Friday, July 28, 2017

Do Gardens Imply the Existence of Invisible Magic Beings?

Christian apologist James Anderson has posted another fun little blog entry, this one titled On Fairies and Gardeners, over on his site Proginosko. In this entry Anderson objects to overt comparisons of the Christian god to fairies while implicitly comparing man’s cognitive faculties to a garden implying the existence of a gardener. Anderson opens his blog with the following announcement:
I’ve been revisiting Richard Dawkins’ best-seller The God Delusion in preparation for an apologetics class I’ll be teaching next week.
Anderson is writing this in July 2017. And yet, back in April 2009, more than eight years ago if I have my math right, Anderson announced his conclusion (referring specifically to The God Delusion, mind you) that “Dawkins’ case against theism is philosophically inept” (see here). With such a condemning assessment, I’m wondering if Anderson has changed his mind, or whether he prefers to spend his time sparring with low-hanging fruit before a captive audience in his classroom. Consider the impressionable young minds who have chosen to take on the burden of a heavy student debt at so early a time in life as to sit through such a course. Indeed, just what kind of living does one set out to achieve with an education in “apologetics”? Perhaps if one confuses a career with a living, it could be said that Anderson may be doing fairly well as a vested member of the professoriate.

Suffice it to say, Anderson’s post does not appear to be an attempt to interact with the meat of Dawkins’ book – assuming it has any meat to begin with (not that I have ever read it; I have never even owned a copy of any of Dawkins’ books). Rather, his entry is an attempt at a thoughtful reply to one line found in the book’s dedication, namely the following (apparently attributed to someone named Douglas Adams):
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?
To which I would reply: If in fact it is a beautiful garden (I’ve seen some ugly ones), then of course! It would not even occur to me to “believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it,” let alone find it necessary to believe such a thing.

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.
Theists object to their god being cast in the same category as fairies, elves, and other beings widely acknowledged to be fictional. The problem is that, both epistemologically and metaphysically, theists cannot identify any fundamental distinctions to justify treating their god separately from fantastical beings. For one has no alternative but to engage the same mental function to consider both, namely the imagination. I cannot see or touch or hear fairies, elves, hobgoblins and gremlins, but I can imagine them. Likewise, I cannot see or touch or hear the theist’s god, but I can imagine it. In fact, in either case, I must use my imagination it if I am to think about any of these otherworldly beings. This puts the theist’s god “epistemically on a par” with elves and fairies so far as I can tell.

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,
And I agree. But I would go even further, offering the cautioning advice that we be careful not to use the term “believe” as a comfortable euphemism when in fact what lies at the heart of the mental operation in question is one’s imagination. So often, thinkers use certain words – like “believe” or “conceive” – to camouflage the role of the imagination in the matter in question. For in fact, before one can “believe” that fairies are “at the bottom” of a garden we’re beholding, one would first have to imagine said fairies to begin with. After all, belief is generally speaking a degree of confidence in some mental content, and the mental content in question has to occupy a place in one’s consciousness in order for a degree of confidence to be fixed upon it. And how did “fairies” come to occupy a place in one’s consciousness in the first place? I suggest that it was by means of the imagination.

Anderson continued:
because the former doesn’t depend on the latter in any plausible way.
It’s true that the actual does not depend on that which is merely imaginary. Gardens which are real are in fact real; fairies are imaginary. So how could things that are real depend on things which are imaginary? Blank out. And while this general truth that the actual does not depend on that which is merely imaginary should hold the status of a fundamental principle in such considerations, this is clearly not the principle which guides Anderson’s train of thought on the matter.

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.
I certainly would not be the first to object to Anderson’s claim here that positing a supernatural being which essentially wishes reality into some desired shape does nothing to explain what we find in the world. (Indeed, outside of storybooks and what we might imagine, where do we find examples of consciousness possessing such remarkable powers?) An “explanatory role,” to the degree that it depends on our imagining the very being in question in the first place, will never be sufficient to serve as a factor that can distinguish the theist’s god from other fantastical beings.

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:
Craig, we are told by many, is the most capable Christian apologist living today. If that’s even close to being the case, it’s time to drive the final nail into theism’s coffin.

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.

Anderson suggests:
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?
Assuming that by “garden” we in fact mean a patch of vegetation that has been cultivated and shaped through the application of volitionally guided action, then of course, one would be entirely within his “epistemic rights” to infer the activity of at least one gardener (indeed, there may be more than one!).

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.
And of course, against the backdrop of the wilds of an untamed wilderness, one may naturally wonder how a clearly man-made object got there. But that’s the point, a point which Craig apparently doesn’t get, namely that a man-made object stands out quite conspicuously against a background that is not man-made. The hikers clearly aren’t asking, as they hike through the forest, “how did the universe get here?” as they negotiate precarious footpaths and push branches and bushes out of their way. They grasp, at least implicitly, that the wilderness is the metaphysically given. As such, we do not need an explanation of where everything “came from” – such a question only works against its own insidious assumptions by committing the fallacy of the stolen concept. Indeed, to what could “where?” refer if not to something that exists? And if everything we observe “came from” something that exists, then we’re right back where we started, i.e., with the question “Where did it all come from?” The theist gives away the game by insisting on an arbitrary starting point (e.g., “God created it!”), thus implicitly acknowledging the stolen concept that he’s attempted to embezzle into a complete non-problem and dress it up as some highfalutin philosophical quandary that only theism can supposedly unravel.

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.”
So, again – a garden as opposed to what? - a jungle or desert wilderness does not exhibit orderly cultivation, but rather the wild abandon of nature left to its own. So while gardens imply gardeners, a wilderness surely does not. If I look out over an untamed rugged wasteland, why would I marvel and think “That must have been created by an omniscient, all-powerful and perfect supernatural being!”? In such a way, the garden example only underscores some of the deficiencies of the argument from design. Anderson proposed a more profound question in place of the one Dawkins includes in his book:
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?
And of course, I applaud the importance this question puts on understanding how man’s mind functions. But sadly, this is not something I think we can learn much about by flipping through the ancient legends, poetry, genealogies and screeds found in the Old and New Testaments. On the contrary, such storybooks tend to serve more as a distraction from improving one’s understanding of the nature of man’s mind than as a guide detailing an informed account of human cognition.

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


Jason mc said...

Thanks for another great read.

I went over to James Anderson's piece, wondering if there'd be any more depth to it...

He dismisses fairies as having no explanatory role. But is that historically accurate? Fairy-belief, in various forms, is an old part of European cultures. Along with other sorts of animistic thinking, it served as part of pre-scientific explanations of aspects of nature, diseases, good and bad luck, cosmic origins, and ethics.

This sort of folklore, from a modern perspective, looks like proto-religion, proto-science, and proto-philosophy.

Perhaps Anderson would be counted among those modern religionists who try to distance their own beliefs from primitive, pagan precursors. It'd be a stronger position to be able to accept that there's a genealogical continuity there, and be able to account for it.

A modern scientifically-informed, evolutionary perspective is very much ready to embrace its history of fairy-belief. Thought evolves!

Anderson calls Richard Dawkins' thinking about theism, as indicated by the Douglas Adams quote, 'shallow'. He briefly mentions some epistemological issues, hinting that theism would help to explain them. But a hint of an explanation isn't one. Name-dropping concepts is as shallow as anything.

But maybe he's already written detailed treatments of the topics he mentions. I'd suggest he could do his readers the courtesy of linking to them.

I notice he's got William Lane Craig's name in his blog's tag cloud. Does Anderson think that Craig's the man to go to for explaining these subjects? I clicked on the link and was presented with a bunch of internecine squabbling over theology. So perhaps not.

The God Delusion is the single Dawkins book that I've read. I wouldn't recommend it.


Ydemoc said...


I am so far behind in my reading, but I'm just chiming in here to say thank you once again for your latest!


l_johan_k said...

Hi Dawson,

how are you?

Did you see the e-mails I sent (just to be sure that I used the correct e-mail).

Keep up the good work!