Monday, June 18, 2012

Understanding, Critique and Ridicule

I had made the claim that while you don't need to understand something in order to reject it, you do need to understand something in order to critique it.

From an exchange on Debunking Christianity.

Robert Corfield: If someone took seriously the flying spaghetti monster and claimed it existed, do you think you would need to study The Gospel of the FSM and make a thorough study of pastafarian theology to make sure you understand the position in order to critique it?

VR: The FSM was invented as a concept that could not be taken seriously by people attacking, in this case, intelligent design (though it does make for a good reply to fideism). Understanding is needed for critique because we need to get inside the intellectual tempation to believe something in order to provide a response that shows that this apparent justification is illusory. No one I know claims to be rationally justified in believing that the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists. If someone did, we would have to understand why someone thought that--otherwise our critical response is not going to get at what is supporting the belief.
Let's take an example from theistic arguments: various forms of the cosmological argument. People like Dawkins, and Russell before him, presume that you can refute all forms of the cosmological argument by presuming that you can just answer it by asking "Who made God." In other words, they presume that the argument is based on a principle that everything has a cause. The "naive" cosmological argument was attributed to Aquinas as late as 1998, as going as follows, by Theodore Schick.
http://www.infidels.org/librar...

1. Everything is caused by something other than itself2. Therefore the universe was caused by something other than itself.3. The string of causes cannot be infinitely long.4. If the string of causes cannot be infinitely long, there must be a first cause.5. Therefore, there must be a first cause, namely god.
The most telling criticism of this argument is that it is self-refuting. If everything has a cause other than itself, then god must have a cause other than himself. But if god has a cause other than himself, he cannot be the first cause. So if the first premise is true, the conclusion must be false.


But Aquinas never said that, he said that whatever exists contingently needs a cause of its existence. God, by definition, isn't a contingent being, and therefore needs no cause. Now, there could be all sorts of things wrong with this argument, but that isn't it, and making this mistake signals to readers who do know something about this argument that the critic doesn't know what he's talking about. This is particularly of interest because Russell, for example goes on to say that this reply should be so obvious that the fact that people are persuaded by this kind of an argument requires a psychological explanation. Perhaps we need a psychological explanation for why Russell didn't do his homework.

Remember what I pointed out earlier, that it is easy to ridicule evolution. The evolutionist can rightly respond by saying that such ridicule is based on a lack fo understanding. But Christians and defenders of natural theology will say the same thing about misguided attacks.
Creationists, whatever else you might want to say about them, are armed to respond to the tactics of the New Atheists.
http://creation.com/ridicule-t...

24 comments:

Bradley C. said...

I have been reading The God Delusion recently. I thought I would try to give it a fair shake, as it has been pretty influential (I think...). It is every bit as bad as I had heard, which is worse than I was expecting.

The best parts are when Dawkins is critiqueing creationism, something he knows about. The chapter on his responses to natural theology is just plain awful. He basically just keeps repeating the "Who made God" line, as though it is some incredibly unique and new argument.

Steven Carr said...

'God, by definition, isn't a contingent being, and therefore needs no cause.'

But your god was created by human beings, like all the other gods dreamed up by human beings.

How can that not be a contingent being?

Don Jindra said...

Bradley C,

"He basically just keeps repeating the 'Who made God' line, as though it is some incredibly unique and new argument."

As if the "natural theology" argument is new. Valid response don't lose effectiveness over time.

Don Jindra said...

"God, by definition, isn't a contingent being, and therefore needs no cause. Now, there could be all sorts of things wrong with this argument, but that isn't it, and making this mistake signals to readers who do know something about this argument that the critic doesn't know what he's talking about."

That may be the way you see it, but that's not the way I see it. I see it as trickery on the part of a theist. He's trying to define his way out of a problem. So in asking "What made God?" I'm signaling that I believe the definition is bogus. It's a shell game. The carney hides the ultimate question under a shell. He's rigged the game to prevent me from lifting that particular shell. But I'm not playing by rigged rules. I'm trying to keep the game fair.

Karl Grant said...

Carr,

But your god was created by human beings, like all the other gods dreamed up by human beings.

Text-book example of question begging.

rank sophist said...

If someone took seriously the flying spaghetti monster and claimed it existed, do you think you would need to study The Gospel of the FSM and make a thorough study of pastafarian theology to make sure you understand the position in order to critique it?


This is just question-begging foolishness. Whether God and the FSM are comparable is what's being debated--merely asserting it is a sophomoric fallacy. It's basically the Myers Shuffle.

Bradley C. said...

Don,

I certainly don't think the natural theology arguments are new, nor do I find them convincing(I'm not a theist). There are plenty of good responses (in my opinion) to the Thomistic 5 ways as well as the argument from design. "Who made God" just isn't one of them.

If I was to say "If humans are evolved from apes then why are there still apes?" you would rightly accuse me of misunderstanding evolution and attacking a straw man.

What Dawkins has done is to set up a definition of God and then show why the referent of that definition is very unlikely to exist. The fact is that most sophisticated theists would disagree with the definition he gives. This makes his (and your)argument a straw man just like my anti-evolution one.

He is writing the book to convince people to become atheists (he says it in a number of places) but sets himself up for the accusation that he doesn't understand what theists believe. Much like a creationist that ridicules evolution without understanding how it works, he doesn't show evidence of looking into what philosophy of religion actually has to say about God.

HyperEntity111 said...

I have never understood the purpose of the FSM analogy. Dawkins & Co claim that that a person is rational in accepting a particular belief p iff he or she examines the evidence for p. If a person believes p without evaluating the evidence for it than they are not rational (or delusional or stupid or thoroughly irrational and wicked). So they advocate a strict evidentialism.

However when told that there are many arguments for the existence of God they say that it is unnecessary to examine them because you don't need to evaluate the arguments for the FSM to dismiss belief in the FSM. But if I woke up tomorrow and found that the majority of the Earth's population believed in the FSM or fairies that maimed to be rationally justified in doing so, if many of the most intelligent members of my species came to hold this belief and prestigious universities were publishing books and journals claiming to have found evidence for such beliefs...Well I would be genuinely curious. I would want to know why they believed these things.

It seems that a consistent application of Dawkins' evidentialism would require that the only way I could be rationally justified in rejecting FSM belief in the above situation would be if I evaluated the evidence in favour of it. Failure to do so would be to accept FSM denial on 'faith' which would mean that I was delusional or stupid or thoroughly irrational and wicked.

So when people claim to have evidence for a proposition and when Dawkins claims that it is unnecessary to examine the evidence in favour of a proposition in order to be justified in rejecting it (such as FSM belief in the above example)...Are we to infer that he affirms and denies strict evidentialism simultaneously? Is it psychologically possible to believe p and ~p at the same time? I think this could be a fascinating area of research for psychologists. Or perhaps he secretly rejects strict evidentialism and subscribes to a faith based epistlemology. Does this mean he is delusional or stupid or thoroughly irrational and wicked? Hmmm...

HyperEntity111 said...

'that maimed to be rationally justified in doing so'

Should read 'and claimed to be rationally justified in doing so'.

Papalinton said...

'Natural theology' is an oxymoron. There is nothing natural about theology. Natural theology is distinguished from revealed theology (or revealed religion). Revelation is central to christian nonsense. It is the basis on which scripture and religious experiences of various kinds plays such a pivotal role.

Natural theology grew out of a time when theology and nature were indistinguishable. It grew out of the time in human history when angry gods, and fierce storms, flash floods and earthquakes and resurrections, and miracles and walking on water and levitation and talking bushes and talking donkeys were all equal factors in the morass of superstitious human thinking.

With every increasing incremental discovery that scientific investigation makes, the wider the abyss grows, and greater the irreconcilable nature of the differences between theology and nature are thrown into such stark relief under the light of careful scrutiny.

Today's use of 'natural theology' is none other the the obfuscatory practice of the measly and disingenuous attempt at inveigling the bona fides of naturalism to serve as some form of legitimation of theology as a perfectly natural process. Ironically, the process/study of theology is a perfectly natural process. But the meat, the substance of theology is of no more value or worth than the study of fairies at the bottom of the garden, or Leprachaunology. Theology owes more of its origins to the mythology section of cultural and social history than it does to science and naturalism.

Any sensible and sane person knows and understands that.

Don Jindra said...

Bradley C.

You say "Who made God?" creates a straw man. Even worse, you say Dawkins creates a straw man by definition. But that's not the case. The definition is the issue. It's a given we're told we must accept. But I reject the definition because it's deceptive. Deception doesn't make a "sophisticated" argument. Fraud is fraud. If the given is bogus the proof fails. If the classical theist wants to sell his proof it's perfectly valid to destroy the proof at its very foundation.

Karl Grant said...

Don,

I don't think it is a valid argument for a number of reasons. For example, the same reasoning in the "Who Made God" argument can be used against scientific ideas. Steven Dutch, who is a scientist, demonstrates so here:

More to the point, science accounts for observations by laws, and accounts for those laws by higher laws. Magnets have poles, like poles repel and unlike poles attract. We account for magnetism through Maxwell's Equations, which tie electricity and magnetism together. More recently electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force have been successfully interpreted in terms of a more complex law.

There are only two possible end states of this process. We either keep on finding higher level laws in an infinite regress, or the process stops someplace. When (if) that happens, we will have laws that exist for their own sake, that have no explanation other than themselves. The multiverse, the hypothesis that the universe consists of an infinite number of universes all with their own physical laws, confronts us with both problems. We will end up saying that our universe just happened to get laws that enable life to evolve (the laws just exist with no higher justification), and then we will still have the problem of explaining why other universes keep getting spawned. Again, we'll either end up with an infinite regress, or things that just are with no higher explanation. If we try to evade the issue by postulating a network or ring of interlocking laws at the base of everything, we will still have to explain why that network of those laws. Either there are higher explanations, or something that just is.

Effectively Dawkins postulates that natural selection just is, without having any deeper cause. Why should natural selection work? Why should it mimic design? Why should it produce order at all? How can any natural random mechanism favor statistical improbability? Why didn't selection result in organisms capable of resisting selection? Why didn't it (shades of Lamarck) produce organisms capable of changing their own genes in response to change? Since most religions postulate deities that are self-explaining, that is, they just are, Dawkins really doesn't come up with any logical improvement. Instead of a deity that just is, Dawkins invokes natural selection that just is.

Bradley C. said...

Don,

Firstly, I never claimed "who made god?" is a straw man, I claimed it was a poor argument. Secondly, a straw man is ALWAYS by definition.

The internet encyclopedia of philosophy defines a straw man thusly:

"Your reasoning contains the straw man fallacy whenever you attribute an easily refuted position to your opponent, one that the opponent wouldn’t endorse, and then proceed to attack the easily refuted position (the straw man) believing you have undermined the opponent’s actual position."

Dawkins defines God as follows:

"There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us."

If that definition is not one that most theists would endorse (and I would say most would at the very least find it incomplete or insufficiently clear) then Dawkins has indeed created a straw man.

Now, there are plenty of arguments to the effect that the traditional concept of God is incoherent, as well as ones arguing that the traditional concept of God doesn't exist. But what Dawkins is attacking is NOT the traditional concept of God, and he doesn't give an argument for why his definition is better than the traditional one.

You are welcome to reject the traditional definition of God, I reject it too. If you write a book claiming to prove that God doesn't exist, I would expect you to be aware of how believers define God, and to show why that being is either incoherent or non-existent.

Again, if I was to say "Evolution says that man evolved from apes millions of years ago by pure random chance" and then proceed to show why that is impossible, you wouldn't think I had refuted evolution. It is much harder (impossible?) to attempt a refutation of what evolution actually is.

Don Jindra said...

Karl Grant,

That Steven Dutch text rephrases the issue. He ends with, "Dawkins really doesn't come up with any logical improvement. Instead of a deity that just is, Dawkins invokes natural selection that just is."

I'm confident Dawkins is aware of that. I'm aware of it. In fact, that's my position. We can easily substitute a universe that "just is" for a god that "just is."

So if the theist won't stop at what I think is a sensible stopping point why should I stop at his stopping point? Why does he get to question my ultimate state of being yet I can't question his?

Don Jindra said...

Bradley C.,

There's only one attribute that affects the question, "What created God?" That attribute is non-contingency (or whatever we want to call it).

I don't get the evolution analogy.

Karl Grant said...

Don,

I am not sure Dawkins is aware of that. He doesn't seem to have given indication otherwise and keeps acting like he as logically superior position.

So if the theist won't stop at what I think is a sensible stopping point why should I stop at his stopping point? Why does he get to question my ultimate state of being yet I can't question his?

You have no reason not to. I don't expect my opponents to stop at my stopping points otherwise they wouldn't be opponents would they =) .I am just pointing out that either way it is not a very convincing argument.

rank sophist said...

So if the theist won't stop at what I think is a sensible stopping point why should I stop at his stopping point? Why does he get to question my ultimate state of being yet I can't question his?

There's only one attribute that affects the question, "What created God?" That attribute is non-contingency (or whatever we want to call it).


This is not nearly as arbitrary as you make it sound. A necessary being is the only explanation for contingent things, per Aquinas, Leibniz and others. The idea isn't to "start with God and then figure out how to make Him sound plausible". Some kind of God is the only logical option, and this conclusion is inescapable unless you appeal (as you often do) to a thoroughgoing irrationalism that undermines science and knowledge.

Bradley C. said...

Don,

The evolution analogy was to demonstrate what a straw man fallacy was in a context you might be more familiar with. In both cases the opposition is justified in rejecting the argument because their view has been misrepresented. I apologize that it didn't work, and won't pursue it further.

Non-contingency is indeed one of the attributes of God that has a direct bearing on Dawkins argument, and it is missing from his definition of God as well as his discussion in chapters 3 and 4. It seems to be a pretty clear instance of a straw man to me, failing to deal with God as it is defined by people who believe.

I am not saying he has to accept the definition, or that he can't argue against the trait of non-contingency. I am saying that he has to at least deal with it before he can make his case that the first 3 ways of Aquinas fail in the way he says.

His "ultimate 747" argument concerns other attributes typically attributed to God, namely his simplicity. He does put forth an argument against "divine simplicity" but it is one from personal incredulity, and still misrepresents what theists actually believe.

Don Jindra said...

Karl Grant,

I think it's a decisive argument. As you said, it doesn't convince either way. So the theist is using a poor argument to begin with. But the materialist is not trying to prove the existence of the universe. So he has no need for the argument at all. He employs it only to show the weakness of the theist's case.

rank sophist said...

I think it's a decisive argument.

Actually, your argument is garbage, for reasons stated above.

Karl Grant said...

Don,

This is where you are losing me,if you admit that "Who made God" is not a convincing argument than how can it be a decisive argument? A decisive argument is one that convinces the oppostion to at least become more open to your point of view, something you admit this does not do.

Don Jindra said...

Bradley C.,

I haven't read Dawkins. I suppose I'll have to eventually.

But in this particular case I don't see why Dawkins needs to accept the theist's terms. Non-contingency is vital. It's part of the proof even if the form of the argument sneaks it in behind the scenes. A theist asserts the contingency of the universe and likewise asserts the non-contingency of his creator god. Unless he can prove both assertions it's no more than definition. Those definitions create a false reality. That false reality tilts the scale in his favor. IMO, a false reality must be attacked directly, not several steps later in the proof. I think that tactic is dealing with it as it must be dealt with sooner or later.

I don't deal with Aquinas in only this way -- asking "Who created God?" There are many ways to attack him. But until I meet a theist one-on-one I have no idea what form of proof he's going to offer. If I ask him who created God, as an ice-breaker, then he can take that as a cue he must prove it's a bad question. Asserting it's bad simply because it doesn't meet his definition is no answer at all.

rank sophist said...

But in this particular case I don't see why Dawkins needs to accept the theist's terms. Non-contingency is vital. It's part of the proof even if the form of the argument sneaks it in behind the scenes.

So it's okay for Dawkins to strawman his opponents' argument because it's too strong to beat otherwise? Listen to yourself.

A theist asserts the contingency of the universe and likewise asserts the non-contingency of his creator god. Unless he can prove both assertions it's no more than definition. Those definitions create a false reality. That false reality tilts the scale in his favor. IMO, a false reality must be attacked directly, not several steps later in the proof. I think that tactic is dealing with it as it must be dealt with sooner or later.

This isn't what Dawkins did, so it's irrelevant.

Also, I'd love to see you disprove the contingent-necessary distinction. It would make you one of history's greatest logicians. Unless, of course, you pull your regular stunt of denying the truth of logic and the knowability of the universe. And then asserting naturalism.

I don't deal with Aquinas in only this way -- asking "Who created God?" There are many ways to attack him. But until I meet a theist one-on-one I have no idea what form of proof he's going to offer. If I ask him who created God, as an ice-breaker, then he can take that as a cue he must prove it's a bad question. Asserting it's bad simply because it doesn't meet his definition is no answer at all.

This is rich. So, because you don't like an argument that has been used for ~1,000 years, you're allowed to replace it with a strawman?

Hey, I don't like the arguments for naturalism. The argument from evil, say, is pretty strong. So I'm going to say that it's wrong--since I'm feeling sassy--and tear down an obvious strawman instead. The argument goes something like this:

1. Bad stuff exists.

2. If bad stuff exists, then good stuff can't exist.

3. Therefore, God, being good, can't exist.

But look at how wrong this argument is. The flaws are just so obvious! Since when did the existence of bad things prevent the existence of good things? Welp, there goes one of the main pillars of naturalist apologetics.

Bradley C. said...

Don,

I would definitely recommend reading The God Delusion before judging his arguments. If you have Amazon Prime it's available through the lending library for free.

It seems like you are envisioning simply a response to theistic arguments, whereas he is trying to make a positive case for atheism (as I said, his stated goal is to convert people). The rules are different. He needs to make his case, by refuting the theistic arguments and putting forth his positive arguments for atheism.

He can't do this without understanding where the theists are coming from, which doesn't appear to be the case. I am not saying you need to understand every argument for theism in order to reject theism. I am saying in order to offer a critique of Aquinas' 5 ways, you need to know what he is saying. In order to prove that God doesn't exist you need to know what people mean by God.