bookmark_borderWaiting for God

I highly recommend Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, by Lawrence Bush.

This is more of an intellectual memoir than a comprehensive argument, and that’s exactly its merit. Bush comes from a background where New Age and liberal Jewish spirituality are the most prominent alternatives to nonbelief, and he details the very real attractions of such views as well as explaining why he remains skeptical of any sort of supernatural reality. The ambivalence about secular humanism he expresses throughout the book is also valuable. Bush is well aware of the weakness of Enlightenment atheism in matters of community, identity, and therapy, and he thinks these are important issues to be faced.

Nonbelievers should pay more attention to thoughtful, more ambivalent books such as these, as well as fire-breathing exposures of the absurdities of fundamentalism. There are many intelligent people out there who perceive atheism as a reactive, shallow point of view, not entirely without justification. It doesn’t hurt to take them seriously and see why they’re drawn to New Age ideas that seem utterly misguided from a scientific viewpoint. Sympathetic critics such as Bush are not just more likely to get through to such readers, he can also teach a few things to Enlightenment rationalists such as myself.

bookmark_borderNot so fine-tuned

New Scientist ran a brief article highlighting Fred Adams’s work, casting doubt on the popular notion that the universe is specially fine-tuned for life.

Work done by Adams or Vic Stenger tends to show that when a wide range of cosmological parameters are varied, achieving conditions for complexity is not that amazing. I don’t want to over-emphasize this, since I think that the fine-tuning argument for an intelligently designed universe is an exasperatingly bad piece of reasoning even in the absence of such considerations. Nonetheless, anything that hammers against the utter lack of imagination intelligent-design proponents represent is helpful indeed.

bookmark_borderAn Argument for Atheism – Part 2

In Chapter 2 of The God Delusion, Dawkins gives an argument for atheism. Here is my reconstruction of this argument (see “An Argument for Atheism”, posted 7/17/08):


1. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.
Therefore
2. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives late in the history of the universe.
Therefore
3. No creative intelligence is responsible for designing the universe.
Therefore
4. The God Hypothesis is false.
Therefore
5. God does not exist.
Therefore
6. Atheism is true.

Premise (1) is a controversial claim, so the argument, as it stands, begs the question. However, Dawkins is aware that (1) is controversial, and he argues in support of this premise elsewhere in The God Delusion. So, Dawkins is not guilty of the fallacy of begging the question (unless his arguments for (1) are in turn based on unsupported controversial assumptions). This is just a summary of his reasoning, not the entire argument.

I will not evaluate the truth of this premise now; my focus will be primarily on clarifying the key terms and the logic of the argument.

Although (1) is relevant to (2), it is not clear that premise (2) follows from (1). As it stands, the inference of (2) from (1) appears to be a non sequitur. If the process of evolution of a creative intelligence started prior to the beginning of the universe, then there could have been a creative intelligence (capable of designing something) in existence early in the history of the universe, and even prior to the beginning of the universe.

One way of getting around this objection is to supply a missing assumption to the argument in order to make the inference from (1) to (2) work:

A. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after the universe began to exist.
Other assumptions might also be used to fill the logical gap between (1) and (2), but this one seems to me to be the most likely to be operative here. The combination of (1) and (A) appears to logically support or imply (2). If the evolutionary process started some time after the universe began to exist, and if the evolutionary process took a long time (“an extended process of gradual evolution”), then the end product of that process (“a creative intelligence” capable of designing something), could not appear until long after the universe began to exist (“arrives late in the history of the universe”).

The inference of (2) from (1) is still not entirely solid, even with the addition of assumption (A) to the argument. Some key concepts are vague, specifically: “extended process of gradual evolution” and “late in the history of the universe”. If an “extended process of gradual evolution” could take place in a few million years, and if “late in the history of the universe” means billions of years after the beginning of the universe, then the inference is invalid. So, some clarification in terms of quantity is needed for (1) and (2).

It took billions of years for humans to arrive on the scene (after the Big Bang), so one might conclude that any creative intelligence would take billions of years to evolve. But this general conclusion is shaky, since it is based on just one example. It would be much safer to conclude that it would take at least millions of years for a creative intelligence to evolve. Let’s increase the probability of the generalization a bit more by drawing the line at one million years:

1a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of at least one million years of gradual evolution.
A. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after the universe began to exist.
Therefore
2a. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives no earlier than at least one million years after the universe began to exist.

One way to ensure that (A) is true is by defining “the universe” so that it includes everything that has ever existed. On this definition, there could not be any process of evolution going on prior to the beginning of the universe, because any process of evolution requires something to exist; there must be something that is evolving at any given point in the process. On this definition of “the universe”, assumption (A) becomes a self-evident truth.

This way of ensuring the truth of (A) will not work, however, as I shall show in my next post on this argument for atheism.

bookmark_borderCensoring critics of religion

The Wall Street Journal has a story about a Dutch drawer of offensive cartoons, against interest groups such as religions, who has been arrested and may be prosecuted for violating a law preventing discrimination on the base of race and religion. Islamic sensibilities, as is often the case, appear to be at center stage.

I don’t know where this case will go. But I expect to see more throughout the Western world, and I think free speech absolutism in such matters will become less and less compelling to most people in such matters. The political incentive to be seen to be doing something about such offenses to public peace is too large.