Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Templeton Foundation Grant on Free Will

We interviewed Dr. Alfred R. Mele, Director of the new John Templeton Foundation grant program, "Big Questions in Free Will." Mele is the William H. Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor at Florida State University. The purpose of the program is "to improve our understanding of free will in three spheres: science (especially neuroscience and social philosophy); philosophy; and theology."

You are a noteworthy contributor to discussions on free will, agency, rationality, consciousness, and philosophy of action. First, give us a summary about your own work and your perspective on free will. How did you get into this area? What do you find interesting about it?

I have some sense of the causal path that led to my deciding to tackle free will. My dissertation was entitled Aristotle’s Theory of Human Motivation. During my first few years as an assistant professor, I thought I would devote my career to ancient Greek philosophy. But I soon got caught up in the issues in the philosophy of action that concerned Plato and Aristotle. My first book (Irrationality, 1987) is on weakness of will (or akrasia in Classical Greek), self-control, and self-deception; my point of departure on the first two topics was classical work on them. My second book, (Springs of Action, 1992) is a step toward the development of a general causal theory about how intentional actions are to be explained. Not long after I completed it, I came to believe that a theory of this kind might help improve our understanding of free action.

In my opinion, the main competing theories about the concept of free will (or free action) have been developed much more thoroughly than was the case even fifteen years ago, and we have a much clearer view of the main problems for each position and interesting proposed resolutions of some of those problems. Perhaps the dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists will persist as long as philosophy does, but progress on an issue doesn’t require universal agreement about it. My own tack – both in Autonomous Agents (1995) and in Free Will and Luck (2006) – has included developing two overlapping conceptions of free will: one for compatibilists and the other for incompatibilists. Given my incompatibilist conception, whether any human being ever acts freely is a challenging question. The answer depends on, among other things, whether human brains are suitably indeterministic. And who knows what future neuroscience may turn up? If my compatibilist conception of free will is correct, it is a good bet that there is a lot of free action.

What do you see as some prevailing trends (say, within the last 10 to 15 years) between scientific, philosophical, and theological discussions on free will?

One trend in scientific work on free will is skepticism about its existence. Each of the following claims has been defended in the scientific literature on free will and consciousness in the last few years (and earlier): your brain routinely decides what you will do before you become conscious of its decision; there is only a 100 millisecond window of opportunity for free will, and all it can do is veto conscious decisions, intentions, or urges; intentions never play a role in producing corresponding actions; and free will is an illusion. In Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will (2009), I take up each of these claims and I argue that the evidence offered to support them is sorely deficient. I also argue that there is strong empirical support for the thesis that some conscious decisions and intentions have a genuine place in causal explanations of corresponding actions.

Another trend in scientific work on free will is a backlash against the skeptical claims. Psychologist Roy Baumeister has been a strong critic of those claims.

In philosophical work on free will, one trend that I see is persistence. Compatibilists persist in replying to incompatibilist arguments and in developing their own positive views. Incompatibilists persist in developing arguments against compatibilism, and some incompatibilists continue to develop and defend positive libertarian views. Another trend is to investigate folk conceptions of free will by means of survey studies of the sort conducted by experimental philosophers. I see both trends as contributing to progress in understanding how to conceive of free will.

In the sphere of the theology of free will, I am an amateur. I teach an undergraduate course in the philosophy of religion on a regular basis, and in it I devote a very enjoyable block of time to issues about human free will and divine foreknowledge. But I have not published in this area, and I am not qualified to venture an opinion about trends. In this sphere, I see myself as a student; and I’m happy to learn.

What are you hoping to accomplish with the grant program from the Templeton Foundation? Who all is involved (and how) in the decision-making for any of the proposals?

I’m hoping that the grant will enable us to make much more progress on free will than would be made without it. In science, we hope to encourage studies that target free will more directly than much existing work in the science of free will does. In philosophy, we’ll encourage, among other things, development of improved models of free will; and the same goes for theology.

In each of the three areas, we’ll solicit letters of intent and then invite some of the letter writers to submit full proposals. Decisions about letters of intent and proposals will be made by five-person panels – different panels for different fields. A representative of the John Templeton Foundation and I will be on each panel. On this see the Big Questions in Free Will website:

Can you give us a broad sweep of the four-year projects related to this program?

On this, see the “Timeline” section of the Big Questions in Free Will website: 

To what extent (if at all) should proposals be interdisciplinary or at least attentive to interdisciplinary issues?

We are especially encouraging interdisciplinary work in the science branch of the project.

For the grant program, are you intending to encourage a particular view of how science and religion (theology) or science and philosophy are to relate to each other?

We believe that work in each area should be informed by work in the other areas whenever that would be useful. We also believe that this will often be useful.

Are you more likely or less likely to seriously consider a proposal if the operating philosophical assumptions tend to support or reject a physicalistic view of free will? Are you more likely or less likely to seriously consider a proposal if the operating philosophical assumptions tend to support or reject a dualistic view of free will? Can you briefly elaborate?

“Assumptions” is a key word here. In this connection, it may be useful to quote something from FAQ portion on “conceptual underpinnings” grants on the Big Questions in Free Will website:

The Theoretical Underpinnings arm of the Big Questions in Free Will program does have a special interest in incompatibilist models of free will, including both developments and critiques of such models. Compatibilist critiques of incompatibilist models, views, and arguments will certainly be considered seriously. Proposals for projects that assume that compatibilism is true probably would not be competitive.

Such questions as “Is free will possible if substance dualism is true?” and “Is free will possible if physicalism is true?” are legitimate topics of investigation. A scholar might approach the first by assuming that dualism is true and the second by assuming that physicalism is true. But, of course, these assumptions apparently leave it open whether the answer is yes or no.

How do you think self-identified Christians or theists working in philosophy or philosophical theology can potentially contribute to work on free will for this program?

Some self-identified Christians are, of course, major figures in contemporary work on free will – for example, Tim O’Connor, Eleonore Stump, and Peter van Inwagen. Work of this caliber from members of the EPS would obviously be highly valued. For information on theology of free will projects, see the “theology of free will” grants section on the Big Questions in Free Will website.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Atheism as a Psychological Crutch: A Review of James Spiegel's The Making of an Atheist

I've always believed that the best defense is a good offense. Culturally speaking, however, the New Atheists have been the ones on the offensive in their attacks on religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. Christian apologists have made some very good replies to most of their attacks on Christian belief (which are really nothing more than the same old tired arguments that we've had to put to rest before). Yet, the New Atheists are getting a lot of rhetorical mileage in the popular culture with their incessant charge that religious belief is inherently irrational, without evidence, motivated by psychological needs.

How refreshing, then, to read Jim Spiegel's new book, The Making of an Atheist, in which he makes an end run around all the lame anti-theistic arguments and baseless psycho-analyses of believers, and goes on the offensive by exposing the nonrational, psychological and (im)moral foundations of atheism. In this work, Spiegel shows that, contrary to the pretensions of contemporary atheists, their unbelief is not based on evidence (or a lack of evidence for theism), but is ultimately the result of sin and rebellion as indicated by the apostle Paul in Romans 1.

In chapter one, Spiegel briefly reviews two of the major lines of argument utilized by the New Atheists in their critique of theism: "the problem of evil and the scientific irrelevancy of God" (p. 24). Concerning the former, Spiegel mentions the major theodicies employed by theists in response, but notes that the evidence of evil can never really count for atheism because (1) it doesn't nullify all of the abundant positive evidence for the existence of God, and (2) the whole idea of evil is incoherent unless God exists (since values like good and evil presupppose God). As for the scientific irrelevancy of God, Spiegel rehearses the well-known problems with positivism and scientism, and points out that naturalism can account neither for the existence and design of the cosmos nor for the value and meaning of human life.

Interestingly, Spiegel ends chapter one with a discussion of the positive insights of atheism. For instance, atheists are right to point out that numerous evils have been done in the name of religion. Also, the moral complacency often displayed by professing believers as well as their tendency to engage in God-of-the-gaps reasoning in science are places where unbelievers are correct to raise concerns. These and other problems Spiegel call "theistic malpractice," and he notes that while they do call Christians to greater consistency in Christian living, they actually confirm the Christian doctrine of sin, being what we would expect to be the case if Christianity were true.

Chapter two demonstrates the irrationality of atheism in two ways. First, by outlining the abundant evidence for the existence of God found in the laws of nature, the incredible fine-tuning of the universe for life, and the origin of life. Second, by describing Alvin Plantinga's argument to the affect that naturalism, coupled with Darwinism, proves to be self-defeating by undermining the very possibility of knowledge. But if atheism is so clearly false, why are there atheists at all? Spiegel offers a biblical diagnosis, namely, that atheists are morally deficient (Ps. 14:1; Prov. 18:2; Eph. 4:17-19; Rom 1:18-23, etc.). The problem is not a lack of intelligence or of evidence, but "the 'wickedness' of the unbeliever works to 'suppress' what is manifest in nature. Consequently, the unbelievers's capacity for rational thought is compromised" (p. 53). This diagnosis finds some anecdotal confirmation in the bitterness and rage displayed toward God by some of the New Atheists as well as in Spiegel's personal observation of atheists who fell into unbelief after some episode of personal rebellion. These observations seem symptomatic of nonrational factors at work in producing atheism.

The heart of the book is chapter three. Here Spiegel provides empirical evidence to support the biblical diagnosis of atheism that he offered in chapter two. First, he sketches the research of Paul Vitz who has shown that atheists typically suffer from what he calls "the defective father syndrome." Surveying the lives of many renowed atheists, Vitz revealed that in each case they had either a father who died when they were very young, a father who deserted the family wheny they were young, or a father who was abusive or ineffectual, or otherwise unworthy of respect. Spiegel extends Vitz's research to show that those New Atheists who we have enough information about (Dennett and Hitchens) also suffer from the defective father syndrome. Apparently, having a defective father provides a necessary condition for atheism. A person with a poor relationship with his earthly father is disposed to project the bitterness and resentment he has toward him onto his "heavenly Father" as well.

Of course, a necessary condition is not a sufficient condition. Combined with the defective father syndrome, Spiegel points out, there is also "a persistent immoral response of some sort, such as resentment, hatred, vanity, unforgiveness, or abject pride. And when that rebellion is deep or protracted enough, atheism results (p. 81). The most egregious of these moral defects that lead to atheism is "chronic sexual misbehavior." To prove his point, Spiegel surveys the works of Paul Johnson and E. Michael Jones who demontrate that prominate atheist and agnostic intellectuals lived egotistical, callous (ignoring or abandoning children), sexually promiscuous lifestyles. And it seems evident not only to Speigel, but to many of these intellectuals themselves, that there was a direct connection between their lifestyles and their unbelief. For example, P.B. Shelley remarked that "the philosophy of meaninglessness was esentially an instrument of liberation," and Aldous Huxley admits, "Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless."

Spiegel closes chapter three by discussing the role of the will in the production of atheism. Appealing to William James's concept of the "will to believe," Spiegel argues that atheists, though traumatized by defective fathers and motivated by perverse sinful desires, ultimately choose to disbelieve in God. The arguments and "evidences" offered by atheists for unbelief are simply smokescreens and facades. The real reason for atheism is rebellion.

In chapter four, Spiegel deals with the "obstinacy of atheism," the fact that atheists can be deeply and dogmatically entrenched in their unbelief (in the same way that believers can be entrenched in religious belief). He helpfully explains this entrenchment in terms of worldviews and Thomas Kuhn's scientific "paradigms." Appealing to Kuhn's notions of the incommensurability of paradigms, the near-impossibility of falsifying them, and the nonrational factors that play a role in paradigm shifts, Spiegel shows why believers and unbelievers seem to live in different "worlds," and why atheists cannot seem to see what appears so obvious to believers, namely, the overwhelming evidence for God. Atheist can't see that evidence because the worldview paradigms in which they have entrenched themselves (materialistic naturalism and relativism) prevent them from seeing it--Spiegel calls this "paradigm-induced blindness."

Spiegel takes the reader at this point to Calvin's notion of the sensus divinitatis. All human beings are born with an innate capacity for direct and personal awareness of God. This "sense of the divine" is primarily what explains the pervasiveness of theistic belief. What is it, then, that leads to the paradigm-induced blindness that the atheist suffers from? Following Plantinga, Spiegel answers that it is the congnitive malfunction of the sensus divinitatis. With this, Spiegel's analysis if the psychology of atheism is complete. He summarizes it thus: "The descent into atheism is caused by a complex of moral-psychological factors. . . . The atheist willfully rejects rejects God, though this is precipitated by immoral indulgences and typically a broken relationship with his or her father. . . . The hardening of the atheistic mind-set occurs through congitive malfunction due to two principle causes. First, atheists suffer from paradigm-induced blindness. . . . Second, atheists suffer from damage to the sensus divinitatis, so their natural awareness of God is severly impeded" (pp. 113-14).

In the fifth and final chapter, Spiegel calls "The Blessings of Theism." Perhaps a better title would be "The Blessings of Virtue." He begins by pointing out that the life of virtue lived by Christian theists is a powerful apologetic tool, especially for atheists who, because of their paradigm-induced blindness, may be incapable of appreciating the merit of our apologetic arguments. Movever, living the virtuous life helps to maintain faith and theistic belief because it helps avoid those vices that can give one a motive for unbelief. Also, given the truth of theism and the connection between virtue and truth acquisition, "the more viruously one lives, the more truths one is able to access, including truths about God and how to obey him" (p. 117). Spiegel goes on to show that theistic belief has some special emotional benefits unavailable to the atheist, such as the right to complain in the face of injustice and the privilege of thanksgiving. He concludes with an admonition to Christians to live virtuously for the sake of reaching atheists with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Making of an Atheist is a welcome addition to the growing literature responding to the New Atheism. Its unique contribution lies in its head-on attack on the root causes of atheism, turning the tables by showing that it is not the theist who suffers from an irrational psychological wish-fulfillment, but the atheist who is in fact in the grip of a powerful, self-induced delusion. The book is written in a popular style and at a level for the lay reader. It will no doubt be criticized for its lack of philosophical rigor in places (places where Spiegel summarizes the more detailed work of others), but Spiegel effectively throws down the gauntlet before the atheist and challenges him to respond to the charge that his unbelief is unjustified and motivated by sin. It will not do for him to simply reply that Spiegel's attack is just an ad hominem one. Spiegel has provided ample evidence that not only are atheists guilty of sinful, rebellious behavior, but that this sinfulness affects their arguments. Christians need to read this book for the encouragement it gives them and the insight it provides into the psychology of unbelief. Atheists need to read it because of the serious challenge that it makes to their unbelief, a challenge that confirms Paul's assertion that unbelievers "are without excuse" (Rom 1:20).

Reviewed by Steven B. Cowan

Monday, March 1, 2010

New Paper Critiquing Dawkins' New Atheism Published in 'Think'

My paper 'The Emperor's Incoherent new Clothes - Pointing the Finger at Dawkins' Atheism' has just been published in the latest edition of Think (Number 24, Volume 9, Spring 2010).

Think is a Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, edited by Stephen Law and published by Cambridge University Press.

I argue that Richard Dawkins' 'new atheism' proffers self-contradictory ideas about moral value, knowledge and responsibility.

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