Thursday, 29 April 2010

Yeah, They Really Found Noah's Ark...

Apparently someone discovered Noah's Ark. Well not really, turns out it was a fake. Atheists can sleep easily tonight, knowing that as yet the bible hasn't been proved. But we should be cautious, any day now NASA could announce a discovery of the firmament and then we're screwed. No more lesbian bacon orgies for us...

But withholding a discovery of a legged snake skeleton complete with voice box, what else could we expect? of course it was going to be fake. Even if it was genuinely believed to be real, there are still almost an infinite number of possibilities more plausible than it actually being the boat from the myth. Finding a sled at the north pole doesn't mean that it's Santa's sled. An attached reindeer doesn't mean it can fly.

Let's grant for the moment that the people reporting the discovery genuinely believed they had discovered the ark, what evidence led them to 99.9% certainty? Did they find Kangaroo droppings? Emperor penguin eggs? Sloth DNA? A dead platypus? Polar bear fur? I'd wager nothing of the sort. Even if they've found a boat on a mountain, saying its the boat from the tale is akin to hearing hoof-beats and concluding unicorns.

Again it's a failure of the media to think before reporting. Some person claims they can heal others by hovering a crystal over them, surely the claim should be put through some scrutiny instead of announcing it uncritically.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Again With The Moral Absolutes

It's really to be expected that there's a backlash against "The Rise Of Atheism" in the media. If there wasn't, it means that atheists aren't really taken seriously. There's plenty in the article I could talk about, especially the scientism straw-man but I want to focus on the following statement:
Our society rests on the assumption of moral absolutes: right, wrong, good and bad. That is based on the belief that there is an objective truth and from that firm foundation we can judge good and evil. Our society rests on the presumption of God.

So much to pick apart, so little patience. The first obvious point to make is that God really can't be a foundation of moral absolutes, unless one wants to concede that morality is arbitrary. I'm referring to the Euthyphro Dilemma, which can be expressed as follows: is it pious because it is loved by the gods, or loved by the gods because it is pious? In other words, is murder wrong because God says its wrong, or does God say its wrong because it is wrong?

This leaves the absolutist with two unfavourable choices. Either admit that God-given morality is arbitrary or concede that the questions of right and wrong are external to the notion of God. This 2500 year old point should be met with a huge "duh!" but this needs to be pointed out time after time to those who really should know better.

The second obvious point to make is that most societies throughout history have not been Christian, yet flourished. How does one who claims the foundation of absolute morality relies on God explain this? I see one of two concessions. The first concession is that society does not need a God-given morality (no matter how absurd), or that it's the belief in a God-given morality. In other words, the argument is not between God and morality but belief and morality.

The third obvious point to make is one in terms of moral malleability. Should the moral standards for a society of goat herders some 2500 years ago be morally relevant for us today? How does moral absolutes deal with moral questions? What of equal rights for women? A drastic social change has taken place in the last few hundred years. Equal rights for women is a modern concept, does this mean that society has always been wrong until now? Or is it just right for our time? If so, how do we recognise what's right and wrong and at what period?

This leads to the fourth obvious point: the evidential problem. Society in the last few hundred years has undergone a drastic moral shift. It's only in the context of the enlightenment and social revolutions that have allowed this. The abolition of slavery, equal rights for women and for those of different "races", basic state of welfare for individuals, liberty and freedoms guaranteed, protection of children, working towards the protection of the environment - the list goes on.

I wonder why it is people cling to such an absurd proposition as God-given morality, or even the strange notion of absolute morality at all. The false dichotomy between absolutism and subjectivism (either a glass is all-full or it is empty) with no regard to the finite and contingent nature of our existence and knowledge is necessarily arguing one huge straw-man. It's not how morality works, nor is it how morality ought to work. That ideas can change, that propositions can be debated and looked at evidentially - these are what's needed. Otherwise we're stuck with whatever morality someone decided was a good idea of a given age.

The society we live in now is very different from the societies our ancestors lived in. Our technology, our level of interactions with others, our knowledge of relationships between actions and harm, notions such as human dignity, liberty and equality, all of these are modifiers in figuring out how we ought to behave towards others and within a society.

What is considered moral has changed as society has changed. As our understanding of humanity has changed. Losing God is not losing dignity in humanity, on the contrary it gives us the ability to question and criticise and not bow down to a law because it supposedly came from an authoritative source. That one can look at the consequences for actions, that one can use experience to help decide what to value and most importantly that one can be willing to change their mind if the evidence is against them is vital to any conception of morality worthy of being called one. Otherwise we fall victim to dogma, to arrogance, to the whims of lesser people who control through fear or promises of great reward. Moral absolutes are the playthings of lesser minds who desire conformity to the status quo and to not question why.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Running Scared

Religious leaders have used their Good Friday sermons to launch an attack on what they call a recent surge in atheism.

Thousands of Christians crowded into churches this morning to mark the solemn Christian festival of Good Friday.

Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen told his congregation atheism is not the rational philosophy that it claims to be.

Dr Jensen told the congregation that atheism is as much of a religion as Christianity.

"It's about our determination as human beings to have our own way, to make our own rules, to live our own lives, unfettered by the rule of God and the right of God to rule over us," he said.

"What we're really seeing, once more [is] an example of the contest between human beings and God over who rules the world."

The Anglican Archbishop's comments were mirrored by the Catholic Bishop of Parramatta, Anthony Fisher.

In his Easter address, he said Christianity has proved to be both vulnerable and hardy in the last century.

"Last century we tried godlessness on a grand scale and the effects were devastating: Nazism, Stalinism, Pol Pot-ery, mass murder, abortion and broken relationships - all promoted by state-imposed atheism," he said.

"[It's] the illusion that we can build a better life without God."

Atheist Foundation president David Nicholls says the comments are an act of desperation by the church.

"We're not forcing anything on anybody," he said.

"Hitler, who was a Catholic, forced Nazism onto the German population.

"Stalin forced his ideology onto the population. They didn't do any of these things in the name of atheism, in fact Stalin was trained in a seminary."

In his sermon, Dr Jensen said the passion of its followers shows atheism a religion in itself.

But Mr Nicholls says that atheism does not have its own belief structure.

"The passion and vigour that Peter Jensen refers to is only in his own mind," he said.

"Because atheists say it as it is, and it's against what Peter thinks, he would have to include those words.

"Atheism is just the acceptance that there is no God, and apart from that people make their own decisions."

The anti-atheist messages come after a global convention on atheism was held in Melbourne last month.

Organisers of the Rise of Atheism conference say about 2,500 people attended the event which included keynote speaker Richard Dawkins.

It seems someone really hit a nerve. I've got to wonder though why it is that a group of people whose commonality is to call the notion of God as absurd are battling an omnipotent omniscient entity for the control of the planet. I didn't realise there was that much power in publicly professing that God is anthropomorphising reality.

I've got to say I feel sorry for the archbishop. He's got an entire belief system build up around faith in an entity that can't handle people professing its non-existence. Because really, that's all atheism entails. The implicit or explicit rejection of the notion of gods. Nothing more, nothing less.

Atheism is no more a religion than starvation is a meal. That not collecting stamps is a hobby, that rejecting astrology is a means to predict human events. That anyone could be scared of those not afraid to say in public "I don't believe in God" is beyond me. Then again, I'm not really sure what there is to be afraid of.

"The right of God to rule over us", interesting choice of words really. If I were to make a conjecture, this isn't really that we can profess publicly there is no God. It's that we don't accept the authority of the pulpit.

If as the Catholic bishop indicated, it's an illusion that we can build a better life without God, then atheism isn't a threat. And what is the alluring sales pitch of atheism exactly? "There is probably no God so stop worrying and enjoy your life". Yep, I can see why people are coming to atheism en masse with a motto like that...

If God really existed and was a force in this world, denying God would be like denying gravity. The fact that its a matter of faith that there is an omnipotent omniscient entity intervening in the affairs of humanity says so much about what they are trying to preserve.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Courtier's Reply

The "new atheists" for better or worse are now part of the mainstream discussion on the role of religion. One of the main criticisms that flows from the injection is one of lazy scholarship. The new atheists either through ignorance, intellectual laziness, or even dishonesty when addressing the question of God. They aren't engaging with theologians.

PZ Myers came up with a brilliant retort: The Courtier's Reply. And the idea really does resonate, instead of getting involved with the inner workings of the discipline, it's decrying the discipline as vacuous. Philosopher Edward Feser in a recent article has this criticism of it as an argument:
[S]uppose you confront a New Atheist with the overwhelming evidence that his “objections” to Aquinas (or whomever) are about as impressive as the fundamentalist’s “chicken/egg” objection to evolution. What’s he going to do? Tell the truth? “Fine, so I don’t know the first thing about Aquinas. But I’m not going to let that stop me from criticizing him! Nyah nyah!” Even for a New Atheist, that has its weaknesses from a PR point of view. But now, courtesy of Myers, he’s got a better response: “Oh dear, oh dear … not the Courtier’s Reply!” followed by some derisive chuckling. One’s intelligent listeners will be baffled, wondering how shouting “Courtier’s Reply!” is supposed to excuse not knowing what one is talking about. And one’s more gullible followers—people like the faithful who have been buying up The God Delusion by the bushel basket—will be thrilled to have some new piece of smart-assery to fling at their religious friends in lieu of a serious argument. In the confusion, the New Atheist can slip out the back door before anyone realizes he hasn’t really answered the question. Call it “the Myers Shuffle,” and feel free to fling that label back at the next fool atheist who thinks yelling “Courtier’s Reply!” should be enough to stop you in your tracks.

Feser seems to be pointing out the worst possible intellectual sin, making an argument from ignorance. And Feser is correct, if someone were to dismiss evolutionary theory without understanding it there would be outrage from biologists. Yet here atheists are doing the same with arguments surrounding the existence of God.

I think Feser is making a false equivalence here, and in doing so missing the point that Dawkins et al. are trying to make. To illustrate this point, I'll once again turn to the idea ofnon-astrology.

Ignoring my horoscope
I really don't know much about astrology at all, yet I reject it for similar reasons to The Courtier's Reply. Feser's same objection could apply, how do I know that something is there if I haven't really looked into it? I'm dismissing it on principle and here I don't think I'm alone.

I would be willing to bet that most people who are non-astrologers like myself are so because they find the idea of astrology absurd. When horoscopes are printed in a newspaper, they wouldn't be checking their star sign and then keeping track of the number of hits and number of misses printed in the column each week. Instead, I would be willing to bet that most people who reject astrology have not put much thought into it at all!

Any objections I would make to astrology have nothing to do with the inner workings of astrology. I would object to astrology on the lack of causal mechanism - that in a universe where celestial objects move relative to us by fixed laws, it doesn't follow that such movements could determine human affairs. I think that any correlation between what is said and what happens can be explained by coincidence, selective bias and ambiguity.

To be clear, I am not dismissing astrology on its own terms. I am dismissing the need to argue astrology on its own terms because I think it fails the need to be taken seriously to begin with.

False equivalence
All lines of inquiry aren't considered equal, nor should they be. Just by the nature of being, there are an extraordinary number of beliefs or lines of inquiry that we reject implicitly or explicitly without digging deep into the line of inquiry itself.

Take alternative medicine and the metaphysics that comes along with a lot of it. Now as a sceptic I might suggest that acupuncture works no better than a placebo treatment. From that I would quite reasonably (in my mind) conclude that acupuncture is a placebo treatment. It's utter failure to be distinguished from a sham treatment demonstrates the causal mechanism behind the treatment explaining that it will work.

Much like the validity of acupuncture, the validity of evolutionary theory is wrapped up in the question of empirical evidence for it. If one is going to dismiss evolutionary theory without so much as an appeal to the evidence, they are making a category error. Meanwhile, if someone were to question why I haven't read about qi flows when instead I cite a study showing there's no statistical effect for acupuncture treatment then I would argue that they are asking the wrong question.

The false equivalence in the analogy Feser draws is he's comparing a discipline where understanding the fine details is central to being able to refute that to a discipline which is contended it is not important to understand those central details. That is the essence of The Courtier's Reply. The question is whether the notion of God falls into the category of valid arguments.

The validity of the discipline
Just as I would expect an astrologer to present an argument to give legitimacy to the discipline, I don't expect theists to roll over and concede they have nothing. Perhaps there is legitimacy in philosophy, that there is the necessity of taking particular arguments seriously.

Lets for the sake of argument concede that Aquinas' Five Ways are valid. Does this get us to the Christian God - one that has a keen and vested interest in our world? Does it give us a grounding for morality? Does it mean there is an afterlife? Does it mean that God came down to earth and got himself born as a man only to die and then ascend to heaven? In other words, does it follow that if Aquinas' arguments hold that God as it is known exist? I can't see how it follows.

From what I can gather, the "new atheist" conjecture is that God as an idea isn't one that is the product of logical argument but one that is wound up in the fabric of the universe and intervening in the affairs of humanity. The prayer-hearing, bible-writing/inspiring, miracle-producing, cosmic-tuning, life-creating, moral-teacher that is a real presence in the universe. And it is this God, one that is subject to the realm of science they are rejecting.

The obvious objection is that God is beyond science, and thus not subject to testing. Then what of an interventionist deity if it's beyond the realm of measurable? Claims made about God are claims about reality, claims made about God's nature come from our understanding of reality. What does it mean to say "God loves"? Can any of us actually talk about love without referring to experience? If science can measure how love works in the brain, surely that reflects on any metaphysical claim about the nature of God. When I'm told that Jesus loves me, are there neurochemical signals to the brain lighting up particular pathways in the mind of God as there would as if I was talking about loving my wife?

The arguments Dawkins et al. are making aren't philosophical arguments. They are scientific arguments, looking at how the universe works and from there (tentatively) concluding that God is an unreasonable proposition.

A weak response
I think Feser is using the Courtier's reply incorrectly there. If Dawkins did make weak objections to Aquinas' Five Ways (it was a popular book for a popular audience, though that doesn't excuse flat-out misrepresenting the arguments at hand), then it should be criticised as such. But using The Courtier's Reply in that context is wrong, the reply is to accusations of not taking theology seriously.

The argument is that the whole premise is faulty, much like astrology. One doesn't need to learn its inner workings when the basic ideas behind it are untenable. The job for the astrologer is to show that there is validity to the concept to warrant looking at it internally, and I would say that theists have the same burden. Why should concepts like theodicy or questions regarding the afterlife be taken seriously? Until that is adequately answered, there's always The Courtier's Reply. For Aquinas' arguments however, that's a different story entirely.