Sunday, October 30, 2016

Is Materialism Incompatible With Theism?: A Response to Joshua Valentine (Part One)

Back when I was investigating the Roman Catholic Church, my friend and teacher Scott Dodge recommended a blog to me entitled Mormon Coffee. On it, various bloggers addressed differences between Mormonism and Christianity, in a somewhat concise and respectful manner. The blog was recently discontinued, but because it has a huge archive there is plenty of information on it.

One of the bloggers, Joshua Valentine, wrote a five part series in which he argued that Mormonism leads its members to atheism. I will be responding to all 5 of his posts.

In his first post, Valentine states:
"In fact, it is Mormon doctrine that actually provides much of the content of an atheist worldview. Mormonism is the most materialistic worldview next to atheism. In Mormon doctrine, it is not the Mormon God or Gods, but Matter, itself, which is truly eternal, having existed from everlasting to everlasting.  With Matter are Eternal Laws or Principles as well. These exist before and independently of the Mormon God. In fact, the Mormon God, like all Gods before him, is himself made up of this eternal matter and subject to these eternal laws or principles.  Joseph Smith taught that spirit was actually matter, just a more “fine” form of it. God, according to Mormonism, had to obey these Eternal Principles in order to progress from eternal fine matter, or “intelligence,” to a god. This is in stark contrast to many religions that assume that independence from, and being the source of, all creation is definitive of what it means to be “God” or the “Ultimate.” However, in LDS cosmology, Matter and Eternal Law are the true Ultimate, not God."
So, Valentine is making 4 claims here: 1) Mormonism is materialistic, and atheism is materialistic 2) God is subject to law 3) God progressed 4) God is not the ultimate reality

First, it is true that Mormonism is materialistic, but why does that set up Mormons for an atheistic conversion? Atheism is not necessarily materialistic, an atheist can be a Platonist for example. And I see nothing wrong with Mormonism being materialistic; the opening passages of the book of Genesis state that God used materials to create the world rather than ex nihilo as the Christian Creeds state (Genesis 1:2). Mormons are materialists, but so is the God of the Old and New Testament.

As Valentine points out, God is subject to law rather than the creator of it; he is the greatest possible scientist. But, I see no reason to think that this would make a Mormon become an atheist. Christianity also affirms that there are certain things that God cannot do, for instance he cannot lie ( 1 Samuel 15: 29), nor as Thomas Aquinas points out in the Summa Theologica, God cannot do the logically impossible (he cannot make a round square or a married bachelor). So, if the God of Mormonism is subject to law and the God of Christianity is subject to law, wouldn't Christianity lead to atheism as well?

One of the greatest blessings of the restored Gospel is that we know that God came to be God and that we can become like him, as the Prophet Joseph Smith taught in his King Follett Discourse. However, this teaching is not unique to the Prophet. Origen, a pre-Nicene Church Father stated
"If the Word became flesh, then flesh can become God."

Origen, Ante-Nicene Father

Christianity affirms that Jesus of Nazareth was fully human and fully God, and that he was resurrected and is still embodied today. So, corporeality and Godhood are not incompatible. It is incompatible with the creeds that reject early Christian ideas like Socianism and Arianism, but not the Bible.

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies what is called "prime reality" or "what is ultimately there." Valentine is right that Creedal Christianity and other religions believe that God is transcendent (outside) of creation, But, how does a belief in a God who is immanent lead to atheism? Baruch Spinoza, one of my favorite philosophers, was a pantheist (belief that God and nature are the same). The Homeric Greeks believed in Gods who were immanent and lived on Olympus. So, there is no reason to believe that because the God of Mormonism (who came into existence at a point in the infinite past) is not the prime reality that Mormons are on their way to atheism.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Dating Done Right: Making Dating a Rational Enterprise

A week or so ago, after having a brief exchange with a potential date, I posted the following on Facebook:
"Me: Want to go a date?
Girl: Yes! I would love to.
Me: Is this going to progress into a relationship?
Girl: I don't know.
Me: Offer withdrawn, thanks for your time."
After putting that out as a way to vent, I wished that Facebook had a way of preventing people from commenting because I got at least 30 comments (all of which I deleted) which either said what I did wasn't fair, or that it was unreasonable for me to expect a girl to know whether or not a relationship would occur before a date took place. I was not in the mood to argue with people then (very out of character for me), but said I would talk about the issue in blog form.

I am always a bit surprised when talking to my intellectual friends that they believe that dating is not a rational thing. It is not surprising that they believe this (people believe in the unproveable metaphysical idea of  "chemistry"), but that they believe this with no reason to believe it. I recently talked to my friend who is a professor of philosophy, saying that before a date you should know if there is a potential for a relationship before the date happens. She responded this puts too much pressure on the girl.

While I can understand how it may come across that way at first, the truth is if you know where you stand with someone before a date this actually relieves pressure. How so? Because you don't have to spend the entire date wondering if the other person is interested, you already know they are. You are then free to be yourself and if the other person and you like each other after that, things can progress nicely.

At issue here is the meta-philosophy of dating; meaning the purpose or aim of dating. From an LDS perspective, the aim is to find a spouse. While some people may believe that marriage is always happy and care free based on their married friends pictures on Facebook, any married person will tell you that marriage is not easy. It requires patience, compromise, deep thinking, commitment, and trust. Dating, which is the precursor to marriage, requires the same attributes.

So, if dating is the precursor to marriage, how can dating be made rational? Simple, use the principle of verification, which I have argued for here. In short, if you don't think there is a 70 or more percent chance (this is a very low percentage, a C-) that a relationship will come out of a particular date, decline it. I refuse to believe that you do not know if that is possible before a first date. You can tell whether you are attracted to the person, what you think of their personality, intelligence, and character before a date occurs. This may make dating a bit more difficult in the beginning, but since you will need the trait of patience for marriage, you might as well use it in dating.

Dating, like many things in life, requires luck. You have to find someone who wants what you want when you want it, not an easy task. But, being upfront places the relationship on the foundation of honesty, and if you are being honest with each other, you are off to a great start.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of "Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?"

As a philosopher myself, and particularly one who is interested in the philosophy of religion, I am always delighted to read top-level philosophers engaged in the topic. In the book Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University, represented the atheistic side and the view that science and religion were not compatible. Alvin Plantiga, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, represented the theistic side.

The book itself is a reprinting of a debate that Dennett and Plantiga had at a philosophy conference years ago, but it has been updated with a few things they have said since then. Usually, when there are debates about this topic, there is a lot of sarcasm and snark from both sides. I am happy to report that both sides are polite and respectful of one another, even if they disagree and tease each other a little at certain points.

While both of these men are imminent in their field, one thing this book shows from cover to cover is how specialized philosophy has become. It used to be that philosophers were well schooled in all areas of philosophy but specialized in one area. This is no longer the case and it shows. Dennett, being a philosopher of science, knew science very well, but he did not seem to understand the classical arguments for the existence of God or the metaphysics that undergird religion. Plantiga on the other hand seemed to get his scientific ideas from the Discovery Institute, since all he did was quote Michael Behe when making scientific statements. But, he did know the classical arguments and metaphysics of religion quite well.

Plantiga starts the conversation off by saying that science and religion are not incompatible because Christians (he uses the term Christian rather than theist throughout the debate) believe that God has created the natural world and it is very possible that God did so using the evolutionary process. Plantiga goes on to say that the real problem is not between science and religion; it is between science and naturalism. Plantiga defines naturalism as belief that there is no God or anything like God (which would be atheism, not naturalism), and says that if naturalism is true there is no reason to believe that our cognitive faculties cannot be trustworthy because evolution cares about keeping traits that contribute to survival rather than truth.

Dennett you would think would disagree being on the other side of the debate. But, he opens up by stating that there is no inherent conflict between religion and science, and that one can believe in both and be logically consistent. Where Dennett disagrees is that there is any reason to think that there is a God or that religion works just because it is logically compatible with science. He uses Superman as an example and gives him the traits usually associated with God in classical theism (omniscience, omnipotence, and so on) and says that "Supermanism" is also compatible with evolution, but he sees no reason to believe in either.

Plantiga responded by repeating his argument about naturalism and evolution both being true being a low possibility; Dennett struck back by saying that just because Plantiga could not imagine something did not mean that something wasn't true. This is ultimately where the debate stopped because in the end both sides agreed: Science and Religion do not have an inherent conflict. I found it odd that two people would write a book about something where they were in agreement.

The book itself is only 77 pages, so it can be read in one sitting, and it is not overly technical; both the trained philosopher and the novice can enjoy and learn from it. Also, Dennett and Plantiga are colorful people, so you will laugh at times (or you should at least).

While the book is a match between two heavyweights in the field of philosophy, do not expect Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman here. There is more agreement than disagreement, but overall it is still enjoyable. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Can Donald Trump save conservatism? Maybe.....

To all my conservative friends and allies who have not already come to this conclusion: Hillary Rodham Clinton will win the United States presidential election on November 8, 2016 and will be sworn in to succeed President Barack Obama on January 20, 2017. If this was not clear to you before the final presidential debate, it ought to be clear now. Our nominee, Donald J. Trump, has no business being a presidential nominee, yet 14 million of us voted for him in the primaries because he is not "part of the system", whatever that means. I ask you to be honest for a moment: Can we, as a people, trust Mr. Trump with the power of submarines that can annihilate continents (we have at least 14 such machines, he could essentially blow up the world twice), or talk to foreign leaders responsibly? Better yet, does this man even know what the word "responsibility" means? Based on his business deals and lack of empathy to fallen soldiers families, I am skeptical of that.

But, don't resort to nihilism comrades. We will likely retain control of the United States House of Representatives, thus retaining the power of the purse. We may or may not keep the Senate, but even with the loss of this chamber it is highly unlikely that the Democrats will gain 60 members, which would enable them to prevent filibusters (please stop overdoing those Senator Paul and Senator Cruz). More importantly though, Donald Trump can actually be what he seems to think he is, namely a savior of sorts. And he is right, he can save something, namely conservatism. But not with his election to office, but with his loss.

With the election of Hillary Clinton to the presidency, that will be three straight losses that conservatives have suffered trying to take control of the executive branch of government; that is not a coincidence, we are doing something wrong. And it is not that we did not nominate someone not conservative enough in John McCain or Mitt Romney, or that we nominated a narcissist who would make Narcissus himself look the other direction in Donald Trump. It is that we have abandoned what conservatism really is.

Ask a conservative or a liberal what conservatism means, and you will likely hear some of these phrases : religious, gun-lovers, anti-abortion, anti-gay, disbelievers in climate change, etc. While this is what popular culture has linked to conservatism, these are not the principles that give it a foundation. Perhaps the best definition of conservatism was given by conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott in his essay On Being Conservative:
"To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss"
Close quote. To put this into simpler terms, conservative philosopher John Kekes states that conservatism is built upon four pillars: Traditionalism (keeping what works), Skepticism (caution about radical change without knowing the outcome), Pluralism (belief that there is no one correct way to do things), and Pessimism (you call this realism, the belief that things are never going to be perfect). In the United States at least, we have done decently well at traditionalism (in some sense anyway), but that is about it. We have abandoned our skepticism for fanaticism, our pluralism for fundamentalism, and pessimism for the belief that capitalism will eventually bring about a utopia and solve all of out problems. Think I am over exaggerating? Allow me to explain.

The principle of skepticism is practiced at its best in the field of natural sciences. While some people think that science has solved all the problems, this is far from the case. As philosopher of science Michael Ruse said in a recent lecture: ""Good science begins with a problem in the morning, solves the problem by lunch, and then goes to supper with two new problems" In short, there are many debates in the scientific community, such as whether or not there is one single universe or a multiverse, or whether or not evolution is gene-centered; in short scientific skepticism will rule out absolutism about things unless there is sufficient evidence. So when scientists nearly unanimously agree on an issue, you better take note.

On the issue of climate change, climate scientists are in complete agreement: climate change is happening and human activity contributes to it; how much that is the case and how long we have before things are damaged beyond repair is disputed. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences recently released these graphs showing the temperatures of our planet in the past and in the future. To put it frankly, we are in serious trouble. Yet, conservatives in this country almost universally reject climate change as an article of faith; our nominee routinely calls it a complete hoax, and Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, when confronted with the evidence simply said "God is still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous." He followed it up with his 2012 book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. There is room for skepticism of utopia, but not of facts.

If there is one thing that annoys me in politics, it is when politicians or citizens say "America is a Christian nation." While it is true that 70 percent or more of Americans identify as Christians according to polls, the first amendment of the United States Constitution says:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances"
How can America be a Christian country when it's constitution maintains pluralism? If conservatives want to argue for strict construction of the constitution, they should probably read it first. It forbids the sort of fundamentalism that they are proposing. It would also interest them to know that the Constitution in many of the founding fathers (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton for example) were not Christians but were deists. If America was built as a Christian country, why would these founders lock themselves out of it? Pluralism is a key of conservatism, and it is about time we reclaimed it.

"Ayn Rand taught me what my values are" House Speaker Paul Ryan once said (he has since distanced himself from that). However, it is true that many conservatives in this country think capitalism is the most legitimate way to succeed and care little for others suffering; in short they think capitalism will bring about a utopia. However, the father of capitalism Adam Smith in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments pointed out that unrestrained capitalism would be immoral because some would not benefit, and that we have a moral duty to help the less fortunate. While conservatives are right that some abuse welfare programs, this does not mean we can't have a safety net for those who don't help themselves (Hayek also argued for this). We should be pessimists about Thomas More's Utopia just as much as Ayn Rand's version.

Conservatism in the United States is at a time where it needs to define itself. The way ahead is not the egoism and selfishness exhibited in philosophy of "conservatism" offered by people such as Barry Goldwater. Rather, we should return to the conservatism of thinkers such as David Hume, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Michael Oakeshott. Conservatism, which has a foundation of pluralism, is a big tent type of philosophy; there is room for more than we currently have.

Donald Trump often admits in interviews that he does not read much, and his desk only has magazines on which his face graces the cover (seriously, this guy is our nominee?) But, too often it is the case that we as conservatives our not well read on the thinkers who have founded and influenced our political philosophy and theory. So, I would like to end with a list of suggested reading materials, and remind those conservatives who are feeling blue about this election (pun intended) that we can recapture the ideas that make conservatism far preferable to liberalism. Donald Trump may lead to our third loss at the presidency, but he can certainly save conservatism by having us remember who we are and allowing us to reshape our identity.

Reading list: The Conservative Soul by Andrew Sullivan, The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk, A Case for Conservatism by John Kekes, Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth  by David Hume, On Being Conservative by Michael Oakeshott, Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Is Daniel Dennett a New Atheist?

Over the last several years since returning home from my mission, I have payed close attention to the so called "New Atheist" movement, which began officially in 2004 with the release of Sam Harris' book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and continued to pick up steam with the 2006 release of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and the 2007 release of the late Christopher Hitchens' book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. For those unfamiliar with the term "New Atheism", in short it is a movement that advocates atheism and humanism, and wishes for the destruction of all religion and religious belief in favor of science and reason. The only thing that is "new" about the New Atheism is its fervor however; one will not find very convincing arguments in either of these three books, this is not the sophisticated atheism of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Antony Flew (before his conversion to deism in 2004). This is not my opinion as much as the opinion of other secular thinkers (for instance, read these reviews of Dawkin's book here, and here).
Daniel C. Dennett

I was however shocked that Daniel C. Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University and my favorite living philosopher, is included in this movement. Not only is he included, he is considered a member of the "Four Horsemen" of the movement (Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens being the others). Why so? Because in 2007 these four gentlemen sat at a round-table and discussed religion, and since the release of the video (which can be viewed here) the name Four Horsemen has stuck. Dennett, like the others, released a book about religion entitled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon in 2006.

Earlier this week, I posted a quote from Dennett about free will and determinism (Dennett is a classical compatibilist on free will, as I am), and my friend who is pursuing a PhD in evolutionary biology commented on the post saying that Dennett was a proponent of Intelligent Design Theory (a thought that would cause Dennett to have a heart attack). After telling him that he was thinking of William Dembski, my friend admitted his error, but asked if Dennett was very anti-religious. This post is basically in response to that comment.

Dennett, like Harris, Dawkins, and the late Hitchens, is an atheist and a secularist. He is also a strong advocate of the "Brights" movement (a movement that encourage atheists to call themselves Brights and be proud of their atheism). In spite of this, it is incorrect I think to label Dennett a New Atheist for at least two reasons.

First, while Dennett is not religious himself, he is not anti-religious. In an interview with Dennis Prager, when asked what the central thesis of his book was he said:
"The thesis of my book is that religion can be studied as a natural phenomenon, just like music, or baseball, or money or anything else that is in the natural world, and that we jolly well should do it because it is too important a phenomenon to remain so ignorant about. So we should study it with the full set of tools that science gives us."
Close quote. That is the biggest difference between the Dennett and his fellow horsemen; one thinks that religion should be studied, the others think religion should be destroyed. Also, later in the interview, when asked if he was concerned that if religion were destroyed morality would erode, Dennett admitted that he was, which Harris and Dawkins would certainly reject. This does not mean that Dennett thinks that morality is tied to religion; he rejects that notion in the interview. But, he does see religion ultimately as a source for good and wishes that to continue.

Second, the New Atheism is characterized by not taking religion seriously and not debating with serious religious thinkers. Dawkins' book, when talking about Thomas Aquinas' arguments for God's existence, simply caricatures them rather than engaging them, which is a fine example of how throughout his book he shows over and over again he doesn't know what he is talking about. Also, Dawkins refuses to debate serious Christian thinkers like William Lane Craig or Richard Swinburne, and when asked why he says because Craig approves of genocide, which Craig does not, and even if he did would not excuse Dawkins from debating him, a classic example of a red herring. Harris has debated Craig, but he did nothing during the debate to show that he even understood what the debate was about; the debate about whether the grounds for morality were natural or supernatural, Harris never talked about that and instead attacked Christianity throughout the debate (which can be watched here).

Dennett, being a philosopher and knowing the relevant information, does none of these things. He is very respectful of religion and religious people. While he mentions a few religious arguments in his book and counter-argues them, he never demurs of those who presented the argument he is countering. Also, in contrast to Dawkins, Dennett has debated with noted religious thinkers such as Oxford theology professor Alister McGrath, and he stayed on topic the entire time (debate can be viewed here). In addition, Dennett has debated with Christian philosopher Alvin Plantiga about whether science and religion are compatible, and also co-authored a book with Plantiga about it (which I am currently reading).

In neither temperament or practice is Daniel Dennett a New Atheist; he is an example of what atheists should be as they argue with theists about their beliefs and how we can collectively share the world and make it a better place. If I were ever to become an atheist, I hope to be the kind that Dennett is.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Review of "How to Read Hume"

When doing an introduction to a subject, authors often struggle with either putting too much in or leaving out too much. Since the subject of this review is the thought of David Hume, take two instances of philosophers who have written introductions to his thought: logical positivist A.J. Ayer and current NYU professor Don Garrett who wrote Hume: A Very Short Introduction and Hume (The Routledge Philosophers) respectively. Ayer's book (as the title entails) is very short, but to some extent there is no real content. You learn very little of Hume's doctrines from reading the book, just commentary on a few things that people would generally know about Hume. Garrett's book on the other hand is as long as Hume's Treatise of Human Nature and is more geared for people who are taking a graduate course on Hume rather than just getting introduced to his thought. What is needed in an introduction is balance, clarity, and brevity, and for all their accomplishments neither Ayer or Garrett's book achieve this.

Enter Simon Blackburn, moral philosopher and former Professor of Philosophy at both Cambridge University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Where Ayer and Garrett cannot strike all three cords with their books, Blackburn does so with his book How to Read Hume. While his book is only 106 pages from cover to cover (Ayer's is 117 and Garrett's is 348), Blackburn manages to cover adequately Hume's views on epistemology, causation, natural religion, aesthetics, personal identity, and moral theory. Even more impressive, one does not need to take a class in philosophy to understand what Blackburn is saying, because he simplifies things down to the understanding of a novice while still remaining able to keep things interesting for the person who is well read in Humean thought.

There are some problems with Blackburn's book, however. The main problem is that Blackburn makes no point to remain objective; he declares from beginning to end that he is a fan of Hume and his thought (which is unnecessary considering anyone who has ever read Blackburn knows that Hume is his idol. Take these two quotes for instance from the very beginning of the book and the very end of the book:
"Hume is the greatest British philosopher. But he is also the most misunderstood. In this short book I hope to help the reader to understand how both these things can be true, for it is only when we work through the things that make Hume perplexing that we discover the things that make him great."
"On all the topics that we have considered, he is either the most profound thinker of the modern world, or if not, then at least occupies the very front rank."
While it may be true that Hume is one of the greatest philosophers of all time (very few philosophers, especially in the western analytic tradition would disagree), this is something that the reader should find out for themselves rather than having it thrust upon them. Blackburn's personal biases also come through when he talks about Hume and natural religion, which may be unsurprising considering that Blackburn is a former vice president of the British Humanist Association.

Do not get the impression that I do not like Blackburn's book, because that is not the case. I merely am pointing out that the biases can get it the way of what he is trying to accomplish, which is getting readers introduced to Hume's thought, not Blackburn's interpretation of Hume's thought, no matter how brilliant and well written it may be.

The brightest part of the book is probably Blackburn's treatment of Hume's moral theory, showing how morality, while subjective, can still be studied and put into a program that is liveable for all human beings. Also, his "Science of Man" chapter is also well done, and is of the upmost importance because that was the totality of Hume's project, whether he was talking about causality or taste; Hume strove to understand human nature in a way that would make all other disciplines make sense, and he did a very good job of it.

If one is looking for a brief introduction to Hume's thought before tackling the Treatise, I highly recommend Blackburn's book to you. It can be read in a few hours, has good depth, is well written, and will prepare a person (whether expert or novice) to tackle Hume's thought head on.