Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Reppert on Culpable Ignorance

In a recent piece at his blog, Victor Reppert takes issue with John Loftus for saying that he was ignorant regarding the question of what it takes to convince atheists of God's existence.  This is a topic that I have already commented about here.  A few days later, Loftus also responded to Reppert in a somewhat different manner.  The thrust of his argument was that he had already answered the question in detail, but Reppert refuses to read it.  So, like other defenders of the faith, Victor is arguing from a position of ignorance.  If only they understood atheists' claims about evidence and skepticism, they would surely realize that their complaints about atheists' unwillingness to accept evidence for belief in God are unfounded.  And I must say, I agree with Loftus on this.  Victor simply doesn't listen to what we have to say.

Where I part ways with Loftus is in his focus on the word 'ignorant'.  Even though Loftus assures us that it is not intended as a personal attack on Reppert, he hammered his point home by using the word repeatedly.  And not surprisingly, Victor did take it as a personal insult.
I just wonder who your audience is. Your fellow atheists? Low information believers? All you do here is call me a name. There are no arguments in this post whatsoever. The entire discussion begs the question. - Reppert
And Loftus answered by calling him massively and culpably ignorant.
Vic, your ignorance is massive and culpable. It's important for someone to reveal it. This isn't about disliking you. You're quite likeable. You're just ignorant, pretending you know things that you don't know. - Loftus
By that, he means that Victor refuses to become informed about atheists' stance on the question and understand their perspective.  Again, he's correct.  But unfortunately, the real point of Loftus' argument seems to have been lost because of his focus on this word 'ignorant'.  Victor complains about personal attacks, and the low-lifes who inhabit Debunking Christianity.  (UM, excuse me, Victor, but you certainly have your share of low-life commenters, too.  And this has been duly noted by others besides myself.)

Now, rather than responding to the main point that Loftus raises, Victor has turned his attention to the word 'culpable'.  His point is that in a world governed by naturalism, where our actions are determined by physical conditions rather than free will, there can be no culpability.  It is the atheistic position, he supposes, that we are just cogs in a mechanistic apparatus, governed by physics, and lacking any ability to control ourselves.  As evidence for this, he cites a rather famous article by Richard Dawkins that decries the use of retributive punishment, and use of the words 'blame' and 'responsibility' in the context of morality and human wrongdoing.  And I must admit that by taking a narrow view of Dawkins' words, it might be easy to forget about the context and make the claim that this atheist holds to the view that we are nothing more than cogs in the machine:
But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? - Dawkins
OK.  Maybe you can get away with that if you want to ignore the bigger picture, in which Dawkins Dawkins does use the word 'responsible' in a non-moralistic sense that is entirely consistent with the point that Loftus is making.  For instance, he has described the God hypothesis as
... the total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation ... - Dawkins [The God Delusion]
And if it is easy to take Dawkins out of context, it isn't so easy in the case of Jerry Coyne, whose article on free will and responsibility is also cited by Reppert as contributing to this notion that we are simply mindless cogs.  The trouble is that in that article, Coyne makes it clear that he distinguishes between "moral responsibility" and responsibility in a more general sense:
... we can still hold people responsible, but not morally responsible. - Coyne
What Coyne means by moral responsibility is the idea that there should be retributive punishment for one's behavior.  He makes it perfectly clear that punishment in the form of corrective action is appropriate when someone misbehaves, and that is an acknowledgment of the fact that people do have a measure of self-control over their own behaviors, even if the brain operates mechanistically at the lowest level.  In other words, the picture is rather more complicated than the simplistic cog-in-the-machine view that Victor wants to paint atheists with.
Sorry, atheists, but on your own view, everyone is doing what they have to do. You can't blame us believers from believing in God, even if we were delusional. - Reppert
Which brings me back to the point that Loftus was making - the point that was studiously ignored by Reppert.  Because Victor is diligent enough to go out and find quotes that help him make his case about atheists' views, but he only sees one part of what they say.  He seems to be completely unwilling to understand or even acknowledge the more nuanced view of reality that most atheists actually hold, whether it's about the question of free will, or about our acceptance of evidence for the existence of God.  Believe it or not, Victor, we do base our beliefs on evidence, and it's all explained in considerable detail by people like Loftus, if only you care to read and understand what they are saying. 

And yes, our thoughts and actions are physically determined.  Yes, we believe that libertarian free will is an illusion.  But at the same time, the complexity of our brain and its interaction with the world gives us a measure of autonomy that cogs don't have.  We internalize our external influences, and we have no choice but to respond to the world in a deliberative manner that amounts to much more than a simple mechanistic reaction to the immediate physical forces acting upon us from outside.

Should we be held responsible when our behavior is defective?  Absolutely.  Bad behavior can be correctable.  A person can be taught to internalize the influences that would then cause him to correct his own behavior.  This is not what a cog in the machine does.  It's what responsible people do in the natural world.

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