Absence Of Belief… One God At A Time?

A Christian man once told me that I “disbelieve in God”;
That a claim of that proportion took some gall!
I corrected him, and told him (which he thought was rather odd)
That I don’t believe in any gods at all!

I asked him to consider whether other gods exist
Which was something that, it seems, he’d never done
In examining the reasons every one could be dismissed
It seems stranger to believe in only one!

There are gods he’d never heard about, but clearly did not follow—
Could he really claim he disbelieved in those?—
Demanding active disbelief is rather hard to swallow
But an absence of belief? Well, I suppose. [Read more…]

Arguing God In The New York Times

We can’t disprove a God, you know,
Cos God can’t be defined.
The God you claim cannot exist
Exists within my mind

My God cannot be fathomed, and
Will never be undone
Each heart perceives Him differently
But God is only One.

We disagree on details, like
His numbers, or His name,
But clearly, all believers know,
Their Gods are all the same

(What’s more, divine diversity
Is clearly heaven-sent:
Whatever God you just disproved
Is not the one I meant!)

A Godly game of whack-a-mole;
Forever un-disproved;
Each time you bring the hammer down
Too late! Cos God just moved!

A question, though, occurs to me—
I find it rather odd—
Why label this cacophony
“A shared belief in God”?

Ah. The horrendous interview with Plantinga was only the first in a series. Gary Gutting’s second interview is with Louise Antony, one of that large majority of philosophers who are atheists. This one was much easier to stomach, although I must say I was not nearly as impressed by Gutting in this interview. I guess he stood out in comparison to Plantinga, but here he seems determined to push Antony into Gutting’s own comfort zone that appears to prefer agnosticism to atheism.

But I do like the way Antony delimits her answers–her atheism is because theism has been proven false to her satisfaction, and she is perfectly comfortable with the notion that someone might disagree. She takes issue with a question about disagreement regarding the existence of God, wondering why that is any more significant a question than the myriad disagreements among theists regarding the characteristics of God (I have often pondered the extent to which different denominations can be said to be in agreement–here, here, and here, for example), which are certainly big enough disagreements to form schisms.

G.G.: Yes, I do think it’s relevant to ask believers why they prefer their particular brand of theism to other brands. It seems to me that, at some point of specificity, most people don’t have reasons beyond being comfortable with one community rather than another. I think it’s at least sometimes important for believers to have a sense of what that point is. But people with many different specific beliefs share a belief in God — a supreme being who made and rules the world. You’ve taken a strong stand against that fundamental view, which is why I’m asking you about that.

L.A.: Well I’m challenging the idea that there’s one fundamental view here. Even if I could be convinced that supernatural beings exist, there’d be a whole separate issue about how many such beings there are and what those beings are like. Many theists think they’re home free with something like the argument from design: that there is empirical evidence of a purposeful design in nature. But it’s one thing to argue that the universe must be the product of some kind of intelligent agent; it’s quite something else to argue that this designer was all-knowing and omnipotent. Why is that a better hypothesis than that the designer was pretty smart but made a few mistakes? Maybe (I’m just cribbing from Hume here) there was a committee of intelligent creators, who didn’t quite agree on everything. Maybe the creator was a student god, and only got a B- on this project.

In any case though, I don’t see that claiming to know that there is no God requires me to say that no one could have good reasons to believe in God. I don’t think there’s some general answer to the question, “Why do theists believe in God?” I expect that the explanation for theists’ beliefs varies from theist to theist. So I’d have to take things on a case-by-case basis.

The common ground that different religions share, that allows us to say they “share a belief in God”, is nowhere near what defines their different faiths.

Gutting, though, misses the bit where something that defies evidence and still gives rise to people who are absolutely certain about minute details (and who will fight over disagreements about those details), and presses Antony for a certainty that she does not feel the need to deliver:

G.G.: O.K., on your view we don’t have any way to judge the relative reliability of people’s judgments about whether God exists. But the question still remains, why are you so certain that God doesn’t exist?

L.A.: Knowledge in the real world does not entail either certainty or infallibility. When I claim to know that there is no God, I mean that the question is settled to my satisfaction. I don’t have any doubts. I don’t say that I’m agnostic, because I disagree with those who say it’s not possible to know whether or not God exists. I think it’s possible to know. And I think the balance of evidence and argument has a definite tilt.

So… yeah. This interview leaves me really liking Antony, really frustrated with Gutting, and all the more convinced that Plantinga can’t think his way out of a wet paper bag.

And the contrast in comments is interesting as well–the comments to the Plantinga interview ran strongly against him, and were frankly more intelligent than the interview. Today’s comments are still coming in, but it looks like evidence of an overall tendency of people to write in more often in complaint and disagreement than in concurrence. My favorite so far makes the argument that Antony can be disproven simply by defining God as “that which we cannot, and never will be able to, fathom”. Or as I have heard it before, “reality beyond the material“. Defining God that way pretty much means that any faith asserting any particular details about God must necessarily be false.

Hey, wait… maybe she’s onto something there.

“You’ve Got To Have Faith In Something”

You must have heard it somewhere. Probably half a dozen times today alone. I think I just saw it over at Hemant’s–somebody making the argument that science requires a faith of its own, what may be called a “faith in reason”, or faith in one’s perceptual or cognitive abilities, or simply faith that the universe is real and observable.

No, actually.

“You’ve got to have faith”—so the argument went,
“Though you might not have faith in my God
You have faith in your senses, your science, your tools,
That reality’s not some façade”

I need not have faith in my senses at all
My senses have earned my trust
They may fool me at times—they’re not perfect, I know,
But I’ll use them, cos frankly, I must

I need not have faith in the methods of science;
Conditional trust is enough
Today’s explanations can all be replaced
If tomorrow’s explains some more stuff

I need not have faith in the tools that I use
I will use them as long as they work
Since others reliably use them as well,
Their results don’t depend on some quirk

I need not have faith in the cosmos itself
Though I see on your face some confusion
The universe is, whether matter or mind,
Or a rather persistent illusion

If everything changes tomorrow, you see,
And the world works a whole different way
Then maybe I might have some theories to change…
But they’re working just fine for today.

The pragmatic and conditional explanations of science need not be a search for “TRUTH” which one has faith exists (although I certainly do not speak for all, and I know that a good many believe that a truth exists, whether or not we ever may know it). Explanations are not true or false, but rather better or worse–that is, explaining more observation with fewer assumptions, or needing to make shit up. Newtonian physics is not so much wrong as incomplete–it works for quite a lot of uses, but not all.

I do not need to have faith that my answers will be right forever–hell, I like the idea of finding out how I am wrong, and learning a better way!

Did You Ever Consider The Possibility That Maybe God Is A Parasitic Worm?

There’s a little kid, infested with a parasitic worm
His extremities are swollen and in pain
But this doesn’t pose a problem, or disprove a loving God
As philosopher Plantinga will explain:

See, God created Eden, which his favorite—Man—beheld,
But of course, the fruit of knowledge, He forbids
It was absolutely perfect, but humanity rebelled
As a consequence, there’s parasites in kids

You can treat the kid for parasites, and have the worms removed
And observe their squirming bodies, tightly curled…
Rejoicing in the agony that must be God-approved,
Knowing this is His created perfect world

From the horrible interview at the NY Times Opinionator Blog:

A.P.: I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.

Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.

I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.

I would *not* say that such a world would be truly magnificent. Far more people are suffering than in a world I would create if I could. But then, I care about people; I am a person, myself, when I’m not a cuttlefish.

Maybe it is a perfect world, for parasitic worms.

Random Thoughts On Alvin Plantinga’s Rambling Thoughts

So… there’s an interview with Alvin Plantinga on the New York Times’ “Opinionator Blog”. It’s… horrific. Embarrassing. Such a national platform for arguments from ignorance, false dichotomies, and special pleading. Really, it’s astonishing.

The questions, by Gary Gutting, are reasonable, and are followed up nicely; if anything, Gutting is not brutal enough, perhaps feeling a bit sorry for Plantinga.

There are so many times when Plantinga’s claims have reasonable answers in readily available science. One (or at least this one) gets the feeling he actively avoids the scientific literature. Ok, really, that’s unfair–science is so broad and specialized that if he were not both exposed to an extraordinarily broad swath, and sufficiently knowledgeable in depth about that broad swath (which, given time constraints, might reasonably mean that he would have no time to develop any expertise in his own philosophical areas), it is perfectly reasonable that he might miss the answers to his questions.

Fortunately, cuttlefish are very deep generalists and experts in everything, so I opened a word-processor and read the interview. (I would say “so you don’t have to”, but I actually really recommend you read it, so you can try out your own critical analysis. The weird thing is, Plantinga is not exactly a bench-warmer; when you–not “if you”–when you tear his arguments into tiny bleeding slivers, you are up against one of the best the theistic side have to offer.) Yeah, so it just so happens I take notes in rhyming verse…

In any debate between two points of view
Fifty-fifty, the odds must apply—
If we can’t prove it’s Christmas, beyond every doubt,
Then it’s likely the Fourth of July

Now, maybe the scientists figured it out
And it’s all there to read… which I won’t
Perhaps they have answers for all of my doubts
But I’m gonna assume, here, they don’t

It’s possible someone has studied this stuff
If they have, clearly, I’m not aware
So there may be a paper that proves me quite wrong
I’d go looking, but really don’t care.

My assumption is simply that nobody knows—
If they did, that would really be nifty—
In the absence of knowledge (well, knowledge of mine)
Let’s assume that it’s all fifty-fifty.

So my views on psychology? Pretty much crap
And biology, mostly, as well—
But let’s call it philosophy (really, why not?)
If it’s bullshit, most readers can’t tell.

So… go ahead, read the interview. Try commenting here–in verse, or not in verse, I don’t care. What do you think is Plantinga’s worst? Best? Anyone think he has a point?

Just for fun, two earlier bits worth mentioning:

When Alvin Plantinga’s Car Won’t Start
And
It’s All So Simple, Really

In Which I Argue At Length With A MacArthur Genius

Strong-ily, wrong-ily
Neurophilosophers
Tout their position:
“The self as the brain”

Finding our cause in our
Neuroanatomy—
Sadly, it’s fictional:
Lemme explain….

(tl;dr–“brain as self” models are dependent on a particular philosophical model; the conclusions are more a factor of the requirements of that model than of the evidence.)

Mano presents a clip from the Colbert Report, in which neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland tells Colbert that neuroscience shows there is no such thing as, among other things, a soul.

True enough… but damn, does she have to say the brain is responsible for consciousness? That is just plain… well, dependent on a set of philosophical assumptions that are rarely if ever questioned. Which leads to bad questions, which leads to crap answers, which leads to “deep philosophical questions” that are a pile of horseshit.

“We (some mammals) have the same neural mechanism for pair bonding” (paraphrased from Churchland’s interview) is not at all the same thing as “the brain is responsible for pair bonding”. And the difference makes all the difference in the world. And, oddly enough, the difference is philosophical.

If you think that, say, a person could be replicated at a given moment—replicated down to the quark, or smaller if such things exist—and that this replicated being would possess all the qualities of the original… then you are a mechanist. The notion that your life history is stored, is somehow represented in the structures of your body, is mechanistic. The requirement that any change in your behavior is necessarily the effect of some immediate cause, some proximal cause stored in body or mind or wherever… is mechanistic. That is, these things which make so much sense, make sense because they are framed in terms of a mechanistic world view which you (not just you , of course) have been fed since you were knee high to a jackalope.

But, you see, mechanism is not A) the only philosophy you can use in such scenarios, nor B) the way you live your life and learn the terms used back in that mechanistic scenario. See, the thing is, events in your life unfold over time. And that time need not be compressed and represented as some instantaneous thing. Mechanism’s metaphor is a clockwork, and you can stop a clock, look at its gears, and infer what happens in present, past, and future. A clockwork represents all of that information in an instantaneous slice of time/space. That’s a requirement of the model. That’s not a requirement of reality.

You see, there are other models. A contextualist model recognizes the contributions that happen across time and across situation, and does not require that they be “stored” inside you, since they actually do exist outside you, and are part of the context of your actions. Your actions can only be defined as embedded within context—the environments that promote or suppress a given range of behavior, the consequences that select for or against a range of behavior…

In other words, what you do in a given situation depends on what has tended to work in similar situations. An evolutionary model, really.

“Fitness” is not stored within an individual; fitness is defined across populations, across generations, with respect to environments. Fitness is necessarily dependent on variables that are defined across extended time and space. To place “fitness” inside an individual, as the presumed cause of their success or failure at something (sex, say, or foraging), is to misrepresent the concept. (alas, yes, I have seen it presented this way—that is precisely the problem I am writing about.)

Ah.

The same, exact misrepresentation is constantly used in human behavior. There are concepts (again, like “fitness” in biology, and “consciousness” in behavior) that are only definable in a manner extended over time, and dependent on environment. Those wonderful brains that are the “cause” of the self? They have been shaped by the environment, in (at least) two very important ways, across two very different scales of time. One, of course, is evolution—this is at least given lip service in the “brain is self” camp, though it seems all too often as if they want to think of our modern brain as the ultimate product of evolution, rather than an ongoing work. But yes, over millions and billions of years, the environment has selected this behavior over that, and the brain structures that support this behavior have thus been favored. It is not, of course, the brain itself that is being selected for or against, but the behavior (and in our case, the flexibility in behavior) it allows.

The second sort of environmental influence, I don’t think I have ever seen credited in a “brain is self” claim, although it is every bit as important as the evolutionary history. Every brain that a researcher runs through a PET scan, CAT scan, X-ray, FMRI, or EEG… is part of an actual person, a whole organism that has been interacting with an environment, including a culture, for all of its lifetime thus far. This brain is part of a person who behaves—over time, and with respect to environment (including social and cultural environment as well as physical environment)—and whose behavior can only be seen as unfolding across time.

You cannot slice open a person’s leg to see where they have walked. A person’s accent is not stored in their vocal cords while they are not speaking. Where they have walked, and how they talk, are dependent on where, and with whom, they lived. We speak of stored abilities, or traits, or habits, but these things are only seen unfolding across time, and their “storage” is not observed but inferred under the assumptions of that clockwork model. The inference comes as a requirement of the model, not as an obvious part of the behavior—where is my walk stored, when I sit down?

Consciousness does not arise in the brain. It is a property of our interactive behavior, unfolding over time. Everything about what it means to be conscious, what it means to be aware, takes place across time and in interaction with an environment; to say it is caused by some brain part is to neglect the history of the environment shaping the brain. “Brain as self” is, functionally, as dualistic (and as wrong) as Descartes’s substance dualism. The brain does not control the body; the brain is part of the body. If there is metaphorical puppetry going on, it is not the brain as puppet master—rather, the environment (across genetic time as well as individual learning) is the puppet master, and the brain acts as the strings.