Thursday, June 30, 2011

There are Open Minds

Some time ago, I got into a long and extensive debate with Dr. Gunter Bechly. He posted an update on his views recently in a comment:

"I meanwhile read Gary Drescher`s book several times. I have to agree with AIGBusted that it is a highly recommendable book that profoundly changed my views (incl. solving my problems with the nature of causality, time, consciousnes and free will). To make a long story short: I withdraw my above objections (and my support for 'Process Philosophy' as metaphysics), and now agree that the completely naturalistic worldview as presented by Gary Drescher is indeed the most parsimonious and most convincing explanation for all phenomena. Drescher's metaphysic is by the way not really 'materialist' but rather corresponds to the 'mathematical universe hypothesis' and 'ultimate ensemble' of Max Tegmark."

The book under discussion is Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics (A Bradford Book)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Books, Books, Books

Just made a change-up in the books advertised on the right-hand side of the blog: I've dropped Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy (Ideas Explained) and The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails and replaced them with Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics (A Bradford Book) and The End of Christianity. Don't get me wrong, those two books are great, especially The Christian Delusion, which presents one of the most devastating attacks on the Christian faith I've ever read. But ya know, I wanted to add those two books and something had to go.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Moral Philosophy

I've been thinking a lot about morality lately, and here are some conclusions that I have come to.

The root of morality is concern for the well-being of other people. This is the only clear definition of morality I have found which matches our use and intuitions about the word. A truly moral concern for other people is not valuing people because of what they can do for you or because caring for other people fulfills some selfish desire on your part. Rather, a moral concern for other people is valuing people for their own sake.

We've all heard the saying "The buck stops here." We often value things because of deeper values that we hold. For example, I value Subway sandwiches because of the pleasure I get from eating them. Why do I value pleasure? Is there some reason to value pleasure? No. The buck stops there. Pleasure is a basic, primary desire (or value).

Likewise, if you ask yourself why you value other people, there are only two possible answers you can come up with: Either "the buck stops there" and valuing other people is one of those basic desires you have, or you value other people because of some deeper, more basic desire you have. If you value other people for some deeper desire, then what, we may ask, might that desire be? Is that desire a selfish desire or an unselfish one? Since an unselfish desire is, by definition, a desire that values other people, then it wouldn't make any sense to say that you value other people because of a more fundamental desire to value other people.

So if you value other people because of some other desire that you have, then you could only be doing it because of a selfish desire (so that you won't go to prison, let's say). If that's true about you, then are you really moral? I mean, if a criminal decides not to commit a crime because he's being video-taped at the moment, could we really call such a person moral? He did the right thing by not committing the crime, but it was for the wrong reasons. Such a person is immoral. On the other hand, someone who chooses not to commit a crime, even when they know that they can get away with it, because they want to avoid the damage it will cause other people, is a moral person.

William Lane Craig, I think, spends much of his philosophizing about morality thinking about arguing with a hypothetical extremist moral skeptic (someone who doesn't believe in morality). Craig deeply wants (I might even say needs) for morality to be grounded in something higher than animal minds. The moral skeptic may point out that he has his opinions, and his desires, and we have ours, and by what authority could one claim that one is better than the other? That one is right and one is wrong? Craig's answer, I think, is that his morality is endorsed by God, an infinitely great and wise being, and that settles the whole issue. Craig seems to believe this is the only answer possible, or that it is at least the best answer anyone has come up with so far, therefore that means that his answer is probably correct. Since his answer includes the existence of God, we must conclude that God exists.

In reality, there is no way at all to answer the moral skeptic. What does it mean for something to be better than something else? When something is better than something else, it satfisfies some assumed goal. Example: I may be a better swimmer than anyone else in my family, if by "better at swimming" we meaning faster which is essential just saying that my swimming satisfies the goal of speed more fully than any other member of my family. When the moral skeptic asks "Why is your set of opinions better than mine?" What end goal is, or could he, be talking about? If he is asking why valuing others actually works to help other people, then it is quite obvious how could be answered. And if the happiness of other people is not among his set of end-goals, then he could only be asking how valuing other people would help him. Well, there are benefits to behaving in a way that shows value (staying out of prison, creating enjoyable friendships, and so on) But if the moral skeptic only acts like he values other people in order to recieve those benefits (staying out of prison, friendship, etc.) and he does not really and truly hold the happiness of others amongst his basic values, then he is not, and can not, be moral, as we have established earlier.

Nor can we persuade the moral skeptic to adopt the happiness of others amongst his basic values. For the only way you can persuade someone to do anything is by appealing to values which they already hold to. Think about it: when have you ever convinced something that they ought to do something without showing them how it fulfills their goals? How could you? Further, Richard Carrier and Alonzo Fyfe have both (independently, I think) proposed that the word "ought" simply designates what must be done in order to fulfill an assumed desire (example: If you want to eat a good hamburger, and McDonald's sells good hamburgers, then you ought to go to McDonald's). Since I believe that they are correct, that makes the statement that "one cannot persuade anyone without appealing to values they already have" true by definition.

Now, since we can't get the moral skeptic to be really and truly moral by appealing to his selfish values, and since the moral skeptic, if he really is one, has no unselfish values, then it follows that the moral skeptic cannot be persuaded. This conclusion is logically necessary, as it follows from the premises, and the premises, as I have argued, are indisputable. And notice that this conclusions makes no reference to theism or atheism. The conclusion applies regardless of which position one takes, which means that Craig cannot claim that his moral system is greater in light of its being able to answer the moral skeptic, because it can't.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Drescher's Modal Realism

One of the most brilliant books I have ever read in my life is Gary Drescher's book Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics. I highly recommend it: it covers naturalistic perspectives on consciousness, ethics, and manages to be fairly brief on each topic even though it explicates numerous philosophical problems and blossoms with fresh new solutions to many of them. I say that to say this: Reading pages 323-327 of that book is going to be a pre-requisite to reading this blog post, as what I attempt to do here is to explicate Gary's argument for Modal Realism. If you don't have the book, all of those pages except one are available here. Anyway, what I'm writing here is an attempt to put his argument into a series of syllogisms. What I say here is my own interpretation of his work and I could be mistaken. Also, I have speculated and filled in some gaps about what he meant when I felt it was necessary.

I take Drescher's argument to boil down to one simple syllogism, though in order to be valid this syllogism requires lots of justification through further syllogisms. Here's the basic argument:

1. Two things are the same when no difference could ever [even in principle] be detected between them.
2. No difference can be detected (even in principle) between the objective ontological status of logically possible worlds.
Conclusion: Therefore, the objective ontological status of this world and all possible worlds is the same.

A common sense way to phrase the conclusion, I think, is that all possible worlds are just as real as this one.

Now, we've got some serious philosophical legwork to do. Since the conclusion follows from the premises, we only have to worry about whether the premises are true. I take premise one to be uncontroversial. But what about premise 2? Is it true? Here's Drescher's argument for it:

1. Any statement which is not true by definition or theoretically verifiable/falsifiable is meaningless.
2. The statement that "The universe exists" in the sense that it has some external "spark of existence" as Drescher puts it, is not true by definition nor is it even theoretically verifiable/falsifiable.
Conclusion: Therefore, the statement "The universe exists" (as defined above) is meaningless.

Now, the first premise expresses a version of something known as the Verification Principle. This principle is highly controversial in philosophy, as the link I gave will show you. However, Michael Martin has valiantly defended this principle in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and personally I suspect that some form of the verification principle is correct.

What about the second premise? What justifies the contention that there we could never know of the universe having an external "spark of existence" as Drescher says? Drescher runs a thought experiment similar to this one that I have written about before:

Imagine that you "invent" your own universe. You write down the physical laws of your imaginary universe, and you work out the equations to figure out how it would evolve over time. Eventually your equations show that your universe develops planets and life at some point in its history. Further equations prove that intelligent, humanoid creatures would evolve in this universe. Working even more equations reveals that a pair of these humanoids are having a conversation about their universe, wondering why it exists. They are not troubled, or even aware, that their universe "doesn't exist." In their eyes, their universe does exist. It is quite real to them. Their "imaginary" universe seems just as real to them as our "real" universe seems to us. We have no way to tell what "exists" except our experiences. And yet experiences exist within universes that we would call "imaginary": For as our thought experiement shows, 'imaginary' beings in 'imaginary' universes still experience their universe as real. And therefore they have the same evidence that their universe exists as we have that our universe exists.

Something must be explained here: Am I concluding that we can't know whether the universe exists? No, obviously the universe does exist. But maybe our intuitions about what existence means have lead us astray. So, what is existence? Drescher proposes that we call things "real" only when they can have an effect of some sort upon us. Defined this way, of course our universe is real, since the universe is just a label for everything we call real (in the sense of having, or being able to have, an effect upon us). Notice that when we use this definition of "real" an imaginary being (think three-eyed monster alien) in a possible world (with its own unique set of galaxies and planets) could also rightly refer to itself and its surroundings as being real. We, on the other hand, refer to it as not real because such a thing has no effect upon us. Even as we contemplate such alien worlds, it is not the worlds themselves which affect us, but only our mental representations of them that were generated by our brains.

Some have objected that the theory of Modal Realism violates Occam's razor. I think not. First of all, the principle that "the simplest explanation is most probably correct" does not apply if one proves logically that there is only one explanation, as I believe I have just done. Nor is it even clear that Occam's razor would be violated even if there were other possible explanations of existence. I mean, if someone were proposing a theory that granted a "spark of existence" to every possible world, such a theory would run afoul of Occam's razor. But modal realism actually denies that any universe, even ours, has anything extra that other universes do not. It is, then, simpler than alternative theories. Our universe, ontologically, is no different than any other abstraction.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Whose Word is it?

Bart Ehrman explicated an argument in his masterful book Misquoting Jesus which I take to be something like this:

1. If God inspired the words of the Bible, he would have preserved the words of the Bible.
2. God did not preserve the words of the Bible.
Conclusion: God did not inspire the words of the Bible.

The conclusion follows from the premises, so the only the thing we need to worry about is whether or not the premises are correct.

That "God did not preserve the words of the Bible" is undoubtable, since the words of the original New Testament manuscripts weren't preserved at all, as thousands upon thousands of changes were made to the New Testament as it was copied again and again.

The only thing one may question is premise 1: If God inspired the words of the Bible would He preserve them? Evangelicals have cautioned us on this. Not so fast, they say. By far most of the changes that occurred when the New Testament was copied are trivial (such as a spelling error) and it is dubious to claim that God would have preserved everything down to the very letter. God would preserve the original meaning of the text, of course, but to claim God would preserve more than that is not a reasonable or warranted expectation. Besides, evangelicals tell us, scholars have a vast number of manuscripts to look at and are able to deduce what the original text said. So according to evangelicals, the words were (kinda sorta) preserved.

A few caveats: There were at least a few significant interpolations. Example: In Mark 16 everything after verse 8 is an interpolation. No biggie, say the evangelicals, we know that because the earliest manuscripts lack those verses, so we still have access to the originals. Besides, there were no doctrinal changes.

And Scholars are not able to reconstruct "the original" version of the book, they are only able to reconstruct the common source that all of the manuscripts we now have were copied from. Is that a problem? Well, the common source for all of our manuscripts was probably not more than a few generations of copying away from the original (i.e. the common source was a copy of a copy of a copy of the original) so there wasn't much time for interpolations to occur. Then again, some scholars believe that there were lots of interpolations that occurred back in those early days (Richard Pervo commented in The Mystery of Acts that during the early days, every new copy was "a new edition" and if I recall correctly it was because of his study of the Q document). Richard Carrier has even made the point that interpolations would be more likely to occur in the early days because there were few manuscripts around and the odds were thus better that you wouldn't get caught if you added something.

All that leads to an important question: what if one of the books of the New Testament was altered early on in a way that seriously changed the meaning of the text, or affected some core doctrine of Christianity? As far as I knew, no one could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this had happened and thus the argument wasn't really a serious hurdle for Christians.

Up until now I was basically in agreement with the Evangelical point of view in that I didn't think Ehrman's argument falsified Christianity. I thought it created some problems: Namely, because every non-fragmentary manuscript we have of the New Testament dates well over 100 years after the books were originally written, we can't really know for sure if any changes concerning substantial issues were made in that time frame. Further, for those who argue for the resurrection of Jesus, it is tricky to make the case when your only evidence is the New Testament, a book that could have been (and probably was) altered in all kinds of ways that you'll never even know about. But let us put these concerns aside for a moment.

On reading Richard Carrier's blog recently I discovered that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is an interpolation. Let's take a look at the passage in question:

"Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."

How do we know it's an interpolation? Carrier explains the reasons on his blog, and I would only like to add that Philip Payne's article (which presents evidence that this passage was missing from some manuscripts) is located on his website for all to read.

The church that I went to as a kid always forbid women to speak during services AT ALL because of this passage, which, as it turns out, was fabricated. Ehrman's argument shines with new force.