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Monday, July 28, 2014

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, and the "New Atheism"

I have gone on record as being opposed to what I and others call the "New Atheism," as exemplified by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.  I sign on almost in full to the argument against this new "irreligious right" that one anonymous author, who calls him/herself Aphaniptera, made several years ago and generously made available for free online (really, you should read it if you care at all about the issue).

I have not changed my mind about the New Atheism, but Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 2010 novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, presents a challenge to my position I cannot ignore.  And if it doesn't change my mind--and I'm not positive that changing anyone's mind on that score is Goldstein's goal--it compels me to look anew and with more charity the claims made by the New Atheism.

The challenge, put simply, is this.  The New Atheism is more than just the overly simplistic, question-begging arguments that its most famous apologists make.  It is also a mentality, a variety of (ir)religious illusion that like most such illusions represents a worldview, a myth, that merits respect even as one grapples with and points out its shortcomings and dangers.  If I, who insist that religious-minded people be treated with respect and who shudder every time I hear an acquaintance make a disparaging remark against "those evangelicals," decline to allow a certain respect, then I am not following my own values.

Well, what is the novel about?  Its protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is an up-and-coming scholar in psychology who has just written a study entitled Varieties of Religious Illusion, a deliberate echo of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience published more than 100 years ago.  Like James's work and in the spirit of intellectual empathy epitomized by James, Seltzer's book explores the ways most people, even ostensibly non-religious people, act and think in very similar ways to religious folk and often without fully realizing they do so.  At the end of his book, Seltzer appends a list of "36 arguments for the existence of god" and the logical counterarguments that devastate all but the 36th argument, which is the pantheistic claim about "god's" immanence in nature advanced by Spinoza.  In the novel, tt is this appendix that captures most non-believers' attention, prompting some of them, in a failure of reading comprehension, to suggest Seltzer could have just published the appendix without the rest of the study.  (Curiously, one Amazon reviewer seems to adopt that view, too.  That reviewer seems serious, although I won't dismiss the possibility that he's "going meta" on us.)

Seltzer's book earns him the moniker "New Atheist with a heart," and he wins interviews with popular magazines and seems on his way to a promotion from an "almost Harvard" small university to Harvard itself.  The novel charts his progress toward this end and intermixes that progress with at least three subplots.  The first is his intellectual and academic history as a graduate student.  His mentor, a famous scholar of religious studies, rails repeatedly against the "scientism" of our age.  The second is his love-life with a high-achieving academic who enjoys "fanging" (i.e., embarrassing and rendering speechless) during the question-and-answer period anyone presenting a conference paper or other presentation.  She is on her way down, having been demoted from Princeton to Seltzer's lowly university because of a political miscalculation on her part.  She hopes to climb up again to a better, more respected university.  But she doesn't forget her devotion to the "real"--i.e., "hard" and empirically rigorous--aspects of psychological science and looks upon her lover's "soft-science" psychological studies with a benign but condescending bemusement.

The third subplot involves Seltzer's encounters with a Hasidic community in New York and in particular, the precocious and prodigious son of that community's rabbi.  The son has his own challenges.  For instance, his intellectual ability enables him to intuit the theory of prime numbers long before he has had any formal instruction.  From those logical heights, the child can see something we might call an ever-present spirituality (a Spinoza-style pantheism?).  However, he has difficulty believing in the personal god of his Hasidic community, and he has to negotiate and balance his skepticism with the fact that he is next in line to be that community's rabbi. 

The novel is much more nuanced and complicated than even my longish summary suggests.  And my review here is an engagement with just one aspect of it, namely, its portrayal of Seltzer as a "New Atheist" and the climactic scene in which Seltzer debates a vocal, strident theist, named Findlay.  Goldstein portrays Seltzer throughout the book as a thoughtful, empathetic young man.  Perhaps he is meant to be what William James would have been had he lived now?  She definitely does not portray Seltzer as the bellicose, boorish wag that, say, Hitchens and Dawkins come off to me as.  In the novel's climax, the debate with Findlay, it is Findlay the theist who adopts the dishonest, question-begging, and emotion-laden arguments.  Seltzer, the "atheist with a heart," makes and defends the modest point that the argument for the existence of god is weaker than the evidence against it and that it is more likely god doesn't exist than that he does.

One of my many reactions while reading the novel was that Seltzer was not truly a "New Atheist."  (Another reaction was great, laugh-outloud enjoyment at the digs Goldstein makes at the pretentious culture of academia.)  His "more likely than not" argument is a far cry from the claim that "religion poisons everything" or that the religious impulse represents merely a vestigial reflex that has long outlived whatever evolutionary usefulness it had.  He doesn't bait religion as inherently unethical or bad.  His engagement with the son of the Hasidic rabbi is one of both wonder at the boy's intelligence and a great respect for the two traditions--religious and intellectual--with which the boy grapples.

My "not truly a 'New Atheist'" reaction is a form of reverse "no true Scotsman" fallacy.  Seltzer is not a convenient "New Atheist" to argue against.  And the fact the novel made me realize that fallacy on my part is the challenge it presents to me. By focusing so much on what the "New Atheists" argue, I'm neglecting the sincere sentiment they represent.  I could--and do--argue that those scholars, in the specific academic, intellectual milieu in which they operate, can afford to make better arguments and avoid the fallacies in their reasoning.  In other words, in their specific milieu, they are not the marginalized group that atheists in our society generally are, and therefore I believe I can expect more than slogans and sloppy logic.  In other words, criticizing Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. for what they say and how they say it is not the equivalent of telling a marginalized person, "okay, you can try to claim your rights, but you have to ask nicely."

But if we're talking general society and not, say, academia's or the New School, then it behooves me to cut people more slack.  I need to understand that the non-believer's impulse comes from somewhere and that it's not reducible to illogic any more than my modest pro-theism is reducible to its own illogic.  As Burt Likko at Ordinary Times has said elsewhere (unfortunately, I don't have a citation):  we can't really control whether we believe in god or not.  At some point, we all--or most--assume something about ultimate reality or about the nature of what counts as evidence for or against that reality.  Perhaps instead of deriding those people who disagree with me, I should jettison the term.  Even the pseudonymous Aphaniptera, who I mention above, acknowledges the difficulty of the term "New Atheism."  "[O]n the whole it has become such a commonplace among their [the New Atheists'] critics that while few of them can dispense with the term 'New Atheist,' almost all of those same critics seem compelled to qualify their use of it.  While I have so far seen fit to follow established usage, it seems to me that the aim should be to reform the term or dispense with it altogether." [page 9]

At least, that's one of my takeaways from Goldstein's book.  I fear, however, that the novel itself is over my head, that it's making an argument I don't grasp wholly, perhaps because I'm not as familiar with philosophy or science as she is.  I recommend that you read it for yourself.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

next to our liberty, the most dear

I get the argument against Obamacare.  It will probably lead to increased costs even if it lowers prices in the short term.  It will probably mean some people will have to pay more in order to ensure that other people can pay less.  It will do little to nothing to solve the shortage of doctors and medical providers.  And many of its provisions are constitutionally questionable, regardless of what the Supreme Court says.  I stipulate to most of those arguments, even as I say it's probably worth the cost as long as a few good things come out of it [click here to see my argument].

What I don't get is the tactic some of Obamacare's opponents have now taken against it.  It comes by way of a statutory challenge over the subsidies to lower income health insurance purchasers.  Apparently the text of the statute suggests that federal subsidies can be given only to people who buy insurance on state-implemented insurance exchanges.  In those states where the state government has declined to set up an exchange, and where the federal government therefore sets up its own exchange, the language of the statute suggests subsidies cannot be given.The challenge might succeed, and as Megan McArdle says, success would mean crippling the ACA.

To be clear, the true blame for that outcome would go to the legislators who drafted the bill and the president who signed it into law.  As McArcle points out and as anyone who followed the issue knows, the law itself was a patchwork and its supporters wanted to revise it and iron out the rough parts.  They lacked the supermajority necessary because of Scott Brown's election to the Senate.  So they had to force the text of the bill through a "reconciliation" process that admitted of no amendments or much debate that might very well have clarified such sticky points as the subsidy question.  At the time, one could hear some supporters say something to the effect of, "let's let it pass and then we'll see what's in it."

So if we presume that Obamacare is bad and that it's indisputably better to destroy this bad thing and leave in place whatever is left over, then challenging the subsidy provision is as a good a tactic as any.

However, I question the priorities of those who are leading this charge.  The practical, short term effect of a successful challenge won't really be to overturn the law or to make things better.  It will be to strike at the most vulnerable people, the poorer people who need the subsidies to buy the insurance.  And keep in mind that the states with federal exchanges are more likely to be states that have opted not to participate in the Medicaid expansion.

I suppose that someone playing the long game would say that striking down subsidies for federal exchanges would increase dissatisfaction with the law, dissuade otherwise healthy younger persons from getting insurance, and thereby lead to the law's repeal, perhaps replacing it with the status quo ante or with something better.  Another goal I can imagine is to encourage insurance companies to offer cheaper rates, based on the argument that subsidizing the customer is actually subsidizing the entity from which the customer purchases the insurance.  But it seems like a low blow.  And the most likely effect in my opinion will be to keep the law in place and reduce poorer customers' access to insurance.

According to McArdle's article, Jonathan Adler is one of the "architects" of this strategy.  Adler used to write, and for all I know still does write, for the Volokh Conspiracy (I haven't read that blog for quite a while).  He is, I understand, a "libertarian" legal scholar, and therefore objects to Obamacare in principle.  And while he is not all libertarians and the definition of libertarianism does not begin and end with him, his choice to adopt this tactic plays into my decision not to identify myself as a libertarian.  It is one thing to hold a principled objection to the insurance mandate and to the likely perverse incentives created by a law.  It's quite another to take aim at the least affluent people.  It's still another thing to take identify oneself with the side that either cheers this tactic on or stands by politely as some of the most vulnerable people are targeted.

I admit that that is ultimately an irrelevant reason to disavow libertarianism.  The tribal signalling and wars of position do not strike at the heart of what I take libertarianism to be about, which is respect for individual autonomy and a struggle to expand choices available for people.  And I know some libertarians who probably despise the law and are ambivalent about social welfare provision in general, but who nevertheless suggest we focus on more egregious violations of liberty, like targeted assassinations and mass incarceration.  And I can, albeit reluctantly, see a rationale behind this attack-the-subsidy tactic beyond the desire to buttress the cv's of a coterie of tenured radicals who whatever the justness of their cause seem to take a lot of joy in deconstructing well-meaning if very flawed policy.  But I do question the priorities of someone who does so and of the team to which that person belongs.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

On the dangers of being right

Every once in a while on the Blogosphere--especially at Ordinary Times--I'll run across someone who admits to having supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Usually, I'm very, very surprised because these people seem like the type who wouldn't support an invasion.  And in fact, the three people at Ordinary Times I have in mind have repented of their earlier support.  They admitted they were wrong.  It just seems strange to me that any sensible person would have supported that endeavor.  And yet those three people I am thinking of are all sensible and from what I know of them by what they've written, much smarter and better writers than I.

I suppose one lesson to take from this is to be wary of assigning what is or is not a sensible position, because there but for the grace of a politician I happen to support go I.

I never supported the war or the invasion.  There was a point, about six years ago, when I came to the conclusion that protests against the war might be counterproductive or at least have the unhappy effect of unwittingly supporting the insurgents (even then, I would never outlaw protests) and when I conceded that the invasion having happened, it's not an easy call about what the US should do next.  But I've never really changed my assessment of the war itself.  The invasion was wrong and a mistake, and the subsequent troubles were the fruit of that mistake.

I believe I was right in my position.  But I wasn't wholly right.  I "opposed" the war more because I thought I was supposed to.  I disliked war and thought war was something to be opposed.  Being a leftist (which I no longer identify as), I thought the war was basically a manifestation of capitalist-imperialist blah blah blah.*  I probably would have opposed the war if it had been President Gore's project, but the fact that it was President Bush II's project made it easier for me to oppose it.  (And for the record, I strongly suspect the US was on a collision course with Iraq and that a President Gore might very well have initiated some action beyond the Clinton-era policy of flyovers.  But we'll never know, and your counter-factual is as good as mine.)

But I must stress a couple points here.  First, I didn't follow the issue all that closely.  I knew the US was approaching war.  I knew something about Mr. Bush's and Mr. Powell's speeches before the UN.  Once in a blue moon I read letters to the editor of the local newspaper who discussed the war.  And I remember hearing something about Hanx Blix and investigations of weapons of mass destruction.  But I dropped the ball where it mattered and didn't keep myself informed.

Second, before the invasion, I did absolutely nothing to make my opposition known.  There were at least a couple of marches I could have participated in.  I could have written my congresspersons.  I could have done much more than I did.  That probably would not have made a difference.  But I could have done something.  I did nothing. 

Here's a scene from shortly after the invasion started.  I was on a bus in Denver.  The bus wasn't full, but there was a sizeable number of people riding it. A young lady, probably in her early twenties, got on.  She war an antiwar button.  It was prominently placed so anyone could see it if they looked in her direction.  I remember thinking at that time--and since that time--how brave that action must have been.  That wasn't a safe time or place to sport such a button.  As far as I know, she suffered no consequences--at least not that night on that bus ride--for wearing it.  But she couldn't have known that when she got on the bus.

*As of now, I think it was definitely imperialist, but I have a lot of difficulty seeing the "capitalist" part of it, perhaps because I despair of really finding a workable definition of capitalism and of outlining how that definition can explain the war.  The reasons might be both simpler and more complex than "it was capitalism."  To quote Gandalf, there is such a thing as malice and revenge.