The Shackles of Dogma: Top-down Thinking

I’ve often wondered about what philosophers generally believe, as well as why they generally believe them, especially with respect to religious philosophers. And thanks to the largest survey of philosophers ever done back in 2010 with the Phil Papers survey, I will use that information to speculate about the latter question. Sources:

Okay, so I’ve a sort of annoyance with apologists’ use of philosophy. Now, as I quite like several areas of philosophy, my reason isn’t their usage of philosophy per se, but what motivates them I guess. So why is that, you ask? Well, let’s take into account the following sorts of considerations:

Most philosophers hold to, for example, a compatibilist conception of free will (~60% of philosophers polled). That is to say, they think free will and determinism can be reconciled in a meaningful way that does not result in bloating our view of the world with absurd metaphysical acts, as libertarian free will does. So why don’t religious apologists and philosophers of religion (we shouldn’t confuse the two as synonyms, of course) tend to hold to compatibilism (only 25.5% of philosophers of religion hold to compatibilism, and most of them (19.1%) are atheists) given its evident success in philosophy in general (~58% of philosophers of religion hold to libertarian free will)? To me, the answer is fairly obvious: The Problem of Evil.

If agents are also determined like the rest of the natural world, yet compatibilism still offers an “out” of sorts for free will, why didn’t God determine the world to be good? Clearly, most Christians just cannot accept compatibilism as true because the majority of their religious beliefs just don’t work with it, given the way the world is. And this extends beyond the free will debate:

* Why do most philosophers of religion tend to hold to an A-theory of time (~40%)? It’s often thought that the universe necessarily needs a cause, and the B-theory of time is simply not generally thought allow for this sort of thing, since the universe doesn’t “begin to exist” so much as it has a spatio-temporal boundary. So it’s no surprise that this view is more popular amongst them.

* Why do most philosophers of religion tend to avoid consequentialism as a normative ethical theory noticeable less than philosophers overall? Probably because doctrines like Hell would seem to mean, for consequentialists, that God is massively immoral.

* Why do most philosophers of religion reject physicalist accounts of the mind (63.8%) in stark contrast to philosophers generally (56.5%!)? I think it’s clearly because physicalist accounts of the mind are fundamentally in contradiction to the notion of an afterlife.

You get it. So what’s my point about all this? Contrary to many atheists online, I’m not her to say all religious apologists are charlatans or that theist philosophers of religion are disingenuous or something. My concern here is primarily that given the constraints their prior beliefs, the scope of what positions they can find reasonable or be open to become severely limited. That is, they end up unwittingly engaging in top-down justifications for their beliefs by tending towards positions that can allow for those positions to at least be plausible. Just look at William Lane Craig. His positions bear out this exact sort of thing, since he’s a:

-Substance Dualist
-Libertarian on free will (I THINK; he sometimes sounds like a compatibilist)
-A-theory of time (to support his Kalam Cosmological Argument)

And I think non-religious philosophers have, at least prima facie, less inherent constraints upon their thought, and hence are more able to consider the various positions (like those listed above), even if they tend towards a naturalistic, physicalist view (rightly, I think). This is not to say they don’t have their biases, it’s just I don’t think they have ones that as narrowly constrain them (generally) as their religious colleagues.

I think I initially had more to say on this topic, but I’m too tired to remember. Oh well.


The Path Forged (So Far…)

So a guy I chitchat with on Twitter now and then (@Ramansat, if you’re interested) was asking me about how I became and atheist and my transition through and out of the “New Atheist” movement the other day, so I figured I’d give it the old college try. I’ve never really done this sort of thing before, so bear with me if the length of this entry is more significant than usual. 🙂

Perhaps it will be more informative to give a little background on me. I come from a fairly religious family (I was primarily raised by and around my mother and her family), and am racially mixed (as are my 4 siblings), and the 2nd oldest child in of the 5. My grandparents are Catholic, though strangely only one of their kids stayed that way so far as I know. The rest, barring an atheist uncle, are Baptists or non-denominational Christians. They’re not what I’d call crazy into religion in the way many evangelicals are, but a few take it pretty seriously (though, perhaps their generally kindly demeanor masks it from me). I myself grew up as a nominal Christian. Went to church (often falling asleep), said the occasional prayer, which I figure is probably pretty standard for most Americans. Thanks to an awesome 2nd grade teacher I had, I developed an early interest in science, particularly astronomy, and found that I surprisingly enjoyed participating in science fairs. And this continued until a short time after I moved to a different city in Texas, at which time my attendance to a local youth group my Mom put me in ended up feeling that I had to take my religious devotion more seriously, and I ended up becoming a “born-again” Christian (this is late 2006, mind you).

Oh man, it’s so weird to try and put myself in that mindset again, it’s hard to describe it. For the first time, I read my Bible frequently, sometimes to the odd glance of my classmates at school. I prayed more frequently, usually asking for strength to resist temptation (Goddamn porn…) or else to batter away unpleasant thoughts. And don’t get me started on the youth camps. Rock n’ roll for Jesus, crying our eyes out in large prayer gatherings at night… *shiver* However, I look back on times fondly. The people I knew, at least, seemed pretty genuine and nice, and I made a lot of friends. My faith in the redemptive power of the Cross gave me strength through some difficult times. There were times of doubt, of course. I even recall a time where I Googled something like “Does God Exist?”. Unfortunately, I ended up on some stupid Young-Earth Creationist website, which was basically telling me 2 things:

1) God exists and real science supports this
2) Scientists who claim evidence exists which says otherwise are using demonstrably flawed methods (like claiming that the only dating method used is carbon dating)

Despite being a YEC for a short time, my love of science eventually won out and I found myself not caring about this sort of thing ever again as a Christian; they were 2 separate spheres for me. I adopted something like the view that when Genesis refers to God creating the Earth in mere days, it was speaking figuratively because there was some part of the Bible that referred to a thousand years being nothing more than a day for God, and so it never really concerned me.

Now, I cannot really recall any particular thing causing me to eventually become an atheist. There was no particularly bad events in my life in the time prior to my deconversion. I think that over time I just could no longer reconcile what I was seeing in the world (especially violence and suffering) with believing in him anymore. My church attendance slipped significantly, and I started to get irritated listening to religious music in general. I do remember crying pretty badly when I realized this, one night, that I had abandoned something that had been so dear and comforting to me no so long ago. And I’ve got to be honest, I despaired for several hours that night. I felt that, even I didn’t believe in God, I had lost anything that gave me purpose in the world. To be frank, I almost felt that suicide would be a better option than to remain with the void the loss of my faith had left, a world in which I had no true purpose in existing in. Contrary to the apparent deconversion story of many atheists I run into online, I cannot say my own deconversion was some steadfast, rational victory in the face of an irrational foe. At the time, for me, it was nothing less than a leeching of a core part of my identity, a loss of my True North; non-rational, really.

It was after I got through this short period of despair that I ended up making my first Twitter account (not telling you guys the username. :p) and announced that I had just become an atheist. Several atheist congratulated me and began pointing to various atheist and anti-religious media. This was how I found my way into the New Atheism. “Brilliant!”, I thought after watching some YouTube video of the late Christopher Hitchens railing against the evils religion, admittedly pretty damn eloquently. “THIS is why I will distance myself from religion. It’s irrational tripe.” And through the wonders of suggested videos, I quickly discovered Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (I never saw much Dan Dennett media, unfortunately).

And so, I was set on a path of interacting with like minded New Atheists, arguing against religion in the same vein as the aforementioned three did, getting into many long-winded forum and Twitter debates (I still do that occasionally; not much has changed in THAT regard 😉 ) with theists, informing them that everything they said about God existing was bullshit. Eventually, I started to see this William Lane Craig guy and his usage of this thing called “philosophy” a lot. As many around me did, I more or less immediately claimed him an idiot who knew nothing about science and so he couldn’t be correct with his arguments for God’s existence, even if I (though I would never have admitted it) couldn’t find fault with some of those arguments. After a while, I found myself less impressed with Hitchens’ argumentation (Craig was just too good, I thought) and became more tuned towards Sam Harris, who seemed to know a little bit of of philosophy. However, the enigma that was W.L. Craig got me to start reading up on this philosophy business, if only to find a way to refute him. I found myself aligning towards Harris’ approach towards a scientific account of morality, and I found some interesting philosophy-related books at a local library.

One of these books in particular, “Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story” by Jim Holt, began my real interest in philosophy for its own sake. Holt’s interviews and discussions with various people (Swinburne, Penrose, Weinberg, etc.) on this topic was really interesting to me and he personalized it by including how the events and deaths in his own life influenced his perception of this question, so I figured maybe there was more to Craig than using big or strange words/phrases like “epistemology” or “ontology” to confound atheists. As I began to learn more about philosophy and its history, I continually found myself ending up in more disagreements with my fellow “New Atheists”, especially when it pertained to disagreeing with Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins claims on certain matters. I found it odd. I didn’t think I was rocking the boat, I just thought they gave some simplistic answers to some questions, or made silly arguments, one of these being Hitchens oft-used “Name me the moral act a believer can do that an unbeliever cannot.” So what if they occasionally made a poor argument, they were definitely correct about religion and gods overall.

But as I became more acquainted with philosophy and the territory surrounding the unfolding and defense of various arguments within it and the manner in which one needs to nuance their position so as not to be easily rebutted, I found myself becoming annoyed by the style of these New Atheists. Their answers were easy, soundbite answers to interesting questions or arguments, and repeated ad nauseum. “Christianity is a death cult.” “Heaven is a Celestial North Korea.” “Atheism has no burden of justification because atheists merely lack belief.” “The one making the ‘positive’ claim has to justify their position.”, etc. I found myself continually heading towards a view similar to Noam Chomsky’s: These guys were very much like religious fundamentalists; there is no problem here, it’s all been solved and if you disagree you’re most likely demonstrably irrational and you need a little dose of reality. It soon became clear that I was no longer quite the same, and I entered a period similar to the previous one. Not so much despairing, but confused. Theism didn’t seem so easily refuted as New Atheists had claimed. So I decided to interact with both sides quite a bit, and became more familiar with the many arguments and refutations both sides had to each other. And while I eventually found myself to still falling squarely in the atheist camp (atheist as in, gods most probably don’t exist), I had more respect towards theists online and didn’t write them as irrational as I had once done. None of this is to say that I think theism has no problems or that religion doesn’t so often play a shit role in the world or to concede that I think theism is anything like a great thing easily defended, but the broad generalizations of theists and the atheist “I’m so rational” ego train would not do.

And, I’m still chugging along, trying to learn about shit and I’ve gotten to interact with a lot of interesting, intelligent people on both sides, and I’ve been introduced to many topics I’d never even considered or been interested in, from linguistics to issues surrounding gender identity and feminism.