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

 

 

 

 

 

Honest to God

The then Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, in his 1963 book, ‘Honest to God,’ rejected the notion of a God out there, a superhuman creator, interfering from time to time in human affairs as incompatible with modern scientific thought.  Ironically this superhuman creator, that Robinson so roundly rejected, is one that Richard Dawkins accepts as a logical possibility. Arguing only that such a creator would not in fact be a god, because gods are supernatural beings, and this kind of creator would only be one other part of the natural order.  And therefore neither a god or God.

Which just goes to show that Richard Dawkins theological insight is better than you might otherwise give him credit for. John Robinson was also arguing that such a creator would not be God.

The personal God, that Robinson was arguing for was not this superhuman abomination.

Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted,’ that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home’.

John A.T. Robinson  Honest to God Chapter 3 1963

Robinson was arguing that his emotionally held belief that Love was the central value of life was grounded in his faith in God. And that his belief in God was grounded in his faith that Love was the central value of life.

This view of Love as the central value, was held by the philosophers, William James, who identified as a Christian, and Bertrand Russell, who identified as an agnostic. Just as is the case with Bishop Robinson, neither of these men came to this belief by rational means. It was in both cases an emotionally, not rationally held belief.

William James made the argument that while there was no way of obtaining rational certainty for those things that the heart wished for were true, acting as though that which you wish for is true, is what brings about the emotional certainty that it is so.

At the end of his article ‘Will to Believe’ he used the following quote to illustrate his point.

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we may be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong, and of good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

Fitz James-Stephens quoted in William James Will to Believe 1896

Or that to live fully human and courageous lives we need to, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes had it:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days. Ecc. 11:1

The Bishop of Durham from 2003-2010, Tom Wright was highly critical of the arguments put forward by Bishop Robinson in, ‘Honest to God’ accusing him of being far from  honest.

In particular, Robinson himself seems to me to protest rather too much when he declares again and again that for the most part he remains a traditional Christian—yet says in the preface, revealingly, that he finds less and less of himself to what he calls the right side of the line that runs through the middle of himself. He was of course a complex character, as his biography reveals, and in later life he edited and republished, movingly, his father’s devotional book The Personal Life of the Clergy under the title The Personal Life of the Christian, reaffirming warmly the central disciplines and habits of Christian devotion. But how he kept the two sides of himself integrated, if he did, has never been clear to me. Maybe it was honesty which compelled this unclarity, but the sense of ‘owning up’, of ‘coming clean’, which the title implies is not, I think, borne out by the apparent confusion of the author.

N.T. Wright  Doubt about Doubt: Honest to God 40 years on 2005

The apparent confusion belongs to Tom Wright not John Robinson. Robinson was engaged in providing a meaningful account of Christianity to those for whom the biblical stories held no resonance.  People who would no more have regarded the biblical accounts as evidence of God in action in the world, than they would regard the Star Wars films as evidence for the existence of midi-chlorians.

Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll hear them speaking to you.

Qui-Gon Jinn, to Anakin Skywalker  Taken from Wookieepedia

The attacks and sniping that Tom Wright complains of are found not in ‘Honest to God’ where Robinson almost bends over backwards to acknowledge the truths of those such as C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers who were producing more traditional accounts of the Christian message, but in Wright’s  ‘Doubts about Doubt.’

And it is this misidentification of where the alleged evil lies, that leads me to the conclusion, not that Tom Wright is dishonest but that he is deluded.

One of the things that Tom Wright accused John Robinson of was of ignoring the problem of evil.

I find it quite shocking that Robinson has no account to give of evil, either its existence, its analysis, or the solution offered to it in either traditional or revisionist Christianity. He recognizes that the normal liberal analysis is shallow and inadequate, but has nothing to offer in its place. How a theology rooted and born in the twentieth century could do justice to that twentieth century without a serious account of evil simply defeats me.

N.T. Wright  Doubt about Doubt: Honest to God 40 years on 2005

‘Honest to God’ is a small book, and it didn’t set out to solve the problem of evil.  But Tom Wright in projecting his own behaviour unto John Robinson, illustrates one of the causes of evil in the world.  The ability of the human brain to convince itself, that whatever it wants to believe is true.  An especially devastating ability when what that brain, is highly intelligent, and what it wishes to convince itself of, is that it is certainly right, and that the evil lies in the other.

Human Beings bond on shared ideas. Those who can produce the illusion that beliefs held for social reasons are certainly true, have opportunity to gain status in their social groupings.  If they can at the same time convince their followers that their social groupings and truths are under attack, by the other:

Those Evil  Awful People Over There,

then they are a position to acquire even more power within their group.  And certainly in times past and maybe even today this will have improved their average reproductive fitness.  In other words I am suggesting that the type of self deluding argument exhibited by Tom Wright, the gift that can make Satan himself appear as an angel of light, is an innate deceiver, a human instinct, the product of natural selection.  And you’ll find him waving his noodly appendage wherever humans seek power rather than love, certainty over truth.

 The noodliness of Wright’s thinking is even more clearly obvious, except to those who are similarly noodled, in his arguments against gay marriage, than in his critique of Honest to God.

Tom Wright’s sphere of influence is largely among those who would regard themselves as Bible believing evangelicals, and his views on justification, have led many within these circles to regard him as theologically unsound.

To maintain his sphere of influence, he needs to impress those within it of his ‘orthodoxy.’ They and he are emotionally certain that homosexual relationships cannot be recognised as marriage. And the innate deceiver, the instinct that likes to say,”Yes:” obliges in enabling him to convince himself that he can in fact  rationally justify his emotional response.

He is quoted over at First Things, as objecting to Gay Marriage, because it involves a change of the meaning of the word marriage. Now Tom Wright and I have both lived long enough to know that language evolves over time.  The word gay for instance has changed meaning within our lifetime.

I grew up in the Anglican Church of Ireland, and we regularly prayed that justice should be administered indifferently.  Rather than Christians demanding that word usage remains constant, I think a more sensible case could be made that we recognise the actual usage that words have in the present time, and use them accordingly.

Sarah Moon in More Like N.T. Wrong, does an excellent take down of his arguments based on the creation story of Genesis 1.

I won’t deal with them here.  But I find myself vastly entertained by the ludicrousness of this argument.

The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

N.T. Wright’s Argument Against Same Sex Marriage  First Things 2014

On that gay and glorious day when Christ comes to reclaim his Bride, N.T.Wright  if he believes himself to be a Christian, must surely expect to be there, at least metaphorically, as the Bride to Christ’s Groom.  Not a convincing argument against gay marriage.

The entertaining yet truly scary thing about those operating under the operation of the noodly deceiver, the confirmation bias driven monster that has been given not so much anthropomorphic as pastopomorphic form by Bobby Henderson as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is that you can see that the truth finding mechanisms within their brain are still in operation.

The bits of the brain that are there to test the theory, in the only way possible, by finding arguments against it are there doing their job. Yet the strength of the noodly appendage is such that its deluded servants are able to present evidence against their case as though it is evidence for, with total conviction.

In this same article Tom Wright can also be seen criticising others including Tony Blair the British Prime Minister at the time of the invasion of Iraq, for the holeyness of their arguments, while seeing only holiness, in his own holey arguments.

Tom Wright demanded from John Robinson a theological account of evil. A spaghettiology is all I can offer.  We have inherited from our evolutionary past an instinct that serves to hide our true motives from us, as we seek status and power within our society.  This instinct enables us to believe whatever it is that will gain us that power and status. It enables us to deceive ourselves into believing in our own goodness, and the rightness of our cause.  It enables us to see that the fault lies only in the other.  And thus is monstrous evil born.

If we would resist the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the first place we must look is within ourselves. Only then have we any chance of being, ‘Honest to God.’

 


 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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

Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” was composed in the 1950s by Noam Chomsky, as an example of a sentence which was grammatically correct, and yet unlikely ever to have been spoken.

This is not as is sometimes claimed a sentence that has no meaning. It has no inherent meaning, but It is capable according to context of being understood in many different ways.  A fact more than adequately demonstrated by a competition hosted by Stanford University in 1985, where entrants were asked to create contexts in less than one hundred words which made the sentence meaningful.

Some of the entries can be read here.

The different interpretations are possible because words such as colorless and green have more than one meaning, and because metaphor is a recognized way of communicating ideas.

Because green is sometimes used as a synonym for Irish, this inherently meaningless sentence can be linked to the myth that St Patrick drove all the snakes in Ireland into the sea, where the  mythical beasts became the currents around our shores. Colourless green memes sleeping, sometimes furiously.

The story of St Patrick and the snakes is a metaphorical account of the ancient Celtic religious beliefs of Ireland being driven out by Christian beliefs. It is obviously not literally true, and it isn’t metaphorically true either.  The ancient memes weren’t driven out, some of them were incorporated into the new belief system, others remained as myths and legends, part of a system that enabled people to derive meaning from the world around.

The world is like Chomsky’s sentence, all syntax and no obvious semantics, structure without meaning.  It is the stories we know, the memes we bear, that determine how we understand reality. And what new stories we tell about it.

A True Metaphor

Richard Dawkins has argued that memes (ideas) should be regarded as lifeforms whose natural habitat is the human mind.

This strikes me as a rather good way of describing what is happening. Just as the world provides a range of different habitats, so does the mind. The lifeforms that evolved in Australia are different to those that evolved in Africa, or South America.  The Life forms of the Jurassic are different from those that evolved later.  But where there were niches to fill, organisms evolved to fill them.

So it is with culturally transmitted memes, there are niches to fill in the habitat of the mind. Within different cultures these niches are filled in different ways.

But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe, would  have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place.

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Richard Dawkins is of course right that the religion you hold is pretty much an accident of birth, or at least the society you find yourself in. The same is true for any other culturally transmitted view.

Belief is not a choice. It creeps in unannounced, as does unbelief.

Richard Dawkins was not the first to note that ideas spread by epidemiology. A very similar point was made by Mark Twain in an essay, which he wrote in 1901, although it wasn’t published until 1923, after Twain was dead.

 Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking. A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life — even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man’s self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter. Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.

Mark Twain Corn-Pone Opinions  1901

Mark Twain argued that the epidemiology was being driven by an instinct for social conformity.

Richard Dawkins and his friend the philosopher Daniel Dennett, both argue that memes have been liberated from their biological substrate, and it is the meme and not human instinct, that is in control of the relationship. As is illustrated by the following sentence, part of a passage from Daniel Dennett, that provides the introduction to Viruses of the Mind.

The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes.  

Daniel Dennett  Consciousness Explained in Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Mark Twain’s theory is simpler. We already know that instincts control the behaviour of other animals and there is no reason to believe that memes have the creative powers being attributed to them.

It is Mark Twain’s theory and not Richard Dawkins’ that satisfies the demands of scientific method.

The Serpents of the Mind

Scientific ideas, like all memes are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary and capricious. They are exacting well-honed rules, and they do not favor pointless self-serving behavior. …….

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

(Note that in the above passage the entities being exonerated, because of the intercession of Scientific Method, from exhibiting, ‘self-serving behavior,’ are the memes not people. Note also  that the adjectives, pointless and self-serving, which he uses to describe the behaviours, are mutually exclusive.)

Scientific method allows us to make increasingly accurate models of reality , which can then be used to make predictions, and suggest further avenues for research. It can never give certainty but is an excellent way of finding out about the probable structure of the world. This is not how Richard Dawkins is using it.  For him it has become a saving myth, a St Patrick driving snakes from Sacred Ground.

And just as the old Celtic myths were not driven from Ireland, but became incorporated with the new beliefs, so the old myths, including that which theologian Peter Rollins identifies with a belief in the Big Other, are incorporated within new atheism.

The Big Other:

Without getting too caught up in the specifics of what the term means in psychoanalysis, its theological significance relates to the, often unconscious, belief in some Thing that will bring wholeness and overcome anxiety.

Peter Rollins You Don’t Need to be an Atheist to be a Christian February 2015

Richard Dawkins references scientific method as the saving Big Other.  And just as the theologians of Christendom, seem to have felt free to disregard the teaching and example of Christ, when developing their theologies, so in developing his ideas on the Selfish Gene and Meme, Dr Dawkins by his own admission ignored the ‘exacting well-honed rules’ that are used to scrutinize scientific ideas.

I want to argue in favour of a particular way of looking at animals and plants, and a particular way of wondering why they do the things that they do. What I am advocating is not a new theory, not a hypothesis which can be verified or falsified, not a model which can be judged by its predictions. … Rather, I am trying to show the reader a way of seeing biological facts.

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982 

In this way Richard Dawkins has been able to accommodate within atheism people, probably himself included, who intuitively feel that the complexity of nature is such that it must be an act of intentionality.  Rather than quote them something like the following passage, and tell them to get over themselves, their intuitions have no rational justification:

The design stance and the intentional stance are useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates.  But, like other brain mechanisms, these stances can misfire. Children and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks.  

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

He merely uses it to argue that the god botherers have been deceived.  And offers them the allegedly scientifically endorsed view that there really is a purpose. Everything is being driven by purposefully acting memes and genes seeking their own survival.

The old niches have been filled.  The purposeful creators, the genes and memes.  The saving myth- scientific method, saving us from our creators, and the chosen people – the intelligent.  The duty of the saved – to mock and ridicule as irrational those who fill the niches differently.

Passion’s Slave

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

David Hume  A Treatise of Human Nature 1739-40

The Scottish philosopher David Hume regarded the desire for truth as a human passion.  This is something that I wouldn’t disagree with, but there are other drives also.  There is for instance the desire to prove that you are right, and the perhaps the even more powerful one, to prove that other people are wrong.

Scientific method evolved as a way of protecting the search for truth, from the noodly many tentacled deceiver, that psychologists identify with the unpoetic label, Confirmation Bias: the instinct that makes the brain, as Voltaire remarked, a wonderful organ for enabling a man to continue believing whatever it is he wants to believe.

Science is an effective way of finding out how the world works.  It can help us produce increasingly accurate models of reality, but it cannot imbue it with either purpose or meaning.  It provides the syntax not the semantics.

Meaning and purpose are the gifts of passion not rationality.

The Meme Bonded Ape

We are social animals who bond on shared ideas.  Crazes and fashions have no depth and last only a short time, they cannot be the basis for a stable society.

One way of acquiring strong within group bonds, is to label those who hold different memes, as evil and dangerous  – those evil awful people over there. i.e. factionalism

It is possible that  factionalism was once a useful adaptation, that caused our species to spread across the world, so that when bad times came, all our eggs, so to speak were not in one basket.  And it may in part explain why our species survived, when all the other species of hominid (upright apes) became extinct.

Those of us living in Northern Ireland have good reason to understand just how dangerous such factionalism can be, in our crowded modern world.

Some atheists such as Richard Dawkins; and Lawrence Krauss, who can be seen here debating with Peter Rollins, believe that the problem lies with religion (the meme).

Lawrence Krauss argues that we don’t need religion, but should bond on the truth of science. Arguing that the wonder and awe that he feels for nature is better than anything that religion can give because it is based on truth.

And this could well be so, but this isn’t what he suggests people actually bond on.  He suggests  rock concerts or music, not science.

The activity that he acknowledges engaging in, is the ridicule of religious believers, to demonstrate how ridiculous this minority are, to the “vast middle the rational people.” Basically he is encouraging people to bond on how rational they are compared to those  ridiculous god botherers.

The laugh of this being that the most ridiculous belief of all is that we are rational animals.  There is, as real world economist Dan Ariely demonstrates scientific evidence that man is not a rational animal. The best science can tell us about the possibility that the Universe has a Conscious Creator, is that there is no reason to believe it.  Probability arguments don’t hold in infinities.

The human passion for truth is not as all compelling as the search for community.  Science is a way of finding out the truth about the world.  It can give us the world’s syntax but not its semantics. It is a very useful tool, but it is too shallow to provide the glue required to hold communities together.

Like Noam Chomsky’s sentence, reality has many possible interpretations.  We can bond in many different ways.  What Northern Ireland  theologian Peter Rollins argued in his  debate with Lawrence Krauss is that the truly dangerous beliefs are those that scapegoat others as those evil awful people, the people who have the problem, while we have the solution.

For him the function of religion, as far as I understand it, is to come to grips with the human realities, the reality that we are all broken and that none of us have the answer. And he argues that this is the ultimate reality that can be found in Christianity.

Evolution is Immaterial

probability of god

 

When Richard Dawkins claimed that you can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything, he was of course wrong.  It is for instance perfectly rational to be certain that square circles, and spherical cuboids definitely do not exist.

So it is with the God of, “The God Delusion.” He cannot, by definition, exist.

I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: their exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it including us.

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007

For Richard Dawkins a necessary part of the definition of all gods is that they are supernatural, and by supernatural he means magic – the possessor of powers which by definition do not exist.

Skyhooks  – including all gods – are magic spells.

 Richard  Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 

With this definition of God there is no reason to beat about the bush:

An Ontological Argument for the Non-existence of God.

  • Supernatural beings are fictional beings, with fictional powers.
  • God is a Supernatural being.
  • Therefore god is a fictional being with fictional powers.

See also the God Delusion Paraphrased for Reluctant  Readers.

This syllogism demonstrates that it is possible to define God in such a way that he exists only in the mind.  It does not  prove anything at all about whether or not the universe is a work of intentional creation.

Richard Dawkins claimed that his position on the existence of God was the rational one – Temporary Agnosticism in Practice, or T.A.P.; which he compared with what he alleged was the irrational position of, Harvard professor, Stephen Gould, whom he accused of arguing for  Permanent Agnosticism in Principle, or P.A.P.

The view that I shall defend is very different: agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the T.A.P category.  Either he exists or he doesn’t.  It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability.

 Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.70

It seems fairly obvious from this quote that Richard Dawkins had failed to note that God as defined by him has a zero probability of existence.  And he didn’t feel the need to revise what he had previously written after making the following claim.

That you cannot prove God’s non-existence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never prove the non-existence of anything.  What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.

 Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.77

This claims contained within this paragraph can be formed into  a syllogism:

  • The existence of God is a, not very probable, possibility.
  • We can never absolutely prove the non-existence of anything.
  • Therefore we are never going to absolutely prove the non-existence of God.

So I am afraid dear atheist, that if these premises were true, and that if Richard Dawkins was also correct in his assertion that  one day you might be able to give up rational agnosticism; it would be because you would have acquired absolute proof for the existence of God.

But cheer up, because, as any philosopher is likely to tell you, absolute proof for the existence of anything is also very difficult, and with the right definition of the word existence, maybe even impossible to achieve.

Julian Bagini explains in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, the meaning of an atheist’s commitment to naturalism:  ‘What most atheists do believe is that although there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical out of this stuff come minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the full gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.’

Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain.

 Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.34

A materialistic definition of  the word existence means that it applies only to physical stuff, i.e. matter and energy.  Naturalism is the belief that everything other than matter and energy is an emergent property of the physical. Using this definition, many things whose reality we experience as primary, are immaterial emergents: e.g. pain, pleasure, love, consciousnes. And as the title informs you, evolution is also an immaterial reality; an emergent consequence of the interaction of matter and energy.

Boxing Ultimate Reality

Anselm‘s Ontological argument, made nearly one thousand years ago, produced a definition of God that made it impossible to conceive that God did not exist.  By describing God as that than which no greater can be imagined to exist, and arguing that existence was a necessary part of absolute greatness, Anselm made it impossible to meaningfully conceive that God, as defined by him, did not exist.  Because at the very moment you conceived the great being you were thinking of not to exist, you would no longer be thinking of God. See also Anselm’s Teapot.

Richard Dawkins, was  unimpressed with Anselm’s ontological argument, but enjoyed Australian philosopher Douglas Gasking’s ironic parody of it.

1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.

2. The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its creator.

3. The greater the disability (or handicap) of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

5. Therefore if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator we can conceive a greater being namely, one who created everything while not existing.

6. An existing God therefore would not be a being greater than which a greater cannot be conceived because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.

7. Therefore, God does not exist. 

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion Black Swan Edition 2007 p.107-108

Christian apologist William Lane Craig, like Richard Dawkins believes this argument to be incoherent.

Ironically, this parody, far from undermining the ontological argument, actually reinforces it! For a being who creates everything while not existing is a logical incoherence and is therefore impossible: there is no possible world which includes a non-existent being which creates the world.

William Lane Craig  Dawkins’ Critique of the Ontological argument  2009

The irony does not necessarily lie where William Lane Craig thinks it does. He believes that God is Immaterial.  Richard Dawkins naturalistic definition of reality, means that the immaterial is always emergent from the material, and therefore cannot be the first cause. So when Richard Dawkins hears believers claiming God, as the Immaterial First Cause, what he hears is, within his worldview the rambling of fools. Anselm who, like William Lane Craig, started with a different first premise, would have thought exactly the same of Richard Dawkins’ naturalism.

There is an awful lot of reality about, and to interact with our environment and society effectively, it is necessary to form models of it. Different models of reality can be  effective, in allowing those who hold them to function successfully. Acknowledging that your model may not be all encompassing, and that those holding alternative models are not necessarily truth deniers is rational. It may however result in accusations such as, bending over backwards to almost supine lengths; an allegation Richard Dawkins made against Stephen Gould, in The God Delusion.

Deductive reasoning can give the appearance of certainty, but it is only as good as the premises that you start with.  And where the question is about reality rather than definition, then the premises can never be  absolutely certain.  As Douglas Adams had his eponymous  detective, Dirk Gently, point out: all that is required for the impossible to be true, is for there to be something that we don’t know about.

 Alvin Plantinga, the author of a modern version of the ontological argument, the one that William Lane Craig accepts as definitive;  acknowledges that it doesn’t provide proof of the existence of God,  because it cannot be proved that its central premise, that the existence of a maximally great being is possible, is true.

But here we must be careful; we must ask whether this argument is a successful piece of natural theology, whether it proves the existence of God. And the answer must be, I think, that it does not. An argument for God’s existence may be sound,after all, without in any useful sense proving God’s existence. Since I believe in God, I think the following argument is sound:

  • Either God exists or 7 + 5 = 14
  • It is false that 7 + 5 = 14
  • Therefore God exists.

But obviously this isn’t a proof; no one who didn’t already accept the conclusion, would accept the first premise. The ontological argument we’ve been examining isn’t just like this one, of course, but it must be conceded that not everyone who understands and reflects on its central premise — that the existence of a maximally great being is possible — will accept it. Still, it is evident, I think, that there is nothing contrary to reason or irrational in accepting this premise. What I claim for this argument, therefore, is that it establishes, not the truth of theism, but its rational acceptability. And hence it accomplishes at least one of the aims of the tradition of natural theology.

Alvin Plantinga   The Ontological Argument  2001

Alvin Plantinga is a theist, that is someone who believes that Ultimate Reality is a maximally great being – God. He admits that the existence of a maximally great being may be impossible, that is have a probability of zero.  But argues that if you accept the premise that the existence of a maximally great being is possible, then you must rationally also believe that the existence of that being is certain.

Richard Dawkins worldview is naturalism, that is that everything that is real, is natural; and that therefore if there is any creative consciousness lurking behind the observable universe, it like the only consciousness he has any direct evidence for, his own, will be natural.  Within this worldview, supernatural means unreal, having no possible existence outside the imagination.  So when Richard Dawkins defines God as a supernatural being, he has defined God in such a way that he cannot possibly exist.

Richard Dawkins should rationally therefore have classified himself as a 7 on his own scale of degrees of belief in the existence of God; someone who is absolutely certain that God does not exist.  To do this would have put the spotlight on his own belief about the nature of reality, and mean that The God Delusion would have been a book investigating the rationality of his own atheism.  Not nearly as much fun as ridiculing the beliefs of others.

Richard Dawkins, classifies himself as somewhat less than certain of the non-existence of God,  arguing that anything you can imagine to exist, must have a possibility of actually existing. Therefore God’s existence is possible, but very improbable. He in fact argues that God is so improbable that we can be confident of his non-existence.

What both Alvin Plantinga and Richard Dawkins convoluted arguments seem to be aiming for, is the boxing up of reality, so that it cannot disturb their emotional certainty. The gift of confirmation  bias, the instinct that likes to say yes, means that they are likely to be largely unaware of the dishonesty of their position; and will therefore be able to present themselves to the world, without any hint of irony, or need of acting skill, as men of integrity.

And while Richard Dawkins definition of God as supernatural should have meant that he didn’t need to go to all the trouble he did; the god that he is arguing against isn’t magic god, but the maximally great being whom Alvin Plantinga claims as God.

Most of us who believe in God think of Him as a being than whom it’s not possible that there be a greater. But we don’t think of Him as a being who, had things been different, would have been powerless or uninformed or of dubious moral character. God doesn’t just happen to be a greatest possible being; He couldn’t have been otherwise.

Alvin Plantinga   The Ontological Argument  2001

Radical Christian theologian Peter Rollins, argues that this God haunts modern secular society, that the problem with atheists is that they aren’t atheistic enough, and that,the scandalous message of the Gospel is that freedom from the sovereign God, in all its manifestations, is possible”.

 

Rupturing the Box

box cross

 

  • You are sitting in a bar in Belfast.
  • In walks a seven foot purple gorilla with a submachine gun.
  • What do you call him?
  •  Sir!

As this joke illustrates there can be very good reason for treating the powerful with respect. In scary circumstances our rationality is likely to fail us, and at that point a forelock tugging instinct, is one that could increase our chance of survival.

If you are forced to remain in the pub with the gorilla, then the lizard brain effect of fear, will increase your chances of not surviving the encounter. One mechanism for reducing the fear, is to believe that the gorilla has qualities other than power and that these qualities are such that he doesn’t want to harm you, if he doesn’t have to.

The god of the ontological argument, the greatest thing that can be conceived not to exist by the godless fool of Anselm’s argument, is the purple gorilla, made maximally great: i.e. omnipotent, omniscient and completely good. Someone that  as Alvin Plantinga  tells us, we don’t think of, ‘as a being who, had things been different, would have been powerless or uninformed or of dubious moral character’.

This is where the scandal of Christianity lies, the difference between the gospel message and the religion of Christendom.

At the very heart of the Christian message is the cross, and the young man on it, an image of maximal greatness, that is the very antithesis of everything that the ontological argument, and our natural instincts imagine greatness to be.  1 Corinthians 1: 22-25

 In the life of one an outcast and a vagabond on earth,
In the common things He valued, and proclaimed of priceless worth,
And above all in the horror of the cruel death He died,
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.
For in Christ I see the martyrs and the beauty of their pain,
And in Him I hear the promise that my dead shall rise again.
High and lifted up, I see Him on the eternal Calvary,
And two piercèd hands are stretching east and west o’er land and sea.
On my knees I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.

G.A. Studdert  Kennedy  High and Lifted Up   taken from  Rhymes Published 1929

The Selfish Gene Illusion

Richard Dawkins with a 3D model of a Necker Cube.

Richard Dawkins with a 3D model of a Necker Cube. Royal Institute Christmas Lectures 1991

Richard Dawkins regards evolution as a process which is driven by and operates for the benefit of  genes. He expressed this fairly clearly in The Extended Phenotype.

The thesis that I shall support is this. It is legitimate to speak of adaptation as being ‘for the benefit of’ something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism.  It is the smaller unit which I call the active germ-line replicator.  The most important kind of replicator is the ‘gene’ or small genetic fragment.  

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982

Evolution is like the water cycle,  a natural process, and it is no more rational to speak of its effects being for the benefit of genes, than it is to speak of the effects of the water cycle as being for the benefit of raindrops. This is true even if you put the claim in speech marks. Both processes operate in a way that causes reproduction, in one case of  genes in the other raindrops. But to describe either raindrops or genes as the beneficiaries of the processes which produce them is to take quite a lot of poetic license, the kind of license which is more appropriate for an Enid Blyton tale than a work of science.

Richard Dawkins has illustrated his argument by referencing the Necker Cube.Necker_cube.svg

There is a well -known visual illusion called the Necker Cube. It consists of a line drawing which the brain interprets as a three-dimensional cube. But there are two possible orientations of the perceived cube, and both are equally compatible with the two-dimensional image on the paper. We usually begin by seeing one of the two orientations, but if we look for several seconds the cube “flips over” in the mind, and we see the other apparent orientation. After a few more seconds the mental image flips back and it continues to alternate as long as we look at the picture. The point is that neither of the two perceptions of the cube is the correct or “true” one. They are equally correct. 

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982

What I find interesting here is that neither of the two perceptions is correct.They are both illusions, as is the notion that adaptations are “for the benefit” of either the individual organism or the gene.

A successful adaptation increases the probability that the organism which bares it will reproduce, and therefore propagate the genes which are part of the cycle necessary for this adaptation to exist. If you consider reproduction as a benefit, a successful  adaptation works for the benefit of both the genes that are part of its chain of generation, and the individual organism that carries it.  And it similarly works for the benefit of the species; successful adaptations within a species work to decrease the probability of a species becoming extinct. There is however nothing operating within the system that makes it rational to claim that adaptations exist “for the benefit” of  any of those things: they are a part of the cycle of life, which like the rain cycle is a consequence of the blindly operating forces of nature.

 What Richard Dawkins should be saying, is that it is genes rather than organisms which have a chance of surviving through time, and they are therefore the units on which natural selection works. If they code for successful adaptations they remain constant or increase proportionally within the species gene pool. If they are less successful they decrease or even get wiped from the gene pool. Their roll is passive.  Rather than selfish manipulators, they are the poor bloody infantry.  They are only selected for if they are part of the cycle that results in the production of successful adaptations, for example, legs, kidneys, or the fight or flight instinct.

And  this is  in fact what he is saying, except when it comes to setting out the position he is advocating or drawing conclusions, when suddenly the gene becomes, instead of the passive victim of natural selection, a selfish manipulator working to ensure its own survival.

The following passage is the conclusion to the final chapter of The Extended Phenotype – Rediscovering the Organism.  Note how the gene (replicator) changes from the passive object of natural selection, to an active agent acting to ensure its own survival by selfishly behaving cooperatively.

The integrated multicellular organism is a phenomenon which has emerged as a result of natural selection on primitively independent selfish replicators.  It has paid replicators to behave gregariously.  The phenotypic power by which they ensure their survival is in principle extended and unbounded. In practice the organism has arisen as a partially bounded local concentration, a shared knot of replicator power.  

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 14 Rediscovering the Organism 1982

In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins links misapplied intentional stance with religious belief.

The design stance and the intentional stance are useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates.  But, like other brain mechanisms, these stances can misfire. Children and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks.  

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

He in his own writing imputes intentions to Selfish DNA.

The story that he is telling of how selfish replicators working for their own ends overcame the forces of ancient chaos, has parallels in ancient mythologies, notably the Enuma  Elish, the scripture of ancient Babylon.

In this scripture Marduk, the god of ancient Babylon, achieved chief place in the pantheon of the gods, by right of conquest.  He slew the mother of all gods, Tiamat, ancient chaos.

Richard Dawkins Selfish Gene is a reworking of the tale that theologian Walter Wink has described as the myth of redemptive violence.

This Selfish Gene Myth has a characteristic that Richard Dawkins associates with the early stages of a religion’s evolution.

In the early stages of a religion’s evolution, before it becomes organized simple memes survive by virtue of their universal appeal to human psychology.

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

At the top of this post there is a picture of Richard Dawkins with a wire framed cube.  Despite the labelling this is not a Necker cube.  If you look at the cube the flip will occur, but only one of the shapes seen looks like a cube.  The other does not.

The point I want to make here is that only one of these perceptions is correct, and so it is with the Selfish Gene. It appears to be a scientific theory, but the reality is otherwise.

Richard Dawkins by his own account lost his belief in the existence of God at the age of 15, because of his exposure to the theory of evolution. While I would very much like to say, “See irrational beliefs aren’t just a religious phenomenon,” I don’t think Richard Dawkins’ case can be used to argue that.  He has replaced belief in a single creator acting intentionally and intelligently, with belief in lots of selfish little creators acting intentionally but without foresight.  For him evolution has completely filled the role of religion,  including  giving purpose, and rather than being an atheist, he is a polytheist, admittedly one who  is arguing for revolt against the selfish but stupid little creators, who have made us to serve their interests, but a polytheist nonetheless.

The term, survival of the fittest, was coined by Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, and is misleading.  It allowed evolutionary success to be understood as survival of the powerful, with victory going to the alpha male, the Übermensch.  It allowed people to interpret the theory of evolution as scientific vindication for the myth of redemptive violence. (The more accurate description, survival of those best fitted to their environment, just doesn’t have the same myth building appeal.)

It is this idea of successfully  competing individuals that Richard Dawkins incorporated into new synthesis biology, as  Selfish Genes; the little Übergensch that overcame the primal chaos, and brought organisms into being, to serve their lust for survival, their will to power.

Within his belief system, our role as humans, is to use the gift of clear thinking and intelligence which the Übergenes have made the mistake of gifting us with, to overcome the selfish goal-seeking mechanisms, which they have put in place to further their own interests.  See Richard Dawkins Atheists for Jesus 2006 That is we, some of us anyway, have the intellectual power to defeat our genes and become  Übermensch and Überwensch.

The Real Replicator

 eye balls in hands  animation

I hope I have managed to convince you that Richard Dawkins is not quite as clear-sighted as he thinks he is.  Up until very recently I would have argued that Richard Dawkins was the victim of  a, metaphorically speaking, prank  performed by a deceptor gene. A gene operating to deceive us, in  a way that has worked to increase the average reproductive fitness of those carrying it in times past.

I had accepted that genes were what survived the natural selection process, and that therefore genes were the unit of selection, the individuals that appeared time after time. It is the  information in the following passage that over the course of producing this post  has caused me to change my mind.

 The thesis that I shall support is this. It is legitimate to speak of adaptation as being ‘for the benefit of’ something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism.  It is the smaller unit which I call the active germ-line replicator.  The most important kind of replicator is the ‘gene’ or small genetic fragment.  

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982

It occurred to me that it isn’t just the genes that live across many generations of lots of different organisms, the adaptations do as well.  Adaptations like eyes, kidneys and hind legs are reproduced time after time.  The unit of selection isn’t the gene, but the whole cycle of interconnections that lead from fertilized egg to successful adaptation and back again. It is this unit that is the replicator, and it is this unit that Dr Dawkins’ use of the Necker Cube illustration managed to hide from him.  The story of how eyeballs and hind legs have manipulated us in their selfish pursuit of survival, just doesn’t have the same mythic resonance as the Selfish gene.

It is ridiculous to imagine kidneys and hind legs manipulating us to further their own selfish ends, this  doesn’t mean that the same  is true of all adaptations. Instincts work by manipulating organisms in ways that have at least in times past increased the average reproductive fitnesses of the manipulated organisms.  Note the use of the word average here, it is entirely possible for an adaptation to lower the reproductive fitnesses of the majority of the organisms affected by it, and yet increase over time in the general population; so that an instinct for risk taking for instance could succeed if the reproductive payback for the successful organism was great enough to compensate for the failure of the unsuccessful. Even before taking into account the fact that the conditions under which the adaptation developed are likely to be significantly different from the conditions now in operation, it is dangerously naive to assume that instincts operate for the good of the person manipulated by them.

Richard Dawkins’  behaviour is consistent with what theologian Peter Rollins identifies as belief in the Big Other. This Big Other seems to be, at least in part, an anthropomorphic representation of the drive for social conformity.  We develop an image of what is socially expected of us and then act so as to conform ourselves to that image. So that if you are in a nightclub you are supposed to be enjoying yourself and that is the way you will act regardless of your feelings.  If you don’t conform to expectations then those around you are likely to remind you of your social responsibility, to behave appropriately, e.g. “Cheer up love.”

Richard Dawkins views himself as a scientist and has therefore worked to conform himself to his image of a scientist – a rational atheist.  The trouble with this view is that we humans are not that rational and as he acknowledges we have a strong and probably adaptive tendency to see purpose where there is none. The rational position would be to say yes, I do instinctively believe that events have purpose external to the human will, but I know that this instinct is not rationally based. It is this part of the real nature of being human and being an atheist, that  the  very intelligent, funny and irreverent Irish comedian Dave Allen sent up in his joke, “I’m an atheist, thank God,” and his discussion about why God prefers atheists.

But to acknowledge that one is from time to time irrational is to deviate from the self-image of a rational scientist.  Richard Dawkins has solved the problem a different way, he has placed purpose within the natural world – we exist to reproduce our genes.  Right at the heart of Richard Dawkins’  belief system there is this major irrationality, this stunning piece of unacknowledged magic thinking,  the attribution of intention, to little bits of DNA.

Similar self-image confirming mechanisms can be found in the more conventionally religious.

In a light-hearted but personal interview in front of hundreds of people in Bristol cathedral last weekend, Justin Welby said: “There are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God? Where is God?'”Welby quickly added that, as the leader of the world’s 80 million-strong Anglican community, this was “probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

Matthew Weaver  Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God 18th September 2014  

Within just three minutes in this interview  you can observe Justin Welby twice deny the reality of his doubt, in a way that makes  what he says a better fit with the social expectations that his audience, and the young woman, interviewing him would be expected to have of an evangelical archbishop.

As Peter Rollins has pointed out this could be interpreted as intellectual dishonesty, or a desire to fool some Big Other.  But it is also consistent with an empirically demonstrable human behaviour pattern, a drive to conform to social expectations or stereotype. An instinctive behaviour pattern that operates  largely at the level of the unconscious.

In response to the interviewers question about whether he ever had doubts, Justin Welby said  “There are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God? Where is God?'”

When he made this statement Justin Welby was being given the my hero treatment by a gushing interviewer and speaking in a situation where it would be reasonable to expect the audience to be believers i.e. a situation that would have put him under social pressure to conform to stereotype. It is in that situation that he redefines the nature of his doubt to something  that it is not.  He relates his doubt to the feelings expressed  in Psalms 88, 44, and 22, and treats it as consistent with the feelings expressed there.  Only these Psalms are not about rational doubt of the existence of God, they are hymns expressing the feelings of abandonment or even persecution by God, of those whose lives have become hell on earth..  Rather than acknowledge the true nature of the doubt he has just expressed, he is identifying it not as rational doubt, about the existence of God, but as a feeling that is not inconsistent with certainty that God exists.

Please note that I am not saying that Justin Welby was being intentionally dishonest. Just that he was in the type of situation that is likely to kick off a social status preserving instinct, an instinct that has increased its own reproductive fitness in times past by ensuring that people don’t let their search for truth undermine their social status.

After that he went into a story about praying while going for a morning run with his dog. He related how he found himself saying to God, “Isn’t it time you did something, if your’e there?”  Straight after this he reminded himself of his social role,

 “probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

 At this stage the interviewer, Lucy Tegg, broke in, with what appears to be an attempt, to  reassure him that he was still her hero and that his honesty was an inspiration  to other lesser Christians.

“But it’s  quite reassuring to people who think to themselves I don’t feel a presence, or at least I don’t feel it all the time.”

This is Justin Welby’s response..

“It’s not about feelings. Its about the fact that God is faithful, and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful even when we are not.”

.Reminding himself that he is the Archbishop of Canterbury has had an extraordinary affect. Dog walker Justin Welby  had doubts about the existence of God, but  Archbishop Justin Welby has certainty about not only the existence of God but His Nature as well.

As the Archbishop he is able to ignore his rational doubts as mere feelings, and this would be funny if his own rational doubt was the only doubt that he was dismissing.  However as he linked his rational doubts with the real human suffering of people who because of the horrendous situations they are in have felt abandoned by God, he is also dismissing their doubts. And is like one of Job’s comforters encouraging the victims to feel guilt, for not being faithful to God.

I suspect that confronted with someone who was experiencing a horrendous life situation, Justin Welby would conform not to his image of archbishop, but of decent human being, and therefore  wouldn’t try to load them with guilt.  But in a situation where he is not being confronted by immediate human reality, he is happy to express the values of magic pixie land, those which he feels match the stereotype that is socially expected of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The very intelligent, very funny, and very irreverent  Dr Jonathan Swift recognized the dangers of conforming to stereotype, and he was especially incensed by the stereotype of man as a rational animal. The following satirical passage is taken from a letter he wrote to his friend Alexander Pope, in which he expresses his disgust with stereotypes.

  I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion.

Jonathan Swift  A Letter to Alexander Pope September 29th 1725

Swift died without achieving peace of mind, and nearly 300 years after this was written, honest men, and I have no doubt that both Richard Dawkins and Justin Welby are honest men, who thought they were telling the truth, can have their brains noodled with and be made fools of at the behest of an instinct for social conformity.