Plantinga, Law, Coyne: Theology, Philosophy, Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

Jerry Coyne has moved on to Alvin Plantinga.

His post really picks up a theme from one of his earlier ones: philosophy v science. Here are some additional links that provide further examples of the futility of pure philosophy(and of course theology) – a debate between philosopher Stephen Law and Alvin Plantinga:

1) Stephen Law’s post tackling Plantinga

2) Plantinga’s paper.

3) Stephen Law’s response.

This whole debate goes to the heart of why philosophy alone (i.e. without linking it to empirical observation) is closer to theism than it is to science.

I referenced Jerry Coyne’s earlier post in this one of mine.

As another example, try my take on Stephen Law v Peter Atkins, here.

Part of the problem seems to be that some philosophers, and maybe all theologians, give primacy to the mind as a tool for acquiring knowledge, rather than a tool for analysing information gained empirically, or for suggesting further trains of empirical enquiry. They mistake what they think for what is. They think that epistemology determines ontology, rather than the other way round.

This gap in the understanding of what science is and what mere mortal humans can expect to achieve with their brains is underscored in the comment by Michael on Jerry Coyne’s post.

He attack’s Coyne’s “proof — or, rather, strong empirical evidence” – But this merely clears up the misconception that equates scientific proof (strong evidence) for logical proof (deduction, logic, maths).

In this context (i.e. the criticism of philosophy and theology) the point is that philosophers and theologians think they have logical proofs, because they form valid arguments. But their arguments can always be worked back to unsubstantiated premises, presuppositions, so they never actually achieve sound arguments. But a common tendency seems to be that philosophers and theologians are content with the premises or presuppositions that they find to be ‘obvious’ – and is being so content they mistake their valid arguments for sound arguments. I find it disturbing how many philosophers rely on the ‘obvious’, since that seems to defeat one of the supposed merits of philosophy: challenging the obvious.

I suspect that philosophers and theologians also mistake what scientists call proof, i.e. strong evidence, as a claim to logical deductive proof. They then attack science as having no ultimate logical proof. But that’s the point! None of us do. All our knowledge is empirically acquired, inductively argued and contingent. Scientists know this. Theologians and some philosophers seem to think otherwise.

What we have discovered is that both our reasoning and our empirical observations are inherently flawed. We can’t rely on deductive proof the way theologians and some philosophers like to. We are only biological organisms after all – though we do tend to get ideas above our station, that we have ‘other ways of knowing’ (sensus divinitatis?). But we have no other ways of knowing. And in this respect we have to make do with the flawed tools we have – which is precisely what ‘science’ does: pretty normal human empiricism and critical thinking, along with some constructed methodology to make it as reliable as it can be made, in our hands, and brains. In our very human, very biological, very evolved hands and brains.

For philosophers and theologians to have any chance of convincing science proponents to any other way of knowing they should not only give us good reason to accept their take on how the universe works, but they need to do it in such a substantial way that it refutes all of known physics, chemistry, biology, evolution – which is a pretty big ask. Instead, they resort to the supposed logic of characters like Plantinga, with his fantastic grasp of the application of conditional probabilities to the speculatively metaphysical. Pure bollocks.

A View of Science: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

This is based on the following talk: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections – A Vimeo video

Over at Stephen Law’s blog I’ve been responding to criticisms of Peter Atkins by Stephen Law, Mary Midgeley, and comments on Stephen’s blog.

In his talk Krauss makes two important points that distinguish science from theology, and some philosophy (the ‘only thinking allowed’ type of philosophy, as opposed by Atkins).

The first is on the nature of the scientific method, in principle. I’m not talking about some of the details: come up with the hypothesis, design experiments to falsify it, run experiments, evaluate results, test a theories predictions, etc. I’m talking about the contingency built into science as a principle.

…The big question is, how did the water get here [on Earth]? And the answer is we don’t know – sort of. Which is, by the way, the best answer in science. ‘Cause the other thing people don’t realise about science which differentiates it from religion, is that the most exciting thing about being a scientist is not knowing. Well, there’s two things. Being wrong is up there too. Because that means there’s a lot left to learn. We have some ideas [about how water came to be on Earth]…

… As wonderful as that is, it’s wrong. It’s amazing when something works out perfectly and you find out it’s wrong. I’ve had that experience many times, ’cause I’ve been wrong many times. It just looks elegant and beautiful, and it’s wrong. And that’s the other gift that science has for us. I hope all of you have that experience, at least once in your life: that something you deeply and profoundly believe in because it’s beautiful and elegant and wonderful turns out to be wrong. Because then you can open your mind.

Now, sure enough, this isn’t always how science goes. There will, inevitably, be scientists who are a little too strident in pushing their particular ideas. Not that this matters much within their specific field, because their peers will see through any bluff and thunder and criticise the protagonists without mercy.

Obstinacy in holding to the status quo can sometimes stall progress; but then being open to every new idea leads to chaos and can in its own way prevent progress. It may be that sometimes the balance isn’t right – but scientists, the ones doing the science, are only human.

But there is a problem with the wider perception of science, particular when journalists fail to explain the contingent nature of what seems like an absolute assertion, or when an anti-science theist gets hold of an misrepresents the whole of science using one over egged pudding.

What should we expect from our scientists? Perfection? But the whole point about the benefits of science is, as Krauss frames it, it’s endeavour to look for answers, to make mistakes, to look for better answers, to dare to be wrong. And this in the hands of imperfect fallible human beings – yes, again, scientists are human beings.

The other point that came out of this talk by Krauss is on the benefit of science. Science is often compared unfavourably to other human activities, which we could simply call the arts. Krauss puts things in perspective.

I do theoretical physics, and it’s kind of esoteric. And people say why the hell do you do it. What’s it good for. Which amazes me when they say that because I rarely get asked what’s a Picasso painting good for, or what’s a Mozart concerto good for. But somehow science has to do something, and somehow make a better toaster, or something like that. But the biggest and most important thing about science is not that it does anything, but that it enhances our lives with beautiful ideas that change the way we think about ourselves. ‘Cause that’s what all good art and music and literature is all about; it’s changing our perspective of our place in the universe. And that’s what science does.

Well, I’d add to that. Science is just as enlightening to our lives as the arts, if not more so, since there is much art and beauty in science. But not only that, science also does stuff! It does build better toasters. Science has both beauty and practicality.

The beauty available to the arts is available to everyone, as is the added beauty of science, for those prepared to look for it. This is from Richard Feynman on this very point (no apologies for referring to this yet again). Richard Feynman – Ode on a Flower.

The Depth of Empiricism

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

In the previous post on empiricism I looked at how philosopher Stephen Law missed a few tricks when he debated chemist Peter Atkins.

In this post I pick up on Jerry Coyne’s post making similar points: Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?

I think the problem for philosophers is two-fold.

One is their commitment to their profession.

I see this as similar to the position of some priests who in many respects seem to accept all the intellectual criticisms of religion and faith, but can’t quite bring themselves to go the whole hog – there’s too much to give up, too much cognitive dissonance to contend with. So they fall back on faith – the only excuse left to maintain belief.

In the case of philosophers it seems to be their indebtedness to the history of the subject. This too is similar to theology – where the ideas of the ancients seem to retain some philosophical sacredness. Philosophers seem to need their ancients more than any other discipline with the exception of history. That “there’s nothing new in history” might well be applied to how some philosophers see their field.

And this brings me to the other problem. It doesn’t matter how much philosophy they claim to do, how much critical thinking they perform, how much evidence they consider, they still seem to retain a conviction to the primacy of thought and reason. It doesn’t matter how much pure reason is criticised, they still indulge in it.

I wonder if this stems from Descartes Cogito. This is a pretty good starting point, and one I use myself, in particular here. But many philosophers, even non-dualists, seem to be stuck with the idea that because we start out by discovering that we think, that this is our natural and primary mode of understanding. I don’t think they get how deep empiricism goes, how much we are empirical creatures before thinking entities.

Okay, so that’s where we start, with thinking about stuff. But before long, when we follow the trail and side-step Solipsism, we are left with a few clues to the fact that we are not primarily thinking entities.

Evolution is the big clue. You have to throw out evolution to avoid inferring the following from it.

We are evolved from creatures that didn’t have brains. Our ancestors were various in nature, ranging from the simple single cellular, through multiple cellular, to entities with multiple organs. Back then we were primarily experiential sensory creatures – and by sensory I mean in the simplest sense: physical and chemical interactions at our surfaces. And where there were neuronal nervous systems they might not be central nervous systems but distributed neural nets. An advantage of electrical communication over purely physical and chemical is the speed and the targeted nature of the connections. As early as neurons might have evolved they weren’t forming what we would call brains – though, given a physicalist perspective, that begs the question of what a brain is anyway. Nevertheless, through physical contact, chemical interaction, neuron transmission, our ancestors were empirical creatures.

This is what we still are, of course. I guess our sensing using light and sound removes us as whole entities from direct contact with much of our environment. Our actual contact with the wider environment, through touch, is often more difficult, and often undesirable: there are many things for which it’s safe to look at but not to touch; and if you can touch you may well be too close. Vision and hearing give us some protection against dangers, but they also isolate us from our environment to some extent.

This gives us the illusion that we stand alone in the world, so that we acquire (once we have thinking brains) the feeling that we are subjective individuals independent of the rest of the world.

We seem to be enclosed minds, when really we are empirical creatures that have brains connected to the outside world by remote sensing.

On top of that, this brain that we each have awakens and becomes aware of itself. This happens to each of us as individuals as we develop from an infant into a fully interactive child, teen, adult. And collectively it has come about culturally, historically, as our collective recorded awareness of our consciousness has dawned on us as a species (and maybe our ancestor species had some of this awareness too).

The dawn of recorded history and the emergent self-awareness of the infant are mutual metaphors, both beginning, or at least becoming sufficiently complex, with the acquisition of written language for the species and language generally for the infant.

The problem has been that our philosophical view has been dominated by this awakening of the mind, as if it is the primary source of knowledge, when in fact it’s our experiential empirical nature that has primacy. Our mind is merely looking at, analysing, speculating, on what we experience – and mostly with very poor access to most of our experiences.

Not only are we not directly aware of most of what our bodies or even our brains are experiencing, but we don’t have access directly to our deep past experiences – those that we have accumulated in our DNA.

I think most people accept now that we are the combination of nature and nurture – to the extent that this dichotomy is considered a very simplistic notion. We are each of us a developing complex system of our inherited biology responding to its environment, and in turn altering that environment through the decision processes that go on in our biological brains, which in turn effects how our biology responds further. We might be inclined, biologically, to be a couch potato or an athlete, but we can generally still become either, and even both – who hasn’t seen a once keen athlete turn to flab after they retire.

Though not specifically part of evolution, abiogenesis seems the only real source of what we call life. And, though there is no direct evidence to support abiogenesis, there is no good alternative hypothesis on the table. It seems that we come from inanimate matter, and we are inanimate matter – just inanimate matter that has become pretty dynamic.

So, there is nothing to suggest there is anything else going on in our heads. There is no evidence for any other source of thinking than it being matter in action. We are ultimately empirical beings, even in our reasoning in our heads. The processes going on in there are real material experiences in their own right; but it is we who categories experiences into externally sensed, or internally reasoned, as if the reason was pure and unsullied by real nasty experience.

In this respect there isn’t a significant difference between the peripheral neurons and the neurons in our brains. Neurons are communication mechanisms, whether in our arms or in our heads. While peripheral neurons connect other tissue to the brain, brain neuron connections are mostly with other brain neurons. So in a very real sense the brain neurons are sensing each other: they are empirical. We are empirical first and foremost. Thinking is an evolutionary add-on.

That some philosophers don’t get how deep empiricism goes is exemplified by the philosopher Steven Law in his discussion with Peter Atkins.

So, some philosophers seem to think that reasoning, while our primary tool of analysis, is actually our primary tool of discovery. They are mistaken. Unless one rejects evolution we can only conclude that we are experiential, empirical beings who acquired reasoning late in the day. It may be true that our reasoning provides us with far more than our sensory bumbling through life alone ever could. But it’s an even greater mistake to think that reasoning alone could do anything – especially since without sensory experience there would be no stimulus for neurons to evolve with which we could do any thinking. Some philosophers have it arse about face.


Jerry Coyne reviews a portrait of E O Wilson.

This bit strikes me as a good assessment of philosophy:

Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain”.

This is part of a set of posts on Thinking.

Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

As much as I like what Philosopher Stephen Law does to debunk theism I still don’t think he gets science and empiricism.

Here is his page where he links to a video set in which he debates with Peter Atkins: Peter Atkins vs myself on limits of science.

What I found astonishing is that in an earlier post Stephen said this, “Anyway, Atkins is not the sharpest philosophical pencil in the box, I think (though he’s obviously good at chemistry). Strong on assertion but remarkably weak on argument.”

On watching the video I found it to be that Stephen wasn’t being that sharp, with regard to science or philosophy.

Stephen’s statement that looking up Peter’s shirt to establish if Peter’s claim he has a cat up there is a simple observation and not empiricism makes me wonder what he thinks empricism is.
Continue reading “Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science”

Stephen Law to debate William Lane Craig

Stephen Law is to debate William Lane Craig on “Does God Exist?”.

Some time ago Richard Carrier was lured into a debate with Muslim theists which was supposed to propose something like “We can prove God exists”, but at the last minute was changed to “We cannot prove God exists” (can’t remember the details). Carrier went from looking at an easy ride to being knocked out by a sucker punch because he played their game. His opener at the actual event should have been, “I concede we cannot prove God exists, so my opponents win the debate. Now, let’s get down to some interesting points about philosophy and science: this is why I don’t believe in God.”

The title of this debate pretty neutral, but I’d recommend a similar tactic with WLC: that SL doesn’t get into playing WLC’s game, or even necessarily trying to rebut his points. He should simply present his own case, pretty much ignore WLC, and just dismiss his argument totally with fundamental philosophy.

One of WLC’s moves is to concentrate on the ‘failure’ of science to disprove God’s existence, as though atheists think that possible or necessary.

The key points for me are as follows…

We humans have found ourselves to be thinking beings, and this awareness appears to have been sprung upon us some few thousand years ago, at least as far back as we can tell from philosophical and religious writings and artifacts. And with the hindsight of evolution this thinking capacity appears to be a recent acquisition, and we’re not as good at it as WLC likes to think he is, particularly with regard to the metaphysics of things outside our common experience.

The only tools we find provide knowledge consistent over wide areas of our understanding of reality are all tools of science. And science can demonstrate many instances where introspective thinking and the invention of fanciful theistic explanations of events are woefully incorrect and often incoherent. Whatever we think reality might be our only route to it is through science. That someone believes there is a God has no bearing whatsoever on the actual existence of a God, no matter how inventive their logic, because there logic will always come back to the dependence on the presupposition that there is a God – to do the revealing, to inspire or command the authoring of religious texts.

If there’s any proving to be done, or any evidence required, the responsibility is entirely on the theist to provide it. Everything we do come to know about this universe shouts out at us that there is some causal universe that conforms to various patterns, which we understand as the laws of physics. If theists like WLC want to take a pop the limitations of science, then he has to accept that these very limitations apply to him too – he cannot demonstrate a superior capacity to know stuff.

These laws are so pervasive, so in-your-face, every moment of every day conforms to them – except, supposedly, with respect to God, astrology, ESP and a few other unsubstantiated ideas. These latter beliefs are the exceptions – but where is the evidence to support them?

Because they are the exceptions the null hypothesis is that everything conforms to the laws of physics, just as we find, evidentially, empirically. Even our own existence, according to evolution, conforms to these laws; and what’s more, shows us that our predecessors were empirical sensory animals. Our cognitive abilities appear to lie on the same continuum that our physical attributes do, from our evolutionary past. Our particular self-aware introspective cognition is such a late addition we should be very wary of supposing it to be the pinnacle of creation, the precise and acute tool that WLC thinks his mind is, rather than a fallible tool, a temporary blip in an evolutionary history of one particular species. Our intellect appears to be just one more product of evolution, with a primary purpose of helping us survive. There’s no reason to believe that it has any greater capacity than that, no particular reason that it should give us access to some metaphysical supernatural – except to the extent that this very limited intellect mistakenly thinks we can.

These other ideas, these metaphysical speculations, constitute the alternative hypotheses. They have never been demonstrated, with either rationally sound argument or substantial evidence. They remain unsupportable, though irrationally believed to be true. The null hypothesis, that everything conforms to whatever our understanding of physics is, or comes to be, remains intact.

WLC can dress up his arguments all he likes. He can complain that atheists cannot disprove God as long as he likes to hear his own voice profess it – but that’s irrelevant. He misses the point of science entirely. He doesn’t get that science shows us the limitations of our brains to reason about the inaccessible without supporting evidence; and in doing so overestimates his own capacity to know things he claims are true. WLC is just pissing against the wind – and his followers haven’t noticed this because they are too busy admiring his rhetorical big dick.

I do hope (against the odds) that SL doesn’t get bogged down in his favourite ‘problem of evil’ argument. It’s unlikely to survive the irrationality of WLC. Though the problem of evil as dealt with by SL’s ‘God of Eth’ may be convincing to rational minds, it won’t make a dent on the minds of believers if they don’t want it to.

SL should stick to basic philosophy and our current understanding of science. He should call WLC out on the presuppositions that underpin WLC’s otherwise persuasive rhetoric (persuasive to the gullible at least). SL should be thorough in his philsophy and should not try to debate theology. He should just ignore any temptation to try to win the debate and be content with letting his rational arguments land on a few theistic yet open ears.

Fingers crossed.

Update: coincidentally appropriate Jesus and Mo cartoon. WLC thinks he knows more than he can, as do many theists. But to be fair, I’m not a professional philosopher either, so who am I to judge WLC, or my own philosophical capabilities. We have to remain sceptical about our own ability to know stuff – not something WLC seems to suffer from.

Stephen Law’s "Sleight of Hand With Faith" blog

See Sleight of Hand With Faith

Another good blog from Stephen Law. One of the pleasures of his blog is the level of interaction he permits. Some good stuff and good responses. I don’t entirely agree with his points of view on some aspects – particularly the use of the ‘problem of evil’. It’s quite a long post, so my comments here are a bit lengthy too. I’ve stuck pretty much to Stephen’s headings.

Reasonable belief
The tree, Japan, 1066 examples are particularly useful, in that they show there are varying degrees of reasonableness to believe something. The whole of Christian, Jewish and Islamic religious faith is based on ancient scriptures, but these old documents should be considered less reliable than more recent beliefs, such as the existence of a visible tree, the existence of Japan, and the historic records of 1066. And even if we accept that some original ancient document is genuine, there’s no reason to give the same weight to its content as to the authenticity of the document itself.

Getting back to the ‘faith’ position, it’s possible that some atheists believe god doesn’t exist from a ‘faith’ position – they have the same degree and quality of faith that the ‘stong faith’ theist has, the atheist just believes the opposite.

But this isn’t the ‘science based atheism’, or ’empirical atheism’, or ‘rational atheism’ that most proponents of atheism argue for. It may be a position that is strongly believed, but it is borne out of reason and evidence, not pure blind faith. See Problem With Faith for more detail on my point of view on this.

And while we’re on the subject of blind faith, I haven’t yet been convinced by those theists who say their faith isn’t blind faith. The argument goes like this:
A: You have no evidence and reason to suppose God exists.
T: No, we don’t need it, we have faith.
A: Ah! Blind faith!
T: No, it’s not blind faith. We believe based on scripture, etc.
A: So, you do need evidence. Let’s examine that evidence…(atheist examines this evidence and concludes it’s very flimsy and lacks any reason)…and so the scriptures aren’t very good evidence and so don’t provide good reason to believe in god.
T: No, we don’t need it, we have faith….

A similar point is made by Stephen, where theists switch meanings of ‘faith’.

Arguments for the existence of God
I think Stephen is here far too generous on the reasons for believing God might exist. The arguments are fatally flawed, but then he says…

“By saying that the arguments are fatally flawed, I mean not that, while the arguments do provide good grounds for believing in God, these grounds fall short of being conclusive. Rather, I mean that these arguments actually provide us with very little, if any, reason to suppose that God exists”

The first five points provide no good reason at all, they are so poor: (i) childishly poor; (ii)delusion – no there aren’t any miracles – show me some; (iv)Jesus – he is qualified and reliable why?; (v)it only appears to be designed, but that doesn’t mean it is.

Only the sixth is reasonable, to the extent that we have no knowledge of why the universe exists at all, and the proposition that there might be a god that created it is one possibility. But then it’s a far cry from that basic proposition to conclude that this god has all the religious baggage attached to him, particularly that he has any interest in us, that he occasionally allows or causes miracles, that he allows or has any interest in what we call evil.

This ‘source of the universe’ proposition could suggest nothing more than some entity, which we might call god, created the universe. One might as well suppose that this god consist of some phenomenon of super-physics, outside our understanding of physics as it applies in our universe. But, again, there is no reason to suppose any of the religious trappings.

The reasonableness of the belief in god is often compared to the reasonableness of the belief in fairies. Pretty convincing to atheists, but apparently not to thesists.

Perhaps another comparison might be more realistic. An entity ‘god’ as a source of the universe is a reasonable proposition. But then so are many other cosmological theories, such as the cyclical universe, the multiverse, and so on. But how do these other theories impact on our daily lives? I don’t worship a multiverse, or expect it to judge me on my death. And all these theories still suffer from the same ‘first cause’ problem. And, we have no reason to suppose any one of them is a more likely candidate than another. This is the level of reasonableness upon which the existence of god should be assessed. It doesn’t provide much ground for religion does it?

The problem of evil
If the theist can conjure up god based on the flimsy reasons already given, then it’s not too difficult to rationalise away evil.

If god is so all knowing and we understand him so little, who are we to dispute his reasons for including evil in his plans. This is where faith comes to the rescue again. If as a theist I believe evil exists, then my faith would tell me to accept that and deal with it. As an atheist, if I can’t successfully refute or give good reason against the existence of god in his religious form, then I won’t be able to refute the existence of evil. Stephen’s final paragraph on evil beginning “It seems that, if the universe does have a creator …” isn’t then so powerful an argument.

Direct religious experience of God
Consider Stephen’s comment, “…an orange on the table in front of me…” and then “I don’t infer that there orange is there on the basis of evidence”.

Of course that’s evidence. What does evidence consist of if not human responses via the senses – isn’t that empiricism in a nutshell? And so one does infer it exists from that evidence. If I told you there was an orange there but you couldn’t see it, you’d certainly ask for evidence that it is there, because the evidence you are receiving through your eyes says it isn’t.

“We also have powerful evidence – in the form of the problem of evil …” No we don’t. This is a circular argument: that god does not exist because of the problem of evil, so revelatory evidence doesn’t exist, therefore god does not exist.

In fact my preferred argument is as follows.
a) – God doesn’t exist because there is no good reason to suppose he does (with the possible exception of some indeterminate god as a consequence of the source of the universe problem).
b) – Without god this leaves evil as a purely human interpretation of events: natural disasters, illnesses, human actions.
c) – Even if you allow for a ‘source of the universe’ god, that’s not sufficient to then propose evil exists.

When a rotting tree in a forest falls and lands on some plants and animals, is that evil? When a rotting tree in a street falls in a storm and kills a driver in a car, is that evil, is the devil at work there, or is god at work? If that driver had recently knocked down and killed a child while drunk driving, is that evil, and is his later death divine retribution? Or is it all coincidence? How may drunk driving killers don’t suffer subsequently? Shit happens, and sometimes we cause it ourselves. Dressing it up, as some theists do, in a separation of [disasters = acts of god], and [human inflicted suffering = evil], doesn’t work for me. There is no good reason to conclude evil, as portrayed by thesists, exists as a phenomenon.

Direct religious experience of God
My response here is the same as to the problem of evil. If the argument for a religious god is strong enough, then revelation can follow. The significant points are that, first, there is no good reason to suppose god exists, since in our universe natural laws of physics apply; and, second, that any other phenomenon such as ‘revelationary experiences’, can also be explained by natural physical laws.

A better approach is to simply say there is no evidence that these revelatory experiences are real. In all human experience, and certainly in scientific matters, there have to be multiple repeatable and falsifiable evidence for an phenomenon to be taken seriously. We cannot prove these experiences didn’t happen. We can only tar them with the same brush as we do the whole religious god hypothesis.

When an atheist asks for evidence and a theist responds that god doesn’t work that way, the correct response is that without evidence it simply isn’t worth pursuing; and with the contrary and substantial evidence that we know that some people suffer psychotic delusions and some people lie, there are far more good reasons not to accept the revelatory experiences as being real.

“How, then, can it be reasonable for someone in possession of both…” A theist could argue god and evil do exist, and if he occasionally reveals himself, who are we to argue with that. They are perfectly consistent once you accept a ‘religous’ god exists.

The theist/atheist belief/disbelief in evil and revelation are consequences of the belief/disbelief in god. An atheist using any one point to support any other is performing the same circular argument as a theist, but for the opposite position.

Attempts to solve the problem of evil
Stephen’s points here don’t improve the argument either way. Basically, as explained above, if you can accept that god exists with very little evidence, then you can use that alone to propose evil, revelation, or any other flimsy reason to support your original supported god hypothesis.

Some of these attributes of a religious god have strong historical and cultural backing. Suppose historically other poorly evidenced phenomena had been supported. Atheists often use the ‘fairies’ comparison to illustrate how ridiculous is a belief in god. But things could have been very different.

Suppose that all the historical and cultural religious junk had backed fairies instead of angels: fairies do exist; they are small tokens of godliness put on earth to help children believe in god. It’s not too difficult to imagine a whole history of fairy belief as part of a god belief system – all supported by scripture. Then atheists would be arguing the ‘problem of fairies’.

To some extent this type of thing has happened. The big three religions differ significantly. A Muslim could argue with a Christian about the ‘problem of Jesus’ – that he wasn’t god but a mere prophet.

As another example, suppose it was discovered in some obscure scripture that the requirement to worship was a test put down by god, and only those who follow his guidance out of free will and without fear and worship were the truly blessed. We would still be left with the real question – does god exist in the first place?

So, it’s one thing to point out how ridiculous are phenomena like evil and revelation, but you can’t use them as arguments for the non-existence of god. If the weird religious god of scripture exists, then so could these phenomena.

Used as independent points of view they can all provide supportive reasons as to why it’s not reasonable to belive any or all of them. But you can’t use them in a deductive chain to conclude god does not exist.

Where the onus lies
I agree that “..the onus is on you to provide some decent arguments …” and that “It’s down there near belief in fairies.”

And that’s all that is required – to show this through reason.

An extreme form of ‘faith’ and A more common sort of ‘faith’

If faith is absolute and doesn’t require reason, that’s fine, but then an atheist doesn’t require reason to not accept belief in god (though it is generally preferred). But that leads simply to a stand-off: “Is!”, “Isn’t!”, “Is!”, “Isn’t!”,…

Now you might say this is nonsense, and of course that’s right. It is a ‘none’-‘sense’ position. It isn’t an argument, because an argument requires reason.

It’s funny that theists of this kind can glorify god’s creation – man, his consciousness, his free-will, his superior intellect above all other beasts, his power of reason; and yet on this one point we are expected to throw all that reasoning capability away. The position is childish, and worthy of derision – as are the church signs posted elsewhere on Stephen’s blog which also promote the abandonment of reason:

Sliding between these two senses of ‘faith’

I agree with this section. Theists use reason, until their arguments are destroyed, when they then revert to ‘faith’. And they don’t always wait until you leave the room. The Dawkins-McGrath debate follows this line:

The arguments behind ‘faith’

“Arguments (v) and (vi) in particular are extremely seductive.” I disagree, as stated earlier, but more specifically:

(iv) – “Jesus tells us that God exists, and we know Jesus to be a reliable source of information. Therefore it’s likely that God exists.”

No. If Jesus existed (I’m not disputing that), and if he said the things he is reported to have said, there is still absolutely no reason to suppose he is a reliable source. In fact, based on current knowledge there’s every reason to suppose he was one or more of the following: deluded, a megalomaniac, a very savvy political motivator.

(v) – “The universe shows signs of having been designed. So God must exist as its designer.”

No. It only appears to be designed. That doesn’t mean it is, and so it is useless as a reason for belief in god. Degrees of reasonableness again.

Having faith in other people

The type of faith discussed here is a mere intuitive assessment of probabilities based on experience. The human mind can perform some amazing feats – that’s why artificial intelligence is such a difficult problem. One thing it can do is assess, apparently instantly, from experience, the likelihood of a particular outcome, which is expressed in this type of ‘faith’.

This type of faith can work quite well. If you have been able to rely on a friend in the past, you could infer it would be reasonable to have ‘faith’ in him/her the next time you need their help. Comrades in arms rely on this type of faith, and it is this faith that makes this type of bond so strong.

However, it can go wrong. As a counter to Stephen’s Beckham example, Beckham has missed a significant penalty when everyone thought he would score. Admittedly there were extenuating circumstances – the turf beneath his standing foot gave way. More incredulously, for those of us who are lucky or careful enough to avoid them, there are plenty of more serious examples: a repeatedly cheated-on spouse thinks that ‘this time’ the offender will change, or a gambler thinks ‘this time’ the long-shot will come in.

In this way I think theists are the inveterate gamblers in belief systems. Despite the complete lack of evidence for the case, and in spite of the very strong evidence against, they still have faith in this long shot – that when they die they will be shown to have backed the winner.