I expect discussions between christians and atheists to get edgy at times. We are talking about important matters and the two ‘sides’ are poles apart. But some responses seem extreme, even to people on the same side.
How can other people be so wrong?
I have previously discussed how internet discussion and debate between atheists and believers is highly polarised, and psychologists believe they know why this is.
But we are increasingly seeing another phenomenon – the use of insults and pseudo scientific explanations of why those pesky people disagree with us.
The atheist use of “delusional” to describe christians has been around for a while. It sounds like an ‘accusation’ of mental illness, though some atheists say it only means ‘deluded’ or mistaken.
But other terms and concepts are coming into use.
- In this Debunking Christianity post atheist author John Loftus criticises christian philosopher Victor Reppert using words such as “delusion”, “irrational”, accusing him of having to “obfuscate … in order to believe” and finishes with: “Come up to the adult table Vic. Grow up. Throw off the childish fantasy”.
- Atheist historian Richard Carrier has recently released a book questioning whether Jesus was a real person, and has described eminent scholars who have reviewed his book as “grossly illogical, probably insane” and “makes major factual and logical errors, then lies about it”, and says of another reviewer “didn’t read the book, lies about it; doesn’t understand math; probably insane”. Fellow atheist Chris Hallquist has mentioned several other people Carrier has called insane.
Certainty and ambit claims
These aspersions are often accompanied by confident claims of the certainty of atheism. In his book The End of Christianity, John Loftus writes: “I honestly think that with this book …. Christianity has been debunked. The jury has returned its verdict. The gavel has come down. The case is now closed.”
And in a chapter on universal fine-tuning in John Loftus’ book, Richard Carrier says his negative conclusion “can actually be demonstrated with such logical certainty that Christianity is fully disconfirmed by the evidence of life and the universe” (my bolding) – this despite the fact that cosmologist Luke Barnes has shown that Carrier has poor understanding of the cosmology that is contrary to the majority of experts in the field.
Christians are not immune?
Christians can try similar gambits, though I haven’t come across anything stronger by recognised spokespersons than these:
- Christians often suggest spiritual reasons for atheist disbelief, for example Christian philosopher James Spiegel has written that religious scepticism arises from rebellion against God – though contrary to the above examples, he has at least done some research and written a book to support his claim.
- Many christians are confident of their faith and ‘know’ it is true, for example christian philosopher William Lane Craig says: “I know Christianity is true because God’s Spirit lives in me and assures me that it is true.”
Why might people make such strong statements?
I am not a psychologist, and I don’t think it helps to make accusations about the reasons for anyone’s beliefs – we just don’t know. But we can make a few general observations.
It is natural that we all tend to believe we are right in our opinions and choices – presumably if we thought we were wrong we would change – and Jared Reser found that one of the main factors in confident belief is “the quality of empirical evidence that people can offer to support the belief”.
But claiming absolute objective certainty and calling those who disagree insane seem to be two steps beyond simply believing we have found truth.
Further, if christianity is true, it is possible that God could give a christian certainty as Craig claims – that would be something difficult to prove but it might nevertheless be true. But if atheism is true, it is hard to see how these metaphysical questions could be known with any certainty – even scientific knowledge is always provisional depending on further data.
Psychological explanations for insults
Psychologists suggest several reasons why people insult those they disagree with:
- resistance is “a complex form of shooting the messenger … that blocks the delivery of hard, cold, facts to someone who fears them” (Steven Berglas)
- “the center of all psychological denial is a hidden agenda” (‘Dr Sanity’).
- malicious sarcasm “is normally used as a way for that person to try and improve their own standing and reputation by putting you down” (Stanley Loewen).
- “Low self-esteem either enhances negative evaluations of others, or makes you less likely to suppress those biases you already harbor” (Jeffrey Sherman)
- Self defense: “People defensively distort, deny, and misrepresent reality in a manner that protects self-integrity.” (Sherman and Cohen)
Whether any of these explanations apply in any case is beyond my knowing, but these explanations do suggest that insults probably don’t have a good motivation.
Psychological explanations for claiming certainty
Psychologists have also studied why people claim greater certainty than is warranted:
- Psychologist David Dunning has studied how people can overstate their abilities because “people tend to perceive their competence in self-serving ways” and because they don’t receive accurate feedback. (Interestingly, these effects are found in North Americans but not so much in East Asians.)
- Psychologist Lynne Namka says that some people have a deep need to be right, and attack those who disagree with them as a way to avoid thinking that they may be in error themselves, thus externalising the problem.
- Neuroscientist David Rock says our brains “hunger for certainty”.
- Jared Reser found that “the perceived importance of the belief to their sense of self-identity” was a significant factor in making a person more certain of their beliefs.
- David Straker says that a sense of certainty is associated with the need for a sense of control.
- Neuroscientist Robert Burton claims a sense of certainty arises not from truth or evidence but from the way our brains work: “Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of primary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of rationality or reason. Feeling correct or certain isn’t a deliberate conclusion or conscious choice.”
- Psychologist Valerie Tarico agree with Burton that none of us can know anything with certainty. “Those of us who are not religious could do with a little more humility on this point.” Ironically, John Loftus has blogged Valerie’s writings (including that statement), applied her conclusions to christians, and apparently not seen that they may equally apply to him and certainly don’t support the strong statement made in his book.
I’m not sure all these conclusions are compatible, and I don’t suppose many of us would agree with all of them, but they are surely food for thought. Overstatements of certainty may help us feel better and may even help coerce less confident opponents into agreement. But they are unlikely to promote rational discussion of evidence.
What type of person do I want to be?
We each have to face this question.
I am by nature argumentative, strong in the way I express my opinions, and inclined to want to push people to agree with me. But life changes you (that’s what it’s supposed to do!), and I’ve slowly learnt that such behaviours are unhelpful and insensitive. I try not to disparage anyone or impute motives to them, for how could I know? I try to use words like “seems” and “apparently” when discussing what others think. I try never to claim certainty – I don’t believe christian truth is certain, but probable.
I expect similar from those commenting on this blog. I hope this post shows another reason why.
And I hope for the day when spokespeople for opposing religious, ethical or political viewpoints can speak with more humility and less denigration of those they disagree with. I’m not holding my breath, but I can always hope.
What type of person do you want to be?
Photo Credit: Paul Simpson Photography via Compfight cc
I appreciate this about your approach.
Thanks. Doubtless I don’t always succeed, but it is good to aim high. I think it is also helpful to identify overstatement in others because it helps us to fairly judge what they are saying. Thanks for reading & commenting.
Nice post! I certainly agree with you on this idea: “I’ve slowly learnt that such behaviours are unhelpful and insensitive. I try not to disparage anyone or impute motives to them, for how could I know? I try to use words like “seems” and “apparently” when discussing what others think. I try never to claim certainty”
One think I would like to ask is regarding that section:
“Christians are not immune?
Christians can try similar gambits, though I haven’t come across anything stronger by recognised spokespersons…”
Are you implying that you see more attacks from Atheists than from Theists? or more specifically Christians? I don’t see how you can possibly think that since it’s so far off… so I must be misunderstanding something.
Hi Hugo, thank for your response. Hopefully we’ll both see more courtesy and less insults on the web in the future.
“Are you implying that you see more attacks from Atheists than from Theists? or more specifically Christians?”
My comment was not based on numbers and not based on all websites and comments either – I am sure there are many rude comments by people from all viewpoints out there, but I was limiting myself to well-known people.
I happened to come across the Carrier and Loftus comments and they seem to be spokespersons (they have written books and many people quote them). So I searched for similar comments from christian spokespersons (i.e. again people who have written books and are quoted) and the two I quoted were the strongest I came across.
“Hopefully we’ll both see more courtesy and less insults on the web in the future.”
That would be great! Though, label me as cynical perhaps but, I am pretty sure this will never change. That’s just how people are… some just like to insult, especially online because they can remain anonymous. It’s good to raise the point once in a while so that cynics like me don’t forget that we can all do our little part to tip the scale…
Looking forward to discussing with you, though I try not to spend too much time on this anymore; I really enjoy it but it’s a time sink.
Btw, what’s always interesting, and what seems to be one of the main goal of your blog, is to discuss ‘why’ we believe what we believe, especially regarding the Christian God and all the companion beliefs that come with it. Reading a little bit here and there, I ran into this post:
Since it’s 2 years old already; would you re-write it exactly the same way today? Might be a good post topic actually 🙂
Hi Hugo, thanks for returning and for your comments.
I’m sure you’re right that the anonymity of the internet encourages people to say things they wouldn’t say face-to-face. My response is to simply walk away from such discussions, and to set a comment policy here that stops such comments. There are millions, perhaps billions, of people visiting and wandering the internet, so I can afford to be a little selective.
I re-read the post you refer to, and I don’t think I’d change much. Since I first decided to follow Jesus in my teens, my beliefs have changed slowly but inexorably, with a big speed up about a decade ago when I started this website (under a different name) and took the time to do more reading. But after a few years of rapid change, I am back to slow change again.
What things did you think I might have changed?
I too look forward to further discussion. It can be a time sink, but it can be educational and interesting. Hope to see you soon? Do you have a blog yourself?
Nothing in particular I thought would change, just checking before I look at it in more details and discuss, since there are a few things we disagree on that could be interesting to address.
No blog for me, though I “started” one with only 1 page when I threw a question to people commenting on Victor’s blog. I wanted to start collecting answers to ‘why’ people believe in God. Not much came up so I didn’t pursue.
(I though I had posted what’s above already but it did not show up; I was on my phone so it’s not that surprising…)
Ok so now I had a bit more time to re-read your older post. No problem with #1 obviously but several issues with others. I’ll keep it short and address just what comes in #2; there are more than 1 reasoning error in just that short paragraph imo.
“Science tells us the big bang occurred 14 million years ago and produced a universe amazingly well-designed to allow life to occur.”
Why would you label the universe as “well-designed to allow life to occur”? We know, for sure, that it is not the case. Most of the universe is note even remotely close to be well-designed for life, and it’s not even clear whether or not 1 other planet can sustain life for as long as Earth did…
“ I can’t see how the universe could have just appeared out of nothing, or caused itself to appear before it was even there to do anything – that idea seems beyond ridiculous to me ”
I am sure you’ve heard this before, but this is an argument from ignorance. I don’t know how ‘x’ could have happened; hence ‘x’ did not happen. Here your ‘x’ is a universe without a godly intervention. What makes you stick with this argument?
“and the ‘fine-tuned’ design is statistically impossible by chance. ”
First, you cannot compute the statistical significance because you don’t know how often the event happened; we don’t know if the universe is all there is, or if Big Bangs are as common as supernova are.
Second, the notion of ‘fine-tuning’ is quite irrelevant anyway as galaxies, stars, planets and everything on them were formed within that so called ‘fine-tuned’ universe; so of course it appears as if the universe was made in a way to give rise to these things. If it were not the case, they would not be there.
I remember having a discussion with my wife a few years back about that and I used the following analogy. I dropped a coin on the ground and it landed on one ceramic tile on the ground. Then I said, oh look, this floor was fine tuned for this coin. What were the odds that it would be exactly on that tile and not the next one? What were the odds that there would be exactly 4 tiles to the left and 10 to the right, how could it not land between 2 tiles, etc… you see the point I hope…
“So one result of believing in science is that I am forced to conclude that God created this universe.”
Well… that escalated quickly 😉
Hi Hugo, thanks for the opportunity to discuss.
“Why would you label the universe as “well-designed to allow life to occur”? We know, for sure, that it is not the case. Most of the universe is note even remotely close to be well-designed for life, and it’s not even clear whether or not 1 other planet can sustain life for as long as Earth did…”
The fact that most of the universe is not inhabitable is not relevant to this argument. The argument is based on solid science that says that of all the possible universes allowed by theoretical physics, an amazingly small number would allow life. The number is so small that chance cannot explain it.
Cosmologist Luke Barnes has published a paper in a scientific journal naming 25 prominent scientists who accept the science of fine-tuning, and has reviewed over 200 papers on the subject and only a handful do not accept it. Read more about this here.
“First, you cannot compute the statistical significance because you don’t know how often the event happened; we don’t know if the universe is all there is, or if Big Bangs are as common as supernova are.”
This isn’t how the probability is done. It is based on theoretical physics, the size of the sample space of possible universes and the size of the sample space of life permitting universes. Most cosmologists wouldn’t try to calculate a numerical probability (though a few have done so), but the number is vanishingly small. I don’t think there are any cosmologists who disagree with that. Of course the explanation for those facts is another thing!
“I remember having a discussion with my wife a few years back about that and I used the following analogy. I dropped a coin on the ground and it landed on one ceramic tile on the ground. Then I said, oh look, this floor was fine tuned for this coin. What were the odds that it would be exactly on that tile and not the next one? What were the odds that there would be exactly 4 tiles to the left and 10 to the right, how could it not land between 2 tiles, etc… you see the point I hope…”
This is a poor analogy. There is no significant difference between the tiles, so there is no reason to find where the coin falls to be remarkable. But there is a very significant difference between the possible universes – almost all of them wouldn’t allow life (in fact most would either collapse very quickly or just be an amorphous thin “soup” of basic particles), so it is quite remarkable that the one that formed is one of the amazingly few that allow this. The coin and tile analogy would only work if you nominated in advance where it would fall – and it did.
“I am sure you’ve heard this before, but this is an argument from ignorance. I don’t know how ‘x’ could have happened; hence ‘x’ did not happen. Here your ‘x’ is a universe without a godly intervention. What makes you stick with this argument?”
The argument is a little more sophisticated than that. Check out the Cosmological argument and you’ll see that all the possibilities are discussed and this one (arguably) shown to be the most likely. That’s why I believe it is a good argument. I think if you want to critique it, you need to actually address the argument, not a vague reference to the argument.
I hope than answers your questions. Thanks for raising them.
I was reading some of what you linked to and got to comment right away on that sentence from Barnes’ paper:
“I do not attempt to defend any conclusion based on the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.”
Isn’t it what you do, defending a conclusion? Yet, point #1 of your list explicitly said the opposite, no?
In other words, I think we talked passed each other regarding fine tuning because I am not arguing that there could be tons of ways to create a universe like ours, or that it’s false to say that small changes in constants would yield a non-life-sustaining universe. This is all correct. The problem is with the conclusion that it thus has to be the product of a non-random pre-determined mind induced process. Just like I don’t think we should infer from the ‘possibility’ that it was natural that it was necessarily all natural. In other words, it’s a moot point imo; there is no god/no-god conclusion to be drawn from that topic.
Not much more time for that now, and perhaps not for a few days just in case you wonder if I’ve gone missing 😉
There are two different aspects to this. First is the science, then the conclusion one chooses to draw from the science.
Most of your previous comments, which I responded to, were about the science – whether the universe is well designed, the statistics and whether they are remarkable. So I referenced Luke Barnes because he is a cosmologist who doesn’t draw conclusions about God.
But when you raised a question about the argument for the existence of God from the fact that the universe exists at all and what caused it, and now when you question the argument for the existence of God based on the scientific conclusions about fine-tuning, I don’t refer to a scientist, but to the logic of the argument. For the fine-tuning argument, see here.
In that argument, I start with the observation that the fine-tuning must either be chance or design or physical necessity (I can’t think of any other possibilities, can you?). But the scientists say it isn’t chance (the odds are way too long) and they cannot find any physical necessity. The only answer they have is the hypothesis that we are part of a multiverse in which zillions of universes exist, and that makes our universe less amazing. But then we can ask the same question about the multiverse – did it occur by accident, design or physical necessity?
Everyone makes their own choice, but I feel the conclusion that it must have been by design is one of the surest bets I know.
So I don’t think it’s enough to say we don’t accept the design conclusion. I think we need to show that one of the other options is possible and more likely. I don’t think that can be done. What do you think?
As promised I am coming back after come time, still interested in some conversation with you but, as I said before, this consumes a lot of time so I am trying to keep it short.
The most interesting thing you mentioned is the following:
“For the fine-tuning argument, see here.
In that argument, I start with the observation that the fine-tuning must either be chance or design or physical necessity (I can’t think of any other possibilities, can you?) ”
To me, without even going much further, there is already a problem here. Or perhaps I should you show a ‘bias’ which in turn causes problems with the reasoning you are trying to support. The bias comes from the fact that you seem to ‘need’ an answer to the question of fine-tuning, which could be generalized to a bias regarding the ‘need’ to explain existence in terms of something else that’s outside of it.
What I mean is that, from my point of view, starting with ‘the observation that the fine-tuning must either be chance or design or physical necessity’ is already going too far, for no good reason other than to reach a pre-accepted conclusion beyond what scientific knowledge tells us. It’s essentially trying to push philosophical discussions into areas where there is very little to discuss.
So to answer your question, no, I don’t think I can think of any other possibilities, but that does not prove there is none, and I also don’t agree with your dismissal of 2 of the 3 so that you can “justify” accepting the remaining one. It’s a very lazy way of explaining why your preferred option is the right one since it is always easier to disprove something rather than prove it, and I don’t think anyone has achieved this so far with these 2 options anyway. In other words, if you could support your preferred option, design, you could do just fine without invoking other alternatives and attempting to dismiss them. If you had really good reason for your conclusions, you would not ask this kind of ‘gotcha’ question about other possible options, you would just reason your way to your conclusion directly. But you can’t.
To be fair, you did present explanations for rejecting ‘chance’ and ‘physical necessity’ so I am not saying that you just dismiss them without any reason, but they are not ‘good’ reasons in my opinion. Looking at your post, these 2 options you reject are referred to as Premise 4 and 5:
4) “ The laws and constants have not been determined by physical necessity. […] same as saying there is an underlying physical “law” that determines the characteristics of our universe. […]
even if the laws could be seen to inevitably lead to a hospitable universe, we are faced with the dilemmas of (i) how these laws could exist in the state of nothingness before the universe commenced, and (ii) how is it that the fundamental reality was like this. It doesn’t seem to make sense. […]
it is hard to see how the ‘nothing’ out of which our universe appeared could have contained any laws, this remains a possibility. Whether it could be considered a probability is more a matter of faith or personal preference than of science. ”
What I am getting from these chosen sentences is that you, myself, and everyone else actually, simply don’t know. You make it very clear that it’s all uncertain, that there are still some possibilities, but that you, personally, think that the probability of Premise 4 being true is high. The problem is thus: why would you conclude anything then? Clearly, you are not convinced yourself that ‘physical necessity’ is impossible, but you find it unlikely enough to reason ‘as if’ it was impossible.
I also think that this is yet another example of an argument from ignorance fallacy. We don’t know how a universe like ours could arise from some external, more basic, reality; hence, we conclude that it could not have been the case. Yet, it is, as you correctly stated, still possible that there is in fact some mechanism by which our universe came to be, out of nothing (or what appears to us to be ‘nothing) with exactly the correct properties to kick start its expansion from a tiny super dense spacetime region to the gigantic multi-billion light-year universe we experience today.
But talking about ‘nothing’, who says that there is such a thing as ‘nothing’? How can you even justify the idea that at some point there was literally nothing? This is what you imply when you say that it doesn’t make sense to you, that the ‘nothing’ out of which our universe appeared could have contained any laws. You assume that ‘nothing’ is something that can, and did, exist at some point in the past. You assume there is some sort of time 0 before which there was nothing. It could be before the Big Bang, whatever that means, or before there was a multi-verse, but you certainly assume that this ‘nothing’ existed, somehow, somewhere, at some point in time when there was no time.
Now on to Premise 5, which I find extremely similar to #4 but more precisely related to statistics. I think the problem is not just similar here, it is exactly the same. You draw conclusions where there is no conclusion to be drawn because it supports a pre-accepted idea that makes sense to you. You said:
“ Premise 5 is considered to be virtually impossible by almost all cosmologists – the fineness of the tuning is immensely improbable by chance.”
…and pre-empted objections regarding statistical significance by saying that:
“How do we know that all of the possible settings are equally likely? How do we know the settings in our universe are statistically independent? But these and other similar objections lose their weight when we consider the enormity of Roger Penrose’s estimate of overall probalility.”
But you don’t really address the problem; you essentially state, with different words, that the probability is big enough (or low enough…) according to Penrose, because he is quoted often and came up with the biggest number. Ok, but that’s not a good conclusion, that’s not even a reason to argue for anything. I am not saying that he is making stuff up; I actually find it quite interesting how he comes up with such numbers, and the other examples you gave too. However, the problem is that you read into the numbers to see something that’s not there, and Penrose does the same. It’s ‘ok’ to say that we ‘think’ there is a purpose to the universe, that things are there for a reason and not all random, but using these numbers does not make these ideas stronger. They are just that, ideas; nothing more. By the way, Penrose does not conclude there is a Designer, or God, but I guess that 1 point he makes can still be used regardless.
Just to make the case stronger, it’s actually quite easy to explain why the numbers are meaningless in that context. Using some of what you quoted:
– accuracy of one part in 10^10^123 (how “probable” it is that our universe is the way it is)
– 10^500 universes don’t make our universe even remotely likely by chance
So the idea seems to be that 500 is much smaller than 10^123 so even if these 10^500 universes existed, which we don’t know about. It would not account for the number of random “attempts” it would take to create enough universe, 10^10^123, so that we are certain to get the one we need; but there are still obvious flaws with this approach. First, why would each universe be restricted to 1 ‘lifetime’ with 1 set of physical laws’ why can’t they possibly be “reborn” periodically with new variations? Why not 10^123 times each so far?
Second, why would the 10^500 be some final number; why can’t it be just the next step, the portion of the multiverse that our universe is in, that’s in turn within a larger multi-multi-verse of 10^500 multi-verse? There is no way to prove these things, and we could find tons of hypothesis, but that’s actually the point. If we cannot explain why this universe is the way it is; it does not confirm the hypothesis that it was designed, which itself adds a bunch of questions I will not even start to address, since it’s the least supported hypothesis of the 3 “options”.
Actually, in your article at least, the idea of design is not supported at all. There is really no reason to support ‘design’ as an explanation for the way the universe is other than, ‘well, it’s big, complex, and changing only a tiny fraction of one of these observed values would not make it the way it is, so I don’t think chance makes sense, and I don’t think it had to be like that to work, so I feel like someone, or something, designed it to be that way, on purpose, so that life could arise 10 Billion years after it got started on this 1 planet that was meant to be the way it is from the very start.’
Now on to the conclusion, where some unjustified leap are seen from the premises:
“Thus it leads to the probable conclusion that our universe was designed. The argument stops there, but, when combined with other arguments, it is reasonable to conclude that the only possible designer is God.”
I used this funny meme ‘well, that escalated quickly’ earlier but it is not just ‘funny’, it really represents how it looks like from my point of view. Even if we entertain the idea that the universe was ‘designed’ to look the way it does, I really think there is some escalation from that idea to God, which is usually refer to as a mind, a soul, or some sort of person-like entity, a (necessary?) being. It seems to be a case of argumentation by definition, where God is defined as a being and as a universe-creator. Hence, because the universe appears to be designed, it must be the work of God, that 1 God that has all these other attributes we already assigned to it by definition.
In the end, it ended up taking me a lot of time and sentences to reply to this argument when in reality it’s really simple: I don’t think there is any conclusion to be drawn from the apparent fine tuning of the universe, and it’s certainly not ‘why’ people believe in God anyway. It’s a rationalization after the fact that excites rational believers who like to think about how God works and what signs of his presence we can find. Throughout history, humans never had that knowledge yet believed anyway. They could have actually made similar argument about how fine-tuned the Earth looks, but they would have been wrong. As a materialist who bases his worldview on the real world first, I cannot even entertain the idea that there was nothing and suddenly something, and then look for an explanation, because I am not convinced that there could be such a thing as ‘nothing’.
Finally, minds are what we see in humans, the ability of abstract thinking, conceptualization of the real world, and there is no reason at all to define a mind as something non-material that could possibly exist outside the universe. Again, it’s not that I support the idea that it certainly did not happen this way, it’s just that there is not even a reason to think that a mind is possible, as one needs to expand the definition of mind to something completely different. Therefore, it goes back to the idea of the primacy of consciousness, which all theists adhere to, whether they do it consciously or not. In order to believe that a mind is behind the universe, you first have to accept the idea that a mind can exist without the material existence existing.
G’day Hugo, thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response. I agree that this conversation is worthwhile, and it is fine with me that you take time between replies.
There is a lot to respond to so I think I will do a separate post on this, to give it the attention it deserves. It will probably take me a day or so to get that done.
Sounds good, looking forward to reading your post! But take your time please, I have a lot of work these days and I’ll be too tempted to write back 😉
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