Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?

A friendly debate has come up between the atheists Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers. The question under debate is, “Can atheism be proven wrong?” On the one hand, Jerry Coyne has argued that his atheism is, and should be, capable of being defeated by evidence. On the other hand, PZ Myers has argued that religious claims are incoherent, and so it’s pointless trying to refute them in that way. Even if seemingly divine events did happen, we could explain them as hallucinations, or of the intervention of aliens — there’s no need to talk about God.

On behalf of Team Coyne, Greta Christina has argued that Myers is right to say that religious claims are bullshit, but that Coyne is right to insist that atheism can be defeated by evidence. However, on behalf of Team Myers, Diaphanitas has argued that Christina has missed the point: if you think that religious claims are incoherent, then you can’t think that they can be defeated by the evidence. In order for a claim to be capable of being defeated by evidence, it has to be a coherent claim in the first place. (Edit: Or, at least, that’s the cliff’s notes version. I’m going to be a naughty blogger by not giving more of a summary than that. If you’re interested in the full conversation, click the links above.)

I’ll argue that Christina is right, hoping to score points for Team Coyne, and hopefully be the hero to capture Team Myers’s filthy squid-adorned flag. Specifically, I’ll be arguing against some of Diaphanitas’s core claims. (I’ll avoid the stuff about NOMA, because I want to avoid complaints of tl;dr.) In other words, some interpretations of atheism and theism can both be shown to be wrong according to the evidence, and that’s the only point worth making.

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The sticking point between Christina and Diaphanitas is what I’ll call “the semantic principle of bullshit”. Since religious claims on the whole do not hold themselves to common standards of evidence, we have to say that religious sentences are epistemically unstable. Hence, they’re not the sorts of things that can or should be evaluated in terms of evidence.

And it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, the principle of bullshit is correct — religious sentences, when taken on the whole, don’t know whether they’re coming or going. (It doesn’t matter to my argument if you don’t agree; you can just assume it for the sake of seeing my point.) Since atheism is the rejection of theism, endorsements of atheism have an equally small burden. As Hitchens says: “What can be asserted without evidence, can be rejected without evidence.”

Unlike Diaphanitas, I don’t think the principle of bullshit makes any difference to Christina’s point. For bullshit claims can be plausibly interpreted in a literal way, if our aim is to understand the intentions and beliefs of some mainstream religious persons. It seems to me that the only way to defeat a bullshit claim is for us to round up all of the most plausible interpretations of the claim, and then show how each interpretation is false. Hence, you have to refute every plausible use of the sentence: by treating it as a God Hypothesis, and then as an allegory, and then as an expression of self-assertion, and so on.

So that will mean that eventually atheists will have to get around to showing that the best explanation of the evidence does not include reference to any Gods, and hence theistic claims are improbable. In other words: atheists will have to make the argument that Richard Dawkins makes in the first half of the God Delusion (or something like it). And to the extent that you’re arguing in terms of facts, you must also think of yourself as open to criticism on the basis of the evidence. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t mean that atheists like Coyne and Christina are “obsessed with the evidence”. It means that they insist that the examination of the evidence is essential when you’re in the business of interpreting sober, factual claims. If that’s an obsession, it’s a healthy one, as Diaphanitas admits.

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So where’s the beef? Evidently, it has something to do with paradigms.

Diaphanitas thinks that evidence plays a limited role in the history of science (and hence, presumably, an even more limited role in the history of atheism and religion). For Diaphanitas, Thomas Kuhn‘s historiography of science is the best way of understanding the relationship between evidence and scientific change.

The spectre of Thomas Kuhn rises often, but it really needs to behave itself when it does. For while it’s true that Kuhn thought that a change in worldview involved a kind of “conversion” or “theory choice”, it’s also true that Kuhn argued that “objectivity ought to analyzable in terms of criteria like accuracy and consistency”. On my reading of Kuhn, these virtues were necessary for scientific practice, though not sufficient. If this means Kuhn was “begging the doxastic question”, then let’s also blame him for getting us to care so much about accuracy.

Diaphanitas, like Kuhn, wants to say that we’re doing more than just consulting the evidence — we’re making a choice, too. That’s fine — but it’s also a very weak claim, and it is consistent with the idea that evidence has to play a central role in scientific inquiry (and factual discourse). To my knowledge, there is nothing in Kuhn that helps us to say that religious claims in the 21st century world are plausible candidate explanations of the evidence. (As survivors of the Great Lisbon Earthquake could tell us, the Argument from Design is simply not consistent with the evidence.) And when you argue in favor of the Abrahamic God using the Argument from Design, you are committing yourself to a kind of game that involves checking the facts — those are the rules that the proponents of the Watchmaker God are committed to. In that sense, contrary to Diaphanitas’s claim, the naturalist and the Watchmaker God are “in the same playing field”. They’re both responsive to the evidence.

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Still, Myers and Diaphanitas are correct in the following sense. If the principle of bullshit is right, then that means that it is wrong to think that religious claims must be read as expressions of a kind of unique content. So, any theists who say “The Bible is just an allegory” are wrong, and any who say “The Bible must be taken literally” are wrong too. It’s either one, and more besides. The argumentative atheist has to use the shotgun method, taking aim at one interpretation after the other.

The moral of the story is this. Just because religious claims are unstable, doesn’t mean that the uses of the claims have to be up in the air. One use of religious claims involves the Argument from Design; and the argument from design is perfectly coherent, perfectly stable, and perfectly worthless. Hence, any atheism concerned with the Abrahamic Watchmaker God is supported on the basis of the evidence. If evidence turned the other way — e.g., if a credible argument could be made that the problem of evil was just a pseudo-problem — then the only responsible option for a Watchmaker critic would be to reconsider their atheism.

*Edited for clarity.

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Defining a Belief System

Cults and new religious movements in literatur...
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One rather interesting problem is determining who or what determines the true tenets of a belief system. While this is an important matter in many fields, it seems especially important in regards to religion. To use a current situation, there is considerable debate over the true nature of Islam.

When Muslims commit acts of terror, moderate Muslims and others often argue that these acts of terror do not represent the true tenets of Islam. However, there are those who refuse to accept this defense and instead claim that such acts are perfectly in accord with the true tenets of Islam.

While some people make this claim without grounding it in reasons, noted atheist Sam Harris makes a case for his view.  As he sees it:

The first thing that all honest students of Islam must admit is that it is not absolutely clear where members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, and other Muslim terrorist groups have misconstrued their religious obligations. If they are “extremists” who have deformed an ancient faith into a death cult, they haven’t deformed it by much. When one reads the Koran and the hadith, and consults the opinions of Muslim jurists over the centuries, one discovers that killing apostates, treating women like livestock, and waging jihad—not merely as an inner, spiritual struggle but as holy war against infidels—are practices that are central to the faith. Granted, one path out of this madness might be for mainstream Muslims to simply pretend that this isn’t so—and by this pretense persuade the next generation that the “true” Islam is peaceful, tolerant of difference, egalitarian, and fully compatible with a global civil society. But the holy books remain forever to be consulted, and no one will dare to edit them. Consequently, the most barbarous and divisive passages in these texts will remain forever open to being given their most plausible interpretations.

While Harris makes a clear case, some analysis of his argument is well worth the effort.  His view is quite clear: the alleged extremists are, in fact, acting in accord with the tenets of Islam. As evidence, Harris notes that the Koran, hadith and Muslim jurists clearly support the “extremist” views.

This seems to be quite correct. However, it is hardly unique to Islam to have wicked tenets. For example, most modern liberal democracies have had rather horrible laws on their books in the past. To use an obvious example, slavery was once legal in the United States and the United Kingdom. Even today there are laws that seem to be morally incorrect.

He does concede that mainstream Muslims could solve this problem by ignoring these true tenets of Islam and then deceiving the next generation into accepting mainstream Islam as the true version.

This certainly seems appealing. After all, one might argue, a system of beliefs need not be eternally fixed in place, unchanging and never evolving. Just as , for example, the United States abandoned its acceptance of slavery and racism, Islam can also change.

Harris, however, sees this as an impossibility. He claims that the holy books will remain forever and forever unedited. Thus, he contends, the passages in question will always be available and the opportunity will always be present to give them “their most plausible interpretations.”

This, then, is presumably the critical distinction between other belief systems (like the legal system of the United States) and Islam. That is, Islam can never change its tenets and the worst practices in these tenets define the faith. To use an analogy, this would be as if a country could never removes evil laws from its books and no matter what was done, those laws could always be interpreted and acted on. Further, those acting on the most plausible interpretations of those laws would be acting in accord with the true tenets of the law.

In regards to the first part of the claim, it is not clear that Islam cannot change. One avenue for change is that, as Harris himself concedes, the passages are interpreted. While he regards the most plausible interpretations to be the ones that are the worst, these are not the only interpretations. In principle, there seems to be no reason why the more moderate interpretations cannot be regarded as the correct ones. Of course, that is a rather critical matter: what is the correct interpretation (and who decides)? In the case of law, the correct interpretation is set by the relevant authorities. If religion functions the same way, then the religious authorities could thus legitimately rule in favor of the more moderate interpretations and could even rule that certain tenets no longer apply. But perhaps religion is more of a democratic system in that its tenets are set by the majority of believers. If so, if the majority of Muslims are moderate and interpret their faith moderately, then this would be the correct interpretation. In any case, one might wonder why an atheist who is clearly hostile to religion has the authority to rule on the true tenets of a faith. A more cynical person than I might suggest that he sees the worst as the most plausible interpretations because of his view of religion and not on the basis, say, of more objective evidence. Since that would be mostly just criticizing the person and not the argument, I would never entertain such a view. That said, a due consideration of bias might be legitimate in this situation.

In regards to the second part of the claim, it is an interesting matter as to whether the worst tenets of a belief system define that belief system or not.  It is also interesting to consider whether or not a member of a belief system must accept all the beliefs of that system.

Suppose that the worst beliefs define  belief system, that believers must accept all the tenets of their belief system and the the laws (and interpretations of them) of a nation define the belief system of the citizens (just as the religious tenets are supposed to define the belief system of a religion). This would seem to entail that the belief system of Americans is a rather evil one. After all, there are laws on the books that seem to be rather immoral and there are many that seem unjust and unfair. No matter that some people oppose these laws and associated practices-by being Americans they must accept that they are defined by the very worst aspects of their system of belief. Even if an American claims to oppose a specific law she regards as wicked, by Harris’ logic  it would seem that she cannot. As an American, she must accept it as a true tenet. This seems rather absurd. The same seems true of the claims that a member of a religious faith must accept all the tenets of the faith and that the faith is defined by its worst elements.

Naturally, this does not just apply to Islam, but other belief systems as well.

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NYC Mosque & Collective Responsibility

Islam

The plan to construct a mosque in New York City has generated considerable controversy. The main cause of the concern is that the proposed mosque will be located near ground zero. Not surprisingly, many people consider this to be an insult to those who died on 9/11.

One argument used against allowing the mosque in the area is based on the view that the attack was an Islamic attack. To allow an Islamic building in the area would be a grave offense against those killed during the attack and their families. As such, the Mosque should not be allowed in the area.

This argument rests, obviously enough, on the assumption of collective guilt. To be specific, the assumption is that all of Islam is responsible for the attack because the attackers were followers of Islam.  Of course, there is matter of justifying this assumption.

One principle that would justify this assumption is that an attack conducted by believers in X is an X attack. In the case of 9/11, since the attackers believed in Islam, this made the attack an Islamic attack. More generally, this would be the principle that any misdeed by a believer in X would be the responsibility of all others who believe in X.

While people who dislike Islam might find initially find this appealing, a little consideration reveals that the principle applies to all systems of belief.  For example, this principle would entail that the sexual molestation conducted by Catholic priests was a Christian attack on children. From this it could be argued that Christian buildings  should not be allowed anywhere near children (such as schools). Presumably children should also not be allowed anywhere near Christian buildings.

One might be tempted to say that the actions of Catholics only spreads the guilt to Catholics. However, if the actions of Sunni Muslims spreads the guilt to all of Islam, then the same sort of spreading should apply to Christianity as well.

This argument is not limited to religions. In fact, it can also be applied to atheists as well. The principle would seem to entail that all atheists are responsible for the actions of other atheists because of their shared belied system. For example, this would make all atheists guilty of Stalin’s misdeeds.

This does seem to show the absurdity of this principle.  After all, this sort of association hardly seems sufficient to transfer guilt. What is needed, it might be argued, is a stronger connection.

One such principle is that if people conduct an attack in the name of  belief system X, then this is an X attack. That is, making such an attack in the name of a belief system connects all believers in X to that action.

As with the previous principle, a little consideration reveals problems. Consider, for example, those who have killed abortion doctors in the name of Christianity. By this principle, this would be a Christian attack on doctors and would thus justify not allowing any Christian structures near doctors. There are, of course, a multitude of historical examples of people committing terrible misdeeds in the name of Christianity (such as the Inquisition and the treatment of alleged heretics).

This seems sufficient to show the absurdity of such collective guilt. After all, it seems unwarranted to claim that an entire faith must bear responsibility simply because something bad was done by someone who claimed to be acting in the name of that faith. As such, it would seem that an even stronger connection is needed for guilt to be spread.

A possible principle is that if people conduct an attack in accord with the principles of belief system X, then this is an X attack. This does have considerable appeal. For example, if members of the Klan were motivated to attack black people on the basis of principles of racism, this would be a racist attack. However, it would still seem unwarranted to extend the responsibility to all racists. After all, it would be odd to say that black racists were responsible for such an attack merely because they also happened to be racists.

While the notion of collective guilt does not seem to be supported by this principle, it does seem to provide grounds for the sort of exclusion being considered. To be specific, if the attack on 9/11 was based on the principles of Islam, then it would seem acceptable to prevent a mosque from being built in the area.  After all, building a structure near ground zero dedicated to the principles that caused the attack would seem to be unacceptable.

This raises the obvious question: was the attack caused by principles of Islam in a way that makes Islam responsible in a meaningful way?

Obviously, similar sorts of questions can be asked of other faiths. For example, the ownership of slaves was once justified on the basis of biblical principles. That is, Christianity was used to justify slavery. By this principle, Christianity would be responsible for the slavery it helped justify  and Christian structures should be kept away from those descended from slaves.  Naturally, modern Christians tend to argue that Christianity was misused to justify slavery or that changes over time rendered those principles invalid. Obviously, if Christians can avail themselves of such replies, so too can the followers of Islam.

Naturally, people tend to take the view that their own faith is not responsible for past misdeeds based on interpretations of its principle. This view is generally not extended to other faiths, of course. The failures of one’s own faith are but mistakes. The failures of other faiths are, of course, inherent to those faiths.

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Realisms: collective realism (part 3)

This is the penultimate section of an essay in four parts. Here is a recap of the argument so far.

In part 1, with the help of Crispin Wright, I argued:

1. Realism is modesty (the world is independent of the mind) and presumption (we have epistemic access to it). Anti-realism denies one or both.
2. Realism, as a general thesis about human knowledge, can be about any of the following things: truth, meaning, or judgment.
3. If it turns out that there aren’t any general claims being argued about in the classic debates when it comes to realism about truth or meaning, then we might as well be pessimists about the conversation.

In part 2, I began to show how the antecedent in (3) is correct. There aren’t any general claims to argue about in the classic debates. I began this argument:

A. Berkeley is essential to the classic debates.
B. To make sense of Berkeley’s perspective on truth, we have to disentangle the different kinds of knowing subject: the individual, the collective, and the divine.

C. If it turns out that Berkeley is a realist in one sense of (B) but not the others, then it would be trivially true that there are no general claims under dispute in the classic debates.

To that end, I’ve already shown that Berkeley is a realist about individual knowledge and an anti-realist about divine knowledge. Now my task is to show:

(a) He is a realist about the objectivity of truth as it is understood by collectives. (Part 3)
(b) He is a realist about the objectivity of meaning. (Part 4)

It is not obvious as to what extent Berkeley would think that the collective subject has a relationship with objective truth. In his commentaries on Berkeley, George J. Stack is quite explicit in denouncing the social collectivist view. “Now, it would seem that, in accordance with Berkeley’s statements, we would have to assume that if twenty men were looking at, say, the moon, they each would perceive certain sense-data which would be mind-dependent. But the collection of sense-data they would identify as THE MOON would be numerically distinct for each perceiver. It would be erroneous to assert that each of the twenty participants would be perceiving the ”same” moon… it follows that no two persons can perceive THE SAME THING at all.” (Stack:68) In Stack’s final interpretation, there is no common object of discussion at all. So in that view, Berkeley denies collective modesty, and (strictly speaking) he denies collective presumption as well. As far as collective knowledge goes, Berkeley must be a nihilist.

I have reasons to doubt that the case is quite so bleak. An incidental comment in Berkeley’s Notebook (A) suggests that Berkeley would endorse collective realism. In passage 801, Berkeley writes, “I differ from the Cartesians in that I make extension, Colour etc to exist really in Bodies & independent of Our Mind.” Clearly, we know something, together. Notice that this is unusually dramatic language for a man who is characterized as the doctrinal champion of immodesty. It is an unusually explicit endorsement of realism, at least when it comes to our knowledge, our minds. Given the boldness of the statement, it seems plausible to read that passage as saying that Berkeley is at least willing to grant that any given knowing subject mediately perceives the same ideas as their neighbors when they gaze out at the moon.

This is not to say that Stack is entirely off-base, however. Berkeley has tended to be skeptical of the notions of identity, individuation, or sameness. How, then, could he agree that many different persons are looking at the same object? The only way that Berkeley can say this is by supposing that ideas across persons are merely similar. As Stack admits, “Berkeley tends to affirm, in regard to this question of identity, that if we take the word SAME to mean what it ordinarily means, then it may be admitted that different observers may be said to perceive the same thing or that the same thing ”exists” for different perceivers. Berkeley assumes that the word ”same” is ordinarily used to refer to those conditions under which no distinction or variety is perceived… In this sense, Berkeley admits that the ”same thing” can be perceived by, and exist ”in the minds” of, different persons.” (Stack, 67)

Admittedly, this is a peculiar view, since we can legitimately wonder how it is that I can see if my ideas can even resemble your ideas – I can hardly pluck your ideas out of your head and lay them side by side next to mine for easy comparison. Actually, I can’t even compare many of my own ideas to one another. For, crucially (in the New Theory of Vision), Berkeley holds the heterogeneity thesis — the idea that my ideas of touch, sight, smell, etc., have nothing in common with one another. Now if my tactile idea of a box cannot even be similar to my visual idea of a box, when both are available to me, then how am I supposed to make the even greater inferential leap by supposing that my tactile ideas are similar to yours? (Berkeley, 60)

It is hard to make sense of Berkeley on this, and I will not pretend that I can resolve his views on identity in any satisfactory way. The matter will, I think, have to be given a provisional resolution by attending to the ambiguity of words like “collective” and “Our Mind”. In one sense, the word “collective” is meant to imply a community of knowers that exchange ideas back and forth like parcels in the mail. This sense is clearly impossible for Berkeley.

But there is another sense of the word, corresponding to aggregate opinion in relation to the divine. In this, there is no suggestion that one person’s ideas can resemble another’s in some way that is introspectively obvious. Rather, one person’s ideas are judged to be similar to another’s person’s only by virtue of God‘s perspective, which we presuppose is out there.

We know that objects possess a quality of “outness” for which God is the guarantor. Perhaps this is the ultimate import of the phrase, “independent of Our Mind”. Let us assume so. What does this tell us about Berkeley’s account? It is as true as ever that Berkeley’s arguments are advertised as a form of anti-realism, e.g., repeating that objects cannot exist without being perceived by some mind or other. But the upshot of his argument, especially when accented by selections from his Notebooks, indicate that his anti-realism is, in effect, restricted to the knowledge of the divine maker. As for sensible objects and their relation to finite humans, he is as modest as can be. And so, in that sense, he is a self-affirmed realist about truth.

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It might be objected that the individualistic and collectivistic stances towards realism are nevertheless entirely dependent upon the divine stance toward anti-realism. For it seems that Berkeley wants to argue that individualistic and collectivistic stances are capable of grasping a quality of the outness of sensible data, and that they owe this presumption of outness to the divine form of anti-realism. In that way, it could be alleged that Berkeley is not a realist in any significant sense after all, since his realist doctrines all collapse into his divine anti-realism.

In order for this reductionist objection to be right, it would have to involve an asymmetric dependency – the collectivistic sense of realism would have to be grounded in the anti-realism of the divine, but not vice-versa. So if, for instance, Berkeley claimed that we had knowledge of God through mere faith, then it would be natural to conclude that there was such an asymmetric dependency. But Berkeley’s theology would have him argue quite the opposite. We have reasons to suppose that God exists, and these reasons are manifest in the operations of the real world. “Philonous” is explicit on this point: “Men commonly believe that all things are known or perceived by God, because they believe the being of a God, whereas I on the other side, immediately and necessarily conclude the being of a God, because all sensible things must be perceived by him.” (202, emphasis mine) Making the same point, again: “sensible things really do exist: and if they really exist, they are necessarily perceived by an infinite mind” (202, emphasis omitted). The doctrines of human realism and divine anti-realism are co-dependent. The language of realism and anti-realism about truth proves to be moot.

I have been trying to stress that this analysis of Berkeley forces us to end on a stalemate between realism and anti-realism. Yet at this point, it might be objected that there is a sense in which the game has been fixed in such a way that the anti-realist’s argument has been given surface plausibility. By placing accent on the knowing subject, and refusing to treat the phrase “independent of the mind” at face value, we have tacitly endorsed the idea that any plausible form of realism must take due care to be sensitive to the limits of the knowing subject. The realist, then, can rightfully complain that this trivially entails anti-realism. For they might allege that the demand for that an account be phrased in terms of perspective begs the question in favor of the anti-realist. For we are reduced in Berkeley’s case to a position of speaking in terms of “realism for us, anti-realism for God”, and the relativistic implications of this view are unpalatable to the realist.

I think that’s too harsh. An open-minded realist might argue that the language of “knowing subjects” can be accommodated. All we need to show is that realism holds for all minds alike. That is, the facts of the matter must be independent of all minds, universal to all genuine knowers: me, you, and God too. But then, of course, we are faced with a regress. In the first place, the question arises as to how we are supposed to establish that one subject knows has the same thing as their neighbor. If we say that we know they share the same knowledge because we reliable third-person narrators are observing the two subjects attend to the same stimuli, the question of how we know that, and so on. And if we stop the regress by appeal to the actual states of affairs, we are left appealing to the same bugbear that the open-minded realist had sought to dispatch.

It would be better if we were to hang up our hats on the objectivity of truth.

Unless, of course, we are atheists — in which case the question of God does not arise.

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France & Scientology

A visitor to a Church of Scientology public in...
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A French court recently convicted the Church of Scientology of fraud. The church is still allowed to operate in France, but has been warned to stay on “the correct side of the law.”

The basis for this case is the fact that Scientologists use a electropsychometer or E-Meter, to “locate areas of spiritual duress or travail so they can be addressed and handled” and then (the plaintiffs claimed) try to sell vitamins and books to those “tested.” Obviously enough, there seems to be no scientific evidence that this device does what it is alleged to do and hence it seems quite reasonable to regard this sort of behavior as fraudulent.

Not surprisingly, the Church is characterizing this ruling as being an Inquisition. This is, of course, hyperbole. Now, if Scientologists were being tortured and killed for their beliefs, then it would be like the Inquisition. Also, the church is not being persecuted because of its religious views. Rather, it was apparently prosecuted for trying to sell people things using what certainly seems to be a  bogus machine.

While religions are generally granted a great deal of leeway in many countries, fraud and other misdeeds by churches are still crimes. The Church of Scientology certainly seems to have committed fraud (that is, a legitimate court has convicted the church) and hence should be treated like anyone else.

Of course, the Scientologists might see themselves as being unfairly singled out. After all, churches routinely ask people for money and often imply that such giving will win favor from God. Since none of these churches can prove this claim or even that God exists, all that would seem to be fraud as well.

Of course, many of these folks are no doubt sincere in their beliefs. Hence, they also seem to be deceiving themselves. From a moral standpoint, this does seem to be an important difference. After all, if I sell you a holy pig totem that I think will really divinely cure your H1N1, then I am not engaging in intentional deceit. I am just mistaken and making money from the fact that you are also mistaken. This is like selling medicine that is believed by those involved to work, yet does not. While this would be a case of factual error, it would not seem to be an act of fraud. After all, that implies an intentional deception and not merely being mistaken.

But, if I am selling “holy pig totems” to sell to folks to cure their H1N1 and I know they do nothing, then I am engaging in fraud. This is because I know that what I am selling is not really what I claim it is and I am counting on people believing this deceit in order to make money. That would be on par with selling “snake oil” and hence quite wrong.

So, if the Scientologists truly believe in their E-Meter and are sincerely trying to help people with their ills, then they would not be acting in an immoral way. After all, they would be trying to help people (and make some money, apparently). However, if they know that the E-Meter is a hoax and are using it to push vitamins and such, then they are acting immorally. This is because they are using deceit to sell things to folks so as to “cure” a problem that does not even exist. This would, of course, be wrong.

Naturally, I am open to the possibility that the E-Meter works and that Scientology is true. I just need proof. As with divine healing, I’d be happy to help set up a properly controlled experiment to test the E-Meter. But, Tom Cruise would not be allowed to jump around on my couch during any testing. That would freak out my pets.

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God’s Love

I recently finished a section on faith & reason in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As per tradition, I included a discussion of the problem of evil and used David Hume‘s writings on the subject. Condensing down his argument, he contends that we cannot reasonably infer the existence of an all powerful, all knowing and supremely benevolent being from the nature of the world. After all, there seems to be a significant tension between all the evil in the world and the existence of such a perfect being. Hume does note that the existence of evil is consistent with God having the qualities commonly attributed to Him, but he thinks that this is not what we would expect.

Reflecting a bit on this, I think that Hume is correct on both points. After all, inferring that a perfect being exists based on the available empirical evidence seems like quite a leap. This would be like looking at a student’s tests and papers, seeing an average grade of D and inferring that despite all the evidence, the student really is an A student. While I have had students make such a claim (that they are A students, despite the lack of A grades), this is hardly good reasoning.

In regards to the second point, Hume does seem to be correct that the evil of the world is consistent with God being good and so on. After all, being good is consistent with being a bit rough. To use another teaching analogy, being a morally good professor is consistent with giving the students challenging and difficult assignments. It is also consistent with applying failing grades when such grades are earned. Naturally, a student who fails or dislikes the work will not see these things as good, but she would be wrong about this. Of course, the analogy does have some weak points. After all, I do not smite my students with random diseases, nor do I tolerate violence in my classroom. However, I do smite them with paper assignments and I do tolerate active discussions in which students sometimes strongly criticize one another. So, perhaps God is good, but he runs a very tough classroom.

Of course, many people hold that God is not just good. God is also supposed to be, on some accounts, a loving God. This raises the question of whether the available evidence can be reconciled with this claim.

While goodness is consistent with being a bit rough and also consistent with being objective, love seems to be different. While it is said that people hurt the ones they love, this seems to be a claim about what people do and not what love is really about. Love seems to involve a special concern for someone else and a desire to not only do well by that person, but also to be rather biased in his favor. As such, there is a difference in the behavior of a person who loves someone else as opposed to how that person would act towards someone he did not love.

To make the discussion a bit more concrete, I’ll use my own fall and surgery as an example. Back in March, I had a ladder go out from under me, thus dropping me about eight feet. My left foot hit the ladder and this tore my quadriceps tendon. While a good person watching me about to be hurt would have tried to help me, it could be consistent with a person’s goodness to let me fall. After all, doing so would certainly teach me to be more careful about ladders and such in the future. To use yet another teaching analogy, this could be seen as failing a student for making the bad choice of cheating-that will teach her. Likewise, my bad choice of getting on a ladder during a storm taught me to never do that again.

However, someone who loves me would not have let me fall, if she could have prevented it. After all, someone who loves me would not want me to suffer such an injury and have to endure such a long and painful recovery. Suppose, for example, someone who professed to love me was standing by the ladder and she saw it slipping. If she did nothing to try to stop it and just watched me fall, I would be inclined to say that she did not love me.

Obviously, if God exists, then He was aware of the ladder slipping and could have easily prevented this. However, He let it slip and hence let me fall. That hardly seems to be a sign of love. As such, if God exists, then I can be fairly sure that He does not love me.

Naturally, someone could counter by arguing that if being good is compatible with being a bit rough, then so  is love. After all, a parent who loves his children will let them endure the discomfort of getting their vaccines so as to keep them safe. A person might, also out of love, allow someone he loves to learn a lesson the hard way, knowing that is the only way the person will learn. And, of course, love hurts. So, perhaps it is consistent with God’s love that he allows us to fall, get terrible diseases, murder, be murdered, rape, be raped and so on. However, it certainly is a strange sort of love. I’m certainly glad my friends and family do not love me that way.

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