Wednesday, September 29, 2010

WITTtweets

Follow WITTtweets - it's kind of engrossing: http://twitter.com/WittTweets

Monday, September 27, 2010

God Virus talks (pro and con)

Darrell Ray is talking about his controversial and best-selling book The God Virus on Sat October 23rd at Conway Hall 11-1.

I am going to follow this even up with another event looking critically at Ray's The God Virus (probably with a very well-known theist) at a later date (probably a Tuesday evening soon after).

October 23rd, 2010

Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall

Just £7 on the door. Free to Friends of CFI UK, PLUS GLHA, SPES, BHA, AHS, CAMP QUEST, NEW HUMANIST AND THE SKEPTIC (UK) SUBSCRIBERS.

P.S. I am giving a talk from 10-11am based on a bit of my Believing Bullshit book (I'll probably be looking at UFO reports and other weird beliefs).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

EVENT: THE ROOT CAUSES OF THE HOLOCAUST


Centre for Inquiry UK and South Place Ethical Society present

The Root Causes of The Holocaust


What caused the Holocaust? What was the role of the Enlightenment? What role did religion play in causing, or trying to halt, the Holocaust?

Prof. A.C. Grayling
Prof. Jonathan Glover (King’s College)
Dr David Ranan (author of Double Cross)

11am-2pm, Sat. December 18th, 2010

Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall

10.30-11.00 Registration
11.00-12.00 Jonathan Glover
12.00-1.00 David Ranan
1.00-2.00 A.C. Grayling

Just £10 on the door. Free to Friends of CFI UK, PLUS GLHA, SPES, BHA, AHS, CAMP QUEST, NEW HUMANIST SUBSCRIBERS.
Tickets on the door. To book in advance go to www.cfiuk.org, hit button “support cfiuk” and follow instructions. Credit and debit cards welcome. Alternatively send a cheque payable to “Center for Inquiry London” to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Center for Inquiry London, PO Box 49097, London N11 9AX, and include names of those coming, phone number, return address, etc.

Monday, September 20, 2010

revised chapter for comments

4 GOING NUCLEAR

Suppose Mike is involved in a debate about the truth of his own particular New Age belief system. Things are not going well for Mike. His arguments are being picked apart, and, worse still, his opponents have come up with several devastating objections that he cannot deal with. How might Mike get himself out of this bind?

One possibility is to adopt strategy I call Going Nuclear. Going Nuclear is an attempt to unleash an argument that lays waste to every position, bringing them all down to the same level of “reasonableness”. You try to force a draw by detonating a philosophical argument that achieves what, during the Cold War, used to be called “mutually assured destruction”, where both sides in the conflict are annihilated.

There are two main variants of Going Nuclear: sceptical and relativist. I’ll begin with skeptical versions

1. SKEPTICAL VERSIONS OF GOING NUCLEAR

Skepticism about reason

In philosophy, a “skeptic” is someone who denies we have knowledge, or justified beliefs, in a given area. Here is a classic example of a skeptical argument:

Whenever we argue about the truth or falsity of a belief, we apply our powers of reason. But why suppose that reason is itself a reliable route to the truth? We might attempt to justify our use of reason, of course. But any justification of reason that we offer will itself rely on reason. Relying on reason to justify our reliance on reason is a bit like taking a second-hand car salesman’s word for it that he is trustworthy – it’s an entirely circular justification, and so no justification at all! So it turns out that our reliance on reason is entirely unjustified. It’s a leap of faith!


From the claim that our reliance on reason is unjustified, it is seemingly then but a short step to the conclusion that no belief is justified:

But if reliance on reason cannot be justified, then, because every rational justification relies on reason, so no belief can be justified. But if no belief is justified, then, ultimately, everything is a faith position! But then your belief is no more reasonable than mine. Get out of that!

Whether or not this is actually a good argument for the conclusion that no belief is justified is not a question I’ll address here. The point is, at first sight, it does look pretty persuasive. It’s not easy to spot precisely where the argument goes wrong, if, indeed, it goes wrong at all. This means that if Mike’s belief system is taking a beating, rationally speaking, Mike can adopt the last-ditch tactic of employing this skeptical argument. Mike can then admit that his belief might not be justified. But he can insist that his opponent’s belief system cannot be justified either. The skeptical argument offers Mike a wonderful “get out of jail” card. It allows him to walk away with his head held high, saying, “So you see? In the last analysis, our beliefs are equally (ir)rational! They are both ‘faith positions’!”

You can see why I call this strategy “Going Nuclear”. Once Mike plays the skeptical card, all his opponent’s hard work in constructing arguments against Mike’s position counts for nothing. Kaboom! At one stroke, Mike demolishes them all. He lays waste to every rational argument, bringing every belief down to the same level.

In order for Mike’s opponent to deal with his Going Nuclear, they will now have to refute his philosophical argument. That is a difficult, perhaps impossible, thing to do. They are certainly going to struggle. As a result, any audience to their debate will be struck not only by Mike’s sophistication in employing such a devastating philosophical objection, but also by his opponent’s mounting frustration as they wrestle with the thorny philosophical conundrum Mike has set them. It’s quite likely Mike will be perceived to be the intellectual victor in this exchange. At the very least, he won’t be thought to have lost.

This version of Going Nuclear can be employed in defence of a wide variety of beliefs. Believe in the curative powers of crystals, or that there’s a family of fairies living at the bottom of your garden? If you find yourself on the losing side of the argument, you can always employ Going Nuclear as a last ditch, face-saving strategy.

So what, exactly, is wrong with this version of Going Nuclear? After all, it might be that the skeptical argument Mike has employed really is a good argument. Perhaps every belief system really is as rational as every other. So, if Mike finds himself argued into a corner, why shouldn’t he employ such a skeptical argument?

Because it’s almost certainly a intellectually dishonest ruse. Those who press the nuclear button rarely do so in good faith. Bear in mind that, in such discussions, playing the skeptical card really is the nuclear option. By Going Nuclear, Mike avoids defeat, but only by utterly annihilating the rationality of every belief. All positions, no matter how sensible or nuts, come out as equally (ir)rational.

If Mike is to be consistent, he must now accept that that the Earth is flat, that the Earth is round, that milk makes people fly, that it doesn’t, that astrology is true, that is isn’t – that all these beliefs are equally (un)reasonable. Now of course, Mike almost certainly doesn’t believe any of this. The fact is, he does think reason provides us with a fairly reliable tool for establishing what is true and what isn’t. We all rely on reason in our day-to-day lives. In fact, Mike constantly trusts his life to reason, whenever, for example, he trusts that the brakes on his car will work, that a bridge will support his weight, that a medicine will save his life, and so on.

Indeed, those who employ this version of Going Nuclear are usually quite content to rely on reason to make their case just so long as they are not losing the argument. It is only when the tide of rationality turns against them that they reach for the nuclear button. And of course, once their opponent has left the room, they’ll start using reason again to try to prop up their belief. That’s downright hypocritical.

So this version of Going Nuclear is, in truth, almost always a ploy. Those who use it don’t usually believe what they’re saying about reason. They say it only to raise enough dust and confusion to make quick their escape.

A religious example

The skeptical version of Going Nuclear outlined above crops up quite often in debates about the truth of religion. For example, responding to rational arguments raised against his beliefs, one Orthodox Jew writes:

The belief in reason seems no less a dogma than any other.

Perhaps belief in reason is, ultimately, a dogma. However, if this person relies on reason in every other aspect of their life, and appeals to reason whenever it appears to support their particular religious beliefs, then they are guilty of hypocrisy. Playing the skeptical card is merely a ruse they selectively employ in order to avoid having to admit that what they believe has been revealed, by the standards that they accept and employ in every other aspect of their life, to be false.

Skepticism about the external world

There are several variants of the skeptical version of Going Nuclear. Sometimes a different skeptical argument is employed. Here’s another example.

Suppose a theist finds herself in the losing side of a debate with atheists about the existence of God. Her own arguments for the existence of God have been shown to be weak, and she is struggling to deal with the evidential problem of evil raised by her opponents. As a last-ditch strategy she may try this: admit that her own belief involves a leap of faith, but then add that her atheist opponents make a similar leap of faith when it comes to trusting their senses.

Atheists, after all, believe they inhabit a physical world filled with mountains, oceans, trees, houses and people. But they believe this only because that is the kind of world their senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell and so on seem to reveal. How can they know their senses are a reliable guide to the truth? How can they know that their experiences are produced by a real world, rather than, say, a supercomputer generating a sophisticated virtual reality, as in the film The Matrix? After all, everything would seem exactly the same, either way. So, it seems atheists cannot justify their belief in such an external world. But if atheists cannot justify their belief in such an external world, then they don’t know that such a world exists. Their belief that there is such a world must involve a huge leap of faith.

Having set up this skeptical argument, our theist may then add that she happens to enjoy, not only sensory experiences, but also a God experience. God, she supposes, reveals himself to her. But then, precisely because she trusts her God experience – she supposes that it is not a delusion but genuinely reveals God – she doesn’t then have to place any additional faith in the reliability of her other senses. Why? Because the kind of God she seems to experience is no deceiver. She can be sure that, if there is such a God, then he will have provided her with senses that are fairly trustworthy. So, for such a theist, trusting her senses does not require any further leap of faith.

In which case, our theist may conclude, for someone who has such religious experiences, belief in God need be no more a faith position than the atheist’s belief in the external world. The two beliefs are actually intellectually on par. It’s leaps of faith all round.

Notice, incidentally, that our theist may make the same suggestion about the atheist’s use of logic and reason. She may say that atheists just assume that their use of logic is reliable – they cannot ultimately justify it (for the reason we saw above). But, because our theist places her faith in her God experience, she doesn’t have to make a leap of faith so far as her use of logic is concerned. Her God would not allow her to be deceived about the reliability of logic.

Criticism

Perhaps it is true that atheism is a faith position because any belief about how things stand outside of our own minds is ultimately a faith position (though this is certainly controversial – some philosophers would say we are justified in supposing there is a physical world of mountains, oceans, tress, houses, and so on because that hypothesis provides the best available explanation of what we experience, a better explanation than the Matrix-type hypothesis that it’s all an elaborate computer-generated illusion). However, even if any belief about the external world involves a leap of faith, it does not follow that it is as reasonable for a theist to place their trust in their God experience as it is for atheists to trust their senses.

First of all, note that, while we have no obvious grounds for supposing our ordinary senses are highly untrustworthy, there are very obvious grounds for supposing that such religious experiences are, as a rule, untrustworthy (see the chapter entitled,“I Just Know!” for details). The content of the religious experiences people report appears very largely to be a product of their culture, and often also the mind-altering practices they tend to engage in, rather than any sort of divine reality.

Secondly, and still more significantly, even if our theist’s assumption that she is experiencing God leads her to trust her other senses, her other senses then appear to furnish her with ample evidence that there is no such benevolent God. There is, for example, the evidential problem of evil – surely an all-powerful and all-good God would not have created a world containing so much appalling suffering. So, unlike the assumption that our other senses are reliable, her theistic assumption ends up undermining itself.

In short, this version of Going Nuclear doesn’t work. The theist’s assumption that her God experience is reliable appears, on closer examination, to be much less reasonable than the atheist’s assumption that our other senses are reliable.

Beyond Going Nuclear

There is an interesting twist on Going Nuclear popular in certain religious circles – a twist that involves combining Going Nuclear with “I Just Know!”. It runs as follows.

God, some theists maintain, has provided them direct and certain knowledge of his existence. So, they suppose, they don’t have to assume God exists. They know he does (see “I Just Know!”). And, armed with this certain knowledge that God exists, she can then justify her reliance on logic and her senses. The God she knows exists would not allow her to be deceived in her use of logic and her senses. But the atheist, she thinks, has no such justification. So the atheist must remain mired in skepticism.

Such a theist may be tempted to respond to her atheist critics by saying, “Ah, you are attempting to using logic against me, but of course, unlike me, you are not entitled to are you?” This is one of the main argumentative strategies of one well-known commenter on various religious and atheist blogs who, in response to any rational criticism of his Bible-literalist brand of theism, typically ignores it, saying:

I submit, that your worldview cannot justify the universal, abstract, invariant, laws of logic, which YOU presuppose in all of YOUR arguments, whereas mine can, and does.

Notice that, though our theist is playing the skeptical card here, he is not, strictly speaking, Going Nuclear. Going Nuclear involves bringing all positions down to the same level of rationality. The claim made here is that only the atheist ends up mired in skepticism. Our theist plays the skeptical card in order to undermine the arguments of his atheist critics. However, our theist (he supposes) achieves a literally miraculous escape from skepticism himself. With one bound he is free – saved by the grace of God, whom, he supposes, provides him infallible knowledge of God’s existence, knowledge that can then be used to justify his own reliance on logic.

This way of dealing with criticisms of theism also fails. Whether or not our theist is right to claim atheists are mired in skepticism, he is still obliged to deal with their arguments and objections. Suppose an atheist appears to have provided what looks like an excellent argument that his God does not exist, or powerful evidence that he is deluded in supposing that he “just knows” his God exists. For our theist to just ignore such arguments and evidence and say, “But you are using logic which you can’t justify but I can!” is pure evasion. Whether or not the atheist is mired in skepticism is irrelevant. It may be the atheist’s argument is still good. The onus is on the theist to explain why it isn’t. And of course, if the theist can’t deal with the argument, then they’re dumped back in the skeptical swamp themselves.

2. RELATIVIST VERSIONS OF GOING NUCLEAR

We have looked at two skeptical versions of Going Nuclear, one based on skepticism regarding reason, the other based on skepticism about the external world. However, there are also non-skeptical versions of Going Nuclear based on the thought that truth is relative.

Relativism about truth

Relativism is the philosophical view that what is true is relative to believers. There’s no objective Truth with a capital “T” out there to be discovered. Rather, truth is a construction – our construction. There’s your truth, my truth, his truth, her truth. There is, in short, not one Truth, but many truths.

In its simplest form, this sort of relativism says that what is true is what the individual believes to be true. Suppose I believe we are visited by angels. Then, says such a relativist, for me it is true we are visited by angels. If you believe we are not visited by angels, then for you it’s true that we’re not. There’s no fact of the matter as to which of us is actually correct.

Another form of relativism about truth makes truth relative not to individuals, but to communities. Most scientifically-minded Westerners believe that stars and planets have no astrological influence on our lives. But in other cultures it’s supposed that the stars and planets do have such an influence, and that astrologers can use star charts to accurately predict the future. According to this kind of relativist, that the stars and planets have such an influence is false for such Westerners, but true for those other communities. Truth is a social construct. Scientific truth is just one truth among many, all of which are equally “valid”.

These kinds of relativism about truth are popular in certain circles, and they might provide Mike with another get-out-of-jail-free card. If Mike finds he is losing the argument about the ability of astral plane therapy to cure disease, he might say:

Well, that astral plane therapy cures disease may not be true for you, but it’s true for me!

The implication being that what’s true about astral plane therapy is a matter of what certain individuals or communities happen to believe about astral plane therapy. Mike’s opponents now not only have to figure out what Mike means by this cryptic remark, they’re then faced with the job of refuting the relativist theory of truth to which Mike has, in effect, signed up. These are complicated tasks that will require time and patience to achieve. In the meantime, Mike’s out the door, leaving his opponent bogged down in the philosophical mire he has created.

Notice that this is also a version of Going Nuclear, because, like the sceptical version, it brings every belief down to the same level, rationally speaking. Every belief is as “true” as every other.

The absurdity of relativism

It’s worth making a detour at this point to explain just why this kind of relativism is absurd. One reason relativism can seem attractive is that there are is a small percentage of beliefs for which it might, actually, be true. Consider wichitee grubs, for example – the large larvae eaten live by some aboriginal Australians. Some aboriginals consider the grubs a delicacy. Most Westerners, on the other hand, find them revolting (when Jordan, the British glamour model, was challenged to eat several large squirming grubs on a TV programme, she said the experience was “worse than childbirth”).

So what’s the truth about wichitee grubs? Are they delicious, or not? The truth, perhaps, is that there is no Truth-with-a-capital-T about their deliciousness. For those who enjoy the taste of wichitee grubs, it’s true that they’re delicious. For those they don’t it’s false. That’s because the property of being delicious is ultimately rooted, not objectively in the grubs themselves, but rather in our subjective reaction to them.

So, yes, a very small and select band of truths may be relative. But not all (for then, as the philosopher Plato pointed out, the truth that all truths is relative would itself be relative, which entails that, if I believe it’s false that all truths are relative, then I am right!). One or two people might genuinely believe that individuals create their own reality – that reality is whatever the individual takes it to be. The actress Shirley MacLaine, for example, writes

I have learned one deep and meaningful lesson: LIFE, LIVES and REALITY are only what we each perceive them to be. Life doesn’t happen to us. We make it happen.

This kind of view of reality often crops up in New Age circles. For example, one psychic, perplexed about what seemed to be a disagreement between herself and a fellow psychic (who told her she was about to receive a new “evolved” soul), consulted her spirit guides, who informed her they were both right:

I was told that there is no absolute truth. I was told that ‘truth’ is a very personal, subjective thing. Something that is ‘true’ = a perception or a belief that serves us personally.

My guides then explained this, using the law of attraction to illustrate it. They said:
“You know that your beliefs create your reality and that you can create any reality you want by changing your beliefs. If you focus your attention on something and hold it as a belief, whether you like it or not, you will begin to see evidence of it being true, all around you. Therefore, you must only believe things which feel good to you. Truth is that which feels good to you; that which serves you.”
So, according to my guides:
Truth = something you have focused on, something you decided you want to experience = it shows up in your reality.
Untruth = something you reject, something you don’t want to experience = it doesn’t show up in your reality
.
We might call this the Disney theory of truth – in order to make something come true, you need only wish (on a star) and believe hard enough. If it doesn’t come true – well, that’s your fault. You weren’t believing hard enough were you?

Clearly, the Shirley MacLaine view of reality on which reality is whatever we perceive it to be cannot be correct. I cannot make it true that I can fly just by supposing that I can. Suppose I jump off this tall building, convinced I can fly. I mighty even believe I am flying as I plummet to the ground. But the sad fact is, I’ll still end up a crumpled heap on the pavement below (though our psychic might insist I just wasn’t believing hard enough). Even if I jump off holding hands with my community, every member of which is convinced we’ll fly, we will all still plummet to our deaths. Before Copernicus, was it true that the Sun really went round the Earth, because that’s how it looked to people? Had Neil Armstrong, and enough others, believed the Moon was made of cheese, might the Eagle have landed on a sea of Camembert? Obviously not. When it comes to whether or not we can fly, whether or not the Sun goes round the Earth, or whether the Moon is made of cheese, how things appear, and how things really are, can, and do, come apart.

The selective appeal to relativism

So while one or two truths might be relative, most are not. Nevertheless, the view that all truth is relative is supposedly widespread. According to the academic Harold Bloom,

[t]here is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

Actually, I doubt that almost every student really believes this. What I don’t doubt is that many students have learned that relativism offers them a very useful get-out-of-jail-free card when they find themselves cornered in an argument. They have learned that, by saying “Hmm, well, that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me” they can generate enough intellectual confusion to make quick their escape.

This is precisely what Mike does above, of course. Like most people who play the relativist card when cornered, Mike doesn’t really suppose that truth is whatever we believe it to be. If pressed, it would almost certainly turn out that Mike doesn’t really accept the absurd view that if he really believes he can fly, then he can. Nor will Mike play the relativist card while the argument seems to be going his way. Mike’s relativism is merely a convenient guise that he selectively adopts whenever he’s on the losing end of an argument.

The relativist version of Going Nuclear tends not to be popular with mainstream religious traditionalists, who tend to think that there is but One Truth, and that only their particular religion has access to it. When such religious people Go Nuclear, they usually go for a sceptical version. Relativist versions of Going Nuclear are more popular with “New Age” type belief systems.

The “What is truth?” smokescreen

Here’s a related argumentative strategy. Rather than playing the relativist card, simply ask what truth is. Truth is a philosophically thorny notion, and it is by no means clear how to define it. So, if Mike finds his New Age belief system is taking a pasting, intellectually speaking, he could try saying this to his critics:

Ah, you claim these things are true. You think you can show they are true. But let me ask you a more fundamental question - what is truth?

Mike’s opponents will no doubt be disorientated by this sudden change of direction in the conversation and baffled by the thorny philosophical question they have been set, giving Mike enough time to head out the door.

Just this tactic seems to have been employed by Pontius Pilate. When he interrogated Jesus prior to the crucifixion, Jesus proclaimed, "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:37). Pilate replied, "What is truth?" and left. As the philosopher Francis Bacon put it in his essay "On Truth":

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

This kind of use of the question “What is truth?” is the intellectual equivalent of throwing dust in your opponent’s face to make quick your escape. When arguments are going our way, we are generally quite happy to say that we have good grounds for supposing that what we believe is true. Only when things start going badly for us does it suddenly occur to us to ask, “Yes, but what is truth?!”

This is not, strictly speaking, a version of Going Nuclear, as it’s not actually claimed that all beliefs are equally reasonable or equally true. However, it’s related to the relativist version of Going Nuclear, in that it involves the selective use of a philosophical puzzle in order to generate enough confusion to make quick your escape.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Plantinga and myself on Radio

I will be discussing Pantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism with Plantinga on Premier Christian Radio recording November 10th and broadcasting shortly after. Also available as a podcast.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chapter for comments, please....

For comments. The opening sections repackage material I have used before but then there's quite a bit of new stuff.

6. PSEUDO-PROFUNDITY

Some marketing, religious, and lifestyle “gurus” have genuine and valuable insights to offer. But not all. Some are charlatans or fools offering little more than pseudo-profundity. Pseudo-profundity is the art of sounding profound while talking tosh. Unlike the art of actually being profound, the art of sounding profound is not particularly difficult to master.

As we’ll see, there are certain basic recipes that can produce fairly convincing results – good enough to convince many others, and perhaps even yourself, that you have achieved some sort of profound insight into the human condition. If you want to achieve the status of a guru it helps to have some natural charisma and presentational skills. Sincerity, empathy, or at least the ability to fake them, can also useful. Props often help – try wearing a loincloth, a fez, or, in a business setting, a particularly brash waistcoat, bow tie or pair of braces. But even without the aid of such natural talents or paraphenalia, anyone can produce for deep- and meaningful-sounding pronouncements if they are prepared to follow a few simple rules.

State the obvious

To begin with, try pointing out the blindingly obvious. Only do it e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y, and with an air of superior wisdom. This technique works best if your pronouncements focus on one of life’s big themes, love, money and death. Here are a few examples:

We were all children once
Death comes to us all
Money can’t buy love


State the obvious in a sufficiently earnest way, following up with a pregnant pause, and you may find others begin to nod in agreement, perhaps muttering “How true that is”.

Contradict yourself

A second, more sophisticated technique is to pick words with opposite or incompatible meanings and cryptically combine them in what appears to be a straightforward contradiction. Here are a few example:

Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

Such sentences can easily appear profound, and are interpretable in all sorts of ways. They certainly get people thinking. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the three slogans of the Party are all examples of this kind of pseudo-profundity:

War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength


As an aspiring guru, you can produce your own contradictory claims. The great beauty of these kinds of comment is that they make your audience do the work for you. Their meaning is not for you to say – it’s for others to figure out. Just adopt a sage-like expression, sit back, and let your followers figure it out.

The use of contradiction to generate the appearance of profundity is common in religious circles. While a blatant contradiction within religious doctrine might strike the unbelievers as evidence that it’s rubbish, the faithful will often see such a contradiction as a mark of real depth and profundity. If you are planning to start your own religious cult, a good recipe to follow is to say contradictory things about your God or Gods. Constantly, assert, but then deny. Say that God is. And yet, he is not. God is everything, and nothing. He is one, and yet he is many. He is good. But then he isn’t.

None of this is to say that seemingly contradictory remarks cannot ever convey something genuinely profound. They can certainly be thought provoking. But, given the formulaic way in which they can be generated, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.

Wrap a platitude in an analogy


A particularly effective way of generating pseudo-profundity is take some dreary platitude - such as that life is often surprising, that we often feel there’s something “missing” from our lives, that we should appreciate things while we can, and make the most of the opportunities we get - and then wrap this platitude in an analogy. “Life is like a….” is an obvious example. Here are a few examples:

My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. (Forest Gump)

Life is like a taxi. The meter just keeps a-ticking whether you are getting somewhere or just standing still. (Lou Erickson)
Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds us down or polishes us up depends on us. (Thomas L. Holdcroft)
Life is like a coin. You can spend it any way you wish, but you only spend it once. (Lillian Dickson)

The result can often be terribly deep-sounding.

Religious sermons and homilies often follow this formula, of course. Alan Bennett produced a hilarious spoof in his sketch “The Sermon” (which Bennett delivered while wearing a dog collar):

Life, you know, is rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key. And I wonder how many of you here tonight have wasted years of your lives looking behind the kitchen dressers of this life for that key. I know I have. Others think they’ve found the key, don’t they? They roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life. They reveal the sardines, the riches of life, therein, and they get them out, and they enjoy them. But, you know, there’s always a little bit in the corner you can’t get out. I wonder is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine!


The author Douglas Adams, no doubt irritated by “Life is like a ….” pseudo-profundity, also produced his own surreal version:

Life... is like a grapefruit. It's orange and squishy, and has a few pips in it, and some folks have half a one for breakfast.

As an aspiring guru, can you can apply the same method of dressing up a platitude in an analogy. The recipe works best when applied to one of life’s big themes, so try picking one from: “Love is like a …” “Money is like a….” “Death is like a ….”, “Sex is like a …” “Success is a like a ….”, “God is like a ….”, “Religion is like a …”

Use jargon

A few big, not fully understood words can easily enhance the illusion of profundity. All that’s required is a little imagination.

Here is one common trick. Make up some words that appear to have meanings similar to the meanings of certain familiar terms, but that differ in some subtle and never-fully-explained way. For example, don’t talk about people being happy or sad, but about people having “positive or negative attitudinal orientations”. That sounds far more impressive and scientific-sounding, doesn’t it?

Now try translating some dull platitudes into your newly invented language. For, example, the truism that happy people tend to make other people feel happy can be re-expressed as “positive attitudinal orientations have high transferability”.

Also, whether you are a business guru, life-style consultant, or mystic, it always helps to talk of “forces”, “energies” and “balances”. Follow the example of the practitioners of feng shui, which holds that the wrong arrangement of furniture can block a “vital force” which will make your home vulnerable to crime or divorce. The appeal to such mysterious forces makes it sound as if you have discovered some deep mechanism or power that could potentially be harnessed and used by others. That makes it easier to persuade people that if they don’t buy into your advice, they’ll really miss out.

Finally, if some smart-Alec is brave enough to put up their hand and ask exactly what a “positive attitudinal orientation” is, define it using other bits of your newly-invented jargon. That will leave your questioner no wiser. If all your jargon is defined using other bits of jargon, no one will ever be able to figure out precisely what you mean (though some will think they know). And the fact that buried within your pseudo-profundities are several platitudes will give your audience the impression that you must really be on to something. So they’ll be keen to hear more.

Scientific jargon can be particularly useful. Many peddlers of pseudo-profundity have learned the insight expressed by the grea 19th Century scientist James Clerk Maxwell, that

Such... is the respect paid to science that the most absurd opinions may become current, provided they are expressed in language, the sound of which recalls some well-known scientific phrase.

Referring to some branch of science can lend your ramblings further fake authority and gravitatas. References to quantum mechanics are particularly popular among peddlers of pseudo-scientific claptrap. Quantum mechanics has the advantage that it is widely known to be mysterious and weird, plus hardly anyone understands it, so if you start spouting references to it in support of your own teaching, people will assume you must be very clever, and almost certainly won’t realize that you are, in fact, just bullshitting.

Dealing with pseudo-profundity


Hopefully, this brief sketch of some of the main techniques for generating pseudo-profundity will help you spot it more effectively. If you are on the receiving end of pseudo-profundity, how do you respond? How can we best reveal pseudo-profundity for what it is?

T he greatest enemy of pseudo-profundity is clarity. One of the most effective methods of disarming it is to translate what is said into clear, plain English. Say, “Right, so you are saying…” and proceed jot down in clear, unambiguous prose on back of an envelope precisely what they do mean. Such a translation will typically reveal that what was said one of three things: (i) an obvious falsehood, (ii) nonsense, or (iii) a rather dull platitude or truism.

However, combating pseudo-profundity is rarely quite as easy as that. Those who spout it are often aware that clarity is likely to unmask them, and so will probably resist your attempts to rephrase what they mean in clear and unambiguous terms. They will probably accuse you of a crude misunderstanding (see Moving The Goalposts). Of course, they still won’t explain clearly what they do mean. They’ll just keep giving you the run around by changing the subject, erecting smokescreens, accusing you of further misunderstandings, and so on. For this reason, the unmasking of pseudo-profundity typically requires both time and patience.

Mockery can also be effective, as Allan Bennett’s “The Sermon”, nicely illustrates. The Hans Christian Anderson story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” ends with much hilarity when the small boy points out that the Emperor is actually wearing no clothes at all. The public’s laughter at the Emperor parading up and down naked finally breaks the spell that the weavers had, in effect, cast over them all. Laughter can similarly help break the spell that pseudo-profundity casts over us. A little mockery may help us recognize that we have been taken in by someone spouting little more than obvious truths, falsehoods or nonsense dressed up as profundity. For this reason, those who spout pseudo-profundity will often strongly discourage mockery – taking enormous, exaggerated offence at it.

Unfortunately, some cult-leaders, business gurus, mystics, life-style consultants, therapists - and even some philosophers – rely very heavily on the kind of techniques described in this chapter to generate the illusion that they possess deep and penetrating insights. The use of pseudo-profundity often contributes heavily to the perpetuation of intellectual black holes, ...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Chapter of book - for comments

4 GOING NUCLEAR I am particularly looking for advice on sign posting, making clearer and more accessible.

Suppose Mike is involved in a debate about the truth of his own particular New Age belief system. Things are not going well for him. His arguments are being picked apart, and, worse still, his opponents have come up with several devastating objections that he cannot deal with. How might he get himself out of this bind?

One possibility is to adopt the intellectually dishonest strategy I call Going Nuclear. Going Nuclear involves playing a general skeptical card. In philosophy, a “skeptic” is someone who raises doubts about our claims to knowledge in a given area. Here is an example of a skeptical argument:

Whenever we argue about the truth or falsity of a belief, we apply our powers of reason. But why suppose that reason is itself a reliable route to the truth? You might attempt to justify our use of reason, of course. But any justification of reason that you offer will itself rely on reason. Relying on reason to justify our reliance on reason is a bit like taking a second-hand car salesman’s word for it that he is trustworthy – it’s an entirely circular justification, and so no justification at all! So it turns out that our reliance on reason is entirely unjustified. It’s a leap of faith!


From the claim that our reliance on reason is unjustified, it is then but a short step to the conclusion that no belief is justified:

But if reliance on reason cannot be justified, then, because every rational justification relies on reason, so no belief can be justified. But if no belief is justified, then, ultimately, everything is a faith position! But then your belief is no more reasonable than mine. Get out of that!


Whether or not this is actually a good argument for the conclusion that no belief is justified is not a question we’ll address here. The point is, at first sight, it does look pretty persuasive. It’s not easy to spot precisely where the argument goes wrong, if, indeed, it goes wrong at all. This means that if Mike’s belief system is taking a beating, rationally speaking, a last-ditch tactic Mike might adopt is simply to throw this skeptical argument at his opponent. Mike can admit that his belief might not be justified. But he can insist that his opponent’s belief system cannot be justified either. The skeptical argument offers Mike wonderful “Get out of jail”. It allows him to walk away with his head held high, saying, “So you see? In the last analysis, both our positions are equally (ir)rational! They are both ‘faith positions’!”

You can see why I call this strategy “Going Nuclear”. Once Mike plays the skeptical card, all his opponent’s hard work in constructing arguments against his position counts for nothing. Kaboom! At one stroke, Mike demolishes them all. He lays waste to every rational argument, bringing every belief down to the same level.

In order for Mike’s opponent to deal with Going Nuclear, they will now have to refute his philosophical argument. That is a very difficult, perhaps impossible, thing to do. They are certainly going to struggle. In which case, any audience will be struck not only by Mike’s sophistication in employing such a devastating philosophical objection, but also by his opponent’s mounting frustration as they wrestle with the thorny philosophical conundrum that Mike has set them. It’s quite likely that Mike will now appear to be the intellectual victor in this exchange.

So what, exactly, is wrong with Going Nuclear? After, it might be that the skeptical argument Mike has employed really is a good argument. Perhaps every belief system really is as rational as every other. So, if Mike finds himself argued into a corner, why not employ such a skeptical argument? Why is Going Nuclear typically an intellectually dishonest ruse?

Because Mike almost certainly does not press the nuclear button in good faith. Bear in mind that, in such discussions, playing the skeptical card really is the nuclear option. By Going Nuclear, Mike avoids defeat, but only by utterly annihilating the rationality of every belief. All positions, no matter how sensible or nuts, come out as equally (ir)rational.

If Mike is to be consistent, he must now accept that that the Earth is flat, that the Earth is round, that milk makes people fly, that it doesn’t, that astrology is true, that is isn’t – that all these beliefs are equally (un)reasonable. Now of course, Mike almost certainly doesn’t really believe any of this. The fact is, he does think reason provides us with a fairly reliable tool for establishing what is true and what isn’t. Indeed, we all rely on reason in our day-to-day lives. In fact, Mike constantly trusts his life to reason, whenever, for example, he trusts that the brakes on his car will work, that a bridge will support his weight, that a medicine will save his life, and so on.

In fact those who Go Nuclear are usually quite content to rely on reason to make their case just so long as they are not losing the argument. It is only when the tide of rationality turns against them that they reach for the red button. And of course, once their opponent has left the room, they will start using reason again to try to prop up their belief.

So Going Nuclear is, in truth, almost always a mere a ploy. Those who use it don’t usually believe what they’re saying about reason. They say it only to raise enough dust and confusion to make quick their escape.

Going Nuclear can be employed in defence of a wide variety of beliefs. Believe that there’s a family of fairies living in your biscuit barrel or that that you are visited by ghosts? In each case, if you find yourself on the losing side of the argument, you can always employ Going Nuclear as a last ditch, face-saving strategy. It crops up particularly in religious circles. For example, responding to rational arguments raised against his beliefs, one Orthodox Jew writes:

The belief in reason seems no less a dogma than any other.

Perhaps belief in reason is, ultimately, a dogma. But that’s really beside the point. This person almost certainly relies on reason in every other aspect of their life, and will no doubt appeal to reason whenever reason appears to support their religious belief. Their skepticism about reason is not genuine; it’s merely a ruse they employ selectively to avoid having to admit that what they believe has been revealed, by standards that they accept and employ in every other aspect of their life, to be false.

Trusting our senses

Here’s an interesting variant of Going Nuclear that is sometimes employed by the religious when confronted with intellectual challenges to what they believe. They admit that believing in God involves a “leap of faith”. But they then add that atheists have to make a “leap of faith” when it comes to trusting their senses.

Atheists, after all, believe they inhabit a physical world filled with mountains, oceans, trees, houses and people. But they believe this only because that is the kind of world their senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell and so on appear to reveal. How can they know their senses are a reliable guide to the truth? How can they know that their experiences are produced by a real world, rather than, say, a supercomputer generating a sophisticated virtual reality, as in the film The Matrix? After all, everything would seem exactly the same, either way, wouldn’t it? So, it seems atheists cannot justify their belief in such an external world. But if atheists cannot justify their belief in such an external world, then they don’t know that such a world exists. Their belief that there is such a world must involve a huge leap of faith.

Having set up this sceptical argument, a theist may then add that they happen to enjoy, not only sensory experiences, but also a God experience. God, they suppose, reveals himself to them. But then, precisely because they place their faith in their God experience – they suppose that it is not a delusion but genuinely reveals God - they don’t then have to place any additional faith in the reliability of their other senses. For such a good God wouldn’t allow us to be systematically deceived by our senses. We can be sure that, if there’s a God, then our senses are trustworthy. So, for such a theist, trusting their senses does not require any further leap of faith.

In which case, our theist may conclude, for someone who has such religious experiences, belief in God need be no more a “faith position” than the atheist’s belief in the external world. The two beliefs are actually intellectually on par.

This is an interesting argument that may contain an element of truth. Perhaps it is true that atheism is a faith position because any belief about how things stand outside of your their mind is ultimately be a faith position. However, even if any belief about how things stand outside your own mind requires a leap of faith, it doesn’t follow that it’s as reasonable for a theists to place their trust in their God experiences as it is for atheists to trust their senses.

Even if there weren’t very good grounds for supposing that religious experiences, unlike our other senses, are highly untrustworthy (see “I Just Know!”), the fact is that, while the theist’s assumption that they really are experiencing God might lead them to trust the deliverances of their other senses, those other senses then appear to furnish them with ample evidence that there is no such benevolent being (I’m now referring, of course, to the evidential problem of evil outlined in the introduction – surely we observe far too much suffering for this to be creation of an all-powerful and supremely benevolent deity). So, unlike the assumption that our senses are reliable, the theistic assumption ends up undermining itself.

Variants of Going Nuclear: (1) “What is truth?”

We have looked at two skeptical versions of Going Nuclear, one based on skepticism regarding reason, the other on skepticism about the external world. However, there is also a range of non-skeptical versions of Going Nuclear.

For example, rather than raising philosophical doubts our knowledge of what is true, Mike could instead try raising a philosophical question mark over the idea of truth itself. Truth is a philosophically thorny notion, and it’s by no means clear how to define it. So, if Mike finds his New Age belief system taking a pasting, intellectually speaking, he could try saying to his critics:

Ah, you claim these things are true. You think you can show they are true. But let me ask you a more fundamental question - what is truth?

Mike’s opponents will no doubt be disorientated by this sudden change of direction in the conversation and baffled by the thorny philosophical question they have been set, giving Mike at least enough time to head out the door.

Just this tactic seems to have been employed by Pontius Pilate. When Pilate interrogated Jesus prior to the crucifixion, Jesus proclaimed, "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:37). Pilate replied, "What is truth?" and left. As the philosopher Francis Bacon put it in his essay "On Truth":

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

This kind of use of the question “What is truth?” is the intellectual equivalent of throwing dust in your opponent’s face to make quick your escape. When arguments are going our way, we are generally quite happy to say that we have good grounds for supposing that what we believe is true. It’s only when things start going badly for us that it suddenly occurs to us to ask, “Yes, but what is truth?!”

Variants of Going Nuclear: (2) “It’s true for me”


Another variant of Going Nuclear involves, not asking what truth is, but simply proclaiming or implying that truth is relative.

To explain: relativism is the philosophical view that what is true is relative to believers. There’s no objective Truth with a capital “T” out there to be discovered. Rather, truth is a construction – our construction. Thus there are many truths. There’s your truth, my truth, his truth, her truth.

In its simplest form, this sort of relativism says that what is true is what the individual believes to be true. Suppose I believe levitation by the power of the mind is possible. Then, says such a relativist, for me it is true that it is possible. If you believe it is impossible, then for you it’s true that it is impossible. There’s no fact of the matter as to which of us is actually correct.

Another form of relativism about truth makes truth relative not to individuals, but to communities. Most scientifically-minded Westerners believe that the stars and planets have no astrological influence on our lives. But in other cultures, it is supposed that the stars and planets do have such an influence, and that astrologers can use star charts to accurately predict the future. According to this kind of relativist, that the stars and planets have such an influence is false for such Westerners, but true for other communities. Truth is a social construct. Scientific truth is just one truth among many truths, all of which are equally “valid”.

This sort of relativism about truth is popular in certain circles, and it might provide Mike with another get-out-of-jail card. He might say:

Well, that astral plane therapy cures disease may not be true for you, but it’s true for me!

The implication being that what’s true about astral plane therapy is simply a matter of what certain individuals or communities believe about astral plane therapy. Mike’s opponents now not only have to figure out precisely what Mike means by this cryptic remark, they will then have to refute the relativist theory of truth to which Mike has, in effect, signed up – complicated tasks that will require some time and patience to achieve. In the meantime, just like Pontius Pilate, Mike’s out the door, leaving his opponent bogged down in the philosophical mire he has created.

The absurdity of relativism

It’s worth making a detour at this point to indicate just why this kind of relativism is absurd. One reason why relativism can seem attractive is that there are a few beliefs for which it might, actually, be true. Consider wichitee grubs, for example – the large larvae eaten live by some aboriginal Australians. Some aboriginals consider the grubs a delicacy. Most Westerners, on the other hand, consider them revolting (when Jordan, the British glamour model, was challenged to eat several large squirming grubs on a TV programme, she said the experience was “worse than childbirth”). So what’s the truth about wichitee grubs? Are they delicious, or aren’t they? The truth, perhaps, is that there is no Truth-with-a-capital-T about their deliciousness. For those who enjoy wichitee grubs, it’s true that they’re delicious. For those they don’t it’s false. That is because the property of being delicious is ultimately rooted, not objectively in the grubs themselves, but rather in our subjective reaction to them.

So, yes, some truths may be relative. But not all (for then, as the philosopher Plato pointed out, the truth that all truths is relative would itself be relative, which entails that, if I believe it’s false that all truths are relative, then I am right!). One or two people might believe that individuals create their own reality – that reality is whatever the individual takes it to be. The actress Shirley MacLaine, for example, writes

I have learned one deep and meaningful lesson: LIFE, LIVES and REALITY are only what we each perceive them to be. Life doesn’t happen to us. We make it happen.


One of the oddest and most disturbing examples of someone apparently quite sincerely embracing a MacLaine-type view of reality is provided by George W. Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove, who seems to have learned the same deep and meaningful lesson. Rove once told journalist Ron Suskind that Suskind was a member of what Rove called the

“reality-based community”, which [Rove] defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” ... “That's not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."[2]

Rove’s view seems to be that there is no need to observe and study reality in order to try to figure what is and is not true, or what is and is not likely to work, policy-wise. For there is no such independent reality. Bush’s leadership team create reality. Just like Shirley MacLaine.

Clearly, the Shirley MacLaine view of reality cannot be correct. I cannot make it true that I can fly just by believing or imagining that I can. No matter how convinced I may be that if I jump off this tall building, I’ll soar gracefully into the air, the fact is, if I jump I’ll die. Even if I jump off holding hands with my community, every member of which is convinced we’ll fly, we will still all plummet to our deaths. Before Copernicus, was it true that the Sun really went round the Earth, because that’s what everyone believed? If Neil Armstrong, and enough others, had believed the Moon was made of cheese, would the Eagle have landed on a sea of Camembert?

Obviously not. When it comes to whether or not we can fly, whether or not the Sun goes round the Earth, or whether the Moon is made of cheese, what we believe, and how things really are, can, and do, come apart.

The selective appeal to relativism

According to the academic Harold Bloom,

[t]here is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.

Actually, I rather doubt that almost every student really believes this. But many students have learned that relativism offers a very useful get-out-of-jail card when they cornered in an argument. They have learned that, by saying “Hmm, well, that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me” they create enough intellectual confusion to make quick their escape.

This is precisely what Mike does above, of course. Like most people who play the relativist card when cornered, Mike doesn’t really suppose that truth is whatever we suppose it to be. If pressed, it would almost certainly turn out that Mike doesn’t really accept the absurd view that if he really believes he can fly, then he can. Nor will Mike play the relativist card while the argument seems to be going his way. Mike’s relativism is merely a convenient guise that he selectively adopts whenever he’s on the losing end of an argument.

God redundant says Hawking

LONDON (Reuters) – God did not create the universe and the "Big Bang" was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, the eminent British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking argues in a new book.

In "The Grand Design," co-authored with U.S. physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking says a new series of theories made a creator of the universe redundant, according to the Times newspaper which published extracts on Thursday.

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," Hawking writes.

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."
Read more here.

Er, atheist though I am, there seems to be a slight problem with this, right?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Feser's criticism

Edward Feser has been criticising my evil God argument over on his bog. I have rattled his cage with a comment (not yet moderated). Wonder if he'll respond?

Here is what Feser said:

Law's argument evidently presupposes a "theistic personalist" or "neo-theist" notion of God and is therefore completely irrelevant to the classical theism of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, et al., according to which God is not "good" in the way a human being is good, as if He and we both instantiated the same property; rather, He just is Goodness Itself, and anything less than that is (for a classical theist) necessarily other than God. Hence it is incoherent to suggest that God might be evil.

Re: the analysis of evil as a privation, I would say that it is hard to makes sense of individual examples of evil on any other view, and hard to make sense of evil as an objective feature of the world at all -- which the atheist himself has to do if he's going to make arguments from evil stick -- except on the privation view. I would also say that the privation view naturally falls out as a consequence of a general classical realist metaphysics (whether Platonist or Aristotelian). In any event, whether the classical theist can argue for this analysis of evil to Law's satisfaction or not is irrelevant to the question at hand, because the analysis is integral to the classical theistic view of God and the world. Thus, if Law says that there might at least in principle be a (classical theist) God who is evil, then he either doesn't understand what classical theism means by "God" or is just begging the question against classical theism. Either way, as I say, his argument is irrelevant.

Now, a critic might at this point say that he isn't familiar with and doesn't understand all this stuff about evil as privation, God as pure act, God as Goodness Itself, etc. But if so, then that's the critic's problem, because in that case he doesn't understand classical theism itself and therefore shouldn't presume that he has raised any challenge to it.

See, this is what annoys the hell out of me: The sort of atheist -- and this is the typical atheist, in fact -- who (if he is even aware of them in the first place) treats concepts like pure act, evil as privation, divine simplicity, the transcendentals, the distinction between per se and accidentally ordered causes, and all the other elements of the classical theistic tradition as if they were a bunch of oddities which the theist brings in in an an hoc way in order to patch up arguments that would otherwise have to be admitted to have been demolished by atheist criticisms; and as if he is under no obligation to try to understand them before judging that the traditional arguments fail. One wants to say: "No, dummy, these elements have always been integral to the tradition of philosophical theology, and if you don't know of or understand them, that only shows that you don't have the first clue about that tradition itself, and thus shouldn't be opening your mouth up about it." Which is, of course, what I often do say.

Accordingly, most atheist arguments, even most of those presented by otherwise serious philosophers (rather than by the Dawkinses of the world), are simply irrelevant to the question of whether classical theism is true. In fairness, though, too many contemporary religious apologists and Christian philosophers of religion have little more knowledge of the classical theist tradition than the typical atheist does. They argue for what is in effect (and whether they realize this or not) a decadent "theistic personalist" or "neo-theist" conception of God, and thus open themselves up to arguments like Law's. But that only shows that, here as in so many other ways, we modern Christians are inferior to our forebears, and are paying the price for forgetting the tradition they tried to pass on to us, and have passed on to us if only we'd listen to them. It doesn't show that there is anything wrong with the tradition itself. And the sooner we re-learn that tradition, the better.