Monday, October 18, 2010

Back and Forth on the Cosmological Argument: Militant vs. Timid Atheism: Is Religious Belief Intellectually Reasonable?

1. Me:

My two cents on why Hawking is right.One cent is that faith says zero about the world, nor does ought it say anything: it's the internalization of an assumption as a private truth.

My other cent is that for Hawking to be right one has to agree that accounts of the world are subjectto science's protocols from hypothesis to provable onclusion. For Hawking to be wrong one has to agree that accounts of the world need not submit themselves to the protocols of science, that science is irrelevant to them.

2. Couchmar:

When you say things like this it makes it hard to think that the debate has been entered properly. You write: "....for Hawking to be right one has to agree that accounts of the world are subject to science's protocols from hypothesis to provable conclusion." The problem with this way of framing the issue is that you are assuming that by "the world" religious believers are talking about "the physical world." But it's not clear that religious believers would accept that. So I fear that the plausibility of your point depends on your equivocating on the word "the world."

3. Me:

Respectfully, I don't understand your comment or its conceivable relevance.The religious we're here concerned with, with their conceptions of God, are cosmologists by dint of their religion. Their religions all have creation myths. Kermode says a myth is a believed in fiction. If we're not talking about this religious cosmologizing, then what in God's name are we talking? Nothing that Hawking is talking about.

4. Couchmar:

Maybe I wasn't clear in what I said. Let me try again. Your second point makes two claims about who is right in this debate. First, you say that for Hawking to be right one has to agree that accounts of the world are answerable to science's protocols. Now, on it's face it seems like you have stacked the deck against religion.

Many religious believers will accept that "science is the authority" when it comes to the physical world. To agree that we learn about the physical world by using science's protocols would not itself show that Hawking is right about religion; it should just show that science is to be used for describing/understanding the physical world. I don't see how this is very helpful to Hawking's case against religion. I mean, if religious believers would agree with this point themselves, I don't see how this benefits Hawking.

Second, when you say that for Hawking to be wrong accounts of the world do not need to submit themselves to the protocols of science, this again seems a bit misleading. Many religious believes would accept (as mentioned) that science is appropriate for understanding the physical world. It is just that they would deny that it is relevant for understanding the (supposed) nonphysical world. But since their concern is really with the existence of the nonphysical world, I don't see how the point being made by you addresses the issue.

This way of framing the issue seems to mislocate the in the debate between Hawking and his opponents. This is not a debate about whether accounts of the physical world should be best approached by science or not.

5. Me:

You guys are a little heady for me, one of the slower fellas, not an academic and a crass atheist, really crass. Also I'm a working stiff. But I'll wade through the above posts and make of them what I can and then, most likely, reassert my crassness.

Religion is an anachronistic waste of time that these days is way more harmful than helpful. From the diddling of school boys to the fomenting of intractable disputes, to its prevasive reifications, I say it's time, for God's sake, to give it a complete rest.

6. Couchmar:

I'm not unsympathetic to some of what Hawking says, and I indicated above that I am what many would call an athiest (or maybe an atheist leaning agnostic). But I do believe that it is important to be an atheist for the right reasons. My main complaint with the new atheists and with portions of Hawking is that they offer very bad reasons for being an atheist; most of what they attack are straw men.

So in this respect I'm inclined to question many of the arguments such atheists offer for their beliefs. I think religion is a serious subject that is not simply the product of superstition and idiocy (or, at least, it need not be, even if it is among many believers).

That said, my two concerns with what you claim are that (i) there is a dichotomy between believing by science and reason and believing by faith (which is some sort of private, internal matter, i.e., subjective). But this way of describing religion applies only to certain religions. For instance, Catholics believe there is rational support (I don't say "proof") for the existence of God. Indeed, it is the *official* view of Catholics that God is not known merely by faith alone.

So I think your statement oversimplifies the issue by creating a false dichotomy. (ii) You describe religious believers as "asserting reification" about things they don't know. But this way of describing the situation, again, seems somewhat simplistic given the theologian's arguments about god and religion. When I read serious books on Philosophy of Religion, I can't help thinking that there is more to the arguments offered than "mere reification," and so I'm inclined to think that one has to address these arguments for god a bit more directly than this.

7. Couchmar:

I think if you read my previous posts you'll discern my complaint about Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (I haven't read all of Dennett). These authors are attacking straw men (i.e., they describe some caricature of religion, which no serious believer accepts, and then demolish it and declare victory). I've know sophomores in my classes who could do better than this (seriously). If you want to read a serious discussion of religion, try reading the William Rowe book I mentioned. He is vastly more sophisticated than any of the authors you mention.

8. Me:

I think religion is an anachronistic legacy for the days of yore abrim with magical thinking under which godliness was conferred on all matter of things. This aside, and granting that religion is a serious thing to study, I think the plain spoken--"crass"-- reasons of the new atheists for atheism are right. If not, as you say, what are the right reasons. And straw men me no straw men nor suggest I read other books. Just tell me the right reasons as you see them.As to your problems with my claims.

I see no god argument for your assertion that of my "false dichotomy. Catholics may say they press rational arguments for the existence of God. So what? So do astrologists? That's a non sequitur. For your point to be telling the rational arguments must pass intellectual muster. Rationality is more than the internal logic between premise and conclusion. The premises must bear realtion to the world.

The rational arguments for God's existence are intelligible only inside the echo chambers of the religious. So no false dichotomy for the reason you advance.I say reificiation. You say I'm being simplistic.

You say that there is more to the arguments beong offered than reification. Fine. What is that more. Your assertion of it does not an argument make. Make me an argument and don't please tell me to read books. Just please make the argument.The foregoing plea reflects my problem with the heady discussion here. When the name dropping rubber meets the analytical road, there's no there there. When the there there is put to me, I'll deal with it. But merely saying more or telling me to read a book won't do, I'm afraid. I need arguments. Until I get them, I'll conclude there's none you can make.

9. Couchmar:

Let me see what I can say to reply to you. As I've said, I think there are more sophisticated attempts to justify theism than what the new atheists discuss. I also think these issues are complicated and need careful examination. So I don't see how my writing up some attempted defense of theism on this blog is going to help in this limited space. I am not interested in defending theism since I'm not a theist, just the claim that simplistic dismissals of theism are themselves simplistic.

If you don't know what sophisticated arguments for theism look like, I encourage you to stop taking your information about this from the likes of Dawkins, Harris, et all. The first is a biology professor and the second a neuroscientist. They are probably not the best sources for serious arguments on religion (any more than you should take your basic understanding of biology from a theologian). This is why I recommended the book by Rowe that I mentioned (he tries to examine the issues very patiently and in detail) and avoids many of the pitfalls of other discussions. If you don't care to that is fine as well.

On a side note, I worry when you say things like "rationality is more than the internal logic between premise and conclusion. The premises must bear *relation to the world.*" If this point about rationality were true this would rule out most of mathematics. Mathematicians, e.g., explore noneuclidian geometries without regard to their application to the physical universe. And I take it that mathematics is a paradigmatic rational enterprise. So I worry that this way of thinking of rationality is a bit too restrictive.

10. Me:

Couchmar, dear me! I'm not asking for so much. I'm not asking for a treatise on arguments for theism. I'm just asking for:

1. a few--just one even--plain spoken arguments for the existence of God that will show the new atheists up; and

2. a few plain spoken "right reasons"--just one even--for being an atheist in contrast the new atheist's crass ones.It's not rocket science and it's not higher mathemantics. It's a bit of what you shold be able to explain to a freshman or even high school philosophy class, certainly to an intelligent layman, such as myself. Geez, can't you even give me one such sophisticated argument and one right reason, just one of each that's all I ask.The reason to do it here is because I'm discussing it with you here, and you seem to want to engage the discussion, and I want to be disabused of the unsophisticated errors of my simple ways. If you can do that great. If you can't, then you can't and I'll draw my own inferences about that.

About your worry about my restrictive view of rationality, I appreciate your concern. But I worry you have misconceived what I said. It doesn't follow from what I said that all internally consistent systems of thought fail and, I take your point, there are, intellectual enterprizes like some branches of math, where non real word or practical applicability is irrelevant. But we're not talking about "noneudclidian geometries" or whatever. We're--you and I, Hawking, the crass new atheists--talking about rational arguments for the existence of God on the issue of the relation between faith and religion's cosmologizing truth claims and whether those claims can be said to rest on anything more than faith, in the final analysis.

With all due respect, after a lot of windy posts above--not yours--I don't see a glove having been laid on Hawking or the new atheists by anyone from Romano on down to you. I'm still waiting for an argument to take out what I have argued in support of Hawking's essential correctness on the issue. So far, it all amounts to bubkes.

11. Couchmar:

Alright I'll make one pass at this, but I don't think this will be very instructive.

Just take the standard "cosmological argument" for god. I don't believe that this argument can be refuted by saying simple things like "religion is nothing but superstition," and "people believe in religion only on faith." Here is the argument:

1. There exists things that are caused in the world.

2. Nothing can be the cause of itself.

3. There cannot be an infinite regress of causes.

Thus, 4. There exists an uncaused, first cause of the world.

5. "God" means (in part) an uncaused, first cause.

Thus, 6. God exists.

There are various ways of formulating this argument to make it more precise; but this is should convey the basic idea. Again note that I'm not defending this argument as being right, only that the kinds of points that Dawkins and others have made don't address the issues here.

11. Me:

Well thank you Couchmar.

But there are two problems with setting out the cosmological argument.

First the argument is easily refuted but secondly you are simply wrong to say in ascribing crassnes to the new atheists in tht they don't deal with such arguments. You say, wrongly,you're pointing out "that dawkins and others...don't address the issues here." Of course they do: Sam Harris for example graduated in philosophy from Stanford and rehearsed this argument in The End of Faith and in his running debate with Andrew Sullivan. And Dawkins took it head on The God Delusion and less so in The Selfish Gene.

The point the argument raises is there having been a first cause in time. The second point the argument raises is from contingency. Matter needs to have come from something and therefore the universe--the totality of all matter--must have been brought into existence by God.The first problem with the cosmological argument is how certain can we be there is no infinite regress.

While paradoxes abound over the notion of infinity, they reflect our counterintuitive discomfort with the idea. But, as you will know, mathematicians deal well infinite sequences of integers. Dawkins specifically says that resort to the difficulties of understanding infinity is "an argument to personl credulity". I.E. how can argument for God proceed merely from what we cannot understand about the constituents and ultimate nature of the universe.

The new atheists to a man and woman say, I paraphrase, "we don't know, what we don't know, and until we come to know what we don't know, we continue not to know what we don't know." Altogether a sensible and adult position: humility in the face of what we don't understand. After all--who argued?--all we know is properties within the universe. It's beyond what we know to say the universe has a cause or is contingent.

The cosmological argument is one of massive circularity.

In line with this type of objection, the cosmological argument entails a time when before the universe began. But the universe is by definition the totality of all time and space. Similalry, the argument is nothing can be the cause of itelf but that God is the cause of himself so that God is beyond the the universe, not boundby it, by its laws. But this concedes infinity and denies contingency and therefore undermines he argument that the universe must have a cause, over and above the problems of saying something is beyond or outside the universe.

Further even if it's meaningful to speak of God as the cause of himself, a huge "if" by the way, why can't the Big Bang be the first, sufficient unto itself cause. Since we can't understand the idea of what is necessary, on what basis--other than circular reasoning--can we assume that necessity is in God and not in the universe. Unless we understand why God created the universe and why he is necessary, resort to God doesn't account for anything. We err in postulating God---a mystery external to the universe--without good reason. We are better off cosmologizing by means of the Big Bang--limiting it to being a provisional hypothesis within the protocols of science.

If the universe is a Russellian "brute fact", asserting God as first cause, and then ducking out by claiming God is perpetually present, simply shifts the brute fact from something we know about--the universe--to something we know nothing about and reify--God.

I'll conclude with the following:

1. Nothing here suggests that you defend the cosmological argument;

2. but the above demonstrates its utter circularity, the utter arbirtariness of its assumptions, and its dependence, finally, on a kind of leap of faith; and

3. there is nothing in the above that the new atheists have not spoken to, particularly Dawkins, Harris, Swineburne and Dennett--Hitchins makes more historically rooted arguments; and 4. the arguments against Hawking et al are still no further ahead.

After all, if stinginess is a good criterion for acceptable argument--in the sense of that famous razor--there are simpler explanations than mind bending complicated ones like God. There is no reason whatsoever to equate first cause with any traditional conception of God. Best answer is "who knows".

12. Me:

I'm going to make some comments just going down your post; although I fear there are still too many issues to address in this limited space.

1. First, notice that the argument offered, by your own standard of "rationality," is clearly a rational argument. The argument depends on reasoning from premise to conclusion, and premise (1) has "relation to the world." That is, it is clearly an empirical claim about the existence of causes and effects in the world. This is important to observe since I don't see any mention of "faith" here.

2. I did not anywhere claim that Dawkins and Harris don't discuss this issue. What I meant was that they don't address the (real) issues here but oversimplify and make too many cheap shots. This is to say that I don't think they take these things seriously enough (if they did, why would they spend so much time attacking straw men?). But let's just turn to the argument.3. The first cause (in time) version. Yes, one response to this is to attack premise

(3) "There cannot be an infinite regress of causes." As you note, mathematicians make use of an infinite series of integers, so there is some reason for thinking that an infinite series is not impossible (and, hence, (3) is false).

Now, Dawkins' observation that this has something to do with "personal credulity" seems entirely besides the point. Either we have a clear grasp of what an infinite series involves or we don't. I don't see how anything here depends on "a personal decision". More importantly, there is a sensible response to this objection, which is to observe that "integers" are not the same as "causes" and so your analogy breaks down. Yes, maybe integers can make an infinite series but integers are not the same thing as events (or objects) that stand in cause-effect relations (think of a bowling ball hitting a pin--these don't seem much like integers--can an integer "hit" something else?).

So the appropriate issue here is to determine "what has to be the case for a series of causes-and-effects to occur?" This seems like a perfectly reasonable question to me (even one scientists might want to ask). And then the next step would be to evaluate the various answers to this question. Now my point here is not to defend this particular response to your objection as correct. My only concern is to suggest that this response has nothing to do with faith or superstition or "the days of yore." This seems like a reasonable disagreement to try to sort out that depends on a better understanding of the concept "cause," "effect," "explanation," etc. 3.

Your point that "the argument is one of massive circularity" I don't understand. An argument is circular when it says "p, therefore p" or, maybe "p because q (and q=p)". I don't see any such mistake in this argument (the conclusion (4) is not simply a restatement of (1), (2), or (3)). The disagreement turns on the issue of how to understand the above concepts I mentioned about which there is debate. This has nothing to do with circularity.4. Now we move to the second version (contingency).

You note that on another interpretation the argument claims "that nothing can be the cause of itself but that God is the cause of himself so that God is beyond the universe." This is close but not quite right (again, I think there is a substantive issue here!). The traditional view is NOT that God is "self-caused" but that God is "un-caused." These are entirely different ideas. If God were self-caused, then he would have to be the cause of himself, but this would seem to imply that he would have to exist (as cause) before he existed (as effect). But that makes no sense. To say that God is un-caused is just to say that he has always existed and was not "caused" to exist at some time. So you are not attacking the official view believers accept.

5. Now, you make an interesting point that relates to this. Doesn't THIS response concede that infinity is not a problematic notion (if God has always existed infinitely). I think this is the right kind of thing one should say here, but notice that this point **takes us right back to the analogy with mathematical integers** (this is why I said there is a substantive issue about the mathematics analogy). The traditional view is that God is not himself "a series" so there is no similarity with an "infinite series of integers." (I mean, nobody thinks that God is just like an integer.) So this response has some problems and needs work.

6. Again, let me be clear that I'm not suggesting that such a reply to this objection is ultimately right. But I do think that whether this particular disagreement can be settled turns on the proper understanding of concepts like "series," "integer," "God," etc. There are genuine issues here that require careful investigation.7. You next bring up the concept of "necessity" here, and dismiss this as another instance of "circularity."

The ease with which you do this is concerning to me, so let me say the following (there is too much to say about this issue in such a short format). I agree with you that there are difficulties understanding the concept of "necessity." But I don't see any circularity here. Let me just say that I think you have not done nearly enough work that would be needed to establish that this concept has no sense and doesn't advance the argument (e.g., Leibniz invented calculus (along with Isaac Newton) and he thought that this was a legitimate concept, and he was no dummy).

So I don't think you can dismiss this issue so quickly.Let me say what I think follows from this:

(i) I'm glad that your comments make no mention of "religion as an anachronistic legacy for the days of yore." What the argument we're considering suggests is that there are real issues here entirely independent from this. Indeed, I'm struck by how much of your post makes my point by going on at length about these issues--we cannot simply sweep away theism as "foolishness" because there are substantive issues to address that reasonable people can be concerned with.

(ii) Your claim that this involves "circularity" "arbitrary assumptions" etc. doesn't really apply. There are problems with this argument, as I have said, but they have nothing to do with circularity and I think turn on disagreements about the basic issues involved.

(iii) Last, I still am curious why any of this can be thought to redound to the credit of the new atheists. Nothing you have mentioned so far is not a well-known response made by philosophers of previous generations. All of these points have already been made by David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Nagel, etc. (many years ago).

So I don't see what the new atheists have added to this debate except a very hectoring tone.

13. Me:

Couchmar, I'll try do deal with some of your points.

Firstly, I fail to see how my essaying a rational argument helps your side of the position. The utlimate issue is whether the cosmological argument, as a prototypical "rational argument", ultimately rests on faith. That I try to show that by premises-which I hope "have relation to the world"-- leading to conclusions has nothing to do with the sturdiness of rational arguments for the existence of God. And it has nothing to do with my thesis of underlying faith. I simply have no other way of arguing: no one does who really is arguing. At any rate this point seems to be obiter dicta.

Respectfully,I believe you have qualified, moved from, one part of your opening position. Now you say some of the new atheists indeed deal with the traditonal sets of arguments for God's existence, as opposed to assertions of "crassness" and not dealing with them at all. I will not get into an argument of weighing how much or well they do it. They are not after all writing papers for the Journal of Metaphysics or whatever. They are admittedly doing some popularizng and there is nothing wrong, crass or disrespectful about that enterprize as such. And if they are hectoring or intolerant, I think their subject deserves that tone, that their is room for that tone in these discussions because, stated baldly, religion is a hangover from magical thinking from the days of yore, nothing more than that.

I don't think I have any problem with your paragraph 3. Infinite regress does seem counterintuitive to me, but never would I use that seeming as necessary premise in a series of logical propositions forming an argument about the existence of God, just as I wouldn't--remembering the criterion of " premises bearing relation to the world"--have the intellectual audacity to transform my counterintuition into a telling account of the nature of the universe, its constituents, and its realtion to temporality and we we understand of finiteness and infinity.

I'll leave all that to the only ones competent to speak of these matters, scientists who do this kind of scientific work. Hawking is devastatingly correct--as in a different context is Searle- to say that on these issuses science has outstripped philosophy and left is a kind of anachronism. Cosmologizing that cannot contend with the best scientific thinking--however provisonal, necessarily--about the nature and consituents of the universe is laughable, as are, ultimately, however much fun they are, and however much of a living they provide for academic philosphers, "rational arguments" for the existence of God.

I think it's worthwhile and important, as you say-- and here, among many other places, philosophy has great usefulness--"to try to sort out...a better understanding of 'cause', 'effect', 'explanation' etc." But even here cause and effect will need for example, to accommodate the bizarre relatons betwen seemingly "uncaused" events in quantum physics. In a nutshell, none of any the above valorizes the cosmological argument.As to whether the cosmological argument suffers from circular reasoning, I'm happy to substitute begs the question in place of circular reasoning.

To we laymen the terms are virtually synonomous, but perhaps some academic logicians following Aristotle will want to make distinctons. One mode of question begging is explicitly or implicitly to assume, without demonstrating, a proposition in the premise. Question begging abounds in your formulation of the argument. Saying that cause has to be further questioned and refined, and causality runs through the entire argument, merely reinforces in relation to the utltimate nature of the universe and its constituents the artificiality of the notion of cause as it exists in the argument.

That artificial meaning of cause is assumed without being demonstrated in the entirety of the argument. The synthetic attack on this notion of cause derives from what science knows and doesn't know. Once the inadequacy of cause is so shown, then its question begging fallaciousness is also made out. Given the exploding of the notion of cause in relation to the imponderability of the universe, for which the best we can do is--apparently--to mount a provisional hypothesis of a Big Bang, it seems utterly meaningless to assert your conclusions 5 and 6, and the definition of God in in 5.

And how is the argument not circular. It starts from something purely analytical--which is not demonstrated--God is an uncaused first, cause--and converts what is someone's definition into a synthetic proposition by a chain of question begging reasoning. The entire argument which is a fudge of cause assumes an defintion of deity only to reiterate it in its conclusion.I appreciate the calrification between self caused and uncaused.

But I'll sort of stop here.I think I have said enough above to show that the cosmological argument is logically unsustainable and to male the cultural or perhaps psychological point that it's a thin veneer or reasoning masking the faith that so obviously underlies it.

I suspect that for academic philosophers the play of argument is enjoyable and that in its rehearsing there is much to be learned about logical reasoning and is therefore worthwhile as an academic discplining anmd training of philosophy students.

But to end where I began, it's hard for me to begin even imagine anyone not shot up with faith taking the cosmological argument seriously as a telling rational, persuasive argument for the existence of God of traditional religion.So there may be serious issues presented by the argument for philosophy as a discipline and for philosphers in thier doing of philosphy, but there is no serious issue presented by it for the validity of cosmoligizing religion asserting its truth claims.


14. Couchmar:

I'm going to make a few comments and then ask you a question, since I'm unsure whether you intend to be agreeing with me or not. There is a lot in your post to discuss, some of which I think is OK, and some of which is just wrong, but it's not clear to me that going through all of it will be very helpful.

So let me try asking you a question about how you are thinking about this topic. My complaint all along has been that it is too simplistic to attack theism by crying things like "religion is nothing but faith and superstition," "religion depends on magical thinking for the days of yore," etc. These kinds of attacks are typical of the new atheists you sympathise with. Now, you said that your aim above was to show that the argument we're considering ultimately depends on faith (or "a leap of faith," as you say), and I am deying this.

I believe that there are substantive issues here (outside of faith) that a reasonable person may be concerned with. Such a person may in the end be wrong in their assessment of the argument (which, as an atheist, is what I think), but this assessment depends on reason and evidence. In light of this when you say, towards the end, that "it's hard for me to imagine anyone not shot up with faith taking the cosmological argument seriously" I become uncertain whether you are agreeing with me or not.

The issue is either

(1) the cosmological argument can be evaluated independently of faith on entirely rational and evidential grounds, or

(2) faith is essential to any evaluation of the argument. If the latter is true, then you would have shown (as per your intent, I take it) that "religion is nothing but faith and superstition...." and I would have failed to make my point.

So do you mean to advance (1) or (2)? Why does this matter? If (1) is true, then I submit that showing that the cosmological argument is mistaken (on rational and evidential grounds) is THE RIGHT REASON FOR BEING AN ATHEIST. And I submit that this point is entirely independent of simplistic dismissals of religion as "superstition," "longing for the days of yore," etc.

If (2) is true, then we can sweep away all attempts to defend religion with the broad brush that the new atheists typically use; i.e., there is really nothing worth considering about arguments for theism because it all boils down to faith and superstition anyway. (After all, you claim that the rational arguments being considered "are laughable.")I have something else to say, but I'll wait for your response first.

Your comments are helpful and maybe we're sorting some of this out.

15. Me:

Couchmar, thanks for your post. I think it's incisive.

I'll answer your question but before I do I want to say, clarify, some, things.No one serious with whom I'm familiar *only* says about religion, "it's just gobbledy gook, magical thinking etc." The new atheists, for example, analyze religion from a variety of perspectives, including some unpacking of traditional religious arguments like the one you formulated and the ontological one. A lot of their analyzing and unpacking is popularization, which is altogether a fine thing. So it's off point to complain they're breezier than what goes on in academic journals; that it's been said before and better by Hume and others; and its wrong and verging on ad hominem to say reductively they're crass or simplistic or unserious. "Magical thinking, superstition" and so on is their conclusion and they try to set out the reasons why.

I want refine your characterization of our issue in in your second paragraph. I'll say that insofar as the cosmlogical argument is a rational argument for the existence of God, then God's existence is shown if that argument passes scrutiny. (Any argument designed to demonstrate anything deomstrates that thing if the argument is correct.)

I agree that the cosmological argument stands to be assessed by reason and evidence. In fact its the only way it--any argument--can be assessed. And its stakes are big: God's very existence may hang in the balance. But once the argument is discredited by your, let's say, better reasons than mine, what do we say about those who continue to assert it in the face of that discrediting? What do we say about anyone who clings to a argument shown to be wrong?

If I say the colour yellow silver evidences life, and the moon is yellow silver, therefore there is life on the moon. That is an argument for life on the moon. We know that the notion of life on the moon is preposterous. But my yellow/silver argument is an argument for life on the moon, an altogether preposterous notion. But then again if my argument is correct, I will have by my argument demonstrated life on the moon. An inevitable reaction to argument wil be to scoff at it without dismantling it. Here we see some of cultural and psychological the dynamics when absurdity, anamolously, is dressed up in rational syllogistic form.

Some will dismantle the aburdity of the argument with evidence and reason. But until they do, I'll be able to say to those who don't, "your dismissals are crass and sneering and superficial, until you meet my argument with a beter argument, you really have nothing to say." As well, culturally and psychologically, I can say "The existence of life on the moon is a serious issue, worthy of serious debate and rational argument. There are arguments pro and con. And there are a lot of people 'out there' who take the yellow/silver argument seriously and who have institutonalized it with yellow, silver places of worship and devotional accretions over millenia. So it's a big deal, and nothing to be snide or crass or superficial about."So you know what I'm saying.

And for those who gainsay the illogic silver, yellow argument, I'm saying their faith underlies it.

I don't see the difference in principle between my caricature of of the cosmological and the "serious issues" it raises and the assertion that the cosmoligical argument presents serious issue that lead one necessarily to be open minded and tolerant of the possibility that the God of traditonal religion might exist.

If the latter part of the beofre long sentence was true, then the side show has swallowed the circus. In a word, the faith underlying the cosmological argument is the faith of those who cling to it despite its inadequacy.

So, the yellow silver argument like the cosmological argument does not, as a system of self contained thought, depend on faith. But the erroneous assertion if its first premise does, as does the continued adherence to it, in the face of its discrediting.

Couchmar, this gets me to the end of your first two paragraphs and I have to run. But when I get back, later tonight, I'll try to deal with the rest of your post.

16. Me:

Okay Couchmar, I'm back, ready to deal with the rest of your post.Answering your question: yes, of course, the cosmological argument can only be evaluated by reason and evidence, which is to say, independently of faith. I tried in my last post to clarify what I mean by the relation between faith and religion. And in saying this, I thank you for sharpening the issue.

But I still say, having just said what I said, that, ultimately, religion is reducible to mere faith. So I mean to advance "(1)" but maintain that the existence of the cosmological (or any other) argument for the existence of God and the necessity of reason and evidence to take it (or any other argument) apart do not gainsay that irreducibility.

These (thankfully for you, I'm sure) briefer comments take me to the claims in your penultimate paragraph. The destruction of the cosmological argument by evidence and reason is not "the" right reason to be an atheist. The argument and its implosion are incidental to "the" right reason.

The right reason is that atheism in its denial of the existence of God of traditional religion--which is what we're discussing, not deism for example, an altogther different proposition--starts and recognizes what we know and what we don't know. Theism bears the burden of proof and beyond a reasonable doubt I'd say, given its claims. Is all this a mere quibble, a splitting of hairs. I don't think so.

For instance, the dismantling of the preposterous yellow/silver argument for life on the moon is not the right reason to deny the existence of life on the moon. That dismantling is incidental to that denial.



...what I mean by the relation between faith and religion...


should be:..between faith and the cosmological argument...

17. Couchmar:

OK, so I think we are making some progress, since we agree that the argument being considered can be assessed by reason and evidence, and that, so to speak, there is nothing "intrinsic" to the argument depending on faith and superstition.

I am beginning to suspect that we may be disagreeing about the significance of this point vis-a-vis the new atheists and their arguments. So let me just make a few comments on your remarks and work myself back to this issue.

1. You say that no one says only of religion that "it's just gobbledy gook, magical thinking etc." If this is a qualification to your earlier view that's fine, but you said before that "religion [without qualification] is an anachronistic legacy from the days of yore abrim with magical thinking" and that "the rational arguments for God...are intelligible only inside the echo chamber of the religious." Notice here just how strong this last claim is. Your claim implies that we cannot even *understand* the cosmological argument unless we are inside the echo chamber.

You are probably right that, given the current state of the debate in the 20th century, it is religious believers who are more likely to *sympathize* with such arguments and find them favorable. But this is quite different from suggesting that the arguments cannot be even understood and considered by someone reasonably interested in these issues and independently of matters of faith.

In any event, I think we are now agreeing that my option (1) is correct which is good (I note you make some cautious remarks around this issue that are useful).

2. Given this I think it is worth saying that it is wrong (or at least very misleading) to make bald claims like "religion is no more than faith and superstition." Rather, what we should say is that "there are some versions of religion that depend on faith and superstition and these are implausible, and there are other versions that reasonable (fairly reasonable? not completely stupid?) people may be concerned with that are more plausible" (even if we may agree they are wrong).

This latter approach avoids sweeping claims and is a more accurate description.

3. Next you say in line with this: "I agree that the cosmological argument stands to be assessed by reason and evidence.....But once the argument is discredited by your, let's say, better reasons than mine, what do we say about those who continue to assert it in the face of that discrediting? What do we say about anyone who clings to a[n] argument shown to be wrong?" This way of framing the issue points to something important, since I think here you (and the new atheists) run several things together.

Of course we say that such a person is stubborn and dogmatic and refuses to take evidence seriously, and this is a moral failing. And we should be impatient with such failings. But notice that this fact does not warrant the claim that "religion is nothing but faith and superstition." This latter is a point about RELIGION (which, I take it, is our topic). The former is a point about PEOPLE'S BEHAVIOR (sociology?). These are different issues, and we should not attribute to religion (in general) the failings of various religious believers. If we did this, then we'd be committed to saying something like "science is nothing but foolishness" because we can all point to regular people who hold silly views about biology and evolution (say). (There are still people who think that evolution implies "survival of the fittest" and hence (sic) that capitalism is superior to its alternatives.)

I think that being clear about this distinction is important for avoiding overly simplistic views of religion. So while understanding your point I think there is something important to this aspect of the issue.

4. I should note that I am somewhat worried with your moon example that relates to all this (I get the broader point here, which is quite subtle, although I still have a worry.) Your example takes as a fact (rightly) that we already know that the notion of life on the moon is preposterous. I don't think you're entitled to the associated claim about religion without begging the question. I mean, only if you've already decided that it's clear god doesn't exist would you think yourself justified in not seriously considering the cosmological argument. Since I think a reasonable person may have questions about this that are not unreasonable, I think there's room to be respectful. Disagreement yes; ridicule no.

I may have missed some of your points; if so, I'll try to address them (I'm trying to keep this fairly short).

18. Taffer9

Woah, this Toulmin guy seems pretty stupid on some comments. "He argued that truths within the universe, by the very definition of "universe," cannot be extrapolated into truths about the universe, as if the universe had an outside."

If that is indeed what he said, then he is incorrect. There are hundreds of observations that an inhabitant of the universe could make, from which he could deduce things about the universe as a whole. Suppose two people stand back to back and walk away from each other without changing direction. Suppose they end up meeting, some seconds, minutes, or years, or light years, later, face to face. Then they can conclude with absolute certainty that whatever the universe is, it does not have the shape of Euclidean 3-D space. It could be a donut, or a sphere, or something else, but it definitely isn't shaped like Euclidean 3-D space.

Hawking did say (although this was hardly the point of his book, more of a throwaway line) that metaphysical speculation about the universe has been left for dead by modern physics. To deny that would be foolish - it would essentially be like saying, modern physics hasn't actually made any progress into understanding the universe. Because one can hardly say that metaphysical speculation about the universe has moved on much from ancient greek times. That was what Hawking meant by philosophy - metaphysics. He did not mean "modern philosophy". He did not mean, for example, to say that "political philosophy and the philosophy of language have not kept up with modern astrophysics".

It is easy to rebut the claim that philosophy as a whole is dead, but metaphysics and epistemology are. The former is particularly pointless. To remain ignorant of modern physics, like Toulmin, and practice instead the metaphysical speculation of 2000 years ago will lead nowhere. What Toulmin is saying, and what you appear to be nodding at, is little more than bleating childishly against the irrelevance of his own subject to modern physics. He seems to be saying (I paraphrase) "astrophysics is fine as long as it doesn't forget to mention philosophy, theology, and God".

There is certainly room for philosophical discussion concerning what is the best way to think about modern physical theories, such as quantum field theory. But these cannot be undertaken if one does not apprehend, to some degree, modern physics. You *have* to be at least a bit of a physicist to discuss these things. On a related note, although he protests against the notion of scientists/physicists sounding off on philosophy or theology, Toulmin seems to have no problem sounding off on astronomy, and in quite an inane way I might add. See the first paragraph of this post.

19. Me:

I'm starting to repeat myself, which is a good sign this argument is winding down. So I'll make some concluding comments following your numbers.

First paragraph and 1:

We're making no progress. I have said repeatedly that necessarily any argument, to be responded to in its terms, has to be asessed by reason and evidence. That's simply a truism. I would want to think I never said anything different.I'm not revisiting my earlier posts. But if I'm talking to someone about capital punishment, I might begin by saying "It's a barbarity" or some such. That I do does not mean ipso facto I have no reasons for saying so as an initial statement. If I don't, then I don't. One doesn't have to be in an echo chamber to understand or parse the cosomoligical argument. One does have to be in one, or something akin to it, to cling to it, discredited as it obviously is, as a ground for religious belief.

For myself, concluding this exercise with you, I am even more wedded to my assertion that religious belief is a hang over of magical thinking from days of yore. I'd happily open and close with that assertion and if I felt like it insert the meat of my arguments inside those outer sandwich slices.

Your error, one of them, is to equate the truism that arguments are constituted by reason with reasonableness.An issue for another place, another time is your atheistic timidity in not saying plainly and simply this particular emperor is naked.

2. You can say whatever you like, but I should like to say that there are no good arguments for religious belief--aside from psychological and cultural and social reasons, different coloured horses all. All religious belief that depends on rational argument is intellectually unreasonable insofar as the cosmological argument is proxy for all rational arguments for the existence of God.

As taffer9 succinctly points out the cosmological argument, besides its other many frailties, falls from grace the minute physics changes our conceptions of change and cause and effect. After all, all language is human invention, delimited by human limitation. Language and meaning are constrained by the nature and limits of the human mind. Trying to force language to exceed these limits is an excercise in foolishness. Religious theorizing and argument, as manifest in the cosmological argument for ne example, is the irresponsible playing with language. In that playing language is on a day pass from doing its proper-this-world(ly) work, turning no gears. One can either be mystical and silent or sit comfortably with common sense and science.

3. I reject your distinction for our purposes between religion and its arguments as such and the conduct or psychology of believers. Our issue is the intellectual unreasonableness of religious belief. So once the proxy of the cosmological argument is shorn apart, one is left only with a discredited argument as a ground of belief. So the believer either proceeds by faith or by intellectual nonsense, bouyed, I presume, by faith.

The argument here turns not on the conduct of the believer, a subject for social science or whatever, but with what one is necessarily left with as a ground for belief once rational argument has been swept away.

4. Concluding this extended quarrelsomeness, I reject your distinction between the moon argument and the cosmological argument as telling for our purposes. True we know there's no life on the moon and true we don't know about the ultimate nature or origins of the universe, any non-scientific, non-mathematical language being inadequate to those matters--which is all to the point, of course. But it's virtually equally silly to assert moon life as it is to assert the God of our traditions in the sheer face of what we don't know. As Dawkins derisively quipped, why not a tea cup? Or why not Mr. and Mrs. God or any number of Gods or infinite Gods or any of infinite different things.

20. Couchmar:

I'm not sure what I want to say here. There is a good deal I agree with in this (though not all); so it makes me think we are talking past one another over the issue of the reasonableness of certain types of religion. So I will say this about the issue being discussed and see if it helps (as things wind down).

I don't think I'm making the conflation you suggest between "reason" and "reasonableness." I think "reason" is a faculty of the mind and "reasonableness" is a disposition of an individual (in this case believers)--and I'm aware of the difference. Let me ask a question to see if I understand how you think of your position. You write: "All religious belief that depends on rational argument is intellectually unreasonable...." I'm not sure how you mean this still. The new atheists have a way of discussing religion which holds that anyone who considers religion even remotely plausible is a fool. "Religion is nothing but magical thinking from the days of yore." "Religion is based only on superstition." "Only fools take these sorts of views seriously." Etc. etc.

Now a worry with this is that there are many seemingly non-foolish individuals who have taken religion quite seriously, and I fear that your view implies they should be seen as "magical thinkers," "superstitious," and "fools". We all know, e.g., that Galileo, the young Darwin, Boyle (a champion of natural theology), and people like Descartes were not idiots, and still were religious believers. Heck even Isaac Newton endorsed a version of the design argument in the second edition of his Principia (he says "the diversity of created things" must have come "from the ideas and the will of a necessarily existing being").

Does your view imply that these peoples' religious views (that depended on rational argument) were unreasonable? Were they fools too? Dawkins et. al like to write off all religion as some strange construction that no intelligent person could take seriously. But this seems contradicted by the many *reasonable* (I want to say!) religious believers in the past (even if we agree with you that there are surely superstious, unreasonable believers around). This seems to speak directly to the issue we've been discussing.

21. Me:

Okay Couchmar one last gasp.I guess the issue(s) between us take different emphases at different points in this thread.

Let me recap where I think we're at, at this very moment in our glorious history.The point I have been wanting to make with you, the brilliance of past religious thinkers, admitted certainly, but notwithstanding, is that, as you quote me, "...All religious belief that depends on rational argument is intellectually unreasonable."

That's my thesis.

I'm specifically and explicitly not dealing with the depths of human bewilderment in the face of human tragedy and a seemingly incomprehensible universe of natural cataclysm, war, pervasive evil, destruction of innocent life, Holocausts and genocides that will drive some to make leaps of faith.

In answer to my point, you offered, after some dredging by me, the cosmological argument, as I construe what you did, as an example, a proxy if you will, of rationality argument for the existence of God. We cavilled a little, I think, over the point that any syllogism is rational by its very nature and structure--premises leading necessarily to the conclusion that follows from them. So to escape that possible verbal trap and ambiguity, I introduced the notion of "intellectually reasonable".

So the question then became whether the cosmological argument offers a reasonable intellectual basis. I offered various reasons why I didn't think so and noted taffer 9's succinct comment on these points as well. And the thing of it is: I take you to agree with that assessment.

So, then, in relation to our issue, I fail to understand how you can sustain any argument that there is reasonable intellectual basis for religious belief. From this it follows that from the perspective of reasoned argument, and with--I repeat-- the cosmological argument, I presume discredited, as the embodiment of all rational arguments, there is no reasonable intellectual basis for religious belief.

So without a reasonable intellectual basis for religious belief, how does actual belief get characterized? From the narrow vantage point of our particular issue, actual belief is unreasonable, irrational I dare say, anachronistic magical thinking.

But if we step beyond the ambit of our specific set of considerations--intellectual reasonableness--and consider faith and the sometimes profound springs of faith, talk of foolishness and so on can be shrill, insensitive and downright insulting. So I'll join with you in objecting to that shrillness given, as just noted, the complexity of the springs of faith and religious belief. And where the new atheists display such insensitivity and shrillness, I will share any charge you wish to level against them *on that particular basis*.

But, finally, *that particular basis* is a side bar. It's impertinent to our essential point and my thesis that all religious belief that depends on rational argument is intellectually unreasonable.

22. Couchmar:

This is a nice post despite my following disagreements.

"And the thing of it is: I take you to agree with that assessment." I have not suggested this in my remarks. I have consistently said that "I don't agree with all of this" (without going into detailed responses to everything raised) and that "there are substantive issues about religion that reasonable people can be concerned with." What I agree is that the proxy argument at issue in the end is implausible (I've admitted to atheism way back).

This means that I'm inclined to look suspiciously on such arguments with a very skeptical eye. But this does not mean that I think there is no room whatsoever for a reasonably intelligent person to try to make out their case (this is closely related to your apt acknowledgment of "the complexity of the springs of....religious belief"). Given this complexity of the subject, I find it difficult to say categorically that there is no room here (--I suspect you would come down much harder than this).

If so, that is fine and we've come some way towards seeing where the differences lay. I think we are not that far apart as I would entirely endorse your penultimate paragraph (you may disagree), with the provisos mentioned.

In any event, I take back my earlier comment that "this won't be instructive."

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