Moar on Swinburne

September 28, 2010 • 8:57 am

Yesterday, philosopher John Schellenberg (yes, his name is revealed!) suggested that we read two philosophy books:  Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God, and William P. Alston’s Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience.

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse discusses his take on Swinburne’s The Existence of God.  (He has read it, by the way.)  Jason has a Ph.D. in mathematics with plenty of training in probability (see his book on the Monty Hall problem), so he’s well equipped to analyze what seems to be a Bayesian approach to proving God.  Jason’s verdict? Thumbs down:

I have read my share of Swinburne, however, including The Existence of God. I fear he had the opposite effect on me from what Coyne’s correspondent described. It is not anything I learned from the fundamentalists that has driven me to my generally negative opinion of theology and the philosophy of religion. It is people like Swinburne who did that.

This is an assessment of Swinburne’s work as a whole; go read the post for his comments on the book.  This seems to be the first of a series of posts that Jason will publish on Swinburne.

I’m still going to read The Existence of God, but judging by the comments of those who have already read it, I’m not expecting a slam-dunk proof of God.

Also note that Richard Dawkins has published, as a comment (# 56) on that thread, his Sunday Times review of a book by Swinburne.

178 thoughts on “Moar on Swinburne

    1. The whole problem with this debate is as old as everything.

      Overwhelming evidence and good arguments are dismissed, ignored, or maligned out of ignorance (see creationists on evolution).

      And long-standing bad arguments are kept alive with shallow sophistry (see the discussion of “new sophisticated arguments for theism”).

      As long as people do not care to understand what good arguments, good evidence, sound methods and so forth really are but are very interested in being right rather than understand, this won’t be going anywhere. We’ll be running the wheels of repetition.

      1. Misplaced comment. Was meant to not be a response to this. Yes Dawkins responded here in the previous discussion on Swinburne.

  1. Christians say Jesus is/was divine. Jews say Jesus was not divine. Both of these cannot be true. And the list of various and mutually exclusive ideas that form the core beliefs of religions goes on and on. I do find analytical philosophy of religion to be a good intellectual exercise. But once you acknowledge that you believe in only one reality (with, of course, the possibility of multiple universes), then all the philosophizing is irrelevant to the empirical claims of theism. The truth-claims of various religions are not only contradictory (so that certainly they all can’t be right, and eventually, if you exhaust the list, they probably all prove each other wrong), they are proven false. I have seen no evidence to support, say, the idea of a virgin birth. Not to mention, as has been noted when dealing with other issues lately, that once religion assigns naturalistic explanations for formerly supernatural occurrences, it just becomes deism with fancy hats. But yes, let us engage with this analytical philosophy of religion, , but let’s also be completely clear of the difference between an attempt to make a logical argument for theism/God and actual proof. As usual, Hitchens said it best: “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

    1. Nicholas Beale calculates the Bayesian probability of the resurrection of Jesus. I think such projects are empty, since they obviously depend too much on subjective estimates of probability. Given that we know nothing of a god or gods, and that we know nothing of the probability or improbability of the universe (though Hawking clearly thinks that, given the laws of physics, the universe is highly probable), trying to calculate the probability of one based upon the probability or improbability of the other seems a bit of a stretch. However, I’m not a mathematician. I will go over to Jason’s place to see what he has to say. However, meanwhile, I have to go to the gym.

    2. Chris, it seems to me that you are confusing two things here, just as Dawkins confuses things in reverse. You are taking theology and thinking of it as philosophy of religion. Dawkins takes philosophy and calls it theology. There are distinct differences. Theology is always confessional, and depends upon beliefs that are tied to the source of the religion whose theology it is. Philosophy is not confessional, and when it tips over into confessional ideas, as catholic philosophy often does, then it becomes (confessional) theology.

      Philosophy does not offer proofs, in the sense of inductive evidence for beliefs — at least not in general (though experimental philosophy is apparently all the rage). But then, of course, as Hume has shown, induction has its own problems which cannot simply be skirted. The idea that empirical evidence is all that we have to go on, and that science accounts comprehensively for what it means to know is, I suspect, a very naive form of epistemology. We can and should try to do better than this.

      1. I do get the impression that people like Swinburne somewhat blur the lines between theology and philosophy of religion. Swinburne for example may use the methods of philosophy, but he uses it to argue for the existence of a decidedly classical theistic God.

        I don’t really think the two categories are distinct anyway, just like I don’t think science and philosophy are distinct.

      2. Eric, you use that phrase (“confessional”) a lot to signify the difference between philosophy and theology. Could you clarify what it means in your context? The only definition I am aware of is one that is specific to certain Christian sects (e.g, going and confessing your sins) and thus I am not sure how it would help to separate, say, Muslim or Jewish or even Protestant theology from philosophy.

        1. Tacroy. ‘Confessional’, in the context of religions, may of course refer to the confessional, where you go to confess your sins and receive absolution. As an adjective it refers to points of view which start with a confession of faith, that is, start with a faith position, and explicate that.

          Lots of purported philosophy of religion is confessional in this sense, and therefore qualifies as theology, as an explication of a particular theological belief or belief system, rather than as a philosophical enquiry into what does or does not exist. This is what I mean by the word ‘confessional’ used in this context. And in this context, Jewish or Islamic theology is confessional in the same sense.

          1. Thanks, I was unaware of that usage of “confessional”.

            But wait – so what you’re saying is that the primary difference between theologians and philosophers is that theologians start out with the impossible?

            1. Theologians start out with belief; whether their content is impossible or not is for philosophy (or perhaps science) to determine.

              Remember that examined beliefs are rare, and closely examimed beliefs even rarer. Theologians take for granted, just as, for example, most scientists do, that the ‘body of belief’ (whether knowledge or not depends upon justification) they begin with can be taken as given, and they work within those parameters.

              It takes a great deal of reflective awareness to hold belief in suspense, especially when the belief comes with a great deal of cultural approval attached. Freethinking was very rare until a fairly short time ago, in historical terms, and most of us who have adopted a critical attitude towards cultural assumptions do not do so on the basis of close or rigorous thought. Most beliefs or disbeliefs are not confirmed or disconfirmed by most of those who hold them.

      3. It might not be good epistemology, but that’s not the end goal (my end goal here (in this thread) is not to be a “good” philosopher, though I am truly enjoying the push toward better understanding the philosophical underpinnings of my thoughts and views). The end goal of our inquiry here is the existence of God. And I’ll stick with Lawrence Krauss for my views on God, the universe, and epistomology: “The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not.” Epistemology is irrelevant of reality (and yes, I realize that that statement itself is an epistemological statement). But it’s true. I think there’s no ultimate way to know that methodological naturalism is inherently correct, but I’m going to stick with that as my way of understanding the world. Again, this might be a philosophically weak position, and I would like to delve more deeply into understanding epistemology, but as it pertains to reality and daily life, like I said, I feel pretty comfortable with my sense of how I know things.

        1. Yes, of course, but the reasons for making a decision to opt, say, for naturalism, can be discussed, and this would be an epistemological discussion. Just saying, that’s where I stand is all very well, and it may serve some good purpose, but if you want your understanding to be epistemologically grounded, you would have to consider, and respond to, sceptical arguments suggesting that this is an unsatisfactory foundation upon which to stand.

          Of course, not everyone is going to do this, but it is probably good to remind ourselves that science is where it is today, not only because of theories and experiments, but because epistemological questions were being asked and answered at the same time. Recall that Newton was an alchemist, as well as a great physicist. The scientific revolution also set off a revolution in philosophy, with Locke, Hume, Kant, etc. responding to the new epistemological questions raised by the sciences, as well as raising some important questions of its own.

          What you call methodological naturalism is not only the product of science. It is part of a cultural conversation in which science is doubtless the senior partner, but includes a great deal of philosophical work besides. Being comfortable with your sense of how you know things — which may be a form of naive realism — is all very well, but religious people are also comfortable with how they “know” things. It’s best if this kind of thing is understood in a more reflective way, so that we can, in fact, make sound distinctions between knowledge and delusion (say).

          However, I don’t want to become the standard bearer for philosophy here. But I do think more openness towards thinking about the foundations of our knowledge of things is probably a good idea for those who want to claim that some claims to know are not sound. For example, in his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins coined a new term. A ‘theorum’, he suggested, is what we call a scientific theory which is evidentially well founded. That is not a scientific theory; it’s an epistemological one. It may be sound, but it would be best to make sure, before building too much on top of it.

          All I am appealing for — and I really don’t have the time to carry out this conversation much further at the moment — and I think this is all that John Schellenberg was asking us to do — is for greater openness towards a reflective understanding of what we are doing. When we deny, as I want to do, that there is a god, and that this god is such and so, what have the best minds who have thought about this question said? I think we owe it to those whose profession it is to think about these things to do some of the thinking with them. It won’t do us any harm, and it may make our arguments more convincing too. Even arguments that turn out to be unsound help us to understand ways in which our own position is made stronger. It certainly does not help to speak of people who have thought about these things as sacks of shit, for example, even if we think they are. This is not a matter of tone; it is a matter of seriousness of thought. I am all for a dismissive tone in many cases, for the religious also have a tone of certainty that needs to be countered, but at the same time we need to think seriously and deeply about the issues that concern us, whether this includes philosophy of religion, cognitive theory of religion, philosophy of science, etc., as the case may be.

          1. “what have the best minds who have thought about this question said?”

            That one is easy: there is no god. Scientists are overwhelmingly atheists. Physicists are concerned with the origin of the universe and they are overwhelmingly atheists. They are not putting god into the equations. So we apparently are already doing this part.

            1. Hey, even philosophers of religion are often atheists.

              I agree, there is no god, but that does not mean that there are still not conceptual clarifications to do around religious language. Nor does it mean that the religious are not continuing to field philosophical arguments about religious belief. It’s fine to say bluntly that there is no god, but if we don’t engage with the arguments — and philosophy is an ongoing conversation — then those who do will run away with the prizes. Just a dogmatic ‘There is no god’ is just a unsatisfactory as a mindless ‘There is a god’. So, we have a choice: engage the arguments or lose. That of course doesn’t mean that every atheist must be a philosopher, but it does mean that we accord at least some respect to those who are fighting the good fight on our behalf.

            2. Eric, but it is the responsibility of those who claim the existence of god to clarify concepts and provide evidence. Your recommendation seems to go against the basic principle of skeptical inquiry and the scientific method. I am uneasy because if we accept it, next time you’d ask us to think deeply about sophisticated new agism or deep occultism. Well, that is probably unlikely but why? It seems very arbitrary that the idea of god deserves this special attention.

            3. Well, basnight, it may be the responsibility of believers to provide evidence and clarify concepts, but if they alone are doing it, they will have an influence way beyond the soundness of their arguments. The freethought movement has always been active in countering the claims and arguments of the religious, and so long as religion is a competitor in public space — astrology and fairyology don’t really count, because they are not serious contenders — we need to address their arguments and defeat their pretensions. But we won’t do this simply by saying that the onus is on them.

              The other side of this, of course, is that, at this point in the history of thought, the role of philosophy of religion may be being taken over by cognitive theory of religion (which of course has a philosophical component), and perhaps that is where we need to put the emphasis, but whatever we do we simply cannot afford to ignore the claims of the religious, and deny the effectiveness of their arguments if we do not engage with them. Name calling, for instance, is not the best way to engage the issues.

              As Ophelia has pointed out over at Butterflies and Wheels, this is partly a political question, and we probably have to be slightly Machiavellian about this, acknowledge that this is partly, at least, about social power, and engage with religious thought on this level. I don’t think we need to respond to confessional theology, but we do need to engage philosophical/empirical approaches to religion.

    3. Ah, this is the key, I think to the Bayesian calculation. I just nabbed this from Rosenhouse:

      But part of applying Bayes’ Theorem to a statement such as the one above involves assigning some prior probability to God’s existence. I am not sure what basis we have for making such an assignment, but I would note that it is not even clear that God as Swinburne describes Him is even within the realm of possibility.

      This is what I took to be the weak link in Nicholas Beale’s argument as well. What could be the basis for assessing this probability? The same problem crops up, I think, when it is said that we can know god only by analogy, as by Aquinas, since we need to have some basis for the comparison, and this is unavailable in the case of god, and the analogy ends up hanging in mid air.

      1. Of course!

        Any discussion/argument untethered to real-world data cannot tell us anything about the real world. All it can tell us is something about the reasoning characteristics of some human brains and their biases.

  2. Jason Rosenhouse agreed with you? Is that supposed to be something newsworthy?

    I’m not expecting a slam-dunk proof of God.

    The way I see it mathematically or scientifically proving the existence of God is out of scope for the method. When the scientific method was created, it deliberately excluded questions of metaphysics, teleology, meaning, etc. (Of course, if you want to argue those things don’t exist, because all teleology, meaning, etc. *must* be extrapolated from physical properties of things, that’s a *metaphysical* argument–and you shouldn’t confuse yourself that that’s an undiluted *scientific* argument…)

    1. No, it’s newsworthy that Jason had already read the book in question, and posted his opinions on it.

      “When the scientific method was created, it deliberately excluded questions of metaphysics, teleology, meaning, etc.”

      Yeah, but you must have missed the update, when the “creators” of the scientific method released v 2.0, which now includes questions of metaphysics, teleology, meaning, and lots of other nifty interesting areas of inquiry. (Sheeze!)

      1. Yeah, but they have to start from certain premises around which they build their inquiry. Science doesn’t excuse you from the things philosophy as an activity is concerned with. Science shouldn’t be an automated, push button thing that replaces thinking or dialog with other minds. I sometimes suspect the notion that everything is knowable, reduce-able physical reality could lead you to believe that what happens in other minds (with different, perhaps valid perspectives and assumptions) is not that important.

        1. Wow, what a great little pastiche of absurdity.

          When the scientific method was created, it deliberately excluded questions of metaphysics, teleology, meaning, etc.

          The scientific method wasn’t created. In fact, “the scientific method” is a catch all for a great number of procedures and behaviors engaged in by scientific culture. There is not one Platonic ghostly thing, “the scientific method” that all scientists channel (by lighting candles and chanting presumably) before going into the lab.

          Science BEGAN with metaphysics. Galileo’s discoveries of sunspots and the moons of Jupiter had definitively metaphysical implications. Galileo’s work was also involved with “meaning,” unless you’re using the word in a very rigid, artificial way. If we ask, “why does a weight on a string swing back and forth at regular intervals,” well he gave an answer for that. He gave meaning to that physical phenomenon.

          And I’m really sick of the moral/ethical/political implications of materialism trash. Logically, there are none. In practice, it does seem as though atheists tend to be the sorts who try to independently confirm propositions rather than accepting received wisdom, but a) it’s not clear that this indicates other minds aren’t important, just that they’re often mistaken and b) you have a chicken and the egg problem — maybe we’re materialists because we’re naturally less disposed to trust the reports of other minds.

          I agree to some extent that the interpretation of empirical facts and the appraisal of theories are cultural practices based on shared premises, and that sociological and philosophical criticism of science as it is practiced shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

          But then, I don’t agree with a reduction I think you’re making, in which science and philosophy are ontologically different things. I think of science as PART of philosophy and not somehow separate from the philosophical assumptions on which it’s predicated. In fact, I don’t believe you can do good science without also doing at least a little bit of metaphysics.

          1. And I’m really sick of the moral/ethical/political implications of materialism trash. Logically, there are none.

            Materialism could mean a number of things, including holding some unexamined premises regarding ethics and politics. Here’s a good talk by Charles Taylor on this subject:

            His thoughts on Daniel Dennett begin at about 40 minutes. I think science is related to and has its origins in philosophy, but it’s not a substitute for it.. For instance, why do you end up in such a different place by reading Merleau-Ponty than you do with Hume? You can’t just sneer “I believe in SCIENCE!!11!!” and think you know everything about those arguments worth knowing. No there are arguments, premises for arguments, etc. that are worth paying attention to, even if you end up disagreeing…

            1. If I understand Taylor’s argument, if the sort of meaning he was looking for really did exist, there would be no such thing as a rational being that could not be convinced to act virtuously. By the usual definitions of the terms, sociopaths fit the bill and Taylor’s theory is falsified.

              Alternatively, he could redefine “delusional” to include sociopaths, but then we’re just playing word games.

              Ultimately though,I think Taylor’s objection to Dennett et al stems not from some explanatory failure but from the misguided fear that Dennett and those like him believe that just because things like moral discourse can be reduced to the physical, they must be. Dennett for his part has explicitly repudiated that sort of “greedy reductionism.”

            2. Dennett for his part has explicitly repudiated that sort of “greedy reductionism.”

              What’s that? Sounds subjective and not a terribly satisfying concept to me.

            3. “‘greedy reductionism.’

              What’s that? Sounds subjective and not a terribly satisfying concept to me.”

              regular reductionism is the claim that no higher-level description of the world contradicts a description on the level of atoms. Greedy reductionism says that no higher-level description of the world is useful. (from the last chapter of “consciousness explained” iirc)It’s at least as well defined as “embodied mind,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

              More importantly, what do you say to my core criticism that Taylor espouses a theory of meaning that does not admit for the existence of sociopaths?

            4. Greedy reductionism says that no higher-level description of the world is useful.

              I think that’s too strong. You can be greedily reductionistic about particular things at particular adjacent levels, without being greedy about everything everywhere.

              For example, if you conflate money with currency (a particular physical implementation of money), you’re greedily reductionistic with respect to money.

              Interestingly a lot of people who claim to be against reductionism are in fact more reductionist than the people they’re objecting to.

              E.g., people who say consciousness is “irreducible” in that you (allegedly) can’t explain it in information-processing terms may in fact be quite radically reductionistic, thinking that consciousness reduces to having a special consciousness-stuff (a metaphysically simple “soul” or whatever) doing its consciousness-thing—being a conscious entity reduces directly to having a soul, in a one-to-one correspondence.

              Unfortunately, in many contexts, “reductionist” is implicitly synonymous with being too greedily reductionist. (Even among professional philosophers. It’s annoyingly ambiguous.)

              You have to be really careful about the term—e.g., whether somebody is against “reductionism” in the narrow (greedy) sense, or reductionism of any sort.

        2. That is a lie Jon. Science doesn’t start with the the presupposition that there is no supranatural. Science goes with evidence. The reason science hasn’t found the supranatural is absence of evidence.

          1. What kind of evidence would you need to confirm belief in the supernatural? And if that evidence were in the form of natural occurrences, would that not make it natural instead of supernatural? But what other kind of evidence would the scientist accept?

            1. You are this =><= close to a proof that “supernatural” is a meaningless term, a self-contained contradiction.

              Hint: are there any natural laws that are truly inviolate?

              Bonus hint: how’s your geometry?

              The paranormal is another matter…though almost all of what rightly gets dismissed as extraordinarily unlikely.



            2. Eric,

              The “supernatural” is not the complement of the “natural” in the sense that “science studies the natural world.”

              The senses of “natural” are quite different, and that’s something most people get wrong.

              If you want to know what “supernatural” really means, I highly recommend Religion Explained by (anthropologist) Pascal Boyer.

              Science can study the supernatural just fine. The reason we don’t find it is not because we’d call whatever we found “natural”—you can’t just define the supernatural away—but because, evidently, it isn’t there.

            3. You both may be right. I suspect that the question is a bit more complex than that, but I think that, if it were the case that some kinds of “apparently” supernormal agency was detected, the tendency to assimilate that to natural causation would be very strong, and I’m not sure what exactly would be the distinguishing marks of the supernormal. (I use ‘supernormal’ here so as not to beg the question.) The fact that so far supernormal agency has not been detected seems to indicate there is no such thing. But if it were, are we all that sure that we would have detected something supernatural? I don’t know the answer to that question, and I suspect that you don’t either.

            4. Here are a few suggestions.
              1. Run a clinical trial on two groups of end stage cancer patients. Assign them randomly to Islamic prayer v. Catholic prayer in a double blind way and see if outcomes are different.
              2. Run an experiment showing you can change the statistical distribution of results in a quantum interference study. Prof. Ken Miller claims every time a quantum measurement is done, “god is interfering”.
              3. Find some tissue sample from the real, historical Jesus and show me he didn’t have the genetic material of every flesh and blood human being. He was not “conceieved naturally”, right?
              For more examples of kinds of evidence I could find convincing check out
              “God: the failed hypothesis” by
              Victor Stenger.

            5. Okay, I’ll spell it out.

              If there is even one natural law that is truly inviolate, then one can therefore conclude that anything which exists does not violate natural law.

              The world is overflowing with inviolate natural laws. For example, it is impossible in an Euclidean space to draw a figure with three sides and two right angles — a square triangle. You can do the trick in non-Euclidean spaces, but then other comparable rules apply; square triangles on a flat sheet of paper are simply an easy example to explain.

              All sorts of physical laws boil down to geometry. Thanks to Einstein, we know that the ultimate speed limit, that of light, is a geometric constraint. You might be able to fudge that one by changing the shape of space-time, but that’s akin to wrapping your sheet of paper around a sphere before drawing your square triangle.

              The list of such natural laws is endless. Orbital mechanics; biology’s cube-square; Shannon’s on data transmission rates — and I’ve hardly scratched the surface.

              Many so-called “sophisticated” theologians have even conceded the point, by attempting to re-define “omnipotent” as meaning “capable of doing anything that’s not logically impossible.” But this, of course, absolutely castrates omnipotence. First, what is a miracle but an instance of the impossible? But never mind that: if God can still be omnipotent despite his inability to go faster than light, why can’t I be omnipotent despite my inability to go faster than light? In this manner, the distinction between “physically impossible” and “logically impossible” is demonstrated to be nonexistent. If one is to believe modern theology, we are all omnipotent (even though we can’t do very much) and omniscient (even though we don’t know very much). Ray Charles really is God.



            6. Ben,

              I think your reasoning here is confusing mathematical models with observations of physical behavior. No one thinks that the speed of light is a universal limit as a logical effect of geometrical theorems, except in a modelling context.

              All we actually do is 1) observe that the behavior of physical objects is uniform in a specific way and 2) find mathematical concepts that behave in the very same way! Then the math concepts can be used to predict future physical behavior.

              Newton wrote down the formula for gravity based on the inverse square of distance, while Einstein took it a step further and wrote down a much better formula using geometrical ideas. But there is no reason to believe that physics *is* geometry, at least not with any of our current theories. The debate is still open as to whether there is a deep reason for the fact that our math does so well at modelling physics, or rather that our math is actually modelled after our physical experience.

            7. Rather than actually answering your question about what evidence it would take to convince me of the supernatural, I’ll address the easier, but I think more basic question of what, if I somehow knew enough about it, would still count as supernatural.

              Supernatural entities generally have mental properties not reducible to material properties.

              For example, you might have a mind without a body, which doesn’t work by information processing in a material object like a brain. It just somehow thinks and/or feels things, without computing things the way a brain does. There’s something like an “essence” of thought, and it’s distinct from any normal material process such as computation (broadly speaking) in meat.

              Similarly, suppose it turned out that love was a kind of entity that defied not only the laws of physics as we know them, but the entire paradigm of science—suppose love turned out to be something analagous to a simple substance, which you could tar people with to make them fall in love.

              And suppose further that it didn’t work in the way any technology we might come up with did—it didn’t just act as a drug, distorting peopple’s neural information processing in ways that make them prone to processing information in ways that counts as falling in love.

              Now suppose we had a non-embodied mind that could directly manipulate this substance-like love thing, because the irreducible essence of that mind is somehow irreducibly connected to the irreducible essence of love.

              Such a being—call her a Love Goddess—could make two people fall in love quite directly, say by enveloping them in an invisible cloud of Love, and she could do it because that’s the kind of being she irreducibly is.

              (As opposed, say, to being a brain hacker rewiring people’s neurons, or a drug designer crudely altering some cognitive biases.)

              Another example is The Force from Star Wars.

              The Force is obviously supernatural, or something very like it—we automatically recognize that, but it’s interesting to tease out how.

              One way we know that the force is supernatural—and the kind of thing you could have a religion about—is that the force is reliably connected to Truth and Virtue. It may have both a light side and a dark side, but somehow it reliably just knows what’s right and true, even though it’s explicitly not a mind that could “know” in the way a human does.

              We know it’s reliable, because of the things people don’t (and somehow clearly wouldn’t) say about it.

              For example, when Obi-Wan sees Luke fuck up, and says “Use The Force, Luke,” Luke would never answer “I used the Force, Obi-Wan, but the stupid Force fucked up again.”

              The Force doesn’t fuck up, although it may fuck you up. It’s just not the kind of thing that fucks up.

              The Force is intuitively obviously not like a machine a human would design, or like a fallible human, or any machine at all, in that its essence is more closely and directly connected to something Important—the essence of Truth, including the essence of Good vs. Evil, or some crap like that.

              And that points up a common feature of most if not all supernatural concepts—they have peculiar and often exaggerated properties of minds, without necessarily having minds, and usually without all the constraints minds we actually know about have. (Such as having to be implemented by a physical object like a brain.)

              If it turned out that The Force was in fact fallible, and was really just a kind of information noisy information channel in a different kind of stuff, which people could indirectly use to guess certain things because of certain correlations… then we’d likely decide it was “natural” after all. It’d just be more stuff, and not something with a very different kind of essence essentially connected to Important Things.

              It’d be like lightning. Lightning was widely believed to be supernatural, and freighted with Meaning—it’s a direct zap by a pissed off god, or something dramatic like that.

              We found out that lightning is just electricity, which is interesting because it’s invisible and can pass right through solid matter and so on, but once you understand its actual properties, it nonetheless doesn’t seem supernatural anymore.

              At the level of human values, it’s more like mechanical energy than like the essence of divine power or vengeance. It’s apparently not directly responsive to an immaterial mind, is not a direct manifestation of Divine Anger, etc.

              It’s not supernatural because it’s not directly related to anything humans fundamentally care about at a high level—virtue, anger, pain, justice, obedience, etc.

              In that way, it’s rather like a rock. A heavy rock thrown hard enough at you when you’re not looking can kill you just as unexpectedly dead as a bolt of lightning. At an abstract level, lighning behaves according to the same kinds of boring rules as other physical phenomena—you can usually figure out how to avoid it, and if it gets you anyhow, it’s not because a magical being is pissed at you.

              Being able to control electricity doesn’t make you a god, because it’s not a matter of your very interesting essence being especially directly gifted at manipulating a fundamentally interesting phenomenon. It’s just more stuff you have to think about in the essentially the kinds of ways you think about other boring things.

              (E.g., you might be able to make big electrical arcs and and kill somebody with it, but it’s the same basic kind of fiddly engineering issue as axes and firearms. It’s just stuff that may be useful, but is not intrinsically meaningful.)

              The key theme here is that supernatural entities are generally closely and fairly directly related to human values.

              Supernatural concepts generally presuppose interesting properties that are, in scientific terms, “high level” properties of complex systems.

              They also generally presuppose that they’re not just stuff implemented out of less interesting stuff, in the usual roughly heirarchical way that makes science work. They’re irreducibly neat-o.

              What science tells us is that such things apparently don’t exist. We see a hierarchy of stuff, with complicated machines like brains implementing complicated processes like minds with thoughts and emotions, and below that we have a bunch of levels of increasingly numerous and decreasingly interesting things, put together in complicated and typically fallible ways to make the high-level “interesting” things. (In terms of basic human values.)

              Supernaturalism is basically a mistake—it’s assuming that things humans find interesting have essences that are basic to the nature of things, rather than made out of less interesting stuff. It’s reading high-level properties (of complicated things) into low-level things that can’t possibly have that kind of interesting property.

              (E.g., nothing remotely like an energy or a vibration or a force could make the kinds of discriminations that The Force makes. Truth and Goodness are just not low-level properties that anything like a force could know about, or even be well correlated with.)

              Empirically, we just don’t appear to live in that kind of universe. The universe is not made out of minds and bodies, and truth and falsity, and beauty and ugliness, and love and hate, and so on. Those are extraordinarily subtle relationships among relationships between very complicated things made out of complicated things (made out of less complicated things, etc.), all the way down to really excruciatingly boring stuff like quarks or whatever.

              Supernatural phenomena appear not to be possible because reality is just not structured that way—there are no essences of interesting things, which can directly and dramatically influence each other.

              And it’s worse than that. For example, minds could not possibly be connected by love in a magical “direct” way, because minds turn out to be the wrong kind of thing, which can’t have that kind of relationship. And love is the wrong kind of thing too.

              The only way to make people be in love is for them to have certain information in their heads—certain subtle regularities in patterns among patterns of physical things involved in computation. A substance-like “love” wouldn’t actually be love, although it might be a drug that makes you more susceptible to falling in love.

              But that’s not what anybody ever meant by a Love Goddess, or a God who IS Love; they weren’t talking about a date rapist slipping something in their drink. 🙂

  3. You should expect proof of “begging the question.” Because that’s what he’s doing with his subjective Bayesian analysis. He’s accepting, without proof, various propositions and, frankly, just making up shyte probabilities to prove his desired outcome.

    It’s twaddle. And NOTHING new. And anyone can take his game, substitute any god/gods/no-gods concept, diddle with the probabilities and come to an equally valid conclusion.

    1. No not like WMD.

      AG …Consider a sort of minimal account of rationality, an evidence-based account that says if you’ve got wet in the past it’s rational to take an umbrella with you next time. How do people who have a religious commitment of some kind stop themselves from believing anything for which there is no empirical evidence: fairies, for example, or goblins?

      CT What do you mean by empirical evidence? What always astonishes me when I hear people talk like you is that the term “empirical evidence” seems to you to have as obvious an extension as the term “glass.” I challenge that. For Hume there is no empirical evidence for the reality of God. That can only work out if you have a highly improbable and constructive notion of empirical evidence; as one writer once put it, this appallingly contemplative view of the world. What if the real point of us, as Aristotle thought, as Merleau-Ponty thought, is that we are embodied minds, that things impact us? Then it’s a very different notion from empiricism. What if we’re also beings with an understanding of a moral world and the deeper significance of things?

      AG I’ll explain what I mean by empirical evidence. If I was to make an inventory of the things on the surface of this table and I included in it things that no scientific instrument could detect, let alone what my body senses, then my empirical evidence for their presence on the table would be incomplete whereas my faith in the butter and cups of tea and so on would be very well grounded.

      CT OK.

      AG The point is that this constrains the sort of things one says one believes in. So if somebody believes in angels, archangels, because of a commitment to a traditional religious outlook, what stops them there? What controls their disbelief in fairies, pixies and gnomes? It’s a serious point.

      CT Now here we are dealing with a very important issue where a certain kind of evidence is always going to be lacking. But there is a bad kind of epistemology, which is to decide, before you see what the issues are that interest you, that only certain kinds of evidence, like the kinds of evidence and the considered questions on what’s on this table, are going to count. In that kind of case you’re just never going to be able to resolve these kinds of issues I’m talking about. We’re going to start cheating and resolve them on very bad grounds like the following: all views other than mine involve taking account of bits of evidence that are other than the things on this table; therefore, they are all alone.

      1. Too bad that CT never answers AG’s “why not fairies” question, nor explains what these other types of evidence are. Or why these special types of magical evidence are only needed when discussing religion, while empirical evidence is fine for pretty much everything else.

        It smells like a red herring to me: bring up epistomology (interesting as this topic may be) to distract from a fallacy of special pleading.

      2. We are not “embodied mind”.
        We are machines carrying and passing on genes, like all other forms of life.
        As far as I can tell all CT does is playing a game of words for getting around the problems of missing evidence.

        1. As far as I can tell all CT does is playing a game of words for getting around the problems of missing evidence.

          Those “words” you’re talking about are Hume’s, Aristotle’s etc… They’re the basis of western philosophy in a lot of cases. And he points out that someone like Dennett makes speculative assumptions on *tons* of missing evidence.

          When you say, “We are not “embodied mind”,” that’s just bare assertion on your part. If you just declared that in a freshman philosophy paper, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t pass.

          1. While the Insightful Ape didn’t support his assertion that “We are not ’embodied mind,'” his assertion is well-founded and trivially supportable. Mind-altering drugs, physical injury, modern medical imaging, computational theory, and even death itself all overwhelmingly demonstrate that human consciousness is “only” qualitatively different from electronic calculation.



            1. …all overwhelmingly demonstrate that human consciousness is “only” qualitatively different from electronic calculation.

              I don’t see that. You can see brain events coinciding with experience, but that doesn’t mean that those observed events amount to a description of experience. This, I believe, is one of the things Charles Taylor is arguing against in that video I linked to.

          2. More word games.
            It is not an “assertion”. It is peer reviewed science.
            And no, I did not major in philosophy. Just like you didn’t major in biology.

          3. My respect for philosophy is disappearing fast. When you point out they are trying to get around the problem of missing evidence with a game of words, they tell you you’d fail a philsophy course.
            Well now even though I am no philosopher, I know this is called sophistry.

      3. Oh you mean this Charles Taylor (Templeton prize winner!)- who said seriously delusional things in an interview in The Other Journal:
        TOJ: Just to bring us back to the topic of atheism, I wonder if you have any opinion regarding those who are being called the “New Atheists,” say Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, who happen to be quite militant in their rhetoric.

        CT: Yes, I happen to have quite a negative view of these folks. I think their work is very intellectually shoddy. I mean there are two things that perhaps I am just totally allergic to. The first is that they all believe that there really are some knock-down arguments against belief in God. And of course this is something you can only believe if you have a scientistic, reductionist conception and explanation of everything in the world, including human beings. If you do have such a view that everything is to be explained in terms of physics and the movement of atoms and the like, then certain forms of access to God are just closed. For example, there are certain human experiences that might direct us to God, but these would all be totally illusory if everything could be explained in scientific terms. I spend a lot of time reflecting and writing on the various human sciences and how they can be tempted into a kind of reductionism, and not only would I say that the jury is out on that, but I would argue that the likelihood of that turning out to be the proper understanding of human beings is very small. And the problem is that they just assume this reductionistic view.

        The second thing I am allergic to is that they keep going on and on about the relationship between religion and violence, which on one level is fine because there is a lot of religiously-caused violence. But what they consistently fail to acknowledge is that the twentieth century was full of various atheists who were rampaging around killing millions of people. So it is simply absurd that at the end of the twentieth century someone would continue to advance the thesis that religion is the main cause of violence. I mean you’d think these people were writing in 1750, and that would be quite understandable if you were Voltaire or Locke, but to say this in 2008, well it just takes my breath away.

        But then what we need to do, and this is something many religious people fail to do, is to consider why this phenomena of the new atheism is happening at this time. Atheists are reacting in the same way that religious fundamentalists reacted in the past. They are people who have been very comfortable with a sense that their particular position is what makes sense of everything and so on, and then when they are confronted by something else they just go bananas and throw up the most incredibly bad arguments in a tone of indignation and anger. And that’s the problem with that whole master narrative of secularization, what’s called the secularization thesis, that people got lulled into—you know, that religion is a thing of the past, that it’s disappearing, that it did all these terrible things but it’s going to go away and so on—because when it comes back people are just undone.

        1. What a load of crap.
          I used to think Charles Taylor was a war criminal who was involved in atrocities in civil wars in West Africa. Apparently there is more than one mad man with that name.

        2. You missed the earlier part, which adds some important context:

          TOJ: I’m referring in particular to what you say on pages 768-69 of A Secular Age, where you describe two possible futures for the development of religion in the West. The first future flows out of mainline secularization theory, and predicts the continuous erosion of the public relevance of religious traditions. The second future, however, foresees religious traditions remaining an important aspect of people’s ongoing spiritual search for meaning.

          Charles Taylor (CT): My money is on future number two, that is, the second of the two alternatives I outline in my book. I don’t really think that religion is going to fade away and that religiously defined alternatives will be less and less common. On the contrary, well…I don’t know if you’ve read the whole book or not, given that it’s so darn long [laughter].

          TOJ: I’ve read it twice actually, and taught a thirteen week graduate seminar where we worked through the entire book quite closely [laughter].

          CT: Wonderful, there is at least somebody then [laughter]. As I was saying, in my final chapter I suggest that future number two is much more likely, and I hope that the previous chapters will have prepared the reader to see why I believe that religious alternatives will proliferate rather than fade away.

          So we are going to have something like the pattern that I was just describing, which is not only a pattern of great variation and constant innovation, but also a pattern of different views between the generations. I mean, it’s not uncommon now for children to break from the religious views of their parents. As a matter of fact, this is the case in many Western societies, independently of whether there are very high rates of religious belief and practice, like in the U.S., or very low levels, as in countries like Sweden. This same pattern is tending to occur. For example, in the U.S. there is a recent Pew report suggesting that one in three people have changed their religious affiliation in the course of their lives. Now this may be something that is relatively trivial because Americans have a great variety of denominations and you can move from this denomination to that denomination without there being any kind of great transition or conversion. Nevertheless, it does indeed say something about the nature and future of Western societies.

          1. Rubbish.
            This claim does not jibe with plenty of studies on religious faith faith in different parts of the world.
            Karl Marx had it right. Religion is the opiate of the masses. It magically disappears as soon as people don’t have to worry about their future.
            If you want to see some of the numbers and statistics behind this check out the 2004 book Sacred and Secular or look at the works of researcher Greg Paul.
            Facts are stubborn. And for Mr Taylor they are just inconvenieces..

        3. Oh you mean this Charles Taylor (Templeton prize winner!)…

          Is it just me, or do you guys argue like McCarthyists? I also thought it was interesting how Chris Mooney blogged on what his Templeton internship was like and got no reaction from the usual suspects. That’s simply because there was nothing there that could be mined for outrage. Big deal, intellectuals getting together in Cambridge and discussing religion. The reason it gets ignored, is that there’s no outrage that can be generated from any of this. Actual discourse involving say, Max Weber’s concept of disenchantment, just bums new atheists out, no there’s no point in blogging about it, right?

          1. Well. When an organization twists and spins its own data to fit an agenda (as Templeton did, concerning the faith of scientists) there is reason to be suspicious of everything it does.
            Templeton is an accomodationist organization. I wouldn’t have a problem with that if they came clean and admitted it. But they hide behind the “big questions” mantra and keep spending millions on getting answers-none of which ever goes to people who happen to have answers they don’t like. That is dishonest and hypocritical.
            And sure, ther is nothing outrageous about SOME of what they do, which makes them a lot like money launderers. (To quote PZ).

            1. Templeton is an accomodationist organization.

              Sounds like something someone would say and pound the table at the House Unamerican Activities Commitee…

              I don’t doubt Templeton has some problems, but the style of argument sounds an awful lot like guilt by association.

            2. You keep missing the point. (Is there a philosopher’s tongue twister for that?). I don’t have a problem with their accomodationism. I have a problem with their hypocricsy and dishonesty.

            3. Nothing. I am talking about Templeton in general.
              I think he is wrong on a number of accounts, of course. As explained above.

          2. McCarthyism was a whispering campaign against political enemies – it didn’t even need to be true or, if it was, meant you were mostly likely a party member in your youth. Taylor is 78, he won the prize in 2007 – hardly untrue or a youthful indiscretion. Not to mention, my mentioning it in no way harms his person. Being a Templeton Prize winner like being an actual communist tells us something about what the person believes.
            Not surprisingly, Taylor is true to form – lashing out at new atheists for being intellectually shoddy. Yet as has been pointed out earlier, atheists know more on average about religion than believers and as Bill Cooke points out in a review of Taylor’s “A Secular Age”(for which he apparently won the prize), Taylor never even read Dawkins, but relied on Alister McGrath’s negative review of “The God Delusion.”
            Then like some other prominent Catholic scholars, he doesn’t think atheists are fully human because atheists lack the transcendent element in their lives. Which means a disembodied mind thingy is floating around in the ether – made up presumably of God’s mind thingy and all of the mind thingies of all the dead people – and every once in a while the embodied mind of believer in the transcendent interacts with this disembodied mind thingy and something wonderful is experienced that is definitely not sciency at all. Atheist minds are defective in being unable to encounter the disembodied mind thingy and they are rendered unfulfilled subhumans.

  4. Excepting Hitchens’s dictum that “Time spent arguing with the faithful is, oddly enough, almost never wasted,” a Google search shows that the promise of new “sophisticated argumentation about God’s existence” has been an enormous waste of time in that it’s all been addressed before ad nauseum.  I see just now that Richard Dawkins, whose patience responding with clarity to such nonsense appears to be infinite, himself addresses how Bayes’ rule is abused in The God Delusion (p. 132).  This was also the subject of the SciAm article “What is Bayes’s theorem, and how can it be used to assign probabilities to questions such as the existence of God? What scientific value does it have?“:

    Richard Swinburne, for example, a philosopher of science turned philosopher of religion (and Dawkins’s colleague at Oxford), estimated the probability of God’s existence to be more than 50 percent in 1979 and, in 2003, calculated the probability of the resurrection [presumably of both Jesus and his followers] to be “something like 97 percent.” (Swinburne assigns God a prior probability of 50 percent since there are only two choices: God exists or does not. Dawkins, on the other hand, believes “there’s an infinite number of things that some people at one time or another have believed in … God, Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, or whatever,” which would correspondingly lower each outcome’s prior probability.)

    How is it possible to have a serious discussion with anyone who believes that is okay to use Bayes’ rule to compute the probability that god exists and that Jesus was his son? The only reasonable response is to laugh, either at the joke or the crackpot idea.

    The only respectable response of someone who holds up Swinburne as offering a “sophisticated argumentation about God’s existence” is an embarrassed apology accompanied with a promise to think in future just a tiny bit more about which contributions should be qualified as “distinguished.”

  5. As I said, Swinburne is not the one I would have recommended. I wonder why John Schellenberg has not recommended one of his own books. Swinburne recommends his own all the time! The Schellenberg book that catches my eye is Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. I have not read it, but I think I may.

    1. And so it goes. The elusive search for the best scholarly argument for the existence of a deity. Oh well, at least the confusion amongst the “experts” in the field reveals how bankrupt the claim is that critical atheists haven’t studied the best.

    2. So give, already. You agree that Swinburne is not worthy of serious consideration, I think. And you know nothing of Schellenberg but by reputation.

      Who, in you opinion, has the single best argument / reason / whatever to think that there are gods lurking somewhere; what is the gist of the point(s) made; why do you find it compelling; and why do you think anybody else should bother to respect it?

      Pretend we’re from Missouri, in other words.

      Because all you did in the other thread is continue to solidify the general opinion that theology is exactly like Macbeth’s view of life itself: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.



      1. Well that’s the problem – as far as I can tell, Eric is pretty much an atheist, so from his point of view there really isn’t any “single best argument / reason / whatever” – if there were and it were any good, he wouldn’t be an atheist.

        Rather than defending theism, he seems to be intent on defending the entire endeavor of philosophy by filtering out the theology; however, I don’t think he really realizes that (to us) philosophy can be just as useless and divorced from reality as theology.

        1. Thank you Tacroy. Not just pretty much an athiest. That doesn’t mean — and this is an important distinction — that you can’t make discriminations amongst those who argue philosophically about religion. I wouldn’t recommend Swinburne (though I have acknowledged that I might be mistaken here; perhaps I need to read him a bit closer), but there are others that I would recommend. I have to admit that John Schellenberg, who is, I understand an atheist, or at least an agnostic, has a couple of books that intrigue me, just from their titles, the chief on being, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason.

          And remember, please, that you learn as much from what you get wrong, as from what you get right. Read any of Plato’s dialogues. They don’t always have definite conclusions, but they do help you to see what you can’t say. That’s why Socartes’ ignorance is so important, because it is a way of arguing yourself into a situation of aporia, when you are not quite sure what you do and what you do not know. Very often, a philosophical argument is good, because it helps you to see your mistakes, and where you may look to put them right, or at least start to put them right.

      2. Well, life may be full of sound and fury signifying nothing, may it not? David Benatar, in his book, Better Never to Have Been, essentially argues this. I’ve suggested what I think is a good book to begin on in philosophy of religion. It’s Antony Flew’s God and Philosophy. Another is J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism. These are older books but none the worse for that. I’m going to go off on a limb and recommend John Schellenberg, since he lives just down the road from me, though I’ve never read him. (And his penchant for Swinburne is an odd quirk, I think.) Swinburne, as I suggested, is arid, as a writer. And, while he might be a very fine man, his theodicy, it seems to me, is simply mad. And I am not surprised to hear that his use of Bayes’ theorem is questionable. Quite independently of anything Swinburne says, I’m sure it is.

        But there are others who have interesting things to say, and even if they’re wrong, they may have interesting things to teach you. Philosophers tend to read other philosophers to detect unsuccessful arguments, so reading someone you disagree with is not the problem. The point of reading philosophy is to help you firm up your own understanding, and give you good reasons for believing or doing various things. You’re supposed to think for yourself. That’s what philosophy is for, and it’s harder than it looks. However, philosopher texts are tools for thinking, and even if they get it wrong, they can be helpful. However, as I’ve said, I think Bayesian probability applied to the question of god’s existence, and especially to things like the resurrection is pretty far fetched, and I’m not pushing Swinburne.

        1. Permit me to summarize your point, and then please confirm if my summary is fair.

          You are unaware of any apologist or believing philosopher who presents a valid argument for their views, but you believe there is value to be found in picking apart their works and figuring out where they go worng.

          If that’s the case, I thank you for your reading list, and I hope you won’t be offended that the works are now at the bottom of my own list. While I agree that there’s some sport to be had to “spot the fallacy,” that gets tedious enough on the ‘Net already.

          When I’m looking to expand my horizons, I look to my superiors — and those who find persuasive arguments from ignorance or variations on the Trilemma or the Wager or the historical evidence of zombies…they are most emphatically are not my intellectual superiors in this subject.



        2. The point at issue was the existence of sophisticated arguments for theism. Not whether they say interesting things. Not whether they’re worth reading to discover new forms of unsuccessful arguments.

          And I would presume that Antony Flew’s “God amd Philosophy” isn’t an argument for theism at all, and would thereby be irrelevant to the point at issue.

        3. Oh, hey, Ben, you don’t have to read anything at all, if you don’t want to. A lot of philosophy of religion is written from a nonbelieving point of view, and does consist in showing how believing philosophers have gone wrong. Put the books anywhere you like on your reading list, but don’t make the assumption that there is nothing there to be learned until you’ve been there. That’s all I want to say.

          As to valid arguments. If I knew of a valid argument, clearly I would be arguing here for religion, and I’m not. That doesn’t mean that we can simply ignore what religious believers say in defence of their position. In fact, if we do, then we lose, because part of the point of all this is to convince people that there are no valid arguments, and you can’t do that simply by saying, without examination, that all believing philosophy of religion is bunk. Philosophers who have convinced themselves that there is a god, or that religious belief is reasonable, or whatever, need to be answered. That’s all, and if atheists don’t do it, it’s not unlikely that there will be no one around to do it, and that would be unfortunate.

          1. If it comes down to a matter of tactics, engaging “sophisticated” theologians in “sophisticated” debate harms our cause far more than it helps it. It grants them a veneer of authority and dignity they most emphatically do not deserve.

            Pointing and laughing at the idiots who’d flunk the quiz a statistics teacher would give at the end of the first day of class (in the specific case of Swinburne) is far more honest and effective.

            When ten-year-old boys debate whether or not a Kevlar condom would be sufficiently strong to contain Superman’s ejaculations or if it would need to be laced with trace amounts of Kryptonite, that’s cute.

            When theologians do the same and insist that Superman is real that’s…that’s a problem, to put it mildly.

            But, for some bizarre reason, you’re suggesting that the proper way to respond to them is to perform a tensile strength analysis of Kevlar and incorporate the whatever-the-hell-it’s-supposed-to-be properties of Kryptonite into the equation.

            I hope you can now understand why that’s Not Helping™.



          2. Philosophers who have convinced themselves that there is a god, or that religious belief is reasonable, or whatever, need to be answered.

            Not if such philosophers have convinced themselves via non-philosophical means. Just because someone is a philosopher and a believer does not mean that one is a believer because of well-grounded philosophical arguments.

            Indeed, I question just how many philosophers have been converted from atheism to belief via purely philosophical arguments. Antony Flew would count, I guess, but we all know the quality of the arguments that convinced him.

            1. I’d like to know the number of people, not just philosophers – who’ve been converted by the strength of philosophical arguments, and show that relative to the number who’ve embraced religion for sociocultural and/or emotional issues.

              I strongly suspect the proportion would be overwhelmingly in favour of the latter, with a very significant margin.

              Which tells us that philosophical arguments for religion exist solely for the comfort of those clever enough to actually think about it, and who need a means to alleviate what can only be the crippling cognitive dissonance they’d suffer if they didn’t at least try to rationalise their faith.

            2. I think you guys are missing the point of philosophical argument. You might say that such argument takes place at a fairly deep cultural level. Not many people paid attention to liberal theology either, but it had an effect far beyond where it was being done seriously. Same with philosophy. It has always taken place at fairly rarefied intellectual/cultural levels, but has informed what is going on at other places in the culture. The reason for engaging people at this level, including people like Swinburne — and pointing out, for example, that he misuses Bayesian probability in defence of religion — is because what goes on at this level, while perhaps not being read by many people outside of the academy, still percolates through the culture. If arguments are defeated at that level, you can be sure that it will make its way through the culture eventually.

              Take Plantinga’s argument that naturalism self-destructs. I don’t think the argument is valid, and it hasn’t really reached far beyond the level of academic philosophy. However, if academic philosophers and others concerned with belief/unbelief simply ignore these things, and let the argument stand, then it will have an effect beyond that level.

              So, carrying out the debate at refined levels (for want of a better way of putting it) is important, and that’s why people do it. Those at a lower level of the conversation, who receive their input from higher up in the conversation chain, benefit from what is going on at that level.

              But you guys are smart enough to function at that level, so why not give it a whirl instead of dismissing the whole exercise as a waste of time? And, while it is true, as Wowbagger says, that not many people have been converted by means of philosophical argument — that’s not where conversion takes place as a rule — they are still influenced by what takes place at that level, and apologists will use it as grist to their mill, especially if, for example, unbelievers decide that the argument is not worth the candle.

              And this is a bit different than, say, Holocaust denial, or creationism, because, despite the trend of the discussion which seems to suggest that philosophy of religion is on the same level, this is still something that is being carried out at a very high level of sophistication. Swinburne may be arid as a prose stylist, and he may make mistakes about Baysian probability and its application to religious belief, but he still engages the issues at a high level. When he speaks in The Coherence of Theism about the fundamental question of whether the idea of god is coherent or not — as the Logical Postivists had claimed that it was not — this is a fundamental question that atheists too must deal with. It is easy enough to say that it’s really just nonsense, but how can you be sure unless you’ve done ‘the math’, that is, unless you’ve worked through the arguments? Someone’s got to work with strategy, and it doesn’t help if the troops on the ground simply dismiss it as nonsense, and continue to walk into traps set by the enemy.

            3. Wowbagger, I understand your point, but I think it is overstated. I was specifically responding to the claim that atheists should respond to philosophers who argue that religious belief is reasonable, as if the mere fact that they are philosophers gives their claims weight. That is clearly not the case in the purely logical sense.

              Sure, it may be that such people have sway in the culture, but my personal interest in this particular instance is in engaging with interesting and convincing philosophical questions, and not merely disputing poor arguments simply because someone is otherwise held in high esteem culturally. Others are welcome to address things on this level, but I don’t want to bother with refuting bad philosophy. That’s a different project, concerned with the impact of the arguments on society, whereas my primary interest is in addressing the actual content of potentially good arguments.

              Swinburne […] may make mistakes about Baysian probability and its application to religious belief, but he still engages the issues at a high level.

              I don’t understand how the second clause follows from the first. From what I can see, his misuse/misunderstanding of Bayesian probability is extremely basic, and not “engaging at a high level” at all. (It’s much like when people invoke “quantum” to talk of gods — despite the use of a fancy physics term, that is not “engaging at a high level”.)

              Moreover, his shotgun approach to the issue of god, with scattered arguments using a variety of philosophical approaches, don’t impress me as someone who is methodically working through a line of thought, but rather someone who is engaging in apologetics with whatever philosophical argument he can get his hands on. (And frankly, his work on theodicy further reinforces my impression of his argumentation as profoundly weak and ill-considered.)

              Jerry’s original challenge was to find the people who offer the strongest arguments for the existence of god. Those are the arguments I’m interested in addressing, yet even you seem to admit that Swinburne’s are weak. So I personally don’t see the need to work through the details, when the basic structure is so lacking. I agree that it is worthwhile as a social project to ameliorate the influence of folks like him in the general culture, but that was not why I had a potential interest in him.

            4. …why not give it a whirl instead of dismissing the whole exercise as a waste of time?

              Because it’s more fun to go Booooo!! at the opposing team, do things like sneer and pretend that’s an argument, and say things like “piffle” and “nonsense,” instead of actually bothering to investigate.

            5. I don’t understand how the second clause follows from the first. From what I can see, his misuse/misunderstanding of Bayesian probability is extremely basic, and not “engaging at a high level” at all.

              First, I took it as a response to me. Second, I did not suggest that the second clause follows from the first. You can make mistakes in the use of Bayesian probability, and still address issues at a high level. I am taking John Schellenberg, as a representative of the philosophical guild, as a reliable guide here, who says that, read carefully, Swinburne will repay study. I have not read Swinburne for some years, so I’m not in a position to judge. I was not taken with him when I read his Is there a God? some time ago. But I do think we have at least to accept the word of someone who is engaged in the conversation at the highest level, and Schellenberg seems to be someone like that.

              On the other hand, I have already suggested (somewhere in these confusing threads) that the hard work of philosophy of religion may be almost done, and that we need to move to cognitive theory of religion to carry on the conversation. That is just a straw in the wind, but it is a possibility. Cognitive theory of religion is working at a very high level of cognitive sophistication, at the same time that it brings anthropology and empirical psychology to bear. This may be where the sharp edge of philosophy/theory of religion is to be found nowadays. But as I say, that’s just a guess.

              The last thing I’ll say (again), is that if I thought there were a decisive argument in favour of religious belief I’d probably be a religious believer, wouldn’t I? But it does not follow from the fact that I do not know of one that there isn’t one, so I continue to take philosophy of religion with some seriousness, especially since religious belief still appeals to so many people. Religion is an extremely dangerous force, and it is important to keep one step ahead of the religious, if we can.

            6. You can make mistakes in the use of Bayesian probability, and still address issues at a high level.

              Perhaps I am misunderstanding what you mean by “address issues at a high level” — in my book, if you fundamentally misuse basic tools of reasoning, in a way that is simple and obvious to point out, then you are by no means addressing things at a high level. As I noted earlier, there are plenty of writers who mention complex terms like “quantum mechanics” and “chaos theory” when talking about god and free will, but just saying those fancy terms doesn’t say a darned thing about the quality of the argument. Likewise, using Bayesian reasoning fundamentally incorrectly is not arguing in a sophisticated way — it is simply wrong, and in a somewhat embarrassing fashion at that.

              I am by no means dismissing all of the philosophy of religion, and I’m certainly willing to look at arguments from that field. This is what I’ve done with Swinburne — I haven’t read him, but I have certainly read detailed discussion of his arguments in other places, and from what I know of Bayesian statistics, those discussions (along with discussions of his theodicy and mentions of his other arguments for god) have convinced me it is really not worth spending more time on his arguments. And the fact that Swinburne is held up as one of the best in the field also leads me to believe that I’m unlikely to find anyone else who is more convincing. I am willing to be proven wrong, of course, but I’m not willing to delve deeply into works until I have a more detailed account of the arguments, rather than a mere recommendation.

            7. I don’t think Swinburne is the best in the field, and I have suggested other philosophers elsewhere. Mackie is good (see The Miracle of Theism), and so is Flew. Both of these books are introductory. Michael Martin’s book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification is much more comprehensive, and goes into the arguments in detail. I am prepared to take Swinburne on the recommendation of Schellenberg, but I am not myself recommending him. Just thought we should be clear about that.

    3. It seems to me that the simple facts that: Religions all believe wildly different things, the three Abrahamic ones all actively contradict eachother, and the supposed “proofs” can all be used equally well to support any of the conceptions of gods, causes the arguments to fail, immediately.

      The only question one need ask is, which god are you proving? And then follow that up with, “Why not Shiva” or “Why not Yahweh?” as appropriate.

      The issues are evaded in two ways by apologists:

      1. They claim special knowledge (revelation, special book, special feelings in front of a triple frozen waterfall): Some kid of magical subjective knowledge that convinces them firmly that (their particular!) god exists.

      2. Magic: Mainly making up new meanings for words. They will claim that god is too hard for us to undestand and therefore our word meanings don’t apply.

      The problem with subjective feelings is that they are just that: Subjective emotions. These are not transferrable, demonstrable, or reliable sources of data. Someone can have a special feeling about anything. Just because some set of special feelings is popular doesn’t make it correct. (I won’t catalogue the popular beliefs now rejected by humans. A believer need only consider his/her feelings about another religion.)

      The problem with magic is just as bad. If words don’t mean anything, or can mean anything you please, then, by definition, you can find out nothing from them. It’s all just maded up nonsense.

      Here the believer will usually claim that their magic is the “right” magic.

      Well, once magic is introduced, then any effect can equally well be claimed to follow cause. Logic, evidence and reason fail in this case; and, again by definition, nothing can be learned from any such discussion into which magic has been introduced.

      Prohibition on magic is a bedrock requirement for any logical and rational discussion that may be expected to yield a true or useful result.

      Anything less is just drawing cloud castles in the sky.

      You may learn something about how human brains work and how they are biased; but nothing about anything else.

      Human consciousness is well equipped to imagine the non-existent. It appears to have needed this to anticipate dangers when our brains were evolving. It doesn’t make the imaginings any more real.

      As I have noted before: The first solid argument for the existence of any god would be trumpeted to the sky, feted in all the nations’ capitals, the philosopher or theologian who formulated it or found the evidence would receive the Nobel Prize (probably several of them) and would be an imminent world figure.

      This is the main way you know that no solid argument for god has been formulated.

      As Dan Dennett has said: “Serious theology” is like stamp collecting, performed by a tiny group of enthusiasts who are mostly ignored even by their own churches.

      This is because they have never come up with anything significant. The cliche of arguing about angels on pinheads is quite apt.

      Which is another way of concluding inductively that no gods exist: After all this effort, the best they can do in the end is say we can’t disprove a deistic sort of one-trick creator god?

      I’ve read several highly-recommended apologists. I found their efforts incredibly unconvincing and weak. Every one either presumes what they purport to prove, or they invoke magic.

      1. Someone can have a special feeling about anything. Just because some set of special feelings is popular doesn’t make it correct.

        Yes, Hume’s subjectivization of feeling is one of the points Charles Taylor gets to in the lecture I linked to above (I think it was above, anyway, these layered threads can disorient…) He has some arguments that take exception to Hume…

    1. If you go to the 2nd section they assess the various factors. The 2 factors that, all else being equal, increases your knowledge of religion: Being a college graduate, and being atheist/agnostic.

      1. It’s not religious knowledge, it’s religious trivia…

        You can take a 15-question subset of the test online.

        I scored 100%. But then, my brain is packed with useless knowledge, like what religion Mother Theresa was and which religion is associated with the deity Vishnu.

        1. So what exactly qualifies as religious “knowledge” as opposed to “trivia?
          Would anything short of a “perosnal relationship with Christ” fill the bill?

          1. Seriously, I would think religious knowledge would have some relationship to the major “truth claims” of the major religions.

            Do Christians think Jesus was divine or merely a human prophet?

            What are the 5 pillars of Islam?

            Did the Buddha claim to be divine?

            What is the Buddhist path to enlightenment?

            Stuff like that.

            Only 2 of the questions were about that kind of knowledge; one was about Catholic belief with regard to transubstantiation, the other about nirvana (although in reality, it only asked which religion preaches it, not how to attain it).

            I think you mistake me as someone who is a theist. Not.

            1. The 10-question quiz on the website was not the same as the one that was used in the study, according to the article. That one contained 35 questions.

    2. Well, of course atheists should know more about religion. If they didn’t they they would be a bunch of know-nothings. But this seems to show that Shook’s argument is well shaken, not stirred.

      1. I don’t necessarily agree that atheists need to know more than the religious; I was quite happily atheist for many years (having been raised without much exposure to religion) and the lack of knowledge didn’t bother me in the slightest.

        However, if one wants to engage with the religious, or participate in any discussions on the topic, then yes.

        I always find there’s a ridiculous double-standard, usually pushed by the religious, that atheists shouldn’t comment on religious issues unless they’re extremely well-versed in the material – yet are not making anywhere near the same demands on their co-religionists who turn up for church (and put money in the collection plate) having no more knowledge than to answer ‘yes’ to the question ‘are you a Christian?’

  6. To stir the pot a bit: I propose for debate the following proposition: no theologian, however allegedly sophisticated, has ever presented an argument for the existence of one or more gods that is both logically sound and supported by observation.

    I invite refutations of the proposition. When offering one, please include the specific theologian, a summary of the logic and observations, and a citation suitable for finding the original source.

    I’m not interested in sophisticated sophistry. If the logic falls short or if the starting premises are unsupported (or, worse, contradicted) by observation, I really don’t give a damn how elegant the handwaving.

    As a side bet: I don’t think there’s even a theologian who’s ever proposed a definition for any god that, in the words of Richard Wein on Jason’s blog, is even coherent. If you can prove me worng on that one, the beer (or other suitable beverage) is on me.



    1. I hope I’m not giving away my youth by saying how much I wish wordpress had a “like” button, a la Facebook. Your challenge is very elegant in its simplicity and clarity. I really hope this makes it to the top of the topic list of the atheist blogosphere now. This is exactly the type of clarity that we need in really dealing with the issue of evidence for God. I have seen no such evidence, and until someone coughs up, I think we move on, try to better society, and also make sure to marginalize religion as much as possible.

      1. I have a “Like” button across the WordPress banner. I think one needs to be signed in to WordPress in order to see it. Not sure whether this is what you mean.

      2. Thanks for the kind words. However, though the words are original to me, I must assure you that I have read comparably brief (if not briefer) challenges that were phrased at least as well, if not better.

        This isn’t new; it’s as old as the hills.

        For that matter, Epicurus did away with all gods worshipped then and since, and he did it a half a millennium before the reign of Augustus Caesar. And he did it with a short and catchy bit of verse, too. And the believers still don’t get it. They come up with nonsense like “freon willies” as an “explanation,” not realizing that all they’ve done is give a name to their favored pantheon’s incompetence, indifference, or malevolence.

        Anyway, I digress. The best thanks you could give me would be to make the idea your own and use it suitable.



      1. Jaco [Pastorius] used to exist. And plenty of recorded evidence (and living human memories) testify to his past existence. Does that count too?

      2. If God is love, and love is blind, does that mean that Ray Charles is God?

        Anyway, I should have added a caveat. Pretty much all emperors, by definition, have been worshipped as gods. And we can be damned certain of the existence of most of them.

        There are also all sorts of idols and fetishes and what-not.

        If y’all want to use one of those gods for your argument, please be so kind as to argue not for the banal properties of the god, but for the properties that set it apart from every other member of its class.

        In other words, yes, Caesar was real, and he was a god according to one very valid definition of the term. But he still put his pants on one leg at a time. Er…his toga one arm at a time? Anyway, you get the idea.



        1. No, heretic scum! Stevie Wonder is blind, therefore Stevie Wonder is God!

          (that’s actually argument #30 on the linked site)

    2. It’s been a few days since I posted this and the whole blog entry is about to fall off the front page…and yet nobody’s taken up the challenge. I’d like to think that the silence is significant.



    1. I really recommend this. Not only is the author clear on Swinburne, but he does a good job explaining many other things; I’ve been popping around at random since this was posted. Thanks!

        1. heh, I’d actually just finished reading that series. It amused me that Swinburne argued against ST because you end up without any way to determine if any action is good/evil… but apparently theodicy explaining away Hiroshima and the Holocaust is perfectly fine. Physician, heal thyself…

  7. Maybe the reason why there is always just one more argument for god atheists must grapple with is because there are just as many gods as there are people who say they believe in god.

    Disproving god(s) then becomes a game of whack-a-mole and job security for theologians, philosophers and priests.

  8. I have read The Existence of God, and I’ve blogged several chapters of it, starting here

    It is breathtaking the extent to which theology in general and Swinburne in particular has managed to cut himself off from almost all other kinds of knowledge. he makes extremely basic errors of science and mathematics, like trying to perform statistical calculations on a sample of 1.

    I would have finished blogging the book, but I got diverted into a more important issue – the discovery of a child sex abuse scandal at the Catholic school my son used to attend, and I’ve been pressing for something to be done about that in order to protect the children still at the school. It’s taken a long time and a lot of effort in the face of complete intransigence on the part of the authorities in the Catholic Church.

  9. I once attended a seminar by Swinburne in which he discussed (droned on about) the nature of thought and consciousness. Incredibly, he said that there were no examples of consciousness coming from non-consciousness. I raised my hand and averred that we indeed had very many examples of such. He seemed puzzled, and asked me (appropriately) to come up with the goods. So I told him that everyone sitting in that room had arisen from a single cell, and if he wasn’t willing to attribute consciousness to a single neuron, he could hardly attribute it to an egg cell.

    I didn’t expect someone of the supposed prominence of Swinburne to be stumped by this, but stumped he was.

    I don’t rate the chap, sorry.

    1. Heh. And even trivally, every person who has ever taken a nap, dozed off, slept a full 8 hours, or any combination of the above, is proof that consciousness can indeed come from non-consciousness.

      And general anesthesia.

      And resuscitation after heart attacks, drowning, and all the rest.

      Even hypnotism could be seen as an example.

      Boy, if he doesn’t get *this*, there really is no hope.

    2. I thought you were going to say that we do it everyday by simply waking up, but your point is even better. If there is a soul, when is it inserted?

    3. This in unsurprising: He is sketching cloud castles. How dare you bring him down to earth with data?

      I’m really surprised that he didn’t just reply that god inserted your consciousness sometime before birth: The official Catholic position.

    4. That’s very good. And you could have said, with JBS Haldane, “But Professor, you did it yourself, and it only took you nine months.” (quoted in TGSOE, p211)

  10. Again, I will state for the record that this is a theist trap.

    No matter how you respond to Swinburne, the reply from the theist will be:
    1. You didn’t read him correctly, therefore:
    2. You must read this additional theist-philosopher.

    The trap only ends once you convert. When you convert, your education will be deemed sufficient, even if your objections to the prior theist-philosophers remains intact.

    It’s not the arguments they’re after.

    This is a demand that you convert, nothing more.

    1. I have a pagan ex-gf who once tried the “if you were truly intelligent and thoughtful you’d become a pagan” line on me. That’s why it makes me so mad when atheists get accused of being divisive and insulting. At our worst we’ve got nothing on a lot of the theists out there.

    2. This is so true. Humans can invent an infinite number of false gods and false arguments. It’s tilting at windmills to argue against them; but to let them have the field is to allow them to claim victory.

      Where’s my whack-a-mole hammer … ?

  11. OK, here’s a legitimate question that can be answered with the use of Bayes’ Theorem:

    What is the probability of a living theologist (or do you say theologian) being Swinburne given that the theologist is a fool and an idiot?

    If we were to do research and answer honestly, I would bet that the probability is very low – close to 1/[number of theologists alive]. However, if we were to do like Swinburne and pull numbers out of the air and conflate number of outcomes with probabilities (or worse, as Swinburne does, not even properly enumerate the number of possible outcomes), we can easily prove that we *must* be talking about Swinburne if we’re talking about a theologist who is a fool and an idiot.

  12. Unless there’s an actual argument in Swinburne’s or any of the other sophisticated theologians’ work that I am going to spend eternity in torment or return in another life as anything less than human if I fail to be convinced by their case for God’s existence, I don’t see the point in reading them. And they better put that in the title somewhere; The Existence of God – Believe or Perish
    They have to make me care in a personal way about their arguments. Otherwise, I’d rather spend my time playing with the grandkids, listening to Coltrane, or fussing with the tomato plants.
    Seriously, who cares if God exists? Unless, of course, I might spend eternity, or a majority of eternity, like a doughnut in the deep-fryer.

  13. So this whole debacle was started because John Shook claims atheists don’t know what we are talking about.

    “Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance.”

    tell that to the pew forum
    U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey
    POLL September 28, 2010

    “Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.”

    Seems like we know more then they give us credit for…

  14. The only thing that comes across to me from this whole kerfuffle about Swinburne and the virtues of philosophy, is that those philosophers who are genuinely indulging in the kind of project that Swinburne appears to involved in are merely engaging in parochial and sterile exercises, however refined their arguments are alleged to be (and Swinburne’s, from what has been argued against him and from the arguments he presents on his home-page, do not seem to be particularly refined; Eric MacDonald has even characterised him as being ‘arid’). I say ‘parochial’, because having lived for over half my life in a mercifully non-Christian society, and having taken an interest as well in the cultures of Asian countries other than Japan, where I live, I grow impatient with Westerners who still seem unable to recognise that a great deal of the world is not Christian and never has been, and that the rarefactions of their thought are irrelevant to non-Christian peoples. And it really is no good suggesting that somehow one should be able to appreciate the subtlety of their argumentation irrespective of what it is they are arguing about – although there are no doubt the kind of philosophic aesthetes who can derive pleasure from the subtle and intricate way a certain mediaeval theologian argued in favour of some particular number of angels who were able to dance upon that famous and perhaps mythical pin. I have certainly derived pleasure and insight from reading certain philosophers, among them Hume, Popper, Gadamer, Oakeshott, Ryle, Merleau-Ponty and Dennett(an odd and eclectic selection, I know), but that is because – whether I agreed with them in the end or not – they were stimulating me to think about issues that were important. What strikes me about such endeavours as Swinburne’s is that they are not about genuinely important issues and that they have been anyway wholly undercut by the rise of a cognitive science of religion, in the work of Boyer et al. – work in which such as Swinburne appear to take no interest and of which they appear to take no account(the charge that is being made, that atheists of a certain kind do not take sufficient notice of philosophy, or pay sufficient respect to it, can surely be thrust back at such philosophers).

    1. You make great points, though all made over and again forever.

      What rubs me about this is related your point about Hume etc.

      It’s an easy throw-away to attack non-believers for being ignorant about theology, but do these so-called refined theologians really engage with the relevant non-theological literature?

      As best I can tell, on average the answer is no. And this even goes for most who criticize the so-called “new” atheists.

      So it’s really a hypocritical move, just meant to again try to silence and brand atheists in a certain way, with the standard goal of rescuing religion from critical inquiry.

    2. I’d like to “upvote” what Tim said. I grew up in an asian society, and the “God” that philosophers and theologians try to deduce logically to me is as weird and as foreign as, say, Kwisatz Haderach in Frank Herbert’s novels. For a huge population in the world, gods are not omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent, did not create the world, did not create humans, are not first cause, do not define moral… etc. To treat the obviously culturally-constructed Abraham’s god as something that can be derived/reasoned logically seems to be either culturally myopic or racist.

      1. I would be careful to imply malice where simple stupidity is a more than adequate explanation.

        Otherwise I agree of course.

  15. I am a lawyer not a philosopher but I did take a philosophy degree a long time ago and I have read both Swinburne and Alston.

    As a mild theist of the Church of England variety I am sympathetic to attempts to prove the existence of the deity but I am not able to convince myself that either Swinburne or Alston have succeeded in doing so.

    As I understand their writings they start with assumptions or intuitions that cannot be proved or disproved but which many theists would find plausible. They then seek to build on these foundations by processes of philosophical reasoning to produce rational justifications for the existence of God and other central doctrines of Christianity.

    I am sympathetic to their intentions but it seems to me that they are a long way from coming up with knockout arguments that all rational people are bound to accept. I am unsure that there would be much point in Jerry Coyne having a look at their work as I cannot see him finding any of the foundational assumptions or intuitions at all plausible.

    I have reluctantly held doubts about the foundational assumptions and intuitions as well but I still find their arguments comforting. Swinburne and Alston do at least show that starting from assumptions or intuitions that I would like to believe are true you can produce rational justifications for Christian beliefs without relying on scripture.

    Of the two I am most drawn to Richard Swinburne because the religious claims that he seeks to justify are just the sort of beliefs that you find in my particular part of the Church of England, namely:

    (1) the existence of God as the creator of the universe but with creation taking place within the time scales envisaged by modern cosmology – no young earth creationism or quarrels with evolution by natural selection here.

    (2) the truth of the resurrection and Biblical miracles but as historical claims with all the violations of the laws of science safely in the distant past. This fits in well with the views of many Anglicans who accept that God performed miracles in the Gospels as signs and wonders to propagate the faith but also believe that the age of miracles ended with the Apostles.

    I am puzzled by the hostility of other commentators to Swinburne. No one holding these views is going to set up a creationism museum or lobby against stem cell research.

    On the other hand I am happy to subscribe to these beliefs regardless of any rational justification so I am unsure how useful Swinburne’s impressive efforts to justify Christian claims really are.

    Becoming a Christian is an emotional leap in the dark not a reasoned response to logical argumentation. I would not expect committed Christian believers to need the sort of rational justification that Swinburne and Alston provide to support their beliefs and I cannot see Swinburne and Alston convincing any non-believers.

    Reading anything by Richard Dawkins temporarily turns me into a young earth creationist as a blowback against his ignorance of religion and schoolboy philosophising but many years ago I had a different experience when I read JL Mackie’s devastating attacking on religion in the “Miracle of Theism”. I remain intellectually convinced by the force of Mackie’s arguments against religion but the evolutionary adaptations that have given me a disposition to theism are so strong that I carry on plugging along believing in God.

    1. I’ve yet to see a convincing argument on why Dawkins is ignorant of religion. Have you got one?

      The good old “that god is not my god”-canard doesn’t cut it btw.

    2. Glynn,

      First, you owe it to yourself to re-examine your assumption that Jesus was an historical figure. What did the extant contemporary sources have to say about him? Specifically, the Dead Sea Scrolls (many of which were penned in Jerusalem during the first half of the first century); Philo (the brother-in-law of Herod Agrippa and a prolific religious philosopher whose original theology was incorporated wholesales into Christianity); Pliny the Elder (who was fascinated with magicians, religion, and miracles); and too many more to list here. What did the early Christians, especially Justin Martyr, have to say about the sources of the Christian myths? What did the pagans of the period think of Christians (especially Pliny the Younger and Lucian)?

      Second, you yourself admit that Christianity is irrational. Even if you find it comforting, why should you wish to be intentionally irrational?

      Evolutionary adaptations have also given you a disposition to all sorts of other ailments. When you were a teenager, you were disposed to be reckless; when you are past prime reproductive age, you are disposed to all sorts of ailments. You wouldn’t (I presume) refrain from brushing your teeth because evolution gives you wisdom teeth to replace those that rot out in your twenties, would you?



    3. the truth of the resurrection and Biblical miracles but as historical claims with all the violations of the laws of science safely in the distant past. This fits in well with the views of many Anglicans who accept that God performed miracles in the Gospels as signs and wonders to propagate the faith but also believe that the age of miracles ended with the Apostles.

      Here’s a handy term: Special pleading.

    4. I remain intellectually convinced by the force of Mackie’s arguments against religion but the evolutionary adaptations that have given me a disposition to theism are so strong that I carry on plugging along believing in God.

      Wow. Where to start?

      Nobody has been able to show a genetic disposition to theism so far. In fact, given the speed at which Western Europe is secularizing within the last few generations, I’d say a cultural explanation is much more likely than a genetic one.

      I also can’t help but notice that you blame your “evolutionary adaptions” for your inability to change your mind. Isn’t this completely at odds with your professed religion’s teachings about free will? Or those on moral responsibility?

      I am puzzled by the hostility of other commentators to Swinburne.

      I don’t think it is fair to say people here are hostile to Swinburne personally. They just don’t think his arguments deserve any respect, as they see some obvious flaws in them.

      But if you wonder what is bothering us so much about Swinburne, or other non-fundamentalist apologetics, you have just given us another example of it. You pretty much admit that you will ignore your intellect, just so you can believe what you want. Even though you personally may not build creation museums or protest stem cell research, it’s still a really bad habit, that could potentially lead to a lot of suffering.

      By your own admission, you find Swinburne and Alston comforting and help keep your doubts down (even though you don’t even think they are totally convincing). This means that Swinburne and Alston are enablers of bad habits.

      1. Nobody has been able to show a genetic disposition to theism so far. In fact, given the speed at which Western Europe is secularizing within the last few generations, I’d say a cultural explanation is much more likely than a genetic one.

        The fact the almost all believers believe what their parents/social group believes (and these belief systems are mutually exclusive), more or less proves that religion is a social/cultural artifact.

        If it were an indication of truth, then all people would be inclined, in the absence of cultural influences, to believe in Thor (or Yahweh or Shiva or Baal or Ammon Ra or whatever).

        The problem for anyone claiming that theism is inborn is to explain the congruence between cultural influence and belief in genetic terms. I think this is impossible, because religion is a cultural artifact.

        1. religion is a social/cultural artifact

          A lot of science-minded new atheists come close to thinking that *all* products of culture are “artifacts.” The difference between say, Eliminative Materialism and the humanist side of the “two cultures” divide is pretty stark. And this is just inside the academy. Good luck with the culture at large.

        2. To be fair, it is certainly possible that religion simply hijacks human traits that did have evolutionary advantages. Examples could be confirmation bias and other biases and heuristics (maybe even an “overactive agency detector”), or an instinctive respect for authority figures, and a desire to fit in with your group.

          Note that these same traits can also be hijacked by other ideologies, like the leader-worship in totalitarian communism.

          So seeing how many people nowadays do just fine without religion (even though their parents were usually much more religious), or with only vestiges of religion, and how much social pressure it takes to keep people in the fold of more fundamentalist religions nowadays, I highly doubt that a disposition for theism itself is somehow genetically determined.

    5. Glynn:

      1 marks you as not irrational. congratulations. A fairly low hurdle, however.

      2 marks you as intellectually lazy. Another fairly low bar, I’m afraid.

      Don’t wear either as a badge of honor.

      I came from that tradition as well. The understanding of science came after I rejected the obviously fallacious nature of religion. Even counting every single OT story and a good half of the NT fables as metaphor, you’re still left with an unsupportable position. Unless you dismiss it with a “things were different” wave of the hand.

      Really, you might as well declare that there really *were* fire-breathing dragons and unicorns back then as well.

      And why, oh why, would a god create all of the universe and us in it, in order that we know it and love it and worship it — then completely disappear from sight the minute any of the alleged supernatural acts could be counted on to be actually confirmed using scientific methodology?

      I suspect you’ll fall back on the old “faith” canard. To which I’ll have to fall back on my usual reply; if there were evidence supporting the truth claims of the fables, then “faith” as currently defined would be considered a mortal sin.

      You don’t have faith; only credulity.

    6. Glynn,

      “Becoming a Christian is an emotional leap in the dark not a reasoned response to logical argumentation.”

      This is honest.

      It also says that to justify your beliefs, you are willing to suspend the rules of logic and evidence, just because it feels good, as far as I can tell.

      Can you imagine yourself applying this kind of leap of faith to any other part of your life (for instance your investments or your mdeical care)?

      If not, then where do you stand on this? Seems to me it’s just a feel-good formula.

      All the best and thanks for commenting.


  16. You know, I just had this thought with regard to religious philosophy.

    Seems to me that the arguments of the religious philosophers appear to only have power in their original context. If you read the R-Ps book/dissertation/whatever, you have to slog through the entire argument to come out of the other side with any sort of appreciation for it.

    The minute one tries to present a summary or synopsis, their arguments become lame, trite, transparent, errant (as in Swinburne’s apparent egregious misuse of higher mathematics), and just plain silly.

    I wonder why that is?

    My guess is use of obscurant language.

    1. Of course – the absence of vaild arguments might play a part too…

      In a summary or synopsis, errors are usually more plain. So if you can’t write a good summary, the odds that your arguments are bunk is pretty high.

      1. Yes. Elsewhere, someone told me that not only did I have to read Swinburne in order to understand him, I had to read ALL of Swinburne, and not just one or two things.

        Meh. I understand him just fine. If you can’t summarize his position favorably in the same amount of time/space that others use to summarize it unfavorably, the arguments are unlikely to gain more traction with a finer level of detail.

        1. Indeed, this even applies to complex subjects such as evolution and quantum mechanics.

          To appreciate the full implications of the subjects requires more than a lifetime, but both can be summarized to the point that a layman can understand in but a few short sentences — or even less. Evolution, for example: “Organisms reproduce imperfectly.” Ask Jerry or Professor Dawkins or PZ to riff on that three-word sentence, and you’ll get an entire BIO101 course out of it.

          Theology? Ha! Not a chance.


    2. Philosophy and theology can only claim internal consistency (and often not even that.)

      In their own little imaginary pool, they are big frogs. One dose of reality and the house of cards falls. Of course: It has no reference to or foundation in reality.

      1. This isn’t the same Jon from The Intersection that uses links and name-dropping in place of an argument is it?

        If so, give bilbo and milton my regards.

    1. Frankly I’m kind of tired of:

      “How about book X”
      “How about person Y”

      If someone does not even articulate why we should consider X and Y, give and evaluation, a reason of merit or something. A summary of the position under consideration. It is not worth following up on.

      I actually have an opinion on Juergen Habermas, but frankly you won’t be getting it until you give some coherent statement I should bother.

      1. The thing that I’d think would make you all curious, is why do Habermas and Taylor seem to be able to agree on so much:

        They disagree on some things, but seem to find a lot of things uncontroversial–that say, Daniel Dennett would have a lot of trouble with. What are the premises that Habermas and Taylor agree with that Dennett doesn’t, and why?

        My argument is that they share certain premises embedded in the German enlightenment tradition, which is quite different from the English one (Taylor’s German enlightenment roots are through Hegel and Merleau-Ponty). I should think that would make people around here curious. If they’re *not* curious, I’m attributing that lack of curiosity to a kind of intellectual short circuit: if something’s not about lab equipment and scientific pubs, the thinking around here is that it must suck.

        1. I see. Let me paraphrase. Briefly you say that it’s interesting that Habermas and Ratzenberger (on the one hand) and Habermas and Taylor on the other hand agree much.

          You give various reasons.

          The only possible surprise is Habermas. Taylor is Roman Catholic which is quite sufficient to explain his position on religion.

          Now is Habermas’ position a surprise?

          Not really. Habermas has credited judeo-christian roots/values as foundational and persistent in society even before he had the exchange with the later pope.

          Does he give a proper argument? Well not really, it’s the standard historicism that happens in philosophy in the Marx/Hegel tradition.

          In any case I would contest that “Dennett doesn’t take religion seriously” but I know how you meant it. In fact I think Dennett takes religion more seriously than Habermas.

          Yes Dennett is in the analytic tradition that is very anglo-saxon. Habermas is in the German Hegelian/Kantian tradition.

          Even then I would speculate that Dennett and Habermas actually agree that metaphysics is done. A position that one will not find from Ratzinger or Taylor.

          As for religion sucking because there is no experiment. I think that’s at best a cartoon version of what people say. What people did say in this context is that Swinburne’s argument suck. That I think has been shown to be true.

          1. Taylor is Roman Catholic which is quite sufficient to explain his position on religion.

            I think Taylor discovered philosophy first, reading Merleau-Ponty to rebel against his positivist professors who were teaching him Hume. Later, he discovered catholic theology and became catholic. So I’m not sure you can dismiss him as a mere apologist.

            Well not really, it’s the standard historicism that happens in philosophy in the Marx/Hegel tradition… Habermas is in the German Hegelian/Kantian tradition.

            I think you have to go back to Kant’s disagreements with Hume, and probably the implications Kant had for later philosophy to understand what Taylor/Habermas assume that someone like Dennett does not. You can label it in a Mendelian way (so and so is this, so and so is that) but that’s not the same with coming to grips with the actual arguments.

            But subjects like this don’t excite the readership in the new atheist blogosphere, which I think is also why no one in the NA blogosphere replied to Chris Mooney’s reporting on his Templeton fellowship. The sensational “faithiest-bashing” content people are after just wasn’t there.

            Finally, by mentioning Hegel/Marx, I think you’re hinting that Habermas is overly focused on class/politics at the expense of scientifically verifiable reality. But you don’t have to resort to Marx to have common sense and acknowledge that there are class/education issues to consider here, as Josh Rosenau pointed out in this recent post, for instance:


            1. Yes, Kant invented a metaphysical rescue against epistemology. That doesn’t mean that Kant was correct.

              And indeed Dennett does not assume this. I dont’t think any serious philosopher today should start with that assumption. So why is this interesting for the argument beyond “It’s easier to keep a space for a notion of a deity if you have metaphysics to justify it with”?

              Habermas himself is tricky on the matter, claiming to think post-metaphysically. Now of course reading him he isn’t really post-metaphysical but keeps certain notions of metaphysics around (such as the historicity of (a) what judeo-christian values even are and (b) that they are to be respected and in some sense upheld.)

              As for coming to grips with actual arguments, I haven’t seen an argument yet. I have seen descriptions.

              “Dennett doesn’t consider Kant” is not an argument. You’d have to show that (a) what he didn’t consider specifically in Kant’s ideas and (b) why this is relevant and (c) why it changes anything.

              That would be some sort of argument.

              Sadly Habermas actually doesn’t say anything particularly interesting on the matter. Quote me one thing by Habermas that we should consider that changes Dennett’s ideas? Just one!

              Taylor is too simple to be interesting too. He simply demands Aristotelian metaphysics, and that is that. Disinterest in that is justified. And yes, that he prefers this position is exactly explained by him being a professed Roman Catholic.

              And Chris Mooney has shown in UA that he doesn’t know much about philosophy but still claims to be the umpire that defines where its boundaries are and who can participate (mostly to attack Dawkins).

              German Hegelian/Marxist neo-Kantian tradition is not about “class/politics” but idealism/historicism/dialectic materialism.

          2. My point is, who cares about Swinburne? If you want to talk about philosophy, go to the big dogs. They raise much more challenging questions which new atheists fastidiously avoid.

            1. The “big dogs” don’t say anything interesting on the topic either.

              Raise just one(!) “much more challenging question” that is not also covered by Humanism without theology.

              And yes citation is encouraged. Most of the links you provide are at best cursory so for.

            2. Part of the problem is that I don’t have time for a full conversation (these are blog comments, after all…)

              Also, I’m not trying to argue Humanism can’t answer things better than theology, just that the humanism of new atheists seems really narrow, and in some cases you really do need theology because its an inescapable part of the cultural background (eg, Rousseau is much better understood alongside his Calvinist Geneva, and western intellectual history can’t really do without the influence of St. Augustine).

              Also, I’m not arguing Dennett is unaware of Kant (although with his fanboys–whom he encouranges–it’s a different story).

              But, OK. One challenging question. I don’t think new atheism deals seriously with Weber’s concept of disenchantment:

            3. I’m also saying that if said fanboys actually knew a thing or two about some of these more challenging things, they’d be less likely to be “dickish.”

            4. You don’t know what an ad hominem is 😉

              Clearly you didn’t understand the debate here.

              The well of “read this” is infinite. If you don’t give what you see as merit in someone’s argument you basically waste other people’s time.

              That, I would conjecture, is the real reason for all this “read this” “consider that”.

              So far you have issued repeated appeals to authority, and complaints that certain (unspecified) positions are not considered and used it to try to characterize a supposed but unspecified group “new atheists” in a bad light.

              That isn’t even an argument.

              But as for gnu atheists, it’s enough to say something that a theist does not like to be called a nasty bully. Just check Chris Mooney’s writing on Dawkins. The whole dickishness discussion has some merit, but it also is used to try to shut people up.

            5. You don’t know what an ad hominem is

              He can’t have anything interesting to say about religion… because he’s catholic I think is as much an ad hominem attack as a right winger saying that reporter can’t have anything interesting to say on politics… because he’s with the New York Times.

              The well of “read this” is infinite.

              The publishing phenomenon initiated by Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and later Hitchens *invited* us to talk in an educated way. Their books are full of cultural references. They claim to speak for the Enlightenment, which reasonably assumes a certain canon of work. So we can reasonably come back and say ‘how about that Enlightenment?’ How about Kant and Hume, who were probably the most influential from that era. We can reasonably cite arguments by authors on Kant. We can reasonably cite someone like Max Weber, influenced by Kant and surely no obscure figure no one with an education has heard of on the subject of religion.

              I think this is part of the problem you run into with culture–as opposed to the study of just physical reality. You have a canon, otherwise you have to reinvent the wheel every time you talk. The leaders of this publishing movement, Dawkins, Dennett, etc., obviously have an education. If they claim cultural authority and cite what they’ve learned in their education at Oxofrd or Tufts, and claim to be speaking for the Enlightenment, they’re inviting you to as well, if they’re in that tradition.

              Now people who have an education, like the Phd who runs this blog, have a certain responsibility to be careful what opinions they prescribe to us various people out here, and not just be rabble rousing propagandists for their own point of view. They shouldn’t be pretending that that other parts of the Enlightenment never existed and no other views have any merit, that everything Kant believed was BS and had no merit, that Jurgen Habermas is a wanker, and that Charles Taylor should just be called an accomodationist and ignore the fact that his present work is completely consistent with what he was saying earning his stripes in the late 60’s before anyone even *heard* of Dennett or Dawkins, etc etc… (And if they haven’t even read Kant on religion and claim to speak for the enlightenment, then then that’s intellectual quackery, which is something else.)

            6. This thread started because Professor Coyne was told that Swinburne was a “big dog” with “challening arguments”.

              Who are those bigs dogs, and what are their challenging arguments? It’s not easy for a new atheist or anyone else (they’d probably think that I’m an accomadationist) to engage with them if you don’t say who they are.

            7. Yes, which is why I’ve been talking about them for several threads now. Will Coyne actually discuss them? No, because he’s a biologist. But like PZ Myers, he feels that degree makes him universally competent to discuss everything.

            8. What a bunch of bologna. More appeals to authority.

              So what is the contribution of Kant you are missing?

              Or are you just going to keep on crying comment after comment that people disregard Kant without saying what of Kant you even consider relevant?

              Basically you have an idle complaint.

              What of Weber’s writing do you want consider and why?

              You say nothing of it.

              As for “deep” critique of Taylor’s “spirituality”, frankly there no deep critique. His metaphysical claims are unfounded. That’s all there is to be said about it.

              The rest is idle footnote, and it really doesn’t matter when he came up with his ideas, or if he changed them.

              Frankly I have the strong impression that you don’t like that people don’t give “spirituality” ala Taylor respect. Well too bad really.

              I’ll have more respect for your position when you actually can form a coherent position that is not idle complaining and name dropping.

  17. The biggest difference between Dennett and Taylor/Habermas is in how each views the human brain. Dennett accepts that it evolved and achieves its function through the sheer number of networked cells. It is not mystical or even mysterious. Slime molds without a nervous system and comprising a temporary aggregation of cells can find the shortest and fastest routes through Tokyo more easily than human city planners. Lots of cells and trial and error or two cells are better than one.

    Kevin @16 explains the rest. Theists are shocked that atheists don’t believe. They think it is so basic that if you don’t believe you must not understand. The recent Pew survey shows atheists have more basic knowledge of religion than believers, but the believer claims can’t be the right kind of knowledge. Theists think you only understand religion if you are a believer and will continue to tell you that you don’t understand until you believe.

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