Sunday, September 30, 2007

Gibberish? Non-Cognitivist Speech Act? or Serious Truth Claim?

In meta-ethical theory, they have come up with a salient view about moral claims that sheds light on a lot of puzzling religious utterances. Non-cognitivism is the view that strictly speaking, moral claims are neither true, nor false. They are not the sort of speech act that can or should be evaluated with objective criteria of truth. Instead, when someone condemns an act as immoral, what they are saying is more like “I have bad feelings about what’s going on. I need to express those bad feelings. You should have bad feelings too!! Boooo."

Now consider “Jesus loves you,” “Jesus died for you sins,” “God be with you,” “Accept Jesus into your heart and experience salvation,” and so on. If you take these sorts of claims seriously, they’ll make you crazy trying to figure out just what they mean. Like Flew’s frustrated skeptic in the parable of the invisible gardener, it’s hard to see just what’s the difference between a world where these things are true and a world where they aren’t. There appear to be no experiences or no events that could possibly occur that are inconsistent with Jesus’ loving you, or with God’s cherishing you. For comparison, consider your typical university president, or political candidate who keeps fervently repeating that he’s committed to the future, and who says he’s got a vision of excellence.

We can all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we acknowledge that these sorts of speech acts just aren’t the sorts of claims that make and sort of true or false difference in the world. No state of affairs would count against them, as their utterers maintain. Even as he’s being carried off to jail for embezzlement, the university president or the politician insists he’s a vision of integrity. And no matter how severe the suffering from earthquakes, malnutrition, war, and child abuse get, the religious leaders steadfastly maintain that God loves you. What many of these claims really amount to is something more like public emoting, singing, poetry, or cheering. They are expressions of personal desires, hope, feelings of subjugation, admiration, and humility. And so they aren’t really a matter of true or false, right or wrong. They can be annoying, condescending, or self-righteous, of course.

What “Jesus died for your sins, accept him into your heart” really means is something like “I have sympathy for your plight, we are all lowly and pathetic and in need of paternalistic comforting, you can have it if you perform certain kinds of behaviors and adopt a certain kind of personal posture with regard to your place in the world. When I do these things I feel joyful, I want you to feel joyful too.”

It should be obvious to you that religious ceremonies, rituals, and liturgies all tend to slip away from being true/false sorts of assertions and more towards some kind of religious expressionism. If you’re really taking many of these behaviors as the sort of thing that can be evaluated with reason the way evidence in a court case can, you’re wasting your time and your breathe. It would be absurd to raise your hand at a poetry recitation and say, “I think your claim in the second line of the first verse about love’s being a furry puppy is mistaken. Here’s why . . . “ wouldn’t it?

The problem is, of course, that lots of religious people who are making these utterances do not think that what they are doing is non-cognitive. They think that Jesus really did die for your sins, and that Jesus really does love you, and that those clichés actually mean something. It can be hard to dismiss such behaviors as non-cognitive when the speakers themselves insist that they are making true assertions that make all the difference in the world.

The answer, I think, is that the real measure of whether or not some speech act is cognitive or non-cognitive is not something that is always settled by how the speaker feels about it. The speaker may or may not appreciate the non-cognitive aspects of what they are doing. The university president insists that he is committed to excellence, no matter how poorly his university is doing under his guidance. That what they are saying is non-cognitive will be revealed by the way that the speech acts weave themselves into their worldview. One telling question that I always come back to is this, “just what would it take in principle for you to change your mind about X?” We can’t imagine the university president conceding that in fact he’s not committed to excellence under any circumstances, and it’s hard to imagine how many people who are fond of repeating “Jesus loves you,” and “Jesus dies for your sins,” would ever change their minds about that. Suppose we found compelling archeological (maybe including DNA evidence) grounds that showed that Jesus wasn’t crucified and just live out a normal life as a carpenter. Do you imagine that the people who now insist that Jesus died for our sins would ever accept that evidence and conclude that they were wrong? If a speech act has working its way into a person’s psyche in that fashion we have good reason to think it’s become a non-cognitivist dogma.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Coherence and Atheism

Let’s reconceive proof in terms of what we now know about human beliefs systems, justification, and the progress of the human knowledge enterprise. Coherentists maintain that we can and should work to achieve a high degree of coherence within our belief structures. What that means is that the propositions we believe should be logically consistent, they must be probabilistically consistent, the system is improved in virtue of having more and stronger inferential connections between beliefs, it is less coherent in proportion to how many unrelated, and unconnected subsystems of beliefs there are, the system is less coherent by to the extent it has unexplained anomalies, and the system, above all, must be responsive to the evidence provided by experience.

It’s naïve and antique to think that a proof for a belief is a contained, modular entity, as if once we have a finished proof in hand, a person can stop gathering more justification and stop incorporating new information into their view of the world. Beliefs are not modular, autonomous entities. We only have them and they only become justified in virtue of being embedded in a larger framework that guides us with regard to principles of evidence, rules of inquiry, and standards of justification. Proof for a proposition that gives us perfect, deductive certainty and final justification is a myth from a simpler age. We do not simply accrete new pieces of knowledge that are then finished and laid down for the next layer. Euclid could prove propositions in geometry in the naïve sense until we discovered non-Euclidean geometries. Newton could prove the force of an accelerating object until quantum indeterminacy. Paley could prove the existence of God until Darwin’s natural selection.

What happens inside the head of a reasonable person should mimic the growth of science. As we leave childish beliefs and the over-simplified world of our youth, we incorporate more and more of the new experiences.

We do our best to catch up to the 21st century, which is considerably harder and more complicated than mastering the worldview of a 11th century goat farmer. We have to build and rebuild the raft of beliefs that are keeping us afloat. Sometimes our worldview is shaken deeply and we abandon many planks of our feeble vessels. But with time, patience, and honest inquiry, we can make it more robust and expand its boundaries. Various propositions, sometimes contradictory ones, appear to have been proven, and in a sense they are. But what constitutes proof is a function of the other things a person believes, and the principles of inference that they deem valid, and the contents of both of those categories change dramatically for a person. So what constitutes proof, and what a person takes to be proven change dramatically as they mature intellectually. Forward progress is possible, and more inclusive, coherent system of belief can be constructed as we ask and answer more questions. But this progress may not be acquiring more and more “proven” propositions as knowledge. In fact, progress may amount to abandoning much of what we thought before as we become more discriminating and struggle to achieve greater coherence.

What constitutes proof for us shifts with experience and the expansion of our ideas about the world. When we are young and understand little, we may be easily satisfied with simple answers to simple questions. When we grow intellectually, we become more discriminating. We make finer distinctions, see more subtle problems, and can foresee more distant implications and problems. If we are growing intellectually, what constitutes proof will become more careful too. If our belief structures are increasing in coherence along all the vectors listed above (logical and probabilistic consistency, fewer anomalies, more and stronger connections) incorporating a new belief into the system will require meeting more rigorous standards.

I submit that for a well-educated, reasonable person in the 21st century who can see the expansion of naturalistic explanations of the world into every corner of our lives—genetics, disease, physics, biology, psychology, sociology, and so on—atheism is a more coherent belief (and belief structure) than theism. This is so not because there is a single, definitive geometric style proof of the proposition, but because an atheistic, naturalistic, non-magical, non-supernatural worldview has more potential to achieve a higher degree of logical and probabilistic consistency, better internal connections, fewer anomalous beliefs, and a better incorporation of empirical experience. And that amounts to the most important and substantial sort of proof that humanity has ever had in its long, slow process of maturation.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dawkins' Law is a first rate website.

Here's a recent contribution on their site from Richard Dawkins. Give a comment and state your law.

Dawkins's Law of the Conservation of Difficulty

Obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity.

Dawkins's Law of Divine Invulnerability

God cannot lose.

Lemma 1

When comprehension expands, gods contract—but then redefine themselves to restore the status quo.

Lemma 2

When things go right, God will be thanked. When things go wrong, he will be thanked that they are not worse.

Lemma 3

Belief in the afterlife can only be proved right, never wrong.

Lemma 4

The fury with which untenable beliefs are defended is inversely proportional to their defensibility

The following law, though probably older, is often attributed to me in various versions, and I am happy to formulate it here as

Dawkins's Law of Adversarial Debate

When two incompatible beliefs are advocated with equal intensity, the truth does not lie half way between them.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Burden of Proof is on the Atheist Redux

I’ve gotten enough comments from colleagues, blog responders, and students to say some more about this, although a full treatment would take many pages.

First, my view is that while in the end I clearly think atheism is the reasonable conclusion to draw, and that anyone who hasn’t yet, should, the starting points for different people and the standards by which they evaluate evidence are highly variable. There simply are no universal standards of reasonableness whereby it would make any sense to say that anyone who doesn’t accept atheism is unreasonable or irrational.

My claim is not that theists have no work to do to justify their positions. Ultimately, everyone can do better than they are doing with regard to having a well-justified, coherent belief system. And ultimately, I think that anyone who doesn’t draw the atheist conclusion has probably gone off the tracks somewhere.

My position is that the burden of proof is in large part a socially determined entity.

It is naïve to think that the Cartesian model applies to human reasoning whereby we start with nothing and then build up a network of justified beliefs one at a time. That’s neither an accurate picture of how we come by our beliefs, nor is it a plausible goal for how we ought to proceed in assessing our beliefs. Wittgenstein got this much right—he said that belief comes first, then doubt second. What he meant was that as a person matures through childhood, everyone acquires a vast network of interconnected expectations, predictive principles, and beliefs about the world. The character that this starting framework of belief takes depends largely on the historical, social, and epistemic context that that person finds themselves dropped into. That context may provide them with beliefs that are false like, “Fever causes demon possession,” and inference rules that are faulty. One nineteenth century logic textbook endorses the Gambler’s Fallacy, for instance. I have a very difficult time convincing some introductory logic students that it’s a mistake. If someone has been surrounded by (authoritative!) people who endorse it, and it appears to be supported by one’s experience, and even your textbooks recommend it, how could a person possibly be held epistemically culpable for not seeing what we now know is a mistake. That would be as foolish as faulting Heraclitus for not knowing the implications of research from 21st century particle accelerators for atomic and subatomic theory.

So it’s the epistemic context that frames out the starting position for everyone as to what’s prima facie reasonable. Even during the same historical period, that will vary from context to context. Common sense to someone born and raised in the jungles of Borneo will be radically different than common sense to someone born and raised in the same era in urban San Francisco.

The fact that so many people in American culture are religious and profess to believe in God allows us to make some generalizations. The general situation we find ourselves in is one where for the vast majority of people it is completely intuitive and obvious that God exists. Many, maybe most, Americans never paus to consider seriously that there might not be a God. And for the ones who did, the implications as they see it for a meaningless, ammoral, nihilistic existence quickly make it evident that such musings are dangerous and/or preposterous. Many of them have heard of atheists and atheism—but such a prospect seems unnatural, ugly, counterintuitive, and remote. Everyone believes in God, afterall. What could be more obvious?

For the most part, these are all normal, reasonable, mentally healthy, cognitively functioning adults. The atheist who scoffs that anyone who believes in God is stupid, foolish, unreflective, or in the grip of a psychiatric disorder simply hasn’t been paying attention and has been shirking their own epistemological responsibilities. This atheist is little better than the sulking and immature teenager who pouts that “Everyone is soooo stupid. They are such conformist sheep. I hate them.” I’ve been there, and I like Bauhaus and Joy Division as much as the next guy. But atheists and atheism as a movement has got to grow up. (Unfortunately, I think some of Richard Dawkins evangelical, anti-theist vitriol may represent some backsliding. Nevertheless, I sure enjoy it.)

To be fair, there are unreflective and even dumb theists, and they need to be shaken up and challenged just like we all do. But it would be a gross and irresponsible over-generalization to be dismissive of theism altogether. And now I’m making two points: one, for most Americans, theism (Christian) is the default backdrop against which any worldview they ultimately settle upon must be tested. Second, there are some powerful, interesting, and challenging arguments for the existence of God out there, and no atheist who has taken the issue seriously can claim to have secured justification for their view until they have considered those arguments carefully and figured out what’s wrong with them.

So like it or not, atheists find themselves in this hostile, or at least contradicting, environment. And that environment sets the framework of principles, rules of evidence, and beliefs from which every person has to start. Since the atheist conclusion is so deeply contradictory to the context they find themselves in, the lion’s share of the burden of proof will be on them.

The alternative view, like Flew’s, seems to be that the belief that there is no such X is always the justified, default starting point, and that anyone who wishes to conclude anything different than just having a blank slate must provide adequate proof to motivate the belief. This is outrageous for a number of reasons. You haven’t done that and probably can’t do that for a great many (maybe most) of the reasonable beliefs you have. You didn’t populate your head with all of your beliefs by deliberately and consciously starting from a blank slate and then only after acquiring sufficient reasons accepting a belief into a special circle of sanctioned views. Becoming a conscious, reflective adult capable of thinking about your reasons already required that you had a full set of beliefs about your world that you inherited from your environment and that came to you naturally. We do not have a blank hard drive for a mind, despite the popularity of that metaphor, that are written onto by experience. A web of beliefs is consciousness—they are what make a worldview possible at all. Without the context of belief you’d have nothing to doubt, no questions to ask, nothing to wonder about.

And just like reasonableness depends on so many subjective factors, evidence is not a clean, objective logical notion. It’s not that people who disagree with you have no evidence at all. What do you think you were the first person to see this singular, unambiguous phenomena in the world because you’re so much smarter than all of them? And you were the first 15 year old to think that everybody is a conformist too, weren't you? Evidence, for the most part, is what a person takes it to be. Evidence doesn’t just exist out there on its own. Some phenomena only becomes evidence in virtue of being taken to be indicative of some conclusion by some person. And obviously, different people can take the same phenomena as evidence to contradictory conclusions. Or they can appear to be observing the very same phenomena, but they are actually taking note of very different details and drawing the same or different conclusions from it. We have discovered that there are better and worse ways to gather and evaluate evidence. But it’s not that when someone draws a mistaken conclusion or one you don’t like that they have no evidence at all. What you disagree with them about is what evidence is relevant and how best to evaluate it. So atheists need to get out of the habit of dismissing all believers as “having no evidence at all.” The believers don’t see themselves that way, and you just come off as dogmatic and irrational for saying it about them. Wouldn’t you think it was laughable if they said about you, “Well, he’s got no evidence and no reasons at all for what he believes.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Burden of Proof is on the Atheist

To some extent, what’s rational to believe depends upon what everyone around you believes. A great many of the things that we think are true, we learn from our environment. Our parents, teachers, friends, and people around us give it to us. And we’d be positively irrational if we were to ignore or reject all those sources. They have served us well for lots of things. They’ve been reliable. And we trust them. If you’re going to go against the tide on something that all of those sources believe, then you had better have some really good, compelling reasons. If you are going to conclude that the earth is flat and contradict what everyone around you has so much justification for, then your justification needs to be so good, then the likelihood that it is right needs to be greater than the likelihood that all of them are wrong.

So for any moment in history and a person’s epistemic situation in it, there will be a long list of beliefs that are prima facie justified. Once you’re exposed to those and you become aware that so many people around you believe them, then the mere fact that so many people believe them itself counts as some evidence that those beliefs are justified and correct. That’s not to say that they are correct, of course. In lots of cases, the vast majority of people believed something that is dead wrong. They thought that fever was caused by demon possession and they thought that the earth was flat. The point is that these were justified beliefs. If you had lived in some remote village in France in the 13th century with no education, unable to read or write, and if your primary sources of information about such matters were friends, family, and priests, then it would have been clearly irrational for you believe that fever was caused by a person’s immune system fighting off infection of a virus. What possible grounds could such a person have that would make this belief justified? It would be a true belief, but anybody who believed in that epistemic situation would be crazy. If your culture is full of ideas about spiritual entities and magical forces that are active in everyone’s daily lives, then the claim that fever is caused by demon possession would make perfect sense.

The implication of all of this is that for the modern American atheist, there is an enormous burden of proof. The vast majority of people around you believe that there is a God. They think that God is active and present in every facet of their lives. They think there are lots of very good reasons for thinking that there is a God.

So you can’t just ignore all of that background. You can’t just opt to believe otherwise at will and be epistemically inculpable. Even if everyone around you believes something completely mistaken like “The sun orbits the earth,” their believing it, and so many of them believing it, puts an tremendous burden of proof on you if you are going to break ranks and form a contrary opinion.

Some atheists—consider Antony Flew’s famous “presumption of atheism”—think that since it’s the theists that are asserting the positive claim, and since the default position is not to believe, then they burden of proof is on them, not on the disbelieving atheist. I think the above considerations show that it’s the prevailing set of beliefs in one’s epistemic environment that establish the default beliefs, and the burden of proof is shifted to anyone who wants to deviate from that.

But all that’s ok with me because there’s more than enough justification for us to show that there is no God. It’s just that we are going to have to deal with a lot of flat earthers before our own beliefs have a secure justification.