Jason Rosenhouse takes on the “village atheist” criticism of Dawkins et al that Pagels and others are fond of using. (I personally encountered it several times in the last month.) In Wilkins vs. Myers, he lets John Wilkins erect the strawman:

Of course there are people who have a simplistic and literal view of God and religion. That is not at issue and never has been. But what Pagels is saying is something that the uppity atheists always seem to slide over – that there is a more sophisticated view of God that is not so easily knocked down as the idea that God has a backside. And what is more, there always has been (which is the point of studying the Gnostics)….

Rosenhouse’s rejoinder:

Of course, the more sophisticated view to which Wilkins refers is harder to knock down only because it asserts almost nothing in the way of empirical claims…. We uppity atheists do not slide over the possibility of such a God, we merely find it vacuous and irrelevant, and not the kind of God the large majority of Christians profess to believe.

In fact, Elaine Pagels herself (in the Salon interview in which she sneered at Dawkins) provides an excellent example of “sophisticated” beliefs that don’t really say anything:

So when you think about the God that you believe in, how would you describe that God?
Well, I’ve learned from the texts I work on that there really aren’t words to describe God. You spoke earlier about a transcendent reality. I think it’s certainly true that these are not just fictions that we arbitrarily invent.

WTF? Exactly how does Pagels expect an atheist (village or otherwise) to “engage with” this kind of vague handwaving? But she’s not alone. Here’s Terry Eagleton, as quoted by Sean Carroll:

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or “existent”: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves.

Feels like classic Spinoza. But where did the “he” come from? Anthropomorphism alert…. As Carroll puts it:

The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is not just a minor bump in the otherwise smooth road to a fully plausible conception of the divine. It is the profound unsolvable dilemma of “sophisticated theology.”

(I’m quoting from a mammoth posting which does a wonderful job of analyzing the history of these two distinct conceptions of God.)

I’d like to see one of this Pagels/Eagleton/Wilkins/Collins/Jeffries crowd point us “uppity atheists” at one or two books that present the “sophisticated” arguments that we’re supposed to be addressing. While I personally agree with Rosenhouse that such arguments are unlikely to be recognizable by the average Christian in Kansas, I’ll be happy to spend some time on them. I’d prefer to see something that actually “connected the dots”, rather than jumping straight from the Kalam cosmological argument (or a “condition of possibility”) to the Nicene Creed, but whatever….

[Via PZ.]

3 Responses to “The “village atheist” strawman”
  1. Geoff, I think they’d be happy to point you to “one or two books” that completely summarize their whole area of expertise right after you offer them one or two books that completely and rigorously present computer science, software engineering, and associated topics, from BASIC programming to PSPACE.

    But I’m just an amateur at this, and I can name a few of the more sophisticated arguments that never seem to come around.

    (1) My particular favorite, first: Steven Brams exploration of the idea of a “superior being” of sufficient oomph to be a “Creator”. Can the existence or non-existence of such a SB be proven experimentally, without the SB’s co-operation?

    (Brams’ answer: no, because any such experiment would have its outcome predetermined by the SB. An SB capable of fully defining the universe could define any such experiment to say “yes”, or “no” or be indeterminate. But this answer completely undermines the whole notion of a “scientific” or “rationalist” argument for — or against — the existence of SB’s, because it argues that there simply is no experimental method by which evidence can be obtained.)

    (2) Arguments by design: the vapid approximations of these of the ID folks don’t near approach the more sophisticated versions that were around starting with neo-Platonists, and Thomists. What’s more, attempts to handle these almost always lead to infinite-regress issues: certainly we don’t need an Intelligent Designer to constantly be fudging the results of selection to build complexity — complexity theory makes it clear that great complexity can arise via just the sorts of physical processes we see at work in evolution. But that depends on the physical characteristics of the universe: where did those come from? When these are examined closely, we can see that there are really a few basic constants, like the fine-structure constant, that must be very much what they are for the universe to work the way it does. So where did these come from? (This way leads to the Strong Anthropic arguments.)

    Then the m-theorists come up with the idea of a very large number of expansionary events; now we don’t need The Universe to have the right values for these constants, because we can say that we happen to be here because we randomly are in a universe that does humans. (Weak Anthropic principle.)

    But then where did the branes etc come from?

    (3) Sophisticated versions of theodical arguments: how would a God as we conventionally consider the term then build a universe with death and pain and so forth? Again, this isn’t something that can be considered “scientifically” — but it’s easily possible to present an explanation that stands up logically, it makes a sensible recognizable argument. (Viz: God built the universe this way because pain and suffering are inherently illusory; our “transcendent selves” recognize them as part of the game, like the scares in a horror movie — and of equal importance.)

    The point, though, is that when Dawkins et al make an argument that was considered thoroughly in the 5th century CE, and thrashed out by everyone from Thomas Aquinas and Spinoza to Schleiermacher and Kung and Barth, without showing any sign that he’s at all familiar with the historical arguments, he just isn’t very convincing. He just looks ignorant. Just like the people who regularly claim to have squared the circle, or shown Einstein’s fatal basic error.

  2. geoff says:

    Hmmm. Still no book references, or even URLs. But taking Charlie’s points in order:

    (1) Could a “superior being” make experimental verification impossible? Of course – this is simply a restatement of the “brain in a vat” argument. But as with such arguments, it falls to Ockham’s relentless razor. If we cannot distinguish between an observed universe, U, and an identical universe U plus a superior being SB which constantly intervenes to maintain U, we should prefer the simpler explanation. SB has the same ontological status as Russell’s orbiting teacup.

    (I should note that Brams seems like an odd sort of character, arguing as he does that the characters in the Hebrew Bible – including God – are rational actors from a game-theoretic standpoint. I wonder if that extends to the various God-sanctioned ethnic cleansings, rapes, and so forth? Possibly rational, but ethically questionable, wouldn’t you say?)

    (2) More “god of the gaps” style arguments from (sort of) design. The problem with all of these is that even if you can pin a “first cause” on some elements of distant cosmology (which seems dubious), there is no rational basis for drawing any inference about its relationship to any human religious belief system. All such belief systems are more plausibly explained by reasonably well-understood processes of evolutionary psychology. One of the most devastating arguments against any linkage is the deeply parochial exceptionalism that it implies. All religions attempt to establish a special relationship between a cosmic creator and one species, living in one cosmically brief moment, on one planet among billions. A billion years from now, if life continues on this planet, there will be organisms that bear the same relationship to us as we bear to amoebas.

    (3) Theodicy is not an argument _for_ any kind of deity; it’s an attempt to shore up an incoherent deistic conception. See the piece by Sean Carroll that I cited. Steven Bray’s “superior being” is in no need of theodicy. Theodicy only becomes important when the God concept being defended is strongly anthropomorphic – but of course such Gods are especially vulnerable to the argument from evolutionary psychology.

    Frankly there’s nothing here that I haven’t read many times before, and have seen sliced and diced by professionals. (Michael Martin comes to mind.) And have you actually read Dawkins’ book, Charlie? Because he certainly considers – and dismisses – the arguments that you’ve raised here.

  3. Actually, Geoff, I’ve noted Brams’ book to you before, including the Amazon link to buy it second hand. But your point about “no links” skims past my point, that a field that has, oh, 3000 years of argument isn’t something that can be easily summarized in one link. I mean, golly — for a good start you’d need to have Leibnitz, Spinoza, Thomas Aquinas, some of the other church fathers, … cripes, I don’t know.

    Appeal to Ockham’s Razor doesn’t cut it, though — that’s merely a heuristic; it’s desirable to accept the least complicted theory, but that doesn’t mean the more complicated one isn’t more correct. (Cf, Special Relativity vs newtonian mechanics, or or Einstein’s denial of probabilistic quantum theory.) In fact, it can easily be shown that there are countably many indistinguishable different theories for any finite collections of observations, any of which may be more right (in the sense of being more predictive, minimizing error terms) than the shortest.

    (Plus, in this case, you need a measure of what is “more” or “less” complex: how do you argue, without petitio, that a “deistic” argument is “more complicated” and a “natrualistic” one?)

    On the last point, I’ve read some of Dawkins now — I’m up to my ears in Solaris documentation right now, gahhh — but he doesn’t so far seem to actually be aware of the history of the arguments. There are plenty of people who have looked at the book who are, and it doesn’t seem to make the case to any of them — as I say, I’m merely an amateur — while the people who find it convincing seem largely to be Dawkins’ co-religionists.

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