Thursday, April 17, 2008

Steven Pinker on Religion

I’ve been waiting a while to see if Pinker would say something about religion, rather in trepidation because I feared it would damage my regard for him. Sadly, my worst fears have been realised in his feeble response to the Templeton Foundation’s question "Has Science made Belief in God Obsolete?"

Pinker’s answer is yes, although he admits that all modern rationality is required to do the job to debunking God. The trouble is that his argument is pitiful. It is in three parts. The first says that because science has successfully rendered the Book of Genesis obsolete as a scientific text, religion has lost one of its major purposes. This is a standard atheist trope but it wholly ill-informed about what religion is about. A tiny part of the Bible and other sacred texts deal with quasi-scientific explanations. Furthermore, although many have seen God in His Creation, the design argument is such is a modern invention that only really appears in the eighteenth century. When religious people saw God in the workings of nature, they never thought this was some sort of proof he existed, but rather something to praise him for. The idea that religion primarily provided an exposition on the natural world is a throw back to the nineteenth century for which we have now realised there is almost no evidence.

In short, religion got going without the design argument and it will happily keep going without it as well. That said, I do find some mileage in both the fine tuning and the cosmological arguments. Pinker dismisses both of these with the old saw “who made God?” Fifty years ago, almost all atheists thought the universe was eternal and dismissed as nonsense the idea it had a beginning. It is odd that they won’t extend the same courtesy to God.

In the second part of his argument, Pinker moves to morality. I praised his recent article on the evolution of morals while pointing out its limitations. Pinker admits you can’t get ethics from science but insists you can’t get them from religion either. The argument he uses, Euthyphro’s Dilemma, is 2,500 years old and so I assume does not form part of modern science. The trouble is, Plato’s argument cannot be applied to a transcendent deity. It is quite possible (actually it is true) that morality is not to be derived from natural causes. But we cannot say from this that an external God who created nature cannot impose rules upon her that nature herself is unable to produce. Nor can we say that those external rules, like the truths of mathematics that Godel showed can’t be reduced to axioms, should not be objectively true.

Thirdly, Pinker claims that the Golden Rule is a rational ethical system in itself. It is good to see that Pinker has cracked all the ethical problems that have kept philosophers up at night for centuries, but I fear you cannot reduce morality to such a single rule. Nor can Pinker escape the fact that he is rationalising a system he has inherited from Christianity. Given the state of today’s world, I think it would be foolish to assume that all moral difficulties have been solved.

I’ve mentioned Russell’s Syndrome in the past. This is a medical condition whereby highly intelligent people start talking nonsense as soon as they turn their minds to religion. It is sad to find that Pinker is a sufferer. Would anyone like to hazard a guess from whom he caught it?

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


unkle e said...


I am not a philosopher, but I have read quite a lot of atheist writings, and I think you are touching on something more general than just Pinker or a few others.

The discipline of philosophy generally follows clear processes of logical argument (such as formal logic, providing evidence for statements, etc), and illogical statements can be easily identified. As a result, philosophy used to be fairly even handed and fair minded.

Of course there used to be christians who dismissed philosophy and said quite illogical things, many of them wrong as well. But there were also christians who used logical arguments - CS Lewis was an example when I was a boy, now Alvin Plantinga is an example.

Atheists too seemed once to follow the same logical approach, because their belief came out of enlightenment thinking and rational humanism. But now a more extreme form of atheism is abroad, and like the illogical fringe of christianity, it uses emotion more than logic to support conclusions already reached rather than to reach conclusions.

I could give many examples of this:

* Most atheists argue that only beliefs based on evidence can be considered (basically a logical positivist view). When asked to demonstrate THAT particular statement from evidence, they are unable (or unwilling) to do so or even see the problem.

* Likewise, their standard response to requests to demonstrate the evidence for atheism is to say that "the burden of proof" is on the believer. When it is pointed out that philosophy puts the burden of proof on anyone making a statement, even an atheist, they generally either again fail, or refuse, to understand the problem, or retreat temporarily into being agnostics.

* Leonard Susskind, an eminent string theorist (and probably more an agnostic than an atheist), in his book "The Cosmic Landscape", when advocating belief in the multiverse yet recognising there is no evidence for it, and probably never can be, argues that we should not be bound by the principle of falsifiability, previously a cardinal building block of science and rationalism.

* Atheists are fond of quoting the very fringe element of historians who deny the historicity of Jesus and ignore the mainstream consensus that is not nearly so sceptical. They use some amazing arguments to justify this.

* Likewise, they ignore the well-known scientific principle of assessing ALL the evidence when they make statements about the behaviour of "biblegod". Some actions and statements attributed to God in the Bible are difficult for the believer, but there are many, many more that are the opposite. The real problem is not that God is evil (as they say, by ignoring most of the evidence) but that a good God is occasionally difficult or apparently evil.

* Perhaps the worst of all this is that it all goes against the principle of logic they say they believe in, and which they accuse theists of not following. It seems that statements that theists are "delusional" mean that atheists are not required to offer cogent arguments, because the delusional arguments of theists are not worthy of attention.

It is tempting to think that the problem is either experts in one area getting out of their depth in another (e.g. Dawkins) or your suggestion of Russell's Syndrome, but I think it is worse than that. For a start, I as a retired civil engineer can understand logic, so clearly Richard Dawkins and co could do so if they wished.

I can't help thinking all this is one of two things:

1. The "triumph" (?) of faith over reason in modern militant atheism, or

2. A deliberate attempt to change the rules in favour of their own view.

I think these matters are worth a lot of our attention. I fear that arguing with militant atheists is nugatory, because we are not agreed on the rules of logic any more, but I think explaining to the vast mass of people affected by them might be very important.

I must finish by saying that (1) I know not all atheists argue so illogically, or actually a-logically, and (2) I think we christians need to be patient and gracious, because "our side" has inflicted a lot of this on non-believers in the past.

I'd be interested to hear your views.

Humphrey said...

I heard Dawkins say in one of the debates that has been posted on youtube that he is a friend of Pinker's. So that might be where the militant atheism is coming from. Of course many people go into neuroscience specifically to banish these fanciful notions of the soul we seem to cling on to. Francis Crick comes to mind, as does Dennett and even Sam Harris who is now doing a degree in the subject. The fact that they haven't succeeded and that the hard problem of conciousness remains as resilient as ever is somewhat impressive.

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