Monday, June 10, 2013

Randal Rauser's fascinating response

A couple of weeks ago, partially at my request, evangelical Christian apologist Randal Rauser--noted by John Loftus as one of the best of our generation--invited me to participate in a series on his blog concerning "Why [we] don't believe." I wrote a short essay for him on the matter (Link to my blog), and he graciously published it in full on his blog with his commentary (Link to his blog). Please, at least link to his blog here because my full text is there along with his commentary. I've thought about it all morning and part of this afternoon and decided to give some response to his commentary here to continue to facilitate what may be a productive dialogue between the two of us.

Though I do not agree with Dr. Rauser's conclusions, I have every reason to respect him as a generally honorable and genuinely nice person, so I'm excited to have this opportunity and don't want to make light of it by pretending it is about winning or losing. I'm very interested in the dialogue for its own sake and wherever it leads.

Regarding the title of this response, I will readily admit that as someone studying into the psychology of religion, I find Randal's commentary absolutely fascinating, even given how clean and philosophical he makes his cases. I don't say this to trivialize his arguments but rather to state my view of them more firmly. I recognize and honor his beliefs, and I see them as psychosocial phenomena to the core.

I will quote Rauser at length, in the customary green I have been using for this purpose, and I will respond as I feel it pertinent.
Hmmm. I’m perplexed. On the one hand, James describes himself as having come to the point of rejecting (or as he says, “leaving”) theism. On the other hand he insists that he cannot reject theism. What’s going on here?

As they say, actuality entails possibility, so if it is actually the case that James rejected theism, then surely it is possible to reject theism. And since James actually did reject theism (since leaving certainly entails rejecting) it is possible for him to reject theism.

Of course it is not possible for him to leave theism now that he’s an atheist. But that simply shows that when it comes to one’s metaphysical beliefs one man’s “null hypothesis” is another’s alternative hypothesis.
Let me clarify: I "left" religion, and then left theism, because I found it had no practical use for me. This happened a long time before I came to a position that criticizes it, which I would take as being roughly equivalent with how Rauser is understanding "reject" here. As I pointed out in my original essay to him, a statistical analysis here prevents me from having rejected theism without miscategorizing it as the null hypothesis. Pardon the need to linger here, but this part raises a couple of important points.

First, we see by Rauser's last sentence that he still lacks a firm footing for understanding what the null and alternative hypotheses are. Granted, and I intend to develop this more later, I see the kernel of corn inside this pile that he's referring to, but theology likes to play the fiddle of getting to pretend that it can assume its central premise (which is indicated by this reversal of roles that Rauser, like William Lane Craig, like Alvin Plantinga, like Apologist Inc., hold--"you've got to start with God"). I commented at the end of the fourth chapter of my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges, on what's going on here, and my next publication, Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly (coming soon!) should clarify the matter more.

Briefly, I'm positing that belief in "God" is a fundamental axiom in what we might describe as a worldview. Theists assume some God axiom. I do not. If someone is assuming a God axiom, then it is the null hypothesis, but because it's an axiom, it reveals the inherent bias. The axiom itself can be judged, and among those who have decided not to accept the axiom, it has been judged as wanting for evidential support. My essential claim is that "God," though, is an axiomatic, and therefore abstract, construction--which carries with it as corollary that it is not an agent at all, no worship or belief required. This is simultaneously more anti-theistic and less insulting than calling "God" a fairy tale or a superstition. The question then is about how we can judge which axioms we accept (e.g. the world exists, "realism") and which we need not (e.g. God exists, "theism") as defaults. I will be developing both of these ideas even more in the future as I think they are very important.

As to this fiddling, Rauser is likely to ask why I can assume naturalism in place of theism. That it's not obvious shows the desperation of theism. Everything we experience speaks to naturalism, even if we adopt a theistic point of view as well. Anyone who takes on the experiment of seeing the world as a naturalist only for a span of time each day, asking "how would I see this if I didn't believe in God?" will quickly realize that sufficient reason to accept naturalism pervades our entire experience. This is why the axioms of naturalism are more parsimonious than the axioms that add in theism and why we can accept them as the null, which does not apply to theism. The above experiment reveals that "God" is an extra hypothesis, and its reverse doesn't reveal the same about naturalism. Indeed, even psychological research indicates strongly that all but serious fundamentalists will take naturalistic attribution over supernatural or religious attribution until we psychologically can't (see Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, 4th ed., Hood, Hill, and Spilka, e.g.). Again, it's desperation to pretend otherwise, and Dr. Rauser shows it clearly here.

Second, we have the point that I had to leave theism in the first place. Why did I have to leave it? Because I once accepted it? Well, no, not really. It's more fair to say, loosely, that it was "forced" upon me. When I was a child, I was told it is true--by my parents, by my teachers, by my church, by my community, by my entire culture. I had been taught this before I had the capacity to evaluate it, and when I evaluated it for the first time as a young adult, I found the hypothesis useless (like Laplace's famous quip "I had no use of that hypothesis," referring to God). Later, I examined it closely and decided it is as bogus as other ideas I was taught as a child and did not question immediately.

In fact, somewhat sheepishly, I will admit that when I was a young child, I truly believed in the Easter Bunny. In fact, after a rather horrific dream early on Easter morning one year, I claimed to have seen the Easter Bunny and discovered that it is, in fact, a horrible monster. I still get made fun of for this dream to this day by the very people who taught me to believe in that bullshit in the first place. At any rate, I accepted the belief. Later I left it. After that, I became critical of not only it but the entire enterprise of teaching kids to believe in things beyond their capacity to evaluate and yet that might be pretty consequential. Of course, a key difference here is that in a religious upbringing, at no age do we ever get told by many of the authorities that matter that it is okay to question religious beliefs (or that not holding belief is, indeed, the hypothesis that is actually null on this claim).

So, here, with his confusion about the null and the alternative hypothesis, Dr. Rauser reveals that the whisperings of his Mother Culture--operating beneath the level of critical examination--have led him to have reversed the roles of these hypotheses. For many, this is because of childhood inculturation or outright indoctrination. I see this as a problem.

That's more than enough on that short little bit. Sorry... I got excited. Rauser continues, getting a little more personal as he goes.
There is a polemical edge in James’ writing that contrasts starkly with Jeff Lowder’s tentative non-belief. Consider, for example, James’ statement that Christianity is “unacceptable nonsense”. A dictionary definition of “nonsense” would be helpful here: “Nonsense” n. trifling, fatuous, foolish, absurd, without meaning.

So James apparently views Christianity as trifling, fatuous, foolish, absurd, and/or without meaning. It is difficult to conceive a more harsh and dismissive attitude toward Christianity than this.
Correct--I do feel that way, regarding whether or not Christianity is true. I feel that the claims of Christianity are so ridiculous as to be beneath serious comment about their truth-value validity. The religion itself is profoundly nonsensical, even if the underlying spirituality, psychology (but I repeat myself), and sociality are not.

I also don't think whether or not it is true matters to most people. What's a bit more important here is whether or not it is psychosocially useful. I do not deny that Christianity fills psychosocial needs and spiritual needs, and I do not belittle those at all. In fact, I profoundly understand them after having spent literally thousands of hours trying to satisfy them for myself. I do, however, think that trying to fill those needs with Christianity is profoundly foolish because the religion simply isn't true.

Worse than that, as much use as Christianity has in terms of meeting psychosocial needs and spiritual needs, it also causes great harm in both of those arenas as well. In fact, I don't think this claim is controversial enough to need explicit support. This is a core problem for Christianity and other religions to wrestle with--even as it helps it harms, rather profoundly in many cases.
James may think this brusque dismissal is a sign of the intellectual strength of his position, but really this only evinces the hard and simplistic categories of the fundamentalist. As I document in You’re not as Crazy as I Think, both Christian and atheistic fundamentalists are distinguished for marginalizing those with whom they disagree with sweeping charges of immorality or ignorance. James presumably opts for the latter charge here.
I don't intend to accept labels that attempt to bully me into accommodationism on whether or not the doctrines, dogmas, and beliefs of Christianity are overtly silly when viewed from the outside. They are. Not only is it obviously the case, many, many theologians and religious people hardly deny it. I don't know how many times--at least hundreds, maybe thousands--I have heard a Christian tell me something like "I know it [Christianity] is crazy, but it's true!" Well, no, it's not true, and yes it is crazy. Thanks for noticing as well. It's even crazy from the inside. I've even heard this routinely offered as part of different pastors' preaching.
James then adds that Christianity is “beneath commentary entirely”. Wow, strong words (and ironic since he’s commenting on Christianity as he makes them; call it benevolent condescension!). But what reasons does James give for finding Christainity “beneath commentary”?
The reasons are clear and outlined just above: it's admittedly incredible nonsense, even from within. Further, it has no empirical evidence for it and has been suggested to be unable to provide empirical evidence for it. Hitchens's razor applies neatly, then: that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
James gives two reasons. First, he sees no reason to accept theism. This isn’t a very impressive reason since it could simply reflect one’s ignorance of the subject matter. (Compare: the fact that Mrs. Brown’s grade 3 class sees no reason to accept superstring theory doesn’t mean there are no good reasons to accept superstring theory!)

James’ second claim is that Christianity (or, as he says, “Christian theology”) is “easily dismissed” when “viewed from the outside”. I’m not sure what James is saying here. Is this a nod to John Loftus’ outsider test?
Mrs. Brown's third grade class is a world-class example of a talisman meme: the appeal to ignorance. Ward off my arguments by hollowly pointing out that I can't know enough to have made them. It's like magic!

And yes, it is a nod to John Loftus's Outsider Test for Faith, a hammer that hits so hard that theologians don't even realize they've been hit yet. I'm as comfortable saying that Christian beliefs are nonsense that meet the psychosocial needs of Christians as many Christians are in saying that Islamic beliefs are nonsense that meet the psychosocial needs of Muslims. I'm as comfortable saying that theism is nonsense that meets the psychosocial needs of theists are theists in saying that the beliefs that some alien race created humanity (or even the entire universe, even as a simulation) is a nonsense belief that meets the psychosocial needs of people who hold it. This is also a point below the level of any reasonable controversy.
This [“my failure to accept theism resulted from a long-term search that I can now understand in light of attempting to satisfy many of these psychosocial needs for myself”] is an admirably candid observation, though the psychosocial satisfaction one derives from accepting p is not a reason to accept (or reject) p. (However, in cases where the evidence for p and not-p is roughly equivalent, a pragmatist could argue that psychosocial benefits could be sufficient to take a doxastic stand.)
This smart-sounding excerpt is an incredible miss of what I said. I claimed that the reasons I think people accept theism are because they meet various psychosocial needs, not because of a belief that these claims are true (although believing they are "true" comes as a consequence of accepting the beliefs), and here is an attempt to turn it around on me when I indicate that I've had better success without the hypothesis in question. Incidentally, some straw got stuffed in there, as if I'm basing my argument upon my own feelings of psychosocial satisfaction.

In context, I argued that people cannot accept theism based upon its validity (because from the outside, and even within, it is overtly false), and so there must be other reasons. What are those reasons? I mentioned some and said I feel they were not sufficient for me. So, in fact, I've clearly stated that I hold the same philosophical premise that Rauser attempts to use against me while stating that it's an insufficient reason to accept theism. Fascinating.

Then, in response to my claim that science meets my attributional needs better than does theism, Rauser offers this.
It depends what phenomena we’re trying to explain. In my public debates with John Loftus I point out that there are many facts about the world that science must assume (e.g. the inexplicable fact that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics) and others that science cannot address (e.g. the transcendent meaning of love).

If I read James correctly then his ”basic attributional needs” include scientism. I am driven to this conclusion based on a reading that James seeks scientific explanations for phenomena simpliciter. (If James believes certain phenomena are not amenable to scientific explanation then he can certainly explain what those are at which point I’ll happily drop the scientism reading.)

But even if James finds a commitment to scientism does better at “providing [his] basic attributional needs”, that certainly isn’t a reason to think scientism is likely to be true.
Ahh, game on.

I don't think I need to talk at length about the "inexplicable fact that the laws of nature are written in the language of mathematics" given that I'm about to publish a short collection of essays that addresses that very topic, in a manner of speaking. Briefly, I don't think this is any more inexplicable than that Google Maps "inexplicably" look just like miniature pictures of the earth, including of my house, with useful words superimposed upon them. What do I know about mathematics, though? I'm just a mathematician.

Now, scientism. Apparently, Randal Rauser accuses me of being a scientist, but I just said I'm a mathematician. </bad joke>. There seem to be a lot of labels Rauser wants to pin on me, but I'm not a donkey, and I have no need for a tail. Related: the only use I have for straw is in my garden, which is not the kind we find in that last paragraph that Rauser uses to close his remarks. All these labels, particularly this one about scientism, are popular talisman memes again.

I could write a chapter or two of a book about "scientism," but I'm not going to do that here. This is by far long enough. Also, others, like Jerry Coyne, have done a great job of it (see here, e.g.) If Rauser had read my book God Doesn't; We Do (do you need a copy, Randal?), he'd see that I make quite a fuss near the end about the importance and value of our subjective experiences, something that puts me at some odds with many atheists. I feel science can shed considerable light upon these phenomena, but that ultimately, we are going to experience life subjectively no matter what. I do not think that this qualifies as "scientism."

Particularly, many theists point to "transcendent" ideas like "the meaning of" emotional states like love. Science has a lot to say about this--about what it is, how it is experienced, what the underlying biological causes for the experience are, etc. This does not explain the experience of the experience (hence the word "transcendent"), but all that says is that science, like a map, informs us about the world but is not the experience of the world. So what? Other arguments in this vein tend to be weak arguments to complexity, like morals, history, economics, etc. My response is the same: science can do a lot to inform us about these things, and importantly, its methodology (informed skepticism with empiricism) has the incredible advantage of consistent success in practice--enough consistent success to where it is far less appropriate to deny it than to embrace it.

There's a problem with his attempt to reject science as an attempt to bolster theism, though. In fact, I had considered writing a short post today about a related topic, so I'll use it to close this long response to Dr. Rauser.

Imagine that we observe or experience X. Science asks, "How did X happen?" and attempts to answer the question using various methods that essentially boil down to informed skepticism and empiricism (doubt it, check the data, doubt it some more, check more data, have other people check it to filter our biases, etc.) with the fewest number of assumptions--underlying axioms--one of which is "we are probably wrong, so we'd better be cautious and double-check repeatedly."

On the other hand, regarding attribution, theism says on some level or another, "God did X" or "God is responsible for X."

Any informed, skeptical person, including scientists, can immediately ask, "How did God do X?" if it grants the theist's hypothesis. Observe that we are now, practically speaking, in exactly the same place we were before--with a complete lack of useful knowledge explaining how X occurred. This is why many people, including me, argue that theism offers nothing substantial by way of attribution. So, even if science cannot explain everything, the thought that science doesn't explain something gives no credibility to theism.

So, by inserting "God" into the line of questioning, nothing is gained except an extraneous hypothesis that helps people feel better about certain psychosocial needs (e.g. a need for attribution filling the God of the Gaps--do note that finding "meaning" in "transcendent" ideas like "love" is also assigning attribution, and this attribution, even if subjective, need not be made supernatural). On the other hand, something important is lost by inserting "God."

Because the God in theism is an agent, we are stuck with another, harder question. So our real degree of connection to the problem has suffered some damage because a strongly confounding, perplexing, meaningless-off-theism question gets stuck in to the problem. That other question, one that science doesn't have to deal with, is "why?" "Why did God do X?" This question has no meaning at all without the acceptance of an underlying agent cause.

This question cannot be answered (because it's either meaningless or completely indeterminable, essentially by definition, even on theism: "his ways are not our ways," and "the LORD moves in mysterious ways"). Answers are given, though, usually revealing the psychosocial needs--many very childlike in nature--of the theists begging at them. Often, the suggestions given are reward, punishment, trial, etc., all statements that hearken back to needs for esteem, control, and mostly attribution, just like I mentioned to Rauser in the first place. My claim stands: I don't need to ask these inherently empty, misleading, desperate questions to get along with my life, so I don't.

Again, cheers, Dr. Rauser, for inviting this discussion. I'm in your debt.

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