Friday, 25 September 2009

Goodness Gracious Me

An interesting discussion (if a little long!) has developed over at Russell Blackford's blog. David Heddle, batting for the Christians, has claimed there is no problem of evil, based on the biblical god being benevolent, rather than omnibenevolent. God has, in fact, promised suffering. Thanks for that.

Omnibenevolent and benevolent does seem to have been used a little interchangeably by commentators down the years, so the distinction sometimes seems to be ignored. I'm not sure that David's position allows one to jettison the need for theodicy; one wants to provide a justification for a god's behaviour in a theodicy, doesn't one? For example, Mill said:

"These additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible."

So Mill sees the need for theodicy with a good god, not an omnibenevolent god. Ehrman gave up theism because of the problem of evil, and one would be hard-pushed to describe him as anything other than a biblical expert. This might be seen as appealing to authorities, but it certainly shows that many do consider that there is a problem to be explained with the Christian god.

I would say that theodicy is needed for any god; it's just easier to explain the way things are in a polytheistic or duotheistic philosophy. In a monotheistic philosophy one has a problem if that god is posited as benevolent *or* malevolent. If benevolent, one (still) needs to establish why an omnipotent god created the universe with this much suffering. Just saying he's *only* benevolent, not omnibenevolent, doesn't justify his behaviour, because, firstly, the benevolence assumes an *ultimate* good. A theodicy has to show *how* this much suffering achieves an ultimate good. Greater good arguments follow, which seem (on the evidence) unpersuasive, if not downright impossible. Secondly, even acceptance of Plantinga's logical argument raises the question *why* a god would create such a universe, if so much suffering would ensue. Better to avoid the project altogether, one would think? Skip straight to heaven.

(Conversely, if the god is malevolent one would have to explain the good in the universe! From this, monotheism seems incoherent to me, given the nature of reality.)

As a side note the Catholics do seem to believe in a deity that cannot be bettered (inexpressibly loftier!), which one would imagine would be the 'most good' being. (Argue amongst yourselves whether that could mean omnibenevolent or just benevolent) From the First Vatican Council:
"...He must be declared to be in reality and in essence, distinct from the world, supremely happy in Himself and from Himself, and inexpressibly loftier than anything besides Himself which either exists or can be imagined"

Sounds a bit smug to me.

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Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Good Science

"I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that." - Ben Goldacre

I've just finished reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, an excellent analysis of science scares, quacks and how things go wrong when the media report on science, with a particular emphasis on medical matters (he's a doctor). The book was nominated for the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction. As the quote above indicates, he also explores the problems that can arise even in good science - a very healthy approach, I think.

The book has chapters on homeopathy, the placebo effect, 'experts' like Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford (Check out HolfordWatch), amongst others. Superb stuff, and scary too.

I particularly liked the chapter on Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things. You'll have to buy the book to read the full details, but I'll list the five reasons Goldacre cites for not trusting one's intuition, however tempting it may be.

1. We see patterns where there is only random noise.
2. We see causal relationships where there are none.
3. We overvalue confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
4. We seek out confirmatory information for any given hypothesis.
5. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by our previous beliefs.

Add to that availability and social influences, and you have a recipe for the irrational. As Goldacre says:
It's not safe to let our intuitions and prejudices run unchecked and unexamined; it's in our interest to challenge these flaws in intuitive reasoning wherever we can, and the methods of science and statistics grew up specifically in opposition to these flaws.
One often hears the charge that rationalists harbour prejudices just as theists and other 'magical' thinkers do. Well, that's true, but that's why there is a scientific method. When another method comes along that recognises those prejudices as the scientific method does, then we may have something to challenge it. There *is* no other method currently; therefore, what is discovered by science can claim greater epistemic value than anything discovered by another. Where there is a contradiction, we must accept the scientific outcome, if we are acting reasonably.

To expand on the graphic at the top of the story, consider this version, courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley.

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Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Selfish Ape

The second part of Antony Thomas' film for Channel 4, How Do You Know God Exists? poses the question: is it really possible that the creator of this vast universe could have a direct, personal relationship with you, and with me?

Not terribly well worded, IMO, since anything that is logically possible can be agreed as possible. Is it really likely etc... would have been a more interesting question. Never mind; let's see what the protagonists said:
Yes! In a word.
...said Rowan Williams. A little triumphantly, I thought. He expanded:
Because the difference between us and god is not that, we're very small and he's very big... it that we exist and he doesn't?
Christians have always held, and Jews and Muslims too, that god is absolutely present in every bit of the creation, that his energy, if you like, is at work in every act within the universe. We may be very small, but we, and everything else, are in the palm of god's hand.
No, of course not, it's that he's omnipresent, like Big Brother. Note the final sentence, hoping to portray some humility in this most arrogant of doctrines. This arrogant-humility is a hallmark of theist belief. The universe; it's all about *us*, and we've done wrong. This is attention seeking behaviour, and should be ignored if it wasn't so prevalent, and respected.

This little speech doesn't address why the Archbishop thinks the god that he worships is a personal god. He's not one for answers, though, as we've seen.

Swami Pramtattvadas, for the Hindus, then offers:
God pervades his entire creation; that means he is everywhere... in the rivers... he's all around us.
He goes on a bit with a few examples of where he is, although saying he's everywhere should have communicated the message. Not sure what this has to do with the personal god, though.

He then talks with the Swami and the Archbishop and Vincent Nicholls about doubt, and the testing of their faith. Nicholls says:
I think doubt is an intrinsic part of faith.
I've noted that another Catholic priest has acknowledged the doubt in his faith. This is a little odd when one considers what the Vatican says about it:
Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives."
I'd really like to know which it is; are these theists certain, or doubtful? Because this affects how people take the message they are pushing. When they are sermonising they seem to be pretty certain about what it is they believe. Do they add provisos at the end when talking about the bible?
The events depicted in this book may or may not be fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.
Not at any church I've been to. But Nicholls ends by saying:
My own experience of faith is real, and, at times, very encouraging, very fruitful.
Here we go again, with the solipsism. Will they never stop thinking about themselves? Everyone's experience is different, so to extrapolate from one's own experience to a general truth is *unsafe*. Please stop doing it, unless one is prepared to be scientific about it.

Nicholls again:
We come from god, and we return to god.
He believes that life is a *separation* from god. To what end? Does he recall being with god before he was born? Does he know he will be with god after death? No, of course not; it is selfish wishful thinking. Probably! Jonathan Sacks would prefer to dwell on the hear and now, but also says:
We are more than physical beings, and everything about us should tell us so.
I disagree; everything about us should tell us we *are* just physical beings. Letting our desires rule the evidence is simply dishonest. Rowan Williams says:
All I really know about the afterlife is that god has promised to be there. God has promised that death is not the point at which he wipes his hands and says 'I've done with you'.
Could you show me that promisory note? Is that really all you claim to know about the afterlife? Which god will be there?

Swami Pramtattvadas talks about the Hindu belief of the journey of the soul through different incarnations, gradually building to the point of release. He talks of the afterlife as a place of bliss and calmness. Serenity for ever.

Ultimately, this portrayal of a man shaped being who will guarantee us eternal bliss is a form of infantilism; we don't like the idea that when we die, we are gone - forever. But these constructs allow for the fact that people we know and love *will* be excluded from this eternal bliss. To believe that is true, and accept eternal bliss for oneself, is surely the very definition of selfishness. So the personal aspect of god is important only if one is worried about oneself. I certainly am worried about myself, but I also care about the people I know and love, and many I don't. I'm not prepared to respect a doctrine that suggests that some of them, through no fault of their own, deserve some kind of hell, whilst others enjoy an eternity of bliss.

Next up in the program; is religious faith important for community?

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Sunday, 6 September 2009

Do You Sense a Presence?

I thought I would document and comment upon one or two quotes from Antony Thomas' film for Channel 4, How Do You Know God Exists?, since I was struck by how anodyne the answers were.

In response to the question in the title, Rowan Williams says:
I think I'd prefer to talk about being confident that god exists, or trusting that god exists. It's not knowing as you know a state of affairs in the world, it's much more a sense that you're in the presence of something greater than you can conceive, and I suppose since my teens I've been aware of that something greater than I can put words to, in whose presence I live and think and act.
A rather bland expression of belief, as one has come to expect from the Archbishop. He first admits he doesn't know that god exists, but then goes on to claim some kind of different way of knowing - 'a sense'. Well, we all have evolved senses, which we have grown to trust. But we now know that we cannot trust them completely. For everyday matters they will suffice, but for important matters, we need to establish corroborating evidence. Without it, we can treat the Archbishop's 'sense' as seriously as Elwood P. Dowd's sense of a presence.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says:
You judge an idea by what it does to people who embrace that idea, or are embraced by it, and so I saw god in terms of the people in whom I sensed his presence.
More 'sensing'. One can see the solipsistic nature of this sort of belief come shining through in the heads of their churches. They need to let go of the idea that they are the centre of the universe, even though we all, naturally, think we are. 'You judge an idea by what it does to people who embrace that idea'? How would one judge an idea that drove a father to murder his son?

Vincent Nicholls then weighs in:
Beyond all the distress of this world, beyond all the break up of family life, beyond all the things that unbalance us, there is a father, there is a figure who has our fate in his hands, and we can approach god through the person of Jesus, through the crucified saviour.
He doesn't even bother with an answer to the question, but just asserts his 'knowledge'. Can I suggest that there isn't a figure who has our fate in his hands? How are we to judge who is right?

Professor Tariq Ramadam spoke for Islam:
I really deeply believe that god exists; the world, the creation, all these things are signs, so it's a relationship between what my heart is feeling and my eyes are seeing and my mind is understanding.
Well that last sentence is surely a description of how we all make sense of the world. But why does he take the world, the creation as signs? I think we have a tendency to interpret such things as signs, but it doesn't mean they are. Consider that they might not be signs, Professor. What then?

Swami Pramtattvadas for the Hindus tells us:
Quite simply god is the highest, the purest, most transcendental perfect being there is.
Cool, I think we've got that message; Anthony Thomas presses him to answer the question:
It's faith; it's faith. It really is as simple and as powerful as that. [You take god on trust?] Yes.
Simple, yes; powerful, as an idea, no. Although one has to admit that the effect on people who succumb clearly can be powerful, for good and ill.

So leading commentators for the major religions in the UK really do not know that god exists, but like to think he does. That is fair enough; they are entitled to their unsubstantiated belief. Being unsubstantiated, though, I would like to know what mandate they have for telling us how we should behave?

The above platitudes occupied the first section of the program, and the narrator went on to ask further questions, which I shall address in future blogs. Next up; is it possible that the creator of this vast universe can have a direct, personal relationship with you and with me?

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