Born to Believe

We understand and interpret the world through language. This of itself has the potential to bias the way we understand reality. Language right from our first words, ‘Mama, Dada, No!’ has inherent meaning, and frequently purpose.

reach for the moonIt should be no surprise to find that this is how  many of us interpret the world – a place with meaning and purpose.

We take life personally. And of course sometimes it is. Some of that which happens is a deliberate act by a conscious being.  Someone who if they had wanted too, could have behaved otherwise.

It is this feeling that life is, or ought to be, purposeful and meaningful, that creates within us the ecological niche, that is the habitat for religious memes.

I’m coming to think the really interesting thing about theology is not what any of it says about God, but how people try to verbalize their belief, and what the attempt tells us about the person and the culture in which said person operates.

Wendy Dackson  Two Entirely Random unrelated reflections 2016

Theology understood  not as the study of God, but as the study of how people incorporate this feeling that reality has purpose and meaning into their belief systems, has the potential to be a very fruitful discipline.

The study of God is a little more problematic.

The existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God, is as the Scottish Philosopher, David Hume pointed out inconsistent with the existence of suffering in the world.

This is something that Bertrand Russell also referred to in his, ‘Is There a God?’ essay  of 1952, the one that introduced the world to the Celestial Teapot.

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

Bertrand Russell  Is there a God ? (commissioned by, but never published in, Illustrated Magazine, in 1952)

Bertrand Russell is frequently understood to be implying that belief in God is the logical equivalent to belief in an orbiting teapot; there is no reason to believe in the existence of either, and this is a good reason not to believe.

This is how Richard Dawkins understood him, and  argued in, ‘The God Delusion,’ published 2006, that he could do better than this, by making a probability argument. The existence of God, is like the existence of a Celestial Teapot, so improbable that believing in either is unreasonable.

Of course they aren’t actually comparable. We know what teapots are; human artefacts, intended for the brewing of tea. We also know, or at least think we know, that there was no way in 1952, that one of these artefacts could have gotten into space.

There is no reason to believe that the Celestial Teapot existed, and good reason to believe that it did not.  But all that would be required for it to have existed, was for there to have been something going on, that we don’t know about. (I am assuming that even if it had existed in 1952, the fact that it was made of china, makes it highly probable that it would no longer be in existence.)

The same is not true of the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God, of traditional Western theology.  A mere something going on that we do not know about cannot turn this God into a possible reality.

A God who is Omnipotent and Omniscient, is one who could do anything that is logically possible, including achieving His ends, without the need for suffering.  Suffering exists and therefore, given a normal understanding of goodness, observed reality is incompatible with the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent God.

There is zero probability that the Triple O exists.

The same is not necessarily true of the Celestial Teapot.

Knowing that the Triple O does not exist, does not rule out the possibility that this universe is the result of conscious creation.

We know what a china teapot is, and its existence or otherwise in any given place, is open to direct verification.  The same is not true of consciousness. We experience consciousness in ourselves, and extrapolate this outwards. The existence of other minds is a theory that is not open to direct verification.

All the provable facts on earth, including things such as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, and the Mona Lisa, can potentially be explained, as the outworking of  materialistic processes. There is no need  to introduce the notion of conscious agency.

Science is sometimes understood to be pushing the notion of a conscious, purposeful Creator into smaller and smaller gaps, as more and more phenomena fall to materialistic explanations.

It is argued that everything that has been recognised in past times as an act of conscious creation can already be, or will at some time in the future be explainable in materialistic terms.  The trouble with this is that it doesn’t just apply to so-called acts of God, it also applies to among other things, Michelangelo’s David, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I am reasonably certain that the immediate creation of these items is explainable in entirely materialistic term, the firing of synapses, and contraction of muscles, and the effect that this had on materials external to the body of the artists.

I don’t regard this as evidence that these acknowledged masterpieces are not the work of conscious creators. Likewise materialistic explanations for the structures of the universe, do not provide evidence that they are not works of conscious creation.

There is good solid evidence that the Triple O does not exist.  There is good reason to believe that the Celestial Teapot does not exist. There is no reason not to believe in a Conscious Creator.

Our human tendency to see meaning and purpose, where we see structure and function combined, makes belief in a Conscious Other easy for many of us.  However as David Hume pointed out way back in the 18th Century, this does not give us sufficient reason to believe.  Since that time, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has been propounded, with its demonstration, that it is possible to explain the existence of structure and function without need to invoke a deity. This proves just how right Hume was. It is unsound to argue from the existence of structure and function to a purposeful Creator, but it does not demonstrate that such a Creator does not exist.

The Protestant claim is that proof of God lies in his inspired word, the Bible.  We can know that God exists because he has revealed his existence to us.

It is sometimes claimed that the remarkable degree of consistency shown in doctrine, teaching and prophecy throughout the Bible demonstrates its divine authorship. This is a belief that although held fervently by some, is like belief in the Triple O, held despite the evidence not because it.

The author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, frequently wrote in a voice not his own.  The opinions expressed by his narrator, which in the case of Gulliver’s Travels, was of course Gulliver, were frequently although not necessarily at odds with the opinion held by Swift.  It is possible that the entire Bible is inspired by a consistent Creator, but if so then the Bible needs to be read like the works of Jonathan Swift.  The opinion of the narrator is not necessarily, the opinion of the Ultimate Author. And as with Jonathan Swift there is room to interpret the Author in different ways.

There is one major flaw in this analogy.  Gulliver is a work of fiction, he didn’t exist, therefore we know, that he was not the author of Gulliver’s Travels. It is reasonable to believe that there was an actual author, Jonathan Swift, who was trying to communicate something different, something frequently at odds with what his fictional narrator was saying. Swift was after all a satirist.

The case with the Bible is different.  The narrators of the Bible did exist.  There is no a priori reason to conclude that they were not working under the influence of an Ultimate Author. But no reason not to believe is not sufficient grounds to believe. This is the point being made by Albert Einstein in the following quote:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition.

Albert Einstein Letter to Erik Gutkind 1954

Subtle interpretations provide evidence, not for  the Mind of God, but the mind of the interpreter.

Among the allegedly primitive legends of the Old Testament, is a story which has been written in such a way that it can be interpreted fairly literally, without any need for subtlety, in at least two different ways.  There is the surface level account, which reads like a fairy tale, and serves to disguise the much more historical  account that is also there. Both accounts describe that historians and archaeologists tell us really did happen, the origin of agriculture.

The double interpretation relies on a very simple trick, giving one of the characters a proper name   that has a meaning.  Anyone who has ever at a personal level run across the legend of Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Tight, will know just how unsubtle this trick can be.

The name Adam, like Pinch Me Tight, is a name with a meaning. In Hebrew the word Adam means man. Man not in the sense of the male of the species, but of humankind. It doesn’t take too much subtlety of interpretation to figure out that any story where the main character is called humankind is likely to bear hidden meaning.

The Garden of Eden story starts off with no humankind to till the ground.  It is quite literally humankind that is told not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  It is humankind that  is told that the consequences of eating of the Tree of Knowledge will be death. The immediate consequence of eating of the Tree of Knowledge was not death, but the difficulties of primitive agriculture; the tilling of a soil that became increasingly infertile. It is an agricultural origin story.

We are presently in what some scientists have labelled the sixth extinction.  Species are disappearing faster than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The cause of this extinction is not an asteroid hitting the earth, it is us.  For most of the 500 thousand or so years that our species has been in existence, we were mostly harmless.  It was the agricultural revolution, that changed that.  It was the triggering factor that made our modern world possible.  The event, that enabled us to become death the destroyer of this world; the likely bringer of our own extinction. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge has put us in the pathway to accelerated extinction.

The Adam and Eve story is a work of ancient human genius. At one level it is a simple children’s story, advising of the dangers of not doing what you are told.  At another level it is an account that is compatible with our modern knowledge about the history of the earth.

But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.

Genesis 2:6

In our modern scientific version of origins, evolution, the process that resulted eventually in the formation of humankind, began after this initial watering of the earth, in the primitive ocean. The same time zone where the Bible describes God as initiating the formation of Adam.

In the Biblical account the river names identify the Garden East of Eden, where God places humankind, with the fertile crescent. In our modern accounts too humankind arose outside, the fertile crescent.  Human Beings moved into that area during the last ice age.

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:8,9

And yes, our modern science tells us that as the climate became warmer the tundra type landscape changed to one where tree growth was no longer stunted. So trees did grow up, after human beings entered the fertile crescent.

Eating from the Tree of Knowledge strikes me as an excellent metaphor for eating of the fruits of agriculture.

Given the different roles of men and in hunter-gatherer society, it is likely that it was women who were the first farmers. Or metaphorically speaking it was they who first picked the fruit from the, ‘Tree of Knowledge.’

The King James version of the Bible provides a literal, not idiomatic, translation of the effects that eating of the Tree of Knowledge had on the woman.

Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Genesis 3:16

An increase in the number of conceptions, and an increase in male dominance are known to be consequences on women of the move from hunter-gatherer society, to subsistence farming.

And for men considerably more work was required of a subsistence farmer than of a hunter-gatherer. The diet of the first farmers was inferior to that of hunter-gatherers, and without understanding of the need for crop rotation and fertilizer the ground would have become increasingly infertile.

And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;  Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Genesis 3:17-19

There is good reason to believe that the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenevolent God of traditional Western theology does not exist.  The same is not true of a Conscious Creator. There is no reason not to believe that such a Conscious Other Exists.

Once men argued that the structure of the universe proved that God the Triple O, must exist. History has shown that Hume was right, there can be other reasons for structure than a Conscious Creator.  Massive improbabilities are possible in infinities.

The question I need to ask is, does the co-incidence between events related in this story and the findings of modern research, stretch the laws of probability to the degree, that requires introducing the concept of infinities into the equation; or could ancient human genius, and a bit of coincidence, provide sufficient explanation.

My opinion is that the latter explanation is sufficient.  The co-incidences mentioned are consistent with the reality of a Conscious Other, but do not provide proof.

The co-incidences do not prove that even this bit of scripture is divinely inspired.  But they do show that even as great a human genius as Einstein was, can sometimes be mistaken.

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

Albert Einstein Letter to Erik Gutkind 1954

 

 

 

 

 

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Football, Santa Claus, Free Will and God

Football, Santa Claus, Free Will and God all at a certain level exist . They exist as concepts which affect human behaviour.

At its very basic level, the football concept means that with enough space  any object that rolls, can be turned into an occasion for fun, competition and social bonding. The environment, the human, and the concept interact to produce that which is conceived, a game of football. Something that, along with the singing of Christmas carols, is associated with the informal truce that broke out in Christmas 1914 between British and German soldiers fighting on the Western Front.

The Santa Claus concept, means that children are motivated to behave well in early December and that the adults get to enjoy maintaining a fantasy for children.  The environment, the human and the concept interact to ensure that children get excitement and presents. Some of that which is conceived relates to events in the external world.  But the central part of this concept, the man in the red suit flying through the sky, delivering presents to children all over the world, exists only in fantasy.

Free will is different from football and Santa Claus in that there is arguably a credible case that it exists externally to the concept. A case that physicist Sean Carroll failed to make in the following quote from a speech he made on naturalism in 2012.

The universe is made up of elementary particles that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgment, don’t have a sense of Right and Wrong. And the fear is, the existential anxiety is that if that purpose and meaningfulness is not given to me by the universe, then it cannot exist. The good news is that that fear is a mistake. That there is another option: that we create purpose and meaning in the world.

“If you love somebody, it is not because that love is put into you by something outside, it is because you created that from inside yourself. If you act goodness (sic) to somebody, it’s not because you are given instructions to do so, it’s that it’s a choice that you made.

Sean Carroll The case for Naturalism 2012. Transcript from Atheism Analyzed 2015

The bad news is that if materialism is true, and like Sean Carroll I ‘instinctively’ believe that it is, then it is these same elementary particles, that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgement, don’t have a sense of Right and Wrong; that we and the rest of the universe are made from.

If we are capable of loving, creating purpose and meaning, and doing good, it is because of how we are made.  Our ability to love, or hate, must come from inside us, but that is not the same as saying that an individual who feels either of these emotions created them.

The individual who exists at any one time is a consequence of nature, nurture, and the environment, including the social and cultural one in which they find themselves.  We do not make ourselves. Everything we do is a consequence of who we are, and the circumstance we find ourselves in with possibly a bit of randomness thrown in.

Bertrand Russell concluded the famous essay in which he introduced the celestial teapot to the world with the following quote.

Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

This is of course a nonsense statement,  our behaviour is subject at every level to the same laws of nature as the rest of the universe.  What we are is determined at a fundamental level, by the behaviour of elementary particles.

Fundamental particles, structured by natural processes, to produce conscious beings. (I am aware of no group who is arguing that modern day humans, come into existence, by anything other than natural processes, regardless of how they believe our ancestors arose.)

We, if materialism is true, exist as a consequence of natural forces, our conscious   and our subconscious are dependent on them.  The person that exists at any given time is the consequence of these natural forces; and that consequence  decides how to interact with his/her environment.

I think it is possible to argue that if you are aware of what you are doing, if you behave as you want to, or take what appears to you at the time to be the best option given your circumstances: that you the consequence of the natural forces that are the immediate cause of your existence, are acting of your own freewill.

This is a very long way from Bertrand Russell’s miraculous Man, not subject to natural forces, or Sean Carroll’s supernatural you, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, creating ex nihilo love, and goodness.  It is sufficient freewill to enable us to take ordinary everyday responsibility for our actions, but not enough to ensure that anyone has the right to claim, or accuse anyone else of ultimate responsibility, or ultimate blame, for the good or evil that they do.  No-one makes themselves.

A problem arises when we have mutually incompatible desires.  What happens then can feel like anything but freewill. It can feel more like being dragged between two masters.  A feeling that St Paul poetically captured nearly two thousand years ago.

O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death!  Roman 7:24

Paul famously despised the human rationality that the Greeks venerated. And in doing so eschewed one of the great ‘benefits’ of the human brain. Its ability to confirm for us, the desired truth, that we are doing one thing  when we are actually doing another, and that the evil must therefore lie in the other.

Sean Carroll provides a demonstration of this skill in action in his, ‘The Case for Naturalism,’ the talk he gave in 2012, the one where he propounded the existence of supernatural You, the Being able to create love and goodness, ex nihilo  You can find a transcript here.

Before his claims of the wonder of You, he first attacks Rene Descartes theory of mind and body dualism as unintelligible.  How can an immaterial mind, act causally on the body?  Then he goes on to mention other scientists, whose materialism he approves of.  Eventually he provides as though it is a culmination of the findings of materialism his own theory, not merely of mind/body but of mind/universe.  Magical Us, able without any help from the universe,  to create purpose, meaning, love and goodness.

By concentrating on rational failures, in what was a real attempt by Descartes to understand consciousness, he has managed to hide from himself, the truth that his own beliefs about consciousness have no rational basis. And project all the despised irrationality on to someone who is a member of what his social group has identified as the not we, the superstitious, religious other.

This speech was his introduction to the, Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop that he had organised. In it he identified his reason for holding the workshop.

And yet! Here we are! We’re having a debate. Why are we having a debate? Because, clearly, religion speaks to people for reasons other than explaining what happens in the world.

Most people who turn to religious belief do not do so because they think it provides the best biology or cosmology. They turn to religious belief because it provides them with purpose and meaning in their lives. With a sense of Right and Wrong. With a community. With hope.

“So if we want to say that science has refuted religion, we need to say that science has something to say about those issues.

Sean Carroll The case for Naturalism 2012. Transcript from Atheism Analyzed 2015

He identifies religion as a belief held for social reasons, and his purpose in this gathering was to attempt to replace religious socially held beliefs with science. Or although he clearly didn’t see it that way, to turn science into another religion.

Human Beings bond on shared beliefs. Beliefs which are held with a high level of emotional certainty. Scientific ideas need to be falsifiable, this makes them inherently unstable, incapable of giving certainty. Problems arise when people confuse the two.

Emotional certainty is possible, rational certainty about things other than logical necessity, is not. When people belong to social groups that demand that their core beliefs are held with rational certainty, then there is a problem.

A problem which the human brain, the organ which as Voltaire had it, has the wonderful ability to enable a man to believe exactly whatever he wants to believe, seems to have special adaptations for dealing with – an innate deceiver.

For compelling social reasons Sean Carroll needs to believe, that his emotional certainty, is rational, and  to convince others of the same.  This unleashes a mechanism for deception of the self.

Bobby Henderson noted a similar response among Scientific Creationists, and produced a brilliant anthropomorphism, for this particular socially induced form of confirmation bias – The Flying Spaghetti Monster.  And Sean Carroll has been well and truly noodled.

Which brings us back again to the question of freewill. Sean Carroll wants to produce a rational argument, to  support his emotional belief. He is enabled by unconsciously operating mechanisms, to deceive himself that he has actually done so.  He is not aware that he is deceiving himself.  For freewill to be operating it is not enough that Sean Carroll is emotionally satisfied with what he is saying.  He has to understand what he is doing.

So no he is not operating of his own free will. The Flying Spaghetti Monster made him do it.

Of course the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not just inflict itself on atheists. It affects the religious also, where it masquerades as faith.  Dr Wendy Dackson who blogs at Past Christian, describes her own relationship with the imposter, a ‘being’ whose reality is a lot nastier than Bobby Henderson’s pastopomorphic projection.

Because I did not “lose” my “faith” (as you define it, not as I do).  I know precisely where it is.

It’s in the corner, lying quietly, where I shot it with a tranquilizer dart to prevent it from doing any harm while I examine it and decide what should be done with it.

Wendy Dackson  What happened to my ‘Faith’ 2015

The socially induced certainty that misidentifies as faith, has the potential to be every bit as destructive, as Dr Dackson alleges. Those who are taken in by this dead ringer, lose touch with reality. Their certainty leaves them unable to connect with or understand the view of others. Being deceived into believing in the integrity of their socially held views, they can see  folly, or evil only in the other.

Those without fear have no need for courage, and those who are certain have no need for faith. Real faith can only be held in uncertainty.

Rowan Williams the former Archbishop of Canterbury, demonstrated many times that the understanding that faith must be held in uncertainty, frees you to understand the truth found in the views of others, even others opposed to the beliefs that you hold. And in recognising similarities between his own beliefs and the belief of the other, he was able to form bonds of understanding.

He demonstrated this in an article he wrote for the Guardian in 2004, on a dramatization of Philip Pullman’s, His Dark Materials.  Rather than being threatened by the death of The Authority, the God Figure, in this play, he was able to acknowledge that there was truth in Pullman’s critique of religion.

If the Authority is not God, why has the historic Church so often behaved as if it did indeed exist to protect a mortal and finite God? What would a church life look like that actually expressed the reality of a divine freedom enabling human freedom?

Rowan Williams A Near Miraculous Triumph 2004

He also noted something else, that was portrayed in the play. The role that power and the desire for power, has in the trampling of the rights of the individual.

Repressors and would-be liberators are equally merciless to the individual; that is why Lyra’s life is at risk from both sides.

Rowan Williams. A Near Miraculous Triumph   2004

Yet the disastrous affair of the failed Anglican Covenant shows that Rowan Williams was also Spaghetti Monstered.  He didn’t believe in a God who needed to be protected. For him Pullman’s Authority equivalent was The Anglican Church. The Anglican Covenant was an attempt to protect the unity of the Anglican Church, with enforced agreed sanctions, even though he wasn’t calling them sanctions, on those branches of the Church, that failed to conform. An attempt to protect a mortal and finite institution.

Apparently failing to understand that this agreement, which thankfully wasn’t accepted, would have handed power over to the faithless believers, they who hold their ‘truths’ in certainty.

It was particularly shameful, because he himself believed that homosexual relationships were compatible with Christian belief, and that those who were opposed to gay marriage were wrong. Yet to prevent a church schism he was willing to tell the LGBT  minority  in the Church that they must respect the views of those within the ‘family’ who held that they were disgusting.

Williams’ fall from grace was linked exactly where Pullman placed the problem – in power structures. And to hold a particular power structure together he was willing to allow the church to continue to discriminate against one group of people. In fact to insist that it happened, even in branches of the Church, where the majority wished to be fully accepting of that difference.

This call to dogma would have if it was accepted, given the strong feelings that it invoked, probably have done the very thing that it was meant to prevent. It could have created schisms, and turned what remained of the Anglican Church into just another sect. Another sect whose beliefs separated them from the society around them, but where Church Leaders would be big fish in  the small pool, thus created. A place where people could have their craving for emotional certainty fulfilled, and where they could be held together by the condemnation of the evil other.  In other words it would be a church held together, not by the love of God, and neighbour, but one held together by the power of faction.

Rowan Williams was, in the hellish position of being in a situation of authority in a church that was tearing itself apart. This reduced rump church  would have been a more comfortable church to have been leading.

Give people certainty, and an enemy to oppose, and you create a faction.  While at a conscious level this is not the kind of church Williams wished to lead, it is one that he would have been able to lead.

And in this, ‘O wretched man that I am,’ scenario the very intelligent Rowan Williams, supported the ‘Anglican Covenant,’ a document that would probably have provoked schism – as a solution to schism.  What his emotional health needed was in opposition to what his rational mind desired. And he plumped for a solution that met his emotional needs.

There are other interpretations, but I believe that Rowan Williams is not only intelligent but also honest, and that therefore he must have been deceived.

Materialist that I am I don’t think that you need to invoke a supernatural presence to explain how this happened.

Where there is a conflict between the best interests of a person, and their own beliefs about what they should do, it would be no surprise to  an evolutionist to find that there is a mechanism in existence to persuade people that they are doing one thing, when they are actually doing the very opposite.  That a particularly vicious strain of confirmation bias would be invoked, one that because it is using a persons own intelligence to deceive them, would actually be more successful in the very intelligent.  An innate deceiver.

The saying, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ is well known. In the mythology of ancient times, this was blamed on the Prince of this World, the devil.  We have discarded the mythology that enabled this belief. Fundamentalists still pay lip service to the reality of a devil, but being blinded by the very same fellow, they are unable to see his tentacles operating through their own certainty.

The old mythology of the devil, created another, on whom to blame the world’s evil.  A better response than blaming people.

 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Ephesians 6:12

The old mythology didn’t tell you how to recognise someone that was in the grip of the deceiver.  The knowledge that the deceiver operates through confirmation bias, gives you a place to start when you are looking to detect it in operation.

You are looking for very simple mechanisms, underlying what may be very fluffed out and convoluted arguments.

Rowan Williams for instance  used the argument from inappropriate guilt.

But who needs the Covenant, it might be said? There’s one very short answer to that. Some bits of our Communion represent needy and isolated parts of the Christian world.  They need relationships. They need the assurance that we won’t drive them into difficult positions. They need to know that we take them seriously enough to engage in conversation with them. And that’s part of what keeps them going and what makes them strong.  It’s very interesting that some of the parts of the Communion that have already said yes to the Covenant are exactly that kind of church.

Rowan Williams Archbishop: Why the Covenant Matters 2012

We must do things the way the poor and needy want them done. Because if we don’t give the poor and needy the power of veto over us, and it is  power that is being demanded not conversation; they will think we don’t take them seriously.

Note that we would not be giving this power to the actual poor and needy, we would be giving it to those who are in leadership positions within those communities. And in the case of LGBT rights strengthening the hand of those who wish to oppress the genuinely poor and needy.

Rowan Williams provides a rationalisation, based on the argument from inappropriate guilt. Sean Carroll, in the following quote, uses a different mechanism to support his socially held belief, truth by circular argument. He defines natural as identical with real, and God as supernatural and therefore not real.  So therefore God does not exist.

 By “naturalism” we mean the simple idea that the natural world, obeying natural laws, is all there is. No supernatural realm, spirits, or ineffable dualistic essences affecting what happens in the universe. Clearly the idea is closely related to atheism (I can’t imagine anyone is both a naturalist and a theist), but the focus is on understanding how the world actually does work rather than just rejecting one set of ideas.

Sean Carroll  Moving Naturalism Forward Discover Magazine  2012

It is not lack of imagination, but rationalising from his basic premises that there is only one reality, and that God does not belong in that reality,that leads him to believe that naturalism is incompatible with theism.

Of course any theist who understood the word natural to be identical with the word real, would argue that God was natural.  This peculiar definition has nothing to say about empirical reality.

Richard Dawkins presented in ‘The God Delusion,’ an unintentionally entertaining riff, on this simple argument.  For Dawkins, because only the natural exists, any real creator, wouldn’t be supernatural, but only superhuman, and therefore couldn’t, by his definition, be God. This argument of course has nothing to say about reality, only what names you should give to different parts of it. My entertainment was compounded by the fact that he then went on to argue that he was agnostic about  this God, which by definition couldn’t exist.

The Innate Deceiver that says, ‘Yes,’ to its devotees, doesn’t appear to be a very complex adaptation.  Where you see certainty expressed, when you got through the fluff, there you  are likely to find it sitting naked and waving its noodly appendage, an argument that has only to fool the logic blinded. It gets away with it because those who agree with the deceived are unable to see any flaw in an argument that is so, to them anyway, self-evidently true. While those who see the flaw become outraged and think that the person making the argument is a truth denier.  Where the opposition are also fully certain members of the noodled brigade, then this effect is magnified.

So far I have considered the real existence of football and Santa Claus.  These have real effects on the world, only because they are held as concepts.  Free will exists independently of the concept, and in a much more limited way than the concept suggests. Our behaviour is determined by the behaviour of the elementary particles that make us.  But as at any given time we are just a particular pattern of the elementary particles that form us, if we understand the truth about what we are doing, and could if we wanted to do differently, then we are acting of our own free will.  Deceiver instincts which cut short this process, must have had, at least in the past, an average positive effect on reproductive fitness.  However the people who are affected by them, have had there free will compromised. They do not know what they are doing.

As to the existence of God, well that does really depend on how you define the term. And I am going to plump for Ultimate Reality, that which brings us into being.  And as we clearly exist that Ultimate Reality must exist.

This is a concept of God, that Richard Dawkins would of course object wasn’t God at all, just a bad metaphor; like Stephen Hawkings, ‘Mind of God.’ And while I would agree with him about Hawking’s phrase, Professor Hawking, is an atheist and is not talking about anything that could reasonably be conceived of as a mind, I don’t think that my definition qualifies as a bad metaphor.

For Sean Carroll the Ultimate Reality, appears to be ‘Elementary Particles,’ and he has a problem, because it is extremely hard to believe that they give us purposefulness and meaning.  To resolve this problem he resorts to the nonsense that is ‘magical you,’ able to create love, goodness, etc., ex nihilo.

It is extremely hard to believe that our experience of consciousness is a product of simple interacting natural forces; that we came into existence through non-purposeful processes. That we are not in fact the consequence of purposeful action, by an Ultimate Reality with a non-metaphorical mind.  So difficult that Sean Carroll’s need to believe this has triggered an innate deceiver mechanism. Richard Dawkins has solved the problem, by creating the extremely bad metaphor of the purposeful selfish gene.  However just because it is hard to believe, and that proponents of the idea have fallen prey of the noodly appendage, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. It doesn’t mean that it is true either.

Richard Dawkins made an argument in the God Delusion that is, although he didn’t realise it, an ontological argument for the existence of God.  He had meant it as an demonstration, that his atheism was rational.

He said that he was logically agnostic, because it couldn’t be proved that God does not exist, but that the existence of God was so improbable, that his existence was no more probable than the celestial teapot, or fairies at the bottom of his garden.  So his agnosticism was compatible with his de facto atheism.

Of course if he is right that there is any probability of God at all, and reality is infinite, then he has just proved that God exists.  But atheists needn’t worry because in writing, ‘The God Delusion,’ he, or probably more accurately his subconscious, took care to define God in such a way that his existence would be a logical impossibility.

The logical position on the existence of an actual, ‘Mind of God,’ is agnosticism.  We really don’t know. And while Richard Dawkins in ‘The God Delusion’ looked forward to a time when we would know for certain, the only way that will be fulfilled is if there is a Mindful God.

What there is evidence for is that any God that actually exists is not all good, and omnipotent.  A point made rather well by Bertrand Russell in the following quote.

I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

The First World War army chaplain, and Anglican priest, G.A. Studdert Kennedy, argued that belief in the omnipotence of God embittered people. Reading Wendy Dackson’s post on Language, where she protests strongly against the delusional use of words like love and goodness, to describe that which Bertrand Russell described as fiendish, you can see how the notion of omnipotent (magical) God, could leave those who are unwilling to go down the path of the noodled deceiver deeply angry with God.  And also angry with those reality deniers within the Church.

We seem to instinctively believe that where there is function there is also purpose. Some of the atheists who argue most strongly against the existence of a God, are driven to locate this feeling that there is purpose where it logically cannot exist.

It is logically possible that the universe and even the multiverse are a work of purposeful creation, the act of a mindful Creator.  It is even possible that that Creator is omnipotent in the sense that he holds all the power that it is possible to have. But traditional Western theology used omnipotence to mean something different from this.  They to honour God made Him the monstrous fiend outlined by Russell, magic god, constrained only by logic. The God that is not there.

 

 

 

Is there a Time Lord?

Eyes in Space

Bertrand Russell in his 1952 essay, Is there a God? demonstrated that there is clear evidence that the omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient, god of traditional western philosophy doesn’t exist.

The argument he made wasn’t new. It can be found in the, allegedly ancient Greek, Epicurean paradox.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

If evil exists, and there is evidence that it does, any God that exists must be, less than omnipotent, and/or less than omnibenevolent.

The god of traditional western philosophy therefore does not exist.

From this perspective, it is difficult to understand why Russell chose to conclude his argument with this rather weak conclusion.

My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

Why go for the, ‘no reason to believe,‘ option, when he could have gone for the option, not only is there no reason to believe, but there is good reason not to believe?

Perhaps it is because he understood, that his argument, like the Epicurean paradox isn’t an argument against the existence of God, merely a claim that he has been mislabelled.  Any God that might really exist doesn’t meet the standards set by the philosopher’s definition, of maximal greatness.  And is therefore not the god of traditional Western Theology.

There are ways of understanding the concepts of omnipotence, and/or evil that appear to falsify the Epicurean Paradox, but all of these arguments are like the paradox itself, arguments about definition, rather than fact.  Why bother?

While it is peculiar that Russell claimed merely that there was no reason to believe that, for which there was very good reason not to believe; it is not at all strange that he should say that there is no reason to wish that such a monster as he describes , should exist.

Peter Capaldi as Dr Who

Peter Capaldi as Dr Who

This is not the God of the human heart, the God that is loved.  That God, like Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord, in the BBC series Dr Who, is the God that, no matter what the appearances may be,  cares  about us, has our back.

Within Christianity, where you find the notion of God’s Omnipotence being pushed as a sign of orthodoxy, there you will also find that while the lip service is being offered to power, the adoration isn’t going there.  It is bestowed on Christ, or  on the Lady Mary.

Beings that the Bible tells us had the characteristics of that which, in the very last sentence of his famous essay, Bertrand Russell recognised as ultimate greatness; i.e. there were occasions when they were not subject to natural forces.

Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

This abstraction of Russell’s, this Who’s the Daddy of Man, is every bit as much a supernatural being as the one he has spent the rest of the essay demolishing.

If you can find any part of humankind that is not subject to natural forces, then naturalism is falsified.

One of the things that I find interesting about Bertrand Russell’s, ” Is there a God,” and Richard Dawkins , “The God Delusion,” is that they both concentrate on disproving the existence of a god, that logically can’t exist.  In Dawkin’s case he ends up arguing not that the impossible god doesn’t exist, but that his existence is just very improbable. From the point of view of a theist this argument is just funny.  This is just a version of the ontological argument.  If that which exists beyond the universe is infinite, and if there is any probability of this god existing at all, then Richard Dawkin’s has proved that the existence of the Impossible is certain.

Many of us experience life as though we are, at least on occasion, interacting directly with a consciousness not our own.  I am not necessarily adverse to Richard Dawkin’s hypothesis, that this is just the imaginary friend experience carried on beyond childhood.

This certainly seems the most probable explanation. but then as discussed earlier, probability arguments don’t really work, when you are dealing with a possible infinity.

Consciousness, and by that I don’t mean information processing, but the ability to feel: pleasure, pain, emotion, is peculiar.  I know that it is something that can be achieved in a machine, because I am a biological machine, and yet I don’t understand how it is done.  I am amazed to be living on a planet, where the dust has given rise to this mystery.

Consciousness is so amazing that it doesn’t strike me as necessarily ridiculous to believe that the universe, or even the multiverse is part of a  process aimed at its reproduction. Nor does it strike me as necessarily impossible that this feeling of other consciousness, that some of us experience, has a reality that extends beyond the human.

However I do think it is reasonable to look for evidence, before jumping to the conclusion that this is either true or untrue.  The rational position is strict agnosticism, because while we have reason not to believe in celestial teapots – we know what china teapots are, and how unlikely it is that one, could not only get into orbit, but also survive in the extremes of outer space ; we don’t even understand how consciousness is created in ourselves.

It has occurred to me that the position of  any God who wanted to prove that he wasn’t a figment of our imagination or part of a con , might be similar to that of a time travelling alien out to save the world.

This is a position I dealt with in previous posts, “Is There a Teapot?” and “Beginnings Chapter 1.”

In the Alternative Universe of,  “Is There a Teapot?”  the holy scripture is the, “Book of River Song.”  And the contents of “River Song,” prove the falsity of the alternate Bertrand Russell’s claim the one that is equivalent to our Bertrand Russell’s, “there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology.”

In ironical voice, where he mocks the over certainty of the adoctorists, Russell says that there is no reason to believe any of the teachings of River Song.

This is of course not true. For instance the book  states that the earth had  a beginning (Beginnings Chapter 1 verse 1) and that there is more than one universe, i.e. the host of the heavens. (Beginnings Chapter 2  Verse 1) It would be very strange if a book containing as much information as River Song was not in agreement with modern  knowledge in some places, even if entirely by accident.

 Linda Bailey Is there a Teapot? June 2013

In this universe the same holds true, there is good scientific reason to believe that the earth had a beginning, and this was true even in 1952, when “Is there a God,” was written, and there is reason to believe that there is a multiverse i.e.more than one universe.  And in our universe Genesis 1:1 tells us that the earth had a beginning  and Genesis 2:1 talks about a plurality of heavens. (N.B. The word that is translated as heaven in Genesis 1:1 in the King James Bible, is identical to the word that is translated as heavens in Genesis 2:1.  The Hebrew word is in the plural.)

Of course as in the alternative universe, these two correlations are compatible with coincidence.  Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

It would take a lot more co-incidences between ancient scripture and modern science, to leave   coincidence an improbability.

In the alternate universe of “Is there a Teapot?”  The first chapter of their holy book, Beginnings Chapter 1, a fusion of Genesis 1, and our scientific story of the earth’s history, provides these co-incidences by matching exactly the scientific discoveries of their scientists with the ancient scriptures.

There are reasons, apart from the fact that I have a clear recollection of having made it up, for believing that this alternate universe does not exist.

Firstly, if scripture is to be passed through time, it requires its first hearers, and at least some of every succeeding generation, to hold it in enough reverence to ensure that it is copied and passed on.  This is extremely unlikely to happen if it portrays a world that is vastly at odds with that which the  first generation, and to a lesser extent subsequent generations believe to actually exist.

Secondly it is likely that a science, that served only to confirm scripture would be regarded as a minor branch of teapotology, their equivalent of theology, and held in no great esteem. It would be unfit to independently verify anything.

This is not true in our universe, where some religious fundamentalists attempt to gain respectability for their interpretation of scripture, covering it with a great big fig leaf labelled Scientific Creationism.

It isn’t just fundamentalists who have attempted to force a correlation between scripture and science, a point made by Stephen Gould in “Bully for Brontosaurus,” in a chapter entitled Genesis and Geology.

There he recounts the tale of a dispute, which took place in the late 19th century, between a former British Prime Minister, William Gladstone , and the biologist,Thomas Huxley.

Gladstone, based on his reading of Genesis made a probability argument for the existence of God. He argued that the appearance of animals in Genesis: first the water population, then the air population, followed, by the terrestrial population, and lastly man – is what the fossil record shows.  He argued that this was such a great coincidence that it could only be achieved by the writer of Genesis being gifted beyond belief, or divine intervention.

This argument doesn’t say a lot for Gladstone’s maths.  When ordering 4 different objects or pieces of information, there are only 24 different permutations. If in an exam you were asked to place 4 events in temporal order, you would have a 1 in 24 chance using straight forward guesswork of getting the answer correct.  This is more probable than throwing a double 6 in a dice game, not something that is generally thought of as proof of divine intervention.

Of course there is a 23 in 24 chance of getting the order wrong, and Huxley didn’t waste too much time in proving that the order that Gladstone was suggesting was incompatible with the findings of what was then modern science.

Huxley pointed out that there is clear evidence from the fossil record and from the morphology of birds and bats that terrestrial animals existed before the animals of the air.

He also argued that Gladstone should have included the plants in his argument.  (When you are ordering 5 pieces of information, there are 120 different permutations.  There is only a 1 in 120 chance of getting the temporal order correct by chance.)

Huxley wanted the plants included in the argument because he had noted that the description of the plants given in Genesis 1:11-12, the fruit trees, and other plants with enclosed seeds, identified them as angiosperms, the flowering plants.  These appear late in the fossil record, but are the first living organisms to be listed in Genesis.

Modern Scientific evidence shows that flowering plants diversified during the Cretaceous period, the last portion of the age of dinosaurs. And that there is some evidence that they may have been in existence throughout the age of dinosaurs.

In fact had Gladstone had access to modern scientific knowledge, been a bit better at statistics, and had gone for Genesis ordering correctly the times for the diversification of modern type lifeforms rather than first appearance of water, air and land animals, he could have argued that there was only a 1 in 120 chance of the following correlation happening by chance.

The flowering plants, which Genesis records as sprouting forth in the latter half of Day 3, scientific evidence shows as diversifying in the latter part of the age of dinosaurs, the Cretaceous.

The age of dinosaurs ended with a mass extinction, which modern science links to an asteroid collision with the earth around 65 million years ago.

The next readily identifiable creature mentioned in Genesis is the whale.  The word which is translated  as whale in the King James Bible, is more literally translated as great sea monster.  These appear in Day 5 in Genesis.  The first whales  appear in the fossil record around 55 million years ago.  This coincides with the diversification of modern bird groups. Winged fowls are mentioned as multiplying in day 5 of the Genesis account.

The rise of widespread grassland about 15 million years ago, resulted in a burst of animal diversification, a proliferation of  grazing animals, predators and the bi-pedal apes – our ancestors and related species. This happened after the origin of whales, in the same temporal position as Genesis describes the earth bringing forth, the living creature, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth. Another co-incidence.

Modern man, the not very modestly self-identified Homo sapiens, is a late appearance on the scene of life, according to both palaeontologists and Genesis.

And if you take into account the non-biological events mentioned there are still more co-incidences.

The flowering plants arose during the age of dinosaurs, the Mesozoic Era. The period prior to the start of the age of dinosaurs, the Permian, had seen the formation of the supercontinent Pangaea. When tectonic plate activity had resulted in smaller continents coalescing into one large continent, with one would suspect the mother of all continental weather systems – a dry land. This was surrounded by one ocean Panthalassa.  Or as Genesis 1:9 has it all the waters of the earth gathered into one place and the dry land appeared.

It is surprisingly easy to correlate the events of Genesis 1, with the findings of modern science.  Something I had fun with when I wrote, Beginnings Chapter 1.

It answers a question, that I asked of God, when I was teenager.  If you wanted us to believe that you created the world that really exists, why didn’t the Bible get it right.  I hadn’t at the time figured out that he hadn’t written the book himself.

The Genesis account was capable of telling the people for whom it was originally written that God had created the real world. It is still capable of telling us that God made the world that really is.  That makes it a fairly amazing piece of writing.

What it cannot do is prove the existence of God. There is no matter of fact that could make this a necessary conclusion. Even an inability to think of another explanation, would not prove that such an explanation did not exist.

To go from believing to not believing in God, or vice-versa is a paradigm shift. Not a matter of merely thinking one less or one more thing about reality, but a total change in the way you view reality.   A paradigm shift is, and I sympathise with those atheists who object to the phrase, always “a leap of faith.”

Douglas Adam’s provided a much better metaphor in his Dirk Gently novel, “The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.”  It’s like, ‘a turn through half a molecule,’  everything is the same, and yet everything is different. A metaphor that works both ways.

The British God

British_lion_and_Union_flag

The British Empire was the most extensive empire the world has ever seen, but by 1952 when Bertrand Russell wrote the famous essay which introduced the Celestial  Teapot to the world, it was on its last legs.

The following argument, taken from that essay, although it purports to be a discussion on the truth of monotheism, is not one that was likely ever to have been used as proof of the existence of Almighty God.

But, if the truth of a religion is to be judged by its worldly success, the argument in favor of monotheism is a very strong one, since it possessed the largest armies, the largest navies, and the greatest accumulation of wealth. In our own day this argument is growing less decisive. It is true that the un-Christian menace of Japan was defeated. But the Christian is now faced with the menace of atheistic Muscovite hordes, and it is not so certain as one could wish that atomic bombs will provide a conclusive argument on the side of theism.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

But if the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient God is accepted, then it  follows, that this god has the power to determine who will have the largest armies, the largest navies, and the greatest accumulation of wealth.

By the time, ‘Is there a God?’ was written, that was no longer the British.

The God of  Status Quo

The hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, written by the Irish, Anglican clergy wife Mrs Alexander in 1848 contained the following much derided verse.

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Mrs Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander

I am not certain what Mrs Alexander meant, but it is possible to understand this as meaning that the present status quo is the will of God, and therefore should not be opposed.  Whatever is, is right, and one should accept one’s divinely appointed position in the class system.

This is how the Stuart kings Charles I, and James II, had understood their position, as divinely appointed rulers.  As their fate shows, Charles I was beheaded in 1649 and James II was forced into exile in 1690 after being defeated at the Battle of the Boyne, this was not a view that was universally held by their subjects, nor by any God who actually exists.

The position of the Stuart kings was similar to that of the kings of Lilliput in Swift’s Tale.

In like manner, the disbelief of a divine providence renders a man uncapable of holding any publick station: for, since kings avow themselves to be deputies of Providence, the Lilliputians think nothing can be more absurd, than for a prince to employ such men as disown the authority under which he acteth.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels  Part One:  A Voyage to Lilliput 1726

The fictional threat to the Lilliputian King, and the real threat to the Stuarts came not from those who didn’t believe in Providence, but those who held that the rulers were not doing the Will of Providence.

Providence is like Gulliver, an unreliable ally to those in power.  ‘The rich man in his castle,’ verse isn’t the problem with Mrs Alexander’s hymn. It could as easily be understood as a threat against those in higher position, who fail to act as the Deity, or His spiritual representatives – the clergy and their wives, think they should. Their higher status can be rescinded.

The problem is the concept of Almighty God.  A concept that lends itself too easily to might is right, and that whatever is, is good.  With Christianity seen as a way of controlling the masses and making them more amenable to the interests of those in power.

An interpretation that as the fate of the Stuart kings demonstrates was capable of having nasty consequences, and not just for those at the bottom of the pecking order.

The God of Empire

It might seem obvious that those with the largest armies, largest navies and greatest accumulation of wealth have the most power, and the greatest personal security.

As the young George Orwell discovered during the time he spent in the Imperial Police in Burma (1922-1927), the wielders of power are very far from free themselves; forced into role of Power’s earthly representative, by those whom the pecking order of empire demands they must have the respect of.

And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.

George Orwell Shooting an Elephant  1936

Those who wish to be Omnipotence’s earthly representatives, pay a  high price.  The maintenance of power is a constant struggle.

Charles Darwin was very much a child of Empire, born in 1809 during the rise of the second British Empire.  The first had been lost with the American War of Independence in 1783.  This theology of constant struggle was encapsulated into his theory of evolution, and given voice most memorably in Herbert Spencer‘s phrase, “survival of the fittest.”

Survival of the fittest, should be understood, as survival of those that are best fitted to their environment. A principle that Jonathan Swift, over eighty years before Darwin was born, put into the mouth of the fictional scientists called in to provide a scientific explanation for Gulliver’s existence by the King of Brobdingnag – the land of the giants.

They all agreed, that I could not be produced according to the regular laws of nature: because I was not framed with a capacity of preserving my life, either by swiftness, or climbing trees, or digging holes in the earth.  They observed by my teeth, which they viewed with great exactness, that I was a carnivorous animal;  yet most quadrupeds being an over-match for me;  and field-mice, with some others, too nimble, they could not imagine how I should be able to support myself, unless I fed upon snails and other insects; which they offered by many learned arguments to evince, that I could not possibly do.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels  Part Two:  A Voyage to Brobdingnag 1726

The enhanced survival and reproductive fitness of those that are best adapted to their environment, is a very mundane explanation for the complexity and wonder of life.  It is no wonder that Spencer’s phrase is frequently misunderstood, even by those who should know better, as meaning survival of the powerful.   Evolutionary success to those who defeat their rivals.

The philosophy of might is right, and to the victor belongs the spoils was re-imagined as scientifically endorsed truth, and science rather than religion became the endorser of the righteousness of power.

Richard Dawkins is very much a child of empire, born in the British Colony of Kenya, as the Empire was nearing its death throes.  His religious views can be understood as a rant against the faithless god of empire. The god who gives power only to those who can take it.

The theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight. If scientific theories could vote, evolution would surely vote Republican.

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

As you can see he doesn’t speak highly of evolution either.  This despite the fact that one of the brute facts that the theory has to explain is the existence of altruistic behaviour in the natural world.

The Religion of Empire

Karl Marx had this in common with many of the British ruling class, he regarded religion as the opium of the people.  The difference being that he didn’t think this was a good thing. Richard Dawkins still thinks opiating the people is a good idea.  To the extent that in this 2006 article he contemplates, for the post – religious world he envisions as the ideal, the origination of non-religious memes that would encourage people to act against their own Darwinian interests.

Let’s put it even more bluntly. From a rational choice point of view, or from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb. And yes, it is the kind of dumb that should be encouraged – which is the purpose of my article. How can we do it? How shall we take the minority of super nice humans that we all know, and increase their number, perhaps until they even become a majority in the population? Could super niceness be induced to spread like an epidemic? Could super niceness be packaged in such a form that it passes down the generations in swelling traditions of longitudinal propagation?

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

The Right Honourable The Earl Russell, otherwise known as Bertrand Russell was so taken up with the notion that the purpose of religion  is the control of the masses, in the name of a God of Power, that he was unable to understand the argument in favour of belief, made by the American philosopher and psychologist William James.

There is a moralistic argument for belief in God, which was popularized by William James. According to this argument, we ought to believe in God because, if we do not, we shall not behave well. The first and greatest objection to this argument is that, at its best, it cannot prove that there is a God but only that politicians and educators ought to try to make people think there is one. Whether this ought to be done or not is not a theological question but a political one.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

What William James Really Said

For William James the God that really existed, was not the god of power, but the God of Love.  His belief that behind all that is lay the Power of Love, freed him to act as though it was true.  Belief in this God freed him to be the man he wanted to be.

William James was a psychologist as well as a philosopher, and he understood the power of nudge.  We conform to social expectations.  It was shown, for instance, that Asian women, reminded just before a maths test that they were women did worse than in the control situation, while if they are reminded that they were Asian they did better.

To see why this might be so consider the following quote.

 We all know people (is it significant that the ones I can think of are mostly women?) to whom we can sincerely say: “If only everybody were like you, the world’s troubles would melt away.” The milk of human kindness is only a metaphor but, naïve as it sounds, I contemplate some of my friends and I feel like trying to bottle whatever it is that makes them so kind, so selfless, so apparently un-Darwinian.

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

This sounds very female friendly, but it is in fact setting a norm for female behaviour – nicer than men.

When people do not act according to the expected norm, they can be subjected to hostility. This attitude that women should be nicer than men, may explain Richard Dawkins  Dear Muslima letter; an attack on atheist blogger Rebecca Watson, whom he clearly felt had somehow transgressed expected standards of behaviour, by suggesting that male atheists should refrain from harassing women in lifts.

Conforming to stereotype is instinctive. The fact that people may feel threatened when human elements within their world do not act as expected, and respond with hostility, may explain why this is so.

The good news here is that we can get to pick our own stereotype, the Being in whose Image we wish to be moulded. The bad news is that others may fail to recognize our right to do so and react with hostility

William James chose the God of Love, over the god of power.

Richard Dawkins talks a good game, but the fact that he sees standards as something to be imposed on other people, rather than lived by himself, does suggest that he is still the servant of the god of power.

These standards can be understood, in the way William James did as personal, or they can be understood in the abstract. We pick them up from the society around us as implicit guides to behaviour.

It is only when we become explicitly aware of them, that we can reject or embrace their claim upon us.

And yes dear scientific rationalist, in this sense you too have a god.

Science herself consults her heart when she lays it down that the infinite ascertainment of fact and correction of false belief are the supreme goods for man. Challenge the statement, and science can only repeat it oracularly, or else prove it by showing that such ascertainment and correction bring man all sorts of other goods which man’s heart in turn declares.

William James The Will to Believe : and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy 1897

The Will to Power

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) regarded the Will to Power as a standard that the superior human, the Übermensch  would embrace.

It was the open embrace of power by the fascists  of mid – twentieth century Europe that perhaps convinced George Orwell that the empires that replaced the British would be worse.

I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.

George Orwell Shooting an Elephant  1936

The following passage  from Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s mock sincere eulogy about the wondrous labour of disinterested virtue that was the first British Empire  roused George Orwell’s ire against him, and at least in part inspired his piece of vitriolic confirmation bias: Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver’s travels 1946

But this description, I confess, doth by no means affect the British nation, who may be an example to the whole world for their wisdom, care, and justice in planting colonies; the liberal endowments for the advancement of religion and learning;  their choice of devout and able pastors to propagate Christianity: their caution in stocking their provinces with people of sober lives and conversation from this the mother kingdom; their strict regard to the distribution of justice, in supplying the civil administration through all their colonies with officers of the greatest abilities, utter strangers to corruption: and to crown all, by sending the most vigilant and virtuous governors who have no other views than the happiness of the people over whom they preside , and the honour of the king their master.

Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels  Part Four:  A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms  1726

George Orwell both knew the evils of the power of empire and was in denial about it.  The empire was for him what theologian Peter Rollins identifies as the sacred object.  Both knowing that it has failed and being in denial, he projects the blame unto the ungrateful subjects, firstly the Burmese and then Jonathan Swift, a man who like Richard Dawkins was born of English parents in a British colony, although in his case the colony was Ireland. (Ireland didn’t become part of the United Kingdom until the Act of Union of 1800.)

Evidently Swift’s animus is, in the first place, against England. It is ‘your Natives’ (i.e. Gulliver’s fellow-countrymen) whom the King of Brob-dingnag considers to be ‘the most pernicious Race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the Earth’, and the long passage at the end, denouncing colonization and foreign conquest, is plainly aimed at England, although the contrary is elaborately stated. The Dutch, England’s allies and target of one of Swift’s most famous pamphlets, are also more or less wantonly attacked in Part III. There is even what sounds like a personal note in the passage in which Gulliver records his satisfaction that the various countries he has discovered cannot be made colonies of the British Crown:

George Orwell  Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver’s travels 1946

Swift, as he was entitled to, identified as both English and Irish, and if he had been able to get a post within the Church of England, would have remained there.  There is not the least reason to think that he hated England.

Paranoia and finding scapegoats, is as Peter Rollins points out in, “You’d better give me what I’ve never had. Some thoughts on nostalgia paranoia and ontic shock.” is a lot nastier than nostalgia for the sacred object, that was never what you thought it was.  However if you must do it picking on someone who has been dead over 200 years is at least not likely to cause much distress of your target.

The doctrine of the Übermensch, where the over-man is understood as the stereotype that superior people are aiming to conform to, is not conducive to forming empires.  As Swift pointed out the successful running of empires requires men willing to subvert their best interests to the interests of the ultimate power, that that was in Swift’s day represented by the king .  To regard the power of the empire rather than their personal power  as paramount, is inconsistent with the idea of the Übermensch.  Realizing this I suddenly think a lot more highly of  Nietzsche than I had previously.

The Real Fundamentalist

Peter Rollins in The Divine Magician tells the story of the Englishman, the Scotsman and the Irishman auditioning to join the Special Forces.

They are interviewed separately and each given a gun and told to go into the next room and kill whoever is there.

The Englishman walks in and finds his best friend in the room and refuses to shoot.  The Scotsman  finds the same, but reasons that the bullets in his gun must be blanks and shoots anyway. (He is fortunately right.)

The Irishman when he realizes that the gun is shooting blanks, is forced to beat his friend to death with a chair.

The story is better told in The Divine Magician.

Peter Rollins identifies the Scotsman as the real fundamentalist, one who at least at a certain level is aware that a deception is being practiced. I would however argue that all three were fundamentalists, valuing the voice of power, and its value system  above the human.  Even the Englishman behaved as  a fundamentalist;  one who had a crises of faith, yet still accepted the values of the system he was operating in.

I think that Richard Dawkins in “Atheists for Jesus,” misrepresented the teachings of Judaism. References to both the God of Love and the God of Power can be found in the Old Testament.  But one of the things that he has got right is that the original Christian message was a revolt against fundamentalism and the valuing of religious and political systems more highly than the people they are there to serve. (Niceness had nothing to do with it.  It may get you walked on, it doesn’t get you crucified.)

To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.

Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006

Virgin Birth

Gerard_van_Honthorst_0012

Don’t let anyone tell you that modern science proves that virgin birth is impossible.  It proves the very opposite. We now know that with the right technological intervention it is possible for a woman who has never had sex to give birth.

To claim that the correct technology wasn’t available 2,000 years ago is to beg the question.  The claim being made by those who believe in the Virgin Birth is that God had the technology,  Despite what Richard Dawkins and others believe the words miraculous and magical are not synonyms.To say that something is miraculous is to say that it is due to a direct intervention of God, using  the powers which He has.

If  God exists and has this power, then modern knowledge gives us no reason to believe that virgin birth  was anymore impossible two thousand years ago than it is today.

The nativity story can only be literally true if God exists. But to claim as Christians have been for nearly 2,000 years that the Child in the manger was God incarnate, is to proclaim a God, who is not by his nature omnipotent and omniscient.  No baby can have these characteristics.

Anselm, ( c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers defined God as that than which no greater can be imagined to exist.  This for him included omnipotence and omniscience.

Bertrand Russell (1872 -1970) wasn’t overly impressed with omnipotence and omniscience as evidence of greatness, and finished an essay entitled “Is there a God?” with what he imagined greatness to be.

Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

An abstract concept whose conditions were, according to the gospels, fulfilled by the Child in the manger and the Man he grew into.

Not, I think, the conclusion that Russell was aiming for. 

Russell’s Error

There is, it is true, a Modernist form of theism, according to which God is not omnipotent, but is doing His best, in spite of great difficulties. This view, although it is new among Christians, is not new in the history of thought.

 Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

Christianity originated in a world where human wisdom accepted the reality of incarnate gods. The Caesars were recognized as gods; the earthly heirs to the power of omnipotent Jove. The Incarnate God of the gospels was the antithesis of the gods of the Imperial Cult; He was the Anti -Caesar.  His worship was a rejection of the values of power.

There is no doubt that the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient  God has a long history within Christian theology; this is not sufficient reason to claim that it has been the view of all Christians up until modern times. There is no reason to believe that Russell’s claim is true, and reason to believe that it is not.

It is not Virgin Birth and the miracles in the gospels which are the main offence to human rationality, but rather the image of maximal greatness.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians Chapter 1 Verses 22-24 King James Bible

Death by crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation, the fate of  the dis-empowered and conquered. The man on the cross was, by all the the commonsense of this world, the image of absolute powerlessness and defeat, and yet this is the man that Paul is declaring as the power and wisdom of God.

Or as G.A. Studdert Kennedy, one of Bertrand Russell’s alleged Modernists has it:

Thou hast bid us seek Thy glory, in a criminal crucified.
And we find it – for Thy glory is the glory of Love’s loss,
And Thou hast no other splendour but the splendour of the Cross.

The history of Christendom is a long Judas Kiss, where theologians in the service of human rationality, have worked to conform the truth of Christ to the values of this world, with its overweening respect for power.

Though his image has been cheapened and demeaned, into that of the ultimate appeaser. He who accepted the authority of, and died to satisfy the wrath/honour,of the god of power; the omnipotent Caesar of heaven. Yet still the beauty of Christ’s truth shines through, even for Bertrand Russell. He was, in old age, able to admire the values, that this young man had taught were the Way of  the only God worth serving – the God who calls us to act in love to our fellow human beings.

When, in a recent book, I said that what the world needs is “love, Christian love, or compassion,” many people thought this showed some changes in my views, although in fact, I might have said the same thing at any time. If you mean by a “Christian” a man who loves his neighbor, who has wide sympathy with suffering, and who ardently desires a world freed from the cruelties and abominations which at present disfigure it, then, certainly, you will be justified in calling me a Christian.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic 1953

 

Related Video

Peter Rollins I Deny the Resurrection 2011

 

 

 

 

The Father of Lies

Swan Lake

 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.

We are biological machines built according to instructions carried from generation to generation on molecules of DNA.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) compared these instructions (genes) to Chicago gangsters, and argued that the predominate quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. These are strangely pejorative terms for ‘beings’ that have been working collaboratively to construct successful survival machines for millions of years. The  stunning level of complexity that our genes are able to achieve by working together, deserves a more accurate, and morally neutral anthropomorphism. My preferred simile is  that of ballet dancers working collaboratively, under the choreography of natural selection.

Our existence is ephemeral, like a piece of performance art; or as the old hymn has it, like a dream, fading at the break of day. The dancers (genes) that bring us into being, exist in many others also, and while they are not immortal, have the capacity to be very old indeed. They are successful because they have managed to produce, and/or survive in  successions of disposable bodies, that have transported them through time.

We should expect natural selection to produce, not selfish organisms, but altruists, serving on average the needs of their genes.  This will not necessarily translate into altruism towards other organisms, but it can.

One of the problems with Darwin’s original theory of evolution by natural selection, was that it threw individual organisms into a war of all against all.  The existence of naturally occurring altruism caused problems for this theory; problems that vanish if you consider the gene rather than the organism as the unit of selection.

Richard Dawkins, by his own account, developed his deeply held views about religion, as a consequence of his understanding of evolutionary theory. He shows in his more recent work, e.g. “The God Delusion,” an understanding that natural selection can produce  individuals that behave altruistically,  and even argues that it can give us a basis for morality.

This is not something that he believed when he wrote “The Selfish Gene.”  Then he was very much a nature red in tooth and claw man.  This book contains some very entertaining examples of confirmation bias, as he shares his conviction about the nastiness of it all; and by conflating two very different modes of being, that of the gene and the organism demonstrates to his own satisfaction, that what appears to be altruism, e.g. parental care, or  the willingness to lay down ones life for the good of others, is in fact really selfishness.

But don’t be misled into thinking that the young Richard Dawkins was a misanthrope.  He was very far from it, believing, like 18th century enlightenment man, that human rationality rises us above all the rest of nature; and frees us to pursue disinterested altruism. You will also see from the following quote, that he has failed to realize  that it is our genes that have long-term natural “interests”, not us.

The point I am making now is that even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight – our capacity to simulate the future in imagination – could save us from the worst  selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests.

Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

He also failed to note that the replicators he maligned as Chicago gangsters, have without an ounce of foresight between them, managed for some millions of years, to cooperate towards a common goal, the creation of disposable, and biodegradable survival machines. The following quote is taken from  close to the beginning of the book, shortly after his comparison of genes to Chicago gangsters..

Be warned that if you wish , as I do , to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.  Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.  Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to. Richard Dawkins  The Selfish Gene 1976

Our bodies provide evidence, that biological nature has enabled genes to cooperate, towards a common good, and they have done it without any need for either altruism or generosity. Richard Dawkins’, nature red in tooth and claw school of evolutionism, is not based on empirical evidence, and appears as an attempt to import the sheer nastiness of Darwin’s original theory, which saw individual organisms as engaged in the war of all against all, in a bitter battle for survival, into new synthesis biology.

The sheer nastiness of the mechanism understood  to be driving evolution in Darwin’s original theory caused a problem for theism, as it was a mechanism that was hard to reconcile, with the notion of a good God. It is of course not good science, to allow your religious beliefs to interfere with how you interpret scientific evidence,  and I believe Richard Dawkins  to be too honourable a man to be doing this deliberately.  He is the victim of  something  that appears to be instinctive, and therefore coded for in his DNA – confirmation bias.

Ironically Richard Dawkins’ unconscious  bias, his conflation of the gene with the organism, actually hides from view something truly nasty at the core of the modern synthesis.  In Darwin’s original theory all adaptations including instincts were understood to work for the good of the organism.  This is not true for the modern synthesis, where it is the gene, not the organism that is the beneficiary of natural selection.

And the interests  of  the gene and the organism are not identical.  Genes do not have all their eggs (or sperms), in one basket and are therefore able, metaphorically, to play the odds. For instance a gene that caused human beings to play Russian roulette, would result on average in total loss of reproductive fitness for 5 out of 6 of the players. If the pay off for winning increased the  average reproductive fitness of the winner by even marginally over 6 times, then the roulette  gene would increase in the gene pool.

The interests of the  hypothetical, unconscious  roulette gene are obviously not identical with the interests of the majority of the conscious beings whose behaviour would, if it existed, be influenced by this functionally selfish gene. It is a potentially a very dangerous error to assume that following our instincts will  on average lead to good consequences for individual humans, even if the conditions under which we now live, were identical with the conditions under which the instincts evolved.

Risk taking behaviour is fairly obviously not in the average best interests of the organisms engaged in the pursuit. Confirmation bias is not so clear cut a case.  It is possible that it in most cases, at least in the distant past, it increased the survival and reproductive chances of the programmed organism We are social creatures who bond on shared ideas. Stable social groups, allow for the successful raising of offspring which go on and do likewise.  Genes for overruling our rationality, when to continue with a particular line of thought is likely to call into question a core belief/dogma of our society, are likely to increase the average reproductive fitness of those holding them.

Not all of these beliefs are to do with religion. Robert Trivers, the biologist who wrote the original preface to Richard Dawkin’s – The Selfish Gene, holds  Darwin’s original  theory of natural selection, as his dogma.This can be demonstrated in this attack on Stephen Gould, where he accuses him of attempted heresy, over his development of the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

But Steve wanted to turn this into something grander, a justification for replacing natural selection (favoring individual reproductive success) with something called species selection.

Robert Trivers The Mismeasure of Stephen Jay Gould Psychology Today October 2012

Robert Trivers identifies the organism as the individual at the centre of Darwinian selection, and therefore regards confirmation bias as an example of an organism deceiving itself, for its own advantage; rather than an organism being deceived in a way that historically increased the frequency of the programming gene in the gene pool.   Just how bizarre this is can be seen in the central attack he makes in the same  article on the morality of Stephen Gould.

Stephen Gould accused 19th century scientist Samuel George Morton of unconscious bias in measuring the size of human skulls. Morton was trying to ascertain whether or not humans were all members of one species, an activity which Gould believed to be inherently racist. It turned out that it was Gould’s statistics that were biased, not Morton’s measurements. Here is Robert Trivers’ take on how the statistics were arrived at.

Where are the unconscious processes at work here? Is Steve flying upside-down on auto-pilot, unconsciously looking for the actions (substitute Nordic for Tropical, delete all samples smaller than four) that will invite the results he wants (while hiding his bias)? Is the conscious organism really completely in the dark while all of this is going on? Hard to imagine—but at the end the organism appears to be in full self-deception mode—a blow-hard fraudulently imputing fraud, with righteous indignation, coupled with magnanimous forgiveness for the frailties of self-deception in others.

Robert Trivers The Mismeasure of Stephen Jay Gould Psychology Today October 2012

That Stephen Gould made this error is almost unbelievable, but the evidence is that he did.  This mistake would have done  Professor Gould’s reputation no good, had it been caught on in his lifetime, and it has done it harm posthumously.  It has also been used as evidence that racism is scientifically valid, something that would have appalled him, given that he was an ardent campaigner against racism. The disadvantage of doing what he did far outweighs any benefit.  The most likely explanation is that he was unaware of his own bias.

Robert Trivers accepts that the mistake could be consequence of unconscious processes. But by using the term self-deception to describe two very different set of events:one where the organism has no conscious awareness of what is going on, and another where the organism is aware of what is happening and is deliberately manipulating data; he is able to rain down judgement on the heretic.

I suspect there was rather more than loyalty to his dogma going on in the mind of Robert Trivers when he wrote this piece, but I am willing to accept that his unconscious mind was hiding the truth from his conscious mind.

Robert Trivers and Stephen Gould both show evidence of having had their rationality overruled by instinctive confirmation bias.

What happens in confirmation bias reminds me very much of what happens in stage hypnosis, when the hypnotist convinces his subject that there is no other person on the stage. Even when the other person moves objects round the victim is unable to see them, and is convinced that the objects are moving independently.

When intelligent peoples’ attempts to find the truth are subverted by confirmation bias, it is frequently possible to see the metaphorical invisible man – the meme that does not co-ordinate with the socially held belief..This little warning from Richard Dawkins is a case in point:

Be warned that if you wish , as I do , to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.

Given that he was writing about genes as the creators of survival machines, it should have been obvious that natural selection is quite capable of building a society where individuals cooperate towards a common good.  His categorization of genes as selfish, and his use of the  adverbs generously and unselfishly as necessary characteristics of the actions of  cooperating individuals, have been sufficient to hide this reality from him.

Note that I am not suggesting that the process being followed by the young Richard  Dawkins was in any way rational, or deliberately planned, rather that it was the product of a gene working in ways that caused its numbers to increase in the gene pool in times past.  Nor would a discovery that natural selection was capable of producing cooperation have undermined his atheism.  The part of the unconscious programmed for confirmation bias had  however no way of accessing that data.

Richard Dawkins is not the only anti-theist in whose writings the invisible man .can be found. The following quote from Bertrand Russell argues that it is dogma that is the cause of religious persecution, and that communism is a religion because it to has dogma.

Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic 1953

The first line of this quote is the invisible man.  Cruel persecutions were common in Christendom, but that is not what the quote says. This passage arguing that dogma is a feature of religious belief, includes a piece of anti-religious dogma, which Russell treats as though it were a fact. Would you like to bet that cruel persecutions were more common in Christendom than they were in Nazi Germany, or Japanese Prisoner-of-war camps, or that Bertrand Russell had the figures to back up this claim?

This  following passage and conclusion taken from his “Is there a God,” essay show that his social commitment was as he claimed to agnosticism, at least at one level.  But he identified with two social groups, philosophers where agnosticism was the respectable view, but also with atheists.

I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease. A man who, having the knowledge and power required to make his children good, chose instead to make them bad, would be viewed with execration. But God, if He exists, makes this choice in the case of very many of His children. …………..My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

  • If you define good in the normal way, and not as some theists, including I think St  Anselm, the originator of the ontological argument, do – as might is right,
  • And if you define omnipotence as Bertrand Russell did, as being able to achieve anything without need of process or plan,
  • Then an omnipotent god could achieve all he wanted without allowing suffering.  And as suffering exists therefore any God who exists is not both good in the normal sense of the word, and omnipotent in the way that Bertrand Russell defines the word.
  • And Bertrand Russell has proved that there is good reason not to believe in one of the dogmas of traditional theology, and not the much weaker conclusion he gave at the end of the essay – the dogma of the agnostic, there is no reason to believe.

Bertrand Russell having proved that it was impossible for a god to be, as he defined the words, omnipotent and good, then dismissed the idea of a God who is not omnipotent, with two dogmatic assertions. First he claimed that the idea that God was not omnipotent was modern to Christianity.Then that there was no positive reason in its favour.

That all Christian’s have always believed up until recently that God could achieve his aims without process is a very big claim; and being logically possible is a positive, though not sufficient  reason in favour of a belief.

The strong case against an omnipotent god, and his dogmatic claims on views that he classifies as non-traditional, do not coordinate with Bertrand Russell’s view of himself as a rational agnostic  But the way his argument  is developed demonstrates  that Russell was socially committed to agnosticism. He valued his perceived rationality, more than his atheism.

It seems that Russell agrees on at least one point with William James, that it was certainty that led to the cruel persecutions of the inquisition. His segue into the Celestial Teapot argument comes between his successful argument against the existence of  an omnipotent and good god, and a dismissal of any other view of a god as non-traditional, and a conclusion, to the essay that does not follow from the arguments made.

The Celestial teapot functions here for Russell, as the words generously and unselfishly did for Richard Dawkins.  It serves as a distraction. By using this illustration of the tiny orbiting teapot as an analogy for religious dogma, Russell is able to convince himself that, he really is a rational agnostic; and that the evil certainty that leads to persecution lies elsewhere, in the religious dogmatist. And so he concludes with the defining dogma of the agnostic – there is no reason to believe . This despite the fact that there is every reason to believe that the god, that he defines as the God of traditional theology does not exist externally to the human mind.

The god that Bertrand Russell proved to be non-existent, is based on the the god of Anselm’s ontological argument. The god that Anselm defined as, that than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, and from this definition proved to his own satisfaction, and that of a surprising number of other philosophers, including for a brief time the young Bertrand Russell, to be a necessary being. Reading  through the Proslogion, where Anselm puts forth his argument, you will find reference to the Godless fool, and Anselm’s acknowledgement that his  own understanding  of that than which no greater can be conceived, is equivalent  to the understanding of the fool.

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

The Proslogion  Anselm 1077-1078

Rather than recognizing the folly of limiting  the greatness of a Creator to that which a fool might imagine to be great, Anselm’s attention turns to the stupidity of the Godless fool of Psalm 14, and concentrates on the area where  he and the alleged fool differ, whether or not the god of their imagining actually exists.  Deciding that it was the fool’s dullness, that prevented him from realizing that his imaginings must coincide with reality..

And so Anselm was able to transform the imaginings of a fool, into not just an angel of light, but the god of heaven.

Confirmation bias is the instinct that likes to say yes.  It may in a less crowded world have been useful in holding social groups together, but in our world it is extremely dangerous.  It leaves us unable to understand the viewpoint of others,  whether, because we or they are blinded by confirmation bias, or more likely both. Intelligence is no help, because a person who is blinded by confirmation bias, has their intelligence subverted to hiding the truth from them.

Confirmation bias, appears to be the work of a functionally selfish Dawkinsian gene, that is common in the human gene pool.  The behaviour that it programs for is capable of inducing intolerance, anger; and cruel persecutions.  It is the enemy, not flesh and blood.

Before we can resist the devil and all his works we must first recognize him.

Related Articles

  1. John S. Michael Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary
  2. Lewis et al The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias  PLoS Biol. Jun 2011

Cracking the Teapot

Yellow Dragon Teapot by ShyriaDracnoir The Celestial Teapot is frequently understood as an analogy for belief in a god or gods. This is to do Bertrand Russell an injustice.  His attack was much wider than that. Russell opposed all dogmatic beliefs, classifying any system of thought that used strongly held beliefs to justify the silencing of opposing voices as religion.

Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed.

Bertrand Russell What is an Agnostic 1953

If you accept Russell’s definition of religion then the Northern Ireland conflict is, as Richard Dawkins alleges, although not in the way he means; a religious conflict, with two similar but opposing dogmas.

There is the Unionist / Loyalist dogma – Northern Ireland is British;

and

The Nationalist / Republican dogma – Ireland is one nation.

These strongly held differences of opinion are heavily implicated in the recurring cycles of violence that afflict my native land.  They themselves do not provide a sufficient cause for the violence, in that they are also held in the periods of peace interspersing the violence.

I think Richard Dawkins, in the following passage, provides an insight into the driving force that ties difference of opinion to persecution and violence.

American polls suggest that atheists and agnostics far outnumber Jews, and even outnumber most other particular religious groups.  Unlike Jews, however, who are notoriously one of the most effective political lobbies in the United States, and unlike evangelical Christians, who wield even greater political power, atheists and agnostics are not organized and therefore exert almost zero influence.  Indeed organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority.

Richard  Dawkins Preface to The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 

Dogma acts as a human herding tool.  Those who direct the herd acquire a great deal of power. This they can maintain by direct persecution of opposing voices within the herd.  Or they can persuade the herd that they are under threat from malignant forces and the herd will do the work for them.

Herding People – A Fictional Example 

Our way of life is under attack by fundamentalist Teabaggians.  They have disrespected the Teapot of Rationality; revealed to us first through the wisdom of the Ancient Philosopher. They will smash our china teapots and force us to embrace their vile custom of  teabag dunking.

We must stand together, and support the chosen ones, in opposing this evil tyranny.

A real example of this kind of call can be found at the CAIN website, an  archive of materials related to conflict in Northern Ireland. dup and uup leaflet dup and uup leaflet This leaflet was distributed throughout loyalist (working class unionist)  areas of east Belfast, by the two main Unionist parties when, because they had lost their majority in Belfast City Council, they were unable to ensure that the symbolic representation of their dogma, the Union Flag  remained flying constantly above City Hall, by normal political methods.

Given the nature of this call, the distinct whiff of, “They’re coming to take us away!” and your culture is being disrespected; it should be no surprise  that the people who were targeted by the propaganda were enflamed. Nor that when the vote was taken and the Alliance Party, a  group not aligned to either of the main  political dogmas, and the holders of the balance of power, stuck to their party policy  that the union flag  should only fly on designated days, that riots ensued.

The police managed to contain the violence without any major casualties, and at present around 700 people, mainly young working class men, have been charged with  related offences. No action has been taken against those who put out the leaflet. Nor has there been any public acknowledgement by the the leaders of our main Unionist Parties, that they know that the claims made in this leaflet were untrue and that maybe there should have been a little more care taken in the exercise of free speech. (There is no reason to assume that either party leader knew about this leaflet before it was distributed.)

Bertrand Russell’s definition of  religion as any thought system that holds dogmatic opinions, and seeks to impose them, by force if necessary, means that the Northern Ireland conflict was and is  by definition a religious conflict. This definition is misleading.

Dogmatism is related to power politics, and it is therefore primarily, even if it is a traditionally religious dogma that is being enforced, a political position. And in my country in recent times it has been political dogmatists, with in many cases the full support  of religious dogmatists, that have undermined the peace. Encouraging members of our different political  and religious communities, to identify those with differing views as Those Evil Awful People Over There. T.E.A.P.O.T. 

It is this teapotting of the other that can turn ordinary decent individuals into angry and cohesive herds of people, ripe for milking by power seekers.

Belfast peace wall

Belfast’s Peace Walls – Protecting Those Evil Awful People Over There, from Ordinary Decent People since 1969.

Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy at Florida State University, in an article discussing how  Richard Dawkins’ Humanism is unlike his own humanism, in that it has ended up acting like a religion, made the following claim.

…..  rival religions tend to say awful things about each other, putting down the doctrines and the practitioners. Think of evangelicals on the subject of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, or of Northern Irish Protestants on the subject of the Pope.

Michael Ruse  Curb Your Enthusiasm  Aeon Magazine October 2012

In reality, what a Northern Ireland Protestant will tell you about the Pope, depends on which of us you ask. Some within our community for instance think that the present pope, Pope Francis, is a really decent bloke; and are therefore inclined to wonder how long before the Vatican gets round to assassinating him.

There is a tendency for people, including Northern Irish people, to regard  the Protestant paranoia over Catholic intentions, found within my community, as primal. This is not so.

In the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798, Irish Catholics and Protestants united against English colonialism, and the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.  When this rising was quashed the victors adopted a policy of divide and rule in, the area that is now, Northern Ireland. Propaganda was used to whip up paranoia in the majority Protestant community, about the intentions of the Catholic Church

The teapotting behaviour of the authorities was deliberate and rational. They were ensuring that Ulster Protestants were too afraid to rise against them, and would support the authorities against their Catholic neighbours. That is the authorities were aware of what they were doing.

Not  all of those who use teapotting to label others, as those evil awful people over there, are this self- aware.

Michael Ruse is a case in point.  In his article, Curb Your Enthusiasm, he notes similarities in the behaviour of  Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists, with the “squabbles” of the Reformation.

In the caricaturing of ‘faith’ as murderous fundamentalism, one hears echoes of the bloody and interminable Reformation squabbles between Protestants and Catholics. One also sees contempt for fellow human beings, many of whom are educated, thinking members of society. 

Michael Ruse  Curb Your Enthusiasm  Aeon Magazine October 2012

It turns out however that Professor Ruse’s objection isn’t in the teapotting of other people as inherently contemptible.  It is that they have teapotted the wrong people, decent human beings like himself, “many of whom are educated, thinking members of society.”   The professor thinks that they should be showing contempt for a different group of people.

It is also, of course, to help the real enemy, those who turn their backs fully on science as they follow their religion. Instead of making allies of those believers who hate intolerance as much as do you, everyone is at war and no proper defence is mounted against the really dangerous, the genuinely fanatical and fundamentalist.

 Michael Ruse  Curb Your Enthusiasm  Aeon Magazine October 2012

Because of course, the fanaticism that Michael Ruse has noted in what he refers to as Humanists or New Atheists cannot be real fanaticism, because they are like him; non-religious, science- respecting, educated, thinking members of society.  And as everyone knows the evil lies only in the other.

“And  the more things change the more they are the same.”

The very prescient Jonathan Swift in a satirical essay arguing, at the time unnecessarily, against the abolition of Christianity; identified what I am calling teapotting, as factionalism, and argued that it was a consequence, not  of religious belief but of human nature, i.e. instinctive. And that therefore abolishing Christianity, would not be sufficient to rid the world of factions.

Are party and faction rooted in men’s hearts no deeper than phrases borrowed from religion, or founded upon no firmer principles? And is our language so poor that we cannot find other terms to express them? Are _envy, pride, avarice_ and_ambition_ such ill nomenclators, that they cannot furnish appellations for their owners? Will not_heydukes_ and _mamalukes, mandarins_ and patshaws_, or any other words formed at pleasure, serve to distinguish those who are in the ministry* from others who would be in it if they could? …………………. And therefore I think, there is little force in this objection against Christianity, or prospect of so great an advantage as is proposed in the abolishing of it.

 Jonathan Swift  An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708

N.B. The ministry* referred to above is government ministry, not religious ministry, and Jonathan Swift is making a direct link between power seeking and factionalism.

Jonathan Swift wrote this essay, more than one hundred years before the birth of Charles Darwin, and longer still before the birth of the father of genetics Gregor Mendel, and therefore was not in a position to speculate about the forces that created this drive for factionalism – the teapotic instinct.

He certainly never had the opportunity to read Richard Dawkins’  book – The Selfish Gene.  And it is the central idea in this book, gene selection, that can explain the teapotic drive.

Factionalism creates small ponds in which big fish can have a disproportionate amount of influence. Making people afraid means that they are easier to control.  Using  direct coercion means that the would be big fish, would have to be genuinely more powerful, than those they set out to coerce. Creating paranoia within the pond about Those Evil Awful People Over There, those not in our faction, does not require the same degree of power from the would be leaders.  It also creates  conditions favourable for paranoia in the labelled people, making them vulnerable to Teapotters within their community.

If there is a genetic component to the behaviour of the Teapotters, and if acquiring power  increased in times past, their relative reproductive fitness, then the teapotic gene would have increased  in the gene pool. This is so even if, as  doesn’t seem unlikely, the overall genetic fitness of everyone in afflicted communities was lowered.

That so many of those displaying teapotic behaviour, seem to be totally without self-awareness, believing that what they are claiming is empirical truth; is consistent with it being the result of what Richard Dawkins has referred to as the Selfish Gene.  Instinct geared  not to the good of the organism displaying the behaviour, but to promoting the behaviour that enabled the gene to become predominate in the gene pool in the first place.

Richard Dawkins’ and Michael Ruse show every sign of being the victims of a practical joke, inflicted on them by their DNA.  I would be laughing if I didn’t have an inkling just how much damage the particular bits of deoxyribonucleic acid that code for this behaviour, can influence people living in unstable political situations, to inflict on each other.(1) Or the strong suspicion that the most likely victims of this behaviour are going to be those, with the least ability to defend themselves.(2)

Related Articles

  1. Andrew Brown If religion doesn’t start wars, it’s clear it can make some conflicts harder to solve  May 2014  theguardian.com
  2. Giles Fraser Yes, the church is bloody angry about these attacks on the poor, and rightly so February 2014  theguardian.com