Framed!

A while back there was a bit of a brouhaha over how best to present science and/or atheism to the world. Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens were said to be too “harsh” and “shrill” in their bold and confident assertions that religion was wrong. Advocates for atheism and/or science, it was said, needed to “frame” their arguments, to make them more appealing and less offensive for the average, religiously-minded layperson.

Well, some atheists took that advice to heart, and Dinesh D’Souza would like to give them the “thanks” they deserve.

The central argument of these scientific atheists is that modern science has refuted traditional religious conceptions of a divine creator.

But of late atheism seems to be losing its scientific confidence. One sign of this is the public advertisements that are appearing in billboards from London to Washington DC. Dawkins helped pay for a London campaign to put signs on city buses saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Humanist groups in America have launched a similar campaign in the nation’s capital. “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” And in Colorado atheists are sporting billboards apparently inspired by John Lennon: “Imagine…no religion…”

There is no claim here that God fails to satisfy some criterion of scientific validation. We hear nothing about how evolution has undermined the traditional “argument from design.” There’s not even a whisper about how science is based on reason while Christianity is based on faith…

[A]theists seem to have given up the scientific card.

Congratulations, framers. You’ve made Christians much happier, now that they can claim you’ve conceded defeat in the scientific realm.

Mind you, D’Souza’s argument itself is nothing new. It’s the same old “privileged planet” superstition that ID creationists have been circulating for years. D’Souza simply takes the opportunity provided by the milder pro-atheistic marketing to pretend that there’s been some new development on the IDC front.

If you want to know why atheists seem to have given up the scientific card, the current issue of Discover magazine provides part of the answer. The magazine has an interesting story by Tim Folger which is titled “Science’s Alternative to an Intelligent Creator.” The article begins by noting “an extraordinary fact about the universe: its basic properties are uncannily suited for life.” As physicist Andrei Linde puts it, “We have a lot of really, really strange coincidences, and all of these coincidences are such that they make life possible.”

Too many “coincidences,” however, imply a plot. Folger’s article shows that if the numerical values of the universe, from the speed of light to the strength of gravity, were even slightly different, there would be no universe and no life.

Yes, yes, we’ve been hearing this one for years. It’s the puddle in a rocky depression, marveling at how perfectly the depression has been carved out to be exactly the right shape for the puddle to fit in. But it’s still mere superstition, and not science, to arbitrarily attribute all these so-called “coincidences” to a magical, invisible power when you can neither demonstrate any connection between this alleged Designer and the cosmos, nor can you even describe, in non-magical terms, what such a connection would consist of. Describe for us an objectively verifiable chain of causality from your alleged Cause to the observed effect, and then we’ll talk science.

But the point I want to focus on here is the role of milder atheism in helping to promote this superstitious mish-mash. Truth, especially scientific truth, is not a matter of compromise. If Einsteinian physics seems to contradict Newtonian physics, you don’t settle for answers that are halfway between what Einstein predicts and what Newton predicts. That only additional wrong answers. Instead, you need to understand why Einstein and Newton got different answers, and then present the truth—singular and uncompromising—about how physics really works.

Trying to meet creationists halfway on the question of scientific evidence (whether about creation or Creator) only introduces new wrong answers. Like D’Souza’s closing paragraph:

No wonder atheists are sporting billboards asking us to “imagine…no religion.” When science, far from disproving God, seems to be pointing with ever-greater precision toward transcendence, imagination and wishful thinking seem all that is left for the atheists to count on.

That’s right, framers, your polite approach merely proves that you are indulging in imagination and wishful thinking, that you have no actual evidence for your atheism or your Darwinism or your reality-based approach to science at all. The believers gleefully embrace your approach, even as they sneer at you for being such feeble losers. And in the end, you’ve helped them make the credulous, superstitious, creationist position even stronger. They’re placated all right, because they’re winning thanks to you.

Personally, I’d rather tell the truth straight up. And if somebody calls me “shrill” or “harsh,” so be it. I’d rather have the integrity of the truth than the patronizing approval of people like Dinesh D’Souza.

 
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Posted in Science, Society, Unapologetics, Woodworking 101. 24 Comments »

24 Responses to “Framed!”

  1. mike Says:

    Yes, how short-sighted to not include formal scientific argumentation on a billboard.

    The truth is uncompromising, but we’re talking about advertising here. How on earth can a billboard contain more than a pithy slogan and/or picture and still be effective?

    I know that in my case, at a certain point all it took was knowing that atheism exists as an alternative. These signs would have done a great job of that.

    The whole objection from D’Souza is a non-sequitur. It’s like the creationist criticism that Darwinian evolution does not explain why there is gravity, so evolution must be false. The billboard (whose purpose is “brand awareness”) doesn’t mention any scientific evidence, so there must not be any.

  2. Nemo Says:

    D’Souza is a moron.

    To say “There’s probably no god,” rather than simply “There is no god,” is, if anything, being scientifically rigorous. Personally, I feel perfectly comfortable with the latter formulation. But while I cheerfully dismiss the god of the christians — and while I’m confident that the concept of god is entirely a human invention — technically, I can’t disprove the god of the deists. I don’t believe in it, but I can’t disprove it, either.

    The problem for christians is, the only god that can’t be disproved is one that bears no resemblance to the one they worship.

  3. jim Says:

    Nemo makes a good point, in that the more ‘abstract’ arguments for a god’s existence (I’d call them convoluted) pretty much start and end at the ‘first cause’ argument, which is a far cry from being proof for a theistic god. Furthermore, creation ex nihilo gets snuck in under the banner of cause-and-effect, which are two entirely different animals (cause-and-effect being merely the transistion of states through time).

    I was just watching the New Atheist’s round table discussion (Four Horsemen) again last night, and they were adressing this criticism of being too heavy handed in their approach towards religion. You just can’t win, you know? If you lay it out straight, you’re called a spoiler, even by many fellow atheists. And if you assume a more relaxed stance, the theists claim victory. In the end, I’ll take the former approach…with both barrels.

  4. VeridicusX Says:

    I agree with Deacon Duncan.

    Somehow the deranged are able to recognize obfuscated craziness and are attracted to it, showering it with praise.

    There is no rational position that says, “There’s probably no God”.
    If the slightest possibility of [a] God exists in any possible world, then the principle that truth is self-consistent, that reality is coherent has to be abandoned and there is no way to ascertain truth or falsehood, reality or fantasy – indeed those distinctions and others like them no longer exist, (in fact they never existed).

    Gods are not subject to the laws of nature or reality but can manipulate reality, therefore on a (divine) whim square circles can exist, yesterday can have been deleted, maybe only half the things you thought you knew have been changed by a pixie lord.

    To allow the merest possibility of the supernatural is to state, “Nothing is certain.” After you’ve finished enjoying the paradoxical quality of this statement you’ll realize that the person who consciously asserts this position is deranged.

    The possibility of the supernatural means that even the concept of truth or reality cannot exist in any possible world.
    So in a way the supernaturalist and the agnostic (who is aware of what they are asserting) are saying that everything we’ve ever experienced is completely impossible!

  5. John Morales Says:

    I agree with Deacon Duncan.[...]There is no rational position that says, “There’s probably no God”.

    I don’t think you do, and I think (depending on the definition of God) that probably is the only rational position, unless you can rationally show that there is or is not a God.

    The possibility of the supernatural means that even the concept of truth or reality cannot exist in any possible world.

    What do you mean by “any possible world”? We have our reality, are you claiming there may be others? This is contradictory to your thesis that the supernatural does not exist (i.e. is a possible world).

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Actually, I do think it’s possible to disprove the existence of God, for certain definitions of “God”.

    1) The term “God” is meaningful to humans, therefore humans have knowledge about “God,” therefore whatever lies “out there” entirely beyond human knowledge is not “God.”
    2) Truth is consistent with itself, therefore whatever is not consistent with real world truth and/or with itself is not true.
    3) For any given human definition of “God” (except Alethea), there are fundamental inconsistencies which preclude the possibility that these definitions are true.
    4) Therefore, for most definitions of God, it is knowable beyond a reasonable doubt that these Gods do not exist.

    This is not a formal and infallible proof, of course, but it does hilite the fact that agnosticism has a subtle flaw: if you can’t know anything about “God,” how do you know what this “God” thing is that you don’t know anything about? In order to discuss whether or not it’s possible to know about God, you have to know enough about God for the term “God” to be a meaningful concept, which presumes that you are not agnostic about Him/Her/It/Them.

  7. VeridicusX Says:

    “I think (depending on the definition of God) that probably is the only rational position, unless you can rationally show that there is or is not a God.”

    Gods, by definition, are intelligent supernatural entities that control all or part of nature.
    Being non-physical they have no information/energy or location in spacetime, (that’s the definition of non-existent). Nevertheless, they can cause changes to physical reality.
    That’s a pretty good description of a magical worldview.
    So the onus is on the supernaturalist or the conscious agnostic to show that gods are possible.
    If s/he can show that gods are possible, then s/he will also have shown that logic and truth are impossible.

    My point is that the coherence of reality completely excludes gods, even in principle. And modal logic shows that if gods are possible then truth isn’t.

  8. Brad Says:

    It’s the puddle in a rocky depression, marveling at how perfectly the depression has been carved out to be exactly the right shape for the puddle to fit in.

    Except in the anthropic argument, we have that the “puddle” can only exist in a very narrow range of depressions out of all possible ditches – so it might seem to imply some kind of strings attached to the winning numbers we rolled.

  9. John Morales Says:

    VeridicusX, I did say depending on the definition.

    [1] Gods, by definition, are intelligent supernatural entities that control all or part of nature.
    [2] Being non-physical they have no information/energy or location in spacetime, (that’s the definition of non-existent).

    1. That’s a reasonable typical definition.
    2. Now you add the attribute of non-physicality .
    This attribute is contradictory to [1], where you define
    God as being able to control spacetime.

    I agree, Gods that are defined contradictorily cannot exist.

    I submit many theists’ conception of God is that of a super-physical being – a being that encompasses our spacetime but also extends “beyond”, whereby [1,2] is not contradictory.

    Please feel free to use modal logic, I can follow it.

  10. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Brad –

    The point of the puddle analogy is that the depression has to be that particular shape in order to perfectly match the current shape of that particular puddle—every bump, every angle in the fractal outline of the “shoreline” of the puddle, every minute variation in the depth of the puddle, and the 3-dimensional shape carved out by that depression, must match. And what are the odds of a random depression in the rock being that precise shape? Surely, some omniscient and painstaking Depression Carver must have had that particular puddle in mind, and omnipotently carved out the depression for the express purpose of holding that particularly-shaped puddle!

    What the puddle naively overlooks is the fact that the shape of the depression determines the shape of the puddle. It’s not miraculous at all that the depression “matches” the shape of the puddle, since a different depression would merely change the shape of the puddle.

    Anthropic arguments for God are similarly naive, because we already knew we were going to find that conditions in the cosmos were consistent with our existence, based on the fact that we exist and that truth is consistent with itself. All science is telling us is what those conditions actually are.

    And, by the way, it’s also a bit naive to speculate about the range of “possible” values for universal constants. They only have one possible value, which is why they are called constants. Our language is not a precise and infallible reflection of reality, so it’s possible for us to discuss, say, having the circumference:diameter ratio being something other than pi, but that doesn’t mean you can draw a circle whose circumference is exactly twice its diameter.

    When we look at the universe, we find what we already knew—that conditions permit our existence, and that universal constants have the only value they could possibly have. To be astonished at this is to be the puddle.

  11. Framing an argument so it means nothing « voice from the pack Says:

    [...] has been called `framing the argument`for those who oppose you. The Evangelical Realist takes this idea to task in a very well put manner, and I would ask the proponents of a kind of [...]

  12. VeridicusX Says:

    “I submit many theists’ conception of God is that of a super-physical being – a being that encompasses our spacetime but also extends “beyond”, whereby [1,2] is not contradictory.”

    I agree that this is a common conception. If we run with this idea we are either talking about a physical entity, (albeit outside of the “bubble” of our [portion of the] universe), or a non-existent supernatural entity. If I create a universe on my terahertz computer I am not supra-physical or a god.

    Theists of various stripes, though, are speaking of something other than physical or natural reality – they call it spiritual reality.
    The reasoning goes something like this:
    Physical things are finite and caused, therefore they were caused by something infinite, uncaused and non-physical. Physical things have a beginning and an end, so the thing(s) that cause(d) physical reality is/are non-physical and eternal. Physical events have apparent causes or prerequisites and are bound by the laws of nature, therefore spiritual entities are not subject to causation or necessary prerequisites and are not bound by natural laws. Physical things are bound by the laws of logic …

    It is possible that agnostics are simply not understanding the theists’ position.

  13. John Morales Says:

    VeridicusX, it seems to me you are basically espousing metaphysical naturalism, whereas I accept methodological naturalism but consider I have no basis (other than Occam’s razor, which is not in itself definitive) to support metaphysical naturalism.

    There are two basic issues at hand, one epistemological and the other ontological.

    The epistemological issue is that, logically, only analytic or a-priori propositions can be assigned a definitive truth-value without empirical support; synthetic/a-posteriori propositions rely on empiricism for determination of their truth-value. But, since empirical knowledge ultimately relies on sense-impressions, we can only know and evaluate empirical claims on what we can perceive – we cannot rigorously rule out the possibility of imperceptible (or even causally-disconnected) phenomena.

    The ontological issue is that, unless the full set of classes of entity that can exist is known, certain classes of as yet-undefined or undetermined entities can not be ruled out. If you (as I think) are claiming that there is no possible non-contradictory (both logically and empirically) entity that can fulfil any possible deity definition, then so proving will astound philosophers world-wide.

    I think I’ll let Bertrand Russell, one of my heroes, have the last word – he speaks for me. To you, I am agnostic – to nearly every theist with who I have had a discussion, I’m a strong atheist. :)

  14. John Morales Says:

    Correction: That should read “… that can fulfil any of all the possible deity definitions …”

  15. VeridicusX Says:

    I happily confess that Bertrand Russell is a hero of mine as well. :)
    In the past I have promoted the agnostic position expounded by Bertrand Russell, but it is untenable.
    While I do practice and promote a version of agnosticism, the blanket version as explained by Bertrand Russell is irrational.

    The statement, “Nothing is certain”, is incoherent. If nothing is certain, is the assertion itself certain? The statement seems paradoxical but it is simply a contradiction.

    Curiously, Bertrand Russell seems not to notice this when he says, “When one admits that nothing is certain …”.
    There’s a huge difference between epistemological and ontological uncertainty.
    To assert that “nothing is certain” is to abandon rationality. To say that “nothing is certain to me” is simply a rhetorical way of acknowledging my fallibility.

    You have made it clear that you are not suggesting that just anything is possible, so I don’t think that you mean that nothing is certain.

  16. John Morales Says:

    VeridicusX,

    The statement, “Nothing is certain”, is incoherent. If nothing is certain, is the assertion itself certain? The statement seems paradoxical but it is simply a contradiction.

    Curiously, Bertrand Russell seems not to notice this when he says, “When one admits that nothing is certain …”.

    He was referring to beliefs in that piece.
    He explained his thinking further in here.

    To assert that “nothing is certain” is to abandon rationality.

    Are your beliefs open to revision based on new knowledge? If so, how can you claim your beliefs are certain? If not, how is that rational?

  17. VeridicusX Says:

    John Morales,

    “Are your beliefs open to revision based on new knowledge? If so, how can you claim your beliefs are certain? If not, how is that rational?”

    I agree wholeheartedly with the quality of intellectual honesty and humility that you are reaffirming. And in I am an agnostic in just this sense of what you, (and Bertrand Russell), are saying.

    To make explicit what is implicit; What I think is true is not necessarily so, but that there is ontological truth is either a fact or we must abandon rationality.

    This position excludes a whole swathe of gods and none that remain are supernatural.

    I need to justify that reckless and foolhardy assertion ;).

    I define “natural” in this context as that which is bound by the laws of nature and supernatural as that which is not bound by the laws of nature.
    The question is, how many aspects of nature am I going to require the supernatural to conform to before I declare that I am really talking about that which is natural?

    If I allow that there may be an entity that can make square circles I have declared that reality is incoherent. If this entity cannot make square circles, in what sense is it supernatural?
    Earlier you agreed that non-physical entities cannot control all or part of nature. If the entity is physical in what sense is it supernatural?
    If an entity can be super-physical, in the way that you suggest that many theists conceive of God, where is the self-consistency of truth? An entity within reality cannot both exist somewhere and somewhen whilst simultaneously existing nowhere and nowhen.

    If I allow that the supernatural is possible I am asserting ontological uncertainty, I am not just saying that I might be wrong.

  18. John Morales Says:

    VeridicusX, I think we’re past the point of diminishing returns here – down to the hair-splitting – so I’ll respond to your points, but leave it after this.

    First, let me review the genesis of our discussion: you began by asserting There is no rational position that says, “There’s probably no God”., I then took the contrary view. I think we’ve both expounded enough on the matter to understand each other’s position, and enough for any readers to form their own opinion on our respective claims.

    So,

    What I think is true is not necessarily so, but that there is ontological truth is either a fact or we must abandon rationality.

    Here we are in agreement, though I think you refer to the concept of philosophical realism (not an ontological category), which is subtly different from metaphysical naturalism.

    I define “natural” in this context as that which is bound by the laws of nature and supernatural as that which is not bound by the laws of nature.

    With the caveat that the “laws of nature” are a-posteriori empirical observations, this sounds eminently reasonable.

    The question is, how many aspects of nature am I going to require the supernatural to conform to before I declare that I am really talking about that which is natural?

    All of them, of necessity. The rub here is we [humanity] are still in the process of elucidating such “laws” (cf. the epistemic and ontological issues I referred to above) and they’re tentative. For example, the “law of parity conservation” in physics was found to be invalid in weak interactions in the mid-20th century.

    [1] If an entity can be super-physical, in the way that you suggest that many theists conceive of God, where is the self-consistency of truth? [2] An entity within reality cannot both exist somewhere and somewhen whilst simultaneously existing nowhere and nowhen.

    I don’t see a clear inference that leads to [2] from [1] without assuming we have perceptual access to all of reality. I’ll give you a hypothetical example of [1], however – if Reality is of a higher dimensionality than spacetime, then of necessity we can only perceive the 4-dimensional projection of it (and of any entity therein). Consider the analogy of a 3-D object as it’s projected through a plane.

    If I allow that the supernatural is possible I am asserting ontological uncertainty, I am not just saying that I might be wrong.

    That seems a bit harsh; I’d read that as saying you acknowledge you can’t know that you have access to all of reality.

    Finally, consider that “There’s probably no God” reflects that humility and open-mindedness you referred to above, whilst “There’s no God” indicates a dogmatic stance that can be seen as a form of faith.

  19. jim Says:

    Just a small point: isn’t there a tacit ‘probably’ prefacing all truth claims that aren’t syllogistic in nature? I can comfortably say “there are no leprechauns” without absolute certainty that that’s the case; but if any degree of unacknowledged tentativeness is a form of ‘faith’, then aren’t we falling into that old ‘faith means anything’ place again?

  20. John Morales Says:

    Jim,

    isn’t there a tacit ‘probably’ prefacing all truth claims that aren’t syllogistic in nature?

    Yes, that’s basically what I’ve said (if you change “syllogistic” to “validly syllogistic”. Note that syllogisms are true or not depending on the validity of the logic and the truth-value of the premises.

    if any degree of unacknowledged tentativeness is a form of ‘faith’, then aren’t we falling into that old ‘faith means anything’ place again?

    Yes and no :)

    Basically, to reason one must make metaphysical assumptions defined as true a-priori (that reality exists and is external, for example). These funcion as axioms, (or premises, if you like), and a rational person will keep them to a minimum, but they’re veridical only by assumption – hence they’re, strictly speaking, a form of faith.

    Note the difference between faith based on necessary assumptions, and religious faith.

  21. John Morales Says:

    I just want to make explicit that my last post is entirely consistent with and supportive of the Deacon’s mantra that

    Truth is consistent with itself, therefore whatever is not consistent with real world truth and/or with itself is not true.

    The metaphysical assumptions rationalists (and Science) make have been honed over millennia, and are (so far :) entirely consistent with real world.

  22. VeridicusX Says:

    John Morales,
    Thanks for presenting the well-reasoned viewpoint that you summed up with:
    “… consider that “There’s probably no God” reflects that humility and open-mindedness you referred to above, whilst “There’s no God” indicates a dogmatic stance that can be seen as a form of faith.”

    Because I understand your position I am happy to *completely* agree with this particular understanding of the statement “There’s probably no God”.
    I think this version is to be parsed as “There may be some entity that corresponds in some or all ways to that which you are calling God”.

    I don’t consider that the possibilities you’ve presented merit the description of “supernatural” and any gods proposed within your rational framework would be gods in a poetic sense only.

    “There’s probably no God”, in it’s raw sense, is to me in the same category as saying “Square circles possibly exist”. It is this version of the statement that I reject. As soon as we exclude the magic and the paralogia it’s difficult for me to see what is godlike or “supernatural” about the concepts that are left.

    I think the team that bought the advertising would be horrified to know what supernaturalists think they mean by the phrase “There’s probably no God”.

    The phrase “There is probably no God”, while it remains unqualified, is I think parsed by almost everyone to mean “There is possibly unbounded magic” –> “Anything can happen” –> “Nothing is certain”.

    The only rational position is to reject [this version of] the statement. This does not imply dogmatism or a form of faith, it is the only intellectually consistent position.

    (As an aside, I was using the word “ontological” in the sense of “the nature of things”).

  23. John Morales Says:

    VeridicusX, it was a pleasure to interact with you. You can put down my quibblings to pure pedantry :)

    As both you and the Deacon have said, putting the qualifier in that pithy one-liner is an invitation for believers to claim rationalists concede to uncertainty*, and it will lead to such claims as D’Souza’s – but equally, the non-qualified version will be misused to paint us as unsubtle dogmatists.

    At the end of the day, all that such slogans can achieve is to raise consciousness and show that doubters and skeptics exist and have a voice – similar to adverts which promote brand-awareness.

    Sigh – here in Australia, atheists can’t even get a sign on buses!

    The Atheist Foundation of Australia have come up with the mildest slogan of all (”Atheism – Celebrate Reason”) and yet the company responsible for transport advertising has balked, ironically giving no reason whatsoever for this strange decision.

    * Which is ineluctable, but at a far more basic and foundational level than the average person who’s not examined their belief system can comprehend.

  24. Deacon Duncan Says:

    By the way, welcome to our visitors from TheologyWeb, and thanks to Challenger Grim for the shout-out. Grim apparently was a little confused about the content of my post—Dinesh D’Souza was the one who took the kinder, gentler atheistic message and “smashed” it together with the unrelated notion that atheism had somehow lost its scientific edge (producing “a train wreck of world ending purportions [sic]” as Grim puts it). All I did was point out the fact that the milder message only produced a more bombastic and triumphal response from the anti-atheism crowd.

    Still, a link’s a link, and as long as it drives up my traffic, I’m all for it. Thanks, Grim! :D