Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Michael Ruse, Dawkins fail to understand philosophical necessity

It's ironic to say that about a famed Ph.d. philosopher, and an atheist and skeptic of sorts to boot, as well as about a famous evolutionary biologist, if this is the case.

But, here, Ruse defends Richard Dawkins in advancing a secularist defense of natural evil in particular and, in relation to natural selection rather than a creator god, of the problem of evil in general.
But supposing that God did (and had to) create through law, then Richard Dawkins of all people offers a piece of candy to the Christian. Dawkins argues that the only physical way to get organic adaptation -- the design-like nature of living beings -- is through natural selection, that very painful mechanism that worried Darwin! Other mechanisms are either false (such as Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired characteristics) or inadequate (such as saltationism, change by sudden jumps). In other words, although Darwinism does not speak to all cases of physical evil -- the earthquakes -- it does speak to the physical evil that it itself is supposed to bring on. It is Darwinism with suffering, or nothing.
So, Ruse seems to be claiming that Dawkins says a certain amount of "nature bloody red in tooth and claw" was necessary for evolution. And, as a philosopher, Ruse appears to be giving this the imprimatur that it was philosophically necessary.

But, just as there's no philosophical necessity for the amount of evil in the world for God to do good, there's no necessity for a certain amount of evil, in terms of natural evil, for natural selection to operate.

Dawkins isn't a philosopher, not even a real amateur one, so he can be partially forgiven. But, this is a BIG #fail for Ruse.

Friday, March 25, 2011

How and why I became an atheist, part 3

OK, I'm now at the point of talking about my time in graduate seminary (divinity school) at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., the primary seminary of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

That's after Part 1, covering childhood, and Part 2, covering high school and college years.

Concordia was and is an academically rigorous seminary. The Lutheran system requires taking undergraduate classes in biblical Greek and Hebrew, or taking noncredit classes on those languages at the seminary for those who didn't take them before.

It also required multiple classes in Old and New Testament interpretation, along with Christian and Lutheran doctrine, etc.

The program was a bit similar to medical school: Two years of classes, with occasional work at an area Lutheran church, then a full year of internship, paid, at a Lutheran church anywhere in the U.S., followed by one last year of academics, theoretically building in part on ideas learned, deficiencies, uncovered, etc., during that internship.

Well, I started my voyage of doubt near the end of that second year. And, used that internship year to further build on the "intellectual judo" I was starting to do on what I had been taught so far.

By the time I got done with that internship, between a mix of moral, intellectual and personal reasons (the not wanting to go down that career path anyway, even with the guaranteed job security), I knew I was no longer a conservative Lutheran. I knew I was moving through the liberal wing of Lutheranism, and at least in the direction of Unitarianism, and didn't know where I would stop.

I also knew that, thanks to childhood and lack of career dialogue and support from either parent, or the encouragement to search for that, I didn't know what I did want to do.

So, I figured that I would go back for that final year of seminary, get my degree, try to line up other job prospects in a metropolitan area like St. Louis, and sort my thoughts, mind and heart out more.

More on that coming up in Part 4.

Why do secularists make "just war" arguments?

For example, take Massimo Pigliucci's argument for bombing Libya. It's a "just war" argument.

I raise this for several reasons.

First, most notably, the idea of "just war" arose from Christian dogmatic theology, namely starting with St. Augustine. From Thomas Aquinas, and onward, it got wrung through a sophistic wringer, and not just by Catholics, once the Protestant Reformation arrived.

Now, could one argue for something similar to a "just war" from a secularist point of view and with secularist bolstering?

One could try, I'll certainly concede, using tools such as evolutionary psychology. And please, only the real thing, not Pop Ev Psych.

But, a philosopher like Pigliucci ought to know that the idea of "justice" is philosophically iffy on utilitarian and other grounds.

First, can we even talk about "justice" in the abstract, whether retributive or distributive?

With Walter Kaufmann, I say no. I specifically refer to his hugely thought-provoking book "Without Guilt and Justice," which pretty thoroughly eviscerates John Rawls like an eight-inch herring.

To put it simply, neither form of justice, in the abstract, can be universally applied in the concrete. To execute what seems "just" to some, even many, will always or nearly so be unjust to somebody.

So, should we let a utilitarian hedonistic calculus apply?

But, that leads me to the old Chinese or pseudo-Chinese parable, with the ongoing refrain of "could be good, could be bad."

What seems "just" to and/or for the majority now may not five months, five years or five decades from now. Maybe not even five days from now.

So, no, we shouldn't.

So, what CAN philosophy tell us in situations like this.

First of all, looking elsewhere in the East, something like Taoism can tell us all decisions are fraught with uncertainties and shades of gray.

Second, we can move on to Iranian philosopher Idries Shah, who uttered the aphorism, "There are never just two sides to an issue." While that itself is a bit too black-and-white for me, it nonetheless has a large kernel of truth.

Take the air strikes against Libya.

There is:
1. The tribal rebels' side (or sides, depending on how much or how little coherence they have;
2. The U.S. side;
3. The Franco-British side;
4. The Turkish side;
5. The Arab League side;
6. Gadhafi's side;
7. The Russian side;
8. And, though we've not heard from Beijing yet, surely, the Chinese side.

Even if we narrow the issue of "justice" here, rather than play realpolitik, at least the first three, if not the first five, are all legitimate "sides." And, all with different definitions, at least in narrow particulars if not major strands, as to what might be "just."

And, also, since "just war" ultimately has religious roots, shouldn't we be careful about it for that reason, too? Monotheistic religions deal in black and white; I prefer my philosophy with more nuance. And, my secularism in general.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Philosophy is like statistics, or law

Note: This is an extensive update of a blog post that ran in 2011. I came across the original when posting links from blog posts on this blog for World Poetry Day, the day before this update.

Other than the normal italics that I use as part of my style on pull quotes, the updates are all marked in italics. I also intend to post it separately as an ungraded post.

You can slice and dice logical arguments to support all sorts of claims. That includes what evidence you include as warrants vs. what countervailing empirical evidence you exclude from discussion.

Especially in real-world informal logic, how you frame the parameters of the argument is another way of slicing and dicing an issue to an already-held conclusion.

Take Massimo Pigliucci's argument for bombing Libya. And, see my comments, as a form of updating, six years on here in 2017. 

Sure, in a vacuum of Libya and no other foreign policy worries, might be great. But, why Libya and not Yemen? Or, why not Cote d'Ivoire a year ago?

Massimo goes on, in what is nearly 100 posts down the list, in response to me, to say he has non-humanitarian reasons, as well, to support intervention in Libya. I've asked what they are, because I don't see any that aren't either directly or indirectly related to oil. Terrorism? Since we intercepted the ship with nuclear supplies headed to Libya several years ago, Gadhafi had become "our guy," so scratch that, even if Massimo makes that claim.

Massimo also limits the parameters of the argument by saying his support for air strikes doesn't mean support for intervention. But, given criticism of the Obama Administration, that it doesn't have an exit policy, and that our British and French allies have pushed going beyond air strikes, if necessary, that "restriction" might work in formal logic, but, in a real-world political situation, doesn't.

That said, I'm going to further deconstruct, or just plain refute, some of his claims.

The idea that the air campaign was supported by the UN is tenuous at best, per Wiki's piece on the intervention in Libya. That "at best" would be seeing the air strikes as one interpretation of how to support the no-fly zone the UN called for.

First, going beyond philosophism to actual political science and geopolitics, Massimo should have recognized that the likelihood of a successful denouement to the Libyan bombing was about as likely as a similar result for the Iraq War. Related to that, I did a separate blog post about some of his just war claims.

Per that separate post, and comments on three different incarnations of his blog home, I realize Massimo has no interest in Walter Kaufmann's "Without Guilt and Justice," which I highly, highly recommend. (That said, a number of left-liberals might not like the book any more than interventionist liberals, given the degree to which Kaufmann crushes John Rawls.

Second, if we are going to speak of colonialism, it's fair to ask if Massimo, as a native Italian, might have additional reason to support the bombing of Libya.

That said, let me further deconstruct his actual claims.

Just cause? If we did that all the time, we'd be Wilsonian interventionists to the extreme. And, what if other countries made similar claims about the US, or Italy. I mean, vis-a-vis the US, that's what al Qaeda itself claimed as its reason for 9/11.

Last resort? That's a judgment call, one based in part on how willing one is to support the use of force in the first place.

Legitimate authority? Is NATO, or a hived-off portion of NATO, a "legitimate authority"?

Proportionality? Failure to include things like "collateral damages" and "unintended consequences," as well as failure to appreciate the difficulty so far in seeing Arab states of the Arab Spring actually transition to democracy, means that, again, proportionality will be calculated differently by different people.


I could be accused of hindsight, but in reality, I had all these thoughts to some degree six years ago. I'm just elaborating now because I happened to come across this post a couple of days ago.

I also forgot to add in my original blog post that Libya had Africa's most vibrant economy at the time, with a per-capita income of $14,000. It also had a higher literacy rate, equal rights for men and women on divorce, and life expectancy almost as high as the U.S., all per Wikipedia. Wiki also notes that on this, and general human development, Libya was ahead of neighbors and Arab Spring predecessors Tunisia and Egypt.

Massimo also refers to the bombing of Serbia over Bosnia, then Kosovo, as a success.

However, he ignores the geopolitics behind this.

Even as Serbian paramilitaries were pulling their horns back from Bosnia, Croatian ones were sticking theirs out. And, we did nothing. (Counterpunch, among others, has covered this.)

Why?

Because Croatia was being lined up for NATO membership, as far as part of why we did nothing.

Don't forget that this was another violation of the US's (presumably good for all then-current NATO members) promise to Boris Yeltsin in 1990 not to expand NATO eastward.

And, with that, at least in the U.S., that's the difference between a liberal, on the one hand, and a left-liberal or beyond, on the other.

I drop by Massimo's blog regularly, and have totally agreed with his take on people like Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt.

But here? Being logical isn't the same as being right.

At the least, without engaging in serious multi-valued logic, with answers that would include things like "maybe" and "maybe not." With that in mind, I wouldn't say Massimo is wrong on his support for Libyan air strikes. I would say that, to use the old Scottish jury verdict, he's only reached the "not proven" state.

And, I wouldn't say I, or others, are "right" to argue against air strikes.

At bottom line?

Not only is being logical not the same as being right, the use of bipolar western logic to try to "prove rightness" is often wrong.

Arguably, such situations are even a good example of Hume's famous dictum: "Reason must be the slave of the passions."

Again, there's not necessarily a "right" or a "wrong" involved. But, in this particular case, since Massimo is claiming non-humanitarian reasons for Libyan intervention, and I doubt he can name a good non-oil-related one, I think, on the passions, he's wrong.

Beyond that, I haven't even touched on the issue of "just war." (I believe, per Walter Kaufmann's evisceration of "justice" as an abstract concept, that "just war" as an abstract concept is a mix of philosophical non sequitur and invitation to political mischief in democratic or quasi-democratic societies, especially when inveighed with religious overtones.)

I should note that I've hinted before that Massimo practices "philosophism," the hyper-philosophic parallel to scientism. And, I think it sticks here. I don't know if Massimo would go as far as Dan Kaufmann in admitting that philosophy doesn't have final answers for many of the questions it addresses. But, maybe that would help. At a minimum, non-classical Western philosophies reject such certainty.

Or, per that piece linked above, and again here, on refuting his claim on just war, maybe he needs to expand his Weltanschaaung to include non-Western philosophies.

Per Iranian philosopher Idries Shah's famous dictum (he himself being non-Western, of course):

“To 'see both sides' of a problem is the surest way to prevent its complete solution. Because there are always more than two sides.”
I noted that I could find seven or eight "sides" either directly involved in the Libyan Civil War or else playing bank shots.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Can science predict the decline of religion?

According to one topic at the American Physical Society's annual meeting, the answer is yes. The study uses modeling similar to that used to predict the decline of languages.

I'll give it m ore credence if similar modeling can also predict the rise of religion, or explain the anomalous outlier of religion in the U.S. vs. western Europe.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Karma — as offensive as hell

This extended CNN blog, with broadly multifaith comments on "why suffering" in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear worries, following the Japanese tsunami and eaerthquake, makes the case well for me.

Is it any worse for a fundamentalist Christian to say:
1. God is inscrutable;
2. Original sin brought on this disaster for you;
3. It's God's prerogative to damn some people to hell.

Or a hardcore Buddhist to say:
1. Karma is inscrutable;
2. Your past life that you can't even remember brought on this disaster for you;
3. It's a cyclical universe's "prerogative" to damn some people to recurring rounds of bad karma.

I know of people who are skeptics, and atheists, even, in the sense of not believing in a western monotheist divinity, that still believe in the metaphysics of karma. Well, sorry, but, karma's as offensive as the heaven-hell of western monotheism.

Beyond that, both western and eastern religion offer the same pablum when confronted with the problem of evil.

And, a "shout out" to "it's not a religion" Buddhist Sam Harris — what say you now?

And, speaking of that, I give a kudo to Chris Hitchens, the one "name" New Atheist to look at eastern religions just as toughly as those of the west.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

How and why I became an athest, part 2

In part 1 of what I am starting as a series of posts explaining the origins of my current naturalist, non-metaphysical stance, called atheism by some, I talked about the childhood roots of my doubt.

Now, I advance the stage to high school and college.

My parents divorced at the start of my freshman year of high school. Per the religious background on my dad's side of the family, my mom said the divorce was because he was trying to force all us kids into church work careers. Funny, but mom didn't fight for primary physical custody of me and my sister, in light of this. I know there were other issues, but I'm not sure what all of them were. I'm not sure my mom even knew, but that's something entirely different.

Anyway, I stayed with my dad, even when he moved from rural New Mexico to St. Louis, to go back to his seminary to complete a second masters, then a doctorate of theology.

I wound up only completing one college application, and that was to his undergraduate alma mater Lutheran college. I had started one to New Mexico Tech and hid it, mindful of what my mom had said. When I looked for it later, it was gone. Years and years later, re-reading a letter he sent me my freshman year in college, I realize he found it and threw it away.

Well, it was nice, small, very small, as far as college size. That was good in the sense of not making me "lost" and even more vulnerable to depression, which would have happened had I gone to Enormous State U. But, it was bad, especially with no career guidance or discussions from my dad, as far as academics.

Well, I changed majors half a dozen times, spending most of it in the pre-divinity program. But, when I graduated, I didn't go immediately to seminary.

While I was there, at times I did feel a warm religious glow I hadn't felt at home, or at church during home days. But, it wasn't that common, and in hindsight, it was a glow of "community" as much as it was of religious faith. It was a glow of belonging and acceptance for a kid who no longer felt he was the target of bullies, and was growing up physically at least.

However, besides my dad, I also felt "control" issues from my oldest brother, who had returned to college - at that same school.

I suppose my academic "drift," as far as choice of majors, may also have been a bit of rebellion, a passive-aggressive one.

But, after graduation, I worked 2 years in the volunteer-based U.S. mission church building program the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod had. But, that was only a stopgap. Finally, I subconsciously bit the bullet, and decided I would become a pastor, and told my dad so.

I figured ministry, even as a Protestant, was a bit of escapism. Plus, Lutheran pastors, like Catholic and Episcopalian priests, have a "divine call." They're not hired and fired like Baptist preachers. Hey, guaranteed job security, eh?

More coming in part 3.

How and why I became an atheist, part 1

The denouement came near the end of my graduate divinity degree studies, as I realized I just could not follow in the footsteps of my conservative Lutheran father.

First, a touch of family background. My dad'ss mom's mother had been a minster, and he wouldn't hear of my grandma becoming a missionary, so wish fulfillment surely passed down to my dad, her only son. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, then as now, has an all-male ministry, but, my dad's sister became a Lutheran parochial school teacher.

And, it went on from there.

My oldest brother? A minister? My second brother has a day job at LCMS headquarters and is a part-time paid music director at a fair-sized church. My third brother is a fairly active layperson. My sister, after saying when she was younger she'd never marry one, married a minister.

And, there's me.

For those unfamiliar with the conservative wing of Lutheranism, I say, picture a near-Catholic, or Episcopalian, worship style mixed with conservative Southern Baptist beliefs. This denomination still believes in a literally inerrant bible, while making allowance for poetic passages in some places. (That said, how the four corners of the earth can be poetic, but Genesis 1, or Genesis 2, can't be, and must be understood literally, is ... one of those things within conservative Christianity in general.) Some allowance is made for "gaps" in genealogies, so the LCMS doesn't believe in Bishop Ussher's 4,004 BCE. But, it is some sort of young-earth creationist, i.e, 100,000 BCE or so.

My dad pushed me through confirmation class in one year rather than two, to show off his skills at educating his children. And, at the same time, or before, I willingly sat apart from the rest of the family, in the front pew, staring up at the pulpit every Sunday and taking sermon notes. Many family dynamics were involved.

However, I had the first "slippage" in belief at the same time.

At about the same time, when I was about 11 or so, at the end of Ash Wednesday church services, a stranger came in our sanctuary.

After church, he asked my dad to exorcise a demon or demons from him. Yes, really.

Well, among our church members was a man who was a psychiatrist at the local Indian Health Service hospital. After a brief, brief of listening to the stranger, my dad told the psychiatrist to start calling.

That said, I was disappointed. I knew Jesus' "O ye of little faith" admonition to his disciples when they once failed at an exorcism.

But, I was more than disappointed.

I was also, silently, laughing on the inside. Laughing at my dad's lack of faith and lack of faith-based power.

So, how much, at all, was my eventual move away from religious belief due to some sort of rebellion? Setting that aside, how much of it was matters of the heart and how much of it was matters of logic and/or empirical evidence (or lack thereof, on both evidence and logic)?

More on that in following sections, starting with Part 2. It is followed by parts 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The opposite of "scientism" is???

I have had no problem labeling the thought processes of people like P.Z. Myers and Sam Harris with the tag of "scientism" at times when it was clear they were trying to address nonscientific issues from a scientific point of view. Especially with Harris, allegedly a philosopher because he has a degree in the subject, it's frustrating, off-putting, undercuts the "cause" of secularism and more.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci also has no problem pegging people like that.

So, it's a bit disconcerting when he says social science research into people's moral judgment thinking not only is not philosophy, but that it can't even lead to philosophy, in his perspective.

And, so, I ask, the opposite of scientism, in this case, is ...

"Philosophism"?

His argument, in a nutshell, is in a comment of his near the end of the comment thread:
Similarly, we evolved the ability to make moral judgment, but that doesn't begin to equip us for professional-level moral reasoning ...
I saw "professional-level moral reasoning," which I inadvertently shortened to "professional moral reasoning" (though I don't think that significantly changed anything) and ... well, I cringed.

It's like Massimo wants to do data-free, research-free philosophy. And, even if (I'm not going to say "even though") he may not have meant it in an elitist way, it sure comes off that way, which is the main reason I cringed.