Friday, April 30, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Meta-argument

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 123 Damien Broderick “Beyond Faith and Opinion”

Damien does not claim to have anything more than an average person’s grip on logic and reasoning. Thank God. I am getting tired of the technical essays. If you are planning on seriously engaging anyone on a topic like this one, logic is one discipline you might want to get familiar with. You can Google “logical fallacies” and get several hits on sites that discuss it. It is sort of a combination of speech and math. But this essay is not that. He says he will present a “meta-argument”.

He starts off telling the story of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an early 20th century philosopher. The famous anecdote goes that he once asked a colleague,
“Why did people believe the Sun went around the Earth?”
“Well,” the colleague mused, “I imagine it was because it looks as if it does.”
“Ah,” said jesting Wittgenstein, “What should it look like if the Earth went round the Sun?”

I assume this story was made up to some extent, especially since the colleague has no come back. With regards to Sun and Earth movement, yes, the heliocentric model or earth centric model would look the same. But if the Earth were moving, how would birds keep up with it? Wouldn’t something tossed high into the air seem to move away as we on the moving Earth moved away from it? Wouldn’t we at least feel a little breeze? We are moving at 1,670 mph after all? Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert of Aurillac), around 1000 AD had a pretty good sense of the size of the Earth and asked similar questions.

People thought the Earth revolved around the Sun because Ptolemy had a model that said it did and it worked pretty well for hundreds of years. People did not study and attempt to refute the math beyond it, anymore than I would consider sitting down and having an argument with Stephen Hawking. Scientists working in the Vatican in the time of Copernicus were studying heliocentric models, but they did not predict as well as Ptolemy, so they were not adopted. When Galileo got a good look at other planets, they finally figured it out. But I digress…

Damien makes an interesting analogy to when it is a good idea to consider disbelief. Many people disbelieve that smoking tobacco conduces to lung cancer. Knowing that humans are fallible, he considers that actively accepting that might not be a good idea.

He then shifts to his personal history, raised pious Catholic, all the way through seminary. At the end of it, he told his family he wasn’t sure about the doctrines of his faith. He goes through a pretty standard list of problems with the miracles and clergy transgressions. But not a bad read overall, and he ends saying he can’t be “absolutely” sure.

His point that we need to be aware of how we process information and decide what to believe is an important one. There was a recent Dateline NBC program that showed people being taken in by 3 Card Monte in Central Park New York. They also reproduced the famous Milgram experiment, showing how an authority figure can override our reasoning ability. You can find it on, but it has commercials and the usual overly repetitious format that Dateline uses. Here is a link to a synopsis of the Milgram experiment.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

A little break for some music

I've been a bit busy lately, so I've been just doing the simpler posts about that book. I know that might be getting to be a drag, so here is a musical break. He's a local guy (to me anyway).

It gets around to asking a musical/theological question.

For those of you or don't like waiting for YouTube to load, or don't like folk music, its the story of his grandfather who used to work in a railroad yard, back when hobos rode the trains. He would look the other way when they snuck into the roundhouse for the night.

Well I asked my saviour, what should I do?
If I'm caught helping hobos, my job could be through
And I heard the answer, so clear and so bright
Are my hobos sleeping in your roundhouse tonight?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Why Not

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 105 Sean M. Carroll “Why Not?”

Finally, somebody broke out of the “Supreme Being, ruler of the universe” mold. He puts aside that billions of people do believe that, he wants to attack the strongest version his opponent’s position, not a straw man. Immediately he runs inot the slippery nature of what that position is. He lists:

Necessary being (Matthew Davidson)
Possibility (Terry Eagleton)
First Cause (Aristotle, Aquinas)
Essence of Life (Michel Henry I Am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christiainity)
Unity of all (pantheism, Spinoza)
A concept by which we measure our pain (John Lennon, God)

And expresses frustration in attempting to respond to phrases like these because it is difficult to put your finger on what is being talked about. I was a bit disappointed when he broke it down into two categories:

God as a label of some feature of the world, or the universe itself
God as a logically necessary idea to make sense of the world

The first category is quickly dismissed and attention is turned to the second. He starts with general discussion of what atheism is and notes that discussions with theists often turn into is-too/is-not dialogue. In an attempt to improve on that, he picks the First Cause argument for an example. His side of the argument mostly involves physics, specifically determinism, which is different than causality. He provides a good non-technical introduction to the topic. I’ll skip the details, but his conclusion is worth noting:

“The mistake that is consistently made by arguments for a theological God is to take reasoning that works passably well in the world and apply it uncritically to the world as a whole."

“Effects have causes” makes sense for human history, and even the history of the universe, but can’t be applied to the universe itself.

I’m not sure he solved the is-too/is-not problem, but it was a much better attempt at reasonable discourse than many of the other essays. And as for the universe itself, regardless of how it was created or if anyone is controlling it, I can agree:

“The universe is, and part of our job is to discover exactly what it is. Another part of our job is to live in it, and construct meaning and depth from the shape of our lives.”


50 blogs on disbelief - Antinomies

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 196 Jack Dann “Antinomies”

This is a short, beautifully written essay, addressed to the elusive spirit that he never found. He attended synagogue with his father and travelled a few other paths including some mystical experiences in sweat lodges. He includes an existential moment in an old house, walking through its many rooms. In the end he sees an old man in the mirror, and that’s all.

He still hopes that education, technology and science will “help us conquer the beast and evolve into more rational beings.” But then supposes that too is a prayer. His appreciation for religious systems is the highest regard I have read yet in these 50 essays. He is just not willing to make the leap of faith. He is well traveled and appreciative of this world, I think he’ll do just fine without it.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - What I Believe

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 50 Graham Oppy – “What I Believe”

Okay, this has nothing to do with the radio program of the same name. Instead it is a list of 20 items, sometimes it reads like an essay, sometimes like a list. Some of them build on each other and he says, “given #4 and #5, therefore” and things like that.

The items are about causation, momentum, energy, physical reality, spatio-temporality, etc. Not everyone’s cup of tea. He uses Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity to prove that there is no being in our universe that is either omnipotent or omniscient (since everything is limited by the speed of light, there is no way to have complete knowledge of our vast universe). I was a little disappointed when he gave a proof that it is not possible that a world exists that is identical to ours, except populated by zombies.

He does leave some room for philosophers when he states that, “of course, this is not to say that we already know everything that there is to know about human agency, human freedom, human consciousness, and the like”, well that’s a relief. He builds on some earlier points to rule out that quantum mechanics somehow supports intelligent design, it doesn’t. Mind is not a “ground-level ingredient” of the universe. So, forget about that. It finally gets a little interesting when he says,

“But, of course, it simply does not follow from the fact that there is no underlying meaning to the existence of the universe that the individual lives that people lead are meaningless, and that the sum of the lives that we collectively lead is meaningless

Well, that’s a relief. And it gets better,

“Moreover, the supposition that every possible universe has an entirely physical constitution gives us no reason to suppose that there is nothing to be learned from the ways in which other people in other times have answered the question of how best to live: tradition can be an important source of information and instruction even in universes that have entirely physical constituions.”

I’m starting to really like this guy. He closes with a couple statements about how everything he has said cannot be said with certainity and that he has only offered a framework. He thinks it is a very good framework of course. I can’t really argue with that.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Summary of the 50 Voices of Disbelief blogs

I’m getting close to finishing these essays. I have looked ahead a bit and there is one lengthy one that has some interesting suggestions, but I don’t think it is too early to start a “best of” list. I will update this list and move it to the top of the list as I change it.

Overall, I categorize the essays into three groups.

1. The really good ones.
2. The “what’s wrong with religion” ones. Mainly complaining about fundamentalist Christians or Muslims.
3. Logical arguments about the non-existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, all-knowing, all-loving God who consciously manages the universe.

The third group doesn’t interest me much anymore because I have been over them a few times. It always ends up with a matter of choice or faith or a premise that can’t be proven. If you have never been through these arguments and you want to know about them, this book covers them all pretty well. There is some repetition, which is good for getting perspectives, but you might be tired of them by time you are done.

A lot of people reject the theology of their parents or their teachers, without considering that there are other theologies. A lot of people reject any theology once they realize that there is more than one. There is some logic to this, especially when you consider there are currently thousands of options, but it rejects the notion that there might some good with one, or from similarities in the many, and I can’t do that.

The second group is interesting, but I’m not sure short essays are the best approach. Again if you are familiar with none of the issues, this is a good place to start. However there are much better sources to learn about the rise of the religious right or the roots of fundamentalism or the history of Islam in Iran.

Buy the book for the best ones, they are:

Why Am I a Nonbeliever – I Wonder (This is the best one on evolution)
Confessions of a Kindergarten Leper
The Accidental Exorcist
The Unconditional Love of Reality
Giving Up Ghosts and Gods

And a sub-group, a couple more on evolution
Gods Inside
An Ambivalent Nonbelief

Thursday, April 8, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Credenda

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 230 Miguel Kottow “On Credenda”

Mostly harmless.

I just don’t have much to say about this one, so I submit this frivolous quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review - Terry Eagleton

Reason, Faith, and Revolution – Reflections on the God Debate
By Terry Eagleton, 2009
It is available on Google Books

This is a great book that unfortunately will (most likely) not find a wide audience. Eagleton has some good to say about the several sides of the God debate, but so much bad to say that few will embrace him. As he says, after giving his analysis of the New Testament, “Left-wing Christians are in dire need of dating agencies.” Personally I agree with his socialist perspective on the teachings of Christ, so the first part of the book was an easy read for me.

I also found his criticisms of both Christianity as a whole and some specifics of the so-called New Atheists a refreshing break from the shouting that passes for debate these days. He begins with “Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics.” But don’t get your hopes up atheists, because he immediately follows with, “But it is also the case, as this book argues, that most critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap. When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own. It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood’s opinions of it.”

Eagleton does recognize that for most people, Christianity is a hiding place, something that they don’t think about in reasonable terms, but he notes that the average person’s view of evolution probably does not match that of Richard Dawkins either. We cannot determine what these things are by popular vote. For Eagleton, his religion is not an opiate: “For Christian teaching, God’s love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law. Which is to say that those who are faithful to God’s law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety.”

But he does not end his defense of Christianity by simply attempting to repaint it as some sort of early version of Marxism. In fact he spends quite a bit of time in the second chapter exposing the many evils of religion. While doing so he occasionally stops to point out how both Dawkins and Hitchkins, sometimes concatenated into Ditchkins, tend to avoid doing this for science and reason. As Eagleton says, “It goes without saying that we owe to the Enlightenment freedom of thought,..” and more. But Eagleton does say it, and points out, “At the same time, this enlightened liberal humanism served as the legitimating ideology of a capitalist culture more steeped in blood than any other episode in human history.”

Eagleton goes well beyond a tit for tat comparison of which is better, science or religion, reason or faith. To do this, he looks at where each came from and where each has gone wrong. For example, “Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive.” “…it has become the creed of the suburban well-to-do…” not the type of people Jesus hung out with.

Thankfully, he does not stop at pointing out the problems, he attempts to find a solution. His answers are no simpler than the problem. He examines politics and culture and finds them both lacking. He recommends some faith and some reason mixed in with both will be needed.

What he means by faith and reason are not common definitions. His understanding of faith was the most interesting I have ever read. It comes by way of Alain Badiou, a French philosopher (and atheist) who says faith is a loyalty to an “event” – “an utterly original happening which is out of joint with the smooth flow of history…” “Truth is what cuts against the grain of the world,…” Examples are the French Revolution, Cantor’s set theory, Schoenberg’s atonal composition, militant politics of 1968. “For Badiou, one becomes an authentic human subject, as opposed to a mere anonymous member of the biological species, through passionate allegiance to such a revelation.”

Eagleton does not redefine “reason” or denigrate it, but he finds it “too shallow a soil” for it to be counted on for the flourishing of humankind for millennia to come. Reason and science can cure polio and build bridges more important than the Bering land bridge, but reason alone can’t hold a political systems together, or inspire people to sacrifice for a common good. Something deeper is needed. Exactly what that is, is not thoroughly defined in this book. That may be Eagleton’s inability to do so or mine to understand him, or it may be more than can be expected of one book or one man. More likely it is something that we will all need to work on together.

What we call “civilization” is often expressed by cultureless transnational corporations only interested in their own material gain, but culture often only expresses itself as where it came from, not something to aspire to. We want the common values of cultures that have thrived, but we want the differences kept private, this can’t be done. The contributions of science are fairly well documented but we still need to sort out how to apply them. We are seeing the warning signs of doing a poor job of that. For what religion might be able to contribute, Eagleton says, “There are lessons which the secular left can learn from religion, for its atrocities and absurdities, and the left is not so flush with ideas that it can afford to look such a gift in the mouth.”

In an attempt to synthesize all points of view, Eagelton says, “The solution to religious terror is secular justice.” For some, Eagleton’s acknowledgement that even terrorists have something that requires our attention may be too much to swallow. For those who oppose any ascription of rationality to an Islamic radical, Eagleton suggests studying the British secret service who monitored the Irish Republican Army. They knew not to swallow the tabloid hysteria. They also understood the rational behind the IRA’s murderous actions, and that they needed to acknowledge it to defeat them. In the same vein, it is wise for the those from the more radical left to understand the rational of the CIA. “The other side of pathologizing one’s enemy is exculpating oneself. As long as we see faith as the polar opposite of reason, we shall continue to commit these errors.”

There is no simple “Sermon on the Mount” type list of good ideas at the end of this book, rather a more sober suggestion that ”only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own.” He is not so certain about how this will work out, but seems pretty certain that, “liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag wavers for Progress (with a capital P for those who see progress as an ideology), and Islamophobic intellectuals”, need to get out of the way.