Wednesday, March 05, 2008

It's official: religion has been debunked!

The following was posted on Facebook by Laurence Boyce of Cambridge (a member of the NSS and the Liberal Democrats), in response to the accusation from pro-religion people that he’s “a bigot” elsewhere on the Internet. Laurence wrote that one of his accusers had asked him …
… to justify my sweeping assertion that the claims of religion have largely been debunked by science and philosophy … determined to answer everyone's points (though nobody much was answering mine), I put together a little series of notes which I now collect here for future reference. Not to be taken too seriously – a bit like religion itself, I suppose!
With his permission, I’m sharing Laurence’s notes. Religious people of an easily-offended disposition are asked to read carefully, and learn.
1. Plato
2. David Hume
3. Charles Darwin
4. Darwin's theory
5. Sam Harris
6. Reading list
A546511058_636247_8392OK, this is just a touch embarrassing. Hume and Darwin may have been largely responsible for holing religion below the waterline in modern times, but in fact God had already been dealt a fatal blow hundreds of years before Jesus and Mohammed even strutted their stuff. Here's the rough idea:
According to this story by Plato, Socrates meets a guy called Euthyphro on his way to the court house. He's going there to testify against his own father over something or other. So Socrates naturally asks him why the hell would he do that? Euthyphro replies that he believes it to be the will of the gods. And then Plato (in the words of Socrates) delivers the immortal punch line: "Do the gods wish for what is good, because it is good; or is what is good, good, because the gods wish for it?" Or something like that. This then came to be known as the Euthyphro dilemma, after the geezer who was off to condemn his dad because that's what he thought the gods wanted.
Here is Julian Baggini's version of the story from his amusing book of philosophical anecdotes, The Pig that Wants to be Eaten:
And the Lord spake unto the philosopher, "I am the Lord thy God, and I am the source of all that is good. Why does thy secular moral philosophy ignore me?"
And the philosopher spake unto the Lord, "To answer I must first ask you some questions. You command us to do what is good. But is it good because you command it, or do you command it because it is good?"
"Ur," said the Lord. "It's good because I command it?"
"The wrong answer, surely, your mightiness! If the good is only good because you say it is so, then you could, if you wished, make it so that torturing infants was good. But that would be absurd, wouldn't it?"
"Of course!" replieth the Lord. "I tested thee and thou hast made me pleased. What was the other choice again?"
"You choose what is good because it is good. But that shows quite clearly that goodness does not depend on you at all. So we don't need to study God to study the good."
"Even so," spake the Lord, "you've got to admit I've written some pretty good textbooks on the subject . . ."
So, after a moment's thought, we may see that God (or the gods) cannot reasonably be the source of all goodness. Whatever goodness is (and that is another question really), it is a standard against which both man and God must be measured equally. Unless we would prefer it that whatever God commands should go unchallenged, even including a command to torture infants.
But of course God would never issue evil commands like that. Well . . . not quite so fast. One biblical story that sticks in the memory is that of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22). God commands Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a blood sacrifice because . . . well, God just needs a regular supply of blood sacrifice to keep him going. Don't you? So Abraham says, "right you are God," and takes Isaac up a distant mountain, puts him on a pyre, ties him down, sharpens the knife, raises it into the sky, ready to plunge it into the heart of his only son. By this stage, Isaac is really shitting himself. Then, at the very last moment, God says, "Aha!!! Only kidding!!!" Now both Abraham and Isaac are pissing themselves at the sheer hilarity of the situation. They're miles from home, cold and tired, Isaac is still tied down on the altar, and Abraham is laughing so hard that he can't even undo the knots.
The point of the story, as I'm sure you know, is that God was putting Abraham to the test – a test he passed with flying colours. But I don't see it that way at all. I think that both God and Abraham failed the test big time. God, for asking Abraham to do such a sick and twisted thing in the first place; and Abraham, for going along with it. Because, as Plato showed, God has to be judged by the same standards that we are judged. We have every right, and indeed a responsibility, to question God's wishes, to call God to account, and ultimately even to condemn God after a fair hearing.
Question for the reader: What would you do if God appeared to you in the middle of the night and asked you to kill your only child?
A546511058_636248_7160I love Hume. Not that I knew him personally you understand. The peaceable Scot who was way ahead of his time, and yet liked nothing better than to relax with his mates of an evening around the billiard table. Mindful of the fact that not so long ago, an eighteen year old student named Thomas Aikenhead had been convicted and hanged for "blasphemy," Hume had to tread with caution. For this reason, his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion were written in the form of a . . . dialogue (amazingly!) between fictional characters, and even then were only published posthumously. Here is an interesting passage from the Dialogues which is often cited for its spooky anticipation of Darwin:
If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful a machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving? Many worlds might have been botched and bungled, throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out; much labour lost; many fruitless trials made; and a slow, but continued improvement carried on during infinite ages in the art of world-making.
Wow! But for me, Hume's greatest contribution lies in his brilliant demolition of the whole concept of "miracles." While Protestants may feel a sense of smug superiority upon hearing of bleeding Catholic statues and the like, the truth is that miracles are central to the entire project of religion. For put simply, a miracle is the opening up of a channel of communication between the domains of nature and supernature. Normally the channel stays open for a very short period (for some reason) – but if there is no channel at all, if the two domains are completely cut off from one another, then . . . what is the point? You might as well be telling me about Pluto, which would doubtless be very interesting – but not that interesting.
Anyway, it all began when Hume was staying at the theological college of La Flèche in France, so he could get on with some writing in peace. One day, Hume fell into conversation with a Jesuit who sought to impress him with some tale about a miracle which had supposedly taken place within the college. Hume, deciding that this tommyrot simply had to stop, tried gently explaining his maxim (which we will come to in a minute). Upon hearing it, the Jesuit dropped his jaw like a fish and exclaimed, "But sir, if you are right about this, then the same would hold for all the miracles in the Bible!"
Hume was at a loss as to how to respond. Two paths opened before him: He could either slap his forehead and say, "Doh! Silly me! Just forget everything I said!" Or he could say, "Yes, well the Bible's a pile of shite – I thought we all knew that anyway." Uncertain of his ground, Hume beat a hasty retreat to his study and promptly wrote out his famous essay Of Miracles – first published in 1748, anonymously of course for fear of all the usual reprisals.
It's a terrific piece of prose in two parts, though Part I does most of the damage. Hume gradually assembles his argument that "a wise man [should] proportion his belief to the evidence," by way of an entertaining series of stories and anecdotes. In order to believe in a miracle, clearly some sort of evidence is required, but the key thing is that the evidence must scale with what is being claimed. Here is how Hume sums up his case in what, now I come to think of it, must be my favourite paragraph in the whole of the English language:
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force which remains after deducting the inferior. When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority which I discover, I pronounce my decision and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
I love that, "When anyone tells me he saw a dead man restored to life." Not mentioning any names of course! Prison would have been no picnic for Hume – he certainly wouldn't have enjoyed the luxury of a billiard table in jail, like you would today. (What a foul disgrace that, even as I write, the Blasphemy Act of 1698 has yet to be repealed.)
There's also a bit of a technical argument to Hume's maxim. Even if the quality of the evidence were to surpass the required level, we are still left with this "mutual destruction of arguments" between the testimony on the one hand, and the entire weight of human experience on the other – experience which in general would suggest that the dead do not rise up from the grave. So, still no reason to stand back in amazement. Don't worry if you can't get your head around that part. The bottom line is that "miracles" are just a complete load of bollocks. At any time. In any place.
But for me, Hume's essay does so much more than simply procure for us a handy "miracle test" with which to shoo away simpletons making preposterous claims. Hume seems to be telling us that we wouldn't even want a miracle story to be true. For example, I love fine wines. The ones I love the best are the ones I can't afford. But had I been a guest of the Wedding at Cana, I think I would have taken Jesus to one side and given him a little lecture along the lines of: "Very clever superman, now why don't you just turn the wine back into water, and we'll say no more about it, eh? There's a good Saviour of mankind."
Think about it. What do we stand to gain? Some wine. What do we stand to lose? Reason and sanity. It hardly seems worth the risk. Certainly not for a wine which pre-dates the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée scheme. It does make you wonder though whether that story might not have been devised specifically to appeal to pissheads.
Question for the reader: Which do you think is more likely: that Jesus turned water into wine, or that somebody made that story up?
A546511058_636249_9985Charles Darwin invented Darwin's theory of evolution. You knew that, didn't you? But possibly the most important thing to understand about Darwin's theory is that it is . . . just that – a theory. A bloody good theory, but nonetheless . . . just a theory. A theory of massive explanatory and predictive power, which has, over the course of the last century, forged a compelling unity and coherence out of the biological sciences, while simultaneously shedding a powerful light upon that which could scarcely be of greater import – the very nature of the human condition itself. But . . . when all's said and done (and I really can't stress this enough) . . . just a theory.
Darwin studied theology at Cambridge (now there's an irony) before heading off on a sailing trip around the Galápagos Islands off the coast of modern Ecuador. The adventure was to have a number of onerous consequences. Firstly, it resulted in Darwin losing his Christian faith. Sadly, he also lost his health which was never to return for the remainder of his life. And finally, he changed the world utterly and irrevocably. Not bad for a boat trip.
Darwin made a close study of fauna, especially finches, and discovered that they were all slightly different from one island to the next. This led him to the conclusion that, though distinct, the various species of finches were clearly descended from some common ancestor. So this got him to wondering whether in fact all species might not be related by way of a gradual series of increments, the overall difference (and this is the key insight) being one of degree not of kind.
Darwin spent the rest of his life working on his little theory, including a whacking eight years on barnacles alone. He liked barnacles. The writings of Thomas Malthus provided him with the explanatory mechanism – now known as "survival of the fittest" – for why species might undergo such a gradual "evolution." Really the only bit missing was the genetic understanding which was to come later. Eventually, spurred on by the knowledge that Alfred Wallace was coming to roughly the same conclusions, he let off his little bombshell in 1859.
Reaction to The Origin of Species was mixed. Some people said that his findings contradicted the Bible, and therefore could not possibly be true. These folk live on to this day and are known as "creationists," but they are a very tiny minority – in America, only 53% for instance (according to those pesky polls). Others performed a soft shoe shuffle and said that they had never really believed in Genesis literally anyhow. These people are called religious "moderates." Darwin's own reaction was a little more dramatic. He said he felt as though he were confessing to a murder.
But perhaps the most telling reaction of all came from the wife of the Bishop of Birmingham who is reported to have said to her husband, "My dear, let us hope that it is not true; but, if it is true, let us hope that it does not become generally known." So much for the Protestant liberal tradition! Of course I have no idea whether or not she actually said that, but it's certainly what she should have said. For nothing, but nothing, has been more corrosive to the project of religion than the theory of evolution through natural selection. Here's why:
Question for the reader: How concerned should we be to learn that the most powerful nation on Earth appears to be in the grip of a medieval superstition?
A546511058_636250_7174The first and perhaps most obvious problem is, as has already been touched upon, that evolution falsifies a literal interpretation of Genesis. However, most Christians don't seem to get too exercised over the fact that the "word of God" is wildly inaccurate. Six days, 14 billion years – we've all been there, especially the software engineers among us. Besides, this was not exactly news in 1859. Earlier that century, geologists had already noted, through studying rocks and stuff, that the biblical time-scales were simply infeasible.
Nevertheless, to this day the "debate" still largely seems to centre around questions concerning whether the Hebrew word for "day" means just one revolution of the earth, or whether it really means "f***ing ages." Indeed, there are times when I get to wondering if this fatuous argument is not prosecuted purely in order to distract attention away from what is possibly the bigger embarrassment – namely that evolutionary theory drives a coach and horses through the foundational Christian doctrine of the fall and redemption.
If you attend the extended Christmas or Easter liturgies, as bizarrely I still do, you will find that the story begins (where else?) with Adam eating an apple – the felix culpa from which all else follows. Of course modern Christians don't take this too literally either. There was no apple, no Adam and Eve as such, no serpent, no garden – rather the story merely symbolises mankind's fall from grace into its present disordered and unhappy state from which it now cries out to the Almighty for salvation. It's just an allegory, stupid!
Except . . . it's not exactly a brilliant allegory either. I thought that allegories were supposed to inform and illuminate, but this one just misleads. Because neither was there any "fall from grace." Instead, we started out as pond scum, became fish, then small furry creatures, monkeys, and finally humans (missing out a few steps there). And how did that happen? It all came about on account of the struggle for survival – a bitter and ongoing fight over finite resources – ultimately, a fight to the death. And get this: it's been that way for the best part of 500 million years. Here's Dawkins:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.
Great! And whose fault is all of that? It's God's fault. That's right – the big cheese himself. That's the way he chose to set things up, in his "infinite wisdom." But now, maybe sensing that we were not far off stumbling upon the truth, God plays an absolute blinder – he tries to blame it all on us! He tells us that all this misery is a consequence of human "sin" and then, just to complete the illusion, sends his only son to "save us" by allowing him to be brutally tortured and executed, doubtless imagining (correctly as it happens) that we might be impressed with that sort of thing.
This is what I mean when I state unequivocally that the position staked out by the religious moderate is intellectually and theologically bankrupt. I'm not terribly impressed with Christians who believe in evolution. Granted, they may not be flying in the face of modern science with all the arrogance and ignorance of an evangelical nut-job. No, instead they're just worshipping – yes, worshipping – the most cynical bastard in all of history, literature, or mythology.
I'm really looking forward to the day of judgement. I can't wait to see the look of dismay on God's face when it finally dawns on him that he's actually going to be entering the dock himself.
Question for the reader: Why would the omniscient, benevolent, and omnipotent creator of the universe appear to be so cruel, wasteful, and lazy?
A546511058_636251_3753Sam Harris shot to prominence in 2004 with his best-selling book The End of Faith, which has managed to draw sharp criticism from religionist and secularist alike – a sure sign that he must be doing something right! It's a superb book – packed with useful insight and displaying a fine mastery of the English language to boot. I don't agree with all of it. In particular, the final chapter caused some of us a few difficulties, especially when he started quoting Padmasambhava approvingly! But for exposing the duplicitous role of the "religious moderate" in unwittingly providing comfort and cover for the extremist, I'm afraid he scores a perfect ten in my book. "By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally." I don't think I could have put it any better myself!
But that is all by the way, because our interest here is in questions of science and philosophy – and so to his lesser-known day job as a neuroscience PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles. When I first heard about Harris's research, I assumed that he was going to stick probes onto people's heads, and try to show that religious beliefs were fundamentally different in some way from "normal" beliefs. In fact, he's doing something far more interesting – he's trying to show that they're the same! I'll let him explain what he's up to:
What I believe, though cannot yet prove, is that belief is a content-independent process. Which is to say that beliefs about God – to the degree that they really are believed – are the same as beliefs about numbers, penguins, tofu, or anything else. This is not to say that all of our representations of the world are acquired through language, or that all linguistic representations are on the same logical footing. And we know that different regions of the brain are involved in judging the truth of statements drawn from different content domains. What I do believe, however, is that the neural processes governing the final acceptance of a statement as "true" rely on more fundamental, reward-related circuitry in our frontal lobes – probably the same regions that judge the pleasantness of tastes and odours. Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense. And false statements may quite literally disgust us.
All of this is very much in its infancy, and doubtless will not be the work of just one man. Ultimately this may turn out to be a futile quest – it may not be possible to prove that all belief is fundamentally on an equal footing, indeed it may not even be true. But we'll just follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it leads to God (which would be a first)! If you're interested, Harris had an initial paper published before Christmas. It's available here (pdf), though I can't claim to understand any of it.
That said, I do find this idea highly plausible. We all know, or should do, just how malleable and suggestible the human brain is. One of my favourite demonstrations of this involves Derren Brown making a nice lady act like she was under some kind of voodoo spell. First, she can't move her legs, then she can't move her arms, and finally she can't even speak – all courtesy of Derren manipulating the little levers in her brain to convince her that there really might be something in this voodoo doll malarkey after all.
The moral is that, "As a nice lady thinks, so she will act." Or as Harris would say, "A belief is a lever that, once pulled, moves almost everything else in a person's life." Yet, time and again, I seem to come right up against this tired old false dichotomy, so cherished by liberals, between belief and action. "People are free to think and say whatever they like, as long as they keep off my front lawn." If only I had a pound – hey, 50p even! – for every time I had heard that glib sentiment, I would have long since retired to Hawaii and you could all blissfully carry on without me.
Of course the sentiment is valid in a strictly legal sense but, in just about every other sense, it is hopelessly outdated. Beliefs are in no way separate from actions. In fact, beliefs are actions, and can be just as lethal. The neural activity which constitutes a belief connects directly to a nervous system running through your arm and finger, which pulls the trigger, that fires a bullet, that kills the President, which starts a nuclear war – it's all of a piece. To think otherwise, is essentially to buy into a philosophical dualism of the mind which bit the dust absolutely ages ago.
Beliefs have potentially devastating consequences – 9/11 should have proved that beyond any doubt but, as the fatuous search for "root causes" continues apace, one has to wonder whether 2,998 may not have died in vain. Yet Harris is out to show that the core beliefs motivating the hijackers – beliefs in the Koran, Islamic jihad, the afterlife, and so on – are fundamentally no different in character from beliefs about the weather! Of course, some of the more batshit crazy ideas may be a little harder to acquire, taking years of persistent indoctrination not unlike the lengthy process of learning a musical instrument. But once acquired – once the brain, finding that the belief "tastes good," grants it canonical status – then pretty much everything else follows for better or for worse.
Religious belief, or indeed any other belief, is emphatically not a private matter. Rather, a belief is merely an action primed, cocked, and ready for battle. If we are "as liberals" to insist that it is not beliefs but only actions which matter, then I fear we may find ourselves having to clear up the mess following one 9/11 and 7/7 after another. It is time that we went after the bad ideas with a vengeance. The claims of religion are false – we are now in a position to state this with overwhelming confidence. If liberalism means one thing, then it must surely be about setting the individual free. It isn't entirely clear to me just how shackling ourselves to the ignorance of the past can form any part of this project.
Question for the reader: When we observe how easily the mind may be altered by hypnosis or drugs, why do some of us appear to imagine that religion is quite incapable of performing the same trick?
6. Reading list
No lecture series, facetious or otherwise, would be complete without a recommended reading list. This basically covers the arse of the lecturer against the inevitable errors and omissions of his own exposition. "You'll have to turn to the reading list for a fuller treatment," he will say. So here it is!
  • David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – A bit heavy going as you might expect, but the chapter on miracles is fairly readable, and that is the important bit.
  • Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden – Explains evolution as only Dawkins can. Should be read by every child in the land.
  • Sam Harris, The End of Faith – In my view, the best of the post 9/11 anti-God diatribes. Should be read by every condescending atheist in the land.
  • Julian Baggini, Atheism – This tiny book sets out the philosophical arguments against God in the simplest possible terms. Another one for the Christmas stocking methinks.
  • Victor Stenger, God, the Failed Hypothesis – And this one sets out the scientific arguments against God. Probably wouldn't appeal to those without a strong interest in science.
  • Ludovic Kennedy, All in the Mind – Superb historical sweep charting the rise and fall of God. Great reference book.
OK, that's enough books. If you're still "doing God" after reading that little lot, then I don't think there's a great deal more I can do to help you. But make no mistake – you do need help! I think I'm going to leave the last word to Hume. This, the final paragraph from the Enquiry:

1 comment:

  1. All arguments stated here would be easily debunked. All needed was some space for the fisking task – which I have not. After all, nothing can be debunked unless it exists, even if only in our minds – and everything you can think of has a good probability of existence. But if you want to get some money with a book sale, just keep the pink flag flying.