Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Question Faith, Part I

As promised, this post will describe my current position in regards to the debates, and most importantly, what I believe atheists should be doing.

The Problem of Beliefs

The most valuable insight to come from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and his recent interviews and appearances is not a statement but a question. Why shouldn’t beliefs be subject to discussion and inquiry? I find this a very fair demand. Theologists will quite fairly say that they have been doing this for centuries, but what Dawkins is asking for most specifically – and where I agree with him – is that such discourse should be a part of daily religious practice.

One of the largest objections to atheism and Dawkins’s book is the presumed lack of foundation for objective morality. Dawkins and I both assume a relative morality tempered by the evolution of primates and primate society, but rather than describe that position yet again, I want to look at the argument that objective morality indicates the existence of a god.

Here is the modern formation of the argument
Objective moral values exist
Objective moral values require the existence of a god
3 Therefore, a God exists
(Taken from Luke Pollard’s essay, “Does Morality Point to God?” but also referenced in Peter Williams’s “Calling Dawkins’ Bluff” )

If an atheist assumes the statements are true for the sake of common reference, there are three simple questions one can ask. The first is one of Dawkins’s favorite tactics: can we substitute the name of a specific god for the word “god” in the argument? If not, why not? Does objective morality require a god who matches a specific description?

Second, if objective morality exists, then beings with a moral capacity should all make reference to the same objective morality and understand arguments that an act is more or less moral. If this is so, then it should be born out empirically among all homo sapiens not otherwise impaired by mental illness (though the latter shouldn’t matter with objective morality, in my opinion, but I will allow objectivists that escape).

Third, the assumption of the argument suggests that the necessary god is the most moral. This follows from Aquinas’s fourth “way.”

“Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But 'more' and 'less' are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being [i.e. maximally ontologically secure]; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in [Aristotle's] Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.” (quoted in Williams)

There are obvious problems with this argument that Dawkins is quick to point out (the upper limit of heat, for example, is dependent on the amount of matter and energy in a system, not on some universal quantity), but again, I ask that we forget them and accept the statements as valid. If this god is the reference point that no other moral being can surpass, for any being with claims to godhood we should find no human being who finds that being morally objectionable. If a human being can appeal to objective morality to

The religious are often content to demonstrate with words that their subjective experience contains universal implications, but universality suggests empirical evidence can be found to support their claims. That is, the statements being put forward are verifiable, and interlocutors – including potential converts, adherents to other religions, and atheists alike - have every right to expect theists to investigate their claims. We may need to better define the implications of the above arguments to test them, but the principle remains.

I gain confidence in this assertion from the not-entirely independent movements of creation science and Intelligent Design. With varying degrees of success, both have demonstrated that beliefs can be formulated in such a way that the divine’s interaction with the material and the physical consequence of religious claims can be investigated from an objective standpoint.

Other religious beliefs can be investigated from a similar standpoint, and some have been, prayer most famously. If we assume that 1) the Christian god uses prayers to further his agenda, which is the conversion of the maximal number of people to Christianity, 2) a percentage of prayers answered affirmatively greater than chance indicates his response, and 3) he responds to prayers directed to him from believers asking for help, then 4) we should expect that the prayers from ill believers answered affirmatively should predict the number of non-Christians who accept their invitation to attend church when chance is controlled for. This experiment eliminates the “insincere prayer” problem of hospital prayer studies by linking prayers with empirical evidence most Christians would state falls within their god’s plan, however mysterious his full agenda may be.

The underlying thread of this discussion is that religious revelation – however wonderful the subjective experience may be - cannot expect to be on par with scientific knowledge so long as it cannot be verified in any form. Science has already demonstrated that subjective experiences like color-blindness and emotion can be studied with a degree of objectivity, and our means of doing so are ever increasing. I see no reason the same cannot be demanded of religious claims.

It’s often pointed out that scientists hold beliefs as well, and we respond by saying that yes, we do, but our beliefs are generalized from verifiable facts. We may hold some opinions not driven by fact, but those opinions are subject to change and the lack of facts supporting them is exactly our reason for asking further questions. Faith, I will argue, should be expected to operate the same way, and I will say more of this in the concluding section.

A Problem in Evangelical Methods

Despite the great question Dawkins has asked, too often the argument falls to demonstrating religions presumed harmful effect (e.g., in The Root of All Evil?). He is not the only one guilty of this distraction: Sam Harris, most notably, shares the same fault. I hesitate to say “fault”, but I have a feeling that statistics would show that the method fails to change the minds of the religious. These are a people accustomed to thinking that “the lord works in mysterious ways” and that all death – however innocent the dead may be – falls within those mysterious ways. Cases of religious leaders or practices misleading people are common, but also easily explained away by the faithful with an us-them mentality. For example, I doubt Ted Haggard’s fall from grace produced any documented deconverts, even if his congregation may have diminished.

The statement that religion has increased the amount of evil in the world typically meets the objection that secularists have both done the same and present no systematic worldview that aims to prevent the same. Claims that theists are ignorant, unreasoning, etc also invite criticism of atheists with the same qualities (I can personally point toward a number of atheists from the Nietzsche school who don’t even feel rationality is a quality to be admired). There are atheists who are attempting to better the world, and there is great value in pointing them out, but that is entirely different from making wholesale claims about faith that are not backed by history and statistics. Scott Atran is correct in pointing out that some commentators, like Harris and Dawkins, are failing to use scientific reasoning on this point and in their method of presentation.

If atheists wish to make claims about religion, they would do much better to work from the evidence in cognitive science and anthropology and draw their conclusions from empirical evidence, and that evidence is steadily accumulating in favor of religion as a human-creation rather than religion of divine origin. Madeleine Bunting (in her Guardian review) is correct in saying that The Root of All Evil? is not worthy of a great scientist: Dawkins would have better fulfilled his role as a public promoter of science by producing a documentary resembling Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

Education is the key to my stance. My undergraduate work was in secondary education, and I strongly favored an inquiry method of teaching. The essence of the inquiry method is that because children are naturally little scientists to some degree (see Piaget and Dewey for arguments in favor of this), the best classrooms should make use of their cognitive ability to form hypotheses and test them. Subject matter is presented not as an assembly of facts, but as continuing investigations in which the students may take part. The inquiry method does not work well with all subjects (certain aspects of chemistry, for example, are simply beyond the temporal and material resources of the average class), but as the origin of religion and the existence of god are certainly both in dispute among experts at this time, I see no reason we cannot invite more “students” to participate.

Question Faith

If, as Dawkins and I are both arguing, faith should be questioned, the goal of atheists seeking to deconvert the religious should be to raise questions and challenge answers. We should model our presentations and our arguments on the form “If X is true, then Y should be true. Where is the evidence for Y?” Too many atheists spend their time arguing against X when the data for Y is unavailable. This is not good science. However self-evident the falsehood of X may be to us, if it is not verifiable in itself, we can never hope to dissuade anyone from believing it and should be ashamed when we vilify anyone for maintaining their position.

Rather than only promoting the sources of facts in favor of the atheistic perspective (which will always contains gaps big enough for a god to hide inside), we should be constructing web portals and writing calls for action from theists. In fact, we need more atheist-created web pages that are directed at theists, rather than pages that are collections of disputable assertions about the origin of Christianity and current theories of evolution. These are both valuable resources in their own right, but they are not resources we should be directing theists toward.

A great amount of thought and work has already been undertaken. All that remains is to pull these resources into one place, and yes, by writing this, I am volunteering to take part. I am currently working on models which I will share here and elsewhere as they come together.

In a day or two, I will critique one popular anti-religious organization, The Rational Response Squad, from the viewpoint I’ve sketched above.


Beast Rabban said...

Some interesting points here, BH, and they certainly need to be commented on.

Let's start by dealing with your arguments against objective morality and the moral argument for the existence of God.

The arguments you present are non-sequiturs and, if anything, present a refutation of the Enlightenment concept that reason can find an objective moral standard which all rational people can agree upon. As you've pointed out, rational people in different societies can have radically different views of morality, so this view that reason alone can supply an effective moral standard without reference to God, as the Enlightenment philosophes believed, does not stand.

Does this point to the non-existence of God? No. In Christianity and Judaism, direct knowledge of God has been lost by the Fall, and although the heavens may point to His glory, it is through revelation that we come to God. See the theology of Karl Barth for an elaboration of this.

If you want a parallel with mathematics, not every society has discovered Pi. Yet Pi nevertheless exists, and has an objective value of 22/7 that cannot be altered by social convention, such as the infamous decision by the Wisconsin state legislature that in the 19th century that it equalled 4. God and maths exist, whether humans conceive of them or not.

As for teh different standards between the Old Testament and the New, Christian theologians have traditionally explained this as part of God's progressive revelation, in which the Mosaic Law was promulgated in response to the general condition of the times, in order to prepare the Jewish people for its fulfilment and consummation in Christ, and supersession by the higher law of love.

Beast Rabban said...

Then there is the inherent weakness of the subjectivist position for the basis of morality. Legislation is based on the conviction that the law being applied must be universally applicable, and therefore, in some sense, objective beyond the mere subjective feelings of individual groups. That's where science is immensely useful in assessing the affect of legislation as it affects the objective world.

However, if all morality is subjective, then there can be no legislation, as each citizen can rightly claim that individual pieces of legislation are not valid in their case and conflict with their own, sovereign conscience. Morality becomes either a matter of collective delusion - citizens know that their views are not objectively true, but continue to believe that it must be in order to stop society breaking down - or a collective tyranny, where morality is decided by force - the force of opinion, rather than right.

Now there are philosophers, such as the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, who believed that there was no such thing as universal morality, but instead believed that there were axioms, such as 'Thou shalt not kill', which acts as universals. You may wish to explore his philosophy. However, in my opinion a purely subjectivist account is radically insufficient.

Beast Rabban said...

Now let's deal with the question of evolution itself and its applicability to religion. I have to say I am extremely doubtful about this, at least in the way it has been applied by the Fundamentalist Atheist crew of Dennett and Dawkins. Daniel Dennett's evolutionary critique of religion depended very strongly on Dawkins' theory of memes. Yet memes themselves are extremely controversial. One can make no prediction using them, and some scientists will describe them as a pseudoscience.

Now scientists in the past devised nice evolutionary schema, such as that of the British anthropologist Tylor, in which Humanity passed from 'magic', through to animism, totemism, polytheism and then monotheism. They were based on ideas of evolution and formed the basis for a Naturalistic critique of religion.

They were wrong. Later anthropologists have pointed out that the 'savages' these anthropologists considered had a very primitive view of religion could have instead extremely sophisticated ideas about the Deity. As an example, see Evans-Pritchard's example of the sophisticated ideas about God amongst the Nuer.

One of the current, modish ideas about the origin of religion is that it stems from shamanism. This is plausible and, indeed, likely. However, some of the arguments attending this are extremely dubious. One of these was Dr. Julian Jaynes' idea of the shamanic experience arising in a radically different state of consciousness amongst pre- and early civilised humans caused by a lack of integration between the two hemispheres of the human brain. It's a favourite of the New Age crowd. It was also a favourite of Dennett, who published a defence of it in his book, 'Mindchildren'.

Yet it is radically defective. some critics have pointed out that there will be no hard evidence to support it unless neurological tissue from these early cultures are somehow preserved and recovered. In addition to the lack of hard biological evidence, individuals suffering from the acute lack of integration between the hemispheres Jaynes describes have all the symptoms of acute schizophrenia. Mental health professionals will tell you that individuals who tragically suffer from that horrendous affliction to that extent would almost certainly be unable to produce the great works of culture and art that Jaynes ascribes to them.

Beast Rabban said...

Then there is the whole problem of the applicability of scientific investigation to the practice of science, and of evolutionary models to evolution itself.

In the 1970s there was a movement amongst anthropologists to study science as it was done in the laboratory and conference hall. This was immensely unpopular with scientists and strongly rejected by them. I know professional scientists myself, who share many of the Dawkins' opinions against religion, who lament the way that scientists themselves have no interest in studying the history of their subject, but see themselves as promulgating objective 'truth' without realising that in ten years' time it'll all be different, as one anatomy lecturer said to me. The rejection of the anthropological attempts to study science came from the fear amongst the scientists studied that it would show science not to be an objective endeavour, but one considerably affected by subjective judgement and societal influences, pressure and demands.

Now if there is that strong resistance to studying the subjective element in science, and science as a social phenomenon, rather than the gradual revelation by reason of objective truth, the problem then arises as by what right science has to investigate and pass judgement on religion, when it shows such a radical reluctance to investigate itself? Anthropologists, as you know, have to be careful about inserting their own particular biases in their research. Reflexivity, the acknowledgement in one's writing of the researcher's own subjective experience, and forewarning the reader of possible biases in his or her writing, is one method around this. But I have yet to see any awareness of such radical reflexivity in the works of Dennett, Dawkins et al, or the awareness that science is as much a social phenomenon which can be investigated and critiqued as much as it critiques other phenomena. Indeed, Dawkins and the rest have strongly discouraged this, as they feel it will dethrone science. Carl Sagan was extremely po-faced about the IgNoble Prizes because he felt it would cause people to laugh at science. So it does, but in the process science becomes stronger.

Beast Rabban said...

If you apply a Naturalistic approach to evolution itself, a large question arises over its ability to make truth claims about the universe. Darwin himself stated that Natural Selection - he did not like the term 'evolution' and was reluctant to use it - worked to ensure survival, not to produce a true picture of the world. If humanity was solely the product of evolution, than we could not be sure that evolution was true. It's a criticism that Dr. Alvin Plantinga has revived against Naturalism in recent years.

Now theories of evolution have appeared before. In Cosmogony of Hesiod, and similar cosmologies in Ancient Egypt, vaguely personified natural forces give rise to the gods and other intelligences ruling the cosmos. In the cosmology of the Vikings, for example, the action of heat and cold in the primal void brings about Ygddrasil, the world-tree, Audumla the primal cow and a block of ice, which releases the frost giant, Ymir, when Audumla licks it. There is in these tales a primitive idea of intelligence, albeit divine intelligence, arising initially from natural forces.

More modern theories of evolution were produced in ancient Greece, such as Empedocles' idea that humanity first emerged as a kind of fish, because the first element was water, and the first people must have been adapted to that element. Heraclitus believed that the elements of living things were assembled into their anatomies and dissolved again by the interplay of twin forces 'Love', the process of attraction, and 'Strife', the force for repulsion. This influence the Epicureans, who believed that the atoms constructing the universe had similarly been assembled into objects, including living beings, by natural forces, and even posited a limited kind of natural selection. Some creatures that had initially arisen through the chance combination of these atoms had died out because they were unable to reproduce or were uncompetitive compared to other creatures.

Now, we more sophisticated people of the 21st centure may smile at the naivety of these notions, while admiring nevertheless the great insight these philosophers had using merely their minds and the limited observational tools of the ancient world. But if we adopt a cognitive, anthropological approach here, and see their insights as primarily the products of the evolution of their society, then doubt begins to be cast on our own theories of evolution. It is also the product of particular historical and societal circumstances, and the way evolution has been interpreted - to support racist and genocidal views of the supremacy of certain nations and 'races' is a historical phenomenon.

Now I admit that the evidence for evolution is immensely strong, and I'm pretty convinced it's correct. But nevertheless, if you take the anthropological, evolutionary approach you apply to religion, and project it back onto evolution itself, it can all too easily seem, with very good reason, as just another set of 'Just So Stories', not radically different from the myths its atheist supporters claim it has exorcised.

The Theory of Common Descent of humans and apes is particularly vulnerable to this comparison. We all know the jokes about it, but nevertheless some indigenous African religions have it as part of their mythology. According to one African legend, in the beginning, God had three sons: the Black man, the White man and the Gorilla. If you adopt the type of discourse analysis Vladimir Propp used to analyse Russian folktales in his 'The Morphology of the Folktale', then evolution and the descent of humanity from apes, or rather, a common ancestor of humanity and modern apes, really does become another folktale, although one backed by science.

Beast Rabban said...

Okay, now we move to your suggestions to finding experiments for the existence of God. Good - it shows you have nothing against supernatural investigation. If you are genuinely interested in this, then I strongly recommend you examine the considerable body of work on psychical research which has been compiled for well over a century. Have a look at the work of the American Society for Psychical Research and the Society for Psychical Research in Britain. These are not cranks, but professional scientists, who approach the subject from a variety of points of view.

Many have been atheists. These have included the respected British researcher Dr. John Beloff, and Dr. Stanley Krippner of Princeton, who has given lectures on various forms of irrationality, especially the pathologically irrational and superstitious practices designed to stop AIDS in Africa. Sam Harris brought ridicule on himself for openly declaring his interest in psychical research, yet I have far more respect for him, than for Dawkins, who routinely dismisses it. Indeed, in the God Delusion Dawkins gives a narrowly physicalist definition of atheism, thus risibly ignoring atheists who have embraced personal survival, such as the British Idealist philosopher Charles Bradley.

For a good introduction to psychical research on the web, have a look at the Public Parapsychology homepage, which gives a directory to those laboratories across the world which are engaging in parapsychological research. Of particular interest in Britain is the Koestler Research Unit at Ediniburgh University in Scotland. I'm sure you know of Rhine's research in America.

You may afterwards conclude, like the former parapsychologist and now Dawkinite sceptic Dr. Sue Blackmore, that it's all 'tosh', but at least take the time to examine it before making up your own mind.