Thursday, 14 October 2010

Reply to Peter S. Williams

So apparently my last post on the burden of proof has found its way to the theologian Peter S. Williams of fame.

He asserts a few things I want to rebut, I guess.

If Nathan has indeed listened to my podcasts, including those responding to the frankly shoddy scholarship of the so-called 'new atheism', I doubt there's much I can usefully add in generic terms; although if he has some specific objection to what I've argued I'd be happy to respond. Perhaps it would help to point out that Dawkins et al represent the sort of atheism that other atheists think gives atheism a bad name?!

Let's start with Dawkins. First off, I want to say that I respect the guy and that his science is extraordinary and revolutionary. I don't fully accept his premise that the main evolutionary change occurs at the gene level, the evidence I think leans in the direction of population level evolution (allopatric speciation). There seems to be a good middle ground employing both concepts though, which I appreciate. But the question here is did Dawkins take his impeccable science too far from the biology lab? I think there's a case to be made for this, especially as it relates to a critique on religion and spirituality. He asserts (far too readily) that science can disprove the idea of god or that the god concept is provably illusory. 

But Dawkins is far from being the buffoon most Christian apologists make him out to be. He most definitely does not have 'shoddy scholarship' in the realm of theology or apologetics and does not gloss over the more convoluted ides of those fields. After all, by the logic bandied around by apologists no amount of training or readings could ever be adequate for a comprehensive critique of religion. This position is simply unfalsifiable and a gross display of shifting the goalposts. Dawkins makes it quite clear that he is critiquing the most common and most foundational ideas about religion held by most lay-people. Of course a scholar that's dedicated their lives to diligent contemplation of esoteric texts and writings could pick small holes in Dawkins arguments, but he fully realizes that and so doesn't even try to deliver a comprehensive critique. Such a thing would be impossible by definition because, as every believer asserts, they do not rest their belief on evidence, argument, or logic but on a completely subjective 'experience' of their god (whatever that means!). As Christopher Hitchens once said of his debate partners, he would have to write a fresh book for every person of faith if he were to speak to them personally. The decision to simply attack the commonly held beliefs is a conscious one held by most of the so-called 'new atheists'.

P.Z. Myers does a good analogy about how ridiculous such a dismissal of their arguments actually is. Moving on then:

I see that Nathan says on his blog that "the burden of proof always lies with the person proposing the idea." The idea that God does not exist, and the idea that metaphysical naturalism is true, are just as much ideas as the idea that God does exist or that metaphysical naturalism is false - according to Nathan's own way of defining the burden of proof, then, he cannot escape shouldering such a burden. If anyone lacks such a burden, perhaps it is the soft agnostic - but one might also argue that since a belief in God is a widespread, natural human tendency supported by a prima facie interpretation of many people's experience of the world as well as their specific religious experience - the burden of proof is more properly upon the atheist than the theist.

Well, what about the burden of proof? I'm not sure I accept the grammar of your assertion here. What exactly would it mean if '"the idea that metaphysical naturalism [were] true"? I totally understand that any discussion about reality will quickly dive into a sea of doubt as Descartes found lying on his bed after a particularly vivid dream. In my humble opinion about the nature of reality, we simply have to go with what we see as being real: we need a starting point, this is mine. Of course I could be a brain in a vat or still inside a dream but these ideas don't add anything of utility to my next move, simply put they are unnecessary. But is metaphysical naturalism true? I'm not sure the word 'true' is accurate here. I could point out that, as you do, everyone in the world essentially sees the same thing as we do when we use our senses: the natural world and its movements. This is none other than the default position, a base assertion if you will. So I guess in that context the word metaphysical naturalism is true, but only to those people who employ fully working senses. I would go further and say that a natural cause for physical events is the only game in town. After all, what good is saying “god did it!” to everything? It serves only to kick the can further down the road and is a completely unnecessary conclusion. Things only make sense, and we can only advance our knowledge (e.g. Ipads, rockets, baked beans) if we treat everything as if it were of a natural, knowable, testable, and repeatable cause. I don’t understand how anyone can miss this! How far do you think humans would get today if we dropped naturalism in the sciences in favour of saying “god did it” when we turn on the t.v.?

Sure people "feel" the supernatural and "experience" god but these are things added post hoc to an initial accrual of what the five senses sense. I posit that the universe has certain attributes, one of them would probably stem from metaphysical naturalism, and this is the prediction that is best described as with the idea of inertia. I predict that a ball will continue to roll unless friction or another physical obstacle impedes its travel. The burden of proof most definitely is upon me (I do not hide from it); therefore I will test such a claim. And what do you know, I am vindicated: It works! On the other hand, the burden of proof exactly expects from the prediction of god an equal amount of tests and vindication to assess validity of the claim. The idea of god, so burdened, has never been vindicated objectively. I challenge you to propose an objective test for your god that mimics the repeatability of my inertia test. You are forbidden to use any semblance of a subjective universal "feeling" of god, such a proof is laughable and equivalent to "feeling" that faeries exist. Until your god can be proven by the default standard tests for those who put forward a claim, that which is posited without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

How then, sir, do you still suggest that it is the atheistic viewpoint that has the burden of proof? To meet the burden of proof, one must have a claim and proof to verify it (among other things I do realise). The atheist does not make any claim, full stop. Atheism is simply an answer to a question (or in this case a claim), that being: does a god exists. The atheist simply answers that there has been no good evidence provided for one. Therefore the atheist does not have any burden of proof as they fail to meet the full criteria expected for one, the atheist makes no claim. I’m sorry if I’m spelling this out for you. No amount of universal “feeling” or anecdotal evidence can be proof for your god unless you take every “feeling” a Muslim or animist has as equal proof for their god’s. Without objective proof for your god, and I stress the importance of objectivity, each spiritual feeling is an equal and equivalent glimpse of the same subjective untruth. 

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Who has the Burden of Proof?

In logic, the burden of proof always lies with the person proposing the idea. Sure I can tell you why I don't believe or can't believe, but then again I don't have to. I do this out of courtesy. One is absolutely correct in questioning a flat-earther in the same way I must question the idea of god because both of them propose an idea that appears imaginative and contrary to evidence. It is their job to now prove the earth is flat and to prove that there is a god (not necessarily together though!). I take the null hypothesis and presume both are wrong until proven otherwise. This stems from Karl Popper's idea of "falsification" and is an integral gear in the machine of weighing proof.

Try this small thought experiment to understand the burden or proof (or at least the way I understand it). Perhaps someone in the workplace kitchen strikes up a conversation about 9/11 and it fast becomes a treatise about the US government’s conspiratorial cover-up of the attacks. This individual posits a remote-controlled airliner crashing into the towers and a controlled demolition. Now, one could offer counter-evidence immediately to point out the flaws in their argument, but actually, the burden of proof lies strictly with them. They offer a counter explanation to a well-established cause. The explanation is so dichotomous that the burden of proof lies solely with them, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I see the claim that a deity exists illuminated by the same light. The null hypothesis is that a god does not exist, so any suggestion one does must be backed with strong evidence. It is not up to the atheist to list counter-evidence, the atheist’s only job is to counter any arguments for the god, if he can.

Indeed, calling me an ‘atheist’ is rather a strange thing. If you think about it, we don’t have a name for someone who is an unbeliever of unicorns, Santa, or fairies. They are not designated ‘a-unicorians’, ‘a-hohoians”, or ‘a-flutterers’. So in the same vein it is odd there is a word for those of us who simply say “no” to the question: Does god exist?

Friday, 8 October 2010

Intellectual Honesty

I have to admit that I like a good debate. Not necessarily about everything I do or think (as much as the next guy I suppose), I try to stick to things I consider important or worthy. This particular blog is mostly dedicated to religion and the experience of such a phenomenon in the 21st century. Perhaps I point out something that I encounter disturbingly often.

Generally speaking people are pretty happy to discuss the supernatural or religion with me, to converse and explore their beliefs with an interested party. Some don’t go too deep, preferring to paddle in the shallows and maybe skim a few stones out to blue water. By and large such interlocutors sprinkle a pontificating line with a seasoning of anecdote to knock home their personal reasons for belief in a deity. They don’t bother about reason (the real ‘reason’, as in logic etc) or evidence or proof, they probably understand that either they don’t know of any proofs (lack of research) or that their faith is built, not on rationally filtered ideas, but on a deep sense of their god’s existence (a certain, unshakable ‘feeling’ that they’re confused and worried that I don’t share). I respect this approach to the debate about god/s because it’s an honest method. There’s no ambiguous semantics being thrown around and no waffling hubris, everything that’s said is backed up by professing a firm faith and that is all. I can’t share such a faith, indeed a belief in something as inherently unknowable as the supernatural just comes across as, well, unnecessary. An unnerving amount of static cascades my ears when such ‘feelings’ are revealed.

What I don’t appreciate is the other type of debate partner. This particular specimen is a believer in whatever supernatural movements takes their fancy. They’re not a whimsical believer as if they attach themselves to any popular superstition wafting their way; they cling to their supernatural realm by altogether stranger talons than the solely faithful. These types perform a curious routine starting with a discussion apparently showing through ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ (sometimes even trying out the latest theory casually captured from the top physics or biology labs) how the existence of a god is not only plausible and a more rational position that the alternative, but that their particular god is the guilty culprit. You name the argument I’ve had it launched against me. What I don’t like about this debater is the fact that when pressed they will resort to a statement resembling,”our minds are simply too inferior to god’s to understand him” or “perhaps god’s reasons for [x] are good, we just will never know. We must therefore trust him”.

That’s having it both ways though, surely. First they’re spouting one intellectual argument after another but when they are beaten back or have a syllogism deflated they’ll morph into their compatriot and hide behind the ever-present cardboard fortress called “faith”. This is intellectual dishonesty and conduct befitting of a child. If a religious person is faithful, be at peace with that. I won’t try to dissect or eviscerate your faith if it genuinely must be left alone (I can’t respect the base position of religious faith, that’s another matter entirely). But seriously, if you’re going to start down the road of argument and present evidence for your faith or god then be aware this road is long and winding. Sometimes you can’t see the end, nor the beginning, but know that this trek shouldn’t be taken lightly. The one caveat to expect when providing arguments for one’s god is that there are counter-arguments that may be more forceful than yours. If the proof you supply is insufficient or false, intellectual honesty behoves you to re-evaluate your position. I can guarantee I will reciprocate, can I say the same of my debating partners? I hope so.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Zero sum success rate

So science has its ways to divulge truth and sift fact from fiction. Their methodologies are those of testing and weighing various evidences to add another puzzle-piece to a fuller picture of reality. But it is said there’s another, equally valid, means to divine the truth (and I really do mean divine). The religious point out that revelation can get to the truth just as science can, if not better and more directly. (After all, talking to the creator and arbitrator of the universe should give the interlocutor some information).

Well, this would be a fine statement if it turns out that revelation can reveal anything of importance in our world. But the competition simply isn’t fair, and I say this from the scientific perspective; the playing field offers unequal balance. Science has given us tangible results, things we can use and change through a workable, repeatable process. Leaps of knowledge on space, time, and baked beans have changed the world remarkably; today the most common of us live opulently, superior to any monarch of old, largely in debt to the evidence and tests of science. These achievements having only arrived in a measly c500 years: a blink of an eye on the geological scale. While it’s religion and revelation that sit, cross-legged, in the corner staring darkly at the now rapidly moving scientific method. If only looks could kill, the daggers from revelation’s eyes would pierce the heart; thousands of years without a result must be disheartening.

But the dirty looks do no harm, indeed revelation still struggles to get off the ground while science soars. No doubt, in the days of old god talked to people as if through a phone, gradually tapering off his conversations as the centuries rolled past. Introduce science and the tests and suddenly the voice of god is silent or barely audible. It's not a matter of different degrees of difficulty; it's a matter of religious problems being insoluble because they're not based in reality. Religion still has a place, sure, but the gaps it relies on a being filled at an alarming rate with natural explanations, no revelation necessary. The question is: How much longer can religion claim revelation as a legitimate search for truth when they have a score-board tracking zero?

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Keep our noses out of it!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Ahem…

“Dawkins is a know-it-all. How can he criticise Christianity when he hasn’t read [insert religious text here] or studied at [insert theological seminary here]? Dawkins just needs to stick with his biology and keep his nose out of things above his head.”

This rebuttal cracks me up every time, but it’s not a serious intellectual argument so I won’t spend too much time on it. People who employ it generally need a quick get-out-of-jail-free card when they notice their argument going south. I’ve experienced the same incantation similar to, “perhaps you need to read more books from the other side”. Inferring, of course, that I haven’t read what they’ve read, but when I do, pow! It’s gonna change my life and I’ll see the light because, you know, that’s what happened to them.

The charge that one cannot criticise someone’s position or the fundamentals of their religion because I may not be steeped in theological lore and writ is ludicrous. How exactly do they maintain a belief when they clearly haven’t studied for countless hours either? What right does the arguer have to claim the intellectual high-ground and deny their opponent similar standings when both do not have the supposedly ‘desired’ training? Such a standard immediately falls when the implications of one’s own shortcomings become clear.

Of course I’m supportive of diversifying one’s reading material to weigh objectively the various duelling positions, but there comes a time when the evidence so far gathered must be addressed and a provisional decision made in light of said evidence. After all, the religious person likely made their decision through the same procedure (although it’s very unlikely they gathered and weighed any evidence of other religions before choosing their own). But there are simply too many books published and possible schools to attend to ever satisfy such deviously shifting goal-posts. I’ll let P.Z. Myers take it from here; he paints it better than I can:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.
I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

I’m actually astounded by how many anti-Dawkins arguments are defused with this simple fictional tale. It’s useful for those who don’t believe their particular god concept on show, but don’t expect the religious to spot the irony. As usual they’ll both bat it away and reply: “well, that’s not relevant because god’s word is revealed and totally different from fashion!” and they’ll begin to fill the room with that pungent red-herring smell. Indeed, this argument destroys pretty much all of Alistair McGrath’s tired and overly irritated arguments.

Interestingly, the religiously minded arguer never indicates exactly which theological arguments are being omitted or overlooked that require my attention. Perhaps they could point me in the direction of some astounding new proof for the existence of god! Because, (they seem to think) if I haven’t found the truth about god, that he exists, then I clearly haven’t been searching high or low enough. Of course, as I sit there waiting with bated breath for this new, revolutionary proof I know deep down it’ll be a re-hash of a worn-out old proof I’ve already seen, either that or a heartfelt plea to personal faith and revelation which doesn’t impress me one iota.