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In defence of weak naturalism – Post 2: a response to Gary Robertson

In defence of weak naturalism – Post 2: a response to Gary Robertson’s Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?

by Hugh Harris

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The position I propose to defend is weak naturalism. Conforming broadly to the standard of scientific inquiry known as methodological naturalism, it can be distinguished from the stronger position of philosophical naturalism, which claims categorically that the natural world is all there is.

Weak naturalism: as far as we know, the natural world is all there is. I defend the claim that naturalism is more probable than supernaturalism, in my essay Naturalism versus Supernaturalism- the false dichotomy – I argue that the observance of the natural world along with its laws combined with the absence of any evidence of the supernatural, amounts to a strong prima facie case for naturalism, and its likelihood in comparison to the sans-evidence claims of supernaturalism.

In his first post, Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?, Gary Robertson seems to exclude science from the debate, only to later revive it to provide the foundation for the kalam cosmological argument. Gary states that “Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes”, thus, “methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science”, and thus, “all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical”. I’m not sure why Gary does this, but I suspect that it’s so he can trade off the equality between the definitions of naturalism and supernaturalism . Perhaps philosophically they are equal inversions, in the sense that naturalism is the denial of the supernatural and the supernatural is the affirmation of it. But evidentially, they are not equal.

Virtually all scientists operate under the assumption of philosophical naturalism – all causes are empirical and naturalistic ones which can be measured, quantified and studied methodically. When our children are ill, we don’t look for magicians or witch doctors summoning supernatural forces. Why? Because there is no evidence they work, and much evidence suggesting they’re harmful. And this is despite the plethora of religious faith healers such as the discredited John of God faith healer, who scratches at the eyes of the credulous and who has made over $10 million out of selling crystals and other fake cures, and yet, had his own cancer treated by chemotherapy in a hospital.

And so Gary might have to forgive my reluctance to sideline science altogether from this debate. Additionally, I assume we’d agree that philosophy cannot exist in its own bubble, separated from empiricism, with no regard for the real world. Ontological naturalism is indeed a philosophical position, but as a study of the ultimate nature of reality it cannot be simply hived out and segregated from science. Further, the ultimate nature of reality is unlikely to vary depending on what University faculty building one happens to be in.

Evidently Gary agrees, given he goes on to claim that “supernatural causation logically follows from empirical evidence in the field of cosmology that strongly suggests the universe had a beginning and that nature…did not exist prior to the universe coming into being. Thus, … the universe transcended nature and was, therefore, supernatural”.

But I disagree that that’s what the scientific/empirical evidence suggests, as indeed do the majority of philosophers and scientists. The kalam cosmological argument:

 

Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

The Universe began to exist.

Therefore, the Universe had a cause

 

Objecting to my previous critique, Gary issues the following challenge: “I would certainly be keen to know how the deductive arguments formulated above equate to “conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence rather than simply observing the empirical evidence itself””.

The cosmological argument uses the causality, we observe in the known world to make the case that the known world itself must have a cause. But this self-referentially uses the laws of causality, to explain their own existence. Bertrand Russell exposes that moving from the contingency of the components of the universe, to the contingency of the universe, commits the Fallacy of Composition, which mistakenly concludes that since the parts have a certain property, the whole likewise has that property. If all bricks in a wall are small, is the Great Wall of China small?

The kalam cosmological argument makes the invalid assumption the universe began to exist. Given that space and time are inextricably linked, the contention that the universe began suggests a moment preceding its existence. But, as Stephen Hawking has pointed out, this is like seeking a point more northerly than the North Pole – the universe can be both finite and without a prior moment or beginning.

Adolf Grunbaum 1994, explains that the singularity of the Big Bang does not conform to an actual “physical event” given its unbounded nature, infinite density and scalar curvature. Thus, it does not even have the requisite chrono-geometric relations specified by the space-time metric, to which a cause could be applied – it cannot in fact “be the effect of event-causation or agent-causation alike”.

Additionally, the laws of conservation do not suggest that we can keep on subtracting elements from the universe until we get nothing. Parmenides famous adage, “from nothing, nothing comes”, does not suggest that nothing preceded something and that something needs a cause. Rather, it expresses the riddle of existence itself. There is no reduction of something into nothing in the natural world. And so, the state of nothing which is supposed to precede something, is doubtful at best, and antithetical to our observations of the natural world at worst.

Grunbaum 1994, further argues that “a galaxy of theists… take it to be axiomatic that if there is a physical world at all, then its spontaneous, undisturbed or natural state is one of utter nothingness, whatever that is… Why, in the absence of an external supernatural cause, should there be just nothing?” Further, the “presupposition of the spontaneity of nothingness lacks even the most rudimentary plausibility”. Many philosophers have argued against the proposition of nothingness as unintelligible. Why assume nothingness as a default, or a brute fact?

The other consideration, is that the cosmological argument assumes the universe itself cannot be a brute fact (or eternal) because everything that begins must have a cause; and then goes on to suggest that therefore there must be a brute fact (such as God) to explain it. This is begging the question. One cannot logically deny the existence of brute facts as a premise (whatever begins to exist has a cause) and then insert a brute fact as the conclusion (a necessary, uncaused being). One can simply ask why can’t the universe, or an element within it, be the brute fact. Crucially, even if one accepts that the universe begins, why cannot it not begin due to a timeless natural force which governs all of existence?

Thus, it’s invalid to suggest that the evidence points to a supernatural cause of the universe. In regards to teleological arguments we’ll have to discuss the specific versions. Then, my generalisations on this subject – “arguments from incredulity” – can be supported by considering the particular teleological argument in question.

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Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism? – Written Debate

Post 1 Gary Robertson

This is the first post in a written debate between Gary Robertson and Hugh Harris based on a discussion of the essay : Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy

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by Gary Robertson

Gary works in the media monitoring industry.

 

My worldview is a theistic one (non-denominational, non-fundamentalist Christian) informed primarily by classical philosophy, particularly Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, and science, including contemporary intelligent design theory.

I would generally define naturalism as the view that nature is all that exists, but would also deem the less rigid position you appear to espouse (that the existence of a supernatural realm “is more improbable than probable”) to be a naturalistic one.

While we both agree that nature exists, we differ in our respective answers to the metaphysical question of whether there is a reality beyond nature. To determine whether there is a realm that transcends the natural world we need to closely examine the evidence and draw rational, logically consistent inferences based on this evidence. Simply knowing that “the natural world does in fact exist” does not empirically confirm the proposition that nature is all there is. Indeed, such a proposition can neither be confirmed nor disproved empirically as, like all philosophical positions, it falls outside the purview of methodological naturalism.

Methodological naturalism restricts scientific enquiry to the study of natural causes and processes, which a priori excludes hypotheses and explanations relating to the reality of extra-natural dimensions. Thus, methods of enquiry into the existence of a supernatural reality are beyond the scope of empirical science and are by definition philosophical methods – not scientific ones. Consequently, all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical, irrespective of what they affirm or deny.

That naturalism is a philosophical view (specifically metaphysical or, more specifically, ontological) can be readily verified by consulting any reputable encyclopaedia or dictionary. Hence, I have not tried to “frame the discussion” as one metaphysical view against another. Since both positions are inherently metaphysical ones most informed discussions pitting naturalism against supernaturalism are assumed to be presenting the debate in that context, whether this is made explicit or not. This does not mean both positions “must be equally probable” either. As I noted in a previous comment, their respective strengths depend on the quality of the evidence supporting their premises and their degree of rational coherency.

You claim “there is no evidence of any other world beyond [the natural world]”, yet supernatural causation logically follows from empirical evidence in the field of cosmology that strongly suggests the universe had a beginning and that nature (space, time, matter, energy and physical laws) did not exist prior to the universe coming into being. Thus, if the prevailing cosmological position is correct the cause of the universe transcended nature and was, therefore, supernatural.

The argument can be expressed as follows (argument A) and expanded (arguments B and C):

A. The kalām cosmological argument:

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause (nothing comes from nothing)

(2) The universe began to exist (2nd law of thermodynamics, evidence of a cosmological singularity)

(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause

 

B. It is logically impossible to provide a natural explanation for how nature came into existence as such an explanation must assume the existence of nature in its opening premises, thus committing the circular fallacy. Necessarily then, the origin of nature (ie, the entirety of physical reality) must be supernatural.

(1) The cause of nature is either natural or supernatural

(2) The cause of nature cannot be natural

(3) Therefore, the cause of nature is supernatural

The demand of deductive logic to avoid the circular fallacy makes (2) necessarily true and (1) is a true dichotomy, therefore (3) logically follows.

 

C. Moreover, since time is a physical property of nature, logic dictates that the cause of time must have been independent of time if we wish to avoid the circular fallacy.

(1) The cause of time must have been either dependent or independent of time

(2) It is logically impossible for the cause of time to have been dependent upon time

(3) Therefore, the cause of time must have been timeless/eternal

(4) It is logically impossible to cause a timeless entity to come into existence

(5) Therefore, the cause of nature is eternal and, ipso facto, a first cause

 

From the above logically valid arguments, we can conclude that the cause of the universe must be supernatural, timeless, eternal and uncaused.

Since the kalām cosmological argument (A) appeals to scientific evidence to prove the beginning of the universe – not the existence of God, it is not a “God of the gaps defense”. Likewise, arguments B and C logically deduce properties of the universe’s cause but do not infer that God is this cause. Thus, there is no God-of-the-gaps reasoning involved in any of these arguments. And since the conclusion of argument B logically follows from the premises, it is not a matter of arbitrarily or gratuitously inserting ‘supernaturalism’ into gaps in scientific knowledge.

I would certainly be keen to know how the deductive arguments formulated above equate to “conflating the process of coming to an invalid conclusion using empirical evidence rather than simply observing the empirical evidence itself”. The same applies to teleological arguments based solely on interpreting empirical data through standard scientific methods. Simply making bare assertions, like “teleological arguments are invalid arguments – arguments from incredulity” and evolution “turned [the argument from design] on its head”, is not a counterargument.

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The Child is Father of the Man

As published in the Rationalist Society of Australia Journal, September, 2016

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What should we tell a child about the world? How do we distinguish between knowledge and beliefs? Answering this question requires us to reach deep down into ourselves and grasp for the forgotten struts that hold one’s view of the world together. Proceed with caution however, as once the supports are prized away the whole thing is apt to collapse.

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My atypical view comes as a result of my six-year-old son’s placement in a fundamentalist and evangelical religious instruction (RI) program. Despite us immediately pulling him out of it, and even after I’d written opinion pieces opposing RI in the Australian media, our boy was put back in the class without our knowledge.

The experience brought me unwillingly face to face with the question of what to tell my son about religion. I’d prefer him to find these answers on his own. The conversation went like this: I tried to explain the limits of our knowledge, and cast some doubt on his new found certainty of the existence of a Creator God; while my son grilled me as to what I believed – presumably so he could instantly adopt my position. The resentment at being placed in this position cements and reinforces my opposition to proselytising in schools.

The school curriculum is a perennial source of controversy. Was Australia settled or invaded? Is Safe Schools an anti-bullying program or misguided social engineering? What should we teach children about culture, and religion? Opponents of both religious instruction and the Safe Schools program argue against teaching children contested beliefs or ideologies.

One of the architects of Australia’s National Curriculum, Professor Ken Wiltshire, recently demanded a stop to the “outsourcing’’ of religious instruction and sex education to “ideological interest groups’’.

“We don’t want material creeping into the curriculum without it being quality assured. You should never outsource the development of a curriculum to any group with a particular agenda, or blindly accept any curriculum material they have provided to be used in schools”.

The issue is fraught by evolving attitudes toward the rights of children – no longer merely the “don’t speak until spoken to” property of parents.

We should distinguish between rights as they apply to learning in three ways: the rights of parents, the best interests of society, and the rights of the child. In western cultures, parents still enjoy inordinately high levels of control over their child’s education.

According to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), parents have the right to bring up their children in their chosen religious or non-religious belief system.

Consider the tension between the rights of parents, and the rights of the child. The child cannot assess what is best for them and can only rely on the assumed best intentions and good judgement of their parents. But what if the parents insist on inculcating their child into an extreme or harmful belief system?

We also need to balance the entitlements of parents with the utilitarian notion of what is best for society, and reflect on the significance of a child’s potential.

As poet William Wordsworth noted “The child is father of the man”.

 

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety

 

Our days “bound each to each” the child begets the adult, connected by a continuous line of experience. The outcomes of what we teach children extend well beyond the lives of the parents, influencing the temper and texture of our future society.

But how can we measure the rights of parents? Beyond chattel ownership, parent’s rights can be measured in maximising the child’s ongoing welfare and opportunity to flourish.

So, to the extent that the parent’s rights rely on satisfying the best interests of the child, then the child’s rights take precedence. The rights of the parent turn on the best interest of the child. Given the prevailing balancing of parent’s rights over children’s rights, this should give us cause for alarm.

Children’s rights aren’t adequately protected when it’s legal to indoctrinate them into closed orders, send them to extremist schools, or proselytise fundamentalist dogma in state schools. Serving the best interest of society involves providing the child with knowledge and arming them with the critical skills to deploy it.

Those arguing against teaching contesting beliefs strike upon the crucial distinction: beliefs are secondary to knowledge. By definition, beliefs lack the verifiability and or universality which would otherwise render them as knowledge.

So, how about this rule of thumb? If adults cannot agree on a particular proposition, don’t teach it to children.

Challenging the generally accepted meme of parental entitlement, involves allowing the child greater autonomy and freedom of thought to develop their own framework of ideas and beliefs. Wordworth’s phrase evokes the unbroken link between a child’s world and the adult world, but it should also motivate us to reflect upon the gradations between belief and knowledge.

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Religious Candles and Cross --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Nothing, Something, but mostly Nothing

James Wood’s article in ABC’s Religion & Ethics,  Everything, Something, Nothing: The Modern Novel and the Departure of God , offers some tantalizing references to modern fiction and how it encounters God and seeks to understand meaning in our lives, but only skims the surface. It’s certainly worth a read but one would have liked to have seen the references fleshed out and discussed in greater depth. Rather, the author is more concerned with demonstrating his own prodigious literary knowledge. Well, phooey for him.
I certainly agree the modern novel has plenty to say about the human condition, and much of it derives from our religious traditions. But he could have mentioned the existential attitude in the authors he mentions, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard, Camus, exploring the search for meaning within their own person in a seemingly absurd world. What of the repeated use of Ecclesiastes throughout modern literature? One thinks of Hemingway’s, Fiesta:The Sun Also Rises, reading it as an analogy for that biblical tome of existential despair .  “The earth abideth forever” was, according to Hemingway himself, the central concern of his exposition of the post Great War Lost Generation. Ecclesiastes 1:
What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them

Wood lounges in the smugness of his preexisting biases against the New Atheists of whom he has read only a finite amount, despite his claim of near infinite patience. The author cannot have read Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” or he would understand the “agency” and other explanations of religious belief are not just something Dennett thought up one day, but rather, based on rigorous research by Boyer, Atran, Dunbar, Faber, Hauser and others. They deserve more than a flippant dismissal without evidence.The stale critique that new atheists are only concerned with celestial teapots, flying spaghetti monsters and refuting the literal interpretation of Scripture is just plain false. Has Wood noticed books by Sam Harris such as Free Will, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up – the last which explores ways of attaining spirituality without recourse to superstition?This road has been traveled endless times by apologist’s and humanities professors, and its usually notable that they appear totally unaware of writers such as Stephen Pinker, Michael Martin, Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, and A.C. Grayling. All of whom have many interesting things about making sense of the world without God.And I note the author’s comments are simply repeated from his own 2009 article God in the Quad. Like so many critiques of New atheists, the author is guilty of the charges he makes against them.