Quote: On the use of dialogue as a philosophical medium #atheism

One of my stock arguments is about genuine moral dilemmas and their expression in virtue ethics: the idea that two morally excellent people could disagree on a particular subject without it being ‘merely a matter of opinion’ or with the interlocutors having to ‘agree to disagree’.  It’s about trying to find something like ‘co-correctness’, where more than one moral position on an issue is valid or where the parties can identify the cause for their differing position.

I’ve said that dialogue format is conducive to this kind of writing.  You try to imagine two morally excellent people having a discussion where the parties disagree.  I happened to open up Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Reason to find the following quote:

It has been remarked, my HERMIPPUS, that though the ancient philosophers conveyed most of their instruction in the form of dialogue, this method of composition has been little practised in later ages, and has seldom succeeded in the hands of those who have attempted it. Accurate and regular argument, indeed, such as is now expected of philosophical inquirers, naturally throws a man into the methodical and didactic manner; where he can immediately, without preparation, explain the point at which he aims; and thence proceed, without interruption, to deduce the proofs on which it is established. To deliver a SYSTEM in conversation, scarcely appears natural; and while the dialogue-writer desires, by departing from the direct style of composition, to give a freer air to his performance, and avoid the appearance of Author and Reader, he is apt to run into a worse inconvenience, and convey the image of Pedagogue and Pupil. Or, if he carries on the dispute in the natural spirit of good company, by throwing in a variety of topics, and preserving a proper balance among the speakers, he often loses so much time in preparations and transitions, that the reader will scarcely think himself compensated, by all the graces of dialogue, for the order, brevity, and precision, which are sacrificed to them.

There are some subjects, however, to which dialogue-writing is peculiarly adapted, and where it is still preferable to the direct and simple method of composition.

Any point of doctrine, which is so obvious that it scarcely admits of dispute, but at the same time so important that it cannot be too often inculcated, seems to require some such method of handling it; where the novelty of the manner may compensate the triteness of the subject; where the vivacity of conversation may enforce the precept; and where the variety of lights, presented by various personages and characters, may appear neither tedious nor redundant. [Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Reason]

It’s good to know that I wasn’t going out on a limb…

Too much carbon monoxide for me to bear… Why atheists should love the cosmological argument

The review I wrote yesterday reminded me of something awesome.  While you’re knitting on this cold Sunday afternoon, let me outline this awesomeness.

The cosmological argument has been around since Aristotle, at least.  In a nutshell, it says that everything has an origin, therefore the universe has an origin, therefore God.  Over time, the argument has become significantly more sophisticated — deftly avoiding the asinine ‘So what’s God’s origin, huh?’ response — and a thousand times more useful for atheists.

That’s not a typo.

One of the fundamental properties of physical objects (i.e. those we perceive empirically) is that they obey cause and effect.  This has been a cornerstone of empiricism since Hume.  Basically, if the principle of cause and effect isn’t true, we have absolutely no way of interpreting the world around us.  Before anybody gets too Deepak Chopra on me, this rule of cause and effect also applies to quantum events.  Yes it does.

So we get the following:

For any physical object, there is a cause. (P1)

The universe is a physical object. (P2)

Therefore, the universe has a cause, x. (From P1 + P2)

If x is a physical object, it has a cause. (From P1)

From this, we can see that we’ll either end up with an infinite chain or we’ll end up with x being a non-physical object.

To keep it quick, we can deny that there’s an infinite chain of causation.  Our observations of the universe do not support there being an infinite chain.  An infinite chain also lacks explanatory power: why is there an infinite chain rather than nothing?

So we’ve got a non-physical cause to the universe.  It’s usually at this point that one of two things happen:

1. Theists jump to ‘And this non-physical cause is God.’

2. Atheists try to deny the non-physical cause.

(1) is clearly batshit.  Let us not speak of it, but look and pass on.

(2) causes extreme difficulty for outspoken atheists.  Richard Dawkins — in one of the many wall-banger moments in The God Delusion — writes:

[I]t is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a ‘big bang singularity’, or some other physical concept as yet unknown. [Source: Dawkins, The God Delusion, Ch. 3]

So… he’s denying cause and effect?  Really?  Or by ‘physical’ does he mean ‘non-physical’ (sort of like how Sam Harris uses the word ‘science’ to mean ‘science and lots of things which are not science’)?

We atheists can do a whole lot better.

An option we have available to us is to deny that all objects are physical objects.  There are some objects, for example, which we can only understand through reason and rationality but cannot experience.  The object which gave rise to physical objects, for example, is one of them.  This is also good news for atheists who want to be realists about mathematics as well (I’m not in that group, but we might as well spread the love).

But, best of all, it allows atheists to claim back the (currently) unchallenged turf of theists: the parts of our ontology which extend beyond empirical verification.

(2) leaves atheists exposed because it’s so extremely irrational and forces us into the untenable position of admitting only empirically verifiable objects into our world.  Atheists should admit the solid reasoning of the cosmological argument and attack the leap from ‘non-physical object’ to God.

All my enemies are turning into my teachers… in defence of theology

My last post attracted some interesting quips from the mouthier atheists who haunt this substandard blog.

The best comment was a plagiarised ‘Theology is just like Fairyology’.  It seems to be a fairly common attitude among the ‘new atheist’ (whatever that is; the public image of ‘new atheism’ seems to be old white guys).

On ReligionDispatches.com, Eric Reitan outlined the attitude of ‘new atheists’ towards theology.  While I think he accurately identifies the problem, I disagree with his analysis.

The other day, Terry Sanderson—president of the United Kingdom’s National Secular Society—published a short, scathing indictment of theology in The Guardian, a piece titled “Theology—truly a naked emperor.”

This title deliberately recalls H.C. Andersen’s famous fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and by implication its ongoing use by popular atheist critics of religion to defang criticism that they know next to nothing about theology. The fable was first made use of a few years back by atheist blogger (and biologist) PZ Myers in a bit of satire called “The Courtier’s Reply,” a response to H. Allen Orr’sscathing review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the New York Review of Books. “The Courtier’s Reply” so delighted Dawkins that he quoted it at length in the preface to the paperback edition of his book. [Source: Eric Reitan, ‘Can Atheists Simply Ignore Theology?’ on ReligionDispatches.com]

Instead of arguing that Dawkins did understand theology, presented it fairly, and dealt it a fatal blow, Myers mocks the criticism.  There’s nothing inherently wrong in mocking criticism.  Many of our finest minds do it.

Oh hey.  See what I did there?  If you link something to something dubious, you don’t need to provide evidence that the two things are anything alike.  ‘Proof by humorous connexion’ is a well-known tool in critical thinking.

More seriously, the ‘proof by humorous connexion’ shields us from having to take criticism seriously.  There’s no need to intellectually engage with the claims of our ‘opponents’ because their claims are ridiculous.  We don’t even need to know what those claims are.  All we have to know is that they’re ridiculous.  Don’t question the apparent paradox which arises: how do you know the claims are ridiculous if you don’t know what the claims are?  Down that path lies madness and critical thinking, and that’s not what critical thinking is about!  No, sir!  Critical thinking is about finding ways to avoid criticism and evaluating claims based on your prejudices and biases.

Reitan also notes the inability of ‘new atheists’ to take criticism seriously (or, at the very least, respectfully).

The link to that interview quickly appeared on Richard Dawkins’ Web site under the heading, “Another Flea,” invoking the practice of Dawkins’ supporters to call critics of The God Delusion “fleas.” The very first posted comment was this: “Just from reading the abstract it sounds like another book in ‘The Courtier’s Reply’ category.” The subsequent comments were riddled with mockery. [Ibid.]

This is where I think Reitan’s argument goes pear-shaped.  After noting two ways in which ‘new atheists’ shield themselves from criticism (mocking the criticism and belittling the critic), Reitan tries to show why the comparison isn’t apt (the fairy story has a different meaning to the imputed meaning) and why theology is intellectually substantive (‘It is, rather, a certain holistic interpretation of our experience, one that offers an account of the meaning and significance of the empirical world and the lives we lead within it’).  Both responses fail to be persuasive.

First, who cares what the actual meaning of the story is when the imputed meaning is more relevant?  Imagine you say, ‘Mark, thank you for inviting me ’round for dinner.  The meal was terrific.’  It would be downright weird for me to check to see if you were in shock or inquire which part of the meal inspired fear.  I don’t think my actions would be justified by appealing to the original meaning of the word.  Similarly, the ‘new atheists’ don’t much care for the original meaning of the story or the minutiae of the fairytale.  Mere details. If there’s one thing busy atheists lurking on PZ Myers don’t have time for, it’s details.  They’re too busy agreeing with each other and chiding fringe theists.

Second, the defence of theology has to be more persuasive than ‘theology is the holistic interpretation of our experience’.  The smackdown response to the ‘new atheists’ is to show why theology is intellectually meritorious.  So why hasn’t this been forthcoming?

Most serious theologians don’t give a toss what Dawkins and Myers think.

It’s a weird standoff.  Just as Dawkins and Myers don’t really care about the claims of the Discovery Institute (and don’t spend vast amounts of time going through their ‘research’), why would theologians care about the ill-informed, belligerent, and oafish claims of Dawkins, Myers, et alia?  Dawkins and Myers want to have an intellectually serious position but they can only do that by redefining the game (‘only claims which can be verified using modern science are valid’).

And you can’t question the new rules because it’s impossible to do so using modern science.

In other words, they’re advocating positivism despite the fact that there are no intellectually serious forms of positivism.  Karl Popper (the guy who basically handed to us on a silver platter the distinction between science and pseudo-science) destroyed it decades ago: positivism considers only claims which are verifiable may be true, but the claim ‘only claims which are verifiable may be true’ is not itself verifiably true.  Nobody’s managed to start a positivism comeback tour.

Some even go a few steps further.  Sam Harris tried to play a new Humpty Dumpty game with language by trying to define all valid intellectual pursuits (for example, history) as science.  Screw falsification.

The weird thing is that a justification of theology is trivially easy to do.

Science provides a toolkit for evaluating specific types of claims: those which can be verified empirically.  There are claims which cannot be verified empirically (if you disagree, try to demonstrate that twice one will always equal two).  For those claims, we require different toolkits.  Theology (and atheology) provides a toolkit for evaluating religious claims.  If you want to make the claim that ‘God does not exist’ using theological arguments, you’re going to need to use the theological toolkit.

Oh, but why would you want to do it using theological arguments?  I have no idea, but this has not stopped Christopher Hitchens writing an entire book doing it, and Dawkins dedicating paragraphs of garbled jibberish attempting it.  If you’re going to make scientific claims, you need science.  If you’re going to make theological claims, you need theology.  Are all claims about God theological?  No.  But — and hold on to your hats, people, because this is going to get controversial — the theological claims are theological.

Woah/whoa.  Freak out.

But doesn’t this give a back door to ‘fairyology’?  Not really.  Nobody uses fairyological claims to dismiss the existence of fairies.  In the ‘new atheist’ world polluted with concepts like invisible pink unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters, it’s difficult to distinguish between the intellectually serious and the asinine.  This small fact makes it much easier to understand the plethora of rubbish ‘new atheist’ writings (for example, The Australian Book of Atheism).

Sunday always comes too late… and atheist still can’t ride the Reason Bus.

As an atheist, I find it really difficult to understand the pervasive stupidity of most other atheists.

On AtheistBlogger, we have the fascinating tale of an atheist responding to an e-mail with far too many exclamation marks in it.  Instead of just realising that it’s the product of a diseased mind, our atheist friend decides to waffle pretentiously.  The original message read:

Robert, I know Christians have done evil as well! I’m a sinner Saved by grace! By the way it is impossible to be an atheist and be intellectually honest! You can be agnostic at best!  In order to be an atheist you have to know everything there is to know! Since you and I do not Know everything there is to know, it is possible for God to exist in the area you do not know: BY DEFINITION AGNOSTIC AT BEST if you are intelectually honest!? I believe you are!!!!! [source]

The question is, basically, how can we prove the ‘non-existence’ of God (that is, we can prove that there is nothing which satisfactorily fits a reasonable interpretation of ‘God’).  The writer distinguishes between an ‘atheist’ (meaning somebody who affirms the non-existence of God) and an ‘agnostic’ (meaning somebody who freezes in indecision).  I can understand the question.  You can understand the question.  Everybody can understand the question.

You also know what a response would be.  It would be either ‘Here’s how we can show that there’s no God’ or ‘Yes, I agree with you that I cannot prove a negative.  That’s not what I mean when I use the word “atheist”.’ Continue reading