Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Genetic Fallacy of “Bias and Heuristics in Religious Thinking”

I recently watched Professor Matt McCormick’s Youtube video titled Bias and Heuristics in Religious Thinking” and read through his PowerPoint slides that were featured in his video on his blog called Atheism:Proving The Negative. In the video Matt discusses come psychological findings that point to errors in human thinking that he believes particularly pertain to people of faith. I did find the presentation interesting and believe that there are findings that are instructive to people in general. I was pleased that Matt was generous enough to say that these findings do pertain to everyone, but I was disappointed that he applied these findings particularly to religious people and committed one of the most common atheist fallacies, the genetic fallacy.

Matt commits the genetic fallacy
Matt discusses how the hyperactive agency detection device (HADD), a mechanism that he claims was evolved to help man agents such as predators, and how our HADD causes us to see agents where they aren’t. He believes that HADD causes us to perceive gods who aren’t there. The problem with this assertion is that it commits the genetic fallacy because assuming that we have this evolved device it could actually be pointing us to God, in fact if God exists then it is quite probable that he gave us (either through evolution or some other means) this device in order to detect him. In any case the existence of HADD does not mean that God doesn’t exist or that the origin of the belief that he exists is incorrect.

There is no prayer fallacy
Later on in the presentation Matt discusses prayer, and calls theist’s claims that God answers prayers with yes, no or maybe later a fallacy. The problem with this is that it presupposes that God is an omnipotent genie that must grant all prayers no matter how ridiculous or harmful they are. Bob could pray to be Supreme Dictator of the Universe so that he can torture and execute anyone who doesn’t bow down to him and the genie god would have to grant his prayer. What if Fred prays the same thing? This is a logically impossible situation, not to mention the fact that one of these prayers being granted would be a downright scary situation. The fact that all prayers aren’t granted does not prove that God doesn’t exist, or that prayer doesn’t work. God is not obligated to answer any prayers. God is a free agent who can decide which prayers should be granted and which shouldn’t, and he has the freedom to grant them when he sees fit. As an omnipotent, timeless being he has a better perspective then we do about which prayers should be granted and which shouldn't.

Are skeptics really open minded?
Next Matt talks about defense layers for Jesus vs. actively open minded thinking. The funny thing about this his belief that atheists/skeptics generally exhibit actively open minded thinking while religious believers are close minded, dogmatic defense lawyers for Jesus is that skeptics, who are generally naturalists, are closed to the possibility of God and miracles. How can a proponent of naturalism claim that they can make an objective open minded investigation into religious claims when they start with the presupposition that God doesn’t exist and miracles are impossible? The answer is they can’t. That is why proponents of skepticism/naturalism will always favor naturalistic explanations, even if those naturalistic explanations are farfetched, because supernatural explanations are seen to be impossible. In fact it is kind of ridiculous to equate skepticism with open mindedness because the whole idea of skepticism is that it is a way to avoid possible mistaken beliefs by filtering out beliefs by demanding near if not absolute proof for that belief. So, the project of skepticism is the opposite of being open.

The difference between possible and probable
Next Matt says that believers argue that God possibly exists. Perhaps some believers do argue this but I think most sophisticated believers say that God’s existence is highly probable. There is a huge difference between possible and highly probable because just about anything is possible, but far fewer things are highly probable. When I say that God is highly probable it is because I’ve looked at the world and concluded that God is the cause of the finely tuned universe and is the ontological foundation of objective morals. I have reasons for believing that God exists. However, I realize that it is not possible to absolutely prove God’s existence because we don’t have enough information to do that.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Is Reasonable Faith an Oxymoron?

There have been a series of posts by John Loftus on his Debunking Christianity blog where he argues that reasonable faith is an oxymoron. John defines faith as, “An attitude or feeling whereby someone attributes a higher probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for.” Is this a good definition? On one hand, yes, John is right to talk about probabilities because the only thing that we can know with absolute certainty is that we exist, everything else must be believed or rejected with varying degrees of certainty. On the other hand, I think that John’s definition is not very precise because how can we know how high a probability has to be?

What are some other definitions of faith? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines faith as, “Firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” I’m taking the Merriam-Webster definition as referring to absolute proof. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant defines faith as, “A rational attitude towards a potential object of knowledge which arises when we are subjectively certain it is true even though we are unable to gain theoretical or objective certainty.” Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I think these definitions work better. From these definitions I think there is a faith element to all beliefs outside of the belief in our own existence. This is something that John disagrees with, but I think this is largely because of the religious connotations of the word faith, and his aversion to anything religious.

Now let’s get back to John’s discussion of faith. He writes:
I do not deny that at any given time we must assume some things since we cannot place on the table everything we think is true and examine them all at the same time. This is especially true about our notions that we exist, are communicating with other minds, that our memories represent the past, that there was a past, that there is a material world, that our senses give us accurate input that we are not dreaming right now, etc. What I deny is that we accept any of these things by faith. We might be wrong, but faith isn’t what allows us to accept such things. Scientific reasoning does. I can defend each one of my conclusions about such things though, and I do. These prior conclusions provide the background knowledge I have when involved in any discussion, and I’m allowed to have them.
John is right that we must make assumptions such as a universe exists outside of my mind but this assumption cannot be proven scientifically. John goes on to talk about our fairly reliable memories, archaeological evidence and scientific evidence for the Big Bang. It appears like we have these things, but what if all this stuff are just elaborate fictions fed to our minds by an evil genius who is trying to deceive us? What if Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin and their work are just literal as Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes and Bilbo Baggins? There is no way to be certain, but the fact that I can’t be absolutely certain that the world, which appears to surround me, literally exists doesn't dissuade me from being confident that the world exists because I can rationally make the assumption that there is no good reason to doubt the universe’s existence.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Negating the Negations: My Objections to Russ’ Debate Strategy with Christians

John Loftus published a post where he reposts an argument from his friend Russ. Russ’ debate strategy is to affirm theological statements from a theologian, who in Russ’ example is Bishop John Shelby Spong, that conflicts with traditional Christian theology. The idea is that if God is true then all theologians should agree about His attributes. However, there are multiple problems with this argument—it is formally and informally fallacious.
  1. 1.       The first problem is that the argument is formally fallacious because it has the form of denying the antecedent. The argument can be formulated as follows:
1.       If Spong agrees with all the theological claims of traditional Christianity then Christianity is true.
2.       Spong does not agree with all the theological claims of traditional Christianity.
3.       Therefore Christianity if false. (from the formal fallacy denying the antecedent)
                This is argument is invalid because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. There are many reasons why traditional Christianity could true even though Spong disagrees with it. Spong’s sensus divinitatis or God sense could be off causing him to incorrectly perceive God’s nature. He could just be wrong or confused. He could have an agenda against traditional Christianity. In any case, this form of argument is always fallacious.
  1. 2.       This argument is informally fallacious because it is an appeal to authority. Although Spong is an expert in his field, his position does not represent the general consensus of experts in the field of Christian theology. Russ even says that thousands of Christian theological heavyweights disagree with Spong’s opinion.
  2. 3.       Just because an expert, like Spong, is highly decorated and went to prestigious schools doesn't mean they are always right. Take Dr. Albert Einstein, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, who argued for some time for a solid state universe, which was eventually shown to be false. If one of the greatest intellectual giants in the history of mankind can be wrong then anyone, including graduates from Harvard and Oxford can be wrong sometimes.
  3. 4.       Just because people have disagreements about the nature of something doesn't mean that thing doesn’t exist. Saying that God doesn't exist because there are some disagreements about his nature is like saying that because there were disagreements about whether the earth is flat or spherical the earth doesn’t exist. People were walking on the earth and looking at the same earth but came to different conclusion about the nature of it. The flat earthers were just wrong.        
  4. 5.       Even if this argument wasn't formally and informally fallacious, what kind of atheist are you if you are affirming the position of someone who believes in God? The Wikipedia article that Russ refers to says, “He [Spong] states that he is a Christian because he believes that Jesus Christ fully expressed the presence of a God of compassion and selfless love and that this is the meaning of the early Christian proclamation, "Jesus is Lord" (Spong, 1994 and Spong, 1991). Elaborating on this last idea he affirms that Jesus was adopted by God as his predilect son, thus embracing (at least at linguistic level) a form of the ancient adoptionist heresy (Born of a Woman 1992), and yet in an orthodox way he says that this would be the way God was fully incarnated in Jesus Christ.” Even if Spong has some unusual theology he still believes that God exists. It is strange, as an atheist, to embrace a position that says that God exists and then turn around and say that God doesn't exist because there are some disagreements about God’s nature. Nonexistent things don’t have natures to disagree about.
For all these reasons Russ' argument completely and utterly fails.