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.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Netroots National Convention and Bruce Ledewitz promote bad EC arguments

The Netroots Nation Convention panel meeting in Pittsburgh drafted a proposal concerning the future of the separation of church and state in America. The proposal blatantly first assumes the conclusion that government establishment of monotheism is constitutional and then tries to justify that conclusion instead of starting with the constitutional principle and then trying to reach the proper conclusion:

"The old liberal vision of a total separation of religion from politics has been discredited. Despite growing secularization, a secular progressive majority is still impossible, and a new two-part approach is needed--one that first admits that there is no political wall of separation. Voters must be allowed, without criticism, to propose policies based on religious belief. But, when government speaks and acts, messages must be universal. The burden is on religious believers, therefore, to explain public references like 'under God' in universal terms. For example, the word 'God' can refer to the ceaseless creativity of the universe and the objective validity of human rights. Promoting and accepting religious images as universal will help heal culture-war divisions and promote the formation of a broad-based progressive coalition."

Before proceeding I must digress a little to blast the call for "without criticism" censorship in the above paragraph. The fact is that when anyone proposes public policies based on religious beliefs those religious beliefs necessarily become part of the public debate and thus subject to criticism. This notion that somehow religious motivations for public policies, unlike all other public policy motivations, are immune from public criticism when debating the policy is an indefensible double standard. That is an intolerant and one-sided censorship on the debate and is completely unreasonable and unrealistic.

The Establishment Clause is not about religious believers and their religious beliefs, its about government and the law, so the burden here is on the law and government to avoid unnecessary religious partisanship in word and deed, the burden is not on religious believers to assert the universality of religious expressions and practices in the laws and government actions by substituting non-religious language that derives from their particular partisan religious beliefs. That should be obvious. Yet somehow a Professor of Law at Duquesne University School of Law named Bruce Ledewitz actually endorses this unbalanced and superficial approach. According to the Professor “As long as government plausibly justifies religious imagery in nonreligious terms, its use would be constitutional.” He gives an example:

1) The phrase “In God We Trust” can also mean that we acknowledge that there are binding standards of right and wrong.
2) IGWT is constitutional.

For a monotheist who believes that God is the source of morality, but not the source of immorality, and that God must be obeyed, it is indeed plausible to assert that almost any religious imagery consistent with those religious beliefs serves the dual purpose of upholding "moral standards". It is worth pointing out here that exactly what those "moral" standards are is going to vary with the religious beliefs and may not actually be ethical at all, there is much content in the bible and other holy books that is nasty, cruel, ugly and brutal. The key point here, however, is that Ledewitz is applying a partisan Christian compatible monotheistic methodology to constitutional interpretation of the Establishment Clause and consequently undermines his assertion of achieving universality to comply with Equality before the Law and the related Establishment Clauses of the constitution. As an atheist the notion that God is the source of morality and therefore references to God belief are synonymous with references to upholding morality is simply mistaken, its a non-starter, its not at all plausible just like the gods beliefs they are rooted in are not plausible. Furthermore, those theists who think gods are the source of immorality or that god(s) should not be obeyed would consider it wrong to assert IGWT. Bah humbug to the arrogant and ridiculous claim of universiality for his own partisan IGWT religious belief.

A central purpose of the EC is to carve out a sphere of freedom for everyone, especially for minorities in a democracy that tends to favor majorities, to be themselves without the interference of unnecessary government favoritism for or against their religious beliefs. We are not achieving that purpose if we start to call the exclusivist religious beliefs of a majority universal for no other reason that they can be rephrased into non-religious language by the people who hold those religious beliefs because those religious beliefs also claim various roles in the secular world. If most Americans believe that poverty, or illness, or natural disaster, is due to failure to worship the God properly then according to Professor Ledewitz we have a plausible secular justification for government to justify religious imagery promoting proper worship. Religious believers thus get to have their majoritarian religious beliefs laundered by the law into secular beliefs by self-declaration.

Isn’t it obvious that these are not secular justifications at all? They are partisan religious justifications for partisan religious phrases rooted in assigning a god particular attributes. It is only by making the partisan religious assumptions inherent in assigning particular attributes to a personal god that people can generalize that a partisan religious phrase is equivalent in meaning to a non-religious condition or event or outcome in the first place. And it is only by giving special privilege to majoritarian religious beliefs over the beliefs of minorities that such religiously partisan imagery backed by religious partisan arguments can be adopted into law.

Ledewitz’s method gets us nowhere with regard to first amendment jurisprudence, its a closed circle that starts and ends with the same legal privileging of majoritarian partisan religious beliefs it falsely claims to discard for EC purposes via the all-purpose, catch-all contrivance of substituting religious imagery with religiously derived non-religious imagery. Then, with a wink and crossed fingers held behind one’s back, Ledewitz's approach disregards the actual exclusivist religious imagery in dispute and the exclusivist religious derivation of the transformation to non-religious imagery while pointing to the remaining non-religious substitute in isolation and insisting that it be labeled as universal and be judged as constitutional as a proxy for the actual religious imagery. If would be a shame to our nation if our Supreme Court were to adopt Professor Ledewitz's blatantly disingenuous contrivance to avoid upholding the EC no less than it would be shame to our nation if our Supreme Court were to more directly endorse the same unfair result by adopting Scalia's unprincipled endorsement of inequality before the law with respect to the EC for "nonbelievers", Buddhists and Hindus.