Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Miracles Prove That There Is No God

Suppose that the miracle claims are true, and that Jesus, for example, did perform all of the miraculous feats that he is credited with. Typically, these miracles are taken as indicators that an omni-God exists. Here's the problem. Consider for a moment what sort of acts an omni-God would engage in. Being all powerful, all knowing, and all good, this sort of being will not act lightly. He would not make mistakes, he would not perform an act that did not accomplish exactly what he desires, in exactly the way he desires, and in the best possible manner. He wouldn't be unclear about the outcomes of his actions in any way. So if an omni-God were to act in the world, that action would be a perfect, flawless manifestation of that being's power, knowledge, and goodness.

Now consider some of the miraculous acts that are commonly attributed to God: Jesus is said to have walked on water, healed the sick, and resurrected the dead; Mohammed is said to have split the moon, and to have transcended directly into heaven, and so on.

This challenge has been put to theists concerning God's omnipotence: is God capable of acting in a way that would limit himself, such as by making himself not God, or making someone else God, or creating a challenge that he can't meet (like creating a stone that he cannot lift)? If he is, then there will be something he cannot do as a result of his action. If he is not capable of performing these kinds of actions, then, again, there is something he cannot do. So either way, God's power is limited and he is not omnipotent.

Theists like Aquinas and Plantinga have responded by pointing out that being omnipotent is having the power to do anything that is logically possible, or that does not involve a logical contradiction. All of these acts, they argue, are contradictory in some way. So these are impossible acts, and it is therefore no limitation on God's power to accept that he cannot do them. Thus it is widely accepted that the paradox associated with omnipotence conceived as the power to do anything is solved by understanding omnipotence as the power to do anything logically possible.

Now consider the purported miracles of Jesus and Mohammed above. Those acts were all minor, insignificant acts with regard to what an omni-God could do. That is, God is capable of doing far more than healing someone who is sick, or splitting the moon. He is alleged to have created the universe from nothing, after all. So it would appear that in those acts and all the purported miracles in history, God is acting far below his capacity. But it has been argued and widely accepted that an omni God wouldn't act in self-limiting ways. Doesn't that include acting in ways that are vastly beneath one's capacity? If I have a goal that I want to achieve, and I have means at my disposal to achieve it, it wouldn't make sense for me to only employ some of my abilities in a limited fashion to achieve that goal. I might act in a less than optimal way, applying some but not all of my knowledge, or some but not all of my power, if I don't understand all the relevant facts about the situation--I mistakenly think that the guy behind me in a marathon is too tired to catch me, so I don't push as hard as I could, but he's faking and he beats me, for instance. Or I lose the race simply because I don't have as much endurance as the next guy. Or I lose the race because I don't have the mental fortitude. But God won't have those limits in power, knowledge, or desire.

So it's hard to see why an omni God would act in such tiny ways. But it is easy to see why some lesser being, who is not God, might act in such ways. These miracles are the sorts of things that Vegas magicians would engage in. They are intended to impress by being flashy, provocative, and attention grabbing. These acts are localized, not universal the way an omni-God would act. These miracles are only seen by a handful of people (compared to the number of people that an omni-God could reach). These miracles leaves all sorts of doubts open and questions unanswered. In short, nothing about these acts suggest the infinite knowledge, power, and goodness of an omni-God. And everything about them suggests that someone of limited knowledge, questionable goals, and partial goodness like us was responsible. So it looks like that miracles, even if they were to happen, are actually evidence against the existence of God. The only sort of being that would perform such superficial party tricks is one who is limited in knowledge, power, and goodness.

So contrary to what most people seem to think, even if miracles do occur, the most they would show is that whatever is responsible for them it is not God.

What Would Make the Atheist Happy?

The problem of evil atheist has a problem.* If they are going to argue that the evidence makes it clear that no God exists, then they must be prepared to enumerate the sorts of evidence that would make it clear that God does exist. If they will not, that is, if no possible set of circumstances would constitute convincing evidence from their perspective, then they are just as guilty of dogmatism as the theists they criticize who would not relent in their belief in God in the face of any evidence.

So either there is no possible state of affairs that they would find convincing (irrational dogmatism) or there is some state of affairs that they would find convincing.

What could that state look like? Maybe they are demanding that God intervene and prevent some horrendous evils like the Holocaust or the Thailand tsunami. But the thoughtful atheist shouldn't be convinced by what appear to be miracles, even if there is good evidence to think that they have happened, because miracles are not good evidence for attributing the three omni properties to God. God's meddling in the course of things in some cases and not others raises more problems than it solves. If he stopped those evils, then why not all the others? Wouldn't a good God stop all of them? If he has all power, knowledge, and goodness, then he could have done something about the other cases of gratuitous suffering in the world. But he didn't. The atheist shouldn't be satisfied by just a few interventions. Those wouldn't make the problem of evil on the whole go away, and they would create more doubt. A God who would prevent a few but not others would appear to be fickle, unreliable, flighty, or inattentive. A single miracle, however great, would not prima facie be convincing evidence for an omni God. Such a God would not appear to have the 3 omni traits from making a statue bleed from the eyes, or healing a sick person, or walking on water. Those are minor party tricks, not the grandiose acts of an infinite omni being who would have a full plan for how all events and all evil in the universe should unfold. At most, a few interventions like that might be indicators that there is some being who has enough power, knowledge, and goodness to lead it to do those acts. But those indicators would be too meager to entail omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. So the atheist shouldn't be satisfied by some miracles that prevent some isolated evils. (And the theist should be careful about trying to employ a few minor miracles to prove the existence of an omni God.)

What about more comprehensive intervention? Would the atheist be satisfied by a world where there were no superfluous evils and it was clear from our perspective that there are no superfluous evils? Maybe. But theists like Hick have plausibly argued that there could be no real moral actions in such a world. In the world where everyone gets what they deserve, people's first motivation becomes avoiding punishment and earning rewards. Those motives cannot be the ground of morally worthy actions.

The atheists in that world could complain that this is not a God who cares about our moral and spiritual development. This God gives us no freedom. This God gives us no autonomy or opportunities to learn and grow. This God is a petty tyrant who isn't really concerned with our best interests. This is a God who cares about nothing more than mindless obedience. He punishes every transgression and rewards every positive act. He treats no better than dogs. How is that loving? And why would a being who knows all and has the power to do anything build us, knowing what we would do, and then punish us for those transgressions. In what sense would we be deserving of reward or punishment after being set up with little or no choice like that? Surely the being who would do this to us is not an omni God.

Another option is a world where it appears from our perspective that there are superfluous evils. And from the arguments above, an omni God might have good reasons for creating the world to appear that way. But again, in such a world, the atheist has grounds to complain. "Look at all these superfluous evils," they complain, "surely an omni God would not tolerate the existence of these. The only reasonable conclusion is that there can be no such being.

So it is beginning to look like there really is no state of affairs that would satisfy the problem of evil atheist that there is a 3-omni God. And if that is so, then when they invoke the existence of evil as evidence that there is no God, they aren't really offering an argument in favor of their position based on a posteriori evidence. It looks like no matter what the evidence was, they'd make the same case. And that means that the argument and the evidence don't really matter to them. So is the problem of evil atheist being irrational and dogmatic?

* A problem of evil atheist is someone who thinks that the existence of evil in the world provides us with reasonable grounds to conclude that no omni-God exists.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Religious Memes and Rational Autonomy

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that some evolutionary story about a powerful disposition towards religiousness in humans is right. That is to say that there are features of our cognitive constitution that arose in our evolutionary history that made us prone to seek out sweeping metaphysical answers to our ultimate questions, or disposed us to derive satisfaction from religious explanations of the world, or some other biological grounding that is responsible for the powerful appeal of religion. What’s interesting and inflammatory about these theories is that they are charging that we don’t believe in God because it is true and because we possess good, justifying reasons that support the belief. Rather we are caused to believe by some aspects of our neurobiology.

Dawkins argues that evolution selected for human offspring who would respect, believe, and revere wisdom imparted to them by their parents. Listening to advice about how to get by in a world you know very little about from someone who has become an expert has obvious survival advantages. This advantageous tendency to accept guidance from them also makes us poor at distinguishing between sense and nonsense. So once religious ideas get a hold in culture, parents pass them along with all of the other things they think are true, and the kids readily take them as truth. So they can’t discriminate between the usefulness of “Avoid the bend of the river with crocodiles,” from “Sacrifice your best livestock to insure an abundant harvest from the gods.”

Dennett argues that evolution equipped us with a hyperactive agency detector. Having strong dispositions to attribute beliefs, desires, and intentionality to the other creatures we encounter gives us a powerful model for predicting their behavior and saving our own skins. And there are many other intriguing hypotheses being debated.

Now consider some of the reproductive and mutative behavior of religious ideas or memes. A “holy” text, when a group of people acquire one, provides a fertile breeding ground for the proliferation of ideas, theories, constructs, and theses about God’s goals, plans, desires, instructions, and nature. So people read, and reread, and discuss, and debate, and preach, and sermonize, and analyze the document again and again. They scour it for details for answers to life’s most challenging questions. And a successful religious text in the history of human religious exploration will be one that is conducive to these aims. Religious documents, whatever their source, that are not well suited to addressing people’s emotional, psychological, and social needs will not fare well in their hosts. Fewer people will be drawn to their creeds. So these less fit texts must adapt or die out (lose adherents.) Zoroastrianism, for example, is on the verge of extinction.

Most holy documents we have now within established religions have undergone this process of winnowing, adapting, and mutating for centuries. One kind of text that succeeds is metaphorical, vague, suggestive, and mysterious. In the rereading and the debating and the endless generation of new interpretations of the text, some bodies of religious doctrine, or some religious cultures will be more fit to get traction in the minds of the people who host them. In the telling and retelling of religious customs, and rereading of the texts, and the memories of people trying to recall a prayer or point of doctrine from childhood, the bodies of religious custom evolve. They reproduce with different features than their progenitors. Errors in recollection are introduced. The environment changes; the needs and interests of religious people change over time. So doctrine evolves.

Over time, some religious cultures, or meme patterns, prove to be more fit than others. Some have a broader appeal, serve more people’s interests, or manage to propagate themselves (evangelism, and religious encouragements to have lots of kids) better than others. And there are different ways to develop evolutionary fitness in meme space—some religious movements spread rapidly like a fashion trend, picking up new members like a French fashion designer becomes all the rage for a season. Others acquire their ground in our lives slowly and steadily, fortifying their place in the culture, in history, and in society like the Catholic church.

Now if humans have a built in evolutionary disposition towards religiousness, what would that be like from our perspective? What would it feel like to have that part of your nature helping to steer your actions? Would it be like the insatiable craving of addiction that a heroin addict goes through? Would it feel like the thrill of winning to a gambler? Would it feel like the careening vertigo of a fresh, infatuating love affair?

No doubt, many religious people have these sorts of feelings about worship and their participation in religion. Most likely, these kinds of powerful feelings are rare. Most people’s feelings about their religion are not like these feelings most of the time.

I don’t know if I have an answer to the question of how I would be able to tell in myself whether it is reason that justifies my belief, or it is my neurobiology that causes me to believe. Sometimes I can tell that I am cranky with someone because I haven’t had any coffee to drink and not because they did anything wrong. Other times, they haven’t done anything wrong, and I haven’t had enough coffee, but I convince myself that they are to blame. So I am not the best judge about the genesis of my beliefs. The fact that there seem to me to be good reasons to support it is not enough. It often seems that way, even when the belief is utterly unjustified.

A number of facts encourage us to take the idea that religious beliefs spring from our biology seriously.

Religion is ubiquitous. In the United States, there are 300 million people. The vast majority of them consider themselves to be religious. Less than 3% of the population describe themselves as non-believers. Worldwide, religious adherents are in the strong majority in almost every country. And those billions of people devote their lives to religion, they spend enormous amounts of money on it, they sacrifice themselves to it, they are celibate for it, they abandon their families for it, they kill for it, they build cathedrals and temples that take centuries to complete for it, they overthrow governments for it, they commit genocide for it, and so on. It is perhaps the single, biggest, most influential, most important, persistent phenomena in all of human history.

It seems highly unlikely that anything could loom that large in human lives and human history and not find some sympathy in the cognitive constitution that was built by natural selection in us.

So if that is at least partly responsible for your religiousness, how should you approach it or feel about it? Evolution doesn’t invalidate the satisfaction or the value of religion in people’s lives. Quite the contrary, the hypothesis under consideration here is that evolution is what makes religion so appealing and so gratifying to us. But if there is something about our natures that pulls us towards religion, we have just cause to be cautious. That means we may not be able to reason as clearly about it. We may be prone to rationalize. It might make us more likely to work harder to find justifications for it and less willing to consider alternatives. It might make us more dangerous, less cautious, more dedicated, more sympathetic, less free regarding it.

If our cognitive constitution made us predisposed to have certain types of beliefs, then that that disposition is a direct obstacle to our being rational about them. And that is serious cause for concern, particularly since we wouldn’t treat that belief as if it is irrational. Quite the contrary, it would probably seem to us that we were being perfectly rational. Just like a lack of coffee makes me irritable, but I blame the imagined social slights on my coworker. And we’d continue to tell others and ourselves that we are believing because it is true and because we have good reasons for believing it. So if natural selection hypothesis about religion is right, then we are wired to be irrational but not know we are being irrational about a set of beliefs that affect our moral views, our political views, our social behaviors, what we teach our kids, which wars we choose to fight, which people we decide to tolerate and which ones we decide to kill.

So we need to know, maybe more than we need anything else, whether or not this is true about us, and we need to take measures to control it.

What the religious meme hypothesis makes clear is that there will likely by ideas out there (not just religious ones) that will exploit features of our cognitive constitutions and that threaten to undermine our rationality, our safety, and our futures. Religious memes are potentially the most important and potentially dangerous ideas like this in human history.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

You Don't Really Believe In Miracles

Should We Take the Miracle Stories in the Bible Seriously?

Many people have made a "Historical Case for Jesus" argument for the historical authenticity of the stories we now have about Jesus. They will typically make these points. Note: Making the case on their behalf takes a few paragraphs.

There were multiple eyewitness accounts of the miracles of Jesus, not just a few isolated people. Thousands of people are purported in the Gospels to have witnessed his healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry. Furthermore, when Jesus was crucified, he wasn't buried in secret. The tomb was widely known and accessed. If it contained his corpse, then a story about his resurrection would have been very difficult to fake. A number of people found the tomb empty. On several different occasions, different groups of people are purported to have experienced Jesus resurrected from the dead.

The witnesses are not a homogeneous group of religious zealots. They are from diverse backgrounds, with different educations, and social standings. They were not a strange, fringe group.

It is highly unlikely that the witnesses had any ulterior motives. The witnesses stood to gain nothing from retelling what they had seen. In fact, they stood to lose a great deal. Early Christians were socially ostracized for their beliefs, persecuted, and even killed. The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every reason not to. Such an even would have been outlandish to them, yet they still believed. They were so convinced that they gave up their jobs, their wealth, and their families to become Christians.

The people surrounding the eyewitnesses believed them and were impressed enough to convert. The passion and conviction of the original believers was so profound that it conquered the doubts of all those around them. A whole religious movement that has lasted for thousands of years and spread to millions of people has sprung from the eyewitness accounts.

Many of the events of the New Testament have been historically corroborated. Archaeologists, historians, and other scholars have been able to find a great deal of independent evidence that confirms many of the historical claims such as the reign of Herod, the destruction of the temple, the growth of the early church.

The Gospels focus on a real, historical person. They are not comparable in their age to a book of mythology about Paul Bunyan, or fairy tales. They present their account as a factual record of the events in history, not as allegory, or fiction.

Furthermore, the Jewish tradition of transmitting history accurately and reliably was highly developed and successful.

Once we consider all of these factors, the believers argue, it would seem that no other hypothesis can explain all the elements of the story of Jesus as well.

But this is all nonsense--we have bodies of evidence for alleged miracles all around us today that far exceed all of these factors and it is perfectly obvious that no miracles occurred to all of us, even ardent religious believers.

You're Already and Atheist and a Skeptic about Miracles

Right now, we can now find thousands or even millions of people making fraudulent, mistaken, or deceptive miracle claims on a daily basis. People claim to see a pattern resembling the Virgin Mary in the water stains on a bridge in Chicago. Someone cuts open a watermelon and sees the word for "Allah" represented in the patterns of pulp inside. A man in Ontario burns his TV dinner and finds an image of Jesus in the burn marks of his fish stick. Another family finds a twisted pretzel in their bag that they say looks like Mary and Jesus. Televangelists "perform miracles" at will at every meeting. Closer inspection reveals that they are always lying, cheating, or mistaken.

Televangelist Pat Robertson, who has hundreds of thousands of regular viewers, claims that his prayers to God steered hurricanes away from the Virginia Beach, Virginia headquarters of his company. He also claims to have steered Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and Hurricane Felix in 1995, and Hurricane Isabel in 2003. In 2005, he began a prayer project for vacancies on the Supreme Court--he was frustrated with the "radical" views of the current judges. He claims that these prayers resulted in the resignation of Sandra Day O'Connor. Conveniently, Robertson doesn't publicize the numerous cases where he prayed for some outcome and nothing happened.

Frequently in India, millions of the faithful rush to Hindu temples to see statues of the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha and others drink milk. Huge crowds form as people hold spoonfuls of milk up to the trunk of the statues and watch milk disappear. The phenomena is widely accepted as a miracle. Scientists examined the case and concluded that the milk was being siphoned down the surface of the statue in a thin film that wasn't easily visible. As more people made offerings, pools of milk formed at the base of the statues. The Press Trust of India wrote, "the phenomenon of idols "drinking" milk could be explained scientifically by the theory of capillary action or the movement of liquids within spaces of porous surfaces due to surface tension, adhesion and cohesion." Typically, believers deny that there could any explanation besides the miraculous one. Similar stories appear from time to time in the west surrounding statues of the Virgin Mary. Different types of porous stones that are used to make the statues have the capacity to absorb and wick a great deal of fluid.

People feel miracles in their hearts while they are watching TV, as they pray, when the go to church, or when they think about a loved one. But it only takes a little distance and objectivity to see that they are often enthusiastic, gullible, or mistaken. Millions of people fall under the influence of cults and dedicate their entire lives to outlandish, demonstrably false creeds and obviously false miracle claims. And notice that these people come from diverse backgrounds, they have varying levels of education, and come from different social groups. No one is immune the allure of miracle stories. In the case of cults, it's obvious that when people have such a passionate, and powerful conviction that makes their claims even more unreasonable to accept. Passion, and unreflective commitment makes it more difficult for someone to analyze claims that need clear, objective consideration. In general, people's passion and commitment to beliefs should not itself be seen as evidence that they are true.

The important fact to note is that on the whole, we, even the most pious among us, do not take any of these claims seriously. Even most Christians who believe, do not accept most of these claims. Even if you find some of the claims above to be plausible, there are still many more claims about miraculous events every day that you would discount than you would accept. You know that people are prone to exaggerate, they like to tell exciting stories, they are easily influenced, and they are eager to have their cherished beliefs corroborated. You already take the vast majority of such claims with a grain of salt. You aren't rushing off to Bangladesh or Mecca to convert at the feet of some statue that absorbs fluid. You'll even laugh to discover that someone found a burn mark on a sour cream and onion potato chip that looks like Jesus and they thought it meant something. You are already a skeptic about the majority of miracles because you know that the other natural explanations are much more likely almost every case you have ever encountered. And to make the case stronger, whenever a disinterested, objective third party has checked, none of these miraculous claims has ever turned out to be true.

So we are surrounded by thousands of miracle testimony cases on a daily basis that we do not think are real. These purported miracles make several things clear. First, people have a powerful disposition to assert and believe in miracles. Once you start looking, they are everywhere. Second, it not just like this now; history is full of similar cases. And in the past, say in the Middle East, 2,000 years ago, before so many important advancements in science and before so many mysteries had been explained, people's propensity to believe in miracles would have been even stronger. For them, the possibility that some supernatural forces were at work in the world causing things to happen that couldn't be explained otherwise would be common sense. Even more of the people around them would have believed in such events. There were no scientists with alternative natural explanations. People they knew and trusted believed in supernatural interventions and influences in the world. Their culture, their books, their stories, their conversations, their lives would have contained thousands of references that would have made the reality of God's hand acting in the world as obvious to them as the existence of radio waves are to you. For them, gossip, hearsay, and anecdotal evidence, as well as superstitions, mysteries, and supernatural forces would have been the norm. Their threshold for accepting a miraculous story would have been much lower than ours. For them, that would have been perfectly reasonable.

But now, you know a lot more about the way the world works than they do. And what would have been common sense to them is not for you. In the Middle Ages, they thought it was common sense that demon possession caused the flu, and that children born on Wednesdays will have a life of misery, after all. So now, given that you are surrounded by patently false miracle stories that you do not take seriously at all, and given that people would have been much more prone to believe and promote such stories in the past, how likely is it that miracle stories from 2,000 years ago from a culture that was immersed in superstition, supernaturalism, and ignorance are true? Or put another way, you don't think it is reasonable to believe all the obviously over the top miracle claims right in front of you now, so why would you believe some from centuries ago when people didn't have the benefit of the knowledge of the world that you have?

Can Atheists Be Moral?

So people will say this pretty often in response to the prospect of atheists or atheism, "If there's no God, then what will keep people in line morally? What possible reason could they have for being moral?"

I'm never quite sure what this is supposed to show. Suppose that you don't believe in God, and suppose further that you grant this cryptic and strange point completely. What would that lead us to? Believing is unreasonable, as I see it, but then I look around at everyone else and myself and I realize that unless they believe in God we will all turn into stark raving, axe wielding maniacs. So even though it is not reasonable to believe in God, failing to believe will produce horrible moral consequences. So should I believe in that case? What exactly would that be like? I just think about it, and decide that even though believing in God is a silly, childish fairy tale, I need to believe anyway or else I will lose my moral compass and do all sorts of things that are morally horrible. It won't be enough for me to just act like I believe, because I know, better than anyone, what I actually believe. No, what's needed by this hypothesis is for me to really come to believe, when I currently don't. But currently I don't believe, and I should also point out that not believing is not filling me with outrageous urges to do horrible things. And I should also point out that some countries in northern Europe have nonbeliever rates as high as 55% or 60%, and the last time I checked the news, people aren't murdering, raping, child molesting psychotics there. In fact, their rates for lots of the most serious violent crimes are actually lower than they are for more religious countries. But back to the hypothesis: contrary to people's often saying that they "have a right to believe whatever they want to," and saying things like, "I am free to believe whatever I want to," I can't, and you can't, just decide to believe something that you don't believe now as a matter of willing it. Go on, try it: look at the plain, white wall of your office or bedroom and will yourself to believe that is it painted with red and yellow spots, or will yourself to believe that George W. Bush is not currently the president of the United States, or even harder, will yourself to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. You can't do it. So even if it is true that people lose their moral compass and do horrible things if they don't believe in God (they don't), what exactly could you do about it? I suppose you'd have to try to find a way to trick yourself into believing, and all because you are worried that without belief in God you're going to become a moral reprobate. But if you are an atheist, and you are worrying about the possibility that you are going to become immoral, then evidently your sense of morality is working just fine. Or at least it is working well enough for you to worry about the possibility that you might become a moral monster. So it looks like its just incoherent to suggest that atheists are less able to distinguish right and wrong from other people.
Ironically, the comment, "without God, people won't be moral," reveals an juvenile, shallow, and painfully underdeveloped sense of morality. The reason my dog doesn't pee on the carpet is because she's afraid of getting scolded or punished, and the reason she'll bark on command is that she wants treats. If you think that the primary reason people refrain from immoral acts is the threat of punishment, and the reason that they do good things is that they want to be rewarded, you're view of humanity is that they are little better than animals who have nor intrinsic motivation to do the right thing other than avoiding a spanking (hell) or getting the ultimate jerky treat (heaven). And that's an impoverished, insulting, and childish view of humanity given that our reasons for being good or for being bad are typically so much more complicated and interesting. Maybe you're recognizing the animal in yourself and feeling like the only thing that keeps you in line is the threat of punishment or the promise of reward. That would make sense for lots of preachers, priests, and sermonizers who have so much zeal for condemning their flock for their indiscretions--I often suspect that the red faced, spitting, shouting enthusiasm they have for berating us for our misdeeds is just misdirected anger at themselves for their own animal temptations and acts.