Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review of Karen Armstrong’s The Case For God

Armstrong’s latest book offers a defence of religious belief against recent attacks by those she terms “the new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, et al. These critics, she maintains, have fundamentally misunderstood what religion is, and what “God” means.

“God”, says Armstrong, is “a symbol of indescribable transcendence”, “pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality” (307). This reality should not be thought of as a thing or person. We must not anthropomorphize God or make of him and idol, in the way the religious fundamentalists and literalists do. They too have misunderstood the meaning of the term.

Rather, says Armstrong, “God” is a symbol pointing us in the direction of something essentially unknowable, and certainly unknowable in a rational, intellectual way. Armstrong is an apophaticist, insisting that “the ultimate cannot be adequately expressed in any theoretical system, however august, because it lies beyond the reach of words and concepts”. This, Armstrong maintains, is something that “all faith systems have been at pains to show” (307)

If that is what “God” symbolizes, then what is religion? It is, says, Armstrong,

“a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.”


By engaging in certain religious practices and forms of life, we can, maintains, Armstrong, achieve “a state of unknowing that is not frustrating but a source of astonishment, awe and contentment” (306). Religious practice has traditionally helped people to “build within them a haven of peace that enabled them to live creatively with the sorrow of life.” (246). By engaging in dedicated religious practice, people can come to live “on a higher, divine or godlike plane and thus wake up their true selves.”

In treating belief in God as a scientific hypothesis that might be confirmed or refuted, the new atheists are attacking a straw man. Indeed, it seems that, on Armstrong’s view the “new atheists” are, in a sense, doubly ignorant.

First, unlike earlier critics such as “Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, the new atheists are not theologically literate.” (293) In particular, they are ignorant of the apophatic religious tradition that sophisticated - and, according to Armstrong, entirely orthodox - theologians down through the ages have embraced. (311).

Secondly, the truth of religious doctrines is a truth that we cannot even grasp without dedicated religious practice. The truths and insights of religion thus lie beyond even the comprehension of its critics. 305.

Immunizing religion against rational criticism

This characterization of God and religion might seem to render both utterly invulnerable to any kind of rational criticism or attack.

Think you have an argument against the existence of God? You crude, unsophisticated twit - you are treating belief in God as if it were a hypothesis that might be rationally assessed!

Think religion can be rejected on rational grounds? But religion, too, is not a set of hypotheses that might be subjected to rational criticsm. Indeed, by treating religion is if it were, you betray your own crude misunderstanding!

However, on closer examination, chinks in the apophatic armour begin to appear.

Noteworthy features of religious practice

As Armstrong acknowledges, religious practice takes many forms. For example, People congregate together to sing hymns, to pray and meditate. They engage in rituals, sometimes of an elaborate nature. Some flagellate themselves. Occasionally they isolate themselves, shutting out the world. Others immerse themselves in the lives of others, by, for example, trying to alleviate suffering.

An interesting feature of many of these activities is that they are activities we know can induce interesting – sometimes rather beneficial - psychological states, even outside of a religious setting. Indeed, religions seem particularly keen on activities that can induce such altered states.

Take meditation for example. It has proven effects on both our psychology and physiology, reducing stress, inducing feelings of calm and contentment. Even atheists will meditate in order to gain these psychological and physiological benefits.

Praying is often a form of meditation, of course. Sometimes prayer and other devotional activity is accompanied by repetitive swaying or rocking motions. Such movements are known to induce a sense of well-being – the so-called “joggers high” - probably by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream (animals in zoos can also sometimes be seen responding to the stress of captivity by self-medicating in this way).

Isolation can obviously have a powerful psychological effect on people, for example by making them psychological vulnerable, easily-manipulated (it is a favourite tool of interrogators, of course).

Coming together in a large group to sing can also be a very powerful intoxicating experience, as anyone who has sat on a football terrace can testify.

If you have ever entered a large cave by torchlight, you will know that it can also be a very powerful, emotional experience - the echoing sounds, the glimpses of magnificent structures, the darkness making one apprehensive and yet excited all at the same time. The echoing grandeur of many places of worship is obviously designed to have a similar psychological effect.

Helping others in face-to-face situation can obviously be an immensely powerful psychological experience - often a deeply gratifying and positive experience.

Engaging in ritualistic activity often has a calming and beneficial effect, whether or not performed within a religious setting. For example, sportsmen and women often engage in rituals before competing (and can become very disturbed if for some reason the ritual cannot be performed because e.g. their lucky pants have been lost).

Religious practice typically involves at least some of, and usually, many of, these activities. Activities that we know can have a powerful psychological effect even outside of any religious setting.

If people collectively engage in such activities repeatedly, with dedication and great intensity of purpose, over long periods of time, we should, then, probably expect that to have a psychological effect – to produce some interesting, and quite possibly beneficial, psychological states. The regime is certainly likely to produce a heady and intoxicating psychological brew.

If, in addition, we tell the people engaging in these activities that what they are experiencing or becoming psychological attuned to is some sort of divine transcendence, then, given the extraordinary power of suggestion, there’s no doubt that this is what many of them will believe is happening. Indeed, for some there may well be no doubt in their mind that this is what is going on.

The experiences and insights that, as a result, would then coalesce around the label “God” will no doubt be complex and difficult to articulate.

There probably is a sense in which, for someone who has never been through such a regime, they can never understand what it is like for the subject, “from the inside” as it were. Those who have had such experiences will no doubt struggle to communicate their character in much same way that someone who has been through, say, a war or childbirth may also struggle – perhaps having to resort to poetry, or music in order to convey its unique intensity.

Armstrong says

“It is clear that the meditation, yoga and rituals that work aesthetically on a congregation have, when practised assiduously over a lifetime, a marked effect on the personality – an effect that is another form of natural theology. There is no ‘born again’ conversion, but a slow, incremental and imperceptible transformation… The effect of these practices cannot give us concrete information about God; it is certainly not a scientific ‘proof’. But something indefinable happens to people who involve themselves in these disciplines with commitment and talent. The ‘something’ remains opaque, however, to those who do not undergo these disciplines…” (314)

Armstrong claims that what these people gradually become attuned to is the ineffable transcendence, the ultimate reality, she calls “God”.

I guess that is possible. But how likely is it, in fact?

Given what we know about human psychology, isn’t it fairly likely that people put through such an intense regime over an extended period of time are quite likely to think they have become attuned to such a reality anyway, whether or not any such reality exists, and whether or not they have had any sort of genuine insight into it?

I don’t wish to poo-poo the value of engaging in such an exercise. It may well be that those who engage in such practices may gain some valuable insights into themselves and the human condition as a result.

And certainly there may be some positive psychological effects – a lasting sense of peace and contentment - from determinedly engaging in such activities over a long period of time, effects that will undoubtedly by magnified by the accompanying thought that what one is becoming attuned to is “God”.

But that there is such a “God” and that this is what one is becoming enlightened about by such practices is surely very dubious indeed.

Sometimes people who have had “near death” experiences claim to have experienced an indescribably wonderful light at the end of a tunnel. Often they are absolutely convinced that this light is God. However, euphoria and tunnel-vision are both a well-known result of hypoxia – lack of oxygen to the brain, hypoxia being exactly what such patients are likely to be suffering from when near death. Is it possible they are experiencing God? Yes, it is possible. But it is overwhelming more likely that they are actually suffering from hypoxia, and that they have mistakenly interpreted this experience as an awareness of some external, ineffably wonderful, reality.

The mere fact that they are convinced otherwise is hardly good evidence that we are mistaken about this. Nor will it do for them to say - "But you have not had the experience, and cannot know what it was like for me - so you cannot know!" Actually, we can still be rightly confident that, whatever our subject might happen to think, their ineffably glorious experience was a product of hypoxia, not God.

Surely, given what we know about human psychology (and I think we could add a lot more here that would lend further credibility to this explanation), by far the best explanation of what people experience (or whatever word you prefer – the “transcendental insight” they achieve, or whatever) after having engaged in religious practices with dedication over long periods of time is not that they have become attuned to some external transcendent reality, but that they have succeeded in altering their own psychology by fairly well-understood mechanisms common to both the religious and non-religious spheres, and that they have then mistakenly interpreted this alteration in themselves as their becoming attuned to such a reality.

Certainly, Armstrong has given us no good reason to suppose that this isn’t what’s going on.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Life is short

I am having a work meltdown what with beginning of term and impending book deadline. There will be more of the book up for comment shortly.

In the meantime here is a short video that I think should be shown to every teenager in the land (without the XBox plugs). As a matter of fact, the ad was banned. I am not sure why.

Incidentally, I cannot think of a worse ad for computer games. Life's short, so I should go and sod about on a computer console for a few hours?

POSTSCRIPT. Here is why it was banned. Actually I am not sure it should have been banned. I am not sure the reasons given are good reasons, or even the real reasons people complained. My guess is, this very short film manages to present a rather horrific aspect of the human condition in a way that many people would prefer not to have to think about. I am not sure they have a right to be protected from having to think about it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Debate with Alister McGrath

SPES/CFIUK PRESENT

DEBATE: DOES THE NATURAL WORLD POINT TO GOD?


Speakers:

Alister McGrath, author of The Dawkins Delusion, Dawkins’ God, and A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest For God In Science And Theology.

Stephen Law, CFI UK Provost. Philosopher, author of The Philosophy Gym, editor of THINK.

Thursday October 29th. 7pm.

Venue: Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn, London WC1R 4RL – Main Hall.

£5 on the door. Free to Friends of CFI UK, PLUS GLHA, SPES, BHA, NEW HUMANIST SUBSCRIBERS.

To book go to www.cfiuk.org and hit button "support cfiuk" and follow instructions. Credit and debit cards welcome. Alternatively send a cheque payable to ‘Center for Inquiry London” to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Center for Inquiry London, PO Box 49097 Centre for Inquiry London N11 9AX, and include names of those coming, phone number, return address, etc.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A popular anti-humanist argument

[bit of upcomoing OUP Humanism book - for comment]

Religious people sometimes present humanists with a challenge. Religion, they say, provides answers to some profound questions about the nature of morality and how knowledge of moral truths is possible. Where did morality come from? From God! How can we know what’s morally right and wrong? By turning to religion! Indeed, many religious people offer these answers as certainties.

But what, then, is the humanist’s answer to these questions? If no answer is forthcoming, many religionists conclude that this is an excellent reason for preferring their own religious position over humanism.

But this is poor reasoning. True, there are several thorny philosophical puzzles about both the nature of morality and how moral knowledge is possible.

However, on closer examination, appeals to God and religion do not provide satisfactory answers to these questions. Indeed, the religious solutions on offer typically provide little more than a convenient carpet under which such puzzles can be swept.

Many humanists, by contrast, honestly admit they don’t have all the answers. But of course, the admission that the humanist does not have all the answers is hardly a reason to favour a religious answer if the religious answers on offer are clearly inadequate.

Those who argue against humanism in this way are committing a version of the fallacy known as argument from ignorance: “You can’t answer this question? Then you should accept mine!” For example: “You can’t explain these exquisite crop circles? Then you should accept my answer that they were made by aliens!”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The apophatic theologian - again

REVISED VERSION - in lght of your helpful comments, thanks.

Some theists will be unmoved by the kinds of argument discussed in this and the previous chapter. They may say something like this:

“The god that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either! You are working with an outdated and unsophisticated conception of God. My understanding of God is different. When you say, “There is no such thing as God” I agree with you! For God is not a thing or entity that can be said to exist or not exist. Nor can God be categorized as belonging to this kind of thing or that kind of thing. I define God as something wholly other, something ineffable, unknowable, beyond our understanding. I cannot say what God is, only what he is not.”

The view that God is unknowable is sometimes termed apophaticism. The apophatic view has its attractions, perhaps the most obvious being that, if you never actually make any positive claim about God, you can never be contradicted or proved wrong. Indeed, at first sight, apophaticism appears to make atheism impossible – if no positive God claims are ever made, there can be none to deny.

The theologian Denys Turner is a leading exponent of this type of view. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University (entitled "How to be an Atheist"), Turner says to the atheist:

It is no use supposing that you disagree with me if you say “There is no such thing as God’. For I got there well before you. What I say is merely: the world is created out of nothing, that’s how to understand God. Deny that, and you are indeed some sort of decent atheist. But note what the issue is between us: it is about the legitimacy of a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity, about the right to ask a certain kind of question.” P19.

Note Turner’s parting suggestion, here, that the issue between atheists and theists like himself is whether a deep curiosity about such questions as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is even legitimate. Turner goes on to characterize the atheist is someone who pooh-poohs such questions, as someone who remains steadfastly unamazed by the fact that there is anything at all.

But if that’s what an atheist is, then I am not an atheist, and neither are most philosophers (which will come as a surprise to many of them).

Of course, most apophaticists aren’t just expressing wonder and advocating philosophical reflection. Turner himself says above that the world was created from nothing, rather than just appeared from nothing. But as the thought that something is created tends naturally to lead one on to the thought that it has a creator, so it looks suspiciously as if Turner is here gesturing towards something at least analogous to a transcendent agent. In which case, he is gesturing towards something atheists can get their teeth into.

Of course, most apophaticists also deem this mysterious, transcendent whatever-it-is worthy of our worship and gratitude, which raises the question of how, if it’s unknowable, they could possibly be in a position to know that worship and gratitude are appropriate attitudes for us to have towards it.

Indeed, if Turner is right and the world is created, doesn’t the appalling amount of suffering it contains give us excellent grounds for adding two more characteristics to the list of characteristics Turner says his God is not – his God is not worthy of either our worship or our gratitude.

The apophatic theologian

[Bit of draft book for comment.]

Some theists will be unmoved by the kinds of argument discussed in this and the previous chapter. They may say something like this:

“The god that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either! You are working with a very outdated and unsophisticated conception of god. My understanding of God is very different. When you say, “There is no such thing as God” I agree! God is not a thing or entity that can be said to exist. Nor can God be categorized as belonging to this kind of thing or that kind of thing. I define God as something wholly other, something necessarily unknowable, beyond our understanding. I cannot say what God is, only what he is not.”

The view that God is necessarily unknowable is sometimes termed apophaticism. The apophatic view has its attractions, perhaps the most obvious being that, if you never actually make any positive claim about God, you can never be contradicted or proved wrong. Indeed, at first sight, apophaticism appears to make atheism impossible – if no positive God claims are ever made, there can be none to deny.

The theologian Denys Turner is a leading exponent of this type of view. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University (entitled "How to be an Atheist"), Turner says to the atheist:

It is no use supposing that you disagree with me if you say “There is no such thing as God’. For I got there well before you. What I say is merely: the world is created out of nothing, that’s how to understand God. Deny that, and you are indeed some sort of decent atheist. But note what the issue is between us: it is about the legitimacy of a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity, about the right to ask a certain kind of question.” P19.


Note Turner’s parting suggestion that the issue between atheists and theists like himself is whether a deep curiosity about such questions as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is even legitimate. Turner goes on to characterize the atheist is someone who pooh-poohs such questions, who remains steadfastly unamazed by the fact that there is anything at all.

But if that’s what an atheist is, then I am not an atheist, and neither are most philosophers (which will come as a surprise to many of them).

Of course, most apophaticists aren’t just expressing wonder and advocating philosophical reflection. Turner himself says above that the world was created from nothing, rather than just appeared from nothing, which strongly suggests the involvement of a creator - something at least analogous to an agent. So it seems Turner does possesses some inklings about what his God is like. And of course, most apophaticists also deem this mysterious, transcendent not-a-thing worthy of our worship and gratitude, which raises the question of why worship and gratitude are appropriate attitudes for us to have towards a transcendent not-a-thing that not only pointlessly tortures children but has unleashed unimaginable quantities of suffering on sentient creatures over hundreds of millions of years.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Linkoping

Many thanks for the comments on draft. Will put up another shortly. I am in Stockholm from tomorrow till Friday, and speaking at Linkoping University Wednesday (a seminar and a public lecture, both on moral and religious education based on my book "The War For Children's Minds"). Link here.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Natural selection

Comments invited on this first draft of bit of the humanism book. It would be easy to get some detail about the science wrong. Please offer corrections or suggestions, however minor...

Another popular argument for the existence of God is the teleological argument or argument from design. Arguments from design begin with the observation that the natural world, or items within it, appears to have certain remarkable features – such as order and purpose - and conclude that God is the only, or at least the best available, explanation of those features.

Perhaps the best-known argument from design is that presented by William Paley in his Natural Theology, published in 1802. Paley argues that, were one to find a complex object such as a watch lying on the ground, it would be unreasonable to suppose that the watch came to exist by chance, or that it had always existed in that form. Given the clear purpose of the watch – to tell the time - and its highly complex construction geared to fulfilling that purpose, it is reasonable to suppose the watch was fashioned by an intelligent being for that purpose. But if that is a reasonable conclusion to draw in the case of a watch, then surely it is reasonable to draw the same conclusion in the case of a work of nature such as the human eye, which also has a purpose for which it is intricately and exquisitely engineered. That intelligent designer, supposes Paley, is God.

That a biological organ such as the human eye must have some sort of designer was accepted by very many, including even the scientist Charles Darwin, up until the Darwin developed his own alternative explanation of the existence of the eye – a theory that explains how the eye might evolve gradually over many millions of years without the aid of any intelligence.

The mechanism Darwin realized could account for the gradual evolution of the eye is natural selection. When living organisms reproduce, their offspring may differ slightly in inheritable ways. Plant and animal breeders take advantage of these chance mutations to breed new strains. For example, a dog breeder might select from each generation of a dog those that are largest and least hairy, eventually producing a whole new breed of huge, bald dog.

Darwin’s great insight was to recognise that the natural environment in which organisms are located will, in effect, also select among offspring. Organisms with a chance mutation that enhances their ability to survive and reproduce in that environment will be more likely to pass that mutation on. Organisms with a mutation that reduces its chances of surviving and reproducing in that environment will be less likely to pass it on. And so, over a many generations organisms will gradually adapt to their environments. Under certain condition, a whole new species may emerge.

Darwin called this mechanism “natural selection”, contrasting it with the “artificial selection” used by dog and plant breeders. Unlike artificial selection, natural selection does not require an intelligent mind to guide the selection process towards a particular end. Selection is now taken care of entirely by blind, unthinking nature.

There is overwhelming fossil and other evidence that the human eye did, indeed evolve slowly and gradually over millions of years, beginning perhaps with the chance appearance a single light sensitive cell in an organism living many millions of years ago, and that natural selection is indeed the main mechanism that drove this process. Indeed, eyes provide such obvious survival value to organisms that they have evolved independently at least forty times.

The discovery of the mechanism of natural selection led Darwin to reject Paley’s argument from design. Darwin wrote:

The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.[REF4]

While the development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and, later, the theory of genetics (including the theory of genetic drift, another mechanism driving the process of evolution), resulted in a decline in the popularity of arguments from design, such arguments have recently been making something of a come-back. Two popular, more recent variants of the argument from design are outlined below.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Does the concept of an intelligent designer make sense?

Human beings explain features of the world around them in two main ways. One way is to supply naturalistic explanations that appeal to features of the natural world, such as natural events, forces and laws. The explanations of physics and chemistry fall into this category. The other way is to offer intentional explanations – explanations that appeal to the beliefs and desires of more or less rational agents. Why is there a tree in this spot? Because Ted wanted to see a tree from his bedroom window, and so planted a sapling here correctly supposing it would grow into a handsome tree.

When we are unable to explain something naturalistically, it is, of course, tempting to look for an intentional explanation instead. When we could not offer naturalistic explanations for why the heavenly bodies moved about as they did, we supposed that they must be, or must be moved by, agents - gods of some sort. When we could not otherwise explain diseases and natural disasters, we put them down to the actions of malevolent agents, such as witches and demons. When we could not provide naturalistic explanations for the growth of plants and the cycle of the seasons, we again invoked agents – sprites, fairies, and gods of various sorts.

As our scientific understanding of the world has increased, the need to invoke witches, fairies, demons and other such agents to account for features of the natural world has diminished. However, when we ask: why does the natural world exist at all, and what explains why it has the fundamental laws does? such naturalistic explanations are not available. So an explanation in terms of the activity of some sort of transcendent agent might seem attractive.

But does such an explanation even make sense? Suppose I claim that there exists a non-spatial mountain. It’s a mountain – with a sharp summit flanked by valleys and steep crags. Only it is not located or extended in space at all. It does not have spatial dimensions. This mountain transcends our spatial world.

You might well ask me why I suppose there is any such mountain. And if I cannot give you good reasons, you will rightly be sceptical. But actually, isn’t there a rather more fundamental problem with my claim that such a mountain exists? Can’t we know, before we get to the question of whether there is any evidence for the existence of my non-spatial mountain, that there can be no such thing?

For the very idea of such a mountain makes no sense. My hypothetical mountain has a summit and valleys and steep cliffs, but these are all features that require spatial extension. A summit requires that one part of the mountain be higher than another. A valley must be lower than the surrounding terrain. The concepts of a mountain, summit, valleys, and so on are concepts that can only sensibly be applied within a spatial context. Strip that context away and we end up talking nonsense.

But if we now turn to the concept of a transcendent designer, does that make any more sense?

The concept of an agent has its home within a temporal setting. An agent is someone or thing that performs actions as a result of its various beliefs and desires. But actions are events that happen at particular moments in time. And beliefs and desires are psychological states that have a temporal duration.

Now when we suppose that the spatio-temporal universe was created by some sort of agent, we are presumably supposing it was designed by a non-temporal agent – an agent that does not (or at least did not then) exist in time. For there was not yet any time for the agent to exist in. But if desires are psychological states with temporal duration, how, then, could this agent possess the desire to create the universe? And how did it perform the act of creation if there was not yet any time in which actions might be performed? It is hard to see how talk of a non-temporal agent makes any more sense than talk of a non-spatial mountain.

We could sidestep these puzzles by supposing that God exists, and has always existed, in time. This provides God with the necessary temporal dimension in which he might possess the desire to produce a universe, draw up a design, and perform the act of creation But it raises a host of other bizarre questions, such as: why did God wait so long before creating the universe (presumably, if God did not himself have a beginning, an infinitely long time)? And what was he doing in the meantime?