Philosophy

What I Believe – My Three Philosophical Pillars

A while back I decided to write out my beliefs. I ended up limiting myself to three philosophical categories: 1) my ethical philosophy, 2) my epistemic philosophy, and 3) my political philosophy. So, here they are!

[My views are constantly being refined, and do not represent absolute beliefs which will necessarily remain static. I pride myself on being open to ideas, and any beliefs I have are merely a reflection of my current mindset. That being said, I wrote this about three months ago, and found it to still be an accurate representation of my views. It seems I have come to a place of moderate stability in my intellectual development since my deconversion.]

Ethical Philosophy: Secular Humanism

I believe that all actions should be taken primarily for the benefit of human beings, with consideration given to animals and the environment.

Supernatural beliefs play no role in my ethical decisionmaking and religious concepts are only valued insofar as they enforce humanistic values. I do not oppose supernatural beliefs, but I do oppose harmful consequences of those beliefs (e.g. teaching creationism in public schools; persecution of LGBTQ individuals, etc.)

I consider myself an atheist and a naturalist, but I do not seek to force those beliefs on others. I believe that people should be aware of humanism and the benefits of living a secular life so they can decide if it’s a worldview they could accept.

I respect intellectual and religious diversity, although I do not think any belief should be above appropriate criticism and scrutiny. I believe that robust and respectful discussion and debate of important issues is beneficial and necessary. Every person should be encouraged to form their own conclusions about the world and pursue truth wherever it leads.

Epistemic Philosophy: Empiricism

I believe that the foundation of knowledge is sensory experience and that the scientific method is the most effective way to gain reliable knowledge about the world.

I believe that the unfalsifiable testimonies of intuition, personal anecdote, emotion, and hypothetical entities or senses (e.g. sensus divinatus or testimony of the Holy Spirit) are not enough to support a truth claim in the absence of relevant objective evidence. These may or may not be sufficient justifications for personal belief, but they do not meet the minimum requirements of proof in an interpersonal discussion. The reason being that if these were allowed as legitimate evidence to establish truth, any hypothesis could be considered true on the testimony of personal belief; with the corollary that every belief must therefore be true.

I believe that public discussion and debate should center around identifying common values, and using reason, logic, supported by  relevant, objective evidence to determine the best course of action to take.

Political Philosophy: Progressivism

I believe that we should seek to improve the conditions of life for all people, rather than resting on the accomplishments of the past. There is still work to be done to improve our nation and world, and applying a critical approach to the issues we face and suggesting possible solutions is an act of patriotism.

I believe that cultural traditions can and should undergo a constant process of re-evaluation in light of advancements in science, education, and moral attitudes. No pre-existing belief is beyond scrutiny and revision in accordance with our expanding knowledge of the world.

I believe that tolerance of others’ beliefs and practices insofar as they do not cause direct harm or infringe on the rights of others is a virtue. I believe in justice and liberty.

Democracy, human rights, and the pursuit of a reasonably egalitarian culture of prosperity, security, health, and psychological well-being are the foundational elements of my political philosophy.


Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


The contents of this article may be used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Credit should be given to thefreethinkinghuman.wordpress.com.

Philosophy, Society

When Humanistic Ideals Collide with the Myth of Anthropocentrism

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Protagorus famously said “Of all things the measure is Man,” which is usually paraphrased as ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Despite it’s poetic value, Protagorus’ statement represents what is essentially the pinnacle of human arrogance. This paradigm of thought is reflected in religious beliefs about humanity’s eternal destiny, superiority over wildlife and the earth, and the supposed importance of individual purity and morality. But it  was also a cornerstone of enlightenment ideals, which still strongly influence secular thought.

Yesterday I met an atheist in my town through a Unitarian Universalist event. He is a fascinating British man who gave me some great ideas to chew on. One of which is a provocative philosophical concept called inhumanism, which at first blush sounds horrifying until the meaning is explained. As a self-identified progressive Humanist, this idea appeared to contrast strongly with certain tenets of my own philosophy.

The term inhumanism was coined by the 20th century poet Robinson Jeffers to describe his philosophy. He elaborated on it in the preface to The Double Axe  (1948):

The first part of The Double Axe was written during the war and finished a year before the war ended, and it bears the scars; but the poem is not primarily concerned with that grim folly. Its burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.

Essentially, inhumanism is about shifting the focus off of humanity, and the myth of anthropocentrism, and onto the universe at large, which we are inseparable from. No longer should we view ourselves as the center of the universe. Instead we should recognize that we are but one tiny part of an enormous whole.

The catalyst for such a worldview shift should be obvious. With looming ecological, geopolitical, and economic disasters staring us down, we, as if looking up the barrel of a gun, must stop denying the nature of reality, and admit that the world, and the universe may go on without us very soon. We should recognize that at the very least, the destruction of civilization as we know it may very well be inevitable.

The prognoses appear grim on most fronts. As exemplified by the sobering title of the great intellectual Noam Chomsky’s 2014 article for In These Times:“The End of History? The short, strange era of human civilization may be coming to a close.” Whether it be the possibility of nuclear war, environmental collapse, or socio-economic upheaval, we are facing some damn scary hypotheticals as a species.

There is still human optimism, but much of it seems naive or pragmatic at best. I am no scientist or economist, so I could be wrong.  Like most people, I am only capable of second-hand knowledge of such matters.  Maybe human civilization will rise to the challenge and work it’s way out of the messes we are facing. Maybe something unforeseeable will occur which changes everything. Who knows?

But it seems like the cracks in humanity’s optimism are showing. Are we really so confident? Is progress inevitable? Are we just hitting another speed bump along the road to victory?

Why do we assume that the Earth needs us? Can we imagine a universe without humans? It seems almost scandalous to suggest that humanity may just be a passing fad, subject to the arbitrary whims of the universe’s ever-changing taste in cosmic fashion.

A concept so unorthodox as this can easily be opened up to the charge of unproductive pessimism or fear-mongering. I think at it’s worst, a sense of hopeless, nihilistic determinism could be a potential side-effect. At it’s best however, it could challenge those who can accept it to reprioritize their lives accordingly. For example, I continue to feel more and more inclined to see art as a more noble ‘purpose’ so to speak, of mankind’s existence. Rather than being concerned with humanity’s self-aggrandization, illusions of progress, and anthropocentric fantasies, maybe we should focus more on living a life of beauty and harmony while we are here.

I believe that these sort of ideas should probably be tempered by the pragmatic ideals of Humanism. Progress can still be valued, even if demoted to a lesser role;  human optimism has a important psychological role to play; and sometimes artistry and beauty must compromise with the ugliness involved in facing difficult humanitarian crises. Secular Humanism and inhumanism may not be as mutually incompatible as they appear. Maybe more complementary.

I’d encourage you to check out the  Dark Mountain Manifesto, from the website dark-mountain.net created by a group of artists and activists. They create art and writings based on this philosophy of inhumanism, which they somewhat euphemistically label uncivilisation. If nothing more, it will give you some food for thought. It resonates with my skeptical side; especially when it comes to criticizing political, economic or scientific optimism.

This story has many variants, religious and secular, scientific, economic and mystic. But all tell of humanity’s original transcendence of its animal beginnings, our growing mastery over a ‘nature’ to which we no longer belong, and the glorious future of plenty and prosperity which will follow when this mastery is complete. It is the story of human centrality, of a species destined to be lord of all it surveys, unconfined by the limits that apply to other, lesser creatures . . .

. . . Today, humanity is up to its neck in denial about what it has built, what it has become — and what it is in for. Ecological and economic collapse unfold before us and, if we acknowledge them at all, we act as if this were a temporary problem, a technical glitch. Centuries of hubris block our ears like wax plugs; we cannot hear the message which reality is screaming at us. For all our doubts and discontents, we are still wired to an idea of his- tory in which the future will be an upgraded version of the present. The assumption remains that things must continue in their current direction: the sense of crisis only smudges the meaning of that ‘must’. No longer a natural inevitability, it becomes an urgent necessity: we must find a way to go on having supermarkets and superhighways. We cannot contemplate the alternative.

Dark Mountain Manifesto, via dark-mountain.net


Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


The contents of this article may be used in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Credit should be given to thefreethinkinghuman.wordpress.com.

Philosophy

A Rough Examination of Pragmatic Belief

Lately I’ve been thinking about epistemology (the study of knowledge); and more specifically, how we build on presuppositions in order to form our beliefs. I came up with a basic list of what I call ‘pragmatic beliefs’; those presuppositions necessary for a person to live with any form of sanity. Here is the basic outline I came up with. Each presupposition builds on the previous one:

1) I exist.

I have yet to decide whether I believe this to be a presupposition, or an absolute truth. Frankly, I don’t think it matters in any practical sense. No one seriously doubts their own existence; and I can’t imagine what anyone would do with such a useless skepticism if they did. Although I do consider myself very skeptical of any sort of Cartesian/Platonic dualism; that is a separate matter. Our own existence, whether purely physical or partially metaphysical, is about as close to an absolute truth as humans can affirm.

2) There is an external reality independent of my existence.

This is where a philosophy known as solipsism diverges from contemporary thought. The solipsist makes the argument that it is impossible to know if reality is not an illusion created by the self; from there they might argue something like “I am the only mind which exists,” or “My mental states are the only mental states.” What makes this tricky is that people who hallucinate are experiencing illusory sensory experiences; which means that it is possible for even our senses to be deceived. It’s a kind of Matrix-style take on the problem of perception. This makes solipsist beliefs pretty much unfalsifiable.

There are two problems I see with solipsism. First, I don’t know how one could attempt to positively prove that there is no external reality, and secondly, the belief seems to have no practical benefit, and could lead to strong forms of nihilism or egoism if taken to it’s logical conclusion. After all, if no one else exists, no one else matters but yourself. However, I don’t presume solipsists necessarily embrace nihilism or egoism.

It seems to me that all a solipsist can do is point out that there is no way to positively prove that there is an external reality. I think it’s safe to say that presupposing an external reality independent of our existence is a beneficial and natural belief.

3) My sensory inputs supply me with reliable information (empirical data) about reality.

Another aspect of the problem of perception is that we can’t know for certain that our sensory inputs are relaying accurate information to our brains. This means that empirical evidence can, in theory, be misleading.

Accurate information is information that corresponds with, or helps us understand reality. Every human assumes  that their senses are reliable until proven unreliable. A good example of this is when, after a mental episode, a patient in a mental hospital recognizes that his or her senses were misleading (as in the case of a schizophrenic.) In that case, the patient uses reason to infer that his or her brain was not accurately translating the empirical data; but this can only be realized after the fact. This is not an instance where the sensory data itself was inaccurate, but rather the data was not being interpreted correctly by the brain. I suspect this is the usual cause of illusory sense perception; but there may be ways in which the senses themselves are dysfunctional.

4) My mind uses reason to form reliable hypotheses and theories of reality based on the empirical data obtained from my sensory inputs. These allow me to make probability-based predictions that have pragmatic value.

This is where much of the battle lies. I am convinced that a person cannot disconnect reason from responsible belief. Yet anti-intellectualists, and some religious leaders, encourage people to ignore reason; usually to believe a specific proposition being promoted. There is a strong current of this in some strains of Christianity.

Insanity is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as: “something that is very foolish or unreasonable.” Notice that “unreasonable” is a part of the informal definition of insanity. Reason is a sign of intelligence, and a part of being a responsible human. Abandoning it would literally be insane.

To quote the 18th century Quaker/philosopher William Penn:

Truth never lost Ground by Enquiry, because she is, most of all. Reasonable.

Nor can that need another Authority, that is Self-evident.

If my own Reason be on the Side of a Principle, with what can I Dispute or withstand it?

Reason, like the Sun, is Common to All ; And ’tis for want of examining all by the same Light and Measure, that we are not all of the same Mind : For all have it to that End, though all do not use it So.

It is worth noting that it is circular to validate reason by using reason. But it is a self-evident truth if there are any, that being reasonable and logical is beneficial to humanity. It could be viewed as the truthmaker, fully beyond scrutiny, as it is the sole mechanism that scrutinizes.

Diagramming Pragmatic Belief

I put together a basic diagram of this concept here:

Chain of Pragmatic Belief

As you can see, self-existence is the first foundational presupposition, followed by belief in an external reality. After that, we presuppose the reliability of our sensory receptors to convey empirical data, and we could add our brain’s reliability in interpreting it. Last we have reason, which organizes all of the empirical data and forms probability-based hypotheses and theories about reality that enable us to make better predictions. This skill of making probability-based predictions helps us make wise choices.

If we are to make good choices, it would help to have reliable beliefs. If we believed for example, that all people want to kill us, we would perhaps never leave our home, or move to the wilderness. This sort of belief would be considered irrational, and unbeneficial. Yet, someone who believes this may feel they have an intuitional basis for such a belief; and for that reason it is justified. This brings us to our next consideration and the sticky issues that accompany it.

Incorporating Intuitional Beliefs

Intuition is a controversial concept in philosophy. What exactly is intuition? I will refer to Merriam-Webster’s again for the definition:

intuition

: a natural ability or power that makes it possible to know something without any proof or evidence : a feeling that guides a person to act a certain way without fully understanding why

: something that is known or understood without proof or evidence

There are several ways we could attempt to incorporate intuition into this scheme. These vary depending on how you imagine intution in relation to empirical data and reason; or even if you acknowledge intuition as a relevant factor at all. This tension can be clearly seen in the rationalism vs. empiricism debate.

Since intuition is viewed as something understood without proof or evidence, the implication is that it fully bypasses reason, since reason demands evidence. You can’t really call a belief intuitional if it passes rational scrutiny; it has then become a reasonable belief. Reason would have to be out of the picture for intuition to make sense. The way I imagine a typical person seeing intuition is as an option alongside of reason. Let me illustrate:

Chain of Typical Belief

The person who believed intuitively that all people wanted to kill him is an extreme example of intuition disconnected from reality. This alone shouldn’t make us distrust intuition entirely. There is certainly a case to be made for intuitive thinking in the proper contexts. We are not emotionless, purely rational beings; we rely on intuition more than we would like to think.

That being said, every belief can and should be scrutinized appropriately. We don’t live our lives assuming that gut feelings are fully reliable. Intuition should be considered as evidence, but be wary of trusting it in situations that demand accuracy. Imagine if you were on a jury and someone said ‘I just believe he’s guilty,’ or ‘I have faith in the defendant’s innocence,’ and then proceeded to act as if the case were closed without examining the evidence. Surely that would be foolish, irrational, and irresponsible to the highest degree. If your intuition is not supported by evidence, reason should make the final call after weighing all the different factors.

Now reasoning can be done poorly, regardless of how strongly we believe it to be correct. Poor reasoning is often intuition in disguise. This is why many unjustifiable beliefs are popular. What appears to be a well-reasoned argument may be built on one or two tendentious presuppositions that the hearer has failed to identify. A highly skilled orator can sell almost anything if it serves to confirm the biases of an audience. A skilled logician can make a case with substance, but when the biases of an audience are exploited, reason almost inevitable takes a back seat.

And that’s the problem with intuition. Intuition looks just like bias. When intuition is presented in the absence of evidence, the probability of deception is significantly greater. Intuition could be correct, but there is no objective way to know.

Critical thinking has been described by some as a defense mechanism. It is a way we can protect ourselves from intellectual exploitation by raising our standards for what constitutes a good argument. If there are no good arguments for a belief, it is likely a product of bias or propaganda.

Learning the difference between intuition and reason is important. Here are a couple of very interesting articles about intuitive thinking if you want to do some further reading on the subject:

http://naulibrary.org/dglibrary/admin/book_directory/Psycology/8173.pdf

http://edge.org/conversation/the-marvels-and-flaws-of-intuitive-thinking


Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


10721328_278062212388486_378808137_nMy name is Zach Van Houten and I am a secular Humanist with progressive values who enjoys good discussions with intelligent people. I was a passionate conservative Christian from childhood until I found intellectual freedom in November of 2014. I take an interest in Humanism, general philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, eastern religious philosophy, atheism, politics, Biblical studies, and most importantly, the life cycle of sea turtles. Email me at meinperspective@gmail.com if you’d like to offer tips on how I can make myself less boring or start up a convo about the weather.


© Zach Van Houten and thefreethinkinghuman.wordpress.com, 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Zach Van Houten and thefreethinkinghuman.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Image by Dan McCay on Flickr.com. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Philosophy

Finding Common Ground – My Changing Thoughts on Informal Dialectics

I’ve been doing a lot of philosophical soul searching lately, and am in the process of reevaluating my approach to writing and conversation. It has been noted that when someone leaves their religion, they often become bitter; at least for a season. For some this season can last for months, for others it can take years, and for some the negative outlook may never be replaced.

Since I left Christianity, sometime between mid-October and early November last year, I have dealt with my share of bitterness and angst. Most of this has not been directed against people, but can be seen in my negative, deconstructionist approach to writing. I don’t insult Christians (at least intentionally) or try to mock them, nor have I tried to take anyone away from the faith; but I have engaged in what could be construed as intellectual warfare against my former belief system. My purpose has never been to attack Christianity, but there is not much of a practical difference between running a blog devoted almost exclusively to criticizing a belief system and the former. I’m sure this deconstructionist attitude serves a psychological purpose (such as increasing confidence in one’s new worldview), but I am not convinced it is a healthy or beneficial outlook to have for sustained periods of time.

I feel like I am heading in the right direction. And I attribute this to several factors, including the positive influence of non-dogmatic Christian and non-Christian friends both online and in person. They have reminded me that most of us hold core values in common, even if we differ with regard to approach or beliefs. I would also credit a conscious decision of mine to shift from negative to positive studies. This includes increased study of subjects such as humanism, philosophy, psychology, etc. as opposed to my previous areas of study such as biblical criticism and religious philosophy. The old native american proverb comes to mind: “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.”

Lately I’ve been reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. His thoughts on humility and non-dogmatism are insightful and inspiring to me, I will quote him at length here.

My list of virtues contained at first but twelve ; but a
Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was
generally thought proud ; that my pride showed itself fre-
quently in conversation ; that I was not content with being
in the right when discussing any point, but was overbear-
ing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by
mentioning several instances ; I determined to endeavour
to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the
rest ; and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive
meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of
this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the
appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct
contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all p0sitive
assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to

the old laws of our Jiinto, the use of every word or expres-
sion in the language that imported a fixed opinion ; such as
certainly, undoubtedly, &c., and I adopted instead of them,
I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine, a thing to be so or so ;
or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted
something that I thought an error, I denied myself the
pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing
immediately some absurdity in his proposition ; and in
answering I began by observing, that, in certain cases or
circumstances, his opinion would be right, but in the
present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference,
&c. I soon found the advantage of this change in my
manners ; the conversations I engaged in went on more
pleasantly. The modest way in which I proposed my
opinions, procured them a readier reception and less con-
tradiction ; I had less mortification, when I was found to be
in the wrong ; and I more easily prevailed with others to
give lip their mistakes and join with me, when I happened
to be in the right.

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence
to natural inclination, became at length easy, and so
habitual to me, that perhaps for the last fifty years no one
has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to
this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it prin-
cipally owing that I had early so much weight with my
fellow-citizens, when I proposed new institutions or altera-
tions in the old ; and so much influence in public councils,
when I became a member ; for I was but a bad speaker,
never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of
words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally
carried my point.

(The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, p. 102-103)

His words definitely resonated with me, as I have long been in the habit of dogmatically asserting my opinions. I am also prone, as he was, to pride and arrogance. This post is my first attempt at reversing that trend since I left Christianity. I have in the past been better at avoiding dogmatic expressions, but have found that there has been a correlation between increased devotion to my studies and lack of patience with those who hold contrary opinions.

When a dispute arises, or someone expresses a contrary belief to our own, we generally look for objective justification of our opinions. What I mean is that, in order to bolster our arguments, we appeal to things which seem to carry universal epistemological weight. For instance, if I disagree with a Christian, I will usually appeal to the rules of logic in an attempt at making a reductio ad absurdum argument (reducing an opponent’s view to absurdity).

While this is a totally acceptable and honest approach to argumentation, it will not likely endear the other person to me. I think there is a time and place for such argumentation, but it may be true that we generally overestimate it’s beneficiality in informal discourse. Rather than trying to beat someone over the head with logic or science, maybe we should not be worried about the other person’s opinion at all. Maybe, a more pragmatic approach is worth considering.

Instead of trying to prove or disprove my or another’s opinion by appealing to objective justification, I find it tempting to approach conversation by primarily appealing to common values and opinions. What I mean is that finding commonality may have more pragmatic value than focusing on contrary opinions. If someone wishes to discuss a topic with me, in which we do not have an opinion in common, it may be better to know at the outset what the purpose or goal of discussing the topic is. If the goal is to learn more about the opposing perspective, or to solve some problem, then I think the topic is worth engaging respectfully. However, if the person initiating the conversation is not sincerely interested in the contrary opinion, and there is no problem to be solved, then it is probably not worth engaging in.

I don’t think both sides must be sincerely interested in the opposing viewpoint, but I do think there needs to be mutual respect and an absence of dogmatic statements if the conversation is to avoid dissolving into dispute. I think the burden is especially on the initiator to have proper motives. I imagine myself being on the receiving end of questions on a sensitive topic. In the ideal scenario I would state clearly that I do not wish to debate, but would be willing to share my perspective respectfully if the other person was sincerely interested in what I have to say. On the other hand, if I were the initiator, I would only bring up a sensitive topic if I were sincerely interested in the other person’s perspective and willing to refrain from directly contradicting the person or acting in an otherwise provocative manner. I would also not speak openly about a controversial topic unless I knew the audience held similar opinions or is interested in mine.

This applies to writing as well. There is more liberty when writing an article or blog post to a non-specific audience than there is in conversation. After all, I am not compelling anyone to read what I write, and those who do are most likely interested in the topic. There is a greater freedom in writing to address controversial subjects. But when this is done, there are still reasons to presume that tact is important.

Firstly, insulting or accusing another person in writing is arguably worse than doing so in conversation. This is because the person is not present to respond.

Secondly, mocking or insulting groups of people or their view is likely to agitate and cause unnecessary stress both for the writer and the respective group.

Thirdly, a dogmatic or condescending approach is likely to antagonize those who are prone to dispute. It is likely to make people feel as if their intelligence is being called into question or that the writer is arrogant or prideful.

The fourth vice of writing would be a negative preoccupation with the flaws in opposing viewpoints. This can lead those of contrary opinion to feel attacked and can lead to defensive reactions.

All of these things seem, upon reflection, to be hindrances to the development of an intellectually open society. I am most guilty of dogma, condescension and preoccupation with the flaws of opposing viewpoints. Knowing this, I hope to improve the tone of my writing and conversation by avoiding these vices. I hope that I can continue to learn from others and be less concerned with ‘winning’ arguments (a futile endeavor) and more concerned with valuing the thoughts and opinions of everyone and respectfully contributing to public discourse.


Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Philosophy

Is Christianity Self-Evident? – Refuting Presuppositional Apologetics

There are some facts that are so obvious no one will likely question them (e.g. ‘the sun produces heat’); but most need to be proven true before they are accepted as such. Even a prima facie truth (one that appears true at first sight) can and should be scrutinized and rejected if found false; although the burden of proof lies on those who are skeptical.

Most theories become facts only after gaining nearly universal acceptance, at least within the field of study they belong to. This requires proof. We expect evidence to be presented for claims when less than an overwhelming majority of people hold them. This does not mean beliefs with less support are false (or that the majority is always correct), but they need to be supported by a convincing argument before people will rely on them. If we weren’t so picky we would believe everything, no questions asked, and accept all theories on everything (ALIENS! BIGFOOT!)

It seems that many Christians, especially presuppositionalists, present Christian beliefs as self-evident truth. They assume that the burden of proof is on those who don’t believe; despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence of God. The hypothesis of God’s existence is unfalsifiable, as Christians are often quick to point out (e.g. the argument made in the popular movie God’s Not Dead). Because of this, the burden of proof should be on those who present it as factIf we did not require proof for unfalsifiable claims, we would be forced to accept all religions as true, since their beliefs in the supernatural are likewise unfalsifiable. Presuppositionalists should be consistent and acknowledge that their epistemology (theory of knowledge) necessarily leads to subjectivism.

Beyond the foundational question of God’s existence, Christianity (at least in the way it is most represented) is a complicated and comprehensive belief system; not just simple belief in a deity. If you believe the wrong thing about God (i.e. God doesn’t want people to stop sinning) you would likely not fit in at any church. So the question of self-evidence is not whether most people believe in a deity, but whether the entire belief system of biblical Christianity is prima facie truth.

Examining the Prevalence of Christianity

As mentioned before, the most important gauge of self-evident truth is whether an overwhelming majority of people accept it. If Christianity truly were self-evident, it would naturally follow that the majority of people in the world would be Christians. But this is not the case. In a 2012 study, Pew Research Center found that 31.5% of people in the world identify as Christians (keep in mind that Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. all fall under the umbrella of ‘Christianity’). Christians represent less than 5% of the populations of 38 countries, and they represent less than 0.5% of the populations of Morocco, Somalia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Iran, Tunisia, Western Sahara, Yemen, Mauritania, Cambodia, Maldives, Turkey, Bhutan, Comoros, and Nepal. If the “truth” of Christianity is prima facie, one would have to assume that roughly 99.5% of people in the countries listed above are rejecting an obvious, self-evident truth.

The study goes on to say that “nearly nine-in-ten Christians (87%) are found in the world’s 157 Christian-majority countries.” Is God more self-evident in Christianized countries? Here’s a novel thought: religious people generally hold their beliefs because they are a part of their culture, not because the truth of their religion is self-evident. Christianity is not a part of Morocco’s culture; therefore it is not surprising that less than 0.1% of people in Morocco are Christians. It would seem that evangelism of these countries would not be needed if Christianity were self-evident. Wouldn’t it just be stating the obvious? If everyone has knowledge of God in their hearts, why do many act woefully ignorant of the fact and need to hear the gospel before they can be saved?

02_majority

In response many Christians will say that people reject God because they are either blinded, depraved, selfish, sinful, arrogant, or all of the above. The assumption is that non-Christians do not reject Christianity out of sincere ignorance, but rather make a conscious decision knowing full well that what they are rejecting is the truth. Of course, not all Christians believe this, and many sympathize with skeptics. But the presuppositional apologist cannot see things that way, as it would undermine his epistemology.

The Doctrine of Biblical Infallibility and Presuppositionalism

This belief in the self-evidence of the Christian God originated in the writings of Paul; specifically passages like Romans 1:18-23. The presuppositionalist takes the view that, regarding those who do not believe: “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them . . . So they are without excuse.” This is the basis of presuppositional apologetics. It is rooted in the belief in biblical infallibility (a doctrine I argued against here). If the Bible was not assumed by some to be infallible, this claim would not be taken seriously by anyone. The apostle Paul couldn’t objectively prove his unfalsifiable hypothesis of universal knowledge of God in the first place, and neither can the presuppositionalist.

But where exactly does this belief in biblical infallibility come from? We would never assume any writing to be beyond dispute unless there were some motive to do so. This belief is again unfalsifiable, and no one can prove that the Bible is absolutely true in all matters. The motive is obvious: without an infallible Bible, Christianity would have to fight battles over the reliability of texts that contain discrepancies, or are historically dubious. There would be no authority in Protestantism without the doctrine of biblical infallibility. The Catholic church has their belief in church infallibility, and rejects a strict doctrine of biblical infallibility/inerrancy. That allows them to have authority. Religion has always been, and always will be about establishing unquestionable authority. If you get enough people to believe in the authority of a religious text or institution, you can set clear dividing lines between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’ based solely on obedience and conformity to the established authority.

Are All Beliefs Equally Subjective?

The presuppositionalist tries to make the case that everyone has presuppositions that inform their worldview, and the ones that are held by Christians are no less subjective or unjustified than the ones held by atheists. While it is certainly true that everyone operates on presuppositions, this does not mean that all presuppositions are equally justified.

If I presuppose for example, that science is more reliable than the Bible, am I committing a subjective fallacy? I think not. Science has rigorous methodologies and theories undergo intense scrutiny. The results of scientific development are plain to see. If we abandoned it, civilization would quickly start to regress. I doubt many people would be willing to ignore all scientific findings, choosing instead to rely on the Bible as their only information about the world. If we reversed this, and civilization abandoned the Bible, would we regress to the same degree as if we abandoned science? I think not. I would suggest that humanity would not be significantly worse off if the Bible was no longer read.

I would encourage presuppositionalists who think their beliefs could never possibly be proved wrong by science to put their money where their mouth is and not appeal to science for anything. I personally, along with most atheists have chosen not to live according to the Bible, and so I don’t appeal to the Bible in my daily life. Presuppositionalists will still appeal to science in other areas of their lives, yet treat it as untrustworthy when it conflicts with the Bible.

Even more damning to this view is the fact that the Bible has been proven to be incorrect in many instances. Whether it be the mistaken authorship of the Book of Enoch, or many other well-documented internal and historical discrepancies and contradictions. The Bible cannot be inerrant or infallible given the sheer amount of evidence to the contrary, so the question becomes whether we can know if the Bible is reliable in the important details. And the truth is that we can’t know. The Bible may have some truth or it may not, but Christians have no objective methodologies for developing their doctrines. If they did, mainstream denominations would be creating updated Bibles which remove the unreliable information. Of course they don’t because that would undermine certain church doctrines, and open theology up to the possibility of new interpretations and doctrines. The average pastor will never admit that there is unreliable information in the Bible because it would undermine the authority of the church.

In my opinion, an atheistic worldview that is based on scientific truths is a justified presupposition. While a Christian worldview based on the Bible is an unjustified presupposition which ignores evidence. People are entitled to hold that view, but to claim that atheistic presuppositions about scientific methodologies and Christian presuppositions about the Bible are equally subjective is incredibly tendentious.

The Holy Spirit Factor

Presuppositional apologetics was born out of Calvinist theology (the belief that God chooses who will be saved and blinds everyone else). What makes it so difficult to reason with a Calvinist is that they believe they have access to a hypothetical entity (the Holy Spirit) which enables them to believe, while everyone else is just blinded by sin and depravity. This exempts Christians from the burden of proving their claims; after all, no one can be convinced unless God opens their eyes.

The belief in this entity (the Holy Spirit) is based on teachings found in the Bible. The belief in the Bible can only come through the work of the Holy Spirit, say Calvinists. The reasoning is entirely circular. Calvinists cannot present any evidence for the existence of the Holy Spirit, so it is clear that they learned about it because it is taught in the Bible.

Belief in the Bible > belief in the Holy Spirit > belief in the Bible

Conclusion

Despite the claims of presuppositional apologists, Christian beliefs are not self-evident, and this means that they should not be accepted as fact unless they are proven true. I do not think they have been, so it seems to me that Christianity is more appropriately understood as a belief, or a faith, than indisputable truth that is beyond scrutiny.


Image by dhester via Morguefile.com. Used under Morguefile License.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Philosophy

The Christian Delusion of Absolute and Objective Morality

If you are familiar with religious philosophy, you may have heard of the Euthyphro dilemma, which originated in the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato. The essence of this conundrum is the question of whether morality comes from God, or whether it exists independent of him. Over the ages the question has been taken up by legions of religious and moral thinkers. The conclusions drawn from it can affect how we view human rights and religious duty; which in turn influences the moral constitution of society.

Christianity teaches that God is omnipotent. There is no rival to him, nor is his power limited by any external force. The logical conclusion of this is that morality comes from God and is not independent of him. Otherwise, by saying that God cannot choose that which is evil, we are saying that God is limited to act according to an external law of morality. Another difficulty with this view is that an external moral law is hypothetical, and does not appear to exist. And if it did, God would not be required for morality to exist; which would sufficiently justify secular moralism.

The mainstream view among Christians is that God is good by nature. What He does and what He commands is always good, because His nature is inherently good. But if that which we consider to be morally good is not defined by an external, objective law, then what defines it?

Divine Command Theory

This ultimately boils down to what is called divine command theory; which says that a principle or action is only, and always, good because God defines it as good. Everything which God does or commands is good because it comes from God.

There are many problems with this theory. First of all, this means that no command from God can be immoral, even if it includes acts which violate basic human rights. No clearer consequence of this can be seen than in the Old Testament, where God often commanded mass genocide, including women and children (1 Sam. 15:3; Duet. 20:16-17). In some passages the Israelites were commanded to keep virgins for themselves and kill all the women who had slept with men (Num. 31:17-18; Judg. 21:10-12). Dispensationalism does not solve the dilemma that if God really did command mass genocide today, as he purportedly did in the OT, Christians would be morally obligated to obey.

When violent Muslim extremists commit mass genocide, or rape women, there is no way to prove that God did not command it. Muslim extremists have an unfalsifiable claim to divine justification. According to this philosophy, there is no objective way to argue in defense of human rights without proving the absence of a divine command. And a Christian cannot argue that God could not command something like that, since according to the Bible he did. If God hypothetically did command Muslims to take actions such as this, they would be good and moral according to divine command theory.

Secondly, according to divine command theory, the absence of divine revelation prohibiting a specific action affords no moral foundation by which one can argue against it. The Bible does not cover every moral issue specifically. For example, slavery is never prohibited in the Bible, and was arguably legitimized (Lev. 25:44-46). Under divine command theory there would be no moral argument against slavery. Slaves are commanded in the Bible to obey their masters, even when enduring harsh treatment (1 Pet. 2:18; Col. 3:22; Eph. 6:5-7). And Exodus 21:20-21 only prohibits the beating of slaves if they die within a couple of days of the beating; the justification for this is that “the slave is the owner’s property.”

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Another significant problem has to do with semantics. Under divine command theory, God’s actions cannot be judged objectively. This ultimately reduces many attributes of God expressed in the Bible to meaningless claims. For example, to say that God is loving or just implies a positive objective judgement of his character. Under divine command theory, the ultimate meaning of these praises is reduced to nothing more than ‘God is God’, since the claim that ‘God is loving or just’ is unfalsifiable. God’s character and actions can never be deemed unloving or unjust, which eliminates the possibility of a positive judgement.

Is God Moral?

Many Christians believe that God’s actions and commands in the Bible are consistent with each other; but it can be decisively shown that if God’s commands create morality, he is not bound by them. And as shown previously, there are even times when he commanded that they be broken.

For example, I don’t think it’s necessary to list all of the times that God takes life in the Bible. It is simply viewed as his prerogative. Yet the ten commandments include the command: “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13). If God establishes morality by his commands, then he has shown himself to be above them in every way, and as in the case of OT genocide, he has even commanded that humans disregard his moral law for specific purposes. This means that God cannot be judged by any moral standards, and is thus amoral by nature.

How Should We Determine Morality?

There is no objective and static moral law if we take divine command theory to it’s logical conclusion. God’s commands are all that matter. What is disturbing about this is that we have no clear criterion for determining what actually constitutes divine revelation. How could one go about this without creating a subjective methodology? Surely, if Christians were to create a truly objective criterion for determining divine revelation, either most or all of the Bible would fail to meet it, or many non-Christian claims of divine revelation would also be deemed legitimate. Would we not run the risk that the Koran could be deemed as legitimate by the same logic Christians use?

The only solution to this circularity and subjectivity is to admit that mankind has no absolute and static moral law. This is true whether you are a theist or not. The question now is whether it is more beneficial to rely on divine revelation for our morality or to define our own moral ideals, apart from God.

Atheistic or humanistic morals will never be absolute and universally binding. But individually we can each decide to form our own morality; hopefully informed by the opinions and philosophies of others. There is no way to achieve perfection here, but I believe that morality stems from our natural sense of compassion coupled with a rational understanding of universal suffering. By cultivating this understanding we can hopefully continue to make strides morally and ethically, and seek that which benefits all and upholds human rights.


Featured image by DrGBB via Flickr.com. Used under Creative Commons Attribution License
Additional image via AtheistRepublic.com

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear from you in the comments.