General


I’m not sure what to think of this, but I figured I’d pass along the information that I made Access Research Network’s list of the top ten “Darwin and Design” news stories for 2008. (Check out #2.) Also see a somewhat more detailed version of the list here.

UPDATE: An audio discussion by the ARN folks of the top ten list,  led by ID the Future podcaster Casey Luskin, is available here. The discussion of #2 starts at the 24:45 minute mark.

My high school friend Jeff Miller and I recorded a video chat we had on vegetarianism. I think we talked about some interesting issues that don’t generally get talked about on this topic. FYI the recording cuts off unexpectedly at the end.

Chad Mohler and I wrote an entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on constructive empiricism, and it’s finally out! You can see it here.

Here, I thought, was the most insightful passage in the book Flock of Dodos (the book I talked about in my previous post):

While it’s certainly true that a majority of Americans are supporters of either creationism or creationism’s post-adolescent older sibling, Intelligent Design, this need not necessarily translate into any horrible national policy implementations. According to a recent Newsweek poll, for example, more than half of Americans believe in the Rapture, but Congress has yet to make any appropriations for a viable post-apocalypse government framework. (p. 139-140)

The authors don’t say why the fact that Americans have these beliefs hasn’t led to major national policy implementations. This is an intriguing question, and I don’t have a good answer. Is it because people say that they believe in something like creationism, but they really don’t? (This would be closely related to the recent discussion I had about whether people who say they believe in God really do believe.) Is it because the people who control the political power don’t have the same beliefs as the majority of Americans? Is it because the spirit of religious freedom in our country is such that people recognize that they shouldn’t politically impose their religious beliefs on others? Or is something else going on?

I’m reading an anti-intelligent design book currently, called Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design & the Easter Bunny. It’s meant to be an entertaining humorous book about the intelligent design debate, and sometimes it succeeds in doing so, but sometimes it just succeeds in being offensive. For example, Barrett Brown and Jon Alston, the authors, write that Senator Tom Coburn is

an Oklahoman who first gained national recognition after complaining about the rampant lesbianism that was allegedly occurring in his home state’s university bathrooms (yes, Oklahoma has both a university and bathrooms). (p. 30)

Later, in describing an 1928 anti-evolution law passed in Arkansas, they write:

In short: push evolution in a public capacity and you’ll never work in Arkansas again. This wasn’t much of a threat to anyone who’s ever had the opportunity to find themselves working in Arkansas… (p. 49-50)

I hope you agree that this is not particularly funny, and is based on all sorts of false stereotypes, and is pretty derogatory, discourteous, distasteful, and disrespectful (just to pick some “d” words). People in Oklahoma are about as educated as people from other states (see below for the statistics), and Oklahoma has some fine educational institutions. Arkansas is a beautiful state full of nice normal people. Perpetuating these stereotypes about Oklahoma and Arkansas just isn’t funny, and evidences the close-mindedness that many people accuse intelligent design opponents of having. And in addition to being prejudiced, it’s pragmatically stupid too — it’s not going to help get people from Oklahoma or Arkansas, or anyone who has reasonable opinions about Oklahoma and Arkansas, to be more sympathetic to the anti-intelligent design position that the authors are promulgating. 

The statistics:

According to page 3 of this 2000 US Census report, the percentage of the US population age 25 and over with at least a high school diploma is 80.4%, and the percentage of that population with at least a college diploma is 24.4%. For the Oklahoma population age 25 and over, those percentages are 80.6% and 20.3%. The state with the lowest percentage of college graduates is West Virginia, at 14.8%. (West Virginia, by the way, is one of my favorite states in the whole country — there’s more to a state than its percentage of college graduates.)

In the second comment to this post at Thinking Christian, Jospeh A. writes:

On the flipside, I can say that I often come across atheists who tend to display a systematic disconnect with what their beliefs naturally demand, or at least lead to. … Watch how often you’ll come across atheists who talk about good and evil, or even right and wrong with regards to morals as if there were really an objective, ultimate standard in play. 

I’m willing to admit that there are atheists who display a systematic disconnect with what their beliefs naturally demand. But I don’t think the existence of atheists who believe in objective morality is necessarily a good example of atheists having a disconnect. I am an atheist, and I believe in objective morality, and I don’t think I’m being incoherent in doing so.

This gets at a standard Philosophy 101 topic, the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is killing an innocent person wrong because God says that it’s wrong, or does God say that killing an innocent person is wrong because it really is objectively wrong? Some people, like Joseph A., believe that God determines what is objectively morally wrong or right. If God says that it’s morally permissible to rape children, then it’s morally permissible. In contrast, I say that, even if God exists, the objective moral standards aren’t set by God. If God were to say that raping children is morally permissible, that wouldn’t make it morally permissible; it would just mean that God is incorrect. 

Most theists think that it’s impossible for God to be incorrect, so in practice God would always prescribe the correct moral view. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that God always prescribes the correct moral view that God is the source of morality. 

Of course, I haven’t conclusively argued for this, and I don’t have such a conclusive argument — nor, in my opinion, does the other side. This is one reason that it’s such an enduring philosophical dilemma. I raise the issue here mainly because I don’t want theists to just assume that all atheists think, or have to think, that there’s no objective morality.

Dennett raises a nice issue about a potential problem with anthropological research into people’s theological beliefs. He points out that just as most people in our culture are happy believing in germs and atoms without really knowing much about them, so people in other cultures might be happy believing in their gods without really knowing much about the theological details. As a result, Dennett says,

we should not dismiss the corrosive hypothesis that many of the truly exotic and arguably incoherent doctrines that have been unearthed by anthropologists over the years are artifacts of inquiry, not pre-existing creeds. (p. 161)

That is, perhaps people just made up answers in response to the anthropologists’ questions; they didn’t have ready-made answers to tell the anthropologists. I had never thought of this before, but it’s an interesting hypothesis.

Once one gets past the first 100 pages, Dennett’s Breaking the Spell book picks up. A lot of it, as he makes clear, is speculation: 

I will try to tell the best current version of the story science can tell about how religions have become what they are. I am not at all claiming that this is what science has already established about religion. The main point of the book is to insist that we don’t yet know — but we can discover — the answers to these important questions if we make a concerted effort. (p. 103)

It’s helpful to keep this qualifier in mind when Dennett makes some of the specific claims he does about how religious-type beliefs arose:

Why did those with the genetic tendency survive? Because they, unlike those who lacked the gene, had health insurance! In the days before modern medicine, shamanic healing [i.e., placebo-effect healing] was your only recourse if you fell ill. If you were constitutionally impervious to the ministrations that the shamans had patiently refined over the centuries (cultural evolution), you had no health-care provider to turn to. (p. 140)

This sort of explanation is open to the standard charges raised against evolutionary psychology (for example, that they are telling just-so stories, with no empirical ground). But with Dennett’s qualifier that I quoted above, he has a promising response — yes, so far, this is a just-so story; more research needs to be done. (This leads to the natural question of whether more research can be done — I’m hoping that issue will be taken up later in the book.)

In class I’ve been talking about the ontological argument, one version of which runs like this:

Premise 1: God, by definition, is the greatest possible being.

Premise 2: A being which exists in reality is greater than a being which exists in the mind alone.

Conclusion: God exists in reality.

It’s pretty obvious to me that this is a bad argument, but I admit that, after years of occasionally thinking about and teaching this argument, it’s still not clear to me exactly where the argument goes wrong.

I know that the standard response is Kant’s, that existence isn’t a property, but it’s not clear to me that that really gets at the fundamental flaw of the argument. Suppose someone believed that existence is a property — suppose, to be more specific, that they believed in Meinongian objects, where there are both existent and non-existent objects. If that’s all that the person is wrong about, would such a person have to believe in the existence of God?

UPDATE: Even if Gaunilo’s objection is right, that you can (absurdly) give an argument analogous to the ontological argument to prove the existence of a perfect island, that still doesn’t show where exactly the ontological argument goes wrong, because all Gaunilo is doing is showing that the ontological argument goes wrong somewhere.

I’m writing Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon currently. So far there are two things that strike me about the book.

First, he spends a lot of time setting up the issues, pondering what sort of damage one might do by investigating religious issues and arguing that the investigation is worth it, semi-apologizing for the fact that he’s going to step on people’s toes, and ecouraging said people to read the book anyways. Perhaps this is good for a popular audience, but for a philosophy professor like me, it’s pretty unenlightening. I wonder too if it would really help — I could see it being the case that those theists who are already inclined to start reading Dennett’s book don’t need the pages of hand-holding he’s giving them before getting to the main discussion.

Second, he sometimes says things that make me cringe. For example, on page 374, in Appendix B, he writes:

That’s the practical answer, but I want to consider a deeper challenge as well. (A philosopher is someone who says, “We know it’s possible in practice; we’re trying to work out if it’s possible in principle!”)

(Note, by the way, that Dennett says that the appendicies are supposed to contain the more academically sophisticated discussion.) 

Well, I’ve never heard a philosopher say that, or anything like that, until reading Dennett, and it’s a stupid thing to say. Now, perhaps Dennett is just trying to make a joke, but I don’t find it funny, perhaps because it’s a joke at the expense of philosophers — that philosophers are so focussed on issues of principle that they don’t understand the most basic of practical facts about the work (such as that if something is happening, then it’s possible). Dennett has done such a good job in general at breaking the stereotype that philosophers can’t talk to regular people; I can’t imagine that jokes like this help.

« Previous PageNext Page »