Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Case Against Christ: The Salem Witch Trials

Atheist comedian and the mind behind the Atheist Church, Keith Lowell Jensen interviewed me recently and asked about some of the arguments I've been making about Jesus:

Salem Witch Trials Argument, pt. 1

Salem Witch Trials Argument, pt 2.

Keith's You Tube page and lots of other videos and stuff from Atheist Church are here:

Keith Lowell Jensen, atheist comedian

Monday, August 3, 2009

Is God Impossible or Kind of Impossible?

A priori justification ain't what it used to be. There was a time when philosophers and mathematicians perhaps thought that when we engaged in deductive, a priori constructions of proofs for claims from propositions that we know to be true a priori, then those conclusions are as justified as anything can be. That is, when we reason deductively and without error from truths that we know without any appeal to the empirical world, then we acquire new knowledge of a broader world. Science and empirical reasoning are one thing, but conceptual analysis and a priori reasoning are another.

And traditionally, for obvious reasons, many people who believe in God have placed their hopes for justifying proof of the being on this sort of reasoning. God’s existence is not the sort of things that can be known or revealed through empirical experience, they have conceded. But we can infer God through reasoning as a perfect being who cannot fail to exist, or perhaps as the necessary first cause of it all where the only empirical premise is that there exists a universe (that needs to be explained by a first cause.)

These attempts to justify belief in God a priori have been on the wane. Plantinga’s version of the ontological argument in the 70s was probably the last, best hope for this camp. But in the end, even Plantinga conceded that he couldn’t prove the existence of God with his argument. What he had done, he said, was establish the rational acceptability of believing that God exists. Careful readers will not in God, Freedom, and Evil that what he really seemed to do was assert the rational acceptability of believing in God’s existence without much argument. And even if we grant the point, showing the rational acceptability of believing in God’s existence is a far cry from showing God’s existence. Many claims have been rationally acceptable, of course, while being far from the truth.

But what’s interesting here is that there is a large literature now devoted to showing that God is impossible on more or less conceptual, a priori grounds. There are problems individually with omniscience, omnipotence, moral perfection, omnipresence, and there are countless more problems that arise when you try to mix and match these properties and the others that have been traditionally attributed to God. See Ted Drange’s: For several good examples. Also see my atheism bibliography for many more articles and books in these categories. And see my atheism encyclopedia entry for more details about the families of arguments in the literature:

There are some philosophers who continued to plug away at the a priori, natural theology project, but for the most part, it appears that they have given up that pursuit. Attention has shifted in recent decades to giving empirical evidence for God with fine tuning arguments or first cause arguments with appeal to modern astronomy and cosmology.

So what attitude should we take about the host of deductive disproofs for God’s existence. Have those arguments really settled it once and for all? It would see, and many of those authors have argued that if God is logically, conceptually impossible, then God doesn’t exist.

I think that if we are going to learn some lessons from history here about what a priori and deductive justifications are in general, we have to proceed a bit carefully.

Here’s the problem. Especially since the developments in math, geometry, logic, and epistemology in the 19th and 20th century, proof in the old, strong a priori sense of the word just isn’t what it used to be. There’s a huge amount of detailed back story here, but the issue with a priori justification comes down to this. It looks like there are no indefeasible, non-revisable grounds of truth upon which to base proving. It looks the best way for us to proceed is to acknowledge that even for the kinds of reasoning and rules of inference that we thought were most removed from any sort of empirical consideration or revision are defeasible and empirical. Logic itself, deductive reasoning, and conceptual analysis should be subject to revision depending on the state of our empirical observations, our broad theories about what is real, and the vast web of other propositions that we think describe the world. Humans are engaged in a large model making enterprise where they seek to get the ideas they have to line up as closely as possible to the observations they make, their predictions, and their needs. They should also be trying to construct this flotilla of world ideas so that it achieves the highest level of logical and probabilistic coherence possible, and it should have the highest degree of integration and fewest anomalies possible. We have learned from history that our description of what’s real in the world works best—makes the best predictions, explains the most data—when we more and better observations and we make it conform to those observations. As we improve the integrated justification between the claims in the system to reduce anomalies, and as we move towards a more and more comprehensive system, it is able to give us better descriptions of the world we are observing.

In that context then, what would it mean to give a priori disproof of God’s existence? We should take those disproofs as adding serious questions to the overall viability of the God hypothesis as an accurate description of ultimate reality. Let’s treat the God hypothesis as one story among many that attempts to describe what is real. And we should accept it, just like we should for any other account, to the extent that it fits with the rest of what we think we know about the world. It should not only fit with, but give us clear, robust predictions about the behavior and nature of objects in the physical world. It should not have implications that conflict directly with what we can observe to be true. At some point, if the God hypothesis is being presented as a description of reality, then there should be some sort of empirical implications. It should make a difference somehow in the way things are. That is, there must be some distinguishable way in which we would be able to tell the difference between the hypothesis being false and its being true. These real manifestations can be indirect and far removed from God himself—our observations of muons and gamma radiation are far from direct—but if we are going to take the hypothesis seriously as a description of real things (and that includes numerous claims about what is not real) then it’s got to make some real difference or other.

What disproofs for God’s existence do is contribute significantly to the long list of puzzles, paradoxes, and unanswered questions we have about the God hypothesis. If there is a God, then whatever he is, it’s going to have be something that helps make sense of all of these forceful arguments that God doesn’t make any sense. What disproofs of God do is make it harder and harder to sustain belief in a host of the versions of the God hypothesis that have been put before us. As the problems mount with the geocentric theory of the universe, or with a theory of the aether, or with the elan vital theory of life, their descriptions of reality show more and more strain until they collapse under the weight of observation, theory, and other evidence and we jettison them. We’ve got ample grounds for rejecting lots and lots of the versions of the God hypothesis that people have believed. The Earth and all plant and animal life were not created in their present form 6,000-10,000 years ago. God can’t have the power to do logically impossible acts because that creates untenable paradoxes.

Given the various problems with different God hypotheses that have been articulated in the deductive atheology literature and elsewhere, the questions for any person who wants to be reasonable and who cares about the evidence are, 1) what sorts of viable God hypotheses are left? 2) how many ad hoc patch jobs does a thoughtful person have to do on their idea of God to get something they can sign on for? 3) what are the real grounds that I have that are leading me to think that this new patched up version of God is the one that I thought existed all along? or what is the connection between this God and the one that I used to believe in? (You could similarly patch up your idea of Santa after your parents tell you that they put the presents under the tree.) 4) Is the patched up version of God that I am left with really worthy of the name “God,” and worth all of this fuss? And finally, I’ve got to ask about your motivations. If you find yourself answering objections to God hypotheses from the skeptic with otherwise unmotivated or arbitrary special provisions (“Well, it’s virtuous for humans to show compassion for natural disaster victims, but God’s virtue requires that he allow the suffering.”), what’s really motivating you? Is it that if you were to take a completely impartial look at the evidence and the situation, the reasonableness of this God hypothesis would be obvious? It’s not to the rest of us.

Some of the theistically inclined may protest here and insist that empirical requirements that are being imposed here are the ones that science and naturalism employ, but it is by no means obvious that their success in that realm insures that they must be the global criterion for all truth or all knowledge. They will acknowledge that humanity has acquired a great deal of knowledge by means of this route, but they balk at the imposition of the criteria as the only arbiter of what is known or real. Science is fine for what it does, but we should understand its proper domain. Invariably, this sort of criticism of empiricism and naturalism is followed by the refrain: There are other routes to knowledge.

Ok fine, let’s follow this out. First, a lot more work needs to be done here before someone can claim that there are other routes to knowledge. “Science’s success doesn’t prove it’s totality.” Ok, but neither does the domain point here imply that there is another non-empirical realm or any non-empirical, non-natural means of acquiring knowledge of it. The critics of naturalism here can’t simply announce that THERE ARE OTHER ROUTES TO KNOWLEDGE and take it to be justified to believe that claim simply by its assertion. What are the grounds upon which this claim is built? Is it reasonable to believe it? Is it justified? Do we have an abundance of other cases where some other ultimately non-natural method has succeeded that we can point to for an analog? Math? Philosophy? But that’s the problem—no one thinks that those sort of proofs for God work, not even God’s most enthusiastic believers in those fields. At most, what the critic might be entitled to say (and I’d want to see some careful reasoning up to this point) is that IT IS POSSIBLE that there are other routes to knowledge. And under the right circumstances with the rights sorts of justifications and conditions stipulated, I might concur. But it is possible that monkeys will fly out of my butt and monkeys WILL fly out of my butt are two entirely different matters, requiring very different sorts of justification. (I have found that a persistence confusion between something’s being possible and it’s being reasonable to believe is one of the most serious and common mistakes in philosophical theology.)

Suppose that we grant that it is possible that there are other routes to knowledge. Then what? We need to know exactly what that route is first. Then we need to have some sort of criteria by which to judge whether it is actually a route to knowledge of reality or whether it’s just more metaphysical bullshit. If you’re going to defend this route to God, be forewarned: you are casting yourself in with every kook, new ager, spiritualist, medium, psychic, palm reader, con artist, witch doctor, witch, Wiccan, and hippy that has ever walked the earth and who thought they had tapped into some other ultimate reality. And you’ve got to separate yourself from the pack. You need to give some plausible, non-ad hoc account of how it is that your special, magical, transcendent method for allegedly knowing the truth works and theirs doesn’t. If there’s no error checking, or no way to separate the true from the false, then the sailboats are all just adrift. And there are too many examples of human judgment being unfettered from the empirical world and taking off for the jungles of crazy land for us to just take your word for it. Besides, as I suggested before, we’re beginning to question your motives. It’s starting to look like no matter what sort of question, paradox, or objection comes up, you’re going to engineer a way to salvage the God idea. It’s starting to look like the God belief in your head is calling all the shots and your reason, your passions, and all of your arguments have been enslaved to it. The question that I frequently come back to here is, just hypothetically, what WOULD you acknowledge as reasonable grounds for rejecting the God idea? And if the answer is “nothing,” then you’ve already left on the bus to crazy land and the rest of us are giving up hope being able bring you back with reason.