Monday, June 18, 2018

Response To Tom McLeish's Counter Arguments In Physics Today

Following my letter appearing in the June issue of Physics Today, Religionist Tom McLeish was allowed an extensive response to all the published letters - numbering six. Here I focus on his response to my letter and I rebut each of his counter arguments in turn:

McLeish writes (p. 14):

"Although religious tradition naturally requires discourse about personal and corporate encounters with divinity in order to make sense of history and experience, it is far less concerned with the supernatural than with life, hope and justice here on Earth."

Of course this is too clever by half and is yet another permutation of the 'No true Scotsman' fallacy. Antony Flew, in his Thinking about Thinking, first made people aware of the "No True Scotsman" Fallacy.

As he put it:

"Here we have Angus, a Glaswegian (inhabitant of Glasgow), who puts sugar on his porridge, and who is proposed as a counter-example to the claim “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge”.

Then the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy would run as follows:

(1) Angus puts sugar on his porridge.

(2) No (true) Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

(3) Therefore: Angus is not a (true) Scotsman.


(4) Therefore: Angus is not a counter-example to the claim that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

Thus the 'No true Scotsman fallacy' is a way of reinterpreting evidence in order to prevent the refutation of one’s position.  In this case, McLeish bids us not to look at or address the 'elephant' (actually wooly Mammoth) in the 'mind space' of religiosity - i.e. the supernatural - but to look instead at religion's emphasis on "hope, life and justice"..   In other words, the supernaturalist- bound entity I had addressed was not the "true" religious tradition but a specious one. 

Indeed, if McLeish's claim was in any way sound, the rational skeptic could simply retort: "Then if you're just invested in life, hope and justice why not dispense with the  redundant window dressing of supernatural hokum and embrace humanism?"  Of course they can't do that because the supernatural - including a supernatural divinity - is an integral part of their whole tradition.   So rather than robustly defend the supernatural as a physicist - which McLeish knows he can't - he punts and resorts to a deflecting fallacy.

McLeish again:

"So it is not right to declare a parting of the ways at the start."

Really? Then WHEN exactly are we enjoined to do so?   If there are indeed two orders or putative orders, one scientific and submitting to some form of objective inquiry, and the other (supernatural)  not, then when does one part ways? It would seem to me for clarity sake alone and to avoid obfuscation one clearly delineates the separate orders at the outset -  so there can be no ambiguity. Obviously, McLeish doesn't wish to do this because it would effectively mean 'game, set, match' and he goes home without a rejoinder.

He continues:

"Nor is it appropriate to complain that experience and exploration of God is devoid of rationality.  Stahl's presentation of two alternatives and fundamentally competing worldviews derives not from a knowledge of history or theology but ultimately from the Draper and White polemics, whose alternative history introduced that perspective. (For a more nuanced reading of history see: F. Harrison 'The Territories Of Science and Religion)."

Actually, I  have never heard of Draper or White far less their "polemics". I come at McLeish's claims from the position of reason alone, as well as from my extensive university (Loyola - run by Jesuits) exposure to comparative religion, theology, metaphysics, biblical exegesis and textual analysis.   I have also blogged on these and related matters before, for those interested, e.g.

 No one is asserting btw, that rationality cannot be enlisted in religious explorations, say of "divinity", but we would be remiss if we didn't also acknowledge how easily such rationality can be perverted toward deformed ends.

Thus, Pope Innocent VIII summoned excellent theological reasons for issuing a Bull allowing for the wholesale pursuit and torture of witches, warlocks, familiars and others in the form of incubi or succubi.  Much of this was formalized in the Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer (Dean of Cologne University) and Jacob Sprenger (Dominican Inquisitor General of Germany). On account of this well-reasoned Bull, tens of thousands were subjected to vile tortures, including finally being crushed in the Iron Maiden or barbecued on large, heated griddles.   

Then there is the hyper rational Xtian moralist C.S.  Lewis . Recall Lewis’ rational justification for Inquisitional tortures is mind-boggling in itself  and effectively renders whatever morality he espouses as useless, and indeed dangerous!  In this case, in his book Mere Christianity, he pardons the witch burners for making a “mistake of fact”, i.e. in believing women described as witches were evil incarnate.  To quote one critic[1]:

If Lewis is willing to accept that witches do not exist, and that, while believing in them, it was right to put them to death, what other "ungodly" transgressions can we forgive as mere "mistakes of fact”?

Interestingly, Lewis’  "rational" pseudo-morality could easily have been incorporated into the Third Reich’s justifications for genocide. I mean, the Nazis really believed the Jews were “vermin” – as so much of their propaganda portrayed- so by Lewis’ standards they’d be excused for making a “mistake of fact”.  Lewis might well reply here that the Nazis really knew better than that so their actions were inexcusable. But how do we know there were also not more percipient Inquisitors who also knew better than to believe more than a quarter million women burned as witches did not really embody evil or have pacts with “Satan”? It amounts to mere question begging.

McLeish continues:

"Stahl's letter also manages to capture the misinformed philosophy of most late modern confusions, especially neo-atheist ones, about the nature of deity."

Actually, in my book, Beyond Atheism, Beyond God, I had been highly critical of the "neo atheists" (cf. The Problem For Hard Core Atheist Reductionism, Ch. XII, p. 294))  - not that McLeish would have read it any more than I'd have read his referenced text, 'Atheist Delusions' by David Bentley Hart.   Regarding the latter, one reviewer's take on it is especially noteworthy, e.g.:

"Atheist Delusions is a misleading title: this book is really, as the author says in his introduction, a historical essay, only tangentially related to these delusions. It is not, or only as the argument demands, concerned with philosophy, metaphysics or theology."

So why does McLeish commend it as capturing a "misinformed philosophy"? Who knows? Again, it may most likely be merely a 'hail Mary' tossed out so he can muster some kind of weak retort, even if irrelevant.  And before McLeish gets too high on his high horse about "atheist delusions" one wonders if he is at all familiar with the work 'Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief' wherein the authors (Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili) trace the God concept directly to an area of the brain- the OAA or orientation association area. 

The authors’ investigation of how the brain’s OAA translates an image into a religious reality is also described in detail[2].This is in connection with a person given an image of Christ and asked to focus on it. Within minutes, neurological measurements, i.e. from PET and SPECT scans[3], showed electrical discharges spiraling down from the right attention area (right OAA) to the limbic system and hypothalamus “triggering the arousal section of the structure”. The authors’ test results and measurements revealed the activation of both the left and right association regions as their subjects focused on an image of Christ. As assorted cortical thresholds were crossed, a maximal stimulation (given by spikes in the SPECT scans) produced a neural “flood” that generated feedback to the attention association area.

To make a long story short, the visual attention area of the OAA was seen to begin to deprive the right orientation area (responsible for balance)  of all neural input not originating with the contemplation of Jesus. In order to compensate, and thereby preserve the neuro-spatial matrix (in which the self could still exist) the right orientation area had to default to the attention area focusing on “Jesus”.  As the authors describe the situation: [4]:

It has no choice but to create a spatial matrix out of nothing but the attention area’s single-minded contemplation of Jesus

Newberg and D’Aquili note that as the process of re-cerebralization continues, all irrelevant neural inputs are stripped away until the only reality left is Jesus. That reality (actually a pseudo-reality confected by the right attention area) thereby takes over the entire mind. Or, in the words of the authors, “it is perceived by the mind as the whole depth and breadth of reality.”   This is a profound insight, and fully explains why it is essentially impossible to wean believers away from their objects of worship or devotion based on logic and reason alone. What has happened, in other words, is the subject’s whole existence and identity has become bound up with the focus of his brain’s OAA-  or more specifically – the right attention area’s focus which channels nearly all neural inputs to that region.More to the point here, is that such a brain is singly directed to craft its own version of rationality to support its ideations.Hence, we simply cannot trust the rational expressions of believers, or those like McLeish who defend religious accommodation. Their brains are likely hijacked in the service of the OAA.

McLeish's next move is to invoke Aquinas:

"Everything has a cause", says Stahl, quoting Paulos….He omits the reminder that the argument of no infinite causal recursions was used by Aquinas who ran it in reverse as an argument for theism."

I was aware of Aquinas' trick - of course- but there are limits of space for letter writers in PT. I did address it in my book, Beyond Atheism, Beyond God. 

As I noted, asserting "God is a first cause" is actually and technically unprovable within an axiomatic system based on cause
.  This follows from Kurt  Gödel's  1st and 2nd Incompleteness theorems.  Say C ->  Z is equivalent to saying "C1 is the first cause of all Z". But consider:  if C ->  Z is really provable-in-the-system of axioms, we’d have a contradiction. If it were provable in-the-system, then it would not be unprovable-in-the-system.  Hence,  asserting: " C -> Z is unprovable-in-the-system" would be false. Again, it can't be provable in the system since C1 is an element from a presumed causal set. So, the statement “C ->  Z is unprovable-in-the-system” is not provable-in-the-system (Z), but unprovable-in-the-system (Z). Technically, one would require a meta-set such that Z' = Z + k', e.g. including k’ as the uncaused element, i.e. with Z purged of it. However, it can be shown that invoking such a meta-set leads to an infinite regression.

This shows why, before one interjects first causes (or invokes Aquinas' trick), he had first better be sure Kurt Gödel isn't looking over his shoulder!  Of course, Gödel's Incompleteness theorems didn't exist at the time of Tommy Aquinas so he couldn't have known his arguments were basically hollow mush. Alas, Kurt Gödel and his Incompleteness Theorem(s) isn’t the only daunting challenge to the naïve God-thinker. 

Quantum acausality will also have a role in tempering the naïve believer’s simple causality propositions and claims See e.g.

An excellent way out of the causal morass is to consider necessary and sufficient conditions.  Say if a religious rationalist is proposing support for his divinity -then he must show the necessary and sufficient conditions for it to exist.  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.
McLeish's final parry is against the notion that religious traditions harbor any superstition, by appeal to the venerable Bede, e. g.

As  for "superstition",  8th century English Christian scholar Bede advocated the study of science as a God-given faculty to counter superstition!

Note the exclamatory emphasis here, as if, to suggest:  'How can Stahl have the temerity to even suggest this?'  But according to Frederick Harrison , in his book Medieval Man:

"Yet even Bede believed that storms could be raised by witches. He records that the ship in which Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, were voyaging home was driven out of its course by demons, who, however, dispersed when the two holy men bade them, in the Name of the Trinity, depart. Then the storm ceased."

Witches raising storms? Demons driving ships off course?  Sorry, McLeish, but if a person - even in the 8th century (we make NO allowances because of era lived) embraces or invokes demons and witches, then they ARE purveyors of superstition.  Incredibly, McLeish via his absurd and irrelevant   arguments and citations, would have us interject even more of supernaturalism and superstition into our science.  But thankfully most physicists are dedicated physicalists so this misplaced agenda is not likely to get very far. And I am confident most physicists will not sacrifice their principles to being bought out by the Templeton Foundation.

[1] Inniss: The Secular Humanist Newsletter, (Spring, 1998), 1

[2] Newberg and D’Aquili., pp.  121-22.
[3] PET = positron emission tomography, SPECT = single photon image tomography.
[4] Ibid.

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