Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why belief in Hell really isn't very nice at all

There has been some discussion about the topic of Hell over at Psychology Today recently. You might even  say it's a hot topic! (Sorry.) Psychologist Nathan Heflick wrote about the psychological aspects of the subject and invited readers to share why they personally believe in Hell. Humanistic blogger Greg Henriques, took a more controversial line, and wrote an article stating that he finds it  rather objectionable when religious people go on about how people who don't believe in God are going to be sent to Hell for their impiety. He was even bold enough to say that if there actually is a loving God then he would never do such a cruel thing; either that or this God person is not a morally just being. Either way, telling people they are going to Hell is just plain not nice.

Image of Hell in the style of Bosch 

This article prompted a response from Christian blogger Michael Austin. He acknowledges that the idea that God sends people to Hell (or lets people go there, depending on your interpretation) does not seem all that nice. In fact, many Christians are "deeply troubled by the thought of people spending eternity in Hell." And as well they might be. If this doctrine were true, then most people who have ever lived will end up in this dreadful place. Even worse, if you are Christian, then you face the prospect that people you care deeply about - family members, friends, one's spouse - might share this dire fate. Honestly, how do they sleep at night?

Detail of "The Last Judgment" by Luca Signorelli

But I digress. Austin's particular concern is with how the doctrine of Hell can be reconciled with the goodness of God. Many critics of the doctrine, just like Greg Henriques mentioned earlier, have argued that it can't be. And jettisoning the doctrine apparently is not an option for good Christians. (Although, as Austin notes, some Christians have done exactly that.) Austin quotes C.S. Lewis on this point:
There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it (1) has the full support of Scripture, and, (2) especially, of our Lord's own words; (3) it has always been held by Christendom [thus three arguments from authority]; and (4) it has the support of reason (sic!). 
 Christians don't get to pick and choose what they believe you know! Or do they? Austin finds some wiggle room. Enough room for considerable theological gymnastics in fact. His argument is that God does not actually send people to Hell. He simply honours their choice to be separate from him. What a nice guy God is, allowing people their choice of how to spend eternity. Hell is "not some sort of medieval torture chamber" but simply "separation from the ultimate source of joy, love, peace, and light." So Hell is actually a favour done by God in his goodness for those who actually want to spend eternity in the absence of joy, love, peace, and light. Because some people just don't want those things I suppose.

Well there are a few problems with this. The most obvious one concerns inconsistency. Austin quotes Lewis to the effect that belief in Hell is required by scripture, especially by the words of Jesus himself. Jesus apparently had a great deal to say about Hell and there are over 70 references to Hell attributed to him. Hell is most definitely referred to as a place of punishment, such as Matthew 25: 46:
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.
There are lurid descriptions in the New Testament of the horrors awaiting the damned. The place is described as a "lake which burneth with fire and brimstone"  and there are repeated references to a "worm that dieth not" that presumably gnaws on the flesh of the damned. No, not a medieval torture chamber, medieval technology did not have the capacity to create lakes of molten sulphur or immortal worms.

Furthermore, according to the words of Jesus, sinners are cast into this place. Matthew 25: 30 for example is one of several references to people being thrown into Hell:
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness...
According to Austin, God allows people to go into Hell voluntarily, but according to Jesus they are thrown there like prisoners. But Hell is somehow compatible with a loving God because in spite of all these scriptural references to punishment, torment, and being cast into fire like garbage, God has simply created this place so that unbelievers have somewhere to go after they die. This is like saying, "It's up to you really, if you don't want to spend eternity with me, you have everlasting punishment as an alternative. Just saying, don't want you to feel pressured at all."

What strikes me as odd about all this is that unbelievers do actually manage to experience a measure of joy, peace, love and so on while they are still alive in spite of not believing that these things come from God. So it is possible for people to be happy without God playing a role in their lives. So if God's wish is actually to accommodate people who don't believe in him because of his infinite goodness, then why not create a paradise world for unbelievers where they can be left in peace after they die? Like a nice planet somewhere, with green fields, sandy beaches and tropical islands in the sun where no-one has to do any work? Only thing is,  God won't be joining you, that's all. Surely being omnipotent that would be in his power? Why tell people that Hell is a horrible place of everlasting punishment full of immortal worms and lakes of fire when the intention is simply to provide people with an opt out from Heaven? Believers might counter-argue that even though unbelievers think they are happy without God, his presence is still somehow essential to their happiness, for reasons that are not at all clear. But if God really is omnipotent why can He not make it possible for people to be happy in his absence?

Consider an analogy. A loving father is preparing his will in order to provide for his children after he is gone. He knows that after he dies he will be absent from their lives but he wants them to be happy and prosperous anyway. Therefore, he makes preparations so that they will benefit from his legacy. According to believers, God knows that he will be absent from the lives of certain people after they die. Why cannot he make arrangements for them to benefit in his absence? Surely, if he is loving and good, he would do this.

A final point I find particularly irksome is the idea that people who do not believe simply do not want to be with God and are making a final choice not to be with him. What this assumes is that deep down unbelievers really do believe God is real, but are rejecting him for some unknown reason. I'm not just making this up, there are Christians who actually believe this. For example, creepy William Lane Craig (whom I have dealt with elsewhere) actually has this to say:
No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.

Ah, no. Christians seem to have a hard time grasping this, but when someone says that they do not believe in God, they mean they genuinely do not think God is real. Yet Christians seem to think that someone who chose not to believe in God while they were alive because they saw no reason to do so, will one day wake up in the afterlife, be confronted by God and go, "Oops there really is a God after all, but I love darkness so much I would rather spend an eternity in Hell than admit I made a mistake."

In summary, Christians justify believing in Hell based on scripture. Some, such as Michael Austin, want to argue that Hell is compatible with a good God who honours one's choices. But according to these same scriptures, God does not honour choices, he punishes people for making a choice he does not approve of. Furthermore, people who go on about how unbelievers are choosing to be separated from God really ought to make an effort to grasp what the concept of unbelief actually means. Therefore, no matter how Christian theologians bend over backwards to whitewash the concept, the doctrine of Hell remains as inhumane and illogical as ever. Really not nice at all.

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Further reading:

Interesting article on why even Heaven may not be so nice after all:

The Problem with Heaven - The A-Unicornist

Great video by QualiaSoup critiquing the concept: Hell: an excessive punishment 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bigfoot is your cousin! Or how to make "news" out of nothing

I generally enjoy reading Time magazine because they usually provide thoughtful commentary on serious news. That's why I was rather taken aback when I read a recent article with the sensationalistic title of "Bigfoot Is Part Human, and Here Are the DNA Tests to Prove It, Claims Researcher". The "researcher" in question claims that she somehow obtained DNA from an honest-to-god Sasquatch, ran some fancy tests and came up with the amazing conclusion that Bigfoot is one of our long lost relatives, part-human and part some never before heard of hominid. Oh they do eventually get around to explaining that the so-called researcher is basically a crackpot who cannot back up her claims and then go on to say why no-one is taking her seriously. But that is after spending two paragraphs treating her claims as if they deserve some sort of serious consideration. 

Let's take stock of what this piece of "news" actually contains. Melba Ketchum, a veterinarian, claims that she has unambiguous "proof" that not only does Bigfoot exist, but has modern human ancestry. But the thing is Ketchum refuses to share this "proof" with anyone - she will not share her data, will not explain her methods, and, critically, refuses to explain how she obtained these supposed DNA samples belonging to a creature that no-one has ever been able to even photograph, let alone prove exists.

So, in other words, Ketchum has proved nothing at all. 

The Time article then goes on to explain why respectable scientists do not believe her. Funny that. But does one really need a Ph.D. to realise that when someone makes far-fetched and outlandish claims without providing any reason to believe a word she says, that one should not take her seriously? 

Is this what passes for news now? "Crackpot announces amazing discovery she can't prove, scientists go 'Meh.'" 

Perhaps more concerning than the lack of newsworthiness of this folderol, is the potential for spreading misinformation. There is research evidence that misinformation tends to be "sticky", that is, it remains in memory and tends to influence what people believe. This may be because believing information, even stupid information, is easy, whereas evaluating its credibility and rejecting it takes more effort. What the Time article has done is to present a bold headline that implies that Ketchum's claims are somehow credible. A "researcher" has "proof" - this is what stands out and is easy to remember. The fact that she expects people to take her on her word that her "proof" is real and that she has not allowed anyone to even examine it, is buried in the middle of the article and easily overlooked, especially by busy readers. 

An even more egregious example of Time presenting misinformation as having credibility it does not deserve is a link on the same page as the Ketchum article to a story with the ludicrous title "Scientists ‘95% Sure’ Bigfoot Lives in Russian Tundra". Ooh, now we have "scientists" who are quite positive they have found Bigfoot/the Yeti, how amazing! This tall tale is over a year old, yet there is no mention at all of the rather important detail that one of the scientists on this particular expedition has publicly expressed the opinion that this whole event was carefully staged for publicity and that there was no corroborating evidence they had found anything. The interesting thing here is that this particular scientist, Jeffrey Meldrum, is not even a Bigfoot sceptic  but someone who has seriously searched for evidence of the existence of this elusive creature. Yet anyone reading the Time article only would go away with the impression that there was in fact virtual "proof" that Bigfoot is real when even a Bigfoot enthusiast thinks it was a hoax. 

There are plenty of important real discoveries going on in the world. Stories like this just lend undeserved credibility to pseudoscience and foolishness in my opinion. 

Further reading
Here is an amusing article that provides much more detail about the publicity surrounding Ketchum's claims. 

Update, July 2013: Apparently an independent geneticist has been allowed to analyse the "Bigfoot" sample and guess what? Melba Ketchum's claims turn out to be complete nonsense!
“Bigfoot” Samples Yield Opossum DNA
Funnily enough, the Time article still contains no mention of this important information...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Freud and the Snopes Psychopath Test

Some people worry themselves needlessly over the meaning of disturbing dream content

On Snopes the other day I came across a rather amusing hoax email that claims that there is a simple psychological test that will reveal whether or not a person is a psychopath. Here are the details:

The Snopes article goes on to explain why this supposed test is absurd. Even psychopaths are sensible enough to realise that there are less sinister ways of getting the attention of the opposite sex, such as simply talking to the man. The article does not say how this hoax originated (presumably some person who thought it would be more fun to remain anonymous). When I read this though, I was struck by a parallel with a case reported by Sigmund Freud  in The Interpretation of Dreams. A young woman patient dreamt that her sister's young son was lying in a coffin. Freud discounted the idea that she wished for the death of her nephew, as she was not that cruel. She told Freud about a time when her other nephew, her sister's first born, had actually died. At that time,  her ex-fiancĂ©, a professor, made a a condolence call. The woman still loved him but rarely saw him since they had broken off their engagement. During his visit, she had a chance to be near him as he looked at the dead child lying in the coffin. Freud could then make his interpretation: "If now the other boy were to die, the same thing would happen . . . and the professor would be certain to come to offer his condolences, so that you would see him again under the same conditions as the other time. The dream means no more than your wish to see him once more, a wish which you are inwardly struggling against."

Back when I was teaching psychology students, I would tell them about this dream to illustrate Freud's dream theory. I'd finish off by joking that this seemed like a drastic way just to get a date! The story in the psychopath test seems to involve a similar kind of thinking - meet a man you like at a funeral, then wish that there could be another funeral to have an excuse to meet him again. Admittedly, Freud's patient did not actually plan on killing her poor nephew!

I can only speculate but I think there's some chance that the fake psychopath test was inspired in some way by Freud's account of his case study. Perhaps part of the appeal of the fake psychopath test is that it promises that it can reveal hidden features of someone's personality through a symbolic story. Freud's theory of dream interpretation also claims that hidden features of one's personality can be revealed through the symbolism of dreams. However, research into dreams has not confirmed Freud's belief that dreams have hidden meanings that can be revealed through free association. (In recent years psychoanalyst and neurosurgeon Mark Solms has claimed that discoveries in neuroscience confirm Freud's dream theory. However, Solms' attempt to revive Freud's theory has not been widely accepted. For example, see this document for a rebuttal of some of his claims by neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson.) Unfortunately there do not seem to be such quick and easy ways to plumb the depths of the human mind as promised by both the fake psychopath test and Freudian psychoanalysis, although the fantasy remains as appealing as ever.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Genocide is OK if the True God commands it – but how to know which God is the right one?

Richard Dawkins in recent writings has referred a number of times to a charming fellow named William Lane Craig, also known as "the Genocide Preacher". For those who have not heard of him he has a webpage with the preposterous title of "Reasonable Faith". In a recent Q & A page he explains why it was perfectly reasonable for Yahweh to command the wholesale slaughter of men, women and children so that his chosen people could have their land. His argument is that whatever God commands is necessarily good, so therefore killing people, even innocent children is not only perfectly fine, but morally obligatory if God has said that it must be done. He thinks this is perfectly compatible with his vision of God as being all-loving, compassionate and good. The destruction of the Canaanites was morally justifiable because these people were "wicked" and had come under His divine judgment. Why a compassionate and all-loving God would make such harsh judgments is far from clear but who are we mere mortals to question God? 
So the adults were "wicked" enough to merit Yahweh's judgment, but what about the children? Is not killing children including babies,just because their parents are wicked  a bit  harsh, even for Yahweh?
Yahweh on wheels (Image source: The New Oxonian)

Craig explains why this is not actually morally wrong:

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

Well there we have it. Children who are put to death go to a place that is ten times better than any life they could have on Earth, so the Israelites were actually doing them a favour! Craig claims that they are actually "happy" to quit this life - so their apparent screams of terror are really cries of joy! 

Maybe I'm just a killjoy but personally I think this is an indictment of the whole idea of life after death as being "better" than life in this world. I have read historical accounts of early Christian martyrs who not only welcomed  death, but actually provoked people into killing them because they were assured that they would experience the eternal bliss of paradise. At least they didn't go around killing children. Apologists for religion sometimes try to argue that without religion, people have no reason to be moral and therefore atheism opens the way to an "anything goes" principle where any atrocity is permitted. But this argument is easily turned on its head because as we have just seen, "anything goes", including infanticide and genocide, as long as God has commanded it. And after all, if there is a better world awaiting the martyrs, life in this world has little value by comparison. 

Craig does set some moral boundaries though. Let's examine his argument why killing people in the name of Allah for example is not morally defensible:

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

Let's repeat what Craig says just for emphasis: the problem with killing people in the name of Islam is not due to the wrong moral theory, the real problem is that they have the "wrong" god. As Craig points out Allah hates non-Muslims (no argument from me there) but Yahweh loves everyone - even those who are so "wicked" they must be killed. Allah is utterly "arbitrary" in his dealings with mankind, but any atrocity commanded by Yahweh is automatically good because "He can give and take life as he chooses." (Craig's actual words.) See the difference? No, neither can I. 

But let's assume for the sake of argument that there is some substantive difference, and that the choice of "right" versus "wrong" god matters. How can anyone honestly know which god is the right one? Personal experience? If I hear a voice commanding me to kill infants, how do I know that this command really does issue from the "true" god and not one of the "false" ones? Nowadays, most people, even devoutly religious ones, would think that I had gone mad if I started claiming that God had given me such an order. What about faith? Craig expresses complete faith that Yahweh is in fact the true god. But Muslims also have complete faith that Allah is the true god too! How is one to choose? 

I think that if one is completely honest, one would have to admit that even if it turns out that there is a real god somewhere, there is no way of knowing which of various competing gods is the "true" one. Therefore, there is no sensible basis for choosing. Geoffrey Berg has argued that even if God is real there is no way that humans could ever recognise him or truly know that he exists. He calls this "the Man and God comprehension gulf argument." The implication is that even if God revealed himself to humanity and attempted "proof" by performing all sorts of miracles, we could never really know if the being in question really was God and not just a very powerful being. (Star Trek fans might consider the omnipotent character "Q" who could easily pose as God if he had felt so inclined.)    

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Extreme views on what is "extremism"

According to some commentators, the recent riot in Libya in which an embassy was burned and four Americans killed  may be viewed as an extreme response to "extremism". Huffington Post blogger Ahmed Shihab-Eldin argues that:
Were it not for YouTube, perhaps Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, would still be alive.
He was of course referring to this video by Sam Bacile in which the prophet Muhammad is insulted. He then goes on to say that, "extremism begets extremism." 
This sentiment was echoed by social psychologist Ravi Iyer, who goes on to state that, "Killing begets killing. Violence  begets violence." He then goes on to compare Bacile to other "extremists":
Indeed, there is clear evidence that Sam Bacile, Terry JonesOsama Bin LadenCharles Manson, and other extremists understand this implicitly and commit their extremist acts with the idea of inciting a wider war.
The implicit assumption here is that making and posting a film intended to insult a religious group is an act of "extremism" and that this is somehow in the same class of actions as violently mobbing an embassy or carrying out acts of terror. Note that Terry Jones is classed as one of these "extremists". His terrifying act of extremism was to burn a book deemed sacred by certain people. Offensive as this might be to Muslims, I hardly think this is in any way comparable to the actions of people like Charles Manson or Osama bin Laden who were responsible for the actual killing of human beings. 
Posting an offensive video is not an act of "violence" in any sensible use of the word, and certainly not a  form of killing as no-one actually died in the making of the film as far as I know. I have only watched part of the video, but to the best of my knowledge it does not advocate that anyone be killed. So how is it a form of extremism? 
Ravi Iyer argues that incivility is provocative and regularly leads to violence. Sure, I would agree that violence often is preceded by provocation of some sort, such as deliberately insulting words. But does this mean that the video is to blame for the actions of people who chose to go into the streets with torches with the intention of burning a building while people were inside? Where is the responsibility here? If a man comes up to me and says, "You're mother is a whore!" am I not responsible for how I choose to react? Even if the man is deliberately trying to incite me to fight, I would still be held legally responsible in a court of law if I chose to react with violence. As a human being I have a choice about how I react to provocation. In such a situation I have many choices, such as telling the man he is a stupid idiot and walking away. 
Violence does not simply follow on from provocation in the way that night follows day. There is  a choice involved. Iyer cites a number of research studies on how people typically react to various kinds of threats to show that group reactions to incivility are fairly predictable. I think he does make a point that incivility is not the best way to deal with inter-group tensions. However, there has also been research finding that when people choose to react with violence to provocation, it is because they believe that violence is an acceptable, or even expected, response. For example, if someone is raised in a "culture of honor" they may believe that failure to respond to a provocation with aggression will be seen as a sign of being weak. Similarly, if someone believes that an insult to their religion or holy book is equivalent to a shocking crime that must be avenged, violence is the predictable result. 

This image is authentic: sign held by a Muslim protester in London. Image source.
Consider what the world might be like if people generally believed that violence was never an acceptable response to a mere insult. Would not the world be a more peaceful place? Is this too much to ask for? Ahmed Shihab-Eldin argued that it is intolerance, not Islam, that is the real cancer. But does tolerance mean that critics of religion must shut up so that some people will not be offended? What happened to tolerance of differing opinions? Any religion, or interpretation of religion if you prefer, that preaches that violence is an acceptable response to non-violent provocation is preaching intolerance. People have the right to be upset when they feel insulted. No-one has the right to go out and kill people and spread terror just because they are upset. 
Incivility may be unwise, but it is hardly morally equivalent to extremism. Blaming rudeness for resulting acts of violence seems like an abrogation of moral responsibility on the part of those who choose to engage in violent acts. It is time for people to realise that not being offended is a preference and not a human right. Being offended is never an excuse for violence. Ever.  
Further reading
Innocence of Muslims? Richard Dawkins responds to the "liberal apologia towards Islamic violence."

An expanded version of this article appears on my blog at Psychology Today.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hatred of Atheists plummets to new depths of stupidity

This post is of a more personal nature than usual for me. I was browsing through Reddit recently and came across a link to a bizarre article claiming that research has linked "overt atheism" and mental illness. The story cites no references and contains no links confirming that the study is real. Funnily enough, "Damien", the owner of this website says on his homepage that he dislikes overt atheists and thinks they are "antisocial misfits", just like this supposed study claims to have found. The study was supposedly conducted by a Dr. Hans Zimmerman of the University of Hamburg, but a Google search revealed no-one by that name working at this institution. I posted some sarcastic comments under the article implying that it was rather hard to believe that any of it was true. Rather than a good-nature admission that he was playing a little joke, Damien's response was to engage in childish name-calling and a ludicrous denial that the article was a hoax. Below are screenshots of our exchange. (Click to enlarge.) Warning: expect severe foul language!
I challenge him for proof this is not a hoax, his response is more insults, accusations that I am mentally ill just for asking questions, and another lie, even more unbelievable than the last, that the story has been published elsewhere.
Note the incredible bigotry of these canards: "god-hating cock-sucker"; "stupid American fucktard"; Irish are "fucking simple-minded." So not only does Damien hate atheists, but also homosexuals, Americans, and the Irish. I'm not American or homosexual, but I see no reason why I would be ashamed of it I was. He has created a whole website devoted to his hate-filled rantings and he accuses me of "mania" and "anger" for simply challenging him to prove that anything he has said is true! He rants about me "preaching atheism" and my need to be heard (what a shocking crime, wanting to be heard) when his whole website is dedicated to shouting his own stupid opinions. What I find particularly strange is that Damien says on his homepage that he is not even religious. Yet he has this pathological hatred of atheists. To be honest, I think the man has a pathological hatred of human beings. Furthermore, he even admits on his homepage that some of the stories he posts contain nonsense, yet when challenged about this particular nonsense he flies into a rage and makes claims he can't prove. 
Anyway, enough about me. Just to give readers a heads up, if you find any stories floating around the internet claiming that atheism is linked to mental illness, you can rest assured that not only is this not true, but the source is a rather disturbed person with no respect for anybody or for the truth.

Post Script
I recently came across this interesting bit of information on the internet, a comment referring to Damien's claims about the mysterious Hans Zimmerman. I can't vouch for its veracity (there is a mention of this on Wikipedia, but the original reference is in German), but it did make me laugh:

The article cites a certain "Dr. Hans Zimmerman MD PhD" at "the Hamburg University." A multi-language search for the good doctor did turn up a Hans Zimmerman. He was the Gauleiter of Franconia, Germany, 1940-41. A Nazi Party leader! Right up there with Joe Goebbels.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Would Obama have signed Magna Carta?

A recent news story revealed that President Obama has the distinction of being the first sitting President to speak openly of his intention to kill a US citizen, Anwar Awlaki, who has not been charged with committing a crime or convicted at trial. In fact, when Awlaki's father filed a lawsuit to stop the American government from killing his son, the administration responded by filing a brief that the lawsuit be dismissed without further consideration because the assassination attempt is too secret for even the courts to adjudicate on.

My understanding of American history is that the country was founded on the principle that all people have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that cannot be abrogated without due process of law. This was in reaction to the historic fact that despotic kings and governors with unlimited power have been notorious for having people they don't like either detained at their pleasure, or even tortured or killed. A well-known historical precedent for imposing checks and limits on the power of kings is of course Magna Carta. King John of England was forced to sign this document in which he acknowledged that he was subject to the rule of law and could not arbitrarily violate the rights of his subjects.

Although the American Constitution was designed to place strict limits on the powers of government, these limits have been progressively eroded or ignored altogether by a succession of modern presidents from both the major parties. A glaring example of such disregard in recent times is the disgraceful conduct of George W. Bush in having people detained for years at Guantanamo Bay without any charges and without trial, in open defiance of international law. President Obama has continued this tradition of disregarding the constitution by enacting laws that enable the President to not only have people detained without trial at will on the mere suspicion of terrorism, but to actually have people killed, again on mere suspicion without charges or trial. This has been described as an "Alice in Wonderland" style of justice in which people are sentenced first and then tried later.

King John, Obama's forebear

A recent genealogical study has claimed that all American presidents, except van Buren, are actually descended from King John of England. Interestingly, some time after being forced to sign Magna Carta, King John tried to repudiate it and claimed that it was not binding on him after all. Seems like Obama and Bush have decided to follow in the footsteps of their illustrious ancestor in seeking unlimited power, unchecked by the rule of law. So would Obama have signed Magna Carta? Hardly seems likely.

More info:
Military given go-ahead to detain US terrorist suspects without trial

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Is Richard Dawkins a bully for appealing to reason?

Richard Dawkins has been called a bully in a rambling post by theologian Neil Ormerod. He argues that
....Dawkins and his multitude of followers feel entitled to express such contempt and anger toward religious believers.  Nothing religious believers say can be tolerated because they are at heart irrational human beings; they are free to be otherwise, and in not choosing to be rational they are failing in some sense to be what human beings should be. They are like a watch that does not properly tell the time. They need fixing. And the proper fix is to be more rational, a better human being, and drop their religious beliefs. If these are not Dawkins' and his followers' beliefs about what it means to be human, then all their contempt and anger is nothing more than an attempt at bullying believers, like alpha male primates beating their chests to warn off rivals.
The true face of rationality?

He then goes on to argue that:
However, for many religious traditions this demand for rationality is what is meant by saying that we are "spiritual" beings - that is, we are beings who are not determined simply by their material components, but by something more than mere materiality, by meaning, reason and purpose.
In other words, if humans can make rational choices we must be "spiritual" beings, presumably equipped with immaterial souls that magically endow us with the ability to think and reflect on what we decide to believe is true.
As Dawkins claims, we are just atoms in motion, and all our activities are reducible in principle to the laws of physics. While we may not be able to do so at present, eventually science will find a way to explain all human behaviour.... The whole universe is a purposeless, meaningless set of forces and particles banging into one another according to the laws of physics. How then might Dawkins construe the apparently purposeful appeal to live according to the dictates of reason that is implicit in the aims of his book?
This assumes that for human beings to experience some sense of purpose the universe itself must have purpose. If we are "just" atoms we may as well not make any choices at all! But if Dawkins himself is just a robot with no purpose how is he a bully? By this straw man argument presented by Ormerod, Dawkins is just doing what he is programmed to do. How is this equivalent to bullying? Ormerod seems to think that an appeal to reason is somehow equivalent to the use of intimidation and coercion to get one's own way.

The whole argument is ludicrous and incoherent. "If you believe that it is good for humans to make rational choices then you must believe that we are immaterial spiritual beings, even though there is no rational evidence for this claim." Therefore, to be rational you must be irrational. And what about the problem of dualism? If rationality descends from some immaterial soul, how exactly does an immaterial substance interact with a physical body?[1] Alternatively, maybe we have rationality not because of an immaterial substance which cannot be rationally comprehended, but for the same reason that we have the ability to think and make intelligent decisions. Which might be because we have a brain perhaps?

"If you don't believe the universe has an objective purpose then you cannot have a sense of purpose as a human being." So no objective purpose means that subjective purpose is not possible. Ahh, why exactly? If the universe has no objective purpose does this mean that humans cannot have any values or indeed feelings about what they consider important? Humans do have feelings about what's important, in spite of the fact that we have no way of ever knowing what purpose the universe might even be. So what is wrong with asking people to make rational choices that will lead to better outcomes or that will help to make the world a better place? Theologians have been arguing for millenia that people who choose not to believe in a particular religion will be condemned to an eternity of punishment, just for exercising their "God-given" free will. But Richard Dawkins is a big bully beating his chest and trying to intimidate people just for exhorting people to think critically about what they believe. Perhaps to be fair, some people find having their cherished beliefs questioned very uncomfortable, so trying to get people to think probably seems plain mean.

[1] For a detailed critique of substance dualism, I recommend this video.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Richard Dawkins on the Mars Rover and the Mormons

Recently Richard Dawkins tweeted about the Mars Rover landing:
Yes, America STILL manages to reach Mars, despite half the country preparing to elect a man who believes he'll get a planet when he dies
For anyone not sure of what he meant by getting a planet when you die, he was referring to the Mormon belief in "exaltation". I was unaware of this myself until fairly recently, when I came across the YouTube video copied below, that explains it in an entertaining cartoon. I have it on good authority that this is a fair representation of Orthodox Mormon teaching, and is therefore part of what good Mormons are expected to believe.

Now really, I had thought Scientology pioneered way-out beliefs in life on other planets as a religious teaching, but turns out that Mormons preceded them by a good part of a century. Note the very unsubtle justification for racism based on the idea that skin colour is a marker of "spiritual purity". One thing I have to wonder about is Elohim's countless Goddess wives. Elohim was supposed to have been a mortal who became one of countless Gods, so presumably his Goddess wives were once mortal women. What strikes me is the extreme gender imbalance of one male god apparently having billions of wives. Does this mean that there are billions of male gods without wives? Or does it mean that for every billion women who are exalted, only one man will have the same honour? Seems a bit unfair to the male gender to have what seems like a "winner takes all" system. Or is it the case that basic mathematics do not apply in Heaven, and that for every male who becomes exalted into godhood, billions of goddess wives will be supplied for him in some miraculous way? Maybe that's one of the benefits of being a god,  mortal conceptions of "common sense" or logic simply do not apply...

Just an addendum, according to an informal poll, 50% of Mormons do not believe that men have ever been to the moon...

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The unknown purpose of the universe

Some philosophers, such as Richard Swinburne have argued that there is evidence from fine tuning that the specific laws of physics that allow intelligent life forms to exist are so improbable that it is plausible that these laws were fine tuned by god in order that intelligent life forms could exist (Leslie, 1990). Swinburne argued that a good god would have particular reason to will that beings such as humans could come to exist, e.g. so that we could develop the capacity to learn true beliefs, such as the laws of physics.
This would seem to imply that the purpose, or at least one purpose, of the universe was to allow the existence of life forms such as human beings. This would therefore imply that our prehuman ancestors existed mainly for the purpose of allowing human beings to evolve. Therefore, hominoid life forms of the Miocene epoch for example might not have had any purpose of their own, they might simply have existed as a precondition of the emergence of human life.
What if human beings then are not themselves the reason for the existence of the universe? Could it be that we exist as a precondition for the emergence of some even more advanced form of life that we can hardly even imagine? That is, humans might eventually evolve into super-intelligent life forms that transcend the current limitations of human life. Therefore, even if a god was responsible for fine tuning the laws of physics, human beings in themselves might not have any relevance to the fulfillment of god’s ultimate purpose. Therefore, current human concerns might hold no more interest for god than the daily lives of prehuman apes.
This is very similar to Nietzsche’s idea that man is a transitional form between the ape and the superman.
The point is that even if god were somehow involved in setting the laws of the universe to allow the existence of living beings, it is quite possible that god’s purpose in doing so has nothing to do with current human evolution. That is, human affairs might be of no concern to god, who might have some unknown purpose we can barely conceive of.
Human beings like to think that their own lives are of great significance and therefore of concern to a higher power. Yet chimpanzees might consider their own day-to-day needs and desires to be of great importance yet it seems ludicrous to think that god is watching over the lives of chimpanzees and taking a great interest in the outcomes of their interpersonal dramas, of which they have plenty. Dinosaurs roamed the earth for an impressive 120 million years. There is no evidence that intelligent life forms would have evolved from dinosaurs if they had survived even longer. Again it seems ludicrous to think that god was taking great interest in their development and quotidian concerns. If dinosaurs were part of some great design it seems hard to see how they could possibly fit in to some purposeful scheme. On the other hand, if they evolved through natural processes questions about their ‘purpose’ become irrelevant. Therefore, I think that the great apes evolved through natural processes involving no design and see no reason to suppose that human evolution involved design or purpose. Hence, I find it preferable to suppose that the laws of physics as they apply in our universe also developed through natural processes without a designer.
Click to enlarge image


Explaining the universe with the unexplainable

Religious philosopher Richard Swinburne contends that the fact that the universe is actually explicable ‘points to the existence of a deity’.
As a thought experiment, imagine a universe that was not explicable to its inhabitants, where the reasons why things happened were completely opaque and not open to human understanding. People there might say that ‘god works in mysterious ways’, that ‘mere mortals’ are not meant to understand god’s great master plan, hence we must have faith that the deity has his/her own reasons for everything, even if we can never comprehend them due to our limited perspective…
Andromeda Galaxy. If God created the universe for the benefit of humans, why create myriads of galaxies we will never visit?

But wait! In our universe, that is exactly what traditional religionists say anyway! Therefore, theologians seem to be trying to have it both ways! The argument from explicability seems to lack refutability, because if the universe were not explicable they could argue that this too pointed to the existence of a deity.  
Atheist have also pointed out that trying to explain the universe by invoking a deity is vacuous because it requires believing in something that cannot be explained, and hence is no explanation at all. I think this makes Swinburne's claim particularly ironic. He seems to say: "We humans have an amazing ability to explain virtually the whole universe through science but we don't know why this is possible - it must be because something we can never hope to explain (God) exists after all." So if there is a God, our ability to explain what's real ultimately fails. Such contradictory logic never ceases to amaze me.