Friday, September 23, 2016

Sorry, Your Philosophy is Not Science or Fact and Neither is Mine--One of Them May be True However

Before we get to the matter of our metaphysical frameworks/narratives not being “science” or “fact” let’s start here and here where we are told our brains are not computers and that the mind will remain a mystery to science.  And, I agree with both.  As in my previous post, so much is about “seeing” and perceiving (reading) and how we see and understand is always constrained to an extent by the metaphors we choose to be the prisms, through which we see.  These can either hinder or open up what it is possible for us to “see”.  The philosophical narrative frameworks we all inhabit consist of metaphors that shape the way we “see” and “perceive” reality—in fact, help us see what is “real”.  If we are aware of this, great.  If not, then we tend towards the fundamentalist sensibility, which assumes there is a one-to-one correlation between facts (information) and our conclusions regarding those facts as if any meaning was plain, literal, or obvious (which is how fundamentalists read their sacred writings).  The fundamentalist sensibility is to think there is no interpretive nature to their “reading” of reality, to the use of metaphor; they actually think there is a straight line between their “reading” (whether sacred writings or empirical scientific information) and their pronouncements regarding meaning, even the assertion there is none, or the assertion we cannot know if there is any.

In the first link, the writer notes the inherent problems associated with thinking or “seeing” our brains as computers.  And, of course, given the ubiquitous nature of computers and their deep relation to our lives, it is a ready-made and easily grasped metaphor.  It is very easy to think our brains are like computers.  But, they are not.  The writer tells us:

“But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not...

Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will.”

There is something about consciousness that doesn’t seem to change, that doesn’t develop like our physical bodies do.  Instead, it seems we simply become more aware as our physical bodies develop.  Our minds open up so to speak (or, unfortunately, sometimes not!) as we interact and experience other people and our world in general.  But it is not as if our consciousness is like something that starts empty and fills up with information.  It is more like our consciousness is already full (perhaps as large as the universe, or existence itself, perhaps even eternity) but our experiences and interactions are small.  How interesting though that what our minds can conceive and produce (computers/software) we then imagine is what we ourselves are doing too when we think and use our brains, the key word here being “imagine”.

I would like to believe that any reflective soul of even a slight rationality, of some experience of life, of some education, knows they are nothing at all like a computer.  We get anxious, we fear, we love, we cry, we get angry, we desire, we often are confused, we don’t make sense, we do make sense, we are contrary, we hope, we experience joy, sadness, and grief.  We are nostalgic and melancholy.  We are capable of great acts of sacrifice and kindness toward others and also of great cruelty.  We build orphanages, but also death camps.  We communicate silently with each other in a glance, nod, or tip of the head.  We speak (which is itself a mystery) and sing songs; we write great pieces of literature, poems, and music.  We laugh, we make jokes, and we use satire.  We are capable of recognizing beauty.  We are intuitive.  We can reason.  We can feel ashamed and embarrassed.  We philosophize and theologize.  We grow and change (we hope!).  Our opinions change and not always simply because of new information, but because of experience and our rubbing up against life.  We even become different sorts of people than we were at one time.  We have “conversions”.  We are great mysteries, indeed (See Shakespeare).  There is an infinite difference between us and computers.  The idea our brains/minds are like computers or operate like them, in any way at all is nothing more than magical thinking, a grand superstition, to be generous.

The greater point here is that the metaphor “computer” doesn’t mean we have derived this term from “science” or that science demands we use that metaphor.  It derives from a philosophical view—one that reduces mind to matter, or that sees the mind as the brain and the brain as machine like.    

And that our brains/minds are not like computers leads us to the second link.  Because they are not like any machine, or like anything we can reduce to the purely physical, they will remain a mystery as far as science is concerned.  Our conscious selves remain outside the bounds of science as far as science being able to explain such in purely physical terms, although there will be much science can do (and has done) as far as doing what it does best: Give us information regarding the physical aspects of the brain.      

What is rather amazing about physicist Edward Witten is that while he remains optimistic we will one day know why there is something rather than nothing, and that string theory will turn out to be correct, he doesn’t feel the same about consciousness.  And thinking we will one day know the answers to those other questions, purely through science, is a tall order indeed.  The fact he doesn’t feel the same about consciousness, tells us something about the unique enormity of the problem specific to that question:

“Witten is optimistic about science’s power to solve mysteries, such as why there is something rather than nothing. In a 2014 Q&A with me he said: ‘The modern scientific endeavor has been going on for hundreds of years by now, and we've gotten way farther than our predecessors probably imagined.’ He also reaffirmed his belief that string theory will turn out to be ‘right.’

But in a fascinating video interview with journalist Wim Kayzer, Witten is pessimistic about the prospects for a scientific explanation of consciousness. The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as ‘The Curious Wavefunction,’ wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:

I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness...”(italics added)

Hopefully this becomes a trend that will continue where very intelligent people realize the limits of science (what rational person would even deny this, really?).  Science is wonderful.  Science is extremely helpful.  Science is a necessary tool—a tool we cannot do without.  I am a fan of science and firm supporter.  And I also understand science to be in harmony with faith.  The only ones who do not are those who hold to some sort of scientism/secular fundamentalism—they see faith as a rival to science—as two opposing narratives.  Such is a huge misunderstanding of both science and faith.  Those who see these as rivals are confusing their philosophical naturalism/scientism with “science” (see prior post and comments).  I do not see science as a rival and the great majority of non-fundamentalist Christians (the vast majority of Christians) do not either.  However, regardless, I do think science has its limits and is only one way of “seeing” or “reading” and understanding the world/existence.  It is a very specific and narrow type of seeing/understanding and in that one sphere (materiality), it sees wonderfully.  If we are trying to land on the moon, we consult science not our Bibles.  But the moment we train that narrow focus on other areas of enquiry and thought, other areas of life (such as the topics discussed on this blog), we see its impotence and limitations.  To think that science can comment upon or eventually explain everything to us is to misunderstand the tool one is using, and what it is for—it would be like handing a sledge hammer to someone who was trying to sew a button on their sweater.  It is not that a sledge hammer isn’t a good and proper tool; it’s only that it is limited and in some circumstances not very (or at all) useful or helpful.

Finally, we should note that even though science is limited in its scope and what it can address, even though it holds no monopoly upon knowledge per se, every philosophical framework/narrative should be aware of and take into consideration the findings of science.  I have referenced this link many times in the past and it is a good example of this point in the area of ethics/morality.  Like most neutral academic sources, it asserts that most of the meta-ethical views (Note: philosophical views...not scientific views) are viable as far as the science goes—that there is no conflict or clash with “evolution” or science.  The essay ends with:    

“So all three metaethical views discussed here—expressivism, error theory and moral realism—remain on the table.”

However, only philosophical naturalists (and creationists) believe the science actually proves their philosophical view to be the true or correct one, and the only reason there is even a discussion is because philosophical naturalists believe there is a conflict or clash with science on the part of moral realists.  They are in the minority however.  The Stanford writer addresses a pertinent part of their objection (Italics added and I bold and underline the pertinent portions):

“Proponents of epistemic 'evolutionary debunking arguments' think it should, arguing either that evolutionary considerations support moral skepticism (Joyce 2006, 2013, Forthcoming) or that they at least undermine traditional moral realism by providing a defeater for our moral beliefs if correctness for moral beliefs is construed in a realist fashion as accurate representation of objective or independent moral truths (Street 2006, 2008). (For recent discussion of these arguments, see Copp 2008, Shafer-Landau 2012, Berker 2014, FitzPatrick 2014a,b, among many others.)

On the face of it, the mere fact that natural selection would not have 'designed' our moral faculties to track moral truths accurately (as it plausibly designed our perceptual faculties to track facts about medium sized objects in typical human environments) is not obviously problematic. There are, after all, lots of cases where we seem to be able to grasp genuine truths even though those truths play no role in the story of how our basic mental capacities evolved. We are able to grasp truths of quantum field theory or higher dimensional topology or, for that matter, philosophy (or so we are assuming in even engaging in this debate) even though those truths had nothing to do with why the basic mental capacities underlying these abilities evolved in Pleistocene hominins. Those capacities evolved in response to selection pressures in ancestral hunter-gatherer environments, and we have simply learned how to develop, train and exercise them in cultural contexts to discover truths that go far beyond any that were relevant to the evolution of those underlying capacities. Philosophers who endorse some form of moral realism have typically believed that we've done the same thing in grasping moral truths (see sections 2.4–2.5).”

And what the writer means by “moral truths” are objective truths (as is clear from the reference to moral realism).  Evolution does not pose a problem here.  Nor does physics.  Why?  Because we are able to grasp moral truths including philosophical truths: “... (or so we are assuming in even engaging in this debate)...” thus it would be self-defeating to assert that physics somehow precluded such as it would mean the very argument one was making was precluded or a violation of physics!  Notice this is an argument from logic and philosophical reasoning, apart from the science or any empirical fact or finding.  And no one makes the argument (that I am aware of) that to grasp such truths, brains states are altered somehow or in some fashion.  Who makes that argument?  No one.  How silly.  If brain states are not altered in our ability to grasp philosophical truths, why would they be altered to grasp moral truths—when the very same process is in play?  The fact that anyone could “hear” or think that Christian philosophers or theologians were asserting moral truths were grasped by (divine?) changes in our brain states tells us all we need to know.  Someone is not listening.  Someone is not hearing the other.  They are like Gopnik in the last post.  Moral realists do not make this argument, nor do Christian philosophers or theologians (that I am aware of anyway—if someone can show me who does—I will certainly also object).  And who would ask what the “mechanism” is that allows us to grasp philosophical truths?  How about being human (see Stanford link and quote again), if we want to call that a “mechanism”.  The mechanism is being alive in this world, this existence, and having a human mind.  Such is also what allows us to grasp moral truths.  To ask for something in addition to that, means one doesn’t understand what is being asserted in the Stanford quote or what Christian philosophers or theologians believe about such things in the first place.

Another example, which I’ve taken the time to unpack in the past, is when someone tells us that miracles are inconsistent with or “clash” with science.  What they are really telling us (whether they know it or not, as I think most do this from ignorance) is that miracles are inconsistent with their presupposition the universe is a causally-closed-system, which is a metaphysical view, not an empirical finding from science.  As David Bentley Hart has written:

“The very notion of nature as a closed system entirely sufficient to itself is plainly one that cannot be verified, deductively or empirically, from within the system of nature. It is a metaphysical (which is to say “extra-natural”) conclusion regarding the whole of reality, which neither reason nor experience legitimately warrants.”

The assertion that such a view (a causally closed universe) is philosophical and not scientific, is so commonly known we need look no further than a basic Wikipedia reference.  So they confuse such a belief with “science” and conflate the two.  Unless one already has the faith-based view that God doesn’t exist, he would simply believe that science and natural laws are the best descriptions of how the physical world words, except in those cases when God acts.  Say we set up an experiment for a ball to launch at a certain speed so we could then measure the distance it would travel before falling to earth.  We launch our ball, and a by stander sees the ball headed toward a small child and moves to knock the ball down.  We would not then throw up our arms in defeat and abandon science and a belief in its power to describe and predict the physical world.  How silly. Once we allow for God’s existence, the logic is the very same.  If we accept it for a human agent, we must accept the same logic for God.

As for a view that is not logical, here it is: I believe God may exist, but if such a being did exist and acted upon the physical world it would be a violation of the physical laws or it would clash with what we currently know about physics or some other branch of science.  Such is simply not a logical view; it also normally entails a straw-man view of God, and question-begging (so a triple failing).  If God exists, such cannot violate any physical law by definition.  For God to violate a physical law would mean the physical law was somehow inviolable in and of itself, a stand-alone force, uncreated, unmovable,  impervious to the very being acting upon it who created it, the being from which it exists and has its law-like power.  Again, it would be like suggesting that a person could not act in the ball experiment.  Well, no, if they exist, then yes, they could.  This belief comes from thinking of God as Bigfoot or some other object or force in the universe, rather than the ground of all being, the very thing making the universe possible to begin with including the laws by which it operates.  If one is taking the actual view of the God of Christianity, Aristotle, Moses Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, Mulla Sadra, and even Spinoza then it is logically impossible to assert such.  One cannot make this argument against, as Hart has put it, that which is the:

“...one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things.”

So this argument only works against some straw-man conception of God.  It also begs the question when it asserts this God may exist, but this agent’s acting would violate physics or “clash” with what we currently know about physics/science, as this is the very thing disputed.  Whether or not the clash is with science or a different philosophical framework/narrative is what’s disputed to begin with.  Thus, not only is it not a logical view, it is question-begging and, in almost every case, based upon a straw-man view of God.  All the way around it fails as any sort of logical response.  At least the atheist is being logical knowing that only if we disallow God’s existence can we logically claim a causally closed universe with the ancillary logical implications.  No such implications exist for the agnostic.  Any agnostic out there worried about logic, should look first to this argument as it contains none.  And by the way, it matters little if one does not like or agree with Hart’s definition of God—it is the one that needs to be addressed and not some straw-man view.  And if one doesn’t understand the definition, then one needs to investigate and research it before commenting.

Another straw-man view of God trotted out in this argument is that, well, but if God can just, every now and then, capriciously intervene in the physical world, how can we trust the consistency of physical laws and the scientific method?  Well, because God is not capricious or random or out of control in any imaginable fashion.  God only acts for a reason and a reason always consistent with the nature and character of God as demonstrated in the life of Christ and the Christian narrative.  So this straw-man objection is easily addressed.  Like the agent acting in the ball example—he acted because he saw the ball was going to hit a child—God is not capricious or random.  God is not a mindless tornado or earthquake or some trickster god.

And if one’s only objection is, yes, but it would still mean a miracle would clash with what we presently know about physics and science, one is not listening.  The only thing it would mean is that there would be a clash with philosophical naturalism or the belief in a causally closed universe.  Or, read post again.  And if someone wants to show us how a causally closed universe is a recognized scientific fact, proven, widely accepted, and not a metaphysical belief—please do.  Good luck with that.  If one cannot however, then they need to give up this clear confusion of a metaphysical belief with “science” or “fact”.

Bottom line: the belief God may exist (agnosticism), but that this being acting within creation would violate some physical law or clash with our current view of science is illogical and inconsistent with the premise: “God may exist”.  If God does exist, then logically miracles cannot be a violation of a physical law.  Such would make the physical law greater than God and apart from God in some way that violates the very definition and understanding of “God” as given by Hart or classically understood.  We can only violate a law when we ourselves are under the law—meaning the law has power over us.  God, by definition, is under no such law.  Further, if God does exist, then the universe is not a causally closed system, thus, logically, our view would be that physical laws are not violated and our current view of science remains consistent because such laws operate and predict consistently, except in those cases where God might act.  This is not ad hoc, but a logical conclusion based upon the premise. 

Thus, one cannot have it both ways.  One cannot claim agnosticism, but then assert the world is such that we can know nothing of this being and characterizes this being’s (we can know nothing about!) acting in the world as a violation of some sort.  These philosophical pre-set boundaries, these philosophical presuppositions regarding what this being (if such exists) can and cannot do are metaphysical faith claims, not science.  To claim one is agnostic regarding God’s existence, but then basically assert, for all practical purposes, an atheistic universe is, in my view, not only illogical but disingenuous.  Is one afraid to simply assert he is an atheist?  Is it a pointless hedging of bets?  What exactly is the point of asserting agnosticism but then outlining a (philosophical) view where God may as well not exist, because we could never know if such a being did exist (which is only because of the presuppositions I’ve adopted by faith) and if this being ever acted it would be a problem for science (and not really “science”, but his own world-view/philosophical framework)?  I love it, an agnosticism that keeps all the doors closed (but claims they really shut themselves or that science proves they are closed) just in case there really is something out there!  This may be agnosticism as neurosis or simply fear.  It is certainly not logic.  Further, if one is truly an atheist, or comes to the exact same conclusions they do in these areas, reasons the same way, then stand-up and be counted man. Otherwise, I think one is being disingenuous.

The greater point is that what is discussed here are the philosophical views (not scientific) that articulate what they think the findings of science, whether biological evolution (or physics) mean as to questions of ethics specifically (in the Stanford link), but in other places it could be life after death, consciousness, or other such questions.  What we see here is that the science neither proves nor disproves any of the major philosophical views in these areas—that is not its job—such is outside its pay-grade.  In general however, what we see is that philosophical naturalists confuse their philosophy with “science” or conflate it with “science”.  It is however no more “science” than the creationist’s views are “science” or any other type of fundamentalism.

Does every legitimate and serious philosophical framework/narrative consider the best science in a holistic way as it reasons out and unpacks its conclusions?  Of course.  But there is a huge (understatement!) difference between taking into consideration the best science and mistaking one’s philosophical views for “science”.  Nor does it mean science proves their philosophical conclusions.  When people tell us the “science” proves their philosophical views in matters of God’s existence or non-existence, morality, souls, life-after-death, and all such similar areas, they are just like the fundamentalists who tell us the Bible proves their positions/views too.  What they are really telling us is that their “reading”, their interpretation, is the only authoritative one.  This is the fundamentalist sensibility.  Whether “science” or the Bible, these people need to quit hitting us over the head with either.

Now, it will be interesting to see how this post is “read” and interpreted.  How will it be “heard”?  Remember, there is a huge difference between understanding a person’s view and disagreeing, or not understanding, and asserting things that only confirm the misunderstanding.  We may see in the comment section only the fact a conversation never took place.  If the comment is simply the repeating  of what is addressed in the post without any further point, I will simply respond: See post.  If we end up in an endless loop, so be it.  I would much rather write "see post" than re-write the entire post in the comment section.  In other words, do some work.

PS: I will only respond to comments that include, in quotes, that which they are referring to from the post.  And any general comments must still refer to a general idea or point noted somewhere in the post they can at least refer to.  We are going to discuss this post, not some other point or topic. Thank you.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Great Disconnect

A perennial problem in any exchange or conversation with atheists/agnostics heavily invested in scientism is the complete misunderstanding of the terms and concepts used by Christians specifically, and philosophers in general.  Now, do Christians also misunderstand the terms and concepts used by those who inhabit the narrative of scientism?  Of course.  Do I?  I’m sure I do.  But I would argue it is much more pronounced and there is much less self-awareness on the part of those inhabiting scientism than the other way round (ironically, we may see any comments either confirm this or prove me wrong).  Most Christians outside fundamentalism, who have college degrees, are much more familiar with the terms and concepts of those holding to scientism than those inhabiting that narrative, with similar educational backgrounds, are of Christianity and its understanding of itself.  I want to look at three links that will further unpack my observation of this disparity.

This first is here and it is a short review of David B. Hart’s latest publication, which is a collection of his essays.  Here are some portions that will highlight my point:

“Did Gopnik bother to read what he was writing there? I ask only because it is so colossally silly. If my dog were to utter such words, I should be deeply disappointed in my dog's powers of reasoning. If my salad at lunch were suddenly to deliver itself of such an opinion, my only thought would be ‘What a very stupid salad.’”

The above, it is pointed out, is Hart’s response to the comments Adam Gopnik made regarding something Hart had written.  And here, along with commentary, is what it is Gopnik wrote that prodded Hart to such a response:

“If that seems smug to you [Hart’s comments above regarding Gopnik], you might not dig Hart. His tone here gets at something else that Robinson and Hart share — a hard-earned exasperation with what passes for intelligent discourse about religion. For here is what Gopnik wrote, in The New Yorker of all places, that moved Hart to rebuke his salad: Unbelievers possess ‘a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world.’ Why? Because we know that human beings evolved and ‘that the earth is not the center of the universe’; and because we have no ‘evidence’ of a miracle's ever having taken place.’”

Clearly the above shows how someone like Gopnik simply has no idea on earth what he is talking about.  His comments show a breath-taking ignorance of even elementary philosophy/logical reasoning or Christian beliefs.

The writer goes on:

“The question of how knowing these things — not one of which any religious believer of my acquaintance would deny, by the way — implies a monopoly on scientific knowledge for materialists is, of course, easy to answer: It doesn't.

There are important arguments to make here about ideology, epistemology and background assumptions, but Hart registers a more elementary objection: As ‘Augustine or Philo or Ramanuja (and so on) could have told’ Gopnik,

God is not a natural phenomenon. Is it really so difficult to grasp that the classical concept of God has always occupied a logical space that cannot be approached from the necessarily limited perspective of natural science?

As Stanley Hauerwas put it in a discussion of Thomas Aquinas, ‘if we could have the kind of evidence of God the evidentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist.’

This seems like a cop-out to the acolytes of scientism, because scientism just is the belief, in MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson's definition, that ‘science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.’ Whether or not God exists, expecting science to illuminate the question is a category mistake.”

Normally, to show an even further disconnect, the believer in scientism will reply, “ But, if God isn’t a natural phenomenon, then such does not exist” without even realizing they are begging-the-very-question and simply assuming, by faith, that only that which is natural, that which can be proved empirically, can exist.  Since that is the very point disputed, to simply repeat it over and over is the surest sign one doesn’t understand the conversation.  The bottom line is one cannot have a conversation when one side is this completely ignorant of the other’s meaning and this ignorant of basic errors of logic and category mistakes as noted by the writer.  I frankly do not see that same problem, or rather, see it rise to that level, on the part of Christians as they speak to those atheists/agnostics who repeat comments like Gopnik’s.

Here is the bottom line: The moment we hear an atheist/agnostic, in relation to the question of God’s existence, the truthfulness of Christianity, or similar topic, begin to ask for evidence, for empirical or scientific proof, as if we were speaking of Big Foot or something that would show up on radar, we know the person is simply speaking to a straw-man, who, when that is pointed out, will then just beg the question.  Further, it shows they have no idea what people, whether Christians or philosophers, are actually talking about.  It is a non-starter, a dead end.  No real conversation took place then, no matter how much the atheist/agnostic thought there was an exchange of information.    

The next link is here.  The writer is discussing some reasons why fewer Americans are going to church services.  But this is how the writer begins:

“The standard narrative of American religious decline goes something like this: A few hundred years ago, European and American intellectuals began doubting the validity of God as an explanatory mechanism for natural life. As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking—not just about medicine and mechanics, but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.

Of course, this tale is not just reductive—it’s arguably inaccurate, in that it seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality behind contemporary American belief. For one thing, the U.S. is still overwhelmingly religious, despite years of predictions about religion’s demise. A significant number of people who don’t identify with any particular faith group still say they believe in God, and roughly 40 percent pray daily or weekly. While there have been changes in this kind of private belief and practice, the most significant shift has been in the way people publicly practice their faith: Americans, and particularly young Americans, are less likely to attend services or identify with a religious group than they have at any time in recent memory.

If most people haven’t just logicked their way out of believing in God, what’s behind this shift in public religious practice...”

What’s interesting here is the writer recites the secular conventional wisdom, basically the “Enlightenment” story of the decline of religious belief and practice but then points out its reductive nature and probable inaccuracy on a purely factual level.  Putting that aside, the problem for those who believe in scientism is the complete unawareness, the total non-reflective assertion of the story as if it were a basic fact or “everyone knows that” type of historical reality.  The writer simply notes it, dismisses it, and moves on.  That is where we are presently and I think it a good thing.  Until those who still, in knee-jerk fashion, just believe this story can realize it is only one view, only one story, and not established “fact” they too should be dismissed.  Again, it is a great example of their unawareness, their obliviousness to how their story is seen by many.  It is embarrassing frankly.  Most non-fundamentalist Christians, however, know their own story is not an established “fact” as if it were just as common and known as the earth being round.  Until atheists/agnostics can come to this same realization regarding their scientism and the “Enlightenment” story, there will continue to be a huge barrier in the ability to hear other narratives of either religious decline or its continued relevance.

The final link is here.  He writes:

“What if reality and unreality are not a one or a zero, a true or false affair? What if there are degrees of reality?

Simone Weil, whose religious philosophy weaves Plato with the New Testament and shows a scrupulous concern with the material world, writes in Gravity and Grace, ‘The mind is not forced to believe in the existence of anything…the only organ of contact with existence is acceptance, love. That is why beauty and reality are identical. That is why joy and the sense of reality are identical.’

Her idea is that something, anything—the Bible, the cross, the person slumped over there in the cafĂ© or asleep on that park bench—can become more or less real depending on the degree to which we accept them, how much we are open to loving them. She says, ‘Among human beings, only the existence of those we love is fully recognized.’

I’m beginning to accept the stories and symbols of Christianity without expecting they come out of the gate fully real or believable for me. I continue to harbor doubts about them. I’ve experienced them by turns as sites of wonder and as stories whose literal and historical truth I wonder about.

If God is the ultimate transitional object, occupying an intermediate space between our subjective experience and external, measurable reality, so be it. God is both transitional object and provider of the re-enchanting holding environment we all still need, the one in whom Paul says ‘we live, and move, and have our being.’

To live is to be in transit, moving as we do between fleeting people and moments. One option is to let the Great Big, Very Real Disappearing Act make us seek escape in the deadening pendulum swing from private anxious fantasies to external distractions. (Lest I risk succumbing to the temptation of playing the prophet with perfect vision that I discovered in adolescence, here’s where I confess, and halfheartedly repent of, my current “reality” addiction: Season 12 of “The Bachelorette”).

Another option is to trust that with repeated exposure, the signs and wonders of religion—undeniably tarnished by abuse and neglect—can become less rote, more real. And with its increasing vividness, the imagined world that takes shape inside our brains can draw us more fully out into the world of hurting, in-transit humans, who need as much real presence and attentive holding as we can pass along.”

Does the writer mean he believes in the Christian narrative, even though he knows it’s not really true?  I don't think so; it is more complex than that.  He notes that even though this world takes shape “inside our brains” it becomes “more real”.  How can something be “imagined” and more “real”?  How might we talk about the above?  Fundamentalists can’t quite get their heads around the above, just like many teenagers can’t quite get their heads around the difference between love and sexual urges.  The above is about first accepting something, to be able to really see it.  It’s about loving to be able to perceive.  The above is about beginning to realize that existence is that which always points beyond itself, whether the cross or a person “asleep on a park bench.”  The above is about an orientation to existence, and not a set of beliefs or ideology about existence from a distance.  If we hooked a teenager up to a machine that monitored his heart rate, temperature, and chemical reactions throughout his body, while he was talking to the person he had a crush on, we could just print out the findings and say "this is love", we are seeing love here.  But that is not "seeing" love.  We can't see love that way.  We may have an ideology that love can be reduced to the print-out and think we are seeing love, but that is actually to be blind.

Or perhaps that person is “just” a collection of molecules at rest on a bench in a park—another collection atoms and molecules.  Perhaps it points to nothing.  Perhaps the chemical changes in one’s body when one meets that “significant” other is nothing more than that and the songs, the poems, and the literature that well up, that bleed out, that cry out, and laugh out, in response to those changes (as humanity has produced from time immemorial) is some weird palsy, some form of brain malfunction, pointing to nothing (all that literature, all those songs, and poems) other than chemical reactions and matter-in-motion.  And perhaps the only meaning is that which I assign to it, or not assign, knowing all along, either way, it is meaning made up in my head, based upon nothing that is true outside my head.  Perhaps.

What are we open to?  What are we willing to see?  What if we can only recognize the truth when we love and every “fact” and piece of “evidence” is only true to the extent it is seen and understood from a perspective of love, even though we all see the same facts and evidence.  Now the fundamentalist will read this and shake his head; “nonsense” he will mumble to himself.  “All this talk of ‘love’ and ‘acceptance’ to know what is true.  Good grief.  All I have to do is go out and proceed empirically, scientifically, and I will know what is true.  Love and acceptance have nothing to do with it.  The sun is the same distance from the earth whether I love or accept anything” And with this attitude, therein lies the problem, the disconnect, the complete misunderstanding of what is being talked about, the complete act of talking past the other, of not hearing.

I think non-fundamentalist Christians, for the most part, get what the great majority of atheists/agnostics are saying, whether we agree with them or not, although I’m sure we still have much work to do in that area.  We are certainly nowhere near where we need to be in truly “hearing” the atheist/agnostic.  I'm sure I'm more than guilty in that regard.  The question I pose to the atheist/agnostic is: How close are you to hearing the non-fundamentalist Christian?  I think one has to leave fundamentalism before he can “hear” the other.  That is the journey I have been on for the past decade at least.  I have far to go.  For both secular and religious fundamentalism, that is indeed the only way out of this blindness, this deafness, and the only way to get past the disconnect and the inability to even participate meaningfully in these types of conversations with the "other". 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Roundup

Only funny because it captures an existing mindset and way of thinking that can, without any irony or awareness whatsoever, actually claim such...Indeed...

If only some atheists knew how close they are to the truth...for what is this:

“...But here’s the other thing: Nothing can change the beauty in the moments that we decide to enrich each other’s lives. When the entire universe is completely cold, unimaginably vast, and silently empty trillions of years from now, nothing will change that in one part of it, however small, people felt the beauty of caring about each other. People mattered to each other because they decided to matter to each other...”

But this:

1 Cor 13:
If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing...
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

It goes from bad to worse...

Trump probably won’t even get the Mormon vote...

If you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet on Netflix, you are missing out—a true gem—we loved it.

A nice interview here with Dr. Paul Wallace; he is both an ordained minister and astrophysicist (if the fact he is both bothers you somehow, that might say more about you than it does him or anything else for that matter)...

Certitude indeed is a disaster waiting to happen, whether for the Christian or atheist...

Evolution as another sign pointing beyond itself, like all of creation...

Science as another sign pointing beyond itself, as is possible for all methods and areas of study...

Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday Roundup

A positive take on atheism here...

This looks like an interesting read and will go on my list...

Okay, this is scary...

A good review (also critical) I missed of David Hart’s wonderful book The Experience of God.  A good quote:

“Hart is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but The Experience of God is, as the above suggests, wonderfully ecumenical: he draws with ease on the Upanishads, Sufi poetry, Islamic philosophy, and the Church Fathers to support his thesis that ‘naturalism—the doctrine that there is nothing apart from the physical order, and certainly nothing supernatural—is an incorrigibly incoherent concept, and one that is ultimately indistinguishable from pure magical thinking.’”

I couldn’t agree more.

I love the Onion...

And the Babylon Bee...


Friday, July 29, 2016

On Free Will

My last post generated some very interesting points, questions, and observations from the comment section.  The purpose of that post was not to prove or give a detailed argument for the free-will or libertarian perspective.  Rather, it was to point out the cognitive dissonance that seems to flow (along with other negative results) from the determinist position.  In response, rather than address that point, most wanted to counter or respond with, “But what about the problems with the libertarian perspective?”  Well, I never said there wasn’t any.  It might do people well to at least focus on what their own views entail, whether positive or negative, before they are too quick to worry about the “other” guy’s views.  The rush to “But, what about ‘your’ views...” becomes an easy way out—a way to always avoid any reflection or introspection regarding one’s own views and it does nothing to address the problems raised in the first place with one’s own views—it is diversionary.

Putting that aside, I have done some more thinking about the matter of “free-will”.  One thing I realized is that there is a theological conversation about free-will and a secular philosophical discussion, and at times they intersect and other times not.  And of course, this conversation goes back centuries.  It is not going to be settled here, that is for sure.

As to the philosophical conversation, I will note shortly several sources that attempt to address the issues raised by Bernard and JP as to the “randomness” or “luck” problem.  I doubt these papers will change any minds here, but along with the many other resources and people I noted previously, these sources also tell us the suggestion that libertarians ignore or do not address this “problem” is just false.  And if none of these attempts to address these issues can suffice in any fashion or fail to satisfy the determinist’s questions or points, there is not much I can do about that.  Anyway, a simple Google search will remove any imagined idea these issues are ignored or left unaddressed by libertarians.

The randomness problem is stated by JP thus:

“The question is rather: why would P choose differently in worlds A and B?

The worlds are absolutely identical and, in particular, P is exactly the same in both worlds, in beliefs, desires, mindset, anything you can imagine. Please note that I'm not assuming anything about physics and determinism.

Therefore the difference in choice cannot be explained by anything in the world or anything that is part of P's nature. Because, obviously, any explanation valid in world A would also, by necessity, be valid in world B.

One possibility is that some random event occurs - an event occurring without a cause and for which there is no reason. What else is there?

You say "P just chooses differently". But what does that mean? It's a choice that is based on nothing at all, a choice without any reason or cause. How is that different from a random choice?”

The assumption seems to be that if the prior criteria are identical leading up to a choice or act for two people, then these two must choose or act the same.  Otherwise, why the difference?  Why doesn’t identical prior sequence equal same outcome?  Why doesn’t cause and effect lead to the same choice or action (omission) each time?  Well, my first thought is because we are not machines.  Prior identical beliefs (or name any identical category) for two humans does not mean they will both make the same choice or decision every single time.  Why would it unless we already assumed determinism?  It begs the very question of whether or not we can do otherwise regardless what any prior category/chain of events is present or not.  Notice that JP tells us he is assuming nothing about determinism or physics but then proceeds to set up his identical worlds based entirely upon the premise that everything “before” “leading up to” “prior” “in the past” is identical.  Well, why would that even be important unless one already thought that everything prior must determine that which follows?  Isn’t that determinism?

O’Connor addresses the issue here:

“The ‘luck’ objection invites us to contemplate, not intra-world identical undetermined choice situations obtained via rollback (a metaphysically dubious notion, it should be said), but inter-world cases. We imagine Alice and a counterpart Alicia in an identical world up to the moment of choice, such that Alice tells the truth and Alicia lies, and again we tell the story in a manner consistent with the agent causal story. If the bravely truth-telling Alice is commended, and the deceiving Alicia goes on to be exposed and suffers a negative consequence, isn’t Alice just lucky? After all, there was nothing whatsoever about her right up to the moment of the choice that distinguished here from Alicia, and so nothing about her that made the difference. Each had the same propensity to lie and to tell the truth. The conclusion drawn is that neither agent controlled the way their respective cases unfolded in such a way that it was up to her that she told the truth (lied). (For a statement of this argument, see Haji 2004.)

The agent causationist contends that both these objections fail to take seriously the concept of agent causation [which is to beg the question--to assume determinism]. It is conceived as a primitive form of control over just such undetermined, single-case outcomes. The agent’s control is exercised not through the efficacy of prior states of the agent (as on causal theories of action), but in the action itself. Alice’s causing her intention to tell the truth is itself an exercise of control. And since, ex hypothesi, it is quite literally the agent herself generating the outcome, it is hard to see how the posited form of control could possibly be improved upon.   So wherein lies the luck? (For such a response, see Pereboom 2005, Clarke 2005, and O’Connor 2007)”

And we also see the supposed problem addressed here:

“(1) Suppose that at time t, an agent S makes a (directly) free decision to A.
(2)   If an agent S freely decides at time t to A, he could have freely performed some                        alternative act at t.
(3)   Hence, S could have freely performed some alternative act at t. (By 1 and 2)
(4)   If S could have freely performed some alternative act at t, then there is a possible                       world W which shares its laws of nature and its past up until (and not including) t with                        the real world, in which S freely acts otherwise at t. 
(5)   There is a possible world W which shares its laws of nature and its past up until (and not including) t with the real world, in which S freely acts otherwise at t. (By 3, 4)
(6)  The difference in S's behavior at t between the two worlds – that in the real world, S          decides at t to A, whereas in W, S acts otherwise at t – cannot be explained in terms of what happens in those worlds before t.

Mele calls this difference between the actual world and W, "the cross-world difference                between the two worlds with regard to how S acts at t". (Ibid: 54)

(7)   If the cross-world difference between W and the actual world with regard to how                        S acts at t cannot be explained in terms of what happens in both these worlds before t, then that difference is just a matter of luck.
(8)   The cross-world difference between W and the actual world with regard to the         decision S makes at t is just a matter of luck. (By 6, 7)
(9)   Luck entails lack of control.
(10)   S lacks control over the decision he makes at t in W, which means that in W, he does not act freely at t.
(11)   S could not have freely performed some alternative act at t. (By 4,10)
(12)   But the conjunction of (1) and (11) contradicts (2). Since we obtained a result that contradicts LF', the conclusion we are expected to draw from it is that LF' needs to be rejected.12/13”

What is the response?

“However, an L-libertarian would object to this way of completing the argument against his position. He would point out that the joint assumption of (7) and (9) commits one to assuming a conceptual link between lack of explanation and lack of control; and as Mele offers no argument for this assumption, the L-libertarian would argue that he has no good reason to accept it.  Furthermore, there seem to be counterexamples to it. Consider a situation in which S is torn between his desire to steal an expensive necklace he sees in a jewelry store, and his desire, for moral reasons, to refrain from stealing it. Ultimately, S decides to steal the necklace, and steals it. Assume further that it was within S's power, in the L-libertarian sense, to refrain from the decision he made, that is, that there is a possible world W, indistinguishable from the actual world up until t, in which S decides not to steal the necklace at t. In this situation, there is a cross-world difference that lacks an explanation. And yet, intuitively it is not the case that S was lacking control over the decision he made. After all, the decision did not seem to him as something that occurred to him out of the blue. Rather, he experienced the decision as something he made, something he made deliberately, and made in the belief that it was within his power to decide otherwise. Mele, the L-libertarian might claim, has not given him a good reason to think that belief is false.”

What both papers are asserting is that lack of explanation doesn’t equate to lack of control.  Additionally, what each tells us is that, as to our decisions, actions, or omissions, prior states can only be one factor and not the “determining” one.  Why? Because “The agent’s control is exercised not through the efficacy of prior states of the agent (as on causal theories of action), but in the action itself. Alice’s causing her intention to tell the truth is itself an exercise of control.”

What the identical world’s hypothetical assumes is the efficacy of prior states.  Why else note it?  Why else would one set the supposed problem up this way?  It begs the very question as it only becomes a problem when one assumes the “efficacy of prior states”.  If the efficacy is, rather, in the action itself, regardless of prior states (although a factor), then we can see two people with identical prior states making different decisions or acting differently.

Now, I don’t believe for a second that the above responses to the luck/randomness “problem” will suffice for JP, Bernard, or Burk.  But, again, let’s get over this idea that this supposed problem is ignored or not addressed in the literature.  I’ve only noted two sources here for brevity, but there are many, many more.  Further, this supposed problem does not concern me in the least—at all.  I think it only exists or becomes a problem if one assumes the sole efficacy of prior states, which, it seems to me, is to just assume determinism.  It assumes there is no free agent that can act otherwise than what the prior states determine must happen.

Most importantly, this supposed problem pales in comparison to a view that leaves us without any true or real moral responsibility (only legal), is fatalistic, and clearly could have negative (to be generous!) consequences culturally if actually believed and acted upon.  To raise the randomness issue as a concern in comparison would be like a person who has just been arrested for burning a forest down, telling the arresting officer who is lighting a cigarette to be careful with those matches.  Seriously?  To be completely honest—I can’t even take this supposed “problem” seriously.  It is a speck compared to the log of problems associated with materialistic determinism.  Anyone might want to focus there first—just saying.

So, moving on—let’s look at this from another angle.

The more I thought about this issue of free-will the more I realized I needed to address the issue from the theological discussion or perspective.  The secular philosophical conversation seems to leave us with dead ends or the attempt to show how the supposed dead ends actually lead somewhere.  As a Christian, while I can evaluate and understand the issue from many different perspectives, at the end of the day, I have to try and unpack this from my own narrative/perspective—the one I think makes the most sense of us as humans and of this world.

To do so I will use perhaps an unlikely source and one not even meant to really address free-will per se other than in a derivative manner.  The paper I will use as a way to discuss my own perspective is here.  Many are probably not familiar with David B. Hart but he is an American Eastern Orthodox theologian/philosopher.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with anything Dr. Hart writes or says, he is a very formidable voice and quite brilliant.  I don’t think anyone disputes that description, regardless any other views they may hold of him.

So, are we “free” and what does it mean to be “free”?  Hart I think gives us a sketch of an answer here:

“In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness.”

To articulate any sort of understanding of free will, we must do so with a view toward our end (not the beginning), which is the creation completed or realized.  My view of free-will is shaped by the fact I view humans as created beings and not simply purely material accidents of existence.  Further, as created, they have a teleology—a purpose.  There is an end to which they were created, to which they are bent. 

“For, as the transcendent Good beyond all beings, he is the transcendental end of any action of any rational nature; and then, obviously, the end toward which God acts must be his own goodness: he who is the beginning and end of all things. And this eternal teleology, viewed from the vantage of history, is a cosmic eschatology. As an eternal act, creation’s term is the divine nature; within the orientation of time, its term is a “final judgment.” No matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes, two things are certain. First, as God’s act of creation is free, constrained by neither necessity nor ignorance, all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. And, second, precisely because God in himself is absolute, “absolved” of every pathos of the contingent, his moral “venture” in creating is infinite. For all causes are logically reducible to their first cause; this is no more than a logical truism, and it does not matter whether one construes the relation between primary and secondary causality as one of total determinism or utter indeterminacy, for in either case all “consequents” are—either as actualities or merely as possibilities—contingent upon their primordial “antecedent,” apart from which [they] could not exist. Moreover, the rationale—the definition—of a first cause is the final cause that prompts it; and so if that first cause is an infinitely free act emerging from an infinite wisdom, all those consequents are intentionally entailed—again, either as actualities or as possibilities—within that first act; and so the final end to which that act tends is its whole moral truth.”

Now, the above does seem to me to be a sort of determinism, but it is one completely different than that of a purely material, law-like, mathematical, cause-and-effect determinism.  It is the idea that all creation tends toward its end and how could it tend otherwise, given its created nature?

Now, here is another aspect to free-will Hart brings up and it seems to go to JP’s point about randomness:

“It might not do, if one could construct a metaphysics or phenomenology of the will’s liberty that was purely voluntarist, purely spontaneous; though, even then, one would have to explain how an absolutely libertarian act, obedient to no ultimate prior rationale whatsoever, would be distinguishable from sheer chance, or a mindless organic or mechanical impulse, and so any more “free” than an earthquake or embolism.”

So here he addresses the objection of “sheer chance” and notes that a Christian view of free-will is not one of a “purely voluntarist” or “spontaneous” sort of freedom.  Rather, we should see free-will as:

“...a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it. It makes no more sense to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender respect for her moral autonomy.”

One aspect we need to clarify is one of the gravity of choice or action.  Whether one is a determinist or libertarian, we are normally not concerned with trivial choices or actions.  Why did I turn right on this road, when I normally turn left?  Why did I decide to eat melon for breakfast instead of my usual oatmeal?  As to our trivial decisions, actions, and choices, both the determinist and libertarian, regardless their abstract beliefs about such matters, would probably respond: “I don’t know why I did that.  I just did.”  As noted in the second paper, lacking a reason doesn’t equal a lack of control.  Because I cannot give a reason for my actions doesn’t mean I can’t control my actions or choices.  My first person experience is such that I know I could have done otherwise, even if I can’t articulate a reason for my trivial choice or action.  Its very triviality, non-importance, lends itself to forgetting, to not even trying to formulate a reason.  In fact, to do so, would be odd.  Our minds and lives move too quickly for a reason to even present itself in such cases.  Again, does this mean I have no control?  Of course not.  One (no articulable reason) does not lead of necessity to the other (lack of control).  That simply does not logically follow.  

When it comes to choices and actions of some gravity however, most rational persons have reasons.  And I would agree with Hart that decisions and actions of any gravity are born out of this dynamic:

“No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.”

Or, as he puts it here:

“...For Maximus, the natural will is free because it tends inexorably towards God, and the gnomic will is free precisely to the degree that it comes into harmony with the natural will. And so on. Since, after all, all employments of the will are teleological–necessarily intentionally directed towards an end, either clearly or obscurely known by the intellect–and since the Good is the final cause of all movements of the will, no choice of evil can be free in a meaningful sense. For evil is not an end, and so can be chosen under the delusion that it is in some sense a good in respect of the soul (even if, in moral terms, one is aware that one is choosing what is conventionally regarded as ‘evil’); and no choice made in ignorance can be a free choice.”

Now, it appears that whether a trivial decision (turning left here when 99% of the time I turn right) or one of gravity (telling the truth or not), he notes that “all employments of the will are teleological–necessarily intentionally directed towards an end...”  However, some of those decisions and the reasoning behind them are “clearly” known and some are “obscurely” known and I would add that some are not really known at all, or in any sort of way we can always articulate.  Thus, one could argue from this perspective that there is freedom (understood correctly) but no randomness or luck, because all such movements are, ultimately, teleological.

Is this a sort of determinism?  It depends upon what we think such entails.  Does it mean we are not free?  Well, again, we are free only in the sense we can see and understand the good.  The truth does indeed set us free.  An ignorant person, or a slave, is not truly free, even though their first person experience is such that they are, within the bounds of their ignorance and slavery.    We are free within the bounds of creation understood as a good creation brought into existence by a good creator, with a good end in mind.  A poor analogy might be a jet airliner.  We are free to get up and move around the jet, eat what we like, read, sleep, and choose a host of other actions, entirely as free agents, undetermined, but there are boundaries we cannot change or cross as to its trajectory or its very form or walls.  If we were to imagine existence this way, we might say we are indeed free within the bounds of time, but may not realize that freedom in its true form until temporal time is no more and we are in the eternal “now” so to speak (or eternity).  This is, of course, saying that all things will be redeemed eventually.  Within the Christian tradition, this is disputed, but I agree with Dr. Hart and other universalists in that regard.

And again, if this is a type of determinism, it is not the mindless, impersonal, accidental, without any meaning, purely random type of determinism believed to be the case by materialists/physicalists.  Rather, it is a determinism (for lack of a better word) of love; one that has a teleology.  How then are we free?  The best way I can see this is to give an example from one of the best known stories in the Gospels, the Prodigal Son.  In temporal time, in this life, we can reject this love but we always do so (like the prodigal) out of ignorance.  If not in this life, then in eternity, once all ignorance is removed, once we “see” and understand that which calls forth and “awakens” all desire, once we feel and understand a love incomprehensible, our will is then truly free and we will use that freedom as noted in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 15:

17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

The Judeo-Christian narrative is that creation is broken, but good.  All of creation is in the process of coming to its “senses”.  All of creation will one day get up and return to its father.  This can be the only result of a true freedom, wherein we know as we are known and we are no longer slaves to ourselves and any remaining brokenness.  Is this an “efficacy of prior states”?  I don’t think so.  Rather, it is an efficacy of the end of all things; it is efficacious only in the sense of eternity and only in the sense of coming to that which is our end.  That which is prior is only efficacious because of its end.  Before that end happens or we come to it, we are free in the same sense as the prodigal or even the son who remains at home who was also “free” to leave.  The son, who remained home, remained in ignorance and in the narrative did not “come to his senses”—but was resentful and bitter.  So who was free in the narrative?  We all are on a spectrum of being “free” in this sense, in the same sense as the two sons.

Now, I doubt my unpacking here will suffice for JP, Bernard, or Burk.  Perhaps even Ron may find areas of disagreement.  My thoughts here are tentative and not concrete.  If we take both the secular conversation and the religious, it would appear I am a weird sort of compatibilist; however, it is entirely unlike the secular version which assumes  a meaningless determinism (by faith) but can’t live with its consequences and simply has to try and make room for the 1st person experience.  I believe we are free agents, with real/true moral responsibility.  I also believe there is a trajectory to creation in which all things will be redeemed in eternity.  Perhaps these two beliefs contradict.  I don’t believe they do, but I could certainly be wrong.  I am thinking out loud here, but there you have it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Levity

I love the Babylon Bee...here and here...

Friday, June 24, 2016

“But, I live as if it weren’t true...”

I think one of the most, if not the most, significant indicator that one’s world-view (narrative, story, faith, which includes philosophical naturalism, scientism, empiricism, etc.) is false, unhealthy, or extremely weak is if it ever leads one to say something along the lines of “I believe such-and-such is true, but I don’t, or can’t, live my life as if it were true.”  I can’t imagine a more powerful inducement to cognitive dissonance as such a statement or sentiment.  My first thought is: If something is true, accurate, the way the world is, but we have to live as if such isn’t really the case, then in many ways, we are living a lie.  This almost seems a type of philosophical schizophrenia.  Whatever it is that one believes, he should be able to say, “My life doesn’t always reflect my beliefs, but I try to live so that they do and I am aware of it when they don’t; and I desire my life to align or correspond with my beliefs, because I think what I believe is true.”

I just finished a series of posts on the justified use of violence and how we think about morality in general.  One could see the great reluctance, if not outright dismissal, of the idea that a moral skeptic’s views lead to a reduction to power/freedom.  Why?  My theory is because even if someone believes the skeptic’s views to be true or is sympathetic to them, they don’t want to think it would mean such (a reduction to power).  I think I made a fairly logical case that it does lead to such a reduction, but as the Stanford link made clear, what the moral skeptic believes metaphysically is actually the case, they for the most part do not live “as if” such were the case:

“...All that moral skeptics deny is that their (or anyone's) moral beliefs are justified. This meta-ethical position about the epistemic status of moral beliefs need not trickle down and infect anyone's substantive moral beliefs or actions.”-Stanford link (See previous post(s))

In other words, I may believe my moral beliefs are unjustifiable even to myself (just as an aside, in my view, if one cannot justify their moral actions or omissions to themselves or anyone else, then one is always acting out of pure power, but that’s just me...) on a metaphysical, epistemic level, but “substantively”, down here in my actual lived life, I don’t let what I think is actually true trickle down and “infect” my actual moral beliefs and actions.  Okay.  If such is really “true”, why not?  I find this to be a grave flaw in any world-view that would produce such an epistemic view of morality.

Many of the comments were quick to point out that, regardless the skeptic’s beliefs, if he still abhorred all the things that objectivists did and acted “morally”, what was the problem?  And, can we look at an actual moral issue or topic?  Well, no one said such was a problem to begin with (that wasn’t the point), and it is irrelevant to any single moral issue if the point is the skeptic, one, doesn’t believe morality exists by referent and, two, believes we can’t justify any of our moral beliefs, to ourselves or anyone else.  If we can’t justify any of our moral beliefs, then asking about any single example is irrelevant.  To then ask for a single moral example would be like asking a person who didn’t believe in witches, to please tell us which type he didn’t believe in.  Well, it wouldn’t matter—he doesn’t believe any of them exist!  Of course, this very basic problem was lost on all.  Anyway, more importantly for this post, it demonstrates the moral skeptic rarely, if ever, lives “as if” his views were actually the case, or true.

A perfect example of what I am talking about is summed up in this essay.  The title says it all: “There is no such thing as free will, but we are better off believing in it anyway” Again, wow.  So we know this to be true, proven by science (not), and yet let’s act as if it weren’t true.  I can imagine moral skeptics making a similar statement regarding morality.  We know it doesn’t exist ontologically (duh, science), but let’s act as if it does.  Basically we are being told that even though we all know goblins and fairies do not exist, let’s all act as if they do.  One should really question and wonder about any world-view that would have this philosophical undercurrent or this sense we should ignore the truth—pretend it doesn’t exist.  And this is no trivial or small matter.  We are talking about our very freedom to choose, which is intrinsically related to ethics—morality and responsibility.  It touches everything, both the smallest choices and those with greater import.

Now, the writer simply assumes that the current “science” has proved or is greatly inclined toward proving, or is close to proving, there is no free-will in the traditional sense.  I think his assumption is wrong.  The reality is that at the philosophy-of-science, academic level, and other areas of academic philosophy, these are all disputed areas and hardly settled as is easily seen simply from perusing the literature.  It may be settled in the minds of some neuroscientists out there working in a lab or on their computer, but once brought into the arena of the philosophy-of-science in academia, certainty, or the idea it has been “proved” all melts away.

However, I don’t particularly care about that.  I am much more interested in the idea that we should live contrary to what we think is true about ourselves and the universe in general.  Here is where I give the nihilist respect.  He disagrees we should live contrary to the truth.  Truth is too important to the nihilist.  However, what about those who in principle agree with much, if not most, of the nihilist’s world-view on a metaphysical, epistemic level?  Well, it appears they have a problem facing up to their own beliefs when it comes to life in the trenches.  At the last, as their brothers and sisters get set to charge the barricades, they blink and fall back into the trenches.  It all sounds great in the abstract—it just doesn’t seem to work in real life.

Now, for those who have come to a place of philosophical naturalism or similar world-view/narrative, and understand well the choice they have made, I would say the great majority are college graduates, have been raised in fairly stable families, with mid-to higher middle-class type incomes and life-styles.  They were probably raised also with middle-class values, a tepid blend of American fairness and pragmatism, good manners, politeness, and a nod to a moderate to progressive Judeo-Christian sense of morality (whether consciously or whether imbibed thoughtlessly from the surrounding culture).  And I would also tend to think most of this cultural influence to still be present and active, even if after a later acquired metaphysical and epistemic belief system has in the abstract completely undercut it.

But what happens when these metaphysical and epistemic beliefs trickle down to those not so advantaged?  As I have posited many times, since none of us can prove, or found, our world-views in any sort of final scientific manner, in any empirical manner, since we all believe what we do (over-arching narrative wise) by faith, how can we know if one world-view is healthier, truer, or perhaps a less false way of viewing ourselves and the world than another?  Well, we can ask questions.  Questions like, “Under this narrative, can I live as if what I believe is true or not?”  Or, “Is what I believe something that an entire culture or civilization could also believe and understand, or is what I believe only accessible to the higher educated or those with resources and the other advantages of my culture?”  Or, “What does what I believe lead to when an entire culture has adopted it, in the area of morality or any area of life?”

Well, here in the noted essay, we can ask one of those questions.  As noted here:

“In 2002, two psychologists had a simple but brilliant idea: Instead of speculating about what might happen if people lost belief in their capacity to choose, they could run an experiment to find out.”

Here is what they found:

“When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal—to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins—those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, Vohs told me, she and Schooler found that ‘people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.’

It seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts.”

But wait, there is more:

“Another pioneer of research into the psychology of free will, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, has extended these findings. For example, he and colleagues found that students with a weaker belief in free will were less likely to volunteer their time to help a classmate than were those whose belief in free will was stronger. Likewise, those primed to hold a deterministic view by reading statements like ‘Science has demonstrated that free will is an illusion’ were less likely to give money to a homeless person or lend someone a cellphone.

Further studies by Baumeister and colleagues have linked a diminished belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships. They found that when subjects were induced to believe that ‘all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules,’ those subjects came away with a lower sense of life’s meaningfulness. Early this year, other researchers published a study showing that a weaker belief in free will correlates with poor academic performance.

The list goes on: Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.”

Wow.  So think about that.  If I have this world-view, and if a subsidiary part of it is determinism, this is what it can produce in people.  Given my world-view is not proved by science, is not certain, is possibly false, given I believe it by faith, why in the world would I choose to believe this?  Because it is “true” and proved by science?  Well, that is disputed.  It is not a settled matter.  None of us can say that.  It is not “science” to believe such, but rather a philosophical commitment.  So, given this, why would I believe it?  Why would I choose to believe something that is harmful in this way?

I think a significant reason philosophical naturalism is false, is because if we believe it and actually try and live as if it were true, it can cause or lead to these negative results in people.  I can’t imagine many people would want a world populated with a significant portion of people who have been led by a world-view (or just told its “science”) to “indulge [their] dark side.”

So what does one philosopher propose we do in light of these bad outcomes to the supposed “truth” of determinism?

“Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will.”

Wow, imagine a world-view we cannot afford people to internalize, even though it’s the “truth”.  A core truth of the Christian narrative is that the “truth shall set you free.”  Here, with the world-view of philosophical naturalism and the subsidiary determinism, we see the exact opposite.  Here, the “truth” will harm you and potentially make you a worse person.

Dr. Smilasky goes on:

“Smilansky is convinced that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this... Smilansky advocates a view he calls illusionism—the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.”

Do I really need to say anymore?  It seems to me such a world-view is deeply flawed.  Imagine a world-view that leads us to assert: “...the true most go.”  In my view, this should lead us to see that any world-view/narrative, or a derivative part, that would have us conclude “the truth must go” is a false world-view/narrative.

But some are not happy with this response such as Sam Harris.

“The big problem, in Harris’s view, is that people often confuse determinism with fatalism. Determinism is the belief that our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that our decisions don’t really matter, because whatever is destined to happen will happen—like Oedipus’s marriage to his mother, despite his efforts to avoid that fate.  When people hear there is no free will, they wrongly become fatalistic; they think their efforts will make no difference. But this is a mistake. People are not moving toward an inevitable destiny; given a different stimulus (like a different idea about free will), they will behave differently and so have different lives. If people better understood these fine distinctions, Harris believes, the consequences of losing faith in free will would be much less negative than Vohs’s and Baumeister’s experiments suggest.”

What?  So let me get this straight: Determinism is true, which is the idea that “our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect.”  However, we shouldn’t be “fatalistic” about that because there might be a “different stimulus”, like “a different idea about free will” and we can behave differently.  What?  That might be the most incoherent chain of thought I’ve read in some time.  Is the “different” stimulus or “idea” the idea or stimulus that determinism is false?  Or is it a stimulus or idea that leaves determinism still true?  Because that would be a flat-out contradiction as if an “unbreakable chain of cause and effect” can be reconciled with a “different stimulus” which would “break” the “unbreakable” chain.  Nonsense.

And finally there is the view of Bruce Waller:

“Some scholars argue that we should think about freedom of choice in terms of our very real and sophisticated abilities to map out multiple potential responses to a particular situation. One of these is Bruce Waller, a philosophy professor at Youngstown State University. In his new book, Restorative Free Will, he writes that we should focus on our ability, in any given setting, to generate a wide range of options for ourselves, and to decide among them without external constraint.

For Waller, it simply doesn’t matter that these processes are underpinned by a causal chain of firing neurons. In his view, free will and determinism are not the opposites they are often taken to be; they simply describe our behavior at different levels.

Waller believes his account fits with a scientific understanding of how we evolved: Foraging animals—humans, but also mice, or bears, or crows—need to be able to generate options for themselves and make decisions in a complex and changing environment. Humans, with our massive brains, are much better at thinking up and weighing options than other animals are. Our range of options is much wider, and we are, in a meaningful way, freer as a result.

Waller’s definition of free will is in keeping with how a lot of ordinary people see it. One 2010 study found that people mostly thought of free will in terms of following their desires, free of coercion (such as someone holding a gun to your head). As long as we continue to believe in this kind of practical free will, that should be enough to preserve the sorts of ideals and ethical standards examined by Vohs and Baumeister.”

Notice he is really side-stepping the problem.  He is basically saying that because our brains are powerful, and can generate choices, that this alone somehow provides a way out of the free-will conundrum.  But how?—it doesn’t address the determinist’s point.  If cause-and-effect is an unbreakable chain, then it is whether one’s brain is more highly evolved and powerful or whether it is the brain of an ape or dog.  Physics doesn’t care about either.  For him to say that on one level, there is determinism, but on another there is not, is to misunderstand what is being asserted by the determinist.  The determinist would say that physics works the same at any level we care to name.

To say there is “practical” free-will but not metaphysical or actual, traditional free-will is to simply assert that regardless of what we think physics tells us about the cause-and-effect chain of brain events and actions, people seem to understand and experience their choices and actions as an actual freedom.  The first part is question-begging and the second just descriptive.  Further, it completely discounts the possibility we could be describing an actual freedom of will (since that is what it seems people experience) and not an illusionary one.

So, even here, I don’t see a view of free-will that reflects a healthy or attractive narrative/world-view.  I think it reflects poorly on that narrative.  I think it another reason to then think such a narrative to be false.

Throughout this essay two problems underlie the narrative.  One is we want people to be and feel responsible for their actions.  The second is we want to recognize that “no man is an island” and in many ways we are responsible for each other and not totally responsible for ourselves.  I do appreciate Waller’s efforts to balance these two very important aspects to any discussion regarding what it means to be “free” or to have “free” will.  I view it sort of like this:  At a certain age (varies for each individual and probably culture), we become free to make decisions, to choose other than what we want or desire or even feel compelled to do.  However, there are many aspects to life where we had no choice in what happens to us, but we can choose how we will react and respond to what happens to us or to the cards life has dealt us.  None of us chose which family, which ethnicity, or culture we would be born into.  None of us chose what geographic location we would be born.  None of us chose what religion or lack thereof we would be born into by way of whatever our parents believed or didn’t believe.  None of us chose to be born into either poverty or wealth.  There is so much we had no power over that determines so much of who we are and what options and choices were open to us as we grew up and perhaps are even now.  Still, even in that knowledge, we are free to choose and do otherwise. Are we always strong enough to?  Of course not.  So what?  That is another issue.  But we know that sometimes we were/are strong enough.  We know we have chosen otherwise sometimes and many times, we are not even sure why we did—but we did.  I think the Christian narrative and other such narratives allow for both of these aspects to free-will to be present and not opposed to each other.  Clearly, given Waller’s attempts here, whatever narrative he is operating from, does not allow this and he has to try and reconcile the two.

As noted in the essay, I too especially liked President Obama’s comments where he reminded us that “You didn’t build that” meaning- you did not do that by yourself.  The idea of the “self-made man” is a myth really.  Even if there are the rare exceptions, people who literally for generations came from nothing but excelled enough in some area to rise above their past and circumstances and were “successful”.  Even then, for the Christian, we would say this person still didn’t do such by themselves but through the gracious gifts of a creator God, but they also still needed human help at some point.  Our lives are part of a great web of others and all these intersections along with the serendipity of life, of luck, of simply being in the right place at the right time, but also of hard work, vision, good choices, and will—all combine to create a great confluence of myriad factors bringing each of us to the moment we find ourselves.  It is, frankly, a great mystery.  A wonderful, beautiful, and even frightening mystery.  But we need not make this mystery into an opposition.

However, I do believe what Waller is after here is a cake-and-eating-it-too (as suggested in the essay) attempt to hold onto two ideas that end up contradicting or undercutting the other as a matter of logic.  If we are going to assert that our world is deterministic in a cause-and-effect machine like, mathematical fashion (pure physics; of course only from a Newtonian or Laplacean understanding of physics), if we are going to believe by faith the universe is causally closed, then free-will as traditionally understood is a myth.  If so, then people are not fundamentally any more responsible for their actions than a hurricane could be said to be responsible (See Harris’s comments).  There is no way to then say (logically anyway), well, yes, but as a practical matter, since people seem to believe they are free and responsible, since they seem to act that way, since they have big brains, we can just let the fact they are not really free go and just try to emphasize the communal aspect to mitigate the damage possible if we were to go with what we know is the actual case.

Well, why not consider the better and more reasonable alternative?  It could be that even though none of us are an island, we are still free in the traditional sense.  We are the product of much we had no freedom to choose, but we are also, even knowing such, free to choose how we will respond to what we couldn’t choose.  As is often heard, “It is not what happens to me that matters—I have no control over such, but how I choose to respond to what happens to me, which I do have control over, is what matters.”  That is the essence of free-will.  If we are created souls, if we are spirit, living in a one-story holistic existence, then there is no reason to oppose the two ideas that we are both the result of much that is beyond our control and still free in that knowledge to choose otherwise as our souls transcend a pure cause-and-effect universe, which would also mean the universe is causally open; in fact, the entire question rests on whether one believes the universe is casually closed or open—and neither “science” or physics proves either view.  However, one view, that the universe is causally open does seem to be consistent with and corresponds to our lived and felt experience of being free persons.

Given that, since it is not a question of what the science or physics proves or doesn’t prove, why not choose the story that most corresponds to our own lived experience of being free, that we feel and act, live, as if we are free and that we can choose otherwise—and doesn’t contain the conundrum of believing physics tells us something we have to then try and live as if it weren’t true, even though we know it is?  And what if we have confused “physics” with philosophical naturalism/empiricism/scientism?  What if “science” or “physics” tells us no such thing, but rather we are hearing a philosophical counter-story, another faith-based narrative?  If so, why not believe the story that doesn’t require such cognitive dissonance or discounting one’s lived every-day experience and is still compatible with everything we know from science and physics once we remove the philosophical naturalism/empiricism/scientism looking glass?
   


PS- Although it is not a discussion of free-will in a metaphysical sense, here is an interesting essay on how something we all experience plays into the practical aspects of free-will.