Sunday, 28 August 2011

Materialism: The Ideology

Many creationists try to make a big deal out of the link between evolution and atheism. Those who stand up for teaching evolution are often branded as atheists, including many devout theists. It seems there are two central claims behind such links. The first claim is that evolution is incompatible with a belief in God - that it either leaves God redundant or diminishes our species to a mere accident. The second claim is that evolution is being used to push God out of the picture - that it's a materialist ideology masquerading as science.

The first case is one best left to theologians, but the second case pertains to the validity of evolution as a science. The relevant question seem to be whether something held for ideological reasons can also be valid. Even if it were true that evolution was purely materialist ideology whose leading proponents sought to exclude God, would this invalidate evolution as a science?

To look at this question I'm going to invoke a historical parallel. Jesus is the central figure to Christianity, without a historical Jesus most forms of Christianity would be wrong. So does the historical case for Jesus need exclusion on the basis that Christianity needs a historical Jesus?

I'm fairly sure I know the answer to this. Of course not! The case for a historical Jesus should be decided by the historical evidence. Indeed, I've heard the argument that the historical Jesus is the main reason to be a Christian.

So when it comes to evolution, even if there's people with an ideological agenda, surely evolution's status as a science depends on whether or not the theory is able to fit with observation and evidence. It could be that evolution is good science and good reason to be a materialist.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to evolution there is no divide among experts down religious lines. And when experts do speak about evolution, they talk about the evidence for evolution. Meanwhile the link between evolution and atheism is highlighted by creationists, who don't talk about evidence at all. It may be that Francis Collins has been brainwashed by materialists, or that he's not a True Christian™ if he's so willing to speak in favour of evolution, but either way such a statement shows where the ideological hand in the evolution discussion really lies...

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Vacuous Nonsense

I got into a bit of an argument with a creationist recently, which is nothing unusual for me. In the ensuring discussion I asked them what evidence there was against evolution. They brought up intelligent design, together with a sarcastic quip that I reject it without having reasons why. The phrase vacuous nonsense comes to mind, though it's easy to demonstrate how intelligent design is vacuous nonsense.

What I find interesting about those who try to defend intelligent design as a science is that they don't operate on anything remotely resembling a scientific definition. My complaint that Intelligent Design makes no specific prediction and thus there's no way to know whether or not a designer was involved. It's an irreconcilable problem as far as ID as a science is concerned. Yet I've found that's not what people see ID as. A better working definition would be:
A designer must have been involved somewhere and somehow in the history of life.

In other words, what ID proponents hear is a denial of any role for Goda designer. It's not a scientific hypothesis in any way, it's touching on something far deeper and more personal. Whether or not current evolutionary theory is sufficient to account for what is seen in nature doesn't make the case for Goda designer any better, as all that would do is be making Goda designer an expression of our ignorance. Yet in the absence of making any predictions about patterns, there's really no way to tell whether designers were involved or not. Intelligent Design is making one big argument from ignorance.

Yet if we look at life as it is, we can and do have intelligent design mechanisms operating in nature. We have artefacts that are the product of intelligent designers, along with an understanding of how such mechanisms work. Even in nature, we have products shaped by intelligent designers. We couldn't account for agriculture as it is without including intelligent hands involved. Likewise with the domestication and modification of animals. And now the era of genetic modification has opened a new way that designers can act in nature.

All of these instances of design in nature are accounted for scientifically, we know the nature of what the designers can and can't do, and how the design happens. How cats and dogs became domesticated, for example, is something that is being scientifically studied. Deliberate cross breeding has been used to feed billions.

Contrast this with the nondescript statement that Intelligent Design proposes - that there was a designer who did something at some stage. Without knowing anything about the nature of the designer and the methods, and without making any specific predictions about how the designer operates, it's a useless speculation. Yes, a designer could have done something, but if we don't know anything about what the designer did or how, then how can we distinguish it from there not being any designer at all?

This is why I think Intelligent Design is vacuous nonsense. It's the pretence that there's something scientific about invoking God to explain life, without having the hassle of trying to substantiate that in any way.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Gay Marriage

In many of the ethical quandaries of our time, most case involve having to give up something. In the case of animal welfare, for example, those arguing for animal freedom are asking others to give up eating meat and using animal products. In the case of climate change, we are being asked to cut back, or even give up, on certain greenhouse-emitting products and activities.

The case of gay marriage is odd in that respect, as there is really nothing that anyone has to give up. If there is an inequality, it seems quite trivial that it be rectified. Of course, it doesn't really stop reasons to that effect being proposed. The most common one is the institution of marriage itself - that marriage itself is what loses out. Or more precisely, the notion of the family unit.

While it seems irrelevant to the discussion, a lot is made of reproductive capabilities. Marriage, as the argument follows, is an institution to support procreation. Homosexuals since they can't procreate, therefore should have no rights when it comes to marriage. While straight childless couples can still marry, it doesn't matter because the practice is to support the procreation and raising of children.

The problem with this line of argument is that even if that is the reason to have marriage as an institution, in no way is that capacity diminished by gay marriage. Married heterosexual couples still have exactly the same rights as before, only that homosexual couples are able to have the other benefits that stem from marriage.

I tend to think that the problems with gay marriage aren't so much about reproductive rights, but that it would be affording homosexuality equal societal recognition. The real loss, in this case, I suspect is the perception of superiority of a particular kind of relationship. it's a threat to the ego in much the same way as giving women or aboriginals the right to vote, and realistically has as much justification for failing to grant such a right.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Defending Genocide

Normally I try to stay away* from biblical interpretation, but sometimes it can be downright hilarious. Creationist accounts of the history of the universe to fit into Genesis is comically absurd, for example. It's sad in a way, too, as the absurdities are consequences of untenable premises.

One of the charges against such biblical interpretations has been the monstrous accounts of God in the bible. From flooding the entire globe bar a few people and animals, to killing the first-born son of every Egyptian, and slaughtering entire tribes, there's plenty of examples of acts attributed to God that could easily take the title of "moral monster".

William Lane Craig sees it otherwise. He's copped criticism of his defence of God's slaughter of the Canaanites, especially brushing off the slaughter of infants as a good thing**! When I listen to Craig argue, I worry for his safety at zebra crossings, lest he argues that black is really white.

Anyway, to his defence of his defence:
I’ve seen those kinds of responses, too, Peter, and find them disappointing because they fail to grapple intellectually with the difficult questions raised by such stories. Emotional outbursts take the place of rational discussion, leaving us with no deeper understanding of the issues than before we began.
We use emotion in our reasoning, when it comes to issues of morality we cannot help but be emotional about it. Contrary to what Craig alludes, the outbursts don't take the place of rational discussion but are part of it. But of course we should think about it rationally, so let's continue.

I find it ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong. As Doug Wilson has aptly said of the Canaanite slaughter from a naturalistic point of view, “The universe doesn’t care.”
I remember getting into an argument with a believer who argued that logic presupposed God. I pointed out that his logic was circular, to which he responded "how can you say it's circular if you have no foundation for logic?" In other words, I had no right to use logic unless I acknowledged God. I could point out that the universe is indifferent is a straw man as you don't need the universe to care about our behaviour to have morality, there are many naturalistic accounts of morality that don't require the universe to care.

So at most the non-theist can be alleging that biblical theists have a sort of inconsistency in affirming both the goodness of God and the historicity of the conquest of Canaan. It’s an internal problem for biblical theists, which is hardly grounds for moral outrage on the part of non-theists.
At least there is the acknowledgement of the possibility of internal inconsistency. If a murderer is a morally evil person and God murders, then why doesn't that make God as morally evil? "At most"? I'm getting the impression that Craig is using language to diminish the concerns raised.

If there is an inconsistency on our part, then we’ll just have to give up the historicity of the narratives, taking them as either legends or else misinterpretations by Israel of God’s will. The existence of God and the soundness of the moral argument for His existence don’t even come into play.
Interestingly enough, this is the argument that's put forth. If God is the God of the bible who ordered the slaughter of infants, then that God is incompatible with the description of God as being all-good, and thus doesn't exist. Same thing goes when someone is arguing against Creationism - it's not saying that every and all possible description of God necessarily has to be the YEC interpretation of God and thus God doesn't exist, but that the YEC God as described by people is incompatible with everything we know about reality. There are some 2 billion believers, and God isn't the same thing to each of them. Certain premises and the arguments surrounding them differ depending on who you ask. Plenty claim to speak for God and of God, one cannot expect any argument to address every believer.

My argument in Question of the Week #16 is that God has the moral right to issue such commands and that He wronged no one in doing so.
The argument, as it goes, is that the commands are morally repugnant and not characteristic of what we would call all-good. It's not whether or not God has the moral right to do whatever he likes, but that his character by choosing certain actions is showing what we would consider a human to be a moral monster.

I want to challenge those who decry my answer to explain whom God wronged and why we should think so. As I explained, the most plausible candidate is, ironically, the soldiers themselves, but I think that morally sufficient reasons can be provided for giving them so gruesome a task.
The Canaanites who were slaughtered weren't wronged?!?

The judgment of God upon these tribal groups, which had become so incredibly debauched by that time, is that they were being divested of their land. Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.
How does this make it any better? Even in this scenario, the Caananites are being displaced from their land. One might make the parallel with home invasion. Is home invasion really right because God says so? And if the people refuse to leave, does it make it right to kill them? I'm thankful that the law cares much more about the rights of the individual than God does...

It is therefore completely misleading to characterize God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated.
And that makes it so much better... Seriously?

No one had to die in this whole affair. Of course, that fact doesn’t affect the moral question concerning the command that God gave, as explained above. But I stand by my previous answer of how God could have commanded the killing of any Canaanites who attempted to remain behind in the land.
This doesn't really solve any of the moral problems, it's just trying to downplay it enough that it doesn't carry the weight that genocide does.

In all likelihood, there was no slaughter of the Canaanites. The archaeology is pointing to the Canaan cities being abandoned much earlier***, the destruction characterised by destruction within. Historically there's nothing to argue about, no slaughter to argue away any more than there is a global flood in which all but Noah and his children's families were drowned. But the arguments are about their consistency and their accuracy with explaining the world, that we would describe a mass murder as a moral monster yet describe God as all-good for being described as carrying out much worse acts doesn't seem right. Perhaps Craig can dissolve the problem in a puff of logic, but there does seem to be a fundamental contradiction between how people describe God and how people describe God's actions.

* For the same reason that I really don't care whether Han shot first.
** "Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation."
*** Among other sources, watch the PBS Nova documentary The Bible's Buried Secrets

Friday, 5 August 2011


"The concept of God has gradually retreated from the concept of an anthropomorphic creator figure, judge and overseer to a mystery-shrouded Wonderful Something-or-Other utterly beyond human ken. It is impossible for me to believe in any of the anthropomorphic gods, because they are simply ridiculous, and so obviously the fantasy-projections of scientifically ignorant minds trying to understand the world. It is impossible for me to believe in the laundered versions, because they are systematically incomprehensible. It would be like trying to believe in the existence of wodgifoop - what's that? Don't ask; it's beyond saying." - Dan Dennett

Wait... What?
The New South Wales Upper House has begun debating the future of school ethics classes, with Christian Democrats MP Fred Nile comparing them to Nazi philosophy.

Reverend Nile introduced a private member's bill in May to repeal the legislation that allows ethics classes to be offered as an alternative to scripture lessons.

The State Government used its numbers to bring the bill forward for a second reading this morning, but Premier Barry O'Farrell insists it will not be supported by Coalition MPs.

Reverend Nile told the chamber the classes do not teach ethical behaviour.

"[It is] a course which I believe does not teach children right from wrong but promotes the secular, humanist relativist philosophy," he said.

"I believe this is the philosophy that we saw during World War Two with the Nazis and the communists."

"Outrageous," interjected one MP in response.

Reverend Nile says the Premier privately supports his bid, but Mr O'Farrell flatly denied the claim when questioned by the ABC today.

Further debate on the bill has now been adjourned until September.

I'm lost for words here. I was at least expecting something to do with the content being from Nietzsche or Heidegger, but that it's the philosophy of Nazis? There's lots of arguments that could be made against this, from him misrepresenting the content of the ethics classes, to not understanding what secular humanism is, or having a completely distorted view of history, but I think the best approach is just to quote Hitler.
Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith ...we need believing people. - Adolf Hitler, April 26, 1933

It's interesting that Nile has to demonise teaching secular knowledge in order to advance his position, not to evaluate it on its own merits, but to lie about it and tarnish it with the atrocities of history. All this over giving students an alternative to sitting around doing nothing while other students are at scripture.