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An Atheist’s Perspective: The Objective Perspective

October 29, 2013 2 comments

In the book “Sophie’s World,” the mysterious philosopher Alberto poses a situation to Sophie, he explains that if a family were eating a meal and all of the sudden the father began floating toward the ceiling the mother would probably begin screaming while the small child would either think it was funny or just comment that “daddy was flying.” Alberto asks why the difference between the two reactions, and his answer is that the mother knows the rules. The rules are that gravity is a constant and people can’t fly. The fear reaction in her is because something is extremely wrong and she probably doesn’t know why it is happening. The child on the other hand does not realize why daddy is flying, just that he is, and its amusing. She doesn’t understand that he’s not supposed to fly but probably wonders when she gets to. It’s an odd thing but as adults we get so used to the way that things are done that we merely accept them as being the way of the world. An event which violates this catches our attention because we not only want to know what is happening but also why.

The child merely sees a thing happening and wants to know why, but the crucial difference is that they don’t have the rest of the baggage. They don’t have a thought in their head in which they ought not to question, questioning is in their nature because they aren’t used to things. Habit, experience, will eventually kill that but we kill it also when we tell them that we ought not to ask questions, or that it is wrong to ask questions, etc.

What is most troubling about this is that there is no objective reason that anyone at anytime should not be able to question anything. Perhaps, we might say that there is a better time to ask, but that is a matter of politeness concerned more with social convention than with the question itself. We ought to encourage propriety without discouraging inquisition.

What I see as my role as a parent is the frustration of dealing with an endless barrage of questions that will not end and becomes increasingly uncomfortable because I simply cannot explain why that person is flying. I’m going to say this much, appealing to the divine hand is both lazy and dishonest. In some ways I do envy those parents that are religious because anything that they do not know can be explained in this way. It’s tempting, but for me there is no equivalent methods, but the temptation is because it’s difficult to admit to a five year old (the age of my daughter) that I don’t understand something that I am making her do.

She takes a martial arts class, and the class requires her to bow on the way in to the building, and then once again on the way on to the mat. She has asked me why exactly she is bowing, and honestly I have no idea. Her instructors say it’s a sign of respect, but I have no idea how. It’s one of those things that seems to be something that everyone expects so it becomes a rule. She asks why.

Explaining things to her in order to answer the questions makes me confront the concept at the core. It makes me wonder if I believe the thing that I am saying or if I am merely parroting what I have been told. I confronted the same issue when I had to explain to her why people have death ceremonies the way that they do. Back then I had to explain that people have different ideas about death and the afterlife, if I had to explain the whole deal about death, resurrection, and all of the other myths that are associated with the Catholic religion I would be merely parroting what I had been taught. The difference is that I would not be telling her to believe as well and I could not imagine having to explain the various stories that come with it, because when she asks why I would have no idea how to answer. At a certain point even the appeal to the hand of god cannot be enough, a person would have to go out of their way to shut down that inquisitiveness that is natural to all people but more pronounced in the young.

That natural sense of wonder will eventually leave on its own, why ought we create a situation in which we will hasten its demise? Why use the spectre of sin, reverence, or the mystical in an effort to thwart our own ignorance? We do this because do not want the rules of our own lives, the ones that we have been living with to change. It would be a great effort to live in a world in which we realize that one of our fundamental principles is wrong and the we have to adjust our world view.

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An Atheist’s Perspective: Being the Final Look at the Argument from Design

October 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Over the last several weeks we have been looking at what is one of the most persistent and enduring of the proofs of the existence of some kind of deity. I have examined every aspect of it minus any linguistic variations due to translation. Frankly, I’m not equipped to make those kinds of criticisms. I have explained that at no point can we really consider this argument to be a successful one.

While that is an extreme position, it’s the correct one or else we wouldn’t be having this kind of conversation. The question believers might want to ask then is, “if the argument fails how come it has lasted so long?” Which is a fair question, although it’s not the rhetorical one they think it is. First off, just because something is long lasting does not speak to its truthfulness only that it serves some kind of wide appeal. That appeal is probably based on the repetition of the argument over time, and when an argument is older than even Christianity it’s been repeated many times. Part of that repetition is going to be the fault of the writer’s skill. In this there can be no doubt when its origin is out of the pen of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was such a brilliant philosopher that even Augustus Caesar admired him though he banned his writings and considered him an enemy of his family.

Secondly is that it is an argument which on first glance seems to work. As long as the person making it isn’t subject to a variety of questions regarding the issues we have taken up over the last seven weeks it will work. As I have said a few weeks ago, it’s a giant appeal to common sense. Paley’s version of the argument doesn’t survive without the common sense appeal and in fact is largely a self-congratulatory back slap for anyone accepting the argument. Yet this kind of appeal is nothing more than an informal fallacy of thinking. The improbability of accidents forming watches is one thing, but the impossibility of it doing so is entirely another. We also have to consider the unaddressed aspect of this common sense appeal–that of time. See we look at the watch, the armillary sphere, etc. and we think that in the time that it would take to make such a think it would be nearly impossible for that thing to exist to be generated out of accident. But there is a difference: that is that the universe, the rock, etc. which is used analogically was not constructed in a day, week, month; it took the entirety of time up until the point of making the argument for those things to appear the way that they are. On a long enough time line, nearly anything is possible.

What I would like to know is whether or not the argument works as a conversion argument. This question I think is important only pragmatically. Is it effective in turning an atheist into a theist? Not an atheist like myself, but one that has never heard the argument before. I’m too poisoned to be entirely objective but if I had to make a guess I would say no. I would make this claim of just about any of the classical proofs of the existence of a deity, for the same reason that I would never believe there is a tiger in the trunk of my car without evidence of that tiger, but this one seems to be particularly flawed for conversion. I think the most that a person would get would be that of a shrug of the shoulders and, “sure it’s possible.”

Even if it did work, let’s make that assumption, what have we converted to? The atheist who now admits that the design proves a designer is not a theist. No, the argument can only get a person to the Deist stage at best. The problem with the deist stage, for the theist, is that it lives in this middle ground between atheism and theism. The deist believes that there is some creative force but that’s about it. There is no involvement of the creative force in the governance of the world. At best the deist god could be considered a person but that would be a fiction created whole cloth by the person making the assumption looking for some kind of anthropomorphic relationship between them and the creative force. Further, there is nothing preventing the person from accepting the argument to fall into something like Spinoza’s pantheism or, even scientific atheism stating that the creative force is merely something like the big bang. The consequences of presenting the argument are such that it may make the non-believer into even more of a non-believer.

For the hopeful Christian who found Paley’s argument compelling the leap that is made in thinking that the non-believer will not only begin believing but will also become one of the followers of Jesus is a false hope. There is nothing in the core of the argument by which we could direct a person into believing that the designer god is the Christian god itself (or the Muslim god, Jewish, Hindu, etc.). The argument only seems to work as a buttress against those who would deny it. Cicero even seems to say as much in the dialogue, claiming that gods must exist and then moving on to the proof of it. We can only really prove what we already know is the implication. I feel that any true non-theist is going to remain unconvinced and that this argument is only a rhetorical trick.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Being Part VII of an In-Depth Look at the Argument from Design

October 15, 2013 Leave a comment

We near the end of our two month look at the Argument from Design (AfD), the final nail in this coffin is that it is presumptious. We referenced in part 1, the concept of teleology. This concept will now be discussed in some more depth. This idea is central to the Abrahamic religious tradition, the religious philosophers of the Islamic/Judaic tradition working in the medieval period worked diligently trying to subsume the work of Aristotle into their respective religions. Coincidentally, Christian philosophers at the end of the Roman era borrowed heavily from the Aristotelian tradition to supply the metaphysical issues of their religion. In both cases we can trace the underlying metaphysics of Aristotle coloring the respective religious world views.

It’s important to know this because one of the central tenets to Aristotle’s philosophy is this idea of teleology. Teleology is the idea that everything which is, has a purpose a specific purpose for which that thing  must either fulfill or fail. In either case if something exists we ought to be able to divine why it is what it is. The odd thing about teleology is that it works so well with Intelligent Designers, for whom resoundly reject the idea of Natural Selection being the mechanism. We can use a seed to explain it, a seed has the purpose of becoming the tree, it exists for no other purpose than becoming the tree. If we destroy the seed, we destroy a tree. In the case of the weather one might be tempted to explain that the purpose of rain is to water plants or something like that.

Teleology works with the AfD as in Cicero’s explanation that we could not doubt the existence of the gods because of the various natural benefits that the world has given the Romans. Cicero talks specifically regarding the climate and location of the Romans as examples that the gods not only exist but favor a certain group of people. This is of course a ridiculous notion that does nothing to prove that the gods exist for two important reasons: the first is that it is a matter of perspective, what is favorable to one is going to be inclement to another. I, myself am not a hot weather person so the favored climate of a type of person that would like to live in Southern Italy is not the type of climate that I would consider a boon from the gods. One might wish to consider what exactly the Romans did right that the Nomadic Israelites (at about the same time) were doing wrong. The gods according to this specific teleological perspective seem to not only give benefits to one group of people but actively deny to a different group. Not just the Israelites, but we have to also consider any other civilization that has a difficult climate for which to harvest food.

The second error this teleological position makes is that it puts the cart before the horse. One might be compelled to think that the Romans were given a perfect climate by which to grow crops and create a world dominating civilization, however as rational individuals we have the obligation to consider whether this is the most plausible explanation. As Jared Diamond explained in “Guns, Germs, and Steel” it might rather be that people settled in the Roman region because of its seeming natural gifts. This explanation at the very least, does not violate Occam’s Razor.

Like the very concept of “design” the concept of “benefit” is one that we construct in our minds. The warm climate might be good for grapes and olives, but the Romans aren’t eating those if they aren’t already growing there. If the climate was better for growing corn, they would be talking about how great it was for corn. This is more a testament to the ingenuity of humanity who can so quickly adapt to something that it seems to be the natural course of things and not the product of ingenuity.

If we accept the position that the gods purposely designed the world for our benefit, we have to examine their motives. Ignoring the other problems with the argument we can simply ask, “if the gods are willing to give us a nice area in which to raise our crops, why give us the need to eat in the first place?” Or perhaps why ought we even to consider that the gods would make a world to begin with?

The question is deeper than just the motives of god/gods. It goes to the very essence of their beings. It is asked by Vellus, the Epicurean, for whom the role of skeptic is given. The Epicureans were deists in that they don’t believe that the gods had any interest in the world aside from its creation. That’s a generous interpretation of the followers of Epicurus, I would contend that they were more atheist than that, but that isn’t for now. What is, is the question that Vellus asks, he wonders why the gods suddenly woke up one day and decided that they wanted to create a world, people for that world, and benefits for those people. What prompted them from time beyond measure to jump into action?

The problem is that if we answer that god wanted to do, we are claiming that it/they were lacking in something that needed be fulfilled, so in answer to that they designed a world that was to be populated by rational reasonable creatures. The result is less important than the impetus. If they lacked something then they also surely lacked completeness. Lacking completeness means that they lacked perfection, and while this was satisfactory for the Roman gods this simply will not do for the Abrahamic tradition. Any lack makes this point, but the AfD actually needs this lack to survive. If we assume that the AfD works then it harms the notion of god more than it proves that god exists.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Being Part VI of an In-Depth Look at the Argument from Design

October 8, 2013 Leave a comment

The argument from design (AfD) has a more critical failure that all of its ancestors and descendants possess. Indeed, it’s a systemic failure that must be included in the argument if it is to hold any weight at all. That failure is one of capriciousness. The AfD represents an arbitrary stoppage that not only includes the AfD but also the Prime-Mover argument originating from Aristotle. As the argument points to all things of ingenuity being necessarily designed by some kind of greater intelligence, the rejoinder to the argument is that of “well who designed the intelligence?” Paley’s argument almost explicitly lays this out, we find the watch remark upon its design and then note that it must have been created. Then we think about the type of creation it is, wonder about the creator of the watch and infer that something must have created the creator, then we get to the ultimate creator, god, in which we figure that this supreme intelligence is the source of all creation.

If we think about that for a second what the AfD is claiming is that there are some things which are so creative and so genius that they can’t have been created. The argument is one of two things: arbitrary or contradictory.

First off, the rejoinder, prima facie, seems to be of the sarcastic ilk that we get out of people who wish to rebel against their parents or society. The kind of person who hasn’t really done any inquiry, the kind that is quick to start yelling about crusades unknowingly making an argument that has little to do with god but more to do with religion and social conventions; this is the kind of argument that I heard whilst instructing philosophy of religion akin to the argument, “could god create rock so big he couldn’t lift it”—or more creatively, “could god microwave a burrito so hot that he couldn’t eat it?”

Qui creavit conditor, as an argument is much more subtle and devious than any silly argument involving burritos or spaghetti. The difference is that this is not a trivial point. The argument firsts asks us to consider that a watch was made ex nihilo, and while we are unwilling to admit that, it then goes on to force us into the assertion that there is a thing of supreme intelligence that is undesigned (or worse self-designed). This is where the ultimate question of whether or not the AfD is contradictory or arbitrary comes into play. The rules of logic specify that it could be both, but we don’t need either to dismiss the argument in total. We can have either one to do so.

Contradictory: the accusation of contradiction is easily explained. The argument is a contradiction because it fails to follow its own rule. Cicero’s argument is that such a complex structure of ingenuity as the model of the heavens could not be an accident. Along with the model of the heavens we would have the heavens itself, the spiral of a seashell, the delicate balance of gravity, etc. Literally anything you can think of would possess a design as long as one criteria is met: that it exists. That which is designed must have a designer, that which displays intelligence must have an intelligence as its source. Everything that is, except the supreme intelligence which is self-designed or the product of accident. Neither is the product of a rational thought.

The arbitrariness is also easily explained. By retreading the simple argument regarding the designedàdesigner chain, all of the sudden we are asked to stop. Stop considering a designer when you get to this point or else my argument will fall apart. Van Inwagen’s example of the machine is particularly guilty of this, in that we would have to ask who designed the machine, who built it, of what was it made? Now, we have to give him a little latitude since he was arguing metaphorically and I would doubt that someone of his intelligence really believes there is some kind of machine out there by which the universe was made. No matter which of the argument we are dealing with, they still fall into this trap. There exists no rational or empirical argument for why we must stop at this one point other than some supreme question begging as to why we are stopping at this point.

The counter to the rejoinder often comes quickly at this point. The AfD’er will then say, “Fine, but if you believe in the big bang what exactly banged?” This question seems daunting and turns the AfD hole back on the atheist, but the question doesn’t work to the same effect. First off, the Big Bang is largely accepted science so belief in it is not required. I don’t believe in gravity either—it’s a fact of the world. Secondly, I, in denying the effectiveness of the AfD am not making any positive claims that warrant a change in my daily life. The AfD is saying that god exists and this is how I ought to live because the AfD proves that god exsits. Fine, I’ll agree to the condition (but not really, next post we will deal with the final problem) but the AfD hasn’t proven it beyond rational doubt. As a rational argument it ought not to have these two holes in logical argumentation. If a person is making the case that X exists, and using argument Y for that purpose, then Y needs to prove that X exists. In this case shedding doubt on whether or not there was a Big Bang has no relevant bearing on whether or not the AfD is successful. If one wants to claim that the problems which plague the AfD are the same as the problems that plague the Big Bang theory then fine although that person has just admitted that the AfD fails.

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An Atheist’s Perspective: Being Part V of an In-Depth Look at the Argument from Design

October 1, 2013 Leave a comment

If we took anything from last post, it should be that an achievement is not great just because it is large. The universe is not an incredible achievement because of its size, and it’s doubtful that it could be considered an achievement anyway. However, we do consider—and I think this can be said without controversy—that complexity really lends itself to consideration of what is and what is not an achievement. The LHC, perhaps the most incredible achievement built by the hand of man is not incredible because of its size, but for what it does. Perhaps, also because it depowers an entire town when it runs at full capacity and that’s just a cool side effect of it. The complexity of a thing is directly related to how we, as lay people, would go about even beginning to comprehend how such a thing was possible. Our incredulity extends not only to things which are large and complex but also to those things which we know exist as possibilities but are so rare that we cannot consider that they could happen on their own.

[Special note to philosophers: I categorically reject that “modal properties” are anything other than linguistic exercises, that just needs to be said in anticipation of a particularly virulent strain of objection]

The Argument from Design (AfD) contains a conflation of terms that, colloquially, we all make. It is the confusion between what is possible and what is probable; as well as their opposites impossible and impossible. This is confusion that goes back to Aristotle, who points out the misuse of the terms in De Caleo (“On the Heavens”), explaining that while we use the terms interchangeably they do not have the same import of meaning. For instance a thing which is impossible is also improbable but not for the same reason. That which is improbable is a thing which is unlikely to happen, while something which is impossible; cannot ever happen. Cicero uses the example of placing letter tiles in a bag and throwing them in the air, the odds that they would land to form the writings of a Roman poet are far from likely. For him, as well as other AfD’ers, this is proof of some guiding intelligence in the universe. Cicero’s mistake should be obvious, just because the odds are incredibly remote does not indicate that the letters will never fall in a particular order. Even if we were to attempt this experiment a million times and never get the desired result; we may even never get the letters to form a single word does not mean that it isn’t possible. Just as a roulette wheel may never land on red for fifty spins, an unlikely event but an entirely possible one.

That which is impossible contains within it some kind of inherent contradiction in terms. We can never have a geometric circle that possesses a corner, or a right triangle that violates the Pythagorean Theorem. Also I cannot be considered to be both standing and sitting at the same time. The AfD argument wishes to make this claim that the armillary sphere could not have come into being through non-intelligent means thus the universe which it is made in mockery must also have come into being through design. One might be tempted to dismiss the claim of the Stoics by pointing out that there perfectly designed universe is not astronomically correct, but that is a mere quibble that ought to be rejected. What matters is that the measurements and principles, by which the armillary sphere is made, are made through human intellect. There representations but not the actual thing in question. Gravity pulls the planets around the sun, but it doesn’t abide by a rule. Those rules are those which we invented to predict the placement of the planets. As an analogy think of a life sized mannequin of you. The mannequin is designed in imitation of you, but it does not legislate your size; and importantly the measurement of your height does not make your height.

The improbability of existence being able to support any thing is taken up by contemporary philosopher Peter Van Inwagen. To his argument’s credit he comes at the AfD in a clever way: by working backwards. If we look at something like the gravitational constant, which causes things on Earth fall toward the center at the rate of 9.8 m/s2 we can come to the understanding that this measurement is so precise and so integral to the very existence of matter that if it were slightly different things would not hold together. Van Inwagen’s argument is that we could imagine a machine that is used to form the universe having all kinds of dials, levers, and buttons by which to set features like gravity so that they could support matter and eventually life. While clever, his argument still falls into the same trap as Cicero’s and Paley’s. The measurements do not create the thing itself, they only measure it. I am not quite certain that this is a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc in which two unrelated but chronologically sequential events are assume to have a causal relationship but it is close to that.

Another issue is that if such a machine exists, then it reduces the god being to a mere tinkerer. One who, through trial and error has been messing around with the settings until something worked out. It negates the omniscience of the creator (so does the existence of such a machine but since Van Inwagen is arguing from analogy that would be a trite quibble to make) since it’s got to fiddle around with the dials until everything is just so. It’s akin to the curious statement that Alan Rickman as Metatron makes in Kevin Smith’s Dogma about having gone through “about twelve Adams” before they figured out why their heads kept exploding. This raises the issue that Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins bring up regarding this very argument, those who find it convincing have replaced the master craftsman with a bumbling tinkerer. The only button on that machine should be labeled “create,” and everything else ought to settle itself. I see nothing regarding complexity that necessitates a creative intelligence.