Tag Archives: Religion

God Probabilities Are Pointless, Even From Physicists

Physicist Sean Carroll indulges one of his physics colleagues in a post Guest Post: Don Page on God and Cosmology. Sean:

Don Page is one of the world’s leading experts on theoretical gravitational physics and cosmology, as well as a previous guest-blogger around these parts. … He is also, somewhat unusually among cosmologists, an Evangelical Christian, and interested in the relationship between cosmology and religious belief.

From here on I’ll address Don on his piece, by picking up only the statements I think are really problematic. I’m basically repeating what I wrote in the comments section, with some minor mods.

So, Don you say this:

… such as my assumption that the world is the best possible …

Why would anyone make such an assumption? Based on what? Compared to what? What’s a worse world? What are the metrics? The comment by Phillip Helbig says it all:

The optimist believes that he lives in the best of all possible worlds. So does the pessimist.

Back to you Don:

I mainly think philosophical arguments might be useful for motivating someone

Like propaganda? It is clear that theists are manipulating and abusing philosophy, logic, reason, evidence, to make it best fit their beliefs.

… raise the prior probability someone might assign to theism. I do think that if one assigns theism not too low a prior probability …

You shouldn’t have a prior probability about something for which you have zero data. The prior probability isn’t 100%, isn’t 0%, isn’t 50% – it’s unknown. No data. Making a guess, or expressing a bias from personal religiosity and assigning a probability is doing a great injustice to probability.

the historical evidence for the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus

What, like hearsay of Josephus passed off as evidence? There is no historical record of the words or teachings of Jesus. The death? We can barely support his existence, by extensive hearsay, but as ‘evidence’ it’s no better than claims made about Mohammed’s revelations. By the way, how do you set the prior probability that Mohammed was telling the truth about his revelations, or the likelihood he was lying, or that he was delusional? What’s the prior probability that Jesus was a nutty preacher. Using the statistics of what we do know about how common nutty preachers were at the time the best evidence we have is he’s one of many. I’d really like to know on what basis all this is judged remotely true.

Ben Goran in the comments refers to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. Good choice.

… can lead to a posterior probability for theism (and for Jesus being the Son of God) being quite high.

This really will not do. For miraculous things to happen, such as a resurrection, you need a God. You presuppose a God. Then you find stuff that’s in a book that says, look, here’s a miracle of that God – without any evidence it happened beyond hearsay, and again I remind you your hearsay is competing with that about Mohammed. Then you say, look, it’s all real, Christianity rules, OK.

But if one thinks a priori that theism is extremely improbable, then the historical evidence for the Resurrection would be discounted and not lead to a high posterior probability for theism.

Don, you are mistaken in that direction too. This is really important! There is no need to think theism is improbable. One has only to be totally open to it, and then look at the evidence. There is none. What is offered as evidence turns out to be: unevidenced hearsay, nothing that can’t be illusions and delusions, lies and propaganda – and all these have at least some actual prior probabilities because we know that these latter human frailties do actually occur.

I tend to favor a Bayesian approach in which one assigns prior probabilities

But Bayesian stuff works only when you have actual statistics to form your prior probabilities. Even if they are as flaky as much statistical evidence is (and we know how we often reach wrong conclusions about the efficacy of medicines in that arena), at least it’s actual data of a sort. But for universe creation and gods it’s no better than a pretence at mathematical credibility when there’s no data to work with.

… when the product is normalized by dividing by the sum of the products for all theories

This is crazy talk. Are probabilities based on the human capacity to imagine ideas, invent fantasies? is the correct probability determined by one’s own credibility? This is not to be treated like some meta-analysis of numerous sets of actual statistical results. It’s a meta-analysis of guesses. It’s pointless.

… since we don’t yet have _any_ plausible complete theory for the universe to calculate the conditional probability, given the theory, of any realistic observation.

So, the correct response to the question of whether there is some sort of intelligent agent creator of universes is to say: I haven’t got the foggiest clue.

From there proceed to act on what we do have. The empirical investigation of the universe and what that tells us. Our understanding of minute physics may still be open to question, but at the level of chemistry, creating medicines, building planes that don’t fall out the sky randomly – and it’s all quite mechanistic, naturalistic.

The working conclusion, then, is to live **as if** this: that what we empirically find is all there is, whether it is or not, because if we cannot detect a god of any kind knowingly then whether there is one or not makes no difference. It really is that simple.

However, since to me the totality of data, including the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, is most simply explained by postulating that there is a God …

What? We’ll come back to evidence shortly, but for now let’s just go back to an earlier point, from above:

can lead to a posterior probability for theism (and for Jesus being the Son of God) being quite high

And let’s put these together:

  1. the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, is most simply explained by postulating that there is a God
  2. can lead to a posterior probability for theism [i.e. there is a God]

So, postulating a God basically leads to a posterior probability that there is a God. And, while we’re at it, the assertion that the resurrection occurred is used to show that Jesus was resurrected [because he really was the son of God].

Doesn’t that look just a tad suspicious? Don, that looks embarrassing to me.

This is no more than affirming the consequent, invoking a circular argument. Don, you could only make an argument if you had good evidence of a God, and then good evidence of a naturalism busting resurrection. You have evidence of neither. You are presupposing there’s a God that can do stuff like resurrections, taking one of the many myths and taking that to be caused by this presupposed God, and then using that resurrection as the evidence of the divine Jesus, who is God. What? Seriously, What?

But on the matter of evidence, the pretend evidence for the resurrection is most simply explained by being the myth of one of the many myth asserting religions, and that people that believed in gods in ancient times were probably even more gullible than people today. Don, you think they may not have been so gullible. How gullible do you think Scientologists are? What are your probabilities for the existence of Thetans? How about Joseph Smith? Not convinced? Well, a hell of large number of reasonably well educated 21st century people believe that nonsense. Can you see why it’s far more reasonable to think these ancients were duped, or self-duped?

I do believe by faith…

Oh no! Don, please! Not the faith get out of jail card? Well, okay, in which case you can dismiss all you said before this point as it means nothing now in this context. All that effort doing just what William Lane Craig does, pretending to use reason and evidence and probabilities picked out of your nether regions – even though you reject some of WLC’s reasoning. And all it really took is faith. Why not faith in Mohammed? Well, you’re a Christian. Is that how you do your physics?

We simply do not know whether or not our universe had a beginning, but there are certainly models

See, you can do it correctly if you try. We simply do not know. And, for God there are no models that are based on other confirmed models of physics and cosmology. Sean’s work and your work in physics and cosmology does not come out of nowhere, but all religions do: there’s always someone that we know invented a religion, or the origins of the religion are lost entirely in time. You really should be applying this cosmological scepticism to God: we do not know and we have no models and no data. There are no measurements, no mathematic models, nothing but hearsay and the occasional claims of messianic individuals that think they are hooked up with their own god.

In summary, I think the evidence from fine tuning is ambiguous

Ambiguous? It’s down right dumb. What do we know about the extra-universe ‘physics’ of universe creation, such that it does not necessarily cause universes just like this one. What if all universe necessarily must have the physics of this one, because of some as yet unknown extra-universe feature? How do we know that all these universes are not such that only initial conditions determine whether life evolves abundantly, rarely or not at all. We don’t know that the constants that **allow** evolved life actually **necessitate** evolved life. With different initial conditions it could be that the universe evolve without ever experiencing intelligent life that goes on to wonder if the universe is fine tuned. We’d then have a ‘fine tuned’ universe tuned with no tuned products in it. What reason would we have to think such a universe is fine tuned?

There’s a big difference between:

– Speculative interpretations of limited cosmological data with multiple speculatively viable theories


– Believing ancient religious stories based on stuff that’s indistinguishable from all the other stories you too would pass off as myth

That difference is that with physics one does not tend to make assertions about behaviour any morality based on them – unless they very specifically inform our understanding of human behaviour and morality, such as evolution, psychology, neuroscience. There are no moral or behavioural prescriptions or proscriptions associated with Sean’s preference for Everett, but there are real human consequences that result from people believing stuff for which there is no evidence, in religion, and the consequences are all too often not good ones.

Look at it this way:

Problem 1: A company makes bags of 100 black balls, but manufacturing errors cause some balls to be white. We know the limits: 100 black, 100 white. We know from experience that people complain if they have more than 40 white balls. We do some tests and stuff. We play with probabilities. We use Bayes. We run controlled trials. Whatever. It’s real if uncertain data. What’s the probability of getting a bag with 100 black balls? We can start to look into it, come to some conclusions, do more measurements, more sampling, more calculations.

Problem 2: How are universes made? We don’t know. As an analogy for this, this is me telling you there’s a bag out there; possibly an infinitely large bag; and it might have some balls in it or it might not. If it has, then some might be black, or not. Some might be white, or not. The bag might contain refrigerators rather than balls, or not. Now, what are you going to tell me about the content of the bag – the probability that there are 100 black balls in the bag, that there’s God in the bag, ten gods, …? Nothing. Oh, and there might not actually be a bag out there; there might just be this universe.

Problem 1 is the sort of problem we can play with. Problem 2 is God stuff. The former is the reality we have to deal with. The latter is make believe – faith, indeed.

Mehdi Hasan Destroys Islam

He doesn’t mean to, but as he thinks he’s distancing Islam from ISIS he picks so many reasons for rejecting Islam. Good job, Mehdi.

In this online CNN video, Does ISIS have any religious legitimacy?, Mehdi Hasan debates with Graeme Wood over Wood’s piece on ISIS. Mehdi responded in his own article, which had lots of holes in it and begged and received criticism. Poor sap Mehdi just can’d stop putting his foot in his mouth.

Mehdi Hasan has put a lot of effort into declaring ISIS to be so un-Islamic to the point of denying they are Islamic at all.

Mehdi insist there are motivations other than Islam for people joining ISIS. Even if religion were not the motivating factor that wouldn’t mean they were not Islamic in what they do, in what they believe. When Christians go to war quoting God’s words it doesn’t make them non-Christian. May make them awful Christians, but still Christian. That someone has some motivation for what they do, but they are Muslims when they do it, and use their Islamic texts selectively to justify themselves, does not make them un-Islamic. Just as Mehdi does not use all the texts of Islam, and is a liberal Muslim, then he too is uni-Islamic, by his own standards of reasoning. Cherry picking, fringe interpretation? Sure. But ‘nice’ Muslims have to cherry pick too.

Mehdi doesn’t want us to take what ISIS say as ‘gospel’. I don’t take as gospel anything Mehdi Hasan or other Islamic experts say. This is a Takfir game.

Mehdi is sceptical about ISIS claims to be holy warriors? Why? Religions are not necessarily non-warrior like, non-cruel, non-peaceful. The claims in Islam to be the religion of peace are contradicted explicitly by many parts of the texts. And if we must take those cruel texts with some nuance and context why can’t we apply nuance and context to the explicit claim to be the religion of peace? Double standards.

Religion is the factor. Not the only one, but arguably the major one. No persecuted Jews or Hindus are so radicalised to the extent that international terrorism by so many Islamic groups plagues our age. That there are other factors doesn’t negate religion as a significant one if not the primary one. In Islam all the terrorist groups killing around the world in the name of Islam is testament to the Islamic nature of their terrorist activities.

Mehdi thinks that people are leaving London to join ISIS for other reasons than their Islamic perspective. The texts excuse the radicalisation in response to other factors in a way that other religions currently do not.

And ISIS are an unscholarly fringe cult? Doesn’t matter. Compared to Christianity Islam is a minority religion. So is Judaism. We don’t deny someone’s claim to religion based on minority status. And ‘liberal’ Muslims like Mehdi cherry pick to avoid enacting the cruel acts that the texts require. Cherry picking by scholars is not a get out of jail card.

Why can’t *very* Islamic be used to describe those that adhere to a more literal interpretation of the most vile cherry picked texts? Mehdi is not *very* Islamic according to conservatives that don’t accept his liberalism.

“Why can’t we find *learned* scholars…” to support ISIS? For those wanting to distance themselves from ISIS, well, they would deny ISIS wouldn’t they. But we can find many scholars in Islamic states spouting similar rhetoric. Saudi is executing people for trivial acts that shouldn’t even be crimes (and Mehdi the liberal would agree). Mehdi mentions the Grand Mufti of Saudi? Really? has he been tuning into that guy’s recent bollocks?

That the Islamic credentials of ISIS are disputed is nothing that in itself means they are not Islamic. Sunni v Shia go through this stuff. I’ve been told by Shias that I should listen only to good Shia scholars, and by Sunnis that Sunni scholars have a correct interpretation. Takfir talking twits.

“They tell western journalists that they are serious about their faith, and we believe them…” – And we’re supposed to believe you Mehdi? Get over yourself. It is sufficient to simply observe. If they talk like Muslims, walk like Muslims, behead like Saudi Muslims, then ISIS are Muslims.

Mehdi foolishly appeals to other ideological states to excuse Islam. We don’t consider North Korea to be democratic because they are not, by any sense of democracy. But there is no way that ISIS are not Islamic – they pray, follow the texts – even if they are extreme and have a brutal interpretation.

Wood: “They [ISIS scholars] are not making things up” – Well, no more than any other Muslim scholars. In a world of religious bullshit how do you judge the validity of one bullshitter over many others?

Naive recruits are buying “Islam for Dummies”? Once, often, all the time? Let’s put aside how often that happens. Well, that such dummies can turn to violence so easily and find justification for it in Islamic texts means that these texts are dangerous weapons. Handing a Quran to an ignoramus is no better than giving a child a loaded automatic weapon. This ‘naive unscholarly’ point is not making a good case for Islam. Quite the opposite, it is endorsing the case made by Sam harris. This is exactly what he has been saying, that many Muslims do in fact interpret the texts literally. No amount of scholarly mental gymnastics is going to fix this. In fact the more scholarly learning is require the more dangerous the raw texts are. They are awful texts.

Wood: “They are serious about the texts.” Even if they are in disagreement with Muslim scholarship through the ages it does not mean they are not motivated by religion.

Are ISIS a revolutionary form of Islam? So are many other forms. That may mean that they are not practicing Mehdi Hasan’s Islam, but that doesn’t mean it is not Islam.

Again, even if they were universally declared to be un-Islamic, and even if they said, “Look, we are not Muslims, we are not Islamic, but we’re using the Islamic texts to determine what we do.” then, that merely goes to show again how awful these texts are such that they can be turned to such brutal use: they contain brutal prescriptions.

Mehdi asks again, why we should think them scholarly when *all of Islam* scholars, whether conservative or liberal, Sufi or Salafi, Sunni or Shia reject ISIS. Come on Mehdi, all those factions reject each other, you twit. Note the implication that *all Muslims* have a unity to them – and people like Sam Harris get criticised for being too general in their language? A unity of convenience. The duplicity stinks to high heaven.

Mehdi: “No serious person would call the Branch Davidians?” Well, quite. But the Roman Catholics thought the Anglican Church of Henry VIII to be non-Christian. This happens throughout the ages. There are always schisms. Again, Islam even has a tool, Takfir, for dealing with this, where other faiths only have heresy.

Mehdi comes back to the religious novices. Again that isn’t a good response. It just shows how dangerous the Quran is.

Mehdi thinks drugs alcohol and petty crime are responsible? That’s bullshit. The fact that many of these people are bright promising students is completely ignored by Mehdi Hasan. But, I take his point, but I take it further. Very few if any Muslims conform to scholarly Islam – they do their own reasonable thing – unless incited to riots and rage by clerics and other Islam Dummies. This isn’t really saying much for Islam. You know, Christianity does saving souls of druggies, but Islam recruits them for ISIS? Mehdi, please.

And ISIS is about real holy warriors trading in porn? Well, sexual interest has never been a bar to religious belief. Neither has child abuse. So, Islam is so bad that it can’t prevent you doing the very things that some of its teachings forbid? Islam really is crap isn’t it. You heard from Mehdi Hasan.

Mehdi explains that few extremists are Islamic scholars. Well, neither re most Muslims. But again, that doesn’t bode well when dangerous Islamic texts prescribing all sorts of punishments, such as stoning adulterers to death, are as freely available as dangerous guns in the US – no, even more readily available.

Mehdi, “They pepper their language with Islamic quotations. Of course they do, it’s the best way to recruit people.” – What? So, here we have Mehdi Hasan telling us how good the Quran is for recruiting Jihadists. After spending so much time telling us it’s not about religion he now admits that the Islamic texts are great extremists recruitment texts! Incredible.

Mehdi thinks that the Nazi party isn’t explained by Mein Kampf? You need the Treaty of Versailles? What on earth is he talking about? Of course you can get a lot about the Nazis from Mein Kampf, but like the Quran it’s not the only texts that the Nazis depend on. And the Hadith supplement the Quran superbly for Jihadists recruitment. Well done Mehdi, ISIS Sales Rep of the Year. You cannot understand ISIS by watching its videos and taking them literally? Well, they help; and of course you can read the Quran and Had it to clinch it. Wood responds: could you understand Nazism without Mein Kampf? We have to understand what the ideology is. And it is Islamic, without a shadow of a doubt. That Mehdi Hasan invokes Takfir on ISIS, and they on him, is not really making a case of any virtue.

Mehdi belittles ISIS propaganda. Is it a fair representation of what an Islamic state would be like? No, surely not, we hope. But if you think that gets Islam a pass you are very much mistaken. If you think *any* Islamic state there has ever been is worth having you are not getting the message about what liberal non-Muslims find wrong with Islam (and to a lesser extent other religions – though US Christianity is no good advert for Christianity).

Wood speaks to the dishonesty of Mehdi Hasan who wants to play down the Islamic aspect of their motivation as much as possible, and to blame the western states for creating this monster. There is only one point here we can make, but it does Islam no good. So, the west intervenes and takes out some undemocratic dictator, and leaves a vacuum in which this mess can arise? No, it’s not a vacuum. It’s a history of divisive Islamic disputes that have arisen to take hold. The inability to build a liberal democracy, or even establish a stable Islamic state, is not a good advert for Islam. If the Iranian theocracy that persecutes Sunnis is not a clue to Mehdi Hasan that Islam is not a good thing, then he us surely blinded by his biases.

Mehdi thinks we drown out the voices that reject ISIS? No we do not. Because Islam is places like Saudi and Iran does not give us an Islam that is any better. They give an Islam that is merely more controlled, less chaotic. You cannot build a state that is so self destructive. ISIS is a poor example of a state of any kind, to be sure; but that does not in itself make it un-Islamic. Again, we are not drowning out the beheadings in Saudi, but Mehdi Hasan is, for he rarely mentions it.

Wood: ISIS is not only not an inevitable outcome of Islam, it isn’t even an inevitable outcome of a literalist Islam. Quite, but Islam is an enabler of ISIS because its texts can so easily be turned to that purpose. Try that with Humanism.

Mehdi does not deny the numbers and the threat of ISIS. He agrees we should take them seriously. But the problem is that all this *Not Islamic* nonsense is the biggest denials destruction I’ve ever seen anywhere. This is the subject. Not what we can do about ISIS, not how we can prevent recruitment. In fact the Islamophobia mongering of Mehdi Hasan and others is preventing an honest reflection within Islam, within British Islam. Everyone is so busy defending Islam they are by default defending ISIS. Their Islamophobia rhetoric is fuelling the victimhood that is inciting yet more young Muslims to join up. Great job at recruiting for ISIS Mehdi.

Mehdi acknowledges at last (a bit late in the game) that it makes no sense to have the debate without any religious discussion – something he has been trying to achieve – but, he thinks it dangerous to say they are very Islamic, or even more Islamic. But, Mehdi, it’s far more dangerous to deny their Islamic influence and play this Islamophobia card.

Mehdi thinks talking about their Islamic status gives them some substantive claim to being Islamic. well, it does, because they are. Again, not your Islam, Mehdi, but that’s just your Takfir game, which is their game too.

Mehdi disputes that ISIS take their religion more seriously than most Muslims. This is indeed an contentious point, but not totally devoid of merit. Many Muslims, like people of most religions, are varied in their devoutness and adherence to the requirements of the texts.

Mehdi worries we might be throwing the majority of Muslims ‘under the bus’. This is nonsense. Islam is already a bad religion with all the states that implement it, and within the UK. If it were a reformed personal practice devoid of apostasy, blasphemy, and all punishments of any kind, then it wouldn’t be a problem. No body would care – and in fact people are so credulous there would be far more converts than there now are.

Mehdi says that ISIS crave legitimacy and we shouldn’t be giving it to them. This is typical of cultures where superficial appearances mean more than genuine honesty. It’s the kind of culture where being pleasant to someone is far more important for making a good impression for the religion than being honest. We see this in the way in which so many Muslims interviewed will not give straight talking answers when they are asked about their support for various punishments prescribed by Islam.

Mehdi doesn’t want us to denigrate the whole world of Islam. Sorry, Mehdi, it was already understood to be a vile religion as practised in all countries where it is a majority. ISIS is merely the appearance of the worst of Islam that many worried about but which many Muslims denied could ever come about. Here it is, our worst Islamic nightmare. Your worst Islamic nightmare. No wonder you are in denial.

On discussing the religious element Mehdi again insists ISIS is a fringe cult, with zero support within the Muslim world. That’s clearly false because these are not non-Muslims joining ISIS, but Muslims. And with any extremist fringe there are more supporters out there that have not yet or may never actually join them – but to say there is zero support is a down right lie. Duplicitous Mehdi Hasan strikes again.

Mehdi insist again that religion is not the motivator but the justification. Isn’t that to Islam’s discredit that it can be so used to justify these horrors? Yes, the revolutionary violence of other ideologies may have been used by previous generations. But this violent behemoth is justified very specifically by religious texts that in state contexts elsewhere have accusations of sorcery, stoning of adulterers, hanging of gays. It’s a barbaric religion, and Mehdi Hasan is only confirming that for us by his duplicitous denials.

We get back to the ‘learned scholars’ point. Wood: they are serious about the texts because they are from a literalist tradition. They are interested in the plain meaning of the words.

Well, of course, and there is plenty of religious barbarism in there to get their teeth into – find anything remotely like that in Humanism, which doesn’t even have the much ignored horrors of the Bible.

So, here we have both literalist scholars, and naive Islamic Dummies, all able to use these dangerous weapons of the Quran and the Hadith more lethally than all the school shooting sprees in the US.

And, the problem is that the scholars of Islam are making stuff up about interpretations of a fantasy. That can lead pretty much anywhere, because there are few restraints. And yes, the humanism of most people stops them becoming ISIS-like, but in these more humane times it’s astonishing that Islamic states still subscribe to barbaric practices justified by Islam.

Wood concedes he’s not Muslim and it is not for him to say who is interpreting Islam correctly. Gleeful Mehdi is only too pleased to jump on this point; forgetting, or perhaps not realising, that even as a Muslim he is in no position either, because to many scholars his liberal Islam isn’t true Islam either – Mehdi Hasan is not a Muslim, according to some Muslims. Taker. How about that.

Mehdi mentions Anjem Choudary – an attention seeking blowhard? Well, he has the texts to back him up. Shuddery is not a joke figure for many of the people that think the way he does. And CAGE and other Islamic organisations are implicated in his type of extremism. If these minorities were as small as Mehdi Hasan would have us believe there wouldn’t be a problem. And, his links to Hizb ut-Tahrir isn’t a win for Mehdi, because that organisation has quite a following, and they only denounce ISIS as the true caliphate because its not their Caliphate. More Takfir tosh.

Mehdi seems to be under the impression that ISIS is taken seriously because of their actual scholarly credentials. It isn’t. They are taken seriously in this regard precisely because they can so easily turn people to violence because they, like any Muslim, can aspire to being scholarly; and scholarly on barbaric punishments is so easy when the texts support it.

Mehdi again wants us not to take their word as ‘gospel’, because of their barbarity in beheading scholars, raping young girls. Those things are not a means to discredit their Islamic status if they can find justification in Islamic texts.

Mehdi answers the point that ISIS can quote the text by referring to David Koresh and his use of the Bible. Is this supposed to be a plus for Islam? Is this supposed to convince us that the Islamic texts cannot be used for such atrocities? Mehdi, you are a fool if you think this is making Islam sound any better. It is truly laughable that Mehdi uses David Koresh as an example of another religious cult easily finding justification in ancient barbaric texts. The joke is on you Mehdi. Koresh believed himself to be the final prophet of his cult. Where have we heard that before? Mehdi, keep digging that hole.

Mehdi: “No one is saying these people are not Muslims” – What? If they are Muslims in what way are they un-Islamic? This is stupid. “They are not authentically representative of Muslims.” Well, nor are Sunnis of Shias or Shias of Sunnis. What the hell, Mehdi, keep digging.

Mehdi tries the error of attribution? Oh, Mehdi, you total bullshitter. No one is denying all the political discontent, the identity crises, or whatever else you’d like to include. The point is that the barbaric texts of Islam are the justification, as you say. Isn’t that enough to condemn the Islamic texts? Of course that doesn’t condemn all Muslims because so many Muslims cherry pick (as you claim ISIS do) and interpret in their own way (as you claim ISIS do).

Don’t you get it Mehdi? Islam needs reform to put its nasty texts behind it. But it cannot because the Quran is supposed to be inerrant and the Hadith are used to justify so much more of the political and judicial aspects of Islam.

Mehdi brings up socio-economic factors? You have got to be kidding me. The wealthy Saudi families? The King of Jordan invoking Islamic wrath for the death of their pilot? The well educated British people being turned to join ISIS? The ignorant ‘scholars’ in Saudi and Iran that persecute people, Muslims and non-Muslim? The UAE court that have criminalised rape victims, Muslim and non-Muslim alike? Get real Mehdi, there is nothing that Muslims in Britain are suffering that cannot be said of Jews and Hindus. All recent anti-Islamic come back that has included frustrated right wing nationalist in Britain are a direct result of the vociferous supremacist nature of Islam as sold in the UK by many Muslims, as well as Islam’s reputation as implemented in Islam dominated states.

Mehdi worries about us obsessing over the Islamic nature of ISIS? He’s the one obsessing over it, in his obsession with denying it. It is not being obsessive to point out that ISIS is using the Quran and Hadith to justify their actions when in fact they are. These are the facts that even Mehdi Hasan admits to. Get over it, Mehdi, accept that it’s right there in the texts and deal with it. sadly, you cannot deal with it because there are your texts too.

Mehdi says we must understand ISIS. Well, yes. But denying their Islamic status, even if it’s not your Islamic status, isn’t helping in that endeavour. You are adding to the problem.

Mehdi points out that there are also the product of the invasion of Iraq? Then that’s not saying a lot for the capacity of the religion of peace to come together and form a peaceful state in Iraq when the hated Americans left. Where was the unity of Islam? It was lost in the divisive corrosive nature that plagues all religions in conflict. The war in Iraq freed the chaos of religious sectarianism that was repressed under Saddam. That sectarianism is now free. That’s not a good advert for Islam, Mehdi.

Mehdi starts to make concessions toward the end, because he pretty much has to. He points out how Wood’s piece upset people – well, yes, because it contained more of the truth about the Islamic nature of ISIS than Mehdi Hasan and others have been denying. It must be a very discomforting truth to take in, that your inerrant Quran can be so easily used to turn naive people to such grotesque behaviours. It’s right there in the texts!

It’s funny how we non-Muslims are told so often how we should listen to Muslims rather than make stuff up. Wood spoke to Muslims. But not the right type of Muslims. Takfir talk again.

Mehdi wants to now avoid the notion that it’s a war within Islam. Well, many Muslims are being killed, by Muslims. Mehdi seems prepared to twist the argument any way he can to avoid pinning any of it on Islam.

Yes, we want to take into account all factors. But once all other factors have been removed, all social injustices sorted (as if that happens, to any group) we will still have Islamic theocracies behaving barbarically in the name of Islam. Iran was primarily an Islamic theocratic revolution. If you think that’s a good advert for Islam think again.

Sorry, Mehdi, but you are making me more and more convinced that Islam is by nature a dishonest religion.

Humanism: teaches only good stuff. If you kill in the name of humanism you will find no texts supporting your actions.

But, Islam: teaches good stuff and brutal barbaric stuff. Good, evil, or either, depending on mood or cartoons, Islam justifies it all.

And, this evening, as I write this, Tunisia happened. If ISIS is doing one thing of use, it is, despite the denials, forcing Muslims to wake up to the nature of their own religion and its capacity to be turned to the barbaric ends that the texts prescribe. No amount of scholarly bullshit can hide the heinous nature of these inerrant texts.

Seriously Flawed Religious Apologetics

Samuel James over at Patheos has put up some apologetics that are supposed to help the non-science Christian. Unfortunately they re really poor at giving Christians good answers to critiques of their beliefs.

Lack of scientific knowledge can leave Christians feeling vulnerable when talking to unbelieving friends about why faith is superior to skepticism.

4 Responses a Non-Scientist Christian Can Give to Science-Based Atheism

These will not help any Christian make his or her case, but will only lead to ridicule. Sorry, but there’s enough of this very same stuff around as it is. You’re still vulnerable, because these points are pointless.

1) We cannot know from science if science itself is the best source of knowledge.

This is not quite right. I know what you mean. There is no way you can prove absolutely from science that science is absolutely the best source of knowledge. Unfortunately you are falling for that old philosophical problem of assuming that it is necessary to prove something in the logical absolute true/false sense. It isn’t.

We’ll come up against this again in your other points, so let’s settle it here.

Humans cannot prove things absolutely. All proofs, including deductive arguments used by characters like William Lane Craig, rely on premises that themselves need proving, and so on back through argument after argument. A particular argument may be valid, but if you cannot prove its premises the proof isn’t sound, and if it’s not a sound argument it isn’t providing assured proof of its conclusion.

In the end, with any argument chain, proving premises back through arguments intended to prove premises, we come up against premises we cannot prove. They might be guesses, hypotheses, hunches, results of experience – whatever they are they are not proved.

So, what we can only ever acquire knowledge by probing and observing the world, coming up with ideas, hypotheses, theories, reasoned explanations, intuitive ideas, imaginative prompts, and testing those ideas against the world. This is empiricism at work. And it’s all about the reliability of results, not about proof in that logical deductive sense. Of course we can use deduction to derive one reliable result to others – but proof is only ever a stepping stone to more knowledge, and not a mechanism for acquiring knowledge.

We know science is the best source of knowledge because it works so well, because nothing else is as productive.

Another aspect of this science business that confuses the religious and sloppy philosophers alike is the extent to which science-like knowledge acquisition is the founded on the only way humans can come to any knowledge. Humans have brains made of neurons, and those neurons work pretty much as peripheral neutrons do. The upshot is that brain neurons are ‘experiential’ components, just as the peripheral neutrons are, and the result is that humans are experiential creatures at every level, and are evolved from experiential creatures without neurons. Humans are empirical creatures. It’s our only way of acquiring knowledge. 

The consequence is that science is no more than a bunch of methods that are based on our empirical nature, enhanced, improved, made more rigorous, in order to make our empirical knowledge acquisition more reliable.

Here’s why this question matters. If the first option is true, then logically, science absolutely is the supreme mode of knowledge, and everything we believe about anything must be in submission to it. The problem though is that whether or not all of reality is ultimately explainable through scientific concepts is not itself a scientifically provable theory. It is a philosophical premise, not a scientific conclusion.

Yes. But that’s not a problem. It’s the way the world is, the way human knowledge acquisition is. We cannot know anything absolutely, so we have to make do with the reliable contingent results of science.

The only way to definitively prove that science explains everything would be to have exhaustive knowledge of all reality, and then be able to explain (using only scientific data) what all reality is and what it means. Such a feat is impossible.

Yes. But I’ve explained why that is inevitable, but also why it doesn’t matter, and why it’s still the best we have, all we have.

Therefore, the belief that science is the best source of knowledge must be accepted on faith, for it cannot be verified through testing.

No! No! No! This does not follow from your other points. While it cannot be proved absolutely that science guarantees exhaustive knowledge, it can be verified through testing that it is the best source of knowledge, and based on these results and the scientific knowledge about our evolved biological nature, that its empirical methods constitute the only way of knowing. It’s easy in principle. Did we observe that the British Comet aircraft was really reliable? No. Empirical observation of planes falling out the skies demonstrated a problem, and more science demonstrated the nature of the problem – too late to save that plane. But that knowledge added to the safety of air travel, as have many other empirical observations and experiments, some of which took more deaths to cause improvements, some improvements coming from better science prior to deaths. That’s how messy science is because that’s how messy the world is for us humans, with our limited epistemological reach.

And just to head off where you are going with this, the contingency of science is not a loophole through which religion can sneak in. Not only is religion not some other way of knowing, it is nothing more than minimising the good methods of science and is in fact making a virtue out of an extremely poor use of our basic methods of knowing.

2) Scientific consensus can and frequently does change. This limits its epistemological authority.

I love the comic way theists make one of science’s graces into a limitation, while extolling religions discreditable obstinance as a virtue.

Look, since humans do not have perfect knowledge (something I think you agree with) we are limited to making the best we can, and then making improvements when we can. A great feature of science, and engineering generally, is that ‘good enough’ for the purpose in hand is good enough. And on top of that, what’s good enough now can be used to make future results even better.

The measurement precision of any instrument was limited by the craftsmanship of the artisan that made it. But then those instruments, that improve the natural inaccuracy of humans can not only make more accurate measurements easier, the instruments can also be used to make even more accurate instruments.

And in science generally, the more tests are repeated, and the test methods improved, and the more modes (branches if science) that are used the more confidence we have in our results.

This is all good stuff. It makes science good for progress. That some older ideas are improved upon or even replaced is progress. It’s a good thing!

And yet set against this we have religion that insists on sticking with ancient ideas come what may. In fact, much to the cost of many lives, having new ideas in religion can be dangerous and even fatal. Heresy is real thing in religion. You charge people with heresy as a negative act against the religion. The charge of heresy in science is a derogatory one in the opposite sense, in that the holding of ideas to be fundamentally unassailable such that a challenge is considered a heresy is a criticism of those entrenched ideas, not the new ideas or the heretic. Religion: heretic bad. Science: heretic good.

One does not wait on science to exhaustively explain something before believing it. If that were so then 99% of human beings on the planet would not believe in the most basic realities of existence, or would be irrational in believing without having exhaustive scientific knowledge.

Well, that’s right. But let’s see where you’re going with this …

If current scientific consensus points away from the existence of God (a highly disputable point, by the way), then who is to say that consensus cannot change? If it can, then science’s intellectual authority is limited, and the expectation that it will continue to oppose religious belief is more a matter of faith.

It’s only a highly disputable point in the minds of theists, who don’t appreciate how powerful science is, and how totally inadequate religion is. The point isn’t that science is limited to some extent, the point is that it is inordinately better than religion. If science was only 20% reliable that’s damned good when your alternative, religion, is 0%.

But, let’s get down to the detail. Yes, consensus could change to favour God – but only when there is evidence of God. This isn’t a a trivial beauty pageant where you get to pick the contestant in the nicest outfit, the one with the robes and funny hats. Just bring the evidence and science will take note. Unlike religion, where evidence is actually a bad thing and faith is de rigueur.

Just a final thought, on this possibility of evidence for God. Your point applies just as well to Islam as Christianity, to astrology, to fairies existing. This puerile play on the remote possibility of evidence turning up to favour your particular unevidenced belief is laughable.

This point (2) is seriously messed up in your head.

3) Only supernatural theism provides a rational justification of scientific work.

No! No! No!

Adding the word ‘rational’ isn’t helping. It’s not rational.

But you do need supernatural theism to have a rational justification of science.

Of course not. We have the empirical evidential justification that science is better than anything else. Remember, we not only can’t have absolute proof, but we also don’t need it. The results of science speak for themselves.

Why on earth would you want to dream up an imaginary supernatural explanation for something that already works? That it works without supernatural explanation is evidence itself that the supernatural isn’t needed.

You do realise this is just a God of the Gaps argument, don’t you? We don’t have absolute logical proof that science is infallible, so you are injecting this supernatural to fill that proof gap. But all you’ve done is filled the gap with a presupposition of a God – you’ve added an unexplained premise – and remember how deductive proofs never prove anything because they don’t have proven premises? You have just added an unproven premise: supernaturalism.

It means that scientific inquiry done on the assumption that there is no higher intelligence than evolved human intelligence is making a value judgment that it has no right to make.

There is no assumption that there is no higher intelligence than humans. We already accept that there might be alien species that are more intelligent than us now. There might be post-humans, trans-humans, in the future that are more intelligent than us now. There might be AI systems in the future more intelligent than us now. And yes, as some remote possibility there might be billions of super-natural gods more intelligent than us, and hyper-natural gods in a higher still realm of even greater intelligence than them – and not a drop of evidence for any of it. Whether it’s aliens, AI or gods, it’s all speculation.

We take modern humans to be the most intelligent creatures we know of because, from evidence, we are the most intelligent creatures we know of. it’s a working conclusion not an assumption. Don’t paint our contingent empirical knowledge with your presuppositional supernaturalist brush.

Why is knowledge better than ignorance? The atheist would respond that ignorance has less survival value than truth; after all, if you believe wrong things or do not know enough about your environment, you’re less likely to survive and flourish. But this explanation only applies to a very small amount of scientific knowledge. There is little survival value in knowing, for example, the complicated workings of time–space theory, or the genus of certain insects, or the distance of Jupiter from Mars.

In a trivial sense you are right. And for all the good prayer does there’s little survival benefit in pretending to know there’s a God. But that’s all irrelevant. Even if our intellectual curiosity is no more than an evolutionary by-product, we are stuck with it. We like finding stuff out. Whether it helps survival or not is irrelevant – as is sex after a certain age, or after a vasectomy or other contraception, but still enjoyable nonetheless. 

Human beings believe that knowing is better than ignorance because they believe that truth is better than falsity, and light is better than darkness. But where does such a conclusion come from? It does not come from scientific principles.

it comes from our evolved nature, whether useful or not. Another God of the Gaps argument is due I suppose.

You cannot study science hard enough to understand why you should study science at all.

Of course you can: psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, biology, …, science is in the business of explaining many things about the world, including why one species does what it does.

To study science presupposes a valuing of truth that must be experienced outside of scientific study.

No it does not. It doesn’t presuppose anything. We discover that we value truth by observing that we value truth. We then dig deeper into brain sciences to figure out why we value things. This isn’t news. Even if we don’t have as many answers as we like we have some, and are acquiring more. No more God of the Gaps, please.

It is only rational to pursue scientific knowledge that doesn’t offer immediate survival value if there is some external, transcendent value in knowing truth.

What utter rubbish! We can hypothesise that truth value comes from the basics of survival – the more accurate, closer to the truth about facts in the world, our knowledge is, the more likely we are to survive. That’s all that’s required. No need to hypothesise transcendental nonsense – which you hypothesise only because you already believe the God stuff.

4) Only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga? No! For pity’s sake, he’s not a philosopher, he’s a theologian, with all the rep suppositions that a theologian has that stops him doing what philosophers should do, which is to be sceptical, to engage in critical thinking, to leave your presuppositions at the door. 

We already have plenty of contingent assurance that ‘real’ scientific knowledge is possible. And it it’s not real, if we are living some solipsistic imagined existence, so that all of material reality is only imagined in immaterial minds, then so what? But going down that path gets rid of your God too.

The “evolutionary argument against naturalism” is not complicated, it’s simple, and wrong.

Those two Plantinga facts:

– First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. 

– Second, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures.

That isn’t that informative. You cannot derive from that what Plantinga thinks he can derive. There is no “tension between these two facts”.

If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (ie, the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties. But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds–which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance–are actually rational at all?

This betrays a really inadequate view of evolution, and biology, and physics, and reason.

It’s not just time and chance. More to the point the changes are not independent chance events. They are contingent events. A chance mutation acts in an environment that favours it to not. If it is favoured it’s more likely to persist in the gene pool, and it’s more likely to be favoured if it contributes to survival, or at least isn’t detrimental to it. It’s the selection, natural selection, that does the work of maintaining good chance changes and discarding bad ones.

And, reason is no more than the mechanistic working of a biological brain clicking away somewhat like a computer – and the somewhat it an important point here, since we re not exactly like computers in how we do computation. But reason is nothing more than messy computation using concepts and language to manipulate ideas.

What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions?

We don’t have any basis, in an absolute sense, no logical proof that our conclusions will be right. But we can recognise quite well when our conclusions turn out to work, and when they don’t. We know we make mistakes in this area. Look, Samuel, you and Plantinga have come to unreliable conclusions. Or if you are right then we on the atheist side have come to the wrong conclusions. Either way, we aren’t guaranteed to make the right conclusions, so that alone shows Plantinga’s thesis is wrong. We cannot know we are right perfectly, which is what you’d expect from an evolved organism that wasn’t designed by a perfect being for perfectly rational behaviour.

How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? 

Taking you to mean any ‘other’ primate, well, we don’t, except in as far as we can show that we are more capable. In detecting the best location for food, the best place to sleep in the forest, then I guess we don’t know some things as well as they do, without artificial help. But on the whole we know we make better use of our brains intellectually by observing that we do – by looking at them and comparing empirically. This is all too easy. I seriously worry about the religious mind that can’t grasp this.

If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all?

Jeez, these are seriously poor questions. We know we are highly evolved only in as much as our science tells us and no more. There might be species out in space more* evolved than we are. Had mammals not become dominant some other species might have evolved to be more* evolved. We know only, from our own observations, that on this planet we know of no more evolved species than us. It really is that empirically simple.

[* I’m playing your game here. Being *more* evolved is a dubious qualifier.] 

It makes no sense to assume that humans can really make sense of their world on a conceptual level if human consciousness arose out of the very world it responds to.

We are not assuming it. We are observing that it is the case. If we are wrong, and, say, we’re actually as dumb as horse shit, then we are doing a better job of fooling ourselves than we thought was possible when we started to laugh at the religious for the horse shit they believe in. C’est la vie. In the meantime, we still think believing in unevidenced gods is dumb.

Nagel agrees with Plantinga that atheistic naturalism cannot explain why human beings can be rational creatures and do rational things that should be trusted.

You do realise that if this is right, then we also have no reason to be confident in Plantinga’s reasoning, for believing in senses divinitatis? Right? You do realise that if naturalism is true, and this limitation you are perceiving is also true, then in a naturalistic non-supernatural universe this Plantinga horse shit is just the kind of horse shit that such limited humans might come up with? Right? The fact that we have this disagreement, between our rational empirical perspective and the theological imaginary friends, this is just what would happen under the naturalism Plantinga is worried about.

If there’s actually a God, and he has given us these brains, then we atheists are using them to show pretty well that there’s no evidence for God, and Plantinga has been put on earth by this God to make such a dumb argument that it actually increases belief in the stupidity of apologetics and the absence of God.

If Carl Sagan is correct and the material universe is all there was, is, and ever will be, then science itself is nothing more than a shot in the dark.

It is a shot in the dark. Enhanced by a science that started by shining Newton’s a light, and went on to invent night vision goggles, telescopes, microscopes, to help us on our way.

Religion is the art of being in a darkened space, insisting on remaining blind folded, and then imagining all the things that might be out there, without ever stepping into the unknown to actually test those ideas. It’s seriously stupid.


Sorry Samuel, but you are way off base. This is only going to encourage non-sciency Christians to keep churning out this sort of poor response to atheism and science all over the net.

Science is contingent, adaptive. That’s a good thing.

Religion is absolute, static, resistive to change. That’s a bad thing.

Heresy in religion is a bad thing, and in some cases punishable. Apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, are all tools to shut down thinking and encourage obedience. The best that can happen to the heretic is that he will be ignored, or scorned, or denounced as a sinner. But he could fact death or torture.

Heresy in science is a good thing, as long as it is backed up by evidence. The worse that happens is people laugh at your dumb ideas. See Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake.

Josephus on Christianity Is Hearsay

There are a bunch of people building reputations on the historicity of Jesus – whether the man Jesus existed, what he did, what he claimed to do.

Christians want, no, need, Jesus to be a real mortal man, at least, because they depend on that in order to make their next set of claims about his divinity, his miracles, and most of all, the resurrection.

Non-Christian scholars go to great lengths to show not only that the information we have a bout Jesus is unreliable, but in some cases it is so flawed they think he didn’t even exist.

In history it really helps make your case if there are some independent sources that contribute facts to a story to give us some confidence in the story. One area where Christian scholars fail so badly it amounts to professional dishonesty is regard this independent evidence claim.

One source in particular can be relied upon to be behind most claims you hear from Christians if they start telling you there’s ‘plenty’ (a vague often used term) of evidence for the resurrection. When you look at their sources they tend to go something like this:

1 – Many who are not scholars will point to William Lane Craig, and may even give links to his site and some of the pages where he tells us there are ‘plenty’ of independent sources.

2 – When you go to William Lane Craig you will see that he offers Josephus, and Pliny and Tacitus. But the go-to guy in the end is Josephus.

3 – When you’ve gone down this rabbit whole with the Christian and given your reasons why this isn’t independent evidence, they’ll offer some other Christian scholars, who, they assure you, will provide categorical evidence for the resurrection. Of course these sources never do. But where they do claim to be offering evidence you can bet your shirt on it that they will either point to some other source, like William Lane Craig again, or will cite Josephus themselves.

4 – Some Christians will actually try to cite just Josephus – but usually it’s not Josephus directly that they cite but some description of what Josephus contains along with some explanation of why it’s so good. But this is not actually looking at the content of Josephus.

If you’re not familiar with Josephus you could start here: Wikipedia on Josephus

Remember, Josephus was a Jew, captured by Rome, and writing from Rome. Here’s a brief summary with links: Jewish Virtual Library on Josephus. And from there note this: “However, because of Josephus’ proclivity to depend on hearsay and legend, scholars are never sure what to accept as fact.”

Or, you could try this source: Bible Study Tools on Josephus.

Scholarly Opinion on the Reliability Of Extant Josephus Texts

One of the controversies over what is currently available is the extent to which current transcripts are genuine copies of what Josephus actually wrote, or whether they have been modified by Christians to tell a better story. This is the stuff of historical scholarly work – which I’m not qualified to judge, but which has, of course, its Christian non-Christian perspectives.

I am specifically avoiding this angle, because I don’t think it is necessary in order to make my point. And, I have to say, both the Christian and non-Christian scholars seem to be on thin ice. You can judge for your self by reading them – I bet you’ll soon become bored with the detail that makes no difference.

Josephus as Hearsay

I appreciate the historical interests in these old texts, but in the case against Christianity the most obvious criticism of Josephus and other ‘independent’ sources is that they are nothing more than hearsay. Josephus is not evidence for Jesus at all.

At best, if we ignore the controversy of the reliability of the extant texts, then it is nothing more than a report of what Christians were saying they believed.

Whether it’s what Christians reported directly to Josephus, or what Josephus picked up from non-Christian sources telling what Christians were saying, is unknown.

The same is true of course when a Christian source is provided. If a non-Christian hears some stories about Christ, thinks it all sounds pretty good, and becomes a Christian, then this is now a biased Christian source that is peddling what are basically his unreliable sources that made him Christian in the first place.

And so it goes even today.

History Hangs on Threads

This is a problem for history generally. But in most respects it’s unimportant.

I don’t know of anyone today living their lives in such a way that depends categorically on the truth of whether Nero fiddled as Rome burned. If one believed that legend, then came across information that debunks it, it wouldn’t be the end of your world. One has only to say, “Oh well, I was wrong about that.”

Some historical researchers could build academic careers on something that is later debunked. And the same is true in science. But once the facts are establish there’s no hiding place. It may involve the consumption of some humble pie, but then any scholar or researcher worth their salt would get the pie out, and after a hearty meal they’d get on with using the new data.

The Christian Life Based on Hearsay

But in the case of Christianity people build careers and whole lives on the claim that Jesus was God (ignoring theological quibbles on that score) and that he died to save us. All based on nothing better than hearsay.

You go to church, pray to God and Jesus Christ. Maybe you’re a Roman Catholic and you really believe that when the wafer is blessed it turns into the literal body of Christ. Maybe you’re a ‘sophisticated’ theologian and don’t by any of the high church stuff, but still believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God, and the resurrection.

It’s based entirely on hearsay? Yes!

The words of Jesus? Put into his mouth entirely by the writers of the Gospels. There is zero evidence Jesus said any of it. When reported in the Gospels some time after the death of Jesus (again, we’re not even demanding proof the mortal man existed here) then it is nothing more than hearsay.

It is no less hearsay than anything a Muslim might claim about Mohammed. Muslims can even make a better claim to the historicity of Mohammed – though of course what Mohammed’s followers tell us Mohammed was told by Gabriel, who was instructed by Allah, is several levels of hearsay too.

I don’t think enough is made of this. Christianity is a religion based entirely on hearsay. But Josephus is a Christian trump card they are allowed to get away with far too often.

Religious Language Frustrates Michael Nugent

Michael Nugent tries to grasp and challenge the meaning of the mystical words of Swami Purnananda as the latter explains something or other about his beliefs.

I’ve always been fascinated by how well artists capture moving water. I remember visiting Niagara Falls, and I tried to pick out and follow a pattern in the flow of water as it went over the edge – no sooner had I selected one fast moving ripple to examine its form and it was gone, and the water just kept on coming. Swami Purnananda’s meaningless words just keep on coming, and Michael Nugent has barely a moment to grasp each one and impart some sense onto it.

Swami Purnananda, “I frame in poetic language admittedly”

And there lies the problem of the whole of religious mysticism.

If you keep telling yourself this stuff enough the brain comes to believe it. The brain builds a contextually consistent and eventually familiar conceptual framework where all this stuff ties together and forms some ‘holistic’ explanation that has ephemeral ties to the real word through a careful selection of words – and it helps here if the words are vague or of multiple meanings so they are protected from literal evidential analysis. The whole system can then stand alone, in the brain, detached from empirical scrutiny.

I guess that’s why it takes so long to become a mystic or a priest. Until the brain is thoroughly programmed in this poetic language the brain’s owner is a struggling novice.

In a way I think it’s very much like learning some difficult scientific or mathematical concept. I know from experience that I’ve struggled to really ‘get it’ some times. Evolution, thermodynamics – there are many topics which can seem difficult to grasp until you have many of the bits pinned down, then it all clicks and you get it. I can see why those without a lot of background can find evolution and thermodynamics and other scientific ideas so incredible, and why they look for other explanations.

The scientific conceptual systems succeed or fail on the extent to which they stand up to the empirical challenge. Not so religion.

It doesn’t seem to matter to many people that the religious mystical stuff isn’t grounded in empirical evidence, or that it doesn’t actually work at doing anything – outside all the psychological benefits they find in their communities of common belief. Of course they have to ignore as much as possible how easily such unsupported beliefs can lead to atrocities in the real world; and where they can they blame those outcomes on something else. Many must be finding that deflection tough to sustain in the face of the proclaimed faith of ISIS – though even some atheists still try valiantly to excuse religious belief of being open to any interpretation at all.

Deepities indeed, as was pointed out in an early comment on Michael Nugent’s blog.

What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.

Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism.

She asked me, well what do you believe in? You surely must believe in something, ‘in humanity’, for example? Her surprise was that I said that as far as I can tell I don’t believe in anything, in that religious type of ‘believing IN something’, and I don’t need to. What about life, family, your wife?

I chose to respond about my wife – one’s wife is a common subject when believers insists that surely you have ‘faith’ in in your wife’s love for you. Of course I love my wife. Along with my (adult) children she is most important to me. But I don’t ‘believe in’ her, in some all encompassing sort of way. She’s another human being. She has flaws, as do we all. It would be unfair to ‘believe’ in her in that way, and totally unnecessary. I trust her; and I’ve learned to do that with experience of not being given any reason not to. Exactly what I trust her with or about is less clear, but generally I’d say I trust her when she says she loves me; I trust her not to intentionally do anything that would hurt me in any way. But my wife and I are simply two human animals that have that type of loving bond that humans are capable of. It’s not magic. It’s not spiritual. It’s human. It’s what humans do.

I could come over all lyrical, quote lines from poems or love songs to express how deep my love is, but that seems to be rather superficial when trying to get to the bottom of this belief stuff. I need to explain it rationally. Spouting words of romantic love would express my feelings, perhaps, but wouldn’t go any way to explaining anything about belief.

Believing ‘in’ stuff always seems rather contrived; fake. I’m not disputing that people do believe like that. But I get the feeling that they’ve been busy fooling themselves into such beliefs, buying into romanticism spouted by poets, philosophers and theologians. It all seems such unnecessary nonsense. I get all the wonder and magic of living a human life, with other humans, and with other animals on this plant, and from the mysteries of the universe itself. I don’t see the need to believe ‘in’ anything.

Coincidentally Will Self has a piece in the BBC News magazine: A Point of View: Why not caring about anything is only for the young. “It is not the content of our beliefs that really matters, so much as the practice of believing itself, argues Will Self.”

Well, no, believing doesn’t matter. Or, rather, not believing ‘in’ something, avoiding such an error, is what actually matters, because it allows you to believe whatever you find to be the case. I find that believing ‘in’ something gives that something an importance that cannot then be betrayed by truth, and can lead to the denial of any truth that threatens what you happen to believe ‘in’. Religions gain their coercive authority from having people submit to belief ‘in’ them.

“Dostoevsky understood that what humans are, in terms of our moral being, is crucially tied up with what – if anything – we believe.”

As a matter observation, I guess that has been right, historically; mostly, for the thinkers that think about thought about those things. But I don’t think it’s a necessity for humans. I think it’s a habit, like one’s religion, that we have tended to fall into, or grown up into. It seems so common that I suppose it might be some quirk of the brain that makes it happen; an accident of genetics and gene expression in the environment of human brain evolution.

“In the contemporary secular era, one the lineaments of which Dostoevsky could perfectly well discern when he was writing in the 1870s, there are plenty of people keen to assert that they have no beliefs at all, if by this is meant a settled conviction about such big questions as why we are here, where we are going, and whether good and evil are ultimate realities or merely functions of a given social structure during a particular era.”

Quite right. If the enlightenment has shown us anything it’s that such convictions are foolish. It’s ironic that believers are often quick to tell us how wrong we atheist science proponents are in our belief ‘in’ science. They assume we believe ‘in’ science the way they believe ‘in’ whatever it is they believe in. And they couldn’t be more wrong. Scientific scepticism is the withholding of conviction – barring over enthusiasm in one’s pet theory now and again, but we’re quick to clarify the contingency of our apparent beliefs The contingency is what we take for granted as a lesson quickly learned in the failure to make accurate predictions when we expect to be able to make them. A failed experiment is telling us something: something unexpected about the subject of the experiment, or something unexpected about how to perform the experiment.

Learning to trust science generally, as a process of discovery, as the best process we have available to us, is not a commitment to a belief ‘in’ it. And when it comes to science in specific instances it’s usually the scientist doing the science that knows full well how contingent their very positive looking results are.

“But is it really true to say we have no beliefs? After all, if we truly believed nothing it would be difficult for us to operate in a world where everyone else behaves as if they did believe in something, that something being – by and large – the efficiency and reliability of the technologies we rely on for our daily life.”

Will Self is here failing to distinguish between belief, as expressed when we say ‘belief in’, and a learned trust.

Trust is a powerful empirical tool used throughout the animal kingdom, by animals possessing brains. We can start with it, and potentially withdraw it; or we can start without it and learn when to award it. The inquisitive nature of the young is an expression of this learning process: to dive in head first with no negative expectation, and learn from one’s mistakes, or to tread cautiously and learn what can be trusted.

Now it may well be that the human brain, with greater powers of reflection, is sometimes a little too sceptical for its own good, and often a little too trusting in invisible powers for which there is no evidence. These are issues of psychology and neuroscience that we are still trying to discover in detail. But despite our history of over indulgence in belief ‘in’ things, there is no reason to suppose this is some necessity for survival, or happiness.

“When we push button A we very much expect B to happen, when we flick a light switch we anticipate the light going on. ”

Well, yes. These are learned expectations. There is no reason to believe a switch will bring forth light, and any ancient would be rightly mystified if it had. From an early age my children grew up with VHS video recorders which they could use to record and play back TV programmes. That was something I learned was possible only later in life, since I grew up with only two, then four TV channels and no means of recording. My childrens children will think it quite natural to walk down the street seemingly talking to themselves when in fact they are in intimate live conversation with someone on the other side of the world. How would that not be sorcery to people of earlier times. But these are not beliefs ‘in’ anything.

“they depend upon beliefs that we hold on trust”

Yes, in trust, not belief ‘in’. They are commitments of quite different kinds.

“This reliance on essentially occult beliefs for the smooth running of the physical aspects of our lives has engendered a further strange belief in us, a belief about our beliefs concerning those big, metaphysical questions.”

For some that don’t get the opportunity through circumstances to enlighten themselves that may be fair enough; but for anyone at all educated this amounts to wilful ignorance. I don’t know many details of physics, cosmology, chemistry, biology, and when I try to express my opinions on these subject I no doubt make mistakes, or run out explanatory steam. But I know enough to know that there will be answers there, if in fact I know that someone somewhere has taken the effort to make the appropriate discoveries. It seems to me that failing to grasp the rudiments of how things work is a failure of inquisitiveness not unrelated to the closing down of inquiry we see in many systems that require a belief ‘in’ them.

We can even go so far as to make reasonably educated estimates about as yet incomplete knowledge; not because we know that these things ‘will’ be discovered, but from a trust born of previously successful extrapolations. And tempered by previous failures too. So, as just one example, I see no principled barrier to humans discovering the nature of consciousness, as a function of a biological brain, to the extent that one day we will be able to enhance our own consciousness, encapsulate it in substrates other than evolved brains, and will be able to generate it afresh. There really is no known principle that persuades me this will not be possible. There is, however, a lot of belief ‘in’ stuff going on in some human brains that prevents them entertaining this possibility. Their belief ‘in’ some unsubstantiated specialness of human kind, often divinely created and so outside the creative reach of man himself, prevents them seeing the possibility. Believing ‘in’ things seems such a hindrance to the imagination – another irony given the flights of fancy believers often engage in without any need for evidence to support their beliefs.

“This abrupt curtailment of the Western metaphysical project has left us at the bottom of our metaphorical gardens, in our figurative garden sheds, and depending for our belief system on a series of makeshift structures we’ve knocked up ourselves.”

That’s right. We’ve invented some holy shit. And look at the price we are paying for that right now. The most profoundly religious places on earth are often the most abysmal. Of course the dogmas of religious belief are no worse than those of atheistic beliefs ‘in’ something or other – as religious believers will be only to pleased to remind us by bringing up Stalin and other wackos. But sceptical scientific atheism isn’t made of the same stuff: it’s the lack of unconditional belief ‘in’ things. If we’re going to believe something it’s going to be conditional on the evidence that supports it; and if better evidence comes along we give up the belief somewhat easily, though sometimes reluctantly, because our beliefs are contingent.

“If called to account on the gimcrack quality of our convictions, we relapse into a sort of stoicism light: “Well,” we say, “it’s true that these beliefs aren’t altogether credible, but that doesn’t matter because at root I don’t believe in anything – I’m just trying to get by like the rest of us.” But the problem with stoicism light is that it just can’t deal with the heavy stuff.”

I agree. There’s a lot of unthinking conviction going on. And ‘sophisticated theology’ is the cheapest and showiest ornament of all. And it’s all so unnecessary. But worse, it’s always poorly thought out. Supposedly sophisticated, it’s nothing but a sham.

“The problem with our contemporary secular beliefs is that they’re either makeshift, or entered into unconsciously, simply as a necessary operating system for our busy and digitised lives. The great believers in the wonder of the universe, as revealed to us by science, seem to have considerable difficulty in either galvanising us to social solidarity, or providing us with true solace.”

As for the social solidarity I defy you to give any example of solidarity that is so inclusive of people than is science. There are no bars to membership. And as unlikely as it is to find someone that is both Muslim and Christian, there is no reason a Muslim or a Christian can’t be a scientist.

And as for solace, I think the difficulty is in the minds of those expecting solace. Cast it off. You don’t need it. Or, to put it another way, there’s a natural peace and solace in the freedom from belief ‘in’ anything in particular. It’s deeply liberating.

Life throws up crap, and often this happens when you’ve taken the greatest care in your life to avoid it; and to rub salt in, you witness the most cavalier kind swanning through life happily with the least effort. When will you get it into your heads that the chaotic nature of nature defies perfect order. Shit happens, and the best you can do is try to avoid it happening to you and your loved ones, and if you can help a few others around the world avoid it too, all the better for your empathetic biology. And if you can positively create and improve, then better still.

“I’ve yet to hear of anyone going gently into that dark night on the basis that she or he is happily anticipating their dissolution into cosmic dust.”

Then you’re not listening.

That’s not to say an individual at death’s door doesn’t long to survive. We are biological survival machines. We are programmed to stay alive if we can, and barring relief from pain and suffering the human organism is programmed not to go gently. If you doubt the power of this biological force of nature then watch the beating twitching body of a mouse your cat has toyed with. For a more traumatic example make yourself witness (it’s your duty to do so) the struggling body of the victim of a beheading at the hands of those that currently take their solace from the religion of Allah. Then decide what makes stoicism so biologically unnatural, and how reliable religion is at providing solace.

It is one of the supreme powers of self control to slip away in fully conscious peace – it goes against our biological grain. And all the more incredible when not pretending we are simply crossing over to a better eternal life of bliss. Knowing you are going, right now, and this is the end, may be a challenge to our animal survival that even a contemplative brain has difficulty with. All the more virtuous then, if virtue is something you find appealing.

“nor do I witness multitudes assembling in order that they may sing the periodic table together, or recite prime numbers in plain chant.”

And what’s that got to do with the price of eggs? Do you think atheists that believe in nothing in particular cannot be stirred by the rhythms of music. Emotive religious music can be deeply moving. But then so is music by the Doors. Try Rhythms of the Brain, by Gyorgy Buzsaki if you want to know why rhythm is important – it’s nothing to do with the religious content. It’s nothing to do with believing ‘in’ something.

“By contrast, religious beliefs continue to offer many people genuine succour, and they do this, I think, as Dostoevsky realised, not because of the specific concepts they appear to enshrine – such as an afterlife or eternal judgement – but because they place the human individual in a universal context, and thereby give her life meaning.”

I can understand that, in a time of near absolute ignorance. And the irrelevance of the specific content of belief goes some way to explain the arbitrary and varied nature of it. What else could explain the success of Scientology? A trumped up religion, invented by a failed science fiction writer, and people actually believe ‘in’ that stuff? This tells us more about the gullibility of the human brain than it does about our need for succour – or it tells us it’s such a desperate need we’ll believe damned near anything other than the cold facts of life and death. It is almost as incredible that any educated intellectual falls for the religious crap, but sure enough they do. And some of them scientists too. Even biologists.

We might still be early in our journey of the discovery of this universe and beyond, but the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and evolution, and latterly the brain sciences and the discoveries of our symbiotic relationship with all life on earth, and with any other life there might be in the universe, and with the rhythms in the dust of the universe – all this, it gives life far greater meaning than any trumped up imaginary fantasy.

Don’t get me wrong. Fantasy has its places, from childhood fairy tales, to adult fictions, theatres, art. We are emotionally driven intellects, and it’s often fun to lose ourselves in our imagination. And the devotional life may have its merits in personal fulfilment – it takes all sorts, and there’s no telling what one’s brain might find satisfying. And the simplicity and beauty of non-belief-in provides an exhilarating freedom of its own kind.

So, it’s not a belief ‘in’ something, the universe, and our place in it that we need. It’s the marvel of the discovery that we collectively, accumulatively, we lumps of dynamic dust, have been able to contemplate and understand what we are, what we came from, where we might yet go, that gives life its meaning. That and a good pint or a tasty dram, a hearty meal, passionate sex, holding hands, a melody, a pleasant snooze in the afternoon. Living our small short lives and marvelling at the greater universe is plenty satisfying enough. I don’t need to pretend in an afterlife or in any cosmic shepherd to watch over me and guide me. The last thing I need is the atrocious nonsense that the big religions dream up. I don’t need to believe ‘in’ something; what a chore.

Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

The question was posed here: Can Faith Ever Be Rational?

Rational: agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible; having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense; of, pertaining to, or constituting reasoning powers: the rational faculty.

Faith: confidence or trust in a person or thing; belief that is not based on proof or evidence; belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion.


Let’s get the equivocating use of the term faith as trust out of the way first, which is what the cited Buchak paper gets into with:

Buchak characterizes faith as a commitment to acting as if some claim is true without first needing to examine additional evidence that could potentially bear on the claim.

Oh, you mean like the terrorists that act in the name of some faith, before actually checking if the foundation of their faith is supported by evidence? Right.

Trust can be rational. Trust is something you learn, as when you learn to trust your spouse. You can be wrong, or, you could be right but later turn out to be wrong because your spouse was trustworthy for some time but then changed.

And we cannot fact-check everything for ourselves. Indeed part of the scientific method works because we cannot rely on our personal fact-checking all the time, because we have biases, and fallible senses, and fallible reasoning capacity. So, when experiments are carried out and reported we come to trust a particular scientific claim. Or we come not to trust it. Either way we adapt our trust according to how the claims stand up to scrutiny. We do not trust blindly and unconditionally, but carefully, with experience.

We can come to trust a source, a scientists, an establishment, which becomes an authority – but this must always be tempered by the possibility of error or fraud, and so in turn we come to trust the other scientists who check the source. Trust in sources can be lost – and sometimes is dramatically lost, when some scientists turns out to have been fraudulent in many of his published papers. This loss of trust can be inconvenient in science. It can even be catastrophic, as when the Soviet Union put their trust in Trofim Lysenko – and it would not be unreasonable to call this an example of blind faith rather than trust.

So this isn’t a universal locked-in trust. Trust can be revoked, if evidence comes to light that that suggests we should give up that trust.

We tend to trust doctors, because we know they are well trained professionals that dedicated to maintaining or improving our wellbeing. But we can lose trust in doctors when they fail us. They are fallible humans, and so even the very best intentioned of them can make mistakes. It is unfair to have unconditional faith in doctors. They should generally be trusted, but with caution befitting of your own concern for your own wellbeing. If you have a minor ailment, trust them by all means. If it’s a life and death decision, ask for a second opinion.

So, generally, “I trust my doctor”, is a pretty reasonable and rational statement. But to be more accurate it should be stated as, “I trust my doctor, to a degree, and cautiously, being ready to adapt my trust in the face of my experiences with my doctor.” This is quite rational.

What about when a religious person says something like, “I trust the Lord Jesus.” Isn’t that the same kind of trust? The use of the word trust here is misleading. It’s the faith that has brought this believer to suppose there is actually a Jesus to trust that is the issue. If Christianity were true in all its claims then it would be rational to trust Jesus, until such time that Jesus lets you down – which of course according to the fairy tale wouldn’t happen.

A similar statement to “I trust the Lord Jesus,” is “I trust in the Lord Jesus,” and when phrased like that we start to see the way in which simple rational trust in the character of a reliable person is morphing into the faith in both the character and the existence of a divine person. This is how religious rhetoric dupes people. Vagueness, equivocation, duplicity are the tools of religious rhetoric.

Religious Faith

When the question, is it rational, is asked of faith, the method by which a belief is maintained, then no, faith is not rational at all. Faith is the antithesis of rationality. Faith is what you use when you want to believe something, or are otherwise driven to hold a belief, when there is no reason or evidence to support the belief. And faith can result in belief in spite of counter evidence and reason.

When the question is asked it may be asked of faith, the system of belief, such as Christianity or Islam. So, can Christianity be rational? Can Islam be rational? Well, they can contain elements of reason, rationality, in the arguments put forward to support them, but that does not make them consequentially rational.

It is not necessarily important how the belief is first acquired. For example, it might be that someone who starts to examine a belief is persuaded by some arguments for it. When examined thoroughly the arguments may not be at all persuasive. But it would be unfair to say that someone new to the belief or someone who has not examined it well, is acting without reason, being irrational, just because they are persuaded by a poor argument.

Many Christians may be persuaded by the arguments of someone like C. S. Lewis, or William Lane Craig, or Alvin Plantinga.

The problem for someone first persuaded by these conjurors of religious apologetics arises when they become so convinced that they stop using reason and turn to faith as the final arbiter of what they believe.

Often the arguments of the apologists contain assertions that one should use faith. The trouble is that once you do resort to faith your reasoning capacity has become limited, because faith is always supposed to override, surmount, be better than reason. This is what religions rely on. This is how they lock people in, by first infecting them and then making them resistant to reason. Religions are viral, in that the persuasively rhetorical story is coughed up verbatim in order to infect others.

The basic lock-in rhetoric can be summarised by the following Simplified Bible claims, that represents how holy books work.

Simplified Bible

God exists.

This book contains the true and inerrant word of God.

God requires that you have faith in Him, and in his words as contained in this book.

When your belief is challenged by reason and evidence, this is the work of Satan tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith.

Of course the intelligent faithful would not usually be conned by such a simplistic book. All the elaborate stories of holy books are constructed so as to be persuasive, much more persuasive than this. They are appealing to believers, in that the nice stories suck them in, with all the hope and promise, but they also add threats of damnation just to make sure you prefer the warm and cosy message. Clever carrot and stick rhetoric. They have had thousands of years to hone their persuasive books.

But the logic of the above simplified holy book is not much different than this:

Liar’s Bible

This book was written by a truthful person and not a liar, honest.

Believe anything the author of this book tells you.

When your belief is challenged by someone using reason and evidence, that is the work of a liar tempting you, so beware, and maintain your faith in this book and its author.

So, a liar has written a book in which he claims to be honest, and this book claims that the book is true and that the liar is honest. It also warns you of naysayers, stating in fact that the naysayers are the liars. So, another person comes along and says, “I know the guy that wrote that. He’s a liar, and has written that book to con you, to control you.” Well, your Liar’s Bible has a defence for that. All it requires of you is to believe the book, and of course believe its claims about the liar that wrote it.

Even if you are intelligent and capable of understanding reason you can still be taken in by religion, by the simple presupposition that God exists, and his requirement that you have faith in his existence, and in his word.

There is no logical reason for supposing anything exists that we cannot experience directly or test for in some way. There are simply too many things that don’t exist, that I think even a religious believer would see that it would be irrational to believe them just by presupposing them: fairies, ghosts, aliens probing you neighbour, pink elephants, flying pigs, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Scientology, Russell’s Teapot, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, perpetual motion, astrology, homeopathy, … the list is endless. It would be nonsense to start presupposing all these are true, or having faith that they are true. The natural course of events for humans is to accept on trust something that is quite ordinary, but to ask for evidence and reason to support the claims about these more extraordinary other beliefs.

This isn’t a scepticism reserved for the supernatural and spiritual. Scientists are sceptical about new scientific claims, even ones that have later shown to be correct according to the evidence. Scepticism is the default mode of thought in science. In religion scepticism is anathema, and faith is what is asked for, expected.

For a believer of some religion, or homeopathy, or astrology, their particular belief becomes untouchable because they have faith in it – and yet other examples of these unevidenced beliefs they continue to dismiss as untrue and irrational. The really gullible can indeed take on more than one such belief – so some Christians also fall for homeopathy, for example. But on the whole it seems to be no trouble at all for a believer to have faith in their belief, while denying other beliefs that are just as poorly supported by evidence and reason.

So Christians, for example, are not generally Muslims, because Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus while Muslims think he was a mortal prophet. This is usually a deal breaker, and only faith allows a believer to hold one while rejecting the other – because the reason and evidence for both Christianity and Islam is roughly equally bad.

Without the history of tradition and the equivocating vague and duplicitous religious language I don’t think holy books would be so persuasive. Of course many modern believers have had to change the way they think about their holy books – well at least that’s generally true for Christians, while Muslims are more likely to insist on the inerrancy of the Qur’an. Unless you’re a Young Earth Creationist Christian you have to accept these days that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God. At best it’s a human interpretation of the revelations it is supposed to contain. Some modern theists have almost squirrelled God away out of critical reach, making their Christianity virtually atheistic Humanism – which then raises the question of what they actually have faith in, and why they continue to put such store in a book like the Bible.

What idiot presented with the Liar’s Bible would be taken in by it? You would have to presuppose it was written by an honest person, and when sceptics pointed out the potential flaw in that presupposition you would have to resort to the faith the book prescribes in order to continue to believe it.

This is the folly of faith. It is not rational but irrational. It is dangerous.

Dangerous? Really? The nice young Vicar at church on Sunday is dangerous?

Well, no, but that says more about him as a person, a normal human, rather than anything about his religion. It’s a remarkably happy state of affairs for many of us living currently that the religions are generally supported by nice people. That he relies on faith is the problem: faith, the enabler of dangerous beliefs and practices.

Not all non-believers are lucky enough to live in societies like ours in most Western democracies. There are plenty of places in the world where being among the religious ranges from minor persecution and prejudice to being life threatening. Ask the atheists in Pakistan and other countries where atheism carries a risk.

The very same faith that the nice Vicar uses is also the same type of faith that religious extremists use to explain why they do the terrible things they do. A nice Vicar might appeal to all sorts of rational explanations as to why the nasty extremist is wrong to blow up buildings and people in the name of his God, to oppress women, to kill apostates and homosexuals, to beat rape victims; but the extremist only has to appeal to his faith, his conviction that this is what his God commands, and the mild mannered Vicar is stumped. Reason and evidence don’t come into that debate, because for both of them faith trumps reason and evidence. The Vicar may appeal to reason and evidence to explain how bad terrorism is, but the extremist can ignore such an appeal to reason, because the fundamentalist can appeal to his faith, his conviction in what he believes, a conviction which is no less impressive to him than the love of Jesus is to the Vicar.

No. Religious faith is not rational. It’s pretending really hard …

UPDATE: Jesus & Mo:

The Dangers of Praxis – Acting ‘As If’

Richard Wiseman has put up a post on a youtube video on The Power of Acting ‘As If’ (the video is here).

This seems to be the basis upon which various forms of Rationalism succeed in being so convincing to their proponents. By acting ‘as if’ what you think is true is actually true, you can start to behave is if it is actually true. Even if there is no basis in reality, other than the reality that is one’s own imagination.

Praxis – the religious behaviour of performing rituals and acting as if your spiritual beliefs are actually representing a reality. It can make the beliefs seem even more true; so much so that to the proponent they ‘become’ true.

Though Richard presents some positive uses of praxis, as a means of overcoming procrastination, for example, it seems to be a dangerous tool if used indiscriminately. It seems to lie behind the success of political propaganda and prejudice. Act as if other people are different, and to you their difference becomes real. And if the supposed differences are a threat to you, then those other people become the embodiment of a real threat. In the 1930’s how did a nation come to believe that a particular religious sect, the Jews, where the embodiment of evil and the cause of the nation’s problems? How do similar beliefs sustain themselves across populations today? To what extent does acting out a belief make it seem true, even if the evidence is counter to it?

We can see the benefit to the individual in using ‘as if’ to overcome procrastination. This seems to be a benign method of changing one reality into another: he who was once a procrastinator overcomes that fault (assuming he considered it a fault) and changes, in time, into a different person in this respect.

We can see a benefit to humans generally if they act ‘as if’ we are all part of the one human race, if we all owe each other love and kindness. We can see the benefit of acting ‘as if’ our love and empathy is more powerful than our fear and hatred of others. But there is a danger in being naive about this. We have to be on our guard. We are not naturally wholly loving and empathetic. We each have other animal instincts within us; and some of us have stronger detrimental selfish intuitions than do others. We have to guard against some of our own animal instincts, and we have to avoid being too naive in seeing only good in others as we act ‘as if’ we are all good.

The effectiveness is true in the less benign cases, in that the person does indeed change into another: the unbeliever can become a true believer. The person changes. But the reality of what they come to believe does not. We can make our personalities, change because they are fluid. There is a wide range of social behaviour that human animals are capable of. But we cannot change the laws of nature we discover, into ones we would prefer. Our false beliefs in reality come unstuck by evidence, or the lack of it: eugenics, geocentrism, astrology. Whatever our social group of culture comes to believe is not in itself an indication of the reality underlying that belief. Empirical evidence is what really determines what is real – at lasts as far as humans are capable of doing empiricism well.

Even whole societies may change, from a capitalist to a communist state, for example. But it is still the people that have changed their beliefs and their personalities. The realities that underlie their existence does not change. The communist ideal sounded like a good idea, but it required ideal citizens to pull it off. But the citizens could not escape their stronger natural behaviour – they could only change so far.

This praxis can be oppressive and self-affirming. Take Turkey, for example. Despite its otherwise democratic capitalist changes over the last few decades, there are subsumed beneath the surface extreme Islamic forces. Listen here. Though some supporters of AKP stress the pragmatism (but then Islam has never been opposed to commerce), other voices express the concerns about the direction Turkey is taking. They tell us about how the oppressive nature of Islam forces people to act ‘as if’ they are more Islamic than they are – closing store shutters ‘as if’ the owner is attending to his prayers, whether he is or not, or the attack on individuals who break rules of Ramadan, or the increased wearing of the head scarf by women, whether they want to or not. Praxis can hide true beliefs and can oppress.

Note that religious praxis can have subtle political effects. Read this from the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Where are the comments on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey? Ignored? Well, an international faith foundation can hardly be expected to be too critical of faith can it. In practising his faith Blair is blind to the problems of faith: Is Faith Rational.

While it is true that if they are lucky enough (lucky for the rest of us that is) many religious people can become better people, toward themselves and others by believing in something for which there is no evidential support whatsoever, it is also true that many can end up interpreting their belief system in all sorts of unhealthy ways (unhealthy for them, perhaps, but certainly unhealthy for the rest of us). Praxis, acting ‘as if’, has its dangers. It’s a consensual change to one’s mental outlook; and it need not reflect any known reality but the reality it constructs for itself.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. When we act ‘as if’ we belong to a well meaning loving democratic nation we should acknowledge that it is a struggle to maintain that outlook. Once we are locked in it does become easier. But as we look around the world we see many examples where seething fear and hatred is just below the superficial surface. Some nations are struggling to act ‘as if’ they are democratic. We in many Western states may feel we are doing better – we’ve had longer to act ‘as if’ we are democracies. But there are many natural human animal forces within us that could easily come out in different circumstances. We are evolved humans. The few hundred years that Western Europe has eased itself into democracy is too short a time for evolutionary changes to have made us naturally totally ‘good’ people.

It would be foolish to take our current expressed nature for granted. While we can blame influencing systems like Islam for the state of affairs in many nations at the moment, they are dealing with a religious system that is no more brutal than other religions have been from time to time. It seems that the loving nature of Christianity has something going for it – even if the figure upon which it was based is either merely mortal or almost entirely fictional. As a system it is sort of going in the right direction, away from the viscous god of the Old Testament and of Islam. But Christianity, particularly in Roman Catholicism and some other churches, still has its fair share of hell and damnation.

The religious right in the USA are still a reprehensible force for the discrimination and persecution of those that don’t see things their Godly way. And that’s in what could have been the worlds first true fully democratic republic – the intentions of the founding fathers are about as humanistic as we’ve ever seen. As it is religion and capitalist greed and military power have a far greater role than one might wish.

There’s a lot of acting ‘as if’ going n in the USA that isn’t quite in tune with reality. And in other nations too – including here in the UK. It’s tough changing our cultural habits when we have these damned evolved innate biological devils on our shoulders.

Evolutionary biology tells us how we are. It caused both the good stuff in us and the bad. It’s no use wishing evolution were not true, or acting ‘as if’ it were not true, or ‘as if’ it’s responsible only for the ‘red in tooth and claw’ stuff, or acting ‘as if’ some imagined God is the source of our goodness.

Update: From WEIT: Oliver Sacks debunks near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well as religious “revelations”. Interesting post that includes some good sources.

What’s Up Doc? Heaven, Apparently

In this piece, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, Neurosurgeon Eban Alexander gives his account of a brain event that made him see the light. (h/t @SkepticViews)

This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.

1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices'; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.

2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. Near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), so it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.

3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.

4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.

5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.

There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then is perceived to exist as if it is something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.

In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.

What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?

Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…

Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.

What happened to me demands explanation.

There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.

Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.

Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism, than it does about any actuality.

The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.

But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.

No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.

When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…

The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.

… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …

Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.

No fucking kidding!

I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.

Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.

I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.

Update: Sam Harris has chipped in:  This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.

16,000 Out of Ten Billion Processors Prefer Cats

Wired reports on cat recognition. Two wins here: cats are the best; and evolution beats ID.

Google’s mysterious X lab built a neural network of 16,000 computer processors with one billion connections and let it browse YouTube, it did what many web users might do — it began to look for cats.

The “brain” simulation was exposed to 10 million randomly selected YouTube video thumbnails over the course of three days and, after being presented with a list of 20,000 different items, it began to recognize pictures of cats using a “deep learning” algorithm.

Take that ID suckers! If a few thousand processors can do this, then a few billion years for evolution to result in systems that recognise and operate in their environment (i.e. life) is a snip. The BBC reports:

The work of the team stands at odds with many image-recognition techniques, which depend on telling a computer to look for specific features of a target object before any are presented to it.

Damn! I’ve been using the Godly method of divinely commanding my software to work, when all the time I should have used evolutionary techniques. Note to self on next sales pitch:

Here’s a computer. Here’s some random code I threw together. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes. It should figure itself out eventually. Disclaimer: being evolutionary, when it does eventually work there’s no telling what it will work at.

On second thoughts, that does sound a little like how I work.