Saturday, September 30, 2006

Unwin's Idiocy

Wow, it's not every day you read something this stupid (HT: B&W):
It is clear that on the question of God's existence Dawkins comes down firmly on the side of certainty. His dismissal of Pascal's wager (which is that, given the uncertainty, one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by belief in God) is a stark indication of his commitment to certainty.

I haven't read Dawkins' book, so I guess it's possible that the reason he dismisses Pascal's Wager is because he thinks it certain that God does not exist. But surely a far more likely reason is that Pascal's Wager is, very obviously, logically invalid. Even "given the uncertainty," it simply doesn't follow that "one has everything to gain and nothing to lose by belief in God". As I point out here, Pascal's Wager fails because it's possible that God might punish believers and reward atheists. So it's possible to "lose" by believing in God after all. Obviously. Really, there's nothing more to do here but smack your forehead a few times. The argument really is that bad. So the only thing "indicated" by one's dismissal of it is the possession of a minimal level of logical discernment. A pity Unwin shows no such indication.

He continues:
As for Dawkins' assertion that moral behaviour for believers is simply "sucking up to God", or that morality doesn't need faith, I feel that such observations miss the more fundamental question of why we have moral or aesthetic values at all - such as the ones by which Dawkins, myself and others venerate rational analysis. This is among the questions that, to my knowledge, no science is on the verge of answering compellingly.

There are two quite distinct questions in this vicinity. One is merely a question about contingent human thought and behaviour ("why do we care about stuff?"), and thus to be answered by psychology, obviously. This appears to be the question Unwin is asking, so it's quite incredible that he doubts it has a scientific answer.

The second possible question is more general, asking why there is real value in the world at all, if indeed there is. ("Why is stuff worth caring about?") This is a deeply philosophical question, of course. And since religion has no more place* in philosophy than it does in science, I don't see that this option is any friendlier to Unwin.**
* = In either case, religion may be a topic for investigation, of course. But religious methodologies -- e.g. revelation, and clinging to otherwise indefensible views by appeal to "faith" -- are no help in conducting science or philosophy.

** = (Really, it pisses me off no end when people stupidly assume that just because a question goes beyond the scope of science, it's therefore a matter to be settled by religious dogma. Quite how they imagine licensing the step from scientific ignorance to accepting the random guess of your local priest, I just don't know.)


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16 comments:

  1. Ooh, to expand on that last complaint, I just found the perfect thing in B&W's dictionary of euphemisms:

    "An explanation is what religion is considered able to provide in areas where science cannot. Religion is able to do this because it does not have to find evidence, subject its explanations to peer review, replicate its 'findings,' avoid contradiction or absurdity or an infinite regress, or in fact check its explanations against any form of reality at all."

    Indeed.

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  2. I don't see Unwin claiming that religious dogma should settle everything science leaves unsettled. All I see him saying on that matter is that science doesn't show religious dogma to be false. I think he takes Dawkins to be asserting that it does.

    From what I know of Dawkins, I wouldn't put it past him to assert such a thing, but even if he doesn't I don't blame those who think he does believe that. He seems to treat the consensus of biologists on the question of evolution as if it disproves creationism. He's right if he means that it disproves the view that the world was created in six days by supernatural means, but he's wrong if he means that it disproves other options within theistic models of creation, including several that I would argue still count as taking the early chapters of Genesis literally.

    Since Dawkins regularly uses the term 'creationism' of other such theistic creation models, it's not surprising that people will read him as thinking that science disproves theism. Thus, both of the following claims seem to be reasonable conclusions from what he writes:

    1. Dawkins thinks science disproves creationism (and he doesn't qualify this to a particular model of theistic creation).
    2. Dawkins applies the term 'creationism' to these other models of theistic creation.

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  3. "Pascal's Wager fails because it's possible that God might punish believers and reward atheists."

    Pascal's Wager, and pragmatic arguments in general for belief in God, as you might imagine, are not so simply dismissed. Jeff Jordan has an excellent book forthcoming at OUP on the "wager" and the many objections to it. For what it's worth, something analogous to your objection is anticipated, developed and rebutted in Phil Quinn's, 'Moral Objections to Pascalian Wagering' in _Gambling on God_ (Rowman & Littlefield, 1994,J. Jordan (ed.)).
    Your particular objection, at least as it is formulated above, mistakenly assumes that an outcome that is possible (such as God's rewarding unfaithfulness--it is incidentally not obvious to me that that outcome is so much as possible, but let's keep moving...) is an outcome that has some positive probability. But even supposing that it is a possible outcome, why would I assign it any positive probablity in my decision matrix? I wouldn't. There is simply no evidence (or, none that I know of) for that outcome. That p is imaginable obviously does not entail that p is credible. So, since we're speaking of invalid arguments, let's add this one: Possible p, therefore Pr(p)> 0.

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  4. Not all "possibilities" are
    possible for example you can't have an outright contradiction and relted to this will tend not to have things that tend to massively reduce the options.

    So the set of posibilities is limited. that 1+1 COULD equal 3 doesn't balance out the probability that it equals 2 similarly one might say that god COULD punish belief may well not cancel out that he might 'reward' it (in some sense) despite the fact that they look like mirror immages at first glance.

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  5. Mike, as explained in my linked post, I think it is at least as credible that God would reward the epistemically responsible (e.g. sincere and reasonable skeptics) as that he would (unjustly) punish them and reward gold-digging wagerers instead. Perhaps neither proposition warrants any positive credence. Anyway, two points remain that are relevant to the present critique: (1) whilst there may still be philosophical interest in exploring the wager and attempting to bolster it, the standard presentation of the argument - as given by Unwin here - is not one that Dawkins or your average man on the street has any reason to take seriously. (2) Given Unwin's reaction to the thought that Dawkins assigned zero credence to the rewarding-belief scenario, it would be hypocritical for him to embrace your suggestion and assign zero credence to the rewarding-scepticism scenario instead. He prides himself on being "fanatically uncertain" in this letter.

    Jeremy - I don't deny that there are reasonable criticisms one could make of Dawkins (as, e.g., you and Siris have recently offered). But I don't see any such thing in Unwin's letter. He doesn't appear to be saying anything resembling your criticism #2, for instance. And the things he does say, especially the two central points I quoted here, are quite silly for the reasons I've pointed out.

    Perhaps my passing complaint about settling questions by religious dogma goes beyond what Unwin explicitly proposed. But look again: "As for Dawkins' assertion... that morality doesn't need faith, I feel that such observations miss the more fundamental question of why we have moral or aesthetic values at all." (Unwin holds that this, rather than creationism, is the sort of question that should "be at the heart of the question of God's existence.") The clear implication is that we do "need faith" to explain this "fundamental question". He presents it as a reason for taking religion seriously, which only makes sense on the presumption that religion is in a position to offer us apt answers to such questions.

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  6. Richard,
    "The clear implication is that we do "need faith" to explain this "fundamental question""

    Did he not declair at the end of that sentance that he was uncertain about it?
    In which case his explination is that we MIGHT need faith.
    maybe I read him wrong? or maybe you did?

    As to "I think it is at least as credible that God would" this may be like trying to reinvent the car (and spend half a second doing it).

    Religious scholorship isn't exactly the most rigourous thing in the world (partly because philosophy is not a solid foundation to argue from) but the relitive likelihoods (and consistancies) of such scenarios is the sort of thing that they would debate.

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  7. "Your particular objection, at least as it is formulated above, mistakenly assumes that an outcome that is possible... is an outcome that has some positive probability. But even supposing that it is a possible outcome, why would I assign it any positive probablity in my decision matrix? I wouldn't. There is simply no evidence (or, none that I know of) for that outcome."

    Remarkably, I use very much the same logic to justify not believing in God in the first place.

    On a more serious note: I've read Dawkins' book, and he emphatically does not claim complete certainty in atheism. His major argument is developed in a chapter titled, "Why there almost certainly is no god" (my emphasis). I also rather enjoyed Dawkins' deconstruction of Unwin's argument, which basically consists of a Bayesian probability argument derived by taking six factors of his choice and assigning them arbitrary numeric values, also of his choice. Amazingly, the result just happens to show that God exists!

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  8. In all fairness to Unwin, he doesn't actually defend Pascal's Wager in the letter to the editor to which the link goes. He merely adduces Dawkins's quick dismissal of Pascal's Wager as an evidence that Dawkins fails to take seriously the complications of reasoning under uncertainty. And this is not really unreasonable; even people who reject Pascal's Wager often recognize that it deals with serious issues related to exactly that subject.

    Unwin's own arguments are Bayesian, not Pascalian; at least, as far as I know, since I haven't read much of Unwin's work. But a good deal of Unwin's arguments are based on his views about reasoning under uncertainty and under limited certainty, which is why the uncertainty issue is important to him.

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  9. On this argument the zoologists should win. Had some religion claimed that cars were designed by God, the onus would have been on car mechanics to take up the fight - and I would have been fully behind them.

    This is another thing that irks me - why would the onus be on car mechanics to prove anything when some hypothetical religion claim, without evidence or argumentation, that God designed cars? Everyone should be free to dismiss wild unfounded assertions, and given the state of the intelligent design debate it would seem that we are not allowed to do so by some theists.

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  10. I guess an individualist might say an individual can't trust the knowledge of society and not everyone has more than a limited amount of time to devote to such issues.

    So each person is justified in a sense to perform a "pascal's wager" or similar minimal assumption sort of assesment. (and that creates its own industry!)

    If you have a problem with the conclusions they come to then you have to prove/argue your case.

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  11. Richard, you write,

    "I think it is at least as credible that God would reward the epistemically responsible (e.g. sincere and reasonable skeptics) as that he would (unjustly) punish them and reward gold-digging wagerers instead."

    This is tendentious and the dichotomy is pretty clearly false. Why assume that evidentialism is epistemically responsible? Why ignore all of the argumentation for non-evidential warranted belief? Belief in God might also be so (non-evidentially) warranted. In any event, you can't simply assume it isn't or that such belief is epistemically irresponsible.
    Further Pascal's argument does not conclude that you acquiese in selfish gold-digging. That's really a bad caricature. The argument urges that you dispose yourself to the selfless pursuit of what is truly valuable (though you may not yet recognize it as such). That is achieveable even for those of us that begin the process unable to recognize anything but crass reasons to believe.

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  12. The very idea that a God worthy of the name would punish someone for not believing in him-her-it, is monstrous. God is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient and eternal. In light of such, how tiny our "sins" must seem. We forgive children and how infintely "childish" we would seem compared with the Eternal. I would prefer not to believe in a creature so petty, so imbued with the most loathsome of human characteristics (revenge) as to punish human beings for non belief. And if it turns out that such a monster does exist, I would rather take my lumps and defy such an evil creature. A God worthy of the name must be a loving and therefore forgiving one. Thus for me, Pascals Wager makes no sense at all.

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  13. But, Mike, if you reject evidentialism, then it seems that you are left with hybrid pragmatic/evidential reasons that are equally decisive against supernatural belief (a la Quinean naturalism). And certainly evidentialism is a reasonable position for someone to take.

    The question still remains why God would punish a person who, in good faith, engaged in reasonable epistemic practices and came to the conclusion that belief in God was unjustified, even throwing in standard pragmatic considerations?

    It seems that punishing someone with eternal damnation for beliefs they hold reasonably (and non-negligently)
    would be the height of immorality.

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  14. The modern interpretation seems to be that there is no punishment there is just "seperation from god". A sort of harm by inaction as opposed to action.

    Regardless I'd say omnipotence (in the way that we interpret it usually) and benevolence are a total non starter as a combination.

    What you could have is semi-omnipotence (ie limited by all sorts of things such as "to create heaven one must exculde some") and "generaly plesant" (ie nice to some people and willing to neglect others)

    Such a god could however still be considered worthy.

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  15. Pat, you write,

    "if you reject evidentialism, then it seems that you are left with hybrid pragmatic/evidential reasons that are equally decisive against supernatural belief"

    No. For (many) non-evidentialists belief in God is basic. That is, it is a belief that is not based on other propositional knowledge. A typical analogy is the formation of a belief that there is a tree in your back yard. That belief is warranted upon perceiving the tree, though there is no propositional basis for the belief.

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  16. But certainly the perception of the tree is playing an evidentiary role there.

    But "taking a belief as basic" surely can't be something that can be done to just any belief. Am I allowed to take misogynist or racist beliefs as basic?

    We have a set of fairly reliable belief forming mechanisms in place: perception, science, adn the like. Why should we include revelatory faith in that picture?

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