psychology science

A primitive darkness creepeth in

Google video of Richard Dawkins railing against the march of unreason here

Apart from the cheap and badly written philosophy of science, did you notice how most of this is psychology – cold reading, the barnum effect, double-blind control trials, probability theory?

Update Charlie Brooker review in the Guardian is hilarious

35 replies on “A primitive darkness creepeth in”

Obviously, there is no way to disprove (or prove, for that matter) God, so the only thing you can do is to disprove this or that conception of God – hence the psychology I guess.

I think there are ways to prove that God exists, because most theories about God make predictions about the universe being a different place with God. For example, answered prayers or other otherwise inexplicable miracles would be evidence for God.
The big problem with proving that God exists is that a supernatural all-powerful being is always the most unlikely explanation for anything. God is more complicated and improbable than the whole of the natural universe. So it’s challenging to prove, and impossible to disprove, the existence of God.

Plus, I know some branches of mathematics that might surprised to know that probabilty theory is psychology…

I know Dawkins is a famous atheist, but i don’t remember him actually talking about god much in the present programme – maybe i just blanked it out.

One way to disprove the existence of “god” is to show that the concept is logically (ie internally) inconsistent.

And, fair enough, probability theory is maths rather than psychology — i think what i meant was a) psychologists do a lot with probability theory and b) there’s lots of the wider area of probability theory which *is* psychology, not maths (ie how people evaluate and respond to probabilities).

Does the supernatural world have to be logically consistent? In my frequent discussions about God, theists usually argue that natural rules like logic don’t apply to God. When that happens, I get confused about what it means to be outside the universe, but there it is.

Yes, I think Dawkins wisely largely avoided mentioning organised religion of the theistic variety in Enemies of Reason – ‘wisely’ because it puts off a lot of people (including self-declared agnostics) and he is perpertrating his own wedge strategy. Target superstition and other supernatural effluvia and the rest (gods in their various guises) will follow.

Tom, I’m not sure I understand what you mean. How can a concept be internally inconsistent ? And q2, what is the definition of the “God” concept ?

Exactly, what is the definition of the “God” concept? I’d be uncomfortable discussing the issue of god’s existence without some preliminary attempts at a definition. As for the first question, by intenally inconsistent i meant something like “God is A & God is not-A”. That’s internally inconsistent (compare ‘externally inconsitent’ = inconsistent with something outside the definition).

-God be “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”, which happens to be Dawkins’ (2006) ‘God Hypothesis’.
-‘Intelligence’ indicate that God may or may not be embodied, with all the obvious consequences that holds for gender.

Theologists might argue that the God Hypothesis is merely apparently inconsistent, because the usual natural, universal apparent rules of logic shouldn’t be assumed to apply to the supernatural.

Peter’s definition of God doesn’t seem to be internally inconsistent, or do you think it is ?

As for logic, I cannot imagine that God would be above logic. I’m more the kind of person who feels that logic would be a good indication (not proof) of God’s existence.

I guess my definition leaves out omnipotence, omniscience as added extras to a possible deity. One of the common examples of the logical inconsistency of God’s being is this:

God, in his omnipotence, creates the largest rock he knows how;
that rock is either small enough for God to lift, or too massive for God to lift.
If the rock is small enough for him to lift, then God is not omnipotent because he can’t make a rock that is too heavy for him to lift.
If the rock is too heavy for him to lift, then God is not omnipotent because he can’t lift a given rock.
Hence, the concept of omnipotence is inconsistent, and cannot exist in a logical universe.

I fear you (Hubert) have fallen prey to what I will call the Janitor Fallacy, for reasons that will become clear. The idea that logic (as an indication that something is working) gives us evidence of someone operating logic is not sound. Imagine an exceptionally clean room – you might imagine that someone is cleaning that room, that our janitor intends for the room to be clean. But another less complex assumption about the way the room stays clean is that it is sealed, and no dust or mud can get in.

As for the logic, the problem with your example is that you are mixing different categories. To state things a bit primitively, if God is not physical, how does the concept of lifting apply to Him ?

As for the “janitor fallacy”, I would guilty of that if I thought I had found a proof of God’s existence; but I didn’t; I said it was merely an indication. If I use your analogy, if I don’t know why the room is clean, I make an assumptions about why the room is clean. All rooms that I have been in were not sealed. Hence they were clean only if someone cleaned them.

My basic reason for believing in God (and belief is not knowing…) is that I feel, without being able to prove it, that the universe makes sense. Therefore there must be some logical principle at work, which I am unable to understand, and that people have called “God”.

Lifting applies to an omnipotent God as one of his/her infinite potencies.

I believe that sense-making is a uniquely human trait. Humans make stories about everything that happens – I have heard stories about this trait having an evolutionary origin, something about being able to process intention better than models of probability.

I think you make a leap between the universe making sense and it having some logical principle behind it. I believe that any creator sophisticated enough to make the universe (and meaning for all the humans in it) is much more complex than the universe, and requires making sense of. You say that ‘God’ is what is behind logic, but I say, what is behind God?

Of course I make a leap: that’s called faith. If there was no leap to be made, it would be called knowledge.

But in fact that is not really the question: the subject matter of religious thought is largely outside the realm of science. What has science to say about meaning ?

Calling it Faith implies that your belief has nothing to do with reality. I think that any particular leap of faith is as logical as the next – why not believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may It touch you with its noodley appendage) or the Tooth Fairy? Obviously because our culture treats different irrational belief systems differently. There are different cultures out there with different favoured belief systems. And even if they provide meaning to someone, that has no effect on how true we should think they are.

I don’t accept you assertion that religious thought is largely outside of the realm of science (It’s an old argument called NOMA – Non-Overlapping MAgesteria, which Dawkins and others have taken to pieces). To bring this back to psychology, any thought is the result of events in the physical brain – events which can be studied, and the causes of which can be understood. Science tells us a lot about meaning (I find the thoughts of certain evolutionary psychologists particularly insightful about the general human sources of meaning – family, loving relationships etc.). Meaning is based on things we have knowledge of whether consciously of not, and science can add to both our conscious knowledge and our understanding of our subconscious knowledge.

Your bafflement with the distinction that society * makes between “different irrational belief systems” has two possible explanations : either you understand something that “society”, does not understand, either you fail to understand something that is quite clear to most other people. What do you think is the most probable answer ? Let me give you a cue; the “irrationality” that you see in both belief systems (assuming someone believes in the FSM) are of a totally different nature, hence your comparison does not make sense.

Moreover, if your questions about meaning are answered by science, I am truly happy for you. Mine aren’t. Maybe I have a more vivid imagination ?

* definitely not my choice of words, but I’ll accept it for argument’s sake.

Sorry, I think I don’t get it: What IS the difference between the irrationality of believing God creates meaning and believing a Flying Spaghetti Monster exists? Neither God nor the FSM have any evidence for their existence. God has the advantage (which does not hold to the irrationality question) that belief in his existence is sanctioned by certain aspects of culture, and that questioning people’s belief in him is taboo.

Please can you explain the other differences to me?

First, evidence is not the point: there are presumably a lot of things that are true and for which we have no evidence yet or will never have any evidence. As a matter of fact, we do know that the FSM was invented by a couple of guys as a protest against teaching ID, so exit the FSM. What is at stake here is not knowledge, but plausability; and that is a question of personal judgment and cultural background.

Second, if you state that questioning God’s existence is a taboo, I suppose you are in the US, because over here in Europe if there is a taboo, it is arguably the other way round. What is true though is that many atheists seem to think that people who do have religious beliefs just “don’t get it” and are basically imbeciles – and as you know, nice people do not try to make others feel they are idiots.

Third, the real logical point here is about proof and the burden of proof. Basically, it a challenge to prove God’s existence. But the very idea that God’s existence should be proven is alien to religious thought*, so what this challenge boils down to is to define the question out of existence.

Fourth, I have yet to meet someone who is consistent in his or her atheism; any conversation about morality for instance will inevitable show that people adhere to principles that do not make logical sense if you exclude the idea of God. If you prefer to believe that we need to be irrational to stand the absurdity of it all, that’s fine by me, but I do not.

* even the so-called “arguments for the existence of God” merely aim to prove, not the existence of God, but the inner consistency of the idea of God and its plausability. Belief is the central point, and belief supposes ignorance.

Actually, thinking about it, I do not know if I really believe in God; but I adamantly refuse to believe in atheism. Absurdity has no place in my worldview. And even if the world really is absurd, I consider that an affront to my dignity and refuse to even notice it. 🙂

1. The FSM myth having had a documented origin doesn’t make the existence of the FSM any less likely. All the Abrahamic God has is a few thousands years. Things that are true but which we have no evidence for – we try to find them out, but we don’t believe them until we have evidence. I think there are other sources for plausibility – for example, if we make a specific theory about God creating the universe, we can say that is implausible because there are simpler theories. It’s Occams’s Razor. Untainted by personal judgement or cultural background.

2. I didn’t say belief in God was taboo. I said questioning people’s belief in God is taboo. True both sides of the pond. Maybe some atheists do try to make religious thinkers feel like idiots – not all atheists do this, and it does not hold on the current question: Is belief in God rational? Nasty atheists is not evidence for God, any more than nasty theists is evidence against.

3. Religious thinkers avoids attempts to prove God because it is dangerous to them: If God is proved real, then probably a few chapters of the Bible and Koran would have to be torn up, and noone would feel the need to go to church or the temple to be told about God – you could read about Him in the science journals! Belief does not presuppose ignorance, faith does. I believe in gravity. You believe propositions that your internal knowledge compel you to believe. How you arrive at internal knowledge is biology (I don’t know anything about the field of epistemology).

4. Again, the irrationality of atheists, the inability of atheists to discuss morals without touching on established cultural memes and the likelihood of athiests to commit atrocities have nothing to do with how rational it is to believe in God.

5. You don’t have to believe in atheism. To be an atheist, you don’t believe in any god. If you don’t believe in God, you think His existence is improbable or even absurd. What you have to accept to be an athiest is that you don’t know everything, you don’t have all the answers. God is an ‘answer’ to every question – but the concept is arrogant and human-centric.

There are things I don’t know. The universe is mysterious. But I will continue to apply the techniques I have learned from what I DO know to make guesses about the things I don’t know. This is rational inquiry. God is a bad hypothesis – unfalsifiable, too powerful (He can do things we haven’t even observed!) and difficult to test.

Tom: very good post, indeed !

Peter :

1. Your initial question was “why would the FSM be more implausible than God ?” I gave you the answer: the FSM is a documented joke whereas God isn’t. If you refuse to accept that simple fact, this is not a discussion anymore, it becomes just another occasion to fly the colours.

As for Occam’s razor, it does not apply in this discussion, for formal reasons* and because it does not solve our debate.

2. You were referring to a “taboo”, I am explaining what the taboo is about. Dawkins is not only fanatic and dangerously illiberal on this subject, he is also very rude. In civilised society, there is indeed a taboo on rudeness.

3. You are straying off the point of your own argument, and moreover you are mind-reading your “adversaries” – badly as it happens, and presuming they are in bad faith.

4. I strongly disagree. When two opposing ideas collide, it does not make sense not to examine the weak points on both sides. I do not expect an atheist to answer all questions – that would be unreasonable and unfair. As a matter of fact, Dawkins’ insistance that he hass all the right answers to this particular question strikes me as a good indication of irrationality. But I do think the least you might expect is some inner consistency (and we’re back at Tom’s introductory remark). And in this case, since this particular brand of atheism insists it is scientific, we have the right to apply the full rigour of science. We don’t have to go very far to demolish Dawkins’ case against God; he relies very heavily on a concept that, to my knowledge, has never been empirically validated: memes.

5. As you point out yourself, when you face certain questions, you have to make assumptions. You have cast aside the God assumption in favour of other assumptions . That is called belief, whether you like it or not. And yes, I choose the God assumption precisely because it is human-centric (I happen to be a man, not a rat) and “arrogant” i.e. compatible with human dignity, which is something I have very definite feelings about.

One more thing : please, do not project your way of thinking on others; faith is not comfortable at all, be it intellectually or morally. And even if it were, I can’t see what would be wrong with that.

*and anyway, Occam’s razor is NOT a logical law.

1. I agree that the FSM is totally implausible. I think I also agree that the fact that we know it was invented adds to its implausibility. I am finding it hard to remember what my point was with that one. I don’t claim that Occam’s Razor is a logical law, simply that it can help to guide our intuitions about potential beliefs.

2. I think I’d want a definition of ‘fanatic’ before I agreed with you on Dawkins. He certainly is… enthusiastic to the point of discomfort.

3. I don’t mean to presume anyone’s bad intentions. I am all for religions and all people for that matter being able to look after their own best interests, and I don’t think looking after yourself is a bad intention. Let’s say I am talking about religion as a self-interested meme (see below). That way I don’t have an adversary to offend. The religions that survive have this kind of protection from rationalism built in.

4. “When two opposing ideas collide, it does not make sense not to examine the weak points on both sides.” – I agree totally. But a nasty atheist is not a bad point of atheism. I also hope/think/wish that Dawkins is making his arguments in the way he does in order to raise the profile of atheism. I guess I am a bit more laissez-faire about the whole thing.
The way Dawkins talked about memes in The Selfish Gene, where I believe he first mentioned them, was as a metaphor. His case against God is not based on memes – he uses them as help to explain how religions exist seeing as God is extremely improbable.

5. I don’t believe in God, yes. And I like it. One of the good things about atheism is this: the universe is mysterious, there are answers to be found. I don’t know why I am interested in finding out, maybe I am searching for meaning. I think there is more wonder to be had in this search for meaning, rather than finding it in a rather old book. I am a little confused (it happens easily), do you believe in God? You said above you might not.
My assumption is this: I don’t know whether God exists, and his existence seems unlikely enough that I won’t believe in him.
W.r.t human-centric: I guess we differ in that I think that humans aren’t the centre of the universe. And in the short time I have spent alive, human dignity is something which I wish I had seen more of.

I apologise, I do not mean to offend you in any way. Just to explore your ideas about this. If it is not obvious, you are someone whose ideas I respect a lot.
If you want, I can try and paraphrase Dawkins argument for God is highly improbable – I have the book right here by my computer, defending it from religious meme-viruses (jk)!

No apologies needed, I did not feel insulted; I just happen to be a bit blunt at times so if I was too blunt here, I hope I did not offend you.

“Fanatic” is defined by Webster’s as “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion”. I think Dawkins qualifies, especially when he equates giving a child a religious education with abuse and states that it should be forbidden.

Anyway, my point is not that nasty atheists disprove atheism; my point is that all nice atheists I’ve met are inconsistent in their belief system. A possible question could be : it is OK to kill somebody – who has done you no wrong and from whose death you are going to benefit – if you are 100% certain you can get away with it ? And if it isn’t, why ?

As for memes, I have read quite a lot of Dawkins’ stuff (not “the God delusion” though; I can only stand so much irritation) and I frankly doubt that his meme theory would be a metaphor. And if it is, why doesn’t he explicitly say so ? You are right that he does not directly tackle God with the meme theory – he just states that the very idea is ridiculous because it’s unproven, and that is basically it – but as a darwinian, he still needs to explain why religion exists if it is that stupid and destructive. That’s where the memes kick in.

BTW, perhaps you’ll be interested to read what the British philosopher Roger Scruton has to say about this:

Hmm, apparently my last answer to Peter vanished – is this some kind of divine retribution or can the Lord of the house resurrect it ?

Yeah, for sure Dawkins is fanatical. I guess he might ask about whose ‘excessive’ we are using, but he can bugger off. We are using our ‘excessive’. I don’t think encouraging a child to believe in God is abuse, anymore than it is abuse to get a child to believe in Santa Claus (or Black Peter, or whatever you guys call the Christmas dude). I withhold my right to tell them that I think it is silly.

I think an evolutionary psychology answer to the ‘perfect murder’ problem might run like: In past experience, our ancestors found they could get away with some things. The more you believe you can get away with some thing, the more you discount the possible punishment in an assessment. The punishment for murder is so severe – a shunning (whose current realisation is imprisonment) could realistically end your bloodline – that risk-taking of that order is deselected for. In the ‘perfect murder’ scenario, you assume 100% chance of getting away with the crime, but in reality that is never guaranteed. And importantly, the reality of a social situation was where our moral inclinations were selected for. Later on, evolution resulted in this massive frontal lobe where we could play all kinds of hypothetical games, but we cannot escape our evolutionary past. It ‘feels’ immoral, because that part of the brain is sending generic “Don’t do it! Too risky!” messages. Hey presto, morality with out God!

I won’t recommend it per se (I haven’t read it), but I intend to read Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds, just exactly because its pretty counterintuitive, and I want my intuitions re-aligned. Tom maybe you know something about this stuff? Does my just-so-story sit well with you?

Dawkins’ meme stuff started as a metaphor, I think, and that is where it gets its empirical basis – through consistent links between memetics and genetics.
Replicator —> gene = meme
Vehicle ——> organism = mind
Population –> organisms = culture
You know, that kind of vague stuff you love.
There is a study of generalised evolutionary theory. I think its just a way to imagine how ideas move around – not really a testable hypothesis of any kind.

Dawkins’ argument that God is improbable is slightly different to ‘its unproven so silly to believe in’. Its more like ‘the universe and things about the universe are improbable. People say “the universe is not improbable because God made it”, but God makes the whole thing more improbable. However unlikely the universe and its contents are, God has to be at least as unlikely.’ This is what I meant by ‘God is not an answer’. I think you need to start with simple things and work your way up to intelligent beings (like evolution does), not start from complex intelligence.

Peter, I do not dispute that there is a very good evolutionary case to be made for the existence of an objective morality/law (what is classically called “natural law”) and I actually totally agree; but we are not slaves to biology. You can still choose to behave immorally – people do it all the time ! So you did not really answer my question.

As for Dawkins, he’d probably excoriate you for suggesting something as wishy-washy as “God is improbable”. 🙂 Moreover, please explain how the universe can be “improbable”. It actually exists (so were are not dealing with something that “could” be proven) and there is no frame of reference exterior to it !

I am a bit surprised with your idea of “starting with simple things”. Since we do not know how the simple things (the matter that exploded with the Big Bang) came to be there, it does not seem a very promising starting point to me. Anyway, the idea of the first cause never really appealed to me; it seems horribly pointless.

Re: comments – usually I only have to moderate the first comment anyone makes and then all subsequent comments get published automatically. For some reason Hubert’s comments have ceased to be published automatically (perhaps because of the links you included).

Re: God / probability / consistency – I think I see an origin in your divergences in what principle class of things you seek to explain. Peter sees God primarily as posited as Creator – something that explains the physical universe – the material order. Hubert sees God primarily posited as something which explains moral order. Hence, IMO, you differences over whether things ‘make sense’ with/without God.

All this goes to show that parsimony is a far trickier principle than many make it out to be, since it relies on what you are seeking to explain with relation to what. Depending on our assumptions and the heirarchies we put them in we will have different applications of what parsimony is.

Tom : I agree 100%

That’s what I meant with “religion and science do not have the same object”, but apparently that has been taken to pieces by Dawkins ! 😉

As an aside, notice how religion almost guarantees a scrollfest. If now someone could add something about sex, all hell would really break loose !

W.r.t the morality question, I think there is no ‘OK’ or ‘not OK’. When you do something immoral, you delude yourself, or start off deluded. And being deluded is a perfectly biological state. If we are not slaves to biology, or our internal physical states, what are we slaves to? A soul?

I’m in the library at the moment, but when I get back to my flat I’ll quote mine Dawkins for ‘God is improbable’ statements.

Sure, we don’t know how the universe started and got filled with stuff, but people are investigating it, and in any search for knowledge, you want your question to be relatively constrained. And if you manage to make a theory which fits with the facts and explains how the physical universe started, and your other theories explain how everything ended up the way it is now (including morality), where does a mythology fit in?

Seems to me like all of science is about following chains of causality. The first cause would be kind of interesting to me – especially because there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for one. I mean that the chain causality might well be infinite for all I know, with other universes preceding and following this one. And God is providing moral order for us (and other intelligent life forms on other planets?) in the middle of this mess?

Peter, I don’t get what you mean with “you delude yourself when you do something immoral”. As for “mythology”, your mistake is the mistake of most religious fundamentalists – ha ! 😉 – namely, not to understand that in a text you’ll find the ideas, concepts and knowledge of the era it was written in. To give an example, it used to be that the brain was compared to machines, now they are compared to computers.

The other thing is that you – again – seem to have a very primitive idea (in the etymological sense of the word) of what God is supposed to be; essentially, with your “mess” reference, you indicate that you are thinking about some kind of father figure that wil get you out of any mess you’ve created. But what about human freedom, and before you start about natural disasters, what about the “inner consistency” of the universe that makes human freedom possible ?

By ‘mess’ I meant my hypothetical infinite causality chain – not the mess of modern society or anything that we should need saving from. I understand fully that people have lots of different conceptions of God, which is one of the big problems with a Dawkins-style takedown of religion. It’s too ill-defined to logic your way out.

And as for mythology, I see it as a means of making sense of the world, but not as a way of divining some deeper truth about the universe – on that I think we would agree. And I also see that mythologies fit the culture which they are born from – they ‘inherit memes’, for example, cargo cults inherited the ‘cargo’ from their local environment. But if there ever could be no mystery (highly dubious), then there would be no room for mythology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *