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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

Fri, 25 Dec 2009

Happy Holidays! (And Incidentally, Science Can't Disprove Religion)

It's the holiday season again. Christmas is here, and Hanukkah is recently past. For many people today these holidays have a significance that is purely cultural. However, many others still observe these holidays as religious occasions.

I'd like to take this opportunity to spread some "Joy to the World" by stating an important point about religion - not any particular religion, but religion in general. Here it is:

Science has not debunked religion and never will succeed in debunking religion.

The reason is simple: the most important claims of religion cannot be tested by scientific means. Science can't prove these beliefs right or wrong, or even prove them highly improbable. Today's noisy militant atheists might not like this fact, but it is a fact nonetheless.

Science can pass judgment on religious beliefs that are scientifically testable. For example, science has ruled out creationism - the belief that living species and the Earth are results of miraculous acts of creation instead of products of natural processes like evolution. Clearly science can debunk some religious beliefs. Many traditional religious beliefs have gone out the window for this reason. We can expect some more to go out the window in the future. However, science cannot debunk the really important ideas in religious thought.

Here's an example.

For many religions, the most important religious doctrine is the belief that there is a God. Who, or what, is God supposed to be? There are different opinions. Some people think of God as a ghostly being, perhaps cruel and violent, who created natural objects through supernatural acts. Some believers picture God this way; so do some atheists. But is such a "God" really worthy of the name "God"? Is he (or she, or it) worthy of our unswerving love? And why should we believe in those miraculous acts of creation when science offers better explanations of natural phenomena? People of conscience and reason often have trouble with this idea of God - and well they might!

If we think about the religious feelings of the more conscientious and thoughtful believers, we find that the God they believe in is not an angry ghost. Instead, their God might be described as a supremely good being - a being embodying great love, kindness, and spiritual beauty. If there is such a being, then He, She or It is indeed worthy of our love. (Believers who think of God this way often also believe that God is a supernatural creator. However, this other belief is not really indispensable to their thinking. They could believe in a good God even if God didn't create the universe. What matters in their daily lives is not how the universe started, but that God is good.)

Science can't debunk the idea that there is a supremely good being. The reason is simple. This idea of God depends on the idea of the good - and science, acting alone, cannot make judgments about what is good!

It is impossible to prove or disprove moral judgments, like "mercy is good" or "hate is bad," by means of scientific methods alone. The same goes for aesthetic judgments, like "This meadow is beautiful." It isn't possible to confirm or disconfirm such statements through scientific methods alone, without resorting to other ways of knowing, such as moral and aesthetic reasoning. This isn't news to philosophers, but nowadays it's too easily forgotten. The possibility that values are partly a matter of opinion doesn't change all this. Even if someone claimed (implausibly) that nothing has objective value, that claim still wouldn't be scientifically testable. Needless to say, scientists can make value judgments on their own, as human beings. However, no one can succeed in making value judgments using scientific methods alone. Science can study some questions about morality, like what makes people behave in ways commonly regarded as moral. However, science cannot say whether any moral standard (regardless of its origin) is objectively right.

Now back to the subject of God. We have seen that the idea of a supremely good being is one idea of God - and such a God is much more admirable than the angry ghost. So here's the big question: How can science prove that there's no supremely good being, when science, acting alone, can't even tell us whether anything is good or evil? The answer is simple: it can't. The very idea of science proving that there is no supremely good being is silly. It's like trying to prove scientifically that pulling the cat's tail is naughty. Any "scientific" argument that pretends to prove such conclusions must involve hidden side assumptions that are not scientific. Any plausible argument for or against God will be philosophical rather than purely scientific.

Some atheists have tried to debunk God on scientific grounds by arguing that God would have to be a very complex being, and that very complex beings are intrinsically improbable. This argument starts from an inadequate concept of God, but the argument also has another, more glaring flaw. The argument overlooks the fact that the improbability of complex beings is a consequence of the laws of nature. If the laws of nature had been different, things might have had probabilities vastly different from the ones they actually have. If we take God to be supernatural (as many people do), then we don't know whether the laws of nature apply to God - so we have no way to tell whether God would be improbable or not. If, on the other hand, God is natural (as some people believe), then the complexity of God is just all or part of nature's complexity. Either way, the argument that God is too complex to be believable is bad logic on a monumental scale. This objection to the argument certainly doesn't prove there is a God, but it shows that one "scientific" line of argument against God is wrong. For the details of this objection, and for some other objections to the same argument, see this paper. Similar problems face any argument that compares God to "Russell's teapot" or other improbable natural objects.

Until now I've been using the idea of God as an example of a scientifically untestable religious belief. Certain other important religious beliefs are like this too.

For example, there is the idea of an afterlife. Scientists often seem to think that science has debunked the afterlife once and for all. They argue that science has proven the self or personality to be a feature of the brain. Therefore (the argument goes) the self must disappear when the brain dies. But does this argument really work? Even if your self is only an attribute of your brain, why can't another brain have the same attribute after the end of your present brain?

It's nothing special for an attribute of a physical object to occur later in another physical object. Here's an example: Suppose that there were only one object having a certain shade of green. Then that object is destroyed. Later, a painter mixes new paint and just happens to create an object having exactly that same shade of green. In this example, one object has an attribute (a particular color) for a while - and later, after a delay, another object has the same attribute. Yet nothing passed between the two objects, and nothing miraculous happened.

If your self or identity is an attribute of your brain, couldn't that attribute occur again later in another object (brain)? The answer isn't obvious; when you begin to think carefully about the question, the question turns out to be quite complicated. The important thing is that when we look at the afterlife this way, we find that the scientific view of the mind cannot rule it out. Even if the self is an attribute of the brain, it's still logically and physically possible that there is an afterlife. What is more, the existence of an afterlife doesn't have to involve any kind of complexity that would make it statistically improbable. (See here for more details.) This certainly doesn't prove there is an afterlife - but it shows that the scientific view of the mind doesn't rule out an afterlife of some kind. The existence of the afterlife is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.

This post is not meant to persuade anyone to believe in God or in an afterlife. (Fanatical atheists, take note of this last sentence before you start calling me a hack, a fairy believer, and all your other usual hate words.) Also, I'm not asking anyone to believe in standard forms of religion. (As you know if you perused my website, my own ideas about religion aren't exactly standard and tend toward the disgustingly logical.) I'm just trying to point out that science cannot debunk the essential ideas of religion. Science can dispose of some outdated forms of belief, but science has little to do with the most important ideas at the heart of religion. So-called "scientific" disproofs of religion are simply pseudoscience. Away with them, along with the flat earth theory!

Now go have a very happy holiday season. Of course, this might be difficult if you are a militant atheist. In that case, you might prefer to spend the time putting the evil eye on me - an act just as rational as any so-called "scientific" argument against God.

posted at: 02:27 | path: /religion/science_and_religion | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 17 Dec 2009

Is Everything Abstract?

In my past writings I have had a lot to say about the reality of abstract objects. I have argued that these entities are real, though not in the same way that concrete things (like tables and chairs) are real. This is one of the standard philosophical positions about abstract objects [1]. One of the main lines of argument against this position is that accepting abstract objects adds unnecessary new things to the world. (In other words, accepting abstract objects supposedly violates Occam's Razor.) I do not believe that abstract objects pose any threat of this sort. The claim that abstract objects exist tells us little beyond what we already know when we say that objects have properties or relationships. See my earlier writings (here, here and here) for more about these ideas.

In this post I'd like to explore another, far more daring question about abstract objects: Might everything be abstract?

The speculation that everything might be abstract has precedents in philosophy. One precursor is the idea that the world is basically mathematical. This goes back to Greek philosophy (especially the Pythagoreans). The idea that the world might actually be a mathematical object occurs in modern times [2]. At first glance, the possibility that everything might be abstract seems implausible. How could everything be abstract when there's this solid, obviously concrete world around us? How could physical objects be abstract when abstract objects seem to be placeless, timeless, and devoid of the ability to cause events? (These are negative features that philosophers often attribute to abstract objects [3].) Also, how could everything be abstract when abstract objects are mainly just features of concrete objects? Wouldn't there have to be some concrete objects to begin with?

These worries become less pressing if we can begin to overcome the habit of picturing all abstract objects as intangible, ethereal, or not quite real. The worries might lose force even more when we explore the relationship between ordinary physical objects and their properties.

Before starting this exploration I'll make a few preliminary remarks about abstract objects.

If we accept the reality of abstract objects, then our picture of reality has room for many different kinds of existence. Tables and chairs are real, but so are properties like shapes and colors. Stars and galaxies are real, but so are relationships like being more massive than and being hotter than. Atoms and molecules are real, but so are mathematical items, like the set of all atoms in a DNA molecule (not the same as the molecule itself!) and the number of atoms or nuclei in a hydrogen molecule.

Mathematical logicians often think of abstract objects as forming systems of "logical types," or domains of abstract objects of different levels. For example, we might take physical objects to have logical type 0. Then a property of physical objects (like rectangularity) is of logical type 1. A property of a property of physical objects (like the property of being a shape property) is of logical type 2. And so on through type 3, 4,.... There also can be other types not in this series, such as types of relations. Logicians sometimes visualize an endless tower of logical types starting with the world of concrete things. Set theorists use a more flexible idea of levels, but the core idea is the same.

Often it's convenient to think in terms of towers of types, but we shouldn't get stuck thinking that every abstract object has to belong to one of these types. We need to keep an open mind and consider other possibilities - like sets that are members of themselves, or properties that are properties of themselves, or perhaps even two sets that are members of each other. Some logicians and mathematicians study things like these, mostly under the banner of "non-well-founded sets."

With these preliminaries in mind, I'd like to ask a key question: Where is the dividing line between concrete things and abstract objects?

I tried to answer this question in a talk called "Abstract Objects and Physical Reality," which you can find in a book of mine called The Unfinishable Book. (As of the date of this post, the book is downloadable for free - where "free" means "free except for the usual internet charges.") The gist of my answer is that there is no uniquely determined boundary between concrete objects and abstract objects.

This idea is not really new. Both Carnap's Aufbau [4] and Quine's thesis of ontological relativity [5] recognized that the choice of a domain of "concrete" entities might not be unique. However, what I'm proposing here is different from these earlier ideas. I am not embracing Quinian ontological relativity, and I am not proposing to use logical constructs, Aufbau-style, as substitutes or ersatzes for anything. I am only proposing that there is no unique domain of objects which alone are objectively "concrete."

Here is a brief introduction to the argument.

First, a bit more background on abstract objects. Concrete physical objects seem to be very different from abstract objects. However, when we begin to analyze physical objects, we find out that a physical object is an item that unites, or joins together, several properties and relations. A physical object has properties and relations which determine what the object is like. A physical object without properties and relations would be essentially "nothing." The most useful thing we could say about such an indefinite object is that it is able to hold several properties and relations together.

If we mentally distinguish a concrete object from its properties and relations, what is left of the object? Almost nothing! There would be only the factor that unites the properties and relationships.

Some philosophers have held that this uniting factor is a "bare particular" - a sort of simplified concrete object that does little more than hold together its properties and relations. Other philosophers (the "bundle theorists") deny bare particulars and view the uniting factor as something abstract, like a class.

Now here is the key insight behind my answer: It's hard to believe that a "bare particular" really is a concrete object. A bare particular looks more like a special property, shared in common by the properties and relations that it unites. I would argue that there is no significant contrast between a bare particular and a special property of this kind. Thus, if there is a bare particular, a concrete object is, at bottom, an abstract object. If there is no bare particular (and bundle theory is right), then a concrete object is, at bottom, abstract too. Either way, a concrete physical object can be analyzed into a combination of abstract objects of some kind.

If this view of existence is true, then there is no strong dividing line between the concrete and the abstract. The difference depends on where you begin your analysis. If you take concrete physical objects as the starting point, and don't try to analyze them into entities of other kinds, then you get the usual picture of abstract objects. You find that there are concrete objects, and then there are the various properties, relations, properties of properties, etc. of those objects. However, if you start your analysis with entities usually called abstract, you can portray concrete objects as properties or classes of them.

An obvious (but weak) objection to this view is that it can lead to circles of attribution, in which a physical object is a feature or class of abstract objects, while abstract objects are in turn features of physical objects. I don't think we should worry about these circles. They aren't vicious. They are no more illogical than the non-well-founded sets that I mentioned earlier. We can always postpone the circle in practice, by taking some fixed domain of objects as "concrete" and building up from there. The fact that everything is analyzable into other items doesn't make anything less real.

Another obvious objection is that physical objects have features that abstract objects don't have. For example, physical objects have spatial and temporal locations and causal powers - features that philosophers often deny to abstract objects. I don't think this objection is fatal either. Bare particular and bundle theories have to face this objection too. (Where is a bare particular located, when its spatial location has been stripped away along with its other properties? The "bundle" in bundle theory is an abstract object such as a class; how can it "be" a locatable, causality-ridden physical thing?) If this objection is not fatal to those theories, then it is not fatal to what I am proposing here.

For further details of the above argument, read Talk #9, called "Abstract Objects and Physical Reality" in The Unfinishable Book.

What, then, is the answer to our initial question, "Might everything be abstract?" The answer is "yes - in a way." Any given thing might be analyzable in a way that shows it to be an abstract object. However, that wouldn't prevent us from labeling some objects as concrete and using them as a "ground floor" for defining further abstractions. Normally we use physical objects as the concrete objects, but do we have to? Physical objects are the objects that seem most concrete to us - but perhaps that's just because we can detect many of them through our sense organs, which also can be analyzed as abstract objects if we have the nerve! (Pun intended.)


Concluding Cryptic Remark:

And now, for something really strange to think about.

Normally we equate the "world" to the world of concrete physical objects. We tend to regard other entities as mere features of that world. To borrow a term from mathematics, this amounts to taking a kind of "section" through the universe - picking out a preferred set of objects and treating them as basic. Usually the entities we treat as basic are the concrete physical entities. We regard them as the basic "world," with all other things mere features of that world.

What if we broke away from this unnecessary practice? What if we took a different "section" by choosing some different family of abstract objects as basic? What if we regarded all other entities, including our familiar physical objects, as mere features of those other objects? What would the resulting view of reality be like? Can we even do this without inconsistency?

This proposal sounds a bit like certain relativism-soaked ideas in philosophy - I'm thinking especially of Quine's ontological relativity thesis. However, it's not the same, because my proposal begins with a domain of real entities. All the abstract objects really exist, each in its own way. What is "relative" is the classification into abstract and concrete.

A conjecture: I suspect that if we began with data structures in the human brain as basic objects, we might arrive at a picture of reality in which the "basic" entities are experiences or their contents, and the physical world is a system of features of experiences or of their contents [6]. This would be a form of metaphysical idealism. However, this idealism would be fully compatible with naturalism, because both these viewpoints are just alternative analyses of the same world. See Chapter 13 in my book From Brain to Cosmos for my early thoughts on the possibility of a naturalistic idealism.

End of Cryptic Remark.



[1] The position that abstract objects are real is called ontological realism or platonism. My version of it is a modest version.

[2] Rudy Rucker wrote about the idea that everything is a set. See pp. 200-201 in Rucker's book Infinity and the Mind: the Science and Philosophy of the Infinite (Boston, Basel and Stuttgart: Birkhäuser, 1982).

[3] See the following article: Rosen, Gideon, "Abstract Objects", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = [].

[4] Carnap's Aufbau exists in several editions, including the following: Carnap, Rudolf (1928). The Logical Structure of the World. In The Logical Structure of the World; Pseudoproblems in Philosophy, trans. R. A. George (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969).

[5] Quine, W.V.O. Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).

[6] This seems reminiscent of what Carnap tried in the Aufbau, but actually it's different from the ground up (pun intended again). We aren't substituting logical constructions for anything. There is just a domain of objects, and there are different ways of classifying them.

posted at: 23:58 | path: /ontology | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 15 Dec 2009

Beyond Atheism, Theism, and Agnosticism: What Am I?

Sometimes people ask me whether I am an atheist, a theist, or an agnostic. Instead of giving simplistic answers to these questions, I'm going to take a few minutes to explain what I really think.

1. Am I a theist?

Theism is the belief that there is a supernatural God who created the universe and intervenes in it. Some people use the word "theism" to mean belief in a deity of any kind at all. However, this isn't the way the word usually gets used today. Usually "theism" is used to mean belief in a supernatural God who created and intervenes in the universe. Here I'll use "theism" in that sense.

According to this "standard" definition, I am not a theist. My problem with theism is not with the idea of a supreme being of some kind; my main problem is with the idea of the supernatural. I'll say more about that later.

Now that I've said this, I can almost hear the atheists printing my membership card. But wait! Things aren't as simple as they seem...

2. Am I an atheist?

I have a one-word answer to this question. However, the answer would be very misleading if I didn't explain a few things first.

The word "atheist" gets flung around rather freely today. However, labeling someone an "atheist" can be philosophically tricky. The problem with the word "atheist" is that the meaning of the word depends on which idea of God you accept. For example, a Christian might call an unbeliever in the biblical God an "atheist" just because that person accepts a concept of a supreme being different from the biblical God. Modern atheists sometimes make a similar mistake. They define the word "God" to mean a supernatural creator. Then, when they argue against belief in a supernatural creator, they think they are debunking God. The truth is more complex: you can believe in God without believing in a supernatural creator.

Philosophy and religion, both Eastern and Western, contain several different ideas of a supreme spiritual reality or supreme being. Some of these ideas do not portray the supreme being as a supernatural creator. I don't mean just the well-known "scientific" pantheism that equates God to the physical universe. There also are other ideas of God that don't involve supernatural creation but that don't equate God to the physical universe. Some of these ideas can do without belief in the supernatural. (Click here and here for further details.) Those who define the word "God" to mean only a supernatural creator, and who refuse to admit that there are other views of God, are just redefining the word "God." The idea that God is a supernatural creator is only one way to think about God. There are other ways.

Although I don't accept theism (defined as above), I am not anti-spiritual. I think the universe has a spiritual aspect to it. This spiritual aspect is not supernatural; humans can learn about it through the rational methods of philosophy (no religious faith required). I even think there is a supreme spiritual reality of sorts. This is not supernatural, but it fits pretty well with the philosophers' definition of a "greatest possible being" - a definition that I consider crucial to the idea of God. For more details, read this document.

So, do I believe in God? Those who insist on defining God as supernatural will conclude that I don't believe in God. However, I have a different answer: I do believe in God. Not the supernatural God of theism, but a supreme spiritual reality that's worthy of the name "God." My one-word answer to the question "Am I an atheist?" is "No."

If you think "God" can only mean a supernatural creator, then you might prefer to call me an atheist. My feelings won't be hurt, but I'll tell you that your definition of God needs some repairs!

3. Am I an agnostic?

My answer to the atheism question shows that I am not agnostic about the existence of a supreme spiritual reality. I think reason supports that idea. However, I am an agnostic of sorts about the existence of the supernatural. I don't believe there is anything supernatural (though there might, of course, be things in nature that seem supernatural to us). However, I don't know of any convincing argument for the nonexistence (or even the extreme improbability) of the supernatural. Thus, I am neither a believer nor a hard-core disbeliever in the supernatural. Followers of supernatural religions might want to consider me an agnostic for this reason. But I am not agnostic about the existence of some kind of supreme spiritual reality.

For further information, read this document, and explore the rest of this blog and this other blog.

posted at: 23:53 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 06 Nov 2009

My Other Blog Is Now Complete

The blog you are now reading is not my only blog. I have another blog, named "Religion: the Next Version." I created that other blog for one specific reason: to explore some ideas about a rational approach to religion.

"Religion: the Next Version" is now a completed work. I have done what I set out to do there. I plan to continue my blogging about religion (and everything else) on the blog you are now reading. I will leave "Religion: the Next Version" in place as a finished document. (There's a tiny chance that I might still add something to "Religion: the Next Version," but that's not in my current plans.)

Be sure to visit "Religion: the Next Version" today. The ideas you will find there might prove irritating to theists and atheists alike. However, visionary poets and true rationalists might find those ideas rather friendly.

posted at: 01:52 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 01 Sep 2009

Study Does Not Show that Fat People Are Brain-Damaged

A recent study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping [1] suggests that obesity and overweight are statistically linked to brain degeneration in elderly people. The LiveScience news website reported these results in a way that suggests that all obese people have brain damage [2]. The LiveScience article's title, "Obese People Have 'Severe Brain Degeneration'," is enough to create this misunderstanding. Other news outlets, such as [3], have reported the same story in a similar manner.


The study does NOT prove that fat people are brain damaged.

The study does not even show that being fat causes brain degeneration in the elderly.

The study suggests there is a statistical correlation between a high body mass index (BMI) and certain kinds of brain deterioration in elderly people. This is not the same as saying that being fat causes anything. One part of the original journal paper suggests that high BMI is not likely to be the actual cause of the observed brain changes, and that something else might be causing both the high BMI and the brain changes ([1], p. 9).

Misinformation about this study is a serious matter. If the media present this study the wrong way, people might take it to mean that all fat people are brain-damaged. This misunderstanding is sure to increase the widespread hatred of fat people, and to worsen the abuse of fat children, who often suffer vicious bullying, teasing, and social rejection because of their size. Even though the study involved elderly people and not children, the idea that being fat causes brain damage plays right into the "fat kids are stupid" stereotype, which already causes great harm to children who are genetically heavier than average.

There are at least two possible ways to explain the study's results without assuming that fat causes brain damage.

One explanation, which the paper already mentions, is that something could be causing both the high BMI and the brain changes. The paper mentions "reduced exercise" as one such possible cause ([1], p. 9). If this were the real cause, then fat people who get enough exercise should be able to avoid the brain problems. (Despite the widespread belief that fat people don't exercise, in reality many fat people do exercise - and some remain fat even when they are exercising a lot. [4])

Another possible explanation is that social stress and isolation are causing the brain problems. Fat people experience serious discrimination in our society, and this discrimination can affect health. (See reference [5] for relevant information.) Few thin people can fully imagine how much teasing, bullying, loneliness, and employment discrimination many fat people go through. It's no secret that social stress has bad effects on physical and mental health. Maybe some fat people develop brain problems because of a lifetime of social stress. If this is the explanation, then discrimination, not fat, is the cause of the brain problems. We can address this cause by working to end the discrimination.


Aside from the misleading media coverage, the study itself contains a feature that can be called into question. This is the study's use of BMI as an indicator of overweight and obesity. Although it is common to use BMI this way, BMI does not appear to be a very good measure of fatness or of poor health. (See references [5], [6] and [7] below for relevant information.)

Any scientific study is subject to future criticism by other scientists; results sometimes fade in the light of further studies. However, even if this study withstands the test of time, it does not show that fat people in general are brain-damaged.

These same warnings apply to any study that suggests that fat people of any age have brain problems. Studies of this sort do not automatically show that fat causes brain damage, or that fat people are stupid. The cautionary remarks given here might well carry over to other studies also.



[1] Cyrus A. Raji, April J. Ho, Neelroop N. Parikshak, James T. Becker, Oscar L. Lopez, Lewis H. Kuller, Xue Hua, Alex D. Leow, Arthur W. Toga, and Paul M. Thompson. "Brain Structure and Obesity". Human Brain Mapping (2009). Published online in Wiley InterScience ( DOI: 10.1002/hbm.20870. Accessed 8/25/2009.

[2] "Obese People Have 'Severe Brain Degeneration'". ( Posted 8/25/2009. Accessed 8/29/2009.

[3] "Study: Obese People Have 'Severe Brain Degeneration'". (,2933,542480,00.html) Posted 8/25/2009. Accessed 8/29/2009.

[4] For relevant information, see the following article on a U.S. government website: Marcia Wood, "Health At Every Size: New Hope for Obese Americans?" ( Published in Agricultural Research magazine, 3/2006. Accessed 8/29/2009. See also The Obesity Myth (reference [5] below).

[5] Paul Campos, The Obesity Myth (New York: Gotham Books, 2004).

[6] Raj Jayadev. "Muscle vs. Fitness". Metroactive. From Metro (newspaper), December 1-7, 2004. ( Accessed 8/29/2009.

[7] "Science of HAES". ( Accessed 8/29/2009. Includes articles by Dr. Paul Ernsberger.

posted at: 11:30 | path: /political | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 14 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 11: A Summary of the Papers, and What It All Means

This post is the last in a series that I call "The Anti-Dawkins Papers." Together, these posts form a critique of the main ideas in Richard Dawkins' atheistic book The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here. (Actually, the papers aren't against Dawkins; they are only against some of his ideas.)

Will I add more to the critique after this post? Is this really the last of the Papers? Those are open questions. (Update: I've written more about Dawkins' ideas elsewhere. See the note at the end of this post.)

In the previous ten posts, I refuted the main arguments from The God Delusion. Here are summaries of what I did.

  • In post 1 I showed that Dawkins' concept of God is hopelessly inadequate. Dawkins' definition of God describes only one idea of God among many possible ideas. Therefore, The God Delusion is not really a line of argument against God at all. Even if the arguments in the book were right, the book would be a refutation of one traditional concept of God - not of the idea of God as such. In post 1 I also showed that Dawkins' attack on Gould's NOMA concept is unjustified, and that Dawkins' grasp on philosophy, at least as deployed in this book, is weak.
  • In post 2 I refuted Dawkins' central argument: the argument from improbability. (Actually I did not do this in the post, but in a paper to which I linked from the post.) The argument from improbability is Dawkins' best atheistic argument; he even suggested that it might be "unanswerable" (p. 113). Since that argument is the central argument of The God Delusion (see pp. 157-158), its downfall effectively guts Dawkins' case for atheism. So much for unanswerability! After disposing of this argument, I also undermined Dawkins' critique of agnosticism.
  • In post 3 I addressed Dawkins' criticisms of personal religious experience. I showed that Dawkins' examples of religious experience were stunningly poor examples. I pointed out that real spiritual experience also exists, and can be a good source of knowledge whether or not there is anything supernatural. Also, I suggested that religions might grow out of legitimate spiritual experiences, and then become irrational when those experiences are forgotten and misunderstood.
  • In post 4 I showed that Dawkins' argument against design in nature is surprisingly weak. I gave links to some of my writings that describe an alternative view. According to this alternative view, evolution is exactly as science says it is (with no Intelligent Design theory or other aberrations), but there still can be real design in nature.
  • In post 5 I showed that Dawkins' ideas about the origins of religion are irrelevant to the truth of belief in God. Even if religion comes from lowly evolutionary sources, it may still turn out to be partly true. Also, I offered my own suggestion for a source of religious belief.
  • In post 6 I took on Dawkins' claim that religion causes evil. I pointed out that his many examples of religious evil are examples of "bad" religion (as defined in the post). These examples show that "bad" religion causes evil, but they tell us absolutely nothing about "good" religion (also defined in the post). Also, I showed that Dawkins' polemic against faith works only against unreasonable, morally insensitive forms of faith.
  • In post 7 I pointed out two places where Dawkins grossly misrepresents the ideas of opposing thinkers. These examples don't bear directly on arguments about God, but they raise doubts about the credibility of the book.
  • In post 8 I showed that the higher percentage of atheists among scientists and other educated people proves nothing about the truth or rationality of atheism.
  • In post 9 I rebutted Dawkins' claim that science rules out miracles. I did not argue for the reality of miracles, but I showed that some miracles might be compatible with science.
  • In post 10 I exposed Dawkins' harsh anti-religious rhetoric for what it is: a form of discourse which, if used in other circumstances, might be considered hate speech. Also, I pointed out some bad reasons why people might find The God Delusion convincing.

From the arguments in these posts, we can conclude that Dawkins has failed to make a convincing case against God. We are back where we started before Dawkins wrote his book: with the question of God's existence wide open. Belief in God remains a reasonable option for thinking people; so do atheism and agnosticism. Dawkins may have succeeded in debunking fundamentalism, religious extremism, and other unreasonable forms of belief - but you do not have to be an atheist to see that these are wrong. (Incidentally, those interested in rational approaches to spiritual issues may want to peruse my website, and especially the documents of mine that I cited in these posts.)

On the dust jacket of my copy of The God Delusion (the edition I cited in post 1 and used throughout the posts), a quote from Steven Pinker challenges those who hold some particular beliefs to "see if you can counter Dawkins's arguments." Well, we've done it! We have shown that the most important arguments in The God Delusion are wrong. Even if you don't agree with my counterarguments, the fact that it's possible to find substantive rational objections to Dawkins' arguments shows that he has not conclusively settled the question of God. Dawkins has not delivered any unanswerable final stroke in the debate over God's existence. Instead, he has just added his two cents' worth to that debate. (And a nasty two cents' worth it is!)

Despite the nastily self-assured tone of his book, Dawkins is not a voice of reason (or of Reason). As far as religious thought is concerned, he is only another purveyor of opinion in the age-old debate over the existence of God - and his arguments for his opinion aren't even convincing. It's time for rational thinkers to reject The God Delusion and move on to more rewarding pursuits.



Note added after posting: In the time since I posted "The Anti-Dawkins Papers," some criticisms of my arguments have shown up on the web. So far, the criticisms I have seen have not been convincing. I'm answering these criticisms, as time permits, on a separate rebuttals page. Also, I've written more about Dawkins' ideas since I wrote "The Anti-Dawkins Papers." These new writings are in the atheism category. Those interested in my views on religion in general are invited to explore the religion category as a whole.


Post updated 2/7/2011


posted at: 03:07 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 13 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 10: Hate by Any Other Name?

This post continues my critique of the ideas in Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. You can find the whole critique here.

Until now, I have concentrated on factual and logical problems with The God Delusion. However, one of the main problems with the book is neither a factual nor a logical problem, but an ethical one. I am referring to the book's extremely mean-spirited tone. (I am not the first to comment on this mean-spiritedness [1].) Early in the book, Dawkins says he wants to remove the respect traditionally accorded to religion (pp. 20-27). This part of the book even bears the title "Undeserved respect" (pp. vii, 20). In the rest of the book, Dawkins does not merely remove the undeserved respect. He spews a stream of hostile and corrosive rhetoric, mercifully interrupted by stretches of more level-headed material. If language as hostile as that in The God Delusion were found in a book on race or ethnicity, it might well get condemned in some quarters as hate speech.

I will not try to point out all the instances of vitriolic or insulting language in The God Delusion. There are far too many instances for that. Instead, I will just point out a few telling examples.

  • Dawkins quotes from a speech by noted religious physicist Freeman Dyson, made while Dyson was accepting an award (pp. 152-153). In between the lines of Dyson's speech, Dawkins inserts made-up words that Dyson never said, making it look as if Dyson were speaking insincerely. Dawkins admits that the added italicized words are not Dyson's, but still he puts them into Dyson's mouth, making Dyson look insincere. This attack on the brilliant Dyson is not simply a criticism of Dyson's beliefs. Instead, it amounts to a below-the-belt personal attack. Later, Dawkins seems to be trying to cover himself when he characterizes Dyson as "way above being corrupted" (p. 153). However, this quick disclaimer does little to reduce the suggestive power of the fabricated words, or the impressions of Dyson that those words leave in the reader's mind.
  • In his discussion of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA concept (which tries to reconcile science and religion), Dawkins surmises that Gould really did not believe NOMA at all, and was merely "bending over backwards to be nice to an unworthy but powerful opponent" (p. 57). In other words, he is suggesting that Gould lied. Again, a below-the-belt attack - but this time against a deceased man who cannot even answer back.
  • At one point (p. 108), Dawkins suggests that those involved with theology "are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true." In other words, if you are on the other side of the debating table from Dawkins, there's a good chance you are living in a fantasy world. Rational argument indeed!

These few examples are enough to expose the ratty tone of the book's rhetoric. Just imagine these examples multiplied many times over. The book leaves the impression that if you think differently from Dawkins, then you are insincere or cowardly at worst, ignorant and confused at best - and perhaps senile to boot (p. 98 n.). It is sad to see such rhetoric in a book whose author is known as a distinguished scientist.

Perhaps the most hateful aspect of The God Delusion is its constant carping on the evils of religion. I have dealt with these examples of bad religion collectively in an earlier post. There I showed that these examples prove nothing about the existence of God or about the goodness of religious thought in general. These examples only show that some particular religious beliefs are desperately wrong. (You don't need to be an atheist to figure that out; you just need to watch the evening news.) However, the failure of Dawkins' polemic against religion is not its worst defect. Even though it does not succeed in proving anything, Dawkins' insistent ranting about the evils of religion has the potential to whip up rage against ordinary religious people.

Imagine what would happen if the author of this book were not an atheist criticizing religion, but a member of a particular faith criticizing another faith. Suppose, for example, that a Christian wrote a book against Judaism with the same degree of hostility and ridicule that Dawkins uses to attack religion in general. Suppose further that this Christian author hinted that unconverted Jews constitute a danger to humanity. What would we say about such a book? Many of us would consider it a work of hate. The author of the anti-Jewish book might try to defend himself by saying: "But I wasn't attacking Jews, I was only attacking their beliefs!" That argument would not wash well with many of us. Anyone who portrays adherents of a belief as menaces to humanity is attacking the people, not just the belief. That kind of criticism goes beyond mere criticism of ideas.

Dawkins does almost the same thing as our imaginary Christian. The main difference is that he attacks a different group of mostly good people. (The two groups - religious believers and Jews - even overlap.) Dawkins doesn't only attack religious criminals, such as al-Qaeda or child-abusing priests, though he does criticize these (see especially pp. 303-304, 315-318). Instead, he portrays all religion as a menace (chap. 8) - and he does so in a way that suggests religious people are vehicles of that menace. (He even likens religion to a contagious virus (pp. 176, 186-188).) In effect, he portrays religious people, not only religious ideas, as a problem for the world. Why should Dawkins get a free pass? Why are we afraid to call The God Delusion a hateful book? As I pointed out in my earlier posts, the book is full of faulty arguments. What makes this book significantly better than, say, a fiery Christian polemic against Judaism that uses weak arguments as talking points?

I suspect that many readers give The God Delusion more respect than it is worth because they are afraid to question the opinions of a well-known scientist. However, this fear should not stop them from using their reason. Personally, I am a lifelong supporter of science, but even an ardent admirer of science must admit that scientists are not perfect. Occasionally a scientist messes up just as badly as anyone else could. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Philipp Lenard became a follower of Adolf Hitler and served as "Chief of Aryan or German Physics" for the Nazi Party. [2] The tragic stories of eugenics and of lobotomies provide other examples of scientific error. These errors eventually got corrected, but not in time to prevent harm. I am not suggesting that Dawkins would embrace errors as gross as these. I am only pointing out that his scientific credentials do not guarantee that his ideas always are right. Critical thinking is necessary in this imperfect world. You need it even when reading a book by a "big" scientist.

Another reason people might take The God Delusion seriously is that Dawkins is a good writer. It's true that he's a good writer, but of course this says nothing about the truth of his ideas. It is unfortunate for humanity, but nevertheless true, that people who hold lousy ideas sometimes write well.

Still another possible motive for undue reverence toward The God Delusion is the sheer density of information in the book. This book is packed with scientific and historical information and ideas. The reader may get the feeling that the book is full of new insights, perhaps even revelations. However, this does not tell us anything about the book's truth. A good science fiction novel can create the same feeling, and can be just as full of ideas and information. That doesn't mean that the plot of the novel is factually true. (The difference, of course, is that the science fiction novel is not meant to be true.)

I suggest that we abandon any undue reverence toward The God Delusion, and start telling it like it is. The God Delusion is not a book that a rational thinker should believe. For reasons discussed here and in my earlier posts, the book does not succeed in building a credible case for atheism. It's still possible for a thinking person to be an atheist - but if you are going to be one, you need to find better reasons than the faulty arguments and misguided rhetoric in The God Delusion.



[1] See, for example, Alvin Plantinga's comments on the nastiness found in The God Delusion. (Plantinga, Alvin. "The Dawkins Confusion." Books & Culture, March 1, 2007, [], accessed 5/10/2009.)

[2] Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967, [], accessed 7/8/2009.

posted at: 23:59 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 09 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 9: Of Science and Miracles

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' ideas about religion as found in his book, The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

In this post I will take on one of Dawkins' claims about miracles. This post is not an argument for belief in miracles. I am only trying to show that the topic of miracles is not as simple as Dawkins makes it seem.

The line of thought in The God Delusion is unfriendly to miracles. Dawkins even claims that "miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science" (p. 59). What "definition" does Dawkins have in mind? Is there a hard-and-fast definition, written down somewhere, that dictates the "principles of science"? No, there is not.

Science is a set of methods that have proven extraordinarily useful in understanding and controlling the natural world. Scientists follow certain working rules because those rules have proven useful. However, science does not bow and kneel before any a priori list of inviolable principles. If a miracle ever happened, no so-called principle would bar scientists from studying it! If scientists ever did confirm that there was a miracle (in the sense of an event that violates natural laws), they would not say "Well, we have conclusive evidence for this miracle, but we still can't believe it happened, because believing it would violate The Very Principles of Science Itself." At least scientists who have thought it over would not say that! If scientists ever gained conclusive evidence for a miracle, they would have to accept that some natural laws have occasional exceptions. However, science would not collapse. Science would not even have to change in any fundamental way. A thoughtful scientist might say "Well, there's an exception to one of our known natural laws. Now we know that this particular law isn't invariably true. Instead of holding all the time, it only holds statistically - it's usually reliable but can be violated on occasion." Scientists already know of statistically true natural laws. The law of entropy in thermodynamics is not invariably true, but only statistically true. The allowed violations of the law of entropy are not miracles; instead, these stunningly rare violations have a known physical basis. However, the statistical nature of the law of entropy does show that a natural law doesn't have to be 100 percent right to be useful. In layman's terms, stuff happens!

Science does not resort to miracles to explain puzzling facts. This scientific policy has proven itself useful, and is indispensable as a working rule. (If we explain something odd by assuming it's a miracle, then we might be missing some other, non-miraculous explanation that we haven't thought of yet.) But does science really rule out miracles?

Imagine a miracle that only happens once, with no advance warning and with no closely similar miracles before or after. Such a once-off unrepeatable miracle would be no threat to science at all! As far as science is concerned, such a miracle probably would be undiscoverable. Here's why. If scientists found apparent evidence for such a miracle, they would favor the simplest, least extravagant possible explanation for the evidence. (The working rule of scientific method called Occam's Razor says this is the appropriate thing to do.) However, any non-miraculous explanation would be less extravagant than the hypothesis that a miracle had occurred. Therefore, scientists would not conclude that there was a miracle, even if there was no other apparent explanation for the evidence.

What does this mean? It means that if a single unrepeatable miracle really happened, scientists would have no intellectual obligation to believe that it happened! Scientists would be justified in acting as if there were no miracle. A once-off, unrepeatable miracle would pose no threat to our scientific knowledge. It would not even touch our scientific knowledge. The miracle would not have to be incorporated into our scientific knowledge, even if it really happened. Science can simply ignore the possibility of such a miracle.

It's all too easy to forget that science deals with repeatable phenomena and with hypotheses that are testable through scientific methods. Science does not necessarily encompass all possible phenomena, and ignores hypotheses that cannot be scientifically tested. An unrepeatable event can be of scientific interest, but scientists will try to explain it using laws that have repeatable consequences. Ignoring some phenomena and beliefs may be the correct thing for scientists to do, even if they risk missing something that way.

Science does not trade in miracles. That is as it should be. However, science does not force us to believe dogmatically that there are no miracles. A once-off miracle might not be scientifically confirmable. Note that we cannot say this about a repeatable miracle (for example, if certain prayers were answered dependably). Such a miracle might well be subject to scientific testing. (Dawkins gives an example of this sort of testing in his section on "the Great Prayer Experiment" (pp. 61-66). In that case, the miracle turned out not to be there.) However, an unrepeatable miracle might be impossible to pin down scientifically.

This is not an argument for belief in miracles. As readers of my writings may have noticed, my own view of spirituality does not require miracles, if a "miracle" means a violation of natural law. I only want to point out that the relationship between science and miracles is not as hostile as it seems. Science can operate perfectly well without an absolute assumption that there are no miracles. If you believe in miracles, that doesn't automatically make you an enemy of science. Whether miracles really happen is a separate question.

posted at: 17:03 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Wed, 08 Jul 2009

Why Science Cannot Disprove the Afterlife

Part 1. The Afterlife and the Scientific Argument Against It

One of the important beliefs of traditional religions is the existence of an afterlife. Some religions teach that humans have immortal souls that leave the body at death and continue to exist afterwards. Other religions teach that there is no persisting soul, but that a person's mental life, or some aspect of it, starts up again in a new body. (This second view is typical of Buddhism.)

Science-minded skeptics often reject the idea of an afterlife out of hand. Their standard argument against the afterlife goes like this: The mind is only a process in the brain. Therefore, the mind cannot survive the death of the brain.

Is this argument against the afterlife sound? No, it is not. The reason is simple: a process can continue after its physical medium is destroyed. A process that exists in one medium now can continue in a different medium later. Therefore, the fact that the mind is a process in the brain does not imply that the mind must end with the brain. Instead, the mind might continue later in a new brain or in some other physical medium. [1]

There are many examples of processes that start on one medium and continue in another. Examples of these processes are water waves, computations, and fires.

An ocean wave is a process. A single wave can pass from one part of the ocean to another. In doing so, the wave first occupies one stretch of seawater, then another, then another. The water molecules themselves move around in place; they do not travel with the wave. If the part of the sea where the wave started were removed (say, displaced by a big ship), the wave might continue as if nothing happened - provided that the wave already had traveled to a new piece of water.

A computation is a process. It can start on one processor and finish on another. If the computation isn't going to use the first processor anymore, then the first processor normally can be shut off with no harm to the computation.

A fire is a process. It can start on one chunk of fuel and continue on another. Once the fire reaches the second piece of wood, the first piece might already be destroyed. However, the fire can continue to burn. The fire needs fuel, but the fire's existence doesn't depend on any particular piece of fuel. A different piece of fuel will do just fine. (The analogy between the spread of a fire and the continuation of the mind occurs in Buddhist thought. Apparently the old-time Buddhists understood the behavior of processes better than do today's skeptics.)

A process can continue even after the demise of its original medium. Therefore, the common "scientific" argument against immortality is neither scientific nor convincing. Even if the mind is only a process in the brain, the mind might still continue after death by continuing in another brain, or in some other physical system capable of supporting mental processes.

This finding isn't an argument for the existence of an afterlife. It is only a rebuttal to the standard "scientific" argument against the afterlife. The skeptics who use this argument are way off track. The mind may be a process in the brain, but this fact alone does not tell us whether the mind can continue to exist after the brain is gone. If the skeptics want to think that the afterlife is impossible, they are going to have to find better reasons than that one!

Part 2. Of Toads and Timing: How Might the Mind Survive Death?

It's possible for a process to outlast its medium. How could this happen for the human mind?

This question brings us to the many scientific speculations about artificial immortality. Scientists, philosophers, and science fiction writers have asked whether we might be able to become immortal by transferring our minds into new brains or into computers. This kind of artificial mind transfer is one way that the mind might outlive its brain. (I discuss an even wilder variation on this in note [2].)

Artificial immortality is an exciting prospect, but it isn't what I want to write about in this post. I am thinking about spontaneous immortality - a mind's survival of death without artificial means. Spontaneous immortality is similar to what present-day religions believe in. Is spontaneous immortality logically possible and compatible with modern scientific knowledge?

The simple answer is YES. Nothing in logic or in science rules out the possibility of a mind spontaneously starting up again after the death of its original brain. For this to happen, the mind would have to start up again in some other brain spontaneously, without artificial intervention. We have no proof that this happens, but nothing we currently know rules it out. I'll spend most of the rest of this post justifying this answer.

Could an old mind really start up again spontaneously in a new brain? How could this happen?

If it happens, it might work something like this. The mind stops operating when the brain dies. Then a new mind, starting up naturally in a newly formed infant brain somewhere, happens to have some crucial features of the old process. In fact, it is so much like the old process that the two processes constitute the same mind. The new process in the new brain acts as a continuation of the old process in the old brain.

If something like this happened, then a kind of "rebirth" could occur without the need for anything controversial like persisting souls. It wouldn't require any objects besides human bodies and their brains.

Does this scenario even make any sense? Yes! We already know of many physical processes that restart like this. They stop happening for a while, and then start happening again later.

One prime example is a computation. Someone can set up a computer program to do a specific task (for example, calculate pi to 1 million decimal places). If the program saves its in-progress data to the hard disk, then if the program is interrupted (say by a hardware reboot), the program can be started up again later and finish the same task. There is no reason to think of the second part of the computation as a totally new computation. It is part of the same computation as the first part.

Other examples of such processes come from the migration of animals. Many types of animals migrate from one geographical area to another. Perhaps the movement is caused by external stimuli alone, or perhaps internal "clocks" and interactions among animals play roles - but in any case, the result is a process that we call a migration. Now imagine a migration in which the animals' movement is triggered by external stimuli alone. Imagine further that these particular animals are not very excitable, so that only one animal is traveling at any given time. If you want a specific example, imagine a bunch of toads moving across the landscape - and imagine that the toads are rather placid, so it happens that only one toad is hopping at any given time. This process (if it really happened) would be a perfectly good example of an animal migration. However, it would not be a continuous process, but would be a frequently interrupted one. At any given time, a single toad is moving - but in between times, no animals are traveling at all. In spite of the gappy and disconnected nature of the movements, the sum total of these movements is a process of migration. A migration really is happening. It would be an abuse of language to say there is no "migration" just because the migration consists of discrete jumps. [3]

These examples show that a single process can be made up of several consecutive subprocesses or stages ("hops"), each of which spans a different interval in time and space. It's possible for a process to stop and then start up spontaneously later, even if some time elapses between the stages of the process, and even if the restart happens in a different place from the stop.

What does that tell us about the mind? The toad and computer examples show that a process can be made of several stages that happen in sequence, with time gaps (and even space gaps) separating the stages. The stages don't have to be connected directly together to make up a single process. Thus, the process that we call the mind could (for all we know) consist of several separated stages. The fact that the mind is a process in the brain does not rule out the possibility that this process has more stages later, in other brains. When a mind stops, some later process that starts up in some other brain might be a future stage of the same mind. We have no proof that this happens, but we can't rule it out by shouting that tired old skeptical battle cry, "the mind is only a process in the brain"!

If minds really could start up again like this, then after you die, your mind might start up again in the brain of some new baby who is just beginning to gain consciousness. (Babies appear to become conscious gradually, not all at once - but still they do become conscious, so we can speak of the experiences that happen as a baby becomes conscious.) In other words, you might die, then wake up as a new baby somewhere in the world. This would be a modern version of the ancient doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth. Of course, there would be nothing that actually "reincarnates," because there is no substantial soul to pass over to the new body. There also would be none of those so-called "past-life memories" that bemuse so many New Agers. Instead, your mind during this life would be only one time-phase of a larger process, which has gaps and also includes the mind of a future brain. This larger process would be your mind as a whole. Your mind as it exists during this life would be only part of your mind - a single stage.

The Buddhist idea of rebirth is much like this: a kind of restart of one's inner life in a new body, without any substantial soul to pass over to the new body. However, the idea I am proposing here is much simpler. Among other differences, my idea can do without the belief in karma, which is important to the Buddhist view.

Part 3. The Perils and Possibilities of Persons

So far I have been talking about an abstract logical possibility: a single mind that exists in two or more different bodies, one after the other. Before we can consider this a real possibility, we need to think about a huge question: Why would the mind of a new body - a body born after you die - be your mind? What would make a particular new mind a continuation of you, instead of just a new person? Could anything do that?

Offhand, it doesn't seem as if the mind of a later body could be your mind. The very idea seems bizarre. After all, the baby born after you die doesn't have your memories, and probably no information or influence has passed from you to the baby! This kind of "rebirth" isn't exactly like a fire passing from one stick to another, where the first phase of the fire causes the second phase to begin. It's more like our migration of toads, where two independent hops can be stages of the same overarching process. It's just you (hop number 1) and a future infant (hop number 2) - with no important influences passing in between.

Could the baby be the same person as you? I don't have a final answer to this question, but I do know a possible way to an answer. This way is the theory of personal identity - a field of philosophy that uses logic to analyze questions about the persistence of persons through time. Let me explain this a bit. I won't go into personal identity theory in depth here (there already are many books on that topic), but I'll try to indicate what the field is about, drawing on general background knowledge about the field. Those interested in a deeper treatment are invited to explore the many books and articles on personal identity.

During your present life, your mind and body continue through time. As they continue, you undergo many different moments and stages of life. All these time-phases of your life are stages of a single history of a unique person. There is a unity to your history; the history isn't just a scattered series of random experiences or disconnected moments of existence. There must be some shared feature that the stages have in common, or some relationship among the stages, that unites all the stages into the history of a single person. Philosophers studying personal identity have created various theories, ideas and guesses about the nature of the unifying feature or relationship.

Let's look at a few known ideas about personal identity, and what they say about the possibility that a new baby, born after your death, might be you all over again.

(Note to philosophers: As a philosopher, you might agree or disagree strongly with some of the theories I'm hinting at here. Remember that I am not advocating a specific theory of personal identity. I only want to show that different views of personal identity can give very different verdicts on the idea of rebirth. I am well aware that there are arguments for and against each of these views. If an objection is standard, I've probably already heard it.)

Idea 1. Essentialism.

According to so-called "essentialist" views of personal identity, what unites the stages in your life is a set of essential characteristics. These would be the characteristics that make you uniquely you, and that differentiate you from all other persons.

If persons or their minds really have essential characteristics like this, then a baby might be born who is literally a continuation of you. People are born with many different sets of characteristics as a result of chance and the genetic lottery. Given any possible set of essential characteristics, some future baby might happen to be born with that same set of characteristics, just by chance. The longer the time after your death, the more likely such an infant will be born somewhere. Thus, you might be "reborn" in the future by virtue of raw chance. In effect, the chance genetic processes that created you in the first place might accidentally create you again!

Idea 2. Continuity of experience.

According to other views of personal identity, what unites your stages into one history is the continuity of experiences in your life. At each conscious moment, you have certain experiences (sensations, feelings, etc.). These experiences give way to each other as you go along, creating what's called a "stream of consciousness."

If this apparent continuity is what ties your life together, then a baby might be born who is literally a continuation of you. A baby, once conscious, can have various experiences. Some of these experiences (perhaps most of them at first!) will be dreamy and unreal - so they will include experiences of things that aren't really present. Given the vast complexity of brains, some of these dreamlike experiences might even be rather random. What if the baby's earliest experiences started with impressions that just happened, by chance, to duplicate your last moments - either in detail, or at least in certain crucial respects? That might be enough to make the new baby's consciousness count as a continuation of yours.

Idea 3. Continuity of viewpoint.

Each of us has what philosophers call a "first-person point of view" - a unique standpoint from which one experiences the world. As philosophers often have pointed out, conscious experience has a subjective "feel"; it has an inner, subjective, felt aspect as well as an outer, behavioral one. [4]

This provides a clue to another way that a new baby could be literally a continuation of you. As I pointed out under Idea 2, a baby's earliest experiences may be partly random. What if the baby's earliest conscious moments just happened, by chance, to feel as though your last experiences had just happened? Given certain ideas about first-person viewpoint, that might make the baby's first-person viewpoint a continuation of yours. [5]

This idea is especially relevant if a first-person perspective is a kind of abstract object. (Elsewhere I have suggested that the first-person perspective at any given moment of awareness is a kind of modality, which can be taken to be an abstract object. See reference [6] and also here.) If a first-person perspective is an abstract object, then it might be possible for a brain not physically connected to yours to realize the same abstract feature.

Idea 4. The abstract self

As I have pointed out elsewhere, it's reasonable to assume that the self is an abstract object - a feature or property of the brain or of the brain's activity. (This idea isn't a theory of personal identity, but it has a similar impact on the rebirth scenario we are discussing.)

If this idea is true, then a new baby might be literally a continuation of you. How? The baby's brain might have the same feature that served as a self when your brain had the feature!


By presenting these four ideas about personal identity or the self, I'm not arguing for any of them. Nor am I arguing for any of the four possibilities for rebirth. Those who think they have fatal objections to one or more of these ideas need not be too upset. I know that much of what I have said is speculative. (Critics, pay attention to the preceding sentence before writing.) All I am trying to show is that it is not out of the question for a later human organism to be the same person as an earlier human organism. Nothing illogical, supernatural, or antiscientific is required. These four scenarios for survival of death do not violate the scientific principle known as Occam's Razor; they do not assume any extra objects (like ghostly souls) or extra complexity in the physical world. (The only objects required are human bodies and brains, with all their usual properties and features.)

Note that these four proposals do not add up to proof of an afterlife, or even to proof that an afterlife is likely. (I repeat: I am not claiming to have a proof of the afterlife.) Besides the four views of personal identity that I've hinted at here, there are other views that make spontaneous survival very unlikely. Examples are views based on the continuity of bodies or on the continuity of most of a person's memories. I am not going to argue for or against any of these theories here. I have presented the above four ideas to make one point: that we can't disprove the afterlife merely by stating that the mind is nothing but a process in the brain.

These examples also teach us another important lesson: if the mind is a process in the brain, then the possibility of an afterlife is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. If the mind is a process in the brain, then the answer to the question "Can a person spontaneously survive death?" depends on the solution to the problem of personal identity. That problem is philosophical, not scientific. Science cannot decide among alternative logically consistent solutions to that problem, for we cannot make that decision using only physical facts about bodies and their behavior. We also need philosophical analysis of concepts, such as the concept of a person. No matter which view of personal identity is right, the physical facts about bodies, brains and behavior will look exactly the same.

Part 4. Some Parting Remarks (pun intended)

What lessons have we learned from this merry romp through philosophy, logic and life? There are two.

1. The standard scientific argument against the afterlife is wrong. It might be possible for persons and their minds to survive death, even if the mind is "only" a process in the brain and the self is "only" a feature of the brain.

2. If the mind is a process in the brain, then the existence of the afterlife is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. If the mind is indeed a process in the brain, then only the philosophical analysis of personal identity can settle the question of the afterlife rationally - if anything ever can settle that question rationally. At very least, science cannot disprove the existence of the afterlife. Science can test particular ideas about the afterlife (such as beliefs about ghosts or past-life memories), but it cannot show that there is no afterlife of any kind.

If the mind is a process in the brain, then the standard "scientific" argument against the afterlife is not scientific. To present this argument as science is to practice pseudoscience! The argument is not scientific, but all too often it gets passed off on the unwary as science.

Before finishing, I should touch on the subject of religion. The ideas I have presented about the afterlife do not support any particular religious view of the afterlife. (For that matter, they don't support other specific religious beliefs either. An atheist can accept these ideas just as well as a theist can.) The ideas presented here come closer to Buddhist views than to any other religious teaching on the afterlife. However, adherents of other religions might want to speculate on the relevance of this post to their own beliefs. (For example, could "heaven" be interpreted as rebirth in some alternate universe?) Discussing these possibilities would take me too far into the realm of faith, where I do not want to go right now. My aim in this post is not to prove any part of any religion, or any specific picture of the afterlife. I only want to show that the standard "scientific" argument against the afterlife is wrong. And that, I would suggest, I have done.



[1] As I will mention in a moment, the Buddhists recognized this fact long ago. It is amazing that the proponents of the skeptical argument do not take this old discovery into account.

[2] Combine artificial immortality with time travel - another staple of science fiction - and you raise the possibility of artificially continuing the minds of people who already have died. Some physicists have seriously asked whether time travel might be possible. If it were possible, and if it could take us to any past time, then why not start resurrecting everyone? The result would be every bit as good as the "general resurrection" that some religions believe in. (Liberal Christians often interpret "creation" in a non-supernatural way as the process of evolution. They might also be interested in the idea of a resurrection without supernatural miracles!)

[3] There is little question that an animal migration counts as a single process. The migration as a whole has specific overall effects on regional animal populations and on the natural environment in general. It plays a role in the natural world that goes beyond any of the individual activities of its component hoptoads. To deny that the migration is a real process, while also claiming that only the individual hops of the toads are real, would be silly.

[4] To better understand this idea, see the classic article "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" by Thomas Nagel (The Philosophical Review, 83 (1974):435-450).

[5] See the treatment of "conscious subject identity" in chapter 5 of my book, From Brain to Cosmos. (Sharlow, Mark F. From Brain to Cosmos. Parkland, FL: Universal Publishers, 2001.)

[6] From Brain to Cosmos (cited above), chapter 3 and especially pp. 65-66.

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