Saturday, November 2, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 8

Chapter 8: So Which Beliefs are Properly Basic?
Like with the previous chapter on faith, chapter 8 is heavy on the philosophical rambling style of Randal Rauser, and once again we find there is a lot to unpack here. As such, I’ll merely be focusing on discussing the content of this chapter.

Randal enters into the area of study known as epistemology. This is the study of how we know what we know, i.e. the theory of knowledge.

He begins by talking about the importance of finding a criterion for distinguishing between which beliefs require evidence and which don’t. This is just basic philosophy 101 stuff, but that brings me to my first real criticism of Randal and his puzzling little book. Randal nowhere attempts to define the terms he’s using—not for Sheridan’s sake, not for the reader’s sake, and not for our sake (the real readers). Randal may be smart, perhaps too smart for his own good, but I find it rather taxing that he keeps throwing new terminology and concepts at us every other paragraph and simply expects everyone to track along with him.

Yes, if we all had PhDs in epistemology, there’d be no problem, but Randal isn’t writing this as a serious philosophy book, because that would require footnotes and peer review, so it’s clear that the book is being put out for the layman, Christian and Atheist alike. However, I’m afraid neither will understand what he’s talking about if he doesn’t take the time to do a little better job explaining certain terms and ideas—which he so far hasn’t been doing to any great extent.

This makes the book too demanding to be enjoyable, and too vague to be informative, in my opinion. But my preference aside, as an editor, I’d say it’s a haphazard way to write a book. When reviewing an author’s manuscript, I always try to ask them explain—in simplest terms possible—their intended meaning so as to convey it to the audience with the least amount of confusion. This is a common courtesy, and it is the author’s duty to guide the reader through the pages as painlessly as possible, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Using big words simply for the sake of using big is usually the first thing I nix. If you can say it more plainly, then that’s always best, because being understood is more important than showing people how smart you are. If you can’t explain it in simple terms, because not everything simplifies to easy descriptions, then I usually try to have the author relay the basic idea through analogy. Throughout the book however, Randal’s analogies have been strained, inaccurate, or unrelated to his main point—and this has, as I mentioned, made the book a rather taxing read.

Usually, if I read a book that’s this confused I put it down and leave it alone. Not because it’s a shoddy book, because grammatically and structure wise it’s well done, but the content is too scrambled and clearly lacks structure. Due to this wishy-washy, stream of consciousness style of writing we often find the message is rendered unclear. In such cases the truth of the matter is the author failed to convey his message in a comprehensible way, the editor failed to help him do this, and the book failed overall to do what it was intended to do, unless the goal was simply to confuse readers. But somehow I doubt that’s the goal here.

I know it’s a pretty harsh criticism, but after eight chapters of what constitutes unfocused rambling—it’s no longer something we can continue to ignore.

Getting back to the book however, right away Randal gives us this doozy.

You may believe ‘I see a sunset’ and ‘the sun now looks orange.’ But you also might come to believe that ‘the sunset is beautiful.’ That could also be, in my view, a very reasonable belief. If you can believe that it’s beautiful, why couldn't you also believe that ‘God made the sun’ based on your perception of the sun setting? If you want to exclude beliefs about God, then I’d like to hear on what basis you do so.

Maybe on the basis that Randal just described belief in God as merely being subjective?

Randal isn’t wrong about the belief in the sun being orange relating to properly basic beliefs. I see the orangeness of orange orangly, and nobody can tell me my orange isn’t orange. That is, my belief that orange is orange is properly basic. Even if we perceived orange differently, our belief that we both were looking at orange, and that the orangeness of orange is perceived orangely, for both of us, would be properly basic—we each believe we are seeing orange.

Beauty is entirely a subjective concept, because the notion of beauty deals with the aesthetic, which isn’t a properly basic belief. Aesthetic beauty depends on our experiences and prior held beliefs.

For example, if I told you as a child I played with friends in an old abandoned Victorian styled house, which was infested with cobwebs and spiders, and that one day while playing I accidently crashed into a spider’s nest and, to my horror, baby spiders spilled out and crept right under my clothing, and I ran out of the house screaming—well, later on as adults if I told you I don’t find Victorian houses all that appealing, you would recognize it was based on a prvious experience, and my belief that Victorian houses are evil, and so my belief about the aesthetics of Victorian era homes would not be properly basic.

The same goes for the beautifulness of sunsets. A properly basic belief should not, by definition, be predicated on other beliefs. Even if I had a bad citrus experience with oranges, and orange became my least favorite color, it would not change the fact that the color I was looking at was one which I perceived as orange. In other words, my belief in the orangness of orange wouldn’t be altered by my bad experience with the fruit.

So it seems Randal’s analogy fails.

Sheridan suddenly starts talking about ‘sense perception’ and Randal challenges how reliable that might be. But that’s sort of the point I made above with regard to the analogy, perception can be affected by experience, and aesthetics, such as beauty, as I showed, is often influenced by perception—and I think this would hold true for religious experience and belief in God as well.

In other words, I see no reason to assume belief in God as properly basic. But I think we may be jumping the gun here, as Randal has to tie his tangent back to his main topic of properly basic beliefs still.

Randal then segues from talking about perception to talking about intuition, and informs:

Well, our rational intuition of mathematical and logical truths doesn’t function in the same way as sense perception. We don’t learn the truths of algebra or calculus in the same way that we learn that it’s raining outside. Those are different ways of knowing, and we recognize the autonomy of each. So why can’t the perception of God have its own unique status—why can’t it be a distinct way of knowing?

I can’t help but see this as a cheat.

Mathematics and logic relate back to the real world. They can both make predictions about how the real natural world functions, and these predictions can sometimes defy our intuition. As far as I can tell, belief in God makes little in the way of predictions about the real world. How does believing in God relate back to the real world?

Math can be utilized to help a computer scientist write a program for a satellite, and set it on its course, and this program will then aid us in, say, synchronizing our watches and allowing our GPS navigation systems to always work. And the reason this works is because other mathematical theories, such as Einstein’s theory of special relativity, have made correct predictions about the nature of reality, in this case space and time, which allows us to relate the math equations used back to the real world.

There is a synthetic relationship.

The same is true of logic. Applying logic to economics, for example, improves one’s ability predict economic trends. Apply logic to the stock market, and you can make better decision on buying and trading. Apply logic to gambling, such as counting cards, instead of just going by “luck” and you’ll see positive results in the way of winning—which is why most casino’s have banned counting cards and those who are capable of doing it—because logically speaking, they’ll win every time while the casinos will lose. 

Logic is a tool that we can apply, and see how it functions with respect to how we experience things in reality. Once again, there is a synthetic relationship between logic and the real world.

How doesn’t one apply God belief so that it works every time?

See, the problem is, if that’s your take on God, then things like prayer would be akin to logic. You apply God to your life like the gambler applies logic and math while counting cards. You do it, and it works. You teach someone else to do it, and it works for them too. Now does prayer always work? Can we apply God in such a fashion? The Bible says we can. Christians seem to think so. But things like the Benson Study of Intercessory prayer (Benson, et al., “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer,” American Heart Journal, Volume 151, Number 4, April 2006) completely disprove this intuition and show that prayer is false. Belief in God has no application. There is no synthetic relationship with reality, as far as we can tell. Which is probably the real reason behind creating special categories for God, i.e. he is transcendent, beyond space and time, etc. 

So why can’t God perception, or belief in God, be a distinct way of knowing? Because, it doesn’t relate back to reality in any way that would validate its status as something that confirms our intuition, unlike math and logic, which comport with our intuitions and often times help validate them. Unable to find any utility for God belief in the same way we find utility for things like math and logic, is it any wonder that we remain skeptical?

Sheridan then makes the statement that “The problem with religious people is that they’re just not open to the evidence.”

To which Randal responds: 

Pardon me for being skeptical, but you’re fooling yourself if you think that an atheist like Richard Dawkins is any more open-minded when it comes to basic worldview issues than your average conservative Christian.

If you find yourself rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. I blame Randal’s desire to send a jab at Dawkins for the reason he makes this embarrassing blunder. Dawkins is a scientist and has dedicated his whole life to the study and practice of science. He also happens to be a staunch rationalist. To say he wouldn’t be open-minded when it comes to the evidence in changing one’s worldview is simply ignoring the fact that Richard Dawkins lives by that very principle! I’m sure if there was convincing evidence, he’d change his mind. In fact, I’m almost positive he has said as much elsewhere.

It’s fine to be skeptical, I mean, if you haven’t read any of Dawkins work, or listened to any of his lectures or online videos, but having seen these things—and knowing very well that Dawkins has said on numerous occasions that if the evidence warrants it he’d gladly change his mind—I have to wonder if Randal is reading the same Richard Dawkins I am.

Dawkins has stated, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

It sounds like Dawkins puts a heavy emphasis on the importance of evaluating the evidence. That clearly is not at all like a Christian conservative who relies on faith on a day to day basis.

Speaking on the religious belief in Creationism, Dawkins has mentioned: 

If all the evidence in the universe turned in favour of creationism, I would be the first to admit it, and I would immediately change my mind. As things stand, however, all available evidence (and there is a vast amount of it) favours evolution.

So, Randal is clearly wrong about Dawkins not being open-minded enough to change his mind. One thing I have come to realize over the years is that apologists have a healthy appetite for eating crow.

Randal then grumbles: 

I often hear atheists play up the claim that they’re ‘open to the evidence,’ but in my experience they can be as intransigent and closed-minded as anybody. Religious people certainly don’t have the monopoly on fundamentalism.

Well, I hate to break it to Randal, but religious people do (technically) have a monopoly on fundamentalism. That’s because the religious have dogmatic creeds, doctrines, and modes of belief which create an orthodoxy of agreement in both practice and belief. Atheists do not have this. Moreover, many religions have holy texts which discourage critical and/or rational inquiry. Meanwhile, we find atheists frequently asking the religious to become more critical minded as well as challenging the religious to learn more about other faiths and worldviews by, oh, I dunno, say, taking the outsider test of faith?

So either Randal doesn’t know many atheists, or he’s simply uninformed in this area. Don't get me wrong either, I'm not saying there aren't irrational atheists out there. There certainly are. But rational atheists, and I know quite a few, many of them working in colleges and universities, often would like to see everyone strive to become more rational--both theist and nonbeliever alike. It surprises me that Randal hasn't come across any rational atheists, unless he simply believes all atheists are irrational.

Additionally, I can’t help but think back to when Carl Sagan said, “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.”

Sounds like sound advice to me.

This brings us to the end of chapter 8. In chapter 9: God is Not a Hypothesis, Randal backtracks to Victor Stenger’s claim that God is an astonishing hypothesis, which he apparently takes umbrage at. It will be interesting to see how he backs up his assessment that God isn’t a hypothesis.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist