Monday, May 14, 2007

Atheism, Book II

Ah, you academics, with all of your words and your ideas. It’s ironic that Christine, who was one of my defenders in the “Aborting Feminism…” post’s response thread — where I was also faulted for lumping diverse forms of the criticized philosophy together — is now my harshest critic in the first “Atheism…” thread, on the charge of lumping diverse forms of religion together.

What it comes down to is this: I am saying it is irrational to assert the existence of something for which you have no evidence. I acknowledge the possibility of a religion that avoids doing this, but in practice virtually all do make such assertions, and that is my primary philosophical objection to them. I really don’t think this very fundamental criticism hinges on detailed knowledge of (to take one item to which Christine referred) the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Indeed, since Christine wrote comedy professionally even before attending divinity school and becoming a history professor, I’m sure she can see why I might find it a bit amusing that someone would imply that the details of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 were in any way decisive in determining the rationality of professing belief in the unseen and unproven — though I expect I’m laughing with her, not at her. I had also forgotten that there’s an apostrophe in the anglicized spelling of Ba’al, I must confess, but I think that even without knowing a detail like that I can say that most religions — like most belief systems in general — discourage desertion from the fold (and whether they do so through “dicta” or “dictums” is also secondary, not that I am obliged to defend everything Sam Harris or Clara say).

And while Christine expresses frustration with having to tell me over and over again why she’s not professing belief in a bearded father figure in the sky, imagine my even greater frustration with having to say over and over again, as I have, that I know theists do not (or no longer, if ever) tend to believe in some literal bearded father figure in the sky but that I in any case think that belief in, say, a thinking yet non-corporeal creator-force is irrational (absent good evidence). Water down theism all you like, and it’s still the irrational profession of belief in something without evidence.

And the burden of evidence for something’s existence or non-existence surely lies with the person making the profession of its existence, so to treat theists and atheists as if they are making “equal” unproven claims is completely absurd — very much analogous to the view that if someone says, without evidence, that “Jones has committed a murder,” the burden of proof is now equally on Jones (who presumably says “I have not committed a murder”) — assuming, again, that there is no evidence at all against Jones.

The only reason the assertion of a God sounds remotely plausible — or more plausible than random, paranoid assertions that one’s neighbors are secretly murderers or that an invisible UFO is currently hovering, undetected, over the neighborhood — is that at this late date the assertion lacks novelty and so doesn’t strike us as terribly, terribly strange. If, by contrast, one were sitting with a group of people in a restaurant and one suddenly said, for no apparent reason, “The minds of the dead endure after death and form a phalanx of warriors locked in an eternal battle to invade a planet at the center of the Andromeda Galaxy,” no one would say, “Well, even in the absence of the slightest scrap of evidence for this extraordinary claim, we must treat this as a plausible assertion until we can mount an expedition to check.” The assertion could happen to be true, of course — and there could be a God (atheism does not mean the assertion with absolute certainty that there is none, only the absence of belief that there is one) — but there’s no obvious reason to treat either claim as an important probability or a matter worthy of serious thought, in the absence of some sort of evidence. Shirley MacLaine says without evidence that she is reincarnated from ancient Atlantis. Christians say God exists (or in some formulations simply “hope” God exists). Why treat either assertion with respect, beyond the basic civility due even the mentally ill?

There is a great deal we know about human psychology and why people might believe in something like the God-claim without it being true. Wouldn’t it almost be overdeterminism to suggest, given that the God idea so often comes packaged with moral harangues, childhood indoctrination, and promises of eternal life, that we must further posit that for so many people to find the idea appealing, it must be true? That’s a bit like saying “I can’t imagine any reason that people would be tempted to buy this product that’s advertised as a wrinkle-eliminating, age-reversing, brain-enhancing, cancer-curing elixir — unless all the claims about it are true.” Surely, the advertising alone would be reason to expect at least some people to be intrigued — and indeed potions that make subtle enough claims that they are hard to test in any one customer’s personal experience do sell well even without any good empirical evidence of their efficacy (true claims would obviously be in an even stronger position to win and keep loyalty, but truth is not the only way to win people over).

So the fact that people believe cannot be treated as evidence in itself that their beliefs are warranted — people believe all sorts of manifestly false things, some far more fervently than the average mainstream religious believer believes the claims of religion (witness the willingness of a handful of sad souls to die for the Hale-Bopp Comet cult, believing they would be resurrected and taken to an alien mothership and then to a better world).

I’m not sure what other lesson I’m supposed to draw from the admittedly diverse and complex history of religion — which Christine obviously knows far, far better than I do — than that religion varies radically but is almost always grounded in the unproven belief that some sort of non-corporeal entity exists, which remains the very fundamental thing to which I’m objecting. The occasional really nasty manifestations of that belief, such as suicide bombers, are secondary, though I think you can see why one might reasonably hope that humans who were taught not to believe in things for which they do not have evidence — such as a Paradise awaiting those who martyr themselves for Allah — would be at least somewhat less likely to become such monsters.

If we go around telling people it’s all right to believe in things without evidence, they will occasionally come up with some very strange and dangerous ideas — but their beliefs would still be irrational even if they did not manifest themselves in dangerous, socially destructive ways, and I don’t mean to imply for a moment that rationality and social utility are synonymous.

And if my objection to faith is that fundamental, it’s not clear to me why (beyond my general personal enrichment) I need to know or discuss the details of Christian history (I have other things to do, you know). My objection is not to Christianity in particular (though dwelling in the U.S., I think it’s fair for me to use it as the example closest to hand) but rather to all faith, whether in Jesus, fate, lucky rabbit’s feet, the eventual return of a manifestly-dead long-missing relative, psychic powers, “some greater purpose that must exist for this misfortune,” the eventual triumph of the dictatorship of the proletariat, or the “inevitable” rise to fame of a talentless and long-struggling actor. Belief without evidence is irrational (even if once in a rare while the faith-fueled belief turns out to be true or helpful, essentially by dumb luck that does not probabilistically constitute a model for future rational thought).

Certain atheistic strains of Buddhism and other exceptions notwithstanding, then, I think I’m making a fair — though inevitably imperfect — generalization when I say: I object to “religion,” and I leave the details of religion’s varied forms and its rich history to professors like Christine to sort out if they so choose (if I’ve overlooked, for instance, numerous strains of Christianity that don’t involve the positing of a God, I’m delighted to hear about them, but I think it’s safe to say they’re exceptions and furthermore that their practical purpose is a bit unclear — though I’m willing to exclude such atheistic forms of religion, if any, from my sweeping condemnations of “religion”). What more should I say? Despite the leveling against me of charges of evangelism (a practice that, for the record, I’ve never objected to — I object only to spreading false beliefs), what more, or less, can I say without simply trying to curry favor? Religion’s starting premise is false (or at least there is no reason to think otherwise). It would probably behoove humans to try to tell the truth for a change.


Will said...

“My objection is… to all faith…”

The problem is that most facts about the world are articles of faith. My favorite example is money. Why is money valuable? Because people believe it is. How is the fact of money different than the fact of God?

Even in science “facts” or “laws” are just other words for long held consensuses. Once Newtonian physics was fact. Now its not, but it was because we all believed it to be.

I’m not anti-science, its the best thing we’ve got to understand the world, and this isn’t deny objective reality, apples still fall on people’s heads, its just I think you paint with too broad of a brush.

T.A.B. said...

But money has always existed in one form or another. It’s a basic unit of work for goods or services. One can argue that the current financial system is made up, but no more than the computer at which you’re typing. While the details of the use of money can be abolished or changed (such as going to a barter system), the fundamentals of the system will still exist. Plus, unlike God, money can be proven to exist since I have some in my wallet right now (sadly, not enough).

Todd Seavey said...

As T.A.B. suggests, econ and science views are — or should be — unavoidable reactions to sense data from the outside world or pure logic. We can concoct weird borderline cases for purposes of semantic play, but basically science is descriptive while core religious claims are simply imaginary, and a functional adult mind ought to pay close attention to the difference. Indeed, that would seem to be the first and foremost _purpose_ of a functional adult mind, which is why religion seems like such a voluntary self-lobotomy. (Scientists, by contrast, can be wrong, but they don’t _usually_ just make this stuff up — whether string theory qualifies as such a case is something I hope to address further in about two months, but, again, let’s not focus on the aberrant cases.)

A reader e-mails to ask what I think of Deism, and it’s probably preferable to all the other forms of religion (it echoed the same sort of Enlightenment-era rationalism that spawned Newton [_qua scientist_, I am compelled to add, lest a defender of religion waste our time noting he was a gung-ho Christian in his spare time], Adam Smith, and the Founding Fathers — indeed, most of our early presidents were probably more Deist than Christian, believing in a stripped-down, non-intervening watchmaker God and Jesus as merely a man who was an important moral exemplar rather than divine). However, atheism is still better, of course.

I will say that Deism was probably the most reasonable position for someone to hold prior to Darwin, since it was admittedly more difficult to imagine a non-designer-based history of life prior to Darwin. In retrospect, I wish Deism had become more widespread outside the elites — even been trumpeted by the Founders and early presidents — since I think it would have provided an easier transition to atheism when Darwin came along, whereas Christianity is sometimes at odds with Darwin to this day, as is fundamentalist Islam.

Xine said...

Ah, please read carefully. The point of my post, as I said, was that there is a difference between attacking theism because of your supposed opposition to the historically deleterious effects of “religion” (Sam Harris’s point, and Clara’s) and attacking theism because you think belief in God without evidence is irrational. As I said, you are on firmer ground with the latter and shaky ground on the former.

So the reason why getting Fourth Lateran right matters *isn’t* because getting Fourth Lateran Right proves there is a God or has anything to do with the rationality of belief. Of course not. Fourth Lateran (and everything else in religious history) matters if atheists’ arguments become *not* “there is no God because there’s no evidence he exists” but *instead* “religion is stupid and harmful.” If you want to say that religion is stupid because it believes in a being that doesn’t exist–ok. But if you want to say that religion is stupid and harmful because, say, it invariably punishes people who want to leave the fold or polices thought or whatever–then your argument weakens radically.

My point was the fallacy of atheists’ straying from what they do best–theoretical arguments against the existence of God–and slipping into what they consider to be totalizingly devastating attacks on “religion,” which are (in my experience) much less sturdy.

caveat bettor said...

I believe in God. I do not believe his/her existence to be falsifiable, after Karl Popper. However, how is his/her absence falsifiable?

Empricism is a double edged sword. What else do you have to prove your claim of God’s non-existence?

Clara said...

The difficulty of disproving a god’s existence is that believers can declare science (and logic) null and void, saying, “Humanity cannot understand God. He has good reasons overseeing murder, terrible disease, poverty and cruelty. He purposefully designed an array of living creatures, only to have 99% of them die off in extinction. It was all part of His brilliant plan than there are lots of planets and solar systems and only one little planet feebly capable of sustaining human life, if only on about a quarter of its surface.”

I must insist that the burden of proof lie with believers in God. If I claim that something is in this room — something invisible, silent, odorless, incapable of observable action in our lifetimes and totally immune to the laws of physics — how can you possibly disprove it? And how can you take me seriously as an adult?

I used to envy believers somewhat, thinking that they had the comfort and swaggering pride of people who believe the biggest kid in the room is on their side. Like a personal fan club, if you will, with only one silent and invisible fan — but still, the most important fan of all.

Yes, I envied believers right up until last week, when Christopher Hitchens described the world envisioned by believers as “a kind of celestial North Korea.” But at least in North Korea, he said, in dying you can escape. With religion, death only magnifies your existence under the gaze of a totalitarian ruler.

cb said...

Caveat, if something is not falsifiable and its logical opposite is not falsifiable, it simply lacks any empirical contact. This is actually the whole point of falsifiability as an epistemic benchmark. Theism fails dramatically on that score, essentially rejecting falsifiability enthusiactically by embracing its opposite — non-falsifiability, which doesn’t mean verifiability but merely belief without evidential contact.

caveat bettor said...

cb: thanks for your thoughtful reply. i don’t disagree with you, but want to emphasize that theism and athiesm are equally unscientific. Theists and scientists alike can and do defend their theories against falsification. I did not intentionally try to offer a defense. Perhaps I should have hearkened to Thomas Kuhn as well as Karl Popper above.

cb said...

Empiricism is not, in fact, double-edged in the sense you seem to think. Kuhn is irrelevant or undermines your own point.

Mr.B said...

“unavoidable reactions to sense data”? Maybe you should reread your Quine.

Still, I’m curious, in your view, what can/might count as evidence for the proposition, “God exists.”?

caveat bettor said...

cb: to quote the philosophers Rodgers & Hammerstein, “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could”. I think you are dancing around my point. I suspect you would think my using “creation” is a unfair semantical framing of the question. But creation is difficult to falsify, regardless of any sort of empiricist’s epistemology.

Perhaps I could venture this: prima facie arguments are a double-edged sword.

cb said...

As Socrates once said, “no sane man would dance.”

Duhem-Quine underdetermination is about non-uniqueness of theories implied by senses, not a license for arbitrary theory. Popper’s main axe was to prevent overly powerful theory. Theism in essentially any of its carnations is a perfect example of such overly powerful theory. Likewise Kuhn was about modes of theoretical replacement and entrechment, not non-empirical bases for belief. For Mr. B, I think you would have to define “God” much better to get any sane prescription for evidence thereof. The people I know interested in “God” simply do not treat it as “a hypothesis”.

jenny said...

i submit that sane men don’t dance. which is a shame, because that leaves me with the crazies on the dance floor.

or so i believe.

Laura said...

God, schrod. I’m just grateful that one no longer hears pronouncements from Todd like “You know, the Religious Right, they’re not so bad!” as he said to me in early 2001.

Todd Seavey said...

Hey, I _tried_ to find a danceclub that one time, but they don’t seem to have a unique category-name in either the Yellow Pages or _TimeOut New York_, which is where unhip rationalists find out about these things.

But on the philosophical questions: lingo aside, there seems to be (as cb suggests) an irresponsible — and surprisingly postmodern — tendency on the part of theists to say, “All theories are bullshit, therefore I’m entitled to pick the one I want,” which is both unfair to non-bullshit theories (such as the ones science frames based on lots of empirical confirmation) and a sad, sad statement about the weakness and whimsicality of picking theism. Hey, why not try Zeus for a day? But then try science, evidence, and rationality for a lifetime. Your civilization depends on it.

If you can’t see a big difference between theories descriptive of the repeatedly-observed external world and things just made up because they’re heartwarming (or however one alights psychologically upon theism), you’re not trying very hard — a reminder that most theists are, in the end, arguing in bad faith (no pun intended) to some degree. You know damn well (so to speak) that there’s a difference between observed, undeniable phenomena in the external universe and stuff that came out of your own head, or was (as the saying goes) simply pulled out of your ass.

Likewise, I would happily count as evidence for God…_anything_ we observed about the universe that could not more plausibly be explained without God. Right now we have nothing of the sort.

As for why there is something rather than nothing (which Heidegger, that fascist bastard, rightly identified as the most vexing question of philosophy): beats me, but replacing “something” with “something + God” doesn’t make it any more easy to understand (arguably far less) and is in any case an arbitrarily chosen answer to the question.

Just give up on the God thing, already. Some theists have nukes now, which makes this a very good juncture in history for everyone to give up on that form of crazy.

Clara said...

to quote the philosophers Rodgers & Hammerstein, “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could”. I think you are dancing around my point. I suspect you would think my using “creation” is a unfair semantical framing of the question. But creation is difficult to falsify, regardless of any sort of empiricist’s epistemology.

Who made God, then?

Likewise, I would happily count as evidence for God._anything_ we observed about the universe that could not more plausibly be explained without God.

IEvery time humans have seen the hand of God or the Devil in something in the past, there turned out to be a thorough scientific explanation. Disease, floods, lightning, rainbows, mean people and so forth. If we came upon something similarly puzzling — in the here and now — I’d probably sit back and wait for scientists to figure it out.

Random Woody Allen quote:

As the poet said, “Only God can make a tree.” Probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.

Todd Seavey said...

I will say this, though: in the grand scheme of things, you know, the religious right, they’re not so bad.

caveat bettor said...

Todd, you’re now conflating me with theists who have nukes?

Todd Seavey said...

Not merely _conflating_, caveat bettor: obviously, I am accusing you, personally, of _actually possessing_ nuclear weapons. How you built them I don’t know, your intentions for them I cannot begin to guess, but from everything I said above (carefully read), I think it’s pretty clear I’m just hoping you’ll choose not to use them. Most likely, the CIA would be unable to track you down if you deployed them, since — as I think I have stated unequivocally — you are indistinguishable from Iranian and Pakistani generals, at least to my eyes.

caveat bettor said...

OK, Todd, but I still really like your blog, even with all the baloney (and yes, I do have a minor voluntary role).

My only nuke is Pascal’s Wager.

jenny said...

well, thank heavens i’m nontheistic. otherwise someone might think i have a fully functional nuclear armament program, the engineering difficulties notwithstanding.

is baloney teleologically different than bologna?

Todd Seavey said...

I don’t believe in teleology either. Individuals use baloney and bologna for their own, human, ends. The universe remains indifferent.

caveat bettor said...

Viruses do not subscribe to teleological arguments either. They indifferently go about their business.

Canines on the other hand, celebrate teleology. Loyalty, social order, sex–all meaningful to dogs, based on what the see, and even more, upon what they smell.

We have once camp of humans who are dogs. Another camp who are viral.

At the end of our existence, it all goes back into the box, like a board game–I believe that most american theists and atheists agree that we don’t take anything with us when we die. Viruses hope there is nothing after life. It is an oxymoronic hope. To hope for nothing, I mean. But that is our logical choice–we hope for something, or hope for nothing.

Christopher said...

“The universe remains indifferent.”

Indeed, as Laozi said, 天地不仁,以萬物為芻狗 (Heaven and Earth are inhumane, they treat the myriad things as straw dogs).

Caveat bettor, some of us would be awfully happy if there were to be something, but see no reason to believe there will be.

And though I think the sentence “Canines on the other hand, celebrate teleology” is absurd, I enjoyed reading it .

caveat bettor said...

Christopher, you sound so wise, yet like one who has never been true soulmates with a dog.

My wife were afraid that we wouldn’t love our children (we have 2) as much as our rottweiler (and I am afraid that we were somewhat correct to be afraid).

Is Laozi a religious or irreligious citation?

caveat bettor said...

I was thinking that wisdom and dog-whispering could, in fact, be mutually exclusive from each other.

That got me thinking, does love require faith? And if so, are empiricists unable to love?