Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Mensa's Theists Still Don't Understand Atheists



Recent letters appearing in The Mensa Bulletin have garnered attention under the header: 'Atheists Come In Many Flavors'.   Indeed, and in one response I noted:

"Reading Scott Bowden’s letter  (‘Brainwaves’, September, p. 12), reminded me of  James Byrne’s arguments in his book, ‘GOD’ to do with the limits of humans' grasp of  such an entity. Byrne argued that all statements made by humans to do with God must be either incomplete or more often contradictory. Byrne thereby endorsed French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion’s ploy of  only writing  GOD. Thereby to indicate no one has the capacity to define, describe, prove, or  imagine  the underlying entity.

In effect, as Byrne observed (p.151)  to think GOD as unthinkable is to reject the idolatry of the God of onto-theology.   Byrne’s thesis also introduced a problem for atheists. For if  this entity is de-conceptualized, then it can’t be debated, even by the most ardent, aggressive atheist. The latter ends up tilting at a windmill of the mind, like a modern Don Quixote.  I suspect the takeaway message is we need to look beyond facile word symbols and stop jousting at them if we’re to get a reasonable resolution.  The alternative is that debate will invariably prove futile since incomplete definitions and contradictions inevitably emerge, even in atheist claims and arguments."

This is actually a synthesis of arguments I also made in my book, Beyond Atheism,  Beyond God,  and in the relevant chapter I took pains to point out the "beyond" in the title  is a different thing from being “beyond knowledge” as the classic agnostic would define it. It is rather, beyond any capacity for human thought at all!  Thus, while the avowed agnostic may insist his position embraces impossibility of knowledge of God, this new category prohibits even naming the subject when expressing limitations of knowledge. It is more productive and practical, as Byrne avers, to regard God as a “regulative ideal”. Such an ideal for human use doesn’t necessarily preclude a transcendent Being, but it doesn’t require it either.
These observations became more relevant as the next blowback arrived in the October issue of the Bulletin with more theists putting in their 2 cents, including a padre. (Father John Oliver). For some reason Fr. Oliver wasn't limited to a mere 250 word letter but allocated an entire article headed: 'We Theists Come With Four Suggestions' directed at atheists and specified under what Oliver presumed to be four atheist categories.
His first broadside was directed at the "reluctant atheist" and he admonished:
"We theists encourage a reconsideration of agnosticism. Compared to atheism it is the more intellectually defensible position"
But is it really? And more to the point, does Fr. Oliver really know what agnosticism means? On parsing the context of Oliver's query it is clear to me he has no idea of agnosticism. I refer here to George Smith ('The Case Against God', p. 9):

Properly considered, agnosticism is not a third alternative to theism and atheism because it is concerned with a different aspect of religious belief. Theism and atheism  refer to the presence or absence of belief in a god; agnosticism refers to the impossibility of knowledge with regard to a god or supernatural being.


Note that this is a critical difference.  From a scientific and objective standpoint there is simply no way that any purported "supernatural" entity can be demonstrated or proven.  There are no existing scientific methodologies for such, nor any credible instruments, measuring techniques. The rejoinder that these things "can't be measured" merely reinforces the argument that they are unfit for scientific inquiry any more than the astrologer's claim of Mars' "malefic" influences on a birth. These more refined definitions are crucial, especially in honing people’s mental perspectives which in turn help to forge a coherent mental outlook. After all, if one cannot truly know anything supernatural, then how can one arrive at a supernaturally –based all powerful entity? One can't
Because there is no way to approach a supernatural domain in any scientific or objective way, then by any reckonings it doesn't exist.  In this case, one need not even "deny" its existence because to all intents the supernatural entity becomes logically unnecessary, or redundant.  It doesn't  help us to make scientific predictions or explain natural phenomena. The point is, if any doubt is to be expressed in terms of the impossibility of knowledge then it must vastly multiplied for supernatural agents. 

As I noted in my ASTRONOMY magazine article:  ‘The God Factor’ (Astronomy Forum, March, 1990), science selectively excludes problems for which no practical method of inquiry exists. The supernatural, which is neither measurable or verifiable, falls into this category and that includes ‘God’ - if depicted as "causeless" and "supernatural". 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.
Fr. Oliver goes on to insist, quoting Thomas Edison: "We don't know one millionth of one percent of anything". Which is true, but this pertains to the realm of natural phenomena. It can't pertain to the supernatural because that is by definition unknowable, so it's preposterous to assert we don't know "one millionth" of that. We don't know any! .  Present me with what you claim is a supernatural event or entity, and I will provide a natural explanation for it.  But whatever you do you cannot appeal to the argument from ignorance.

Some religionists claim, for example, that consciousness is impossible to understand apart from a supernatural concept or formulation. But this is the classical argument from ignorance.  It commits the fallacy of  ignotum per ignotius : postulating an unknown agent or cause to account for a not well understood process, e.g. consciousness or rational thought within it.
The same goes for "miracles" used as examples of such. The Fatima "miracle" is a case in point. The supernaturalists had actually claimed the Sun to have gyrated and moved back and forth before 70,000 devout observers.  This indeed would have been the most fantastic event in history, of science too. But alas, no telescopes anywhere in the world detected such motions.   The only conclusion? Rather than all the observatories around the world being "blind" or their solar telescopes defective,   the entire crowd experienced a mass hallucination.  From a strictly rationalist viewpoint, the former has to be deemed more miraculous, so that the latter – no matter how much one’s temperament may rebel – has to be accepted as closer to the explanation!

This is what we call applying the Hume test, so according to David Hume:

"No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish. "
By the Hume test one always selects the more probable natural option from two or more choices.
Fr. Oliver then makes this facile argument:

"Consider an attack on theism by an atheist to be a bit like an attack on swimming by someone who has never leapt into the pool. God is not an abstraction but an experience and therefore understandably unfamiliar to any who have not had the experience."
But this is a false analogy. For one thing, swimming is a real, wholly physical exercise not just an "experience". After all, one must know the correct moves, muscles to use to get from point A to B in a pool. Is Oliver saying God is a physical experience? Then it is a false analogy because there is no such thing as a supernatural experience for the reasons already given.  Hence, Fr. Oliver ends up begging the question of God's existence by invoking a specious example with no bearing on any rational approach to ascertain it.
Fr. Oliver demands the atheist to "pursue honest debate" - but at this stage we must demand it more of the sophist theist. An excellent way out of the morass is to consider necessary and sufficient conditions.  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.
A necessary condition is one which, if absent, the entity cannot exist. A sufficient condition is one which, if present, the entity must exist. For example, a sufficient condition for the existence of a hydrogen emission nebula in space would be proximity of the nebula to a radiating star. The necessary condition is the nebula exists in the first place.

 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.
Thus, if you are going to make an argument on how or why the universe came to be, you can’t just say “God did it” or “Because God is the uncaused cause” – you must deliver the necessary and sufficient conditions for God to exist first. We can THEN examine these conditions in terms of how the universe actually looks, behaves and determine if the conditions are consistent.
Fr. Oliver's "swimming" example, then, is merely a red herring which doesn't really get to the core of either the pro-theist argument, or even advancing an honest one. He is correct in saying one can search via "experiential depths". This is, indeed, something I have been doing the past 40 odd years, which formed the basis of my last book, Beyond Atheism, Beyond God. But my conclusion - though I agreed modern physics offered a basis for a transcendent Being - is that one simply could not also identify it as being supernatural. It had to be a wholly physical-energy entity more in line with David Bohm's "Holomovement".
In Fr. Oliver's next paragraph, directed at the "activist atheist"  he insists:
"Surely you know more of classical theism than to accuse it of rejecting logic. Logos is of vital relevance to the theist, chiefly for its embodiment as a Person ("In the beginning was the logos and logos was with God") but also for its usefulness as a dialectic tool."
Several points to make here: First, if classical theism does indeed embrace logic, it ought to have done with specious false analogies like the swimming -experience one offered by Oliver earlier. Second, if theism doesn't reject logic it ought to have no problem applying Robert Baum's necessary and sufficient conditions to use to support existence of a deity. Third, while Fr. Oliver identifies "logos" with God it is more accepted by philosophers and biblical exegesis as referencing the dawning of consciousness in the brain.
When did this arise?   In his controversial 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes (a Princeton psychologist) argued that the brain activity of ancient people - those living roughly 3,500 years ago, prior to early evidence of consciousness  - would have resembled that of modern schizophrenics.  Jaynes maintained that, like schizophrenics, they'd have initiated conversations with unseen deities as well as inanimate objects and even been the beneficiaries of conversations from them! Only later, with the emergence of language, logic and quantitative empirical testing would actual human consciousness emerge. One can argue at this stage "logos" finally appeared.
In perhaps his most forthright appeal, Fr. Oliver directs attention at "militant atheists" imploring them thusly:
"When you attack theism, especially publicly, please deal with its non-caricatured expressions. Snake handlers and preachy politicians make easy targets but the hospitals, food banks and charity centers traceable to the conviction that God hides in the hungry, the poor, the suffering....are not easily refutable."
He is correct here that, too often,  the explicit atheists (which he calls "militant") go for the extremes, but is honest enough to acknowledge theists do likewise, invoking bloodthirsty totalitarian megalomaniacs like Stalin and Mao - who just happened to adopt atheism.
Alas, where he is dishonest is in conflating all branches of theism with Christianity. Hence, as much as he'd like us to invest incontrovertible power to his invocation of charitable works, these simply do not apply to all theisms. Below, for reference is a diagram that we can use to fix ideas on the breadth and scope of theism - which Fr. Oliver avoids:
So what he is referencing with his "hospitals, food banks" etc. is really a small domain with the small box on the left labeled  "monotheism".  It doesn't necessarily apply at all to the other boxes which feature other variants of  theism (e.g Hindu, Jain, Shinto, Buddhist etc.) that vastly outnumber the Christians  My point is that one cannot legitimately use the charity invocation if it doesn't apply to all parts of what you are defending which is THEISM, not Christianity alone.
Let's briefly cover some of the distinctions:
Polytheism refers to a belief in multiple deities each of which is worshipped or propitiated in turn. There is no formal injunction in any of these to be charitable.
Pantheism holds that nature and deity are bound up as one indistinguishable entity, most often as a single oneness or in terms of the regularities of natural laws. Thus, when one worships nature one is cognizant that an all encompassing power resides within it. While this form may lead to more compassion for other humans (as part of nature) it does not necessarily mandate any charitable works on their behalf.   A more subtle form is "natural law pantheism" which received attention after Einstein referred to it as "Spinoza's God". When pressed to explain himself, Einstein insisted he meant no personal God but rather "Spinoza's God, the order and harmony of all that exists."
Deism: Strictly speaking, deism treated in its orthodox and traditional manner is only one step removed from implicit atheism. In the Deist view an innominate, impersonal Intelligence created the cosmos - but then detached from it - so there's no further involvement.

The Deist God is analogous to an intelligent child who makes a toy with a gear wheel, and the toy has the ability to move after being wound up and released. Thus, the child makes the toy, winds it up, releases it down the sidewalk, then walks away never to glance at it or its final outcome, destination.

We know nearly all the Founders, the actual authors of the Constitution were hard core Deists, not  Christians.
 Fr. Oliver gets a gentleman's 'C' for his Bulletin effort, which at least doesn't go over the top in its portrayal of atheism like a letter writer (Dr. Barry Lamont) in the same issue. At least Oliver tries to keep his reasoning on an even keel though as I showed there are  number of places where it is full of holes.  Lamont, meanwhile, argued in his letter (p. 16):
"Atheists believe, with no possibility of proof, that God does not exist, nor can this basic premise of atheism be refuted by logic."

But, of course, this is not a "basic premise" at all, it is Lamont's mental permutation of what he believes is a basic premise of atheism. This is 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 that pertain to the natural world.
In addition, Lamont poses the "premise" as if atheists initiate a rejection or preemptive denial. In fact, it is the theist who usually proposes whatever deity claim (given atheists can't know in advance what his definition of "God" is)  to which the atheist simply withholds intellectual investment. Since the atheist is only the recipient of the claim (not the originator) it behooves the god claimant to provide the evidence for it. This is the same as if I claimed that an invisible Gnome lurks around all Trump rallies causing the crowds to go batshit nuts.  This may play well in the anti-Trump enclaves but doesn't pass muster with the rationalist.
Not surprisingly, Lamont - like Fr. Oliver- also errs in his take on agnosticism, calling theism and atheism "two diametrically opposed views". Hence, one is entitled to doubt each.  But this is oversimplified, failing to grasp the root of how there are actually different agnosticisms, as pointed out by George Smith (op. cit.) . Thus, agnosticism predicated on the "impossibility of knowledge" can be either theistic or atheistic in manifestation. The agnostic theist believes in the existence of a god but maintains the nature of god is unknowable. The agnostic atheist maintains any supernatural realm is inherently unknowable by the human mind. And further - not only is the nature of any supernatural realm, (e.g. "Hell") unknowable, but the existence of any supernatural being is unknowable as well.

To summarize:

1) The pure agnostic disdains any belief in a deity based on an absolute impossiblity of knowledge.

2) The agnostic theist BELIEVES in the existence of God, but argues it's useless to attempt to elaborate any divine nature (e.g. all-powerful, all loving, all knowing etc.) because the knowledge basis isn't there to permit such assumptions.

3) The agnostic atheist asserts all transcendents are unknowable and hence their existence is as well, so belief is impossible since it requires a leap of faith not warranted by reason alone.
Never mind, it is almost a certainty that in future debates between theists and atheists, the putative "agnostics" who fancy themselves above the fray will still get it wrong.
See also:

http://brane-space.blogspot.com/2010/11/re-visiting-atheism-agnosticism.html

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