Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Atheism and Nihilism

Ethan links us to this video in which the narrator makes the case that an intellectually honest atheist should be a nihilist. He is, of course, correct:
Here's the problem for the atheist:

If there is no God then there are no moral duties. Most atheists, however, believe there are moral duties and objective moral values. But they can't have it both ways. Either they should give up their belief in moral duties and objective moral values (and with it any grounds for making moral judgments of any behavior other than their own) or they should give up their atheism and acknowledge that there must be a personal, transcendent moral authority which grounds all moral duties and values.

To continue in their atheism while making moral judgments - such as oppression is evil, capitalism is bad, war is immoral, or child abuse is morally abhorrent - is to abandon their commitment to the life of reason. It's surely an odd choice for people who pride themselves on being more rational than those gullible, superstitious theists.

An Atheist Defends Himself, Sort Of (Pt. II)

Yesterday I reviewed a post by cosmologist Lawrence Krauss in which he sought to bolster the case he had made against William Lane Craig in a debate last week on the topic Is There Evidence for the Existence of God? I'd like to finish this critique today.

The fourth argument Craig offered as evidence that God exists was based on the fine-tuning of the universe. The fact that many of the constants, forces, and parameters of the universe are set with a precision so exact that they point to a purposeful architecture woven into the structure of the world. Had any of these values deviated by the most unimaginably tiny amount a universe capable of sustaining life would never have existed.

Krauss' response is to point out that not everything is fine-tuned and that even if it were maybe the universe evolved by a kind of natural selection (how such an extraordinary process could have applied to the universe he leaves for us to figure out) or maybe there's an infinite number of worlds (a multiverse) in which at least one world would have to have the properties ours does no matter how improbable that may seem. He offers lots of mights and maybes, but none of this is a rebuttal of Craig's claim that cosmic fine-tuning counts as evidence for the existence of God. The fact that there are other possible explanations for cosmic fine-tuning does not nullify the claim that such mathematical exactitude is an indicator, though not a proof, of intelligent agency.

Moreover, what we know of the universe suggests that it's the only one around, there's no significant empirical evidence that there are other universes, and our universe certainly seems to be engineered to harbor intelligent beings such as ourselves. Thus, Krauss's response is irrelevant. What he must show is that either there is no fine-tuning or that, if there is, it does not constitute evidence of intelligence. He does neither.

Craig's final argument was based on miracles, specifically the miracle of Jesus' resurrection. Krauss calls this argument "so sloppy and fatuous that in an effort to demonstrate some margin of respect for Craig I tried to avoid it for as long as I could." Perhaps, but when he does finally address it he never explains to us exactly why it's "sloppy and fatuous".

All he does is observe that lots of people don't believe it happened, and that it's more probable that it didn't happen than that it did. How he knows this is beyond me, but evidently he does. Craig, on the other hand, argued that one of the reasons accounts of the Resurrection are credible is that people who were in a position to know the facts were willing to die rather than recant their claim that it happened. Krauss scoffs at this argument:
[T]he remarkable, and completely trite claim that the fact the Christians were willing to die for their beliefs demonstrates the validity of these beliefs would be laughable, if it weren't so pitiful. Especially, as I indicated during the event, in light of the fact that people were recently willing to fly planes into skyscrapers because of their beliefs in a religious framework that I know Craig has openly disavowed.

Throughout history people have been willing to die for their beliefs, and it is often the beliefs one is willing to die for that are most suspect. Did Roman soldiers believe in Romulus and Remus. Did Viking warriers [sic] believe in Thor. Did Nazi soldiers believe in the superiority of the Aryan race. I found and still find Craig's statement not only facile, and not even worthy of a high school debater, but I find the claim offensive.
The awkward syntax aside, I think what Krauss writes is kind of embarrassing, actually. Craig's point is not that the early believers were prepared to die for a conviction that they believed to be true, but rather that if the Resurrection didn't happen they would have known that it didn't happen and yet they were prepared to die for a belief they would have known to be false. Many people will die for what they falsely believe to be true, but who would die for what one truly knows to be false? The examples Krauss adduces don't address this question at all.

Finally, a word about Krauss' tone. His post at Pharyngula was laced with potshots at Craig's integrity, ability, and sincerity. Here's a montage of his insults and condescensions:
Craig is aware, from his superficial reading of cosmology, of fine tuning problems in Cosmology.... All of these are subtle and interesting issues worthy of discussion by knowledgeable and honest intellects. I found Craig to be lacking in both of the qualities during his discussion of this issue....Once again this is simple minded....As I tried to explain to Craig....Craig doesn't understand the physics.... including a typically disingenuous email from Wiliam Lane Craig to his followers regarding a debate I had with him in North Carolina last week....I believe that if I erred at all, it was in an effort to consider the sensibilities of the 1200 smiling young faces in the audience, who earnestly came out, mostly to hear Craig, and to whom I decided to show undue respect....I also wanted to demonstrate the need for nuance, to explain how these issues are far more complex than Craig, in his simplistic view of the world, makes them out to be....Unfortunately any effort I made to show nuance and actually explain facts was systematically distorted in Craig's continual effort to demonstrate how high school syllogisms apparently demonstrated definitive evidence for God....Let me now comment, with the gloves off, on the disingenuous distortions, simplifications, and outright lies that I regard Craig as having spouted....What I hoped I could convey to the truly open minded intellects in the audience, of which of course Craig was not one....Craig's rather monotonous repetition of his syllogisms, is indeed intellectually lazy.
Why do people choose to insult, patronize and demean those with whom they disagree? Perhaps it's a compensatory mechanism, employed particularly by those who realize that their arguments are not very persuasive and that the other fellow's are. They realize that they're looking bad to the audience, and their wounded ego causes them to lash out at the person responsible. If one's opponent can't be beaten intellectually then perhaps tearing him down personally with innuendo, scorn, and aspersions will diminish him in the eyes of those within earshot. Maybe that's what motivated Krauss but I hope not. It's a pretty sophomoric motivation.

If ad hominem is what wins arguments then Krauss certainly won. If it's organization, articulate presentation, preparation, strength of argument, and logic which prevails in a debate then he lost big. And I think he knows it.