Saturday, March 6, 2010

My notes from Kingston University debate with Tzortzis.


This debate went pretty well I thought. I went first. It will go up on youtube soon and I will provide a link. Obviously this talk was designed specifically for Tzortzis, having done some research on him.

Is God a Delusion? - My notes for the debate (details here)

INTRO

Which God? Not Zeus, or Thor, or merely morally neutral god. A very specific God hypothesis. The God of traditional monotheism – as believed in by Jews, Christians and Muslims. All-powerful, all-knowing, all-good.

Dictionary definition of “delusion” is “a false belief or opinion”

So my AIM is to establish BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT that belief in this particular God is false. I’ll raise two objections.

FIRST OBJECTION

According to Andreas, my opponent today, God is supposed to be something like a person - an agent. He has beliefs and desires. He is supposed to be intelligent. He listens to our prayers. He performs actions, including the act of creating the spatio-temporal universe.

First worry I’ll raise is: can we even make sense of anything remotely like a person or agent that is the creator of the spatio-temporal universe?

The idea that there exist supernatural persons or agents is one that we humans find very attractive. We find it particularly tempting to posit supernatural agents when we observe things we cannot explain.

• When we couldn’t explain the movement of the planets in terms of natural causes and laws, we supposed they must be moved by agents – gods.
• When we couldn’t otherwise explain natural diseases and disasters, we supposed they must be caused by witches and demons.
• When we couldn’t understand how plants grew, we supposed they were forced up by invisible sprites or fairies or whatever.

Of course, none of these supernatural beings really exist. The mysteries we used them to explain have all now been largely solved by science. But there remain mysteries, and always will, including of course, why is there anything at all. Why something rather than nothing?

This is a fascinating question. There’s no obvious answer to it. And so, again, it’s tempting to suppose the universe must be the creation of some sort of super-person!

But does the idea of a super person the created time, and so exists outside of time, make sense?

Suppose I claim there exists a super-mountain. Only it does not exist in space. It exists non-spatially. That idea might seem to make sense for a moment. But when we start to think about it, it’s nonsensical nature becomes apparent. A mountain needs a summit. By a summit requires one part be higher than another, and so do steep sides. The concept of a mountain is a concept of something essentially rooted in the spatial. Try to apply the notion of a mountain in a non-spatial setting, and you end up talking philosophical gibberish. We can know, just by thinking about, that there are non-spatial mountains.

But now consider talk about a person existing outside of time. Does that make any more sense? The concept of a person is the concept of an agent who has beliefs and desires, and who performs more or less rational actions as a result. But the concept of belief is a temporal concept – a belief is a psychological state, and states have temporal duration. So do desires. Actions, too, require a temporal setting. You can’t do something if there’s no time to do it in. And so on. The concept of a person is a concept essentially rooted in the temporal. Persons necessarily exist in time, just as mountains necessarily exist in space. But then to talk of a person existing prior to the beginning of time, a person who designed and created the temporal universe, is also philosophical gibberish. It makes no more sense than talk of non-spatial mountains.

Of course, religious people typically happily talk about God being a person in an apparently quite literal way until you point out this problem, when they tend to say – “Oh, how crude and unsophisticated you are! You have interpreted my talk of a person literally!” I am of course drawing an analogy. God is not a person like you or I, but something merely like - analogous to, a person.

Of course, someone could say exactly the same thing about the non-spatial mountain. They are talking about something merely analogous to a mountain. But what, exactly? If, every time we ask them to explain what they mean, they just come up with more analogies, or insist they are talking about something that’s like a mountain only in some mysterious way they can’t clearly explain, we’d surely conclude that, rather than raising the debate about the possible existence of this mountain to the level of profundity, they were simply engaging in endless evasions and obfuscations.

Similalrly, if, every time we ask someone who claims god is something merely analogous to a person to explain what they mean, they just come up with more analogies, or insist they are talking about something that’s like a person only in some mysterious way they can’t clearly explain, we’d surely conclude that, rather than raising the debate abot the possible existence of this person to the level of profundity, they were simply engaging in endless evasions and obfuscations.

As we have seen, we humans find it very tempting to a reach for super people to deal with deep mysteries. That’s why we invoked witches and demons to explain plagues and disasters, planetary gods to explain the weird motions in the heavens, and so on. And so, when faced with the mystery of why there is anything at all, it is, again very tempting to reach for a super person.

But actually, in this case, appeal to a super person makes even less sense than reaching for witches, demons and planetary gods. For at least those super people were supposed to exist in time. Andreas’s super-person is a person that does not exist in time. Personally, I can make no more sense of a person existing non-temporally than I can make sense of the claim that there’s a mountain that exists non-spatially.

The temptation to appeal to a super person is strong, so, when this problem about God being a person is raised, people tend to start appealing to analogy, metaphor, mystery etc. to try to retain their grip on the idea. But I can make little sense of it.

So that’s my first worry about this particular God. I can’t even make sense of the idea. There is an interesting puzzle about why the universe exists, but appealing to one or more supernatural persons or agents to solve it seems not just hopelessly anthropomorphic - but literally nonsensical.

Perhaps there’s a necessarily-existent something-or-other back there. I just can’t see how it makes sense to call it a person. Talk of a non-temporal super person seems to me to be little more than philosophical gibberish dressed up as profundity.


B.

I come to my more my second, more serious objection. Even supposing there is indeed a cosmic super person that is the intelligent designer and creator of the universe, why on Earth suppose that this super person is Andreas’s God – a being that is both all-powerful and all-good?

The objection I am raising now is known as the evidential problem of evil. The problem is – isn’t there just way, way too much pain and suffering in the world for this to be creation of an all-powerful, all-good God? Perhaps such a God would allow some pain and suffering as the price paid for greater goods. Perhaps, for example, we need to experience some bad stuff, so that we can properly appreciate the good stuff? Perhaps in order for goods like charity to exist, God had to create some needy people to whom we could then be charitable.

So perhaps a good god would put some bad stuff in his creation. My question is: why did he have to get quite so carried away? Why is there so much pain and suffering? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the natural world, for example? Surely, if there Andreas’s god existed, he would not allow any pointless and gratuitous suffering. Not an ounce. So what about the literally unimaginable quantities of pain and suffering unleashed on the other sentient inhabitants of this planet over hundreds of millions of years? Why does he torture children to death with diseases, bury thousands of them alive in earthquakes, to die alone in the dark over many days? Why has he being doing this to us humans for thousands, indeed, millions of years? And, if he’s so keen on preserving human life at every stage of its existence, why does he flush two out of three fertilized human eggs down the toilet?

Surely, even if there is some sort of intelligent person behind the universe, there’s overwhelming evidence that it is not Andreas’s all-good God of infinite love, peace and justice.

Now those who believe in God have come up with all sorts of moves to try to explain away this enormous quantity of evidence against what they believe.

To anticipate some of them, and indicate why I don’t find them at all plausible, I want to finish by conducting a little thought experiment. I want you to mentally transport yourself across the universe to an imaginary planet very much like this one. Planet Eth. There’s even a debate going on like this one right now. There is one key difference between Eth and Earth. On planet Eth they also believe that the universe was created and fine-tuned by a single, all-powerful intelligent transcendent super person.

Only the Ethians believe this super person is not all-good, but all-evil. They believe his maliciousness is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. His depravity knows no bounds. They even have ancient Ethian prophets who claim to know all this by means of some sort of revelation.

Now, how likely is it, do you think, that the universe is indeed the creation of such a supremely malignant and evil being? How reasonable is it to believe in the god of Eth?

I am guessing most of you think it very unreasonable indeed. Indeed, it’s scarcely more reasonable than believing in say Santa or fairies. It’s pretty obvious there is no such all-powerful and all-evil being.

But why? Well, because of the evidential problem of good. There’s clearly way, way too much good stuff in the universe for this to be the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil God.

Surely an all-evil God would create us to torture us mercilessly, right? So why, for example, would he:

• Create beautiful sunsets and scenery for us to enjoy, which give us so much pleasure.
• Give us children to love who love us unconditionally in return. Evil God loathes love!
• Give some people immense health wealth and happiness. Surely an evil God would want to torture everbody.
• Allow some people to help others and relieve the suffering of others. Surely an evil god would clamp down on that sort of activity straight away.
• Give us fit healthy young bodies.

Given all these great goods exist, surely it’s obvious there is no evil god? Yes, there s a lot of bad stuff in the universe – Earth quakes and Eth quakes and diseases and so on. But there’s still way too much good stuff for it to be the creation of an all-powerful and all-evil god.

So, those of us, like Andreas, who believe in an all-powerful, all good-god, face the problem of evil. The Ethians face the mirror problem that if you believe in an all-powerful, all-evil god, you face the problem of good. Surely the problem is fatal to their belief.

However, that’s no how the Ethians see it. Like us, they are ingenious and have constructed all sorts of explanations for the good stuff they see around them. Here are some examples of their explanations.

First of all, just as Christians Jews and Muslims appeal to free will to explain why god allows bad things to happen, so Ethians appeal to FREE WILL to explain why good things happen. Evil God could have made us puppet beings that he made do unpleasant things all the time. Trouble is, puppet beings are not morally responsible for what they do. The universe would not contain free moral agents, and so would not contain any moral evil. In order for moral evil – probably the most important form of evil - to exist, evil God had to cut our strings and set us free. Then we can freely choose to do evil, which is much worse than if we were simply made to do terrible things. Unfortunately some of us choose to help each other and reduce suffering. But those goods are more than outweighed by the moral evil free will introduces. That explains why evil god does allow us to help each other.

You can see that I have just taken a standard Christian or Muslim defence of belief in a good god and just turned it round to defend belief in an evil god.

Here are some other Ethian explanation for good, which I imagine will also sound very familiar to you.

1. Why does evil god create beautiful scenery and sunsets for them to enjoy? As a contrast – they can only truly appreciate the ghastliness and dreariness the exists if we have some good things to compare it with.

2. Why does an evil God give a few people, such as the Ethian David Beckham, health wealth and happiness? To make the rest of the inhabitants of Eth feel worse. God gives a few people immense wealth and success to make the rest of them seeth with jealousy and resentment. Who can rest content knowing a few have so much more…..– a recipe for seething resentment and jealousy. Jealousy is, if you like, a second order evil, that requires first order goods – such as the Ethian David Beckham’s success and wealth – in order to exist. People can’t feel the psychological pain of jealousy unless a few people are given things worth being jealous of. That explains why a few people are immensely wealthy, successful and happy. It’s the price evil God pays for greater evils.

3. Why does an evil God give Ethians healthy fit bodies? Why doesn’t he give them painful decrepit bodies? Well yes, he gives them beautiful fit bodies for a short while. And them slowly he takes them away, leaving them old, withered, arthritic and smelling of wee. How much more painful to have known something wonderful and then have it taken away, than if you had never had it in the first place, say the Ethians. That explains why evil God gives Ethians fit healthy young bodies.

The Ethians have developed may other explanations for the goods they see around them. Still, some of them admit it’s not that easy to explain why there is quite so much good stuff in their world. So there are two further cards they play to deal with the problem of good.

First, they say “Let’s not forget that there’s an after life. Evil God allows us to live on Eth for a while, where we may enjoy some goods. But remember that after that, we spend eternity being tortured by him with a red hot poker. And that more than outweighs all the goods we have enjoyed!

Secondly, when they find themselves really stuck, some play the mystery card. They say “Who are you, you arrogant sceptic, to think that you can know the mind of evil God?’ You are a mere fallible human of limited intellectual ability. Of course you can’t understand evil god’s fiendishly complex and evil plan. Of course you and I cannot explain why there is so much good in the world. Show a little humility! This really is the worst of all possible worlds. It’s just that you, being a mere human, fail to understand that.”

So what do we think about the Ethians? Their belief in an evil god does seem very odd to us Earthlings. But then the Earthling belief that there is a good god seems very odd to the Ethians. Tell them you believe in a good god and they’ll roll their eyes and say “Really? Come on – pull the other one! – Look at just how much bad stuff there is in the world. God is clearly evil!”

Yet the fact is that it is obvious, isn’t it, that there is no evil god? We can all see that. True, the Ethians have developed all sorts of explanations to try to deal with the overwhelming evidence against what they believe. But the fact remains that their belief is downright ridiculous, given the evidence against it. It’s not just not unreasonable, it’s downright unreasonable, given the evidence.

It’s possible there’s an evil god, I guess. But surely the evidence shows, beyond reasonable doubt that there is no such transcendent super person.

So here’s my challenge to Andreas, and those Jews, Christians and Muslims who believe in his all-powerful and supremely benevolent god. Why should we consider belief in such a good god significantly more reasonable than belief in the Ethian’s evil god?

Notice that the Ethians will also use fine-tuning and cosmological arguments to justify belief in their god. And they are just as justified in doing so, because these arguments are completely neutral on the question of the super person’s moral properties. All those two arguments show, at best, is that there’s a cosmic designer.

Worse still, not withstanding all the ingenious maneuvers the Ethians have devised to try to defend their belief in an evil God, their belief just is straightforwardly falsified by the available evidence. Their defences are in some cases quite literally a joke. Yet notice that they closely mirror exactly the sort of defences Jews. Christians and Muslims make in defence of their good God.

If the Ethian defences of their belief in an evil god are ridiculous and ineffective, why should we consider the Earthling defences of a good god any less ridiculous and ineffective?

The truth is, any belief, no matter how irrational, can be defended against counter evidence ad nauseum, given a little ingenuity. Try debating a Young Earth Creationists who believes the entire universe is only 6 thousand years old, or a mental patient who believes dogs are spies from planet Venus. I guarantee that, no matter how much evidence you come up with against their belief, they’ll be able to come up with ever more elaborate moves to explain it away (add examples). That doesn’t mean that their beliefs are, after all, pretty reasonable.

So my challenge to Andreas is – can you explain why it’s significantly more reasonable to believe in your good god than an evil god? Aren’t both god hypotheses actually pretty unlikely? Surely, if there is some sort of super person behind the universe, isn’t it pretty obvious that it is neither all-powerful and all-evil, nor all-powerful and all-good?

We may not be able to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” But we can be rightly confident the answer isn’t “Because a supremely powerful and evil person made it.” So why can’t we be equally confident that the answer isn’t “Because a supremely powerful and good person made it”?

14 comments:

Anthony said...

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I think you bring up a great point. When it gets to the stage where you're fending off criticisms by just punting to the "mysterious" and claiming fault on behalf of the skeptic, what's to distinguish your claim from sheer imagination and fantasy? I could come up with some being right now, in my mind, call him the ruler of the Northern Hemisphere, give you his qualities and personality traits, and when you bring up objections, I could ultimately always come up with some rhetoric to support his existence, or, if it comes to it, claim that his way are inscrutable, and they are beyond us.

Moreover, when dealing with these tactics of a believer, though they are not doing it maliciously in most cases, it is like dealing with a charlatan. They show you the product, describe the product, how it works, what it does, and how to use it, yet when all the claims fall on their faces, they simply can just claim fault on behalf of the user. Much akin to dealing with a psychic, if the psychic's powers aren't working, it's because the person being "read" was damming up the spiritual flow of energy, and it can never be the fault of the psychic.

This is a point that needs to be hammered home when dealing with believers.

I was just reading a review of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22", and this little blurb caught my attention:

"Yossarian comes to realize that Catch-22 does not actually exist, but because the powers that be claim it does, and the world believes it does, it nevertheless has potent effects. Indeed, because it does not exist there is no way it can be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced."

I think these words ring true when dealing with the delusion of belief in God, but I think Stephen Law just may be attacking it at its weakest point.

Thanks for the Intro Stephen, can't wait for the whole thing.

Alex said...

Hi Stephen, was not sure how else to contact you so figured here was the best place! Wanted to ask you a quick question!

Following on from Kant talking about treating people as ends in themselves, how do you feel about the following statement? "Can a religious person really treat people as ends in themselves, when really thier moral obligation comes from religious belief with the promise of the afterlife as a reward?"

Only an A level student so go easy on me if this isn't orginal thought and i've said something stupid!

wombat said...

Possibly of interest is a recent "In our Time" on BBC radio 4 - on The infant brain"
Part of it is a discussion about the development of the tendency to ascribe agency.

Martin said...

I came to the debate and had a thoroughly enjoyable evening, thanks. I made a few notes myself. When I have typed them up on my blog, I'll drop the link on here.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Stephen,

Looking forward to seeing the whole thing.

Just to comment on Alex's comment: I think it's a serious mistake to think of religion (or life) in terms of reward and punishment. This goes for non-theistic religions as well, where people's misfortunes are cast in the light of bad karma from past lives.

I tend to take the existentialist point of view that you are responsible for your 'own project', if for no other reason than it's the most psychological healthy.

People who live this life in pursuit of some reward in the next life are possibly the most exposed to perverse motivations, like volunteering for suicide bombings. An extreme example, but the most explicitly perverse: killing people and yourself to attain paradise.

Regards, Paul.

Stephen Law said...

Thanks for comments, and thanks Martin for coming. I am interested to hear what you thought....

Stephen Law said...

Alex - thanks for your questions. "Can a religious person really treat people as ends in themselves, when really thier moral obligation comes from religious belief with the promise of the afterlife as a reward?" This presuppioses that religious people suppose their moral obligation has this form, which many don't. But if they were only doing treating other as a means to an end, yes they'd fail Kant's test. An interesting twist might be to ask whether, even if they are not behaving morally as a means of obtaining an afterlife, they might still fail the test (other ends they might be pursuing include - personal salvation, glorifying god (not a selfish end, note), and so on.)

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Stephen, Alex,

I have to admit I wasn't aware of this aspect of Kant's philosophy, so I appreciate the clarification.

If people base their moral philosophy on treating people as 'ends in themselves', with no regard to reward and punishment, and no regard to religious belief, surely this is a humanist position.

By 'ends in themselves' I assume that means treating them as one would treat oneself, or empathetically. Is that what it means?

Regards, Paul.

Martin said...

As promised, an eye witness report:

http://pogsurf.blogspot.com/2010/03/was-i-even-there.html

Tricky stuff philosophy. You never know what trouble it will get you into. What's a suitable punishment for Tsortzis, who turned up late due to a clash with prayer-time

Sam Norton said...

Not relevant to this post, but to some others thoughts you've pursued: http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=2054

The Celtic Chimp said...

There must be something about the "Why is there something rather than nothing?" question that I just don't get. I always thought it was a bit like asking "Why did this coin land on heads rather than tails"

The answer to the something or nothing question seems to be simply "because there is something."

What is it about nothing that most people seem to think it should be the case and that only some kind of intervention could have changed it. Nothing almost seems more natural to people for some reason. Odd that, given that the only thing no-one on earth has ever experienced is nothing.

The Celtic Chimp said...

Sam,

Had a quick gander at that post you liked. Wow did it stink to high heaven. Sloppiest thinking I've read in a while.

PassionforPasta said...

I really regret not being able to attend the debate considering that I study at the university :( I haven't been to any kind of atheist meet/debate since my deconversion around a year ago, so as you can imagine I am in torment. But I'm glad that at least someone came to the campus for a debate :)

Anonymous said...

Seer Travis Truman (www.Truthmedia.8k.com) to Stephen Law:

I would like to point out the obvious, the fact is that a god creature does NOT exist. That is the correct answer.

Now, debating with mentally deranged humans at length is a waste of time. The problem is that one is using reason against someone who has chosen to REJECT reason, because they cannot deal with the Truth.