Superstition and scepticism

This post is a further reply to the conversation started on the Atheist Forum blog, here.

Our Different Backgrounds and Cognitive Processing
The last few comment posts here are certainly highlighting our impasse, but also provide some important indicators for me about our different backgrounds, education, and beliefs.
I mentioned previously that I’ve had some formal training in the sciences, which include the neurosciences in particular. Throughout this part of my education, I was often struck by the capabilities and capacity of the human mind for cognition, abstract thought and imagination. And also by some of the profound effects that ‘natural’ external influences, and our own physiology, can have on these processes.
I am convinced there is nothing more complex that we have ever encountered (so far!) than the human brain. I am also convinced that this capacity of the human brain has evolved ‘naturally’ over the course of millions of years, driven initially by environmental pressures that favoured the most primitive behaviours of planning and decision making. (More on this in another post, perhaps.)
The entire body of human scientific knowledge has demonstrated overwhelmingly that the world – in fact the whole universe – is natural . And this is very important: This includes the astonishing capability of the human brain to imagine, construct and assume the existence of the supernatural.

Psychological Predisposition to Superstition
On the subject of Port Arthur ghosts – and this may sound offensive, although I don’t mean it to – you (and many, many others, I’ll grant) are inclined to believe that ghosts exist because you are more psychologically predisposed to accepting superstitious claims. This is a normal, natural, human property, perhaps an evolutionary side-effect of the important and very valuable emotion of fear. I must admit that I take for granted that most Western educated adults understand this, so I continue to be surprised when apparently smart people seem to be drawn in to what are obviously (to me) bogus claims.
Beliefs, hallucinations, odd feelings: These are things that are certainly very real. Scientists have measured these things for decades, perhaps even a century or more. Ghosts themselves: These things are as-good-as-definitely not real. I’m convinced that if they were, scientists would have ‘measured’ them too by now. More on that in a moment.

‘Quick to Dismiss’
In some of your comments there is an implication that I (and presumably other sceptics) are ‘quick to dismiss’ miracles and the supernatural, in particular when no strong alternative hypotheses are offered. I’d like to counter this by asking you to step into the shoes of a sceptic, just for a moment. Many of us sceptics (although again, I speak only for myself) have not formed our world views hastily. Over the course of decades of our own lives, we have read, studied, experienced, experimented on and observed the world and the people around us. Those of us with questioning minds exempt nothing from enquiry and challenge. That includes deeply-held societal beliefs and behaviours and even the nature of our own existence and creation. So while ‘quick to dismiss’ seems like an accurate description of our response when it comes to some supernatural claim, please understand that an enormous amount of thought and analysis has already gone into considering that something belongs in the category of superstition.

Ghosts Revisited
As mentioned above, this includes ghosts. Consider any report of ghosts: What do they comprise of? At their strongest, they interfere physically with the ‘natural’ world and people within it. These interferences must therefore be measurable objectively, and yet they have never been shown. We are left to rely on people’s personal (and occasionally, collective) verbal accounts. Hearsay. Not evidence.

Coming down the spectrum of ghost interferences, we have the more common accounts of visualisations (seeing them!), sounds, and even tactual accounts (ie., feeling their touches). Again, if these experiences are true to human senses, they are measurable by objective means – cameras, sound recorders, etc. Yet again, never has there been conclusive evidence recorded. Within a couple of years, the large hadron collider in Europe has allowed us to measure the effects of sub-atomic virtual particles. These must be some of the most elusive things in the entire universe. Ghost experiences are so ubiquitous that I suggest they are a daily occurrence throughout the entire world. And yet, no scientist has ever published a single picture of a ghost in the nearly 200-year vast and pervasive history of accessible photography, and been taken seriously. The logical contrast is astounding: We can measure virtual frikkin’ particles!, and yet the ghosts that apparently visit us every day remain statistically non-existent.

Moving on, at the simplest end of the ghost experience then is the basic visceral sensation of another presence. The hard-to-describe ‘feeling’ of someone else being present, but not physically. I imagine every single thinking, feeling person on earth, and who has ever lived, has experienced such a feeling, perhaps many times during their lives. Again, these sensations are measurable. Heart rates quicken, skin temperatures drop, pupils dilate, stress hormones are excreted into the blood stream. Physiological feedback loops are invoked and these responses can be amplified. Hallucinations – visual, auditory, and tactile – can be experienced. And the human brain, with a little bit of the right kind of environmental stimulation (like a dark room, or even a verbal suggestion), is capable of producing all of this. These things have been demonstrated in the laboratory, countless times. The evidence is falsifiable. The experiments are repeatable.
Staying within the shoes of the thorough and honest scientific researcher, prepared to lay bare all of his/her materials, recordings, conclusions to their independent peers, how readily will you stand up and say, “I’ve seen a ghost.” In light of all our knowledge and all the logic described above, it is this type of conclusion that is hasty.

Rationalising Superstition
The sceptic does not dismiss people’s accounts of seeing ghosts as readily as it might seem. Instead, the sceptic considers these reports against an exhaustive and well-understood history and science on the nature of superstition and human physiology and psychology. We then ask simply, what is more likely – that a ghost really was present? Or that the astonishingly powerful human mind imagined it?
Given the above background, hopefully this helps you understand why the sceptic turns to Occam’s Razor. We favour the natural explanations, not simply as the more logical, but also as the obvious.

Joseph Smith Revisited (Briefly)
I haven’t come back to the Mormons in this post, but it’s somewhat reassuring to learn that you treat these claims with scepticism: “…it appears the most reasonable explanation is that Smith created the story of Mormon.”
Indeed – this entire cult is differentiated from the rest of Christianity on the basis of a mythology that is utter bullshit.
And yet, 14 million people in first-world countries are vested heart and soul in this bizarre collection of beliefs. What are they seeing that the rest of us are missing?

And Finally, The Resurrection Revisited
“…Yet, if I do demonstrate that this is unlikely [that one or more persons made up the resurrection story], I would suggest that it is on the sceptic to either revise their theory or accept the thesis? Would that be fair?….”
Rob, if you have successfully been able to get into the shoes of the sceptic as I’ve tried to describe above, then you’ll understand that I see your question almost as a kind of logical non sequitur.

By all means, give it your best shot. If you have some compelling evidence that is truly new, I’ll be open to it (and I reckon you’d be in the running for a Nobel Prize).
However, I do doubt, in the strongest, most sincere terms, that you will be able to get within a million miles of convincing me that the resurrection wasn’t made up. If the evidence really was overwhelmingly convincing and truly incontrovertible, I’d already believe in it.
I suspect that applies to the other five billion non-Christians on the planet too.

Conversation on evidence for the resurrection

This is a summary of some recent dialogue posted in the comments section of a recent blog post by Robert Martin of The City Bible Forum in Melbourne.
Nothing new added here – this is simply just a re-capture of comments material.

I was with you for a moment there, Rob.
Not agreeing, mind you, but I was keeping up with the internal logic of what you were saying.

But then this at the end:
history has shown there is a way to resolve the conflicting claims of religion. It is through the one who comes and claims to be ‘the way the truth and the life’ and lives an extraordinary life, death and resurrection consistent with this claim.

…And thus the logic collapses in on itself once again. The unfalsifiable and unassailable assertion that I have the one true truth.

You know my position on the resurrection, Rob. Show us the video evidence, or it didn’t happen.

Robert:

Paul,

Thanks for your comments and I appreciate you accepting my internal logic. ;-)

I completely understand how you reject that claim, but I did want to put it in there to demonstrate very briefly why I believe what I do. In terms of the resurrection, have a look at this presentation I delivered earlier in the year. It’s fairly comprehensive, but would love your thoughts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7E2zMq8IRC4

Thanks for the interaction!

Rob

Thanks for the link, Rob. This is certainly edifying in terms of understanding what Christian scholars believe and what their evidence is.
However, I assume you realise that none of this has any impact on the views of a sceptic? It provides some grist for the mill when preaching to the less-informed converted, but there is no additional basic argument that makes the assertion any more compelling.

Here’s a superficial response to some of the points:

You say that science, mathematics and philosophy can’t tell us about whether or not the resurrection happened. They’re the wrong tools.
That’s correct, but each of these tools can give us some insight into the rationality and likelihood of miracles. And another tool, history, can complement these by showing examples of extraordinary claims that turned out to be unsubstantiated hype.
In fact, while there are plenty of extraordinary claims that have not been investigated fully and objectively, every single one that has been, ever, in the history of civilisation, has been shown to be not a miracle, not supernatural.

Unfortunately the investigative journalism approach, at least in this instance, doesn’t provide us with anything else that could be considered as proof. It’s not even objective.
Using the gospels of the bible as evidence for other truths in the bible is begging-the-question. “It must be true, because it’s in the bible, and the bible says that everything in the bible is true.”

The New Testament letters are the same thing. Everything supporting the bible’s claims was prepared by folks with a vested interest in the cause.
It wouldn’t make sense for any of the early bible writers to include – in the bible itself – any contradictory claims.
Conveniently, there is no Book of Trevor, in which the claims of the resurrection were debunked by Trev, who discovered Steve behind the tomb dressing himself up in drab robes and sheep’s blood, preparing a diabolical little party trick on those already convinced by the divinity of the living JC.

You cite other examples, including WWII journalism and historical accounts of Augustus, and the fact that we don’t reject these historical details. I assume you realise that again there is no convincing argument here.
Historical accounts of Augustus winning, say two dozen battles against the odds, is remarkable. But it doesn’t require any special leap of faith to accept. Further evidence and discovery might reveal he only won a dozen of those, and was actually defeated most of the time. This might require a major re-think of aspects of Roman history. But it wouldn’t affect our current world views at all. And if there were claims based on written accounts that somehow Augustus won his battles on his own while riding a winged horse, modern historians wouldn’t be likely to take them seriously.

On the “six historical facts”, no fundamental truths there either.
Eyewitness accounts again amount to hearsay.
The other points about the rise of Christianity and changes in the behaviour of the personalities involved are not evidence of the resurrection of course. Arguably the modern rise of Mormonism (14 million, according to Wikipedia) is far more abrupt and astonishing than the rise of Christianity from the 1st C. AD. And this is a movement, (in modern times, with all our education, experience, enlightenment and scepticism) based on the visions of a man who was apparently told to translate the divine golden plates he dug up somewhere. Conveniently, the physical golden plates were taken away again by one of his angelic visions before anyone – other than his closest disciples of course – had the chance to give them a really good going over.

You conclude that the sceptical view “betrays philosophical pre-suppositions”, rather than relying on actual evidence. And with this, again, there seems to be a complete dismissal, and even reversal, of the concept of the burden of proof.
That’s a more polite way of saying that you’ve got things arse-about.

Robert:

Paul,

Again I apologise for not getting back to you sooner. But here we are – a new week and new opportunities to discuss.

I’m glad you admit that science and maths can’t tell us whether the resurrection happened. Yet, I’m concerned with your definition and discussion of ‘proof’. Also, I don’t think I said that “It must be true, because it’s in the bible, and the bible says that everything in the bible is true.” I outlined 6 historical facts which need to be explained – some of which are recorded in the Bible. I think that the Bible’s explanation, best explains these facts. Further, we can’t reject the Bible outright as an historical source. It must be admitted into a discussion into the resurrection because it is a document which emerged in history and that fact must also be explained.

I take the argument from bias, but the key question is, not ‘were they biased’ (because they obviously were), but ‘what caused them to be biased?’. Otherwise this argument becomes pointless and there is no point in reading anything because everyone is biased – e.g. don’t read the God Delusion because Dawkins is biased!!

I admit it would be interesting to see the Book of Trevor!! Yet, it’s non-existence is perhaps reason to think that perhaps the biblical narrative has some truth?

When considering the resurrection, and any historical question the important thing to ask is, ‘what is the inference to the best explanation?’ You can’t ‘prove’ it happened (and you can’t prove it didn’t) as it is not mathematics or science. The key test is: then what best explains the facts??

You have outlined some weaknesses in my theory (I disagree, but there isn’t time to go into that in detail now – FYI – the rise of Mormonism is actually comparable with the rise of early Christianity – see the work of Rodney Stark). But aside from pointing out weaknesses, can you reconstruct a plausible alternative? ie. can you better explain the 6 facts I outlined?

Would love your input again.

Rob

Hi Rob,
I had started preparing a more comprehensive response on the philosophical impasse of Christianity and atheism, which we have now reached in this discussion. But it was way too long for the comments section here, so instead I’ll just make some shorter clarifications of the arguments I was trying to make earlier.

When I used that quote – “It must be true, because it’s in the bible, and the bible says that everything in the bible is true…” – I wasn’t trying to ascribe that quote to you, or even suggest that it was directly paraphrasing something that you said. I was simply trying to highlight the logical fallacy of using the Bible itself as historical evidence of any miracle, including the resurrection.
It is possible that there are various ‘unbiased’ historians that will attest to some of the historical events recorded in the Bible. However, Christians – including Christian scholars and historians – are the only people that will say the Bible is a factual historical record on the divine miracles of Christ. Again: You may find independent historical reports of folks saying that the resurrection occurred. There may be a dozen of these reports, or even an account that there were 500 or even 10,000 eyewitnesses. But this is not “evidence”! It is not a record of facts. It is hearsay.

It is a testament to the success and power of early Christians and the compelling aspects of their ideas and ideals that Christianity continues to endure so strongly now. You can point to the lack of any “Book of Trevor” to support the claim of the resurrection. But Bible sceptics look at this differently. If any such hypothetical counter-claims ever existed, it is obvious that they would have been found and destroyed, perhaps very early in Christian history. It is just another reflection of the adage that history is always written by the victors.

As to any alternative explanation, I don’t have any. But then, I’m not making any claims that require defending. This is the point about burden of proof: Bible sceptics do not have any case to answer, because we do not need to explain a lack of a claim.
When I try to rationalise to myself your so-called “six historical facts”, I do so in the context of the entire history of Christianity, and in fact all human superstition prior to it. The various chapters of the Bible have been hand-transcribed, hand-copied and even re-written countless times over the past 2000 years, and until the relatively recent invention of the printing press, this was done entirely and exclusively by those dedicated to the faith. This fact alone exposes it to the sceptic and renders it a work obviously prepared by vested interests.

The consequences of all the “changes” reported that coincide with the early rise of Christianity are not special, and that is why I cited the rise of Mormonism as a comparison, which you seem to agree with. In a period of less than 200 years, a 14-million-strong worldwide movement has arisen from an origin of a single prophet with an extraordinary claim of direct divinity. Joseph Smith also started with a small core group of eyewitnesses to the divine golden plates (the Mormon miracle) and, conveniently, no remaining falsifiable evidence for them. Furthermore, the high priests of Mormonism have also re-written history, changing their rules as they progress in the face of outside scrutiny. The origin of the Church of LDS is also a matter of historical record, as are the changed beliefs and lives of the earliest Mormons.
I assume you agree with me that the founder of Mormonism was either deeply deluded, or (more likely) an audacious and highly charismatic con man. (Presumably you would be Mormon today rather than a ‘garden variety’ Christian if you bought into any of their insanity.) The point is that human history is replete with examples of ideologies and movements that have appeared, grown and expanded with the dogmatic fervor of their followers, who all view their ideologies with perfect internal consistency. They all have their own historic accounts that demonstrate their intrinsic truths.

To the non-believers, although Christianity may be more successful than many (or indeed all) of these, it is fundamentally no different in its nature to any of them. If the Bible is true about the resurrection, this should be a fact that is obvious and undeniable to all of humanity, and not just the privileged few that have been born into Christianity or converted by their peers, and have then been gifted with some kind of special ability to look beyond their scepticism.

Robert:

Paul,

Thanks for your comments. I have a few things to say in response (as I’m sure you expected ;-) )

There is a lot to say, but I’ll just hone in on your comments about alternative explanations. I think you miss my point about providing an alternative explanation. I’m not saying that I’m trying to prove the resurrection, I’m saying that there are 6 historical faces that require explanation. I think the best explanation is a resurrection – you reject that – yet you fail to provide an alternative hypothesis. Hence, using the scientific method, surely in that absence of a better hypothesis, we need to accept the one that best explains the facts? Would that be fair? You can’t duck the issue of burden of proof. Skeptics DO have a case to answer if a reasonable case has been set forward which explains the facts. Skeptics MUST provide a better alternative explanation.

You could change the argument to be the same as a climate change skpetic – i.e. ‘a climate change skeptic has no case to answer because there is no need to explain a lack of a claim’.

Thoughts?

Also, you need to be careful in distinguishing the sociological growth of an organisation with the origin of the beliefs of an organisation. I don’t think any of my arguments said that Christianity was true because it grew so fast. Yet you do need to explain where the original beliefs of the Christian faith came from, which were different to the prevailing culture.

Rob

Rob, I missed this response somehow, so the timing might be a little on the late side. Here goes, anyway. The conversation point is now about alternative explanations and burdens of proof, etc.

To summarise your position, your claim is that there are six historical “facts” that support the claim of a divine resurrection, and that the occurence of the resurrection is the best possible explanation for the combination of these facts. You also refer to the burden of proof, and challenge sceptics that they must provide an alternative explanation to cover off the “six historical facts”.

With respect, Rob, I don’t think you fully appreciate the concept of burden of proof as it applies to extraordinary claims.
When proposing an extraordinary claim – and I think we would both agree that re-animation of a 3-days-dead corpse is an extraordinary claim – the burden of proof is upon the claimant, and not the sceptic.

Occam’s Razor applies. We assume a more rational explanation is more likely (in fact, obvious), ahead of one assuming a supernatural intervention.
The number of alternative, more likely and more natural explanations to the resurrection claim is uncountable. To put it in the bluntest possible terms, the original witnesses were either deceived, were the victims of ‘groupthink’ or some other mob behaviour, or they just made it up. Just because a historian records that “500 witnesses” saw a re-animated Jesus walking around with holes in his hands doesn’t make it true. Maybe those people were confused. Maybe there weren’t really that many. Maybe he lied because it was a great story to tell.

I don’t know, and I don’t care. I am not obliged to elucidate any alternative theory.
There is no burden of proof required to disprove an outrageous claim.

“…You could change the argument to be the same as a climate change skpetic – i.e. ‘a climate change skeptic has no case to answer because there is no need to explain a lack of a claim’. …”
This is correct, unless these people are also climate scientists making a specific claim supported by observations. In burden-of-proof terms, amateur climate change sceptics indeed have no case to answer.

However, the big difference between climate change and the resurrection, is that there is independent, reproducible scientific data demonstrating that climate change is real. The claims of climate change are based on falsifiable research data. The claims of the resurrection are hearsay.

“…I don’t think any of my arguments said that Christianity was true because it grew so fast. Yet you do need to explain where the original beliefs of the Christian faith came from, which were different to the prevailing culture.”
Again, no. To repeat, I was using the history of Mormonism to illustrate a point, about it how rapidly it has taken hold of a certain section of society in the US in a space of less than 200 years. It has some similarities to Christianity in this respect, because it was also against the mainstream prevailing culture in the US.
If you think I need to provide an explanation as to where the original Christian beliefs came from and how it could arise against such an antagonistic cultural backdrop, I simply point to Mormonism as another example. Christianity is not “special” in this regard. You don’t need to resort to divine miracles as an explanation for the emergence of a popular movement.

Conversation on “absence of belief can motivate”

This is a summary of some recent dialogue posted in the comments section of a blog post by Robert Martin of The City Bible Forum in Melbourne.
Nothing new added here – this is simply just a re-capture of comments material.

Having just discovered this site in the past 3 days or so, I’ve just come to find this older post, so I’m not expecting this comment to be read.
However, I can’t resist pointing out an extraordinarily obvious flaw in this bit:
“For example a person is motivated to commit a crime because of the ‘lack of belief’ in getting caught. A burglar does not commit the crime with the belief or expectation of getting caught, they commit the crime precisely because there is an ‘absence of belief’. Hence a criminal is motivated by ‘lack of belief’.”

A thief is not at all motivated by the notion of “not getting caught”. They are motivated by the desire to obtain the valuables of the person they are robbing.
They may believe that they won’t be caught, but that is nowhere near their motivation!

I won’t get started on the extended implication that atheists lack morals because they don’t believe they’ll be punished for their acts. Suffice to say that it’s an appalling fallacy.

Robert:

Paul, Thanks for the comment. Your comments are very welcome and comments on the older posts do indeed get read. I appreciate your comment, yet I think you’re stretching it to suggest that a thief is not at all motivated by the notion of “not getting caught”. Really??? Why is there looting in supermarkets etc when the lights go out? The example that Richard Dawkins uses in the God Delusion (p.228) of the crime wave which occurred in Montreal when the police went on strike is a perfect illustration. Why the spike in crime? People were suddenly motivated because they believed they wouldn’t get caught. I completely agree with you that a person is motivated by the desire to obtain the valuables of the person they are robbing. Yet I would also say that their belief that they won’t get caught is also a crucial motivation.

Also, be careful with what I didn’t say – I don’t think I said that atheists lack morals because they don’t believe they’ll be punished. I completely agree that atheists can be moral – yet you do need to acknowledge the dark side of atheism, and that it does lack the philosophical ammunition to categorically condemn mass murders.

Thanks again for the comments. I really appreciate your interactions.

Rob

Rob, the *motivation* is clearly about gaining the valuables.
Motivation is the purpose or drive that inclines one to a particular goal.
The assumption or belief that they won’t get caught is not a *motivator* for a thief, it is a factor in their risk assessment about whether they should proceed with their crime.

A person that is motivated by the notion that they won’t get caught, would more correctly be described as a “thrill seeker”. Such a person isn’t really interested in the object of the robbery – they’d be enjoying the adrenaline rush of avoiding capture.

Both examples are ‘badness’ in the sense that there is a victim (ie., the one that has been robbed), but I imagine the overwhelming majority of thrill-seekers don’t bother with committing major crimes. They’re more likely to engage in extreme sports, etc. to satisfy their need for thrills.

All of this is straying from your original point somewhat, which was that a “lack of belief” can be a motivator. For the context you are describing, I disagree, obviously. And I don’t think you’ve made any meaningful case for it to be true by using the motivation of a thief as an example.

Also, I know what you didn’t say explicitly. But the whole implicit point of your argument is that a lack of belief in god(s), and therefore in divine judgement, acts as some kind of excuse, or in fact *motivation*, for committing crimes. It’s nonsensical.

“…you do need to acknowledge the dark side of atheism, and that it does lack the philosophical ammunition to categorically condemn mass murders…”
Is this a logical argument, or a religious or philosophical assertion?
Either way, the answer is no, I do not acknowledge that. The thinking here is completely bizarre. Do you want to try to explain it me?

Robert:

Paul. Thanks again. I think you have separated “motivation” and “belief” unnecessarily (I don’t think you can separate the two). Consider again the illustration Dawkins uses about the police force strike in Montreal. What “suddenly” motivated all the crime?

In terms of the other point, I think it is a logical argument (though correct me if I’m wrong) based around the ‘is/ought’ fallacy. I’ll try to explain. If there is no God/afterlife/judgement etc then we are nothing but DNA. Further in this atheist universe there is nothing (or no-one) objective to say that we ‘ought’ to do anything – you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Hence our actions in this universe are ultimately meaningless and hence the dark side of atheism. i.e. you can’t condemn anyone for doing anything “wrong” – likewise we can’t affirm anyone for doing anything “right” for in the atheist universe these categories just don’t exist. In philosophical language – there is no ultimate moral ontology, hence the lack of ammunition.

Does that help at all? What do you make of this?

Rob

Alright Rob, I think I see where you’re going.
Suffice to say it’s patently wrong, of course…

On the less philosophical point of motivation vs. belief (of not getting caught), they are clearly different ‘emotions’. There’s not a lot of point in arguing semantics. When I use words, they’re usually based on the dictionary definitions of those words and their normal usage.
The Montreal case is one in which people were *motivated* by the opportunity presented by the lack of policing. I imagine there would also have been other sociological factors at work too – disaffected youth, gang culture, mob and peer group factors, and so on. The *motivation* was still about gaining valuables.
Do you doubt that there would have been plenty of atheists in Montreal that would not participate in looting on the basis that it was just plain wrong? I try to place myself in this hypothetical position, and “not getting caught” doesn’t enter into the equation. Regardless of the risks, or lack of, I wouldn’t be looting because it’s ‘bad’. One of the primary and most immediate reasons is that other people are affected badly by such actions. These things are obvious. They don’t require a particularly deep philosophical appreciation of the universe to understand.

“…you can’t condemn anyone for doing anything “wrong” …” Answer: Not in any biblical sense, no: that is correct. But I can “condemn” them in a societal, basically/generally moral, and legal sense, for behaviour that is unfair, dangerous to others and to decent society as a whole. I assume this is not in dispute… or do you equate atheism (in the absence of religion in society) with anarchy?

On the philosophical issues, if we’re going to find any common ground to agree on, then it might be worth understanding some of the assumptions behind your beliefs.
In particular, there seems to be an assumption that ‘fully-formed’ Christians are the only the people with the ability to appreciate this mystical ‘absolute morality’. Is this correct?
There are folks with other religions that might assert that they have an appreciation for an ultimate moral ontology (let’s say UMO for shorthand). Therefore they would have something in common with Christians, but not atheists. Their understanding of UMO might lead them to completely different beliefs and behaviours to yours. Is their UMO exactly the same as yours? Or is it wrong – some kind of cosmic miscommunication to those people about the nature of morality?

As an aside: Do you accept the facts of Darwinian evolution in largely the same way that (you might assume) I do? It might seem an unrelated concept, but I’ll come back to it later depending on where the argument goes.
Or, do you believe that the earth and humans were literally made by God in his image sometime in the last 6000 years or so?
If the latter, then this discussion I fear has nowhere else to go. I’d consider you an idiot, or perhaps just an ignoramus, of the highest order and wouldn’t be interested in any further discussion with you. I sincerely hope that’s not the case…

Robert:

Will respond in more detail later – but just quickly (and hopefully to assuage some concerns). I’m not a young earth creationist and I generally agree with the modern scientific account of reality and hence (hopefully) you don’t consider me an idiot and we can continue this conversation. Will respond to your other comments soon.

Paul,

I don’t think that motivation and belief are ‘emotions’. I’d suggest that motivation and belief are intertwined. e.g. I believe that this tablet will heal me, hence I am motivated to take it. How are they separate?

In your reflections of the Montreal police strike you have actually admitted the very thing my blog post was identifying i.e. the people were ‘motivated’ by the lack of policing! I agree that there were other motivations, I never claimed this as the sole motivating factor. But the crucial factor is that someone was motivated in some way by the lack of a belief. Also, I’m not suggesting that ‘every’ atheist acts the same, but that absence of belief is a motivator!

The next part of our conversation revolves around important areas of moral philosophy which are often misunderstood. Hence to answer your question “there seems to be an assumption that ‘fully-formed’ Christians are the only the people with the ability to appreciate this mystical ‘absolute morality’. Is this correct?

NO! This is not correct. You have described here moral epistemology – i.e. that we are able to comprehend a form of moral reality. But there is a difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology – i.e. the nature of moral reality and how we ‘know’ or ‘understand’ that morality. Atheists are capable of developing a moral epistemology (what you have described) but incapable of developing a UMO as you helpfully put it. I’m not claiming that all claims to UMO are correct or the same, but that philosophically theism is the only way in which any form of UMO can be described.

I hope that you appreciate these points? This area is so misunderstood that I’ll write another post later this week to clarify. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on this, for this is very seriously misunderstood by both sides – i.e. some theists accuse atheists of never having any morals, which is not true. And atheists think other theists like myself are accusing them of having no morals, which is also not true. I hope this helps?

Rob

Rob,

“…In your reflections of the Montreal police strike you have actually admitted the very thing my blog post was identifying i.e. the people were ‘motivated’ by the lack of policing!…”

No, Rob, please re-read what I said:
The Montreal case is one in which people were motivated by *the opportunity presented by* the lack of policing.
Emphasis shifted to “the opportunity presented by…”

As I said, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere on the difference between motivations and beliefs. You seem to be saying they are effectively the same thing. I’m saying they are different.
Your example of taking the tablet actually supports my argument – that the motivation is the purpose for the action.

If you cast your “non-belief motivates…” argument into this example, then you’d be saying something like, “I don’t believe this tablet will have any bad side effects, hence I am motivated to take it.”
That statement is logically incorrect. You don’t take a tablet (or do anything else) for a reason/goal/purpose that is logically negative.
The “motivator” is NOT that there will be no ill effects. The “motivator” is that there will be a positive outcome. “No ill effects” is merely a supporting assumption.

On the subject of a universal moral ontology (UMO)… well gosh, maybe you’ve got me there on definitions. The concept is new to me, and thus far, completely nonsensical.

We can discuss and debate the source of morals ok, I’m sure. That might be interesting.
But this nebulous thing of a UMO seems utterly pointless for any practical discussion or understanding.
I think what you’re saying is that it must exist, and it is endowed by God. And presumably it is independent of humanity.
I think I’ve seen you write elsewhere on this blog on the equality and sanctity of human life in the same terms. Some kind of insistence that these things are divine and indivisible attributes, and that they are self-evident fundamentally “because God”.

I say there is no reason at all to assume that a UMO exists. Morals are a human construct (although some animals appear to display them too) – they are not a divine attribute.
You cannot demonstrate, physically, logically or philosophically, that morals transcend biology. To try to do so “because God”, is classic begging-the-question. The ultimate fallacious circular argument.

Conversation on the “one god further” joke

This is a summary of some recent dialogue posted in the comments section of a recent blog post by Robert Martin of The City Bible Forum in Melbourne.
Nothing new added here – this is just a re-capture of comments material.

Gosh, this “one god further” joke seems to have really touched a nerve in the Christian community.
Yes – it’s a glib, throw-away line used by non-theists to quickly illustrate a point about supernatural beliefs. Go ahead and poke holes in the semantic logic of it, it makes you feel better.
The real issue here is that you’ve taken the “one god further” punchline – in the same way you take much of the Bible (or the Quran, or whatever holy scriptures you prefer) – way too literally.
“One god further” is actually shorthand for any collection of beliefs based on supernatural, unfalsifiable claims. Read it instead as “one religion further”, or “one set of supernatural beliefs further”, and you might be more sympathetic to it.
Example: Most atheists don’t believe in homeopathy, crystal healing, or the teachings of Deepak Chopra or L. Ron Hubbard, as well not believing in the teachings of Muhammad or Jesus Christ.
I suggest most Christians don’t accept homeopathy either, along with their non-acceptance of Ra, Odin and Vishnu.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t care what you or anyone else believes, provided you don’t try to convert me, lie to my children, or hurt anyone else with those beliefs. And I’m not interested in trying to change those beliefs, with “one god further”, or any other argument based on logic for that matter. But frankly, suggesting it fails as an argument on the grounds of logic is disingenuous and hypocritical.

Marty:

Hi Paul, I think Dickson and co are simply pushing against that joke being used as an argument for the truth of atheism.
A joke is a joke, right? And as a Christian I can certainly take a joke and maybe even tell a good one now and then. The concern is really that some atheists (and even some theists) like to use rhetoric rather than substance to make their point, which is essentially question begging. Stating *that* something is true rather than demonstrating *why* you think it’s true is the problem.

It’s the use of rhetoric rather than substance that Christians are reacting to, because it actually quashes healthy debate and leaves onlookers with the sense that a case has been made when it really hasn’t – a sleight of mind if you will.

I wondered if you could elaborate your thoughts that this reaction is disingenuous and hypocritical? I’m trying to understand the ways in which you think it is either of those.

Also, on your point about falsifiability, I thought you might find this article of interest:http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2013/07/christianity-the-worlds-most-falsifiable-religion/
I disagree with it’s authors in that I do see some atheists trying to make a case for naturalism, but I also see other atheists with a pre-commitment to it who simply hold it as an axiom.

Thanks for making a considered response, Marty, as well as the challenge, which I will take at face value as genuine rather than cynical. Perhaps to understand my statement – about “one god further” being a shorthand for any collection of supernatural beliefs – it might make sense to understand my position as an atheist. It’s difficult to be reasonably brief about it without skipping a lot of important stuff, but I’ll try.
Everything in my experience leads me question assertions of the supernatural and claims of the bizarre. While not all supernatural assertions and bizarre claims have been debunked, every single one of them that has been explained, ever, in history, has been shown to be exactly not supernatural, and exactly natural. It is overwhelmingly likely that if something apparently ‘miraculous’ is observed, then the explanation for that may be either fascinating or prosaic, but definitely not miraculous.
It is also my experience that humans tend to like finding, or assuming, the ‘miraculous’ or supernatural to account for observations they don’t fully understand. Furthermore, given that we now live in the most enlightened time of human history ever, it is probable, in fact a given, that this tendency to assuming the supernatural was even more prevalent the further back you go in history.
The fact that there is plenty of independent documentation about the historical figure known as Jesus Christ, does not move me one iota to accepting bronze-age accounts of miraculous healing, walking on water, or that a dead man, ie., actually dead and not perhaps, very badly injured, can show signs of life again. These things are as plausible as, say, a thousand observers in modern-day New Mexico spotting UFOs in the desert and asserting aliens have arrived, when some other reason for a flying metal object can be proposed.
Let’s extend the line of questioning to the nature of reality and universal creation. I cannot claim at all to have any reasonable or convincing clue about what made the Bing Bang happen. I have vague notions of elusive sub-atomic particles zipping into and out of existence and forced together (or apart) by physical mechanisms I can’t begin to understand. But the point is, I can easier accept the notion that those mechanisms are truly physical, and maybe stochastic and random, rather than intended and designed and orchestrated. The fact that the universe and Earth and fungi and caterpillars and humans are so astonishing is… astonishing. But none of this, at least in my own reductionist mind, requires a design, an intelligence, or even a purpose, in order to arise. Assuming that a design, and intelligence, and a purpose is required is, to me, a particularly ego-centric thing to do. God is not self-evident. God is retro-fitted to a phenomenon that none of us comprehend.

I suggest that most modern civilised people are, to varying degrees and at varying times, also reductionist and sceptical. Most folks with an education dismiss leprechauns and unicorns as fantasy. Most also dismiss homeopathy and iridology as pseudo-sciences born from active imaginations. And most dismiss ancient legends of Poseidon, Ra, Odin and Zeus, as imaginative and fantastical deities that never really existed. What one cannot dismiss, however, is that there are or were, in each of these cases, collections of people that have believed passionately and dogmatically in these supernatural things. Those passionate and dogmatic people too have called upon all of their own experience, inner-knowing, and even ‘evidence’ to their various dogmas. We can all challenge their sophistication, but there’s no reason to doubt the strengths of their convictions about their own truths.

To repeat: “…one god further” is a shorthand for not believing in any supernatural stories or religions. It is disingenuous for a religious person of any faith to deny that they don’t accept as true the conflicting religious beliefs of others. The implication that people of different religions do actually believe in the same purposeful creator, but they just have different names and mythologies surrounding it, is bullshit. You do not believe in the same god(s). You reject them. Rejecting other gods is a rule written into each of your holy books.
The rejection of the “one god further” argument on the basis that it is illogical, is hypocrisy, not just for the same reason above, but because a lack of logic is replete throughout religious teachings.

Regarding the article cited, I actually accept the argument that Christianity is probably the world’s most falsifiable religion on the basis of written evidence of historical characters. However, that does not, in my mind, make it any more “true” in terms of having the answers for divine creation than, say, Islam, or even Roman legends. It doesn’t matter to me that Christianity may well have the greatest collection of supporting independent documentary evidence as to the existence of every historical figure mentioned in the bible. I don’t care if a thousand independent historians witnessed Jesus stand up and walk around after he’d been dead for 3 days. In my mind, it’s far more likely that each of these witnesses saw something they didn’t understand. Perhaps one, or even a few, called it ‘rising from the dead’, and then somehow the idea was compelling enough to take hold. Independent accounts of rising from the dead. That’s not falsifiable evidence. That’s hearsay.

Robert:

Paul and Marty,

Many thanks for your thoughtful and intelligent responses to the article. Your exchange in many ways captures the essence of what this ‘atheist forum’ is designed to achieve – i.e. thoughtful engagement on topics pertaining to atheism.

Paul – You’ve mentioned many things and there isn’t time to discuss them all here now. Yet, one thing that I want to hone in on is your rationale for rejecting the evidence concerning Jesus.

“I don’t care if a thousand independent historians witnessed Jesus stand up and walk around after he’d been dead for 3 days. In my mind, it’s far more likely that each of these witnesses saw something they didn’t understand.”

It seems that you have rejected ‘a priori’ any possibility of this miracle occurring? i.e. you have assumed your conclusion. Would that be fair? What would convince you that this ‘miracle’ actually occurred? Or have you assumed that miracles can’t happen, therefore it didn’t happen.

(also, a minor quibble, but I’m sure you realise that Jesus lived in the Iron Age, not the Bronze age! ;-)

Look forward to your response.

Robert

Rob – fair enough on bronze age vs iron age. It’s OT that’s all that bronze age stuff, right…?

* “It seems that you have rejected ‘a priori’ any possibility of this miracle occurring? i.e. you have assumed your conclusion. Would that be fair? What would convince you that this ‘miracle’ actually occurred? Or have you assumed that miracles can’t happen, therefore it didn’t happen.”

No, Rob. I cannot deny all that such a miracle occurred, because it is unfalsifiable.
The claim of a miracle is an extraordinary claim. It requires significant and compelling evidence for it to be accepted. The burden of proof is on the claimant, and that is scientific rationalism.

As to what would convince me that the miracle occurred, a start would be to repeat it for me.
In fact, it is such an extraordinary claim that merely repeating the event in front of my own eyes probably would not be enough to convince me absolutely of its truth.
To get to this point would likely require repeating it a number of times, in the presence of independent trained observers with relevant equipment and the freedom to take measurements, followed by extensive analysis and peer review, with the respected observers and analysers coming to the same conclusions and communicating those conclusions in a way that made sense.

Until that happens, a far easier explanation to accept is:
1. That the people who witnessed the event saw something that was outside their normal experience.
2. Being from an environment and a time in which superstition was commonplace in the attitudes of most people, it was normal, dare I say ‘natural’, to overlay some supernatural explanation to the unusual events seen.
3. Re-telling and propagation of the account added further supernatural significance and embellishment to the original event.

Robert:

Paul,

Thanks again for the comment. I have had this conversation with other atheists at various times – i.e. that they probably wouldn’t believe a miracle even if they saw it themselves. I don’t even think you’d believe the test you’ve constructed for there is always an element of doubt in the ‘experiment’ e.g. how well trained are the observers (what would they be trained in???) Perhaps there was a measurement problem, bias of the observers.

What if the miracle occurred once in history? How can you establish that? Your method precludes that, which means that you adopt a practical a-priori disposition against miracles. I think that’s unfortunate.

Your 3 points are helpful (and maybe even the source of another blog post – I’ll keep you posted) but inadequate, particularly point 2 – consider the miracle narratives of the Bible, not everyone believed them unreservedly. The ancients could distinguish between miracles and superstition. If the miracles were false, why did the people constantly bring their sick to Jesus to be healed??

Further thougts? Maybe I’ll put together another blog post on your 3 points and we can continue the discussion on miracles there?

Thanks again,

Rob

Thanks Rob – I suspect this line of discussion is probably exhausted because there’s nothing additional in it on either side. But, to the specific points:

“I don’t even think you’d believe the test you’ve constructed for there is always an element of doubt in the ‘experiment…”
Yes – in every science experiment there is an element of doubt. Indeed, this is one of the fundamentals of science. We form a hypothesis, then test it, gather data, strengthen the hypotheses, and eventually build well-formed scientific theories.
Eventually someone will come along with a new hypothesis and test that with different techniques, etc., and the results might lead to a minor modification – or even a wholesale change – to the scientific theory.
Science produces solid world views that fit our observations and behaviour. Science works.
And science adapts when new evidence appears. It’s a simple, beautiful truth.

In the case of a divine resurrection: You’re right in assuming that it would be very difficult to convince me (and many other sceptics) with one or a few simple successful repetitions. The claim is so remarkably extraordinary and fantastical that the robustness of the evidence would have to be extremely compelling…

“…What if the miracle occurred once in history?”
Then that’s convenient for Christians because it’s unfalsiable.
Also inconvenient if you’re trying to convince reasonable people that it was real.

” How can you establish that?”
If it occurred only once, and conveniently at a time in human history when record-keeping wasn’t as good as it is now, then you cannot.

“Your method precludes that, which means that you adopt a practical a-priori disposition against miracles.”
Yep.

“If the miracles were false, why did the people constantly bring their sick to Jesus to be healed??”
Desperation, probably.

“Further thougts? Maybe I’ll put together another blog post on your 3 points and we can continue the discussion on miracles there?”
That’s fine with me. Just a warning though – If you plan to dip deeply into the specific pieces of historical reporting on Christianity, it won’t be of any particular interest to me, because I’m not familiar with any them (ie., Tacitus and the like.)
Basically my position is that I don’t know what independent historical evidence for Jesus (and his exploits) is out there, and I don’t care.
*Prove* to me that miracles occur, or as far as I’m concerned the resurrection has as much veracity as the miracles of say, stigmata, or the Virgin Mary appearing in a toasted cheese sandwich.

Robert:

I think we’re exhausting the miracles thread as it appears there is no test we could possibly devise that would convince you that a once-off miracle occurred in history. Is this correct?

Rob, I sense that is correct – an exhausted point!

Just for fun, another analogy that comes to mind is how we considerhomeopathy – now widely accepted by most folks as quackery. I won’t say I fully understand all the claims of homeopathy, but part of it might be summarised as:
“Water can hold a 
memory of various molecules that once were dissolved in it but are now no longer detectable. Depending on what those molecules were, that water can have the power to heal various diseases, etc…”

To any mature person with a modern Western education, the claim as described sounds like nonsense. But just because it sounds like nonsense doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. The claims can be tested. Let’s see…

A bunch of folks go away and test, and come back and say, “it’s true – this works!” It later turns out that some of those folks had a vested interest in the outcome of the experiments. But we don’t know all the details because they weren’t that well documented. (Does that sound familiar?)

Later, other researchers do more rigorous experiments and discover some patients do indeed improve after taking memory water.
But, hold on… the placebo effect is now a well-recognised (and quantified) phenomenon. Bummer: The size of the positive effect is no better than placebo. Homeopathy still shows no verifiable evidence of working.

Even more recently – and this is an actual case, not a hypothetical one (in the late 80s or early 90s; I think they guy’s name was Beneviste, but I could be mis-remembering) – this well-respected scientist with a fully-equipped modern chemistry lab is doing his biochemistry work. He’s not especially interested in homeopathy, but discovers that when he serially dilutes out his reagent “to extinction”, ie., no molecules left: zero… their effects appear in his assay!
Wha…? Can’t be. Let’s repeat.
Same thing! No way!! Can’t be!!!
And again… same thing!!
So extraordinary that it manages to get published in a respected scientific journal.

“Rejoice!”, cry the homeopathists, “For thou hast shown us the memory of water…!”

So extraordinary a finding that it warrants further investigation by independent researchers. This could lead to some fundamental scientific breakthrough…

But guess what?
The independent biochemists couldn’t repeat his results, and discovered that what was happening, was that some small traces of the reagent molecules were “sticking” to the plastic walls of the test tubes. The original serial dilutions to extinction… weren’t. It was just an artefact of the method used.

The moral of the story is about scepticism and how we respond to remarkable claims.
Everyone else now dismisses it as quackery, but there are still lots of people that cling to the truth of homeopathy. This is despite science debunking it and demonstrating that there are a number of ways to account for weird observations. All of these have been shown to be ‘natural’ effects – including the apparent bias/vested interests/mistaken observations of the very first documentors of the phenomenon.

As an aside, note that there is no claim that “there is definitely no such thing as the memory of water”. This would require some proof of that statement, and the fact that no-one has demonstrated water memory, doesn’t mean the same thing as “it isn’t there”.
It’s conceivable that one day someone might indeed demonstrate water memory. But until they do, there is no practical, plausible truth to it, and the superstitious nature of belief in it deserves no respect.

Robert:

Paul,

Sorry for the delay in responding. Hopefully can get up to date now. Whilst interesting and showing the rigour and importance of the scientific method, I’m not entirely sure what your story of homeopathy has to do with our discussion. I’m suggesting that there are very good reasons to believe in God/miracles etc, which do stand up to rigorous enquiry. Remember the key test with determining the miracles of the Bible is historical, not scientific. But perhaps for another day.

Thanks for the story, I think I’ll use it some time.

Rob