bookmark_borderMore on Theistic Explanation

The discussion following my earlier post on “the hard problem” has gone on at rather great length, and has broached a number of topics. One of those topics has been theistic explanation, and Alex Dalton and Dianelos Georgoudis have raised some points that need further argument and clarification.

First, when, if ever, would a rational atheist such as (ahem) myself be driven, “as a last resort” to admit that something is inexplicable on naturalistic terms and concede that it must be due to the immediate act of God? If nothing, in principle, would convince an atheist that God has done something, then the atheist can rightly be charged with dogmatism, with clinging to an unfalsifiable ideological infatuation in the face of any and all possible evidence. The atheist would himself be hoisted with Flew’s unfalsifiability petard!
Christian philosopher Victor Reppert challenged me in precisely this way some years ago: What would I, Keith Parsons, take as undeniable evidence of the existence of God? My reply was that if all the galaxies in the great Virgo cluster, suddenly were rearranged so that, when viewed from earth, they spelled out “Turn or Burn! This Means You Parsons!” (and if all the world’s astronomers also saw and reported this), then I would be in the front pew of the church or synagogue of my choice next time its doors were open.
Norwood Russell Hanson, in his delightful essay “What I Do Not Believe,” addresses the same sort of scenario. He imagines that a gigantic, luminous Michaelangeloid figure appears in the sky, towering over us like a hundred Everests, and booms in a voice a hundred times louder than thunder: “Woe to you unbelievers! Be assured that I, Jehovah, do in fact exist!” (This is not Hanson’s exact wording, but close enough.)
These answers were somewhat flippant, of course, but they made the philosophical point: Yes, there are imaginable circumstances where a rational atheist would throw in the towel and admit that, yes, something has occurred which only God could bring about, and which, even given our priors, we have to admit could not be a natural occurrence. Therefore we would have to admit that God exists.
But, Alex and other theists ask, would not Hanson and I be folding too quickly? Are there not possible naturalistic scenarios that could account for even such outre events, so that a truly hard-bitten naturalist could hold his ground even then? Gee, I guess so, if you had enough imagination, and were willing to go far out on many limbs of supposition and speculation. But, as I say, given even my priors, which include our current understanding of the laws of nature, the proffered naturalistic scenarios would have to be so wild, arbitrary, speculative, and ad hoc, that just conceding that God did it would be far more reasonable. In short, even for the staunch naturalist, there are circumstances in which he would admit that, given what we now know, a naturalistic explanation would have to be even more wildly improbable than a theistic one.
What about theistic hypotheses? Are they “science stoppers?” Why not regard them as we do any other hypotheses, that is, as tentative answers that are to our “why” questions, which are then to be abandoned when better answers come along? Thus, if in a given circumstance a theistic hypothesis seemed the most reasonable given our theory choice criteria, why not treat it as any other hypothesis and regard it as, tentatively, the best confirmed rather than setting it aside and awaiting a naturalistic answer?
Good questions, and the answer is straightforward: Yes, indeed, “God did it” is a science-stopper. First, as an answer to our “why” questions, it is almost completely uninformative. Theistic “explanations” can tell us nothing about a modus operandi; we can, in principle, have no way of understanding how the event was caused or what the underlying process was. There can be no specified mechanism or process, nothing quantifiable, measurable, testable, or observable. There are no known “laws of supernature” under which we may subsume the particular event. In effect we are simply told that the event was brought about by the inscrutable and incomprehensible actions of a transcendent, supernatural entity employing occult powers and for purposes that we can, at best, only vaguely recognize. Sorry. I am just not enlightened by such an “account.”
Further, historically, theistic explanations have had enormous obscurantist power, and it is small wonder that they do. Philip E. Johnson, the Berkeley law professor who is one of the leading “lights” in the intelligent design movement, has made it very clear that he hates evolution because his God has to be an involved God, one who is directly active in shaping and molding the particulars of the natural world. No distant deistic deity will do. Evolution by natural selection removes God from the detailed design of the world and, at best, sets him back from the process. When science supplants God at any level of explanation, there is furious resistance. Even now, more than 150 since the publication of the Origin, last-ditch resistance continues–vehemently.
So, no, we cannot expect theistic hypotheses to behave like other hypotheses. They don’t and they won’t.

bookmark_borderNeoconservatism and critics of Islam

Ibn Warraq, the well-known critic of Islam and author and editor of books such as Why I Am Not A Muslim, has left the Center for Inquiry to join the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative Washington DC think tank. [Thanks to David Harding for pointing this out to me.]

There is an interesting tendency for the most vociferous critics of Islam to get wrapped up in neoconservative politics. Perhaps (and I can only speculate here) this has to do with the tendency for both popular critics and proponents of Islam today to see Islam as a package deal.

Islam isn’t just a set of superatural beliefs. It’s also an intellectual orientation (even several intellectual orientations). It’s a civilization. It’s an inspiration for various species of politics. It’s a way of life shaping even minutiae of everyday experience. It’s even an aesthetic, and various other things I could get into if I wanted to extend the list.

As a set of supernatural beliefs, Islam is as implausible as any other set. As a collection of intellectual orientations, its is sterile. Critics of Islam do a very good job of pointing this out, particularly at the level of popular beliefs. Naturally, such criticism has very little effect on the popularity of Islamic supernatural convictions.

Islamic civilization has decayed and is decaying. Whether one loves Islamic civilization or has an attitude of good riddance, this is so. Islamic civilization has had its day, but Islam as a religion is just as clearly an impressive success in modern times. As a set of supernatural beliefs and conceptions of the sacred, Islam is flourishing and vigorously reproducing itself, even as Islamic civilization has faded and Muslim societies have trouble adjusting to modern conditions.

And then there is Islamic politics, from quietism to political Islam. Critics of Islam usually have serious moral objections to much that is associated with Islam, and react to Islamism in particular with fear and loathing. Many critics have extensive experience with the mistreatment of women or the scholarship that undermines notions that the Quran is a divine communication. That, however, is perfectly compatible with political naivete concerning the Islamic world. There are good intellectual reasons that neoconservatism is a fringe position among serious academic students of Islamic cultures and revivalist politics.

Islamic civilization is unsalvageable. Islamic religiosity is a resounding success, and will remain so. Islamic politics is, well, uncertain. Some variety of populist Islam (a kind of Islamism Westerners will label “moderate”) is very likely to represent the legitimate democratic aspirations of pious Muslim peoples in many Muslim countries. The sky won’t fall.

Neoconservatives cannot do anything about any of this. They can cook up apologia for various wars and support repressive policies within Western countries. (Ooooh, scary scary Terrorists). But even then, I wouldn’t exaggerate their influence. In terms of representing deep-seated power and economic interests, they’re relatively minor players.

Still, critics of Islam who think Islam is a package deal, and a threat as a package, will likely continue to be tempted by neoconservatism. The neocons represent the most vigorous, most uncompromising opposition to Islam imagined as a package deal. They voice the greatest ambitions for remaking Islam in an image pleasing to Western conservatives.

This is unfortunate. Ibn Warraq, for example, has done some damn useful work in bringing some otherwise obscure scholarship about the origins of Islam to public attention. Every scholarly enterprise can use such invigoration once in a while. But now, a more visible association with neoconservatism threatens to overshadow such work. This is because neoconservatism is, generally speaking, intellectually toxic. Association with neconservative organizations means hanging out a shingle as a propagandist. And from now on, I’ll have to be careful when I cite Ibn Warraq in my writing. His name will raise too many legitimate questions for any well-informed reviewer.