Quentin Smith’s Big Bang Cosmological Argument For God’s Nonexistence

I’ve always been fond of the atheistic philosopher Quentin Smith, since he has made the point constantly that almost all—the “great majority” is his words—of philosophers who reject theism do so without sufficient grounds to do so. They have, to quote Smith, “an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism is false”:

QuentinSmithNaturalism.png

Today I saw an atheistic argument posted to Twitter in the form of a graphic, which is attributed to Quentin Smith.  The post is from Atheist Academy @AtheistAcademy, here

And the actual graphic is

BigBangCosmologicalArgumentForAtheism.jpg

I do not know whether this is an accurate representation of Smith’s argument, or whether he is even the originator of it. I hope not, since it is rather terrible argument—and that is what I’m going to show.

Let’s begin with Premise (1). This is a plausible premise. It is probably worth noting that some physicists, e.g. Stephen Hawking, seem to believe that the laws of nature pre-exist the big bang singularity, to the point where Hawking ascribes them causal powers. But since the premise is plausible, let’s grant it and see what happens.

Premise (2) is also a plausible premise. Again, some philosophers and physicists have disputed it, usually on the the grounds that the putatively “inanimate” must actually be in some sense at least latently animate, since it gives rise to the animate. Leibniz is a good classical example of “panpsychism” and e.g. Colin McGinn of “naturalistic panprotopsychism.” If panpsychism is true in either a strong or weak sense, premise (2) is false, but once again, let’s grant it and see what happens. It is plausible.

Premise (3) is where things start to go wrong. The obvious problem is that premise (3) isn’t a premise at all, but an argument disguised as a premise. The “and consequently” makes it clear that an inference is being made within the premise. Worse, an invalid inference is being made within the premise. Perhaps the inference is hidden inside a single premise in order to hide the invalidity of the inference? I don’t know, but let’s take a closer look.

The premise begins by saying that “no law governs the big bang singularity,” which is dubious even if premise (1) is true. If premise (1) is true, no law preexists the big bag singularity which governs its coming into being, but nothing prevents it coming into being with a determinate—that is, law governed—structure. Nor does premise (2) help, since “being animate” is not necessary for “being law governed.” The premise, in other words, seems to assume that laws of nature neither preexisted the big bang singularity nor came into being along with it—leaving as the only alternative that the laws of nature came into being at some point after the big bang singularity. To claim that nature precedes the laws of nature is at the very least a strange claim, and it seems to me, a prima facie dubious one. It raises such obvious questions as “If nature was not law-governed from the beginning, i.e. the big bang singularity, when and how did it become law-governed?” I think many philosophers and physicists would reject the very idea that something could be “nature” without being “that which is governed by the laws of nature.”

So Premise (3) is off to rocky start, but to make things worse, it draws an invalid inference from the dubious premise which is the first part of the listed premise. Since the big bang is not law-governed, it follows that “there is no guarantee that it will emit a configuration of particles that will evolve into an animate universe.”

Since this argument is meant to demonstrate atheism (or naturalism, which Smith takes to be the same thing), it obviously cannot assume atheism or naturalism as a premise. But what this inference actually says is “if there is no law of nature governing the first state of nature, the big bang singularity, there is no naturalistic guarantee that it “will emit a configuration of particles that will evolve into an animate universe.”  Given that the argument is neutral on atheism vs theism, it cannot simply leave out the possibility that God guarantees this by His direct action.

As Plato says, everything happens by choice, chance, or necessity. This argument is making the case that the configuration of particles emitted by the big bag did not happen according to necessity (that is, deterministic law); it then concludes, without warrant, that it must have happened by chance—I see no other possible reading of “not guaranteed.” But this obviously leaves out the third possibility, that it happened according to the will of some agent powerful enough to enact this.

So premise (3) involves a dubious sub-premise and an invalid inference from it. At this point the argument is sunk, but let’s continue.

Premise (4) is valid and trivial, merely restating the second half of premise (3) substituting “the earliest state of the universe” for “the big bang.”

Premise (5) is one of the the worst kinds of premise any atheistic argument can include. It is a “God would have 𝛗ed” premise. Premise (5) and every premise of the form “God would have 𝛗ed” is a non-starter for the simple and sufficient reason that, to be justified in affirming the premise, one would need to omniscient. God could say, with justification, what “God would have done,” but no finite creature, and in particular, no human being, can say so. So whether it is true or not, the premise is unwarranted, and cannot ever be warranted, making the argument unsound—the fact that it collapsed back at premise (3) notwithstanding.

But let’s grant—per impossibile—that we could be justified in a “God would have 𝛗ed” premise. The premise says that if God had created the earliest state of the universe, then God would have guaranteed that it “is animate or evolves into animate states.” What can we say about this? A few things:

(A) We haven’t shown that it isn’t animate—as I noted already, premise (2) just asserts this, without any justification or attempt to refute panpsychism or panprotopsychism.

(B) Granting premise (2) that the earliest state of the universe is inanimate, we haven’t show that God does not guarantee it “evolves into animate states.” All the argument would have shown is that God does not guarantee this by means of the laws of nature. God could, of course, guarantee it by directly setting or causing the proper parameters to occur, instead of building in the parameters that necessitate the occurrence from the beginning. Nothing in the argument has shown that it is a matter of chance.

(C) It is true that it seems less plausible that God would set up a chance mechanism and then monkey with the outcome of the chance mechanism as opposed to setting up a mechanism that is law-governed from the beginning—but since the argument has given us to reason to think that the universe was not law-governed from its creation, only the assertion it was not, we are free to follow our judgment as to what is more plausible. But even on the assumption that the argument is correct, and that the original state of the universe was not law-governed, we have no reason to suppose that God did not directly bring about the outcome He wished. If God did create the universe such that its earliest state were not law-governed but rather had a number of variables and constants that are assigned by no law of nature at all, there is still no reason to thing God did not consciously assign these values, at least no reason given in this argument.

Which brings us to the conclusion (6) that God does not exist. This just doesn’t follow. It doesn’t follow because assumes “God would have 𝛗ed in a certain way.” But even if we were justified in holding “God would have 𝛗ed”, we would still not be justified in “God would have 𝛗ed in a certain way.”

CONCLUSION: This argument rests on premises that range from “plausible” (1) to “fairly dubious” (2) to “almost certainly false” (3). Premise (3) is actually two premises, with an inference hidden inside a premise, and an invalid inference at that. There is simple no reason whatever to accept the first part of (3), and the second part, bundled with it, doesn’t actually follow from the first part, even if it were true, which it almost certainly is not. Premise (5) is prima facie unwarranted since it seems to require omniscience to be warranted, and even if we assume we were warranted in believing it, it doesn’t entail (6), since premise (5) only says that “God would have brought about that Ψ” and then tries to show it is false that “God brought about Ψ” by saying (based on pure assumption from earlier premises) that “God did not bring about Ψ by means Π.” But even if we assume both that “God would have brought about Ψ” and “God did not bring about Ψ by means Π”, these do not entail “God did not bring about Ψ by some other means.”

WORSE STILL, this argument seems to contain a latent argument for THEISM. Let us assume that it is true that, as the argument asserts, the initial state of universe was such it was not determined by any law of nature that the universe be such as would be capable of sustaining and would produce and sustain animate beings. To return to Plato’s trilemma, we would have to say “Since the earliest state of the universe did in fact generate a universe that is capable of sustaining animate being, actually produced animate being, and sustains animate being, this happened either by chance or by conscious, intelligent choice. The probability of this happening by chance is so low as to be mathematically indistinguishable from 0. Therefore, almost certainly, the production of the universe was a result of conscious, intelligent choice.”

In short, this failed argument for atheism actually yields a very strong form of the fine tuning argument for God, with only minimal adjustment—namely, the addition of the evident fact that animate being, conscious life, does in fact exist in our universe. By ruling out necessity as a cause of this, the argument leaves us to decide whether chance or conscious choice is responsible for the universe, and the thing is unfathomably improbable to have happened by chance, than otherwise sensible people frequently posit the existence of an undetectable, unfalsifiable “multiverse” just so they can get “necessity” back on the table as a cause! But that is just what is ruled out here.

This argument leaves us with the stark choice of “our life sustaining universe was either the result of an infinitesimal chance, more than winning a trillion trillion lotteries in a row, or to the conscious intelligent creation by a being powerful enough to do so.”  At this point, it is almost trivial to say that a conscious, intelligent agent is by far the best explanation.

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al-Ghazali and the Apes of Unbelief

al-Ghazali was one of the greatest of the Islamic thinkers. Virtually single-handedly, al-Ghazali brought it about that Islam came to regard mathematics, science, and philosophy with suspicion and hostility. And this, arguably, was what was responsible for what has been called “the closing of the Islamic mind,” and the bringing of the Islamic Golden Age of intellectual inquiry (~950-1150) to its end.

Even today, the Islamic world remains on the whole very hostile to the very idea of science and philosophy—these things seem to be man attempting to fathom the ways of Allah, in a way which is blasphemous and impious, as well as absurd and ridiculous. What man can fathom the mind of God? What man would be so presumptuous?

The Muslim world likes technology—because these things may easily be regarded as gifts from Allah. Muslims tend to deny any strong causal link between developed theoretical science and technological development. If you assert that there is one, you will be told (correctly) that correlation does not entail causation. Muslims are, or tend to be, Humeans (or more precisely, Hume is a Ghazalite or Ash ̔arite, al-Ghazali following al Ash ̔ari on this crucial point) that

  1. Correlation does not establish causation.
  2. All attempts to establish causation do so by means of correlation.
  3. ∴ Causation can never be established.
  4. ∴ There is no evidence for causation.
  5. ∴ Natural cause and effect are fictions of the mind.

Hume taught that “cause and effect” was not a reality, but a mere psychological habit the human mind has of connecting things. It followed that all or most of human science was not grounded in reason, but it an irrational and unjustifiable psychological prejudice. So Hume ended up in a deep and almost total skepticism.

al Ghazali applies Ockham’s Razor centuries before Ockham and notes (correctly) that the most parsimonious explanation of seeming regularity in the world, or what some call “nature,” is simply a single cause: the omnipotent will of Allah. One cannot get more parsimonious than one and only one cause.

So it follows that there is simply no such thing as “nature.” There are no second-order causes that operate apart from the will of Allah. It is not the case that paper placed in fire will burn because the fire consumes it.  Fire has no power to cause anything, including burning—what happens is, when paper is place into fire, Allah may (or may not) cause the paper to be burnt. Every event, bar none, is caused directly by the will of Allah. The word “nature” is not the name of anything. There is no such thing as nature. The very idea of “nature” and therefore of “natural sciences” rests on a mistake, namely, that there is an order of causation that is independent of the will of Allah. But this cannot be so, so it is not so.

It is a strange argument for most Westerners, given their understanding that “nature” was the great discover of the Greeks that allows the very possibility of philosophy and science. But it isn’t entirely foreign to the Western tradition either. As I’ve already noted, William of Ockham taught just such a an occasionalism conception in which God is the single cause of all events; and David Hume took philosophers and scientists to task for believing their concept of “cause and effect” was a rational one, as opposed to a merely irrational habit of associating two things in the mind.

al-ghazali

As new and radical as the insights of Ockham and Hume seemed in their own day, they were only following in the footsteps of al Ghazali. Here are some of his words.

As a thought experiment, when you read al-Ghazali’s words below, replace “mathematics” and “mathematician” with “science” and “scientist” respectively:

Mathematics comprises the knowledge of calculation, geometry, and cosmography: it has no connection with the religious sciences, and proves nothing for or against religion; it rests on a foundation of proofs which, once known and understood, cannot be refuted. Mathematics tend, however, to produce two bad results.

The first is this: Whoever studies this science admires the subtlety and clearness of proofs. His confidence in philosophy increases, and he thinks that all its departments are capable of of the same clearness and solidity of proof as mathematics. But when he hears people speak of the unbelief and impiety of mathematicians, of their professed disregard for the Divine Law, which is notorious … he says to himself that, if there was truth in religion, it would not have escaped those who have displayed so much keenness of intellect in the study of mathematics.

Next, when he becomes aware of the unbelief and rejection of religion on the part of these learned men, he concludes that to reject religion is reasonable. How many of such men gone astray I have met whose sole argument was that just mentioned. And supposing one puts the following objection: “It does not follow that a man who excels in one branch of knowledge excels in all others, nor that he should be equally versed in jurisprudence, theology, and medicine. It is possible to be entirely ignorant of metaphysics, and yet to be an excellent grammarian. There are past masters in every science who are entirely ignorant of other branches of knowledge. The arguments of the ancient philosophers are rigidly demonstrative in mathematics and only conjectural in religious questions. In order to ascertain this one must proceed to a thorough examination of the matter.” Supposing, I say, one make the above objection to these ‘apes of unbelief,’ they find it distasteful. Falling a prey to their passions, to a besotted vanity, and the wish to pass for learned men, they persist in maintaining the preeminence of mathematicians in all branches of knowledge. This is a serious evil, and for this reason those who study mathematics should be checked from going too far in their researches. For though far removed as it may be from the things of religion, this study, serving as it does as an introduction to the philosophic systems, casts over religion its malign influence. It is rarely that a man devotes himself to it without robbing himself of his faith and casting off the restraints of religion.

Now tell me: has he missed the mark?

Humanism and Nonsense

It should be fairly obvious to everyone that “humanism” is a religion-substitute.

Humanists are, after all, human beings, and find that they cannot get through life without religious beliefs and commitments, and being ideologically crippled in their ability to have genuine religious beliefs and commitments, they find it necessary to invent some fake one ad hoc. Let’s take a look at the first three “affirmations” of the humanist manifesto. They are really quite funny, given that the sort of people—like Richard Dawkins—who go in for this kind of religion-substitute generally would identify themselves as some kind of “rationalist.” How rational is humanism? Not very. But let’s see why.

Here are the first three “affirmations” of The Humanist Manifesto, as seen through my philosopher’s lens:

1. Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

My readers will know that one of the first questions professional philosophers pose in their investigation of claims is that of retortion.  That is, we ask, for any given attempt to formulate or state a universal principle, what happens when the principle is applied to itself?  Very frequently, a purportedly universal principle, when applied to itself, defeats itself, that is, ether directly annihilates its own content or else invalidates the epistemic ground of the principle put forward.

We have such a case here. This principle makes a basic, universal claim about the nature of knowledge, and is thus being put forward as very important knowledge about the nature of knowledge—and yet, this principle, while claiming to be knowledge about the nature of knowledge, fails to count as legitimate knowledge on the grounds of itself.

According to this principle, knowledge is derived  from observation, experience, and rational analysis.  But this principle is not derived from observation, experience, and rational analysis. So this principle is not knowledge. Not being knowledge, this principle can only be an irrational faith commitment, that is, a believing-something-to-be-true-without-knowledge, there being no other alternative.

2. Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Here we encounter another pair of claims that would go far beyond anything authorized by science. First is the belief that evolution is “unguided.” By what possible means could one determine this?  Certainly not be any means set forth, say, in Affirmation 1 above. No, what we have here is simply a blunt atheistical blind-faith belief.  Now, atheists are given to claiming that atheism involves no beliefs—this is not true, of course, but only a rhetorical maneuver which attempts to saddle theists with the so-called ‘burden of proof’—but this particular dodge is not available to the humanist, since this actually a statement of humanist beliefs.  So here we have one clear case of a blind-faith belief, a belief-without-evidence, held to be true by an act of will, on the basis of wanting-it-to-be-true.  That is, a case of the thing that most theists do not do in most cases, but which atheists are forever claiming that they do.

Or rather not one, but two. The belief about the unguidedness of evolution is immediately followed by the belief-without-evidence that “nature is self-existing.” This is, frankly, a metaphysical howler, since nature is composite entity composed of contingent beings, and thus cannot possibly be a candidate for a necessary being.  No scientist, no cosmologist, for example, holds that the laws of nature or the fundamental constants of nature have any intrinsic necessity to them.  Worst still, it is very obvious that a “self-existing” being could not not exist, and thus could not be a being that began to be at any time—and yet our best science indicates that the physical universe is NOT, in fact, eternal, but has a beginning at what we call the Big Bang.  Thus it is clear that our universe is NOT self-existing.

To counter this, an atheist or a humanist might postulate that “nature” is not limited to our universe, that there is “more” out there beyond the bounds of our universe, perhaps many or an infinite number of universes—a multiverse—but a multiverse hypothesis suffers from three fatal problems:

  1. It is entirely speculative. There is no evidence whatever of such a thing, nor can there be, at least by any scientific means, since our scientific knowledge is necessarily limited to the universe. The “multiverse” is an ad hoc, made-up,  just-so story.
  2. On our best understanding of the implications of our inflationary universe, any possible multiverse that could fit with what we know about the universe would have to be an inflationary multiverse, and thus, necessarily, would have to have an absolute beginning, and thus, necessarily could not be a self-existing being either.  The multiverse hypothesis cannot “solve” the problem an absolute beginning without directly, unless it posits that the multiverse is radically incongruous with our universe and thus not part of the same system of nature.
  3. If it is then posited that the multiverse need not be “natural” but has the metaphysical characteristics which would enable it to be self-sufficient—this does solve the problem, but at a fairly high cost for the humanist; namely, you have just posited God under another name. Welcome to theism.

3. Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

And finally, to bring this humanist farce to a close, we find the humanists—after blithely asserting a bunch of things they do not and cannot know as true—blithely asserting that they can somehow solve the problem of the naturalistic fallacy, that is, of logically getting an OUGHT out of an IS.  They say that “ethical values” are “derived” from “human need and interest.”  But like all naturalists, they hit an eternally insoluble problem.  Let’s put it in syllogistic  form:

  1. X needs Y.
  2. X ought to have/be given/be allowed to obtain Y.

or

  1. X has an interest in Y.
  2. X ought to have/be given/be allowed to obtain/attain Y.

What’s premise 2?

Or if more premises than one are needed, what are they? At some point in the chain there must be a premise that says “if such-and-such IS the case, then such-and-such OUGHT to follow.”  But no such premise will ever be available to one who remains in the realm of “is’s” about human “needs and interests.”

As always, naturalism makes ethics incoherent, and since humanism is a naturalism, humanism makes ethics incoherent.

Humanism is, I conclude, not only a religion-substitute, but a particularly bad one, at least for rational people, since it requires a number of acts of blind faith, that is, of sheerly believing things on the basis of no evidence other than wanting them to be true.

Since this is NOT true of classical theism, it seems that rational persons will elect to become classical theists rather than joining the humanist cult. As far as I can tell, the only advantage of humanism over, say, Scientology, is that it doesn’t really require anything of you. And while that sounds appealing to many moderns, they will eventually find to their sorrow that this is not a strength but a weakness.

Genuine religious faith requires much of a person, indeed, requires all, but gives much, indeed, all in return.

Rationality and Sentimentality

You often meet online a kind of person who goes on and on endlessly about “reason” and “rationality.” Just recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson made a bit of a fool of himself by proposing the creation of a “virtual country” called #Rationalia.  And of course a lot of the usual suspects got on board with this:

RationaliaLewis.png

The addition of the C. S. Lewis quote is my doing. And maybe this isn’t that much of a bandwagon, since it was apparently necessary (or rational?) to include @CosmicPinot twice—but this sort of thing reminded me of an analysis this phenomenon given by philosopher Edward Feser, a thinker for whom I have a lot of respect.

Feser, being a Catholic and a Thomist, has often crossed swords with atheists.  And like anyone who argues with modern atheists, he has been struck by the contrast between their rhetoric of rationality and the manifest irrationality of their conduct.  This glaring contradiction cries out for an explanation, and I think Feser has put his finger on the best or primary explanation.  I’ll quote Feser and intersperse my own thoughts. If you’d like to read his entire blog post (which I recommend), it is found here: Walter Mitty atheism.

Needless to say, there is something truly pathological going on here. And that, by the way, is one reason Coyne, Krauss, and company are worth at least a little of our attention. Some readers have asked me why I bother replying to people who are so extremely irrational and dishonest, and therefore unlikely to respond well to serious criticism. Part of the reason is that though Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and many of their fans are indeed impervious to rational argumentation, there are onlookers who are not impervious to it. And those people are reachable and worth trying to reach. After all, Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and some of the other better known New Atheists are, though irrational and dishonest, not stupid. In their own fields, some of them even do interesting work. For that reason, some people who know as little about philosophy and theology as they do but who are rational and honest might falsely suppose that these New Atheists must have something important to say about those particular subjects. Hence it is useful now and again to expose Coyne et al. for the frauds that they are, so that well-meaning third parties will see that they are not to be taken seriously on philosophical and theological questions. The more they make fools of themselves, the more they should be discussed rather than ignored, at least so long as there is any intellectually honest person who still somehow thinks the New Atheism is anything but a bad joke.

I am also frequently asked this question, especially on Twitter, and my response is exactly the same.  I may not be able to convince my opponent or their ideologically blinkered followers, but third parties can often see who is making a reasonable argument and who is acting like an irrational ideologue.

Another reason for paying them some attention, though, is that Coyne, Krauss, Dawkins, and company are simply genuine curiosities. Again, they are not stupid, and indeed have serious intellectual accomplishments to their credit. And yet on the subjects of religion and philosophy they are incapable of seeing that their self-confidence is laughably, cringe-makingly out of proportion to their actual competence. They exhibit exactly the sort of stubborn, bigoted closed-mindedness and ignorance that they smugly condemn when they perceive it in others. What exactly is going on here? What makes these weird people tick? That is a question of real intellectual interest.

I agree.  This is a very interesting question. In fact, this question and Feser’s answer are so interesting I’m writing about them right now.  The general pattern of human beings contradicting their stated beliefs with their actions is commonplace. It is simple hypocrisy.  But the hypocrite that is genuinely blind to his or her own hypocrisy is interesting. What explains this?

The answer, according to Feser, following Roger Scruton, is something he calls sentimentality:

The answer, I would suggest, is sentimentality. I use the word in a semi-technical sense, following the analysis offered in The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton (who was in turn building on some ideas of Michael Tanner). A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background.

For instance, someone who constantly chats up the plight of the homeless, but without any real interest in finding out why people become homeless or what ways of helping them are really effective, might plausibly be described as merely sentimental. “How awful things are for the homeless!” is not really the thought that moves him. What really moves him is the thought: “How wonderful I am to think of how awful things are for the homeless!” His feelings of compassion function, not to get him to do what is necessary to help those who are homeless, but rather to provide him with assurance of his superior virtue. His high dudgeon functions, not to prod him to find out whether the homeless are really being victimized by evildoers, but rather to reinforce his assurance of his superior virtue by allowing him to contrast himself with the imagined evildoers. This kind of onanistic moralism requires a fantasy world rich enough to sustain it. Poignant or dramatic images of suffering and of injustices inflicted are far more likely to foster such fantasies than are cold statistics or the actual, mundane details of the lives of homeless people. Hence someone who is merely sentimental about homelessness might prefer movies, songs, and the like to social scientific study as a source of “information” about homelessness and its causes.

Now, the New Atheism, I submit, is exactly like this. The New Atheist talks, constantly and loudly, about reason, science, evidence, facts, being “reality-based,” etc. Equally constantly and loudly, he decries dogmatism, ignorance, wishful thinking, whatever is merely “faith-based,” etc. And he relentlessly denounces “religious” people, whom, he imagines, are central casting exemplars of the latter vices. But it is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him. Nor is he really moved by what religious people actually think. After all, he not only doesn’t trouble himself to find out what they actually think, but often will expend great energy trying to rationalize his refusal to find out what they actually think. (Consider e.g. P.Z. Myers’ shamelessly question-begging “Courtier’s reply” dodge.) Rather, what moves him is the self-righteous delight he takes in his belief in his intellectual and moral superiority over “religious” people. His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

Here we have the heart of the issue, I think:

[I]t is not reason, science, etc. that really move him. What really moves him is the pleasure that the thought of being paradigmatically rational, scientific, etc. gives him

and

His “rationalism” consists, not in actually being rational, but in constantly chatting up rationality and constantly badmouthing those who, at least in his imagination, are not as rational as he enjoys believing that he is.

What is paramount to see is that this sort of ‘rationalist’ is not dedicated to reason or rationality in any real sense, but to his own feelings, particularly those touching on his self-image of “being a rational person”.  It gives him a great deal of pleasure to contemplate his own superiority to others, which he does by celebrating his “rationality” (defined in such a way that he cannot fail to be rational, do not doubt), both inwardly in his thought-life and outwardly by means of rationality virtue signaling. Anyone who has engaged atheists in online argumentation will also have observed this pattern of both self-congratulation and of fellow-rationalist-congratulation.  Both are ubiquitous and unmistakable.

Those of us who actually love truth for its own sake and seek it by means of reasoned inquiry experience a disconnect when talking to such people.  They say that they are in favor of reason and inquiry, and yet their actions bely their words.

When one encounters someone extolling the virtue of rationality, especially his own virtuousness as a paradigmatically rational person, odds are high you are dealing not with a real rationalist but with a sentimentalist.  And if you are going to engage a sentimentalist in debate or discussion, do not expect him to act in a rational manner.

 

A Dilemma for Scientism

Professor Paul Moser discusses some problems with scientism in his book The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined:

5. A DILEMMA FOR SCIENTISM

Our dilemma will bear on positions (i)–(vi), given that it bears on the aforementioned core statements of naturalism satisfied by those positions, namely:

Core ontological naturalism: every real entity either consists of or at least owes its existence to the objects acknowledged by the hypothetically completed empirical sciences (that is, the objects of a natural ontology).

Core methodological naturalism: every cognitively legitimate method of acquiring or revising beliefs consists of or is grounded in the hypothetically completed methods of the empirical sciences (that is, in natural methods).

These are core statements of ontological and methodological naturalism, and they offer the empirical sciences as the criterion for metaphysical and cognitive genuineness. They entail ontological and methodological monism in that they acknowledge the empirical sciences as the single standard for genuine metaphysics and cognition. These core positions therefore promise us remarkable explanatory unity in metaphysics and cognition. Still, we must ask: is their promise trustworthy? For brevity, let’s call the conjunction of these two positions Core Scientism, while allowing for talk of both its distinctive ontological component and its distinctive methodological component.

Core Scientism is not itself a thesis offered by any empirical science. In particular, neither its ontological component nor its methodological component is a thesis, directly or indirectly, of an empirical science or a group of empirical sciences. Neither component is endorsed or implied by the empirical scientific work of physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, or any other natural or social empirical science or any group thereof. As a result, no research fundable by the National Science Foundation, for instance, offers Core Scientism as a scientific thesis. In contrast, the National Endowment for the Humanities would be open to funding certain work centered on Core Scientism, perhaps as part of a project in philosophy, particularly in philosophical metaphysics or epistemology.

Core Scientism proposes a universality of scope for the empirical sciences (see its talk of “every real entity” and “every cognitively legitimate method”) that the sciences themselves consistently avoid. Individual sciences are typically distinguished by the particular ranges of empirical data they seek to explain: biological data for biology, anthropological data for anthropology, and so on. Similarly, empirical science as a whole is typically distinguished by its attempt to explain all relevant empirical data and, accordingly, by the range of all relevant empirical data. Given this typical constraint on empirical science, we should be surprised indeed if the empirical sciences had anything to say about whether entities outside the domain of the empirical sciences (say, in the domain of theology) are nonexistent. At any rate, we should be suspicious in that case.

Sweeping principles about the nature of cognitively legitimate inquiry in general, particularly principles involving entities allegedly outside the domain of the empirical sciences, are not the possession or the product of the empirical sciences themselves. Instead, such principles emerge from philosophy or from some product of philosophy, perhaps even misguided philosophy. Accordingly, Core Scientism is a philosophical thesis, and is not the kind of scientific thesis characteristic of the empirical sciences. The empirical sciences flourish, have flourished, and will flourish without commitment to Core Scientism or to any such philosophical principle. Clearly, furthermore, opposition to Core Scientism is not opposition either to science (regarded as a group of significant cognitive disciplines) or to genuine scientific contributions.

Proponents of Core Scientism will remind us that their scientism invokes not the current empirical sciences but rather the hypothetically completed empirical sciences. Accordingly, they may be undisturbed by the absence of Core Scientism from the theses of the current empirical sciences. Still, the problem at hand persists for Core Scientism, because we have no reason to hold that Core Scientism is among the claims or the implications of the hypothetically completed empirical sciences. A general problem is that specific predictions about what the completed sciences will include are notoriously risky and arguably unreliable (even though this robust fact has not hindered stubborn forecasters of science). The often turbulent, sometimes revolutionary history of the sciences offers no firm basis for reasonable confidence in such speculative predictions, especially when a sweeping philosophical claim is involved. In addition, nothing in the current empirical sciences makes it likely that the completed sciences would include Core Scientism as a thesis or an implication. The monopolistic hopes of some naturalists for the sciences, therefore, are hard to anchor in reality.

The problem with Core Scientism stems from its distinctive monopolistic claims. Like many philosophical claims, it makes claims about every real entity and every cognitively legitimate method for acquiring or revising beliefs. The empirical sciences, as actually practiced, are not monopolistic, nor do we have any reason to think that they should or will become so. Neither individually nor collectively do they offer scientific claims about every real entity or every cognitively legitimate method for belief formation. Advocates of an empirical science monopoly would do well to attend to this empirical fact.

The empirical sciences rightly limit their scientific claims to their proprietary domains, even if wayward scientists sometimes overextend themselves, and depart from empirical science proper, with claims about every real entity or every cognitively legitimate method. (The latter claims tend to sell trendy books, even though they fail as science.) Support for this observation comes from the fact that the empirical sciences, individually and collectively, are logically and cognitively neutral on such matters as the existence of God and the veracity of certain kinds of religious experience. Accordingly, each such science logically and cognitively permits the existence of God and the veracity of certain kinds of religious experience. We have no reason, moreover, to suppose that the hypothetically completed empirical sciences should or will differ from the actual empirical sciences in this respect. Naturalists, at any rate, have not shown otherwise; nor has anyone else. This comes as no surprise, however, once we recognize that the God of traditional monotheism does not qualify or function as an object of empirical science. Accordingly, we do well not to assume, without needed argument, that the objects of empirical science exhaust the objects of reality in general. An analogous point holds for the methods of empirical science: we should not assume uncritically that they exhaust the methods of cognitively legitimate belief formation in general.

Proponents of Core Scientism might grant that it is not, itself, a claim of the empirical sciences, but they still could propose that Core Scientism is cognitively justified by the empirical sciences. (A “claim” of the empirical sciences is, let us say, a claim logically entailed by the empirical sciences, whereas a claim justified by the sciences need not be thus logically entailed.) This move would lead to a focus on the principles of cognitive justification appropriate to the empirical sciences. Specifically, what principles of cognitive justification allegedly combine with the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences to justify Core Scientism? More relevantly, are any such principles of justification required, logically or cognitively, by the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences themselves? No such principles of justification seem logically required, because the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences logically permit that Core Scientism is not justified. Whether such principles of justification are cognitively required depends on the cognitive principles justified by the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences, and the latter matter clearly remains unsettled. We have, at any rate, no salient evidence for thinking that the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences will include or justify cognitive principles that justify Core Scientism. The burden for delivering such evidence is squarely on naturalists, and it remains to be discharged.

Moser, Paul K.. The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined (pp. 76-80). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Plato, Moser, and Existentially Non-Neutral Knowledge

I was reading the entry on Philosophy of Religion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  If you don’t know the SEP, it is an online encyclopedia of philosophy that solicits its entries from professional philosophers and is peer reviewed to ensure the quality of its entries.  As with anything, sometimes it fails to be perfectly neutral, as each author presents what he thinks is most relevant, but since the replies are done by professionals, often those outstanding in the areas they are writing about, and since they are vetted and peer-reviewed by other professionals, the general level of the SEP is very high quality.  It would be perfectly acceptable, for example, to cite the SEP in professional publications. In other words, it is not, for example, Wikipedia.

In the course of the entry, I came across a description of an argument strategy employed by Dr. Paul Moser, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, expert in Theory of Knowledge and Philosophy of Religion, author of 8 books and 151 published articles, editor of 16 books, etc. Here’s his Curriculum Vitae for the curious. And a list of some of his books. I mention all this to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Moser is an expert in the philosophy of religion and also in theory of knowledge.  This is relevant since his argument involves both.  Here’s the bit from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Taking a very different approach to theism, Paul Moser has recently criticized what he refers to as the preoccupation in philosophy of religion with what he calls “spectator evidence for God,” evidence that can be assessed without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously. Eschewing fideism, Moser holds that when one seeks God and willingly allows oneself to be transformed by God’s perfect love, one’s very life can become evidence of the reality of God (see Moser 2008, 2010). While this proposal may worry secular philosophers of religion, Moser is not out of keeping with the pre-Christian Platonic tradition that maintained that inquiry into the good, the true, and the beautiful involved inquiry in which the inquirer needed to endeavor to be good, true, and beautiful.

Being me, I made it into a picture card, so

GenericManSpectatorKnowledgeOfGod

The picture isn’t of anyone in particular. It’s a detail from a painting by Nicolai Fechin that I use sometimes. It didn’t seem appropriate to use a picture of Moser, since these aren’t his words, but a description of an argument strategy of his.

To the point at hand: It’s important to note a couple of things:

1. This is not an argument. This is a description of an argument strategy by Moser.

2. I have not studied Moser’s work as of this writing. The above argument strategy is intriguing—I have had some ideas along similar lines—and I found it interesting enough to (1) share it on Twitter, and (2) get a copy of Moser’s book, which I will be reading in the near future.

Naturally, Twitter being Twitter, I was immediately attacked for my “bad argument” by an angry atheist, the fact I wasn’t making an argument notwithstanding, the fact that Moser’s argument is not even being presented here, but only described notwithstanding—naturally, said angry Australian atheist felt that he had all he needed to dismiss the ‘argument’ in question out of hand.  This is not untypical of the level of discourse one finds on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 4.41.18 PM

Now, since just from the description it is clear that Moser is not making either of the following arguments,

  1. I imagine God exists.
  2. This makes me feel better.
  3. ∴ God exists.

or

  1. I have certain feelings.
  2. ∴ God exists.

it’s clear that MrOzAtheist is indeed constructing a straw man, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and I (and others) called him on it. He belongs to that particularly noxious breed of online atheists who insist on telling you what you really mean and then ‘refuting’ this “real meaning” that he has told you you really mean—in other words, they have raised the straw man to a high art form.

In their defense (sort of), I honestly think that many of them are incapable, for whatever reason, of conceiving that there are or could be serious and substantial theistic arguments.  They are so ideologically blinded by their atheism, that they are literally unable to recognize the possibility that there might be strong evidence or good arguments which dispute their position. This is one reason that it is always unpleasant to argue with ideologues.  No doubt many of them have encountered Christian ideologues and are unable to see that they have become exactly what they think they are against.  Personally, I have primarily encountered this kind of ideological blindness among atheists, feminists, and Objectivists (i.e. Ayn Rand cultists).

I do have a point concerning Moser’s position and ideological blindness.  I think it is noncontroversial that certain belief-commitments and emotional commitments can induce a kind of blindness or inability to see, or to fairly or reasonably evaluate evidence and arguments.  In other words, one’s cognitive powers can become corrupted or distorted both by certain convictions and/or by certain passions.

If this is so, then it is entirely possible (and in fact very likely) that human cognitive powers, our reason, is not merely an existentially neutral instrument, as one of the usually unquestioned dogmas of the Enlightenment/Modernity suggests.  Indeed, going back at least to Plato, in the Image of Cave and elsewhere, the Western philosophical tradition has usually maintained that human cognition is existentially non-neutral, that there are things that one cannot know, that there are things one is necessarily blind to, depending on the condition of one’s ψυχή (psychē or soul).  Here’s an enjoyable presentation of Plato’s Cave Image in claymation on YouTube.

Plato compares the νοῦς, the intellect, to “the eye of the ψυχή” or “eye of the mind” and extends his analogy, arguing that just as it is not possible for one to turn one’s eyes around to see what is behind one without turning one’s head or whole body around also, neither is it possible to turn one’s νοῦς to the higher realities without a turning-around or reorientation of one’s entire soul or ψυχή in the direction of the true and the good, a μετάνοια. In other words, one must be in a certain state of the soul analogous to health, which Plato calls ἀρετή, virtue, to be able to see or comprehend certain truths about what is.  Those who are not in the right state of soul, those who are vicious, will be unable to see what truly is, due to their being “turned” the wrong way, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who are not only facing the wrong way, but chained in such a way that they are unable to turn around.

Plato’s Cave Image is complicated (I hold that it recapitulates the entire Republic in miniature, occurring at the dramatic center of the dialogue, or the 7/12ths point—I don’t have time here to get into the musical significance of 7/12ths or Plato’s musical compositional structure)—but one thing it safe to say is that one primary meaning of the “chains” that bind the prisoners in the cave in place are their beliefs about the nature of what is.  Plato has in mind, I think, the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form in all cultures as well as the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form by growing up in a given culture—but in a democratic society, there is no reason one cannot forge one’s own chains by the adoption of an ideology.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the case of ethics, as C. S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man.  One who has not been raised well and educated well (these are the same) will be unable to apprehend the principles of ethics:

CSLewisVirtueTraining

Lewis is of course simply affirming the classical teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the Christian tradition including thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Not everyone is equally capable of apprehending the good; in particular, the evil cannot do so, and this blindness to the good is, in no small part, what enables the evil to be evil. We are apt to say things like, “How could anyone do a thing like that? Couldn’t he see how wrong it is?” Sadly, no, he couldn’t.  Here’s Aristotle:

AristotleRightEducation

Aristotle emphasizes the role of passions, and particularly of pleasure and pain in human education/upbringing.  Philosopher Edward Feser has an illuminating account of Aquinas’ teaching that disorder desire, particularly disordered sexual desire, has directly corruptive effect on the mind.  In “What’s the deal with sex? Part II” Feser discusses Aquinas’ argument that the first “daughter of lust” (there are eight) is “blindness of mind”:

Now, when, for whatever reason, we take pleasure in some thing or activity, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is good, even if it is not good; and when, for whatever reason, we find some idea attractive, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is true and reasonable, even if it is neither. Everyone knows this; you don’t have to be a Thomist to see that much. The habitual binge drinker or cocaine snorter takes such pleasure in his vice that he refuses to listen to those who warn him that he is setting himself up for serious trouble. The ideologue is so in love with a pet idea that he will search out any evidence that seems to confirm it while refusing to consider all the glaring evidence against it. The talentless would-be actor or writer is so enamored of the prospect of wealth and fame that he refuses to see that he’d be better advised to pursue some other career. And so forth. That taking pleasure in what is in fact bad or false can impair the intellect’s capacity to see what is good and true is a familiar fact of everyday life.

Now, there is no reason whatsoever why things should be any different where sex is concerned. Indeed — and this is part of Aquinas’s point — precisely because sexual pleasure is unusually intense, it is even more likely than other pleasures are to impair our ability to perceive what is true and good when what we take pleasure in is something that is in fact bad. In particular, habitually indulging one’s desire to carry out sexual acts that are disordered will tend to make it harder and harder for one to see that they are disordered. For one thing, the pleasure a person repeatedly takes in those acts will give the acts the false appearance of goodness; for another, the person will be inclined to look for reasons to regard the acts as good or at least harmless, and disinclined to look for, or give a dispassionate hearing to, reasons to think them bad. Hence indulgence in disordered sexual behavior has a tendency to impair one’s ability to perceive the true and the good, particularly in matters of sexual morality. In short, sexual vice makes you stupid.

Put another way: certain kinds of knowledge, knowledge about the highest things, e.g. the good, the beautiful, and the true, are existentially non-neutral kinds of knowledge: there are truths, that is, which are evident only to the wise and virtuous, because folly and vice, of themselves, have a corruptive effect on our natural cognitive powers.

It seems perfectly evident to me that this is true.  The Enlightenment conception of reason as calculative ratio is a wholly unwarranted reduction of reason to one of its lower functions, although it is perhaps true that reason as a merely instrumental ratio is a typical case of existentially neutral knowledge; at least I see no reason in principle why vice or folly or ideological dogmatism would make a person less able to do mathematical calculations and certain other types of reckoning.  But it seems flatly absurd to assert that all knowledge is like this.  Those who do seem to be people who are paradoxically and paradigmatically blinded by an ideology, namely, scientism.  Since their ideology requires them to conceive all knowledge as scientific knowledge, and they almost always insist that scientific knowledge is existentially neutral knowledge, they must deny that there is anything that can be known to the wise and virtuous that cannot be known to the unwise and vicious—despite the fact that this is evidently false.

To return to Moser’s position: if I read it correctly, Moser is asserting that knowledge of God is not a case of existentially neutral knowledge, or what he calls “spectator evidence of God,” but rather argues that evidence of God cannot be properly apprehended or accessed “without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously.”  In other words, to come to know God will necessarily be an existentially transformational event for a human being which will by its very nature involve a reorientation or “turning around” of the ψυχή—Plato’s “turning around” of the soul becomes in Latin convertio, conversion.  One cannot see God without a turning around of the soul (as a condition of the possibility) and one cannot see God without a being turned around of the soul (as a necessary consequence).

Again, I have not actually studied Moser’s argument.  So, necessarily, I am not elucidating Moser’s argument nor defending it. What I am doing here is showing how something like what I understand him to be saying is plausible—and also how it is manifestly not “God exists, because of feelings I have.”

Atheists tend to become angry and indignant when they are told that their atheism is a result of cognitional malfunction, but neither anger nor indignation is a sound counterargument.  As I have written elsewhere (following Plantinga), if God does exist, then it is highly likely that properly functioning human cognitive powers are such as to dispose us to believe this, and in a warrant-conferring way; and it would also then be the case that atheism is necessarily a result of some kind of cognitive malfunction or cognitive blindness.  This would explain why around 90% of human beings (at least) in all times and places do in fact form a belief in the existence of God or the divine.  Atheists need to account for this phenomenon, and needless to say, “atheists are smarter than everyone else” is false (although it is obvious that many atheists do believe this, and indeed, the pleasure they take in feeling themselves smarter than everyone else is one of the main motivators of their atheism).

It seems to me that “cognitive God blindness”, something loosely analogous to color-blindness, is a much better explanation—especially when one recognizes that some kinds of cognitive blindness are willfully motivated on the basis of ideological belief-commitments and passions.  Atheism is certainly an excellent candidate for a willfully-motivated dyscognition; recognition of the existence of God would require a radical reorientation not only of one’s belief-structure and comprehensive worldview but of one’s entire existence or being-in-the-world (to use Heidegger’s apt term)—no part of one’s life is likely to be unaltered.  And if one has a strong desire not to alter one’s life in a fundamental way (perhaps because one is habituated to some vice that he recognizes he would have to give up, and therefore the pleasure he his habituated himself to experience in indulging the vice—as, for example, St. Augustine’s addiction to womanizing), then one eo ipso has a strong motivation to prevent oneself from seeing evidence that might force one to recognize the existence of God, a recognition which would necessarily result in the upheaval of one’s life.

It seems likely that a common motivation for atheism in modernity is our peculiar conception of freedom as autonomy combined with our implicit belief that freedom as autonomy is the highest good—in such a conception, the existence of God becomes existentially intolerable, because God is necessarily a threat to my personal, infinite autonomy, more, God is necessarily incompatible with such a conception of personal autonomy.  If God is God, then I am not God, and modernity teaches that not only am I God, but that it is both my right and my highest good to be God.  Both these things are false, of course, since I am not God, but I cannot even maintain the fantasy of being God, if God truly exists and confronts me as God.  It also seems likely that the root of contemporary Western nihilism lies somewhere in this area; see for example David Bentley Hart’s “Christ and Nothing“, or consider Jacobi’s remark, contra Fichte, (which incidentally is from the same essay where Jacobi uses the word “nihilism” for the first time in a serious philosophical context):

JacobiGodOrNothing

To sum up:

  1. I promise a fuller account of Moser’s position once I have worked through his book.
  2. It should be obvious that it is possible both (1) that there is existentially non-neutral knowledge and (2) knowledge of God is almost certainly of this sort.
  3. The concept of existentially non-neutral knowledge as articulated by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Lewis, and others cannot be dismissed out of hand as a mere appeal to feelings. This is a completely absurd straw man that barely merits even the minimal response of pointing out that it is a straw man.

Galileo Was Not “the Father of Modern Science”

This is Tim O’Neill‘s account of why Galileo does not deserve the title “the father of modern science,” although Galileo has sometimes been called this.

You can read Tim’s original post on Quora as Why is Galileo Considered the “Father of Modern Science”?  here.

See also my “Galileo was a Dogmatic, Unscientific Ass“.

Galileo Father of Modern Science