Thursday, 30 July 2009

My Grandfather

He died many years ago, when I was still a student. I remember many stories he told - for instance of being in the Home Guard and on duty in Coventry the night it was heavily bombed in November 1940.

There are two stories that I would like to recall.

One is a small and harmless trick he would play on visiting grandchildren. In the flowerbed just outside his front door, he had a collection of brightly coloured pebbles which he had picked up from beaches around the country. And he introduced all the grandchildren to the hobby of "stonewatching".

"If you look carefully at these stones from day to day, you will notice that they change colour a little. And from the change in colour, you can tell what the weather will be today."

This all seemed immensely plausible to a 4-year-old boy, especially coming from the lips of a wise old grandfather who had been a headteacher before he retired, and who therefore knew perfectly well how to sound extremely authoritative to young children. So I would stare and stare at these stones, and of course I convinced myself that I had seen some change of colour in them.

I rather suspect that the story had two purposes. One was to let him have a bit of peace for a while by getting me harmlessly and quietly occupied with something. But I also suspect that he had another purpose, that I would only understand properly when I had grown up, which was to trust the evidence of my own eyes ahead of what I was told by others, no matter how wise or authoritative they seem.

Stonewatching has become part of my family folklore. All my brothers and sisters and cousins were taken in by it. I don't have grandchildren yet, but if and when the first one is born, I think I will start collecting some coloured pebbles...

The other story is one he used to tell of the time when he was a young man, and going into the city centre he would often be accosted by preachers who would ask "Are you saved?"

Now this was a tricky question. If you answered "No", then they would immediately go about trying to save you. If you answered "Yes", they would grab you by the elbow and say "Well, then you must come and help me save somebody else."

So, my grandfather developed the following response.

"Well, yes as it happens I am saved, but it was such a close thing that I don't really like to talk about it."

The preachers, not quite knowing what to make of this response and whether he was being serious or not, left him alone.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Spong: Beyond theism but not beyond God?

In Chapter three, Spong takes up again the thesis that theism grew up alongside the development of our self-consciousness, essentially as a way of re-assuring ourselves that something of us would continue after we die.

Again, I have problems with this idea, first of all because I don’t think it is a complete and sufficient explanation. For instance, I think it gives too little credit to the idea that we tend to anthropomorphize everything. We are conscious agents with intelligence and intentions, and we can see that animals are the same to some extent. If animals, then why not thunderstorms, the sun, clouds, waterfalls and trees waving in the wind? Even now, though we know better, emotionally we can sometimes feel that inanimate objects are conspiring to frustrate us.

Secondly, as I understand it, theistic religions (at least, the early animistic versions of them) predate the belief in life after death, and the idea of life after death is not a necessary part of all religions, it just happens to be a major aspect of the religions we are most familiar with today. If that is the case, then religion originally was not (as Spong claims) primarily about easing the angst of our impending earthly demise.

In chapter four, “Beyond Theism but Not Beyond God” Spong starts looking to see if there is any way in which we can describe what he calls the God-experience in a new way. I’ve read through the chapter several times, and I have to say I find it somewhat incoherent. It seems to me that he is trying to describe our experience of God without defining the God we are experiencing. God is not a supernatural theistic deity, and yet is still something apart from the natural world – which rather suggests that Spong is finding it very hard to find a description that moves away from a supernatural being periodically invading the world to achieve the divine will.

Sometimes, God gets described as a symbol. “The God we once saw theistically as a being can now also be seen as a symbol of Being itself.” And later he says “This God is the source of life, the source of love, the Ground of Being. The theistic God of yesterday is a symbol for the essence, the being of life in which we share. God is life, we say, and we worship this God by living fully.”

Now it seems to me that Spong is trying to have his cake and eat it. He is claiming the nonreality of the theistic God, is talking symbolically of the nontheistic God he seeks to discover in its place, and yet claims that it has a reality that goes beyond the merely symbolic.

I can do symbolism as well as the next person, and if Spong wanted to say that God is the word he uses to represent everything that is best in the human experience of Life and Love, then I would have had no difficulty with that. But it seems he wants more than this, a God with an existence independent of the symbolism we associate with the word, even as he claims that the God-experience he describes is of a God which defies definition. It seems to me that if he wants a God with an independent existence, then he is sliding back towards the theism which he claims is dead.

I get the impression that the 21 pages of this chapter contain his central thesis, and yet I can’t quite see the bit of firm ground on which he looks to build his new structure. It all looks like quicksand to me.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Richard Swinburne "The Existence of God"

I got this book out of the library last weekend - the second edition published in 2004. In it, Richard Swinburne spends about 350 pages going through the various arguments for God, and finds them persuasive.

Interestingly, Swinburne's definition of God is somewhat narrower than that provided by Dawkins in The God Delusion, and also narrower than Spong's definition of the Theistic God in A New Christianity for a New Age. I think it is worth making a direct comparison between them.

Here is the Dawkins version:
There exists a superhuman supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed the universe and everything in it, including us.
Here is Spong's understanding of a theistic God:
A being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will.
Note that there is some difference here. Dawkins' definition encompasses the non-interfering God of deism as well as the activist God of theism, while Spong is specifically describing a theistic God. Spong isn't making explicit Dawkins' claim that God created the universe, but that doesn't matter a great deal. If God is outside the universe, then whether or not God created the universe, he must have come into existence separately from it, and therefore Dawkins' arguments against God apply with just the same force to Spong's definition as to his own.

Swinburne's version of the God proposition is this:
There exists necessarily a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient , perfectly good, and the creator of all things.
This seems to me to be a narrower definition than either Spong's or Dawkins'. Although Swinburne doesn't actually use the word "supernatural" in his definition, this can be inferred, since omniscience and omnipotence are both generally regarded as being supernatural properties. Swinburne and Dawkins agree in their definition being one of a God who is the creator of all things, but Swinburne adds "without a body", "perfectly free" and "perfectly good" to his definition, and makes the existence and properties of such a God both "necessary". What this means is that Swinburne's definition is a subset of Dawkins' definition - Swinburne's God meets all the critera of Dawkins' definition, and so all Dawkins' arguments are applicable to Swinburne's God. Since they reach opposite conclusions, one or other of them must be wrong.

Swinburne's definition is also a subset of Spong's. Spong makes no statement concerning the characteristics of "the divine will" but Swinburne talks of it being "perfectly good".

Interestingly, in the first chapter Swinburne accepts that there are no conclusive deductive arguments for or against God's existence that start from generally-accepted premisses. So he accepts that one can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. So he starts out by stating that he proposes to use inductive arguments, and explains at considerable length what he means by this and how he proposes to use them. By means of these inductive arguments (whose subject matter cover the usual range of topics I've written about before), he finds that the balance of probability greatly favours the existence of God.

I think there are some fundamental errors in Swinburne's approach, which result in his conclusions being invalid. It will take a good deal of detail to explain what those errors are, so I'm not going to go into them now. Instead, I intend to go though the book in the same level of detail as I'm covering Spong, but only after I have finished the Spong blog.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Visiting Edinburgh

I'm up in Edinburgh from 10-14 August, playing in some concerts on the Fringe. Come over to my Horn Thoughts blog for details of the concerts I'm playing in.

Any CiF Belief people or other readers who are going to be in the vicinity, it would be great to meet up for a drink and a chat, or even a meal and a chat. You'll be very welcome at the concerts as well!

If you would like to meet up, drop a comment here, or email me.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Back to Bishop Spong

With other things going on, I've been neglecting my series on Bishop Spong and his book, A New Christianity for a New World. Time to get back to it. Here is the next chapter.

In the next chapter of his book, Spong looks at the death of theism. Defining a theistic God as “a being, supernatural in power, dwelling outside this world and invading the world periodically to accomplish the divine will”, he deals with the decline of belief in such a God, for which he sees both rational and emotional evidence.

The rational evidence is dealt with in a couple of pages, that our understanding of the world is so much greater than it was in past times that many things we used to believe were God’s work – disease as signs of God’s displeasure, or the weather as something controlled by God. We now know that these are natural processes unrelated to sin, and we realise that antibiotics work just as well on sinners as on saints!

He goes on at much greater length about what he calls the emotional data, by which he means signs of psychological dysfunction in the world. He takes a brisk canter through various of the evils of the world – addiction to caffeine, alcohol and tranquillizers, school shootings, terrorism, the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing, in each case seeing in them an emotional and hysterical reaction to the loss of our theistic safety-blanket.

I’ve read too much history and too many of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science columns to be convinced by this. It sounds too much as if Spong has decided on his theory and is looking to find ways of making the facts fit it. Take one small example. According to Spong “Recent studies reveal that thirteen percent of the people in the United States are admitted alcoholics – a number that, if true, staggers the imagination since, undoubtedly many more people have alcohol problems than admit to them.” My antennae immediately twitch at that. What recent studies? What were the criteria for placing people in the category “admitted alcoholics”? Who conducted the studies? What was their methodology? Although Spong includes quite a few endnotes in his book, none of them reference this specific figure, so I have no way of knowing whether he has correctly interpreted the data, was exaggerating, or (more likely) was taken in by an exaggeration in a news report.

For each of the points that he regards as being evidence for his idea that loss of belief in a theistic God is causing uncertainty manifesting itself in various kinds of psychological disturbance, I can think of at least two or three other probably greater contributing factors. That’s not to say that Spong is necessarily wrong in seeing a significant connection between all these things and the decline of theistic belief, though I think it his ideas are somewhat implausible. But it would take quite a lot of detailed study to find out, research that has not been undertaken. For instance, widespread dependence on prescription tranquillisers is to a certain extent a specifically American problem, to which the direct marketing of prescription drugs to consumers (banned in the UK and much of Europe) and the medicalisation of many conditions previously regarded as being within the range of normal experience have both made large contributions. That doesn’t make the situation any healthier, but an incorrect diagnosis of the cause can lead to inappropriate actions in pursuit of a cure.

To a certain extent, this doesn’t matter. Spong has diagnosed the decline and fall of theism, and in my view that diagnosis is reliably correct on the rational evidence alone. The problem is that the symptoms of the loss of theism are linked to his next chapter on the rise of theism. More on that another time.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Evidence claimed for God's existence

So now, I've been through all the major classes of reasons offered to me by Christians of my acquaintance as to why I should believe in God

It's worth going through a brief recap.

In Is religious belief rational? I discussed biblical inerrancy, and claims generally that the Bible is of and by itself sufficient evidence for God.

I also addressed the Argument from Numbers, the claim that the existence of lots of believers is evidence of the truth of their beliefs.

In More arguments for God I went through various "origins" arguments: the argument from first causes, and both the biological and cosmological versions of the argument from design.

In Miracles great and small I looked at Biblical miracles, "medical miracles", long-odds coincidences (which I call "Little miracles"), the claim that science hasn't explained everything so you can't disprove God, and the concept of the Unfalsifiable God. (To fit all these into a single article, I had to scamer rather quickly through those concepts. I would have liked to do a whole article on each of those topics, I think that they could have stood it, but CiF Belief weren't keen on commissioning what would have become a long series had I done so.)

In Moral arguments for God I moved into territory which has been discussed lately in terms of "Belief in Belief": that people behave better when they believe, that Christians are leaders in understanding morality, and that without a divine law-giver we wouldn't have a sense of morality. The first two of these are arguments for the desirability of God's existence, not for the truth of it. The third is undermined by the fact that we have evolved as social animals, and so our emotions and sense of morality has evolved to offer reasons to co-operate with each other, and this is an explanation that does not require God.

Then in Personal Experiences of God I dealt with mystical experiences and why they are not persuasive.

I think this covers pretty much the full field of arguments commonly put forward in favour of God. The comments in the various articles didn't bring up any really significant new twists.

Right at the start of this series, in The cosmic detective, I wrote:
In the absence of anything better, it seems to me that the scientific approach is the best available way of tackling the question of the existence and characteristics of the theistic God. But it could be argued that God's characteristics are so important to us that even science is not good enough for the job. If you think that, then you need to decide what alternative approach to use instead, and to justify why it is superior.
And this is the key issue. None of the "evidence" offered remotely passes muster by scientific standards. Either it contains logical fallacies, or it involves "cherry-picking" favourable evidence while ignoring or suppressing unfavourable evidence, or it involves a retreat into untestable propositions. No serious attempt was even made by those commenting in favour of belief in God to address the issues in a scientific way. But also nobody has made any serious attempt to suggest that a scientific approach is inappropriate and some other method is superior for the purpose.

In the first article HappyClappy made some attempt at doing so, but that amounted either to going on an Alpha course (Adam Rutherford is in the process of describing the detailed shortcomings of that approach) or observing whether theists behave better after conversion. It is certainly possible to study that, but all that would provide would be evidence of the effect of believing, not evidence of the truth of the beliefs.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Theology and pseudoscience

I keep revisiting Ben Goldacre's Bad Science.

I was rereading the first chapter today, about detox treatments. He spends a few pages explaining how to do a scientific test on a detox foot spa (claimed by the manufacturers to release toxins from your body) which can clearly demonstrate that all that is created is rust and chlorine as a result of electrolysing salt water with iron electrodes, whether or not you put your foot into it. Then he writes this striking paragraph.
Now, with findings like these, scientists might take a step back, and revise their ideas about what is going on with the footbaths. We don't really expect the manufacturers to do that, but what they say in response to these findings is very interesting, at least to me, because it sets up a pattern that we will see repeated throughout the world of pseudoscience: instead of addressing the criticisms, or embracing the new findings in a new model, they seem to shift the goalposts and retreat, crucially into untestable propositions.
He then goes on to describe several such untestable propositions: e.g. that the toxins aren't actually released into the footbath (so they can't be measured) but rather the footbath stimulates the body to get rid of its toxins (whatever they are) in its normal way (whatever that might be), or they talk about a "bioenergetic field" (which also can't be measured), and so on.

And I was struck by a remarkable parallel. This is the story of theology over the past few hundred years as scientific discoveries have progressively shown that more and more phenomena previously thought to be God at work are now known to be the operation of unchanging natural laws. The reaction has been to redefine God in untestable way - as God-of-the-Gaps, and then eventually as a God who works through the laws on nature rather than performing miracles which disrupt them, for instance as Tillich's "Ground of our Being".

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Atheism as a faith position

One common challenge made to atheists is that it is as much a faith position to believe in no God as it is to believe in God. There would be some justification for this except that there are a multiplicity of possible Gods, and even within a single religion such as Christianity people have radically conflicting understandings of God. I don't think that the God of (say) Pat Robertson and Rowan Williams are in any way compatible with each other. On what basis should one be chosen over another?

Some atheists get themselves in a terrible tangle over this, as can be seen in the comments over on Richard Dawkins' site when a copy of part of I'm an atheist, OK? was put up there. In order to claim that they are not making a faith position, they try to distinguish between believing in no God and not believing in any God. In both cases, the number of Gods in whose existence they believe in is zero, but they are trying by grammatical prestidigitation to claim that the first formulation isn't a faith position (as it is a lack of belief in a presence) even if the second arguably is (because it is a belief in an absence).

This is completely unnecessary. A belief isn't a faith position unless you hold it with a strength unjustified by the balance of the evidence. If you conclude that you are an atheist because the preponderance of the evidence points that way, then that isn't a faith position, whatever grammatical construction you use in order to express it.

My response to the claim that atheism is a faith position is that I will believe anything for which there is credible evidence, and I don’t award an exemption from this principle to God. As I’ve described in my CiF articles, I haven’t found any convincing evidence for God, though some people mistakenly think of many things as evidence which really aren’t.

Show me the evidence and I’ll change my mind.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

An invitation to any religious believer

Criticisms of atheists (new, militant, pantomime or plain) by the religious tend to revolve round claims that atheists are strident or divisive. They never seem to address whether the atheists are wrong.

I would like to address this. If you are a Christian or a follower of any other religion, and you have evidence for God's existence which you think that the atheists have missed, then I invite you to tell me.

So that we have a common understanding of the task, let me describe what I'm talking about when I use the word God. I'm not going to use my own definition, but instead quote that used by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion.

The God Hypothesis as described by Dawkins is as follows:

There exists a superhuman supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed the universe and everything in it, including us.

If your concept of God does not involve any supernatural element to it, then that is fine - you don't believe in God as commonly understood by Christianity or any of the other main monotheistic religions, and we therefore have no major point of disagreement on the subject.

Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding. Dawkins added the following.

This is as good a moment as any to forestall an inevitable retort ... 'The God that Dawkins doesn't believe in is a God I don't believe in either. I don't believe in an old man in the sky with a long beard.' That old man is an irrelevant distraction and his beard is as tedious as it is long. Indeed, the distraction is worse than irrelevant. Its very silliness is calculated to distract attention from the fact that what the speaker believes is not a whole lot less silly. I know you don't believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let's not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

The fourth chapter of The God Delusion is titled "Why there almost certainly is no God". Taking Dawkins' definition as quoted above, explain what evidence he has missed or what error of reasoning he has made which renders his conclusion invalid.

Brief contributions can be made in comments, or if you feel that the explanation will take more words than can be accommodated in a comment, send me an email (the email link is in the "View my complete profile" on the right) with your explanation. For emailed contributions, if what you say contains any evidence at all, I will post it here for comment. I may post the better contributions that make a serious attempt at describing something, even if in my view what they describe doesn't amount to evidence.

So we can avoid simply going over the old ground of logical fallacies and cognitive illusions, I suggest that before commenting, you read through my articles in Cif Belief which describe several such. I'm interested in evidence, not wishful thinking masquerading as evidence.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Personal Experiences of God

(This is a the long-awaited article on personal experiences of God, the last in the series of Reasons to Believe, the rest of which had been published on CiF Belief. I held off posting it here until all possible hope of Andrew Brown publishing it on CiF belief had passed.)

In conversations with Christians, sometimes I ask “What made you start believing in God in the first place?” The reasons for believing that I described in my previous articles hardly ever figure. It almost always turns out that their faith has come from one of two sources. Either they were brought up in their religion, or they acquired it through some powerful personal experience. Everything else that has been described to me as a reason to believe in God is an ex post facto justification for beliefs already held.

In many important ways, everything is a personal experience, including the experience of you reading these words. All scientific discoveries are personal experiences, resulting from individual scientists making observations. Personal experiences can be used directly in terms of scientific data. If you are trialling a new pain medication, then a key thing you want to know is whether it effectively relieves pain. The science of medicine is designed to allow us to find reliable answers to such questions, and those answers are meaningless except in the context of the personal experiences of the patients.

But we have to be careful about what conclusions we draw from experiences. We have learned that there are many ways in which our senses can be fooled into thinking we have experienced something which is not there, and we have also discovered many different ways in which our habits of thought can mislead us. As a result, scientists take great care to try and eliminate these sources of error. Ben Goldacre in his article on homeopathy describes this very well.

People occasionally have very strange and powerful experiences. I described a friend’s mystical experience in my first article on CiF. But can we take these kinds of experiences as evidence for God?

As with “medical miracles”, it is a mistake to consider the most remarkable cases in isolation from all the others. They have their place in a very wide spectrum of experiences. When I play in a concert, I occasionally experience a very powerful sense of euphoria when everything is going really well. It is rare, but when it happens the experience can be enough to keep me walking on air for weeks afterwards. Many athletes have described “the zone”, a state of mind in which their coordination appears to be perfect and their actions seem effortless. There is no reason to suppose that supernatural intervention is involved in any of this, though several aspects bear a marked similarity to reports of mystical experiences.

Also, experiences similar to mystical experiences commonly occur under the influence of various legal or illegal drugs, but those drugs are decidedly not supernatural!

Then we need to consider experiences of similar intensity but with different subject matter. If you were to have a very vivid dream in which Gandalf figures prominently, you would not take that as evidence that The Lord of the Rings is history and that an archaeologist will someday stumble across the ruins of Rivendell or Minas Tirith. (Though an archaeologist friend once told me that many archaeologists secretly wish that they could do exactly that!)

It is for this reason that anecdotes of mystical experiences fail to be persuasive as evidence for God. They have too many similarities with other experiences to which we don’t ascribe a supernatural explanation. Unless we engage in God-of-the-Gaps reasoning, saying that we don’t understand how these experiences happen and therefore they come from God, we need some suggestions as to how these specific experiences reach our minds from outside, and in what way the means of their arrival is different from that of any other similar experience. I’m quite prepared to listen to any such explanations, provided they are backed by evidence supporting them. But none has ever been offered to me.

Persona non grata at CiF Belief

It appears that I have committed an unforgivable sin.

As a result of recommending that commenters should boycott Andrew Brown's blog for a week to express displeasure at his unwillingness to adhere in his own above-the-line behaviour to the standards that he expected of the rest of us below the line, I have been told that no more articles from me will be commissioned or accepted, and the article on personal experiences of God (which I know some of you have been awaiting for some time) will not be published on CiF Belief even though it was commissioned and accepted.

The thread was O come all ye faithless, in which (in the opinion of several) Andrew made rather a prat of himself trying to ban WoollyMindedLiberal from attending the CiF Believers get-together in London on August 8th. The offending comment was as follows:

I've met Andrew, he bought me dinner last November prior to my first ATL article, and he is perfectly amicable face-to-face. I'm just a bit disappointed that his recent online behaviour hasn't come up to the standards he has been saying he expects of others. We can get banned for it - but we can't ban that behaviour in him. Or can we?

There is a very simple and effective way in which you can show your displeasure. For the next week, decline to make any comment on any of AB's blog articles (apart from this one) and decline even to view the page (this will affect page hits and therefore ad revenue). Click Recommend on this comment if you're prepared to do that.

If this comment happens to get deleted by the mods, I've kept a copy and will put it up on my blog instead.

But this was just the latest in a series of actions from Andrew that displayed a sense of double-standards between what is acceptable above-the-line and below-the-line, and for that matter what is acceptable amongst theist as opposed to atheist authors. At the time, Andrew seemed to view the matter somewhat lightheartedly. An hour or so later he posted saying
I would just like to say that I have clicked recommend on JW's most recent post.
But it seems that this was just for show, and in fact he regarded the matter very seriously. He has my email address and phone number. It's a pity he couldn't have contacted me to get it sorted at the time.

Andrew is of course perfectly entitled to decide who he will commission articles from, and perfectly entitled to decide not to take any more from me. I'm rather surprised and disappointed though that he chose to leave it three weeks before making any mention of this to me, and initially to lie about the reasons the personal experiences article would not be published, saying it hadn't been commissioned. He only offered this new reason in an email after I sent him the correspondence in which the commission was clearly stated and raised the issue with Matt Seaton (overall CiF editor).

So that's where things stand. To an extent, I have no reason to complain. I stated in a later comment that the purpose of the boycott was to show "that actions have consequences", so I can hardly whinge when my own actions have consequences other than those I would prefer. I would have been happy to contribute to the success of CiF Belief by politely stating an atheist viewpoint on issues both above and below the line. But it seems that is not going to happen.

I don't feel inclined to continue contributing to CiF in the present circumstances. I hope to write plenty more and put it up here instead. I hope that those of you who have enjoyed my articles on CiF Belief will continue to read me here and comment.