Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Zeus might be Real!" And the Whole World might be Magic too!

The New York Times published a bizarre opinion piece by philosopher Gary Gutting called Did Zeus Exist? With apparent earnestness, Gutting argues that not only did the ancient Greeks have good reason to believe in the existence of Zeus (and presumably their other gods) but that we should take seriously the possibility that they might just have been right. Not that they were right, but that the idea is just plausible enough that we cannot reasonably dismiss it altogether. Naturally I have wondered if this is some sort of elaborate joke, but if so the punch line remains elusive. Perhaps it was intended as a provocative thought experiment to encourage critical thinking and scepticism about our own claims to knowledge. However, if this was the intention – and I have no proof that it is – then it fails miserably as the amount of uncritical nonsense presented to the reader is so shocking it has to be seen to be believed.

Could Zeus have existed just because people believed in him? What about fictional deities like Cthulhu or Sauron, could they exist on some mysterious plane of reality too?
Gutting acknowledges that we have no evidence at all today that Zeus existed, but that “back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence” to justify believing in him. Let’s examine this “considerable” amount of evidence that Gutting assembles and see just how well it stands up under scrutiny.

Firstly, Gutting seems very impressed that most people in ancient Greek times apparently never even questioned the existence of divine beings. So if enough people believe in something, then there might be something to it then? Because that’s how the smart people decide what is true, by popular vote I suppose.

Oddly enough, after stating that few people ever questioned the existence of Zeus, not even clever fellows like Plato or Aristotle, he goes on to ask, “Why did belief in the gods persist in spite of critical challenges?” (Huh? I thought there were no critical challenges? I’m confused already.) He answers his own question, by stating that the Greeks were convinced by “experiences of divine actions in their lives.” He cites author Robert Parker: “The greatest evidence for the existence of gods is that piety works . . . the converse is that impiety leads to disaster.” Examples of piety at work include “clear expressions of a god’s favour such as weather conditions hampering an enemy, a miraculous escape, or a cure…” Oh yes, piety works alright – except when it doesn’t. For example, Hannibal’s successes in Italy were believed by the ancient Romans to be a sign of divine wrath. Presumably, failure to escape from a dangerous situation, or remaining ill in spite of prayers for a cure, were seen as signs of divine disfavour, rather than evidence that piety works no better than chance, or that the gods might not be real after all. Has Gutting honestly not heard of confirmation bias? Someone who believes in gods can easily interpret anything that happens as confirmation of their belief because the ways of the gods are inscrutable and mysterious. The fact that the ancient Greeks did exactly this is hardly impressive or evidence of anything except the gullibility of human nature.

Gutting does seem to be aware that there are mundane explanations for why people in ancient times might have believed in their gods, e.g. such as the sociological theory that organised religion reinforces social control of how people behave. However, he wants us to consider an alternative possibility:

“Yes, but why did the society so insist on belief in the gods? We may assume it’s simply for the sake of social control. But the reason could just as well be that everyone was rightly convinced — from their own and others’ experiences — that the gods existed. Then the control would derive from the belief, not vice versa.”

I think it is equally plausible to argue that the reason could just as well be that they were being manipulated by a super-computer from another galaxy. Then the control would derive from an extra-galactic source, not a sociological one.

He goes on to talk about something much more interesting than belief in omens. He notes that during religious rituals worshippers would sometimes actually experience a sense of contact with the divine, a conviction that they could feel the presence of the gods. I think this is a genuinely interesting psychological phenomenon, and people today still have experiences like this, although the particular gods involved depend on the specific religion of the worshipper. Gutting is aware that scientific explanations for such experiences have been proposed by psychologists and neuroscientists, but he summarily dismisses them.
“In principle, any experience of our daily lives can be produced by electrochemical alternations of the brain, but this does not show that, for example, I did not actually eat breakfast or talk to my wife this morning.”
Gosh, what an insightful response. Gutting seems to be saying: “Anything we experience might be an illusion or a hallucination; therefore, anything at all we can experience just might be real.”

If we take this seriously, then the fact that there is corroborating evidence for the existence of things like breakfasts or wives, but that there is no such evidence for the existence of gods, should not trouble us. I once did a research project on people with schizophrenia. One fellow I spoke to was adamant that he had a radioactive transmitter implanted in his brain that was the source of voices only he could hear that constantly abused him. By Gutting’s logic, we should take this man’s explanation of the voices that trouble him just as seriously as a more mundane psychiatric one. The fact that this man’s beliefs do not appear to be grounded in anything that most people would consider to be real is only a minor detail.

Gutting explains why the lack of any evidence for the existence of gods of any kind is not an issue:
“Yes, but the people who worshiped Zeus claimed to experience his presence in their everyday lives and, especially, in their religious ceremonies. There’s no reason for us to accept this claim, but we have no reason for thinking they were wrong.”
No reason?? Again, I am forced to wonder if this is some sort of joke. This is like saying that anything at all might be true and there is no way of knowing if certain beliefs might be wrong. In other words, modern science, with its careful attempts to discern between true and false ideas about reality, can go take a flying leap just because ancient peoples claimed to experience things they thought were of supernatural origin. Gutting goes on to up the ante by suggesting that ancient peoples might have lived in a different kind of reality altogether:
“But how can we be so sure that the Greeks lived in the same sort of world as we do? … This response has force only if we assume that there is very little likelihood of a world that contains supernatural forces. But we have no a priori basis for such an assumption. We may well think that our world contains little or no evidence of the supernatural. But that is no reason to think the same was true of the Greek world.”
This is a great argument. In essence, Gutting seems to be saying that we should take seriously the possibility that the world just might be a magical place where the nature of reality is not consistent over time. The ancient Greeks for all we know might have lived in some special world where the laws of science as we know them just did not apply. Ironic considering that the ancient Greeks were pioneers in the discovery of universal laws and regularities in nature that form the basis of modern science.

Gutting sums up his argument by stating that “atheistic denial” of Zeus’ existence is “ungrounded.” We have no reason, he says, to assume that the ancient Greeks lacked good evidence for his existence. Indeed, he might still exist today, but just remains in hiding! Gutting’s ideas about what constitute reason and good evidence seem to derive from Alice in Wonderland. He concludes thusly:
In any case, to the question, “May we properly remain agnostic about whether Zeus ever existed?” the answer is “Yes, we may.”
My response: “yes, we may… if we are prepared to jettison reason and seriously consider any and all fantasies as equally probable, no matter how crazy.”

Hat tip to The Friendly Atheist for alerting me to Gutting's article.

Near Earth Object has a nice succinct critique of the article as well.

Further reading - the following articles are about belief in non-human entities based on psychedelic drug experiences:
DMT, Aliens and Reality: Part 1 & Part 2.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who is "Islamophobic" really?

To be "phobic" of something is normally taken to mean to be frightened of it. The Greek word phobos actually means fear or terror, so it would make sense to think that people who are "Islamophobic" are those who are frightened of Islam. However, in recent times, the term "islamophobic" has been used to describe those who publicly criticise Islam such as Richard Dawkins and other "new atheists" e.g. in a rubbish article a few months ago by

However, this use of the term seems rather ironic to me, considering how much courage it takes to dare to criticise Islam in today's climate of fear.

Case in point: a student newspaper Woroni based at the Australian National University, the country's flagship university no less, ran a series of satirical articles about "Advice from Religion." The first four articles, which poked fun at Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism, and Judaism respectively, all ran without problems. The fifth instalment in this series was bold enough to poke fun at Islam.

Infographic from Woroni which the university forced students to remove. For more details see The Friendly Atheist piece about this

The university's response, described in detail on the Woroni website, makes for some disturbing reading. In brief, the students responsible were summoned before the Chancelry, threatened with disciplinary action, including academic exclusion from the university, and forced to remove the piece from their website. The university cited some politically correct BS about "providing a welcoming environment for a diverse student and academic population." However, they also cited particular concerns about the likelihood of religious violence that I think are much more telling: 
“This was most clearly demonstrated by the Jyllands- Posten cartoon controversy … and violent protests in Sydney on September 15 last year,” the Chancelry told Woroni.
 So now we get to the heart of the matter. The student newspaper poked fun at Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and Scientologists, yet there were no complaints about making students of these faiths feel unwelcome. Yet when they criticise Islam specifically, the university threatens to expel them. They even admit that they are afraid of a violent response by Muslim extremists.

I find it ironic, even hypocritical, that people who are brave enough to criticise Islam are described as "islamophobic", yet those who are most cowed by fear of Islam are the ones who would suppress all criticism of it. People who would forbid criticism of Islam due to fear are the ones who truly deserve the label "islamophobic."

Once upon a time, universities cherished the right of freedom of speech. The fact that Australia's most prestigious university would show such cowardice and disregard for the principles of academic freedom is a sorry reflection on the times we live in. But what is even more disturbing perhaps is the fact that such responses are rooted in realistic fears of violence by intolerant people with contempt for the values of liberal democracy. However, placating the sensibilities of fanatics who demand "respect" for their violent beliefs by shutting people up out of fear is not only cowardly, it provides no real solution to the problem. Instead, it will only reinforce the sense of entitlement and embolden religious fanatics to demand more and more concessions to their preferences at the expense of liberty.

Further reading
Surrendering freedom to the violent: ANU censors student paper for mocking Islam

New Atheism should be able to criticise Islam without being accused of Islamophobia

Is Insulting Religion "Extremism"? No amount of provocation can excuse violence. Piece I wrote on Psychology Today in response to "The Innocence of Muslims" riots

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Life of Jesus as a Fantasy Camp

Imagine there were such a thing a Nazi prison fantasy camp. That is, a recreation of a concentration camp where people could voluntarily go to temporarily experience life as a prisoner for a week or so. (I seem to recall that such a thing has actually been done somewhere but I don’t have the details.) Now imagine, that a wealthy man decided to check into such a camp for a week-long holiday. Let’s put aside for the moment the question of why he would do this and just humour me. For a week he experiences life in a fairly realistic mock prison with rather harsh conditions. Afterwards, he gets to go back home to his comfortable life in which he wants for nothing. He might reasonably say that he has a better appreciation of all the good things that he has after such an experience. But imagine instead that he actually said that his experiences in the mock camp were fully equivalent to those of real prisoners who had been detained against their will in real Nazi concentration camps. That is, the suffering and deprivation he experienced during his week of voluntary incarceration was every bit as bad as that of a real prisoner and that he now he has a complete and authentic insight into what it would be like to endure such conditions for real. How would you react to such a statement?
I would be offended. The wealthy man entered the camp voluntarily, and the whole time he was there he knew that before too long he would be back in his comfortable home as if nothing had ever happened. For this man to claim that his experience was comparable to that of a real prisoner – held against his will and with no hope of release – is obscene.
Now consider the claim by theologian Richard Swinburne[1] in The Resurrection of God Incarnate that the existence of suffering is consistent with the existence of an omnipotent and good God. Swinburne states:
that suffering does not count against the existence of God... [because] God would become incarnate to share our suffering and to make atonement for our sins.
He goes on to make rather bold assertions about the suffering of Jesus:
Suffering has been felt to be inconsistent with an omnipotent, good, and omniscient God. The only way I can see to reconcile these is to observe that the evidence is not all in yet—except in one case. Who could say that anyone suffered more than Jesus—with sweating blood (hemathidrosis) in Gethsemane, even before the physical abuse began.
Two thousand years later, theologians are yet to come up with a satisfactory answer to he problem of evil.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the sheer pointlessness of God justifying the existence of suffering in mortal creatures by inflicting extra suffering upon himself. Or the fact that this does not even begin to make sense as a resolution to the problem of theodicy. Swinburne’s claim that no one in the history of the world ever suffered more than Jesus is monumental in its sweeping arrogance. Untold masses of people throughout history have experienced horrendous suffering, including starvation, cancer, torture, and slavery, not to mention grief and heartbreak. Yet Swinburne expects us to believe without any evidence that none of this can compare to what Jesus experienced. Sweating blood! Oh yes, much worse than anything else a human could experience. This is in spite of the fact that hemathidrosis is a known medical condition that has been attested in ordinary humans, so Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane is hardly unique.   

If I had to choose between sweating blood for a while and being in this man's shoes, it would be an easy decision.

There is a deeper problem with Swinburne’s claims than his lack of imagination about the extent of human suffering. Swinburne is trying to prove that Jesus was God incarnate. Yet if this were true then it is simply not possible that his suffering was in any way comparable to the depths of mental anguish that humans are vulnerable to.
Consider the qualities that God is supposed to possess. He is believed to be immortal, all-powerful and to have foreknowledge of the future. The Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus were all supposed to be part of God’s eternal plan. Therefore, God voluntarily chose to experience suffering, knew in advance exactly what it would involve, and knew all along that after his death he would rise from the dead to continue his blissful and immortal existence without any lingering trauma. Any suffering God experienced was a temporary inconvenience at worst, hardly a major disruption of his life. 

God sacrifices himself to himself to avert his own anger at the sin of a mythical man and woman with no concept of right and wrong. Yeah, that makes sense. 

Compare this to the human experience of real and terrible suffering. Humans are regularly inflicted with adverse conditions that they do not choose, do not foresee, and over which they have no control. A person who is murdered does not have the option of magically resurrecting afterwards. Those who survive horrific experiences are often left with post-traumatic stress symptoms in which they endure the anguish of mentally reliving the traumatic event over and over again.
If God were real he could not even begin to comprehend what it was like to be human. God could never know what it was like to be powerless, to be uncertain, to be mortal, to be traumatised, or to be heartbroken. Compared to the depths of suffering that humans are heir to, the events that Jesus supposedly went through were a fantasy camp.

[1] I have previously written about Swinburne on this blog here and here

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© Scott McGreal.