Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Dawkins Delusion

Review of the new Dawkins book. HT: Dennis Monokroussos.

8 comments:

JD Walters said...

Wow, that's quite a response, and it's more than Dawkins deserves, in my opinion. Overall, though, it's a very thorough, balanced review. I have only one problem. The author of the review thinks that Dawkins has gathered all the best atheistic arguments in one book, so that if Christians pass the 'God Delusion' hurdle unscathed they don't have anything else to worry about. This is a common tendency (I see it often with respect to A. Flew's "God: a critical inquiry" and M.Martin's "Atheism: A philosophical justification"), to take on one prominent opponent and claim that his work is basically the creme de la creme, so that if there are problems with it the whole case doesn't stand a chance. For my money Dawkins is child's play. He may have snazzy rhetoric, but little else. If Christians want a real challenge to their faith they should look elsewhere. In any case, that kind of strategy (think that "when you've seen one you've seen them all") especially when it comes to matters of faith is lazy. Mature faith should always be open to fresh challenges and new questions, not try to settle everything "once and for all".

Jason said...

I quite agree with JD. Dawkins is fun to reference (a richness of embarassments, as I like to call him), and can provide some very colorful examples of routine mistakes made in various fields; but he isn't someone I would promote as the end-all be-all of atheistic apologists. (Not sure anyone would count as that. Pretty sure no one would for Christianity, either. {s})

What amuses me most about the book, though, is that I distinctly recall being corrected in no uncertain terms, on this site, a few months ago, by one of our more respectable atheist commenters, when I mentioned that Mr. D was being anti-religious back in _The Blind Watchmaker_. This was a misunderstanding, I was informed. Mm-hmm. On the contrary, I thought it was common knowledge. A person doesn't call religion a virus of the mind as part of coming up with memetic theory, from having a purely neutral attitude toward religion.

(Though now that I think about it, I recall being calmly reassured by another atheistic responder several years ago, on another journal, that simply because he called Christianity a 'virus of the mind' in reference to memetic theory, didn't mean he was out to oppose Christianity.)

ross said...

Interesting blog.

Perhaps the biggest criticism I could label at Dawkins' work is that it gets sidetracked on periphery arguments. The central decisive argument that beats back Christianity every time is that, even by granting the argument from design, there is still absolutely no reason to grant a particular form of theism. There is no response to that arugment that has been made or can be made that satisfactorily avoids begging the question or resorting to some other kind of fallacy. At the end of the day I got quite bored waiting for Dawkins to bumble his way through discredited argument after discredited argument, when it's really this one that delivers the hammering blow every time.

Jason said...

{{The central decisive argument that beats back Christianity every time is that, even by granting the argument from design, there is still absolutely no reason to grant a particular form of theism.}}

Most apologists and theologians (and I'm hedging a bit on that, since I can't think of any at all at the moment) don't try to argue the truth of Christianity per se from the AfD, precisely because granting the AfD only grants theism of some kind. If you've been told differently, it was by incompetents--on one or another side. {s}

Consequently, it can hardly be said that pointing out the (patently obvious) limitations to even a successful AfD "beats back Christianity every time". It does absolutely nothing for beating back historical arguments about the life and resurrection of Christ, any more than it does for ontological arguments about the constituency of the trinity, to take two examples. (For that matter, for all the silly things I've heard from opponents over the years, I've never even once heard of an opponent arguing against the coherency of trinitarian theory by appealing to the limits of the AfD... {snorf!} Though if anyone did do that, I'd put money on Mr. D being the culprit. {g} He seems to be actually getting more incompetent as time goes by.)

Jason

ross said...

The argument from design has been employed time and time again by theists -- it's frequently, for example, employed by creationists to try to get biblical texts taught alongside biology in schools. There is no way the argument from design would be as controversial as it is today if all theists believed that all it provided us with was a one in a billion chance that Christianity is true. If we all acknowledged that AfD carried as much evidence for Christianity as Russell's orbiting teapot, or the FSP, then it would hardly even be an issue on the philosophical agenda would it?

On the second point: of course if you believe that there is historical evidence for Christianity then that's a different story. No longer, in that case, is Christianity "beaten back", I heed. Generally I have found that the "historical evidence" argument is the last refuge of bright, otherwise rational people who happen to be Christians. Unfortunately it's just a ridiculous, hopelessly poor position -- to honestly argue that there is watertight (and it NEEDS to be watertight) evidence for the existence of a miracle-performer who allegedly lived two millennia ago, in a post-Neolithic age in which gods were being created left, right and centre, and when, on top of that, dozens of other (often forgotten) religions (which can't also be right) claim their God-like figures existed… As Dawkins says, all the evidence adds up to no evidence at all. The only thing this proves is the existence of a zeitgeist or discourse which creates rigid systems of knowledge that restrict and divert rational thinkers from the true rational outcomes of their arguments.

Jason said...

Ross: {{The argument from design has been employed time and time again by theists}}

Wasn't disputing that.

{{There is no way the argument from design would be as controversial as it is today if all theists believed that all it provided us with was a one in a billion chance that Christianity is true.}}

Really? Theism per se isn't controversial in popular culture? Not controversial in the scientific culture? Not controversial in the political culture? It's only Christianity that's controversial, not theism per se?

If you're right, then all the sturm and drang in Western society for the past 200 years or so is curiously misleading--for it means agnostics and atheists are willing to call into disrepute a basic position (i.e. theism) they themselves would be willing to accept as noncontroversial so long as accepting it didn't somehow lend a measure of credence to one very particular (if widespread) subcategory of theism.

Does that sound rational to you? (Maybe I've been giving scepticism more benefit of the rational doubt than I ought to have been? Personally I think it has better credence than that, but...)

Most theists in the West are Christians; and theism is a necessary component of Christianity. Not surprisingly then, most advocates of the AfD are going to be Christians. If this was a primarily Muslim or even Hindu culture (and to the extent such a culture valued reasoning in religious matters), the main advocates of the AfD would be something else instead.


If Christians were _only_ arguing to Christianty from appeal to a successful AfD (i.e., if Christians thought "there is absolutely no reason to grant a particular form of theism"), _then_ pointing out the logically obvious limitations to the AfD would beat back Christianity every time. But Christian apologists tend to use the AfD simply to get theism on the table.

{{Generally I have found that the "historical evidence" argument is the last refuge of bright, otherwise rational people who happen to be Christians.}}

Then you haven't been paying much attention to bright, otherwise rational people who happen to be Christians. Some of them even became theists (and Christians) by putting the historical arguments first, and then only later went on to consider the philosophical arguments. (Frank Morrison in the early 1900s and Steve Strobel in the late 1990s were two popular examples.) Sometimes apologists who grew up within the culture do this, too. One of the reasons I crit N.T. Wright so strongly is that he puts historical argumentation logically prior to theological reasoning.

On the other hand, if one is starting off ouside of committment to a tradition, and proceeds first to draw conclusions from propositional analysis, then historical analysis comes topically _last_ simply by virtue of topical accrual. (This is roughly the route of C. S. Lewis' conversion, who has more than a little bearing to the existence of Victor's site in the first place. {s})

Naturally, it isn't impossible for historical argumentation to be a last refuge, either, for people who perceive they have been beaten back on other grounds. But even then, that points to _other grounds_ somewhere, that they were holding to.


{{to honestly argue that there is watertight (and it NEEDS to be watertight) evidence}}

Not that I don't sympathize with this stress, but let us recall that evolutionary theory isn't _that_ watertight yet itself (even taken merely as a biological theory.) Most of the beliefs we operate on aren't logically watertight to that extent. In fact, _all_ inductive beliefs necessarily lack that level of logical certainty. Nevertheless, we do still hold to them and are not necessarily being irresponsible to do so. On the contrary, it is frequently considered to be logically irresponsible _not_ to do so. Biological evolutionary theory being a relevant case in point, despite the enormous difficulties remaining in it.

To take another example, even most hypersceptics agree it would be logically irresponsible to doubt the existence of Jesus per se, even moreso than it would be to doubt the existence of various authors from the 2nd century, for whose existence we have even less evidence (rigorously speaking). Obviously it's the _miracle_ part that's the problem. {s}


{{in a post-Neolithic age in which gods were being created left, right and centre}}

Incidentally, most scholars who actually study the material (whatever their theological or anti-theological stripe) would agree, I think, that 1st century Mediterranea was a time and place where gods weren't being typically created left, right and center. That wouldn't preclude new ones being created on occasion, of course, but generally the trend seems to have been toward consolidation--a trend encouraged by the Empire's own cultural policies. Come to think of it, most sceptical theories being propounded in the field, about the development of Christianity, heavily rely on borrowing and consolidation rather than actual new innovation. (One of the main areas of resistance to this borrowing and consolidation was, of course, Jewish Palestine; but they would have been just as resistant to inventing new gods, too. Relatedly, the surviving 1st c texts are against theological incorporation from anywhere other than Judaism, when they bother to mention the topic at all.)


{{on top of that, dozens of other (often forgotten) religions (which can't also be right) claim their God-like figures existed…}}

That's a philosophical topic, thus not a historical argumentation problem. And it has no bearing even on philosophical disputation, other than to argue against the notion that all claims can be equally true (which is hardly an anti-Christian argument. On the contrary, traditionalists make that exact same argument routinely.)

I can put it another way: no atheist I know of would consider this to be any kind of a valid argument against atheism. And Mr. D of all people would not consider the mere multiplicity of biological theories, even though their existence cannot be historically denied, to hold any kind of weight whatsoever against acceptance of gradualistic neo-Darwinian theory.


{{As Dawkins says, all the evidence adds up to no evidence at all.}}

Richard Dawkins' level of competency in evaluating such things is, and has consistently been, no better than the logical competency exhibited most briefly in this claim from early in TBW: "The fundamental original units that we need to postulate, in order to understand the coming into existence of everything, either consist in literally nothing (to some physicists), or (according to other physicists) they are units of the utmost complexity, far too simple to need anything so grand as deliberate Creation."

When someone in the space of one comma goes from units of the utmost complexity to those same units being far too simple for something, then I suggest you ought to be looking at _him_ as a victim of "a zeitgeist or discourse which creates rigid systems of knowledge that restrict and divert rational thinkers from the true rational outcomes of their arguments."


Granted, picking on Mr. D is virtually the same as picking on a straw man. But one only needs to examine that claim and its context to figure out why he changed his claim in such total self-contradiction about those units (and still missed correcting this flagrant error after supposedly going over his text with a fine-tooth comb for the 1996 revision.)

Jason Pratt

ross said...

{{...agnostics and atheists are willing to call into disrepute a basic position (i.e. theism) they themselves would be willing

to accept as noncontroversial so long as accepting it didn't somehow lend a measure of credence to one very particular

(if widespread) subcategory of theism.}}

I said nothing about agnostics and atheists accepting theism -- my point is that even if you were to grant a God under a philosophical argument for God such as the AfD, a particular form of theism such as Christianity doesn't necessarily follow. And perhaps, by the way, there is a case to be made for atheists and agnostics being too eager to try to show up AfD (although I think it's a very faulty theorem -- as Dawkins says, simply saying 'God did it' is both historically and scientifically a bad modus operandi). Instead, perhaps a more useful response is simply: 'and now?'

{{If Christians were _only_ arguing to Christianty from appeal to a successful AfD (i.e., if Christians thought "there is absolutely no reason to grant a particular form of theism"), _then_ pointing out the logically obvious limitations to the AfD would beat back Christianity every time. But Christian apologists tend to use the AfD simply to get theism on the table.}}

The problem is that the Argument from Design doesn't really help to get theism on the table. If the apologists believes it is conceivable that God could have created the universe and left traces of his work in the hardcoding of the universe, then it is equally conceivable that God could have simply created a universe without any signs of intelligent design. Either way, God is 'on the table'. For the atheist it's the other way around: whether God is a possible solution to the universe's existence or not simply wont be proven either way by AfD. Dawkins, for example, believes there is good historical and scientific evidence that suggests we should be weary of any argument for intelligent design, even in the event that the argument seems to be the only possible solution (note the parallels he draws with the dilemma faced by pre-Darwinian biologists). He also points out that there is a regression problem that comes in with a God-creator. Irrespective of what you or I think of these arguments, AfD doesn't tip the scales in one direction or the other. Atheists deny that the appearance of design even gets God 'on the table', theists would claim that God is at the table either way. And, by the way, your point ignores the fact that a significant number of sceptics (mainly agnostics) don't deny theism a place 'on the table' anyway. But, again, it's hardly true to say that an agnostic has never been confronted by an apologist's Argument from Design. As I said earlier, the AfD proves stupidly little, and many theists (maybe not all, maybe not you) have tried to pull the proverbial wool over agnostic eyes and slide in Christianity. If we all acknowledged that AfD is irrelevant -- doesn't prove anything -- and focused upon the real debate, which must be over historical proof for a particular deity, then I think there would be far fewer believers out there. But it's this incessant ridiculous idea that the AfD actually proves something worthwhile that, I think you will find, is a real reason that many theists hold onto their beliefs.

{{Then you haven't been paying much attention to bright, otherwise rational people who happen to be Christians. Some of them even became theists (and Christians) by putting the historical arguments first, and then only later went on to consider the philosophical arguments.}}

Sorry, I was ambiguous there. No -- what I meant is that the brighest Christians generally ARE the ones to employ historical arguments -- that they realise that philosophical arguments for the existence of their deity are pretty tenuous, so they 'find' quasi-coherent arguments for their God in the complex web of history. I made the point to emphasise that you resorting to "It does absolutely nothing for beating back historical arguments about the life and resurrection of Christ" is a necessary one -- and the last possible 'refuge' for a theist who has already given upon upon philosophical arguments like AfD. If you read my point again perhaps it will become clearer -- although upon re-reading it I do admit it wasn't very clear.

{{inductive beliefs necessarily lack that level of logical certainty}}

True, inductive arguments are probabilistic. But whereas evolutionary theory, or at least the core constituents, are overwhelmingly accepted by scientists (way over 99%), proving the existence of somebody who alleged he was the son of God and lived two thousand years ago is always going to be a slightly more open matter. I think Hume gives us good reason in the first place, irrespective of the historical evidence, to straight away say that evidence for the performance of miracles is grossly improbable. And, either way, there is historical documentation for the existence of countless other Gods. Clearly it's not logically impossible (far from it, in fact) that scrolls and historical documents can be drawn up that are incorrect. Throw religion into the picture and, with a few people believing God will help them to tell history accurately (even if they weren't there for most of it -- as was the case with the new testament) it's not difficult to end up with false tales. And, by the way, I am often confronted by people who say, rather similar to how you put it, something along the lines of 'well, surely you can't deny all the evidence that Jesus existed?' The obvious responce is that they are slipperly sloping from "a man named Jesus existed" to "a man named Jesus performed miracles and was the son of God". There is a huge difference, probabilistically, in the truth-value of those two statements. One, while hardly "logically irresponsible", seems likely (it is possible, as with many historical accounts, that tales get woven together to combine more or one character, but frankly that's all moot). And the other one, as you said, with the "miracle bit that's the problem", seems just wholly unlikely.

{{Incidentally, most scholars who actually study the material (whatever their theological or anti-theological stripe) would agree, I think, that 1st century Mediterranea was a time and place where gods weren't being typically created left, right and center...

Come to think of it, most sceptical theories being propounded in the field, about the development of Christianity, heavily rely on borrowing and consolidation rather than actual new innovation.}}

My point was that the emergence of Christianity follows on from an era of polytheism -- an era of creating gods left, right and centre. But, of course, just because Christianity itself "commences" at a point where there may be few other religions inventing themselves doesn't mean that it couldn't happen. The same, of course, can be said for Islam seven centuries later -- hardly a century full of new religions. The first response, of course, is that most scholars of both of these religions would claim that theirs can be the only true religion. At the same time, of course, they both cant be. So here's evidence that it is possible that "false religions" can be formed in times when there aren't many new religions forming. The second point -- probably a stronger one -- is that, for various reasons, monotheistic Gods were generally adopted quite late in the day, but they by-and-large inherited the characteristics of prior religions. Religious thinking, as a whole, originates at the same time -- and at a predictable time, shortly after fixed agriculture frees us up to pursue philosophical thoughts about more than just survival. I think the important point about religions like Christianity -- and here I agree with you -- is that they generally took over from their polytheistic predecessors through a fairly fluid cultural and religious transition. On the other hand, I infer from this that the argument that 'irrespective of whether God exists, post-neolithic man had reasons to create him' probably still stands even for Christianity or even the very late-in-the-day creation of Islam which also took the place of the existing polytheistic religions which were followed by the Bedouin pastoral nomadic tribes of the region.

{{I can put it another way: no atheist I know of would consider this to be any kind of a valid argument against atheism.}}

I presume you mean 'against theism'.

But, again, if we are dealing with probabilities it shows powerfully that, even if people believe very strongly they are right about their religion, and provide us with all the reasons that you or another theist might, they are still very possibly wrong. In fact, they are PROBABLY wrong. You're in a minority -- two out of three people in this world don't believe in Christianity. Eight in ten don't believe in Islam. For every additional religion where people say they believe to have 'felt their god' or found historical evidence for it, or found a philosophical argument for it, the likelihood of your religion being right decreases. Although no atheist should claim this as a valid reason against theism full stop, clearly for the most part we are not waging a war between radical theists and radical atheists. We are all agnostics about most religions, and even the one religion that most theists hold on to is, again, likely to be held on to as a matter of degrees of probability more than anything else.

By the way, the other important thing we can deduce from this argument is that people's psychological states are generally far from fluidly rational, which means in turn that we have further reason to discount accounts of miracles and the like.

{{When someone in the space of one comma goes from units of the utmost complexity to those same units being far too simple for something}}

I also had my doubts about Dawkins' argument regarding simple or complex universes but I think he clears the matter up and presents it far more coherently in TGD. I must admit I don't particularly like this sort of atheistic argument (as, indeed, I don't like a number of the arguments he employs). On the other hand, I think he's one of the world's true rational thinkers. But I suppose there's little point in me trying to justify that!!

Sorry for the long post. Hope that clears a few things up.

Jason said...

Ross (and hereafter): {{I said nothing about agnostics and atheists accepting theism -- my point is that even if you were to grant a God under a philosophical argument for God such as the AfD, a particular form of theism such as Christianity doesn't necessarily follow.}}

Wasn't disputing that. Never have been disputing that. Agreed with that myself rather strenuously.

However, _that_ was not what I was replying to (in the portion you quoted from me, to which you were replying here.)

I was replying to where you wrote: "There is no way the argument from design would be as controversial as it is today if all theists believed that all it provided us with was a one in a billion chance that Christianity is true."

The logical corollary to this is that the people controverting against the AfD are doing it _primarily_ because its success would connect in some non-trivial way with Christianity being true.

The Christian position (in this society) has been, and still is, the established position. The sceptical apologists are the challengers, thus the ones introducing and maintaining the controversy. That's why I took your mention of 'controversy' to be referring to them.


If however you mean that modern theists wouldn't be counter-riposting against scepticism (in various forms) so much with the AfD if theists only believed it had non-trivial value in favor of Christianity being true (keeping in mind that most theists in the West are Christians, since one could hardly suppose that a non-Christian theist would be leaning on the AfD in order to help establish Christianity)--I agree, and did agree, Christian proponents of the AfD think it has non-trivial value toward helping establish Christianity being true. But only to the extent that the AfD may help establish _theism_ being true. No published AfD advocate I have ever heard of, with any peer credence whatever (at the risk of appealing to the 'no true Scotsman' fallacy {self-critical g}), claims that the AfD does anything more than establish some kind of mere theism.


Which is why I objected to your original statement: "The central decisive argument that beats back Christianity every time is that, even by granting the argument from design, there is still absolutely no reason to grant a particular form of theism. [...] it's really this one [argument] that delivers the hammering blow every time."

Obviously, those Christian advocates of the AfD who make use of the AfD to establish, as they recognize, a mere theism--which is practically all of them--do _not_ think that by only establishing a mere theism and responsibly qualifying that they have only established a mere theism, they have decively beaten back Christianity at all (much less every time. With hammering blows or otherwise. {s})


Now, if you meant only that if every other argument than the AfD fails then obviously Christianity has been beaten back even if the AfD succeeds, well, duh. But _that_ kind of widespread topical counter absolutely cannot be, itself, "_the_ _central_ decisive argument".

On the other hand, it would be venially true that if all particular forms of theism (including Christianity) have been beaten back everywhere else then there would be absolutely no reason to grant a particular form of theism, even if one argument somewhere did establish a mere theism. But while that might be a nice summary cap statement, it can hardly be any kind of argument (much less a centrally decisive one) that actually does the _work_ of beating back Christianity (much less all other particular theisms), since it depends on a wide variety of disparate other arguments to have already done that work.

Consequently, I _can_ respond to "that argument" of yours (as you wrote it) without begging questions or resorting to some other kind of fallacy. (You had written, "There is no response to that argument that has been made or can be made that satisfactorily avoids begging the question or resorting to some other kind of fallacy.") I would, and did from the beginning, refute it just the same as I would if I was an atheist, or agnostic, or Buddhist, or Wiccan, or whatever.


Fwiw, I don't use the AfD myself. However, Dawkins' exposition of the AfD is not identical to how the main advocates of the AfD proceed. (i.e. they don't just simply say 'God did it'. Representing them that way is as misleading as an anti-evolutionist misrepresenting the establishment of gradualistic neo-Darwinism to simply involve attributing biological features to Nature.)


{{The problem is that the Argument from Design doesn't really help to get theism on the table.}}

Are we moving on to a discussion of problems with the AfD? Because in the quote of mine to which you were replying, I was criticizing your claim that _even if_ the AfD was successful in establishing a mere theism, then pointing out that it only can succeed in establishing a mere theism is "the central decisive argument" that "beats back" and "hammers" Christianity "every time". (Unless your claim was that the beating back of Christianity every time on all other points, so that there is absolutely no reason to grant a particular form of theism, was itself the central decisive argument that delivers the hammering blow every time.)

My discussion has been about that; not about how viable some variant of the AfD is. If you'll concede you over-rhetoricized (to put it kindly {g}) on your statement, then I don't mind going on to discuss the AfD itself; but until then, I'd rather not conflate the topics. (Especially since my comment is going to be a long one already.)


{{For the atheist it's the other way around: whether God is a possible solution to the universe's existence or not simply wont be proven either way by AfD.}}

This is supposed to be "the other way around" from "If the apologists believes [sic] it is conceivable that God could have created the universe and left traces of his work in the hardcoding of the universe, then it is equally conceivable that God could have simply created a universe without any signs of intelligent design."

I guess I fail to see how this is the other way around from that. Unless what you're saying is that the theist is only going to plop God on the table anyway, AfD or no, not even as a matter of 'proof' but by sheer assertion to be accepted as such, and the atheist (doing the same thing "the other way around") is simply going to deny theism no matter what and will never accept any proof even if it was given.

Whatever criticisms I have of the various AfD proponents, though (outside Reformed presuppositionalism methodologies), I don't usually find them just plopping God on the table to be accepted without justification. There's usually an argument of some sort involved with an Argument from Design. {g} And while it's tempting to suppose that Mr. D is being anti-rational (and/or effectively fideistic) in his approach to atheism, I'm far from supposing atheistic apologists in general are only gesturing sheerly in their respective foxholes at the guys over in the other foxholes. Even Richard Dawkins has arguments for his position--though whether or not they are particularly cogent is (in his case) frequently a further question.


{{Dawkins, for example, believes there is good historical and scientific evidence that suggests we should be weary of any argument for intelligent design, even in the event that the argument seems to be the only possible solution [to biological development]}}

A position precisely mirrored by practically all the AfD proponents: there is good historical and scientific evidence that suggests we should be wary (a lot more wary than Mr. D usually bothers to be) about non-intelligent design, even in the event that that argument seems to be the only possible solution.

Neither of which is the same as simply positing God or not-God in order to get the position topically 'on the table'.


{{He also points out that there is a regression problem that comes in with a God-creator.}}

This is an example of his lack of skill in doing metaphysical analysis. The same ontological 'problem' in appealing to God or any other supernatural cause (i.e. okay so where did God come from?) applies to philosophical naturalism (atheistic or otherwise), too: sooner or later, whichever way we go, we _are_ going to fetch up with a self-existant reality that doesn't come from anywhere (except maybe from itself). The AfD, however, is not an ontological argument. It's a teleological argument. The proponents aren't proceding by asking 'well, where did the universe come from then?' (And the ontological arguments given by skilled professionals are typically more than simply asking this and answering 'God', too. Even when they jump too far toward theism with their conclusions, as I routinely call coup on them for doing. {g})

{{theists would claim that God is at the table either way.}}

Theists generally have multiple reasons for claiming God is at the table. Having multiple reasons, with one of them being the AfD, is not the same as saying that the AfD doesn't bring God to the table, especially if (as you were presuming for sake of argument) it happens to work when other methods don't. If it works, it brings God to the table, whether other things work or not.

{{Atheists deny that the appearance of design even gets God 'on the table'}}

On the contrary, even Mr. D has averred that the _appearance_ of design is so strong that God is 'naturally' (so to speak {g}) going to be on the table. (Unless he's changed his mind about that in the past 10 years, which I strenuously doubt.)

Now, an atheist _as such_ is going to deny that the AfD _works_. (Otherwise they'd convert to some kind of theism, like Anthony Flew did a couple of years ago. Partly due to coming to accept a variant of the AfD, btw.) But it would be simply historically ignorant to suppose that the appearance of design hasn't in its own way (or ways, rather {s}) brought God to the table pretty constantly throughout human history. And even Richard Dawkins isn't _that_ ignorant about religious history.


{{And, by the way, your point ignores the fact that a significant number of sceptics (mainly agnostics) don't deny theism a place 'on the table' anyway.}}

Um. That's because my point wasn't about that. It was about you overreaching a claim way back in your first comment. (And no, I wouldn't deny that many agnostics agree theism has a place 'on the table' anyway. The one whom I love the most would agree with that, for instance. {s})

{{But, again, it's hardly true to say that an agnostic has never been confronted by an apologist's Argument from Design.}}

Where did I say that?? (It isn't derivable as a logical corollary from anything I wrote, either, so far as I can tell...)


I think maybe a distinction needs to be made between 'the AfD as people whose job is to formulate and present such things tend to formulate and present it' and 'the AfD as people who occasionally pick up a book by Lee Strobel--or Richard Dawkins {g}--and then go out evangelizing from the pulpit or wherever tend to formulate and present it'.

And, in fact, I made exactly such a distinction (though not in so many words) back up in my first reply to you: "Most apologists and theologians (and I'm hedging a bit on that, since I can't think of any at all at the moment) don't try to argue the truth of Christianity per se from the AfD, precisely because granting the AfD only grants theism of some kind. If you've been told differently, it was by incompetents--on one or another side. {s}"

This was, now that I look back, exactly one out of only two paragraphs in that reply, too. It wasn't like it was stuck in the midst of one of my patented macro-posts.


{{If we all acknowledged that AfD is irrelevant -- doesn't prove anything -- and focused upon the real debate, which must be over historical proof for a particular deity}}

There are other debates than those two, you know. (Or maybe you don't know. {shrug?})

If the AfD does inductively point toward theism (or deductively arrive at theism), then it has accomplished something that is very far from being irrelevant. Including to Christian apologetics. Trying to nix any-and-all AfD arguments by claiming that anyone can sheerly posit God anyway without the AfD, is simply facetious. It would be like trying to claim gradualistic neo-Darwinism was irrelevant by noting that anyone could sheerly posit non-intelligent design anyway without gradualistic neo-Darwinism. If you have actual problems with the (or an) AfD, that's one thing. But this isn't even a criticism of the AfD.


In any case, it doesn't make much sense to say in one place "if the apologists believes it is conceivable that God could have created the universe and left traces of his work in the hardcoding of the universe, then it is equally conceivable that God could have simply created a universe without any signs of intelligent design. [...] theists would claim that God is at the table either way" and then turn around later and say "it's this incessant ridiculous idea that the AfD actually proves something worthwhile that, I think you will find, is a real reason that many theists hold onto their beliefs." By your previous account, the theists would hold onto their beliefs anyway, wouldn't they?

(Many theists can hold onto their beliefs due to an incessant ridiculous idea that the AfD actually proves something, but then those theists aren't just holding onto their beliefs out of a sheer posit of the sort you earlier described them as being willing to do whether the AfD worked or not.)


{{Sorry, I was ambiguous there. No -- what I meant is that the brighest Christians generally ARE the ones to... realise that philosophical arguments for the existence of their deity are pretty tenuous [and so employ "quasi-coherent" historical arguments instead.]}}

{ahem} Then I repeat: you haven't been paying much attention to bright, otherwise rational people who happen to be Christians. {s}

Granted, most Christians aren't trained in apologetics _anyway_--in which case they have hardly any arguments for Christianity at all, historical or otherwise. These people go on to perform admirably well at writing symphonies, designing airplanes, performing surgery, teaching pure mathematics, and doing thousands of other things that necessarily require someone to be a bright, otherwise rational person.

But when Christians (in our western culture) do bother to ground their beliefs, then statistical polling has routinely showed, throughout the 20th century unto today, that by far the two most popular arguments are the AfD and some variety of the Cosmological Argument. But these people are not professional apologists (any more than I'm a professional surgeon.) They tend to go from 'huh, God exists!' to 'so, okay, I guess that means Christianity is true'--because that's the culture we've largely been in.

However, since Christianity _does_ make historical claims, then teachers are beginning to get a bit better about including historical argumentation as well. Frequently this argumentation is only rudimentary, but even _that_ is often more than most people (even otherwise bright, rational ones) can handle for evaluation. But the people going on to this aren't (usually) just dissing philosophical arguments per se. It isn't a last ditch refuge. It's an adder. (One would not be wrong in surmising that such things, including historical argumentation, are adders to what may be called the Argument from Authority, i.e. 'these other people are specialists and are supposed to have better reasons than I'm likely to have common access to, just like a surgeon would, so...' But that's still something to be added to.)

As I previously said, I don't doubt that _some_ people fall back on historical argumentation as a last ditch refuge. But that isn't _normally_ how it works. Normally people just come across the historical arguments during their growth in the faith, to whatever extent they spend any time learning about the belief.


{{I made the point to emphasise that you resorting to "It does absolutely nothing for beating back historical arguments about the life and resurrection of Christ" is a necessary [resort] -- and the last possible 'refuge' for a theist who has already given upon upon philosophical arguments like AfD. If you read my point again...}}

Actually, if you had read _my_ point more closely the _first_ time, you would have seen that I gave _two_ examples of argumentation other than the AfD, only one of which was historical argumentation. My 'resort' was not a 'resort' at all. It was simply a technical answer: there are other arguments out there than the AfD, two examples being a and b. I could have multiplied examples for a while; and some of the ones in favor of specifically Christian doctrines are philosophical, not historical. (Since the topic was about hammering Christianity and not mere theism, I mentioned one of those specifically Christian philosophical arguments as my second example.) Heck, I wouldn't even have to be Christian to know about them. {g}


{{whereas evolutionary theory, or at least the core constituents, are overwhelmingly accepted by scientists (way over 99%), proving the existence of somebody who alleged he was the son of God and lived two thousand years ago is always going to be a slightly more open matter.}}

Well, if it comes to 'overwhelming' acceptance of _that_, it was 'overwhelmingly' accepted for a very long time--and is still overwhelmingly accepted today, including by scientists, even hypersceptical ones. Just like there are Roman Emperors who lived 2000 years ago, who (incidentally) claimed to be the son of a god, who for whatever reason have ended up making much less difference to the world (even the Roman world) than a particular Jewish carpenter, to the result that we have even less evidence those Emperors existed than we do for the Jewish carpenter--and yet, no one doubts that those Emperors existed, from those scant sources.

I've been knocking on this nail, because you've been talking about the mere _existence_ of Jesus as if this was implausible to believe. But that simply isn't true. Most of the things scholars all across the board believe to be true about ancient history are accepted on less evidence (by weight) than what we have for the existence of Jesus. (A little more on this, later.)


{{I think Hume gives us good reason in the first place, irrespective of the historical evidence, to straight away say that evidence for the performance of miracles is grossly improbable.}}

This is basically the same as saying that no matter how probable the evidence may look, it must still be considered grossly improbable. That's certainly a commitment to be "irrespective" of whatever the historical evidence turns out to be, all right. {wry s}

(Mr. D does this by illegitimately equivocating supernatural events as being natural ones, in chapter 6 of TBW. Hopefully he does better in TGD, but I'm dubious that he will. I seem to recall Hume did the same thing, though less explicitly; but I'll have to refer you to a Humean scholar on that.)


{{And, either way, there is historical documentation for the existence of countless other Gods.}}

Including a bunch of people I'm pretty sure you wouldn't otherwise dispute the existence of, such as, oh, virtually every high ranking ruler in the history of Mediterranean and Near Eastern nations up until Constantine (and then some after him in various places, too.) Not all of whom ended up with more than a footnote here or there surviving from ancient times.

The relevant question, though, is whether the historical documentation for this or that avowedly historical personage includes relatively sober and realistic accounts of miracles as well as decent mundane history, too. (Although, if there's a Humean presupposition against _ever_ allowing that a supernatural explanation could be considered more plausible than a natural one, then the historical documentation doesn't matter anyway, does it? The issue is already settled in advance presumptively. Not an especially agnostic way of thinking, though... {s})


{{even if they weren't there for most of it -- as was the case with the new testament}}

Actually, the importance in the NT of being in touch with eyewitness claims, tends to be fairly high. (The weakest text in that regard may be GosMatt--but even there, some of the most important portions simply wouldn't make sense to exist in that document in the first place unless appeal was being made to eyewitness testimony.)

Of course, it's never difficult to end up with false tales, I suppose (though trying to pass off false tales in an environment with established authoritative structure would be more difficult--as virtually everyone agrees once the topic moves to the 2nd c instead of the 1st!); but the condition of the textual evidence is better than you're making it out to be. (Not that this could possibly make a difference in the case of a Humean constraint against an account of the supernatural ever possibly having any plausibility... {g})


{{And, by the way, I am often confronted by people who say, rather similar to how you put it, something along the lines of 'well, surely you can't deny all the evidence that Jesus existed?'}}

Excuse me--but it looks like you're the one "slippery sloping", from disbelief in the miracles, to statements about the man not existing. It was your statement about Jesus not even existing that I was replying to in your previous comment (and here as well). The obvious response is: be more clear in your replies. If you're willing to agree the man existed, then don't try to make points that involve phrasings calling his very existence into question. That's just sloppy.


{{But, of course, just because Christianity itself "commences" at a point where there may be few other religions inventing themselves doesn't mean that it couldn't happen.}}

I said as much myself. But I also included reference to the cultural factors you're steadfastly ignoring, both within Greco-Roman culture and within Jewish culture. (And Islam wasn't exactly creating new a new God in its theology either, btw.)


{{The first response, of course, is that most scholars of both of these religions would claim that theirs can be the only true religion.}}

What in the world does this have to do with my reply at all? (Including the part you conveniently elided past, btw, about heavy cultural pressures in the Roman Empire to consolidate rather than innovate, and heavy cultural pressures among the Jews to conserve tradition over against innovation _or_ consolidation?)

In any case, the obvious first response is that most scholars of both of these religions--whether those scholars practice or believe them or not--would say that both religions are extremely and avowedly Abrahamic monotheisms, both in their theologies and in their own claims about historical importance.


{{So here's evidence that it is possible that "false religions" can be formed in times when there aren't many new religions forming.}}

Duh? As if that was in contention at all... (My complaint was solely about your attempt at promoting Christianity to be about an invented new god in a time and place where gods were supposedly being created left, right and center. A new god isn't being invented in either case, and incidentally new gods weren't being created left, right and center, either. You hardly have to convince me that a "false religion" can be formed at any time and place.)


{{The second point -- probably a stronger one -- is that, for various reasons, monotheistic Gods were generally adopted quite late in the day, but they by-and-large inherited the characteristics of prior religions.}}

Including when those 'prior religions' were monotheisms out of which the monotheisms in question were coming, btw.

Besides, is a more accurate religion supposed to be so different from less accurate religions that it's like eating bricks and centipedes instead of bread?? If that sort of expectation would be ridiculous, then finding helpful and facilitative commonalities between religions (especially ones claimed to be developed over time even by their own proponents) should not be considered any kind of "stronger point" against any of them being more accurate than other ones in their theologies.


{{On the other hand, I infer from this that the argument that 'irrespective of whether God exists, post-neolithic man had reasons to create him' probably still stands even for Christianity}}

Sure--if the immediate historical contexts and even the reasoning contemporary with the beliefs are simply ignored altogether. This is almost like saying that irrespective of whether modern atheism and its connection to gradualistic neo-Darwinian biological theory is true, post-1st century man had reasons to create it--which of course is to be counted against modern atheism and its connections. (Which, come to think of it, has been a pretty popular developmental claim among modern atheists since the Enlightenment. Except for the part about it counting against atheism. The same could be, and on occasion has been, said about the development of agnosticism, too, including by agnostics--except for the part about it counting against agnosticism.)


{{[JP]{{I can put it another way: no atheist I know of would consider this to be any kind of a valid argument against atheism.}}

[Ross] I presume you mean 'against theism'.}}

No, I meant against atheism. The same principle you were appealing to, would be rejected out of hand by atheists if applied as an argument against accepting atheism. And they wouldn't be wrong to do it, either.


{{You're in a minority -- two out of three people in this world don't believe in Christianity. Eight in ten don't believe in Islam.}}

999 in 1000 don't believe in atheism (state coersion aside), and aren't agnostic...

Whoops. {g}

See, if you were _really_ "dealing with probabilities" in the way you're trying to apply, then you'd have to consider atheism to be way hugely probably wrong, and agnosticism to be a less proper position to hold than almost any belief.

Actually, one in three is pretty good _probabilitistically_ if you're comparing by weight. Especially when the other big current contender-by-weight, Buddhism, is _so_ theologically fragmented that it's a tossup whether positive pantheism, or negative pantheism, or nihilistic illusion (basically mystical atheism), or materialistic atheism (in communist countries borrowing Buddhism for their own convenience), or henotheism, or cosmological polytheism is true.


In any case, I care primarily about logical coherency; not (primarily) about how many other people do or do not believe something. Granted, sometimes the latter is all we have to go on, but that isn't how I do my religious beliefs.


{{We are all agnostics about most religions}}

No, I'm pretty sure that most of the people you mentioned aren't agnostic about the competition. (Except maybe in the sense of simply not having heard of a competing truth claim at all, and so thinking nothing about it at all.) How many Christians do you know who are agnostic about everything being god? How many Muslims do you know who are agnostic about the Incarnation? How many Hindus do you know who are agnostic about Christians and Muslims being right about monotheism (or henotheism, let us say, which Hinduism certainly isn't)? For that matter, how many atheists (that vast minority) do you know, who are agnostic about whether the gods (and the Big God quietly taught about behind them) of this or that Aboriginal tribe is real? Feeling particularly agnostic yourself about the Mayan gods needing constant human sacrifices after all, to keep the world from being destroyed?


{{even the one religion that most theists hold on to is, again, likely to be held on to as a matter of degrees of probability more than anything else. }}

This, however, I agree with. {s} Most people aren't deductivists (though I am--and even I'm necessarily an inductivist on some matters. Just goes with the topical territory.)


{{people's psychological states are generally far from fluidly rational, which means in turn that we have further reason to discount accounts of miracles and the like.}}

Actually, that's a reason to discount accounts of _anything_, even mundane claims. (i.e., the Argument from General Incredulity. {g})


{{I also had my doubts about Dawkins' argument regarding simple or complex universes but I think he clears the matter up and presents it far more coherently in TGD.}}

Actually, his argument on that page of TBW was about simple or complex fundamental _units_, not about simple or complex _universes_. There's a big difference.

I would be curious about whether he has cleared up his argument regarding fundamental units being both ultimately complex _and_ far too simple to need something (i.e. if they're ultimately complex then they don't need God to become ultimately complex; but if they're ultra simple then they don't need God to be created in the first place. It's pretty obvious where his topical link was in _that_ argument... {wry g}) But, to put it mildly, I doubt he succeeded. And it will still be cheating if he has ported that same principle application over to talking about ultimately complex universes that are far too simple to need something.


{{I think he's one of the world's true rational thinkers.}}

Um. Yeah. Who, as you described him, "bumbled his way through discredited argument after discredited argument" on the main topic of TGD. (I suppose you were being sarcastic here or there?)

{{But I suppose there's little point in me trying to justify that!!}}

Your own testimony doesn't give one that impression. But yeah, unless he's improved dramatically since TBW, you're going to have a hard time convincing me (or anyone else here) of his great general logical competency. Worse, he has an annoying tendency to teach people his logical incompetency (and general ignorance) on a number of topics.

That being said: back years ago when I did a 500+ page analysis of TBW, I came up with about 64% of the book which I thought was above average in quality. Hardly enough to qualify him as one of the world's true rational thinkers (or even to pass an undergraduate degree requirement), but enough to give him far more credit than people are likely to expect from me. {s}

Jason Pratt