Posts Tagged 'philosophy'

Another One for the Idiot Files

I’ve said before that anyone who uses the ‘Atheists actually believe in God!’ argument is an idiot, something which most atheists would agree with me on. Well, today I’ve got someone else for the idiot files:

So, people don’t really need to be convinced through science of the existence of God. Anti-theists wouldn’t accept it anyway. The real issue is one of trying to push God away. Incidentally, in case you are a Christian reading this smugly, chapter 2 of Romans is for you. It says that if you know what God wants you to do and conveniently push it to the side, then you are no different. I suspect many have dismissed the truth about God because of churchgoers who push the truth away from themselves and do whatever enters their mind. The bottom line is this; we all need God and we all need to quit suppressing the truth. Lets face the music, and acknowledge that our natural desire to do our own thing. While we call doing our own thing “freedom”, it is anything but. We become slaves of our own desires and we only want more and more. Th law of diminishing returns requires it. Christ can fulfill that hunger. It is ours for the asking.

Conratulations, Doug Wildman, for turning Christian apologetics on its back and displaying its rotted underbelly for all the world to see.

What I really don’t get about people like this is that there are much better arguments for God out there. It’s true, I’ve studied them! All right, they’re not necessarily fantastic themselves, but at the very least they aren’t so embarrassingly stupid. I’m guessing this one wins out so often because of the ‘warm and fuzzy’ factor.

Treasonous Atheism

In Shakespearean Negotiations, the well-known Shakespeare critic Stephen Greennblatt touches upon the subject of atheism in late 16th century England. Sir Walter Raleigh was at one point accused of atheism in an attempt to undermine his character, something Greenblatt says was fairly common at the time. (Raleigh’s contemporary, Thomas Harriot, was accused of arguing against the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and of making fun of Moses.) Another common charge to lay against an enemy was, of course, treason. Although there is no particular connection between the two – atheism does not logically follow from treason, and treason is not necessarily instigated by atheism, although resentment towards a supposedly ‘anointed’ monarch might be – but according to Greenblatt, it was believed at the time that atheists were of such low moral character that no crime would be beneath them. Religious doubt can very easily lay the foundation for any moral transgression at all, even if the resulting amalgam is purely fictitious.

Replace ‘treason’ with ‘being anti-American’, and this kind of rhetoric suddenly seems uncomfortably familiar. Atheists today are frequently accused of being unpatriotic or of undermining the values that their country was founded on, and it is occasionally implied that they do this intentionally – that they are knowing, gleeful agents of destruction rather than simply misguided but, in their own minds, well-meaning. This is probably why so much weight is placed on determining the religious affiliations of the founding fathers of the USA. If they were pious Christians, atheists can (the reasoning goes) be condemned with no further evidence, while atheists imagine that asserting their Deism immediately lends weight to the separation of church and state.

I’m not going to get into another tedious argument about what the founding fathers believed, because frankly, I don’t care. What the founding fathers believed is entirely incidental to whether God exists, and it is entirely incidental to the question of whether there should be a wall mantained between church and state. The founding fathers could have advocated such a separation and been completely wrong as to whether it was a good idea, or they could have rejected such an idea and been equally mistaken. The only real reason to bring them up at all is if one is interested in using a blatant argument from authority.

But I don’t think most conservative Christians explicitly have centuries-dead men in mind when they condemn atheists for being ‘anti-American’. Atheism is not explicitly established as being ‘treasonous’ – instead, ‘atheist’ is the word a certain kind of person attaches to anyone who they feel should be rejected and marginalized. ‘Atheist’ means roughly the same thing as ‘evil’.

Whenever we are confronted with this thoughtlessly applied label, we need to confront it with a demand for justification. Why are atheists evil or degenerate or dangerous or treasonous? Saying that our beliefs and political activities are at odds with those of the founding father is, as I have said, irrelevant. Saying that we’re wrong might be more productive, but than theists have historically had a rather difficult time in backing that assertion up. When it comes to actual moral behaviour the statistics are, by and large, on our side.

Most discussions of atheism and morality are focused on attempting to convince theists that we lead perfectly ordinary, moral lives, but the theoretical underpinnings of the problem need to be attacked as well.

If God Is Not?

I found this while tag surfing:

If God is not, then there is no accountability in our universe, no ultimate day of justice. The atheistic regimes who have done unimaginable things to other human beings in an attempt to create a secular (without God) utopia will never be brought to justice. If God is not, genocide is permissable. There is not, nor will there ever be cosmic justice.

If God is not, then you are not important. One person may do to another person as they wish. There is no sense of innate, moral value, no ascribed value. If God is not, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are permissable. If God is not, life is not sacred. If God is not, there are no ultimate moral values to guide how I treat someone else. (Source)

It goes on like this for several melodramatic paragraphs, but I want to briefly elaborate on two ideas contained in the above quote: firstly, that there ‘must’ be some greater cosmic purpose to human life, and secondly, that our default way of being is to act in completely amoral self-interest.

The first paragraph reveals an extremely common ‘argument from consequence’ that a lot of theists fall for, but whose absurdities can be easily revealed:

  1. If God does not exist, there will never be any ‘cosmic justice’.
  2. That would be bad.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

That wasn’t a parody; that’s actually all the argument (if you could call it that) says. (I’m sure someone reading this will immediately think of the phrase ‘G.E. Moore shift’, but it wouldn’t work here either – think about it.) I’m fully willing to accept the first premise, that God’s non-existance would mean that horribly evil people are capable of ultimately getting away with their crimes. I’ll even accept the second premise, although it could be argued against. What I don’t accept is the conclusion, and for a very good reason: even if the truth is sad, it is still the truth. It is entirely possible that the universe really is an uncaring, amoral collection of matter in which our lives will pass in the blink of an eye before disappearing into meaningless oblivion. That idea frightens a lot of people for some reason, but that doesn’t mean that it’s incapable of being true. You cannot just claim that your assertion is true because things would really really suck if it isn’t.

This kind of mindset also sometimes gives rise to the idea that atheists revel in believing the kinds of things I just described, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t particularly like the idea of a ‘judgement day’, but I’d also be extremely relieved to discover that some sort of (favourable) afterlife also exists. I don’t believe what I do because it makes me feel good, I believe what I do because I genuinely think it’s true. But if you are someone who thinks that the Universe is here ‘for us’ or that there’s some force for ‘cosmic justice’ at work, let me ask you something: where is it? Where in the vastness of the universe do you detect the slightest hint of concern for our well-being or moral choices?

Another, curiously celebrated feature of monotheism is tha idea that humans are naturally evil and can only be redeemed by religious belief. It’s not overly difficult to see where this kind of thinking came from, but my own experiences certainly contradict it. In the post I linked to above, the author suggests that without God he would react to hearing his child being beaten on the street by indifferently reading his newspaper. This is bullshit. In a situation like that, nobody reacts based on whether they believe in God or whether they subscribe to Kantian ethics or any other philosophical or religious worldview. I’m not going to pretend to know what exactly gives us basic moral impulses, but it’s not belief in God. There are theists who have committed atrocious acts of child abuse, sometimes in the name of the God they believe in, and there are atheists who have dedicated their lives to protecting vulnerable children – whether a person believes in an omnipotent deity is not the deciding factor in what they’ll do if their child is being beaten.

(Incidentally, I’ve just looked at the comment page for that post and the author is a bit of a nut. Still, nothing I’ve quoted here is especially unusual among theists.)

Atheism/Nihilism

I’ve read more than a few blog entries around WordPress that compare atheism to nihilism, arguing either that they’re one and the same or that the former neessarily leads to the latter. Of course, most atheists would disagree with this, for various reasons. Rather than bore the internets to death by describing my own view (that will come later), I’d like to pose a question to any atheists or theists reading this:

Assume for a moment that God does not exist and that everything you and I ever experience, feel and build will eventually cease to be. What is the point of living?

(Or, if you prefer, ‘Why then should we not be nihilists?‘, but keep in mind that something like Nietzschian nihilism does generally  mean more than just believing that life has no objective or intrinsic value.)

Feel free to challenge yourself a bit by arguing the opposite side of what you usually would – so if you’re a theist, argue that we life does still have worth without God, for example. Seriously, it’s fun!

Friendly Atheism

I’ve previously mentioned the American philosopher of religion William L. Rowe, who’s mostly known for developing the evidential argument from evil (as opposed to logical variety, which, in philosophical parlance, ‘fails hard’). However, he also wrote about several varieties of atheism – unfriendly, indifferent, and friendly. As far as I know he’s only gone into any detail on the latter, but the other two are pretty easy to figure out from that.

So, what is ‘friendly’ atheism? Essentially, it means believing that you are rationally justified in being an atheist while also believing that someone else might be rationally justified in being a theist. Rowe uses a plane crash as an example: imagine that your intercontinental flight goes down over the ocean, but you survive and are left bobbing in the waves wearing a life jacket. It’s dark, and the rescue planes don’t spot you in the increasingly bad weather conditions. After several hours, your friends at home might be rationally justified in believing that you’re dead, while you are obviously rationally justified in believing the exact opposite. In this case, neither of you are ‘wrong’ for believing what you believe, given the differing levels of evidence available to you.

Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t really work when it comes to the atheism/theism debate. Let’s take a look at another hypothetical example:

You’re an atheist who is convinced that your atheism is rationally justified based entirely on the evidential problem of evil. You come across Bob, a theist, who has yet to hear of the problem of evil. In this situation, can you believe that you are both simultaneously justified in your beliefs? Certainly, since Bob doesn’t have the same amount of information that you do.

But what if you explain the problem of evil to Bob? He is now privvy to what you believe is an irrefutable argument for atheism, yet he’s still a theist. (We’ll assume for simplicity’s sake that he’s unable to change your mind about the problem of evil.) Can you now believe that you’re both rationally justified in your beliefs? Rowe thinks so, but he doesn’t really explain how. Keep in mind that the issue here is rational justification, not the mere holding of a belief – you could certainly accept that Bob has the right to believe whatever he wants, but could you really accept that you’re somehow both right? From Bob’s point of view, the same is true – if he takes the Cosmological Argument to be completely convincing, can he accept that you’re rationally justified in continuing to be an atheist even after you’ve had the argument explained to you? I would say no.

Interestingly, however, there is one particular  instance where I can see ‘friendly theism’ making sense. Let’s suppose that you are completely convinced of God’s existence based on what you believe to be some sort of divine revelation or communication from him (in this case it doesn’t matter whether any such event really took place, only that you believe it did). If you meet Jane, a lifelong atheist who has never experienced anything like this, could you believe that she was rationally justified in being an atheist? It seems that you could, since you not only have evidence available to you that she doesn’t, but it’s evidence of a sort that you can’t simply share with her. Unlike a philosophical argument or a piece of physical evidence, you can’t show somebody a private act of God. I’ve actually met some theists who took this position.

What do you think? Am I overlooking something, or is the concept of ‘friendly atheism’ itself irrational?

Paul Draper and the Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil has been doing the rounds lately, so I thought I’d attempt a fresh perspective.

If you’re not familiar with it already, the Problem of Evil in its most simplistic form can be summarised like this:

  1. If a perfectly good God exists, there would be no evil in the world.
  2. There is evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist

For obvious reasons, that doesn’t make for a very convincing argument. The first premise is weak (as is the second to a lesser extent), and leaves itself wide open to attack from any intelligent theist. There have been all sorts of refinements to this argumnt over the years, but my favourite appears in Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists by the American philosopher Paul Draper (you can find it on JSTOR if you have access). I’ll attempt to give a brief summary of his argument, which, keep in mind, is a good deal more complex and far more thorough than what I’m presenting here.

If we observe the natural world, we see that both pain and pleasure play an important role in ‘goal-directed organic systems’ (living organisms, for simplicity’s sake). Both of these phenomena are biologically useful in different ways; if you place your hand into a fire, for example, the pain you experience will immediately cause you to withdraw your hand and avoid placing it too close to a fire again. Keep in mind that being ‘goal-directed’ here does not imply the ability to make conscious decisions or the posession of human level intelligence, and we can say that pain or pleasure is biologically useful as long as it helps an organism fulfill its biological goals (survival and reproduction).

Now consider two competing hypotheses – theism (belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God) and the Hypothesis of Indifference (or ‘HI’ – the belief that, in Draper’s words, “neither the nature nor the condition of sentient beings on earth is the result of benevolent or malevolent actions performed by non- human persons”).

We observe that humans are sentient, moral agents that are composed of parts which contribute to our biological goals. On this observation, we can expect that human pain and pleasure should also contribute to our biological goals (or else we would not have evolved to be capable of experiencing them) – and this is exactly what the evidence indicates. However, Draper argues that pain and pleasure are unlike other parts of organic systems, in that they have intrinsic value – bad in the case of pain, good in the case of pleasure. Presumably, an all-loving God would have reasons for producing pleasure apart from our biological goals, and would similarly want to create goal-oriented organic systems that could function without the necessity of experiencing pain.

The important distinction here is morality. Under HI, organic systems are created by entirely non-conscious, non-moral processes, and so no moral consideration is behind their experiencing pain and pleasure. But under theism, God, being both a moral agent and omnipotent, would want to and be capable of creating biological systems without biologically useful pain or pleasure. While God could have moral reasons for producing pain and pleasure, the fact that both are consistently biologically useful suggests HI more strongly than theism.

Of course, one immediate response to this is that humans in particular may require the experience of pain in order to develop as moral agents. However, as Draper points out, non-moral, conscious beings  (other animals) also experience biologically useful pain and pleasure, and in their case it cannot be for the purpose of moral development. Thus, HI again becomes more probable than theism.

The first thing to note here is that this is a probabilistic argument, in that it attempts to show that HI is more likely than theism, not that HI is definitely true. It also only considers two opposing hypotheses, leaving it open to accusations of creating a fale dichotomy. Finally, it could be vulnerable to one of the theodicies, in particular the ‘free will’ theodicy. On balance, however, I feel that HI more accurately describes the world (and in particular our experiences of pain and pleasure) than any form of theism.

I’ll also briefly mention William Rowe, an atheist philosopher who has argued that the existence of ‘gratuitous evils’ (evils that do not cause any obvious counterbalancing goods) suggest that God does not exist. His most famous example of a GE is a fawn burning to death in a forest fire, an event which has no doubt occurred many times since fawns first appeared. These GEs do not appear to be for the purpose of moral development (or ‘soul-building’, as I believe John Hick has called it), seeming to contradict the idea of an omnipotent, all-loving God.

Anyway, let me know what you think in the comments section!