Sunday, March 30, 2008

Remembering God

If the brain processes that play a role in our belief in God themselves were unreliable how would we be able to determine it?

Memory plays a pivotal role in religious believing. Many people will recall a moment of conversion in which they believe they saw or felt God. During some moment of crisis or doubt or great need, many people will call out to God and have a profound, transcending experience that becomes the foundation of a large shift in their religious belief structure.

The New Testament Gospels were written by several authors decades after the alleged events of Jesus’ life. The stories are based on remembered accounts given by testimony to the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus is thought to have died around 30-35 CE; most scholars date the original authorship of Mark at 70 CE, Matthew and Luke around 80, and John around 90.

We measure our own degrees of certainty and express our confidence about the truth of beliefs on the basis of a subjectively sensed feeling of knowing. If I tell you that Pluto is a planet, or that violent crime is a 30 year low, you just know immediately, and without reflection that the former is right and that the latter is wrong. Pluto is a planet feels appropriate, comfortable, or familiar, whereas Violent crime is at a 30 year low just rings false, even if you can’t sight objective evidence why. (The former is wrong, the latter is correct.)

Unless I go to some extraordinary steps to create or consult some external objective record, this subjective sense of certainty is all that I have to go on about what happened, what I think, or what is true. Determining how reliable this subjective method is would require two things. First, I’d need to actually make a careful check of the external, objective record against my memory and my sense of certainty and see just how reliable it is. Second, I’d have to take care not to commit other fallacies in the process of reliability checking. It won’t do to only consider and then cite as support those cases in the past where I have had a high subjective sense of certainty and the claim I was certain about was in fact correct. I don’t want to compound my errors by corroborating my ability to remember with faulty or selective memories.

In defenses of the validity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, for example, it is frequently claimed that despite the years that passed between the events and their recording, matters of such profound significance as witnessing miracles or hearing Jesus’ words would not have slipped easily from the minds of his followers. We have the general view that our memories may be less reliable with trivial and ordinary matters, but with events of vast implication as the resurrection of the son of God, memory can be trusted.

For an older generation, the assassination of President Kennedy was one such “flash bulb” moment for everyone in the country. Everyone can recall, with great detail and confidence, exactly what they were doing when they heard the news. Likewise, when the news went out about the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center, and then the second, a vivid picture of where you were, what you were doing, and how you felt was burned into your memory.

It turns out, however, that we have good evidence to doubt our memories, even in these cases where it would seem to be most vivid and reliable. Shortly after the news of the space shuttle Challenger disaster went out, Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch had students in a psychology class write an account of where they were and what they were doing when they found out. Then two and a half years later, they had those students write another record of what they were doing when they heard the news. It is significant that before they saw the earlier record, the students predicted that their memories were accurate. But when the two accounts were compared, the details matched in fewer than 10% of the paired accounts. More than 75% of the accounts had significant errors, some of them dramatic. Yet, even when confronted with this clear evidence to the contrary, many students refused to believe that their later memories were inaccurate. In other studies, people disregard information from an external source that conflicts with their strong, subjective sense that something is true or that they have a certain ability.

With the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, we have another opportunity to test the impact of profound and emotional events on human memory. If our memories of significant events are reliable, then we would expect our accounts of 9-11 or the resurrection of Jesus to be among the very best. But Daniel Greenberg has found at least 3 different accounts from President Bush of what he was doing when he heard about the 9-11 attacks. Perhaps he has a uniquely poor memory for such things, but more likely given what else we have learned about human memory, his trouble with the details coupled with a high degree of confidence about his ability to remember the details is typical.

There are several implications for the question of religious belief. First, we are demonstrably bad at remembering events, even occurrences of enormous personal, emotional, and social importance. Second, the degree of confidence about our ability to remember important events is also grossly out of synch with the facts. That it feels to me like I can remember with great clarity isn’t a reliable indicator that I can. Third, as a result, events in our personal lives that have profound religious significance that we recall later as the foundation of our beliefs can’t be trusted to be what we remember and aren’t more trustworthy because they have a great deal of poignancy. Fourth, we also know that when confronted with evidence that demonstrates how poor we are at remembering and judging, people are prone to reject that evidence in favor of their highly unreliable gut feelings. So taking heed of these lessons about ourselves will take some substantial effort to overcome our own resistant natures.

Greenberg, Daniel L. “President Bush’s False ‘Flashbulb’ Memory of 9/11/01” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 18: 363–370 (2004)

Loftus, Elizabeth, "The myth of repressed memory: False memories and allegations of sexual abuse," St. Martin's Griffin, (1994)

Neisser, Ulric and Nicole Harsch, “Phantom Flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger” in Eugene Winograd and Ulric Neisser, eds. Affect and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of “flashbulb” memories (Cambridge U Press, 1992), 9-31

Ross, L., Lepper, M. R. and Hubbard, M. Perseverance in self-perception and social perception: Biased attributional processes in the debriefing paradigm, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 1975, 880-892

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fitna, documentary about violence, hatred and Islam from The Netherlands

Geert Wilders has recently gotten a lot of attention for making a short documentary that shows the rise of Islamic violence in the Netherlands and against the west. The film, Fitna, presents passages from the Koran that advocate violence against non-believers along with troubling footage of honor killings, executions by Islamic radicals, terrorist bombings, and Imams thundering hatred to eager audiences. Children are recruited to hate and kill Jews, gays are hung on gallows, and threats for world domination are issued.

Videos: Dawkins, and Gay Scientists Isolate Christianity Gene

Funny videos:

Gay Scientists Isolate Christianity Gene

The next one requires a bit of setup. A documentary called Expelled has recently come out. The producers of the documentary misrepresented their project and got Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers to speak about evolution for the film.

When Dawkins and Meyers tried to get into a special showing of the film, the producers had the police through Meyers out, fearing the results of having someone who actually knows some biology in the audience. But they failed to recognize Richard Dawkins and let him in to see the movie. See this video for their discussion of the whole affair.

The thesis of the Expelled makers is that there is a vast evolutionist/naturalist conspiracy at work in biology that has been actively suppressing scientific findings that would refute Darwinism and corroborate Intelligent Design. Dawkins' and Meyers' view has been, appropriately, that none of the proponents of Intelligent Design have been able to pass muster in the real arena of scientific peer review, so they have only been able to peddle their nonsense to eager church audiences where the standards of scientific scrutiny are lacking, to say the least. Enjoy:

Richard Dawkins Rap: Beware the Believers

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Reasonable Belief, Proof, and Uncertainty

Is it possible to have a reasonable belief while still acknowledging that you could possibly be wrong? Yes, clearly. In fact, the hallmark of being reasonable would be readily acknowledging claims you could be mistaken about and figuring out why. But many people are confused about this issue. They artificially elevate the standard of reasonableness on the atheist, insisting that you can’t prove a negative, or that “you could be wrong” so the atheist’s confidence that there is no God is unwarranted, and so on. Being an atheist is not justified, it is argued, because there might turn out to be a God, but the same possibility of being wrong somehow isn’t a liability for believing. In fact, with belief in God leaping to a conclusion that is unwarranted by the evidence or believing by faith is often praised as somehow virtuous. Furthermore, when challenges to the reasonableness of theism arise, many believers are content to embrace possibilities as justification. The fact that there could possibly be a God who possibly has a plan whereby all of the suffering in the universe actually serves some indispensible greater good is enough for many to conclude that their belief has been vindicated as reasonable or at least epistemically inculpable. The double standard seems to be that the atheist, in order to be reasonable, must achieve absolute certainty. Until then, she has adopted a degree of confidence in believing that there is no God that cannot be warranted by the evidence before us. But the believer is at liberty to construct the wildest, fantastic schemes on mere possibilities, and as long as long as it appears possible that there is a God that fits this scheme, then believing is epistemically permissible. We are remarkably indulgent with the standards of evidence when it comes to religious believing, but inconsistently strict when it comes to irreligious believing.

The general point is that all of us have countless reasonable, justified beliefs that have been proven to our satisfaction, but that don’t meet the “absolute certainty” test. If absolute certainty is required for justification, then almost none of the beliefs we have are epistemically acceptable. Are you absolutely certain that your husband or wife is not an android?

Every reasonable person has to deal with some degree of uncertainty about every one of their beliefs. The possibility that you could be mistaken when you take something to be true, by itself, doesn’t render that belief unreasonable. Consider members of a jury who have to decide a defendant’s guilt or innocence. Even when the case for the defendant’s guilt is ideal, a thoughtful juror would acknowledge that they might be mistaken. But the reasonable thing to do is still to draw a conclusion. Possibilities, as I have argued before, are not probabilities. It is possible that there really is a Tooth Fairy, an Easter Bunny, and that Santa really does live at the North Pole. But those possibilities don’t make believing that there is no Santa unreasonable.

So it is perfectly consistent to consider the evidence, draw what you take to be the reasonable conclusion and be sure you are right while acknowledging that you could be mistaken or that new information could lead you to change your mind. How could we find the atheist whose view has these features epistemically culpable or guilty of some gross irrationality?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Washing in Blood, Human Sacrifices, Cannibalism, Groveling in Front of Altars

Constant exposure to Christian mythology has inured us to some profoundly strange practices and backward ideas. And our custom of confusing tolerance of lunacy and uncritical acceptance with religious respect has stifled perfectly reasonable questions and challenges. Christianity is laced with archaic, perverse, and patently false claims about human nature, sin, redemption, atonement, and salvation.

Man, we are told, has an intrinsically corrupt nature that leads him to sin against God. This corruption isn’t just a tendency to be selfish or to hurt others on occasion—it’s an essential, metaphysical facet of human nature. Which means of course that if God is our creator, he put it there. We must struggle continually against our willful desire to transgress God’s law. And our guilt from those violations is not assuaged by the fact that no one seems to be able to get clear on exactly what God’s law is. Whatever it is, we become permanently tainted by our moral crimes against it.

And now the story gets even more bizarre. Ordinarily, if you do something wrong to someone, you might reflect on it, consider their feelings, consider the harm that you have done, then you would apologize to them. Maybe you would try to fix the harm. If it’s particularly bad, you face condemnation and punishment from your fellow citizens.

But the Christian story adds a whole strange layer of metaphysical corruption to the situation. The only way to remove that invisible, intangible, but permanent stain on our souls (also invisible and intangible) is through an elaborate magical sacrificial ceremony. Some living thing, something we own, some physical thing we care about has to be given up and destroyed in order to remove this lingering immaterial contamination. The Old Testament is filled with elaborate translation schemes for exchange of moral transgressions for doves, goats, sheep, cattle, money, gold, and so on. One wonders how much worse off these struggling groups of humans were made by the wanton destruction of the scarce supplies they had of food, crops, livestock, and other necessities. (In Collapse, Jared Diamond details many civilizations, like the Vikings, who squandered necessary goods on frivolous religious pursuits like priests demanding expensive donations. Ultimately they met their demise because of their inability to escape the world-distorting lens of religion and get their social priorities straight.)

But we don’t have to chop the heads off of goats, pour the blood out of cows, and broker those strange deals of tangibles for intangibles any more. Jesus, we are told, represents the ultimate object to be sacrificed for the sins of humanity, a onetime mortgage balloon payment for sin. Since Jesus was the son of God (whatever that means) and so much better than a goat, killing him gets all of our livestock off of the hook. And it is here where Christian beliefs and practices are the goriest and strangest. We are depraved, lowly, and worthy of torment. Jesus’ long and torturous execution amounts to a sort of suffering or punishment by proxy. He takes on all of the suffering that humanity deserves for all the bad things they have ever done and will ever do. Since he suffered and died, we don’t have to, goes the often repeated story. We are washed in the blood of the lamb, they sing. And then by eating of his flesh and blood—juice and crackers—we commune with him. Remember that this is all in order to satisfy the inexplicable demands of the magical being who set the whole thing up from the start.

A great deal is made of this suffering and this sacrifice, despite the fact that Jesus is alleged to be divine himself and have supernatural powers. It’s hard to see why such an act would amount to much hard work for a divine super being. As some Christians argue, it is significant that Jesus loved us so much and freely chose to sacrifice himself for us. At least the notion of sacrificing for someone you love has a little more familiarity (and more sanity) for us, but what’s baffling is that it is God that is demanding the sacrifice and God is perfectly capable of bringing about any state of affairs he wants. So why would an all powerful being set this barbaric exchange of blood for disobedience up in the first place? And why is it that the only thing that will satisfy God’s offended sensibilities is to have someone he loves tortured and executed slowly?

For some reason, God, the ultimate foundation of all reality, the creator of the universe, wants certain things to happen here for which there is no better or more direct path, even if you are all powerful and all knowing. God wants to give us eternal happiness and reward. But he can’t just give it to us despite being the creator of all reality. We have to submit to an elaborate mediation process whereby Jesus comes to Earth, talks to people, gets in trouble with the law, gets executed, and then goes back to God. And now it’s important to the invisible, magical super being before he rewards us that we all adopt a certain mental attitude about Jesus and our place in the world. We are supposed to acknowledge that we are deeply metaphysically tainted with a propensity to not do what we are told. And we must concede that accepting this whole preposterous Iron age mythology about the inherent corruption of humanity is the only way for the creator of the universe to treat us nicely. If we don’t, then we don’t get rewarded—in fact, we will tortured incessantly for eternity. And we will deserve it because of our intrinsically corrupt nature ( that the invisible, magical super being gave us at the outset.)

Another bizarre theme that runs through religious culture is the notion that if you do something wrong, like Adam and Eve did in the Garden, then your children, grandchildren, and all of your descendents will be guilty of the crime too and they will be held accountable and punished. All women are cursed for Eve’s misdeed. Ordinarily, no reasonable person would ever suggest that the grandchildren are responsible for the grandfather’s misdeeds, but in the context of Christianity, those same people seem to be perfectly comfortable with the claim. Do you think that you should have to pay for your parents’ parking tickets? Suppose your great, great grandmother had stolen something a 100 years ago. You should go to jail for that today, right?

Our immersion in a culture where people openly talk about this whole R rated blood atonement process has eroded what would have been reactions of shock and outrage. Even though the whole scheme gives an account of morality, sin, punishment, and salvation that is utterly unlike anything else in our lives, it has become so familiar that no one even raises an eyebrow. It’s stunning that despite the fact that we have cured polio, we fly space shuttles, and we have cell phones in our pockets, no one seems to be even slightly puzzled by this whole bizarre superstitious mythology. Our presidential candidates repeat it all without the slightest hint of irony or insincerity. We elevate professional proponents of the stories to the highest moral and social stations we have. And we hold religious beliefs and practices in the highest reverence. Imagine cutting someone off in traffic and he jumps out of his car and demands that in order to be cleansed of your transgression of the moral law, you must sacrifice a chicken in his honor. Suppose the former chairman of Enron, Kenneth Lay, wishing to express his penitence to the public he had robbed, performed an elaborate public sacrifice of hundreds of cows and used the blood to symbolize his resolve to be a better person. Imagine a serial killer speaking on his own behalf in his trial saying, “All I need to do in order to be cleansed of my crimes is eat some of the flesh and drink some of the blood of a virtuous person.”

One of the many ironies here is that Christian believers so often have the audacity to suggest that only by believing in God and being Christian can a person live a decent, moral life. Yet on their view, we are intractably evil. One could hardly find a more anti-humanist worldview. And it is the nonbelievers who proclaim that humans have good, redeeming traits by nature that deserve to be celebrated and fostered.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Did the Believers Believe?

Here’s an outrageous question: Do we have good reasons to think that the apostles believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? I think the right answer is, we just don’t know what they believed, and we just don’t know what happened with Jesus.

Here’s why: the oldest existing copies of the Gospels that we now have are from about 200 CE to 370 CE. Our earliest fragments of John and Luke are from around 200 CE, our earliest copies of Mark are from 320 and 370 CE. It’s hard to get simple answers to these questions, and the older the manuscript is, the more likely it is just some fragments. It appears that the oldest copy of Matthew that we have is from the 300s as well.

There appears to be a consensus among experts (I am not one of them) that Mark was written about 70, Matthew and Luke were written around 80-90, and John was written around 90 CE. But even though scholars date the original authorship of those documents to those dates, we do not have any of those originals. We have copies of copies of copies of hand-me-down copies of those documents (we don’t know how many copies were made in between). For a number of obvious reasons, we should not assume that Mark(70) was the same as Mark(320). Even the enthusiastic proponents of the scholastic tradition concede that there will be a lot of drift over the course of 250 years. Matters are complicated by the fact that zealous, committed, deeply devoted believers were the sole proprietors of all of the documents for centuries—the fox has been guarding the hen house and we have only the fox’s word about the safety of the chickens.

The problem is even worse because the originals were written 30-60 years after the alleged resurrection of Jesus by people hearing about the stories by word of mouth after they had been repeated countless times. The originals were not written by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

So really most of what we have to inform us about what happened to Jesus and what the apostles believed are some fragments of some documents from 200-300 years after the fact. If we were to compile all of the passages from these oldest surviving documents that refer to the resurrection of Jesus in one place, they would maybe fill up a single page.

Back to the question: What is our evidence concerning what the apostles believed about the resurrection of Jesus? Answer: a tiny handful of crumbling fragments of documents from 2 to 3 centuries after the resurrection is alleged to have happened. Do you think that’s enough evidence for us to conclude anything with confidence about what they believed happened with Jesus? I don’t think that gives us enough evidence to conclude anything about the real events surrounding Jesus and his death.

Why focus on whether or not the Apostles believed that the resurrection happened? If they didn’t, wouldn’t it be utterly absurd that you do? If they didn’t, then what possible reasons could we have for believing that something happened that the eyewitnesses didn’t acknowledge? If the apostles didn’t believe it, then it wouldn’t be reasonable for anyone to believe it. If we have insufficient evidence to determine whether or not the Apostles believed it, then we should conclude that we just don’t know what happened with Jesus.

The additional problem here is that any reasonable person would acknowledge that generally speaking, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Claiming that Jesus was resurrected from the dead is extraordinary. We do not have a single plausible, corroborated case of such a thing ever happening in human history.

So in order to reasonably believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, a substantial burden of proof would need to be met. How much evidence do we have concerning the event? A single tiny handful of crumbling fragments of documents written 2 to 3 centuries after the fact. Believing that Jesus was resurrected or believing that some of his followers believed it on the basis of that evidence is unreasonable.

Again, I am not an expert on this material and the scholarship is a vast, tedious labyrinth. I may have some of the dates wrong, and I may have missed some important facts. But from what I can tell, in general outline the picture I am drawing is a roughly accurate map of what we now know about these historical sources. It won't really do to quibble about whether Mark was written in 70 or 65, or whether or not I Corinthians was written in 55 CE when the general problem I am describing involves tiny fragments of centuries old documents that were endlessly copied and retold stories from zealous converts.

It appears that the one thing we know for sure is that there is very little we know about the actual events or beliefs of the people who were involved in the death of Jesus.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Putting the Fox in Charge of the Hen House

You would never go to a pharmaceutical company that has the sole patent on a drug and who controls all of the information about its effectiveness to cure cancer and simply take their word for it about how good the cure is. You would never walk out of a room full of students taking a test who all have their notes and books sitting there in their backpacks and then just check with them about whether or not they cheating while you were gone. You would be foolish to get all of your information about how the war effort is going from the government who is waging the war and simply believe it without question. You don’t put a fox in charge of the henhouse and then go to the fox for a report on how the chickens are doing. Imagine if we simply accepted their claim of innocence every time an accused criminal passionately and sincerely denied his guilt.

For 2,000 years, committed, passionate, zealous believers have been the sole proprietors of almost the entire body of information we have about Jesus. Furthermore, they have openly and repeatedly made it clear that their goal is to do everything in their power to spread those stories and get everyone else to believe them to. In many cases they have killed, lied, cheated, stolen, extorted, and tortured in order to get people to profess belief. Does it make any sense to accept it when that same institution assures us that the stories are authentic?

"Oh but you are so suspicious and cynical, so distrustful!" will be the objection. "What a negative and pessimistic way to live. No one can live without some form of faith, without trusting others about something."

Fair enough. But I'm taking the claims that God exists and that Jesus is divine very seriously. If what believers would have us accept is true, it would simply be the most important single issue in human history. Nothing could matter more than what that would mean. The stakes are too high for the superficial, credulous attitude that so many people take about religion. At least the fundamentalists, the literalists, and I can agree about that much.

Monday, March 17, 2008

How Probable is God?

The design arguments that have become popular in the last few years have invoked some impressive claims about probability that have an authoritative air to them. Many people who share the intuition that “this all couldn’t have possibly have happened by chance” find these arguments quite compelling.

Robin Collins, in God, Design, and Fine Tuning, claims: The existence of the fine-tuning is not improbable under theism. The existence of the fine-tuning is very improbable under the atheistic single-universe hypothesis. And in his version of the design argument, Richard Swinburne argues that it is exceedingly unlikely that there would be a lawlike universe of matter composed of simple parts that could just happen by random chance. But such a universe is what we would expect to find if there were a designer God who values beauty, simplicity, and who wishes to create a challenging environment for his human creations.

In order to make use of the Bayesian probability calculus, which these arguments do, part of what figures into the equation is something called a person’s prior probabilities. In order to attach a probability to some outcome that is unknown, Bayes theorem requires that I attach some value to the probable outcomes as I see them. Bayesian calculations are subjective in this fashion. In the design arguments above, we are asked to agree that the likelihood that the universe could have come out like it is without God is very, very low. It doesn’t seem like such a thing could have happened by chance or without some purposeful plan in the hands of a powerful being, does it?

But our subjective sense of likelihood here is really all that we have. We don’t have any real distribution data concerning universes that would let us say that 95% of the time in cases we have studied, universes with stable carbon molecules were designed by God. And only in a tiny number of cases of the millions of universes we have studied do life favorable conditions happen by chance. If we had those numbers, then it would clear a lot of things up. But we have one universe—the one we live in. And each of us only has the confines of our own mind in which to make a call about the probability or improbability of a life friendly universe by chance. No doubt for many people, when they consider the possibility that all of the physical laws just happened to line up the way they did by chance, or God did it, they find the latter much more likely. See my earlier post, Bogus Probability Judgments and God for an analysis of the false dilemma that is getting smuggled past us here.

In this sort of case, though, assigning a low probability to a random chance origin and a high chance probability to the God origin really just amounts to expressing your personal level of surprise about one and your comfort with the other. It has no objective bearing on the truth. As a previous poster put it, “if these are where these supposed "probabilities" are coming from, then it is equivalent to "some people subjectively suppose it's a very unlikely probability that the universe is as it is without our God to make it so."”

All of these probability claims seem impressive, but in the end, all they amount to is a person’s measure of their surprise that something would be true. So Collins’ claim, "On the God hypothesis, the fine tuning we observe in the universe is highly probable," really says little more than "I would find it very surprising that God doesn't exist in a world with these physical features."

The problem here is that one's subjective measure of surprise, to put it mildly, just doesn't count for jack. Medieval priests would have been exceedingly surprised to find out that the bubonic plague was caused by a bacteria, not by evil demon possession or the corruption of sin. On their view, this sentence seems justified: "On the sinners-are-punished hypothesis, the health problems we observe in plague victims would be very likely." Therefore, the plague is caused by sin. Copernicus’ contemporaries were exceedingly surprised and assigned a very low probability to his claim that the Earth orbits the sun. I know lots of people are very surprised to find out that the Gambler’s Fallacy is a fallacy. Many ancient people would assign a very low probability to the claim that the earth is spherical, not flat. And so on.

Since authors like Collins and Swinburne are using terms like "probability" lots of people are more impressed with the arguments than they should be. But what becomes clear when the details of Bayes Theorem come out is that the arguments are flagrantly circular. The existence of God is exceedingly probable because I find the non-God alternatives to be very improbable, therefore, the existence of God is exceedingly probable.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Fine Tuning's Fatal Flaw

Fine tuning arguments are one of the more recent, popular versions of the argument from design. The goal, like all arguments for the existence of God, is to produce an argument that would make it reasonable to believe in God starting from premises that do not assume the conclusion. In the case of the fine tuning argument, the delicate balance of finely tuned physical laws, constants, and variables that are held up as evidence that some powerful, knowing, and caring being with a plan must be responsible for the universe we live in.

In one form or another, these arguments build on the premise that were it not for some intervention, or some unnatural force, matter would not align itself according to just those physical laws that are conducive to the survival and flourishing of life rather than some others. There are infinitely many different values and forms that physical laws could have taken. Gravity could have been stronger, light could have been slower, the cosmological constant could have been larger, or there could have been no gravity and no light at all. But the laws that obtain are obviously amenable to the existence of life. Our world has stable, complex elements such as carbon, and rich, long burning energy sources such as stars to fuel the growth and development of life. If any of the physical values, such as the cosmological constant, had been varied even slightly, none of those biophilic results would have obtained.

And science itself cannot resolve the question, we are told, because science is confined to describing the order, not determining why there is order at all.

So given the choice between an infinite list of possible physical worlds where only a narrow range of them are hospitable to life, and a universe that contains a divine being who deliberately devised physics to favor life, the reasonable person must believe in God, concludes the fine tuning argument.

But there’s a grave mistake lurking here. And the mistake is exposed with a few questions. Suppose we are considering supernatural beings who could be responsible for devising the world the way it is and they have some reasons that we are not privy to. How many different beings of this sort could there be?

Before we answer, consider a few other questions: Is it necessary to possess omnipotence in order to create a universe? It would seem so, but what if that was all that the being could do, or it could build one, but only one that is inferior in several ways. For all we know, it could have been this being. How much knowledge is required in order to create a universe? Not omniscience. It is often possible to create something greater than you are, or to create something accidentally. Or it is possible to create something that you thought would have one set of features but it turned out completely different. And clearly, infinite goodness wouldn’t be required to create a universe. A being could have only a finite amount of good will. Or it would even be malevolent. Maybe things in our world are about to get much, much worse than they currently are. All of the good times we’ve been having were just to lull us into a false sense of security.

So there is actually a wide range of beings, many of them less than omni-beings, who could possibly be responsible for our universe. And they could have lots of different hidden reasons for building it the way we find it.

Now back to our question: if we find ourselves in a universe and we wonder how many different kinds of beings, of different levels of goodness and ability, might have been responsible for causing it, how long would our list be? How many possible gods are compatible with the universe we find ourselves in? An infinite number. For a list of 500, see 500 Dead Gods

Now we can see the fatal flaw. A godless universe was rejected in the fine tuning argument because of all the possible configurations that matter could behave according to, only a few are conducive to life. The odds, we have been told, are astronomically small that physics would just happen to end up the way it ended up.

As long as we only consider a single God hypothesis, then it would seem that the designer argument gives us substantial support in its favor. But if there is an infinite number of possible gods who might have made this universe for reasons that are unknown to us, and we settle on believing that a particular one—the Christian God, for instance—must be THE one that did it to the exclusion of all the others, what are the odds that we settled on the right God? Aren’t the odds that it was this God rather than one of the infinitely many others astronomically small? Then how is it by the fine tuning argument that the God hypothesis is preferable to an atheistic hypothesis? We’re left with a stalemate. As long as we’re giving due consideration to all of the possibilities, we won’t be able to choose from among all the options without revealing some presumption or prejudice. So the fine tuning argument leaves us back at square one for deciding on the origins of the universe.

If we can’t decide between all of these infinitely many possibilities a priori, then what method or approach could give us any means of discrimination that would be rational to adopt? We would need a method that would allow us to investigate various possibilities, make predictions, test them, and then reject the ones that don’t fit with the data. We need the scientific method, not religious dogma, to allow us to investigate the foundations of the universe. Religious dogma cannot give us any reasons to prefer one hypothetical God over another, aside from its bold, confident assertions that it is correct.

Some similar concerns lead Steven Weinberg to say about fine tuning arguments,

“But religious theories of design have the same problem. Either you mean something definite by a God, a designer, or you don't. If you don't, then what are we talking about? If you do mean something definite by 'God' or 'design,' if for instance you believe in a God who is jealous, or loving, or intelligent, or whimsical, then you still must confront the question 'why?' A religion may assert that the universe is governed by that sort of God, rather than some other sort of God, and it may offer evidence for this belief, but it cannot explain why this should be so.” A Designer Universe:

The only way they can get the argument to appear to work initially is by holding an infinite number of alternative possibilities against the hospitable universe we find ourselves in while artificially narrowing the field of supernatural explanations to one. But since there are just as many alternative god hypotheses that would fit the data that they wish to emphasize, there can be no grounds for preferring the traditional omni-God or Christian God hypothesis over the others except by building it in as the only choice from the start. Only through this circularity and unanalyzed initial assumptions does the Fine Tuning Argument have even a glimmer of plausibility. And now we can see that it doesn’t even really have that.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

God Blind Spot

Research on the human cognitive and nervous system has revealed a number of interesting endemic flaws. One is well-known. At the center of the eye’s visual field is a blind spot where the optic nerve passes through the back side of the eyeball on its path to the brain. There are no light receptors in this spot, so there’s no vision there. The brain edits what we see so that except under specific circumstances it is invisible to us. But were someone able to cleverly place an object directly in your blind spot and keep it there as your eyes saccade around the room, the object would be completely invisible to you even though it sits right in your visual field. Aliens, in Peter Watts' Blindsight, hide in plain sight using a similar trick. (I highly recommend the book.)

In other studies, test subjects have been given the Wason selection task. Subjects are shown four cards placed on a table. They are told that each card has a colored side and a numbered side. On the table, the cards are 5, 2, blue, and brown. Question: which cards should you turn over in order to determine if this proposition is true: If a card shows an even number on one face, then it has a primary color on the other side? The correct answer is you need to turn over the 2 card and the brown card. If you turn over the 2 card and it is not a primary color on the other side, then the proposition is proven false. If you turn over the brown card and it has an even number on the other side, then the proposition is proven false.

In a number of large tests of this sort, a majority of subjects, sometimes a staggering majority, will get the answer wrong. They typically fail to realize that turning over the brown card is essential to testing the claim. If you turn it over and there’s an even number on the other side, then the principle in question is shown to be false. Many researchers on human rationality have taken these robust results to show that humans are fundamentally irrational, even with regard to some rudimentary logical inferences.

I'll make a suggestion about God that is conjectural and only supported by anecdotal experience. Consider my answer to 's question: What do you believe but cannot prove? What if, perhaps like the blind spot and the Wason mistake, humans are flawed at the cognitive level or have a blind spot such that we have a very hard time thinking clearly about God, or failing to believe in God? Is it possible that deeper in our cognitive architecture there are some features that render us nearly unable to not believe or not be religious in some form or another? Look at the irrational and emotive sweet spot we have for music.

Could religion exploit a gap in our rational abilities that way? One thing that might support the claim is the almost unanimous adherence to some sort of religious belief among humans on the planet. The vast majority of people polled in the U.S. and in the west claim to believe in God in some form. And among people in the east, some sort of comparable spirituality is as pervasive. Self-professed non-believers and atheists all over the planet are exceedingly rare (perhaps that is more suggestive that atheism is a kind of cognitive pathology than the other way around.) My other reason for suspecting that something like this is the case is seeing in hundreds or even thousands of cases over the years of very careful, smart people go soft when the prospect of criticizing religiousness in any form comes up. When a believer begins to perform the mental gymnastics that some will do in order to prop up their belief, it is hard not to think that there’s something else going on here besides a sober analysis of the evidence.

Could such a hypothesis be tested? I think it could. It should be possible to construct a comprehensive battery of questions involving a variety of inferences, arguments, and forms of reasoning. Many of the questions could be formed without any reference to God. And many could be formed employing God in their subject matter. Then it would be possible to detect if there is any significant shift in people’s ability to reason when God is at stake. Such a test would be very difficult to design well. And even if the results seemed to indicate that there was a systematic change for the worse in God reasoning, why people do it would remain an open question. It may or may not be natural, genetic, or biological. It may or may not be cultural or brought about by some third cause.

In either case, I would be very interested to see the results of such a study. And I think it would help us to navigate our own limitations with regard to the God question. If we could come to understand this widespread and heartfelt attachment that people feel about religious matters, we would be better able to grasp our own relationship with the God idea.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

No Moral Truths? No God.

Many people have serious doubts about the objective existence of morality. In fact, more people probably have doubts about morality’s being real than have doubts about God’s being real. The sentiment is that moral values or moral judgments do not have a real status the way facts like 2 + 2 = 4, or “the speed of light is 186,000 per second,” or “the Earth orbits the Sun.” These sorts of claims we can prove. We can investigate empirically and see that they are true. We can reach widespread agreement about them. But moral values, whatever they are, cannot be assessed this way. People rarely agree, there are no empirical tests for what is right or wrong, and they seem unavoidably subjective. It seems more likely that there really isn’t any such thing as real moral truths. There are only different cultures, different eras in history, and different people who have varied views about what is right and wrong. But right and wrong aren’t anything above and beyond those social constructs.

I don’t think this argument is correct, but that’s not my topic here. What are the implications of having this anti-realist view about morality for the existence of God? The answer is that if you don’t think that morality is real, then you should conclude that there is no God.

Premise 1. If right/wrong, good/evil are nothing but social, human constructs, then nothing is really good (good beyond those social, human constructs.)

Premise 2. But if nothing is really good, then no being can be all powerful, all knowing, and really all good.

Premise 3. If nothing can be all powerful, all knowing, and really all good, then nothing can be God, or God doesn’t exist.

Conclusion: 4. So if right/wrong, good/evil are nothing but social, human constructs, then God doesn’t exist.

Premise 3 might be unclear. I’m stipulating, with lots of agreement from others, that in order to be God, to be worthy of the title, a being needs to be all powerful, all knowing, and all good. That’s a widespread view. It’s the foundation of the entire western Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions. But we don’t have to define God as only an omni being. If someone chooses, they could allow that some lesser being is going to be called “God.” If we’re going to do that, then we all need to be clear about the terms and what’s intended by them. One reason to not demote God to some lesser being is that a lesser being, while impressive perhaps, wouldn’t be worthy of worship, and wouldn’t be nearly as significant personally, philosophically, and so on. Another question would be, what grounds do we have for thinking that some lesser being than God exists? The argument above shouldn’t be construed as granting permission to believe in a god as long as it isn’t an all good one. All beliefs need some kind of justification to be reasonable. So that lesser god belief would need substantial support too.

Typically, believers will reject this argument. Many of them will believe that both God and moral values exist. This argument doesn’t preclude that sort of response—although that response has lots of other problems as other posts have discussed. There’s nothing in this argument that prevents us from concluding that moral values are real, but God is not—the moral realist atheist. And there’s nothing here to prevent us from concluding that neither God nor morality are real—the moral relativist atheist. But moral relativism and theism are incompatible. The result here is that if you believe that there really is no such thing as objective moral values, then there is no God.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Monkey Morality or Goodness Isn't Magical

The existence of goodness can’t be explained. Our innate sense of right and wrong can only come from some non-natural source because good and bad, right and wrong don’t exist in the natural world. Love, kindness, generosity, compassion are all behaviors that are contrary to humans base, biological nature. So the fact that we can recognize them and the fact that they exist points to some higher power that must be the source.

These sorts of arguments have been repeated endlessly. Morality seems to be one of the rapidly shrinking gaps that believers insist must be occupied by a magical, invisible super being. But those gaps really are vanishing and there just won’t be anyplace left where we need to invoke God. The concept just won’t be of much use to us, and the liabilities associated with it won’t make it worth it to keep trying.

The morality arguments suffer from persistent circularity. The assumption from the outset seems to be that there is something magical and inexplicable about human morality. Then after some bluster, surprise, it is concluded that there is something magical and inexplicable about human morality.

A sober look at human moral behavior that doesn't presuppose that it is magical, or that there is an invisible, magical being, shows that there's a perfectly reasonable natural explanation.

The question has been addressed over and over in the literature, despite believers insisting that no such explanations exist. Richard Dawkins has written extensively about the evolutionary conditions that would select for virtuous traits in primates. See The God Delusion.

Frans De Waal has argued persuasively that altruism, compassion, emotional contagion, charity, and so on all appear in primates and their presence makes a positive contribution to survival. See Primates and Philosophers. and the Tanner Lectures

Steven Pinker, in the New York Times just a couple of weeks ago, gives a nice overview of the evolutionary foundations and explanations that we now have for human moral behavior. See The Moral Instinct.

The morality argument could pursue this strategy: they could argue that it is impossible in principle to explain human moral behavior in any other way than the existence of the Christian God, or even any old God. That is, it won't be enough to argue that none of the natural explanations are correct. The morality argument theist would need to argue that none of them, and none of the natural explanations we could ever come up with could ever explain the existence of human moral behavior. But that seems utterly implausible. Is the point that not a single one of the brilliant, world-class scientists who is offering natural explanations knows what he or she is talking about? Is there something about morality that is irreducible and inexplicable in natural terms? Even if they turn out to be mistaken, the accounts that are given in the sources above appear to be plausible, at least. Where’s the irreducible, magic part?

Arguments for the conclusion “X cannot be explained in principle by any natural account,” are always puzzling. Have all of the naturalized contenders been considered and rejected? Probably not. What sort of special access to some special non-natural facts does one have that resist explanation? It’s got to be more than a gut feeling or a deep conviction that morality is uniquely non-natural in the universe.

Religious believers have made those sorts of objections to natural explanations for centuries. And in countless cases, after they've insisted that X cannot possibly be explained by science, people who are earnest, curious, thoughtful and who weren’t willing to invoke God as soon as they encounter an intellectual challenge have come up with a correct, natural explanation of X. When a believer insists that “X is impossible to explain in any terms besides God,” and then are those industrious scientists who were making progress on X supposed to just stop going in to work? Should they just capitulate and say, “Ok, I’ll stop looking for any explanation except the Bible one you’re so fond of.” I’m really glad that they didn’t do that about polio, bubonic plague, lightening, drought, birth defects, ghosts, demon possession, the age of the universe, the age of the earth, the origin of life. Imagine the world we would be living in right now if scientists listened every time religious believers warned them that religious doctrine is the only way to explain the world.