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Friday, 20 August 2010

The Doublethink of the God Delusion

Doublethink or The Ability to Simultaneously
Hold Two Contradictory Opinions.
This blog is a response to the challenge from @TweetMinistries on Twitter to comment on a blog by Gary Gutting, a philosophy teacher at the University of Notre Dame. The blog was a critique of, “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

Gutting's orginal blog may be read at:

Gutting starts off badly and shows he hasn't understood what he is criticising by summarising Dawkins as saying natural selection explains the complexity of the universe. Dawkins only ever argues that natural selection accounts for the diversity and complexity of life, not of the universe. However, this is not the central argument of Gutting’s case.

The central argument is that Dawkins failed to take into account the theological argument that God is a special case and can be regarded as irrational, therefore it should be exempt from arguments aimed at showing there is no rational basis for a belief in one.

Gutting correctly points out that Dawkins' argument is that a creator god would necessarily be more complex than the universe it created, therefore the argument for a god from complexity is unsatisfactory in that it simply introduces another unexplained layer of complexity, so not only failing to solve the problem but actually making it worse.

He then complains that Dawkins never addressed the fact that, “philosophers from Thomas Aquinas through contemporary thinkers have offered detailed discussions of the question that provide intelligent suggestions about how to think coherently about a simple substance that has the power and knowledge attributed to God”.

This neatly sidesteps the problem of the necessary knowledge and information required to create a universe with all its complexity. The definition of God is shifted dramatically away from an omniscient, omnipotent god capable of emotions such as love and anger, able to formulate morality, hand down laws of behaviour and to monitor and record our thoughts, and in whose image we were created, to something much easier to fit into the debate at hand. This god is now a simple substance, presumably having no complexity whatsoever, yet still has the “power and knowledge attributed to it”.

In other words, this god has complexity without having complexity. Yep! That IS irrational, but that’s not a problem either. You see there is always “the possibility that God is a necessary being (that is, a being that, by its very nature, must exist, no matter what). On this traditional view, God’s existence would be, so to speak, self-explanatory and so need no explanation...”, something Gutting also complains that Dawkins didn’t take into account.

What Gutting is complaining of here is that Dawkins should have accepted the workarounds for the difficult questions which theologians have assiduously devised to help them ignore them, and that he cheated by not allowing for them.

Yes indeed, Dawkins, in his argument that there was no rational explanation for a god did not take into account that there is an irrational explanation which should have been regarded as rational because it’s not fair to subject it to rational analysis (because it would fail that test).

Gutting then attempts to support this view by reference to Bertrand Russell’s point that we would require very strong evidence to believe that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun. Dawkins agrees with Russell that an extraordinary claim such as that requires an extraordinary level of supporting evidence to justify its acceptance.

He points out that, if astronauts had reported a teapot shaped object in orbit and satellite data had strongly suggested that there was indeed a teapot in orbit, this would be sufficient evidence to at least cause us to allow for the possibility of the teapot hypothesis being correct.

Gutting then tries to argue that there is indeed just such strong evidence to support the god hypothesis. Unfortunately the only evidence he has to offer is, “There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being”, neglecting to point out that none have ever produced evidence of a reality, and, “there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence”, as though arguments from authority are a good as real evidence.

What Gutting is attempting to do here is to suggest that somehow, the subjective interpretations of perception and the opinions of philosophers should be place on an equal footing with scientific data and independent eye-witness accounts. This is, of course, nothing more than special pleading again. The god hypothesis will only work if you exempt it from the normal tests you apply to other hypotheses, therefore it should be granted these exemption without further justification.

Gutting reinforces this claim with, “But religious believers will plausibly reply that science is suited to discover only what is material (indeed, the best definition of “material” may be just “the sort of thing that science can discover”). They will also cite our experiences of our own conscious life (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) as excellent evidence for the existence of immaterial realities that cannot be fully understood by science”.

He has ignored the fact that neurophysiology is material and so consciousness, thoughts, feelings, etc, are not evidence of the immaterial at all (‘plausible’ seems to mean ‘convenient’ in this context). And there again is that plea of special status for the god hypothesis. Now the reason is that this god should be exempt from ALL tests of existence because it is now assumed to be immaterial and so beyond the reach of science.

In summary then, Gutting is arguing that Dawkins was wrong to argue that there is no rational basis for belief in a god because belief in god is irrational and Dawkins should have accepted that as er... rational.

Presumably this form of 'logic' is perfectly acceptable in theological circles.

We also have here yet another example of the special pleading which theologians use to defend their god hypothesis. Their little hypothesis wants to play with the big boys of science and compete on an equal footing, but it needs affirmative action and special assistance to get by. It’s not fair that it should have to take the same tests scientific hypotheses have to pass. It’s perfectly fair to claim it is as rational as scientific hypotheses even though it is irrational.

This compartmentalised doublethink is a perfect example of Dawkins’ God Delusion.

It's really rather sad that humans, in attempting to create a god, have only managed to create a seriously handicapped one.

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  1. It all comes down to whether or not we believe science can answer all the questions of life, including the very difficult ones, doesn't it.

    There are no clear answers to this conundrum. If you believe "Yes" then there is little reason to ask anything beyond the logical follower question "When?" And that is not an easy answer to anticipate both in terms of timing and content!

    If you believe "No" then there are real and pertinent questions that need to be explored for any self satisfaction.

    A "Don't know" or "Don't care" answer is a lazy option, but perhaps the safest to avoid argument!

    Yet's a matter of choice. God has presented Himself in the Bible and in the person of Jesus for dissection and analysis. The decision is ours.

  2. >God has presented Himself in the Bible and in the person of Jesus for dissection and analysis. <

    That, of course, is an assertion for which you are unable to provide any supporting evidence.

    Were you to do so, and that evidence could not reasonably be doubted, I would be amongst the first to accept it.

    I do not believe my opinions or my desires trump evidence. I believe this is the intellectually honest approach and I find it hard to believe that any sentient creator of the universe, and especially one who created my brain, would want me to be otherwise.

  3. God is complex and not at the same time. sounds like he is a Taoist. "R" epic post. Thanks so much.


  4. Kuhn keeps coming up more and more. It even seems that the more science is able to explain, the more Kuhn is used in these kinds of debates. The problem is that Kuhn is an incorrect position:

    - science is indeed not able to answer all questions, we do not (yet) have the technology and not everything has been examined. We are well on our way, but we are not there yet.

    - science does not lie about not being to answer these questions yet. The answer at the moment is: working on it, but at the moment, we simply do not know yet. Or: there are a few theories that require further investigation, we hope to be able to have a correct answer in future.

    - science does not say: here is the answer, when an answer is not conclusive.

    - now let's look at the 'competition'. God is the answer, says religion. There is no proof, there is no evidence. When asked for evidence, religion says that the answer can not be proven.

    - when science finds an answer that was previously answered by Goddidit (religion), god-of-the-gaps has a smaller gap to live in.

    - this process has been going on for many many centuries. However, it is hardly ever addressed by religion. It took the Vatican until 1980 to confirm the world is not flat.

    - we should be familiar with this process by now. In my opinion science has proved itself useful enough on questions people felt it could not answer, to not be dismissed straightaway.

  5. Yep! The little god of the gaps keeps getting evicted from more an more gaps as science advances. The poor little thing has only been inserted there in the first place to make it easy for people to be satified with ignorance and derive comfort from not having to bother with learning.

    1. This was one of the first points that made me start doubting. I remember when I was a kid and learning about space, I wondered why the astronauts never saw heaven on the way up. I was also into dinosaurs and prehistoric animals and my doubt was sealed when I mentioned cavemen in conversation with my deeply religious grandmother and she said 'if they ever existed'. There was my doubt sealed. I figured out at that young age that religion, even the idea of god itself, was just a way of answering questions people didn't have the resources to answer at the time the bible was written. Great blog, actually made me giggle in places! Keep up the good work :)

  6. "It all comes down to whether or not we believe science can answer all the questions of life, including the very difficult ones, doesn't it."

    No, it doesn't. Science may, or may not, answer all the questions eventually. If it can, it may well be that we don't understand the answers. But irrespective of whether, one day, science is able to provide us with the explanations as to origins of life, the universe, the multiverse, the only "lazy option" as described by TweetMinistries, would be to drop a god into whatever rapidly shrinking gap in understanding remains. Saying "I don't know" is neither safe nor lazy - it is the only intellectually honest position to take in the absence of so much as a hint of viable evidence in support of supernatural theories.

    @atheocrat (Twitter)

  7. An excellent post, I'm sorry I only read it now. Your writing is excellent.

    One thing a lot of people, 'theologians' especially neglect is that even if their god existed, was irrational and immaterial and beyond the ability of science to detect, this god would still cause effects in the real world and those effects would necessarily be measurable. If it wasn't, we wouldn't know of it's existence and several billion people claim to be aware of the existence of some deity implying a perceivable and therefore measurable effect on reality.

    If this irrational, immaterial, undetectable god also had undetectable or non existent effects in the world... a) we wouldn't know about it and b) who gives a crap, it doesn't do anything.

    The religious are full of shit.

  8. Back before psychologists showed us that humans were irrational most of the time (_Thinking Fast and Slow_ is just one of the books on the topic), it may have seemed to make sense as a rational argument to say "Well, we humans think it, therefore it should be given the benefit of the doubt and is probably rational".

    Now that we know that humans are irrational most of the time, such an argument is irrational. Though very human. :-)

  9. "to make it easy for people to be satisfied with ignorance and derive comfort from not having to bother with learning."

    What shall we do about the recent studies which show that the majority of people like to not think and find thinking unpleasant and painful? If only a minority of people actually like thinking and learning, this creates complex social problems.


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