Tag Archives: philosophy

Humanist Ad Campaigns, Part 1

Humanists have recently begun a number of ad campaigns.  They are silly.

Note I didn’t say “intolerant” or “in bad taste.”  My concern is not that they “hurt people’s feelings,” as if the skeptics and humanists need to step on eggshells when it comes to religious folk.  No, my claim is that the ads demonstrate the very signs of irrationality that humanists and such claim to eschew.

Some of the ads are patently absurd.   Take, for instance, the ad above.  Any thinking person who doesn’t have an axe to grind and isn’t already blinded by an agenda will recognize that Jesus is using hyperbole.  He was a Jew, afterall, who affirmed the Jewish Law, which includes the Ten Commandments, which includes the commandment “honor your father and mother.”   He is making a comment about the superiority of one’s love to God in comparison with one’s love towards everything else.  The ad obviously lacks charity, which is a pre-requisite of rationality when dealing with one’s ideological opponents.

Also look at this second ad.  It commits the fallacy of equivocation; it subtly uses another meaning of the word “fear” than what the passage intends.  Plus, it’s not as if fear is never a legitimate response to something.

And a third…how in the world does the group making the ads think that the proverb is actually saying that evidence and logic are bad things? (more on this later)  There are several perfectly good explanations of the meaning of that proverb, they make good sense, and for the ad makers to ignore them is the height of willful ignorance.

You might respond by saying that I’m setting too high of a standard for the ads.  They are advertisements, afterall, not graduate philosophy papers.  Yes, they are ads, and ad makers are usually given a pass to play more fast and loose with words and persuasive tactics than other genres of communication, but I still maintain that a little more charity and rationality and a little less caricature isn’t too much to ask.

I had a discussion with a friend on Facebook about this recently.  In the several posts that follow, I’m going to catalogue the conversation to unpack what I’ve started to say here in this post.

On Intolerance and Proof

Ahhh…Facebook.

The conversations on there provide good blog fodder.

I was Roaming around on Facebook the other day, when I came across a conversation one of my former students was having with another person.  I don’t know how it ended up on my home page, being that I was a third party onlooker not directly involved in the conversation, but there it was.

Supposedly this third person had tried to show Mormons how Mormonism is false, and my former student was taking exception with this.  Being that the conversation took place on a wall I did not have access to, I could not comment on the conversation myself, but that doesn’t stop me from making a blog post out of it….:)

Here are some of the things my former student said, and my responses: 

“Intolerable Christians.” (this was his first comment)

What do you mean by “intolerant”? 

Judging by the other things he was saying, he was attempting to correct the other person (I’m going to call him “Steve” from here on out for matters of convenience) for saying another religion is wrong.  In other words, he was saying that claiming another’s religious beliefs are false is out of line, ie, intolerant.  Which, ironically, was the very thing he was doing to Steve.

Steve had a religious belief that it is ok to correct/critique false beliefs.  This, in fact, is a main part of the Christian religion.  Christianity has always been an evangelizing religion.  Part of the Great Commission itself is persuading people to drop their false beliefs and idols and pick up belief in and worship of Jesus Christ.  Christians could be mistaken about Jesus, for sure, but those who claim the persuasion efforts of Christians are intolerant are, in fact, trying to do the very same thing: persuade the evangelizing Christians that their missionary beliefs, values, and actions, are false.  Which means my former student was, by his own definition, being intolerant.

Now, I don’t think he was actually intolerant.  It’s ok to try to persuade others that what you believe is true.  The culprit was not his persuasive impulse, but his faulty definition of intolerance.

“I don’t support shoving my religion onto other people”

Again, what do you mean by “shoving religion down other people’s throats?”  If, by that, you mean trying to persuade others that your beliefs are true and theirs false, I guess Steve was guilty as charged, but also again, that would mean that my former student was likewise doing the same thing.  The minute he interjected and started calling Steve “intolerant” and implying that he was “shoving religion down another’s throat,” he was seeking to persuade Steve to stop that.  That is, he was trying to correct Steve.  “Intolerant” and “you are shoving religion…” are not compliments, so how else can I understand that?

If, on the other hand, my former student was accusing Steve of calling Mormons names, shouting, mocking, or getting angry at Mormons, then Steve was not guilty.  Steve’s only remarks on Facebook was how he thought Mormon belief was illogical, unscientific, and factually false.  Not once did he call names or anything like that.  He focused on the beliefs, not trashing the person.

I guess someone could reply that I wasn’t there, and maybe Steve did call names and such.  However, the same could be said about my former student: he wasn’t there either.  The only information I have to go on is the very same information he had to go on, and given what we were both privy to, there’s no reason to charge anyone with “shoving” anything down anyone’s throat.

“It seems to me that he was not being very accepting of the differences of the Mormon religion. Instead he attempted to show them his religion (Christianity) was true when he has no definite proof that either religions are right/wrong.”

Ahhh, there it is.  The ‘ol “no proof” charge.  A few things:

First, having no proof of your own beliefs doesn’t make your persuasive enterprise intolerant or bigoted.  It might make you irrational and foolhardy, but not judgmental.

Second, what does he mean by “proof”?  If by that he means indubitably certain, unassailable, uh, proof that can’t be doubted, then not only does the Christian religion not have proof behind it, but virtually no belief whatsoever, save, perhaps, belief in one’s own existence, has proof behind it.  Even obvious things like belief in the external world or belief that murder is wrong or belief that I had chicken for dinner tonight are subject to doubt and are not indubitable.  But those beliefs are incredibly solid.  This just means that certainty is not a requirement of proof.

But if he means evidence, reasons, and arguments that makes a belief more sound than its opposite, then of course Christianity has proof to it!  There’ s lots of stuff out there on this question.  For starters, I recommend this website.   Or this book.

And while we’re at it, how does my former student know there’s no proof?  Has he read deeply of the history of philosophy and science?  Has he read the copious literature on the formation of the Bible?  What scholars has he read?  William Alston, or Alvin Plantinga, perhaps?  Has he attended any debates, such as this one?  Has he done any deep research on big bang cosmology or the anthropic principle? 

If not, how can he claim with any sort of confidence that there is “no proof”?  Perhaps he can say that he, himself, hasn’t encountered any proof, but that wouldn’t be saying much.

“Not the belief itself is intolerant. The fact that people don’t listen to others and try to force their religion upon others is intolerant.”

Ok, but how is merely seeking to persuade, or thinking Mormonism hopefully false, mean Steve wasn’t listening?

“Because there is no definite proof. Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that is part of the definition of belief. Accepting something is true even though there is no solid proof.”

He is wrong.  The definition of belief is a statement or proposition that one holds to be true.  Proof/evidence/reason may or may not be along for the ride, but merely believing something doesn’t mean proof is nowhere to be found.  Otherwise, my former student would be just as guilty of having no proof.  My former student has beliefs, yes? In particular, that  “part of the definition of belief is accepting something without proof,” and “it is wrong to shove your religion down someone’s throat,” right?  I guess, by his own definition, those two things are without “proof,” and his efforts at persuading Steve that those beliefs are worthy of accepting is intolerant.

Atheist Ad Campains

One of my buddies, a fellow Christian, emailed that picture to me the other day.  Some of his family members were floating it back and forth, commenting on how clever it was.

I had to chuckle, but not because I thought it clever.  IMO, it leaves atheists open to several responses.  One could just as easily retort back something to the tune of “Religion inspired Martin Luther King.  Science inspired Hiroshima.”

Someone could respond to that by pointing out that I shouldn’t be blaming a whole methodology for a particular thing that someone abused said methodology to invent…which is my point precisely in the retort in the first place. 

You see, the ad commits the fallacy of hasty generalization.  It lumps all religious ideologies into one amorphous whole, and it uses the evil caused by some specific religious ideologies to paint all religions.  Not a very rational or honest thing to do, yet I find some atheist types doing it all the time.  They completely ignore all the huge differences between religions and treat them all the same.  As one author quipped, saying all religions are ultimately the same is like insisting that aspirin and arsenic are ultimately the same because they come in tablet form.

I don’t know how folks can logically put the worldview of Jesus and the worldview of Mohammed in the same boat, but that doesn’t stop people from foolishly trying.

Talk to these folks, and you get the impression that belief in and devotion to any and all higher powers is dangerous.

I guess that depends on what the character of that higher power is.

I have reason to hold that when I pass away, I will be held accountable for my actions in this life by a powerful, just, loving Creator God who insists that I treat my fellow man with compassion…BOO!  Fear me.

What is Truth?

…such was the subject of a recent Socratic Seminar (Socratic seminars are basically class discussions on a certain question/text that are more student-directed, rather than teacher-directed) in an English class of one of my colleagues.

The day before the discussion, she put up a status update on Facebook to the tune of “this should be interesting.  Lots to talk about,” as if the question was controversial or somehow hard to answer. 

I commented, somewhat sarcastically: “uuhhh..answer: correspondence with reality.  End of discussion.”

My comment, though I was trying to be funny and witty (I probably royally failed), was only somewhat sarcastic.  That is *the* answer.  A statement or belief is “true” when it matches, corresponds to, or aligns with an actual state of affairs in reality.  Aristotle, though by no means the inventor of this, was perhaps one of the first to articulate it when he said:

To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.

Boy, thank goodness we have philosophers (sarcasm implied there).

Now, that doesn’t mean that no other answer has been proposed.  Plenty have.  Some philosophers have argued that “truth” is when a statement or belief coheres and meshes well with your other beliefs (called the “coherence” view of truth), while others have insisted that we can’t know reality as it is in itself; we can only know our perceptions.  These fellas hold that concepts in our minds do not match with (or fail to match with) reality–they construct reality.  This is called the “constructivist” view of truth (see a trend here?).

Richard Rorty, Duke U. philosopher, is famous for quipping, “truth is what my peers let me get away with saying.”

Funny story: one time, whe Rorty gave his version of truth, Alvin Plantinga, of Notre Dame fame, shot back: “Richard, we are not going to let you get away with that,” shining a light on the slightly self-defeating nature of the statement.

Notice this, though: no matter what the alternative version is, they all have one thing in common–they all assume the correspondence view of truth.  They wouldn’t make sense without it.  In other words, folks who think truth is something other than correspondence to reality say something like this: “truth is NOT correspondence to reality.  Truth is ____.” To which one can always ask, “are you accurately describing truth?”  In other words, does the alternative view of truth correspond to what truth really is, or is it just a statement of the speaker’s belief?  If the latter, it can be written off as “just a belief.”  If the former–if the person making the statement is purporting to describe reality, purporting to describe what truth is really like, they’ve really shot themselves in the foot.

A few comments down in the Facebook thread, my colleague noted: “if you were in the discussion, they (the students) would have plenty to say.  Many would question you and disagree with you.”

To which I replied: “…and in so doing unwittingly confirmed my view.”

The only way in which their disagreement would matter and make any sense is if they would say that my claims do not accurately describe/match up with what truth really is, i.e, my claims do not correspond to reality.  Otherwise, who cares?  If, in their disagreement, they would just be expressing their personal taste or preference, why bother?  Why have an in depth and principled socratic discussion over what would only amount to ice cream tastes?  Only if we are talking about reality would I want to waste ANY energy at all in the dialogue.

So how did the discussion go?  I asked my colleague that question the next day, and she said that it actually turned out to be quite a discussion, and she summarized some of the things her students remarked.  Their comments clued me in that they were really answering and asking a bunch of different questions that departed from the original topic somewhat.   That doesn’t mean they weren’t good questions to ask/statements to make, but it sounds like they never really got around to addressing the topic directly…I’ll just lay it all out here and hopefully you’ll see what I mean:

* “One’s beliefs and perceptions are shaped largely by their environment and how he was raised.”

Yes, true.  Question, though: so what?  What follows from that?  Does that mean that said person doesn’t know the truth?  Does that mean that no one can know the truth?  The answer to both questions is “no.”  Just because one’s beliefs or views have been shaped by his surroundings (“if you were raised in Saudi Arabia, you’d be a Muslim, not a Christian.”) doesn’t mean the views he does hold are false, unjustified, unknowable, or that the person doesn’t hold those beliefs for rational, solid reasons.  To suggest otherwise would be a major non sequitur.

* “How can a person be sure that their religion or belief on truth is the correct one?”

Good question.  Short answer: take the claims of the religion, along with the reasons and evidence supporting those claims, and compare/contrast with the claims of other religions.  The first thing you’ll notice is that a) they can’t all be true, and b) they all aren’t on equal footing when it comes to rational justification.

Sometimes, people ask this question not as a genuine query or search, but as a way of skeptically dismissing someone who does strongly hold to a certain belief.  Some, when confronted with a strong believer, merely shrug, mumble “how can you know?” and walk away, without waiting for an answer.  This is the lazy man’s way of justifying his own intellectual laziness. 

Someone who asks that question but refuses to actually go further and seek an honest answer to the question is not a real player in the game.  Until these folks demonstrate that they take the enterprise seriously and are willing to think through how one could know, I tend to not take them seriously.

* “How can someone know his views are correct if he hasn’t explored the alternatives?”

Another good question.  If you haven’t done this, you need to do so.  You could be wrong, so comparing your worldview to the worldview of others will only benefit you.  You’ll either figure out you got it wrong, and you’ll need to change your view, or you’ll figure out that you are onto something, in which case you’ll gain confidence and peace.  Either way is a win for you.  People of all stripes, atheist, Jewish, Buddhist, Agnostic, Skeptic, not just the Christian, need to do this.

By the way, though some detailed examination of other beliefs is needed, for some worldviews and religions, this need not be complicated.  For example, if a religion claims that evil is an illusion or that the individual is an illusion (as do some strains of Hinduism, and some atheists), that pretty much disqualifies that one right there.  Pretty easy to say that in an academic classroom setting removed from the flotsam and jetsam of reality; quite another thing to state it with a straight face at the foot of the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  In other words: though you will need to do a great bit of digging on some questions and for some worldviews, some questions can be answered and some worldviews eliminated with common sense, so don’t fret and make the search more complicated than it needs to be.

*Religion (in large part) is handed down from parents and surrounding influences when children are young.

Yes, this is the case with many people.  As is commonly said: “if you were born in China, you’d be Buddhist,” or “if you were born in Iraq, you’d be Muslim.”  First, while that is generally true with a wide swath of people, that does not mean we should conclude environment or locale determines belief.   Christians are dispersed the world throughout, and we see all the time instances of people rejecting the worldview of their culture.   Difficult, yes.  Rare, comparitively.  But very possible.

Secondly, it is an error to conclude from the observation above that such a belief gained through the influence of one’s own culture is therefore unjustified.  You can’t fault a belief on it’s source; that is the genetic fallacy.  Beliefs are true or false wholly apart from the environmental influences that might have caused it.  Just because someone might have received his beliefs from his parents does not make those beliefs false, and does not mean the person can’t know his beliefs are true.  It is a semi-interesting observation of human nature, nothing more.

*When is it okay to lie? When is it not okay to lie?

Quick answer: if it is 1942 in Nazi Germany, and you have Jews in your basement, you get a pass.  Otherwise, I usually advise against it.

All these statements and questions are interesting, but they are a way’s down the road, and, strictly speaking, someone that brings them up in the context of the “what is truth?” topic is changing the subject.  The answer to the question “what is truth?” is fairly simple.

Quite a Dilemma

The other day in English class we were reading a Native American creation story.  In the story were twins who were always fighting.  By the end of the story, one, the “left-handed twin” ended up governing the night, and the other, the “right-handed twin” ended up governing the day.  In the Iroquois tradition, the twin governing the night stood for evil (they wouldn’t call it evil, I guess), warfare, torture, etc, and the other twin stood for light and goodness.

The thing is that the Iroquois were thankful for and honored both twins.  I took this to mean more than a simple observation that sometimes good things can come out of evil actions (for example, the story of Joseph in the Old Testament); I took this to be a kind of “yin-yang” thing where the distinction between good and evil is blurred considerably.

Even if I missed the point, what happened next is a doozy.

I asked the students how the Iroquois concept of good and evil compared and contrasted with their own.  They had trouble with that one, so I asked a more concrete question: say I paraded a 2 year old in front of the class and proceeded to torture it, joyfully and mercilessly, just because I enjoyed it.  Would I have done something wrong?  Even if the left-handed twin were to find it “good,” would that action be worth “honoring”?

Hand goes up. 

“Yes”?  I call on the student.

“Well, it depends on who you ask…”  He then proceeded to give a straight relativistic answer.

A cacophany of protests rises up from the rest of the class.  This is the same guy I mentioned in the previous post.

Like I said last time, sometimes you don’t need to directly answer someone.  Sometimes if you just let them talk, they saw off the branch they’re sitting on.

I’ve had conversations like this with him before.  He’s a subjectivist when it comes to morality.  I’ve tried to explain to him the quandry he’s in, a quandry that he’s had a hard time “getting,” but the exchange above demonstrates it nicely. 

When faced with acts of wonton cruelty and wickedness, a subjectivist/relativist has two choices: if he admits its really wrong, he surrenders his subjectivism and relativism (and, his naturalism/atheism, because the latter leads to the former).  If he maintains that it “depends on who you ask” or something like that, he maintains his subjectivism, but he surrenders his humanity.  If he were to really witness something like what I described above, I suspect that every bone in his body would scream out in proclamation of the truth that he knows deep down but that his subjectivism can’t make sense of: some things are just really, truly, objectively wrong.

Another Reason why I Love my Job

I have this kid in one of my English classes that is quite the lil “new atheist.”  Self-proclaimed, btw.  He told me the first day of class that his goal is to be a spokesman for the new atheism, and to help rid the world of religion.  He is ambitious, if nothing else.

I’m telling you, this guy is uber-aggressive.  Quite the evangelist, really.  Anytime he finds a Christian student, he starts attacking and just will not stop.  In class, he constantly raises his hand and steers the conversation onto religious topics.  He frequently stays after class to debate me.  Rather than viewing his presence as an obstacle, liability, or nuisance (ok, I admit…a time or two I have thought in my head, “can’t I just eat my chicken in peace, pal?”), I view him as a great opportunity to use my gifts for the greater good.   Almost every day I get to use my education to hopefully get him (and his classmates) to pause and think things through.

When he steers conversations in class, I usually stick to asking good questions, and most of the time, I give him enough rope such that he hangs himself.  One of the students once asked me, “Mr. B, why don’t you just shut him down?”  My answer was that I want anyone and everyone to feel free to express their views in my class, and really, I don’t have to shut him down for the rest of the class to get it.  When he’s talking, I look around the rest of the class and often see eyes rolling.  Most of the time, quite a few hands go up in protest of his statements.  Sometimes, you don’t have to positively prove someone wrong for an audience to see it…sometimes, all you gotta do is let him talk.  Get out of the way.  I’m confident my questions are also doing work.

There has been one instance after class, though, where I have been a bit more aggressive.  One day he was ranting and raving to another student about Stephen Hawking’s new book.  Hawking boasts in the book that God is no longer needed to explain the origin of the universe, so it’s not surprising that this student would love the book.  Listening to the conversation, I couldn’t help but smile, and, seeing me smile, he asked, “What do you think of the book?”

I replied that I haven’t read the book (its on my list, don’t worry), but I’ve read some reviews, and I know a bit about Hawking outside of them.  His determinism certainly gets in the way, and I attempted to explain this to my budding new atheist.  According to determinism, the physical world is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, or some other natural science (depending on what kind of determinist you are talking to).  So far so good, but the determinist goes on to argue that the physical world is all there is.   Therefore, the cause-and-effect laws of physics/chemistry governs everything, including thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and the words Hawking writes on the page.  Hawking might say or think that he believes his beliefs because he has good reason to, but rationality has nothing to do with belief, according to determinism.  Beliefs are caused by prior physical states.  Someone, say, my new atheist student, might think he chooses his beliefs based upon reason, logic, and evidence (he goes on and on and on about those three things in class, anyway), but that is illusory, if determinism is true.

All that doesn’t mean that his or Hawking’s  beliefs are false, it just undermines confidence in their beliefs.  How can Hawking or my student know their beliefs to be true, on determinism?  They can’t.  It all has to do with the particles, and nothing to do with a self or individual choosing based upon rationality and logic.   On determinism, there really is no such thing as a self or individual anyway…that, too, is illusory.

Add into all this that determinists advocate for their views like determinism is false.  They wax eloquent about everything being caused by the laws of physics, but then then write books, giving reasons, attempting to persuade individuals to choose determinism because it is true.  Thus, out of one side of thier mouths, they say, “I’m a vegetarian,” but out of the other side squeaks, “gimme that Inn n Out burger!”  Tough spot for a determinist.

The student just couldn’t see all this…he thought it was possible for c-fibers firing in the brain to cause the beliefs and for someone to choose based upon rational reasons.  He just couldn’t see that if determinism is true, the c-fibers are doing all the work, and the whole bit about rationality is just illusory mumbo-jumbo.

Determinism wreaks havoc on morality as well.  If everything is determined by prior physical states, including our actions, how can we hold moral agents accountable?  There are no moral agents who choose their actions on determinism, yet both are needed for a robust morality…more on that in a future blog post.

In my opinion, naturalism (the view that the physical world is all there is) is the real culprit here.  No room for legitimate free will in naturalism.  If this kid kicks his naturalism to the curb, he wouldn’t have problems like these.

Religion in the Modern World

I found this skit funny: