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Loftier Musings On John Shook’s Views On Atheism.

October 31, 2011 Leave a comment

In reading John Shook’s book The God debates – I’m struck by his cogent and adept way at articulating both sides of the great debate – true it is that I’m only a few chapters into this book, but nonetheless it deserves some attention. That attention today will be focused on his discussion on the definition/s of atheism.

As many of you know this has been a hobby for me – as it probably is for most atheists who have ever attempted to discuss the way they define themselves with believers. As Shook notes:

Religion’s defenders often show a preference for defining atheism as the strongest claim to know that no god exists, If atheist’s cannot justify such an extravagant claim (and they can’t…), perhaps belief in god then appears reasonable? (Shook, The God Debates, p. 22, 2010)

I have discussed this strawman attempt here, here, here, Shook continues:

This tactic fails, since it uses the wrong definition of atheism and conveniently forgets how religious believers do claim extravagant knowledge of a supreme infinite being. It is religion that credits an extraordinary capacity for knowledge to humans, not atheism. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 22-3, 2010)

If atheism isn’t solely known for the strict and strong belief, or claim to knowledge, that no god exists, and it is not possible for one to, just exactly what does atheism mean?

Shook begins at p. 13, with the Greek definition of the word “atheos” – which he determines to mean the contrary of “theos” which means “godly” hence atheism, understood this way – simply means “not godly”.  Over time though, and Shook does not give specific dates, but on p. 17 one is led to believe he is discussing some time around, or not long before the enlightenment era – atheism became associated with “dogmatism” – which confounded Shook as that was a term used to describe true religious believers since “the days of the Christian Church”. Shook states that in earlier centuries an atheist was simply someone who was a skeptical non believer, characterized “by an inability to be dogmatic about religion.” (p.17) These skeptical atheists were ignorant of religious matters, they remained unpersuaded by religious creed, scripture or theological reasoning – they were doubters and uncertain. It is ironic then, that nowadays atheists are again, largely associated with dogmatism – if only in the eyes of believers, says Shook.

It wasn’t until the term “agnostic” came into play, with its conservative approach to belief, which Shook considers is also the basis for atheism – that atheism became to be defined in the way the religious believer believes. The basic argument goes as follows:

If an agnostic cannot know supernaturalism is right, and if the atheist isn’t an agnostic, then the atheist must therefore be someone claiming to know something about the supernatural. What might an atheist claim to know? The common meaning of ‘atheism’ began to shift towards “disbelief in god” and “the denial that god exists” so that many people began taking atheism to mean “it can be known that nothing supernatural exists”. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 18, 2010)

Shook states at this point, on p. 18 that it is difficult to track down the dictionary definition of atheism over the centuries, since it was Christians doing the recording and the subject is considered “distasteful” to them,  to use Shook’s term. One term that cropped up in  the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was the earliest of that series to mention the word – distinguishes between 2 types of atheism that Shook uses for the rest of his discussion on it. They are “dogmatic” atheism and “skeptical” atheism:

Dogmatic atheism “denies the existence of a god positively” while skeptical atheism “distrusts the capacity of the human mind to discover the existence of god.” The entry goes on to add that skeptical atheism hardly differs from agnosticism. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 18, 2010)

Let us take a moment out of Shook’s review of atheism for just a moment to look at 2 atheist philosophers who have added support for this separation of atheism into positive and negative positions: George Smith in his book Atheism: The Case Against God, and Michael Martin in his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification both present their own case for such. Let us look at Smith briefly:

Atheism may be divided up into two broad categories: implicit and explicit. (a) Implicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it. (b) Explicit atheism is the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it.
(a) An implicit atheist is a person who does not believe in a god, but who has not explicitly rejected or denied the truth of theism. Implicit atheism does not require familiarity with the idea of a god…
(b) An explicit atheist is one who rejects belief in a god. This deliberate rejection of theism presupposes familiarity with theistic beliefs and is sometimes characterized as anti-theism. (Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, p13-4, 17, 1989)

Now let us turn, again briefly to Martin:

Still there is a popular meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist not simply holds no belief in the existence of a god or gods but believes there is no god or gods. The use of this term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion let us call this positive atheism and the type of atheism derived from the Greek root and held by the atheistic thinkers surveyed above [fyi they are Baron D'Holbach, Anne Besant, Richard Carlile, Charles Southwell and Charles Bradlaugh] let us call negative atheism. (Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, p. 464, 1990)

I advise anyone looking for a reasoned discussion on this topic to see both books for a look at this issue. With that out of the way – let us continue with Shook – and his brief discussion of the “New Atheism”.

He states on p. 18 that dogmatic atheism is taken to be the only kind of atheism present nowadays, especially in the form of the “new atheism”:

This new meaning for atheism has achieved common parlance, dictionary affirmation, and philosophical usage. Instead of being an ignorant skeptic about the divine, an atheist is now supposed to be just another overreaching gnostic possessing confident knowledge about ultimate reality. Agnosticism has now re-emerged into popular view as a nonbelief option to atheism’s dogmas and religion’s faith. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 18, 2010)

Shook moves on to the point of his discussion on atheism – what an atheist really is today – and how they define themselves:

… an atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods. It must be immediately added that an atheist does not have any faith in a god, either, just in case we could imagine someone lacking a belief but having faith. Whatever it may take for a person to take god’s existence seriously, an atheist does not have it. The essence of atheism is a lack of a belief that god exists. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 21, 2010)

Shook states, pn p. 21,  that even with this definition there are, as a matter of pragmatism actually 4 threads of atheism, based on the above view:

  1. Atheists are those denying the specific theistic god of Judaism/Christianity/Islam.
  2. Atheists are those who deny that any god exists.
  3. Atheists claim to know no god exists.
  4. Atheists simply lack belief that god exists.

Moreover there are even more debates over who has the burden of proof, how many atheists there are, amongst all this debate it seems, says Shook  (p. 21) that agnosticism simply has no place anymore – as skeptical atheism has relegated it to a useless category, by encompassing it entirely.

Shook does state however, that there are “understandable causes for disagreement over a precise meaning for “atheism”, (p. 21). Theists have pointed out the Greek is not simply understood as “not godly” as it seems many atheists are content on using: but this poses no problem for Shook who states instead that atheists now have a choice of “prefix and term”:

… “anti” theos (denial of the gods), or maybe “non” theos (not believing in gods), or “anti” theism (denial of a specifically theistic god). Translations can’t decide this issue. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 21, 2010)

Shook finishes by stating that this confusion can be cleared up quite easily – by a couple of distinctions. He states that an atheist is someone who “does not believe in any gods” (p. 22) – the basis for this being in either inattention or skepticism. Shook states that that’s why 2 main varieties of atheism are often promoted as “‘not believing that a god exists’ is different from ‘believing that god does not exist’” – according to Shook both are valid forms of atheism which he dubs “apatheism” and “skeptical atheism”.

Apatheism combines apathy and theism to label people inattentive about a god and religious matters; apatheists lack a belief in a god because they are not paying attention to religion and don’t care enough to think about god. Skeptical atheism is doubtful disbelief towards a god and religious matters; skeptics lack belief in god because they have considered religion and believe that god probably does not exist. “Strong” atheism is the extreme end of skeptical atheism where some people confidently assert that no god exists. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 22, 2010)

Shook states that apatheism doesn’t offer rational justification for itself as the apatheist doesn’t know or care enough to bother-  she has no concept of god or has no interest in thinking about what little she has heard about. Therefore the common apologetic argument that atheism strictly means the assertion “no gods exist” cant’ apply to the apatheist as she “simply does not have that affirming belief” (p. 22). Shook states that it is more correct to say that the apatheist ” does not have the belief a god exists, rather than supporting that the apatheist believes god does not exist.” (p. 22)

As Shook states an apatheist is not the kind of person you would seek to find rational justification for skepticism towards the claim that a god exists – rather it falls to the skeptical atheist. Shook states that skeptical atheism is doubt toward the existence of all gods on the “grounds that available information and sound reasoning shows how it is improbable that any god exists.” (p. 22) Moreover this branch of atheism contains the “disbelievers” portion of the larger whole of the”nonbelievers”.

Religion’s defenders often who a preference for defining atheism as the strongest claim to know that no god exists. If atheists cannot justify such an extravagant claim (and they can’t…), perhaps belief in god then appears reasonable? This tactic fails since it uses the wrong definition of atheism and conveniently forgets how religious believers do claim extravagant knowledge of a supreme infinite being. It is religion that credits an extraordinary capacity of knowledge to humans, not atheism. Those who propose the existence of something always have the burden of justification. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 22-3, 2010)

Shook states that the skeptical atheist has a responsibility to respond to theology with atheology in the god debates, which is akin to saying that atheists do have a burden of proof – that is, to demonstrate that theist arguments and evidences fail.

And finally – the strong atheists are those who are persuaded by both negative and positive philosophical atheology – which is, if I have been succesful at all, not the default position of most atheists.

Conclusion

If anything I hope this shows some of my theist readers who try to tell an atheist what they believe (like they would ever let an atheist tell them what branch of Christianity they fall into) that all those atheists you debate, who claim atheism is a lack of belief in a god or gods, or that they don’t claim a god doesn’t exist, only that they don’t accept the claim one does – actually believe what they’re saying. It seems some of the more cynical apologists think this is simply a word game to avoid the burden of proof – or is antithetical to the traditional definition of the word (even if they’re right, it doesn’t matter, definitions and words change meaning over time, all the time). But as we see – no educated atheist is saying they have no burden of proof – rather that their burden lies in demonstrating fallacies, absurdities, contradictions and flaws in your arguments and evidences. It is you who launches the opening salvo – being the claimant – it is us who are required to respond.

References

Martin M. (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia. Temple University Press. P. 464.

Shook J.R.  (2010). The God Debates. Sussex, United Kingdom. Wiley-Blackwell. P. 13, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23.

Smith G.H. (1989). Atheism: The Case Against God (second edition). Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. Pp. 13-4, 17.

Categories: Atheism

John Shook On Secularism.

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Atheists get blamed for secularization, yet secularization was well underway in the West long before enough atheists accumulated to add support to the separation of church and state. Secularization is not the same as atheism. Secularization has to do with religion’s control over the outer world, not over the inner mind. Secularization is the gradual replacement of religious control over major political and social institutions. Political secularization prevents governments from favouring religion and it also protects religions from governmental interference. Social secularization finds most civil organizations, such as for-profit business and non-profit colleges and hospitals, no longer controlled by religious denomination. America is a good example of a country in which secularism is the norm while most people sustain their faiths. Some of religions defenders fear secularization, as if people’s faith in god could depend on religion controlling the world… If faith is doing so well, perhaps secularization should not be such a terror. Apparently billions of people can freely enjoy their private faith in god while letting the government do their public jobs (indeed, that was the aim of secularism). Political and social secularization continues, affecting the world as much as faiths propagation… Religions tend to view any competition as another religion, so secularism gets accused of quasi-religious indoctrination and totalitarianism. (Shook, The God Debates, p. 4, 2010)

Reference

Shook J.R.  (2010). The God Debates. Sussex, United Kingdom. Wiley-Blackwell. P. 4.

Categories: Secular

The Empty Voice That Is The Response To Dawkins.

October 24, 2011 4 comments

This article was promptly released by Daniel Came over at the Guardian in response to Dawkins refusal to debate William Lane Craig.

As usual and always there are no definitions of terms – when the term “New Atheism” is thrown around we are simply left to ask who, or what that might be – of course we can assume it’s Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris – but read any theist blog on the subject now and the list seems to include any atheist author publishing at the moment, as we will see.

Allow Austin Cline at About.com to define it for you :

New atheism is defined in both positive and negative ways. The positive definition of new atheism is a modern, 21st century movement in atheism which is openly critical of theism and religion and which is less willing to be accommodating to religious beliefs, traditions, or institutions. The negative definition of new atheism is a militant, fundamentalist movement dedicated to the eradication of religion.(Quine, Definition of New Atheism)

The article begins by apparently showing how scared the Gnu Atheists are of debating Craig:

Given that there isn’t much in the way of serious argumentation in the New Atheists’ dialectical arsenal, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Dawkins and Grayling aren’t exactly queuing up to enter a public forum with an intellectually rigorous theist like Craig to have their views dissected and the inadequacy of their arguments exposed. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)

Firstly this great piece of reporting is twisting the fact that Grayling may have declined to debate Craig in this instance – but forgets to mention that Grayling has already debated Craig! Moreover this piece of rhetoric completely skips over the fact that Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger and others  (I recommend the debates between Eddie Tabash/Craig, and Keith Parsons/Craig) who might be labeled with the New Atheist title have all gone up against Craig. It seems atheists are eager to que up against “an intellectually rigorous theist like Craig to have their views dissected and the inadequacy of their arguments exposed.” But let us not let the facts get in the way of good rhetoric.

Next Came moves on to a critique of Dawkins book The God Delusion- but what is this critique? That the book has no new arguments?

Ironically, there is nothing substantively new about the New Atheists either. Despite its self-congratulatory tone, The God Delusion contains no original arguments for atheism… Dawkins maintains that we’re not justified in inferring a designer as the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe because then a new problem surfaces: who designed the designer? This argument is as old as the hills and as any reasonably competent first-year undergraduate could point out is patently invalid. For an explanation to be successful we do not need an explanation of the explanation. One might as well say that evolution by natural selection explains nothing because it does nothing to explain why there were living organisms on earth in the first place; or that the big bang fails to explain the cosmic background radiation because the big bang is itself inexplicable. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)

Firstly – it wasn’t the “Gnu Atheists” who labelled themselves as such – this is a meaningless objection -moreover if a critique of the intelligent design position (and argument) is not new, then it follows that the argument it is critiquing is also, not new! One might also ask ” and who cares?” Are we only to address arguments that are new? Well we might, if theists weren’t using the intelligent design position today, which they are. As we can see this is an esoteric and empty objection.

Came’s critique of Dawkins “Ultimate Boeing 747″ argument as presented here is a strawman – Dawkins spends a 50 page chapter explaining and defining the parameters of the argument and Came shortens it to “who designed the designer?”?? It completely misses the point of Dawkins objection: which is an argument that solves the apparent statistical improbability of complex on earth, by using natural selection. To Dawkins, life on earth has evolved by natural selection, to postulate an esoteric “designer” to explain that process, adds nothing to it, fails Occam’s razor, is counter to the evolution explanation, as well as not being supported by the evidence. To quote Christian Ken Miller in his book Finding Darwin’s God:

The advocates of intelligent design have no explanation beyond the whim of a designer himself. That’s just the way he chose to do it… Evolution offers the perfect explanation. (Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, p. 94, 1999)

Moreover as John Allen Paulos states in his book Irreligion in seeming support of Dawkins:

The absence of an answer to the question “What caused, preceded, or created God?” made in my eyes, the existence of the latter being an unnecessary, antecedent mystery. Why introduce Him? Why postulate a completely nonexplanatory, extra perplexity to help the already sufficiently perplexing and beautiful world?” (Paulos, Irreligion, p. XI, 2008)

The next part, is the reason I’m writing this, as it’s something I’ve been wanting to write a blog on for a while – Came mentions Bertrand Russell, and how polite a scholar he was:

What is new is the belittling posture toward religious believers and the fury of the polemics. The New Atheism is certainly a far cry from the model of civilised interlocution between “old atheist” Bertrand Russell and Father Copleston that took place and was broadcast on BBC Radio in 1948. The New Atheists could learn a lot from the likes of Russell, whose altogether more powerful approach was at once respectful and a model of philosophical precision. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)

Now, yes it is possible Came is only referring to Russell’s debate with Copelston (who was a great author in his own right, check out his analysis of Aquinas), but why would he mention Russell’s tone which was apparently “respectful and a model of philosophical precision.” if he didn’t deem his entire work to be so? But, we are left to ask – if we accept this – just what did Russell have to say about believers, Christianity and religion? Let us look from his famous works Why I Am Not A Christian:

That this idea – that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been about religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with its tortures, there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sort of people in the name of religion. (Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian, p. 20, 1957)

So we see, the New Atheism is not new at all, Came has not researched his paper, and where he has written on the truth of subjects, viz. Grayling, he has omitted or twisted facts – to suit his purposes. Sounds like reasoned, fair critique to me. I wonder – if the Gnu Atheists are so “undignified”, “belittling”, “polemical” “inadequate” in their argumentation as Came suggests – why would he need to strawman them so?

Then we move on to the crux of the issue :

In his latest undignified rant, Dawkins claims that it is because Craig is “an apologist for genocide” that he won’t share a platform with him. Dawkins is referring to Craig’s defence of God’s commandment in Deuteronomy 20: 15-17 to wipe out the Canannites. Here is Craig’s offending passage:

“[If] God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of [the Canannite] children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.” (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)

Apparently it is undignified for someone to object to an author who states :

the death of [the Canannite] children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)

The best defense that comes to Craig’s mind for his Gods’ deplorable commandments is that the Canaanite children were happy to be slaughtered? Let’s assume this gross tragedy is true – if a child wants to die, should we celebrate that fact, and kill them gruesomely? Or, offer counselling, assistance, aid? Surely this conception of the murder of children does not fit with many sane people’s values. The best that Came can do to defend Craig, is to label Dawkins rejection of religious atrocities as an undignified response? One does wonder why those Gnu Atheists are so hostile to religion.

Came continues, defending Craig:

However, I doubt whether Craig would be guided by logic himself in this regard and conduct infanticide. I doubt, that is, that he would wish it to be adopted as a general moral principle that we should massacre children because they will receive immediate salvation. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)

It is irrelevant that Craig would not “conduct infanticide” personally or that he wouldn’t “wish it to be adopted as a general moral principle that we should massacre children because they will receive immediate salvation” as he seemingly thinks it’s ok for his God to do so (let us hope this being doesn’t exist!). Moreover it is not clear that Craig wouldn’t endorse those things as he clearly does so above.

As we see, this is all skirting the real issue anyway:

But whatever you make of Craig’s view on this issue, it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not God exists. Hence it is quite obvious that Dawkins is opportunistically using these remarks as a smokescreen to hide the real reasons for his refusal to debate with Craig – which has a history that long predates Craig’s comments on the Canaanites. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)

It would be quite obvious, on Came’s conception of events that Dawkins is merely hiding from Craig, but if I’ve been successful at all, it would seem that that damn dirty Dawkins might actually have good reasons for not wanting to step on stage, and endorse an author who apologizes for a deities orders of infanticide.

Came’s final words and a conclusion:

As a sceptic, I tend to agree with Dawkins’s conclusion regarding the falsehood of theism, but the tactics deployed by him and the other New Atheists, it seems to me, are fundamentally ignoble and potentially harmful to public intellectual life. For there is something cynical, ominously patronising, and anti-intellectualist in their modus operandi, with its implicit assumption that hurling insults is an effective way to influence people’s beliefs about religion. The presumption is that their largely non-academic readership doesn’t care about, or is incapable of, thinking things through; that passion prevails over reason. On the contrary, people’s attitudes towards religious belief can and should be shaped by reason, not bile and invective. By ignoring this, the New Atheists seek to replace one form of irrationality with another. (Came, Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist, 2011)

As we see – the tactics used by Dawkins, based on our analysis of Came – have been those we should all emulate – reason, kindness, the desire not to see children murderd, or endorse those who do, you know, basic human decency. And what does Dawkins get for it? Strawman, same old tired rhetoric, slander and misinformation tactics. As we see, all of Came’s concluding thoughts might be more appropriately aimed back at him – as we ask – isn’t it time the Gnu Atheists got a fair go in the media?

References

Came D. (2011). Richard Dawkins’s refusal to debate is cynical and anti-intellectualist. Retrieved October 23rd, 2011, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/oct/22/richard-dawkins-refusal-debate-william-lane-craig?INTCMP=SRCH

Miller K., (1999). Finding Darwin’s God. New York, New York. HarperCollins  Books. P. 94.

Russell B. (1957). Why I Am Not A Christian. New York, New York. Simon & Chuster. P. 20.

Paulos J. A. (2008). Irreligion. New York, New York. Douglas & McIntyre Inc. P. XI.

Quine A. Definition of New Atheism. Retrieved October 23rd, 2011, from http://atheism.about.com/od/Atheist-Dictionary/g/Definition-New-Atheism.htm

Categories: Atheism, Debate, Skepticism, Theism

Epistemology -Philosophy and Exercise Pt. 2.

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

For part 1 see here.

Disclaimer- for those small number of actual philosophers who read this, you should know this and it’s sister, are introductory blogs to those who have no experience with logic, critical thinking and fallacies – hence it’s obvious parochial nature.

Now we turn to Venuto’s eight reasons we are susceptible to weight-loss myths.

Reason #1 – Social Proof, Conformity, and appeal to masses.

In this section Venuto discusses a logical fallacy known as the argumentum ad populum otherwise known as the appeal to popularity. Ventuo states that:

Usually you assume a behaviour is appropriate if a lot of other people are doing it. This is known as social proof. Psychologists tell us this phenomenon also applies to beliefs. We believe what we do because it’s what most other people believe. (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 25, 2009)

Now we may remember from our last blog that this relates to epistemology as our beliefs are a subset of what we know – moreover it might be appropriate to label knowledge as ‘justified true belief‘ – as in what has been substantianted. The reason we call this a logical fallacy is that truth does not rely upon the popularity of the proposition, it relies upon it’s substantiation. It is one of the most common fallacies as philosopher Keith Parsons states in his book Rational Episodes:

Humans are social creatures, we are strongly motivated to want to belong and not to be left out ostracized… In short, nobody likes to be the wierdo. There is, then, enormous pressure to act like other people act and think the way other people think. Manipulators well understand this aspect of human nature and use it against us. They gives us arguments that, either subtly or not so subtly, try to get us to accept or reject some belief, opinion, or idea because, well, you don’t want to be a weirdo, do you? (Parsons, Rational Episodes, p. 223, 2010)

Parsons continues suggesting that the popularity of any doctrine is simply irrelevant to the question of whether it is true or not, or even whether there are good reasons to accept it – as stated above.  We accept a doctrine as true because it is reasonable, rational, well-grounded and depends on the arguments and evidence that can be offered to support it. Anyone who tries to convince you of anything via an argument from popularity is not doing so on the basis of rationality, but are merely trying to trick you. (p. 223)

Reason #2 – Appeal to authority and loyalty to gurus

The next logical fallacy we are discussing is another popular one, it is known as the ad verecundium or as Parsons’ calls it “the illicit appeal to authority“. (Parsons, Rational Episodes, p. 223, 2010) Venuto, p. 27, explains that it seems only natural to rely upon the information disseminated by “experts”, whose opinions are based on credentials, reputation and experience. We see this all the time, particularly among personal trainers – they latch on to a philosophy that a strength coach they like promotes and then uncritically push that same philosophy – I know, because I’ve done it too. The problem is, experts don’t count, facts do.

The problem as Parsons, 2010,  p. 224 says with trusting an authority is when the “authority” isn’t one – merely someone pretending to be one – or someone presented to you as one, by someone who wants you to believe in him or her and buy what he or she is endorsing. The example Parsons uses is of Michael Jordan selling you a brand name product or some other celebrity doing the same – what makes Jordan an expert? Of course he isn’t one – hence his word is useless.

Parsons also points out that it is not simply advertising that attempts to sell us of false information:

Much more serious is the fact that there are many organizations that present themselves as bodies of experts who are serving the public interest by offering objective, impartial, scientific information that bears on important issues. (Parsons, Rational Episodes, p. 224, 2010)

The example he uses is of the “National Canter for Global Climate Research” which purports to promote rational science on the state of the global warming research – instead it promotes motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, faulty research etc.  The important point – is how do we know this institute is bunk? We investigate – we research. When looking for experts we want good books written by popular authors – when we listen to an expert like Lawrence M. Krauss in matters of physics, his word isn’t the end of the discussion, we can take his information to other experts in the field of physics to confirm or disconfirm his ideas. As Venuto states:

All information must be analyzed critically and never accepted blindly. If the advice comes from people you respect and admire, then listen, but still verify. (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 26-7, 2009)

Reason #3 – Anecdotal evidence and testimonials

We see this type of tactic used to promote supplements, and amazing fat loss claims all the time, but as Venuto, p.27,  states anecdotes don’t prove anything in the factual sense – which amount to little more than heresay.

Philosopher and ex-physicist Victor J. Stenger – in his book The New Atheism - supports Venuto’s contention when he states that when deciphering testimonial claims we need to base our acceptance of them proportionate to the nature of the claim presented:

If an airline pilot flying over Yellowstone National Park reports seeing a forest fire, we have no reason to doubt her. But if she reports seeing a flying saucer whose pilot waved a green tentacle at her, I would demand more evidence. (Stenger, The New Atheism, p. 60, 2009)

Venuto states that anecdotal evidence can only lend credence to established scientific evidence – but are generally not to be accepted at face value.

Reason #4 – The news said so

This one falls to the same errors as the argument from authority.

Reason #5 – Confusing correlation with causation

We have actually discussed the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc here (see “myth #7″).

Reason #6 – Confirmation bias

This is a common one, it is part of our fundamental reasoning that our unconscious mind deletes and distorts information based on past prejudices and preferences, says Venuto. Another way of looking at confirmation bias is how John Allen Paulos describes it in his book Irreligion:

…  a so-called psychological tendency to seek confirmation rather than disconfirmation of any hypothesis we’ve adopted, however tentatively. People notice more readily and search more diligently for whatever might confirm their beliefs, and they don’t notice as readily and certainly don’t look as hard for what disconfirms them. (Paulos, Irreligion, p. 108, 2008)

Venuto says we do this because it’s comforting, it feels good to be right, and embarrassing to be wrong . The problem being of course, that if we continue to only stay within our comfort zone, accepting truths taught to us, and accepted uncritically it can lead to “close-mindedness, poor decisions, discrimination and justification for odd behaviours.” (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 30, 2009)

Reason #7 – Habitual thinking and appeal to tradition

Humans are by nature, habitual creatures, Venuto states that this power of habit can hold us back from changing things up, as trainers for example. When we find systems that work – for me it’s HIIT and MRT and for others it’s distance cardio and high carb diets – we tend to stay with them. The problem with this, a particularly in the world of training is what’s known as “the law of diminishing returns” – the longer we stick to a single protocol – the less reward we receive from doing it.

The lesson is: if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. If you want different results, do something different. Or as the humorous Demotivators calendar says: “Tradition… Just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly stupid.” (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 32, 2009)

Reason #8 – Wishful thinking

This one is important – Venuto states that:

It is tempting to form our beliefs according to what we wish were true rather than on evidence or logic. It’s more reassuring to believe that excess fat is not your fault and that a slow metabolism is to blame. (Venuto, The Bodyfat Solution, p. 32, 2009)

Rather than basing what we believe to be true on what feels good, we should base it on evidence, as Venuto states above. This comes back to what Martin was explaining in the previous blog – about believing for epistemic – or justified reasons, versus believing for beneficial reasons. I’ll add only to simply state – when investigating any claim what makes us feel good or what we wish to true has little bearing on reality – and if we are to operate in this world with both eyes open, we should base our perceptions on the evidence, not on how we would like the world to be.

Conclusion

This ends my very basic look at some epistemological pitfalls we all fall into, myself included – being aware of these traps, simply helps you to be aware of your environment – of the tricks brought to bear against you – but it doesn’t immunize you. That you must do on your own – investigate every claim you can, don’t accept anything based on dogma, tradition, authority (including my own – challenge me, it’s healthy to do so), search out the truth of claims yourself – this of course doesn’t mean push yourself to some relativistic wasteland where you are the only one with any kind of truth – but, rather, make sure you don’t accept uncritically, and form for bad reasons the things you think are reliable.

References

Parson K. (2010). Rational Episodes. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. Pp. 223, 224.

Paulos J. A. (2008). Irreligion. New York, New York. Douglas & McIntyre Inc. P. 108.

Stenger V. J. (2009). The New Atheism. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 60.

Venuto T. (2009). The Bodyfat Solution. London, England. ThePenguin Group. Pp. 25, 26, 27, 30, 32.

Loftier Musings On Kreeft’s Handbook of Catholic Apologetics.

October 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Our compelling reasons to write this book are three:

  1. We are certain the Christian faith is true.
  2. We are only a  little less certain that the very best thing we can possibly do for others is to persuade them of this truth, in which there is joy and peace and love incomparable in this world, and infinite incomprehensible in the next.
  3. We are a little less certain, but still confident, that honest reasoning can lead any open-minded person to this very same conclusion. (Kreeft and Tacelli, Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, p. 9, 2009)

A whole book could be written on this bizarre opening statement.

When the authors say: “We are certain the Christian faith is true” and “We are a little less certain, but still confident, that honest reasoning can lead any open-minded person to this very same conclusion.” – they seem to be engaging in some fallacious reasoning.

After all – they are certain Christianity is true, yet less certain that honest reasoning can lead you there? What are the authors privy to, that you or I might not be? One might say that the authors are suggesting it is the reader who brings their own presuppositions to the table that makes for the uncertainty – that the evidence is enough to make the authors certain, but you may make faulty conclusions. Aside from this being a nice little switching of the burden of proof fallacy, the authors bypass the above statement by claiming that “honest reasoning can lead any open-minded person to this very same conclusion”  – which means in cases of honest individuals reasoning, the same conclusions made by the authors should be met – after all if the evidence is there and we are looking at it honestly – why wouldn’t we come to the conclusion Christianity is true? Could it be that the evidence isn’t there – and Christians have made an epistemic leap to unjustified conclusions? Not according to these authors – it is because you are being dishonest, close minded and unreasonable – unfortunately ad hominem is a fallacy that does not solve arguments.

Moreover we see a nice little apologetic tactic in there too – something to help nuzzle believers into a comfort zone of unthreatening acceptance – “honest reasoning can lead any open-minded person to this very same conclusion.” – therefore any who don’t accept their conclusions are dis-honest, close-minded and un-reasonable? Unfortunately an unbeliever is immediately put on the back foot by these kind of statements, and is left to wonder, without answer, just why they are so unreasonable, close-minded and dishonest. One might surmise it is simply because they have come to different conclusions than the Christian? As I have mentioned before - I really do love how much “The Gnu Atheists are slammed (see here, here, here  and here  - not to mention the plethora of Christian books responding to and making money off the New Atheism) for being arrogant, offensive, intolerant of religion (etc ad nauseam) yet believers seem not to notice when they do the exact thing they seem to despise, to atheists (see here and here) – but I guess it’s ok when you’ve got God on your side.

One wonders what their second point has to, specifically do, with a theistic worldview: ” in which there is joy and peace and love incomparable in this world”? Surely an atheist or a theist of a different stripe is free to hold notions of this kind? Moreover an atheist is welcome to believe in the ontological truth of this statement “and infinite incomprehensible in the next.” so again we ask – why would one need to accept theism and go further, to Christianity – when there is no need? One might also ask just why they think evangelism is such a positive thing? All we need do is look at this Christian news site, to see just how much harm comes to believers around the world, from other believers – surely a secular, enlightened way of thinking would help these parts of the world? At the very least we see, Christianity is not helping.

Reference

Kreeft P. J., Tacelli R.K. (2009). Handbook of Catholic Apologetics. San Francisco. Ignatius Press. P. 9.

Categories: Apologetics

Epistemology -Philosophy and Exercise Pt. 1

October 18, 2011 Leave a comment

This is a post from my personal training blog – on health and fitness – I decided it covered enough of the same ground as this blog to include it. Enjoy!

When reading Venuto’s book, The Bodyfat Solution I was struck by how well he promoted a robust epistemology, for those of you who don’t know what that word means, please allow me to define it for you:

Epistemology (Greek, epistèmè, knowledge) The theory of knowledge. Its central questions include the origin of knowledge; the place of experience in generating knowledge, and the place of reason in doing so; the relationship between knowledge and certainty, and between knowledge and the possibility of error; the possibility of universal skepticism; and the changing forms of knowledge that arise from the conceptualization of the world. (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 118, 2008)

Basically it is how we come to know things, how we come about knowledge – what structures, tools and methods we use – for example, science and philosophy are tools of epistemology. Belief is a part of this too as it is a subset of knowledge – our beliefs about the world, generally, reflect how robust our theory of knowledge is. As Sam Harris states in his book The Moral Landscape:

The human brain is an engine of belief. Our minds continually consume, produce, and attempt to integrate ideas about ourselves and the world that purport to be true: Iran is developing nuclear weapons; the seasonal flu can be spread through casual contact; I actually look better with grey hair. What must we do to believe such statements? What, in other words, must a brain do to accept propositions as true? This question marks the intersection of many fields: psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, economics, political science and even jurisprudence… We form beliefs about facts: belief in this sense constitutes most of what we know about the world – through science, history, journalism etc. (Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 14, 2010)

Venuto has a great, succinct list of “eight reasons we are susceptible to weight-loss myths” that I want to cover in a pt. 2 of this series, but for today let us turn to historian and philosopher Richard C. Carrier, from his book Sense and Goodness Without God for a little look at just why we would need a method to evaluate claims:

Why? Because anything you intend to investigate, or assert, first requires that you have some criteria on hand to distinguish the true from the false – or in the most basic sense, what can reasonably be asserted and believed, and what cannot. In other words, if you ever assert something (“My wife is a brunette” or “Truth is good”), are you being reasonable? Do you have reasons to trust you are right about that? (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, p. 23, 2005)

Carrier continues stating that before we even begin to believe, or assert anything there are 3 steps we need to take: firstly we need to have some sound and clear idea of what we are investigating or asserting, for example “What is a ‘wife’ or a ‘brunette’? What is ‘truth’? What does ‘good’ mean?” Secondly Carrier states that we must have a sound and good idea of how we would go about discovering whether it can be asserted or believed, for example: “How do I prove my wife is a brunette or that truth is good?” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly – you must actually follow through with that procedure, before asserting anything.  (Carrier, Sense and Goodness without God, p. 23, 2005)

Why is all this important? As Venuto will demonstrate in our next post, science is a complex method of knowledge – there are many people, institutes and authoritarians in the exercise science field (just as an example) who are promoting supplements, exercise programs, life choices, health choices etc that are not backed by reputable, reliable, peer-reviewed scientific literature. It is important, as consumers to distinguish between something we have a good basis to purchase, in reality – and something that we think has a good basis for purchase, but is actually based on fallacious reasoning – both on our part, and of the part of the person selling us a product. You may still be asking why that’s bad? Allow philosopher Michael Martin from his book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification to answer that for me:

… it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe in anything on insufficient evidence… believing on insufficient evidence has a variety of harmful consequences. It corrupts our character, undermines public confidence, leads to irresponsible action and fosters self-deception.” (Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, p. 33, 1990)

If , for example, you buy a supplement from someone you think to be reputable, but have spent no time researching or even coming to understand what it is you’re looking for – you leave yourself open to be taken advantage of, to be sold an invariably expensive placebo, or worst case scenario? Something harmful and ineffective. Moreover you’re buying the supplement based on the person selling you somethings authority – this is a fallacy known as an appeal to authority, and Venuto will discuss it a little in the next post.

Now, to the discerning reader, it may seem as if I’m making a distinction between believing for beneficial reasons (as in buying a supplement that is a placebo) versus believing for epistemic reasons (as in buying a supplement because it is backed by reliable, peer-reviewed literature). Martin argues that epistemic reasons for belief are superior to beneficial reasons in most circumstances. I shall paraphrase his argument in light of a sports science focus.

Whatever benefits are given to us by positive belief in the placebo effect of an ineffective supplement are mitigated by the negative effects on one’s entire belief system – re: how we operate in the world when we form beliefs based on what is beneficial to us in the face of negative evidence demonstrating the falsity of, say, the supplement mentioned (i.e the fact that it is a placebo). This is why we have a strong moral obligation to base our beliefs on epistemic reasons, rather than beneficial ones – not simply because we may be duped, but moreover because we leave ourselves open to harm (as in the case of a harmful supplement).

Just before we finish up today it is worth noting that when we talk of epistemic reasons for belief, for having a robust epistemology – certainly no one is saying that you will be right 100% of the time, or that if you apply the principles described herein that you will never get duped – or more importantly that we, as humans have access to absolute and inviolable truth. I tend to side with Kai Nielsen when he states in his book Atheism and Philosophy:

There is nothing that can be established to be absolutely true or that can have an unconditional warrant. What is justifiable and what is not is time and place dependent… truth is time dependent and confirmation (justification or warrant more generally) is time dependent. (Nielsen, Atheism and Philosophy, p. 21, 2005)

Now – allow me to qualify – it is generally considered true that we can have some certain answers in mathematics and logic (errors in reasoning and logic will be covered in the next post) – there are established practices in mathematics whereby we can show a claim (10 + 10 = 20 is Nielsen’s example) is warranted. But anything less than that and we are always open to some uncertainty, hence we don’t, generally accept absolute truth.

Stick with me for part 2 of our look at discerning truth from falsity.

References

Blackburn S. (2008).  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition).  New York. Oxford University Press. P. 118.

Carrier R. C.  (2005).  Sense and Goodness without God. Bloomington, Indiana. Arthur House. Pp. 23.

Harris S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, New York.  Free Press. Pp. 14.

Martin M. (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia. Temple University Press. P. 33.

Nielsen K. (2005). Atheism and Philosophy. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 21.

Categories: Philosophy, Science, Skepticism

Articles

October 17, 2011 Leave a comment

News – Hey guys – I’ve added another sub-heading this week; ‘science’ – this will include any scientific research I’ve come accross. Enjoy!

Science

Theosophy

Atheism

Theism

Categories: Uncategorized

The unbearable wrongness of Stephens -c’mon ABC.

October 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Hot off his recent debate with Russell Blackford and others, Stephens isn’t smarting at all from his loss but has come out swinging over at the ABC website’s religion an ethics blog (in which he runs), in a piece entitled “The unbearable lightness of atheism“.

And a swing is exactly what it looks like.

Posting, as he notes, his thrust from the IQ2 debate, one is left to wonder just why he would post his losing argument to begin with, and why I am wasting the virtual ink to respond to it, when Blackford and co. did a far better job than I could.

I enjoy blogging, simple as that.

It is always amusing to note the language used by theists when discussing “The Gnu Atheism”, you’ll notice it generally takes the tone they claim said atheists do, ironic it is, and more than a little sad.

Stephens immediately goes for what I imagine most theists consider to be atheism’s job and weak point: morality. Of course anyone who’d spent 5 seconds researching atheism would realise atheism doesn’t have to explain anything, but hey, let us not let the facts get in the way of a good yarn.

It’s the same old yarn really, society in decline, morals run rampant, relativism, post-modernism. The problem is, as with most of the ABC’s opinion pieces, is there is very little room to elaborate and explain ideas, what we end up with is a mixed bag of assertions, which then yield to greater assertions:

It seems that we have reached a point in our national life where we are utterly incapable of reaching any kind of minimal moral consensus on fundamental questions.

What are the threats that we face in common? Where are those sources of corruption, perversion, addiction and even servitude that we ought to protect ourselves and others from? What virtues ought we to have and instil in others in order to make a robust civil society? What are our obligations to others – those living (including those who come to us from without our borders), dying and not yet born? What constitutes a good life? What ends do politics and the economy serve?

Such questions were once the subject of ferocious political and public debate; and, for better or worse, the Left and the Right believed there were answers, and that they had them. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

Hmm, that’s bleak, but I wonder, as Stephens does, who is to blame? Atheism?

There are few things today more fashionable, more suited to our modern conceit, than atheism. In fact, far from being radical or heroically contrarian, the current version of atheism strikes me as the ultimate conformism.

This is especially apparent in the case of the slipshod, grotesquely sensationalist “New Atheism” – invariably renounced by principled, literate atheists like James Wood, Thomas Nagel, John Gray, Philip Pullman and the late Bernard Williams – which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not claiming that atheism is necessarily the cause of our modern predicament, much less that it is the root of all evil. To make such a claim would be to accord this variety of atheistic chic with too much importance, too much weight. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

I have to wonder, if the worst thing Stephens can say is that atheism is no longer “heroically contrarian” then we could, as atheists, say that “The Gnu Atheists” and the secular foundations (secular student alliance, ACLU, Freedom from religion foundation etc) have done their job, insofar as they have given atheists a voice and protected the rights of unbelievers – we no longer need to be heroic or contrarian. To which I say, thankyou!

I find it nevernedingly ironic that he claims “The Gnu Atheism”: ” poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.” when one could make the argument, and I am – that is the very thing Stephens is doing in his article.

It’s relieving that Stephens wishes to elaborate that atheism isn’t the cause of the worlds problems, but it does beg the question – why would he spend his first 12 paragraphs talking about a decline in society, then without preamble jump to atheism, simply to say that it’s not the cause of the moral decline? What, he just wants to rant about it anyway? If there is no hidden agenda here, then Stephens is simply really bad at coordinating a narrative.

But don’t think I’m strawmanning Stephens, he continues:

In a way, I think where atheism fits in our cultural moment it is more incidental than that. Our real problem today is the impoverishment of the modern mind, our inability to think properly about such elevated things as the Good, Beauty, Truth, Law, Love, Life, Death, Humanity, the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself, without such ideas being debased by an incurious and all-pervasive nihilism. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

So it is, it’s not atheism that’s the problem, but nihilism (then we still ask – why is he discussing atheism at all?). Of course anyone who has read any apologetics would know this is what many apologists charge atheism with, claiming something to the effect of: this is where atheism leads us.  Even if this isn’t Stephens’ point, one has to wonder about his perception of the world. Are things so bleak to Stephens? Or are these simply the problems that accompany a theistic worldview, phrases like “the End or Purpose of things, even Sex itself” seem to be problems for the religiously minded individual, would these problems plague a persons worldview who bases such on the evidence?

Perhaps – we could always make the world better, but to assert that the modern mind is unable to properly think on these subjects seems asinine -  and not to mention self refuting since if this was true Stephen’s own dialogue here would be unacceptable – particularly when it’s done with the backdrop of atheism flowing in the background. If one is to tie together the narrative Stephens seems to have so much trouble doing – one may assume, after all, it is the atheists fault – for the supposed inability of the modern mind to think properly on ideals which are largely well solved in the secular life? This is circular.

Stephens continues:

And here we confront a desperate contradiction at the heart of so much atheistic hyperbole (accurately identified by Bernard Williams and others). The New Atheists rely heavily on the thesis that religion is the enemy of progress and human flourishing, and that once the last vestiges of religion are done away with, humanity will be far better off. But they also claim that all religion is “man-made,” and self-evidently so. This begs the question: if religion is indeed this all-pervasive source of corruption and prejudice and moral retardation, where do they believe that religion itself comes from, if not the human imagination? (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

Stephens is, of course, building to his point, which will come to in a moment – for now we see a category error – to say that “The Gnu Atheists” are calling religion the problem and that religion comes from man, and therefore what does this mean – misses a few steps in reasoning. Let us leave aside the fact that no quotations are given, and focus on the argument – Stephens seems to assume that “The Gnu Atheists” think it is “man” who is the problem, but rather it is religion as an epistemological tool man uses that is the problem. “Man” (sorry for the masculine pronoun ladies) may have his faults, but that means religion is all the more dangerous – what “The Gnu Atheists” are saying, if we are to accept, rather generously, Stephens quoting of them – is that we need a more robust epistemological tool – one that draws conclusions from the evidence, not the other way around, one that allows investigation into it’s ideals (re: no dogma), one that takes the world as it is presented to us – things of this nature. Religion comes from the failure of “man” to understand and explain the intricacies of his world, from tradition and habit. But as we see, this is in decline.

Now we come to his point:

And so, it would seem that we are left with an unavoidable choice: either these atheists are really misotheists, God-haters, who rage against the very idea of God, the Good, Truth and Law, and so desperately try to will God out of existence; or their oft-professed faith in the inherent human capacity for progress is without justification; or the history of religion reflects the extraordinary human capacity to pursue the Good, as well as its equally pronounced tendency for Evil, idolatry and nihilism. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

The atheists, or rather “The Gnu Atheists” it seems after all – are a not the cause, but rather a symptom of our faulty society, their rejection of what Stephens calls “the Good, Truth and Law”, and their “desperate” push to “will” God out is but part of our world of sin (you just know he wants to say it)?  It is painfully sad to watch Stephens flounder around attempting listlessly to assign some kind of blame to a world he sees is out of control – of course it has to be those damn dirty atheists – after all, no all-powerful, all-knowing being could possibly be responsible for any of the supposed lack of “Good”, “Truth” and “Law” in the world – no, no , that would be ridiculous.

As far as “The Gnu Atheist’s” supposed faith in the inherent human capacity for progress which is apparently without justification (which again, asserted without evidence), we can simply say that all us over here in the sunny atheist camp are loving life, we’re living in a society with the least amount of violence and crime, some might say we are living in the best this world has ever been. Homosexuals, women and minorities are slowly coming to get their rights – despite what Stephens’ religion might have to say about it, sure the world has plenty to work on, no-one’s claiming perfection,  and we’re by no means done. Stephens continues:

It is apparent, is it not, that the current batch of chic atheists are but a symptom of a more general cultural decline, the steady impoverishment of what Hilaire Belloc perfectly described as “the Modern Mind,” which ceaselessly explains away its own moral deficiencies by projecting them onto God and banishing him into the wilderness.

It is just as apparent why such an atheism – with its cartoon versions of history, its theological illiteracy, it fetishisation of science, its hostility to the humanities and aesthetics, its flattened-out brand of morality as mere “well-being,” its cheap gags and mode of incessant piss-taking cynicism – should appeal so powerfully to a culture that has grown accustomed to the vulgarities and trivia enshrined in the modern media. (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

It is here, that all I have been saying comes to fruition, I mean, come on ladies and gentlemen I implore  you – do atheists really have to take this baseless, crap, asserted without evidence? I don’t even have the energy to address this ad hominem nonsense except to quote Stephens from earlier, when discussing the “The Gnu Atheism”:

“which poses no serious challenge to our most serious social ills and so has no other alternative but to blame our social ills in toto on religion.” (Stephens, The unbearable lightness of atheism, 2011)

It’s ironic to see how high and mighty the pious are when judging those damn dirty atheists and how much people like Stephens fail to see their own hypocrisy. The above could easily be said of the meandering drivel Stephens has posted here, so in the end, he seems to be no better than the atheists he means to place the entire burden of modern civilization on.

Reference

Stephens S. (2011). The unbearable lightness of atheism. Retrieved October 5th, 2011, from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/09/13/3316962.htm

ABC gets it wrong again: Atheism and Humanism, forms of civil religion?

October 4, 2011 Leave a comment

A piece over at ABC’s Religion and Ethics page, yet again misses the point.

Luke Bretherton’s article “Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions”  begins by discussing humanist programs to educate children on being happy, fulfilled people without a god or gods, but this is all preamble to ask the question:

What we see shaping up is a battle for the souls of children. But in the process we need to ask a question about what is happening to the “soul” of humanism and atheism? (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

Of course the real issue, is that atheists and humanists are attempting to get involved with morals, and education, this can not do of course, as we will see later. For now a glaring problem and it’s one we see often – the author forgets to define his terms. After all there are types of humanism that are consistent with religious ideals, as we see here:

Humanism in the Renaissance sense was quite consistent with religious belief, it being supposed that God had put us here precisely in order to further those things humanists found important. (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 171, 2008)

Similarly with atheism too – in which Buddhists are technically atheists.

I guess we are left to simply assume what Bretherton means – but that shouldn’t be our job, and if you’re making an argument about such touchy subjects, one might like to guide their readers by what they specifically mean. Allow me not to fall into the same trap:

Humanism: Most generally, any philosophy concerned to emphasize human welfare and dignity, and either optimistic about the powers of human reason, or at least insistent that we have no alternative to use it as best we can… Later the term tended to become appropriated for anti-religious social and political movements. (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 171, 2008)

And atheism:

Atheism: Either the lack of belief that there exists a god, or the belief that there exists none. (Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 27, 2008)

As we see, the definition provided above of humanism does not preclude religious belief – instead one is left to wonder if what Bretherton is really discussing is secular humanism, which we can rely on its biggest proponent, Paul Kurtz to define for us:

The secular humanist paradigm has six characteristics: (1) it is a method of inquiry, (2) it provides a naturalistic cosmic outlook, (3) it is nontheistic, (4) it is committed to humanist ethics, (5) it offers a perspective that is democratic, and (6) it is planetary in scope. (Kurtz, What is Secular Humanism? Pp. 21-2, 2007)

But definitions and truth matter little to polemics, so Bretherton continues, erroneously stating:

What the new programmes for children mark is the turn from the critique of religion to the construction of humanism and atheism as forms of civil religion: an instrumentalised religion that provides the social and moral basis of the political order.

The paradox is that in the process they are becoming one more sectarian dogma. (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

It’s not entirely clear just what Bretherton defines religion as, he makes no attempt to – so it is hard for any real criticism to be made. My main concern with this kind of equivocation is: it is merely meant to insult his atheist/secular humanist audience by equating them with the very thing they don’t accept, which is petty – particularly so given the paucity of any real substance in the article (viz. his inability to even get his definitions right). One might be led to ask from the above statement, does not this re-imagining of the word ‘religion’ mean that anything becomes religion? And if that’s the case, what does that mean for his own belief in a god or gods? And the religion he presumably believes in and thinks is true?

No, this relativistic use of the word ‘religion’ to include 1 response (atheism) that rejects such and another that is ambiguously labelled (secular/humanism?) shoots the author in the foot.

Aside from the word game Bretherton is playing, we also see that he has misunderstood atheism and (secular?) humanism, he’s so tied up, one may surmise, in his religion providing a source of morality, that he deems anything that attempts to provide a prescriptive worldview (as in the case of secular humanism) as the same? It is also not clear how atheism or (secular?) humanism are becoming: “one more sectarian dogma”?

Perhaps we should continue, to see if Bretherton teases out what he really means:

But here we need to distinguish atheism and humanism. Arguably, humanism has always sought to provide an alternative to traditional religions through creating an anthropocentric civil religion. (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

And as we see from the above definitions, Bretherton has missed the point, how has humanism, in the non secular humanist sense, attempted to offer an alternative to traditional religions when it has often been compatible with religious belief? This is unclear at best, contradictory at worst.

No help there, Bretherton, returns to the issue of morals:

There is a long tradition of wrestling with the problem of how to provide a moral basis for political and economic relations without Christianity that spans Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, John Toland and Comte.

However, unlike many contemporary humanists, these thinkers were aware of the pathos at the heart of this task: it involved replacing one religion with another. The task was necessarily one of setting up a compelling religious alternative to Christianity or de-christianising and remodelling Christianity so that it could serve as the basis of a civil religion. (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

There are plenty of contemporary philosophers of Christian (John Stuart Mill) and atheist persuasions (Michael Martin, J.L Mackie) who have spilled much ink over the search for a system of morality that is non religious. It would appear to be a contradiction in terms, as well as completely arbitrary to label specific attempts at non religious morality to be religious. It’s not clear just why Bretherton feels the need to label everything ‘religion’, but he’s working hard to do so, perhaps for fear his religion is losing it’s grasp on morality and ethics?

Now, Bretherton turns his eye toward atheism claiming that

Atheism had no such pretensions. Its aim was to rid us of the need for religion. Yet in its move to remodel itself as a civil religion it has become what it claims to reject. The disdain of a Marx or Freud for religion has given way to the shrill competitiveness of the “New Athiests.” (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

This is obvious, baseless assertion. It is clear Bretherton misunderstands the very definition of atheism from the get-go, but it is here his misunderstanding is realised – atheism had and indeed has no ‘aim’, it is a lack of belief in a god or gods, this is it, there is no agenda there, no politics and it is certainly no ‘religion’. How do we know this? It has no dogma, no tenets, no authoritarians, no holy texts, no worship practices, no supernatural beliefs – none of the hallmark characteristics of a religion. He continues:

The sense in which religion and by implication atheism was simply a passing stage on the way to a new rationalistic outlook freed from religious baggage seems to have dissipated. Instead, a new confessional atheism has emerged, one ready to hawk its wares in the religious marketplace and compete for the souls of children.

Rather than a critique of religion from which the religious can learn, we find a “wannabe civil religion” that depends for its appeal on the continuance of the very thing it claims to replace. It has become an alternative rather than a critique. (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

He talks of atheism as if it some worldview that prescribes a way of thought, rather than a response to a single claim! We might also ask what unbelievers are meant to do with their children? How they’re supposed to teach them about science, morals, history etc,  free from the effects of the religious? And how tyrannical it is of  Bretherton to criticize and straw man the efforts of unbelievers toward realising a world where they are on equal footing with believers, where their children can play, and grow, and think, without the tendrils of religion being forced upon them (think I’m over-exagerrating? See here, here, here, here, here, here).

Of course all children should be given the right to experience religion, any religion (not simply the Christian one), but they should also be given the right, and the knowledge of systems that are not religious – the choice – we leave up to them. This does not compute to Bretherton – what must it be he asks himself? Well it’s a false religion of course – atheism – with its false idols of science, and it’s clergy: “The Gnu Atheists” coming like the bogey man to take away all he cares about? Please – this is clear projection.

It’s not an atheists job to “critique religion so religions can learn” (though some do enjoy it, myself included), atheists, secular humanists, Buddhists, Muslims etc don’t want to have to drag your religion kicking in screaming into the 21st century, that should be up to you to manage. Bretherton concludes:

Rather than a prophetic witness, disabusing humans of our illusions and idolatries, atheism has become Pepsi to the Coke of religion. To paraphrase the New Testament: what does it profit atheism to gain the whole world and lose its own soul? (Bretherton, Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions, 2011)

Bretherton’s stunning lack of understanding is almost laughable – in what world exactly does he mean to prescribe to atheists his sign off line here?  The religious language used is palpable, it’s not hard to see just why Bretherton deems every philosophy, worldview, or response to a claim as a religion – it is clearly all that’s on his mind.

Atheism, and this goes out to any atheists reading – is about a lack of belief in a god or gods – that’s it. Whatever you choose to positively believe (naturalism, materialism, secular humanism, hell Islam, Buddhism etc) is up to you. You decide what religion, or non religion you accept – or reject – and you do not need to be told what you follow and what you believe.

It’s been said it’s better to teach a child how to think as opposed to what to think – I personally believe in this statement – and will endeavor to do as such if I ever have children (which isn’t likely). I also understand I live in a country where you can be a loud and proud atheist, and suffer little to no consequences. People in other countries where it is downright dangerous to be an atheist need the kind of support criticized in this article,  hence my vitriol and tone.

References

Blackburn S. (2008).  The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd Edition).  New York. Oxford University Press. P. 27, 171.

Bretherton L. (2011). Humanism and Atheism as Civil Religions. Retrieved October 4th, 2011, from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/10/04/3331539.htm

Kurtz P. (2007). What is Secular Humanism? Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. Pp. 21-2.

Categories: Atheism, News

Meditations and discourse on Descartes’ Meditations and Discourse.

October 3, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s in this meditation that I want to look at one of Descartes a priori proofs for a god, the reason I say “a god” and not “the Christian God” is, his arguments, even if accepted as true,  don’t prove the existence of that god.

This is standard fare as far as responses go, and it’s is a distinction most Christians will scoff at, claiming, for example, that Descartes arguments might simply be evidence for a god, that the different Abrahamic religions agree on reason and simply disagree on revelation (this of course leaves aside that this argument could demonstrate the existence of almost any creator god, within certain parameters, outside of the Abrahamic religions). However much this rebuttal may or may not carry weight normally, it is an unwarranted and irrelevant distinction in this instance, Descartes makes no effort to distinguish his arguments toward his god, we have no idea if he was aware that his argument required additional arguments to get to his god, and without those arguments we cannot simply assume Descartes thought that. All we do know is Descartes made an unjustified leap to his conception of his god, based on the arguments he presents in both Discourse and Meditations.

The Ontological argument

When Descartes came to his “I think, therefore I am” philosophy (p. 25), he reasoned that from this it was “clearly” a greater perfection to know than to doubt – this prompted him to find out where he learned to think about something that was more perfect than himself. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 25, 1637)

Even if we grant this, why do we need to take the concept of something “more perfect than himself” to the unjustified idea of absolute perfection? We might also ask Descartes: what does perfect mean in this sense? Could a smarter person not simply be an example of something “more perfect” than him?  It is unclear what he means exactly.

To Descartes, it was clear that this aforementioned ability to know “had” to be from some “nature” that was in fact more perfect. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 26, 1637)

Readers may be now asking exactly how is there a necessary or logical link between his ability to think and some “far more perfect nature” giving him this ability? (We might also note the slide toward anthropomorphism that Descartes is slowly taking – now this conception of perfection is a “nature”?).

Well, Descartes continues – saying the reason this is so, is due to the fact that his perceptions of external realities – the sky, the earth, light, heat etc – represented no difficulty in understanding their origins. He reasoned that he did not notice anything in them that were “superior” to him – and that this meant to the extent they contained any perfection was reliant on his ability to perceive such and if these external realities did not exist, then that is his fault of perception and came from him. This however would not apply to his “being” that was “more perfect” than him – since “to get an idea from nothing was manifestly impossible.” (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 26, 1637)

Again, the reader may have noticed the tricky word game Descartes is playing: now the “perfect nature”, which we could have possibly (and rather generously) understood to be a nebulous form of ‘idea’ about nature, is suddenly changed to a “perfect being”. This assumption is completely unjustified and the language heavily implies anthropomorphism, but is there any reason – even if we grant his concept of perfection – to apply what appears to be sentience and intelligence to this idea?  It is also not clear that we need to accept his premise that it is impossible to get an idea from nothing – at least in the sense he is using – do we need to accept all literary, mythical and fictional stories as true? After all – it’s impossible, according to Descartes, that these ideas could come from nothing.  But that’s the rub isn’t it, Descartes isn’t claiming that anything we can imagine must have it’s roots in external reality, only his special pleading god.

Now, you could say in response – that these ideas come from literary traditions, imagination etc, which are not from nothing – which begs the question – couldn’t Descartes conception of his nebulous god be exactly the same thing? After all, would Descartes also claim the character Yoda – or closer to home – Marduk /Ganesha/Thor etc, also have a basis in reality (I can feel a reason/revelation distinction coming)?

Well, Descartes has a response to this too – he claims that:

… I could not have received it from myself either, because it was just impossible for something that is more perfect to result from and depend on something less perfect as for something to proceed from nothing. Thus the only remaining option was that this idea was put in me by a nature that was really more perfect than I was, one that even had in itself all the perceptions of which I could have some idea, that is – to express myself in a single word -  God. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 26, 1637)

There we have it, Descartes unwarranted assumptions realised in his end goal – to take a preconception – that a (single) god exists – and to place that preconception into a word game. But as we’ve seen along the way, there is no reason, for multiple reasons, to accept this conclusion.

For example: Descartes says he could not have received his idea of his perfect being from himself, on that much I might agree, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t receive the idea from other minds, he could have been taught, nay indoctrinated, by family members, the society of the time, to believe in the Christian God. You could then ask; “Where did the original idea come from?” And this is perhaps where Descartes is going with it – to which we can offer any number of reasons: misconceptions of reality, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, ignorance of the empirical world and its mechanisms which, in a reasoning animals attempt to learn about its world, ascribed deities to answer these unknowns. If we accept that natural explanations are preferable to supernatural ones as some Christians do,  then these answers are all, more likely than the concept of a god.

We could also ask just how Descartes thinks that because he has the ability to detect what he would call “imperfections” (others might call that, simply being an animal which evolved over time to adapt to its environment with no teleology present? Or in other words being human!) that it follows from this a perfect being must exist? If he can conceive of perfection (and I’m not sure he can in this instance) how does it follow it’s a sentient being that exists?

From this notion – in his book – Meditations of First Philosophy, Descartes self reflects, asking himself :

I must consider whether there is anything in this idea that could not have originated from me. I understand by the name “God” a certain substance that is infinite, independent, supremely intelligent and supremely powerful, and that created me along with everything else that exists – if anything else exists. (Descartes, Meditations of First Philosophy, p. 30-1, 1641)

Of course the obvious question is how he came to know the properties of his god, he might say he intuited them, I would say, yet again – he was taught them, based on classic theology, either way – he makes no demonstration of how he knows what he says he knows. Or does he?

Indeed all these are such that, the more carefully I focus my attention on them, the less probable it seems they could have arisen from myself alone… For although the idea of a substance is in me by virtue of the fact that I am a substance, since I am finite, unless this idea proceeded from some substance which really was infinite. Nor should I tink I do not perceive the infinite by means of a true idea, but only through the negation of the finite, just as I perceive rest and darkness by means of a negation of motion and light. On the contrary I clearly understand that there is more reality in an infinite substance than there is in an infinite one. Thus the perception of the infinite is somehow prior in me to the perception of the finite, that is, my perception of God is prior t my perception of myself. For how would I understand that I doubt and desire, that is, that I lack something and that I am not wholly perfect, unless there was some idea in me of a more perfect being, by comparison which I recognize my defects? (Descartes, Meditations of First Philosophy, p. 31, 1641)

This is yet again, the idea of an idea, taken to an absolute, then given personhood – why exactly do I or anyone need to grant these extreme and wholly unjustified leaps? To a non-believer it simply looks as if Descartes is stretching words, sneaking in premises – playing a word game – to get his preconception of god to “life” so to speak. This seems at the least illogical and the most, dishonest. What Descartes seems to miss is that definition is not existence, Descartes can define his being by what attributes he deems fit, but is there any reason to think this being, or any other I could imagine for that matter -actually exists? More on this in a moment.

Descartes continues that the imperfection he sees within himself – “doubt, fickleness, sadness and similar things” could not have been in god, as it not part of perfection to have such. He also says that if there are other bodies in the world similarly imperfect as Descartes is they must rely upon the power of his perfect go to sustain them. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 26-7, 1637)

This is not all clear – why must I, for example, who is obviously (despite how I may feel) not perfect (what does this even mean from a naturalistic point of view?), need to rely upon something that is perfect to “subsist”? As far as we know, I merely need food, shelter and water to subsist, at a baseline, all of which are not perfect.  Does Descartes fail Occam’s razor in his effort to postulate meaningless entities to answer questions for which we already have the answers? It would seem so.

I would also add, that if Descartes is using this as evidence for his divine being – and it looks like he is – he is clearly begging the question: he is assuming a metaphysical reality (that god sustains me through his will/grace etc) that is not clear exists, to come to the conclusion his god exists. If he is not using this as evidence for his god, then it still fails as it is a completely ad hoc hypothesis.

Descartes continues stating:

In contrast when I returned again to examine the idea I had of a perfect being, I found that existence was included in it in the same way as, or even more evidently than, the idea of a triangle includes its three angles being equal to two right angles or the idea a sphere includes the equidistance from its centre of all its parts [on the surface] and that, consequently, it is at least as certain as any geometrical demonstration could ever be that God, who is this perfect being, is or exists. (Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings, p. 27, 1637)

A scholarly criticism of this argument goes along the lines of what F.C Copleston says in his book Aquinas: An Introduction to the LIfe and Work of a Great Thinker:

… existence cannot be numbered among a list of attributes, since it is the foundation of all attributes. (Copleston, Aquinas: An Introduction to the LIfe and Work of a Great Thinker, p. 107, 1955.)

Malcolm Murray elaborates on this Kantian concept in his book, The Atheist’s Primer:

This is Kant’s point when he says “Existence is not a predicate.” Kant is wrong if he’s making a grammatical point, or course. In the proposition, “God exists,” God is subject, and existence is the predicate. But Kant is not making a grammatical point. Let us say, instead, that existence is not a property. Existence is not something which adds to the description of a thing…. if a couple plans on buying their first home they may say things like, “It should have ample closets,” “It should have a good view.” But to say, “It should exist” is weird, since this is already presupposed by speaking of the house in the first place. Saying “It should exist,” adds nothing, because existence is not a property. Otherwise my dreaming of a mansion that belongs to me for free, had ample closet space, has a good view, and exists in fact, would be all I would need to own a home. (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer, p. 65, 2010)

My personal criticism would be: Descartes compares his conception of god to that of geometry – in the sense that it presupposes size, shape, breadth etc in its calculation and it needs no demonstrations of such. This is an obvious equivocation fallacy – a triangle is not a living, being – geometry is a literary tradition that has developed over time to  helps us explain and make sense of our reality. It is unclear if Descartes is asking us to accept his concept of a god in the same sense, but it’s unlikely. Moreover, the products of geometry – triangles etc can have physical demonstration and practical applications if their existence was put into doubt – it’s not clear if Descartes thinks his god can.

Conclusion

Well obviously I don’t think I’ve destroyed Descartes or anything as dramatic as that, these are merely my thoughts regarding his proofs, and why I find it extremely unconvincing, in this instance – why anyone would accept the Ontological argument – at least how it’s presented here. At the very least I hope I’ve shown some of the problem I have with this “proof”. I of course leave it for you to decide where you go with your acceptance of this argument and indeed belief in a god or gods.

References

Copleston F.C (1955).  Aquinas: An Introduction to the LIfe and Work of a Great Thinker (Second Edition). London. The Penguin Group. P. 107.

Descartes R. (1637). Discourse on Method and Related Writings (This translation first published by Penguin Books 1999). London. The Penguin Group. Pp. 125, 126, 127.

Descartes R. (1641). Meditations of First Philosophy (Third Edition). Indianapolis, Indiana. Hackett Publishing Company. P. 30, 31.

Murray M. (2010). The Atheist’s Primer. Ontario, Canada. Broadview Press. P. 65.

Categories: Philosophy
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