A recent discussion reminded me of how often I hear arguments for God’s existence that stem from a lack of any explanation for our existence. I can see the appeal of such a position, and it used to be just about the only thing I could cling to when religion made no sense. The universe must have come from somewhere, therefore God.
In more sophisticated forms, or possibly in the hands of skilful bluffers, this argument would also incorporate claims that there is no experimental or observational evidence for abiogenesis, for example, or some similar position. Fundamentally, though, the argument remains the same and has the same flaws.
Even if we have no answer to the question of the origins of life and/or the universe (and on these matters, I’m happy to defer to people with much greater expertise than me), God isn’t an answer, because saying God did it tells us nothing; it has no explanatory power. Under this approach, God is just the name we give to the things we don’t (yet) understand – God of the Gaps rides again.
Supposing I live in a primitive culture and don’t know why the sun comes up every morning, so I say it’s pushed by a beetle. Quite apart from being completely wrong, what practical difference would that make to my knowledge? Or if I don’t know why boiling water becomes steam, so I say pixies do it – it’s not an explanation, I’m just dressing my ignorance up in different words.
If we’re going to actually understand anything, the concept of God (or sun-beetles or pixies) needs to be rigorously defined and tested as science. Otherwise, it’s no more enlightening than an exaggerated shrug. Maybe some people find it helpful to give the gaps in their knowledge a special name, but it doesn’t actually change the level of our knowledge, and William of Ockham starts looking distinctly cross.
For God to be an answer to these questions, there would have to be scientific explanations for who or what God is, how He created everything, why He can be defined as having no prior cause when His existence was only postulated because the universe must have a cause, and so on.
And that’s without addressing all the claims about God which aren’t necessary for a First Cause but tend to sneak in under the radar – all the “Omnis”, for a start, and then moving swiftly on to all the various different religions and their particular individual beliefs.
There’s a reason why God of the Gaps is such a discredited approach. It chases its own tail in ever decreasing circles as the niches for God to hide in get ever smaller, with a desperation that resembles cherry-picking more than seeking after truth. It’s not just bad science, it’s positively anti-science, as further discoveries are feared and avoided lest they shrink God’s domain even further.
When I don’t know the answer to something, I try to find the answer. That’s how we make progress, both individually and as a species. Not by saying anything we don’t understand must be magic.
“Science answers the how questions, and religion answers the why questions” – that’s a common claim from people who are arguing that science poses no threat to religion, or that they’re Non-Overlapping Magisteria, in Stephen Jay Gould’s rather grand phrase. It’s another one of those many ideas and beliefs that I’ve previously accepted, but am now starting to question.
It’s not controversial that science tells us how things work. The precise position is a little more complicated than that, because the scientific method only really draws provisional conclusions, and is more about the best way of finding out how things work, rather than dictating that this is right and that’s wrong, but it’s perfectly reasonable to say that if a question begins “How”, you’ll want to turn to science to answer it.
There’s more of a problem with “Why” questions, because they aren’t all the same. A question that begins “Why” could be asking about cause and effect (“a. Why did the building fall down?”) or the intent of an agent (“b. Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”) Either could be taken as questions of either cause or intent as written, but they’ll do as illustrations.
A third category sits ambiguously between these two, asking a question that isn’t obviously about either (“c. Why do we have two legs?”) Interestingly, it’s category c, the most ambiguous one, which is generally intended in the context of the how/why distinction.
Category a, the direct cause of an event, is clearly a scientific question. The only possible way of defining it as outside the realm of science is by assuming a priori that there could be an explanation that would be entirely impervious to scientific investigation, and even then, religion has nothing to offer as an alternative.
Category b, on intent, is a question that could be answered in the language of history, sociology, psychology and probably many other disciplines. Science could have plenty to say about it, while religion has little to offer. Religion might say that a murderer killed because of sin, but this is a pat response with no explanatory power, simply restating the question in different terms.
As for category c, in the example given you can either trace our evolutionary history back through many millions of generations, run models to show the competitive advantages of bipedal locomotion, or you can say that God made us that way. The same pattern is apparent whenever questions like this are asked.
The trick is this: the religious answer to a “why” question only has any validity when there’s an overarching moral purpose guiding events. Fundamentally, a religious answer to any “why” question is going to begin “Because God”. But in order for that to make any sense, there must be a God in the first place.
If there is no God, there is no higher purpose and no directing agent, so the question has no religious meaning, and the only possible meaning is a scientific question of cause and effect. The reason for the how/why distinction being commonly raised for category c type questions is that it equivocates over the true nature of the question being asked and answered. A “why” question is either a “how” question in different words, or it’s begging the question.
I have nothing against religion offering answers to questions of purpose, but would prefer more transparency. The only questions for which religion is better equipped than science are those which assume the existence of an agent outside the universe whose actions need to be explained, an assumption which is very much open to question.
To paraphrase Laplace’s possibly apocryphal words, I have no need for that hypothesis.
I was following a discussion earlier where the claim was made that science is increasingly getting stuck at certain points, various scientific theories are evidence-free, and that the discoveries of the next century will consign atheism to an insignificant rump, if not oblivion. That was meant to be a taunt, but it missed the mark in a big way.
The arguments entirely failed to convince me, but while I must confess that I’m not particularly keen on the idea that my search for answers might be taking me on a trajectory away from truth and towards some sort of epistemological dead end, I was surprised and slightly amused that atheists were expected to react badly to the idea that evidence might eventually prove them wrong.
Actually, that isn’t quite right – I should probably say that convincing evidence for some sort of creator/deity might come to light to substantiate religious claims. That might sound like an irrelevant distinction, but it’s fundamental to how people approach the issue.
I know very few atheists who dogmatically assert that there is definitely no God, but I know loads who would say the evidence is lacking or absent, or that there’s no good reason to believe the claims of religion. Unlike the stereotype of unbending religious faith, atheism is generally conditional on the evidence.
So sorry to the taunting apologists, but I don’t feel bothered by the idea that one day, there might be evidence that demonstrates my current beliefs to be mistaken. I’m where I am as a result of following the evidence, and if it takes me in a different direction, I’ll follow it there as well. And to be frank, any atheists who are bothered by that idea are doing it wrong.
Image courtesy of Prashant Jambunathan, used with permission
It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at those schools!
C.S.Lewis, The Last Battle
A lot of the Christians I know love this quote, spoken by Digory Kirke in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I can see why – it’s often used to illustrate a claim that Christian theology wasn’t invented from scratch in the 1st Century, but can be seen as a logical progression from some well-worn Platonic ideas developed centuries earlier.
That’s true in some cases, but Plato’s just one philosopher, and he said a lot of things that are rather a long way from Christian ideals. For example, he also thought infanticide was not just acceptable, but an advisable state policy. And he developed a line of discussion, known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, which continues to cause serious moral difficulties for religious beliefs of all stripes.
The Dilemma, in essence, is whether God commands certain actions because they’re good, or whether they’re only good because God commands them. In other words, is there an objective moral standard independent of God, or does God define that moral standard by His actions and commands? The former overturns God’s sovereignty, the latter makes God’s morality arbitrary.
Much discussion throughout history has centred on attempting to steer a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of these two conclusions, and to me, the most obvious and troublesome problem for Christianity is dealing with the genocide which is apparently commanded by God in the Old Testament.
Apologists regularly attempt to justify these actions, often with reference to God being free to do what He likes, by virtue of being God, or to claimed moral justifications. Some bizarrely attempt both at once, like a lawyer arguing that his client wasn’t at the scene of the crime, and even if he was, he had an entirely innocent reason. But you can’t have it both ways. Is such an act of genocide inherently moral, or is God entitled to define morality as He wishes? It’s one or the other.
If committing genocide is objectively moral, it must be acceptable for us to do it – unsurprisingly, few people are prepared to make such a claim. If you reject that option, you’re saying God gets to decide what’s moral and what isn’t, especially seeing that He’s happy to tell other people not to kill each other. Might makes right, and moral justifications are unnecessary and irrelevant.
That’s unsettling enough, but it carries additional implications. A common criticism of atheism is that it offers no objective basis for morality. That’s a weak argument – it says nothing about the truth of the position, only complaining that it’s inconvenient – but if God can arbitrarily determine His own morality, Christianity suffers from the same problem. God’s morality would be no more objective than any other system.
That means God would be entitled to tell someone to sacrifice his son, go on a killing spree, or commit any act, no matter how vile or apparently immoral. Of course, anyone with an ounce of decency or morality would question such a command, but how could you dissuade someone else who says God told him to do that? If God defines His own morality, it would be moral for Him to tell people to do whatever He wants. Given this, criticising atheism for the lack of an objective brake on immoral behaviour is particularly ironic.
The obvious answer is to acknowledge that stories of divinely-ordained genocide are self-justifying Israelite propaganda, and a long way from the truth. I’m surprised by how few apologists take this approach. Presumably, they take the view that once any part of the Bible is discarded, it opens the way to more and more, but when the alternative is defending the indefensible, I’d say that was a necessary risk.
Today’s sermon was a total car crash – an attempt (I use the word advisedly) to justify Christian belief, predominantly using cherry-picked quotes, false equivalence and bad analogy. Highlights included quoting Richard Dawkins’s view that Jesus almost certainly existed to prove that the Gospel accounts are accurate, arguing that we can’t see gravity or magnetism, therefore God, and bizarrely, associating the rise of both “secularism” (used erroneously to mean lack of belief) and Islam in Britain as if they were somehow related.
But I don’t want to dwell on that, because the details aren’t important, and a weak, flawed argument isn’t exactly unusual in any context. What I found interesting was that with every word, I felt myself moving further away from the church. Every gap in reasoning, every unsupported assertion, every dodgy analogy was like another nail in the coffin of what remains of my faith. But is it ridiculous to wonder why that should be?
I’ve always known that some people are liable to advance poor arguments, whatever their beliefs or lack of them. I also know (from experience, as well as intellectually) that position and seniority is no guarantee of competence. So it’s pretty much a given that any cause or organisation is occasionally going to produce this sort of clanger, even from an official platform – if any use of weak arguments and even logical fallacies proved that the case being argued is actually flawed, I’m not sure there would be a single sound position left on any subject.
So I don’t think that the sun would disappear just because someone used a fallacious argument in an attempt to prove that it exists, which is probably just as well, because such an argument has undoubtedly been made at some point. Nor do I think that this morning’s effort is the pinnacle of Christian apologetics, or that the church is alone in making weak arguments to support itself. And I think it’s reasonable to judge a position based on its strongest arguments, not its weakest. It might make sense to be repulsed by unpleasant attitudes, but this was just poor arguments, so am I being completely irrational in feeling alienated by this sort of nonsense?
I’m still working through that question, but at the risk of sitting on the fence, I think the answer’s both yes and no. The arguments of a particular person at a particular time have no bearing on the strongest arguments available, and it would be irrational to lower my opinion of the strength of those strong arguments in response to a weaker argument. It could possibly be justified on the grounds that this betrays a person’s weakness in evaluating arguments, but if all groups contain people who make weak or fallacious arguments, the effect of identifying one more should be negligible.
Where I think my reaction may be rational is in relation to the personal and relationship aspects of belief. Christian belief tends to revolve around communities within the church, and a certain amount of weight is typically placed on the life and experience of Christians, not least in the context of apologetics. Even the most liberal church, where outrageous claims of miracles would be severely doubted or rejected outright, will be full of people who place value and evidential weight on their personal experience of God, however nebulous, and that experience will be considered a good reason for believing.
If the people who speak of their experiences of God in my local church show themselves to be bad at evaluating the strength of competing claims, whether in the context of arguments or evidence, it casts doubt on the validity of their experiences and interpretations of them. Making a weak argument doesn’t weaken better arguments on the same subject, but it does suggest that the person making the weak argument may not be a reliable interpreter of other events, and their significance. That sounds like a plausible reason for my reaction, with only one problem – I don’t think I’ve put any weight on the reported experience of others for some years.
So I’m torn – I’m feeling an ever stronger pull away from the church, but that’s a confusing, and possibly irrational reaction in the context. It seems ludicrous that my search for an intellectually satisfying answer is being driven by instinct and irrationality, but that seems to be the way it is. Which is quite odd and slightly unsettling.
Photo by Xurble, used under Attribution License
I’ve rather painted myself into a corner here, having said that I expected everyone to judge the debate based on their own prior standpoint and preconceptions. I might have got away with that on its own, but as I also said how I expected the debate to go, I have the choice of admitting that my prediction was wrong, or leaving myself open to a charge of merely confirming my own expectations, as I somewhat critically suggested others would do.
Fortunately, I’ve been saved from having to cover that in too much detail, because there’s one issue that’s dominating discussion of the debate – Richard Dawkins’ self-description as agnostic, putting himself at 6.9 on his Spectrum of Theistic Probability.
Sadly, most of the comment on this has been rather hysterical and misinformed. So let’s clear a few things up: Dawkins is not backsliding on his atheism, and he’s certainly not about to suddenly convert to Christianity. His position has consistently been that he’s confident of the non-existence of God, and although he’s unable to prove that and must hold the possibility of God’s existence open, he does so in much the same way as the tooth fairy or Russell’s Teapot.
In fact, I find it ironic that some of the people who are claiming this “uncertainty” as some terrible admission are the same people who have previously castigated him for what they perceived as his dogmatic certainty, and refusal to admit that he could be wrong. He loses either way – he’s portrayed as arrogant and dogmatic, or else he’s so uncertain in his beliefs that they’re clearly not worth discussing, because even he isn’t really sure and doesn’t have the courage of his convictions.
As I’ve previously highlighted, this exposes an obvious weakness in the most commonly used terms to describe beliefs. I suspect Dawkins’ beliefs are getting so much attention not because of his degree of belief (he’s explicitly described himself as a 6 to 6.9 many times before), but because of the label he assigned to that position. It seems natural that an agnostic should be genuinely uncertain, rather than simply acknowledging the impossibility of being 100% certain – calling Dawkins an agnostic just feels wrong.
Now, I confess that I’m a little interested in his chosen label from a narrow perspective of practical theology, but seeing that his actual degree of belief hasn’t changed, I don’t see that it warrants the attention it’s been getting. Maybe there are more theology geeks than I’d realised.
The reports are half right, though – Dawkins is known for describing agnostics as feeble-minded fence-sitters, or at least partly agreeing with his school preacher who did, so he must have shifted his position. Except he hasn’t – the relevant passage in The God Delusion describes two types of agnosticism: Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP) and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP). Dawkins reserves his scorn for the PAPs, and says:
Agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability
So it’s right there in his most famous “atheist” work, actually in a chapter on agnosticism – he strongly believes there is no God, but we are currently unable to answer the question with certainty in either direction. Even there, surely the first place you’d look to find out his views on agnosticism and certainty, it’s clear that he acknowledges a lack of certainty. He’s also unable to be entirely certain about the non-existence of fairies, unicorns or anything else.
So Richard Dawkins is, always has been, and almost certainly always will be confident that there is no God, but he nevertheless remains aware that he is unable to answer the question with absolute certainty. The only news here is that people (especially journalists) jump to conclusions without checking their facts, and that lots of them have never really paid attention to what Dawkins was saying.
Come to think of it, that’s not really news, either.
In the blue corner, all the way from Kenya, the meme-tastic Richard Dawkins! And in the pinko corner, from Wales, the Bearded Wonder – Rowan Williams! Right, gentlemen – I want a good clean fight. No begging the question, no false dichotomies, and no beard-pulling.
Yes, Messrs Dawkins and Williams are going to have a debate on Thursday, on the subject of “The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin”, and I promise to ease up on the boxing metaphors now. I plan to watch it, and will probably blog about it afterwards (yes, I really live on the edge), but I expect it to be a rather damp squib.
Dawkins will most likely land some weighty blows, and Williams will dodge many more with some liberal and almost meaningless redefinitions of what Christianity is. The Archbishop in turn will almost certainly advance arguments that the enduring nature of religion is evidence in its favour, which Dawkins will bat away.
What prompts me to write about this now is that I wonder if there’s any point in having the debate, because just about everyone has already decided who’s going to win. In atheist circles, it’s a question of how stupid the beardy bloke in the dress is made to look. Among Christians, there’s widespread agreement that if Dawkins makes any arguments, they’ll be low blows, because he doesn’t fight fair or even understand religion, and his criticisms are always rather shrill.
In fact, this supposed shrillness has become a common theme in any criticism of Dawkins, along with stridency, being trotted out with startling regularity. But I’ve never noticed him to be at all shrill, and when asked for evidence of this quality, there’s rarely any offered at all, certainly not the mountain of quotes you’d expect to support such a widespread belief.
It’s true that Dawkins has occasionally said things which have caused a media storm far beyond the context in which they were said, but he’s hardly alone in that, as Williams himself would attest. A frequently-(mis)quoted example expressed the view that imposing beliefs on a child, and identifying that child by the religion in which it has been brought up (not a choice it has made), is a form of mental abuse. You may agree, you may not. You may even find such a view shrill or strident, although in the context I think it’s a fair, if provocative, point to make. But it’s surely not sufficient to explain this widespread belief.
But even if, for the sake of argument, we acknowledge that Richard Dawkins is (or can be) shrill, strident or any other negative description you might care to use, why does that matter to his opponents? I can understand that his supporters might feel frustrated if these qualities were deterring potential converts (although this criticism always seems to come from the “other side”), but surely his opponents should be quite happy to knock his arguments down and let his unpleasant manner (if indeed it is unpleasant) alienate waverers?
I suspect this criticism betrays a fear of Richard Dawkins and what he stands for – anything that challenges the dominant and privileged position held by religion is seen as a threat. So Dawkins is set up as an “Atheist Pope” so that the entire movement can be attacked by attempting to discredit him as the messenger. The accusations of shrillness are a part of this, as are other, stranger smears.
I think there’s also an element of special pleading and defensiveness on the part of believers – they often seem to view any criticism, rather than mere silent disbelief, as an unconscionable and aggressive assault on them personally. As with the secularism debate, the people in the position of power, or at least cultural dominance, do everything they can to shut down challenges to the status quo which suits them so well.
Bear this in mind when the debate is reported, and ask yourself whether you’d expect anything else from the source. I’ll be surprised if there’s a single case in which you couldn’t predict the verdict just by checking where it appeared.
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.