Why do I like History?

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As I get older for some reason I am more and more interested in history.  I recently listened to the Bloodlands and a lecture series on Russian history.  I recommend both.  I think I was more surprised by Bloodlands which I listened to first.  I was not aware that Germany and Russia had basically agreed how to divide Poland and other Eastern European countries before Hitler invaded Poland.   After listening to the Bloodlands I see no moral difference between Hitler and Stalin.

I first became interested in History for largely apologetic reasons.  I wanted to learn about the Crusades, Medieval history and early Christian history.  As I read the history I certainly found plenty of ammunition that can be used for any side if one wants to do that.  That’s true whether we are talking about Muslim versus Christian, or Atheist versus Christian, or even Christian versus Christian in regards to the reformation.    Reading history for those reasons, or at least mainly for those reasons, lost it’s luster.

People say you can learn “lessons” from history.   I am not so sure or at least I think people might take that too far.  They strain comparisons of today’s events with those of history.  History is a one time thing.  It’s not going to repeat itself exactly and it will always be controversial to claim that this current event is just like some event from the past.  It is very difficult to try to speculate about causes of certain events.  Like why did Stalin and Hitler end up leading their countries?   I like many people like to draw my own conclusions.  I think I can better sort out the good from the bad in people based on experiences I live directly or vicariously through reading history.  But I have read enough history (and lived enough life) that I also know that many of my previous theories weren’t right after all.  So concocting theories about human behavior is part of the reason I like history but its not an entirely satisfactory answer.

Sure what I learn in history is truth, and I value the truth for its own sake.  But certain truths are more important than others.   For example it seems facts dealing with morality are more important than just descriptive facts.  So it seems somehow more important that the truth about the secret Soviet and German agreement to divide Poland is revealed, than whether or not Stalin had siblings.   Finding out who was really responsible for the Katyn massacre seemed more significant despite the fact that those who were responsible are now dead.

I also read history for the same reason I read current events.  It can be interesting.  Current events that I read about in the paper might have some impact on my life, but really it’s pretty rare that learning about them will change my behavior very much.    The events of history are yesterdays headlines and are even less likely to change my behavior, but they are usually much more interesting and surprising.

From the philosophical and religious perspective that this blog usually takes, is it important whether or not Hitler was a Christrian?  Does it matter that Stalin was atheist? Does it matter that Christians have done wrong?   I think the answers are somewhat more complicated than I thought when I originally took an interest in history.

Notre Dame Pass Interference Call and the Actual Rule.

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College football fans are probably aware of the recent call against Notre Dame that resulted in them losing the game. Now we see many people talking about the call but very few actually mentioning the actual rule. Some don’t even show video of the play preferring still pictures that they hope supports their view. Here will look at both.
First the rule:

Illegal Contact and Pass Interference
ARTICLE 8. a. During a down in which a legal forward pass crosses the neutral zone, illegal contact by Team A and Team B players is prohibited from the time the ball is snapped until it is touched by any player or an official (A.R. 7-3-8-II).
b. Offensive pass interference by a Team A player beyond the neutral zone during a legal forward pass play in which a forward pass crosses the neutral zone is contact that interferes with a Team B eligible player. It is
the responsibility of the offensive player to avoid the opponents. It is not offensive pass interference (A.R. 7-3-8-IV, V, X, XV and XVI):

2. When two or more eligible players are making a simultaneous and bona fide attempt to reach, catch or bat the pass. Eligible players of either team have equal rights to the ball (A.R. 7-3-8-IX).
3. When the pass is in flight and two or more eligible players are in the area where they might receive or intercept the pass and an offensive player in that area impedes an opponent, and the pass is not catchable…..

….
1. Those infractions that occur during a down in which a forward pass crosses the neutral zone are pass interference infractions only if the receiver had the opportunity to receive a catchable forward pass.

g. Each player has territorial rights, and incidental contact is ruled under “attempt to reach…the pass’’ in Rule 7-3-8. If opponents who are beyond the line collide while moving toward the pass, a foul by one or both players is indicated only if intent to impede the opponent is obvious. It is pass
interference only if a catchable forward pass is involved.

http://www.ncaapublications.com/p-4309-2013-and-2014-ncaa-football-rules-and-interpretations.aspx

Ok there are the relevant rules. It’s clear that the rule is for players trying to catch the ball and it’s clear. “It is pass interference only if a catchable forward pass is involved.” The question is whether the interference “involved” the pass.   I have been watching football for 30 years and have never seen pass interference called involving people other than those who could potentially catch the ball. I have never see calls for pass interference on the other side of the field from where the ball was thrown. This ball was thrown on the sideline and the alleged pass interference was supposedly at the hash mark. So traditional interpretation goes against this call.

Featured image

Now the play. It’s somewhat unclear who the ref actually called the opi on. He may have called it on 20, or he may have called it on 7. Let’s look at each. As for number 20 it is clear that his defender never makes any attempt to cover 88 at all until after the ball would have been uncatchable. He was clearly covering number 20 and even illegally holding his left sleeve. So again number 20 did not do anything to prevent that defender from being able to catch the ball. The ball was uncatchable for that defender because that defender chose to come up and jam 20 at the line and then hold/cover number 20 instead of the person the ball was being thrown to.  That interference seemed to not “involve” the actual pass at all.

But what if the flag was called on number 7? The video clearly shows that the defender covering number 7 also makes no attempt to cover number 88. If he was he would try to step to the outside of number 7 and cover 88. But the video clearly shows that defender steps to the inside of number seven taking away 7s posting route and leading to a collision between both players. It is clear he steps that way and he was not trying to get outside but was picked.  So again the intereference had nothing to do with that actual pass to a different player about 25-20 yeards away.

So it’s quite clear from the video
1) That the ball was not catchable for either of the defenders. And
2) The ball was not catchable for either defender not because of anything the offensive player did but rather because those defenders decided to try to cover players other than the receiver that had the ball thrown to him.

If the receivers were not even trying to cover the receiver that the ball was thrown to and and therefore neither could catch it anyway and it is hard to see how this interference call “involved” the actual pass at all.

Euthyphro Dilemma and William Lane Craig’s Response

Some argue that real morals cannot possibly exist unless God exists. The common and I think proper response to this claim directs them to the Euthyphro dilemma. The Euthyphro was one of Plato’s dialogues where Socrates asks whether something is good because it pleases the gods, or is it pleasing to the gods because it’s good?

This is an interesting question isn’t it? Most of my readers I suspect tend to be monotheists so let’s change “gods” to “God” and consider each possibility mentioned:
1) Something is pleasing to God because it is good.
2) Something is good because it is pleasing to God.

Ok I tend to think the first prong is a contender. I tend to think it’s possible that something is pleasing to God because it is good. That position has been criticized it is claimed that means God can’t be omnipotent or something along those lines. That is they would argue, God is caged in by goodness, and can’t make evil into goodness and therefore is not omnipotent.

Ok my view here is to fall back to Alvin Plantinga’s exposition about God’s omnipotence when he was dealing with the problem of evil. That is we should first try to understand what we mean by “omnipotent.” If omnipotent means God is not bound by the rules of logic then none of this philosophical talk will help us understand the possibility of his existence. For example the problem of evil would go away since it at best portends to show that God’s traits contradict the possibility that he would create this world with evil. Of course, if God is not bound by logical rules (such as the rule of non-contradiction) then this argument is of questionable worth.

So by “omnipotent” I tend think God’s power is still bounded by the rules of logic. (If I am wrong so be it. He is then truly well beyond my understanding so I can only hope for the best.) This is why people who ask can God make a rock so heavy even he cannot lift it, are asking something of dubious relevance.

The other observation from this first view is that the good seems capable of existing independent of God. I do not deny that this first view explains how morality might exist independent of God.

Now let’s consider the second possibility. Something is good because it pleases God. In this situation there is a sort of relativism based on God’s subjective wants. This view is in line with what is called the divine command theory of morality. I tend to agree that this makes right and wrong a bit too arbitrary.

Now a popular philosopher and apologist, William Lane Craig, points out that this is really a false dichotomy. I think he is correct on that point. These two options are not the only possible two options. “Murray Macbeath (1982), submits that the horns of the ED are not exhaustive given the logical possibility of this scenario that represents Macbeath’s own view: God might choose actions because they maximize our happiness, which might be the reason why those commands are morally right, but God might not command them because they are right but because he loves us. Thus, both disjuncts of the ED would be false, and ought to be rejected anyway, Macbeath would say..” THEISTIC ACTIVISM AND THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA by DAVID BAGGET

http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=fac_dis

But also as William Lane Craig says we can reject both options and say “God wills something because he is good. That is to say it is God’s own nature which determines what is the good.” Therefore morality is not arbitrarily based on God’s whims as the second prong suggests. But also the good is not external to God. It flows from God’s nature. This view of God and his nature date at least as early as Anselm.

I think William Lane Craig, Anselm and several other philosophers over the millennia are correct in pointing that the two prongs of the dilemma are not exhaustive. And I would say that this understanding of morality seems a very plausible one. I actually see no reason why I need to try to determine whether this third possibility or the first possibility holds. Clearly since I believe God created the world there might be very little difference.
What does the existence of this third possibility show? I agree that it shows that what is commonly referred to as the “Euthyphro Dilemma” is not a true dichotomy. So it’s not the case that the Christian must either accept that goodness is independent of God or arbitrary. So that much is good for the Christian.
However sometimes I think the “third option” argument gets pushed a bit farther than is warranted. This third (or 4th or 5th) possibility is sometimes used to argue that for real morality to exist there must be a God. I think this stretches things too far. After all these other possibilities do not logically eliminate the first possibility. Thanks to the first prong we can clearly conceptualize how real morality could exist independent of God. And just because there are other possibilities that does not mean the first prong is impossible, or even less likely.

In the end I think the “Euthyphro Dilemma” does indeed help us understand how real right and wrong might exist without God. It does not prove morality exists without God. But it does help us understand how real morality can exist without God.

Practical versus Theoretical Rationality

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I think this article gives a pretty good description of a distinction I often think about:

http://www.princeton.edu/~grosen/puc/phi203/Pascal.html

 

“Theoretical rationality is (roughly) a matter of evidential and argumentative support. Your belief in God is rational in the theoretical sense just in case the balance of evidence and argument supports the truth of the proposition that God exists. Your belief in God is practically rational, on the other hand, if it is in your interest for you to hold it.”

 

It seems to me both theoretical and practical rationality are important.   Often times it seems people only think in terms of the theoretical.   I often suggest that we might want to consider something beyond the probability of our beliefs being true, as to whether something is rational to believe.  The typical response from some atheist and theist alike is along the lines of “O my god! that’s Pascal’s wager O my God! Oh my god!  You know that’s been refuted right? Oh my god!”  And then they give me a link to some blog or wiki or something like that.  (I don’t think I have ever been offered a link to a peer reviewed article on Pascal’s wager.)  The link will rarely give a reason not to use practical rationality.  Instead it will give objections to Pascal’s specific formulation of the wager.  This will typically be a shot gun approach with decent and poor objections mixed together.  The result is that atheists (and certain theists) often only think in terms of Theoretical rationality.   I think that is a mistake.  Here are two points I would make in that regard:

 

First we might not have an option which is more likely true than not.  One of the objections to Pascal’s Wager is that there are many different exclusive God’s to choose from.  I think this illustrates a major problem for only thinking in terms of theoretical rationality.    If they all were assigned a probability value, it’s possible none of them would have a probability greater than 50% yet one still might put the probability of there being no God at under 50%.   What sort of beliefs should we then use to conduct ourselves?

 

I think this issue of choosing beliefs to base our conduct on is most directly brought to bear when we consider ethical and meta-ethical views.  As you might already know there are several different ethical positions we can hold.  But unfortunately each of them seems to present more problems than solutions.    I don’t think there is much in the way of evidence in support of one particular view of meta-ethics.  At least not evidence of the sort that I can mark as an exhibit in a court case.  (I plan to do a blog on what “evidence” is if there is an interest)  Yes there are arguments in favor and against a variety of different views.   But the problem is there are definitely more than 2 options.  I gave 4 major options in an earlier blog.  But there are all sorts of variations and sub-possibilities within those options.  E.g., Quasi-realism, naturalist realism and non-natural realism.  There are all sorts of varieties of constructivism and relativism.   Suffice it to say that these options cannot all be true.  If we ever find out the truth there will be many more losing theories than winning theories.    That’s just meta-ethical theories.  We also have many possible ethical theories, which one we choose might depend on which meta-ethical stance we take.   Christianity presents a set of moral beliefs as does Hinduism and Islam, not to mention all the different secular theories of ethics.    

 

Well here is the problem for someone who only follows theoretical rationality.  Let’s say you think theory 1 has a 20% chance of being true, theory 2 has a 15% chance of being true, theory 3 has about a 15% chance of being true and 5 other theories (theories 4-9) all have about a 10% chance of being true. (this should add up to 100%)   Well what to do?  You have to live your life.   In living your life you will be presented with binary options.  For example you either will go to church on Sunday or you will not.   What will you do?

 

You might say you will not believe any of these theories.   But what does that mean?  That doesn’t mean you will accept moral nihilism because perhaps you only give that a 15% chance of being true.    So if you accepted that belief you would believe something that you think is more likely than not false.  But what can you do?  How can you live your life?

 

It seems to me that theism is indeed an ethical and a meta-ethical theory.  Arguing that this theory is not more likely than not true is just like arguing nihilism or moral realism or relativism is not more likely than not true.  It really doesn’t itself decide anything.  This is because all these possibilities might be more likely than not untrue! 

 

It is my opinion that theism and Christianity in particular not only has a higher probability of being true than other meta-ethical and ethical theories, but also it is the most attractive option when we consider consequences from a practical rationality point of view.   But that is not the point of this blog.  I am here just merely trying to explain why solely using the theoretical model of rationality is a mistake.   That brings me to the second problem.

 

The second problem with just looking at rationality from the theoretical standpoint is that doing that doesn’t seem, well…. rational.  If you are looking at rationality solely from the theoretical view then what?  We are just to believe things that are more likely true then not and purge beliefs that are likely untrue.

Now how important is it to hold beliefs that are likely true?  Well this narrow view of rationality gives us no guidance of what views are important to get straight.  It’s just a matter of gaining beliefs that are likely true and purging beliefs that are likely untrue.   So on this narrow view there is nothing to say learning the facts by reading the phone book is any less important than learning science or ethics or history.  In fact, the phone book will likely give you more certain beliefs than studying ethics or meta-ethics.  So really if your goal is to just fill your head with as many beliefs that are likely true you might as well memorize the phone book.    That just doesn’t seem rational. 

 Now it seems that certain atheists are more concerned that people might hold beliefs that they think likely untrue.   Why is this a big concern?   We hear arguments like well if people believe this, which is likely untrue, then maybe they will believe something else that is likely untrue.   The concerns are fairly fantastic.  Maybe people will believe in the flying spaghetti monster or a teapot in space.  One philosophy professor even expressed concern that someone might believe in “absolute purple.”  He wasn’t sure what that would mean but he thought perhaps someone would believe it.  And this was somehow a concern. 

It’s not that I think we should believe in absolute purple.  Nor do I think we should believe in spaghetti monsters or tea cups in space, for that matter.   But I also don’t think we should worry about people believing those things either.    That concern, just really doesn’t strike me as rational either.  It just strikes me as odd for several reasons.  Not only does it seem unlikely people will believe that but it’s unclear what untoward consequences of such a belief would entail.   It just seems a bizarre concern to have. 

 

Of course I am not saying that the probability of a belief being true is not part of the equation.  I think it is.  But there is more to it than that.   That’s the point of this blog.  Any thoughts to the contrary or otherwise are always appreciated. 

Ehrman and the Historicity of Miracles

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One of the issues that often comes up is whether there is any evidence for God.  Miracles are the most common and direct form of evidence requested in both modern and ancient times.   Definitions of a miracle can vary but the one provided by Macmillan dictionary seems most in tune with the philosophical model.  “an event that cannot be explained according to the laws of nature and is considered to be an act of God”

 

In modern times many agnostics and atheists ask for miracles as proof or evidence.  Whether it’s  N.R.Hanson’s having God appear after a thunder-clap causing everyone in the world to fall to their knees before the heavens open and  a giant radiant Zeus like figure appears  and “exclaims for every man woman and child to hear ‘I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology.  Be assured, N. R. Hanson, that I do most certainly exist’”   Then there is the common notion that God could rearrange the stars to spell something like “I exist” to those who question.   Although there will always be some holdouts[i], most atheists are willing to agree that such miracles would be fairly compelling evidence of God.

The author of the Gospel of John explains why he records the signs (miracles)

“Jesus performed many other signs [miracles] in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”   John 20:30

 

But the hope for miracles dates even earlier.  The ancients thought along the same lines as we read in Isaiah.  He wished God would show himself by rending the heavens and coming down and do awesome things so that people would believe in him and turn from their sin.  But because he has “hidden [his] face” people continue to sin. [ii] I will just say that I find it interesting that it appears throughout time some humans have expected/hoped that God would reveal himself through miracles.  Some issues seem new but you can often find they have been asked before.

 

Is there historical evidence of miracles?  Years ago I listened to Bart Ehrlman’s lectures entitled “Historical Jesus.”  He repeats several times that in determining what historically happened one must use criteria..  The criteria he proposes are more or less these:

 

1)            Multiple sources

2)            Preferably Independent sources

3)            Non biased sources

4)            Contextual credibility

5)            Close in time to the events

6)            No contradictions/internally consistent

 

So far so good.  He goes through 17 lectures explaining, using, and emphasizing the importance of these criteria.  Then in lecture 18 he addresses miracles.  Needless to say I was somewhat excited to hear how they would hold up under historical criteria.

Unfortunately he then launches into some confused and contradictory explanations which I will quote at length below.  But at the outset I want to say that I do not intend to bash Professor Ehrman here.  I learned allot about the historical Jesus from listening to his lectures and books.  And I greatly appreciate his work and his ability to introduce and explain many of the issues in this very interesting field.  I don’t agree with everything he says but I learned a great deal from him and think he is an excellent author and professor.

 

Before I quote him I want to point out how he uses 2 different definitions of the word “miracle.”  1) an event that violates the law of nature.  And 2) and improbable or rare event.   But it’s important at the outset to know these are two different definitions.   We might say the Yankees winning in the ninth inning was a miracle comeback.  But we don’t really mean any laws of nature were violated.

In the same token several Christians believe a miracle happens at communion when the bread becomes Christ’s body and blood.  This is literally confirmed by hundreds of thousands of believers every day at Catholic Masses.   So according to them at least, it’s an event that violates the laws of nature, but it’s not exactly rare or improbable.

 

There are 2 definitions for the word duck.  One is a bird that likes water and the other is to bow down to dodge something.  But if I were to say a duck is a bird that likes water and often bows down to avoid attacks that would be conflating the two meanings.    You will see that is what Bart Ehrman does.

 

I will try to transcribe exactly what he says.  However, the parts in brackets and blue are are my own comments.  He says:

The reports of Jesus’s miracles create a special problem for historians who are committed to establishing to the best of their abilities what probably happened in the past.  On the one hand the miracles of Jesus are virtually ubiquitous in our gospel traditions.  [traditions which Ehrman believed were sufficient to establish historical facts]  Nearly everywhere you turn Jesus is healing the sick, casting out the demons, raising the dead, multiplying the loaves, walking on the water and so on.  These traditions infiltrate our gospel traditions.

 

Some people since the enlightenment in Europe have insisted that such miracles cannot happen.  For people like this, since miracles don’t happen, Jesus necessarily did not do miracles.   This view can be called the “philosophical problem of miracle”  I want to state emphatically that this is not the issue that I want to address in this lecture.  I am not dealing with the philosophical problem of whether miracles are possible.  That’s not what I want to deal with.  For the sake of the argument I am willing to concede that miracles can and do happen.  For the sake of the argument Ill concede that they happen.

 

But there still remains a huge and I’d say insurmountable problem when discussing Jesus’s miracles.  Even if miracles are possible, there is no way for the historian to show that they ever happened.  I’m going to call this the historical problem of miracle. As opposed to the philosophical problem.  Let me explain the historical problem of miracle at some length.

 

One way to approach the question is by reflecting for a moment on the ways in which historians engage in their craft in contrast say to the ways scientists engage in theirs.  The natural sciences operate through repeated experimentation as they seek to establish predictive probabilities based on past occurrences.  To illustrate on just the most simple level suppose I wanted to demonstrate that a bar of iron will sink in a tub of lukewarm water but a bar of ivory soap will float.  I could prove my thesis simply by repeated experimentation with tubs of water and with bars of both iron and soap.  Line up the tubs with water and the bars of iron will sink every time and the bars of ivory soap will float every time and this would provide an extremely high level of what we might call presumptive probability.  Namely that if I keep repeating the same experiment I’m going to keep getting the same results so that we can predict that in the future that is probably what is going to happen.  This is what natural science does it makes predictions about what is going to happen based on repeated experimentation of what already has happened.

 

In common parlance a miracle within this schema would involve a violation of this known working of nature.  It would be a miracle for example if a preacher prayed over a bar of iron and chucked it into a vat of lukewarm of water and it floated.  We would call that a miracle.

 

The historical disciplines are not like the natural sciences, in part, because they are concerned with establishing what has happened in the past as opposed to predicting what will happen in the future and in part because the historical disciplines cannot operate through repeated experimentation.  An occurrence is a one-time proposition once it happened; it is over and done with.

 

Since historians cannot repeat the past in order to establish what probably happened there will always be less certainty than there would be in the natural sciences where you can actually demonstrate things through repeated experimentation.  It’s much harder to convince people that John F Kennedy was the victim of a lone assassin than it is to convince them that a piece of ivory soap will float.  Because you can repeat one but you can’t repeat the other.

And the farther back you go in history the harder it is to mount a convincing case.  It’s one thing to mount a convincing case of an event that happened in 1963 where you actually have video.   But to try to convince somebody of what happened in 63 is extremely difficult.  You can not only not repeat it, but the sources available to you are highly problematic.  This all though is what makes alleged miracles so hard for historians, so difficult, in fact why they pose an insurmountable difficulty for historians. [But this seems to have nothing to do with something being a miracle, there are ancient and modern alleged miracles]

 

On one level of course, everything that happens, that happens at all is improbable but most things that happen are not so unlikely as to defy the imagination. [Again I thought he conceded they do happen it seems he is reneging.]  Because they happen more or less all the time.  If you five years ago had tried to calculate the probability of your sitting right now where you’re sitting.  I think probably it would be a remote probability five years ago but there is nothing improbable about the fact itself I mean you have to be sitting somewhere if though five years ago you tried to predict the probability of our right now levitating 20 feet in the air, well how would you even calculate the probability of that since you don’t levitate. [But I thought he said “For the sake of the argument I am willing to concede that miracles can and do happen.” he seems to be reneging]   You see both are improbable but the improbability of you levitating at this point is so infinitesimally remote that you can’t even calculate it. [I’m not sure I could calculate the probability that I would be sitting here five years before either] Events that don’t happen all the time defy probabilities. [But as he said himself all events from history only happen once.  Plus he clearly is just arguing they don’t happen all the time.] That’s why miracles create an inescapable dilemma for historians.

Let me put it like this since historians can only establish what probably did happened in the past and the chances of a miracle happening by definition are infinitesimally remote a miracle can never be the most probable occurrence.  [Notice this is a different definition of miracle than what he said earlier.] That means historians can never show by the very nature of the case given the constraints imposed by them by the historical methods that miracles probably happened. [Why not apply the historical method/criteria he claimed to use?] This is not a problem for only one kind of historian, for example for atheist for agnostics or Buddhists or Roman Catholics or Baptists or Jews or Muslims it’s a problem for all historians of every stripe.  Even if there are otherwise good sources for a miraculous event the very nature of the historical discipline prevents the historian from arguing for its probability by their very nature miracles are the least probable occurrence in any given instance.  [Clearly he is deciding this using something other than the historical criteria he set out and claimed to use.  If it is not the use of his historical criteria then what is the grounds for saying they are so unlikely? It seems that although he tries to deny it, he is mixing his philosophical views with his historical methodology.  Again he is using the different definition, that the one that simply indicated a violation of the laws of nature]

 

 

 

He offers some very confused thoughts and no longer wants to apply the same historical criteria he applies to other events.  It’ clear that we can take the miracle events described in the gospels and apply these criteria just like we can to any non – miraculous event.

 

 

He really offers nothing specific about any of the 6 historical criteria themselves not working with miracles.   So at the outset I see no reason why his normal criteria for historical analysis cannot be employed and sadly he does not address any of these criteria or attempt to show why they don’t work with miracles.  It seems very much to a situation of special pleading.

Ok lets move on to what he does say.   He claims he is not referring to a philosophical problem, but instead a “historical problem of miracle.”    Given that he never mentions any problems with applying the historical criteria to these events, it seems a strange claim.   Despite his claim to the contrary the “miracle problem” he refers to seems to be very much a philosophical misgiving.  It is a conflation of 2 distinct definitions of miracle, and a confusion over predicting probabilities in the future or the past.

It’s unclear to me whether his disparate thoughts are intended to mount several different arguments as to why normal methodology of a historian can’t be used.   Or if he thinks they support one global argument.  That said lets go through some of his points:

Why does he mention scientific method and how it’s distinct from the methods of the historian in the context of miracles only?  Clearly that distinction applies equally well to all sorts of historical evaluations and not just to miracles.   It seems he agrees history is not science regardless of whether we are discussing claimed miraculous events or natural events.  So why raise this distinction in this context?  He seems to be going adrift.

He indicates that it is harder to prove something that happened farther in the past with problematic sources than it is to prove something closer to the present when we have video tape.  I don’t disagree with that.  But this is true of all history and has nothing to do with the event being a possible miracle or not.  So again he seems to be going adrift when he brings this up in the context of why miracles can’t be examined with historical analysis.

He goes on to offer even more confused thinking:

“Another way to look at this problem is to point out ways that the historical disciplines are like the natural sciences.     Both Historical and natural disciplines deal with phenomena that can be observed by all interested parties apart from their ideological or religious beliefs. The historian can only look at evidence in other words that is available in the public record.   As a historian the person who is a historian has no access to supernatural forces.   Only to events that can be observed and interpreted by any reasonable person of whatever religious persuasion.

 

If a miracle requires belief in the supernatural realm but historians as historians have access only to the natural realm then they can never even discuss the probabilities of a miracle because it requires belief in the supernatural.  Let me emphasize that historians don’t have to deny the possibility of miracles or deny that miracles happen.  I’m not saying that.”

 

A miracle does not require anyone to believe in the supernatural.  It is a supernatural occurrence but the possibility of it happening is not dependent on our subjective beliefs.   It happened or it didn’t, regardless of whether we believe it happened.   Some miracles are better supported by historical criteria than others.  It’s difficult to know what he could mean when he says:

 

“If a miracle requires belief in the supernatural realm but historians as historians have access only to the natural realm then they can never even discuss the probabilities of a miracle because it requires belief in the supernatural.”

What is he talking about?  Discussing the probability of miracles does not require belief in the supernatural.   Lots of people who do not believe in the supernatural assign a probability to miracles.  Often these probabilities are low but very few people who do not believe in the supernatural claim there is absolutely no chance they are wrong.    But even if they do assign a zero probability they are assigning a probability.

 

What does he mean accessing the supernatural realm?  Miracles are supernatural events that happen in this realm.  People who believe the miracles as recorded in the bible do not think they happened in some other “realm.”  He is begging the question when he says Historians as historians cannot access the supernatural.  They can access them the same way they access natural events.     By looking at their sources and using their historical criteria.

When we examine the reasons for his claims, they do indeed make it clear that his issues with miracles are only philosophical ones.  I think his comments about how often miracles are recorded and from how many different sources makes it clear that if he used actual historical analysis he would find they are historically supported.  It’s just too bad that his philosophical views are so confused that he doesn’t even realize they are in fact philosophical and have nothing to do with historical analysis.

[i] For example Matt McCormick is an atheist philosophy teacher who apparently does not consider miracles to be evidence of God.

[ii]  “Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance.  For a little while your people possessed your holy place, but now our enemies have trampled down your sanctuary. We are yours from of old; but you have not ruled over them, they have not been called by your name.

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!  For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.  Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.  You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved?  All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.” Isaiah 63-64

Is God Immoral?

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Like all law students I took a course on “property.”  Throughout my life, I was lucky enough to take courses from some very interesting people.  My property professor, Douglas Kmiec,[1] was no exception.

The idea that we gain rights over what we create was to some extent developed by John Locke.  He described how people will mix their labor with items from the common property and make it theirs.

 “The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to….”

John Locke Second Treatise of Civil Government Chapter 5.

I read this in my property class taught by Kmiec.  He explained that I might pick up a branch in the forest.   Now if I put it down again, then anyone else can pick it up and do what they want with it.  But if I pick it up and carve it into a wooden statue, well then it’s mine.  At that point I would have the right to do with it what I wanted even destroy it, but no one else would have that right.   I thought it was an interesting insight.

 

 

Ok so now many atheists want to say God is a “murderer!”  He asked/commanded people to kill others.  We have such stories in the Old Testament.  How can we worship such a God?

 

Well first of all I tend not to believe the Old Testament is literal.  I think the Old Testament is by and large a collection of stories.   Yes the Holy Spirit inspired them but how exactly that works, I do not pretend to speak for that Holy Spirit.  But even an atheist should consider that Jewish scripture consists of what possibly the very best and brightest cultures thought was some of their best literature.  I agree some books do nothing for me but other books I find delightful and wonderful.    I am somewhat saddened when I see people reading it only for the purpose they want to get out of it instead of thinking about what the author was up to.

 

Now although I do not take the Old Testament literally I do think it teaches true messages.    But what message can Abraham being commanded to kill his son possibly be teaching?   What can stories about God wiping out whole cities be teaching? One answer is that it teaches God is our creator and as such he is not like us.  We are not the same.  Regardless of what we or even God might want the truth is we are not the same.   Reality doesn’t cater to our wants.

 

Let’s think about this.   If a lion intentionally kills a human without justification we don’t say that it is a “murderer.”  If a human intentionally kills a human without justification he/she is a murderer.  What if God intentionally kills humans?  Should God be treated like other humans?  This is the hidden assumption of every anti-theist blog crying out that God is a murderer.  I just read a paper which seems to imply God committed a holocaust against children who died from natural causes.   I am not suggesting that God is not a murderer for the same reasons a lion is not a murder.  But I am saying we should not automatically assume God is just like us, in this analysis.

 

Here is something to consider.  If I create a sand castle, I can destroy it and it is not immoral.  If someone else destroys my sand castle it is wrong, unless I as the creator give them permission.  God created us and he can destroy us and it is not immoral.  Others however cannot destroy us and remain blameless, unless they are given permission by our creator.

 

I realize that this is not an appealing view.   But if God is bound by the rules of Logic not even he can change that fact can he?  If we are in fact, created by God we cannot truthfully claim otherwise.  Even God cannot make this truth, false.  This wounds our pride and tradition teaches it wounded Satan’s pride as well.  He was unhappy with the truth that he was not like God, and rebelled against it.

 

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!   For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:  I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.  Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” Isaiah 14:12-14[2]

 

Now my point is not to say the people who claim God is a murderer are “Satans.”  Not at all.  But it is to say that they are not accounting for the fact that Christians believe God is our creator and generally we think a creator has a right to destroy his creations.  They engage in special pleading when they refuse to acknowledge this principle when discussing God’s relationship to us.  This is a double standard.  They recognize a painter has a right to destroy his painting if he is unhappy with it, but they want to deny this right to a creator God.

 

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[1] Before I did my blog arguing that marriage should no longer be governed by the state I googled to see if anyone else came to the same conclusion.  I was somewhat surprised to see my old Property and Constitutional Law Professor arguing the same thing.  Doug Kmiec is an inspirational professor who brought energy and excitement to everything he taught.  But he was always a bit too conservative for me!  Because this blog brought back memories of his property law class I decided to google him and read the Wikipedia.  Few could be as surprised as I am.  But really politics aside, I am honored to have learned from him.  I was of course surprised by what I read.  But  I am not surprised by this quote from Wikipedia:

“On July 2, 2009, President Obama nominated Kmiec as Ambassador to Malta.[24] He was confirmed by the Senate. In April 2011, he was criticized by the Inspector General of the State Department for spending too much time on what the OIG reported as unofficial (religious) duties, which Kmiec saw as integral to his ambassadorial role.”

And I likewise am not at all surprised by this quote from Tiffany Stanley of The New Republic:

“in the annals of diplomatic misbehavior, Kmiec’s is rather an unusual case. Even the critical OIG report notes that embassy morale was good, he was respected by the Maltese and his staff, and had ‘achieved some policy successes’. The problem, it seems, was that Kmiec may have taken the job a little too seriously.”[27] Columnist Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times writes: “Over the last few years, Kmiec has emerged as one of this country’s most important witnesses to the proposition that religious conviction and political civility need not be at odds; that reasonable people of determined good conscience, whatever their faith or lack thereof, can find ways to cooperate in the common good. Though Kmiec has not sought their intervention, the president and the secretary of State ought to deal with the bureaucrats seeking to silence a voice whose only offense is to speak in the vocabulary of our own better angels.”

I read some other things that make me believe he likely had some hard times.  I wish Doug Kmiec the best, and will keep him in my prayers.

[2] But see:  https://bible.org/article/lucifer-devil-isaiah-1412-kjv-argument-against-modern-translations and http://pastordougroman.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/do-isaiah-14-and-ezekiel-28-refer-to-satan/

 

Pascal’s wager without God and without Hell

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This blog is a response to some questions posed by David W in my earlier blog. I drafted this response and decided I should put it up as a separate blog, because it covers an important point of how I am coming at these questions. 

 

 I think you will understand where I am coming from if we first drop the idea of God all together.   My strongest reasons for believing in God come out of my understanding of morality.  So you can’t really gloss over my views on morality and start asking about my reason to believe in God.  So let’s just think about morality and specifically whether the moral realist’s position is true.  For example is it a moral fact that what Hitler did to millions of Jews was evil regardless of what anyone thinks?

 

It seems the holocaust either was really wrong or it wasn’t.  Now in general I think the actual “evidence” of moral realism is pretty weak.   For example I think there is *no* empirical evidence that the moral realist view is correct.  Sure we all might see the photos of corpses or even have seen the corpses or the families of those Hitler killed directly.   Looking at this might cause us to be repulsed.  That emotional response might somehow yield a strong belief that what Hitler did was morally wrong.     I do not think strongly believing something (especially when it’s due to an emotional response) is itself evidence for what we believe.    There is no empirical indicia of wrongness that the moral realist can see, and point out to a Nihilist. 

 

A nihilist will look at the same pictures and there is no reason to think he does not experience the same emotional response of repugnance.    His emotional response would lead to him to try to prevent that sort of thing from happening.  In fact a moral nihilist might take more actions to prevent it from happening.   But if the nihilist is consistent, he would not claim he is trying to prevent the holocaust because it is morally wrong.   Why he would try to prevent is an interesting question that might have a variety of answers.  Richard Joyce is as philosophical nihilist (although he doesn’t like the term “nihilist”) who I agree with on many issues and have allot of respect for.  He has given glimpses into his views on this but never really fully explored this. 

 

But I would say though that if I were to accept the view that no one should ever believe anything unless they have empirical evidence to support it, then there is no way I could be a moral realist.  But I think rational people consider more than empirical evidence and indeed more than the probability of a belief being true when deciding whether or not to accept it.  They also consider the consequences.   

 

Let’s think this through with respect to moral realism.  I have no empirical evidence that moral realism is true.  But I also understand that it might still be true because it is really not the type of thing I would expect to have empirical evidence for.  So what to do?  Well I think there are people who would tend to say I must reject moral realism until I have evidence of it being true.  Others would say they don’t know what to make of it.  But some people would say they are going to believe it anyway.   For me I will consider the consequences of believing or not believing.   

Now moral realist’s view either corresponds with reality or it does not.   I.e., it is either a true view or a false view.  And let’s just say we either accept moral realism or we reject it.  I.e., we either believe it or we do not believe it.    

 

So ok that leaves 4 possibilities:

 

Possibility 1) We believe in moral realism but in fact it is not true.  Well then I hold a false belief.  But holding that false belief is not really morally wrong.  Why?  Because if this situation holds true then there is no real moral right or wrong.    Now it might be wrong in some peoples morality that they create in their head – ie. a relativist view.  But you know what?   I don’t really care.  That consequence has no weight for me.  Not any more than whether my actions correspond with any other sort of make believe.  So the consequences of my holding the false view that morality is objectively real is basically zero.

 

Possibility 2) What if I hold the view that moral realism is false when it really is true?   Things get a bit more sticky here.  Now my holding that false belief might have some real moral implications.  Moreover I might be inclined to not be very concerned with what might or might not be really moral.  (After all, I don’t believe in it)  This might lead me to not carefully consider the different views of what is morally right and wrong or carefully consider what basis people have for giving me their moral views.  In the end I might lead a life doing things I truly should not have done and not doing things I really should have done.   I would have lived my life wrong in a real sense.  This is basically what I am trying to avoid.  And so to the extent I am trying to avoid that then rejecting a belief in moral realism seems to be a bad way to go.

 

Possibility 3) Now what if I correctly reject moral realism.  Well then yes I would have got that one right, but it doesn’t “really” matter.  Why doesn’t it really matter?  Because if moral realism is false then nothing really matters.   So again there is no good reason to reject moral realism despite the lack of evidence. 

 

Possibility 4) So the final option is that I believe in moral realism and moral realism is true.    I think this is really the possibility that we need to focus on.    Let’s accept that there is moral realism is true.  

 

So a pascal wager like analysis leads to the conclusion that we should believe in moral realism.  But now how do we know what is really moral or not?    That is our next step as a rational person right?  If what I said earlier is true then we should believe in/accept moral realism.  But what is really moral or not moral?

 

It is only at this point that God comes in.  After careful consideration it seems to me that it is impossible that we can with any reliability believe what is moral or not, if we evolved without any supernatural guidance.   I argue why this is here

 

From that conclusion I do a similar analysis and conclude a rational person should believe in God here.

 

Thoughts on Pragmatic Encroachment

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Can beliefs be justified by anything other than evidence that they are true?   I think allot of people would want to say “No” to that question at some time in their lives, myself included.  Any other justification for beliefs seems somehow wrong and intellectually dishonest.   But because

1 ) Beliefs have  a causal connection with how we act,

2)  Often we have to act on uncertainty about the actual state of affairs and

3) When rational people decide how to act based on uncertainty they must weigh the likelihood and the consequences of being right or wrong as to the state of affairs

 

it may be irrational to only consider the likelihood of being right or wrong and not considering the consequences.

In this blog I would like to offer some of my thoughts on pragmatic encroachment.   But first let’s start with some observations of the traditional definition of knowledge.

There are various ways that philosophers have tried to define what Knowledge is.  The most traditional is to say that a subject S knows a proposition P if and only if:

 

1)            S believes P,

2)            P is true,

and

3)            S has sufficient reason for believing P

 

Now the third condition might be phrased differently.  For example it might be stated as “3) S is justified in believing  p.”  Or “3) S’s belief in P is properly warranted.” [1]

As it turns out I think this 3rd conditions is ambiguous in a few respects.  One way is that we often think someone might be “justified” in believing something even when we don’t think their justification is sufficient to call that belief “knowledge.”   I might have believed the Seahawks would beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl.    That belief might have been a “justified” belief based on different things I have learned about the two teams.   Hence in that sense we can call that a “justified true belief.”  We might say my belief was a rational belief.    But I don’t think most people would say I “knew” the Seahawks would win the Super Bowl – at least not before the game started.   So we can see there is “justified true belief” and there is “justified true belief.”  The “justification” required for knowledge is greater than the “justification” needed to hold mere “justified belief.”

Notice that this ambiguity remains regardless of whether we use the formulation of “justified” belief or “sufficient reason” or “proper warrant.”  What is “sufficient reason” to rationally believe something is less than the “sufficient reason” required to know something.

 

The justification that yields knowledge is stronger than the justification that allows us to simply say we are justified in believing something.   This raises a few questions:

1)            How much justification do you need to” know” something?

2)            How much, if any, justification do you need to be “justified in believing” something?

3)            Is there any difference in the forms of justification that can relate to “knowledge” versus the forms of justification that can relate to mere “rational belief.”

 

I think those questions are bit vague, and even if clarified, somewhat difficult to answer.  But here are some thoughts.    The justification for “knowledge” might require something close to 100% certainty.  We might be inclined to say mere “rational belief” would require something like a preponderance of evidence.  That is, that it is more likely than not true.   But I think the cases presented by those who consider pragmatic encroachment shows “justification” (or “sufficient reason” or “proper warrant”) can get a bit more complicated than just looking at the certainty/probability that your belief is true.

 

Let’s consider theDeRose’s “bank cases” as set forth and explained by Jeremy Fantl and Matthew McGrath in their paper “Pragmatic Encroachment”:

Some of our intuitions about specific cases seem to support the claim that knowledge can depend on practical factors   Consider DeRose’s famous (1992) “Bank Cases”:

‘Bank Case A (Low Stakes).  My wife and I are driving home on a Friday afternoon.  We plan to stop at the bank on the way home to deposit our paychecks.  But as we drive past the bank, we notice that the lines inside are very long, as they often are on Friday afternoons.  Although we generally like to deposit our paychecks as soon as possible, it is not especially important in this case that they be deposited right away, so I suggest that we drive straight home and deposit our paychecks on Saturday morning.  My wife says, “Maybe the bank won’t be open tomorrow.  Lots of banks are closed on Saturdays.”  I reply, “No, I know it’ll be open.  I was just there two weeks ago on Saturday.  It’s open until noon.”

 

Bank Case B (High Stakes).  My wife and I drive past the bank on a Friday afternoon, as in Case A, and notice the long lines.  I again suggest that we deposit our paychecks on Saturday morning, explaining that I was at the bank on Saturday morning only two weeks ago and discovered that it was open until noon.  But in this case, we have just written a very large and important check.  If our paychecks are not deposited into our checking account before Monday morning, the important check we wrote will bounce, leaving us in a very bad situation.  And, of course, the bank is not open on Sunday.  My wife reminds me of these facts.  She then says, “Banks do change their hours.  Do you know the bank will be open tomorrow?”  Remaining as confident as I was before that the bank will be open then, still, I reply, “Well, no.  I’d better go in and make sure.” (913)’

 

It looks like Keith speaks truly in Case A in attributing knowledge to himself that the bank will be open tomorrow, while he also speaks truly in Case B in denying himself knowledge.  The only thing that changes in the two cases is how important it is for Keith to be right about whether the bank will be open tomorrow.  Therefore, it looks like how important it is for Keith to be right about whether the bank will be open tomorrow is relevant to whether Keith knows that the bank will be open tomorrow.  And relevant in a clear way: holding fixed Keith’s evidence concerning whether the bank will be open tomorrow, whether he knows it will be open varies with variations in how important it is for him to be right about this.

But here we find some odd consequences.  If this is the proper lesson to draw from the Bank Cases, it would appear to follow that two subjects can have the same evidence concerning whether the bank will be open tomorrow, even though one of them knows it’ll open tomorrow and the other doesn’t.  ……What makes the difference in knowledge has nothing to do with these traditional factors.  In fact, one subject might have more evidence than another that the bank will be open tomorrow – be better informed, have done more checking, etc. – but because much more is at stake for the more well-informed subject, the more well-informed subject can fail to know that the bank will be open tomorrow while the less-informed subject knows that the bank will be open tomorrow.  All this is hard to swallow.

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&ved=0CDQQFjAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fweb.missouri.edu%2F~mcgrathma%2Fpubs-papers%2FPragmaticEncroachment.doc&ei=UJD-UoDjCoHm2AWag4D4Ag&usg=AFQjCNGMBYTohUuRYmF0oT6BsV0dlx0gCQ&sig2=YyCPP25IPEfzLjAsoyYfIA&bvm=bv.61535280,d.b2I

 

I think these cases can illustrate few different ambiguities about what it means to “know” something or be “justified” in believing something.    The first ambiguity is the one I already mentioned.   It seems to me that having gone to a bank a few weeks back and having it be open on a Saturday is pretty good justification for the belief it will be open next Saturday.  Is it certain enough that we would say we “know” it will be open this Saturday?  I think so, but it’s getting pretty close and some might disagree.   If he went there 2 years ago we probably would say it’s not enough certainty to count as “knowing” whether it will be open this Saturday.  So I think these examples are playing on that gray area of what amount of certainty we need before we call something knowledge.    Accordingly this example tends to open the door to look at other ways Keith might or might not be “justified in believing” it is open on Saturday.

 

The bank cases clearly isolate the role of justification in our beliefs that deals not with the probability of our beliefs being true, but with the consequences of their being true or false.  Let’s consider how that is working here.

First, saying that as “the stakes” increase, better evidence is required for knowledge, is not quite what this shows.  It’s not just that “the” stakes are increased, but only certain stakes.  Specifically the stakes are increased in such a way that if he acts on his belief and he is wrong he will suffer greater consequences.

 

Consider case C (another high stakes case).  This case is just like case A as far as it goes.  It is not the case that any important checks will bounce as in case B.  There is nothing else that would cause any urgency for Keith to deposit that check before Monday.    But let’s add a few other facts that increase the stakes.   Keith is on his way to a very important interview.  He is sure he will get this job if he is on time, because a decision maker told him that everyone was so impressed with his credentials and past interview that so long as he shows up, on time, for this interview they will probably make him an offer.  This would be the offer of a lifetime.  And he is not sure with parking and the odd traffic around the bank, whether he will be on time for that interview if he stopped to deposit that check.

 

It seems to me the stakes are just as high in case C as they are in case B.  And I think we would still agree that Keith’s knowledge claim is just as valid as in case A.    So it’s not just that “the” stakes went up in Case B.  The stakes went up in a way that made his being wrong in his belief yield harsh consequences.  Case C increases the stakes concerning his belief as well but it increases the stakes in a way that reinforces acting on his belief.   Could we still say he knows the bank will be open on Saturday due to his going a few weeks ago?  What about 2 years ago?

 

Rather than get bogged down on how much certainty we need for “knowledge” I would rather explore how this second view of “justification” works with our belief.  The distinction is whether we are justified due to the probability of our belief being true or due to the consequences of our belief being true.

 

In an earlier blog I explained what a belief is so that we perhaps better understand how they might be “justified.”   I accepted that “[a belief] is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises.”  From W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian’s  book The Web of Belief.     This description helps us make sense of the bank cases.  Case B demands more “justification” to “respond” as if the bank will be open on Saturday.  The way we would “respond” if the bank is open on Saturday, is to simply drive past the bank on Friday night.   But that response is less justified if there is some doubt in our belief about the bank being open and we risk having an important check to bounce.

 

However the “response” of driving past the bank is not less justified if the stakes are raised in such a way that supports driving past the bank.  Should our “disposition to respond in certain ways” (i.e., our belief) be effected by the stakes we have for responding a certain way?  I think they should.   That is, I think our beliefs should be effected by the stakes we have for responding a certain way.

 

Some people will recoil from this.  They will think our beliefs should only be effected by the probabilities that they are true.    I think that view will usually work out ok for them.  However in certain circumstances this approach may lead to irrational behavior.  But we are skipping ahead too fast.  Let’s back up and think about a few things.

 

First in case C the inherent importance of holding a “true belief” seems to be overshadowed.  Since there is no urgency to have the check deposited on Saturday, the belief “that the bank will be open on Saturday” being true seems relatively unimportant.   Adding the fact that you might be late for a very important interview further decreases the concern whether that belief is actually true or false.  The consequences of your “responding a certain way” is determining your “disposition to respond in certain ways” as much as, if not more than, any inherent importance of holding true beliefs about bank hours.     The probabilities that the bank will actually be open on Saturday becomes relatively less important in Case C, because the decision is really hinging on the consequences of missing the interview.

When we look at the “justification for believing” that the bank is open on Saturday, in case A and C we tend to think he has more justification to than in Case B.  And clearly he does have more justification to be “disposed to respond” by driving past the bank.

 

In sum I think these cases do indeed indicate not only that the probability of our beliefs being true is not the only consideration to holding true beliefs.   In fact, I think we can see that given certain circumstances the probability of our beliefs being true can be relatively unimportant in whether we should hold them.

 

Now I think allot of what I said depends on how we understand “belief.”  Some might not agree with my analysis.  They might say that the belief is not better justified depending on the consequences.  Remember the definition “[a belief] is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises.” (emphasis mine)   They might say that the belief has the same justification regardless of the consequences, but the “appropriate issues” change leading to the action of Keith driving past the bank in Case A and C but not driving past in Case B.

 

They might argue that the belief should not be held more or less strongly dependent on the consequences but your actions should be change as the consequences change.  This seems a sensible way to view things.   If we were a computer program or robot that might be the best approach.  But sometimes I think we know we should act a certain way but our doubts about probabilities prevent us from following through.    But I wonder what people think of what I said so far so I will end here.

 

[1] “  A philosopher named Gettier provided some important counter examples to this definition which ends up being the subject of other important philosophical developments on this topic.  However, I don’t mean to address that now.  This idea of knowledge being “justified true belief” remains a sort of default view and its good enough for our purposes.

A Life of Make Believe

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I generally spend more time reading and commenting on atheist blogs than I do posting my own blogs.   Since a lack of a satisfactory morality is, to my mind, a real problem for the atheistic belief system, I frequently ask atheists what they make of morality. 

 

On one atheist’s blog, the author was comparing being Christian to be being like John Nash as portrayed in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Just like John Nash believed in people who weren’t real, he argued that Christians believed in an unreal God.   He also compared Christianity to Buzz Light Year’s belief that he was really on a mission from mission control.   The author thought he could relate to Buzz Lightyear because, when he was a Christian, he thought he was on a mission from mission control and had to face the hard realization he really was not.      The blogger was hoping that he could disabuse Christians of their “make believe” ideas.      

 

As it turns out this blogger replaced the idea of mission control, with the idea that when it comes to morality we create our own meaning.    I found this interesting.  He was trying to help people stop believing “make believe” but he thinks he “creates” his own meaning when it comes to morality, and presumably lives his life based on these creations.    It became clear to me that this author and perhaps a few people who follow his blog did not see the irony.   So I explained the difference between moral realism and relativism.  He clearly indicated he is a subjectivist.   That is, he is some who thinks right and wrong is dependent on our own view of what is right or wrong.  In other words morality is a creation of our mind – just like those imaginary people John Nash believed in.    

 

I am aware meta-ethical views and their implications are really not all that well known outside of philosophers interested in the field.   I did a brief introductory blog on it here http://trueandreasonable.co/2014/01/20/what-do-you-mean-im-wrong/  So I am not trying to be critical of the blogger, or any of the other commentators, defending him.  They were all pretty intelligent and reasonable people.   I think this is an important illustration of why gaining an understanding of these issues is critical if you want to discuss the reasonableness of believing in Christianity.  Here the blogger assumed we shouldn’t live our lives based on make believe.  Yet this person admitted he lives by a morality he made up.

 

Russ Shaefer-Landau said it best:

  <blockquote>“Nihilists believe that there are no moral truths.  Subjectivists believe that moral truth is created by each individual.  Relativists believe that moral truth is a social construct.  These three theories share the view that, in ethics, we make it all up. ”  </blockquote>  Page 11 Whatever Happened to Good and Evil. 

 

But don’t take his, or my word for it, think it through yourself.  If your morality is based on creating your own meaning you are indeed “making it up.”  Now there are several reasons people might not believe in God.  But if you reject belief in God because you fear God might be “made up”, it seems you would be contradicting this principle, to then accept some sort of relativist theory of morality.  Because there you know you are living your life based on make believe.  

 

In the end if a rational person really wants to keep close contact with reality then rejecting a view that might be made up for one that you know is made up seems a poor approach. 

    

What Goal are We Rationally Pursuing?

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It seems to me that we act rationally toward a goal.  If the goal changes then it’s likely that the rational way to act will change.   I decided that my goal would be to try my best to act morally to the extent there really is a moral way to act.  That is, do real good and avoid real evil.   God, or no God, what if there is something I should be doing to make the world really better.

Now I don’t mean good as made up by someone or group, as a constructivist might think of it.  That sort of made up morality in some ways sounds good but I decided not to live my life based on make believe.  I am pursuing the real morality, if such a thing exists.   It is with that goal that I decide to consider what beliefs I should hold, to the extent I have control over my beliefs.

I decided that if I live my life trying to live as I really should, and because of that do not live by some rules a person or group of people made up, well I am fine with that.   Sure it’s possible there is no real morality, in that case, there was nothing I really should have done anyway.   But if it does really exist then I think trying to discover what it is, and trying to live by it, should be my focus.    I think everyone should give their best efforts in this regard.

Fairly early on I realized that if naturalism and evolution are true our moral beliefs are completely unreliable.    If you don’t think I am right on that point (or perhaps just don’t understand what in the world I am talking about) please share your thoughts in the comment section to my last blog.   But for this blog I want to rest on that conclusion.   I argued for it in the last blog, and now I want to draw some other conclusions.  So for this blog Ill assume my conclusion in the last blog is correct.   This also happens to be the conclusion reached by a few other philosophers including Richard Joyce, Sharon Street, and Mark Linville.

What that means is if evolution and naturalism are true our moral beliefs are completely unreliable.  From that I concluded that pursuing one set of moral beliefs is no better or worse than any other set of moral beliefs if N and E are true.  Accordingly pursuing the morality of Christianity would be no less likely to be true than any other, even if N and E are true.   Accordingly even if evolution and naturalism is true, following Christ would not be a worse moral option than any other in the rational pursuit of my goal.

It’s at this point that I think it is established that the nonbeliever has lost his case that the believer is acting less rationally – at least toward the goal of living a life that is really morally correct.   From this point forward I will try to push things a bit further and argue that the nonbeliever is less rational than the believer in pursuit of the goal to lead a really moral life.

Ok so we see that if N and E are true our moral beliefs are completely unreliable, so then it doesn’t matter what moral beliefs we choose.  But what if N and E are not true?  Since any moral beliefs, are a wash if N and E are true, I think it’s rational to focus our attention on the possibility that N and E are not true.

Specifically what if naturalism is not true.  Then it seems we might actually have reliable moral beliefs.  But how could we know what they are?  From what I (and the other 3 philosophers) have argued I am convinced that natural processes alone could not produce beings with this knowledge.  So we would need to look for something from a supernatural/non-natural confirming source that could teach us these morals.   From this it seems we should weigh the evidence of what sources of morality seem to have a supernatural/non-natural confirming source.  There are many religions that fit this bill and I would suggest the reader consider these religions and which has the best evidence.  I won’t go into that weighing here.  But I would like to point out that when it comes to weighing the religious moral schemes we are looking for evidence that the moral teachings were affirmed by a supernatural/non-natural source.

Now I anticipate a few objections to what I said.

First is to say what if there is a God who gave us our moral beliefs but he wants us to believe there is no God?

I think we weigh the evidence of this God the same way we would of any other God.  What is the evidence that this God exists?  But I think there is a second problem with continuing to not believe in this God.   It seems like a contradiction to believe in this god and follow this God’s rules.  If we believe and follow this God then we don’t believe this God.

Finally I think there is a third problem with not believing in God.  If we do not believe in God and we understand that what I and the other philosophers said is true, then the belief that there is no God would also imply our beliefs concerning morals are unreliable.  This would undermine our determination to act morally when acting morally is hard.  When it’s hard, it would be easy to rationalize and say “well the reliability of my moral beliefs are suspect anyway.”  Now I admit that reaction wouldn’t be rational based on my goal.  But I think that would happen.   When you know you are subject to irrationally immoral behavior by taking certain course of action (and here I include an action such as adopting a belief or taking actions which would lead to adopting the belief) then rational people will not take that course of action.

Here is a second objection:

So let’s say we agree to follow some God that we think has the best evidence.  But the “best evidence” is really pretty weak.  Let’s say for example we think the Christian God is more likely than Zeus but maybe just barely.   Let’s say we don’t think the evidence for the Christian God makes it more probably true than not true.  But nevertheless that God has better evidence than any other Gods.    What then?

I think we need to consider this carefully.  It seems to me that if we knew full well this God existed because we could see this God continually and literally standing over us watching our every move few of us would sin.   But that is not the case.   And so we all sin or act in ways we might agree is not how we should.  It seems to me that the firmness of our belief in God is important to how well we follow his moral laws.    And again that is our goal.  We want to find and  follow the real moral way of life.

How we should look at this depends how committed we are to our original goal of trying our best to act morally to begin with.

Let me offer an analogy involving a game.  For this scenario let’s say you are not in need of any set sum.   You want to maximize your potential return.   In fact maximizing your potential return in this game trumps all other concerns you have.    Maximizing your return in this game is in effect all that matters to you.

Let’s say there is a roulette wheel with 1,000,002 numbers.  You get $3,333.34 every month over the course 25 years.  You will receive $1,000,002.00.   You must immediately place the money on a number once you receive it.  At the end of the 25 years there will be one throw that will decide the winning number.  You can only keep the money that is on the number that the ball lands on.   You can put the money on more than one number.  So you could have one dollar put on each number.  You would be sure to get one dollar back but you also know you would only get one dollar.

Now everyone knows the number 7 is slightly rigged such that there is 3xs the possibility of the roulette ball landing there than for any other particular number.  I am not saying it is 3xs as likely to land on 7 as it is to land on any of all the other numbers combined.   I am just saying it is 3xs more likely that it will land on 7 compared to it landing on, say, 474,923 or any other particular number you pick.

How do you bet over the 25 years?

Now let’s say you went all in on 7 but the number comes up 775,957.  How do you feel?  Do you feel bad that perhaps you were irrational?

On the other hand let’s say you figured you did not have “enough evidence” to believe in the number 7.  After all, you lacked evidence sufficient to show that 7 was “more likely than not” going to be the winner so you just picked a random number like 42 and went all in on that.     And the number 7 came up.   And then you saw the other people who picked 7.   Would you disagree with them if they told you it was irrational for you to not go all in on 7?

Here is a more interesting question.  Let’s say some people actually claimed to firmly believe that it would be 7 and went all in on 7?  Let’s say they looked at the situation and they just wanted to make sure that they acted rationally in this game.  So they reinforced the idea that it would be 7 so they would be sure not place any money outside of 7.    So for example they convinced themselves that the odds of it being 7 was much higher than it really was.   Was that irrational to the extent of pursuing their goal?

I don’t think it was irrational.  I think so long as your actions concerning an uncertain belief would not change by adding certainty to your belief it is not irrational to reinforce that belief.   That is whether a person believes that the chance of 7 winning is .0003% .3% 33% or 100% when all the other numbers are about .0001% it won’t make any difference, you should still bet it all on 7.  So none of the actions that this belief is relevant to are negatively affected by puffing up the belief.   And in fact puffing up this belief might be beneficial.

Let’s say the evidence suggested that people who did not puff up the belief that it would be a 7 often would put some money on other numbers.    Assuming your goal was to maximize your possible gains then would it be irrational not to puff up the belief that the number 7 would win?  I think it might be irrational not to puff up that belief.

How should those who reinforced their belief feel if it happened to come up 42?  Would you be able to say that their foolishness mattered?

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