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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

he ain't got no common sense

It's been half a year since I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. At the time, you may recall, I was not impressed. But with a little time for marination, do Dawkins' words become any more appetizing?

Sadly (or happily, depending on your point of view), the answer appears to be no. Take, for example, Dawkins' dismissal of what he calls the "Argument from Personal Experience."

If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.

- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Dawkins devotes an entire section to various "arguments" for faith. Some of them, such as the Argument from Scripture, the Argument from Beauty the Bayesian Argument, or even classical arguments like Aquinas' Cosmological Argument or Anselm's Ontological Argument, aren't convincing even to me, so I can see why Dawkins would not be impressed. And I can understand why he might not want to just take someone's word that their personal experiences are proof of the existence of God. I wouldn't either.

Still, there's an outright arrogance in the wording of Dawkins' dismissal. "You may well find yourself believing" that your own experience was real. But Dawkins, along with those who "have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings," know better than you do about your own experience.

Twenty years ago, when I left my parents' farm to go to college, I became aware that some of our neighbors didn't think too highly of higher education. "They won't learn you nothin' at that college," offered one older farmer. "Them folks may be smart, but they ain't got no common sense."

My experience tells me that most college professors do, in fact, got common sense, but there are a few who get so wrapped up in academia that they lose touch with the real world. The author of The God Delusion -- or of the book's source -- appears to be one of the latter.

The truth, as any old farmer can tell you, is that first-hand experience is a much better teacher than any amount of book learning.

I discovered this first-hand after graduation, when I spent a month in Spain. Though I had studied Spanish for three years in high school and college, I learned more in three weeks just by being there. The "brain and its powerful workings" work even better when spurred by an external stimulus.

Another example: Many people enjoy adrenaline sports such as skydiving, bunjee jumping, or extreme ironing. If you've ever had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing that it was real. Alas, that adrenaline rush was all in your head.

And therein lies the problem in Dawkins' argument: The brain and its powerful workings can produce some incredible sensations. But if we are to take the brain's response to an experience as the experience itself, then we really don't understand what is happening. For if we can doubt the reality of religious experiences, we can surely doubt the reality of a host of other experiences. It's the same brain, producing the same chemicals in response.

But some will object: We can verify that the person actually jumped out of the plane. We can't verify a private religious experience.

And yet, not all religious experiences are private. Even in modern times, seemingly unexplainable events have been witnessed by crowds of thousands.

On July 9, 1850, a firing squad gathered in a courtyard in Tabriz in northwestern Iran to execute Siyyid Ali Muhammad, known to his followers as the Bab ("gate"). The Bab announced that he was sent as a messenger to proclaim the coming of one who would usher in a new era of justice and peace. The ruling authorities -- as authorities are wont to do -- proclaimed him a rebel and a heretic, and condemned him to death.

When the guards arrived to take the Bab before the firing squad, he told them that no earthly power could silence him before he finished the message he was sent to deliver.

The Bab and one of his followers were suspended by ropes against a wall, and were fired upon by three groups of 250 soldiers each.

Some 10,000 people were in the courtyard to witness the event, including Western diplomats. One of these diplomats, Sir Justin Shiel, wrote back to London, "When the smoke and dust cleared away after the volley, Bab was not to be seen, and the populace proclaimed that he had ascended to the skies."

All 750 soldiers had missed. The Bab's disciple was unhurt, and the Bab himself had disappeared from the courtyard. He was found soon enough: He had returned to his cell to give final instructions to one of his students. His message completed, he willingly returned with the guards to the courtyard, where he was executed.

Perhaps there was nothing miraculous about the Bab's remarkable escape. Perhaps he was just fortunate to have been missed by all 750 shots, and took advantage of the opportunity and the ensuing confusion to impart some last words of wisdom to his followers. Or perhaps the hand of God really was evident in this. Honestly, I can't say with any authority one way or the other. I don't think God's mysterious ways must be limited to my own faith tradition.

A little closer to home -- temporally, geographically, and religiously -- are the events of October 13, 1917 in Fatima, Portugal. Leading up to that day, three children had led a growing number of townsfolk to the Cova da Iria fields outside of town to witness a series of visions in which they had seen the Virgin Mary appear in the sky. These visions had occurred on the 13th day of every month beginning in May of that year. Month by month the crowds grew. In September the children were told by Mary that the following month they would see a miracle "so that all may believe."

On the promised day, October 13, some 70,000 gathered in Cova da Iria to see what would happen. Avelino de Almeida, reporter for the liberal newspaper O Seculo, described the events this way:

From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up, and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: "A miracle! A miracle!

Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws---the sun "danced" according to the typical expression of the people.

After being castigated by his peers in the secular press, Almeida wrote two weeks later, "Miracle, as the people shouted? Natural phenomenon, as the experts say? For the moment, that does not concern me, I am only saying what I saw... The rest is a matter for Science and the Church."

Exactly what happened there is perhaps unknowable to us today. But something was witnessed by tens of thousands of people that afternoon.

Does Richard Dawkins have an explanation? Indeed he does:

On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun 'tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude', are harder to write off. It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. But it is even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too.

Dawkins' reasoning makes sense, as far as reasoning goes. But if we're going to doubt the testimony of 70,000 people who apparently saw a rare celestial dance, then surely we can doubt that half a dozen people survived a jump from an airplane because they were each carrying a backpack full of nylon.

It's one thing to be skeptical about religious experiences. It may even be wise to look for natural explanations, as some skeptics have done for both the Bab execution and the Fatima sun dance. But if someone -- even a bright guy like Richard Dawkins -- dismisses all religious experiences a priori as hallucinations, without taking the time to even consider other explanations, I'd have to agree with the old farmer: He ain't got no common sense.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

the god delusion: a source criticism

I've recently finished reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and it has made a skeptic of me. Specifically, I'm skeptical that such a poorly researched, self-contradictory book could really be the product of such a brilliant, rational mind as Richard Dawkins.

In fact, I've detected two separate sources within the text, each with its own distinct purpose and theology. (Or should that be atheology?)

The first source is opposed to what he or she calls the "God Hypothesis." For this reason, I will label this source "H". This hypothesis is stated by H to be:

There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. (p. 31)

The second source is opposed to the very idea of a deity:

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented. (p. 36)

I will label this source "A" because he or she is opposed to *ALL* gods.

These sources were brought together sometime in the early 21st century by a redactor "R", possibly Dawkins himself, although the existence of "Richard Dawkins" is not universally accepted.

R's intent is this:

I suspect -- well, I am sure -- that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don't believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents' religion and wish they could, but just don't realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. (p. 1)

R's task is extremely difficult: He (or possibly she, if R is not Richard Dawkins) must blend the thoughtful, tolerant, often conciliatory H source with the venomous, factually-challenged A source. R seems to recognize that most of the best material is found in H, but R's sympathies clearly lie with A. In places, as I will show later, R embeds A-like lines into H material.

To see the tension between the two sources, take a look at these two passages from chapter 3. This is in a discussion of religious scientists in history. The first quote is from H:

We have no reason to doubt Michael Faraday's sincerety as a Christian even after the time when he must have known of Darwin's work. He was a member of the Sandemanian sect, which believed (past tense because they are now virtually extinct) in a literal interpretation of the Bible, ritually washed the feet of newly inducted members and drew lots to determine God's will. Faraday became an Elder in 1860, the year after The Origin of the Species was published, and he died a Sandemanian in 1867. (p.98)

Contrast that with A's dismissal of the faith of Gregor Mendel:

Mendel, of course, was a religious man, an Augustinian monk; but that was in the nineteenth century, when becoming a monk was the easiest way for the young Mendel to pursue science. For him, it was the equivalent of a research grant. (p. 99)

This is misleading. Mendel may have come from a poor family that could not afford to send him to University, but like Faraday, Mendel took his faith seriously. He was promoted to Abbot in 1868, only two years after publishing his paper on genetics. As Abbot, he devoted less time to genetic research because his responsibilities to the monastery were a priority for him.

Unfortunately, the A source cannot give people the benefit of the doubt as H can. H, in fact, can even praise scientists who hold onto their faith:

Kenneth Miller of Brown University [is] for my money the most persuasive nemesis of 'intelligent design', not least because he is a devout Christian. I frequently recommend Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God, to religious people who write to me bamboozled by [Michael] Behe. (p. 131)

It's not just scientists who receive approval from H:

Searching for particular examples of irriducible complexity is a fundamentally unscientific way to proceed: a special case of arguing from present ignorance. It appeals to the same faulty logic as 'the God of the Gaps' strategy condemned by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge of understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians such as Bonhoeffer is that gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide. (p. 125)

That last phrase, "and nowhere to hide," is R's addition to the text. It doesn't fit with the entire preceding paragraph, and stands as an example of R's attempt to harmonize the vast differences between the two sources.

A, on the other hand, cannot even imagine a "thoughtful theologian":

Similarly, we can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least. But does [Stephen Jay] Gould really want to cede to religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad? The fact that it has nothing else to human wisdom is no reason to hand religion a free licence to tell us what to do. (p. 57)

R's monumental task of weaving these two very different sources together produces, as I said, mixed results. R again struggles valiantly to reconcile the two sources as they define the nature of God.

A, after rejecting Aquinas's "first cause" proof for existence of God, adds:

Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts. (p. 77)

H, on the other hand, before discussing the problem of evil, notes:

Goodnes is no part of the definition of the God hypothesis, merely a desirable add-on. (p. 108)

H then expands on the problem of evil. But R, trying to reconcile this with A, interpolates freely. I will first quote the entire passage.

But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god -- such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don't like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or -- a more sophisticated solution -- postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos. Theologians can be found buying into all these rationalizations. (p. 108)

Knowing, though, that H is generally conciliatory toward religion, we can make a good guess at just which parts have been added by R. I will now quote the passage again, putting R's interpolations in {braces}.

But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is {childishly} easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god {-- such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament}. Or, {if you don't like that, invent} a separate evil god, {call him Satan}, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or -- a more sophisticated solution -- postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos. {Theologians can be found buying into all these rationalizations.}

Removing these, we discover H's original text:

But, for a more sophisticated believer in some kind of supernatural intelligence, it is easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god. Or a separate evil god, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Or postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress. Or a god who is not indifferent to suffering but regards it as the price that has to be paid for free will in an orderly, lawful cosmos.

It's possible, too, that the two sentences, "Simply postulate a nasty god," and "Or postulate a god with grander things to do than fuss about human distress," are both R's interpolations. Certainly the word "postulate" has not appeared in any of the H texts that we've looked at.

Obviously, much study remains to be done in this field of Dawkins source criticism. Maybe I'll apply for a research grant.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

god and the astronomers

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

That was Robert Jastrow's conclusion to his 1978 book God and the Astronomers. At the time, the Big Bang theory had only been firmly established for a little over a decade. In his book Jastrow describes the lines of evidence that finally forced scientists to acknowledge what many of them did not want to accept: that the universe has not always existed, and that there was a time -- even if just for a miniscule fraction of a second at the very beginning -- when the known laws of physics did not apply.

Scientists, the majority of whom had previously believed in an infinite universe, were forced to change their thinking. The Big Bang, which many scientists had dismissed as religious dogma disguised in scientific language, had won the day. The theologians, who had always insisted on a finite universe, were right.

And so it is now that cosmologists, when speaking about the early universe, often refer to "God". Still, very few of them believe in a personal deity. Indeed, Jastrow himself remains an agnostic.

In Marcus Borg's four types of faith paradigm, these scientists have assensus faith. They look at the evidence and accept the conclusions it suggests to them. As new evidence comes in the conclusions may be revised, but the methodology remains constant: Examine first, then accept the results.

This is not the faith of religious belief. No, contrary to what some churches teach, Jesus never asked any of his followers to merely accept him. Instead, Jesus asked for his disciples' trust and their loyalty, even (or especially) at times when his followers did not understand his mission -- and those times were many.

Jesus did not come to bring new knowledge, he came to bring a new way of living. He introduced the kingdom of God, in which the least were the greatest, and the sick and the poor received special care. The rules of the known universe seemingly did not apply.

If Jesus's message was revolutionary back then, it remains revolutionary today, because no earthly government and no society even remotely resembles Jesus's vision of the kingdom of God. It's certainly not for lack of knowledge; we are constantly learning new facts about our universe, our globe, our nations, our cultures, and even the individual human brain. Yet all the knowledge we can ever possess will not build us the kingdom of God.

Still, for some it is tempting to get stuck on assensus. Apologetic books like Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict and Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ examine the lines of evidence and ask the reader to make a judgment. Unfortunately, many people are not convinced by such arguments. Jeffrey Jay Lowder of Internet Infidels offers critiques of both McDowell and Strobel. Frankly, looking solely at the objective evidence, I'd lean more towards Lowder's position than that of the apologists.

The thing is, the God I worship cannot be reduced to something that can be measured objectively. God just won't fit in that box. What's more, the elements of faith -- trust, loyalty, hope, visions of the kingdom -- don't fit in that box either. Genuine faith is not rooted in the things we can see.

Empirical studies have their place; we can learn a lot from what the scientific method can show us. But as Robert Jastrow acknowledged more than a quarter century ago, empiricism has its limits. Scientists may spend decades conducting research, only to reach the same conclusion the theologians have known for centuries. And even then, the scientists may not grasp its true significance.