Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

God in the Age of Science, Part 1

July 26, 2014

So, I did receive “God in the Age of Science?” on July 16th, and immediately read four chapters. And then got busy and didn’t read any more since then. But I’d like to comment briefly on my very first impressions of the book and on the first couple of chapters or so. I have a more detailed commentary planned for chapters 3 and 4 … whenever I get around to it [grin].

First, on tone, the tone isn’t particularly aggressive, which is a plus, in my opinion, for a book like this. A few stylistic notes: he doesn’t seem, at least not yet, to have Prinz’s obsession with presenting all of the counter-arguments in as detailed and precise a manner as possible, although he does indeed address counter-arguments, which is nice. The second is that he seems to be fond of Derek Parfit’s style — which, to be fair, is fairly popular in philosophy in general — of stating what he sees as the obvious conclusion to an argument as if it was, well, obvious, except Philipse does it through rhetorical questions while Parfit uses out-and-out statements. Unfortunately, both of them have a tendency to do it without giving any further explanation and in cases where the conclusion is not or at least may not yet be clear, which always chafes me a bit. Philipse’s approach is a bit less annoying, leaving you wanting more rather than automatically wanting to challenge him, but still it would be better if these things were presented as the results of full arguments rather than as asides.

But that’s not all that important. The big goal in the first section is to demonstrate that you can’t have or rely on revealed knowledge or, perhaps, revelation in general to justify a belief in God, but instead even for revelation will have to rely on either empirical evidence or reasoning to justify your case, or else you’ll be irrational. This last part is actually pretty controversial, because it risk conflating rational belief and being justified in claiming to know something, and a lot of the arguments particularly against reformed revelation (in Chapters 3 and 4) do rely on that. But remember that theism is a belief in the existence of one or more theistic gods, not necessarily a knowledge claim. As someone who doesn’t make the knowledge claim, it’s going to be easy to say “Can we believe that rationally, though?” as a response to most of this. More on that when I look at chapters 3 and 4 specifically.

The biggest flaw in the first two chapters, though, is probably in his discussions of contradictions in the Bible and how they can’t be resolved through revelation, which for him seems to be “Reading the Bible and thinking really hard about it, which may include noting the contradictions and resolving them through the text”. While few people will deny that there are some at least difficult things to resolve in the Bible, for this point to work they have to be virtually impossible to resolve, and his examples aren’t that hard to resolve. For example, he cites a contradiction between Jesus and Paul over whether works or following the Laws are what is required to get to heaven, and notes that this one is unresolvable. Except it’s very easy to resolve for most Christians: if there’s a contradiction between something that Paul said and something that Jesus himself said, you go with Jesus, and Paul either got it wrong or should be taken another way. Philipse could have found a similar contradiction between the purported words of Jesus himself, but I suspect that those would be easier to reconcile on interpretation. Now, for Philipse’s point disowning Paul’s revelations might support not trusting revelation since there are times when it gets things wrong, and you don’t really know when it’s getting things wrong or not, but that isn’t the tack he’s taking in those chapters, and thus it’s about the contradictions being unresolvable … but he leaves himself open to the counter of “Says who?”.

If he took revelation as a method that had to reveal itself directly to the person in full form, then he’d have a point. But as soon as he allows for reflection, any philosopher should know that there are many, many ways to resolve seeming contradictions in a work (seeing how that’s done for, say, Kant, for example), and so his comment that taking a revelatory approach to the Bible leads to unresolvable contradictions is weaker than it needs to be to make his point. And if he takes that approach as requiring reason and so doing natural theology, then he seems to contradict his original discussions and, in fact, the reformed approach to revelation that he discusses in chapters 3 and 4 as if it really could save revelation. So contradictions, though a popular argument, don’t seem to support his case as well as he’d like them to. But this shouldn’t be a big issue for his overall thesis, and so probably isn’t worth worrying about.

It’s in …

July 16, 2014

So, Amazon is telling me that my copy of “God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason.” is waiting for me at the post office, so I should get it — and start reading it — tonight. I’ll try to do my “one chapter a night” thing, although I might do a bit more than that tonight since I ought to have time. I’m considering posting thoughts on each chapter as I think of it, but I hate doing that since I think that for most works it’s important to understand the whole point before breaking it down into its parts, although for a lot of books each point is independent and so can be addressed that way. So we’ll see.

But my biggest question before starting is: is this book, how can I put this, aggressive? Coyne has a strong tendency to like and recommend books and articles that utilize snark and mockery a lot, as much if not more than they utilize arguments. The initial description didn’t sound too snarky, but is this going to be a case where Coyne’s recommendation of a good book is one that doesn’t, in fact, mock the arguments but instead focuses more on addressing them? Only time will tell.

Challenge Accepted …

July 10, 2014

There has long been a line of argumentation that many atheists like to use that relates to the traditional Courtier’s Reply, which goes something like this: you keep telling us atheists that we’re ignorant of theism and can’t dismiss it until we’ve considered all of the best arguments for theism. But what about the best arguments for atheism? Can we list off a list of books and arguments that you have to read before you can be considered credible in critcizing atheism?

Now, the theistic point isn’t usually just “You need to read all of these authors”. Most of the initial replies are people pointing out that the atheists tend to talk about particular arguments for or conceptions of God, get it completely wrong, and so really should try to understand the arguments before criticizing and, especially, before mocking the arguments. In other cases, it’s just people pushing their own preferred arguments and conceptions, because there are indeed a number of different ones. Sometimes, it’s both. But there are times when people — whom I’d tend to call “unsophisticated” — really do just toss out books and say read them. While I never approve of such things, I can approve of the underlying sentiment that makes that seem even remotely credible: in order to criticize or reject a position, you really should be well-read in not only what others say about it, but also in what those who support it say about it.

In terms of atheism, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve read Dawkins, Dennett and Harris of the Four Horsemen (I read a debate between Hitchens and someone else once which convinced me that he wasn’t worth my time), I read Kaufmann as suggested by Jerry Coyne (and wasn’t impressed, to say the least; I really should critique the religion part more directly), I’ve read Smith’s initial book, I’ve read Grayling’s take, and some others.

Now, Jerry Coyne is pushing another book:

For a good refutation of the “God off the hook” claim of Ruse, read the philosopher Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science? A Critique of Religious Reason. It’s the best attack on theism I know, and though it’s occasionally a hard slog, it’s well worth it. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and if a theist says he/she hasn’t read it, you can rightly say, “Well, then, you can’t bash atheism, because you haven’t dealt with Its Best Arguments.”

Well, if that’s one of the “Best Arguments” … then I shall take up the challenge and deal with it, despite the fact that it really looks like this whole challenge is one that Coyne and other atheists really don’t expect someone to accept. I’ve ordered the book and will read it when it gets in. However, from reading the description on Amazon I can already predict that it will have an uphill climb:

God in the Age of Science? is a critical examination of strategies for the philosophical defence of religious belief. The main options may be presented as the end nodes of a decision tree for religious believers. The faithful can interpret a creedal statement (e.g. “God exists”) either as a truth claim, or otherwise. If it is a truth claim, they can either be warranted to endorse it without evidence, or not. Finally, if evidence is needed, should its evidential support be assessed by the same logical criteria that we use in evaluating evidence in science, or not? Each of these options has been defended by prominent analytic philosophers of religion. In part I Herman Philipse assesses these options and argues that the most promising for believers who want to be justified in accepting their creed in our scientific age is the Bayesian cumulative case strategy developed by Richard Swinburne. Parts II and III are devoted to an in-depth analysis of this case for theism. Using a “strategy of subsidiary arguments”, Philipse concludes (1) that theism cannot be stated meaningfully; (2) that if theism were meaningful, it would have no predictive power concerning existing evidence, so that Bayesian arguments cannot get started; and (3) that if the Bayesian cumulative case strategy did work, one should conclude that atheism is more probable than theism. Philipse provides a careful, rigorous, and original critique of atheism in the world today.

So, what are my issues?

1) It starts from the Bayesian cumulative case strategy of Richard Swinburne, which I’m not familiar with.

2) That uses Bayesian analysis which I don’t care for.

3) If the end of his third argument is that atheism should be considered more probable than theism, then even there I don’t think that what we believe must be that which even we consider most probable, let alone what would be considered most probable by an abstract Bayesian analysis.

4) Knowledge certainly isn’t set by probabilities of any kind, so that wouldn’t get to a knowledge claim that atheism is true, and I don’t care much about atheism until they can claim to know that God doesn’t exist.

5) His second point about it not reaching the level where a Bayesian analysis can be done is underwhelming to me and only matters if I accept that the Bayesian route is the way to go, but since my epistemology is not Bayesian that’s going to be pretty hard to do.

6) So it will come down to his first point about not being able to state the proposition meaningfully … but since Christians can point at the Bible and most religions can point at their text that seems to be precisely as meaningful, at least to most people, as, say “Sherlock Holmes”, a word that we clearly know the meaning of, so he must mean something more advanced than that … but I don’t see why that would matter.

I hate starting a book thinking that I’ll hate it, because I find that starting with that attitude almost always ensures that you will, in fact, end up hating it. But I will read it and see if it can convince me.

So … challenge accepted.

God as a Gaseous Vertebrate?

June 21, 2014

A while ago, Jerry Coyne finished reading “The Experience of God” by David Bentley Hart, and made some comments on it that revealed that, yes, he didn’t really understand what a Ground of All Being actually was. I meant to respond to that as a summary, since he didn’t really post a solid review/summary, but anyone who’s been following this blog knows that I get lazy and then don’t reply. Maybe I’ll get back to it one of these days. However, , and after spending a little time listening to Christian radio compares God — either the folk God or the theological God or, well, it isn’t quite clear what — to what H.L. Mencken called “a vertebrate without substance”, which when you unpack it and unpack Coyne’s post seems to mean a God that has human traits but isn’t human, a common criticism that Coyne makes of “sophisticated theology”.

(As an aside, Coyne compliments Mencken as “…a true strident atheist, as good with mockery as was his successor Hitchens”. This leads me to ask “When did mockery become a good argument to convince rational people of your position?”)

Coyne gives this as his main example:

One show, for children, was about a girl who wanted to become a personal trainer, but had shown little talent for the job, and was frustrated because she didn’t know what to do with her life. “I want to be somebody,” she wailed. Her father, who tried to soothe her, had his own problem: he was overweight and was on a diet. Eventually he told her that God would show her the way, but it would take a while, just like the long while he’d have to wait to shed his extra pounds. Then a voice-over came on and gave the lesson: God has plans for all of us, and listens to our needs, but he will effect his plans for us in his own time. We must wait. But we should be reassured that he knows what is good for us, loves us, and will, in time, show us the way.

This God, of course, was humanoid: the emotions he evinced were love, understanding, empathy, and the desire to interfere in our lives so we could be fulfilled. And, of course, he was touted as actually listening to prayer, for the child was told to consider her options “prayerfully”.

He then compares this to Hart’s position:

Those gaseous theologians like David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong, of course, decry the concept of such a humanlike God. That’s not the real God, says Hart, and those atheists who argue against it are wasting their time. The real god is ineffable (though somehow Hart knows that He/She/Hir/It loves us); it is a Ground of Being.

Why? Because they think that God can love? Because they think that God can plan, or have emotions, or act in the world? The Ground of Being — as I explained in my review of Hart’s book — is not some completely amorphous, blob without properties. For the Thomists, the Ground of All Being is, indeed the Ground of All Being. It is not only the case that every being exists because it participates in the Ground of All Being, but every positive property only exists because the Ground of All Being has that property. So if we can be said to be capable of love, then the Ground of All Being must be capable of love. If we can plan, so can the Ground of All Being. If we can act in the world, then so can the Ground of All Being.

Now, getting this from Hart’s book would be tough; only by combining it with Feser’s posts and book was I able to get that. But Coyne should have been able to get the answer to this question from it:

What I want to know is this. If Hart and his ilk think that 99% of Christians have the wrong concept of God, why aren’t they trying to correct it? Why are they writing books aimed at fellow scholars instead of, say, the average Christian, or the average Christian child? Why are they wasting time bashing atheists instead of telling their coreligionists—or all religionists—the truth about God?

Now, here’s a quote where Coyne does seem to get the problem that Hart is trying to address:

I listened to two stations, and both of them constantly promoted the idea of God as a gaseous vertebrate—just like us, but more powerful.

Now, Hart was clear in his book that this was indeed the wrong way to look at God, and he in fact called out other theologians, including Plantinga and the modal logic attempts to prove the existence of God, as well as the Ontological Argument. So no one can validly complain that they aren’t trying to correct the misconception. So the only complaints would be that they may write more scholarly works than popular works, and that they take aim at atheists too much. For the former, it’s hardly a valid criticism that they’ve decided to work in intellectual circles instead of aiming at the rank and file, any more than it would be a valid criticism of, say, those studying global warming if they write more academic papers and books aimed at disagreeing scientists and don’t spend a lot of time talking to the mainstream press. For the latter, since Feser and Hart were taking on the New Atheists, who aimed at and still aim at the average person, aiming at them means aiming at a popular or average view as well, and in effect aims at two birds with one stone: taking out the rather weak counter-arguments against God — from their perspective — while clearly pointing out to religious people what the common view of God really is or really implies. Maybe Coyne’s right and they should promote the underlying theory more … but maybe the folk view isn’t as far off of their view as Coyne thinks it is.

At any rate, there is, in general, no gaseous vertebrate here, at least not from the perspective of Thomist theology. There’s nothing really wrong with what those stations said, other than the analogy risks anthropomorphizing God if taken too far and too literally. Which is a risk of any analogy. The contradiction that Coyne so relies on simply doesn’t exist.

Vampire Gods …

April 19, 2014

There’s a fairly common atheist argument that goes like this: You don’t believe that things like leprechauns, unicorns, vampires or werewolves exist (presumably because you consider them to be extraordinary and don’t have sufficient evidence to believe that they exist) and in fact believe that they don’t exist. But, then, God is extraordinary and you don’t have any better evidence to believe in God than you do in those things. So why do you believe God exists?

The problem with this is that they misunderstand why most people don’t believe in things like vampires. They always present it as being the result of some kind of intellectual examination of the evidence, but almost no one — not even those rationalist (whatever they mean by rationalist) atheists — actually do that. Why, then, do I and most people not only not believe that vampires exist, but in fact believe that vampires don’t exist?

Because we inherit the societal belief that vampires are fictional and don’t exist.

Everything we learn about vampires includes the fact that they are fictional. Movies and books present them as real … in a fictional world. Our enjoyment of those books and movies comes from us immersing ourselves in that fictional world … and then returning to a world where believing they exist is at best an aftereffect from a great and frightening work. Anyone who maintains belief in the idea that vampires exist is ridiculed and then likely “treated”, because according to society those things simply don’t exist, and you’re stupid to think they do exist. Thus, we inherit a strong, cultural belief in their non-existence, and that’s why we come to believe that they don’t exist.

God is, in general, the inverse. Most societies believe overwhelmingly in some sort of God, even those that claim to be non-religious. We are taught that God exists by society, and so we accept that belief in the same way that we accept the belief that vampires don’t exist. Thus, if we are justified in believing that vampires don’t exist, then we are justified, in general, in believing that God exists, because they are justified by the same method.

Thus, the atheist argument proves the inverse: that if you think you’re justified in believing that vampires don’t exist, why don’t you think that that justifications applies to believing that God does exist? I mean, it’s a bad argument, but why don’t atheists use their bad argument the way it actually works when it comes to God and the justification for the various beliefs? Likely, it’s because of a great failing in common discourse: no one knows what knowledge or justification or even beliefs mean anymore, because they won’t look at philosophical epistemology but also won’t take the time to build a consistent epistemology of their own.

And that’s sad.

Intellectual Flag on the Play on Jerry Coyne …

April 19, 2014

Jerry Coyne has been reading David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God”. He now says he’s finished it, but it’s debatable whether or not he’s actually ever reviewed it; he clearly doesn’t think much of it ( as I predicted would be the case ) but it’s hard to say whether he’s done any actual review of it yet, because besides one post for certain and maybe another one buried somewhere, he hasn’t talked about the book itself on its own; he’s slipped little shots into other posts talking about other people.

But he just kinda added one today where he replies to an unnamed and unlinked theologian, who is clearly not me:

A riled-up theologian, whom I shall neither name or link to, has written a diatribe about my remarks on David Bentley Hart’s book: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. This theologian says that I’ve completely misunderstood the book, which was, as Hart claimed, to distill the essence of God from all faiths, and not to give evidence for that God. The captious theologian says that Hart spends only a very small portion of his book giving evidence for God.

That’s bogus.

So, for some reason, Coyne doesn’t want to link the post or even name the author, so that we can go and read the actual “diatribe” to make sure of two things:

1) That he says what Coyne says he says.
2) That he didn’t anticipate Coyne’s arguments and demonstrate that, yes, Hart really did only spend a small portion of the book giving evidence for God.

This is the intellectual flag on the play. If you are going to criticize someone’s arguments, you never, ever, ever, ever set it up so that people cannot easily go and make certain that people can read the other side, and make sure they know what the other person is indeed saying or trying to argue. I’ve seen this intellectual sin frequently from a lot of posters, often “justified” by a claim that they don’t want to give them hits from their (presumably) much more popular blogs/sites. At which point, the obvious answer is that if you cared that much about that you shouldn’t talk about them at all. There is absolutely no reason not to link and name anyone that you are talking about, and especially those that you are criticizing unless you are afraid that if you linked to their posts people actually reading them would see that they’re right and you’re wrong. And no one supposedly dedicated to reason and intellect should ever fear that.

For the record, I think the post Coyne’s referring to is by Matt Briggs, and the link to the article is here.

Now, if you read my review, you’ll note that my complaint with the book was that it didn’t spend enough time advancing evidence for the existence of God or showing how you can get to a specific God from his general view of God, but instead focused more on attacking naturalism. When Coyne was simply saying that Hart did indeed advance at least some evidence for the existence of God, there wasn’t any serious quarrel there. But in this post he says this:

Most of the book is in fact devoted to adducing such evidence, which resides in the existence of consciousness, rationality, mathematics, our search for truth, our love of beauty, and the Fact that There is Something Instead of Nothing. And when he’s not adducing this “proof”, Hart’s making fun of those who claim that these phenomena can be based on naturalism. But none of them, argue Hart, can be explained by science, ergo God. (We never learn how Hart concludes “Ergo Jesus and my own Eastern Orthodox Faith.”)

To claim that most of the book is adducing evidence for God seems quite false to me, unless you consider trying to disprove naturalism as adducing evidence for the existence of God. Which, of course, it isn’t; proving that option A isn’t true isn’t a way to prove that option B is true, unless those are the only two options … and all atheists should be quite familiar with arguments that say that even if naturalism is false, that wouldn’t mean God in any way. Hart, at best, says that a naturalistic explanation won’t work, and if a naturalistic claim won’t work, then we certainly can’t rule out God on the basis that God is supernatural and we need a natural explanation. But there is indeed very little time spent on evidence for the existence of God, and Briggs is quite right to point out that Hart’s main goal does seem to be to outline what God means to the classical theist, as opposed to the modern view of God. The main reason for this is to note that objections to the modern conception of God are not objections to the classical view of theism … and since most of Coyne’s commenters, at least, are raising objections that the classical theist God isn’t vulnerable to that would seem to be a worthy ambition.

How does Coyne try to demonstrate that Hart is spending most of his time adducing evidence for God? He, uh, quotes one page. Out of 300. Supposedly, he’s trying to demonstrate that Hart’s really trying to argue that Bliss, Consciousness and Being are not only evidence for God, but that God is identical to them, which somehow leads to pantheism (see the third part of my review; it doesn’t). Except that even in that quote, Hart is not arguing that that’s the case, but is essentially describing that as the case. That’s not adducing evidence for God. As Coyne’s commenters — and Coyne himself — will gleefully point out. It’s not exactly consistent to refuse to accept Hart’s and Briggs’ insistence that Hart isn’t trying to provide evidence for God’s existence by pointing out things that one can indeed logically argue don’t actually provide evidence for God, because they aren’t good arguments — or, rather, they aren’t arguments at all. You can’t on the one hand deny their claim that they aren’t trying to argue for God’s existence and insist that they are while on the other hand saying that these are invalid arguments. If they weren’t trying to make arguments for the existence of God, the claims being invalid or just assertions or assumptions or definitions is only to be expected, and isn’t a criticism of them. Or, to put it better, when someone says that they aren’t making arguments for the existence of God you don’t get to point to bad arguments to prove that they are; they likely know that they’re not good arguments, which is why they aren’t trying to make arguments using them.

Is Briggs clear in demonstrating that Hart wasn’t really adducing evidence? I invite you to determine that yourself. Which you can do because I included the link to his post, and you can also check to see if I’m interpreting Coyne and his commenters right by looking at the links I provided to Coyne’s posts. Coyne didn’t see fit to do that for Briggs, which is, to my mind, one of the most intellectually dishonest and uncharitable things you can do. I was already immediately clicking on any post Coyne cited just to make sure that he was interpreting them correctly and reasonably; leaving them out is not likely to make me think that process less reasonable. In fact, quite the inverse, as the only reason to do that is because you don’t want people to read what they said, but if that’s the case there seems no reason for you to comment on them at all … unless you know you’re getting them wrong. I don’t think Coyne is indeed really thinking that, leaving his leaving out the link utterly unreasonable.

The “Best” Defense …

April 8, 2014

Cuttlefish has recently put up a post titled In Defense Of The “Village Atheist”. The post is ostensibly a defense of “village atheists” as talked about in this post by Randal Rauser. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to actually criticize what it says in any way, and seems to be equivocating on the term “village atheist” in its own criticisms. Now, to start, we need to see how Rauser is using the term “village atheist”, because he is using it in a slightly different way than the norm but is actually very clear about it:

First, a word on terminology. So far as I can see, the term “village atheist” was first popularized in the 19th century to refer to an atheistic individual within a religious community who vocally (and provocatively) expresses his/her dissent from the religious consensus of the community. For example, G.K. Chesterton identified Thomas Hardy as a village atheist (see Kevin Taylor, Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Question of Tragedy in the Novels of Thomas Hardy, p. 168).

However, in more recent literature the meaning of the term has evolved to identify a type of popular atheism that is often brash in presentation and lacks critical nuance. (In other words, minority status within a wider religious community is no longer essential to the term.) One sees this use in Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil, p. 178 when Inwagen juxtaposes the unlettered popular opinions of the “village atheist” over against the more sophisticated opinions of the “atheist”. In this article I will be using the term “village atheist” in the broad sense used by Inwagen.

So, Rauser makes it clear that while the original term referred to an atheist who merely was vocal about their atheism, the sort he’s talking about here is the sort of “village atheism” that Inwagen talks about. He points out clearly that by this, the “village” descriptor doesn’t require someone to be a minority anymore, which immediately means that it could apply to Christians as well who are brash but also lacking in critical nuance. From this, Rauser says repeatedly that, yes, you can have “village Christians” as well.

Which then makes Cuttlefish’s defense seem rather odd, even putting aside the fact that it doesn’t seem like a defense at all. After noting that he couldn’t find terms for “village Christian” on Google — which makes sense since as Rauser notes the “village atheist” usage is new — he says this:

And that’s because “the village X” is a designated minority role. It’s a way of othering, of dismissing with a label, of designating someone to be both part of the village and apart from the village.

Well, sure, in the original usage, but Rauser is, again, very clear that that isn’t the usage he’s using. He’s using it in a sense that applies beyond minority status. Did Cuttlefish simply not read the parentheses, or even that section where Rauser talks about specifically how he’s using it? Because by that usage, this comment doesn’t apply.

He then talks about “village Christians”, and walks into the equivocation:

We have village atheists because we have people who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking of. We have a great many more Christians who are eager to speak up, but not terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking on (we don’t have to look far). These are not “village Christians”, though–they are wholeheartedly welcomed members of the community. They are the village. It is not the fact that someone doesn’t have all the facts that makes them the “village atheist”; it is the fact that they are the atheist.

The first part does indeed relate to how Rauser is using the term. But when he goes to deny that you can have “village Christians”, he ignores that those are the traits that Rauser is using to define “village atheist” and “village Christian”, and instead says that those Christians that fit Rauser’s definition aren’t really “village Christians” because of the original meaning of the term, despite the fact that Rauser is abundantly clear that he’s using the more recent meaning and is actually using that definition completely consistently throughout the entire post.

This is why I wonder where the actual “defense” of the “village atheist” is here. The only way he could be defending the “village atheist” is by claiming that “village atheist” doesn’t actually mean what Rauser says it is, and so “village atheists” aren’t really atheists that are eager to speak up but aren’t terribly well versed in the topic they are speaking of, but instead apply broadly to any atheist that is eager to speak up, or that even speaks up at all. But while Cuttlefish might be correct that that is the normal or common meaning of the term, that’s clearly not how Rauser means it. Cuttlefish, then, is defending a “village atheist” that Rauser is not attacking.

Now, a counter might be that this is a problem with Rauser, in that he’s using the term wrong or is wrong to “broaden” it as he claims it does (I think he narrows it myself, but that’s neither here nor there). The first problem with that counter is that Rauser himself is consistent; he is not equivocating on the term in any way that I can see. But, one can protest, that at least _I_ call broadening the term “science” — ie using a non-standard definition of science in arguments — as being a form of scientism, and have called Jerry Coyne out on using his uncommon definition of “science” in an argument. The difference, though, is that in the cases of scientism generally I accuse them or broadening or narrrowing the definition to suit their argument — which is equivocation — or in the case of Coyne taking someone’s point where they are using the common definition of science, taking that out and using the less common definition of science, and then using that to argue that their point is wrong because by the less common definition of science the point doesn’t hold — ignoring that they weren’t using that definition and so the point attacked is not their point. Here, it is Cuttlefish who is translating the word to a definition that Rauser is not using to make his point and then declaring the point invalid; Rauser himself is clear and consistent in his usage. Thus, in the other examples, the person I am criticizing is equivocating, while in this case Rauser isn’t equivocating but Cuttlefish is. So there doesn’t seem to be a problem with Rauser here … or, at least, not one that Cuttlefish has pointed out yet.

In summary, Rauser is using a non-standard definition of “village atheist” but is clear that he is doing so and consistent in that, even down to saying that by that definition you can indeed definitely have “village Christians”, even though he implies that the common or original definition of the term doesn’t allow for that. Cuttlefish, on the other hand, ignores that completely to attack Rauser using a definition that Rauser is not actually using, and that Cuttlefish seems to acknowledge and them move away from. As a defense of “village atheist”, it either defends the wrong target or isn’t a defense at all.

The Problem of Evil: Obsolete?

March 6, 2014

So, “The Problem of Evil” is probably the single atheist/anti-theist argument that’s the most at least intuitively convincing. It’s been brought up again by Jason Rosenhouse here, and while I was pondering why I find the argument less and less probable every time I read discussions of it I suddenly had an insight: The Problem of Evil has been made obsolete in the face of advancing philosophy.

The Problem of Evil was easily justifiable when we could believe that there really existed “evil” in the world, when we thought that we could actually have evil objects in the world. Since God was responsible for creating everything that exists, that meant that if evil things existed either God was responsible for those evil things Himself or, alternatively, that something else put those evil things there and God was powerless to stop it. Neither of these outcomes preserve the tri-omni God. Sure, you could work around it by trying to argue that the existence of evil entities was somehow better, but I don’t blame atheists for finding that unconvincing.

However, the idea that there are actually evil things in the world isn’t particularly credible anymore. Sure, you could get it for things like Satan, demons, and the like, but their existence was never what people were worried about when they talked about The Problem of Evil, and those things were among the more plausible ways out of the problem in the old days (the main issue with these is explaining why God didn’t stop those entities from doing evil or putting it in the world, not with them existing). But as we moved forward and examined both The Problem of Evil and the world, the real issue isn’t about the existence of evil. We don’t think that there really does exist evil, per se, and we don’t think that The Problem of Evil is about evil in the world, but is instead about suffering. Pretty much all modern statements of The Problem of Evil and almost all modern arguments for there being “evil” in the world boil down to there being suffering in the world that it is believed that God could prevent but doesn’t. And if God could stop that suffering and yet doesn’t, then God must be at least uncaring, and likely immoral … especially since we all believe that if we could stop that suffering, we would be morally obligated to do so.

Thus, we may now rename The Problem of Evil to what it is today: The Problem of Suffering. And instead of asking “Why is there evil in the world?”, the modern problem asks “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

The problem is that under the two main theological takes we can have with at least the Judeo-Christian God — essentially, any religion that includes Genesis — The Problem of Suffering isn’t, in fact, a problem at all.

1) We can take a Biblical perspective on God, starting from Genesis and working our way through to get a God that is supposed to care for us, and yet allows this suffering to continue. Except that if you start from Genesis, we have an explanation for all the suffering in the world, natural and otherwise: the eating of the apple. The punishment for eating the apple is to be ejected from the perfect world into a world that explicitly contains suffering and toil. And since we ended up that way because we disobeyed God, we’d still be capable of disobeying God — and therefore acting immorally — when we leave the Garden. Thus, the answer to why God allows this much suffering in the world is: Because God never promised us a suffering-free life, and in fact promised us one where we did indeed suffer.

Now, you may counter that the Genesis and Adam and Eve story conflicts with modern biology if you take it literally, and has problems for at least Christianity if taken figuratively. That’s true, but the issue of The Problem of Suffering is the least of the problems under those conditions, at least for Christians. If Christians have to drop Original Sin and thus the reason for Jesus’ death and resurrection, there’s almost certainly not enough Christianity left to worry about the disproof from unexplained suffering. So for those who start from the Bible, they have an explanation and if they have to abandon that explanation their religion would be disproven far stronger than The Problem of Suffering could ever disproof it.

2) You start start from classical/Scholastic theism, which is the one that actually justifies the tri-omni God. Except that it justifies the tri-omni God independently of the condition of this world; as seen here, they start from Ground of Being and derive their qualities from that. As long as that argument holds, The Problem of Suffering cannot get a foothold, as if God as they conceive it exists then it is tri-omni and that we think there’s too much suffering in the world just reflects our lack of understanding (and, additionally, is likely simply the result of the world not being the perfect ground of being, and so merely reflects its lack). And if you manage to demolish the Ground of Being argument, then again the classical/Scholastic model has much more serious problems to deal with than worrying about whether or not there’s too much suffering in the world.

Thus, I declare the argument obsolete. Philosophy has moved on past the simplistic “There is evil in the world” interpretation, requiring a move to a “There is too much suffering in the world” argument … but the two main theological tacks that you can take here have no problem with suffering if their fundamental assumptions are correct, and if their fundamental assumptions are incorrect then they are false regardless of whether you could make The Problem of Suffering stick.

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 3)

February 19, 2014

Well, in this post I’m going to take a stab at explaining what the whole “Ground of Being” argument is, as best I understand it, in a way that hopefully might make it easier for others to understand. Hart and those who hold to classical theism may not thank me for this, as I am quite likely to get major portions of it wrong, but hopefully it can at least be used as a starting point for people to start thinking that, hey, maybe this thing isn’t totally insane, or that they really aren’t attacking what it claims when they attack, say, a notion of God directly causing each object to exist.

Anyway, the problem that classical theism is trying to solve is, well, the explanation of existence. Not the explanation of the existence of any particular object, although that question is related. Not even the explanation of the existence of any existent objects at all, although that’s closer. No, they want a explanation of existence itself. Or, to put it a bit facetiously, why it is that existence exists at all? Why is there existence? When we look at individual objects in the world, we can see that they exist of course, but the question still remains of why they exist. Again, not what directly caused them to exist, and so not a chain of causes back to a specific uncaused cause, but instead what explains their ability to exist and, in some sense, to not exist.

Hart points out that the argument, then, is that of all of the objects that we encounter in the universe, they are all dependent on something that underlies them to explain their actual existence. Again, not the direct cause, but the explanation of them and their existence. And that, the classical theists — and likely Aristotleans — think has to be some sort of something, a something that depends on nothing else to explain its own existence. Thus, it is the Ground of All Being, the thing we appeal to to explain why there is Being at all. Again, not beings, but Being itself.

Now, if the argument stopped at this point a very valid counter would be that that sort of thing doesn’t look a lot like any God concept. But the classical theist position points out that we can know an awful lot of things about what this Ground of Being must be like. To start with, it must be absolutely simple, meaning that it cannot be made up of parts that come together to form the whole. Why? Because if it did contain parts, then the explanation for its existence would consist, at least in part, of the parts coming together, and then you’d have to explain how each part exists, and those parts couldn’t be explained by the Ground of All Being since they, in part, explain the existence of the Ground of All Being, meaning that you hadn’t found the Ground of All Being yet. Additionally, there can be only one Ground of All Being, because if there wasn’t then you’d have two things that purport to explain all of the things that exist … including each other. So that can’t happen. Additionally, the Ground of All Being must be eternal, because if it ever ceased to exist you wouldn’t be able to explain the existence of the things that do exist, and nothing else could take its place.

Still, though, this wouldn’t look a lot like any kind of God, or at least any kind of theist God. Now, here’s where I’m speculating a bit, and here’s where it gets a little complicated, but to my mind it seems to work out like this: Just as all things that exist exist because they share in the existence of the Ground of All Being, every positive property we have we only have because we derive it in some way from the Ground of All Being. Note that here “positive” doesn’t mean “good”, but instead means that it is itself an attribute that we have, and not an attribute that we can be said to have only because we lack some positive attribute. So being able to act in the world, for example, is a positive property because it reflects an actual attribute or potential, but being unable to act in the world is not, as it is merely a lack of being able to act in the world. For every positive attribute, then, the classical theist position is that we get it from sharing in the attribute in the Ground of Being, and so the Ground of Being must have every positive property and, because we share in it to a limited degree, just as we do for existence, it must have it in as infinite proportion as it has existence.

Thus, since knowing is a positive property, the Ground of All Being must know, and know it infinitely. Thus, the Ground of All Being is omniscient. Also, since acting in the world in a positive property, the Ground of All Being must have that ability as well, and have it infinitely. Thus, the Ground of All Being is omnipotent. As intelligence is a positive property, the Ground of All Being is all-intelligent. And all-wise, and all-intentional. If the positive property exists in the world, then we know that the Ground of All Being has that property, and has it infinitely.

This, then, starts to look a lot like the theistic God. But what, then, about morality: is the Ground of All Being all-good? Well, if being moral is a positive property, then it is indeed all-good, and no empirical argument like that of the Problem of Evil can touch it because it is a logical necessity. You’d have to either deny that being good is a positive property, or deny that there exists any being in the world that can be good in even a limited way. Otherwise, the Problem of Evil reflects nothing more than our limited understanding of the good.

But can’t the atheist counter that the same argument for the Ground of Being’s morality can be used to establish its immorality, that it must be infinitely immoral since some of us are indeed immoral? Well, note that in order to make that argument you’d have to claim that being immoral is a positive property, and not merely a lack of some other property. And while it may seem a little odd to claim that being immoral is nothing more than a lack of morality (perhaps combined with some other property, like self-interest) it certainly seems completely and totally wrong to claim that being moral is simply a lack of being immoral. Thus, a strong case can be made that morality is the positive property, and immorality is primarily a lack of morality. And if that’s the case, then the Ground of All Being can be infinitely moral without having to be infinitely immoral as well.

So, then, this Ground of Being looks a lot like the theist God. But is this God comprehensible, or incomprehensible? Does it have anthropomorphic properties, or infinite ones beyond our comprehension? The answer, in fact, is both. Because we only have the properties we have because we share in the ones that the Ground of All Being has, there is indeed an at least conceptual link between our properties and God’s properties; they are not completely distinct from each other. So we can, at least, get some idea of what the properties of God are like by analogy to ours. However, that should not fool us into thinking that if we can just think really, really hard about our own properties, and study them really, really well, we can indeed find out what God’s properties are like. God’s are absolute and infinite, and ours are not, and ours are formed by moving us down the continuum from the infinite first to a finite and then to a flawed representation. We can discover things, again, by analogy, but we must never confuse the analogy for the reality.

This example might help, and lets me promote one of my favourite book series. In Roger Zelazny’s Amber series of novels, there is only one real world: Amber. All other worlds — including ours, where the first book starts — are mere reflections of the one true world. However, these worlds don’t look a lot like Amber, which is a more medieval, swords and sorcery kind of world while ours is, obviously, rather technological. You couldn’t look at this world and study it in detail and discover what Amber is really like, even though there is indeed a direct link between the two. You couldn’t know, for example, that gunpowder won’t work in Amber, even though it does here, just by looking at this world. And yet, there is a link, and a number of times people in the series move from our world and return to Amber by adding and removing properties until they get back to the real Amber, showing that there is a direct chain connecting us to Amber, even though our world is, at the end of the day, radically different from Amber.

I see the properties of God here as being the same thing. There is a link between our wisdom and God’s wisdom, but we can’t just look at our wisdom and round it up to get to real, infinite wisdom, just as we can’t round up the properties of our world and get back to Amber. But because our wisdom and God’s wisdom are still, in some way, conceptually wisdom, we can figure some things out looking at our world. How much we can do is a question that the philosophers would have to work out.

Note that after reading this, or even reading Hart’s book or any of the other books one the topic, you might still be unconvinced. That’s okay; I’m not really convinced either. There are at least potentially a number of lines of attack, such as questioning whether we need a thing to be the Ground of All Being or if that can be just a conceptual explanation. However, the point of writing all of this out is to hopefully explain a little better what the argument actually is and to hopefully get across the idea that while it may be wrong, it isn’t insane and, in fact, isn’t even anti-scientific or anti-empirical. As Hart says at one point, the purported physics that would refute this idea isn’t actually even addressing the same question that this is trying to solve, and so this view is, in fact, perfectly compatible with physics. It’s a different, perhaps, metaphysical view, but we really shouldn’t expect physics to say too much about metaphysics, right?

Anyway, that’s my limited understanding of “The Ground of All Being”. I’m sure I’ve gotten things wrong, but hopefully it’s close and clear enough to allow for real and meaningful discussion of the argument.

Review of “The Experience of God” (Part 2)

February 18, 2014

Okay, I kinda lied yesterday, saying that there’d be two parts, because I’m adding a third. This one is going to take on the specific comments from Coyne about how the “Ground of Being” God isn’t, in fact, the God of the Folk, the one that the ordinary person believes in, and the distinction between the Sophisticated God and the Folk God that he and other Gnu Atheists rely on so much.

If you take nothing else from this book, you should take the idea that, yes, indeed, God in all of the major traditions has never been a simple “Being”. God has indeed never been a being just like us, only better in all ways. We’ve always considered God to be something transcendental, something special, something that we can only understand through analogy to us instead of being a progression from us. We’ve never thought that if we tried really, really hard, ate all of our vegetables, and evolved in just right way that we would, one day, turn into Gods ourselves. Sure, science fiction tropes loved to hint at that, but in terms of religion we never really believed that. But in order to think about God, we had to make analogies, and so we made arguments about God and about proofs of God’s existence through an analogy to ourselves. And one of Hart’s better arguments is that a lot of arguments against and for the existence of God are arguments that take the analogy too far, and treat the analogy as the reality … in short, arguments that treat God as us, only better.

We can see this clearly in arguments like Dawkins’ “God must be more complex than we are to do what He does”. One can easily see that that sort of argument clearly relies on God being just like us, only better, and if we have to be complex to do our things, God has to be more complex than us. But that assumes that God is indeed just like us, only better. But God is completely different from us, in a very transcendent way. There are similarities by analogy, but you can’t win the argument by assuming that the analogy is the reality. And many other Gnu Atheist arguments do that as well. But Hart points out that it isn’t only atheists that do that, but also theists, and cites the Ontological Argument — rightly, in my opinion — as an argument that at least risks making the same mistake. By stripping away the transcendental portions of God, God is turned into something that is easier to relate to and to argue about … but also something that is easier to refute or to point out contradictions in. In their attempt to make God more amenable to scientific or mechanical proof, many theists seem to have made God into something like us, just another part of the world, and so something that we can indeed dismiss as easily as we’d dismiss unicorns and leprechauns. But it is certainly reasonable to note that this takes away from God what critically makes God, well, God, and so a proof or refutation of God as one of us is proving or refuting the wrong God, the sort of God that no one actually does believe in but the sort of God that we use as an analogy to try to wrap our heads around the transcendental concept that we are really talking about.

So, yes, Hart is right that Gnu Atheists are going after the sort of God that no one actually believes in, and is right to note that they aren’t alone, and that many good philosophers and theologians are also talking about the sort of God that no one actually believes in. We mistake the analogy for the reality, and that confuses us. We may not need to go right back to the God of classical theism, but we do need to recall that God is transcendental, and is not just us, only better.


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