Where I Cram My Ideas

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Glenn Miller addresses ultimate motives

A series of links led me to an (dated) article that JP Holding challenged Sam Harris to respond to. Being the relative newcomer to these online joustings that I am, I have no idea whether or not Harris took it upon himself to get back to him (and I don't know enough about Holding to know whether or not he's a worthy adversary). Well, the article deals with a Christian justification of the problem of evil, and I think I'll do my best to respond. The article is by Glenn Miller.

1. Here is how the original question was posed. Miller responded to a reader's subsequent question "Isn't that cruel?":

"At the outset God made this into a life-and-death situation. God staked the entire future of mankind on this one event. We lost. The moment that Adam and Eve ate that fruit, wheels were set in motion that would ultimately result in the doom of mankind. Without some kind of intervention from God we would all be damned. God does promise to intervene, but it's like building a nuclear bomb and setting it to go off in a large city at 12:00. Then, when all of the people of the city come to you for mercy, you disarm it for them. Does that make you a hero for disarming it or a lunatic for building it in the first place? The whole thing was orchestrated to make us feel dependent upon God. That says a lot about God's character."

2. The impossibility of coming up with a decisive answer

Miller correctly notes that "If we are not able to discover a motive for God's decision to [create the universe], then we will not be justified in judging that unknown motive to be either adequately good or to be insufficient."

As an aside, this is a complicating issue that simultaneously makes the 'God' hypothesis an absolutely impossible one to disprove, and renders the hypothesis irrelevant for scientific study as well. Imagine this sort of conversation:

Jack: If the earth is just a few thousand years old, then why does it appear ancient?
Jill: God did it - but we can't know why; His motives are sometimes a mystery.
Jack: But isn't that deceitful?
Jill: Who are we to judge what 'deceitful' is? God's motives are sometimes a mystery, so somehow it's not deceitful.

Hopefully it's quite clear why the problem of evil is so difficult to impress upon the practiced believer. It's of more ease (and perhaps importance) to consider the more readily defined ideas of justice or love... but I'll save that for later.

3. What's the question?

The person who penned the original question meant to argue that the idea of the Christian God does not = the idea of a good god. Since 'Christian God' must, by definition, = 'Good God,' we can see what his argument was: The idea of the Christian God is not good. He was NOT claiming 'God exists' and then saying '...but He is evil!' as Miller interprets the situation. More on this later.

Of course, the original article (which I was unable to find) seems to have made a point of questioning why God placed the magical trees in the garden, why the magical serpent tested Adam & Eve when they had no knowledge of right and wrong, etc, but I won't write about that just yet either.

4. Understanding 'good' and 'evil' in the problem of evil

Language is arbitrary. For those who haven't considered this directly, it should make abundant sense that the word 'cat' only means 'cat' among people who agree on that meaning. So, when we're talking about the problem of evil, we can't make any sense unless we agree on the meaning of 'evil.' Otherwise, you could be talking about 'morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked,' as dictionary.com suggests, while I'm talking about 'a loaf of bread' (unlikely... but you see the point).

Miller addresses that problem early on:
"We must note that, in the first question, we (somewhat insignificant 'carbon-based life forms') are presuming to judge God's morality and character on the basis of our own! For a human being, with the incredible paucity of data we have about the universe, morality, reality, and complexity, to decide that God is less kind, less noble, less compassionate, less moral, less 'humane' than they, seems quite bizarre, in my opinion."

On whose basis, then, are we to judge? Miller should recognize a few things:

First, if we can't criticize God, then we can't know if God is good. Here's how such an attempt would go:

Hansel: God is great, God is good! Let's bring Jesus to the neighborhood!
Gretel: How do you know God only does good things?
Hansel: Because God is good!
Gretel: What is 'good?'
Hansel: Whatever God does, because God only does good!
Gretel: All you're telling me is that God does what God does.

With that sort of approach, the word 'good' is pointless - rather than saying 'God is good,' you may as well say 'God is God' for all the information the statement conveys. It is a tautology. Clearly, we need to have some idea of what 'good' means if we are to make sense of the statement 'God is good.'

Fortunately, the Bible provides some clarity. Traditional Christianity describes God not only as omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent, but a) Loving, b) Just, c) Self-sacrificing, etc. Miller adds "good, merciful, kind, benevolent, and interested in the welfare of all His creatures, great and small." These traits are more easily understood than 'good,' and so easier to test.

Second, he is begging the question. The question is whether or not a good God exists, and in the above passage, Miller assumes that one does. Now remember, since we're talking about the idea of the Christian God, we're assuming a being that is omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent.

If our analysis (which, to be meaningful, must proceed from an agreed definition of 'good,' other than 'that which God would do') does not produce a god that is all-good, then we do not have a god that matches the description of the Christian God, and the argument is over.

For Miller to say that we are 'presuming' to judge God's character is to already assume that the idea of God we're questioning exists. The skeptic quoted at the beginning of this post was NOT arguing that a god exists that created morally superior beings than itself. He is arguing that the theology/philosophy behind the idea of God is not compatible with what we can describe as a good God.

Let me state that again: The theology/philosophy behind the idea of God is not compatible with what we can describe as a good God. Remember that we have to understand 'good' and 'evil' outside of 'what God would or would not do' in order to meaningfully describe God as 'good.'

If 'good' is just 'what God would or would not do,' then the skeptic quoted at the beginning of this post was simply arguing 'How could God do that which God could not do?' A Christian can simply respond by saying 'Well, that's impossible... so our understanding of what God could do must be lacking.' However, such a response derives from a misunderstanding of the point of the argument - rather than assuming [A good God exists] -> Let's figure out how to make His actions all be good, the problem of evil assumes nothing, and then -> Let's figure out if a good god exists.

5. Desire Utilitarianism Lite

Desire utilitarianism is a theory that assumes the absence of the supernatural or of any overarching established moral code, which makes it difficult to analyze God... but if we were to take the 'idea' of God and apply desire utilitarianism, it may yield some insights.

Desires are the objects of moral criticism ('good' and 'evil')
Good desires are those that tend to fulfill the desires of others (promoting welfare generally)
Good actions are those which a person with good desires would act upon
Good and evil desires are discovered by a scientific sort of evaluation as to which desires would objectively tend to fulfill those of others - a list of such desires would include empathy, compassion; it would exclude the desire to harm others, to hate; to kill.

6. Determinism - more misunderstanding

Miller spends a good deal of time berating 'the skeptic' for being too deterministic. However, the skeptic was not assuming that everything would be a 'first domino fell over, hitting the next one, and the next one' kind of circumstance. Since he assumed 'omniscience' in the idea of the Christian God he was arguing against, he was merely noting that such a God would know beforehand the events which would transpire on earth. This is not predeterminism, and I believe Miller wasted his words here. The skeptic simply assumed that God didn't bring the universe into existence under the naive belief that everything would work out perfectly. For many theological reasons I could outline, but decline to do so for space-saving purposes, this is a valid assumption to make.

So far...

Miller's response is too long to draw a very thorough breakdown from me. He spent most of the rest of the letter trying to explain why various examples people pose as cruelties imposed by the Almighty are not as bad as one might think. So far, it's done nothing to answer the basic question - nothing at all. Miller has assumed the Bible to be true; then assumed God to be morally good; then taken the appropriate measures to interpret the Bible thus... in so doing, he happened to mention (by way of contrasting the plague on Egypt) various other plagues of the ancient world that accounted for hundreds of thousands of horrible deaths all over the Middle East. All of this, presumably, was foreseen by God. Why go ahead with the plan, then?

7. Postulating a motive

Very simply, if God was ever once the only entity in existence, and God is all-good, clearly it is possible for good to exist without evil. If God is all-powerful, then God does not need love, companionship, help etc. In fact, if God did need love, He could always rely on those other aspects of His tri-unity (Hey Jesus, wanna shoot some pool?).

A) A universe can exist without suffering or evil
B) An all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God can exist alone
C) Therefore, the existence of suffering and evil is not necessary. It was derived from a conscious decision which was not made for the benefit of those created - since those creations would wind up "enduring a life of hardship and pervasive suffering [whereupon] most humans will end up in Hell, where they will be actively tortured forever and ever."

It's a common response for a Christian to postulate that there is some overarching good to explain the evil. I challenge them to postulate ANY single reason God would have for creating the universe.

8. Greater good

There could be some 'greater good' that demands the creation of this universe. For example, there could be another universe in which two people get to go to Heaven for every person in this universe that burns in Hell. This assumes that there is a price/exchange rate for every soul - in fact, what if the majority of humans who go to Hell simply go there so a few can get to Heaven? Maybe we're sacrificed because we're only worth, collectively, as much as the Christians who go to Heaven.

The latter proposition falls apart. First it assumes that some humans are more valuable than others, which the principle of justice precludes - unless there is some aspect of those humans that is intrinsically more valuable. Maybe it's their ability to have blind faith. If so, then the creation of the humans who only believe what evidence supports (or those who put their blind faith in the wrong god!) is a blatant injustice. If God is just, then that scenario is not true.

If God has created other beings of more intrinsic value than humans, then what? I'd argue that God's values would be in direct conflict with our own - and if we're defining 'good' in terms of the general wellfare of human beings, then that argument has run into a roadblock as well.

So is it all, as the Iron Maiden song says, "For the Greater Good of God?"

9. Foreknowledge

Miller brings up the philosophical question of what can be foreknown at all. Just as 'omnipotence' does not mean God can make a burrito so hot He can't eat it, omniscience doesn't necessarily mean that God would know what would befall mankind...

It gets a little complicated here. Supposedly, God doesn't have 'free will' like humans do (in Christian theology), because God is limited to those actions that are good. God's character is described as good, so we know that God can only do things His character allows. His character apparently allowed Him to create humans - with the ability to freely choose evil (what God's character wouldn't allow God to do).

An all-knowing God, even without the gift of foresight, couldn't fail to recognize the inevitability of evil. That can't be good... that God's character would allow Him to create evil is very similar to the idea that if one hires a mercenary to murder somebody else, that person is culpable as much as the mercenary is.

Furthermore, an all-knowing God couldn't give the order to 'go forth and multiply' while assuming that humans with a lifetime of ~1,000 years living a life of 0% infant mortality, no natural disasters, no predation, disease, poison, and a limited ecosystem would be happy for long.

Oh no, it's pretty clear that even without foreknowledge, an all-knowing God would be privy to the understanding of certain inevitabilities.

"What we need to do at this point is to come up with a set of criteria which would warrant the continuance of a plan that included foreknown suffering."
Miller thought up four criteria.

1) There must be more 'good' than 'bad.'
2) The lives of the good and evil intertwine inseperably (what happens to one affects the other)
3) Nobody is discriminated against - we are all treated fairly
4) The evil does not ultimately thwart God's intention to bless the good
He decided to approach each of these criteria independently. I'll summarize and criticize in another massive conglomerate, but it's time for me to hit the hay.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Insight into Faith

"A faith is not acquired by reasoning. One does not fall in love with a woman, or enter the womb of a church, as a result of logical persuasion. Reason may defend an act of faith - but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act. Persuasion may play a part in a man's conversion; but only the part of bringing to its full and conscious climax a process which has been maturing in regions where no persuasion can penetrate. A faith is not acquired; it grows like a tree.

From the psychologist's point of view, there is little difference between a revolutionary and a traditionalist faith. All true faith is uncompromising, radical, purist; hence the true traditionalist is always a revolutionary zealot in conflict with pharisaian society, with the lukewarm corrupters of the creed. And vice versa: the revolutionary's Utopia, which in appearance represents a complete break with the past, is always modeled on some image of the lost Paradise, of a legendary Golden Age...

Thus all true faith involves a revolt against the believer's social environment, and a projection into the future of an ideal derived from the remote past. All Utopias are fed from the sources of mythology; the social engineer's blueprints are merely revised editions of the ancient text."

Arthur Koestler penned these words in the 1949 book The God that Failed. It was a collection of six essays by famous ex-Communists. I found the text to be very relevant today. The author's membership of the Communist party was the result of an acquired faith - a 'region where no persuasion may penetrate.' What a sad prophecy of fundamentalism in our society. Now I need to read further, to understand how he broke the hold of this 'future ideal derived from the remote past.'

Friday, June 22, 2007

Rhetorical Analysis - Ultimate Words in the Abortion Dispute

When two sides are in direct dispute over a topic, their stance is often labeled appropriately: pro-war vs anti-war; pro-gay marriage vs anti-gay marriage. In only one contemporary debate is there a situation where one issue has two conflicting 'pro' sides. Abortion rights is the battle between 'pro-life' vs 'pro-choice.'

These terms are 'ultimate words,' according to Richard Weaver, one of the preeminent rhetorical ethicists of the century. 'Ultimate words' are used to direct our passions toward favoring one side or another; to shape the way we look at the subject.

Both sides of the abortion debate use loaded language, which doesn't help to move our passions in the way that a responsible rhetorician should.

Value-laden terminology
Weaver's discussion of 'ultimate words' distinguishes between 'god' terms and 'devil' terms. In America, there is a positive association with words like 'progress,' 'democracy,' 'freedom' and 'justice,' and a negative connotation with 'reactionary,' 'fascist' and 'militant.'

More pointedly, there is a positive association with words like 'life' and 'choice,' and a negative with 'killing babies' and 'forced pregnancy/childbirth.'

Weaver had a somewhat traditional view of rhetoric - 'addressing itself to the most important of all ends, the persuading of human beings to adopt right attitudes and act in response to them.' The sort of attitude generated by the particular use of 'ultimate words' by opposing parties in the abortion debate is not very helpful to understanding the arguments in regards to the issue.

Certainly nearly everybody is 'pro-life' in most circumstances. You won't find many people in the general public who are 'against' life... but that is the connotation implied when those opposed to abortion use the term. People are essentially told that 'if you value human life, you must side with us. If you side with them, you don't value human life.'

The other side does the same thing, through its choice of words. Nearly everybody is 'pro-choice' in most regards in this democracy, particularly, ironically enough, the Republicans who usually stand on the other side. Yet when the value-laden terminology of 'pro-choice' is used by the pro-abortion rights side, the public automatically gets the assumption that those who disagree with abortion rights aren't concerned with allowing people to make their own choices with regards to their bodies. Making independent choices is an important American value - a 'god' term in our culture.

Language is sermonic

Weaver is probably most famous for his claim that language is sermonic; that people engaging in rhetoric are preachers.
"Finally, we must never lose sight of the order of values as the ultimate sanction of rhetoric. No one can live a life of direction and purpose without some scheme of values. As rhetoric confronts us with choices involving values, the rhetorician is a preacher to us, noble if he tries to direct our passion to noble ends, and base if he uses our passion to confuse and degrade us."
The use of value-laden language to cast two opposing sides as noble is quite simply the oldest form of argument on earth. In this case, using 'pro-life' and 'pro-choice' amounts to a pathetic appeal - an argument from pathos. Pathos is the third of Aristotle's artistic proofs (Ethos: perceived character of the speaker, and Logos: logical syllogism, are the other two).

The passions are being stirred by using value-laden language that suggests 'We support life. They support killing babies.' Or 'We support the right to make our own choices. They think important life decisions should be forced down our throats.' This is not the same as trying to 'direct our passion to noble ends.'

Pathos, Phaedras, and the noble rhetorician
"The office of rhetoric is advising men," wrote Richard Weaver. In his analysis of Plato's Phaedras, he points out that the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedras was written to describe the difference between a noble and a base rhetorician.
"Sophistications of theory cannot obscure the truth that there are but three ways for language to affect us. It can move us toward what is good; it can move us toward what is evil; or, in a hypothetical third place, fail to move us at all."
The analogy Plato made was between a lover and a rhetorician. A lover can treat you in a dispassionate way - as an object or in a carefree manner, in a way that manipulates your emotions and uses you for his/her own benefit, or in a way that focuses on meeting your needs, on self-sacrifice and mutual trust. A speaker, likewise, can be dispassionate and boring, can manipulate your emotions to promote his/her own benefit, or - this is the 'noble lover,' or 'noble rhetorician,' can speak in a way that 'persuades human beings to adopt right attitudes and act in response to them.'

We have an obligation to use language responsibly. 'But any utterance is a major assumption of responsibility,' as Weaver concludes. Using loaded language will always have ramifications. Be careful.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe

It's dated, but I was presented with a transcript of a presentation by Dr. Hugh Ross, founder of the Reasons to Believe 'Science-Faith Think Tank.' Delivered on April 16th, 1994, 'New Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God' nevertheless indicates some interesting details about the organization.

I have a few comments.

Ross, despite his education, seems startlingly unable to recognize sound logic.
"Through the principle of positive fact, if the universe has a beginning, it must have a beginner, hence the existence of God."
Now, it may just be that I'm unfamiliar with the term 'principle of positive fact, but what I see is this:

1. All beginnings have a beginner.
2. The universe has a beginning.
3. Therefore, the universe has a beginner.
4. That beginner is God.

The first premise requires a little elaboration, and there is an unjustified leap of logic between (3) and (4). Still, it's clearly just a basic rephrasing of the age-old cosmological argument. Premise (1) only stands if by 'beginner' Ross means 'cause.' For instance, if I say 'since an avalanche has a beginning, it must have a beginner,' I am only correct in the sense that something triggered the avalanche. 'Beginner' implies someone, which is, at best, something Ross overlooked, but more likely just meaning-laden language used rhetorically in an irresponsible fashion.

While there is still debate over the validity of the cosmological argument for a creator (which I won't bother detailing right now, but will direct you to a useful description here), what is certain is that to say that 'the universe has a cause' is NOT the same as saying that 'it has an intelligent, thinking, planning Cause.' All we know is that a series of events caused a beginning to time and space - as we know it, in this universe. The leap from this conclusion to 'thus, God' is unwarranted. It is at least unsatisfactorily explained in the presentation.
"Any entity confined to half of the line of time, must have a beginning and must be created. I can walk home tonight, and that's it. It's the simplest, most rigorous proof of the existence of God."
By way of counter-example, here are a few other options for an entity confined to half of the line of time (only able to move 'forward' in the dimension of time we experience):
1. The entity was, at one point, able to use any line of time, and has since lost those abilities.
2. The entity existed outside of time, and then became subject to that dimension (Jesus Christ, as Ross must have forgotten)
3. The entity was brought into existence by non-intelligently-designing factors.

I'm not pushing any of these as a legitimate argument - that's not the issue at hand. I simply want to demonstrate Ross' failures at grasping logical arguments.

Ross oversteps the boundaries of his education, making him both intellectually arrogant, and negligent

Let me be the first to admit that Ross is a well-credentialed man. His B.Sc. (1967) in Physics, University of British Columbia, Ma.Sc. (1968) in Astronomy, University of Toronto and Ph.D. (1973) in Astronomy, University of Toronto clearly show that he is educated. However, it is these very credentials that point to a more sinister side to his ministry.
"All we have is evidence that a certain species exists for a certain period of time without significant change, which then goes extinct to be replaced at a different time with a radically different species, with no connection from the previous species to the next one."
Ross is in no position to give educated commentary on the theory of evolution. He may be considered a scientist, but his area of expertise is not in a field relevant to allow him to be an authority on fossil record evidence, or biological evolution in general. As an educated scientist, he should know this - and he exhibits intellectual arrogance and a disregard for accurate knowledge in attempting to cast himself as an authority before an audience unqualified to criticize his claims.

Of course, he is flat-out wrong, too , and he derives his statements from a flat-out misunderstanding of biological evolution. So I don't carry on too long, I'll refer readers to check the accuracy of his statements at Talk.Origins, the American Scientific Affiliation, or UC Berkley's Understanding Evolution page.

In reference to hominid fossils:
"...there's no relationship between those bipedal primates and human beings."
Today, we know that 'at this functional genetic level humans and chimpanzees are more similar to each other than either is to any of the other apes.' While this information was not expressly available at the time of Ross' presentation, to say that there is 'no relationship' between one primate genus and another cannot be considered an accurate statement. Of course, those who have studied hominid fossils extensively and submitted their findings to rigorous peer-review believe that there is indeed a strong relationship between these primate fossils and both humans and the common ancestor shared by some modern apes.

Ross has no expertise when it comes to evolutionary theory, and when somebody schooled in science presumes to offer a professional opinion on a different branch of science, that somebody is either being deceitful or... well, that's pretty much the only option. He's too smart to be doing anything other than intentionally misleading his audience.

Ross is willing to use baseless numbers and present them as fact
"There were 30,000 land mammals on planet Earth when God created Adam and Eve. There are only 15,000 remaining today. In just a few thousand years, 15,000 species of mammals have disappeared."
It's important to remember that there is a difference between facts discovered by scientists and scientific theories. Of course, I don't know how he possibly arrived at the 30,000 number. Modern estimates put the number of mammal species at around 5,000. His faulty statistics also say that even without human impact on earth, one (mammal) species would go extinct every year. However, only 82 mammal species have gone extinct, to our knowledge, in the last 500.

I suspect that the 'one per year' number refers to animal species as a whole... showing, again, not only Ross' inability to provide authoritative commentary on the biological sciences, but his negligence for saying what he did.

Ross, and other 'intelligent design' advocates, depend heavily on arguments from complexity
"What does this tell me about the Creator? That God so loved the human race that he went to the expense of building one hundred billion stars... so that for this brief moment in time, we could have a nice place to live."
That's not what it tells me. I understand the the universe is complicated - incredibly so. However, consider for a moment the motives for an all-powerful being to create a universe. From the way Christians present God, It would presumably create a universe for the habitation of human beings, for the sake of making something complex, beautiful, and reflective of Its characteristics, or some combination of the two.

If the point of the universe is to host human life, then it is a monumental waste. From our experience of intelligent designers (humans), a system designed to work should exhibit signs of simplicity - the more simple the design, the less can go wrong. God could have made a tiny 'universe' consisting of only our planet. In fact, there is evidence that the Bible authors held to this view. It would make even more sense, of course, for God to have created a universe for every individual - Christians will remind you that your relationship with God is the only important one, so why shouldn't it be the only one? Besides, that would pretty much eradicate 'sin,' which usually relies on situations with more than one being.

But most Christians propose something a little different, which helps to explain the seeming pointlessness of a vast universe - God wanted to make something complex, beautiful, and reflective of Its characteristics. However, I'm fairly certain that if an all-powerful God wanted to really make a complex universe, for complexity's sake, then It could make one vastly MORE complicated than this. Certainly we wouldn't expect it to be mostly empty space, filled with background radiation and almost completely hostile to life.

Why I consider the argument from complexity pointless

Any given hand in a poker game is vastly improbable - yet once you've been dealt that hand, to question the odds of having been dealt it is unreasonable. More pointedly, consider the odds that you exist, here and now - as an individual. Each sperm has something like a 1 in 20,000,000 chance of fertilizing an egg. Account for other variables - that your parents would decide to do the naughty thing on a particular day, at a particular time, in a particular place; that they'd even find one another; that THEY would be born...

The chances that you would come to exist were very slim. However, now that you are born, the chances have become 100%. The same is true of the universe... just because the numbers thought up by mathematicians make it seem unlikely that the universe came about at all doesn't change the fact that it did - and it wasn't much more unlikely than the fact that you are reading this right now.

The presentation fails to deliver

I was led to believe by its title that this presentation would give scientific evidence for the existence of God. What I got was facts discovered by scientists (not necessarily science), along with bogus/false 'scientific' conclusions (not related to hypothesizing God), and pointless mathematical calculations. This does not amount to scientific evidence for the existence of God in any way, shape, or form.

More specifically, the presentation began with this statement:
"The hallmark of a truly reliable scientific theory is that it is thoroughly testable, scientifically falsifiable, and makes accurate predictions."
NOTHING he presented regarding God was falsifiable in theory, or had the ability to make predictions. This presentation is, at best, misleading - as the audience assumes that the opening statement is true (which it is) and then nods along as facts discovered by scientists (NOT the same as 'scientific theories') are presented. This presentation has more straw men than a cornfield, leading me to the firm conclusion that, given the credentials of the speaker, the presentation is deliberately deceitful.

I have to end with a strong moral slap on the hand for a scientist who should be held in deep disregard by honest people. Nevermind that modern Christianity extols honesty as a virtue. Nevermind that other Christian organizations like Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research are far more culpable.

The question is whether or not the 'Hugh Ross' sort of person is the type we should welcome as part of society. Imagine, if you will, a presidential administration that exerts a great deal of power over the American public. Since it holds that position, it is assumed to know what it's talking about - people trust it initially in its decisions and claims. It then takes that trust and runs with it, making wild assumptions not based on fact, and assuming it knows the truth even when there is no reason for it to do so (like when it invades Iraq and then ignores the results of the Iraq Study Group). It conjures false reasons and presents them as fact. Overall, it fails to live up to what is expected - required, actually - of it. This sort of presidential administration is deserving of all sorts of criticism. It is the sort of administration that should be fought through legislation and proper application of the law.

Dr. Hugh Ross represents a group that exerts a great deal of power over the American public - in the role of Christian leader. People trust him when he makes decisions and claims because he is a scientist. However, he takes his perceived (but undeserved) authority to other subjects and makes wild claims not based on fact, and assumes he knows the truth... although facts indicate otherwise. He claims to present science, but fails to live up to his claim.

He willingly deceives, misleads, assumes his conclusions true even when un-credentialed to make them. He demonstrates a blatant disregard for truth and reasoned criticism. The sort of desires that Ross operates on are the sort that lead to bad decisions and harmful consequences, as we see from the example of the Bush administration. The sort of desires that Ross operates on are demonstrably the type that tend to thwart the desires of others, and should be outspokenly denounced.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Forensics and evolutionary theory

There is an old and tiresome Creationist claim out there which says that theories of evolution are not scientific because they can't be repeated or tested. Such a claim states that since nobody was around to directly observe the transition from amphibians to reptiles, for instance, that to theorize such a scenario is not scientific.

A thought struck me as a good way to explain why such a claim is false. Before I do, however, I'd like to point out that much of the groundwork for evolutionary theories has indeed been directly observed in recorded human history. Random mutations do occur and are selected for when beneficial to organisms in their particular environment. Transitional fossils occur in the geologic column in a manner consistent with the predictions that evolutionary theories make. You can learn more by clicking on the Talk.origins link in the FYI section of this blog. Pay special attention to the '29+ Evidences of Macroevolution.'

I'd like to use the example of forensic science to make the main point here. My intent is to demonstrate why both forensics and biological evolution are valid scientific approaches to knowledge and truth - and to tag on the conclusion that 'God did it' cannot meaningfully be used in the realm of scientific inquiry.

For one thing, forensics provides a great example of how the scientific method works.
1. You observe a phenomenon: A person has died.
2. You formulate and propose a hypothesis for how that series of events came about.
3. You collect data and test the hypothesis against those data.
4. You analyze the results, form conclusions, and either reject the hypothesis or modify it to fit the evidence.
5. If the theory holds up, you run it by a group of people who can view your findings and conclusions, declaring them either valid or invalid.

None of this involves *being there* to directly observe the events. None of the events need to be repeatable. Yet... this is still science. In forensic studies, people collect evidence regarding past events, and they construct a theory to explain the evidence. The same is true of evolutionary theories.

Several important criteria for scientific theories make it clear that 'God did it' cannot be a valid explanation in the realm of science. Most relevant are the ideas that scientific theories must be able to explain past and to predict future phenomena, and that useful scientific theories must be falsifiable.

If we try applying 'God did it' to our murder case, it's clear how useless the theory is. What sort of things would we predict if God did murder the victim? What sort of findings would falsify the theory?

Take a step back for a moment. Imagine instead of 'God did it,' we hypothesize 'Mother Theresa did it.' Well, if she was responsible for the murder, what would we predict to find? We might predict that she had a motive to murder, was in the vicinity when the murder took place, and perhaps left traces of her presence - fingerprints, blood, hair, etc. To falsify the theory, we could prove that Mother Theresa is dead. We could prove that she wasn't in the vicinity, and that she left no traces at the crime scene. More potently, we could prove that another person was in the vicinity and left traces of his or her presence.

The 'God did it' theory is powerless to make predictions. It could include absolutely anything. There is nothing we can do to empirically test the idea, and no possible discoveries or evidences are able to falsify the theory. For those two reasons alone, 'God did it' is a worthless hypothesis to make in the realm of scientific inquiry - whether or not it is true.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Desire Utilitarianism

This post is here to provide a groundwork for all future discussions of ethics on my blog. When I write about events/concepts, I will be applying the moral meaning theory of desire utilitarianism to evaluate the topic - to the best of my ability. If I happen to disagree with Alonzo Fyfe on the matter, rest assured that the proper application of the theory is his. Mine must be either insufficiently thought out, or born of a misunderstanding of my own.

I found this essay posted by a contributor on a new scratchpad Wiki for desire utilitarianism:


I think it gives a concise but thorough description of the theory (complete with original curvy font and formatting). If you'd like further explanation, just ask me.

Desire Utilitarianism

By Richard Chappell (Summarising the moral theory developed by Alonzo Fyfe) [2004]


- The focus of moral judgements should concern an agent's desires, rather than his actions.

- Desires are persistent entities.

- Value derives from desire-fulfillment. (There is no value without a valuer.)

- Morality is about maximising value (and hence desire-fulfillment), universally.

- Hence, a good desire is one that will tend to fulfill desires generally, regardless of whose they are. A bad desire is one that will tend to thwart desires generally.

- Morality is subjective in the sense that it depends on minds ('valuers') generally, but it is nevertheless objective from the perspective of any individual.

- An act can be judged on its consistency with how a person with good desires (see definition above) would behave in that situation.

- The Is/Ought gap can be bridged, by noting the general form of the hypothetical imperative: "If you want Y, you ought to do X", is another way of saying "Doing X is such to fulfill the desires in question" (where the desires in question are 'Y'). To extend this to morality, note that the 'desires in question' are all desires, regardless of who has them.

Focus on Desires - BDI Theory

Why focus on desires rather than actions? Because no action occurs in isolation. Instead, they are caused by the beliefs & desires of the agent. This idea is formalised in today's most widely accepted view of human psychology, BDI Theory. To quote Alonzo Fyfe:

(Beliefs + Desires) -> Intention -> Action

It is important to understand that beliefs and desires are both propositional attitudes. That is to say, they express a mental attitude towards a proposition. Furthermore, a proposition is the meaning component of a sentence. "I am eating chocolate cake" and "Alonzo is eating chocolate cake" are two different sentences that happen to express the same proposition (given that I am the Alonzo referred to in the second sentence).

"Agent believes that P" states that Agent has the mental attitude that the proposition P is true.

"Agent desires that P" states that Agent has the mental attitude that the proposition P is to be made or kept true.

BDI theory states that the intentional component of intentional actions (the only type of action we can be held morally accountable for) is strictly determined by our beliefs and desires. If I desire some chocolate cake, and believe that I still have some chocolate cake left over from the birthday party, I form the intention to go downstairs and get the cake, which (barring physical injury) causes the muscle contractions associated with walking downstairs, cutting a piece of cake, and bringing it back up to my computer.

If I do not go downstairs and get a piece of cake, this is because the description of my beliefs and desires is either mistaken or incomplete. Perhaps I do not believe that there is a chocolate cake in the kitchen. Or perhaps I have an aversion to gaining weight that is stronger than my desire for chocolate cake. Either way, the intentional component of my behavior is to be explained in terms of my beliefs and desires.

BDI theory says that we always act to maximize fulfillment of our desires (given our beliefs), but allows that we can have a mix of self-regarding and other-regarding desires. A 'desire that my child is healthy and happy' is as possible as a 'desire that I am having sex with Jenny'. Self-sacrifice springs from our other-regarding desires. An parent's act of sacrifice to benefit his child springs from the agent's desire that P, where P = 'my child is healthy and happy', and the desire that P is a motivating reason to make it the case that P either becomes or remains true. There are times when an agent's other-regarding desires can override all self-regarding desires.

People can even have other-thing-regarding desires such as a desire that a piece of artwork or a historic document be preserved, or a desire to learn some secret of the universe. These are not always done for personal credit.

Yet, in all cases, it is always our own desires that fully govern our actions.

Note the technical definitions used in regard to desires: they are fulfilled if the proposition P is in fact true, and thwarted if the proposition is in fact false. On the other hand, desires are satisfied if the agent believes P is true (regardless of the truth of the matter), and frustrated otherwise. Simple thought experiments demonstrate that people seek desire fulfillment, not mere desire satisfaction (though they may desire the pleasant feeling too, it is a separate desire which may itself be fulfilled).

Desires as Persistent Entities

Our desires remain relatively constant over time (though of course they are subject to change, and some are more long-lived than others). As Alonzo put it: They are not the type of thing that springs forth at a whim to be tucked back into their corner when it is convenient to do so. Every desire weighs on us constantly, and if it is there, its effects will not be confined to this one act alone. This simple fact allows us to overcome the common objections to utilitarianism - for what the usual examples have in common, is that they describe rare scenarios in which (taken in isolation) acting according to bad desires would seem to have the best consequences (e.g. killing an innocent person to appease a rioting mob). However, real life does not occur "in isolation". For someone to have a desire set which allows them to kill innocent people in one scenario, would invariably compromise their behaviour generally.

In this respect, Desire Utilitarianism is similar to Rule Utilitarianism, except that it recognises that the rules are (in a sense) compulsory - wired into the human brain, in the form of "desires". To behave according to Act Utilitarianism is a psychological impossibility, and therefore (because 'ought' implies 'can') it is not the case that we ought to behave according to Act Utilitarianism.

Note also that desires persist even when they are overpowered by other desires. Alonzo Fyfe discusses the example of a man whose bee-allergic son gets stung and will die if he doesn't get treatment fast enough. The father then steals a car in order to drive his son to the hospital in time. He should have an aversion to stealing, but it is overpowered by his desire to save his son. However, that doesn't negate the aversion to stealing - the resistance is still there (like opposing forces in a physics vector), and this will cause the father to return the car and compensate the owner for any inconvenience caused.

Explaining Value

There is no value without a valuer; no intrinsic value in the universe - no 'goodons' and 'badons' to complement protons and electrons. Fortunately, however, there are valuers (us!), so it is possible for objects or states of affairs to be assigned subjective value.

Value is a relationship between an object (or state of affairs) and a specific set of desires.

There are 4 dimensions to all value statements:

(1) A class of objects to be evaluated.

(2) A set of desires to evaluate them against.

(3) Whether the relationship between them is direct ("pleasing") or indirect ("useful").

(4) Whether the object to be evaluated thwarts ("bad") or fulfills ("good") the desires.

As an example, the value tasty evaluates objects put in ones mouth against the desires of the individual doing the tasting. The relationship is a direct one (compare to the value nutritious, which would answer 'indirect' to this question instead), and the desires in question are fulfilled (i.e. it tastes "good").

As Alonzo points out, every value statement follows this same pattern, and moral value is no different:

1) What is being evaluated? Desires themselves. A virtue is nothing more or less than a good desire.

What desires are relevant in determining whether a desire is a virtue? All other desires, actually, regardless of who has them. Honesty tends to fulfill other desires. So does compassion.

3) Which types of relationships are relevant? Both direct and indirect relationships are used in determining if a desire is to count as a virtue. Honesty is good not only because an honest person is a wonder to behold, but honesty is generally useful to people generally.

4) It counts as a part of this that a virtue must fulfill desires.


You may be wondering about the second dimension of moral value as described above - why are all other desires relevant? I think the best answer is simply that there aren't any plausible alternatives, especially when you consider how people talk about "morality". For example, to consider only your own desires, would be called "selfish", not "moral".

To draw a line demarcating those whose desires are relevant to moral consideration from those who are irrelevant would seem unacceptably arbitrary. Likewise, it would be arbitrary to weigh the values of any person or group as being of greater inherent worth than some other person or group.

Which leads us to the intuitively pleasing conclusion that morality is about maximising value universally - that is, a good desire is one that will tend to fulfill other desires generally. Honesty, compassion, and an aversion to killing, are all examples of 'good' desires. Bad desires (e.g. a desire to burn pagans at the stake) have a tendency to thwart other desires generally.

Note that this universality prevents morality from degrading into a relativistic or purely-subjective farce. Because morality is essentially about asking what is "good for everyone", the answer does not depend upon individual beliefs or preferences - it is objective in this sense. It is subjective in the sense that value is relative to desires generally - there is no "absolute" (or "intrinsic") value. Alonzo Fyfe dryly refers to this as objective moral relativism. The concept of "location" serves as an illustrative analogy - any location must always be given relative to some other location (e.g. "the keys are on the table"), yet statements about relative locations can still be objectively true or false.

Judging acts

When a person asks, "What, morally, should I do in this case?", the best interpretation one can give to this question is, "What would a person with good desires do in this case?" Where a 'good desire' is a desire that, if universal, would be such as bring about the greatest fulfillment of all the desires without regard to whose they are.

Acts can be moral, permissible, or immoral, depending on whether a person with good desires would act that way, have no preference, or condemn the action (respectively).

Universality revisited

Here I temporarily depart from Alonzo's theory, and instead elaborate it somewhat with my own ideas. While I fully agree with everything in the Universality section, there is a different sense of universality, that which is described in the Judging acts section, where Alonzo states that "a 'good desire' is a desire that, if universal..." It is that "if universal" bit that I disagree with.

As the theory stands, all 'good' desires are moral duties. They are desires that everyone should have, and so anyone who lacks it may be judged as morally deficient in that respect. However, this leaves no room for supererogation - the concept of a 'good' which is voluntary, rather than a duty (e.g. giving to charity). It also fails to recognise the virtue of harmonious individual differences (e.g. that some people are mathematicians, whilst others are engineers). Currently, individual differences can only be identified as "permissible" (or maybe "bad"), never "good" in their own right, because of that if universal clause (after all, a universal desire to be a theoretical mathematician would result in a world where very few practical advances were achieved!).

My suggestion is to adopt a two-tier approach to morality:

1) Moral duties: this is the compulsory (and universal) side of morality, which is defined as Alonzo stated it: "a 'good desire' is a desire that, if universal, would be such as bring about the greatest fulfillment of all the desires without regard to whose they are."

2) Supererogation: this is the voluntary (and individual) aspect of morality, which could perhaps be defined as follows:
An 'individually-good desire' is a desire that, in that individual, would tend to fulfill desires generally.

This approach would, I believe, allow for greater subtlety and variety of moral thought. It acknowledges the moral worth of individual differences, and allows for a greater breadth of moral choice, rather than insisting that all moral 'goods' are also 'duties', and everything else is merely 'permissible'.

The Is/Ought gap

David Hume proposed that premises purely about how the world 'is' (fact) cannot yield conclusions about how it 'ought' to be (value), and that anyone who attempts to bridge the is/ought gap in such a way must explain how this is to be done.

Alonzo Fyfe responds as follows:

[B]eliefs and desires follow the same pattern. Recall, beliefs + desires yield intentions, which in turn yield actions. One can stack as many beliefs as one wants into a human brain, yet no action is implied about these beliefs. It is like sticking data into a database, no set of data implies that the database should do something. Yet, the instant you add even a single desire to this set, there is a reason to do something. The agent still might not be able to do anything, but he has an understandable reason to do so.

The 'is' portion of the 'is/ought' distinction reflects the 'belief' part of the 'belief/desire' distinction. Correspondingly, the 'ought' portion of the 'is/ought' distinction reflects the 'desire' part of the 'belief/desire' distinction.

But desires are real. They exist in the real world and have influence over the physical movement of matter in the universe. Specifically, they have as their effects the muscle movements that make up human action. Desires -- the embodiment of 'ought' -- exist in the world of the 'is'.

If Agent wants to record that show that comes on in ten minutes, then Agent ought to get the video recorder ready. If Agent wants to graduate from college in four years, then Agent ought to buckle down and study. Once we add a desire to our list of premises, we get an ought conclusion. But the claim, "a desire that X exists" is an 'is' claim. As a premise, it is an 'is' premise. Yet, once added, it allows one to yield 'ought' conclusions.

To summarise: The Is/Ought gap can be bridged, by noting the general form of the hypothetical imperative: "If you want Y, then you ought to do X", is another way of saying "Doing X is such as to fulfill the desires in question" (where the desires in question are 'Y'). To extend this to morality, note that the 'desires in question' are all desires, regardless of who has them.

As Alonzo puts it: 'Ought', in this case, evaluates actions in terms of their ability to fulfill certain desires, either directly or indirectly. Every 'ought' claim, like every value claim, presupposes a set of desires, and asks about the fulfillment of those desires. Every 'ought' claim asks about an 'is' relationship.


Alonzo Fyfe's writings can be found online at the Internet Infidels Discussion Boards. Of particular use to me in compiling this summary:

His formal debate Is Morality Objective? <http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?s=&threadid=59835>

The Infidel thread on Utilitarianism <http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?s=&threadid=70296>

His 26-chapter series, Ethics Without God: A Personal Journey <http://www.iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?s=&threadid=46876>

Monday, June 11, 2007


This blog site is just here for fun.

I know that much of the world today isn't fun. I'll write about that. The point is to share with you, my [privileged] readership, the world through my eyes. I want to introduce you to the facts that I've been introduced to, and I want to analyze things in what I hope is an enlightening way. I want to be able to dialogue with people at other blog sites.

To me, 'bigot' is the worst possible curse word that can be applied to a person - when true. With that in mind, if you want to post bigoted comments in response to my blogs, good riddance.

On the bright side, however, I think humans have an obligation to smile and to laugh as much as they can :) That's why I intend to keep y'all updated with fun links and yada yada yada. I may even recommend movies, music etc. I'll be around.