Wednesday, October 6, 2010

God Talk: The New Atheists, Cosmological Argument and its Refutation


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 relation 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.Thanks.


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.


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 should 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.


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.


Well thank you Couchmar.

But there are two problems with your 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, "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 in 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 an apeal to 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. Similarly, 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;

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"?

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