Friday, 28 October 2011

Second Epistle to the Hitch

Giford, a brother in the search for truth, unto Christopher, our beloved brother across the pond. 

Hello again Christopher.  Hope all is well with you; I hear you were on form at the recent Texas Freethought Convention - I hope that was more than just a chemo good day. 

Now, I promised some notes on your response to the moral questions during your panel debate.  Sadly, I lost my original notes, so I hope that this poorly remembered rehearsal will suffice. 

Some of the panel members - in particular William Lane Craig - challenged your basic premise, which was that religion is immoral.  Given the length of time that you spent arguing by example that this is true, this was a serious challenge to your case.  And, to a very limited extent, I agree with that challenge; I don't think that religion is inherently evil, or even inherently harmful.  It is capable of persuading people to do good things or bad.  I do have reservations about whether an inherently close-minded system is desireable, and I certainly don't think that its premises are true; but I could not support a statement such as 'religion poisons everything'. 

But Craig goes further, and alleges that as an atheist, you can have no basis for morality, and indeed that your claims that some things are wrong imply that a divine moral lawgiver - by which he means the Christian God - must exist.  And here I think you really ought to have drawn the line. 

Firstly, secularists can have a much better understanding of what morality truly is than theists can. 

We are evolved creatures, not just physically but mentally also.  And we are tribal; a lone human has little chance in the world.  Our strength comes instead from our ability to live and work together.  And that means that we need strong societies.  A group of humans that permits its members to kill each other or to steal from each other will not survive - or, more acurately, will have a lower chance of survival than a group that is slightly better at preventing those things.  The genes for moral behaviour will be favoured. 

Of course, those genes are not too nuanced.  They cannot make judgements about how genetically close we are to another individual.  They simply assume that if we see someone a lot, they are kin.  (There seems to be a slightly better judgement in the case of parent/child relationships, but even that can be confused, by adoption for instance.)  So as the 'global village' shrinks, we find ourselves feeling more compassion for the proverbial starving African children who we might not even have been aware of a century ago, or may even have seen as the 'out group' - different from 'us' and therefore rivals to be feared and hated. 

This view - aside from being pretty obvious really - makes sense of a whole range of otherwise confusing details about morality.  Why do we disagree so often about what is right?  Because there is no transcendental standard of morality. 

The counter-argument will no doubt come that by this standard, all morality is relative.  You or I have no reason to say that murder or rape are wrong, only that in our opinion they are.  But this will not stand a moment's thought.  Some standards are universal among humans because they are basic to what is needed for a society to survive - the wrongness of murder, for instance, as explained above.  But more importantly, just because something is decided by humans, it does not follow that it is decided by each individual human for themselves.  The English language, for instance, is clearly a human creation - no-one but the most uneducated (and mythical) American Congressman would claim it is given to us by God.  Yet clearly there are right and wrong uses of English - decided not by the individual, but by a broad consensus. 

So with morality.  We decide it - not as individuals, but as a group.  And yes, different groups can have different moral opinions, and yes that can make it hard in cases such as female genital mutilation, where different groups have opposing moralities.  All we can do is try to influence. 

Secondly, contra Craig, theists can have no divine basis for morality. 

This is essentially the Euthyphro argument, which predates your co-panelists' religion, and with which I cannot believe you are not familiar.  It breaks down into two options. 

The first option is that God doesn't make things right or wrong, He merely tells us what is right and wrong. 
There are numerous problems with this - you dwelt extensively on the problem of how people know what God wants - but perhaps the most basic is that it leaves the theist in the same position Craig claims you are in - if God does not create morality, the theist is left with no explanation for its existence. 

So it would seem that Craig is forced to the second horn of the dilemma, that God actually decides what is right and what is wrong.  Unfortunately, this fares no better. 

For a start, it is every bit as arbitrary as Craig's caricature of relative morality.  'Before' (if I can use the word metaphorically) God decided murder was wrong, there was nothing at all wrong with it.  Had God decided that murder and rape were true virtues and helping little old ladies across the road was the greatest sin, that would be true.  And indeed, if God changed his mind (and, as an orthodox Christian, Craig is commited to the idea of a Old and a New Covenant), murder might become a moral virtue tomorrow.  (As you pointed out at length, how would we even know that this had happened?) 

It is tempting to think that the response to this is to say that the Christian God would never make murder good, because to do so would be evil - but this assumes that there is something inherently wrong with murder.  But that takes us right back to the first horn of the dilemma, where God can't make things right or wrong, and we've already seen that that fails. 

So in fact, Christian theists can have no basis for their morality unless they are prepared to join us secularists.  This is a debate that Craig and his like cannot win - and, whilst it requires some length to be made convincingly, I think your time would have been better spent there than in the task of trying to prove that no good has ever come of religion. 

I sincerely hope that we have not heard the last of your voice in this field; but I also hope that you can find the intellectual rigour to match your turn of phrase. 



Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Stephen Law vs William Lane Craig

I am a bit of a fan of Stepen Law.  I like his style, and I greatly enjoyed his Philosophy Gym.  So when I heard that he was due to debate arch Christian apologist William Lane Craig, my hopes were high.  Sadly, I was never likely to be able to attend in person, so I have had to make do with the audio recording. 

Craig makes his opening statement clearly enough.  To be honest, I could not help feeling he was on shaky ground from the outset.  His argument against the reality of infinity is as applicable to an infinite God as to an infinite Universe, and as inapplicable to a timeless naturalistic cause for the Universe as it is to a timeless God.  The Cosmological Argument I have blogged about previously.  Craig then made an argument from morality that assumed the existence of objective morality, and closed with an argument on the Resurrection. 

Disappointingly, Law failed to engage with most of what Craig said, and in particular with the Cosmological Argument.  Instead, he focussed on one of his own pet theories, the 'Evil God' argument. 

As the debate progressed, however, the positions seemed to reverse.  Law presented some justification for ignoring the Cosmological argument - that he was arguing against Craig's god in particular, not any conceivable God.  Although I would not take the line of argument Law did on morality (that objective morality probably exists, even though he can't explain it), Law managed to point out that Craig's argument was invalid.  And Craig seemed either to misunderstand or avoid Law's Evil God argument. 

To expand on that last point, Law's argument was that the existence of an evil God is disproved by the evidence of the world around us; and that since almost exactly symmetrical arguments can be made for the existence of a good God, we can equally strongly conclude that a good God also does not exist.  Craig repeatedly argued against a different claim, that the evil God undermines Christian claims to be able to prove the existence of a good God via observation of the world.  In other words, Craig is making a direct argument for the non-existence of Craig's god; Craig is pointing out that Law's claim does not undermine a separate argument.  Craig's claim that animals do not 'really' feel pain was dangerously close to solipsism. 

On the Resurrection, Law again engaged in a way I would not have - he took a Humean line that denied the possibility of miracles, whereas I would not like to rule them out as a principle; instead, I would have looked at the evidence and noted that in this instance it seems particularly weak.  Craig, on the other hand, used a rather circular claim that the miracle claims made for Jesus prove the Resurrection claims made for him. 

On the whole, I thought Law carried the debate; but there were a number of missed opportunities to really put Craig to the sword.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

First Epistle to the Hitch

Giford, a brother in the search for truth, unto Christopher, our beloved brother across the pond. 

Greetings Christopher, and I hope that our health is holding up.  Many of us out here in the real world look at your Wikipedia page frequently to see how you are getting on. 

I have just finished watching your debate against a panel of Christian apologists, consisting of William Lane Craig, Douglas Wilson, Lee Strobel and Jim Dennison, and moderated by Stan Guthrie.  Now there is no denying that there are some heavyweight names among Christian apologists there; nor that you were heavily outnumbered.  Yet I was surprised to see you roundly trounced on many of the points raised. 

Heavyweights they may have been, but the arguments they used were far from being 'heavy hitting', and your failure to convincingly deal with them - or even engage them, in some cases - undermined your entire case.  When one of your opponents - Craig - summed up, he was entirely right to say that you had failed to engage on many points, failed to refute others, and seemed not to have 'done your homework'.  There may have been all sorts of reasons why this was the case, not leastly a lack of time; but the weakness of your answer when you gave one heavily undermined you case.

I would therefore like to offer some unsolicited advice to you - from the lesiurely confines of my computer keyboard - about how I think you should have dealt with some of their points. 

The first point on which I felt you failed to adequately engage was the Argument from First Cause.  There is really no excuse for allowing this to stand in a debate, especially since it takes mere moments to dismantle. 

Lee Strobel (4.5 mins): "Scientists now agree that the Universe and time itself began in the Big Bang.  That leaves the argument whatever begins to exist has a cause.  We know the Universe began to exist therefore the Universe has a cause.  And as Dr Craig who is an expert in this particular matter has said, we can draw logical inferences from the evidence.  And that is that this cause must itself be uncaused, timeless, immaterial, powerful, and personal.  A pretty good starting point for a description of God."
William Lane Craig: "I think that God is the best explanation for why anything exists rather than nothing.  This is the deepest question of metaphysics.  And it seems to me an argument for God along these lines is valid and cogent.  Whatever begins, or rather whatever exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or else in an external cause.  If the Universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.  And the Universe obviously exists.  From that it follows that if the Universe has an explanation of its existence, then God exists.  And since that first premise requires that, I think this is a good argument for God's existence, that one could defend in more detail.  Lee has also outlined another argument for God's existence based on the beginning of the Universe, that whatever begins to exist has a cause, philosophical and scientific evidence shows the Universe began to exist, from which it follows there is a transcendant cause of the Universe beyond space and time which brought the Universe into being from nothing."
Your answer: Despite this being given in the opening statements, you didn't refer back to it at all during the debate. 

My answer:  Now this is just a trivial rewording of the basic Argument, with the words 'that has a beginning' inserted to try to avoid the infinite recursion of God needing a cause.  As such, it is vulnerable to many of the same weaknesses. 

The fist and most important weakness of these arguments is that their basic premise is simply wrong.  The Copenhagen Interprtation of quantum theory says that events at the quantum scale do not have a direct cause.  They happen based on probability, not causality.  While there are other widely accepted interpretations of quantum theory, these too deny the influence of causality.  Now, I wouldn't want to overstate my case - there are possible interpretations, albeit not widely accepted, that assume that there is a cause for these events that we simply cannot observe even in principle (and those theories will be boosted if the recent observations of neutrinos exceeding the speed of light are verified).  But as long as there is even a possibility that causality has exceptions, any argument based on the universality of causality is based on false premises and is therefore totally invalid. 

But even if that were not the case, even if the premises were valid, the conclusion that Strobel and Lane want simply doesn't follow.  If the Universe has a cause, there is no reason to think that it is anything they would recognise as God.  It may be that the Big Bang is one of an infinite series of events (Craig has denied elsewhere that infinities are possible on, it seems to me, very weak grounds).  Or it may be that there is an infinite 'background' against which Big Bangs periodically happen.  In either case, this argument fails to show the existence of a 'transcendent' or 'uncaused, timeless, immaterial, powerful' cause, much less a 'personal' one. 

Indeed, even if the premises were correct and the logic were valid, this argument doesn't even address Craig's 'deepest question': if God caused the Universe, why is there a God instead of being nothing at all forever? 

So here we have an argument from false premises, using faulty logic, that doesn't address the main question, yet is one of the main reasons fr belief - and you fail even to address this gift during the entire debate! 

Question from the audience (100 mins): "With the precision with which the Universe does revolve - and it is very precise, if it gets off a little bit, we're done - and I'm not a scientist - the complexity of the human body is so complex, given 5 billion years, if we were here, do you really believe that evolution, the Big Bang, and the degree with which the Universe revolves could just *happen*?  Do you really believe that?"
Your answer: "I've noticed there's a big tendency lately, it's called the Fine Tuning Argument, to impress me (or to try and impress me) by saying look how nearly nothing happened at all.  Look how nearly it was all a complete failure.  I fail completely to see the force of this argument, either scientifically or by analogy.  Here's the situation.  Edwin Hubble, as you know, discovered that the effect of the Big Bang was that the Universe was exploding away from itself at a faster rate than had been thought.  But it was going very quickly indeed - it's called the red light shift - most people thought that if only for Newtonian reasons that would go on, but the rate of expansion would slow, it just couldn't possibly keep going that fast.  Lawrence Krauss and various other noted Jewish physicists have shown relatively recently that the rate of expansion is going up and it's burning away from itself faster than it was before.  So very very soon you won't even be able to see from the red light shift what the evidence of the original Big Bang was.  We were lucky to catch it while we could.  It's going.  In the meantime... so wherever the something came from, there's a huge amount of nothingness heading our way.  And at warp speed.  And in the meantime, if you want a smaller example, just look at the night sky, where you can now see the Andromeda galaxy almost without a telescope, headed directly on a collision course for us, that's coming.  Who knows which will happen first?  A lot of nothingness... [...] so some design, huh?  And some tuning." 

This is really an even weaker argument, and again a 'God of the Gaps' - we don't know why (or if) the Universe has to have the laws it does, therefore God must have made it that way.  Your counter-point (that much of the universe is hostile to life) was unconvincing, and much stronger arguments are available.  You could have paraphrased Dawkins, who points out that trying to account for design by appealing to a designer who himself shows all the characteristic of design is a hopelessly circular argument. 

Or you could have gone for stronger arguments still, for instance, that the question presupposes that there is only one Universe.  Modern science suggests (though it is by no means firmly established) that there may in fact be an infinite series of Universes, each with slightly different laws of physics.  If that is the case, then rather than life being massively unlikely, it becomes basically certain.  It doesn't matter whether these other universes are the result of higher dimensions, 'Big Crunch cycles', parallel quantum universes, Brane theory or bubble inflation.  (Some of those theories are more respectable than others; if you want to pick one, I suggest you plump for Brane theory.)  They all undermine this argument for the existence of an intelligent creator.  We are then left only with the question of why our Universe happens to be one of the vanishingly small percentage that are suitable for life - but even that becomes a non-question when you ask what the chances of us evolving in a Universe unsuitable for the evolution of intelligent life might be! 

Then there were the eyebrow-raisers that you must have expected from any encounter with apologists: Christianity is a relationship not a religion, Jesus' resurrection is historically well documented, only Christianity makes such bold claims, and so on.  Even if you don't have time to deal with each of these in detail, I would have expected a brief word to at least prevent such claims from going unchallenged. 

But the greatest omission I saw in your case was surprising indeed, since it concerned the central thrust of your argument, morality.  More on this when I next write. 

Yours in slight disappointment but knowing that you always love a controversy,


Friday, 7 October 2011

Is Ockham'a Razor a Blunt Instrument?

One of the most powerful tools used by sceptics is the principle of parsimony, often referred to as Ockham's Razor.  This states, loosely, that when there are two competing explanations for something, the simpler should be preferred unless there is good reason to favour the more complex.  It is this principle that means we don't conjure up aliens to explain crop circles when a combination of hoaxers and cider will do equally well.  It is this principle that dissuades us from believing that Shakespeare was a myth created by the Victorians.  And it is this principle, claim many atheists, that offers the best argument that God does not exist. 

It is certain that Ockham's Razor is a valid and effective mental tool.  If nothing else, we know this because much of science is based on parsimony, and science works.  But I want to contend here that it is frequently misused, and is not as powerful as some people imagine. 

The problem with Ockham's Razor is the illusion of certainty that it gives. 

Imagine a black box.  On the side is a switch, and on the top a light bulb.  When the switch is pressed, the bulb lights; when it is released, the bulb is extinguished.  But we cannot open the box to see its contents. 

The simplest deduction about the contents of the box is that it contains a battery and some wire.  Therefore this is the explanation we should favour.  Other explanations are certainly possible: there might be an internal light-bulb and light photovoltaic cell to complete the circuit; or a clockwork mechanism rather than the battery; or a little pixie who ferries individual electrons around at lightening speed.  But these explanations are discarded because they entail entities for which we have no direct evidence. 

Yet Ockham's Razor does not actually prove that such things do not exist.  We might draw the line at miniature pixies, but it is entirely possible that the box contains something more than a basic circuit; indeed, modern torches frequently contain diodes to ensure batteries can only be fitted in one way.  Newton did not add a term to his theory of gravity about the colour of the objects in question - not because he tested and eliminated it, but because he had no evidence that colour had an effect, so he assumed it did not.  But likewise, he did not include a term related to the speed of the objects compared to the speed of light.  His reasoning was the same, yet we now know that on that point he was in error. 

So the Razor can be suggestive, but it is not proof of anything; at best it is a presumption, and we should always be wary that it will frequently lead us into error.  Which begs the question - if the Razor can lead us into error, and has no rational foundation (perhaps a subject for a post some other day), what use is it?

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Kalaam Cosmological Argument

Been thinking lately about the'Kalam' argument. 

This basically says that everything that has a beginning has a cause; the universe has a beginning (i.e. the Big Bang), and thus the Universe has a cause, which is God. 

Clearly, this is a variant on the basic argument that everything has a cause, therefore God caused the Universe.  It seeks to avoid the problem of infinite regress (what caused God?  And what caused whatever caused God?) by inserting the words 'that has a beginning'.  And at first this seems plausible. 

But there are many versions of the cosmological argument that fail on closer inspection, and I think that this is one of them.  After all, everything we observe has a beginning; why specify that it is the property of 'having a beginning' that links to the property of 'having a cause'?  It would be just as easy to say that everything we observe is within (or part of) the universe, so we could argue that everything within the universe has a cause.  Therefore, we could argue, the universe as a whole doesn't need a cause because it is not within itself.  It seems to me that this is enough to undermine the Kalam argument; it relies on a verbal slight of tongue, rather than a solid foundation. 

There are of course other problems with the Kalam argument, some of which it shares with the standard Cosmological Argument.  If time began in the Big Bang, it is debatable whether the Big Bang had a beginning - if not, there is no need for God.  Then there is nothing in this argument that supports the idea that the cause of the Universe was intelligent, moral, or any of the other attributes usually assigned to God other than being uncaused.  More seriously, the premise (which I have accepted for the sake of argument above) that everything that has a beginning has a cause is undermined by quantum physics, which appears to show that, on a quantum scale, almost everything (including the creation of matter and anti-matter) has no cause. 

My current opinion is that this is an invalid argument; an attempt to take the persuasive but flawed argument from first cause and make it more convincing that fails logically but may have some success with those who want to find evidence of God's existence.