Angry Atheist Academics and Scientific Authority

I used to think that atheism is based on some form of rebelliousness: atheists don’t like the idea of a cosmic authority (the philosopher Thomas Nagel was explicit about it). But I also think that atheism can also be based on authority as well: scientific authority.

You see it in the outrage at someone challenging evolution or global warming, when “arguments” consist of statements like “no educated person with a proper respect for science can deny evolution/global warming. The evidence is everywhere, it’s absolutely pat.” Lots of educated people say this sort of thing. Rarely do they actually trot out the evidence *. I’m not convinced that many of them could. Instead they rely on scientific authority.

Atheists are often quite angry. It might be easy to see why when we consider pagans (of an atheistic variety: many pagans are, as I discovered in my interactions with them), the LGBT community, punk rockers, hippies, libertarians, anarchists, and others who just hate the restrictions and perceived oppression from religions. But what about academics? Most of them aren’t punk rockers, in the LGBT community, involved in the occult, anti-government, etc. Why are they so pissed off?

This is speculation, but my guess is this: scientific authority is not being respected.  I remember asking my students if they would reject Jesus’ resurrection if, say, the whole of the scientific community rejected it, and claimed to have good arguments for not accepting it. Almost all of the Christians in class refused. They didn’t care what those highfalutin’ scientists like Richard Dawkins think, nor what the evidence they present seems to show. They just don’t care. This could anger atheist scientists and academics.

How should religious people deal with this? There’s nothing wrong with challenging authority when warranted. But if you want to challenge authority, you need to do it the right way: you need to hear its supporting reasons. Ask the scientist types to spell out their evidence, clearly and succinctly. It might put them off; be ready for it. Many scientists won’t be able to provide a succinct case for evolution or, for that matter, the perceived ridiculousness of theism. In fact, I was a biology major as an undergraduate at UC Irvine, a good school with world class scientists. None of them actually spelled out the case for evolution, the entire time! In any of my classes! Not even in the evolutionary biology class! They described evolution, applied evolution, and used it as a framework for interpreting evidence, but that’s it! That is, they assumed evolution. They didn’t argue for it. They didn’t feel the need. Tell them there is a need.

People often think the case for something is so obvious as to not need argument. An example: you think you know what a chair is. I challenge you to define it precisely. Is evolution like this? Perhaps. Is atheism, interpreted in the anti-theistic way scientists often practice it? Absolutely. Still, what opponents to evolution should do is, whenever confronted with this kind of attitude, humbly (please, otherwise you will come off as a cocky punk, and deserve any anger you receive), ask for a concise explanation for why evolution is a fact. If they aren’t able to do it, then they are relying on authority just as much as you are, and you might point this out. Do this humbly, of course, for they have the PhD, not you. Regarding atheism, do the above also. See what they come up with. Regarding both of the above, if they accommodate, truly listen and think about it — don’t just react. Then give a thoughtful reply, or even better, just say “I’ll have to think about it.” I think that if more religious people did this, they would earn more respect for themselves and there wouldn’t be so much anger/contempt from academics toward them, and, hopefully, more openness to religion.

One more thing about atheist scientist anger. I don’t think that they interpret religious people ignoring “the evidence” or a challenges to their views as personal insults. Most scientists are above that. But they might be seen as insults to the authority they have devoted their lives to. And this authority is, according to them, based on reality. Or more accurately, it’s an authority based on cooperative human observation and careful reflection. They don’t think religious authority is. And they are right: religion is not based on sensory observation (though there is plenty of cooperative reflection in religion). It’s based on revelation. I can’t answer here which is a better authority: I think you have to make a bet on one when they conflict, as neither is known with anything like certainty. But that’s just my view.

The anger is there, no question. As a theist I must accept that challenges to scientific authority will sometimes be met with anger. As the Bible says, it’s a challenge to an authority, a power, a ruler in heavenly places. We follow a different authority. Theirs is cooperative human observation and reasoning, aka secular humanism, extrapolated into infinite domains. Ours is also that in some earthly mundane areas, but over that is revelation from the Lord. On my view, theirs is a beautiful and powerful angel who should be given due respect. Ours is the God that created her, who also should be given due respect.

One final note. What if the atheist scientist is an arrogant asshole**? In that case, you won’t get an open, back and forth, reasoned discussion, as he will probably try to intimidate you and make you feel stupid. You may end up nervous, flustered, and not at your best (I speak from experience. I’ve been the intimidated noob, and I’ve been the arrogant academic asshole ). Wise people are only so if they are humble enough to listen: this person is not worth talking to. Don’t cast pearls before swine, lest they trample them and you as well. Most importantly, don’t let his contempt for you bother you one bit: condescension and ridicule is not genuine argument, though they are often a cover up the lack of such.

 

 

 

* Of course, there are books that go through the evidence, like Kennith Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God. Miller is a Catholic biologist and an opponent to creationism. I think the book is good except his interpretation of observations of micro-evolution (such as mutating viruses) as proof of macro-evolution.

** In the technical sense, see Aaron James’ Assholes: A Theory

An Unkillable Truth About Atheists: Their Lives have No Real Meaning

I just read an NPR post from Barbara King, an atheist anthropologist, about an “unkillable” myth that religious people (such as Alister McGrath) have about atheists: the myth that atheists can have no meaning of life, because, according to atheists, the universe has no meaning.

Her answer is simple: I have meaning in my life — I make it. Here’s a quote:

An anthropological perspective teaches us that we humans are a quintessentially meaning-making species. We create love and kindness (hate and violence, too), and also work that matters.

Meaning is something that humans create, on her view. Other atheists, such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and even Richard Dawkins share this view. I have to admit that people could create feelings of meaning for themselves. But is that true meaning?

There is a fundamental assumption that religious people make and atheists deny, without it often coming into consciousness: true meaning must be objective. That is, the feeling of meaning is not the same as real meaning.  True meaning is out there, to be discovered. Feelings of meaning are just that, indicators which may or may not be correct. Just by herself, without any external meaning, a human being can only simulate meaning. On this view, atheists are merely fooling themselves into thinking they have true meaning when in fact they only have a mere substitute, as they insist that there is no objective purpose to the universe or anything in it. To me such a subjective sense of purpose seems more like being high on drugs than beatific vision. Religious people tend to agree with me. Atheists tend not to.

Who’s right? Has King seen the “face of God,” or is she just high? I cannot deny that she definitely feels she has meaning in, say, her connection with nature, though I don’t think “meaning” can, on her view, mean anything other than something reducible to emotions (for only these are scientific: observable or testable by experiment). They are feelings.

I suppose an atheist might echo Janis Joplin with a  “feeling good is good enough for me,” especially if it is shared with others, but even then all of this solidarity merely boils down to is a bunch of emotions**. I can’t help but think it confuses feeling good with genuine Joy. But many atheists are content with this sort of subjectivity and relativism about meaning, and there really is no way to argue with a person about what makes her content. Nonetheless, there may be reason to think that such people are in some way deceiving themselves.

ignoranceisblissThe philosopher Robert Nozick has offered a thought experiment to argue that feeling good is not the goal of life. Consider an experience machine in which we enter and, due to the marvels of virtual reality technology, can experience any life we wish. We would live our our lives in the machine, and forget our past lives. Would we enter?

I often ask my philosophy classes this question when discussing hedonism (the ethical view that the Good is pleasure). Most students won’t enter the machine. A major reason: it’s not real. This is not the good life, even if it were filled with all the things that make life feel meaningful. King can enter the machine and hug all the trees she wants. She’ll feel connected to nature just as much as if she weren’t in the machine. The feeling is the same, but there is no meaning. Thus her feeling her life to be meaningful is not the same as her life really being meaningful.

I think she might escape the objection by saying that even if Nozick’s argument is good, it doesn’t say anything about whether nature itself might have a meaning. And she would be right. But why is nature meaningful? It can’t just be because we feel it’s meaningful, for Nozick’s machine can produce these feelings about a fake nature. It must be objectively meaningful — contra the atheist view. And atheists can’t escape this objection by redefining objectivity as just solidarity with others, for Nozick’s machine can produce this too — just have a bunch of people live the same fantasy  of finding meaning in a fake nature together. So King’s claim that we make meaning is, again, refuted.

Still, some might think that having a self-generated (or, societally generated) feeling of meaning is enough. And it doesn’t matter to these people that these feelings are only very temporary, and reflect nothing of the true nature of reality. If you are one of these, all I have to offer are the words from the famous atheist Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship:”

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. . .

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

If you are okay with being this Atlas, I have no argument. But I think most atheists, if they are honest and aren’t merely trying to defend their point in argument, would find this view chilling in the very least. But let’s not deceive ourselves in thinking that this Atlas’ meaning is anywhere near true meaning. It’s just a subjective, narcissistic fantasy.

*From “scientism:” the view that science is the limit of knowledge.

** The view of the skeptical philosopher David Hume: the only “objectivity” any sort of value claim can have is its being shared by a lot of people. The view arises from his strict empiricism.

 

Zombies: A Case for God

Republished with minor edits:

Zombies are logically possible. That is, we can conceive of them. They aren’t like square circles. Philosophical zombies are human bodies that look and act just like we do, but have no experiences, no inner world. They aren’t conscious in this sense. They will tell you they are conscious if asked, by the way.  For their brain circuits are sufficient for this and any other human behavior.

A world that has complex organisms that do what we do yet lack consciousness is possible. If so, then consciousness is an added feature to a material world.  All of our survival can be explained purely in terms the evolution of mechanisms, without mentioning inner experience even once. Consciousness, defined strictly as inner experience, doesn’t have a real explanatory role.

Thus the philosopher David Chalmers thinks that consciousness is a primitive. It may be a basic feature of the universe, or at least as basic as matter and energy. It doesn’t seem explainable in terms of them. (For more about zombies and materialism, see this blog post from Phillip Goff).

“What does this have to do with God?” you might ask. Consider the Kalam Cosmological Argument: The universe had a beginning, and things with beginnings have causes. Therefore, something caused the universe. That something must be outside the universe, and that something isn’t material (otherwise it would be part of the universe).

Add to this that other features of the universe, such as the fine-tuning of physical constants for life, seem designed. Perhaps the cause of the universe is an immaterial mind.

There is a problem, however; we know that many features of our minds depend on brains. But there was no cosmic brain existing before the universe. On the other hand, consciousness seems inexplicable in terms of brains. And, for all we know, there might be non-physical ways in which to instantiate other parts of the mind. So there could be such things as minds without bodies.

It is a bit speculative to speak of such things; but regarding the beginning of the universe, and the fine tuning of the physical constants, it’s no more speculative than any of the other hypotheses floating around (especially the multiverse hypothesis). This, plus the fact that perhaps the most important part of mind can’t be explained purely in terms of physics fits better with this hypothesis than with atheistic naturalism. For not only could God create matter, He can create mind as well. Not so for multiverses. All a multiverse could do is create zombies.

Christians Should Just Admit the Bible isn’t Ethical by Secular Standards

In recent years a moral outcry has arisen against the Bible among secularists. Many of the actions/commandments in the Bible are moral abominations to them. Three noteworthy examples (or types of example): God’s command to Abraham to burn Isaac on the alter, God’s wiping out, or commanding Israel to wipe out, entire peoples, and God’s prohibition of homosexuality.

As a Christian I might feel compelled to defend these actions of God. But I know that such defenses (e.g., God wiped out peoples because they were exceedingly evil and deserved it) would not only fail with secularists, but would make them question my own morality for offering such a defense.

Indeed, I would argue that there is no defense of the actions of Yahweh in the Old Testament that could work within a modern, secular moral framework. That is because of some of the assumptions of that framework. These assumptions have been with us for so long, and feel so right, that they seem axiomatic. Here are some of them:

  1. All persons have the same basic human rights (e.g., from the American Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness).
  2. All of morality is to be based on these.

Things that follow:

  1. We have the right to do whatever we want, just so long as we are not interfering with others.
  2. We have the right to have our lives and property protected.
  3. No one has the right to take away our lives, freedom, or property, except as a means to protect the rights of others, and in ways approved by a government formed by the people on the authority of the people.

If these are true, Israel’s wiping out groups of people at God’s command couldn’t be justified, as no one person in our society could ever have that kind of authority to kill. Prohibiting homosexuality is wrong as well; we have the right to whatever lifestyle we want if no one is hurt by it.

In addition to these, there are factual (that is, non-moral) assumptions secularists make that would make the Bible unjustifiable:

  1. There is no life after death.
  2. There is no clear, unquestionable revelation from God.

If these last two are true, no one could have the right to kill because “God told me to,” for there is no clear revelation from God. And killing a person is the worst thing you can do to someone because there is no life after death. A dead person cannot be compensated. Given all of the above, the only possible justification for killing a person would be to prevent further killings. Thus the command for Abraham to kill Isaac (and the genocides, for that matter) has no justification at all! To kill Isaac would be merely a horrible, pointless act commanded by an imaginary divine fiend.

So, at bottom, the Bible cannot be justified within a modern, secular moral framework based on the principles of modern, liberal democracies.

What can a Christian say in reply? To start, Christians cannot accept the two factual claims. As I am focusing on moral principles, I won’t argue against them here. But it’s pretty obvious that secularists and Christians must disagree on these. On to the moral principles.

First I want to admit that the secular moral principles are correct in a human-to-human sort of way. That is, they work in providing rules regarding how human beings ought to treat each other. I also think they are grounding principles for governments: we humans ought not to govern ourselves any other way. But are they the deepest truth regarding morality?

What if they are only a special case? For example, there are also principles regarding ethical treatment of animals that aren’t like the above principles. Not all secularists are vegans or vegetarians — many eat animals. They often have pets. Some visit zoos, Sea World, and other such places. They might kill household pests. They definitely allow the killing of fetuses. That is, they would agree that not all life has the above rights, only persons do. Sure, there are some rights subpersonal life forms have; we might be okay with killing pigs for pork, but we wouldn’t be okay with torturing them for fun. Still, subpersons have less rights than persons.

What about superpersons, beings with a  higher level of consciousness, ability, intelligence, emotion, and awareness than humans have? Might they be to us as we are to pigs? That is, the claim that all humans have the same basic rights might only apply to humans. If, for the sake of argument, God did exist, it seems plausible to me that He wouldn’t be at the same level of rights as human persons.

John Locke

To support this idea, consider, for a moment, the source of human rights. Two basic competing notions have been offered. John Locke, the one responsible for much of the discussion of rights behind the Declaration of Independence, claimed the source was God (so does the Declaration itself). God is the granter of rights. If so, then might he also be the revoker of rights? One thing is clear, the rights God enjoys would have to be of a higher level than our rights if our rights get their authority from God.

Thomas Hobbes

The other notion is that of Thomas Hobbes: we humans are roughly equal in ability and intelligence. Since we know that we are not strong or smart enough to dominate everyone else and keep safe, we agree to sacrifice some of our freedom by granting basic rights to ourselves and others. That is, human rights are really a contract between completely selfish people who know the limits of their own physical and intellectual power. On this view, human rights are the result of a political process, not, as in Locke, the motivation for it. If this is the case, then if God existed, He wouldn’t need to grant any of these rights, as a self-interested being, as he in no danger from the likes of us.

If these are the only two basic kinds of options, then it seems that God would be beyond and above the rights listed above. God is not beholden to them.

But Christians insist that God is good, not merely that he isn’t violating any social contract. In other words, what would be God’s morality that would make Him this wonderful being, if He doesn’t respect our rights? From the Bible we can find two parts: a part about our relationship with God, and a part about how we humans should treat each other. Regarding the former, from what I can tell, it seems that God has both great wrath and great love. Regarding wrath, He wipes out people who deface His name in the Old Testament. He is extremely jealous when it comes to who Israel worships, and punishes them when they “cheat on” Him.

God sounds horrible here, but think of it this way: have you ever been in love? Didn’t you feel jealous when he/she flirted with (or had sex with) other people, especially when you thought you were in a committed relationship with him/her? You felt betrayed, hurt, and angry. The God of the Old Testament is a superperson in love with an unfaithful people. A jilted lover at that. Read the OT yourself with this in mind (a good example the Book of Hosea —There he promises to punish Israel for her infidelity, and then restore His relationship with her, all with rather romantic sounding poetry); it will explain a lot.

Add to this the bad things these people were doing to each other (the lack of justice we find the prophets often preaching against), and we have the reasons God punishes them so horribly.

Now as human beings, we are limited in how we may treat unfaithful lovers. Again, we have agreed to a social contract to live in a democratic society, and we need to respect each other’s basic human rights. All we can rightfully do is break off the relationship with the unfaithful partner (and maybe rant about them to a friend). As for injustice, we can point to the law, or engage in peaceful protest, or, at the very most, defend ourselves. But God isn’t limited in His rights in the way we are. He isn’t in our social contract. Democracy is for us, not for Him. God may be within His rights to destroy an unfaithful creature He brought about.

The above view of a God in love isn’t a very flattering view of God at first glance, I admit — a superperson in love with creatures so far beneath Him that He justifiably wipes them out when they are unfaithful to Him. My justification is very counterintuitive. This is because we (or those of us fortunate enough to grow up in a democracy) have been taught from early childhood that democracy is right, that all humans have basic human rights, and so forth. And I agree with this, as far as human-human relationships go. But I’m treating that as a special case here: if it is, God’s morality might be beyond this.

I maintain that God still would be a good being, nonetheless, with all of the above. The fact that God would condescend to such a relationship with us is noble. And His anger at our refusing it is justified by the fact that God is so much higher than us and worthy of us. And our infidelity is all the more punishable for this. And let’s not forget: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” God’s Son was his most beloved; he was willing to give him to us for our salvation.

What about the other part of morality: how we ought to treat each other? There are the God-given rights that Locke and the Declaration of Independence list. But God never speaks of “rights” in the Bible. Still, Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” In fact, Jesus captures the whole of morality in this same passage. From Matthew chapter 22:

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Modern democracies with their rights don’t go this far. Jesus commands us to love other people as much as ourselves, even our enemies. The key word here is, of course, love. It’s a morality of love, not rights. Modern ethical systems don’t mention it.

Back to the original problems. Regarding genocide, God has this right. God is still good, for God condescends to love the human race, despite its comparative insignificance and ubiquitous evil. And humans are pretty evil; when I look a the thoughts in my own mind, I know I have evil in me. So will you, if you are honest. God commanding Israel to kill, again God has the right. Add to that the view that clear revelation is possible, then Israel is also justified in wiping out groups of people (If the revelation is true, of course. Most of the killings in the name of God are not the result of genuine revelation.).

What about Abraham and Isaac? First, God has this right as creator. Second, there is the possibility of God raising Isaac from the dead. If God exists and life after death is possible (secularists assume neither is true), then God is justified in asking for this to test Abraham’s faithfulness. He could restore Isaac. And Abraham might have thought this too.

The prohibition of homosexuality is harder. Honestly, I don’t have an answer to this one, other than God finds it offensive. But again, we are talking about God, not us. Just because I might find it distasteful doesn’t mean I have the right to prevent others from enjoying it. I’m a citizen of the United States; so are they. We, as citizens, have a civil right to our lifestyles. But God is not a citizen of the United States (or any other democracy). He’s God. He designed humans to be a certain way, and has the right, as a superperson, to prohibit them from departing from it.

So I did try to justify God, as I said I shouldn’t do. No doubt a secularist would not accept this justification. There’s no way she can, with her assumptions about reality and morality. But if these aren’t the ground truth, and if a case could be made for God and for life after death, then I think my justifications do have some weight.

So what this amounts to is that Christianity is consistent in its own worldview regarding how it views reality and morality. So is secularism. But these views are not consistent with each other.

I did a lot of work to come to an obvious conclusion. I did it to make a related point. The the point is regarding the fact that that secularists think Christians ought to be ashamed when God doesn’t fit into their secular idea of morality, or that God’s not fitting into this morality is a legitimate objection to Christianity. My point is that of course the Bible doesn’t fit into secular morality; it’s not supposed to.

Bottom line: God cannot be justified in a secular moral framework. Nor should he be.

 

What about the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

FSM Apologetics

Spaghetti and meatballs: who would have ever thought that it could be divine? Here’s a statement of faith from Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

  • We believe pirates, the original Pastafarians, were peaceful explorers and it was due to Christian misinformation that they have an image of outcast criminals today
  • We are fond of beer
  • Every Friday is a Religious Holiday
  • We do not take ourselves too seriously
  • We embrace contradictions (though in that we are hardly unique)

Regarding Creation:

We believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world much as it exists today, but for reasons unknown made it appear that the universe is billions of years old (instead of thousands) and that life evolved into its current state (rather than created in its current form). Every time a researcher carries out an experiment that appears to confirm one of these “scientific theories” supporting an old earth and evolution we can be sure that the FSM is there, modifying the data with his Noodly Appendage. We don’t know why He does this but we believe He does, that is our Faith.

We all get the joke. Most (though not all, according to the website) of the followers of FSM are atheists: Pastafarianism is a parody of creationism. But FSM is used not to merely against creationism, but theism as well. For FSM is a legitimate member of the world’s pantheon, according to atheists. That is, FSM makes about as much sense as, well, say, Yahweh. If you don’t believe in FSM, an atheist might argue, then you shouldn’t believe in Yahweh either, for the same reasons.

As for the reasons for not believing in FSM, they should be pretty obvious. FSM is a ridiculous being: divine pasta with meatballs creating the world is absurd. In our experience, we have never known pasta to be intelligent, or even to possess consciousness. Furthermore, all the pasta we have known has been made by people. We know of no self-existent pasta. Pasta, as we know it, doesn’t have the ability to act, let alone create. It’s just semolina and tomato paste with some oregano and maybe some cooked meat. And though it might last a couple of weeks in the fridge, it certainly wouldn’t last ages, like the FSM has.

Could the same be said of the God of classic theism? Is that being a pretty close analogy to FSM? Both are self-existent, both created the universe, both possess great power. Both possess eternal minds, are intelligent. Both are omnibenevolent and worthy of worship.

True, these analogies exist, but there are disanalogies too. FSM is made of spaghetti, God isn’t. FSM has meatballs, God doesn’t. FSM has delicious marinara sauce. God doesn’t. FSM is physical, God is a Spirit. It seems to me that it’s the combination of these properties with properties like omnipotence, benevolence, self-existence, etc. that makes FSM ridiculous*. Thus I think the argument from analogy from FSM’s silliness to God’s silliness is weak.

That is, the argument seems to be that because divine attributes, combined with the attributes of spaghetti, are ridiculous, divine attributes are, in themselves, ridiculous. This conclusion clearly doesn’t follow.

So, regarding FSM as an attack on creationism, I really don’t know what to say. But as an attack on theism, it’s just smoke. Its value for atheists is more in the line of the pleasure of teasing theists (An excuse to drink beer and dress up as pirates as well?).

* Atheists have an ad hoc move available here: they may claim that the sauce, pasta, and meatballs are of a very special, divine sort. I think that this move, to rehabilitate FSM, would have to be carried out to the extreme that the pasta, sauce, and meatballs that comprise FSM will be so unlike the ingredients we know as to make the use of ‘pasta’ and the rest deceptive. Their attempts to save FSM will only end up making FSM look less and less like FSM and more and more like God.

One Man’s Modus Ponens is Another Man’s Modus Tollens

Consider the following pair of arguments:

(1) If there is no God, then everything is permitted.
(2) There is no God.
(3) Therefore, everything is permitted.

and

(1) If there is no God, then everything is permitted.
(2′) It is not true that everything is permitted.
(3′) Therefore, it is not true that there is no God.

Note that (2) is the same as the denial of the conclusion of the second argument, and that (2′) is the denial of the conclusion of the first argument.

Call (1) the Dostoyevsky Premise (his character Ivan Karamazov famously claimed it in Brothers Karamozov). I suppose that if naturalism (i.e., atheism) is true, morality would merely amount to some sort of set of inclinations that had survival value and was thus selected for in our evolutionary past. The set wouldn’t have any sort of authority. It might be useful relative to the goal of survival, but that’s not authority.

Then again, a naturalist could just say that moral truths are brute truths, primitives, that are not based in anything more basic. Math/logic seems to be that way. Why not ethics? It’s less arbitrary to say this than to base morality in God’s commands, naturalists might claim.

Atheists certainly aren’t in agreement regarding (1). Some agree. Jean Paul Sartre is one of the best examples. Some deny (1), thinking that morality can be naturalized. Sam Harris is an example. (For another example of an atheist realist regarding morality, see this blog).

But suppose it’s true. The two above competing arguments come to my mind. One could argue that there is no God, so everything is permitted. Or one could argue that not everything is permitted, and conclude that God exists. The first argument is in the form of Modus Ponens:

(1) If A, then B,
(2) A,
(3) Therefore, B.

The second is in the form of Modus Tollens:

(1) If A, then B,
(2′) Not-B,
(3′) Therefore Not-A.

Both are deductively valid forms. So something’s got to give. If (1) is true, then there is a competition between (2) and (2′). Which has more behind it?

I’d definitely say (2′), given pretty near universal intuitions about basic moral values (we must not harm people unless there is justification; we must take care of our children).* The case against God’s existence is much more shaky (atheists usually don’t try to prove that God doesn’t exist anyway; they put the burden of proof on theists).

Or put it this way, there’s an argument for atheists taking on a burden of proof (given (1)) if there is a burden of proof on those who deny objective morality. For accepting (1) and (2′) implies God’s existence, and if we should default to believing in (2′), then we should default to believing in (3′).

*Psychopaths are excluded. Just because some people are blind doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see.

Fine Tuning Argument: Why Atheists Don’t Accept It

hume
18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, a source of the skepticism.

This one is a bit harder than my resurrection post with a similar title, for there is more than one reason. But I’d like to focus on what I think is the biggest one, one that was made clear by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. It’s an important topic since many think that the fine-tuning argument is the most compelling argument for God’s existence.

What is the argument? Here’s a summary from William Lane Craig taken from his debate with Lawrence Krauss:

In recent decades scientists have been stunned by the discovery that the initial conditions of our universe were fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent agents with a precision and delicacy that literally defy human comprehension. This fine-tuning is of two sorts. First, when the laws of nature are given mathematical expression, you find appearing in them certain constants, like the gravitational constant. These constants are not determined by the laws of nature. Second, in addition to these constants there are certain arbitrary quantities which are just put in as initial conditions on which the laws of nature operate, for example, the amount of entropy in the very early universe.

Now all of these constants and quantities fall into an extraordinarily narrow range of life-permitting values. Were these constants or quantities to be altered by even a hair’s breadth, the life-permitting balance would be destroyed and life would not exist. We now know that life-prohibiting universes are incomprehensibly more probable than any life-permitting universe.

Now there are three possible explanations of this extraordinary fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design.

Now it can’t be due to physical necessity because, as I’ve said, the constants and quantities are independent of the laws of nature.

So maybe the fine-tuning is due to chance. After all, highly improbable events happen every day! But what serves to distinguish purely chance events from design is not simply high improbability but also the presence of an independently given pattern to which the event conforms. For example, in the movie Contact scientists are able to distinguish a signal from outer space from random noise, not simply due to its improbability but because of its conforming to the pattern of the prime numbers. The fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent agents exhibits just that combination of incomprehensible improbability and an independently given pattern that are the earmarks of design.

So, again, God’s existence is clearly more probable given the fine-tuning of the universe than it would have been without it.

What is Dawkins’s reply? He claims that chance can explain it. For he offers the tantalizing speculation popular with physicists like Lee Smolin that there are a huge (perhaps infinite) number of reproducing parallel universes, each with a different combination of initial conditions and physical constants. Those universes with black holes will reproduce more than others — these universes are also more likely to have life-permitting constants. If this is so, some universes are bound to be in the “Goldilocks range”. And Dawkins thinks that this hypothesis, though a bit extravagant and certainly speculative, is less extravagant than saying God did it, for God is an immensely complex being. And Krauss’s own response is completely analogous to the reason skeptics like Ehrman reject the resurrection of Jesus; Hume’s argument against miracles. I think that, at bottom, they are really the same response.

Let’s revisit Bayes’s Theorem:

P(G|E)/P(not-G|E) = P(G)/P(not-G) × P(E|G)/P(E|not-G)

P(G|E) is the probability of God’s existence given the evidence we are considering. P(not-G|E) is the probability of God not existing on the evidence before us. P(G) and P(not-G) is the probability of God existing or not existing just on background information; P(E|G) and P(E|not-G) is the probability of observing the evidence we do on God’s existence and God’s non-existence, that is, how much does G (or not-G) lead us to expect E, or how much does G (or not-G) explain E. What the formula says is that the ratio of the probability of God’s existence to his nonexistence is a combination of how well God leads us to expect the data as opposed to naturalism, and how probable God’s existence is just given our background information compared to naturalism.

What I think Dawkins and Krauss are saying is that even if God’s existence leads us to expect fine-tuning for life (God wants life somewhere in the universe), God’s prior probability P(G) is sooooooo low as to make God a non-starter, due to his complexity. That’s why Krauss thinks saying “God exists” is an “extraordinary claim” which requires “extraordinary evidence.” And that’s why Dawkins thinks even a wacky hypothesis like Smolin’s is better than God’s existence because, again, P(G) is soooooo low due to God’s complexity.

These are exactly the same reasons for rejecting miracles that I considered earlier, including the resurrection!! (See my post on that). So David Hume is at the bottom of all this!

Pretty much any evidence a theist might try to give for God’s existence will fall on deaf ears, for the same reasons evidence for the resurrection of Jesus will; these hypotheses have low prior probabilities.

Craig spends his time in his debates arguing for high values for P(E|G)/P(E|notG), and atheists aren’t buying because of low P(G)!

What to say about this? I think that Plantinga has given good reasons to reject Dawkins’s argument for God’s complexity implying a low P(G). Krauss doesn’t really  argue for it as much as assume it. Maybe he thinks it’s obvious. God is, after all, a rather silly being.

I have written in this post about God’s alleged low prior probability. Suffice it to say that if P(G) isn’t low, the case for God is a serious one.