Reality Conditions

Monday, October 30, 2006

Atheism, Religion, and Rationality; or, do you think that all those who believe in God are stupid?

When I was 17 years old I went with some high school friends on a holiday to a sort of seaside resort, where one of us had somehow won a week staying as prize for something. We passed most of the days playing paddle (a sport popular in Argentina and unknown everywhere else; the closest thing I found on Wikipedia is plataform tennis) and most of the nights discussing philosophical matters, in the wonderfully passionate and earnest way you can discuss at that age. Our discussions covered the nature of the self, the soul, infinity, determinism, ethics, and God. I was quite vehement in those days about my then rather recent atheism, while one of my friends was equally convinced of God's existence and lectured to us on the Hinduistic conceptions of God and reincarnation; the discussions between us both were Titanic, unless they have been magnified by memory, which is certainly possible. What I am sure of is that one day, while we were in the paddle court and he was about to serve, he stopped, looked at me and asked suddenly: "Do you think that all those who believe in God are stupid?"

I think I, taken by surprise, told him that was not the moment, and to continue playing that we would discuss this later. And on the evening the question was posed again, and I can't remember what I said but we drifted into another long and unresolved debate on the existence of God, and many other things. But the question has stayed in my mind, sometimes making me feel a bit ashamed of how arrogant and certain of things I talked like in those times. And the memory has come back reading all the discussions all around the blogosphere on Richard Dawkins's new book, The God Delusion.

I have not read it yet, and I don't know if I will, but (as even someone who hadn't read anything by Dawkins before should guess from the title) it seems to be a rather aggresive attack on all forms of religious belief, which for Dawkins are both irrational and harmful. The reason it is so discussed is that Dawkins is not only a well-known biologist but a major public intellectual; he seems to fullfill more or less the kind of role Richard Feynman had twenty years ago, that of being the public Voice of Science. And the question under discussion, echoing my friend's one, is: is it true that all religious people are being stupid, or at least irrational?

I have no patience at the moment to trace and link to all the posts I have read discussing the book and its reviews; it seems that almost all the blogs I read have had something to say about it. To a rough approximation, they can be divided in three groups. First, those who think that there is no God and Dawkins is great (PZ Myers is the prime example). Second, those who think that there is no God but Dawkins is a jerk (Chad Orzel and John Wilkins are two good examples, though there are much more; perhaps more than in the first group.) And last, those who think there is a God and Dawkins is a jerk. (Brandon is one example among those I read regularly.) Unsurprisingly, I have not yet found any blogger who believes that God exists and Dawkins is great.

So what do I think? I tend to fall more into the second group; but there are at least two senses in which I could think "Dawkins is a jerk". [Perhaps needless to say, I do not think really that Dawkins is a jerk (nor do Chad or John or Brandon, I would think!). I admire him greatly and have been much inspired by his books on evolution. I use "Dawkins is a jerk" as a substitute for "I don't agree with/admire him for/respect him for his attacks on religion."] The first sense is pragmatical: even agreeing fully with him on philosophical grounds, and believing that religion is wholly irrational, it could be that scathing and disrespectful attacks on it are likely to backfire, to give a bad reputation of arrogance to atheists, to fuel the evolution controversy instead of defusing it, etc. The second is philosophical: I could think that the question of God's existence is not nearly so simple as Dawkins (and PZ and others) make it. In this post I will discuss only the second sense. There is much to be said for the pragmatic question, both for (perhaps strong atheistic voices are something our culture needs) and against. But at least if examining the philosophy we find that Dawkins is right on it there is a prima facie case for saying it loudly and clearly, and viceversa if we find he is wrong there is an even stronger case for not doing so, so examining the abstract matters first seems sensible.

So, is belief in God necessarily irrational? In one sense I agree with Dawkins that it is. (Don't I sound like a real philosopher, making one new pedantic distinction on every line? Be patient.) I have never seen any convincing argument for the existence of God; I believe all the evidence we have should compel us to reject it. I even accept what may be called the Master Argument for Scientistic Atheism, which implicitly or explicitly is used by Dawkins, PZ, and so many others, and which goes more or less:

1) Science can explain many things about the world without assuming the existence of God, and on those which it cannot explain, there is no reason to believe that it cannot explain them eventually; the hypothesis of God's existence is useless as a scientific one. When it makes specific predictions (like in creationism or studies on the efficacy of prayer) they are invariably disproved, and when it is stated in a metaphysical way that doesn't make predictions it becomes untestable, unnecessary and eliminable by Occam's Razor. In summary, following the rules of scientific evidence we ought not to believe in God.

2) But science is the only reliable source of knowledge we have about the universe, so we can only accept rationally those beliefs about the universe that are endorsed by the scientific method.

3) Therefore, belief in God is irrational.

I think most "reasonable" theists (whatever that means until we have reached a conclusion in our argument!) would accept some version of 1) and take issue with 2). And here comes the second and crucial sense in which I disagree with Dawkins et al. While I accept 2), and therefore am commited to say that belief in God is irrational, I don't think that 2) is so obvious that there cannot be "reasonable disagreement" about it.

What 2) is doing is to propose a standard of rationality, a standard by which to judge beliefs on factual mattes: to only accept those that science can endorse. If someone accepts this standard and then goes on to believe on, say, UFOs or ESP on presumed scientific grounds, we can say that the person is irrational (or misinformed about the evidence) and point out why. But if someone rejects wholly the standard 2), the situation varies. There are at least two ways in which the theist could reject it: saying that one can "in a way impervious to rational criticism" accept beliefs for which there is no evidential support when they are of great existential importance (Fideism), or that we can form rational beliefs upon factual matters which science cannot touch, using metaphysical reasoning. When any of these is embedded in a whole consistent philosophical system, be it William James's or Aquinas's, it is much more difficult to prove irrationality.

It would be tempting to say that it is impossible to do so, and that 2) is self-refuting in practice. The theist could say: "Your grounds for claiming 2) cannot be scientific, because your acceptance of 2) must be prior to your acceptance of scientific beliefs to justify them; so by your own standards you are being irrational". (Haven't you seen many times a theist argue on a discusison forum or blog comment that science is ultimately based on faith?) A similar argument is usually credited with killing logical positivism, the doctrine that statements which cannot be scientifically verified are meaningless; beacause this doctrine does not seem to be scientifically verifiable. But this would be going too fast. The scientistic atheist could answer "I propose 2) based on what science has shown us about the universe and ourselves, that we do not posses faculties to grasp untestable metaphysical facts, and that arbitrary beliefs will tend to be false no matter how existentially consoling they are. The whole of science and 2) support each other in a consistent way, forming an harmonious belief web which needs no external standard. [Insert references to Quine's naturalized epystemology, Neurath's boat, etc.] The theist's alternative standards of rationality will inevitably conflict at some point with the rest of his ordinary, scientifically endorsed beliefs and practices." (Perhaps logical positivism is also rescuable in a similar way, but this seems less likely.)

But the theist would now point out that sophisticated forms of fideism or of metaphysics are not shown to be inconsistent so simply; that a lot of philosophical work is needed to dispose of them. And this is what Dawkins, PZ Myers and the rest do not seem to see. It may be the case that naturalism (which Dennett defines as "the idea that philosophical investigations are not superior to, or prior to, investigations in the natural sciences, but in partnership with those truth-seeking enterprises" is the correct philosophy, and I in fact accept that it is and that there are compelling reasons for accepting it. But those reasons are philosophical; being a naturalist implies that "philosophical" does not mean for me "superior to or prior to" science, but it does mean that the arguments operate at a rather high level of abstraction, and that charging a Thomistic theologian or a Kirkegaardian fideist with simple irrationality is much more difficult than charging a believer in UFOs or in Creationism. The "sophisticated" believer has embedded the belief in God in a philosophical web of concepts and reasons that legitimitizes it while not conflicting overtly with undisputable scientific facts or practical-life rationality.

To many people trained in the sciences, who tend to be philosophical naturalists by default, these conceptual structures called theology are so weird, alien and uncomprehensible that they look sometimes rather like the elaborate "knowledge" exhibited in fandom (Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.), based on shared, intersubjective, but purely fictional premises. There seems to be (I speak from the first person) just no motivation for thinking of the world in these terms. And so we fall into the objectifications that so annoy theists: "They just believe it because they were brainwashed into it. " "It is a substitute for the Father." "It is the opium of the people." It is perfectly possible, indeed likely, that more sophisticated scientific theories on this same "objective" line will provide some day a complete understanding of why people are religious (this seems to be Dennett's program in Breaking the Spell, another book I haven't read) and allow us naturalists to account for religion "leaving no residue". But a large percentage of makind will in all likeness continue to believe in religions. And given that on issues so basic an central to peoples different "webs of belief" there is little possibility, as I said, of proving that the other is being irrational by the standards the other can accept, I think we ought to treat beliefs which people regard as central to their lifes with a modicum of respect, no matter how weird they seem from our perspective, as long as those beliefs do not become a clear danger to others as in militant fundamentalism.

These issues of rationality and meta-rationality are, as you see, tricky. And meanwhile, we must all concede that the "rationality" discussed here is just theoretical rationality, the standard by which we judge beliefs; but there is a commonplace practical meaning of rationality or at least of "reasonableness" which is up to a point independent of these philosophical standards. It consists simply in being open to arguments, criticism, and discussion, admiting the possibility of error, being fair to one's opponents positions while discussing them, and so on. And this is much more important for assesing a person in real life than his or her conformity to this or that standard of theoretical rationality. And by this token, there are many, many theists who are very rational indeed. And certainly not stupid.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


I have been back in Nottingham for several days already, but with little time to post. Several posts are half-composed, but all only inside my head for the moment. Two of them are on old and eternally recurring topics in this blog: the interpretation of quantum mechanics (stimulated by an interesting talk I heard on Everettian interpreatations the day before leaving Vancouver) and the relation of science and rationality to religion (triggered by the discussions found all around the Web on Dawkins' new book The God Delusion). Another one is my long-promised review of Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics, a book which I have finally got hold of and started to read now.

I'm having a bit of trouble to upload pictures to Blogger, so the Californian photos views Bee) requested will have to wait. They were all excessively touristy anyway.

Chinatown, San Francisco:

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Hiatus Announcement

For some unknown reason, Internet connection is no longer available at the room where I am staying in the University of British Columbia campus. It is not known when the problem will be solved, but anyway I will be leaving Vancouver next Thursday, going to California for one week before returning to Nottingham. So posting is likely to be severly reduced, if not cut off altogether, for the following couple of weeks. I hope my Loyal Readers remain, well, Loyal, in spite of this interruption.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Irony Meter Explodes

If you are oversensitive to irony don't even read the following link, let alone click on it:

Offended parent wants to remove Farenheit 451 from school curriculum.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Pictures of the week, links of the week

Not much time or inclination to write a proper post, so here are some pictures of Vancouver sightseeing, and interesting links for you to check:

View of Vancouver; Capilano Suspension Bridge; Victoria (Vancouver Island); Whale Watching near Vancouver Island.

Now the links:

-Cosmic Variance discussion on the best popular science books on quantum mechanics. I'll have to be unoriginal and go for Feynman's The Character of Physical Law and QED, the merits of whic I don't need to promote here. Two more idiosyncratic preferences of mine are Alberto Clemente de la Torre's Física cuántica para filo-sofos and Bernard D'Espagnat's In Search of Reality. The first one is an excellent introductory explanation of quantum mechanics and its philosophical problems, probably untranslated into English. The second one is not really "popular science" but a rather heavy (if very interesting) philosophical discussion, but contains a superb explanation of the Bell inequalities.

-Jason Rosenhouse explains how the World Chess Championship is jeopardized by Vladimir Krammik's frequent excursions into his private bathroom.

-Brandon has an excellent post explaining why "Bayesian arguments" can't be used to prove anything, let alone God's existence, even if Bayesian epistemology is sound. The only thing one could prove with these arguments, he says, is that one is being rational in one's beliefs. To my mind this is still a large problem in Bayesianism (at least in its "pop" version), because it seems that almost any beliefs could be justified as rational by it.

-Doesn't this remind anybody of this?

Helen: You've got to lead our protest against this abomination!
[shows newspaper article]
Marge: Mm, but that's Michelangelo's David. It's a masterpiece.
Helen: [gasp] It's filth! It graphically portrays parts of the human body,
which, practical as they may be, are evil.

-On the Friendly Blogs Circle: my nonintelligent friend re-creates the Sargent Pepper's cover; my sinful friend imagines how The Da Vinci Code would have been directed by other filmmakers; my cynical friend lists ten hateful things; my rock star friend doesn't like to be called "sir"; my suspicious friend reviews United 93; and my tsumani-rowing friend seems to have quitted after only three posts.

-Now I've seen it all: Agatha Christie anime.