Monday, August 4, 2014

The moral angle of apologetics for the philosophy of religion

I, along with John Loftus and Peter Boghossian, with Jerry Coyne too, have been saying for a while now that the philosophy of religion isn't just on the rocks, it's a field that needs to lose academic respectability. It is, as I like to put it, theology in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.

The primary reason I think we should see the philosophy of religion this way is summarized best by something that Keith Parsons, a philosopher deeply involved with it, said a few years ago, quoted here by Dan Fincke from January 2011. Parsons wrote,
One of the things the really active conservative Christians covet enormously, more than anything else, is intellectual respectability. And they think they have found it in some of the arguments from these philosophers of religion.
This, indeed, is a problem, and I think secular philosophers of religion, probably unwittingly, encourage it. That the philosophy of religion as a recognizable subdiscipline of philosophy only dates to post-WWII, as John Loftus has pointed out, quoting philosopher (of religion) Graham Oppy from his recent interview that really got this ball rolling, drives home this point further. Theology's alleged philosophical renaissance, which William Lane Craig is proud to note whenever he gets the chance, seems to have been part and parcel of the ascendance of the separate identification philosophy of religion. (We should note that all theology has is "philosophy," or pseudo-philosophy, as Richard Carrier puts it.)

At any rate, John's estimable and ambitious series is underway, having changed from a five-part series to a six-part, to keep it more digestible. Those parts can be found here:
These are worth taking a look at, and I think they will constitute a nontrivial part of the cultural shift away from giving religious views undeserved respect by breaking the spell that lets them pretend that they are properly academic topics. (Nota bene: Strictly speaking, they are academic, by definition, but they're not properly so as they do not hook properly to reality while pretending that they do. Investigating fiction, which is obviously somehow separate from reality, is properly academic, as is studying reality itself, but conflating the two endeavors isn't properly academic. It's solipsistic sophistry playing professor. I see theology, and by extension a very wide swath of the philosophy of religion, as being pseudo-academic, much like an elaborate philosophical inquiry into the nature of spells and magical artifacts in Dungeons and Dragons would be.)

The purpose of my present post is to mention something I made in a comment on Part Two of John's series and elaborate upon it a bit. In brief, I think that apologists for the philosophy of religion utilize a value, which is to say a moral case, to defend the field's sense of legitimacy, and I think this is likely to be a bad way to justify this direction of study. Thus, I want to present and question that value. I wrote,
I think they [apologists for the philosophy of religion] work very hard to create a moral position out of one idea in particular: We should always engage the best arguments for a philosophical position. They turn this concept, as I said, into a matter of moral reckoning, which is to say into a (false?) virtue, which is to say something to be valued "for its own sake" (scare quotes because I don't accept the validity of that line of moral reasoning, but others do). With a value like this, they are influential in effecting the goal [of providing a sense of legitimacy to the philosophy of religion], which is making people care about PoR when ... they shouldn't. (emphasis added)
I want to question that highlighed assumption. Should we always engage the best arguments for a philosophical position, at the risk of being bad or unfair to the field in question if we do not?

This, by the way, seems to be the main appeal made by secular philosopher of religion Paul Draper and his amateur acolytes, who have significant online presence and tend to beat people over the head with this assumption, insisting that anyone who fails to apply this maxim is a bad or disingenuous academic, even a partisan or an apologist (quelle ironic).

I, of course, think we should do this, as seems obvious, but only when it is appropriate. Thus, it isn't the academic value itself but the scope of its application that I am really questioning.

The relevant distinction is one that is outlined by the Courtier's Reply, which I feel apologists for the philosophy of religion are giving, despite their denial. They insist that the only way to understand whether questions about theism--a central concern of the philosophy of religion--are valid is to consider them on their own terms and giving them at least equal attention as arguments for naturalism (my thoughts about that here). The principle in question doesn't immediately seem to qualify as a Courtier's Reply, but I think it applies. Specifically, as the Rational Wiki puts it,
Denunciation of this particular fallacy [the Courtier's Reply], however, is quite easy to misuse. Whenever one is told to read more about a subject that he disagrees on, it is easy to accuse one's contradictors of giving a "Courtier's Reply". The element of the Courtier's Reply that is being forgotten here is that it asks the questioner to "read more" about a subject that begs the question. (emphasis original)
Thus, I need to convince anyone who will believe me that the maxim as applied to theism, that we should treat it seriously, begs the question. I don't think this is actually controversial anymore, though. Since, as Loftus puts it--and I agree--what underlies theism is bogus, even taking theism seriously in philosophical terms is begging the question (while insisting it isn't). Loftus writes,
[T]here are some uncontested facts about faith that secular philosophers should teach their students, such as, faith isn't a legitimate answer to these questions and that all arguments on behalf of religion are nothing more than special pleading. Basing something on faith or logical fallacies is simply not teaching students correctly. (bold added to a claim Loftus has defended numerous times on his blogs and in his books)
And he goes on,
The primary reason is that faith has no basis, and secondarily because there is no reason to invite faith into a state run secular university. We are proposing to teach the truth to students. 
And he quotes Peter Boghossian with his own annotation,
Educators have given faith-based claims preferential treatment. In the classrooms "It is taken for granted that faith-based claims are invulnerable to criticism and immune from further questioning" in the so-called "soft sciences" like sociology, philosophy, anthropology, etc. "This intellectual rigor mortis is not allowed to occur across all disciplines." In the hard sciences like mathematics, chemistry and biology "challenging claims and questioning reasoning processes are 'intrinsic to what it means to teach students to reason effectively'." So Boghossian says, "This needs to end" (p. 188). Educators in all disciplines of learning should grant faith based conclusions "no countenance. Do not take faith claims seriously. Let the utterer know that faith is not an acceptable basis from which to draw a conclusion that can be relied upon" (p. 189).
Really putting it plain, Loftus wrote in the first part of his series,
To teach it correctly the professor should tell the truth about the lack of epistemic status of faith. Faith has no intellectual merit. It is not a virtue. It has no method. It solves no problems. It is not worthy of thinking people.
On that basis, and others like it, it is very difficult to see the matter of theism as something to treat seriously as a philosophical object. We shouldn't. It is a theological object, and theology is only "pseudo-philosophical," as Carrier puts it, and pseudo-academic, as I outlined above. No one is required to take such a thing seriously or engage its "best" arguments, as if it has any, as if the real contenders haven't already been dealt with thoroughly and repeatedly, and as if any argument stands up to the simple and straightforward question that's been waiting for them all along: "Where's the evidence?"

But because the idea that we should engage any position's best case is generally true in philosophy proper, and all academic debate, it is an easy value to turn into a false virtue. The principle simply doesn't apply here because theology is pseudo-academic, though. Misapplying it as a false virtue, a moral value defining a particular kind of thinker, I think, is exactly what apologists for the philosophy of religion are doing, and I think it constitutes a confusing and unproductive avenue in the conversation that should not continue.

Friday, August 1, 2014

At the end of reason lies an invitation to pretend

Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins,” Stanford anthropology professor T.M. Luhrmann wrote for the July 26 edition of the New York Times Sunday Review, in an apparent attempt to articulate where, or perhaps why, we should simply throw in the towel and give up the quest for knowledge. “FAITH,” introduced in all capital letters by Luhrmann, offers the invitation not just for us to extend ourselves beyond the limits of reason, where those exist, but also so that we can pretend facts don't matter when it comes to clarifying what “really matters to us,” and how it might be accessible by contemplating the “ridiculous,” like “bikinis on the out-of-shape.”

INFORMED SKEPTICISM, not faith, asks people to consider that the evidence of their senses (and biases of their thought processes) is wrong. It is faith, however that asks people to “believe that their minds are not always private; that persons are not always visible; that unseen presences should alter your emotions and direct your behavior; that reality is good and justice triumphant.” And informed skepticism should raise a red flag on every one of those things, not just because they are wildly improbable—and it doesn't matter that Luhrmann notes that people often recognize the unlikeliness of their patently dubious beliefs because it is common that they are accepted uncritically—but because every one of them is laced with the potential for consequential failure.

There's something more insidious than the usual kind of sinister in believing that the contents of our minds are not always private, something Orwell spoke to lucidly, even if his dystopian landscapes now lie mostly beyond our “boggle line.” Even without taking into account the potential for real and exploitable paranoia—that NSA story is still big, isn't it, and how many "false flags" do we have left to hear about this year?—even without that, there is nothing glamorous, eloquent, or comforting about the idea of inescapable surveillance that penetrates even into the most secret recesses of our mental lives. Much, indeed possibly all, of our mental activity lies outside of our conscious or moral control, and faith asks us to accept a tower of guilt for all of it, built brick by brick on a superficially comforting and politically useful lie. Indeed, since this invitation to imminent supervision is hinged upon judgment upon the contents of our minds, and of our own doom as a result, the invitation is menacing and thus despicable, the kind of trick a flailing parent at his wit's end or smarmy huckster would try to pass off in a desperate attempt to wheedle control over another.

For all in it that isn't yet more superintendence, there's nearly nothing worth commenting upon concerning the invitation faith sends to believe in invisible persons, though, for besides being silly, it isn't clear what anyone should do with it. Such invisible persons aren't only invisible, they are plainly powerless, indistinguishable from blind luck in their efficacy upon our fortuity. Asking someone to pretend such helpful, or in some cases harmful, invisible agents are there, presumably to sway the circumstances around them, is inviting them to pretend that there might be help when there is none.

It is enticing, admittedly, to consider the idea that unseen presences, perhaps persons and perhaps not, can alter our emotions and behavior, not least because it is partly true. The myriad unseen influences, both internal and external, that can, as J.K. Rowling put it in the mouth of Hogwart's potions master Severus Snape, “ensnare the mind and bewitch the senses” are complicated and often intractable. Faith asks us to believe things about them, though, that anyone who disparages deception should reject. If we are to live carefully and intelligently, spurning the spurious and seeking to get things right, we must be vigilant to skip the invitation to ascribe attributions that lie outside of what we can know to the phenomena we experience.

Included in that vein, of course, our want for goodness and justice is of profound worth and should be encouraged, but it is an unctuous invitation to shirk our moral accountability to each other to believe that these forces are built into the fabric of reality. They are not. They are up to us, both as human constructs and as constructs important to humanity. We cannot take the lure of the easy road, of setting them aside for the universe, or some imagined God, to sort out on its own, for those are the very seeds of moral evil and abject injustice, seeds that reliably bear the most rotten fruits on the most twisted vines.

If God, imaginary or not, is unknowable, then we are under an intellectual and moral obligation not to make believe otherwise. “Many struggle, at one point or another, particularly in a pluralistic, science-sophisticated society, with the despair that it all might be a sham,” Luhrmann insightfully notes about religious belief, somehow missing that, so far as we can honestly profess to know, it is all a sham. She muses, following Soren Kierkegaard, that “if faith is...a leap into the unknown, perhaps being clear about what is foolish makes people feel safer about where that leap might land them,” but fails to note that accepting claims of truth on faith is itself foolish, on the far side of the contemporary default for the boggle line.

What faith asks of us is to set aside and surrender our better judgment, our caution, and our reasonably informed skepticism of the mountains of bull and sinkholes of bias that surround us. The place where reason ends is not where faith begins. The place where reason ends is where questions and hard work reside, and faith asks us to skip those responsibilities to ourselves, each other, and our future generations, to put up our feet and pretend, pretend, pretend they don't matter.