The Old Atheism

December 19, 2011

This is an excellent article by an atheist who ‘gets religion’ more than most.

Nice to see someone who understands Pascal a little too.

Taboos in Science?

March 1, 2010

There is the conception amongst laymen and scientists alike that science “proceeds where the data takes it”. Science occasionally is taboo – think how Copernican’s views were taboo in his time (I think this can be argued exactly how controversial he was but that’s for another time); or more recently Darwin is the most obvious example of science pushing the envelope of acceptability. But are there taboos in science?

By this I mean, that in the many encounters of science with a culture, does it occur sometimes that science is trumped by the mores of the culture? I think the philosophers and historians of science (i.g. Thomas Kuhn) would say yes; there is a constant exchange, a tug of war between the two and when science wins, we identify that with the now hackneyed phrase, “the paradigm shift”.

However I don’t think this struggle is thought of much and we more or less consider science today to be impervious to the pressures of society and its interest groups. Much of the anti-ID vitriol is due to scientists wanting to keep their profession ‘pure’ from the intrusions of religion.

Aside from the more common interface between science and religion that we hear an awful lot of, there is also an interface between science and other elements of our culture. I ask the question, are there certain hypotheses that simply could not be accepted even if an overwhelming body of evidence supported them? Hypothesis that did not go against the so-called scientific method (like ID is purported to do) but hypotheses that just went against the grain of our culture. I think that yes there are hypotheses like that.

I bring this topic up because I recently finished a controversial book written in the mid-nineties which the topic of IQ variability between races was discussed at length. The book’s title is The Bell Curve. Many books have been written to (supposedly, I have not read them) debunk The Bell Curve. First of all, as a disclaimer, I will not discuss the veracity of the claims in The Bell Curve or the claim of racial variability of intelligence. What I want to probe is the topic of simply asking a taboo question. I think most would admit that saying something akin to, “African-Americans, in general, have lower intelligence than white Americans” is not acceptable in many corners of our society. Now hypothetically, this is a question that could be answered through the use of IQ test et cetera. And if our tests showed it was true? Would it be accepted? Of course, as is now the case, the accuracy of the tests can be disputed; environmental factors can be blamed et cetera. Our cultural mores could fight back quite hard, I’m sure.

Other types of scientific enterprise that might be classified as taboo? How about the innate mathematical/scientific skills of males and females? This got a lot of press a few years back when the president of an Ivy League school said that there was a difference. And then there is homosexuality. Is it innate? Is is a ‘defect’? Can it be ‘reversed’? In some sense, these are questions that could be answered by the scientific method (and maybe they have, I don’t know) but one must also wonder if what we think has been answered has not been skewed by cultural assumptions. There is the ‘gay uncle’ idea in evolutionary biology of how homosexuality has not been selected out of the gene pool.

I don’t know much about these fields and I won’t pretend to know the answers but I think we must be aware of the presuppositions and subjectivity that go into some science (especially science that is directly concerned with human life, ethics, and politics).

Where I’ve been

September 1, 2009

Sorry I haven’t been around for a while. I had a concussion in late July which had me off my normal schedule for a while. I also guess I got a little burned out on the reading I was doing back when I made my last several posts. Been busy with physics and other diversions. Throw in a vacation, a conference, and here I am.

In the last month we’ve been inundated with health care talk. It’s really all you hear on the radio and TV. I’ve been thinking about it a bit and I might post something on it in the near future.

Other Wagers

July 14, 2009

I have seen a few variations or counter-wagers to Pascal’s Wager lately. As you may have noticed, I have argued that Pascal’s Wager is not as bad as people make it out to be because either they don’t really understand it (when criticizing its morality) or they simply use faulty logic (when criticizing its soundness).

First, there is this wager found at this rather depressing site:

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

It has no teeth. It not only fails to understand Pascal’s Wager (“blindly believe in creeds”), but also assumes the opposite (a pluralistic God who cares not about truth values) of the Christian God (or the God of most religions I suspect) which one would think is a major contender (has an awful lot of historical legitimacy). This warm and fuzzy bet is a great example of how moderns take the god-concept and leave it as a black box for which any attributes can be given it.

And then there is this so-called anti-Pascal wager from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion:

“Suppose we grant that there is indeed some small chance that God exists. Nevertheless, it could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshipping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc. I can decide to go to church and I can decide to recite the Nicene Creed, and I can decide to swear on a stack of bibles that I believe every word inside them. But none of that can make me actually believe it if I don’t. Pascal’s Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God.”

Dawkins has described what may be one of the more damning criticisms of Pascal’s Wager. It is an interesting question that I do not know the answer to: Can you force yourself to believe something?
Pascal tells us this:

if you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions, since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so. Concentrate then not on convincing yourself by mulitplying proofs of God’s existence but by diminishing your passions.

Concupiscence and Wickedness of the Heart

July 14, 2009

Pascal uses the word, “concupiscence” enough to warrant a definition: a strong desire, especially a sexual desire; lust. I think of Pascal using the term to mean ‘passions’ more than anything else. This encompasses significantly more than just sexual lust.

This concupiscence of the heart is really at the core of Pascal’s Pensees. And this can be summed up in his following quote:

The prophecies, even the miracles and proofs of our religion, are not of such a kind that they can be said to be absolutely convincing, but they are at the same time such that it cannot be said to be unreasonable to believe in them. There is thus evidence and obscurity, to enlighten some and obfuscate others. But the evidence is such as to exceed, or at least equal, the evidence to the contrary, so that it cannot be reason that decides us against following it, and can therefore only be concupiscence and wickedness of heart.

This is Pascal’s thesis – not the wager. The wager is a last resort argument. Well if your heart is so clouded, you can at least still see how belief is sensible due to the wager. And after you accept that wager then you can change your heart and then fully believe in God.

There are those who demand evidence for God and without enough of it, refuse to believe. But what they demand is something that the Christian God has purposely refused to give. God does not want his followers to be forced into belief by strong evidence. He is a hidden God for that reason.

Thankfully there is some evidence for God. But think of how many people are compelled by evidence to believe in God (or more likely the god-concept) but yet live absolutely sinful and unrepentatant lives? Even when they have made the choice to believe due to reason, they do not “know” God due to concupiscence of the heart. I believe there is something in Kierkegaard to the affect that reason can take you only so far to God; at some point you must take a leap of faith.

Think of the saints, the holy monastics; they shed concupiscence and eventually did come to know God on this orb. It is common to hear that nobody can be sure of God’s existence. Tell that to those who have experienced Him.

The Ethics of Belief in Politics and Religion

July 7, 2009

Philosopher/mathemetician WK Clifford

Several years ago I read an interesting autobiographical essay called Quam Dilecta by the Christian philosopher Peter Van Inwagen. How many times do we read something interesting and say, “This is really interesting; I would like to think about this later; I should write down the reference for this so I can find it later; but I’m lazy; I’m sure I’ll remember five years from now anyway”. I do that a lot and I don’t think I remember much of what I wish I could remember. However this essay Quam Dilecta somehow did stick with me for the past five years. As I just reread it, I marveled at how much I remembered from it.

I think what I remembered most and has possibly even acutely affected my thoughts is Van Inwagen’s analysis of Clifford’s Thesis and the Difference Thesis. Clifford’s thesis refers to its author W.K. Clifford and can be found in its entirety in his work Ethics of Belief. Some may have come across Clifford if they have taken advance math or physics courses (i.e. the Clifford Algebra).

Clifford’s Thesis is quite simple and succinct: It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

Difference Thesis is Van Inwagen’s creation: Clifford’s Thesis applies to religion but not to politics or philosophy. Van Inwagen is not advocating the Difference Thesis but merely notes that it seems to be a double standard held by a large number of anti-religious people.

Van Inwagen writes of the seeming double standard:

It is interesting to note that Clifford’s Principle is almost never mentioned except in hostile examinations of religious belief, and that the anti- religious writers who mention it never apply it to anything but religious beliefs…It is this that provides the primary evidence for my contention that many anti-religious philosophers and other writers against religion tacitly accept the Difference Thesis: the fact that they apply Clifford’s Principle only to religious beliefs is best explain ed by the assumption that they accept the Difference Thesis. The cases of Marxism and Freudianism are instructive examples of what I am talking about. It is easy to point to philosophers who believe that Marxism and Freudianism are nonsense: absurd parodies of scientific theories that get the real world wildly wrong. Presumably these philosophers do not believe that Marxism and Freudianism were adequately supported by the evidence that was available to Marx and Freud–or that they are adequately support ed by the evidence that is available to any of the latter-day adherents of Marxism and Freudianism. But never once has any writer charged that Marx or Freud blotted his epistemic escutcheon by failing to apportion belief to evidence. I challenge anyone to find me a passage (other than an illustrative passage of the type I have mentioned) in which any devotee of Clifford’s Principle has applied it to anything but religious belief. And yet practically all philosophers–the literature will immediately demonstrate this to the most casual inquirer–subscribe to theses an obvious logical consequence of which is that the world abounds in gross violations of Clifford’s Principle that have nothing to do with religion.

He goes on to show that if Clifford’s Principle was applied faithfully, we would be lost in a morass of skepticism:

If Clifford’s Principle were generally applied in philosophy (or in politics or historiography or even in many parts of the natural sciences), it would have to be applied practically everywhere. If its use became general, we’d all be constantly shoving it in one another’s faces. And there would be no comfortable reply open to most of the recipients of a charge of violating Clifford’s Principle. If I am an archa eologist who believes that an artifact found in a Neolithic tomb was a religious object used in a fertility rite, and if my rival Professor Graves believes that it was used to wind flax, how can I suppose that my belief is supported by the evidence? If my evidence really supports my belief, why doesn’t it convert Professor Graves, who is as aware of it as I am, to my position? If we generally applied Clifford’s Principle, we’d all have to become agnostics as regards most philosophical and political questi ons–or we’d have to find some reasonable answer to the challenge, “In what sense can the evidence you have adduced support or justify your belief when there are many authorities as competent as you who regard it as unconvincing?” But no answer to this challenge is evident, and religion seems to be the only area of human life in which very many people are willing to be agnostics about the answers to very many questions.

The last sentence rings true; how many agnostics do you know that are agnostic in policy decisions and science etc.? (I do know one or two but they are rare). From my experience, agnostics tend to be extra political and opinionated in other philosophical matters. Now, in their defense, Clifford’s Principle, as worded, is a pretty weak one and I doubt it is consciously used by many agnostics. However the gist of it is common enough: there is just not enough evidence for God (“Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.”- Bertrand Russell). As can be asked of any idea, just how much evidence IS enough?

By making note of the Difference Thesis, one can ask why the religious believer is being held to a double standard. Typically this kind of defense must be set forth against the vociferous atheist/agnostic who thinks that making non-evidentially supported claims is dangerous/immoral to humankind (of course making such moral statements is always a problem for such a person but I digress). You can always retort that they are also making claims that lack sufficient evidential support (whatever sufficient might mean, I don’t know; but if I’m not convinced by it, it must not have sufficient evidence).

That is all well and good, but I think there is another important application of the Difference Thesis that Van Inwagen does not touch upon. It is in regards to the Pluralist Thesis: It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe that their culture/world-view is superior to all others cultures/world-views.

Once again, it may not be the case that someone actually ascribes to the Pluralist Thesis but we see variants of it espoused constantly in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism. Just like as Van Inwagen demonstrated with Clifford’s Principle, the Pluralist Principle is also asymmetrically applied to religious belief. In fact I would say this asymmetry is more apparent that it is for Clifford’s Thesis.

I have been told my intransigent religious beliefs are outdated and narrow-minded. I dated a girl for a few years that reminded me of this quite often. The most obvious way to see the Pluralist Principle in action is to say something like: “I think Islam is totally incorrect religion”. If you say the same thing about all religions you might get a pass but if you then proceed to say, “And Christianity is definitely the true religion” then you will elicit an outcry of disgust our pluralist friends. But if you be of such persuasion to say, “Liberalism is wicked awesome and conservatism sucks”, then you will meet applause (assuming you’re in a liberal audience of course). Why is it incorrect in one case to make absolute statements and not in the other? In all cases, the propositions do not have evidence to convince all the great minds of the world, so I don’t think simple evidence for one proposition over the other is the lynch-pin here. Imagine how different things would be if we applied the Pluralist Principle to politics?

Wagering with Evidence

July 6, 2009

As I have alluded to in earlier posts, Pascal’s (in)famous Wager is not an argument for God’s existence but an argument for rationality of believing in God’s existence. While it seems to the casual observer to be a dreadfully pragmatic argument, one cannot deny the rationality in attempting to maximize one’s utility.

There are other arguments against the Wager that do not appeal to our low esteem of pragmatism: Why can’t I substitute X for God and use the same wager. For instance if X = The Flying Spaghetti Monster, does the rationality of Pascal’s Wager change? I don’t think it does in its most bare bones form. A similar scenario occurs in the situation where Pascal’s Wager is brought to someone who has never heard of God (or at least the Christian God). In Pascal’s Bare Bones Wager there is no reference to evidence or prior experience with God belief.

I think Pascal’s Bare Bones Wager is something like:
1. If one believes in God AND God exists = huge rewards
2. If one believes in God AND God does not exist = not much reward if any
3. If one does not believe in God AND God exists = not much reward or maybe some real bad news
4. If one does not believe in God AND God does not exist = not much reward but at least no guilt if you decide to live like a hedonist
option 1 is the obvious choice if one desires to maximize their benefits.
But this reasoning works just as well with The Flying Spaghetti Monster or anything else. This wager does not help us determine which “God” to believe in. And presumably believing in the wrong God is serious trouble with the right God. I think this might be or similar to the Many Gods Objection to Pascal’s Wager.

But there’s at least one important piece of information being left out of the Bare Bones Wager: we have not assigned probabilities God existing; I think this is akin to saying that we have not addressed the evidence for or against all possible Gods and their existence. We can make the wager above for all possible Gods and assign probabilities to options 1-4. By doing this, we can eliminate all the silly options like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Larry’s bar counter, and the ironing board from being Gods worthy of belief. Why do I immediately eliminate these contenders? I don’t think there’s any evidence of them having Godlike status. For instance it is well known that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was a wholly satirical creation made to lampoon some believers. The progenitor of the FSM would likely admit that he does not believe in its existence. Likewise my ironing board has never been hailed as Lord and I see no reason that it should be. No one has ascribed miraculous cures to the Larry’s bar counter that I know of.

On the other hand, there is arguably some evidence for the Gods of the established religions of the world. For one they possess many sincere believers willing to die for their Gods (I doubt the FSM believers are as sincere). Also many of their followers sincerely believe their God as interacted with humankind through miracles. Some claim to have spoken to their God. Ancient texts describe the deeds and commandments of these Gods. True, much of the evidence is often disputed etc. but it can still be said to be evidence of some worth. More than my ironing board can garner.

With this in mind the playing field has been cut down considerably.
But still, even after eliminating the noncontenders, there are still an awful lot of contenders in the mix. But just as we wade through competing arguments daily in politics and morality, we must wade through the evidence for the remaining God entities. And of course what we end up deciding on may also be the result of non-evidential factors (as I have blogged about earlier).

So what I hope to have laid out here is that evidence is still an important part of the Pascalian Wager. Otherwise we will find ourselves constantly wagering Pascalianly for every decision. For instance: Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). Taking drastic measures is frequently mentioned in a Pascalian way: if we don’t change our ways quickly, the world is screwed; even if we’re wrong about AGW, it’s still best to change our ways quickly because there is much more to lose if AGW is true. Similar arguments were made for invading Iraq. However these arguments only become convincing if there is ample evidence for the propositions. For instance with AGW, it is not clear whether the cancer or the cure is more costly or even if the cancer is there.

I think a lot of people think Pascal promotes utter and absolute blind faith in God; in other words evidence plays no part in belief. I don’t think that is true of Pascal. I leave you with this quote of his:

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is…

Betting on Uncertainty

June 29, 2009

What’s wrong with this argument?

1. we can believe that God exists or does not exist
2. if we reject God’s existence, we risk everlasting damnation if in fact God does exist.
3. if we believe in God, we risk little if he does not exist. And if he does, we obtain heavenly bliss
4. it is in our self-interest to accept God’s existence
5. Therefore God exists

If this sounds like an exercise for a Introduction to Logic class you’re wrong. It’s actually the well-crafted argument by John Paulos in Irrelegion. In his book he seeks to undermine 12 arguments for God commonly given by believers. And this butchery of Pascal’s Wager is one of them.

Pascal never set out to prove God with his wager. That’s why he devised his wager in the first place. So the conclusion (5) is simply laughable since the whole idea behind the wager is that (5) lacks significant evidence. If you read the who passage in the Pensees it all makes a lot more sense:

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.
Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason? They declare, in expounding it to the world, that it is a foolishness, I Cor. 1. 21. [“For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”]; and then you complain that they do not prove it! If they proved it, they would not keep their word; it is in lacking proofs that they are not lacking in sense. “Yes, but although this excuses those who offer it as such and takes away from them the blame of putting it forward without reason, it does not excuse those who receive it.” Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. “That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; where-ever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness.

For it is no use to say it is uncertain if we will gain, and it is certain that we risk, and that the infinite distance between the certainly of what is staked and the uncertainty of what will be gained, equals the finite good which is certainly staked against the uncertain infinite. It is not so, as every player stakes a certainty to gain an uncertainty, and yet he stakes a finite certainty to gain a finite uncertainty, without transgressing against reason. There is not an infinite distance between the certainty staked and the uncertainty of the gain; that is untrue. In truth, there is an infinity between the certainty of gain and the certainty of loss. But the uncertainty of the gain is proportioned to the certainty of the stake according to the proportion of the chances of gain and loss. Hence it comes that, if there are as many risks on one side as on the other, the course is to play even; and then the certainty of the stake is equal to the uncertainty of the gain, so far is it from fact that there is an infinite distance between them. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain. This is demonstrable; and if men are capable of any truths, this is one.

“I confess it, I admit it. But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?” Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. “Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?”

True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavor, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. “But this is what I am afraid of.” And why? What have you to lose?

But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.

The end of this discourse.– Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.

A key phrase in the wager that is often overlooked is: “God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here.” The point is that if the evidence is not strong enough one way or the other, then how do we know what to believe? How should we choose what to believe? Well one criterion would be to maximize our utility. It is a very pragmatic strategy and hence has come under fire from all sides. Surely our beliefs should only be formed from epistemic thinking. This is an interesting subject that I will write on at some in the future hopefully.

A quick defense for such pragmatism comes from Ian Hacking (in an interesting book called Gambling on God):

He accepts as a piece of human nature that belief is catching: if you go along with pious people, give up bad habits, follow a life of “holy water and sacraments” indented to “stupefy one” into belief, you will become a believer…One cannot decide to believe in God. One can decide to act so that one will very probably come to believe in God…

This is not too different than Aristotle’s advice to the evil man: if you want to become good, start doing good and eventually you will be come a good man.

This brings up an interesting vein in Pascal (I think): Pascal does not see belief or disbelief in terms of evidence (or reason) but in terms of either being free from passions or being blinded by passions. Our choice of faith is really a spiritual battle and not the ‘rational’ one we like to think it is.

“Proof” by Design

June 19, 2009

Read a little about arguments for God by design or by the beauty of nature etc. The beauty of nature points to God. That has always been hollow to me. If I didn’t believe in God, would a waterfall convince me of His existence? I just don’t see it. And even for a believer, beauty is not ‘convincing’ us of God. The beauty may somehow reveal God to one who already believes in Him.

Nowadays such arguments predictably bring up the Darwin/ID debate. The ID proponent states that biological life points to a designer – and he does so scientifically as he possible can. Because the argument has such a modern bent now, it is insightful to see how Pascal saw it nearly 400 years ago:

I marvel at the boldness with which these people presume to speak of God.

In addressing their arguments to unbelievers, their first chapter is the proof of the existence of God from the works of nature. Their enterprise would cause me no surprise if they were addressing their arguments to the faithful, for those with living faith in their hearts can certainly see at once that everything which exists is entirely the work of the God they worship. But for those in whom this light has gone out and in whom we are trying to rekindle it, people deprived of faith and grace, examining with such light as they have everything they see in nature that might lead them to this knowledge, but finding only obscurity and darkness; to tell them, I say, that they have only to look at the least thing around them and they will see in it God plainly revealed; to give them no other proof of this great and weighty matter than the course of the moon and the planets; to claim to have completed the proof with such an argument; this is giving them cause to think that the proofs or our religion are indeed feeble, and reason and experience tell me that nothing is more likely to bring it into contempt in their eyes.

This is not how the Scripture speaks, with its better knowledge of the things of God. On the contrary it says that God is a hidden God, and that since nature was corrupted he has left men to their blindness, from which they can escape only through Jesus Christ, without whom all communication with God is broken off. Neither knoweth any man the Father save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him (Matt. XI. 27.)

This is not the light of which we speak as of the noonday sun. We do not say that those who seek the sun at noon or water in the sea will find it, and so it necessarily follows that the evidence of God in nature is not of this kind. It tells us elsewhere: Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself(Is XLV. 15.)

This can be found in Pensee 781 of Pascal’s Pensees (Penguin Classics version; the numbering seems to differ a lot between translations).

I think Pascal is on to something here. A common message of his, is the hiddeness of God which he shows masterfully here. The atheists always ask why God is so slim on evidence. Well, that is the very nature of God. Admittedly it sounds like a cop-out: you don’t see God because he said you wouldn’t be able to see Him; but he’s there all right. But of course his hiddeness is not for play and not to confuse. His hiddeness is for us to unhide. More can be said on this.

“Proof” of God

June 18, 2009

Tonight I started reading (or listening as it were) to my first “New Atheist” though I’m not sure he’s described as that. His name is John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University. His book is Irreligion. The book purports to refute twelve common arguments for believing in God’s existence. So far I’ve heard him go through the First Cause argument and the argument from Design. Maybe I will talk about some of these arguments at a later time.

But for the time being I think there is an important point that has been made many-a-time but is worth mentioning since it seems to be oft forgotten: The non-existence of God cannot be proved empirically; i.e. you cannot prove God does not exist. Also, just because this such-and-such argument for God’s existence is flawed, the non-existence of God is not entailed. However arguments can be set forth which seek to prove the No God hypothesis. It is possible, empirically, to prove God’s existence. Empirical/inductive proofs of God have the same problems as rational/deductive arguments for God – the evidence/premises are questioned and not accepted. Let me dwell solely on deductive arguments now.

One can also argue deductively for the God hypothesis. The Arguments from Design, Morality etc may aim to do just that. Somehow, a lot of people aren’t convinced though. While the logical validity of the arguments may be precise, the soundness of the premises will always be scrutinized. This has always made me wonder how successful logical argumentation can be. Why are some arguments so convincing to some and so unconvincing to others? Arguments for God’s existence have been around for centuries if not millenia and yet the chasm between the two sides remains unbridged. Is there any argument that could sway a hardened believer or nonbeliever? Obviously our beliefs in various propositions is more than just an understanding of logical statements. Somehow our subjectivity clouds are objectivity. And do we even know how? I’d venture to say no we don’t. We can assume the usual suspects: upbringing, personal gain, psychological, etc. Though who would admit that they and their beliefs are suspectible to such ‘accidents’? But of course their opponents are so easily swayed.

It’s a humbling realization to say “I believe in God because my parents brought me up that way” or “I don’t believe in God because I wanna do what I want”; and not to say “I believe in God because premise A and B are true and they deductively lead to C=God exists” or “I don’t believe in God because a God’s existence contradicts some accepted premises (like God must be perfectly good and the world isn’t).

What I’m trying to say here is that don’t put too much stock in deductive arguments. If one seems foolproof to you, it isn’t because of your superior wisdom and logic but probably due to some accidental fact of your life. Surely, someone across the hall sees the argument as silly. Indubitably, every premise of every argument has been scrutinized considerably by hosts of scholars and each has been found lacking.

That’s all I want to say for now. I guess it is kind of a bleak picture as I have left it. Well, I have left out the experience component and I expect to write more on this in the future.