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Naturalism remains undefeated: an answer to Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism

Naturalism remains undefeated – a rejoinder to the Alvin Plantinga argument used in Post 3 that naturalism is self-defeating. Post 5.

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lightning church

Popularizing the claim that naturalism and evolution are mutually self-defeating, Alvin Plantinga argues in the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (1993), that, given unguided evolution, our beliefs have no intrinsic relation to the truth.

Drawing on previous arguments made by C.S. Lewis and Arthur Balfour, Plantinga claims that if humans are the product of undirected processes, then we cannot reasonably rely on what we perceive. In fact, it’s just “as likely …that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world.”

Thus, if we cannot rely on our beliefs, then we cannot rely on our belief in naturalism and thus, naturalism is defeated.

Well, it would be very worrying if we couldn’t rely on any of our beliefs. But evidently, humans have good reason to rely on their cognition, and we do so in myriad situations daily.

We also have no reason to distrust the accepted science of evolution and the various mechanisms which operate within it; such as the mutation of genes, natural selection, and genetic drift.

Given there is no reason to discount both our cognitive capacities and the science of evolution, then the argument becomes problematic. Another way of expressing Plantinga’s argument is that we should distrust our knowledge of evolution based on our knowledge of evolution. Nonsense.

Second, even if we somehow accepted the unreliability of our beliefs, this would mean only that we could not rely on our belief in naturalism; not that naturalism is untrue. But, nor could we rely on our cognition that it is false. Therefore, if true, the unreliability-of-beliefs premise is either self-defeating for beliefs in naturalism and theism, or not self-defeating for both. Thus, it gets us precisely nowhere.

Third, the argument presumes that theism somehow provides humans with reliable cognition.

Plantinga explains,

“God has created us in his image, and an important part of our image bearing is our resembling him in being able to form true beliefs and achieve knowledge”.

But, inserting a supernatural element (God) as a fact, is a circular argument. Viz. if God exists, naturalism must be untrue, so there’s no use invoking God as evidence that naturalism is untrue. (Prove God exists first!).

Further, the Philosopher William Ramsay has observed how human faculties are, in fact, slightly unreliable – look at our impressive array of cognitive biases! Ramsay further posits that evolution and naturalism explain this better than theism. In fact, the well-established foibles in our thinking pose a considerable challenge to Plantinga’s suggestion that we are the perfect perceivers of truth one would expect as the product of an omnipotent Creator.

Plantinga’s argument trades upon the philosophical knowledge-problem: the difficulty in providing a neat solution to the foundation of knowledge: how do we know we can rely on our beliefs? But this philosophical problem is not specific to either evolution of naturalism: the challenge pertains to all of our beliefs.

In fact, our evolution by natural selection justifies a moderate level of trust in our cognitive faculties. The brain size of the various human species has increased from 400cc to 1350cc over several millions of years. In this time, archaic humans developed more sophisticated stone tools, harnessed fire, developed language, and began to use symbolic thought. Natural selection seems to have been effective in providing reproductive advantage by selecting for those traits. Claiming this is “accidental” misunderstands natural selection. Increases in brain size and thinking ability, are selection effects we could expect to correlate to accurate perceptions about reality. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could have survived as a species if our perceptions and beliefs have no relation to the real world.

Nevertheless, Plantinga draws strength from a quote of Darwin expressing worry about the veracity of evolved human thought.

“But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

— Charles Darwin, to William Graham 3 July 1881

One can only wonder whether Darwin would have revised his doubts had he been able to witness the magnificent confirmation of his theory of natural selection via subsequent discoveries in the fossil record, and the field of genetics.

Natural selection has become the cornerstone of modern biology. There is no longer any doubt about the fact of our unguided evolution from prior species, and our connection to other forms of life.

Indeed, the yearning to understand our world has been a feature in the development of humans. When we observed natural events that we could not explain, we posited underlying causes. Recall, hunter gatherers performing rain dances, ancient tribes sacrificing animals and children. Up until the last 500 years, theology posited supernatural causes for most unexplained phenomena. In the 18th century hundreds of church bell ringers were electrocuted, as they tried to ward off the devils who cast lightning upon the earth.

To the current day, science and religion offer competing views of how to understand the world. Science uses the scientific method which relies on hypothesis, testing and prediction, and is always subject to revision. Theologians will always seek to explain mysteries by inserting supernatural elements such as ghosts and deities.

But science has uncovered other invisible, underlying causes of natural events. These include things like electromagnetism, gravity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Needless to say, none of these could be arrived at through intuition alone. The gradual accumulation of scientific knowledge, where the work of one scientist enabled another, has helped humans to understand physical forces which are deeply counterintuitive; even, seemingly incomprehensible. Think of how light behaves as a wave and a particle at the same time; how particles can seemingly exist in multiple places at the same time; of how the universe is only 5% matter, the rest being made of dark matter and dark energy.

The invisible forces have been discovered and thus, we no longer need supernaturalism. We have no need to postulate other undefined and unverifiable forces. We certainly have no reason to entertain the idea that the discoveries of science are vulnerable to a superimposed truth-giving deity. Plantinga’s argument is but a rationalization allowing theists to question evolution and naturalism. But it relies on doubting accepted science, and inserting a supernatural element, and thus, is itself, self-defeating.

molecules

Weak naturalism places the burden of proof on the supernaturalist

Post 4. Rejoinder to Gary Robertson. Gary has provided a detailed response to my second post in our written debate. Given its length, I will respond to the key arguments as follows:

  1. Weak naturalism places the burden of proof on the supernaturalist
  2. Philosophical naturalism is not self-defeating
  3. Kalam Cosmological Argument

 

Weak naturalism places the burden of proof on the supernaturalist

As far as we know, the natural world is all there is. By weakening naturalism to a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary, weak naturalism becomes an even more formidable opponent to supernaturalism.

Weak naturalism is analogous to “weak” atheism. A weak atheist simply disbelieves in God given the lack of evidence. Weak naturalism disavows the supernatural for the same reason.

Without relying on the accepted definitions of naturalism (ie. philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism), or of the rich philosophical history, weak naturalism is justifiable on its own terms. In only asserting the existence of the natural world, and by leaving itself open to disproof by evidence of a supernatural realm, the burden of proof is transferred to the “supernaturalist”.

Proposing weak naturalism, does not entail “appealing to the fact that nature exists rather than providing any positive evidence showing why it’s probable nothing transcends nature”. Rather, it appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural, period.

Further, we might wonder what “positive evidence” could be provided for things which don’t actually exist? Things like ghosts, Big foot, or Atlantis. Surely, the lack of any evidence for said things amounts to at least a prima facie case for their nonexistence. Further, our default position should be that they don’t exist, rather than they do exist.

Now therefore, it’s up to the supernaturalist to provide evidence of the existence of a supernatural world. Where is Exhibit A? Unfortunately, the claims of the supernaturalist fall at the first hurdle.

Indeed, we should observe the special pleading routinely used to justify beliefs held sans evidence. The supernatural is defended by proposing methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science. Since the supernatural is defined as being beyond the scope of the natural world, not governed by natural laws, and not measurable by science, the supernaturalist posits other means of evidence.

But this is an illegitimate move, which justifies any belief whatsoever. If this was acceptable, we would only need to claim a proposition is beyond the purview of science, and, “Voila!” we can demand equal epistemic justification for fairies, unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster. We can also keep superimposing new unseen layers upon the universe.

Further, it’s not entirely clear what this “evidence” is. In fact, it’s a circular argument seeking to justify the supernatural by inventing its own special realm of supernatural evidence. If such a realm is beyond the limits of empiricism, then it is unknowable by nature, and thus, by definition, lacks any epistemic likelihood.

We also see the appeal to immaterial realities, such as appreciation of poetry, literature, music and such, as if to suggest that these are evidence. As if things which cannot be seen, or which are not explainable by science, point to the possibility of a supernatural cloak upon reality. But we may briskly walk from the science lab over to the humanities building and see books of poetry. We can play musical instruments, read music, and even use an MRI machine to view our neurons firing as we listen. Our invisible thoughts constitute no more evidence of supernaturalism, than does the invisible operation of gravity.

Alternatively, supernaturalists seek to frame the debate in a philosophical, rather than scientific manner. In this way, the hard evidence of science can be replaced with philosophical argument: a softer approach which is satisfied by a lesser threshold for evidence.

Imagine this: We have found an incontrovertible answer to the existence of the universe. Would you be surprised if this was discovered by a team of Cosmologists? Or, theoretical physicists? Probably not.

But what if it the announcement mentioned a team of philosophers? The reason such an announcement would be greeted with derision, is that we know that without evidence, testing and verification, a claim made purely on philosophical grounds is lacking. A discovery of this type would only find general acceptance by scientific confirmation. Further, we know that it’s scientists who are working on these questions, not philosophers. They are questions of fact, not argument.

Thus, it’s not scientism to expect knowledge-claims to be verifiable, or testable. The scientific method has become the accepted method of inquiry.

Using philosophical argument, theists sometimes invoke Aquinas Five Ways or the cosmological argument to claim the universe must have had a cause, as though this was evidence. But alas, the cosmological argument is not accepted as empirical knowledge. In fact, the majority of current philosophers remain unpersuaded. Nor does the existence of the world count as “using evidence”, when invoked as a premise used to draw an illegitimate conclusion.

Weak naturalism limits itself to what we know. If there are realms which we cannot know, then there is no use in speculating upon them. The question of evidence becomes the key issue. If evidence is not measurable and knowable then it is not really evidence. And in the absence of useful evidence, it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that weak naturalism is equally likely to supernaturalism.

 

science versus religion

Is naturalism more probable than supernaturalism?

 

Post 3 Gary Robertson replies to Hugh Harris based on the essay : Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy

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by Gary Robertson

Gary works in the media monitoring industry.

 

Hugh Harris defends a version of philosophical naturalism that contends it is likely nothing exists outside of the natural world. Hugh primarily bases his defence on “the observance of the natural world along with its laws”, which essentially consists of him appealing to the fact that nature exists rather than providing any positive evidence showing why it’s probable nothing transcends nature. Yet the question being addressed in this debate is not ‘Does the natural world exist?’, but ‘Is there a reality beyond the natural world?’

Hugh’s defence of weak naturalism is also based on what he perceives as “the absence of any evidence of the supernatural” and here his case largely consists of negative arguments in which rebuttals are presented against arguments for the existence of a supernatural reality. Before I respond to Hugh’s comments and counterarguments relating to my first post, “Is Naturalism more probable than Supernaturalism?”, I would like to discuss some serious shortcomings of the metaphysical position he defends.

Naturalism and Human Reason

Various forms of the ‘evolutionary argument against naturalism’ by philosophers Alvin Plantinga, Thomas Nagel, CS Lewis and others show philosophical naturalism (both reductive and nonreductive) to be incompatible with reason and that, therefore, believing in philosophical naturalism is self-defeating. Philosopher of science Bruce Gordon explains the argument as follows:

“The prospect of human knowledge depends upon the veridicality of our perceptions and the validity of our reasoning processes. If the certainty resulting from cognitive perception and valid inference provides a genuine grasp of how reality must be independent of our minds, then knowledge is possible, but if the certainty so obtained is a mere feeling and not a genuinely reliable insight into reality, then we do not have knowledge. Now, if naturalism is true, human beings came about as the result of undirected processes of evolution that had no goal in mind. In such case, our cognitive faculties are the end result of mindless causes and historical accidents that take no account of truth or logic, just the exigencies of survival. Under such conditions, any complex of beliefs and desires that conduces to survival would suffice. What we believe to be true under such conditions is therefore an accidental historical byproduct of purely natural events that bear no intrinsic relation to the actual truth of the beliefs we hold; it is an expression of how our brains just happen to work. That our beliefs should actually be true under such conditions seems quite unlikely; at the very least, whether our beliefs are true or false cannot be ascertained. If naturalism is true, therefore, our reasoning processes are so discredited that they cannot support the truth of any of the beliefs we happen to hold, especially those rather distant from immediate experience, such as the belief in naturalism itself. Belief in naturalism is therefore epistemically self-defeating, and since there is for the naturalist no remedy to this situation, it is irrational to be a philosophical naturalist because it destroys the possibility of rationality altogether.” (Gordon, 2011)

Charles Darwin himself inadvertently acknowledged that the unreliability of human cognition was intrinsic to his theory of evolution by natural selection. For instance, in a private letter written in 1881 he stated:

“Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”(Darwin, 1881)

In an earlier letter Darwin wrote:

“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. This conclusion was strong in my mind about the time, as far as I can remember, when I wrote the ‘Origin of Species;’ and it is since that time that it has very gradually, with many fluctuations, become weaker. But then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animals, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?” (Barlow, 1958)

Unfortunately Darwin acknowledged this inherent aspect of his theory very selectively. As the above quotes indicate he only deemed his beliefs untrustworthy when they were inconsistent with evolution, such as his conviction of the necessity of an intelligent First Cause and his “extreme difficulty” in conceiving the universe as the result of blind chance or necessity. However his theory was itself “a conviction of man’s mind” and therefore, following the same logic, was also untrustworthy. Darwin failed to recognize that to be logically consistent he needed to apply his doubts about the reliability of human reasoning to his theory on the origins of biodiversity. If he had done so he would have been confronted with an internal contradiction that undermines the reliability of all human beliefs, including the belief in evolution.

Relevant Modes of Inquiry

Hugh states that my first post “seems to exclude science from the debate, only to later revive it to provide the foundation for the kalām cosmological argument.” I find this comment rather odd for three reasons. Firstly, I mention the terms ‘science’, ‘scientific’, ‘empirical’, ‘empirically’ and ‘methodological naturalism’ a total of nine times before I even get to the kalām cosmological argument (KCA). Indeed, prior to advancing the KCA I address science in relation to metaphysical propositions, such as the proposition that a transcendent realm exists. Secondly, since Hugh perceives there to be an “absence of any evidence supporting supernaturalism” I would have thought he would be expecting little to no scientific evidence in my posts. Lastly, as I explain below, the point is trivial as scientific knowledge represents just one type of evidence relevant to the topic being debated.

Hugh then wonders why I state 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’”. He suspects it is so I “can trade off the equality between the definitions of naturalism and supernaturalism”. However his suspicion is wide of the mark. I made these points to clarify the nature of the debate as Hugh appears to harbour the misconception that the epistemic status of philosophical naturalism is close to that of an empirically verifiable position, or that, at minimum, it has a higher epistemic status than supernaturalism has. Each of my points on the relationship between science and the investigation of ultimate reality can be readily confirmed as the establishment position on the topic. For instance, the US National Academy of Sciences in its official booklet Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science states:

“Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance.” (National Academy of Sciences, 1998)

Or in the words of Eugenie Scott, former executive director of the US National Center for Science Education:

“Science is a way of knowing that attempts to explain the natural world using natural causes. It is agnostic toward the supernatural – it neither confirms nor rejects it.” (Scott, 1999)

The restriction of scientific inquiry to natural causes mentioned in the foregoing quotes is known as methodological naturalism (MN), which is an epistemology and a procedural process that also acts as a set of demarcation criteria for differentiating science from non-science. As Wikipedia states:

“Methodological naturalism does not concern itself with claims about what exists, but with methods of learning what nature is. It attempts to explain and test scientific endeavors, hypotheses, and events with reference to natural causes and events.” (Wikipedia, ‘Naturalism (philosophy’)

Since MN a priori excludes claims about ultimately reality, the fact that Hugh broadly aligns his inherently metaphysical position on ultimately reality with MN is puzzling. I assume this is because he adheres to scientism – the belief that empirical science possesses a unique claim to knowledge, or all that can be known about the external world are things which can be determined through the methods of the natural sciences. Indeed, in a glossary of terms used on this blog Hugh defines naturalism as “the belief that the universe can be explained exclusively by natural laws and forces. There are no supernatural, or non-natural entities or causes, or if there are, they will be understandable in scientific, natural terms.”

My statement that “all propositions about ultimate reality will necessarily be philosophical” refers to the fact that naturalism and supernaturalism are properly the domain of metaphysics. This is cogently explained in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1st Ed), which defines metaphysics as:

“Most generally, the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality. It is broader in scope than science, e.g., physics and even cosmology (the science of the nature, structure, and origin of the universe as a whole), since one of its traditional concerns is the existence of non-physical entities, e.g., God. It is also more fundamental, since it investigates questions science does not address but the answers to which it presupposes.” (Audi, 1995)

However, Hugh appears to misconstrue my statement as meaning philosophical arguments “sideline science altogether”. Clearly this is not the case as empirical evidence is crucial to many philosophical arguments, including the KCA. To restate a point I’ve made in previous replies, scientific evidence can support premises for a conclusion that has metaphysical significance, but a metaphysical position cannot ultimately be confirmed by scientific evidence alone (which would make it a scientific position). In other words, although one or more premises in individual arguments for supernaturalism and naturalism may be supported by empirical evidence, neither position as a whole is empirically verifiable.

Looking at it from the flipside may better illustrate this general distinction between scientific and philosophical propositions. There are many scientific theories – Einstein’s theory of general relativity and Newton’s theory of universal gravitation to cite just two – that are, arguably, based upon deeper philosophical premises, presuppositions and concepts which can be justified by philosophical lines of argument. However, we would not refer to these theories as philosophical propositions as they are derived from empirical observation and are amenable to direct or indirect experimental testing.

This convergence of philosophical and scientific evidence within the theories of general relativity and universal gravitation, and also within many propositions about ultimate reality, nicely illustrates Hugh’s point that “philosophy cannot exist in a bubble”. Far from been sidelined then, science plays a crucial role in many important philosophical propositions (and vice versa), including in many prominent arguments for and against the existence of a transcendent reality. And since the inclusion of both scientific and philosophical evidence often allows for a more complete and informative metaphysical argument, I wholeheartedly encourage Hugh to incorporate scientific evidence in his case for weak naturalism.

Hugh, however, goes too far when he implies that non-empirical propositions have “no regard for the real world”. While many arguments contain premises that are justified to varying degrees by empirical data, many others with ‘real world’ implications are justified purely on philosophical grounds. For example deductive arguments for God’s existence, including the Ontological Argument, the Moral Argument and Leibniz’ Contingency Argument, are purely philosophical arguments which provide evidence for the reality of a transcendent Creator. Moreover, Aquinas’ Five Ways are logical proofs that depend only minimally on inferences drawn from nature and are therefore not impacted by revisions to empirical knowledge. Further, while a posteriori knowledge is dependent on experience or empirical evidence, a priori knowledge is not and many non-empirical propositions based on a priori knowledge have practical real-world applications.

To quote from Wikipedia again:

A priori knowledge or justification is independent of experience, as with mathematics (3,000 + 2,000 = 5,000), tautologies (“All bachelors are unmarried”), and deduction from pure reason (eg, ontological proofs).” (Wikipedia: ‘A priori and a posteriori’)

Hugh asserts “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.” I suspect, it would be more accurate to say that most scientists, including those who are theists, adopt methodological naturalism (rather than philosophical naturalism) while conducting scientific research into physical phenomena, but not necessarily when investigating immaterial realities not associated with physical causality or not reducible to the actions of neurons, subatomic particles, physical forces, etc. Such realities are beyond reductionist science and include human appreciation of beauty, art, music, poetry, literature, and other creative activities involving abstract thought, as well as conceptions of aesthetics, justice, morality, honour, mercy and love.

But even when addressing the physical world empirical inquiry has its limitations, thereby requiring us to go beyond the senses and natural sciences to attain a more complete understanding of the universe. The reason why empirical science cannot give us a complete description of reality is that it is, by its nature, quantitative. Although the quantitative methods of modern science have resulted in many spectacular predictive and technological successes, they can only capture those aspects of reality amenable to mathematical modeling, prediction and control. It certainly does not follow that there are no other aspects of reality.

It should also be noted that although many scientists adhere to methodological naturalism while studying the causes or properties of physical phenomena, that does not necessarily mean they are philosophical naturalists or believe the natural sciences alone reveal all they can know about the world. After all, modern science was largely founded by theists like Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Leibniz, Copernicus, Boyle and others who believed that order and precision exhibited by the physical universe, and the overall intelligibility of the natural world, revealed evidence of God’s existence. But irrespective of one’s worldview, science is about following the evidence wherever it leads and evaluating evidence entirely on its merits – not filtering it through the lens of a particular philosophical position or judging its validity on its congruence with specific metaphysical preconceptions.

Kalām Cosmological Argument

Hugh contends the kalām cosmological argument commits the fallacy of composition by “moving from the contingency of the components of the universe, to the contingency of the universe”. However, the KCA does not argue compositionally – that because everything within the universe has a cause, therefore the universe as a whole has a cause. Rather, it is based on the Causal Principle – everything that comes into existence at some point must have a cause which brings it into existence, and the scientific consensus that the universe began to exist. Additionally, the Causal Principle, which is constantly confirmed in our experience, is an inductive generalisation – not a statement about one thing, and therefore cannot be the result of an inference from the parts of a thing to the whole. In other words, it is drawing an inference about all the members of a class of things based on a sample of the class. Inductive reasoning undergirds empirical science and is not to be confused with reasoning by composition.

Further, not every inference from part to whole commits a fallacy of composition; whether an inference does so depends on the subject matter. If each brick in a wall of Lego bricks is red, it does follow that the wall as a whole is red. Even if one were to infer from the contingency of the parts of the universe to that of the whole universe, I contend that would be more like the inference to the colour of the Lego wall (or to the colour of the Great Wall of China) than the inference to its size.

Philosopher Edward Feser explains it this way:

If A and B are of the same length, putting them side by side is going to give us a whole with a length different from those of A and B themselves. That just follows from the nature of length. If A and B are of the same color, putting them side by side is not going to give us a whole with a color different from those of A and B themselves. That just follows from the nature of color. If A and B are both contingent, does putting them together give us something that is necessary? It is hard to see how; indeed, anyone willing to concede that Lego bricks, tables, chairs, rocks, trees, and the like are individually contingent is surely going to concede that any arbitrary group of these things is no less contingent. And why should the inference to the contingency of such collections stop when we get to the universe as a whole? It seems a natural extension of the reasoning, and the burden of proof is surely on the critic of such an argument to show that the universe as a whole is somehow non-contingent, given that the parts, and collections of parts smaller than the universe as a whole, are contingent. (Feser, 2010)

Ultimately though, since the KCA is not justified by an argument from composition Hugh is simply arguing against a straw man here.

Hugh claims the KCA’s conclusion that the universe began to exist is invalid because “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.”

Firstly, the view that the universe had an absolute beginning and there was no space, time, matter, energy and, hence, physical laws before the universe began is the consensus view of physicists and cosmologists for good reason. The standard Big Bang model, which posits space, time, matter and energy came into existence at a single point simultaneously, is well supported by a confluence of independent lines of inquiry. Prominent US sceptic Michael Shermer briefly explains why the theory is so well supported in the April 2017 issue of Scientific American:

“There are many propositions for which we have adequate grounds for certainty as to their truth: There are 84 pages in this issue of Scientific American. True by observation. Dinosaurs went extinct around 65 million years ago. True by verification and replication of radiometric dating techniques for volcanic eruptions above and below dinosaur fossils. The universe began with a big bang. True by a convergence of evidence from a wide range of phenomena, such as the cosmic microwave background, the abundance of light elements (such as hydrogen and helium), the distribution of galaxies, the large-scale structure of the cosmos, the redshift of most galaxies and the expansion of space. These propositions are “true” in the sense that the evidence is so substantial that it would be unreasonable to withhold one’s provisional assent.” (Shermer, 2017)

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, along with Arvin Borde and Alan Guth, was able to prove that any universe that has on average been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past but must have a past space-time boundary. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem shows that classical space-time, under a single, very general condition, cannot be extended to past infinity but must reach a boundary at some time in the finite past. Vilenkin states:

“It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” (Vilenkin, 2006)

Or, as a New Scientist editorial plainly states after examining research disconfirming models of the universe designed to avoid the need for a creation event: “It now seems certain that the universe did have a beginning.” (Editorial, 2012)

Secondly, nearly all space-time theorems derived from general relativity establish a singular simultaneous beginning for all the matter, energy, space and time in the universe rather than suggest a moment of time preceding the universe’s existence. Indeed, there is no justification for the assumption that causal priority implies temporal priority. As philosopher William Lane Craig comments:

“The standard Big Bang model thus describes a universe which is not eternal in the past, but which came into being a finite time ago. Moreover—and this deserves underscoring—the origin it posits is an absolute origin ex nihilo. For not only all matter and energy, but space and time themselves come into being at the initial cosmological singularity. As Barrow and Tipler emphasize, “At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated at such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo“. (Craig, 1999)

And lastly, Stephen Hawking’s model for a finite universe “without a prior moment or beginning” is a speculative proposal that employs a statistical technique (imaginary numbers) for time variables in order to preserve a purely spatial representation of the beginning of the universe. The problem with the use of imaginary numbers in the Hartle-Hawking no-boundary quantum cosmology model is aptly explained by William Lane Craig:

“The question which arises for this construal of the model is whether such an interpretation is meant to be taken realistically or instrumentally. On this score, there can be little doubt that the use of imaginary quantities for time is a mere mathematical device without ontological significance. [English cosmologist, theoretical physicist and mathematician David] Barrow observes, ‘physicists have often carried out this “change time into space” procedure as a useful trick for doing certain problems in ordinary quantum mechanics, although they did not imagine that time was really like space. At the end of the calculation, they just swap back into the usual interpretation of there being one dimension of time and three . . . dimensions of . . . space.’ In his model, Hawking simply declines to re-convert to real numbers. If we do, then the singularity re-appears. Hawking admits, ‘Only if we could picture the universe in terms of imaginary time would there be no singularities… When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities.’ Hawking’s model is thus a way of re-describing a universe with a singular beginning point in such a way that that singularity is transformed away; but such a re-description is not realist in character.

Hawking has recently stated explicitly that he interprets the Hartle-Hawking model non-realistically. He confesses, ‘I’m a positivist … I don’t demand that a theory correspond to reality because I don’t know what it is.’ Still more extreme, ‘I take the positivist viewpoint that a physical theory is just a mathematical model and that it is meaningless to ask whether it corresponds to reality.’ In assessing the worth of a theory, ‘All I’m concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements.’ ’ (Craig, 1999)

Given the foregoing, Hawking’s logical impossibility of multiple most-northerly points fails as a defeater for the claim that the universe had a beginning. It would be more accurate to employ Hawking’s logical impossibility as an analogy in the following way: Before the Big Bang time did not exist, therefore one cannot go further back in time than the Big Bang in much the same way one cannot go any further north than the North Pole.

Hugh informs us that philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum “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’” (Grünbaum, 1994)

Grünbaum’s comments are from his critique of the Philosophia Naturalis article “Creation and Big Bang Cosmology” by philosopher William Lane Craig (Craig, 1994a). Craig subsequently responded to Grünbaum’s objections (Craig, 1994b) and in response to Grünbaum’s claim that the Big Bang singularity was not a physical event, Craig notes:

“Grünbaum’s lengthy critique is actually directed at only two paragraphs of my original article (the fourth and the fifth). In the first of these I charge that Grünbaum’s objection that the Big Bang singularity cannot have been caused (because it could have had neither a subsequent cause nor an antecedent cause) is a pseudo-dilemma because the cause of the initial cosmological singularity could be simultaneous (or coincident) with that singularity. In response, Grünbaum presents the following argument:

1. Only events can qualify as the momentary effects of other events or of the action of an agency.
2. The Big Bang singularity is technically a non-event.
3. Therefore, the singularity cannot be the effect of any cause in the case of event causation or agent causation.

If this argument is sound, then it is simply irrelevant whether the putative cause of the Big Bang singularity is antecedent to, simultaneous with, or subsequent to the singularity, since any sort of cause of the singularity is excluded.

It seems to me, however, that this argument is invalid, since it equivocates on the meaning of the term “event.” The sense in which the initial cosmological singularity is not an event is, as Grünbaum notes, a technical sense employed in GTR [General Theory of Relativity]. Since that singular point is not Hausdorff isolated, that is to say, since its coordinates cannot be specified independently of all other space-time points, it cannot be classed as an event as that term is technically used in GTR. But the word “event” as it is used in (1) cannot be this terminus technicus if (1) is to be plausibly regarded as true. For we can easily envision happenings which are not “events” in the technical sense in which that word is used in GTR, but which do qualify as the momentary effects of other events or agent causes: (i) The initial cosmological singularity is causally linked to later space-time points and events, so that in this case we have events which are the momentary effects of a non-event. Now consider the final cosmological singularity in a universe caught in gravitational self-collapse: here we have a case in which a non-event is the momentary effect of other events, which contradicts (1), if that premiss uses “event” in the technical sense at issue. (ii) In the quantum realm, occurrences take place (such as the collision of two elementary particles) which cannot be termed “events” in GTR’s technical sense. Classical conceptions of space and time finally break down within the quantum regime. Yet these quantum occurrences are doubtlessly causally conditioned by macroscopic physical states which are classifiable as (series of) events (such as a quantum experiment’s being carried out by a researcher). (iii) The technical sense of “event” in GTR is inapplicable to mental events such as the perception of an object or the experience of being surprised. Yet such occurrences in consciousness are clearly in part the momentary effects of events in the physical world and also, plausibly, of the action of agents, as, say, when I force myself to concentrate on some subject or to get my mind off something else. (iv) If God exists, why could He not cause momentary effects which are not events in the GTR sense of the word? Could He not create a universe not governed by GTR in which there are momentary effects of His action which are not “events” in the technical sense of the term? Since GTR is not metaphysically necessary, why is this impossible? And why could not mental processes, quantum occurrences, and singularities be causally produced by God? In short, (1) is plausibly true only if “event” is understood in a broader, non-technical sense (for example, “that which happens”) than the sense which that term carries in GTR. But in that case (3) does not follow from (1) and (2), since the notion of “event” in these two premisses is not univocal.” (Craig, 1994b)

Hugh asserts, “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.”

Hugh’s position requires that there is at least one natural entity that was either uncaused or self-caused. However, there are a number of problems with this position. If the proposed entity had no antecedent cause it would be self-existing and past-eternal. Yet it would not be part of nature because the natural world (which of course includes the laws of conservation) had a beginning point in the finite past (a singularity) and, therefore, a past-eternal entity would transcend nature. Nor could the entity be self-caused as the notion of self-causation is a logical impossibility – no entity can cause its own existence because no entity can cause anything unless it already exists. This effectively rules out Hugh’s proposition of “a timeless natural force which governs all of existence”, but certainly allows for a timeless supernatural force which governs everything.

Brute Facts

Hugh claims, “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).” However, the KCA makes no such assumption. As I’ve stated above, the argument simply draws a logical conclusion from premises based on (1) the Causal Principle that everything that comes into existence has a cause which brings it into existence, and (2) the scientific consensus that the universe began to exist. (Why assume the existence of something is a brute fact when the available evidence explains aspects of its existence?) Besides, while the KCA appeals to philosophical and scientific evidence to argue that the universe had a cause of its existence, it neither concludes that this cause is God or a brute fact, nor denies the existence of brute facts. Arguments that expand on the KCA, such as arguments B and C in my first post, may deduce certain properties of the universe’s cause, such as that it is supernatural, however, they do so based on valid deductive arguments. Even if one concludes that the supernatural cause of the universe is God (as I do), one is not appealing to a brute fact. As philosopher Karlo Broussard explains:

“The theist is not saying God is a brute fact, i.e., he has no reason or explanation for His existence. It is essential to classical theism that God’s existence, though not caused by another, is explained by his essence. His essence is existence itself—ipsum esse subsistens. This is not something theists arbitrarily assert but is the conclusion of deductive reasoning that starts with certain features of the world—motion (change), efficient causality, contingency, degrees of being, and final causality.” (Broussard, 2016)

Hugh says, “One can simply ask why can’t the universe, or an element within it, be the brute fact?” To borrow again from William Lane Craig,

“Although the brute fact claim for the universe’s existence would have some credibility if the universe is past-eternal, it loses all credibility once we discover that the universe began to exist, for then we are forced to say that for no reason whatsoever the universe popped into being out of absolutely nothing, which is worse than magic.” (Craig, 2017)

Please note: Given the breadth of topics covered in this response, I’ll discuss teleological arguments in a future post.

 

SOURCES

Audi, R [Ed] (1995)  The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Barlow, N [Ed] (1958) The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. Collins, London.

Broussard, K (2016) ‘5 reasons why the universe can’t be merely a brute fact’, StrangeNotions.com.

Craig, WL (1994a) ‘Creation and Big Bang Cosmology’ Philosophia Naturalis 31(2): 217-224.

Craig, WL (1994b) ‘A Response to Grünbaum on Creation and Big Bang Cosmology’, Philosophia Naturalis 31(2): 237-249.

Craig, WL (1999) ‘The ultimate question of origins: God and the beginning of the universe’, Astrophysics and Space Science 269-270: p.237-249.

Craig, WL (2017) ‘Royally Bad Objections to the Kalām Cosmological ArgumentReasonableFaith.org. 29 Jan 2017.

Editorial (2012) ‘The Genesis problem’ New Scientist (2847) 14 Jan 2012.

Feser, E (2010) ‘Hume, cosmological arguments, and the fallacy of compositionEdwardFeser.blogspot.com 28 Dec 2010.

Gordon, BL (2011) ‘The rise of naturalism and its problematic role in science and culture’, in Gordon, BL and Dembski, WA (Eds) The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Delaware.

Grossman, L (2012) ‘Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event’, New Scientist (2487) 14 Jan 2012.

Grünbaum, A (1994) ‘Some Comments on William Craig’s “Creation and Big Bang Cosmology”’, Philosophia Naturalis 31(2): 225-236.

Mastin, L (Undated) ‘Time and the Big Bang’ ExactlyWhatIsTime.com

National Academy of Sciences (1998) Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. National Academy Press, Washington DC: p.124

Scott, EC (1999) “The ‘Science and Religion’ Movement. An Opportunity for Improved Public Understanding of Science?Skeptical Inquirer 23(4): 29-31

Shermer, M (2017) “What would it take to prove the resurrection?Scientific American 316(4).

Vilenkin, A (2006) Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes. Hill and Wang, New York. p.176.

EarthfromSpace

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.

naturlaism1

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 natural theology, philosophy and science.

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.

fathersonfence

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.

childthinking

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.

man-w-child-inside

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.