Thew Secular Web has just put up my review of Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination by Anthony Campbell.
Short version: it’s a good book, read it if you get a chance.
Thew Secular Web has just put up my review of Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination by Anthony Campbell.
Short version: it’s a good book, read it if you get a chance.
The Happy Heretic, Judith Hayes’s web site, is back online after an absence of two years. Every month she puts up an essay criticizing some aspect of popular religion in the United States.
I like following The Happy Heretic. I’m used to the sort of nonbelief that is common in academic circles, and I’ll never get an insider’s feel for Bible Belt religiosity. I tend to think that supernatural belief is the normal state of humans. I emphasize how commonsensical religion is, in contrast to science-based, naturalistic nonbelief. But there is also a strain of nonbelief that relies on commonsense criticism of the absurdities of popular religion and is at home in popular culture. Hayes is an interesting representative of that strain.
In a previous post (5/10/08), I began to examine a definition of “miracle” put forward by Richard Purtill in his essay “Defining Miracles” (Defense of Miracles, IVP, 1997):
A miracle is an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history. (p. 72)
I objected to condition (5) because it assumes an unappealing view of God. The Bible often portrays God as being self-centered and overly concerned about what human beings think about him. Although this characterization of God derives from the Bible, it is not in keeping with the concept of God as a perfectly good person. So, condition (5) is not an acceptable requirement for the application of the term “miracle”.
Condition (5) Makes the Concept of a Miracle Subjective
Another problem with condition (5) is that it makes the concept of a miracle subjective, because it makes the determination of whether a particular divine intervention should count as a miracle dependent on the beliefs and attitudes of the people who happen to have observed the event.
If God produces event E for the purpose of obtaining result R, then it is presumably the case that result R in fact occurs. That is because God is all-knowing, so God knows in advance whether producing event E will in fact have result R. If God intervenes in the world “for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history”, then that event will indeed have the effect of showing that God has acted in history. Therefore, if Purtill’s definition is correct, then actually showing that God has acted in history is a necessary condition for an event to be a miracle.
But whether a particular event actually shows that God has acted in history depends crucially on the beliefs and attitudes of the person or persons who observe the event. For an event to actually show something it must show something to someone. If God caused Jesus to violate the law of gravity and to levitate fifty feet up into the air, and if the only observers of this event were group of three dogmatic atheists, those atheists might well conclude that they had just observed a clever magic trick, and that nothing supernatural had occurred. The event of Jesus levitating up into the air would not have shown them that God had acted in history. Given condition (5), the levitation of Jesus would not be a miracle, even though the atheists (in this imaginary case) were mistaken and the event was in fact the result of a divine intervention.
The very same feat, however, would constitute a miracle (on Purtill’s definition) if God were to cause Jesus to levitate fifty feet into the air in front of a group of religious believers who were already inclined to see Jesus as an inspired prophet or messenger from God. These believers would be likely to conclude that the levitation by Jesus was caused by a divine intervention, and thus this event would show them that God had acted in history. So, in the one case where Jesus levitates for dogmatic atheists, there is no miracle, but in the other case where Jesus levitates for religious believers, there is a miracle, according to Purtill’s definition.
Condition (5) is objectionable because it makes the determination of whether an event constitutes a miracle dependent upon the subjective responses of the particular people who happen to observe the event. But intuitively the concept of a miracle is not subjective in this way. It is supposed to categorize events based on objective characteristics of the events, not based on the subjective responses of particular people to events. Requiring that an event “show” something, amounts to requiring that the event show something to someone, and whether an event does this depends on the particular beliefs, attitudes, and mental capacities of the persons who observe the event.
Do Miracles Have Some Other Essential Purpose?
Is there some other purpose that an event must have in order to qualify as a miracle? My earlier counterexample about the starving orphan suggests the idea that a miracle is an event which is based on a benevolent purpose. If God decides to create a meal for a starving orphan child, the main purpose would not be to get some good publicity–a perfectly good person would not care much about good publicity–but rather for the sake of helping the child, to provide for the needs and/or desires of the child. This sort of purpose is mentioned in the article on “Miracles” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2007, Online Library Edition):
The purpose of a miracle may be in the direct and immediate result of the event — e.g., deliverance from imminent danger (thus, the passage of the children of Israel through the Red Sea in the Old Testament book of Exodus, chapter 14), cure of illness, or provision of plenty to the needy.
Let’s consider an alternative requirement on the purpose of an event for the concept of “miracle” to apply:
(5a) for the purpose of rescuing some person who is in danger, curing some person of an illness, or providing for a basic need of some person.
One problem with this condition is that God might choose to intervene in history in order to “bless” or to reward someone who was not in danger, not ill, and not in need. For example, if God created a horse ex nihilo for a young woman who longed to have a horse to ride but who could not afford to buy a horse, this would be a miracle, even if riding horses did not help to meet any basic need of this woman or anyone else, and even if the horse was not required to help the woman escape from a dangerous situation.
In other words, God could intervene in the world to do something positive and beneficial for someone other than helping that person to escape from danger or illness, and other than providing for a basic need (e.g. food, shelter, and clothing). Such a divine intervention would be a miracle, so condition (5a) is too narrow.
To Be Continued …
According to a paper in PLoS Biology by Michael B. Berkman, Julianna Sandell Pacheco, and Eric Plutzer, 16% of US secondary school biology teachers are creationists.
Well, 16% is a high number. Or maybe it’s low, given that more like 48% are creationists among the general public.
I apologize to everyone on behalf of physicists.
The infamous Shroud of Turin, believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus with a miraculously imprinted image of Jesus on it by some conservative Protestants and Catholics, is yet more evidence that supernatural convictions are impervious to criticism. It’s a bizarre claim at face value, and there’s good evidence the shroud is a medieval forgery. Joe Nickell, in particular, has extensively debunked Shroud claims, along with other skeptical investigators. It should be as clear as it can be that the Shroud is no miracle. It’s not even interesting to talk about any more. And yet, the Shroud never goes away.
It’s not just the popular apologists who blissfully ignore the skeptical criticism who perpetuate Shroud belief. It’s also a bunch of scientists who act like True Believers, continually coming up with far fetched scenarios about how the carbon dating to medieval times might be a result of contamination etc. etc.
And I’m sad to say that the last two times the Shroud has come to my attention again has been due to physicists making fools of themselves.
The first was Frank Tipler, who endorses the Shroud and comes up with ludicrous modern physics scenarios to validate it in his embarrassment of a book, The Physics of Christianity. Tipler has long been known to have drifted off the deep end, what with his Intelligent Design sympathies and all that. But this book turns the craziness up another notch.
The second is John Jackson, a long-time Shroud “researcher” who is a physics Ph.D. and lectures on physics at the University of Colorado. Yesterday the Chicago Tribune ran a wide-eyed article on Jackson’s latest scheme to validate the Shroud. Oh bloody hell, not again…
So, I apologize again on behalf of physicists. We have our fair share of lunacy.
I ran into a former student who once took my Weird Science course. She’s pretty religious and a creationist, and she told me that she recently watched a movie featuring Lee Strobel that she liked. It made her think of my course.
I’ve read a couple of Strobel books, and I regularly lend out his The Case for a Creator to students who want to learn more about creationism and intelligent design firsthand. It’s basic conservative Christian apologetics. In other words, intellectually dishonest propaganda. Strobel makes a point of repeating how he once used to be an atheist but then saw the light, and his trick of the trade is to go visiting conservative Christian scholars, interviewing them and popularizing their views in such a way as to give the impression that conservative Christianity is an intellectually formidable edifice. All the best science, all the best historical scholarship turns out to prove fundamentalist Christianity correct. Strobel creates this impression by being extremely selective in the views he represents, giving little indication of the fringe nature of most of his interviewees positions as far as mainstream academia is concerned. He certainly does not detail why in most of the intellectual world, such fundamentalism is not taken seriously.
And yet, Lee Strobel is apparently a big shot in popular Christian apologetics. I read this as an indication of the insularity of conservative Christian culture. Most believers who read Strobel and similar literature are apparently satisfied with such highly selective presentations. I expect most don’t know or perhaps even care about the misrepresentation of intellectual life in such apologetics. It’s enough that someone out there is doing battle for the Lord, I suppose.
Now, most people, I imagine, tend to read and watch things that they tend to agree with. Most people who read my books must be nonbelievers. But I have to say, I don’t think nonbelievers are anywhere near as insular as conservative Christians in this regard. If Richard Dawkins, for example, is an icon of nonbelief today, he may get a lot of criticism but it would be hard to make a charge of gross misrepresentation of the current intellectual landscape stick against him. And I don’t think people who own a copy of The God Delusion are quite as insular as the audience for Lee Strobel and company.
Again, note the connection to religion. There should be no surprise here: traditional communities depend on their religion for their sense of moral order. Any moral order is kept in place by a degree of coercion, and one important function for old-fashioned religion is to tell when coercion, including violence, is legitimate. And again, note how many in the community concerned celebrate the act of violence as honorable, as a cleansing, as a way to restore the proper moral order.
Is religion then a bad thing? Maybe. I don’t see that we can say a lot based on such examples, other than that since just about everything in traditional communities is entangled with their religions, their religions must be involved in whatever we praise or condemn about them. If we dislike violent control of sexuality, yes, we can assign some blame to traditional religions. If we like the warmth of tight-knit communities as opposed to modern individualism and anomie, yes, we can praise the religions that condition people to go beyond their selfish inclinations and commit to a higher purpose.
And then there is the complication that traditional religion is not all of religion. There are plenty of modern, individualistic variants and interpretations of supernaturalistic belief systems. They tend to go along with the modern, liberal moral consensus.
So if we’re looking for a secularist case against religion in general, it’s not easy to get this on the basis of sweeping statements about what kind of social order religions support. Maybe we can try to argue that there is something about supernatural belief—the attitude of “faith” is a good candidate—that tends to make it dangerous or dysfunctional too often in modern conditions. Maybe liberal religions are quasi-secular to begin with; their positive (from our point of view) characteristics come about despite their endorsement of transcendent realities. There are respectable arguments in favor of such a view. I don’t, however, think that the case has quite been made yet.
As I argued in my previous post (“Dawkins’ Definition of ‘God’ “, 5/8/08), Dawkins’ use of the word “God” in The God Delusion is idiosyncratic and muddled. I’m trying to work through the muddles in order to determine to what extent, if any, Dawkins’ reasoning and conclusions are relevant to the age-old question, “Does God exist?”.
Sense vs. Reference of the word “God” in The God Delusion
Dawkins intends for the term “God” to refer not only to God as conceived of by Christians, Jews, and Muslims (an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good person), but also to refer to lesser gods, such as Zeus, Baal, Wotan, and Satan:
Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it. For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply ‘God’. (p.56, Mariner paperback edition).
Given this broadened understanding of the word “God”, certain logical relationships hold between the concept of a god and the concept of God:
(A) If a god exists, then God exists.
If (A) is true, this logically implies that (B) is also the case:
(B) If God does not exist, then no god exists.
The derivation of (B) from (A) is based on the deductive equivalence called Transposition:
(p > q) = (~q > ~p)
“If p, then q” is equivalent to “If not q, then not p”.
So, when Dawkins concludes at the end of Chapter 4 that “God almost certainly does not exist.” (p. 189), he is implying that no god exists, including Zeus, Baal, Wotan, and Satan, among many others. This should be no great surprise, since he clearly stated early on that his attack was broader in scope than just against God as conceived of by Christians, Jews, and Muslims:
I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p. 57)
However, I have been focusing on the intended reference of the word “God” and ignoring the sense of the word, as characterized by Dawkins. Unfortunately, the sense assigned by Dawkins is not logically consistent with the reference indicated by Dawkins. This is part of the muddle that I mentioned earlier.
Consider the definition that Dawkins gives of the God Hypothesis:
I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan. Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. (p.52)
At the end of Chapter 4, Dawkins infers the non-existence of God from the falsehood of the God Hypothesis, and he does this without any explanation or presentation of a line of reasoning that bridges these two claims. Thus, it appears that in his view the God Hypothesis is equivalent to the claim that God exists. If so, then the above clarification of the God Hypothesis implies the following definition of the word “God”:
X is God if and only if
(a) X is a supernatural intelligence,
(b) X deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.
Since Dawkins does not provide any clearer definition of the word “God” in the first four chapters of The God Delusion, and since he appears to equate “the God Hypothesis” with the claim that “God exists”, it is reasonable to take this definition to be his understanding or sense of the word “God”.
But on this definition, Zeus would not count as God, nor would Satan, because neither Zeus nor Satan are conceived of as having designed and created the universe. Satan is merely one of a myriad of angels who were created by Jehovah, and Jehovah is conceived of as the creator of the universe. Zeus is at least a third-generation deity (Uranus->Cronus->Zeus), and the Earth pre-existed Zeus, so he could hardly be considered the creator of “the universe and everything in it.”
In short, Dawkins’ definition of “God” excludes many gods, including some gods that Dawkins specifically refers to, and that Dawkins clearly intends to include within the scope of the word “God”. So, the sense of the word “God” that Dawkins puts forward in The God Delusion is logically incompatible with his own understanding of the reference of the word “God”.
Proof of the existence of Zeus would either verify the claim that “God exists” or it would not. It is not immediately obvious which side of this dilemma Dawkins would choose. If he granted that proof of the existence of Zeus would verify the claim that “God exists”, then he would have to toss out his definition of “God” (as being too narrow). On the other hand, if he denied that proof of the existence of Zeus would verify the claim that “God exists”, then his conclusion that “God almost certainly does not exist.” (p. 189), would fail to rule out the existence of Zeus and Satan, and perhaps dozens of other gods.
Steven Pinker has a very good essay on The New Republic online, “The Stupidity of Dignity.” It examines the uselessness of the concept of dignity in bioethics, particularly the Catholic-inflected “theocon” version of bioethics that has become very influential in the US government.
I can think of at least four different skeptical approaches to miracle claims. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. There is no need to settle on just one approach. The best option is, no doubt, to make use of all of these approaches.
The Big Guns – AtheismThe first approach is to argue that there is no God, and thus no such thing as a miracle. One advantage of this approach is that it not only eliminates the specific miracle claim in question, it eliminates all alleged miracles, past, present, and future, in one fell swoop. Furthermore, it eliminates a number of other things that naturalists object to: creationism, divine revelation, sin (disobedience to God), divine salvation from sin and death. Disprove the existence of God, and you will have shown that the most basic assumption of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is false.
One major disadvantage of this approach is that it is difficult to disprove the existence of God, and even if someone does manage to clearly and decisively disprove the existence of God, it will still be very difficult to persuade religious believers, even intellectually inclined religious believers, that the existence of God has been disproved. Religious people usually have a strong psychological resistance to skepticism about he existence of God.
Another disadvantage of this approach is that eliminating God, does not eliminate the possibility of other sources of supernatural events. New Age belief in magic, reincarnation, supernatural healing, psychic powers, etc. can survive even the death of God. Eliminating God eliminates all miracles only if one defines “miracles” as acts of God. But what about acts of angels and spirits, or acts of a witch or shaman with supernatural powers? God is just one of many supernatural persons that can allegedly override the laws of nature.
The Nuclear Option – Naturalism
So, one might instead opt for arguing that there is no such thing as the supernatural, and thus no such thing as either God or miracles or angels or psychic powers or souls. This approach not only eliminates all of the religious beliefs associated with the activity of God (creation, miracles, revelation, salvation), it eliminates a number of other religious and New Age beliefs as well (angels, souls, afterlife, etc.). Making a case for Naturalism is a take-no-prisoners approach to miracle claims. If you are successful, there is nothing left standing on the side of religious belief.
But the great advantage of this approach has a flip-side: there is an even greater psychological resistance to naturalism than to atheism. It is hard enough to try to take God away from a believer, but to take angels, supernatural healing, souls, and the afterlife away at the same time is to completely demolish the world (i.e. the worldview) of the religious believer. That will be a very tough sale to make.
The approaches of making a case for atheism or for naturalism share a logical or dialogical feature. Alleged miracles are sure to be put forward as a counterargument to atheism or naturalism: OK, Mr. Smarty pants, you have a great philosophical argument for atheism [or naturalism], but how do you explain the occurrence of apparent miracles, like the resurrection of Jesus?
It is fair for abstract philosophical arguments to be confronted with and criticized in terms of factual and historical data, so I don’t think such counterarguments can be just brushed aside. The particular argument that one uses to support atheism or naturalism may shed light on how to approach specific miracle claims, but it might not be possible to avoid the more specific evidentiary and epistemological issues associated with evaluation of miracle claims by making a high-level argument for atheism or naturalism.
Sniper Fire – Scientific SkepticismThe response of scientific skepticism to miracles is to get into the nuts-and-bolts of the specific miracle claim, to look very hard at the available evidence, to look for and examine relevant physical evidence, to look for counterevidence, to look for inconsistencies, to cross examine alleged eyewitnesses, to look for ulterior motivations, or psychological biases in the eyewitnesses, to look for alternative explanations of the testimony or phenomenon in question. In short, scientific skeptics pick off miracle claims one at a time.
One disadvantage of this approach is that it can be very time consuming. It takes time, energy, and money to carefully investigate a specific miracle claim. The people involved in the claim may be liars or con artists who will expend a great deal of effort to deceive or to hide the truth from an investigator. And even people who are honest but self-deceived about an alleged miracle, are often going to be less than fully cooperative and forthcoming with a skeptical investigator.
The people who make miracle claims are not trained in preserving evidence, like police detectives, and they don’t usually care enough about objective proof to make a serious effort to carefully preserve physical or even testimonial evidence for a miracle. So, skeptical investigation of a specific miracle claim can not only be time consuming and expensive, it also might well fail to produce a definitive conclusion.
Another disadvantage is that there is an endless supply of miracle claims, so the scientific skepticism approach can never completely resolve the question of whether miracles occur. Even if every miracle claim to date was completely discredited, there is always tomorrow for a new miracle claim to be made. If the scientific investigation of miracle claims were a paid career, it would be a career with unparalleled job security.
One big advantage of the scientific skepticism approach is that is fairly non-threatening to the psyche of a religious believer, in comparison with making a case for atheism or naturalism. Many religious believers have doubts about modern miracle claims, and a significant number of believers have doubts about historical miracle claims. A number of Christians even doubt the traditional belief that Jesus rose physically from the dead.
Furthermore, scientific skepticism about specific miracle claims does not involve denying the existence of God, or even denying the occurrence of miracles in general. The question at issue is usually, “Is there good solid evidence for this specific miracle claim?” So, no one’s religion or worldview hangs in the balance (unless the specific miracle happens to be the resurrection of Jesus or the writing of the Koran). Scientific skepticism can take little bites out of the belief system of a religious believer, but it does not attack the basic assumptions of a religious worldview.
One further advantage of the scientific skepticism approach is that it can, at times, be very powerful and persuasive. Scientific skepticism deals primarily in cold-hard facts. So, when there is a scientific skeptical refutation of a specific miracle claim, the refutation can be rationally and psychologically compelling. James Randi’s exposure of the faith-healer Peter Popoff on national television is a case in point (The Faith Healers , Prometheus Books, 1987, Chapter 9).
Popoff was faking “the Gift of Knowledge,” making people believe that he knew the names and addresses of complete strangers by means of direct communications from God. It turns out that Popoff’s wife was communicating the information via a radio transmitter and Popoff was picking up the signal by a small radio receiver in his ear (that looked like a hearing aid). Randi and some fellow skeptics managed to record some of the radio transmissions to Popoff. Randi then went on Carson’s “Tonight Show” and played some of the audio in conjunction with video of the same event that was from a TV broadcast produced by Peter Popoff. That kind of refutation is rationally compelling and darn near undeniable. Although Popoff initial denied everything, after three days he wa
s forced to admit that he was indeed receiving information via a radio transmission from his wife.
Tank Attack – Epistemological Objections to Miracles
To be continued…