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John Haught On The New Atheists.

January 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Read any apologetics piece and you’re likely to get several claims: atheists adhere to a strict scientism, atheism is nihilistic, atheism leads to relativism, atheists can be moral, but have no basis for that morality (See Zacharias, The Real Face of Atheism, Craig, On Guard, Moreland, The God Question etc for examples).

Haught doesn’t let the team down in his critique of the New Athiests (here after “NA”).  It takes Haught all of one page into his book to charge the NA (when he says NA he primarily means Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, he considers his book to be a refutation of all other NA, by extension, p. IX) with scientism (he gives a much more comprehensive definition on p. XIII- XIV):

The belief system that Dennett and the other new atheists subscribe to is known as “scientific naturalism” ["scientism"]. Its central dogma is that only nature, including humans and our creations, is real: that God does not exist; and that science alone can give us complete and reliable knowledge of reality. (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. X, 2008)

Of course, a real scholar would provide lengthy references for us to look up the dogmatic language used by the NA. But, of course, not a single source, or note is provided. Much is the way this entire book goes. Which is ironic given how much Haught goes on about what a high theologian he is, and how far above the NA his writing is. One wonders (for a referenced source of what the NA actually have to say on this issue, please see here).

Haught continues on his scientism strawman argument for about 20 pages until we come to what he perceives are the fundamental issues and consequences of atheism:

Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end; before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage for that? (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. 22, 2008)

But it doesn’t end for Haught there, he continues stating that in the absence of a God you are the creator of the values you live by (relativism), but this is obviously a burden, according to Haught, that one would surely want to escape. That escape is the Nietzschean “Madman’s sensation of straying through”infinite nothingness.” (p. 22) It does, according to Haught, require an “unprecedented courage” to wipe away the transcendent world of a God, in the end Haught asks if we are willing to risk madness, and if not, you are not really an atheist. (p. 22)

As always, this type of rhetoric is clear projection: the world would seem this bleak to Haught, it seems his God is a crutch that gets him through the night. And though I’m reluctant to label him with so shallow a belief, it seems obvious that’s how he feels, when we see a world without God, through his eyes. If he was so well read, he would see many positive, atheist books extolling the virtues of a naturalized philosophy (see  Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God, Murray’s The Atheist’s Primer, Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, John Shook’s The God Debates,  not to mention the NA literature itself etc for examples)? Instead Haught wishes to focus on the writings of 3 existentialist, nihilistic philosophers (Sartre, Nietzsche and Camus) as the basis for how atheism should really be?

This is obviously nonsensical – leaving aside that atheism isn’t a movement, a worldview, a belief system, a religion, a dogma etc, no matter how hard Haught works, or wishes it to be so – you can be an atheist and a nihilist, you can be an atheist and a humanist, you can be an atheist and a moral relativist, you can be an atheist and believe in objective morals, or even, absolute morals. There is no contradiction in these, and atheism; these are all intellectual additions to a foundational atheism, worldviews which (can) include atheism.

In Haught’s discussion of morality I feel like he wants to give some kind of divine command theory as his justification for morals, but he never really delves deep enough into the issue to make any grand declarations of such, even though he eludes to it:

[On the NA] But where logical rigor would require that they also acknowledge that there is no timeless heaven to determine (emphasis mine) what is good and what is not… (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. 24-5, 2008)

And again, on the next page he states that if there is no eternal grounding for values, then all we are left with is “arbitrary, conventional, historically limited, human concoctions”.  (p. 26)  Moreover he charges the NA with holding this supposed moral relativism as “absolutely binding” (p. 26). He states the NA demonstrate an absoluteness in their values of intolerance toward faith, and that to make moral proclamations you must assume that there exists a “mode of being, a realm of rightness that does not owe itself completely to human intervention, Darwinian selection, or social construction.” (p. 26) To Haught, if absolute morals exist, God exists, similarly the reverse is also true, if God does not exist, absolute morals do not and “one should not issue moral judgements as if they do.” (p. 26)

This is all very nice rhetoric, but I hope it is obvious to the reader, that Haught has offered no justification to substantiate his series of claims – no references, no formal argument of any kind, logical or evidential. His book reads like a sermon. But do we need to listen to a word of it? He does not cite where the NA make such proclamations (he quotes them without citation), and assuming they made such proclamations, Haught is merely assuming that without God, there can be no talk of morals. Why must this be so? Can reason, and evidence not suggest to us what normative moral choices we must make? And would this not be exactly what we would expect to see in a naturalized philosophy? A discussion of morals that deals with the world, as it is? What better way to make moral exhortations, than by looking at the evidence, and dealing rationally with the consequences, through philosophy, and evidence. How poor and low must we be, to rely on Bronze Age tomes to pronounce how to act, and what to think? Haught’s version of morals amounts to divine command – what God says goes – too bad for homosexuals, women, atheists etc, I guess.

Haught does not agree that reason is enough to get us to a place of moral prescription, as it is based on our reasoning, which is fallible (p. 73):

… as Harris conjectures, we can fall back on reason alone to explain what our obligations are and why we should heed them. Yet, even apart from the historical naiveté of such a proposal, this rationale simply leads us back to a more fundamental question: why should we trust our reasoning abilities either? If the human mind evolved by Darwinian selection in the same way as every other trait we possess, we still have to be able to justify our trust in its cognitional capacity – its ability to put us in touch with truth – in some way other than biology alone. (Haught, God and the New Atheism, p. 73-4, 2008)

Haught continues stating that a naturalistic worldview cannot justify the above presupposition.  (p. 74) But this view seems to assume that each individual is disconnected from a recorded history, from other minds, from scientific evidence, from logical argument, from societal changes and pressures. Haught may be right, that if I were a lone person, stranded on an island I might have no way to confirm my moral choices (what moral choices I could make in that situation of course). But has Haught represented, accurately, the situation we find ourselves in? I would think not. We have all of those avenues mentioned above, to self correct the misgivings and short comings we have in our cognitive faculties.

There is also another assumption present in Haught’s view – that we (a) must be, or (b) can be absolutely right about all moral choices all the time. But, again, why think this is so? We are fallible creatures, our historical context, in both religious and secular settings, demonstrates that we have had ebbs and flows of moral development, which seems to suggest we are still heading toward a better moral perspective.

Conclusion

I don’t think Haught has made his case for the same old tired apologetics used against atheism. No source is given to demonstrate the NA’s views on scientism, only Haught’s (constant) assertion that they subscribe to that view. I hope I’ve demonstrated (via the link provided) that not only is this a baseless assertion, it is demonstrably false. If I have succeeded in demonstrating that point, we see much of Haught’s book is a strawman attempt, I leave it for you to decide what you make of such an author who relies on such tactics.

Similarly Haught never shows us why a nihilistic view of atheism would be bad, even we agree it might be, but the fact that he’s citing philosophers who are such, suggests that such a view can be rationally justified. What Haught relies on is an emotional response – we view nihilism as negative, as relative, as amoral, so we would not want to be like that – hence atheism is bad.

Similarly with his charge of relativism and atheism having no basis for morals. It should be obvious to any reader of this blog by now, what atheism is: a lack of belief in a god or gods. Under this definition atheism has no responsibility to find a moral system, that is the job of a naturalized philosophy, or a materialistic philosophy, or a feminist philosophy etc. Adding to that, I think it can be demonstrated, at least as superficially as I have done in this post, that a naturalized philosophy provides a more coherent moral basis, one that is suited to the world, than the one based on the dictator in the sky.

Reference

Haught, J.F., (2008). God and the New Atheism. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press. Pp. IX, X,  XIII, XIV, 22, 24-5, 73-4, 75.

Impossibility Of God Arguments – Essential Indexicals.

January 13, 2012 3 comments

For todays purposes I want to, simply and briefly, discuss God’s omnipotence/omniscience, but before we begin, let us define God and omnipotence:

For many theists, though not all, God is thought to be omnipotent. That is, God is all-powerful. If God is all-powerful, there is nothing that God cannot do. His power is infinite. There are no limitations. To find anything that limits God’s power would mean that God is not, after all, omnipotent. (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer,  p. 111, 2010)

Murray goes on to say that the reason God is thought of this way is due to him being “more praiseworthy than anything else. If power is praiseworthy, more power is more praiseworthy. If God is the most praiseworthy thing, take any praiseworthy attribute, God has to have that attribute to the utmost degree.” (p. 111)

One response to this conception, is the so-called ‘paradox-of-the-stone':

Can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it? Is the answer is “Yes,” then here’s something God can’t do: lift this particular stone. If the answer is “No,” there here is something God can’t do: create this specific stone. Either way, God’s power is limited. Ergo, God cannot be omnipotent. (Murray, The Atheist’s Primer,  p. 111, 2010)

Murray admits, that this ‘disproof’ is too petty, pedantic and disconnected to be convincing to anyone – but he does state that it makes one thing clear: “infinity ascribed to an attribute belonging to an agent is untenable.” (p. 111)  But, before we even get into the paradox-of-the-stone problem, we face more immediate logical problems with God’s omnipotence :

If omnipotence means – as it certainly appears to mean – an ability to do anything, then there is an even simpler argument that there can be no omnipotent being. No being could create a square circle, or an even integer greater than two and smaller than four. Because there logically could not be such things, there could be no being that could create them. (Grim, Impossibility Arguments, p. 200, 2007)

According to Grim, Aquinas defeated this rebuttal, by stating that this is essentially a meaningless objection as God’s power requires the ability to perform any task, and that “creating a square circle” does not represent a genuine task. As a matter of principle it can be, quite generally held: ” contradictory specifications fail to specify anything – precisely because they are contradictory – rather than specifying something of a peculiarly contradictory type. If so, contradictory task specifications fail to designate genuine tasks, and thus fail to designate tasks required of an omnipotent being.” (p. 200)

Unfortunately this rebuttal to our first level objection, does not remove our second level, paradox-of-the-stone objection so easily. Grim states that the task specification is clearly not contradictory if the problem is stated as:

I could certainly create a mass of concrete too heavy for me to lift. Could God? If so, there would be something he could not do: lift that mass of concrete. If not, there is again something he could not do, though even I could do it: create such a mass of concrete. (Grim, Impossibility Arguments, p. 201, 2007)

The objection to the above becomes less about the task specification being contradictory, and more that the rebuttal contains “token inflexives or indexicals: terms that shift in their designation with the person we suppose to be performing the task.” (p.201) Some have said this objection is faulty as the tasks specification is to create a mass of concrete too heavy for one to lift, but this is not a uniform task description, as “in my case it demands only that I create a mass of concrete that I cannot lift. In God’s case it demands that God create a mass of concrete not that I cannot lift, but that God cannot.” (p.201)

But, does this objection succeed?

Grim asks, are there essentially indexical tasks? He answers that there are. Examples given are tasks undertaken in a wilderness survival course: in which a lone person is taught “building alone and without aid, a boat that both will support its builder and that its builder can easily portage.” (p. 201) The point being:

If there are any reflexive tasks of such a sort involving two inversely coordinated powers – such as creating and lifting a heavy stone – omnipotence as an ability to perform any task is simply impossible. (Grim, Impossibility Arguments, p. 201, 2007)

Perhaps, to understand this objection, we should see a more formally stated version of Grim’s argument, some clarifications and how the above also applies to omniscience too:

No one else – no one other than me – knows what I know in knowing that:

  1. I am making a mess.

Or so the argument goes. Since an omniscient being would be a being that knows all that is known, since I know what I know in knowing (1), and since I am not omniscient, there is no omniscient being. (Grim,  Against Omniscience: The Case From Essential Indexicals, p. 349, 2003)

We can ask though, is this not the same proposition as (2) “Patrick Grim is making the mess”?  Does it not contain the same information as (1)?  It could be said that what is expressed in (1) is the same as what others may express in (2). Grim disagrees though, stating that this is far “too simple an account of objects of knowledge in general and of what is known in cases of (1) in particular.” (p. 351):

For the ‘I’ of the (1) is an essential indexical – essential to what it is I know or express in knowing or expressing (1). (Grim,  Against Omniscience: The Case From Essential Indexicals, p. 349, 2003)

To demonstrate his point Grim articulates a scenario in which he is following a trail of spilled sugar around a tall aisle in a supermarket, in search of the person making the mess. Only to realise it is in fact himself making the mess, due to a torn sack of sugar in his cart, he is the culprit (hence (1), and (2)). It is only under (1) that all information about who is making the mess is fully expressed, whereas (2) only explains most of the information about who is making the mess (it does not include Grim’s self-realization that “he” is making the mess, and that he knows he is Patrick Grim) – which is “to reintroduce the indexical”. (p. 351)

Moreover what Patrick feels when he realises that he is making the mess can’t be “merely this impersonal matter of a named individual making a mess, because that is not what I am suddenly ashamed of or what I suddenly feel guilty about in being ashamed or feeling guilty that I am making a mess” (p.351) Grim states that others may be embarrassed by the fact that Patrick Grim is making a mess, but only he can feel the “shame and mortification of knowing that those antics are mine” (p.351)

Tying this back to omniscience:

… we see that in order to qualify as an omniscient a being must know at least all that is known. Such a being must, then, know what I know in knowing (1):

  1. I am making a mess

But what is known in such a case, it appears, is known by no omniscient being. The indexical ‘I”, as argued above, is essential to what I know in knowing (1). But only I can use that ‘I’ to index me – no being distinct from me can do so. I am not omniscient. But there is something I know that no being distinct from me can know. Neither I nor any being distinct from me, then, is omniscient: there is no omniscient being. (Grim,  Against Omniscience: The Case From Essential Indexicals, p. 352, 2003)

Boy, wasn’t that a handful!

In an effort to avoid indexically specified tasks, some objections have moved to what Grim calls “states of affairs” (p. 201), omnipotence is redefined to mean “[one] would be able to bring about any states of affairs.” (p. 201) Grim rejects this move as well, stating that there are indexically specified states of affairs as well:

You and I may face the same state of affairs, for example, when neither of us has paid our taxes. (Grim, Impossibility Arguments, p. 201, 2007)

What has happened Grim states, is that attempts to defend a full notion of omnipotence – the ability to perform any (“consistently specifiable”)  task or to bring about any consistently specifiable state of affairs – have simply been given up. Instead lesser attempts have been formulated to avoid impossibility arguments, but still retain a connection to “notions of exaggerated power to be able to claim some theological legitimacy.” (p. 201)

Conclusion

J.L Mackie said:

But often enough these adequate solutions are only almost adopted. The thinkers who restrict God’s power, but keep the term ‘omnipotence’, may reasonably be suspected of thinking, in other contexts, that his power is really unlimited. (Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence, p. 63, 2003)

James Rachels has stated that arguments are rarely convincing, perhaps that’s true, but make them we shall continue to do. I leave it for you to decide if any of this is compelling, if essential indexicals are enough of a reason to deny the possibility of omnipotence and omniscience and by extension a God, so defined.

Reference

Grim P. (2003). ‘Against Omniscience: The Case From Essential Indexicals”, in M Martin and R Ronnier’s, The Impossibility of God.  Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 349, 351.

Grim P. (2007). ‘Impossibility Arguments’, in M Martin’s,  The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York, New York. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 200, 201.

Mackie J.L. (2003). ‘Evil and Omnipotence‘, in M Martin and R Ronnier’s, The Impossibility of God.  Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. P. 63.

Murray M. (2010). The Atheist’s Primer. Ontario, Canada. Broadview Press. P. 111.

Evan Fales On Methodological Naturalism.

January 10, 2012 Leave a comment

In Michael Martin’s edited book: The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, one of the contributors, Evan Fales, discusses physicalism and naturalism – today I want to focus on a type of naturalism he discusses briefly: methodological naturalism.

Fales begins by stating, and this is something you will see in almost any apologetics book, that scientists are often charged with “restricting scientific investigations to natural phenomena” (p.123):

… “scientific creationists” and their fellow anti-Darwinians, the advocates of “intelligent design,” often accuse scientists of assuming naturalism as a metaphysical commitment.. and therefore being committed methodologically to excluding a priori the possibility that supernatural entities play any role in explaining natural phenomena. But scientists don’t simply adopt methodological naturalism a priori. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 123, 2007)

Fales puts forward 3 considerations for rejecting the above and accepting methodological naturalism:

(1) The claim that – although tentative, it is well supported that there are no supernatural causes to be investigated. (p. 123)

(2) The supernatural is in principle beyond scientific investigation. (p.123)

(3) Scientific investigation of the world – including, in particular, any historical study of the past would be rendered impossible by the admission of supernatural interventions in the world. (p. 124)

In defense of (1) Fales states that the defender can point to the long (sordid) history of paranormal claims, that have, upon investigation, turned out to be without merit, or fraudulent:

On this approach, methodological naturalism is not so much fundamentally a methodological commitment as it is a (well-confirmed) finding of science, one that enjoins the rule: always look for natural causes (or explanations) of phenomena, supernatural hypothesis are to be entertained only as  a last resort. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 123, 2007)

Fales states that anyone who employs the above does not exclude the supernatural a priori, but rather uses experience to determine that supernatural hypothesis are unlikely to yield reliable results.

The defender of (2), in which Fales admits is problematic, can state that whatever is proposed as supernatural is to say it exists outside of time and space, or both. If this is the case then: “there is no way to detect such a thing; it escapes objective measurement. (p. 123)

Fales states that it is important we don’t beg the question here:

We should not incautiously presume to know enough about causation to rule out dogmatically the possibility that an agent existing outside space or time (or both) could causally interact with physical matter. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 123, 2007)

We can ask though: suppose we do grant, for the sake of argument, that God does act in the world, how could such actions possibly be identified and scientifically investigated? Fales states that we can, if we choose, be so strident in saying that science should only investigate the “space-time world and natural causes.” (p.124) But that a more sensible approach would be to use science to explain whatever phenomena we uncover and, in particular, to discover the causes of things. This definition – would focus on anything that has causal influence over material things – including any supernatural entities. As Fales mentions, success in causal analysis of the supernatural would give no guarantees of success, as supernatural causes might be elusive, but it is important to note that that is not the same as saying that they can not in principle be discovered. (p.124)

What can fairly be said on this score is that supernaturalistic explanations have, to date, been decidedly arid in articulating causal mechanisms or proposing experimental procedures. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 124, 2007)

Finally, the defender of (3) is arguing that:

… inferences of any kind from known effects to unobserved causes, or known causes to unobserved effects, require that nature behave in orderly ways. So the very possibility of history – and of science generally – assumes natural events are governed by laws without supernatural interference. (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 124, 2007)

Fales states that from this we can assume, with reason, as a methodological principle, the proposition that “nature, at least so far as it can properly be brought within the purview of scientific investigation, is free of supernatural causes.” (p.124)

A possible objection to this, Fales states, could be that there is no necessary link between a supernatural agents intervention and science being able to detect the world. God could simply intervene on rare or significant occasions in ways that do not perturb the natural order, in a way that does not incapacitate our scientific understand of nature. We need not assume the behaviours of agents are erratic or inexplicable.

Fales says however that:

This objection does not perhaps fully appreciate the force of the difficulty. The odd miracle might indeed not so disrupt the order of nature as to vitiate scientific efforts to understand the world. But if miracles are possible, how can we know that they occur only sparsely, and with limited effects on the course of nature.  Must not the evidence for such a claim itself presuppose the validity of scientific methods – and hence presuppose that the world is not chaotically miracle infested? (Fales, Naturalism and Physicalism, p. 124, 2007)

Fales concludes it is the admission that miracles occur that moves us to a deep skepticism about our inductive inferences over and above those already discovered by philosophers.

Conclusion

While not addressing every possible objection raised against methodological naturalism ,we see at least prima facie evidence of its reliablity, methodology and worth. I leave it for you to decide where you stand in accepting it.

Reference

Fales E. (2007). ‘Naturalism and Physicalism‘, in M Martin,  The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York, New York. Cambridge University Press. Pp. 123, 124.

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