Thursday, March 22, 2007

Believing in God is Immoral

It’s frequently argued that unless a person believes in God, they can’t or won’t be moral. If the threat of divine punishment and the promise of heavenly reward are removed, humans, sensing that no one is minding the shop, will rape, pillage, plunder and otherwise misbehave with wild abandon. Alternately, many people think that moral prescriptions cannot arise from purely natural sources—if we are only fancy, evolved monkeys, if we are nothing but physical creatures, then there can be nothing governing us except the law of the jungle. So many people think that only by believing in God will we be restrained enough to be moral.

We need to turn that argument around completely. Not only is it possible to be a moral person without a belief in God, there are some very good reasons for thinking that in many cases believing in God is itself actually immoral.

In general, isn’t it a bad thing to believe a claim that :

  1. you know is false,
  2. contributes to the confusion or false beliefs of others,
  3. encourages supernatural, spooky, non-critical, fuzzy-headed thinking,
  4. fosters fear and anxiety.
  5. creates complacence about social problems, social policy, and the future of humanity on this planet.
  6. undermines the advancement of science
  7. contributes to the stagnation of human progress.
  8. encourages a historically outdated, over-simplified worldview.
  9. stalls our progress in dealing with new, complicated and important moral issues
  10. has no good evidence in its favor.
  11. encourages cultural and ethnic strife.
  12. gives people false hopes.
  13. is self-deluding.
  14. fosters fear, confusion, and fuzzy, magical thinking in children.
  15. fosters false beliefs in children.
  16. impedes children’s acquisition of our most important, modern advancements in knowledge.
  17. is a case of akrasia:
The ancient Greek concept of akrasia is acting against one’s better judgment or having a weakness of will. Consider the heroin junky, or the smoker who is trying to quit, or the alcoholic. In their clearer moments, they can see what's wrong with their lives. They know that quitting is the sensible thing to do. But those needs creep up, the rationalizations start gaining traction, rational thought lapses, and he finds himself with a hypodermic or a cigarette in his hand. The psychological, emotional, and physical desires are too strong, and the intellectual habits, the fortitude of will, and his resolve are too weak.

Isn’t it true that one does something blameworthy or bad if one succumbs to believe those things that we want to believe when we know full well that the belief is undermined by the evidence. If out of a weakness of will, you allow yourself to believe something because of your emotional, psychological, or social needs, but not because you see good reasons in the form of evidence for it, aren’t you letting yourself down? You are letting all of us down. You are condoning believing in that way, you are lowering the bar for yourself and for everyone else, you are acknowledging that you cannot or you will not submit your beliefs to the arbitration of reason.

And isn’t it also true that your belief in God fits many, most, or all of these conditions? The problem for those with the religious urge is that culturally we have widely endorsed sloppy, indulgent, irrational thinking, especially when it comes to religion. There's a church on every corner trying to draw them in. And we've all elevated the abdication of reason in matters of God to a noble virtue instead of rejecting it for the dangerous and demeaning practice that it is. Most people, when they are being clear headed and thoughtful, know that there are no good evidence in favor of theism, and there is a lot of evidence contradicting it. But, many people want there to be a God. They hope that he's listening to their prayers. They don't think they could face life without him.

So they permit themselves to "believe in" God in the "hope" sense of "believe." ("I believe that my husband will make it home safely from Iraq.") But we don't usually distinguish carefully between that sense of "believe" and the "I believe because the evidence indicates that it is true" sense of believe. (NASA says, "We believe that there is no water on the moon.") And the comforting, hoping kind of belief settles in naturally. Then we find ourselves surrounded by like minded people who feel the need to believe(h). No one is comfortable acknowledging their weaknesses, and no one wants to attribute flagrant irrationality to themselves. So in time, hoping beliefs slip into a stronger kind of belief. We talk ourselves into thinking that it really is true that God exists. We hear others acknowledging our belief and our needs. And they encourage us to be strong, to have faith, to sustain that belief. We rationalize, we blur, and we feel more and more strongly that this thing that we want to believe really isn't just a hope, it's correct, it's the truth.

What originated as something that we knew wasn't true but we hoped was true anyway exploits a weakness of the will and becomes a belief that we think is true and that we think there's good evidence for. The drug works its way into the crevasses of your reason. You find a way to get what you want and placate your reason: you believe because you hope it is true, and you enslave your reason to making it seem like it’s a legitimate claim to the truth.

What we need is a twelve step program for God beliefs and religiousness.

"Hi, I'm Matt and I've been clean since 1982."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

We Don't Have the Right Dataset to Make the Design Argument

Here are some more ideas about design that follow from the previous post.

What sort of physically manifest, empirically observable features of objects in the universe would allow us to infer that 1) those objects must have been created from nothing, and 2) the creator of those objects must have been outside and superior to natural law itself? The objects themselves cannot tell us either of those conclusions. That is to say, the design argument to the conclusion that an omni-being with power and existence beyond physical matter is underdetermined. The strongest conclusion we could possibly derive from the existence of orderly, complicated, artifact-like objects in the world, is that there may have been some creator within the context of matter and physical laws who was responsible.

In order to make the sort of analogous reasoning the design argument requires, we would need to be in this sort of extraordinary position. We would need to be witness to the origins of a large number of universes, some ex nihilo and some not, and some with physical laws and some without. Then we might be in a position to say that in the vast majority of cases, when we find a universe like X, with features A, B, and C, then that universe was created by an omni-being from nothing and that being instantiated those natural laws from a state with no natural laws. Then if it was true that the universe we currently inhabit possesses features A, B, and C, whatever they are, we could reasonably draw an inference to the strong God conclusion.

Being privy to no cases of creation ex nihilo and no cases of the creation of natural laws or of universes, the design argument is grossly underdetermined by the evidence.

God is Not a Watchmaker

The design argument, particularly when it is based on an analogy between orderly objects that we know have been designed (like watches) to the design of the universe that also exhibits order, is subject to a fatal flaw. The familiar argument asserts that in cases where we find an artifact that has orderly parts, smaller parts and machines contributing to the function of larger machines, and other organizational features, we are thoroughly justified inferring that the object was designed with a purpose in mind and that it had a designer. The structure of a watch found on the beach makes it obvious that it had a watchmaker. The universe exhibits similar features, so we are justified in inferring that it had a designer.

The fatal flaw in this argument is that its advocates typically fail to see just how profoundly different the creation of a universe is from every other case of purposeful design we have ever encountered. We know of countless cases of watchmakers making watches, carpenters designing and building houses, and electrical engineers building computer chips. In every one of these cases, two things are true that are not true in the case of God's creating the universe: a) the laws of nature are in place and they make the act of creation possible for the carpenter or the watchmaker, and b) matter exists and the human creator manipulates it into a new form.

Consider a). The carpenter or the watchmaker creates within the context of natural law. It is the regular, predictable behavior of matter according to the laws of physics that makes it possible for the watchmaker to employ steel, or glass towards his ends. The natural properties of wood, steel, and concrete facilitate the carpenter's choice of materials and the sort of design he conceives of and enacts. Were it not for the physics of nails, hammers, and wood, the carpenter would not be able to create anything. In fact, we have NO examples, NO experience, perhaps even no coherent conception of creation that is outside the laws of nature.

God's alleged act of creation of the universe includes creating the laws of nature. He could have made it so that the speed of light was faster, or slower. He could have made it so there was no light. He could have made matter have more fundamental constituents, or fewer. He could have made no matter at all. An omnipotent being is not constrained by physical law; omnipotence includes the capacity to instantiate any set of physical laws that themselves are logically consistent. Here is the first element of the profound disanalogy in design arguments. God's act of creation, if we can call that an act in any coherent sense, if it includes the choice, design, and creation of the laws of nature, is utterly unlike any act of design we have any experience of because all of our creations occur within the context of natural law and those natural laws makes those acts possible. An act of creation that instantiates a complete set of physical laws that govern matter from a state where there are no laws of nature is nothing like our manipulations of matter into different forms within the laws of nature.

It is difficult if not impossible to know what such an act would be like. One can't use matter to create physical laws. God can't employ a hammer and nails, or a watchmakers tools to bring it about that reality itself has order and structure.

Consider b). Every act of creation that we have ever engaged in, and perhaps that we can even conceive, takes existing matter and changes its arrangement. Iron is smelted from ore and made into steel that is used to build a skyscraper. A tree is milled into lumber that is cut and fashioned into furniture. Chemical elements are combined into different combinations to make compounds. God's act of creation of the universe is said to be ex nihilo, that is, from nothing. There was an empty state and God somehow brought it from that state into being occupied by matter through some mysterious exertion of his will. Again, we have no examples, no experience, no analogies, perhaps even no conception of how such a thing could be possible.

The design argument is only as strong as the analogy upon which it is based. It will only succeed if what the watchmaker does with the watch is analogous to what God did with the universe. The more features in the universe and in the alleged act of its creation that we can find that resemble those features of the ordinary, familiar cases of design and creation like the watchmaker's, the stronger the analogy. If the argument is going to work, and its authors do not cheat with presumptions about God's existence, it will move backwards from the object to a conclusion about the object's origins. The intent of the argument is that without any presuppositions about the existence of God, or God's intentions, or the act of creation, we can examine the object in question (the universe) closely, and infer that it must have had a designer from the presence of obvious, empirical features in it.

But whatever passing and superficial similarities there might be between watches and the universe, the profound differences between manipulating existing, lawfully behaving matter into another form and an act that a) creates the laws of nature themselves, and b) brings matter into being from a state of nothingness completely undercuts the argument by analogy. What a watchmaker is to a watch is nothing like what God would be to the universe. So the argument fails.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

What Would be Evidence for Life After Death?

If possible, the doubter needs to be prepared to outline what sort of evidence would convince them, at least hypothetically. If no possible set of events or body of evidence would change their mind, then they are being dogmatic and irrational.

There is no plausible or convincing evidence, as far as I can see, that a person's mind or consciousness or spirit or soul can exist unless their brain and nervous are in minimal working order. And all the indicators suggest that when the brain goes, so does the soul.

But what sort of evidence could support the claim that a person's soul or mind exists without their body? Do near death experiences count? When someone has a very close, scary brush with death and has an overwhelming, life changing experience as a result, could that show that we exist beyond this material plane? If someone is unconscious on the operating table and has a powerful, vivid experience of floating up a lighted tunnel towards long lost loved ones or to Jesus or whatever, could that show that the mind doesn't need the brain to exist?

I think the answer to these two questions, as posed, is no and no. The human brain is capable of remarkable things. We have accumulated examples of brain disorders, drug trips, altered states and a host of other cases where a functioning but disrupted brain produces incredible visions, hallucinations, experiences, and feelings. And we have accumulated lots and lots of examples where even though someone feels like they are floating, or sees a tunnel (you can get this sensation just by standing up too fast) or has some other delusion and they are clearly, and demonstrably wrong. When you stand up too fast and your field of vision shrinks to a tunnel, clearly there is no tunnel and you are not floating up it. So we have lots and lots of examples of altered brain states that produce experiences that are mistaken. Therefore, it is just not enough for someone to report having had an extraordinary, unusual, or even life changing altered state of consciousness. Those happen all the time to just about everybody, and they aren't real.

The brainless mind defender needs to show more. Here's one example of the sort of evidence that would help make the case. Many people have claimed to have had life-after-death experiences, or out-of-body experiences. The problem is that brains are clearly capable of producing these experiences and they aren't real. But if we could establish that someone had their experience, saw the lights and the tunnel, floated up to meet Jesus, or otherwise had their profound encounter with God during the same time that we had every reason to think that their brain was not functioning well enough to possibly produce those experiences, then we'd have some important, significant evidence. If someone's heart or breathing stops on the operating table I don't think that is enough. Your consciousness is only indirectly dependent upon the functioning of your heart. I watched a magician on tv the other night hold his breath for over 7 minutes underwater. And he was clearly conscious, thinking, and having experiences. The oxygenated blood in a person's system is enough to sustain brain activity for quite a while.

Let's suppose that Smith's heart and breathing stop while he's on the operating table. Furthermore, suppose Smith is resuscitated later and he tells an elaborate life after death, or out of body story.

We would need to establish a couple of things. First, we would need to establish, and this would take a lot of sophisticated and sensitive medical monitoring, that say from 10:05 until 10:23, that Smith's brain had either ceased functioning altogether, or enough of its functions had ceased to prevent hallucinations, dreams, visions, and conscious feelings. Second, we would need to have some plausible indicators that the experiences that Smith had subjectively occurred sometime during that 18 minutes when his brain was out of commission. How would we show that? This is a hard one. If Smith was conscious and lucid and didn't appear to be having any hallucinations until 10:05, and then he wakes up at 10:23 and immediately reports having his out of body experience, that would be suggestive. If Smith was unconscious but had a relatively high functioning brain from 9:30 until 10:04, we can't just take Smith's word for it that the experience he had occurred between 10:05 and 10:23. How would he know? Did he have a vision of an accurate clock too? Would it help if he insisted that his experience went on for days and days? No, because subjective time just doesn't match up with objective time.
In fact, I think it is exceedingly rare that anyone who is suffering this kind of trauma will have an on/off episode where they go from being fully conscious and having a functioning brain to being unconscious and having a completely shut down brain. The other problem is that if so much of the brain has shut down so completely that it rules out the possibility of hallucinations and visions, I suspect that the damage is irreversible. Hearts and lungs shut down briefly and people can be revived. But brain's can't just be shut off and started back up. If there is enough damage to the brain that the oxygenated blood that is in the system can't keep it going, or the rest of the systems cannot support the brain's functions, then I think that brain will never come back to normal function. Smith won't be telling any stories.

But maybe it could happen with the right kinds of circumstances, or with advances in medical technology. But the challenge for the "souls can exist without the brain" thesis is to find a real case where we can say that some experiences were occurring and they couldn't have been the faulty product of an altered or damaged brain.