bookmark_borderTheism and the Genetic Fallacy

Skeptics have long argued that the human propensity to believe in gods is due to a pervasive and potent feature of human psychology–the tendency to project human form and activity. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes, maybe the first critic of religion, noted over 2500 years ago that people’s gods looked and acted like them. Ethiopians worshipped gods with snub noses and curly hair. Red haired and blue eyed people had gods with red hair and blue eyes. Warlike people have warrior gods. If oxen and horses had hands and could fashion images, said Xenophanes, their idols would be oxen and horses. The Greek gods were argumentative, boisterous, and bawdy, not unlike the Greeks themselves. Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is just as anthropomorphic as all the others: He (and he is definitely a “he”) smites, rewards, issues orders, changes his mind, suffers from bouts of jealousy and temper, booms in a loud voice, impregnates a human female, and walks in the garden in the cool of the day. So, the gods, including God, seem originally to have been merely a projection of the human tendency to anthropomorphize, to see natural occurrences as effects of powerful humanlike agents.

Theists counter that such an argument, if taken as supporting atheism, commits the “genetic fallacy.” You commit the genetic fallacy when you conflate two questions that should be distinguished: (a) What causal processes account for the psychological origins of a belief? (b) What rational grounds are there for thinking the belief true? Just because you can explain why somebody holds a certain belief (he learned it from his mother, say) doesn’t mean that the belief has no objective truth or validity. I might be “hardwired” to think that God exists, but, nevertheless, he might really exist, as arguments and evidence might show. As the saying goes, just because you are paranoid does not mean the people are not out to get you; likewise, just because you are wired to believe in God does not mean that God does not exist (Maybe, in fact, it was God who wired you to believe in him!).

However, the charge that atheists commit the genetic fallacy is both wrongheaded and disingenuous. Sometimes, indeed, the causal history of a belief has no bearing on its credibility: I may have originally accepted the Pythagorean Theorem because my high school geometry teacher pounded it into my reluctant head, but if I can now prove it, the history of how I acquired my beliefs about the Pythagorean Theorem is irrelevant to my current judgment about its soundness. On the other hand, there are times when the causal history of a belief is highly relevant to its epistemic merits. A belief acquired by the ordinary functioning of human sense organs in the appropriate circumstances (e.g., believing that someone, Bill Clinton, say, is present because he is seen from nearby in full daylight and with nothing in the way) is clearly more credible than one acquired by hallucination. If a friend, known to be trustworthy, told us that he just saw Bill Clinton walking down the street, and we believed his cognitive and sensory functions were normal, we would probably accept that Bill Clinton was in the area. But if we knew that our friend suffered a peculiar psychological condition that made him prone to Bill Clinton-hallucinations, we would strongly discount the claim that Bill Clinton was in the vicinity. Likewise, if we identified in the human psyche a powerful mechanism that inclines people to believe in gods—whether or not gods actually exist—we should, absent strong reasons to the contrary, discount belief in gods.

The theistic accusation is also disingenuous. Everyone disregards all sorts of ideas for no other reason than that we know how those ideas came about. Suppose that there are some fanatical J.R.R. Tolkien fans out there who think that Hobbits really exist and are even combatively aggressive in asserting such. Do we have a responsibility to take the Hobbit-believers’ claim seriously? Can you disprove the existence of Hobbits? I don’t think so. The reason why nobody, or hardly anybody, takes the actual existence of Hobbits seriously is that we all know where the idea of Hobbits came from. Tolkien just made them up. If Hobbit-believers accused us of committing the genetic fallacy, conflating the question of where the idea of Hobbits came from with the question of their actual existence, we would just laugh at them. Likewise for any latter-day Zeus or Odin worshippers; we know that Zeus and Odin are products of folklore and mythology, i.e., that they are just made up, and we are under no burden to separately consider the question of their actual existence. Theists find the comparison odious, but really there is no obvious reason why we shouldn’t regard Yahweh as we do Zeus and Odin.

bookmark_borderAtheism and the Meaning of Life

I would like to add a bit more to my earlier discussion of the charge often made by theistic apologists that life must be meaningless for atheists:
An argument frequently deployed in popular attacks on atheism is the claim that atheism makes life meaningless. Without God, without a transcendent source of meaning and purpose, human life amounts to little more than the life of a flea, so the argument goes. If there is no God, then T.S. Eliot’s despairing little ditty must have it right:
Birth, copulation, and death:
That’s all of the facts,
When you come to brass tacks.
Birth, copulation, and death.
Or, as the bumper sticker put it less poetically: “Life is a bitch. Then you die.” But, intuitively, we strongly feel that there is much more to life than birth, copulation, and death, and that a human life is, or should be, far more significant than a flea’s. So, atheism, by seemingly going against some of our deepest intuitions, seems highly implausible. Noted Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, puts the argument from meaninglessness this way:
If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that flickers, and dies forever. Compared to the infinite stretch of time, the span of man’s life is but an infinitesimal moment; and yet this all the life he will ever know…. For though I know now that I exist, that I am alive, I also know that someday I will no longer exist, that I will no longer be, that I will die. This thought is staggering and threatening: to think that the person I call “myself’ will cease to exist, that I will be no more (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 1994, p. 57)!
My first reaction is that his objection seems to be motivated by a monumental degree of egotism. What possible excuse could you have for thinking that you are of such transcendent importance that you should be an exception to cosmic law and that you should survive when planets, stars, and galaxies are gone? Yes, says atheism, it is a fact: Someday the cosmos will be forced to confront the stark reality that you are no more. Amazingly, it will continue to tick along almost exactly as it did before. Your absence from the universe will matter about as much in the whole scheme of things as the removal of a single grain of sand from the Sahara. Deal with it.
The basic premise behind Craig’s argument seems to be that life is meaningless unless it is unending. What could possibly justify that premise? Why not draw the opposite conclusion and say that because life is short you had better make sure that you don’t fritter it away and instead strive to fill the days, hours, and minutes with meaningful activity? Further, the idea that all genuine meaning in life comes “from above” is not only false but degrading. Occasionally I used to encounter a tract, put out by the Campus Crusade for Christ, which contained “four spiritual laws.” Law One was “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Of course, God’s “wonderful plan” for some people’s lives is that in infancy they are burned to death in house fires. But suppose God’s plan for me really is “wonderful”: Maybe he wants me to make billions managing hedge funds and then to use part of my fabulous wealth to fund right-wing think tanks and creationist institutes. Still, shouldn’t I have some choice in the matter? What if I do not care for God’s “wonderful” plan for me? It is no good telling me that God is much wiser than I and that I should trust his plans for my life rather than make my own. I want to make my own plans—and I’ll willingly suffer the consequences of my own mistakes—rather than have a plan given to me, even if it is given by an infinitely wise and loving being. Being allowed to discover one’s own meaning in life and make one’s own choices seems to be essential to human dignity.
In general, what sorts of things make life meaningful for the atheist? Pretty much the same things that makes life meaningful for the theist: A career that makes a contribution to human well-being and which offers you opportunities to employ your intelligence, talents, and creativity; close, loving, and mutually giving personal relationships with family and friends, and even with non-human animals; opportunities to serve our local communities, country, or the global community; fighting oppression, injustice, poverty, ignorance, disease, cruelty, or any of the other many ills afflicting human life; freedom to indulge our natural curiosity and use our minds in finding out about the natural and human worlds; occasions to enjoy the beauty of nature and of art; and enjoyable pastimes and hobbies that enrich our lives. Of course, atheists do not have the same sorts of spiritual rewards as theists (We have different ones). But, then, I observe that very many theists don’t really seem to get much meaning out of their religious activities. As Mark Twain observed, even an hour a week sitting in a pew is tedious for many believers. Having formerly been a church-goer myself, I used to notice that many would sigh, fidget, yawn, check their watches, and snooze during the minister’s homily—clearly anxious that church should end so that they could attend to the far more important matters of Sunday dinner and the big game. Further, during the 167 hours of the week when they are not in church, many nominally religious people don’t seem to think much about it at all. As for those who do take their religion seriously, for many it is an unhealthy obsession, a preoccupation that permeates even the most mundane considerations. Even the devout should be able to give it a rest every now and then. So, religious belief is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for finding meaning in life, and, in fact, too often becomes an unhealthy obsession that detracts from the quality of the believer’s life.

bookmark_borderNew Chick Tract

This one is devoted to Catholic-bashing and conspiracy thinking. On the other hand, lately I’ve been reading a fair bit of conservative Catholic philosophy. There’s an argument that conservative Catholics and Chick deserve each other.

bookmark_borderGender in creationism

I was just refereeing a paper that among other things, found a slight gender imbalance among Turkish (Muslim) college students surveyed about their acceptance of evolution. About a quarter overall accepted evolution, with female students being a few more percentage points in favor than the males. The paper also had a reference to an American study from the 1980’s that found a similar result for US students.

If there is a slight gender gap here (two studies is hardly enough), well, good for the women. It is, however, also slightly surprising. Pretty much universally, women are (statistically speaking) more religious than men. But maybe the more doctrinal, text-oriented (rather than “spiritual”) nature of creationism brings more male stereotypes into play.

I don’t have much of an idea what might be happening, if anything, but I thought it was interesting.

bookmark_borderVic Reppert on Misconceptions about Atheism

Vic Reppert sent me a link to his Dangerous Idea Blog where he discusses Sam Harris’s effort to debunk misconceptions about atheism:

Vic’s comments are generally even-handed. He often takes heat from some of his nuttier correspondents for not being mean enough to us atheists, and I admire his commitment to fairness. I do have a few bones to pick, though. Below are listed some of the assertions that Harris argues are myths about atheism and atheists, followed by Vic’s comments. I have interpolated my own responses:

1) Atheists believe life is meaningless.

Reppert: Well, it depends which atheist you talk to. Sartre and Camus seemed to look at atheism as the basis for believing in the absurdity of life. It seems to me that atheism, or rather a full-blown naturalism, removes the possibility of finding the correct meaning to life. Whether this is a biggie or not, I suppose, depends on the person. The trouble with meaninglessness of life arguments on the part of theists is that you don’t want to be telling someone who finds life meaningful by, say, doing evolutionary biology, that their life only appears meaningful to them but really isn’t. Other people, however, might be psychologically disposed to be unable to find meaning in a godless world. It is natural, and not unhealthy, to crave the kind of ultimate meaning that Christianity, for example provides. It may be unfortunate, however, if it turns out that God does not exist. However, I do have trouble seeing the kind of reforming moral energy found in people like Gandhi, King, or Mother Teresa, without religion.

Parsons: Vic says that “it is natural, and not unhealthy, to crave the kind of ultimate meaning that Christianity…provides.” It what sense does Christianity provide a kind of “ultimate” meaning unavailable to the naturalist? Is it that Christianity assures the believer of salvation and eternal life? The fear of death is natural, and so, perhaps, is the desire to escape death by passing into a different kind of life (e.g., Valhalla, Elysium, heaven). Such desires are as natural as a child’s wish to be instantly grown up or a computer geek’s yearning to have sex with Angelina Jolie. Unfulfillable desires are often natural and not unhealthy, provided that they do not become obsessive. What happens, though, when you begin to “crave” (Vic’s word) what you cannot have? Either, (a) you will experience intense frustration, or (b) you will mislead yourself into thinking that, after all, you can have what you cannot. Atheists, of course, hold that Christians opt for (b) and comfort themselves with anodyne delusions of eternal bliss. Atheists hold that it is far healthier to admit the finality of our mortality and therefore to commit ourselves to making the most of this one life. It merely begs the question against atheism to fault it with failure to cater to people’s natural craving for an afterlife. If atheists are right that there is no life after death, then people need to follow atheist’s advice and courageously accept the facts of mortality.

Further, a great deal of the craving for Christianity’s “blessed assurance” is artificially created—not a product of natural desire, but of Christian preaching and teaching. Ardor for Christian salvation is best achieved by painting the torments of hell in the most lurid lights and by vigorously inculcating an exaggerated feeling of sinfulness. Today, even some TV preachers eschew hell-and-damnation preaching, preferring the Feel Good Gospel (Christianity Lite. e.g. Joel Osteen). Hell-and-damnation really works, though, as James Joyce attests in his devastating exposé of an Irish Catholic education, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. You set impossibly high standards (No dirty thoughts!) and make people feel terribly guilty about failing to meet those standards. You also represent the consequences of unredeemed sinfulness in the most terrifying light (One of the Jesuit fathers in Portrait of the Artist preaches a sermon on hell that surpasses Stephen King’s talent for horrific depiction). Then you teach that the ONLY way to relieve yourself of the awful burden of guilt and fear is to go to the priest and get absolution. For a while life is wonderful, until, inevitably, those nasty thoughts and the concomitant guilt creep back in, and then you have to go back to the priest for another forgiveness fix. By these means a lifelong dependency is created. Martin Luther called the Church a whore; a pusher would be a better comparison. Protestants, of course, use variations of the same trick. The atheist, on the other hand, decides to go cold turkey. By foregoing both the fear of hell and the exaggerated sense of sinfulness, the atheist does not crave the drug the Church offers.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in history.

Repppert: No, atheism doesn’t kill people, people kill people. And some of the killers are atheists. Others are not. It is true that atheists do not believe in the sort of deity who disapproves of these crimes and will hold them accountable if they are not punished for them in this life.Harris says that these regimes are bad because they are too dogmatic. But religion doesn’t have a monopoly on dogmatism. There are dogmatic Christians, not so dogmatic Christians, dogmatic atheists, and not so dogmatic atheists. The desire to employ the power of the state to support either religion on anti-religion is what puts you in danger of abusing that power. That can happen to you if you are a believer or an unbeliever.

Parsons: Vic is right that any ideology, secular or religious, is dangerous when it employs the power of the state to impose its dogmas and stifle dissent. I would add that Eric Hoffer was right in The True Believer when he said that extremist ideologies adopt a 100% mentality: Either you are with us 100% or you are evil and must be eliminated. When such an extremist ideology acquires political power, you have a formula for genocide and other crimes against humanity. The greatest crimes of history were committed by followers of the various totalitarianisms of the 20th Century—Nazism, Soviet Communism, and Maoism. It is this fact, and the fact that some of these ideologies were militantly atheistic, that leads some religious apologists (like Alister McGrath) to make charges against atheism. Yet atheism per se is no more responsible for Stalinist terror than theism per se is responsible for the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the historical template for 20th Century secular totalitarianism was the 16th and 17th Century Church. The Church at the time of Galileo had a Gestapo that imprisoned and tortured suspected dissidents (the Holy Inquisition), an elite, fanatical SS guard (the Jesuits), book burning and strict censorship of dissenting ideas (the Index of Prohibited Books), demonized, persecuted minorities (Jews, “witches,” “heretics”), a highly centralized governing body (the Pope and the Curia), and a policy of militant expansionism. Given this paradigm, 20th Century totalitarians had only to “improve” on the model.

3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Reppert: No, it isn’t dogmatic. But atheists can be. As I tried to argue on an evolution forum once, I think it’s absurd to make the sort of claim that atheists often make, that there is no evidence for theism. There are a lot of things in our world that are more likely given theism than atheism, and therefore there are things that you can set in the scale on the side of theism. Now I can see someone saying, when all the Bayesian calculations are done, that atheism is better confirmed than theism. But to say there is nothing to be said for theism evidentially? That’s dogmatic.We might want to ask Harris the question I once asked Keith P
arsons. “Suppose I were God, and I wanted to get you, Keith, to have a justified belief in me. What would I have to do?” Keith, memorably, replied by saying “If the stars in the Virgo cluster were to spell out the words ‘Turn or Burn, This Means You Parsons,’ I’d turn.” If Harris says he wouldn’t turn, maybe we have reason to suspect dogmantism.

Parsons: Actually, it was all the galaxies in the Virgo cluster, not the stars, but that is a pedantic point. Are atheists being dogmatic when they deny that there is any evidence for theism? Not if they carefully examine the best arguments and the purported evidence and conclude, after a conscientious investigation, that it does not amount to anything. This is what atheists like J.L. Mackie, Michael Martin, Graham Oppy, and Nicholas Everitt do. They examine what they take to be the best arguments for theism, and find that they are without merit. But to state blithely that “There are a lot of things in our world that are more likely given theism than atheism…” either dismisses or disagrees with the arguments of these atheists. If their arguments are dismissed, that is being dogmatic. If Vic disagrees with the atheists, as I’m sure he does, then tacitly admits that these are arguable points, as indeed they are. If it is arguable that there is no evidence for God, then to make that assertion, and back it with argument, is not being dogmatic.

4) Atheists think everything arose by chance.

Reppert: If by that you mean that this is a world without design, then that is what they do believe. However, is it just chance that your heart is in the right place, meaning that in an atheist universe it could just as easily be in your rear end or just beside your nose? No atheists don’t have to believe that.

Parsons: Ditto.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Reppert: Again, it depends on what you mean. If you mean to say that atheism follows necessarily from anything science might have discovered, then the statement is true. If you mean that there are no arguments from science to atheism, of course not. But before we start comparing polls, as Harris does, we’ve first got to understand if the conception of God in both polls is the same. Also, science groups are just as subject to intellectual peer pressure as anyone else. It’s not clear that members of the National Academy of Sciences are more reliable than the rest of us humans when they are operating “off the clock.”

Parsons: Had you polled the members of the most prestigious scientific bodies of 200 years ago, practically every member would have been a theist. Why the shift from, say, 93% theists in 1809 to 93% nontheists in 2009 among the most prestigious scientists? To attribute the shift to “peer pressure” only prompts the further question of the source or grounds of that pressure. Of course, Philip Johnson and the ID crowd say that a cabal of militantly naturalistic ideologues has imposed its metaphysical dogmas on science. Conspiracy theories are always fun. In reality, if you look at discussions of scientific methodology in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, you see that even devout scientists recommended a methodological naturalism. They emphasized that science (or “natural philosophy” as it was still known) have recourse only to “secondary,” i.e., natural causes, and leave discussion of the “primary” cause, i.e., God, to the theologians. The disappearance of vitalism in biology in the early 20th Century was the extinction of the last spark of supernaturalism in respectable science. I had a professor of chemistry in college who was a terrific chemist by day and a fundamentalist zealot the rest of the time. In the lab or classroom, he was the perfectly serious scientist. If you had suggested that your equation did not balance because of a miraculous suspension of the laws of conservation, he would have laughed heartily while marking you wrong. Once he took off the lab coat, however, he entered a magical, mythical, miraculous realm where snakes could talk, seas would part on command, and 5000 could be fed with a few loaves and fishes (so much for conservation laws!). I once asked him whether he actually believed in evil spirits and he affirmed that Satan and his imps hovered about all the time, seeking to tempt and ensnare us, and that, if we could see them, we would be terrified by their presence. Somehow he managed the trick of living in scientific reality half of the time and in fundamentalist cloud-cuckoo-land the other half of the time. I think that most people would have a very hard time maintaining such an extreme mental bifurcation, and maybe this is why scientists tend towards naturalism in their personal as in their professional lives.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

Reppert: They can be. I’ve met some arrogant ones, and some that aren’t nearly so arrogant. They don’t recognize the existence of anyone superior to themselves to whom they are accountable. Harris’s arguments here assume Russell’s maxim that “What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.” Why science provides us with the only way of knowing anything is not at all clear to me. Whether science is, as Sellars said, the measure of all things, or as C. S. Lewis said, a truncated mode of thinking, is the subject of epistemological and metaphysical debate.

Parsons: I’m always curious when I hear people saying that there are “other ways of knowing” besides science (broadly construed, I assume, to incorporate both mathematical and natural sciences). What are these “other ways of knowing”? Perhaps our aesthetic or ethical judgments are of a different sort than the inferences we make in science. Philosophers often make appeals to intuition, something scientists seldom do. While I regard intuitions as having some prima facie evidential value, I think philosophers tend to put far too much stock in them. Our intuitions are a good place to begin a philosophical discussion, but a terrible place to end one. Generally, when people loudly deny that science is the “measure of all things,” or say that science is a “truncated mode of reasoning,” they are grinding an ax for some form of revelation. What are the credentials of revelation? The sheer multiplicity and diversity of purported revelations makes them all suspect. As Mark Twain said, “Mankind has discovered the One True Religion—lots of ‘em.” Therefore when someone asserts with ringing assurance that his purported revelation is the one true one, and that all others are false and their adherents deluded chumps, I have to wonder who is really being arrogant here.

bookmark_borderFred Phelps Humor

Fred Phelps, Jr. is affiliated with Westboro Baptist Church, the church that stages anti-homosexual protests at the funerals of U.S. military killed in action. (In case you’re wondering what these funerals have to do with Phelps’ complaints, welcome to the club.)

Anyway, someone had some fun at his expense. Capitalizing on Fred’s homophobia, a man puts the moves on Fred. I found it mildly entertaining. Maybe you will too.

bookmark_borderRichard Carrier’s Notes on the Jesus Project

Richard Carrier recently posted on hig blog his take on a recent conference of the Jesus Project. Based on Carrier’s description, it sounds like a very interesting scholarly project indeed. One particular paragraph in Carrier’s blog made me chuckle:

Some said they were down on the Project because James Tabor was prominently associated with it (he’s supposedly a crank historicist), while others said they were down on the Project because Frank Zindler was invited to give a paper (he’s supposedly a crank mythicist). This is all rather ironic, since being down on the Project for being too sympathetic to historicity and mythicism entails a rather obvious contradiction, and belies instead the fact that the Project isn’t “too sympathetic” to either. Citing evidence that we’re willing to hear out scholars of wildly diverse perspectives only confirms the validity of what we’re doing.


bookmark_borderYou Can Prove a Negative

Philosopher Steven Hales has written an article disproving the myth, “You Can’t Prove a Negative.”

Abstract: It is widely believed that you can’t prove a negative. Some people even think that it is a law of logic—you can’t prove that Santa Claus, unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, God, pink elephants, WMD in Iraq and Bigfoot don’t exist. This widespread belief is flatly, 100% wrong. In this little essay, I show precisely how one can prove a negative, to the same extent that one can prove anything at all.