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Showing posts from February, 2007

atheism a faith position?

Reasonableness is a matter of degree. Beliefs can be very reasonable (Japan exists), fairly reasonable (quarks exist), not unreasonable (there's intelligent life on other planets) or downright unreasonable (fairies exist). There's a scale of reasonableness, if you like, with very reasonable beliefs near the top and deeply unreasonable ones towards the bottom. Notice a belief can be very high up the scale, yet still be open to some doubt. And even when a belief is low down, we can still acknowledge the remote possibility it might be true. How reasonable is the belief that God exists? Atheists typically think it very unreasonable. Very low on the scale. But most religious people say it is at least not un reasonable (have you ever met a Christian who said "Hey, belief in God is no more reasonable than belief in fairies, but I believe it anyway!"?) They think their belief is at least halfway up the scale of reasonableness. Now, that their belief is downright unreason

Atheism a "faith position" too

Give a theist a good argument against their belief, and often they'll play the "faith" card. "Ah, well, theism is ultimately a faith position", they say. And then, very often, they add, "But of course atheism is a faith position too - you can't scientifically prove either , can you?" Here are a few examples. First, Alister McGrath in The Dawkins Delusion : There can be no question of scientific 'proof' of ultimate questions. Either we cannot answer them. or we must answer them on grounds other than the sciences. (p14) (I concede McGrath doesn't use the word "faith", but I think it's clear where he's going). Here's another example (not McGrath) I found on the internet (link now dead): (God’s) existence cannot be proved by physical means. However, neither can it be disproved. What does this mean? It means it takes complete and utter faith to believe there is a god (or gods) and complete and utter faith to belie

"Relativism or Authoritarianism - you choose!" - case study

For those who've been following the last couple of blogs, here's a case study of the relativism-or-Authoritarianism myth in action. It's from , a U.S. website dedicated to combating moral relativism and promoting Christian values. The author helpfully begins by outlining what moral relativism is, before accusing the President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (clearly an evil organization) of being a relativist. Moral relativism has steadily been accepted as the primary moral philosophy of modern society, a culture that was previously governed by a "Judeo-Christian" view of morality…. [M]ost people hold to the concept that right or wrong are not absolutes, but can be determined by each individual. Morals and ethics can be altered from one situation, person, or circumstance to the next. Essentially, moral relativism says that anything goes… Words like "ought" and "should" are rendered meaningless. In this wa

“Relativism or Authoritarianism – you choose!”

Allow me to introduce two terms of art: Liberal and Authoritarian. Authoritarians believe young people should be raised to defer more or less uncritically to some external Authority (e.g. a religious Authority) on moral and religious matters. Liberals by contrast recommend individuals should be raised and educated to think critically and make their own judgement rather than more-or-less unquestioningly take on board the pronouncements of some external (e.g. religious) Authority. That does not require Liberals embrace relativism and “anything goes” non-judgementalism. Yet Authoritarians endlessly smear Liberals as relativists. It’s about time this myth was nailed. To see why it’s a myth, compare empirical science. It too is very Liberal. It too emphasizes the importance of independent critical thought. But to acknowledge the importance of getting scientists to think autonomously rather than uncritically defer to others is not to take the relativist view that all scientific theories

Phillip E Johnson and the Royal Institute of Philosophy

Does the Royal Institute of Philosophy now endorse, or even consider intellectually respectable, intelligent design (ID)? Some are saying so (see here ). Next time a neo-darwinist claims that ID people do not publish papers I am going to bring out the relevant edition of Think magazine and show them. I can just imagine their jaws drop in outrage when they see that the world's best philosophers have turned their back on the defunct theory of evolution and embraced ID. I edit the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal THINK: Philosophy For Everyone. I devoted Issue 11 to intelligent design and fine-tuning, and thought it would be interesting to get Phillip E Johnson - who is v much the public face of ID - to write a piece. Personally, I consider ID intellectually bankrupt (fine-tuning is slightly more respectable, I think). Many Christians agree with me about that of course. The idea was to let the ideas slug it out in THINK. Then people will hopefully have a better grasp of the

most irritating myth about relativism?

I believe individuals should be raised and educated to think critically and make their own judgement (especially on moral and religious matters) rather than more-or-less unquestioningly take on board the pronouncements of some external Authority. This isn't a left or a right-wing view. Nor is it anti-religious (many Liberals are religious). It's anti-Authoritarian (and it's as much against Stalinist indoctrination as that of the Church). Of course, Authoritarian religious people reject this sort of Liberalism. Many loathe it. They associate it with both the 60's and with the Enlightenment (e.g. Kant) Those who share my Liberal view - let's call us Liberals with a capital "L" - are routinely condemned by religious Authoritarians as relativists. So annoyed have I got by this endlessly-repeated accusation that I devoted a chapter of the War For Children's Minds to it. Here's just one example. Jonathan Sacks, the U.K.’s Chief Rabbi lays the blame

"Liberals are relativists!"

The second most poisonous myth about relativism (I'm coming to the most poisonous shortly) is that liberalism = relativism. Among the various charges laid against “liberals”, relativism is one of the most popular. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples. In his inspiringly-titled Let Freedom Ring , Sean Hannity, political pundit at Fox News, suggests that one reason U.S. “liberals” are hostile to the teaching of the Declaration of Independence in public schools is that …. liberals absolutely abhor and militantly reject the Founders’ belief in absolute truth. America’s Founders believed deeply in certain fundamental truths about life, liberty, and the nature of man. In fact, they believed – they weren’t just inserting lofty-sounding but meaningless platitudes in the document – that such truths were “self-evident.” By sharp contrast, the Left embraces moral relativism with an arrogant tenacity. There you are: “liberals” – whom, incidentally, Hannity seems to equate with “th

relativism - end of the world as we know it?

Relativism is certainly supposed to be eating away at Western Civilization like a cancer. Here are a few examples of this worry. The American academic Allan Bloom writes: [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. William Bennett concurs. He says, the answers I started to get from students in the '60s were, "I think each person should do his own thing. I mean if they want to do something, who am I to say something's right, who am I to say something's wrong?" Richard Hoggart commented on a similar rise in relativism and non-judgementalism among the working-class inhabitants of his own British hometown: [i]n Hunslet, a working-class district of Leeds, within which I was brought up, old people will still enunciate, as guides to living, the moral rules they learned at Sunday School and Chapel. Then they almost always add, these days: "But it

Moral relativism

I posted four criticisms of "politically correct" moral relativism. Some of you think this sort of relativism is entirely a straw man. Not entirely. I agree it's influence is vastly exaggerated (as I'll be explaining shortly).I have come across only a couple of academics that signed up to it (one was an anthropologist). It tends to be undergrads that spout it. Schools are often blamed. Marianne Talbot of Oxford University says her students have been taught to think their opinion is no better than anyone else’s, that there is no truth, only truth-for-me. I come across this relativist view constantly – in exams, in discussion and in tutorials – and I find it frightening: to question it amounts, in the eyes of the young, to the belief that it is permissible to impose your views on others. I must say it's only 5-10% of my students that express the view. I think some have been taught it as a way of being "tolerant" (possibly because it gets teachers out o

Relativism - response to comments

Many thanks for all the comments. The transcript I posted was from a discussion that was really focussed on the "politically correct" brand of moral relativism that is still regularly wheeled in certain circles, rather than more subtle, sophisticated versions developed by some reputable philosophers. I still come across the "politically correct" brand pretty regularly. I would say maybe 5-10% of first year philosophy undergrads sign up to it.It is usually justified and motivated by arguments of the sort I cite here. It's kind of irritating, and I just wanted to show that these "politically correct" arguments are poor. Of course, to expose the failings of these arguments is not to offer an argument against relativism. Nor is it to show that relativism is false. That said, this "politically correct" brand of relativism does entail that if Nazis think that murdering Jews is good, then, hey, they're right. Does anyone really believe that?

Moral Relativism

Despite its popularity, moral relativism, especially when it's politically motivated, is a confused and often pretty poisonous point of view. Here's the transcript from an Australian radio interview I did on the subject. Relativism was in the news recently along with female circumcision, which involves cutting off parts of a woman's genitalia, including her clitoris. Some Sudanese people routinely practice female circumcision on young girls. It's part of their tradition. But many Westerners are horrified. Female circumcision, they say, is cruel life-blighting surgery. It's morally wrong. Now it's here that the relativist steps in. 'Ah, wrong.' They say. 'Wrong for you, perhaps. But you're assuming that your truth is the only truth. In fact what's true for you is false for those Sudanese people. There's no objective fact of the matter as to which moral point of view is correct. All moral perspectives are equally valid.' 'And so&#

Faith Schools

For those who favour a return to traditional, authority-based religious schooling of the sort that predominated in the West up until the 1960s, here is a challenge. It is taken from my book The War For Children's Minds . Suppose political schools started springing up – a neoconservative school in Billericay followed by a communist school in Middlesbrough. Suppose these schools select pupils on the basis of parents’ political beliefs. Suppose they start each morning with the collective singing of political anthems. Suppose portraits of their political leaders beam down from every classroom wall. Suppose they insist that pupils accept, more or less uncritically, the beliefs embodied in their revered political texts. If such schools did spring up, there would be outrage. These establishments would be accused of educationally stunting children, forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds. They’re the kind of Orwellian schools you find under totalitarian regimes in place

The God of Eth

Those who believe that the universe shows signs of intelligent design often draw the conclusion the designer must be the Judeo-Christian God - a being that is all-powerful and all-good. But of course, the conclusion that the designer is all-powerful and all-good is no more warranted on this evidence than is the conclusion that the designer is all-powerful and all-evil (which would clearly be a ridiculous thing to conclude, wouldn't it?). Worse still, there is surely overwhelming evidence against the good-god hypothesis (probably about as much as there is against the evil-god hypothesis, I'd suggest). Check out the following article published in Skeptical Inquirer that I wrote on this issue. The God of Eth. I will be developing the "God of Eth" argument further over the course of this year, in reply to comments on it from other philosophers, including Richard Swinburne and Tim Mawson.

Intelligent design

In his blog on intelligent design (Wednesday 2nd Nov 2005), Peter Williams takes me to task for producing an unbalanced issue of THINK on Intelligent Design, pointing out that ID proponent Michael Behe has "responded" to Orr's demolition job ( here ) on Behe's argument for intelligent design (which I published). Behe has indeed responded ( here ), but not effectively. I have read Behe's response and still think Orr nails Behe. Orr points out that many organisms are irreducibly complex in the sense that if you remove parts like brains, lungs etc. they cease to function. Yet such systems can evolve by natural selection, because parts that were inessential can become so, e.g. air sacs can develop into useful but not essential primitive lungs, and later these may become essential when the gills or whatever disappear. Clearly, this could happen on the natural selection theory. So natural selection has no particular problem regarding such irreducibly complex systems.