28 October 2011

Reasonable Faith: A Dialogue of the Deaf, Part 2

Peter Atkins replaced William Lane Craig at the podium when Craig's twenty minutes were up, and immediately began by insulting Craig and the majority of the audience. Craig's arguments would have gone down a treat in the eleventh century, he said, but they're utterly meaningless in the twenty-first.

This, after all, is an age of science, not of theology; we believe in scientific evidence, and theological arguments just won't wash.

This was to be a running theme in Atkins' arguments over the evening, and unfortunately it tended to show that that while he might be a good scientist or a talented explainer of science -- I've enjoyed his Galileo's Finger -- he's clearly none too sharp when it comes to the history of ideas. His general line, indeed, was hectoring and dismissive throughout, such that the whole debate was of a sort to shed a lot of heat but precious little light.

That said, I don't entirely blame him for his hostility; it was understandable, given the argumentative fork Craig had faced him with.

Craig had outlined three big arguments, all of which had subtle weaknesses, but those subtle weaknesses would take a lot of time to dismantle properly. This forced Atkins to make a choice: address all three arguments in a cursory way, and then be chided for not having addressed anything properly, or address just one argument in at least some depth, and then be chided for not having really addressed that properly and not having addressed the other arguments at all? That's a nasty choice to face, but it's probably an inevitable failing of the debate format.

Atkins admitted he couldn't prove that God didn't exist, but said the data, such as there was, made it look vastly more likely that God didn't exist than otherwise. His whole argument was based around this idea: that the existence of God was immensely improbable.

He dismissed Craig's use of the cosmological argument by saying that the phrase 'outside time' was meaningless -- though I'm pretty sure I remember the likes of Stephen Hawking being quite comfortable with that idea -- and also took issue with how Craig had attempted to deal with the issue of infinity, citing Zeno's paradoxes as examples of how stupid such discussions are.

More broadly, he decreed that any being capable of doing all that Craig believed God to do and have done, must be a being of extraordinary complexity. He didn't say why he believed this, of course, and didn't consider for a moment whether they might be spiritual beings which could be simple rather than complex; he dismissed any belief in God was lazy, an indolent way of filling in the gaps in our understanding of the Universe, and something that people only believe because it's comforting.

This is presumably because Atkins thinks the doctrine of Hell, to which Craig holds very strongly, is a comforting one. Indeed, it seems that as far as Professor Atkins is concerned, Christians obviously look forward to the prospect of being eternally separated from God, and take solace in the prospect of people they love being likewise so deprived. I'm not sure how many Christians he's ever spoken with. I wonder how often he's ever listened.

Still, rebuttals were for later, so Atkins set out his own stall. He claimed that there were six basic things to consider in connection with why we should reject the idea of God's existence. I hope I've got this right, and may have to check it later, but just going on my notes and how I've underlined things...

1. Contingency: The existence of the Universe does not depend on the existence of God, he said, not least because it's conceivable that something can indeed arise from nothing. He didn't say how this could happen, but distinguished between two ideas of the Universe in considering how it might have began, referring to two types of beginning, a creation that would lead to an 'original universe' and a procreation that would lead to a 'daughter universe'. In either case, he said, it was entirely plausible that the Universe could have come into existence without having been created by God. Given that God's existence is unnecessary, he insisted, people could only believe in him for irrational emotional reasons.'Heart reasons', he called them.

I found this argument very odd, I'm afraid. In essence it was just Aquinas' second objection to the question of whether God existed, that being that there seems to be no need to postulate the existence of God in order to explain the Universe, as it's possible to explain away the Universe by recourse to just one principle, that being nature itself. The thing was, though, aside from lacking any supporting evidence, it seemed to be saying that it's illogical to believe something unless we believe that same something could not be any other way.

I don't think such a conflation of truth and necessity makes any sense, and don't see how Professor Atkins can do likewise unless he takes such a rigidly mechanistic and deterministic view of the entire Universe that he thinks we have no control whatsoever over our own thoughts.

2. Fitness: Atkins homed in here on what Ronald Knox used to call 'the stupid man's argument' for the existence of God, that being Paley's argument from design, which holds that the Universe and everything in it appears to be set up towards certain ends, and therefore must have been designed with those ends in mind; it's often confused with the older and less presumptive argument from order, of which it is really just an application. This idea, that the Universe has been set up as though for our sake, Atkins simply dismissed as entirely speculative. 

I think he's right on this. Philosophically speaking, it doesn't really work, not least because it presumes to know the mind of God. I imagine this is why Craig didn't subsequently engage with it, much to Atkins' annoyance.

3. Purpose: I'm a bit embarrassed to say I didn't write anything down here. I think he just said that there's no scientific evidence for the existence of God and no reason to believe that the Universe is anything other than purposeless. Whatever he said, it certainly wasn't very memorable -- my notes have blurred together on points two and three, which rather reflects how there didn't seem to be much difference in what Atkins said on the topics.

(If I've got my notes right, though -- and I'll be able to check when there's a recording of the debate online -- it does seem that Professor Atkins was making a huge logical error here of he really said that there's no evidence for the Universe having a purpose or for the existence of God. What he must surely have meant is that he is aware of no such evidence; I hope he realises that  absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.)

4. Miracles:  Can you imagine any atheists being persuaded towards theism by a priest standing up and announcing that they should believe in God because miracles happen, because there's evidence for them, and some priests say they think some things are miraculous? No, you can't, can you?

Miracles, Professor Atkins said, don't happen, and there's no evidence for them. He talked of how the Catholic Church requires evidence of miracles before it will recognise someone as being a saint, and said that any doctor who took the view that any healing had been miraculous should be struck off. Therefore, he said, miracles offer no evidence for God's existence.

I didn't think this was much of an argument, I'm afraid, not least because it again seemed to be confusing absence of evidence with evidence of absence. Aside from it having a somewhat circular quality it really just came down to him saying he didn't believe in miracles, which is probably what we all expected anyway, and that he didn't trust the judgement of anybody who did. At the very least, this kind of argument requires specific evidence, not the trotting out of a principle as though it's a proof.

5. Theodicy: One of the biggest questions that religious people have to face is why, if God is good, is there evil and pain in the world; indeed, Aquinas regarded this as the most fundamental objection to the possibility of God's existence. He thought that God allowed evil to exist so that he could produce goodness from it. Others have argued that we're too small and our lives here too constrained for us to be able to understand the meaning of things, but that things make sense on the other side of the tapesty. Others still will point out that God has never said we'd be free of suffering, or that he'd explain our suffering, just that he'd be with us in our suffering. I think there's merit to all these ideas, but the fact is that we just don't know why there's evil in the world.

Atkins's view, on the other hand, was that given the evil in the world, the whole idea of God was implausible.

None of this is particularly original, of course, and though I understand the argument, it's not one that I think carries weight unless we are utterly convinced that if God existed then we would be able to know his mind and understand the significance of everything. I always find it strange that it's the people who most stridently insist that God can't exist who are most confident that if he did exist that they would understand him.

Their arguments tend to reduce to something along the lines of 'If I were God, I'd do things differently.'

One of the oddest parts of Professor Atkins' argument was when he spoke of evolution as an evil process, proof of God's nonexistence, where species after species falls, wastefully, by the wayside. I found this a very strange line of argument, and not merely because he clearly doesn't think that nature can be either moral or immoral. 

Evolution's pretty simple, when you get down to it. It has two separate processes, being mutation and natural selection, and is wholly bound by the basic principle of mortality. The principle of mortality is a crucial one, such that there's an important sense in which the whole idea of the 'survival of the fittest' is nonsense: on an individual level, the fittest don't survive, because ultimately everything dies. It's the fittest species that survive -- at least for a while -- but when you get down to it species are just arbitrary classifications of groups of individuals, and all individuals die. 

Really what Atkins was saying was not that evolution is evil, but -- much more fundamentally -- that death itself is a disgrace. And it is. I don't think there are any Christians who'd dispute that.

6. Morality: Religious people, said Professor Atkins, tend to see God as a fountain of love and thus the source of distinctions between good and evil. This, however, was a mere comfort blanket, he argued. The reality is that it's perfectly possible to derive a fine working morality from history, anthropology and so forth.

Of course, at least with reference to Christianity, Atkins hadn't quite got things right. Christians do indeed see God as a fountain of love -- 1 John says that God is love, and that it's his love that empowers our love -- but it's not really true to say that Christians see God as the source of distinctions between good and evil, except insofar as they believe their God-given reason enables them to discern the Natural Law we see pointed to at the start of Romans

Christians believe that God is good; that is, they believe that God is infinite goodness. They do not hold that he distinguishes good from evil, but that he is good and that creation itself, coming from God, is also good. Moral evil exists, insofar as it does, not as a positive thing in its own right but as an absence, a Godlessness in our actions, a detachment from God in our lives.

I would think that any sane Christian would fully agree with Professor Atkins that it's entirely possible for people to deduce a decent moral code based on knowledge, experience, and reason; this doesn't in any respect challenge the standard Christian views that our reason and our basic moral sense are themselves divine in origin, let alone the view that there is an objective and transcendent universal standard of goodness, which we call God.

So to sum up Professor Atkins' argument, he basically said we shouldn't believe in God because he thought it was possible to explain the Universe and derive morality without recourse to the idea of God, because he was aware of no evidence that supported the idea of God, and because bad things happen.

Or, if you like, Peter Atkins said we shouldn't believe in God because:
  1. It's possible to make sense of things without believing in God.
  2. In the unlikely event that God exists, he doesn't behave like Peter Atkins.
I'll talk about the rebbuttals tomorrow.

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