"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Does science really ignore the possibility of God?

There is a criticism sometimes levelled at atheists who point to the lack of evidence for the supernatural and therefore gods that the reason they see no such evidence is that they are not looking for it. The suggestion is that the world view on which atheists tend to rely, science, is intrinsically antithetical to supernatural phenomena and does not take their possible existence into account for explanations of the world.
This view is illustrated by Tim Minchin’s eponymous character from the beat poem Storm (see link on sidebar) where she is made to say
”Science just falls in a hole When it tries to explain the nature of the soul.”[…] “Shakespeare said it first: There are more things in heaven and earth Than exist in your philosophy… Science is just how we're trained to look at reality, It can't explain love or spirituality. How does science explain psychics? Auras; the afterlife; the power of prayer?”
Theists in general will tell you that the handiwork of God is all around for everyone to see should we deign to take off our reductionist blinkers and appreciate the awesome wonder of their god’s creation. If only we would look at the world in the ‘right’ way, opening our minds and hearts to the obvious God would be self-evident. However I am going to make an argument that possibly even a philosopher of science would find contentious (at least I’ve never heard it put quite this way) that the scientific method far from ignoring the possibility of supernatural intervention is in fact constantly testing for it.
Science, it is true, presupposes methodological naturalism
Methodological naturalism is concerned not with claims about what exists but with methods of learning what nature is. It is strictly the idea that all scientific endeavors—all hypotheses and events—are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. The genesis of nature, e.g., by an act of God, is not addressed
which at first sight appear to vindicate the theist’s view that science is ruling anything supernatural out a priori but this ignores the other cornerstones of the scientific method namely falsifiability and the null-hypothesis.
In science a hypothesis is considered to be falsifiable if in principle it can be proved to be incorrect by observation or experiment. For example when J.B.S Haldane was asked what could falsify the theory of evolution he replied ”Rabbits in the Precambrian” by which he meant if a fossil rabbit was found in a geological era prior to the evolution of mammals it would upset the theory.
In practice every experiment conducted or observation made with scientific intent is an attempt to falsify a particular hypothesis but beyond that I would argue they are also, albeit unconsciously, testing methodological naturalism itself because the underlying hypothesis is one of natural cause and effect. A result found or observation made that could not be explained by natural phenomena would falsify methodological naturalism and imply that supernatural events could influence the data.
A null-hypothesis is a statistical concept that states there will be no difference between two sets of observations. For example in a drug trial with a placebo control the null-hypothesis would be that the clinical outcomes will be identical for both groups of patients. An observed statistical deviation between the groups would then tell you something about the effectiveness of the drug in question. For the purposes of this argument I would suggest the null hypothesis that scientific experiments and observations will yield the same results regardless of supernatural or purely natural influences. Over centuries of scientific observations, more than enough to be statistically significant, we have never seen a deviation in an expected outcome due to supernatural activity (Note: I am saying that this null-hypothesis is implicit in the scientific method even if it is not explicit in a particular experiment such as, for example, testing the efficacy of prayer on the mortality rates of cancer patients). This suggests one of two things, either the null-hypothesis is correct and that regardless of supernatural forces the results are identical to those expected from naturalism or, conceivably, there are no supernatural forces. To quote again from Tim Minchin’s Storm
”Throughout history Every mystery Ever solved has turned out to be Not Magic.”
This is not to argue that science has disproved gods or the supernatural but merely to point out that the scientific method is obliquely but consistently testing the hypothesis that is methodological naturalism and as a consequence only ignores the supernatural insofar as, to date, it has either not significantly impacted on observations or shown itself to exist. It is consistent with the rational atheist position that where we do contemplate possible gods they are of the ignorable, non-interventionist, deistic variety rather than the prayer answering, miracle working, null-hypothesis falsifying species beloved of the major religions.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Anne Atkins invokes the devil

It’s been a while since I caught Radio 4’s Thought Sermon for the Day segment on the Today program, but travelling to work this morning I was treated to some delightful drivel from Anne Atkins who to be fair I always find good value if only for the amusing lack of rational content in her contributions.
Anne Atkins
Her latest missive was inspired by the Church of England’s re-working of the Christening ceremony to eliminate the phrase asking godparents if they “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and substituting it with “reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises”. Atkins opened her piece with the “good news” that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby had “cast out the Devil” but then went on to query why, if absolute good was personified in the existence of the Christian God, should absolute evil not be similarly personified in the form of the Devil? This is of course a very good question that goes straight to the heart of the problem of evil, Christianity’s greatest philosophical nemesis, for if an omnibenevolent and omnipotent god exists there should be no place for evil.
Zoroastrianism, which predates Christianity by some seven centuries and second temple Judaism by two, resolved the apparent disparity by having opposing deities representing good (Ahura Mazda) and evil (Angra Mainyu) in eternal battle and it is likely that the character of Angra Mainyu became superimposed on Satan during the Babylonian exile demonising a character that in earlier Jewish tradition was considered a loyal agent of Yahweh’s and merely doing his bidding. Mutated by Christian mythology, medieval iconography and Dante’s Divine Comedy we have ended up with the cartoonish Horned Devil so beloved of fire and brimstone Southern Baptist types but seen as an embarrassment to liberal Christians who well understand the theological difficulties such an entity poses.
Anne Atkins reaches out to C.S Lewis to point out that the absurdity of this image has long been recognised.
In every era the Church faces the challenge of presenting eternal truths in the vulgar tongue, and unchanging beliefs in the familiar media of the day. And the devil has been out of fashion as far as memory goes back. “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in the patient’s mind,” Screwtape advises his diabolical pupil Wormwood, “suggest to him a picture of something in red tights.” As he observes, nobody could believe in that, so it will throw him off the scent. “An old text book method,” he says dismissively.
But the lurking implication is that there really is a demonic personality behind the temptation to do evil even if it doesn’t fit the stereotype…and that’s exactly where Atkins takes us
Plato taught that behind every material reality is a greater spiritual reality: his definition of God is the ἰδεα, the form, of the good. Thus good itself has the attributes of personality: mind; affection; and volition. God thinks: He speaks, and argues. He feels: He and loves and hates. He wills: deciding on action and carrying it out. If this is so, it is at least a rational supposition that the same could be true of evil. Indeed, otherwise it’s hard to see how evil ultimately exists. The difference between a wicked crime and an unfortunate accident is intent: one is wilful, the other fortuitous. If there is no evil objective behind the sorrows of the world, then they are not wrong but random. If there is morality, there must surely be evil as well as good.
So either she is a born again Zoroastrian or she has totally missed the theological implications of an evil being that her all loving god must necessarily be allowing to exist. But, like all good theists her angst is really all about the necessity of there being some divinely ordained objective morality as without that we are all doomed to nihilism.
 If there is no intelligent force of evil then we live in a neutral universe, I can make choices like a consumer in a supermarket, and ultimately nothing matters.
Nothing matters? Really! Her family, her health, world peace, poverty, the environment, human suffering none it matters unless there is an existential god and his evil twin to make it all meaningful. In order to make this work Atkins has to believe not only in her god but also in a nagging demon on her shoulder tempting her from the straight and narrow.
When new atheists ridicule the superannuated Santa Claus in the sky version of the Christian god we are told that we are fighting a straw man nobody believes in. Sophisticated theologians talk of God as the ground of being or some such blather that we are all too dim to appreciate. But Anne Atkins is not stupid or naïve. I’m sure she is as capable of understanding Alvin Plantinga or Paul Tillich as I am
yet here she is an intelligent woman, the wife of a clergyman no less, arguing against current Anglican doctrine and for the existence of an actual intelligent force for evil, or The Devil by any other name.

Monday, 6 January 2014

I hear what you're saying Frank but...

They say “be careful what you wish for…” a phrase that maybe I should have been mindful of when writing soon after Francis took over from Benedict XV1 as Pope since Jorge Mario Bergoglio seems to be taking a lot of my advice seriously.
Pope Francis Time's person of the year
For the record I don’t think he reads my blog (or even the snarks I send in reply to some of his more fatuous tweets) but his modus operandi since taking office has been spookily in accordance with my suggestion that he focus his message on poverty and income inequality rather than flogging the mantras against contraception and gender equality and it seems to be doing wonders for his personal reputation. He has already been crowned Time Magazine’s person of the year 2013 and become something of a darling to the liberal left while simultaneously enraging the right for his criticisms of capitalism and corporate greed. So what am I griping about?
Well, when he stays within the realm of liberation theology he appears to be sincere and although he is not saying anything radical in terms of catholic doctrine on poverty he walks the walk more than many a previous pontiff. The problem is on those occasions when he does address the social issues that the Church has been so wrong about for millennia he speaks softly but changes nothing. In fact he is quietly reinforcing the misogyny and the homophobia while giving the impression of moderation. For example on same sex relationships…
“The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about those issues all the time.”
…and fine, I don’t want him to talk about it all the time, mainly so that it becomes a non-issue. But by telling us he doesn’t want to talk about it because it is an issue he is entrenching the dogma.
Optimistic liberals will point to the fact that he has removed some prominent ultra conservatives such as Cardinal Raymond Burke from the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops as a sign that Church teaching is poised to change but I suspect he is just trying to ease these hot button subjects under the cultural radar by taking the hard-liners out of the limelight.
In case you think I am being unfair to Frank over this, on the few occasions when he has had to respond seriously to controversial events on the ground he has reverted to type, for example by endorsing an anti-gay sermon given by the Bishop Scicluna of Malta in response to a Maltese Civil Unions Bill that aims to legalise adoption by same sex couples. He has also confirmed the assessment issued under Benedict by the Doctrinal Congregation criticising American nuns' group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious ( LCWR), and accusing them of "serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life." The assessment called for the organisation's reform to ensure its fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women's ordination and homosexuality which suggests that he is not prepared to allow any liberalising opinions free rein either.
There is no doubt that this Pope is doing a wonderful PR job for the Catholic Church. Outside of the atheosphere very few commenters are stressing the child abuse scandal which has not gone away or been adequately dealt with and I can’t count the number of “lapsed Catholics” I have seen on social media who are claiming to be lured back into the fold by Frank’s fine words. But fine words… high fat dairy… root vegetables etc… he needs to act in accordance with his pontifications.
It would be unrealistic, I know, to expect a revision of Church doctrine no matter how liberal a Papacy he is pursuing and besides unless he is prepared to make some radical ex-cathedra infallible pronouncements the next Pope could easily reverse the direction of travel. So I want to modify my previous advice (well, you never know…). So Frank, here it is. Keep on with the anti-poverty schtick but also stop actively opposing those things we know work to alleviate it; empowerment of women, sex education and easy access to family planning and abortion services. Nobody expects you to hand out condoms with the Eucharist but stop campaigning against programs, like the U.S. Affordable Care Act, that do facilitate access to cheap contraception. Also if you are going to insist on running hospitals around the world, stop imposing Catholic dogma on the professional health workers who staff them and free them to make clinical, not ideological, decisions.
Here’s hoping….