William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism Reviewed

Which is much better than probable reason.

Which is much better than probable reason.

Answer me honestly. How rational is it to believe any of the following:

  • Science can explain everything, even itself;
  • The reason anything exists is because of the laws of gravity, quantum fields, and so forth;
  • Jesus of Nazareth was an invention and not a real person;
  • Evolution is why we are so rational;
  • Even though God does not exist you can tell the difference between good and evil;
  • People are only Christians because they were born into it;
  • Miracles are impossible and reports of them are the result of lies, superstition, confusion, and reporting errors;
  • The Gospels on which Christianity relies were written hundreds of years after the fact and are mostly reinventions of other pagan traditions?

Each of these propositions is not only false but easily proven to be so, as even the most minimal exertions show. Yet believing any, and many more like them, are touted by “New Atheists” as marks of superior intelligence, as enlightened thinking, even as commonsense reasonableness. To these infinitely self-assured folks, disbelief is a synonym of rational. It’s just a guess, but perhaps this irrational belief is why it is so hard to persuade New Atheists of their errors?

What I like best about the new book edited by Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian and by Carson Weitnauer is the robust spirit on display from the fifteen authors who contributed essays. Right up front Weitnauer outlines the difficulty he has putting arguments across to a hostile audience, like the one which shows that if God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist. “In response to this argument,” he says, “atheists have sometimes complained that they are being falsely characterized as immoral.” A non-rational response.

The atheist’s problem with evil is that, according to his premises, evil doesn’t exist. It of course exists in reality, which is why most atheists are just as moral as most theists. But the words of Exodus hold no meaning to atheist theory: Neither shall you allege the example of many as an excuse for doing wrong. Instead of built-in universal morality, there is democracy. Whenever two or more atheists gather they can have a vote to see whether any should eat the others—why not?—or whether the worst possible misery for everyone should today be considered “evil.”

That’s what Sam Harris thinks is “evil,” incidentally. But the “worst possible misery” is not objective because any attempted definition must assume objectivity somewhere: there must come a point where is becomes ought. John M. DePoe and later Samuel J. Youngs go into the atheists’ problem of evil in great detail.

Tom Gilson’s account of a “debate” between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris is saddening. Harris’s tactic was to ignore Craig. No word on whether he brought out the onion (he’s done it before; this may be the debate Gilson mentioned).

Although there are plenty of sober and fascinating arguments from thoughtful atheists, philosophical subtlety is not the mark of a New Atheist, as Chuck Edwards shows. The kalam cosmological argument (to prove God’s existence) in simplified form goes: (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause, (2) The universe began to exist, therefore (3) the universe has a cause.

Richard Dawkins moves from this to his triumph shouting rhetorically: If everything has a cause, then what caused God! Ha! Whether this proves Dawkins can’t read, is lazy, or so self-shackles his mental apparatus that he can’t see his blatant mistake can be argued. What can’t is whether his objection has any force. I only wish Edwards would have said more about why the universe cannot have existed an infinite amount of time and why it can’t have an infinite amount of stuff. Technicalities, perhaps, but juicy ones.

Naturalism, and its inbred cousin scientism, dogmatically says the supernatural does not exist. But naturalism can’t explain existence: it is necessarily mute on why there is something rather than nothing. Something, incidentally, necessarily includes physical “laws”. New Atheists are always using some science-of-the-gaps argument to evade the force of this observation. David Bentley Hart says, “For existence is definitely not a natural phenomenon; it is logically prior to any physical cause whatsoever; and anyone who imagines that it is susceptible of a natural explanation simply has no grasp of what the question of existence really is. In fact, it is impossible to say how, in the terms naturalism allows, nature could exist at all.”

Man’s ratiocination is supposed to be explained by naturalism; that is to say, by evolution. But, as Lenny Esposito reminds us, if that is so then there is no reason for us to trust our intellects. After all, it’s “unclear how higher levels of reasoning—the ability to use and apply inference, for example—would develop in this way, for natural selection doesn’t care about truth, it only cares about survival.”

We might have evolved to think \int_0^1 e^x dx = e-1, but in reality it could be that equation is false! How would you know it isn’t? Your brain might be fooling you because it figures you have a better chance to survive if you believe this absurdity. Why, there might even be an “atheism gene” in the brain which causes people to have the comforting but absurd belief that there is no such thing as sin.

Yes, it’s silly. But so is the idea that our intellects are material (here is a lovely and brief proof we aren’t entirely physical creatures). David Wood’s essay is good here, Peter Grice shows that reason is teleological (it aims at truth, thus the modern views of causality are mistaken), and Esposito takes you the rest of the way: from reason to God.

David Marshall speaks of John Loftus’s “Outsider test for faith.” You’re supposed to ask yourself if you’d be Christian if you weren’t raised that way. If not, then you should switch to atheism. But some born-that-way atheists have asked themselves the same thing and switched to Christianity. You can read more about the One True Religion Fallacy here. Loftus’s argument is basically a ginned up version of the genetic fallacy.

Marshall also reminds us that David Hume “falsely defined a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature'”, an irrational definition seized upon by (as far as I know) all New Atheists (more on miracles here). Marshall and Timothy McGrew expostulate on the historical conceptions of faith and reason, which includes a nice discussion of Tertullian and theses words of Church father Justin Martyr: “Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions.” This pursuit of truth is what allows theists to escape the traps of naturalism, for instance.

The supposed “war” between science and religion is a false dichotomy. Admitting its existence is, in a way, a defeat, especially when talking to a scientist who embraces scientism. Ask that fellow if he uses mathematics in his work and if he says yes remind him that all of mathematics is metaphysical and not scientific.

The division between science, i.e. the natural, and religion, i.e. the supernatural, is artificial. Both are needed: you can’t have one without the other. Logic, truth, probability, mathematics, philosophy are not physical (natural) and there isn’t even a glimmer of a hope that the physical can be understood without them. Sean McDowell quotes Sam Harris pontificating (without the mitre) that the “success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma.” For once Harris is right: not all religions are equal. But then sometimes the success of religion comes at the expense of scientism. What matters, as Martyr said above, is truth.

Moving to the practical, Randall Hardman presents historical evidence for the Gospels, Matthew Flannagan investigates God’s command to put every Canaanite to the sword, and Glenn Sunshine discusses the Bible and slavery. Flannagan’s argument in particular, which is strained, is unlikely to convince. Then again, New Atheists can be talked into believing anything, no matter how laughable, as long as it disparages religion. If I hear the fiction of brave Galileo and his battles against a denying Church one more time—well, I can’t be answerable for what I might do. How about when those anti-knowledge Christians burnt down the library of Alexandria? It’s as if all New Atheists subscribe to the Walter Duranty school of history.

Carson Weinauer closes the book by recalling Christopher Hitchens, as do Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others, all religion “child abuse.” New Atheists usually say this kind of thing right before they congratulate themselves on their rationality.

59 Comments

  1. – Strawman (philosophy, not science, is a basis for science);
    – Sophistry;
    – Irrelevant speculation that is just not that important I’m sorry;
    – We are not “that rational”, and yes, we are what we are due to evolution, welcome to the 19rd century mr Briggs, work a little bit more you’ll be able to reach the 20th. Lots of nuclear hazard there though;
    – Good and Evil are not a product of God, therefore yes, that’s obvious;
    – Strawman, better said *most people*;
    – Absolutely true;
    – Yes on the first, at last you score a point on the second part congrats;

    A half a point in eight. Really bad stuff here.

  2. Sigh…. so many straw men so little time….

    1)Science doesn’t explain things – people explain things. And people are neither omniscient nor infallible.

    2) “The reason anything exists….”. I don’t know a single scientist who would make this claim. STRAW MAN.

    3) Doesn’t really matter one way or the other if he was real or not. If he did, he was just another man.

    4) We are rational because of Item 1 above.

    5) Rational self-interest. If I pursue values which result in my demise ) then the whole issue of Ethics is moot. I won’t be around to even debate what is good or evil.

    6) Straw Man. People convert to other religions all the time. People even become Atheist. Not sure what this is meant to prove. Probably nothing.

    7)Miracles which some how circumvent causality? No, they do not happen.

    8)Straw Man and has no relevance to the fact that there is no evidence that god exists – which is the foundation for atheism.

  3. “I only wish Edwards would have said more about why the universe cannot have existed an infinite amount of time…”

    I’m sure Edwards would if he were here. Since we’re sadly deprived of his company, I’ll strive to do him justice.

    Why can’t the past be infinite? Because it’s impossible to traverse an infinite linear medium. (And yes, even supposing that space, which we can traverse, is infinite, time differs in that its progression requires each past moment to, well, pass before the next arrives.)

    Since an unlimited past means that an infinite number of past moments must have been exhausted to reach the present, and exhausting an infinity is impossible, the universe must have had a definite beginning in time because otherwise it could never be now. Or now. Or…(you get the idea).

  4. “The reason anything exists is because of the laws of gravity, quantum fields, and so forth;”

    I’ve come across that argument,that the universe arose from quantum fluctuations in nothing, which immediately raises the question, “why are there physical laws in the first place, and what created those laws?”

  5. The Amazon review for the book starts with: “The essays in this volume show why the atheists ideas are not at all reasonable, whereas Christian beliefs do indeed deserve this description.”

    So, consider just a sampling of those “reasonable” Christian beliefs as they’ve been actually exercised (i.e. apply Luke 6:44/Matt 7:16 – ‘judge a tree by its fruit’):

    The followers of the “Prince of Peace” have an ongoing & VERY lengthy history of prejudicially slaughtering EACH OTHER over the sorts of doctrinal differences, trifles in hindsight – that sort of thing isn’t & never was an issue in other monotheistic religions. For examples see: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.html , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sectarian_violence_among_Christians , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_wars_of_religion , and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles ). Most celebrate Thanksgiving blissfully ignorant of the abuses that drove the Christian Pilgrims to the uncharted New World where survival was uncertain – such bleak but optimistic prospects were appealing to the Christian Pilgrims in the face of what other Christians were doing to them in the Old World.

    Consider “The Troubles” occurring in most of our lifetimes from an economically advanced Christian island nation state: The going’s on in Northern Ireland, where people still kill each other (though relatively very lately things have been somewhat subdued), where the opposing sides are consistently defined across a very precise line of Christian doctrinal demarcation. This has gone on with such regularity & for so long that it is entwined in the social fabric [and many physical structures such as turrets, barricades & so forth] of the regional society. There the cumulative death toll is well over 3500 since the 1960s — some two percent of the population dead as a result violence demarcated along Christian doctrinal differences. Proportional/per-capita fatalities in the USA would be around 500,000 (the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency estimates 500,000 Irish victims, where victims are defined as those directly affected by ‘bereavement’, ‘physical injury’ or ‘trauma’ as a result of the conflict [in the U.S. a proportional figure would be something over 70 million affected]. We bemoan terrorism by Muslim extremists but that hasn’t by any stretch of the imagination come remotely close to Christian-on-Christian terrorism just in & around Belfast alone.

    If atheism is so irrational & Christianity isn’t…then it would seem that body counts & crippling injury & lasting emotional trauma matters not in the Christian value system. That is, IF actual behavior — especially a long-standing pattern of the same behavior — matters…

    Not to mention some local [USA] well-reported “Christian” values:

    http://coffeeforclosers.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/westborobaptistchurch.png
    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-4nf5PTAZlW8/TYFD-rtOhoI/AAAAAAAABBU/7IqPsn0dnuk/s320/westboro-baptist-church1.jpg

    One can pick those & go on & on as if they are representative too….

    That’s presented to illustrate—not make—a basic point: One can parse selectively gathered info, pretending it’s representative even though it ain’t [the more fringe the better – apply the ‘much press equates to mostly representative’ “logic”], & then critique & criticize and do so with the transparently obvious intent to simultaneously assert self-righteous superiority. That’s what this latest in a long line of similar essays does in applying selective bias. Anyone can play that game…and that’s what’s being played – a game masquerading as the application of philosophical logic with an underlying motive.

    Which is very UN-Christian behavior as the Prince of Peace made very clear the goal was to convert & save people – lead by example, or leave alone (Matt 10:14 – http://biblehub.com/matthew/10-14.htm). NOT go on a combative offensive applying tactics of verbal insults laced with holier-than-thou self-righteous pride (one of Augustine’s seven deadly sins, recall).

    Reference Matthew 7:5 (http://biblehub.com/matthew/7-5.htm) and act accordingly – practice what you insinuate you preach.

    That aside, the real reason the so-called “New Atheism” poses such attention and draws such ire is that there are many elements of truth not so easily explained away – provided one doesn’t redefine the case in biased & arbitrary ways to avoid confronting the actual issues. As an exercise consider:

    How rational is it to believe any of the following:…The Gospels on which Christianity relies were written hundreds of years after the fact and are mostly reinventions of other pagan traditions?”

    Get a copy of Anal Dundes book, “Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore,” and cozy up to that with your favorite copy of your bible and follow-along as he compares passages between stories (and centuries) just therein. Then go on from there….Seek and ye shall find.

  6. Science can explain everything, even itself;

    Well science can explain how things work, sometimes when clear chains of causation can be traced it can tell you why, *ultimate* causation it cannot do. Big Bang fine, why the conditions were present to allow it to happen, no can do.

    Science also has internal disagreements yet to be resolved e.g there are disagreements between General Relativity and Quantum theory concerning Gravity

    Irrational

    The reason anything exists is because of the laws of gravity, quantum fields, and so forth;

    The mathematical constructs that describe these things are how we interpret and make sense of phenomena. They may bear no relation to what *actually* goes on, again they do not supply a route to ultimate causation

    Irrational

    Jesus of Nazareth was an invention and not a real person;
    Well the actual physical evidence is, err, slight. But the probability that the whole movement sprang from an Aramaic penny dreadful is slight as well

    Undetermined

    Evolution is why we are so rational;

    Total cobblers, you can be as irrational as you like as long as you breed before your stupidity kills you. Then if your irrationality is genetic you’ll pass it on.

    Not only irrational but actually stupid.

    Even though God does not exist you can tell the difference between good and evil;

    I’m fine with that proposition, there’s no rational reason why a values system can’t be self generated, actual definitions of good or evil acts may differ of course.

    People are only Christians because they were born into it;

    There are manifestly cases of voluntary conversion of both other faiths and atheists again not only irrational but dumb as soup stupid.

    Miracles are impossible and reports of them are the result of lies, superstition, confusion, and reporting errors;

    There are examples of spontaneous remission of terminal disease. Is that sheer probability, a reaction to treatment previously given or an actual miracle. It’s impossible to actually say. Sun going backwards in the sky, re-animated skeletons, seas being parted not recently witnessed and impossible to verify

    Undetermined

    “The Gospels on which Christianity relies were written hundreds of years after the fact”

    The earliest new testament fragment I can find is the Rylands P52 dated at CE 100-200, doesn’t of course rule out earlier originals yet to be discovered. Seems more likely that they are copies of contemparaneous originals than they were spun out of whole cloth later. Particularly as a Christian movement blatantly existed in the intervening period.

    So Irrational

    “and are mostly reinventions of other pagan traditions?”

    Well there are common themes among lots of religions, deluge, fiery destruction etc. But then these are common human experiences.
    Doesn’t mean that they spun up from whatever the 4th century equivalent of Brewster’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable was.

    Resemble and have common themes yes, “reinvention” would be argued without evidence, and that would be irrational.

  7. Two points to ponder:

    1) Citing the Westboro folks as examples of Christianity raises great doubt that the difference between labels and the real thing is appreciated.

    2) Paul the premiere apostle recognized the believers at Corinth as Christians even though he devoted much of his letters to them admonishing their egregious misbehavior. They were a work in progress, but starting from a different nature (and spirit) than they had previously. Critics of Christianity almost universally fail to understand what happens at conversion and expect immediate perfection (as they define it). Doesn’t work that way.

  8. Briggs

    April 30, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Ken,

    As Gary said, Christians have also been murderers, rapists, thieves, and worse. But I don’t think you want to start weighing body counts, not given the 20th Century’s efforts of atheism Utopia states.

    Jim (and subsequently Luis),

    1) Do you seriously claim you never saw sentences like “Science proves X”? Or are you arguing for rank subjectivity in all explanations?

    2) If you do not know of any person who makes this claim, you’re reading list is lacking authors like Lawrence Krauss, arch New Atheist who has an entire book on this very subject.

    3) Interesting circular “refutation”.

    4) This, of course, does not follow. In fact, you have disproved it, given 1.

    5) Always thinking of yourself, eh? What if your activities lead to other people’s demise? They have it coming?

    6) This is a straw man, I agree. Strange that New Atheists invoke it so often.

    7) You have assumed a false premise. Miracles are caused.

    8) My dear, another circular argument. You say the Gospels, which just are evidence for God, as irrelevant because God doesn’t exist. This is as far from a refutation as putting your fingers in your ears and saying, “I don’t believe it!”

  9. Briggs:

    “The atheist’s problem with evil is that, according to his premises, evil doesn’t exist. It of course exists in reality, which is why most atheists are just as moral as most theists.”

    That follows if evil objectively exists. I think you clothe the assertion elsewhere in your essay, else the argument is as round as Dawkins’ head — both therefore wanting a storage container befitting their shape.

    “Sean McDowell quotes Sam Harris pontificating (without the mitre) that the ‘success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma.’ For once Harris is right: not all religions are equal.”

    I propose that our Objectively Evil Emperor’s nudity is now apparent. I’m only at the “this feels correct” stage.

    “David Marshall speaks of John Loftus’s ‘Outsider test for faith.’ You’re supposed to ask yourself if you’d be Christian if you weren’t raised that way. If not, then you should switch to atheism. But some born-that-way atheists have asked themselves the same thing and switched to Christianity.”

    It is indeed folly to press one’s thumb against the top edge of the blade.

    “Neither shall you allege the example of many as an excuse for doing wrong.”

    There are so few OT verses that I like. That one is a gem, thanks. Christ’s discussion of motes, beams and logs via King James is one I try to be mindful of myself. Bringing it up as a polemic always backfires in my face, which I find beautifully self-illustrating.

  10. Briggs:

    “But I don’t think you want to start weighing body counts, not given the 20th Century’s efforts of atheism Utopia states.”

    Crikey, determinism compels me to risk spam. Beware outliers for one. Ignore hidden variables at your own peril. See again Exodus for the admonition against popularity. Consider that absolute numbers are often best compared against each other on a per-capita(tion) basis.

    And speaking of spam, the Pythons of genus Monty said it well: “A wink is as good as a nod to a blind bat, eh? Could be, could be.” If the bat is additionally deaf and dumb, bitter herbs and farts tempt me.

  11. Oh good grief!

    Well, I’m antler rubbing (avoiding work) too so…

    1 – Science can explain everything, even itself;

    Yes – ok, no; at least not yet.

    (Godel’s “proof” was just updated, reverbed, 19th century philosophical cowardice – a quailing the face of the infinite.)

    2 – The reason anything exists is because of the laws of gravity, quantum fields, and so forth;

    No, these theories describe how bits of the universe operate. There is no GUT yet to tie them to root causes. (and hawking’s temporal cycles are every bit as much a way of ducking “so who’s God’s father?” as dawkin’s
    smirk.)

    3 – Jesus of Nazareth was an invention and not a real person;

    False – someone using that name did exist, did preach, etc

    4 – Evolution is why we are so rational;

    False as I think you meant it, true as I read it: viz:
    our understanding of rationality is conditioned by our evolutionary history.

    5 – Even though God does not exist you can tell the difference between good and evil;

    You’re begging two questions for the price of one here:

    5A – unknown (really a matter of definition: a whitebeard who takes attendence at churches? no. A general force for good encoded in our genes? Maybe. I’ll give you a definitive answer if you give me a definitive definition.)

    5B – Yes we can.

    6 – People are only Christians because they were born into it;

    Yes – for some. No for others.

    7 – Miracles are impossible and reports of them are the result of lies, superstition, confusion, and reporting errors;

    Yes. There’s no such thing as an accurate third hand report. Whatever basis in reality the story may once have had, hand me downs are always heavily embellished and often unrecognizable.

    8 – The Gospels on which Christianity relies were written hundreds of years after the fact and are mostly reinventions of other pagan traditions?

    Again with the loaded dice? Some yes, some no, some maybe.

  12. “Marshall also reminds us that David Hume “falsely defined a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’”, an irrational definition seized upon by (as far as I know) all New Atheists.”

    This might sound like nitpicking, but I do have a good point.

    Technically speaking, Hume’s definition was not irrational, given his understanding of “laws of nature” and causation, which few share with him anymore. For Hume, “laws of nature” are just shorthand for our observations of patterns we see happen; we always see babies come from both mothers and fathers, so we take it as a “law of nature” that this is the case.

    According to Hume, we have no real rational reasons for doing so, it’s just the case that, given the way we are, we cannot help but believe these observations reflect the way things have to be.

    Hume’s understanding of “laws of nature” follows from his definition of causation, which is just the regular succession of like events. To put it differently, the way Hume defines causation is basically the way we define correlation, and he denies that we have any idea of causation that is different from this.

    So “laws of nature” to Hume really just give us a sort of statistical reason to suspect that things cannot happen otherwise that we cannot afford not to believe. Thus, it is always at least a little irrational to believe miracles happen according to Hume, since they, by definition, violate his version of “laws of nature”, but note that it is not nearly as an irrational move as the New Atheists would like to claim it is.

    And this is because I doubt all but a small handful of them share Hume’s view of “laws of nature”; indeed, I think even fewer scientists share such a view. To them, “laws of nature” reflect facts about the way things must be, or will usually be, given the sorts of things that they apply to. For instance, everything will remain at rest until moved by an external force, is taken as necessary, or very close to it, by many scientist, so a violation of it would be a contradiction, or highly unusual.

    But in this sense of “laws of nature” a miracle would NOT be a violation of the “laws of nature”. It may be the case that, if God were not keeping him up, Christ as human would have sunk due to gravity, but, given that God is acting like an external force by holding him above the water, he will not sink; where’s the tension? There is no more problem here than saying that an object set in motion will remain in motion until moved by an external cause, even though it is the case that we have NEVER seen this happen!

    The New Atheists are thus trying to have it both ways; they want to keep Hume’s definition of miracles as a violation of the “laws of nature”, which is true only under his conception of “laws of nature”, but not theirs’. This gives them the rhetorical advantage of claiming that miracles are inherently irrational since they would be, or would be very close to, a contradiction in terms, but only at the cost of making themselves look like fools for engaging in such sophistry.

    This has become a little long-winded, but I think it an important point to make. It just goes to show you that New Atheists cannot co-op the old school skeptics as nearly easily as they think; indeed, I think many of them would be appalled by what Hume and Kant really thought.

  13. Alan McIntire: “Why are there physical laws in the first place, and what created those laws?”

    I like how Max Planck says it:

    “We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.” — The Universe in the Light of Modern Physics (1931)

    More on point:

    “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” — Where is Science Going? (1932)

    He starts to lose me here though:

    “The most immediate proof of the compatibility of religion and natural science, even under the most thorough critical scrutiny, is the historical fact that the very greatest natural scientists of all times — men such as Kepler, Newton, Leibniz— were permeated by a most profound religious attitude.”

    A more parsimonious explanation is that Kepler et al. lived in times where religion was a more prevalent epistemology. But parsimony is not proof, leaving piety neither confirmed nor falsified. So I jump back to the second quote and do battle with the paradox of first cause and the siren call of solipsism until it becomes more fun to ingore why and appreciate am for a time.

    Timotheos: “This has become a little long-winded, but I think it an important point to make.”

    Long it may be, but I am enjoying digesting it.

  14. 5 – Even though God does not exist you can tell the difference between good and evil;

    Please explain me Gods grand detour:
    1 Man was kicked out of Eden BECAUSE you can tell the difference between good and evil.
    2 Man was kicked out of Eden to prevent eternal life.
    3 God makes a sacrifice
    4 Man can live in paradise forever

    5 Explain: Why was man kicked out of paradise in the first place?

  15. Ye Olde Statisician

    April 30, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Oh, dear. Way too much for one response unless one resorts to one-liners; and the one-liner is the enemy of rational thought.

    The original contention of the book under review is that a number of New Atheist contentions are irrational. In this comment, the original irrational argument is shown in bold and a supportive response in the comm box in italics, followed by a brief rationale why the original contention was irrational.

    1. Science can explain everything, even itself;
    Science doesn’t explain things – people explain things. And people are neither omniscient nor infallible.

    The term “science” in the original was used metonymically, so this response is a bit of a sophism. The contention which one sees all over the intertubes is that the methods of natural science explain everything, and other fields of knowing are of an inferior order. This holds even if some explanations are erroneous. (“Science is self-correcting” etc.) The term for this is “scientism,” which stems from the critiques of Mill, Wittgenstein, Feyerabend, Hayek, and Midgley, who saw it as an attack upon the humanities.

    Why the claim is irrational. It is self-refuting. The claim itself cannot be known via the scientific method. No scientia can explain its own principles. The Euclidean postulates cannot be explained by Euclidean methods. Natural science cannot explain with empirical observation either existence or motion. Scientists must assume existence (otherwise there would be no “empirical” evidencea priori) and they explain changes in the magnitude and direction of motion, not motion as such, which is taken as given.

    2. The reason anything exists is because of the laws of gravity, quantum fields, and so forth;
    I don’t know a single scientist who would make this claim. STRAW MAN.

    Well, the claim has been made inter alia by Hawking, Krauss, et al. In fact, the self-creating universe is rather a fixture in neoatheist discourse. Perhaps each is married, and thus not a “single” scientist; or perhaps you do not know them. Or perhaps they are full of straw, or some other filler material.

    Why the claim is irrational. Gravity is a relationship between two (or more) bodies, so existence is logically prior to gravity; and a quantum state is not nothing: it is a quantum state.

    3. Jesus of Nazareth was an invention and not a real person;
    Well the actual physical evidence is, err, slight.

    The ‘actual physical evidence’ (whatever that may mean) is even slighter for Hannibal or Socrates – or for that matter, nearly everyone in the ancient world.

    Why the claim is irrational. Special pleading. Radical skepticism is usually applied only to Jesus, never to other ancient personages. We can only note that no one in the era closest to the events ever deployed the “did not exist” argument. Pagans and Jews said he was a clever magician, a bastard offspring of a Roman soldier, etc. etc. They never said there had been no such person at all. It is unclear what special revelation more modern folks have had to the contrary.

    4. Evolution is why we are so rational;
    We are not “that rational”, and yes, we are what we are due to evolution

    This is simply a restatement of the original belief, not a demonstration that it is rational to hold it.

    Why the claim is irrational. The “not ‘that rational’” claim reveals that the writer is unclear on the nature of the rational anima, and apparently thinks it means “reaching correct answers” always or for the most part. The fact is that a rational animal is also an animal, and therefore exercises imagination as well as intellect. But the error is two-fold: First, natural selection selects for reproductive success, not for truth. These ‘rationalists’ believe both that rationality is a product of evolution and that humans have been selected to see patterns where there are none. The latter is applied only to belief in God, never to belief in adaptation stories. Second, there is a question-begging assumption that rationality is a physical thing subject to natural selection. The actual physical evidence is, err, slight. It is unclear what reproductive value the ability to conceive regular compact topological spaces might bestow.

    However, since “evolution” only means “change over time,” the contention also teeters alarmingly on the edge of tautology. It’s like explaining the positions of the planets with vague appeals to “motion.”

    Keeping it short, I’ll break here.

  16. Ye Olde Statisician

    April 30, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    5. Even though God does not exist you can tell the difference between good and evil;
    Good and Evil are not a product of God, therefore yes, that’s obvious;

    This is of the point of the original contention, which asserts that you can tell the difference between good and evil even if God does not exist. It does not claim merely that you can tell the difference even if you don’t believe in God. You can fly in a jet airplane even if you don’t believe in Frank Whittle. You cannot fly in an airplane if Frank Whittle did not exist. (Note metonymic use of “Frank Whittle” for “inventor(s) of jet engines.)

    Why the claim is irrational. A-list atheists like Sartre, Nietzsche, Rorty, et al. contended that without God there was no morality; or that since there was no God there could be no objective morality. Nietzsche’s comments are on point: he ridiculed the “English flatheads” who thought they could retain Christian morality without the Christianity. So the debate is between the paleoatheists and the neoatheists. J.L.Mackie stated that because “values” can’t be measured by scientific instruments, they therefore don’t actually exist, neatly combining this irrationality with #1, above.

    St. Paul, contrary to the modern atheists, claimed that pagans and gentiles were quite able to discern good and evil. They become a law unto themselves even though they are without the Law.

    Rational self-interest. If I pursue values which result in my demise then the whole issue of Ethics is moot. I won’t be around to even debate what is good or evil.

    Is that why a soldier in combat will sometimes throw himself on the grenade? Surely, a value that results in his demise.

    6. People are only Christians because they were born into it;
    Straw Man. People convert to other religions all the time. People even become Atheist. Not sure what this is meant to prove.

    Me neither, so I wonder why neoatheists always deploy it. It is usually deployed to “refute” the evidence that so many seminal scientists have been Christian, as Brandon Gates just did. Galileo, Scheiner, Gassendi, Mersenne, Lembo, Newton, and others “just happened” to be Christian because they lived in a Christian milieu.

    Why the claim is irrational. Two reasons. One. This argument is never deployed in the name of those who did evil: that they “just happened” to be Christian. So, special pleading. In fact, from their own private writings, we know that they did not “just happen” to be Christian but that they were deeply informed by those beliefs. Two. It is superficial and uninformed by history. Was someone a Christian because he lived in a Christian milieu? Or was the milieu Christian because so many of the people in it were Christian? IOW, which way is the causal arrow pointing?

    7. Miracles are impossible and reports of them are the result of lies, superstition, confusion, and reporting errors;
    Miracles which some how circumvent causality? No, they do not happen.

    Why the claim is irrational. It begs the question. Further, miracles do not circumvent causality? Allegedly, they are caused by God. They may not even circumvent the potentialities of nature. Iron can float; seas can recede. People can seem dead and return to life. Cf. http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/is-extreme-cold-the-key-to-reviving-the-dead/ If God is the author of the book of nature, there is nothing stopping the author from making footnotes, or writing in a dues ex machina.

    8. The Gospels on which Christianity relies were written hundreds of years after the fact and are mostly reinventions of other pagan traditions?
    Straw Man and has no relevance to the fact that there is no evidence that god exists – which is the foundation for atheism.

    Non-responsive. The original irrational argument was not that God does not exist, but that the gospels were written hundreds of years after the fact.

    Why the claim is irrational. It is contrary to historical fact. The Gospels were written within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses. Some Gnostic pseudo-gospels were written in the following centuries, but these were never relied upon by the Church. Only modern atheists take them seriously; which is odd because they are way more woo-woo than the actual Gospels. It is also unclear of which “other pagan traditions” the Gospels are supposedly reinventions.

    Regarding the comment that “there is no evidence that god exists,” we assume the writer meant God, inasmuch as the difference between god and God is greater than the difference between polish and Polish. (It is also an illustration of #1, above.) There is plenty of evidence, but it cannot be convincing evidence when there is emotional investment in an a priori conclusion. That’s what Hume called the “problem of induction.” No amount of facts can ever establish a theory. (That’s the fallacy of asserting the consequent.) Hence, one theory is accepted on an ounce of evidence while another theory languishes despite a ton of it.

    Footnote: “The Troubles”

    Bad example. The Official IRA is Marxist; the Provos are Nationalist. Neither is religious, per se. The struggle is not over sectarian beliefs but over socio-economic status and whether the Six Counties are properly within the UK: i.e., between Unionists and Republicans. That these factions happen to be mostly Protestant and i>mostly Catholic, resp., is an accident of history. As the old joke has it: “If the king of England woke up Hindu, the Irish would be facing Mecca by nightfall.”

    The same is true of most other “religious” wars. There is always something secular or nationalist underneath: like the struggle for the French Succession or the secession of the German princes from the Empire. No one charged from the trenches shouting “Transubstantiation or death!” Although at White Mountain the Imperial troops did charge to the cry of “Sancta Maria!” by the time of Nördlingen they were crying “Viva España!” The simplistic reading of history as a dumbshow between stereotypes and reified abstractions is part and parcel of the irrationalism being decried.

  17. YOS: “No scientia can explain its own principles.”

    Agree.

    “Special pleading. Radical skepticism is usually applied only to Jesus, never to other ancient personages.”

    Mmm, but Christ is a special figure. Say I provisionally accept the argument that Creation requires a Creator. Why then also Christ? Why not Zeus & Co?

    “We can only note that no one in the era closest to the events ever deployed the ‘did not exist’ argument.”

    And we can note that few in the present day see him walking the shores of Galilee.

    “Pagans and Jews said he was a clever magician, a bastard offspring of a Roman soldier, etc. etc.”

    So it follows that it would be of no use for Christ to visit today because non-believers would still not believe. (Strawman yes, but this is how I’ve heard it many times.)

    So here’s my one-liner: There is no way to falisify such a claim becuase it is self-referential, and that is irrational.

    “Keeping it short, I’ll break here.”

    I vote for more as your time allows, I enjoy your posts.

  18. Ye Olde Statisician

    April 30, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Say I provisionally accept the argument that Creation requires a Creator. Why then also Christ? Why not Zeus & Co?

    Zeus is not portrayed as a creator in the myths. He comes into being (courtesy of Chronos and Rhea) after the cosmic universe is already there. He does not possess the characteristics of a prime mover or first cause or necessary being. He is not equated with Existence Itself. IOW, he is a different kind of being than God, and is more akin to the angels and demons.

    That Christ is identified with the second hypostasis of the Godhead is a different issue.

  19. YOS, I am surprised that you did not call Briggs on this statement: “The Gospels on which Christianity relies were written hundreds of years after the fact …” No one claims this. The claim is that they were written decades after the fact up to a single hundred years.

    “The Gospels were written within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses.” This is an assumption on your part and even decades is long enough for contemporaries to have died off. It was certainly long enough for the four gospels to evolve the story line with the later written being the most evolved.

  20. Ye Olde Statisician

    April 30, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    No one claims this. The claim is that they were written decades after the fact up to a single hundred years.

    Actual scholars claim this (which actually makes them more recent to the facts they cover than were most Greek bioi.) But neoatheists are less comfortable with facts and they will frequently strew late gnostic gospels in one’s path. Recall the fuss on the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, et al.

    “The Gospels were written within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses.” This is an assumption on your part

    Not so much an assumption as a conclusion. We need only suppose that those closer in time to the facts had a more certain grasp of the chronology. There are certain techniques of Greek historiography that come into play.

    For example, the Greeks distrusted documents and preferred the testimony of witnesses (which they called the “living word.”) Witnesses could be cross-examined; texts could not be. Consequently, bioi were usually not written down until the principles were beginning to die. For example, Plotinus died in AD 270, but Porphyry did not begin writing his bios until AD 301.

    A common technique was to indicate the primary source by naming him first and last. So Porphyry mentions Amelius first of all Plotinus’ disciples and then again at the end. In any listing of the disciples, Amelius is mentioned first. In this way Porphyry signaled that Amelius — who had been Plotinus’ first and longest disciple — was his primary source. In Mark’s Gospel, Peter is mentioned first and last and first in any list, indicating that he was setting down tidbits he had gleaned by listening to Peter.

    Another common technique was to name sources in-text. Unless a character is a public person, like Tiberius Caesar, the naming indicates sourcing. So, when Simon of Cyrene is called “the father of Alexander and Rufus” we know that Alexander and Rufus were the source of that particular text. Otherwise, why name them at all? Readers would know that they could go to these two men in their community and question them. (If the respondent has died in the meantime or lives in another city, he is usually not named. Hence, some characters named in Mark are not named in Luke.) Thus: Bartimaeus, Jairus, Salome, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and others as well.

    IOW, the Gospels follow the form and show the marks of standard Greek practices in writing biographies and we are entitled to make the same inferences as we would reading about Plotinus or any other personage.

  21. YOS: “Zeus is not portrayed as a creator in the myths. He comes into being (courtesy of Chronos and Rhea) after the cosmic universe is already there.”

    Thanks for the correction. You understand the point, and perhaps the answer is that outside of Abrahamic tradition there are no gods posessing the quality of a necessary being …

    “That Christ is identified with the second hypostasis of the Godhead is a different issue.”

    … and of the three major branches, only Christianity correctly identifies the need for an atonement and a suitable mechanism to achieve it?

    “It is usually deployed to ‘refute’ the evidence that so many seminal scientists have been Christian, as Brandon Gates just did. Galileo, Scheiner, Gassendi, Mersenne, Lembo, Newton, and others ‘just happened’ to be Christian because they lived in a Christian milieu.”

    My main problem there was with Plank’s use of “proof” where I thought “evidence” more appropriate. It never even occurred to me to wonder what religion any of them practiced. They are seminal scientists because of the merits of their works and their words.

    Science and religion are compatible because both are the works of humans. One need not know why or how we got here to recognize what simply is.

  22. Jesus of Nazareth is an invention. Jesus the Nazorean is a different matter.

  23. Fletcher Christian

    May 1, 2014 at 5:07 am

    Brandon Gates – “outside of Abrahamic tradition there are no gods posessing the quality of a necessary being” Hmmm… I’m no expert, but I would think that Brahman and Ptah (from the ancient Egyptian myths) qualify. Slightly less seriously, one might offer Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth.

    Were I to dig into references about various cultures’ myths, I’m sure I could find more.

  24. Briggs,
    “5) Always thinking of yourself, eh? What if your activities lead to other people’s demise? They have it coming?”

    Have you truly never encountered the term “rational self-interest”? This is a new concept to you?

  25. @YOS,
    “Is that why a soldier in combat will sometimes throw himself on the grenade? Surely, a value that results in his demise.”

    We always behave in a self-interested way. In such an instance of the grenade, the esteem you hold for the lives of your fellow soldiers is of value to YOU. If you were being held captive and a grenade fell among you and your captors, you would not throw yourself on the grenade to save your captors, because YOU would not value the life of your captors above your own.

    You’ve never heard this line of argument before? Even Mark Twain pointed this out over a 100 years ago.

  26. Mike in KC, MO

    May 1, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Ye Olde Statisician… WOW! That was the argument equivalent of an MMA ground and pound. Nicely done, sir.

  27. TOF:

    IOW, the Gospels follow the form and show the marks of standard Greek practices in writing biographies and we are entitled to make the same inferences as we would reading about Plotinus or any other personage.

    Additionally, I always see the secularists claim that the Gospels were written late, and then just stop there. They never make any serious attempt to draw out the historical implications of that. They are, essentially, proposing a massive conspiracy theory, involving tens of thousands of people and multiple purportedly eyewitness documents, and fooling millions of contemporaries, both hostile and friendly. The thinking seems to be that if you put a massive whacky conspiracy theory far enough into the past, that it ceases to be a whacky conspiracy theory and the logistics no longer need to be considered or justified.

  28. “We always behave in a self-interested way. In such an instance of the grenade, the esteem you hold for the lives of your fellow soldiers is of value to YOU. If you were being held captive and a grenade fell among you and your captors, you would not throw yourself on the grenade to save your captors, because YOU would not value the life of your captors above your own.
    You’ve never heard this line of argument before? Even Mark Twain pointed this out over a 100 years ago.”

    That’s some serious question-begging, huh? I don’t think Briggs is tryin’ to deny the existence of morals, and your example just strengthened his argument. I think a materialist evolutionary account of altruism, even the action of dying for others (never mind friend or foe) – is what you will need to do here.

  29. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 1, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    We always behave in a self-interested way. In such an instance of the grenade, the esteem you hold for the lives of your fellow soldiers is of value to YOU.

    IOW, if we interpret “self interest” so broadly that it becomes tautological. Since when is “esteem” a material thing, anyway? The problem is that once you go down this path of “self-interest” as a masque for “pursuit of the good,” you are essentially following the Nichomachean Ethics, and we all know where the Aristotelian road ultimately led.

    a materialist evolutionary account of altruism, even the action of dying for others (never mind friend or foe) – is what you will need to do here.

    This comes after decades of materialist evolutionist efforts to deny the very existence of altruism. Go figure. The theory of evolution is amazingly supple: it can explain the absence of altruism and it can explain the existence of altruism.

  30. @YOS,
    “Since when is “esteem” a material thing, anyway?”

    ?????

    “This comes after decades of materialist evolutionist efforts to deny the very existence of altruism.”

    As the saying goes, not only are you not right, you’re not even wrong.

  31. I guess I should add by way of a clarification, “Do you think I’m a materialist?”

  32. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 1, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    “Since when is “esteem” a material thing, anyway?”

    ?????

    I may have misunderstood your comment here: In such an instance of the grenade, the esteem you hold for the lives of your fellow soldiers is of value to YOU.

    As for the rocky road that altruism has wended, there is a useful summary of what Darwinians called the “problem” of altruism in Essay 6 of Stove’s Darwinian Fairytales.

  33. Briggs originally posed question “How rational is it to believe any of the following: Even though God does not exist you can tell the difference between good and evil;

    My response was that it’s possible to derive an ethical system based on rational self-interest – and that a value system which does not propagate the life of the practitioner is self defeating. The life of the individual is the standard of the good. That which propagates the life of the individual is good, that which harms the individual is bad. And no, this does not mean “throw the women and children from the life boat.”

    Briggs response was “Always thinking of yourself, eh? What if your activities lead to other people’s demise? They have it coming?”

    Which was such a sophomoric response that I could hardly believe he would make it. As though building friendship, trust and engaging in voluntary, value-for-value relationships is somehow not to my advantage.

  34. Fletcher Christian

    May 2, 2014 at 4:21 am

    I believe that the accepted evolutionary explanation for the existence of altruism in humans is that, for all of our history except for what in evolutionary terms is an eyeblink, the people you were helping would be related to you and hence would share some of your genes. There’s an element of “tit for tat” about it, too.

    The “soldier jumping on a grenade” example can be explained in a related way. One of the aims of military training and culture is to make soldiers think of unrelated people as part of their family and thus trigger hardwired instincts to protect one’s family.

    Incidentally, although there isn’t enough evidence yet, I (and a fair number of other people) think that the traits that used to be pro-survival (responsibility, chastity, willingness to provide for your children, that sort of thing) are now unfortunately disadvantageous in many communities. Of two men, who leaves more descendants; one who marries and has two kids, and then stays with them and their mother – or the archetypal gangbanger who has fifteen kids by twelve different mothers and disappears?

  35. The Deuce,
    “They are, essentially, proposing a massive conspiracy theory, involving tens of thousands of people and multiple purportedly eyewitness documents …”

    Let us pursue this a little further. There have been many eyewitness accounts of a risen, or at least a living, Elvis that occurred postmortem. If I doubt these people am I engaging in conspiratorial thinking?

    YOS,
    What is your explanation of altruism? By the way, I think that the grenade example is poorly chosen since this must be a very rare phenomenon and thus could be caused by a whole host (pun) of reasons. Maybe it is a form of suicide which must be significantly more common, especially under battle conditions. Also the fact that normal survival instincts break down under extreme stress does not need an explanation, in my opinion. Why do you not use the parent risking death to protect a child as an example? Is it because this is too easy to understand in an evolutionary context? Mr. Christian’s explanation is good as well.

  36. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 2, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    My response was that it’s possible to derive an ethical system based on rational self-interest

    So if you can cheat an old lady out of her money without any chance of getting caught, you come out ahead. Then that is okay?

    What happens when my self-interest conflicts with your self-interest? Stanley Fish asked a while back whether there really were secular reasons for morality or whether they always smuggled in metaphysica through the back door and unexamined assumptions.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

    The interesting point of the original question was not whether one could smuggle in a morality without believing in God, but whether there would be any morality to smuggle if God did not exist. Given the convertibility of the transcendentals, the Good just is Being, and Being just is the Good. So without “Existence Itself,” there would be no goods after which to seek.

  37. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 2, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    for all of our history except for what in evolutionary terms is an eyeblink, the people you were helping would be related to you and hence would share some of your genes.

    Makes you wonder how they knew.

    There are some comments on this abstraction of “kin selection” in “So You Think You Are a Darwinian,” an article by the atheist philosopher, David Stove in Philosophy / Volume 69 / Issue 269 / July 1994, pp 267-277
    but this is now behind a paywall. A copy of the article was copied here:
    http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/chat/838691/posts

  38. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 2, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Why do you not use the parent risking death to protect a child as an example?

    Or the child risking death to protect his parent. Or the total strangers risking death to rescue someone drowning, or search for someone lost in the forest, or… Or the Sisters of the Paris Hospital ministering to the ill during the Black Death. Or the simple act of contributing to a beggar or donating food to a food bank. Natural selection, by the nature of the mechanism, can only concern reproductive success. Everything else is transparent to it: including the True and the Good.

    BTW, it’s not enough to concoct a just-so adaptationist story after the fact. We ought to be able to show that this was in fact what happened; not simply what our theory says should have happened. Where are the tribes, for example, that died out because they were more selfish than their altruistic cousins?

  39. YOS,
    “Makes you wonder how they knew.” You are kidding right?

    “Natural selection, by the nature of the mechanism, can only concern reproductive success.” Except that the results can be co-opted for other uses. You seem to assume that natural selection without divine guidance must lead to a cartoon version of extreme selfish behavior. I am still waiting for your alternative and one that is more insightful than saying that God did it.

    “BTW, it’s not enough to concoct a just-so adaptationist story after the fact.” Who does this? Religious explanations have much more of the just-so feel to them.

    “Where are the tribes, for example, that died out because they were more selfish than their altruistic cousins?” I suppose I could say that they died out in prehistory and we are what is left. But this process would seem to me to be ongoing as the characteristics of individual populations shift in response to external pressures. The altruistic-selfish balance has no obvious set point and will vary with time and circumstances.

  40. Fletcher Christian

    May 2, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    I think it’s also worth mentioning that in most societies up to maybe 1200 AD (and maybe a good deal later, and in some it’s still going on) altruism is directed only towards members of one’s own social group. The size of the group does, of course, vary. Various legal and religious taboos vary similarly; many societies still regard killing non-members of the in-group as not being murder, for example.

    This was, for example, true of most Jews in the Israel of Christ’s time. The parable of the Good Samaritan is often, even usually, misinterpreted because most people today don’t know what the heck a Samaritan was. Samaritans, from the point of view of pious Jews, were vile and contemptible heretics with whom no good Jew would have anything to do. They were members of an enemy group, in fact.

    Which makes the parable understandable and much more relevant to today. The parable has any number of “good” Jews ignoring a traveller in distress, who was then rescued by someone normally thought of as an enemy. A contemporary equivalent might be a black traveller in the Deep South of the USA in similar straits being rescued by a white, nominally Baptist redneck.

  41. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 2, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    “Makes you wonder how they knew.”
    You are kidding right?

    A robin cannot distinguish between another robin and ball of red yarn. How is she supposed to recognize her first cousin?

    “Natural selection, by the nature of the mechanism, can only concern reproductive success.”
    Except that the results can be co-opted for other uses.

    But they will be passed on only if they enhance reproductive success. The semi-magical “co-opted” process needs to be fleshed out as natural selection was fleshed out.

    You seem to assume that natural selection without divine guidance must lead to a cartoon version of extreme selfish behavior.

    Good point; though “divine guidance” may be pushing it. The Darwinian engine has two strokes: “striving to the utmost” to reproduce followed by “ruthless winnowing” of nearly all the young. (It’s basically Malthusianism projected onto biology; although it has also been criticized on the Left as laizzes faire economics projected onto biology.) Whether this necessitates the “selfish gene” or not, I can’t say; though Dawkins pushed that notion rather hard. It depends on how much one needs to explain and how much one needs to explain away. That’s why altruism was referred to as “the problem of altruism” until they came up with a story that could explain it away. (The fact that it is explained as just another kind of self-interest is telling.)

    “Where are the tribes, for example, that died out because they were more selfish than their altruistic cousins?”
    I suppose I could say that they died out in prehistory and we are what is left.

    IOW, no facts; just a belief that there must have once been such tribes. (This is what Stove called “the Cave Man approach.”)

    “BTW, it’s not enough to concoct a just-so adaptationist story after the fact.”
    Who does this?

    Actually, you did just now with your selfish tribes dying out in prehistory. But it’s a tendency that the late naturalist Stephen J.Gould warned against. (Naturalists have sometimes noted that actual observed animals do not behave in the way that theoretical animals do. While the well-endowed stags clash antlers, the does are off mating with the nerd deer with their smaller racks. So what happens to the adaptationist story about how the big antlers have something to do with “sexual selection”?)

    In physics, a theory is used to predict future facts. (Specifically, facts that were not used to construct the theory in the first place.) Then the actual facts are sought and if they do not conform, the theory is falsified. But no one takes the theory of evolution — or even the theory of natural selection — and make predictions like physics. For example, does the theory predict that a mother will invest more energy in her first born offspring, in her most-recently born offspring, or in all offspring equally? Make the calculations without looking for data. Now look for data. Confirmed or denied? But what often happens is that someone does a study and declares that (say) mothers invest more energy in their first born offspring and explain this with an adaptationist story about why this is a reproductive advantage. If a year or so later, another researcher discovers that mothers invest more energy in their recent-born offspring, they will tell an adaptationist story about why this is a reproductive advantage.

    Religious explanations have much more of the just-so feel to them.

    The essence of scientism is the conviction that everyone else is trying to do natural science and failing at it. But it just might be that religious stories are trying to do something else entirely.

    I am still waiting for your alternative and one that is more insightful than saying that God did it.

    Depends on your definition of “insightful,” perhaps. Let’s consult some Catholic philosophers:
    “[They say] ‘We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.’ You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so. — William of Conches, Dragmatikon
    “In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.” — St. Albertus Magnus, De vegetabilibus et plantis
    “Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning.” — Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica
    “Scientists are most welcome to ‘explain everything they need to without appeal to God;’ indeed, I hope all the readers of First Things would join me in strenuously objecting if God is ever invoked in the course of normal scientific explanation!” — Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, Letters, First Things

    Well, maybe we could ask Fr. Gregor Mendel? Hmm. This is a tough one.

    Okay. Try this. The Will is ordered toward the Good in the manner that the Intellect is ordered toward the True. Now, “altruism” is a term coined in the 1830s by Comte (possibly as a way of avoiding the Christian implications of “charity”) to mean “the opposite of selfishness.” [Note there is no requirement that altruism be heroic or at risk of life or limb or that there be no trace of benefit to oneself.] The word comes from the French word for “others,” in the legal phrase le bien, le droit d’autrui, “the good [is] the right of others.” That is, altruism/charity is to desire the Good for an other precisely as other.

    Since human will is ordered toward the Good, then if it is free [that is, not bound or barred from its natural end by impediments] humans will naturally and spontaneously seek the good of others. [Especially, if this is reinforced by cultural/religious norms, such as “all men are brothers,” etc.] The Intellect will present the Will with an intellective object abstracted from the phantasms of sense experience. If one has exercised properly (analogously to exercises for bodily health) then the ideas presented by the Intellect will be presented with understanding, knowledge, and wisdom and the means to achieve these ideas will be modulated by the strength of prudence. As to what is due to the Other, the strength of justice will aid in deciding.

    IOW, charity is an act of volition, not a physical/material reaction. It is at least potentially present in all men, and does not need a separate “adaptationist” story to solve the “problem” of altruism.

    That’s pretty sketchy, but the best I can do off the headtop. Hope it helps.

  42. Briggs

    May 2, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    YOS,

    Also Stove’s Darwinian Fairytales.

  43. YOS,
    “A robin cannot distinguish between another robin and ball of red yarn.” Do robins show altruistic behaviour? I was under the impression we were discussing the human animal.

    “The semi-magical “co-opted” process needs to be fleshed out as natural selection was fleshed out.” Our opposable thumps have been co-opted for hand writing. Do you consider this semi-magical?

    “But they will be passed on only if they enhance reproductive success.” Not true. It is only necessary that reproductive success not be hindered and even a little bit of hindrance may be tolerated.

    “Actually, you did just now with your selfish tribes dying out in prehistory.” I was just finishing your sentence for you. I have no idea whether it is true or not.

    “But it’s a tendency that the late naturalist Stephen J.Gould warned against.” To a certain extent but only because he preferred the co-opting approach.

    “While the well-endowed stags clash antlers, the does are off mating with the nerd deer with their smaller racks. So what happens to the adaptationist story about how the big antlers have something to do with “sexual selection”?” Nothing happens to it since they realize that there is more than one mating strategy. This is called the population approach to evolution with the relative success of the different strategies reflected in the genetic variation. Closer to home, why are we not all writers since that would seem to be a good mating strategy in humans (romance stories maybe but definitely not science fiction)?

    “In physics, a theory is used to predict future facts.” You are correct. Evolutionary biology is not physics. Are you committing the sin of scientism here?

    “But it just might be that religious stories are trying to do something else entirely.” This is rather vague.

    “That’s pretty sketchy, but the best I can do off the headtop. Hope it helps.” Not really, but it is no doubt a limitation on my part.

  44. “So if you can cheat an old lady out of her money without any chance of getting caught, you come out ahead. Then that is okay?”

    Sigh….

  45. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 2, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    “So if you can cheat an old lady out of her money without any chance of getting caught, you come out ahead. Then that is okay?”

    Sigh….

    A persuasive argument. I take it by the sigh that there must be something else behind the morality beyond self-interest and self-survival.

  46. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 2, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Our opposable thumps have been co-opted for hand writing. Do you consider this semi-magical?

    Indeed. It certainly comes from outside the biophysical process of evolution. In what way is handwriting an adaptation? Like charity, it is an act of will.

    “But they will be passed on only if they enhance reproductive success.”
    Not true. It is only necessary that reproductive success not be hindered

    Okay. That’s what Blyth said. But Gould and others insisted that it was a creative process, not simply a negative culling process. Fodor has wondered if it’s all spandrels all the way down.

    and even a little bit of hindrance may be tolerated.

    Not according to Darwin. Even the least little bit will be “ruthlessly destroyed,” he said. Of course, that’s one of the Darwinian fairytales that Stove pricked.

    “While the well-endowed stags clash antlers, the does are off mating with the nerd deer with their smaller racks. So what happens to the adaptationist story about how the big antlers have something to do with “sexual selection”?”
    Nothing happens to it since they realize that there is more than one mating strategy. This is called the population approach to evolution…

    IOW “survivors survive!” If a trait is not out-and-out harmful to reproductive success, then the critter finds some way to make use of it (or work around it) because of its innate drive to continue living. She and her sisters survive no matter what mutation they have acquired. There is no “selection” at all, save for escaping the cull, and Darwin’s notion of comparative advantage for the favored races versus those less well favored is just a Victorian illusion.

    An interesting theory. But it would earn you scorn and scoff in some quarters.
    +++
    “In physics, a theory is used to predict future facts.”
    You are correct. Evolutionary biology is not physics. Are you committing the sin of scientism here?

    No. Scientism is the belief that the methods of science are the only sure criteria of knowledge, whereas I have noted that the methods of science were formed to accommodate the physics of motion and while they work well in the rest of physics and in chemistry, they work less well in biology (save in biophysics, biochemistry, and genetics), and not at all in social “sciences.”
    + ++
    “But it just might be that religious stories are trying to do something else entirely.”
    This is rather vague.

    You had commented that Religious explanations have much more of the just-so feel to them. I took this to mean religious explanations of evolution, and was simply pointing out that religion does not try to explain evolution. Just-so stories are more acceptable in teaching moral lessons than in proposing actual scientific explanations.

    “That’s pretty sketchy, but the best I can do off the headtop. Hope it helps.”
    Not really, but it is no doubt a limitation on my part.

    Well, the short form is that charity is an act of man’s will, not the result of physical evolution.

  47. YOS,
    “In what way is handwriting an adaptation?” Who says it is? We are discussing primary adaptation versus the co-opting of existing adaptations for other purposes. This was Gould’s point.

    “But Gould and others insisted that it was a creative process”. And so it often is. There is no contradiction here.

    “Even the least little bit will be “ruthlessly destroyed,” he said.” Do you have a reference for this?

    “An interesting theory. But it would earn you scorn and scoff in some quarters.” The existence of more than one mating strategy is well accepted. You seem to have lost the thread here. Why do you think there can only be one?

    “Just-so stories are more acceptable in teaching moral lessons than in proposing actual scientific explanations.” They are now but was this always the case?

    “Well, the short form is that charity is an act of man’s will, not the result of physical evolution.” I don’t see the contradiction. For what it is worth I do not see that there is a need to explain altruistic behaviour or that there is a problem of altruism as you say. The demand to do so is largely from outside the field. Once the intellect (brain power) has evolved all sorts of possibilities open up that are not specific adaptations. The constant harping on the challenge of altruism is, in my opinion, not all that different than the perennial claim that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

  48. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 2, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    The constant harping on the challenge of altruism is, in my opinion, not all that different than the perennial claim that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

    With the major difference being that it was the Wilsons, Dawkins, et al. who had been calling it a problem. They had concluded to the selfish gene paradigm.

    Do you have a reference for this?

    It was “rigidly destroyed,” not “ruthlessly destroyed.”

    “…can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive), that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.”
    — The Origin of Species, pp. 80-81.

    There’s more about the “altruism” reductionist approach to charity in Midgley’s Evolution as Religion.

  49. Brandon Gates

    May 2, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    Fletcher:

    Prior to responding to YOS I did some googling and came up with Rangi and Papa of Maori lore. Interesting story, worth reading up on. But my question doesn’t require anything but Judaism, Islam and Christianity to illustrate the point, so that’s where I left it.

  50. The quote from Stuart Chase is apropos:
    “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”

  51. YOS,
    “On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.” Thanks. This would seem to be one of the points that had to be revised in the neo Darwinian synthesis.

    Kurland,
    Since Briggs often offers proof (ie the cosmological argument) does this mean that he does not believe? And if he does not believe, why does he offer proof if no proof is possible?

  52. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 3, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    “On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.”

    Thanks. This would seem to be one of the points that had to be revised in the neo Darwinian synthesis.

    So are they flexibly destroyed instead? 😀

    I have always thought that genetics was a better approach than natural selection, which reduces to a tautology. As you say, it is primarily a culling of the reproductively challenged. A complete theory would of course address all four causes.

  53. Scotian, if you believe, a proof isn’t necessary, but it’s nice (like sprinkles on top of the cone). And that disposes of your second comment. : > )

  54. YOS,
    “I have always thought that genetics was a better approach than natural selection, which reduces to a tautology. As you say, it is primarily a culling of the reproductively challenged. A complete theory would of course address all four causes.”

    Genetics and natural selection are not an either/or. Genetics implies selection and natural selection implies genetics or at least something similar. Why do you say that it is a tautology? Wouldn’t you then have to say that artificial selection is also a tautology and thus deny the existence of the very successful fields of animal husbandry and plant breeding. Also culling of the reproductively challenged is just another way of saying natural selection, or an attempt to avoid saying it. What are the four causes? Are they like the fifty ways?

    Kurland,
    “like sprinkles on top of the cone” Briggs seems much too grim for that. 🙂 Faith is supposed to move mountains but since they remain stubbornly immobile I can only conclude that true belief is rare. It is probably just as well.

  55. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 3, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    Genetics implies selection and natural selection implies genetics

    Not really. Natural selection requires only heredibility. And genetics may proceed happily even if there were no mutations or internal mechanisms that routinely repair mutations.

    Why do you say that it is a tautology?

    Because operationally it boils down to “survivors survive.” A good critique from an atheist perspective is “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings.” Fodor’s concern is that natural selection is inherently teleological.
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n20/jerry-fodor/why-pigs-dont-have-wings

    Wouldn’t you then have to say that artificial selection is also a tautology

    No, because it appeals to an outside force; viz., the intelligent selector and the final cause he has in mind for the stock he is culling.

    Also culling of the reproductively challenged is just another way of saying natural selection

    If that were the case, then natural selection would work only toward the maintenance of type and fixity of species. Any species must already be well-fit to its niche, so any such culling would be only of those who didn’t measure up to the already-surviving type. That is how Blyth conceived his natural selection (though he didn’t call it that) and why Darwin, when he cribbed the idea, added the notion of fortuitous “improvements” that would also be selected.

    What are the four causes? Are they like the fifty ways?

    What are the ‘fifty ways’?

    The four causes of a thing are:
    1. Material cause. The stuff a thing is made of. Bricks are the matter of a wall.
    2. Formal cause. The shape or arrangement or processes that make it that particular kind of thing. The arrangement of the bricks makes it a “wall” rather than a rhinoceros or a petunia.
    3. Efficient cause. The agency that makes the thing from the matter. The bricklayer is the efficient cause of the wall.
    4. Final cause. What a thing is made for, its equilibrium state or “attractor.” The wall is made to enclose a garden.

    Applied to an immaterial thing like “evolution” a reasonable approximation might be:
    Material Cause: the tendency to variation due to constant small random mutations in the genetic code; i. e., a variety of differing individuals within a species capable of transmitting their differences
    Formal Cause: the tendency of interbreeding population to reproduce itself in a stable manner and increase in numbers; i. e., the maintenance of type
    Efficient Cause (Agent): natural selection by the environment which eliminates those variants which are less effective in reproducing their kind; i. e., the agent determining in which direction species-change will take place
    Final Cause (End): the flexibility of living things by which they are able to occupy new niches in the changing environment; i. e., a feed-back mechanism which guides the selective process toward a new type which can exploit new environmental possibilities

  56. YOS,
    “Natural selection requires only heredibility.” And heredibility is genetic et cetera.

    “Because operationally it boils down to “survivors survive.”” I’ve also heard people claim that F=ma is tautological as well as if they could wish away the power of Newtonian mechanics. Much the same applies to this criticism of natural selection.

    “No, because it appeals to an outside force; viz., the intelligent selector and the final cause he has in mind for the stock he is culling.” Natural selection also appeals to an outside force, external to the organism, and the intelligence of the selector would seem to be irrelevant. How is the adaptation of the polar bear’s white fur to its snowy environment different from the breeders artificial selection of white fur in a breed of dog beyond the efficiency and speed of the process?

    “If that were the case, then natural selection would work only toward the maintenance of type …” Not only, although it often does just that. The end of this paragraph seems to contradict the beginning except for your use of sneer quotes. Is this a Freudian slip?

    “What are the ‘fifty ways’?” It is from a Simon sans Garfunkel song. Sorry about that, the devil made me do it.

  57. Ye Olde Statisician

    May 3, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    How is the adaptation of the polar bear’s white fur to its snowy environment different from the breeders artificial selection of white fur in a breed of dog

    a) How do you know that the whiteness of the polar bear’s fur has been “selected for” and is not simply a “spandrel” annexed to some other feature. An ex post facto story is not enough. For any species that survives, any trait whatsoever can be “explained” because it has obviously been “selected” for. Had polar bears remained brown, a similar kind of story could have explained the “advantage” of the brown fur. (Having less albedo, it keeps the animal warmer during the cold months…) In winter, the polar bear typically hunts by lurking about seal holes in the ice and whacking the little guys when they stick their heads out. Since the seal cannot see the bear prior to emerging, it would not seem to matter if the bear’s fur was pink polka dots.

    To follow the natural selection paradigm, you would have to know that there were previously white and dusky polar bears and the environment “selected” the white ones and the dusky ones died out because they were reproductively less successful. Is there evidence for this?

    The dusky ones, known as grizzly bears, thrive to this day. [And can interbreed with their cousins where their ranges overlap.] It may be less a matter of the environment selecting the bears than that the bears selected the environment. Bringing us to…

    b) What constitutes a “favorable trait” depends on what the critter is trying to do. She is a player in her own environment — the “fourth cause” — and is quite able to wander about trying this and that until attaining a successful way of life. (Instinct is far more supple than Descartes and them supposed. Animals are quite capable of a form of practical prudence.) If a Mediterranean wall lizard switches from carnivore to herbivore, one population did when transplanted to a more lush island off Croatia, the evolution — even of a new organ — can be quite rapid. In this case, less than 20 years. (This undermines a typical creationist/mathematician claim that even the vastness of deep time is insufficient for the incremental gradualism of Darwinian evolution to produce today’s plethora of species. It seems to happen much faster than Darwinians suppose.)

    c) It’s by no means fully accepted yet, but evolution may occur by “natural genetic engineering” rather than by “natural selection.” There are cellular mechanisms that repair mutations (which knocks one of the Darwinian mechanisms onto a much longer time frame; but there are also cellular mechanisms that splice and replicate sequences and incorporate changes into the genome; which means you don’t have to wait for the rare “favorable” mutations to “accumulate gradually.” Change can be massive, sudden, and particular; esp. when epigenetic factors are taken into account. (What a gene does often depends on the context in which it does it.) This is what I meant by genetics being a more fruitful course than the adaptation-stories of natural selection. It may be natural genetic engineering instead.

    But all this takes us even further afield from the topic of this post; so perhaps we ought to tone it down.

  58. YOS,
    “perhaps we ought to tone it down” As you wish, but you will excuse me a Parthian shot. I keep thinking of all those white continental grisly bears traveling north in search of ice floes. It pays to have a sense of humour about these things.
    Cheers Mike,
    Wm

  59. I like this very much:
    “The supposed “war” between science and religion is a false dichotomy.

    I’m less convinced by the emphasis on Christianity. All religions have interesting things to show and it seems quite dangerous, I think, to believe that one is the really “true” one and all others are misguided/mistaken. Many make very strong claims about very implausible things that happened in the past, why not embrace uncertainty and just say we don’t know?

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