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Wed, 13 Oct 2010

Why There Very Probably Is a God - but Not the Kind Some People Want

Richard Dawkins' atheistic book The God Delusion contains a chapter titled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God." The title of this post is a takeoff on that title, but my title ends with a curious phrase. This post won't be just another critique of The God Delusion. I've already written such a critique in a set of earlier posts. In this post, I want to make a point about the concept of God - a topic that I've discussed a lot, but perhaps not enough.

Not every believer in a Supreme Being thinks of that being as a supernatural creator. In The God Delusion, Dawkins defines God in such a way that only a supernatural creator of the universe can qualify as God. Actually, some religious and spiritual teachings have embraced belief in God while also denying that God is supernatural or that God literally is the creator. A Supreme Being doesn't automatically have to be a supernatural creator.

Dawkins' chapter "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God" gives an argument for the unlikelihood of a supernatural creator. Here is my own take on the likelihood of a Supreme Being.

To start, I'll mention some preliminaries. (I recommend reading all of these preliminaries. They might not be leading where you expect them to go.)

Most of us believe that there are real values in the world. These include, at very least, moral values. We think that some events are good, while others are bad, and still others are neutral (neither good nor bad). Many of us also believe that there are real aesthetic values in the world. We think, for example, that some sunsets are beautiful, or that the starry sky or the sea is beautiful. Scientists often feel that the underlying logical structure of the universe - its harmony and its system of mathematical laws - is fantastically beautiful. Some people may argue that beauty is all "in the eye of the beholder." However, as I've argued elsewhere, the fact that the recognition of beauty depends on an observer does not imply that beauty is unreal.

People often disagree about what has value - about what is good or bad, or what is more beautiful or less beautiful. People also often disagree about the origin of values; there have long been debates about whether values have a purely natural origin, and about whether the mind plays a role in constructing values. However, most of us agree that there are real values of some kind. This central idea is more important than all the disagreements over details.

To believe that there are no real values is tantamount to believing that nothing truly matters and that no wrongdoing, however abhorrent, can rationally be condemned. I doubt that anyone fully accepts this, both in theory and in the practice of everyday life. I doubt that any thinker who claims to believe that there are no real values really does believe it, fully and in practical day-to-day terms. (How does this thinker behave? If he even tries to stay alive, he's denying his own position through his actions.) The assumption that something matters or is worth doing - which implies that there is a value of some kind or other - is as much a part of our basic knowledge as are our sense experiences. This knowledge is independent of any theory of how values work, whether values are mind-independent, or where values come from. Given that this knowledge exists, the assumption that there are real values of some sort is a very plausible assumption. We might not be able to make a probability estimate for this assumption, but speaking qualitatively we can regard the assumption as at least very probably true.

If there are real ethical or aesthetic values of any kind, or any other real values, then these values share a common property. This is the property of being a value, or of being a good quality in a very broad sense. (By "good" in this context, I don't mean just morally good. I mean "good" in the sense of having real value or true worth.)

In my earlier writings I showed that if this common property exists, then there is an entity that accurately can be described as the most perfect entity or as a supremely good being. I won't repeat the argument here; it's available at this link. I want to emphasize right away that this argument has nothing to do with the idea of a God who enforces values on people. The argument does not even prove the existence of a supernatural creator, or of anything supernatural, or of a universal lawgiver of any sort. (Those are all separate issues.) The being in question would be a vast totality composed of known natural items and their abstract logical and mathematical features. This being would not include anything supernatural, unless something supernatural already happened to exist. (However, this being is not - I repeat, NOT - just nature or the universe renamed as God. I am not proposing an atheistic pseudo-pantheism here. For the details, read the original argument.)

This line of argument discloses a being that embodies and encompasses all that is good and beautiful - all that we can admire, idealize and love. Is this being a person? Perhaps not - but still it has features normally regarded as mental and spiritual. Though not a "person" in the conventional human sense, this being is more like a "someone" than a mere "something." It even encompasses personality in an indirect way, through its logical relations with persons like us.

Is this being God? That's a matter of how you define the word "God." Let me just point out that the notion of God as supremely perfect being is much more important to the real Western religious tradition than is the better known idea of God as supernatural creator! As I've pointed out elsewhere (here, here and here), there is more than one idea of God. Most ordinary good-hearted believers seem to have two different concepts of God without realizing it. Despite this ambiguity in the notion of God, the idea of a supremely perfect being is the most important idea of God. Many Western religious thinkers have defined "God" in just this way - as a perfect being, or a greatest logically possible being, or some similar definition that adds up to supremely good being. Many (probably most) of these thinkers also believed that God is a supernatural creator, but this was not their definition of God. Most religions today involve supernatural belief, but the concept of God can exist without supernaturalism. Some theists might not be comfortable with that fact, but it remains a fact.

The existence of real values in the world - even of values with purely natural origins - implies the existence of an entity that answers to a classic definition of "God." (Once again, the argument is at this link.) However, there is absolutely no guarantee that this being is supernatural. Further, this being does not "create" the universe in a literalistic, humanlike manner - though the being can be regarded as the source of all things in a more abstract way.

As far as I am concerned, this being is God. It embodies all good, is worthy of our highest love, and (though not literally a person) is partly mental and spiritual - making it more of a "someone" than a mere "something." This is the kind of God that very probably exists. By "very probably" I don't mean to imply a quantitative estimate of probability. I just mean that the existence of this being follows from very plausible assumptions. These assumptions are the existence of objective values and of the common feature that I mentioned earlier in this post.

What does all this tell us? Just that there very probably is a Supreme Being - but not the kind that people might want. Theists might be unhappy with this concept of God because it's different from their usual personal and supernatural concept. They might find this idea of God blasphemous. Atheists might be unhappy with this concept of God because their arguments against a supernatural creator are powerless against it. They might find this idea of God frustrating.

Maybe no one will be happy with this idea of God. Except, of course, the poet who feels the presence of God in the vast meadows, the mighty ocean, and the infinitely mysterious sky. And the lover who is so awed by the presence of the beloved that only the language of the divine and the perfect can describe the experience. And the mystic who discovers in the depths of the mind a God so vast that the ideas of "person" and "supernatural" are simply too small to fit it. All of these visionaries might find this new/old concept of God more congenial than the conventional theistic one. And from the standpoint of reason, they very probably would be right.

posted at: 21:28 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 12 Oct 2010

Some Thoughts on the Ontological Argument

The ontological argument is one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. Actually it's a set of at least two different arguments. The most widely quoted version, which uses the idea that a nonexistent God isn't as great as an existent one, is by far the worst form of the argument. There is another form that is far better. I've already written about the ontological argument in an e-book with the words "God" and "science" in the title. Also, I've written a little bit about the argument in an earlier post. Here I want to share some thoughts about what this argument, in its good form, really tells us. I think a lot of the confusion about this argument comes from a misunderstanding about what it proves.

Scholars have long known that there is more than one form of the ontological argument. The argument's originator, Anselm of Canterbury, proposed at least two different forms (see [1] and [2] for details). The first form of the argument is (in my opinion and in the opinions of many other commentators) not much good. (Interestingly, this seems to be the form that atheists prefer to attack. Coincidence?) The second form of the argument does succeed up to a point: it shows that if it's possible that there is a perfect being, then there is a perfect being. (Another way of putting this conclusion is: if there's no perfect being, then it's impossible for there to be a perfect being. The perfect being is either real or impossible - unlike many other things, which can just happen not to exist.) Thanks to the work of Charles Hartshorne [2], it seems that the argument establishes at least this much.

This leaves a big question open: What is a perfect being?

Philosophers of religion have tried to flesh out this notion of a perfect being (sometimes called a "greatest possible being") in various ways. They have tried to make this intuitive notion more precise - and as with some other intuitive concepts, there's more than one way to make it precise. I won't go into all of these ways here. The important thing is that a perfect being exemplifies, to the greatest possible degree, all the values that a being can exemplify. This means, for example, that if goodness is a value, then the perfect being is at least as good as any other being. There is no being greater in goodness. Similarly, if beauty is a value, then this being is, in some sense, at least as beautiful as any other being. And so forth.

Most religious people who like the ontological argument seem to think that this argument is proof of the existence of the God they believe in. Usually they believe that God is a supernatural creator of the universe. By "creator," they usually mean a being that literally caused the universe to come into existence - not an original cosmic principle of a more elusive kind.

Suppose, just for a moment and for the sake of discussion, that the ontological argument (in its better form) proved the existence of a perfect being. Does that mean the argument supports the existence of a supernatural creator?

It does not.

The ontological argument, if it succeeds, provides evidence for the existence of a perfect being or greatest possible being. It doesn't let us take the next step, to the existence of a supernatural creator - unless we make the additional assumption that a greatest possible being has to be a supernatural creator! Even a thinker who accepts the basic argument can avoid the leap to a supernatural creator by assuming that a perfect being might not have to be a supernatural creator. In other words, the argument doesn't support the traditional theistic God unless the property of being a supernatural creator somehow makes a being more perfect than that being otherwise would have been.

Is a supernatural being more perfect than a natural being, just by virtue of being supernatural? I don't think so. Why should it be more perfect? What's so glorious about being supernatural? Couldn't a natural being (a being that's within the framework of nature instead of outside that framework) be equally good and beautiful, and equally perfect in every other way?

Is a being that created the physical universe automatically better or more perfect than a being that did not? The answer isn't obvious - but the answer isn't obviously "yes." The physical universe, as we all know, is a bit of a mess in many ways. As the traditional "problem of evil" in the philosophy of religion reminds us, we can't automatically assume that a cosmic creator (if there is one) has to be a perfect being. There are difficult questions involved here.

So, is it obvious that the ontological argument (in its good form) supports the existence of the traditional God of theism? No, it is not obvious.

Earlier in my writings (see here, here and here) I pointed out the importance of getting clear about what we mean by "God." The word "God" makes different people think of different ideas of God. Not everyone understands that word in the same way. If by "God" we mean a being that represents all that is good and that is worthy of our highest love, then the ontological argument supports the existence of such a being. (At least the argument shows that if such a being is even barely possible, then such a being exists.) However, if by "God" we mean a supernatural creator, or a supernatural being of any kind, then the ontological argument does not support the existence of "God." The argument doesn't rule out such a being; it just doesn't lend any support to the existence of such a being.

The idea of a perfect being that is not supernatural may seem odd. How can there be such a being when none of the things in nature is "perfect"? I've explored this question elsewhere (especially at this link), and I've proposed an answer. In brief: no single concrete object in nature is a perfect being, but a certain abstract object, combined with other objects, might very well qualify as a perfect being. I won't pursue this suggestion here because I've already gone into gory detail about it elsewhere. I mention it only to point out that "perfect" doesn't necessarily imply "supernatural" - and that a perfect being wouldn't have to be an extra thing besides the things of nature.

Does the ontological argument, in its logically correct form, prove rigorously that there is a perfect being? Not quite. To make the argument prove that there is a perfect being, you need a separate argument showing that a perfect being is possible. (I said something about such arguments in the e-book I mentioned earlier.)

Does the ontological argument lend support to the existence of God? No - if you think God can only be a supernatural being that literally created the universe. Or yes - if you think of God as a supremely perfect being, and not necessarily as supernatural or as a literal "creator."

Take your pick.



[1] Anselm. Proslogium. Trans. Sidney Norton Deane, ed. Paul Halsall. [], accessed 5/18/2009. In: Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook [], accessed 5/18/2009. Anselm's first (weak) and second (strong) versions of the argument are in Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, of his Proslogium.

[2] See: Hartshorne, Charles. Anselm's Discovery. (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1965), especially pp. 12-18.

posted at: 01:01 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Sun, 03 Oct 2010

The Trouble with the Supernatural

In my earlier writings I've said that I am skeptical about the existence of the supernatural. However, I've also said that I think there is a supreme being of some kind, and that humans are not only bodies but also have spiritual qualities (see also here). These seemingly contradictory opinions may have confused some people. In this post I will spell out what I think about the supernatural.

"Supernatural" is a vague word. Its precise meaning is elusive. Philosophers might want to seek a precise definition of this word. However, when most people call something "supernatural," what they mean in practice is that the thing they are talking about will never be understood as part of nature.

To illustrate this point, I'm now going to do a thought experiment. (I don't think the scenario I'm about to describe ever will happen in real life. It's just a thought experiment.)

Think about leprechauns. Leprechauns are mythical beings described in Irish folklore. Leprechauns are widely regarded as supernatural beings, especially by those of us who don't believe in them. Today, scientifically inclined people don't think leprechauns are real.

Now here's the thought experiment. Imagine that some people believed in a type of supernatural being called a "meprechaun." Meprechauns are sort of like leprechauns; they allegedly wear green, guard pots of gold, and so forth. In our scenario, scientifically inclined people don't believe in meprechauns, but some less scientifically minded people do.

To continue our story, suppose that one day scientists discover that some meprechauns are real after all. If scientists were able to confirm that meprechauns are real, then what would the scientists do next? Presumably they would begin to study meprechauns: their anatomy, their geographic distribution, and so forth.

When scientists began to understand meprechauns a little bit, it's a good bet that people would start to think of meprechauns as part of nature. We would start to think of meprechauns as natural creatures, previously thought to be only subjects of folklore and mythology but now known to be real. Like a mythical city later proven real by archeologists, meprechauns would enter the roll call of things that used to be scoffed at but that now are established parts of the world.

Even if we found that meprechauns could violate known natural laws, we still would think of them as "natural" if they were demonstrably real and could somehow be made to fit into the conceptual framework of nature. Even if meprechauns didn't obey the known laws of nature, we would still tend to think of them as "natural" if we could learn something about the laws they did obey. Even if meprechaun behavior turned out to be lawless in some respects, we could simply say their behavior is unpredictable and try to describe it using probability theory. Then we could regard the meprechauns as part of nature, but obeying previously unknown laws of a probabilistic character. (After all, randomness and apparent lawlessness don't make a phenomenon supernatural. The observed behavior of quantum mechanical particles is unpredictable in some ways, but that doesn't make those particles supernatural.) With or without predictability, we would begin to feel that meprechauns aren't supernatural after all.

This concludes the thought experiment. The point of the experiment is not (I repeat, NOT) that leprechauns or their close cousins might exist. I don't believe that they do. (Professional skeptics, read the previous two sentences before raising your poison pens against me.) My only point is this: if we did confirm that some supposedly supernatural beings were real, and if we began to understand how they work, then we would very likely start to think of them as parts of nature.

If we start to call things "natural" when we begin to understand them, then labeling something as "supernatural" amounts to claiming we never will come to understand it as part of nature. If we might, at some future time, understand a thing as part of nature, then we aren't justified in claiming the thing is really, truly supernatural. It might only be a natural phenomenon that we haven't yet recognized as such.

I am skeptical of any claim that says we will never understand something in a naturalistic way, or will never be able to view something as part of nature. Given some item that is real but seems supernatural, how can we rule out the possibility that in 500 or 1000 years somebody will discover a way to think of it as part of nature? (Consider how much our understanding of things has changed in the last thousand years.) However, if we label something as definitely supernatural, we are implicitly claiming that we never will understand that thing in a way that makes it fit into our picture of nature. The act of classifying something as supernatural says more about our current inability to understand that thing than it says about the thing itself.

For this reason, I don't think we ever have rational justification for claiming that anything is supernatural. The most we can do is claim that certain things seem supernatural, and that we don't yet have natural explanations for them.

Note that I am not arguing that there is nothing supernatural. I don't know of any way to rule out the possibility that there is something we really can't understand as part of nature. I just don't think we ever have good reason to assume there is such a thing. As we already know, what seems supernatural today may seem quite natural tomorrow.

Now here's the other part of my argument - the part that the professional skeptics won't like.

When I say that I don't believe in the supernatural, I am NOT claiming that any particular item thought to be supernatural does not exist. Traditionally, people have labeled various controversial items as supernatural. Among these items are the supreme being and the human soul. My disbelief in the supernatural does not mean that I scoff at everything people call "supernatural." I just think that if these things turn out to be real, we eventually will begin to understand them in a naturalistic way. At least we shouldn't rule out this possibility by assuming that such things are truly supernatural.

This explains how I can argue for the reality of certain spiritual things while being a skeptic about the supernatural. My skepticism does not rule out the existence of a supreme being or of the spiritual qualities of human nature - though it does rule out certain crude conceptions of these things.

A final cautionary note: By saying that I don't believe in the supernatural, I am not - I repeat, not - suggesting that there is no knowledge besides scientific knowledge. When today's self-proclaimed "skeptics" say they don't believe in the supernatural, often they seem to mean that they only believe things that can be confirmed scientifically. Their position is not naturalism, but nonsense. There are other ways of finding knowledge besides science. Philosophy and art are a couple of obvious ones - and yes, philosophy is a rational subject and the arts do yield new knowledge of reality, no matter what you've heard. These other ways of knowing can yield real knowledge that is not part of science. However, the possibility of extrascientific knowledge is a different issue from the reality of the supernatural. It's possible to recognize that there is extrascientific knowledge whether or not you believe in the supernatural. Many "skeptics" who claim to be naturalists are actually wide-eyed believers in a naive view of science - not adherents of a truly naturalistic picture of the world.

posted at: 02:36 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 01 Oct 2010

Let's Change the Subject and Talk About...Snails!

Back in 2008 when I started this blog, I said I planned to write about politics, religion, science, snails, and more. Well, I've covered all these topics but one - snails. So here's a post with the most interesting snail news that I've run across recently on the web.

  • The World Snail Racing Championship was held in July 2010. For information on the outcome, see this story.
  • A new, potent anti-pain drug, based on snail venom, is in the works.
  • An amateur scientist may have discovered a homing instinct in snails.
  • An artist in London did a project involving painting on live snails. Wow! That project really explores the boundaries of art media. (This story was dated 2008, so it isn't new news, but it's news to me.)

I've always found mollusks, and especially snails, to be rather interesting animals. These stories didn't change my opinion!

posted at: 00:01 | path: /nature | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 30 Sep 2010

Announcing Sharlow's Scratchpad

My website has a new area where you can find some of my writings. I call this area "Sharlow's Scratchpad."

I plan to use the Scratchpad to post notes and drafts that are too tentative or rough to put on my blog, and ideas that are too speculative for other parts of my site. If you like this blog, you'll probably like the Scratchpad too. Here's the link.

posted at: 23:46 | path: /general | persistent link to this entry

Sun, 02 May 2010

How Real Spiritual Experience Might Work

There is such a thing as real spiritual experience. This has almost nothing to do with so-called "religious" experiences that involve seeing beings with physical forms (like angels or demons) or hearing voices or sounds from alleged heavenly beings. These so-called "religious" experiences are best explained in terms of psychology. We cannot trust these experiences. Real spiritual experience is something entirely different.

A real spiritual experience is not an experience of alleged beings or objects that normally are invisible. Instead, it is an experience of properties and relationships of objects. Here are a few examples.

  • A nature poet is gazing upon a mountain landscape, and suddenly perceives the woods, land, and rivers as divine. This poet is not seeing any new objects besides the known objects in nature. Instead, the poet is perceiving a new quality of things - a quality of divineness or sacredness, perhaps best described as a supreme goodness and beauty that can be felt.
  • A religious mystic has an overwhelming impression that all things are one. This mystic is not seeing or hearing any new things besides the objects she already knows about. Instead, she is simply seeing old objects in a new way - noticing the unity, inseparability, and sameness among them, instead of focusing on the differences.
  • A poet gazes upon his beloved, and sees in her the pinnacle of inner beauty and the very meaning of existence. This poet is not seeing any new items besides the human being before him. Instead, he is noticing qualities in that person, and a relation between that person and the whole of existence, that are impossible to know without being in a poetically inspired state of mind.
  • An Eastern monk, deep in meditation, suddenly perceives the visible world as empty and void. This meditator is not noticing any additional objects besides the ones in the visible world. Instead, he is noticing a set of qualities in those objects - qualities which, in everyday life, often get ignored. All objects in our familiar world are, in a way, flimsy. They are temporary and are dependent on other things; they are small compared to the whole of existence. Normally we notice the solidity and durability of objects - "positive" qualities. We tend to ignore the other, "negative" qualities. However, an observer in a certain frame of mind may be acutely aware of the negative qualities and unaware of their opposites - making familiar objects seem like insubstantial phantoms. Our normal, "positive" perspective is right - but this other, "negative" perspective also is right. The two perspectives just emphasize different aspects of things.

In each of these examples - those of the nature poet, the religious mystic, the romantic poet, and the meditator - a special experience occurs. In each of these experiences, what is important is the perception of new qualities and relations. All of these experiences can occur without the perception of any new particular objects. One doesn't have to see angels or devils or hear supernatural voices to have these experiences. Some people might not want to call these four examples "religious experiences." Yet there is no doubt that these experiences are "spiritual" in a broad, nonsectarian, and true sense of that word.

Do these real spiritual experiences prove the existence of the supernatural? Perhaps not - but they prove something far better.

We can't infer the existence of the supernatural from these experiences. Why? Because the qualities and relations disclosed in the experiences may, for all we know, fit into the framework of nature. Even if we don't currently know how to understand them as part of nature, we have no compelling reason to assume that this can't be done. (Labeling something "supernatural" is always a questionable move, because we can't know in advance that the "supernatural" thing won't someday be viewed as part of nature.) Therefore, these spiritual experiences don't settle the question of the reality of the supernatural. What these experiences do prove is that there are qualities and relations in the world that aren't part of our normal, everyday experience. To put it bluntly, the natural world has spiritual qualities as well as physical ones - and spiritual experience attests to the existence of these qualities, whether or not we believe in the supernatural or in religion.

In other words, spiritual experiences establish the reality of the spiritual features of the world. They do not tell us whether those features are natural or supernatural - so they don't rule out either naturalism or supernaturalism. (We might still be able to learn something from so-called experiences of the supernatural, even if we don't believe the experiences. I'll discuss that possibility in a footnote [1]).

The big question about these experiences is whether the qualities and relations they disclose are real. I've already presented my detailed answer to this question elsewhere (here and here), so I'll just summarize it here. The question really is two questions:

  1. Are these qualities and relations themselves real? (For example: is the quality of ultimate beauty, which the nature poet found in a natural landscape, a real quality? Is there really such a quality, or is this quality merely illusory?) [2]
  2. If the qualities and relations themselves are real, do things really have these qualities and relations? (For example: does the natural landscape, in which the nature poet found ultimate beauty, really have the quality of ultimate beauty? Or does it only seem to have that quality?)

Here are the short answers:

  1. Yes, these qualities and relations are real. At least they are as real as all familiar qualities and relations. Even if people experience these qualities and relations only in certain mental states, the qualities and relations themselves still are real.
  2. Yes, things really have these qualities and relations. The fact that you have to be in a certain mental state to perceive the qualities and relations doesn't change this in the least. Qualities like beauty and meaning are observer-dependent qualities. There is nothing fishy about such qualities; scientists often use other qualities of this kind, though not under that name. Observer-dependent qualities and relations can be important features of the world.

For the long answers, and the rational arguments supporting them, see here and here.

(Someone might want to argue that there are real spiritual experiences of other kinds besides the ones I have described here. I haven't ruled this out; I'm not going to comment on this question one way or the other. The class of experiences I have described here seems to encompass the most important kinds of spiritual experience.)

The upshot of all this is that some spiritual experiences are trustworthy. These experiences can be used as a way of knowing spiritual realities. The spiritual realities we find in this way are not supernatural (or at least we have no compelling reason to think that they are). Instead, they are features of the natural world - every bit as real as more familiar features, like the mass of the electron or the liquidity of water.

This means that many of the central insights of the nature mystics, religious mystics, and visionary poets are right. Like all thinkers, these visionaries made mistakes - especially when they went beyond their data and assumed their experiences were supernatural. However, these mistakes do not shed any doubt on these thinkers' greatest contribution: the exploration of the spiritual features that the human mind can discover in the world.



[1] It's possible that a person having a superficial "religious" vision, like seeing a physical angel with wings, might feel the presence of real spiritual qualities in that imagined being. In this case, the superficial experience is hallucinatory, but a real spiritual experience is occurring at the same time. The idea of an imaginary being - perhaps best understood as an abstraction similar to a character in a story - might serve as the basis for a real spiritual experience. This, I think, is what happens with those religious poets who have poetic insights but also have visions of beings with forms. The hallucinatory nature of the visions doesn't invalidate the spiritual experience - but we should be careful to separate the real experience from the untrustworthy part.

[2] In this post I am deliberately avoiding the old philosophical debate about the reality of qualities and relations. As I've said before in several places, I think we should consider qualities and relations real, though not in the same way that concrete objects are real. However, this debate doesn't make or break the present post. For now, the important issue is whether spiritual qualities and relations "exist" in the same sense that we have in mind when we say that familiar qualities and relations "exist."

posted at: 23:09 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Mind Is to Brain as Digestion Is to Digestive Tract. Oh, Really?

There is an old philosophical chestnut that says that the mind is to the brain as digestion is to the digestive tract. The underlying thought is clear: why should we regard the mind as something "special," over and above the brain, when we wouldn't regard digestion as something over and above the digestive organs?

The best reply to this chestnut is simple but surprising: digestion is something over and above the digestive tract. Your digestion - what you refer to when you say things like "I have a slow digestion" or "my digestion is good today" - is not merely part of your digestive tract. Instead, it is a feature of your digestive tract. It is what philosophers call an abstract entity. A feature of a thing is not identical to the thing. Thus, your digestion is not identical to your digestive tract - for the same reason that the mass of an electron is not the same as an electron, or that the shape of a window is not the same item as the window.

The reason the digestion-digestive tract difference is unlike the mind-brain difference is that nothing interesting follows from the digestion-digestive tract difference. The fact that the digestion is different from the digestive tract doesn't tell us anything new about the nature of digestion or of ourselves. It tells us no more than we already know when we admit that the shape of a window is not identical to the window. It is a near-trivial logical fact.

However, in the case of the mind (which is a feature or set of features of the brain), the difference between mind and brain does imply something interesting. Unlike digestion, the mind is associated in a distinctive way with a large domain of other abstract entities. These other entities are the contents of consciousness, which make up what we think of as our inner world. The fact that we possess this inner, abstract "world" has a drastic bearing on who we are as individuals and as a species. It makes the difference between a conscious observer and a mere nonconscious thing. Once we face the fact that this inner world exists, we realize that minds and selves are not just lumps of matter, even if they are only features of the brain. What is more, we cannot understand the mind without taking the inner world into account. If we ignore the contents of consciousness, we miss what is most essential to the mind.

With digestion it is different. Once we know the physical mechanisms of digestion, there is essentially nothing left to understand about the nature of digestion. Even if we admit that digestion is something distinct from the digestive tract, this fact doesn't help us understand digestion. We learn no more that way than we already knew when we realized that the mass of an electron is not an electron, or the color of a stone is not the same as the stone. The distinctness of digestion from digestive tract is, as I have said, a near-trivial logical fact. However, if we don't pay attention to the complex abstract features of the brain (specifically mental contents), then we don't really have any idea of what a mind is. We miss the important aspects of the mind.

This, in brief, is why the old analogy between digestion and mind fails.

The same argument works against any analogy that says "Why should I think my mind is distinct from my brain, when my [fill in name of body function] isn't distinct from my [fill in name of organ]?" The analogy fails for the same reasons.

posted at: 23:04 | path: /mind | persistent link to this entry

Sat, 01 May 2010

Am I Really Defending Religion?

Some readers of my writings might wonder whether I am defending religion or attacking it. I can see how someone might be unsure about this.

On the one hand, I have argued that the cosmos has a spiritual aspect - an aspect that is real, not merely imaginary. On the other hand, I am doubtful about anything labeled "supernatural."

On the one hand, I have criticized several common religious beliefs, and I rely on reason instead of faith to support my opinions. On the other hand, I have said that the essential truths of religion are valid and should be preserved.

On the one hand, I have argued that there is an ultimate being that can sensibly be called "God." On the other hand, I have said that I don't fit the definition of a "theist."

So, which am I - a defender of religion, or a critic?

The answer is that I am a defender of what is true and sensible in all religions, but a critic of the mistakes made in the name of religion. Religion, like all human institutions, is full of errors that result from human folly. Some of what passes for "religion" today is half true at best, sheer superstition at worst. However, that doesn't mean that religion itself is bad, or that religion can't change for the better. I disagree fervently with fundamentalism. I even disagree with some of the ideas of more moderate forms of religion. But I am not going to deny probable truth where I find it. And often I find it in the world's religious teachings.

Here are a few of the points where religion gets it right.

Human beings are more than just blobs of matter. Our existence is something more than the existence of a material body. We have characteristics that give us worth and dignity. We even have some characteristics that pass beyond what's normally called the "physical." I disagree with many religious sects in that I don't think any of this is "supernatural." However, the religions are perfectly right when they claim that we are more than just our bodies. And the fact that our minds are products of our brains doesn't change this in the least.

The physical universe is full of meaning. It might not have a prearranged purpose imposed from outside - but still it has real meaning that is not just a product of our imaginations. The meaning of existence is much more than the imaginary, illusory "meaning" that existentialists and hardcore atheists pretend to "find" in things. When a child is saved from cancer, that event really is meaningful. It really matters. It doesn't only matter to you, and it doesn't only matter to me - it really does matter, period. Some things really matter and really are meaningful. They seem meaningful to us, but they are objectively meaningful too. Meaning is much more than a matter of opinion.

Goodness is objectively real. There are events and acts that really are good, and other events and acts that really are bad. An act of genocide is bad; an act of saving a child from cancer is good. These acts are not just good or bad in your opinion or in my opinion. They really are good or bad. Their value or disvalue is objective. What is more, the ideas of good and bad are more than just resultants of our evolutionary history. Some modern authors have claimed we have evolved a social tendency to be nice or to cooperate. Our tendency to behave morally may well have come from such sources. (After all, it must have come from somewhere - and we did arise from evolution.) However, that is not all there is to morality. There also are objective facts about what is moral. Perhaps morality was not passed down to us from above, as many religions say it was. Perhaps it comes from within us instead. Even objective moral values can be natural. But regardless of these details, there are objective moral facts.

Beauty, like goodness, is objectively real. It might seem strange to think of beauty as a religious topic. Some religions don't bother much about beauty, and some don't even seem to like it. Of course, many other religions do appreciate beauty, and religious art pervades many faiths. Beauty is relevant to all religions because it is an important part of the meaning of existence - and because some of the more interesting poets and artists found spiritual insight in it. Beauty is a notoriously personal phenomenon ("in the eye of the beholder" as the saying goes), but that is only because you have to be in the right state of mind to behold it. The beauty is really there; it's not just an illusion. When poets sing the glories of the dawn, the beloved, or the starlight, they are not merely expressing illusory private feelings. They are not merely creating an enjoyable combination of words. Instead, they are actually revealing new knowledge - penetrating into reality in ways that only a poetically opened human mind can do. The knowledge they gain is, at very least, knowledge about the felt features of the world, and about other ways of seeing the world that may be just as "true" as the usual, everyday ways. Nothing in this special knowledge contradicts science or reason - but poetry and the other arts can reveal knowledge that science, with its objective methods, cannot reach.

Beauty, goodness and meaning are real spiritual features of things and of the world. The universe, though perhaps made only of physical substance, is not only physical; it also has these spiritual features. Behind these features is another, deeper stratum: something that could be called the supreme spiritual reality. This is not a being outside of nature, but an all-encompassing whole, containing natural things, relationships, and values, that is the summit of goodness and beauty. It is not just a poetical name for the physical universe. You might think of it as the best and finest aspect of the physical/spiritual cosmos in which we live. It is the kind of entity in which the poet's consciousness can find its long-sought ideal.

It is this entity that I, in my previous writings, have called "God." Some believers (and atheists also) might not be happy with my use of this term. This God is not much like the picture of a crudely humanoid God that some religions hold and that atheists love to deny. Some of the God-figures of religions are unkind and all too fallible. They don't even come close to being ideally good and beautiful. But setting aside those erroneous God-images, we find that the supreme spiritual reality has the most important features of the God worshipped by good-hearted believers. The religions are right when they claim that an ideal, perfect being exists. They are only wrong about the details of that being - including their assumption that God can only be supernatural.

Human beings are more than just bodies. Existence has real meaning and contains real values. There is a supreme spiritual reality that exemplifies those values. These three ideas are among the most essential concepts of religion. As I have argued in my previous writings, these ideas have rational support. You can find them believable on rational grounds, without the use of faith. It is these ideas that I want to defend - along with anything else true and rationally defensible that can be found in the teachings of religion.

I am not the first to propose that some basic spiritual ideas are rational. In the history of thought there have been many spiritual-minded rationalists. Many noted philosophers, ranging from Leibniz and Spinoza of earlier times to the last century's Howison and Royce, knew that spiritual thought could be placed on a rational basis. One of the causes of the conflict between science and religion is the widespread ignorance of philosophy among today's scientists and believers. If religion would abandon blind faith and embrace rational exploration, and if scientists would realize that reason includes philosophy as well as science, then the degrading and unnecessary "war" between science and the human spirit might come to an end.

Religion today may consist largely of unjustified assumptions and guesswork, but essential truths still can be found among the doctrines. In its ideas of the soul, objective morality, and God, religion presents us with hints of these truths. The real ideas have been covered over by humanly invented dogmas, but the real ideas still remain true. And no matter what you've heard from ranting fundamentalists or angry atheists, the basic ideas of real religion are fully compatible with reason.



For lengthier discussions of these topics, read the following documents of mine:

    Religion: the Next Version

    God: the Next Version

    Religion section of The Unfinishable Scroll


posted at: 01:49 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

The Hidden Tension Within Belief in God

There is a hidden tension within most religious believers' idea of God. Most believers hold two different concepts of God without realizing it. On the one hand, they believe that God is the creator of the universe. ("Our Maker" is one of the most common designations for God.) On the other hand, they think that God is the supremely good being - a being who is worthy of our highest love, and who, in some sense, loves us. Both of these ideas of God perform functions in the believer's life. When you ask believers who God is, they will likely say "the creator of the world." However, in times of personal crisis, they find solace and strength in the idea of a God who is good - a God who is lovable and who somehow represents love itself.

If you asked an average, good-hearted believer which of these is his or her idea of God, he or she would tell you that God is both of these things. There's no need to decide between the two, because both of them are the same being - God. But what if the believer found out that these two beings - the creator and the supremely good being - were not the same? Which one of them would the believer consider to be "God"?

By asking this question, we pinpoint the tension within the idea of God. The common idea of God is not one idea, but two. And which idea is more fundamental? If the creator and the supremely good being were not the same (or if one or the other did not exist), which one should we call "God"?

We can approach the answer by thinking about the role of God in people's lives at times of crisis. We find that the supremely good being is the more important of the two ideas of God. A soldier who derives strength and comfort from his faith is relying on a supremely good being for emotional support. At the moment of danger, the question of how the universe started really doesn't matter to him. In fact, he probably couldn't care less how the universe started. The important thing is that the thought of a supremely loving God is giving him inner strength. He might also be praying to God for a miracle - suggesting an idea of God closer to the miraculous creator. However, if he experiences a seeming "miracle," it won't really matter to him whether the miracle had natural or supernatural causes. He will see the "hand" of God in it - a sign or reminder of God's goodness - even if a natural explanation is found later on.

This soldier's idea of God is a mixture of creator and supremely good being. However, it is the thought of a supremely good being that ultimately keeps the soldier going. The same can be said for other situations in which belief in God is a help. A parent praying for a sick child couldn't really care less how the universe started. (String theory? Quantum vacuum? Intelligent act? That was a long time ago - what difference does it make right now?) Instead, it is the idea of a supremely good being that gives the parent strength. And although the ability to pray to God for a good outcome is comforting, this comfort doesn't depend on God's ability to violate natural laws. The important thing is that the required "miracle" might happen, either through God's action or with the help of the inner strength and determination that prayer can provide. To pray to God is either to ask for a suspension of natural laws, or to focus one's mind on working for the good outcome that natural laws allow - or both. Either way, prayer is a comforting and potentially beneficial act.

What is it in the idea of God that really matters to people? The idea of a creator is familiar, but it is not as important as it seems. It is the idea of God as a supremely good being that makes all the difference in a caring believer's life.

If it turned out that no one made the universe, would humanity still be able to believe in God? Yes - provided we remembered that the important part of the idea of God is not the creator, but the Supremely Good Being.

If you think there is such a being, then that being can be the focus of your spiritual thoughts and feelings no matter what caused the universe. A believer can see the reflection of that goodness - the metaphorical "hand" of God - in all that is good, regardless of whether life's "miracles" are exceptions to the laws of nature or expressions of them.



God, the Next Version


posted at: 01:46 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 08 Apr 2010

A Final Word on Leprechology and the Courtier's Reply

Recently I wrote two posts debunking two arguments by atheists: Richard Dawkins' comparison of theology to leprechology, and PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply" argument. I showed that these two arguments are logically unsound regardless of whether God exists. (The same goes for other versions of the leprechology comparison, using fairies, monsters, and the like instead of leprechauns.) In my posts (here and here), I analyzed those arguments at length and in great detail, with a logician's eye. I included a lot of detail because I wanted to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with those arguments.

However, you don't need that much detail, or that many words, to see that the two arguments in question are wrong. All you need is some logic. With the leprechology remark and the Courtier's Reply, Dawkins and Myers are pulling a cheap and very old debating trick: refusing to listen to your opponent's arguments.

It's clear why some of Dawkins' opponents want him to study theology. His opponents think that specific theological teachings and writings contain ideas that undermine Dawkins' arguments. By telling Dawkins to consider some theological points, his opponents are making rebuttals to Dawkins' position - rebuttals that take the form, not of brand new arguments, but of arguments and ideas that already are in the literature.

Instead of hearing these rebuttals and demolishing them, Dawkins simply claims he doesn't need to understand them. This is, in effect, what he is doing when he says he doesn't need to learn theology. He is ignoring these rebuttals instead of showing why they are wrong.

I'm not talking about rebuttals that don't need further attention - like when creationists bring up the same old shallow arguments against evolution. The answer to such repetitive arguments is simple: just say something like "I've already addressed that objection in my writings." These particular objections based on theology aren't like that. They are new objections - ones that Dawkins never addressed in the past. (Obviously he didn't, or he wouldn't be claiming that he doesn't have to understand them.)

In the past, Dawkins has done a splendid job of debunking objections to evolution. In that case, he didn't ignore the rebuttals to his position - he destroyed them. He also has tried to answer many objections to his atheism. Why can't he just do the same thing again, this time with the rebuttals he's currently ignoring? Why doesn't he just understand and refute them? By failing to do this, he leaves atheists and believers alike wondering whether he can refute these objections. He undermines his credibility severely.

You can't settle any debate by plugging your ears and singing to drown out your opponent's arguments. That is what Dawkins is trying, in effect, to do.

That's what Dawkins' avoidance of theology amounts to. The problem is not his disbelief in the theological writings. (As an atheist, he's certainly entitled to disbelieve them.) The problem is that his opponents have offered rebuttals to his arguments - rebuttals that happen to make reference to technical ideas in the theological writings. By deliberately shunning those writings, he is refusing to answer the rebuttals. For all practical purposes, he has resigned from the debate.

From his leprechology remark and similar statements, we can guess what Dawkins presumably has in mind when he handwaves away theology. Since he doesn't believe there is a God, he finds it unnecessary to read books that assume there is a God or that purport to describe God. This reaction seems reasonable from an atheist - until you think about it. Actually, the nonexistence of God wouldn't reduce the need for Dawkins to take theology into account. The reason Dawkins needs to learn some theology is not that God exists or that theology is true. The reason is that his opponents are offering counterarguments to his position - and to grasp those counterarguments, he needs to learn a few ideas from theology. To refuse to answer those counterarguments is to give up the debate. Yet this is what Dawkins is doing by claiming that theology is irrelevant.

He might as well just plug his ears and sing.

Someone might argue that we can debunk God without knowing theology, on the grounds that God is a supernatural creator and any kind of supernatural creator is implausible. Perhaps this is what Dawkins was thinking when he chose to ignore theology. However, this argument doesn't help Dawkins in the least. Most religions teach that God is a supernatural creator - but that isn't their definition of God, or even the most important part of their idea of God. Most religions regard God first of all as a supremely good or perfect being, or as the most complete or all-encompassing possible being. This means that if the supernatural creator were debunked, the religions (except for the fundamentalist sects) could consistently go on believing in God! If the religions had to drop the belief that God is literally a supernatural creator, they still could believe in a supreme being. They would have to change some of their doctrines, but the most important part of their idea of God would survive. No doubt this change would come as a shock to many believers. However, the believers could go on worshipping God just like before. In fact, some believers seem to have made this change already. One sometimes meets Christians who believe that the universe probably had natural causes, but that the event of creation nevertheless reflects the glory of God. Most religions teach that God is a supernatural creator - but a "God" defined as supernatural creator, and as that alone, has little to do with the God of religion.

Also, there are philosophical ideas of God that don't involve a supernatural creator in the first place. (I don't only mean a poetical pantheism that relabels the physical universe as God. I mean alternative concepts of a real supreme being.) I've written about these elsewhere (here, here and here, for example), so I won't repeat them all here.

By defining God as a supernatural creator and ignoring other parts of the idea of God, Dawkins has created a God concept that is almost useless for him to debunk. At most, he's proving that God, if there is one, is not a supernatural creator. Even if he were right about that, it would not imply that there is no God. How could he fix his argument? Use a definition of God closer to the ones the religions really use. And to find out what they use, he would have to study a little bit of (gasp!) theology.

Needless to say, none of what I have written here is an argument for the existence of God or against atheism. You can be an atheist and still recognize that leprechology-type arguments and the Courtier's Reply are bunk. I have only shown that these two particular lines of argument are useless. In view of the popularity of those arguments among Dawkins' followers, this may be an important point to make.

Richard, stop playing with the leprechauns and hit those books!

posted at: 00:28 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 02 Apr 2010

The Courtier's Reply Exposed: Why Dawkins Still Needs Theology

Critics of Richard Dawkins' atheism sometimes claim that Dawkins should pay more attention to theology in his arguments against God. I've already written about this criticism in an earlier post, where I showed why the critics are right. The reason they are right doesn't depend on whether theology is true or whether there is a God. The reason is that theological writings, whether right or wrong, tell us what religions mean by the word "God." You can't debunk God rationally if you don't bother to learn what the word "God" means. To debunk the God of a religion, you have to at least know what believers in that religion mean by "God." If you don't know that, then you don't even know what kind of being you are trying to debunk. In the worst case, you might not even know what kind of evidence counts as evidence for that being. Your knowledge of science won't necessarily help you out of this quagmire, because when you argue against God you really won't know what you are talking about. This is the case regardless of whether there's any truth to theology. Atheists have to face this fact just as much as believers do. For further details, read my earlier post.

The claim that Dawkins needs to consider theology boils down to the claim that you can't debunk something unless you know what that "something" is. In other words, you should know what you're talking about before arguing against it. This standard seems reasonable - but it didn't stop Dawkins. Nor did it stop his fellow atheist PZ Myers from inventing the "Courtier's Reply." [1]

The Courtier's Reply is a takeoff (pun intended) on the well-known story of "The Emperor's New Clothes" from the writings of Hans Christian Andersen. In the original story, a boy notices and says that the Emperor is naked, even though almost everyone else believes (or pretends to believe) that the Emperor is dressed in invisible clothes. In the Courtier's Reply, an imperial courtier says that Dawkins shouldn't call the Emperor naked without first studying complicated writings about the Emperor's wardrobe. The main point of the Courtier's Reply is that you don't need to study detailed writings or doctrines about something unreal (the Emperor's clothes, or in Myers' opinion, God) to decide that it's unreal.

Judging by the internet traffic, the Courtier's Reply seems to have impressed a lot of Dawkins' camp followers. However, if you actually think about Myers' argument instead of just believing it, you find that it's a hopelessly bad argument. I've already said what's wrong with it in my earlier post. Here I'm going to analyze Myers' argument at length and in gory detail - enough detail to show exactly how the trick is done.

First a bit of terminology. From now on I'll call Myers' story about what the courtier said the "Courtier's Reply." I'll call Myers' argument against Dawkins' critics, based on the Courtier's Reply story [1], the "Courtier's Reply argument."

The Courtier's Reply argument depends on an analogy between two assertions:

  1. The assertion, made by critics of Dawkins, that you need to read up on theology before you can decide rationally whether God exists.
  2. The assertion, made by Myers' fictional courtier, that you need to read up on the Emperor's clothes before deciding whether the clothes exist.

The second assertion obviously is false. The boy in the story can decide whether the Emperor has clothes without referring to any detailed writings about the alleged clothes. The Courtier's Reply argument suggests that one can decide about the existence of God the same way - without absorbing any detailed writings about God.

The analogy between the two assertions is extremely weak. Why? Because the two decisions involved - deciding whether the Emperor's clothes exist, and deciding whether God exists - require background knowledge of very different kinds.

To see what this means and why it's important, consider the following four points about the decision that the Emperor has no clothes.

  1. The required decision is about the existence of the Emperor's supposed clothes.
  2. To decide whether the Emperor has clothes, you need some knowledge. The first thing you need to know is what clothes are - or in other words, what the word "clothes" means. If you don't have a clear idea of what clothes are, then you can't decide with confidence that the Emperor has them or doesn't have them. For example, what would happen if the boy in the story thought "clothes" meant "pigtails," and the Emperor was naked but had pigtails? The boy would conclude that the Emperor has clothes - but that conclusion would be wrong. In general, you can't decide rationally whether something exists (or whether there is evidence for something) unless you know what that "something" is. You need to know what entity it is that you're trying to decide about.
  3. For most of us, including the boy in the original story, this need for background knowledge is not an obstacle. Why? Because we already know what clothes are! We have a working knowledge of clothes that lets us tell whether someone is wearing them. We acquired that knowledge from the culture in which we grew up. Even without an exact definition, we know well enough what the word "clothes" means.
  4. If you know what clothes are, it's easy to figure out how to detect clothes on a person. If you look at a person's body (or touch it if necessary) and find no clothes there, then you can safely assume that the person does not have clothes on. We can assume this because clothes, whatever else they might be, are physical objects that cover parts of the body.

Now consider what happens when we change these four points by replacing the Emperor's clothes with God.

  1. The required decision is about the existence of a supposed being known as God.
  2. To tell whether God exists, you need some background knowledge. The first thing you need to know is what the word "God" means. Once again, you have to know what something is supposed to be before you can decide whether it exists. Just as with the word "clothes," if you don't have a clear idea what "God" means then you can't decide rationally that there is, or is not, such an item as God.

    So far, the decision about God seems to work the same way as the decision about the Emperor's clothes. But...
  3. Point 3 is where the analogy falls apart. Here's the problem. Practically everyone has a very good idea of what clothes are - but most people do not have a very clear idea of what the word "God" means in the world's religious teachings. Whether we believe or disbelieve, most of us have an idea or mental picture of God that doesn't reflect what the word "God" actually means in religious thought. The mental picture of God that some of us picked up in church doesn't give us the whole story. This limitation affects believers and unbelievers alike - and even those fanatics who claim to know all about God. I'll say more about this in a moment.
  4. For point 4, the analogy falls apart again. Even if we knew what God was supposed to be, we might not know automatically how to determine whether there is a God. For all we know, God might be much harder to detect than are clothes. (The idea that something important might be hard to detect is not silly. Some physical particles and forces are very hard to detect. In mathematics, you can't prove a theorem by "detecting" anything; there are other ways to know whether a theorem is right.) In this respect also, God is not like clothes.

Point 3 about God is the most important point, and also perhaps the most surprising. This point needs some explaining. It isn't nearly as radical as it sounds. I'm not claiming that most people lack an idea of God. Needless to say, most people have a concept or mental picture of God, and can explain to you what they mean by the word "God." However, an individual person's mental picture of God usually is not the same as what that person's religious tradition, or any other tradition, means by the word "God." I've already explained this in my earlier post, so I won't repeat it all here.

What's the upshot of all this? Here it is: To understand what the word "God" means to real people (not only yourself but others too), you probably have to learn something that isn't part of your present knowledge. It isn't enough to take the mental picture of God you picked up in Sunday school and run with it. If you're like most people (even scientists), you have to learn something new. You need to learn ideas that you don't pick up automatically in church, in school, at atheist meetings, or in everyday life. Of course, if you want to be careless, you can take an oversimplified mental picture of God, debunk it, and claim that you have debunked God. (Some people do that.) But if you want to make a careful argument about that conjectural being called "God," you have to study what real people mean by that word. These people aren't limited to the silly Bible-chuckers and addled "theologians" that Dawkins carps on. There also are a lot of serious religious scholars out there - scholars who actually think, and think hard, about religious issues. And one way to find out what God this group believes in is to read some theology.

Now we can see what's wrong with the Courtier's Reply argument - and why atheists, like everyone else, should ignore it. To figure out whether the Emperor has clothes, you don't have to learn anything new. To figure out whether there's a God, you probably do have to learn something new. You need to learn what people actually think God is. The best way to get that knowledge is by reading something - and what you read should include some theology. You don't have to believe theology. You don't have to be an expert on theology. In fact, you could read books on the philosophy of religion instead of on theology, and probably pick up all the theological ideas you need. (Philosophers of religion try to analyze religious and theological ideas rationally.) But whatever you read, you do need some of those theological ideas.

In case anyone missed it, I'll say it again: you don't have to believe theology to learn something from it. You can think theology is utter claptrap if you like - but you can't run away from the fact that theology cues us in to the meanings of religious terms. The Courtier's Reply argument suggests that if you take theology seriously, you are nothing but a fawning servant of religion. That is nonsense. Theology can be of interest to atheists and believers alike - not because it's true, but because it tells us something important about what people believe.

Now I will propose my own variation on the Courtier's Reply. This version takes into account the fact (apparently missing from the arguments of Dawkins and Myers) that you actually have to know what you're talking about before you can make a rational decision about a conjectured item's existence.

A boy comes from an island where everyone wears a loincloth - and that's all they wear. For this boy, a loincloth isn't just one form of clothing - it is clothing. For him, the word for loincloth also means clothes. The language of his island has a word for loincloth, which is the only word in that language for body covering. (In this boy's experience, there is no difference between the two.) Because of his past experience, if he saw a shirt, or trousers, or socks, he wouldn't label them as clothes. He is not stupid - in fact, he's rather smart - but he has a very limited idea of clothes, because nobody in his land ever wore any clothes besides a loincloth. In fact, the people there don't have the words to distinguish between loincloths and clothing in general.

This boy comes to visit the emperor of a country where people wear complicated outfits. This emperor doesn't wear a loincloth. For now we won't bother to say exactly what he wears. He might be wearing trousers or a kilt - or less. The important thing is that he does not wear a loincloth.

The boy says: "Hmm. The Emperor has no clothes on!"

Upon hearing this, a courtier takes him aside and says:

"Wait a minute. You came from a country where they have a very narrow idea of clothing. In your land, they don't even have separate words for clothes and for loincloths. So, allow me to inform you about what the word 'clothes' means to people elsewhere who use that word and its equivalents.

"You are right in using the word 'clothes' to refer to a loincloth, but there also are other forms of clothes. It's true that the Emperor has no loincloth, but don't decide too hastily that the Emperor has no clothes. You don't yet have a general idea of clothes, or even a decent rough-and-ready mental picture of what clothes are. Thus, you are premature in deciding that the Emperor has no clothes.

"One way to learn what clothes are is to read our books about the Emperor's clothes. You don't have to believe everything in those books, or even anything. Just use them to learn what people mean when they talk about "clothes." Another way is to wander around in the empire for a while, talk to people, and pick up what different people mean by that word. And there may even be other ways to learn what you need.

"I'm not going to tell you whether you should think the Emperor has clothes. Read, discuss, and learn the general idea of clothes first. Then decide for yourself!"




[1] PZ Myers, "The Courtier's Reply," in Pharyngula (blog), 12/24/2006. ( Accessed 2/13/2010.


posted at: 23:54 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Wed, 17 Mar 2010

Why Dawkins Needs to Study Theology - Especially if There Is No God

One of the standard criticisms of Richard Dawkins' atheist crusade is the charge that Dawkins doesn't pay enough attention to theology. The two most important atheist replies to this criticism are Dawkins' comparison of theology to "leprechology" [1] and PZ Myers' "Courtier's Reply" [2]. In this post I will point out why the criticism against Dawkins is right - and why the leprechaun argument and the Courtier's Reply are wrong.

Why should Dawkins learn something about theology before debunking God? The reason has nothing to do with whether theology is true, false, or silly. The reason is simple: theological writings tell us what religions really mean by "God." If you don't know what religious teachings mean by "God," then you can't make a credible rational argument against the God that people believe in. You might not even know what would count as evidence for that God, so you can't claim, with any confidence, that there is no evidence for that God. This is the case whether or not any of the beliefs stated in the theological writings are true.

Let's get back to basic logic here. Before you can prove that something doesn't exist, or that there's no evidence for something, you must at least know what you're trying to disprove. If you don't know what the God of religion is supposed to be, and you try to debunk that God, then you don't even know what you are debunking. You can't even argue convincingly that there's a lack of evidence for God, because the kind of evidence you would need depends on what "God" means. And like it or not, theological writings reflect what real religious teachings take God to be.

Let me explain these points in more detail.

Despite what some angry atheists have said on the Web, theological writings aren't just collections of silly religious beliefs. Along with any silly beliefs (or serious ones), those writings also disclose something much more important. The theological writings of a religion contain the religion's definition of God - what sort of entity the religion's believers, and especially its scholars, have in mind when they say "God." This might not be a formal definition; it could be just a rough idea of God instead - but still it serves to define the alleged being called "God." We can learn this definition from theological writings regardless of whether the beliefs stated in those writings are true or false. Even if you think theology is factually wrong, reading about theology is a good way to tell what religious thinkers actually believe God to be. Theology, whether we believe it or not, tells us what religious teachings mean by "God." And that is important for all of us, atheists or believers, to know.

Why is it important for atheists to know what "God" means to believers? It's important because you can't very well debunk something without knowing what it is that you're trying to debunk. If you're trying to debunk the God that religions promote, but you don't even know what the religions mean by the word "God," then you might be debunking some so-called "God" that religious people don't even believe in. You might be debunking some special concept of God that's in your head, maybe left over from your churchgoing days, instead of the concept of God that actually matters to any particular religion. If you don't know what God is supposed to be, then you can't even know what kind of evidence would count for or against God. No matter how good your grasp of scientific methods and standards of evidence, you don't know with any confidence what kind of evidence you should be looking for. You might end up thinking that there's evidence for God, or that there isn't any evidence for God - and you might well be wrong. (Later in this post I'll fill in more details about how this can happen.)

Here's an analogy to illustrate this point. It's inspired by Dawkins' well-known comparison between leprechauns and God [1].

Suppose you are trying to decide whether leprechauns exist. To do this rationally, you first have to know what leprechauns are supposed to be. If you grasp the idea of leprechauns - small humanoid beings of a type mentioned in Irish folklore, who typically wear green and guard pots of gold - then it's easy to decide that there is no credible evidence for those beings. However, if you have no idea what "leprechaun" means, or have only a hazy idea of leprechauns, then you could easily make a wrong decision about whether they exist.

Here's an example of this last point. Suppose that someone (call him Hawkins) thinks that "leprechaun" means a being who wears green and protects a supply of gold. In Hawkins' view, a leprechaun is defined only by these two traits; he doesn't think of leprechauns as especially Irish, or as having any other familiar leprechaun traits. Then according to Hawkins' definition of leprechauns, some coin collectors would qualify as "leprechauns." If Hawkins met a collector of gold coins who happened to be wearing green, then Hawkins might conclude that leprechauns exist!

Of course, Hawkins would be wrong - but not because he lacks evidence for leprechauns. He would be wrong because he doesn't even know the standard meaning of the word "leprechaun." He doesn't know what the word "leprechaun" means to informed users of that word. Because of this gap in his knowledge, he can't even know what kind of evidence would count as evidence for the existence of leprechauns (as they usually are conceived). He could easily be wrong about whether he has evidence for leprechauns. In this example, he thinks he has evidence for a leprechaun, but he does not.

If Hawkins tries to defend his wrong conclusion by saying "Well, my conclusion is right according to my idea of a leprechaun," then he is admitting that his idea of leprechaun is different from the one that other people use. Hawkins' conclusion about leprechauns might be true according to his definition, but probably it is of no interest to anyone but Hawkins.

Before you can debunk something, you have to know what that "something" is supposed to be. This obvious principle holds for leprechauns, the Loch Ness Monster, and Russell's famous orbiting teapot. It holds just as well for God. Suppose you are trying to decide whether God exists. To decide this rationally, you first need to know what God is supposed to be. If you're trying to debunk the God that the religions promote, you first have to know what that God is supposed to be. In other words, you have to know what the religions believe God to be. You need to know this regardless of whether religion is true and regardless of whether there is a God. If you want to decide rationally whether the God of religion is real, then you must first know what the God of religion is supposed to be. Otherwise you don't know what you are talking about.

How do you find out what real religions take God to be? One way is to ask average, ordinary believers. This is a start. However, average believers usually don't know their religion's teachings very well. (This isn't a putdown; I have known many believers who admitted freely that they didn't really care about the technicalities of doctrine.) In any case, the rank-and-file believers, though important, are not the only important group in a religion. There also are the intellectual movers and shakers of the religion. I don't mean the organizational leaders. I mean those who shape and systematize the teachings of a religious tradition. This group includes the theologians.

I'm not claiming here that theology is true. That's a separate question. My point is not about the truth, falsity, or preposterousness of theology, but about what people believe. If you don't know what the theologians of a religion say about God, then you don't know what that religion actually teaches about God. Even if theology isn't true, it's still part of what many religious people believe. If you want to know what the religions really say about God, part of what you have to know is what their theologians have said about the nature of God.

This is why atheists need to learn some theology before trying to debunk God. Even if theology is nonsense, Dawkins still needs to study it - because one can use it to glean information about what religious people mean by "God." And that information can make or break an atheistic argument.

You don't need to to be an expert on theology before arguing against God. You certainly don't have to believe theology. However, you do have to be familiar with some of the key ideas in theological thought. You have to study something that explains theological ideas - unless you happen to have learned some of those ideas already. And you have to study ideas from more than one religious tradition, or else you won't know what people (except for those in a particular tradition) think God is like.

Personally, I think it's much more important to study philosophy of religion than to study theology. Philosophers of religion analyze the ideas of religion rationally; they can present theological ideas in ways that are of interest to rational thinkers. These philosophers also explore philosophical ideas of God - ideas based on reason, which aren't the same as the faith-based theological ideas. But no matter which subject you focus on, you need to understand some theological ideas. (By "philosophy of religion" I mean real philosophy of religion, in which the ideas of the religions are analyzed rationally. I do not mean writings that pretend to explain why people believe in God but refuse to analyze religious concepts. Those tracts aren't philosophy of religion; they're more like speculative psychology.)

Here are some questions that someone might ask at this point:

  1. Do I really need to know what those silly theologians think of God before I decide whether there's a God?
  2. Isn't God like Russell's teapot - something that we can safely disbelieve in because of a lack of evidence?
  3. Isn't it enough just to show that there is no supernatural creator? Wouldn't that show that there is no God, even if we don't know the details of what God is like?

The answers to these questions are:

  1. Yes, you do have to know something about what theologians think - at least if you want to make your decision rationally. If you don't know what the theologians think, you might well be debunking something besides the God of religion.
  2. Maybe God is like Russell's teapot, or maybe not - but in either case you can't apply the teapot argument to God if you don't even know what "God" means! Even if the teapot argument is right, it doesn't generalize to things that aren't defined correctly. We can safely disbelieve in Russell's teapot because we know what a teapot is - and because we know that it isn't the kind of object that would just happen to turn up in deep space. If we got the concept of a teapot wrong, the argument wouldn't necessarily give true results. (If we thought "teapot" meant "small piece of rock," then we could conclude that there probably is at least one "teapot" orbiting the Sun - and we could conclude this without observing a single one of these "teapots," just on the basis of general scientific knowledge about space.)
  3. No, it isn't enough to show that there is no supernatural creator. According to some ideas of God, there can be a God even if there is nothing supernatural and even if no one literally created the universe. Showing that there is no supernatural creator isn't the same as showing that there is no God. At most, this would show that God, if there is one, is not a supernatural creator. (That would be a painful discovery for some believers, but it wouldn't logically rule out God.)

I've written a lot about various ideas of God elsewhere (see here, here and here, for example), so I won't repeat it all in this post. Here I'll just mention that the ideas of God I am talking about are not confined to a metaphorical pantheism that merely renames the physical universe as "God." I'm talking about real ideas of a supreme being or ideal being - including ideas that do not imply that God is a supernatural creator, and ideas that could survive with minor changes even if God were not a supernatural creator. For more details, start with the links I just gave.

Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, defines God as a supernatural creator of a certain sort [3]. Then he tries to debunk God. Dawkins is making the same mistake as our friend Hawkins. He is using a limited definition of "God" that doesn't adequately capture the religious usage of the word. It's true that most believers think of God as a supernatural creator. However, others have believed in a God who did not make our present world, or who is a spiritual reality within nature instead of a supernatural ghost. Many religious thinkers have thought of God as a "perfect being" or a "greatest possible being" - scholarly jargon for a certain philosophical concept of God. It appears that scientific evidence can neither confirm nor disconfirm such a being, but that there still might be rational ways to decide whether such a being exists. (See here, here and here for some further discussion of ideas like these.) Also, many believers in a supernatural creator might be able to keep believing in God even if they learned God was not a supernatural creator - as long as they still could believe in a God who was ideally good and worthy of our highest love. Their faith would be badly shaken if they learned that God is not the creator, but they could continue believing in a supreme being.

The evidence needed to show that there is a God depends on what idea of God you have in mind. For a supernatural creator, you would need to find traces of a supernatural creative act (such as design in nature that can't be explained naturally). Many of us don't think there are such traces. However, for a perfect being, there wouldn't have to be any supernatural design at all. The evidence would have to rest on value judgments more than on facts. And for a God who pervades nature, the complexity of God might be the same as the complexity in nature, so Dawkins' complexity argument against God would be useless. (That argument is useless anyhow, as I've shown elsewhere.) Clearly it's not enough to just say "there is no supernatural design, therefore there is no God." Things just aren't that simple. Again, for the details, start with the links in the previous paragraph.

Dawkins, responding to the claim that he should learn theology, once said: "Would you need to read learned volumes on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?" [1] The flaw in Dawkins' response should now be clear. Whether God is real or not, there is a difference between belief in God and belief in leprechauns. The difference is in our background knowledge about these two sorts of alleged beings. Most people have a fairly good idea of what leprechauns are. You don't have to learn more about them to figure out that there's no evidence for them. However, most people do not have a very clear idea of what God, as presented in religious teachings, is supposed to be. They might need to read up on something before making a rationally supported judgment about the existence of God. (These same comments apply to variations of the leprechology remark that put fairies, monsters, etc. in place of leprechauns.)

This same problem affects the "Courtier's Reply" argument of PZ Myers [2]. The Courtier's Reply tries to compare God to the emperor's invisible clothing in the traditional story of "The Emperor's New Clothes." The essential point of the Courtier's Reply is that you don't have to read up on theology to decide whether God exists, any more than you have to read up on the emperor's clothes before deciding that they don't exist. This analogy fails for the same reason that Dawkins' leprechaun reply fails. We all have enough knowledge about clothes to enable us to tell, if we met the emperor, that he has no clothes. We don't need to read anything new before doing that. However, we do not all know enough about God to make a rational decision about the existence of that controversial being. To make that decision, we might well need to read the writings of religious thinkers - whether or not we find those writings believable.




[1] Richard Dawkins, "Faith and facts", Letters, The Independent, 17 Sep. 2007. ( Accessed 2/13/2010.

[2] PZ Myers, "The Courtier's Reply," in Pharyngula (blog), 12/24/2006. ( Accessed 2/13/2010.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), pp. 11-15, 18-19, 31.


(Post slightly updated 3 Apr 2010.)

posted at: 22:53 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Sun, 21 Feb 2010

Say It Isn't So, Mrs. Obama! The New War on Fat Children

As everyone has probably heard by now, Michelle Obama is starting a crusade against childhood obesity. This crusade is disastrously wrong. Unless it is changed or stopped, it will likely cause untold harm to children.

Kate Harding's article on the subject in, and this letter by a group of health and nutrition professionals, tell exactly what is wrong, scientifically and socially, with Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move" crusade. I don't really need to say more. Indeed, part of what I am going say here will overlap with what those authors said. However, I want to talk louder about it. Why? Because "Let's Move" isn't just wrong; it's desperately wrong.

I am not saying that the proposed health measures in "Let's Move" are all bad. Some of these ideas are good. However, as Harding clearly points out, the campaign's emphasis on "obesity" instead of on good health for all will lead to problems. My guess is that it will lead to disaster.

You cannot generalize much about heavy children. Some of them have unhealthy habits, just as some thinner children do. However, a high body weight in children is not always the result of bad habits. Some children are naturally heavier than average. It is sheer folly to assume automatically that a child's high body weight must be a matter of overeating or laziness. This assumption is especially silly when "obesity" is defined by BMI, which (as Harding points out) is an undependable measure that ignores many individual differences. [1] 

Michelle Obama, like many other Americans, needs to get used to a simple fact: some people are naturally heavier than others. Plus-sized people are not pathological cases or problem people just because of this single personal trait.

American society contains many different kinds of diversity. Thoughtful people usually respect diversity. Yet as a society, we seem to be too stupid to realize that there is such a thing as diversity of weight. Given the genetic variability of the human body, how could there fail to be a normal diversity of fat content, BMI, and weight? We seem to think that slight variations in weight are acceptable, but that any large difference on the high side is a crime.

The most disastrous problem with "Let's Move" is that it will lead to more cruelty against large-sized children. Harding points this out clearly; she recognizes that this initiative is likely to increase discrimination (including bullying) against large children. Here I'd like to go further in pointing out how monstrous the results of "Let's Move" could be. In our society, fat children suffer tremendous bullying and teasing. As a schoolchild I witnessed many vicious acts - including a child being pushed off the top of a piece of climbing equipment, and taking a long fall to the ground, for being too fat. (Who did this? His fellow kindergarteners. American children learn fat hatred at a young age.) Now imagine some kids doing an act like that or worse, and then giving the teacher the excuse that "the President's wife says kids shouldn't be fat." If "Let's Move" isn't stopped or seriously altered, such things are bound to happen.

According to a quote in Harding's article, Mrs. Obama mentioned the problems of "teasing and bullying" that large-sized children face. Doesn't Mrs. Obama realize what her crusade really will do to large-sized children? As Harding's article points out, "Let's Move" portrays large children as a problem to be eliminated, and this portrayal can contribute to prejudice. When you think about it, how could the initiative not trigger bullying? Telling the school bullies that fat kids are a problem could fan the flames of schoolyard violence beyond anything seen today.

Harding points out, correctly, that "it's not ideal" to try to stop the bullying of fat children by getting the children to change instead of by fighting the discrimination. I'd like to add that it's more than just non-ideal - it's downright evil. If we were talking about any other oppressed group besides fat people, the idea of making the people look different instead of fighting the prejudice would be condemned. Yet Mrs. Obama's approach to large-sized children plays into this bigoted mindset.

One can only guess that the First Lady has been influenced by the widespread but wrong beliefs that only thin people are normal and that fatness is a matter of bad personal behavior. In reality, high body weight has a strong genetic component, and does not always equal bad health. The fact that some thin people gain weight by overeating or being inactive does not imply that all fat people get fat that way. For many children, their natural weight is simply heavier than what the obesity warriors will accept. These children are not to blame for being "fat" - and neither are their parents.

Labeling and hounding children for their weight differences will not lead to anything positive. The fact that some fat people have been able to lose weight - usually only temporarily, or else because they are genetically cut out to be thin - does not change this. It is time to face reality: weight diversity is a part of normal life.

The list of links near the end of this article will provide some alternative ways to think about fat people. The truth is different from what you might have been told. Prejudices run deep in our society. Even doctors and nurses can have them.

The main point of Harding's article is that Mrs. Obama should campaign for good health for all, instead of against "obesity." Harding is exactly right about this. Campaigning for good health is not the same as fighting against the existence of fat children! It is immoral and cruel to start a crusade against large-sized children in the name of "health."

Michelle Obama's campaign against the bogeyman of childhood obesity is sure to backfire. Sadly, this campaign will only increase anti-fat hatred - a hatred that has roots in shallow ideals of beauty, in class prejudice, and even in racism. [2]

Mrs. Obama, for the sake of America and of human dignity, don't persecute the fat kids!



A Few Links to Read and Think About

Kate Harding's article

The letter that I mentioned early in this post

ASDAH - the professional organization that issued that letter

NAAFA - a civil rights organization for people of size

ISAA - an organization working against size discrimination

Big Fat Facts




[1] On the poorness of BMI as a measure of health, see these references:
(a) Raj Jayadev, "Muscle vs. Fitness". Metroactive. From Metro (newspaper), December 1-7, 2004. ( Accessed 2/18/2010.
(b) Richard Telford, "Measure for measure, BMI has big flaws". The Age, May 22, 2009. ( Accessed 2/18/2010.

[2] See Paul Campos, The Obesity Myth (New York, Gotham Books, 2004), regarding the sources of anti-fat prejudice.


Minor update 4/28/2010

posted at: 23:30 | path: /political | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 12 Jan 2010

What Is an Atheist (and Are You One)?

These days many people claim to be atheists. What is an atheist? Are you one?

Atheism is the belief that there is no God. It is different from agnosticism, which is the position that you don't know whether there is a God. Agnosticism is a suspension of judgment; atheism is a type of belief. Atheist belief may be certain (a belief that there definitely is no God) or merely probable (a belief that there probably is no God).

To decide who is an atheist, you first have to know what the word "God" means. What exactly is it that the atheists are denying?

This question is not easy as it seems. The problem is that there are many different ideas of God in human thought. Serious, informed thinkers (and some less serious and informed ones as well) have held a spectrum of different ideas about God. The mental picture of God that you grew up with is not the only possible idea of God.

Some atheists seem to think that the only idea of God is the Biblical idea, and that the word "God" means a supernatural creator of the world. Although many people believe in this idea of God, those who regard it as a definition of the word "God" are on the wrong track. Some philosophers have arrived, through reason, at ideas of God that can be true even if there is nothing supernatural. Some religions have taught that God is not the creator. According to some concepts of God, God is not very humanlike, and is not even what we usually think of as a "person." I've written elsewhere (here, here and here) about various ideas of God, so I won't try to list all the ideas again here.

What do all these ideas of God have in common? The differences can be great. However, most ideas of God (at least most of the well-thought-out ones) have a common core. In one way or another, most of these ideas portray God as a greatest possible being. They depict God as a being or reality that is greater, better, or more perfect than anything else. What is more, these ideas portray God as having mindlike properties of some kind - mental, spiritual, or moral properties. These ideas don't just equate God to something physical, like matter or energy. Instead, they portray God as being a bit more like a "someone" than a mere "something." This is true even of ideas that deny that God is a "person" in the usual sense of the word.

Pantheism is one form of belief in God that is different from the supernatural-creator idea. In its basic version, pantheism equates God to nature or to the physical universe. Some critics claim that pantheism is only a disguised form of atheism, but they are wrong about this. Some forms of pantheism might amount to atheism, but other forms amount to a real belief in God. However, pantheism is not the only possible form of belief in God that denies that God is a supernatural creator. As I pointed out elsewhere, there are other such beliefs. (See here and here.)

The God of real religious thought is very different from the "God" of Biblical fundamentalism. The God of the fundamentalists is a very humanoid, and sometimes very mean, fellow who makes a habit of violating the laws of nature. Other, more reasonable religious thinkers long ago rejected this idea of God. Some of these other thinkers still consider God a supernatural creator - but that isn't the most important part of their understanding of God. These believers could continue believing in God even if it turned out that God was not a supernatural creator.

Some atheists try to define "God" as a supernatural creator of the universe. Then they try to debunk God by proving there is no supernatural creator. The big problem with this line of argument is that it doesn't tell us much about God! At most, it hits one concept of God: the idea that God is a supernatural creator. Even if this atheistic line of argument worked, it would not disprove God. At most, it would disprove the supernatural-creator concept of God. Some sincere believers in God rejected this concept long ago - but they didn't have to give up believing in God.

The atheist trick of defining God as a supernatural creator pins the "atheist" label on anyone who accepts a different idea of God. By claiming that God must be a supernatural creator, the atheists are playing with words. They are defining into existence a whole bunch of "atheists" who might not be atheists at all. This atheist ploy is much like defining the word "dog" to include the concept of being lime green in color. Once you buy into that definition, you can say that lime green dogs are the only real dogs - and anyone who disbelieves in lime green dogs is actually a disbeliever in dogs. (This covers a lot of people, even people who have dogs, because lime green dogs are rather easy to disbelieve in.)

It's easy to label anyone an "atheist" if they disagree with your particular idea of God. However, the fact that you have stopped believing in the Bible, in religion, or in the supernatural isn't enough to make you an atheist. You don't have to become an atheist just because you don't believe in these things. There is another option: rethink your idea of God - and think for yourself.

Some people who think about religion call themselves "atheists" just because they don't believe in a supernatural creator. If that describes you, then you might not really be an atheist at all!

posted at: 20:25 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 11 Jan 2010

Evolution Has No Purpose. So What?

One sometimes hears the following argument about evolution: "When we examine evolution carefully, it shows no sign of aiming for a purpose. Therefore, the apparent design in nature is not really design." Some versions of this argument are more thorough and detailed, but they all boil down to the same idea: no purpose to evolution, therefore no design in nature.

Now I am going to do something that will make certain people angry. I am going to show that this particular line of argument against design doesn't work. Just so there's no misunderstanding, I will state up front that I am not going to give an argument for design in nature. In this post, I am only showing that one particular argument against design is fallacious. Also, I am not going to shed any doubt on evolution, in which I firmly believe, or give any support to creationism or so-called "Intelligent Design" theory, in which I firmly disbelieve. Instead, I am going to show that one particular argument against design is useless. If you want a positive argument for the belief that there is no design in nature, you need a better argument.

The argument against design that I summarized two paragraphs ago makes use of an unstated assumption. Here is the assumption: an object without a purpose is not a designed object. Stated differently: everything that is designed is designed for a purpose.

Human experience shows that this assumption is false. Here's how.

Consider the set of objects created or used by humans. Because of their relationship with humans, these objects are examples of purpose and design. Some of these objects are human artifacts; they exhibit design (by humans) and have purpose (for humans). Other objects are not humanly designed but still serve human purposes; natural objects used as found tools are like this.

Now take note of an interesting fact: among human artifacts, there are some objects that are designed but do not have any particular purpose.

The objects I have in mind are certain works of art. Artists often have conscious purposes when creating a work of art. These purposes can vary widely, ranging from the purely artistic to the economic. However, a work of art does not need to have a specific purpose of this kind. An artist might make a wild work of abstract art with no particular aim in mind - just for the heck of it, as the saying goes. There might be an ulterior motive (such as a profit motive or a desire to do something new), but there does not have to be. The creative process might "just happen," fueled by half-unconscious impulses, a lively imagination, or sheer nervous energy.

This is especially likely for some (though not all) pieces of children's art. A child might make a pattern of colors with crayons, not because of a desire to achieve any aim or to represent anything, but just because of a restless inner urge. Some artwork driven by mental illness or drug use might be even more aimless, arising from stray mental visions and impulses. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that mentally healthy, sober adult artists also can produce works without a specific aim.

Doodles - figures drawn while a person is paying attention to something else - provide other examples of purposeless design. Sometimes doodles seem to pour forth just because a person is nervous or bored - not for any conscious (or perhaps even unconscious) purpose. This is especially likely to happen at long business meetings. However, these doodles can be quite complex - obviously products of design and not of mere chance.

Artworks of these unplanned and aimless kinds clearly are examples of design. They are designed in human brains. The process of designing them is part of the conscious and/or unconscious functioning of those brains. The designs might be strange at times, and art critics might not like them - but still, these artworks really are designed. They are designed, but not created for any predetermined purpose. (Someone might want to ask how much design exists in art that involves randomness, like certain kinds of splatter art. But even splatter art is not completely random.)

Along with designed objects that lack purpose, there are objects in the human world that have purpose but are not designed. I've already mentioned an example: a found tool, like a branch or stone that someone picks up and uses to do a task. Such objects have purpose for humans, but they are not designed.

So, what's the connection between design and purpose? There may be connections, but there is no tight coupling between the two. If an object can have purposeless design or designless purpose, then what becomes of the argument we started with: that if nature has no purpose, then nature is not designed?

This argument against design just doesn't hold water. If you want to argue that the universe isn't designed, you need a better argument than that.

(A warning to skeptics: Don't bother to write to tell me that I am trying to shift the burden of proof for design in nature. If you had read this post, you would know that I am not doing that.)

By now you may be wondering what I think of the traditional "argument from design," which supposedly points to a supernatural designer of nature. For my opinion on this argument, read this document. The argument from design is wrong - but neither theists nor atheists know the real reason why it is wrong. If they understood what's really wrong with that argument, they might have to change their views on design and purpose from the ground floor up.

posted at: 22:30 | path: /religion/science_and_religion | persistent link to this entry

Why I Don't Believe in So-Called Intelligent Design Theory

In case anyone is wondering, I do not believe in so-called "Intelligent Design" theory. I believe in the conventional scientific version of evolution.

My main objection to Intelligent Design theory is not new; others have stated this objection in various forms. Put simply, the problem with Intelligent Design (ID) is that it proceeds by jumping to conclusions. The best arguments for Intelligent Design that I've seen begin with the fact that we don't understand how some particular biological structure evolved. From that, the ID-ers infer that there probably is an external intelligent designer. But this is NOT a good inference! The mere fact that we can't explain something doesn't allow us to assume that some specific explanation is true. Even if a natural phenomenon has us completely puzzled, it's still illogical to infer from this that one particular explanation, or type of explanation, is right. The ID-ers tend to assume a specific explanation, or type of explanation, just because we don't have an explanation. There's a nonscientific name for this kind of reasoning. It's called "jumping to conclusions."

It's like assuming that because we don't know who stole the golf balls, the neighbors' cat must have done it.

This objection to ID is not original with me, though I may have stated it in a slightly different way. It's one of the standard objections to ID - perhaps the most standard objection. But I have not yet seen the ID theorists overcome this objection.

(While I'm on the subject of ID, I should mention that the question of whether nature has an external designer has almost no bearing on the question of the existence of God. This assertion might seem surprising. It has the potential to embarrass ID-ers and creationists - and many atheists too. See this document for further details.)

posted at: 22:19 | path: /religion/science_and_religion | persistent link to this entry


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