Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The burden of bad ideas

So, Heather MacDonald has replied to my reply to her. Take a look and then come back.

Welcome back.

Now, a little thought experiment. Suppose you were a professional physicist. Suppose further that that you came across the writings of someone whose knowledge of quantum mechanics derived entirely from discussions with high school science students. She had picked up from them some of the jargon – “collapse of the wave function,” “Schrödinger’s cat,” “wave-particle duality,” and so forth – but because their explanations were amateurish at best – always oversimplified, usually at least partially mistaken, and sometimes even grotesquely off-base – they failed to convey to her anything close to an accurate picture of the subject. Bizarrely, though, she used the bad information she’d picked up from them as the basis for an attack on the intellectual respectability of quantum mechanics, presenting it as clear evidence of the irrationality of contemporary physicists. “These physics oddballs claim they have a cat in a lab somewhere that is both alive and dead at the same time! And they also believe in little magic particles floating on foamy cosmic waves, or some such thing. Oogedy-boogedy, as my friend Kathleen would say. Maybe we conservatives ought to stay away from them. Maybe start a blog too. ‘Cause otherwise, you know, we might look as foolish and clueless as they do!”

Suppose also that, equally bizarrely, she seemed to be getting some respectful attention for these laughably ill-informed opinions. Annoyed, you pointed out to her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, that she really ought to read some serious physics books before commenting further, and that in any case she ought to leave the hapless high school students out of it. Irate, she replies that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that quantum mechanics is really worth taking seriously, and that doing so requires you to give her some “scientific evidence” that what the high school students have to say is true. She also refuses to consider the views of any actual physicists, apparently on the theory that if their complex arguments cannot be summarized for her in the comments box of one of her blog posts, then they must not be very compelling. Then she riffs a little more on some of her pet irrelevancies. “Where, pray tell, is your scientific evidence for this cat who’s alive and dead at the same time, Mr. Physicist? Show it to us, if it’s real! And what about those little ball thingies that float on the waves? Where’s your scientific test for them? Huh? HUH?!” Finally, with a flourish, she compares quantum mechanics to belief in the efficacy of Kinoki Detox Foot Pads. “So there!”

Replace “quantum mechanics” with “religion,” “physics” with “philosophy and theology,” and “high school students” with “unsophisticated religious believers,” and this is, I submit, pretty much where I find myself with respect to MacDonald. Really, what’s the point?

But I guess I’m in a masochistic mood, so let’s waste a few more pixels, shall we?

MacDonald insinuates that in my original short email to Jonah Goldberg which he posted at The Corner, and in my brief reply to her in the comments section of her blog, I was “argu[ing] for the scientific and rational basis of religion,” and she does not find these purported arguments of mine compelling. But of course, it would be idiotic to try to argue for such a gigantic claim in either a short email to a busy NRO writer or in the comments box of some blog, and so I did not try to do so. The only point I was making is that whatever one thinks of religion, MacDonald, Kathleen Parker, et al. reveal by their writings that they are innocent of any knowledge of serious religious thought – and MacDonald keeps piling up the evidence for this claim with every comment she makes in reply to me.

Presumably MacDonald wrote her own book The Burden of Bad Ideas precisely so that she wouldn’t have to repeat herself at length every time some joker demanded of her to prove, on the spot (and indeed even in emails sent to third parties) that her views on public policy are correct. “Jeez, read the book, fella!” I imagine she would say, and rightly so. (And you should read it too, incidentally, because MacDonald, whose work I generally enjoy and profit from, is very good when she’s writing on subjects other than religion.) Similarly, if MacDonald really wants to hear my case for the rational basis of religion, she can find it in The Last Superstition. (Twenty-one shopping days left until Christmas, so pick one up for Kathleen too!)

I will say this much, however. MacDonald seems to think that a rational case for the existence of God must take the form of coming up with a double-blind experiment to test claims about magic pills, or whatever the hell it is she was going on about. But the traditional arguments for God’s existence are not like that. That is to say, they aren’t quasi-scientific or pseudo-scientific explanations of this or that alleged weird phenomenon. They are instead attempts to show that perfectly ordinary phenomena, and in particular the phenomena that empirical science itself must necessarily take for granted, such as (to take just one example) the existence of any causal regularities at all, necessarily presuppose an uncaused first cause. The reasons why this is so are complicated, as are the reasons why the standard “obvious” objections to this claim are no good – that is, again, why they cannot properly be explained except at the sort of length a book provides. The point for now, in any event, is that empirical theorizing is not the only sort of rational inquiry there is. Mathematics is another. And a third is metaphysics, which is the rational investigation of those categories – such as cause, effect, form, matter, substance, attribute, essence, existence, and so forth – which empirical science cannot investigate, precisely because any empirical science must presuppose them. (Even the claim that “empirical science is the only rational form of inquiry” would itself not an empirical claim but a metaphysical one.) And this is the level at which the debate over God’s existence must be conducted – philosophy, not empirical science.

Again, though, read the book, which establishes all this at length and in detail.

That MacDonald is no philosophy whiz is in any case painfully evident from her attempted disproof of God’s existence on the basis of evil. I positively defy her to name anyone – it need not be a philosopher, just anyone at all – who has said anything to the effect that “their death [i.e. that of the miners in her example] shows God’s love for humanity, that he cares for every one of us.” True, lots of people say (quite correctly) that such tragic events are consistent with God’s love for us. But who ever made the much stronger claim that they are nothing less than “proof” of that love? No one, as far as I can tell. And yet this silly straw man attribution is essential to MacDonald’s hapless attempt at reductio ad absurdum.

Yet again, read the book, which contains a thorough debunking of the problem of evil.

Anyway, MacDonald need not count her ill-advised foray into philosophy and theology a total loss. Look at it this way: Should she ever be moved to revise The Burden of Bad Ideas she’s now got material for a new chapter, viz. an autobiographical one.

20 comments:

Warren said...

My wife, an MD, runs into this kind of attitude on a daily basis. Semi-smart (or even very smart) patients who have poked around the internet often proceed to lecture my wife on how little she knows about their medical condition. Her 12 years of training, her knowledge of physiology, of pharmacology, etc, are apparently irrelevant to such people (who have, after all, spent over an hour on WebMD and certainly should know). Maddening.

Anonymous said...

QED. But alas it's difficult to reason someone out of a position she wasn't reasoned into.

Ken Smith said...

Edward: to my delight I just discovered your writings from a review linked from bookforum.com. As a professor at a small Christian college I've long been aware that the apologetic responses to the new secularism are typically too shallow to have much impact beyond a populist level. Your work gives me hope for a philosophical renewal that will allow religious believers as well as non-believers to move beyond sophisticated exercises in name calling.

Thanks very much,

Ken Smith, Ellendale ND

Michael B said...

MacDonald doesn't care about amulets and magic pills, if she did, more seriously and within the context she deems herself to be willing to explore, she'd also be willing to identify "secular" forms of governance with cults of personality and other manifest illusions used in secular regimes of note during the 20th century. But that invokes a set of dialectics they're unwilling to explore, unwilling to demand of themselves.

In one sense, there's nothing wrong with her or Derbyshire or others being incurious, but one of the basic problems is they pretend to be otherwise when it comes to the subject Mac Donald initiated. And that too is telling.

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Anonymous said...

Detox foot patch? Wow, and I thought metaphysicians came up with weird ideas.

A better strategy for MacDonald and other secular folks would be to use work like Ed's against the vast majority of religious believers, since two things are painfully obvious: a) the classical theistic views that Ed argues for are actually inconsistent with a lot of the nonsense that religious believers proclaim in public; b) whether or not Ed's views are true, they are certainly intellectually respectable, which many of the views spouted by religious believers are not. Of course, this strategy would have the consequence of admitting that some theistic positions are intellectually respectable, which would make many secularists unhappy. Yet it seems obvious that there are plenty of intellectually respectable positions that nonetheless must be false (since they contradict other intellectually respectable positions); so admitting that some theistic positions are intellectually respectable doesn't mean accepting them. Yet it would have the great benefit (from both a secular and a theistic perspective) of putting added pressure on the various indefensible forms of theism and various views associated with religious belief. So everybody would turn out more reasonable, and disagreements would be too.

Utopian, I know, but why not dream for a few minutes?

Ken Smith said...

Anonymous:

"Intellectually respectable" and "reasonable" designate conditions that are quite flexible and whose boundaries are constantly shifting in any dynamic social order. Who defines what is respectable or reasonable? Facility with language? Alignment with whatever ideological regimes are currently in fashion? A never-ending Darwinian struggle over ideas and styles? Or, as Feser seems to suggest, acknowledgement of foundational truths recognized and explained by Aristotle? Or maybe some combination of some or all of the above factors?

Intellectually curious people aren't impressed with simple definitions. They tend to probe deeper, and I personally am attracted to people who aren't afraid of the probing.

Ken Smith said...

Anonymous:

"Intellectually respectable" and "reasonable" designate conditions that are quite flexible and whose boundaries are constantly shifting in any dynamic social order. Who defines what is respectable or reasonable? Facility with language? Alignment with whatever ideological regimes are currently in fashion? A never-ending Darwinian struggle over ideas and styles? Or, as Feser seems to suggest, acknowledgement of foundational truths recognized and explained by Aristotle? Or maybe some combination of some or all of the above factors?

Intellectually curious people aren't impressed with simple definitions. They tend to probe deeper, and I personally am attracted to people who aren't afraid of the probing.

Anonymous said...

If you're so smart, how about proving the existence of God to the rest of us dummies. While you're at it, please explain which religions are correct and which ones are off base.

Seriously, how can somebody be an
"expert" in a superstition?

Would I be wrong to question an expert astrologist? How is it any different with an expert on God?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Feser,

I can't claim the same degree of philosophical knowledge and sophistication as you can, but my acquaintance with the classic arguments for the existence of god--namely the cosmological and the ontological--are incredibly tenuous arguments. For example, I find the whole notion of "uncaused first cause" to be highly problematic: even if we acknowledge that everything within the universe has a cause, why must we assume that the universe itself does? If there is an uncaused first cause, why couldn't the universe be that uncaused cause? And what claim could support your contention that god is the uncaused cause of the universe, rather than iself the caused cause of another uncaused cause (unless you're simply going to define the uncaused cause as god)? Even if successful, would these arguments get you anywhere near the god of most monotheistic religions (if the truth of those religions is taken to have a very close connection to the texts of those religions)? While I don't expect you to fully replicate the arguments of your book here, I have a hard time believing that you could honestly claim that you've made much advance in those arguments.

You also claim that you thoroughly debunk the argument from evil, but do you debunk the logical argument from evil or the evidentiary one?

At the end of the day, though, it seems to me that the philosophy of religion is quite sterile: would Mr. Feser lose his faith if he realized his arguments for it were mistaken? I'm pretty sure that even if I couldn't find an objection to his arguments, it would have no impact on my disbelief.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous at 6:06:

With respect, you are proving my point. If you really think that the cosmological argument in any of the forms presented by serious philosophers (Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, etc.) is really damaged by those stock objections, then you don't know the first thing about them. Not a single one of those objections has any force at all against the versions presented by such thinkers. They are directed at straw men, albeit straw men that are extremely common.

Here't the thing: As Vincent Bugloisi complains in his recent book on the JFK assassination, it takes about thirty seconds for a conspiracy theorist to make some sensationalistic charge about the case which seems at first sight compelling, but pages and pages to explain everything that is wrong with the charge, the mountain of false background assumptions it blithely takes for granted, etc. Exactly the same thing is true of what most people think they "know" about the cosmological argument and other theistic arguments. Almost everyhting they think they know is wrong, but it takes pages and pages to remove this intellectual rubbish and disinformation before the arguments can be properly understood.

Hence, contrary to popular belief, the cosmological argument in the form in which Aquinas and others present it does NOT assume that everything has a cause, it does NOT assume that the world had a beginning, it DOES show in detail why a first cause could not possibly be identified with the universe itself, it DOES show in great detail why a causal regress of the relevant type cannot possibly fail to have a first member, it DOES show in detail why a first cause logically must have all of the attributes definitive of the God of traditional religious belief, and so on and on.

In short, a mountain of urban legends has to be cleared away before the average reader who thinks he's already heard it all before can be made to see that he has never heard the actual arguments at all. Hence the need for a book, which is why I wrote it.

But to be clear, I don't claim personally to have made any advance. I claim that the actual arguments have been around for a very long time and repeated over and over by thinkers of genius. It's just that the garbage written by most atheists -- and, to be fair, the garbage written by a very great many pop apologists for religion too -- bears only a superficial resemblance to these arguments.

Hence my book is not primarily about my own personal ideas. It's as much an introduction to the true history of philosophical thinking about religion, and an explanation of why that history has become so badly misunderstood.

J said...

The naive skeptic such as McDonald is hardly worse than the naive dogmatist or theologian. MacDonald does at least understand the basic premise of monotheistic omnipotence, and the consequences thereof, as did Voltaire. Assuming a "God" exists as per the definition agreed upon by theologians, He would be at the very least omnipotent AND omniscient (--we'll leave the "love" question to those sentimental enough to address it).

Ergo, He allowed/created/brought into being (and did not prevent) various tragedies, human and natural as Voltaire pointed out in Candide. Wouldn't the world have been "better" off without the black plague? Most humans, even xtians, would probably say yes. So God, if he exists, either doesn't really care overly much about our ideas of Justice (and thus is perhaps a tyrant who should be opposed), OR rather, that's all so absurd to make His existence seem highly unlikely (and that's our view: strong agnosticism, not atheism. The existence of "God" can't easily be disproven, but shown to be rather absurd (disproving a negative existence claim, on an infinite scale near to impossible anyway...as Russell would grant, though not granting God's existence).

Does say the black plague refute the possibility of "God"? No: that's the naive skeptic's hasty conclusion. Yet at the very least, it brings up a rather difficult issue, which, I contend points to some type of decision matrix: it seems rather implausible that a Jesus-God (were He really omnipotent) would allow a Black Plague (or world wars, genocide, not to say entropy chaos, etc). That may be not sufficiently axiomatic for a metaphysician, but then his arguments for God are hardly necessary either---as Kant ably pointed out.

Eric said...

J, you're just running the evidential problem of evil. I agree, of course, that it is a problem, but it seems to me that the skeptic who uses it takes on a burden he simply can't sustain, viz. first that of clarifying -- and justifying! -- how much evil would be 'too much,' thus making god's existence unlikely (since, by rejecting the logical POE, you've conceded that god's existence and 'some' evil in the world are logically compatible); and second, that of showing that god couldn't have morally sufficient reasons for allowing that quantity of evil you've judged to be 'too much.'

J said...

Not exactly: "Evil" is hardly capable of some axiomatic definition anyway, so that more or less rules out the "logical" POE anyway.

Or do you mean the old Platonic chestnut, regarding God's justice (do we follow "God" (putative) because he's just, or because he's God?). I think that also presents more of a problem for theists than non-theists, though again, there's a problem with defining the normative terms such as "Just." ("Just" to a saudi Imam might not be just to a priest, or to someone in westside LA) However most fundies tend to say we obey God because he's God (of course begging the question of any sort of proof). And JHVH of the OT's hardly some benevolent or just King (all the more problematic given 20th century history).

Hobbes, if memory serves me well, criticized the theologians along those lines: how can one make judgments of a supposed God's supposed attributes? It's sort of like X says he saw a pig fly, and it had polka dots, and then there are arguments about whether it had polka dots or not. Really, since God's existence cannot readily be proven (show him), any supposed attributes (even omnipotence) are as they say stipulated.

Another point (I am sure that will irk the Feserians): invoking supposed necessary truths of mathematics and logic as justification for theological arguments may seem impressive to some, but is really a subtle type of ad auctoritas, I believe. First off, that the pythagorean theorem is true everywhere, "necessary" and a priori does not have anything to do with arguments for a God. And there are rival mathematical schools: constructivists might say we call the pythagorean identity "a priori," (analytical, necessary, etc.) but it's really a human invention which required hundreds (if not thousands) of years to codify and put in proper symbolic form.

It's a difficult issue, but obviously agreeing (or disagreeing) that there are necessary truths does not commit one to belief, or even to some platonic and/or immaterial ontology.

Produce a legitimate miracle.

Eric said...

J: "He allowed/created/brought into being (and did not prevent) various tragedies, human and natural as Voltaire pointed out in Candide. Wouldn't the world have been "better" off without the black plague? Most humans, even xtians, would probably say yes. So God, if he exists, either doesn't really care overly much about our ideas of Justice (and thus is perhaps a tyrant who should be opposed), OR rather, that's all so absurd to make His existence seem highly unlikely (and that's our view: strong agnosticism, not atheism. The existence of "God" can't easily be disproven, but shown to be rather absurd"

Eric: "I agree, of course, that it is a problem, but it seems to me that the skeptic who uses it takes on a burden he simply can't sustain, viz. first that of clarifying -- and justifying! -- how much evil would be 'too much,' thus making god's existence unlikely; and second, that of showing that god couldn't have morally sufficient reasons for allowing that quantity of evil you've judged to be 'too much.'"

J: "Not exactly: "Evil" is hardly capable of some axiomatic definition anyway, so that more or less rules out the "logical" POE anyway."

J, it's clear that you were running the evidential POE above. You can't escape the sorts of burdens this places on you by denying that evil can be clearly defined; if it can't, then you've no right to run the problem in the first place.

J: "Or do you mean the old Platonic chestnut..."

I wasn't referring to the Euthyphro (false) dilemma.

J: "how can one make judgments of a supposed God's supposed attributes? It's sort of like X says he saw a pig fly, and it had polka dots, and then there are arguments about whether it had polka dots or not. Really, since God's existence cannot readily be proven (show him), any supposed attributes (even omnipotence) are as they say stipulated."

Well, they're certainly not 'stipulated'!

http://www.op-stjoseph.org/Students/study/thomas/ContraGentiles1.htm

See, oh, 15 - 101! You may of course disagree with the soundness of the arguments, *but they are arguments*, not 'stipulations'!

Eric said...

Correction: Sorry, make that 13 to 101!

J said...

Eh. There's not that much of a difference, if any, and the definition problem remains, as with nearly all theological wrangling.

Even if we agree that say suffering can be defined (like people--and children-- slowly drowning during a tidal wave/tsunami) the logical POE looks a lot like evidence (my own hunch is that nearly all theological arguments are inductive, really). Suffering under a natural disaster seems to illustrate the POE more effectively than "moral evil" situations as well.

He's supposed to be Just (assuming that can be defined), and all powerful, and thus would presumably end suffering. He could have prevented children from slowly drowning during a tsunami (being eaten by shark, etc.) and doesn't. So, either he can't (impotent, and not God, per definition), or won't (evil, and not a just God, per definition), or far more likely, "He" isn't there. So about same as evidentiary POE.

However, I still think Hobbes raised an important point which sort of cuts off all theological speculation (including the POE) at its knees: you can't predicate about an entity whose existence has not itself been established. Like omnipotence, or his supposed infinite nature.

An Apollo-God could conceivably exist, and he's neither omnipotent, or "infinite" --yet very very powerful. Indeed occasionally I think a sci-fi like minor Deity may be a more plausible candidate than JHVH--yet at the same time, could be read as more sinister than benevolent...... if an Apollo-like deity was found to be in control of the history of humans on earth, we'd want to put him on trial for the greatest crimes against humanity....

Eric said...

J, I'm not sure you understand the distinction between the logical POE and the evidential POE.

The logical POE concludes that, given the reality of evil (suffering), god *cannot* exist, since to claim that both god and evil obtain is to contradict oneself.

The evidential POE concedes that it's *logically possible* that both god exists and there is evil (suffering) in the world (i.e. there's no necessary contradiction involved in asserting both), but concludes that given the *quantity* of evil (suffering), god's existence is *unlikely*.

Now, Plantinga refuted the logical POE, so it's not the case, as you claim, that it can be construed as 'evidence' against god's existence. Indeed, even if the logical POE hadn't been refuted, the argument simply didn't work the way you seem to suppose: it didn't claim to provide *evidence* that god doesn't exist, but a metaphysical *proof* that he *cannot* exist. The evidential POE, however, does rely on evidence and probabilities; so it's not at all the case, as you claim, that they're 'about the same.'

J: "you can't predicate about an entity whose existence has not itself been established. Like omnipotence, or his supposed infinite nature."

This isn't necessarily true. "A unicorn has one horn." I can predicate "one horn" of a unicorn because I know what the term "unicorn" means. Or, take this: "Hamlet is indecisive." I don't have to show that Hamlet exists to predicate 'indecision' of Hamlet. More seriously, however, if you look at the link I posted, you'll see that Aquinas doesn't begin to describe god's attributes until after he's demonstrated his existence.

Of course, you'll disagree that he 'demonstrated' anything of the sort. With that in mind, I'm simply not sure what *you* mean by 'established.' You don't seem to think that a metaphysical claim can even in principle be established. So, how do we 'establish' the existence of something?

"An Apollo-God could conceivably exist, and he's neither omnipotent, or "infinite" --yet very very powerful."

Well, that depends on what you mean by 'god' here. If you look at Aquinas' arguments, you'll see that he shows why there cannot be more than one god; so, if Aquinas is right, an Apollo 'god' *cannot* conceivably exist! Again, it all goes back to the arguments.

J said...

I don't think you quite understand the problem. For sake of informal arguments (like most "ethics"), we might say "evil" exists. But "evil" is not a fact, like tables or volcanoes are facts. We might agree Hitler was evil. But not everyone would; and science says otherwise. He was just a bad monkey, according to a purely scientific materialist view (poorly conditioned, etc.).

Anyway, I gave the logical POE (from Mackie) in brief, which uses suffering, instead of evil. Not real deep: God is supposedly all "good," (another problem word) and all powerful. Yet does not prevent suffering, especially of innocent (which I think is more capable of definition than good or evil). Ergo, He either can't, or won't, OR doesn't exist; which is to say, the POE doesn't really disprove the possibility of God: it merely says he's either not "good", or he's not omnipotent.

And indeed some theologians--usually conservative sorts--might agree that He allows suffering of innocent (even on a grand scale) for some purpose. The hick calvinist might say God allowed the Tsunami of 2004, which resulted in deaths of like 300, 000 for some purpose (the cosmic payback BS). I imagine some imams said things like that.

So the POE does not disprove the existence of God. It implies that he's either malevolent, at least in part (to what degree?), or not omnipotent. It's sort of trivial really.

(btw, I agree to the principles of the Beatitudes as outlined by JC, regardless of skepticism, or knowing the limitations of rational theology. However I don't think those are so compatible with Aristotelian tradition:--that was the code of Caesar and the cronies.)

J said...

Yet one might also infer that God does not exist, given the logical POE, since the LPOE shows that he can't be both all good and omnipotent (and so not God). I think that's a good argument for doubts of monotheism: but obviously many religious people don't--such as Paddy Plantinga; who says, more or less, ala Dr. Pangloss that JHVH could have made a world even more Eevil than our world with Hitler and Stalin, a nuclear weapons (or natural disasters, disease, etc).