Christians often point to teleological arguments as evidence of God’s existence, based on what they perceive as signs of design and purpose in the universe. In essence, they see the chances of the universe being able to sustain intelligent life as so small that there must be design, and therefore a designer, underlying it. And there’s some truth in that – as far as we can tell, the precise conditions and physical laws of the universe do need to be in an extremely precise range. So the odds are massively in favour of a designer, right?
Well, not necessarily – this is an example of the Prosecutor’s Fallacy, as it attempts to draw a conclusion based on the calculated odds of a particular event occurring, not the conditional odds given the known facts. So what’s the difference? With apologies for gratuitous maths, I’ll try to explain with a simple example.
Let’s say you’ve just been screened for a fatal disease, and you’ve been told that the error rate of the screening is 1 in 100. (In reality, there are usually different probabilities for false positives and false negatives, but for the sake of the example, let’s say this error rate applies in either direction.) So given that, if get a letter saying that your screening test indicated that you have the disease, you’d probably start dusting off your will. That’s a reasonable reaction, but it may be premature.
What you don’t know – but is vital to interpreting your test result – is what the odds are of anyone actually having this disease. I expect you’re saying to yourself, “What difference does it make? I know that the test’s right 99 times out of 100, and that’s all that matters.” And you’d be half right. The rate of error is very important to understanding the result, but it isn’t enough on its own.
Let’s say that you were screened because you’re part of a high-risk group with a 1 in 10 chance of having the disease. I’ll attempt to deal in whole numbers, rather than probabilities, in the hope that it’ll make things easier to understand. Remember, the test will give the wrong outcome for 1 in 100 people, so over the course of a million screenings you’d expect roughly these numbers:
In this situation, we know that the screening came out positive, so you’re one of 108,000 in that situation. 99,000 of those will prove to have the disease, meaning that there’s an 11 in 12 chance (91.67%) that you have it. OK, you’re saying, it’s not the 99% I instinctively came up with, but that small improvement in the odds doesn’t exactly offer much comfort. Fair enough. But what if this is routine screening of the general population, and only 1 in 10,000 will actually have the disease?
Now the chance of having the disease is only 99 in 10,098, which equates to 1 in 102, or just less than 1%. Despite a positive result in your screening, you would actually be overwhelmingly more likely not to have the disease – counterintuitive, but true nonetheless, and something that is often taken into account when deciding whether to run screening programmes. So the same error rate can mean very different things: as the basic odds of having a disease lengthen, so do the odds of anyone who tests positive actually having it.
This is directly applicable to the teleological argument: We believe we can calculate the odds of a suitable universe occurring by chance, but that’s only half the story. If we want to know the odds that it occurred by chance, given that we know we live in a suitable universe, we also need to know the relative probabilities of a designer/creator existing or not existing. As that’s the very question teleological arguments are meant to answer, it’s not very useful in drawing a conclusion.
Even if the odds of the universe coming about by chance are vanishingly small, it doesn’t tell us anything about the existence or otherwise of God. We have no way of putting any kind of range on metaphysical questions like God’s existence, so that probability may be much, much smaller than the chance probability of an inhabitable universe, or it may even be zero. Conversely, it may be quite high – the point is that we need to know in order to make sense of the parameters we can actually calculate.
So after all that, we’re back to square one.
Alain de Botton wants to build an “atheist temple” in London. This has a connection with some of the issues I dealt with recently around whether you could have ritual without religion, and whether similar or even identical forms and structures could be used without the religious element. I think it’s possible and reasonable, but despite that, and although I have a lot of sympathy with his preference for a positive, uplifting message, I can’t see any sense in de Botton’s proposal.
I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the building would be – de Botton explicitly calls it an atheist temple, and wants to show the positive side of atheism, but all the detail of the plans – the specifically designed height, the fossils, the human genome sequence – makes it sound more like a freeform science museum, containing nothing, as far as I can see, that would actually mark it out as atheist.
It’s as if he’s falling into the same basic error as various religious leaders, and confusing atheism and secularism. An absence of religion and religious imagery doesn’t make a building atheistic, it just means it isn’t theistic. Unless he’s going to have displays on “why religion is wrong”, or “Biblical errors” or similar (the sort of “aggressive and destructive” approach he decries in others), there’s nothing specifically atheist about the idea at all.
There’s also the problem that there isn’t any sort of atheist creed to base the temple on – a lack of belief in deities isn’t exactly a credal statement. A belief in Darwinism and the scientific method are common features among atheists, but they’re neither necessary nor sufficient. Plenty of people who don’t identify as atheists would assent to both of those beliefs, so attempting to co-opt them as atheist qualities would be both inaccurate and divisive, when it would surely be more productive (and more in keeping with de Botton’s general philosophy) to throw the doors wide and welcome all-comers to celebrate the wonders of the world we live in.
The building could serve as a secular “temple to science and the universe”, which would avoid the problems of exclusivity and the lack of a distinctive, unique atheist belief, but we’ve effectively got those already, in the form of London’s excellent museums, and I don’t see any great demand for an additional one, so this would add very little beyond a bit of presentation and branding.
De Botton also says he wants to create inspiring architecture to generate a sense of awe, comparing it to the “feeling you get when you tip your head back in Ely cathedral”, but I don’t see why any new building with this aim needs to be aligned with a theological statement in order to be inspiring, or why anyone who wants inspiring architecture can’t appreciate it on its own terms wherever they find it. You might as well attempt to compose an atheist choral work as an alternative to Bach’s Mass in B minor.
He says he wants to give people a better perspective on life – I’d say the best perspective would be to acknowledge beauty wherever it arises and whatever its inspiration, and to put the money to a more practical use. I’m prepared to be convinced, but on the details I’ve heard so far, this sounds like a bizarre and unnecessary project.
Update 31/1/12: Alain de Botton has explained what he means in greater depth at Richard Wiseman’s blog. I can sort of see what he’s getting at, but it doesn’t seem to be saying anything very different from how I read him in the first place. Still unconvinced.
I recently attended a funeral (my first for some time), and I was struck by the potency of the ritual aspects of the service. From the well-worn routine of the service to the familiar words of liturgy, and – yes – through to the wake afterwards, something about the familiarity and the shared understanding of what was going on seemed to hit the mark, both easing the grieving process and allowing those present to begin to move on with their lives once the service was complete.
In fact, the one part of the service which didn’t seem to fit or serve much purpose was the brief sermon. I know, I’m awkward, difficult to please, a notorious quibbler and all that sort of thing, but this isn’t any sort of theological objection – I don’t recall any actual theology at all, apart from a passing mention of eternal life, which was mentioned in the funeral liturgy in any case. It just didn’t have any obvious point – it seemed to be there because you have to have a sermon, rather than because it was actually necessary or useful – and it got me thinking about which aspects of ritual are actually important, and which could be dispensed with.
I’m interested in the role ritual plays, both in and outside religion, and whether its influence is good, bad or mixed. I think as a species we find it useful to have some sort of communal and recognisable way to mark significant events. People who have no interest in religion turn to the church so often for that sort of commemoration of life’s landmarks that there’s even a term for it – “hatches, matches, dispatches”. Some would say that this reveals a deep religious sensibility, but I think it shows that what really matters to us is ritual – religion just happens to have been the dominant provider of ritual throughout history.
Could we have secular, religion-free ritual? Sure, why not? There are plenty of rituals which have no religious content, or where any religion is entirely incidental to the ritual. Remembrance Day is one example, however much religious content has been added to the basic idea, and New Year’s Day celebrations are another, albeit fairly trivial. Maybe religion offers a stability that allows ritual to flourish, but there’s no evidence that those rituals would disappear altogether in its absence.
In the context of funerals, it’s true that some may be after the sort of reassurance about the deceased that a non-religious outlook can’t offer – obviously, there’s no afterlife to appeal to – but the same could be said of religion, for different reasons. Standard Christian doctrine is that a departed soul may be sent to heaven or hell, and only God knows which. Any honest Christian response should therefore acknowledge that the deceased may be hellbound, or at least admit to an uncertainty on the matter. The image which comforts most mourners – the idea that their loved ones are looking down from heaven and waiting – is effectively folk religion.
Maybe over time, religion will become a minority interest and there will be a move towards marking these occasions in a secular environment. I don’t say that’s necessarily a good thing, or that it’s likely to happen soon, but I can imagine it, and it’ll be interesting to see if it happens in my lifetime.
Rick Santorum has done it again, getting into trouble while trying to pandering to his base. Here’s what he had to say on the subject of rape and abortion:
Asked by CNN’s Piers Morgan what he would do if his own daughter approached him, begging for an abortion after having been raped, Santorum explained that he would counsel her to “accept this horribly created” baby, because it was still a gift from God, even if given in a “broken” way.
“Well, you can make the argument that if she doesn’t have this baby, if she kills her child, that that, too, could ruin her life. And this is not an easy choice, I understand that. As horrible as the way that that son or daughter and son was created, it still is her child. And whether she has that child or she doesn’t, it will always be her child, and she will always know that,” Santorum said.
“And so to embrace her and to love her and to support her and get her through this very difficult time, I’ve always, you know, I believe and I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. As you know, we have to, in lots of different aspects of our life we have horrible things happen. I can’t think of anything more horrible, but nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation and I would make the argument that that is making the best.”
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are upset that he seems to be saying that rape’s a gift from God.
Now, I can accept the explanation that he isn’t saying it’s a gift to be raped, but is referring to the child as a gift. I can accept that he believes that life begins at conception, and that it would be murder to abort a foetus – I don’t agree, but I accept that he thinks that. I can even accept (with a grudging respect for his consistency) that if that’s the case, the circumstances of the pregnancy make no difference to the morality or otherwise of abortion.
What bothers me is that once again, he’s said something that sounds absolutely vile, but gives him just enough wiggle room for plausible deniability among those who are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt – the sort of people who’d even consider voting for him. Remember how he compared (or possibly didn’t) gay marriage to bestiality? The same thing is going on here.
Personally, I think this sort of weaselling is pretty damning, as it suggests Santorum is either deeply cynical or both a terrible communicator and pretty stupid not to realise how he was coming across. If he’s that stupid and bad at communicating, it should rule him out of the presidential race. If he’s that nasty and cynical, it should rule him out of membership of the human race.
But the reason I’m discussing this is that it’s a rare chance to see what flowery religious language actually means in the real world. It’s easy to glibly call children gifts from God, but in this example, that imagery is laid bare. If Santorum is saying this as an empty, meaningless platitude, as in “any time a life is created it’s like a gift”, then it’s irrelevant and everyone would have to agree that it has no place in rational discussion. If, on the other hand, he truly means that there is a God who would actually give such a “gift”, what does that say about God?
A God who would actually give such a “gift” is, if not implicated in the rape, at the very least guilty of making a woman’s ordeal infinitely worse by forcing her (because according to Santorum, He’ll condemn her to hell if she has an abortion) to carry her rapist’s child. Any good God who had the power to intervene in the world would surely do the opposite, if anything, and if Santorum thinks otherwise, either his theology or his moral compass (possibly both) is screwed up beyond belief.
I’ll give God and Santorum the benefit of the doubt, and assume that neither are actually evil – God’s just unable to do anything about it, and Rick’s prone to platitudinous rambling. But that “best case” would cast serious doubt on the value of this kind of imagery, and still mean that Santorum’s argument falls apart in tiny pieces when you actually examine it.
However you look at it, it doesn’t make “Frothy” Santorum look very presidential.
The creationists – sorry, IDiots – are at it again. This time, it’s Missouri that’s the chosen battleground, and once again, their complaint is that science classes are unfairly dismissive of their preferred evidence-free fantasy.
We’ve been over this before, far too many times, and the reasoning in Kitzmiller v Dover looks pretty robust to me, so Rep. Rick Brattin is either totally ignorant (aside from his promotion of ID, I mean), incredibly optimistic, or deeply cynical, blowing a fundie-friendly dogwhistle in the knowledge that he’ll never have to actually follow through with it and take responsibility for the resulting mess. Whichever it is, it’s quite revealing that on identifying what he sees as a discrepancy between typical beliefs in the US and what science tells us, Brattin thinks it’s the science that needs to change.
It’s puzzling that people believe this sort of crap in the 21st Century, and utterly depressing that they think it’s appropriate to promote their unsubstantiated ideology, in science classes no less, despite the very clear message of their own constitution. But while this proposal is a serious threat that needs opposing, I can’t help thinking that maybe it would be even better to give Brattin exactly what he says he wants. He says his bill’s about teaching both sides of the argument “in an objective manner”, and it includes instruction to “give equal treatment to biological evolution and biological intelligent design” – so what would that look like, exactly?
My first thought was a lengthy explanation of all the evidence for evolution, then the heading Evidence for Intelligent Design, followed by a blank page, but that could be described as unequal, so how about asking the same questions about each theory in turn? Maybe something like this:
Brattin can have that for free. We’ll have a balanced, objective comparison in no time.
Note: It seems that the text I worked on was lost in some housekeeping. I’ll work on replacing it, but in its absence, I’d just like to say it was the funniest thing I ever wrote.
When discussing religion, I find it interesting how even the most thoughtful and carefully-argued apologetic eventually comes down to simple, blind faith. However many clever arguments and justifications the believer puts forward, sooner or later there comes a point where those arguments have to be reasoned from first principles, and the first step, the basis of all subsequent beliefs, is reached from reasoning which more or less amounts to “just because”.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that – ultimately, we all have to begin with unprovable axioms, even if they’re almost universally agreed, or appear self-evident. For example, I believe that the laws of physics are consistent throughout space and time, that other people really exist and aren’t figments of my imagination, and that the universe didn’t spring into existence last night, with the whole of history and everyone’s memories created at the same time. They all seem like pretty reasonable conclusions to me, but even so, there’s no way of proving them.
So I don’t have any problem with unprovable axioms (except that they’re a frustrating roadblock if you’re interested in watertight logic), but I think – even though I can’t prove it – that they make more sense in some situations than others.
What prompted me to write this post is a discussion about the problem of suffering. It all followed the usual pattern, with back and forth between some people pointing to examples of suffering and other people trying to find reasons why an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity might allow them to happen, and lots of debate about the logical consistency of the various arguments. Eventually, the apologetic argument generally came down to a belief that there must be a reason, even if it wasn’t obvious what that was, because God wouldn’t allow it otherwise.
It struck me that this is very similar to when Christians try to justify genocide in the Bible. Most people, if faced with evidence that God allowed or – worse – ordered vile acts like this, would conclude that either the evidence was wrong or God is a monster. But there are some who attempt to redefine their terms – if God does it, it’s clearly not so bad, or it is bad if we do it but the rules don’t apply to Him, or even that His victims were asking for it – not an argument with a particularly distinguished history, regardless of its merits in this case.
Similarly, Christians generally end up acknowledging that there is suffering, but rather than amending their speculative, unprovable view of God (i.e. that He’s omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent) they suggest that He must have a reason for allowing suffering, even if we can’t know it. To me, this looks uncannily like Stockholm Syndrome. However unpleasant or abusive God must be if their beliefs are correct, and however responsible He is for their current suffering, they still want to justify His actions and excuse His crimes. They believe He could stop all their suffering, they know He doesn’t, but nevertheless, He must be a nice guy and have His reasons.
Alternatively, why not try Battered person syndrome on for size, to explain why Christians continue to worship a God who, if He exists and has anything like the power they believe, looks very much like a serial abuser. Have a look at these common beliefs and attitudes:
Additionally, repeated cycles of violence and reconciliation can result in the following beliefs and attitudes:
- The abused believes that the violence was his or her fault.
- The abused has an inability to place the responsibility for the violence elsewhere.
- The abused fears for his/her life and/or the lives of his/her children (if present).
- The abused has an irrational belief that the abuser is omnipresent and omniscient.
With very minor changes, that looks to me like a perfect description of Christian belief: We’re all sinners, which is why there’s suffering in the world. God can’t force unregenerate sinners to change, or to love Him. If we don’t do the right things and plead with the abuser, He’ll condemn us to hell not just in this life, but for all eternity. And point 4 speaks for itself.
Maybe atheists should be setting up shelters for battered believers.
Does you think this image is offensive?
Maybe it is to some people. Would you expect to receive complaints if it appeared on a poster? Possibly. Would you expect to be told by authorities to remove the poster? Sadly, it can’t be ruled out. Would you expect to be accused of racism and threatened with violence?
I ask, of course, because there was a complaint to the UCL Union about an Atheist Society poster because someone found this image offensive, and because the Union ordered the society to remove the image. And that was bad enough. But then Rhys Morgan posted the image on his Facebook page to show solidarity and it started all over again. After a relatively polite request to remove the image received a negative response, the abuse started, in a way that anyone familiar with the Jessica Ahlquist case will recognise. It seems that serious and threatening abuse extended to school today, where Rhys was apparently told by the school authorities to take the image down, or face suspension or even expulsion. Yes, you read that right – the school decided to step in, and rather than deal with the bullies who were threatening Rhys, decided that he doesn’t have the right to make this relatively mild point in favour of freedom of speech, not even outside school. WTF?
The argument that seems to be being used in both cases is that it’s not free speech if it’s causing offence. You can say what you like, but not if it offends anyone. Since when has that been an argument? The whole point about free speech – real, honest, open free speech – is that sometimes it will upset people, or challenge their deeply-held beliefs and preconceptions. That’s a good thing! That’s how arguments and thoughts get tested, it’s how we learn, it’s how society develops. When would we ever realise that we’d made a mistake if we’re insulated from such challenges? Can you imagine if every medical advance in history had been silenced because it offended people who firmly believed in the four humours?
I’m naturally quite a woolly, wishy-washy type, who tends to think that while it’s ridiculous to take offence at such trivial things, there’s no need to go out of your way to be deliberately offensive, because that makes you as much of a jerk as the person who gets so easily offended. I suspect that if I’d been in Rhys’s place, even if I’d posted the image in the first place, I’d have taken it down when it was politely requested in the first place. But when that politeness turns so quickly into not just fury, but vicious threats and accusations, I begin to wonder if I’ve been taken in by the friendly approach, not noticing the iron fist within the velvet glove. If this is the consequence of making a point and taking a stand, then let’s all take that stand together, because free speech is genuinely threatened.
This whole situation is screwed up – Rhys is an outstanding young blogger whose intelligence and enthusiasm would be a credit to any school. When the school ends up telling him he can’t say things in case he upsets people, are they saying he shouldn’t be campaigning against the Burzynski Clinic and the assorted other woo-ful non-treatments he’s covered, because people deeply believe they work, or is this some special case for certain officially-recognised beliefs? I think I know the answer, but it thoroughly depresses me. Please offer Rhys your full support.
I’ll see you on the barricades.
Pope Benedict XVI has been making news by stating (to no one’s great surprise, I would have thought) Rome’s opposition to gay marriage. It’s interesting enough that this unremarkable restatement of a Catholic doctrine qualifies as news, but what I found particularly revealing is the way this is stated:
He told diplomats from nearly 180 countries that the education of children needed proper “settings” and that “pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman.”
“This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself,” he said
Now, if I was a cynical, snarky type, I’d point out that if everything has to revolve around family units of one man and one woman as “the fundamental cell of every society”, the Catholic church should be sorting out its own beam of compulsory priestly celibacy before worrying about the mote of permitting people who are in gay relationships anyway to have some sort of legal recognition of that relationship. And as I just did, I suppose I must be a cynical, snarky type after all. Oh well.
But leaving the well-rehearsed arguments about gay marriage aside, here’s what I find so scary. Old Ratzi’s trying to ensure that the most basic rights and protections aren’t granted to gay relationships, directly challenging the secular, democratically elected authorities, with implications for millions of gay couples. But I can’t find a single argument as to why. He expects the nations of the world to do what he says on the back of nothing more than a few assertions which are shaky at best.
Obviously, you wouldn’t expect a scientific examination of the issue from him, but even so, he must have his reasons. He must have decided that the Bible, or church tradition or whatever clearly proves his various assertions, but we can’t know. Maybe it’s my Protestant background talking, or possibly my scientific mindset, but I expect to hear some proper reasoning, especially when the impact of this could be so far-reaching. I expect to be able to hear his reasons and say I agree, or don’t agree, or I’m not sure and will look into that a bit more later on. But when there’s no explanation given, there’s almost no room for rational argument – you can’t challenge unstated premises or hidden reasoning.
Lots of people do this – how often do you hear someone backing up a wild assertion with something along the lines of “it stands to reason”? – but they aren’t the head of a massive church, attempting to dictate global policy. Even if most Catholics are happy to do what he tells them without asking why, once he starts telling democratic government what they should be doing, he ought to be meeting a higher standard of evidence than “because I said so”.
Globally, even his Megachurchcorp brand is very much a minority. It would be nice if he acknowledged this now and again, but I won’t hold my breath.