Inner experience and doubtability

Mar 22nd, 2007 1:10 pm | By

A little more on this puzzle about inner experience. No reason; I just find it interesting. I keep picking away at it. I suppose partly (or maybe mostly) because I know perfectly well that my instinct is simply to think the idea* is absurd – so that can be seen as a reason to try hard to consider the opposite. And there’s also the fact that Stannard obviously doesn’t think it’s absurd, and he’s obviously not just silly, so that’s another reason to puzzle. Plus it raises some interesting thoughts about memory and knowledge and so on – why some memories are harder to doubt than others, for instance. (In thinking about that I’ve had the mildly amusing realization that I can remember [just] brushing my teeth this morning, but can’t remember brushing my teeth on any previous morning whatever. Presumably all of us have precisely one memory of matutinal tooth-brushing, and all the others make up a blurred generic inferential group-memory.)

I conceded too much yesterday, I realized a few minutes after I abandoned the computer for the day. I think the problem is not quite with the inherent undoubtability of the experience itself – because it seems perfectly rational to believe one had a certain kind of inner experience – but with how one interprets it. Stannard seems to move seamlessly (i.e. without visible interpretation) from the experience to what the experience is. But that has to be the issue. He has An Experience when he prays; but it is just his interpretation that that experience is meeting God and understanding that God is love and forgiveness. I would say that’s the part that’s not rational. He takes it for granted himself, but that’s just what he shouldn’t do. He seems to be claiming that that is what he is unable to doubt – that that experience is one of meeting God, and what kind of being that God is. That seems different from, and stranger than, being unable to doubt one went running a few hours ago. One has a memory of traveling through space on one’s own legs, one remembers what one saw on the way, etc; one interprets that as ‘going running’ or ‘walking to the sculpture park and back’. That seems a not very far-fetched interpretation – and it is one that we could easily put into more precise terms (bipedal motion, X number of steps, T time taken, route on a map, etc). But interpreting an inner experience as meeting a loving forgiving God is a pretty different kind of thing. So – why is Stannard so unable to doubt it? I don’t think that is rational, and I’m not even sure I think it’s really reasonable any more.

Here’s one place I think Stannard makes a dubious inference:

‘I believe a lot of things about physics, not having personally done the experiments. And it is because I trust the people who have done the experiments. It seems to me that if you’re dealing with religious people, who all engage in this prayer activity, and time and again, they keep on coming up with the idea that they are in contact with someone, and yes, that someone does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness and all the rest of it – now that is repeatable, and I think to myself, well, why shouldn’t I trust these people that they are accurately reporting their experiences? What you look for is consensus…’

For one thing, what is ‘time and again’? How many is that? How universal is it? But for another, bigger thing, what is that ‘yes, that someone does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness and all the rest of it’ about? One, what someone? What does that ‘that’ refer to? Two, what does he mean the someone ‘does have the characteristics of love and forgiveness’? What does that ‘does’ refer to? He says it as if it’s as straightforward as size or weight, but (needless to say) it isn’t. Three, how do any of them know that this God has to have those characteristics? Four, how do they know their (cultural) expectation that this God will have those characteristics hasn’t simply shaped or indeed determined what their inner experience is? Five, what about all the reasons there are to think that a creator God would in fact not have those characteristics but other, more alarming ones? Six, what does the whole package mean – in what sense are they ‘in contact,’ in what sense is this ‘contact’ ‘repeatable,’ what is it about this repeatable contact that tells them this ‘someone’ has ‘the characteristics of love and forgiveness’?

And so on. And another thing (I raised both of these on the J&J blog earlier, but feel like raising them here too; excuse recycling) – there is a question about what kinds of experiences are more (rationally) doubtable than others. JS says he can’t doubt he went running this morning. Suppose you had a very intense inner experience this morning – suppose it exactly like the kind of experience Stannard has in prayer. (Obviously no one can confirm or deny that, so we can just suppose it.) I wonder if you would say or think you can’t doubt you had that experience – not just an experience, but that experience – an experience of that particular kind. I wonder if you would find it as inherently undoubtable as your having gone running – if you would find it undoubtable in exactly the same way.

I’ll volunteer the opinion that if I had such an experience, I wouldn’t find it undoubtable in the same way as a recent long walk down and up a steep hill. I can’t be certain of that, but that’s my guess. My guess is that as soon as I tried to think about it in order to see if I could doubt it or not, it would become too fuzzy to be undoubtable, in a way that a fresh memory of a walk down and up a steep hill doesn’t.

If I’m right about that, it seems to be another reason to think Stannard isn’t really rational to take his inner experience at face value. That kind of thing is or ought to be inherently more doubtable than other kinds of experience can be. (Maybe what I’m claiming is that inner experience is more like an older memory, which shifts and wiggles when you try to pin it down, than it is like a fresh one, which is more robust, and that that means it is more doubtable.)

*that it’s rational to take one’s own inner experience of meeting God at face value


Mar 21st, 2007 11:57 am | By

In other words there’s a difference between being convinced by something, so convinced that you are literally unable not to believe it, and being rationally convinced by it. Which is, indeed, interesting. It seems like a real problem, in a way – at least potentially. But maybe it is only potentially, not actually? If so, that too would be interesting. In other words – if there are few or no cases of (say) committedly rational people, with strong habits of questioning evidence, second-guessing their own inferences, and the like, who have (say) an unexpected religious experience – an experience like the experience Russell Stannard has when praying – and find themselves unable not to believe that the experience is veridical – then it seems fair to say that Russell Stannard’s experience doesn’t show much.

In other words it depends where you start from. If for example you start from a habit of believing god exists, or from a desire to believe that god exists, and have internal experience that seems to confirm that god exists, that’s different from starting from a habit of not believing god exists and no desire to believe that god exists. If the only (or perhaps the vast majority of) people who have such experiences and find them compelling and convincing, are in the first category – then I don’t think their experience tells us that it’s rational to take the experience at face value. Understandable, yes; reasonable, maybe; rational, no.

Internal experience and rationality

Mar 21st, 2007 9:36 am | By

There’s this post on Talking Philosophy about religious experience and the fact that it can be or seem to be veridical, and the questions that fact raises.

The religious experience as veridical thing is interesting. If the experience genuinely has that quality – is it rational to take it at face value? Okay, I guess most people reading this will answer ‘no’ (and tell me off for suggesting such a thing). But I wonder…

I would say it isn’t entirely rational to take religious experience at face value as veridical, for reasons that don’t seem to appear in comments on that post; not exactly, anyway. I would say it isn’t rational because we know that experience can be misleading. That’s all. It’s pretty simple. That’s why (isn’t it?) experience on its own (internal, private, unsharable, unduplicatable) experience is not considered scientific evidence (or legal evidence either). We know our minds can play tricks on us; we know human beings can hallucinate; therefore we know, or ought to know if we want to claim the title ‘rational,’ that any purely internal experience may be overwhelmingly convincing to us but that it doesn’t follow that it can or should be convincing to anyone else.

I think the claim is that the experience is so convincing (so powerful, overwhelming, veridical) to the person who has it that that person can’t believe it’s not veridical – is literally unable to believe that.

But…I’m not sure that works – not in the sense of deserving the term ‘rational.’ If one really is rational, one ought to be able to have an intense internal experience and still remain aware that that is what it is and that it cannot of its nature be legitimately convincing to anyone else – and that therefore it is not genuine evidence, and should not be taken to be genuine evidence, even by the person inside whose head it played itself out. Not even if that person is a brilliant philosopher or physicist.

That’s not to say that it’s not understandable that the experiencers would find the experience convincing, just that the label ‘rational’ is – not really earned. I think there are good reasons why it is not rational for people to be convinced by their own purely internal experiences, and that therefore it’s understandable but not rational to be convinced by them.


Mar 20th, 2007 3:37 pm | By

From The Improbability of God again. Page 383.

If there were an all-good and all-powerful God who could act in time, then we would have better evidence than we have…Why would such a God hide? Some theists answer that, if the evidence for God were stronger, believers would not need faith.

But why is that an answer? Why is that an objection? Why is faith taken to be a good thing? Why is it supposed to be a loss if we don’t need it? Apart from the obvious protective reasons – the obvious contorted explanations that theists offer to explain inconvenient realities such as God’s strange failure ever to drop by and say hello.

Is the idea that faith is – what – generous, gratuitous, loving? But anything can follow from that. You get epistemic chaos from thinking that way, and from epistemic chaos you get disaster. You could have ‘faith’ that a loving god wouldn’t let anything bad ever happen, and so do nothing.

It’s the same as the problem with claiming that we can’t know what all possible goods are but God can, so we aren’t in a position to know God is not good. Both of them are disastrous because both of them amount to saying that our best tools are not just fallible, not just incomplete, but fundamentally wrong. That’s a desperately bad, reckless, irresponsible idea, because we have to do our best. We have to. It doesn’t matter to us if there are infinitely wise benevolent powerful beings in some other part of the cosmos if we can’t get at them; we have to do what we can do, and if we don’t, we just make things worse. ‘Faith’ is dangerous, the idea that ‘faith’ is a good is dangerous, and the idea that what looks like pain and suffering is actually beneficial in some deeply hidden secret way is extremely dangerous. Some of the twisted things that philosophers of religion say are not just wrong but – anti-human.


Mar 20th, 2007 2:57 pm | By

You’ll have seen this bit of wisdom before – possibly more than once.

In his conclusion, McGrath spoke of the limitations of science. Issues such as the meaning of life, he said, remain outside the scope of science.

In some senses, yes – but does it follow that religion is inside the scope of science? Is that what we’re meant to conclude? Probably, although the Baptist Press doesn’t say so (it’s not clear whether McGrath did or not). At any rate, let’s ponder what may be meant by that familiar trope.

I think what is meant by it is that science interferes with denial and therefore it interferes with certain ways of deriving meaning. I think that’s probably true – but that’s because reality interferes with certain ways of deriving meaning; science in this context is just a source of information about reality. There are others, which are just as likely to interfere with certain ways of deriving meaning. Life, the passage of time, experience, observation can all do that; can and are quite likely to. That’s how it is. We’re weak mortal entities with short lives who tend to love other weak mortal entities with short lives. That brutal set of facts always does tend to interfere with our efforts to derive meaning; it always does mess up ‘issues such as the meaning of life.’ So I would say that what is meant here is not so much that religion helps us to derive meaning, as that religion helps us to deny intrusive bits of reality that would otherwise smash our derived meanings.

Now, I think that’s true – religion does help us do do that. Religion does, and science doesn’t (mostly). But it’s interesting that that’s not the way apologists for religion usually put the matter. They don’t usually even say that religion helps us to protect some illusions and science doesn’t. I suppose that’s because it would be much like a doctor saying ‘I’ll give you a placebo for that.’ But still – it would be more honest.

Philosophy of religion or theology

Mar 19th, 2007 12:49 pm | By

There are a couple of posts at Talking Philosophy about Dawkins and theology and the former’s lack of interest in the latter. The basic issue is this comment of Dawkins’s in an interview:

Look, somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all. So to me it is like someone saying they don’t believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven’t studied fairy-ology.

Which Talking Philosophy disputes:

So what about this claim? Is it necessary to know a fair bit about fairy-ology to show that belief in fairies is irrational? The answer is that it is certainly arguable that in some circumstances at least it is necessary.

I think it is true that it is necessary to know a fair bit about arguments about God to show that belief in God is irrational; but I’m not sure that means it is necessary to know a fair bit about theology. It has occurred to me that people may be talking about different things in that discussion (it’s a long discussion, with lots of comments). It depends what is meant by theology, perhaps, and what Dawkins understood to be meant by theology when he answered the question.

I’m thinking for instance of that Eagleton review in which Eagleton rebuked Dawkins for ignorance of theology:

Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?…As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

But Eagleton is going back and forth between religion and theology there, and they’re not identical. Grace and hope are interesting subjects, no doubt, but are they arguments for the existence of God? Is Eagleton in fact talking about arguments for the existence of God, or is he talking much much more broadly about just talk about God? And more to the point, what did Dawkins have in mind when he answered that question?

It seems to me at least possible (and in fact likely) that he was distinguishing between philosophy of religion (and arguments for the existence of God) on the one hand, and theology on the other, and taking theology to be discussion of God. If that’s right – I don’t think he does need to know about that in order to show that belief in God is irrational. He needs to know about the arguments for the existence of God, but he doesn’t need to know (I would say) about claims about what God is like (unless they’re part of the arguments for the existence of God). There’s not much point in deep knowledge of claims about what God is like if you see no reason to believe God exists in the first place – is there? In that sense the fairyology simile is a serious comparison, isn’t it?

In short, I don’t think Dawkins was saying he had no need to know about the arguments, but rather that he had no need to know about detailed claims about God’s nature. That seems to me to be a reasonable claim. I could of course be wrong about what he meant though; it’s only a guess.

Simple history

Mar 19th, 2007 12:14 pm | By

History, truth, myths, nationalism, violence, what to teach the children. It comes up a lot, that set of issues.

These days, Irish history lessons are more sophisticated. They deal happily with facts that have no place in a plain tale of heroes and tyrants…Why the change? First because in the 1980s, some people in Ireland became uneasy about the fact that a crude view of their national history was fuelling a conflict in the north of the island. Then came a fall in the influence of the Catholic church, whose authority had rested on a deft fusion between religion and patriotism. Also at work was an even broader shift: a state that was rich, confident and cosmopolitan saw less need to drum simple ideas into its youth, especially if those ideas risked encouraging violence.

A shift from nationalist religio-patriotic simple ideas to something better; excellent; here’s hoping the rest of the world can make the same trip.

In modern Turkey, classrooms have always been seen as a battleground for young hearts. Every day, children start the day by chanting: “I am a Turk, I am honest, I am industrious”…In such a climate, it is inevitable that “history is considered a sensitive matter, to be managed by the state,” says Taner Akcam, a Turkish-born historian, whose frank views on the fate of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 have exposed him to harassment by Turkish nationalists…

And Hrant Dink’s frank views on the fate of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 exposed him to being murdered.

Greece’s Orthodox leaders, like Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, are putting up a harder fight to preserve the nationalist spirit…Meanwhile some Greeks retort that 11 or 12 is too young to go looking for facts. In a web-discussion of the new Greek textbook, one participant thunders: “At university, the goal of historical research is the discovery of truth. But in primary schools history teaching has an entirely different aim—to form historical consciousness and social identity!”

Oh right! Good thinking! The discovery of truth is reserved for people who go to university, and has to be postponed; what the people as a whole must have as children is identity-shaping mythology. Great. That’s been doing great things for Japan and India lately…

A puzzle about theodicy

Mar 18th, 2007 12:42 pm | By

I’m reading an interesting book, The Improbability of God, edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier. A collection of arguments on the subject. There’s a whole section on inductive evil arguments against the existence of God. In one, ‘An Argument from Non-gratuitous Evil’ by Thomas Metcalf, a half-sentence on page 330 started a train of thought: ‘If God exists, all the evil that befalls us is justified…’

The train of thought was about the subject matter of this whole section of the book, which is theodicy in general. It’s one that’s puzzled me for ages, but it took a perhaps slightly new form this time. The traditional idea or definition of ‘God’ is that it is omnipotent omniscient and omnibenevolent (also eternal). But – that’s strange. That’s stranger than we generally notice, it seems to me (unless I’m missing something). The third item doesn’t fit.

It makes sense, within the terms of reference of talking about ‘God’ at all, to define ‘God’ as omnipotent and omniscient. It has to be those in order to create the universe (though I suppose you could substitute veryvery for omni), and it is generally considered to have done that thing. We could think of God as the boss of just one corner of the universe, but theists generally don’t, so that’s a separate subject. Omnipotent and omniscient fit into the usual understandings and definitions; they make sense there; but what is omnibenevolent doing there? One, benevolence is hardly necessary in order to create the universe, and two, what does the universe have to do with benevolence? If you look at the universe and then think someone created it, you have to think of that someone as having a large quantity of power and knowledge; but benevolence? I don’t see why that’s even relevant.

The problem of evil, of course, has to do with reconciling a benevolent or Perfectly Good God with the existence of suffering (aka evil). But there again – why is it assumed that God is Perfectly Good? Or Good at all? Because that’s part of the definition; yes, but why? We can see why power and knowledge are, but I have to say, I have a hard time seeing why goodness is.

Goodness (or benevolence) seems like a different kind of thing – like the perfect island that is actually not perfect if you prefer a different kind of island. Power and knowledge are somewhat objective, universalizable qualities, but goodness isn’t. It is possible to make arguments for objective universalizable human goods, but they are human goods; it is possible to make arguments for extending some of them to all sentient beings on this planet; but that’s still a very local version of good. That’s what the word is – a word that describes what finite contingent mortal sentient beings prefer; it doesn’t describe anything cosmic, or if it does we have no idea how.

This matters because theists reply to atheist arguments from evil that humans can’t know what all possible goods are, and that suffering may be (or just is) necessary in order that other greater goods may exist, and that therefore the existence of horrible pointless (apparently, as far as we can tell pointless) suffering is not a reason to think God does not exist. In other words, ‘God’ is still perfectly good, still omnibenevolent, it’s just that it is those things in ways that are hidden to us but that make our sufferings (our=all sentient beings) justifiable all the same.

Well – it’s perfectly possible to suppose that, of course – but by exactly the same token, it’s also perfectly possible to suppose that, for instance, what ‘God’ means by ‘good’ is the enjoyment derived from watching sentient beings suffer. How the hell do we know? That’s not our definition of good, but the theists’ whole point there is that our definition isn’t the only possible definition and that it’s limited and inadequate. Maybe it is, but why do the theists get to suppose that the real, hidden, secret, theist definition is ‘good’ in any sense at all? Why do they assume that? Why isn’t it at least as likely that the secret hidden reasons that we don’t know about are indifferent or malevolent? If it’s unknown, it’s unknown, and there’s no more reason to assume it’s benevolent and good than there is to assume it’s sadistic and bad, or to assume it has no moral content whatever.

Of the earth earthy

Mar 17th, 2007 12:40 pm | By

I’ve been thinking (on and off) about something slightly puzzling. The people who rebuke militant atheists or Enlightenment fundamentalists or secular dogmatists or deaf scientistic positivists or some other combination of those and similar terms, often murmur something about the importance of religion for art and literature and music. After bumping into one of those murmurs a few days ago, I suddenly noticed a puzzle. It’s this: the one about literature isn’t true. That’s very odd, isn’t it; why isn’t it true?

Of course, there are exceptions; there are some bits of literature that are very goddy; I’m not ignoring Dante and Milton. But – most literature actually isn’t all that goddy – even literature written at times when atheism was a capital crime; even literature written by believers, or at least people who went to church. Literature on the whole seems to be a very, very secular and above all worldly undertaking. That’s very odd, isn’t it?

I’ve noticed this before, actually, but in different contexts and so from different angles. I remember being astonished a couple of decades ago when I first read The Decameron – I was astonished that any medieval book could be so very worldly and so cheerfully lewd. But I should have been more astonished by later people too – I should have wondered about it more.

Think about it. Think about Shakespeare, or Austen, or anyone else you like. They just don’t talk about God and goddy things the way you would think they would if they took the whole thing seriously. Yet Austen, at least, did take it seriously (and Shakespeare may have; no one knows).

Why is that? Why is God tacitly left out? Why is the whole subject mostly bracketed? Why isn’t it central? Why, when they write about human lives and characters and morality and experience, do they mostly talk about all of them in purely human worldly quotidian terms? Why do they have plenty of clergymen and clergymen’s wives and daughters, with so very little searching talk about what the clergymen are actually there for?

I’m really curious about it. I think it’s strange. It’s strange because if the god hypothesis is true, it ought to loom immensely large; if you believe it’s true, it (surely) must loom immensely large in everything you think about life and the world; many producers of literature have believed it’s true; yet they write on the whole as if human life were just what I think it is: human life, period. It’s odd that there isn’t a radical split in poetry and plays and novels written by believers and those written by non-believers – but there isn’t. They ought to inhabit and describe completely different worlds, and yet they don’t. Why is that?

It’s not true of painting, or of music; why is it true of literature?

I have one guess: it’s only a guess. I’ll be interested to know if anyone has others. My guess is that it doesn’t work, and that the reason it doesn’t work is that the God character isn’t around. It’s hidden. We’re supposed to believe it’s there (we’re especially ‘supposed to’ in literature of earlier periods) but we also all know it’s hidden – and because it’s hidden, it’s peculiar and creepy to talk about it – apparently even for believers. That’s interesting. Gravity is hidden too, of course; so are atoms; but it’s not creepy or peculiar to talk about them; but it is creepy and peculiar to talk about God much – much or even at all. I don’t think Austen ever so much as mentions God.

If that’s right, it means that even believers (many, most) don’t really believe God is there in the same natural easy way we all believe in what’s around us. It may even mean that they (or many or some of them) think they do but really don’t.

Strange, isn’t it. Fantasy is fine; magic realism is fine; Harry Potter okay, Wizard of Oz okay, ghosts and witches okay; but God…hmm…not really. Except of course for evangelicals and the Rapture books, but those don’t count, being a recent local product of the Third Great Awakening; the question is why more literature hasn’t been like the Rapture books all along.

Eternal recurrence

Mar 15th, 2007 11:25 am | By

Ah, look, an old friend returns. At that post of Stephen Law’s on Anselm’s proof we talked about the other day. Old friend returns in characteristic form – posting thirty or forty thousand words in each comment, talking about hermeneutics and Gadamer and Hermamer and gadaneutics until the wallpaper starts to peel spontaneously off the walls in very sympathy. He’s also got some new tricks though – mentioning ‘G_d’ a lot, overusing scare quotes or irony quotes beyond all reason, lots of quiet boasting. I wonder if you’ve guessed which friend I mean yet – I wonder if your memories are keen this morning. He used to deposit his book-length comments here often, often; he did it for nearly two years, ignoring nearly all replies in favour of depositing new stand-alone book-length ruminations on hermeneutics and the profundity of it all. I gave him a lot of rope, many chances, abundant opportunities to change; and then I’d had enough, and I banned him. Looking at his new effusions, I have to say, I’m hugging myself with joy that he does not post here any longer, because he can’t. I feel no quiver of regret. I do not miss his little ways. I do not worry that my thinking is the poorer for want of his wisdom.

Shall I give you a taste?

And in Anselm’s world the “problem” of atheism, the non-existence of divinity, was scarcely conceived to “exist”…The upshot here is that Anselm’s “proof” should be regarded in an heuristic and hortatory sense, rather than as logically dispositive…Now I myself am an atheist, though of an indifferentist variety, (noboby gets a leg-up through the profession of their beliefs), and of strongly anti-positivist instincts…But the idea that matters of belief and “faith” can be disposed of, ahistorically and extra-culturally, by technical refinements in logical argumentation just strikes me as silly and beside the point.

Stephen asked him, civilly, to clarify – but ah, he didn’t realize; he didn’t know he was dealing with one who never clarifies, who only ever repeats and amplifies. And so it fell out.

Religious ideas have a “logic” of their own, even if it’s not logical, and if one is going to deal with such matters, one should take account of the complexion of religious ideas and thinking and attempt to understand them as best one can, which does not require regarding them as true. One has to attempt to understand the sources of their compellingness in religious “experience”, such as ideas about suffering, sin, transcendence, redemption, vocation and the like…Religious beliefs are a mixed bag and are not simply cognitive, but contain ethical, expressive, and practical components, as well, but in such a way that they are holistically connected with each other, such that they operate “beneath” the level of the rational differentiation of validities, in terms of which modern forms of rationality and argument function.

And so on, and on, and on – that sample represents only about .1% of the total. It’s funny (and familiar) stuff. But I’m glad it’s being posted somewhere else and not here.

Maybe our friend is bucking for the Templeton prize. Maybe he thinks there’s a good chance that next year they will award it to someone who comments indefatigably and at length on other people’s websites. That seems quite a reasonable hope, doesn’t it? Sure.

If the source is polluted

Mar 14th, 2007 2:49 pm | By

Anthony Grayling on sin and pollution – always very interesting ideas.

Much of the traditional idea of sin persists in our contemporary attitudes to moral failure. We somehow export the idea of a stain, an enduring flaw of character, to the case of people who do not live up to ideals, especially those they themselves proclaim…[I]n a sin culture even the suspicion of hypocrisy in the messenger is enough to harm the message: if the source of the claim is polluted, the claim itself must be questionable…Throughout history earnest moralisers have stood in the way of the good by accepting nothing less than the utmost. Human beings are a mixed alloy: the same person is capable of being good and terribly bad at different times or in different respects.

Yeh. I’m very interested in ideas of purity and stain, sin and pollution – how both compelling and dangerous they can be.

Money for old rope

Mar 14th, 2007 2:35 pm | By

Ah, the Templeton prize. What a treat.

A Canadian philosopher who believes that spirituality is an essential part of the study of philosophy and the social sciences has won the $1.5 million Templeton Prize for advancement and research of spiritual matters.

Okay; first pressing question; what does that mean? What is spirituality? Depending on how it’s defined, either, of course it’s an essential part of the study of philosophy and the social sciences, or what on earth does he mean it’s an essential part of the study of philosophy and the social sciences?

Professor Taylor has written extensively on the sense of self and how it is defined by morals and what one considers good. People operate in the register of spiritual issues, he said, and to separate those from the humanities and social sciences leads to flawed conclusions. “The deafness of many philosophers, social scientists and historians to the spiritual dimension can be remarkable,” Professor Taylor said.

Same thing. Wot’s he mean? Just stuff that’s not rocks and boards and dirt? Then of course people ‘operate in the register of spiritual issues’ (I suppose he means think about and care about, but ‘operate in the register of’ sounds more – Templetonian). Or supernatural? Then some operate in that register (or think they do, or want to, or hope to) and some don’t.

Whatever. Professor Taylor can have his prize, I don’t mind, but I wish people would say what they mean when they talk about spirituality.

Nussbaum interview

Mar 11th, 2007 12:24 pm | By

This interview with Martha Nussbaum is full of interesting stuff.

I find that the US is in a way one of the most difficult places for philosophy to play a public role because the media are so sensationalistic and so anti-intellectual. If I go to most countries in Europe I’ll have a much easier time publishing in a newspaper than I would in the US. The New York Times op-ed page is very dumbed down and I no longer even bother trying to get something published there because they don’t like anything that has a complicated argument.

Undeniable, and depressing, and irritating. This is one reason we have to laugh loudly and scornfully whenever the NY Times tells us (as it regularly solemnly ludicrously does) that it’s the best newspaper or even news organization in the world.

On the other hand there’s a familiar claim that I’ve disputed here before and that I don’t like at all.

I think the political form of liberalism, in which we don’t advocate a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy but rather certain ethical principles for the political realm, is more defensible in a world in which, for example, we have religions that don’t think autonomy is a particularly great good. We don’t show respect for them if we say that only autonomous lives are worthwhile.

I don’t want to show respect for religions that don’t think autonomy is a particularly great good. That’s exactly what I don’t want to do – so I flinch when I see it adduced as a reason for not advocationg a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy, even though I probably wouldn’t advocate such a thing myself anyway (because of the words comprehensive and doctrine, which also make me flinch, which I think is part of Nussbaum’s point, but I still dislike the reason adduced).

Wherever the ideas come from, I think the important thing is now that they do enrich the debate within liberalism and I think they should be defended in a way that’s still recognizably liberal. By that I mean with an emphasis on the idea that each person is the ultimate beneficiary, not large groups of people, not even families, but each person seen as an equal of every other person. And I also think that it’s a hallmark of liberalism that ideas of choice and freedom are really very, very important. Of course I think one has to stress that we don’t have choice if people are just left to their own devices. The state has to act positively to create the conditions for choice.

That’s better. (So a comprehensive doctrine of autonomy is different from ideas of choice and freedom. Okay. I’m not sure I understand why, but maybe that’s because I need to read some more Rawls. Anyway I’m glad we get to think ideas of choice and freedom are important even if we are urged to respect religions that don’t think autonomy is.)

Because English has to defend itself against people who say it’s not a proper academic subject, it’s prone to fads. I think we’re not at the end of the fads, there’ll probably be some other fad that will be again rather annoying and we’ll have to fight against that one. But at present, at least, I think the post-modern one is on the way out. Whether ethics in its serious sense will become central in English departments I am not sure, because I think very few literary scholars have the patience to do the sustained hard philosophical work that’s needed. Whenever they talk about philosophy, with the exception of Wayne Booth, for example, they’ll talk about it in a way that seems to me quite embarrassing and amateurish.

I’ve noticed that. More than once. More than twice. There’s the way they seem to think Derrida invented ideas that have been around for centuries, for example; very cringe-making. (That’s not Derrida’s fault.)

So you can get departments, often very good departments, where people would make fun of a literary inquiry, or think that it was not proper philosophy. In my own department, fortunately, it’s not that way at all. Many people would want, for example, to teach a course on Proust…So I think now it’s a much more open field than it was when I was a graduate student, when you couldn’t even write a dissertation on Aristotle’s views about friendship because people would make fun of you. They would say it was too soft or something.

Funny. Once, many years ago, The Philosophers’ Magazine had a discussion board, which I stumbled into and found interesting and so began to comment on. After I’d been doing that for three or four weeks I started a thread on friendship – and I got roundly pounced on and told that that was not a philosophical subject. I was much suprised to hear it, and wondered to myself about Aristotle and so on.

My primary difference with MacKinnon is that she is reluctant to express any universal norms or ideals…She thinks it’s too dictatorial to announce ahead of time what the norms are. However, in her writings there’s a very obvious normative structure. There are ideas of dignity and equality…But I think she herself is, when you philosophically reconstruct her views. I don’t think you can do it without employing normative notions; to the extent that she does avoid them it just means that her own ideas are underdeveloped and that there’s not enough of a principled structure.

And without the principled structure you find yourself in the muddy shifting quicksand of tolerance and respect and acceptance without any stipulations or definitions or limits, and that’s the end of universal women’s rights or human rights. We need the principled structure.

The ones I don’t think are so very helpful are the post-modernist feminists like Judith Butler whom I have criticized very strongly…And when I see academic feminists saying: well we can write these elegant papers in a jargon which parody the norms, I want to know where the feminist struggle that we had is…And then the Carol Gilligan group: I think their work is not so good and I think it provides a handy rationale for the exploitation of women as caregivers. So I am very critical of those two groups.

Yup, yup, yup. Same here. Apart from the respect for religions part (which I may not understand properly anyway), I like it all.

Keep your dang bulwark

Mar 9th, 2007 12:04 pm | By

You know, bulwarks are useful things when there’s a hurricane, or a flood, or maybe a mob of ravenous aggressive rabbits approaching the town; but other times, not so much. There are some bulwarks we don’t much want, some bulwarks we’d rather not have, thanks. Take your bulwark and go away. This one for instance.

Why has the church taken a stand on [the issue of gay adoptions] when it barely protested against the introduction of civil partnerships last year? Is this largely a symbolic issue, a stand-in for a much deeper debate about the relationship between faith and the state? Does the church see itself as the last bulwark against an encroaching tide of liberalism?

Maybe so, and if it does, it needs to go away and repent. It needs to go far far far away, like into the metaphysical possible world where ‘God’ necessarily exists and no one else does, and hang its mitred head and repent. Or if it can’t repent, it just needs to go far far away and leave us alone. We don’t want any damn bulwarks against encroaching tides of liberalism, thanks. That is the very last thing on earth we want – the BBC put that very neatly. No thank you. No churchy bulwarks against encroaching tides of liberalism, but on the contrary, an encroaching tide of liberalism that sweeps all before it. Liberalism good, anti-liberalism bad. Tide good, bulwark bad. Liberalism in this context clearly means general liberty from taboos and exclusions and punishments, from oppression and deprivation and subordination that have no rational basis, and that is a good thing and opposition to it is a bad thing. Hey hey, ho ho, churchy bulwark gotta go.

What’s a perfect island? forest? garden?

Mar 8th, 2007 10:32 am | By

Stephen Law discusses the ontological argument.

Anselm’s argument simple and elegant. He begins by characterizing God as a being greater than which cannot be conceived. That God, if he exists, is such a being seems clear. If you conceive of a being, yet can also conceive of a still greater being, then the being you first thought of cannot be God. Armed with this concept of God, we can now argue for God’s existence as follows. We can at least conceive of such a being. That there exists a being greater than which cannot be conceived is at least a hypothesis we can entertain. But, adds Anselm, as it is greater to exist in reality than merely in our imagination, this being must really exist. After all, if he did not exist, then he would not be as great a being as we can conceive.

Stephen notes that few philosophers find the argument cogent or convincing, but also that there is no consensus about what’s wrong with it. I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but what I wonder is, why anyone ever found it convincing. It has that grandiosity problem I mentioned (that is, it seems to me to have that problem). It just seems like silly magic – as if merely thinking the words ‘perfect’ and ‘exists’ could make something exist. It doesn’t matter what we can conceive and what we decide must be true – we can’t make anything exist by the power of thought (except thoughts, which don’t count, because I’m a reductionist materialist, and a heathen).

I have a different (though related) problem with Gaunilo’s objection.

Here’s Gaunilo’s argument. Can we not conceive of a perfect island – an island perfect in every conceivable way, from the purity of its streams to the sublime contours of its landscape? It seems we can. But if we can conceive of such an island, and it is greater to exist in reality than in imagination, then the island we are conceiving of must exist. If it didn’t exist, it would not be perfect in every way. On the seemingly safe assumption that there is no such island, it seems we have no choice but to accept that there is something wrong with the argument that appears to establish that there is.

Simon Blackburn’s version of that is Dreamboat – the perfect lover. Anyway, about the island – does it make sense to say that an island can be perfect in every conceivable way, from the purity of its streams to the sublime contours of its landscape? Are pure streams and sublime contours examples of perfection? They don’t seem so to me. They seem more like examples of very very good or extremely nice or ravishingly beautiful if you happen to like that kind of thing – but that’s not the same thing as perfect. What’s a perfect apple? Or a perfect brownie? Or a perfect sweater? Or a perfect book? Depends, doesn’t it; depends what you like. It’s a value judgment; it’s moral or aesthetic or both; it’s relative at least to humans and often to individuals; ‘perfect’ doesn’t come into it. So that’s a further element in the puzzle. It puzzles me anyway.

Nicht verstehen

Mar 8th, 2007 10:06 am | By

Right, Plantinga on Dawkins. There is one bit that’s quite funny, but there’s another that I can’t understand. It’s familiar, and I never understand it. It just seems childish, in a literal way: childishly grandiose; and that can’t be right, so I must not understand it. Help me out here.

So why think God must be improbable? According to classical theism, God is a necessary being; it is not so much as possible that there should be no such person as God; he exists in all possible worlds. But if God is a necessary being, if he exists in all possible worlds, then the probability that he exists, of course, is 1, and the probability that he does not exist is 0. Far from its being improbable that he exists, his existence is maximally probable. So if Dawkins proposes that God’s existence is improbable, he owes us an argument for the conclusion that there is no necessary being with the attributes of God—an argument that doesn’t just start from the premise that materialism is true. Neither he nor anyone else has provided even a decent argument along these lines; Dawkins doesn’t even seem to be aware that he needs an argument of that sort.

I just don’t begin to understand that. I don’t understand the ‘So’ that begins the fifth sentence. So? So? Coming after ‘his existence is maximally probable’? When the whole chain started with ‘According to classical theism’? And then said a lot of things that (as far as I can tell) are to do with logic but make nothing happen. Why does the fact that ‘God’ is X according to classical theism mean that anything else follows for people who don’t adhere to classical theism in the first place? I could understand why something would follow if the phrase went ‘according to geology’ or physics or molecular biology and then were followed by a claim about rocks or quarks or DNA that included the word ‘is’ – but classical theism? No. And then there’s that ‘if’. If God is a necessary being, then…then how do we get to So? We start from a claim from a supernaturalist field, we go on to an if, and we end up at a bizarre certainty that Dawkins owes us an explanation. I do not understand that passage. It looks nonsensical to me, and that can’t be right.


Mar 8th, 2007 8:55 am | By

Peter Tatchell wants to know.

Why is much of the left and the liberal media ignoring the struggle for democracy and women’s rights in Iran?…Sunday’s demonstration was the latest in a series. It was called in solidarity with five women activists who are on trial after they staged a peaceful rally last June against Islamic laws that discriminate against women – in particular the sexist laws on polygamy and child custody. The five activists in the dock are Nusheen Ahmadi Khorasani, Parvin Ardalan, Sussan Tahmasebi, Shahla Entesari and Fariba Davoodi Mohajer. For holding a peaceful protest, they are charged with endangering national security, propaganda against the state, and taking part in an illegal gathering…The liberal western media – including The Guardian – has mostly failed to report these women’s protests and their bloody suppression. The left, too, ignores the heroic struggle of the women of Iran. Misogyny and police brutality are not okay in Britain, but apparently acceptable in Tehran. Why the double standards?

Why indeed? Absence of mind? Distance? More pressing concerns? Or something more sinister.

There are several interesting comments there too, worth sorting through the usual CisF deluge. This one for instance –

I work in human rights advocacy and have become appalled at the manner in which elements across the entire spectrum of the left have become hostile to universal human rights. Those who condemn homophobia in Saudi Arabia are silenced, those who speak out for Muslims who convert to Christianity and face prison or death are condemned, those who challenge violently misogynistic laws and practices in Pakistan or Afghanistsan are dismissed. The ethical core of the left is being rotted by moral relativism. It is a woeful and tragic spectacle.

I’m not sure it is exactly moral relativism, at least not in a broad sense. It’s more like geographico-politico relativism, or that combined with a mistaken idea of politeness – it’s not good manners to criticize other countries or cultures – even if segments of those countries are busy campaigning against manifest gross injustice and would love our solidarity and support.

There’s also a fair amount of sinister nonsense (or sinister balls, as they used to call it around the NS) about Maryam Namazie, and ‘the mainstream organisations of British Muslims’ meaning the MCB, and all this does is encourage fascists and racists – in short, sinister balls of the kind that demonstrates exactly the kind of stupidity Tatchell is asking about. Know the enemy.

Don’t forget the women’s rights seminar

Mar 7th, 2007 6:31 pm | By

Also, a reminder: you fortunate people in or near London get to go to a seminar on Women’s Rights, the Veil and Islamic and religious laws tomorrow.

Speakers: Sonja Eggerickx: President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union; Ann Harrison: Researcher, Middle East and North Africa Department of Amnesty International’s International Secretariat; Maryam Namazie: frequent contributor to B&W and 2005 National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year Award Winner; Taslima Nasrin: Physician, writer, radical feminist, human rights activist and secular humanist. Co-sponsored by the International Campaign in Defense of Women’s Right in Iran- UK, the National Secular Society and the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association. Free. University of London Union
Room 3D, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HY. 6 to 10 p.m. I’d go in a heartbeat if I were in London.

The Secular Islam Summit

Mar 7th, 2007 6:01 pm | By

Check out the Secular Islam summit blog. Check out the St Petersburg Declaration.

We are secular Muslims, and secular persons of Muslim societies. We are believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.

…We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights.

…We call on the governments of the world to

reject Sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule, and state-sanctioned religion in all their forms; oppose all penalties for blasphemy and apostacy, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights;

eliminate practices, such as female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling, and forced marriage, that further the oppression of women

Read it all. Excellent stuff. Shoulders to the wheel, all; support these people; spread the word.

Either it’s an unknown, or it’s implausible

Mar 6th, 2007 3:49 pm | By

There are two choices, it sees to me. Either ‘God’ is the god of religion, of churches and mosques, that gives rules and answers prayers – in which case it’s part of nature and history; or it’s something else, which we can’t comprehend.

Either it’s the first, which is like a giant cop, or a combination cop and nurse, or it’s the second, which is [ ? ]. The first is not reasonable to believe in, because a god like that would (or should) provide unmistakable evidence of its existence and its wishes (because what in hell is the point of keeping it a secret?). The second is perfectly reasonable to believe in – but is it reasonable to call that ‘God’?

The combination of the two makes no sense at all. An unknown that tells us what to do, a mystery that we’re supposed to worship in specific terms, a question mark that loves us – it’s an incoherent jumble. Yet it’s the usual idea of ‘God’ – half parental half concealed; half judge half Cloud of Unknowing. It might as well be half Bactrian camel half peanut butter.

If it’s simply (or complicatedly) what we don’t know, or causes that we don’t know about, and the like, who would object? Who would disbelieve in the existence of such things or concepts, or think it not reasonable to believe in them? But why on earth call that ‘God’? Is it because its fans are desperate to retain a person god? But that’s not reasonable either; not for theological reasons, but for biological ones. We know now what humans are, and how we got to be what we are. Do we really think ‘God’ (or Betsy, as we might as well call it) is like that? But if human nature and human abilities are a product of natural selection, how could Betsy’s nature and abilities be similar? So the ‘person’ thing seems pretty untenable, no matter what you do.

Before 1859, it must have been different. It must have been (seemed) self-evident that humans were mysteriously special and strange and interesting, unlike other animals and very unlike trees and rocks. All explanations were unsatisfactory, and a person-like god making us as miniatures of itself could have been the least unsatisfactory. That’s not unreasonable. But once the peculiarity of humans no longer seems so peculiar, a person-like god becomes less necessary and less explanatory. In fact it raises questions rather than explaining. (Does it have an appendix? Does it have a small intestine? Why?) A person-like god now seems not like a spiritual version of ourselves but like an inexplicable giant ape. Why would there be a god like that? Okay it has no body (but then we’re getting into unknowable territory, which is the other choice, but never mind for now), but it has a person-like mind of some sort. But – our minds are human minds. They’re not Pure Minds, they’re not examples of What Mind Should Be; they’re human minds. A person-like god seems like a not very reasonable belief – it has to be person-like and yet completely different in every way that matters. Well then we’re just back to Incomprehensible again, in which case we’re back to Nobody Knows again, which means we’re back to Why call it God again.

One of the ironies in all this is that theists are so seldom expected to define their god – just invoking the name is supposed to be adequate – it’s supposed to be self-evident who and what it is. Theists and some agnostics claim that atheists have too much certainty, but belief in a shifting inscrutable but bossy demanding god is – at the very least dangerous. Believers don’t always use their god to bully and oppress, but the risk is always there – it’s well adapted for such a purpose. I would argue that atheists are not wrong to be pretty certain that, at a minimum, it is dangerous to believe in elusive mysterious inscrutable gods who impose strong laws and punishments on human beings.

Because there is no appeal. No accountability, no chance to revise, discuss, re-think. There are no defense lawyers, no appellate courts. And in fact no present god, either, but only human intermediaries. Why should we – and how can we? – be so sure they have it right?

Mark Vernon adds this in a comment on Stephen’s post on the mystery move:

Both the atheist and the theist will do away with false gods, and false theories, as they ponder the mystery. But whereas the atheist will conclude there is no god, and the universe is pure, if delightful, chance. The theist will conclude that the universe is pure gift – as articulated by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The difference between believing the universe is chance and gift strikes me as a very great one.

Yes, it’s a big difference, but on the other hand ‘chance’ might not be quite the right word (brute fact might be better); and as Stephen points out, ‘gift’ has some problems too. And in any case, it always makes a big difference how one thinks of things, but that fact doesn’t change reality. It makes a difference whether we think various natural forces caused it to rain today, or that our dearest friend made it rain today; but that doesn’t determine what caused it to rain today, so pointing out the difference between the two ideas is beside the point if the dispute is over whether or not ‘god’ exists, or whether it’s reasonable to think so.