Sunday, September 22, 2013

Dot, Dot, Dot got a foreword and a facelift

It's been a very exciting past few weeks, and now seems like a good time to share that. All of this excitement centers upon my upcoming (soon!) book, Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly. I know some of you are probably thinking that I had hoped to get it out sometime near the end of June, but a few interesting twists and turns popped up--and it seems well worth it.

It all started with a blurb. Since I didn't want the blurb to exist in a vacuum, I started asking around for another. That led to a small press picking up the title--Onus Books. Of course, that meant going through a real copy-editing process, which was already great, though a bit time consuming. The next thing I knew, my wonderful publisher Jonathan MS Pearce had managed to get in contact with bestselling author and physicist Victor Stenger, who has graciously agreed to write a foreword for the book.

Well, that led to a real facelift for the book, which has essentially been rewritten in full into an actual book instead of a collection of essays. The themes are the same, and now the presentation is vastly better.

We're in a final proofing stage now and then will tidy up and nail down the cover. Hopefully I'm not off target in tentatively saying it should be available within a few weeks, so keep your eyes open for it! I hope you're as excited as I am!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Richard Dawkins and a deal not worth taking

What a great time it is to be a vocal critic of prominent atheists! While my attention recently fell on allegations that Sam Harris is guilty of "scientism," sparked by his "Moral Landscape Challenge" (Link to Harris's challenge), there endures a constant undercurrent of trash talk aimed at Richard Dawkins. This time, it is over Dawkins' discussion of being a victim of what he described as "mild pedophilia," since in his new autobiography he asserted that he didn't think the incident caused any "lasting harm," speaking for himself and others. 

It appears that a great deal of the Internet has exploded over this issue, the usual outrage mill and knee-jerk moralizing running faster than the principle of charity can keep up with. Please, take a moment to read Richard Dawkins' response, and consider the sane words of Hemant Mehta on this topic as well, trying to keep your hair from catching on fire for long enough to see the points they are making.

For one example, and to cut to my chase, blogger and author Rachel Held Evans published a blog piece on CNN's Belief Blog about this issue, titled "Hey Atheists, Let's Make a Deal." A friend of mine pointed me to this short essay, noting: "This article is fallacious but I don't know why. Please help." Yes, it is. Here, I want to take it apart to make a few important things clear. Please note that my intention is to deal with Evans' piece, not to say anything particular about Dawkins' statement. I think Hemant Mehta did a fine enough job summarizing that, and Dawkins' response stands well enough on its own.

Evans seems not to have her thinking completely straight on some core matters of her essay. These need to be clarified. Right off the bat, in fact, Evans is falling into a very common misconception that, unfortunately, is getting more and more legs under it (as I will discuss momentarily). Near the top of her essay, she reveals this fact.
Dawkins is known for pushing his provocative rhetorical style too far, providing ample ammunition for his critics, and already I’ve seen my fellow Christians seize the opportunity to rail against the evils of atheism. As tempting as it is to classify Dawkins’ views as representative of all atheists, I can’t bring myself to do it. (emphasis mine)
Well, good for her. The issues here are tucked away in the parts I've emphasized. Atheism is not a thing. This theme apparently cannot be stated enough times. Though it's becoming cliché to say so, atheism is to belief in God what not playing any sports is to being a golfer. There cannot be "evils of atheism," a point Evans fails to note even if she agrees with it, and one she seems tacitly to reject even if she elevates herself above the throng of the thusly confused by refusing--or offering, as it may be--to participate.

This hidden, and still erroneous, rejection is revealed by the phrase "as representative of all atheists." On its own, this wouldn't reveal much, but Evans gives it away by specifically stating the underlying reasoning for her reluctance in applying such a broad brush to "all atheists."
I can’t bring myself to do it because I know just how frustrating and unfair it is when atheists point to the most extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity and proclaim that they are representative of the whole.
Notice: she can't bring herself to call Dawkins' statement an "evil of atheism" that is "representative of all atheists" not because doing so would be nonsense but because she knows how unfair it is when atheists point out Christians with bizarre views as if they are representative of all Christians. In addition to exposing her faulty reasoning on the matter, it misses the bigger point that the "extreme, vitriolic voices within Christianity," while not representative of all Christians by any means, are representative of Christianity. There is no comparable status regarding "atheism" here, though, and that's important.

Christianity, a theistic religion, and atheism simply are not on a level. Christianity is a thing. Atheism is an absence of a kind of thing, namely belief in God(s). People are labeled "atheists" only as a sad consequence of the fact that until very recently, belief in God was taken to be essentially expected, making atheists relatively rare and obvious in that they buck a widespread norm. By analogy, I suppose, if we had a culture in which nearly everyone from birth is taught to play golf as a social and cultural imperative, we might have a word for those rare individuals who end up not playing golf. As it stands, we have no such word, and we need no such word.

Such a word may not even be needed. For example, by what term do we call people who do not watch television? Television non-viewers? Atelevisionists? I am one of them, so I know they exist, and I know we're quite rare and bucking a societal norm. The same is true of "atheism," at least in principle.

Now, as an aside, I should illustrate how this misconception is getting legs under it because that's its own problem. I'm noticing more and more that people are misidentifying atheism as a thing, and it is not just those religious believers who seem unable to conceive of a lack of religious belief. Instead, people who self-identify as atheists are frequently confusing this matter for themselves too. This confusion gives arguments like Evans' an undeserved veneer of potency, so I would implore people to try to be more cautious in this regard.

Indeed, I am more and more often hearing people talk about "atheism" as if it is a thing one can join. Furthermore, they talk about it as if it is something that can be done well or poorly! Perhaps, as someone who has played a round of golf only once in his life, this is a bit like how I've very nearly perfected my not-playing-golf game? Maybe it's like how picking up a good book helps improve my television non-viewing?

Worse, I frequently hear rejoinders from people in the growing "atheist community" (a mistake of its own kind) saying things like "I feel like X is helping me get better at my atheism." Pardon me, but what?! What does that even mean? (For what it's worth, in the cases where I've heard this unfortunate turn of phrase, people are getting better at informed skepticism, not "atheism," and informed skepticism is a thing, one for which they seem to want a term.)

Evans, who apparently is well-versed in the so-called blogosphere, is clearly aware of this growing sense of an "atheist community," though, and she makes fine use of it in her essay.
Now I’m not saying we just let these destructive words and actions go—not at all. It’s important for both believers and atheists to decry irresponsible views and hateful rhetoric, especially from within our own communities.
That's a hard point to argue, or at least it now is due to the increasing acceptance of the unfortunate notion that atheism, indeed, forms a community. (Instead, I would suggest that there are growing communities of people uniting not around "atheism" itself but rather around the common experiences of not believing in God in cultures that are flooded with it, among other objectives, such as secularism.)

To close this aside, then, here is a warning to people who do not believe in Gods: by identifying "atheism" as a thing that can be joined, can be done, or can be gotten better at, and by founding "atheist communities," those involved are providing credence to the notion that atheism is a thing--a thing rather like Christianity, in fact. Take heed of this.

Putting that aside and getting back to Evans' piece, her titular theme comes out by offering a proposal of a "deal" as a solution. Note, of course, that Evans possesses no authority by which to enforce the terms of such a deal, and media entities capitalizing on this sort of clickable outrage are very unlikely to honor it, rendering it worse than useless (because it would shut down so much appropriate criticism if honored by her intended audience). Evans' deal reads,
So, atheists, I say we make a deal: How about we Christians agree not to throw this latest Richard Dawkins thing in your face and you atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?
On the face of it, this is pointless. First of all, Christians are hardly the extent of the people mad at Dawkins over this (and any other thing he says, really). It's not Christians throwing it in atheists' faces; it's a growing faction of hyper-moralizing social liberals throwing it at anyone upon whom it might stick. Many of these people are atheists. Second, the same is true for Robertson just by adding all sane people to the collection of hyper-moralizing social liberals.

The spirit of the deal, though, is not so trivial. The spirit of the deal is "we'll stop criticizing Richard Dawkins when you stop associating people like Pat Robertson with Christianity." That has some major problems, and I assume it's what Evans really means with her offered deal since she isn't likely to waste our time with something as pointless and narrow as the actual stated offer.

The wording of this deal implicitly implies yet another major misconception tied to the "atheist community" idea. To elaborate, Pat Robertson is a religious leader in a particular denomination of Christianity. Many atheists correctly criticize him, alongside their Christian friends, in the realization that he epitomizes one way in which religious beliefs can go horribly awry. Few people, if any, would identify Robertson as being representative of the views of most Christians, and none of these needs to be taken seriously.

Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, is not a religious leader of any kind. He is a famous author and scientist. This is emphatically not even analogous to being a religious leader. Richard Dawkins is not an "atheist leader" because there are no atheist leaders because atheism is not a thing that can be led. This utterly foils the analogy between Dawkins and Robertson before even making a note of the key disparity here: Robertson is informed and motivated by his Christian beliefs whereas being an atheist does not--cannot--inform or motivate Richard Dawkins, particularly in his opinions about his state of mental health following an unfortunate incident in his childhood. This is apparently contentious to say, but that's because people seem very bad at understanding that atheism is not a thing.

Worse still, this bit by Evans capitalizes upon the fact that Dawkins is being taken rather out of context, a persistent hobbyhorse in the hyper-moralizing new-Left, especially its outrage-centric media representatives. Evans gladly approves of this ride, evidenced in the very first sentence of her essay. There, she claims that Dawkins has been "rightfully criticized" for the statement in his autobiography.

Though hardly a moral relativist, I'm deeply concerned about who gets to decide what is "rightful" criticism if much of what has been written about Dawkins over this point of contention satisfies the relevant criteria. Again, Hemant Mehta did a fine job with this point, far outstripping Evans' untrue, wanton assertion that Dawkins is a purveyor of "hateful rhetoric."

Evans continues, laying out that we should essentially marginalize any voice that isn't responsible enough.
What if, instead of engaging the ideas of the most extreme and irrational Christians and atheists, we engaged the ideas of the most reasonable, the most charitable, the most respectful and respected?
Again, on its face, this is reasonable, even though it still commits the same error of identifying atheism as a thing like Christianity and slides a little No True Scotsman in on her fellow Christian believers (while shielding Islam from criticism based upon reactionary Islamists, if logically extended). But, choosing to engage only the types of people Evans indicates requires an understanding of what kinds of voices and ideas are acceptable. Granted, many of us seem to have a sense of this, but I'm wary of any claims about what is and isn't acceptable coming from those so quick to moralize that they will, seemingly intentionally, blow commentary out of proportion or take it out of context, especially if to silence dissent.

Indeed, Evans herself presents an opinion that I fear fails her own criterion. Specifically, although the context dictates that it must be what she is doing, I cannot be sure if she's implying in this essay that Richard Dawkins is extreme, irrational, unreasonable, uncharitable, disrespectful, and/or unrespectable. Given that and his stature as a both a writer and scientist, the request she is making here genuinely confuses me, unless she's merely talking about Robertson at this point, which seems unlikely.

Additionally, I'm particularly uncomfortable, given the subject matter of religion, to shy away from demands that we only engage "the most respectful." Those days fell entirely behind us at least twelve years ago. As to the matter of charity, I'm going to pull the tu quoque card out and just leave it laying here on the table.

Evans then writes something that is false, though saying so is exactly the kind of thing that might cause her to call me disrespectful and thus that she may want to silence. 
I’m convinced that both Christians and atheists are interested in the truth and in searching for it with integrity, without taking the easy way out.
I flatly disagree. The best I can say about Christians, and other religious believers, on this point is that they claim to be interested in the truth, but the simple fact of the matter is that they are more interested in maintaining their beliefs. Otherwise their beliefs could not be maintained. 

Now, to be both fair and clear, believers may search for the truth with sincerity, but integrity often gets left behind when confronting information that directly contradicts their beliefs. Pat Robertson and his ilk, I must point out, hardly represent the limit of this issue as it is true of all believers. Sincerity, however respectable, is not the same thing as integrity, particularly in terms of searching for what we might agree to call "the truth."

Ducking away from this point, again wanting to draw a level between Dawkins and Robertson, Evans continues with another superficially valid comparison that needs a bit of elaboration and clarification.
I'm willing to bet that the same collective groan emitted by millions of Christians each time Pat Robertson says something embarrassing on TV sounds a lot like the collective groan emitted by millions of atheists when Richard Dawkins rants on Twitter.
This is probably true, but it's a particular attitude of social liberalism that causes that groan, not atheism. Atheism isn't a thing, however many people seem to miss the point and attempt to identify communities of people who happen to be atheists in the context of a broader "atheist community." (A parallel to this in Christianity could exist, but it would require rejecting the notion of the Church attributed to Christ himself.) Of course, it is worth noting that a fairly wide majority of atheists are also social liberals (myself included), and many have taken up the torch of rabidly moralizing any attitudes that do not match their vision of an idealized world (myself hopefully not included).

Of course, this is just the kind of thing that Evans presents here, and it perhaps misses one the key points made by famed atheist polemicist, essayist, and author Christopher Hitchens:
Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.
Evans, acting exactly the part Hitchens warns about, finally nosedives into irony by closing her piece with
So let’s talk about the truth, and with the people who most consistently and graciously point us toward it.
Yes, let's. First, in fact, let's remind ourselves that the tenets of the world's religions are not true and that they are not about seeking truth. They are about establishing and maintaining particular supertruths. Second, let us remember that atheism is not a thing, particularly not a thing like Christianity is a thing, and people like Richard Dawkins, famous as they are, are not and could not possibly be atheist leaders. This is talking about the truth, as was invited.

Next, revealing the gaping pit of irony yawning before us with Evans' closing statement, we should remind ourselves that every time Dawkins seeks to talk about the truth, people yell at him for it. It is possible to assert that it is not what Dawkins says but how he says it that is the problem, but not only is this starkly untrue, if it were true the incessant criticism of him for it falls on the wrong side of the charity and graciousness that Evans is calling for. Thus, as to calls for charity and grace, you and yours first. I insist.

To wit, Christianity is not true, and when Richard Dawkins points this out, often less bluntly than he is accused of doing, he's labeled "hateful" and "disrespectful," We can add "ingracious" and "irresponsible," among other things, to the list now, I suppose. Similarly, Islam is also not true, and for saying so, at least to the hyper-moralizing faction of the far Left and those who hope to capitalize on the sentiment, Dawkins is a branded a "racist" and an "Islamophobe." These, really, are words designed to mean the same thing, and they're both meant to do the same thing as well--shame him into shutting up. That might be fine if it were justly done.

So far as I can tell, attempting to find and discuss the truth is pretty much all Dawkins does. As is often necessarily the case with talking about the truth, he does so rather without regard for how it makes people feel. This approach, most likely cooled by years of rigorous training in the sciences, doesn't always meet all people in the best way, but that hardly qualifies the shrieking criticism that poured out over this and other issues as being "rightful." Of course, an important contrast has to be raised here. Seeking the truth is exactly what Christians and other believers have to suspend to maintain their beliefs, and then demanding graciously given respect is what is required to maintain that suspension. 

Thus, pardon me while I dismiss Evans' last point and the underlying spirit of her "deal." The two things on the table are completely incomparable. It is, in short, yet another request that everyone play by the moral outline of a noisy faction of social liberalism, including its appeal to accommodationism for religion and its broad-stroke taboos on various modicums of speech and thought. 

A better deal, by far, would be that we all agree, atheist, Christian, left, right, and center, to try to keep our moralizing to a reasonable minimum and our criticisms legitimate. Ultimately Dawkins is a careful thinker and honest man who happens to say things and word them in ways that are often found offensive. For this, Richard Dawkins surely deserves some criticism, though substantially less than he receives and, by all accounts, far less than Pat Robertson.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Are moral philosophers scientific pessimists?

Scientism is back in the public discussion, and it's back in full swing. Although the debate seems never really to have settled down in recent years, a couple of noteworthy events recently have thrust it into the spotlight. First, Steven Pinker published an essay in The New Republic urging, among other things, that "scientism" is largely a canard. Second, being the scapegoat of much of the preceding and ensuing debate, Sam Harris issued a challenge to his critics, inviting them to topple the central thesis of his 2010 book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. As Harris's doppleganger, whom I call "Straw Harris," is routinely thrashed over the claims of Sam's book, it is my opinion that his challenge is entirely warranted, and yet a cadre of ruminants continues to arrive to nibble at Straw while Sam sits watching with what must be ever-decreasing patience.

One such interested writer is Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat, of the New York Times. Douthat addressed Pinker's essay, and now he's gone on to address Harris's challenge--as a warm-up act for his shot at a winning essay? I wonder and have my doubts. "Sam Harris and Scientism," Douthat wrote, straight to his point, in his Opinions page space on September 5, a piece I would have all but ignored if it weren't for noted philosopher of science, etc., Massimo Pigliucci calling it a "good argument" against Harris.

I asked Pigliucci about this good-argument claim on Twitter and was assured that it is one, "if I look at it" (I had twice by that point). Pigliucci, of course, accuses Harris of being one of scientism's worst offenders and has taken his own shots at Pinker's essay. Pigliucci asserts, primarily, that Douthat exposes the "disanalogy between well-being and health"--an odd point to make since unseating this analogy, which appeals to gaining intuition into the matter, if refuted would not unseat Harris's central premise.

To avoid making this over-long, I want to focus on Douthat's piece, even if he technically isn't a moral philosopher. Hopefully, I'll be able to provide those looking to topple Harris with some ammunition on how to do it correctly, if it can be done.

Douthat almost immediately gets to quoting Harris's summary of the rebuttals to his claim that science can determine human values, and much of the rest of Douthat's column is devoted to arguing why those criticisms hold up against Harris's responses. That summary Harris provides is:
… there are three, distinct challenges put forward thus far:

1) There is no scientific basis to say that we should value well-being, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)

2) Hence, if someone does not care about well-being, or cares only about his own and not about the well-being of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)

3) Even if we did agree to grant “well-being” primacy in any discussion of morality, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure well-being scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of morality. (The Measurement Problem)
Harris goes on to claim that by swapping the term "medicine" for "morality" and "well-being" out for "health," these criticisms are obviated. Douthat summarizes Harris's position (quoting him at times) in this way.
The concept of well-being is to morality as the concept of health is to medicine, and while people who deny that the pursuit of conscious creatures’ well-being is the proper end of any moral system may be entitled to their opinion, they are in the same position with respect to moral dialogue as “Christian Scientists, homeopaths, voodoo priests, and the legions of the confused” are with respect to medical conversations. They have “perverse and even self-destructive ideas about how to live,” and their position is rightly excluded from rational debate. [Inside quotation marks in this blockquote are Harris's words, the rest being Douthat's.]
Douthat's first agenda from here is, rather than to counter Harris directly, to attempt to undermine this analogy so that he can make the case that Harris has not adequately responded to these rebuttals that "seem like compelling points," in Douthat's own words. If Douthat is right, Harris may have a little more work to do in obviating these arguments, but even if Douthat is right here, he hasn't defeated Harris's arguments but rather a particular defense of them. And yet Douthat does not appear to be correct here.

Immediately, for instance, Douthat bogs us down by seizing upon Harris's “Christian Scientists, homeopaths, voodoo priests, and the legions of the confused,” noting that these various people are concerned with health but are equipped with methods that are identifiably poor at achieving success with it, stating that "no matter how blurry the proper definition of 'health' may be, the cemeteries are filled with clear examples what it doesn’t look like" [emphasis his]. He names these people as some "who do not actually exemplify problems (1), (2), and (3) in Harris's medicine analogy."

There are two prongs of response here: (A) the best Douthat can hope to do by this point is to damage the analogy Harris used to respond to the challenges, and (B) we aren't that much worse off at identifying miserable people (and animals) than we are at identifying dead people, and over time we will continue to get better at making this identification, and so also we have an empirically grounded sense of what well-being doesn't look like.

We'll return to (B) in a minute. Here's why, to (A): Harris's use of “Christian Scientists, homeopaths, voodoo priests, and the legions of the confused” provides examples of people with broken approaches to medicine. Douthat notes, by contrast, that they aren't people that set out directly to be injurious to the goal of health, and that's true--on a presumption of their ignorance. For the voodoo priests or witch doctors, there is a good claim to be made here, but for Christian Scientists, such is not so clear, at least not in countries like the United States. Those people claim to value health but, knowing what they must know, or at least see, about modern medicine, value it less than they value their beliefs about health.

That aside, it still isn't the case Douthat needs to make unless damaging this analogy is all he wants to do. If Harris's analogy is flawed, so be it, but that doesn't unseat his case. Douthat dismisses Harris's intuition-pumping analogy but doesn't drive to the core of the problem: he needs to show that people who actually do exemplify (1), (2), or (3), that is people who actually do not value well-being, think of their well-being in only the most narrow terms, and people who assert that well-being cannot be measured, even in principle, have good justification for their moral attitudes that is beyond empirical methods to correct.

There are people who do not value well-being for themselves and/or others (masochists and sadists), and we do not include their attitudes in rational moral discussions. Indeed, we consider their attitudes a pathology. There are people who put themselves and their concerns ahead of those of others (sociopaths), and again, we hardly hesitate to consider their attitudes in (most) rational moral discussions. In both of these cases, empirical data unequivocally could illustrate that a worse outcome, in terms of well-being and suffering, is obtained by making space for their attitudes than by not doing so.

There are also people who seem to think that well-being cannot be measured and thus, even if it is a bedrock moral value, it cannot make for a scientific basis for morality (a few scientism-calling moral philosophers, among them). For the moment, we do include their insights in our rational discussions. Perhaps that will always be the case, though we might hope that, if it proved warranted, they would release the grip on so much primacy in this academic domain, traditionally theirs or not.

The point (B) above, though, cuts across this third group cleanly. Harris's case isn't that we can have such a scientific morality today, or even that we can ever develop one in total. It is that in principle such measurements of suffering (or even flourishing, happiness, etc., as components opposed to suffering--ones recognized from the days of Greek philosophy as fundamental components of a "good life") could provide profoundly clear answers to our moral questions. Particularly, we should be able to get much better insight into what we should value by considering the realities of how we suffer and how we flourish, using scientific methods and discoveries as a finely honed tool for doing so.

Our understanding of psychology, sociology, and (though it's a boogeyman to the scientismists due to some hyper-excited overreach in short-term claims about the field) neuroscience are already shedding keen insights into the nature of well-being and suffering, and it's hard for me to imagine that it's anything but profound pessimism with regard to our capabilities to advance these sciences that motivates claims that we'll never be able to make meaningful measurements of well-being. It's worth noting that Harris doesn't even claim that there is a unique ethic or set of moral attitudes that produces optimal results--just that we can use scientific methods to ground our various moral systems in something more salient than pure thought. (It's always worth noting for me at this point that the old philosophers held reason so far above the nitty-gritties of reality that they were able to conclude incorrectly that men and women have different numbers of teeth and, far more staggeringly, that opening mouths and counting them would be a deficient way to evaluate that claim.)

The Measurement Problem, then, appears to be little more than a call to complexity, if it isn't a ditch-effort punt, in order to maintain the primacy of non-empirical methods of working in this field. The Persuasion Problem is hardly a problem on even very muted consequentialism as we can easily see that people who have a very narrow band of concern possess more potential to injure well-being outside of their tribe and thus, statistically speaking, will do so on average. It isn't a stretch of reason, and would fall afoul of data gathered on well-being and suffering, to realize that this problem is extremely likely to produce a worse result than otherwise.

One additional point about the Measurement Problem--to address another common, but weak, objection that seeks to defend it--is that even if the set of possible moral states is only partially ordered, particularly that there are literally situations that are incomparable (e.g. how many prevented rapes is a murder worth? or some such), that does not preclude the ability to measure, nor does it preclude the ability to identify those higher or lower in value when that is appropriate. Harris, of course, makes this point via his landscape metaphor, as noted previously and puts no requirement for total comparability of all potential moral positions.

Douthat may sense the issues with the Persuasion and Measurement Problems, though, and so he turns his bigger guns upon the Value Problem. That's fair enough, since no matter what we want to do regarding morality, we do at some point have to smuggle in at least one value. Harris's essential claim is that well-being is a bedrock moral value, though, one that holds a deserved special status among values and even potential for empirical evaluation over other choices of values. Douthat notes, attempting to undermine this thought:
If I say to Harris, the good is the beautiful and the beautiful the good, and therefore the best and most morally admirable society is the one that produces the most beautiful artifacts, the loveliest lyric poetry, and the most scintillating prose, and this remains the case no matter how low the inhabitants of that society score relative to our own on subjective measures of personal well-being, we are in disagreement on a much more fundamental point than the Christian Scientist and the surgeon. The latter two are aiming at the same goal with different methods, whereas I deny that Harris’s goal is necessarily the one we should be pursuing in the first place. 
But Douthat misses, in an important way, that the Value Problem is very likely to be caught up, at least in part, in the Measurement Problem, which, again, I don't think has good legs to stand on, particularly in light of Harris's claim to being able in principle to resolve it. If we actually can get deeply into an understanding of what leads to suffering and well-being, then we can evaluate Douthat's hypothetical claim that "the good is the beautiful and the beautiful is the good" by analyzing how "the beautiful" impacts his thinking and conscious experience in a way that leads to him wanting to define it as "the good." Incidentally, in a hypothetical society that maximizes well-being--which is not the same as a society without suffering--an individual Douthat could hold this particular view, or many other views, even if he would suffer to some degree by having to live in it.

Of further note, here, Douthat gives away the ghost a little by bringing up this classic "good if and only if beautiful" idea. Particularly, he didn't boldly venture into attempting to claim that "the good is the hideous, the ghastly, the ugly; and the hideous, the ghastly, the ugly is the good." Using the Orcs of Mordor as a hypothetical culture, he could imagine a tremendous "good" coming of cacophony and chaos and corruption, of pain and suffering and discord, and he could defend it upon the notion of placing value on those ideals. Of course, he didn't! Why? Because it would fly in the face of all of our rational moral intuitions, which are based upon the very notion that "good" means something that isn't repugnant, something fundamentally connected to the idea of avoiding misery and promoting well-being. We may smuggle in that value, at bottom, but we do so because on the broadest consensus we might imagine, that's simply what "good" really means.

Douthat continues that paragraph with a rather bald assertion resting on the Measurement Problem.
And whereas the voodoo priest’s worldview is ultimately refuted scientifically by the corpses of his patient, there is no comparable scientific refutation that Harris can offer to someone who sides with Orson Welles’s Harry Lime (Link to relevant video clip, provided by Douthat).
Indeed, given the rate of improvement we are seeing in our insights into the nature of human (and animal) experience, and given that even without keen scientific measurements to tell us what misery looks like, this particular claim of Douthat's lands flat and should be gathering dust somewhere in the Appeal to Complexity forest that protects so many bad ideas borne in fuzzy thinking.

Of course, Douthat doesn't agree with Lime:
Not that the Lime worldview cannot be refuted! But the methods of the microscope and laboratory do not suffice to do so — whereas, again, they do generally suffice, given even trial and error and a large enough sample size, to refute the arguments of witch doctors and pseudoscience-spouting gurus. In the latter case, there are sick people and dead people to back up one side’s assertion about what counts as medicine; in the former case, there is only the bare presupposition, hanging unsupported by anything dispositive.
See again, though, the call to the Measurement Problem to try to back the substance of the Value Problem, while ignoring the plain fact that we have some pretty keen insights into the makings of misery. (Indeed, the existence of torture proves that human beings have almost a perverse affinity for understanding suffering.) So here, in the former case, instead of a bare presupposition, there are miserable people and people suboptimally well facing unnecessary and ultimately purely deleterious and, hypothetically, avoidable suffering. Pardon them, I suppose, for not being so obvious in their misery as is being dead. Under certain circumstances, these people could sue for damages to their qualities of life (e.g. negligence, which could be construed as valuing the interests of the self more highly than potential injuries to others), but I only mention this since Douthat decided to use the legal term "dispositive" to try to make this case.

Douthat comes around at the end by digging into a claim that morality need not actually consider well-being or suffering. He writes
But there is also no necessary reason why one must presuppose [the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone] in order to pursue moral inquiry. ... [T]he aim of “avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone” is not definitionally integral to morality; it is one possible definition of the good that morality pursues. And, once again, the scientific method cannot settle the question of whether that definition is correct.
Morality, to be clear, is "the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are 'good' (or right) and those that are 'bad' (or wrong)," (definition by Wikipedia). So, then, Douthat's case rests upon the idea that there are meanings for the word "good" and "bad" that cannot be resolved to have something integral to do with well-being and suffering. Alternatively, we could say that Harris's case rests upon the notion that a bedrock definition of "bad," and thus "good" by negation, is the actualization of or tendency toward "the worst possible misery for everyone."

Perhaps this shows my bias, but if there is a more salient definition for "good" than "that which moves us away from the state of the worst possible misery for everyone," I don't know what it is and can't think of it after a great deal of trying. Douthat's "beauty is the good" boils down to an assessment, however subjective, of beauty, and it is imminently reasonable that one may presume that the reason it is taken to be either beautiful or good is because it provides some subjective sense of reduction of misery or increase in wellness, if only fleeting, if only psychological, if entirely individual.

Of course, we must note that certain kinds of transient or willful suffering, as with running a marathon for most people or (though now becoming obsolete) intentionally contracting chicken pox as a child to confer immunity as an adult, may produce a net benefit in well-being, so a simple understanding of well-being and suffering that takes into account only a moment-by-moment assessment of subjective quality of life is not sufficient.

Of note--and not a problem for Harris's case--it is likely to be a fact that our evaluations of our own well-being have a great deal to do with the so-called Persuasion Problem. I may very well value my own well-being, and that of my close family and friends, more highly than that of distant others, and my well-being may depend upon this. That's perfectly fine, though. If the goal is to maximize well-being while minimizing suffering, and if being perfectly egalitarian in valuation diminishes well-being for individuals, then it is likely to diminish it globally as well unless it necessarily leads to some unforeseen positive sum that, in light of our evolution into relatively small tribal groups, seems rather far-fetched. (Except in the most general terms, I cannot conceive of the immediate or long-term needs, goals, or passions of seven billion people--or maybe even more than a hundred--for instance, and I don't suspect I'm deficient in humanity because of this.) If that's how it is, then that's how it is, and empirically understanding the realities of human social psychology can only help clear the mud from this still-murky water.

Consequentialism and utilitarianism, of course, are part of what is under scrutiny here, each position possessing its own philosophical problems, but when it comes to moral evaluations, even on apparently incomparable situations, an evaluation of consequences and utility ultimately play a significant, if not major, role in guiding our moral intuitions. If I imagine receiving information that requires me to choose between loyalty to a friend and honesty to another, it is a careful weighing of the consequences, involving the interpersonal relationships, feelings of my friends, and my own state of being able to live comfortably with my choice that informs much of my decision process.

I might wonder what it is that a moral philosopher is using to determine moral attitudes if not some evaluation of the imagined, potential consequences of the hypothetical (and real) dilemmas in each case. Ultimately also, I might wonder upon what those evaluations are based if not experience, personal or shared, which are themselves a form of loosely empirical information that could conceivably be sharpened by clearer scientific insights into the nature of well-being and suffering. I suppose a virtue ethicist might suggest adherence to particular norms or ethics, for instance full-disclosure, always being truthful, keeping the peace, etc., but even the ancients were clear that these choices have to be judged situationally--and how, if not with at least some consideration of consequences and/or utility? All remaining answers to this question strike me as lacking real salience.

Harris's case may rest upon giving special status to the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone, but if anything can be taken as a moral axiom, it is that this particular value constitutes substantive moral bedrock. On this thinking, then, the scientific method, equipped with a (currently mostly hypothetical) tool by which we can assess well being or misery with some degree of grounded meaning, absolutely can help us settle the question of whether or not Harris's definition of "bad," and thus "good," is correct. Different definitions of "good" within moral, cultural, or individual ethical frameworks, can be evaluated in terms of their impact upon this bedrock moral value, and as Douthat notes, "if you know what moral ends you’re driving at, then clearly science can be of assistance in your quest."

Thus, anyone, be it Douthat himself, Professor Pigliucci, or another, that seeks to win Harris's challenge has it ahead of him or her to demonstrate plainly how well-being, as Harris defined it, fails to constitute a bedrock moral value, with "bedrock" meaning backed by the empirically recognizable states of misery and happiness in sentient minds. That I cannot fathom a way to do this is specifically why I do not endeavor to enter Harris's contest, and so I'd be fascinated to see a serious attempt at this. Scientific pessimism and vague appeals to the complexity of the problem, though, just aren't going to cut it.

Author's note, 9/9/2013: Minor changes were made to this essay from its original published form to correct some typographical errors and to clarify meaning in a few areas.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Deism, huh, what is it good for?

I've had Deism on my mind a little bit over the past few days. I'd like to make a few comments. For some reason, I feel drawn to using a FAQ style for doing so, so I will.

What is Deism?

For those that don't know, the definition for the term is
Belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe. The term is used chiefly of an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.
It is worth keeping this definition clearly in mind because there is a lot of obfuscation about Deism out there, much of which I now suspect is intentional.

Is Deism a form of theism?

Only in the very loosest sense of the term, but this is really an interesting point to bring up. If what I've read on the matter is accurate, it seems that the terms "deism" and "theism" were essentially synonymous, with the term "deism" preferred, until Deism became a thing in the 17th and 18th centuries. The terms diverged at that point, leaving theism to refer to belief in the existence of a supreme being that does intervene in the universe.

That many religious people, particularly apologists of various kinds, are eager to include Deists in their rolls tells me that they're getting fairly desperate for the appearance of wider belief than is warranted. The reason is clear: Deism directly contradicts every brand of theism on the does not intervene in the universe point.

It is, in my opinion, therefore best not to consider Deism a form of theism. Particularly, whatever religious apologists might try to have us believe, the majority of people who believe in God (generally: theists) do not believe in the Deistic God. They believe in a living, breathing, interacting God of this world that answers prayers, performs miracles, and will one day judge the living and the dead. If you have lost sight of this fact already while reading this, let that be a signpost for you to realize how quickly and easily apologists can get into this Deism or philosophical stuff and make their audience forget entirely that what they're talking about isn't what they're really defending.

Can Deism be refuted?

I think it is likely that the answer here is "no." I'm quite sure I cannot do it at this point, although I've spent some time trying. The reason I suspect that the answer is a fairly unequivocal "no" is because Deism is potentially unfalsifiable and, at the very least, likely to lie directly on the other side of any coherent epistemology that we can create. Do note that the flip side of this statement is that if Deism cannot be refuted, then it cannot be proven either. Deists, and religious apologists depending upon arguments for Deism, would be wise to take notice of this fact.

Should we accept Deism, then?

No, I don't think so. I certainly do not, even though I cannot refute it. I'm perfectly comfortable dismissing Deism because it's (very nearly) good for nothing, and that which it is good for, so far as I can tell, can either be done better in other ways or is outright harmful.

On what grounds can we dismiss Deism?

It's useless for any honest use.

What is it good for that could be done better?

Deism stuffs a proxy into a hole in our knowledge about how the universe came to be, if that wording even makes sense to use. That proxy doesn't answer any questions, although it gives the appearance of answering this fundamental question about the nature of the universe. A good analogy for Deism in this case is that we have a box with a round hole in it, and wanting for a round peg, we stuff the hole full of cotton balls so we can call it filled.

Because of the general utility to mature, informed thinking presented by being willing to accept having no answer to particular questions, dismissing Deism may, in fact, be a net benefit to people, especially those who are Deists primarily to stuff cotton in the "where did the universe come from?" hole. (And is there any other reason to be a Deist?)

What is it "good" for that is harmful?

Making philosophical-style arguments. The cosmological arguments, e.g. the infamous Kalam Cosmological Argument, are arguments for Deism, not any brand of interventionist theism, whatever an apologist might want to try to sweep under that rug.

This is harmful because, since it is unlikely that Deism can be refuted, it gives a veneer of plausibility to the existence of a "supreme being" that "created" the universe and everything in it, that being always being called "God." This convention people use is very convenient for religious apologists who want to state that "'God' exists" and then use that statement to slip into "my God exists."

I think it would be an interesting thing to see if the Deist God was given a completely different name than "God," maybe "Dod" or something like that. That wouldn't erase all of the apologists' slip, but it would make it harder to apply.

Because the creator "God" idea is tied to the God-concepts behind most brands of theistic religion, misusing the term "God" to apply to this Deistic idea gives false credence to the unsupported claims of theism, and so the harms that come with theism and theistic religions are partially predicated on this bit of verbal imprecision and intentional equivocation.

To summarize:

Deism is not exactly the same thing as theism, and while a supreme creator of the universe may be a necessary feature of theistic religions, it is not sufficient to justify any of them. It is unlikely to be provable or disprovable, but ultimately, the Deistic hypothesis is (slightly worse than) useless and should therefore be dismissed after the requisite consideration. Beware any religious apologist trying to pull and argument for Deism on you as if to convince you of the beliefs and claims of their particular religions. At best, the tactic is extremely weak, and at worst, it's outright dishonesty.