Let’s be honest, we’ve all expressed opinions about difficult hot-button issues without always thinking them through. With so much media spin, political polarization, and mistrust of institutions, it’s hard to know how to think about these tough challenges, much less whatto do about them. One Nation Undecided takes on some of today’s thorniest issues and walks you through each one step-by-step, explaining what makes it so difficult to grapple with and enabling you to think smartly about it. ~ Publisher’s Description
Many commend the teaching of great or core texts to provide something more than the exercise of “critical thinking,” a goal onto which academics have latched (after the ferocious curriculum battles of the 1980s and 1990s) with an almost audible sigh of relief. Debates about substance were put to rest as agreement was reached on the contentless goal of critical thinking, which allowed academics to lay down their arms and embrace the common project of cultivating a thinking style . Indeed, it has reached a pass in which the only idea impervious to critical thinking is the shared goal of critical thinking: No one quite knows what it is, but we can all agree that we want our students to be able to do it. Push-pins is equal to Homer, and Homer equal to push-pins, since both can be claimed to foster critical thinking.
There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.
Probability theory promises to deliver an exact and unified foundation for inquiry in epistemology and philosophy of science. But philosophy of religion is also fertile ground for the application of probabilistic thinking. This volume presents original contributions from twelve contemporary researchers, both established and emerging, to offer a representative sample of the work currently being carried out in this potentially rich field of inquiry. Grouped into five parts, the chapters span a broad range of traditional issues in religious epistemology. The first three parts discuss the evidential impact of various considerations that have been brought to bear on the question of the existence of God. These include witness reports of the occurrence of miraculous events, the existence of complex biological adaptations, the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ for life of various physical constants and the existence of seemingly unnecessary evil. The fourth part addresses a number of issues raised by Pascal’s famous pragmatic argument for theistic belief. A final part offers probabilistic perspectives on the rationality of faith and the epistemic significance of religious disagreement.
It is not enough that one mental event cause another mental event in virtue of its propositional content. Someone who engages in rational inference must recognize the correctness of the principle of sound reasoning, which one applies to one’s inference. Modus Ponens works, affirming the consequent does not. Our inferences are supposed to be governed by the rules of reasoning we recognize to be correct. However, can these rules of inference ever really govern our reasoning process? According to physicalism, all of our reasoning processes are the inevitable result of a physical substrate that is not governed by reasons. ¶ So we might ask this question: “Which laws govern the activity we call rational inference?” We might stipulate, for the purposes of this discussion, the idea that laws of physics are accounts of the powers and liabilities of the objects in question. If the materialist claims that laws other than the laws of physics apply to the assemblage of particles we call human beings, then those particles are not what (mechanistic) physics says they are, and we have admitted a fundamental explanatory dualism. If however, the laws are the laws of physics, then there are no powers and liabilities that cannot be predicted from the physical level. If this is so there can be a sort of emergence, in that the basic laws governing a sleeping pill will not mention that the pills tend to put you to sleep. Nevertheless, the pill’s soporific effectiveness can be fully and completely analyzed in terms of its physical powers and liability. If this is so, then we will be rational if and only if the physical configurations of matter guarantee that we are physical, and in the last analysis, the laws of logic do not govern our intellectual conduct.
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris raises equivocation on the meaning of "religion" to a high art, wraps the ambiguity in mellifluous prose, plays up our fear of religious extremists, launches stinging attacks on Christian fundamentalism, and then lets the force of rhetoric do the work of implicating all religion in the impending demise of human civilization. His message is simple: humanity is headed towards Armageddon, and the blame lies as much with your Aunt Ruth, who faithfully drives to her United Methodist Church every Sunday to sing hymns and pray and listen raptly to Pastor Jim, as it does with Al Qaeda fanatics.
The fact is, we use the term “religion” in a variety of ways. And this fact makes it difficult to talk precisely about religion, let alone attack it with valid objections. Whenever usage is so varied, there is a real danger that one will fall prey to what philosophers call equivocation — that is, the fallacy of using the same term in different senses in the course of a single argument or discussion, without noticing the shift. … Is religion a comprehensive and unsurpassable account of everything that matters to a person? If so, the naturalism secular humanists would qualify as their religion. Or is religion a private matter of how the individual relates subjectively to what is taken to be the fundamental reality? If so, the physicist’s awe and wonder at the vast beauty of the cosmos would be a religion. Or is religion a social construct, its metaphysical pronouncements (if any) an incidental by-product of its goal of creating loyalty, obedience, and cohesion among society’s members? If so, Marxist ideology would have been the religion of the former Soviet Union. Or is religion an attempt, through metaphors and ritual practices, to bring our lives into alignment with an inexpressible transcendent reality? If so, then most world religions would paradoxically be true religions even as they reject the accuracy of Hick’s account (since thy don’t typically take themselves to be engaged in merely metaphorical discourse). The point, of course, is that “religion” is used in all these ways and more.
Imagine an author who sets out to prove that music glorifies violence but who spends most of the book fixated on gangsta rap and then attributes the vices of the latter to music in general. As already noted, this kind of mistake is called equivocation. Dawkins’ rhetorical excesses and inattention to nuanced differences do not just make him susceptible to this fallacy. When he tries to make the case that religion is pernicious, Dawkins moves willy-nilly from an attack on particular religious doctrines and communities to conclusions about religion and belief in God generally. And this, of course, is entirely typical of religion’s cultured despisers.
Christopher Hitchens is recognized by just about everyone as a master rhetorician. His wit and command of the English language are things to behold. The American Heritage Dictionary offers a number of definitions of the term rhetoric, including: 1) The art or study of using language effectively and persuasively, 2) Language that is elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous. No doubt Hitchens’ rhetoric has been persuasive in many quarters, but the more I read, the more clear it becomes that the second definition is also apt, that what we have here is as much style as substance. At Afterall.net we host The Illogic Primer, a catalog of common logical fallacies and rhetorical chicanery. We can all be forgiven a slip or two into illogic, but Hitchens’ god is not Great is an unending cascade of this kind of rhetorical mischief. Is it merely empty rhetoric, or is there reason beyond the rhetoric? I’ll leave that judgment till I turn the last page. In the meantime, allow me to enumerate some concerns about Hitchens’ style of argumentation and why I think it impedes getting to the truth of the matter.