Friday, November 20, 2020

Friday Traditio: Alvin Plantinga

On November 15, 2020, Alvin Plantinga, the Godfather of Christian philosophy, celebrated his 88th birthday. Why is Plantinga the Godfather of Christian philosophy? Well, there are at least two reasons. In the 1920's-1970's logical empiricism and ordinary language philosophy ruled the roost in analytic philosophy in the Anglo-American world. Logical empiricism was very hostile to metaphysics and religion, so it was near impossible to be a Christian philosopher at that time. Plantinga helped to change this state of affairs with the publication of his book God and Other Minds in 1967. Plantinga's arguments were not entirely original to him (as is the case for most philosophers religious or secular), but given that the book came from a top academic publisher it showed that it was indeed possible to do rigorous philosophy as a Christian, and an evangelical to boot. Second, Plantinga has made significant contributions in every field he has published in. For example, his work on the logical problem of evil all but ended that argument (at least until J. Howard Sobel's book Logic and Theism). His work in epistemology helped to revive common sense and reliabilism as serious options. And his modal ontological argument is one that the best minds have trouble dissolving. Plantinga has earned the title of Godfather a million times over.

In this week's traditio, Plantinga discusses an argument for which he is very well known: The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). According to EAAN, if evolution and naturalism are both true, then our cognitive faculties have not evolved in order to track truth, but in order to survive. This means that our cognitive faculties cannot be trusted to give us true beliefs, which means that we would therefore not be rationally justified in believing anything. And that would include a belief in naturalism.

Notice that Plantinga is not trying to falsify evolution or naturalism. His point is that if both are true then naturalism cannot be rationally affirmed. It could be the case, even if EAAN is successful that naturalism is true. Also, Plantinga is primarily targeting naturalism, not evolutionary theory or evolution as such. Keep that in mind.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Race and the Priesthood Podcast Interview

Recently, I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Hanna Seriac of FairMormon about the race and priesthood issue. In the podcast, I pull no punches, but I speak about why in spite of all of the problems I remain a believer in Jesus Christ, his restored church, and modern prophets. You can listen to the podcast here

Brenham Talk

Under the direction of the stake presidency, I have been asked to speak about experiences I have had gathering Israel on both sides of the veil, though what I discuss will be lessons proper rather than experiences in particular.  I hope that what I have to say is of use to some member of this audience and if so this talk will have been a success. I could raise the bar as the late Elder L. Tom Perry was fond of saying by hoping that I will keep you all awake for the duration of this address, but I think such an attempt would be, as my hero David Hume would say, a miracle.

May I preface my remarks by saying that gathering Israel is perhaps the second most important thing we do as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (After marrying the right person in the right place by the right authority.) It is not something that we should treat lightly, nor is it something that is reserved for one portion of our lives and then is completed. “Every member a missionary” is a calling from which we will not be released until after our final judgment, and perhaps not even then. When the Savior asked St. Peter three times if he loved him (with St. Peter answering in the affirmative all three times), the Savior responded to his chief apostle that he was to “feed his sheep”. A part of this mission, which is extended to all of us, is to find and gather Israel wherever we are. Doing so is in part a fulfillment of the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves; just as we desire and strive towards salvation and exaltation, so we should help others achieve these blessings. It is, as the saying goes, what Jesus would do.

I will now share two lessons  I have learned while helping to gather scattered Israel, one in reference to my service as a full-time missionary, the other in reference to my time as an ordinance worker in the Salt Lake Temple. When I served as a full-time missionary in the Alabam Birmingham Mission under the direction of then-President Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, I was in a dark place in my life, though I did not fully see it at the time. I did not want to go on a mission and had only reluctantly gone only because several people had told me that no woman worth marrying would want to marry a non-returned missionary. (Ironically, my wife told me during our first encounter that she did not care if a man had served a mission or not; shows how much they know.) In addition to this, I had joined the church only a year prior to serving and had been alienated from my family for doing so. While I did not think it would weigh on me much at the time, it turns out that I had only repressed my feelings and these feelings would reveal themselves later on. However, as I served with all of my might, I learned how to forgive. And not just certain family members in that particular situation, but others in my past and I have never looked back. What does that have to do with gathering Israel? The person you first have to gather before anyone else is yourself. If you are merely going through the motions and are not developing what Preach my Gospel calls Christlike attributes, you are closer to the group of people in Lehi’s vision who are on the path to being lost rather than holding onto the iron rod and not being ashamed.

Now allow me to talk about my service in the Salt Lake Temple. Unlike my mission experience, I did want to be an ordinance worker and was lucky enough to be one in the Salt Lake Temple where the temple endowment is done with live actors. I am currently being trained to become a professional philosopher and neuroscientist, and one of the prolific problems in philosophy is known as the problem of evil. While many volumes have been written on this complicated problem, at root the issue is how can a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good allow evil to occur. If God were all-powerful, he could stop the evil; if God were all-knowing, then he would know that evil occurs and could stop it; and if God were perfectly good then he would not permit evil to occur. Yet as we are gathered here today in masks with over 200,000 people dead from COVID-19, we are acutely aware that evil and suffering are very concrete problems rather than abstract ones. For some philosophers, this is enough to show that God does not exist or that he cannot be the kind of being he is generally attributed to be. As the philosopher, David Hume said in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil? (Hume 1990: 108-109). If Hume is right, it would seem that the type of God we worship could not be what we originally thought; I highly doubt anyone in this room would worship a being who is either impotent, malevolent, or simply indifferent to suffering.

The temple is an answer to the problem of evil, and it is part of why the problem of evil has never particularly bothered me. In the temple, I learned (and we learn) that prior to coming to this planet we agreed to be tested and tried. Nothing in the contract said anything about a lack of suffering or about being comfortable in happy; in fact, we are told that we will suffer and that such will be to our benefit, while some suffering will be just for suffering’s sake. But even through all of this, the temple itself is a manifestation of God’s love and care. While God will allow us all to suffer, he still plans to save us all in the end. And if we choose he will exalt us all as well, though that part is up to us. Suffice it to say, as I have worked on gathering Israel on the other side of the veil, I am reminded that God will eventually conquer evil and that we have a part to play in its banishment.

In closing, there are many other experiences I can share about gathering Israel. But perhaps the biggest lesson in gathering Israel no matter what side of the veil you are working on is that the world is not all about you. Do not mistake this to mean that you are not important; very much to the contrary you are of infinite worth. Had you been the only person who ever lived, it is my conviction that Jesus of Nazareth would still have suffered the pains of Gethsemane to pay the penalty that you deserved. You are loved that much and are that important. But the world is not all about you, and at various times in life, we lose sight of that. Gathering Israel on both sides of the veil is a reminder that we have no time to be caught in ourselves as Elder Uchtdorf has mentioned. We need to roll up our sleeves and go to work. How we do that may change in the current pandemic, but there is more than enough to do. May we continue to gather Israel on both sides and continue to fulfill the great commission and the great commandment. In the sacred name of the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.

Works Cited
Hume, David, and John Martin Bell. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Penguin Books, 1990.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Friday Traditio: Dallin H. Oaks

This week at a BYU devotional, Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke clearly and forcefully about racism. In the strongest terms, he condemned it and also said among other things that the slogan "Black Lives Matter" is in fact an eternal truth. This was by far the strongest condemnation of racism that church leaders have done, and for that President Oaks should be applauded.

However, there seems to be a sinister twist here. Notice that while President Oaks talked about racism in the United States and around the world, he did not mention the Church's relationship to racism, namely the priesthood ban on men of African descent and the ban on temple sealings for men and women of African descent. This is the question that is being asked: Were the priesthood and temple bans inspired or were they a mistake? This is the question that President Oaks is answering: Does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approve of or condone racism? No one is asking the question that President Oaks is answering, and the answer is very easy; very few organizations would openly condone and endorse racism in 2020. The 64 dollar question is whether our past actions as a church were racist, and what the steps forward need to be. President Oaks seems to have no answers to this question. Perhaps he thinks ignoring it will make the question go away, and if so then he is mistaken. 

Some people have asked me why I think the Church has not addressed the priesthood and temple ban issues head-on. I do not know for sure as I am not in the meetings when these decisions are made. What I do know is that there is no evidence that the bans were inspired and considerable evidence against it; I refer readers to Religion of a Different Color by Paul Reeve and Race and the Making of the Mormon People by Max Mueller to look at that evidence. Perhaps the reason is that talking directly about the ban puts the Church in a dilemma; if they say the bans was inspired then that means that racism is sometimes acceptable and divinely sanctioned, and if they say the bans were not inspired then the president of the church can make serious theological and moral mistakes. I think the latter option is true and palatable. King David, the man after God's own heart, was a murderer and an adulterer; Judas Iscariot, who was handpicked by Jesus of Nazareth, betrayed him to the Romans; in the modern dispensation William Law, who was a counselor in the First Presidency, founded the Nauvoo Expositor. There is no reason to believe that men that are called of God can nonetheless make great errors. The sooner we learn that and are comfortable with it, the better off we will be as a people. 

Today's traditio is President Oaks' devotional talk. Hope that you enjoyed it, I did.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Answering the PhilPapers Survey (Part 2)


26) Aesthetic experience: pleasure, sui generis, or perception?

I answered perception, beauty is literally in the eye of the beholder and I consider that a good thing.

Moral judgment: non-cognitivism or cognitivism?

27) Moral judgment: non-cognitivism or cognitivism?

Cognitivism and non-cognitivism are asking questions about whether or not moral questions are capable of being true or false, with cognitivism saying that moral questions, like other questions, are capable of being true. Non-cognitivists disagree, saying that moral judgements are expressions of emotions, describing attitudes, or giving commands.

I am a cognitivist and believe that moral judgements are capable of being true or false.

27) Abstract objects: nominalism or Platonism?

Abstract objects are things like numbers, sets, laws of logic, properties, etc. A platonist, following the philosopher Plato, think that these things exist independent of our thinking about them. Nominalists come in a number of varieties, but they do not regard numbers and the like as being robustly real. 

While this may come as a surprise, I am a committed Platonist, and I affirm that things like numbers, sets, and laws of logic exist independent of us; we uncover them rather than event them through our scientific observations and tests.

29) Philosophical methods (which methods are the most useful/important?)

This question is asking what a philosophers methodology is; another way of asking this is "what is philosophy about and what should philosophers be doing?" My answer is a naturalistic one; philosophy answers questions that the sciences cannot answer now and may never answer and the questions about why the sciences cannot answer these questions. Philosophy then is a part of science and continuous with it; any philosophy that is not continuous with and a part of science is not worth doing. I am also an advocate of what has been called experimental philosophy, where philosophers also use experiments just as scientists do.

30) Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?

When philosophers talk about zombies, they do not mean the kinds of things that you read about in horror films or that you shoot for fun in video games. Rather, philosophers mean beings who would be identical to humans in all respects but would lack certain forms of consciousness (what is known as phenomenal consciousness today).

I think zombies are not only metaphysically possible, but I think we are all zombies because phenomenal consciousness does not exist.

31) Newcomb's problem: two boxes or one box?

Newcomb's problem is discussed here. I'm a one box guy.

32) Experience machine (would you enter?): no or yes?

The experience machine can be read about here

I would get in.

33) Time: B-theory or A-theory?

The B-theory of time holds that all moments past, present, and future are all equally real; the A-theory holds that only the present exists with the past being gone and the future being potential only.

I am an ardent B-theorist, which is also the view of many prominent physicists such as Sean Carroll and Brian Greene.

34) Perceptual experience: sense-datum theory, qualia theory, disjunctivism, or representationalism?

It would take a little time to explain all these views, so I will just give my answer that I am a representationalist.

35) Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don't switch?

This is similar to the very first question of the survey; there is no fact of the matter, just do what's most pragmatic.

36) Abortion (first trimester, no special circumstances): permissible or impermissible?

This question needs little explanation. My view is that abortion is impermissible except under certain circumstances, and in those cases, it is best left to a woman and her doctor as to what should be done.

37) Logic: non-classical or classical?

Classical logic, which is the logic of Frege, Russell, and Whitehead, holds that things like the law of non-contradiction (something cannot be both true and false at the same time), the law of excluded middle (something cannot exist and not exist) are true; while non-classical logics will disagree.

I am in favor of classical logic.

38) Vagueness: metaphysical, semantic, or epistemic?

Vagueness has always struck me as an epistemological issue.

39) Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?

Naturalism means that you think that the tools and methods of science are also how you answer philosophical questions; non-naturalism thinks there is room for what is called first philosophy.

I am a thoroughgoing naturalist. First philosophy has been buried since Quine.

40) Political philosophy: communitarianism, libertarianism, or egalitarianism?

I had to add my own answer to this one. I am a conservative.

41) Race: unreal, social, or biological?

Race is like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy; not real and not something grown-ups should worry about; there are real problems in the world.

42) Eating animals and animal products (is it permissible to eat animals and/or animal products in ordinary circumstances?): omnivorism (yes and yes), veganism (no and no), or vegetarianism (no and yes)?

This requires little explanation. I am a conscious omnivore.

43) Proper names: Fregean or Millian?

I am a Millian on this issue.

44) Philosophical progress (is there any?): none, a little, or a lot?

How much philosophical progress there is will depend upon your metaphilosophy. If you are a naturalistic philosopher, your philosophy progress as science progresses. Since I am a naturalistic philosopher, I think philosophy, like science, has seen a lot of progress.

45) Normative ethics: consequentialism, virtue ethics, or deontology?

Consequentialism says that whether something is right or wrong depends on the consequences; deontology says that whether something is right or wrong depends on duty; virtue ethics doesn't answer that question and focuses on character development.

I am, following Hume and the Stoics, a virtue ethicist.

46) Morality: non-naturalism, naturalist realism, error theory, expressivism, or constructivism?

Contrasted with the normative question previously (normative meaning what should I do?), this question is about the status of morality. Non-naturalists say that moral facts exist independent of us, but are not reducible to scientific terms; naturalist realism says that that moral fact exist but they are reducible to scientific terms (happiness, flourishing, etc), error theory says that there are no moral facts, and that therefore moral statements are always false; expressivism means that morality is an expression of emotions; constructivism means that morality is a construct.

I am an error theorist, though I am depressingly so as I wish there were moral facts. But I see no evidence for them.

47) Ought implies can: no or yes?


48) Teletransporter (new matter): death or survival?


49) Meta-ethics: moral anti-realism or moral realism?

I am an error theorist, so by implication, I am an anti-realist about ethics.

50) Meaning of life: objective, nonexistent, or subjective?

While I am a religious man, I don't think life has a purpose. And like Nietzsche, I find that scary but invigorating.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Answering PhilPapers Survey (Part 1)

PhilPapers, a website that philosophers use to post papers and meet each other, recently did a survey asking 50 philosophical questions of all people on the network. I took it, and thought that I would share the results here. The questions had the following answers available: Accept, lean towards, reject, lean towards rejecting, question is not clear, no fact of the matter, insufficiently familiar with the issue, agnostic/undecided, and other where you were allowed to make your own answer. I will go through the first 25 questions in part one and give my answers in some detail, as well as explaining what is meant by the question (or at least what I took the question to mean). I will answer the other 25 questions in a second post. Let's get started. Questions will be in bold, my answers will be in this font.

1) Footbridge (pushing man off bridge will save five on track below, what ought one do?): push or don't push?

This question refers to a classical dilemma presented to utilitarians; if pushing a man (or woman) off a bridge would save 5 people, would you push the person or would it be wrong to do so? Because I don't think there are moral facts, I answered that there is no fact of the matter about this; do what you think is pragmatically preferable.

2) Properties: classes, transcendent universals, nonexistent, tropes, or immanent universals?

This question refers to set theory and universals, whether there are such things as numbers, sets, and universals like humanity and the like. As a scientific realist, I affirm that all these things exist.

3) Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?

The analytic-synthetic distinction refers to a distinction made by thinkers such as Leibniz, Hume, and Kant that there are certain truths which are true by definition (all bachelors are unmarried men) and other truths that are made so by the way the world is (Betelgeuse is a larger star than our Sun). 

I don't think there is any such distinction; all truth is synthetic. Nothing is true by definition.

4) Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?

This question is about beauty; is it objective or subjective. I answer that it is subjective as there are no good arguments for objectivity.

5) A priori knowledge: no or yes?

A priori knowledge is knowledge that is independent of experience. Certain examples would be truths of logic and mathematics. But since we know that logic is correct due to the fact that is works in our observations of scientific testing, I don't see these as genuine counterexamples to a posteriori knowledge (knowledge gained through experience) so I reject a priori knowledge. 

6) Theory of reference: deflationary, descriptive, or causal?

This would take a long time to explain, but suffice it to say that I accept a causal theory of reference.

7) Aim of philosophy (which is most important?): truth/knowledge, wisdom, understanding, happiness, or goodness/justice?

I am firmly on the side that philosophy is about discovering what is true; if philosophy cannot lead us to the truth then it is time we stopped engaging in it. 

8) Moral principles: moral generalism or moral particularism?

Generalism thinks that there are general moral standards, while particularists think you have to look at each situation sui generis. I would be a particularist.

9) Knowledge: rationalism or empiricism?

Rationalism is the view that while there are many things that we come to know through experience, there are other important truths that we can know independent of experience. Empiricism by contrast holds that all claims to knowledge require justification through observation and testing.

I am a very staunch empiricist in the tradition of Hume, Quine, Prinz, and van Fraassen.

10) Mental content: externalism or internalism?

This is a question of philosophy of mind, whether our mental context comes from outside ourselves or inside ourselves. Psychologically speaking, it seems that externalism has a better purchase, so I align myself there.

11) Kant (what is his view?): two worlds or one world?

Kant makes a distinction between phenomena (how things appear to us) and noumena (how things are in themselves); the question is asking whether these things are part of the same world or whether they refer to different worlds. I am not a Kant scholar, but I think he means that these things are part of the same world, but we can know the phenomena. Which is good enough for me.

12) Moral motivation: externalism or internalism?

Similar to the mental question, this is asking whether how we act comes more from inside ourselves or is causally related outside us. I would say internalism is correct.

13) Truth: deflationary, correspondence, or epistemic?

There are more than three views of truth (coherence and pragmatic are not mentioned here), but my view is a correspondence view; something is true because it corresponds to how things are.

14) Mind: non-physicalism or physicalism?

This question is asking is the mind immaterial (which would imply either idealism or dualism) or whether the mind can be understood in the terms offered by the natural sciences. In my view, the mind is just the brain which is a physical object so I am a physicalist. There are other ways of getting to physicalism, however.

15) Epistemic justification: externalism or internalism?

This is asking is something made true outside of us or inside us; externalism is my pick.

16) Semantic content (which expressions are context-dependent?): minimalism (no more than a few), radical contextualism (most or all) , or moderate contextualism (intermediate)?

This is a question in the philosophy of language as to what words mean; I am a radical contextualist meaning words mean something within a context but nothing on their own.

17) External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

This question is asking is the world mental (idealism), whether or not we can know what the world is like (skepticism), or is the world as it appears independent of what we think (non-skeptical realism). I am a non-skeptical realist.

18) Knowledge claims: relativism, contextualism, or invariantism?

I would say that I am contextualist about knowledge just as I am one about meaning.

19) Science: scientific anti-realism or scientific realism?

This is a question that is close to my heart as a philosopher of science. Scientific realism has many varieties, but it is generally committed to two things: 1. Science is successful when it's theories are true; sciences aim is to correctly describe reality 2. If you accept a scientific theory, you accept whatever the theory posits as real, whether it is observable or unobservable. I am a staunch realist. 

20) Free will: no free will, compatibilism, or libertarianism?

Free will is the claim that you are morally responsible for your answers. Where proponents of free will differ is on whether or not that is compatible with being causally determined to do what you do. Compatibilists say that causal determinism and freedom are compatible (hence the name compatibilists). Some compatibilists affirm determinism (classical compatibilists), others won't say one way or the other (new compatibilists). Libertarians affirm free will but deny determinism.

I am a classical compatibilist because I affirm both free will and determinism. If your actions are not determined, then they are random and randomness is not freedom; freedom is having a certain type of control of your actions. So, as long as you are not coerced by an outside force and are doing what you want to do, you are free. Libertarianism is, as Nietzsche said, a rape of logic.

 21) Laws of nature: non-Humean or Humean?

Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, said that laws of nature were the patterns that we see in nature so often that we call them laws, but he denied that laws implied necessity. For example, when I drop a pen, gravity seems to always cause it to fall to the ground rather than to remain suspended in mid-air. But there is no contradiction in it not doing so, and no matter how many times we observe the pen falling, no amount of observation will establish necessity. Non-Humean's think that laws of nature imply necessity.

As Humean, I think of laws as real patterns, but I deny any type of necessity besides logical necessity.

22) Personal identity: further-fact view, psychological view, or biological view?

This question can be answered by asking another question: What am I? Am I a soul that inhabits a body (further-fact); am I a bundle of drives and perceptions (psychological), am I just a clump of cells and neurons (biological)?

I would say that the psychological view is correct, though I don't think persons exist at all.

23) God: atheism or theism?

This is a simple question: Do you believe God exists or not? I believe in God so I am a theist.

24) Gender: psychological, biological, unreal, or social?

Similar to my view of the self, I don't think gender is real at all, and we should stop talking and worrying about non-existent things.

25) Capital punishment: permissible or impermissible?

If a person has committed murder, I think that capital punishment is appropriate. But it needs to be a case where we are absolutely sure, so many times capital punishment is unjustifiable.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Friday Traditio: Jerry Coyne

In the United States, many people do not believe in nor do they understand the theory of evolution, though it is one of the most established theories in modern science and affects many other areas of life, especially medicine. Given that many people do not know the basic facts of evolution, for this week's traditio I have decided to use this talk by biologist Jerry Coyne where he discusses his amazing book Why Evolution is True