Friday, July 22, 2011

Human Rights: Secular or Religious?

(Cross-posted from The Consternation of Philosophy.)

Anat Biletzki's recent Stone column purports to argue for a secular rather than religious foundation for human rights. While she raises some interesting issues, I don't think she succeeds in undermining theistic foundations for human rights. 

For Biletzki, if human rights, i.e. "the rights humans are due simply by virtue of being human," have a theistic foundation, then:
(1) "it is not the concept of [human] rights that propels the religious person" in respecting the rights of others, since human rights stem from human beings' being created in the image of God;
(2) Human rights are completely subject to divine will or command ("if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it.")

(1) is simply a non sequitur. It conflates a claim about what grounds rights with what should motivate us to respect rights. Just as utilitarians can say that agents need not always aim at maximizing utility, so the religious human rights theorist can say that agents need not have any religious content to their thoughts and motivations pertaining to respecting human rights.

(2) shows a complete disregard of the landscape of theistic ethics, assuming that any such ethics must be completely voluntaristic. It's also plainly inconsistent with (1). If, for the religious rights theorist, we have rights in virtue of being created in God's image, it would seem to follow that our rights are not revisable by divine will. It's not as if the property of being created in God's image can simply be revoked by God! 

A more general worry is that Biletzki portrays religious human rights as alienated from our humanity, since they are in some sense dependent on God, whereas she thinks secular human rights are more intimately connected with our humanity. But that's actually very unclear. If human rights are rights we are owed "simply by virtue of being human," then it's unclear how the features of humanity that Biletzki emphasizes (our "reason," "emotion," and "compassion") are any closer to human nature as such than being created in God's image.Those properties, after all, aren't distinctively human, whereas the religious theorist might argue that being created in God's image is a distinctively human property. If we want rights to be closely connected to our nature, we may thus be better off on a religious conception of rights-- or, at least, not necessarily worse off.

Finally, while Biletzki frames her essay as an exploration of what grounds or explains human rights, she ends up saying that there isn't really a foundation at all-- rather, an "axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic" reflection on "humanity and its fragility and its resilience" gets human rights off the ground. Not only does this sound tautologous-- we have human rights, which by definition we have by being human, in virtue of being human!-- the case now looks evenworse for the secular human rights theorist. Whereas the religious theorist has a rich theory to offer about the grounding of human rights, it looks like the secular theorist on Biletzki's view must resort to dogmatism. And if our human rights theory is so impoverished, it's a deep mystery how we are to go on with our "discussion, disagreement, and questioning" about human rights. If all we can point to when explaining human rights is our mere humanity, then what sets the ground rules for the discussion? What will determine whether this or that is a human right, or no right at all? Without answers to these questions, we don't have a theory of human rights at all.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Philosophers' Carnival #123

Welcome to the Philosophers' Carnival #123! The theme for the carnival is philosophy of religion, though we have plenty of general philosophy as well.

Philosophy of religion
Jonathan Livengood's Causal Over-Determination and Cosmological Arguments at Unshielded Colliders questions a causal principle used by some in the science/religion debate to undermine the cosmological argument.

Kenny Pearce discusses a theistic (or at least anti-naturalistic) argument from reactive attitudes, and Alexander Pruss offers a related argument.

David Fryman's post at The Bennett Commentary attempts to "reconcile the idea that God exercises providence over our day-to-day lives with the idea that events in the world seem to be caused by other prior events." His suggestion is to compare "God’s relationship with humanity to an author’s relationship with his fictional characters."
Chris Bateman presents a discussion of Alain Badiou's Truth and argues that Badiou's view "has a highly confused relationship with religion."

Logic and Philosophy of Language
Martin Cooke discusses Simmons' paradox. The April issue of The Reasoner has a related essay by Martin called "Liars, Divine Liars, and Semantics revisited"

Ethics and Political Philosophy

Namit Arora looks at some theories of distributive justice in What do we deserve?

Your humble correspondent traces the history of action theory and double effect through Augustine, Proclus and Aristotle.

Over at PEA Soup, Edward Slingerland’s “The Situationist Critique and Early Confucian Virtue Ethics” (from Ethics vol. 121, issue 2) is the subject of some interesting discussion.

Philosophy of Science
Michael S. Pearl's Philosophy in Science discusses the scientific utility of the philosophy of science, touching on Kuhn, Papineau, and Nozick.

Vincenzo Crupi presents his post on the Wason selection task and the logic of confirmation. 

Experimental Philosophy
Shen-yi Liao presents "Genre and Folk Evaluations of Art," joint work with Jonathan Phillips, at Go Grue! Their research "shows that ordinary people do implicitly take moral evaluations to be relevant for aesthetic evaluations (contrary to what they may profess)."

The state of the discipline

At Inside Higher Ed, you can read an overview of recent discussions from New APPS and Feminist Philosophers about fighting sexual harassment in philosophy, inspired in part by What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? (which is starting up again soon). Also, a new blog is starting up-- What We're Doing About What It's Like-- to discuss what should be done about the harassment issue.

Finally, there's controversy in the UK as the Arts and Humanities Research Council seems to be bringing partisan politics into academic research funding. There is a petition here. Thom Brooks provides more details here and here.
Thanks for reading and submitting! The next carnival is April 25, hosted by Philosophy@Utah StateWant to host a future Philosophers' Carnival?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Neuroscientific arguments against religious beliefs

(This is the second post in my series on psychology & religion. See here for the first.)

It's fashionable these days to think that neuroscience, particularly certain kinds of brain imaging studies, undermines religious beliefs in so far as those beliefs are based on claims to genuine religious experience. On closer examination, however, this kind of neuroscientific debunking argument is unsuccessful. To argue for this claim, we'll return to Gregory Peterson's article, which has a very helpful discussion of the argument in question.

The basic thought behind the argument is this: neuroscience, by finding neural correlates that are sufficient for religious experience [1], undermines the claim that such experience is genuine, and (to the extent that religious experience serves as justification for religious belief) undermines religious belief. But there are two ways neuroscience can threaten the validity of religious experience: by threatening its content or its causal origins.

Typically, Peterson writes, genuine religious experiences are regarded as having a particular kind of content as well as a special sort of causal history. I don't think either of these are necessary conditions on genuine religious experience. Against the first, consider Augustine's 'tolle lege,' which is not any special kind of content as such; and against the second, it should be noted that it's consistent (on at least some ways of construing the interaction of God with the natural realm) with an experience being genuinely religious that it has a purely natural causal history.

Those concerns aside, are neural correlates a threat to the content and causal origins of religious experience? Peterson thinks, and with this I tend to agree, that neural correlates tell us very little about the content of religious experience, so there is not a threat in that regard. As for the causal origins of religious experience, there may be some threat from neural correlates, but a rather limited one. As Peterson writes: the religious believer would have to admit that “the human mind is primed for… religious experiences but that it can be manipulated to produce false positives.”

It's important to notice that this is a very minor threat, indeed perhaps more minor than Peterson suggests. Consider an analogy to color experience. Suppose neuroscientists could artificially induce the experience of red. This would tell us little about the verdicality of non-artificially induced red experiences. At most it tells us that beliefs formed on the basis of such experiences are fallible, but doesn’t undermine our confidence in those beliefs. Note that it doesn't show that outside the laboratory context our color beliefs have the wrong kind of causes. This analogy strongly suggests that the ability to induce religious experience in a laboratory is no threat to religious experience in the field, as it were. Nor should a similar result pertaining to religious experience undermine our confidence in religious beliefs. It's presumably widely agreed, and not at all problematic, to point out that our religious beliefs are fallible and can be caused by the wrong sorts of things, and that seems to be the most that the neural correlate argument establishes. The argument does not show that religious experiences out in the field do not have the kinds of causes that religious believers take them to have.

It appears, then, that neural correlates pose a very limited threat to the causal origins of religious experience, and no threat at all to the content of religious experience. The neuroscientific argument against religious beliefs has been found wanting.

[1] Psychologists disagree about whether such correlates have already been found. For our purposes we can stipulate that they have.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Philosopher's Carnival: Call for submissions

I'm hosting the next Philosopher's Carnival on April 4, and welcome your submissions through this form. Given the theme of this blog, the theme of the carnival will be the philosophy of religion, including relevant aspects of the history of philosophy as well as substantive philosophical arguments. You may also submit posts from any area of philosophy. I'm hoping for a nice batch of philosophy of religion material, as well as plenty of general philosophy posts. Thanks!

Cognitive science arguments against religious beliefs

This is the first in a series of posts about whether psychology can debunk religious beliefs. I will begin by examining debunking arguments highlighted by Gregory Peterson in his recent article "Are Evolutionary/Cognitive Theories of Religion Relevant for Philosophy of Religion?" (Zygon,Volume 45, Issue 3, pages 545–557, September 2010). Peterson considers psychological debunking arguments from three different fields: cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. In this post, I will focus on debunking arguments from cognitive science.

Cognitive science debunking arguments
The first cognitive science argument goes like this:

(1) According to cognitive science, the formation of all religious beliefs is completely explained in terms of certain psychological mechanisms.
(2) According to religious believers, the formation of all religious beliefs is not completely explained in terms of certain psychological mechanisms.
(3) Religious believers are mistaken about the explanation of why they hold their religious beliefs: the real explanation is given by cognitive science.
(4) Therefore, all religious beliefs are undermined by cognitive science.

Peterson points out, rightly enough, that this argument seems to commit the genetic fallacy: explaining why a belief is held does not show it to be false or rationally unjustified. 

We should notice some further problems with the argument as well:
A. The first premise is very strong, claiming that the cognitive science explanation of religious beliefs is complete. This would seem to beg the question against certain kinds of interventionist theism. If we weaken the premise, however, then the argument will not be as strong.
B. The second premise is not something religious believers need to be committed to. All they need is that the formation of their beliefs be justified, not that there be some special divine influence on their belief formation.
C. Finally, the argument relies on pointing out a mismatch between the explanations for religious beliefs given by cognitive scientists and by individual religious believers. But it’s unclear why this is relevant. Suppose a religious believer reads a lot of cognitive science and becomes convinced that he holds his religious beliefs because of the relevant psychological mechanisms, so that there is no mismatch between the explanations of the believer and those of the cognitive scientist. In this case, the argument simply doesn’t go through, which is puzzling. If anything, we’d expect the threat to religious belief to be greater the more the religious believer knows about the supposedly debunking psychological explanations. 

In light of these issues, as well as Peterson's objection, we can consider a more powerful version of the argument, the one that Peterson focuses on:
(1) Cognitive science completely explains how all religious beliefs are formed in terms of certain psychological mechanisms that have no truth-conducive relation to supernatural entities.
(2) If a belief about supernatural entities can be completely explained in terms of something that has no truth-conducive relation to X, then that belief is thereby undermined.
(3) Religious beliefs are about supernatural entities, and (by (1)) are explained completely by psychological mechanisms, which have no truth-conducive relation to supernatural entities.
(4) Therefore, all religious beliefs are undermined by cognitive science.

This argument has nothing to do with what explanation a believer gives for their beliefs, so it avoids the third problem I pointed out for Peterson’s version. It also avoids the second problem, since it doesn’t require theists to be committed to a special causal history for the formation of religious beliefs. The worry about the first premise remains, however.

Peterson fleshes out the argument by focusing on Pascal Boyer's account of religious belief formation, which goes like this:
-Our modular cognitive architecture, which evolved based on selection pressures, includes both (i) an agency detection module and (ii) an intuitive folk concept of agency.
-The agency module is hyperactive, sometimes detecting agency where there is none, including (so the argument goes) supernatural agency. Supernatural agency violates the intuitive folk concept of agency. So, supernatural agency is biologically counterintuitive, and belief in such agency is therefore more likely to be remembered, passed on, etc.
-In summary: The origin of religious beliefs is accounted for by the agency detection module, and the perpetuation of religious beliefs is accounted for by the fact that supernatural agency is counterintuitive.

As an account of the origin of religion, this argument does not undermine religious beliefs, according to Peterson. He thinks that it would only apply to the first religions, and would require some additional premises to be undermining at all.

As an account of the perpetuation of religion, the argument has some force as a hermeneutic of suspicion. How much force it has depends on the particular religious tradition in question.

I agree with Peterson that the argument is generally unsuccessful, partly because of the problem I mentioned earlier with the first premise. A second, and even deeper, concern is with appealing to Boyer's account of religious beliefs. In order for the argument to go through, we need to know that the agency detection module is not just generally hyperactive (i.e. giving lots of false positives), but also that in the case of religious beliefs in particular it is giving false positives. But we obviously cannot know that, unless we knew whether the religious beliefs in question were true or false, or justified or unjustified. To know that a belief, considered as an output of a psychological process, is a false positive, we have to know whether that is the result that process should have produced. Obviously we make very many valid inferences about agency, as well as plenty of invalid ones. The valid ones are justified on the basis of the subject's available evidence, the invalid ones are not. The question of when the evidence justifies the inference is a substantive question in epistemology, and one that is closely connected with the very issue at stake: the rationality of religious beliefs.   To give the cognitive science argument on the basis of Boyer's theory is, therefore, to beg the question against religious belief. 

Monday, February 28, 2011

Conference Announcement

Readers on the west coast may be interested in the Society of Christian Philosophers Mountain-Pacific Regional Conference this weekend, March 3-5, at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. The plenary speakers are Robert Roberts (Baylor University) and Jay Wood (Wheaton College), and the theme of the conference is "Knowledge and Virtues."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Omnipotence and necessary existence

A common argument against theism is to argue that some of God's properties are inconsistent. For example, the logical problem of evil is the objection that God's omnipotence is logically incompatible with his benevolence. I want to highlight another potential incompatibility that I have not seen discussed in the literature: between God's omnipotence and necessary existence. (If I've missed it, please let me know.)

Theists generally agree that God is omnipotent and exists necessarily. On the standard semantics for modal logic,  existing necessarily is existing in every possible world. It's important to notice, however, that existing in every possible world does not entail existing at every time in every possible world. Consider a non-theological example. It may be true that, in each possible world, there exists a first event in the history of that possible world. Perhaps for our world this is the first instant of the Big Bang. On a presentist theory of time, for which only the present exists, it will not be the case that in each possible world the first event in the world's history always exists.

I've shown that necessarily existing and necessarily always existing can come apart. This opens up logical space for two kinds of arguments against theism, understood as the thesis that there is one and only one maximally perfect being that exists at all times in all possible worlds.

The first argument:
(1) God necessarily exists. That is, for all possible worlds W, there is at least one time t in W at which God exists.
(2) Necessarily, in virtue of God's omnipotence, God can bring it about that God no longer exists. That is, for all worlds W, there is at least one time t* at which it is possible that God does not exist.
(3) It is not the case that there is at least one maximally perfect being at all times in all possible worlds, i.e. theism is false.

The second argument:
(4) God necessarily exists. That is, for all possible worlds W, there is at least one time t in W at which God exists.
(5) Necessarily, in virtue of God's omnipotence, God can bring it about that another maximally perfect being also exists. That is, for all worlds W, there is at least one time t* at which it is possible that God is not the only maximally perfect being that exists.
(6) It is not the case that there is at most one maximally perfect being at all times in all possible worlds, i.e. theism is false.

What should we think of these two anti-theistic arguments? While I don't think either one is sound, I think they're both interesting insofar as they highlight two ways in which omnipotence and necessary existence can be incompatible. One way is if God is capable of bringing it his own non-existence. Another is if God is capable of bringing about another maximally perfect being. Now, the second possibility might be objected to on the grounds that two maximally perfect beings cannot coexist. If that scenario is a logical impossibility, then it will not fall under God's omnipotence to be able to bring it about. 

The first scenario, that of God bringing about his own non-existence, is perhaps a more interesting case. A theist might object that this scenario is metaphysically impossible, since God exists necessarily. But, because I've shown that necessarily existing and necessarily always existing can come apart, this objection requires further elaboration. 

Another objection that the theist might appeal to is that the non-existence of God is a state of affairs that God would never choose to bring about, even if he were able to. For example, it may be that God's bringing about his own non-existence is incompatible with God's benevolence, since temporal slices of worlds in which God does not exist are far less valuable than slices of those worlds in which God does exist. So, God's non-existence is an inferior option, and a maximally good being would never choose something inferior-- therefore, God would never will his own non-existence, even if he were capable of doing so. I suspect this is the more promising route for the theist to take in responding to the first argument. 

While these arguments are ultimately not sound, they are useful for getting a grip on some interesting ways in which one might try to argue that God's omnipotence and his necessary existence are incompatible.