Thursday, 14 July 2016

Ethical challenges to Islam/theism: A more effective way to frame our discussions on natural theology

So I've recently realized that the ethical challenges to Islam can be categorized in a certain way, each category having a common core of similarities. Here are the four categories of ethical challenges to Islam:

1. The Problem of suffering in its many varieties
2. The argument from Divine Hiddenness
3. Ethical complaints against specifically Islamic theological (e.g. the problem of hell) and ethico-legal (e.g. slavery and concubinage) positions
4. The challenge of developing a satisfactory Divine Command Theory of ethics.

All of these questions and discussions focus on the same theme: Is it justified to believe that God is the supremely ethical (perfectly good) being? Let's look at their interconnectedness in a bit more depth.

(4) focuses on a number of things, the two most important being the so-called moral argument for the existence of a supremely ethical being, and trying to answer the modality or the howness of God's command or nature imparting values and excellence and rightness on created things or actions. The latter involves independent theorizing (e.g. positing a form of theistic platonism, like Robert Adams did, in explicating the notion of the world's excellences being derived from God's supreme goodness- who, in Platonic language, is just the personal form of Good), as well as responding to contentions like the Euthyphro's dilemma. The project of (4), therefore, is to lend credence to the idea that God is supremely good and the source of all good.

1, 2, and 3 all seek to challenge this idea in various ways. 3 appeals to specific revelation- if we believe our moral sense mirrors God's in some significant yet incomplete way, then how do we square ethical scruples with what scripture says? 2 is very similar, except it appeals to 'general revelation'- the book of the world- to try to argue for the same case. We see concubinage being legalized in scripture, but the supremely ethical being wouldn't make these commands. We see seemingly gratuitous suffering, but the supremely ethical being wouldn't allow it.

2 has its own motivations as an argument, but its strength is brought out particularly in context of the problem of evil, especially the problem of particularly horrifying instances of evil. If there's a God who loves us, and if He has reasons beyond our ken to allow these sufferings, wouldn't we expect Him to communicate those reasons to us?

Based on this analysis, I suggest these ethical aspects of natural theology should be studied on its own. Let's leave aside 3 for a while, since we're talking about theism in general or natural theology. Most often, 1 and 2 are discussed as a part of atheology, while 4 as a part of natural theology. But I don't find that association to be very convincing. For one, most arguments from natural theology don't actually prove the ethical nature of God. They only establish the existence of a generalized, even deistic, creator-designer who is at best intimately involved with human existence. This may lend plausibility to the thesis of Him being ethical, but no explicit proof is offered.

Many people may say the moral argument proves that a supremely ethical being exists, but I never found that approach convincing. It just strikes me as too far-fetched to import the existence of an entire supernatural being into our ontology just to account for the objectivity of our morality. Rather, a much more nuanced approach suggested by Robert Adams is the following. The moral argument should be produced only when we have settled the case for deism, when we have proved that a personal creator-designer interested in our existence exists. The moral argument should not contribute to, or form a part of the cumulative impact of, the case for deism in any way. Rather, it should only serve to shed light on the character of the deity whose existence we've already established. This approach is much more plausible, since the conclusion isn't ontologically that significant to the extent it seems to outstrip the evidence offered. We already established that a deity exists, we know it's personal, but we're on the fence on its moral leanings. The moral argument can settle the debate nicely.

Even more importantly, neither the POE or Divine Hiddenness detracts from the case of deism in any way. This point has been made by proponents of Intelligent Design for a long time- malevolent design is still design.

So in conclusion, the natural theology discussion should be divided into two separate parts-

1. Arguments for and against deism
2. Arguments for and against the moral character of the deity.

EDIT: Something should be amiss if I didn't mention some references for all this.

1. Divine Command Theory of Ethics:

- Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework of Ethics by Robert Merrihew Adams
- A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good by Robert Merrihew Adams
- Kierkegaard and the Ethics of Love by C. Stephen Evans
- (Paper) Divine Will/Divine Command Theories and the Problem of Arbitrariness by Thomas L. Carson

2. Problem of Evil:

- The Problem of Evil by Peter van Inwagen
- Problem of Evil: A Reader (essay collection) by Mark Larrimore
- The Evidential Argument from Evil by various authors, edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder
- The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil by various authors, edited by Justin McBrayer
- Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering by Michael Murray
- (Paper) Must God Create the Best? by Robert Merrihew Adams
- (Paper) Is theism compatible with gratuitous evil? by Daniel Howard-Snyder
- Various other papers by Peter van Inwagen and Daniel Howard-Snyder

3. Problem of Hiddenness:

- Divine Hiddenness: New Essays edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser
- Various essays and papers by Daniel Howard-Snyder

Saturday, 9 July 2016

The most important contemporary analytic philosophers of religion: An opinionated list


This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these philosophers and their works represent some of the best material available on philosophy of religion. Some of the philosophers listed here have worked outside of the mentioned specializations, e.g. Alex Pruss worked on sexual ethics, Robin Collins on argument from consciousness, Robert Adams on problem of evil, Stephen Evans on Divine command ethics, William Lane Craig on many other issues, and so on.

Also, as mentioned in the title, this is an opinionated list, depending on the scope of my readings as well as the degree to which I was convinced by various treatments. Readers may note I have not included any treatment on the ontological argument, since I find that argument uninteresting in apologetics. In addition, I haven't mentioned WLC's resources for the Kalam Cosmological Argument, because I think his work in that area leaves something to be desired. Nor have I included Al Plantinga under Religious Epistemology (or anywhere else, for that matter). I haven't included any material on the more epistemological arguments for theism e.g. argument from reason, evolutionary argument against naturalism, mathematical applicability and scientific discoverability of the universe, and so forth because of my scant readings in that field. I hear Vic Reppert and Robin Collins are good bets though.

There are also some areas where I just don't think a philosopher of a high enough caliber has risen to fame yet. Obvious example is biological design arguments- I respect these arguments immensely, and I'm an avid reader of folks like Stephen Meyer and Fazale Rana, but I just don't think their work has rigor of the sort found in these other philosophers. Another example of this sort is Mark Baker's work in Philosophy of Language. John Foster is an incredibly innovative philosopher and he has produced an argument for God's existence based on the existence of laws (basically a revamped version of Aquinas' fifth way)- but I didn't find that as convincing as I find, say, Alex Pruss or Robin Collins' arguments. This list is only about the best treatments available. In that way, it's a very restricted reading and again, should not be thought exhaustive.

With those out of the way-

1. Alexander Pruss (Cosmological arguments)- notable for Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment, Necessary Existence (forthcoming, co-authored with Joshua Rasmussen), Infinity, Causation and Paradox (forthcoming), The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (essay, published in Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology);

2. Robin Collins (Fine-tuning argument)- notable for The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe (essay, published in the aforementioned Blackwell), The Fine-tuning for Life, Technology, and Discovery: The Scientific Evidence (forthcoming);

3. J. P. Moreland (Argument from consciousness)- notable for Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument;

4. Stephen Braude (Argument from religious experience)- notable for ESP and Psychokinesis: A Philosophical Examination, Immortal Remains;

5. Peter van Inwagen (Problem of Evil)- notable for The Problem of Evil (book), The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence (essay, published in The Evidential Argument from Evil, sequel to the essay with responses to contentions published in the same volume),

6. Michael Murray (Problem of animal suffering, Divine Hiddenness, Evolutionary explanations for religious belief)- notable for Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, Deus Absconditus (essay, published in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays), Scientific explanations of religion and the justifications for religious belief (essay, published in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion), Evolutionary accounts of religion: Explaining and explaining away (essay, published in The Believing Primate);

7. Robert Merrihew Adams (Divine Command Theory of ethics)- notable for Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics, A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in being for the Good;

8. C. Stephen Evans (Religious epistemology)- notable for Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God;

9. William Lane Craig (coherence of theism)- notable for Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom: The Coherence of Theism, God, Time, and Eternity: The Coherence of Theism.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

A modal-counterfactual argument for the principle "every contingent event has a cause"

The following argument was adapted from Alexander Pruss' Principle of Sufficient Reason, and to my knowledge there hasn't been any rebuttals to it.

The argument follows the basic strategy of ontological arguments- start with a very weak claim (e.g. it's possible that God exists) and then demonstrate that this weak claim leads to some stronger claim (e.g. since it's possibly necessary that God exists, then it's necessary that God exists by axiom S5 of modal logic). The premises of the argument are very basic intuitions about the causal structure of the world and should be uncontroversial.


(1) If an event E is in fact caused by C in the actual world, then E would not have occurred were no cause of E to exist
(2) Every contingent event possibly has a cause
(3) If, in the actual world, proposition q holds if proposition p holds (i.e. if p then q), then in a world where p does not hold, if p were to hold then q might hold
(4) If the propositions "if p then q" and "if p then not q" both are true, then it is not possible that p.

Discussion of each individual premise

If p's holding causes q to hold and not hold, that means p's holding itself is problematic, i.e. p would be impossible. 4 is obviously true.

2 is the weak version of a causal principle. Clearly, it's very difficult to see how to argue against it. All it's saying is that it's possible that all contingent events have causes. Humean intuitions, if true, may lead us to believe that it is possible that some events are uncaused. But the fact that we can conceive of some events being uncaused only proves we can conceive of the events being caused as well. So premise 2 also seems obviously true.

1 too is a rather inoccuous observation. It says that if in the actual world an event is caused, then in the actual world it could not have happened without a (not the) cause. This is not Kripkean origin essentialism which claims if C causes E, then C is a necessary condition for E. The claim here is not a modal one, and in fact is a lot weaker- if something is in fact caused in a possible world, then it wouldn't have existed in that world without a cause.

That leaves premise 3. It may seem complex, but this too is based on very basic modal and counterfactual intuitions. Let's begin the discussion of this premise by noting that it is similar to an axiom in modal logic, the so-called Brouwer Axiom. This states if a proposition is actually true, the necessarily that proposition is possible. In modal logic semantics, "p is possible" means p is true in at least one possible world, and "p is actual" means p is true in the actual world. Since the actual world is a possible world, p's holding in the actual world by logical necessity entails that it holds in at least one possible world, and hence is possible. Premise 3 encapsulates the similar observation that, in a possible world other than the actual world, the events of the actual worlds would remain as possibilities. In other words, in a non-actual possible world w, events that happen in some other world (in this case the actual world) are, in fact, possible.

So let's assume in the actual world, both p and q hold, and if p then q. Let's further assume that in a possible but not actual world w, p does not hold. Based on the discussion in the previous paragraph, the events of the actual world are possible in this world. So in this world, it might be that were p to hold, q would hold. Here's an analogy. Let's say Jones' setting fire to the barn (p) led to his getting arrested (q). All premise 3 claims is that in a world where both Jones didn't set fire to the barn, were he to have done that, he might have gotten arrested. So while this premise seems complex and circuitous, it is in fact as obvious as they come.

So with all of these obvious premises substantiated- as if they needed to be substantiated- let's enter the deduction.


The strategy here is reductio ad absurdum. We begin by assuming that some contingent event has no cause. We then demonstrate that this assumption, together with premises 1 through 5, lead to a logical contradiction. Hence, we conclude, the starting assumption was wrong and there can be no contingent event without a cause.

So suppose

q is the true proposition that event E occurs, and
p is the true proposition that there is nothing that causes E (so in the actual world, if p then q)

Since premise 2 says every event can possibly have a cause, so the actually causeless E has a cause in a possible world. Meaning, p is false (doesn't hold) in some possible world w.

According to premise 3-

(5) In w where p does not hold, if p were to hold, then q might hold.

5 would become relevant near the end of the deduction again.

Since p does not hold in w, that means E has a cause in w. Call this cause C.

According to premise 1, in w, were no cause of E to have existed, then E would not occur. So in w, if p were to hold, q would not hold. In other words-

(6) In w, if p were to not hold, then that entails if p were to hold, q would not hold.

Written differently,

(7) In w where p does not hold, it is not the case that if p were to hold, then q might hold.

The move from 6 to 7 may seem abrupt, but saying "if p holds then q doesn't hold" is logically equivalent to saying "it is not the case that if p holds, q might hold".

But (5) and (7) are contradictory in just the way relevant to premise 4. Both 5 and 7 begins with "if p does not hold", but then

5 says- if p holds then q might hold.
7 says- it is not the case that if p holds then q might hold.

If you replace "if p holds then q might hold" with another proposition r, then 5 and 7 seem to be saying

(5) (If p were to not hold then) if p holds then r holds
(7) (If p were to not hold then) if p holds then r does not hold.

By premise 4, it is not possible that p holds. But p was assumed to be true, and true propositions are possible so our initial assumption says it is possible that p holds. This is a logical contradiction, so our initial assumption was false.

This completes the reductio, and since our initial assumption was false- it is not the case that a contingent event E can be causeless. In other words, every contingent event has a cause.

Here's an intuitive analogy to make the argument's force more tangible:

Let's say an airplane crashes due to metal fatigue in the ailerons. Now consider this counterfactual:

Were the plane hit by a surface-to-air missile, it would have crashed, and in that world were it not to have been hit, it would (or at least might) still have crashed (due to metal fatigue).

Now let's replace the "metal fatigue" explanation with "no cause" explanation. Let's say the airplane crashes due to no reason at all. So the equivalent counterfactual would be:

Were the plane hit by a surface-to-air missile, it would have crashed, and in that world were it not to have been hit, it would (or at least might) still have crashed (since it would have crashed for no reason at all).

But clearly this results in an absurdity. In the counterfactual world where the plane is hit by a surface-to-air missile, i.e. where the cause of the crash is the missile, it would still have crashed (for no reason). This contradicts the fact that in that world, the plane crash is caused by the missile. That means the original assumption- that the plane would crash for no reason whatsoever- is problematic, since it contradicts the proposition that in the world where the plane crashes the crash is caused by the missile.

It's a difficult analogy to get your head around, which is why the precise argument is required.

[By the way, I know the deduction is really clunky, I know, but that's probably because I chose not to use any notations. Here's the whole thing using notations.

Operators: (I'm making up some to adapt to blogspot's crappy formatting options)

=>- entails
->- if...then
(mgt)- if...then might
(evr)- for every x
(any)- for any x
(imp)- implies, close to entails
M- it is possible that


1. (C causes E)=>(~(evr)D (D causes E)->E did not occur)
2. (evr)E (E occurs (imp) M (any) C (C causes E))
3. (q&p& M~p) (imp) (~p->(p (mgt) q))
4. (p=>q)=>(p->q)
5. ((p->q) & (p->~q))=>~Mp


Let q be the true proposition that event E occurs
Let p be the true proposition that nothing causes E, that is ~(any)D (D causes E)

What is true is possible, hence

6. Mp

By 2-

7. M~p.

From 3 and 7-

8. ~p->(p (mgt) q)

Let ~p be true in w. In w, E has cause C. By 1, at w-

9. p->~q

This is true in every world ~p holds. It follows from 9

10. ~p=>(p->~q)

p->~p is equivalent to ~(p (mgt) q). Thus by 4 and 10-

11. ~p->~(p (mgt) q)

By 3, 8, and 11-

11. ~Mp

6 and 11 are contradictory. Hence, the assumption that nothing causes E is false. This completes the reductio.]

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Brief book review: A Brief History of the Soul by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro

I recently finished Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro's 2011 book "A Brief History of the Soul". I got to know of this work from a lecture by J. P. Moreland. Here's a brief review.

The first few chapters of the book take a mostly historical approach to the soul discussion- starting with writings of Plato and Aristotle, moving on to Aquinas and Augustine, then Descartes and Leibniz, and finally Locke, Reid, Kant and Hume. These chapters are meant to serve as something of a scaffold to discuss the different arguments historically presented for the existence of the soul, as well as some arguments against. The most important chapter among this bunch was the one on Descartes. With Descartes we first have a clear conception of a soul "model", with some precise data on its modality and capacities, as well as delineation of some key lines of evidence. All of this discussion is very historically contextualized, however. And that's my one- and perhaps only- major gripe with the book, the evidences for soul's existence aren't dealt with separately in exclusive chapters, but rather in the context of historical discussions. I got the feeling that in trying to write a history book, the authors incorporated as much apologetics as they could.

What the book is particularly useful for is its criticisms of arguments against substance dualism (the thesis that a soul, as well as a body, dually constitute a human person). The authors have a large chapter dealing with the so-called "interaction problem"- arguments based on the problem of how a non-material soul can interact with the material body. After dealing with a number of objections under this heading, the authors conclude these objections don't furnish decisive evidence against the soul's existence, or only do so for those who are already committed materialists. I find their presentation reasonable and compelling.

The authors also deal with other scientific, popular, and academic objections, which are:

1. Brain region-mental state correlation studies (red herring for a dualist-interactionist)

2. Wittgenstein's objection based on "private language" (the authors show, by means of reduction ad absurdum, that the argument if successful not only cuts against mental knowledge but knowledge about physical objects too)

3. Ockham's razor arguments due to the likes of Dennett and such (the naturalist arguments involve denial of first-person experience and are completely absurd)

4. The problem of conservation of energy in the soul's interaction with the body (the authors don't reply themselves, but rely on extended quotations from physicists like Robin Collins)

5. The argument from "causal closure" of the soul, or the argument that postulating the existence of the soul violates scientific methodology (the authors deal with this one in quite a bit of depth).

There are other arguments they deal with as well, such as the so-called "ghost in the machine" objection which says the soul's existence is too radical for our ontology, argument from evolution which, if anything, ends up proving human exceptionalism, and a few others.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Philosophers gone wild

(Cross-posted from my facebook)

So for the past week or so, I've been reading an essay collection edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder entitled "The Evidential Argument from Evil". The book's contributors include some of the most important names in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion from both camps (theist and atheist/agnostic)- Al Plantinga, William Rowe, Paul Draper, Peter van Inwagen, William Alston, Eleonore Stump, Steve Wykstra, and so on. Most of the essays are technical and require an understanding of probability theory (at least Bayesian probability), modal logic, epistemology, as well as the general debate surrounding the Problem of Evil and its different varieties. The essays are incredibly substantive, sharp as a knife's edge. It is, without a doubt, one of the most important works in contemporary philosophy.

I want to draw your attention to an essay in the volume by Richard Gale. In critiquing Peter van Inwagen's extreme modal skepticism, he comments-

I not only disagree with van Inwagen's modal intuitions but fear that he suffers from a serious modal affliction, in spite of his being an excellent philosopher from whom I have learned much. In On the Nature and Existence of God, I tried to resolve my modal disagreements with the likes of van Inwagen and Phil Quinn through my modal intuition bowl, but it proved a bust. The networks dropped us because there wasn't enough violence, just a bunch of out-of-shape guys, with the exception of Al Plantinga, who looks like he can jump tall mountains in a single bound, staring at each other and emphatically asserting back and forth, "It is possible that p," "No it isn't!"

I have decided to take a more radical, therapeutic approach and have founded the EMDS (Extreme Modal Deficiency Syndrome) Foundation. EMDS is no respecter of rank or philosophical orientation- even tenured analytic philosophers have come down with it. It is tragic to realize that there are people like Peter (my poster person) who cannot modalize as normal people do, or, as we at the Foundation prefer to say, are modally other-abled. I plead with you to fight EMDS with a checkup and a check. First, be on the lookout for the seven warning signals of EMDS; for example, if you answer "Yes" to the question "Is it possible that God couldn't create a world with a different causal structure than that of the actual world?" or if you aren't puzzled by the name of the TV show "Mission Impossible," you've got it bad. . .

And on he continues about the threat EMDS presents to our society and specific imaginary instructions the readers would have to follow to donate-

Your generosity will make it possible not only for research to continue on the cause and hopefully the prevention or cure of EMDS but also for us, in the meantime, to keep Peter comfortable in our EMDS Foundation Hospital by piping soothing Mantovani music into his room, putting him in the sun for an hour each day, and, most important, carefully screening his reading material so that he won't come upon a sentence such as "It is possible that all human beings always freely do what is morally wrong". . .

Peter van Inwagen wasn't willing to let this pass, of course, so in his second essay of the volume he has the following choice passage for Gale.

I once heard Keith Lehrer say, speaking of the late and much lamented James Cornman, "You either love him or you hate him. I love Jim Cornman."

I love Richard Gale.

No, honestly, Richard, I really mean it. You're a great guy and a good philosopher, no matter what everyone says.

But seriously, folks . . .

Richard (chapter 11) has learned from Stephen Potter, or has perhaps discovered independently, the following trick of disputation: "to say something so absolutely inappropriate on about five levels simultaneously that it seems hopeless even to try to answer back." (The respected music critic, in cocktail party conversation, admits that he isn't really too keen on Wagner; Potter's colleague induces "conversational paralysis" by replying, "But Wagner's worth five hundred of your modern jazz saxophonists.") This technique is displayed with particular brilliance in Richard's final section on theodicy. . .

Philosophy is fun, folks. Let no one ever tell you otherwise.


Friday, 13 May 2016

Thoughts on parapsychology

Definition of parapsychology, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Parapsychology is a field of study concerned with the investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomena which include telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, near-death experiences, reincarnation, apparitional experiences, and other paranormal claims. It is often identified as pseudoscience.

I've recently- and by that I mean the past half hour- finished reading my first full-length parapsychology book. I plan to write a review of it (hopefully in the next blog post), but for the current post I want to talk a little bit about parapsychology itself and its relevance to apologetics.

Parapsychology is related to Muslim apologetics in both positive and negative ways. Here are some key avenues of interaction:

1. Debunking Naturalism. The worldview of naturalism (alternatively called materialism)- a commitment to a metaphysics and ontology that only involves things reducible to physical "stuff" i.e. entities and laws postulated by physics- continues to be the dominant strain of academic thought. When you think about it, it's weird that naturalism has been able to persist for so long. I mean, depending on which version of naturalism you adopt, it goes against the most fundamental of human intuitions- teleology in nature, soul/consciousness or agent causation in general, libertarian free will, human exceptionalism (and the almost de novo emergence thereof), even the objectivity of ethical and aesthetic and values. Naturalists, of course, know this and take pride in this. The triumph of naturalism translates into the defeat of common, allegedly superstitious beliefs handed to humans as spandrels of biological evolution. Folks like natural theologians and philosophers of mind have been attempting to rebut naturalism for quite a while (and of course I think their case is successful taken cumulatively). However, parapsychology is a very interesting player in this game. If parapsychological phenomena are veridical, and there's a very strong case to be made in that direction, then naturalism would be empirically refuted. Few arguments could ever be stronger than actual reported phenomena which conclusively rebut the worldview. This would be a brutal and decisive rebuttal of naturalism, and would raise the prior probability of Islam in specific and theism in general.

2. Positive apologetics. The usual arguments for the truth of Islam (i.e. those that purport to prove the miraculous nature of Islam's origins or features) go along the lines of: X feature of Islam/Qur'an/the Prophet's life defies laws of nature, only God can work contrary to the laws of nature, therefore Islam is from God. The second premise there is wrong even according to Islamic theology (jinn and angels can bypass laws of nature too), but that seems to be the implicit assumption made, probably due to the naturalism-minded sociology of today. Parapsychological phenomena, by definition, fall into that category too. Which means this simplistic argument structure must be dispensed with to adopt something more rigorous and inclusive. Violations of laws of nature in themselves don't prove divinity of the person or event associated, rather there are additional theoretical considerations. Our scholars have discussed some of these- e.g. it cannot be learned as a skill, it cannot be replicated, it must come with the proper context of a message, and so on. These theoretical considerations need to be developed further. That's the theoretical burden of proof parapsychology puts on positive apologetics (the practical or empirical burden of proof being establishing that the features of Islam actually do violate laws of nature, like the Prophet's knowledge of other scriptures or the Qur'an's literature). I've written about both the theoretical and practical aspects of positive apologetics earlier in this blog.

3. Negative apologetics. Many parapsychological phenomena seem to, ostensibly at least, run counter to Islam's truth claims. Examples include:

a) Curing of possession/healing from diseases when names of other deities are mentioned;
b) Putative evidences for reincarnation in the forms of verifiable past life memories, biological signs corresponding to manner of death in previous life, acquiring proficiency in a different language, and so on;
c) Astrologers accurately and precisely predicting spatially or temporally distant phenomena,
d) Other 'miracles' happening associated with other religions or deities, and so on.

Again, our scholarship, and even some hadith reports, recognized some of this. The explanation is usually given in terms of the activity of jinns. In order for that explanation to be a serious contender in parapsychology research, as opposed to just being an ad hoc theory-saving attempt, it needs to be made more precise by both scriptural and field/empirical data, focusing on issues like patterns and regularities in jinn activity, association of jinn activity with specific parapsychological phenomena, and so on. I don't know Arabic, so I can't say how rich the Islamic literature on demonology is. Perhaps Christian demonology literature would be helpful to some extent as well. In addition, much of Islamic knowledge reaches us- the laity- in something of a memefied form. I suspect, therefore, many things we commonly hear about jinn phenomena, astrology, and so forth may be more nuanced. This falls within the realms of Islamic studies, and I definitely don't want to comment further except saying that the Islamic predictions and expectations regarding these phenomena need to be fleshed out with as much precision and as much scriptural reliance as possible.

4. Miscellaneous. Much of the challenge of parapsychology (to either Islam or naturalism) would only be unearthed once we look into the issue more. For example, in the Braude book I was reading, things like psychokinesis and extremely improbable and meaningful coincidences (synchronicity, to use the Jungian term) was often explained in terms of some form of an innate psi that human agents possess. As I was reading this book, I was wondering if this has any relevance to du'a. Could it be that psi is the underlying mechanism by which Allah answers our du'as (or angels facilitate certain things for certain people)? If so, how would the explanatory model look? I have no idea yet. Only by reading more can we know what sort of issues parapsychological research raises. Some people are even of the view that certain forms of parapsychology question our commonsense epistemology, and a commonsense epistemology is something Islam implicitly endorses. All of this needs to be looked into in detail.

So parapsychology is indeed a field where much apologetics research is required. And that concern brings us to a sad fact. As I've been recently realizing, to appropriately contribute to apologetics, one must make apologetics his or her career. One cannot merely hope to pursue apologetics "on the side" as it were, e.g. become a scientist as a profession and study women's rights at your leisure. You can only contribute so much that way, and "so much" is definitely not enough given the amount of work that's left. Now certain other fields like molecular biology, cosmology, history, and even sociology are more promising in this aspect- this is why I'm incredibly thankful for my microbiology degrees. Our researchers can make a living while pursuing these apologetics-conducive careers. The same cannot be said for parapsychology. It's highly unlikely that someone can make a respectful living out of a ghostbuster career. That only underscores the amount of funding and such we require if we want to see the success of Muslim apologetics through to the end.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Academic freedom and supernatural occurrences by Stephen Braude

I'm usually a little skeptical of folks who press the "lack of academic freedom" button too much, especially when they're doing apologetics. Very often, this appeal is meant to cover up the need to form good, cogent arguments. When people invoke the lack of academic freedom (for theism or Islam-friendly ideas) these days, they sometimes see it as a means to absolve themselves from the responsibility of forming good arguments. Of course, lack of academic freedom is just one part of the issue. You can't blithely rest your entire case on that one sociological phenomenon and move on with life.

That said, the academia's naturalistic leanings are pretty much beyond doubt. I've noticed this in the course of my modest ventures in the evolution-creation debate. A problem in dealing with that, however, is that claims of suppression of academic freedom are most often anecdotal, and therefore very difficult to verify. In his book on paleontology titled Buried Alive, creationist Jack Cuozzo details how his entire family was chased down by international security forces for the "crime" of being a creationist while studying fossil hominids with advanced technological equipments (with permission from the authorities). I definitely sympathize with his ordeal, but there's no way of knowing what percentage of that story is factual. Same goes for Marvin Lubenow's Bones of Contentions book, where he knocks mainstream paleontology for not being "transparent" enough. Michael Cremo wrote a 1000-page book (Forbidden Archaeology) jam-packed with examples of ignored fossil and taphonomic finds from before an "orthodoxy" on human evolution was established in the academia, making the basic point that there's a tremendous amount of data-sifting in paleontology. These are issues that need to be looked into, but also not very easy to verify. For those who haven't seen it already, I recommend this very well-made movie on the topic as well.

So in a recent book I have been reading by philosopher Stephen Braude whom I've referenced earlier in my blog, I've found the most lucid and compelling presentation for the case for academic data suppression against any idea adverse to Naturalism. The issue in question happens to be parapsychology- which entails the idea that reality can't be completely described as an interplay of matter and energy in the way theoretical physics postulates them. It may also entail that libertarian freedom is real, there are such things as enduring personal identities and consciousness (i.e. soul), there are agents other than human beings in the world, and that there is a life after death. Huge can of worms for sure. The academic suppression is all the more "expected".

I think it's worth quoting Braude's entire relevant discussion (in the latter half of the book's preface) in full. I know for a fact my blog's readership don't mind length when good material is involved (and forgive the messy formatting in some places):

I began looking carefully at parapsychological research in 1976, five years into my career as a professional philosopher. In the three decades since then, I’ve lost my innocence about academic freedom, and I’ve learned a good bit about human nature. And I can tell you, it’s been a real eye-opener to see how my colleagues treated me once I started down this path.

Initially, my philosophical research was at the intersection of the philosophy of language, the philosophy of time, and logic. I published a number of respectable technical articles in several of the most prestigious professional journals (easily enough to get me tenure), and I’d begun to form alliances and friendships with some of the major figures working in my areas of philosophy. But once I declared my interest in investigating the issues and data of parapsychology, my professional status and relationships underwent a rapid and profound transformation. It didn’t matter that I had no ax to grind (one way or the other) about the outcome of my investigation. Several years earlier I had witnessed an impressive and apparently paranormal occurrence,3 and I felt professionally and morally obligated, with the freedom allegedly provided by tenure, to confront the matter and try to understand what had happened. Moreover, I knew that some thoughtful and very important philosophers (most notably, William James, Charles S. Peirce, Henry Sidgwick, C. J. Ducasse, C. D. Broad, H. H. Price) had found parapsychological research an area worth examining. And I thought it would be not simply interesting but important to see what the fuss was all about, and to consider whether the material merited even deeper study. For some this turned out to be enough to brand me as a crackpot, and it became
even worse when I decided that, in fact, there was something here worth sinking my philosophical teeth into.

I certainly don’t regret having chosen to pursue this line of research, and I’m actually grateful for what I’ve learned about my academic colleagues. The situation I confronted is a bit like what happens in divorces (another matter in which I’ve had some experience). Because divorces are stressful for many besides the couple in question, they provide opportunities to discover previously hidden aspects of a person’s character, and as a result, you quickly gain a fresh perspective about friends and acquaintances. The insights may be painful, but it’s usually better to be clear about such things. Here, too, I had quite a few revelations. Some philosophers I expected to be open-minded and intellectually honest instead behaved with surprising rigidity and cowardice. I clearly knew the evidence and issues much better than they did, but they condescendingly pretended to know this material well enough to ridicule my interest in it. And suddenly I found that I was no longer welcome in certain professional conversations, as if these philosophers’ former confidence in my intellectual ability had been a complete mistake. My surprise over this treatment shows just how naïve I was. I had really thought that as philosophers—as people presumably devoted to the pursuit of wisdom and truth—my colleagues would actually be willing to admit their ignorance and be curious to learn more. I genuinely believed they’d be excited to discover that certain relevant bits of received wisdom might be mistaken.

Fortunately, at least some revelations were more encouraging. Several philosophers whom I thought would be inflexible or disinterested surprised
me with their honesty, courage, and open-mindedness. And some reactions I’ve never fully understood. One famous philosopher (I won’t say who) said to me, “Well if someone has to do this I’m glad it’s you.” I think that was meant as a compliment, but it’s obviously open to multiple interpretations.

This all started thirty years ago, and since then I’ve become somewhat marginalized for pursuing my interest in the paranormal. I’m sure that
wouldn’t have happened if I had assumed the role of steadfast debunker. History has shown that’s a very safe activity, professionally; in fact, it’s something academics can easily exploit in order to gain prominence in their field, and for which they needn’t even do their homework. (It also enabled one formerly and deservedly obscure, but now notorious, magician to achieve a remarkably unwarranted degree of fame and respect.) And although I believe I understand how intellectual cowardice and dishonesty can take root, it still amazes me that when I so much as raise the subject of parapsychology to my academic colleagues, I often find nothing but stiff body language, sarcasm, and (perhaps most surprising of all) sometimes even outrage. Not exactly the way you’d expect truth-seekers to respond to serious and thoughtful empirical and philosophical investigation. In fact, it seems plainly to be a fear response.

And perhaps that’s why it’s so often dishonest. As I’ve noted elsewhere, when academics and scientists don’t want to look carefully and fearlessly at the data of parapsychology, they often lapse quickly into various disgraceful behaviors. For example, some try to dismiss all the evidence by generalizing from the obviously weakest cases, a ploy they’d be quick to detect and condemn if it had been used against them. In fact, philosophers educate and warn students about that disreputable strategy in virtually every class in logic or critical thinking.

Moreover, some promote their skepticism about parapsychology with a confidence that’s wildly disproportionate to their command of the data.
That’s what I find so striking about the sarcasm I frequently encounter. Arguably, sarcasm is not an admirable personality trait, and perhaps it’s seldom an appropriate conversational response. In any case, when it’s used to dismiss a person’s informed interest in parapsychology, it could only be warranted if its user had the knowledge to back it up. In that situation, sarcasm is always employed with a presumption of authority. But in fact, those who sarcastically dismiss parapsychology typically know little, if anything, about the field. They haven’t carefully studied the data or issues for themselves. Even more remarkably, they know they lack this knowledge.
They know their opinions, no matter how strongly held, have no authority behind them.

That’s why, when people passionately and arrogantly tell me how weak the parapsychological evidence is (especially the non-laboratory evidence),
it’s very easy to make them look foolish by demanding that they demonstrate their command of the data. Simply insist that they describe in detail
the cases that matter—not the ones easiest to dismiss; insist that they explain why those cases are thought to be so good, and then insist that they explain exactly why that opinion is wrong. This is a very effective way to study the varieties of human discomfort.

It’s not that I expect others to agree with my views simply because I’ve done the research and considered the issues, and they haven’t. I’d be satisfied with a little curiosity and honest humility. When my interlocutors are aware that they haven’t studied the evidence, a more admirable response would be something like, “I was under the impression that this evidence was flawed, because . . . Do you disagree? If so, why?” Tellingly, I’m most likely to encounter that sort of modest response from other philosophers only when I interview candidates for faculty openings in our department. Those people are in no position to engage in the posturing and dishonest bluffing they’ll likely lapse into once they’re comfortably ensconced in a job.

Of course, not everyone in the academy fits this gloomy picture. A few others have also done serious research into the paranormal, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. And (like me) some of them chose to break ranks only after getting tenure. Others have simply refrained from open condemnation, while privately admitting to me their interest in what I’m doing. Some of those have even confided their own apparent encounters with the paranormal, and they’ve made those admissions while conceding that their experiences seem to be paranormal and that they’re at a loss to explain them away. I’ve actually had quite a few conversations of that sort, and for some reason, most of the reported experiences are of apparitions. I think it’s significant and revealing that these scientists and scholars will admit their experiences to me, but not to their other colleagues. I believe it shows just how cutthroat the academic community can be. Even senior and prominent members of that community recognize that their reputations hang tenuously on remaining conspicuously within the mainstream. They realize they’d be treated with the same ignorant and cowardly disdain and dishonesty I’ve faced for the past several decades.

I’ve had similar experiences with mental health professionals, including MAs, PhDs, and MDs. I’ve come to know quite a few members of that
community since writing my book on multiple personality. Once it became known that I’d done extensive and open-minded research in parapsychology,
many started confiding to me apparent psychic episodes involving their patients. They also made it very clear that these conversations needed
to remain confidential. And that wasn’t because they were protecting therapist/patient confidentiality. (In fact, nothing they said to me revealed the identity of their patients.) Rather, they were simply unwilling to risk possible ridicule and ostracism by revealing their experiences to their colleagues. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a great shame. These researchers are missing a potentially valuable opportunity to compare notes and possibly discover illuminating patterns in the data. I suppose to some extent I can do that for them, based on the information they’ve provided. But this is a job that should be undertaken by a mental health professional, someone who understands more deeply than I the subtleties and dynamics of clinical encounters.

Predictably, faculty and researchers aren’t the only ones targeted for what should be seen as a laudable expression of intellectual curiosity. Students also pay a price. I hear this frequently from young audience members at invited talks and in unsolicited letters and e-mails. In fact, many of my students have told me that their mentors (usually in the psychology department) threatened them with reprisals, or at least lavished on them the sort of ridicule I’ve often encountered, simply because they declared their intention to take my seminar in philosophy and parapsychology. However, most of those students merely wanted the opportunity to study the material and make up their own minds about it. I know this; I taught them and saw how critical and curious they could be, and how most didn’t enter the class with their minds made up one way or the other about what was going on.

Perhaps it will be helpful to consider how the type of intellectual dishonesty I’ve been discussing plays out in detail, in a real case. In February 1985 I was invited to give a talk and appear on a television program at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Brockport. Both my talk and the subject of the program were titled “Taking Mediumship Seriously,” and both focused on the issues I raised in The Limits of Influence, which I was then in the process of completing, and which was published the following year. That book, and my presentations in Brockport, dealt with the evidence for the dramatic forms of physical mediumship that flourished during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even more generally, I wanted to defend the search for parapsychological evidence outside the lab and also explode the myths concerning the relative merits of strictly experimental work. So I wanted to show not only that eyewitness testimony is much better than it’s typically made out to be, but that some older cases from the heyday of spiritualism are (contrary to the received wisdom) spectacularly
good and important.

So my hosts at SUNY Brockport were offering me two opportunities to present my opinions on these topics, and I was told that on the TV program
I’d be asked to defend those views against challenges from a skeptic. That was fine with me. I was accustomed to fielding questions from (sometimes hostile) audience members during talks on the subject. I was confident about the positions I was taking, and after more than five years of immersion in the material and issues, I felt I knew the subject probably as well as anybody on the planet. However, I naïvely expected that my critic and I would engage in a relatively high-level dialogue, of the sort that I’d had already with several of my friends in the parapsychological community. In fact, I’d been told that the matters under discussion were among my critic’s special interests. At the very least, I expected him to be well-informed.

I appeared on the television program with two members of the SUNY Brockport philosophy department. One served mainly as host, and evidently
he had no views on the matter he was eager to promote. In fact, throughout my visit he displayed a commendably careful and inquisitive open mind. The other participant turned out to be the department’s self-styled debunker, who was there ready to discount everything he apparently felt I stood for. There’s no need to mention this person’s name (we can call him M. G.). The important thing is that he provided a classic, and not even remotely sophisticated, example of the sort of resistance and dishonesty I’ve encountered many times since. The show was videotaped, and I’ve often played the tape for my students. I’m pleased to say they’ve usually been appalled by this philosopher’s attempts not only to evade the issues, but to dismiss the mediumistic evidence with an authority I demonstrated he clearly lacked, and which he must have known that he lacked. In fact, by the time my students viewed the tape, they knew the evidence better than my critic did, and they understood easily how M. G. tried to conceal his ignorance, and how he intentionally and repeatedly reverted to disreputable straw man arguments: generalizing from irrelevant or weak cases, and ignoring precisely those reports to which the usual skeptical objections don’t apply. (Reproducing our dialogue verbatim would undoubtedly be instructive, but it would also take us too far afield. For now, a paraphrase will have to do.)

It was really a remarkable, and embarrassingly transparent, performance. M. G. began by repeating a familiar skeptical refrain: that mediumistic
evidence was all collected under poor conditions of observation, with the phenomena under complete control of the medium, and reported by credulous observers with no expertise in legerdemain. I quickly cited a case (Crookes’s accordion-in-a-cage test, described in chapter 2) to which those concerns didn’t apply, and shortly thereafter I was able to add a few others (also described in chapter 2). Oddly, however, M. G. kept reiterating his initial criticism regarding the quality of the evidence. And he tried dismissing all the evidence at once by saying the reports were nothing but hearsay. I realized immediately that he didn’t know how much of the best evidence was first-person testimony written immediately after séances or dictated to a nearby stenographer as phenomena happened. I assumed M. G. wouldn’t have been so foolish as to think (or claim) that first-person testimony counted as hearsay, because then all testimony would have counted as unacceptable from his point of
view. I never found the opportunity to see if M. G. held a double standard, by asking him whether his reservations about testimony applied equally to skeptical reports that the phenomena in question didn’t happen. But I did ask him if he’d ever read the source material for the cases I had cited, and he admitted he hadn’t and that his information about the mediums in question had been taken entirely from the literature attempting to debunk the evidence. So M. G. admitted, and certainly demonstrated, that he had no clue why anyone would have doubted the accounts as presented in the debunking literature.

But since it was clear that M. G. couldn’t then challenge me authoritatively on the best documented and most scrupulously investigated cases,
the ones I had argued mattered and were most difficult to explain away, over and over he tried to shift attention away from those cases. Repeatedly, he mentioned examples of mediums who’d been caught cheating, or to particular investigations of the better mediums which had been poorly controlled or which were otherwise unimpressive. In response, I conceded again and again that many hundreds of fraudulent mediums had been exposed and that many séances had been conducted for convinced spiritualists with no attempt made to control for fraud. Furthermore, I insisted that this was why, in order to decide whether mediumistic psychokinesis was genuine, it was important to look at the strongest cases, precisely those in which fraud or malobservation are least likely. Naturally, these would be studies conducted under good controls and conditions of observation, with critical and experienced observers, and with reported phenomena of a magnitude that couldn’t be accounted for either in terms of existing technology or sleight of hand. But M. G. ignored this, and in addition to once again citing weak and irrelevant cases, he also retreated to marginally relevant generalities about the age of the material and the impossibility of ever being certain how a mediumistic
trick might have been performed. In response to that last gambit, I tried to keep M. G. on track. I kept trying to force him to demonstrate how
his concerns applied to any of the obviously strongest cases. But since he didn’t know the specifics of any good cases, M. G. returned to his original skeptical mantra: that mediumistic evidence was all gathered under poor conditions, etc. Of course, that was a position whose inadequacies we had already discussed.

I remember vividly what passed through my mind as I sat, with uncharacteristic patience, listening to M. G. as he reintroduced the same feeble
and irrelevant objections whose flaws I had already exposed. M. G. had trouble looking at me as he spoke; he was stumbling over his words and
clearly grasping for something substantial to say. It became clear to me that he had already exhausted the skeptical weapons in his arsenal and that he was unprepared for a knowledgeable debate. So as the program progressed and M. G. kept repeating his handful of stock objections, I felt that he only disgraced himself further. M. G. was digging himself into an increasingly deep hole by allowing me to remind viewers—over and over—how little he knew about the material. Ironically, his attempts to appear authoritative were having precisely the opposite effect.

What amazes me most about this exchange is that my critic was ready to appear in a public forum, knowing that his performance would be recorded
for posterity. Although M. G. must have known he had only a cursory and one-sided acquaintance with the evidence, he was ready to flaunt his ignorance on television and go head-to-head with someone who very likely knew much more about the subject than he did. To me, it was a remarkable
display of hubris and stupidity, and I have to think it was motivated largely by M. G.’s firmly held belief, or deep fear, that my views represented or entailed a worldview that was dangerously irrational, signaling a reversion to a primitive and magical form of thinking that needed to be resisted at all costs. If I’m right about this, then M. G. was at least correct about the implications of my position. As I see it, there is something fundamentally correct about allegedly magical thinking and reputedly outmoded animistic conceptions of the world (for more on this see The Limits of Influence). But my critic’s response to me was anything but scholarly or admirable. Ironically, in fact, it exemplified a form of irrationalism and dishonesty that’s at least as repugnant as anything he was trying to combat.