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Atheist Book Gift List For Christmas.

November 29, 2011 Leave a comment

A couple of apologetics blogs (see here, and here) have done an apologetics and philosophy book list as a guide for gifts for Christmas, both for the beginner, and more learned apologist. I thought it was such a great idea that I’m going to respectfully steal it, and apply it to atheist and philosophy literature for both the beginner and more learned atheologist.

Unfortunately I can only include the literature I’ve read myself, so please, feel free to add to the list those which you feel would be appropriate.

For the Beginner/Intermediate

Malcolm Murray, The Atheist’s Primer – This is a neat little piece from a serious philosopher that deals with the arguments for the existence of God, the burden of proof, the definition of an atheist, agnosticism, problems with some definitions of God, morality, meaning, mysticism, falsifiability and death – in a fairly simple manner.

John W. Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist – Similar to Murray’s this book covers a wealth of topics, its general theme – criticising religion, primarily Christianity.

Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted – This is the only book of Ehrman’s that I’ve read, I’ve used his The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings as a reference, and it is probably the better book, but having not read it cover to cover I can’t speak authoritatively on it. As it is Jesus, Interrupted is straight forward and deals with many of the objections modern scholarship has with the Bible – a good start for those looking for more depth on it.

Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution is True – True it is that this issue isn’t necessarily tied to atheism. However, many atheists are science minded, or at the very least enjoy learning about science – this book is a great resource to learn about the *ahem* myth of evolution.

Robert M. Price, The Case Against The Case For Christ – As a nod to the aforementioned apologists I guess I should include some work that critiques popular apologist’s literature. Price does a great job in this to point out the obvious flaws in Strobel’s case.

For the Advanced

Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification – At the time I read this it went a little above my head, but it’s a solid read and deals with just about anything you could imagine regarding atheism, and reasons to reject theism.

George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God – Not, technically a difficult book to read, and could have gone in the beginner/intermediate section, it deals, really well with many of the same issues as Martin’s, Murray’s, Loftus’ with it’s own style.

Kai Nielsen, Atheism & Philosophy – A huge follower of Wittgenstein, Nielsen deals with a philosophical case for atheism. You may ask why I’ve included 3 books in a similar vein? As you might hear, so many times theists talk of there being no real scholarly work in or on atheism, well, here it is.

Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism – While not, specifically about atheism, and also on a worldview I don’t hold, this book does give a pretty good defense for about as strong an atheistic worldview as you can get, and for my money, does pretty well defending it.

Robert M. Price (Ed.), The Empty Tomb – A collection of authors ranging from Michael Martin to Keith Parsons answering proponents of the Resurrection accounts. More detailed work on Biblical scholarship than Ehrman’s for the reader who can keep up.

There are a plethora of other books I could include, but these ones cover several different branches of information with varying depth and clarity – all good reads, all educational, no matter what beliefs you may hold.

Respect.

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

In discussing my atheism with regular people, in particular, regular Christians – regular meaning in this instance either (a) not apologists, or (b) not radical fundamentalists – I’ve found, and this is probably going to sound self-evident, that respect goes a long way to making people who might ordinarily a priori reject you as a person, come to understand, and hopefully accept you as an atheist.

There are Christians in my life, and on the internet, who know how vocal I am about my atheism, who read my blog, and with whom I have interesting, and more importantly, respectful conversations. That is the bond that ties our conversations to a calm and reasoned anchor: respect. Without going into too much detail I have another group of Christians in my personal life who are, well, less than open to accepting me as a fellow human being – I’ve received hate mail, threats, condescension, disapproval and basically all loss of human decency.

Why? Because I don’t believe in their God.

I understand I’m not engaging with what the Bible might say about atheists (Psalms), or what it says about atheists fraternizing with Christians (Paul), which may redefine this issue somewhat. Under Christianity’s morals it may be perfectly humane to attack a person simply for being different. After all, these Christians may view me, an atheist, as worse than a murderer, more foul than, or at least equal to, any evil here on earth.

Replace ‘atheist’ with ‘black’, or ‘woman’ and you see the problem with that mentality.

The point is: however strong these Christians feel about their beliefs, at the end of the day, they are ideological principles, there is however one thing the Christian and I do have in common, that we know, obviously and evidently – we are both of us, humans. We both deserve respect, ethical treatment and the right to live our lives free of molestation.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s perfectly fine for apologists to critique atheism, naturalism, materialism, to poke holes in them, and to find contradictions etc – it’s how we all become better versions of those. I respect what they do, value it. It’s even fine to have heated, public discussions, as long as both parties continue to respect each other as people. But ad hominem, personal attacks, disrespecting or devaluing a person and threats simply because someone holds different views, is not an enlightened way to be, and is not worthy of the brains we posses – Christian, or atheist alike.

Bringing it back to atheists: in day-to-day life, I don’t think religion is something we necessarily want to condescend on – which isn’t to say parody, satire etc don’t have their place, I would say they do. But when you’re dealing with regular people in regular settings, is the best tactic to belittle and condescend? Or are understanding, respect, tolerance, and most importantly a code of basic human decency, recognizing we’re all part of the same world, and deserve the same ethical treatment, the way to go? Do we really want to be like the aforementioned fundies, persecuting and being intolerant of people, who simply by the fact of their beliefs, are different from us?

We may debate the meaning of religious belief, or the harm it can produce etc, but most importantly, we are all humans, tied together in the realm of cause and effect, meaning: what you do to me, affects me, and visa versa. Getting along in this world is primary and paramount. With that in mind, shouldn’t religious disagreements come secondary to measures of decency?

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November 17, 2011 Leave a comment

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Loftier Musings on The Kalam Cosmological Argument.

November 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Today I want to do something of a prima facie investigation into some of the problems I have with the cosmological argument. So much of the debate on the Kalam get’s caught up in the arguments premises, as well it should, but in this post I want to explore only a few issues, some contradictions, fallacies and whether God as an answer, is really an answer at all. Of course some of these objections and queries may not seem new to some of you, and some may seem new, but please, bear with me anyway.

For those who don’t know it, here is the argument, famously propagated by William Lane Craig:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause. (Craig, On Guard, p. 74, 2010)

There has been much ink spilled on this argument, for rebuttals see most atheist literature from Loftus to Martin. There has also been much debate too; see here, here, here for examples.

Today though, instead of going through and showing why each premise fails, I want to move on to some other issues. You may ask, why not address the argument directly? Well, for lack of a better excuse, it’s boring! That may seem arbitrary and lame, but what I really mean is: far better people than me have addressed this argument, I’m not so foolish as to think I could add to their work, I want to do something of a mental exercise for myself, to see what I might contribute to this great discussion.

I could go through the standard objections: that, as is, the Kalam doesn’t lead to anything supernatural, and even if it did (based on objectionable, hidden premises) that supposed supernatural answer doesn’t lead to a god, to suggest so, could be construed as an argument from ignorance (the universe has a cause X, we don’t know what X is, ipso facto: God)  rather it leads to an unknown. To get to anyone’s specific god you need additional arguments, what those arguments are, I don’t know.  The moral or fine-tuning arguments as Craig uses? Why cant the Muslim use those? And if they can, they don’t help the Christian – the evidence for a theory we might consider (i.e – a god exists) should not be able to prove multiple, contradictory hypothesis. The Resurrection argument as Craig uses? Sure, but does that argument prove the Christian God? Or merely beg the question by assuming the Christian God, to prove a miracle (for more on this see here and here)? Moreover how does the Kalam relate to, or follow from the Resurrection argument? They seem disparate.

We could object to the first premise  saying that (virtual) particles do pop into existence out of nothing, with no cause. True, they don’t exist in a vacuum but do we understand the universe to have come into existence via vacuum? It is a vacuum, not in one.

We could sprout the composition fallacy, that because parts of the whole act a certain way (i.e the universe contains cause and effect), it does not follow that the whole does (i.e that the universe is similarly caused). Think of a flock of sheep – each sheep has a mother, it does not follow that the herd does too.

We could go on, and on of course, but rather I want to look at 3 conjoined issues: infinity, sequential causation, and why god is no explanation – as it is a mystery.

Infinity and sequential causation.

It always strikes me as odd that some theists, when trying to defend the second premise of the Kalam attempt to demonstrate that the universe can’t be necessarily existent in eternity. They try to show, alongside the empirical evidence for the big bang that there is good philosophical evidence to accept a finite beginning for the universe, they do this by making an argument against it existing in infinity. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is: this is special pleading. We are left to ask, if the universe couldn’t exist for infinity, just how exactly does your god? Why cant the universe have the same creative powers as a creator God? Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, in their book Handbook of Catholic Apologetics defend the Kalam in just such as way:

Now, if the universe never began, then it always was. If it always was then it is infinitely old. If it is infinitely old, then an infinite amount of time would have elapsed before (say) today. And so an infinite number of days must have been completed – one day succeeding another, one bit of time added to what went before – in order for the present day to arrive. (Kreeft and Tacelli, Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, p. 9, 2009)

Could we not pose this exact problem to Kreeft and Tacelli?

Now, if the universe god never began, then it always was. If it always was then it is infinitely old. If it is infinitely old, then an infinite amount of time would have elapsed before (say) today. And so an infinite number of days must have been completed – one day succeeding another, one bit of time added to what went before – in order for the present day to arrive.

The Christian God is generally defined as amongst other things,  infinite – to define a being this way, and then construct an argument that demonstrates nature could not have the exact same feature, seems like a tricky word game, and clear special pleading to me. What is it about God, that is different to the universe? For this we turn to John Loftus in his book, Why I Became an Atheist, who quotes Wes Morriston:

If someone insists it is just ‘obvious’ that God could create a world without any pre-existing material stuff to work with, on the ground there is no logical contradiction in the idea of such a feat, then the proper reply is that there is also no logical contradiction in the idea of the universe beginning without a cause. (Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist, p. 85, 2008)

Moreover, as John Allen Paulos states in his book Irreligion: Occam’s razor actually begs that we shave off unnecessary assumptions which would make taking the universe itself as an uncaused cause the greatest virtue – to use Paulos’ expression. (Paulos, Irreligion, p. 108, 2008)

The point, I hope, is clear – what is good for God, be it infinity or creation, should also be good for the universe – if it’s not, it is special pleading.

We don’t know what their response would be, as they don’t address this objection. Let us go through what their possible objections might have been.

They could argue that God didn’t exist in time, that god invented the temporal realm when it created the universe, but this leads to absurdities. The Dictionaryof Science defines time as:

A dimension that enables two otherwise identical events that occur at the same point in space be distinguished. The interval between two such events forms the basis of time measurement. (Daintith, Martin Ed’s, The Dictionary of Science, p.  822, 2010)

The above definition seems to demonstrate that causes and effects are done within time, with this in mind, we could ask (a) how they know God exists, thinks and acts outside of time, it does no good to simply assert a being does X as an ad hoc hypothesis, you need to demonstrate that it does and (b) it is not at all clear, or perhaps even logical that the Christian God was able to exact causation, think etc outside of time. How it could exist in not-time, think in not-time, as all these attributes are temporally dependent.

Again we refer to John Allen Paulos and his book Irreligion:

… efforts made by some to put God, the putative first cause, completely outside of time and space give up entirely the notion of cause, which is defined in terms of time. After all, A causes B, only if A comes before B, and the first cause comes – surprise – first, before its consequences. In fact, ordinary language breaks down when we contemplate these matters. (Paulos, Irreligion, p. 5-6, 2008)

Let us run a little thought experiment based on the above definition of time: to think thought (a) you need time (a), to think thought (b), you also need time (b) – to think thought (a) and (b) at time (a) violates the law of identity and results in a contradiction. Thought of act, thought of ponderance, all require an interval from time (a) to time (b), without that temporal delineation God would have every thought, every experience it has ever had at time (a) which would result in it holding the belief of a and ~a at the same time, hence the aforementioned contradiction. But even this understanding makes no sense, as there would have been no time (a) hence God would have to think, and act without time – but this makes no sense, and leads us back to asking just exactly how the authors know their God has done so – until they offer us some ways to understand the logical quagmire we’re in, we are justified in rejecting this concept.

God as an explanation.

These absurdities lead us to our third objection: that God is so much of a mystery, that to pose it as an answer to anything, acts as no explanation. Traditional theology has simply defined god as that which needs no explanation, so putting god into an unknown like the pre-big bang makes prima facie sense, and I can see why a theist sees this as a resolution to the problem. The critic takes issue with this however, we want good explanations for events, not ad hoc hypothesis.

The theist could argue the difference between contingent and necessary beings – the universe is probably a thing that had a beginning, hence it could not have been, this makes it and everything contained within it, contingent. Necessary beings cannot not exist, they have no origin and cannot be destructed – we cannot rationally conceive of its nonexistence and it needs no explanation of its existence. The universe is contingent and god is necessary – hence the universe requires an explanation (God) and God requires no explanation. The issue here is, why could the universe, taken as a whole,  not also be an uncaused, necessary being? And, why should God be postulated as a necessary being? Moreover, even if God itself requires no explanation, it fails as an explanation.

Shook states in his book The God Debates that:

… explanations do not get automatically sanctioned by reason, not even if there is no other explanation that we can think of right now. Theology Beyond The World’s proposed arguments for a god explaining the universe can’t pass the test of reason. Furthermore a good explanation had better include some extra details sufficient to deal with obvious concerns. For example, if god created the universe, why did god do this? What is it about god that would cause god to create this sort of universe, and not some other type? Are there any other gods playing with their own universes? Why can there be only one god? Does god create many universes, or just one? Did god have to create this universe’s natural laws? Couldn’t god have done a better job? How can we know tat we are the whole point of this universe? What or who else might have this universe been designed for? What is god going to do with this universe? If god really exists, then what explains god? What or who created god? If god didn’t have an explanation, doesn’t that violate the principle of sufficient reason? (Shook, The God Debates, p. 153-4, 2010)

I think the point Shook is making is that the God “explanation” really offers us nothing – it has no predictive power, in that the God hypothesis does nothing to predict events, causes or clues to gain us further knowledge about ourselves and the universe. It is a place holder – until we find the seemingly inevitable natural answer. It simply raises more questions than it answers. This is something George H. Smith asks in his book Atheism: The Case Against God:

To posit god as the cause of the universe still leaves two crucial questions unanswered: What caused the universe? How did it cause the universe? To say a god is responsible for the existence of the universe is vacuous without knowledge of god’s nature and the method used in creating the existence. If god is to serve as a causal explanation, we must have knowledge of god’s attributes by virtue of which has the capacity to create from nonexistence, and knowledge of the causal process involved in creation, by virtue of which god designated as a cause. (Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, p. 238, 1989)

As Smith states, the theists answer amounts to: “An unknowable being using, unknowable methods “caused” the universe to snap into existence.” (Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, p. 238, 1989) This relates back to our first 2 issues of causation and infinity, it simply makes no sense to posit a creator as an answer to creation, especially when the explanations it offers are :”somehow”, or “through incomprehensible means”, these are not explanations – they are mysteries.

Conclusion

Why would we prefer a supernatural explanation in this instance, when it leads to contradictions, absurdities, a failure of Occam’s razor and offers us no explanatory power? Is it those amongst us who have a need for certainty that need an inviolable answer like a god to plug up our gaps in knowledge? Speaking as an atheist, I have no problem simply saying: “I don’t know” to the question of what happened pre- big bang, because, a posteriori proofs aside,  ultimately we don’t know. As a methodological naturalist, I’m ok with tentatively accepting the theories and hypothesis science has to offer – how much weight we put in those is relative to the evidence, and I admit, the evidence is not strong – but so what? My worldview does not require I have all the answers with absolute certainty, particularly when those answers go beyond what we know. We may never know in our lifetimes what the “cause” of the universe is, or even if it makes sense to talk in terms of causation and time pre- big bang. Does that mean I can’t love my family, my friends, my girlfriend and my life? Of course not.

References

Craig W.L. (2010) On Guard. Lee Vance View, Colorado Springs. David C. Cook. P. 74.

(2010). The Dictionary of Science (Daintith J., Martin E. Ed’s). New York, New York.  Oxford University Press. P. 822.

Kreeft P. J., Tacelli R.K. (2009). Handbook of Catholic Apologetics. San Francisco. Ignatius Press. P. 64.

Loftus J. W. (2008). Why I Became an Atheist. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 85.

Paulos J. A. (2008). Irreligion. New York, New York. Douglas & McIntyre Inc. P. 5-6.

Shook J.R.  (2010). The God Debates. Sussex, United Kingdom. Wiley-Blackwell. P. 136, 153-4.

Smith G.H. (1989). Atheism: The Case Against God (second edition). Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 238.

Dogmatic New Atheism.

November 3, 2011 2 comments

With all the news about the New Atheism, I’ve decided to put a compilation of their dogmatic, polemical, fanatical and fundamentalist attitudes for all to see:

On Science/scientism/science being the only method of experience?

Haught raises again the question of how science is legitimized: “Exactly what are the independent scientific experiments, we might ask, that could provide ‘evidence’ for the hypothesis that all true knowledge must be based on the paradigm of scientific inquiry?”
But Haught does not refer to any specific scientist or philosopher who has made that hypothesis. As I have already mentioned and will undoubtedly do so again to drive the point home, most atheist authors fully accept and have written about the virtues of non scientific modes of human experience such as art and music. Science is just a particularly valuable method humans have developed to learn and partially control the physical world. (Stenger, The New Atheism, pp. 70-1, 2009)

Doesn’t seem science is the only way to view the world by Stenger, what does Dennett have to say?

My fundamental perspective is naturalism, the idea that philosophical investigations are not superior to, or prior to, investigations in the natural sciences, but in partnership with those truth-seeking enterprises, and that the proper job of philosophers here is to clarify and unify the often warring perspectives into single vision of the universe. (Dennett, Freedom Evolves, pp. 14-5, 2003)

Hmmm seems Dennett is ok with philosophy and science as methods of investigation. What about Christopher Hitchens?

We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason.  (Hitchens, God Is Not Great, p. 5, 2009)

Ok, what about Sam Harris who made a scientific case for the basis for bridging the gap between the is/ought problem of description and prescription in science and morals in his book The Moral landscape:

Throughout this book I have argued that the split between facts and values – and, therefore, between science and morality – is an illusion. However, the discussion has taken place on at least two levels: I have reviewed scientific data that, I believe, supports my arguments; but I have made a more basic, philosophical case, the validity of which does not narrowly depend on current data. (Harris, The Moral Landscape, p. 179, 2010)

Seems Harris is ok with the use of philosophy and science too and that the two are inextricably linked:

… we should observe that the boundary between science and philosophy does not always exist… We cannot always draw a line between scientific thinking and “mere” philosophy because all data must be interpreted against a background theory, and different theories come bundled with a fair amount of contextual reasoning. A dualist who believes in the existence of immaterial souls might say that the entire field of neuroscience is beholden to the philosophy of physicalism… and he would be right. The assumption that the mind is the product of the brain is integral to almost everything neuroscientists do. Is physicalism a matter of “philosophy” or “neuroscience”? The answer may depend upon where one happens to be standing on a university campus. (Harris, The Moral Landscape, pp. 179-80, 2010)

What about dogmatic faith in atheistic science – do the New Atheists give creation science it’s due?

If all the evidence in the universe turned in the favour of creationism I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediately change my mind. (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 19, 2008)

What about general dogmatic attitudes?

I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. (Dawkins, The God Delusion, pp. 49-50, 2008)

In January 2006 I presented a two-part television documentary on British television (Channel Four) called Root of All Evil? From the start I didn’t like the title and fought it hard. Religion is not the root of all evil, for no one thing is the root of anything at all. (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 22, 2008)

Even someone like John Loftus who seems as vocal an atheist as any – what is his stance on scientism – an obvious dogmatic stance.

J.P Moreland and William Lane Craig make a distinction here between strong scientism and weak scientism. Strong scientism states, “There are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason whatever to believe them.” Weak scientism , in their words, will “allow for the existence of truths apart from science and are even willing to grant that they can have some minimal, positive rationality status without the support of science. But advocates of weak scientism still hold that science is the most valuable, most serious, and most authoritative sector of human learning… fields outside science gain if they are given scientific support and not visa versa.”… I’m an advocate of weak scientism. (Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist, p. 109, 2008)

It seems even Loftus, who many apologists would consider to be, to use the words of my girlfriend “hysterical”, is still not willing to commit to full-blown scientism – his worldview still allows for philosophical, and other, truths.

Conclusion

I hope the point of this blog is clear – yes the New Atheists clearly value science – but guess what: so does everyone else! It’s only those who are theologically unallowed to value some aspects of science that criticise those without those afflictions. What do I mean? I doubt there are too many apologists who would reject germ theory, or gravity theory, or electrical theory – yet when it comes to branches of science – namely evolution, climate etc that touch or outright conflict with their ideals – this is when science needs to be rejected. The New Atheists are often labelled dogmatic, fundamentalist, militant etc, but it hardly seems those label apply – when we take their writings as a totality! I don’t doubt there is language in the New Atheist writings that bothers theists, critiques always bother us.

References

Dawkins R. (2008). The God Delusion (second edition). Boston, New York. Bantam Press. Pp. 14, 22 49-50.

Dennett D. C. (2003). Freedom Evolves. London, England. The Penguin Group. Pp. 14-5.

Harris S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York, New York. Free Press. Pp. 22, 179, 180.

Hitchens. (2009).  God Is Not Great (2nd ed.). New York, New York. Hatchette Book Group. P. 5.

Loftus J. W. (2008). Why I Became an Atheist. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 109.

Stenger V. J. (2009). The New Atheism. Amherst, New York.  Prometheus Books. Pp. 70-1.

Categories: Atheism

The Case For The Historicity of… Spiderman?

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

We have great reasons to think that Spiderman was a historical figure – we have saved works, first hand testimonies of both his family and friends saved in the canon (Amazing Spiderman, Spectacular Spiderman etc). A large amount of archaeology (Manhattan, New York, Queens) has been found to support the claims made in the canon, including places he lived.

It seems to me, the most obvious conclusion, for those willing to see it is that Peter Parker was the Spiderman, who saved millions of lives, the world even.

The case for the historicity of Spiderman goes to a historical certainty – despite the claims of the aspidermanists – who usually beg the question toward aspidermanism. They make fallacious claims like “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, but Spiderman’s existence and his powers are not extraordinary to his believers, who experience the living Spiderman through his works and the canon.

Moreover if we have the evidence we have, why would you reject the notion of the existence of Spiderman, and his deeds? Surely you see that the testimonies from Mary-Jane Watson, Matthew Murdock, Johnny Storm etc, the physical evidence, provided by the canon, and the archaeological evidence surely leads us all to the same conclusion. Why do you deny it then? Do you have good reasons? Are they philosophical? Historical? Prejudicial?

Categories: The Bible
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