"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 29 August 2014

Is there something about Islam?

 
The panel at WHC Oxford with moderator Jim Al-Khalili
Earlier in August I attended the World Humanist Conference held in Oxford. Among the many interesting sessions and presentations one of the most thought provoking was a panel discussion called “Is there something about Islam?” in which Alom Shaha, Maajid Nawaz, Keenan Malik and Maryam Namazie debated whether Islam is peculiarly prone to violence and fundamentalism.
Keenan Malik, in particular, argued that Islam like any other religion is open to interpretation.
“Jihadi literalists, so-called ‘bridge builders’ like Tariq Ramadan […] and liberals like Irshad Manji all read the same Qur’an. And each reads it differently, finding in it different views about women’s rights, homosexuality, apostasy, free speech and so on. Each picks and chooses the values that they consider to be Islamic.”
This is true of course, but to point out that to be a Muslim does not necessarily mean you will be a radical is a truism that only the paranoid and prejudiced would reject. It is also true that other religions have their extremists and that most religions have at some time or other been used and abused in the service of atrocity, but it is impossible to ignore the frequency and intensity with which Islam is the prime culprit today.
Radicals are also spawned by secular causes; environmentalism, feminism, animal rights, nationalism and racial equality to name a few. Most to some degree have had their share of violent protests, sporadic riots, bombings and death threats but these really are confined to a very small minority of the people who support such causes and a sustained commitment to violent extremism in these cases is rare.
Radical Islam however is building a consistent narrative of violent jihad recruiting and growing to the extent that it can now sustain a well-equipped and effective army in Syria and Iraq.
I.S. may not represent the Islam of the vast majority of Muslims around the world, certainly not the Shia or the Sufis, but they are attracting recruits in droves from Asian Sunni communities in the U.K and Europe despite the horror with which their actions are reported here. It attracts finance from wealthy Muslim countries and, according to a recent report, a 92% approval rating from citizens of Saudi Arabia.
I disagree with Keenan Malik and also blogger Simon Frankel Pratt with whom I had a brief Facebook discussion on the subject. Whilst individuals may have their own routes and reasons to radicalisation they cannot pursue them in isolation, they need a framework and an internally consistent narrative in order to sustain their zeal and justify behaving in ways that in other circumstances would be anathema to them. No other religion in the modern world has the ideology, history, theology and motive to support violence in way that Islam does.
In the first place Islam has always had a strong territorial and political dimension. The traditional history of its early expansion is one of conquest and occupation with the establishment of the faith achieved in a matter of decades following the death of Mohammed. Whether this and the exploits of the first Caliphs, scimitar and Qur’an in hand, are true or not they are written into the Hadith and Sunnah and are a ready justification for modern day jihad. I can think of no other religion that claims to have spread in this way or would want to be associated with forced conversions today even if they happened in the past.
Secondly Islam is socially normative to a high degree. It is not only a religion to be believed it also has to be practiced in ways that can demonstrate that belief. Dietary laws, praying in one direction at specific times of day, fasting and pilgrimage are signals to other Muslims that they are part of a bigger community with obligations to conform. This also makes it easier for other norms such as Hijab to emerge even though they may not be a strict requirement of the religion.
The Qur’an is highly prescriptive. To find a parallel you could look to Leviticus or Deuteronomy in the Bible but the Qur’an is almost entirely comprised of this kind of legalistic theology whereas the Bible drowns it out in history and myth then arguably dispenses with it entirely in the New Testament. Muslims are taught to see their scriptures as authoritative and the Sharia legal system is based entirely on the Qur’an and Hadith. It is still possible to pick and choose liberal interpretations but much harder to refute the conservative ones
The principle schism in Islam between Sunni and Shia runs very deep and traditionally stems from a dispute over who should have succeeded Mohammed as leader of the faith. It is no accident that the main victims of I.S. are Shia Muslims, heresy being a worse crime than being of another religion entirely. Islam is not uniquely but nevertheless very well primed for the “othering” of heretics and apostates and dehumanising potential enemies.
Simon Frankel Pratt kindly pointed me to an article by Clark McCauleya* & Sophia Moskalenkoa called Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways Toward Terrorism which is worth a read as it explores the mechanisms by which individuals may become radicalised in diverse situations. They call this the “pyramid model”
”From base to apex, higher levels of the pyramid are associated with decreased numbers but increased radicalization of beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. Thus one way of thinking about radicalization is that it is the gradient that distinguishes terrorists from their base of sympathizers. How do individuals move from the base to the extremes of terrorist violence at the apex?”
a path that is summarised in the table below.
But in my view Islam short circuits this process by providing a ready-made ladder to the apex and a fast-track means of fulfilment for the wannabe radical. The emphasis on martyrdom, the supra-nationalism, the prescriptivism and the historical justification all make Islam a potent draw for those who would find political cause or personal glory in its name. Islamism is a thing. It is a political movement with substantial theological support and history on its side. Although the vast majority of believers may wish to reject it conservative Islam is shifting the perceptions of what it is to be a Muslim towards its own narrow interpretation, often aided and abetted by western media portrayals of Islam in precisely this way.
Liberal Islam is also a thing so there doesn’t have to be “something about Islam” but for now the conservative view has the platform and the charisma to attract young Muslims who are otherwise disaffected and, more than other causes or other faiths, the doctrines to retain them.

Monday, 21 July 2014

An Imam a Christian and a Humanist walk into a school...

No, it’s not the start of a cheesy joke, rather the way quite an interesting day began…
Just to give a bit of background, a few months ago I attended a course run by the British Humanist Association (BHA) designed to train humanists to assist schools with a revised religious education curriculum that requires teachers to include secular points of view as well as those of the mainstream religions. There are about a hundred of us registered so far and R.E teachers can request assistance via the Humanism for Schools website from BHA volunteers who will help by supplying classroom materials, participating in classrooms directly or speaking at assemblies. We have a range of year group appropriate resources we can draw on.
Anyway, recently I received an email from the Humanism for Schools coordinator asking if I was able to be the humanist representative on a diversity panel for a year 9 group (13 to 14 yrs) alongside a Muslim Imam and an Anglican Vicar. Of course I was happy to oblige.
The event involved half a dozen or so forty-five minute sessions as a series of classes rotated between us and other cultural diversity events. The pupils had an interesting range of questions which each of us answered in turn according to our particular worldview.
The Imam was a particularly interesting person; an affable retired G.P originally from India and without a rational notion in his head. He fielded a question on evolution by insisting “nobody ever saw a human hand appear on a monkey’s arm” and was very insistent that it was impossible to be a moral person without Allah. However in a conversation I had with him during a break he made a very interesting point about the radicalisation of British Asian Muslims which he illustrated by referring to his own “embracing” of Islam. He had been brought up in a traditional Muslim family while in India and learned the Qur’an by rote in Arabic which is apparently the norm despite being unable to speak or understand the language. Consequently until the age of forty, when he finally read it in translation, he had no idea what the Qur’an actually said other than what was told to him. If this is typical of Asian Muslims it becomes easy to see how a hard line interpretation of Islam could be imposed on them without having any other frame of reference. By the time any of them read a translation they can understand (if they ever do as some Imams teach that all translations are corrupt) their minds are already primed for Jihad.
The Vicar was of the “trendy” variety, one of your followers of Jesus types with a naïve pick and mix liberal theology. He had the utmost conviction in the historicity of Jesus claiming it was “better documented than any event in history” (me pointing out that one primary source doesn’t count fell on deaf ears) and, to his credit, insisted in every session that Christianity was the one true religion which is far more honest in my opinion than mealy-mouthed ecumenicalism.
He fielded the first of the “do you believe in evolution” questions with, wait for it… “It’s only a theory” and… “It’s like a whirlwind in a junkyard accidentally making a Jumbo Jet”…Yep! He actually went there. After I was forced to make a small diversion into the actual predictions made by Darwinian natural selection he confined subsequent answers to saying it must still be “God guided”. But, I suppose that’s the best you can expect.
Throughout the day we fielded perceptive questions on; the existence of God, miracles, evolution, contraception, homosexuality and abortion. We all gave answers from our own perspective and for the most part did not pursue the arguments between us but left the different worldviews to hang there for the pupils to absorb.
It’s difficult to know whether any converts were made by anyone that day, which really was not the objective from my point of view (the Imam however came loaded with Islamic literature so maybe he had a different agenda), but several of the classes said they had never knowingly met a humanist or even heard of humanism before so for that alone I considered the day fully worthwhile.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Liberal belief is not harmless

In general atheists only actively disbelieve in the existence of deities that are purported to have influence in the material world or that are presumed to have opinions and preferences about the way human beings conduct their affairs. As a result we are often accused of having an overly simplistic concept of God; merely attacking an old bearded strawman in the sky rather than dealing with Anselm’s unmoved mover or the Ground of Being that Thomas Aquinas and later “sophisticated” theologians like Paul Tillich, Alvin Plantinga and my latest buddy David Bentley Hart envisage. But there are reasons why most atheists ignore or are agnostic about abstract concepts of God not least because they really are un-falsifiable from a scientific point of view so having a strong opinion one way or the other would be irrational but more importantly the believer in the street is not concerned with abstract gods and neither, I suggest, is organised religion.
The gods that most religions present to their faithful are not abstract but quasi-human. They have opinions on dress, diet, sexuality and morality. They expect to be worshipped in specific ways on specific days with special words and rituals or prayed to while facing a particular direction. Some of them publish verbose and internally contradictory manuals with a limited first run distribution around a small area of the middle-east that make historical and factual claims we now know to be false and moral claims many now find abhorrent.
To me it is self-evident that these gods don’t exist in external reality nevertheless they do exist in the minds of many people and the ontological presumptions of many cultures. That is where my real beef with religion really starts.
American philosopher Peter Boghossian likes to define faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know”. Religion makes truth claims about God’s desires on the basis of very flimsy evidence yet these claims are frequently put into the service of enforcing cultural norms that have very real detrimental effects on people. They have been used to defend slavery, they are used to perpetuate misogyny and the subjugation of women, and they are used to justify the hanging of homosexuals, the stoning of rape victims and apostates. They are used to restrict access to contraception and abortion and to deny proper medical care to women hospitalised due to miscarriages. “People pretending to know things they don’t know” are preventing the education of women, opposing the teaching of science, trying to deny same sex couples access to the civil institution of marriage and stop them from adopting children. People pretending to know things they don’t know want the rest of us to pretend we know these things too.
Now if you’re a believer you may be saying to yourself  “I don’t recognise the god this atheist is complaining about, my god doesn’t advocate stoning women or discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality. My god is a loving inclusive nurturing sort of god”. Well if so congratulations on choosing a better behaved god and pretending to know nicer things about yours than some other people pretend to know about theirs but all believers, wittingly or not, are involved in the same conspiracy to pretend to know something they don’t know.
Liberal belief in a beneficent deity is, I concede, the source of much good in society. Apart from the comfort if gives to individuals, a selective reading of scripture encourages some religious communities to charity and social welfare, education programs and the like. Churches, Mosques and Synagogues offer sanctuary and community and for some that may be a necessary social lifeline. Yes, some religion in some aspects for some people is a good thing for some of the time.
But, one would have to be blind not to notice that much harm is being done in religion’s name and this is not, I believe, just because the extremists are doing it wrong. The bible that inspires the affable Rev Colin Still is the same bible that motivated Fred Phelps and the Southern Baptists. The Qur’an of “the religion of peace” is also the handbook for Boko Haram. The Jihadists and the moderates, the bigots and the liberals are just pretending to know different things about the nature of God and there is no objective way to prove who if anyone is ‘correct’ since God is unavailable for comment.
Liberal belief is not benign: it is the foundation for extremism. It renders truth claims about the nature of God socially and intellectually respectable despite having no objective measure of their worth. Even liberal belief protects itself against criticism by insisting ridicule of religion is at best impolite and at worst blasphemous giving cover to extremists who will kill over religious satire. The very premise that there exists a God that has attitudes, rules, regulations, likes and dislikes is the root of much more suffering and injustice than can be justified by the good it sometimes engenders and besides as humanists have proved again and again God really is unnecessary for human flourishing.
If theists only believed in the apophatic, un-moved mover god of sophisticated theologians I doubt I would even bother to write this blog. I have no problem with that sort of belief since; for one thing, they may be right but more to the point no-one ever got killed by arguing over the foibles of a Ground of Being.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 3 of 3

David Bentley Hart
Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject and so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn so today’s is Bliss.

BLISS
Given his teleological and platonic presumptions the first two sections Being and Consciousness make interesting if unremarkable arguments for the existence of an ultimate causational ground of something or other that Hart likes to call God. However in Bliss he provides little argument (beyond reiteration) and less evidence for a series of assertions concerning our human experiences of desire for love, morality, status and altruism et al which must, he insists, really be nothing but stops on the way to bliss; a union with the divine.
How, he wonders, can we strive to be moral if there is not some extant perfect morality or feel the urge to pursue happiness if that abstract concept is not in some sense all pervasive? He speaks as though he has already established the case but whereas the universe and, arguably, consciousness are things seeking explanation internal emotions really aren’t. They are already contingent upon physical reality, somatic organic states and consciousness (magical or otherwise) and it makes no sense to insist that they must be representative of “pure” emotions.
Hart pre-empts the obvious evolutionary rebuttal in the most bizarre way by embarking on a tirade against Richard Dawkins’ seminal concept of The Selfish Gene which having ridiculed as a terrible metaphor he then goes on to dispute by treating it as though biologists really believe genes are intentional “imps” with Machiavellian designs on our bodies and minds. In fact Hart’s entire world view seems to make him incapable of understanding the fundamental point about evolution which is that it is an entirely contingent process, unintended and undirected. He claims to get that the idea of “genes for” a particular trait is a naïve simplification of how things work yet attacks gene centric explanations for the evolutionary utility of emotion entirely on that basis and he certainly does not realise that epigenetic phenomena where the organism apparently effects the genes are themselves evolved mechanisms to cope with short term environmental changes.
Biology is a messy business and natural selection may act reflexively and on different levels from DNA through individuals and maybe even populations although as I have said before my intuition is that at bottom the gene (broadly defined) is the ultimate agent of evolutionary change. But Hart wants to turn the narrative on its head and insist that, for example, a mother’s love preserves the genes through her child, rather than genes survive which promote the emotions conducive to nurturing a child. While the observable effect would be indistinguishable either way Hart’s version is un-falsifiable and has none of the explanatory power of Darwinian selection (Ironically in consciousness Hart scorned the concept of memes as units of ideas that preferentially spread through cultures but in bliss partly exculpates Dawkins for the success of the selfish gene metaphor because it has spread organically through media to become a cultural trope. So how does he think that happened exactly? Well, he doesn’t say but I think he’d be hard pushed to supply a non-Darwinian explanation).
This section of the book contains the most word salad by far, in fact in places it’s so unintelligible the circularity of his thinking is sometimes difficult to pick out. Or perhaps that’s the point. For example he insists in various tortured ways that our quest for beauty, love and conscience is in reality our yearning for God because God is good and the good is God (so even if you’re an atheist desiring to do good you are also tacitly accepting Gods existence; handy that…) and waves away the Euthyphro dilemma as irrelevant because God’s goodness is sufficient unto itself. Hart is defining God in his own self-referential terms just like every other theist who needs their god to conform to their own concept.
It is interesting to note that although Hart constantly reminds us that God is everything, is the cause of everything, sustains everything, contains and is contained by everything as the ground of all being, consciousness and bliss his God is always referred to as “he”. For some reason this all-consuming deity (which should definitely not be anthropomorphised in any way, dearie me no!) is resolutely male even before we ascribe other characteristics such as goodness etcetera. Why, for example, shouldn’t such a deity be perfectly evil, hateful or vain or perfectly any other thing that human beings are capable of pursuing when not seeking love or the good?
All told, it’s not that this book is a poor argument for God, more that it’s an argument for a rather poor God and definitely not for the God of most believers. If Hart really accepted only this amorphous definition of God he would be almost as much an atheist as I am. As it is I started his book agnostic about such a ground of being and finished it with the same attitude. Yes, it is logically possible for Hart’s God to exist, but except from a purely metaphysical point of view it is hard to care one way or the other. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in (amongst others) Hart’s other God; the one he is not attempting to defend but the one of his professed Eastern Orthodox faith that made man “in his own image” ,incarnated in the person of Christ, and was crucified. The Eastern Orthodox God that has attitudes and preferences and speaks ambiguously through the bible of dietary laws and sexual taboos. Hart may want to avoid drawing a face on the apophatic God of Being, Consciousness and Bliss but by doing so he is arguing for no kind of God at all.

Footnote: You may have found these three posts a little tedious to read so by way of an antidote I offer this video via the much wittier and entertaining NonStampCollector.

Monday, 28 April 2014

In defense of scientific materialism

As a slight diversion from my three part critique of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I’d like to make a more general point about philosophical materialism and methodological naturalism and why pace Hart they are not logically absurd positions.

In the course of everyday experience our metaphysical and ontological attitudes are largely irrelevant to the point where most people never consider them at all. It is perfectly possible to be a platonic realist without considering every object we encounter in terms of its deviation from a notional ideal perfect form and I seriously doubt anybody lives their lives that way. Similarly we may be able to believe reality is an illusion but still organise our lives so that we don’t try to leave our homes via the first floor window. In general we all treat the world as though it is exactly how it appears to be; a series of causal and caused events acting upon discrete physical objects.
There are good evolutionary reasons why this purely materialist point of view is the quotidian default. At the scales in which biological life can evolve the underlying nature of things is invisible and insensible. Even at bacterial dimensions the interactions with the environment are on a molecular or, at the least, atomic level as far as its sensory capabilities are concerned and millennia of evolution has equipped us and all life to perceive reality reliably but within boundaries that are relevant to natural selection. It is in this trivial sense that Alvin Plantinga is correct to say that evolution limits our cognitive abilities although not, I suggest, to the extent that we cannot make rational sense of the material world.
It is only when we try to investigate the universe systematically that the philosophical issues become paramount. When considering what extra sensory causes lie behind the physical effects we experience the only logical course open to us is to assume that the principles of cause and effect, one material object upon another, continue to obtain even when we cannot directly observe them. To suppose otherwise offers no fruitful line of enquiry because once you allow for the answer to be in some way magical it would be impossible to design an experiment or predict an observation that would disprove it. Methodological naturalism is therefore the only coherent philosophy under which science can proceed even if the ultimate reality, whatever is holding up the last detectable turtle, is something immaterial.
Part of the problem that non-materialists (of whatever stripe) seem to have with methodological naturalism as a scientific presupposition is based, I believe, on a misunderstanding of what science claims to know. In most situations science is not claiming possession of absolute factual truths about the universe but rather a collection of well tested theories that are both explanatory and predictive of what we can expect to observe either by our evolved senses or the machinery we have invented to enhance those senses. These are conceptual models that if applied via material reality produce reliable outcomes, nothing more; they say zip about what may be the underlying cause of everything. In fact when methodological naturalism is defined it is as a working assumption, not an absolute truth, the overriding idea being that regardless of whether or not supernatural forces operate at some fundamental level the material observations would appear identical. In this scenario supernaturalism is a null hypothesis that eventually science could, in principle, falsify to everyone’s satisfaction making metaphysical naturalism (which does claim, strongly, that there are no supernatural phenomena) the most likely situation. Personally, I suspect that however far science is capable of reaching it will still be turtles all the way down for all practical purposes simply because any cause that we can ever detect or postulate must be interacting physically with some other material system we have either observed or conceived.
Even if the sophisticated theologians or the Deepak Chopras of this world are correct and the turtles swim in something divine or pantheistic it still makes no sense for us to explore the universe from any other perspective than materialism despite alleged logical inconsistencies with its metaphysics. You cannot arrive at a coherent consensus description of reality by appealing to a sensus divinatis that if it exists at all is not universally reliable and no amount of meditation or naval gazing will solve the proximal mysteries of existence even if, for some, they seem to point the way to ultimate ones: for now, and probably forever, materialism rules.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 2 of 3

Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject and so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn so today’s is Consciousness

CONSCIOUSNESS
One would expect that when somebody explicitly denies that they are making an argument from personal incredulity that the substance of what then follows would be something other. Hart does make this claim but unfortunately it is difficult to see his problem with a materialistic view of consciousness as anything but an appeal to complexity and ignorance. For Hart the subjective experience of consciousness seems way too tenuous to be pinned down to the mechanism of the brain and he simply does not believe that neuroscience will ever bridge the quantitative – qualitative gap between a firing neuron and his personal experience of a red rose.
Much of Hart’s issue is that he denies the possibility of emergence the process by which complex systems can arise from large numbers of simple interactions. In the book’s introductory section he suggests that such emergent systems are never seen although, in fact, physics recognises the phenomena at fundamental levels. A wave, for example, is an emergent structure independent of the substrate on which it travels. In a liquid it is explained by the vertical movement of molecules but is described by a mathematical function that is equally applicable to quantum mechanics, in other words a wave is qualitatively different from the components it is made from. In the same way it is reasonable to assume that consciousness could emerge from sufficient numbers of unconscious interactions in the brain or indeed any sufficiently complex information processing structure. Physicist Max Tegmark characterises consciousness as “[…] the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways” and in Consciousness Explained philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that it arises from the parallel and reflexive processing of information by the brain.
The jury is far from out on this and neuroscience in its infancy is still taking the commensurate baby steps towards an understanding of consciousness (and the related question of whether or not we have free will) but to suggest it is forever insoluble is premature. For Hart the ”hard problem” becomes easy as his Platonic view of the world allows for the redness of his red rose to have an ideal existence of its own as a qualia available to augment the mere physical presence of the flower and inform a metaphysical consciousness but the paucity of such a view, even if ultimately proved correct, would put an end to the adventure of research into the subject. By discounting the concept of emergence, even though it can be clearly demonstrated to occur, Hart is biasing his argument in favour of a top down teleological view of consciousness and perception that he offers the materialist no reason to accept bar allowing for the supernatural.
”What makes the question of consciousness so intractable to us today, and hence so fertile a source for confusion and dashingly delirious invention, is not so much the magnitude of the logical problem as our inflexible and imaginatively constrained loyalty to a particular ontology and a particular conception of nature. Materialism, mechanism: neither is especially hospitable to a coherent theory of mind. This being so, the wise course might be to reconsider our commitment to our metaphysics”
By this light the results of all scientific enquiry would boil down to “Goddidit!” and render further effort futile.
On the subject of free will Hart is very quick to trivialise, if not outright ridicule, the work of Benjamin Libet who was the first to conduct experiments that suggest the intention to perform an action, as measured by observing the readiness potential in the brain, precedes consciousness of the intent by some 200ms or so which implies that free will may well be illusory and that our decisions are made at an unconscious level. But his criticism is merely a restatement of his conviction that materialism is a flawed philosophy per se which to my mind is just as pre-suppositional and unnecessary as plenty of materialist philosophers would still argue for free will even if it is not the ‘magical’ free will that Hart, presumably, desires.
Using an extension of Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism Hart also asserts that it would be impossible for a purely material mind capable of abstract thought to evolve as there would be no natural selection for such an ability. However this is to ignore (as does Plantinga) the fact that features selected for one advantage can become co-opted for another. Abstract reasoning (and even a coherent sense of self) may well be the result of selection for language ability. The capacity for expressing higher order intentionality, the ability to form “what if?” scenarios to plan for imagined hazards and the sharing of strategies were once adaptive advantages that may have required a brain complex enough to accommodate abstract concepts. In short all of the qualities of mind that Hart believes are too difficult to evolve and impossible to understand via naturalism could well be spandrels, by products of features favoured by evolution for other reasons.
The least convincing contention in this chapter is the idea that pure reason is incompatible with a materialist view of consciousness. But, given that we live in a universe that, whether for magical or natural reasons, is comprehensible it would be expected that brains would evolve to comprehend it. The ability to deduce logically is merely an extension of observation and categorisation of the world we inhabit. Hart finally flogs his red rose metaphor to death at this point by suggesting the syllogism “all of the roses in my garden are red, I am observing a rose in my garden, therefore the rose I am observing is red” must require some kind of mystical preternatural knowledge of categories such a rose , red, garden etc. and awareness of categories of rose that aren’t red and plants that aren’t roses. I really hope I am not straw manning his point here (this is one of his more obtuse segments) but all of this seems either experiential (we have learned what constitutes a rose that is red) or linguistic (regardless of whether we know the objects the syntax makes sense: all of the blibblies in my wibbly are flibbly, I am observing a blibbly in my wibbly, therefor the blibbly I am observing is flibbly) and requires nothing transcendental that I can see.
As with his chapters on being Hart’s quest for the spiritual in consciousness lay less in a strong case for God and more in a weak rebuttal of naturalism which is only an irrational philosophy if you accept a priori Hart’s ontological assumptions and incredulity of emergent phenomena. Again, Hart may be correct; his is not a falsifiable assertion as we can always maintain that purely naturalist explanations for consciousness are just around the corner although an atheism of the gaps philosophy is no better than the more commonly heard theistic trope. But he still fails to provide any evidence for theistic gods worthy of petition or worship on the basis of consciousness. Perhaps he will fare better with bliss.





Tuesday, 22 April 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 1 of 3

Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject.


As others have pointed out it seems unfair that for theists to criticise scientific rebuttals of religion they rarely see the need to actually understand the science but for an atheist to criticise religion requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of two millennia of theology. But what the hell! I quite like acquiring knowledge for its own sake and have a fair grasp of both theology and science so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn starting with Being

BEING
In one respect the disappointment of this part of the book is that it really offers nothing new. Hart’s argument is essentially a re-hash of Paul Tillich’s “ground of being” concept where God is defined as that upon which all else is contingent, although I think Hart’s explanation and derivation is much more cogently explained than many with less resort to post-modernist language and obfuscation (I do mean less by the way, not none: there is still plenty of semi-digestible word salad in this book). He begins by asserting that materialism is a self-limiting philosophy that science uses necessarily to render the observable universe available for comprehension while ignoring the philosophical dilemma of why anything requiring investigation exists at all. The logical consequence of this is that everything is seen as a sequence of causes and effects leading to infinite regressions if you try to contemplate the “first cause” of anything. He extends the argument to say that explanations relying on mathematical imperatives fail the same test as they must also be contingent on something absolute as would an infinite multiverse or any appeal to the anthropic principle to explain why the universe is as we find it.
Hart goes on to explain that his refined cosmological argument requires an eternal infinite indivisible prime cause that doesn’t initiate creation at a specific point or occupy Einsteinian space-time in any way. Meaning it can’t be observed because science only looks inside the system and ignores external supernatural explanations (which is a general claim I have addressed before).
My problem with all of this really boils down to “so what”? Apart from the fact that such arguments have been made for centuries even if such a ground of being does exist (and I am prepared to concede that it might, or even logically must) why call this thing God? In fact why call it anything at all if it is essentially beyond our capacity to observe and the universe cannot possibly look other than it does either with or without it?
My favourite sound-bite response to the question “why is there something instead of nothing?” is to suggest that there is only one way for there to be nothing yet an almost infinite number of ways for there to be something so the balance of probability is massively in favour of something. I’ve always considered this to be a trivial thought but Hart does take the time to argue against it by saying that an “empty universe” is merely a logical possibility and not a logical necessity in the way that his prime cause of being is and anyway there may be many logically possible empty universes: but this wrong. While there may be many logically possible empty universes there really can only be one way for there to be nothing (whatever that means) even assuming it is logically possible at all. It may be that something is the default due to the logical impossibility of nothing.
It is unsatisfying (even for a materialist) to say it’s “turtles all the way down” but this doesn’t mean that any ground of being ,even if metaphysical, must possess divinity or intent and even less that it has specific opinions on the dietary and sexual habits of humans, which leads me to this final observation…
In a substantial diversion from the initial theme of “being” Hart makes the point that the God he is attempting to describe and justify is not a small ‘g’ god or the demiurge of the Old Testament who created a universe from pre-existing chaos but one that’s very much the ex-nihilo be-all and end-all of existence. But, given that he is explicitly aiming this book at atheists he appears to have missed the memo that for the most part it is only the existence of the demiurges that we are denying. After all it is these theistic gods that are supposed to answer prayers and wreak punishments with careless abandon on human kind. These are the gods for which not only is there no evidence but substantial evidence against even though these are also the gods that, despite Hart’s conviction, most naïve believers look to for moral guidance and salvation. Hart, at least in part one of this book, is flirting with something very close to pantheism which really does not square with his professed Eastern Orthodox Christianity and he fails to make the qualitative leap between god in the abstract and a God we should care about.