Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Christian Holiday that Christians Hate

Some Christians believe Halloween is a holiday of evil, but there’s an ironic twist to this.

It’s a Christian holiday.

Some people reading this might be thinking, “Wait, wasn’t that a Celtic holiday or something?” Well, it gets a bit more complicated than that. On November 1st, the Celts of ancient Ireland and Britain celebrated the festival of Samhain and they believed the souls of the dead went back to their old homes to visit. Some time later, the 7th century Pope Boniface IV established All Saints Day on May 13 to commemorate the saints. The next century after that, All Saints Day was moved to November 1st, possibly in an effort to supplant the Celtic holiday. The day before All Saints Day was then to have another Christian observance before it, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Halloween is the start of a three-day Christian holiday period called Allhallowtide with the third day being All Souls Day.

While Halloween itself is a Christian holiday, at least originally, with time a more secularized variety emerged and some of the elements seem to have been borrowed from the November 1st Celtic holiday that All Saints Day was meant to replace, such as the tradition of wearing masks (which in the Celtic holiday were used to hide from the souls wandering the room). Notably though, the Halloween tradition of Jack O’ Lantern stems from Irish folklore in which a guy named Jack tricked the devil for financial gain. When Jack died God didn’t permit him to be in heaven, the devil didn’t want him in hell, and so Jack wandered the earth. Scary faces carved in turnips were to scare him away, but when the Irish immigrated to the United States they used pumpkins instead.

If you want to celebrate Halloween via some Christian services and the old Allhallowtide tradition, go ahead. If you just want to hand out candy and dress up as costumes on that day, fine. I don’t see anything inherently wrong with celebrating it as a Christian or secular holiday. But what seems not quite right to me is calling it a holiday of evil while being completely ignorant of what the holiday is: something that originated as a Christian holiday even if the secular version became a bit of mishmash from old Celtic customs and Irish Christian folklore.

A symptom of something more serious.

The fact that so many Christians are willing to denounce it as evil while being so ignorant strikes me as symptomatic of a sort of anti-intellectualism that’s plagued evangelical Christianity as I’ve blogged on before. Another symptom is the attitude of many Christians of evolution, with some important historical and cultural information unknown to them. For example, here’s an excerpt of one of William Lane Craig’s theology lectures:
During the 19th century, literary scholars tended to regard these ancient creation myths as a kind of proto-science; that is to say, a sort of crude pre-scientific attempt to explain how the world and the things in it came about. Accounts that are now rendered obsolete in light of modern science. So the 19th century had a rather unsympathetic view toward these ancient creation myths. They were regarded as basically obsolete and crude science. But during the 20th century, scholars of mythology do not see them as a kind of crude proto-science. Rather, they tend to be seen as symbolic or figurative accounts of the creation of the world or of various things in it. So they weren’t intended to be taken literally. These were symbolic accounts. These were figurative or metaphorical accounts that shouldn’t be understood as pre-scientific attempts to explain the way the world is.
William Lane Craig has doctorates in theology and philosophy, and is himself a Christian devoted to Biblical inerrancy. He’s also said this one of his lectures:
Historically, it is interesting to note that many of the church fathers and the rabbis down through history did not take Genesis 1 to refer to literal 24-hour days. People like Augustine and Origen and Justin Martyr and others of the church fathers took these to be not 24-hour periods of time. There has always been, among the church fathers and among Jewish rabbis, a latitude of interpretation – a recognition of alternative interpretations. Some of the church fathers and rabbis did take this passage literally, but others took it figuratively. It has never been a touchstone of orthodoxy to ask whether or not you believe that the world was created in six literal 24-hour days.
Interpreting the Genesis creation story non-literally should at least be a viable option, but many aren’t aware of this sort of background.

So what can we do? One thing we can do is remember and teach what Scripture has taught us. Christians should remember verses like Matthew 22:37 where Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Modern Christian culture emphasizes the heart and soul part but not so much the mind part unfortunately, and we need to emphasize that part to in our own lives, in the ministry, and in our children. The same church I went to that had William Lane Craig teaching adult Sunday school classes (from which the aforementioned theology lectures come from) also had a book on logic in the bookstore! I remember thinking, “God bless this church.” This is the kind of ministry we need. Jesus may have been a carpenter, but he also exhibited erudition (John 7:15) and taught people to be innocent as doves but as shrewd as snakes (Matthew 10:16). In addition to doing some reading, consider getting a doctorate in your own field, and certainly encourage your children (if you have any) to achieve academic excellence and teach them apologetics. If you’re new, I recommend On Guard as a good start.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Argument from Moral Knowledge

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Moral epistemology asks questions like, “How do we know our moral beliefs are true?” and it’s a question that helps theism. What I’ll call “the argument from moral knowledge” tries to use moral knowledge as an argument for God’s existence. Thus a variety of the argument from moral knowledge goes like this:
  1. If God does not exist, then moral knowledge does not exist.
  2. Moral knowledge does exist (e.g. we know it’s morally wrong to torture infants just for fun).
  3. Therefore, God exists.
Where warrant is that stuff we add to true belief to get knowledge (for example, the warrant for belief might be some type of evidence or justification for that belief), this argument claims that if God does not exist then our belief in morality’s existence is not warranted.

Defining Morality

Since I’ve seen some nontheists redefine morality to avoid some of the problems atheism has with morality as it’s ordinarily defined, I’ll briefly sketch what I mean by “morality” in this argument from moral knowledge. Morality has an “ought” component to it (e.g. moral obligations) but there are a couple different senses of the word “ought.” By “descriptive ought” I mean that type of ought that is nothing more than some purely descriptive state of affairs, e.g. “If you want to do well in school, you ought to study” meaning something like “As a matter of practical necessity, you need to study to do well in school.” A descriptive ought is any ought that has no properties besides purely descriptive ones. By “prescriptive ought” I mean that type of ought that is not a descriptive ought; it prescribes and is not purely descriptive, e.g. “You should not to torture infants just for fun.” The type of morality being referred to here involves the prescriptive ought, e.g. moral wrongness. An action is morally wrong for someone only if they ought not to do it in the “prescriptive ought” sense.

Moral oughts being prescriptive oughts is important because it means that moral facts and properties are, if not supernatural, at least non-natural. There is a scholarly article that fairly rigorously demonstrates that moral ought facts are non-natural when using prescriptive oughts, but here I will give an oversimplified version of the argument. Natural facts are facts that can be expressed entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences, e.g. “The atomic number of gold is 79” and “Bob needs an anesthetic to not feel pain.” (Caveat: don’t confuse the natural fact with the statement used to express what the natural fact is.) The language of psychology and the natural sciences is purely descriptive language, and thus what natural facts are can be stated entirely in descriptive language. But moral oughtness is not purely descriptive, i.e. what moral oughtness is cannot be stated entirely in descriptive language (it is false that moral oughts have no properties besides purely descriptive ones). Since natural facts are purely descriptive whereas moral ought facts are not, moral ought facts are not natural facts, and thus however morality exists, it does not exist as solely part of the natural realm; e.g. moral wrongness is nonphysical and non-natural. We can summarize the reasoning (which is an oversimplified version of this semantics argument for moral non-naturalism, and the math for that paper is explained here) as follows:
  1. All natural facts are purely descriptive (they can be stated entirely in descriptive language).
  2. Moral ought facts are not purely descriptive (it is false that moral oughts have no properties besides purely descriptive ones).
  3. Therefore, moral ought facts are not natural facts.
The above argument is deductively valid, i.e. the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises by the rules of logic, and symbolic logic proves this.[1]

Morality is Empirically Undetectable and Causally Inert

Another indication that moral properties are non-natural is their empirical undetectability and causal inertness, at least barring the supernatural. Moral properties are non-natural, and anything outside the natural world causally affecting stuff would by definition be supernatural; thus moral properties are causally inert barring anything supernatural. To illustrate what I mean by moral oughtness being empirically undetectable, imagine a moral nihilist (who disbelieves in moral oughtness) and a moral realist (who believes in moral oughtness) observe some jerk kicking a dog just for fun; the dog whimpers in pain and runs away. Both agree on all physiological and psychological facts, e.g. that the dog felt pain and suffered minor injury. The moral nihilist says, “I don’t think moral oughtness (like moral wrongness) is attached to that action.” The moral realist says, “I think moral oughtness (moral wrongness) is attached to that action.”

There is no empirical way to determine who is right here. Both views agree on all the same empirically observable facts, and moral oughtness being associated with certain physical facts (such as the dog’s injury) doesn’t explain any physical fact. Moral realism and moral nihilism are empirically indistinguishable from each other, though since moral oughtness is non-natural and nonphysical, it isn’t surprising that both the moral realist and the moral nihilist would agree on all the same physical facts.

The dog kicker scenario also illustrates that moral oughtness is causally inert, at least barring the supernatural. Moral oughtness is non-natural and nonphysical, and something non-natural and nonphysical causally influencing the natural, physical realm would be supernatural. Notice also that whether moral oughtness is associated with natural facts (e.g. the dog’s pain and injury) or not associated with those same natural facts, the physical conditions are the same in both cases, and so barring the supernatural, the presence or absence of moral oughtness would make no causal difference as to what those physical conditions will result in.

Moral Awareness

But if moral properties like moral wrongness are empirically undetectable and causally inert (barring the supernatural) how in the world are we aware of morality? Since morality is empirically undetectable, in practice we have to rely on intuition, i.e. it just seems true to us that morality exists[2], similar to how it just seems true to us that the external world is real (as opposed to being something like a dream). But if we have to rely on moral intuition to justify our belief in morality, how does moral intuition deliver warrant for morality’s existence?

Theism has a straightforward explanation: God, wanting humans to have moral knowledge, designed our cognitive faculties (via evolution or otherwise) in such a way that when they are functioning properly we intuitively apprehend basic moral truths, just as we intuitively apprehend elementary truths of logic and arithmetic. Our moral awareness thus becomes a kind of God-given intuitive knowledge.

In contrast, atheism faces real trouble. Moral properties are causally inert in the absence of the supernatural, and because on atheism it is unlikely that supernatural intervention is responsible for our moral knowledge (e.g. supernatural clairvoyance seems far-fetched), it is likely that moral oughtness is causally inert if atheism is true, at least with respect to moral knowledge. On atheism, we have the intuition of morality’s existence because that’s what our brains give us, and moral oughtness being causally inert means its presence or absence would make no causal difference as to whether our brains would give us this moral intuition (nor would it make any causal difference to the evolutionary and environmental processes that gave us our brains). But if on atheism we’d have the intuition of morality existing even if morality did not exist, then it seems we wouldn’t know that morality exists.

To illustrate why, suppose a cyborg knows she has a metal-detecting implant installed in her brain that’s designed so that when a widget is in her hand, the implant delivers a strong intuition that the widget contains metal if and only if it contains metal. Suppose however the metal-detecting implant malfunctions such that it would deliver the intuition that the widget contains metal regardless of whether the widget contained metal. Then even if the widget in her hand did contain metal and she believed it contained metal on the basis of her intuition, her belief wouldn’t count as knowledge. Moreover, if she learned the metal-detecting implant would give her the intuition that the widget contains metal regardless of whether the widget contained metal, she would no longer have adequate grounds to believe the widget contains metal.

In the cyborg scenario (whereby the implant supplies the intuition that the widget contains metal regardless of whether such metal existed), the cyborg’s intuition clearly does not deliver warrant for the metallic widget belief. Similarly, on the “atheism scenario,” whereby atheism is true and our brains would supply moral intuition regardless of whether morality existed, our moral intuition would not deliver warrant for morality’s existence. But since we rely on moral intuition to justify our belief in morality’s existence, it seems that if atheism is true we are not warranted in believing that morality exists. We can summarize the reasoning in two steps. The first:
  1. In the cyborg scenario, the cyborg’s intuition does not deliver warrant for the metallic widget belief.
  2. If the cyborg’s intuition does not deliver warrant in the cyborg scenario, then if atheism is true moral intuition does not deliver warrant for morality’s existence. (No relevant difference seems to exist between the cyborg scenario and the atheism scenario whereby the cyborg’s intuition would not deliver warrant but moral intuition would in the atheism scenario.)
  3. Therefore, if atheism is true, moral intuition does not deliver warrant for morality’s existence.
With If atheism is true, moral intuition does not deliver warrant for morality’s existence argued for, we are ready for the second argument:
  1. If atheism is true, moral intuition does not deliver warrant for morality’s existence.
  2. We rely on moral intuition to believe that morality exists, such that If moral intuition does not deliver warrant for morality’s existence, we are not warranted in believing that morality exists is true.
  3. Therefore, if atheism is true, we are not warranted in believing that morality exists.
It seems then we have good grounds for affirming the first premise of the argument from moral knowledge:
  1. If God does not exist, then moral knowledge does not exist.
  2. Moral knowledge does exist (e.g. we know it’s morally wrong to torture infants just for fun).
  3. Therefore, God exists.
Our awareness of morality’s existence thus seems to provide evidence for theism.

[1] For philosophy nerds (and all philosophy nerds should be sufficiently versed in symbolic logic) here’s the symbolization key:
  • Nx = x is a natural fact
  • Dx = x is purely descriptive
  • Mx = x is a moral ought fact
The goal is to prove ¬∃x[Mx ∧ Nx], i.e. that there does not exist a moral ought fact that is also a natural fact, from premises (1) and (2) in the argument below:
  1. ∀x[Nx → Dx]
  2. ∀x[Mx → ¬Dx]

  1. ∃x[Mx ∧ Nx] indirect proof assumption
    1. Mf ∧ Nf 3, existential instantiation
    2. Mf 4, conjunction elimination
    3. Nf 4, conjunction elimination
    4. Nf → Df 1, universal instantiation
    5. Df 6, 7, modus ponens
    6. Mf → ¬Df 2, universal instantiation
    7. ¬Df 5, 9, modus ponens
    8. Df ∧ ¬Df 8, 10, conjunction introduction
  1. ¬∃x[Mx ∧ Nx] 3-11, indirect proof

[2] I don’t mean to imply that moral intuition necessarily gives us knowledge of morality’s existence by directly telling us that morality exists (though I don’t rule it out either). It could also be, for example, that we intuit a moral truth like, “It is morally wrong for a man to torture innocent sentient life just for fun” and from there we conclude that morality exists.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Transgenderism, Transracialism, and Academic Bigotry (p. 2)

Transgenderism, Transracialism, and Academic Bigotry
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Academic Bigotry

Even though Tuvel is very much on the side of transgenderism, the fact that she agrees with premise (1) of this argument is going to ruffle feathers on the pro-transgenderism side:
  1. If we should accept transgender individuals’ gender identity when it differs from their biological sex, then we should also accept transracial individuals’ racial identity when it differs from their biological race.
  2. We should accept transgender individuals’ gender identity when it differs from their biological sex.
  3. Therefore, we should also accept transracial individuals’ racial identity when it differs from their biological race.
To be sure, it is not bigotry or intolerance to disagree with Tuvel’s arguments or points. Intellectual inquiry and academic freedom demand ideas like this be open to question. What is academic bigotry is saying we should censor Tuvel’s views from the academic literature.

Bigotry exists on both the far left and on the far right, though in this case it seems to come from the left. An open letter calling for the retraction of Tuvel’s article was made. As New York Magazine notes however:
What’s remarkable about this letter is that, as Justin Weinberg noted in the Daily Nous, a philosophy website, each and every one of the falsifiable points it makes is, based on a plain reading of Tuvel’s article, simply false or misleading.
There has simply been an explosive amount of misinformation circulating online about what is and isn’t in Tuvel’s article, which few of her most vociferous critics appear to have even skimmed, based on their inability to accurately describe its contents.
Emotional touchiness often breeds irrationality and distorting of the other person’s views. What’s remarkable isn’t just that the misinformation spread and was accepted even by people who should have known better, but that the Associate Editorial Board of Hypatia philosophy journal caved in and expressed regret for having published the article (though thankfully, they did at least refrain from retracting the article). An excerpt from the apology:
Clearly, the article should not have been published, and we believe that the fault for this lies in the review process. In addition to the harms listed above imposed upon trans people and people of color, publishing the article risked exposing its author to heated critique that was both predictable and justifiable.
You might be wondering, “What harms?” Many of the alleged sources of harm seem vague, inapplicable, or outright nonsensical if one is familiar with Tuvel’s actual paper. For example, one of the alleged sources of harms is, “to compare ethically the lived experience of trans people (from a distinctly external perspective) primarily to a single example of a white person claiming to have adopted a black identity creates an equivalency that fails to recognize the history of racial appropriation, while also associating trans people with racial appropriation.” If you’re having trouble following the reasoning about how that’s a source of harm, you’re not alone. José Luis Bermúdez, a philosopher at Texas A & M University, criticizes Hypatia’s claim, among other things pointing out:
This is quite plainly a mischaracterization of what Tuvel is trying to do (as a quick read of her abstract will show). But leaving that aside, the quote shows that the concept of harm has been twisted beyond all recognition. Making a comparison is simply making a comparison -- it is to look at two or more phenomena and identify respects in which they are similar and respects in which they are dissimilar.

Such a comparison can be correct or incorrect. But how can simply making a comparison in itself cause a harm, if it is not explicitly defamatory?
Hypatia’s claim to harm here really is as nonsensical as it might first seem.

Tuvel put forth a response in the Daily Nous containing this:
Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they “dignify” the article. If this is considered beyond the pale as a response to a controversial piece of writing, then critical thought is in danger. I have never been under the illusion that this article is immune from critique. But the last place one expects to find such calls for censorship rather than discussion is amongst philosophers.
And it’s not just Bermúdez who objected. A lot of academics took issue with how Hypatia handled this. Philosopher Brian Leiter for example wrote:
I confess I've never seen anything like this in academic philosophy (admittedly most signatories to the "open letter" are not academic philosophers, but some are). A tenure-track assistant professor submits her article to a journal, it passes peer review, it is published, others take offense, and the Associate Editors of the journal declare that "Clearly, the article should not have been published" and that the abuse to which the author is being subjected is "both predictable and justifiable."
It’s worth pointing out this is the exception rather than the rule, but this remarkable event is...well, remarkable. A lot of people signed the open letter and spread (mis)information without checking it out first. Even Hypatia mischaracterized Tuvel in the apology. Academic philosophers in particular should have known better than to sign the open letter without fact checking it.

What goes for academic philosophers also goes for anyone else spreading memes and news. When someone makes a point I like on Facebook, I fact check it first before sharing, because I know news that one wants to believe or be outraged about has a real danger of hoodwinking people. If everyone did fact-checking like this, maybe the Hypatia fiasco could have been avoided. By fact checking your own received news before you share it, perhaps you can help prevent the next one.

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Transgenderism, Transracialism, and Academic Bigotry

Transgenderism, Transracialism, and Academic Bigotry
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Rebecca Tuvel’s well-written article called “In Defense of Transracialism” published in the philosophy journal Hypatia spawned quite a bit of ruckus in May 2017. The abstract of this philosophy article contains, “Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism [e.g. a white person self-identifying as a black person].” It’s interesting stuff, but because this is such an emotional issue for many and some people are quick to demonize, I feel it’s good to have the following disclaimer.


When people practice and believe a religion I think is silly, I still think we should not bully such religious people or discriminate against them. I mention this because I think transgender people should enjoy the full civil rights and privileges of people who practice religions I disagree with, and I hope that people who find the transgender beliefs and practices silly can get on board with this sort of tolerance. People who disagree with the transgender lifestyle should do so without malice or bigotry, just as one might do with people of a different faith.

A Plea for Civility

With that disclaimer said, the fact that we should tolerate a belief or practice does not make it immune to criticism. My religion should not be immune to criticism, and atheists should be free to think and say my religion is silly without being branded a bigot, because tolerance is not the same as agreement. I look at transgenderism (e.g. an adult biological male self-identifying as a woman and wearing women’s clothing) the same way a tolerant atheist might view my religion; the practice seems kind of crazy to me, but I believe in civil rights and tolerance for such people. For pro-transgender folk who disagree with people like me, I ask that you show the same civility towards me that I show tolerant atheists who think my beliefs and practices are crazy. It is possible for people to think the intellectually opposing side is a little nutty while still getting along. If we can be tolerant and respectful of people of different religions, I think both sides of the transgender issue can show the same tolerance and respect towards each other.

Transgenderism and Transracialism

Remarkably, Rebecca Tuvel is herself on the pro-transgender side. Yet one philosopher’s modus tollens is another’s modus ponens. Tuvel believes that “since we should accept transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals’ decisions to change races” whereas someone else might reason, “Since the transracial lifestyle is a crazy idea, we should also find the transgender lifestyle a crazy idea.” Instead, Tuvel concludes that “that if some individuals genuinely feel like or identify as a member of a race other than the one assigned to them at birth—so strongly to the point of seeking a transition to the other race—we should accept their decision to change races.” We can summarize Tuvel’s logic as follows:
  1. If we should accept transgender individuals’ gender identity when it differs from their biological sex, then we should also accept transracial individuals’ racial identity when it differs from their biological race.
  2. We should accept transgender individuals’ gender identity when it differs from their biological sex.
  3. Therefore, we should also accept transracial individuals’ racial identity when it differs from their biological race.
Tuvel’s article is worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll summarize some points Tuvel makes in her article before commenting on the academic bigotry that ensued here. Part of Tuvel’s paper is that arguments against transracialism could be used against transgenderism. Consider the case of a biologically white woman wishing to self-identify as a black woman. (Tuvel seems to have chosen this example because Rachel Dolezal made headlines as a biologically white woman claiming the black identity, though in the paper Tuvel expresses skepticism on whether Dolezal’s claim to black identity is legitimate.) Unless otherwise mentioned, all quotes are from Tuvel’s paper.

Objection: A biologically white woman “cannot identify as black because she did not grow up with the experience of anti-black racism.”

Rebuttal: Tuvel points out that “it remains unclear why one's past experience with racism is required for one's current status as black.” Moreover, “this objection would also apply to trans women [biological males who self-identify as women] who transitioned later in life but did not grow up knowing what it was like to experience sexism.”

Objection: A biologically white woman “cannot identify as black because of the way society currently understands racial membership.”

Rebuttal: Tuvel invites us to “imagine a transgender person born in a country today where such forms of identification are not tolerated, because the understanding of sex-gender identity is firmly restricted to the genitalia one possesses at birth.” Would that invalidate the transgender person’s claim? Moreover, “if we hold the legitimacy of a particular act hostage to the status quo…it is difficult to see how we can make any social progress at all.”

Objection: It is “insulting or otherwise harmful to the black community for a white person to identify as black.” Consider for example the nineteenth century American white people who engaged in blackface to mock African-Americans.

Rebuttal: Racists nineteenth century white Americans engaging in blackface to denigrate African-Americans is very different from someone who genuinely identifies as black. The former “is appropriately deemed pretense because it relies on the fact that this person's core identity is not who she publicly and permanently purports to be.” We must be careful to distinguish such pretense from sincere conviction and non-nefarious intent, because if we don’t, “then by parity of reasoning, transgender men and women are just pretending to be men and women.” Also, “someone who genuinely identifies with blackness could perhaps be viewed as affirming blackness instead of insulting it, insofar as this suggests it is desirable to be black.”

Objection: It is “a wrongful exercise of white privilege for a white-born person, such as Dolezal, to cross into the black racial category.” A white person self-identifying as black could become white again and enjoy white privilege.

Rebuttal: Regarding “the point that a white-born person could always exercise white privilege by returning to being white, I note that the same argument would problematically apply to a male-to-female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege” and yet “the fact that a person could potentially return to male privilege does and should not preclude their transition.” Also, “it is difficult to see how giving up one's whiteness and becoming black is an exercise of white privilege.”

How’s the Paper, Maverick?

I won’t pretend the paper is perfect but Tuvel raises some good points worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed philosophy journal. I have found it awfully arbitrary that self-identifying as a gender different from your biological sex is socially acceptable but self-identifying as a different race isn’t. It’s nice to see someone on the pro-transgender side recognize the problem even if I disagree with her conclusion.

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