Sunday, September 28, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 5.

This chapter looks at explanation for religious belief.

Dawkins' suggestion is that religious belief is not something that natural selection has selected for, but a by-product of something it has selected for. He draws an analogy with the moth and the flame - natural selection did not select moths that fly into flames, it selected for e.g. a form of navigation (keeping a fixed point of light - such as the moon - at a certain position in the visual field) that has this unfortunate by-product: moths navigating by a candle will spiral in and fry.

Dawkins provides an example of the sort of thing he has in mind. Children need to acquire a lot of information very quickly if they are to have a good chance of survival. They cannot carefully reason though things before accepting - they must take advice from the elders on trust. So natural selection selects for this. But this feature of young humans has a down side - it makes them vulnerable to bullshit beliefs. Bullshit beliefs can slip in, and, once they slip in, they'll be passed down the generations along with the genuinely useful ones. Religion takes advantage of precisely this vulnerability.

Dawkins suggests we may also have an innate propensity towards dualism, falling in love, and understanding things intentionally (as intentional behaviour done by an agent), which again religion can take advantage of.

In the second part of the chapter, Dawkins applies memetics to religion, saying "memetic natural selection of some kind seems to me to offer a plausible account of the detailed evolution of particular religions" (p. 233) Dawkins was saying this kind of thing in "Viruses of the Mind" (1991 - available here) in which he compares religious belief to a computer virus.

I find very plausible the suggestion that religious belief can, to a large extent, be explained in these ways. But of course the suggestion upsets many religious folk. And of course memetics has its own critics, in any case.

The question I will put to you is - assuming that these explanations do have much to them, to what extent is this really a threat to the reasonableness of religious belief? To what extent does this kind of causal explanation of religious belief threaten its claims to truth?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 4.

This chapter contains Dawkins's central argument, summarized in pages 188-9.

The first time I read this chapter, I liked it, but I also mentally totted up all the various theistic manoeuvres that might be made in response that Dawkins didn't cover (how could he, in a single book?)

On a second reading, I am rather more impressed. Dawkins does actually cover a remarkable number of possible rejoinders, and he does deal with them pretty effectively (though the knock-about style will convince some that Dawkins is not being rigorous, close reading reveals that Dawkins's treatment of objections is pretty well thought through).

The central idea is, of course, that while theists appeal to a cosmic person or intelligence to account for features of the world that, they insist, are otherwise inexplicable, such as "irreducible complexity" - the bacterial flagellum, say, or the seemingly fine-tuned character of the universe as a whole - the appeal to God is, inevitably, an appeal to something that is itself highly complex. A God capable of designing a universe would have to be an immensely complicated being - his mind would have to be far more complex than our own, for example.

We have a here a regress-or-turtle- type objection of course. If complexity requires a designer, then God's complexity will require a designer, and so on to infinity. Or the theist can say "God (like the ancient Hindu's turtle, which was deemed the exception to the rule that unsupported things fall) is the exception to the rule that complexity requires a designer". But why play the exception to the rule card here, rather than at the right at the beginning, with the first complexity to be explained?

Note, by the way, that Dawkins is not just finding fault with this kind of teleological argument for the existence of God. After all, to fault an argument for x is not to show that x is not, or is probably not, true.

Dawkins is also making the point that God's complexity itself makes him a very unlikely, improbable being.

A possible theistic response

I suspect the point at which most theists will want to attack is the claim that God must be complex. Swinburne suggests that the values zero and infinity are the simplest values. If you are giving, say, a subatomic particle a property of value n, and deciding what n should be, infinity is a simpler suggestion than, say, some very, very large value.

If that's correct, then perhaps, by suggesting that God's mind and intelligence is infinite, the theist can maintain that God's mind is actually simpler than, say, our own. So appealing to God's mind to account for, say, the complexity of our own is to to explain a more complex thing by reference to a less complex thing. In which case, Dawkins's objection fails here. More generally, if God is of infinite intelligence, wisdom and power, that makes him a really rather simple thing. In which case, appealing to him to explain complexity in the world does not raise the problem Dawkins thinks it does.

Is this a good response to Dawkins, though?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Problem of evil - "no-see-um" response

Eric said in a comment on God Delusion chpt 3 below:

It's obvious and observable that people suffer, but it's neither obvious nor observable that the suffering in the world is 'pointless.' Alvin Plantinga has pointed out a flaw in this reasoning with a fun thought experiment: suppose I ask you too look in a tent and tell me if there's a saint bernard inside. In this case, I have every reason to trust what you say, since a saint bernard is just the sort of thing I would expect you to be able to observe inside a tent. But suppose I ask you to look inside and tell me if there are any 'no-see-ums' inside the tent (apparently, a no-see-um is gnat with a big bite that is small enough to pass through the netting of a tent, and so is too small to see). Now, I have no reason to trust your answer in this case, since you can't see no-see-ums. Here's the problem: you're assuming that if there's a reason for our suffering, it's more like a saint bernard than it is like a no-see-um. This, however, is simply assumed; it's not argued for. It is certainly at least possible that we suffer for a reason, but that that reason is not something we can easily detect.

Thought this deserved a fuller response here.

First off, yes it is “at least possible that we suffer for a reason, but that that reason is not something we can easily detect”. “Possible” being the key word. Possible, but not remotely probable, I'd suggest.

After all, it’s also possible this world is the creation of an all-powerful all-evil God, and that there is a reason for the good stuff we find in it – it's just a reason we cannot easily detect. But how probable is that, given the amount of good we find in the world? Highly improbable, of course!

I am running not the logical problem of evil, remember, but the evidential problem (see here). I suspect Plantinga is here responding to the logical problem (is he?).

I certainly don’t think this is a good response to the evidential problem.

Here’s another thought experiment. Suppose we see an adult slowly torturing children to death. We would immediately conclude the adult was not at all good. And for very good reason.

But now suppose we find out that the adult is vastly more intelligent and knowledgeable than us - an alien super-being. Surely, that would not lead us to revise our initial opinion very much.

Yes, perhaps there is some reason why torturing these kids to death is ultimately all for the best, and this being can see that, while we cannot. But that remains highly improbable, surely. The most reasonable conclusion to draw remains that the torturer is not particularly benevolent.

Pointing out the mere possibility that there is some good reason for the torture that we can’t see (not being as intelligent or knowledgeable as the torturer) does very little to weaken the evidence that whatever the torturer is, he ain't entirely loving and benevolent.

Ditto, say, our creator unleashing literally unimaginable quantities of suffering on sentient creatures over hundreds of millions of years.

Perhaps there’s some good reason for it. But the fact remains, the sheer quantity of suffering is still very good evidence that the creator, if he exists, is not supremely benevolent. In which case he is not the Christan god.

Of course, we can and should acknowledge that if there is a limitlessly wise and all-knowing God (whether good or evil), then very probably some of what he does will be mysterious to us.

But that doesn't mean that nothing can count as evidence against his goodness or badness, does it? It doesn't mean that, however heavenly or hellish the world happened to be, it would still not provide us with good evidence for/against the creator's goodness/badness.

If vast quantities of good are excellent evidence he is not all evil - and they surely are - then vast quantities of evil are excellent evidence that he's not all good.

[incidentally, if there is a good reason for the suffering, why could not God explain it? If I inflict pain on my child for good reason - at the dentist, say - I explain why I do so. Failure to explain would be particularly cruel. If there is a good reason for e.g. burying thousands of children alive in Pakistan, why doesn't God explain?]

Monday, September 15, 2008

Broken clavicles



For anyone interested here is my dislocated right clavicle (top - it sticks up; compare it to the left at the shoulder end and you'll see) and broken right clavicle. From mountain biking in Spain.

Sorry posts have been less frequent - beginning of term is coming up. I shall respond to Rev Sam on the Jesus issue shortly. Book club posts will still appear on Saturdays.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, CHPT 3.

Chapter three looks at various arguments for the existence of God, and finds them all wanting.

I will pick out two things for discussion (but feel free to bring in other stuff).

FIRST THING: Dawkins’ attack on Aquinas’ first three ways is really twofold:

(1) First, if we are going to halt the regress with something, why not just stop at e.g. the Big Bang? Why add God and then play the “Oh, and this is the exception to the rule that everything requires a cause” card? Rather than just play the card at the Big Bang?

This first objection can be explained by analogy. The ancient Hindus, struck by the fact that things that are not supported fall, wondered what prevented the Earth from falling. If all things fall that are not supported, then the Earth must have a support. But what? They posited a big elephant. But then what supports the elephant? They posited a big turtle to support the elephant. But what supported the turtle? It’s here, it seems, that they played the “exception to the rule card” – the cosmic turtle is the one exception to the rule that unsupported things fall. But if the “exception to the rule” card is going to be played at some point, it should surely be played as early as possible. There really is no justification for first introducing a cosmic elephant and turtle, and then playing the card.

(2) Dawkins points out that the most these arguments would establish, at best, is a first cause – but not that this first cause is the omnipotent, omniscient, supremely good, etc, God of traditional monotheism. Compare the elephant and turtle. Even if the Earth does require a support, even an animal support – why an elephant and a turtle? Why not a cosmic gerbil sitting on an enormous rhino?

The first objection looks strong. But of course theists have responses to it. For example, if they could show that, while there must be an exception to the rule that everything has a cause, it cannot plausibly be the Big Bang, but must be God, then the argument would still work. And of course, many theists believe they can indeed show that.

They may say, for example, that a (non-dependently) necessary being is an obvious an exception to the rule that everything has a cause. A being that exists necessarily requires no cause to bring it into existence. The Big Bang, on the other hand, is not a necessary thing – yes, it happened, but it did not have to happen. There might have been no bang. Therefore, it's unreasonable to make the Big Bang the exception to the rule, but not unreasonable to make God the exception to the rule.

In fact, something along these lines is suggested by Aquinas’ third way (though this is lost in Dawkins' presentation of it).

I don’t say this modified version of the first cause argument is strong, but it does not have the fault that Dawkins finds with the first three of Aquinas’ five ways.

So of course the theists will say that Dawkins has merely knocked down a straw man. He hasn’t really engaged with the strongest and most sophisticated arguments for the existence of God. He's dealt merely with overly simplistic versions of those arguments.

Would that be a fair objection, though? After all, we cannot expect Dawkins to cover every version of every theistic argument in a book like this. The most we can ask for is an overview of the main arguments, which is what we get.

But then, the theist may again object, how can Dawkins be justified in rubbishing all these arguments on the basis of such a cursory treatment? [I don’t really agree with this objection, in fact, but I raise it for discussion].

SECOND THING

On page 2, Dawkins does raise a well-known objection to God’s being both omnipotent and omniscient.

"If he is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent."

Actually, I am not yet convinced by this kind of objection. Like Dawkins, I think that the very idea of God makes little sense, but not for this particular reason.

Foreknowledge of something, including your own actions, does not prevent you from changing your mind. The suggestion that it does may turn on a famous modal fallacy.

Compare (for any person a and proposition P [e.g. a = Bert, and P = his keys are on the table):

(i) Necessarily: If a knows P, then P is true.
(ii) If a knows P, then necessarily: P is true (i.e. is a necessary truth).

Note that the only difference between (i) and (ii) is that the “scope” of the modal operator “necessarily” shifts. But as a result, very different claims are made. Claim (i) is true. Necessarily, you cannot know what's not true (you can at best, only believe it). But claim (ii) is false – we can know things that aren't necessary truths.

Get these two claims confused, however, and you may end up thinking that if someone knows something will happen, then what they know couldn't have been otherwise.

But of course, that’s wrong. Compare:

If I know that I am going to Paris tomorrow, then it must be true that I will go to Paris tomorrow. But it’s not a necessary truth that I’ll go to Paris tomorrow. In fact, I am able to change my mind about going. So – despite the fact that I know I'm going, I can still change my mind.

NB the same applies to things I have done. I know I went to the bank yesterday. Necessarily: if I know I went to the bank, then I did. Still, I could have done otherwise.

Ditto God’s knowledge of what he’ll do tomorrow.

(Or is there something special about God’s foreknowledge that entails he cannot change his mind – e.g. his infallibility. I don't think God's infallibility makes any difference, actually, but you may disagree)?

[POSTSCRIPT: Here's yet another illustration of the last point. Consider my knowledge of where a subatomic particle landed in an experiment yesterday. Necesarily: if I know it landed at position x, then it landed at position x. It doesn't follow that it couldn't have landed somewhere else (indeed, if thaw laws governing such particles allow indeterminacy, it needn't even be determined by the laws of nature that it should land at position x).]

Friday, September 5, 2008

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, chpt 2.

The thing I am going to pick out from this second chapter is Dawkins's suggestion that whether or not God exists is a scientific question:

Either he exists or he doesn’t. It’s a scientific question; one day we may know the answer and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability. (p. 70)

Dawkins admits there may be questions science cannot answer. But clearly he thinks this is unlikely to be an example.

What I do like about this chapter is the way that Dawkins shows that, as most people understand “God” (e.g. a superhuman, supernatural intelligence responsible for creating the universe) whether or not God exists is scientifically assessable.

Indeed, Dawkins is surely right to point out that double standards are common here. Give an argument based on science for there being no God and you’ll be hit with, “But the existence of God is not scientifically assessable.” Religion and science are supposedly “non-overlapping magesteria” or NOMA for short.

But as Dawkins says:

You can bet your boots that the scientific evidence, if any were to turn up would be seized upon and trumpeted to the skies. Noma is popular only because there is no evidence to favour the God Hypothesis. The moment there was the smallest suggestion of evidence in favour of religious belief, religious apologists would lose no time in throwing NOMA out of the window.

I’m sure even many religious people would admit there’s some truth to this.

But now to a part I'm not so sure about. My view is that if the suggestion is that Dawkins' God Hypothesis – that the universe was created by a superhuman, supernatural intelligence – is one that only science can decide, well, that would be too strong a claim. I’m not sure Dawkins is making that claim (is he?), at least not here. But, being a philosopher, I’d like to think philosophy has a role to play too.

Dawkins's own central argument is:

Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion… (p. 52)

This is, indeed, a science-based argument. But other arguments are possible. The problem of evil, for example, is an empirically-based argument. But it’s not really a scientific argument. Rather, it's just an appeal to an obvious, observable fact – the world contains immense amounts of pointless suffering – that appears straightforwardly to falsify the hypothesis that there’s a maximally powerful and good God*. Science can strengthen the argument by pointing out that this suffering has e.g. been going on for many millions of years. But it seems odd to call the basic argument “scientific”. It's no more a "scientific" argument than is, say, objecting to the thesis that Bert is still alive by pointing to his corpse.

[POST SCRIPT: It sounds at least odd to me to class all empirical claims as scientific and all empirical confirmations/falsifications as scientific.

Science, I would think, is something quite specific, with its own specific approach. Sounds odd to say that, when prehistoric, and presumably prescientific, peoples observed that the sun rises everyday and birds fly south in the winter, they were "doing science", or "scientifically confirming" these things. (I'm not even sure they could properly be thought of as scientific claims in this context - though they are clearly empirical).

But in any case I agree the God Hypothesis is empirically, and even scientifically, assessable. I agree with Dawkins about that.]

There are other arguments against the God Hypothesis that are clearly non-scientific. Here’s a simple example: the very concepts of design, agency and deliberate action only get a grip within a temporal setting. But God is outside of time. He is supposedly time’s creator. But then it makes no sense to talk about him designing and creating the universe.

This argument (whether or not a god argument) is not scientific at all – it’s a priori, and based on an unpacking of certain concepts – those of agency, etc. It’s a bit of conceptual analysis. If the very concept of a designer/creator God does not even make sense, then there’s no thesis here for science either to confirm or falsify. In which case, ironically, Dawkins can't scientifically falsify it.

Dawkins, being a scientist, is running a scientific argument against the existence of God. Nothing wrong with that, per se. However, it might be that other, non-scientific arguments, might do the job more effectively.

Certainly, I would not want theists to think that, if the scientific arguments fail, then they are off the hook.

*Note Dawkins' "God Hypothesis" does not add goodness as one of God's attributes. The reason for that, of course, is that his argument will work (if it works) whether God is good or not. The problem of evil, on the other hand, requires that God be good. However, as the hypothesis monotheists actually go with invariably is the Good God Hypothesis, so it is, I'm suggesting, straightforwardly empirically falsified.

God, poetry and emotion

Following on from the previous post on God and indefinability, I have been thinking a bit more about Sam’s sophisticated theology.

I have been suggesting, rather bluntly (!), that Sam is (unwittingly) falling for, and applying, several rhetorical devices in order to try to deal with the problem of evil. These include:

(i) Playing the mystery card (See my The God of Eth)
(ii) Now you see it, now you don’t
(iii) Pseudo-profundity

I think there are lots more sleights-of-hand and rhetorical devices in play here, too. Perhaps I should go right through them all in detail at some point. My view (again, to state it bluntly) is that, once you’ve unpacked and disarmed all these various ploys and manoeuvres, what remains – the actual content of theism (to the extent that there actually is any content left in “sophisticated” theism once all the sleights-of-hand, etc. have been exposed) - is pretty obviously a load of cobblers.

But perhaps there isn’t any content at all? I’m not sure.

I just read the Book of Job and have been thinking about the poetic and inspirational use of language. Religion makes very great use of it, of course. Lots of “Lo!”s and words ending “-eth”. Here’s a bit:

9:4 He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength: who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?

9:5 Which removeth the mountains, and they know not: which overturneth them in his anger.

9:6 Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.

9:7 Which commandeth the sun, and it riseth not; and sealeth up the stars.

9:8 Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea.

9:9 Which maketh Arcturus, Orion, and Pleiades, and the chambers of the south.

9:10 Which doeth great things past finding out; yea, and wonders without number.

You get the idea. But, other than bigging up God, what is actually said here? Well this:

“Who hath hardened himself against him, and hath prospered?”

It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is clearly supposed to be “No one! So fear him! He gets angry!” It’s a veiled threat. But the actual answer is pretty obviously “Loads of people (me included!)”

And there are also some scientifically inaccurate claims, such as that the earth is set on pillars.

Now the sophisticated theologian will tell us not to take these passages so literally. But then what’s left? Just the expression of a sort of reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude. This text is designed to press our emotional buttons and get us reverberating in tune with it (three key emotions being awe, reverence and fear).

Being reasonably emotionally literate, I know when my buttons are being pressed. Spielberg is a master, of course. At the end of E.T., I can see exactly how Spielberg is manipulating me emotionally through very careful control of the music, script, etc. It’s almost formulaic. Yet I still start blubbing.

I get exactly the same feeling reading the Bible - and especially this passage from Job. The emotional and psychological manipulation is pretty transparent, I think. You can almost feel your buttons being pressed.

There is a mystery about why there is anything at all. We are awestruck by nature. And rightly so. Religions take these basic feelings of awe and mystery and build on them – using poetic, inspirational language.

But when you strip away the poetry and get down to the actual content of a particular religion, what’s left?

Claims, which, shorn of all the emotional button-pressing, and jotted down on the back of an envelope, are pretty obviously ridiculous.

Imagine writing down the core claims of Christianity – including the resurrection, etc., - in a matter-of-fact, bullet-point style and giving them to say, a Chinese person unfamiliar with Western religion. Their likely reaction would be, “You believe that?” Why?! The claims just don't work any more once stripped of all the emotional and other psychological packaging.

On the other hand, remove these claims from a religion and what's left? No content as such: just the reverential, “Oh wow!” attitude (which may also be happy-clappy or self-loathing, etc. etc. depending on which sect you end up in).

It seems the sophisticated theologian who rejects the ridiculous stuff is then just left with little more than the attitude. Of course, they think there’s something more. There still a sort of content left, they suppose. But when you ask them what the content of their belief is, they say – “Well, I can’t say, exactly – you see, it’s, um, ineffable, it’s a mystery.”

Hmm. My suspicion is they have simply projected an ineffable “something” to be the focus of all the emotional, psychological baggage they still find themselves left with.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Web designer needed

If anyone with web design skills feels able to help Centre for Inquiry here in the UK set up our website, either voluntarily or for modest fee, do please get in touch.

We need something slick and stylish, and I can't do it (as you can see!)

Thanks

Stephen
(Provost, CFI UK)

The indefinable God

The Rev Sam said:

"i) it is a central claim of the tradition that God is ultimately mysterious and not finally knowable. We cannot attain to a position of oversight with respect to God, we are always in an inferior position - that's part of what the word 'God' means - something which is above and beyond our comprehension. Any analysis which seeks to render God's attributes definable is not engaging with a Christian analysis."

A further thought on that. The very same move can and no doubt would be made on Eth by those who believe in an evil God (see The God of Eth). Consider this Ethian response to the problem of good:

Gizimoth: "There's too much good for this to be the creation of an all-powerful and evil God"
Booblefrip: "Ah, but you must understand that 'evil' as applied to God means something other than what it means when applied to humans."
Gizimoth: "What does it mean, then?"
Booblefrip: "Well, Evil God, and his attributes, are indefinable. He is, ultimately, a mystery, something beyond our comprehension."

Notice how this is often a combination of at least two ploys: playing the mystery card (see The God of Eth), and what we might call, "Now you see it, now you don't":

Make a claim about God. If anyone looks like shooting it down, quickly pull it back, saying, "Oh, you've misunderstood, you've taken me too literally!" But then vaguely sort of make the claim again. Then, if any one takes aim, whip it back and again accuse them of a crass misunderstanding. And so on. Keep going till your opponent finally tires and gives up. Then claim victory.

Other rhetorical ploys may be applied too. Perhaps pseudo-profundity...

Lash, clearly an influence on Sam, says, I seem to remember, something like "Whatever we say about God must then be unsaid."

Assert, but then deny! God is. And yet, he is not! God is everything, and nothing! He is good. But then, he's not!

Outside of religion, this is widely recognized as a classic bullshit artists' device (see e.g. Thinking from A to Z by Warburton). It's even got a name. I did a post on it ages ago (I wasn't even considering a religious use of it) - check "pseudoprofundity" where I said:

[[TEXT BOX: Another secret of pseudo-profundity is to pick two words that have opposite or incompatible meanings, and combine them cryptically, like so:

Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

Try it for yourself. You’ll soon start sounding deep. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty Four, the three slogans of the Party are all examples of this sort of pseudo-profundity:

War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

A particularly useful feature of these remarks is that they make your audience do all the work for you. “Freedom is a kind of slavery” for example, is interpretable in all sorts of ways that probably won’t even have occurred to you. Just sit back, adopt a sage-like expression, and let your audience figure out what you mean.

None of this is to say that such cryptic remarks can’t be profound, of course. But given the ease with which they are generated, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.END OF TEXT BOX]]

Notice my line:

"Just sit back, adopt a sage-like expression, and let your audience figure out what you mean."

Particularly appropriate here, I think.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Could it be pretty obvious there's no God?

Following on from the previous post...

“Let us say: 'Either God is or he is not.' But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question." Blaise Pascal.

Like Pascal, many theists believe reason cannot determine whether or not God exists. Indeed, many suppose that, because God, if he exists, transcends the physical reality to which we have access, it is in principle impossible for determine whether God exists to settle the matter simply observing it. Science, and empirical observation more generally, can provide, at best, a few clues. They cannot settle the question beyond reasonable doubt.

I reject that view. It seems to me that by observing the world around us, we can answer the question of whether God exists. In fact, think it’s pretty obvious there’s no God.

That last claim may surprise even some atheists. How could it be pretty obvious there’s no God? Surely this is a tortuously difficult and complex question over which the greatest minds have pondered for millennia, without ever reaching any real consensus. How, then, can the answer be pretty obvious?

Well, I think the (evidential) problem of evil, combined with an absence of any half decent argument for the all-powerful, maximally good God of traditional monotheism, shows beyond reasonable doubt there's no such being. We really need to do little more than look out the window to see there's no such God.

True, many theists will be outraged by that, and will suggest all sorts of subtleties and sophistications. Indeed, they typically say: "But what about the arguments of theologians X, Y and Z? Until you've dealt in depth with all their many moves and arguments, you surely cannot say it's pretty obvious there's no God."

Trouble is, much the same sophisticated evasions etc. can be made in defence of belief in an evil God (as my The God of Eth begins to illustrate). Yet it remains pretty obvious there's no such evil being. The moral is obvious....

Indeed, isn't this just the courtier's reply, so nicely lampooned by pharyngula?

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

The God hypothesis untestable and beyond reason to decide?

Big bad bob said in a comment on The God Delusion chpt 1 post (in my Book Club): "What Dawkins defines as god are the parts of theology which can not be tested by traditional scientific method."

It's often claimed the God hypothesis is not empirically or scientifically testable. The idea seems to be that God necessarily transcends the empirical realm, and so his existence cannot be conclusively verified or falsified by reference to it. The most we can have are clues (such as those that prompt the question: "Well, why is the universe so fine-tuned for life, if it wasn't designed that way - by God?" - but even theists admit this is no "proof" of God's existence).

Indeed, God's existence is often said to be beyond the ability of reason to decide. For example:

“Let us say: 'Either God is or he is not.' But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question." Blaise Pascal.

I don't accept that whether or not God exists is something it is in principle beyond reason, empirical observation, or science to establish, at least not beyond reasonable doubt.

Especially if we conceive of God as the all-powerful and maximally good being of traditional monotheism. Seems to me that hypothesis is straightforwardly empirically falsified.

To see why: take the hypothesis that there's an all-powerful maximally-evil being. That's straightforwardly empirically falsified, surely. There's just way too much good in the world for this to be the creation of such a being. Call that the problem of good. The problem of good surely decisively rules out the evil God hypothesis (notwithstanding all the tricksy moves that might be made to try to salvage it - see my The God of Eth). Which is why everyone dismisses it as silly.

But if the evil God hypothesis is not in principle untestable (and is, in fact, straightforwardly empirically falsified) why should we suppose the all-powerful, maximally good God hypothesis is in principle empirically untestable?

Indeed, seems to me that not only is it testable, it is also straightforwardly empirically falsified - by the problem of evil. Just as the problem of good is decisively rules out an evil God, so the problem of evil decisively rules out the good God.

Or so I argue. See The God of Eth.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Recommend speakers

Can anyone recommend really good science speakers - preferably with great powerpoints and even some interactive stuff? UK based. It's for CFI events.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Jesus' historicity: an argument for being skeptical

As Rev. Sam (who said earlier that anyone who doubts there was an historical Jesus must be insane) is struggling to follow my argument for being cautious about accepting that any such person as Jesus existed (I'm not sure either way), I'll set it out a bit more formally (the bare bones of it, anyway).

1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the claims.

2. There is not extraordinary evidence for any of the divine/miraculous stuff in the NT documents.

3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there's excellent reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims.

4. Where testimony/documents combine both mundane and extraordinary claims, and there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the extraordinary claims, then there's pretty good reason to be skeptical even about the mundane claims, at least until we possess some pretty good independent evidence of their truth (as illustrated by the Bert case*).

5. The NT docs combine extraordinary and mundane claims about Jesus.

6. There's no pretty good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there's pretty good reason to be skeptical about whether Jesus existed.

* The Bert case: if my friends say a stranger called Bert visited them last night, I'll rightly take their word for it. But if they say Bert did amazing miracles in their front room before leaving - turning the sofa into a donkey, dying and then coming back to life, etc. - well then their claim that these things happened is now no longer nearly good enough evidence even for the claim that any such person as Bert exists, let alone that he did any of the things they claim.