He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Friday, January 24, 2014

Fair Questions: Should the Pope Alter His Position on Abortion?

Today one of my friends shared a link to the following blog entry posted at the New York Times website.

To briefly summarize, the author uses the arguments put forward by Don Marquis regarding morality as it relates to abortion (he opposes it in most cases), and suggests that Pope Francis (being the wonderfully different and completely expected grand reformer of the Catholic Church) should rethink his position on abortion in cases of rape.

Those are arguments which make a lot of sense as applied to the State within an American legal framework. They make somewhat less sense in a Catholic moral framework.

As a disclaimer, I don't have a problem with his reasoning. In fact, I really like Marquis' arguments on abortion which are being used here. The problem is with the context in which that reasoning is applied.

The argument makes sense in the context of a legal framework in which the purpose of law is to adjudicate disputes between parties and ensure that minimum ethical obligations are met. If the author is only arguing that Pope Francis ought to reconsider legalizing abortion in cases of rape, then fair enough. He has a good argument in that context. But the author seems to be arguing within both contexts, so let's look at the other context.

The purpose of Catholic moral teaching is NOT merely some legalistic way to ensure that minimum ethical obligations are met. Catholic moral teaching calls us all above and beyond minimum ethical obligations to practice heroic virtue. As a Catholic moral teacher, Pope Francis has a responsibility to reiterate that call to heroic virtue. Within a Catholic moral framework, it would be counter to the very purpose of Catholic moral teaching to change the moral teaching on abortion (or premarital sex, which also asks us to go far above and beyond what state law would require) for the reasons given by the author.

Of course, the author seems to assume that the purpose of Catholic moral teaching is not so lofty as all that when he writes,

"It is hard to claim that a rape victim has a moral duty to bring to term a pregnancy forced on her by rape, even if we assume that there is a fully human person present from the moment of conception. We might admire someone who has the heroic generosity to do this, but talk of murder is out of place."

He specifically excludes the possibility that we have a moral obligation to heroic virtue here. That's simply not true in the context of Catholic moral teaching, particularly as it relates to sex and children.  He is asking Pope Francis to accept a view of morality in open conflict with the moral message of the Gospels. Christ calls us repeatedly to what would be seen as heroically virtuous (supererogatory) behaviors and to "Love one another as I have loved you." Christ loved us with a heroic generosity far beyond any moral obligation he had to us. And since Christ points out that if we love him, we will keep his commands, I have to conclude that our love should draw us to supererogatory behaviors as well. And if we strive to emulate Christ (as Christians are called to do), that should draw us to supererogatory behaviors as well.

Because Pope Francis is obviously a man who strives to live the Gospel message, I doubt that a call for him to stop taking that message so seriously (especially as it relates to the most vulnerable) is going to be remotely persuasive. Nor should it be. Pope Francis seems to think that we need to have a healthy pastoral approach to women who are in difficult circumstances while not backing away from the gravity of killing a child in Church teaching on morality.

So should Pope Francis rethink his position on whether or not abortion should be legal in cases of rape?  Maybe so, but that's a question of his political views, a question which is properly framed in a different context than in his role as Bishop of Rome.

Should Pope Francis rethink his position on whether or not abortion is moral within the Catholic moral framework?  Maybe, but the argument provided by the author is thoroughly incoherent with Catholic moral teaching from the start, so it would need to be a rethinking based on something else entirely, because the objection in this context is essentially that, "I disagree with the purpose of your moral framework and think it should be the same purpose as in a legal framework." That's just a statement of fact rather than an effective argument.

Related: How should we treat women who procure abortions in rape cases?

Since the overwhelming majority of women are getting abortions not because they really want to but because they feel forced into it (the fathers pressure them and/or withdraw support for them and/or family members refuse to assist), it's hard to say that the rape was the only factor in the decision to get an abortion in many cases.

It's often the case that circumstances were very difficult for the women who procure abortions in several ways. Poverty and a lack of support from the fathers are huge factors. I tend to think that women in these circumstances need Pope Francis' "field hospital" Church more so than the latae sententiae excommunication prescribed by Canon Law as a penalty. They need our love more so than our concerns about whether or not being raped justifies them in the eyes of the moral law.

On a personal level, I would much prefer to see a greater recognition of the role of men's failures to support the women with whom they are having sex and prescribe and publicize a latae sententiae excommunication for encouraging or coercing a woman into having an abortion.  The pastoral approach of the Church on these matters can make it appear that it is guided by sexism, and while I doubt that many of the bishops are actively engaged in some sort of malicious behavior toward women, I suspect that many of them are too distant from the situations of the most vulnerable women to have a proper appreciation for how much men play a role in their decisions to procure abortions.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fair Questions: Does Religion Hinder Truth-Seeking?

Over Winter Break I stumbled across the following exposition from one of my friends.  I thought it was a very well-written and compelling summation of certain typical viewpoints among my contemporaries, and I decided to address it (with permission from the author).

"Human knowledge progresses through a series of failures and triumphs. Observations are gathered, through experience they are tested, and "truth" is established via the usefulness of that truth. When a truth no longer adheres to the observations and experiences of the people in question it is augmented, built upon, or in some cases discarded completely. This is a common experience for many people in their everyday lives. Truth can also take many forms. Some are personal, to be arrived at via a person's own self-understanding. Other truths are social in nature, pertaining to how we interact in our societies and cultures. Another form of truth is physical. Astronomy, biology, physics, etc. are all concerned with this type of truth. These various types of truth are not necessarily always separated. Many will disagree with what I am going to say next but it is something I have consistently found. Religion is a stumbling block to truth. This is not because prayer to a god results in a decreased intelligence. It is not because religious people are stupid. Far from it. It has, in fact, very little to do with religious people at all. Instead, the problem is the nature of religion itself. Whereas truth, for human understanding, is constantly evolving, religion interferes with the process of understanding by taking certain truths and placing them on a shelf beyond reproach. By doing this, religion halts or at least hinders the practice of understanding because it claims to "know" what is true and discourages further investigation. God is all knowing. God is love. Jesus died for our sins. We should pray five times a day. Don't eat pork. Don't have premarital sex. There is a heaven. There is a god. These are all truths that were/are real to people. There is nothing, intrinsic in their nature, that is wrong. At one time they were perfectly acceptable explanations. Many of them, still, are beyond the ability to prove and disprove. The problem, therefore, is not belief but the institutionalization of a belief. If people are permitted to question beliefs, honestly and sincerely, then there is no issue. But if people begin their understanding with a prearranged set of ideas and those ideas are enforced and propagated by institutions with a vested interest in preventing the augmentation and disregarding of certain truths then understanding is limited."

First, let's cover points of agreement.

  • I'm an empiricist, so I certainly agree that human knowledge is built up through a process of trial and error.  
  • I also agree to a limited extent that we often build upon or discard beliefs when they are no longer useful to us (or of imperfect use to us), though I would add that we make a lot of cognitive errors and, as a result, this belief formation process is messy and deeply problematic for all of us (theists and atheists alike).
  • I would agree that we can make meaningful distinctions between personal truths, social truths, and physical truths while acknowledging their interrelatedness.  I would even suggest that our standards of evidence would rightly be different in each of those cases.  For example, I would take two people's word for it that they are a couple (social truth), but I would not take their word for it that raw sodium reacts violently with water (physical truth).  Both are true, but we would employ a different standard of evidence for each proposition.
  • I would agree that the problems associated with religion are not caused by religious people being stupid.  And even if it were demonstrably the case that all religious people were less intelligent in every way than irreligious people, stupidity is no guarantee of incorrectness and intelligence no guarantee of correctness.  More intelligent people often assume that they've got the right answer because they're intelligent, but getting the right answer actually requires the consistent application of the right method, something which someone less intellectually gifted is also capable of doing, though it takes more effort.  And sometimes less intelligent people just stumble into the right answer.

Next, let's cover points of concern or disagreement.

Do religions evolve?

It is claimed that truth (in the sense of human understanding) is constantly evolving.  I have no objections to the idea that human understanding is constantly evolving.  In fact, I quite agree that it is.  But I would like to examine some of the implications of this claim as applied to religion.

To use a well-known example of religion in the institutionalized way that it's being presented here, the Catholic Church relies on tradition (the handing down of truth to successive generations) to convey its doctrines.  If we look at the history of the Catholic Church over the past 2,000 years, we see a distinct evolution of belief in the sense that certain beliefs are tested philosophically in light of early Christian traditional beliefs (axioms) to make sure that their implications are not in contradiction with those axioms.  The beliefs which are determined to be in contradiction with those axioms are considered heretical and discarded.  For example, monothelitism and Arianism were seriously considered and accepted by many Christians before being discarded as incompatible with the axioms of Christian belief.  These are only two among many heresies which were seriously considered by many Christian thinkers before being discarded by the Catholic Church.  Other thinkers like St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas held beliefs which were deemed to be compatible with the axioms of Christian belief and were added to the body of Catholic teaching.

Some people are tempted to say that the Catholic Church has stopped evolving, that despite the earlier changes centuries ago, it is now stagnant.  The evidence suggests that this is in fact not the case in modern times, which we can see in the case of Modernism and the Theology of the Body.  Modernism was a position seriously considered and adopted by many Christian thinkers, ultimately discarded by the Catholic Church.  The Theology of the Body of Pope John Paul II was largely accepted by the Church as compatible with the axioms of Christianity and continues to be widely taught by Catholic institutions.

The beliefs which are determined to be compatible with those axioms are accepted to varying degrees of certainty as either commonly accepted beliefs (no requirement to believe it, e.g. evolution and creationism), defined doctrines (requiring an assent of faith, but doubts are certainly allowed), and dogmas which are necessary to salvation.  Even among dogmas, the denial of ecclesiastical dogmas is not necessarily heresy, though it does mean that a Christian is outside the Catholic Church.

The process of evolution is one of constant adaptation while retaining functions which are still necessary or harmless.  For example, the human brain stem is still part of us even after our brains evolved the structures of the frontal lobe.  Evolution does not discard what is still axiomatic because it is not like revolution, a process which seeks to completely overturn what already exists.

Many people who claim to have a problem with religions because they do not engage in evolution are actually disappointed at the lack of revolution.  They would prefer religions to abandon the axioms of the religion and accept the axioms accepted by them instead.  The objection to a lack of evolution is trivial; the real objection is that, "I have a priori disagreements with your axioms."

Are all truth claims subject to change?

Speaking of axioms, it's certainly true that religions have certain beliefs that are central to the religion and cannot be given up without destroying it.  The same is true of empirical non-theistic methodologies such as science.

If the scientific community were to abandon the idea that the world is intelligible to humans, it would no longer be practicing science.  If the scientific community were to abandon the idea that the world operates by means of general principles, it would no longer be practicing science.  If they were to abandon the idea that repeated observation by humans is what allows us to make discoveries of those principles, they would no longer be practicing science.  If they were to abandon the idea that we can construct instruments to aid us in perceiving real things about the world which we cannot perceive unaided, they would no longer be practicing science.  If they were to abandon the idea that we can use logical inference to arrive at correct conclusions about the past based on present circumstances, they would no longer be practicing science.

These beliefs are axiomatic for the scientific community.  Abandoning those beliefs would not be an example of the evolution of science, but rather its extinction.  The same would be true of religions; abandoning their foundational axioms would be self-destructive rather than adaptive.

Let's consider some additional points from my friend since I promised that I would address them as well.

"There are many criticisms that have been aimed at the New Atheist movement and its thinkers. But not all criticism is created equally. The most problematic criticism I frequently run across is that the New Atheists are "radical empiricists," that they are, somehow, "scientific utopians" who are unreasonably holding the world to an unfair and uninformed standard of proof. Usually when I hear this I can't help but wonder if what is really being criticized is the fact that others are being held to a standard that reveals much of our "philosophy" is based on superficial bull shit. Granted, a strict materialist argument is problematic. But I think this is a severe misreading of empiricism and scientific thinking. Granted, also, is the fact that less than stellar thinkers in the New Atheist movement have perpetuated this thinking, acting as though something outside of the physical world, if it cannot be measured and quantified, then is either false or produced from a pseudoscience. But empiricism and scientific thinking is much more than this, and therefore poor defenses of New Atheism and even poorer criticisms are ultimately misinformed. The communication theorist Neil Postman argued that in different ages, in different societies and cultures, and with different technologies, the act of communication changes. How people communicate informs much of their society and can shape basic ways in which people think. A smoke signal is incapable of attaining the same level of communication as, say, a society that has an advanced system of writing. Likewise, an oral culture will be different in its communication as compared to a society that uses mass televised images. In an oral culture practices such as allusion and parable are frequently used to make a point. For such a society that method of communication would be effective. It imparts the lesson, or point, the speaker wishes to make and attempts to understand the world in which they are living. Postman went on to argue that, in his opinion, human civilization reached a pinnacle in communication following the invention of the printing press and the widespread availability of text. Writing, Postman maintained, allowed people to communicate long and complex ideas using a more universal system of rationality. You no longer needed to know what river or character a parable or allusion referenced since writing had sufficiently abstracted a piece of knowledge to help communicate it to a wider audience. Obviously there are trade offs to this approach, and I imagine there would be people who would argue against the claim of "universality" this approach imparts. But it cannot really be argued that the Western World, and the U.S. specifically, did not undergo this process. Which leads me back to the New Atheist and the charge that they are too "radically empirical." Under what other system are we to argue our points? Should we use allegory (like religion does) or allusion (again, religion) to make our cases? Empiricism, appropriately understood is not merely a snobbish, strictly materialist, logical positivist approach (Hollywood would have you think different: Enter Mr. Spock and Dr. Temperance Brennan) but instead an approach that 1.) seeks to understand the world and 2.) convince other observers of its conclusions. It, in essence, is a method of communication. And regardless of what post-modernist, post structuralist, and whatever other school of thought wants to argue, it is the primary way we understand the world we currently inhabit. For my Masters paper I would be thrown out of class if I, instead of using an empirical and rational method to argue my thesis, instead resorted to 40 plus pages of allegory. Likewise, reading a book or article that used the same tactic would leave a profound sense of disappointment for the reader since the case the author is making would be insufficient. Speaking (and as a result television) can still manage to get away with this, because the method of communication is different. Listen to a politician's speech. Then go read their book. Which one is more convincing? Which one will someone be more critical towards? It is precisely this ability to "hoodwink" that Postman (along with other charges) damned the medium of television. But in terms of the New Atheists this call to be more rational in our understanding of the world, to dispense with mythology and superstition, should not be criticized. There are things that the New Atheists get wrong, but this is not one of them."

The points of agreement:

Now let's cover points of concern or disagreement.

Should we dispense with mythology and superstition?

I would also suggest that it is beneficial to be more rational in the way that we understand the world, and that we can easily dispense with superstition.  Most religions would not view their core practices as superstition and would be inclined to dispense with it as well, though superstitious practices always accrete around religions because of typical human cognitive errors.  For example, the core teachings of Buddhism are not superstitious, but there are some Buddhist practices which look like superstition from the outside.  I would suggest that many of them are actually not superstitious when properly understood, but I suspect that many irreligious folks conflate religion and superstition to such a degree that the distinction would be lost on them.

Mythology I'm less inclined to dispense with, primarily because I think the narratives are actually very instructive.  I really enjoy Greek mythology in particular, though Norse mythology and other ancient mythologies are fascinating as well.  They can help us to step outside of our own skin and inhabit the worldview of others, fostering the ability to empathize with others.

Where there are multiple distinct ways of communicating ideas, I am reluctant to remove them from my toolbox of communication methods because some tools are better suited to some jobs and ill-suited for other jobs.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Follow-Up: The "War" on Christmas

There were a couple of responses to my comment on Chris Stedman's entry which I reposted here.  I would like to address the charge of the Christian appropriation of the traditions of other extant religions.

I'll start by quoting the responses and then address the basic argument.  The ancillary arguments I can address later if anyone wants me to do so.

"The most profound thing you can do for your made up story is admit it had nothing to do with December and given the facts of the case he would have been born sometime in June/July….not December. Lets also look at the facts that the story of the bible is thousands of years older then the Christian version dating all the way back to the Egyptian book of the dead. All religion stories were borrowed/stolen from religions before it and all words were created to control and keep calm the population. ITs been translated, wrongly I would add, so many times that you are no longer following the word of “god” , you are following the rules of man."

"Christ isn’t the reason for the season… The Church placed Christ’s birthday where it is because it was initially a Pagan holiday, and what better way to combat a competing religion and try to win over more followers than forcing your new holiday into replacing an ancient one?"

The basic notion here is that Christianity appropriated the Christmas holiday from religious traditions which were contemporary with them.  Setting aside the question of how it's possible for a religious group to steal a day from someone else, we can consider a parallel case with current examples and see if we can reach the same conclusion.

Let's suppose for a moment that Sam Harris (my favorite secularist philosopher) had recently died in September of this year, and let's further suppose that upon his death there is a movement to create a holiday in his honor that will celebrate science and reason, a holiday upon which the teachings of Sam Harris will be read and gifts will be exchanged.

Now this movement needs to select a date in the calendar on which to celebrate the holiday and December 24th is chosen because it is a day when people are more likely to be able to take off of work or at least have the evening off of work. It is also chosen because it provides those who would prefer not to celebrate any of the religious holidays of the season an opportunity to enjoy a celebration of their own for their own reasons and not feel left out of the fun.

I would be very reluctant to suggest that this holiday is at all "appropriating" Christmas from Christians or any holiday from anyone else regardless of proximity on the calendar. I would be more inclined to to suggest that its roots are independent of Christian traditions (or any others) and that there are understandable practical reasons for selecting that date.

Would it really make any sense for me to accuse those who celebrate Reason Day (or whatever it would be called) of merely appropriating an existing holiday? Do you think that I should react with the same sort of childish drivel that Fox News would no doubt be spewing at that point, yammering about how the reason-worshipers and/or science-worshipers stole Christmas?

Of course not.  And I wouldn't react that way.  I have a healthy respect for Sam Harris and a great appreciation for reason and science, so I would be more likely to join in the celebration.  Happy Reason Day!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

How to Argue Badly: Ten Tips for Internet Intellectuals

Some time ago I wrote a Primer for arguing badly, and while I think it's a good start, more specific advice is often helpful.  So here are a few tips to help really cement your skills at arguing as badly as possible.  I hope that my extensive experience in arguing badly can be of help to those of you who so  consistently argue very well.  As before, you are welcome to contact me for more specific advice on how to argue badly in any situation.

#1  Respond Quickly

It is critical to respond immediately to someone who disagrees with you so that you will be much more likely to react out of emotion rather than out of reason.  Avoid taking some time to respond, and certainly do not under any circumstances take enough time to carefully consider your opponent's argument or to reconsider your own argument in an effort to make sure that it is coherent and well-expressed.  Type it out slapdash because you know your answer is correct regardless of how well-communicated your ideas are.

#2 Read Incomprehensibly

One of the most effective ways to get an argument started as badly as possible is to skim over what your opponent has written.  This is likely to keep you from fully understanding their perspective and makes it very likely that you will respond to an argument which is not the argument they have made.  Do not ever read your opponent's argument more than once or look up key terms to be sure that you truly comprehend their statements.  For best results, stop reading at the first line you can criticize.

#3  Think Swiftly

Be sure to minimize any thinking involved in the process by getting it over with quickly.  Do not consider multiple possible responses to an argument and weigh them carefully before deciding which to use. Do not think through possible counter-arguments to your position, and you should certainly not carefully analyze each of the responses to those or assess their relative usefulness.  If you avoid these things, you will be more effective at the next step...

#4 Mock Mercilessly

Spend your time thinking of clever ways to mock your opponent's position.  If you've followed the first 3 tips, then this step will be greatly enhanced by the fact that you don't fully understand their position anyway.  It's always easier to mock things you don't understand, and besides, it is totally deserved when they disagree with your obvious wisdom and well-earned expertise, right?

#5 Shun Questions

 It is very dangerous to ask questions when arguing badly.  This can quickly lead to your opponent clarifying their position so that you have trouble disagreeing with it or mocking it.  What's even worse is that asking questions could lead you to spend an extended amount of time working through your own answer to that question.  Do not at any point ask a question with the intention of doing anything other than setting a trap for them so that they make a claim you can destroy easily or deride mockingly.

#6 Shun Differentiation

Look for all the ways in which your opponent's view is similar to the views of ideologues with whom you disagree. Your first assumption should be that they agree with all the worst arguments put forward by those who are most hateful and incendiary.  If something claimed by your opponent does not seem to fit into the worldview you have assigned to them, dismiss the idea that their worldview could be different from the worldviews of those hateful ideologues and operate under the assumption that they are simply engaging in some cognitive dissonance.  On a related note...

#7 Shun Synthesis

Never ever try to view your opponent's worldview as charitably as you do your own.  Do not for one picosecond look for the ways in which their worldview is coherent and elegantly constructed.  Reviewing the entirety of their beliefs and underlying assumptions may cause you to realize that you agree with them on a great deal or to develop empathy for them, which leads in the exact opposite direction of arguing badly.

#8 Shun Analysis

The process of analysis is going to strongly hinder your efforts to argue badly.  The problem with methodically breaking down an opponent's arguments and statements without judging them is that you will understand them more accurately and be better able to see their strengths and weaknesses clearly.  This can lead to developing the skills to make strong arguments of your own, which you want to avoid assiduously.  Instead, you should try this...

#9 Always Evaluate

One of the great ways to enhance your confirmation bias (and therefore incline you to argue badly) is to constantly view any claims made by your opponent in light of your own values and condemn them harshly at even the slightest hint of something which might indicate a disagreement with your values.  Either evaluate before you analyze or evaluate while you analyze if you can't completely follow the previous tip for some reason.  In some cases, this is actually helpful because it appears that you are doing proper analysis and makes it more likely that you will be completely arrogant.  Speaking of which...

#10  Never Be Wrong

The one thing you should never do above all else is to consider the possibility that you might be wrong.  Do not even let the thought cross your mind.  This will keep you from researching your own claims to fact-check them.  It will frequently prevent you from double-checking your terminology to make sure it's precise.  It will ensure that you never consider that being correct requires any more than agreeing with your existing beliefs.