Monday, April 6, 2015

Ruse Seems Confused

Florida State philosopher of biology Michael Ruse has a piece at the New York Times' Opinionator in which he explores some reasons why some of the more well-known among his fellow atheists get so upset over religious belief. After cataloguing some of the more egregious crimes committed by religious believers in the 20th century - the abuse of boys by Catholic priests, the too numerous to count atrocities committed by Muslim fanatics (strangely, he neglects to mention the roughly 100 million murders committed in the 20th century in the name of state atheism) - he says this:
What is truly striking is that atheists of Dawkins’s stripe don’t just say that believing in God is an intellectual mistake. They also claim that it’s morally wrong to believe in the existence of God or gods. You might think there is something a little funny here.
Well, I do think there's something funny about this, although as we'll see later Ruse actually doesn't, but he should. What's "a little funny" is that an atheist like Dawkins would say that believing in God, or anything, for that matter, is morally wrong. Dawkins once said that the universe is a place where there really is "no purpose, no evil and no good." He also once remarked that it was difficult, on atheism, to say why Hitler was wrong. It is a little odd that someone who says this sort of thing would then assert that believing in God was morally wrong.

In any case, Ruse comments that there are a number of arguments which support belief in God. He discusses two in particular, the cosmic fine-tuning argument and the argument from consciousness:
This is a pretty remarkable state of affairs that we have here — planets, suns, organisms, humans and so forth. Why is there any of it? Why is there something rather than nothing? This question is not about the Big Bang or if anything went before. It is about the very fact of existence. One doesn’t expect something like this, with its astounding interdependency and innumerable complex parts functioning in service of the whole, to just happen.

The existence of consciousness, or sentience, can be seen in the same way. Brain science has thrown a lot of light on the way we think, but the very fact of thinking is a puzzle. And the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of progress forward. We know a lot about how conscious states are correlated with brain states, but this tells us nothing about how consciousness as we experience it could be a brain state.

Can such a wonderful universe be entirely without point?
This is all to the good, but then, says Ruse, you start to look at the other side.
According to many monotheistic religions, God is supposed to be both all loving and all powerful. If so, why does he/she allow human suffering? For war, starvation or painful diseases to exist? And more to the point, perhaps, why does he allow the abuse of children by members of the clergy of his/her own religion, whether they be Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, Muslim clerics or Protestant pastors?
Fair enough. The problem of suffering and evil has long been a difficult problem for theistic philosophers, but then he seems to lapse into silliness:
This is only a small sample of what is going on in the minds of atheists. Yes, there are good reasons to think that there is more than meets the eye. But no, the Christian and other theistic solutions are simply not adequate. So, if there are so many problems with theistic belief, why do people continue to take it seriously? The truth is that many don’t. In parts of the world where people are allowed and encouraged to take these things seriously and to think them through, people increasingly find that they can do without the God factor. It is in places where one is being indoctrinated from childhood and bullied in adulthood that people continue with God belief.
The problem with this is that there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of people who count themselves believers who were never indoctrinated as children nor bullied as adults. Journalist Kirstin Powers' story is typical of many.
Even more, it seems morally repugnant to accept — if not rejoice in — living in a world ruled by the God of religions. The moral repugnance is only increased when we see the self-deception and indoctrination that leads people to accept such astounding claims on such paltry evidence. Here it is worth recalling the Victorian philosopher and mathematician W. K. Clifford’s admonition: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” That universal claim may be too strong. But too often religious believers seem oblivious to Clifford’s admonition and accept things with way too little evidence.
Yes, it is indeed too strong. In fact it's so strong that it refutes even itself. If one accepts Clifford's admonition, they're wrong to do so since there's no evidence that it's true. Clifford's maxim is self-referentially incoherent, but Ruse's insistent resort to moral censure in this article is, well, if not self-refuting, at least inconsistent with much else that he's said in the past. For example, he closes with this:
That I much suspect is what motivates the New Atheists and in fact expresses the deepest and most powerful moral objection to theism.
But elsewhere Ruse has written that "morality is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate." It's hard to see how there can be powerful moral objections to theism if moral objections are nothing more than illusions. This is a problem for naturalists like Ruse who'd like to have things both ways. On the one hand, their naturalistic metaphysics demands that they abandon belief in any objective morality, but on the other hand, they simply cannot resist the temptation to employ moral rhetoric. Ruse claims that belief in God is morally repugnant, but whether it is or isn't at least it's not irrational, like saying that a belief is morally repugnant while also holding that morality is an illusion. One has to be more than a bit confused to commit an error like that.