(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your most recent piece. It’s the best one yet in the series. You actually (finally) lay down some things we can really sink our teeth into. Something tells me you should have started with this one…
However, after the opening paragraphs my hopes were dashed as I found that much of the rhetoric here is beset by the same pitfalls that have been addressed time and again. Most importantly, (and what I will focus on in my response), is that the above piece suffers from what I will call the doctrine of unfalsifiability.
In the flashpoint conflicts between science and religion, we observe a long, dense history of science holding forth some new discovery about the nature of the universe and those discoveries being resisted or considered in some way conflicting or out of sync with the religious beliefs of the day. Heliocentrism, evolution, the Big Bang, the germ theory of disease, the non-efficacy of prayer, etc. all represent findings that have both challenged and undermined traditional, orthodox beliefs in some way.
Each time this happens, more nuanced, more labyrinthine and less parsimonious theologies had to be constructed in response. If such findings didn’t pose a challenge to faith, we wouldn’t see the longstanding debates or the polarizing resistance, and there wouldn’t be the need for periodic reassessment. The reason should be clear: In no way can it be dismissed that theology and faith were a lot simpler and easier to affirm when it was believed that we were the center of the cosmos, that we were specially created distinct from other animals, and that it didn’t take billions of years of brutal death and violence to be here. Taking the long view of life-that is, looking reality square in the eye-clearly requires deeper reserves of theological provisions to maintain faith coordinate to that of our ancestors.
In the intervening years, theology has tried very heartily to keep pace. Faced with the mounting dissonance of reality as we excavate more about our past and present, and the apparent lack of intervention in this reality, religion has inserted ad hoc explanation after ad hoc explanation to maintain sync. Of course, one can do this all day long, no matter how the universe appears. One can always simply say, “God could have done it this way because X” or “God might have good reasons for doing it this way”. But the problem with this is that none of these provisional musings can be authenticated over against any other, from the simple on up to the abstruse, and thus these post hoc, postliminary compromises are not useful as a way of determining truth or as a route to knowledge. After all, if any ad hoc explanation will work, then NONE CAN BE WRONG.
That is, if anything is true, then nothing is wrong. If anything can satisfy a preconditioned belief, and nothing can count as evidence against it, then how rational is the belief in the first place? We MUST have a way of weighting the strength of our beliefs in any one direction. And this was the purpose of my note. It was intended as a collaborative exercise to articulate some criteria, expectations and predictors for religious beliefs that, if true, would weight my beliefs toward theism. The invitation was to theists to list out some criteria, etc. that they would weigh in favor of atheism (or to simply point out why my criteria are misplaced). Some questions raised:
- Do naturally occurring disasters, like the 2004 tsunami referenced in the OP, count as evidence for or against a god?
- Do mass extinctions count as evidence for or against a god?
- Does the fact we very nearly went extinct ourselves count as evidence for or against a god?
- Does the null hypothesis for prayer experiments count as evidence for or against a god?
- What would strengthen your belief in a god more: a religious text that contains numerous contradictions and errors, or one that contains no contradictions or errors?
- Would the scenario in which two or more independent civilizations have matching revelations strengthen or weaken your evidence of god?
- Do such phenomena tilt your belief away or toward theistic belief?
Et cetera. (Note: By ‘god’, I mean one who intervenes in creation and cares about how humans and how creation plays out, just as I described in my OP, which would discount maltheistic conceptions, even though the evidence seems to support such conceptions much more strongly.)
Instead, what you have expressed in your most recent piece is that no evidence, no matter how significant or compelling, can permeate the bubble of your safely sequestered beliefs. All you have done is sealed your beliefs inside a cocoon of unfalsifiability and hoped no one would notice.
A quick analogy is in order.
Suppose you and a friend were to stumble across a dead deer in the woods. Based on what you know about food chains indigenous to the region, you assume wolves were the source of the deer’s demise. Your friend then spots a bullet hole and exit wound on the carcass and suggests hunters are the better explanation. You proceed to attach to this robust line of evidence an explanation that still involves a wolf. Your friend then finds the bullet casing nearby. You, unwilling to concede such a “reductionist” perspective, make up another explanation that is consistent with the involvement of wolves. Shortly thereafter, the two of you cross paths with a hunter, who says he indeed shot a buck a ways back, describing it in detail and the location of where he shot it, which matches both the profile and location of the one you observed. Still unsatisfied that this is the full explanation, you concoct an even more byzantine scheme in which a wolf is still a part of the narrative and had some meaningful role to play.
You see where I’m going with this of course. The practice is but a step removed from the young earth creationists who twist their logic into pretzels trying to reconcile their beliefs with reality. Yes, it’s possible a wolf could have been in some way involved with the deer incident, just as, yes, an invisible entity could have planted fossils on earth to give the facade of age. Likewise, another invisible entity could have intervened selectively in the evolutionary process leading to humans. Or he could have intervened at the point of every single gene mutation that has ever arisen on earth. Or, better yet, it could have been a maltheistic dictator god who thought it pleasant to fudge with the process and bedevil the existence of sentient beings. Or perhaps multiple ethereal creatures, one in charge of selecting mutations and one in charge of natural disasters. The permutations are endless.
This gets us absolutely nowhere. It’s little more than an interesting thought experiment and is useless as a way of knowing anything. There is no reason whatsoever to suppose any of it is true or even where to draw the line: i.e., how do we distinguish divine intervention from natural processes, since to the neutral observer, the two look mighty indistinguishable. Combined with the criteria and arguments outlined in my note, there is even less reason to suppose behind the sum of all of these innumerable micro- and macro-interventions lies a loving god who cares about how events down here play out.
How much are you simply covering for an entity who simply isn’t there?
This fatal problem subsumes much of your note. You said:
“But surely the fact that we don’t know which one it will be doesn’t mean that there’s not an active agent flipping the coin in the first place, right? The unpredictability of a process simply cannot speak to that.”
Of course our current understanding of reality cannot speak to that. Just as it cannot speak to a cohort of maltheistic, phantasmal Kim Jong Il’s deciding the fate of each and every coin flip. Or invisible leprechauns fine-tuning the rotation of each toss. And guess what? Neither can you. I have just as wild an imagination as you do, I can assure you. But it doesn’t mean I mistake it for reality.
“To think that merely explaining a process (even completely) removes God, is skipping a few logical jumps ahead.”
It doesn’t “remove” God in the same way it doesn’t remove the putative role of Santa Claus, garden fairies or Thor. The idea was never needed in the first place, and we have no good reason to suppose it is true. The point is this: If the brand of god you’re selling actually is out there, then he has made himself impossible to detect, and has crafted a universe by using processes indistinguishable from nature itself. What he has done, in fact, is create precisely the world we would expect if there were no a benevolent watchman.
Once again, the absence of justification for something does not mean that we simply latch onto any fanciful notion that comes our way. The idea is to withhold judgment until justifying reasons are found.
“But that’s why, though yes, it’s most certainly a circular argument, I stand by it: the fact that we humans beat every statistical chance that we would survive and arrive to where we are today is, I think, a sign for Providence working in the midst of the process, rather than against.”
The bigger problem is not that this argument is circular, but that it’s useless. Yes, we are here, but the odds were stacked heavily against us, just as with the 99.99% of species who didn’t make it. If you want to call an under 10000 population of sapien primates culled by genetic glitches and horrific disease “Divine Providence” be my guest, but don’t be surprised when I look at you askance for siding with delusion over reality. This is no different from the religious faithful who thank god in every situation, no matter the outcome. (Whether the relative survives the car accident or not, credit is due where credit is due, right?) If any excuse will work, then, well you can probably finish my sentence at this point.
(As an aside, unlike gene inheritance, statistics is a rather difficult concept to map onto the future emergence of any one species, as we simply don’t know the full population of mutations that can arise, nor their fitness potential in the full range of environments, nor the probabilities of disasters, epidemics and other variables that could eliminate any one specie’s chance of emerging. Stochasticity, rather, governs natural selection, the primary mechanism of organismic evolution and is not correlated with statistical modeling. The point is: how likely were we to arise? Not very.)
Even more curious is that some of your post voices concepts far outside any mainline theology I am familiar with.
“When Jesus shows up on the scene, because he is an evolved homo sapien male whose evolutionary line goes all the way back to those very stars, he carries the entire history of the cosmos leading to him in his physical body. And so, when he physically dies, and rises, he is actually raising the entire universe’s history within himself.”
This just sounds like grasping at straws and, as another commenter noted, you seem to be creating an entirely new brand of theology in the process (scientology book in the making, perhaps?). Look, it’s easy to make things up. It’s even harder to apply skepticism judiciously, full-tilt, and in an unbiased, non-tendentious manner across the board.
“What would be the alternative for those that agree with the Facebook post, I wonder? Would they have any less skepticism if the account of our evolution was so sure and fully explained by natural processes? If there were absolutely no “messiness” in how we came about? Would they not then say that a god was altogether unnecessary, and that Occam’s Razor demanded we got rid of the unnecessary agent?”
I’m not sure what you’re getting at above, as it is phrased ambiguously (and I think is misphrased).
1. We have no reason to believe our origin is not fully (or cannot be fully) explained with recourse to natural processes. If non-natural processes were to be identified, they would be incorporated into our broader understanding of reality, and I personally would find this evidence in favor of a deity, depending on the particulars of these non-natural process(es).
2. Evolution is intrinsically a messy and unguided process, to which death is integral. If this process were not the prevailing theory of our origins, or a guided process were to take its place, I would find theistic persuasions easier to come by.
3. Occam’s Razor is precisely what can be appealed to in dismissal of the god hypothesis. No known component of reality requires, or is aided by, the attachment of disembodied deities.
I answered these things clearly in my OP and have never suggested otherwise.
I still think the best counter to the whole God question was by Laplace when he replied to Napoleon, “We have no need of that hypothesis, sir. It works without it.”
Yes, this layer you are so intent on superimposing is unnecessary, but if it could be demonstrated that it was not unnecessary in understanding the phenomena you lay out in your post, then we can talk.
“I will confess, the reason why I think we should include this God is because it is more compelling.”
I fully understand you find it compelling, but the authenticity of truth claims does not depend on how compelling we find them. (If that were the case, I have a few movies and comic books to recommend you.) The emotional connection and resonance we find in certain ideas says nothing whatsoever on whether those ideas are true. I feel like a broken record at this point, but your continued repetition of the sentiment above is fully irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Muslims, etc. find their faith compelling for not dissimilar reasons.
“I freely admit: if this material world is all there is, then Atheism is indeed the truest, most logical response. And that’s because “evidence” belongs to the realm of this material world. For things beyond it, material “evidence” is not the criteria by which it is judged.”
One can only sigh with exasperation at this stage. How many times must I point this crucial distinction out to you? We do not presume the world is material, it’s simply the best conclusion based on all of the available data. Moreover, there is no data whatsoever for “things beyond the material world”, so how can you even begin to make claims about which kinds of methods and evidence are suited to studying them? Such a statement is laughably unfounded. Did you read the Sean Carroll piece I linked? I don’t post links just for the hell of it. They really do underline the points I make, I promise.
“As I tried to explain yesterday in the Facebook comments, this whole discussion of God is something that transcends the realm of reason and evidence. That is simply not the plane on which this can be proven.”
But of course. Of course it’s outside the bounds of reason and rational inquiry. Of course it’s not open to active investigation. This indeed MUST be the case to form the foundation of the empire you’re trying to build. I simply maintain that the foundations are shaky and I’d think twice before building an empire on faulty foundations.
Pursuing my thesis, I actually think this is a testament to the epistemological corners theists have progressively been backed into, as their inevitably provisional assumptions about reality have been gradually sliced away by the unremorseful blade forged by science and skeptical inquiry. Faced with a dearth of tenable evidence for their beliefs, one of the last remaining redoubts of religion today are the vague refrains of “something else out there” and imprecise mutterings of “otherness”. While I find such musings empty, I understand the psychological utility of religious and other similar belief systems. I would never deny this.
“Daniel says that Andromeda is the “appointed destroyer” of our universe. Actually, from what I understand, the slowly increasing brightness of the sun would destroy all life a few billion years before Andromeda ever came our way. Boo-yah.”
Right on. Yes, eventually we (along with all other life) will be reduced to cosmic cinders as the sun’s core is depleted of its hydrogen reserves and moves into its second stage of nuclear fusion. The heat death of the earth will occur long before the impending collision with Andromeda, so there will most likely be no life extant to observe it. Not such a cheery scenario, is it? This only bolsters the argument in question of course, and it was a simple matter of preference in choosing which to include.
“There is indeed a view of the world in which Atheism is the most compelling option out there. But this view of the world, as I’ve been repeating over and over again, is one that doesn’t explain our intuitions, isn’t beautiful, doesn’t offer a story that makes sense of our existential realities, and does not inspire and give strength for life to be lived as we believe it is the most fulfilling to live it.”
Seriously? How many times…For the zillionth time, atheism is not an ideology or belief system. It is the absence of such things. My atheism, in fact, makes no claims whatsoever (i.e., negative atheism). As such, it cannot explain anything, it isn’t beautiful and doesn’t offer any kind of inspiration or overarching narrative for life’s journey. That’s the point. This is as nonsensical as saying your non-belief in Santa Claus or garden fairies doesn’t offer a compelling narrative to organize your life around. “But Paul, if you don’t believe in the Final Enlightenment of Buddha then how can you justify beauty?”
Skepticism is the tool. Atheism is the conclusion. Truth is the goal. Atheism doesn’t assert to account for these things and never has. Just as afairyism doesn’t account for such things.
But what can account for these things?
Well, emotional connection and resonance, and you also mention intuition, originates in the brain. The brain is a product of evolution. We, by the transitive property, are also a product of evolution, and are thus not exempt from its processes. As such, it is useful as a starting point and there are no good reasons for removing its seat from the table.
In fact, an extremely solid evolutionary foundation can be offered for our cognitive identification with aesthetics and for the subjective experiences they supply. One can think of perfectly valid reasons why neurochemistry which favors esoterica like beauty, art, taste, love, meaning, etc. would be selected for and makes perfect sense within an evolutionary context. These not easily categorized arcana can and do supply inspiration and motivation and thus aid survival, thereby increasing chances of reproduction, etc. After all, what is life without these things but a bloodless, desiccated existence? These quantities do not fall outside, but fit right in line with, contemporary evolutionary theory.
Evolutionary psychology is a burgeoning field right now, replete with all kinds of fascinating implications for our aesthetic proclivities. For example, some recent work by Pinker, Hofstadter, Scott Atran and others builds upon the ideas of Gould, Eldredge and Mayr, showing that the most universal quanta of human cognition-viz, religion, science, aesthetics-emerged as “spandrels” (an architectural term reprovisioned for evolutionary theory), or traits whose functionality is distinct from its original purpose(s).
“Similarly, many universal features of human cognition—the primary data of evolutionary psychology—probably arise as spandrels of a general consciousness evolved for other reasons (almost surely adaptive). Freud argued that our fear of death acts as a key inspiration for the universal human institution of religion…According to the most popular view in the field, many other important human activities are spandrels, including art, music, religion, science, reading, and dreams.” (source)
I’d strongly encourage you to pick up a few works or white papers in the field if this is an area you are interested in.
Now, a bit about what this does not mean. This does not mean we all share the same subjective experiences or there is a mathematical formula by which we can all converge upon the superiority of certain aesthetic quanta after critical reflection, only that the biological (i.e., neurobiological) substrates which give rise to these appreciations resides in all of us and that we are all capable of subjective experience and the more contemplative aspects of human nature (which may not be unique to humans; such “spandrels” may radiate into non-human animals as well).
Now, whatever additional layers or theological context you’d like to build on top of that foundation is fine, but that doesn’t make it true (though it certainly may inspire you in some way). Nor should you pretend that there aren’t alternative perspectives or “lenses” by which non-Christians can identify with meaning and aesthetics. My thoughts below comport directly with Matt Killmon’s comment yesterday on the self-generated nature of meaning and its non-dependence on supernatural externalities.
Perhaps there is no overarching narrative to which we can tie and ground every state and action here on earth. Perhaps life is but one protracted oscillation between varying intensities of pleasure and pain, and any higher meaning is illusory. Surely an absence of objective meaning does not in the least require a denial of subjective meaning. We all navigate this cosmic journey via different streams, mesas and corridors, each visiting upon us new experiences, awakenings and inspirations. Finding and embracing with untapped zeal that which we identify as significant is one of the most irreplaceable ecstasies we encounter along the way. The pure opposite of inhibitive, the realization that our lives only have the meaning we give them is animating and enlarges our circle of freedom by impelling us to structure our pursuits and hew our conduct in consonance with that meaning.
Since you closed with a quote by a Hitchens kin, I’ll follow suit.
“Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” [C. Hitchens, The Portable Atheist]
Perhaps this is sufficient, and anything tacked on to the end of it, while potentially compelling and inspiring, is just a superfluous add-on.
In the end, this latest piece barely makes it beneath the surface of the arguments made in my piece, nor does it debunk or call them into question. I believe my conclusions are transparently rational and well-justified. Conversely, surely there are phenomena that would tilt your perspective toward atheism, the entire point of my original note. If not, then we clearly do not occupy the same epistemic playing field and are a mismatch destined to end in irresolution.