Sunday, May 10, 2015

God and rational discourse

Before we can have a reasonable conversation about God, everyone playing has to pass the Defeasibility Test. A defeasible belief is one that is responsive to evidence, where “evidence” is used broadly to include empirical and conceptual considerations. Your belief is defeasible if you are prepared to revise it in the light of new evidence. Ask yourself this: Are there any considerations, arguments, evidence, or reasons, even hypothetically that could possibly lead me to change my mind about God? Is it a possible outcome that in carefully and thoughtfully reflecting on the broadest and most even body of evidence that I can grasp, that I would come to think that my current view about God is mistaken? If your belief isn’t defeasible, then engaging in discourse about God’s existence (or anything else) is, rationally speaking, a fruitless waste of time.

I also take something like fallibilism to be true. That is, it is possible for a person to have a fully justified but false belief. There are cases where someone has fulfilled all of his epistemic duties in gathering and considering evidence and he has drawn a reasonable conclusion from that evidence, but the conclusion still turns out to be wrong. To deny fallibilism is to claim that it is impossible to be fully justified in believing what is false. Given what we know about human cognitive systems, that’s just not plausible.

For lots of people, it turns out that even though they engage in what appears to be rational discourse about the arguments for and against God’s existence, their belief is not defeasible. So a preliminary question to having one of these discussions is: What is the relationship, as you see it, between reasoning about God and your belief in God? That is, is your belief in God more fundamental than your commitment to believe what reason and evidence indicates; or are you prepared, if the evidence, reasoning, and argument demands it, to abandon your view of God as irrational? The question is of obvious importance because you enter into a dialogue concerning the question of God's existence in bad faith if ultimately you don't really care what the evidence is. If the believer places a higher premium on believing than anything else, including being reasonable about counter evidence and arguments, then he’s just engaging in sophistry when he engages in dialogue.

Nicholas Wolterstorff says, in the remarkably titled Reason within the Bounds of Religion,
“The religious beliefs of the Christian scholar ought to function as control beliefs within his devising and weighing of theories. . . . Since his fundamental commitment to following Christ ought to be decisively ultimate in his life, the rest of his life ought to be brought into harmony with it. As control, the belief-content of his authentic commitment ought to function both negatively and positively. Negatively, the Christian scholar ought to reject certain theories on the ground that they conflict or do not comport well with the belief-content of his authentic commitment. Why is it that one must first run an evidential test on Scripture before one is justified in accepting it? Does this not fundamentally subordinate revelation to reason? What then is left of the authority of Scripture?
William Lane Craig insists that nothing could possibly counter indicate the truth of the Gospels because of a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit in his heart that gives him knowledge independent of all questions of evidence.

Believing is somehow “self-authenticating” for them. It “carries its own evidence.” As they see it, it is a mistake to think that believing itself must be held to standards of evidence or rationality. Rather, our standards of evidence and rationality must answer to our belief in God.

Alvin Plantinga has similarly denied that belief in God must be justified in terms of other more basic claims that we allege to know better or with more confidence than we know God. Belief in God is the axiomatic starting point, not the result of reasoning.

The Talbot School of Theology has this doctrinal statement:
"The Bible, consisting of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, a supernaturally given revelation from God Himself, concerning Himself, His being, nature, character, will and purposes; and concerning man, his nature, need and duty and destiny. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind."
Consider some questions about these approaches: How is it that the belief can be taken up by one of these believers in a way that 1) subordinates reason and puts the consideration of evidence as secondary, and 2) is intellectually honest and respectable? If reason and evidence are subordinated, then what can keep the belief from first being acquired in a way that is arbitrary, prejudicial, and unprincipled? If someone’s belief is adopted and sustained in this contra-rational fashion, how can anyone take that believer’s belief seriously? How can someone with this sort of belief maintain that what he’s doing has intellectual integrity and that the rest of us ought to take his rationalizations seriously?

This person has said, in effect, “I have adopted this belief without regard for reasons or evidence, and I value being intellectually responsible about the powerful argument you are making less than I value my continued belief in God, so I will continue believing as I started, unaffected.” At this point, of course, there’s really nothing left to be said for the rest of us. If someone is resolved to believe at all costs, then nothing else that any skeptic could say, no matter how thoughtful or persuasive can undermine that stubbornness. At this point, we should be prepared to conclude that someone has simply left the rational thought game and must be considered a lost cause.

Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, May 3, 2015

How to get legal moralism from On Liberty with eight words (or less)

Gandalf stood up. He spoke sternly. ‘You will be a fool if you do, Bilbo,’ he said. ‘You make that clearer with every word you say. It has got far too much hold on you. Let it go! And then you can go yourself, and be free.’

                   --J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (emphasis mine)
As readers of this blog know, I sometimes make my posts connect things I’m reading with things happening in our philosophy department and/or the news.

That might be why I see links between current headlines (e.g., marijuana laws) and our department’s upcoming talks on happiness, harm, and the proper role of the state in promoting one and preventing the other.

So I hope this post can be an appetizer to our philoso-feast in the next two weeks: come enjoy our own Kyle Swan and Dan Weijers and UC’s Distinguished Professors David Brink and Gerald Dworkin.

In Mill’s Progressive Principles (OUP 2013) David Brink explains one reason why John Stuart Mill’s “perfectionistic” liberalism is preferable to John Rawls’ “political” liberalism (Rawls insists that states remain “neutral” between competing views of “the good life”):
“…whereas liberal neutrality is neutral about the good, it is not neutral about matters of rights and social justice. This presupposes a sharp line between issues about the good and issues about the right. But this distinction may be hard to draw sharply. Presumably, central among the individual rights that liberal neutrality insists on upholding are rights against harm. But harm involves the setback of important interests, making individuals worse off then they would otherwise be. But then one can’t identify harms without making some assumptions about what makes an individual’s life go better or worse. Nor should we assume that one could recognize only those harms that set back interests that are part of any reasonable conception of the good. For instance, you’ve harmed me if you’ve injured me in a way that prevents me from pursuing sports as a vocation or avocation, even though there are reasonable conceptions of the good that assign no significance to sports. You've harmed me if you rendered me impotent, even though sexual intimacy is not a part of every reasonable conception of the good. In short, it is hard to see how the state can do its job of enforcing the right without making some assumptions about the good.” (256-7)
I am sympathetic with this criticism of liberal neutrality. But I think it can go further.

That’s because I think something called “legal moralism” can be derived—in part—from Mill’s On Liberty.

Since On Liberty is widely (and correctly) regarded as a classic source of fruitful lines of argument against legal moralism (and its cousin, legal paternalism), my thought here may be of interest to both friends and foes of Mill’s project there.

First, some quick definitions:

Legal paternalism is roughly the idea that the fact that an activity harms the one doing it is a good and perhaps sufficient (though override-able) reason for making that activity illegal.

Legal moralism is roughly the idea that the fact that an activity is immoral is a good and perhaps sufficient (though override-able) reason for making that activity illegal.

So very briefly, and without many important qualifications, my argument is this.

Mill’s final chapter of On Liberty discusses many “applications” of the principles he advanced in the earlier portion of the book, but his application forbidding even “voluntary” slavery relies on an additional principle like this:
VS: the fact that an activity involves giving up one’s own freedom in a way like the voluntary slave gives his up is a sufficient reason for making that activity illegal.
Legal moralism, again, is roughly the following principle:
LM: the fact that an activity is immoral is a good and perhaps sufficient (though override-able) reason for making that activity illegal.
To get from Mill’s discussion of voluntary slavery to legal moralism, what we need is some sort of ‘bridge’ principle that states a close connection between immorality and freedom:
B: the fact that an activity is immoral is sufficient for the said activity to involve giving up one’s own freedom in a way like the voluntary slave gives his up.
Perhaps the strongest version of such a principle is the idea that immorality, as such, is slavery. Arguably something like this idea can be found in Kant, in Plato, and elsewhere. One statement of the idea is found in eight words of Jesus from the gospel of John: “…everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34).

This is not an isolated verse fragment plucked out of nowhere. The context of these eight words, what comes before and after them, is relevant. Likewise, the story in John from which these words are taken is not an isolated story plucked out of nowhere. The idea that sin, qua sin, is a form of slavery resonates with the Jewish thought-world that Jesus was born into, and it is echoed by his followers so frequently we might call it the “Peter, Paul, and Mary Principle” (with no disrespect to the musical group).

Still, since other thoughtful people, like Plato and Kant, have thought the same or similar thing, here’s a more inclusive way of putting the idea: “immorality is slavery.”

Here, I exercise my liberty to coin a new term—“oughtabeillegal” (which reflects how a New Yorker says “ought to be illegal”)—we can state the argument in less than eight words:
  1. Slavery oughtabeillegal. (This is from Mill’s On Liberty. See VS above.) 
  2. Immorality is slavery. (This is the inclusive Peter, Paul, and Mary Principle. See B above.)
  3. Immorality oughtabeillegal. (This is Legal Moralism. See LM above.)
In short, we might alter Brink’s last quoted sentence as follows: it is hard to see how the state can do its job of protecting my freedom without making some assumptions about the things that undercut my freedom.

Isaiah Berlin fans, this is your cue to pounce.

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State