Showing posts with label good arguments. Show all posts
Showing posts with label good arguments. Show all posts

Saturday, June 20, 2015

On the Existential Argument for God

First, I'd like to point out that I very much dislike any existential argument, somewhat related to the argument from desire (for God or anything else).  They're very much appeals to the populous.  And, while there is a point to be made, I hope I make it as we go, I dislike appeals to popular opinion.  Just because a large group of people feel such-and-such does not say anything to the truth of that feeling.

As a bit of background: I was doing some searching for existential arguments when I happened upon this page from "Common Sense Atheism."  This article written by Luke Muehlhauser is a response to an article by Tawa Anderson on "Apologetics 315," and I decided to respond to both of them here.

The first of Tawa’s arguments for God and the one that I want to discuss here is "Can Man Live Without God? An Existential Argument from Human Religiosity.”  Luke points out: "Tawa notes that every ancient and medieval culture was highly religious, and that 'there is indeed a hole in our hearts that can only be filled by God.'"  However, Luke has no (real) response.  He only scoffs, "Tell that to the healthy, satisfied, well-educated atheists of Scandinavia and they will laugh at you."  Will they?  This article and this article from the New York Post and this article from the Guardian, all tell very different stories about Scandinavian happiness than seems to be touted in the atheist blogosphere.  The basic points in those articles are that Scandinavians are actually among the saddest people in the world, it's the social norm there to conform and claim happiness and uniformity above all else.  Sure they might be among the best educated in the world, as Luke seems to fall into the confusion between causation and correlation as he blogs on this topic quite frequently.  Let's not assume that just because they're unhappy atheists that that is why they are highly educated or vice versa.  Perhaps education and atheism are only corollarily related.

After scoffing and wrongfully claiming that Scandinavians are happy atheists, Luke moves on to an appeal to the majority in the educated world: "Tell that to the most prestigious scientists and philosophers in the world, most of whom are atheists, and they will laugh at you.  (More scoffing/emphasis added.)  Tell that to the millions of fulfilled, moral, successful atheists around the world and they will laugh at you."  Again not really an argument just mocking scorn.  But, since he's gone there let's play the numbers, and if we're playing we might as well play big right?  On Luke's other post about the causes of atheism he references this statistic: "non-believers skyrocketed from 3.2 million in 1900 to 918 million in 2000, or 0.2% of world population in 1900 to 15.3% in 2000" from this source.  So, given approximately 10,000 years of recorded human history the largest percentage ever recorded was a measly 15.3%!?  I am not a mathematician (I'm a linguist), but even I can tell that the incredibly vast majority of human beings throughout the entirety of human history were definitely religious, at least in some fashion.  If anything this supposedly educated majority of people that are happy atheists is completely false given simple statistics.  Also, let's look at educated religious people.  This interesting article on "" counts some of the top IQs ever tested as being Christians or at least theists.  Maybe the test is skewed to allow for a religious person to score higher (that was sarcasm!)?

So let's go back to Luke's only critique so far, "The claim that 'there is … a hole in our hearts that can only be filled by God' is empirically false."  Is it?  We've shown clearly that trillions of people throughout history have had a desire for the ultimate, the other-worldly, the infinite.  But, because there's been a jump in atheism in the past hundred years or so the claim that most people have a desire for God is "empirically false"?  Perhaps Luke is misunderstanding the definition of empirically false.  How is this argument "a shameless, cult-like attempt to prop up human insecurities so that people cling even harder to the superstitions that feed off their insecurity"?  It's a verifiable claim from history that most people want to connect with God.  This verifiable fact implies that there is a hunger deep within humanity.  What are we to make of this hunger?  CS Lewis uses the analogy of one's hunger for food.  If an animal was born without the hunger for food, that organism would die within one generation.  Why are we still living with this desire if it's genetically disadvantageous to desire God, why is it still here?  If it's genetically disadvantageous to desire moral actions why do we still have those desires as well?  Luke's "critique" falls flat.

Luke's prejudice is clear when he calls belief in God "lies" that we ought to leave behind.  Claiming that "meaning and morality and happiness ... is available without fear and superstition (again a sign of prejudice), that is when they leave childish (and again) and comforting notions about gods behind."  I'm genuinely confused here though.  In the very next paragraph Luke claims that religion "thrives on existential insecurity," but he just said that it's "childish and comforting."  How can it be both comforting and full of insecurity?  Again a weak critique here because it's internally inconsistent.  Supposedly religion is childish and comforting, yet it seeks to unsettle its adherents.  Apparently this one book, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, is Luke's bible and much of his blogging apparently is founded on it.  It may have something interesting to say, but so far based on Luke's comments reflecting what it says, I'm not impressed.  That book claims that "Religion does not provide existential security – instead, it thrives on existential insecurity. It thrives on poverty and ignorance and fear and instability and risk."  And, that "the poorest nations in the world are the most religious," to which I wonder if this took into account the difference in wealth between Islamic countries and Christian or (post-Christian countries) or atheist nation-states like China.  Also, in a sense this is to be expected!  "When people live in a society that already provides them with [any] security ... [that has] stability and safety and education and health care ..." etc. etc. "then people don't need (or want) gods anymore."  (Quotes taken from the blog not from the book.)  Of course, if you lacked nothing in your life, would you want something more?  Oh wait that's the hallmark of the rich!  They become rich because they want more and more.  I found this interesting quote in Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, (I do NOT recommend the book in general, this is merely a quote) "The change in purchasing power over the last half century in the wealthy nations carries the same message: real purchasing power has more than doubled in the United States, France, and Japan, but life satisfaction has changed not a whit."  Even Jesus taught this concept in Matt. 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25.  Why would one think that people with money and security would want God?  They already have security and all the "happiness" that money can buy, which if they're honest isn't really all that much.  Apply this on a societal scale and see a similar result.  If the government supplies all the money, food, health, lodging you could ever want why would you look to God for anything.  That worked so well in the Soviet Union (again with the sarcasm).  So what can we conclude from this?  Safety and security provided by the state quickly and quietly errodes religion (particularly the weak, liberal religions that seek to appease society rather than God).  Scandinavia is the poster child for this.  As the weak, socially watered-down church there stopped appealing to God it became less and less appealing to people as their physical needs were all met by the socialist state.

This last bit is obvious and the clearest indicator that Luke has no understanding of the argument being discussed: "Does my yearning to be the next Matthew Bellamy suggest that I will be? Alas, no. Wishful thinking does not indicate truth."  That is not what the existential argument is saying whatsoever.  The argument does not say that wishing for God makes God exist.  It says, there is an overwhelming desire within humanity for the divine.  Therefore, there probably is something to that desire and the best explanation is that God put that desire in us.  The argument is not saying that wishful thinking makes it so.  Luke's critiques present a clearly flawed view and a deep misunderstanding of the argument in general.  As I said, I don't particularly like the existential argument(s) for God, but Luke Muehlhauser clearly doesn't understand them.  There is a big difference between not liking or thinking that an argument is ineffective and misunderstanding an argument and poorly critiquing it.

One last thing and this is more for my own edification than anything else.  I'd like to try to put the (correct) argument in a syllogism.

P1) The vast majority of humanity has had a desire for God
P2) People *generally* do not persist in desires that have no possibility of being fulfilled
C1) There *probably* is a God

From my recent trip to Korea

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How to Fight ... Gracefully

First let me give some background.  My friend and editor of the CAA Newsletter EQUIPPED+Glen Richmond recommended that I blog about online debating in light of a rather heated, yet civil discussion that has been taking place on my Facebook page for a few days now.  And since sleep is overrated, I've decided to at least start writing about it.  If you'd like to read the full conversation check it out here, though I'm no longer following the conversation I might respond to further comments.

The first rule of fight club is probably the hardest.

#1 - Be polite!

This one is particularly tough.  People are smarter (sometimes) than you might think.  If you disguise your disdain for someone as a person, you'll probably fail.  Dawkins attempts this in his book The God Delusion with disastrous effects.  If, I'm assuming this is true, his goal in that book was to get people to rethink their beliefs in God, he completely failed because he unsuccessfully attempts to hide his disregard/disdain for that type of person.  This one is also quite difficult because it's not a common rule for discussions online.  Many a YouTube video comment stream has fallen into multiple people slinging so many insults that people who aren't even involved in the discussion are disgusted.

I tried my best to be polite throughout both the online discussion that triggered this entry and the two discussions I've had recently in real life.  As much as it might seem impossible, tolerance is certainly possible.  However, don't make the mistake of applying a modernist view of the word "tolerance."  To be polite you do not have to agree that the opposition is right and a mutually contradictory view is also right.  Tolerance doesn't mean what people think it means.  Today tolerance is used to mean, "treat all views as true."  What it really means, "treat all people respectfully, regardless of their views."  I think Ravi Zacharias, who is a model of great tolerance, has some great points about this and I suggest you listen to/read his stuff to get a sense of what it means to be tolerant.  This is important because one's view of tolerance can shape the whole debate.  If your opposing side wants you to be more tolerant and accept their view as true they need to prove that their true is correct.  Because, remember you can be tolerant without accepting their view.  When modern debaters ask for tolerance (especially from conservatives) what they're really asking for is approval.  You do not need to approve of someone's position to be tolerant, but in all this you must still maintain politeness!

#2 - Be gracious

This one is also tough.  Indeed depending on your personality this one may be more difficult than the first rule.  What do I mean by gracious though?  Well, at the risk of sounding condescending let me put it like this.  You may be an experience intellectual who has debated on national stages about your particular area of expertise (that's not me!), but your "opponent" may be a high school dropout with an axe to grind after reading some internet news article, or you both may be somewhere in between.  The point, if you don't get it already, is to be gracious to the opponent's argument(s).  Maybe they phrase the argument in an odd way, maybe they ignore too many suppressed premises.  Maybe they don't know what any of the typical terms in debates are at all.  Then again they may have taken the Coursera class Think Again: How to Reason and Argue and frame their argument intentionally ignoring certain premises.  The issue is not that you need to engage your opponent(s) and go in for the kill, the point is getting to the real arguments and dealing with them, not with your opponent's inability to frame his/her views well.

One of the best ways to be ungracious is to focus on the minutiae, e.g. grammar/spelling/punctuation among other things.  If you're unwilling or unable to look past those kinds foibles you ought not debate either in person, but particularly online.  Nothing kills your witness and credibility faster than pointing out someone's misuse of punctuation or grammar.  Sure, you may be right, and there may be times when you need to clarify something, but you need to do so graciously and be able to look through the "mistakes" and understand the real arguments and deal with them, not the grammatical mistakes.

#3 - READ!

Though the first two were probably the most difficult to do, this one is easy to do, yet incredibly important.  First, read every, single, reply.  Every, single, time.  If you don't read what your opponent has written, you're being neither gracious nor polite.  In fact, you ought to read your opponent's writings twice especially if he/she is not particularly competent, or if he/she is beyond your level of understanding.  If you don't really understand a particular sub-point your opponent brings up, ask!  Do not just proceed as if you understand!  You probably will make a terrible mistake in your arguments and end up both losing the argument (if there's even such a thing) and looking like an idiot in the process.  Also, every internet argument will most likely include one or both sides providing links to support the arguments being made.  Do not ignore these posts.  Read each link with an open mind, searching for the argument(s) being presented and weighing those statements just as you would in the discussion forum.  Then, after you've read and reread, attempt to comment one what the person is trying to say.  Keep the conversation focused (see rule #5).  (I almost forgot to mention the one exception here.  If someone posts a link to a whole book, you do not have to read the whole book to be able to comment.  There is a reasonable limit to the amount of reading you have to do in order to respond, you draw your own line then be gracious in responding even consider reading books with which you will not agree.)

#4 - Eschew Obfuscation

I've always loved that joke!  Eschew: deliberately avoid using; abstain from.  Obfuscation: obscuring of intended meaning willfully ambiguous or harder to understand (often with the connotation that one is using longer/larger/lesser known words to do so).  It may be difficult, and I imagine some people read my stuff and assume that I don't follow my own advice.  Perhaps.  But if I do confuse people it certainly isn't intentional.  I like to be clear, and I generally try to use "clarity of language" to borrow a line from "The Giver" (movie).  In debate/discussion and in philosophy in general it is important to convey one's thoughts as clearly as possible.  That doesn't mean that you shouldn't use technical language, just that you ought to explain your thoughts in a way that your audience will understand your point.  If you confuse your opponent you haven't "won" the debate, you've merely irritated him/her to the point that he/she has given up, or soon will give up on the discussion.

#5 - Stay focused

As I'm writing this, I've come to realize that I've said that each different rule is the hardest.  Unfortunately, this one also falls into that category!  Haha.  Well, tell me.  How many discussions online have you been involved in that actually stayed on topic?  Now, I understand a bit of a tangent.  (If you know me in person, I'm sure you've experienced my ADD-like conversational style.)  However, when you're discussing ... say ... abortion online, don't get sidetracked into discussions about war or the death penalty.  That's not to say you should ignore those tangental discussions, just politely bring the discussion back to the primary topic.  Obviously those (and other) topics could be related to the topic at hand, but if you want the discussion to proceed try to keep it on track.  This one is more difficult if the discussion is taking place on someone else's page, because it's not your page and you cannot really control the flow of conversation.  If it is your page, then you can use any number of methods to control the conversation.  I typically delete completely unrelated comments; I also delete completely emotional attacks or completely insensitive and rude comments.  When it's your own page, you can control the flow much differently/better than when it's not your own forum.

Before I close this entry, I need to apologize.  I had this entry started months ago as a response to an online conversation I had, and since then I've had at least one other discussion on Facebook that went, more or less, the way I wanted it to go.  Then after some incredibly unsavory discussions, I decided to forgo Facebook for Lent.  I won't be back on Facebook until after Lent so I won't be engaging in the types of discussions addressed here for some time.  I do not really recommend Facebook as a forum for discussion, but it's a decent option because it's wide open and there is more openness with a wide range of interlocutors.  God bless you in your discussions.

Monday, August 25, 2014

On Debating and Bad Arguments

I've recently started listening to the NPR radio program, Intelligence Squared US.  I listen to various podcasts during my daily commute, and since I typically drive home for lunch I spend about forty minutes in my car daily.  The debates have been quite interesting.  So far I've listened to; Was Edward Snowden Justified?Should The President Be Able To Order Citizens Killed Abroad?It May Be Flexing Its Muscles, But Is Russia A Marginal Power?, and the last debate for this entry was Does Affirmative Action On Campus Do More Harm Than Good?.  I've also listened to More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: The Lecture Hall is Obsolete, but I'd like to save that one for its own full entry.  A word about the formatting and "scoring" of these debates; there are four debaters, two for the motion two against.  There are three rounds.  I assume the team that gets to go first is chosen at random because in the five debates I've listened to so far they seem to have alternated who goes first.  Each person gets seven minutes to state his or her case.  The second round is a Q&A session with both sides responding off-the-cuff to questions from the moderator, John Donvan, and audience members about the discussion.  Then the third round is another two minutes of uninterrupted time to state closing arguments (again, I'm not certain of the order I haven't really been keeping track if there's a pattern relating to the first round).  The scoring is fairly simple.  There's a poll taken at the beginning (before the debate) and another poll after the debate and the side whose percentage points change up the most wins the debate.

In, Was Edward Snowden Justified? the results were:
Before: 29% for, 29% against (wow even amounts!), 42% undecided
After: 54% for 35% against -- the side arguing that Snowden was justified won the debate.

What do you think?  I think (and as always my thoughts are my own and not the opinion of the US Gov. or the DoD or the US Air Force) that he was NOT justified.  I have a bit of an interesting point of view on this one, given my job.  But, I know there are multiple avenues through which one can lodge complaints, and I don't feel that Snowden did his due diligence to use them.  I understand that he was working within a system, and that he was dealing with appealing to those that perpetuated the situation itself. However, I feel that there are so many better ways he could have handled what he apparently thought were egregious violations of the constitution.  Also, if he were legitimately worried about the constitution he would have been more judicious in what and how he made the information available.  He released so much stuff (according to the debate and some news articles I read some time ago), that there's no way he could possibly know all the harm that he could be causing to the US and it's allies.  If he were really worried about specific injustices, he should have only dealt with and worked with those specific injustices.  The harm that he did, most certainly outweighs the good (if any), that came from his breaking his oath.

In, Should The President Be Able To Order Citizens Killed Abroad? the results were:
Before: 29% for, 44% against, 27% undecided
After: 54% for, 39% against -- the side arguing that the president should have the power to target and kill U.S. citizens abroad won the debate.

Honestly, I am still mostly undecided in this one.  I think that we shouldn't handcuff the executive office when it comes to targeting enemies of the state (regardless of their nationality).  Also, I don't think we should restrict such targeting to specific countries, "war zones," or "hot battlefields" etc.  If we say, we won't target US citizens then terrorist organizations will (more than ever) seek to recruit US citizens as a type of human shields.  Also, if we restrict our targeting to "hot battlefields" like Afghanistan, the terrorist organizations will (more than ever) seek the "safety" of Pakistan and other neighboring countries.  I'm undecided because I think the constitution restricts such power in certain circumstances, but I think that in certain circumstances the power is under the executive's authority to wage war.  The side that argued for the motion did a much better job arguing than the opposing side.  The opposition's numbers actually went down, which is the first and only time I've seen that so far.

In, It May Be Flexing Its Muscles, But Is Russia A Marginal Power? the results were:
Before: 25% for, 43% against, 32% undecided
After: 35% for, 58% against -- the side that argued that Russia is not a marginal power won the debate.

I am against the motion, but I feel that though Russia's once-world-superpower status still exists in a certain degree, it is quickly losing it's global meaningfulness and might even someday fade into obscurity.  I doubt that it will happen any time soon and it can be turned around with strong leadership, but it's current road is one towards weakness.

In, Does Affirmative Action (AfAc) On Campus Do More Harm Than Good? the results were:
Before: 22% for, 48% against, 30% undecided
After: 36% for, 55% against -- the side arguing for the motion changed their percentage of votes the most and though they had a lower percentage at the end, they are considered the winners of the debate.

This is a tough one, as it really doesn't apply to me and I don't really know many people to whom it would apply.  I feel like the side that won, those arguing for the motion that AfAc does more harm than good, made better arguments.  The side against, seemed to focus on emotional pleas and things like appeals to 50 years ago status quo.  They had an easier case to my mind, but they didn't make a very strong argument.  The side that argued for the motion cited multiple, peer-reviewed studies that showed that when weaker students were given AfAc bonuses to get into higher-level schools and programs they typically failed out and ended up being discouraged and dropping out altogether.  The much better option would be to place students appropriately according to their abilities and have them in a place that is better suited for their level and they complete their studies and go on to be better, more productive members of society.

What's the point of all this you may ask . . . Well, I've been thinking.  What makes a good argument?  Do passionate pleas of how the status quo is wrong and needs to be changed make good arguments?  I'm not willing to rule out all appeals to emotion, as after all, we're emotional beings.  We should, at least a little, think and act with our hearts rather than our minds.  But, what about issues like the AfAc question?  On the emotional side it seems wrong to criticize a system that has, or at least has as its core goal, helped so many that are unable help themselves; victims of a bad system of sorts.  But, should we let our hearts overrule our minds?  If there are legitimate studies that show the program doesn't work, should we maintain it, just because it's goal is to help these "victims"?

In the Snowden debate, one of the primary arguments against him being justified was the amount of irreparable damage his actions caused.  Is that a very powerful argument?  On its own, I'd say, no.  Just the amount one steals doesn't make it worse.  I know it's somewhat countercultural, but I believe that if one steals a $.05 pencil from one's place of work that person is just as guilty of stealing as the multimillion dollar embezzler.  I do NOT feel that the punishment of those crimes should necessarily be the same.  (I know what some of you might be thinking, "But wait, doesn't the God that you claim to believe in do that?" "Sentencing everyone to Hell regardless of the degree to which one sins!"  You'd be wrong, in fact, because the punishment for sin is death of which everyone is guilty and must submit to, but the punishment of Hell is for the ultimate in rejecting God's forgiveness.  People are not sent to Hell because of their sins, they are sent to Hell for the specific sin of rejecting God.)

I do have some difficulty listening to these arguments dispassionately sometimes.  I have certain arguments in mind when I hear the topic (sometimes, the debate about Russia's marginalism really didn't occur to me to be an issue), and when I am listening to the debate I try to divorce my preconceptions from the discussion and only weigh the arguments based on their individual merit(s).  There is no such thing as a complete tabula rasa, and we will always have some kind of bias.  Though to me, it's a hallmark of a truly thoughtful person to be able to examine one's own biases and understand them and keep them in mind when approaching new ideas.

I haven't been out to see the sunset in a while!  Need to make some time for it.