The Rise of Fundamentalist Christianity

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Millions of people in the United States are fundamentalist Christians who think that the Bible is infallible, the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and Jesus is due to return within half a century or so. Starting in the 1950s, fundamentalists began to engage in vigorous political campaigning against policies like sex education, the legalization of abortion, and state recognition of homosexual marriage.

Why do fundamentalists campaign against these policies, and why did they start doing so when they did? Based on what I have read, fundamentalism as a political movement started in reaction to events like Watergate, the loss of the Vietnam War, and student rebellions on college campuses. They interpreted these events as analogous to when, in the Old Testament, God would pass judgment against Israel for turning away from God, and they think that the only way to get God back on our side is to make our nation as “Christian” as possible.

To this end, fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have developed an enormous media empire dedicated to spreading the message of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists have numerous television shows, radio shows, and websites, in addition to having a collective captive audience of millions in the pews across the country every Sunday. Fundamentalists exert considerable political influence as well. Ronald Reagan, for example, went out of his way to appeal to the evangelical voters, and explicitly said in several of his speeches that he agreed with them on many points, like abortion.

Fundamentalist Christians think that the family is central to the survival of the United States, and they think that the husband should be at the head of the family and that the wife should try to make herself subservient and appealing to him, as the Bible allegedly requires. Accordingly, they generally oppose movements like feminism and the gay rights movement which they see as threats to the family. They were also generally opposed to the civil rights movement, although there were dissenters among fundamentalist preachers on this point.

Just as they think that the Bible should determine family roles, fundamentalists think that the Bible should be the arbiter of our scientific conclusions as well. Among fundamentalists, Young Earth Creationism is considered a legitimate, albeit controversial, scientific theory, and a serious competitor to the theory of evolution.

The odds of routing fundamentalism are not very good, but I think atheists who want to make a difference could try to do two things. First, they could explain why fundamentalism is not intellectually credible. Fundamentalist leaders repeatedly assert in their speeches that fundamentalist Christianity is intellectually tenable, and a clear weak point in the movement’s narrative. Second, they could explain why atheism does not imply nihilism or moral decay. As I mentioned above, one of the main concerns of fundamentalists is that abandoning Christianity will leave us without moral guidance, so atheists need to combat that claim if they are to persuade fundamentalist Christians to leave the movement.


Cool Facts About the History of Time

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I’m currently reading The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin. The first section is about how our modern approach to time developed. Here are a few highlights.

  • The calendar originally developed as a way of coordinating community action. If you wanted to have a festival on a certain day, you needed everyone to have the same calendar so that they would know when it was.
  • The ability to track minutes and seconds accurately over the course of the day did not exist until the last few hundred years, because the technology for clocks had not developed.
  • Sundials were available in the ancient and Medieval world to keep track of the hours, but the mathematical and astronomical knowledge required to make them accurate did not exist until the modern era, and they were useless at night.

Argument Against Absolute Space from the PSR

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This post is devoted to an argument Leibniz made during his correspondence with Clarke, so I should say something about the correspondence itself, which is fascinating. It’s a debate between two worldviews:

(A) The worldview put forward by Newton, which would be dominant for hundreds of years, defended by Clarke. This worldview asserts that space is absolute and that God interferes with the universe once in a while to keep it running properly.

(B) The worldview put forward and defended by Leibniz, which asserts that space is relative and that God does not interfere with the universe but rather set everything up properly at the beginning. The claim that space is relative would later be proven by Einstein, but Leibniz didn’t really have any conclusive evidence for the claim beyond his philosophical arguments.

The reason the correspondence got started is that Leibniz sent a letter to Caroline, the princess of Wales, and over the course of this letter he made the criticism that Newton’s worldview was dangerous to religion, because it implies that God has to interfere in the universe to keep it running properly like an incompetent mechanic. Clarke responded to this, saying that God would not really be the ruler of the universe if he did not interfere with it, much as a king would not really be king of his kingdom if the whole kingdom always operated perfectly without him doing anything. The rest of the discussion takes off from there and covers topics like immortality and the nature of space.

Anyway, in Leibniz’s third letter during this exchange, he makes the following argument against Clarke’s claim that space is absolute:

I say, then, that if space was an absolute being, something would happen for which it would be impossible that there should be a sufficient reason – which is against my axiom. And I prove it thus: Space is something absolutely uniform, and without the things placed in it, one point of space absolutely does not differ in any respect whatsoever from another point of space. Now from this it follows (supposing space to be something in itself, besides the order of bodies among themselves) that it is impossible there should be a reason why God, preserving the same situations of bodies among themselves, should have placed them in space after one certain particular manner and not otherwise – why everything was not placed the quite contrary way, for instance, by changing east into west. But if space is nothing else but this order of relation, and is nothing at all without bodies but the possibility of placing them, then those two states, the one such as it is now, the other supposed to be the quite contrary way, would not at all differ from one another. Their difference therefore is only to be found in our chimerical supposition of the reality of space in itself. But in truth the one would be exactly the same thing as the other, they being absolutely indiscernable, and consequently there is no room to inquire after a reason  for the preference of the one to the other.

This is a fascinating argument. It’s interesting that Leibniz was able to anticipate Einstein hundreds of years in advance, even if he couldn’t really prove that space was relative.

The Impossibility of a Validity Criterion, Part Three

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In my last two posts, I’ve been summarizing and making comments on Leonard Nelson’s paper “The Impossibility of the ‘Theory of Knowledge.'” In the part I covered in my first post, Nelson argued that a validity criterion for proving the objectivity of cognition is impossible, successfully in my view. In the part I covered in my second post, Nelson attempted to analyze why there cannot be such a validity criterion. This post will cover the last part of Nelson’s paper, where he outlines a new project for psychology and defends it philosophically – I am skipping a lot of the paper here because I found certain parts less interesting.

Nelson finishes up his paper by pointing to a distinction between two kinds of knowledge: “reflective knowledge” (i.e., introspection) and “intuitive knowledge” (i.e., sensory perception). This distinction, which Nelson will end up rejecting, is allegedly exhaustive of all knowledge. Nelson thinks that if we accept this distinction, then we have only three ways of accounting for our metaphysical knowledge (metaphysical knowledge includes beliefs like the law of cause and effect, which are fundamental but difficult to justify):

  1. Metaphysical Logicism: Metaphysical knowledge comes from reflection.
  2. Metaphysical Mysticism: Metaphysical knowledge comes from intuition.
  3. Metaphysical Empiricism: There is no metaphysical knowledge.

Nelson thinks he has knockdown arguments against metaphysical logicism and metaphysical mysticism. He presents them briefly in the following passage:

Logicism, such as formed the basis for scholastic metaphysics and which has been revived in the “theory of knowledge,” breaks down on the psychological fact of the indirectness and emptiness of reflection. Reflection can analyze and elucidate cognitions elsewhere provided but cannot of itself creatively beget new cognitions, that is to say, it is a source only of analytic, but not of synthetic, judgments.

Mysticism, such as forms the basis for neo-Platonic mysticism in its old and new forms, breaks down on the psychological fact of the original obscurity of metaphysical knowledge. There is no immediate obviousness in metaphysical truths; we cannot derive these cognitions from an ‘intellectual intuition’; they reach our consciousness only through thinking (reflection), though abstracting from the intuitively given content of empirical judgments.

I don’t think Nelson takes these positions as seriously as he should. Specifically, he overlooks a form of metaphysical mysticism (the term “mysticism” is pejorative and distracting, which may have been why Nelson overlooked a more reasonable form of it) which just says that we learn about causality by, first, observing causality in thousands of concrete instances, then, second, abstracting from these concrete cases of cause and effect to the general principle. This account has it that we acquire metaphysical knowledge through sensory perception or “intuition,” so it qualifies as a form of metaphysical mysticism by Nelson’s definition, but it is not defeated by his objection to metaphysical mysticism. Nelson does have a potential response to this objection, which I’ll discuss after the necessary context has been provided, so this is not a conclusive objection by any means, but it does seem like an oversight on Nelson’s part.

After rejecting logicism and mysticism, Nelson considers metaphysical empiricism, the view that we don’t have any metaphysical knowledge. Nelson’s example of a metaphysical empiricist is David Hume, who thought that, for example, our belief in causal connections was due to instinct and custom rather than evidence.

Nelson’s response to metaphysical empiricism is to issue the metaphysical empiricist a challenge: “His [Hume’s] task then became not that of verifying the metaphysical judgments but that of explaining psychologically the illusion that calls forth these judgments, i.e., of explaining how the claim to knowledge asserted in these judgments is possible without presupposing an actual source of knowledge, merely as a product of the blind mechanism of the association of ideas. The question now arises whether this task is capable of fulfillment.”

It is worth noting that a metaphysical empiricist is not necessarily obligated to undertake this task. For one thing, he may not believe that our metaphysical judgments are the product of “the blind mechanism of the association of ideas,” specifically. He may have some other mechanism in mind. He might also refuse to provide an account of our metaphysical ideas in any terms, on the grounds that one need not explain why we hold an unjustified idea to reject it. Still, I think Nelson’s challenge is reasonable.

Nelson next explains why he thinks the association of ideas cannot explain our idea of causality:

Hume believed that he could find the basis for the judgments that were the object of his problem in the psychological principle of the expectancy of similar cases. But he was not unaware of the difficulty to be encountered in basing this principle on the laws of association. Association explains only that event A reminds me of a previous event B connected with it, but not that I expect the reoccurrence of B. The remembered thought, as such, is only problematic, whereas expectation comprises an assertion which – whether it be one of certainty or only of probability – cannot be explained by association alone. Hume tried to overcome this difficulty by presenting the difference between problematic and assertoric notions as merely one of degree, basing this difference on a difference in the intensity of the clarity of the notions. On this supposition our recollection would, indeed, after sufficiently frequent reproduction, be able to pass over into an expectation merely through the effectiveness of the association. But this Humean hypothesis, that the difference between problematic and assertoric notions is only one of degree, contradicts the facts of self-observation. This is generally admitted today; and so Hume’s attempted solution collapses.

This argument has two problems. First, Hume might see it as question begging, because Nelson does not provide a conclusive reason why association cannot give rise to expectation. Second, it only deals with Hume’s explanation of our belief in the law of causality, not with other metaphysical empiricists’ explanations of the law of causality or Hume’s attacks on metaphysical beliefs other than the law of causality.

Since metaphysical logicism, mysticism, and empiricism all fail in Nelson’s view, we have to reject the initial dichotomy between knowledge by reflection and knowledge by intuition. According to Nelson, we must have another kind of knowledge, which he calls “nonintuitive immediate knowledge.” Nelson calls this fourth view on how we acquire metaphysical knowledge “metaphysical criticism.” Nelson thinks that the basis for this kind of knowledge is the “immediate cognition” that I mentioned in part two. Since the basis for this kind of knowledge is immediate cognition, it is not appropriate for philosophy to investigate how we know it – that is the job of psychology.

We can now see how Nelson might respond to the possibility I mentioned earlier about learning the concept of causality through abstraction from thousands of concrete cases. He might say that this is not a mystical theory but a critical theory that attempts to investigate the psychological basis for our knowledge of causality. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make that argument, but I’m not quite sure if introspecting and finding a plausible account of how we form the idea of causality, which is all that is necessary to arrive at the conclusion that we abstract causality from thousands of concrete cases, qualifies as psychology.

All in all, this has been a very interesting paper and I learned a lot by reading it.

The Impossibility of a Validity Criterion, Part Two

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In my last post, we saw how Leonard Nelson argues that a theory of knowledge is impossible in his paper “The Impossibility of the ‘Theory of Knowledge’.” Next, Nelson gives an analysis of why the project of constructing a theory of knowledge turned out to be impossible. (He claims to be following Kant’s method of analyzing the presuppositions of a problem before trying to solve the problem itself.)

The first step Nelson takes is to point out that “theory of knowledge” assumes that the validity of cognition is questionable. I think what he means is that projects like Descartes’ attempt to prove the validity of sensory perception assume that sensory perception is capable of being questioned in the first place. (The point is broader than just attempts to prove the validity of sensory perception, though.) So Nelson wants to investigate this assumption that anyone can question the objectivity of cognition.

Nelson identifies the assumption that we can question the objectivity of cognition as an instance of the “logical principle of sufficient reason, according to which every assertion needs a verification.” Nelson seems to be thinking of verification as justification, i.e., some sort of prior reason to think that the assertion is true. Since not every assertion can be proven by reducing it to other assertions, there must be a method of verification in addition to proof.

What method might this be? Nelson claims that, in addition to the combinations of concepts which are judgments, we also have immediate, non-conceptual perceptual knowledge. We combine concepts into judgments and try to get them to match our perceptions. While it is not guaranteed that our judgments will match our perceptions and therefore be true, it is guaranteed that our perceptions are veridical – indeed, perception cannot be questioned as such.

To summarize, I think what Nelson is saying is that the “theory of knowledge” gets into trouble because it ignores the possibility of a criterion of knowledge which is validated, not by reducing it to other propositions, but by direct perception. If that is what he is saying, then I’m not sure why he isn’t just running into the same problem he set for the “theory of knowledge”: To know that direct perception is a valid source of knowledge, he would have to directly perceive that direct perception is a valid source of knowledge, which presupposes that direct perception is a valid source of knowledge. So, it will be interesting to see what Nelson has to say about that, if anything.

I should also add that I do not see how Nelson has proven that the validity of cognition is not questionable. He has asserted that we have perceptual judgments which are unquestionable, but this seems question begging against the “theory of knowledge” that he is criticizing. It’s possible that he will defend this claim later in his paper.

The Impossibility of a Validity Criterion

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In his article “The Impossibility of the ‘Theory of Knowledge,'” Leonard Nelson presents the following argument against the possibility of a validity criterion by which we could “test the truth or objective validity of our knowledge.”

In order to solve this problem, we should have to have a criterion by the application of which we could decide whether or not a cognition is true; I shall call it briefly the “validity criterion.” This criterion would itself either be or not be a cognition. If it be a cognition, it would fall within the area of what is problematic, the validity of which is first to be solved with the aid of our criterion. Accordingly, it cannot itself be a cognition. But if the criterion be not a cognition, it would nevertheless, in order to be applicable, have to be known, i.e., we should have to know that it is a criterion of the truth. But in order to gain this knowledge of the criterion, we should already have had to apply it. In both cases, therefore, we encounter a contradiction. A “validity criterion” is consequently impossible, and hence there can be no “theory of knowledge.”

My interpretation of this passage is that Nelson is making the following argument.

  1. A validity criterion must be proven.
  2. The only way to prove the validity criterion would be to apply it to itself.
  3. No argument that takes a criterion as a premise is a proof of that criterion.
  4. Therefore, there cannot be a validity criterion.

The conclusion follows deductively from the premises, so the question is whether the premises are true. Premise 1 is a standard assumption in theory of knowledge, according to Nelson – it’s the position he’s attacking, not a substantial assumption on his part. Premises 2 and 3 seem to follow from the definition of a validity criterion and the definition of proof, respectively.

At least initially, I think this is a good argument against what Nelson is calling theory of knowledge. It’s worth pointing out, however, that not everything in traditional epistemology counts as theory of knowledge in Nelson’s sense (and Nelson would hasten to agree).

An Argument for Idealism

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In the article from The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind that I mentioned in my last post, Howard Robinson goes on to provide an explicitly formulated argument for idealism. The argument goes as follows (p. 200-201):

  1. Our conception of the world, as shown in our language about it, possesses logico-grammatical complexity, and certain features of this complexity cannot be treated straightforwardly as representations of aspects of concrete, mind-independent reality.
  2. Therefore, if there is a realist conception of the world, it must be possible to separate those features of our conception of the world which can be treated in a straightforwardly realist way and those that cannot. It is the former that constitute the realist conception of the world, and the states of affairs they represent must be enough to constitute the realist’s world.
  3. It is not possible to make the distinction specified in 2.
  4. Therefore, a realist conception of the world is not possible.

Robinson’s evidence for premise 1 is that states of affairs allegedly do not seem like the kinds of things that could exist in the concrete. An electron is concrete, but how could its having such and such a charge or such and such a mass exist in the concrete? Robinson is especially puzzled by negative states of affairs like “there is no pen on this table.” It is unclear to him how an absence could exist in the concrete.

I’m not really sure how to respond to this argument. At first, I would be inclined to say that just because we don’t know how to explain something doesn’t mean we should leap to an exotic explanation like idealism. That’s similar to what fundamentalists do whenever they find something that science can’t currently explain – insert God as an explanation. But I doubt that Robinson would find this response convincing.

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