Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Robert Wright's defense of theism falls short

I recently encountered part of a Huffington Post interview titled "Q&A with Robert Wright (Part 2): Is Belief in God Any Weirder Than Belief in Electrons?" Robert Wright, author of a book entitled "evolution of God, exemplifies the weak nature of the arguments that some intelligent liberal monotheists use to defend theism against atheism.

Robert Wright starts by pointing out that electrons have internally contradictory wave and particle properties from which he concludes that belief in God is not weirder than belief in electrons. The weirdness of electron's dual character is a symptom of our lack of an explanation for the particle and wave properties being simultaneously present, but we know the properties are true because we have excellent empirical evidence for it. We have no similar empirical evidence for God and that is a key difference here. If we were to one day find an explanation for the electron's combination of properties then its weirdness would be diminished. Robert Wright mistakenly forecloses that possibility by asserting that the electron's properties are "beyond human comprehension." Of course, what we don't understand is, ipso facto, beyond our current comprehension. Maybe it is also beyond human comprehension forever, but we don't know that it is. We actually have good reason to think that one day we will have an explanation for the dual particle and wave properties of electrons. What is that good reason? Its the history of science and the surprising and unanticipated nature of many of the explanations that have been identified. For example, no one imagined nuclear fusion as the source of the sun's heat and light before it was discovered. There are many historical examples of phenomena which we didn't even know existed and which once discovered were very puzzling but were later explained in ways that no one had previously imagined.

Robert Wright then answers affirmatively this question: "If thinking of divinity as something that exists leads people to behave in a morally progressive fashion, might that give validity to a conception of divinity?" The correct answer is no, because any benefits derived from thinking that a deity exists is an entirely distinct and separate phenomena from the fact of that, or any other, deity existing. If you believe you will be punished by god for violating some rule then you may be more likely to respect that rule even though, in fact, you will never be punished by a god for violating that rule because there is no god. Again, Robert Wright defends his conclusion by making an inappropriate comparison with electrons, citing an unnamed physicist who allegedly said "I'm not sure electrons per se really exist. It is, however, useful to talk as if electrons exist. You get good scientific results using that kind of language." The physicist here probably is expressing the fact that our empirically based representation of electrons is an oversimplification, and thus strictly speaking incorrect, because it is at best incompletely explained. Again, the electron existence question is substantially different than the God existence question because for the latter there is no supporting empirical evidence.

Robert Wright expresses incomprehension for atheists: "Strictly speaking, I don't understand how people can call themselves atheists, if the term means you're sure there's no God. I don't see how you can be sure of anything in this world. I'm technically an agnostic, although one with spiritual and religious leanings. But I don't know anything, and I don't know how anyone can say they know there's no God." But the term atheist doesn't mean certainty by absolute proof that we know there is no God. Atheism is a viewpoint that the weight of the evidence justifies the conviction that there is no God (my view), or at least it doesn't justify the conviction that there is a God. Atheists are also often agnostic (I am).

Robert Wright expresses understanding for theists: "If you have a religious experience and God appears, I can see how you'd be pretty convinced. Strictly speaking you still don't know that it's not an illusion, but it's easier for me to understand someone who says they're a religious believer than somebody who says they're an atheist. Because the religious believer says, 'I saw it.'" If a God existed that made its presence known via religious experience, which would be an inefficient way for such a God to make its presence known when it presumably could utilize a more direct and confirmable method for making its presence known, then why do Hindus experience Hindu gods and Muslims experience an Islamic god and Catholics experience a Catholic god and Africans experience tribal African gods when many of these gods have incompatible attributes and identities? The well studied and documented pattern of people experiencing the particular and specific gods that they already know is strong evidence that those experiences are driven by their pre-existing beliefs and as such are strictly mental experiences, much like the experience of imagining monsters under one's bed or behind the nearest closet after watching an alien monster invasion movie. Thus, on closer examination, the religious experience phenomena evidence favors atheism over theisms.

Robert Wright ends by discussing meditation: "This gets at another thing William James said, that our ordinary state of consciousness, the one we use to drive to work and get through life, is just one possible state of consciousness, and there's no reason to assume that it's any more valid than a lot of other possible states. I think in some ways it's manifestly less valid, because our ordinary state of consciousness was designed by natural selection to serve our own interests. And it is an illusion." If a state of conscience serves our own interests then it is validated against something external to ourselves. That is a far from perfect form of validation, but it is also far better than nothing. If a state of conscience does not serve our own interest then it isn't validated against anything external to ourselves. So which is less trustworthy? Logically the unvalidated form of conscience is less trustworthy. Robert Wright isn't particularly logical when it comes to justifying theism.

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