Sunday, September 28, 2008

Current Theories of Abiogenesis:

The myth that we have no hypotheses, and no explanations for the origin of life on earth persists. In fact, biologists are considering and testing a long list of possibilities that would explain the shift from non-living to living materials. Here’s a few summarized from Wikipedia.

Primordial Soup—Miller-Urey use a mix of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen to form basic amino acids in the lab.

Deep Sea Vent Theory—Hydrogen saturated, heated, fluids from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor mix with carbon dioxide laden water. Continued chemical energy from the interactions sustains processes that produce simple organic molecules.

Spontaneous Formation of Small Peptides from Amino Acids: Sidney Fox demonstrated that the conversions could occur on their own.

Eigen's hypothesis—Eigen and Schuster argue that some molecules, possibly RNA, can serve as an information storing system that brings about the formation of other information storing systems, or a kind of replication.

Wächtershäuser's hypothesis: Günter Wächtershäuser argues that some compounds come with inboard energy sources like iron sulfides that could release energy and synthesize simply organic molecules. His experiments produced small amounts of dipeptides and tripeptides.

Radioactive beach hypothesis: radioactive elements such as uranium may have concentrated on beaches and become building blocks for life by energizing amino acids, sugars from acetronitrile in water.

Homochirality: The right or left handedness of organic molecules may be explained by the origin of compounds in space.
Self-organization and replication: Under the right circumstances, many non-organic molecules exhibit properties of self-organization and self-replication.

"Genes first" models: the RNA world It has been argued that short RNA molecules could have formed on their own. Cell membranes could have formed from protein-like molecules in heated water. Chemical reactions in clay or on pyrites could have initiated self-replication.

"Metabolism first" models: iron-sulfur world and others. Some theories argue that metabolic processes started first, then self-replication.

Bubbles collecting on the beach could have played a role in forming early, proto-cell membranes.

Autocatalysis Some substances catalyze the production of themselves such as amino adenosine, pentafluorophenyl ester, and amino adenosine triacid ester.

Clay theory Complex organic molecules could have arisen from non-organic replicators such as silicate crystals. It has even been reported that the crystals can transfer information from mother to daughter crystals.

Gold's "Deep-hot biosphere" model Gold argues that life originated miles below the surface of the earth. Microbial life has been found there. And it may be present on other planets.

"Primitive" extraterrestrial life Organic compounds are common in space, and early life may have been transferred here from other planets such as Mars.

Even if none of these hypotheses turn out to be corroborated by empirical investigation, the important point is that there are a number of live hypotheses being considered.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Grasping at Possibilities

There’s a common response to hard challenges to belief. Frequently, the theist falls back to the answer, “Well, you can’t prove it wrong!” The idea seems to be that in general belief is epistemically permissible as long as one doesn’t have compelling proof to the contrary. So a belief is warranted or at least not irrational in cases where one’s evidence on the whole supports it, and also in those cases where one’s evidence seems to neither confirm nor disconfirm it on the whole.

Plantinga, in his modal version of the ontological argument seems to be resorting to a similar sort of defense. He acknowledges that his argument doesn’t prove the conclusion that God exists. Proof would require true premise different than the conclusion that, when taken jointly, imply the truth of the conclusion. Plantinga concedes that someone who already believes in God would accept his premises, and thereby would see it as a proof. But no non-believer would accept them because the conclusion that God exists is, in effect embedded in the premises. Circular arguments can be sound, after all. But they don’t convince anyone. But after acknowledging that he hasn’t proven the existence of God, he says something curious. He says that he has established the rational acceptability of believing. He seems to think that his argument establishes that there is nothing contrary to reason in believing, so it is somehow now warranted to believe. The point also seems to be that he could not fault someone for being irrational for not accepting the argument, given that it assumes the very thing it is intended to prove. I think a careful read of his argument shows that he asserts the rational acceptability of believing. But showing it is another matter.

But what interests me here is the notion that belief is epistemically inculpable or rational for S in cases where S’s evidence does not, on the whole, disprove p. Consider some examples where this is obviously not the case:

I don’t have any proof that there is not a Ferrari sitting in my garage right now (while I am not in there), therefore it is acceptable to believe that there is one.

I don’t have any proof that my neighbors have not had their minds taken over by aliens, so it is reasonable to believe that they have.

I don’t have any proof that Gefjun, the Norwegian goddess of agriculture, does not exist, so it is ok for me to believe that she does.

Imagine that you have a suicidal friend who is consumed by negativity and depression. He laments that he thinks he will die of cancer. You say, “But you don’t have any real reasons to think that you have cancer.” He says, “Can you prove that I don’t have cancer? No, you can’t. See, so I have cancer. I am just going to kill myself now and get it over with.”

Theist: You can’t prove that there is no God, so there’s nothing wrong with believing.
Atheist: Ok, since we can’t prove there is no God, then there’s nothing wrong with not believing.

I don’t have any proof that John McCain and Sarah Palin are not evil time travelers from the future intent on destroying the United States, therefore I believe that they are.

In general, lacking evidence to the contrary for p does not entitle a person to believe it anyway. In general, doing that would be patently irrational. Resorting to this defense is a flimsy, last ditch effort to retain some semblance of reasonableness but we can see that there’s no defense to be had here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

God and the Big Bang

The Kalam argument is clear and short:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The argument has been the subject of a great deal of discussion, and various problems with it have been brought out at length.

The universe that Craig has in mind in this argument is the physical universe—the totality of space, time, and matter. So we must be clear about what we are agreeing to in accepting the first premise. Accepting the first premise appears to be accepting that there must have been a non-spatial, non-temporal, and non-material cause of the universe since many physicists assert that space, time, and matter begins at the Big Bang. For many, an immaterial cause before that is precisely they result they want. But acknowledging this implication should raise doubts for us about the principle itself. There’s no doubt that the principle of sufficient reason, or something like it, seems to operate in the vast majority of ordinary, spatial, temporal, material cases. One might argue for premise 1 on those grounds. But then the problem is that we are using an inductive generalization about the behavior of matter within the universe to draw an inference about the totality of the universe itself and causes that may lie outside of space and time.

There’s a pretty substantial obstacle to overcome here. At no point in the history of our investigating such matters have we encountered a single non-spatial, non-temporal, non-material cause. In instances where we have tried to ascertain the cause of physical events, we have found other finite, spatial, temporal causes. That evidence should not be readily discarded. The other avenue whereby premise one is often justified is by so-called “metaphysical intuition.” It is self-evident, says Craig. So now we must ask ourselves, given the choice between going with what’s intuitive and following the lessons that physical inquiries have given us in the past, should we expect the universe to conform to our intuitions?

It’s not that there are significant reasons to reject premise 1. But it would appear that if it entails a non-spatial, non-temporal, non-material cause of the universe, it is presuming a large part of what the argument hopes to show. The existence of such a cause for the universe is exactly what is under contention.

Here’s another worry about premise 1. Earlier versions of the cosmological argument and Russell’s response to them have shown us an important lesson. While it is typical for finite, particular objects in space and time to have a particular cause, it is not evident that collections, sets, or larger groupings of objects must have them too. That is, it is more reasonable and evident that every individual thing that begins to exist has a cause. But that may not apply to the totality of all things considered as a single object—the universe. Paul Edwards’ eskimos example illustrates this point clearly. Russell said, the fact that every human being has a mother doesn’t imply that they all have the same mother. So we have to be careful that we are not misunderstanding the first premise.

Another set of points that are frequently appreciated is the limited scope of this conclusion. The presumption by many seems to be that if the conclusion is true, then we have a viable proof for the existence of God. What’s lacking, of course, are any reasons to think that the cause here has any of the traditional divine properties. It’s not evident that the cause would require omnipotence or omniscience—a cause with less could do it. A cause that only contains the capacity to bring about the physical universe and nothing else would be sufficient. And that sort of cause would be less than omni. Contrast it to a cause that could bring about an infinite number of universes, for instance. Nor is it evident that the cause must be good. Indeed, classical theodicies struggle long and hard just to argue that God’s existence is logically compatible with the extent of suffering and death that we find in the universe. Expecting to observe that same suffering and then read omni-benevolence as necessary in its cause is utterly implausible.

An argument is needed that the cause must be personal and singular as well. Craig has contended that besides material causation, the only sort of causation that we are familiar with is personal, so we can confidently conclude that the immaterial cause of the universe is personal. But here’s a problem. In all the cases where we have observed this so-called “personal” causation it has depended upon a physical cause—the body and the brain—to bring about the effect. We don’t have any examples to draw from of non-physical, non-spatial, non-temporal causation. We have never observed a single instance of a brainless mind causing anything. So if an argument has as its conclusion that there must be such a cause responsible for the universe, we should be cautious at the very least. It’s not that such a thing is clearly impossible. But we have to restrain ourselves from rushing to some conclusion that we favor, especially when so much physical evidence mounts against it.

In recent years, physicists and cosmologists have proposed a number of hypotheses about the cause of the Big Bang. These include an account of a Big Bounce, a multiverse, Branes, and other exotic physical hypotheses. It remains to be seen if any of these are born out by the evidence. But what is important is that while the Kalam argument would evidently have us declare a halt to investigations into the Big Bang because we know with certainty that it must have been caused by a non-spatial, non-temporal, personal omni-God, scientists have been steadily plugging away finding physical explanations. It would be foolish to ignore those developments on the basis of some metaphysical intuitions, particularly when our intuitions have been so grossly wrong in so many previous cases. God as the cause may be “self-evident” to Craig, but legions of the world’s best scientists continue to probe deeper and deeper into these so-called mysteries.

Where does that leave us then? The argument certainly isn't enough to give us reasonable grounds to conclude that God exists. I’m not sure that any of these are crippling objections, or substantial arguments that the premises are false. But they are good reasons to proceed with caution, be agnostic, and not leap to sweeping conclusions from intuition that will be embarrassed by the advances of physics and cosmology.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Explaining Our Moral Intuitions

In the moral argument, dealt with in the last post, the second premise is that real, objective moral obligations exist. Non-believers tend to react to this claim with a wide range of non-sequiturs. Pointing out that not everyone agrees about morality, or that people in different cultures have different values, or that lots of people who don’t believe in God are nevertheless moral all miss the point. The believer’s claim here is that whether everyone acknowledges it or not, moral claims like “rape is wrong,” “genocide is evil,” “generosity and love are virtues” are true. It is also a mistake to argue that there are some cases where many things that seem good are not, or that actions that seem to be evil may be necessary. Those instances don’t suggest that there is no truth about the matter, only that it isn’t simple.

But let’s consider what non-circular grounds one might have for thinking that the claim is true. Even if people everywhere seemed to agree about some fundamental moral values, that might be consistent with the claim, but it won’t provide much support. More often, believers consult a powerful sense that they have that certain things are wrong and others are right. Call it gut instinct, moral intuition, a sixth sense, or an innate sense of right and wrong.

I won’t deny that many people have such a thing. And as Stephen Pinker and other moral psychologists make clear, these are distinct feelings from sentiments, judgments of taste, or raw emotions. With taste or emotions, we confine our sensation to our own experience. I might find oysters disgusting, but I don’t think it’s wrong for you to eat them. With moral judgments, however, my sense of the matter goes beyond me. We feel that if someone else violates these principles, then they deserve to be punished or reprimanded. They haven’t merely done something that I find disturbing or upsetting. The sensation is that they have violated something larger than my feelings about the matter and it needs to be set right.

What could a reasonable person infer from these sorts of sensations? From the inside, could one tell whether or not they are innate? I don’t think so. One might expect innate feelings to always be present, and that they would not shift or change. But in fact, for most people, a distinct sense of right and wrong comes rather late in their development. And they tend to drift over the years. Consider how attitudes about homosexuality have shifted or smoking. But that’s all consistent with some sort of innate faculty, however.

From the inside, could one tell if one’s moral sentiments were from God? They might feel like they are. One might have an overwhelming sense that God wants X or God disapproves of Y. It may even seem like God is talking to you. And we should acknowledge that people can have some persuasive experiences that are very hard to deny.

Since one is not able to independently confirm the source of these sensations, figuring out what’s going on becomes a matter of carefully considering all of the competing, alternative hypotheses that would explain it. Let’s grant that God’s installing an innate, inuitive sense of morality is one of the explanations on the table. What about others?

Here’s the crucial question: if 4 billion years of evolution had cultivated a strong set of moral dispositions such as fairness, sensitivity to pain or harm to oneself and others, respect for authority, and so on, what would it feel like to be subject to those feelings? It would feel innate, immediate and distinct. From the inside, I can’t see how one would be able to distinguish whether evolution or God was the source of the moral intuitions. And the same goes for the wide range of other hypotheses that are often raised to explain them.

Furthermore, the evidence is mounting that just those moral sentiments and some others are present in a wide range of non-human animals. Monkeys show accute sensitivity to standards of fairness. Monkeys, rats, and others feel the pain of others as if it were contagious. Rats will starve themselves rather than eat if their eating seems to inflict electric shocks on another rat. The examples go on. And as for hearing the voice of one’s moral conscience, or even God himself, a recent study concluded that as many as 70% of undergraduates had experienced auditory hallucinations.

The God explanation might have been sufficient 500 years ago, if one knew no better and had no other explanations available. But now, knowing what we know, one can’t simply conclude upon having a strong gut instinct about some moral matter that God is responsible. Furthermore, given the flexibility of these sentiments, their drift over time, and their known fallibility, the naturalistic hypothesis fits much better. Also notice that if one is seeking to show the existence of God from moral intuitions as evidence, then it won’t do to intuit that God is the author of the feelings. We don’t have any more reason to assume that that intuition is correct than the others. And it would be foolish to argue, perhaps like Descartes, that I have a powerful idea that God exists. I also have a powerful idea that God would guarantee the truth of my powerful ideas. Therefore, God must actually exist.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Morality, therefore God. Poor Objection: No, people disagree about morality.

Here’s a puzzle that frequently comes up in discussions about God and morality.

It has been argued by many believers that the existence of objective moral principles shows that there must be a God. That is,

1. There are objective moral duties and principles.

Then, with some work, it is argued that if there were no God, then no such thing would exist:

2. If there were no God, then there no objective moral duties and principles would exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

A very common response from skeptics and non-believers when they are confronted with this argument is to point out that views about what is right and wrong vary widely across cultures, from person to person, and across different eras in history. So here’s a premise in their argument:

A. People’s opinions about what is right and wrong vary widely.

Now, by itself, this point doesn’t give us an objection to the moral theist argument. Notice that A. doesn’t deny the truth of either of premise 1 or premise 2. But clearly, the doubter thinks that the variations of moral opinions is pertinent to the question of objective moral duties and principles. What would the doubter need to argue in order to turn point A. into a substantial objection to the moral theism argument? They would need this premise, or something like it:

B. If there were objective moral duties and principles then people’s opinions about what is right and wrong would not vary widely.

And from A and B, it now follows validly that:

C. Therefore, there are no objective moral duties and principles.

And C is the denial of premise 1 in the moral theism argument that the doubter wants to assert.

But the glaring problem here in the doubter’s argument, call them moral relativist atheists, is that B. is pretty clearly false. B. seems to be a particular instance of a more general principle like this: If some proposition is true, then there will be unanimous agreement about it; there will be no varying opinions about it from person to person and culture to culture.

But that’s absurd. Even for the most substantiated, best justified beliefs we have, there is no unanimous, unvarying agreement about them. There are people out there who still insist that the Earth is flat, or that the moon landings never happened, or that 2 + 2 does not equal 4. People don’t seem to agree about anything. But that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) prompt us to throw up our hands and conclude that if there is disagreement about X, then there is no truth about it.

So the puzzle about the moral relativist atheist’s argument is that they seem to think that varying views about right and wrong somehow discounts the moral theist’s claim that real morality proves the existence of God. But it’s unclear how those varying opinions are even relevant to what the theist is asserting. The moral relativist atheists seems to have completely missed the point.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Intuiting God

A lot of theists will throw the phrase “intuitive knowledge” around and say things like, “I’ve got the self-authenticating testimony of the Holy Spirit,” and “direct knowledge of God’s existence and will through prayer,” and the like. The idea seems to be that in this special case, it is possible to circumvent all the ordinary channels whereby one would gain knowledge and have some sort of direct, non-mediated, authentic experience of God. So having the experience itself and perhaps checking with yourself that it was authentic is all that one needs in order to know God. This intuitive knowledge is a sort of red-phone-no-switch-board line straight to heaven.

None of use should be tolerating this sort of conversational sleight-of-hand. There’s a bit of conceptual gerrymandering going on here that should have been cleared up if these believers had exercised some restraint before galloping off to the premature conclusion about God.

We’ve been very clear about some basics concerning knowledge for 2,500 (since Socrates). At a mininum, in order to have knowledge, one must have a justified, true belief. What the red-phone theist may have is belief, although some doubts are cast on that because we have a number of good reasons to doubt that a person is a reliable judge of what they believe, and there is so much enthusiastic belief in belief out there muddling the issue. But beyond belief, it remains a very open question whether or not there is justification, and whether or not the belief is true. One hasn’t earned the epistemic right to declare it knowledge simply in virtue of its feeling really, really true, or by simply checking with one’s own thoughts. Justification takes far more than that. In ordinary cases, it takes empirical confirmation, cross-checking with others, substantial background knowledge, corroboration, and repeatability. Merely having a very strong feeling, and then confirming to oneself that yes indeed it is a very strong feeling that seems authentic is never enough. I won’t trot out the long list of examples of powerful intuitions again that illustrates the point. But consider this problem. We know that people have powerful, intuitions, hallucinations, hunches, gut instincts, and divinations that some claim is true in a wide range of circumstances where that feeling isn’t born out by the facts. That is, humans are highly prone to have strong intuitions that are false. And the problem is that from the inside, when they are having the feelings, there’s just no way to confirm or disconfirm their authenticity by consulting those feelings alone. In too many cases, those feelings are overpowering, compelling, and veridical seeming, but then upon examination from the outside they are revealed to be wrong.

There might have been a time in history when we didn’t know so much about the human cognitive apparatus and no one would have been the wiser about their authenticity. But we’re in a different place now. You can’t ignore all of those mistaken cases, bogus paranormal visions, hallucinations, and false intuitions that we now know about. You can’t just ignore the lessons we should all learn from those and help yourself to the offerings of these compelling feelings in the course of our phenomenal lives. The world may look flat to the naked eye, and it sure looks like the sun is rising (instead of the earth’s turning) in the morning. But you know better, and you can’t go back. Once science and our analyses of paranormal and religious experiences are out of the bag, your being justified concerning those matters must take them into account. And once you do, any special claim to have knowledge on the basis of intuitive, subjective experience alone is undermined.

In order to be justified in believing the deliverances of these powerful feelings, one needs to be able to corroborate that indeed when I am having experience of a certain sort, it is authentic. We would need to be able to check and see if it’s correct. And we would need to be able to distinguish those subjective experiences from the ones that are just like it, but they are inauthentic.

So the red-phone theist has got two serious problems. Justification isn’t self-determined or autonomously corroborated. And until it is, they are not entitled to call those claims “knowledge.” What they may be entitled to say is “I have had some very powerful, very real seeming feelings that appeared to be tied to God. But it remains to be seen if it really was.” Futhermore, since truth is the other necessary condition of having knowledge, the red-phone theist is helping themselves to the conclusion that is precisely the point at issue—they’re begging the question. And surreptiously labelling these experiences as “intuitive knowledge” in an attempt to do an end run around the hard work of cross-checking, and justifying their belief doesn’t get them any closer to the conclusion than they were before. What they’ve got is a belief—and even that is debatable. Really what they’ve got is some powerful feelings, and they need to have the intellectual integrity and evaluate them carefully before deciding what’s reasonable to believe about them. Until they can make some legitimate claim to truth and justification, calling it “knowledge” is cheating. The atheist who isn’t scrupulous about these things, when she hears this “intuitive knowledge” claim, ought to just announce, “Well, I’ve got intuitive knowledge that your intuitive knowledge is mistaken—and no one gets to check that except me.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Praying for the Answers

“God talked to me and gave me understanding of his reality.”

The irony of some Christian positions is the willingness to openly assert lots of claims about reality: God is real, morality is real and from God, Jesus Christ was real, there is an afterlife, etc., but in the end, when pressed for the ultimate arbiter of this so-called knowledge, they appeal to some inner dialogue, “prayer with God,” in which they arrived at some strong feelings that X is true. The willingness to invoke and then suspend the notions of rationality, evidence, argument and reasons at will to sustain such a powerful and implausible ideology is shocking, dangerous, and irresponsible. The irony is that they have so frequently accused the non-believer of being a relativist, a nihilist, and of denying reality while engaging in this ostrich behavior of sticking their heads into the sand of prayer and “consultation with God,” in order to address hard challenges or the incoherencies in their view. Faith gets invoked as the catch all response to every problem when reason fails. The only reality, it would appear, that they are willing to accept is the one that they construct for themselves in their heads. Claiming to aquire truth from God in prayer is selfish, nihilistic, and inhumane.

We tend to think of this prayer practice as quaint and harmless, but what’s gone wrong here is that they’ve abandoned their responsibilities to society, to the human race, to the future of humanity, and to history. The only judge of truth, the only arbiter of reality becomes this self-consultation activity--checking one’s own feelings. And why should we trust those feelings? Because they feel like truths from God. This, I propose, is the consumate act of moral, social, and intellectual irresponsibility to the rest of us. This refusal to acknowledge the hopeless inconsistencies and absurdities of trying to apply a Stone Age ideology to the 21st century, cloak it as the height of moral virtue, and then smuggle it by the rest of us under the protection of religious toleration, is flatly, objectively, morally wrong.

There are good arguments to be made for valuing human flourishing and well-being above other priorities. That is to say that we all have a set of moral, social, legal, and rational duties to ourselves and to the rest of humanity to do our part. We have an obligation to have true beliefs, to justify those beliefs to ourselves and others with the strongest appeal to reasons and evidence we can muster. We have an obligation to educate ourselves with the best corroborated results of our scientific inquiries. When we make important decisions about politics, society, wars, presidents, school boards, scientific funding, education, and so on, each one of us has to work hard to draw from the best pool of information and research that we have. It would be grossly irresponsible, for instance, to get elected to state governor and then consult the books of Nostradamus for guidance on how to lead. It would be dangerous and negligent for a modern doctor to revert to the Medieval scheme of the four vital fluids—phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood—in order to try to cure disease. It would be unacceptable for a modern school teacher to present earth, air, fire, and water as the four basic elements of matter as the ancient Greeks did. It would be worse for the governor, doctor, or engineer to merely consult their feelings as the source of truth about matters that are of life and death to the rest of us.

A person should not operate in an intellectual vacuum as if none of the important discoveries and advances in our knowlede of the world in the last 2,000 years occurred or mattered. (Much of the support for “school choice” seems to arise from a desire to perpetrate exactly this sort of misrepresentation and willful ignorance of reality on unsuspecting children who may never realize what a bill of goods they’ve been sold.)

So when the Christian believer resorts to a consultation with the voice of God they feel in their heads to answer hard questions, it is this set of duties to humankind that they violate. They take decisions that affect the fate of everyone and trivialize them. They say, “The only accountability that I will have for my decisions is checking my feelings.” With their refusal, they say, I’ll demean you, diminish you, dehumanize you, even kill you, and give you no say in the matter. I’ll reject thousands of years of the hardest efforts by humanity to learn about the world. I’ll just opt out for those principles or that ideology that I find intuitively and emotionally satisifying, the one that the magical voice in my head tells me is right, with no concern about its fit with reality. You don’t matter, humanity doesn’t matter, science doesn’t matter, the future doesn’t matter, children don’t matter—all that matters is whether or not I’ve had some non-disconfirmable, highly unreliable intuitions or feelings.

You don’t get to just opt out of all the hard work that the rest of us have done. You don’t get to just consult your feelings and then choose to ignore some well-corroborated fact like you’re picking items from a restaurant menu. Our current understanding of evolution, for example, represents the best, hardest, most carefully vetted and critiqued work that the very best minds in the world have produced. You don’t get to earn a C in a high school biology class, read a few half-baked creationist blogs, and then just announce that carbon dating doesn’t work. You have to earn your view, just like the rest of us. And you have to earn it in the context of the latest, broadest set of scientific conclusions that we have available to us in the 21st century. Once that argument is out there, and once the evidence is there with the theoretical models and predictions to back it up, you can’t reasonably reject it on the basis of some inner contemplation where it feels like you are communicating with God. You don’t get to ignore the mountains of evidence and the countless examples of transitional forms that we now have and then just prounounce, “There are no transitional fossils, therefore evolution is false.” The standard that science holds itself to, and the standard that the rest of us must face is if there is counterevidence that defies expectations or violates our predictions, then we have to adjust what we think is true. A single example of a Jurassic fossil in the Triassic period, or a single appearance of a mammal in the Palogene strata would falsify the predictions of evolutionary theory. But the praying believer blythely tolerates no such disconfirmations of their inner voice. If something doesn’t make sense in their Stone Age world view, if it harbors contradictions and inconsistencies, they happily write them off because that inner, self-affirming voice that no one else gets to check assures them that it is true.

Cross-checking against the evidence, against predictions, and against the critical eye of others is perhaps the single most important method we have ever come across for promoting the state of human knowledge. Nothing else separates fantasy from reality or truth from falsehood faster. But the praying believer who opts for all their ultimate answers in their “communications with God,” has ignored that. They’ve done an end run around what the rest of know and have worked hard to justify in order to arrive at the conclusion they want. They’ve opted for gross intellectual dishonesty by refusing to accept any arbiter of their ideology except their own feelings about the matter. And this is not to mention the free ride they take on everyone else’s hard work the rest of the time. They’ll get that vaccination to prolong their lives, and they’ll use the cell phone transmission network, and they’ll reap a thousand other concrete advantages that the scientific method has brought to their lives. But when those scientific investigations produce conclusions that are unpalatable or that don’t satisfy their feelings, then they jump ship and confidently declare that here science is wrong or worse, here science cannot provide us with answers. The truth hurts sometimes. But that doesn’t justify someone in just opting out, particularly when your opting out has such clear deleterious effects on the rest of us. The rest of us are waiting for you to catch up, and our patience is getting thin.

In the recent Republican primaries, when asked if they believed evolution, Huckabee, Brownback, and Tancredo proudly announced that they did not, as if it was perfectly acceptable for someone to just take or reject the conclusions of science at will without any regard for the reasons or evidence that support those claims. Do I get to just declare that there’s $1,000,000 in my bank account, or that microwaves don’t heat up my food, or that measles is not a virus too? How did that get to be up to Mike Huckabee to decide? And how did we get to the point where we would applaud him deleriously for doing it?

Only checking in with yourself, which is what prayer amounts to, is not an epistemically or morally acceptable method for deciding what’s true.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Nature gives us morality, not God. And science reveals it, not religion.

Despite the fact that the claim has been dealt with thoroughly by countless authors, the idea that there can be no morality without God keeps popping up, like some tired rubber ducky. It’s like the urban myth that we only use 10% of our brains. Everyone has heard it, everyone repeats it, it doesn’t make any sense at all, it has no empirical support, but it just won’t go away.

So here’s a quick way to characterize the hopeless mess that the claim, “There can be no morality without God” gets you into.

Ambiguities abound here. First we need to separate the ontological claim from the epistemological one. The ontological claim suggested by the tired platitude is that unless God creates or establishes it, morality would not exist in the natural world. Morality does exists in the natural world. Therefore, God created it. Therefore, God exists.

But there are serious problems with both premises. Consider the second claim that morality exists in the natural world: What is the source of ones belief that morality exists? A gut instinct, moral intuition, reasoning, some external source?

If it is a gut instinct or intuition, the problem is that it seems possible to be able to have gut instincts that are unreliable or inauthentic. That is, one could have a powerful intuition that morality is real, but be mistaken. Einstein had a gut instinct that quantum mechanics and indeterminacy was wrong. Newton had an intuition that lead could be turned to gold if he understood the principles of alchemy. If one is having a powerful gut instinct that something like morality is real, then how would one go about confirming or disconfirming that that instinct is a veridical one? Not the instinct itself, or another gut feeling. That’s circular. And that gives no one who doesn’t have the feelings any grounds to accept them. Futhermore, non-believers are desperately tired of having to explain and give details about how notoriously unreliable and dangerous gut instincts are.

So maybe it is reasoning. But if we can reason through to the conclusion that morality is real, if reason can open the window to it, then it would seem that the original claim that morality must come from God is mistaken.

If we can’t reason to it, then it’s not clear how one could have any grounds or reasons for thinking the claim is true. Why should we accept the claim that morality is real then?

Now consider the first premise. Suppose someone claims that the source of their knowledge that God is the source of morality is God himself, by way of the Bible or some religious documents. Now we’ve got a circularity problem again. Now we’re arguing that morality must have come from God because God says that it comes from God. First, how do we know what God says? The Bible and all the other religious documents we’ve been offerred are pretty poorly written, contradictory, patchworks of ideas. It’s certainly not obvious that they are to be trusted as always accurate. In fact, in lots of cases we know that they are mistaken about important historical details that we have investigated independently. Second, even if we think that the documents like the Bible accurately reflect what God said, what are our grounds for thinking that those claims are true? Those sources again? We know that what God says in the Bible is true because the Bible says that what God says there is true? Establishing that the record is accurate about what God said is one thing, establishing that those claims are also true is another matter. (Those two are frequently conflated.) If I want to check to see if a book actually contains the words that the author wrote, I might check with the author—but even that might not work if the author gets confused or has a bad memory. But we can’t do anything like that with the Bible. Checking with other copies of the Bible might establish at most that what one copy contains matches what another one contains. (When we have done this with the different copies of the Bible have been shockingly different.) And clearly it won’t do to simply point to the book itself to confirm that what the book says is true. Circular reasoning doesn’t give anyone grounds for accepting a conclusion.

Now let’s consider the epistemological claim reflected by “unless people believe in God, they won’t be moral.” By “epistemological” I mean that maybe people cannot know morality without God’s involvement in some way. But there’s another ambiguity here. Does the claim mean that people won’t behave in a way that outwardly appears to be decent and moral, or does it mean that even if appear to be behaving themselves, they really aren’t moral because of their failure to understand or think about morality and God in the right way? If the idea is that people who don’t believe in God won’t even appear to be decent, moral people by their actions, then obviously that is mistaken. There are and have been billions of people on the planet who do not believe in the classic monotheistic God of the Bible, Koran, or Torah, who have perfectly decent lives that, aside from some particulars, look just like the lives of Bible believing Christians, or Koran citing Muslims. It would be preposterous to suggest that billions of Buddhists, which by most accounts is an atheistic doctrine, don’t even act morally. It seems absurd even to suggest that on the whole their behaviors tend to be less apparently moral. But that would be an empirical question that could be readily settled, and it’s a question that the defender of the “No morality without God” claim most likely has not investigated.

So is the claim that even though all of those billions of people might look like they are decent people, but really, in their hearts they are wicked because they are not motivated by God or don’t have the right sort of ideas about their moral decisions? Again, this is preposterous. The problem defaults to the dilemma above. How does the believer come to have this knowledge about the proper source of ideas about morality? A gut instinct? Of course, a lot of those Buddhists and other non-believers have powerful gut instincts about what’s right and wrong too. What informs us that their moral intuitions are mistaken but the God believer’s are correct? Another intuition? That’s a painfully tight little circle the believer would have to defend. Is it reasoning? So we can determine with reasoning that unless people have the rightly Godly ideas about morality, they aren’t really moral—they only look like it? But now the believer has contradicted the original claim. This means that one’s source of knowledge about morality actually arises from reasoning, not God. Oh, reasoning ultimately comes from God you say? How do we determine that? With more reasoning (which would be self-refuting), or by appealing back to God (circular)? And notice that now we’ve left the question of morality, or traced it back to something else entirely, which means that morality isn’t really based on God directly, and the whole point of this was to prove that it is. So again, the believer’s claim that morality requires God falls apart.

As it turns out, the only method we have ever come upon that isn’t flagrantly circular or patently false for establishing that something is real is by forming hypotheses about it, making predictions, testing those predictions against empirical observations, repeating the testing, and then confirming or disconfirming them on the basis of carefully scrutinized, peer-reviewed argument and data. And that method has shown us that morality is an objective, real phenomena. We have found basic moral behaviors across all human cultures. We have found proto-moral behaviors in many animals. Stephen Pinker, Frans de Waal, Jonathan Haidt and many others have produced compelling research that shows that the analogs of all the basic human moral behaviors can be found in other animals and there are a number of theories about the evolutionary mechanisms that would have produced them. More importantly, these theories can be empirically investigated, they can make predictions, and they can be confirmed or disconfirmed without committing the mistakes that the God believer falls into here.

So in the end, the claim that without God there can be no morality is either hopelessly circular, or its patently false. And ironically, it’s science and evolution that show us that morality is objective and real, not religion.