Author Archives: Debilis

Co-opting Science Shows a Lack of Respect

fiery_preacherThere are few people who disrespect science more consistently, or more flagrantly, than the fans of Richard Dawkins.

A real respect for science, in my view, includes a respect for understanding clearly what science does in general, and what a given experiment  shows in particular.

It makes me uncomfortable to sit in a church and listen to a preacher carelessly speak for God–simply assuming that the divine backs his particular social view without bothering to give a reason.

I have a similar reaction to those who claim to speak for science, insisting that it has shown things that it simply has not. Generally, this involves claims that science has never actually tested, and takes no position on.

As a lover of science, I find this disrespectful.

More often than not, it isn’t even a specific study that is being referenced. Rather, there is simply a vague wave in the direction of “science has shown” or “this is a scientific way of thinking”. It never seems to occur to people that science hasn’t “shown” anything that wasn’t demonstrated experimentally,  and not having tested a thing definitely means that there is no experimental demonstration.

This is typically how co-opting science for one’s purposes starts. When pressed, however, it begins to take a more targeted form: deeply distorting what a particular experiment concluded (or was even testing in the first place).

And sloppiness about what is being tested in an experiment, and, consequently, the wild extrapolations made by the New Atheists, are deeply out of touch with the scientific method.

They are also insulting to real science.

Science is powerful precisely because it is careful not to claim more than it has found. The New Atheists can be heard extolling this virtue all across the internet–yet the attempts to make science claim more than it does are every bit as common.

From glibly asserting that Libet’s experiments disprove free will (though Libet himself pointed out how careful examination of his experiments shows no such thing), to the general claim that God’s existence is somehow a scientific question (that has been tested experimentally) isn’t simply an affront to theology, philosophy, logic, and reason. It is also an affront to science.

By all means, let us enjoy the technologies science provides. And let us not forget to appreciate the hard work and brilliance of those who advance scientific knowledge.

But the fact remains that tacking on glib, untested internet memes as if they should enjoy the respect that real science has earned is worse than non-scientific. It rightly offends those who respect genuine science.

 


Secular Dogma

sj-sallyMoving on from individual religious experience, Mackie discuses religious histories. In particular, he discusses secular religious histories, and I find myself largely in agreement with his conclusions.

That is, Mackie rightly sees that all the most famous theories on the origins and social function of religion are far too reductionistic to be considered valid. They all seem to assume that, because they can point to a particular effect or use of religion, they have thereby explained all religion.

In pointing out these problems, Mackie makes a rather penetrating observation of Marxism:

“What is more, the characteristic Marxist over-optimism of expecting social conflict and alienation themselves to disappear after a proletarian revolution is itself best understood as a kind of secularized salvationism, the expression of a consoling illusion different, indeed, in specific content but not in general character from the vision of a supernatural ideal realm.”

This caught my attention, not because Marxism is terribly relevant to our current social context, but because similar observations can be made, in any time, of those who are most passionately anti-religious.

The current wave of anti-theists (the New Atheists) can be almost entirely understood as enlightenment-revivalists. Setting aside their lack of concern for what killed the enlightenment in the first place, the logical problems with its propaganda, and the horrific acts it spawned, it is worth noting that the same sort of secular salvationism does seem to have taken hold in this group.

There is a near-constant implication, after all, that the problems of humanity–threats of terrorism, oppression of the poor, lack of education–will be removed or greatly diminished so long as one can rid the world of religion. There is even, if one looks for it, an unspoken assumption that one can count one’s self one of the “brights”, one of the intelligensia, if only one can thoroughly embrace an atheistic way of thinking.

In both cases, we have a secularized salvationism–the first being social, and the second a matter of personal value and identity. This is not unlike the religious claim that devotion to God is beneficial to society and empowering to the individual.

Essentially, the emotional issues traditionally addressed by the world’s great religions are fundamental questions of the human condition. These needs cannot be removed from one’s nature simply by rejecting particular answers to them, or eschewing the trappings of religion.

A thoughtful approach, therefore, will not simply replace one consoling illusion for another–say, dogmatic religion for dogmatic atheism–but by taking an altogether more nuanced view of both these questions and the answers presented by the world’s great religions.

And that is where one must start (and where far too many refuse to start): asking these basic questions and examining the options available.

When one does this, the foibles, and sheer uselessness, of blunt materialism become much more obvious.


Materialism vs the Mind

maxresdefaultHow do you know that you are conscious?

It may seem silly to ask that question. That one is conscious is so obvious, there seems to be no reason to bother asking about how one knows it. Personally, I might have agreed, were it not for the number of times I’ve heard others insist that humans only know things through scientific investigation.

In fact, materialism is rooted in the idea that there is nothing other than the physical. It takes as its starting point that the sciences are the only legitimate form of investigation–because there is nothing other than that which science studies.

But there simply is no scientific test for whether or not one is conscious.

Most of us have never had a brain scan. And anyone who pauses to reflect on the situation will realize that it won’t tell you that you are conscious unless you already know it. Neurology reveals correlations between brain activity and behavior; it does not reveal consciousness to anyone who doesn’t already know that it exists.

In fact, there is no scientific test for whether or not consciousness really exists–or is simply a delusion.

Of course, one could insist that, while there is currently no scientific test for consciousness, there will be someday. While I’m sure that neurology will do amazing things, there are reasons why this won’t be one of them.

But that is a side-point. More pertinently, I don’t know anyone who claims to be unsure about whether or not consciousness exists–and is waiting for neurologists to get back to us on that.

And that, it seems to me, is the long and short of it. Those who know that they are conscious believe in something without scientific evidence for it.

And this leaves the blunt materialist (such as the New Atheists) in a rather difficult situation. Either admit that there are ways of knowing outside of science, or recant all belief that one is sometimes conscious.

Some, believe it or not, have chosen the latter view, which leads me to suspect that there are motivations for believing in materialism that have nothing to do with a desire to be rational.


If I’m Guilty, it’s Your Fault

Passing blame for guiltIn making a case against theism, Mackie offers a side comment that I think is worth attention–if only because so many keep making it.

That is, Mackie suggests that religions themselves create the very sense of guilt they claim to cure–and that the relief and elation they offer do not adequately compensate for this pain.

As in nearly every case, Mackie merely suggests this, making it unclear whether he’s actually claiming it (without defending the idea) or simply mentioning it in passing. It isn’t until the end of each section, when he often declares that a line of argument is completely defeated, that it becomes clear that he was actually making claims.

But others have been quite a bit more bold in making this accusation of religious traditions, if no more able to make a legitimate case for it.

Of course there are particular religious groups, sects, and leaders that have done this very thing. I don’t know of anyone who denies that guilt has been abused.

But to say that this is somehow universal strikes me as completely strange–and I’ve never seen a legitimate psychological study which supports the idea that religion in general increases feelings of guilt.

In fact, it’s pretty obvious that all thoughtful people realize that we can and should be much better than we are. It only makes sense that our belief systems will reflect this fact.

I suspect that part of the problem here is simple appeal to novelty. The common-sense idea that people aren’t as good as we should be just isn’t as exciting as conspiracy theories about evil Popes wringing their hands in glee over causing pain. But there is, I think, at least one more factor.

We happen to be living in a time where guilt is often scorned as one of the great evils. Like all eras, we make a point to remember those times and places which best illustrate our beliefs. We know all about excesses and abuses of guilt. We seem to almost studiously ignore the fact that a lack of guilt is also very dangerous.

Though it would be healthier to seek a balance here, it is much more in line with the popular narrative to demand that guilt is some unnatural thing foisted upon us by religion. But those who demand evidence before believing a thing should reject that view out of hand.

 


Only the Worst Positions Allowed

KwameJoseph-WorstEverThe list of ways in which the New Atheists misrepresent theism has gotten pretty long in recent years. Still, there are some major themes which seem to be at the core of most of the problem.

One would think that it would be a simple matter to clear up a few basic misunderstandings, but it is amazing how often proponents of this disinformation are utterly convinced that they are doing no such thing–even when they are in the middle of spreading it.

Enter the particular misunderstanding to be discussed:

If you’re demanding that the Bible be interpreted literally, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

It is incredibly common for anyone who interprets any passage of the Bible (not just Genesis 1-3) non-literally to be dismissed with a simple “well, you clearly reject real Christianity anyway”.

The first thing that needs to be said, I suppose, is that not even the most fundamentalist believer takes the Bible absolutely literally at every passage. To demand that one is simply not a theist unless one is even more literal than the fundamentalist is definitely a straw man fallacy.

So much has been said by others. What I’d like to add, however, is a note about how quick people are to deny that this kind of demand adds up to a claim about what Christianity is.

I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve been told that atheists don’t try to define God, but merely respond to what the theist claims. I’ve been told this by people who promptly demand that I’m completely wrong to interpret a passage of the Bible differently than they do. This is a blatant contradiction.

Also, it is a false dichotomy.

Whether or not the New Atheist take on the Bible is correct (it isn’t), the point is that this is no reason to be an atheist. And the New Atheists are simply wrong to demand (as most of them do) that the only options on the table are their fundamentalist atheism or a religion even more fundamentalist than Falwell’s.

The simple fact is that none of the arguments for theism I’ve presented here have relied on trusting the Bible as authoritative, let alone literal. Yet attacks on such bad theology are frequently presented as irrefutable counters to them.

All this shows, then, is that one (very silly) understanding of Christianity is false. It doesn’t address theism, or defend the materialism that the New Atheists embrace.

So, let’s agree at the outset that the weird caricature of theism that the New Atheists mock is untrue. It seems reasonable that we should then move on to at least two other ideas:

1. The concept of theism that is actually being defended, and

2. The materialist atheism that has gone strangely undefended.

So far, the response I’ve received to the first is a perpetual bewilderment at what I’m saying. At every point, atheists claim to not understand my actual beliefs (leading me to wonder how they can be so confident that they’ve refuted my beliefs)

As to the second, that’s generally ignored. And, though I count it a victory in debate that materialists are so completely unable to defend their view, I’d hoped for more thoughtful engagement than a skirting of the issue.

That is to say, those who claim that we shouldn’t believe things without evidence should completely reject materialism.


Materialists Don’t Believe in Matter

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“We only know the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to – as to this, physics is silent.”

-Bertrand Russel

To say that color, sound, taste, etc, as common sense understands these things, is not a property of material objects (but only exist in our minds), and that all there really is to matter is what physics tells us about it, is to (implicitly) reject materialism.

The reason is fairly simple: To say that matter doesn’t actually have these other properties (that scientists set aside when doing experiments) is just another way of saying that these properties are immaterial. Once one has done that, one is committed to some kind of cartesian dualism (whether one likes it or not).

This is for the very simple fact that science doesn’t operate without the sensations of the mind that materialists dismiss as not being part of matter. Theories, or any kind of explanation, cannot exist without reference to these properties. If one is going to say that these aren’t part of matter, then say that nothing more than matter exists, one dismisses science.

The only way to dismiss the cartesianism that materialists passionately mock is to find a way of saying that these extra traits, which are ignored by physics, are actually properties of matter after all.

Of course, many materialists think they have this answer in neuroscience. They seem to think that science will one day explain how these ideas arise from the brain. Personally, I’m convinced that neuroscience will one day explain much about the causal processes in the brain. But it simply cannot explain things that, as a science, it is forbidden to take into account.

Which is exactly where this started. And we can’t solve a problem using the same method that created the problem in the first place. Science (neuroscience as much as any other) ignores qualia (sensations as common sense understands them). It can record what brain-processes tend to be associated with people claiming (verbal behavior) to experience particular qualia. It cannot describe them. It leaves that to writers and other artists.

But there is always the option that Russell suggests: putting these extra things back into our concept of matter, and to quit demanding that the picture of reality given to us by physics is exhaustive.

After all, that demand is philosophical, not scientific. No scientific test on it has ever been (or could ever be) done on it. Those who demand that scientific evidence should be required before forming a belief should definitely reject this claim that there are no properties of matter other than what physics studies.

The trouble with this is that it means the abandonment of materialism. Once one is willing to accept that the properties of matter revealed by experience offer us information about the physical not offered by science (and, indeed, which science depends on), one is moving back toward a premodern view of the world–and all the arguments for theism that go with it. But that is the only way to believe in matter without believing in a cartesian view of the soul.

In general, passionate materialists respond to this argument as they do to many others: by appealing to the unknown. Who knows what the answer is, but they are “okay with not knowing”, and apparently are confident that the answer will be a better fit with materialism than the alternatives.

Personally, I don’t see a logical difference between being okay with not knowing, in this sense, and appealing to magic. But, on a more personal level, this makes a certain amount of sense. All roads before us, if one follows the path of logic, lead to theism.

The only way to maintain one’s atheism, in this case, is to stand at the intellectual crossroads and be “okay with not knowing”.


Why be Good?

shutterstock_38222407Following up on my earlier post on the moral argument for God’s existence, I wanted to address a tangent that I’m usually forced to let alone for the sake of sticking to the point.  That is, most of the objections to it show a marked confusion about the nature of Christian morality.

That is, if you think that threats of Hell are the basis of Biblical morals, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

One would think that the fact that Christianity is about forgiveness would be well-known enough that “You are good because you’re afraid that God will send you to Hell” would be widely recognized as a terrible argument.

But it is tragic that more people don’t know what the actual motivating force of ethical behavior is within Christianity. Far too many people, even many Christians, are missing out on the brilliance of the idea. So, what is it?

In a word, gratitude.

Christianity, though not necessarily the Christian, recognizes that reward-punishment systems tend to make us either arrogant or terrified, judgmental or guilty. This is a death-trap. Those who think they are good enough tend to be condemning to anyone not living up to their standards, and those who know we could be (and should be) better are very often plagued by self-accusation.

Terrible as it is that so many have fallen into this trap, this is a very big part of what forgiveness was meant to dispel. Forgiveness is meant to drill home to the arrogant person that he didn’t earn any right to claim to be good–and isn’t better than other people–while simultaneously showing the guilty person that she is indeed accepted.

Those who understand, and believe in, this truth will naturally begin to become a better person.

The process is simple, if difficult to live out: the one who knows she has more than she deserves is grateful, and genuinely grateful people do kind things without expecting to get something back, without hoping or demanding that she’ll be rewarded, but just because the thankfulness overflows out of her.

I, for one, believe that gratitude is the core of all human virtue. It is how we can help others without being secretly condescending or selfish. And that is the brilliance of the (actual) Biblical approach to morality.


Amoral Morality?

morality_croppedIn addition to not talking about Christianity, I’ve noticed that quite a few respondents to the arguments for God’s existence don’t actually talk about those arguments, either. Obviously, every argument is going to suffer from evasive responses to some degree, but it definitely occurs to some more than others.

My vote for the winner in this category is the moral argument for God’s existence.

Overwhelmingly, there are two basic responses to the moral argument that one is likely to encounter. (But, as a side note, I’m not sure whether the atheists who happen by would rather I made these responses sound calm and thoughtful or punchy and full of memes. I’ll  go with the typical New Atheist version I hear, but apologies in advance to the more genteel and thoughtful atheist.)

The first response usually reads a lot like this:

“I don’t need the Bible to tell me to be moral! It’s full of awful, terrible things, and only a complete sociopath would need that anyway. Are you a sociopath? I can’t believe how messed up you religious types are if you can’t be moral except because God threatens you with Hell. I do the right thing because it is right–not (like you) because I’m trying to avoid punishment.”

I don’t think there’s a book long enough to deal with all of the errors in this paragraph, but for those inclined to agree with it, let me point out the main issue.

Simply put, the argument isn’t for sociopaths. It is for people who agree that there is such a thing as moral truth. This is how reasoning to a conclusion works–we see something that is, then wonder how it could be explained. In this case, we see morality, then reason to the conclusion that God is the best explanation for it.

Of course, there are some wild claims about the Bible (and why theists are moral) here as well, but I’ll not get into that because it is beside the point. An attack on a very particular (and bad) interpretation of the Bible neither offers us a secular basis of morality, nor shows us that there isn’t such a thing.

But what of the claim that the atheist does what is right because it is right? That always struck me as a bit self-righteous, but the bigger issue is the second typical response:

“Morality is simply the result of empathy, which was put into people by evolutionary pressures. This kind of herd thinking helped our ancestors to survive, and it still helps us today. Cooperation is very powerful, and being good to others is what is best for you, in the long run.”

This is a pretty blatant contradiction of the first response, which is why I’m so often surprised to run across people who give me both responses in the same conversation–often in the same paragraph.

To say that morality is what is best for one is to deny that one does what is right because it is right. It is, specifically, to claim that one has selfish motivations for doing what is right. It is also to deny that there is any objective morality at all.

That’s fine, if one wants to do this, but this is precisely what the theist was claiming: that theism is the best explanation for objective morality. To respond with “well, as an atheist, I don’t believe in objective morality, but only that people have empathy” is to concede that point.

But, of course, the proponents of this response like to underline that empathy is “good enough”, and that nothing else needs to be explained. But I find that impossible to square with another claim these same persons make.

Namely, that we shouldn’t believe things without a rational reason to do so.

To say that we should have all kinds of moral attitudes, not because those things are really true, but simply because we feel a certain emotion (empathy), is to deny outright that one only believes based on reason and evidence.

At this point in the conversation, I’m usually treated to long, and increasingly impatient descriptions of how empathy might have arisen in the human species–as if proving that would counter anything I’ve said here.

One can reject objective morality in the name of atheism, or reject atheism in the name of morality. What one can’t rationally do, however, is claim that “are you a sociopath”, or “evolution made us empathetic” has much of anything to do with the moral argument for God’s existence.


Materialsm or Your Lying Eyes

groucjoAfter defending the argument from evil, Mackie turns to the theistic argument from religious experience. This is probably the argument that comes the closest to the average theist’s reasons for believing: some personal experience of the divine presence. Though it is not an often used argument in academic discussions, it warrants attention for this reason.

I entered the chapter expecting to largely agree with Mackie. I expected that he’d focus on the entirely reasonable point that one person’s experience is not necessarily evidence to another (though even this isn’t really right). But he didn’t seem interested in doing so. Rather, he precedes to argue that having a religious experience is not a good reason to become a theist.

He does so first by posing the question as to whether or not such experiences are real. Of course, all people agree that it is possible to have artificial experiences (hallucinations or the like), but this is not much of an argument on its own.

That is, anyone who eats and moves in the real world implicitly agrees that one should take experience for valid unless there is a reason to suspect it.

As such, Mackie has the burden of proof on this particular point, but it is not clear whether he understands this.

As is often the case with Mackie, goalposts seem to shift around as he writes. He points out that people have experiences of different, contradictory beliefs (referencing the different religions of the world). Of course, this is a genuine issue for any particular religion. What it is not is a reason to be an atheist. After all, people disagree on matters of fact all the time; saying that people disagree doesn’t prove that all of them are wrong.

Evidence for one religion is indeed evidence against another. What it is not is evidence for atheism, and the “many religions” argument really adds up to no more than variations on this logical fallacy.

Mackie, however, moves on to better points. He claims that there are other explanations for religious experience–namely, the subconscious. This definitely shows the trends of his time; today we’d speak in terms of evolutionary psychology (though I’m not convinced that’s an improvement).

The trouble with this is that it proves too much. One can use the same argument to “disprove” any experience whatsoever. This is the classic case for solipsism. We can explain all experience in terms of subconscious motivations, or evolutionary spin-off, or useless epiphenominon, or mad scientists stimulating your disembodied brain, or whatever fanciful idea one prefers. That doesn’t remotely mean that the universe is all an illusion.

But, if it doesn’t, then the same sort of explanations don’t mean than any particular experience is invalid. We don’t know that hallucinations are invalid not because we can explain them in terms of the unconscious (that’s quite a bit harder than it sounds, anyway), but because they are inconsistent with our other experiences.

But Mackie can’t seem to point to anything about religious experiences as such that are inconsistent with our other experience. Assuming one has a religious experience, one is perfectly rational to accept it as valid.

This is why many religious people feel a little like Holocaust survivors listening to denials of the event. Claiming that we can explain why a group of oppressed people would have an emotional desire to invent such stories–or even come to believe in them does not remotely give a survivor good reason to deny the Holocaust. It is blatantly ad hoc.

And it definitely doesn’t appreciate that the deniers, too, have emotional motivations for their position.

But if this doesn’t answer the question of validity, what does? Even if it isn’t a case for atheism, religious experiences do often contradict one another. What of that?

This is where I agree with Mackie. He points out that all such experiences happen in a context, and are interpreted in terms of the individual’s prior knowledge. I think there is great cause to be careful about what such experiences actually say in terms of particular doctrines and beliefs.

It is far too easy to presume that a particular doctrine is true because one’s religious experience that has been interpreted in a particular way. All of the most spiritual people I know have advised caution in reaching too many conclusions on these grounds.

And that is the answer, I think. No one is making the argument that such experience, considered in isolation, is a rock-solid proof of any highly-specific theology. Rather it is taken as evidence for the spiritual in the same way that any experience is evidence.

It is those who want to overstep the bounds of that experience, and extrapolate wildly (like some theists do with their experiences, and some atheists do when watching science documentaries) who are making the mistake. Those who simply report an experience of the spiritual.

As hard as it is to imagine anyone who takes a careful approach taking this as proof of minor doctrinal points, it is much harder to imagine a fair-minded person concluding that her spiritual experience is to be completely dismissed as evidence of anything.

And that is precisely what Mackie is asking those who have had such experiences to do–and without offering any clear reason why.


The Blame Game

self-righteous-hippieContinuing on with the ways in which the New Atheists misrepresent the religion they claim to see through, we come to a moral objection.

So the topic this time: If you’re claiming that religion is the cause of nearly all the wars and conflict in history, you aren’t talking about Christianity (or any other religion, or all religion, for that matter).

The most obvious objection to this meme is that it simply isn’t true. Though many atheists like to take us on a tour of the crusades, and put strange glosses on wars that were clearly not caused by religion, these “arguments” only ever reveal an ignorance of the historical facts.

The best evidence such a person could muster here is the crusades themselves, and even they have many socio-political roots that are simply ignored by this popular meme. Once we get out of the Crusades, however, it becomes clear that war (and, really, all human killing of one another) is almost always over land, money, and power. Religion definitely takes a back seat.

This, it seems to me, is so obvious that what is most interesting here is how anyone can seriously deny it. Personally, I expect that the reason is something along these lines:

There have been many times in history that a zealous group decides (on flimsy evidence) that it has found the source of nearly all the evil in the world, and can eradicate most of life’s problems by eradicating that thing.

There are countless examples of such scapegoating, from the rationale behind Jim Crow laws, to the Reign of Terror, to the Holocaust, to the overblown rhetoric of partisan politics. But the point is that it is scapegoating. There is always this curious fact that it is someone “out there” who is the problem, and that “we” don’t have that same weakness–that same evil can’t possibly be in “us”.

I suppose that this is why there is, inescapably, a strain of self-righteousness in these groups that leads them to create the very evils they began by decrying. And I’ve seen a lot of this sort of thinking in the New Atheist rhetoric. It is amazing how similar Richard Dawkins and Jerry Falwell sound. Neither one seems at all aware what happens when an angry “them” hating group actually gets the power they seek. It’s never been pretty.

So much has been said, but let us move on to the second, and much more serious, objection.

Christianity (and many other religions) specifically forbids this kind of thinking. Christ speaks against judgment and self-righteousness, and insists that no one can be his follower unless she first admits to having that same inner darkness that lives in others.

To see others as worse, even to the point of being willing to make war when one is facing no threat to innocent life, is to contradict Christianity.

True, Christians contradict Christianity all the time. But this hardly means that it is “religion” that causes the wars that Christians wage for other reasons.

Nor is it enough to say that people often couch their war cries in religious language. What people couch their war cries in hardly reveals the actual reasons for the war (particularly when so many of the reasons are too shameful to publicly admit). And I highly doubt that couching one’s war cries in the language of democracy, freedom, or safety (which has also been done) will lead anyone to think that those things are an evil cause of war.

And, to some extent, even the battle cries betray the lie. No one ever ran through a battlefield crying “transubstantiation”, because no war was ever primarily about doctrinal differences. War is either a terrible necessity against an unreasonable foe, or motivated by the greedy, prideful, and heartless parts of our nature.

And it is only a self-righteous refusal to admit having such a part that leads one to point to an institution and say “war is all their fault”. One even suspects that this is connected to the frequent inability to understand any need for salvation, but that’s a post for a different time.


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