Thursday, July 31, 2008

Irreligion

I recently read a short book by John Allen Paulos called Irreligion. Being written by a mathematician, it has a different tone from that of the other popular atheist books out there. The sub-title sums it up: "A mathematician explains why the arguments for God just don't add up." Paulos briskly reviews three main categories of arguments, and also inserts some insightful commentary including a fictional dialogue with God himself.

The first category he calls the "Classical Arguments". First he deals with the argument from a first cause. Paulos points out that if everything has a cause, then that statement includes God as well. I think some believers would reply that the premise is that all physical things have causes, but God isn't physical. I think such assertions are baseless. Paulos also makes the important point that the term "cause" only makes sense if time is involved. A causes B only if A is before B. I've heard William Lane Craig say that God's first cause was simultaneous with the beginning of the universe, but I find that idea to be nonsensical.

He also covers the argument from design making an analogy to our complex free market economy that has emerged with no central planning. Finally he goes over the anthropic principle and ontological argument. Paulos was not impressed with either of them.

The second category was subjective arguments like coincidence, prophecy, personal experience and miraculous intervention. As to be expected, Paulos finds the evidence lacking. One interesting bit of information regarding prophetic testimony is that "...testimony that someone is telling the truth is self-undermining if the likelihood of truth-telling is less than 1/2. If people are confused, lying, or otherwise deluded more often than not, then their expressions of support for each other are literally less than worthless." Paulos goes on to prove this mathematically.

In one interlude between the main arguments Paulos talks about Jesus and says how surprising it is that people take the stories about Jesus in the Bible at face value. He compares it to recent events like the JFK assassination or Watergate which were covered in detail by the modern-media with recordings on film and tape, yet we are still clueless about so much of what was going on with those historic events. Paulos also discusses the silly idea in the Da Vinci Code story that a single family descends from the line of Jesus. He shows mathematically how if a person from 2000 years ago has any descendants alive today they must number in the millions.

The final category is called psycho-mathematical arguments. Here he talks about the arguments from redefinition, complexity, cognitive tendency, universality and gambling (aka. Pascal's Wager). There is a lot of good stuff here, but I'll just end with this fascinating excerpt:
[Researchers] exposed fourth- and fifth-grade students to a variety of intriguing mathematical games and measured the time the children played them. They found that the children seemed to possess a good deal of intrinsic interest in the games. The games were fun. After a few days, however, the psychologists began to reward the children for playing; those playing them more had a better chance of winning prizes offered. The prizes did increase the time the children played the games, but when the prizes were stopped, the children lost almost all interest in the games and rarely played them. The extrinsic rewards had undercut the children's intrinsic interest. Likewise, religious injunctions and rewards promised to children for being good might, if repudiated in later life, drastically reduce the time people spend playing the "being good" game. This is another reason not to base ethics on religious teachings.
If you're tired of reading all the recent atheist books (as I was) I highly recommend this little book with it's refreshing perspective on these old arguments.

6 comments:

J. K. Jones said...

Hello, TAG,

“…First he deals with the argument from a first cause. Paulos points out that if everything has a cause, then that statement includes God as well.”

The argument, put forth by Craig and others, is that something must not have a cause. There cannot be an infinite regress of finite causes. If there were, the infinite regress would not have been crossed to get to us. We’ve discussed this at length elsewhere.

“…the term "cause" only makes sense if time is involved. A causes B only if A is before B…”

The argument does not turn on the absence of time. (Although it is interesting to me top hear scientists talking about time itself having a beginning in the Big Bang.) The cosmological argument turns on the cause that must have always been. It doesn’t say that this First Cause does not experience a sequence of events, just that He exists outside those events.

I’ll be on the look-out for the book.

JK

that atheist guy said...

Hi JK,

Thanks for stopping by. Yes we have discussed those topics before. I'm not sure an infinite regress is impossible, or even if those are the only two options. (ie. infinite regress or first cause). The objection to an infinite regress seems related to Zeno's Paradox, and despite that, we can still move.

So do you think the First Cause (aka. God) is experiencing events outside our time, in his own kind of time?

J. K. Jones said...

Hi TAG,

“…Zeno's Paradox…”

Zeno’s Paradox assumes an infinite number of points along a distance between two locations. That is its downfall. He said, as I recall, that to move from one point to another, we had to cross half the distance. However, to move half the distance we would have to cross half the distance to the half of the original distance. However, to move that distance, we would have to cross half the distance to half the distance of half the distance to the original point. (Boy, it is hard to express this without a diagram!) So, in his paradox, we could never move because we could never go halfway to the next location.

The downfall is that there is no such thing as an infinite number of discrete / definite distances along a line between two locations. Each step you take has a definite distance. You can reach the other point because the definite distance is crossed over and over. This is the very thing that makes the Fist Cause, or cosmological, argument work.

In the situation I am describing in the argument, there is no end to the line. The distance we cross is not limited. We could keep “walking” in discrete steps for as long as we wanted along the line, but we would never reach the end of it. It has no end.

If we walked backwards along the line, we would never reach the end of the line if it had no beginning. We could never cross the distance to the beginning because, by definition, the line has no beginning point. We have the same situation behind us as before us.

The line has no beginning and end in this scenario. We would not be able to walk to this point on the line because that would require walking from a beginning point that does not exist to an endpoint that does not exist. We cannot move through the unlimited distance.

If we are to reach the point we started out from, the line we were walking along had to have a beginning. If we reached this point in the discrete sequence of causes that lead up to the cause(s) of our own existence, then those causes had to have a First Cause that has always been, a beginning point as it were.

If time is also a real entity that moves in discrete increments, then time had to have a beginning as well. Some theories of physics hint that this is the case, but the ‘jury is still out’ on those theories, at least until we unify General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. The argument itself does not depend on a beginning in time, just a beginning in the sequence of causes. I think time is just an abstraction and has no real existence, but, like I say, the ‘jury is still out.’


“…So do you think the First Cause (aka. God) is experiencing events outside our time, in his own kind of time?”

I think that God experiences a sequence of events. He must have this experience in order to interact with human beings. The idea of the First Cause is not that He does not experience a sequence of events, but that He existed before the sequence of events began to unfold. He always has existed because that is the only way He could be the beginning of the sequence. He exists in and of Himself, because He existed before anything else did. There was nothing else besides Him, so there was nothing that caused His existence. If nothing outside Him causes His existence, if He exists in and of Himself, He cannot cease to be. In that sense, He was not and is not bound by time. This is what Christian theology means by saying God is ‘eternal.’ That is all the argument depends on.

Going back to God’s relationship with time, I find the Bible to be somewhat silent on the technical philosophical aspects of the issue. There is much the Bible does say, but some things are left to obscurity. I am still learning about this topic. (I’m just telling you why I think what I think. I have tried to establish the Bible’s truth on my blog under the search label “Argument from Scripture.”)

JK

that atheist guy said...

Hi JK,

There are still some deep problems related to Zeno however. For example, can space itself be quantized? Everyone knows time is weird and confusing, but plain old everyday space is baffling too.

You wrote:
"If time is also a real entity that moves in discrete increments, then time had to have a beginning as well. Some theories of physics hint that this is the case, but the ‘jury is still out’ on those theories, at least until we unify General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. The argument itself does not depend on a beginning in time, just a beginning in the sequence of causes. I think time is just an abstraction and has no real existence, but, like I say, the ‘jury is still out.’"

It is, and as I said in our other discussions the idea of an infinite regress does seem to be absurd. I'm just reluctant to rule it out entirely because absurdities have an annoying habit of become experimental realities in physics. There might be other possibilities as well. Maybe time is a loop, or maybe the Big Bang is expanding both into the future and into the past "simultaneously". Or there might be other options our little brains can't conceive. I'm also not sure a first cause gets us out of the problem entirely since we must ask why that first cause is what it is. Saying something is "outside of time" is meaningless to me.

JK wrote:
"I think that God experiences a sequence of events. He must have this experience in order to interact with human beings. The idea of the First Cause is not that He does not experience a sequence of events, but that He existed before the sequence of events began to unfold. He always has existed because that is the only way He could be the beginning of the sequence. He exists in and of Himself, because He existed before anything else did. There was nothing else besides Him, so there was nothing that caused His existence. If nothing outside Him causes His existence, if He exists in and of Himself, He cannot cease to be. In that sense, He was not and is not bound by time. This is what Christian theology means by saying God is ‘eternal.’ That is all the argument depends on."

But again, how do you know any of those claims? Saying "He existed before the sequence of events began to unfold" necessarily invokes the concept of time with the word "before". But then again, why can't we just say God IS experiencing time, but it's time in another dimension, or some kind of divine "paratime". That idea seems to make more sense then talking about something "outside" of time. (How could thought or action exist without some kind of time?)

As I said elsewhere, even if I were to grant you the idea of a first cause, I don't see why it has to be a person like being. Your sentences like, "There was nothing else besides Him, so there was nothing that caused His existence." could be re-written putting "universe" in place of "Him".

Now I know some atheistic physicists like to say the universe literally came from nothing, but I think I can agree with you JK that such an idea seems crazy. Maybe it's safe to imagine some kind of first cause or seed of the universe, but I doubt any of our religions have any idea about the nature of such a thing, just like they had no idea about science's first scratchings into the deep mysteries of reality like quantum physics and relativity.

Christian Scholar said...

One of the things that I find interesting about the consideration of an infinite as it relates to the beginning of the universe, is that it runs contrary to science.What I mean is that if the infinitude of the universe is at all possible, then what should be done with the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

I am sure that you are aware that this law says that the universe is running out of usable energy. If this is indeed the case then we can not be in a infinite series. This one of the many scientific problem with an infinite.

There are also multiple Philosophical problems. Hilbert's Hotel is one way to illustrate some of the philosophical problems,The major problem is: how one can you have a infinite number of things.

that atheist guy said...

An infinite God has similar problems.