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the fall – when curiosity was shameful, and miracles abounded

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the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

the benedictine abbey of Gottweig in the Danube Valley, now enjoying more freedom as a guesthouse

I’ve been reading some medieval literature recently, and I’d like to make a brief comparison here between the writings of Benedict of Nursia (c480-547) and Pope Greg the Great (reigned from 589 to 604), and the Roman writers of a few centuries before, such as Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Plutarch. It’s maybe a bit unfair as Greg and Ben perhaps weren’t typical writers of the sixth century, I’m hardly medievalist enough to say, but still they capture for me the tragedy of the soi-disant Dark Ages for the development of thought and ideas. I’ll be quoting from the medieval writers, but only referring to the Romans – you’ll just have to take my word for it about their smarts.

Benedict of Nursia is probably better known as Saint Benedict, but I don’t like that appellation – not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because nobody does, as in order to become a saint it must’ve been ‘proven’ that you performed miracles, and such silliness shouldn’t be encouraged. More importantly, this nominatively determined method of severing such individuals from common humanity does us all a disservice. Anyway, Benedict was the founder of 12 monasteries or communities in Italy, and he wrote rules for them which were later adopted in other regions to form the basis of the Benedictine system of monks – though there was never really a strict Benedictine order (monks who live communally under a set of rules are called cenobites). I’ve just read these rules, followed by Pope Gregory’s  hagiography of Benedict, and it gives me a perspective on the closing of the European mind – if that’s not too grandiose a term – associated with the Dark Ages.

Benedict is praised for what Wikipedia calls the ‘balance, moderation and reasonableness’ of his rules, which facilitated their adoption by many European monasteries. However, moderation is a relative term, and as a rabid anti-authoritarian I probably chafe more than most under imposed rules. Still, I reckon most independent-minded modern westerners would find Benedict’s rules deadeningly stifling, and if they were considered moderate for the time, I’d hate to think about the more immoderate rules that the pious were forced to submit to. But judge for yourself.

Benedict states at the outset that ‘we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord’. This isn’t of course a school in the modern sense, it’s more like certain types of Madrassa, in which nothing outside of sacred texts is studied. The school or institute is to be presided over by an Abbot, chosen for his personal qualities, including self-discipline, firmness, compassion and insight into the ways of the Lord. Recalcitrant souls need to be coaxed or reproved into the narrow path. However,

… bold, proud, hard and disobedient characters he should curb at the very beginning of their ill-doing by stripes and other bodily punishments, knowing that it is written, ‘The fool is not corrected with words’, and again, ‘Beat your son with the rod and you will deliver his soul from death’.

I suppose this isn’t too much worse than a lot of army-style biffo, as depicted in Full Metal Jacket and the like, but there’s more, and monasticism was a life commitment. Benedict goes on a lot about humility and seriousness – he frowns upon laughter. He also insists, ominously, on narrowness, for ‘strait is the gate and narrow is the way’ to salvation, as we all know. Clearly the lives of these life-long penitents are going to be highly circumscribed. Patience, endurance, humility and obedience are the watchwords.

The monks’ days are rigidly ordered. Prayers are to be offered up 7 times a day (more often than in Islam, even) because, according to Benedict, the Prophet says ‘seven times in the day I have rendered praise to you’. Who this prophet was I can’t ascertain, and there’s no such quote in the Bible, though Isaiah and Luke both display a fondness for the number. In any case, Benedict gives instructions about the number and type of psalms to be sung at the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Prayers are to be ‘short and pure’, in compliance with the spirit of silence that should inhabit, not to say inhibit, the school. One of the longest chapters is ‘On Humility’, in which Benedict defines 12 different degrees of humility, as the monk becomes more and more cleansed of vice and sin:

The tenth degree of humility is that he be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, ‘The fool lifts up his voice in laughter’.

The eleventh degree of humility is that when a monk speaks he do so gently and without laughter, humbly and seriously, in few and sensible words, and that he be not noisy in his speech. It is written, ‘A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’

Again, Benedict doesn’t tells us where these dubious claims are written, but they don’t seem to come from the Bible. In any case, you get the idea, the fantasy that suppression of all spontaneity and originality leads through the narrow gate unto heaven.

Of course, the microcosm of the monastery doesn’t necessarily reflect the macrocosm of medieval Europe, but in a world of more or less homogenous Christian belief many of these ‘ideals’ would have been prominent. Not that the previous Roman world was that much better, as far as the nurturing of curiosity and intellectual inquiry was concerned. Roman society was also quite rigid in its structure, and philosophically, neither the Stoics nor the Epicureans thought in terms of intellectual progress. But the near-obsessive stifling of curiosity, the obsession with an obedient, humble, slavish attitude before an all-knowing master-god, that was very much a product of the Christianising of the Empire and ultimately of all Europe. The kind of reflective history-writing and philosophising found in the work of Tacitus, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, dealing with human psychology and conduct in its own right, without reference to divine expectations, all but disappeared for centuries.

Interestingly, along with the fashion for slavishness came a flourishing of credulity. Pope Gregory the Great’s bio of Benedict teems with his miracles and fulfilled prophecies, reminding us that the age of Jesus wasn’t the dimmest for unbelievable beliefs, though it may have sparked the fashion for them. There’s virtually a miracle on every page, so I’ll quote here one of the first, from when he was a youth, having abandoned his studies to serve his Master, to give you a taste:

When Benedict abandoned his studies to go into solitude, he was accompanied by his nurse, who loved him dearly. As they were passing through Affile, a number of devout men invited them to stay there and provided them with lodging near the Church of St Peter. One day, after asking her neighbours to lend her a tray for cleaning wheat, the nurse happened to leave it on the edge of the table and when she came back she found it had slipped off and broken in two. The poor woman burst into tears, she had just borrowed this tray and now it was ruined. Benedict, who had always been a devout and thoughtful boy, felt sorry for his nurse when he saw her weeping. Quietly picking up both the pieces, he knelt down by himself and prayed earnestly to God, even to the point of tears. No sooner had he finished his prayer than he noticed that the two pieces were joined together, without even a mark to show where the tray had been broken. Hurrying back at once, he cheerfully reassured his nurse and handed her the tray in perfect condition.

Of course, this little tale is partly designed to show Benedict’s kindness and attentiveness in small matters, and perhaps that’s the best take-home message, but not all the miracles are so nice, and some display the wish-fulfilling fantasy of bringing down enemies. The point, though, is that these miracles are disseminated by the highest religious authorities in Europe, so that it would amount to sacrilege to deny them. Interestingly, when I was nine years old, my mother bought me a collection of books called ‘Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories’ – about ten books each with about ten stories in them, and every one told of a miracle much like this one (and to be fair to my mother, she hadn’t vetted them first and wasn’t aware that they were Christian propaganda). People had fallen on hard times or had suffered an accident, they prayed to God, their fortunes were miraculously reversed. They were very formulaic stories, and I steamed with annoyance on reading them, but it’s fascinating to find a template for that kind of writing from nearly 1400 years before. How the world has changed and how some aspects of it remain.

What is interesting for me, though, is the connection between credulity and authority that marks the Dark Ages. As a youngster I was free to, and took delight in, spurning the ‘authority’ of Uncle Arthur and his benevolent miracles. I’m a creature of my era and social milieu, as we all are, but there are many social milieux in our world. I’ve just seen a TV clip about the ‘fight of the century’ between one Floyd Mayweather and the Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. I’m not much into boxing these days (I was a keen follower of the sport in my youth), but I hear this fight is being billed as goodie v baddie, because Mayweather is a convicted wife-beater and apparently something of a self-advertising loudmouth whereas Pacquiao is a member of parliament, charity worker and other respectable things. However, when I just looked at the screen I saw Pacquaio wearing a t-shirt with ‘Jesus is my Lord’ or some such thing emblazoned on it, and I felt a spurt of disgust. I have a visceral reaction to the slavishness and submission of the two most common religions on the planet. The old ‘pagan’ religions certainly engaged in seasonal placatory gestures but they didn’t practice or preach eternal submission to their invisible and undetectable masters. And not only are we supposed to accept our enslavement, but to exalt in our specialness. It’s the most horrible kind of unreality, to me. So there’s still plenty of darkness to deal with, or to avoid. Let’s remember Goethe’s reputed last words – more light.

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 3

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IfGodMadeUs

Argument 7: God is the best explanation of the connection between the flourishing of the kinds of moral agents there are, and the necessary moral truths that apply to them.

Here we move more and more into the field of the preposterous, IMHO. He quotes a Christian philosopher, Gregory Ganssle, as saying:

Not only do we have beings to which necessary moral truths apply, but we have beings that are made up in such a way that doing what is right turns out to be good for them, it contributes to their flourishing rather than their languishing. Maybe only one in ten universes that are moral, in that they have the right sorts of beings that are such that moral goodness, and the flourishing of those beings involved, converge.

The last sentence is virtually meaningless, but the emphasis here on necessary moral truths is bizarre. I’m not sure what they are, but I’m certain that I haven’t the slightest interest in the concept. Vandergriff spoke earlier of the prohibition against murder as being a necessary moral truth, but many Christians are in favour of capital punishment, which is murder by the state. The murder of Bin Laden a couple of years ago raised very little moral outrage, nor does the murder of hostage-takers and other terrorists today. So these are apparently moral prohibitions that are on some occasions more ‘necessary’ than others.

I find the pretence of surprise that acting on ‘necessary moral truths’ seems coincidentally to promote human flourishing to be ridiculous and thoroughly disingenuous. The fact is that we’ve promoted human flourishing through social evolution. One of the most comprehensive explanations of how this has been achieved is presented by Steven Pinker in The better angels of our nature, a work of empiricism, not philosophy. Pinker has no more interest in ‘necessary moral truths’ than I do, he is concerned to explain how some human populations, and an increasing proportion of them, have been able to learn from the destructive errors of the past and to build better legal, economic, political, social, health and education systems, to better balance co-operation and competition, and individual and social goods. His analysis owes nothing to ‘necessity’, everything to the lessons learned through bitter and often traumatic experience. There are no perfect systems, but polities can be improved grindingly through continued analysis and experiment based on hard-won knowledge. Vandergriff and Ganssle put the cart before the horse. We flourish because the systems we put in place are designed for our flourishing. Yes, horror of horrors, our morality is all about enlightened self-interest, not ‘necessary goodness’. The horrors of the Great War drove us to attempt, for the first time in history, an organisation of international co-operation. Its dissolution was a setback rather than a complete failure. The later United Nations, with all its failings, has gradually grown in strength and will continue to be a force for peace, together with other international and intergovernmental organisations. The success of Medicins sans frontieres has spawned similar organisations ‘without borders’, and the trend is likely to continue. People get enormous satisfaction from helping others. Selfish satisfaction? Yes, but that vastly oversimplifies the matter. It is above all the satisfaction of being connected, which is so important for perhaps the most social species on the planet. And our increasing knowledge of our connections with other species is expanding our circle of sympathy, as philosopher Peter Singer has eloquently pointed out.

But as you might be able to detect, my sympathy with these arguments is starting to run out, and it gets worse.

Argument 8: God is the best explanation of why there are self-aware beings.

It should be pointed out that supernatural beings of any kind (let alone the mass-murdering war-god of the Old Testament) are always massively problematic ‘explanations’ because they have no empirical foundation. These are abstract objects, in spite of their variously imagined ‘histories’ in innumerable sacred texts. The development of self-awareness in many species on our planet is a contingent empirical fact.

Argument 8 and all the other ‘best explanation’ arguments given by Vandergriff, William Lane Craig and other theists are usually  accompanied by claims that ‘this situation/these events are extremely improbable under naturalism but entirely consistent/to be expected under theism’. That’s to say, they’re all ‘cart before the horse’ arguments. You define your supernatural agent as the repository of necessary truths, the generator of all value, the seat of ‘infinite consciousness’ (as Vandergriff quotes J P Moreland, another theist philosopher and theologian, as claiming), and the source of all meaning and ‘worthwhileness’ (argument 10), and then you say ‘hey look, we are value-seeking, meaning-requiring, self-aware, necessary-truth-understanding beings, so surely the whole kit-and caboodle was made by a god who made us as close to him as anything else, because he cares so much for us. Otherwise, all our amazing attributes are meaningless.’ I should point out that the amazing attributes of non-human species are constantly downplayed by theists, as they are in Vandergriff’s spiel, because they don’t contribute anything to this unique god-human relationship. They were downplayed throughout the Christian era too, of course, before it was challenged by the theory of natural selection. Stephen Jay Gould has cited many cases in his essays: for example the early 19th century German embryologist Lorenz Oken wrote that

The animal kingdom is only a dismemberment of the highest animal, that is, of Man

and in an 1835 work, naturalist William Swainson reflected thus:

When we discover evident indications of a definite plan, upon which all these modifications have been regulated by a few simple and universal laws, our wonder is as much excited at the inconceivable wisdom and goodness of the SUPREME by whom these myriads of beings have been created and are now preserved, as at the mental blindness and perverted understanding of those philosophers, falsely so called, who would persuade us, that even Man, the last and best of created things, is too insignificant for the special care of Omnipotence.

We readily forgive these dated claims, partly because they don’t directly challenge us any more, bit it seems clear that many theists have learned nothing and forgotten nothing over the centuries. There are many obvious problems with this way of thinking, but the one I find most indigestible is that in order to avoid the horrors of contingency, which, certainly in the case of William Lane Craig, is the greatest and most unacceptable horror of all, theists are still forced to conclude that everything – the possibly-infinite multiverse, the big bang, quasars, black holes, dark matter and dark energy, gravity, quantum mechanics, the laws of nature, the elements and their proportions etc etc – was created by their god for us. We, containing so many of the god’s qualities, albeit in infinitesimal proportions, are the fulfilment of his purpose. We are what he created it all for. Not a geocentric universe perhaps, but an anthropocentric one for sure, with a complexity that the god gradually reveals to us as our privilege to work out.

So theism here presents us with a choice, or so it believes: total meaninglessness, or the humbling knowledge that we are central to a god’s plan, the pinnacle of his creation, created in his image, fumbling caretakers of his multiverse. As fantasies go, it’s a whopper. From an empiricist perspective however, it’s a non-starter, except in psychological terms. It has helped our forebears to get through many dark nights of history.

I’ll dispense quickly with Vandergriff’s last two arguments. Argument 10, God is the best explanation for the worthwhileness of life, is just more of the same and requires no further analysis. Argument 9, probably the most preposterous of all the arguments, is that ‘God is the best explanation of the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth’. There are no historically established facts about Jesus of Nazareth, even of his birth, his preaching, his trial and his death, let alone of his putative miracles and resurrection. Scholars may argue to and fro about these matters, but their arguments are entirely textual and have no serious empirical value.

Okay, I’m done with this. Never again, I hope.

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 2

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Morals-Without-Belief-in-God

Feeling almost apologetic for dwelling on this for too long, with so many more important themes to tackle. Of course some out there, especially in those most heatedly devout parts of the USA, might consider that no more essential topic exists than giving proper due to the supernatural creator of the universe, but I would disagree, and I suppose here’s where I get to say why.

I was discussing Vandergriff’s third contention, that ‘Christian theism has significantly more explanatory power and scope than specified naturalism’. Here is his second argument for this:

God is the best explanation for why space-time and all its contents exist, rather than nothing.

Of course space-time has only existed as a familiar concept for about a century. It may well be replaced, or amended, by another concept, and I’m sure Christian theists will find their god to be the best explanation for that too. He’s amazingly flexible that way. Vandergriff here talks of a proof of supernatural causation under the presupposition that the universe is eternal but necessarily caused. It’s rather an unsurprising one drawn from a famous conundrum of quantum mechanics, that quantum indeterminacy can only be resolved through observation. The observation ‘collapses the wave function’. Vandergriff, or the person who posits this ‘proof’, then leaps from quantum states to the state of the universe. ‘What, or who, collapses its wave function?’ Vandergriff asks. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly valid leap. It seems more a desperate grab for an analogy. I’m not that boned up on my fallacies, but this might be the fallacy of the excluded middle, inter alia. I mean, ‘quantum/universal indeterminacy, therefore god’ does seem to take for granted an awful lot of in-between stuff. The supposed essential recourse to the disembodied mind again suggested here fails as Vandergriff has not presented any argument to show that this ‘disembodied mind’ is anything more than an abstract object. The play of such words as ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ really get us nowhere in providing answers to the very interesting questions around the beginnings of our universe and the well-established weirdness of quantum mechanics, regardless of whether the two are related.

The third argument is taken directly from William Lane Craig:

God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

I’ve answered this claim from Craig here, though I’m amused at Vandergriff’s gloss, in that we’re still not sure that the Higgs boson has been discovered, as the data could well fit other scenarios. In any case, the main point about mathematics is clear. Mathematics seems highly abstract nowadays because over time and through painstaking human effort it has moved a long way from its beginnings. Mathematics developed as a tool to describe particular objects in general terms, that could be manipulated and developed, for example number, leading to multiplication, division, functions and the various forms of calculus. All of these, and further, developments make use of regularities, or explore regularities (some of which have as yet no known applicability). It’s hard to conceive of a physical world that has no regularity. All elements are describable, mathematically, in terms of their properties, which are regular, i.e. describable. Try to describe something that has no regularity at all. It would have no shape, no boundary between it and not-it. If this convinces you that a creator god exists, it’s likely that you were already convinced. As to a super-rational creator, which Vandergriff tries to point to, that would hardly be the brutal monster of the Old Testament who slaughters children and babies in a flood and supports the massacres of whole populations in favour of his ‘chosen people’.

Argument 4: God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe.

This is really just a repetition of the previous argument. The universe, to be physical (and therefore discoverable in terms of its properties) has to be regular. However, human development ‘at just the right time’ to discover the universe’s properties and origins  supposedly supports a fine-tuning argument, as developed by Hugh Ross, a Christian astrophysicist who put forward this argument in the early nineties. The late Victor Stenger, among many others, has put these arguments to the sword. There’s also a problem with this and with other ‘best explanation’ arguments in that they are essentially self-refuting ‘first cause’ arguments. David Hume was one of the first to point out the deficiencies of such arguments centuries ago. Attempts to improve on them are well summarised and dealt with by the philosopher Theodore Schick here. To me, one of the best-arguments against fine-tuning relating we humans to the supernatural creator is its grotesquely overwhelming wastefulness. Why create a universe so enormously inhospitable to intelligent life throughout almost the entirety of its vast expanse in order to permit we humans to finally thrive on our small planet through a history of great suffering? A super-rational being could surely do better, and chance seems a much more coherent explanation.

Argument 5: God is the best explanation of why there are embodied morally responsible agents.

I presume Vandergriff is talking here about cetaceans. Or maybe not. In any case, the existence of such agents, he claims, is more probable under theism. Presumably his claim is based here on the idea that it would be more fun to create a universe with moral agents in it than, say, living beings who are little more than scuttling stomachs. Yet considering how enormously complex and diverse these scuttling stomachs are, it seems clear that, if Vandergriff’s god created them, he seems to have found them great fun. You can hardly argue with J B S Haldane’s remark that the guy has an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Vandergriff talks about the unique human ability for self-control and control over our environment because ‘our brains are the most complex things in the universe’. How does he know this? Well, he doesn’t. This line has often been used, by Richard Dawkins amongst many other scientists, but always, as far as I’m aware, with the cautionary addendum ‘according to our current knowledge’. And our current knowledge of the universe, I and many others would argue, is minuscule, in spite of the great strides we’ve made. Vandergriff is concerned here to emphasise human specialness. He describes, without providing any names, how various physical scientists have been ‘stunned’ to discover that the universe must have been fine-tuned to extraordinary precision to provide for this embodied moral agency. Yet this moral agency appears to exist, to varying degrees, in a number of social species on our planet (which Vandergriff doesn’t acknowledge). In any case, I’m sure plenty of other prominent physical scientists could be found who are considerably less ‘stunned’.

Argument 6: God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths.

I don’t believe there are ‘necessary moral truths’, and I don’t find this a particularly interesting philosophical theme, though it obviously strongly exercises some philosophers.

In giving his example taken from Darwin and the behaviour of hive bees, however, Vandergriff completely misrepresents natural selection, comparing what natural selection ‘happens upon’ with the rational choices of human beings. I would strongly argue that there is more to natural selection than just ‘happening upon’ or ‘chance’ as theists like to describe it. Most theists like to think we’re rational moral agents guided by, or able to be guided by, their god; though how the god does the guiding can never be properly answered. Vandergriff cites the prohibition against rape as a necessary moral truth, but Christians have raped women throughout history, in times of warfare, just as readily as have members of other religions. Rape statistics are notoriously difficult to compare from nation to nation, because states have different laws, definitions, reporting methods and resources. It’s clear from even the most casual examination that cultural attitudes to rape vary widely. We don’t find a consistent or clear-cut prohibition against rape in the Bible. However in modern western countries, especially with the advent of feminism, rape has been raised to a higher level of seriousness as a crime. This hasn’t been driven by organised religion, so it just seems absurd to assert, or even to intimate, that the prohibition against rape is a necessary truth derived from a supernatural being.

Vandergriff talks about natural selection or evolution as being only conducive to our survival, and seems to find it unlikely that our ‘necessary moral truths’ or our aesthetic tastes or even such traits as benevolence or kindness could have been selected for, claiming that these qualities are unlikely under naturalism but highly likely under theism. Yet it’s abundantly clear that reducing the incidence of rape, developing better medicines, resolving conflicts by peaceful means, promoting sympathy for others, including those of other species, and exercising restraint and thoughtfulness in our personal lives is conducive, not only to our survival, but to our success and our enrichment. We’ve learned this, not through communication with spirits, but through honest examination of our own past behaviour as a species. It seems to me that it’s through these painstaking examinations that we’re learning to reduce our common misery and to promote our well-being. We’re learning from our mistakes, even if it’s a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ process. A thorough-going education system is essential in disseminating what we’ve learned from the past and carrying those gleanings into the future. It’s precisely because there are no necessary truths, because we could always go back to achieving our ends through brutality, dishonesty and blinkered self-promotion, that we need to maintain awareness of past errors, and of the complex needs of those around us and to whom we’re attached, including humans and non-humans.

Vandergriff has more ‘arguments’, which I’ll deal with next time, though I’m looking for ways to cut this short!

disassembling Kevin Vandergriff’s gish gallop, part 1

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then_a_miracle_occurs

I’m always taken in a thousand different directions by my vagabond mind, as the history of my blog shows, but philosophy has long been an interest, more recently neglected due to trying to keep up, unsuccessfully of course, with the wonders of scientific discovery and speculation. A move away from rational to empirical stuff you might say, if only it was that simple.

So I recently listened to a very wordy debate presented on the Reasonable Doubts podcast between Jeffrey Jay Lowder (atheist) and Kevin Vandergriff (theist) on whether metaphysical naturalism (essentially the scientific approach) or Christian theism yields the best understanding of the universe (or multiverse?), based on ‘the evidence’. It sounded like a good idea at the time, as it sounded like it might be as much a report on empiricism – presenting the evidence – as a philosophical debate. Not surprisingly though, I became increasingly frustrated as I listened, especially to Vandergriff’s long-winded, fast -paced exposition of way too many points (he had to get everything in within the specified time limit, and was still gushing when the end-game theme music started playing). Vandergriff has clearly been inspired by the ‘success’ of William Lane Craig’s debating tactics, even trying to outdo WLC in the number of debating points that he claims must be rebutted by Lowder in order to ‘win’. Well, if wishes were fishes the sea would be swarming.

So the bewildering number of points (though many of them tediously familiar to anyone acquainted with WLC’s arguments) and the speed of delivery naturally reminded me of the old ‘gish gallop’, and my response is to regain control by taking my own good time to pick apart the arguments, so replacing the debate approach with a more effective ‘philosophical’ one, in writing. Not that this was a public debate; it was a written-and-read audio exchange, and many of the comments, linked to above, deal pretty effectively with Vandergriff’s fails. I’m just doing this to get back in the saddle, so to speak.

I won’t be dealing so much with Lowder’s pro-naturalism argument except where it supports my own, but generally I thought that there was too much emphasis, on both sides, on the old philosophical approaches, and not enough on evidence per se.

Vandergriff starts by saying he wants to defend three claims:

1. Christian theism is not significantly less simple than specified naturalism.

(Vandergriff doesn’t explain what he means by ‘specified’ here, and seems to use it as a technical term. A google search on ‘specified naturalism’ has come up with nothing (though the creationist William Dembski likes to use the term ‘specified complexity’), so I will assume he simply means metaphysical naturalism as per the debate title.

2. If God [i.e. the god called God] exists necessarily, then the prior probability of naturalism, no matter how simple, is zero.

3. Christian theism has significantly more explanatory power and scope than specified naturalism.

Before listening to Vandergriff’s defence of these claims I want to make some preliminary remarks. On (1), presumably Vandergriff has the Ockham’s Razor heuristic in mind – keep your assumptions to a minimum. But obviously Christian theism involves two assumptions over and above the assumptions of naturalism (that all is natural and potentially explicable in naturalistic terms). It assumes not only that there’s a supernatural agent responsible for the multiverse, but that the said supernatural agent is the god called God, who had an earthly son who was also a god, sort of, and all the other baggage that attaches to him, or them. These are big assumptions, and, to my mind, far from simple. On (2) yes, if any supernatural agent exists necessarily, I suppose that means supernaturalism reigns supreme and naturalism is vanquished. All we need is evidence, but not only can we not find any, we don’t even know what we’re looking for. Concepts like supreme goodness and maximal power are no more real than Plato’s ideal forms. We don’t call them ideal for nothing. And on (3), it seems to me that the explanatory power of naturalism is virtually infinite, because each new explanation leads to a host of new things to be explained (e.g the DNA molecule is discovered to be the essential building block of all life, but then why is it made up of precisely these amino acids, and why this sequence and why the helical structure, and why introns and exons, etc etc). Christian theism seems to me more like an evasion of explanation, and the ‘don’t question God’s handiwork’ argument was in fact quite prevalent in the 17th century and before, and was often used effectively to limit scientific inquiry.

Vandergriff next defines his god for us, with the usual ‘ideal form’ language. The god called God is maximally powerful, intelligent and good. I’ve elsewhere described this abstraction as a boob: a benevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being. Do boobs really exist? I’d like to hope so, the more the merrier. But I may be confusing my concepts here, so I’ll stick with gods. The god called God, according to Vandergriff, is a transcendent, personal being who created the physical world, and who sent a set of moral messages to us via Jesus.

Vandergriff emphasises his contention that a personal being (a being with personhood, just like us?) caused the physical world (presumably the multiverse) to exist, and that this multiverse is value-generating rather than indifferent, as it is claimed to be under naturalism. He also claims that, under naturalism, the universe or multiverse is eternal and uncaused, which his theism disputes. I would’ve thought naturalism remains open to the questions of ‘eternality’, finitude or infinitude, and ultimate causation. My own recent readings on the universe/multiverse tell me that cosmologists have many positions on these matters, though all approach them from a naturalistic perspective.

Next Vandergriff returns to the 3 claims stated above. He takes issue with Lowder for presupposing an indifferent universe in some of his arguments, which he cites another philosopher, Paul Draper, as claiming ‘is roughly equal in simplicity to theism’. One wonders how these various simplicities can be weighed or measured, by Draper or anyone else. Presumably all that’s meant by this is that it’s just as straightforward to posit a naturalistic universe, with no intrinsic value, as it is to posit a supernatural-being-created universe, full of value. Vandergriff thinks that this goes a long way to prove the claim that theism is not a more complex explanation than naturalism, and this somehow bolsters theism. But it seems to me, on reflection, that the two cases are not roughly equal in simplicity, because with theism, first you have a supernatural creator, second you have value-adding, so to speak. In fact, these two elements struck me as separate when I first leaned about a supernatural creator as a child sent to Sunday School. Full of skepticism and curiosity about this new entity I was learning about, I wondered, how do we know this being is so concerned about us being good? If he created the world in the long ago, why does that automatically mean he’s still obsessed with us? If he’s so all-powerful and super-clever, why wouldn’t he want to test his powers on some new project, just as I might build a fabulous house out of lego and then abandon it for bigger and better projects? In other words, couldn’t a supernatural creator be indifferent too? Or only interested for a period before turning his attention to something else? Vandergriff would get round this objection, I suppose, by pointing to his assumptions about the supernatural being, especially the one about ‘goodness’. An all-good god would never abandon his creation but would, apparently, be eternally obsessed by it. But I’m not sure that perfect goodness (whatever that means) entails this, and anyway these are just assumptions.

Now to Vandergriff’s second claim. Again he quotes Paul Draper, who says that if the god called God necessarily exists, then naturalism is incoherent and theism has a probability of 1. That’s a long-winded way of saying if theism has to be true, it’s true, like absolutely. Of course, that’s a big if, possibly bigger than the known universe. However, at this stage, Vandergriff provides no evidence for this necessary existence (though he says he has two arguments up his sleeve).

On the third contention, Vandergriff goes straight into argument.

1.  God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe.

Here, Vandergriff cites the 2003 Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem relating to an expanding universe (and, I think, other universe models), to support his argument that the universe is non-eternal, to which one commentator on the Reasonable Doubts blog replied tersely ‘Yet another William Lane Craig clone abusing the Borde Guth Velenkin theorem’. In fact I’ve dealt with this claim myself well enough in one of my responses to WLC’s typical debates. Of course the issue here is not whether the universe had a beginning, but what was the cause of that beginning, or what were the conditions at that beginning, or is it meaningful to talk of a ‘before’ the beginning. But here’s where the likes of Vandergriff and WLC make the leap into metaphysics or the supernatural with wild talk of a transcendent, miraculous cause, which, of course, allows tremendous scope for the imagination. The fact is, we’re far from clear about the origin. I’ve read one hypothesis that the big bang may have been the result of a collision or interaction between two ‘branes’, of which there are presumably many in the multiverse. I’ve also read that, as we get asymptotically close to the big bang (going backwards), the laws of nature break down in the super-intensity of it all, so who knows? The Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem, moreover, even on Vandergriff’s (and WLC’s) much-disputed interpretation of it, doesn’t disconfirm naturalism at all, because naturalism is not dependent on an eternal, uncaused universe. Says who?

But it really gets ridiculous when Vandergriff, having proved to his satisfaction that the universe must have a cause, ‘wonders’ what that cause might be, and concludes that it must be an ‘unembodied mind’ (gifted, of course, with miraculous powers). How did he come to this conclusion? Well, this mind must be miraculous because it ‘created the world with no prior materials’. How does Vandergriff know this? The obvious answer is: he doesn’t, he’s just making stuff up. And why would this ‘transcendent’ cause have to be an unembodied mind? Because, according to Vandergriff, only abstract objects and unembodied minds can transcend the universe, but since abstract objects can’t cause anything, the cause must be an unembodied mind!

But of course an unembodied mind is just another abstract object. There are no real unembodied minds that we know of (though Fred Hoyle sort of created one in The Black Cloud, but that one didn’t go around creating universes, in spite of being super-smart), and Vandergriff doesn’t even consider it a requirement to prove that such things exist. As for ‘miraculous’, that just reminds me of the old cartoon – which I’ve put on top of this post.

I’ll have a look at Vandergriff’s next argument, and so forth, in my next post, though I’m not sure why I’m bothering. It’s good mind-exercise I suppose.

For now, though, I’ll watch some FKA Twigs videos, for delightful relief.

Written by stewart henderson

December 31, 2014 at 7:52 pm

the rise of the nones, or, reasons to be cheerful (within limits)

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This is a presentation based on a couple of graphs.

The rise of the nones, that is, those who answer ‘none’ when asked about their religious affiliation in surveys and censuses, has been one of the most spectacular and often unheralded, developments of the last century in the west. It has been most spectacular in the past 50 years, and it appears to be accelerating.

The rise of the nones in Australia

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This graph tells a fascinating story about the rise of the nones in Australia. It’s a story that would I think, share many features with other western countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, but also the UK and most Western European nations, though there would be obvious differences in their Christian make-up.

The graph comes from the Australian Census Bureau, and it presents the answers given by Australians to the religious question in the census in every year from 1901 to 2011. The blue bar represents Anglicans. In the early 20th century, Anglicanism was the dominant religion, peaking in 1921 at about 43% of the population. Its decline in recent years has been rapid. English immigration has obviously slowed in recent decades, and Anglicanism is on the nose now even in England. In 2011, only 17% of Australians identified as Anglicans.  The decline is unlikely to reverse itself, obviously.

The red striped bar represents Catholics – I’ll come to them in a moment. The grey hatched bar represents devotees of other Christian denominations. In the last census, just under 19% of Australians were in that category, and the percentage is declining. The category is internally dynamic, however, with Uniting Church, Presbyterian and Lutheran believers dropping rapidly and Pentecostals very much on the rise.

The green hatched bar represents the nones, first represented in 1971, when the option of saying ‘none’ was first introduced. This was as a result of pressure from the sixties censuses – that seminal decade – when people were declaring that they had no religion even when there was no provision in the census to do so. Immediately, as you can see, a substantial number of nones ‘came out’ in the 71 census, and the percentage of ‘refuseniks’ (the purple bar) was almost halved. But then in the 76 census, the percentage of refuseniks doubled again, while the percentage of nones increased. The Christians were the ones losing out, a trend that has continued to the present. Between 1996 and 2006 the percentage of self-identifying Christians dropped from 71% to 64% – a staggering drop in 10 years. The figure now, after the 2011 census, is down to 61%. If this trend continues, the percentage of Christians will drop below 50% by the time of the 2031 census. Of course predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.

One thing is surely certain, though. Whether or not the decline in Christianity accelerates, it isn’t going to be reversed. As Heinrich von Kleist put it, ‘When once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence’.

The situation after the 2011 census is that 22.3% of Australia’s population are nones, the second biggest category in the census. Catholics are the biggest with 25.3%, down from 26% in 2006 (and about 26.5% in 2001). The nones are on track to be the biggest category after the next census, or the one after that. Arguably, though, it’s already the biggest category. The refusenik category in the last census comprised 9.4%, of which at least half could fairly be counted as nones, given that the religious tend to want to be counted as such. That would take the  nones up to around 27%. An extraordinary result for a category first included only 40 years ago.

Let me dwell briefly on this extraordinariness. As you can see, in the first three censuses presented in this graph, the percentage of professed Christians was in the high nineties. That’s to say, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, virtually everyone one identified as Christian. This represents the arse-end of a scenario that persisted for a thousand years, dating back to the 9th and 10h centuries when the Vikings and the last northern tribes were converted from paganism. We are witnessing nothing less than the death throes of Christianity in the west. Of course, we’re only at the beginning, and it will be, I’m sure, a long long death agony. Catholicism still has an iron grip in South America, in spite of the scandals it’s failing to deal with, and it’s making headway in Africa. But in its heartland, in its own backyard, its power is greatly diminished, and their’s no turning back.

The rise of the nones worldwide

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But there’s an even more exciting story to tell here. The rise of the nones isn’t simply a rejection of Christianity, it’s a rejection of religion. And with that I’ll go to my second graph. This shows that the nones, at 750 million, have risen quickly to be the fourth largest religious category after Christians, 2.2 billion, Moslems, 1.6 billion, and Hindus, 900 million. These numbers represent substantial proportions of the populations of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the USA and western Europe, as well as nations outside the Christian tradition, such as China and Japan. Never before in human history has this been the case.

One thing we know about the early civilisations is that they were profoundly religious. The Sumerians of the third millennium BCE, the earliest of whom we have records, worshipped at least four principal gods, Anu, Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki. These, as well as the Egyptian god Amon Ra, are among the oldest gods we can be certain about, but it’s likely that some of the figurines and statues recovered by archaeologists, such as the 23,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, represented deities.

Why was religion so universal in earlier times?

We don’t know if the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians and Indus Valley civilisations were universally religious, but it’s likely that they were – because supernatural agency offered the best explanation for events that couldn’t be explained otherwise. And there were an awful lot of such events. Why did the crop fails this time?  Why has the weather changed so much? Why did my child sicken and die? Why has this plague been visited upon our people? Why did that nearby mountain blow its top  and rain fire and burning rocks down on us?

Even today, in our insurance policies, ‘acts of god’ – a most revealing phrase – are mentioned as those unforeseen events that insurers are reluctant to provide cover for. Nowadays, when some fundie describes the Haitian earthquake or Hurricane Katrina as a deliberate act of a punishing god, we laugh or feel disgusted, but this was a standard response to disasters in earlier civilisations. Given our default tendency to attribute agency when in doubt – a very useful evolutionary trait – and our ancestors’ lack of knowledge about human origins, disease, climate, natural disasters, etc, it’s hardly surprising that they would assume that non-material paternal/maternal figures, resembling the all-powerful and often capricious beings who surrounded us in our young years, and whose ways are ever mysterious, would be the cause of so many of our unlooked-for joys and miseries.

Why has that universality flown out the window?

It’s hardly surprising then that the rise of the nones in the west coincides with the rising success and the growing explanatory power of science. For the nones, creation myths have been replaced by evolution, geology and cosmology, sin has been replaced by psychology, and a judging god has been replaced by the constabulary and the judiciary. I don’t personally believe that non-believers are morally superior to believers because we ‘know how to be good without god’. We’ve just transferred our fear of god to our fear of the CC-TV cameras – as well as fear for our reputations in the new ultra-connected ‘social hub’.

It’s obvious though that the scientific challenge to ye olde Acts of God is very uneven wordwide. In the more impoverished and heavily tribalised parts of Africa, India, China and the Middle East, the challenge is virtually non-existent. Furthermore, it’s a very new challenge even in the west. To take one example, our understanding of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity has greatly increased in recent times through advances in technology and also in theory, most notably tectonic plate theory. This theory was first advanced in the early 20th century by Alfred Wegener amongst others, but it didn’t gain general scientific acceptance until the sixties and didn’t penetrate to the general public till the seventies and eighties. Even today in many western countries if you ask people about plate tectonics they’ll shrug or give vague accounts. And if you think plate tectonics is simple, have a look at any scientific paper about it and you’ll soon realise otherwise. Of course the same goes for just about any scientific theory. Science is a hard slog, while the idea of acts of god comes to us almost as naturally as breathing.

In spite of this science is beginning to win the challenge, due to a couple of factors. First and foremost is that the scientific approach, and the technology that has emerged from it, has been enormously successful in transforming our world. Second, our western education system, increasingly based on critical thinking and questioning, has undermined religious concepts and has given us the self-confidence to back our own judgments and to emerge from the master-slave relationships religion engenders. The old god of the gaps is finding those gaps narrowing, though of course the gaps in many people’s minds are plenty big enough for him to hold court there for the term of their natural lives.

The future for the nones

While there’s little doubt that polities such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union will become increasingly less religious, and that other major polities such as China and Japan are unlikely to ‘find’ religion in the future, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that any of the major religions are going to disappear in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren. Africa and some parts of Asia will continue to be fertile hunting grounds for the two major proselytising religions, and Islam has as firm a hold on the Middle East as Catholicism has on Latin America. If you’re looking at it in terms of numbers, clearly the fastest growing parts of the world are also the most religious. But of course it’s not just a numbers game, it’s also about power and influence. In all of the secularising countries, including the USA, it’s the educated elites that are the most secular. These are the people who will be developing the technologies of the future, and making decisions about the future directions of our culture and our education.  So, yes, reasons to be cheerful for future generations. I look forward to witnessing the changing scene for as long as I can

is belief in god irrational? – that is not the question

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forget them - read this!

forget them – read this!

Debates between theists and atheists have become commonplace over the past few years, for better or worse, and the topic has often been vague enough to allow the protagonists plenty of leeway to espouse their views. True or false, rational or irrational, these are the oppositional terms most often used. These debates are often quite arid, with both parties firing from fixed positions and very carefully concealing from observers any palpable hits they’ve received from the other side. Whether they’ve contributed to the continued rise of the nones is hard to say.

I heard another one recently, bearing the title Is belief in God irrational? It was hosted on the Reasonable Doubts podcast, one that I recommend to those interested in the claims of Christianity in particular, as these ‘doubtcasters’ know their Bible pretty well and are well up on Christian politics, particularly in the US. The debaters were Chris Hallquist (atheist) and Randal Rauser (theist), and it was pretty hard to listen to at times, with much squabbling and point-scoring over the definition of rationality, and obscure issues of epistemology. I found the theist in particular to be shrill and often quite unpleasant in his faux-contempt for the other side, but then I’m probably biased.

I found myself, as I very often do, arguing or speculating my way through the topic from a very different standpoint, and here are my always provisional thoughts.

Let me begin by more or less rejecting two of the terms of the debate, ‘God’ and ‘irrational’. I’m not particularly interested in God, that’s to say the Judeo-Christian god, and I strongly object to designating that particular amalgam of Canaanite, Ugaritic and other Semitic deities as capital G God, as if one can, through a piece of semantic legerdemain, magick away the thousands of other deities that people have worshipped and adhered to over the centuries. It’s as if the Apple company chose to name their next Ipad ‘Tablet’, thereby rendering irrelevant all the other tablets produced by competing companies. Of course we have marketing regulations that prevent that sort of manipulation, but not so in religion.

So I will refer henceforth to gods, or supernatural entities and supernatural agency, with all their various and sometimes contradictory qualities, rather than to God, as defined by Aquinas and others. It is supernatural agency of any kind that I call into question.

More important for me, though, is the question of rationality. I’m not a philosopher, but I’ve certainly dipped into philosophy many times over the past 40 years or so, and I’ve even been obsessed with it at times. And rationalism has long been a major theme of philosophers, but I’ve never found a satisfactory way to define it. In the context of this debate, I would prefer the term ‘reasonable’ to ‘rational’. Being reasonable has a more sociable quality to it, it lacks the hard edge of rationality. So, for my purposes I’ll re-jig the topic to – Is belief in supernatural entities reasonable?

But I want to say more about rationality, to illustrate my difficulties with the term. Hume famously or perhaps notoriously wrote that reason can never be more than the slave of the emotions. This raises the question – what are these emotions that have such primacy and why are they so dominant? I have no doubt that a modern-day Hume – and Hume was always interested in the science of his day – would write differently about the factors that dominate and guide our reason. He would write about evolved instincts as much as about emotions. Above all the survival instinct, which we appear to share with every other living creature. Let me give some examples, which might bring some of our fonder notions of rationality into question.

A large volume of psychometric data in recent years has told us that we generally have a distorted view of ourselves and our competence. In assessing our physical attractiveness, our driving ability, our generosity to others and just about everything else, we take a more flattering view of ourselves than others take of us. What’s more, this is seen as no bad thing. In terms of surviving and thriving in a competitive environment, there’s a pay-off in being over-confident about your attractiveness, as a romantic partner, a business partner, or your nation’s Prime Minister. Of course, if you’re too over-confident, if the distortion between reality and self-perception becomes too great, it will act to your detriment. But does this mean that having a clear-eyed, non-distorted view of your qualities is rational, by that very fact, or irrational, because it puts you at a disadvantage vis-à-vis others? To put it another way, does rationality mean conformity to strict observation and logic, or is it behaviour that contributes to success in terms of well-being and thriving (within the constraints of our profoundly social existence)?

I don’t have any (rational?) answer to that conundrum, but I suppose my preference for the term ‘reasonable’ puts me in the second camp. So my answer to my own question, ‘Is it reasonable to believe in supernatural entities’ is that it depends on the circumstances.

Let’s look at belief in Santa, an eminently supernatural entity. He is, at least on Christmas Eve, endowed with omnipresence, being able to enter hundreds of millions of houses laden with gifts in an impossibly limited time-period. He’s even able to enter all these houses through the chimney in spite of the fact that 99.99% of them don’t have chimneys. What’s more, he’s omniscient, ‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good’, according to the sacred hymn ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’, ostensibly written by J F Coots and Haven Gillespie, but they were really just conduits for the Word of Santa. We consider it perfectly reasonable for three- and four-year-olds to believe in Santa, and, apart from some ultra-rationalist atheists and more than a few cultish Christians and adherents of rival deities, we generally encourage the belief. Clearly, we believe it does no harm and might even do some good. An avuncular, convivial figure with a definite fleshly representation, he’s also remote and mysterious with his supernatural powers and his distant home at the North Pole, which to a preschooler might as well be Mars, or Heaven. As an extra parent, he increases the quotient of love, security and belonging. To be watched over like Santa watches over kids might seem a bit creepy as you get older, but three-year-olds would have no such concerns, they’d accept it as their due, and would no doubt find his magical powers as well as his total jollity, knowledge and insight thoroughly inspiring as well as comforting. From a parent’s perspective, it’s all good, pretty much.

Of course, if your darling 23-year-old believes in Santa, that’s a problem. We expect our kids to grow out of this belief, and they rarely disappoint. They don’t need much encouragement. Children are bombarded with TV Santas, department store Santas, skinny Santas, bad Santas, Santas that look just like their Uncle Bill, etc, and they usually go through a period of jollying their parents along before making their big apostate announcement. Santas are human, all too human.

Santa belief is, it would seem, a harmless and perhaps positive massaging of a child’s vivid imagination, but when a child’s ready for school, she’s expected to put away childish things, little by little.

And isn’t that what many atheists say about the deities of the Big Monotheisms? Yes, but too many atheists underestimate the hurdles that need to be overcome. Most of these atheists either already live in highly secularised societies, such as here in Australia, or other English-speaking or European countries. Even the USA has many more atheists in it than the entire population of Australia, if we make the conservative assumption that 10% of its citizens are non-believers. Atheists are learning to club together but the religious have been doing it for centuries, and you’re likely to lose a lot of club benefits if you declare yourself a non-believer in a region of fervent or even routine belief. Or worse – I just read today of a Filipino lad who was murdered by his schoolmates after coming out as an atheist on a networking site. So just from a self-preservation point of view it might be reasonable to at least pretend to believe, in certain circumstances.

But there are many other situations in which it’s surely reasonable to believe – I mean really believe – in the supernatural agent or agents of your culture. The first of these is that supernatural agency explains things more satisfactorily to more people than any other available explanation. This might sound strange coming from a non-believer like myself, but it’s undoubtedly true. Bear in mind that I’m talking about satisfactory explanations, not true ones, and that I’m talking about most, not all, people.

Why was belief in supernatural agency virtually universal in the long ago? I don’t think that’s hard to understand. As human populations grew and became more successful in terms of harnessing of resources and domination of the landscape, they came to realise that they were prey to forces well beyond their control, forces that threatened them more seriously than any earthly predator. Famine, disease, earthquakes, storms, the seemingly arbitrary deaths of new-borns, sudden outbreaks of warfare between once-neighbourly tribes – all of these were unforeseen and demanded an explanation. Thoughts tended to converge on one common theme: someone, some force was out to get them, someone was angry with them, or disapproved somehow. Some unseen, perhaps unseeable agent.

Psychologists have done a lot of work on agency in recent years. They’ve found that we can create convincing agents for ourselves with the most basic computer-generated or pen-and-paper images. Give them some animation, have one chasing another, and we’re ready to attribute all sorts of motives and purposes. Recognising, or just suspecting, agency behind the movement of a bush, the flying through the air of a rock, or an unfamiliar sound in the distance, has been a useful mindset for our ancestors as they sought to survive against the hazards of life. ‘If in doubt, it’s an agent’ might have been humanity’s first slogan, though of course humanity didn’t come up with it, they got it from their own mammalian ancestors. My pet cat’s reaction to thunder and lightning clearly indicates her view that someone’s out to get her.

But what about the supernatural part of supernatural agency? That, too, is very basic to our nature, and it’s another feature of our thinking that has been brought to light by psychologists in recent times. I won’t go into the ingenious experiments they’ve conducted on children here – look up the work of Justin Barrett, Paul Harris and others – but they show conclusively that very young children assume that the adults around them, those towering, confident, competent and purposive figures, are omniscient, omnipotent and immortal, until experience tells them otherwise. As children we think more in terms of absolutes. Good and evil are palpably real to us, as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ are some of the first categories we ever learn from the god-like beings, our parents, who protect us and are obsessed with us (if we’re lucky in our choice of parents), and who have created us in their image.

Given all this, we might come to understand the naturalness of religion, and its near-universality. But what about the argument, which some of these psychological findings might support, that religion is a form of childishness that we should grow out of, like belief in Santa? It’a common argument among atheists, which to some degree I share, but I also feel, along with the psychologists who have shed such light on the default thinking of children, that ‘childish’ thinking is something we need to learn from rather than dismissing it with contempt. This kind of thinking is far more ingrained in us than we often like to admit, and it’ll always be more natural to us than the kind of reasoning that produces our scientific theories and technology. Creationism is easy – a supernatural agent did it – but evolution – the theory of natural selection from random variation – is much harder. The idea that we’re the special creation of a supernatural agent who’s obsessed with our welfare is far more comforting than the idea that we’re the product of purposeless selection from variation, existing by apparent chance on one insignificant planet in an insignificant galaxy amongst billions of others. In terms of appeal to our most basic needs, for protection, belonging and significance in the scheme of things, religious belief has an awful lot going for it.

So belief in a supernatural being, for whom we are special, is eminently reasonable. And yet… I don’t believe in such a being, and an increasing number of people are abandoning such a belief, especially in ‘the west’, and especially amongst the intelligentsia, which I’ll broadly define as those who make their living through their brainpower, such as scientists, academics, doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, writers and artists. New Scientist, in its fascinating recent issue on the Big Questions, features a graph of the world’s religious belief systems. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it claims 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Moslems, 900 million Hindus, and 750 million in the category ‘secular/non-religious/atheist/agnostic’. These are the top four religious categories. I find that fourth figure truly extraordinary, especially considering that it was only really recognised and counted as a category from the mid-twentieth century, or even later. In Australia, where religious belief is counted in the national census every five years, this optional question was first put in 1971. In that year the percentage of people who professed to having no religion was minuscule – about 5%. Since then, the  category of the ‘nones’ has been by far the fastest growing category, and if trends continue, the non-religious will be in the majority by mid-century.

So, while I recognise that religious belief is quite reasonable, it’s clear that, in some parts of the world, a growing number find non-belief more reasonable, and I’m not even going to explore here the reasons why. You can work those out for yourself. It’s clear though that we’re entering a new era with regard to religious belief.

 

 

Some thoughts on morality and its origins

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I remember, quite a few Christmases ago now, a slightly acrimonious discussion breaking out about religion and morality. I simply observed – it wasn’t my family. It never is.

A born-again religious woman asked her sister – ‘where do you get your morality from if not from religion?’ She responded tartly, ‘From my mum’. This response pleased one of those present, at least! But as to the implicit claim that we get our morality from religion, my silent response was ‘how does that happen?’

Religion, at least in its monotheistic versions, implies a supernatural being, from whom all morality flows. But if you ask believers whether their cherished supernatural entity talks to them and advises them regularly about the moral decisions they face in their daily lives, you would get, well, a variety of responses, from ‘yes, he does actually’, to something like ‘you miss the point completely’. The second response might lead on to – well, theology. We were given free will, the deity’s ways are mysterious but Good, he communicates with us indirectly, you need to read the signs etc etc. But you’ll be relieved I hope to hear that this won’t be an essay on religion, which you should realise by now I find interminably boring when it tries to connect itself with morality – which is most of the time.

I’m more interested here in trying, inter alia, to define human morality, to determine whether it’s objective, or universal, and if those two terms are synonymous. And as I generally do, I’ll start with a rough and ready, semi-ignorant or uninformed definition, and then try to smarten it up – possibly overturning the original definition in the process.

So, roughly, I consider human morality to be an emergent property of our socially wired brains, something which is, therefore, evolving. I don’t consider it to be objective, because that suggests something outside ourselves, like objective reality. We can talk about it being ‘universal’, as in ‘universal human rights’, which may be agreed upon by consensus, but that’s a convenient fiction, as there’s no true consensus, as, for example, the Cairo Declaration (on human rights in Islam) reveals. Not that we shouldn’t strive for consensus, based on our current understanding of human interests and human thriving. I’m a strong believer in human rights. I suppose what I’m saying here is that my ‘universality’, far from being a metaphysical construction, is a pragmatic term about what we can generally agree on as being what we need in terms of basic liberties, and limitations to those liberties, in order to best thrive, as a thoroughly social species (deeply connected with other species).

So with this rough and ready definition, I want to look at some controversial contributions to the debate, and to add my reflections on them. I read The Moral Landscape, by Sam Harris, a while back, and found it generally agreeable, and was surprised at the apparent backlash against it, though I didn’t try to follow the controversy. However, when philosophers like Patricia Churchland and Simon Blackburn get up and respectfully disagree, finding Harris ‘naive’ and misguided and so forth, I feel it’s probably long overdue for me to get my own views clear.

The difficulty that many see with Harris’s view is encapsulated in the subtitle of his book, ‘How science can determine human values’. I recognised that this claim was asking for trouble, being ‘scientistic’ and all, but I felt sympathetic in that it seemed to me that our increasing knowledge of the world has deeply informed our values. We don’t call Australian Aboriginals or Tierra del Fuegans or Native Americans savages anymore, and we don’t describe women as infantile or prone to hysteria, or homosexuals as insane or unnatural, or children as spoilt by the sparing of the rod, because our knowledge of the human species has greatly advanced, to the point where we feel embarrassed by quite recent history in terms of its ethics. But there’s a big difference between science informing human values, and enriching them, and science being the determinant of human values. Or is there?

What Harris is saying is, forget consensus, forget agreements, morality is about facts, arrived at by reason. He brings this up early on in The Moral Landscape:

… truth has nothing, in principle, to do with consensus: one person can be right, and everyone else can be wrong. Consensus is a guide to discovering what is going on in the world, but that is all that it is. Its presence or absence in no way constrains what may or may not be true.

Clearly one of Harris’s targets, in taking such an uncompromising stance on morality being about truth or facts rather than values, is moral relativism, which he regularly attacks.  Yet the most cogent critics of his views aren’t moral relativists, they’re people, like Blackburn, who question whether the moral realm can ever be seen as a branch of science, however broadly defined (and Harris defines it very broadly for his purposes).  One of the points of dispute  – but there are many others – is the claim that you can’t derive values from facts. For example, no amount of information about genetic variation within human groups can actually determine what you ought to do in terms of discrimination based on perceived racial differences. Such information can and should inform decisions, but they can’t determine them, because they are facts, while values – what you should do with those facts – are categorically different.

It seems to me that Harris often chooses clear-cut issues to highlight morality-as-fact, such as that a secure, healthful, well-educated life is better than one in which you get beaten up on a daily basis. Presumably he imagines that all the gradations in between can be measured precisely as to their truth-value in contributing to well-being. But surely it’s in these difficult areas that questions of value seem to be most ‘subjective’. Can we make an objective moral claim, say, about vegetarianism, true for all people everywhere? What about veganism? I very much doubt it. Yet we also need to look skeptically at those values he sees as clear-cut. Take this example from The Moral Landscape:

In his wonderful book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker includes  a quotation from the anthropologist Donald Symons that captures the problem of multiculturalism very well:

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ”culture”, and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers”, including feminists.

Now, as a card-carrying humanist, and someone generally quite comfortable with the values that, over time, have emerged in my part of the western world, namely Australia, I’m implacably opposed to the practice described here by Symons. But even so, I see a number of problems with this description. And ‘description’ is an important term to think about here, because the way we describe things is an essential indicator of our understanding of the world. The description here is of a ‘procedure’, and it is brief and clinical, leaving aside the depiction of the ‘terrified struggling screaming little girl’. It isn’t a description likely to have much resonance for those who subject their daughters and nieces to this practice. After all, this is a traditional cultural practice, however horrific. It is still practiced regularly in many African countries, and in proximate countries such as Yemen. Clearly the practice aligns with rigid attitudes about the role and place of women in those cultures, attitudes that go back a long way – the first reference to female circumcision, on an Egyptian sarcophagus, dates back almost 4000 years, but it’s likely that it goes back a lot further than that. As Wikipedia puts it, ‘Practitioners see the circumcision rituals as joyful occasions that reinforce community values and ethnic boundaries, and the procedure as an essential element in raising a girl.’

Now, Symons (and presumably Pinker, and Harris) take the view that this is clearly a criminal practice, and that culture should not be used as an excuse. It’s a view backed up by most of the nations in which it occurs, who have instituted laws against it, and in 2012 the UN General Assembly unanimously voted to take all necessary steps to end it, but these national and international good intentions face a long, uphill battle. However, if you look at some of the first descriptions of this practice, by outsiders such as Strabo or Philo of Alexandria, both writing in the time of Christ, you won’t find any censoriousness, nor would you expect to. It was well accepted in the Graeco-Roman world that customs varied widely, and that many foreign customs were weird, wild and wonderful. It’s likely that observers from the dominant culture felt morally superior, as is always the case, but there was no attempt to suppress other cultural practices – any more than there was only 200 hundred years ago, in Australia, with respect to the native inhabitants. The ‘mother country’ sent out clear and regular messages at the time about treating the natives with respect, and non-interference with their cultural practices (though it would no doubt have considered them barbaric and savage as a matter of course). It’s really only in recent times that, as a result of our growing confidence in a universal approach to morality or ‘well-being’, we (the dominant culture) have spoken out against what we now unabashedly call female genital mutilation, as well as other practices such as purdah and witch-hunting.

From all this, you might guess that I’m ambivalent about Harris’s confident approach to moral value. Well, yes and no, he said ambivalently. I can’t tell you how mightily glad I am that I live in a part of the world in which purdah and infibulation aren’t prevalent. However, I can’t step outside of my space and time, and I don’t know what it would be like to live in a world where these practices were standard. And living in such a world doesn’t mean being being transported to it ‘suddenly’, it means being steeped in its values. After all, my own Anglo-Australian culture was one that, less than 200 years ago, transported homeless boys, in danger of ‘going to the bad’, to Australia where they often ended up being worked to death on chain gangs, and this was considered perfectly normal. I would have considered it perfectly normal, for I’m not so arrogant as to imagine I could transcend the moral values of my culture as it was in the 1830s.

So, to return to the passage from The Moral Landscape quoted above. It isn’t a factual passage, it’s a description, with interpretive and speculative features. It describes, first the actions of ‘one person’, engaged in what seems to us an insane surgical procedure, then we’re asked to multiply this act by millions, and ‘suddenly’ consider it culture. But this strikes me as a deliberately manipulative putting of the cart before the horse. The real motive seems to be to ask us to dismiss culture altogether. After all, any human product that can be called into being ‘suddenly’, and which ‘magically’ blights our moral understanding of the world cannot surely be taken seriously.  Harris, as I recall, used similar arguments against religion, perhaps in The End of Faith (which I haven’t read), but certainly in some of his talks on the subject. A practice or belief which we might lock someone up for, ‘suddenly’ becomes acceptable when engaged in by millions and called ‘religion’.

This strikes me as a glib and naive argument, which could only appeal to historically uninformed (or indifferent) ‘rationalists’. Cultural and religious beliefs and practices, weird, wild, wonderful and occasionally horrifying though they might be, are far too widespread, and too deeply woven into the identity of individuals and social groups, to be set aside in this way.

This is a very very complex issue, one that, dare I say, middle-class intellectuals like Harris and Pinker tend to skate over, even with a degree of contempt.  For myself, I deal with these cultural issues with a mixture of fear –  ‘don’t provoke the culturally wounded, they’ll just get angry and dangerous’ – and concern  – ‘if you take away these people’s cultural/religious identity, how will they cope?’. Perhaps I’m being arrogant about the power of western secular values, but it seems to me that much of the world’s turmoil comes from resentment at old cultural and religious certainties being undermined.

So I believe in cultural sensitivity, for strategic purposes but also because we are all culturally embedded, no matter how scientifically enlightened we claim to be. However, I don’t think all cultures are, or all culture is, equally valuable or equally healthy. How I measure that, though, is a big question since I can’t step outside of my own culture. Perhaps therein lies the difficulty about getting all ‘scientific’ about morality. Science itself is hardly culture-free – a dangerous point to make in some circles.

So I don’t think I’ve gotten much further as to where morality comes from. To say that it comes from culture requires a thorough definition and understanding of that concept, otherwise we’re just deferring any real explanation, but clearly that is the way to go.  But I prefer to look at this connection with culture, and with other more fundamental aspects of our social nature, from a  humanist perspective. Western secular humanism tends to wear its culture lightly, and to value skepticism, reflection and analysis as – possibly cultural – tools for dismantling or at least loosening the overly heavy and oppressive armour that cultural beliefs and practices can become.

Written by stewart henderson

January 4, 2014 at 12:09 am