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Bad arguments about religion: part 1: worldviews 
8th Jan 2010, 01:55 am
truth makes no sense
There's an awful lot of nonsense talked about religion and atheism, from both sides of the fence. Today, I'm looking at a specific set of theist (usually Christian) arguments, namely, those related to "worldviews". Fear not, though, theism fans: this is the start of a series on bad arguments, and the atheists have it coming too...

Note: the section titles here are links which should take you straight back to the section. So if you find someone playing "Spot the Worldview" online, you can link them straight to this page to show them the error of their ways.

Slightly less difficult

As I've mentioned before, talk of worldviews became fashionable among evangelicals when I was an undergraduate. Back then, one of the big evangelistic events the Christian Union organised was called Paradigm Shift, a term borrowed from Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As part of our evangelism training, we read Nick Pollard's book, Evangelism made slightly less difficult, which was about helping people to see the flaws in worldviews other than Christianity (Pollard writes about this approach here).

There were some good things about this approach. Engaging with the arguments of people who disagree with you is better than writing those arguments off as a smokescreen put up by evasive sinners. It's more realistic than the major alternative approach, which was (and still is) treating Two Ways to Live as inherently magical, so that the most important thing was to "proclaim" it to non-Christians as often as possible. Still, worldview talk can go wrong. Here are some ways I've seen that happen:

Worldview X is false, therefore my preferred rival, Y, is true

This is an example of the false dilemma fallacy. As gareth_rees says, theists may assume (but not show) that the worldview they're proposing does better than a major rival, and spend all their time attacking the rival. In creationists' attempts to disprove evolution, there's an implicit assumption that if evolution fails, the Christian God is the next preferred explanation. Similarly, much apologetical effort is directed against materialism or physicalism, when it is perfectly possible to be an atheist and believe in ghosts, say. Matt McCormick's useful article, Know Your Godless Heathen Positions, makes clear the distinctions between a number of possible positions (atheism, materialism, naturalism, and so on).

This is not a fallacy if an atheist is, say, a committed materialist who won't accept religion for that reason. In that case, a theist would need to clear the ground by arguing against materialism. The fallacy occurs when, having cleared the ground, the theist fails to build their own argument.

Spot the Worldview

We all have views about how the world is, but many theists assume that all atheists bought a well-known brand that's available in bulk (as Christianity itself is, albeit in a variety of sizes, colours and flavours). A while back, on this thread, many theists seemed to assume that all atheists would be strict materialists. That's not how I'd describe myself: I'd say I'm a provisional materialist, at best.

Sometimes, theists assume they can argue against these atheist brands merely by mentioning their names and saying that everybody knows brand X is inferior. For example, you might be in the middle of talking about Dawkins's books when a theist tells you that "Richard Dawkins is a logical positivist, and positivism has been debunked". This doesn't work on it's own: first they have to show that Dawkins is a logical positivist (he's not, he's a scientific realist), then they have to give some argument against positivism, and lastly show it's relevant to an argument about whether his books are any good.

Everything is a faith position, atheism is a religion

Evangelical Christians like to argue (wrongly) that "everyone worships something". This translates into worldview talk as statements like "everything is a faith position: I have faith in God, you have faith in human reason/science/the Conservative Party". You might hear the theist make a statement like "atheism is a religion". What could they mean by this?

They might mean that everyone has to start by assuming some stuff (that they're not in the Matrix, say, or that scientists aren't just making their results up), assuming stuff you can't show is "faith", therefore everyone has "faith", and therefore Christian faith is as justified as any other. This goes wrong in a couple of ways: firstly, it assumes that all such assumptions are equally reasonable. They aren't: for example, they can be differentiated by how easily we could tell if they were wrong. Edited: Chris Hallquist puts it better than I did, when he says that "belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles."

Secondly, this use of "faith" isn't how many Christians like to use the word. According to Christians, faith means putting your trust in a person. Christianity transplants notions of loyalty to friends onto loyalty to worldviews. With the exception of those of us who worship at the Church of Dawkins, atheism isn't about loyalty to or trust in a person, nor is steadfastness in a particular atheist view seen as a virtue (quite the reverse, as far as I'm concerned).

They might mean that there are atheists who, for example, organise into groups to further their aims, or raise funds for the cause. As Poke argues, even atheists may feel they should not organise into groups because "that's what religion does". The atheists should recognise that doing the opposite of what mistaken people do doesn't make you correct. The theists should recognise that forming into groups and raising money is not what makes something a religion.

Finally, they might mean that atheists imitate the worst features of religion. This could be true: both religious and non-religious groups may fall into uncritical supercriticality, the idea that it's wrong to criticise any argument that supports your position. It would be right for a theist to criticise an atheist group which fell into this trap, but not all of them do so.

Comments 
8th Jan 2010, 06:09 am (UTC)
Anonymous
Unless you're one of commenters over at RichardDawkins.net, atheism isn't about loyalty to or trust in a person

Please support your implication that if someone comments at RichardDawkins.net, their atheism is "about loyalty to or trust in a person".

I think that's a ludicrous claim, and I further think that if you can't support it you should withdraw it.

8th Jan 2010, 10:00 am (UTC)
Erm, it's a joke. Although perhaps I should remove it if that's not obvious...

Edited: or replace it with a more obvious joke.

Edited at 2010-01-08 12:11 pm (UTC)
8th Jan 2010, 09:21 am (UTC)
I remember coming home from uni and trying to talk to my mum about worldviews, and her claiming that she "didn't have a worldview", which IMO is like claiming you don't have an accent.
8th Jan 2010, 09:37 am (UTC)
I still find, I have to say, that the most common argument for God I encounter from actual evangelists is the empty argument. "God exists and has the specified properties. So, now you know that, come to our church!"

I had an excellent pamphlet from a local chapel last month, entitled "Santa or Saviour?", whose basic strategy was a five-point comparison of the relative merits of Jesus and Father Christmas, in a style that reminded me of nothing so much as a couple of comic-book fans arguing about which of their favourite superheroes would kick the other one's butt in a fight. (Well, not counting the fact that one side of the argument was backed up with single Bible verses quoted out of context.) It was so entertaining I hovered on the verge of transcribing the whole thing into LJ, but didn't quite get round to it, and now it's gone in the recycling. The argument I liked best was point three: "Santa comes round with gifts every year, and then he has to do it all over again the next year. So his work is never really done. Jesus came to earth once, and got his job done for all time. HE KICKS ASS [my paraphrase]." They did actually mention what you might think of as the most important point – "one of these is mythical, and (we believe) the other one was/is real" – but it was merely point one, and even they didn't seem to think it was a sufficiently knock-down argument to stop them presenting the other four points too.
8th Jan 2010, 11:13 am (UTC)
Anonymous
Just existing is hardly enough, though. I mean, I exist, but that's not why you should bow down and worship me.

S.
8th Jan 2010, 12:03 pm (UTC)
I think that's a combination of "proclamation is magic" idea I mention above and what the LessWrong crowd call privileging the hypothesis: starting from zero and saying "What if this very particular explanation is true?"
2nd Dec 2010, 03:09 pm (UTC)
*giggles hard*
8th Jan 2010, 12:48 pm (UTC)
That cake is frickin' awesome.
8th Jan 2010, 01:48 pm (UTC)
9th Jan 2010, 12:24 am (UTC)
Thank you! Yay cake!
10th Jan 2010, 06:33 pm (UTC)
theists may assume (but not show) that the worldview they're proposing does better than a major rival, and spend all their time attacking the rival. ... Similarly, much apologetical effort is directed against materialism or physicalism

I'm sometimes guilty of this.

I think it's because I came to Christianity from materialism, and materialism is the other worldview that makes most sense to me, and when I have doubts it's materialism I'm tempted back to. Therefore I sometimes act as though all non-Christians are materialists. I find anti-materialist arguments are convincing and helpful to me, so expect them to have a similar effect on other people.

I imagine something similar applies with the Santa tract simont describes. The people who made it probably converted to Christianity from a position of believing all the right things about Jesus, perhaps from a distant Sunday school background, but not calling themselves Christians; and just needed a slight prod to move from "God exists and has these properties" to "therefore I should worship him". So they evangelise as though everyone is in that position.
10th Jan 2010, 09:19 pm (UTC)
I'll pre-empt possible criticisms of atheists who don't want to put forward a positive worldview by saying, as far as I've understood the philosophical jargon correctly, I'm a supervenience physicalist.

That said, I think there's a distinction between physicalists/materialists who say "basically, there's only matter and energy, therefore gods and spirits and whatnot cannot exist", and those who say "I see no reason to think gods and spirits and whatnot exist, therefore I currently assume that everything supervenes on matter and energy, which I'm pretty sure do exist". As you know from the old thread, I'm in the latter camp.

I find anti-materialist arguments are convincing and helpful to me, so expect them to have a similar effect on other people.

I'd be interested in criticisms of materialism per se, for the sake of having an accurate worldview, but unless they're also arguments for the existence of a God, they're not going to make me much more likely to become a theist (I guess they'd make it a bit more likely, in the sense that a demonstration that "this sort of non-physical thing exists" lends a bit of weight to the idea that "this other sort of non-physical thing exists"). What arguments are most convincing to you, if you don't mind my asking?

perhaps from a distant Sunday school background, but not calling themselves Christians; and just needed a slight prod to move from "God exists and has these properties" to "therefore I should worship him". So they evangelise as though everyone is in that position.

I'd be concerned that someone in that position might be what Yudkowsky calls privileging the hypothesis rather than having successfully located it with evidence: as the article says "Someone who spends all day pondering whether the Trinity does or does not exist - rather than Allah, Thor, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster - is more than halfway converted to Christianity." I'll probably get around to mentioning this in future Bad Arguments articles, if I can work it in somehow.
11th Jan 2010, 09:39 am (UTC)
I'd be interested in criticisms of materialism per se ... What arguments are most convincing to you, if you don't mind my asking?

I don't mind at all.
I'm not sure they'll be convincing, or even new, to you; I've seen at least some of them discussed in your journal. And I'm aware they're only anti-materialist rather than pro-theist arguments; I've admitted I do the thing your OP was about, of criticising materialism and then acting as though that's as good as promoting Christianity. But anyway:

1) Under materialism, how can we know the universe is ordered and makes sense and conforms to laws, and isn't completely capricious? How can we know the experiment we've done a hundred times won't have different results next time? Responses to this tend to involve induction, but I'm questioning induction itself: how can we rely on it, and if we can't, how can we rely on any science?

2) (relatedly) Given what we know about the origin of our minds and reasoning powers, how can we trust what they tell us, especially on issues of abstract reasoning far removed from the kind of situations in which our minds evolved? How do you get from "System X has a hit rate of better than chance at producing true answers to simple questions about hunter-gatherer life" to "System X can correctly figure out its own origin"?

3) How can materialism cross the is/ought barrier with regard to morality? Since we understand a lot about the evolutionary origin of morality, why can't we just ignore or subvert our moral sense for our own gain? Why don't we regard the instinct to act morally in the same way we regard other instincts whose origin we've figured out, like the instinct to eat high-fat food or the instinct to reproduce prolifically? You would expect us to rein it in and to look down on people who indulge it excessively; but that would be close to sociopathic.

4) I have a strong sense that I exist, and that I make decisions. This sense is more primary than anything I've learned through my physical senses, including any scientific ideas about the nature of the mind and the self and consciousness. Materialism suggests that my "decisions" are made in a deterministic way, and then afterwards my consciousness, which is probably an illusion anyway, claims them for its own. To believe that would mean discarding the primary data in favour of the secondary data.


I'd be concerned that someone in that position might be what Yudkowsky calls privileging the hypothesis rather than having successfully located it with evidence
This part of the conversation is all speculative anyway; but these people who I'm speculating about don't spend all day pondering whether the Christian God exists. They already believe he exists (whether for good reasons or bad; it's not particularly relevant). Doctrinally they're the same as Christians, but that doesn't make them Christians. They just need something like the Santa tract to set out in one place the things they already believe, to make them go "Oh! Since God's like that, I should be worshipping him rather than ignoring him." (I don't think it's a position you or I have ever been in, in any of our Christian or non-Christian phases.)
11th Jan 2010, 12:18 pm (UTC)
4) Materialism suggests that my "decisions" are made in a deterministic way, and then afterwards my consciousness, which is probably an illusion anyway, claims them for its own.

The alternative to deterministic is random. Would you feel happier if your decisions were random?

I'm not sure there's a contradiction between _really_ making decisions, and having deterministic decisions. I'd like to think that my decisions usually aren't random. Given my character, and the situation, and my views on ethics, and the various factors I weigh up, I'd make the same decision again. That's deterministic, isn't it?


11th Jan 2010, 02:24 pm (UTC)
The alternative to deterministic is random.

No, I really don't think it is. I think free will is something distinct from either determinism or randomness. I think a mind is something which can make decisions which are neither deterministic nor random.

Otherwise, how could anyone deserve praise or blame for their actions? How could anyone transcend a difficult past and choose not to perpetuate it?

When you struggle to make a decision, and you strongly want to do X but you believe the right thing is Y, and you eventually make yourself do Y even though it's difficult, do you think that struggle and difficulty are illusions, because you were always going to do Y?

When I make decisions I often have a strong sense that they could have gone either way - i.e. I wouldn't necessarily "make the same decision again". But I don't mean in a random way; I mean I could have chosen differently, given the same set of inputs in terms of circumstances and my current mental state etc.
12th Jan 2010, 02:05 am (UTC)
1. There's a lot of debate about what physical laws are and they work. I'm not sure that's a problem for physicalism, since I see it as a debate within physicalism between necessitarians and regularists. I'm not an expert on this, so I could be wrong, but I think someone could ask "What sort of thing are laws? Are they physical?" to which the answer is yes, in that they apply to physical things, but they themselves aren't physical, and yet still call themselves a physicalist if they take physicalism to mean that "stuff and the laws that govern it is all there is".

To be sure, someone could ask "why those laws?", but then, the theist alternative doesn't do better here: someone might equally well ask "why that God?".

There are philosophers of science who've tried to do away with induction (Karl Popper being the famous one): theories have only ever not been falsified yet. According to those philosophy lectures I mentioned a while back, the problem with that is that this gives you no reason to prefer a completely new theory someone just made up to one which has withstood many tests. So it does seem like there are regularities which we can model.

2. If, as the Bum argues, what we can get are models which fit the experiments we've done so far rather than things we can know are Truths, then so what? Must the universe be as we'd like it to be? (The Bum also argues theism doesn't do better).

3. Apparently there are naturalistic moral realists. I don't know how that works, either, but then I don't spend a lot of time thinking about meta-ethics, so I've no idea whether they have valid arguments, I'm just mentioning they exist.

Instead, suppose the "worst case" is true: what we think of morality is something our brains learned to do, over evolutionary time and, for individual brains, via the culture passed on by adults around us as we grew up. How does this look different from what we see? Some people do override this morality for their personal gain. We do regard some forms of what some people see as morality as vestiges of a primitive past (for example, tit-for-tat vengeance). But, like some other stuff which evolved, like pair bonding, we don't regard all of it as useless. The reason we don't do so is because we don't want to. I don't see morality as a static set of rules, rather, it's a dynamic system containing a bunch of rules I find persuasive (like "don't hit people"), rules for what I find persuasive (like "does this hurt anyone?") and so on. I have no idea how I'd convince something whose mind wasn't at least a bit like my own that something was moral.
12th Jan 2010, 02:19 am (UTC)
Meta-comment: a lot of this seems to boil down to "Physicalism would mean we couldn't be certain of desirable thing X". But an answer to that is always "Well, maybe we can't: who said the universe had to fulfil our desires for certainty about X?"

Since I know you're a theist, I've also raised the question of whether theism does better in a couple of places. I ran into a presuppositionalist a while ago who was claiming that without God, we've no reason to trust our senses and reason, maths, induction, and so on. I responded that theism doesn't do better, largely based on Christian theodicies: God may deceive us or allow us to go wrong if it serves some greater good or for other reasons we cannot understand, point 2c in my response (and in fact, based on evil, he'd could permit a fair amount of going wrong).

[Sorry about the multiple edits on this one: clearly it's time for bed].

Edited at 2010-01-12 02:27 am (UTC)
12th Jan 2010, 09:24 am (UTC)
a lot of this seems to boil down to "Physicalism would mean we couldn't be certain of desirable thing X".

Yes.

But an answer to that is always "Well, maybe we can't: who said the universe had to fulfil our desires for certainty about X?"

The problem isn't our desire for certainty; it's that belief in physicalism is itself dependent on X [*]. So by making X uncertain, it cuts off the branch it's sitting on.

[*]I guess this isn't strictly true, in the case of people who take physicalism as an axiom, but you said you don't do that. I'm thinking of people who come to physicalism by rejecting a former (personal or cultural) supernatural worldview, by saying "science explains our origins, morality, etc, so there's no need for anything supernatural".
12th Jan 2010, 05:54 pm (UTC)
I don't see how physicalism is dependent on our abstract reasoning being perfect. Sure, if you don't assume human reasoning is perfect, you have to accept that you might be wrong about things, but that doesn't mean you're definitely wrong. But then, if you have some worldview that says reasoning is definitely reliable, then you could still be wrong, because your unreliable reasoning could be telling you that your reasoning is reliable.

What is your view on the reliability of human reasoning abilities? The "quite good but with a load of bodges, rules of thumb and special cases" that you'd expect from evolution seems to me to be quite a lot like what we have.
14th Jan 2010, 12:10 am (UTC)
Plantinga's argument (which woodpijn might also be proposing, I'm not sure) is that if brains are given to us by evolution, we have no reason to think that they're good at finding truths, only at doing stuff which is adaptive. Apparently he considers a number of relations of belief to action, according to this comment.
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