Friday, September 19, 2014

What Prof. Keith De Rose Gets Wrong About God Claims (Part 1)

In this blog post I consider a recent interview given by Keith De Rose, professor of philosophy at Yale University and the author of The Case for Contextualism: Knowledge, Skepticism, and Context.” .   DeRose sought to assure Gary Gutting that God claims are valid and atheists have no case in rejecting them.  I will be giving my own responses after each of DeRose's, showing why he is wrong.
Gutting noted that De Rose made the following statement: “Since atheists’ only real hope of knowing that God doesn’t exist would be through some kind of philosophical argument (perhaps some argument from evil), their knowing that God doesn’t exist doesn’t seem to me a very serious possibility.
To his credit, Gutting went on to observe:
"I think many atheists would object that it’s wrong to require them to have an argument showing that God doesn’t exist. They’d claim their atheism is justified simply because there are no good arguments in favor of theism. After all, it’s theists who are making an extraordinary claim. Isn’t the lack of evidence for the claim that God exists sufficient grounds for denying it?"
This is the key point and crux of the matter, and in any initiation of debate or exchange it is always critical to tag whoever is making the extraordinary claim. Here, again, I note that the definition of 'GOD' is also relevant. If we are only talking about a non-literal or figurative deity - such as Einstein meant in reference to the "God of Spinoza" - then it is case closed because he didn't mean a supernatural, all powerful, all knowing Being but rather a regulative ideal predicated on the mathematical description of the universe. Ditto with the 'God' of Deists, who is claimed to have set everything in motion but then walked away from it. Even hard core atheists like Victor Stenger have no problem with this god as he noted in his book 'God and the Folly of Faith'.

Despite this,  De Rose's reply is as follows:
I think you can sometimes rightly claim to know that something doesn’t exist even if you don’t have a good argument for your claim. This is the situation with the currently infamous Flying Spaghetti Monster: We all find it bizarre and literally unbelievable and so reject its existence without any argument."
I, in fact, think some of our most important and interesting knowledge comes not through anything like arguments, but from just rightly rejecting as bizarre things that so strike us."

Fair enough, but note how he's dodged the central issue. That is, how can Christians (or Muslims, or Jews or anyone for that matter) make a claim for deity without factual, evidentiary basis? But after further pressing by Gutting (a Notre Dame professor of philosophy), De Rose launches into the "God as distinct entity" argument:

"In any case, the situation is very different with God. The thought that God exists does strike many atheists as bizarre. But, in contrast to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, there are all of these theists and agnostics who do not find the thought of God’s existence bizarre, and I really think they ruin our atheist friends’ hopes for easy knowledge here. The basic point is that, when there are many other apparently sensible people who disagree with you, you need a good argument to claim that you know they’re wrong

But again, this is a dodge. First, because he is arguing without having delivered a formal definition of the God he's making reference to. Second, no agnostic I know withholds belief in the generic form of "creative" deity peculiar to Deism but  rather in the more specific personal deity claimed by many  Christians .  Thus, for these agnostics, profound doubt prevents them from simply accepting a deity who knows every hair count for every person in the world (and all to come)  and what each is thinking every moment. It's a stretch too far! Third, Christians themselves differ widely on the concept of God they align with. And here again, it is well to note it is God concepts we are all about here and not the actual God-GOD of reality - assuming such exists.

Again, unless one has specified the nature of the 'God' one believes in,  the discussion is sterile and without point. Since the meaning of 'God' is vague then any claim can be made, and any expeditious rhetoric delivered with its applicability never called into question. This is what's so wrong with DeRose's claim of "many sensible people who disagree with you". Uh, not so - not when you press these "many people" to sit down and specify the nature of the 'God' they are claiming to accept. Is it a personal God that involves itself in every decision and breath a human takes? Is it an impersonal God like Brahman of the Hindus? Is it a detached God like that of the Deists? Unless we know what these "many people" are really claiming or believing in then it can't be said that they disagree with atheists in large numbers - since the lack of a coherent definition accepted by all trashes the "many people" argument - which, let's admit- assumes uniformity of belief in the SAME deity.

Prof. Gutting challenges De Rose once more:
"Are you saying that the mere fact that many disagree shows that we don’t have knowledge? Most of us deny without argument the existence of the gods of many religions (the gods of the ancient Greeks and of contemporary voodoo, the pantheon of popular Hinduism). Don’t we rightly claim to know these gods don’t exist, although many have and do disagree?"
And De Rose retorts:
"When your basis is not evidence or argument, but just how the matter strikes you, yes, the fact that the matter strikes others differently can undermine your claim to know. So, in particular, I am very skeptical about claims to know that the beliefs of major religions are false just because they strike us as bizarre."

Again, the point eludes him: at the core of religions' belief systems lie the definition of 'God' that they accept. Unless one parses the definition and explores its deficiencies one cannot be said to have discovered anything about the religions' validity. As for sounding the note of 'striking others differently'  this merely returns us to the subjective nature of God concepts, which as I noted in my recent book ('Beyond Atheism, Beyond God')  means all such concepts are relative and no one can be held up as exclusively true in respect of the others. But DeRose doesn't deal with any of this, preferring to talk in comforting generalities. 

Again, whether a religion or its God strikes anyone as 'bizarre' is irrelevant to the point of the evidentiary basis. Indeed, as I pointed out in previous posts, atheists need not even disprove a religion's God basis only show that whatever the basis is, it has no bearing on how we conduct experiments in science, for example. Or how we engineer safety factors into airlines, or how we build rockets to reach Mars or Pluto. In other words, the particular God concept or belief in God is actually redundant to how business is conducted in the real world - especially for the hard sciences like physics, as well as engineering.
Unphased, DeRose continues his answer to Prof. Gutting:
"If we knew that adherents to other religions came to hold their beliefs in some way that discredits them (say, through brainwashing), we might still know those beliefs are wrong on the basis of how bizarre they seem to us. Of course there are probably some individual believers who have come to hold their beliefs in a way that discredits them. But we don’t know enough about many believers to discredit their beliefs. So I don’t think we can know they’re wrong just because their beliefs strike us as bizarre."

Again, the central issue isn't believers' adopting "discredited" or bizarre beliefs, but rather whether  the beliefs and the 'God' behind them reflect a consistent reality that is in any way observable in the physical world. People in insane asylums also hold bizarre beliefs and many even claim to be 'God' - but rational people discount them because tests have disclosed neural defects or brain dysfunctions, such as schizophrenia.  Hence the source of their information or beliefs cannot be trusted. All of which bodes caution in accepting claims, irrespective of whether we know "all about" who is making them. It is for this reason atheists constantly harp on independent, objective tests in the real world.
Prof. Gutting then at last cuts to the chase:
"O.K., maybe atheists can’t rightly claim to know that theism is false just because they find it a bizarre claim. But atheists also point out that theists don’t put forward any evidence for the existence of God that stands up to rational scrutiny. Isn’t a total lack of evidence for a claim sufficient reason for denying it?"
As usual, DeRose dodges the question and uses obfuscation:
"No. When there’s a genuine dispute, a lack of evidence on the other side does not give you knowledge if you don’t have evidence for your claim."
But the issue is first, what is being claimed and second, the comparative QA for evidence on either side.   In general it isn't a question of whether knowledge exists despite lack of evidence, but whether the side that claims belief based on knowledge possesses a consistent and valid epistemology - or method of obtaining knowledge. For example, most atheists embrace science when they adopt the "extraordinary claims" argument. Science selectively excludes problems for which no practical method of inquiry exists. The supernatural, on which most religious claims are based, is neither measurable or verifiable, so falls into this rejected category and that includes ‘God’. More to the point, we tend to regard such entities held by virtue of belief alone – as opposed to evidence - as evocative of superstition.  The latter encompasses such beliefs, especially when the supernatural realm is populated by invisible beings which can supposedly affect and interact with our world. To the empirical scientist this is the very epitome of superstition.
In addition, most physical sciences, still operate on the principle of materialist reductionism. Thus, our job and duty is to remorselessly cull all dross or irrelevant issues that clutter as opposed to expose, what our objects of inquiry are about. This means all invisible, unapproachable entities must go into the epistemological dumpster.

Prof. Gutting again tries to steer DeRose into a sensible response:
"Of course, many atheists insist that they don’t claim to know that there is no God. They at most maintain that God’s existence is highly improbable, but don’t claim absolute certainty that God doesn’t exist. So, for example, if theists came up with good evidence for God, they might change their minds."

And what does DeRose say?
"My suggestion is that neither theists nor atheists know whether God exists. And here I don’t just mean that they don’t know for certain, but that they don’t know at all."

This is true, but as a long time atheist would aver: It doesn't matter! Whether God exists has no bearing whatsoever, none, on the quality of our scientific research, its testable hypotheses, or how the tests are conducted. Apart from which, one can't say "atheists don't know whether God exists" unless the definition of God is first given - which DeRose clearly avoids in each of his responses.

For example, if "God" is taken to be identifiable with the universe itself (pantheism), there is good reason not to accept it. After all, it was Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts who first alluded to the danger of pantheism when he asked the question (in his book, 'Does It Matter?'):

"If the universe is identified with God, and the universe is destroyed in a 'Big Crunch' or superheated explosion, does that mean God is destroyed too?"

By the same token, if "God" is taken to be defined as the ultra-Being of ancient theology: i.e. as omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc. there is also excellent basis to reject it since the "Omni" attributes end up making the Being contradictory as I pointed out in the penultimate chapter of my own book.
 None of this DeRose appears to grasp - or if he does, he prefers to let it slide or cover in obfuscations. As when he continues:

"I don’t think the arguments for either theism or atheism lead to knowledge of their conclusions. But there are arguments on both sides from premises that someone might reasonably judge to be plausible. If you find it quite probable that God does not exist, I think it’s perfectly possible that you are reasonable to think as you do. But this doesn’t mean that someone who thinks it is likely that God does exist can’t likewise be reasonable in holding that position."

True, in terms of the latter, but only again IF his God is defined. As we see already from these responses in Part 1, DeRose can get away with a lot because all the way through he adopts an elastic definition within which he can contain a baby asteroid, or more to the point -  mold his responses any way he wants to fend off Gutting's probes while making it appear ALL theists are as rational as your basic, garden variety, scientifically informed atheist.

More to come in Part 2.

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