Thursday, April 5, 2012

Odd Logic

Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss starts off an essay in the LA Times by writing this:
The illusion of purpose and design is perhaps the most pervasive illusion about nature that science has to confront on a daily basis. Everywhere we look, it appears that the world was designed so that we could flourish.
Purpose and design in the universe are illusions, Krauss would have us believe, but he offers no proof, or even any evidence, that such a sweeping metaphysical claim is true. He just asserts it as though he were stating a fact that everyone already knows to be true.

Later in the column, however, he writes this:
Does all of this prove that our universe and the laws that govern it arose spontaneously without divine guidance or purpose? No, but it means it is possible.
Well, everything that doesn't entail a contradiction is possible, even if only in the sense that it's possible to draw a royal flush a hundred times in a row purely by chance. It's possible, in the same way that the series of royal flushes is possible, that the universe arose without any divine guidance or purpose, but Krauss wants us to accept something much stronger than the mere logical possibility of an unguided creation of the cosmos.

He wants to argue that because it's possible that the universe formed with no intelligent input that therefore it must have happened. Why else would he conclude that the belief that the universe is designed is an illusion? It can only be an illusion if we know that there is no design or purpose to it, and, he seems to be asserting, we know there is no design or purpose because we know it's possible that there's no design or purpose.

It's a little like arguing that because it's possible that natural processes like wind, rain, and erosion could someday produce a replica of Mt. Rushmore that therefore it's likely that they will, and if it's likely that they will, then it's a guaranteed certainty that they will. And if you ever come across a Mt. Rushmore-like formation somewhere you must keep in mind that the appearance of design and purpose you see there must be an illusion because it's possible that they are illusions.

The leap from mere possibility to absolute certainty is an extraordinary accomplishment and one of which Krauss is doubtless proud, but for those of us who don't inhabit the rarified academic altitudes where cosmologists dwell it seems kind of bizarre.

It's also self-defeating. After all, following Krauss' example we can and should conclude that the universe is, in fact, intelligently designed. Consider: Since it's possible that the universe is intentionally designed by an intelligent agent, and, following Kraussian logic, since whatever is possible must actually be the case, the universe must be intelligently designed. QED.

Who would've thought that proving intelligent design could be so easy?

de Botton's Unfortunate Reception

Alain de Botton proposed in his book Religion for Atheists that culture should be made the new sacrament. We talked about his proposal a couple of days ago, but in the wake of the publication of his book there's been an interesting, though not surprising, reaction from his fellow atheists.

De Botton, not understanding the mindset of those religious folk educated enough to have been likely to read his book, expected them to react with contumely. That didn't happen, of course. Few intelligent religious people are upset by the arguments of atheists which they usually find unpersuasive, uniformed, and sophomoric. What did happen, however, was that de Botton has been vilified by his fellow atheists.

Here are some excerpts from de Botton's account of his unpleasant encounter with his atheist colleagues:
When I was writing my book, Religion for Atheists, I suspected that I might make enemies at both extremes of the spectrum, among firm believers and firm atheists. My book was doing a slightly unusual thing, being sympathetic to aspects of religion while resolutely denying the existence of God or any supernatural dimensions to existence.

What I couldn’t have predicted was which group of opponents would react most fiercely. But it’s now evident that it’s the atheists have won the race by far. While ostensibly speaking up in the name of plurality, free speech and tolerance, a small group of well-organised atheists have launched a concerted campaign of the kind not seen since John Gray last published a book. It’s not my book itself that bothers them, it’s the entire area that I’m covering.

As in the case of Gray, they simply don’t want anyone to show tolerance to bodies which they feel, in the famous words of Christopher Hitchens, poison “everything”. And despite their distaste for religions, they mirror – with uncanny precision – all the very worst tactics of their opponents: a refusal to engage in calm dialogue, ad hominem attacks, a desire to denigrate reputations at all costs and a lack of civility or forgiveness.

I have received hopes for my early and painful demise and stacks of hate mail of a kind I haven’t had since I appeared on Newsnight in 2006 and spoke up for the right of the existence of a Jewish homeland.
His claim that religious people act the way he alleges they do may be true on the fringes, but it's certainly not true of sophisticated, well-educated believers. It is true, however, of sophisticated, well-educated unbelievers. No one who has had the pleasure of reading New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, P.Z. Myers, et al. will be surprised at the reaction de Botton has suffered.
People have repeatedly claimed that it’s unfair to label militant atheists like Richard Dawkins “aggressive”. They are in fact – apparently – just very well meaning tolerant people laying out an argument with the help of reason and science. It’s their opponents who label them destructive in an attempt to denigrate them.

I wish I could believe this was true, I started off believing this, but Dawkins clearly stands at the head of a well-funded, well-disciplined movement that aims systematically to smear its opponents in an attempt to assert its vision of atheism. It seems lamentable just how intolerant contemporary atheism has become towards anything or anyone associated with religion.

It’s one thing not to believe, quite another to think that those who do believe or even show an interest in belief are betraying the cause and must be excommunicated from the fold.
The New Atheists are the jihadis in the contemporary war against religious belief. Their vituperation and offensiveness has been their trademark for at least the last fifteen years. Where has de Botton been?