Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Skewering Ross Douthat's New Proposal For Unbelievers To "Return To Religion"

 The irrepressible NY Times religion columnist Ross Douthat remains convinced if he just uses the right arguments he can get more secularists, non-believers to buy into the faith magic candy he's selling.  Below, some of his arguments, suggestions and my responses:

"But there’s another way to approach religious belief, harder in some respects but simpler in others. Instead of starting by praying or practicing in defiance of the intellect, you could start by questioning the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings."

The problem here, as I noted in my Physics Today letter on science v. religion,

Readers' thoughts on science and religion: Physics Today: Vol 71, No 6

Is there is zero evidence for any supernatural entity, realm or 'happening'.  As I wrote:

From a scientific and objective standpoint, there is simply no way that any purportedly supernatural entity or order can be demonstrated or proven. No scientific methodologies for such exist, nor any credible instruments or measuring techniques. The rejoinder that those things can't be measured merely reinforces the argument that they are no more fit for scientific inquiry than the astrologer’s claim of “malefic” influences of Mars at an infant’s birth.

Because a supernatural domain cannot be approached in any scientific or objective way, then by my reckoning it doesn't exist. One need not even deny its existence because to all intents the supernatural entity becomes logically unnecessary or redundant

In other words, Douthat's suggested approach is emphatically not consistent with the intellect or a rational and rigorous mode. It flies in the face of them, so the questioning of the assumption remains.  He goes on:

"The “new atheist” philosopher Daniel Dennett once wrote a book called “Breaking the Spell,” whose title implies that religious faith prevents believers from seeing the world clearly. But what if atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence?"

This is nonsense, because in fact atheism, secular humanism invokes and relies on the evidence.  We can supply firm evidence for: the Big Bang, stellar evolution, cosmic inflation, biological evolution, atomic spectra, auroral discharges and substorms, not to mention, plasma waves and instabilities attendant on them. What evidence (for the supernatural) does Douthat provide that he can defend and support? The answer is nothing.  But he goes on, unperturbed:

"In that case, the title of Dennett’s book is actually a good way to describe the materialist defaults in secular culture. They’re like a spell that’s been cast over modern minds, and the fastest way to become religious is to break it.."

Nice try to turn the tables on Dennett, but this also falls flat.  Again, if one is going to appeal to the intellect one must depart Fantasy land and provide hard evidence.  Douthat writes a good game but hasn't done so. Until he does, the "spell"  remains that of supernatural religiosity when a good dose of scientific materialism would puncture that. Why on earth would anyone become religious just on the pathetic basis he's provided thus far?  It's laughable.  Also, we need to remind the Times' resident religionist that extraordinary claims (such as would apply to supernatural happenings) require extraordinary evidence - but again up to now he's not provided any claims or evidence.   But wait!  He makes a half-hearted effort to "change the playing field" in the next paragraph:

"So let’s try. Imagine yourself back in time, to an era — ancient, medieval, pre-Darwin — when you think it made sense for an intelligent person to believe in God. Now consider why your historical self might have been religious: not because “the world is flat” or “Genesis is an excellent biology textbook” (claims you will not find in Augustine), but because religious ideas seemed to provide an explanation for the most important features of reality."

The problem here is that it's not 'cricket' to remove one self from the current era of modern scientific discovery and thought to a more primitive one.   This is essentially ceding domination to primitive religious beliefs, memes, doctrines - given no scientific enlightenment has yet emerged to challenge them.  

So Douthat is asking the scientific materialist to engage in his back history thought experiment with one arm tied behind his back.   With unilateral scientific disarmament Douthat can cakewalk his way to an easy win to get the unwary to adopt primitive supernatural babble.  Except we aren't accepting his proposal.   

As I pointed out in one of my first posts, regarding the concepts of supernatural creation, complexity and order:

"The viewpoint of Science in general, and modern physics in particular, is totally opposed to this. This opposition has arisen not merely from logical arguments, but from experiments and observations in quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics and cosmology. In the light of these advances, the deficiencies in William Paley’s appeals to creation and 'order'   are now evident.

Both physicists and biologists, for example, now recognize many systems in which order and complex activity can emerge spontaneously.  A biological example, based on in-vitro experimental studies of cancer tumors, is the individual tumor cell. The cell appears as a fluctuation, able to develop by replication. A cosmological example is the instantaneous formation of the universe by a possible quantum fluctuation that arises when one treats the conformal part of space-time as a quantum variable."

This,  in response to Douthat's claim that:

"the world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing: not just orderly, law-bound and filled with complex systems necessary for human life."

Given the next stretch of lame appeals and arguments  (based on similar assumptions and non sequiturs) we can go directly to the section wherein Douthat finally appears to realize he needs more ballast to secure skeptical Materialist converts.   Thus he writes:

"I think there is some confusion on this last point among scientists. Because their discipline advances by assuming that consistent laws rather than miracles explain most features of reality, they regard the process through which the universe gets explained and understood as perpetually diminishing the importance of the God hypothesis."

Douthat's failing here is in not distinguishing between different God hypotheses.  Indeed, I would not use the term hypothesis here but rather 'God concept' - which I elucidated in a previous post:

When people use the word G-o-d they’re not talking or writing about an actual entity but a limited construct or ideation configured as a noun, which we call a God concept. Further, because it’s limited by content and comprehension, i.e. by finite minds with finite intelligence which can’t grasp all aspects, then all such concepts must be relative and subjective. This means that the Jewish concept of Yahweh, the Muslim concept of Allah and the Christian concept of the Trinity all stand in the same epistemological relation.  From an informational point of view, none can be selected as “true” to the exclusion of the others.

This is completely analogous to there being inadequate information to distinguish one religion’s claims as true to the exclusion of all others. In the case of individual religions and religious traditions, the embodiment of the respective truth claim is found in a sacred revelation, or holy book. For example, the Holy Bible for Christianity, the Talmud for Jews, the Koran for Muslims and the Upanishads for Hindus, each proclaims inherent truths. For many of the respective faiths’ followers, these inherent truths are also absolute in the sense they dare not be contradicted.  But then they are based on dogma, not science, and the term 'hypothesis'  - based on a guess - is erroneous.

If there is a credible "God hypothesis" - say that might satisfy a physical scientist and unbeliever --  it must have scientific inputs, especially from quantum mechanics and acausal determinism, e.g.

A Look At Quantum Acausal Determinism - Its Roots...

The one which most complies - i.e. based on the physical realm and not supernatural-  has been proposed by physicist David Bohm. Such a full integration  (of quantum mechanics and consciousness) by Bohm provided a putative basis for a holistic quantum consciousness which he referred to as the Holomovement. This was done by positing a hyper-dimensional reality (e.g. 5- dimensional) in which mind was enfolded as part of an implicate order. To enable a unified mental field within this higher dimensionality, Bohm appealed to hidden variables obeying Heisenberg  uncertainty relations such that:

(d p)( d q)> h/ 2π

where p, q denote two hidden variables  underlying a sub-quantal scale indeterminacy relation. From this (leaving out lots of details) he developed an agent to assist in the nonlocal action of distal variables, and called it the "quantum potential", defined:

VQ=   {-ħ2/ 2m} [Ñ R]2 / R

for a wave function, U = R exp(iS/ħ)

where R,S are real.

If one then fully applies Bohm's Holomovement model to physical reality it is possible to show the relation of explicated individual forms to the universal aggregate  (or Holomovement) - which might be depicted:



The relation is holographic in the sense that each of the individual forms ('waves')  contains the information of the whole holographic field. The Dirac Ether is equivalent to Bohm's Implicate Order, or what he calls the holomovement, and is a pure frequency domain. If one imparts to it a universal consciousness (as Bohm does) it would also be the "Universal Mind". The difference from the  "God" that Douthat references  (in his 'God hypothesis')  is that this Universal Mind is impersonal and physical, as opposed to personal and supernatural.   It more nearly attains the status of a genuine hypothesis - since it can be theoretically tested- while Douthat's supernatural entity remains a subjective concept.

Douthat continues:

"But the God hypothesis is constantly vindicated by the comprehensibility of the universe, and the capacity of our reason to unlock its many secrets. Indeed, there’s a quietly theistic assumption to the whole scientific project. As David Bentley Hart puts it in his book “The Experience of God,” “We assume that the human mind can be a true mirror of objective reality because we assume that objective reality is already a mirror of mind.”

But the "comprehensibility" of the universe must include its quantum mechanical aspect, and this is covered by Bohm -    see  e.g.

Wholeness and the Implicate Order

but not by Douthat's author.  Nor by Douthat, given he is describing a concept not an entity worthy of a hypothesis. Further, invoking Bohm's holomovement one can indeed say that the human mind (the "observer") is indeed a mirror of objective reality.  Douthat again:

"The resilience of religious theories is matched by the resilience of religious experience. The disenchantment of the modern world is a myth of the intelligentsia: In reality it never happened. Instead, through the whole multicentury process of secularization, the decline of religion’s political power and cultural prestige, people kept right on having near-death experiences and demonic visitations and wild divine encounters. They just lost the religious structures through which those experiences used to be interpreted."

Actually, they didn't "lose" those religious structures, they were simply superseded by science.  I.e. the explanations changed to naturalistic ones as opposed to supernatural.  Thus, NDEs now can be explained as arising from the release of brain chemicals (dopamine, opioids etc.) near death, which trigger hallucinations that mimic claimed supernatural  "near death" experiences, with white light and all.  See also:

Meanwhile, "demonic visitations"  are more in line with psychotic breakdowns,  acute paranoid schizophrenia or schizoid illusions. Ditto with "wild divine encounters."   All can now be explained on a physical basis and need no invocation of the supernatural.   Douthat tries to bolster his claims with assorted anecdotes but these don't meet the standard for actual extraordinary evidence, so we move on to his next relatively rational arguments:

"You can see it today where institutional Catholicism is weakening but the demand for exorcisms is going up. It’s something the secular mind now concedes and indeed expects. But if your claim is that religious experience is mostly just misinterpretation, it’s a substantial concession to acknowledge that it persists through ages of reason as well as ages of faith, and endures even when cultural and medical and scientific authorities discount or dismiss it."

In fact, the Catholic Church's ritual of exorcism was founded and promulgated not on the belief that demonic possession was real, but that the afflicted person believed it was real. Thus, the rite of exorcism was initiated as a memetic template to cure the specious belief of the person in his possession, not any objective possession per se. Up to now, indeed, no one has been able to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that any demonic possession has ever occurred.   

Doubts that possession was real probably surfaced first just after the period of the Inquisition. This is because the tortures and executions of the Inquisition were self-sustaining, because none of the greatest theological minds could figure out how one might exterminate demons or Devils permanently by killing the allegedly possessed humans. Because they could not be killed, and could still possess humans (according to the Inquisition), then whenever you tortured a heretic or apostate to death  the possessing devil or demon would just skip to another forlorn soul, who in turn would have to be killed. With that possessing demon jumping to another ,…..and so on keeping the Inquisition’s fires and torture wheels going indefinitely.

Eventually, the Church's greatest brains figured out they could potentially slaughter every single living member of the "Body of Christ" yet not be able to get at the demons or Satan himself. In other words, their own feverish delusions were having them on, leading them to excessive actions and reactions that didn't do a damned thing to advance the welfare of the "Body of Christ".

That primitive practices like exorcism are still going on is merely evidence of a powerful mind virus which has flourished since the emergence of the brain's neocortex  - along with the superstitious belief in supernatural demons. (See e.g.  Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society, by Aaron Lynch.)

What most ordinary people refer to as “evil” is easily explainable by the scientific Materialist in terms of brain evolution. Thus, Homo Sapiens is fundamentally an animal species with a host of animal/primitive instincts residing in its ancient brain or paleocortex.   The Devil or Satan (or a given demon) is simply the mental projection of the most primitive brain imperatives onto the external world.  See e.g.

Bottom line, science does not dismiss such manifestations, it simply places them in a physicalist perspective consistent with modern physics and biology - as opposed to religious dogma and superstition.

Douthat jousting again:

"Similarly, when today’s evolutionary theorists go searching for a reason people believe so readily in spiritual powers and nonhuman minds, they are also making a concession to religion’s plausibility — because most of our evolved impulses and appetites correspond directly to something in reality itself."

This is a bit disingenuous.  Indeed, evolutionary biologists (not "theorists")   are making no such "concessions" to religion's plausibility. They, in fact, are invoking modern neuroscience applied to specific regions of the brain.   All the so-called "spiritual powers" Douthat makes much ado over can indeed be traced to brain chemical activity and dynamics. See e.g.

This is especially linked to the processing of the OAA or the orientation and activation region.  The bottom line, in the words of the authors of 'Why God Won't Go Away':

If the brain were not assembled as it is, we would not be able to experience a higher spiritual reality even if it did exist

Douthat again:

"Of course, religion could be the exception: a desire with no real object, a set of experiences with no correlate outside the mind, sustained by a combination of wishful thinking, the desire of mortal creatures to believe in the imperishable and the inevitability of what debunkers of supernatural fraud sometimes call “residua,” the slice of strange events that lie outside our current scope of explanation."

Finally, Douthat has come to his internal senses and is approaching the genuine evolutionary basis for religion.  That is, it emerged in the verbal structures of the primitive neocortex in order to try to make sense of death, as well as function as a general coping mechanism for dealing with a brutish life- at the time of the Pliocene.  Primitive humans in this era had zero clue what caused lightning or terrible earthquakes, but they had  a rich imagination which could flesh out quasi -explanations based on the supernatural.

Douthat charges once more:

"But today, in secular and educated circles, any natural human eagerness to believe coexists with the opposite sort of pressure, to dismiss supernatural experiences lest you appear deluded or disreputable — which in turn leads people to underestimate the scale and scope of that unexplained residua."

Here Douthat seems not to grasp that being "unexplained" does not qualify as evidence, and certainly not of the extraordinary kind. He also puts cart before horse in referring to "supernatural" experiences - which are entirely natural - but which he is simply ignorant of the underlying cause.  Further, how can one "underestimate" the alleged "unexplained residua"  when Douthat hasn't even provided the necessary and sufficient conditions for them to exist?  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 itself exists in the first place.  

 Douthat in one last desperate try:

"Take, as just one example, the case of near-death experiences, which were a culturally submerged phenomenon until Raymond A. Moody started compiling testimony in the late 1960s. After decades of research, we know such experiences are commonplace and surprisingly consistent in certain features — not just the tunnels and bright lights and encounters with dead relatives but also the psychological aftermath, marked by a shift toward greater selflessness, spirituality and cosmic optimism."

Maybe they are all just mental illusion (even if some of their features are not exactly easy for existing models of brain function to explain), the result of some evolutionary advantage to feeling peaceful at the brink of death. But just conceding their persistent existence is noteworthy, given how easy it is to imagine a world where these kinds of experiences didn’t happen, where nobody came back from the threshold of death with a life-changing account of light suffused with love or where the experiences of the dying were just a random dreamlike jumble."

Douthat again hits closer to the truth of his named phenomena (NDEs) than he appreciates or realizes. I.e. there is a propensity to hallucinate these events grounded in specific regions of the brain and brain chemistry.  Given the generality of the neurobiology and its tendencies for a certain type of manifestation their "persistent"  existence is not at all surprising.  The problem for the religionist like Douthat is accepting the simpler, naturalistic hypothesis.

Douthat makes what he believes is a critical point:

"In such a world that absence would be a pretty telling point against religion: You say we should expect some sort of spiritual survival after death, but people who come close to the doorway just see Livia Soprano’s “big nothing.” But then turnabout is only fair: In this world, where such experiences conspicuously do happen, you have to consider them a point in favor of taking religion seriously."

Not at all, and religion is as juvenile and misguided as ever. As I noted that such experiences conspicuously do occur is simply a function of brain anatomy, and neural network properties peculiar to all human brains. Because the construction of all human brains are basically the same it stands to reason their manifestations will have much commonality.  All of this is a point for taking neurobiology seriously.

Douthat delivers several parting shots in desperation:

"All of which is to say that the world in 2021, no less than the world in 1521 or 321, presents considerable evidence of an originating intelligence presiding over a law-bound world well made for our minds to understand, and at the same time a panoply of spiritual forces that seem to intervene unpredictably in our existence."

And for which "forces" he's given zero proof, only some anecdotal material. That there might still be an "originating intelligence" is not denied, but as I pointed out this hypothesis must be consonant with science not supernaturalism.  Then David Bohm's holomovement more than meets the necessary criteria.

"That combination corresponds reasonably well to the cosmology on offer in many major world religions, from Christianity with its creator God who exists outside of space and time and its ministering angels and interceding saints, to Hinduism with its singular divinity finding embodiment in a pantheon of gods. Almost as if the old faiths had a somewhat plausible grasp on reality all along."

Here at least Douthat is coming closer to a more fundamental realization.  Specifically, it is Hinduism with its "singular divinity" of Brahman which is actually closest to Universal Mind or Bohm's holomovement.  This is given it represents a unified energy beyond any deity construct or concept.

One last lengthy Douthat gasp:

"The difficulties of those ancient arguments — along with the challenge of dealing with religion as it’s actually embodied, in flawed people and institutions — are a big part of what keeps the spell of materialism intact. For finite and suffering creatures, religious belief offers important kinds of hope and consolation. But unbelief has its own comforts: It takes a whole vast zone of ideas and arguments, practices and demands, supernatural perils and metaphysical complexities, and whispers, well, at least you don’t have to spend time thinking about that.

Nice try, but overly simplistic and laden with false assumptions about unbelievers.. In fact, unbelief "whispers"  only one thing: Demand extraordinary evidence for any extraordinary claims made. If such evidence is not forthcoming, or the claimant hedges and indulges in obfuscation, then ignore the claim. 

This is one reason the atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer - in Language, Truth and Logic-  insisted  on empirical support for any claims made.   As he writes (p. 158):

"The fact people have religious experiences is interesting from the psychological point of view, but it does not in any way imply there is such a thing as religious knowledge.   The theist - like the moralist- may believe his experiences are cognitive experiences, but unless he can formulate his knowledge in propositions that are empirically verifiable, we may be sure he is deceiving himself."

All Douthat has done is created an elaborate verbal  blizzard of false arguments but offered no proof or even elementary evidence for why an intelligent person should ditch science and embrace supernatural religion.  Nor has he given us any propositions that are empirically verifiable. 

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