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the anthropic principle lives on and on

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Believable-Creationism24c

The anthropic principle, the idea that the universe – and let’s not muddle up our heads with multiverses – appears to be tweaked just right, in a variety of ways, for the existence and flourishing of humans, has long been popular with the religious, those invested in the idea of human specialness, a specialness which evokes guided evolution, both in the biological and the cosmological sense. And, of course, God is our guide.

Wikipedia, God bless it, does an excellent job with the principle, introducing it straight off as the obvious fact that anyone able to ascertain the various parameters of the universe must necessarily be living in a universe, or a particular part of it, that enables her to do the ascertaining. In other words the human specialness mob have it arse backwards.

So I’ll happily refer all those questing to understand the anthropic principle, in strong and weak forms, it proponents and critics, etc, to Wikipedia. I’ve been brought to reflect on it again by my reading of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay, ‘mind and supermind’, in his 1985 collection, The Flamingo’s Smile. 

Yes, the anthropic principle, which many tend to think is a clever new tool for deists, invented by the very materialists who dismiss the idea of supernatural agency as unscientific, is an old idea – much more than 30 years old, because Gould was critiquing not only Freeman Dyson’s reflections on it in the eighties, but those of Alfred Russel Wallace more than a century ago, in his 1903 book Man’s Place in the Universe. Gould had good reason for comparing Dyson and Wallace; their speculations, almost a century apart, were based on vastly different understandings of the universe. It reminds us that our understanding of the universe, or that of the best cosmologists, continues to develop, and, I strongly suspect, will never be settled.

Theories and debates about our universe, or multiverse, its shape and properties, are more common, and fascinating, than ever, and accompanied by enough mathematics to make my brain bleed. The other day one of my regular emails from Huff Po science declared that maybe the universe didn’t have a beginning after all. This apparently from some scientists trying to grab attention in a pretty noisy field. I’ve only scanned the piece, which I would hardly be qualified to pass judgment on. But not long ago I read The Unknown Universe, a collection of essays from New Scientist magazine, dedicated to all ideas cosmological. I didn’t understand all of it of course, but genuine questions were raised about whether the universe is finite or infinite, about whether we really understand the time dimension, about how the laws that govern the universe came into being, and many other fundamental concepts. It’s interesting then to look back to more than a century ago, before Einstein, quantum mechanics, and space probes, and to reflect on the scientific understanding of the universe at that time.

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin's calculations, used by Wallace

A version of the universe, based on Lord Kelvin’s calculations, used by Wallace

In Wallace’s time (a rather vague term because the great scientist’s life spanned 90 years, which saw substantial developments in astronomy) the universe, though considered almost unimaginably massive, was calculated to be much smaller than today’s reckoning. According to a diagram in Man’s Place in the Universe, it ended a little outside the Milky Way galaxy, because we had no tools at the time to measure any further, though Lord Kelvin, the dominant figure in physics and astronomy in the late 19th century, made a number of dodgy calculations that were taken seriously at the time. In fact, Kelvin’s figures for the size of the universe, and for the age of the earth, though too small by orders of magnitude, were considered outrageously huge by most of his contemporaries; but they at least began to accustom the educated public to the idea of ginormity in space and time.

But size wasn’t of course the only thing that made the universe of that time so different from our own conceptions. The universe of Wallace’s imagination was stable, timeless, and, to Wallace’s mind, lifeless, apart of course from our planet. However, he doesn’t appear to have any good argument for this, only improbability. And an odd kind of hope, that we are unique. This hope is revealed in a passage of his book where he goes off the scientific rails just a bit, in a paean to our gloriously unique humanity. A plurality of intelligent life-forms in the universe

… would imply that to produce the living soul in the marvellous and glorious body of man – man with his faculties, his aspirations, his powers for good and evil – that this was an easy matter which could be brought about anywhere, in any world. It would imply man is an animal and nothing more, is of no importance in the universe, needed no great preparations for his advent, only, perhaps, a second-rate demon, and a third or fourth-rate earth.

Wallace, though by no means Christian, was given to ‘spiritualism’, souls and the supernatural, all in relation to humans exclusively. That’s to say, he was wedded to ‘human specialness’, somewhat surprisingly for his theory of evolution by wholly natural selection from random variation. This is the chain, it seems, that links him to modern clingers-to the anthropic principle, such as William Lane Craig and his epigones, who must needs believe in a value-laden universe, with their god as the source of value, and we humans, platonically created as the feeble facsimiles of the godhead, struggling to achieve enlightenment in the form of closeness to the Creator, with its appropriate heavenly rewards. And so we have such typical WL Craigisms as ‘God is the best explanation of moral agents who apprehend necessary moral truths’, ‘God is the best explanation of why there are self-aware beings’ and ‘God is the best explanation of the discoverability of the universe [by humans of course]’. These best explanation ‘arguments’ can be added to ad nauseum, of course, for they’re all of a part, and all connected to the Wallace quote above. We’re special, we must be special, we must be central to the creator’s plan, and our amazingness, our so-much-more-than-animalness, in spite of our many flaws, suggests a truly amazing creator, who made all this just for us.

That’s the hope, captured well by the great French biologist Jaques Monod when he wrote

All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.

I think modern philosophy has largely moved on from desperate denialism, but Monod’s remarks certainly hold true for religions, past present and future. Basically, the denial of our contingency is the central business of religion. It’s hardly surprising then that the relationship between religion and science is uneasy at best, and antagonistic at its heart. The multiverse could surely be described as religion’s worst nightmare. But that’s another story.

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 unbelief in the USA

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I’m always interested in statistics about religious belief and its decline in most western countries, and I like to keep up with the latest findings, so I want to post fairly regularly about this. This time I want to focus on that toughest nut to crack, the USA.

This is, of course another area where ideology influences or even creates facts – for example, the fanatical Christian theist William Lane Craig has trotted out claims that atheists represent 5% or sometimes 3% of the US population, and thus can be dismissed with impunity. He qualifies this by saying that the rising population of the non-religiously affiliated are not necessarily atheists, etc etc. It’s a tediously trivial point. Many individuals who clearly don’t believe in supernatural entities are uncomfortable with the term ‘atheist’ – Sam Harris among them – and I can identify with that discomfort. Some prefer to identify as secularists, sceptics, humanists or whatever, and their identification with atheism can vary with the time of day – as mine sometimes does. This has little bearing on the fact that this non-believing, uncomfortable-with-labels sector of US society is increasing in number and in proportion of the total. As to Craig, as I’ve written before, he will always be in as much denial of the truth as the flat-earthers of a previous century, and I guarantee that he will be saying on his death-bed, after as long a lifetime of fanaticism as I could possibly wish for him, that the number of atheists in the USA is down to 2% or possibly less, with most of them being drooling mental defectives. He is truly the Don Quixote of evangelical Christianity.

So let me start with this point of inquiry podcast from 7 years ago. It described a 2001 study, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), by a group based at the City University of New York. According to Tom Flynn, reporting on the study, the number of ‘Nones’ (people who answered the question ‘what is your religious affiliation?’ with ‘none’) increased from just under 9% in the early nineties (in fact the ARIS website puts Nones at 8.2% in 1990) to just over 14.1% in 2001. The podcast explores the implications of this shift as well as the more detailed findings of the study, which I’ll explore shortly, but first let me provide an update to this finding, because another ARIS study was carried out in 2008, which put the proportion of Nones at 15%, a considerable slowdown in growth. My own reflection on this is that possibly this reduction in the speed of growth may be partially accounted for by the incumbency of the republican party during the period. I suspect that the next survey, presumably around 2016-2017, will show an increase in growth during the Obama presidency.

Much time is spent in the podcast on why this ‘rise of the Nones’ is occurring – and I should say that other independent surveys have also reported this trend. One reason for non-affiliation with traditional religious denominations (while not necessarily disavowing ‘spirituality’) is the loosening of old authoritarian ties, begun back in the sixties and seventies and still continuing, backed by an education system that encourages the questioning and challenging of establishment thinking. In keeping with this, it’s the more liberal protestant religions that, as in Australia, have been the biggest losers over the last fifteen years or so. In the USA, though, there has been a burgeoning pentecostal movement, essentially conservative in nature, which has gained much ground at the expense of the traditional churches. They appear to constitute a backlash against the many societal changes of recent decades, adding to the well-recognised polarisation of US society.

The University of Akron in Ohio also does regular surveys on religious trends in the USA. They did one in the run-up to the 2004 election, which recorded 16% of the nationwide sample as being not religiously affiliated – essentially Nones. Different questions were asked of course – and I suppose this raises the issue of how you might write a question or a series of questions which will provide you with the biggest percentage of Nones possible, without actually resorting to threats and intimidation. That was a joke. And yet… In any case, the Akron study asked further questions of this 16% group and found that more than two thirds of them were ‘non-spiritual’, that’s to say, definitely atheist, agnostic and/or humanist. That’s to say, more than 10% of the US adult population, if this study is to be trusted are explicitly non-religious, and in fact that mark was passed a decade ago. Ten percent is a bit of a magical number for minorities in the US, as Tom Flynn explains.

So what about the most recent data? There’s not much that’s really recent that I can find. The Pew Forum on religion and public life did a survey in 2007 that found 16.1% were Nones, but they broke that percentage down differently, and it gave the explicitly non-religious less of a share than the Akron survey.  As I’ve mentioned, the 2008 ARIS survey had the Nones at 15%. However, a biannual poll called the General Social Survey, probably the one discussed at Evolutionblog recently, and treated in more detail here, had the Nones up at 20% – up from 8% in 1990. There are obvious doubts about how exactly such percentages are arrived at, but there’s surely no doubt about the direction of the trend. This survey as with others, shows that liberals are more likely to be Nones than conservatives (by a long way), the youngest adults are more likely than the oldest (also by a long way) and men are more likely than women (by a small but substantial margin). May this overall trend continue, and may I long continue to observe and report on it.

Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2013 at 10:22 am

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 9, concluding remarks

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Rise-of-Atheism

Now I want to make some final remarks about the debate process and the way it can be manipulated, and some general remarks about the growth of atheism.

I’ve taken some time to respond to Dr Craig’s arguments, and I could’ve taken longer, but I didn’t consider all of them worthy of an elaborate response. In any case I’ve taken a lot longer than twenty minutes for my overall response, and that’s as it should be. To make a claim is generally easier and less time-consuming than to refute a claim, and it has always been thus, and Dr Craig knows that very well. This is probably why Dr Craig insists on setting the agenda and why he always claims that, if every one of his points isn’t refuted in 20 minutes, he wins.  This is essentially a modified version of the infamous ‘Gish gallop’, in which the opponent has little hope of addressing all the erroneous elements embedded in every point in the allotted time, so he or she (but actually I don’t recall a female ever debating Dr Craig) has no choice but to select two or three points to focus on. This allows Dr Craig to claim a very dubious ‘victory’ for the points that aren’t addressed. Hopefully in pointing this out, I’ve helped you to see the limited relevance of the time-constrained debate format in answering these big questions.

Now, I want to focus finally on the growth of the non-religious trend in the west. I recall hearing Dr Craig in an interview stating that only 2% of the US population was atheist. He probably got this figure from the 2009 ARIS report, the American Religious Identification Survey, which did indeed find that some 1.6% of surveyed American adults self-identified as atheist or agnostic. However the same report found that some 15% of Americans identified as having no religion. Make of that what you will. That same report also found that, in 2008, some 76% of Americans identified as Christians, compared with 86% in 1990. The report concludes that:

‘The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion’.

A more recent 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

The USA, however, is a lot more religious than other western nations. My own country, Australia, is I think more typical in its profile. In Australia’s 2011 census, the non-religious category amounted to 22.3% of the whole, the fastest-growing category by far, and considering that 8.6% of the population chose not to answer the question, and that a substantial proportion of those would be non-religious, it probable that more than a quarter of the population would identify as non-religious. Some 61% of Australians now identify as Christians, compared to around 84% in the early seventies, and it’s been falling more rapidly in recent years. Figures from Great Britain and Canada are much the same, with rapid growth in the non-religious categories in recent years.

Yet in spite of all this evidence, Dr Craig scoffs at the challenges to his theism and dismisses atheists as intellectual lightweights. He even likes to make the claim that atheists have been using the same arguments for the last 300 years and that all their arguments have been quashed. This amuses me, because this is exactly what any number of atheist philosophers have been saying about theists and their arguments. And I have to say, having read a few essay collections on the existence of god, I’ve always thought that atheists had by far the best arguments – but then, I would, wouldn’t I?

The difficulty that Dr Craig and his cronies must face is this. If he has all the best arguments, why are the majority of philosophers – trained analytical thinkers – non-believers, even in his own country? Why is it that non-belief is growing far more rapidly among the most educated than among the least educated? Why is it that millions and millions and millions of people, in Australia, Europe, North America and Japan, are comfortably rejecting Christianity and religion? Is there a virus going around? Have people dumbed down from the glorious days of pre-Enlightenment Christendom? Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to shake Dr Craig out of his smug complacency – not that this would be possible – but I do want to pose that question to you, the audience. What has changed over the past half-century? I’m not saying that I know the answer myself, though I have my speculations on that question, which I won’t share with you today. But let me be clear that there is a change under way.

Dr Craig, as I say has spoken of 300 years of atheism. The writer Jack Miles has written about how galling it must be for atheists that the term has been around for a couple of thousand years, with still only a minority of followers. But Miles has misrepresented the situation. A couple of thousand years ago there were very few people, mostly intellectuals, who scoffed at the religious superstitions of their fellows. Epicurus, Seneca, Lucretius, these were largely isolated individuals, islands in a sea of theism, or at least deism. The term atheist in fact began to be bandied about with the rise of Christianity. The Christians called the Pagans atheists, and the Pagans called the Christians atheists, and in a sense both sides were correct, because each side refused to believe in the only god or gods worth worshipping, according to the other side. Of course to modern observers, neither side was atheist.

Atheism as a ‘movement’ is of far more recent vintage. Isolated individuals cropped up again in the eighteenth century – Jean Meslier, Baron d’Holbach, Hume, Diderot and a few others – but many of the Enlightenment and early nineteenth century critics of Christianity, such as Voltaire, Paine, and the American founding fathers, were deists. Even in the late 19th century, the great voices of atheism, such as Robert Ingersoll, were largely voices in the wilderness, though the intellectual claims of atheism were forwarded by many philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill who simply ignored the ethical claims of religion completely, as have most moral philosophers since their time.

But it’s really only in the twentieth century, and the later half of it, that atheism has become common-place. This is a trend that I cannot see being reversed, in a world where knowledge – of our universe, of our psychology, and of our human origins – expands on a daily basis. Religious belief is becoming out-moded and, to many, positively embarrassing in its simplistic claims about good and evil, sin and redemption, and gods as lords over us, to be worshipped and feared and so forth. Of course we live in a multi-speed polity, as far as the absorption of new ideas is concerned, and we will long continue to have our backward-facing Islamists, our Haredi Jews and our Amish-style Christian sects, but they will not be among the world’s movers and shakers.

So to return to Dr Craig and his crusade against the world’s atheists. None of his arguments withstands much scrutiny but he will never admit this and he will go on repeating them, unbent and unbowed until, if I may quote the bard, ‘second childishness and mere oblivion’ puts a stop to the farce. I mentioned earlier the flat-earthers who filled halls only 150 years ago with their speeches against the round-earth conspiracy. Not one of those flat-earthers ever admitted he was wrong. Every last one of them went to their deaths proclaiming their ‘truths’ with just as much confidence as when they started out. Creationists never change their minds either, or very rarely. They just die. And they’re not replaced, or the replacement rate is unable to match the death rate, and so the species eventually dies out. This has been the fate of the flat-earthers. It will happen to the creationists too, though it’ll take a little longer, and as to those who in future want to take up the cause of Dr Craig or his later incarnations, you’ll no doubt find the going increasingly tough, and the potential audience increasingly indifferent. The real world is becoming just too interesting to keep focusing on rehashed arguments about done and dusted worldviews.

Go in peace, and thanks for listening.

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 8, the divinity and resurrection of Jesus

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Ah am the greatest - Ah whopped those guys in the temple, and they's tried to whop me, but ah ain't-a whopped, coz you see ah's as white as a white-man, an ah am so purty, lookit me, ah am the greatest

Ah am the greatest – Ah whopped those guys in the temple, and they’s tried-a whop me, but ah ain’t-a whopped, coz you see ah’s as white as a white-man, an ah am so purty, lookit me, ah am the greatest…

I’ve decided to run the last two of Dr Craig’s arguments together, as they’re by far the weakest – which is saying something. In fact, his eighth or last ‘argument’ isn’t really an argument at all, as he more or less admits, as it constitutes anecdotal claims for a personal relationship with a supernatural being. I note, by the way, that Dr Craig eschews the use of the term ‘supernatural’, instead preferring ‘non-material’, or ‘transcendent’, but they’re essentially synonymous terms for beings for which there is no material evidence. As for these personal relationships, I have nothing to say about them, except that I find them unpersuasive, and easily explicable in psychological terms. I don’t doubt the sincerity of people who believe they have a relationship with a god, but we should all know by now about the enormous human capacity for self-deception.

Dr Craig’s seventh argument, which he apparently sets much store by, is really the one that I find the most completely beyond redemption, to use a religious term. This is the claim, of course, that there is overwhelming evidence that Jesus came to life after he died. And he supports his claim solely with fallacious ‘arguments from authority’, in his case numerous authorities. Every historian worthy of the name, according to him, is in substantial agreement that Jesus had a a godly authority, and that he rose from the dead. The highly respected scholar N T Wright wrote an 800 page book in which he concluded that Jesus’s resurrection was as empirically established as the existence of Caesar Augustus, etc etc.

This is absolute nonsense. Nonsense. Now, I’ve been told that you have to hone your debating skills when confronting Dr Craig on this subject because he really knows his New Testament. Well, with respect, I think that also is nonsense. The question whether a human being can rise from the dead or not is not a New Testament question, it’s a question about human physiology. Now there are cases where people have been revived after being pronounced clinically dead, but such cases simply cause us to revise our concept of ‘clinical death’, which is not an exact concept. In any case, these are ‘operating table’ examples, not cases in which people have been dead for days with rigor mortis having set in, decomposition, etc. In such cases, return to life is not a possibility.

Of course, Dr Craig has an easy solution to that problem – Jesus wasn’t a man, he was a god, or the son of a god, or a god in human form, or an aspect of a triune god, or whatever. He was immortal. In which case, with the flick of a switch, it’s all possible. But note what this is arguing. What Dr Craig is really saying, is that all these historians are agreed that Jesus was a god. Every reputable scholar agrees that Jesus is a god. Our highly respected author, of the 800 page book, has established that it’s as certain Jesus was a god, as that Augustus Caesar was an emperor, or that Plato was a philosopher. What nonsense, if I may use a euphemism.

Let me look at Dr Craig’s carefully-worded presentation on this. He says, and I quote, ‘historians have reached something of a consensus’, end quote, about Jesus’s godliness. He later goes on to talk about the facts of the resurrection, and I quote, ‘recognised by the majority of historians’. And further on he claims that naturalistic claims against the resurrection ‘have’ and I quote, ‘been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship’.  Well, end of story. Well, hardly. As an avid consumer of history myself, particularly western social and political history, it has become pretty screamingly obvious to me that historians are overwhelmingly a secular lot. I haven’t taken a poll, but I’d guess, say 80% of them would not identify as Christians. And of course the vast majority of them have no interest whatsoever in the resurrection. New Testament historians and scholars, however – and they represent a tiny, tiny subset of all historians – are much more likely to be Christians. I mean, whadyareckon? I haven’t taken a poll, either, of the number of NT scholars who are Christian, but I can say this, I wouldn’t be a New Testament scholar no matter what you paid me. To me, as a non-believer, it would be like being forced to pick up sticks and move to Jerusalem to live for the rest of my life. Surrounded by religious crazies of every stripe, screaming out their self-righteousness at every opportunity. To me it would be hell on earth.

So I take my hat off to the secular New Testament scholars who persist in the face of such adverse conditions. They have more courage and tenacity than I could muster. And Dr Craig mentions the eminent British scholar, N T Wright, he of the 800 page book that proves beyond doubt that Jesus came back to life and was therefore truly a god. However, Dr Craig doesn’t mention that Wright is also an Anglican bishop. Oversight? Of course not. Let me point out again that every word in Dr Craig’s presentation is carefully considered, and that includes the words he has left out as well as those he has put in. There are no inadvertent errors in this presentation. Is he being disingenuous in his presentation? Most certainly. Is he being dishonest? You can be the judge. I will say again though, that Dr Craig is fanatically obsessed with his cause, and any means, to him, would be justified by the end of winning the argument, and promoting his message.

Dr Craig’s argument, then, relies on authorities who are already convinced that Jesus is a deity, a claim I find too implausible to be even worth investigating, but presumably it might be made more plausible if we had other evidence of Jesus’s superhuman perfection, evidence that might make him seem worthy of the miracle of resurrection. And the only evidence we have of Jesus comes from the so-called gospels. Now, as I say, I’m no New Testament scholar, but I have read the gospels several times, and I even went so far as to make an informal assessment of Jesus’s character based on close study of his statements and remarks in those four books. I have to say, I’ve never found Jesus to be a particularly remarkable, or even entirely coherent, person on the basis of those texts. If you take away the paranormal events – miracles, raising from the dead, a virgin birth and a resurrection, you get a fairly normal guy, who loses his temper, acts selfishly, behaves arrogantly, gets cold feet, and makes various often contradictory pronouncements on moral issues. But one thing that really struck me about the guy was his so-called family values. It strikes me as really weird that the conservative Christian movement in the USA, which is so huge, is obsessed with family values, meaning of course the nuclear, heterosexual family. Because Jesus turned his back on his family, and made no attempt to create a new one in adulthood.  He died, assuming he was crucified, in his mid-thirties, perhaps even as old as forty – we don’t know his date of birth, and the birth stories are clearly unreliable. It would’ve been quite unusual to remain unmarried at that age. Okay, so he was a deity, how could he get married and have children like mere mortals. And yet, his remarks about family are quite troubling. I won’t go into all of them, as they’ve been dealt with by many analysts, but for those interested and unaware, the troubling verses include Matthew 10:35-37, 23:9, Mark 13:12, Luke 12:49-54, 14:26, 21:16-17, and John 2:3-4. These include general statements against the family and specific statements he directs against his own family members, particularly his mother. But I’ll dwell here on one of the more chilling of Jesus’s pronouncements, in Matthew 8:21-22.

Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.’

Now, in our society, the death of a parent is a serious matter, and we allow people space and time to deal with that. It’s pretty well sacrosanct in our society and in other societies. It’s not unreasonable to assume that in patriarchal ancient Palestine, the death of a father was about as big a deal as you could get. So, to tell someone who’s father has just died that they should forget the funeral and ‘follow the leader’, that they should ‘let the dead bury their dead’ which basically means, ‘let the dead rot’, is about as grossly insulting and insensitive a remark as you can make. It’s jaw-dropping, in fact, in its callousness, though it’s not inconsistent with many of the remarks Jesus makes about family.  I think if we were ever to get an exclusive interview with Jesus’s mum about the great man’s reputation, she’d be very likely to say, ‘well, he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy’.

So, I don’t hold much store in this flawed and thoroughly human individual being a god in disguise, and worthy of the resurrection Dr Craig so desperately wants to believe in.

So ends my response to all of Dr Craig’s arguments. Next I want to present some important concluding remarks.

Written by stewart henderson

March 24, 2013 at 11:17 pm