August 3, 2014

Defending Atheism(?), Part 2

Storey's responded to my original post, criticizing his original post about entitled "The Irrationality of Atheism" a few days ago. I think this kind of engagement, in the abstract, is generally fruitful, but I also like arguing. With that being said, let's get into the substantive responses that Storey's put out, and reply in kind.

With regards to Storey not clearly defining God

Storey doesn't believe that it's fair for me to call him out on not defining what he actually means by "God" (and I use the quotation marks because the general term would be god, lower case) in his blog post, saying that such a fully fleshed out theology would be more worthy of a book length treatise. This would be a fair criticism, if, and I apologize if I wasn't clear, that kind of full definition is what I was looking for. I am not: it is beyond obvious that having a complete theology is beyond the range of a single blog entry, at least for those of us who are not ourselves gods or crazy.

However, that doesn't mean Storey can just leave a post whose focus is to convince you that a belief in God isn't crazy without a clear definition of what God is. Simply calling your God benevolent and sorrowful isn't clear enough. Before you can try to convince us of what you want us to perhaps believe in isn't irrational, you probably need some sense of what that is. Unless, of course, what Storey actually wants us to believe is just anything more powerful than us, but I don't think that is the case.

That being said, Storey goes in to critique the second part of my point, which accuses him of advocating strictly for what amounts to a Christian God with none of the bad stuff:
Zhao extra-frustratingly goes on to try to pigeonhole me into some version of the Christian God because I didn’t say “Allah” and I didn’t call God unnameable, about which conceptual frustrations I have recently posted. Let me be clear: I do not believe in the Christian depiction of God or the divinity of Jesus, etc. I do not privilege those versions of God. I believe that the entire point of God is to have a personal relationship with God that most organized religions seem to tacitly or overtly interfere with. Again, my entire definition of God is a book at least, maybe a series. It’s something I think deeply and thoroughly about, but have not crystallized all of my thinking about into a readable version, yet.
Fair enough, though my criticism wasn't simply that he didn't use other religions' terms for God: it is that he, weirdly, capitalizes God instead of using the more generic lower case term. This might seem like a nitpick, but unfortunately it does indicate that Storey is not able to escape the culture he lives in. Even if he doesn't believe explicitly in a Christian God, I believe that the clearest conception he has of God would relate to that Christian vision, which I believe is wrong for a number of factual inaccuracies.

To Storey's credit, he agrees to some kind of tri-omni God before engaging with the bigger issue I bring up, which is how his original vagueness meant that his belief could apply to any idea of a higher power, ranging from Vulcans to machines from the Matrix. But here is where I think Storey takes a wrong turn:
But here’s the thing: if our universe is created by an entity that controls everything therein, it is meaningfully synchronous with the concept we attribute to God relative to our own existence. Nothing, for example, prevents there from being a nested series of universes and Gods that control subsequent universes by (a) creating them, (b) overseeing them, and (c) possibly judging them in any number of conceivable ways. Now we can have theological arguments about where that puts us vis a vis this God concept, but an entity that creates and oversees our entire universe looks a lot more like God than it does like atheism, logically speaking.
I think he's missing the point here, with regards to a few things:

  1. Would Storey really be okay with any God concept, so long as that "higher power" idea aligns with a relative god idea? Would he be okay with people entertaining the idea that all around them, at all times, are various different chihuahuas, controlling everything, being all powerful, who are invisible and can move away instantly, that can save you from any evil provided you give them enough bacon bits? I doubt it, and I think he needs to more narrowly tailor his argument.
  2. I did not say that Storey's arguments necessarily led to relative gods, either, as my list included various different beings that were merely more powerful than humans, but still relatively mortal. All Storey has successfully pushed for is a being that is stronger than humans as we know them right now. There is still a wide gap between that and the gods he seeks.
  3. Storey's call for belief undermines a basic principle of explanation: when all else is equal, prefer the simpler explanation. Storey hasn't given a reason to prefer or otherwise believe in the simulation necessary to strengthen his view of god. Not only does it not follow that a simulation = god, but it also doesn't seem to be a good explanation when similar but simpler ones exist. Why should we entertain the idea that our universe exists within multiple other ones, like some kind of cosmic Russian nesting doll? Just because Storey does? That alone, sadly, is not enough.
With regards to the simulation hypothesis

Storey kind of tries to backtrack, saying that if you give the simulation hypothesis credence, you should maybe believe in god:
My argument is if/then… if you are willing to seriously entertain the simulation hypothesis, you must also then logically seriously entertain God. If you think the simulation hypothesis is baloney, then this half of the argument is not for you, as I believe I made relatively clear. I still find it weird that the simulation hypothesis is getting so much play in the popular consciousness and no one is circling it back around to God conceptually, which is why I spent a lot of time on this argument.
So maybe I should have been clearer: given the lack of evidence, the fact that very few in the scientific community are trying to test it, and given that even those tests would, by the scientists' own admissions, be preliminary, I give no credence to the simulation hypothesis. Moreover, I find it problematic that "getting so much play in the popular consciousness" is enough for Storey to take something seriously. Angels in the Outfield probably has serious play in the popular consciousness. I doubt Storey believes flapping his arms like wings will lift the Mariners to a World Series win.

With regards to Storey seeing what he wants to see

Let's address a quick point about the Big Bang Theory first:
But if it’s a poor basis for a belief in God, isn’t it also a poor basis for a belief in not-God, or science, or anything else we believe about the universe? People who ardently believe in everything contemporary science tells them do not go around much saying that we poorly understand evolution or genetics or the origins of the universe and thus let’s not worry about the conclusions reached by these beliefs. I would be a lot less defensive and upset with them if they did. Rather, the typical experience is the sneering superiority I referenced before, the underlying idea that “my beliefs are logical and yours are crazy” that inspired the original post’s tone in the first place. 
Generally, people do not use the poorly understand mechanisms of how the Big Bang happened as strength for their atheism: mostly they use the fact that it happened a long time ago, which undercuts generic Christian monotheism.

It also really sounds like most of the atheists Storey knows are pretty shitty atheists (and perhaps people).  Yes, those who would generally be that certain of their beliefs would have sneering superiority, but this is clearly not limited to atheists, as anyone whose met a supremely confident religious person would know. I generally think that Storey's just been interacting with those who do not think so seriously, and on the issue of atheism this is understandable: serious atheists are not generally that public.

But then:
But here’s the thing: wasp’s nests are made by some intelligent being! I actually think Zhao has put forward there what I would consider a pretty good argument for vegetarianism (not that a lot of people eat wasps specifically, but you get the idea), which is that wasps have a sophisticated intelligence capable of creativity. This does nothing to propound the idea that there are things which were made by nothing intelligent. It merely says one type of intelligence created something rather than another. Okay, fair enough. The fundamental premise is sound.
I'm sorry, but this is a dubious definition of intelligence. Wasps build nests not out of their own volition, but rather out of instinct. A definition of intelligence that does not include volition is just generally not something that makes sense to me. That wasps (or at least, a queen) might be able to make decisions is perhaps possible, but that the particular complex patterns are anything other than passed down muscle memory or instincts requires something in the way of proof. You cannot just define anything complex as intelligence, because as much fun as it would be to literally belief on hot days that the sun is angry with us, complex actions from beings without specific control over those complex actions is not a sign of intelligence.

I think this last part that I will quote indicates why I think Storey's arguments are not particularly strong:
My issue is another if/then: if you believe in the Big Bang, then it indicates God far more than not-God. There is nothing we find anywhere else in the universe or the world of science where all-matter is instantly created from no-matter. This description is very much like the description of God creating things and very much unlike any description found in the rest of science. If science’s best working description for the origin of the universe is that all-matter instantly came from no-matter, doesn’t that seem to imply a creation of some type? And if not, why/how did it happen? Zhao makes no effort to engage with the fundamental question except to say that now he may be doubting the Big Bang because we don’t have all the answers about it yet.
This paragraph is why I said that Storey is seeing patterns, and why the fact that he has been raised in an implicitly Christian culture matters. Simply because one story has a god supposedly creating something out of nothing, and because Storey sees that as the Big Bang Theory, does not imply that the former is now more plausible. It would be the equivalent of Storey seeing this Singapore anti-gambling ad, then seeing the results of the actual World Cup, and therefore concluding that Singaporeans are wizards whose gambling advice should always be sought. I might sound too much like Hume, but I ultimately believe that Storey's taking correlation and therefore concluding causation without merit. That these two things sound similar does not mean they are equally likely.

(The other, shorter issue, however, is that I believe Storey misunderstands the theory: it's not that all-matter instantly came from no-matter, because all of that matter was already there at the start, just condensed into a singularity.)

Storey concludes by indicating that my viewpoints on atheism are somehow more nuanced than scientific atheism more generally, because I conclude atheism is probably more likely than theism. It is perhaps more nuanced than the standard college student, but let's be real here: defining a belief system based on how college students represent it would give us a strange view of everything and lead us to conclude everyone loves pot.

And ultimately, what Storey says is that "ardent atheists" should acknowledge that some premises are more likely to lead to the conclusion of there being a god. But what Storey fails to address is that the balance of premises overall still favors atheism. His two strongest if/then considerations are a weakly considered simulation hypothesis and pointing to the Big Bang theory and saying "look, look!" How does that compare to things like the problem of evil? Moreover, how does that compare to the fact that simpler explanations are always better, and that it is difficult to envision a completely unseen tri-omni god that would presumably intervene due to any of his 3 favorite traits? These, in this post, are silly, not fleshed out thoughts. But why is it irrational to be an atheist, if it is not the case that every premise concludes with theism, and there are strong cases to be made for atheism? What is irrational about that?

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