Sunday, December 19, 2010

Why Ricky Gervais Should (Logically) Reconsider God

Today's Wall Street Journal has this article: "A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I’m An Atheist."  (Thanks Greg for pointing me to this.) His thoughts + my thoughts are:
  • "People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence." How to respond to this? A number of us believe there is proof of God's existence, and this is very important to us. Reformed epistemologists like Plantinga believe theists have "warrant" for their belief. So Gervais's statement is an exaggeration, and therefore false. Some don't need proof. Remember that evidentialism (of the W.K. Clifford variety) is false, so even if Gervais's statement was true (which it's not) it would not be threatening.
  • Gervais: “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe.” First point: there is absolutely no scientific evidence for God's existence. But that is false. At least theists claim there is evidence, and many scientists who are theists agree. Consider the fine-tuning argument for God's existence, or the argument from consciousness for God's existence (J.P. Moreland), or the argument from reason for God's existence. And, when we reason by inference to the best explanation, an argument can be made from empirical states of affairs to theism as a better explanation than atheism. Second point: I have no clue what Gervais is saying about "the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe." That statement is senseless. There's no logical impossibility regarding God's existence. J.L. Mackie tried this approach once and it was soundly refuted by Plantinga, and even agreed on by atheists such as William Rowe.
  • Gervais:  "Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -­‐ evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge." Not quite. "Science" seeks nothing; scientists do. And because scientists are human they discriminate. Just read the history of science regarding this. Furthernore, "truth" is not something science discovers, since "truth" - if it exists - is non-empirical and not discoverable by science. "Truth" is more like a value judgement, and something about which science says nothing. The idea that a statement is "true" needs a theory of truth behind it, and "theories of truth" are not empirically seen, weighed, or measured. BTW, "facts" are theory laden, so what counts as a "fact" is constituted by a theory. 
  • Gervais: "Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said, “Why don’t you believe I can fly?” You’d say, “Why would I?” I’d reply, “Because it’s a matter of faith”. If I then said, “Prove I can’t fly. Prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?”" But it's not all a matter of faith. Or, it is a matter of "reasonable faith." See William Lane Craig et. al. on this. When theists talk about "faith" they do not mean "blind faith," or unreasonable faith. Surely some Christians hold to a kind of blind faith. I think that's just a human thing to do. For example, most of the atheists I meet blindly hold to their atheism. If asked "Why don't you believe in God?" they can say little or nothing. To turn the question back on the theist is not acceptable. But I wouldn't thereby reject a reflective philosophical atheist's reasoning on the basis of  bunch of blind-faith atheists. I'm thinking Gervais has never dialogued with a philosophical theist before.
  • Gervais rants on, not entirely coherently, about religion as evil. He appeals to theists: "I would just rather you didn’t kill people who believe in a different god, say. Or stone someone to death because your rulebook says their sexuality is immoral. It’s strange that anyone who believes that an all-­‐powerful all knowing, omniscient power responsible for everything that happens, would also want to judge and punish people for what they are." I just don't know how to respond to this. If Gervais is wanting to talk about religion as evil, I don't think this will affect philosophical theism. Surely he's not wanting to claim that atheists don't kill people who believe in God, since they surely have, with the worst atrocities in history being committed by atheists in the 20th century. See, e.g., atheist David Berlinski who writes about atheistic evil-atrocities as compared to theistic atrocities.  
  • Gervais then steals from right out of atheistic internet chat rooms when he says: "Next time someone tells me they believe in God, I’ll say “Oh which one? Zeus? Hades? Jupiter? Mars? Odin? Thor? Krishna? Vishnu? Ra?…” If they say “Just God. I only believe in the one God”, I’ll point out that they are nearly as atheistic as me. I don’t believe in 2,870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2,869." In the dialogue and debate among philosophical theists and philosophical atheists the interest is in: Is theism true. "Theism" is then defined as: belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, personal agent who created the universe. On that definition multiple gods are not needed. And, of course, less-than-omni-deities are not needed, either. Gervais's comeback-questions here are irrelevant to the discussion of the God of theism. Again, philosophical theism posits one God with omni-attributes. Philosophical atheism is concerned to defeat the statement "The God of theism exists." Philosophical theism is concerned to defend this statement. The fact that others have believed in different ideas of God is sociologically interesting but irrelevant to the discussion of theism.
  • You have to read for yourself Gervais's description of when, as a child, he left belief in Jesus and became an atheist in just one hour's time. Gervais is sitting at home with his mother. His big brother comes in. Gervais writes: "I was happily drawing my hero [Jesus?] when my big brother Bob asked, “Why do you believe in God?” Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. “Bob” she said in a tone that I knew meant, “Shut up.” Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong it didn’t matter what people said. Oh … hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist." Wow! And this... is rational? I don't think so. In my philosophy classes all questions are not only welcomed but required.
  • Now watch this. Gervais reasons: "75 percent of Americans are God-­‐fearing Christians; 75 percent of prisoners are God-­‐fearing Christians. 10 percent of Americans are atheists; 0.2 percent of prisoners are atheists." First, I don't know where he gets any of these figures from. Most probably, they are all wrong. Secondly, as a pastor I've visited many people in prison, and can tell you that of those who claim to believe in God not all are interested in following after Jesus. If this kind of reasoning is exemplary of atheistic reason, then all atheists should immediately convert to theism just to disassociate with Gervaistic thinking.
  • Gervais: "So what does the question “Why don’t you believe in God?” really mean. I think when someone asks that; they are really questioning their own belief. In a way they are asking “what makes you so special? “How come you weren’t brainwashed with the rest of us?”" This, apparently, is Gervais the psychologist who can read the minds of all us theists. I ask people "Why don't you believe in God?" And I never think such things. I must mightily resist the psychoanalysis of Gervais and why he writes things like this, and thinks thereby he has made some relevant point.
  • Finally, and for some logical fun, consider this: "Let’s be honest, if one person believed in God he would be considered pretty strange. But because it’s a very popular view it’s accepted. And why is it such a popular view? That’s obvious. It’s an attractive proposition. Believe in me and live forever." I might want to use this in my logic classes as an example of how not to think. And fortunately, my philosophy of religion text contains no such sophomorisms from the atheists represented. OF COURSE if only one person believed in God he would be considered "strange." But this does nothing to discount theism. One makes a logical mistake in rejecting a theroetical explanation on the basis of "strangeness" alone (see the logic text I use - Vaughn, ch. 9, on "Inference to the Best explanation"). But the real beauty of Gervais's fallacious reasoning appears here. Watch closely: 1) Belief in God is accepted because it's a popular view. 2) It's a popular view because it's an attractive proposition." Now that's the fallacy of begging the question. It's also a mistake to conclude that of a belief is popular then it is false or should be questioned simply on the basis of its popularity. For example, the statement The earth is circular is popular. So we see that it is quite possible for a belief to be popular and true at the same time. The philosophical issue is always one of truth. 
I don't think Gervais has a lot of logic going for him, at least not the kind of logic we teach in our philosophy department. Since, therefore, his atheism is rooted in so much illogical thinking, perhaps he should reconsider God?