Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reflections on reflections

Self-described campus minister chab123 posts his (?) Reflections-Advice on Atheist/Christian Discussions.

His first complaint, that atheists insist that "we can only use the empirical or scientific method to examine the existence of God," misses the mark. The implication is that there are all these other methods we can use; atheists are arbitrarily excluding these alternatives. He goes on at great length discussing the purported limitations and shortcomings of the scientific/empirical methods, and even throws in a swipe at the long-discredited logical positivism.

But what does he offer as an alternative? Nothing other than the scientific method itself!
I think that one of the best solutions to dealing with the issue of evidence and arguments for God’s existence is to utilize what is called inference to the best explanation. This type of explanation is commonly called “abduction” since it is a type of reasoning that is different from induction and deduction. Inference to the best explanation is commonly utilized by apologists that use the cumulative case method. In a cumulative case method, each argument has evidential value but will never lead to any kind of mathematical or logical certainty. The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. For example, since we can’t observe gravity directly, we only observe its effects. And since we can’t observe God directly, we can draw general conclusions from specific observations.
The problem, though, is that the cumulative inference to the best explanation — the best explanation for the empirical evidence of our senses, that is — is that there is no God, which is precisely the crux of the atheist argument. Apologists use the "scientific method" only by either arbitrarily excluding evidence (the "minimal evidence" paradigm) or by introducing evidentially undecidable components that complicate rather than simplify the theory.

The author claims that the theists believe it takes faith to believe in evolution (which he more-or-less accurately represents as the combination of the laws of physics, chance, and time). Theists are mistaken: evolution is the best explanation inferred from a mountain of evidence.

The author asserts that "Christian scholars have provided solid answers" to the question, "[i]s The God of the Old Testament is a God of genocide?" Have they now? I'd like to see these solid answers. The only answers that I've seen is are bullshit rationalizations that externally impose the interpretation that God is not genocidal, and assume on faith whatever ad hoc hypotheses are necessary not to explain the plain textual evidence but to explain it away. But why shouldn't the god of the Old Testament be genocidal? Maybe our own discomfort with genocide (not to mention slavery, rape, human sacrifice, wars of aggression, misogyny and sexism, and homophobia) is merely unjustified sentimentality. I don't mind too much imposing our own human moral beliefs on the Bible, but once we do so, it ceases to have any sort of moral authority.

The author sidesteps the question, "Does religion cause evil?" with a fallacy of the excluded middle. The issue is not whether religion causes more evil than non-theism, the questions are: what evils does religion — specifically the supernatural component of religion that distinguishes it from naturalism — cause? Why does it cause these evils? Can we ameliorate these evils without losing supernaturalism? Is a religion without supernaturalism really a religion, or at least an objectionable religion? (If you want to label as "religious" your desire that everyone be as happy as possible and suffer as little as possible, without assigning a supernatural justification for that belief, I have no quarrel with either your "religion" or your choice of label.)

The argument has never been that religion is wholly evil; it's never been that religion does more evil than good. The minor argument is that religion holds itself up as a moral paragon: their evils — whatever they happen to be — undermine this stance.

The major specifically moral atheist critique of religion is that a supernatural justification for a moral belief — regardless of the content of that belief — cannot be critically examined. Supernaturalism is just as easily employed to justify "evil" moral beliefs (beliefs one might disapprove of) as to justify "good" moral beliefs. No matter what your belief happens to be, once you have retreated into faith the criticism that your belief is inconsistent becomes irrelevant: God can distinguish on whatever basis He chooses; it's irrelevant that we ourselves might think the distinction is trivial or specious. God can cause whatever suffering He chooses: the argument from empathy — that the suffering of others caused by some moral belief shocks our conscience — becomes irrelevant: if our conscience is shocked, so much the worse for our conscience. If we can actually determine that religion even does the smallest evil, then we must presuppose that we can evaluate good and evil independently of religion: we can critically examine moral beliefs, and therefore supernaturalism is unjustified.

The author mentions that "I have been told that on the Ohio State campus where I am a campus minister that the Philosophy 101 class went over the God Delusion and demonstrated why Dawkins should probably stick to biology." Could we imagine a more egregious example of completely bullshit third- and fourth-hand hearsay and a pure argument from authority? And what kind of authority do we even grant to an introductory philosophy class?

The God Delusion is not book of philosophy. The philosophical arguments it contains are directed at a lay audience, not a technical or academic audience, and are rebuttals to one particular conception of God and a few particular arguments for the existence of a God. Even his one more-or-less positive argument for the non-existence of God is still addressed primarily to the conception of God implicit in the apologetic argument from design — an argument about which Dawkins has a legitimate claim to expertise.

The author is "saddened to say that one of the predominant reasons our culture rejects our faith is because of a lack of information." But is this really true? And if it's actually true, or he believed it to be true, why does he not offer any new information?

I'll tell you what we atheists want from believers: we want you to stop trying to flagrantly bullshit us. If you have faith — belief without or contrary to sufficient evidence or argument — then just say so. If you think you have an evidentiary or argumentative case, then just make it. Don't deprecate evidentialism, don't retreat to faith when your argumentative case fails. Don't try to make up new rules of evidence just to give you the conclusion you want; give us a positive reason to accept different rules. Remember: at the very heart of it, atheism is the conviction that everyone who says they speak for God is completely full of shit: if any god were to exist, it is a completely mysterious god, a god no one can speak for. And as Hume noted a mysterious god is no god at all.

1 comment:

  1. I seem to recall William Lane Craig's response to "god is genocidal" type accusations being, "he's god, and can do whatever he wants, and it's good by definition."

    Is that the kind of solid answer he's talking about?


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