Wednesday, 4 June 2008

True Scepticism

While browsing my favourite blog, I came across this article... A religious apologist claiming that believers are the true sceptics as opposed to atheists and agnostics. While most of the time the claims of apologists are so inane that I cringe to even glimpse at the inane ramblings, the concept intrigued me enough to warrant a read. After all, as a self-confessed sceptic the area fascinates enough to try and understand what other peoples points of view are. The article itself is very painful to read, the errors are glaring, but overall I had to admire the mettle of the author. It takes balls to put yourself in that position, especially on an area where theists have almost no credibility at all. The whole argument paralleled Colbert's truthiness concept, which to me was hilarious. Trying to convince people that the evidence for God is the absence of evidence, that's impressive.

Did you know the gut has more nerve endings than the brain?

When the smart scientist of the seventeenth century was asked, “Is clear water pure?” he did not go with his gut and answer “yes” or “no.” “The naked eye says yes,” he answered, “but is there an instrument better than the naked eye with which to see?” We need to listen to the scientist who claims that there is, and that scientist is Pascal.

That instrument is the heart. “It is the heart which perceives God, and not the reason"
Now, as much as it's not my place to question what a man who applied gambling as a means of encouraging belief. But what the hell? I'll do it anyway. Just because one man at one point in time said that the "heart" is a tool to perceive God, it doesn't make it true. Intuition isn't a valid mechanism of empiricism, no matter if people are using it to claim God's existence or using it to go to war. It basically amounts to saying "I feel God's presence, therefore God exists". Are warning sirens flashing yet? The evidence of belief is the belief itself manifesting physically. We feel God's presence therefore God must be real, likewise a Scientologist feels the presence of thetans so thetans must be real, correct? No.

Circular logic is at the very heart of this argument. How does one know what they are feeling? Because they believe it. How does one know that their beliefs are real? they can feel it. The real test for something like this is for someone who has never come into contact with the word God feeling it then professing a Christian belief. Now that would be something. These self-affirming arguments are nothing new, it's present across all cultures, it's paying too much credence to our intuition. It's not a valid form of evidence, no matter how much it is asserted as such. It's just playing on peoples desire to believe, trying to marginalise science as not good enough to measure our intuitive unconscious.

The scientist Pascal claims to know a route that will take us over the ice to convincing discovery. It is the refusal to test his thinking that betrays the faith of atheists and agnostics.
Sure, we can test it. We can test just how emotions play out in the brain, which is what we use to process all information. We can test out just how much intuition can play an accurate part in decision making. It's not unknown or unknowable to test our selective unconscious. But it seems that the mystique in alluding to a pattern that "sceptics" have somehow ignored for centuries is a grand enough option for Christian apologetics. Surely it can't be that sceptics don't see intuition as a valid form of evidence, after all it doesn't have any basis from which to go on other than the assertion that one's beliefs are right... Somehow the greatest minds in science for the last 300 years have looked over the only tool we have to measure God... The sirens should be loud and clear by now.

Like hearing the "first cause" argument for the Nth time, this is nothing new. It's not that atheists and agnostics have overlooked it, it's because there is no reasonable basis to use it to prove God any more than to prove Brahman or to prove the non-existence of anything and everything. "I know the world doesn't exist, therefore it doesn't exist". Assuredness in decisions is the opposite of the scientific method and one who actually applies scepticism should know this. What we know is never 100%, so basing our gauge on what essentially boils down to faith is absurd in the extreme. The whole piece was one huge attempt to change the definition of a word that has positive connotations into one that only his view encompasses. Again, nothing new. The way Creationism has tried to masquerade as a science, the way atheism is painted as a faith, all attempts to compete in the world of science and reason we have no. This says it all:
Who, then, is this person? He is not a skeptic at all (someone who, for want of solid reasons, refuses to commit)—he commits. He is not a lover of reason over passion—he chooses the possibilities he cares about because those are the ones he likes. He is not a skeptic who in the absence of evidence withholds belief—he is a believer.
How ironic.

An unseen God
What irks me most about the argument is that it claims that God is essentially unknowable but through faith, then references the material world. As far as we know, every single thing about us operates in the natural world. Our heart is still part of the material world. Our consciousness, our intuition, our decision-making, all part of the natural world. There is nothing to suggest otherwise. What we do can be directly mapped to brain activity, we can measure thoughts, emotions, reactions and quantify it. It's the backbone of psychology and an important part of other disciplines such as medicine. So the argument won't escape the confines of reality that easily. But an unseen God poses much greater theological problems than just being at odds with reality, it dilutes the definition so much that God essentially becomes synonymous with the unknown. And what point is there giving the unknown attributes? How do we know the unknown is all-knowing, all-powerful, a source of morality and free will? How do we know it's an anthropomorphic timeless deity that has always existed? How do we know he's a judge of our soul, which was once corrupted by a snake tricking a woman into eating an apple, only to be overridden by this deity splitting himself into human form and impregnating a virgin only to be tortured and killed on a cross for breaking Jewish law as it's written in the old testament? According to the "skeptic", because we know it to be true.

A more discerning view would be that simply believing we know something doesn't make it so. As much as I would love to be led to the halls of Valhalla by scantily-clad Valkyrie warriors to engorge on boar and mead with Odin, no matter how much I believe it to be true it doesn't make it true. Even if there was some Norse apologist 350 years ago who wrote that the way to detect the presence of Odin was through my heart, affirmation of my faith manifesting in my senses would not make it true even if at one stage that apologist was a sceptic and a scientist who rejected the more traditional "proofs" for Odin. But my knowledge of Norse mythology didn't come from inspiration from Thor handed down to me through my intuition. It came from the material world, from books, from people, from the internet. If I came up with it all independently accurate to the original source with no prior knowledge on the Norse or any other belief for that matter then there may be something credible to it. Just as if someone who had never even heard the concept of God wrote the bible word for word then there might be some credence to intuition.

Is the concept God really without material evidence though? Certainly any read through the bible should give a resounding no. Especially in the old testament, God himself manifested in many ways, directly interfering in worldly events. The 10 plagues of Egypt, destruction of the tower of Babel, countless sieges and battles, global flood, etc. The list could go on. And even in the new testament we see God taking human form only to be killed and conquer death. It paints the very clear picture that God is a personal one who takes great interest in the affairs of others. All of that would leave observable evidence in the material world. Just as the power of prayer would. In reality, the lord may work in mysterious ways, but any shift away from the direct model of cause and effect we know now would be measurable, as would any unexplainable phenomena. A personal God is measurable, a deist one is not. But a deist one would not be the God of the bible, so therein lies the paradox of labelling God as unknown.

True scepticism
It was very crass of Edward Tingley to assert atheists and agnostics are ignoring evidence, that they can't be true sceptics. He is right that no-one can disprove God. It's just like we can't disprove the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Bigfoot. Atheists do know and understand this. While his piece is a nice work of apologetics that is sure to resonate soundly amongst "skeptical theists" it won't be regarded with any credence outside that apologetic circle because he's paid no regard to the whole sceptical movement. He doesn't apply scepticism to his own beliefs, and that is a fundamental error of anyone who claims to be a sceptic; theist or otherwise. In scepticism the principle of parsimony is imperative. Can we explain why people believe in God with such assurity? Yes we can. Can we explain the emotional and spiritual experiences that directly related to God? Again, yes. Can we measure the logical steps that one took to get to that position? Yes. Now we can do all this without the need to create a timeless omnipotent personal God. So using parsimony there would not even be an inkling to place such a being in with no substantial evidence.

When making an argument, a sceptic needs to ensure it's not circular. From facts and evidence we draw a conclusion, it's the scientific principle. But with belief, we have the conclusion then look for evidence to support it. God's the conclusion and the mechanism of discovery, it's just like saying the bible is the word of God because the bible tells us it's the word of God. A true sceptic would ask for real evidence, the words "I believe it" as evidence should not be anywhere near the concept of scepticism. A true sceptic would understand this and strive hard to show that the line of evidence they are presenting has a scientific backing. Carl Sagan's "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" still applies. Even if God is outside the bounds of the material world (which given we are wholly in the material world I would very much doubt), the technique for measuring such an unknown quantity would need some extraordinary evidence to back it. As of now, heart (intuition and faith) doesn't conclusively show God exists any more than it shows 9/11 to be masterminded by the Jews or that we are all trapped in The Matrix, only instead of being a food source for robots, our imaginations provide them as entertainment. People can believe anything absolutely without the need for empirical evidence. The belief in God is no different, and by trying to make it so this apologist is destroying any integrity he's trying to gain as a sceptic.

The writing is fanciful, it's yet another case of an apologetics author trying to use words with positive connotations in a world of reason to show that his position is the only logical one to have. I do hope that his idea will be so far-fetched that readers who believe there is evidence for God will look at it and decide he is wrong. They are the ones who could be influenced, you won't see true sceptics rushing to adopt his point of view. In the end, it's important to understand that it's just his opinion, just as this blog is my opinion. The credulity of the argument lies with the construction of logic and the weight of the evidence used to present one's case. There are things I'm probably wrong about, I'm only human after all. Maybe I should use his logic and believe that this blog is perfect therefore it must be perfect. But alas, that wouldn't be very sceptical of me, not to mention feeding a delusion of grandeur. With everything I say, it should be taken with a grain of salt and personal exploration of the ideas presented is a must as opposed to blindly believing what I write. That strive for objective empiricism is at the very heart of scepticism. Investigate and work from the evidence gathered, it's such a powerful tool for understanding reality. Mr Tingley would be best served in exploring his own ideas with the same critical level as he has dismissing non-belief. I'll let him have the final word.

He could very well believe other things on the self-same basis, but he does not want to. He likes the world that he has installed himself in, and that is what tells us who he is: a lover—a lover of his own life, a believer in the path that his heart has charted for him
I'm calling Poe's law...

1 comment:

Matt said...

saw your comment at Pharyngula, thought I'd share with you an article on NDE's, if you're interested in the "newer" research stuff that's found out.

My stepfather is writing/was writing a book/article that postulated that NDE's are in part caused by REM-state intrusion. If I totally missed you saying this at pharyngula, my bad.
if not, his name is Kevin Nelson and he's got a nifty article floating around the interwebs somewhere.