Friday, 18 November 2011


"[T]wentieth-century computer technology should at least make us cautious about laying down a priori what material structures could not do" - J. L. Mackie

God Is A Myth - Afterword

A note on methodology
The five talking points above wouldn't, at least to my mind, represent the greatest case for God being a myth. For example, the moral question and the historicity of the resurrection have interesting points to be made but require extrapolation of things that are off-topic. Without spending time arguing for some form of moral standard, criticising objective moral value as myth can be (and often is) taken as an admission of moral nihilism. Likewise the historical Jesus question is useful to the extent that it can be used to highlight the problem of miracles and the reliability of testimony.

Perhaps because Craig was the subject at hand, or more likely because I fancy myself to show Craig up on multiple levels, it seemed like a good idea to take Craig's arguments and even some of his words as a template to lay out my case. I found a transcript of one of his debates (with Dr. Tooley) and grabbed out the five standard arguments he normally uses, changing a few words to argue the contrary.

I also tried to mimic Craig's argument style, and in particular the way he uses authorities to make his point for him. Generally, I find this tactic deceptive, as can amount to using authorities as mouthpieces for his own case, especially when he does so deceptively. I did try to be fair to those I cited, and in many cases those who I've cited have played a part in shaping my position.

There were a few main points I wanted to hammer home. The first was the cultural nature of belief, and that culture can even go so far as to shape perception of reality. The second was the role of the mind in shaping how we perceive reality, and that gods are explicable psychologically. And the third was that scientific explanation has not only replaced invocations to gods, but shown why the projection of gods is unjustified.

The case for God being a myth doesn't prove that no gods are out there, God as we conceive it could exist while our understanding of God could be born out of ignorance and projection. A real alien ship landing won't stop a lot of what is currently attributed to aliens being anything other than a fiction. There may be a god, but we have every reason to think that God is a mythic construct. If we're not following reason and evidence to a conclusion, then it's taking a leap of faith - a leap of faith that's unjustified given how we treat all other mythic constructs.

What Craig's argument proves
I don't think it's an unfair assessment of Craig's debating strategy to say that he deals in superficial plausibility. His rapid fire elucidation of his cumulative case combined with a similar strategy for each argument themselves makes it seem like he has a very compelling case. It certainly makes it hard to refute in the short time allowed for rebuttal. But does the case have the powerful cumulative nature that Craig claims? I'd contend not.

Taking Craig's five standard arguments that constitute his cumulative case, only two constitute arguments for theism and only one of those is an argument - as Craig himself admits. There's a big gap between the cosmological, fine-tuning, and moral arguments, and the monotheistic deity argued for by Craig. One could accept those arguments and be reasonable in rejecting theism. There's the additional problem of whether the arguments reach the same conclusion - is the designer to account for fine-tuning the same as the creator who brought existence from nothing?

So the only argument for theism is the historicity of the biblical Jesus, and even then Craig hedges his bet and puts knowing the historicity beyond the argument and into personal experience. Here, I think, there's a reasonable case to be made that if the argument holds then it's a powerful case for theism. In the sense of a cumulative argument, however, I can only take the first three arguments as a means to create the case for the possibility of a resurrection. But again, there's the problem of establishing that Jesus is the creator of something from nothing, or the grounding of objective moral values.

His final argument about personally knowing God isn't an argument, and as such doesn't contribute to the cumulative case. Indeed, the message of the final argument is that one can know it's all true irrespective of whether there is a case. It seems that one has to follow on arguments 1-4 to establish a theistic God to be justified in 5. But more likely, since this argument is meant to be a means to knowledge of 1-4, any attempt to justify 5 through 1-4 is circular.

I think there are two approaches one could take with Craig's case. The first is looking at it as if Craig is trying to make the case for God from the facts about the universe. The second is that Craig's case depends on that experience of God. And reading through his arguments in a number of debates, I think his case makes more sense the second way. That once one accepts Jesus and experiences the holy spirit, questions about the origin of the universe, morality, and even the resurrection, are explained by God as the best fit.

So given arguments 1-3 have a gap to theism, I'd argue that Craig's case either rests on whether the historical evidence for a resurrected Jesus is compelling enough to justify the witness to the holy spirit, or whether the witness to the holy spirit is compelling enough to justify a resurrected Jesus.

Craig's use of language
In Craig's debate with Dr Tooley, he started off his moral argument this way: "For example, the late J.L. Mackie of Oxford University, one of the most influential atheists of our time, admitted, [Mackie quote] But in order to avoid God's existence, Mackie therefore denied that objective moral values exist."

Such a statement is incredibly misleading, as J.L. Mackie didn't make any admission as if it was some failing of his position, rather he said it matter of factly and gave arguments in support of his position. He started out his book Ethics: Inventing Right And Wrong with "There is no objective ethics." Nor was he holding that position in order to avoid God's existence.

Later on Craig argued: "But the fact is that objective values do exist, and we all know it. There is no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of physical objects." Again, Craig is posturing through language rather than actually establishing it. His moral argument isn't so much established as it is appealed to through his sentence structure. "Even Ruse himself admits" is putting the icing on the cake of a wholly misleading argument.

He did the same thing in his recent defence of the Canaanite genocide: "Emotional outbursts take the place of rational discussion", "So at most the non-theist can be alleging that biblical theists have a sort of inconsistency [...] It’s an internal problem for biblical theists, which is hardly grounds for moral outrage on the part of non-theists.", "If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all."

And on his original article: "Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation." Remember, he is talking about the command to exterminate infants! "Death" in this case was the order from God to slaughter children! To "die in infancy" was to be violently slaughtered by Israeli soldiers.

"I’ve had the pleasure of debating Craig twice, a number of years ago. [...] Apparently, by that time I had gotten a degree in philosophy, I knew much more about his rhetorical tricks and pomposity (“Surely, Prof. Pigliucci does not believe that...” — implying that if I believed it, I was a certifiable idiot)." - Massimo Pigliucci

Thursday, 17 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 5: Experience

5. Myth can be immediately known and experienced. In the last 50 years, calls to authorities about UFOs spiked at points in time when there was science fiction about aliens in the popular culture. Particular spikes happened around Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and The X-Files. Yet there's no hard evidence of any such craft, and the people who spend the most time looking into the sky (amateur astronomers) don't seem to spot anything at all.

Crop circles, alien abduction accounts, cattle mutilations, the Roswell incident, secretive government behaviour, ancient architecture - all of these have been taken as part of the alien accounts on earth. Yet despite the preponderance of anecdotal accounts, we have no hard evidence to think that there are aliens among us. All the accounts associated with aliens may or may not have down-to-earth explanations, but the missing ingredient is that none of these accounts have any causal link to aliens. Aliens are a hypothetical answer for our ignorance, so any new explanation that's explained in light of aliens is building on an unsubstantiated hypothetical case.

Could we make the case for God as separate from the cultural and psychological drive to answer in terms of God? A recent newsworthy story was a man who became a Christian because his mother won the lottery; yet how could he know that was God? It was like another recent, and somehow newsworthy, story of a man who won the lottery after following the advice of a feng shui expert. To take a more objective case, how do we know that the origin of life was something God did? We're left trying to establish something without any known causal link, just an unsubstantiated hypothetical.

Furthermore, how can we know that someone who claims to experience God is actually experiencing God? If someone is psychologically disposed to interpreting such experiences in light of God, then what surprise is it that they have an experience of God? William Lane Craig puts it: "If you're sincerely seeking God, then God will make His existence evident to you." Why only those sincerely seeking God? The Lord may have his reasons, but the most apparent reason would be that people who are seeking God are psychologically-primed to have a religious experience of God.

People who believe in psychics will find people with psychic powers, and even come to believe in their own psychic ability. People who believe in ghosts will be drawn to testimony of ghosts, and even see ghosts themselves. Once a belief is established, we are prone to confirmation bias and ignoring disconfirming information. Indeed, psychologists have shown that disconfirming evidence can make people even more convinced of their own position. Psychologist Leon Festinger, when infiltrating a UFO cult to observe cognitive dissonance, found that disconfirming evidence led to believers proselytising in the aftermath of the failed prediction.

With confirmation bias, our tendency to anthropomorphise, our capacity for rationalisation, and expectation and interpretation of culturally-laden patterns, what can be salvaged of a personal experience of God? Paranormal investigator Ben Radford, in his search for the origins of the chupacabra, found that the initial description matched with the alien from the film Species, and that the original eyewitness had seen the film only a month prior. The chupacabra is now the third most well-known cryptid in the world, with many reported sightings, despite the fairly conclusive fictional nature of chupacabra.

That people experience God personally who are in a culture where people talk of experiencing God personally is no surprise. As A.C. Grayling so bluntly put it: "The nature of religious belief, the reasons for it, and the reasons for its persistence are all explicable without any need to suppose the truth of any part of it."

To wrap it up, I'll give the final word to Richard Dawkins "If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings."

In conclusion, then, we have yet to see any reasons to think that God does exist, and we have seen five reasons to believe that God is a myth. Together these reasons constitute a powerful cumulative case against the existence of God. Now if anyone wants us to believe theism instead, then they must first tear down all five of the reasons that I gave in favor of God being a myth and then in their place present a case of their own as to why theism is true. Unless and until someone does that, I hope that we can agree that God is a myth is the more plausible position.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 4: Jesus

4. Myth provides the best explanation for the historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. First, a qualification. I'm not advocating the Jesus myth hypothesis; I don't particularly care about what historical truth lies at the core of the biblical account. Myth, in this context, should be taken to mean a fiction as we would the claim that Uri Geller bends spoons with psychic powers or that homoeopathic remedies heal through the memory of water.

Uri Geller was able to convince many people he had psychic powers, demonstrating his "powers" to audiences around the world. There are people who swear that mediums like John Edward have contacted their deceased relatives. People have not only claimed to witness alien aircraft, but have claimed to be abducted as well. Many people have claimed to have seen or felt the presence of ghosts. Eyewitness accounts of cryptids such as bigfoot or chupacabra abound. All kinds of alternative "therapies" have been dubbed miracle cures with no shortage of people willing to testify on behalf of a "treatment". And so on.

All these are extraordinary claims. Not extraordinary in the sense that the claims are infrequent, but extraordinary in the sense that they violate how we've come to understand the world works. A claim that someone gives a lecture at a given time might be a unique event, but if they're said to have given two lectures simultaneously in two cities halfway around the world, we have good reason to think that there's something wrong with the account. People just aren't in two places at once.

This is not to say we can rule it out a priori. Perhaps the lecturer has found a means to travel through time and can be in two places at once, or that the lecturer has cloned herself and each clone gave a simultaneous lecture. But those cases have to go up against what we know about how the world works. That people can be mistaken, that people can make up things, that people cannot be in two places at the same time. So if we were to accept an account of that lecturer being in two places at once, we would need very compelling data to be able to overcome the implausibility of such an event.

Carl Sagan, channelling David Hume, remarked that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. An eyewitness account of a bigfoot sighting differs to an eyewitness account of a bear sighting because we know bears to exist. Even if bear sightings are unusual, we have reasons outside of the testimony to suspect that a sighting did happen. If it were a sighting of a creature thought to be extinct, such as the thylacine, we'd have reason to be sceptical such a sighting. Anecdotal reports might give reason to search an area, but are by no means enough to establish the existence of something thought gone from the earth.

With all that in mind, it's time to turn to the accounts of Jesus. Considering the extraordinary accounts of the gospels, there's very little written about Jesus outside them. For someone who was meant to be God on earth, and performed miraculous events, no pagan writer in the first century even mentioned Jesus.

Take one account from the Gospel of Matthew: "And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God." (Mt 27:51-54)

It's a curious account to have included in a historical attempt. Yes, earthquakes do happen, but there are no accounts of an earthquake at this time. The dead coming back to life, however, is unheard of and contradicts everything we know about biology. This is good reason to think that the account is fiction.

But what of the gospel accounts? We're left without almost all relevant knowledge as to their reliability of testimony. Who were the original authors? What were their sources? How many mouths had the accounts of Jesus gone through? What were the motivations of the individuals involved in the eventual outcome? What was lost in translation? Were multiple accounts conflated? We simply do not have much evidence to go on at all other than the accounts claiming the miraculous.

We have people who lie to promote faith. We have people who use faith for political purposes. We have people seeing God's hand in a piece of burnt toast! And that's on top of all we know about human nature, including that people are prone to confirmation bias, embellishment, conflating accounts, misremembering, trusting anecdotes, etc. How are we meant to trust the gospel narratives in light of all we know about human nature, and the near complete absence of any data to assess such claims?

One approach to get around this problem, and the one taken by William Lane Craig, is to take the resurrection as the best explanation of the facts as they stand. It might be implausible, but it's the only explanation that can give a satisfactory account of the facts as it stands. At best, the lack of a satisfactory naturalistic account just means we don't know. But given the lack of knowledge of the situation (like any historical account), we can't hold the facts with absolute confidence. Not being able to come up with a naturalistic account of how Moses and the Egyptian sages could turn staves into snakes doesn't mean that staves were really turned into snakes.

The biggest problem with any discussion on the historical Jesus is that people have theological reasons for believing in the resurrection. William Lane Craig put it in his debate with Bart Ehrman: "[E]ver since my conversion, I believed in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of my personal experience, and I still think this experiential approach to the resurrection is a perfectly valid way to knowing that Christ has risen. It’s the way that most Christians today know that Jesus is risen and alive." How objective can one be when acceptance of a claimed historical event is external to that event? Furthermore, when the historical claim of the resurrection is at the centrality of the Christian doctrine: "if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain;" (1 Cor.15:17), how can we expect an impartial look at the historical question?

As Bart Ehrman argued in the aforementioned debate: "But even if these stories were the best sources in the world, there would still be a major obstacle that we simply cannot overcome if we want to approach the question of the resurrection historically rather than theologically.[...] this cannot be a historical claim. Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past. The problem with historians is they can’t repeat an experiment. Today, if we want proof for something, it’s very simple to get proof for many things in the natural sciences; in the experimental sciences we have proof. But we can’t repeat the experiments in history because once history happens, it’s over. [...] Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did."

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 3: Morality

3. Myth provides the best explanation for objective moral values. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Many theists and atheists alike concur on this point. For example, the late J.L. Mackie of Oxford University, one of the most influential atheists of our time, admitted, "If [...] there are [...] objective values, they make the existence of a god more probable than it would have been without them. Thus we have [...] a defensible argument from morality to the existence of a god."

But Mackie denied that objective moral values exist. He wrote, "It is easy to explain this moral sense as a natural product of biological and social evolution." Indeed, much of our moral drive is innate. Work by psychologists including Yale professor Paul Bloom has shown that even infants will show a preference for "moral" behaviour, and that we even apply our moral sense to inanimate objects.

Biologist Jerry Coyne sums up the current state of research in ethology: "Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we'd expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors." Primatologist Frans de Waal points out: "[T]he latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves." And adds: "Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good."

To think that there are any such intrinsic moral values would be absurd. What would such values be? Would anything humans do matter outside the existence of humans? More importantly, how does how we treat each other have anything outside of that interaction? The notion that there's some value of right or wrong intrinsic to our existence is a very queer one.

Yet this doesn't have the fatal consequences that the likes of William Lane Craig suggest it has. As empirical support, one only needs to look at attitudes concerning homosexuality or women's equality to see how well societies can change without any form of objective moral standard. It simply doesn't matter whether or not homosexuality is objectively right or wrong; what matters is that attitudes towards homosexuals have shifted in a positive direction without any sort of worrying about such silly notions as moral objectivity. Ethics in scientific research has improved remarkably in the last 100 years, yet no concern is given to whether or not it's objectively wrong to be unscrupulous in research.

Not having objective moral values doesn't mean that any action is of equal value, either. One would be perfectly justified in saying rape is wrong without having any notion of objective moral value. The notion of right or wrong is something we impose onto the situation. Most people, I would wager, would be content to say rape is wrong because of the harm it does, or the violation it imposes. And, really, what more ought to be needed? If that isn't enough, then what is? To come back to J.L. Mackie: "Morality does not need a god as a supreme source of commands or as a wielder of decisive sanctions. [...] There is no good reason for introducing a god even as an essential part of the content of moral thinking."

One more problem remains. Even if objective morality exists and is grounded in God, we have good reasons to doubt any claim to objectivity. On a sociological level, moral prescriptions are culturally-contingent. On a psychological level, different people espousing different moralities under the same justification. Believers who think that God is a source of morality tend to think that God's morality matches their own. From Epley et al. on the results of neuroimaging patients asked this question: "A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one’s own beliefs and God’s beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person’s beliefs. In particular, reasoning about God’s beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person’s beliefs."

The same problem is encountered as with invoking God for causation or design - even if the beliefs are true they are indistinguishable from a projection of our minds. We have every reason to be sceptical of anyone claiming that they have God's objective moral truth; because it's indistinguishable from the illusion of it.

Monday, 14 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 2: Projection

2. Myth provides the best explanation for invoking God to explain order in the universe. During the last four hundred years, scientists have discovered that what was once thought the domain of the deity has been explained without a mind as the organising force.

Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientific mind ever to have lived, argued for a divine hand in the ordering of the solar system: "For while comets move in very eccentric orbs in all manner of positions, blind fate could never make all the planets move one and the same way in orbs concentric, some inconsiderable irregularities excepted which may have arisen from the mutual actions of comets and planets on one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this system wants a reformation." Yet such ordering has now found to be unnecessary, there's a good understanding of how planets form around a star and how they hold their orbit.

William Paley, foreshadowing many intelligent design proponents, argued for design by way of analogy: "Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation." His application of the design argument to biology: "every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation."

But, as we know, this turned out to be spectacularly wrong. The organising force behind biology has turned out not to have any mind-like qualities at all, and function is emergent from the process. The great biologist and science historian Ernst Mayr put it: "Darwin taught us that seemingly teleological evolutionary changes and the production of adapted features are simply the result of variational evolution, consisting of the production of large amounts of variation in every generation, and the probabilistic survival of those individuals remaining after the elimination of the least-fit phenotypes. Adaptedness thus is an a posteriori result rather than an a priori goal seeking."

Biologist Richard Dawkins put it rather more poetically: "Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye, It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker."

Psychologists have noticed a tendency in children especially to see nature in terms of design. The phenomenon, known as promiscuous teleology, where the world is seen in terms of function. We as adults, Bruce Hood argues in Supersense, would have no trouble in seeing how one could walk down a hill, but a child would see the hill in terms of that function. Most children grow out of such thinking by the age of 10, but it can be carried into adulthood and is affected by cultural religious factors.

In addition to seeing design, it's well established that people, and children especially, anthropomorphise. Children especially have been observed engaging in egocentric projection that stems to inanimate objects. Yet this point was not lost on philosopher David Hume, who 250 years ago observed: "There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object, those qualities, which which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious. We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good-will to everything, that hurts or pleases us."

It's well established that people see and attribute agency where there is none. While this doesn't exclude there actually being agency that fits our preconception, it should set the burden of proof as needing to overcome the inherent biases in our cognitive abilities. Ghosts, gods, aliens, cryptids, conspiracy theories, even the way we treat pets - they are all testament to our mind's capacity to shape an understanding of reality in very human terms. It may be that there are other agents akin to us out there, but our minds are wired for seeing such agency irrespective of actually detecting such agency.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 1: Creation Myths

In this discussion I'm going to defend two basic contentions:

I. There are no good reasons to think that theism is true, and

II. There are good reasons to think that God is a myth.

Let's look at the first major contention, that there are no good reasons to think that theism is true. Theist philosophers have tried for centuries to prove the existence of God. But no one has been able to come up with a convincing argument. So rather than attack straw men at this point, I’m going to wait to hear any answer to the following question: What is the evidence that theism is true?

Let's turn then to my second basic contention, that there are good reasons to think that God is a myth.

Now I'm not claiming that I can prove that God is a myth with some kind of mathematical certainty. I’m just claiming that on balance the evidence is such that God is a myth is more plausible than not. Let me present, therefore, five reasons why I think it’s more plausible that God is a myth than that theism is true.

1. Creation myths explain why there are gods. Have you ever asked yourself why anything at all exists, or where the universe came from? Typically, theists have said that the universe is the creation of God. But surely this is unreasonable. Just think about it for a minute.

Creation myths are a part of human culture. Throughout human history, different explanations involving gods and supernatural agency have been passed down through oral and written traditions. Creation ex nihilo is a common feature of many belief system, including those of ancient Egypt, of Hinduism, and if many animistic cultures throughout the world.

Elizabeth and Paul Barber, in their work When They Severed Earth From Sky, talk about the Wilfulness principle. They argue that it may seem absurd now to think about a tree falling over as anything other than wind, but wind as it’s conceived now is a result of thousands of years of data collection parsed through genius minds. To the ancients, how could they have conceived of huge quantities of near-infinitesemal invisible particles acting in accordance with the fundamental forces of nature? Thinking in terms of wilful agents, and invisible agents at that, would be the only possible source of explanation.

H. and H. A. Frankfort, in their paper Myth and Reality posit: "The fundamental difference between the attitudes of modern and ancient man as regards the surrounding world is this: for modern man the world is primarily an "It"; for ancient man it is a "Thou." [...] An object, an "It," can always be scientifically related to other objects and appear as part of a group or a series. In this manner science insists on seeing "It"; hence, science is able to comprehend objects and events as ruled by universal laws which make their behavior under given circumstances predictable. "Thou," on the other hand, is unique. "Thou" has the unprecedented, unparalleled, and unpredictable character of an individual, a presence known only in so far as it reveals itself."

This doesn't necessarily exclude gods, but it does raise major problems for the idea of gods. The first problem is the sheer abundance of myths, so why should we privilege one mythic explanation above any other? Do we accept, as CS Lewis argued in Mere Christianity, that God solely revealed Himself to the Jewish people some 3500 years ago, and that the bible is the inspired word of God? That the commandment "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." is the one true instance of a correctly-identified god cautioning against all other imaginary gods?

Or perhaps, as J.L. Mackie notes in The Miracle Of Theism: "The advocate of one religion will now often allow that a number of others have at least some elements of the truth and even, perhaps, some measure of divine authorization." But this raises the further problem that Mackie immediately elucidates: "Carried far enough, this modern tendency would allow Christian miracles to support, not undermine, belief in the supernatural achievements of stone-age witch doctors and medicine men, and vice versa." He was talking in the context of miracle reports, but the same principle applies. Lewis advocated a view similar to this, but had the marker of the truth of other religions as his own.

Though, what would seem the most reasonable assumption, is that none of them are correct. That gods as explanations are sufficiently misguided as to not think of the myths as containing a literal truth about the nature of the beyond. Jerry Falwell claiming that 9/11 was God's punishment for the ACLU highlights just how it is that people can see God's hand in nature where there clearly is none.

The second problem, and the most significant challenge, is how to take prescientific ideas like God in light of modern science. As Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow put it in The Grand Design: "In the first two thousand years of scientific thought, ordinary experience were the basis for theoretical explanation [...] we began to find nature behaving in ways that were less and less in line with our everyday experience and hence our intuition." Invoking gods seem more and more archaic a thought the more that nature is understood. "Sire, I have no need for that hypothesis", the words of Laplace echoed today by top scientists of various disciplines.

Personal causation, too, has come under the lens of scientific inquiry. Personal causation isn't something removed from the physical, but an expression of it. Without the brain and without the physical systems throughout the body, it would make no sense to talk of personal causation. Thinking is what the brain does, and experiments such as the Libet experiment show that conscious awareness happens after decisions are made in the brain. As Dan Dennett pointed out in his debate with William Lane Craig, personal causation is a special kind of physical causation. Psychologist Stephen Pinker characterises this as "the mind is what the brain does".

Even if physical accounts of consciousness are lacking, there are two observational facts that really seal the relation between mind and brain. Observations have shown time and time again a link between particular brain activity and behaviour/experience. Damage regions of the brain and lose functionality. Manipulate the brain and alter experience. Out-of-body experiences can be induced with magnetic fields, as can altering moral decision making. Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland has talked of one case where a tumour in a man's brain resulted in paedophilic sexual urges. Removing the tumour meant the cessation of those urges.

The second observation is that despite all the research probing the brain, there's no indication of anything other than brain activity being involved in cognition. Descartes, when he first posited mind-body dualism, identified the pineal gland as the interface between mind and body. Yet with all the possible opportunities to find anything outside the brain, nothing has yet shown up. It may be that there's something outside the brain, but the evidence is to the contrary.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Preface

It all started with this comment from theist, and occasional Pharyngula commenter, Eric:
You may dismiss his methodology (but be prepared to pay the consequenses — think about it), or you may reject one of his premises, but let’s not fall into the trap of pretending that Craig isn’t doing some serious philosophy here.
A response to a comment of mine of the absurdity of finding personal causation at the beginning of the universe. Projecting our own minds onto the origin of the universe as serious philosophy? Yes, yes, I know... scientism and all that.

Anyway, the discussion led to me bringing my own "serious philosophy" to the table:
  1. If God is a myth, then Craig’s arguments are fallacious.
  2. God is a myth.

  3. Therefore, Craig’s arguments are fallacious.
To which Eric challenged me:
That’s fine, Kel, but can you defend that second premise as robustly as Craig defends any of his?

What will follow in subsequent posts is my defence of premise 2.
Part 1: Creation myths explain why there are gods
Part 2: Myth provides the best explanation for invoking God to explain order in the universe
Part 3: Myth provides the best explanation for objective moral values
Part 4: Myth provides the best explanation for the historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus
Part 5: Myth can be immediately known and experienced
Afterword: Methodology, Craig's argument, and Craig's use of language.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


"If religion really were a private matter, I doubt that many of us would spend so much time going after it." - Jerry Coyne