Monday, December 8, 2014

My response to THEOS essay claiming humanism needs Christianity

Here is my response to the new THEOS essay on why Humanists should be Christians. Posted at CFI blogs.

16 comments:

Philolinguist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philolinguist said...

The psychologist Irving Janis coined the term 'groupthink' to refer to the tendency of groups to veer to more extreme views under certain conditions:

1) Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.

2) Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.

3) Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

4) Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.

5) Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.

6) Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.

7) Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.

8) Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

Source: http://www.psysr.org/about/pubs_resources/groupthink%20overview.htm

Those conditions are all too common, but they're not unique to (some) religious groups. It seems to be the human condition, probably because most of us are happy to practice self-censorship to stay in an 'in-group' for socio-economic reasons (in fact, Janis's initial research was aimed at explaining US foreign policy failures, not religious extremism). That's why I believe in free speech as an inviolable right, but 'humanism' (or 'isms' in general)? Meh. Too many 'humanists' are willing to stifle free speech and persecute dissenters as vigorously as their religious opponents.

Philolinguist said...

Stephen Law says: "But if the content of our beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms more generally causally impact our behaviour then there’s good reason to think that evolution will indeed favour true-belief forming mechanisms..."

Not necessarily. Suppose that at some point in evolutionary history, humans were infected by parasites that manipulated the victim's thoughts to further the parasite's ends (From the evolutionary perspective, this is not an improbable scenario: many species are parasitical, several are known to control their victims' brains, and at least one is suspected of altering human brain function).

http://io9.com/12-real-parasites-that-control-the-lives-of-their-hosts-461313366

http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/12/07/can-humans-be-controlled-by-tiny-parasites

It doesn't matter to (and may benefit) the parasite if the induced behavior in the victim is accompanied by false beliefs, because the parasite relies on its own cognitive apparatus to produce true beliefs, so the only beliefs (regardless of truth value) it needs to generate in the victim are those that serve the parasite's ends. Indeed, people do the same thing when they lie, they generate false beliefs in others in order to further the liar's ends.

Furthermore, the parasites needn't be organic. We seem to be quickly approaching the Singularity, when the intelligence of computers will exceed that of humans. Stephen Hawking has warned that humans could end up losing control of AI. What if this has already happened, and computers have found a way to hack into our brains? This was the scenario explored in the movie 'Matrix'.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/stephen-hawking-transcendence-looks-at-the-implications-of-artificial-intelligence--but-are-we-taking-ai-seriously-enough-9313474.html

http://youtu.be/V43t_S7VGJA

Stephen Law said...

Hi Philolinguist - can you point to such a mind parasite having ever evolved (resulting in mostly false beliefs and affecting an entire population, as you are suggesting is so in our case)? I doubt you can even point to one that affects a whole population, or one that induces false beliefs as opposed to desires.

You are now merely raising possibilities - cooking up evolutionary just-so stories as to how our beliefs could have been produced. That's not nearly enough to generate scepticism, of course.

As to your appeal to 'properly basic beliefs': such beliefs can face normative defeat (i.e. be such that, given new evidence about their basis, one should cease believing them). Discovering that someone has for all you know good reason to deceive you supplies you with a normative defeater re all your beliefs based solely on what they say. So for example, I'll believe what Sally told me, but of course not if I discover (i) she pulled a ball from an urn containing I have no clue as to what proportion of black to white balls and (ii) if she pulled a black one she lied and otherwise told the truth. This is the situation sceptical theism puts us in re believing what God supposedly tells or reveals to us. You can no longer trust him. It is no longer reasonable for you to believe what he says/reveals.

Stephen Law said...

PS even if you could point to one example of such mind parasite ticking all those boixes, which I bet you cannot, even that would not suffice to establish there was a *reasonable chance* we are victim to one. Which is what you need to generate your sceptical conslusion

Philolinguist said...

Hi Stephen, the security-question thing at the CFI site is malfunctioning, so I'll post my reply here till that's fixed.

Stephen Law said - "Widespread false belief would ... likely inhibit the ability of the organism to do what the mind parasites wants."

That depends on what the parasite wants, and it doesn't have to want much. The parasite may well have its own (reliable) cognitive faculties intact, but lack an ability that the host possesses (e.g. mobility). Somehow, the parasite evolved to hijack the host's brain in such a way that the former controls the latter's movements.

But since evolution is a random and haphazard process, instead of plugging directly into the host's motor cortex, the parasite (perhaps unknowingly, since it may even lack intelligence) takes the indirect route of inducing all kinds of false beliefs in the host, that convince the host to go where the parasite wants to go.

This would have a knock-on effect in the host's brain; which has to produce more false beliefs (i.e. confabulate), to paper over the contradictions (i.e. cognitive dissonance) between a) the beliefs the parasite is inducing and b) beliefs produced by the properly-functioning parts of the host's cognitive apparatus. As a result, the host's cognitive faculties become generally unreliable (apart from the limited faculties required to do what the parasite wants).

Stephen Law said - "If there is a God whose reasons are largely unknowable to us (so he might easily have good reasons for all the evil, we observe, say), on the other hand, well now how do we know he has not good reason systematically to deceive us?"

If our cognitive faculties alone cannot give us good reason to trust our cognitive faculties, then they cannot give us good reason to believe that a loving God exists. So faith in such a God would have to be something like what Alvin Plantinga calls a 'basic belief', one that arises from the internal nature of those who believe, unmediated by any other beliefs.

Of course, a basic belief could be caused by a mind-parasite. A basic belief is not an incontrovertible belief; it is a foundational belief, one that cannot be revised without revising a lot of other beliefs, and possibly ending up a quite different person (difficult to do, but not impossible). Atheists don't lack foundational beliefs, they just have different foundational beliefs from theists. Since we're all betting on eternity, our cognitive faculties don't really help us in that regard.

Stephen Law said...

ps my 2 responses to the above post now precede it because you deleted and reposted.

Philolinguist said...

Sorry, I deleted my previous post to make a correction, and re-posted it below your reply unintentionally (so readers, pse take note).

Stephen Law said - "Can you point to such a mind parasite having ever evolved (resulting in mostly false beliefs and affecting an entire population, as you are suggesting is so in our case)?"

The thing about parasites is that they're often very good at covering their tracks, so their hosts don't even know they're there (makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective, and typical of known parasite behavior).

Besides, if most of us had the parasite, it (and the resulting beliefs) would be considered as part of our 'normal' constitution. The few of us who don't have the parasite (and the accompanying beliefs) would be the 'abnormal' ones.

So we can't even prove such a parasite exists, because it simply wouldn't fit the criteria for a 'parasite' by the reckoning of most people (the victims). So I couldn't "point to one", as you request. But I don't have to, to make my point.

Stephen Law said - "even if you could point to one example of such mind parasite ticking all those boxes, which I bet you cannot, even that would not suffice to establish there was a *reasonable chance* we are victim to one. Which is what you need to generate your sceptical conclusion"

Even without producing such a parasite, I think (and I'm sure many biologists would agree) that evolutionary theory and the observed data sufficiently 'demonstrate' that such a parasite has a very reasonable chance of existing. Just look at the complexity and 'ingenuity' of evolutionary solutions to the problem of survival, including known parasites.

Stephen Law said - "You are now merely raising possibilities - cooking up evolutionary just-so stories as to how our beliefs could have been produced. That's not nearly enough to generate scepticism, of course."

If you mean it's not enough to make most of us doubt what our cognitive faculties tell us, you're right. But there might be a minority, previously on the fence, who see it as good reason to doubt their faculties enough to trust a little more in their conscience.

Stephen Law said - "As to your appeal to 'properly basic beliefs': such beliefs can face normative defeat (i.e. be such that, given new evidence about their basis, one should cease believing them). Discovering that someone has for all you know good reason to deceive you supplies you with a normative defeater re all your beliefs based solely on what they say."

Not if our beliefs are not based on what anyone says. I may agree with what someone says because of my beliefs, but that's not the same as believing what they say because they said it. If I believe 'x', I obviously believe that 'x' is true, so I can't believe that someone is lying when he tells me 'x'.

If I basically believe that God is truthful, I can't believe that he's a liar. I can, however, believe that it is possible that there is no such God, whilst believing that there is such a God.

Stephen Law said...

First off,the onus is on you to show that on evolution we have a reasonable chance of having evolved to have mostly false beliefs. You have not shown this. Pointing to the possibility of a hypothetical evolved mind-parasite that, like Descartes' demon, systematically misleads us is not good enough. You need to show that there's a reasonable chance such parasites exist (i) affecting beliefs not desires (which all the ones I know of do not)(ii) affecting a majority of the beliefs of the organism (ditto) (iii) affecting all, not just some, of the species in question (ditto)and (vi) which is quite likely to have affected all of us humans in that way. You have not shown even one of these things, so you can hardly claim to have shown what you need to. As I say, you're cooking up 'just-so- stories - possibilities, with no evidence of significant probability (and in fact there's pretty good evidence the probability is low given you can't supply even one example of such a parasite affecting any other species at all).

Saying 'But if there are mind parasites they'll fool us into thinking they don't exist' is irrelevant. As I say, the onus is on you to show that there's a real risk of us having been infected by such parasites.

Re your appeal to a properly basic belief that God is truthful. Even if you basically believe God is truthful, sceptical theism *still* generates a normative defeater for that belief. Just as my discovery of the backstory to Sally's assertion gives me reason to distrust her even if I previously consider my belief that she is truthful properly basic (and perhaps the belief that other people tell the truth, other things considered, is properly basic, actually). Your appeal to proper basicality does not give you the get-out-of-jail-free card that you require. Sceptical theism generates a normative defeater for all beliefs based on divine assertion/revelation, notwithstanding the supposed proper basicality of believing God is truthful.

Your choice now seems to be: give up sceptical theism (the last, best hope of dealing with the evidential problem of evil, I suggest) or give up the thought you can reasonably believe based on divine assertion/revelation.

Stephen Law said...

btw cfi thing works if you do not embad links.

I am back there now...

Paul P. Mealing said...

There are a couple of issues I’d raise.

Firstly, this statement, admittedly, taken out of context:

By contrast, Christianity offers a powerful explanation why our conscience provides a window onto moral reality.

John Stuart Mill, was probably not the first, and certainly not the last, to point out that our ‘conscience’ is a social or cultural construct. Freud called it the ‘super-ego’. It’s very easy to imply that one’s conscience is God whispering in one’s ear, but it’s misleading, even dangerous, and has led to much neurosis. How many teenagers have suffered angst over their natural tendency to masturbate, though their conscience made them feel guilty about it. How much worse if you believe contemporaneously that your conscience is God’s voice advising you against doing something that is natural and dare-I-say-it, normal.

The second point I’d make is that ‘reason’ is what makes us morally responsible. The special trait of humans, to quote Aristotle, is that we have reason. It requires a degree of self-deception to rationalise a war crime, for example. Many people, victims of peer group or political pressure, have to practice self-deception to live with the consequences of their actions. Sometimes a belief in a God who purportedly supports those actions allows the perpetrator to go a long way down a road that others would call evil.

Regards, Paul.

Anonymous said...

THEOS is an utter embarrassment to Christianity in the Public Square.

It's broadly a group of Evangelicals trying to show how cutting-edge and clever they are without using scripture verses, and it fails miserably.

Elmina Kenley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philolinguist said...

Stephen Law writes: "But if the content of our beliefs and belief-forming mechanisms more generally causally impact our behaviour then there’s good reason to think that evolution will indeed favour true-belief forming mechanisms..."

Unfortunately, the evidence from evolutionary cognitive science disagrees with Stephen Law on this point (and lends support to Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism):

https://youtu.be/oYp5XuGYqqY?t=9m7s

Donald D. Hoffman is Professor of Cognitive Science, University of California, Irvine. Here's his webpage: http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/

Philolinguist said...

Here's a talk where Prof Hoffman explains more of his own theory of consciousness.

https://youtu.be/JoZsAsgOSes?t=1h40m35s

I don't get the math part, but he basically argues that consciousness, not matter, is fundamental. He denies that physical objects have causal powers (instead, causation is a 'mind hack', a heuristic model, not an mind-independent phenomenon. Atomic theory, and our perception of atoms themselves, are extensions of this heuristic model). Hence, materialism and the corresponding theories of mind are mistaken. He ends up with some form of idealism. Then there's a discussion with Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers.

Uncannily, these were the very conclusions that I came to, from more theoretical premises, in my own paper 'Causal Realism in the Philosophy of Mind':

http://commons.pacificu.edu/eip/vol15/iss2/5/

I've forwarded him the link. It would be interesting to know if he has an evidence-based theory of the origin of the notion of causation, something that I'm not clear about.

Philolinguist said...

In the above lecture, Prof Hoffman contends that space and time are not mind-independent realities, but are instead extensions of a heuristic model that serves human needs. However, he doesn't explain how he came to that conclusion. I don't know about space, but I suspect that causation underpins our notion of time. So if causation is a heuristic model and not a mind-independent reality, then so is time.

In outline, my argument is as follows. Directionality is intrinsic to the notion of 'time'. Time only goes one way. So does causation. As traditionally conceived, there is no backward causation in time. Some may claim that this is due to the nature of time, but how do we tell the direction of time? By the direction of causation. This is the view of Prof Robin LePoidevin, one of the leading philosophers of time. He explains it here:

https://youtu.be/DyjQVVdqrxo?t=3m23s