Thursday, April 17, 2008

God Explains Nothing

When theists are asked to justify their belief in God, they often respond that God is required to explain some facet of reality that they consider otherwise unexplainable. God explains where the universe comes from, where life comes from, where morals come from, or why there is something rather than nothing. Since science lacks the answers to these questions1, they claim, we must look to religion. Enter God, stage left.

This line of reasoning is, of course, a logical fallacy known as argumentum ad ignorantiam (argument from ignorance), and sometimes called the "God of the gaps" fallacy. The argument's fault lies in the implicit assumption that the God explanation gains automatic credence by virtue of humanity's general ignorance on the subject (or, as is often the case, the personal ignorance of the one advancing the argument). The existence of anything can only be established via direct evidence, and the argument from ignorance offers none.

Ignorance, of course, goes a long way toward explaining why religions exist in the first place. The major religions of today were born in an era when life and death phenomena such a weather, disease, and natural disasters were completely unexplained. Thus myths developed to explain what was then a complete mystery, and those myths grew into religions over the course of generations. Viewed from this perspective, "God of the gaps" has a long and inglorious history -- we now understand weather, disease, and natural disasters (to name just a few) without reference to the supernatural. Nevertheless, gaps in our collected knowledge remain, and probably always will; it is a sad commentary on human rationality that many of us tend to cling to any explanation, however inadequate, rather then accept that we simply do not know.

Argumentum ad ignorantiam is closely related to what Richard Dawkins has dubbed the "argument from personal incredulity". This argument, most often deployed by fundamentalists, states that while, for example, the development of life does have a scientific explanation, it is simply too incredible to be believed. This argument can take forms ranging from the uninformed and willfully ignorant ("I just can't see how something as complex as the eye could have just formed itself") to the philosophically ridiculous ("When I consider the miracle of birth, I just can't believe there's no God"). Needless to say, reality is wholly independent of one's capacity to accept it. The argument from personal incredulity has nothing worthwhile to say about the truth, but does say a great deal about the intellectual laziness of the person making it.

Even were arguments from ignorance and personal incredulity logically valid, they would still suffer from another fatal flaw -- the God explanation always regresses to the very problem it purports to solve. If God explains how the universe (or life) came to exist, how did God come to exist? If God is the source of morality, where did God get his morality? If God explains why there is something rather than nothing, why is there God rather than nothing? God is a cheap answer, a pseudo-explanation fit only for those who are unable or unwilling to think critically. A general rule of science (not to mention common sense), known as the principle of parsimony or Occam's razor, states that we should favor economy of explanation. Thus we can dispense with any hypothesis that simply adds complexity and raises new questions, while lacking any real explanatory power in the final analysis. That seems to describe the God hypothesis quite well, as God explains nothing.

1Science does, in fact, have a great deal to say on these topics, as I will explore in future posts. Intellectually honest religious people tend to emphasise that scientific knowledge on such subjects is inadequate or incomplete; dishonest ones tend to ignore, misrepresent, or remain ignorant of the state of scientific knowledge.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Senseless Center

In the world of a moderate Christian, you can have your cake and eat it too. All of the pillars of modern science, including Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary biology, are held to be true, but Christianity is true also. Thus there is no conflict between science and religion , they are simply different ways of knowing. If fundamentalists and atheists would just relinquish their dogmatic, extreme, uncompromising positions and embrace the middle ground that moderates have staked out, we would all live in a more harmonious world. Christian moderates fashion themselves as peacemakers; they have the solution to the fruitless and often polemic debate between the two "extremes". Sounds perfectly sensible, right?

Actually, it's completely senseless. Christian moderates have committed the logical fallacy known as argumentum ad temperantiam (argument to moderation), wherein the middle ground between two positions is asserted to be the most reasonable merely by virtue of being the middle ground. The popular phrase the truth lies somewhere in between is essentially an appeal to argumentum ad temperantiam. While the middle ground is sometimes correct, it is entitled to no special claim on truth. Like any other claim, a middle ground claim must be established as true on the basis of evidence. On that score, moderate Christianity fails miserably.

To give just one popular example, moderate Christians usually claim that there is no conflict between the scientific story of the development of the universe (beginning with the Big Bang and ultimately leading to humans living on Earth via evolution) and the Bible (specifically the Book of Genesis). I have searched extensively for explanations of how to reconcile the two, and have found only weak rationalizations. I feel confident in asserting that no intellectually satisfying reconciliation exists.

The first tactic moderates often employ is evasion. The Bible is not a scientific textbook, they say, and ought not be read literally. The commentary at the beginning of my Bible (the New Revised Standard Version) says the following:

Chapters 1-3 deal with questions that have been asked in every age: "Where did the world and its inhabitants come from?" ... Genesis says: God created everything (1:1). The book does not give details as to when or how this was done. Innumerable fruitless arguments have raged as people have tried to use Genesis to prove or disprove various scientific theories. Genesis is simply not intended to be a scientific report. Rather, Genesis is a confession of faith. It declares that God is the Creator of all, and human beings are the climax of God's creation.

Similarly, Francis Collins1, in his Time magazine debate with Richard Dawkins, said:

St. Augustine wrote that basically it is not possible to understand what was being described in Genesis. It was not intended as a science textbook. It was intended as a description of who God was, who we are and what our relationship is supposed to be with God. Augustine explicitly warns against a very narrow perspective that will put our faith at risk of looking ridiculous. If you step back from that one narrow interpretation, what the Bible describes is very consistent with the Big Bang.

These attempts are hand waving are meant to distract attention from, and avoid confronting, what Genesis actually says. In Genesis 1, the entire universe is created in six days. The earth is created on the first day; plants are created on the third day; the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth; and so on, with humans appearing last, on the sixth day, and God "resting" on the seventh.

When pressed, moderates will declare this to be metaphor -- the "days" are not literal days but rather periods of time, perhaps even billions of years. To support this assertion, they point out that the sun is not created until the fourth "day", and since it is impossible to have a day without the sun, the term must have another meaning. They may also point to phrases later in the Bible, such as "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" (2 Peter 3:8).

This explanation is absurd. Even were we to allow the "days" is Genesis 1 to represent billions of years, the order is completely wrong. Science has taught us that the sun existed before the earth, and certainly before plants. Genesis has the earth created first, then plants, then the sun. Furthermore, we have strong textual evidence from elsewhere in the Bible that the six days of creation are meant as standard 24 hour days. In Exodus 20:8-11, the fourth of the famous ten commandments is given as:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work. . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.

Clearly, God was not telling the Israelites to work for six periods of billions of years, then rest on the seventh period of billions of years. Even if moderates could concoct an explanation for reconciling cosmology and evolution with the Bible (which I doubt), they would still have to clear the additional hurdle of showing why their position is more reasonable than the one that both fundamentalists and atheists hold -- that the Bible simply means what it says. Why would an omnipotent and omniscient God be such a poor communicator that he has misled scores of generations of humans as to their origins, and placed the Bible on a collision course with science? Why doesn't Genesis simply say what it means?

Pushing further down this line of reasoning, the moderate Christian's entire religion begins to unravel. When cornered, moderates will reluctantly concede that Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden, never existed. They prefer to hang their hats on the life and teachings of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament. How then does Jesus's genealogy (through his "adopted" father, Joseph) trace back to and terminate at Adam, as stated in Luke 3:23-38? What are we to make of the doctrine (subscribed to by most, but not all Christian denominations) that Jesus's sacrifice on the cross was an atonement for the "original sin" of Adam of Eve taking the forbidden fruit, a sin that all humanity inherits?

These examples are just a few of the many instances in which the moderate position ignores, downplays, or rationalizes away what the Bible actually says. As Sam Harris notes in An Atheist Manifesto, at least "fundamentalists tend to make a more principled use of their brains than 'moderates'", who are "apt to produce the most unctuous and stupefying nonsense imaginable". "Religious moderates", he writes in The End of Faith, "betray faith and reason equally".

Furthermore, in employing argumentum ad temperantiam, moderates tend also to commit the fallacy of false equivalence, wherein atheists are viewed as mirror images of fundamentalists. Since fundamentalists tend to be dogmatic, intolerant, and closed-minded, those traits are projected onto atheists. This is where the meaningless term "atheist fundamentalism" comes from2. Thus Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are viewed as no more reasonable then Jerry Fallwell or Pat Robertson, just the opposite side of the same coin. This is how moderates give themselves license to dismiss atheists' arguments without meeting the burden of carefully and rigorously considering them.

As I discussed in An Honest Conversation, religious moderates are not harmless, as they shelter fundamentalists from the full force of a collision with reason, and unwittingly give rise to the very religious excesses they are likely to oppose. It is time to call moderation out for what it is: self-contradictory, incoherent nonsense.

1Francis Collins served as the American head of the Human Genome Project, and is a moderate evangelical Christian. He is also the author of The Language of God, in which he attempts to harmonize science and Christianity. I have not yet read the book, but I do recommend Sam Harris' review on TruthDig.

2Oxford theologian Alister McGrath used this phrase in the subtitle of his book The Dawkins Delusion, a response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I have not read McGrath's book, but I expect it to be underwhelming.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fifty Million Frenchmen Can Be Wrong

Religious believers often draw support from the fact that most of the world's people (about 80-90%) are religious, or at least profess to be. This argumentum ad populum (argument from popularity) is logically fallacious, but nevertheless does considerable work in propping up the faith of waverers -- we can't all be wrong! Actually, you can. Just a few centuries ago, nearly every human believed the Earth to be flat, and to be the central feature of the universe. To take a more modern example, Al Gore never claimed to have invented the internet, contrary to popular opinion. The word myth is in our lexicon for a good reason. While many widely believed ideas are true (George Washington was the first President of the United States), they are widely believed because they are true, not vice versa.

Furthermore, properly construed, popular appeal cuts strongly against the religious believer. While it is true that Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, and Zoroastrians believe in some form of a "higher power", their beliefs diverge widely from there, to the degree that they are often mutually incompatible. It is fundamentally dishonest for a Christian to count a Buddhist as a believer for the purpose of argumentum ad populum, while simultaneously embracing a theology that consigns that same Buddhist to hell (or at least denies her entrance to heaven) for being an infidel. The 2001 edition of the misleadingly titled World Christian Encyclopedia identifies 9,900 distinct world religions, not to mention the numerous denominations and sects the world's major religions have splintered into. When a Presbyterian honestly considers what portion of the world's population holds beliefs compatible with his, he will find himself in a distinct minority. That same statistic would look downright bleak were he to consider not just those alive today, but all humans who have ever lived. So much for popularity.

Popular appeal probably has its strongest impact on the local level. Most Americans find themselves in communities populated by believers, and the urge to fit is hard to resist. While many of us have a bit of a rebellious streak (some more than others), the plain truth is that humans are largely conformers. Many evolutionary biologists believe this to be an evolved trait -- conformity helped early human societies cohere, cooperate, and thrive. This helps to explain why many atheists and agnostics remain "in the closet" -- they want to be popular ,and to avoid the risk of becoming societal outcasts. This serves to entrench the problem, because by continuing to identify as believers, these doubters contribute to the perceived popularity of religion.

Once again, I ask the readers to my blog to raise their consciousness -- argumentum ad populum is doing some of the work to hold together the foundation of sand that religion rests on, and needs simply to be exposed. If the religious had a sound basis for their beliefs, they would have no need to fall back on logical fallacies.