December 2007
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Elgin’s Books


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  • Archive for December, 2007

    A Review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion Part XII

    Friday, December 21st, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    In this part of my review of Richard Dawkins’, “The God Delusion” I come to the chapter where Dawkins discusses the roots of religion. These next two chapters, this on the origin of Religion and the next on the origin of Morality both suffer from a problem that is common not just to atheist, or even to science but to everyone: the freedom of speculation, in absence of evidence.

    This is quite visible when Dawkins discusses the habit of some birds to bath in ant nests, which is called anting.  Dawkins says “Nobody is sure what the benefit of anting is… but uncertainty as to the details doesn’t – nor should it – stop Darwinians from presuming, with great confidence, that anting must be ‘for’ something.” (pg 164) 

    While not an entirely unwarranted conclusion, it clearly does not derive from the evidence, for by Dawkins own admission, no one knows what it is for. Instead it derives from Dawkins’ faith in Darwinian evolution.  His faith in evolution, is part of his world view, and shapes and in some cases determines the conclusions he reaches, particularly in those areas where there are gaps in his knowledge.

    Again there is nothing unusual about this.  We all do it. Christians have certain beliefs about the universe and God, and when we come to things that are unknown, we attempt to fill in the gaps the best we can based on how we see the world.  There is no problem for Christianity here as many Christians realize this, and acknowledge the role that faith plays.  The problem is that most atheists are very critical of Christians for relying on faith, not realizing that they are doing the same thing.

    The reliance of faith is likewise behind Dawkins belief that there must be some evolutionary benefit to religion.  This claim is a natural outgrowth of his rejection of God and the supernatural; and his faith in evolution.  Dawkins is not reaching this as a conclusion of his study of religion; it is his starting point for understanding of religion. 

    In short, he starts with a huge bias that will permit only certain types of answers.  Sure, anyone who likewise rejects religion and accepts evolution, might find his explain, that religion is a by-product of the evolution of memes; the cultural equivalents to biological genes, acceptable.  However, Dawkins is hardly driven to that conclusion by the evidence. 

    This leads to yet another problem, for there is really very little evidence for Dawkins claims about the origin of religion, and most of what there is comes from other areas of science that also have an a priori rejection of the supernatural.  Now when dealing with physics and chemistry, an a priori rejection of the supernatural, is not much of an issue. But when dealing areas such a psychology, it does become a factor, and when dealing with the psychology of religious belief, becomes key.

    In short, this chapter basically boils down to biased speculation.  It cannot be taken as an argument against religion, and to his credit Dawkins does not really try to do this.  If he did, he would immediately fall into the fallacy of circular reasoning, as the ending premise and starting premise would both be: religion is false.  Instead, Dawkins is trying to clear up some questions that follow from his main argument discussed early, that the God does not exist.

    Still his arguments in this chapter seems to be more than just a dispassionate analysis of the possible origins of religion once it is accepted that God does not exist. Dawkins seems driven to defend his hostility to religion. He admits that this puts him in a quandary for if religion is so negative, how can it be the evolutionary benefit it must be to exist in the Darwinian worldview.

    But it is not much of a quandary.  Freed from constrains of facts and evidence, for there is very little in this area, Dawkins is pretty much free to speculate anything he wants, limited only by his own imagination, and naturalistic bias.

    Such speculation is routinely condemned by atheists when theist engage in it, but the label of science puts a veneer of respectability on Dawkins speculations, as if labeling them as science somehow magically gives them some sort of special standing above other more ordinary speculations.  Since they are ‘science,’ they are more readily accepted into the mental framework and then become the basis upon which other speculations will be judged.

    While Christians realize that they have faith in the Biblical accounts and that they are speculating in some cases where we do not really know, most atheists do not realize that they do the same things.  Most of them really have no idea of how much speculation and faith underpins that which they believe.

    Actually Dawkins summed up the situation pretty well in his first sentence of the chapter, when he said “Everyone has their own pet theory of where religion comes from and why all human cultures have it.” (pg 163)  If you exclude a belief in God and sin up front, then one theory for religion is as good as another. Dawkins should have just left it at that.

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.

    Free Will

    Friday, December 14th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Dec 14, 2007, Wausau, Wi —  Last time I looked at the issue of Free Inquiry and the skeptic’s false claim that they were free to go wherever the evidence leads, while Christians were limited by their religious beliefs.  But there is a deeper more subtle problem with the skeptic’s claim that they are free to go wherever the evidence leads them.  This problem concerns freedom itself.

    Inherent in the skeptic’s belief to be free is the belief that they are free to make a decisions.  In fact much of the skeptic’s criticism of religion centers around the concept of freedom.  Skeptics believe that Christians surrender their freedom to false religious beliefs.  Christians choose certain behaviors, not because they want to, but because the Bible says so. The problem for the skeptic, however, is how they can account for this freedom in the first place. 

    Now this problem can be difficult to see because the freedom to choose is something we all just take for granted.  Of course we have a freedom to choose.  Our entire view of our daily lives, our interactions with others and everything we do is dependent upon our freedom to choose.  In fact it is difficult to conceive of how we would view the world if we didn’t make the assumption that we have a freedom to choose.  For example, the entire legal system and its concept of punishment for crimes is based on the assumption that the criminal had a choice whether or not to commit the crime.

    The problem for the skeptic is not so much that we have free will, but rather how can they explain that we have free will.  While the concept of free will is difficult for every one religious believers and skeptics alike, it is particularly difficult for the skeptic who has a naturalistic view of the world.  For the skeptic, the natural universe governed by natural laws is the only thing that exists.  Miracles are rejected because they would violate the laws of nature.  For the skeptic, everything is governed by the laws of nature.  There is no room for God.

    What the skeptic often over looks is that free will, the freedom to choose, is inconsistent with their naturalistic view of a universe governed by natural law.  Now again, this can be difficult to see because the idea that we have free will, that we have the freedom to make some decisions, is something we just take for granted.  We don’t even think about it.  We certainly don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how it can happen.

    For the skeptic, we’re simply animals, the result of a long evolutionary process.  Our origin and everything about us, just like everything else in the universe, can be explained by the laws of nature.  There is no soul.  There’s nothing beyond the material body.  Our actions are completely explained by the electrochemical interactions taking place in our brain and in the rest of our body, or at least will be once science can figure everything out.  But therein lies the problem.  If everything can be explained by the electrochemical interactions taking place in our brain and in our body, where is there room for freedom of choice?

    Now skeptics often claim that what we call consciousness is the result of the electrochemical interactions in the brain, and it is our consciousness that makes our decisions.  But while this may be a nice explanation for the skeptic, again how does this happen.  Even if for sake of argument we assume that they are correct and consciousness is nothing more than the electrochemical interactions taking place in our brain, how do those electrochemical interactions actually make the choice?

    The simple fact is that the concept of choice is incompatible with a universe governed by natural laws.  A rock falling down the side of a cliff, does not make a choice to bounce right or left when it hits the side of the cliff.  Every aspect of its fall is determined by the laws of nature.  A choice, on the other hand, transcends the laws of nature.  It is not determined by the laws of nature; it is determined by something else.  If it was determined by the laws of nature it would not be a choice. 

    So if choice is nothing more than the result of consciousness which is itself the result of the electrochemical interactions taking place in our brain, then at some point these electrochemical interactions that are governed by the laws of nature must somehow transcend the laws of nature so as to make a choice.

    But if skeptics are correct and somehow our consciousness does transcend the laws of nature so as to make a choice, than this would violate one of their fundamental starting premise is which is that everything is governed by the laws of nature.

    So the skeptic is caught in a real quandary.  They must either deny freewill, which is virtually impossible for them to account for anyway, or they must accept that there are things that are not governed by the laws of nature.  If they deny freewill, they are denying something so obvious that we simply take it for granted. Yet if they accept that there are some things not governed by the laws of nature, they deny one of their fundamental premises. Either way they have major problems.

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact. 

    Free Inquiry

    Friday, December 7th, 2007 by Elgin Hushbeck

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    Dec 7, 2007, Wausau, Wi —  An issue that commonly comes up in discussions with skeptics is the role of free inquiry.  Skeptics frequently see themselves as being free to ask questions and to go wherever the answers may take them, while religious believers are bound by the teachings of their religion.  Religion, then, is automatically seen as bad because it limits our ability to learn.  As with many of the criticisms of skeptics this view is not only self-serving, but false.

    Built into our very being is the desire to seek explanations.  Parents see this desire all the time in young children and their seemingly never ending question of “Why?”  To be sure these questions can at times be very frustrating for the parent, or even teacher, who has reached the limits of their own personal knowledge, but such questions are the foundation of our quest for knowledge, of our seeking to understand.

    Over time, most cultures have decided that questions can dangerous to the status quo, and this decision is not completely without reason.  All societies are based on some sort of agreement, either formal, as in the case of laws, or informal as in the rules of etiquette.   Some of these agreements are arbitrary, such as where on the road should one drive. But just imagine what would happen if tomorrow the societal agreement about driving was somehow removed from everyone’s memory. It would be chaos. And this is just driving.  Such societal norms govern virtually every aspect of our interactions with each other, often without our even realizing it. For us, the reasons are lost in antiquity and it is now just how things are done. 

    Thus there is, and must be, some sort of balance between norms and questions.  Societies that stress the norms too much stagnate.  Societies that question the norms too much, loose the cohesion to remain a society and collapse. Loss of societal cohesion was one of the factors in the fall of Rome.

    So whether from desire to maintain society, or just simply the frustration at not knowing the answers, at some point all societies teach their children to limit their questions in some fashion. 

    One of the things that made Western Civilization different is that at during some periods in our history there have been groups that encouraged questions, beginning with the early Greek city states. Granted such freedom of thought was not unlimited, nor necessarily was it for the general public, as questions could still lead to dangerous ideas that could undermine society.  But it was allowed for a few, and still had some limits, as Socrates sadly found out.

    As we saw last time, contrary to how history is commonly taught, this freedom of inquiry appeared again in the Middle Ages.  The Middle Ages were a time or great intellectual development that, rather than suppressing inquiry, actually laid the intellectual foundations for the Renaissance and modern science.  To be sure there still were some limits on inquiry, and a thinker who strayed too far beyond those limits could find themselves, like Socrates, in trouble.

    Modern critics act as if these limits were some sort of aberration to be condemned.  The problem is that, at least until very recently, the norm has never been free inquiry, but rather limits on inquiry and normally quite strong limits.  What was unique about the Middle Ages was not that there were limits, but rather that those limits were loosen enough to allow for intellectual development, development that led to things like our current understanding of human rights, democracy and science. In addition these were not seen as contrary to Christianity, but were developed from it.  The origin of Human Rights for examine has its roots in the belief that we are all created in the image of God, and what God has given no one can arbitrarily take away, not even the King.

    Contrary to the skeptic’s self-perception, they also have limits on inquiry.  During the Middle Ages, if one questioned church orthodoxy, one could be in trouble. Today, if one questions scientific orthodoxy, one can also be in trouble. The history of science if full of people who questioned the established science of their time, to find themselves ridiculed, rejected, denied employment, or otherwise punished. The theories of some of these people were later shown to be correct and have since become part of the established science of today. 

    This limiting of inquiry continues today, as scientists who question the theory evolution a little too much, or who begin to consider the possibility of intelligent design have found out. The only thing that has really changed is where the limits are and what the societal norms for punishment should be if one challenges those limits.  Contrary to the charges of skeptics the punishment during the Middle Ages was not always burning at the stake. As with most things punishment was determined by the norms of the time. During some periods it was simply excommunication from the church.

    So the skeptic’s view that religion limits inquiry while they are free, is simply false. While it is true that Christians have at time suppressed inquiry, history shows that this is the norm. It is also true that contrary to the norm, Christians played a role in expanding inquiry.  After all as Paul wrote, “Test everything, hold on to the good.” (1 Thess 4:7)

    This is Elgin Hushbeck, asking you to Consider Christianity: a Faith Based on Fact.