Showing posts with label atheism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label atheism. Show all posts

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Cosmological Argument: Doubts, Difficulties and My Thoughts

About three years ago I became a theist because I found the cosmological argument irresistibly compelling at a rational level. I did not become affiliated with any religion straight away, although I became a Christian not too long after. Today I no longer believe the cosmological argument is sound or can be known to be sound. Let me emphasise this point because it has two parts: (1) I do not find any version of the cosmological argument known to me to be rationally compelling and (2) I do not believe that such an argument can be formulated such that the conclusion (that God exists) is known with certainty.

Where that places my Christianity or theism more broadly is unclear to me. Some people contend that it should remain entirely unaffected because I have a personal relationship with God which transcends rationality. However, relationships seem to me to be based on elements of reason and other elements which go beyond reason. This can be illustrated with the usual analogy used for arguing faith as a virtue: if there seems to be evidence that my spouse is cheating on me, I give her the benefit of the doubt because of how much faith I have in her. But what is the basis of this faith? It is the experience of my spouse in the past and from there, the knowledge of her character. It is a faith built on evidence.

Belief in God, I would say, is much more like online dating without the benefit of cameras or telephones. Certainly, over the course of an online friendship, two people would get to know each other and some degree of trust could establish itself. In the back of their mind, however, is always the knowledge that in the past these people have turned out to be fake, always the knowledge that there exist master deceivers online in these forums. So faith is possible but it seems to lack certainty. Is this a problem? Perhaps not. Few things in life are certain. For me, nonetheless, the cosmological argument had given me a scrap of the closest thing to certainty I could have outside of the truths of mathematics and those most likely truths gleaned from the natural world. So for the argument to be unsound is tantamount to having the online dating website put a marker on the beloved's profile marking it as "Doubtfully Genuine." Any semblance of a relationship is viewed with suspicion and as perhaps the cunning ploy of a deceiver.

Let me enumerate the reasons that I do not think that the known cosmological arguments are sound. First of all, I have never been Aristotelian in my metaphysics (I have viewed with much more agreement the views of Locke and on occasion Hume and Kant, though I have no established metaphysics within which I operate) which means that I invariably find the arguments of St Thomas Aquinas to need reformulation, if only linguistic and cosmetic at points. Aristotle's metaphysics suffers from the same problem, in my opinion, which besets his natural philosophy: despite beginning with some observation, the addition of wildly speculative elements and, more importantly, ontologically realising his linguistic constructions renders a metaphysics which seems common sense but lacks critical grappling with real metaphysical problems. Aristotle's defenders continually accuse his critics (at least in my non-professional experience) of rejecting first principles which should be assumed as axiomatic, and yet this label given to common sense principles does not allow for their critical analysis. It is not the job of philosophy to make common sense reputable, but rather to seek for actual truth, and if common sense is misleading or false, then all the worse for common sense.

Secondly, to his first and second ways I say that I am entirely comfortable with the possibility of an "actual infinite," and so deny that there needs to be some first mover or first efficient cause. I can see why a naive view of infinities leads to paradoxes but in my studies of mathematics I have found no logical contradictions when infinity is rigorously defined; this is by no means to say that the conclusions of operating with infinities are common sense. However, un-intuitive should not be taken to mean false lest one makes of one's common sense an idol.

Thirdly, when it comes to arguments from contingency (as Aquinas' third way is), claims are made which are entirely unverified and implicitly deny, again, the possibility of an actual infinite. How does one know what sort of entity produces a contingent event? Clearly we know from experience that contingent events are produced by other contingent events. Why is it not possible for this to have gone on eternally in the past? More importantly, arguments from contingency are liable to the fallacy of composition which asserts that because the members of some whole have a property, then the whole must have it. This is sometimes true (if all the parts of a car are red, then the whole car is red) but it is not necessarily true (carbon atoms do not have the same properties as carbon allotropes like diamonds or graphite, or diamond and graphite would be identical). I see of no way of inferring that the universe is contingent based on its parts, particularly since:

Fourthly, even if a necessary agent was somewhere necessary in a sequence of contingent events, there is no reason to think that this agent is personal. It is quite conceivable that laws of nature are metaphysically necessary and so can produce contingent events. Why is the world the way it is? We explain everything in it by natural laws, so it is plausible that it can be explained as a whole by natural laws (though here I am asserting only possibility and plausibility). It is sometimes objected that natural laws only explain how to go from one state of affairs to another, not how the whole chain started, to which I reply with two points:

Fifthly, that the only natural laws we know are the ones that take one existing state of affairs to another by some means and mechanism, but this does not imply that these are the only natural laws that exist. This is particularly important because when cosmological arguments make claims about the beginning of all time-space and further claim that such an event would be impossible without a personal agent, they are implicitly are claiming knowledge about atemporal causation. What caused the Big Bang, they ask? But such a question requires a different type of causation to the one we are familiar with in day-to-day life because our daily notions of causality are that some event A which precedes B in time can be the cause of B. Yet there is no possible event of this type preceding the beginning of time, and so we must remain entirely agnostic as to what sort of causality is required. If the Big Bang was really the absolute beginning of all of time and space, then when it is said that it had a cause we are importing an entirely foreign notion to the event. When an argument like the Kalam says that everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence, it makes a claim bigger than the one we have experience of: that everything that begins to exist within time has a cause preceding it in time for its existence. So to that premise I simply say: I cannot know.

Sixthly, the rather major point that I am an instrumentalist and so I do not believe that the scientific theory of the Big Bang can be thought to have metaphysical implications. If you want to know more about the point of view known as "scientific anti-realism", have a look at the article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This means that in arguments like the Kalam where the universe is said to have a beginning, that premise must be proved by non-scientific means. If I was convinced of scientific realism, however, or even realism with respect to certain tenets, then I would furthermore believe two final points about quantum mechanics:

Seventhly, that the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics (or in other words, its under-determinism) leads to profound implications for the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) which underlies most if not all cosmological arguments. Where previously it was held to be certain that, if one measured something in a laboratory then it could in principle be explained uniquely by a preceding event, set of events or series of conditions, this need no longer be held. Every known result of quantum mechanics is consistent with the idea that an identical experiment can have different outcomes to which the only explanation is that the different outcomes were all possible. Because of Bell's theorem and its violation, I think a substantial case can be made that this result of quantum mechanics can be known to be metaphysically true.

Eightly, the interpretation of quantum mechanics which I favour as satisfactorily and elegantly explaining the results of physics is the many worlds interpretation. This actually is in dissonance with point seven and yet it still undermines some varieties of cosmological argument (albeit in a different way). This is because it removes the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics so much that it makes every event uncontingent. In technical terminology, all of physical reality is in a superposition of quantum states which make up a wavefunction that never gets collapsed. The classical analogue would be like flipping a coin and both heads and tails came up in different worlds which branch off from each other, equally real, but we experience only one of the two. To those who believe that many-worlds is quantum mumbo jumbo, I refer this article from Sean Carroll. The consequence of the many worlds interpretation is that the sum of all the contingent worlds makes a necessary whole, much like the sum of the two outcomes of the coin toss makes a necessary whole. That falsifies the claim of the argument from contingency.


For those who are still reading I am going to add a final point in support of my claim that the soundness of the cosmological argument is unknowable with certainty by reason and experience that is available to us without extra revelation (which would be in contention anyway). It is, you might say, an argument from pessimistic induction: as our knowledge of science progresses and we learn more about the natural world, what we learn above all is how alien to our common sense it is. This makes evolutionary sense: the minds of human beings were not formed to contemplate quarks or comprehend how energy produces the curvature of space-time.

It is unsurprising that we intuit things that are false, but if we are honest with our findings we must acknowledge that the world is a weirder place than we could previously assume. The more we realise how unlike our daily life the real world is on scales that exceed it (the very small, the very fast, the very big, the very hot, the very cold, etc.) the more we must acknowledge how little we can justify on the basis of what appears obvious. Cosmological arguments are obvious arguments but the cosmos is not obvious. Therefore, to any claim of knowledge furnishes the premises of such arguments I respond "How do you know that?" Do not be surprised if I do not consider "It is obvious" to be an answer.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Why the Problem of Evil Creates a Problem

Undoubtedly the problem of evil is the most viscerally appealing, intuitive and ancient argument against the existence of an omniperfect God. In its oldest form, the argument from the existence of evil seems to have been adequately addressed. It went something like this:

(1) If God exists, evil does not.
(2) But evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

The issue with this form of the argument is that it is too easy to show that the claim made in premise 1 is too strong; any plausible theodicy shows loopholes in the idea that God and evil cannot coexist. They standardly point to some good that could only be attained by allowing some evil, such as free will (part of Augustinian theodicy) or the importance of evil in spiritual growth (Irenaean theodicy). Some evil is a consequence of free will, which is important enough to tolerate that evil. Hence, it cannot be true that the existence of God is disproved by evil, since clearly God has reason to allow some evil.

The more modern and poignant form of the argument from evil is the evidential argument where evil is presented as something which lessens the probability of the existence of God rather than outright makes it impossible. These sorts of probabilistic arguments seem too nebulous to me to consider them seriously, so instead I will refer to the logical problem of evil with a more precise first and second premise: the argument from gratuitous evil.

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

Here, gratuitous evil is defined as evil that is not necessary to achieve some greater good. Explaining evil as required for some good is obviously not going to work here, but it does at least seem like gratuitous evil exists. Natural evils such as disease or natural disasters seem, in at least some proportion, to be gratuitous. Now, I think the theist has a very good counter at this point: just because it seems unclear to us why some particular evil exists does not mean that no such reason exists. We should be sceptical of our capacity to see the reason for evil if only because from out own experience we know that hindsight has shown particular events in our own lives which we evaluated as negative at the time to have redeeming positive qualities. Whoever had a day's sickness when the World Trade Centre went down, for instance, probably was not too pleased to be sick at the time and yet was rather pleased afterwards to know that they avoided a terrorist attack. God, however, has infinite foresight, so can see all the effects of any event and would be able to evaluate whether the good outweighs the bad.

This position is commonly known as sceptical theism and I think it is essentially correct. However, it implicitly contains ramifications which are disastrous for the religious person if not adequately addressed for it says something of the nature of God: God is clearly willing to tolerate evil for the sake of good. That is the implicit assumption of sceptical theism. This means that, in some sense, God is a consequentialist with regards to God's own actions (even if not for anyone else). What if God lies to us, or at least, allows some untruth to be said by some authoritative representative? Perhaps it could be responded that God would have no reason to do so - but sceptical theism has already postulated quite reasonably that God could have reasons which are beyond our comprehension or knowledge for allowing evil, therefore, God could allow such falsehood in divine revelation.

This in turn undermines the reliability of divine revelation as a whole, for the whole of sceptical theism is the statement that the absence of evidence for a reason does not imply evidence for the absence of a reason when it comes to what God allows or not. The philosopher Stephen Law goes further and argues that sceptical theism is a downwards spiral to the pits of scepticism, since all our faculties could be faulty if God had reason to deceive us, and for all we know God does in fact have such a reason. Law claims that full bodied scepticism is the logical end of sceptical theism, and whilst I disagree, it is irrelevant to the weaker claim which is that God's reliability is undermined.

Some theists reject sceptical theism because it leads to such consequences. To reject sceptical theism, however, is to claim that we must know the reasons behind God's actions, which seems patently false in general and more certainly false from a Christian perspective: the theodicy of the book of Job, for instance, seems essentially to assert sceptical theism. The unfathomable will of God, in turn, is cited by St Paul in his epistle to the Romans as the reason that salvation comes only to those whom God has elected. So sceptical theism, from the point of view of Christianity, seems true.

What can the Christian respond? I can only see one way out: faith. Let me be clear, however, by what I mean when using the word. I do not mean to say at this moment that Christians should believe God because they should trust that God could not have reasons to lie to them. That avenue is expressly ruled out by sceptical theism as a priori. What I mean is rather more inductive: based on the relationship to God as a person, Christians should bridge the gap and trust God. This is done every day by humans everywhere; we trust people who we know could be lying because we think we know them well enough to determine that they are not, in actual fact, lying. I believe this position at least safeguards the possibility of Christians considering divine revelation to be trustworthy. Once that is accepted it becomes a self-protecting belief because the Bible makes claims about God to the effect that God cannot lie, which can be interpreted as the claim that God could not have reasons to lie in actual fact.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Reflection: "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins

Disclaimer: this reflection will sometimes be very one-sided, since I decided to omit quoting Dawkins extensively. Many sections will make little sense without having read the book, for instance, the part on Gasking's parallel argument refutation of the ontological argument, where I say I reject all premises except perhaps the first, makes no sense unless one is familiar with his argument.

I got given "The God Delusion" in 2012 by a family member for Christmas, and I finally got round to reading it at the beginning of 2014.

For the strange person who is unfamiliar with Richard Dawkins or the movement of which he is part, some of which take this book as a manifesto, Dawkins is one of the so-called "New Atheists", which seems to be a 21st century popularization of atheism by Christopher Hitchens (now deceased), Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and, of course, Richard Dawkins. Some have added, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stephen Hawking to the list (which I would reject) and Lawrence Krauss (who seems apt for the role), Victor Stegner, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne... Exactly who is a new atheist and who is just a "plain atheist" is quite irrelevant to my thoughts on this particular book.

I would preface my comments by saying I enjoyed reading the book, for the most part. Its rhetoric is engaging, and even when he seems to claim to be on track, he is largely riding his pet steed Tangent (p. 198), so I feel quite comfortable with my theism, moreover, my Catholic Christianity, even whilst reading most of the book. His anecdotes were interesting, the fan and hate mail he has received and now recounts is insightful, and his forays into evolutionary biology are certainly to be read, because at the end of the day, Dawkins is a scientist, and an award-winning evolutionary biology popularizing one at that. So I can agree with the large number of endorsements (largely, it seems, from newspaper reviews) that describe "The God Delusion" as readable, spirited, passionate, clever. Even, with due qualification, "intelligence and truth-telling" (from Claire Tomalin) at some points in the book. The idea that the new atheist literature is moronic certainly needs to be either rejected or nuanced for it to be taken seriously.

What claims does he make? The very well ordered book seems to have ten points to make, about one per chapter: 

1. He is not concerned with Einstein's God, or the religion based on the scientific awe of nature - he aims to debunk religions with personal gods, in particular the Abrahamic ones. These are undeserving of the pedestal of respect allegedly given to them.
2. The existence of God is a scientific question, which, whether difficult to answer or not, can only be addressed by scientific or empirical means.
3. All arguments advanced for the existence of God fail, most of them quite miserably.
4. God almost certainly does not exist - he advances a standard "who designed the designer?" objection.
5. Religion is a natural phenomena that can be explained by reference to our evolutionary past.
6. We are not good because we obey precepts, models or commands given in any form of holy book, our goodness has evolutionary roots and explanation, and there are secular theories of ethics.
7. We would not follow any holy books nowadays anyway without being very selective, presumably referring to some extra-textual standard of morality, which just goes to show that morality was not derived from the books anyway. Our morality changes, mostly for the better, as society advances.
8. Religion is not only irrational, it is not benign, either. It is anti-rational, particularly unscientific, lends itself to wrongful opposition to homosexuality and abortion, and even moderate forms of religion are the basis for fanaticism. 
9. Religion is abusive to children, it leads to physical and mental abuse (particularly the latter), to backward thinking - although, holy books have cultural impacts, and so their literary merit is to be conserved.
10. Religion may fill gaps in the human psyche, but it does not make it more true, and a rational scientific perspective may even be grander and more emancipated.

Allow me to briefly take his theses in turn by merely expressing my thoughts and reactions to some of the major points:

1. Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan saying that religions do not expand their wonder with the amazing discoveries of the universe, instead "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." Since this is the god that Dawkins is concerned with rebutting, it seems clear that he is talking about the wrong god, not a god recognizable to Christian theology, at least none of the stuff I have been reading. To think, as some people seem to suggest to me occasionally (and Dawkins seeks to imply) that the God of Christianity, said to be omnipotent and omniscient, is somehow threatened by the magnitude of the universe, is an odd claim indeed.

The first chapter of Dawkin's book is more to explain that Einstein's God is not being talked about here - not the mathematician God of Paul Davies, either, as he would say to John Lennox in a related debate. Somehow, Dawkins has let it slip under his capable mind's radar that, when I profess belief in "one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; of all things visible and invisible" (the opening of the Nicene creed), I happen to mean what I say, and now that we know that the universe is billions of years old, that the universe is mindbogglingly big, I am not led to question that belief.

His other point in this chapter, that religions are accorded a strange amount of respect, seems accurate. There is a tentativeness to talking about religion, as if political beliefs could be shouted at, but religious ones had to be politely nodded at. Living in the generation that I do, in the social circles in which I am, at a secular university studying both science and philosophy, I am rarely ever accorded that politeness (other than to avoid the issue completely) - but I do acknowledge its persistence in wider culture, and agree with its strangeness from a truth-concerned point of view, in part because one religion can be correct, at best.

2. It is actually a doctrine of the Church that the existence of God can be known from natural reason, so since Dawkins often conflates science and reason more generally, I might agree with him. His argument for it seems plausible at first: a universe with God would be different to a universe without God. Except, that arguments falls flat if one is a theist: if God exists, then it is so by necessity, and therefore there is no such thing as a universe without God - it is incoherent. On the other hand, taking the atheist point of view, if God does not exist, it is necessarily so, and therefore testing the hypothesis against the God-universe hypothesis is to test it against something else which is, at some level, incoherent.

That illustrates the first major issue I have with the idea of God as a scientific hypothesis: that science deals with contingencies, and whether God exists or not, it is not contingent. The second problem I have, is that hypotheses make predictions - but what sort of predictions does the God hypothesis make? It seems to me that the core God of theism is a hard hypothesis to extract predictions from in the first place. How would such universes be different, even in principle? One would think, following Stephen Law's article in the journal Religious Studies ("The evil-god challenge", 2010), that the God hypothesis (presumably, the good God hypothesis) could be tested by reference to the evidential problem of evil. Instead, Dawkins tries to venture down the "prayer does not work" line by reference to the widely-disowned (before and after the experiment) study by the Templeton Foundation. Swinburne's response seems perfectly acceptable to me, and Dawkins fails to respond to the critique levelled Swinburne other than to caricature his response to what he should have raised in the first place, the problem of evil.

This chapter also involves a rejection of Gould's NOMA theory ("Non-Overlapping Magisteria", the idea that science and religion talk about different things), and an attempt to explain away why it seems favoured among many atheist scientists. I lean towards agreeing with the rejection of NOMA, and replacing it with some principle of “somewhat, but not very, overlapping magisteria” – I can see why SBNVOM has not taken off yet, however.

3. His discussion of first mover and cosmological arguments is so bad, I hardly feel I can mention it, since it occupies a scant two and a half pages of a 420 page long book. Dawkins must surely have straw in his eyes, from such an enormous, yet vacuous, strawman that he erects in place of the rather long and serious discussion given to just the cosmological argument by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Even though I disagree with some of the ideas inherent in ontological arguments,[1] his rejection of St Anselm's without reference to the history and development of the argument, let alone his inability to understand it, is laughable. He does make hand waving reference to refutations (Kant's is suitable for rejecting Anselm's, as well as the clearer adaptation by Descartes), but Douglas Gasking's parallel argument is an absurd rebuttal, not least because of the implausibility of all the premises (except perhaps premise 2, even though I reject it regardless, but even then, there is a false equivocation that appears in premise 3 - merit and impressiveness are hardly the same quality).

The rest of the arguments are ones I find relatively un-compelling anyway, even though his peculiar rejection of Lewis' "Liar, Lunatic or Lord" argument (which Tim Keller pointed out should be amended to "Legend, Liar, Lunatic or Lord") on the basis that Jesus may simply have been honestly mistaken about his divinity is yelling to be placed in the "lunatic" category - what sort of sane person is honestly mistaken about actually being God incarnate? The rest of the section might be considered a discussion of the "legend" category, but I find his biblical scholarship very poor.

4. Dawkins labels God the "ultimate Boeing 747", in reference to Fred Hoyle's oft quoted statement that living beings are as improbable as a hurricane passing through a scrapyard and assembling a Boeing 747 aeroplane. In essence, his argument is that God is far too complicated to postulate as a designer, because then one would have to explain who or what designed God.

Dawkins agrees that chance is an absurd explanation of life, but he says that evolution by means of natural selection is a perfectly sensible alternative, and that this "consciousness-raiser" should alert everyone to the possibility of finding similar mechanisms for the explanation of design, or apparent design, in other fields. I think his discussion of cosmology is tainted by an overly-biological perspective, but I cannot claim to be very much of an expert on cosmology regardless, and so I must let that pass. What taints the whole chapter (other than the biology bits, which are very interesting) is his over reliance on natural selection qua consciousness raiser: I am perfectly happy to accept that evolutionary biology has the correct principles for explaining apparent design in life, and I would pursue my research in physics perfectly happy to accept similar principles to refute cosmological fine-tuning arguments - I find them unconvincing anyway. What I find overstated is the idea that, since principles to explain something previously unexplained have been discovered in the past, one is never warranted to consider that other principles will not arise to explain, for instance, cosmic fine tuning. Like I said, I suspect they will be found, but consider for a moment the inverse argument:

"Certainly, science seems to point to atheism at the moment. But just like when it was discovered that the universe had an absolute space-time boundary, a beginning, and people could make more convincing cosmological arguments, I suspect that science will discover other means of proving the existence of God, even if right now it looks like science is atheistic."

See the inversion? The big bang theory could be claimed by the theist, in much the same way as Dawkins claims natural selection can be taken, as a consciousness raiser, something that shows us that the unexplained can be explained. Once again, both lines of thought seem implausible to me - but they also appear rather symmetric.

Chapter 4 contained, as he says (p. 187), his central argument. On the face of it, the argument may appear to be a rejection of the argument from design - which I rejected before I read the book - but in actual fact, the argument is intended to run deeper: by claiming that God is far too complex to be the explanation of the design in the universe, he is also trying to undermine the God hypothesis as a conceivable reality at all, since God is presumably "irreducibly complex." Leaving aside the strange idea that God might have arisen out of natural processes - surely a complete misunderstanding of the God of any of the monotheistic religions - the argument must still be dealt with somehow. Here is my brief response:

Dawkins has not really shown that God is complex at all. Classical theism has always held that God is simple - God is made of one, indivisible substance, after all, and since it makes no sense to speak of "half God", Dawkins is wrong that God must be complex. He asserts it many times, but provides no justification for his mere assertion. Another explanation could be given, generously granting that God is internally complex, but pointing out that God is a necessary being, and so requires no explanation.

The very keen eye will note, as did Lloyd Strickland ("The “who designed the designer?” objection to design arguments", International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, August 2013) that I have "helped myself" to the attributes of God from classical theism. Strickland's critique is only suitable if I were trying to prove the existence of God from design arguments; currently, I am merely defending the possibility of God's existence from the Dawkins argument, which claimed to provide more than a refutation of the design argument (we might agree, for different reasons) but a refutation of the existence of God, or nearly so: he dealt with arguments for the existence of God in chapter 3, this chapter was titled "Why There Almost Certainly is No God." Hence, in a defence of God, I can rely on the attributes of God. 

5. This chapter was by far my favourite: in average popular attacks on religion, explanations are given for religion which make very little evolutionary sense, so I was chuffed to have a defence of "religion as a natural phenomenon" from an evolutionary biologist.[2] If I were to presuppose naturalism, then I would have to explain away religion, and I find Dawkins' account decisively plausible, on face value.

Since I do not assume naturalism, I think I am entitled, as a theist, to remain in my belief that human beings, as definitively religious animals, are manifesting their own awareness of being in the image of God, and an awareness of the divine. But, that interpretation flows from my Catholic theism, and I find it perfectly natural that Dawkins and Dennett disagree with me.

6-7. I combine these chapters because their thesis is similar: that evolution explains our moral sentiments, that real morality is secular, that morality progresses as societies develop, and that it would be horrible for people to follow holy books anyway. I disagree on all three latter points.

I agree that many of our moral sentiments are due to our evolutionary past, and, as Dawkins says, that our more generalized moral feelings are more likely to be mis-firings of natural selection, now that we are not in the same sort of habitat as before. Sure - but that does not justify them, for the same reason that Dawkins was so clear to point out when he spoke of mis-firings of evolution to produce religion, as a by-product of some other evolved tendency, this does not justify our moral sentiments.

I can agree to the possibility of secular morality, and many theories have been proposed: from Kant, to Mill, to Rawls, and so on. At one point in the book, he suggests that Kant may have been right, since it makes Kantian categorical imperatives make sense of our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Later on, (ch. 8) he favours a consequentialist point of view, saying that abortion could not be wrong since the child has no nervous system at first, as opposed to the mother, which certainly does. The contradiction annoyed me - yes, Kant does accord with our moral feelings in the trolley problem, but he would be opposed to abortion, because the pre-born human is not being treated as an end in itself. Yes, consequentialism may well accept the possible rightness of abortion in many cases, but it would disagree with our moral feelings in the case of the trolley problem. Dawkins is free to, if rationally compelled by it, accept a secular theory of ethics. But he cannot accept contradictory ones and expect to be taken seriously.

This illustrates why I do not think that real morality is secular. If by real one means the morality that is generally practiced, then real morality is not secular or religious, it seems to be some form of moral sentimentalism. People may be Kantian when given the trolley problem (or its many corollaries), but they are not Kantian when it comes to other activities. People may be consequentialists in some cases, but they are not universally so. Real morality is, therefore, neither Kantian nor consequentialist - or Rawlsian, or Aristotelian, etc...

Does the moral Zeitgeist, the developing morality of societies, provide a better foundation? It is entirely unclear whether that is an objective standard: one thinks current morality is better than previous morality, surely in part because one adopts the current morality, and rejects the previous one. Even beyond that, I object the the deification of personal choice above the common good, which is a firm part of our contemporary morality, and other similar trends - I hardly think current rape culture is superior even to hyper-Puritan values, either. Which way the trend is going is unclear.

Surely, it is better than the myths of holy books, right? I must now speak as a Christian, for I am not familiar with Islamic jurisprudence and developing ethics, or with Jewish Rabbinic texts, both of which would shed light on their original holy books. As a Christian, I hold up Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God. Supposing, as is usually done, that God does not change, and whatever God is, that God is supremely good: it is absurd to say that Jesus is now "outdated", that we should move on. That would be the Christian perspective.

"But he is outdated", Dawkins might reply, and he cites John Hartung to the effect that Jesus was about in-group morality as much as Joshua was. Though it is amusing to find someone who appears to think that apostle Paul is an improvement over Jesus, I find his claim astonishing. If one takes the gospels as simple historical re-tellings of the life of Jesus, then the idea that Jesus was about in-group morality is ridiculous. Be it the Good Samaritan, the Great Comission, the missionary sending at the beginning of Acts and the end of Luke, or the numerous encounters between Jesus and non-Jews, Jesus seems to be firmly about both the in-group and the out-group.

If he means that, after some historical Jesus studies, it turns out that Jesus was actually about the in-group, then I would like to see that analysis. Of the reputable, academic published literature I have come across, the closest  to that I have seen is commenting on the passage in Matthew 15, or perhaps John Meier's A Marginal Jews, which comes close only in the sense that he argues that Jesus was fully hallakhic, and so would be rupturing less from Jewish law than is sometimes said. Even these considerations hardly get one to more extreme claim made be Dawkins and Hartung. Our neighbour is anyone who we encounter in need, as Jesus says to the teacher of the Law, and we are to love them, even at our own expense. This rule has never been outdated.

8. I do not have much to say about chapter 8. Yes, wrongful religion can lead to bad science. It does not have to, but in some cases it does. I can't help but remember the times atheism leads to bad philosophy, but they are few, and there is nothing inherent in atheism that makes it anti-philosophical. The discussion of abortion is not very comprehensive, but he does adopt a consequentialist point of view near the end, so it seems that he rejects any inherent value in human life, other than its capacity to be happy (where happiness is seen basically as a property of the sentient being, again, nothing inherent in the being itself).

Moderation can lead to fanaticism, too. Fanaticism is not always a bad thing - a fanatic philanthropist does a great deal more good than a moderate philanthropist, in general. But many times it is, and that is a problem. Quite clearly, fanaticism can arise out of non-religious beliefs too - nationalism, some political ideology, racial boundaries, class conflict, an ethical theory... What if someone became convinced that the ratio of pain to pleasure in the world was such that, in a utilitarian framework, everything should be destroyed? Maybe that person would be right, but they would be labelled a fanatic. So fanaticism can arise in many contexts, most of which will probably always be present.

9. I find this chapter hard to take too seriously. Yes, he points out some horrible things. But I have met people whose experience is the opposite, who felt abused by feminist language (exactly how, I cannot fathom, but that is what she said), by the pitiless indifference of the world, and so forth. Dawkins would probably claim that, sure, certain naturalist doctrines like the indifference of the universe to human beings could be uncomfortable, but what matters is that they are true. I would only say "ditto." Sure, some people might find it hard to come out as an atheist to their families - but I know people who have found it hard to come out Christian to their atheist parents. Is atheism child abuse? It does not follow.

I agree that the fear of death is odd, and I would echo Mark Twain, as Dawkins does. But some people find the idea horrifying, so is the doctrine of no-afterlife child abuse? Again, it does not follow. Whatever is true is true independent of the psychological value of it. I am reminded of a story William Lane Craig once remarked, where he told about the findings of a survey of why college students were atheists. One girl said she became an atheist at least in part because she could not handle the idea of her abusive father still being alive. So even an afterlife with no hell would be scary for some people. Child abuse, then, to be a universalist? It does not follow.

10. Throughout the book, Dawkins has misunderstood aspects of theology. In response to Terry Eagleton's claim that he should understand a bit more about theology, about Aquinas and Scotus' differences on epistemology, Rahner on grace, etc., Dawkins said he did not need to be an expert in fashion to point out that the emperor was naked. The problem is that Dawkins was not even looking at the emperor. In the last chapter, where he rejects that truth can be affirmed merely because something would be comforting. Agreed. But his poor understanding of Christianity is never more apparent than when he talks about how theology works. The clearest instance is probably in this last chapter, where he misunderstands indulgences, how Christians think about death, purgatory, and in one of his bigger blunders, why Catholics believe in purgatory. He quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia saying that Catholics believe in purgatory because we pray for the dead. That is not a defence of purgatory as a meta-physical place for anyone, it is a defence from Scripture (probably defending against Protestants) in light of Judas Maccabeus, who prays for the dead. 


The day I finished the book I was asked whether the Church would have banned it in times past. I do not know. I have not had even the slightest inclination to change a single of my previously held beliefs in light of this book, but apparently, other people have. So maybe its poor arguments are dangerous, because people will think they are good. I might add that I would not want books banned, now or in the past, even if I do see a certain logic to it: parents should not allow their children hard pornography books or magazines. Mother Church should not allow her children spiritually harmful books. I have learnt things by reading this book, but Dawkins has failed miserably at his aim, "If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down." If only I could say that this fairly large book contained the best offense that atheism could offer, and then the opposite would be true, I would have gone through the worst rational scrutiny possible, and emerged unscathed. Unfortunately, I know there are better atheists out there.

[1] Briefly: I concur with St Thomas Aquinas that there is no reason to think that the limit of God is on that which we can conceive – God is surely even greater than the greatest which can be conceived. Since I do not think anybody can conceive of God, the older versions of the argument fail. Newer versions, particularly modal variants, seem to fail because there is absolutely no reason I can think of why I would believe in possible worlds. I know of one world which is possible, and it is precisely that world in which the existence of God is contested. How am I to know if other possible worlds exist? Unlike other philosophers, I am relatively comfortable with the first premise, that a maximally great being can exist (I would be fine with that even if I was an atheist), it is the modal axioms which I see no good reason to accept, on atheism.

[2] I am aware that this is the subtitle to Daniel Dennett’s book, which is on my shelf though I will not have the time to read it until 2015. Nonetheless, I am somewhat familiar with his account, and I still find it lacks the rigour of an actual evolutionary biologist.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Loss of Popular Rational Discourse

Every so often, I commit the mistake of scrolling a bit too far down to the comments section on a YouTube video, and since I usually watch videos relating to something religious or anti-religious, the comments are without exception filled with some debate about the existence of God, or whether morality can exist without God, or whether God is good anyway.

Except it is not quite a debate. Debates are generally reasoned discussions of opposing views, and these "YouTube debates" tend not to be reasoned at all, on both sides. There are, of course, exceptions, yet they are a rarity. Mostly the comments form a mudslinging fight.

Why is this the case? Perhaps I am simply in the odd position of having been on both sides, and so am sympathetic to both views, but I think the reason is deeper than that. It seems that both the theists and atheists, on YouTube but also in many other forums and popular level discussions, have lost the ability to debate with reason.

I think part of the reason is a matter of how these opposing religious and irreligious sub-cultures have arisen. Historically speaking, both sides of the issue have had a very intelligent and thorough position, from the likes of St Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics (not forgetting earlier figures, which also abounded), through to modern philosophers of religion on the theist side, and the unforgettable likes of David Hume, John Stuart Mill, among others, on the atheist side. Throughout history, clearly humans have been able to argue reasonably about these matters.

Yet now, the popular level is not steeped in the vast intellectual tradition. The Christians (which I will now refer to instead of plain theists, although the sets of Christian and theist are not identical) seem to talk more like they use faith as an epistemological tool to know the truth of these matters, thus making knowledge an inward thing, and the atheists portray themselves as the bastions of reason, even whilst attacking caricatures, making ad hominems and generally not using reason at all. Statements like "You talk about faith in a god which there is not one logical reason to think exists" abound in the popular atheist discourse, and the problem is, that shows more ignorance of the person who states such an absurd statement than it sheds light on whether or not God exists. Whether some divine being exists or not, logical reasons have been put forth for centuries on either side.

However the two ways of knowing proposed, faith and reason, are never used. The Christians do not use faith to know, because faith is not a way one can get knowledge of any kind. Reason is not used by the atheists, to some degree because the popular atheist is not well versed enough in matters of reason to employ it properly, but also because the Christians never require it of them. One can comfortably proclaim oneself to hold the reasonable position, whatever that position may be, if the argument against it is not reasonable. One can talk about the logic of the atheists' position forever, if the argument against it is "you're going to hell" - which, if such a thing is merely asserted, does not challenge reason but only offends.

I have centred my observations thus far at the popular level, because at an academic level such foolishness is not so rampant. It is of no use, however, to suggest that people do a bit of research before they open their mouths on these issues, because it is impractical. It is my contention that the problem is this: the argument has gone for so long that it is no longer possible to throw together a few premises and come out with a conclusion. In essence, the arguments still are of that sort, but a much grander defence of hitherto unquestioned principles is required nowadays. Whereas in times past rational intuition held a much higher status, now seemingly obvious truisms are questioned, such that philosophy departments are full of people that do not hold common and intuitive beliefs at all.

The popular level is not full of detailed consideration of philosophical puzzle cases, unable or unwilling to think critically of one's own position as well as the opponents'. As I say, the intellectual tradition has gone beyond what most folk can comprehend readily - that is the problem, and it will not suffice to relegate the majority of people to "the ignorant box." If we as a society are going to progress, it is not because academics and intellectuals advance, but because everyone is brought up to some common and higher standing. The problem we face, in my opinion, is of how to equip people with the ability and desire to discern the truth, enter into rational discourse and, were somebody to be convinced of some proposition or set thereof, actually have it change them. The unspoken assumption that anything one does not already believe must either be false or relatively unimportant must also be challenged if the societal Zeitgeist is to be changed to re-involve critical thinking and reasoning.

The previous consideration applies to practically all areas of life, and now I will offer a few comments on the subject of theism and related debates:

To the Christians: it will not do to ignore reason in public, or indeed private, thought. Throughout the Christian era (CE, slightly adapted) we have had some marvellous minds tackle problems. Take an epistle of St Paul, and count how many times he uses the word "therefore" - such a word is a prime indicator that he is using reason to argue his case. We lose such depth to our religion if we ignore the argument and just focus on the conclusion. We believe that circumcision is not necessary - but can we argue why? Throughout Galatians, it is a heck of a lot more sophisticated than "Jesus finished with that kind of stuff." The use of reason in theology, in philosophy and in other areas enriches, it does not destroy.

We also caricature humans if we forget that we are rational animals when we speak of the gospel. It is true that sin is a problem of the heart, and that the working of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to conversion, but if we then go from that and forget to engage the minds of others, we shoot ourselves in the knee and wonder why we cannot walk. As people and not machines, humans need more than just cerebral content - yet neglecting the cerebral content is something done to our own loss.

To the atheists: it is plainly ignorant to merely assert that there is not and has never been a good reason for believing in some divine being. You may not be convinced, but it does not show any intelligence to regard the rational case for such a being as never opened. The burden of proof is certainly on the theists, but that does not mean that theists have never advanced some case. If you are to be defenders of reason, then what is required of you is that you practice what you preach - so you can do your research, figure out what is wrong with our arguments, and then rebuke us in our fallacies or falsehood. Or maybe (God willing) be convinced!

Furthermore, and this case bothers me in particular, it is not true that "one can obviously have ethics without God." I think one can have ethics without God, but it is not obvious, and the sooner one realizes that it is going to take some argumentation, the better. What is the basis of this morality? How can one know what the right course of action is? Is it universal, and what makes others obliged to follow moral precepts? These are all questions that cannot be answered by asserting that atheists have an answer. Like I said, I think atheists do have an answer - but it is not the case merely because I have asserted it. I used to be a utilitarian (which is the only system I can think of which does not require God - Humean ethics, the most common sense one, fails, in my opinion, but that's another discussion), and I can guarantee that some of the answers I had to give to these questions were not in the slightest the most intuitive. It seems to be the case that the truth of these matters, whatever it may be, is a lot more complicated than most believe. This has been known by the intellectual elite for a long time - it is now time for that elitism to be lessened and the doors to be opened to all.