Monday, March 16, 2009

Getting Along: Civil Disagreements with a Thinking Christian

It’s always salutary to get evaluated by a strong critic of your position, someone who doesn’t share your preconceptions and assumptions and who therefore is able to detect weaknesses in your premises and arguments. Being an advocate of a worldview is to be biased in its favor, and it’s good to achieve some virtual distance from your commitments by looking at them through the eyes of an opponent.

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian was kind enough to offer a critique of Reality and its rivals, an article that discusses the justifications for intersubjective empiricism (exemplified by science) as our most reliable way of knowing, how empiricism tends to support naturalism, and the ethical obligation we have to one another to be empiricists (and thus, perhaps, naturalists). He then invited me to a debate in three parts, which you can read here.

I won’t reprise the arguments since the disagreements are perhaps less important than the tone of the discourse, which was pretty amicable. Since it’s unlikely that unanimity on the fundamental questions that worldviews address will ever be achieved, it’s crucial that worldview adversaries share a belief in live-and-let-live tolerance, otherwise things can get very nasty, as the history of ideological conflict shows. They should agree that maintaining an irenic philosophical pluralism is more important than achieving world domination for their worldview, because that’s simply not achievable given human diversity. Better we disagree peacefully than try to enforce an untenable uniformity.

I wrapped up my contributions by noting all the common ground that had come to light during the debate. I’ll quote that and the end of Tom Gilson’s reply, just as an example of how focusing on commonalities helps to generate cross-ideological comity. To put it succinctly and imperatively: everybody play nice!

Clark writes:

…But what I’ve learned from this debate is that we agree about those [epistemic] commitments more than I expected. We agree that “first person data” – for instance the subjective experience of being embraced by God – aren’t alone adequate to prove the claim of God’s existence. We agree (I think) that intersubjective evidence using public objects is necessary to justify that claim to persons not having such experience. We agree that history and philosophy have intersubjective elements to them, and we agree (I think) that one can’t simply reason one’s way to God: philosophical arguments supporting God’s existence involve premises about how the world actually is in various respects (otherwise you wouldn’t be interested in history or science, which of course you are). We also agree that there are unsolved mysteries about how the world works, that dogmatism is to be avoided, and that argument, not force, is the best way to resolve worldview differences. And if they can’t be resolved, we agree that we can still live peacefully together in an open society (my cardinal value). So all told we agree on a lot, and for that and the very civil discourse I’ve encountered here, I’m most grateful.

Gilson responds:
...I continue to hold that God can communicate his reality to persons in a private manner, and that he does so, and that the shared reality of that experience among believers is as valid as persons’ shared experience of “red.” This is in addition to, not instead of, external inter-subjective validations.

I agree that there is epistemological value in your two requirements [the insulation and public object requirements], but I hold that to place complete reliance on them is self-defeating. I think you probably have agreed with that in the end, but I’m not entirely sure.

This has been an interesting discussion. There’s room for more response here, and (whether this is good news to you or not I don’t know!) I have two further topics to address from your epistemology article, relating to meaning and ethics, so I’ll take those up in blog posts before long. I appreciate your excellent interaction!

The Wisdom of Alice

It would be nice if a worldview were not only true, but livable. As yet, there aren’t many thorough-going naturalists to provide data, but a hardy few have reported back on the livability of naturalism and it mostly seems to pass the test, see Living in light of naturalism. Below are some updates from Alice in Australia at the Naturalism Philosophy Forum (open membership), who describes some of the practical and psychological advantages of taking a consistently cause and effect view of ourselves, and the understandable suspicions many folks have about it. She also describes applying naturalism to child-rearing, as does Stephen, another member of the Forum. If a worldview can pass that test, then clearly it’s a winner! Enjoy…

Alice writes:

I’m really happy with my understanding of the world based on what I understand Naturalism to be telling me. In the past I’ve found that I was coming up with theories, then when I came across a theory that made sense I was applying it, but it never went smoothly, something always came up that didn’t fit in with my theory. So I jumped from theory to theory until finding Naturalism in July 2007. 18 months is probably the longest that I’ve had a theory that I’ve applied to my life where in 18 months I’ve not yet had a contradiction to the reality that I’ve experienced. I feel enlightened. I tell my friends this and they’re not sure what to think. When things go wrong in my marriage and I ‘attempt’ to speak with my mother about it – she tells me ‘well you’ve made your choices’, so then I tell her, I don’t have free will, she seems to think I’m trying to cop out of something and is very disapproving of me. In fact most people are disapproving of my belief in NFWism [no free will-ism: not having contra-causal free will]. I’m just really sorry they don’t ‘get it’. NFWism allows me complete acceptance of what is. It allows me to have compassion for all people. It allows me to make informed decisions and respond to everyone with the understanding that they ‘couldn’t have done otherwise’. This is an emancipating position. Yet still people look at me and think I’m some how being a smart-arsed shirker of responsibility, who hasn’t quite understood how life works yet – a dreamer who really doesn’t get it! Ironic that they have it so back to front – and yet my world view allows me to have total compassion for them and their attitude – whilst they look at me in judgment. It really throws the Christian door knockers - LOL!

On child-rearing:

…So the better I understand Naturalism, the better I can enact those principles in my life and use the rationality of naturalism in my thoughts and actions, the more likely that is going to permeate all my relationships and influence those around me. My eldest is currently 7 years old, and I find overt examples of my Naturalistic world perspective come out in my discussions with him regarding interactions between himself and his younger brother. Kids are very good at detecting false realities, so I have to be careful what I say if I want to maintain any authority or respect. I find that if I stick to Naturalistic parameters, my argument is quite based in reality and therefore acceptable.

I can’t see any problem with introducing all aspects of Naturalism including NFW [no contra-causal free will] to my children. Children integrate what they learn very easily and can also easily see when things don’t add up or make sense. If they feel safe they will talk about what is not adding up for them and allow you the opportunity to clarify concepts. One example of this for me was when my son’s friend told him that he would burn in hell because he didn’t believe in God. As my son approached me with his concerns, I was able to give my perspective, which was satisfactory and caused much relief.

If you hold Naturalistic beliefs and are able to concurrently have good self-esteem then there is no reason why your child wouldn’t follow you to do the same. If anything Naturalism has improved my self-esteem, as I’m more grounded in reality, feel more confident about my understanding of the world and have more compassion for everyone around me, which has lead to my feeling more valuable in society and therefore created higher self-esteem.

With my first child I had a go at punishment as a parenting technique. It caused us both lots of distress [and] it clearly didn’t work – it wasn’t effective in outcomes. Now I go for a more effective method – I change the circumstances so that I achieve the outcome I desire. The child may or may not understand what I’m doing, or why, but if I get the outcome I want and the child is not distressed it’s win-win. I have no concerns that this will create problems later on, as I explain everything I’m doing and allow the child to learn how to see other perspectives at their own rate – developing compassion (the ability to see another’s perspective) in the child is the key to socially functioning adults.

And Stephen writes:

…the other day I was talking to my daughter about what school she will be going to. She was worried in case she got "a rough one." I explained that she was an amazing biological machine able to adapt to the situation and do well if necessary, that this was the result of billions of years of natural selection going right back to the first self replicating molecule, that she couldn't take ultimate credit for the fact but still she has this amazing ability.Oh and I told her we'd get her Karate lessons too :-)

She is 10, didn't bat an eye lid but it gave her justified confidence (along with the offer of karate lessons), she stopped worrying and cheered up.

I think she's used to having one strange dude for a father :-)

[Relatedly, see this interview with Dale McGowan on raising kids without supernatural beliefs.]