Sunday, August 21, 2011

Craig - Hitchens debate - 2009

I took the occasion of having to nurse a sick pet as an opportunity to watch the William Lane Craig - Christopher Hitchens debate on Does God Exist? (April 4, 2009 at Biola University) on YouTube. As some of my previous posts indicate, I'm fascinated with the arguments for God - and more than a little fascinated with Dr. Craig's reputation and apparent effectiveness at delivering clean, organized arguments, regardless of their truth value.

The opening statements, 20 minutes each, are where I took notes, then I let the remaining three rounds (plus some questions at the end) play pretty much without interruption.

As usual, Dr. Craig cuts a striking, authoritative, confident figure, and delivers a clean and polished spiel, while Hitchens is more rumpled, given to occasionally backing up to make a point. I was surprised at how friendly and gracious Hitchens presented himself in the first round, and how generally well-behaved he was. Throughout the debate, Dr. Craig frames his arguments clearly, then stays within his framing, always stating his case as if it were true and obvious, even when he fails to provide evidence.

Dr. Craig cites five arguments for the existence of God - 1) the Cosmological argument (existence requires a creator); 2) the Teleological argument (design); 3) the argument from Moral authority; 4) the argument that Jesus' resurrection proves there is a god; 5) the argument from personal revelation. Hitchens does not refute these directly - in fact, neither did Sam Harris in his subsequent debate. I think I know why - these arguments seem tired and ineffective to those who have heard them before - but I can imagine that newbies will think "Why didn't Hitchens refute this? Dr. Craig must be right then."

The Cosmological Argument

I've gone over this one myself before. Dr. Craig does not provide any evidence that the universe requires a creator, or that a cause is required. In fact, the science is so new that claiming the universe is this way or that is not a certainty. Layering on claims that a cause is required, then proposing that it must be timeless, spaceless, unbelievably powerful, and "personal", is so contingent to be meaningless. As you see anywhere explanations are given, a simple one is preferred over more complex ones when there is no difference in explanatory power (Occam's Razor, don't ya know!) One demerit for Dr. Craig.

The Teleological Argument

Dr. Craig argues generally that the fine tuning of the universe points to the existence of a designer - citing some numbers presented by Barrow and Tipler in their 1986 book "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle" as a source that speaks to the improbability of the universe arising "by chance". Oddly, he goes to great lengths to criticize some of the main material at Barrow and Tipler on the Anthropic Principle vs. Divine Design - written no later than 2003, so I don't know if he truly believes these guys, or is cherry-picking. The argument from design seems to me a simple one. "We are pattern-seeking animals. We design, therefore we see design".

The Argument from Morality

This argument is the one that Sam Harris generally refutes in his book "The Moral Landscape" - so dwelling on this won't be enlightening. All books used as authority for religious doctrine claim moral authority, but using the Bible as an example, one can't look at each chapter and verse and discern an absolute and unambiguous set of moral principles that stand the test of time. Quite to the contrary, the Bible is full of contradictions and outright injunctions for immoral, even repugnant and murderous behavior. This points to anything but a just and loving God.

The Resurrection of Jesus

Resurrection being thrown in as an argument that supports the God hypothesis seems to be pandering to the religious audience. Dr. Craig claims the Resurrection as a fact, claims it was God's doing, and ignores the many lay explanations that can be made without special knowledge. Off the top of my head, I can imagine a bunch: 1) Jesus didn't die, and was "disappeared" by parties unknown; 2) Jesus did die, and his body was disappeared to eliminate it as a religious relic that could be used for future incitement of the faithful; 3) Jesus revived naturally and escaped; 4) common grave robbers; 5) the authors were wrong; 6) the authors had an ulterior motive; 7) the story changed from what the original authors documented. It might be noted in support of #3 that "resurrection from the dead" is still common today, and as recently as 1898 in England, several thousand recorded "rising from the dead" events occurred. People look dead. They wake up.

Personal Revelation

The argument from personal revelation is the weakest of all arguments for God. Just because we can imagine God, and think he touches us, is no reason to claim that as a cosmic proof that it exists. I suppose that in lay conversation, I might be inclined to go easy on a believer if they play this card - purely out of sympathy for my fellow man - but it was a surprising entry in this debate.

Hitchens' Performance

I thought Christopher held his own in the opening statements - but just as I thought Sam Harris missed his chance to nullify Craig's arguments, so did Hitchens. As the debate wore on, Craig remained organized and eloquent, whereas Hitchens, as anyone who watches him knows, refers to notes, fiddles with his glasses, appears to look down his nose at folks, and gives the impression of being disheveled. I think Craig wins style points here.

Final Thoughts

I've now watched two debates and several videos featuring Dr. Craig. As I said previously, he's organized, eloquent, confident, and he rattles off his arguments and various relevant (or irrelevant) citations cleanly. Where I have a problem is the fundamental non necessity of the supernatural in explaining the world. I see a creator, supervisor, personal intervener entity as even more unnecessary that the mere supernatural. The immateriality of a deity, and the resources required to implement heaven and hell, mete out reward and punishment for all eternity, and the basic absurdity of such a system based on a few decades of adherence or rejection of supposed rules, is absurd.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Purpose - and other scary crap

One argument given for the existence of God is that it gives our life purpose.

Purpose - literally the results or ends of an action that was intentionally taken - is a concept that we intuitively "get". We know that a tiger attacks a gazelle to obtain nourishment, an elephant sprays water through its trunk onto its back to cool down or to wash. Other cause-and-effect relationships are less obvious. It sometimes appears that birds fly because its joyful, tiger cubs play because it feels good. We assign purpose to inanimate things as well - clouds are for rain, flowers are to feed bees; mountains are to climb.

It seems that trying to assign the purpose of our lives to something hypothetical is stretching what is already a pretty meaningful situation to an absurd length. I understand biologically that we are here to perpetuate the species. I live to bring my wife security, warmth, comfort and occasionally joy. I try to bring security and warmth and charity to others. I try to leave the world materially and emotionally better off than I found it.

These are meaningful things. They have profound meaning to me. A hypothetical being does not add or subtract from this feeling of deep meaning.

Take 2 - Ontological Argument

I went into a hissy fit a couple of days ago over the Ontological Argument that Tim Delaney took down on the Secular Web. My original intention was to just present the premisses, data, warrants and conclusions as they appeared, and point out the problems I had with them. This was in contrast to Mr. Delaney's approach, which centered on the lack of empirical evidence. Although he's correct - there is no data and no warrant provided that leads to the conclusion being claimed, the logical fallacies inherent in the stated argument are still worth cataloguing, so my simplified version follows. My comments to each component are surrounded by comment delimiters (/* and */).
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
/* ipse dixit (bare assertion); Non sequitur (conclusion does not follow the premiss(es) */
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
/* Non sequitur */
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
/* Non sequitur */
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
/* This is actually sound and true!!! */
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
/* Tautology (unnecessary - saying the same thing twice) */
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
/* Non sequitur */

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My take on "On the Value of Ontological Arguments"

The Secular Web has a clear and uncomplicated essay "On the Value of Ontological Arguments" by Tim Delaney ... (there are more articles on Arguments for the Existence of a God at the same site). The Delaney essay is less than 1500 words long, so I recommend reading it - it should only take 20 or 30 minutes.

Tim does a nice job of taking down the most commonly used forms of the Ontological Argument for God. First, remember that
An ontological argument is one that uses reason and intuition alone to come to a conclusion
In the next sentence he starts the takedown:
It seems to me that any attempt to produce reliable knowledge solely by arranging English words is illegitimate
From there, he lays out his empiricist viewpoint - with which I agree - that hypotheses need to be tested and verified in order to be considered worthy of acceptance by the wider (scientific) community.

Citing a formulation of the ontological argument given by Alvin Plantinga and used by William Lane Craig, Delaney politely skips over the logical fallacies inherent in the argument, in favor of attacking the failure to present evidence as a warrant. Because I think that examining the logical structure of an argument is equally fun, I offer the following.

First, restating Craig's use of Alvin Plantinga's "maximally excellent being":
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.

2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
Before we even start breaking this down, let's notice that nowhere is the word "God" mentioned. Additionally, my reaction to the argument ends up being amplified by the fact that William Lane Craig himself, a polished and effective apologist, is the guy using this argument. I wonder if you'll share my amazement.

I'll refer to each of these points as Arguments, just to keep them kinda straight. In Argument 1, Craig/Plantinga assert that it is possible for a maximally great being to exist. This is a bare assertion, for which no evidence was provided. Delaney makes this general case. We'll call this "Proposition A"

Argument 2 is a howler. It uses Proposition A from Argument 1 to conclude that because we can conceive of it, it exists in some possible world. This is where I jump in. Proposition A ("maximally great being") is unwarranted, as Delaney points out. Regardless, it is subsequently used to reach the next conclusion - which we'll call "Proposition B". Simplifying - If (unwarranted assertion), then it has to exist. Here's what I see missing:
  • Proposition A is undefined and hypothetical
  • Argument 2 is conditional and unwarranted. Craig/Plantinga implicitly introduce probability here, so it's fair to ask what the probability is that this conditional value ("a maximally great being exists") is true. Wouldn't you instinctively say, absent a hint of how it might be true, that the probability is "near zero"? I would. We are exactly nowhere.
  • third, why does the idea that if something could exist, it follows that it has to exist. Possibility doesn't equal necessity. You've heard of Maxwell's Demon. It is possible for all molecules in a box to spontaneously segregate into a hot side and a cold side, but the odds are astronomical. From a practical viewpoint, it will not happen. A "maximally great being" is even more unlikely, given its greater complexity.
Argument 3 says that if this hypothetical Proposition A can exist in one hypothetical world, then it must exist in every possible world. Why? This makes less sense than the prior argument. If the universe repeats endlessly, the thought that it might occur once in all eternity does not mean that it will always occur.

My sober, scholarly, reasoned analysis is "WHAT THE FUCK???"

Let's take a break for a second ... five deep breaths ... count to ten ... maybe some Sun Salutations or Jelly Shots. Shake it out. Something.

Feel better?

Okay - Argument 4 is more of the same ... if our wholly-hypothetical-maximally-great-being can exist, it exists in all possible worlds, therefore it exists here. This is becoming a convoluted metaphysical circle jerk! The only thing Argument 4 has going for it is, taken in isolation, it is logical. If something has to exist everywhere, then the set "all possible worlds" includes this world. The only problem is that the chain of arguments was broken at Arguments 1, 2 & 3. Why should we even bother with Argument 4?

Argument 5 is ... oh, jebus cripes, that's like saying "if twinkies actually exist, then they exist".

Argument 6 repeats the mistake seen in Argument 5 ... "a maximally great being exists, therefore a maximally great being exists"

Great Dog Almighty - this was worse than I imagined. I'm somewhat embarrassed by my histrionics here, but I had no idea how weird, illogical and blatantly unsupported this argument is. The Ontological Argument has been shown to fail many times, but it just seemed more subtle than this arrangement of words being thrown out by Dr. Craig.

Let's go back to my note that "nowhere in the Craig/Plantinga argument is the proposition "God" mentioned". This "maximally great being" might be The Blob for all we know. There is no stipulation that "maximally great" entails omnipotence, omniscience, creation of the universe, creation of humanity, intervention in the daily lives of billions of people, ultimate judge and jailer for tens of billions of souls for all eternity ... something usually recognized as God. All that verbal manipulation is for something less than God ... well, that's just maximally great!

I've seen William Lane Craig in debate (on YouTube), and I've heard him use the ontological argument, but I never tried evaluating this point-by-point. What strikes me most is how decoupled the first proposition "a maximally great being" is from any proof that God exists.

I'm not ridiculing Dr. Craig - as I said, he's polished, well-prepared, effective. I will point out, however, that this is what he's good at - stringing together words that sound like they mean something.

In this case, they don't.

Making s**t up doesn't help when you're in pain.

I can imagine how a person can go from being totally ignorant of the bible to believing it is the inerrant word of god.

Pain, loss, sorrow, fear, uncertainty, poverty - all are powerful vectors that might push the undirected, unfocused, indecisive or weak towards wishing for relief from their discomfort ... relief to be delivered to their doorstep with little further effort by the sufferer.

I tend to be sympathetic to the sufferer, because I've been there. Death of best friends, uncertainty, depression, panic, loss of love, lack of self esteem, alcoholism.

I also have a tough, task-master side to me that says: "suck it up!" "Rome wasn't built in a day" - "good things come to those who wait" - "persistence and determination alone are omnipotent". Yada. Yada. Yada.

There are concrete things you can do to minimize, eliminate or overcome pain, loss, sorrow, fear, uncertainty, poverty. It requires strength, vision, focus, planning, execution, persistence, and continuous, honest self-evaluation and redirection. You need to believe in yourself, and believe that you personally will stick with it over the years.

Making imaginary shit up doesn't help.