Thursday, February 26, 2009

4 Modern Views about God and the Universe

Here's a slide I'm using to illustrate some modern views about God and the universe in some recent lectures. Between these 4, the vast majority of American positions are represented.

We can construct a simple argument here.

1. Either naturalism, Big Bang Theism, Intelligent Design, or Creationism accurately describe the history of the universe.

2. Creationism is clearly false. The Earth has existed for billions of years, and it is not the case that all life on Earth was created in more or less its present form 6,000-10,000 years ago. The irony is that the evidence that we have corroborating that there are objects on Earth that are older than that such as artifacts in museums, dinosaur bones, and celestial bodies, is far better than the evidence we have for thinking that Creationism is true--The Bible.

3. The Intelligent Design thesis postulates that God assisted or guided the process of evolution in some fashion. So far, there have been no compelling arguments and no convincing evidence that anything of the sort occurred. All of the major pieces of a full evolutionary account are in place, and every year many of the details are filled in. Thus far, a fully naturalized account of those events has proven to be adequate to explain the development of life on Earth. So ID is extraneous or vacuous. There appears to be no work for God to do in the development of life. So Intelligent Design does not accurately describe the history of the universe.

4. Big Bang Theism does not accurately describe the history of the universe. There are a variety of problems with different versions of the First Cause argument. One set of problems that I have discussed at length in previous posts is that even we grant the point in a First Cause argument, at best it would suggest some force or forces that were adequate to bring about the existence of the universe. But these arguments do not provide us with adequate justification for also inferring that the cause must be all powerful, all knowing, all good, singular, and personal. A set of impersonal forces with adequate influence to cause the universe, but no knowledge and no goodness would be compatible with a First Cause argument. First Cause arguments also have a very difficult time addressing the variety of hypotheses that physicists and cosmologists are currently investigating concerning the cause of the Big Bang.

5. Therefore, naturalism is the accurate description of the history of the universe.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Resurrection? Probably not.

Suppose there’s a big drug bust in New York City and the police impound $10,000 in drug money. Later there’s a trial at a Federal court house in California and the money needs to be taken to Los Angeles. (Don’t ask why.) Let’s suppose that between NYC and Los Angeles the money will be in police custody, but it will change hands between several escorts as it travels. Suppose there will be three different cops in charge of the money for different legs of the journey. And let’s suppose that we have independent evidence that there is some degree of corruption in the police departments that are providing the escort cops. Suppose that when considered on the whole, the likelihood that a cop from any of those departments is honest is .8. Maybe there are 100 cops in each department, and 80 of them are honest, while 20 are corrupt. If a corrupt cop gets custody of the drug money, he or she will take some. If an honest cop gets custody, he or she will deliver it to the next leg of the trip without taking any of it. We don’t know anything more about which cop will get the duty except the .8 probability information about their honesty.

Here’s a question: what are the odds that the money will arrive in Los Angeles without any of it missing?

Probability theory tells us that we should calculate the odds this way for 3 cops: if the P that each one is honest is .8, then we multiply. .8 x .8 x .8 . So the odds of the money all arriving in L.A. are .51. If you add two more cops at the .8 honesty rate it goes down to .32! And that’s despite the fact that majority of cops in each department are honest.

(Thanks to Randy Mayes and Jonathan Baron—Thinking and Deciding, for making the basics here clearer to me.)

Now let’s change the example. Suppose that instead of travelling across the country, the item in question is moving across time. And instead of money, the thing that is in custody is a story. That is, suppose that many different people tell and retell a story across many centuries of time.

What do we know about testimony? We know that when a person testifies that some claim is true and all we have to evaluate is the testimony, we can attach a value to the probability that what they are saying is true. In general, when people assert that x is true, and they mean it, we can and should ask, what is the probability that it is true, given that Smith, for instance, asserts that it is. For most of us, it would mean something for Smith to say it earnestly. And if Smith says he is utterly convinced of its truth—he says he’s 100% certain that it is true—then that should count for a lot in my assessment of whether or not x actually is true.

What do we know about people’s confidence levels and the real accuracy of their claims? In general, people are over-confident. They will claim to be accurate and certain more often than they are. In one study, subjects were asked to spell a word and then indicate how confident they were that they had spelled it correctly. When they were “100% certain” in fact they only spelled the word correctly 80% of the time. You’ve had this feeling of certainty many times about a spelled word. When you have it, it would be very hard to dissuade you without substantial proof, that you were wrong. But there are the real rates. (Adams and Adams, “Confidence in the recognition and reproduction of words difficult to spell,” American Journal of Psychology, 73, 544-552)

It is alleged that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The chain of custody for that story (think of it like the money above) goes something like this. 30-60 years after the alleged event, the author of Mark wrote down the story as it had been told to him. We do not know how many tellings and retellings the story went through between the alleged event and when Mark recorded it. Matthew and Luke were written later still, but they were lifted for the most part from Mark and another source that is now lost known as the Q source. We don’t have that source, nor do we know its history. John is written a few decades later still. All four accounts differ significantly in detail and emphasis. All of them have significantly different accounts of the resurrection.

We don’t have those original written accounts. What we have today are some copies of copies of copies of those original written accounts that were written on the basis of decades old tellings and retellings of the original story. The oldest copies of the gospels that we have today are from roughly 200 years later than when they are generally thought to have been written.

So the point here should be clear. If people who avow that something is true (like the correctly spelled words) insist that they are “100% certain,” we have good reason to attach, at best, a .8 probability to the claim. And this is about something as simple and obvious as spelling. If a story goes through multiple people’s custody, like cops carrying money, then we apply the multiplication rule to determine what will come out the other side. It only takes a few generations, or links in the chain of custody for the overall probability to drop to very low levels.

Even if every single one of the people that the resurrection story passed through retold it with as much care as they could muster, and even if each one of them was completely certain that the resurrection happened, it is highly improbable that the story that they are passing on is true.

This is granting more than we should grant in this case. We do not know who the story passed through between the alleged events and us, we don’t know what sort of motives or goals they had, we don’t know if they were corrupt, or liars, or delusional. We don’t know how many times it was retold or by whom before Mark heard it. And we don’t know what happened between the original Mark story and the surviving copies of it that we have.

Suppose that it passes through 10 people and we assign a .9 reliability to each of them, the likelihood of an accurate story arriving at the other side is around .3. If just one of those people is only 50% reliable because he exaggerates, or lies, or gets enthusiastic, or is guilty of wishful thinking, or sincerely wants the world to believe in Jesus or whatever, the overall likelihood that the story is true drops to .15.

We can anticipate these objections: but we have independent corroboration of the events in the New Testament. We have thousands of documents that back the stories up. We have no reason to doubt the honesty or integrity of the people in the chain of custody. The followers of Jesus would not have lied or put their lives in danger for the sake of something so important. And so on, blah, blah, blah. . . .

We don’t have thousands of documents to back up the custody chain being considered here. We can have as many copies or corroborations of the story as you want later on, but if it’s a corrupted story, copying it over and over doesn’t make it true. You can put as many honest cops on the guard detail of the money when it gets to the court house in LA as you want. That won’t insure that someone didn’t pilfer some of it before it got there. The period from the alleged resurrection to the first written record is almost a complete mystery for us now. And the period from when the gospels were written until the copies that we have today were written is mysterious too. “But we know that the Jewish oral tradition was highly accurate.” Maybe. If the resurrection story is being used as part of that tradition, then this is begging the question. The Jewish oral tradition was people telling and retelling stories. And we have mountains of evidence from carefully constructed, double-blind testing of thousands of subjects about people’s unreliability, even when they are trying really hard. We can’t really atest to the integrity of the custodians of the story if the only information we have about the custodians integrity is part of the story itself. How can I know that Smith is a reliable witness? I asked him and he insists that he is. Furthermore, we don’t need to have any concrete explanation or alternative account here. I don’t need to know what motivated the people in the study above to misspell the words. I don’t need to why they did it, or what mistake they made exactly. It’s enough to know that even when they claim to be 100% certain, their real accuracy is .8.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Knowing More than Science

It is all the rage to be critical of the scientific enterprise as a route to knowledge. Even pre-eminent scientists, rather than state the obvious that many scientifically corroborated claims disprove many of the claims made by the religious, take great pains to assure us that science and religion are compatible. See the recent Edge discussion, and also note Sam Harris’ clear take-no-prisoners answer. Here’s a simple way to think about it: Do religious doctrines make claims about what is alleged to be true? Clearly, they do. Does science make claims about what is true? Clearly it does. Do the claims about reality that religion makes ever differ from the claims about reality from science? Yes. So religion and science are not compatible—end of story.

But back to the question of this elusive non-scientific knowledge. Lots of people feel quite confident that science does a fine job at producing some knowledge of the world, but what it can’t do is lay claim to be able to know everything there is to know. There are truths, we are assured, that are beyond the scope of science. There are things we know that science can neither confirm nor disconfirm. So all that there is to know cannot be known through science alone. There are a number of candidates. In the philosophy of mind, anti-reductionists insist that there is something “it is like” to be a bat, or me, or Abraham Lincoln. There is some irreducibly subjective, first person experience to be had from inside that gives the experiencer knowledge of a special sort. And since this knowledge cannot be rendered into anything empirically observable or scientifically testable, it follows that there is some knowledge that is beyond science. Another obvious candidate is some special knowledge of God that people claim to have that science, no matter how hard it tries, cannot, even in principle access to confirm or disconfirm. Maybe knowledge of moral truths, or truths about beauty, or knowledge of special experiences like love belong on the list of special non-scientific knowledge. The list could go on.

To put this set of claims in perspective, consider a ridiculous example: “Science cannot know everything there is to know because science cannot account for my special knowledge of the future that I acquire from looking at my crystal ball. Nor can science account for my special body of unicorn knowledge. There are a great many things that I know from my crystal ball. And there are many things about unicorns, like that they are real and that they have real magical powers, but they are invisible and undetectable through any normal empirical methods, that I know that science cannot explain. Therefore, science’s claims to be able to know everything there is to know are dogmatic and exaggerated.”

What’s happened here is some serious question begging. The issue, it would appear, is whether or not his crystal ball does in fact give him any knowledge of anything. The issue is whether or not there actually are any unicorns. Those claims don’t achieve the status of knowledge just by proclamation. If they are known, then they must be true. And if they are known, then they must be justified. Without justification, one won’t be entitled to call them knowledge. Claiming that there are more ways to know that merely through science is one thing. Actually producing is another. Unless there are some extraordinary circumstances and some rather substantial burden of proof has been met, our objector here isn’t entitled to claim that these non-scientific claims are known. That’s not a scientific bias. That’s not scientific dogmatism. The need for justification in order to achieve knowledge is a demand of reason itself. Science has provided us with one resoundingly successful model for acquiring knowledge. We gather data, form hypotheses, make predictions, and then test those predictions. If they are not borne out by our attempts to corroborate, then we scrap that idea and move on. The virtue of the scientific method is that it gives us a viable way to discriminate between the justified and the bogus. It allows us to separate the mistakes, the lies, the fabrications, and the screw ups from the real.

The person of a scientific or naturalistic bent need not adhere to this notion slavishly. We can allow, in principle, that there could be other ways of knowing. What we have seen is that the scientific route succeeds. It works. By itself, that doesn’t show that no other route can work too. But the scrap heap of formerly great ideas in history that didn’t pan out does show us this. We can’t simply accept some claim that cannot be empirically corroborated at your word. We can’t assure each other that there is more to know that what science discovers and then gallop off into those hinterlands unchecked. There has to be some sort of reality check. We need skepticism, error checking, corroboration, and doubt. We’ve got to have some method for separating the authentic non-scientific knowledge claims from the bogus ones. Your crystal ball doesn’t really work. Nor are there any unicorns with magical powers. So if there is some special category of non-scientific knowledge that we can get to, and it is neither empirically confirmable, nor is it whacky like the unicorns claim, then there has to be some principled and reasonable way to check it. There has to be some method for justifying it that will also make it possible for us to reject the nonsense.

If you’ve been able to tolerate listening to or reading Deepak Chopra, you have seen just what happens with there’s no error checking mechanism in place. Chopra doesn’t concern himself in the slightest with whether or not any of what he’s saying can stand up to any rational scrutiny. He’s sure that there is a reality beyond that of science. And there’s nothing reigning him in on his wild, fanciful speculations about it. The transcendental temptation, the longing for there to be this delightful realm of the metaphysical, lures him and thousands of his avid followers out into the stratosphere. Their only guide to what’s true amounts to what’s spiritually pleasing.

Besides your favorite imaginative guru, several candidates sources for this extra-scientific knowledge come to mind: maybe you think that your special non-scientific knowledge can be found when you read your special, magical religious book, like the Bible. The thing is, a book is an empirical object. And this book makes lots of claims that are empirically disconfirmable. In fact, this book makes lots of claims that are empirically disconfirmed. So that raises serious questions about our being able to accept it as a special source of metaphysical knowledge that transcends our normal scientific methods of checking.

Maybe your special source of metaphysical knowledge about the world that transcends science is some intense feelings you have, or a voice you hear when you pray fervently, or an overwhelming sense of a presence of the Almighty. Plantinga claims he has a sensus divinitatus. Craig says he’s got the witness of the Holy Spirit that assures him beyond any possibility of empirical disconfirmation that Jesus is the Son of God. Here again, the problem is that intense feelings or voices in your head are notoriously unreliable sources of information about what’s real. We’ve got lots of other eminently plausible explanations of what might be going on here that don’t involve anything beyond the natural. So it won’t be enough to just have the feelings to know that they are authentic. What exactly is the cross checking, corroboration method that is in place here? How does one check on the authenticity of these feelings to confirm that they aren’t misguided or bogus? Do you consult your special faculty of metaphysical knowing to see if your special faculty of metaphysical knowing is reliable? Can you be sure that the voice in your head is reliable because it assures you that it is? See how inferior this absurd, circular sort of justification is to the empirical, scientific way? You can’t really expect us to believe you when you say that you know there is a God because you had a special feeling. And you know that the special feeling is reliable because it really, really feels like it is. If I told you that that’s how I came by my special, transcendent unicorn knowledge, you wouldn’t accept it for a second. You shouldn’t expect us to take you seriously with that bullshit, and you should have enough intellectual integrity to refuse to allow yourself to be seduced by it as well. Suppose that I tell Plantinga and Craig that I have my own special sensus atheistus and it assures me, beyond any possibility of mistake, that anyone who claims to have direct experience of God is mistaken. Now at least one side of this standoff of magical intuitions has got to be mistaken. If we all merely check with our magical intuitions to see if they can be trusted, we are not one step closer to sorting out the truth. And none of us are justified or entitled to call our feelings knowledge on these grounds alone.

So, in principle, we’re prepared to entertain this notion that these special, metaphysical speculations are in fact examples of non-scientific knowledge. We need not be dogmatic that there is nothing else to know except what science discovers. But be careful what you ask for. If you think you’ve got this magical knowledge, then you must also have some reasonable, plausible error correcting method. There must be some way to separate real from bogus metaphysics. You don’t think that just any idea can fly or count as non-scientific knowledge. You probably think that unicorns are not real, and that Deepak Chopra’s claims about an invisible life force permeating all of reality binding us together with love is suspicious. When Oprah got all excited about the Secret, we hope you were at least a little bit dubious. So what’s going to be the test to separate metaphysical bullshit from metaphysical knowledge?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Perfect Word of God

Amazingly, the view that the Bible is somehow inerrant, or the perfect word of God, still has widespread subscription. Anyone who’s made an effort to read it with any sort of objectivity finds the claim laughable. Yet it persists. Almost invariably, objections to the infallibility claim that point to conflicting passages, omissions, contradictions, errors, or God’s sociopathic behavior are met with blanket appeals to “context.” If only we can understand the context, it is said, then we can understand why it was actually morally just for God to command genocide, or for God to sanction the forcible abduction and rape of virgin girls by the Israelites, or the New Testament restrictions on the actions of women. What follows is a series of textual gymnastics designed to make the horrible or the contradictory less so.

For those who would still insist on the infallibility or perfection of the Bible, consider a simple, and glaring deception in the very titles of the books. The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have been presented and widely understood as the words of the four disciples of the same names. But it is now widely acknowledged, by even the most conservative scholars, that those four books were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Little to nothing is known about their authors except that they were not eye witnesses, they were not the apostles, and they were writing down stories that were retellings of retellings of retellings. They were given those names to foster the illusion of legitimacy and authenticity and the deception was propagated for centuries.

In a flimsy attempt to explain away this lie with “context” the believer may argue that Matthew wasn’t written by Matthew, but nevertheless, that gospel still tells the story of the apostle Matthew as it was later relayed to the author. But in fact, Matthew was cribbed for the most part, from the Gospel of Mark, so this attempt to explain away the glaring error in the perfect, error free text collapses too.

Far from being some sort of divinely guarded perfect record, the Bible is full of serious mistakes and deceptions. Not even the titles of the books can be trusted. It couldn't pass the rules concerning accuracy and plagiarism for a Freshman Composition class.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abducted by Aliens

Suppose a stranger comes up to you. He introduces himself. Let’s call him Smith. And he says that he has a very important story that he wants to tell you. There is a particular claim in that story that he thinks is very important for you to believe. But before he tells you the story, he tells you some details about how he came to know about it. As it turns out, the events in question didn’t happen to him. He didn’t see them. In fact, he hasn’t actually met or spoken to the people immediately involved in the story. The events in question actually took place a long time ago and then there were an unknown number of people between the actual events and the people who told him the story. But he’s quite sure that they are trustworthy. They were all honest, and well-intentioned. And he has heard that they were all passionate believers who were utterly sincere when they relayed the story.

As he thinks about it, Smith realizes that there are some other important details. “Now that I think about it,” he says, “the real events in this story actually happened hundreds of years ago. And there were some people who then retold the story for many decades before it was written down. But we don’t actually have the original documents where it was written down either. What we have are some copies of copies of copies of those original documents, where the original documents were based on retellings of retellings of retellings of the original story. I’m not sure really how many people there were in all of these intermediate steps between the actual events and you. I’m sure that they were all trustworthy, however. And they were all completely convinced about the authenticity of the story.” It occurs to you that from what he is saying, all of the people involved in the transmission of the story were zealous believers, so that if there had been some other relevant details or contrary evidence, it doesn’t seem likely that it would have survived unaltered.

So you ponder all of these layers of questions and unknowns as Smith prepares to actually divulge his important story. It concerns another man, call him Jones. Smith tells you a lot of things about Jones. But the most important part and the central claim of the story is that at one point Jones was abducted by aliens and disappeared off of the face of the earth.

Now you are in this situation. You have been told a story by someone who appears to be honest, sincere, and who believes in its truth without question. But he admits that there have been many people, many hands, and many years between the event in question and you. And the central claim that he wishes you to accept as true is that someone was abducted by aliens and never came back.

What’s the reasonable position to take with regard to Jones’ alien abduction? I think there’s no question that any reasonable person would reject it. I don’t even think most reasonable people would suspend judgment about it or be agnostic. Suspending judgment is typically the rational response when there seem to be equally compelling bodies of evidence for and against a claim. Surely your evidence in support of the conclusion that Jones was abducted by aliens is not equal in force to your evidence that no such thing happened. Smith seems like a trustworthy guy, but there are just too many unknowns, too many questions about the transmission of the story. And the story itself involves a claim that is simply outrageous and utterly unlike anything you have ever seen or heard. If a close friend who you know and trust came to you and tried to convince you that she had been abducted by aliens, you would be very skeptical. Even without the information transmission problems in the Jones story, the claim is one you would reject unless it met the highest burden of evidence. Furthermore, you don’t need to know what really did happen, or where or how the story might have been altered in order to be justified in disbelieving the story. The questions you have and the problems in the story by themselves are enough to justify rejecting it even without an alternative explanation. Given the obscurity of the event, it seems unlikely that anyone could ever really know what happened, if there was anything that happened at all.

The analogy here, obviously, is your epistemic position with regard to the resurrection of Jesus. The complaint will be that the story here is not analogous to the case of Jesus at all. There were hundreds of people who witnessed the miracles of Jesus. There are thousands of documents we have corroborating the events described in the New Testament. The people relaying the story were not some unknown strangers. The original witnesses were people of unquestionable integrity with no ulterior motives. Millions of people all over the world believe in the Jesus story. And so on.

In fact, we don’t have hundreds of eye witness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. We have 3 or 4 accounts that were written down decades after the fact that report hundreds of witnesses. Mark, and John seem to have separate accounts, and Matthew and Luke were cribbed from Mark and a source known as Q. We don’t even have the original Gospel accounts. We have some copies of copies of copies of them from the 200 years or so after the originals were written down. There are lots of other fragments of documents from much later in Christian history. And there were many early Christian documents that were banned, excluded, or destroyed because they did not agree with the settled on canonical version of the story. We don’t know how many people there were between the actual events and the authors of the Gospel accounts. We know very little about the authors of the Gospels except that they were not eye-witnesses and that they were writing down a story that had come to them by word of mouth. What we know about the character or the motives of the people involved in the alleged events is part of the information that we are getting in the story itself. So those claims about their integrity or their lack of ulterior motives cannot be used to support the authenticity of the story that claims they have integrity. There is no question that there are millions of people who believe the Jesus story. But the fact that so many other people believe itself cannot be used alone to justify believing. If all of those people believe, then they either believe reasonably or unreasonably. If they believe reasonably, then they must have sufficiently justifying grounds for that belief. If they believe on the basis of a mistake, then more people believing because they believe just amplifies the mistake. If those people believe reasonably, then presumably it is because the story of Jesus’ resurrection itself is sufficiently supported by the evidence. Our source of information about the resurrection of Jesus is the New Testament. If we are going to consider the New Testament seriously as evidence, then we are now faced with all the layers of difficulty and complication in Smith’s story about Jones.

You have some choices here. The only options really worth considering are either rejecting both the Jones abduction story and the Jesus resurrection story, or rejecting the Jones story while accepting the Jesus story. The former is the most reasonable. But I assume that many believers will acknowledge that the alien abduction story is preposterous, but Jesus’ resurrection is different. The only way to argue for that sort of division, I think, is to argue that there is some important difference between the two cases that makes one silly but the other reasonable. We’ve considered some of those possible disanalogies, but none of them are adequate to overcome the alien abduction defeater to the Jesus story.

Suppose there are some other differences that the believer will present. If there are, for example, differences X, Y, and Z between the story as the believer sees it. Then lets test those differences for reasonableness this way. Let’s alter the Jones alien abduction story by applying the X, Y, and Z differences and see if the result is that it becomes reasonable to believe. That is, if there are disanalogies between the two cases, then what changes do we need to make to Smith’s alien abduction story about Jones to make it analogous? What changes do we need to make to the abduction story to make it reasonable to believe?

I think that one of two things will happen when we do that. Either it will become painfully obvious that the believer is guilty of engineering an ad hoc justification in favor of the Jesus story, or it will become clear that the sorts of additions that need to be made to Smith’s story in order to make it reasonable are not true of the Jesus case. What will become clear is that the believer’s ideological and emotional commitment to the Jesus story has led them to adopt a double standard of justification that is incoherent.

Monday, February 9, 2009

When Do We Die?

We’re confused about death, despite the fact that is it so familiar and so common. Part of our confusion arises from a set of powerful superstitions and muddled myths about it.

The question of when a person dies is relevant to the God issue because so many evidential claims related to the afterlife, souls, immortality, transcendence, and even resurrection are so frequently made in conjunction with cases of human near death and death. It’s surprisingly common to encounter someone who insists that at one point during a medical procedure or after a car wreck they were “officially dead.” People who have undergone some physical trauma frequently claim to have had a near death or after death experience that is taken to be evidence of immortality or the survival of the soul. Such stories are titillating and get repeated endlessly to the point that they have substantially fortified views about the soul’s independence from the body. The stories fuels people’s false hopes, and amplifies the confusion. The more of these hope inducing cases people hear about, the less likely they are to face the brute medical facts and the less willing they are to acknowledge what we now know about death beyond any serious doubts.

The details: When a human being dies, accept under some extraordinary circumstances, it is better to consider their death to be a process that could take hours or even days surrounding the official pronouncement. There is no abrupt moment biologically when all bodily functions, all neurological functions stop. There are stages of increasing levels of tissue damage to more and more of the body’s systems, and as these stages advance, the likelihood of any resuscitation drops off dramatically. In the case of the brain and nervous system, as the damage proceeds, every indication is that the correlated functions of consciousness cease as well. (See my numerous other posts about the evidence concerning brain function and mental function.)

Clinical death is the cessation of blood circulation and breathing. As medical technology has advanced, the number of cases of clinical death where the patient is resuscitated and restored to full function has grown large. It has become increasingly possible to restore the beating of the heart and breathing.

Clinical death then, is not the irreversible end. The point at which resuscitation becomes exceedingly unlikely is brain death. After clinical death, oxygenated blood ceases to flow through the body. Without it, tissues begin to starve. Very soon, those tissues begin to die. Some of the most vulnerable tissues to destruction from blood and oxygen deprivation are neurons. After a few minutes, many areas of the brain are injured beyond repair. If resuscitation occurs 3 minutes or more after clinical death, then complete brain recovery is very rare. Damage to brain tissues occurs very soon after clinical death, but there is no established point or time beyond clinical death at which all brain functioning ceases.

The American Academy of Neurology’s guidelines for brain death are that the patient is unresponsive, there are no brainstem reflexes, and there is no breathing.

If a patient is clinically dead and brain dead, by these definitions, then the irreversible destruction of vital organs and tissues is rapid and widespread. It should be noted, however, that our methods for detecting brain activity or the proper function of brain tissues are still relatively crude. There are 100 billion neurons in the brain. All of them require oxygenated blood in order to function. During normal functioning, they develop ionized charges or action potentials that can be triggered by other neurons and that cascade outward to trigger the activations of other neurons.

When clinical death occurs, however, there are still countless electrical and chemical interactions that unfold. The cessation of all neural activity and the point at which there is irreversible damage to all of the brain could take a long time. The measures that doctors look for like the absence of brainstem reflexes indicate macro failures of vital systems in the brain, but they do not signal the end of all metabolic processes in the brain or body. Crude measures like EEGs capture large scale brain events, but not even the most powerful fMRI scanning machines we have today are capable of resolving the activity of individual neurons. fMRI machines detect relatively large volumes of oxygenated blood flow to regions of the brain. So it is reasonable to think that some neural activity will continue even after the macro indicators of brain function reveal no reactions. But even these lagging few neural events will taper off rapidly after the heart stops or there is other damage. It is not clear yet exactly how many and which neurons must continue to fire normally for the subjective experience of anything like consciousness or awareness to be sustained.

Let us call the absolute cessation and failure of function of all of the nerve cells in the body, absolute brain death. No one is revived from or survives absolute brain death. Occasionally people are resuscitated from clinical death. Even more rarely, patients have survived brain death. In many of those cases, the brain damage from the event remains and their cognitive functions are vastly impaired. In extreme cases, like Terry Schiavo, all of the so-called higher functions are gone and only the most rudimentary involuntary functions remain.

What about near death experiences? Can’t they provide us with evidence for life after death? The simple answer is no, not the ones that we typically hear about. For the most part, the stories about NDEs that we hear, if they are not fabrications, exaggerations, or mistakes, occur before clinical death, or perhaps between clinical death and brain death. No one is resuscitated from absolute brain death and comes back to tell us stories about the other side. This is important because that is precisely what would be required to make those stories interesting from a metaphysical perspective. If we could establish that someone’s brain had reached the point of absolute death, and yet despite lacking any neural function that might explain it, that subject had an experience of floating, moving towards the light, seeing Jesus, and so on, then we might have some testimonial evidence that would be important concerning the immortal soul.

The matter is further complicated by a timing problem. Suppose that Smith goes unconscious in the operating room at 10:00am on Monday, and then Smith becomes clinically dead at 10:45. But the doctors revive his heart and breathing by 10:46. And then Smith remains unconscious, recovering in ICU for two more days before gaining consciousness on Wednesday. After he wakes, Smith tells us that he has had a NDE, and that it has convinced him that there is an immortal afterlife.

In this particular scenario, and it is probably a common pattern, there was no point at which all brain function ceased. Smith never reached absolute brain death. He didn’t even reach brain death. The problem is that it is well established that the brain can produce all sorts of extraordinary experiences on its own without those experiences indicating anything real. Yours does it every night when you dream. So even though Smith can claim that he was dead (“clinically dead”), we have no reason to think that any sort of brainless existence occurred. And without that, there simply is no case whatsoever for any autonomous existence, or some separation of the soul from the body.

The other substantial problem here concerns the time. When exactly did Smith have his NDE? We are prone to assume that if someone says that they were “dead” and that they had an extraordinary experience, then they must have had it during the period when they were dead. We have seen that merely being clinically dead isn’t sufficient for out of body experience. But more importantly, how is it that Smith knows when the experience occurred? In our example, Smith is unconscious from 10:00am Monday until Wednesday. Are we convinced that if Smith says he went to some other place without his body that the experience could not possibly be something his brain cooked up over the course of two days of unconsciousness? We don’t have any reason here to think that the experience occurred at the same time as the spell of clinical death. And besides, given that clinical death is just the stopping of the heart and lungs, we don’t have any reason to attribute it to anything but faulty brain function.

Another important point is that despite the fact that there are billions of people now and in the past who have died on the planet, we do not have, that I am aware of, a single case of anything anomalous happening that might lend support to the afterlife claims. We don’t seem to have a single case that stands up to any serious scrutiny. No real communication with the dead, no one whose NDE can’t be easily explained neurologically, no significant empirical evidence.

But the question has been hopelessly muddled by so much widespread confusion about what it means to be clinically dead, brain dead, and what I have called absolutely dead. Human brains do weird and remarkable things when they suffer trauma or when the are subjected to extraordinary circumstances. And usually that makes it easy to explain what has happened when someone believes they have gone over to the other side.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Duplicity of Religious Moderation

There is the widespread view among religious moderates that there could be nothing objectionable about their participating in religious activities, ceremonies, and services as long as they don’t take some of the more outrageous, harmful, or erroneous claims seriously. In fact, this may be the most common position out there. “I enjoy going to church. I find the community edifying. The ceremonies are beautiful and inspiring. The art and music are wonderful,” etc. Even among famous religious skeptics, we find a soft spot for the cultural, emotive, and dramatic aspects of participating in religion. Richard Dawkins, perhaps to the dismay of believers, raves about the beauty of church hymns and music. Paul Kurtz describes this confined but rosy set of roles for religion, “The domain of the religious, I submit, is evocative, expressive, emotive. It presents moral poetry, aesthetic inspiration, performative ceremonial rituals, which act out and dramatize the human condition and human interests, and seek to slake the thirst for meaning and purpose. . . Religious language in this sense is eschatological. Its primary function is to express hope.” (Are Science and Religion Compatible?)

Kurtz, like a great many religious believers, endorses a kind of compatibilism regarding science and religion. There is no tension, no conflict, and no disagreement between the two because religion, as they describe it, has been scrubbed clean of the factual claims, all pretense to knowledge, and all of the assertions. The cognitive dissonance of compartmentalizing their religious activities from their scientific, empirical, and factual views is diminished because the religious moderate is just in it for the culture—the bells and smells, if you will. The religious moderate can’t really take the claim seriously that all life on earth was created in its present for 10,000 years ago, or that the juice and crackers actually turn into flesh and blood in your mouth, or that Adam and Eve were the first humans, or that snakes and burning bushes can talk. “We don’t actually, literally believe that stuff. But participating is edifying and wonderful, and at the very least, utterly harmless.”

The problem here is with the suggestion that one can participate so fully and enthusiastically, while “not really believing.” Do we really think that we can prostrate ourselves before God, utter the claims over and over, and generally mimic the more extreme religious believers without any ill effect? Can we read the Adam and Eve story again and again in a social context where it is taken seriously and literally, or fill our minds repeatedly with images of Jesus performing feats of magic, and still comfortably and readily acknowledge that they are “just stories,” not to be taken too literally? Here’s the Apostle’s Creed, regularly avowed to by millions of Christians:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence He shall come to judge the quick and dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the Body, and the Life everlasting. Amen

Can you repeat this thousands or tens of thousands of times while surrounding yourself with people who all claim to genuinely believe it, and have it be evocative and aesthetic, but not contribute to any sort of attitude in your mind about what is real and what is true?

Keep in mind that my objection here only concerns the religious moderate who does not claim to take all these religious pronouncements so literally and seriously. Ironically, the evangelicals or the less moderate believers will agree with me: The things you say in church are serious, and should not be taken lightly. There is cognitive dissonance, and a degree of intellectual dishonesty in going through the motions without addressing the grounds and authenticity of the things you are saying and doing. Saying it and not meaning it is duplicitous.

The more extreme believers and I agree that we should all either believe and have good grounds for belief, or we should not pretend. The disagreement we will then have will be about whether or not there are rationally justifying grounds available to us to support these claims. But that’s all a different fight.

The religious moderate, in conceding that they don’t take lots of those things so literally or seriously, isn’t guilty of such outright irrationality. They want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to go through the motions and participate without epistemic responsibility for the words coming out of their mouths or the significance of their kneeling, hand waving, and prostrations.

What I’m arguing is first that we can’t really fully compartmentalize that way. We can’t really dissolve the cognitive dissonance because it isn’t really possible to strip out all of the metaphysical or assertion content from those actions. And second, trying to do so involves the religious moderate in an intellectual dishonesty and duplicity that none of us should be so willing to dismiss. Words matter and actions count. We all know that. A couple of examples makes it painfully clear.

Suppose that a boy is raised in the deep south as a member of the Klan. All his life, on a regular basis, his family, friends, and other from the community put on their white robes and hoods, and hold highly ritualized Klan meetings. They sing songs, burn crosses, hear devotionals about the evils of the inferior mogrel races, and so on.

Now he’s grown up. He’s become enlightened in his life and come to realize that contrary to what he was taught all of his life, black people are not genetically inferior, and the same for lots of the other things that he had always heard in those Klan ceremonies. Suppose he’s gotten so far past his upbringing that he’s fallen in love with and married a black woman.

After all those years, however, he’s held onto his robe and hood. And on Sundays he still enjoys putting it on and going to Klan rallies. He finds the songs and rituals evocative and aesthetically inspiring. The ceremonies, he tells his outraged wife, dramatize the human condition and “seek to slake the thirst for meaning and purpose.” And so on. He doesn’t really believe any of that stuff, he tells her. All that talk and ritual shouldn’t be taken so seriously and literally. And as long as the value of the Klan rallies are solely cultural and eschatological, there can’t be anything wrong with his going along.

The objection to the analogy, of course, will be that the ceremonies and words of religious services are not comparable to the malice and error of the Klan rally. The religious moderate will insist that while much of what people do and say in church isn’t literally true, it isn’t evil, or racist, or intolerant, or just so misguided.

There are several responses, however. First, in fact, a great deal of what goes on in churches and mosques and other religious ceremonies is intolerant, disrespectful, erroneous, and even racist or malicious. The rantings against white America from President Obama’s former preacher, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, do not represent a tiny, obscure splinter sect. The mobilization from religious groups in favor of Proposition 8 in California recently to ban gay marriage was massive. When you go along with all of that, you’re culpable. Furthermore, it can be no accident that 51% of Americans still refuse to believe that life on Earth evolved. 55% of Americans subscribe to some form of rapture theology. And 36% maintain that the Book of Revelations with it’s apocalyptic imagery of 7 horned goats and an anti-Christ who lays waste to all the non-believers is “true prophecy.” For a lot of people, they aren’t just going along, evidently. They mean it. Is that you, or are you just one of the ones who sits quietly while they pump up their outrageous ideas?

Furthermore, when considered from some distance the Klan example doesn’t appear disanalogous because of their outrageous ideas. Is the Klan theory about the bastardized, mogrel, non-white races being descended from animals that much more outrageous than the view that an evil super being sends invisible, malicious demons to infect the bodies and minds of unsuspecting believers? Or that virgins can give birth? Or that dead people can come back from the grave?

Second, even if there is a significant difference between going to Klan rallies for nostalgia’s sake and the moderates’ engagement with religion, it is a difference in degree not in kind. We’ve all got to agree that it is highly implausible that a person could sanitize or compartmentalize their participation in such ceremonies enough to eliminate its cognitive and social effects. If the religious moderate is really convinced that their participation can be isolated, and the Klan example is too outrageous, then she should try these experiments:

Stand up in a room full of people you know and loudly announce, “I pledge my eternal soul to Satan, my master.” Those are just words, afterall, that need not be taken literally. Could you say it several times every day for years without its having any effect on you? Wouldn’t you worry at least a little bit that making the pledge might actually give your soul to Satan?

Imagine fully participating and performing all of the prayers, recitations, and physical ceremonies in an Islamic religious service, or some other unfamiliar tradition.

Suppose that President Obama had chosen to say, “So help me Allah.” at the end of his presidential oath.

Suppose that instead of “In God we trust,” U.S. currency said, “In Allah we trust,” or “In Satan we pledge our trust.”

For Catholics, instead of pledging yourself to the Nicene creed, imagine pledging to a religious creed that explicitly denies Catholicism.

And so on.

If you are being honest, you will acknowledge that some of these experiments, or something like them, would at least give you a twinge of hesitation. Perhaps you’d be so uncomfortable you would flat out refuse to do it. That is because words and actions matter. We can’t really detach ourselves from religious behaviors to such an extent that their metaphysical and factual import vanishes. And that means that you cannot be epistemically disengaged from rational responsibility for your words and ceremonial activities.

There are other unintended side effects from faking it. By saying it and acting it out, over and over again, we encourage more sloppiness, magical thinking, confusion, and duplicity in ourselves and those around us. If you know better, but fake it anyway, what are you doing to others who are genuinely trying to understand whether there is a God, or whether he talks to us through burning bushes? What about children who trust and mimic the words and actions of the adults they see? What precedent do you set or fortify by letting false, misleading, intolerant, or harmful ideas and practices slide? If it is negligent or abusive for me to refuse to get medical care for my children when they need it, or to fail to feed them, then how much better is it to fill their heads with patently false ideas about the world that I don’t really believe and that we have good reasons to reject?

The religious moderate wants to paint religion in the glowing light of cultural and metaphorical edification. He insists that he can bracket off the false, offending, extreme, or misleading assertions and implications of the words and actions. But we all know that you can’t talk the talk, or walk the walk over and over again with complete detachment. The ideas sink in. The influences are there, whether we acknowledge them or not. And the duplicity is bad for the moderate and for those around him.