Monday, September 22, 2014

What Prof. Keith DeRose Gets Wrong About God Claims (Part 2)

I continue now with the commentary on Keith DeRose's interview with Gary Gutting:

De Rose:
"To know that God does (or doesn’t) exist, you have to show that there are no arguments for atheism (or for theism) that a reasonable person could find plausible. But to support that claim you would have to have better critiques of all those arguments than I’ve ever seen. In my view, it’s more likely those who claim to know whether God exists — whether theists or atheists — are just blowing smoke."
Again, DeRose regurgitates the "claim to know" nonsense which embodies the cartoon version of atheism.   What we atheists actually say is that the whole idea of God is redundant – logically unnecessary – because it doesn’t help us to model any physical systems or make verifiable, empirical predictions. The closest to what De Rose identifies as atheism here more relates to explicit atheism which maintains there can never be any evidence for a God because the natural sciences can have nothing to do with the supernatural. (I.e. "Supernatural evidence" is an oxymoron)
The gist of it is that the atheist maintains the probability is very high that there is no ultimate force out there, and we are on our own. (Which is precisely the point Carl Sagan made in the last segment shown of the final new COSMOS episode ('Unafraid of the Dark'), with the focus on the 'pale blue dot' of Earth.)
The issue then isn't one of "knowing" but instead efficacy in the real world. What benefit is there - apart from emotional security - of God belief if there is no active demonstration of the object of belief in the outside world? This is the core theme that DeRose won't touch because he knows he can't get anywhere with it.
Prof. Gutting then asks him:
"Without getting into details, could you mention a theistic and an atheistic argument that you think a reasonable person could find plausible?"
He responds:
"My favorite theistic example is the cosmological argument, particularly as William Rowe discusses it in his “Two Criticisms of the Cosmological Argument.” This is the argument that tries to show that we need to posit God as the reason the universe exists. Negatively, it’s clear to me that this argument does not really establish its conclusion. For it to work you have to accept a quite strong form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (roughly, the claim that everything must have a reason). This principle is just too questionable for an argument based on it to produce knowledge. And, like Rowe, I in fact don’t buy it."

Of course,  De Rose is correct that the cosmological argument does not really  "establish its conclusion".  Which would be near impossible in any case  since quantum mechanical  models (e.g. T. Padmanabhan,  ‘Universe Before Planck Time – A Quantum Gravity Model, in Physical Review D, Vol. 28, No. 4, p. 756)  show the cosmos can come into existence on its own via quantum fluctuation.. Once physical models exist then one doesn't need supernatural explanations and should refrain from invoking them.  See also:

DeRose is also wise not to buy into the 'sufficient reason' bollocks because numerous philosophers, e.g. Mario Bunge (cf. Causality and Modern Science, pp. 33-34, 1979) , have shown it is defunct. A much more fruitful path is to present necessary and sufficient conditions  for one's claims.  The criteria of necessary and sufficient conditions was actually invoked originally by Galileo to replace the concept of efficient cause (ibid., p. 33). In this regard, it was recognized from early on that "efficient causation" was often too limited or narrow a concept to be practical or workable.

Robert Baum, in his textbook, LOGIC, p. 469-70, correctly observes that n-s conditions are practical replacements (in logic) for causes. In other words, instead of saying or asserting "x caused y", one stipulates that a, b are necessary conditions for x to exist at all, and c, d are sufficient conditions for y to have been the sole effect of cause x.

Baum’s reasoning is clear (ibid.): because “cause” (generic) can be interpreted as proximate or remote, or even as the “goal or aim of an action” and is therefore too open-ended, ambiguous and construed in too many different ways. Thus, “cause” is too embedded in most people’s minds with only one of several meanings, leaving most causality discussions unproductive and confused. If my “cause” and your ‘cause” in a given argument diverge, then we will not get very far. Also, if we confront a disjunctive plurality of causes, we may be at moot dead ends using a naïve causal paradigm.

Anyway, DeRose Goes on:
"But positively, given the state of the philosophical discussion, which has produced good responses to the apparently knock-out objections, someone could certainly be reasonable in accepting the argument. This view has been cemented in place for me since I came to Yale, because my colleague Michael Della Rocca is a terrific, and very sensible, advocate of quite strong forms of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He has never convinced me to join him in his rationalist ways, but because of him I would be willfully blind to think that even someone who understood the issue extremely well could not reasonably think as he does."
But note that one would expect DeRose by this point to at least adopt some rationalist way! In effect, we'd like to see him present the necessary and sufficient conditions for God's existence but he hasn't. I believe the reason might be that, again, he has not been willing to define the God he refers to in his exchange. Without the definition it isn't possible to supply the n-s conditions which will depend on the entity's nature.

Gutting next asks him:

"How about an argument against God’s existence?"

He replies:
"I’m going to have to be conventional here and go with the usual suspect: the argument from evil. Without getting into any details, you can feel the force of the argument by choosing a suitably horrific example (the Holocaust, children dying of cancer) that leads you to say, “There’s no way a perfectly good God would have allowed that!” There is a huge, often fascinating, discussion that tries to refute such arguments. But I find this intuitively powerful case does stand up to scrutiny, at the very least to the extent that someone could reasonably accept it at the end of the day. I suspect that even God thinks there is something wrong with you if you are not at least tempted by such an argument from evil."

 Here, DeRose is quite wrong that the "argument can't stand up to scrutiny to the extent someone can reasonably accept it". In fact, examined from one definition of the deity (and bear in mind DeRose has carefully avoided defining the God to which he refers) it's abundantly evident how and why it fails. This definition is provided we allow the attribute of "design" along with one of the omni properties: omniscience.

Then we can treat first natural evil, then human evil and trace it back to the designer.  If the former is emphasized, such as the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that took out 240,000 people - or the Haiti 2010 earthquake, then it doesn't beg the question to ask whether in fact the world was not properly designed for humans ab initio. I mean, if it was then we'd not see such enormous disasters with vast loss of life. If the world wasn't properly designed then whose fault is that? It must be the designer's, the same as it's the automotive designer's fault for a GM car that won't brake properly or accelerates when one puts the keys in the wrong way.

But perhaps mass killer earthquakes, tsunamis, killer hurricanes  etc. are no one's fault since no designer exists that would or could have made a habitable planet without them. The same applies to human evil, which actually inheres in the structure of the human brain itself, e.g.

 In other words, if a designer God is responsible for fashioning the human brain then he must be ultimately responsible for human evil. could be the brain is simply the product of evolutionary accident, in which case we'd expect the hodgepodge tossing together of ancient atavistic regions (e.g. R-complex)  with newer ones (neocortex).

This leads the rational skeptic to conclude that both forms of  evil (natural and human) mean  that either the world (and cosmos by extension) is not the product of a “designer” at all (in which case no God exists by one set of criteria) OR: the world and cosmos is the product of a putative, supra-physical agent that is likely incomplete and whose actions are constrained by being manifest in an incomplete, evolving universe. (This is the Socinian deity first advanced by Socinus, which posits a creative intelligence that can never know more than the most advanced of its created, conscious "wetware".)

In the former case, we’d more likely side with Leibniz, who opined that "natural disasters aren’t the result if any divine punishment for sin” but simply the foreseen (or better, foreseeable) consequences of a regulated and overall consistent system of natural laws.

In the latter case of the limited but supra-physical agent it was the philosopher N.M Wildiers who first observed:

Evil is part and parcel of a world in evolution, an incomplete world.”

Meaning that in an imperfect world governed by evolution, we must expect evil as essential to an incomplete natural order.  We must therefore not expect divine intervention because the supra-physical agent version of God himself is “working things out” amidst a sea of polarities in the relative domain of physical reality. (This is also part of the "God Theory"  of Bernard Haisch).

All the above is meant to show how crucial definitions are when one discusses the possible existence of God. Even a tiny change in definition in terms of the attributes assigned can totally turn the discussion or debate in one or other direction. Yet DeRose steadfastly refuses to provide anything to work with, leading me to conclude his avoidance of defining "God" must be intentional. It allows him to be evasive and prevents Gutting from pinning him down. (Aside: some may aver here that "God cannot be defined" in any case, which in one philosophical context is true. BUT...if we are going to debate or discuss claims for God's existence that won't do. Since a logical treatment involving existence claims presumes the use or acceptance of propositions bearing defined objects, then we must provide the definitions. If we refuse to then we need to take the Buddhist way out and say: "No discussion  (or interview) is possible because the reality is beyond the use of words to limit or parse it".  This means all claims for it are as well.)

Prof. Gutting does his best to press DeRose further:
"So far, you’ve argued that both atheists and theists can have good reasons for their views, so that neither side can rightly claim that the other is just irrational. But you make an important distinction between reasonably believing something and knowing that it’s true, and you claim that neither atheists nor theists know whether God exists. Finally, what do you think of agnosticism, the view that, given the strong disagreement about theism, the most reasonable position is to remain undecided?

De Rose replies:
"In some ways, that view is right. One reading of “agnostic” is just someone who does not take herself to know. On that reading, I accept the view. After all, my suggestion is that those who are not agnostics in that sense are deluded! But “agnostic” often slides into meaning something more along the lines of someone who does not take a position on the issue, and is in that way “undecided,” as you put it. And while I certainly think someone could easily be, and many people are, reasonable in being an agnostic about God in that stronger way, there are important goals served by our taking stands on issues where we cannot be objectively certain, or even know that we are right."

Here, at least, DeRose comes closer to parsing the meaning of agnostic - but not completely. In fact, an agnostic atheist is exactly someone who withholds belief until there is evidence for a claim. A pure agnostic is one who asserts there is an impossibility of ever knowing enough to confer belief.  He subscribes to the tenet that our brains are simply not up to the capacity to ever be in such an ultimately knowing position.  Thus, the belief that an agnostic is simply someone who refuses to take a stand on an issue is wrong. De Rose is correct that there are "important goals in taking stands on issues" but this has nada to do with being an agnostic. One will "take a stand" if s/he is able to parse necessary and sufficient conditions for a claim (including a defined deity) and then see that the claim is inconsistent with the conditions set out. One would not simply "take a stand" out of an emotional or simply belief position.
At least Prof. Gutting asks him:
"Could you explain that more fully? If you don’t know you’re right, why take a stand?"
De Rose responds:
"In philosophy and other areas of controversy, like politics, we often come to adopt a view on a disputed matter. When this happens, then even if you recognize the reasonableness of contrary views, you can come to really feel that your view is right, to the point that it can feel as if you know that it’s true. And I think that taking such a strong stand on a disputed issue can be good. Those who take a strong stand may most effectively develop and defend their position. I don’t think it would aid philosophy or politics if we all quickly abandoned our positions whenever we hit significant resistance from well-informed opponents. Often, that’s just when things get interesting."

But DeRose again misses the point that the areas he references generally require the adoption of views based on logical analyses - and this almost always entails examining the necessary and sufficient conditions. If those aren't met, one rationally won't "take a stand". One doesn't take a position merely out of an emotional incentive or "feeling" or having watched "Fox and Friends".

For example, I take a position to reject unregulated market capitalism because I understand that the resources of the planet are inadequate to fuel and support the level of growth market capitalism demands. If one then runs the numbers, this becomes evident. It isn't a matter of simply "taking a stand" without any basis.

In politics, I take a position to reject money as "free speech" because it automatically puts voters in an inferior position and owners of capital  (and corporations) in control of our political process.

In philosophy, I take a position to reject Ayn Rand's Objectivism because it simply can't work. Taking 66  million seniors immediately off of Social Security and Medicare will not make the nation better, or make people better, only create an additional vast poverty class. This is apart from the fact that there simply don't exist the decent paying jobs to support such a move, nor will there ever be. (15 million citizens even now remain under-employed and the monthly jobs numbers, such as they are, barely reach population replacement level- estimated at 200,000 per month.)

Yes, one can "take a stand" but there must be a logical, rational basis to do so.

Prof. Gutting again:
"But is the existence of God just a philosophical question, like, say, the definition of knowledge or the existence of Plato’s forms?"
De Rose responds:
"The existence of God is not just any philosophical issue. It’s intimately tied up with what very many in our society feel gives meaning to their lives. As compared with other philosophical issues, many, including many professional philosophers, are especially protective of their position here. And on God’s existence, I think many are subject to often subtle, but also often powerful, pressure from their religious groups to feel and to act and even to try to be certain of their position.

This no doubt creates special dangers. But it also seems that a life of religious faith can lead us to special values we can’t find elsewhere. At any rate, this too is a philosophical issue. In light of all that, I would not want to make any blanket pronouncement, either about philosophers or people generally, that the most reasonable stance on the existence of God is to stay on the sidelines."

 DeRose does at least get it right that  discussions of philosophical issues such as God's existence are fraught with enormous emotional overtones and baggage - including a need for existential security.  No one denies here that a profound need to believe in a higher power exists, and for the majority of human brains the very idea of cosmic isolation - or a universe without higher purpose - is unthinkable. But this emotional driver alone is not sufficient to justify philosophical claims for existence.

I may feel, for example, more comfortable in the cosmos if intelligent extraterrestrials also existed within it. But I can't make a claim for their existence unless hard evidence is forthcoming - at least intercepted radio signals which bear a definite mathematical pattern such that they could only have been produced by intelligent aliens.

In the same way, though people may feel "God gives meaning to their lives" - they can't just make a claim for such without providing evidence, or at least proposing necessary and sufficient conditions for the Being they want to exist.  I am not saying here that the cosmos is not imbued with a higher consciousness or intelligence, it well might be (as I indicated in my book, 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God'). What I am saying is that you cannot arrive at any objective truth for such an entity merely by invoking emotional appeal or needs.

It is a pity that DeRose himself didn't deliver more substance - as opposed to ambiguous rhetoric - in his interview with Prof. Gutting.

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