What warrant is there for belief in God?

Every morning on the way to the campus of the University of Melbourne I pass by the United Faculty of Theology, and I often wish that someone would come out and engage me in a debate. Partly because I am an ornery fellow who loves a good stoush, but also because I am genuinely puzzled by religious belief. Recently two things happened: one was that I had a series of discussions about Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN; which is in effect the claim that if we believe that evolution is true, we should not believe that atheism is true). I ended up arguing that in fact Darwinian thinking should lead us to deny that any supernaturalism is something we can reasonably be expected to have evolved to know reliably.

Earlier this week, in a class on argument mapping, I encountered (actually, I proffered it for analysis) an argument of C. S. Lewis’ much beloved of many apologists:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. [Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”]

Now I was born with a desire to be Superman or something like him, so I presume that means there is some world which I am made to be Superman in (thus proving the existence of multiple worlds; another Lewis, David Lewis, would have been pleased). It is a not terribly sensible argument, and it presents what I think is the sole and only warrant for believing in God or gods or the supernatural: wish fulfilment.

This term is taken from Freud, but I don’t mean by it what he meant by it. I mean simply this: humans are disposed to think the world will behave the way they want it to; that their desires have some causal power beyond what they can make their limbs and mouth do. If I want there to be a God, then there has to be a God. Once you adopt that belief, you have to explain it, which is what Lewis’ argument from desire (I would call it an argument to satisfaction) attempts to do. It is precisely backwards.

Both Plantinga’s and Lewis’ arguments rely upon the state of our beliefs having some influence on how the world is, rather than being the other way around. Plantinga’s EAAN moves from “we did not evolve to know that the supernatural does not exist” to “we cannot know that the supernatural does not exist” and to an implied “the supernatural exists”. Lewis’ argument moves from “I desire something this world cannot satisfy” to “there is another world in which I can satisfy that desire”. Both move from “I have some cognitive state” to “this is evidence the world is as my state intends”. Let us call this the intentional argument strategy.

If wishes, however, were horses (or more fashionably, Ducatis), then beggars would ride. However much we may desire that the world is some way, like desiring there to be life after death, if there is no independent evidence for that belief, we are not warranted in believing it. Our beliefs should follow the evidence, not act as evidence for their content (unless, of course, the content is that we have those beliefs). This is not restricted to religion. Many scientists think that their theories are evidence for the truth of their theories, and many philosophers think the same. But if the world is not teleological, and we are not “made for” anything, then we do not have warrant for these beliefs.

So what reason is there for believing in a religious claim? Why did Lewis come to believe in Christianity, and not, say, Shinto or African animism or Makiritare traditions? Did he consider each of these in turn and reject all but Christianity? Why is it that adherents convert to religions that are culturally influential, if they are warranted beliefs? The answer is that the warrant is cultural, that people turn to those traditions they see around them and which they are taught are acceptable options, most of the time. The reason why people are Christians is, to a first approximation, because that is their native tradition. The reason why some other religions have influence is because there are those promoting them culturally.

In the absence of arguments that are decisive in warranting belief, and let’s face it, none have ever been raised that survived critical examination, the sole reason people adopt a belief is that it suits them to do so. Either it has cultural advantages or it serves their psychological disposition to believe it, if these are not the same motivation. One would be a lot more impressed by such arguments from intention if there were not such a strong correlation between the traditions one was exposed to as a young person and the traditions selected in later life. Had Lewis become Shinto, I might think his reasoning was more independent of what he wanted to believe.

A preacher once unironically said this:

Things and actions are what they are, and consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived? [Bishop Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons, Sermon VII, §16.]

Butler was arguing that evil deeds are evil no matter how we would prefer they are guiltless or that we might become guiltless. It’s a good point. It applies also to there being a God. Things are as they are, and no amount of wishing they were otherwise will aid us. We know that, brains in a vat and other kinds of radical skepticism notwithstanding, we have warrant for believing in the world about us. This, if anything is warranted belief, is warranted. Belief in anything other than the observed, experienced and physical world is not. I am not saying that one is irrational if one does believe in non-physical realities so long as that doesn’t commit you to believing in false facts about the physical world, but the beliefs are just beliefs. They carry no weight.

People who are committed to this fallacious inference from intentionality often wish to claim that the reality around us is constructed. We are “worldmakers” as philosopher Nelson Goodman put it. Well I do not think that we are such world makers that we can reasonably deny the primacy of the world we actually experience. To take that step is to abandon the idea of warrantable belief entirely. Think what you like about gods, but deny that there’s a table in front of me now, and I will doubt your ability to believe anything based on warrant. Warrantable beliefs must be reasonable and evidential. If you deny evidence altogether, then we can have no sensible conversation.

If in thinking that evolution gives us no reason to believe in the external world, one thinks this means we cannot deny the supernatural, unexperienced, world, something has gone very very wrong in the argument. The notion of warrant has lost its flavour and is now just over-used chewing gum for the philosophical palette. Stick it under the table, and get something fresh. The intentional argument strategy is the strategy of the juvenile.

41 thoughts on “What warrant is there for belief in God?

  1. We’re actually (in Christianity’s view) created to be supermen. Just not the supermen that’s been recently pictured in movies. You should think of all those desires that all people, or all time had, to a certain extent.

    It’s not that our desires or imagination create other worlds, or change the order in other worlds, but that they reflect a purpose for our existence. Hunger or sexual desires are there to move us towards a specific action, with a specific purpose. Otherwise we would starve to death or not reproduce.

    The same with religious intuition. It’s not by reasoning that come to the conclusion that there’s a God. It’s something deeper and not warranted.

    The only thing one can do rationally is to check if a religious belief is inconsistent with itself. One mistake that is commonly done is, for instance, to use moral norms that follow from an atheistic view to judge Christian facts or beliefs.

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      1. Wouldn’t you say that all of our knowledge is, at most, grounded in the reliability of our senses or intuition? We use our senses to make observations. To the extent that our senses work the same way, we have a certain amount of objective knowledge. Such as physics. The further we go from row observation, by inferring stuff for which we don’t have immediate justification, the less justified are our beliefs.

        If we choose to stick to the most objective form of knowledge, than we have no other option than to only accept physics. But that’s a matter of choice. Death, on the contrary, it’s not. In the face of an imminent death, religious people choose to rely more on their intuition.

        I don’t think that warranty is the name of the game here. Life it’s not a mathematical theorem to which we search for a proof. You don’t need free will to accept that 1+1=2, or A=A. But you need free will to love. And love if the life’s meaning.

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        1. Plantinga didn’t choose term warranty for nothing. Obviously, it is different from proof or justification. I think it’s a clever term, because it connects with calvinist thought quite well; one is free to believe or disbelieve something that is warranted. It keeps free will intact. Also, using the term could avoid the philosophical implications of probabilistic terms; if you say that God is “likely” to exist or that he “probably” exists, you’re setting yourself up for the probabilistic comparison of a world with God vs. a world without him. That seems a pitfall.

          I disagree that strength of justification is inversely proportional to how far something is from row observation. If someone is standing just around the corner, I am not justified in saying I know who it is but I am justified in saying that that person is made up of atoms. Looking around the corner is, however, a much smaller step in terms of observations than corroborating that there are atoms in another person’s body. Justification depends on what we consider established knowledge more than objective observations.

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        2. Wouldn’t you say that all of our knowledge is, at most, grounded in the reliability of our senses or intuition?”

          No. Our senses and intuition are not very reliable. Knowledge comes from different individuals working together to minimize the biases and errors that result from trusting any individual’s senses and intuition.

          This is both how and why the scientific method produces knowledge while divine revelation usually just produces bad poetry.

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        3. Why is it that the god-botherers always back up their illogical views with atrocious spelling and grammar? My apologies if English is a second language Cristian, the internet is after all a very ‘English-centric’ place, but boy, thats some awful writing; to the point where your arguments are difficult to follow.
          Of course if your grammar was perfect your argument would have no greater buoyancy, but that’s usually the case with the religious: evasive arguments, changing the subject, and missing the point. Though congrats are in order for not resorting to the usual stratagem of threats and name-calling. Are you not American, then?
          Religion is superstition, nothing more. Sure, its wonderfully organised and extremely wealthy, but superstition nonetheless. There is precisely the same degree of evidence for belief in an all-knowing man in the sky as there is for believing in Vampires. Roughly none. But have a nice day, and keep searching the internet, you might just learn something!

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  2. “Belief in anything other than the observed, experienced and physical world is not [warranted].”

    I’m not sure if I understand warranty correctly, but it seems to me that belief in a Cartesian version of consciousness is warranted. I can experience my mind every day. In fact, even a less shallow consideration might lead to the conclusion that belief in a transcendent dualistic mind is warranted. Not that I’m defending such views, but reducing the mind to the physical world is not the most obvious thing to do. Unwarranted even if true, so to speak.

    You also mention the brain in a vat, which is related to Descartes; does that experiment not warrant the belief that the brain itself, at the very least, exists? This wouldn’t be worth mentioning, of course, if it wasn’t also connected to Descartes’ proof of God. It seems like Descartes warrants the belief in God on rationalist grounds: we are thinking beings, our less than perfect minds make it credible (warranted?) that a perfect mind exists as the cause. As an atheist, I’m not at all convinced, but often struck by the depth of the challenge posed by Descartes. C.S. Lewis seems to echo him.

    My point is: you could warrant belief in the supernatural from a radical rationalist perspective. If transcendent minds are warranted, then so is transcendence, and perhaps God as well.

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    1. I think that substance dualism of a Cartesian kind is unnecessary and ultimately incoherent. I have a proof of this, but this iPad is not large enough for me to write it down…

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      1. I accept that. Concerning warranty however, do you think it is possible that some belief is warranted but not true? I assumed this is so.

        For example, believing the earth stands still and the sun spins around it might have been warranted in the past, because there are few unambiguous clues that it is the earth that moves. “I have a proof of this,” Galileo might say, “but this parchment is too small”.

        In a similar vein, I could imagine that a transcendent or cartesian mind is warranted, but, never having read Plantinga, perhaps I apply the term incorrectly. Actually, mind-body dualism of some kind seems intuitively so obvious, I tend to place the onus on the person claiming it can all be reduced to physics.

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  3. “Belief in anything other than the observed, experienced and physical world is not [warranted].”

    Quite so. What confuses the debate is that a person may see other people acting as if they hold true beliefs and so follows suit. Belief in believing by the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ principle.

    In other news people who hold a gun are more likely to judge other people to be holding guns. Another case of priming perhaps.

    So perhaps if you adopt some behaviours of belief you are more likely to interpret the behaviours of others as ‘belief’ which strengthens your behaviours, which… and so a particular social convention (a specific religion) is born. ‘Monkey see, monkey do, but some monkeys worry that what they see isn’t real’?

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  4. Hi John,

    Plantinga’s EAAN appears as an obscure argument, so if you did refute it then you refuted an obscure argument. I am sorry that I saw nothing clear enough about it to weigh in pro or con.

    I suppose that the best philosophical argument to warrant belief in God involves the origin of time, which was first argued by John Philoponus in the sixth century AD. Recently, William Lane Craig extensively developed the concept in what he calls the Kalam cosmological argument. I deeply appreciate Craig’s argument except that he tries to make it formal logical proof instead of a mere reasonable conjecture warrants belief in God. I will not defend Craig’s version, but I will defend my version, which I call a timeless-to-time cosmological conjecture.

    A timeless-to-time cosmological conjecture sees:
    1. Belief in an infinite past sequence of time is unreasonable.
    2. Belief in an inanimate beginning of time is unreasonable.

    This suggests a reasonable conjecture in an animate beginning of time, which suggests the existence of God. I think I did a good job explaining this in “First Quasi-Cause: Uncaused Timeless Nature.”
    http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com/2011/12/first-quasi-cause-uncaused-timeless.html

    At this point, I deeply appreciate pointing Platinga out that God Almighty could not create free will creatures without the possibility of evil. In our case, evil ranges from first degree burns to the Holocaust. I would never claim that the level of evil is easy to comprehend, but God has a long-term goal for the never-ending future. And I believe this goal includes everybody eventually reconciling, including say Anne Frank and Adolf Hitler getting past their differences.

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    1. Oops, some typos:
      “I deeply appreciate Craig’s argument except that he tries to make it formal logical proof instead of a mere reasonable conjecture [that] warrants belief in God. ”
      “At this point, I deeply appreciate [Platinga pointing] out that God Almighty could not create free will creatures without the possibility of evil. ”

      Take two:

      I suppose that the best philosophical argument to warrant belief in God involves the origin of time, which was first argued by John Philoponus in the sixth century AD. Recently, William Lane Craig extensively developed the concept in what he calls the Kalam cosmological argument. I deeply appreciate Craig’s argument except that he tries to make it formal logical proof instead of a mere reasonable conjecture that warrants belief in God. I will not defend Craig’s version, but I will defend my version, which I call a timeless-to-time cosmological conjecture.

      A timeless-to-time cosmological conjecture sees:
      1. Belief in an infinite past sequence of time is unreasonable.
      2. Belief in an inanimate beginning of time is unreasonable.

      This suggests a reasonable conjecture in an animate beginning of time, which suggests the existence of God. I think I did a good job explaining this in “First Quasi-Cause: Uncaused Timeless Nature.”
      http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com/2011/12/first-quasi-cause-uncaused-timeless.html

      At this point, I deeply appreciate Platinga pointing out that God Almighty could not create free will creatures without the possibility of evil. In our case, evil ranges from first degree burns to the Holocaust. I would never claim that the level of evil is easy to comprehend, but God has a long-term goal for the never-ending future. And I believe this goal includes everybody eventually reconciling, including say Anne Frank and Adolf Hitler getting past their differences.

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      1. If time is a property of a four dimensional universe then it no more needs an origin than depth. The Kalam argument is based on a fallacy of composition – that the whole needs the same explanation (in terms of causes) that the parts do. The universe just is, including time.

        As to the problem of evil, it is a problem of the theist’s own making. I fail to see how free will solves the problem. Either god was unable to make a better world (and it’s not clear that a world with free will is either a good, or that it is consistent with this world) or he chose not to. If we have free will, why can’t we choose, unaided, to act well? If original sin is true, then we don’t have it anywa. (not a problem for Jews and Muslims).

        There are no good solutions or arguments that warrant belief in god.

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        1. John, Could we focus a little on the first paragraph of your response?

          I clarified that I am not defending Craig’s theory but my theory. Perhaps you refuted Craig’s theory but not mine that I cited.

          For example, you say, “If time is a property of a four dimensional universe then it no more needs an origin than depth.”

          Well, my theory concludes that spacial dimensions (including depth) must have originated. For example, observed spacial dimensions have vacuum fluctuations. So if observed or similar space always existed, then there would have been a literal infinite number of past vacuum fluctuations in an infinite past time’s arrow. But there could not have been an infinite past time’s arrow. And science supports for the possibility of a point origin of the universe.

          Perhaps our discussion is helping me to see a original thesis in my cosmological conjecture.

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          1. I don’t think you quite have it. On the eternalist or block theory of time, the universe is an object that extends across time and space from start to finish. It does not “begin” to exist, it just exists. So calling for an explanation of why it begins (in this case why time begins) is a category mistake.

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            1. From my article:

              Some scholars stated to me in personal communication that infinite past time is possible because of different theories of time. For example, various philosophers challenge all empirical observations of cause and effect while proposing that all appearance of such sequences is essentially an illusion in an eternalist/block universe. Such eternalist theories ultimately propose radical simultaneousness of all supposedly past, present and future events while denying all distinction between the past, present, and future. [5] This rejection of sequences disputes the proposed impossibility of infinite past time, but at the expense of rejecting the notion of time’s arrow. Also, rejecting the notion of time’s arrow incidentally disputes every theory involving cause and effect, which includes all scientific theory. In this case, nobody can possibly disprove that the universe is an eternal block while the appearance of time is merely an illusion, but such philosophical theories are incompatible with the notion of science.

              5. See Markosian, Ned. 2008. “Time.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/.

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              1. If you treat this eternal or block theory of time as a Kuhnian paradigm, it could be impossible to disprove but still scientific because it is able to drive ‘normal science’. This is just to say that it seems premature to declare such a notion incompatible with science.

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      2. James Goetz:
        everybody eventually reconciling, including say Anne Frank and Adolf Hitler getting past their differences.

        “Raving” has figured out that he is a ‘phenomenologist’ …

        “There are plenty of places you can accuse people of being pedophilic communist sexist pigs; don’t do it here.”

        … Regrettably, Google is NOT Raving’s friend:

        Googling phenomenology+heidegger:
        Hit #1 was Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
        Hit #2 was MARXISTS [dot] *groan*

        Raving understands and respects both sides of the ongoing 1,000+ year war and is adamant to stay away from that proverbial, ‘muck raking’ stale-debate

        Here is a meager *new* thought offered in the hopes of eventually resolving the millennia old festering,‘object – subject’ boondoggle

        John S. Wilkins:
        I don’t think you quite have it. On the eternalist or block theory of time, the universe is an object that extends across time and space from start to finish. It does not “begin” to exist, it just exists. So calling for an explanation of why it begins (in this case why time begins) is a category mistake.

        Yes, a category mistake might have been made some places, many times over, in various ways … (Raving isn’t going there ALBEIT that just about every phenomenologist is intensely ‘Gung ho’ to embark upon categorical blunderment)

        It’s not really that category mistake is an especially bad thing to do. Rather … and herein resides Raving’s meager contribution …

        Rather …
        … It is about understanding and resolving a problem of category

        It does not “begin” to exist, it just exists.

        That’s it !!!! !^23 … precisely. There is only ONE CATEGORY. Full stop. … Period

        Everyone exists in Flatland. The method to escape imprisonment can be found by recognizing how to break the meaning of ‘category’

        (Perhaps a difficult Question:)
        How is it possible to break the meaning of a ‘2 dimensional’ universe?

        Suppose that making a category mistake is equivalent to breaking the meaning of ‘category’

        I anticipate John responding with something such as … “No. Making-a-mistake and breaking-meaning are like apples and oranges. There is no apparent connection between them. Making a mistake is just being ‘irrational’

        (Time passes …)
        ==================
        **INTERMISSION**

        (Some movie trivia. A quote from Life of Brian)

        Brian: Now, fuck off!
        [silence]
        Arthur: How shall we fuck off, O Lord?

        ==================

        Flatlander: Making a mistake is just being ‘irrational’ …

        Raving: Speak for yourself my friend. My dream is to escape from Flatland. You are happy to just remain here.

        Flatlander: Be that as it may, there is no escape from Flatland. It does not “begin” to exist, it just exists.

        Raving: Suit yourself my good friend. Now before I leave, I’ll tell you a little secret ….

        … If you ever wish to escape from … It does not “begin” to exist, it just exists. … just construct a discontinuity. Deliberately corrupt the rules that define Flatland and you will automatically leap off into a disconnected void and subsequently land in a whole new adventure.

        The crucial step to breaking away from category … so as to change category … is to become discontinuous from what once was integral to the former category.

        Phenomenologists recognize embracing discontinuity … and “jumping the shark” to arrive … in a new universe … as being a timely lapse of cognizance.

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  5. Wait a minute. I guess, if C. S. Lewis is right, that means that the age old desire to fly proves that aircraft have always existed? I guess I was always wrong about those Ator movies; they were actually documentaries.

    Plus, that means I need to start taking Giorgio Tsoukalos seriously now. Damn it!

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  6. The error here seems to be one Wittgenstein had in mind when he famously asked “What would it look like if it “looked as if” the earth rotates?” This in response to a friend implicitly making the “warrant” argument that it was “natural” to believe in geocentrism because that is the appearance of things.

    The Wittgensteinian problem is that there is no single, natural interpretation of data. Facts are relational to prior facts. There is normative interpretation, and there is “Copernican” re-orientation, but in no case can metaphysical context be completely shorn away, leaving only raw facts.

    Creationists don’t want to deny the table in front of you, and nor do Shintoists, Animists or Makiritarians. What they do want is to posit a different set-of-all-ontological relations, and if in doing so no evidentiary data is contradicted, the question of “warrant” simply cannot be brought differentially to bear.

    It also doesn’t do to put all the wish-fulfillment on the side of the supernatualists, while admitting that by the same token there is no trump card for radical skepticism. We must admit that we want the universe to correspond to our perception of it because it suits us that it might do so. As you implictly note, there is no “warrant” for assuming the cosmos rational and lawful, but that, much like Mr. Lewis, we find in ourselves a desire that it be so. Perhaps in the end we are all a little more “juvenile” than we would prefer?

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  7. Belief in anything other than the observed, experienced and physical world is not [warranted].

    That seems to be too strong.

    In my pocket, I find some pieces of green paper. They are, without doubt, physical, but are almost worthless as physical things. They are, however, part of a purely social-cultural construct known as money and they are of some significantly greater value as money than as physical paper. It seems to me that I am reasonably warranted in believing this money thing, even though it is not physical.

    Similarly, when people are playing Aussie rules football, the football is a physical object. But the system of conventions that make it a game is a social-cultural construct. Yet, I think I am warranted in believing that there is such a sport as Aussie rules.

    As I write this, I am looking at a site filled with philosophy, by one John Wilkins. Doubtless, much of what is written is about the physical world. But it seems to me that philosophy itself is a social-cultural construct, though one of whose existence I think I am warranted in believing. And then, as a mathematician, there’s a whole lot of what I do that is not considered physical, yet for which I am inclined to think there is some warrant.

    I don’t have any problem saying that money, Aussie rules, philosophy and mathematics are real. But I am unable to stretch the meaning of “physical” far enough to consider them to be physical.

    It seems to me that much of what we value is dependent on social-cultural constructs, and that is what makes us civilized people rather than mere brutes.

    Returning to your issues with religion, we have a peculiar situation. Religion, and the gods of particular religions are, without doubt, social-cultural constructs. But they are constructs of subcultures, not of the culture as a whole. And that’s part of what makes them different. Perhaps there were past times when religion played a more vital role in societies, and perhaps they have passed their period of usefulness. I suppose that’s something that cultural historians might be studying or might have already studied.

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    1. All these things – money, games, rules – are physical things. We need no supernaturalism to account for them. Sure, they are highly derived, almost parasitical, things, but they are law driven. They exist in and between heads and the bodies of heads. Not a one of them is a platonic entity, in my view.

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      1. If money is a physical thing, then we can solve the mystery of antimatter – it all wound up in the US national debt!

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  8. I can’t see any evidence to support the conclusion that an object of thought like Plantinga should exist but he does and that’s something I find fascinating.

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  9. It is natural for a very young child to perceive his or her parents as all-knowing and all-powerful. The false illusion of safety and comfort provided by this delusion becomes our first natural neurotic addiction. When disillusionment inevitably occurs, our desperation for a fix is so intense that we will accept any substitute, no matter how ludicrous, usually force-fed to us by whatever religion we happen to have been born into, in the form of a mystical parent-substitute. To protect our updated delusion, we repress our ability to objectively and critically examine our adopted cultural biases, and begin from that tragic point to develop our “life” view as a series of death-oriented embellishments to a grand house of cards.

    Anyone who tries to do the right thing already has all the religion they need. We are on our own. Our motivation to do the right thing is the simple fact that all we have is each other and the greater good. gosto.org/#The-Source-of-All-Things

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    1. Well, it’s not exactly an uplifting point of view but, unless there are some ETs out there who are taking more than a passing interest in what becomes of us, what he – or she – said.

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  10. it presents what I think is the sole and only warrant for believing in God or gods or the supernatural: wish fulfilment.

    Opinion of a ‘disinterested agnostic': Gosh, you are a clever fellow!

    I say this because I appreciate and savor what you have singled out. Yet I also deliberately avoid sliding into the quagmire of debate concerning … body versus mind

    … the sole and only warrant for believing …

    Any chance there is something less filling on the menu such as … sole and only warrant for assuming ? … ‘Belief’ is a bigger meal than I care to eat at the moment. Assumptions are more easily digested and forgotten

    sole and only warrant … vis a vis …. wish fulfilment.

    That above is also problematic.

    This real event describes my predicament:
    Show your support (at the university) for LGBT rights by wearing blue jeans on Friday

    Personally I respect and sympathize with both sides. Being coerced into staying away or implicitly declaring allegiance by virtue of showing up is irksome.

    Raving is all for ‘wish fulfilment’ and usually there is more than one desire.

    Life’s experience has taught me that too forcible an emphasis upon ‘belief’ can end badly. Becoming impaled on the horns of a dilemma is icky.

    The misfortune can be avoided by taking care not to go there. (Hence … ‘disinterested’)

    Nevertheless, ‘Here be philosophy’. YMMV

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  11. … we have warrant for believing in the world about us. This, if anything is warranted belief, is warranted. Belief in … other than the observed, experienced and physical world is … (unwarranted)

    Yet there is more. … There is belief in what is assumed. There is trust that what is unknown will make it’s presence felt, even if such isn’t realized by our own awareness. There is desire that what is ‘seen’ maintains veracity within the context that it was perceived. There is the sense of looking backwards and trusting towards the future

    These beliefs are indirect faculties. These beliefs do not impinge upon physical reality with absolute assurance. These beliefs are not groundless.

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  12. it presents what I think is the sole and only warrant for believing in God or gods or the supernatural: wish fulfilment

    Some believers claim to have personally seen/heard the big chap in the sky. Joan of Arc, for example. I am pretty sure she was delusional, but personal divine revelation strikes me as an excellent reason for believing in God or gods. I can’t see it ever happening to me, though.

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  13. In the case of wish fullfillment, Jeanne the maid would seem to raise questions about cultural wishes, horses and the ability of beggars to ride.

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  14. Is it all down to what’s real or not?

    A belief in God is definitely real – just as real as say a Doctorate. – Certainly the paper a Doctorate is printed on is real – so too a £5 note. As to whether the purchasing power of a £5 note (or that of a Doctorate) will be the same 100 years from now is open to question, relating somewhat to belief. – Reality is that we have a certain amount of determined knowledge of how the atoms of paper and the dyestuffs involved will change in that same time. – Decay can be measured. Ways have been devised to measure the strength of belief in God – they involve lions and things like that. – Science generally works on the principle that if it can be measured then it’s real.

    Belief is thus real, but the source of the belief not necessarily so – yet the expected benefits and cautions resultant from belief – they too have reality – as much as a good meal or a clip round the ear has reality. – A God who bestows such benefits and issues such cautions, is equally real in the eye of the believer – not quite as real as a splinter but close.

    The general format of course is: – The caution of disaster befalling, if the laws of belief are broken – balanced against reaping the benefits, including a safe route to the hereafter, if the laws are followed. – The following or not of the laws is very real.

    The problem of replacing such a belief with that of say evolution, is that evolution at present has no laws or little to offer by way of either benefit or caution.

    Evolution has yet to fully to face up to the fact of a disarming reality – that there are gaps in the fossil record – there are ways to measure the gaps – therefore the gaps are real.

    With only one mechanism though, producing joined-up change, evolution struggles to explain the gaps. – It needs just one fossil to fill just one gap, or a second valid mechanism to facilitate gaps – then it might become a proven fact – till then unfortunately it remains somewhat in the realms of belief.

    The worth of a belief is largely down to sales pitch.

    At present, the reality is that the assorted Gods have had quite a few thousand years to brush up their sales pitches. Evolution is a new comer to the game of knocking on doors.

    The best pitch it has to offer at present is that if you throw a bigger bomb at me than I throw at you, you will win sort of. – Not a very reassuring dictum.

    Those who believe in the reality of doctorates and evolution need to brush-up on sales pitches to better sell evolution. – But a good old-fashioned philosophical argument can still be fun.

    I do have a second simple natural mechanism – and a few laws to go with it. – Is anyone out there interested?

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    1. “Is it all down to what’s real or not?”

      In relation “Jeanne also known as the maid” I would look at Jeanne’s creation as legend (she was popularly identified as the maid a figure from a political prophecy attributed to Merlin) as a form of ethnogenesis.

      “the process by which a group of human beings comes to be understood or to understand themselves as ethnically distinct from the wider social landscape from which their grouping emerges”

      I think that this is a real and observable processes.

      Jeanne was accused at her trail of stealing a horse from the Bishop of Senlis. Contemporary actors engaged in such acts may wish to steal a different cultural vehicle more suited to the requirements of a contemporary audience.

      The language needed in such processes has to express the experience of contemporary groups rather than a medieval one.

      Such fictions must be kept real and speak directly to contemporary experience.

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  15. John the Plumber:
    Evolution has yet to fully to face up to the fact of a disarming reality – that there are gaps in the fossil record – there are ways to measure the gaps – therefore the gaps are real.

    I don’t understand why this canard is repeated so often, even by people who don’t seem to have a creationist agenda. Are you people not interested in what paleontologists have to say?

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    1. ‘Theory of Evolution’ = ‘Theory of Causality’ =’s …
      … ‘Continuity’ and preservation of propagating sequences of interaction. Preserving correspondence between things is crucially important.

      Why are gaps lauded and reviled? … A ‘discontinuity’ interrupts the ‘continuity’. It isolates chains of causality which cannot cross a gap. It threatens to disrupt sequence-of-interaction

      A bifurcation is the start of a propagating ‘irreversible’ breach. “Gap” suggests the tear has progressed to a Full Monty

      In subjective experience, awareness is constrained to localized momentary fragments. Discontinuity is ubiquitous and only a minor concern. Reversibility is an aberration.

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  16. Jonathan:
    If you treat this eternal or block theory of time as a Kuhnian paradigm, it could be impossible to disprove but still scientific because it is able to drive ‘normal science’. This is just to say that it seems premature to declare such a notion incompatible with science.

    Could you explain how eternal or block theory could possibly “drive normal science”?

    For example, I agree that eternal/block theory could drive the appearance of normal science in a way that is comparable to a Turing machine that causes the appearance of a stochastic outcome. But nonetheless, eternalism rejects the reality of sequential events and probabilities greater than zero and less than 1, which would make the notion of science meaningless. If you or anybody in the field of philosophy could detail otherwise (in the English language), then I would appreciate reviewing the argument.

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  17. Jonathon
    Slogging away writing ‘the book’, rather than a short response I have copied an excerpt – though it seems a bit dry without the rest of the chapter surrounding it. – I would be grateful for your criticism. A plumber can only get peer revue from plumbers – not many are intersted in evolution.

    “Darwin gave us freedom to weigh the options – divinity and miracles, or nature with logic. – Prior to Darwin all workable answers to transmutation had involved miraculous moments of creation. Science prefers not to rely on miracles.

    The ancient Greek philosophers had set the scientific ball rolling by insisting that logic demands logical proof. – Richard Feynman in The Feynman Lectures on Physics [1964], writing about the conservation of energy, sums this relationship between science and logic in just two sentences:

    “There is a fact – or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law – it is exact so far as we know. The law is called the conservation of energy.”

    To become a scientific fact, any supposition must be accountable to all known fact without exception. If a supposition complies with that condition, then we can say, ‘That seems to be a fact – a law even.’ – that is until someone finds an exception to it, or an unknown further fact offers an alternative supposition.

    Darwin’s theory of evolution could match all the established knowledge of his day – and any minor exceptions could be satisfactorily explained away using that same knowledge.

    Darwin’s supposition of course was that evolution occurs by slow continual change – with no gaps – acting so slowly as be almost imperceptible – but that the net result could be seen as considerable change over long periods of time. – Slow joined-up continual change, with ‘natural selection’ giving preference to the advantaged, has been the dogma ever since.

    The evidence of the fossil record is a glaring exception to this. – Whilst the overall picture is one of regular change, from simple origins leading to complex forms with much variety, the detail of the fossil record is better evidence of stability with gaps.

    Fifty years before Darwin, Cuvier argued against Lamarck’s ideas of continual change – that in each geological layer new species seem to appear abruptly and with no sign of intermediate fossils. – Hugh Falconer, geologist paleontologist and friend of Charles Darwin said the same thing in a treatise on elephants and mastodons [1863]. – A hundred years later in 1968, H J Mac Gillavry, cited by Stephen Jay Gould, said – “During my work as an oil paleontologist I had the opportunity to study sections meeting these rigid requirements. As an ardent student of evolution, moreover, I was continually on the watch for evidence of evolutionary change….The great majority of species do not show any appreciable evolutionary change at all. These species appear in the section (first occurrence) without obvious ancestors in underlying beds, are stable once established.”

    Darwin considered that the problem of the gaps in the fossil record lay with the sparsity of fossil finds, and not that the fault was with his concept of a slow continuum of change. – He was sure that fossils would soon be found to fill at least some of the gaps. – A hundred and fifty years later, no-one has yet found a single fossil to ‘fill’ any gap between any two species.

    Intriguingly, Darwin states in The Origin of Species, “In all cases, positive palaeontological evidence may be implicitly trusted; negative evidence is worthless as experience has so often shown.” [p 368]

    It strikes me that in this he confused ‘evidence positively leaning for’ – or ‘evidence negatively leaning against’ – with ‘having some evidence’ or ‘not having any evidence’.

    Surely, ‘having some evidence’, by way of evident gaps in the fossil record is ‘evidence positively leaning for’ gaps.

    On the other hand, ‘not having any evidence’ of joining fossils is ‘evidence negatively leaning against’ the idea of anything surmised to fill the gaps.

    Lack of evidence for something can never be accepted as implicit evidence that it would be there if we could find it. – When a child’s presents miraculously appear on the bed post after the gap between Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning, this is not positive evidence that Father Christmas is real, even though a child might think so.

    It may be implicitly trusted though, from the evidence available at present, that there are definitely gaps in the fossil record.

    This emphatically tells us one of two things.

    1. – The gaps are a real part of evolution’s process, in which case we have missed a component of evolution which facilitates gaps.

    2. – Evolution is a process of continuum, in which case we have not yet found fossils to join the gaps.

    The longer we look for for joining fossils yet fail to find them, then the more the evidence positively leans towards the former case.

    With evidence only of gaps, the gaps must be presumed factual. – What we might imagine to fill or the gaps only becomes factual when we have found it.

    Of course the gaps in the fossil record do not prove that Darwin’s continuum of change is wrong. – There is no doubt that fossils are not spread abundantly through all geological layers – and to find a specific fossil to fit in a specific gap would be luck indeed – but so far science has had no luck whatsoever – even in a chalk cliff composed entirely of fossilised history.

    This failing of science to find a single ‘missing link’ simply means that Darwin’s theory, whether right or wrong, is unproven – that the missing link to proof is still missing.

    There is however plenty of evidence to demonstrate that Darwin’s ideas are good ideas.

    Slow change within the bounds of what we call species is well evidenced – only the means of what we call speciation lacks evidence – that moment of critical change.

    That intriguing moment still falls within the realms of ‘we don’t know’. – That is what all evidence seems to tell us with regard to speciation.

    However, two elements of life and evolution seem clearly evidenced by the fossil record. – There is long stability – many species have remained relatively unchanged for millennia – staying constant though many geological layers. – And of course the fossil record still says there are gaps between species.

    This evidence begs the question of whether the procession of evolution might be one of stability with gaps rather than a Darwinian continuum.

    If the hard evidence of the fossil record is accepted rather than denied, then the conclusion is that Darwin’s continual slow change mechanism might not be a wholly adequate explanation of the mechanics of speciation.” – John Somerwill.

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    1. Hello John,

      You write: “no-one has yet found a single fossil to ‘fill’ any gap between any two species.” On the Talkorigins.org website, there are many examples of ‘nonmissing links’. Since you seem to approve of Gould’s writing, I also invite you te read his remarks on the Onychophore worm Aysheaia in ‘Wonderful Life’. Your remark is identifiably not true.

      Gould believed that populations, as a rule, do not change morphologically, and respond to environmental change by migrating and/or becoming extinct. Evolutionary change does not happen at a constant rate, but consists of periods of statis punctuated by speciation events. An accessible description of Gould and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium can be found in ‘Reinventing Darwin’ by Niles Eldredge. Note that this only concerns the morphology of organisms; genetic evolution is well corroborated by the fossil record (see Hedges & Kumar, ‘The Timetree of Life’). If you think that what can be measured is real, that book will satisfy your needs: the best estimate of correlation between timing of divergences by paleontological and genetic criteria is 90%.

      Indeed there are gaps, and it would be very surprising if there weren’t. Sedimentation is rare, sedimentation suitable for formation of (macro-)fossils even more so and actual fossilisation yet even more. This has far-reaching implications. A period that has few suitable deposits suitable for fossils will appear to be poor in species. This is for example the case with some periods in the jurassic which appear to have few species of dinosaurs. I also suspect that the significant 65-million year gap between the last fossil coalacanth and the recent Latimeria can be explained by the rarity of tertiary deposits suitable for producing fossils of fish from the deeper ocean. One will not find a coelacanth by drilling a core, after all.

      Given the serious limitations on what number of fossils can reasonably be expected to turn up, the modern theory of evolution fits well with the observations. In other words: there is no reason to believe the gaps are because of some unknown factor in the formation of species. Variation, selection, heredity and the resulting common descent are satisfying explanations for the observations of paleontology. I will stress that punctuated equilibrium was not proposed to make up for some inadequacy of these mechanisms, but rather to point out how they function on longer timescales and ecological levels. This is explained in Eldredge’s book. This puts the citations you give in a different light, and I think you use them for an argument they don’t support. There are gaps in the paleontological account of evolution, there are no reasons to conclude there are gaps between species.

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  18. John: if gaps are so common in the fossil record, could you please give a few examples. I’ve never really understood that. From my point of view the fossil record tells a story of gradual change (the speed of change varies of course).

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  19. Jonathan and Johan
    I have posted my comment to your responses on John S Wilkins latest post on this site, “Bayes, evolutionary clock, and biogegraphy,” it seemed appropriate there.

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