Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Christmas Gift for Tom Brown

Hope everyone enjoyed their Christmas-or Kwanzaa as the case may be; or if you're Jewish I guess you already celebrated Hanukkah, but at least you got a day off work; and then again I remember a lot of Jews in my neigborhood in Long Island who'd put up Christmas lights anyway just to join in the festival atmosphere.

I figured I'd give my best reader Tom Brown-I say this based on his number of comments; if you want recognition as a reader follow his example! LOL-a present and jump into a weighty debate over the existence of God. 

So I watched the debate between the theist William Lane Craig, and Tom's hero, the atheist Sean Carroll. 

Like Tom, I'm an atheist though it seems to me Tom is almost an fundamentalist atheist if that's such a thing. It''s not that I don't agree with him but I'm more focused these days on Democratic victories which require the votes of lots of people who do need what Cornell West calls 'God Talk' for inspiration and strength, etc. 

You have the African American civil rights movement for starters-there are others. In general Americans are very religious. This appears to be becoming less so, and the Dems are the party of the secular whereas the GOP is the God party. 

UPDATE: However, I am, of course, totally opposed to the 'equal time' teaching of 'Creationism' alongside 'evolution' in schools as they are increasingly doing in some Southern states. Of course, as usual, this is a Federalist issue. What can we do if state legislatures down there want to do this? The only answer would be federal guidelines but meanwhile 'common core' has just suffered some real setbacks. 

Still, even though more Americans are calling themselves nonbelievers I'm not sure all of these are really atheists or even agnostics. Most people I meet say they don't believe but then it turns out they certainly do believe in God just not established religion which is not the same thing at all. 

I'm if anything the opposite-I don't believe in God but I do believe in the church. It can and often has moved mountains. 

For me the main interest in religion is as an ongoing social institution. 

The Craig-Carroll debate is about cosmogony. The theist Craig claims that cosmogony actually further buttresses belief in God. According to him, it increases the evidence that there is a God. Carroll had a great line at the beginning of his portion of the debate where he said if God drops the ceiling on him during his debate, then he'd consider that some real evidence that maybe He does exist. 

I do think that Craig's claim is much too strong-that cosmogony increases the evidence of God. But it's a pretty good trick. It's like Scott Sumner and the old status quo in Neoclassical econ prior to 2008. What happened doesn't prove it was wrong, it proves it was right. 

Both Sumner in economics and Craig in theism sort of use a very clever form of reactionary argument. 

I say very clever as depending on the audience, Craig's argument is probably very effective even if too strong. At the end of the day, what is the goal of both these debaters? I guess you'd have to say that Carroll wants to end belief in God and Craig wants to protect belief from Carroll.

But of course belief in God likely won't be destroyed over night-nor will it be restored to the security Craig believed it had in the past. 

What both are really trying to do is move the Upton Window-Craig towards strengthened belief, Carroll towards weakened belief. From that standpoint, Craig's argument that cosmogony actually strengthened belief is while way too strong a claim-and so obviously false on its face-probably effective from the UW perspective. 

Again, it depends what audience you're considering. Is it just for technical cosmogonists the fight is being waged? I'd say that's not the real target for either gentlemen. They both hope to influence the larger public. But how much of the larger public watches cosmogonist debates? At best it may 'trickle down' intellectually speaking. 

When you think of people watching this debate how many would actually change their mind? That'd be an interesting question. If it's like most questions-and I suspect it is-then those who believed in God going in feel stronger now, those who didn't also feel stronger now. 

But Craig may have been at least relatively successful for the moment at least in that all he has to do is raise doubt in the interested layperson. These are fairly complex arguments for those unfamiliar with cosmogony and for such folks the debate may well have sounded like a wash-opinions differ. 

 The real trouble is that the people who believe in God don't do it because they looked at the arguments pro and con of cosmogonists, but rather for emotional or metaphysical reasons-to give themselves a feeling of hope and clarity for their Being in the World(Heidegger).

So Carroll's arguments won't be able to take away the need to believe in God. 

As far as convincing folks to give up belief in God, as I've related previously, it happened to me. I was raised in very religious background-Seventh Day Adventists-who are very strict and this just happens to be Ben Carson's religion to say nothing of David Koresh; in fairness he wasn't in the church by the time he was in Waco but had started a cult built around his own special relationship with God.

Yet reading Nietzsche weaned me off such belief. Don't get me wrong, by the time I read N I was far from a practicing Adventist-I hadn't been so in my adult years. But I still did hold to a belief in God. Nietzsche weaned me off-I wouldn't say convinced me to.

All I know is that I was reading him and found his attacks on Christianity and belief pretty bracing but that didn't bother me. I figured if belief in God is a worthy thing it should be able to withstand counterarguments. But then at some point I suddenly realized I didn't believe anymore. 

The best cosmogony arguments in my opinion can be found in Nietzsche. '

Particuarly in the start of book three in Gay Science. 

Ok, so you might say my own example provides hope-Nietzsche was able to help me give up God. Yes but for me, it helped that he sort of had my religious background. He came from a very strict Lutheran background-his father was a Lutheran pastor, etc. 

But that's the difference between Tom and me-he grew up with a father who wasn't a believer. For someone from a true believer background, probably only someone from the same could really reach me. But Nietzsche does a lot more than someone like Carroll does-a simple argument that there is no evidence for God. N speaks to the religious need. 

Sure we can argue that science provides no evidence of God, or even disproves it, but this is an intellectual argument and the need to believe is not an intellectual need. 

It''s not as if people start believing based on reading Craig. Believers haven't read cosmogony and concluded 'I believe there is evidence for the existence of God.'

Don't get me wrong, it was a good debate, and I think maybe Carroll can have some impact on the Upton Window at the margins maybe. But at the end of the day, it's one thing to make an argument based on lack of evidence or evidence against the belief in God, quite another to speak to the need for this belief. 

What is of interest in God Talk for me at this point isn't really God-it's man. It's all about us and what it means for society. There are lots of other angles you can take this debate on. What about a utilitarian argument? What is the social benefits of believing in God vs not believing? I mean beyond the obvious outlier of stuff like Creationism which many believers don't believe in.

That was sort of what the Al Sharpton-Christopher Hitchens debate was about.

That debate was also hilarious. 

Also the question of ontology-what does belief or lack thereof do to our sense of Being in the World as humans?


  1. Mike, Merry Christmas! Interesting that you're having this discussion on the existence of God. I have been part of a few discussions on FB with some heavy thinkers on this topic the past few days. The question that I've been asking and seeking answers to is can one not believe in God and still receive salvation? (I believe the answer is yes.) After asking questions of people that have a deeper understanding and background in history, philosophy and religion, I've ended up at Marx's Critique of Heaven. If you're interested it is very enlightening.

  2. Thanks Nanute! Merry Christmas buddy. Thanks for link. I did consider mentioning Marx in the post but figured I'd touched on enough as it was.

    I will check out your link but I am familiar with Marx's righting and for him religion is just about the 'opium of the people' they are demoralized and need some hope in a cold world so they turn to the Church.

    Of course what they should do in his mind is rise up against class oppression towards the future Worker's State.

    1. The opium of the masses... This quote came up on the FB thread. Here's a comment left by a very sharp guy named John Shaplin: The question arises: what did Marx mean by religion being the opium of the people? Did he meant in a purely pejorative sense, or as a useful and legitimate relief from implacable pain on occasions when there is no other? If the notion of "God" is a 'place-holder' for the inscrutable in the first place, what is gained by 'No God"and what model of ethics or means of salvation do we have that is not in someway derived from religion, putting aside the grotesque accretions of superstition, credulity and exploitive political economies it reigns in support of over the ages? You'll see more than you'd expect from the link, regarding Marx and others as well.

  3. Well more recently, there have been Marxists like Hugo Chavez who have embraced Christianity.

    I'm going to check the link. But it does seem that even if Marx saw a positive social use for God, that goes away once man leaps into the Kingdom of freedom. Once you have Communism man will no longer be 'alienated' and then there's no need for God.

  4. It looks like a great book. Seems like you've been into some deep stuff lately buddy. What got you reading Marx-Bernie Sanders? LOL

    1. The conversation led me to ask the question: can there be salvation without faith? John Saplin said he thought so, although Calvin seemed to think otherwise. And yet, Calvin does seem to think it's "grace" not faith that leads one to salvation. However, Calvin seemed to say that grace was a "hard sell", in John's view, by which he means you can't store up credits through grace. This discussion in turn, led to the above noted comment about Marx and the link. By the way, I'm pretty sure Bernie is not a Marxist. lol

  5. Well he's as close as you'll get in America-he's a socialist or was till he wanted to run as a Dem. But I digress.

    I already read the intro to your link and like I said am tempted to buy the the critique of intelligent design book online.

    It seems to me that if you believe in a just God then maybe he would admit to Heaven someone who didn't believe-as long as it was a good person.

  6. What's interesting is that Zizek-who certainly considers himself aMarxist Lacanian psycholanalyst-recently argued for creationism against evolution.

  7. "I'm if anything the opposite-I don't believe in God but I do believe in the church. It can and often has moved mountains. "

    I think that is a pretty accurate description of myself as well.

    I read a book recently called "Does Altruism Exist", which I recommend, that does a great job of teasing out some of these issues.

    One point the book makes is that many of the stronger instances of non selfish behavior being seen at group levels take place within religious institutions. Furthermore, when you really examine it, you find that these behaviors are enforced with many top down methods. IOW it isn't left up to individual desires or personal preferences to achieve the desired outcomes. Religions that are the most effective at achieving altruistic results are those that have strong central planning. They make those outcomes a priority of their group and they devise many methods for monitoring, rewarding and punishing the proper behaviors.

    "Pro social" behavior is something that can be encouraged in just about everyone with the proper incentives. In the end it doesn't matter why someone does something that benefits the group over purely selfish motives, its only important that prosocial behaviors are encouraged and realized. Many churches have been extremely effective at promoting prosocial behaviors.

    Ultimately churches are just a collection of people who share common beliefs about how best to encourage pro social behaviors. They are about perpetuating the church and growing it so they cannot tolerate many selfish people. Where we run into problems is that we then end up with competing religions. Each religion can only be successful by being prosocial within its group, but for a religion to outcompete other religions it acts in many antisocial ways. Its the "inter- religion" competition that is so harmful.

    Whether a group is organizing around some mythical historical being or around some behavioral principle they must find ways to monitor, encourage and enforce behaviors to achieve some group outcome.

    I think many modern people have come to the conclusion that the ways and means of many traditional religions are simply ineffective or counterproductive but they are open to other religions.

  8. "Where we run into problems is that we then end up with competing religions."

    Interesting thought. So that could mean we were better off before Martin Luther, etc?

    This could also be an argument in favor of state religions, a la. the Anglicans in Britain.

    I totally agree with you about motives. This is something I often see people put way too much stress on. If Bill Gates-for example-is giving billions of dollars for education or fighting poverty, why does it matter if it's just public relations and getting a tax break?

    I agree if altruism pays, it's all the better.

    I have heard of this book and have been meaning to read it when I get a chance-I'm always reading a book of some kind or another.

    Is 'Does Altruism Exist' written by a scientist? It sounds like the kind of stuff Dennett writes

  9. Ok Greg, I just bought it. It wasn't Dennet. I guess this guy is a social scientist? I agree that religion is effective by telling us to perform certain acts of altruism, etc. without scrupling about why.

    If you help the homeless it's enough that you do-the matter doesn't matter.

    1. Ive read most of Dennets stuff too, this guy is an Evolutionary Biologist so he looks at things form the perspective of selection pressures and the different levels (individual, group) that selection works on.

      I don't think he would argue for state religions per se because one of the things that is recognized is that as groups grow in size it becomes more difficult to contain the free riders or the people who are taking advantage of the group.

      As I understood it, his main point about examining religions wasn't to advocate for "religions" but instead to show that any group that has goals beyond the individual whether its family, civic organization, non profit, church, corporation, town, state or even country these goals must be stated, monitored and enforced. One cant just rely on individuals sharing a "common belief" to just make it happen. One reason is we don't know beliefs; regardless of what people say they act far too often in ways inconsistent with stated beliefs, so the only thing that matters is how they act not what they profess.

      There is no doubt that within any group there are those that hold to core beliefs much stronger than others but any group cannot survive on true believers alone. Ones who truly sacrifice their own wishes for the group are rare.

      One thing the book does is delineate between psychological altruism and pro-social behavior. Prosocial behavior is the goal, psychological altruism is a trait within individuals that can be used to achieve the goal.

      Most all religions have people who profess a certain level of psychological altruism (belief in others and sacrifice) but they do not rely on that alone, they have developed over centuries different things they make people do and rules they must follow to ensure the groups welfare over any individual.

  10. Actually the target of this guys main critique, as I took it, wasn't churches but economists.

  11. Economists? Interesting-what is it that they do wrong in his view? Is it the issue of beneficial selfishness-the Invisible Hand?

    1. Pretty much. Basically he is trying to put forth the idea that one cannot have favorable group outcomes if all members of the group are simply looking out for them selves.

      One interesting fact I didn't know is that the whole idea of altruism arose in the 1800s form a guy named Auguste Comte. You probably knew that from your studies of philosophy but I did not. Until then there wasn't even the notion of altruism. You had a god driven sense of selflessness which could only nurtured by clerics and learned form studying holy books and anyone who wasn't a theist was by definition lacking morals. Comte put forward the non theistic notion of altruism and was essentially the first secular humanist. Until very recently thought it was still felt to be in the domain social scientists to study altruism and not biologists. Biologists are now making contributions to the study of altruism.

  12. Hi Mike, Greg and nanute. Interesting post and comments.

    Mike, you're one of the most prolific bloggers out there, I have to say.

    I hope you all had a good Christmas.

    If you enjoyed that Carrol debate, he has a couple of others that are just as good if not better, including the two on two "Intelligence Squared" debate, where he and Steve Novella team up to argue against the existence of an afterlife. I can't recall the names of their opponents, but it's on youtube. Here it is:

    Carroll also has a physics blog ("preposterous universe"), and he's NOT the only non-believing scientist "Sean Carroll" author out there: the other one is Sean B. Carroll, a biologist. Sean M. Carroll (the physicist) is quoted on the cover of Sean B.'s book (on evolution I think).

    I'm also a huge fan of Steve Novella: his "science based medicine" web site and medical talks are very entertaining. Here's a brief example (his thoughts on acupuncture):

    Cheers all!

  13. TK Tom and you have been my most prolific commentator-until the last few days when Nanute and Greg very ably picked up the slack!

  14. Also, if you didn't know, William Lane Craig is probably the most prolific Christian apologist out there: he's debated so many people:

    Bart Ehrman (New Testament scholar)
    Lawrence Krauss
    Christopher Hitchens
    Sam Harris
    Richard Carrier

    to name a few of the more prominent ones he's gone up against. There's no denying that Craig is an intelligent and well read man and a skilled debater... yet, once you've seen him once or twice you can quickly grow tired of him. He's very much focused on winning the debate and I have to say my respect for his intellectual honestly has been dramatically diminished. He's more about the showmanship, and he's a quote miner and name dropper extraordinaire... to the point where I'd say he tries to baffle his opponents with bullshit more than anything else... so it was an extra joy for me to see Carroll debate him on this topic. There was no way he was going to get away with his usual stunts here... I can imagine that Carroll must have seen a couple of debates and just got tired of smacking himself in the forehead and he must have decided that somebody had set the record straight.

    If you listen to Carroll's opening remarks again, he's telling the crowd (at a Christian school, so he's very outnumbered) that he's there to explain why it is that actual professional cosmologists do NOT seriously speak of God as the creator as a viable cosmological theory. So I think he's aware of the limitations of what he might accomplish with that audience.

    But to anybody out there who's sick and tired of Craig's "scholarly" fire hydrant of BS, this debate was such a welcome relief! Sure, Craig went up against Krauss (also a cosmologist) and perhaps Victor J. Stenger (another cosmologist and particle physicist), but of the three professional cosmologists, I think Carroll did the best... not leaving Craig with any of his usual wiggle room... to the point of Carroll even showing a slide of Dr. Alan Guth (one of the BVG theorem authors that Craig is always quoting) holding up a sign directly contradicting Craig's misuse of his theorem. Hahaha!... my favorite part of the debate!

    1. Ok so he debated Hitchens too just like Sharpton did. Having seen both debates who did better against Hitchens, Craig or Sharpton?

    2. I saw the Sharpton one, but I honestly don't recall it very well. I'd guess Craig did better because he pretty much debates "professionally"... it's his thing.

    3. I liked the Sharpton debate but I didn't think either side rather scored a knockout. Again, I agree there's no God but Hitchens there basically argued from the standpoint that religion has led societies to do terrible things.

      Sharpton for his part argued the opposite-he seemed to think that we can be decent moral people only by belief in God.

    4. This guy goes into some detail about Craig's Kalam arguments: [1] [2]

    5. Re: Hitchens vs Sharpton. I'll have to watch it again. I love listening to Hitchens: a master of the English language and a passionate debater. Have you seen his appearances on William F. Buckley's show?

      But when you're on the receiving end of his barbed wit (like I am regarding the Iraq war), then his forceful opinions don't seem so fair and he can seem obstinate and dismissive of the evidence. I get the impression that he's one of those people who has a hard time admitting he was wrong. This makes me wonder about the times when I agree with him!

      I don't get that impression from someone like Carroll, so when I'm skeptical of one of Carroll's opinions (e.g. his opinion that Everettian mechanics is true, and that objections to it aren't worth taking seriously), I have to give him more latitude: and not just because I'm unqualified to pass judgement on such an issue: but because I have the impression that Sean has likely done his best to evaluate other views before coming to his minority opinion. I'm more inclined to put fault with myself for being baffled by his breezy dismissals of objections to Everett. I think Sean (like Jason Smith) would gladly discuss what evidence might change his mind, whereas I suspect Hitchens would have been more prickly on the subject of evidence that would change his mind.

    6. Hitches certainly is-was-a master of the language. But in the later years he seemed to have jumped the shark a little.

      He seemed to relish making shocking arguments for the sake of.

  15. And I had thought I might take it easy during the Xmas holiday. LOL. Not because I was tired of it but to do more reading. Reading is for me better than writing as I am learning something new rather than regurgitating what I already know.

    But I write my blog kind of with myself in mind I guess. What would I want from a favorite blog? The answer is to always have lots and lots of new interesting and important material!.

    Like I love Krugman but I have noticed that he's cut back some over the last 3 or 4 years-he used to write more. Often hell warn that he won't be writing much over the next few days as 'real life is intruding.'

    That is exactly why I avoid a real life like the plague!

  16. And let's be honest what does 'real life' mean? Basically a wife and kids. LOL

    1. And Popeye's. Don't forget Popeye's, Mike. I was wondering when Tom was going to show up. A Happy Holiday to you, Tom. I'll just note that I think Hitchen's was seriously affected by the booze at the later stages of his being. He was totally wrong on Iraq. Especially with the notion that it would not have any impact on recruitment for Al Qaeda. It proved to be much worse; it spawned ISIL.

      Mike, I think Sharpton is wrong on the God issue. I'm not a believer from a faith point of view. But, I think it is entirely possible to receive redemption from God (if he exists) through "grace." (Do unto others...) I think that we as humans have an intrinsic sense of good and evil, right and wrong, and for the most part we try to act morally. There will always be situations where we will fail in our morality, to be sure. The question is, is there a scoring mechanism that gives you salvation in the end? But, then again, if you don't hold the faith in God, what does it really matter?

    2. Yes, we'll always have Popeye's! Htichens basically made no sense starting in the 90s. First he was obsessed with the Clinton scandals for some weird reason, then he was for the Iraq war.

      I think it's possible that etymologically belief in God in early mankind was very important in terms of giving people a moral sense. But it's become much less important and now I agree you don't have to believe in God or anything else to know right from wrong.

    3. Happy holiday to you too nanute! Now is it you that Mike met at Popeye's one day? I don't recall. (Mike, did this meeting at Popeye's happen, or am I hallucinating?)

      We don't have one in this town. The closest Popeye's is Ventura. I've never been.

      BTW, I drove through the fire area on the 101 a couple of hours after the fire was at it's peak... and it was greatly diminished. I was watching the video of the fire licking/leaping the freeway at my dad's house in the desert thinking I might need to spend another night there, but it turned out to be no problem at all. Although, if 'El Niño' ever actually kicks in, I'm sure we'll have some great mudslides now... like we've had in the past.

      I heard the weather in NY is pretty good a week or so back. Is that still the case? Crazy all the havoc that happened. It's strange, I haven't heard Pat Robertson saying anything about God's wrath recently.

    4. No Tom I didn't meet him at Popeye's. Rather I met him online as you and I and I and Greg met. However, Nanute used to have a tradition whereby he'd take me to Popeye's once a month-back when I was poor, unemployed, and living in my parents' basement.

      It was fitting actions by a loyal benefactor! LOL.

      Now that I have some cash I've treated Nanute to Popeye's a few times.

      Now I guess you can be forgiven for not also doing so being as you live in California and we live in NY! LOL.

      However, it was surprising to see Nanute and Greg ahead of you in comments for a few days. LOL. They picked up the slack which was a relief.

    5. "However, it was surprising to see Nanute and Greg ahead of you in comments for a few days."

      Well, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Christmas Day After all had pretty heavy family obligations... like helping my dad with tech support. :D

      As for Popeye's ... next time I'm in your area, it's on me. Likewise, you find yourself in these parts, I'm sure we can find someplace suitable, and again, it's on me. Thanks for a great year of blogging Mike!!

  17. I do give Craig credit for calling young Earth creationism "scientific nonsense" and "embarrassing."

  18. You're very welcome Tom and thank you for reading and commenting. I was obviously funning with you on taking a few days off, LOL.

    I wasn't so much surprised to see you take a few days off as that Nanute and Greg filled in the void!

  19. Mike, this comes by way of John Cochrane's blog: Luke Skywalker as a radicalized jihadi terrorist: