September 2008


I’ve recently read a couple different pieces arguing that belief in God is less common that it superficially appears — many people who profess belief in God don’t really believe. George Rey has an article, “Meta-Atheism: Religious Avowal as Self-Deception”, in the book Philosophers Without Gods, where he argues that the reasons for atheism are “obvious”, the claims of theists are “mad”, and hence those people who say that they believe in God are deceiving themselves. And Daniel Dennett has a chapter in his book Breaking the Spell, called “Belief in Belief”, where he (in part) points out that some theists are happy as long as other people profess belief in God, but most theists don’t quiz others on the details of their religious beliefs, so as a result people can get by in society just professing belief in God, without having much actually worked out by way of their actual beliefs on God. Moreover, he says that

some people who consider themselves believers actually just believe in the concept of God. … They … think that their concept of God is so much better than the other concepts of God that they should devote themselves to spreading the Word. But they don’t believe in God in the strong sense. (p. 216)

In some ways, I find Rey’s strong position — that theists are self-deceived — more plausible than Dennett’s seemingly weaker position — that some people are just focussed on the concept of God, not the actual existence of God. I have trouble seeing how people could think that the concept is worth promoting, even if they really don’t believe in God, and are honest to themselves about not believing in God. But Rey’s position makes more sense to me. It helps me to think of a standard sort of self-deception story, where e.g. a husband is being cheated on by his wife, but the husband chooses to ignore the evidence of deception, and chooses not to think about the possibility of cheating. People who profess belief in God might be doing the same thing — ignoring the lack of evidence for God, just fitting into their social circle where their family and friends all profess believe in God too (on the occasions where the topic comes up). 

Ultimately, though, I don’t agree with Rey. Rey seems to be portraying most all theists as self-deceived, whereas I would say that there are lots of theists who aren’t. Perhaps non-philosophers who haven’t thought much about these issues are more likely to be self-deceived, but I know various theistic philosophers who have thought long and hard about these issues, and really think that there are good arguments for the theistic view. In fact, I think that there are some prima facie somewhat plausible arguments for the theistic view, even though I’m not ultimately a believer. Rey is being too uncharitable to the proponents of arguments he disagrees with.

That said, there are real issues about how to reconcile people’s behavior with their professed belief in God, issues that I’ve thought about long before reading Rey and Dennett. For example, people who say they fully believe in God, and fully believe that saved people are going to heaven, are nevertheless really sad when a loved one dies. Why? These theists should believe that the loved one, assuming the loved one is saved too, is in a much better place than Earth. The theists should be happy that the loved one is in a better place — just as I would be happy if my loved one got to go on an amazing vacation. Granted, it makes that the theists would miss their loved one, but why is there such grief and despair? The theists should believe that they’ll be joining the loved one before too long — it’s just a temporary absence. (And it’s especially temporary once one takes into account the theists’ belief that we’re going to live forever.) The grief and despair that some theists express makes me wonder if these people don’t really have the theistic beliefs that they profess to have. And that’s just one example of how theists’ beliefs don’t seem to match theists’ actions.

I’ve been looking forward to reading Elliott Sober’s paper “Intelligent Design Theory and the Supernatural — The ‘God or Extraterrestrials’ Reply”, because I had heard that in that paper he argues that ID is after all inherently supernatural, despite the attempts of ID proponents to formulate the doctrine of ID in such a way that it’s not inherently supernatural. (For what it’s worth, I think these attempts are successful — ID proponents can formulate the ID doctrine any way they like, and they can hence choose to formulate it in a way that the doctrine can come out true even if naturalism is true.) The “God or Extraterrestrials” part of the title refers to the idea that, if ID researchers discover that life on Earth was intelligently designed, we could attribute this to God, or we could attribute it to intelligent aliens that seeded life on earth (“directed panspermia”). 

Before having read the paper, I was trying to guess what Sober would argue. I didn’t expect him to give a Barbara Forrest-type argument, to the effect that ID proponents believe in the supernatural, and hence they’re just being disingenuous when they say that their doctrine isn’t inherently supernatural — Sober is a better philosopher than that. But I couldn’t come up with a much more plausible argument than that.

And indeed, Sober’s argument, while slightly more plausible, isn’t much more plausible. What Sober says is that if we believe some other theses in addition to the basic ID thesis, then we’ll end up being committed to the supernatural. Sober’s idea is that these other theses are supposed to be independently supported theses that we should find plausible. Here they are (sticking with Sober’s numbering from the key argument of the paper):

2. Some of the minds found in nature are irreducibly complex. 

4. Any mind in nature that designs and builds an irreducibly complex system is itself irreducibly complex.

6. The universe is finitely old. 

7. In nature, causes precede their effects.  

It would be an interesting result if the basic ID claim, in conjunction with these four theses, entailed that supernaturalism is true (even if these four theses aren’t in fact plausible). I don’t think Sober even establishes that result. I won’t argue that here; instead I just want to point out that I’m not convinced that any of these four theses is true.

First, I worry that talk of a “mind” being irreducibly complex is a category mistake. Behe’s notion of irreducible complexity applies to physical biological systems that have parts, but it’s not clear to me whether a mind is a physical biological system that has parts. (A brain certainly is, but Behe isn’t talking about a brain — his argument that a mind is irreducibly complex involves a picture with boxes labeled e.g. “Beliefs”, “Desires”, and “Intention”.)

Also, I’m not at all convinced that the universe is finitely old; I think this is just an open question in physics. I know that the Big Bang hypothesis implies that the universe is finitely old, but the Big Bang hypothesis comes out of classical general relativity, which doesn’t incorporate quantum effects. There are more sophisticated models, like Paul Steinhardt’s cyclic model, which are compatible with the universe having been in existence forever. 

And finally, I’m not convinced that causes precede their effects. There are models of general relativity where there are closed timelike curves, and the evidence doesn’t conclusively show that our universe doesn’t approximate such a model. It would certainly be surprising if life on Earth arose as a result of backwards time travel, but it would already be surprising if life on Earth were the product of an intelligent designer; the God hypotheses strikes me as about as plausible as the hypotheses that super-intelligent ancestors of ours will one day travel back in time to seed Earth. In other words, given that life on Earth is the product of an intelligent designer, I wouldn’t want to say that the doctrine of intelligent design is inherently supernatural; I’d be just as open to the idea that the doctrine of intelligent design is inherently postulating time travel.

Thomas Nagel has a paper in the Spring 2008 issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, entitled “Public Education and Intelligent Design”. In fact, most of the paper isn’t about public education, but is about intelligent design generally. Interestingly, he says at the beginning of the paper:

My aim is to address the constitutional issue, but first I want to discuss the relation between evolutionary theory and the despised alternative.

But in fact he spends most of the time on the latter project; the constitutional issues only come up at the very end.

Nagel is an atheist who is nevertheless expressing some sympathies to the arguments for intelligent design; in that sense we are on the same page. What surprised me most about the paper was the lack of citation to other literature — there’s not much Nagel says in here that’s new, and yet page after page of the journal article has no citations. I’m not in principle opposed to writing like that, but I am surprised that writing like that can get published in a major journal like Philosophy & Public Affairs. For example, Nagel argues against methodological naturalism, but he doesn’t consider the arguments of philosophers like Pennock, who argue for methodological naturalism. Now, I happen to think that Nagel is right and Pennock is wrong, but by not engaging with the published arguments at all, Nagel is setting himself up to look ignorant. And indeed, this is how for example Brian Leiter is portraying it, saying that Nagel has “jumped the shark”.

Dennett raises a nice issue about a potential problem with anthropological research into people’s theological beliefs. He points out that just as most people in our culture are happy believing in germs and atoms without really knowing much about them, so people in other cultures might be happy believing in their gods without really knowing much about the theological details. As a result, Dennett says,

we should not dismiss the corrosive hypothesis that many of the truly exotic and arguably incoherent doctrines that have been unearthed by anthropologists over the years are artifacts of inquiry, not pre-existing creeds. (p. 161)

That is, perhaps people just made up answers in response to the anthropologists’ questions; they didn’t have ready-made answers to tell the anthropologists. I had never thought of this before, but it’s an interesting hypothesis.

Once one gets past the first 100 pages, Dennett’s Breaking the Spell book picks up. A lot of it, as he makes clear, is speculation: 

I will try to tell the best current version of the story science can tell about how religions have become what they are. I am not at all claiming that this is what science has already established about religion. The main point of the book is to insist that we don’t yet know — but we can discover — the answers to these important questions if we make a concerted effort. (p. 103)

It’s helpful to keep this qualifier in mind when Dennett makes some of the specific claims he does about how religious-type beliefs arose:

Why did those with the genetic tendency survive? Because they, unlike those who lacked the gene, had health insurance! In the days before modern medicine, shamanic healing [i.e., placebo-effect healing] was your only recourse if you fell ill. If you were constitutionally impervious to the ministrations that the shamans had patiently refined over the centuries (cultural evolution), you had no health-care provider to turn to. (p. 140)

This sort of explanation is open to the standard charges raised against evolutionary psychology (for example, that they are telling just-so stories, with no empirical ground). But with Dennett’s qualifier that I quoted above, he has a promising response — yes, so far, this is a just-so story; more research needs to be done. (This leads to the natural question of whether more research can be done — I’m hoping that issue will be taken up later in the book.)

In class I’ve been talking about the ontological argument, one version of which runs like this:

Premise 1: God, by definition, is the greatest possible being.

Premise 2: A being which exists in reality is greater than a being which exists in the mind alone.

Conclusion: God exists in reality.

It’s pretty obvious to me that this is a bad argument, but I admit that, after years of occasionally thinking about and teaching this argument, it’s still not clear to me exactly where the argument goes wrong.

I know that the standard response is Kant’s, that existence isn’t a property, but it’s not clear to me that that really gets at the fundamental flaw of the argument. Suppose someone believed that existence is a property — suppose, to be more specific, that they believed in Meinongian objects, where there are both existent and non-existent objects. If that’s all that the person is wrong about, would such a person have to believe in the existence of God?

UPDATE: Even if Gaunilo’s objection is right, that you can (absurdly) give an argument analogous to the ontological argument to prove the existence of a perfect island, that still doesn’t show where exactly the ontological argument goes wrong, because all Gaunilo is doing is showing that the ontological argument goes wrong somewhere.

I’m writing Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon currently. So far there are two things that strike me about the book.

First, he spends a lot of time setting up the issues, pondering what sort of damage one might do by investigating religious issues and arguing that the investigation is worth it, semi-apologizing for the fact that he’s going to step on people’s toes, and ecouraging said people to read the book anyways. Perhaps this is good for a popular audience, but for a philosophy professor like me, it’s pretty unenlightening. I wonder too if it would really help — I could see it being the case that those theists who are already inclined to start reading Dennett’s book don’t need the pages of hand-holding he’s giving them before getting to the main discussion.

Second, he sometimes says things that make me cringe. For example, on page 374, in Appendix B, he writes:

That’s the practical answer, but I want to consider a deeper challenge as well. (A philosopher is someone who says, “We know it’s possible in practice; we’re trying to work out if it’s possible in principle!”)

(Note, by the way, that Dennett says that the appendicies are supposed to contain the more academically sophisticated discussion.) 

Well, I’ve never heard a philosopher say that, or anything like that, until reading Dennett, and it’s a stupid thing to say. Now, perhaps Dennett is just trying to make a joke, but I don’t find it funny, perhaps because it’s a joke at the expense of philosophers — that philosophers are so focussed on issues of principle that they don’t understand the most basic of practical facts about the work (such as that if something is happening, then it’s possible). Dennett has done such a good job in general at breaking the stereotype that philosophers can’t talk to regular people; I can’t imagine that jokes like this help.

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