Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Evil Isn't the Problem, the Concept of God Is.

For years, I have been arguing that the evil atheist—someone who thinks that the existence of suffering in the world makes atheism reasonable—must be prepared to give a hypothetical outline of the sorts of evidence that they would find to be consistent with God’s existence. That is, unless they are just being dogmatic, the evil atheist needs to say what the world would look like if an omni-God exists. This is only fair since they are arguing that the existence of suffering, or the state of the world that we inhabit, is inconsistent with the existence of God. If it looks like there is no God here, then what would it look like if there were a God? A sudden cessation of the some evil like the genocides in the Sudan or Rwanda, or a miraculous cancelling of a tsunami wouldn’t do it. If a tsunami was suddenly, miraculously stopped, we’d have to wonder: “Well, where the hell was God when all of that other nasty stuff was happening? If he saw fit to do something here, then why not the bubonic plague, the Holocaust, or cancer? An omni-God would have done something about all of those, so there is no omni-God.” Suppose the evil atheist insists that there never would have been any suffering in the world from the start. Is that a satisfying answer? Not really. Hick and others have plausibly argued that real moral growth in free, finite creatures like us requires a challenging world that is not a hedonistic paradise. We need to see and learn from the consequences of our actions, and there need to be challenges in the world that we must meet in order for us to acquire certain kinds of moral and intellectual growth. Hick and this variety of theodicist need to argue that not even an omnipotent God could have achieve the same sort of moral growth in us by any other less painful method, and I haven’t seen a convincing argument to this effect. But the plausibility of the theodicy is at least great enough to raise doubts that the evil atheist should insist that a good God would make our world a paradise. It’s also possible that no matter how little suffering there was, and no matter how optimized an omnipotent God made the world with regard to suffering, the evil atheists would still be complaining. The worst of the suffering might only amount to an occasional paper cut, but they’d still be insisting that that shows there cannot be a loving and powerful God watching over us.

So roughly, the suggestion is that evil atheists are often being dogmatic. No state of affairs would really satisfy them with regard to suffering. They cannot outline empirically manifest circumstances that would convince them that God is real. So there’s something amiss deep in their argument.

But here’s another possibility. If God is an impossible being, then there could be no empirical circumstances that are consistent with his existence. That is, if the concept of God just doesn’t make sense itself, then no amount of theorizing about hypothetical worlds will give us a picture that reconciles God with reality. God’s existence isn’t going to fit into any of those descriptions of states of affairs because the very notion of God itself is rationally corrupt. God doesn’t fit with suffering or anything else because God just doesn’t make sense.

What does that mean? Deductive atheology has taken a couple of approaches. First, it has been argued that a single, essential property that is attributed to God is incoherent. Omnipotence or omniscience is impossible, for instance. And since God wouldn’t be God without omnipotence, then God is impossible. In a related set of arguments, logicians and philosophers have begun to suspect that since after centuries of effort we cannot devise an account of what omnipotence and omniscience are, the right conclusion to draw is that there really can be no such thing. This is not a deductive argument that they are impossible, as such. It’s more of a throwing up of the hands—nobody has been able to give a sensible account of the properties so it’s time to move on. It doesn’t make sense, after a point, to keep trying to sustain our concept of the aether, phlogiston, or caloric. At the very least, these arguments shift the burden on proof heavily onto the theist. If you think there is a God, you really owe us an account of what that being is that makes some basic sense. We’ve seen countless descriptions crash and burn now, so you’re really not entitled to move forward or have us take you seriously until you addressed some absolutely fundamental issues. See several of my earlier posts about omnipotence, omniscience, and deductive atheology for details.

The other approach that the evil atheist can take here is to say that the reason we can’t describe a world consistently with God and suffering in it is because the properties that are attributed to God are inconsistent with each other. God is alleged to be free and all just, or all merciful and all just, or transcendent and physical, or immaterial and the cause of the universe, for instance. But these pairs of attributes produce hopeless contradictions. (On a side note, the history of theology has produced countless tomes that engage in bizarre and baroque gymnastics to reconcile these sorts of problems in describing God. I recommend you only read enough of these to get the general sense of what they are doing. Any more will make you chew your own leg off like an animal stuck in a trap.) So God(MJ)—a God who is all merciful and all just—is impossible. And since no being who lacks M or lacks J is worthy of the name, there is no God.

When we understand the arguments for evil atheism in this framework, we can see that the evil atheist’s case is really pointing to a much deeper, more serious problem that has nothing to do directly with suffering. We can’t reconcile God’s existence with the problem of evil in the world because the notion of God itself is incoherent. And until the theist can provide a description of God that makes some sort of provisional sense in the light of these widely argument problems, their position can’t even get off the ground.

Monday, May 25, 2009

IQ and the Origins of Religions

Richard Nisbett makes a compelling case in Intelligence and How to Get It that IQ is much less heritable than we once thought and that environmental factors like culture and schooling play a much larger role in making people smart. He estimates that the effects of family, nutrition, schooling, home environment, and surrounding culture could be as large as 18 points of IQ. The Flynn effect is another important recent IQ phenomena. IQ tests are regularly renormalized to keep the average IQ score at 100. Flynn has demonstrated that over that period IQs have been increasing by about 3 points a decade. That is all to say that we are getting smarter, and it's not because humans are changing that much. It's because our environments are changing. We have access to huge amounts of sophisticated information now, we have better nutrition, we have better healthcare, affluence has increased, education has improved and so on. But we are getting smarter in two ways: we have more information and better access to it now than we once did—high school kids are doing experiments with recombinant DNA in class. But the environment is actually raising our intelligence independent of increased informational knowledge. The IQ increases show that we can solve problems, reason critically, and employ better cognitive strategies now than we used to. Nisbett quotes Linda Gottfredson’s definition of intelligence: “a very general mental capacity that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—“catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.”

What are the implications of the rise in IQs if we project it backwards in time? It means that the average person plucked off of the street 300 or 500 or 1,000 years ago would be what would be considered developmentally disabled today. Their average IQ would have been a 75 or 65 or worse. The reason is that culture, education and other external factors play such a large role, it turns out, in making it possible for people to actualize the potential they have for being smart. And only in the last 50-100 years have we brought the level of education and affluence up high enough for enough people to really start seeing the effects.

These points raise serious issues for all of the historically based religions. The people who founded the world’s religions, on average, would have had distinctly worse reasoning abilities, less ability to comprehend complex ideas, and worse comprehension of their surroundings. There would have been outliers, of course. Newton, Copernicus, Aristotle, and Kant would have stood out intellectually from their peers, and they would most likely still stand out among the modern elevated standards. But what about average people? The people who became believers in the major religious movements? If there were people 2,000 years ago who thought they saw a ghost, or thought they saw miraculous, supernatural events, we might not blame them for their conclusions. They can't be faulted for not knowing what we know and not having the IQ that we have. But an assumption in our religious culture seems to be that if those people were satisfied that Jesus was resurrected or that Mohamed was Allah's prophet, then we should be satisfied too. The original believers would have been sufficiently thoughtful, reflective, objective, critical, and smart to figure out the truth, so we can trust their conclusions. But as soon as we bring the assumption out that way, it is obvious what a mistake it is. Would you accept the conclusions about the most important questions facing humanity without questions from someone today with an IQ of 60? Do you think they would be the most reliable, thoughtful, objective source of information you could find? Compared to you, they lacked an enormous amount of relevant information and they were equipped with reasoning skills that were far worse.

The suggestion here is outrageous and offensive, I know. But what other conclusion can we see? If we know that IQ is highly responsive to environmental factors and that those factors were worse in previous eras of history, then we know that IQs were lower--significantly lower--in those eras. And if we are getting our information about alleged supernatural events like miracles, invisible gods with magical powers, people coming back from the dead, and so on from these same people, then surely the fact about their mental capacities is relevant to our assessment of their reliability. We've got to consider the source, and we shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that they were just like us in all of the epistemically relevant ways. What would you think if you found out that your doctor or someone else entrusted with very important matters in your life had a 60 IQ? So why would you be willing to entrust the 1st century believers to provide you with answers to the ultimate questions about God, reality, and the place of humanity in the cosmos?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Ghosts, Resurrections, and Bereavement Hallucinations

When people undergo an emotionally traumatic event, it has dramatic effects on the brain. When people lose someone they love, it is quite common for them to have hallucinations of the person (or pet!) shortly after the loss. The phenomena is now well documented and is known as bereavement hallucinations. In one study, an amazing 80% of elderly widows report having hallucinations—either full visual or auditory—up to a month after the spouse has died. It appears that the neurochemistry of grief is playing an active role on systems in the brain that contribute to visual representation. People report seeing or hearing the lost person in some familiar environment, being visited in their dreams, or having conversations with them while being completely awake.

This phenomena suggest several interesting points about religious beliefs. First, consider the resurrection stories about Jesus. If Jesus was a real person and he was executed in the public and dramatic fashion that is alleged, then the emotional impact on his devoted followers would have been staggering. Suppose there were 20 people in Jesus’ immediate circle of committed followers. If the studies above can be taken as an indicator of the likelihood of some sort of post death hallucination in which Jesus would revisit the followers, we can actually generate some probabilities. If there is a .5 probability for each person that they will experience a hallucination of Jesus after his death, then we would expect half of them to have one. The odds that none of the followers would have a hallucination are vanishingly small. What are the odds that you could flip a coin 20 times and get all heads? That is to say, knowing that bereavement hallucinations are so common, we would predict with a high degree of certainty that Jesus’ followers, like any other normal human beings, would have them. It would be far more surprising and unlikely for them not to report having seen Jesus returned from the dead.

So some or many of his followers most certainly would have had these hallucinations, and they would have talked with each other, encouraged each other, adjusted their stories, filled in or altered the details just as normal people do when they give testimony about important events. The question then is not so much whether or not they reported having such experiences—most people do. The question will be given that so many normal people have such experiences and they are the product of neurobiological functions in the brain and nothing more, what reasons do we have to think that the experiences the followers of Jesus had are not the ordinary, common hallucinations, but actually of something real? As I have argued in several previous posts, we have ample reason for not leaping to that extraordinary conclusion when such an obvious, common, and well documented natural explanation is available.

But what would an ordinary person in the first century be led to think if they had such an experience? The data I cited above wouldn’t have been available to them. They scarcely had any conception of what a brain is or what role it plays in fabricating, falsifying, or altering experience in special circumstances. Such an experience would have been utterly mystifying. We can imagine that it would have seemed to them that the only obvious and reasonable explanation of what they saw was that they were being visited by a ghost or the resurrected person they love. A failure to appreciate the capacities of the human brain have no doubt played a huge role in the fact that 70-80% of modern Americans believe in ghosts, afterall. If modern humans are having these experiences and concluding that they are ghosts, then surely the 1st century religious zealots following Jesus would have been no more insightful or informed. It may have been reasonable for them to think that Jesus was resurrected given that they just wouldn’t have known any better. But we have substantial reasons to think they were wrong. Clearly, what might be reasonable for someone 2,000 years without the benefits of science and the vast body of knowledge that we have should not be accepted as reasonable for us. What remains the baffling puzzle is why so many people are willing to simply accept what the early believers claimed without question while being so much better informed about so many things. Modern Christians will employ the highest levels of critical scrutiny to carefully dismantle the evidence for global warming while accepting the under reported claim from a small group of 1st century Iron Age religious zealots that their leader was magically resurrected from the dead.

Background articles on bereavement hallucinations:

Visits from the Deceased

Bereavement Hallucinations

Widows and Hallucinations