Archives for posts with tag: evidence

In almost any social situation, if anyone dares to question the existence of God someone else will speak up with “first-hand evidence” that God is not only real but has all the qualities described in the local scripture. The witnesser will speak of the “direct perceptions” that they have had of God, for example that he is caring, or eternal, or aware, or (in the minimal case) present (or “manifest”). It is usually thought (or at least claimed) that such reports constitute weighty evidence for the believer’s position, and that if the non-believer wants to be taken seriously, he or she must provide an alternative and more compelling explanation of these experiences. That is, the non-believer has the responsibility of showing how a person can have an experience of God without there being any God for the experience to be about.

The explanation is simple. An object does not have to exist for me to have thoughts or feelings about it. I can have thoughts and feelings about an imaginary object. Such thoughts and feelings do not prove that the object exists. As a refinement, we should mention that it is not always correct to describe these thoughts and feelings as of or about the object, if it does not exist.

It is uncontroversial that people’s reports of thoughts and feelings about God do not necessarily bring us any information about God. If I suspect that no gods exist, someone telling me that they have perceived God’s qualities through their feelings or their imagination is no evidence to the contrary. If God does not exist, then these reports of divine attributes are just wrong. Actually, they are not even wrong. Rather than inaccurate statements about God, they are not about God at all.

Now someone might say, “Why make a special point of saying that my feelings about God are ‘not about’ God? Of course they are ‘about’ God—even if there is no God! If I say I’ve had a thought about the mighty wings of Pegasus, would you say, ‘No, that thought is not about Pegasus, because Pegasus is imaginary’? Surely you can take my word for it, so to speak, that Pegasus is precisely what I was thinking about. Maybe it seems ontologically extravagant, but this is how the word is used.”

Well, let’s acknowledge that there is a huge and intimidating literature on what philosophers call reference (and related terms like ostention, intension, and designation)—and that I am not an expert in this field. I have read a little Quine but it is very hard. So I agree with your proposal that we avoid the intricacies of philosophy and stick to (relatively) practical matters.

Unfortunately, we started with a topic which was already a bit subtle. We are talking about the difference between what people take themselves to be saying, and what they are actually saying, when they talk about God.

Contrary to your Pegasus example, people routinely claim that the thoughts and feelings they have about God show that God is there.

Let’s put the argument more formally.

PREMISS 1. I have thoughts and feelings about God.

PREMISS 2. People can’t have thoughts and feelings about a thing that does not exist.

CONCLUSION. God exists.

Your mention of Pegasus casts doubt on Premiss 2. Of course I can think about things that are not there. We can put even more pressure on this premiss if we think about dreams. Say that on waking up one morning I remember having a dream in which I was trying to solve an intricate geometrical puzzle. I’m still having thoughts about that puzzle—or that’s what my thoughts seem to be about—yet the puzzle does not exist in any useful sense. What is more interesting, my memories of it as being “intricate” (for example) do not even have a truth-value. It is neither true nor false that the puzzle I was trying to solve was intricate. In the dream, I described the puzzle as intricate—to myself. But that description was a feature of the dream. It was imaginary. The intricacy of the puzzle had no more reality than the puzzle itself.

But look. Now Premiss 1 begins to crumble. Because, now that I have awakened, if I say to myself, “That puzzle was intricate,” I am not making a statement about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know anything about the puzzle in the dream. I don’t know that it was intricate. I only know that it seemed so, in the dream. There is no fact of the matter about whether the puzzle was really intricate. It seemed so in the dream, and that’s the end of the ontology. All I have is the seeming. So my thoughts on waking up are not about how the puzzle was. There is no such thing as how the puzzle was. I am not thinking about how the puzzle was, but about how it seemed. My thoughts are about the seeming, not about the puzzle.

And this is how we can legitimately treat claims about people’s thoughts and feelings “about God.” We can say: That’s an awfully big assumption you’re starting off with—that you can have thoughts and feelings about God. How do you justify such a claim? Here we are trying to have a discussion about whether God exists, and then you say, “Well, I have these feelings about him, so that proves he exists.” It doesn’t, for two reasons.

First, it’s possible to have thoughts and feelings that are about a seeming rather than about something real. So you need to convince us that your thoughts and feelings are about an existent God rather than a seeming God. And second, as my friend here pointed out, it’s perfectly possible to have thoughts and feelings about objects that just plain don’t exist, like Pegasus—or Santa Claus.

In the syllogism above, many people would suspect Premiss 2 of being false. But we have come to a perhaps more interesting result. The seemingly uncontroversial Premiss 1 is false as well. When people say, “I have thoughts and feelings about God,” it is possible for this “about” to be mistaken. Their thoughts and feelings and beliefs could easily be about something other than God. They could be merely about how things seem to the believer.

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Zinnia Jones says:

Atheism is not a kind of theistic belief, because it does not involve belief in any deities. It’s actually the absence of such beliefs. Similarly, atheism is not a position based on faith. Instead, it is a lack of faith. We don’t have faith that there are no gods, we just have no faith that there are any gods. Simply not believing in gods does not involve any kind of faith, because it does not require taking a position that is unsupported by evidence or contradicted by evidence. We just find the reasons given for belief in gods insufficient and unconvincing. Faith is not necessary in order to not believe in something that there is no reason to believe in.

Viewpoint: Scientists who Blast Religion Hurt Their Cause | Newsweek.com

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum continue, in Newsweek, the bizarre attack they began in their book Unscientific America.

As soon as Francis Collins … was floated as the possible new director of the National Institutes of Health … the criticisms began flying. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for one, said Collins is too public with his faith. Collins wrote a book called The Language of God, frequently talks about his religious conversion during medical school, and recently launched the BioLogos Foundation, which declares, “We believe that faith and science both lead to truth about God and creation.”

The critics, though, have it exactly backward: the United States needs more scientists like Collins—researchers who show by their prominence and their example that a good scientist can still retain religious beliefs. The stunning irony in the longstanding tension between science and religion in America is that many scientists who merely claim to be defending rationality from religious fundamentalism may actually be turning Americans off to science, doing more harm to their cause than good.

First, note the dismissive “the criticisms began flying.” Apparently these were not criticisms that need have been taken seriously.

Second, a fact-check. Did Jerry Coyne say that Francis Collins is “too public with his faith”? I searched Coyne’s blog for the phrase “too public”. It was not found. This is classic projection. Mooney and Kirshenbaum believe that Coyne is being too public with his atheism. Jerry Coyne is concerned, not that Collins is too public with his faith, but that his faith might compromise some of his scientific or policy decisions. And it’s not as if we’ve never seen that happen.

What we have not seen is outspoken atheists “turning Americans off to science”. Do Mooney and Kirshenbaum have any examples or measurements of this effect? If there is no evidence of the phenomenon, then it is not exactly a “stunning irony”, and they need not have written a book about it.

Do we really need, more than we need outspoken atheists, “researchers who show … that a good scientist can still retain religious beliefs”? Why do we need that — so that religious believers are not afraid to go into science? It’s never stopped them before! Maybe Mooney and Kirshenbaum, looking at the fact that very few serious scientists are hard-core believers, surmise that the scientists are scaring the believers away. But there is a much more plausible explanation. People who possess the intelligence and acquire the education necessary for a career in science tend to be too smart to believe in fairy-tales.

The New Apologists never mention the so-obvious-we tend-to-forget-about-it reason for outspoken atheism: religious doctrines, every last one of them, are false. Hard to reconcile that with the scientific method! If you really want us to take seriously the idea that religion might in certain cases be a good idea even though it is made entirely of lies, then you’ll have to come up with something much more convincing than the idea that atheists are “turning Americans off to science”.

And Collins’s approach isn’t just good as a strategy to get the public to better appreciate science. The idea that science and religion can be compatible is strong on the intellectual merits as well. … [I]f we consider religion more broadly—in its own considerable diversity—we find many sophisticated believers who’ve made a peace between their belief and the findings of modern science. It’s not just Collins; consider the words of the Dalai Lama: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”

That there are people who seem to be doing it does not make compatibility between science and religion “strong on the intellectual merits”. By that measure, science and alcoholism are compatible too.

“It’s not just Collins”, Mooney and Kirshenbaum write — and then they quote the Dalai Lama as saying that he would change the tenets of his religion if he found them to be in conflict with science. This is unlike anything Francis Collins has ever said. To imply that Collins agrees with the Dalai Lama on this point is misleading in the extreme. Collins’s style is to insist that there never could be a conflict. He agrees with Mooney and Kirshenbaum; he does not agree with the Dalai Lama.

Distortions like this are typical of religious apologias. The reason is obvious: it’s terribly hard to come up with good reasons for religion, if you limit yourself to telling the truth.