Sunday, November 13, 2011

Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig: Part One - De Fide - 2 of 2

This week, Craig addresses the role of reason and evidence in Christianity.

Having already argued that it is a direct experience of the Holy Spirit that provides the Christian his justification for "knowing" that Christianity is true, Craig explains that the role for argument and evidence is a subsidiary one, which he terms "ministerial use" in the spirit of Martin Luther: "The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. In light of the Spirit’s witness, only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate. Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology."  So Craig is saying that reason submits to the direct witness of the Holy Spirit but can still be used to supplement the Christian's belief.  A sound apologetic "reinforces or confirms" the Spirit's witness while not serving as the basis for belief.

I must object early on.  Craig writes that there are "great benefits" to someone having a "dual warrant" of their Christian belief.  Several times, Craig makes quantitative statements about Christian belief; he claims that "Having sound arguments for the existence of a Creator and Designer of the universe or evidence for the historical credibility of the New Testament records of the life of Jesus in addition to the inner witness of the Spirit could increase one’s confidence in the veracity of Christian truth claims."  Now, earlier in Part One, Craig described the experience of the Holy Spirit as "not only a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but objective knowledge of that truth."  Adjectives such as "veridical" and "unmistakable" are peppered throughout Craig's description; the implication is that the assurance of Christianity's truth is absolute, and as such, no greater belief is possible.  There exists no higher standard of assurance to be met.  This raises the question of how reason or evidence could "supplement" the faith of a Christian.   Even if the Christian were to discover evidence for Christianity, it would be useless.  Evidence, as used by the scientific community and many philosophers, serves to provide a greater justification for a belief; this implies that any given belief has not reached a level of justification in which it can be said to have transcended contradiction by any other conceivable development.  So not only would evidence be useless in disproving Christian beliefs as Craig claims, but it would also be useless in supporting those beliefs.  Either evidence has the power to affect justification Christian belief or it does not.  If it is does, then a lack of evidence would decrease the level of justification for Christian belief.   If it does not, then neither the Christian nor the atheist should spend any time in using evidence to examine Christianity (although I cannot imagine any rational atheist conceding to a Christian that Christianity can be proved or disproved independent of evidence).

My similar, second objection is to Craig's definition of reason and evidence as "ministerial."  The problem here is that Craig wants to provide himself with a justification for confirmation bias early on.  This strikes me as a sort of "safety net" should he run into any problems later on.  If the evidence disagrees with Christianity, Craig can just throw it out, because the Holy Spirit trumps evidential logic.  If the evidence agrees with Christianity, then it can (paradoxically) be used to "supplement" the justification for Christianity, although these beliefs are already unmistakable and objective.  Again: either evidence is a legitimate means of determining the truth of Christian beliefs or it is not.  The validity of evidence must be constant.  If it is not valid, it must not be used.  If evidence and the Holy Spirit contradict each other, one of them must not be valid, lest we violate the law of noncontradiction.

Craig then responds to some objections about whether we can discern Christianity's claims from other religions which make the same claim to self-justifying experience, which I also found rather disappointing.  First, Craig writes that perhaps members of other faiths may indeed be experiencing God, but on a general level, and therefore do not realize that it is the Christian god rather than the Muslim god (assuming there is any difference).  Of course, the latent function of Craig's response is that by his own logic, he may be experiencing the Muslim god, but on a very general level.

The last point I will address is Craig's defense of completely unfounded (in my opinion) belief, which I cannot really say too much about.  Craig writes that, as we already know, any Christian is justified in his belief simply because he feels the Holy Spirit, and that no evidence or reason is necessary.   (This is a strange direction to be taking in a book titled "Reasonable Faith").  Magisterial evidence, Craig writes, is simply incompatible with Scripture, because if evidence took precedence, then insufficient evidence would indeed be reasonable grounds for rejecting Christianity.  (Perhaps Craig is thinking of Bertrand Russell, who said that if he were to come face to with God after his death, he would give insufficient evidence as his reason for not believing.)  Now, it is perhaps encouraging to see that Craig realizes the futility of relegating religious belief to evidential justification; however, it is even more discouraging to see how he tries to circumnavigate the problem.  Craig writes, "The Bible says all men are without excuse.  Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God’s Holy Spirit."

What can one say to such a statement?  Craig condemns all nonbelievers in one sentence.  His discomfort in doing so is palpable; however, it does seem to be his only choice- because the Bible says so.  Reasonable faith?  It's not looking very good so far.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig: Part One - De Fide - 1 of 2

My "response" blog posts begin today.

William Lane Craig begins his book by listing several different philosophers, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, and Dodwell, and their stances on "knowing" whether God exists.  More broadly, he briefly goes over the historical debate between theological evidentialism and "fideism" (which can be translated roughly into "faith-ism" and is the belief that evidential or rationalistic approaches to deism/theism are necessarily futile, and in some cases, a downright insult to the supernatural gift of faith).  Finally, he explains the stance of contemporary analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga.  Plantinga's a priori approach to belief in god strikes me as extremely backwards, but I will save a full response for another time, as I will only be dealing with Craig's claims specifically.

Craig's first claim is made when he writes, "I think that Dodwell and Plantinga are correct that, fundamentally, the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit. Now what do I mean by that? I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it; that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian religion, such as “God exists,” “I am condemned by God,” “I am reconciled to God,” “Christ lives in me,” and so forth; that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him who attends fully to it."  Whew!  That's a long second sentence.

Well, firstly, how does one arrive at a veridical and unmistakable knowledge of the Holy Spirit?  Craig says that "in certain contexts" we experience the Holy Spirit, and that experience implies the apprehension of certain Christian truths. However, there are many people (I would call them "reluctant atheists") who, despite their best attempts and their most sincere desire, cannot arrive at this conclusion.  Therefore, we can safely say that desire and rational inquiry alone are not sufficient "contexts" to reach a necessarily self-evident knowledge of God, similar to the way we cannot rationally deny mathematical truths.

Secondly, the apprehension of a truth or truths is a necessarily phenomenological experience and therefore cannot be directly perceived by a third party.  All evidence for this belief, then, is anecdotal and will not do much to further any defense of Christianity.

Finally, this claim can be used as justification for nearly any supernatural belief.  Because the evidence is purely phenomenological, a third party has no means of distinguishing between multiple religions all making this same claim.  Further, seeing as some people have tried and failed to experience the Holy Spirit, would this justify a rejection of Christianity?  Would they then be logically obligated to try every other known religion, given that the "evidence" is just the same for each creed?

Before I go further, let me say that I do not mean to misrepresent Craig's views.  I am well aware that he advocates reason and evidence as vital to a belief in Christianity.  I am simply pointing out the flaws in this particular claim, and the problem with using such a standard to "know" that Christianity is true.  I will give each of his claims due attention.

Craig makes some very bold claims in the next few pages, such as "For if it weren’t for the work of the Holy Spirit, no one would ever become a Christian", and "Therefore, when a person refuses to come to Christ, it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come
because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart."  Craig is effectively stating that an evidentialist approach alone is not sufficient to know God.  At what point, then, does Craig's aforementioned knowledge of certain Christian truths become apparent through a veridical experience of the Holy Spirit?  In regards to Craig's second statement, then while there is nothing specifically illogical about the claim that all non-Christian men ultimately are dissuaded by their own tendency to avoid the truth and stay in darkness, it is still a very accusatory claim.    We must assume that Craig is making this statement purely on Scriptural authority, because once again, the claim concerns a purely first-person and necessarily phenomenological experience which cannot be verified by a third party, which in this case is Craig.

I will address Craig's explanation of the role of argument and evidence next week.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Announcement.

Hello everyone!

As you may have noticed, I'm rather bogged down at college.  However, I am going to attempt to start a new routine.  Rather than rambling aimlessly, I'll be responding to a particular theistic opinion, be it a scholarly article, a chapter from a book, or anything else.  I'll be doing that weekly.  In the spirit of irony, blogs will be posted on Sunday, the Lord's day (although in the Bible, the Sabbath is Saturday- people changed it later on).  I've got a few articles on the table for this coming Sunday, and soon I'll be reading Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig and addressing that book in a series of posts (by popular demand).  I shall be back this Sunday!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Emergent Phenomena.

I don't mean to lower all theists to the level of Ray Comfort, but his well-known argument reflects the same basic principle that all creationists and ID advocates use- "Every building has a builder, every painting has a painter."  Comfort says that the appearance of design is indicative of intelligence; that complexity organized in such a way that it operates toward a specific purpose or purposes must have a sentient designer behind it, much like we design buildings or machines for a specific purpose.  Is this argument valid?  All examples we have of design in our everyday life exhibit complexity and operate in a particular manner, towards a particular goal.

The largest objection to this reasoning was best articulated by Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience, so I must give him the credit- "We don't know what an undesigned universe looks like."  This sums it up very well.  We do know that design generally shows complexity and features a discernible function; however, we may not have thought hard enough about what nature will do when left to its own devices.  It is likely that a universe so complex, with such a complex fundamental nature, will give rise not only to complexity but to such phenomena as life.  Indeed, I believe that a universe with no surprises, no oddities and no emergent phenomena would be much more confounding than the universe we see around us.  The elements of both chaos and order, complexity and entropy are all around us.  Our creations are complex, yes- but the entire universe is very complex, so that rather rules out the option of electing complexity as remotely compelling proof for "design".

Now, there is another variation on ID which takes yet another step back from life on Earth and instead turns to the laws of nature themselves.  This is the "fine-tuning argument", which argues that surely the six universal constants must be evidence of a designer, for if any one of them were a fraction of a percent lower or higher, life as we know it would not exist- in fact, such necessities as the forming of stars would be impossible (I'm no scientist, but you get the idea).  Therefore, a supervising being must have "twiddled the knobs", perfecting the conditions for life.  This fails in two ways; one is the misunderstanding of what the "laws of nature" actually are, and one is, we might say, a failure of imagination.

The laws of nature are not tangible laws.  In reality, they do not even exist outside of the conceptual.  They are descriptions of the universe's behavior.  These laws are not discovered; they are invented.  They are our interpretation of the fundamental nature of our universe.  Take the color blue- it's not really "blue" in a deep sense of the word.  The universe neither knows nor cares about the concept of "blue".  It's a description that we use to refer to a perception.  Now, these laws are not conceptual in the sense that they do not affect everyday life- if one jumps off a building, he will fall whether he believes in the law of gravity or not.  But the law of gravity is not a tangible, natural entity that governs the universe.  The law conforms to the universe, not the other way around.

The second flaw I find much more interesting.  Pay close attention to this argument- "If the laws of nature were even slightly different, life/the universe as we know it would not exist!"  Well, this is a rather meaningless statement.  It is doubtless that the conclusion is correct, but why does that matter?  Let's imagine that the universe's laws were slightly different (although in reality they couldn't be- this is the universe's fundamental nature; if that nature was different, it wouldn't be the universe).  As I explained above, when we deal with this much space, this much time, and this much complexity in nature, there will be surprises left and right no matter which numbers we're feeding into it.  Doubtless there would be phenomena just as- if not more- awe-inspiring than life or black holes (a fascination of mine).  Now, you may rightly claim that I have absolutely no empirical evidence for that statement.  However, if we are to trust the power of logic, then due to the frequency of phenomena in this universe alone, under all manner of conditions, and at every level of physical interaction, we can reasonably say that phenomena spring up rather frequently given such an astonishing complexity of nature.  Now, if you still disagreed with that on the grounds that this universe can have no say on the likelihood of emergent phenomena in other conceptual universes, then I have no retort- but you've just admitted that the "fine-tuning" argument is bogus, so there we are.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Varying validity.

     Attempts to validate the historicity of the Bible are, in a sense, pointless.  The sense I refer to is in which someone would use the Bible's historicity to prove the Christian religion.  The following is an example using the Bible's reliability in particular, but the core principle is definitely a lesson to be remembered at all times.

     "The historical evidence for the accuracy of our Bible manuscripts is just as strong as the historical evidence for countless other texts we accept as accurate."  This claim is made all the time by Christians.  I am not a Biblical historian, so this claim may very well be accurate (although there is much debate on the subject).  The point is, however, that this really does not matter in terms of proving the claims of Christianity.  Whether or not the original writers of the Gospels were misquoted does not matter.  We could know word for word what they wrote, and we would still be left with the word of four anonymous individuals writing some 40-50 years after  Jesus' ministry.
     "But we just have hearsay testimony of countless other historical documents, and we trust their accuracy!"  I am always surprised that I really need to point out the difference between the Bible and other historical documents.  All claims made in history books that we currently accept as accurate are not "extraordinary" claims.  The assertions they make are compatible with the body of knowledge (historical and otherwise) that we as a species have amassed up to this point.  When we examine a claim, we determine its likelihood based not only on the strength of the evidence in favor of the claim, but also the evidence against it, which is all our previously confirmed knowledge that contradicts or excessively complicates this claim.  I'll provide an analogy, because that has sort of become my thing:

     If I receive a text message from my friend which reads "I just found twenty dollars on the sidewalk", I will be most likely to believe him.  Why?  Because money is occasionally dropped and I have heard of this happening many times before (and confirmed it).  I have no knowledge that suggests my friend would not have been fortunate today.  Now, imagine I receive a text message from my friend that instead says "My cat has begun to levitate and speak English fluently."  My first thought might be that he is pulling my leg, or perhaps a friend of his has taken his phone and is trying to get funny responses from me.  I certainly would not immediately conclude that simply because I have the same evidence that I do for the previous message (my friend's word), then the most likely explanation is that his cat is truly levitating and conversing with him.  We must balance claims against what we have already inferred about the universe.

     Just for fun, let's examine the claims of the Bible.  It claims that there is an entirely separate plane of existence, independent of all things natural.  It claims that there is a being who created and supervises existence as we know it.  It claims that this being has total and absolute power over this universe, and that this being repeatedly stood the laws of physics on their head a few thousand years ago, performing acts that included but were not limited to parting an ocean, impregnating a virgin, raising people from the dead, turning a woman to salt, committing various acts of genocide, and commandeering a horde of bears to tear apart some children who made fun of Elisha's bald head.

     I assert that, if this had been documented by hundreds of independent contemporary sources, and we had the original manuscripts, and the manuscripts were all dated between 30 and 33 C.E., we would not have enough "evidence" to back up such ridiculous claims.  To validate these nonsensical, incoherent demonstrations of verbal and intellectual chaos, each and every separate claim would have to be cross-checked, tested, documented, taped, debated, and generally examined for at least a century and a half.

That's a hypothetical minimum, by the way; that exact amount of effort hasn't managed to convince creationists of evolution yet.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Elusiveness of Objectivity.

I have been quite a happy person recently.  Recently following last week's debate between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss, another debate presented itself earlier this evening.  This one pitted Sam Harris, atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, against Craig (a very busy man).  Now, I must preface this commentary by saying that I'm a fan of both philosophers that participated in this debate.  That being said, however, I must admit that William Lane Craig was the clear winner.

I certainly do not think that this victory owed itself to theological superiority.  Rather, William Lane Craig not only presented his case clearly and systematically, he also was able to make himself sound like he was standing on firmer ground.  Harris simply failed to point out Craig's numerous logical fallacies and failed to clarify his position in the structured and audience-friendly manner which Craig's years of debating allowed him to do quite convincingly.  Sadly, yes- this debate fell victim to miscommunication as much as Craig's previous skirmish.

Harris really didn't say much that we have not heard before- the desire to help others is innate in the vast majority of the species, morality seems clear to us as an almost a priori function.  While I didn't really take issue with anything Harris said, I did take issue with very much that he did not say- a thorough list of Craig's errors, for instance; however, I'd be glad to help him out on the subject, and I shall waste no more time in doing so.

The debate aimed to address the question of morality, and whether a secular foundation or a theological foundation provided a better foundation for it- and whether this foundation could be objective.  Craig tirelessly repeated the opinion that theology provides a solid, objective foundation for morality.  However, this  opinion was only really supported by two facts (here we assume for the sake of argument that Christianity is true): that morality was independent of us and therefore objective, and that good was inseparable from God, as its very definition is that which is of God, or rather, God's will.  God's will is defined as goodness; the quality is inherent in God's will as part of His nature.  Well, I will start with the first assertion- the assertion of objectivity.  This wish for morality to be an objective, immutable law is not only derogatory to humanity, I believe, but it is also futile.  I ask you now to simply contemplate the thought process that takes place when we attribute morality to God: we cannot bear the concept of morality being nothing but an arbitrary concept which we create and shape; being nothing but the collective opinion of humanity.  We want to know that rape is truly evil, not simply that we consider it evil.  Such an act appears to hold an intrinsically evil nature.  So, there must be a lawgiver who makes these laws.  Think about that for a minute- we cannot bear the idea of morality being relative, and so we turn to God to create these laws (and apparently to enforce them as well).  The man who says that we are somehow creating an objective source of morality here is simply blinding himself to the obvious.  God is a sentient being; he chooses these laws.  They do not exist independent of him.  By definition, morality remains relative in this fashion.  All that we accomplish by "passing the buck" here is that morality continues to be nothing but an opinion, but now the opinion is being given by a being infinitely more powerful than us, so that resistance to these laws is ultimately futile- justice will be done, and God shall see to it.  Ironically, this smacks of the relativist ethics of social Darwinism that theists so often express their fear of: "But in your worldview, morality is nothing but the opinion of the strongest!  Might makes right!"  I find it rather amusing that this is exactly what they have done with their idea of God; once again He is let off the hook simply because He is God and that grants Him an inexplicable free pass to do whatever he pleases without question.  Rather than thinking critically, making observations, and creating as good a concept of morality as we are able, we simply obey orders from a more powerful Being because we are content with taking His word for it that everything he commands is ethically acceptable by definition.  "Should" and "should not" are entirely metaphysical concepts; they simply do not exist outside our minds.  Objective morality is inherently impossible.

As to Craig's second point, I really do not know how he overlooked such a simple fallacy.  He attempted to say that God provides us with an acceptable objective morality because good was, by definition, what God commands.  Now, I do not know why Harris did not press this point further- it was certainly the error that stood out the most to me.  Craig is, in this instance, simply assuming his conclusion as a premise- the aim of this debate was to discuss whether we should define "good" as "what God commands" or not.  Craig claims here that we must define "good" it this way, because that's the definition of "good"!  Now, Harris did make a small comment on this problem that Craig gave an unsatisfactory reply to.  Craig claimed that he was not simply assuming that morality was based on God's will; rather, that God's will itself created certain moral laws that exist whether we define them as such or not.  However, this gets us nowhere.  Even if we assume Craig's claim that God's laws exist, he has not explained why we should consider them "moral" by our standards and why we should obey them.  Simply by existing as sentient beings, we have responsibility thrust upon us to accept standards, to make statements- to believe this or not believe that.  We cannot simply throw up our hands and say that we should not do this because it is inherently evil.  As I stated before, "should" and "should not" are entirely conceptual and cannot exist outside of our minds.  Immutable laws may exist, but it still ultimately becomes our own decision as to whether these laws accurately represent our ideas of "should" and "should not".  Craig makes the mistake of assuming that beliefs and morality can be imposed- it is impossible. One can be forced to act a certain way, or even forced to say he believes that he should act a certain way, but these are ultimately a matter of personal decision- otherwise one is simply suspending what beliefs they have truly formed.

The ultimate goal of this debate, I think, would be to choose a definition of morality that seems the most rational to us.  We must decide whether we want to make an informed decision, or accept an arbitrary code that has no apparent grounding in any sort of logic.  The sooner we can make this decision to turn away from unquestioning obedience to a being who enforces his laws with threats of torture, the sooner we may be able to truly study the question of morality, and improve it as best we can.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A false dichotomy.

As some of you may know, William Lane Craig engaged in a spirited debate with Lawrence Krauss yesterday evening.  I very much enjoyed the debate; not only for the intelligence of its participants but also because it accomplished what I always hope for debates to accomplish- it made me think.  One issue rose most prominently to my attention during their debate.  There seemed to be a bit of a miscommunication between them; Krauss, of course, is a physicist, while Craig is a philosopher.  These are slightly different ways of looking at the world, and they both turn their attention to different things.  Both scientists and philosophers, however, both seek the same thing: truth.  These differences, however, are getting in the way of the peaceful coexistence of these two groups- there seems to be quite some enmity between the two.  We've all heard a philosopher complaining about how uneducated scientists are about the simplest logic or theology, and we all hear scientists dismissing philosophy as a dead science that only helped us when science had not surpassed its ability to learn about the universe we live in.  Even Stephen Hawking, possibly the greatest scientist in the world, briskly announced the death of philosophy in his latest book, The Grand Design.  Now, I must disagree.  I believe that philosophy is alive and well; there are, however, differences that must be addressed and understood if science and philosophy are to coexist (which would be much more beneficial to us all).

Science is observational.  It is based on empirical data; on falsifiability.  It is not concerned with the human side of things.  It simply gathers data, creates a hypothesis to explain the data, and tests it.  If our attempts to falsify the hypothesis fail, and we can accurately make predictions based on our hypothesis, then it becomes a tested theory.  A theory is a tested explanation of the world around us.  Science presupposes logic and the reliability of human cognition and deals with the physical- which is it getting quite good at.  Essentially, science is concerned with the world in itself- the world independent of human consciousness and perception, untainted by our languages and definitions and emotions.

Philosophy, however, deals with a completely different realm.  Philosophy focuses completely on the human side- our cognition, our knowledge a priori, our own powers of inductive and deductive reasoning.  It focuses on the powers of our perception, our ability to make sense of the world around us, and what we make of the world with what we have.  A rough generalization is to say that science deals with the physical and that philosophy deals with the conceptual.  For instance, science can tell us that morality has evolved in us as instincts which improve the probability of survival (or at least did so for our ancestors), but it cannot tell us whether we should ignore these instincts or adhere to them.  Such matters are a matter of choice, which there is no objectively right or wrong path to take.  It is simply up to us as humans to make certain decisions for ourselves.

While the aforementioned differences are admittedly only a rough summary, the basic point is made- there are two different methods used, and two different kinds of truth that are being sought after.  Philosophy and science complement each other; they do not conflict.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Let us not underestimate...


I have been gone for a while now, and I apologize to all my readers.  My long break was brought on by an unusually painful sickness and prolonged by brainstorming about changes I might make to improve the blog (and laziness).  The once-a-week routine, however, will now resume.

I have been doing quite a bit of reading recently, and the entirety of this reading has had its feet firmly planted in a very faithfully theistic position.  While I miss agreeing with everything I'm reading, as well as learning more about arguments against theism (and its widely accepted moral superiority), I figured it was time to give the other side its turn.  This blog post, therefore, will not necessarily be an attack on theology but rather a commentary on the intellectual God/no God issue, as it has been presented to me by Team God.  

I assure you, I have not singled out the simpletons or intellectually lacking representatives of Team God (although I did recently engage in a reading of Ray Comfort's You Can Lead An Atheist To Evidence, But You Can't Make Him Think, which was finished in one evening, and luckily so; I feared I may be losing intellectual integrity simply by exposing myself to such a book, which, given its title, I foolishly expected to actually present evidence- Comfort did no such thing).  Anyways, to serious matters.  Recently I have been reading the popular book, I Don't Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist, by apologist extraordinaire Frank Turek.  Turek, despite his flaws, did hold his own very well against Christopher Hitchens in a 2010 debate- I might even say Turek did a better job on arguments for a deistic God.  Another recent book is The Devil's Delusion by David Berlinski, who I haven't been following very much until the reading of his book.  Berlinski proclaims himself to be an agnostic- odd for someone who speaks with such conviction about the soul- but he enjoys going after the Four Horsemen and their scientist colleagues every bit as much as more religious critics of the New Atheism.  (Just a quick note here- I use the phrase "New Atheism" simply as a name; I do not think there is really anything "new" about this atheism, I simply believe that this is a new, and more popular, resurfacing of atheism.)  Josh McDowell, Dinesh D'Souza, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and the always-enjoyable William Lane Craig are among the other New Atheism critics who I wish to say a few words to.  I have found a couple common sentiments among the counter-atheist movement that I feel I should address.

#1.  Do not single out halfway intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and claim that they speak for the entire atheist movement.  Many atheists do not claim such dogmatic beliefs as Dawkins, and many do not fall for the false dichotomy of science versus religion.  Science is only opposed to religion when religion begins making claims that are scientifically verifiable, such as "God created the world 6,000 years ago."  This only addresses the generally silly fundamentalist view of a theistic God that most theologians cast aside once they have received ample education in both philosophy and science.

#2.  We do not have to disprove God.  You must prove God.  The existence of a theistic deity does not become the default belief by logic simply because it has been around for a long time.  By claiming that something like consciousness is not yet explained by science, and therefore it is the product of a deity, you are helping to reinforce this false science/religion dichotomy.  A question's answer is not "God until answered by science."  This is elementary logic.

#3.  Proving the necessary existence of an attribute commonly associated with God, if this is ever done, does not prove God.  Example: "The universe is contingent; it arose from nothing, contrary to the laws of nature; therefore, something outside the universe caused it- a supernatural, uncaused cause.  There, I have just proven God."  Problem: eternal/supernatural does NOT equal God.  These are commonly attributed to God; they are not, however, all that God is.  The property of eternity, for example, does not include the property of omnipotence by necessity.  I have yet to hear any reasonable, coherent philosophical argument for the existence of a being that necessitates omnipotence, omnibenevolence, or omniscience (although, of course, I cannot claim to have read all the great theologians in their entirety yet).

#4.  Redressing the "God of the gaps" argument does not lend it validity.  I just recently witnessed Turek doing just this in his latest book.  If current science cannot account for consciousness, then it cannot account for consciousness.  It is, as of now, a mystery.  Someday we may find the answer.  Until then, however, this mystery does not prove any sort of deity; in fact, the existence of a deity does not even come close to being a rational or remotely reasonable explanation for consciousness.  Let us not forget to use Occam's Razor.

#5.  Do not claim that science cannot say anything about God, and then proceed to say that there is evidence for God written throughout science.  Either there is physically observable evidence for God or there is not, but do not continue flip-flopping whenever it is convenient for your argument.

I must not get carried away here.  This is not simply a spiritual war; it is a cultural and political war as well.  Religion has a frighteningly large effect on politics; it has always had a large influence on culture in America.  As with any confrontation that involves human beings, neither side is perfect.  We should not ignore the flaws of Team No God.  There are some things I'd like to say to specific players on my side of the field.

#1.  Dawkins:  This issue is not as easy as you think.  It is not black and white.  Religion is not simple stupidity.  It cannot be displaced with science.  The teaching of religion to children cannot be labeled child abuse by default.  Above all, do not put science above logic and philosophy.  Logic and philosophy are what science is built upon.  I do agree with many of your conclusions; your methods, however, show a definite lack of philosophical education.

#2.  Hitchens:  People's actions do not disprove God.  People do terrible things because of religion; however, to truly argue against the proposition of God, we need to enter the realms of logic and philosophy.  Arguing from people's misdeeds is simply an appeal to emotion.

#3.  Myers:  Do not attempt to give greater meaning to the term "atheism".  We are still trying to dispel misconceptions about its actual definition; this will only result in more confusion.  If atheists choose to hold particular beliefs, they may use other words for such beliefs.  Atheism should continue to be nothing but the lack of a belief in God.

A general observation:  In this issue of utmost importance, neither side seems to be taking the other one seriously.  The popular New Atheists seem to think religion is incredibly silly, stupid, and to be regarded with complete impunity, and that anyone who believes it is either stupid or crazy.  Berlinski, Turek, Dembski, and their ilk seem to think that atheism is nothing but scientific arrogance and a rejection of good philosophy that leads to social Darwinism and Nazi-esque eugenics.  Both sides need to be taken seriously and examined more closely.  I'd love to see more atheist discussion of Aquinas or Kierkegaard, and I'd love to see more theist discussion of serious atheist literature such as Jason Sobel's Theism And Logic.  Let us get a little more philosophical; it's quite the question to wax philosophical about.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A temple on a house of cards. (Theoretical, historical and empirical objections to Christianity.)

In previous posts, we have already discussed the definition of atheism and consequently where the burden of proof lies.  Today, I'll go over a quick summary of my basic objections to Christianity; for followers of other religions, I will begin with basic theism, so hopefully I will encourage some thought on your part as well.  

Beginning with first assertion that Christianity must make, which is that there is a sentient, omnipotent, omniscient entity existing independently of the observable natural universe and the laws which govern it- I object.  In my opinion, there is no evidence for such a being.  There is no mystery observable in the universe at this time which would point to such a being; there are myriad theories one may choose from, and there exists no evidence which would justify any sort of special consideration being given to this being described above, which, having now defined it, I shall refer to as God.  Even the Cosmological Argument, which has been one of the most convincing arguments thus far in the long history of supernatural beliefs, really does not get us quite as close to God as we would hope- in no way would the duties described in the First Cause argument which are attributed to God require such things as intelligence, omnipotence, or even sentience.  I also present to you a dilemma which revealed itself to me recently as I mused over the compatibility of such a being with our natural universe and our uncertain philosophies:  If God created everything, including the laws of logic which govern our reasoning, and, indeed, our synthetic judgments, then such a being would exist independently of said laws.  If this is true, then these laws in no way apply to God.  If this is true, how can we hope to prove his existence using laws that do not apply to him?  In my opinion, this paradox makes proving God with logic rather like trying to find the square root of blue, or trying to multiply by happiness.  We are using two concepts which are incompatible with each other.  It would seem, if my logic holds, that we are reduced to falling back upon revelation by way of such documents as the Bible- and I am about to explain just how unreliable I think such a revelation is.

Let us say that I am proven errant in my analysis of theology, and I admit the hypothesis of a God is logically defensible.  Our second hurdle is how we may come to a solid conclusion concerning his wishes and his goals for us- or whether he even considers it necessary to inform us of his cosmic plan.  Christians claim the Bible is God's word, revealed to us through his son Jesus Christ, who manifested himself on earth as a physical being (namely, a man) but shares God the Father's divine nature.  But why, exactly, should we believe the Bible?  We have a collection of books written by clearly uneducated men, most likely revised, edited or even rewritten in the subsequent couple of centuries after Jesus the Christ's alleged ministry (30-33 C.E.).  Even the Gospels are estimated to have been written about fifty years after Jesus' time on Earth, in the mid-80's of the first century.  Now, we have absolutely no proof that these gospels were actually written eyewitnesses; in fact, Luke is the only one who even claims to be writing history.  These gospels contradict each other constantly in everything from geography to genealogy to theology, often offering contradicting accounts of various parts of Jesus' ministry.  To make matters worse, every unbiased, reputable historian at the time fails to make any mention of Jesus during the time of his ministry- in fact, the earliest mention we have of Jesus is a paragraph written by Tacitus, a Roman historian, in 64 C.E. where he makes a brief reference to Christ as the leader of the cult of Christianity who suffered the death penalty at the hands of Pontius Pilate.  Unfortunately, the gap of about thirty years gives Christianity more than enough time to spread by word of mouth, and any historian could easily echo what the Christians themselves were saying.  We end up with no records of the Christ within decades of his ministry, and the documents written after Christianity had gained traction in Palestine are either simply repeating Christian beliefs or they are blatantly biased, such as is the case with the Gospels.  As if this was not bad enough, then these books were selected from hundreds of Christian texts at the Nicene Council in 325 C.E. and then labeled as the Word of God.  Even if these documents were not fabrications, the odds that the Council of Nicea selected the correct books from hundreds of frauds are quite hopeless.  Once we acknowledge the fantastical content of these writings, trusting the modern Bible as anything resembling truth seems rather silly, especially when we consider the tenacity with which every word of the Bible is scrutinized in an attempt to interpret Jesus' exact teachings to the most infinitesimal detail; even the slightest misinterpretation or alteration of a key verse could alter or even destroy the scriptural foundations of significant Christian teachings.

Now, there is another justification of belief in Christianity that is not a defense of historical reliability of its teachings or its founder.  It is, I believe, most accurately summarized by a quote from the brilliant and delightful Christian author C.S. Lewis: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. "  Now, I believe that Lewis has given a wonderful analogy here, but it stands on faulty ground.  Lewis' version of Christianity very well may give him a satisfactory explanation for the nature of the universe and of reality (I make a distinction between the two here because it is quite obviously a belief of Christians that reality contains far more than this universe), but the Bible is such a messy collection of contradictory doctrines that it is quite easy for anyone to read the Bible, do a small bit of personal interpretation, and see exactly what they want to see.  This is really not the fault of the reader- I would never accuse Lewis of being the type who is easily duped- but rather the fault of the Bible itself.  In accepting one claim, one must reject another, and so on, making it quite impossible for any man to accept the whole of Biblical moral teachings as valid and divinely inspired.  

In conclusion, for one to convert me- or any sensible man, for that matter- from atheism to Christianity, one cannot simply approach me with a Bible and a head full of assumptions.  This would be rather like trying to build a house and beginning with the second floor; no man will be surprised when the bricks fall to the ground with nothing beneath them for support.  One must prove God, along with his specific attributes; then prove that God does have a plan for us and has revealed it to us, then prove that the Bible is this revelation, then somehow explain the miserable inconsistency and unreliability of the Bible and reconcile it as the unchanging, unfailing Word of God.  This, I am reasonably sure, will not happen.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Meaning, and the emancipation of Man from objectivity.

Meaning is a curious word.  It comes in many forms and definitions, and very often it is used as a buzzword for theists as though it in some way validates their beliefs, even while it does not present any sort of evidence for theism.  It is a feel-good argument that, when correctly examined, really shouldn't make any reasonable person feel good at all.  Let us examine the argument that all atheists hear at some point or another: "Without God, life has no meaning."  This does sound rather like an egotistical simplification, doesn't it?  To many atheists, they would hear "Only people who believe in my religion have true meaning in their lives."  That is rather what theists are getting at, but they can't help it- the definition of meaning they are employing in this case is an objective meaning.  This is to say that the kind of meaning they are referring to is a meaning that can only be given to someone independent of one's own thoughts or opinions.  This meaning that they speak of is thrust upon us regardless of what we think or how we feel.  Now, what is so desirable about being told what to live for?  This definition of "meaning"- a universal dictation of servitude- does not hold any sort of appeal for me.  Imagine, if you will, that once you reach the age of reason, you are informed by a figure of authority what your job will be, who you will marry, and what type of car you will drive.  This would sound most unpleasant to anyone with a sense of self-respect.  However, the theistic "meaning" is far worse than that- it attacks human freedom on its most basic level: thought.  We are told that not only our actions, our speech, and our laws must all serve the specific purpose of glorifying a deity, but our very thoughts.  Everything about us, according to our theistic "meaning", must express servitude above all else.  This is our purpose; it is what we must do and what we are commanded to do for all eternity.  This sounds quite unpleasant when we look closely.  However, the Christian has his explanation all ready: We are quite free indeed; God has given us a choice.  We may either accept God or reject him.  Well, what does a rejection of God entail?  Unfortunately for those who are not content with eternal servitude, the alternative for them is eternal torture in "the fire".  Giving someone a choice between eternal servitude or eternal torture is not only immoral, but it is quite far from freedom; I submit that a God who truly desires freedom for us would simply let us choose to use our lives however we may desire, to whatever end, without thrusting horrible consequences upon us in an afterlife.  I am very unimpressed with this God's attempt at giving us "freedom".

This is the "meaning" that we are offered by the theistic God.  I could continue, but I believe that the unpleasantness of this God and his doctrine are quite apparent by now.  However, take heart- there is real meaning in this life.  It is not dictated to you; it is not eternal or immutable.  It is not something to be found, but something to be created.  This is subjective meaning.  As an atheist, I am free to say that I want to make music for the rest of my life.  I am free to say I want to be a writer, a philosopher, a scientist.  I am free to say that the greatest and most beautiful thing in the world is love, not an excessively distasteful book like the Bible.  Subjectivity is not a bad thing as theists often imply.  It is the opportunity for humanity to rise to its full potential and govern itself; to be unafraid to look towards the heavens and see no God telling them how to live, what to think, or what to feel.  The purest and most profound form of meaning comes from within.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

It's turtles all the way down!

There are two major arguments in the world today for God.  Many people give many reasons to believe in God, but they do not generally provide an argument for whether or not there is a God; people would rather give reasons for why they would like there to be a God.  The only two arguments which get vaguely close to being real arguments for God's existence are the Cosmological Argument (also known as the First Cause Argument) and the Teleological Argument (also known as the Argument from Design).  I'll just address the Cosmological Argument for today.

Thomas of Aquinas is the most often quoted on the Cosmological Argument.  The question, which gets thrown around rather like an infallible weapon that will silence any atheist, is generally phrased as "How did everything get here?" or "Why is there something rather than nothing?"  These are basically the same question, but for the sake of clarity I shall respond to the second, as it is worded simply and efficiently and lessens the chance of misunderstanding.

The Christian answers the First Cause question by postulating that a supernatural being, which existed independently of the natural universe, created everything which is scientifically observable.  Now, we must first ask where God came from, and why he is exempt from the law of everything needing a cause.  The Christian explains that God, existing independently of this universe, is not constrained by such natural forces as time.  So an essential component of the Christian's argument is the idea that anything existing outside the natural laws we observe today (which is the definition of supernatural) does not need a cause.  Now, it is a well-known fact (articulated wonderfully by Stephen Hawking in his latest book, The Grand Design) that the natural laws we observe today did not exist at the beginning of the universe.  They do not even function as we perceive them today.  Our brains see time as a straight line, extending in both directions.  We assume, then, that the line must have a point where it began and a point where it ends.  This is, however, completely a construct of our own consciousness.  Time- if we were to give it a spatial property such as we do when we think of it as a line- is rather like a sphere.  Things do not begin and end in the way we tend to think they do.  In that same manner, the universe did not have a 'beginning' in the way we assume it must have.  It was not a specific point on a line that we call time- it was more like the North Pole on a globe.  We can think of the beginning of the universe as the North Pole and the end as the South Pole- we can continue to move north, but once we get there, we cannot move any further north.  It does not exist.  So this idea of everything needing a beginning is resting on a constraint of our own perception- time itself has no beginning.  It is like a sphere- it has no point where it begins or ends.  We can say that, in a sense, the universe is eternal.  Within the concept of time, it is wholly without beginning or end.

Now, a Christian may still argue that even if time does not have a beginning or end, it must have been brought into existence by something.  Ah- so even something that is not constrained by a beginning or end still needs a cause?  Well, if we make that assertion, then the theistic god must be brought to trial.  If even timeless entities must have a cause, then we would be forced to conclude, as so many have done in the past, "It's turtles all the way down!"  Theists have a choice; either they say that eternal entities are not subject to the law of causation- which means we then are perfectly warranted in the conclusion that this eternal universe is all there is- or they can say that even eternal entities must have a cause, which means their God is thrown into the same boat as our universe.

What if we were to conclude that entities outside of time must have a cause as well?  In that case, it seems impossible that we are here at all.  It is absolutely impossible in theory for anything to exist, yet here we are.  Let me respond to this question with another question: what is nothing?  We should take a minute to pause and think about the actual definition of that word, "Nothing."  What would things be like, let's ask ourselves, if there was nothing?  Well, we've got a problem: that is an impossible question to answer, even in theory.  Because "nothing" being used to describe anything, even a lack of anything, is nonsensical.  Nothing is exactly what it sounds like: absolutely nothing.  Not a vacuum, or a lack of existence of any sort, but rather just a word to describe something that does not exist.  That is why, in a rather confusing mind-bender, is why there is something: because "nothing" does not exist.  By its own definition, it does not exist.  We are left with only one alternative: existence.  What exactly does exist is a question for science, but for the philosophers, we can confidently answer this question: It is not impossible for something to exist.  It's impossible for nothing to exist.

Now, that's a rather heartening thought for atheists, isn't it?  No matter what happens, there will always be something.  There always has been, and always will be, existence.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Rally 'round the flag, fellow heathens!

I was just watching Piers Morgan of CNN interview Ricky Gervais in regards to his appearance as the host of the 2011 Golden Globes.  Gervais spent several minutes mercilessly demolishing various attending celebrities in a monologue which I personally found hilarious.  Now, not too surprisingly, Gervais's rant was eclipsed by a comment he made at the close of the show- "Thank you to God, for making me an atheist."  This incurred the wrath of American culture swiftly and effectively.  Atheism in America seems to be a lot like the kid in school that nobody really likes- we know he's there, we put up with him by not really paying any attention to him, and everyone is content with ignoring him; as soon as someone actually acknowledges him and tries to include him, people get upset.  Nobody will outright say that atheists should not be treated equally (except perhaps George H.W. Bush, who I am sure would pin the whole thing on a misinterpretation of sorts), but the vast majority of America secretly hopes they'll keep to themselves.  This is exactly what Ricky Gervais did not do, and I applaud him for this; he was not condescending or critical of others' beliefs, he simply stated his own lack of belief with pride and a little bit of Ricky Gervais humor.  Yet Morgan still warns him that he may be "offending" Americans with his comment.  How does that work, I ask?  Let's remember the positions of Christianity and atheism here: Christianity is making a claim, atheism is rejecting it.  Surely it is not offensive to state one's neutrality.  Gervais is really not making any sort of claim here, save for the fact that he does not share America's belief.  Let us imagine that there are two religions in America: Christianity and Judaism.  If someone says, "I am not Christian.  I don't agree with it.  I am Jewish," then no one would have a problem with his rejection of Christianity.  They don't mind because he is choosing a different religion.  Now, if that same someone said, "I am neither Christian nor Jewish," it would be considered offensive.  What has changed?  He is only rejecting a belief, which wasn't considered offensive in our former hypothetical.  What has changed here is that he is not choosing another belief to profess in the absence of Christianity or Judaism; people are offended because he is not choosing a religion as most Americans do.  Ricky Gervais managed to offend America, it seems, by professing no beliefs at all, which is quite silly when we think of it in that light.

I assure you I have not forgotten my original statements about atheism in America at some point during my zealous defense of Ricky Gervais; it is now that I come full circle.  This tactic- claiming offense at something which really should not even have the ability to offend someone- is the trick that my dominantly Christian nation will pull when someone has the audacity to not only take note of atheism, but speak of it with approval or even preference.  This is why atheists will come under fire whenever they step into the public eye- because they are "offending" people of faith (which have the advantage of being both the majority and the cultural norm).  It does not matter, as Gervais has proved, if all an atheist does is say "I am glad to be an atheist" in a place where America can hear him- it is offensive.  If there is one thing I have noticed about American culture, it is that anything new and strongly counter-cultural will be treated with caution and distaste, if not fear and hatred.  An atheist will rarely have rights denied him on account of his nonbelief; but his rights are given to him in a rather begrudging way, and if there is some way that he can be swept under the rug and silenced, the media and the general public will be only too happy to do so.

Gervais showed us once again how much discomfort there is towards atheism in America, and all he did was say he was thankful to be an atheist (the mention of God was a little dash of oxymoronic Gervais humor, as I saw it).  Imagine if he had spoken about his atheism with half the zeal we see in Christian fundamentalists all over America- the consequences would have been ten times as dire for him.  It is for this reason- this unwritten rule of silence that we find ourselves facing, this attitude of  "Don't talk about it and we won't complain"- that we must be as vocal as possible, more vocal than we have been to date.  We are not a valued minority in America.  We are hugely ignored, unappreciated, and fundamentally misunderstood.  It is because we are something new, stronger in numbers than atheists have ever been before in our history, that our country will resist us initially, as a body will often reject a substance it has never experienced before.  We must not be content with staying silent and submissive.  We will not be given a voice; we must make one for ourselves.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Greetings! (A short introduction.)

Hello everyone!

First of all, if you are reading this, thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and I hope you enjoy them.

I am an atheist, albeit a young and curious one, and this blog will centered on my non-belief in a country where faith and religion permeate almost every aspect of culture.  Football players drop to their knees and thank God for giving his attention over to guiding their passes and tackles rather than spending a bit of time helping scientists in their fight against cancer.  Friends and relatives of the Chilean miners thank God for saving the miners rather than thanking the people who worked tirelessly to extract them safely.  Many people show kindness to fellow human beings only because they are given the incentive of heaven and the threat of hell- and these same people are the ones who say that atheists are not as moral as theists.  Countless billboards profess the truth of the Bible and the undeniable existence of God, and urge us to accept him- yet a billboard professing a lack of belief in God and a secularized worldview is an "attack" on God.

Well, I do believe I have made my point.  Belief in God is all around me (most likely around you as well), as well as 'faith'- my pet peeve.  Then there is me, an atheist, doing my best to connect with the 12% or so of America that also lacks a belief in God.  But what exactly is atheism?  What does it mean to be an atheist?  At least half the believers I have talked to have a profound misunderstanding of atheism, so let's define that right away.

An atheist is not the 'opposite' of a believer.  He does not hold a belief in no god in the way that a theist believes in god.  In the words of Matthew Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience (of which I'm a big fan), atheism is "a rejection of a belief".  By definition, it is not really possible to do good or evil in the name of atheism, or to 'believe' in atheism, or to attribute any sort of behavior to atheism.  This is because atheism is simply a term that indicates the lack of theism.  We can no more say that atheism was at fault for Stalin's crimes than we can, if presented with a man who has drowned at sea, pick out a particular life vest and say that its not being attached to him is the reason he drowned.  One could certainly argue that its presence may have helped the man, but it is certainly not the fault of any particular form of flotation device which happened not to be present that the man drowned.  I was recently rather disappointed when a very intelligent Catholic, who is many years my superior and who I very much enjoy talking with, referred to atheism as a "bad idea" online.  It is not the "bad" that I took issue with; although I don't agree, there wasn't anything terribly surprising about it.  It is the fact that he referred to atheism as an "idea", at which point, upon reading his comment, my first thought was, "atheism is not an idea, good or bad.  Theism is an idea, and atheism is a rejection of that idea."  It was not worded quite as coherently in my head, but thoughts seldom are.

So, in a nutshell, an atheist such as myself does not believe in no god.  You, I can safely say, do not have a specific belief in the nonexistence of leprechauns.  To do so, one would need to travel all the known universe, seeking out leprechauns.  Luckily, you do not need to embark on any sorts of dauntingly large quests for leprechauns, unicorns, etc.  This is because we do not need to disprove something's existence to lack belief in it; we'd still have a long way to go if we did.  The default position is skepticism- doubt rather than stubborn, blind belief.  If your default position is not skepticism, I'd ask you to take a look at the progress made by scientists in the past few hundred years; skepticism has been working out pretty well so far.

This is why, whenever a believer asks me why I do not believe in God, I say, "Why should I?"