Friday, August 05, 2011

50 Renowned Academics (Atheists) Speaking About God - A Review

There’s a video showing brief clips from scholarly atheists and agnostics called “50 Renowned Academics Speaking About God.”

I watched, and took some notes. The notes on each speaker are below. We are to remember, of course, that these very brief clips are not to be treated as sustained arguments against God’s existence. So we can’t be too critical of what these atheists say.

Here’s a summary of what I see as the salient and interesting points.

· Mostly, these brief clips are confessionals. They are brief “testimonies,” some amounting to no more than someone saying “I am an atheist.” If such things preach at all, they will preach only to the choir. Few actual arguments against God’s existence are provided. This is a barrage of proclamations.

· In general, where there is some reasoning, the scientists reason more poorly about God than do the philosophers. I think this is to be expected. Simply because one is a great scientist does not mean they are able to enter into philosophy of religion discussions for or against God’s existence. Indeed, some of them state their great lack of interest in such discussions.

· Overall, the main problems with God’s existence are about:

o A commitment to “science” as the way to arrive at knowledge. One wants to dialogue a lot more, of course, about the definition of “science,” and the nature of its limits. We must remember that “science” is not itself theistic or atheistic, but scientists are.

o Some of the clips confess philosophical naturalism. This is easily confessed but not so easily understood or defended. See., e.g., U of Texas philosopher Robert Koons’s volume of collected essays The Waning of Materialism

o There’s a lot of “evidentialist” philosophy throughout the video. The need for a certain kind of “evidence” for God’s existence, to be arrived at “scientifically.” The discussion of evidentialism takes us into deep philosophical waters. Things are not so simple as “What you see is what you get.”

o A fair amount of reference is made to the philosophical problem of evil – especially to what has been called “natural” evil. This is an important issue that has rightly captured the attention of all philosophers of religion, whether atheistic or theistic.

o The Euthypho Dilemma is referenced only once. Yet it is an important issue to be considered in the God-discussion.
o Complaints against “God of the gap” reasoning lie in the background of some of the comments, thought the term is not explicitly used. For example, a few express how very comfortable they are with “the unknown” and thereby do not have the need to “explain everything.”

o While some complain of the “irrationality” of belief in God, we would do well to pursue a shared understanding of “rationality.” This will not be easy, and many would at this point reject “scientism.”

o Some bring in cultural and anthropological explanations of religious belief. But these are, logically, irrelevant to the God-discussion.
  • Reference is also, once, made to the Christain idea of hell as not being in the character of an all-loving God. This is also a legitimate and important issue to address.

I think the clip is interesting and, from my philosophy of religion viewpoint, helpful.

The film begins with this quote:

“The more scientifically literate, intellectually honest and objectively skeptical a person is, the more likely they are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god.”

1. Lawrence Krauss (physics)

a. “Most scientists don’t think enough about God to know whether they believe in him or not… They don’t think about it enough to even know if they are atheists.” I think that statement is false. At least it is questionable. What we need are statistics here. Francis Collins’ statistics suggest 50% of scientists think about and believe in God. I feel certain there are scientists who don’t think about theism or atheism. Just as theism is “irrelevant” to them, so is “atheism” and the discussion re. atheism.

b. “There’s no evidence that we need anything but the laws of physics and the other laws of science to explain everything we see. There’s no evidence that we need any supernatural hand of God.” I think it’s false that “science” explains “everything,” esp. if this is reduced to “everything we see.” There are many things we don’t see, and which we infer, some on the basis of “science.” There’s a debate as to whether “inference to the best explanation” even qualifies as “science.”

2. Robert Coleman Richardson (physics)

a. “I do not believe in an anthropomorphic “God,” somebody that’s a “man” and somehow or other made things.” Well I don’t believe in an “anthropomorphic God” either. All Coleman gives us is a personal credo which even theists can affirm. So this little confessional adds no weight to the discussion.

3. Richard Feynman (physics)

a. “I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up… because they seem to be be too simple, too local, too provincial.” I think this is a good objection, one to be taken seriously. I don’t, of course, think it is adequate to claim that the Jesus story has been “made up.” We need to bring in historical studies here. The Jesus-claim is that it is a story rooted in historical events. Historiographical research contains its own unique set of problems, especially as regards the matter of “evidence.”

4. Simon Blackburn (philosophy – Cambridge)

a. “I think it’s part of the human comedy.” Blackburn brings in Hume’s objections. This little clip is only confessional, functioning at most as a “testimony.” So it adds nothing to the discussion. It does, however, preach to and move the atheistic choir. And of course we know Blackburn can say much more than this on the subject. The tiny little clip does not help us.

5. Colin Blakemore (neuroscience – Oxford)

a. “I believe that I am the sum total of all the causal influences on me at the moment, and that is not trivial…” Persons are made up of the stuff of the universe. Blakemore talks of explaining our sense of a “self” and that we have “choices” [free will] purely scientifically (i.e., materially). I assume he’s saying this to show that we don’t need “God” as a causal explanation at all. A good point, and much discussion is needed here. It’s part of my current interest. See, e.g., J.P. Moreland’s The Argument from Consciousness for the Existence of God.

6. Stephen Pinker (psychology)

a. We need to take a purely naturalistic approach that reasons: the “mind” is a product ogf the brain; the brain is a product of evolution. “There is no need to invoke an immaterial soul” to explain such things.” Here again we have the idea that “science” can, in principle, explain such things. I confess to having problems with Pinker when he begins to try to explain “free will.”

7. Alan Guth (physics)

a. “I’m not sure I really know what the word ‘God’ means.” Guth says he does allow a big place for the “unknown.” “At this point we have no idea where the laws of physics came from.” He hopes that we will one day understand where the laws of physics came from and thus understand how the universe came into existence. OK. But there’s nothing here that’s anti-God. Guth sees no need for God as an explanation for the universe’s coming into being. I think the fine-tuning argument for God remains persuasive here, as a response to Guth. Guth thinks, re. design arguments for God, that the “Designer” is always more complicated than that which was “designed.” So the “Designer” will need an explanation, and so on in an infinite regress. I do not think this is a valid objection. See Craig, e.g.

8. Noam Chomsky (linguistics)

a. “I try not to have faith. I believe in a principle enunciated rather well by Bertrand Russell, which is”: you should not have irrational beliefs but believe in things only upon having evidence. But this is “evidentialism,” which I think has been refuted by Plantinga et. al. and simply untrue and in its own way irrational.

9. Nicholas Bloembergen (physics)

a. “I am not religious… I was brought up with some religious background, but I have abandoned it.” This is a mere confessional.

10. Peter Atkins (chemistry)

a. “A lot of theology is grappling with phantoms.” Theologians have invented “God” who has “no contact with physical reality.” “Theologians invent questions which they then taunt humanity with. One of them is ‘There must be a purpose that science cannot explain.’” Well surely Atkins is wrong here. The idea of the reality of “God” was not invented by theologians. “Theologians don’t respect the power of the human intellect.” Another blatant falsehood, displaying an ignorance of the actual discussion.

11. Oliver Sacks (neurologist)

a. “I am a quiet, old, Jewish atheist. I’m not a militant atheist.” Singer gives no reason for his atheism, and admits he is not argumentative by nature. This is another confessional.

12. Martin Rees (astronomer)

a. Rees says even the simplest things are very hard to understand. So he cannot accept anyone who gives simple answers, which he thinks resorting to religious dogmas does. This is more of a confessional.

13. John Gurdon (biology)

a. He says he is actually an agnostic re. religious views. “I don’t know. There’s no scientific proof re. one thing or another.”

14. Bertrand Russell (philosophy)

a. “I see no evidence for any of the Christian dogmas.” “None of the arguments for the existence of God seem to be logically valid.” Russell, in this brief clip, of course does not take on the arguments. But if his book Why I am Not a Christian is representative, then his rebuttals are not persuasive.

15. Steven Hawking (physics)

a. “M-theory does not disprove the existence of God.” But Hawking has changed his mind about this – see his new The Grand Design.

16. Ricardo Giacconi (physics)

a. Giacconi says that any kind of irrational thinking is very dangerous. He doesn’t mention God in this clip. Presumably, he thinks God-belief is irrational. I think we need to ask a more basic question, in Alistair MacIntyre fashion – whose rationality are we talking about?

17. Ned Block (philosophy)

a. “I hold open the door”… to something supernatural. “We have no reason to believe it now.” We can explain everything that appears to be supernatural in natural terms.”

18. Gerard ‘t Hooft (physics)

a. He’s asked if he believes in an afterlife. “I don’t think notions like the ‘afterlife’ have any scientific basis.”

19. Marcus du Sautoy (mathematics)

a. When young he used to sing in a church choir. By age 13 he realized that all talk of ‘souls’ and ‘spirits’ “was pretty illogical.” This is just a brief testimonial; a confessional.

20. James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA)

a. “Atheists get a bum rap. We’re just heartless and we don’t care for people.” Christian ideas sound good, and some of them are good. They make for a “good funeral.” No value added here to the discussion.

21. Colin McGinn (philosophy)

a. McGinn brings up Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma. A good point, of course. And one that can be responded to.

22. Patrick Bateson (ethology – Cambridge)

a. “I think I am an atheist, when all is said and done.” This is a very brief confessional.

23. David Attenborough (broadcaster and naturalist)

a. Attenborough brings up the problem of evil such as, e.g., a “little boy sitting on the banks of a river in Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball.” “I find it baffling to credit a merciful God with that.” The problem of evil – a worthy subject in the discussion of God.

24. Martinus Veltman (physics)

a. Science protects us from the irrationalities of religion. “I’m just talking about things I can observe and things I can predict, and the rest you can have it.”

25. Pascal Boyer (anthropology)

a. “I was brought up in a culture where no one is religious.” So Boyer is a-religious, and the European culture around him is a-religious. OK. This is simply confessional. To argue beyond it for God’s non-existence is to commit the genetic fallacy.

26. Partha Dasgupta (economics – Cambridge)

a. He is not hostile to religion. He does not believe in a deity. This is simply confessional.

27. A.C. Grayling (philosophy)

a. Belief in God or gods seems to be the “intellectual equivalent of believing there are fairies in your garden.” “For me it’s a question of the irrationality of belief.” Agnostics who think there is at least a possibility of supernatural beings are also on the wrong track.

28. Ivar Giaever (physics)

a. “I’m not religious. I don’t like religion. I think religion is to blame for a lot of the ills in this world.” The Dawkins/Harris “religion is the cause of evil” position, which I think is historically inadequate.

29. John Searle (philosophy – Berkeley)

a. We would like to believe in religious things like an afterlife, for there to be justice in the end, and so on. “The problem is that we would like to believe these things, but we really have no evidence to suppose that they are true… Methodologically, we should be suspicious of believing something that we very much want to believe.” “The arguments for God’s existence are uniformly bad.” I think Searle is correct about being cautious of believing things we very much want to believe. But this, in itself, is not any refutation of God’s existence. It would disqualify a number of things, even the atheist who very much wants there to be no God. On the arguments for God’s existence, we need Searle’s reasoning that they are “uniformly bad.” He says so. I don’t think so.

30. Brian Cox (physicist)

a. Cox here offers nothing to the discussion, except to say that he’s very comfortable, as a scientist, with the “unknown.” Perhaps he’s raising a “God of the gaps” criticism?

31. Herbert Kroemer (physics)

a. He doesn’t see the evidence of a designer. “I think that is wishful thinking.” Kroemer says some do see evidence of design. He does not. “I have no desire to push this viewpoint on others.”

32. Rebecca Goldstein (philosophy)

a. “Not only do I think that the arguments for God’s existence don’t work, more importantly to me, I think this world does not look to me, empirically, like it was created by a good and caring and powerful God. To me, there’s just too much empirical evidence against it.” Probably – the argument from evil. And the assumption of what a world created by such a God would look like. Christian theism affirms a eorld that is a “fallen creation.”

33. Michael Tooley (philosophy)

a. Someone in India would not have a vision of the Virgin Mary. A person’s culture, and the family in which he was raised, has an impact on the content of one’s experience.” OK. But this is a sociological fact, and no one should deny it. What, exactly, does this have to do with the existence of God? It seems like, logically, ad hominem circumstantial reasoning should one want to conclude, from it, that therefore, God does not exist.

34. Harold Kroto (chemistry)

a. “I think most science is atheistic. Less than 10% of scientists believe in God.” We must believe things on the basis of scientific evidence. Sotires that are thousands of years old provide no such evidence. I wonder about Kroto’s statistics. I think they are inaccurate. Perhaps here he has believed something on insufficient or not evidence at all?

35. Leonard Susskind (physics – Stanford)

a. Certainly the universe appears to be designed. Before Darwin, it seemed reasonable to posit a Designer. But now we know that random mutation has “designed” things like humans. So we can’t use a “design argument” for God any more. But this does not address the anthropic teleological argument.

36. Quentin Skinner (history – Cambridge)

a. The religious impulse is very deep and very important. On Hume, God-belief is false. “I am that kind of atheist.” See: see Hume, and his influence on the religious discussion.

37. Theodore Hansch (physics)

a. Hansch sees no evidence for life after death. “All the things around us look like they have been designed.” But this is just “how nature works.” So: contra the design argument as unnecessary.

38. Mark Balaguer (philosophy)

a. “Is there a Person who created the world? That’s a perfectly clear question with a right answer.” To answer it we must “look for evidence.” Balaguer says “If there is evidence, then believe in God.” But no reasons are given in this short clip. Surely Galaguer, as a philosopher, is able to say much more on this.

39. Richard Ernst (chemistry)

a. Very brief. A confessional of atheism.

40. Alan MacFarlane (anthropology)

a. As a child he began to question whether God would cast three-quarters of humanity into utter darkness. A good, important issue; viz., that of hell.

41. Neil deGrasse Tyson

a. The forces of nature are not “just right” for life. Just look at “the volume of the universe where you can’t live.” And then look at earth. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, diseases, mass extinctions, “90% of all life that ever lived is now extinct,” etc. etc. “None of this is a sign that there is a “benevolent anything” out there.” So: two issues: 1) the universe is not really “life-permitting” since it is not vastly and phenomenally uninhabitable; and 2) the problem of evil. Re. 1, I don’t think this is the point of those who argue that the universe is life-permitting. We exist. Therefore, our universe allows for this. Of course the problem of natural evil must be discussed.

42. Douglas Osheroff (physics)

a. He doesn’t know what God might be. “I doubt that such a God intervenes in my own life.” So: lack of experience of God, or lack of evidence of experience that one might attribute to a God.

43. Hubert Dreyfus (philosophy)

a. We don’t need to bring in God to talk about religious experience, from a phenomenological perspective. Dreyfus merely states here how the phenomenological method could be a help to explain the religious impulse and the need for religion without needing to posit the theistic God.

44. Colin Renfrew (archaeology – Cambridge)

a. Renfrew is a skeptic. “I’ve never found it possible to be a profound believer in the Trinity or the Christian concept of God.” This is a mere confessional.

45. Carl Sagan (astronomer)

a. “’Faith’ is the belief in the absence of evidence.” “For me, belieiving when there is no compelling evidence is a mistake.” So – an evidentialist position. Which is, I feel certain, unacceptable.

46. Peter Singer (bioethicist – Princeton)

a. It is “monstrous” to believe that “God would create a world where, let’s say, a two-year-old child would die a slow and lingering death from hunger and thirst…” because of Adam and Eve’s sin committed thousands of years before. Even if one thinks that baby’s suffering is “deserved,” “what about the suffering on non-human animals?” See here Murphy’s Nature Red in Tooth and Claw as a response to Singer. See also Dembki’s response here. Singer raises an important issue.

47. Rudolph Marcus (chemistry)

a. “Some people feel they need to understand everything. I don’t feel that way. Eventually a lot more will be understood.” Nothing is said about God here. I presume Marcus is referring to a “God of the gaps” kind of reasoning.

48. Robert Foley (prof. of human evolution – Cambridge)

a. “For all practical purposes I am a very materialistic atheist. What you see is what you get.” OK – all sorts of philosophical problems arise here, to include problems of perception.

49. Daniel Dennett (philosophy)

a. God cannot be scientifically verified. The God of theism is “protected from disproof” because it is defined as “beyond science.” This is an interesting point, and one that can be responded to. See, e.g., Plantinga, who takes the discussion into the arena of “properly basic beliefs.”

50. Steven Weinberg (physics)

a. Only science gives us evidence. “Science is corrosive of religious belief.” Well, I certainly do not think so, as many scientists also would not think so.