Monday, November 17, 2008

Answering Baggini's Short Intro to Atheism

Julian Baggini

There's a website called Arguing with Atheism. I know who does the sit but for some reason he doesn't include his name so I don't know if he wants the public to know. I'll honor what I imagine to be his wish for anonymity and just refer to the site itself. The point of the site is to carefully examine the very best sources of atheist thinking and to investigate the "better side" of atheism. The site takes this "better side" of atheism (the non hate group side, the real thinking core of the atheist community) and seeks to really understand their point of view; in so doing to test one's own belief.

The first project toward this end is a review and summary of a book by Julian Baggini called

Julian Baggini (editor of The Philospher Magazine)

Author Atheism a very short introduction.
Atheism a Very Short Introduction. Baggini is the editor of The Philosopher Magazine.

Baggini talks about his personal background, his childhood, his road to his current outlook. While he agrees with the usual self definitions of most atheists, the lack of belief in God, Baggini holds out for more than just the negation of a set of beliefs. This is will be important because Christianity is not just a set of beliefs, its not just adding information to the universe. But this phrase is used by the website to describe what Baggini tags onto the conventional definition of atheism:

But atheism is not merely or even principally a series of negations or denials; rather, it is a positive view of what the world consists of and the nature of human beings. At the core of atheism lies a commitment to naturalism, broadly construed as the assertion that “only the objects of the physical sciences-physics, chemistry and biology-exist.” (4) Atheists, however, are not necessarily committed to strong forms of physicalism such as eliminative materialism. The upshot of this description is that the evidence for atheism, according to Baggini, is not primarily counterevidence to the existence of God, but rather consists of the positive evidence for naturalism, broadly construed. This is an important move because it enables him to sidestep the interminable debates in philosophy of religion over the problem of evil, etc. and instead focus on the evidence for naturalism provided primarily by the sciences.

My first reaction to this novel approach is to wonder why reductionists, which Baggini clearly is, make such a big thing out of the little nub of being that's left after they go through tearing away everything in life that is worth living for, then declare the wonder and joy of this nub of a universe that's left. It's a ridiculous outlook. They lose the phenomena of all view points that don't cow tow to their ideology of reduction and then declare their view is the only one of substance because it's the only one standing after they get through stripping away the evdience for any other view. Their approach to hiding the evidence of other views is varied but basically boils down to circular reasoning. Baggini is no exception. The circular reasoning runs like this:

There can't be any evidence for the supernatural because evidence for the supernatural would contradict the ideology and the ideology must be right because science depends upon it. Science is the only form of knowledge, therefore, it has to be protected. Thus any evidence for the supernatural is automatically invalidated and thus must be dismissed.

Now there is no evdience for the supernatural(because any evdience for is automatically wrong since there can't be a supernatural) and that's why the supernatural must be false, therefore, the claims of the supernatural are a priori false. Thus we know there is no supernatural because all the claims for it keep getting dismissed, therefore, there is no evidence for the supernatural.

In Chapter 2 Baggini outlines the positive case for atheism he has in mind. He begins by outlining the components of a persuasive case for any particular point of view: evidence, arguments and rhetoric. The latter, however, can only make the case more persuasive, whether it is reasonable or not, so Baggini focuses on the first two.

Baggini demonstrates this tendency in the very first description of his argument. He sets out criteria whereby one can judge good evdience from bad. The first principle he lays out (this is according the Arguing with Atheism Website)is that anecdotal evdience is not good, evidence but be replicable and public. That is more people who see it the better. The more times it can be repeated the better. That's all find and good, but then it starts getting a little biased. He sets out the example of ice freezing. Of course this is something we all see so its' common, it' also trivial and doesn't have any bearing the question of God. But the image of rock solid science is offered to the reader's mind. What is religious believe contrasted with? The spontaneous combustion of dogs. Yes, dogs, burning up spontaneously.

So evidence that ice freezes at zero degrees centigrade, for example, is strong evidence because it is publicly and universally accessible, whereas the evidence for the spontaneous combustion of dogs is weak because it is anecdotal, that is “it relies upon the testimony of a single person relating one incident.”(13)

Obviously that is pretty anecdotal. So we have this daily event of making ice vs something the vast majority of people live their whole lives and never see. Now for those whose concept of religious experince is the parting of the read sea this may seem like a fair comparison. But there really is a lot more ordinary and available stuff going on God-wise than incendiary K nines.

He could contrast that with mystical experinces, because they are so common some researcher estimate they are had by one in four people. But then he would not be able to set up the premise that supernatural evidence is all anecdotal because mystical experince is demonstrated by 350 or more empirical studies over a four decade period. If you start factoring in studies on religious belief and participation and the effects on health you could have about 2000 studies, and most of them are very good scientific studies. But he would not be able to put up the image that atheists thrive on that "o there's no evidence for the supernatural" not one little bitty piece. Of course if you define the supernatural not as it is in the theology but as atheists want to see, as that which cannot happen because it contradicts reality, then of course there's no evidence for it.

Based on this criterion, Baggini’s contention is that “all the strong evidence tells in favor of atheism, and only weak evidence tells against it.” This is so because, as we saw earlier, in Baggini’s view the evidence for atheism is not merely or even primarily counter-evidence to the existence of God, but rather consists of the evidence for naturalism, broadly construed: “This is only evidence against God’s existence in a negative sense: that is to say, evidence for God’s existence will be found to be lacking and so we will be left with no reason to suppose he exists.” (16)

This move does not strike me as a particularly fair way to evaluate the claims of religious belief.First of all,it is slanted to deny the opportunity for the believer to present best evdience. It practically lays down a guideline if evdience for religious belief doesn't' such it doesn't count as real evdience. This clearly an exercise in begging the question. I will be very interested to see what he trying to analyze as "best evidence." I am so far not impressed because I see no mention of anything that really exists as evidence believers actually use. I suspect that the subtext to his guides are really the idea that science is the only form of knowledge and anything that doesn't count as empirical scientific view point is not admissible as evidence. Clearly this is a move aimed at disposing of the best evidence the believer has before the debate can begin because it compares two things that cannot be compared. God is not given in sense data so the nature of the physical world and sciences ability to discover the workings of the physical world can never be taken as proof against the existence of God. Those are also part of the believer's belief system, I don't know any believers who don't believe in the physical world. Thus he's just crossing categories. He's ruling out the best evdience before the debate starts.

I would term this move as a "trick," and this trick is grossly unfair becasue it's just trying to turn scientists only success (the production of scientific data) into a monopoly for atheist thought and deny the believer any recourse to scientific thought, thus creating the stigma that belief is unscientific. In reality the idea of comparing factual accounts of belief or unbelief to scientific rigor is a huge mistake. Not only do people research according to their biases but science is not a pristine march from ignorance to totally knowledge over the mountains of data. It's a cultural construct. It turns upon paradigm shifts. when the paradigm shifts the whole world turns over all the good little facts from the farmer paradigm become embarrassing old anatomies in the new one. This is why secular minded scientists and atheists have to be skeptical of supernatural effects because their paradigm rules out the supernatural a prori. In other words. it's not the result factual investigation but of ideology.Baggini is hip enough to have read Thomas Kuhn.

He knows that he's just skating over this stuff without even acknowledging it.Because the "cultural constructivist school" has said that science is a social or cultural construct (really the same thing) this has been understood to mean that "science is wrong," or "science doesn't work." He is not saying that Science doesn't work, but he is saying that science is not cumulative progress. The old image of the scientist faithfully stacking one fact upon another, facts patiently gathered from totally objective and therefore totally true observations, is old hat and has to be replaced. Sorry to break the news to the reductionists, but the concept of "progress" is, itself, a cultural construct. There is nothing in nature called "progress." That is a Western notion that comes to us through philosophy and is not strictly speaking, a scientific term. Scientists don't record in their experimental observations "I found the progress in my subject matter." Progress is social and cultural, and it is a relative notion. When we decide we are making progress it is always at the expense of someone elses notion of progress. Due to the nature of paradigm shifts, science does not stack up facts one upon another until x amount of progress is achieved. Science regularly wipes the slate clean and starts over on new paradigms and each new bust of "progress" has to be judged relative to many factors, such as it's social effects.

What then is the positive evidence for naturalism? Baggini uses the example of the nature of persons: the verdict of science is that human beings are mortal animals composed of biological bodies. This is what the atheist’s naturalism would lead her to expect. Any evidence to the contrary, i.e. that points to the existence of a disembodied immortal soul, is weak and anecdotal.

But you see by the nature of this statement, even this is the paraphrase of the guy with the website, the circular reasoning I've already described. He assumes from the outside without presenting any evidence that the believers evidence will be weak and anecdotal. He's also arguing against a straw man version of religious belief as the notion of an Immortal soul in the sense of the ghost in the machine is not indicative of modern Christian theology. This is not what modern Christian thinkers believe, it's an old fashioned verse designed to bring shame to believers. The assertion that the evidence for believe must be wrong and outmoded without knowing what it is is hilarious and I did predict it. The soul is not a Casper the friendly Ghost living inside you. Nor does the Bible tell us that it is. The Bible says that the soul is the life of the believer from the standpoint of the relationship with God. So we do not have souls, we are souls. what might live on after death, if anything, is consciousness, or mind. This is analogous to "spirit" in the Bible. Spirit = mind.

The notion that consciousness is reducible to brain chemistry and nothing that survives exists is totally un-demonstrated and flies in the face of a ton of good scientific evidence. A ton of data supports mind over body. There are basically three arguments:

(1) the hard problem

(2) Top down causality

(3) Veto Power.

There is a movement in property dualism led by David Chalmers, such scientific heavy weights as Penrose are on his side. There is no victory for the brain/mind functionalists yet, far from it. In fact this dichotomy hints at a much larger conceptual frame work that threatens to break open into a total paradigm shift. The handwriting is on the wall for materialism. Major scientific thinkers have already began to see consciousness as other than just some individualistic qualities in each individual person's head caused by brain chemistry and have begun to think of it as something broader, a basic property of nature that we share in, that we exhibit rather than just a side effect of the wiring in our heads.

this is a statement by Peter Russell who was a Cambridge physicists and student of Hawking. I've quoted it on this blog quite recently.

The 'Hard Problem' of Consciousness

The really hard problem-as David Chalmers, professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona, has said-is consciousness itself. Why should the complex processing of information in the brain lead to an inner experience? Why doesn't it all go on in the dark, without any subjective aspect? Why do we have any inner life at all?

This paradox-namely, the absolutely undeniable existence of human consciousness set against the complete absence of any satisfactory scientific account for it-suggests to me that something is seriously amiss with the contemporary scientific worldview. For a long time I could not put my finger on exactly what it was. Then suddenly, about four years ago on a flight back to San Francisco, I saw where the error lay.

If consciousness is not some emergent property of life, as Western science supposes, but is instead a primary quality of the cosmos-as fundamental as space, time, and matter, perhaps even more fundamental-then we arrive at a very different picture of reality. As far as our understanding of the material world goes, nothing much changes; but when it comes to our understanding of mind, we are led to a very different worldview indeed. I realized that the hard problem of consciousness was not a problem to be solved so much as the trigger that would, in time, push Western science into what the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift."

The continued failure of science to make any appreciable headway into this fundamental problem suggests that, to date, all approaches may be on the wrong track. They are all based on the assumption that consciousness emerges from, or is dependent upon, the physical world of space, time, and matter. In one way or another they are trying to accommodate the anomaly of consciousness within a worldview that is intrinsically materialist. As happened with the medieval astronomers, who kept adding more and more epicycles to explain the anomalous motions of the planets, the underlying assumptions are seldom, if ever, questioned.

I now believe that rather than trying to explain consciousness in terms of the material world, we should be developing a new worldview in which consciousness is a fundamental component of reality. The key ingredients for this new paradigm-a "superparadigm"-are already in place. We need not wait for any new discoveries. All we need do is put various pieces of our existing knowledge together, and consider the new picture of reality that emerges.

Consciousness and Reality

Because the word "consciousness" can be used in so many different ways, confusion often arises around statements about its nature. The way I use the word is not in reference to a particular state of consciousness, or particular way of thinking, but to the faculty of consciousness itself-the capacity for inner experience, whatever the nature or degree of the experience.

A useful analogy is the image from a video projector. The projector shines light onto a screen, modifying the light so as to produce any one of an infinity of images. These images are like the perceptions, sensations, dreams, memories, thoughts, and feelings that we experience-what I call the "contents of consciousness." The light itself, without which no images would be possible, corresponds to the faculty of consciousness.

We know all the images on the screen are composed of this light, but we are not usually aware of the light itself; our attention is caught up in the images that appear and the stories they tell. In much the same way, we know we are conscious, but we are usually aware only of the many different experiences, thoughts, and feelings that appear in the mind. We are seldom aware of consciousness itself. Yet without this faculty there would be no experience of any kind.

The faculty of consciousness is one thing we all share, but what goes on in our consciousness, the content of our consciousness, varies widely. This is our personal reality, the reality we each know and experience. Most of the time, however, we forget that this is just our personal reality and think we are experiencing physical reality directly. We see the ground beneath our feet; we can pick up a rock, and throw it through the air; we feel the heat from a fire, and smell its burning wood. It feels as if we are in direct contact with the world "out there." But this is not so. The colors, textures, smells, and sounds we experience are not really "out there"; they are all images of reality constructed in the mind.

It was this aspect of perception that most caught my attention during my studies of experimental psychology (and amplified by my readings of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant). At that time, scientists were beginning to discover the ways in which the brain pieces together its perception of the world, and I was fascinated by the implications of these discoveries for the way we construct our picture of reality. It was clear that what we perceive and what is actually out there are two different things.

This, I know, runs counter to common sense. Right now you are aware of the pages in front of you, various objects around you, sensations in your own body, and sounds in the air. Even though you may understand that all of this is just your reconstruction of reality, it still seems as if you are having a direct perception of the physical world. And I am not suggesting you should try to see it otherwise. What is important for now is the understanding that all our experience is an image of reality constructed in the mind.

Rosenberg's 'liberal naturalism' [CS:JCS:3.1.77]:

"The question of scientific objectivity becomes more compelling when one considers that doubts about the reductive paradigm are by no means new. William James (1890), Charles Sherrington (1951), Erwin Schrodinger (1944, 1958), Karl Popper and John Eccles (1977)--among others--have insisted that the reductive view is inadequate to describe reality. This is not a fringe group. They are among the most thoughtful and highly honored philosophers and scientists of the past century. How is it that their deeply held and vividly expressed views have been so widely ignored? Is it not that we need to see the world as better organized than the evidence suggests?

"Appropriately, the most ambitious chapter of this section is the final one by Willis Harman. Is the conceptual framework of science sufficiently broad to encompass the phenomenon of consciousness, he asks, or must it be somehow enlarged to fit the facts of mental reality? Attempting an answer, he considers the degree to which science can claim to be objective and to what extent it is influenced by the culture in which it is immersed. Those who disagree might pause to consider the religious perspective from which modern science has emerged.

"There is reason to suppose that the roots of our bias toward determinism lie deeper in our cultural history than many are accustomed to suppose. Indeed, it is possible that this bias may even predate modern scientific methods. In his analysis of thirteenth-century European philosophy, Henry Adams (1904) archly observed: "Saint Thomas did not allow the Deity the right to contradict himself, which is one of Man's chief pleasures." One wonders to what extent reductive science has merely replaced Thomas's God with the theory of everything."

The brave atheist physicalist wishes to pretend that his side has total absolute triumph and the silly little religious view point is going "gluge gluge gluge" as it sinks into the sun lite waters of the ocean, but the truth of it is the paradigm shift is already underway. Materialism has vanished. I call my essay "Materialism Vanishes" but it is already gone. Atheists put a happy face on it and call it "phsyicalism" and say it's gotten better, but the truth of it is materialism is gone and it left behind a form of physicalism which incorporates all sorts of idea that just one hundred years ago would have been seen as magical thinking and nonsense. That essay I link to itself offers a wealth of first rate evdience for the supernatural.

Back to the review of Baggini we find more comparisons of non evidence to irrelevant psychical processes of nature that we all agree exist.

Mediums, for example, who claim to be able to communicate with the dead “are unreliable…no medium has ever been able to tell us something that proves beyond reasonable doubt that they are party to information from the ’spirit world’.” (19) Baggini rejects the burden of having to examine each and every possible case of evidence for life after death, because these cases can plausibly be explained by human gullibility and the emotional need to believe in an afterlife. Retreating to the claim that life after death has not been conclusively disproven is not a desirable move either, because many other beliefs which we think are patently absurd are also unfalsifiable.

That just beats the hell out of Christianity. I know so many theolgoians who base their world views on mediums. But notice he refuses to investigate on a case by case basis. I don't care about mediums but this also means that he wont investigate on a case by case basis when it comes to real sure enough God-miracles. That means he's just chucking best evdience without even examining it as I predicted he would. It's just part of that scientific double talk that amounts to circular reasoning; all the cases of claims for supernatural must be wrong because there can't be a supernatural since there's no evidence, we know there's no evdience because we can rule it out without examining it. He says the cases can be explain by human gullibility, but then he's just dumping the while class of evidence without examining it, begging the question that it's all gullibility. How does he know that? Because it violates his ideology so he can just assume so.

The existence (or lack thereof) of life after death contributes to an inductive case for atheistic naturalism: “The evidence of experience is that we live in a world governed by natural laws, that everything that happens in it is explained by natural phenomena.”

What is his assertion based upon? Upon mediums? Mediums can be swept aside without examining their claims, therefore, there's no life after death? This guy is a scientist? How does he know there is no life after death? Of course we are not dealing with his arguments directly, but the website is in capable hands and the one who does the site is very fair minded and I'm sure he's giving Baggini the best possible hearing.

Baggini also offers an argument to the best explanation, contrasting atheism as a worldview with other worldviews. Among the advantages of an atheistic worldview: 1) “It is simple in that it requires us to posit only the existence of the natural world,” whereas “alternatives also require us to posit the existence of an unobserved supernatural world”

I think it would come as a huge shock to most atheists I encounter that atheism is a world view. Most of them relish the arguemnt that its' merely the absence of belief thus freeing it from any responsibility to really explain the world.

2) “the naturalistic worldview…is also more coherent, because it has everything in the universe fitting into one scheme of being. Those who posit a supernatural realm have to explain how this realm and the natural one interact and coexist” 3) “Atheism has great explanatory power when it comes to the existence of divergent religious beliefs”, and so on.

This is an extremely troubling statement because as a world view based upon naturalism and nothing more he's leaving out all sorts of things that even other atheists had the sense to include, but he can't include them unless he's willing to admit that science is not the only form of knowledge. If he does admit that then he has to admit the best evdience of belief, which is philosophical,deductive, and/or phenomenological in nature. What he's leaving out is demonstrably among that which makes life wroth living and yet is naturalistic but inter-subjective and thus opens the door to other form of knowledge that are not naturalistic. I speak of things like Music, art, literature, philosophy, existentialism, phenomenology.

So we can summarize Baggini’s case for atheistic naturalism as follows: naturalism is inductively supported by the (strong) evidence we have for the regularity of the natural world and the fact that many if not all phenomena we observe have natural explanations, and is the best explanation for a variety of phenomena which are puzzling to the theist.

That there is a physical world and it can be studied scientifically is not in question. Therefore, any attempt to compare this to religious belief is mere a chimera. It has nothing to do with a religious view point.

There is a great deal of empriical evidence supporting the supernatural. But of course it depends upon the Peroper Understanding of the Sueprnatural because the atheist's notion of the supernatural as an unseen realm filled with ghosts and demons, angels and major power is the degraded false watered down version that is left in the wake of enlightenment reductionism and Reformation equicicalism. The great psychologist and social scientist Abraham Maslow equated the supernatural with ordinary psychology and he said:

Now that may be taken as a frank admission of a naturalistic psychological origin, except that it invovles a universal symbology which is not explicable through merely naturalistic means. How is it that all humans come to hold these same archetypical symbols? (For more on archetypes see Jesus Chrsit and Mythology page II) The "prematives" viewed and understood a sense of transformation which gave them an integration into the universe. This is crucial for human development. They sensed a power in the numenous, that is the origin of religion."

"In Appendix I and elsewhere in this essay, I have spoken of unitive perception, i.e., fusion of the B-realm with the D-realm, fusion of the eternal with the temporal, the sacred with the profane, etc. Someone has called this "the measureless gap between the poetic perception of reality and prosaic, unreal commonsense." Anyone who cannot perceive the sacred, the eternal, the symbolic, is simply blind to an aspect of reality, as I think I have amply demonstrated elsewhere (54), and in Appendix I, fromPeak Experience

--Abrham Maslow

He was not far wrong. Religious experince is an empirical example of the supernatural. It is exactly what the supernatural was suppossed to be according to Mathias Joheph Scheeben (Natural and Grace, 1865) the nature of God elevating human nature to the higher level.This is studied empirically and is demonstrated in 350 empirical studies. Some of the distillation of those studies can be seen on Doxa. There is fine scientific empriical evdience for Miracles at Lourdes but one must go on a case by case basis. This is what's so phony about Baggini's approach, becasue in denying case by case basis he's merely ruling out best evidence. The miracles committee uses strict rules,the committees seat the finest medical experts in Europe and even have skeptics on the committee. Best medical evidence is required and rules are designed to screen out remission.

But there's no point to any of this because the best evdience for belief is not empirical evdience at all but the realization of what what it means to be. For that one must face life holistically. The problem with Baggini's approach, and to the extent that he represents a form of atheism, the problem with atheism itself is that it resists a holistic approach to life. It's a reductionist approach. you can't holistically. This is the problem with the empiricist view, it ultimately destroys all forms of knowledge and reduces life to a dull set of facts that aren't worth knowing. The minute one begins thinking about what life means and what its for, the minute one begins thinking there must be something more than just this dull bombardment of atoms in the void,(I don't mean thinking of God I just mean thinking about art or music or what life exists, or why be alive or what is there to live for) one is transgressing, moving over the life of good scientific evdience into the dreaded no man's land of the horrible "subjective."

Belief in God is a realization of what it means to be. Denial of belief is a rejection of everything life is about and everything worth while about living. The reductionist view is an anti-life view.


Loren said...

Metacrock, you contradict yourself about the mind/soul.

First, you mock mind/body dualism as the "Casper the Friendly Ghost" view, but then you turn around and assert mind-body dualism and mind being separable from body, which are what you had earlier mocked.

Either mind is composed of some special, nonphysical stuff that can be separated from physical objects, or else it is an emergent property of physical objects and possibly other nonmental things.

I think that the latter is the most likely possibility, because of the inability to isolate any special mind-stuff and the increasing superfluity of that hypothesis (brain research, etc.).

Consider what happened to vitalism. It used to be a respectable hypothesis, but a century ago, it came to look like some "vital force of the gaps" hypothesis, and more recently, molecular biologists have failed to find even a tiny bit of vital force in their labs.

So I suspect that mind-body dualism will go the same way, with rejection of "mind-stuff of the gaps".

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Metacrock, you contradict yourself about the mind/soul.

First, you mock mind/body dualism as the "Casper the Friendly Ghost" view, but then you turn around and assert mind-body dualism and mind being separable from body, which are what you had earlier mocked.

No the Casper thing is totally different from either property dualism or even calssical mnid-body dualism. It's the idea of a discrete substance and this is neither mind nor body and lives on and contiains it's own sort of conscousness in addition to the mind, which is emergent of brain.

My view is property dualism which posits two aspects to the same property. Different from classical mnid/body dualism

Either mind is composed of some special, nonphysical stuff that can be separated from physical objects, or else it is an emergent property of physical objects and possibly other nonmental things.

Yes it is an emergent property but that does not mean it's reducible. Emergent means it emerges as a separate property.

I think that the latter is the most likely possibility, because of the inability to isolate any special mind-stuff and the increasing superfluity of that hypothesis (brain research, etc.).

mind is not dependent on "Mind stuff." Its' a dimension not a substance.

Consider what happened to vitalism. It used to be a respectable hypothesis, but a century ago, it came to look like some "vital force of the gaps" hypothesis, and more recently, molecular biologists have failed to find even a tiny bit of vital force in their labs.

what I'm saying is not analogous to vitalism

So I suspect that mind-body dualism will go the same way, with rejection of "mind-stuff of the gaps".

classical yes, property no

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

here's an interesting report, Julian Baggini conducting himself in a debate on the existence of God.


Board Room
“This House Believes God is a Delusion”
Peter May

* Photo of: Peter May Peter May serves on the General Synod of the Church of England and on the Trust Board of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF). He is a retired GP. View all resources by Peter May

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A Report on the Birmingham University Debating Society meeting, 22nd November 2007

On 22 November 2007, the Birmingham University Debating Society considered the motion: “This House Believes God is a Delusion”.

Guild Council Chamber
The debate took place in the Guild Council Chamber of the University of Birmingham. Two years ago, the Birmingham University Christian Union was disaffiliated from their Guild as they refused to allow non-Christians to become formal members. This debate provided them with an opportunity to raise the profile of Christianity in a Guild event.

The Debating Society
Normally 30-40 people attend debates in the Guild. On this occasion, an unprecedented attendance of around 250 people packed the Chamber, with many having to sit on the floor.

Debate format
Four speakers were invited to give 10 minute speeches. After that the student audience were invited to make 3 minute speeches or ask questions. In the event, speeches continued for nearly an hour and no questions were asked of the panel. Each side was allowed a 5 minute closing speech.

Proposing the motion
Yujin Nagasawa is a lecturer in the university’s Department of Philosophy, where he teaches Philosophy of Religion. He is currently writing a book on The Existence of God. (Dr. Nagasawa stepped in at 48 hours notice to replace Susan Blackmore, who was unable to take part due to illness.)

Julian Baggini edits The Philosopher’s Magazine and writes articles for the national press. Among the many books he has written is A Very Short Introduction to Atheism (OUP).

Opposing the motion
Krish Kandiah was formerly Director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and is currently Director of the Churches in Mission department of UK Evangelical Alliance.

Peter May is a former GP, author of Dialogue in Evangelism and is Chairman of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF).

The debate
Yujin Nagasawa proposed the motion claiming that atheism or agnosticism is the natural default position for humanity. He defined a delusion as an irrational belief and therefore the onus was on those who opposed the motion to provide good arguments for the existence of God. He indicated that he knew of no good grounds for believing in an immaterial, timeless, omnipotent and omniscient perfect being. If such a being existed, why does he allow natural disasters and the killing of innocent children? The idea of such a God is incoherent. Furthermore, if God is immaterial, how could he produce matter?

Peter May replied not knowing in advance that Dr Nagasawa would be taking part. However, he had read Julian Baggini’s book on Atheism. In it he states that the Cosmological Argument is a “disgrace to philosophy” (p.94). However, he mis-states this argument and sets it up as ‘straw man’. He claims that the argument states that everything that exists has a cause. To conclude therefore that God exists merely asserts that God also must have a cause! As developed by William Craig, the argument starts with the premise that everything that begins to exist has a cause. This is not just playing with words. If the uncaused, first cause exists outside of time, nothing could have preceded him. Furthermore, Baggini claims that morality is entirely independent of God, so that Dostoevsky was wrong to assert that without God, anything is permitted (p.37). Peter was therefore keen to test him on both arguments.

Julian Baggini, speaking without notes, initially tried to restate the cosmological argument in his own terms but then admitted that Peter’s version had changed it significantly. He did not then attempt to rebut either the cosmological argument or address the moral argument. Instead he did something which was quite remarkable for a philosopher; he quit the field of argument. Refusing to tackle the two serious arguments that had been put forward, he said that most people’s opinions about God are set at a very early age and are not driven by argument. Rather it depends where in the world you live and what you are brought up to believe. “Faith” drives the argument. Religious people just “know” they are right and arguments can’t beat experience.

Krish Kandiah followed. He stated that ‘proof’ can only be found in the field of mathematics. Christian belief was not a blind, irrational leap but a reasonable trust. He then appealed to the evidence about Christ, the experience of trusting him and the explanatory power of the Christian worldview, which makes sense of our lives and gives meaning and purpose to human existence.

Fourteen short speeches from the floor then followed. The first speaker said the burden of proof was on the theists. He argued that we can believe in the holocaust because it was recent but not in events which were 2000 years ago. He failed to appreciate that the New Testament documents were written close to the events and that such evidence does not weaken with the passage of time. Two thousand years later, they were still written within living memory of the events they describe! Another speaker quoted Sartre as saying that the meaning of our life is what we give it and that Jesus’s existence only means that Jesus existed. Another claimed that morals are relative. Several speakers complained about the wording of the motion, saying that the word ‘delusion’ was insulting. Someone asked what made us what we are, answering that there has to be someone there. Another pointed out that human nature is inclined to self-interest. It is our lack of humility that separates us from God.

Julian Baggini then gave the closing statement for the proposition. He reverted to his theme that you cannot persuade believers. Citing Hinduism and Roman Catholicism, he claimed most religious ideas are vague and mutually contradictory. God is supposed to be everywhere but “I can’t find him”. He confessed that he might be wrong about atheism but a Christian would never admit that he might be wrong about God.

Krish Kandiah concluded for the opposition. He said that the strongest argument he had heard against the existence of God was the fact of suffering. He explained that the Christian understanding is that there are things God cannot do. He cannot make a square circle and he cannot give us free will and at the same time control our actions. They are mutually incompatible things. Furthermore, God does not stand by and watch our suffering but entered our world and endured terrible suffering in Christ to redeem us. Furthermore, he sends us into the world to care for those who are suffering.

The most unsatisfactory aspect of this enjoyable event was that real debate did not take place. Many different statements were made. The main speakers had no opportunity to engage with one another and press home their arguments. Why, for instance, is atheism assumed to be the default position for mankind, when the entire history of humanity shows that every culture has defaulted to religious belief? Neither did the audience use their opportunity to challenge them, preferring instead to make their own speeches. This had a very post-modern feel to it.

The proponents asked for good arguments, but then failed to respond to them! This refusal to engage with them meant they deserved to lose the debate. A show of hands was counted at the beginning and again at the end; the ‘swing’ determined the result. The motion was lost but a great many conversations were started.

The text of Peter May’s opening speech is available here.

Krish Kandiah’s report on the debate was published in the Evangelical Alliance's idea magazine.

* © Peter May

Anonymous said...

This is a very good response. Lots of food for thought. Many of the same objections were arising in my mind as I wrote the review. I particularly like your 'so what' response to the argument from the regularity of nature and the success of science. That's exactly what I was thinking: theists can even point to nature's regularity as evidence of God's faithfulness and constancy. I also agree that we need a better understanding of the word 'supernatural'. I'm hoping that more detailed books than the one I'm reviewing now will clarify what we're talking about. Great stuff.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

I'm not impressed with Baggini. I have tried to find stuff about this book. It's mentioned a lot on atheist sties but no real cogent reviews except a couple. Based upon that I don't think he really says anything I can't hear on a message board.

glad you liked by piece. We need to do a lot on the SN. I'm convinced people have hold of the wrong concept.

Anonymous said...

Hello sir. Yesterday I read this atheistic book in greek translation, so I was searching for an answer. Glad I found you. Even it would be possible I could slightly disagree in details, this must be considered physical and acceptable. Atheists too, disagree with each other in details.

If Im not a weight on your back and youd like to provide some more help, then it will be highly appreaciated. I have a few more questions.
You can contact me at sending me your email.

A main question I have(reply here if you wish) is about his statement that the idea of "eternal life" cancels the notion of a purposeful life. He says that this is true for 2 reasons
1)Everything that has a beginning must have an end in order to be meaningful, for example a movie, a book, a football match
2) If life was eternal and not short, we would cancel things for the next day. We wouldnt run to accomplish aims in our lives and maybe it would be boring.

Also something I thought on my own. If everyone was happy, full and satisfied and no wars or fights for spiritual or material goods (that we were missing) were held, would it be boring then? I mean does "fight" for something gives a meaningful life, in contrast with someone who already lives in paradise and possesses whatever it wants? Could life in paradise be boring?

Your brother in Christ,
Chris Andrea

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

thanks for your comments. I'm going to answer this in the major blog piece for today. Just look for it by Metacrock's blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you sir. I'll add a few more questions questions.Answer WHENEVER you wish.

I just read this atheist's book and because Im busy with some other things, I need to post fast what I search, to an expert. Of course youre not forced to answer fast, but at the end we will have a powerful list of answers against atheism.
Its a shame I hadnt dealt with humanism so much. It looks more interesting to know its' opinions rather than the ones of hateful atheism, which I can easily debunk.

You can comment on these
1)He says that Christians equate "meaning of life" with belief in God. He wonders why they are so slavish waiting for others to set for them the meaning of life.

2)He then says some things I agree, for example dont live your life just to see an aim accomplished but be excited and satisfied by the whole effort no matter the result. Or other things like the fact that pleasure is temporary. But saying that pleasure is temporary I think he tries to water down his previous statement of hailing pleasure: "drink,eat and dont ask why you do it cause you lose the game and you exchange this unique life you have with a nonexistent "promised afterlife".

3)Something we forgot! Morality! He makes a subtle argument about it. He says that morality exists apart from God or laws and that if it was coming from God, then He would consider good or bad whatever he wishes. He gives the example of human laws that come after morality exists and are usually based upon morality. That is to say, laws can be moral but they are not the creator of morality. The same as saying God is moral, but He didnt create morality. Then that we make on our own our moral choices, no matter if we obey to the command of God, as Abraham did. And finally, I think he considers our personal experience the creator of morality. For example we know what pain is if we have subjectively experienced it, so we want to help others and we dont want others to suffer in the same way we dont want ourselves to suffer. We dont want to do to others what we dont like other doing to us.

Some of my thoughts.
But he says not a word about how a mechanistic unconscious universe would bear consciousness and morality. How a simple or complex unconsciousness can bear consciousness and intelligence, the ability to dinstict from what is good and bad, useful or harmful.
For example a house doesnt care if someone brings it down. How and why then an unsconscious "life"(if we accept the lie of abiogenesis) would be conscious and moral? Is morality a property arising from chemicals? Lol.

Ok. I hope I wrote interesting things for study. I also want to study your notion of "metaphysical". Just a question on this. Why its not also a literal place we just cant go or see with our current machines?(our bodies who are sensitive to a specific range of frequencies) Do you remember Paul saying he was caught on the 3rd heaven? This seems above the physical heaven. I may say you some details about it another time.

As for me, I believe in the geocentric model although I respect other beliefs, but I dont rush to bown down to atheistic science and marry it with religion.

Have a good day and thank you very much for your help

Chris Andrea

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

I am going to answer these in the main blog spot too on Friday. thanks for the material.