Sunday, July 13, 2008

Gyapong Gets It Wrong

One of Deborah Gyapong's favorite topics is the various Human Rights Commission hate-speech proceedings against people she considers her heroes. I actually have some sympathy insofar as I support free speech, and view hate-speech laws with misgiving (or else I just hang out at Ed Brayton's place too much). But that's a can of worms to open some other time.

However, on one recent free speech rant, Gyapong drags in (with tenuous relevance) a bit of Christian apologetics. I left a brief comment over there, but decided to also bring it back here for a more thorough fisking:
When I took Philosophy 101, one of the debates that, according to our professor, had never been solved was whether God existed or not.
Well, whether that question has been resolved might depend who you ask, but never mind....
Even Christian mystics and philosophers like Blaise Pascal have granted that you really cannot prove definitively one way or the other. That's why Pascal's famous wager says you have far less to lose if you choose to believe God exists and live as if He does and discover after death that He is in fact real, than to believe He doesn't exist, live as if He doesn't and discover, whoops! you are going to hell.

Even if you believe in God and discover after death He does not exist, you have at least led a good life.
I guess Deborah's Phil 101 class didn't also cover the criticisms of Pascal's Wager. First of course, note that it does not even claim to be an argument for the existence of God. Rather, it is a strategy for maximizing your welfare over the span of your mortal life, and possible after-life, in the face of objective uncertainty about the existence of God. As such, the Wager is of legitimate interest to philosophers as an abstract exercise in probability and decision theory.

However, as a strategic reason for adopting religion it fails badly. It doesn't even begin to work unless the "believe in God" choice is singular and well-defined. If (and this is actually the case in the real world) there are multiple competing and mutually-anathematizing sects, each advancing its own god(s), each with his/her/their particular criteria for admission to posthumous bliss, then the decision process fails. The Wager gives no guidance on how to choose between Christianity and Islam -- or even between Catholic and Baptist belief. It simply swallows whole the assumption that we know what the postulated God wants us to do to be considered righteous.

One more thing: I can't let pass without comment, the casual bigotry implied by: "Even if you believe in God and discover after death He does not exist, you have at least led a good life." Apparently, whether or not God exists, you can only lead a good life if you believe in him/her/them/it.

However, it seems Gyapong's invocation of Pascal is mostly meant to set up the false dichotomy at the core of her argument:
We live in a universe of unsolved mysteries. I can look at the heavens and like the psalmist say they testify to God's glory, that they and all the beauty of nature are like a book that testifies to God's design and God's laws. But others look at the same universe and see primordial slime and nothingness and random chance natural selection.
[I have to break in here to note that Gyapong's confusion of the fields of astronomy and biology suggests that, while she may have taken Philosophy 101, she never took Science 101. Here's a quick remedial lesson, Deborah: no one thinks the stars came from "primordial slime" (of course, I also don't know anyone who thinks life did either, in quite those terms, but I'll let it go) or were subject to natural selection -- a process reserved to entities that reproduce themselves with at least moderate fidelity. Either she knows roughly nothing about science, or is just tossing rhetoric around in a fact-free attempt to impress. But I digress:]
In other words, we both base our beliefs on a priori assumptions about existence that cannot be proven, even though we could both say there is evidence to support our views. My a priori assumptions are religious, Christian, and rely on revealed truth in holy Scripture and holy Tradition. The a priori assumptions of secular humanists are based on Darwinism, and materialism that are just as much faith-based as my beliefs, though God is not in the picture for them.
That paragraph is a remarkable example of managing to get just about everything wrong.

First of course, there's the obligatory abuse of the term "Darwinism", an almost sure sign you're dealing with someone who knows nothing about the subject, except that whatever it is they don't like it.

Secondly, she seems to assume that, just because she's accepted the terms of Pascal's Wager (albeit without justifying her particular choice of god and "Tradition"), it follows that we Darwinist-materialist humanists also have, only we're betting on the other side. Wrong, wrong and wrong, Deborah: I (and most other "materialists" I know) reject the Wager, partly for the reasons I outlined above, but additionally because having examined the available evidence, we conclude that the question of God's existence is resolvable in the negative to a reasonable degree of certainty -- at least enough that we can pretty much ignore the question and get on with our lives. This is not the result of some "a priori assumptions" we hold -- I and many other atheists were practising Christians (or other religion) at some time in our lives; we did hold those religious priors, but came in time to see that they did not match reality. You see, in the real world, "assumptions" are not like mathematical axioms, where all that matters is internal consistency (though religious claims frequently fail even that criterion) -- at some point, incorrect assumptions tend to collide with that real world. You start to run into situations where you find yourself saying: "My assumptions imply that the world should look like This. In fact, it looks like That. Better re-think those assumptions...." That's the way science works, and the only a priori of science is something like: the universe works consistently, and if we study it in a disciplined way, we can figure it out.

There's a lovely irony in Gyapong's argument. If you read her blog for any length of time, you find that one of the other epithets (ie. in addition to "Darwinist" and "materialist") she likes to toss out is "postmodernist" -- a school of thought which among other things denies absolute universal truth in favour relative, individually constructed truths. But her assertion that our understanding of the Universe is completely determined by arbitrarily-chosen priors essentially sets up the same kind of relativist epistemology. The only difference between this and "classic" postmodernism is that in the latter it is social factors like one's race, gender and economic class that determine one's worldview. And on the whole, scientists (including most of those dreaded "Darwinists") have little use for post-modernism.

Of course, this whole digression into bad apologetics is just a lead-up to Gyapong's favorite hobby-horse, the supposed persecution of Christians by the Human Rights Commissions:
As Ezra Levant points out today, we have a new state religion. We can't really call it a theocracy because God is missing from the creed. But it is a faith nonetheless with its own strictures, its own moral code, its own high priests and priestesses and its own inquisitors. And these new inquisitors share a similar zeal for enforcing their dogma on heretics and schismatics.
This "state religion" at least as she sets it up, is a bogey man of her own devising. Gyapong is advancing a dichotomous view in which there are only two sides: the conservative Christians, and the Darwinist-materialists who are out to get them. In fact (as anyone who isn't determined to fit the facts into the straight-jacket of their martyr complex knows), there are are all sorts of "sides" in our society. At the very least, there are: conservative Christians who rail against the modern world; the leftist po-mos whose views I find just as silly and anti-intellectual; the scientific view in which evidence decides matters of truth (and is in itself largely independent of ideological commitments); and libertarians who believe in free speech as a principle, even for fools and bigots (for an example of the last view, Deborah should go check out Ed Brayton's Dispatches From The Culture Wars: a harsh critic of religious excess, who regularly jeers at creationism, and fiercely defends gay rights -- but who has also defended Ezra Levant on strict free-speech grounds).

There are aspects of the Stephen Boissoin case that I am unhappy about (or would be, if they were to be confirmed by a source that wasn't so obviously grinding an axe over it), but Deborah's bogeyman of materialism, Darwinism and a priori philosophical assumptions have nothing to do with it.

[As an aside, I should note that Stephen Boissoin is being persecuted for being an ignorant bigot repeating the standard lies of the Christian Right. One can defend him on the principled basis that even ignorant bigots should enjoy the right to free speech, and the proper response is public refutation and ridicule -- but to defend him as a persecuted Christian says something about the kind of Christianity you endorse.]

5 comments:

Stephen Boissoin said...

Yes, true.

I guess the questions that one needs to consider is:

1. Do I believe in the traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on sexuality which includes clear and strong language against homosexual behaviour?

If so, do I understand that pro-homosexual activists are indoctrinating children and youth 'without' providing them with (often purposely withholding)all of the facts (especially the medical facts)and/or allowing them to hold an anti-homosexuality position without being made to feel that they are being hateful, intolerant or ignorant.

The outcome, (a)an increase of pro-homosexuality in our culture and an obvious increase in homosexual beahviour which includes bi-sexuality, (b) consistently high rates of STD's, especially between MSM, depression, suicide etc. A highly destructive outcome that overshadows the intemperate tone of my letter. Sometimes offence is warranted and necessary.

2. Do I hold a secular humanistic view of sexuality/homosexuality that cannot be unifed with the original text and the traditional interpretation?

If so, what does the term 'Christian' and/or 'believer' mean to me and is my definition the same as what the authors of the Bible and/or early Christians intended? If it isn't maybe the term 'Christian" isn't right for me altogether. The Bible does not teach that one can pick what they like and discard what they don't.

Zhasper said...

/me sets mode +pedant

One more thing: I can't let pass without comment, the casual bigotry implied by: "Even if you believe in God and discover after death He does not exist, you have at least led a good life." Apparently, whether or not God exists, you can only lead a good life if you believe in him/her/them/it

I don't think your comment here is valid: saying that "A implies B" is not the same as "B implies A".

I think a valid criticism of the statement would be the opposite: it presupposes that a life believing in God is automatically a good life.

Eamon Knight said...

Zhasper: So noted, thank you. Of course, I can't help feeling you're crediting the original statement with more logical precision than was intended ;-).

larryniven said...

Boissoin, you have to understand, any anti-homosexuality position is hateful and intolerant and almost certainly ignorant as well. Just like my anti-rapist position is hateful and intolerant (although I hope well-informed), you followers of Leviticus should be proud to announce that you do not tolerate homosexuality and hate it (admitting ignorance, on the other hand, would be a bit silly). In particular, the God you claim to follow hates and doesn't tolerate homosexuality, so why shouldn't you do likewise? Trying to cast a plainly hateful and intolerant position as anything else is mere pandering and it makes you look duplicitous. Or perhaps you're simply afraid that your children, upon learning that being homophobic is hateful and intolerant, will choose another route? If that's the case, perhaps you might want to consider throwing your support behind an ethical viewpoint that even children know enough to discard.

Second, do you eat shellfish? Do you wink at your relatives (see Lev 18:6)? Have you ever had a pet neutered (Lev 22:24)? Do you eat bread during Pesach? Remember, "[t]he Bible does not teach that one can pick what they like and discard what they don't"...

Anyway, zhasper's right: that statement only implies that Christianity automatically makes for goodness. This is, of course, equally absurd and offensive, just for different reasons. Other than that, though, I heartily support this post.

larryniven said...

"If that's the case, perhaps you might want to consider throwing your support behind an ethical viewpoint that even children know enough to discard."

...er, reconsider, that is...