Category Archives: Religion

More on William Lane Craig’s Morality

In the comments section of my last post on this topic, it was highlighted to me by Prayson Daniel that I may not have exactly presented Craig’s case accurately. Though I feel that many of the points I made were valid against his argument, I figured I would redo my rebuttal it, and some his others in a new post quoting only his words. I shall provide links for all quotations so that you can see the context. So here goes, I shall dive in:

 

This is Craig’s moral argument in his words:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/moral-argument#ixzz2JP8r21DE

 

Let us begin with premise one; “if God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist”. Lets see what he offers in support of this:

Consider first the question of objective moral values. If God does not exist, then what basis remains for the existence of objective moral values? In particular, why think that human beings would have objective moral worth? On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism it’s hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, anymore than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being. This is what Dr. Harris calls “The Value Problem”

Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-the-foundation-of-morality-natural-or-supernatural-the-craig-harris#ixzz2JPCFI1EF

and

On a naturalistic view moral values are just the behavioral byproducts of biological evolution and social conditioning. Just as a troop of baboons exhibit cooperative and even self-sacrificial behavior because natural selection has determined it to be advantageous in the struggle for survival, so their primate cousins homo sapiens have evolved a sort of herd morality for precisely the same reasons. As a result of socio-biological pressures there has evolved among homo sapiens a sort of herd morality which functions well in the perpetuation of our species. But on the atheistic view there doesn’t seem to be anything that makes this morality objectively binding and true.

Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-the-foundation-of-morality-natural-or-supernatural-the-craig-harris#ixzz2JPCgyOgm

 

I essentially agree with this point. On naturalism there is no independent, timeless, objective system of ethics that exists outside of our own consciousness. This does not mean that a rational account for morality cannot be advanced. Science has shown us that there is a neurological basis for empathy – we are literally hard-wired for compassion. Let me explain; when you observe a person drowning and crying out for help, there will be a certain set of neurons that fire to coordinate their movements and actions as the person struggles in the water. As you observe this a certain subset of those same neurons fire as though your brain were mirroring what that person were going through – hence the name of these brain cells: Mirror neurons.

 

During the course of our evolution, our brains grew larger and we developed a much more complex system of mirror neurons. This would provide an advantage because it allows us to imitate the actions of others, and would play a vital role in the development of tool use. It has also give our brains an intrinsic connection between our own minds and those of others. When we see someone suffering we can literally put ourselves in their shoes through the “mirroring” of their actions in our brains. Similarly when we someone overjoyed or relieved, we share this experience with them. It is in our nature to be empathetic, as neurologist V.S. Ramachandran states:

 

Within some of these regions [of the brain], there is a special class of nerve cells called mirror neurons. These neurons fire not only when you perform an action, but also when you watch someone else perform the same action. This sounds so simple that its huge implications are easy to miss. What these cells do is effectively allow you to empathise with the other person and “read” her intentions—figure out what she is really up to. You this by running a simulation of her using your own body image.

 

When you watch someone else reach for a glass of water, for example, your mirror neurons automatically simulate the same action in your (usually subconscious) imagination. Your mirror neurons will often go a step further and have you perform the action they anticipate the other person is about to take—say, to lift the water to her lips and take a drink. Thus you automatically form an assumption about her intentions and motivations—in this case, that she is thirsty and is taking steps to quench her thirst. Now, you could be wrong in this assumption—she might intend to use the water to douse a fire or to fling in the face of a boorish suitor—but usually your mirror neurons are reasonably accurate guessers of others’ intentions. As such, they are the closest thing to telepathy that nature was able to endow us with.”

The Tell-Tale Brain page 22

 

Thus we have good grounds to believe that it is in our nature to be empathetic and compassionate. We see a person drowning and we want to help them because we can visualise ourselves in that position. Thus, though there may not be a law of the universe that states ‘we should be good’ it is an intrinsic part of our consciousness to be kind, and that is one perfectly adequate reason to be good – its in our nature!

 

I am willing to grant Craig his assertion that on naturalism there is no truly objective grounding for morality, however I do think there are issues with Craig’s unstated assumption that God is the source of objective morality. I shall return to the dilemma I highlighted in my previous post on this topic. Here is the problem:

 

1. If something is good because God commands it then this is a subjective basis for morality

2. If God commands something because it is already good then objective moral values exist independent of God

3. Therefore God cannot be the source of objective morality and Craig’s first premise is false

 

Lets take an example of Biblical morality, perhaps the most obvious; “Thou shall not kill”. If this is an objective indictment then there would be no context in which killing is permissible. Yet we have another passage from the Bible (this is not an isolated instance either):

“If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him.  Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you.  You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery.  And all Israel, hearing of this, shall fear and never do such evil as this in your midst.”

(Deuteronomy 13:7-12 NAB)

 

How can God’s commands be an objective basis for morality when in one instance he states; do not kill anyone, and in another he states; go out and kill? If killing is both okay and not okay in separate instances then it is not objectively wrong. It is determined by the subjective whims of God.

 

Prayson brought up the following point of contention with this in the comments to my previous post:

 

“[A] common reply offered in this literature is that objective moral values and duties base on God’s own nature. Plato called it The Good. Thus it cannot exist independent of God because God is The Good, they contended.

So what God commands reflects his nature. It is for that reason that he cannot command something against his nature.”

 

This does nothing to solve the confusion of the above dilemma. If God’s commands reflect his nature, then his nature must require that killing is both okay and not okay – his nature, according to scripture and this reasoning, is contradictory. So we still cannot arrive at the objective decision “killing is wrong” via this line of reasoning.

 

In conclusion, Craig’s first premise is flawed because an objective grounding morality requires that moral injunctions such as those against killing be true in all instances, yet this is contradicted by instances in scripture in which God endorses and encourages killing. Neither the divine command theory or the argument about God’s nature escapes this dilemma.

 

Let’s turn to premise 2: “Objective moral values and duties do exist.” And see what he offers in support of this assertion:

 

But the problem is that objective moral values and duties plausibly do exist. In moral experience we apprehend a realm of moral values and duties that impose themselves upon us. There’s no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world. Actions like rape, cruelty, and child abuse aren’t just socially unacceptable behavior—they’re moral abominations. Some things, at least, are really wrong. Michael Ruse himself admits, “The man who says it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says 2+2=5.”2 Some things, at least, are really wrong.

Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-craig-krauss-debate-at-north-carolina-state-university#ixzz2JPerUoXk

 

The problem of this is that he does not provide any real reason to accept that we are actually apprehending a realm of moral values and duties that are an objective reality. He merely states that there is no reason to deny it. Yet there are reasons to deny it.

 

As I highlighted earlier in this post there are neurological groundings for empathy and compassion – we undoubtedly experience feelings of guilt and conscience. But this does not necessarily represent a realm that objectively exists outside of our consciousness. I explained that there are good evolutionary reasons for why we feel empathy and compassion.

 

Other morally guiding emotions such as shame and guilt, have equally sound evolutionary explanations. A short example of this would be, we may have evolved guilt and remorse as a defence against habitually dangerous behaviour – for example; adultery – the more our ancestors committed adultery the higher the frequency of getting caught and injured or killed. The unpleasant emotions of remorse and guilt prevent us from putting our lives at risk from “pissing too many people off” as it were. Likewise, friendship, cooperation etc. are advantageous, those who cooperate can survive much more efficiently than those who are constantly fighting with each other. There are many good naturalistic explanations for our moral experience that do not require the existence of moral principles that exist beyond the functioning of our brains.

 

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that most normal human beings experience what can be described as a ‘moral realm’ – however there is no reason to assume that this realm exists external to our consciousness. It is a part of who we are as a species, but it does not necessitate the existence of objective moral principles that exist in anything other than the internal realm of our experience.

 

Despite his assertion that there is ‘no good reason’ to deny the existence of an objective moral realm – I have shown that there are good reasons to. He offers nothing else in support of his argument. What Craig really needs to do is show us why there are no good reasons to deny his assertion, until he does so, I shall consider his point refuted.

 

Thus his conclusion “God exists” is not shown to be true due to the flaws in both of his premises that I’ve highlighted.

 

I hope this provides a more accurate and in depth analysis of his argument. Feel free to discuss in the comments below.

 

 

 

 

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Sam Harris is a Facile Moron

There are many reasons why I feel the need to distance myself from the “new atheist movement”, and Sam Harris has recently made me want to keep well away from it for good. His latest post: In Defense of Profiling does, well, just that. He argues that we should profile Muslims in our fight against terrorism, stopping people who ‘look like Muslims’ at airports in the interests of national security.

 

The first and most obvious problem with this notion is this; how the hell do you determine someone’s religion just from looking at them? Any educated person (apart from Mr. Harris apparently) can tell you that Islam is not a race, it’s a religion. He appears to be advocating for the profiling of bearded men in robes with turbans on alongside women dressed in hijabs, as though all Muslims conform to this caricature. It doesn’t appear to cross Sam’s mind that as soon as they started to profile for people who look Muslim (whatever the hell that means) those who want to sneak through this system incognito need only make a minimal effort not to look like a caricature of a Muslim (a quick shave and a trip to the local clothes shop and you’re done). I would hope Harris is not advocating the racist view that all Arab-looking individuals should be profiled, but I don’t see that there is any other logical conclusion to be drawn from his nonsensical position.

 

In his addendum responding to the rightful criticism he received he states that: “I am not narrowly focused on people with dark skin. In fact, I included myself in the description of the type of person I think should be profiled (twice). To say that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, dress, travelling companions, behaviour in the terminal, and other outward appearances offer no indication of a person’s beliefs or terrorist potential is either quite crazy or totally dishonest.” He doesn’t appear to grasp that behaviour, clothing, and other outward appearances can easily be changed. Any intelligent terrorist in Harris’ profiling scenario would simply make themselves appear as distant from the kind of thing they are looking for as possible. It won’t work. The only conceivable scenario in which we might catch an Islamic threat (with the insight not to make it obvious in their outward behaviour and appearance) via profiling is if we stopped any Arab-looking person and that is fucking racist. 

 

I do not wish to downplay the threat of radical Islam, I merely wish to point out that Harris’ proposed means of countering it are unutterably stupid. For someone who is qualified in neuroscience you would have thought Sam Harris would have two brain cells to rub together…

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Defending My Atheism

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” – this statement is hard to fault when used in the right context, however it resolutely does not work as an argument against atheism, or a means to shift the burden of proof. Why is this so? Because my assertion as an atheist is not “the absence of evidence for God is evidence of God’s absence”, rather it is; “the absence of evidence for God is all the justification I need not to believe in it”. In other words, I don’t have to prove that there is not a God because I do not make that assertion.

 

I’ve spoken in recent posts about the null hypothesis – which is the default position on any claim. When postulating the existence of a God, the null hypothesis is as follows; God does not exist. This is not a dogmatic statement, it is the starting block for any claim, a statement which you seek to disprove under experiment or observation. As yet, no one has provided any credible evidence to refute the statement God does not exist so my atheism is perfectly justified. It’s that simple.

 

Apologists of various stripes will claim that their arguments resolutely do refute the null hypothesis, however their arguments do not meet the standards of evidence required to falsify a scientific hypothesis. Logical arguments cannot be enough to disprove a null hypothesis. Take the Higgs Boson for example, there is quite a sound and reasonable argument that says; in order to make sense of everything we know about particle physics something with the properties of the Higgs particle must exist. This is not enough to prove that it does exist however. Scientists at CERN didn’t hear this then switch off their particle accelerators satisfied that their job was done. This is because no matter how sound, the argument itself cannot prove the existence of the particle, and so the search goes on (which is heating up of late incidentally). Furthermore, the argument for the Higgs particle is far better than any argument put forth in favour of the existence of God. There are no logical arguments for the existence of God which are not contestable or flawed in their premises or conclusions.

 

So having said all that, I am perfectly justified to disbelieve in the existence of God. I am not asserting that the null hypothesis has been proven correct (that can’t happen), what I am asserting is that the lack of convincing refutation of the null hypothesis is all the justification I need for my atheism. I don’t use absence of evidence as evidence of absence, I use the absence of evidence as a good enough reason not to believe. If you say that you have a pet elephant in your garden – the absence of any convincing evidence does not prove with any certainty that you do not have an elephant in your garden, but it is good enough justification for my not believing you…

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Notes on the Problem of Evil

Okay, first we need a definition of evil that we can all agree upon, so how about:

 

Intentionally acting in such a way as to increase harm and suffering without remorse

I’m pretty sure most people can agree upon that. Next we need to define the kinds of entities that are capable of committing evil. Moral awareness is an important prerequisite. We cannot classify a lion as evil for killing other animals at any given opportunity because they have no sense of right and wrong. So in order to be able to do evil you need the capacity to be aware of your actions, their consequences and how they affect others. As far as we know humans are the only beings possessing of these traits.

So in order for something to be evil it needs to be carried out by a morally aware being. An event which causes suffering and harm repeatedly, but is not down to the actions and intentions of a morally aware being cannot be classified as evil. This means that natural disasters and diseases etc. are not evil. So far so good.

However, when you throw and all-powerful deity into the mix this is when things get difficult (for the theist at least). God fulfils the requirement of being a morally aware entity, most theists will state that God is the source of moral truth, so clearly such an entity is very aware of their actions and the consequences of them.

The attribute of omnipotence creates a problem which is famously termed ‘the problem of evil’. Let me explain it using malaria as an example; malaria kills thousands of children every single day so there is no doubt that such a thing increases suffering and causes harm to others, however without God malaria is not evil because it is not caused by the actions and decisions of a morally aware entity. On theism this is different.

The theist has two choices when it comes to malaria; either God created it himself, or allowed it to happen. Either way this removes malaria from the context of having not been caused by the actions and intentions of a morally aware entity to one in which it is very much in the hands of a morally aware entity.

If God created malaria then he is evil because he intentionally created something that causes large amounts of pain and suffering, apparently with no remorse. If God allows malaria then this creates problems also; because if God cares about our suffering and wants to relieve it then he should want to use his power to prevent malaria, this gives rise to a contradiction because it’s very apparent that God has done nothing to prevent malaria, so either God does not care about our suffering, or God does care about it, but can do nothing (thus meaning God is not omnipotent).

The problem of evil arises because positing the existence of an omnipotent God removes disasters, diseases and famines etc. from the context of being events with no moral agent behind them, to being ones that do. So the theist must then explain the contradiction between omnipotence and omnibenevolence that arises in this situation. This is, in my opinion, the heart of the problem of evil.

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William Lane Craig Argues Himself Into A Corner

In solution to the problem of evil Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig often retort that God may well have good reasons for permitting evil and suffering in the world. On his website William Lane Craig states:

God may well have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. We all know cases in which we permit suffering because we have morally sufficient reasons for doing so. What Law would have to prove is that it’s improbable that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. But how could he possibly prove that? God’s justifying reasons might never appear in our lifetime or locale or even in this life. Suppose, for example, that God’s purpose for human life is not happiness in this life but the knowledge of God, which is an incommensurable good. It may be the case, for all we know, that only in a world suffused with natural and moral evil would the maximum number of people freely come to know God and find eternal life.

(http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=9162)

So in essence suffering and evil may well be permitted for the ‘greater good’ and we simply are not in any position to know why it is permitted. Craig goes further in his debate with Arif Ahmed and states:

“The premise that pointless suffering exists, or gratuitous evil exists is extremely controversial. We are simply not in the position to make these kinds of inductive probability judgements”

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-NF-LlVFHM)

So here Craig is saying that pointless suffering and gratuitous evil might not exist. If this is true then no act of evil would be ‘ without apparent reason, cause, or justification’ and we can thus conclude that all evil is acted out for a reason, has a cause and a justification. One can assume that Craig’s doubts over the existence of gratuitous evil and pointless suffering tie in with his notion that God permits suffering for the greater good. So the reason and justification for evil is because it is part of God’s plan for the greater good.

Here’s Craig’s argument taken to it’s logical conclusion:

1. Gratuitous evil and pointless suffering might not exist because if God has a plan for the ‘greater good’ then no evil is gratuitous and no suffering is pointless.

2. If this is true no act of evil is truly evil because it is ultimately for the greater good.

Therefore

3. Because of 1 & 2 we have absolutely no way of knowing if an evil act was truly evil or whether it was actually contributing to the greater good.

It follows logically from this that despite Craig’s frequent assertion that ‘we just know some actions are objectively wrong’ – here he asserts that we have absolutely no way of making such a judgement because for all we know there is no gratuitous evil – and therefore the reason for it is ultimately good (according to Craig’s views). Craig has argued himself into the corner that Christian apologists often try to back atheists into.

Craig cannot say whether the murder of 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany was evil because if gratuitous evil does not exist, then this must have happened for a reason, and that reason according to Craig is to fulfil God’s ultimately good plan. Therefore we cannot classify this act as evil, because it may have actually been for the greater good (I apologise for breaking Godwin’s law here, however I’m sure you can forgive me).

In his attempt to escape the problem of evil, Craig has put himself in a position where he can make no moral judgements whatsoever (which runs contrary to his “argument” for objective moral values in which he states that we all ‘just know’ the difference between good and evil). Well done Bill!

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Problems with Theism

First and foremost, to clear any potential misunderstanding; I do not count any of the following points as disproof of the existence of God, they do however outline the major problems that I have with accepting theism. Cumulatively they may provide an argument for atheism, but they do not necessarily disprove God, merely outline the major problems that I have with the concept.

 

1. The Problem of Insignificance

The diameter of the observable universe is 93 billion light years, there are 350 billion large galaxies in the visible universe – each containing around 100 billion stars. Theism requires one to believe that our tiny planet is the reason that all of this exists. In the face of those aforementioned figures Earth is so insignificant that it is is extremely difficult to accept that the remaining 99.999999 (etc.) % of the cosmos is just unnecessary fluff.

 

Furthermore, the universe consists of 75% dark energy, 25% dark matter, and the remaining less than 5% goes into making visible matter (stars, planets etc.), so in light of this the entire observable universe is just the thin layer of icing on the top, decreasing our significance even further.

 

How does one consolidate these facts with the theistic notion that our planet, and our species is the sole purpose of existence?

 

2. The Problem of Pointless Suffering

Malaria kills more than 3000 African children every day. This is but one example of the kind of pointless suffering that is rampant all over the world. Theism posits the existence of an all loving being, who is concerned for the welfare of living things. How do you console the notion of an all-loving God with thousands of needlessly suffering people all over the globe?

 

Some theists would argue that we cannot know the mind of God, so who are we to judge what he does and does not allow. Some even have the audacity to claim that this suffering occurs to pave the way for some future glory, or to prevent even worse things from happening in future. However this still doesn’t fit with the notion of an all-loving being. A loving parent does not subject their child to a painful injection without explaining the purpose of going through the pain, and reassuring them that their suffering is not ultimately pointless, what reassurance is given from God? And anyway, who is God to cause suffering in one person to ultimately relieve the suffering of another in future? This doesn’t seem like the behaviour of an omnibenevolent deity.

 

Let’s not forget that God can supposedly do anything, so why would he need to let others suffer to achieve some future goal? Surely that goal could be achieved without suffering?

 

I’ve heard it said that in certain places in Africa, by the age of 5 you’re either immune to malaria or you’re dead. How can one consolidate such horrendous and pointless suffering with the existence of an all-loving God? There is no reassurance, no comfort, what kind of loving being allows suffering without offering any explanation to the bereaved?

 

3. The Problem of a Hidden God

Theism posits the existence of a loving, all powerful God who wants our worship. This notion is contradicted by the fact that God does not let his existence be known to all in an inconspicuous manner. A booming voice from the sky, a simultaneous appearance to everyone in the world is within the bounds of what God can possibly do, why, if he desires our adoration, does he not do so and confirm his presence to all beings?

 

Why would he allow a state of affairs in which there is some considerable doubt as to whether or not he exists? Surely, as a loving being he does not want to punish disbelievers, so why does he not allow his presence to be known universally? The current state of affairs is not what you’d expect if an all-powerful, all-loving God exists, however it is precisely what you’d expect if God was not there.

 

4. The Problem of Disagreement

This problem is expounded well enough in my post ‘How Am I Supposed To Believe?’. In short; seeing as there are many different religions, with different sects all disagreeing with each other, what reason is there to suppose that one particular interpretation is correct whilst all others are false?

 

These are a few of the major reasons that I find it difficult to accept the central tenants of theism. We live in an insignificant planet, racked with pointless suffering, with no apparent sign of a God, and countless religions all disagreeing with one another whilst all claiming to be absolutely true. In light of these problems, theism makes no sense.

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Prayer and Free Will

The Bible declares that human beings are given free will so that we can choose to either accept or reject God (“whosoever will, may come”).

 

Christian doctrine decrees that God can at least sometimes answer prayers.

 

If a Christian were to pray that a person were to accept God, and that prayer is answered then that person’s free will is violated.

 

Conclusion: Prayers answered with regards to the actions/decisions of others would mean that this person’s free will is violated. This creates logical problems, and shows that free will and a God that answers prayers are not entirely compatible.

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