Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Is Richard Shumack Delusional?

Peter Boghossian engaged in a rather strange debate* with a guy called Richard Shumack a few years ago in which he laid out the characteristics of delusion.  To be deluded, Boghossian maintained, using the words of Karl Jaspers, you have to sincerely hold a belief that is implausible, and that belief has to be incorrigible.  In other words, you really need to believe what you say you believe (you can’t just be mouthing a commonly held belief and you can’t be just joking with someone).  You can’t be argued out of that belief.  And the belief must not only be false, it must be unbelievable by a reasonable person or the evidence must be heavily stacked against it.

The last two criteria are very closely linked, incorrigibility and implausibility, because the more you refuse to accept evidence against your claims and more questionable the “evidence” brought forward in support of your claims, the more implausible your claims are.

To show that your belief is not a delusion you need to demonstrate two things, 1) the claims associated with that belief are plausible and 2) you are willing to change the nature of your belief in the presence of contradicting evidence.

Boghossian showed, with some technical issues, a short clip with William Lane Craig talking about the nature of “faith”.  WLC quite clearly states that if “in some historically contingent circumstances” the weight of evidence turned against christianity, then it would not affect his faith because he has “the witness of the holy spirit in (his) heart”.  Under WLC’s interpretation of the “proper relationship between faith and reason”, faith trumps reason – or perhaps we could less kindly say that, when in a “proper relationship”, faith ignores reason, at least when reason indicates that the contents of faith are wrong.  Additionally, he makes an unsubstantiated claim (at least not in this context, it can be implied that the substantiation is biblical) that if a believer has intellectual doubts, then that can be attributed to Satan who is forever trying to destroy faith thus implying that any effort of reason that speaks against faith could always due to be satanic influences and providing a theological motivation for ignoring reason.

This is very much an indication that WLC is almost all the way to delusion – his beliefs appear to be sincerely held (he’s not a televangelist, so he doesn’t appear to be in it for the money like Kenneth Copeland [net worh $760M] or even Billy Graham [net worth $25M]), his beliefs are incorrigible by his own admission and the beliefs are inherently implausible because they include (amongst other things) belief in miracles which are, by definition, implausible.

The only thing that could save WLC from delusion would be truth of his claims under theism – if his god were to exist.

The debate, however, was not Boghossian vs. WLC, it was Boghossian vs. Shumack.  Shumack appeared to do well enough against the one prong of the Boghossian attack, his attempt to explain that if we are going to “know” something then we need to bring empirical evidence – so a tape measure to obtain the dimensions of a door, not divination, or a dog’s opinion, or the ceremonial sacrifice of a goat.

It should be noted however that this example was raised in the context of explaining that there can be better and worse ways of “knowing” things.  For measuring a door, a better way is to bring a tape measure.  If it’s a standard, unmodified door, then you can look up the standard – but to know whether it’s standard door, you need to measure it otherwise you’re just guessing.  Worse ways include guessing, using woo and asking someone who has no reason to know the dimensions of the door.

Shumack totally ignored the actual message and the motivation behind the example.  Instead, he talked about how there are other ways to “know” things that do not call upon empirical evidence – including the testimony of other people and one’s own personal anecdotal evidence – without acknowledging that some of these ways, if not all of them, are worse than empirical evidence.

He also ignored Boghossian’s follow-on from the door example, the argument that we all want to increase the number of true beliefs that we hold and reduce the number of false beliefs that we hold and that there are two processes that work against that: holding beliefs that are not based on evidence and holding beliefs based on what we believe to be evidence which is actually not evidence.  Note that I did not remove the term “empirical” from Boghossian’s argument because Boghossian didn’t use the term at this point.  Sure, he considers the tape measure to be a good device for obtaining evidence and that evidence would be empirical evidence, but he implicitly accepts that there are other kinds of evidence (not as good as empirical evidence, but evidence nonetheless).

Directly after, Boghossian approaches the meat of his presentation, in which he argues that religious belief is clearly delusional (so much so that religious belief requires an explicit exemption in the DSM-V’s definition of delusion).

Shumack did not address this at all.  Even when given time to reflect and put his words into an opinion piece, he hardly addressed the issue (and then only in passing while criticising “scientism”).

So, the key question was: Is Richard Shumack delusional?

Well, he’s a christian, so on those grounds he qualifies since christian beliefs are (when done properly) sincerely held, incorrigible and implausible.  Unless his god actually exists, of course, but Shumack didn’t make an effort to prove that his god exists.  His aim was to show that “theism can be held by reasonable or reliable epistemology“.

I’m going to look, therefore, at delusion in terms of these aims.  I’m going to assume that Shumack left that interaction with the belief that he succeeded in his aims (his article written later made no admission that he failed to do so and I am presuming that he is a sincere chap who would have acknowledged such a failure if he believed that he had suffered one).  The video is up on line, and he has probably reviewed it and even if he hasn’t the unwillingness to review evidence is problematic.  If there is evidence in the video of that debate that indicates that he failed to achieve his aim, then we can call his belief incorrigible.  All we need to do now is work out whether a belief that he achieved his aim is plausible or not.

To do so, we need to assess what he presented in light of what Boghossian had just said, specifically about better and worse types of knowledge.  Were any of the ways of coming to knowledge described by Shumack sufficiently good as to be called reasonable and/or reliable?  Note that I am going to discuss plausibility, given that believing in something plausible is reasonable and clearly (although after the fact) a belief that turns out to be reliable is thus shown to have been plausible.

Rather than relying on the video, I’m going to use his washup at Eternity News for two reasons.  First, it’s much easier to refer to than a video, and second, a piece of published writing can be polished and perfected while there is plenty of scope to misspeak while behind a speaker’s podium (Boghossian referred to Shumack as “Robert” for example, while his name is Richard).  If there is something that he said that was significantly better than in the written version, feel free to let me know.

Shumack claims that “(c)hristian belief is based on all the ordinary ways of knowing” and he lists them: intuition, second- or third-hand eyewitness testimony, personal experience and, oddly, miracles. (His words, in context: “But here there’s a great irony. Scientism is revealed to be an extraordinary and unsustainable way of thinking about knowledge, whereas Christian belief is based on all the ordinary ways of knowing. Christians sensibly ground so many of their ethical and existential beliefs in intuition. Christians put their faith in Jesus in large part based on the eyewitness testimony to the historical events of his life, death and resurrection. Christians know God personally through the presence of the Holy Spirit and they experience his power through miracles like healing and visions.”)

What he leaves out are empirical evidence (my preferred type) and logical argument (WLC’s second favourite after personal experience).

Are these, in the absence of a presupposition as to the existence of a god, sufficient to make the belief in a god plausible?

The last shall be first, and in this case that is the humble miracle. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that this was actually in Shumack’s list of “ordinary ways” but I want to address it anyway.  A miracle, as earlier stated, is implausible by definition.  If your belief in something is based on something else that itself is implausible, you’ve got a problem right from the get go.  If I witness a miracle, I have to first consider it an aberration, a freak confluence of events or a misunderstanding or misremembering on my part.  If I am told about a miracle, I have to apply the same doubts, and add to it any doubt relating to unreliability of the witness.  Note that when we consider a miracle as the path to knowing, we must remember that that path passes through either eye-witness testimony or personal experience.

So, we really only have three truly “ordinary ways”, unless we drastically redefine the term “ordinary”: intuition, testimony and personal experience.  I have to point out here that Shumack raised these three in the context of an attack on “scientism”, not an attack on science.  If the below seems a bit too close to science, that should not be a problem per se, unless the reader wants to accuse me of scientism on the grounds of sounding too reasonable.

Let’s look at intuition.  What exactly is intuition?  According to the dictionary (well, a dictionary) it’s “the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning”.  Wikipedia says “Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired”. Well, that doesn’t augur well for Shumack’s initial aim (to show that theism can be held by reasonable or reliable epistemology), since reason itself has been jettisoned.  Is intuition reliable?  It’s certainly not 100% reliable, but perhaps it’s reliable enough for some things.  Is it reliable enough to know about what could be argued to be the most important thing you could ever know (were a god to exist)?

I would argue not.  Human advances have steamrolled over incorrect intuitions for millennia.  Logic exists to skewer intuitions and those holding them and make our thinking better and more ordered.  Consider Boghossian’s end-game regarding better and worse ways to know things.  Which is better, a) knowledge acquired without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, and/or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired, or b) with proof, evidence and conscious reasoning, and with an understanding as to how the knowledge was acquired?

Intuition might not be the worst way to start a trip towards knowledge, but it’s far from being the whole journey.  You certainly don’t want to rely solely on intuition, you want something more substantial to get you to knowledge.

So, what about testimony?  I’m going to be outrageously fair here and consider only eye-witness testimony, rather than second and third hand eye-witness testimony and firsthand testimony to gossip and hearsay.

While eye-witness testimony has been considered the gold standard in court cases (somewhat eclipsed now by forensic evidence), it has always been dodgy.  There is an increasing body of work which shows that humans are unreliable eye-witnesses but we don’t need to trawl through the scientific literature to make the point.  The point is adequately made for us by christians who have a bible in which there are four gospels, all of which differ to some extent or another.  The very need to include four perspectives relates to the unreliability of testimony.

Perhaps considering the gospels as eye-witness testimony might be thought of as a trap, but even if we consider the works as collations of reports of people who may or may not have been eye-witnesses, we are still relying on the ability (and will) of the authors to correctly relate what they have been told and the reliability of the original eye-witnesses whose tales have passed from person to person in an oral history tradition.

Add to this the fact that when a christian is accepting the testimony of another they are treating their source as an authority for some reason.  If these authorities have arrived at their knowledge via a questionable epistemology, then you are just putting off the problem of how to arrive at knowledge rather than solving it.

And then we have personal experience.  Personal experience is really no more than zero hand (rather than firsthand) eye-witness testimony, since it only works as a form of knowing when you relate your experiences back to yourself and try to understand them and to place them in a comprehensible context.  Above I pointed to the fact that there are problems with the reliability of eye-witness testimony and this is not entirely limited to people who are eye-witnesses and who are testifying to someone else.

All people are unreliable with regard to their own personal experiences, to a greater or lesser extent.  They can be misled, confused and ignorant.  They can leap to incorrect assumptions, especially if sufficiently motivated to do so – as well they might be if life eternal is on offer.  They can misinterpret their memories, muddle them up and even construct them out of whole cloth where required (my younger brother used to clearly remember our house burning down, despite it happening three months before he was born and a work colleague often confidently reports events that no-one else in the office has any recollection of, he’s so extremely non-synoptic that we could refer to him as “John”).

As with intuition, and similarly to the eye-witness testimony of others, personal experience is an adequate starting point on the way to knowledge, but to bridge the gap between opinion and knowledge, we must accept that our memories are questionable (when they aren’t better described as feeble) and that we are plagued by confirmation and other biases.  And, especially when what we think has happened is rather odd, we must seek confirmation if we are going to transform our personal experiences into knowledge of more than a memory (we will know that we remember, but we won’t know that what we remember happened as we remember it).  To be of any use, that confirmation is going to have to be via the collation and assessment of appropriate evidence.  In other words, via a sort of scientific process – perhaps not the hardest of hard science, but at least some sort of impartial evidence gathering and assessment process.

Is Richard Shumack delusional to think that he can know anything via intuition, testimony and personal experience without taking scientific-like steps to bridge the gap between his opinions (and presuppositions) and actual knowledge?  Yes, I think he might be a tad delusional.

The only thing that might save him, allowing him to be either accidentally in possession of knowledge or even correctly in possession of knowledge (via a divine boost to the reliability a personal experience vis a vis interactions with the holy spirit), would be the existence of his god.  Unfortunately however, he made no real attempt to show that his god exists.

* Note that I call the debate strange because of its structure – 30 minutes for Peter Boghossian, 15 minutes for Richard Shumack, 30 minutes for structured questions for clarification and then a Q&A free-for-all.  Usually a debate gives each debater equal time to present their case.  Perhaps Shumack felt that he could smash his case in less time than Boghossian needed (along with less technology).  He did, after all, have god on his side …

Monday, 11 February 2019

Ethical Structure vs. Hi-Phi Nation - Respecting the Wishes of the Dead

I have heard a bit about Hi-Phi Nation for a while, but only just recently subscribed to the podcast and started listening to their back-catalogue.  It’s really rather good and the first episode certainly got me thinking.  The key questions were what do we owe the dead, should we respect their wishes and what implication would not respecting the wishes of the dead have on the living?

An easy answer to the first question is “nothing”.  The dead are dead and if they don’t know that we are not respecting their wishes (which they can’t, due to their being dead), then our lack of compliance isn’t going to hurt them.  It’s an easy answer but it may be wrong.  You can quickly work through hypotheticals which indicate that, as a matter of fact, a person can be harmed by actions of which they are not aware and which they may never know about.

The example given was a person in a coma who is abused.  The nature of the coma (and the abuse) is that when the person awakes from the coma, they will be totally unaware of having been abused.  Our intuition is that it’s not okay to abuse such a person.  Then consider a person who is in a permanent coma.  Is it ok to abuse such a person, given that they will never awaken?  It would seem not, remembering that we stipulated that the person would never be aware of having been abused and the potential to awaken isn’t the key factor in determining whether abuse of one’s comatose body is acceptable or not.  Then consider the newly dead.  Then the recently dead.  Then the longer term dead.

There’s an element of the Sorites paradox to this sort of thinking, which might invalidate the final conclusion that the dead can in fact be harmed, but it’s certainly intuitively persuasive – as is the notion that the dead are dead and thus can’t be harmed.  They can’t both be right, can they?

Well, maybe they can.  Sort of.

It is true that the dead are dead and, for that reason, cannot be harmed.  However, a person can be considered to be more than their mere physical body and the mind generated by their brains.  In the Morality as Playing Games series of articles, I discussed Physical Survival and Legacy Survival, basically in terms of how both are important and how we might sacrifice the former for the latter.  Parents will sacrifice themselves for their offspring, people will sacrifice themselves for great causes and some would die before allowing their good name to be tarnished.  We all generate a legacy of some sort during our lives, for good or ill, and that legacy is a part of what it is to be us.  And it doesn’t necessarily disappear when our physical bodies die.  We do tend to be willing to let negative legacies lapse on death (albeit not always, which is why crowds have been known to desecrate the corpse of a tyrant from time to time) – but positive legacies are frequently maintained, often by other positive legacies … in other words the followers, friends and families of great people will keep a foundation going long after they have passed, or will maintain a mausoleum or a statue, or keep a project going, and so on and so forth.

It should be noted here that these are all the actions of the living, on behalf of the living only via veneration of the dead.  These people want to retain links to greatness, so they keep alive the legacy of the dead.  This means that those who would actually be harmed by not respecting the wishes of the dead are these followers, friends and family who are still alive.


So, how can the Ethical Structure deal with the wishes of the dead?

Recall that an idea associated with the Ethical Structure is that our morality is built around a moral agent’s concern for self-preservation.  Each moral agent in inherently making an assessment as to whether the acts and behaviours of others are threatening to their own survival in some broader sense.  And there are layers of concern around the moral agent that indicate higher levels of threat as each layer is penetrated.

For example, there is an implicit threat when someone enacts violence against a thing – they are demonstrating a lack of control and a certain level of willingness to use violence.  There is a higher threat when the thing attacked is a living thing.  Then a higher threat when that living thing is a human being.  And an even higher threat when that human being is a human being like me in some way.  An extremely worrying threat is when that human being being harmed actually is me (because the willingness to harm is on the path towards a willingness to kill or destroy).  So, we consider the harm enacted by someone to be a moral wrong with a severity that depends on the associated threat – from petty vandalism through to murder (you might want to ignore the legal associations there).

We have a concern about our standing in our groups (ie in society), because being expelled from a group makes us vulnerable.  Harm to our status is therefore considered to be a moral wrong and we assess threats to our status in a manner quite similar to the assessment of threats to our survival.  If we see people attacking the status of other people [and maybe even things], or disrespecting them without good justification, we become concerned because we could become victims of such attacks or disrespect.

Considering other people, we need to remember that while there truly are people out there in the real world acting in accordance with motivations that we can only guess at, we do not interact directly with those people.  Instead we interact with the representations of these people that we have generated in our own heads and, as a consequence, it is these representations that are the most immediate to us rather than the people they are based on.  Representations are not necessarily discarded as soon as the represented person dies and so, in our heads, the dead live on as salient, abidingly relevant representations, together with their wishes and their legacies.  And when we see someone acting against the interests of a representation of a person, even if that person is no longer alive, we interpret that as a potential threat to our own interests because we could be next.

So, while on an intellectual level we can know with great certainty that the dead are not harmed by disrespect, we can still consider representations of the dead to be vulnerable and since there is an emergent moral injunction against harm, we can interpret harming of the dead as a moral wrong.

Note that we must of course be aware of something meaningful associated with the dead that can be harmed.  For example, a statue to war a hero or supposed discoverer of a land (ignoring the natives already in residence), or a legally established foundation that hands out money for various reasons (Hershey or Nobel or Pulitzer).  If an individual person is dead long enough, their desires and wishes and their legacy evaporate and we need no longer worry about them.  We do however feel a moral obligation to respect the wishes of groups of people, namely the people who make up our history and who established the mores and standards of our society – although in this case I would place this, at least in part, in the lowest tier of the Ethical Structure “obey my rules”.  Whose rules are respected relates to who is respected, which usually relates to respect of people and organisations long dead, but obeying rules without knowing specifically who established them is a fundamental (low-level but nevertheless important) method for signalling that you are not a threat.


Should we respect the wishes of the dead?  It depends.  Are we at all invested in the legacy of the dead in question (even if we might not know who they are specifically)?  Are the wishes of the dead consistent with our current mores and standards?  If yes to these, then yes, probably.

If, as in the case of Hershey, the law is entangled with the wishes of the dead via a legal charitable foundation, then morality may no longer be operative because the law itself is not moral.  Morality only comes into sight when one is deciding whether to obey the law or not, or whether the law itself (in this case with regard to obligations with respect to foundations and trusts) ought to be changed.