bookmark_borderCritics of the New Atheists

There’s a possibly interesting academic book coming out, I don’t know when, called Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal. Since I’m rather ambivalent about the New Atheists, and have some serious misgivings about Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens especially, I contributed a chapter. It’s called “The Return of Faith”; if you want to read it and give me your comments, I would appreciate it.

I have very little idea who else is going to be in the book. I did, however, stumble upon another chapter put up on an authors’ web site: William A. Stahl’s “One-Dimensional Rage: The Social Epistemology of the New Atheism and Fundamentalism.”

The title says most of it. It has some good parts, but largely it’s the sort of philosophical posturing that has unfortunately become common in some humanities and social science circles. It is little but an attempt to validate stereotypes of atheist rage and the notion that fundamentalists and the new atheists are mirror images of one another. My guess is that Stahl read his theologically-driven expectations into the New Atheist literature, and layered on the philosophical bullshit as a way of avoiding most of the substantive claims that the targets of his criticism make.

We’ll see the rest when the book comes out. I hope I don’t end up wishing I’d never got on board in the first place.

bookmark_borderAn Argument for Atheism – Part 6

Enough about Jesus. Let’s get back to God and Mr. Dawkins.

Since Part 5 was posted about eight months ago, I will review some key points from previous installments to get back into the Dawkins groove.

In Chapter 2 of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gives an argument for atheism. The argument is a chain of reasoning consisting of five inferences. The first inference is a non sequitur, but I have attempted to repair the argument by making explicit an unstated assumption (A), and by clarifying the first couple of premises:

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.
The meaning of the phrase “the universe” in (A) and in conclusion (2a) is unclear. There are at least three possible interpretations of this phrase:
– everything that has ever existed
– our universe
– the multiverse

Interpretation 1: “the universe” = everything that has ever existed

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.

B. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after something else (other than a creative intelligence) existed.

Therefore:

2b. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives no earlier than at least one million years after something else (other than a creative intelligence) existed.
The “God Hypothesis” implies that there is a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it…” (TGD, Mariner Books paperback edition, p.52). Therefore, if “the universe” includes everything that has ever existed, then it would also include every “superhuman, supernatural intelligence” who ever existed. Therefore, any superhuman, supernatural intelligence who designed and created “everything in the universe”, would have also designed and created itself!

But it is logically impossible for person or intelligent being to design and create itself. Thus, on the proposed definition of “the universe”, the God Hypothesis would be a necessary falsehood, and there would be no need for any factual or empirical evidence to refute the God Hypothesis. The God Hypothesis would be analogous to the hypothesis that there exists a four-sided triangle or a married bachelor.

Thus, it is not open to Dawkins to define “the universe” so that it includes everything that has ever existed, for as soon as he adopted such a definition, “the God Hypothesis” would be an analytic falsehood. So, on this interpretation, the existence of God would be a logical impossibility, and this contradicts a key point of TGD, which is that the existence of God is logically possible and subject to empirical investigation.

Interpretation 2: “the universe” = our universe (see TGD p.59, 81-82, 174, and p.169)

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.

C. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after our universe began to exist.

Therefore:

2c. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives no earlier than at least one million years after our universe began to exist.
Interpretation 2 seems most likely to be what Dawkins intended, but on this interpretation the truth of the assumption (C) is highly doubtful. Dawkins takes seriously, and even advocates, the view that there are multiple universes (TGD, Mariner Books edition, p. 173-174), and if this is so, then there might well have been some other universe in existence prior to our universe. But if our universe was not the first universe, then a creative intelligence could have evolved in a previous universe and then brought our universe into existence. On Dawkins’ own view that there are mulitple universes, and interpreting “the universe” to mean “our universe”, assumption (C) appears to be false.

Interpretation 3: “the universe” = the multiverse (a system of many universes, including our universe)

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.

D. The process of the evolution of a creative intelligence cannot have started until after the multiverse began to exist.

Therefore:

2d. Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, necessarily arrives no earlier than at least one million years after the mulitverse began to exist.
On Interpretation 3, the assumption (D) appears to be true (unless there can be multiple multiverses–I smell an infinite regress cooking), but then the significance of the intermediate conclusion (2d) is seriously diminished, because (2d) leaves open the possibility that our universe was designed and brought into existence by a creative intelligence that evolved in a previously existing universe. Thus, on Interpretation 3, Dawkins’ argument fails to rule out the possibility that our universe is the product of a creative intelligence.

However, if our universe is the product of an intelligent designer who came into existence as the result of a process of evolution in some other previously existing universe (that was part of the multiverse), then that intelligent designer would be a finite being rather than an eternal being, and that designer would be just another part of nature, a creature that came into existence as the result of various natural processes that are subject to scientific investigation. The existence of such a being does not appear to amount to proof or verification of the God Hypothesis, because it would be a natural being, not a supernatural being, which is one of the criteria Dawkins uses to define the God Hypothesis (TGD, p.52).

We can toss out Interpretation 1, because it simply will not fit with Dawkins’ view about the empirical nature of the question of God’s existence. If we go with Interpretation 2, then Dawkins’ argument is based on a false or dubious assumption (C), and should be rejected as unsound. Interpretation 3 avoids the problem of a false or dubious assumption, but it leaves open the possibility that our universe is the product of an intelligent designer who evolved in another universe that existed prior to our universe.

To be continued…

bookmark_borderWahhabi madness

Most devout Muslims today are in favor of science, and often even philosophy. If you press further, you may run into qualifications: it isn’t supposed to be “materialist science,” certain sciences such as evolutionary biology might be tainted, etc. etc. But at least rhetorically, most affirm science.

And then there are the Wahhabis and other ultraconservatives. You would hope medieval Islamic rulings against philosophy and natural science would be a bad memory by now, but no, these guys resurrect them.

Here are some selections from Shaykh Muhammad S Al-Munajjid (mostly quotations from approved sources). Al-Munajjid is a Saudi religious scholar who posts his rulings online.

Natural sciences, some of which go against sharee’ah, Islam and truth, so it is ignorance, not knowledge that may be mentioned alongside the other branches of knowledge. Some of it involves the discussion of the attributes of different elements and how one can be changed to another. This is similar to the way in which doctors examine the human body in particular, from the point of view of what makes it sick and what makes it healthy. They look at all the elements to see how they change and move. But medicine has an edge over the physical body in that it is needed, but there is no need for the study of nature.

. . . philosophy, as defined by the philosophers, is one of the most dangerous falsehoods and most vicious in fighting faith and religion on the basis of logic, which it is very easy to use to confuse people in the name of reason, interpretation and metaphor that distort the religious texts.

The Greek philosophers still have an impact on all western philosophies and ideologies, ancient and modern. Indeed, most of the Islamic kalaami groups were influenced by them. The terminology of Islamic philosophy did not emerge as a branch of knowledge that is taught in the curriculum of Islamic studies until it was introduced by Shaykh Mustafa ‘Abd al-Razzaaq – the Shaykh of al-Azhar – as a reaction to western attacks on Islam based on the idea that Islam has no philosophy. But the fact of the matter is that philosophy is an alien entity in the body of Islam. There is no philosophy in Islam and there are no philosophers among Muslims in this deviant sense. Rather in Islam there is certain knowledge and prominent scholars who examine matters. Among the most famous philosophers who were nominally Muslims were al-Kindi, al-Faraabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).

Acquiring knowledge may be an individual obligation, which is as much as one needs for religious commitment to be sound; or it may be a communal obligation, which is in addition to the previous and is done for the benefit of others; or it may be recommended, which is studying fiqh and ‘ilm al-qalb (purification of the heart) in depth; or it may be haraam [prohibited], which is learning philosophy, magic (sleight of hand), astrology, geomancy, natural science and witchcraft.

Mind you, this is all very medieval; “natural science” in that context isn’t exactly what we have in mind today. But this is the basis by which these scholars reach modern rulings. In this case, a ruling concerning studying philosophy in school. Read the whole thing.

Fortunately a lot of Muslims, and certainly those who are liberal-minded and want to make some kind of peace with the modern world, think all this is madness. Unfortunately, these Saudi scholars also have a lot of resources to spread their views, and so they enjoy some significant influence among Muslims.

bookmark_borderRebellious spirits

A common theme in conservative apologetics is that atheists fundamentally disbelieve as an act of rebellion. Infidels don’t have any real reason to doubt, god forbid, so there must be some psychological pathology or moral depravity behind it all.

There is some point to this accusation, I suppose. The conservative Christian or Muslim God often comes across as a disagreeable character, if you have a certain kind of temperament. I have to admit that the Biblical or Quranic God, especially as presented by conservative traditions, seems to me to be an arbitrary, tyrannical sort of authority. Hell and damnation and a collection of asinine thou-shalt-not’s do not, for me, indicate a deity I particularly want to believe in. God is understood, very often, as a Cosmic Bully.

Apologists push this point too far when they suggest that rebellion against a moral authority is a major, even determining, theme in nonbelief. “God” is an extremely elastic concept. There are no end of variations on God that emphasize divine love rather than submission to authority. If I wanted a notion of God that fit my rebellious temperament better, I would not have much difficulty. These days, I could just custom-design a God if I so desired. If I dressed up my notion of the divine in enough philosophical cant I could even call myself a theologian.

Still, I’ll grant that I am not the sort of person who takes well to obedience and authority. As a good modern person, I can be administered well enough; I don’t give my department chair or dean an unusual number of headaches. But I don’t particularly recognize superiors who are entitled to give me orders. In that sense, I have too much ego.

So yes, I imagine conservative apologists do face an extra hurdle when they try to convert a prideful, rebellious bastard such as myself. They’re not selling a particularly attractive package. But at best, this reminds me to attempt to hold back my distaste when examining whatever reasons they put forth for their version of God. I still end up thinking that their reasoning is, by and large, poor. And I also refuse to be bullied into thinking that I therefore must be so rebellious, so full of pride, so depraved that I’m blind to evidence of their God.

Now, I might still concede that my tendency to look for reasoning and evidence reflects a temperament that is not entirely comfortable with cosmic authorities. Perhaps this is so. I just don’t do leaps of faith. The idea of submitting to some authority with no reason does offend my self-conception. It violates a sense of independence, of self-sufficiency, that I prize. And I suppose that the sort of religious person who insists that wisdom comes from our realizing our total dependence on God will see this as a willful, even depraved, attempt to separate myself from God. That, after all, is the root of all sin.

At that point, I think, the conversation ends. I can’t deny that religion is capable of becoming a closed loop, providing a standard, self-justifying answer for everything. But if we reach the point where an apologist is leaning on little but accusations of bad character and demands of submission to a closed system of thought, conversation is pointless. I’m not interested in playing that game. And if this indicates an unwillingness to stop asserting independence, well, then I guess I’m a rebellious person and that’s all there is to say.

bookmark_borderBlackford and Schuklenk interview

Examiner.com has an interview with Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, editors of the forthcoming 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.

It’s an interesting interview, particularly where Blackford and Schuklenk, bioethicists, express frustration at religious influence on their domain. The book (coming in October) should be very interesting as well. (Disclaimer: I contributed one of the “50 voices” essays.)