Archive for the ‘atheism’ Category

Belief without evidence (4 of 6): Not on my list

2014/06/16

I’ve introduced five points of dogma that I accept – three claims about the nature of reality and two values. Now I’m going to discuss three things that may seem to be dogmatic (I hold them fairly strongly and openly) but are, in fact, derived from the other points and from personal experience. These are things that critics of skepticism and atheism often assert are basic beliefs – points of faith – but that I don’t think qualify.

a. How to reason.

I try to follow the laws of logic and mathematics when I reason from evidence to belief, or from one set of beliefs to something new. I have heard it said that a firm adherence to reason and math is a kind of blind faith. (eg, here)

This is of course nonsense. I did not arbitrarily choose to believe that 2+2=4. I learned it through experience. In other words, it is a natural consequence of applying two of my basic beliefs: that truth matters, and that the inductive principle holds.

I know there are those who argue for some sort of ontological primacy of logical and mathematical rules. I am not qualified to judge on that, but whatever the ultimate nature of reason, I as a finite being have had to learn the rules by experience. So, epistemologically, I believe in reason, and understand reason, by applying my empirical foundation.

People may disagree about what is reasonable, but if they are pursuing understanding in good faith, those disagreements will diminish the more they discuss and learn. Disagreements indicate failures of understanding, not arbitrary individual freedom about how to “do” math and logic.

So the rules of how to reason are not basic dogma, but the product of thinking and acting on even more basic principles.

b. The methods and conclusions of science.

The whole point of science is that it’s a way of applying certain basic principles (such as valuing truth, accepting the inductive principle, and assuming a comprehensible universe). This is true not only of the conclusions of science, but also of its methods (which have been developed by the same process).

All of the methods and conclusions of science are open to question. If someone can offer reasoning or evidence that overrides the reasoning and evidence used to establish a scientific claim in the first place, then we will revise or abandon that claim.

So no part of science is dogmatically-held – it is the product of applying basic principles as rigorously as we can.

There is a particular point here that I want to make more explicitly, because I often see it arising in religious reactions against scientific conclusions. This is the claim that scientists assume materialism – the claim that only material things exist. Materialism is like atheism: it can either mean an active rejection of the alternative, or simply a lack of commitment to the alternative. Science requires that we only consider causes and effects that can, in principle, be observed. That is, we consider material causes and effects. It does not require a belief that this is all there is. It’s just that, as a process based on observation, science can only ever, even in principle, deal with observable things. This is “methodological materialism”, and it is not dogmatic – it is simply a recognition of the proper scope of application for the tools of science.

It seems to me that most supernatural claims of religious believers are, under scientific definitions, material. That is, they would (if the beliefs are true) produce observable effects. It is on this basis that many scientists reject supernatural claims: they have been tested where possible, and they have failed. This too is not dogmatic – it is a reasoned response to the evidence put forth.

c. Atheism

For me, and for any atheist I’ve ever talked to or heard speak on this point, atheism is not a starting point. We reason our way to it. Many of us even choose an alternative label (such as “humanist”) or no label at all, rather than identify as “atheist”, because atheism simply isn’t that important to us. It is just one conclusion among thousands that we have drawn using the principles that are truly at the foundation of our worldview.

We try to be open to revising this conclusion in the face of relevant reasoning and evidence. I do not know how you could argue me out of my belief that people matter, or the inductive principle should be followed. But I do know how you could start to persuade me that my atheism is in error. For example, you could bring evidence of miracles, or demonstrate the superiority of a particular religious ethic. Or you could identify points in my reasoning to atheism that are invalid.

It’s a high bar, because the claims of religions are so extravagant. But it is conceivable.

I am happy to say that most religious believers I’ve talked to have accepted that I do not hold my atheism as a dogmatic belief, either right away or after some friendly discussion. (See the comments on the second post in this series for an ongoing exchange on this very topic!)

Next, I will describe some extra beliefs that seem to be held by religious people.

Atheism and Unitarians 2: the positive

2014/06/09

In my previous post, I highlighted a couple of rather unsavory aspects of Unitarian attitudes from the perspective of an atheist. In this post, I present the other side.

Here is a leaflet that is stuck to our fridge at home:

An atheist leaflet?

An atheist leaflet?

It’s a sentiment that humanists and atheists could easily get behind. This leaflet is from the Edinburgh Unitarian congregation that we were part for the last while we lived in Scotland.

Unitarians are justifiably proud of having shed much of the denominational dogma they once held as a branch of Christianity. The Unitarian principles do not imply belief (or disbelief) in any god. They do not require adherence – literal or otherwise – to any ancient (or modern) text. They do not declare salvation for right believers, or even take a position on the possibility of an afterlife. Individual Unitarians naturally do have beliefs one way or the other, but as a community all they share is a set of very secular values and a desire to build community and do good.

They are a delightfully mixed group – I know Unitarians who are Buddhists, others who are Wiccans, Christians of various stripes, and a good share of atheists and agnostics. For the most part, they manage to forge their common identity through shared values (I would say, shared secular values), and not let differences of belief get in the way. Here are some of the Unitarians we came to know while we lived in Edinburgh.

That's me holding our (then little) daughter, Kaia, up top in the middle.

That’s me holding our (then little) daughter, Kaia, up top in the middle.

Down in front, in the purple stole, is the minister, Maud Robinson. Her sermons sometimes have language suggesting god-belief, but never in a way that made us feel like outsiders for being different, or in any way unwelcome. Once, Deena and I even led a children’s service where we adapted a passage from Dawkins to concretely illustrate our familial connection to chimpanzees (such as the ones that live at the Edinburgh Zoo).

In that group, I felt I was able to engage people in meaningful discussion, challenging some ideas (gently), while mutually affirming others even across deep differences of metaphysical belief. It was a member of that community that introduced me to my good friend, Marc. It was among those Unitarians that we had a celebration of our children joining the human community.

They aren’t all sugar and roses. Sometimes, a Unitarian will let loose an invective. They denounce war and act for peace. They denounce poverty and support public and private welfare efforts. They denounce the ongoing marginalization of same-sex couples in otherwise enlightened countries, and ally with others to change things. There is a strong social justice theme among Unitarians which is quite impressive.

Indeed, despite my complaint in the last post that I feel unable to voice clear objections to some of the silly (and occasionally dangerous) ideas that are expressed, some of my most cherished friendships have grown out of visiting Unitarian churches. I don’t, currently, identify myself as a Unitarian – mainly because it has been over two years since I attended a Unitarian church, but also because of things like the anti-atheist invective that Adam Lee discovered in a book introducing Unitarianism. But for humanists and atheists who want a church-like setting without all the dogma, I suspect a Unitarian church is your best bet for matching values and for not having to hide or set aside your own beliefs.

The Unitarians (like any freethinking community of people) are a diverse lot, and every congregation has a different feel. If you’re in a place where there is lots of choice (we had four Unitarian churches within reasonable access when we lived in Boston, with more in the city if we’d had a car to get to them), then shop around. Otherwise, it still shouldn’t hurt to see what’s nearby.

You might get lucky, as we did in Edinburgh, and have someone like Maud as your minister. Here she is, addressing the Scottish Parliament in their “Time for Reflection”:

(I found this video serendipitously while finding the link to the Edinburgh congregation – and somehow she seems to speak to much of what I wanted to say in this post. Also, note that the Scottish politicians don’t call it “prayer time” or “invocation” – they call it “Time for Reflection”. Such an inclusive and worthwhile title. Good for them!)

 

Belief without evidence (1 of 6): Skepticism versus religion

2014/06/08

Religious believers believe things without sufficient evidence.

This is a common accusation leveled by skeptics of religion (and many other belief systems). Believers respond, in general, with one or both of the following tactics: “faith is a good thing” (the so-what response) and “skeptics have faith too; and anyway their faith is even more extreme than ours” (the I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I response).

Now, the first approach is simply silly and indefensible. For example, faith as belief-without-evidence* is categorically not a virtue. Perhaps I’ll spend some electrons elaborating on that some other time. But my position seems so self-evidently true that, for now, I’ll just assert it.

But the second approach has a kernel of truth in it. There are some things that even the most ardent skeptic accepts without evidence. Instead of the knee jerk response (“am not!”) that I am tempted to offer, I thought I’d take the accusation on in a more considered and honest manner.

I will begin by offering a frank list of some of the things (facts and values) I accept without rational evidence (and some I don’t).

Following that, I will compare this list to some things religious believers accept as true without rational evidence.

Finally, I will discuss why the skeptical list of assumptions is preferable to the religious list.

Naturally, I would like this to add up to an airtight case for religious skepticism. In my fantasy, everyone who reads it will end up agreeing with me. But, you know, feel free to point out how reality deviates from my fantasy. In particular, please tell me if you spot an error, omission, or whatever. (You can also tell me if you think I’m spot on – I like hearing that too.)

Footnotes:

* Yes, I know that “faith” can cover more than just “belief without evidence”. But the element of faith that skeptics object to is believing without evidence, and that is a key part of the broader definition of the word.

Atheism and Unitarians 1: the negative

2014/06/07

I am apparently not the only atheist who finds dabbling in Unitarian Universalism* to be a fraught, crazy-making endeavour. They are a good bunch, and generally sympathetic to humanist and atheist ideas and individuals. But sometimes … well, this post explores some of the less palatable elements of Unitarian community, from a humanist/atheist standpoint. A follow-up post will balance the coverage with the positive view of the humanist-Unitarian connection.

The difficulties I’ve had with Unitarians cover a broad range.

On the milder end, I have sometimes felt that the “welcome all comers” attitude of Unitarianism inhibits my capacity to critically discuss disagreements. This is a galling constraint to me. If you and I disagree about something, often it means one of us is wrong, and so I cherish the ability to discuss such differences robustly. That’s the best way for us to discover and correct any errors – whether they are in my stance, or yours, or both. I won’t be able to fully engage in a community – any community – if it isn’t open to self-critique and discussion of this sort.

I should acknowledge that the Unitarians have historically shown great courage in self-reflection and self-correction. Without ever breaking entirely from their religious origins, they have consciously set aside several orthodox Christian beliefs, including the odd doctrine of the trinity (that’s why they’re “Unitarians” – as opposed to “Trinitarians”) and the toxic idea of hell (giving the “Universalist” half of their name). My sense that disagreement isn’t always encouraged is likely as much part of my own perceptions as of the reality before me. Nevertheless, it has dampened my enthusiasm for self-identifying as a Unitarian.

Occasionally, an uglier sentiment arises. Some time ago now, Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism described a diatribe being aimed at atheists.

While I understand that Unitarians call themselves “religious”, it is clear both from their principles and their promotional literature that non-belief is well within the circle of beliefs compatible with Unitarianism. Not only that, but on important social issues (such as the same-sex union kerfuffle in Scotland), atheists and Unitarians stand side-by-side against the reactionary forces of traditional religion. Lee, an outspoken atheist and a member of a Unitarian congregation, was incensed by passages in the book A Chosen Faith, promoted by Unitarian organizations as an excellent introduction to their community.

Among the passages Lee cites is this:

Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer “religion-free.” They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion.

It goes downhill from there, comparing modern, outspoken atheists to tyrants of the past century. These comparisons are factually tenuous at best, and far beneath the general tone you find when Unitarians discuss different beliefs. Lee contacts the author of the book to see if he is misreading the intent, but gets a reply that doubles down on the dissing, tarring himself as much of a kneejerk bigot as some of the worst fundamentalists.

Fortunately, I can report that I’ve never come across such repulsive attitudes myself among Unitarian groups.

Not all Unitarians are alike, and in my follow-up post I will point out some of the high points I have encountered in Unitarian/humanist contact.

Footnote:

* I generally abbreviate “Unitarian Universalist” to “Unitarian”. I know some Unitarian Universalists strongly prefer the full name as more descriptive, or abbreviate it “UU” instead. There are good historical reasons for the UUs having this double-barrelled name. But in Edinburgh, the name “Unitarian” was common, so that’s the variant I will stick with for convenience.

On death (recycled)

2014/01/23

This is a repost of a comment I made back in September 2012 over at Dale McGowan’s excellent blog, The Meming of Life. It was in response to his request for thoughts about how atheists deal with death. I repost it here because I’m very proud of it and want to share it with you, but also because it’s a good lead-in to another thought, which I’ll post in a few days. I start this post with the question Dale posed. It was part of his research for the book that is now out, Atheism for Dummies. I encourage you to go to his blog and read the other responses – there were several thought-provoking contributions.

Q: What ideas or ways of thinking about death have been interesting, thought-provoking, intriguing, helpful, and/or comforting to you?

My answer:

For me, there are just a few very important things:

1. Not thinking about it. Is that shallow? Not really: my live is lived entirely when I am alive, so I should be working on living well rather than worrying about death.

2. Avoid death. Is that cowardly? Not really: I try to cultivate healthy habits, and avoid unhealthy ones, so that I can live as long and as fully as possible. (I agree with you, Dale – in general I’m against death.)

3. Think cosmically. Is that cerebral? I don’t care. Does the idea of *only* a hundred years getting you down? Quarks and other tiny particles bubble in and out of existence in the tiniest fraction of a millisecond. Wonder what will be left of you in a million years? All the hydrogen in your body has been hydrogen for the entire 13+ billion year history of the universe, and will be until it is fused into more complex and interesting elements in the hearts of some ages-distant future star. The little points of light you see in the sky have been travelling to your eyes for hundreds or millions of years, only to be absorbed by the rods in your eyes, ending as ephemeral impressions in your visual cortex.

4. Suffer. Is that cold? Well, perhaps. But it doesn’t hurt much to hurt a little at the thought of death. I don’t know if it’s good for you to feel that pain, but at least it doesn’t kill you. Think of it this way: being afraid of death is, at least in part, simply the flip side of being in love with life. And that’s a tradeoff I’ll take any day (until I can find a better deal).

Who am I to talk?

2013/12/01

Who am I to talk about this stuff?

What does a lifelong atheist have to offer when many of the key problems we as a secular community face (antagonism, discrimination, psychological scars from childhood indoctrination, etc) are completely alien to me? This post is partly a bit of fretting about my relevance as a blogger, and partly an exploration of what I might have to constructively offer. It begins with a brief summary of my life so far …

I grew up in rural Alberta, one of the more socially and politically conservative regions of Canada. (The ruling party in Alberta’s legislature for the past 42 years has been the Conservative party.) I was extremely lucky. My parents are both much less tradition-bound than the general population. My mother grew up on a farm in England; they met when my dad (a farmer) was on exchange working for her dad. It’s all very romantic. More than that, I’ve always imagined it gives them a slightly wider view of the world than many rural Albertans. Some of whom have never been outside the province, let alone the country.

Anyway, I never had religion pushed on me as a kid. My grandparents were all religious – we would go to the local Anglican church on Christmas Eve every year. We did Christmas, but it was only ever for me a family-gathering, gift-sharing, feasting holiday. Religion’s only hold on it was that relatively indoctrination-free church service. Same for Easter – a secular holiday involving chocolate eggs, a fun bunny myth, and a family gathering. I have even less memory of token church attendance for Easter than for Christmas.

So I grew up without any religious belief. I had friends in school who were religious – mainstream Christians and one or two Mormons – but it was never a point of conflict. Just one of those things. I had a really tall father and a mom who was from England; my friend I.S. was Mormon; S.M. was really good at running; and so on. That sort of thing.

It’s not that I was sheltered from it. I had (perhaps my parents still have) a “Children’s Story Bible”, which I read from once in a while.

I do remember wondering a little about it – this thing that was part of other people’s lives but not mine. But what did religion offer that I really lacked? My parents were very clear about social and ethical precepts – we knew right from wrong, so obviously that didn’t depend on religion (or any sort of deep philosophy). Our extended family and the local community were very supportive and close-knit, so the community-building function of religion wasn’t needed. The story-making role of religion, giving us a sense of where we fit in things, was a no-go: I had way better facts, from being a science nerd, and more enjoyable myths, from consuming science-fiction.

(Not that I believed the sci-fi myths to be true, of course. Just that they were more engaging stories than anything of the religious stories that filtered through to me. Literature, even when one doesn’t believe the stories literally, is a great source of narratives to use for wrapping meaning around the events in our lives.)

I did go through a phase in my early university career where I actively explored religion. Partly, I just wanted to see what the fuss was about. Although I hadn’t been actively shielded from religious information, neither had I been taught the details as kids from more religious households had been. (Deena still laughs at my ignorance about some passages; I’m still amazed at her capacity to cite scripture, even if it’s largely confined to the headline verses such as John 3:16.) Partly, my exploration was driven by the same curiosity that made me a scientist: “Here’s a popular hypothesis, maybe I should examine it and see if it has some merit.”

I spent a little time identifying as a neopagan. They have some fun symbols, neat rituals, and a generally non-dogmatic approach to what you have to actually *believe* about the whole affair. It was also titillatingly controversial, at least if you read the conservative Christians’ tirades. Admit it: there’s something exciting about being a persecuted minority.

But basically, my background is a very vanilla secular-living-well story with no conversions or de-conversions, no ostracism or recognizable oppression of any kind, no religion-based trauma or excitement. Not even any great teen rebellion.

And here I am, a self-identified humanist, skeptic, and atheist. And it often feels like the people who share these labels – especially the last one – seem overwhelmingly to have come from religious backgrounds. Former-Baptist (eg, Matt Dillahunty). Former-Pentecostal (eg, Jerry DeWitt). Former-Muslim (eg, Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Former-Jain (eg, Hemant Mehta). Former-Something. People have been harassed, parents have kicked kids out of their homes, people live under death threats, while others are outright killed. All perpetrated by religious people against atheists. Even Richard Dawkins has a story about molestation by a religious figure (though he seems to have suffered more from reactions to how he told the story than from the event itself). There are whole communities dedicated to those who are struggling with their newfound atheism: the Living After Faith blog and podcast, Recovering From Religion, the Clergy Project, and probably loads others that I haven’t even heard of because that’s not my story. (If you know of any, please feel free to list them in the comments.)

Derived from ARIS data

Shifts in religious identity among Americans

By the numbers, the vast majority of atheists in the US come from religious backgrounds. This report seems to support my hunch that, for the UK, the trend is less pronounced, though it looks like a slight majority of current “no-religion” folks still claim some childhood religious identity. (I want to note I was unable to follow through to the original report for the UK link, so I’m interpreting a flashy graphic rather than hard survey numbers.) I suspect that Canadian numbers, if they’re out there, fall somewhere between these two cultural neighbours of ours.

Data from www.brin.ac.uk

Shifts in religious identity among the British

So, having said all that, am I the (metaphorical) white guy lecturing on feminism for minorities? Do I have anything relevant to offer the people in this community, that isn’t already being better provided by someone with more relevant experience?

It’s a question worth asking, and I hope I will always ask it before I condescend to put finger to keyboard. (Linguist’s side-note: Is “put finger to keyboard” an acceptable re-tooling of the old “put pen to paper” idiom? You know what I mean, anyway.) I think there are a couple of answers that can justify this admittedly self-indulgent blogging habit.

First, there are still a few (increasingly many) people like me out there: people who come to humanism/skepticism/atheism not as a reaction to a former state of theirs, but as a recognition of what they have always felt/believed/etc. So, within the wider tent, there is a large contingent of “people who are especially like me”. And perhaps my musings and reflections will seem particularly relevant to them.

Second, for people who continue to work through the fallout of their former beliefs, my story (and the stories of those like me) may be encouraging. This is the end-game that they are working toward: so their children, and future generations, can live lives that are casually and uneventfully religion-free. Lives unscarred by childhood belief in eternal torture, or untenable “moral” commandments.

Third (and most importantly), there is more that unites us than divides us. Whether you come to the humanist community from a nonreligious background or from a lifetime of fervent religious belief, you and I will tend to share values and goals. We want a public space that is free from religious coercion. We want a society that upholds basic secular values (individual rights and liberties, science as a beacon of understanding, etc). We want to promote quality education, discourage bigotry, and enjoy artistic creations that lift the spirit and inspire greatness.

Alright then. My angst is largely assuaged. The fact that I’ve never been a believer doesn’t disqualify me from being able to contribute useful ideas to our community.

Let me know what you think. Are you a formerly-religious person, now identifying as humanist or atheist? Are you a lifelong atheist? What do you think about the content of this blog? Does the material here seem relevant to you? How do you see yourself fitting into the freethinking community in general? What issues are important to you?

Is there anything I haven’t talked about that you would like to read from someone in my position?

Contending with history

2013/04/26

This is a review of the second section of the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Jesus of History

There are six essays in this section, but my reactions to most of them are similar enough that it really isn’t worth reviewing them separately.

The thing is, they all tend to lean on evidence from within the books of the Bible to support their claims. And that’s just silly. I mean, really? You have a collection of books, culled by a particular religious group from many alternatives and, in several cases, selectively edited in the process. This highly biased set of texts is then used as evidence – sometimes, different books within the set are put forward as independent sources of evidence! – of the theological position of the religious group that collected them.

Now, let’s be fair. If orthodox Christian beliefs do represent a faithful history of early-first-century events, then we would expect to have the books of the New Testament more or less as they exist today. (Perhaps with fewer internal contradictions, but not necessarily error-free.)

But then, if those beliefs are false, given people’s natural tendency to believe, even in spite of evidence to the contrary, it isn’t all that surprising that we have the books of the New Testament as they exist today. Including contradictions.

Now, for some brief responses to the individual essays.

First, Robert H. Stein outlines “Criteria for the Gospels’ Authenticity”. Some of them sound plausible, others less so. The examples from the gospels – particularly for the “criterion of embarrassment” – tend to be very weak. The only criterion that seems at all persuasive to me is the linguistic one: there are elements in the gospels that point to translation from an Aramaic oral tradition, and that point to a Palestinian geography. So yes, I’ll accept that the oral traditions that were the sources for the (Greek) gospels came from Aramaic-speaking Palestinians. To the extent that the others give anything reliable, it is about elements that skeptics (such as Bart Ehrman) would not disagree with: Jesus existed; he said certain things; he was crucified; his followers started a religion in the wake of his demise that flourished, evolved, and has come down to us as a thousand different communities, all with slightly different takes on slightly different subsets of text and tradition from that time. Unimpressive.

A further barrier to my accepting this approach is the assertion, made for example by Richard Carrier here and here, that the “criteria” approach is bankrupt. It is not a valid historical method for ascertaining reliability. I wonder if he elaborates on this in the next book in our series (The Christian Delusion contains 2 of his essays)? If any historians are reading this, please let us know your thoughts.

Ben Witherington III closes his essay “Jesus the Seer” by reminding us that “who a person is, who a person claims to be, and who others say a person is can be different.” (p111) And yet Witherington hangs all his certainty about who Jesus claimed to be on indirect evidence of what others said he was. Unimpressive.

Gary Habermas, in “The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line”, works back from a small sample of late, non-eyewitness textual accounts, through two or three levels of extrapolation. At each stage, possibilities are exaggerated to certainties with little or no consideration of alternative explanations. At no point is the inherently incredible nature of the resurrection claims even acknowledged, let alone accounted for. Habermas concludes that “this is the argument that has rocked a generation of critical scholars.” (p125) Really? So, are critical scholars recanting their skepticism en masse and accepting the literal resurrection? I can’t say for sure, but the content of Ehrman’s very recent book, Jesus, Interrupted, and the existence of the next volume in our challenge (The Christian Delusion, edited by John Loftus) seem to speak against this claim. Unimpressive.

“How Scholars Fabricate Jesus”, by Craig A. Evans, is an interesting walk through some of the better-known extra-canonical Christian texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas (which, Evans notes, is featured in The Da Vinci Code). While Evans seems to be exaggerating the weight that critical scholars give to extracanonical material, this essay is largely an informative, interesting account of that material. (Note that, at least as Ehrman builds the case in Jesus, Interrupted, this material is irrelevant to the question of the historicity of the Gospels. They can be competently challenged on internal grounds alone.)

Daniel B Wallace’s essay, “How Badly Did the Early Scribes Corrupt the New Testament?”, is one I was particularly looking forward to, as it directly responds to Bart Ehrman. Unfortunately, it doesn’t respond to Jesus, Interrupted (JI), the Ehrman book that opened the philosophy challenge. Instead, it tackles Misquoting Jesus. I actually took the time to look through the latter book before reviewing this essay. This review will be presented in its own post – there’s a fair bit to chew on there. But, perhaps predictably, my overall conclusion was that Wallace’s arguments are unimpressive.

Michael Wilkins’ essay, “Who Did Jesus Think He Was?”, draws on gospel material to affirm the claim that Jesus saw himself as the same saviour that modern Christians see him as. Interestingly, Wilkins actually weaves in the fact that the Jewish picture of the Messiah presented in the Old Testament, the character expected by Jews (including Jesus’ disciples) is not the messiah that Jesus turned out to be. He suggests that this failure to fulfil the prophecies supports, rather than undermines, the claim that Jesus is the prophesied messiah. It is an odd and quirky approach, but not particularly impressive.

In all, this section was vaguely interesting – particularly Wallace’s essay. But all of the essays suffer from one central shortcoming, in the context of the Ultimate Challenge. By leaning on the texts of the Bible, they give insufficient reason to take any of their conclusions seriously. It is extremely unlikely that a reasonable outsider will accept the claims of any religion, based only on the texts that its adherents pick out as divinely inspired.

It should be noted that the book wasn’t (of course) written for the Ultimate Challenge. It reads more like a book that was written to give believers an excuse to keep believing, if they are worrying about the arguments offered by critics. Sort of an internal apologetics. So I can’t say whether the writers failed at their own goal. I can only say that their arguments fall flat from the perspective of this outsider.

Duty and futility

2013/02/02

Oh, woe is me!

Anyone who has been watching me eke through the Ultimate Philosophy Challenge (put forth by Luke Muehlhauser) over the past year and a half may have noticed that my postings have become more and more sporadic.

I could claim real-world interference with my writing, but that would be a distraction. The fact is, I am rapidly losing my motivation.

I did not undertake the challenge expecting it to change my mind. But my experience of Luke’s writing and podcasting (+here) suggested that this challenge would put in front of me the most thought-provoking apologetics, rather than the appalling works I had previously run across. I had read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity before I had even heard of humanism and begun self-identifying as such; Lee Strobel’s Case for a Creator as I was beginning to explore things and identify as a humanist; and most recently John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, which I reviewed in a series of five posts on this blog (1 2 3 4 5). Summary: apologetics in print have seemed as self-congratulatory and vacuous as the more degenerate online discussions of atheism versus Christianity (from either side).

Anyway, having appreciated and occasionally been challenged by the balance and pursuit of truth (as opposed to confirmation) that Luke exemplified, I had hopes that these authors he was pointing me to (none of whom, Christian or atheist, I had read before) would at least make me pause for thought, and perhaps puncture one or two of the more comfortable, self-satisfied conclusions I was happy to hold.

But I find that the atheist arguments are familiar and seem sound, and the apologists’ arguments are familiar and easily refuted. They set up straw men of real atheist positions, and subject their own arguments to only the flimsiest tests. I enjoy being proven right as much as the next guy, but it’s disappointing that this challenge isn’t more challenging. Is it because I actually do have the right answer already? Is it because I’m too close-minded to see the value in the opposing arguments, or the flaws in the atheist arguments? Either hypothesis is consistent with the superficial details of the experience.

 

I know that an open mind is necessary in order to grow toward truer belief. But I can’t help think of the prayer experiment I undertook with our Mormon missionary friends back in Edinburgh. They said to pray honestly for insight, I tried it, I got not message from Heaven. They said to keep trying until I got a message. But to keep asking the same question until the answer comes out the way you want is not the way to truth. So I ended that experiment. If I ever get reason to believe that it’s worth trying again, I will, but until then I have a reasonable conclusion based on honest testing.

I feel like the same thing is happening with Christian apologetics at large. I had a suspicion that there wasn’t any knock-down argument for God, based on my previous experience. I have tried out the best arguments, recommended by what seemed to me to be an open-minded, thoughtful source. And they’ve failed to stir my doubt-o-meter. Case closed?

Not quite. The problem is, I’m really just halfway through the Challenge. I still have a book by Swinburne and one by Craig to wade through, in addition to two further atheist offerings. And that’s after I finish the current book – a dense pack of essays ranging from transparently vapid to impenetrably opaque, without offering any illumination.

I can’t plead the excuse sometimes used in clinical trials – that people seem to be suffering or dying from one leg of the experiment – for halting early. I’m just really, really tired of wading through garbage philosophy, in the interest of fairly testing what is really a very low-probability hypothesis. (Christianity is only one of many popular theistic hypotheses of roughly equal prior probability; and all of them are but a subset of the domain of logically possible deistic hypothesis).

So this is my dilemma. I am engaged in an exercise that feels increasingly futile. And yet, as part of my duty to the pursuit of truth, I cannot reasonably beg off the remaining part of the exercise. So I should carry on. But, knowing that my state of mind is increasingly opposed to the whole endeavour, I’m not sure I can claim to be fairly evaluating the ideas I’m coming across.

I’m tempted to leave off – take an indefinite hiatus. But that isn’t really a solution is it? It’s just an escape.

I’m tempted to just skim through the remaining books. But that isn’t really an honest fulfilment of my original resolution to fairly examine the claims.

I’m honestly puzzled here. I think I’m procrastinating toward the hiatus solution by default. There’s always something more interesting to do/read/whatever than this. Perhaps I should skip to the next book (an atheist collection – perhaps a bit more palatable), to help get back in the mood for the project.

What do you do when you have a task that (a) has no deadline or external pressure to finish, (b) feels futile or pointless, but (c) you feel some sense of duty or responsibility to complete? Have any of you undertaken this challenge or something similar? How did you overcome (or succumb to) the hurdles you encountered?

Do you have any insight that would let me see the problem in a different light, perhaps resolve the dilemma more easily?

Contending with Dawkins (2)

2012/08/22

This is a review of the sixth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

Dawkins’s Best Argument Against God’s Existence by Gregory E. Ganssle

Didn’t we already have this? Not really. Unlike the earlier essay by Craig, Ganssle goes for a much higher-level summary of Dawkins’ argument:

  1. A universe made by God would be different from one made by only natural occurrences.
  2. Our universe fits better with a naturalistic universe than with a theistic universe.
  3. Therefore, our universe is more likely to be a naturalistic universe than a theistic universe. (p75)

Also unlike Craig, I think Ganssle manages to present the argument in a form that Dawkins would be content with. I certainly am. The idea here is to treat naturalism and theism as hypotheses that make predictions about the sort of entities and events we should observe, and compare these predictions against what we do observe.

Unfortunately, Ganssle runs off the rails pretty soon after by playing loose with the idea of “observability”.

Dawkins is disposed to think of detectability in terms of sense experience and the methods of the natural sciences. Something that is in principle subject to scientific investigation is detectable. (p77)

Yes. The methods that centuries of scientific progress have shown to be the best for teasing fact from our own bias are the best methods to use, if our goal is to form conclusions that reflect facts rather than our own biases.

For example, ethical theories can differ from each other in detectable ways. If one theory prohibits lying in every circumstance, while a second theory allows lying under specified conditions, there is a detectable difference between them. … The difference between the theories is also not due to some empirical observations. (p77)

In other words, it is not an observable difference in the sense Dawkins (and any other competent scientist) would mean – the sense that underlies the argument Ganssle so efficiently summarizes at the beginning of his essay.

Now, having excused himself from the hard work of providing real evidence within the framework of Dawkins’ argument, what does Ganssle offer in support of theism over naturalism?

  1. The universe is ordered and susceptible to rational investigation.
  2. It is a world with consciousness.
  3. It is a world with significant free agency.
  4. It is a world with objective moral obligations. (p79)

Let’s take these one at a time. I actually think they are interesting points, though I disagree with Ganssle on both their truth and their relevance to the question at hand. I am therefore indulging in a longer-than-usual post.

1. Order and susceptibility to rational investigation

The first item may point to the argument from reason, that was so opaquely exposited in Reppert’s essay. In the current context, the question is: should we expect an ordered universe more if there is a god, or if there are only naturalistic laws at work? Philosophically, I think this question is tractable. Empirically, I can’t easily think of a test for it.

Interestingly, Ganssle’s discussion smuggles in two completely arbitrary assumptions that carry all of the apparent value in this argument. First, he is assuming not just any god, but a god who is rational, and desires a rational universe. Fair enough – that is the sort of theistic hypothesis he wants to pit against naturalism. But he is not making a parallel assumption for naturalism. He is not looking and noticing that naturalists tend to describe a natural universe that has orderly laws. He just says that “a naturalistic universe, however, would not have to be susceptible to rational investigation.” (p80)

So yes, if you’re pitting a theistic hypothesis that fits our universe (and that many people support) against a naturalistic hypothesis that does not fit our universe (and that virtually nobody would support), then our universe fits better with theism than with naturalism. But if you were to pit an “orderly-god” theism against a “natural-laws” naturalism (a fair comparison), then the apparent advantage here disappears.*

2. Consciousness

I had a lot of thoughts on this section when reading it. Ganssle presents two aspects of consciousness as particularly difficult to cope with naturalistically: the first-person-ness of it, and the intentionality of mental states. These are both non-starters for me. His description of the first-person problem – that I have more immediate access to my own mental states than to anyone else’s – is no more problematic for me than the fact that the domino I push falls over but the one I leave undisturbed does not: physical systems (such as the mental states embodied in our brain) react more immediately to causes adjacent to them (such as other mental states in the same brain) than to causes distant from them (such as the mental states of other brains). As for intentionality, I simply look to the causal chain of connections between the memories and mental states I experience and the physical experiences and objects they are about. To use Ganssle’s example, when I’m thinking about Niagara Falls, those thoughts are causally connected with my memories of being there, and my memories of television shows and conversations I’ve had about the falls. None of these things are problematic under naturalism.

Of course, consciousness is a philosophically thorny topic. What is it? How does it work? These are difficult questions, whatever your philosophical position. He points out, rightly, that it is difficult for naturalists to account for consciousness. He also points out, rightly, that by positing up-front the existence of a conscious creator being, theism has already accounted for a crucial step: how consciousness arises in the universe. What he seems to fail to acknowledge is that he hasn’t really freed theism from the “probability penalty” that comes with trying to deal with consciousness. He’s just put it somewhere else. Naturalism has to deal with it by finding ways for it to arise. (Hint: natural selection is very powerful in generating things that help us survive.) Theism has to deal with it by including a very complex premise up front: the “prior probability” of theism takes a severe hit by including this ill-defined and complex thing called “consciousness” in the definition of its god.

So, consciousness is a problem for theism and naturalism, and I don’t see how we can confidently say it’s worse for naturalism than for theism.

3. Significant free agency

This is a fun one. Free will is one of those issues that seem to hinge on aesthetic preferences rather than anything substantive. I have to thank Ganssle for sparking some new and tantalizing thoughts on this topic, which I’ll defer to another time to discuss. For now, let me summarize what he asserts and how he supports it. First, “A world with significant free agency fits better in a theistic universe” than a naturalistic one. Ganssle clearly means libertarian free agency here. I tend to agree: libertarian free will is less surprising under a theistic view than a naturalistic one.**

He closes this section by saying “they may be right [that there is no such thing as libertarian free will], but the case for libertarian freedom is strong enough that it lends support to the sort of argument I am presenting.” (p84) So basically, he’s saying that if libertarian freedom exists, then his argument stands; many people deny that it exists, but let’s just accept that it does so he can keep his argument. He never actually gives us a reason to believe that libertarian free will exists. Scratch this point.

4. Objective moral obligations

This is another case where his initial premise seems to be legitimate: “A world with objective moral obligations fits better with a theistic universe.” Yes it does. (He even includes a quote from an atheist philosopher agreeing that, if objective moral obligations in Ganssle’s sense existed, then they would lend support to theism.) He also asserts that “To think that objective moral obligations exist is reasonable.” To my dismay and disgust, the one comment he makes in support of this statement is that “It is enough to note that many people think there are such obligations.”

If my premise is true, then the conclusion I hope for is true. I’ll hope my premise is true, and take my conclusion as proven.

Summing up

Ganssle’s bits of evidence are every bit as flimsy as his setup led me to expect. He begins by excusing himself from looking for real (ie, observable, empirical) evidence. Then he leads us through four arguments, all leaning on wishful thinking in various ways. He concludes by reassuring his readers that Dawkins’ best argument “does not deliver”.

Ganssle fails utterly to provide actual evidence for his conclusion, and so leaves the field to actual scientists, who have documented a whole lot of evidence that is less surprising under a naturalistic hypothesis than under a theistic one. Dawkins, for all his lack of philosophical ambition and subtlety, carries the day.

Footnotes:

* I had another thought about the argument from reason, which I won’t elaborate on here. It boils down to this: exactly how ordered is the universe, and how ordered would you expect it to be under the appropriate theistic and naturalistic hypotheses? After all, there certainly seems to be a fair amount of chaos in the universe, from quantum uncertainty to the apparent intractibility of many psychological and sociological phenomena.

** Well, one flavour of theism anyway. I have a Calvinist friend who might disagree. But I would guess that most modern, Western theists would be libertarians, so we’ll let this one pass. But note that this is yet another subtle narrowing of the theism hypothesis, rendering it just that bit more unlikely to begin with.

Contending with evolutionary naturalism

2012/08/16

This is a review of the fifth essay in the book Contending with Christianity’s Critics.

The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism by Mark D. Linville

The point of this essay is clear: evolutionary naturalism (that is, belief in evolution without belief in god) undermines belief in moral truth. (For important subtleties that this summary overlooks, check out the essay yourself.)

Linville does a competent job of arguing that, under the theory of evolution, the human moral sense doesn’t seem to connect causally with any moral order that exists fundamental to the structure of the universe. In other words, evolution undermines the warrant for belief in transcendent moral absolutes.

Here’s the argument in brief: if we evolved, then evolution had just as much chance to shape our moral intuitions as it did to shape our bodies in order to help us survive; therefore, our values have been shaped by our evolutionary history. So we cannot use our moral intuitions as guides to find some moral reality that might underlie reality.

He is basically pointing out the is/ought dilemma: that moral facts cannot be derived from physical facts. David Hume is most famous for identifying this dilemma. Linville’s formulation can be summed up as follows:

Theory X (evolution) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. However, as a statement of physical facts, it cannot be used to justify claims about moral obligation.

Now, Linville’s alternative is of course theistic: if our moral sense was given to us by a god, then our values and beliefs are causally connected with that god’s values and beliefs. Therefore, if such a god exists and gave us our moral sense, we have good reason to trust our intuition that transcendent moral absolutes exist, and we can know about them.

Let me sum up this argument in another way – see if you can spot the problem I spotted:

Theory Y (theistic creation) describes how we came to have the moral values/beliefs we have. Therefore, it can be used to ground claims about moral obligation.

If you don’t see the problem, let me spell it out: “God did it” buys you no more in terms of moral absolutes than does “evolution did it”. You must insert, either explicitly or implicitly, some further ethical premises. For example, I suspect Linville’s hidden premise here is “God has reliable access to moral absolutes (part of his nature, seen by his omniscience, whatever), and would wish to share those moral absolutes with us by printing them on our moral sense.” For him, and many theists, this may be obvious enough to leave out. For me, it’s a huge bundle of claims that I have absolutely no reason to swallow – from the existence of a creator god to its moral perfection to its intentions regarding the rest of us.

But that’s not all.

Linville frames his arguments regarding evolution in light of atheism. Unfortunately for him, they work just as well under any view that accepts the vast evidence for evolution – whether that view includes a god or not. If we evolved, then evolution will have tinkered with our moral intuitions (ie, built them from scratch). The only way that belief in a god can get you around this is if you assume that your god directly intervened in the construction of your moral intuitions. Neither Linville nor the whole army of Intelligent-Design creationists have offered good evidence to suggest we should accept this.

Oh, Linville and his coreligionists are free to believe that it happened. And, once you take on that belief, the rest may follow. But given the evidence before us, all we know is that evolution happened, and it almost certainly acted to shape our moral intuitions. So we are left with no reason to think our moral intuitions track any transcendent moral absolutes.

At bottom, I think the disagreement I have with Linville is over the value of these transcendent moral absolutes. He seems to think that without them we’re wallowing in a sea of wishy-washy relativism. Certainly, many religious people I have encountered in person and online seem to think this way.

I think that human nature is stable enough. Even if our morality is only reliable relative to the current state of most humans’ moral instincts, we have enough to go ahead with. I acknowledge that I do not have a watertight moral theory that can oblige everyone to follow my pragmatic moral rules. But then, neither does Linville. The weakness of my moral stance is that it is relative. The weakness of his is that it is built on wishful thinking.

Which do you prefer?


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