Monday, October 29, 2007

Everything is to the Glory of God

Now it’s thought by many who are religious that we evolved. It turns out, they claim, that natural selection is God’s means of achieving his ends. Futhermore, that evolution was aided from time to time by God giving it a little nudge when necessary.

Now it’s thought by many people who are religious that the physical constants that physics has found in nature—the strong nuclear force, the weak force, Planck’s constant, the mass of the top quark, and so on—are all part of God’s doing. God is responsible for the narrow range of values for the laws of nature that keep our universe on the knife edge that makes life possible.

When we discover that the universe is 15 billion years old and not 6,000, and that humanity has been around for 100,000 years and didn’t start with Adam and Eve, they acknowledge (reluctantly) “yes, that’s right. That was God’s plan. Isn’t the breadth of God’s plan sweeping?”

It would appear that every conceivable discovery is interpreted as evidence of God’s existence and God’s transcendent power, knowledge, and goodness. And no possible developments in our empirical investigations will be accepted as counter evidence. It’s a sort of reverse conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theorist takes everything that happens to be more proof that the government is watching him. The fact that he can’t get any pictures of the black helicopters surveiling him just shows how stealthy they are. The fact that no one around him lets on that they are spying on him just shows how good they are at covering their tracks. The fact that we cannot find compelling evidence that links the CIA and the mob as conspirators in the John F. Kennedy’s assassination itself shows that the CIA and the mob did it because no one else could have so effectively concealed their scheme. But with God, everything we discover, including the fact that there appears to be no need to invoke any supernatural agency to explain any phenomena we analyze, is taken to indicate just how transcendent God is. Even the fact that the universe appears to be just the sort of place you’d expect if there was no powerful, knowledgeable, and caring supernatural being itself is taken to indicate that that sort of being has good reasons for making its presence completely undetectable.

In all seriousness, if God were to build the universe and then give us a book, a doctrine, and a religion with which to worship him, and if all of the remarkable things about God’s role in the creation and sustainance of the universe that believers claim are true, then wouldn’t we have expected to find some hint about them from God, from his religion, from his book, or from his believers before they were discovered by science? In every, science forges ahead through hard work, insight, and struggle, to discover some truth about the world. And then, after science has done all the heavy lifting, the religious dogmatists snatch the discovery, “Of course, we knew that all along because that’s a part of God’s remarkable creation. It all just suggests more praise to God’s glory for his universe.”

There remain many unanswered questions in science now. We aren’t sure about the existence of the Higgs-Boson, or the graviton, or the relationship of the gravitational force to the other fundamental forces. We don’t have a clear, developed picture of the origins of consciousness in evolutionary history. We don’t have adequate information to ascertain the prevalence of life in the universe at large. But presumably with time, hard work, and human ingenuity, we will find answers to all of these questions. So here is the challenge for the believer. If all of those future discoveries in science are going to be co-opted and neatly adapted to show that God is such a profound being, then we should be able to find some indicator of these mechanisms of God’s handiwork in religion, religious doctrine, or the words of God himself without science to do all the hard work. If the four fundamental forces—gravity, strong, weak, and electromagnetic—are all God’s means of constructing the universe, afterall, then why can’t we find any indication of that anywhere in any religious doctrine or tradition before physics discovered them. If evolution was the method whereby God brought life into the universe as so many Americans now believe, then why can’t we find even the slightest hint of it in any religious source or the word of God prior to Darwin’s hard fought battle with those same believers? If the intelligent design hypothesis about God’s interventions in evolutionary history is correct, then why did no religious source ever give any indication of it until the 1990s? If viruses, not evil demon possession, were the source of disease all along and part of God’s plan, why has religious doctrine always been so clearly in favor of demons? If the abundant amounts of apparently pointless suffering and death in the world has always been part of God’s plan to build moral character, then did we not get any indication that this was true from religious sources until after atheists like William Rowe in the 1970s argued that pointless evil is evidence that there is no God?

The answer should be obvious. With every new development and empirical discovery, believers (usually, after resisting the truth with all their might,) construct an ad hoc explanation that allows them to coopt that discovery and contort it into their worldview and use it to their advantage. That their worldview previously contained no indicators of what is now taken to be obvious because of what science has forced them to accept is conveniently written off as metaphor, discounted, neglected, or forgotten. “Adam and Eve? Oh, we never really believed that literally. “The earth is only 6,000 years old? That’s so quaint—it isn’t what we really believe.” All of the ad hoc re-engineering and reverse conspiracy gymnastics in order to salvage an Iron Age ideology is gross intellectual dishonesty when it is clear that the space left for the God of the gaps is rapidly shrinking.

How Big Would God's Universe Be?

Nicholas Everitt gives an argument from scale (in The Nonexistence of God, and excerpted in The Improbability of God, eds, Martin and Monnier) where concludes that the sheer size of the universe and insignificance of humanity in it gives us strong evidence that theism is false. He offers this argument:

1) If the God of classical theism existed, with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him, then he would create a universe on a human scale, i.e., one that is not unimaginably large, unimaginably old, and in which human beings form an unimaginably tiny part of it, temporally and spatially.

2) The world does not display a human scale, So:

3) There is evidence against the hypothesis that the God of classical theism exists with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him.

He likens our situation to that of Robinson Crusoe, wondering whether or not there are other humans on our lonely island. Crusoe provisionally forms some expectations about what sort of evidence he would expect to find if there were someone else—they would leave evidence of their presence, make themselves manifest and not hide, send smoke signals, and so on. Then finding none of the things he would have expected to find, he draws the preliminary conclusion that he is alone.

There’s a substantial problem with this argument. Suppose, as Everitt indicates, we had found ourselves in a universe of a manifestly human scale. Instead of a hundred trillion galaxies, we found a few hundred. The Sun is a mere 10,000 miles from earth instead of 93 million (presumably cooled down to scale). We look beyond the Sun and the next star is a mere 100,000 miles away instead of 3 billion light years. And our natural history is discovered to be 5,000 or 10,000 years instead of 100,000. Would we look at that world and draw the implication that any God worthy of the name was responsible for it? Would that sort of world be indicative of an infinite supernatural force with all power, all knowledge, and all goodness?

Most certainly not. What would be much more obvious in that world is that whatever sort of force or being was responsible for it did not need to have a nature or power or knowledge much beyond our own. If the world displayed a human scale, then the humanness or near humanness of its author would be much more strongly indicated.

My point is not that the scale of the universe we find ourselves in does indicate the infinite power, knowledge, and goodness of God. It does not. (see several previous posts on the question.) But a universe of such staggering scale is at least more prima facie consistent with the claims about God’s profound transcendence that believers typically make. A small, comprehensible universe would make the inference to a being worthy of the title “God” even more difficult, not easier as Everitt suggests. It’s a bit like Groucho Marx’s dilemma when he remarked that he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member. If the universe were scaled down to anthropomorphic proportions, then the inference to a merely human or near human creator would be obvious.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Possible, Possible, Possible: Overdrawing the God Account

If we do our due diligence and try to consider all the most substantial defenses of God seriously it is evident that inadequacies in the arguments leave them at best able to argue for possibilities, not actualities. There are insurmountable objections to the God positions and arguments. But even if we overlook a host of problems, at most they might show that God possibly exists. Even if we are exceedingly charitable and grant these arguments their preliminary conclusions, they still don’t close the circle—they don’t give us grounds to conclude that God exists. What is frequently happening in these situations is that theists acknowledge difficulties on one topic and expect to be able to overcome those difficulties with a successful argument elsewhere. But when we look at the problems with the whole network of justifications, it becomes clear that there is no actual anchor for the whole tenuous fantasy.

Consider the first cause argument. The universe must have begun to exist, it is argued. And everything that begins to exist must have a cause. Therefore, the universe must have had a cause. Therefore the cause of the universe is God.

Consider design arguments: The universe, or objects in it, exhibit properties that seem to indicate planning, purpose, design, or intent. The best or only explanation for the presence of those properties is that some designer was responsible. Therefore, God designed the universe.

Consider miracles: Many people claim to have witnessed miracles performed by other people who claim to have divine powers. The testimony about those miracles is taken to be evidence that some supernatural event occurred. Therefore God exists.

Consider evil: It’s even more damning that when confronted with the problem of evil as counter-evidence for the existence of God, prestigious philosophers and conscientious believers are reduced by their own admission to arguing that it is possible that there is a God and it is possible that this possible God has a plan (that we don’t understand) that justifies all the gratuitous suffering.

Even if we allow that there was a first cause, or that the universe had a designer, or that miracles occurred, the strongest conclusion we can infer from these arguments is that it is possible that God was responsible. It’s possible that an all powerful, all knowledgeable, and all good being was the first cause, but an argument for a first cause doesn’t require that conclusion. There’s always the powerful alien problem, or the possibility of a lesser divine being, or magic dragons, and so on.

It’s possible that the designer of the universe is the all powerful, all knowledgeable, and morally perfect God of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, but the design argument doesn’t require that conclusion. At most, the design argument would show that some force with a plan introduced order. Again, that force could be aliens, Allah, a lesser deity, an idiot god, a committee of idiot gods, and so on.

It’s possible that miracles (if they occurred) are authored by God, even though having divine properties are not required to perform them. The force that brought them about might only have enough power or knowledge to do that feat, but is a far lesser being than God.

It’s possible that evolution had some supernatural intervention to help it along, even though an argument for intelligent design doesn’t require an omni-God to be that helper. Aliens, and idiot gods again.

It’s possible that the feelings of a sublime, divine, cosmic supernatural force you’re having are brought about by contact by God, even though we know that contact with God isn’t necessary to induce those feelings. Fasting, sleep deprivation, hallucinatory drugs, and aliens again.

It’s possible that your cognitive faculties are working correctly and the feeling of having veridical access to God is in fact veridical, even though it is not necessary for the feeling to be veridical in order for it to feel like it is. History has shown us over and over again that merely having an intense feeling that you are right is an unreliable guide to when you are.

And it is possible that every single instance of suffering in the history of sentience is actually part of the plan (that we don’t understand) of a possible God. It’s also possible that there is no such plan and no such being.

An important note is that I am not alone in singling out these problems with these arguments. Some of theism’s most accomplished philosophical defenders like Plantinga, Hick, Swinburne, and Van Inwagen acknowledge the short comings of these approaches to the God question.

There is a stunning gap in justification here. In order for a belief in God to be justified for a person, that person needs to have grounds that render the belief likely to be true. It won’t be enough to just sketch out possibilities on every side of the topic: Well, possibly God was the first cause. And possibly God had a reason for tolerating evil. And it is possible that the designer was God. And it is possible that if God designed us, then when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly, we will have a reliable, justified belief that there is a God.

If it is possible that one of the winning lottery numbers tomorrow will be 39, and it is also possible that one will be 7, and another one will possibly be 71, we don’t now have reason to think that the group of numbers: 39, 7, and 71 will probably win the lottery tomorrow.

Theism isn’t reasonable until we have some grounds that make it probable. All of these possibilities added up don’t make theism reasonable.

The believer can’t keep dodging the burden of proof forever. They are writing checks all over town to answer the challenges about these different lines of defense, but there’s no money in the account. If a table has 4 possible legs, we can’t expect it to stand up.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Giving God A Free Pass

One of the most popular responses to the problem of evil from believers has been to argue that we are not in a position to be able to judge the rightness or wrongness of events that we observe because for all we know, somewhere down the line what appears to be a case of pointless evil today will in fact play an indispensible role in a greater good that justifies it. So ironically, the believer here presses for agnosticism about whether or not instances of horrible suffering and death that have every appearance of being utterly pointless or not worth any good that we would accept. We just can’t know, they argue, whether or not the case will turn out to be pointless, so we must suspend judgment about whether or not it actually is gratuitous evil. And therefore, God cannot be faulted.

This agnosticism is coupled, not surprisingly, with a confidence derived from other sources—faith, revelation, the sensus divinitatus, the cosmological argument—that there is indeed an omnipotent, all knowing, and all good God. So even though those cases of suffering appear to be evil, and even though we should be agnostic about them, we can be confident that in fact every case of suffering in all the history of sentience on this planet will work out as a necessary part of God’s plan and are for the better. This shift of the burden of proof for God puts a tremendous amount of pressure on those other sources of information about God to be correct, of course. And none of them prove to be up to the task.

One point that deserves comment here is that no morally decent person would ever accept these kind of logical gymnastics as a defense of any other sort of morally evil act by a person.

Imagine if a serial killer, or a war time rapist, or a prolific pedophile offered up a similar kind of defense: “Your honor, and ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I know that it appears that what I did was truly pointless and evil. But consider if you will that we do not know whether or not what I did will in fact turn out for the worse. For all we know, my actions may have actually done my victims, or their families, or humanity in general a great service that far outweighs the suffering created by my actions.”

A man named Ottis Toole is suspected of being the killer of Adam Walsh. After Adam was abducted from a Sears store and killed, his father John Walsh, who was leading an relatively unremarkable life until then, was motivated to become one of the most influential and effective anti-crime activists in American history. His program “America’s Most Wanted,” and legislation that he was instrumental in helping to pass have been responsible for putting tens of thousands of criminals in jail. Although Ottis Toole was suspected of being the culprit, he was never charged. But suppose that he had been, and suppose that he offered the “For a Greater Good” defense. Suppose he had argued that he shouldn’t be condemned for murdering (by decapitation) that little boy because of all the good that it created.

What should be obvious is that morally decent people would never accept either the agnosticism defense, nor the greater good defense, in real world cases.

But what is stunning is that ordinary people with normal, appropriate moral reactions to real cases of moral evil like the Adam Walsh case will suddenly abandon all sense of moral decency when the question comes to God. They will accept any justification, no matter how tenuous, as long as it gives them some slender thread of an excuse to absolve God of responsibility for things that they would never let anyone else get away with.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Does the Atheist Need to Respond to Faith?

In order to secure reasonable justification for atheism, does the non-believer need to answer the faith defense for theism? Your typical atheist feels compelled to say something (negative) about believing in God on the basis of faith, but do they need to? The answer is no. The faith account of belief in God presents no challenge to non-belief.

When one has faith that something is true, they believe it despite inadequate or contrary evidence. No one would say that they have faith that their basketball team was going to win the playoffs if by all measures the team is vastly superior to all of their rivals. People invoke faith when the chips are down, when life looks grim, when they can’t conceive of why God would allow someone innocent to suffer, or when it doesn’t look like there’s adequate justification in terms of evidence. If we had ample, compelling evidence, then there’d be no need and no room for faith.

Reason is prescriptive. When there is compelling evidence in front of someone and they understand it, and it is clear that it implies a certain conclusion, then they ought to believe that conclusion. Suppose that Smith is a defendant in a trial where the prosecutors have shown video of Smith holding up the liquor store, they found the gun registered in Smith’s name with his fingerprints on it, multiple witnesses all testified that Smith did it, the store owner identified him as the robber, other witnesses heard Smith promising to rob the store the day before, and Smith’s alibi has been shown to be false. The jurors, if they are reasonable people, should convict him on the basis of the evidence. If they don’t, they’re being irrational or unreasonable, and they’re failing to fulfill their epistemic (and moral) duties. So when the right conditions have been met, the evidence prescribes belief (there can be lots of mitigating circumstances that we will ignore for the moment). When someone doesn’t believe under those conditions, then they are epistemically culpable or at fault. By not believing, they make an epistemic mistake that they should rectify.

But faith is not prescriptive. When someone chooses to believe in God despite the fact that the evidence underdetermines or even contradicts the conclusion, on what grounds could they maintain that others who haven’t done the same have somehow failed in their epistemic duties, or are rationally culpable? In what way could the non-faithful possibly being doing something wrong by not also having faith? A believer by faith simply has no grounds from which they can argue that others who don’t have faith ought to. They can’t criticize the non-faithful for doing something contrary to reason or ignoring the evidence by not believing. In not believing by faith, the non-faithful are seeking to accept only that which is supported by the evidence. What is the faithful believer going to say: “You’re not listening to reason! You need to accept the obvious implication of the evidence! All of the evidence indicates that you should believe on faith!!”

In order to secure justification for believing that there is no God one would need to seriously consider the best arguments that have been made for the conclusion that there is a God. Those arguments are at least prima facie grounds against the reasonableness of non-belief. Believing there is no God is premature until one has good reasons to think those arguments are unacceptable. But the fact that many people have opted to believe even though they acknowledge that they don’t have reasonable grounds for doing so presents no challenge whatsoever to the person who concludes that the reasonable conclusion is to disbelieve. If their belief is acquired by faith, then they can make no claim against the rationality of atheism. They have made it clear that reasons and evidence are irrelevant to them—they’re going to believe what they want and to hell with being rational. Rejecting the relevance of having justifications for beliefs leaves them with no leverage and no possible complaint against the atheist.

Many atheists feel compelled to respond when a believer says, “Well, I have faith that God exists.” The atheist will offer a variety of criticisms of believing by faith. But it should now be clear that justifying atheism doesn’t require discounting faith. Furthermore, trying to rebut faith is typically futile. The faithful have already implicitly (or explicitly) acknowledged that what the evidence or arguments indicate is irrelevant to them. By invoking faith, they have already embarrassed and made a mockery of themselves more than any thoughtful reasoned rebuttal could accomplish.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Self-Deception: Religion and Science are Compatible

Many very smart, otherwise ungullible people, have an affection for religion that belies their true motives and their intelligence when they offer accounts of how science and religion can coexist. Those same people can show such acumen and clarity of thought when it comes to matters in their fields—in biology, physics, and philosophy. But for religion there’s no contortion, no rationalization, and no accommodation that they won’t stoop to because they are so deeply in the clutches of the urge to believe. They so want the religion in their hearts to settle nicely and comfortably with the science of their minds that they’ll do anything to make them fit together. And they get hearty applause and accolades from eager audiences who are delighted to have their craving for religiousness validated. Consider Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, who has sold countless copies of his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Stephen Jay Gould, former Harvard biologist, coined a name for the position that has been taken up by hopeful compatibilists all over the world: NOMA, or science and religion are Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Here’s a few of his comments in the famous essay about NOMA:

[Concerning science and religion] No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or "nonoverlapping magisteria").

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch clich├ęs, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria—the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual] grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denigration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology.

As plausible, and reasonable as this may sound at first glance, realize that no one would even consider accepting an analogous defense of the place of magic or astrology in our lives:

The worlds of magic and science are non-overlapping magisteria. One concerns the realm of physical, empirically confirmed, objective, testable facts. The other concerns a realm of magical forces, wishes, spiritual entities, and the mystical power of symbols. Science addresses what is the case in the empirical world. Magic fulfills a vital and universal need in human hearts for personal and spiritual guidance. It provides meaning and counseling for a side of humanity that is not addressed by science. The two worlds do not overlap—they concern themselves with different subject matters. Nor do they conflict because they take essentially different topics, principles, and phenomena to be their subject matter. They don’t conflict any more than the study of art and its principles conflict with the study of botany. Furthermore, magic is so deeply loved and needed by so many people that science should not presume to overstep its bounds and claim to have an authority on the truth in that realm where it has no standing.

I deeply love and respect the separate domains of science and magic and the NOMA solution to their apparent conflict.

We should not be seduced by the compatibilist, “separate worlds” view that has become so popular. Science makes claims about the world, about humans, about our anthropological origins, about morality, and about the way we came to exist that are directly in conflict with and incompatible with the worldview of religion. Religion makes assertions about what is true in the world, what the nature of being human is, what our origins are, what our destinies are, and what sort of activity science should be that are in direct conflict with the worldview of science. The earth cannot be both 6,000 years old and 3 billion years old. Humans cannot both have a consciousness or soul that depends on the brain to exist and one that is immortal and independent of the body. Humans cannot both be evolved by means of natural selection from other earlier life forms and also created complete, all at once before the existence of any other animals. We cannot have the biodiversity that we have on this planet today if a flood a few thousand years ago killed all but a few pairs of animals on Noah’s ark. Prayer cannot both work and have no plausible empirical evidence in its favor. Humans cannot be both inherently wicked and corrupted by sin, and essentially sympathetic, social animals like their great ape cousins. The world cannot both be a natural, physical place explainable by science and capable of empirical explanation, and inhabited with spirits, demons, evil satanic forces, miraculous violations of physical laws, and an all powerful, magical supernatural deity.

Nor can we continue to ignore these profound incompatibilities by only focusing on those aspects of science and religion where the conflict appears to be less acute. Religion, religious movements, and religious adherents have a fundamentally different set of social, political, moral, educational, and personal goals and views that the rest of humanity. Whether you think that the truth is the province of science or of religion has a profound and direct affect on what sort of person you are, who you vote for, what kind of parent you are, what you think the future of humanity is, what kind of future you want for humanity, what sort of government you think we should have, what laws we should pass, which people are criminals, and which wars we should fight. And the only way that you can conclude that on the whole, the scientifically inclined and the religiously inclined have no substantial incompatibilities on all of these accounts is if you just haven’t been paying attention.