Can we define the truth of materialism?

In a previous post, I explained why I believe that materialism (the belief that matter is the only reality) cannot make sense of the truth of materialism.

The Red Spider Nebula: Surfing in Sagittarius - not for the faint-hearted!

My reasoning was hard to follow and this prompted me to try to reformulate my argument.

Platonism and Nominalism

According to Platonism, abstract objects not existing in space and time (such as numbers, mathematical operations, concepts such as “everything“, “nothing” etc.) are real and  necessary to talk about the world.

For instance, while considering the sentence

All roses in my garden are red

rosengarten-seppenrade

a Platonist will consider the words “all” and “red” as examples of abstract objects (or universals) which determine its truth or falsehood.

A Nominalist rejects the existence of abstract objects which are considered to be useful human conventions.

According to them, the above sentence can be rephrased as

“Rose number 1, 2, 3…. and N have roughly the same colour as tomatoes”

thereby seemingly doing away with the indispensability of abstract concepts.

It is important to realise that the plausibility of Nominalism stands and falls with its ability to reformulate such statements without the use of any abstract objects.

If abstract objects can be shown to be indispensable to give a meaning to a true sentence describing the real world, Nominalism is false.

What is the truth of materialism?

Materialists MUST be Nominalists as they reject the existence of anything not located in space and time.

At face value, the truth of materialism can be expressed in different equivalent ways:
Everything is material
There is nothing immaterial
If (any object)* A exists, A is material

If (any object)* A is real, A is material“.
…………..
But is there a way to formulate this proposition without (explicitly and implicitly) appealing to any abstract entities?

It seems to me that in that specific context, all words I have underlined are abstract entities or require the meaning of abstract entities such as existence.

The sentences “there exists no such thing as the concept of existence” or “the concept of reality is not real” appear self-contradictory to me.

Note that I am not saying that the underlined words cannot be interpreted nominallistically in other situations.

But here it seems impossible to me to express the truth of materialism while only appealing to material entities.

If I’m right about that, whenever we assert the truth of materialism, we must resort to non-material concepts. In other words, if the truth of materialism is meaningful, non-material concepts must be meaningful as well.

Conversely, if non-material concepts are meaningless, so is the truth of materialism.

Another way of looking at this is to consider the  truth-value of  materialism, that is to say the state of affairs of the world that would make it true.

Suppose that 2 billions years later, our highly advanced descendants feel confident that they know everything that exists.

Would the state of affairs corresponding to materialism simply be: “Object 1 is material, object 2 is material…object N is material“?

No, for it must also include “And objects 1 to N are everything that exists” or ‘”there is nothing else than objects 1 to N”.

It thus appears that as an ensemble, objects 1 to N must have a non-material property (namely that of exhaustiveness) that is not localised in time and space and cannot be identified with any set of interacting primary particles.

Therefore, the impossibility of defining materialism without relying on immaterial concepts goes hand in hand with the impossibility of it being true.

The Cosmos of materialists
The cosmos in a nutshell. Materialism implies BOTH that the entities in the oval are material and that the oval is all there is. This property of the oval is non-physical in that it cannot be localised in time and space.

I’d be interested to learn if you think I’m wrong and that you know such formulations which do not merely shift the problem. Of course, one solution of the issue might be to use more modest definitions of materialism that do not try to convey the idea of “nothing else”.

Footnotes

*Some might object that the sentence

If (any object) A is real, A is material

can simply be formulated as

If A is real, A is material.

This clearly raises questions about the implicit meaning of A.

The sentences

If love exists, love is material

If telepathy exists, telepathy is material

can obviously  not serve as the definition of materialism, although they naturally follow from its truth.

Nor can this role be played by the sentence

If Lyurmur exists, it is material

which concerns a specific entity called “Lyurmur“.

It is because of mathematical conventions and our use to them that we automatically assume that “A” in the original sentence means “any object having that property“.

It thus follows that we cannot do away with that concept in such a manner.

Objections

A creation of human brains

Someone answered that this isn’t a problem as “everything” can be viewed as an abstraction created by human brains.

If that is the case, without conscious lives in the cosmos, materialism couldn’t be true! Materialism would be a fact of the external world that would not be true if there were no consciousness. That’s certainly a very odd position to hold. Many would say it is plainly absurd as one of the main claims of materialism is the denial that consciousness is anything fundamental.
Moreover, if the concept of “everything” is only a useful convention to simplify our daily talks and theory building, then what does it mean in such a situation where it cannot be reduced to anything else?
I think that the following argument can be developed:
***********************************************************************************************
1) If the sentence M “everything is material” is true, then the concept of “everything” must exist either as such or as something reducible to other concepts or objects and not *merely* as a creation of the brain.
2) In that specific context, “everything” cannot be reduced to more fundamental objects.
3) Hence, if M (materialism) is true, “everything” exists as a fundamental object.
***********************************************************************************************
I have argued for 2) above and believe it is very implausible that anyone could reduce “everything” to something more fundamental and do away with abstract objects.
I shall thus take it for granted.
Denying 1) would mean that “A is…” can be true even though A does not carry any external meaning and is only correlated to a bunch of neurons. That too seems very implausible as the proposition “The fountain of youth is material” and “The fountain of youth is immaterial” are both false if the fountain of youth does not refer to a putative object.
Consequently, it is very hard to see how a materialist can consider that “everything” is nothing more than neural currents without meaning while believing that the sentence “everything is material” is true.
Not a noun?
Another person asserted that “everything is material” is perfectly fine for a materialist as “everything” is a pronoun and not a noun. I don’t think this is the case.

For an abstract object not existing in time and space does not have to be a noun in a specific language.
Consider for example the sentences:
0 roses are red
3 roses are red
7 roses are red
9 roses are red
NO rose is red.
ALL roses are red
EVERY roses are red.

“No”,”All” and “every” are as much abstract objects as “3”, “7” and “9” are.
If “0”, “3”, “7”, “9” have no meaning, neither do the four first sentences.
If “no”, “all” and “every” have no meaning, neither do the three last sentences.

“all” and “every” depend on the concepts of everything in the same way as “something” depends on the concept of something.

The sentence “Fijhfhdfgx is blue” is meaningless without a concept of “Fijhfhdfgx“.

What is more, everything in that context can only mean “every OBJECT” as opposed to “every pineapple or “every wild bears”.

So, I still don’t see how “everything” (every thing) can have a meaning here without the concept of everything and the concept of object.

Replacing “every” by an enumeration
Someone suggested I could just replace “every” by an enumeration of all elements making up reality.

I also first thought of “everything” as a summation (U).
If all the materialist was claiming were that the objects KNOWN TO US are material, an enumeration such as
– This laptop is material
– This rose is material
– Donald Trump’s brain is material
….
would indeed be perfectly correct.
The problem is that most materialists also include all potentially unknown object.And as such, the summation (U) will also have to explicitly mention
and all potential objects we know nothing about are material

so that the problem does remain the same.

This seems to be inevitable. Our descendants in 200 000 000 million years would also face the same problem as they too could not rule out the existence of unknown objects in, say, parallel universes.

So I remain convinced that phrases such as “and nothing else exists” cannot be replaced by any combinations of concrete objects.

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 Actually, in order to avoid a tautology (such as ‘all material things are material’), it appears to me that you must allow for the possibility that the object A could be non-material. And as such, A cannot be considered a physical thing of our universe from the outset without begging the question.

My novel on parallel worlds, God and drugs

Here is the introduction to a novel I’ve been writing in English for eons…and perhaps even in some parallel world 🙂

Hier ist die Einführung in einen Roman, den ich auf Englisch seit Äonen geschrieben habe…und vielleicht sogar in irgendwelcher parallelen Welt 🙂

Ceci est l’introduction du roman que j’ai écrit depuis de très nombreux mois…peut-être même dans un monde parallèle 🙂

paralel

*************

Magonland…a world not entirely unlike ours but not completely similar either.

Magonland…eine Welt, die unserer nicht ganz unähnlich ist, obwohl sie auch nicht ganz dieselbe ist.

Magonland…un monde qui n’est pas vraiment différent du notre, bien qu’il ne soit pas tout à fait identique.
For countless centuries, the whole planet has been ruled by the iron fist of the “Grand Consil”, whose manipulative skills have grown so strong that they managed eventually to convince the large majority of Magoners that they live in a democracy and are sovereign over their own existences.

Seit zahllosen Jahrhunderten wird der ganze Planet von der eisernen Faust des “Großen Consils” regiert, dessen manipulativen Methoden so stark geworden sind, dass es ihnen schliesslich gelang, die grosse Mehrheit der Magoner davon zu überzeugen, dass sie in einer Demokratie leben und über ihre eigenen Existenzen entscheiden.

Depuis de nombreux siècles, l’entière planète a été gouverné par le poing d’acier du “Grand Consil”, dont les techniques de manipulation sont devenues tellement matures qu’ils ont finalement réussi à convaincre la grande majorité des Magoneurs qu’ils vivent dans une démocratie et dirigent souverainement leurs propres existences.

manip

But political oppression is far from being the only problem plaguing humans.

Aber die politische Unterdrückung ist keineswegs das einzige Problem, das Menschen plagt.

Mais l’oppression politique est loin d’être le seul fléau affligeant les humains.

Many eons ago, at a time when religions had not yet been eradicated, Ankou, a terrifying drug devouring the bodies and souls of its victims, had been introduced into the world by a powerful sect which disappeared shortly thereafter.

Viele Äonen zuvor, zu einer Zeit als die Religionen noch nicht vertilgt worden waren, wurde Ankou, eine furchterregende Droge, die die Körper und Seelen ihrer Opfer verzehrt, in die Welt hineingebracht von einer mächtigen Sekte, die kurz danach verschwand.

Dans un passé très lointain, alors que les religions n’avaient pas encore été  éradiquées, Ankou, une drogue terrifiante qui dévore les corps et les âmes de ses victimes, fut introduite dans le monde par une puissante secte qui disparut peu après.

junkies

And so did belief in Kralmur, the God of all gods whose glorious return so passionately preached by forgotten prophets never happened.

Und ebenso verschwand der Glaube an Kralmur, den Gott aller Götter, dessen glorreiche Rückkehr, über die vergessene Propheten so leidenschaftlich gepredigt haben, nie geschah.

Et il en fut de même pour la foi en Kralmur, le Dieu de tous les dieux, dont le glorieux retour prêché tellement passionnément par des prophètes oubliés, n’arriva jamais.

Despite a wealthy existence, a fantastic girlfriend and a decent job he feels passionate about, Curt Sunbloom no longer wants to live on.

Trotz einer wohlhabenden Existenz, einer fantastischen Freundin und einer anständigen Arbeit, wovon er sich begeistert fühlt, will Curt Sunneblum nicht länger weiterleben.

Malgré une existence aisée, une fantastique petite amie et un travail décent qui le passione, Curt Sunbloom ne veut plus vivre.

gott

Apart from having the same name as his dead father who tyrannized the planet for decades, he constantly feels a deep emptiness in his innermost being that nothing had ever been able to drive away for long.

Ausser der Tatsache, dass er denselben Namen wie den seines toten Vaters hat, der den ganzen Planet während Jahrzehnten tyrannisiert hat, fühlt er ständig eine tiefe innere Leere, die kein Ding dieser Welt auf die Länge hatte vertreiben können.

En plus d’avoir le même nom que son père décédé, qui a tyrannisé toute la planète pendant des décennies, il sent sans cesse un vide intérieur que rien au monde n’a jamais pu chasser pour longtemps.

As rumors of a gate toward another realm surface, he doesn’t hesitate and decides to search for it.

Als Gerüchte über ein Tor nach einer anderen Dimension auftauchen, zögert er nicht und entscheidet, danach zu suchen.

Lorsque des rumeurs concernant un portail vers une autre dimension surfacent, il n’hésite pas et décide de le chercher.

torandererdimension

But at the same time, mysterious lights are beginning to move around in the sky.

Aber zur gleichen Zeit beginnen gerade mysteriöse Lichter am Himmel, sich herum zu bewegen.

Mais en même temps, des mystérieuses lumières dans le ciel commencent a se déplacer erratiquement dans le ciel.

And Ankou seems to be evolving into something more sinister than it ever was.

Und Ankou scheint gerade, sich in etwas zu verwandeln, das noch düsterer ist als es je gewesen ist.

Et Ankou semble être entrain de se transformer en quelque chose encore plus sinistre qu’elle n’a jamais été.

anopu

Soon, Curt finds himself in the middle of a confusing war whose significance might transcend everything he believes in.

Bald befindet sich Curt mitten in einem verwirrenden Krieg, dessen Bedeutsamkeit alles übersteigen könnte, woran er glaubt.

Bientôt, Curt se retrouve au milieu d’une guerre déroutante, dont la signifiance pourrait très bien transcender toutes ses croyances.

transenence

********************

So, aside from my work as an emerging scientist, this novel is the main reason why I’ve been blogging less frequently for the last months.

Also, neben meiner beruflichen Tätigkeit als Nachwuchswissenschaftler ist dieser Roman der Hauptgrund, warum ich im Laufe der letzten Monate viel seltener gebloggt habe.

En plus de ma profession en tant que jeune scientifique, ce roman est la raison principale pourquoi j’ai rarement blogué pendant les derniers mois.

At the moment,I am undecided as to how to publish it.

Momentan weiß ich noch nicht, wie ich ihn publizieren werde.

En ce moment, je ne sais pas encore comment je veux le publier.

I consider it much more important to be read by many people than to make money out of it.

Ich betrachte es als viel wichtiger, von zahlreichen Menschen gelesen zu werden, als dadurch viel Geld zu verdienen.

Je considère beaucoup plus important d’être lu par beaucoup de personnes plutôt que de gagner de l’argent a travers cela.

In the parallel world I created, English is the common tongue but some people speak in French and other people speak in the Germanic dialect of my region.

In der parallelen Welt, die ich erschaffen habe, ist das Englische die gemeinsame Sprache aber einige Menschen sprechen Französisch während andere Personen den deutschen Dialekt meiner Region reden.

Dans le monde parallèle que j’ai créé, l’anglais est la langue principale mais certaine personnes parlent en français tandis que d’autres s’expriment dans le dialecte germanique de ma région.

So people interested in linguistic might like it 🙂

Also Leute, die an der Linguistik interessiert sind, könnten es mögen 🙂

Ainsi, les gens intéressés par la linguistique pourrait l’apprécier 🙂

mainwilla

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On Dawkins, God, ET and the nature of reality

I just listened to a talk given by Richard Dawkins.

For those who do not know him, he is the most influential “new atheist” (anti-theist) whose deepest wish would be to rid the world of all religions. Besides that, he is a very gifted evolutionary biologist and writer.

Given his track record and his habit of constantly lumping together all Christians and Muslims and his failure to appreciate the historical and religious contexts in which the Bible and the Koran were written, I expected a highly biased presentation of the facts.
I was pleasantly surprised by his (relatively) moderate tone and even ended up enjoying his show.
The same cannot be said of his followers and the person who titled the video. As we shall see, Dawkins did not “debunk” deism and the “simulation hypothesis”.
At best, he only showed that some arguments for these views are flawed.
In what follows, I want to offer my thoughts about several things he said, albeit not necessarily in a chronological order.

The origin of life and intelligent design

origin-life
Dawkins recognises that at the moment, we don’t know how life originated. There are several theories out there but they all have their problems and no consensus has been reached.
Of course, our current ignorance cannot be used to argue that no natural phenomena could have been responsible for the appearance of the first self-replicating system.
Dawkins is ready to seriously consider the possibility that life has been seeded on earth by space aliens, which shows a certain mind-openness.
But he is adamant that such creatures could only have evolved through a slow process because the probability of their being formed spontaneously is extremely low.
This begs the question against people holding a religious world view who would say that the creator(s) of life are God(s) who always existed.
This also doesn’t fit in with his beliefs about the origin of the universe, as we will see later on.

Extraterrestrial intelligences and  Fermi’s paradox

Dawkins endorses the principle of mediocrity which stipulates that we shouldn’t suppose there is anything special about us.

Thus, since we know there is (advanced) life on earth, we should assume it is widespread across the whole universe.

While being still popular among mainstream scientists, the Principle Of Mediocrity (POM= has grown more controversial over the last years.
Philosopher of science John Norton wrote an article entitled “Cosmic Confusions: Not Supporting versus Supporting Not” where he shows the problems related to the POM.
Basically, the principle of mediocrity is justified through the principle of indifference (POI), according to which if we know nothing about a situation, we should attribute the same probability to each possibility.
I explained what I consider to be fatal objections to the POI here and here.
As Norton demonstrated, the principle of indifference conflates the difference between knowledge and ignorance and very often leads to arbitrary results (depending on the prior probability distribution one uses).
There is a fundamental distinction between
Situation A) We know that life on earth wasn’t the result of a fluke but that of non-random natural processes
and
Situation B) We know (almost) nothing about this.
Dawkins went into a paradox mentioned by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi.
If advanced life is so common in the cosmos, why don’t we see any trace of it?
Several explanations (such as the near impossibility of interstellar travel, the short duration of technological civilisations or their reluctance to interact with such primitive beings as we) have been offered to solve the paradox.
To my mind, while these may be plausible reasons why ten or even hundred extraterrestrial races never approached the earth, they seem extremely far-fetched when applied to millions (let alone billions) of civilisations.
Therefore, I believe that Fermi’s paradox strongly calls in question the conviction that the universe is teeming with advanced life forms.

The fine-tuning argument and the multiverse

fine-tuning

Physicists have long since been puzzled by the fact that the constants of nature must lie in a very narrow domain in order to allow for advanced life to exist.

Many theistic philosophers reason like this

  1. All sets of parameter values must have the same probability of being true (applying the Principle Of Indifference mentioned above)
  2. Therefore, the probability of their belonging to a small region is extremely (if not infinitely) small.
  3. It is very unlikely that we are the products of purely natural processes not involving God.

While mainstream cosmologists agree with steps 1 and 2, they then go on to postulate the existence of a (nearly) infinite number of parallel universes covering all intervals of parameter values. A natural consequence of this is that the appearance of a universe such as ours is bound to happen even if no supernatural creator intervenes.

Dawkins considers this the most plausible explanation of the problem.

I have come to the realisation that the whole concept of a fine-tuning problem is misguided because of its reliance on the principle of difference.

The fallacy of doing so has been demonstrated by Norton.

Miracles in an infinite multiverse

According to Clarke’s law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Dawkins believes there are probably creatures out there who are so superior to us that we could only regard them as gods if they were to visit us. But he insists that they would have been created through evolutionary processes and would not be supernatural beings.

But this means that in order for him to dismiss out of hand the testimonies of witnesses of paranormal events and miracles, he would have to either show that they violate the laws of physics or give us plausible reasons as to why such creatures would not visit us.

He also faces another problem stemming from his belief in an infinite number of parallel universes.

In an infinite space, any event which is physically possible is bound to happen somewhere.

This has led physicists to consider the possibility of so-called Boltzmann’s brains which would pop into existence because of random fluctuations.

Bolzmann-brain
Bolzmann’s brain

While physicists disagree about the frequency of their appearances in a vast multiverse, they all think they will at least exist somewhere.

Actually, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been able to convincingly demonstrate they would be very rare.

Anti-theists like to mock Christians by comparing their belief in God to the belief in a flying spaghetti monster. flying-spaghetti-monster

But if we truly live in an infinite multiverse, flying spaghetti monsters too will necessarily exist somewhere.

What is more, physically very improbable events (such as the resurrection of a man from the dead) are also going to happen somewhere through random processes.

 

As a consequence, the atheist can no longer say “your belief in the miracles of the New Testament is silly because they violate the law of physics”.

The best he could say would be: “While such events really occur somewhere, their relative frequency is so low that it is unreasonable for you to believe they really took place.”

This is no doubt a weaker position which has its own problems.

 

The simulation argument

Actually, Dawkins discussed the so-called simulation argument elsewhere.

According to it, it is more likely we live in the simulation of a universe than in a real one.

Far from “debunking” this possibility, Dawkins recognises he cannot show it to be very unlikely in the same way he thinks he can reject the existence of God.

I think another interesting thesis can be formulated.

Consider the following proposition:

“We live in a simulation run by unknown beings who created everything five minutes ago and gave us false memories of the past.”

Brain in the vat: "I'm walking outside in the sun!"
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and includes the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know almost nothing.

I don’t doubt that this idea sounds emotionally absurd to most of us.

But can you show it is very unlikely to be true WITHOUT smuggling in assumptions about the real world?

I have searched the philosophical literature but could not find any demonstration which does not beg the question.

I think that you can only reject it pragmatically through a leap of faith that does not rely on reason and evidence.

Consequently, I also think it is impossible to justify all our beliefs through evidence and logics.

We all walk by faith.

 

The atheist in front of God’s throne

Finally, I want to go into how Dawkins considers the possibility of being judged by a God he didn’t believe in.

Dawkins says he would react like the late British philosopher Bertrand Russel:

“Confronted with the Almighty, [Russell] would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’

This assumes that God would be mostly offended by Dawkins’ and Russel’s unbelief.

I have argued elsewhere against the notion (held by fundamentalist Christians) that atheism is immoral and that people dying as atheists will be punished because of their unbelief.

I think it is incompatible with the existence of a supreme being which would necessarily be more loving, just and gracious than any human.

But what if the dialogue between God and Dawkins went like that:

Dawkins: So, you really exist after all! I did not believe in you because I couldn’t see enough evidence.

God: Fair enough. The universe I created is ambiguous and it leaves people the choice to  develop a solid moral character or not. I won’t condemn you because you did not believe in me. Yet, we do have a score to settle.

Dawkins: What do you mean then?

God:I gave you a conscience and the knowledge of good and evil. You knew in your heart that you ought to treat your neighbour as you would like to be treated. But you often disregarded this principle. You and your followers have frequently bullied, mocked and ridiculed respectful opponents. You even loudly proclaimed this was the right thing to do.

Of course, this conversation is completely fictional. I don’t know the content of Dawkins’ heart and cannot rule out the possibility he will be in heaven.

Conclusion

I find that this video of Dawkins is really intellectually stimulating.

I did not feel challenged in my faith/hope there is a supreme being.

On the contrary, this strengthened my belief that atheists cannot confidently assert that “there are probably no gods and miracles.”

Of course, I must recognise there are many atheistic philosophers who are far more sophisticated than Dawkins out there.

But it is worth noting that Dawkins’ books (especially the God delusion) caused many people to lose their faith.

I think that their conversions to atheism are due to his rhetorical skills and not to the strength of his arguments.

 

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On God’s hiddenness and the nature of faith

I was recently involved in an interesting debate about the nature of faith in God and the alleged moral guilt of disbelievers.

It revolved around the problem of divine hiddenness: if God really exists and is interested in people believing in Him, then why does He not unambiguously prove His existence?

God's hiddeness
God’s hiddenness: despite all the wonders delighting our eyes and filling our soul with awe, nature remains very ambiguous and conceals its ultimate reality.

The discussion took place in the comment section of a blog post written by progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser entitled “Is the Atheist my Neighbour?

************************

When I wrote Is the Atheist My Neighbor? I had a very short endorser wish-list. That list consisted of folks who were leaders in their professions and exemplars of the kind of irenic dialogue between atheist and Christian that was the book’s reason for being.

Neither Richard Dawkins nor Ray Comfort made the list.

One of the people who did make that list was J.L. Schellenberg, Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University. Schellenberg is an atheist and one of the leading philosophers of religion in the world today. His most important work in philosophy of religion is a powerful argument for atheism from divine hiddenness, an argument that he has honed over more than twenty years. Professor Schellenberg has pushed the dialogue and debate forward with a thoughtful and powerful argument, and all without animus or rancor. Indeed, while I have never met him, I know several Christian philosophers who count him not only an esteemed and worthy opponent, but a personal friend as well. You can visit Professor Schellenberg online at his website here.

All this is to say that I was delighted to receive the following endorsement from Professor Schellenberg for Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Given my goals in writing this book, an endorsement like this is worth its weight in gold, and that would hold even if the endorsement were etched in granite. The first sentence alone provides one of the best introductions to a book endorsement that I’ve ever read:

“There are some whose way of following the first of the great commandments has, in the matter of nonbelief, meant violating the second. In this brief and lively but remarkably full and acute discussion, Rauser shows the way out of this problem. Impressively fair, and writing not perfunctorily but with feeling, he has found a way to express genuine neighborliness both to atheists like me and to Christians who struggle to reconcile love and loyalty.”

Randal-Rauser_Is-the-Atheist-my-Neighbor

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Andy Schüler, a German Atheist reacted to another commentator arguing that rejecting God’s existence is never an innocent action.

Among many other things, he wrote:

******************************

Schellenberg´s argument requires that at least some people who are open to the possibility of God’s existence and do not resist this truth still live and die as unbelievers. If you interpret the Bible in such a way that the existence of such people is impossible – then your interpretation makes the Bible evidently wrong about this matter (in a way that makes any further discussions impossible, because it forces you to accuse people who claim that they indeed are sincerely open to the possibility of God’s existence, yet also sincerely do not believe that there is a God, of simply lying about this). 

…………………………….

You don´t teach your kid that he or she shouldn’t touch a hot stove by letting him touch it. Or rather – you would be a terrible parent if you did it). And the scripture you refer to depicts God in an even worse light, God is like a parent that is an extremely skilled mentalist and not only does nothing to stop his little kid from touching the hot stove, but rather uses his skills to convince him that he  should touch it!

************

My response follows. Please forgive me for the small pieces of German dialect scattered here and there 🙂

Hi Andy! 🙂
Long time, no see!
(Sit longi Zit hon ich nix meh von dir gehert!).

“Innocence or lack thereof has nothing to do with anything here. Schellenberg´s argument requires that at least some people are open to the possibility of God existing / not resisting the truth of this, yet still live and die as unbelievers.”

My own view is that people “dying as unbelievers” (or atheists for that matter) but sincerely and humbly striving for justice and love will inherit eternal life whereas people dying as egoistical self-righteous bigots will irremediably lose their existence and be no more.

In all his parables, Jesus never threatened anyone with hellfire for not believing in Him or engaging in sexual immorality but for
1) failing to feed the poor, weak, hungry or neglected
and
2) not repenting from one’s own unjust pride.

Even Paul himself didn’t embrace the whole view often attributed to him in that he wrote

“God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11”

If you read Roman 2, it seems quite clear to me that Paul believed in the salvation of righteous heathens dying as such, his other ideas notwithstanding.

It is ironic that those arrogant and unloving fundamentalists who keep preaching about “salvation by faith” and eternal torment are those who are the most likely to miss everlasting life, according to Jesus.

Given that, I find that Schellenberg´s challenges are far less impressive (albeit not entirely unproblematic, of course).

God is under no moral obligation to give clear evidence of His existence to atheists if their unbelief while dying isn’t going to damn them.

You’re quite right that we cannot make a choice about what we deem to be reasonable
(obwohl die Engländer das Wort “decide” sowohl als “entscheiden” als auch als “bestimmen”, “herausfinden” verwenden 🙂 )

Yet, the same thing cannot necessarily be said about our hopes .

Obviously, someone convinced that theism is extremely implausible cannot entertain any hope in that direction.

But what if you’re completely ignorant about whether theism or atheism is true?

Or what if you (as I do) believe there are intriguing pieces of evidence for the existence of a non-material world which aren’t, however, compelling?

It appears quite reasonable to think one can, in that case, consciously choose to entertain and cultivate hope in either direction.

One example might make that concept a bit more palatable.

Consider the proposition: “Our world is actually some kind of simulation run by beings we know nothing about . It all started five minutes ago with the appearance of age.”

Brain in the vat:
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and include the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know nothing.

I’ve no doubt that most of us find that pretty absurd on an emotional level .
Yet, I do not think that anyone can show this to be widely implausible without begging the question and smuggling in assumptions about reality. And I spent quite a few hours exploring propositions aiming at rationally dismissing that possibility.
(You can try to prove me wrong if you so wish 🙂 ).

Therefore, I think that in order to ground our entire knowledge and existence, one has to take a leap of faith and make a pragmatic decision (Entscheidung) not based on whatever reasons.

Schene Grisse uss Nordenglond 🙂

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Can all our beliefs be based on evidence?

Jonny Scaramanga (a former British fundamentalist I interviewed here) wrote an interesting article about the way children may become persuaded of the truth of far fetched beliefs.

Jonny Scaramanga teaching a class
Jonny Scaramanga, former fundamentalist, activist and PhD student at the Institute of Education, University of London, studying student experiences of Accelerated Christian Education.

********

Children are not that gullible, which makes indoctrination even more odious

I recently submitted an article on indoctrination for publication in an academic journal. I was attempting to explain what indoctrination looks like in practice in an educational environment, and along the way I made an assertion that I think most people would accept: “Young children … in most cases will believe whatever they are told”.

This is a widely assumed to be true, so I am grateful to my anonymous peer reviewer for pointing out that I was mistaken. The reviewer recommended I read a paper by Dan Sperber et al, “Epistemic vigilance”, which, happily, is freely available online. The section on children begins on page 371. The evidence suggests that children from very young ages use sophisticated techniques to work out who to trust.

Even at a very early age, children do not treat all communicated information as equally reliable. At 16 months, they notice when a familiar word is inappropriately used (Koenig and Echols, 2003). By the age of two, they often attempt to contradict and correct assertions that they believe to be false (e.g. Pea, 1982). These studies challenge the widespread assumption that young children are simply gullible.

Do young children have the cognitive resources to allocate trust on the basis of relevant evidence about an informant’s trustworthiness? Given the choice, three-year-olds seem to prefer informants who are both benevolent (Mascaro and Sperber, 2009) and competent (e.g. Clement ´ et al., 2004). In preferring benevolent informants, they take into account not only their own observations but also what they have been told about the informant’s moral character (Mascaro and Sperber, 2009), and in preferring competent informants, they take past accuracy into account (e.g. Clement ´ et al., 2004; Birch et al., 2008; Scofield and Behrend, 2008). By the age of four, they not only have appropriate preferences for reliable informants, but also show some grasp of what this reliability involves. For instance, they can predict that a dishonest informant will provide false information (Couillard and Woodward, 1999), or that an incompetent informant will be less reliable (Call and Tomasello, 1999; Lampinen and Smith, 1995; Clément et al., 2004). Moreover, they make such predictions despite the fact that unreliable informants typically present themselves as benevolent and competent.

The paper goes on to explain that four- and five-year-olds develop methods of spotting deception and also hypocrisy. Further, they are good at interpreting signals about what other people think about information (and the informers), and they use this to assist their own judgements about who is a trustworthy informant and what information is reliable. They’re also pretty good at spotting when someone intends to deceive them, and they know to ignore that information. From the age of four, children are particularly careful about who to trust.

All of which is not to say that children can’t be fooled, of course, but adults can be fooled too. It turns out children are not the trusting dopes they are sometimes depicted as.

But I know, and you know too, that if you stick a class of children in a room with a teacher who tells them that God made the Earth in six days six thousand years ago, most of them are going to believe it (and this was my point when I said that children generally believe what they are told). So what’s going on?

The answer, of course, is that children have excellent reasons to trust their teachers and their parents. Even in the most extreme cults, the vast majority of the verifiable information we learn from our parents in our formative years turns out to be true. Stoves are indeed hot and plug sockets are dangerous. Waiting for the green man does make it safer to cross the road. The food they recommend is generally good tasting and non-poisonous, and the things they recommend for entertainment are usually enjoyable. Up to the age of four, most of what we know about the world comes from parents, and most of it is right.

Then our parents hand us over to the care of teachers, which implicitly tells us that they are to be trusted. Our parents may also explicitly tell us to trust our teachers, with phrases like “You should listen to what your teacher says”. We trust our parents because they haven’t steered us wrong so far, and sure enough the teacher does seem to be reliable as well. She teaches us to read, which is very useful, and when we read signs using the methods she taught us, we arrive in the right places. She shows us that when we connect wires to metal contacts, the bulb lights up, and when we connect them to plastic, nothing happens.

Our parents and teachers tell us stories, and from quite early on they distinguish between true stories and those which are ‘only stories’. So when they tell us about Noah’s Ark, the exodus from Egypt, and the walls of Jericho, we trust them. We have every reason to do so—they have demonstrated their reliability. We would, as Sperber’s paper argues, be pretty good at telling if they were trying to deceive us, but of course they aren’t.

In short, when children are taught creationism by their parents and teachers, they accept it because this is the rational thing to do. Even the most committed skeptic cannot check everything out first hand. We all gain much of our knowledge from reliable others, and for most of us parents and teachers are the most reliable others we will ever know. It would be insane to trust them on everything except religion when religion is presented as true in the same way as all other knowledge taught at home or school. Of course the children believe you. That’s what you’re for. When you use that fact to make children believe things for which there is insufficient evidence, you are abusing your power and abusing their trust.

Presenting religious ideas as though we can believe them with the same confidence we can believe that clouds make rain or electricity flows through metal better than plastic is just immoral. I find it difficult to overstate how wrong this is. There are not many things I would call sacred, but the duty of care to children must be one of them. Ironically, I find myself wanting to use religious language to emphasise the gravity of this point. From the point of view of the Christian teacher, God has put these children in your care. It is despicable to use this position to present scientific and religious information as though they are both equally knowledge. Your job is to educate children, and you’re lying to them. It is the educational equivalent of a doctor poisoning patients.

*******

I think this raised quite important questions about the nature of faith and what our convictions should be grounded on.

Here was my response.

Hi Jonny.

I certainly agree it may be pretty harmful to teach far-fetched beliefs to children.

I don’t think, however, that one can generally say that fundies are being immoral for doing so.

Most I talked with are sincerely convinced that there are good arguments for a young earth or an exodus out of Egypt and that if it doesn’t belong to public knowledge, it is only because “godless” scientists “suppress the truth”.

Young earth creationism: poor dinosaurs are seeing the ark departing while the raging water is about to flood them.
Young earth creationism in all its glory.

So they teach what they are honesty convinced of and I think that very few of them teach things they know very well to be false.

Of course, I believe they are either utterly irrational or terribly uninformed. But that changes nothing to their sincerity.

Otherwise, I doubt it is possible to only believe in things we’ve evidence for.

Consider the proposition:

“We do not live in a simulation ran by beings we know nothing about.”

Brain in the vat: "I'm walking outside in the sun!"
Brain in a vat. My thought experiment here is far broader than that and include the possibility of being part of a simulation of beings radically different from everything we can conceive of. Or being fooled by a deceitful demon about whose abilities and psychology we know nothing.

Almost all human beings accept this.
Yet, I strongly doubt it is possible to bring up evidence for this without already making assumptions about reality, i.e. without begging the question.

As far as I can tell, nobody has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to the Muenchhausen dilemna,
****

All justifications in pursuit of ‘certain’ knowledge have also to justify the means of their justification and doing so they have to justify anew the means of their justification. Therefore, there can be no end. We are faced with the hopeless situation of ‘infinite regression’.
One can justify with a circular argument, but this sacrifices its validity.

The brain is the most important organ you have. According to the brain.
Circular reasoning.

One can stop at self-evidence or common sense or fundamental principles or speaking ex cathedra or at any other evidence, but in doing so, the intention to install ‘certain’ justification is abandoned.

An English translation of a quote from the original German text by Albert is as follows:[8]

Here, one has a mere choice between:

An infinite regression, which appears because of the necessity to go ever further back, but is not practically feasible and does not, therefore, provide a certain foundation.
A logical circle in the deduction, which is caused by the fact that one, in the need to found, falls back on statements which had already appeared before as requiring a foundation, and which circle does not lead to any certain foundation either.
A break of searching at a certain point, which indeed appears principally feasible, but would mean a random suspension of the principle of sufficient reason.
******

Consequently, I think there are some very basic beliefs we hold which cannot be justified.
This leads me to reject claims of knowing how things really are and to adopt a pragmatic view of our beliefs.
I view “faith” as hope in something highly desirable even if evidence is unavailable or insufficient.

According to that definition, it is my contention that everyone walks by faith.
I don’t have children but I think I would try to explain this to them as soon as they are old enough to grasp that (without hopefully making them too dizzy).
To my mind, these considerations lead to a humble pluralism rather than to a confident materialism.

I don’t, however, hold anything I said dogmatically and would be glad to see your objections, if you have some.

I certainly sympathize with the children of fundamentalists who go through terrible ordeals as you did.

Cheers.

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Did Jesus leave his grave behind? An interview with Mike Licona.

There can be little doubt that the Christian faith stands and falls with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who claimed this would be the Way His heavenly father would defeat evil forever.

He is Risen

For many people having grown up in post-Christian Europe, this alleged event is nothing more than one of the numerous legends the ancient world was littered with.

SanktClausIn what follows, I had the immense privilege of interviewing Mike Licona, an amazing Biblical scholar and historian who thinks that an intellectual honest man of the twenty-first century can and even should believe that the Son of Man truly rose from the dead.

mike-licona-for-web

In our conversation we touched upon many topics and also wondered if it’s really the case that materialism (the worldview according to which everything is material) is almost certainly true.

 

 

 

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Theology from Exile

This book aims at providing liberal Christians no longer able to believe in most elements of traditional Christianity an useful resource for finding a faith and an identity.

It heavily relies on the ideas of some influential members of the Jesus Seminar such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.

Borg

Rejection of traditional Christianity

Rejection of dogmas concerning salvation

They rightly observe that the extent of our love for our fellow human beings is going to hugely depend on our view of God, called Gottesbild in German. They are correct that many theologies hinders justice from unfolding within our earthly world.

They emphasize that the return of Jesus is NOW and that isn’t punitive.

2ndcoming

Light isn’t Jesus but Jesus is part of the light. The authors often speak of “Cosmic Christ” in that concept.

There are no personal sins, all sins ” meaning “missing the mark” ” are committed against one’s human and natural environment.

Paul himself was a mystic who perhaps went as far as requiring all other Christians to become mystics.

God’s covenant of Justice was not about vanquishing our personal sin but inviting us into a new community of distributive justice.

The natural man cannot participate in just social and economical systems, he needs to be born anew vis a vis these unjust structures

They rightly point out one can find conflicting interpretations of God’s moral nature in the Bible and side with Jesus who did not use violence against the Roman occupants.

They are also appalled by the fact many American leaders orient their politics towards Israel according to their literal interpretation of the last books of the New Testament.

They swap the faith notion they’ve grown up with “suspension of belief” with “Commitment to Justice”.

They also sharply advocate the separation between the Church and the State because unhealthy interaction can begin taking place otherwise.

Rejection of the supernatural

“God” has become the Cosmos which necessarily means there will be no second coming.

The Great Evolution we’re a part of replaces the incarnation. The resurrection is  a metaphor expressing the fact that our universe is a symbiotic system where one part dies so that all the others may live.

The authors seem to frequently confuse the word “Postmodernism” (which means a great skepticism towards ALL knowledge claims) which Modernism according to which we live in an objectively existing universe utterly bereft of meaning.

postmodernism

There is nothing outside of the world defined by cosmology.

The New Covenant should be between Humanity and Nature which is called “God” in the latter case.

We ought to reinterpret our resurrection imagery because today we “know that nobody rise from the dead”.

We should therefore rather see the Easter Hope as a political transformation of extraordinary scope.

Irrational theology

They speak of “the love and compassion of the universe”  but this is completely absurd. A complex material bunch of particles cannot feel anything, let alone convey anything relatively close to compassion.

Given this definition of God, the phrase is “God gives all to all” is technically correct but also terribly incomplete:  it also entails that God gives cancer, genocide, aids and starvation without any chance for the victims to get their suffering compensated.

Thus a faith in the “goodness” of the created order seems to be nothing more than an irrational leap in the dark.

When they write that “those who love their enemies have no enemy” , this seems to be nothing more than a semantic trick since the  person hating them hasn’t most of the time lowered his hatred.

The authors try to paraphrase the apostle Paul in Corinthian 13 as follows:

“We are not pitiful if we are raised for the new social order”.

The problem is that it is an astronomical watering-down of Paul’s statement back then.

According to Sea Raven et al. there will be no vindication for all those who have laid their life for Justice’s sake. Their elementary particles will soon get back to the still emptiness of an indifferent universe which will have quickly forgotten them.

On contrast, the first Christians hoped on a God who would vindicate every one of them personally.

I think that what theologian  Francis Schaeffer wrote about the liberal theologians of his days is still valid in that context:

Often this answer — of beginning with the impersonal — is called pantheism. The new mystical thought is almost always some form of pantheism — and almost all the modern liberal theology is pantheistic as well. Often this beginning with the impersonal is called pantheism, but really this is a semantic trick, because by using the root theism a connotation of the personal is brought in, when by definition the impersonal is meant.

Francis_Schaeffer

Conclusion

I have no doubt that the authors of this book are kind people who really strive for making the world a better place. And in that respect they  might be far closer to Christ than countless culture warriors who neglect the works of social justice.

That said, I cannot view them as Christians because they neither believe in an afterlife nor in a personal God which are the hallmarks of the Christian hope. I think they have rightly pointed up many problems with the conservative Christianity they come from, but I don’t believe that rejecting the miraculous nature of our faith is necessary or sufficient for handling this problem.

The hope yearned by a world in a disastrous state is that for a perfectly good God, even if this causes the problem of evil of reconciling His just and loving Nature with what one can observe around us.

 

 Disclaimer: I received this book through a generous offer of Speakeasy. I confirm I reviewed this book objectively.

 

 

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