Monday, January 30, 2006

Equal Time?

Hardly. With all the religious types ranting on hour after hour on radio and TV, it's important to advertise those few occasions when an atheist will actually be speaking about atheism. Shay Zeller is interviewing Walter Sinnott-Armstrong on her series, The Front Porch tonight on New Hampshire Public Radio. The audio should be available on the web site in a day or two. Hopefully, other local Public Radio affiliates carry this program too.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

I Say Potato, You Say God, Part 2.

In part one, I gave a brief and admittedly one-sided description of a conversation I had with a person who was satisfied with, and actively promoting the theistic philosophy of Alvin Plantinga. We could not seem to connect in a way that would allow us to discuss his thesis. This led me to the observation that “It’s like we’re both speaking English, but somehow it’s two different languages.” Lya Kahlo recently took a more thorough approach to opening a dialogue with Christian bloggers and came to a similar conclusion.

“The animosity that sparks between atheists and theists seems to stem from the two camps speaking two different languages - atheists speak in terms of empirical evidence and logic; theists speak in terms of faith, emotion, and the unknown. An atheist expects proof before acceptance, a theists sees acceptance as proof.”

Read the entire post here.

I was first introduced to Plantinga in 1982, when I was a member of a Christian social club in college. This was a County College by the way, and they granted space for this club to meet after hours. Times change. I was pretty much playing “devil’s advocate” even back then. Looking for answers to tough questions and not getting very many satisfactory ones. I was also taking classes in Philosophy and Adolescent Psychology at the time, and genuinely believed that there was a way to make sense of it all. To give credit where it is due, the lay Deacon that hosted these meetings was able to support his beliefs (to his own satisfaction), and was not too pushy. I bailed out when I was half-jokingly accused of blasphemy. I think that was his way of saying that I was a little too disruptive, and interfering with his ability to establish rapport with the other members. He also had a habit of throwing in random “praise gods” when other people were leading prayer that was getting on my nerves. Alvin Plantinga wrote one of the books that was recommended to me at the time in an attempt to explain away some of my objections to what humans believed about God versus what we could possibly really know. I was on a John Locke tabula rasa kick at the time. Plantinga was on a mission to prove that God was necessary (Link. - about ¾ of the way down ). I was not impressed. The Wikipedia entry states some of the problems with this premise. I was not so articulate, but at the time, I had some problems with the arguments. I would have to re-read the material to remember specifics, but I had already (with help) broken down Descartes to, “I think I think, therefore I think I am.”. Let me say right now that I think Descartes is right on this point, but I can’t prove it either. At the time, I had recently read a short story entitled “Goobereality” by Keith Laumer, and I wasn’t so sure.

Since then, Plantinga has moved on from ontology to epistemology, writing an extensive treatise on the concept of warrant (When is a belief justified or warranted, and when is it not?) I have promised to read this in its entirety, and I will do so, but my “to be read” pile now measures 22” high, and this does not include classes I plan to take this year. It will be a while before I get to it. Meanwhile, I started to read chapter 1 of Warranted Christian Belief, (Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 2000) on Amazon. The virtual red pen came out of my pocket on page 6. To be fair, Plantinga might have assumed that I read his first two books on the subject, where my questions possibly were answered. This trilogy weighs in at about 1000 pages, so I’m going to read it with a notebook by my side. I sincerely hope that it is substantive, and that Plantinga is not relying in any way on the length of his argument to make his point. That religious camp is all about repetition, so I am taking this on with some misgivings. Still, Plantinga has been well regarded and recognized for his contributions, and I will see if his arguments are compelling, or merely convincing to those that need little or no convincing to affirm beliefs that they already “hold to”. I admit to a small prejudice that has nothing to do with religion. One of my favorite quotes is, “If I’d had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter” attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero.

The picture for this post is the Sarah Winchester House in San Jose California. For those not familiar with it, it is a rambling structure of “approximately 160 rooms” with so many architectural oddities that it is commonly called the Winchester Mystery House. For example, doors: 950, doorways: 467. I chose this image because it reminds me of many ontological arguments I have read. Theists build elaborate edifices of logic, completely oblivious to the stairways that go nowhere, and the corridors that only lead right back to the same place you started. Theistic philosophers often strike me as blind men in a hall of mirrors, able to navigate so much more easily for being oblivious to the infinite regressions and distortions all around them that are, after all, only reflections of themselves.

Photo Courtesy of: The Winchester Mystery House, San Jose California.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Scriptural Literalism

I’m going to try to be short and to the point. I can’t understand anyone’s attempt to proclaim that the Bible is literal and unvarnished and absolute truth. I’m not going to try to argue this logically. If you see a man sitting on the curb shouting “It’s raining on my furniture*”, you don’t convince him otherwise with a logical argument. There are contradictions in the bible. One of my favorites is, if you're a male, it alternately forbids and demands that you cut your hair. This falls into the realm of the ludicrous. Why would the alleged all-powerful creator of the Universe give a divine crap about the way I wear my hair? This is a far more important question than, “Why would God need a starship?” It makes no sense, except when seen as a method of control. Is the alleged god the instigator of this control? Of course not. It is an obvious attempt at divisiveness, of “us and them”, in a world before colors and do-rags. This is the literal word of God? Nice try.

So why then, do people attempt to proclaim this man-made and multiply edited book as God’s literal truth? I can only think of one reason. Perhaps my readers will offer others, but I am sticking to my gut feeling on this one. Have you ever been to a hypnotist’s stage show? There comes a point, about 15 minutes into the show, after the volunteers have come to the stage, where the hypnotist tests the “victims” to see if they are indeed hypnotized. I can only think that, “The Bible is the literal truth” is the clergyman’s test to see if the parishioner will swallow anything, hook, line, and sinker, that the demagogue cares to feed them. If the brain is sufficiently switched off to accept that information without question, it will accept any other information or instruction without hesitation.

To any and all that noticed and cared that my last submission was part 1, I will indeed be posting part 2 soon.

* If anyone knows the name of the comedian that coined this phrase, please let me know so that I can attribute it properly.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

I Say Potato, You Say God. Part 1.

Every once in a while, I try to communicate with a theistic philosopher. Not necessarily someone who writes the stuff, but someone who has no problem believing it, and promoting it. I don’t know why I do this, I am old enough to know better. Talking to a person in this camp is like trying to talk to someone across the room, only the room is a machine shop. We just don’t make sense to each other. It’s like we’re both speaking English, but somehow it’s two different languages.

Someone says to you, “If W, X, and Y are false, and Z is true, then God must exist. I reject W, X, and Y, Therefore God exists.” What’s the first thing that comes to mind to ask? If you’re me, you ask, “Why do you reject W, X, and Y?” Or, “What is the logical basis for your rejection of W, X, and Y?”

Now, I must admit that I was not that direct in asking the question. I attempt to keep things a little on the light side. I mean no disrespect, I am just trying to relate the topic to a general human condition, and hopefully be engaging and add a little entertainment value. Most people, when they encounter a frozen lake, do not ponder the thermodynamic properties of the water molecule, they think about skating. I can be disrespectful and even belligerent at times, but I try only to do this when the emotional content of the material justifies an emotional response of like nature. When one attempts to communicate in a non-propagandist fashion, I try to respect the spirit of the discussion, if not the content.

This was the response to my question.

“Suffice it to say that one needn't give the reasons for p when one is more interested in the conditional relation between, say, p and q; in such a case, the truth of p is suspended. Further, I do think I have good reasons for my beliefs, so I don't think I'm ultimately in any hot water.”

“... the truth of p is suspended”? By what? Wonder Woman’s golden lasso? Sorry. When I parse this, it comes down to, “I’m not going to tell you.” Fair enough, but do you see my point that it’s like we’re speaking two different languages? I think the confusion comes from the fact that we look at life in two extremely different ways. The point of divergence, and that which we have in common, is that each of us thinks the other is in denial.

From his point of view:

I deny God
I deny the necessity of God, and that God is a necessary or sufficient explanation for anything that happens in our four-dimensional space-time continuum.
I deny the evidence for God, believing that it is insufficient, delusional, and/or fraudulent.

From my point of view:

He denies that there are alternative explanations for the nature of man and the environment.
He denies that the God he postulates violates the natural laws of the Universe, and must therefore be external to the Universe and as such, is incomprehensible.
He denies that a tribe of semi-prehistoric nomads invented a God that was simply a tool to promote subservience to the hierarchy of local authority, be they Chieftains, Shamans, Kings, or Priests.

Not a lot of common ground. Even if one of us is right about the other one being in denial, there is going to be a lot of resistance to those things that we are refusing to see. From my point of view, those things that I am refusing to see are not really there, and hence can not really be seen at all, only imagined. In part 2, I’ll explore the reasons that I think this way, and some of the problems that I have with the opposite argument. I’d be interested in sharing thoughts on the matter, and I will attempt to refrain from turning this into a meta-argument.

Monday, January 02, 2006

God or not?

Hey! I made the cut!... assuming that there was a cut. Anyway, so did a lot of other intellegent life forms. Check out the current God or Not Carnival on the subject of Spiritual Beings. It has just been posted at Amaranthine Acatalepsy. The next carnival will be hosted by Back of the Envelope on 1/16/2006 and will be on the subject of "Scriptural Literalism."