so not only doesn’t establish itself as the only way to avoid radical scepticism, but doesn’t establish itself as a valid way to do so. Examples:

2a. Presups claim knowledge from God by revelation, but have not accounted for disagreements among Christians. Presups claim that the presup position itself is a revelation from God, but it seems God has not given this revelation to Christians like Snoke (and Richard Morgan, in the other thread). A presup might claim that God gives different revelations to different Christians, but this seems to further undermine their position (see below).

2b. Presups claim that non-Christians actually know the Christian God exists but suppress this knowledge. (Other Christians, for example, Richard Morgan and Karal (whose replies seem to have disappeared), disagree, another instance of problem 2a). While it’s possible for people to be deluded, presups have not explained how a mere mortal could shut out the revelation of an omnipotent being. Why not, as Carrier says, expect that “Even if we rejected it, we would all at least admit to each other, “Yes, that’s what this God fellow told me.”?

2c. Presups claim that non-Christians have no grounds to trust the evidence of their senses, memory or reasoning, but this is also true of presups. Whether the presup claim is that God’s reveals himself to their senses (by reading the Bible, say) or directly into their minds, someone with control of the Christian’s senses or with the inner workings of their mind could still deceive them (for example, by making what are apparently revelations from God). In this, the Christian is no better off than the non-Christian. Worse, even if God exists, according to Christians, humans cannot understand all his motives. Though he is generally in favour of truth, God might give a false revelation if it served his own purposes, just as God apparently allows suffering for some greater purpose despite being generally in favour of relieving suffering. So the presup cannot have absolute confidence in the truth of revelation even if it comes from God.

2d. Preups claim that the Christian God makes induction work, but I’m not quite clear what the actual claim is here. Do they claim to have a solution to the New Riddle of Induction, for example?

3. Presups claim that the Christian God is the only possible explanation. There does not seem to be a good reason why other sorts of God would not do.
3a. Sye mentioned that Allah will not do because the Quran contradicts itself. Yet he also claims that non-Christians cannot interpret the Bible correctly. If this is a legitimate move, surely a Muslim could claim that a non-Muslim could not interpret the Quran correctly (they might even add “How do you like your argument now?”) In fact, Sye’s reference to the contents of the Quran seems to be an evidential objection to Islam, not a presup one at all (but I won’t grass him up to the Presup Doctrinal Rectitude Council if he doesn’t want me too).

4. Worse, it’s not clear that some atheistic views won’t do as well as presup. In the other thread, I suggested Platonism, the view that logic and stuff exists necessarily and non-physically, and that this stuff governs the universe, and is perceptible to humans either because humans have some faculty that allows them to perceive it, or because humans evolved in a universe so governed (the second of these is probably weaker, but it’s a line of retreat in case the perceptual argument doesn’t work).
4a. Sye asks whether logic and stuff reveals itself, on this view, or whether humans perceive it autonomously. On Platonism, I take it the latter is true, because logic and stuff is impersonal, not a personal God. This seems to remove part of objection 2c, namely, that God might chose to deceive us, since impersonal stuff cannot chose anything. It also does well against the equivalent of options 2a and 2b, since if perception of logic and stuff is a human faculty, it may be weaker or non-existent in some people, and logic and stuff cannot be said to have chosen to allow this to happen.
4b. Sye asks for an example of such perceptions. I’d say that the truth of modus ponens is something we can just see to be true, and on Platonism, we just see it using this faculty.

To sum up, presup seems a vain attempt to avoid the problem that every theory of knowledge has to start somewhere (or be circular or infinitely recursive, I suppose) by grounding the starting point in God. However, I think I have more confidence that, say, logic “works” than we do in why. I drive my car without knowing what’s under the bonnet, and, unless there’s a Cartesian daemon deluding my senses, it apparently still gets me from A to B. I might claim that it runs on petrol (gasoline) or on batteries or on some as yet unknown technology, Sye might claim it runs on God. Yet the world is as it is: my car runs on something, and if it isn’t God, it’s something else.