I’ve been revisiting Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The God Delusion in preparation for an apologetics class I’ll be teaching next week.
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
But this rhetorical question apparently gets our beloved apologist’s panties in a bunch. For Anderson reacts with the following declaration:
I suppose Dawkins considered this a pithy critique of theistic beliefs and in keeping with the thrust of his book. It does at least give us some insight into how Dawkins and his ilk think about theism, i.e., that it’s epistemically on a par with belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. But it also reflects just how shallow that thinking is.
In response to this, theists will insist that, while there is no evidence for the existence of elves, fairies, hobbits, minotaurs, Pegasus, and the like, there is ample evidence for the believer’s god. (Presumably the apologist would, in keeping with Christian lore at any rate, also need to maintain that there is evidence for the existence of angels, demons, spirits, ghosts, and other supernatural beings, not just their god – for their religion does not stop with positing only a deity, but a whole host of otherworldly beings which bear striking similarities to elves, fairies, gnomes, Cyclops, titans, etc., not the least of which is the fact that they are accessible to the human mind only by means of imagination.)
But notice that the “evidences” which apologists offer on behalf of the god they worship either take the form of tawdry inferences (dressed up of course to impress those already convinced of their conclusions), or they point to things that are natural, material, finite and corruptible as though they could somehow imply the existence of something that is supposed to be supernatural, immaterial, infinite and incorruptible. How does that work? Ironically, in spite of the claim that their god plays a “necessary explanatory role” in the world we live in, apologists cannot explain this!
Like many other thinkers, I’ve examined a wide variety of arguments for the existence of a supernatural creator, a deity, a god (I post links to some of my examinations below), and have found all of them to be terminally flawed – defective in such a manner that merely altering the phrasing of a minor premise, for instance, will not overcome. But I’m always happy to look at new arguments if any come forward. Unfortunately, a sizeable proportion of theistic arguments are in one way or another variants on older arguments that have long been refuted.
Anderson himself does admit:
Of course it’s enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it,
because the former doesn’t depend on the latter in any plausible way.
Of course, the fact that the actual does not depend on the imaginary will not stop a thinker from imagining a relationship of “dependence” between something that is real and something that is not. If for instance I believed that fairies were responsible for the existence of a garden that I’ve wandered into, I would not only be imagining the fairies in question, but also the very relationship of dependence at the heart of the belief in question as well. Nothing in reality is going to stop me from imagining such things if I choose to, for imagination is a volitional function of man’s consciousness, and thus subject only to one’s own self-regulation.
But Anderson battles fairies in preference for theism by asserting the following:
Fairies have no explanatory role to play in one’s appreciation of a beautiful garden. But theists have long contended that God has a significant explanatory role to play in our understanding of the world and our place in it; indeed, a necessary explanatory role.
Even worse, far from providing an explanation, the assertion of the existence of a deity only succeeds in multiplying the theist’s burdens, none of which he ever comes close to meeting. For in positing his god, not only does the theist fail to explain the initial point of interest (e.g., the garden itself), he now has thrown onto his own shoulders the onus of explaining much, much more. How did the theist’s deity create the garden? By what means did it create it? From what did it create it? If from nothing (“ex nihilo”), how does that work? Why did it create a garden? What could possibly motivate a being that has no needs, no requirements, no conditions to its existence, no metaphysical basis to choose one path over an infinity of other paths? What could it possibly intend to accomplish, and why? Etc.
And to cap it off, in reply to any answer the believer attempts to give in response to these and a long list of further questions, we must ask: How does the believer know? Theological speculation – i.e., the bland, groping sophistry of teasing out possible conclusions on the basis of premises informed by the input of religious imagination – is certainly no substitute for reason and no bulwark for intellectual confidence. (But it can be very effective when it comes to confirming fully-invested bias, propagandizing the intellectually defenseless, and providing an air of plausible deniability for those who fear venturing out of their own spiritual comfort zones.)
And before apologists scramble to defend the supposed “necessary explanatory role” of their beloved deity, I ask that they first consider the objections which I have raised against William Lane Craig’s efforts to argue that “God is the best explanation” for the following issues:
Bottom line on this point: that which can only be accessible to the human mind by means of imagination – especially imagination which fundamentally departs from the world which we actually experience and know – has no explanatory power in terms of informing a rational understanding of what actually does exist.
So a more fitting question would be: Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there is a gardener who made it beautiful?
But let us pause here to notice how the entire pro-theistic spin put on the matter by the apologist falls apart rather quickly when we ask: A garden as opposed to what? Typically by ‘garden’ one means a plot of ground where plants of various types are cultivated for specific purposes – and specifically cultivated by human beings, by choice. This is a clear contrast from a wilderness in which humans have had no such undertakings. Such a wilderness in no way suggests the planning and order found in a well-cared for garden, and yet wouldn’t it be places where humans have not “interfered” with nature where teleological arguments need to secure evidence of planning, order, and “design” most? It won’t do to come along to something obviously fashioned by human beings – like a garden or a pocket watch – and call it evidence of supernatural design, for such items are clearly traceable to human ingenuity. Of course a Maserati shows evidence of design! It was designed by human beings!
But in what appears to be a most un-self-conscious move, apologists often take something that is clearly man-made in an effort to wrest from it teleological implications for the supernatural. We saw this in William Lane Craig’s attempt to argue that ”God is the best explanation for why anything exists at all” when he writes:
Suppose you were hiking through the forest and came upon a ball lying on the ground. You would naturally wonder how it came to be there. If your hiking buddy said to you, “Forget about it! It just exists!” you would think he was either joking or just wanted you to keep moving. No one would take seriously the idea that the ball just exists without any explanation.
Anderson’s own answer to his question tracks this point to a degree:
To which the answer isn’t obviously a self-congratulatory “Yes!” but rather (at a minimum) “Well, it depends on exactly what we see in the garden.” If the garden we see is an orderly, cultivated one then the answer is clearly, “No, it’s not enough; a rational person ought to believe both.”
Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without considering not only whether there is a gardener who made it beautiful, but also how it is that we came to possess reliable cognitive faculties which allow us to see gardens, to conceive of them as gardens, and to make meaningful objective aesthetic judgments about them?
Some fundamental points need to be borne in mind when exploring the nature of man’s cognitive functions, such as: man’s cognitive functions are functions of his consciousness; consciousness is biological in nature; cognitive functions are actions performed by man, a biological organism; and so on. The importance of these fundamentals in the context of the theism-nontheism debate is that they put the matter exclusively in “this world,” the world of nature, facts, flesh and bone, not in the world of fantasy and make-believe.
Again, I have never found any informative discussion of the nature of conceptualization, of concept-formation, in any of the many books of the bible. Instead, there we find folksy wisdom about avoiding a whiny spouse (I’m reminded of passages like Proverbs 19:13 – “the contentions of a wife are a continual dropping” – I guess a wife is not supposed to have contentions!), enigmatic poetry of a quasi-erotic nature (cf. Song of Solomon 7:7 – “This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes” that’s clearly pornographic, Bronze-age style), legends of heroes and anti-heroes, tales of miracles and devastation, tirades about foreskins, and other things that occupied a place of importance for its ancient authors and readers.
But in the pages of our bibles we will not find a studied examination of the nature of human consciousness, how it acquires awareness of the objects of the world and what it can do with that awareness in identifying, integrating and organization the information such awareness makes available to man. All this is ignored as much as it is taken for granted, just as we find in other literature of the time, just as we would expect from primitive cultures we find in existence today (does anyone out there have a book on great Congolese moral philosophers on their bookshelves?).
Of course, there may be an immediate fringe benefit, for some at any rate, to leaving the nature of man’s mind shrouded in mystery. If individuals learn about the nature of their own consciousness, this knowledge may empower them by helping them understand not only the limits but also the potentials of their own minds, and with this perhaps even expand its potentials and harness new capacities never achieved before (think of advancements in mathematics, for example). Moreover, such knowledge would help understand the basic nature of other men’s minds, thus correcting the presumption often fostered in childhood that some other minds are superior in some metaphysical sense, omniscient perhaps (cf. “mother knows best”). All this would only foster greater independence among men. But historically the churchmen have resisted intellectual emancipation and have invented many different ways to curtail it.
Conceptualization is a function of consciousness, and to understand it requires at minimum understanding its relation to more primitive functions of consciousness. In her essay “For the New Intellectual,” Ayn Rand identified three general levels of consciousness: the level of sensations, the level of perceptions, and the level of conceptualization. She observed that both the level of sensations and the level of perceptions are non-volitional, autonomic functions (consider for example: if a bright light is shown in your eyes, can you escape it simply by choosing to see something else instead, or must you actually close your eyes or move your head or body, etc.? And if you break your arm, can you choose to feel pleasure instead of pain?). Sensations, she observed, give awareness of immediate stimuli, and that awareness lasts only so long as the stimuli operate on the sense organs; perceptions, she observed, give awareness of things as entities by integrating sensations, and that awareness can be stored in memory (like it or not). All of this take place pre-volitionally, before choice has any bearing on conscious activity.
But when we get to the third level of consciousness, the level of concepts, a whole new world opens up to man, the rational animal. And to get a better understanding of this I urge readers to study (not just read, but study) Rand’s book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, in which she walks the reader through the several steps of concept-formation. The more one puts into understanding what Rand delivers in this powerful tome, the more rewards he will reap from it!
Suffice it to say, if a thinker is to consider, or actually investigate, how man’s mind “[has come] to possess reliable cognitive faculties which allow us to see gardens, to conceive of them as gardens, and to make meaningful objective aesthetic judgments about them,” then I strongly suggest he explore the issue of concept-formation in a philosophical manner, particularly in a manner which explores the facts pertaining to the matter, including the nature of man’s consciousness, the actions man’s consciousness must take to form concepts, the nature of the relationship between the objects man perceives and the concepts he forms from them, the role of measurement in the formation of concepts, etc. From what I have observed, none of these concerns ever figures into the theist’s treatment on this or related matters (e.g., truth, intelligibility, logic, induction, absolutes, mathematics, etc.), even though it’s clear from the nature of the case that every thinker, theist included, must apply them in the very setup of the problem under discussion: he must have awareness of things (cf. perception); he must integrate the things he’s aware of into mental units (cf. concept-formation); there must be some relationship between the things he’s aware of and the concepts he forms to integrate those things; every thing he integrates into the concepts he forms must exist in some measurement (e.g., the ball he observes and includes in his concept of ‘ball’ must be one inch in diameter or one foot in diameter, or some other measurement), the concepts he defines must have some definition, etc.
But where does theism instruct us on such matters? How does believing in a supernatural universe-creating consciousness which can simply wish stars, planets, mountains and dust into being help us understand how our minds “see gardens, to conceive of them as gardens, and to make meaningful objective aesthetic judgments about them”?
I have yet to see such questions answered soberly and informatively.
by Dawson Bethrick