Thursday, February 7, 2008

Religion, and intellectual black holes


[This is partly in response to some excellent comments on the preceding post: The Emperor's New Clothes. Commentators have suggested that appeals to God's mysteriousness and ineffability in order to deal with rational objections can be perfectly legitimate. Possibly, but read on...]

Suppose I believe in an evil God. A supremely evil and powerful being. God is hate. Sometimes I even appear to sense this at some deep level of my being. The world seems to me infused with a ghastly, horrific pallor that reflects the infinitely depraved character of its maker (apparently, such horrific visions are not uncommon among some mentally deranged folk).

So gripped am I by this vision of the world that I even write poetry about it in attempt to express what it seems to me I have glimpsed of the fundamental character of reality.

You, of course, think I must be a borderline nutcase. You point out there’s a great deal of evidence against the existence of such an evil being. Why on earth would he give us love, laughter and rainbows? Why would he give us beauty? Children who love us unconditionally? And so on. The world just ain’t bad enough to be the creation of such a being.

I respond by playing the "mystery" card.

I say, “Ah, but you are taking me far too literally. When I say God is evil, I don’t mean what we normally mean by 'evil' but something far deeper and ineffable, so that his transcendental evilness is really, in some mysterious way, compatible with these things you consider good.”

I might also try this: “God is profoundly, transcendentally evil - evil in a way that extends far beyond any modest conception of him we might possess. So I am not surprised you are struggling to make sense of him.”

I might add to this recipe: “Indeed, there are good reasons why he will not want to make the depths of his depravity entirely obvious. For example, he can actually increase evil by not fully revealing himself. So there are good reasons why we struggle to recognize his existence, or even make sense of him. We should expect not to be able to make sense of it all. So the fact that neither you nor I can make sense of it doesn’t give us any grounds for supposing it's not true. And I have glimpsed that it is true.”

Cherry on the cake: "I find the best way to express what I have glimpsed to be true is through poetry and analogy. True, that makes it very hard for you to criticise what I believe. But hey - it's your problem, not mine, if you are so literal-minded and unsophisticated that you can't grasp what my poetry expresses."

These are precisely the sort of moves an intelligent schizophrenic might make to defend their beliefs (in fact, aren't such evasive, self-sealing patterns of thought actually rather typical of certain forms of mental illness?).

By such means, it is possible to construct an impregnable fortress around ones belief system, rendering it utterly immune to any sort of rational criticism.

These are, of course, standard moves of the cultists. It is by such means that they trap people inside their wacky belief systems. Once you're caught inside one of these self-sealing bubbles of belief, it can be very hard to think your way out again (especially if you're a child).

Surely, anyone who encounters a belief system possessing such features should be very wary indeed. Alarms should be going off. For they are now skirting dangerously close to the intellectual equivalent of a black hole.

The question is, do we have good grounds for thinking someone who thinks in this way is deluded? Notwithstanding their appeals to mystery and poetry and the ineffable?

I think we do, don’t we? Certainly, we have every reason to suppose that their appeals to mystery, ineffability, etc., are what the great Woody Allen would call "so much chin music".

Punchline: If we consider the nutcases' appeals to mystery, ineffability and poetry to be "so much chin music", why should we consider the very same manoeuvres more rational when made by the religious?

Also see: atheism: the mystery move.

45 comments:

Stephen Law said...

Post script. Allowing myself to get entirely carried away with my bubble analogy, I might continue: As the centuries roll by, these bubbles appear and disappear. Sometimes, many will fizz into existence in one place, because the conditions are just right (an age of superstition). Occasionally, one of these little bubbles will grow huge, perhaps encompassing an entire civilization (like Islam, or Christianity), before dividing or deflating or popping or being subsumed by another bubble. The greatest enemy such bubbles of belief face, perhaps, is the flourishing of a rigorous, sceptical attitude towards them - an "Enlightened" society. Of course, those living inside such bubbles will likely dismiss such Enlightened attitudes as "just another bubble"!

Ongie said...

Stephen,

I suppose I should start by stating clearly, in the words of a well known theologian, (Alister McGrath) 'I don't believe in the God you don't believe in either.'

Your God of Eth parody of a totally evil God was a delight to read, you do, however, appear to be confusing a loving God with a good God. My feeling is that concepts of good and evil are human constructs developed to explain behaviour. My understanding of God, however, is that he is concerned with love rather than good, or indeed, evil. To illustrate what I mean - I think from reading some of your responses that you are a parent. If that is the case I suspect you have allowed your children to be vaccinated against certain diseases in order to protect them. When the doctor stuck the needle into their arms, or wherever, Have you ever considered the possibility that, had they been able to articulate their views, your children would have described those acts as evil? If they had, would it have changed your opinion? Is it possible that from your perspective these were loving acts designed to protect your child from potentially more harmful problems? Were they in fact carried out with your full approval?

I pose these questions in an attempt to suggest that you need to redirect your questions about the existence of God away from whether God is Good. Perhaps some of your commentators would like to address my suggestion that good and evil are human inventions that should not be used as a measure of whether God exists or not.

Perhaps there is also scope on your blog to discuss another question.

Is it ethically sound for people who describe themselves as athiests to earn their livings as philosophers?

It appears to me that down the ages philosophers have been seeking answers to the big questions - do we exist? why? etc.

If the universe is simply a fascinating but purely random occurrence - and if we are simply a series of spontaneous, and equally random, chemical reactions, then is it not reasonable to conclude that there can be no valid questions about existence or indeed any such thing as wisdom?

Tea said...

Ongie,

That's an interesting analogy with a vaccination. Now imagine this: You're there comforting your crying kid, explaining to him that the painful vaccination he just suffered was not performed in order to hurt him, but just because this is the *only* way (or at least the least painful one) to prevent the kid from an even greater evil.

A nurse overhears you, and tells you that, no, the doctor has an ability to prevent your kid from getting those diseases in much less painful ways. Actually, this doctor can do pretty much anything - he could have even eradicated those diseases from the face of earth just by "thinking them away". Yet, he chooses to prick kids with needles and to watch them cry in order to achieve the same effect.

Not evil?

Joe Litobarski said...

Stephen writes: "The question is, do we have good grounds for thinking someone who thinks in this way – and who is able to express themselves and their belief through poetry and other art forms – is deluded? Notwithstanding their appeals to mystery and poetry and the ineffable?"

As long as their behaviour is not hurting other people, then there should be no problem (although perhaps someone should give them a mug of tea, have a chat with them and try and cheer them up a bit).

In fact, religiously inspired artwork has a pretty impressive history (although I agree with Dawkin's argument, made in The God Delusion, that artwork inspired by the natural world can be just as good), so although we may consider this person deluded, they could be making an enormous contribution to society [i]because of their delusion[/i]. They could also, of course, be causing themselves or others great suffering - which is why their behaviour, and not their beliefs, should be the criteria we judge them by.

Science can never disprove the beliefs of a person who has faith in a supremely evil being. One could argue that science could prove her beliefs unreasonable - but what does that mean? It certainly doesn't mean her beliefs aren't true. Before the twentieth century it was unreasonable to believe that everything in the universe once occupied a space smaller than an atom; or that time flows relative to how fast you’re travelling; or that there exists an infinite quantum landscape of parallel universes.

If a person, with no scientific reason for doing so, had believed that time flows differently depending on how fast one travels, [i]before[/i] Einstein’s papers on relativity had been published, she would have been called unreasonable. But she would still (apparently) have held a belief which was true.

At this point in history, the person who believes in an evil god is, according to science, being totally unreasonable. The most reasonable position to take at the moment is atheism, or possibly agnosticism, (that's my honest opinion). However, if some folks want to jump the gun and believe in things that science hasn't proven yet, then we can call her unreasonable, but we can't call her wrong.

What if she believes that science is all a big conspiracy to delude her into thinking god doesn't exist? The best argument against conspiracy theories or solipsist philosophies is to ignore them; either because they prevent you developing a line of thought, or because you dismiss them as unreasonable. But ignoring an argument doesn’t make it wrong.

And yes, the same applies to Russell's celestial teapot. It's absolutely ridiculous - but if [i]I[/i] was a celestial teapot, I'd certainly encourage the idea that belief in a celestial teapot was ridiculous.

This probably sounds really, really laboured and obviously ridiculous (especially coming from an atheist). But I honestly believe that whenever we step too far from [i]cogito ergo sum[/i], we’re acting on a sort of faith that an invisible demon isn’t mucking around with us. If we want to live some semblance of a responsible life, we have to get past that dangerous thought, because it can lead us to psychopathic behaviour (“I’m not really hurting these people – life is an illusion!”). However, we should also recognise that our entire belief system is built on potentially vulnerable foundations, and that the possibility exists we may be wrong about a lot of things. This doesn’t just go for atheists, of course, theists as well should probably be keeping an open mind.

P.S.

Stephen: Glad to hear the Butler talk was a success. By the way, I'd be interested to hear the answer you gave to the problem of the "capricious" evil god; the evil god who has no moral problems committing both good and evil acts, as long as they bring her pleasure.

jeremy said...

Thought readers might like to hear Bertrand Russell's take on the subject:

Question: How do you answer the argument that God is beond the conception of the human mind?

Answer: My answer to that would be that so far as it is true, God becomes quite irrelevant to our thinking, and those who say that God s beyond comprehension of the human mind profess to know a great deal about God. They don't really mean that god is beyond comprehension... generally they mean that He is beyond the comprehension of your mind and not beyond the comprehension of theirs.

jeremy said...

Ongie,

I don't think that your example (loving vs good God) solves much. In fact, I think that it's as vulnerable to Stephen's "God of Eth" switch as before.

Consider a 'hating god' hypothesis. Vaccinations would then simply be a method of inflicting harm (pain) on EVERY child, when only a few would actually receive any benefit (only a minority of children would have gotten sick anyway).

The point is that, if we are creative enough, we can rationalise ANY set of facts to fit in with our particular god - I bet you and I could come up with some story 'explaining' the vaccination saga as being the undoubted work of a lazy god, a bipolar god, or even a god who ultimately wants to turn everything into a puppies called Harold.

That's (I think) the point of Stephen's God of Eth reversal. The challenge is to align ourselves on this topic with a worldview that uses the very same every-day standards of logic and rationality that we use in all other spheres of our lives.

scott roberts said...

Stephen,

It seems to me that what you have done in this post is made the case for religious authority and dogma:

The question is, do we have good grounds for thinking someone who thinks in this way is deluded?

This is why religious authorities are suspicious of mystics, and why tradition is valued, because many of them are deluded. This means, unfortunately, that sometimes the innocent get punished, but that is deemed preferrable to a chaos of messianic cults.

But to get back to the point at issue, I would say that the situation from the believer's point of view is that when an objection is made to a religious doctrine that does not take into account the fact that religion deals with mysteries, then that objection is not rational, or at least is being irrational if it does not allow the believer to bring the mystery into his or her response to the objection. By no means am I saying that the believer is justified in saying: "You are referring to a mystery, so go away." I am only saying that in order for the non-believer to understand how the believer will respond to an objection, the non-believer has to make some effort to learn the language in which the believer thinks about those mysteries. For the believer, the poetic and mystical language is required in order to make a rational response.

anticant said...

Ongie: "Is it ethically sound for people who describe themselves as atheists to earn their livings as philosophers?"

Why ever not? I do not understand this.

Joe: "As long as their behaviour is not hurting other people...They could also, of course, be causing themselves or others great suffering - which is why their behaviour, and not their beliefs, should be the criteria we judge them by."

Ah, there's the rub! As I am always saying [allegedly following Jesus], "By their fruits you shall know them."

"We should also recognise that our entire belief system is built on potentially vulnerable foundations, and that the possibility exists we may be wrong about a lot of things."

Yes, indeed! Only a megalomaniac would delude themselves that they know all about everything [either through 'divine revelation', or because they think that everything knowable has already been discovered scientifically].

That is why organised religions peddling dogmas which claim omniscience are so dangerous. Mystics do not claim omniscience; they are seekers of the unknown. They are humble; religionists are arrogant.

I agree with Russell [quoted by Jeremy] that "those who say that God is beyond comprehension of the human mind profess to know a great deal about God. They don't really mean that God is beyond comprehension... generally they mean that He is beyond the comprehension of your mind and not beyond the comprehension of theirs."

As Scott says: "religious authorities are suspicious of mystics....tradition is valued, because many of them are deluded. This means, unfortunately, that sometimes the innocent get punished, but that is deemed preferable to a chaos of messianic cults."

Deemed preferable by whom? The power-seeking dogmatic churches. The poetic and the mystical - which are qualities innate in all human beings [at least potentially] and not the preserve of religionists - are in fact far less dangerous, more benign, and -ultimately - more rational than the organised religions peddling deluded 'certainties'.

Scott said...

I have a couple of links that may be relative to the few topics running about on the board.
I tend not to comment because I'm on the still relatively new to the arguments, but doing some background reading I came across these.

The first is Louis Theroux: The Most Hated Family in America, (Westboro Baptist Church.) I think it links nicely with delusion and child indoctrination, and maybe reiterating Stephen's early comment of the different allowances we make for a political party as opposed to a religious party.

Louis Theroux 1

It's worth seeing Louis Theroux meets the Nazis as well.

The other is something I heard on the radio today about a Muslim Cleric (Yusuf Al Qaradawi) denied access to the UK because of his radical views.

Muslim Cleric

What surprised me most was the view of the Muslim Council of Britain, claiming it could offend Muslims and that Britain should initiate debate with his man, not stop him entering. (Presumably he can receive the free medical treatment whilst debating...)
I don't know why the MCB feel we need another homophobic, racist and overall vile human being in this country. We have plenty of every race, colour and creed already, I doubt he'd have anything to add to the debate.

Lastly in the Louis Theroux meets the Nazis, he comes across these pair of girls, many I guess would have heard of them.

Lamb&Lynx

Lamb and Lynx. It's ashame because they will appeal to a wide audience when they're just a little older.

That's my lot, it seems something you people may enjoy looking at when you have time. Make sure you notice the responses Louis gets from children.

anticant said...

What the Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain said was: "Yusuf Al Qaradawi enjoys unparalleled respect and influence throughout the Muslim world."

So there you have it!

Cassanders said...

@Joe,
You wrote
............beginquote
....
By the way, I'd be interested to hear the answer you gave to the problem of the "capricious" evil god; the evil god who has no moral problems committing both good and evil acts, as long as they bring her pleasure.
............Endquote

I'm sure Stephen will answer this.

But your question strikes me as a rather well desciption of the judeo-christion god as depicted in the book of Job.

The little known philosopher Peter Wessel Zappfe has some quite schating analyses of god (JHVH).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Wessel_Zapffe
http://www.philosophynow.org/issue45/45lewis.htm


Hopefulle more of his writing will become available in a more accessible language in the years to come.

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

Scott said...

Anticant,

I was going on a radio broadcast I'd heard earlier in the day, but cant track down, so I'll withdraw the comments, and if they appeared skewed I apologise. :)

There was an article on PinkNews about it, but I'm going to say that's very possibly bias.

Apologies for the error again.

anticant said...

Scott,

Qaradawi IS a homophobic, racist and overall vile human being. And the MCB DID say that he "enjoys unparalleled respect and influence throughout the Muslim world."

So nothing to apologise for!

Paul said...

Hi Stephen

I'm a trainee clinical psychologist and I'm doing a doctoral thesis on delusional belief in people who experience psychosis.

I've certainly met people who have the beliefs you describe. As you imply, it's more often than not a felt sense (e.g., dread or terror) or unusual experience (e.g., command hallucinations) with a post hoc explanation. Brendan Maher's work is good and suggests delusions arise out of unusual perceptual experience and a consequent search for meaning. Often the experiences are so unusual the explanation must be as well. The alternative explanation ("I'm going mad") is more terrifying than believing that MI5 are plotting to get you. There's a raft of other research now as well showing how behavioural attempts to cope with the implications of a belief prevents it's disconfirmation and also how some people have certain data-gathering biases (see Bentall's work on persecutory delusions - or Freeman and Garety's cognitive model of psychosis).

One reason the "I'm going mad" explanation is so terrifying is because of the stigma associated with madness in the developed world. Interestingly people have a better chance of recovery from mental illness in the developing world where others are more accepting.

Anyway, if you're looking for a psychological formulation of why people believe things despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, check out Richard Bentall's book "Madness explained: psychosis and human nature"

One interesting area which I don't think has been explored in delusional belief is 'volitional necessity'. Beliefs of the type you describe appear to have a sort of volitional underpinning - desires operating at such a fundamental pre-cognitive level that to resist them would be unthinkable (desire to live or love of one's child are a bit like this).

Cheers Paul

anticant said...

The libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz made a strong, though not entirely convincing, case against the concept of madness as an instrument of social control in a series of books starting with "The Myth of Mental Illness" [1960]. There's an interesting article about him in Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Szasz

Stephen Law said...

Very interesting comment, Paul. I'll get the book...

bls said...

But the idea of God is the idea of Good; that's what "God" actually is: "Good" collapsed into an entity. It's shorthand for the morality that leads to flourishing, that's all; nothing very complicated about it.

In any case, Christian theology says that Christ is the "image of the invisible God." IOW, we have, in the person of Jesus Christ, a real, live, fleshly person who came "to reveal the Father in his own person." When you want to know what God is like, look at him. Not very mysterious at all, really.

Anyway, nobody'd be interested in an evil God; when people are in trouble, they don't look to evil (because evil already surrounds them), but pray that the world will be made right and good again.

Stephen Law said...

Hello BLS. God is "shorthand for the morality that leads to human flourishing". Well if that's what you mean by God, I am not an atheist! Neither is Richard Dawkins, I'd guess.

It's not I who introduce "mystery" here - it's the theists.

The "mystery" is invoked, for example, when we ask why a God who is good would, say, bury thousands of Pakistani children alive, to die slowly, alone, over several days.

If there's no "mystery" there, perhaps you'd like to tell us the answer!

But you are right of course - belief is a god God is largely wishful thinking.

Stephen Law said...

Incidentally, the suggestion that God=good=morality could be identical with a flesh and blood person who dies is also a bit mysterious isn't it? About as puzzling as, say, claiming that, say, the number three is a banana? Aren't we dealing with entirely disparate categories of thing here? I'm certainly baffled.

bls said...

Congratulations for having seen the light at last.

BTW, why would death be considered mysterious? Every living thing dies; no mystery about that, either.

BTW, how and why did the universe begin? How is it that life arose from non-life, something that most biologists agree is highly unlikely? Isn't that a bit of a mystery? Or if it is, rather, in the usual course of things, why hasn't SETI heard anything after I-don't-know-how-many years of listening?

Where is everybody, IOW? Do you wonder about that at all? Does it seem strange and perhaps mysterious?

And BTW don't you find life itself - your own life, in particular - something of an amazing mystery? I mean, how did we get from one-celled organisms to the Stephen Law Blog? Where'd that come from? This is where I can never understand these kinds of arguments, actually; they seem to take so much for granted.

bls said...

But in any case, you haven't answered one of the points I made, namely: God is good, not evil. That's the whole point of God, so positing an evil God is something of a non sequitur.

As I said, God is the hope of those in pain or trouble; why would anybody pray to an Evil God if drowning in difficulty?

bls said...

(I hadn't heard about God burying the Pakistani children, sorry. Did you see this happen, or is this conjecture on your part?)

Paul said...

Hi Anticant

Re Szasz and the myth of mental illness.

Foucault's work is obviously important here as well...

Szasz is right in a profound sense when he argues that evaluative judgements are integral to the concept of psychopathology (including delusions). However he is probably wrong when he says they shouldn't be. That is, evaluative judgements are integral to judgements of physical illness too.

The difference, as philosopher and psychiatrist Bill Fulford notes, is that the evaluative judgements in psychopathology are highly controversial, while those in physical health are not.

Empirically minded psychologists such as Tony Morrison* are increasingly arguing that the main difference between delusions and the extreme beliefs of a large proportion of 'healthy' people are really just that the former are distressing, while the latter are not. The distress is driven both by the content of the belief and it's cultural unacceptability - which leads to social exclusion and fears of going mad. This is certainly the model used in the psychological treatment of such problems - in Britain anyway (the US still go for a brain disease approach). This treatment evaluates well in RCT's and is now recommended in national clinical guidelines (e.g., NICE).

So extreme irrationality 'in itself' is probably not enough to warrant a diagnosis or treatment. This raises other ethical issues of course (such as personal identity, capacity etc.), but it also blurs the line between the 'ill' and the 'well'. I think this is a good thing, as it encourages a certain solidarity and discourages the notion of 'us and them'.

*Morrison (2001)

joe litobarski said...

bls said: "BTW, how and why did the universe begin?"

The how: Evidence points to a massive (that's an understatement) explosion about 14.5 billion years ago. There was nothing before that point, because time didn't exist. There was nothing outside of that point, because space didn't exist.

It's still a mysterious event, but we're slowly piecing it together. For example, when the Large Hadron Collider goes online this year, we will be able to simulate what happened immediately after the big bang.

As to the why: purpose is a human abstract. Cassanders posted some information about Peter Wessel Zappfe, who argues that we've been given the capacity to look for meaning where no meaning exists.

bsl said: "How is it that life arose from non-life, something that most biologists agree is highly unlikely?"

Actually, I don't think most biologists would agree with that. Especially not when you look at the work Craig Venter is doing with artificial life.

bsl said: "Why hasn't SETI heard anything after I-don't-know-how-many years of listening?"

Perhaps because the universe is very, very large and life is very, very rare. It had to have hapened at least once, or we wouldn't be here, but there's no guarantee that it will have happened more than once in our neighbourhood of the universe.

There may only be a handful of instances of life across a universe of 100 trillion (or more) galaxies.

bls said: "God is good, not evil. That's the whole point of God, so positing an evil God is something of a non sequitur."

Just because you can imagine the ultimate embodiment of good doesn't make it exist. I can imagine the perfect desert island, but that doesn't make it exist. Of course, there's nothing in the definition of a desert island that says it must exist, but then why should there be something in the definition of God that says he must exist?

And if there is, why doesn't imagining the perfect evil god make him exist as well?

The weakest place to attack the atheist argument in the point just after cogito ergo sum, where the invisible demon lives. Every point after that can be defended nicely with the scientific method (i.e. through empirical evidence and rational analysis of that evidence). But if the empirical world is flawed, then so is everything else. It's not possible to counter that argument - only to ignore it.

And, of course, we should ignore it. But as a philosophical thought experiment, it's the weakest point of our belief systems.

muthabroad said...

The reason it doesn't make sense is because material reality is imperfect. Only idea can be perfect, and in the expression of idea as imperfect matter, the true source of our being is obscured.

When looking at God physically, he/she can be nothing but flawed and unobservable. In the realm of idea, where our true nature lies, also lies the loving source of creation, free of entropy and chaos.

Joe Litobarski said...

By the way, when I said the scientific method is through empirical evidence and rational analysis of that evidence, I mean first comes the hypothesis, then the empirical evidence decides between competing explanations (at least, according to Popper). This method is still vulnerable to an invisible demon, of course.

Descartes had to appeal to God to get around the problem of solipsism. Atheists can't do that, so we have to appeal to what is most reasonable given our empirical evidence. Therein obviously lies the problem. Dawkins calls God a "God of the Gaps" - and the problem of solipsism is a gap which can never, by its very nature, be filled in completely.

Nick Bostrom, who's paper I linked to above, is one philosopher who is arguing that, based on our understanding of the universe and on probability, a sort of scientific solipsism (the simulation argument) might actually be a very reasonable position to adopt.

muthabroad said: "The reason it doesn't make sense is because material reality is imperfect. Only idea can be perfect, and in the expression of idea as imperfect matter, the true source of our being is obscured."

Like Plato's forms? But there is nothing in the definition of the idea of perfection which says it actually has to exist. In fact, the forms live in a purely metaphysical realm, of which we have no physical evidence. We can imagine them, but because they can't affect the "real" world, they may as well not exist.

Except, of course, the platonist or dualist could argue that this world is an illusion. How can we dig ourselves out of this hole created by the solipsist argument? I guess we'll have to ignore the argument. If anyone has any better suggestions then they would be much appreciated. Surely there must be a better solution than simply ignoring the problem or dismissing it as unreasonable?

"When looking at God physically, he/she can be nothing but flawed and unobservable. In the realm of idea, where our true nature lies, also lies the loving source of creation, free of entropy and chaos."

Or an evil god, the source of all entropy and chaos, who created us only to torture us forever.

Something to think about. ;-)

Regards
Joe

Anonymous said...

tls said "Anyway, nobody'd be interested in an evil God; when people are in trouble, they don't look to evil (because evil already surrounds them), but pray that the world will be made right and good again."

I disagree - part of the attraction of belief in a purposeful, sentient deity is that is gives a target for prayer and worship.

Prayer, I suggest, is the delusion that simply by petitioning the deity one may influence the deity to produce some outcome either in the real or supernatural world. Prayer does not need to result in good. Blame and vengeance also figure prominently when people are in a tight corner. A heartfelt "smite mine enemies" might do. An element of bargaining often seems to enter into it e.g "Grant me this and I'll go on a pilgrimage every year".
As if there is anything the suppliant could really offer an all -powerful being.

Worship is general sucking up and flattery of the deity in the hope of gaining similar advantage to that from praying. The plus with worship is that it often provides a social element and a chance to reinforce belief by group activities. An evil being is still someone to sing hymns to or dedicate cathedrals to.

Cassanders said...

Just to elaborate a bit on Zappfe:
When he used an expresion like: "humans have been given the capacity for...."
or "have been endowed with the ability to ask for meaning...."
His context was of course entirely within modern biological understanding of the evolutionary processes. In his (pessimistic) view, this ability is a rather dominating "downside" of our evolved ability to- and propensity for abstractions.

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

joe litobarski said...

The problem of solipsism at first seems impossible. Having a think about it, I had an interesting idea (I'm probably not the first to think this, so please let me know if others have had this idea first).

Initially, it seems like all empirical knowledge is equally invalid if we're just brains floating in a tank. However, this is not the case: we can know certain things.

Firstly: "I think therefore I am," or some variation of this. We know at the very least that something perceives.

Secondly: I'm proposing another piece of knowledge that resists the problem of solipsism.

At first it looks like everything we perceive empirically can be undermined by solipsism. Even if we learn all there is to learn in the universe, we could still say we're just prisoners watching shadows on the cave wall, and all our knowledge is false. Even if we stumbled upon seemingly absolute evidence for or against the existence of God (evil or not), we could still say it's just an illusion.

Take the example of walking to the shops:

If we're living in an unsimulated world, then we can trust our empirical evidence that it's possible to walk to the shops.

If we're living in a simulated world, then we can't trust our empirical evidence that it's possible to walk to the shops.

Therefore: we can't know for certain whether it's possible to walk to the shops or not based purely on empirical evidence.

As another example, take boiling a kettle.

If we're living in an unsimulated world, then we can trust our empirical evidence that it's possible to boil a kettle.

If we're living in a simulated world, then we can't trust our empirical evidence that it's possible to boil a kettle.

The same conclusion as before. We can't know if it's actually possible or not.

However - if we were to construct a simulated world ourselves, it would give us a unique piece of information. This, at least, could not be taken as a false positive.

If we're living in an unsimulated world, then we can trust our empirical evidence that it's possible to simulate a world.

If we're living in a simulated world, then we can trust our empirical evidence that it's possible to simulate a world.

How does that sound? Or have I made some huge fallacy?

This might seem a bit Off-Topic - but I think it gets to the nub of the "intellectual black holes" and "emperor's new clothes" discussions. Not only is it the ultimate intellectual black hole, in which an evil god could very happily hide from science, but it's also the child, pointing out to the atheist emperor that actually, he's completely starkers.

Regards
Joe

anticant said...

From a commonsense point of view - I know professional philosophers hate common sense, but it's my basic tool in considering these abstract matters - Descartes got it back to front. He should have said "I am, therefore I think". Instead, he inadvertently created the gigantic red herring of dualism, which has distracted Western philosophy ever since.

Unless we are prepared to accept the - at least, subjective - reality of our own existence, we might as well shut up. This is the non-theological "leap of faith". Isaiah Berlin once said that we cannot know for certain whether we have free will, but in practice we must act as if we do.

Solipsism is an amusing conceit, but does anyone outside a lunatic asylum [or the White House] seriously believe in it? Bertrand Russell tells of a lady who wrote to him saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised there weren't more of them, to which Russell replied that he was surprised at her surprise.

I have recently read "Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. This is a fascinatingly novel 'take' on the body/mind/consciousness problem. I very much hope that Stephen will find time to read and review it here, as I think it gives a fresh impetus to unravelling some of these stale old conundrums.

joe litobarski said...

“Descartes got it back to front. He should have said "I am, therefore I think". Instead, he inadvertently created the gigantic red herring of dualism, which has distracted Western philosophy ever since.”

Well – Descartes himself wasn’t happy with Cogito Ergo Sum, as he thought it might be too confusing, so he rephrased his first certainty as “I am; I exist.” So Descartes did say “I am, therefore I think.”

And Descartes certainly didn’t create western dualism. Blame Plato if you want.

“Unless we are prepared to accept the - at least, subjective - reality of our own existence, we might as well shut up. This is the non-theological "leap of faith".”

In other words: ignore the problem of solipsism.

“Solipsism is an amusing conceit, but does anyone outside a lunatic asylum [or the White House] seriously believe in it?”

Or dismiss the problem of solipsism as unreasonable.

These are exactly the two “solutions” I wrote about earlier. But ignoring the problem or dismissing it as unreasonable won’t actually solve it. And it only presents a further problem: you’re appealing to common sense (you yourself admit this). And if philosophy and science have taught us anything, it’s that using common sense to describe the world around us is often flawed. Take quantum mechanics, for example.

I don’t, of course, advocate solipsism. I find it a very dangerous idea. But dualism, which is related to the idea of solipsism, is nowadays the root of almost all theism. Science, in the future, could potentially provide explanations for every conceivable natural phenomenon – but the theist would still be able to point to the problem of reality.

At least if we could successfully simulate a world ourselves, we could point to it as evidence that the world around us might also be a simulation. On the other hand, maybe we’ll never be able to simulate a world successfully. Roger Penrose argues that conventional computers will never, even if they are vastly more powerful, be able to simulate consciousness.

Either way, the science is lagging behind the philosophy at the moment – and the philosophy is stuck until the science catches up.

Stephen Law said...

Hi bls

yes there are many mysteries. Good to acknowledge them. But that's not what we are talking about here.

We are talking about using "mystery" to defend nutty beliefs, such as that the world is the creation of an an-powerful but supremely evil being.

And, of course, to defend belief in God in the face of overwhelming evidence that there's no such being. Pointing out that there are mysteries does nothing to justify such evasive appeals to "mystery".

anticant said...

Joe, would you please articulate what exactly you conceive the 'problem' of solipsism to be?

anticant said...

And Stephen, how do you define a 'nutty' belief? I think that to say there is "overwhelming evidence that there's no such being" is a bit strong. I can only say that on the balance of all the available evidence I'm aware of, there is a very strong probability that there is no such being.

As I keep saying, what concerns me is not so much the truth of religious beliefs, but the practical consequences such beliefs have for humanity, including us non-believers.

[BTW, what would be the practical consequences if everyone was a solipsist?]

joe litobarski said...

anticant said: "Joe, would you please articulate what exactly you conceive the 'problem' of solipsism to be?"

Looking back over my posts, I see I’ve not been using the right terminology. Please, correct me when I make a mistake, because I’m liable to make tons of them.

I see “solipsism” as being the belief that the world is a figment of one’s imagination.

Therefore: what I really meant to say, I suppose, is not the “problem of solipsism”, but the “problem of empiricism” or the “problem of reality”. How do we know we can trust empirical evidence? We know because we have overwhelming empirical evidence we can trust it. It’s a silly problem, and it’s not worth donning a tin foil hat in case we’re living in a world controlled by a sinister conspiracy, but it’s still a problem which has kept philosophers busy since at least Plato (and probably going back to before humanity even existed. I wonder if Neanderthals or Homo Erectus argued round the campfire about the nature of reality).

anticant said: “As I keep saying, what concerns me is not so much the truth of religious beliefs, but the practical consequences such beliefs have for humanity, including us non-believers.”

I agree totally. Because I’m not able to completely dismiss other people’s beliefs (because of the problem of empiricism/dualism/reality), I focus rather on how they behave. So I can’t say a person has “nutty beliefs” but I can say that person is behaving badly towards other people. And that’s what I judge them on.

anticant said: “[BTW, what would be the practical consequences if everyone was a solipsist?]”

Not sure. I guess I believe that the concept of morality is so fundamental that it’s absolute, even in a world where everyone’s living in an illusion.

Cassanders said...

@anticant
you wrote:
....
[BTW, what would be the practical consequences if everyone was a solipsist?]
.....

I am sure Stephan of other philosophers will elaborate.

If understand the solipsistic position correctly, a lot of important types of communication becomes futile.

In my book(sic), the language (even my sloppy variety :-) has an immense power, enabeling us (humans) to "download" and share experiences over distance and time, and across cultures.
I acknowledge that this exchange may not be 100% accurate, but I am very confident that the benefit outweigths the drawbacks.

If humans were to interact according to what I perceive as "strong solipsism", I suspect science as we know it would not exist....
(...Why should we trust whatever expereinces or thougths an entirely different individual has...?)

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

Anonymous said...

Joe

I like the idea of building a simulation within a simulation.

What would we build the simulation from?
Would we be able to trust anything other than our own minds? Probably not. I find it hard to imagine being able to enjoy a (simulated) trip to the shops whilst simultaneously running the simulation in my own mind.

(BTW for a fictional account of some of the issues with simulation you might like Greg Egan's "Permutation city")

anticant said...

Joe, thanks for clearing that up! I take 'solipsism' to mean the belief that only oneself is real, and that one cannot have certain knowledge of anyone else or anything outside oneself. It is distinct from the questions of empiricism or the nature of reality which, as you say, are worth debating.

The Chinese Taoist sage Chuang Tzu said "I do not know whether I am a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man". These days, I often think I would prefer to be the latter!

joe litobarski said...

Cassanders said: "If humans were to interact according to what I perceive as "strong solipsism", I suspect science as we know it would not exist."

I think you're right. I also suspect society as we know it would not exist. A lot of people would probably just mope around, not seeing any point in action, and they would starve to death. Eventually, either the human species would go extinct, or only those humans that weren't solipsists would survive. Some sort of natural defence against solipsism would presumably evolve (such as not thinking too hard about solipsist foolishness).

anonymous said: "What would we build the simulation from?"

I've heard the phrase "quantum computer" thrown around a lot in answer to your question. I really need to find out what that actually means.

"Would we be able to trust anything other than our own minds? Probably not."

Thinking about it: I don't actually suppose it's necessary to simulate an entire universe of people. It would suffice merely to simulate a single consciousness, and then fool that consciousness into believing it existed in the "real world." Massively unethical, of course. Would we be able to resist the temptation?

anticant said: "Joe, thanks for clearing that up! I take 'solipsism' to mean the belief that only oneself is real, and that one cannot have certain knowledge of anyone else or anything outside oneself."

Actually - I think your definition is possibly closer to the word as it was originally intended.

Terence said...

anticant asks:
"how do you define a 'nutty' belief?"

I think it is a belief not founded on evidence and reason, i.e., an irrational belief. The further removed from evidence and reason, the nuttier.

and goes on to say,
" I think that to say there is 'overwhelming evidence that there's no such being' is a bit strong. I can only say that on the balance of all the available evidence I'm aware of, there is a very strong probability that there is no such being."

Well, considering that there is no evidence whatsoever that proves the existence of any supernatural beings and that the existence of such beings is entirely inconsistent with everything we do know of the universe, I'd say that "overwhelming evidence" is a fairly accurate appraisal of the situation.

He then adds,
"As I keep saying, what concerns me is not so much the truth of religious beliefs, but the practical consequences such beliefs have for humanity, including us non-believers."

Yes, the consequences of rejecting rationality (evidence and critical thinking) are serious.

Anonymous said...

Joe,

When I asked "what do we build the simulation from?" I was thinking of how much we could trust any results from the simulation. i.e does it matter if the simulation runs on real hardware or simulated hardware (as we are already in a simulation). Aside from the problem of how we determine if our simulation is good enough I suspect it doesn't matter.

One issue that might arise is if we allow the possibility of "optimizing" simulators. Many commercial simulators make a lot of approximations in order to save time or make sure that bits of maths dont just go on forever. Other dodges like re-using bits that are similar enough also go on.

It has been suggested (only half in jest) that we look for some of these in our own world.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Hello Stephen, wrote a long reflection on your latest piece. Probably not of great interest now but thought I'd share it anyway
instead of keeping it to myself as I usually do...

I think your piece on the ‘madness’ of mystical beliefs is very apposite and highlights the difference between us very well. I would add that the contributor who cites Lois Theroux’s work raises a similar point. I saw the program on white racists and the two girls being brought up to be pop stars singing racist songs who seemed to be quite comfortable with the abhorrent ideology their parents were imposing on them. This raises the quite valid question as to how a committed ‘non-‘, ‘anti-‘, ‘ir-‘ or supra-rationalist such as I may be can justify their own particular brand of ‘mythos’ as the only ‘true’ one having apparently denied any grounds on which this might be done. You suggest that these ‘mythoi’ may be cultural memes that evolve according to some sociological principle until such time as ‘rationalism’ emerges and puts a stop to the process by providing clearly objective and universal grounds for critiquing belief systems that are based on a faulty understanding of how the world, and particularly the human mind, works. You also say that some people will claim that ‘rationalism’ is just another mythos, no more or less true than its rivals, though you do not believe this yourself for some reason.

Notwithstanding the interesting discussion on the social construction of madness, perhaps there is more I can contribute.

You begin your argument with a parody of religious belief in an all good god, intending to show that such a belief is as equally (un)warranted as the object of parody. Arguing from analogy, you conclude that belief in an all good god is as psychologically unsound as belief in an all evil god, from which it is, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable epistemologically. You suggest that arguments based on the mystical basis of belief in god as traditionally defined serve equally well in the defence of an all evil god, and, by extension, other paranoid or otherwise delusional beliefs.

Clearly you believe that all beliefs not based on empirical evidence are nothing more than fantasy; they are unjustifiable and therefore cannot constitute knowledge. I accept that this would be the case if religious beliefs and claims to knowledge fell into the same category as claims about the existence of material objects. What I feel unsure about is whether or not the same criteria of justification are applicable to non-material entities. I think that there are sufficient examples of claims to the existence of such things as moral and aesthetic qualities for example to challenge us to come up with other ways of acknowledging that belief in their existence is warranted.

In fact, when we look at what evidence and logical argument IS able to prove the existence of, we find that it is very little, if anything. Descartes is responsible for a lot of this confusion (and that is not a negative criticism) when he proposed his infamous ‘cogito’. It does indeed seem that all we can be really sure of, theoretically, is that we are thinking and that therefore we must at least exist even if we can be sure of nothing else.

I have to say that I hope this won’t be taken to mean that I think it is reasonable to doubt the existence of the world as object of experience. The point I am making is only that we don’t have an adequate theory to explain why we believe that such a world exists. In the absence of such an explanatorily adequate theory we should remain open-minded about knowledge claims, even when they are made on the basis of theories of knowledge that we find questionable, such as mysticism. (I say ‘we’ but I mean ‘you’, l since I am quite certain about my own knowledge claims).

In fact, Descartes famously missed out the major premise in his syllogism which should read: (1) thinking things are; (2) I think; thereore, (3) I am. Whether the first premise is true is unclear and the conclusion may not be true.

So where does this leave us? We are committed of the existence of all sorts of things for which there is no empirical evidence because they are not material objects perceivable by the senses. Is there really no other way to decide competing truth claims, whether about god, the wisdom of Lao Tsu, the superiority of the white ‘race’, the morality of sex outside marriage, the beauty of Mozart’s music, Shakespeare’s sonnets or Picasso’s paintings?

You will say that belief in god is in a different category from belief in moral and aesthetic qualities or the existence of gravity (which is unproveable too). I accept this. I say only that we need to have a way of speaking about god that enables us to have some kind of intelligible discourse, as we do about ethics and aesthetics. This discourse will have its own rules and they will not be like those governing discussions about empirical matters, for example.

It is a category mistake to suppose that claims about the existence and qualities of god are equivalent to claims about the existence of material objects and I think it is unwarranted to deny any reality to such beliefs or to categorise them all as a form of delusion or madness. It is necessary to recognise that religious beliefs perform a different function in life from empirical beliefs and that is why attempts to treat them as the same lead to nonsense. The problem is that any way of talking about distinguishing between, let us call them, non-empirical existence claims will seem as ludicrous as the claims themselves to someone who has already written the whole discourse off as ‘madness’ or ‘fantasy’ or whatever.

So much as I would like to say that Islam is not a wacky cult because, for example, we do not believe that Muhammad was the incarnation of god, as Rastafarians believe about Haile Selassie, or that black people are superior to white, as in the Nation of Islam, or that the world is inherently evil (Gnosticism) or the battle ground between two equally matched and opposing divinities (Zoroastrianism) etc etc I will not, as that will inevitably invite from some people the crass question ‘Where’s your evidence?’ to the tune of ‘nah nah na boo boo, you haven’t got any’ (for the benefit in turning to face Mecca when you die, or example).

The ‘reasoning’ I would use might resemble appeal to evidence and argument but would not be functioning as such, having been uprooted from its empiricist context, so to speak. It would resemble more a rhetorical form of argument or sophistry, which has got itself a bad name in the western tradition. But let’s not forget, the purpose of having an argument is to win; it’s only you rationalists who insist on the use of reason exclusively, and, like good catholics, have declared all other forms of argument heretical.

So I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere while the criticism of religious belief is that there is no evidence to justify it and that it is therefore indistinguishable from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia..

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Hello Stephen, wrote a long reflection on your latest piece. Probably not of great interest now but thought I'd share it anyway
instead of keeping it to myself as I usually do...

I think your piece on the ‘madness’ of mystical beliefs is very apposite and highlights the difference between us very well. I would add that the contributor who cites Lois Theroux’s work raises a similar point. I saw the program on white racists and the two girls being brought up to be pop stars singing racist songs who seemed to be quite comfortable with the abhorrent ideology their parents were imposing on them. This raises the quite valid question as to how a committed ‘non-‘, ‘anti-‘, ‘ir-‘ or supra-rationalist such as I may be can justify their own particular brand of ‘mythos’ as the only ‘true’ one having apparently denied any grounds on which this might be done. You suggest that these ‘mythoi’ may be cultural memes that evolve according to some sociological principle until such time as ‘rationalism’ emerges and puts a stop to the process by providing clearly objective and universal grounds for critiquing belief systems that are based on a faulty understanding of how the world, and particularly the human mind, works. You also say that some people will claim that ‘rationalism’ is just another mythos, no more or less true than its rivals, though you do not believe this yourself for some reason.

Notwithstanding the interesting discussion on the social construction of madness, perhaps there is more I can contribute.

You begin your argument with a parody of religious belief in an all good god, intending to show that such a belief is as equally (un)warranted as the object of parody. Arguing from analogy, you conclude that belief in an all good god is as psychologically unsound as belief in an all evil god, from which it is, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable epistemologically. You suggest that arguments based on the mystical basis of belief in god as traditionally defined serve equally well in the defence of an all evil god, and, by extension, other paranoid or otherwise delusional beliefs.

Clearly you believe that all beliefs not based on empirical evidence are nothing more than fantasy; they are unjustifiable and therefore cannot constitute knowledge. I accept that this would be the case if religious beliefs and claims to knowledge fell into the same category as claims about the existence of material objects. What I feel unsure about is whether or not the same criteria of justification are applicable to non-material entities. I think that there are sufficient examples of claims to the existence of such things as moral and aesthetic qualities for example to challenge us to come up with other ways of acknowledging that belief in their existence is warranted.

In fact, when we look at what evidence and logical argument IS able to prove the existence of, we find that it is very little, if anything. Descartes is responsible for a lot of this confusion (and that is not a negative criticism) when he proposed his infamous ‘cogito’. It does indeed seem that all we can be really sure of, theoretically, is that we are thinking and that therefore we must at least exist even if we can be sure of nothing else.

I have to say that I hope this won’t be taken to mean that I think it is reasonable to doubt the existence of the world as object of experience. The point I am making is only that we don’t have an adequate theory to explain why we believe that such a world exists. In the absence of such an explanatorily adequate theory we should remain open-minded about knowledge claims, even when they are made on the basis of theories of knowledge that we find questionable, such as mysticism. (I say ‘we’ but I mean ‘you’, l since I am quite certain about my own knowledge claims).

In fact, Descartes famously missed out the major premise in his syllogism which should read: (1) thinking things are; (2) I think; thereore, (3) I am. Whether the first premise is true is unclear and the conclusion may not be true.

So where does this leave us? We are committed of the existence of all sorts of things for which there is no empirical evidence because they are not material objects perceivable by the senses. Is there really no other way to decide competing truth claims, whether about god, the wisdom of Lao Tsu, the superiority of the white ‘race’, the morality of sex outside marriage, the beauty of Mozart’s music, Shakespeare’s sonnets or Picasso’s paintings?

You will say that belief in god is in a different category from belief in moral and aesthetic qualities or the existence of gravity (which is unproveable too). I accept this. I say only that we need to have a way of speaking about god that enables us to have some kind of intelligible discourse, as we do about ethics and aesthetics. This discourse will have its own rules and they will not be like those governing discussions about empirical matters, for example.

It is a category mistake to suppose that claims about the existence and qualities of god are equivalent to claims about the existence of material objects and I think it is unwarranted to deny any reality to such beliefs or to categorise them all as a form of delusion or madness. It is necessary to recognise that religious beliefs perform a different function in life from empirical beliefs and that is why attempts to treat them as the same lead to nonsense. The problem is that any way of talking about distinguishing between, let us call them, non-empirical existence claims will seem as ludicrous as the claims themselves to someone who has already written the whole discourse off as ‘madness’ or ‘fantasy’ or whatever.

So much as I would like to say that Islam is not a wacky cult because, for example, we do not believe that Muhammad was the incarnation of god, as Rastafarians believe about Haile Selassie, or that black people are superior to white, as in the Nation of Islam, or that the world is inherently evil (Gnosticism) or the battle ground between two equally matched and opposing divinities (Zoroastrianism) etc etc I will not, as that will inevitably invite from some people the crass question ‘Where’s your evidence?’ to the tune of ‘nah nah na boo boo, you haven’t got any’ (for the benefit in turning to face Mecca when you die, or example).

The ‘reasoning’ I would use might resemble appeal to evidence and argument but would not be functioning as such, having been uprooted from its empiricist context, so to speak. It would resemble more a rhetorical form of argument or sophistry, which has got itself a bad name in the western tradition. But let’s not forget, the purpose of having an argument is to win; it’s only you rationalists who insist on the use of reason exclusively, and, like good catholics, have declared all other forms of argument heretical.

So I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere while the criticism of religious belief is that there is no evidence to justify it and that it is therefore indistinguishable from any arbitrary belief you can invent or indeed, schizophrenia..

Stephen Law said...

Thanks Ibrahim. Been bit busy but will try to respond soon. Will post your response up in the meantime...

kitoba said...

It seems to me the problem with the main argument is this: There are a great many creatures (such as snakes and frogs) which are harmless and non-poisonous, but which take on the bright colors and patterns of their poisonous cousins in order to deceive predators. Yet, the existence of these spurious imitators is no guarantee that all brightly colored and patterned snakes or frogs are equally venomless --their effectiveness resets entirely on their similarity to the real thing.

A more interesting topic is the opening concept of the evil deity. I am forced to admit that the problem of evil is a very real one for anyone who --like myself --believes in an all-good AND all-powerful deity. But the problem comes from the omnipotence of God, not from the benevolence of God, since evil is easily comprehensible as a corruption of what is good.

The converse situation, however, is an imperfect mirror, since the problem of good in an evil universe is not merely why the evil deity would permit good, but how anything good could possibly exist such an environment. While evil can be a corruption of good, good is neither a corruption nor a perfection of evil. An evil deity could neither create, invent or inspire anything good --unless those good things had an independent source.

The problem is even more acute if one accepts the Platonic notion that all things must have some kernel of good in order to even exist. From this point of view, the evil universe would be an empty one, with even its deity existing only as an aching void.