Posts filed under ‘Phil Stilwell’
Imagine a blind man called Henry who, during his appendectomy, has an electronic device secretly planted deep in his ear by an mischievous surgeon called Richard. This device has the capacity to transmit sound to Henry whenever Richard wishes from nearly any location.
A few days later, Richard, hiding behind a postbox, transmits a short message while Henry is slowly tapping his cane along the sidewalk.
This is the first time that Henry has heard a voice other than his own in his head. He knows that others who have heard voices have ended up institutionalized.
Nonetheless, he is curious, and reaches down to the sidewalk.
“Left.” comes the voice again.
Henry obeys and reaches left to discover a $100 bill that Richard has left there. Henry is quite stupefied by this new source of knowledge, and goes home to ponder the enigma. He wracks his brain for an explanation, but finally drifts off to sleep.
The next afternoon while walking to the barber, he hears the voice again.
Henry taps his cane to the right, and finds himself in an alley.
Henry reaches down to find another $100 bill.
This same event occurs week after week with Henry becoming richer, placing more confident in the voice, and eventually losing interest in discovering the mechanism behind this source of knowledge. He goes out every day expecting to find another $100 bill.
Does Henry understand the source? No.
Is Henry warranted in his confidence in this source of knowledge? Yes.
Why? Because it works. The voice has demonstrated predictive power. This predictive power has led to a precedent that warrants continued confidence. As successes mount, Henry’s confidence increases. In this, confidence is inextricably tied to successes. The goal is to limit confidence to exactly the level of the strength of the precedent of successes.
Henry would not have been justified in placing complete confidence in the voice at day 3. Nor would Henry be justified in doubting the voice on day 1000. Henry’s confidence is solely tied to the history of the voice’s successes and failures.
Now imagine that Richard had never left any money on the sidewalk. Imagine that every day Richard (or Henry’s own subconscious mind) spoke in Henry’s ear “I promise you’ll find money if only you’ll reach down”.
And imagine a gullible Henry who reaches down every day only to find nothing…until after 3 years, he feels the ridges of a 50-cent piece on his finger tips.
Now what is Henry warranted in believing? A person with an understanding of probabilities would not attribute finding the 50-cent piece after 3 years of failure as being causally related to the voice, but rather as a rare event that had fallen well within the range of probabilities. However, as Henry is a gullible soul and unschooled in probabilities, he might attribute the “success” to the voice, and continue to stoop in search for the promised money in vain…until probabilities again connected his fingertips to another coin.
What is the point of this mental exercise? It is to show that we are only warranted in placing confidence in sources of knowledge that have a proven track record of successes that reliably out-perform chance. Knowledge of the mechanism is unnecessary. This has given those who claim that there are inscrutable or intractable immaterial sources of knowledge the opportunity to test their claims without need of an explanation of the mechanism. Such claims are fine…if accompanied by successes. However, to protest when others demand to mathematically and scientifically examine the success rate of the claims is improper.
This is what is actually happening today. Theists claim that their god answers intercessory prayer for the infirmed. So scientists have set up experiments to test this claim. The theists generally quietly wait for the results without confidently predicting the success that, if biblical promises of answered intercessory prayer were true, would most certainly follow. If, by chance, the study were to show a significant positive effect, they would no doubt immediately proclaim victory. Then, from my experience with the reasoning of theists, they would ignore or denounce any replicated studies that show the inverse.
However, evidence of successful intercessory prayer is nowhere in sight.
The Harvard study
An excerpt from the conclusion
CONCLUSIONS: Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.
So how are theists responding?
They are invoking the insular “god cannot be tested” clause. The god who makes claims of answered prayer, power over sin and wisdom somehow does not fall subject to the scrutiny of statistics. I’ll let readers assess the warrant in invoking this convenience.
Herein lies the absurdity and danger of “faith”. Once an individual has placed undeserved confidence in a source of knowledge, his reasoning faculties are no longer available to assess evidence; they are monopolized by the convoluted defense of an undeserving failed source of knowledge.
“Faith” requires no training. It comes easy. It is the default mode for those who can not or will not school themselves in critical thinking.
Critical thinking, in contrast, allows us to test sources of knowledge for successes, and only when a precedent of successes has been properly established for a given source are we warranted in our confidence in that source.
“Faith” fails. Claims of immaterial causation have failed, and to a degree and consistency that warrants their removal from any serious consideration. The amazing successes of scientific methodology that we currently enjoy are what have led to our confidence in its continued successes. The predictive power of scientific methodology has been rightfully earned, while spotty “successes” of intercessory prayer fall neatly within the range of probabilities. The “hits” of intercessory prayer are remembered and are presented as testament to the power of a god. The “misses” are simply ignored, forgotten and excluded from any honest analysis since the notion that there is no deity who can intervene in our lives is emotionally untenable.
Is our objective to approach truth? Then let’s place our confidence in what works rather than falling as credulous prey to the specious claims of faith-mongers who have not a single credible success to their name.
Theism begins with a commitment to absurdity. It revels in mysteries, embraces paradoxes, and wallows in warm credulity while reason is buried in a mudslide of illogical affirmations. It sees no need to apologize for belief where the evidence is not only absent, but also contrary to claims.
Theism trains the credulous in the art of illogicality by unabashedly positing incoherent notions of god that require the complete surrender of rational faculties. Some such common theistic notions among Christians are listed below.
- The notion that we were created with an actual choice not to sin in the face of the biblical assertions that we have all sinned.
- The notion that the wrath a “loving” god over a single sin results in condemnation to eternal torment.
- The notion that a “loving” god must see blood to forgive, and cannot simply forgive as he has asked humans to.
- The notion that the 3 days of temporary death by Jesus is the exchange rate for the deserved eternal damnation of billions…
I hope I have adequately described our inherent weaknesses in cognition (Part I), emotions (Part II) and dogmatism (Part III). Perhaps I can now continue with some of the reasons why I dismiss the notion of a personal god.
First, much of the ontology of Christianity is dependent on the Bible. The veracity of the Bible must be established before notions such as Heaven, Hell and sin can even be submitted for evaluation. Do not quote the Bible to “prove” to me the existence of these entities. I reject the Bible as “god’s word” for several reasons. As I list these reasons, Christians will contend that I am taking things out of context, yet I have spend years begging to see some objective, consistent and reliable standard of hermeneutics being practiced among Christians. None has emerged. This is the beauty of the “scriptures” of all successful religions; they are all ambiguous enough to provide deniabilty when backed into a exegetical corner. This lack of unity in exegesis I’ll introduce later as a failure of the Holy Spirit.
1) Moral ambiguity.
Polygamy, incest, rape and slavery are just a few of the practices condoned or encouraged in the Bible. Extravagant and elaborate apologetic arguments are employed, and usually track back to the incoherent notion that “God’s ways are not our ways”.
2) Philosophical dilemma
Persons who have not heard of Jesus are, nonetheless, eternally condemned for what the Bible claims is a clear manifestation of his eternal power and godhead in nature. In addition, a finite number of sins committed by a soul who had no choice but to be born sinful are given infinite punishment…
In Part I, I discussed the fragility of human cognition, and the myth of the virtue of faith. In Part II, I discussed the enormous deficiency in human cognition coupled with a propensity to rely on emotions to construct our belief system. Now let me move on to the issue of dogmatism.
Consider the proper way for a person to choose a presidential candidate. Voting along party lines is not considered to be very intelligent, and claiming faith in the party would rightfully make you the object of scorn. A proper evaluation involves exploring all the sources you have to your disposal to assess the knowledge, experience, convictions, competency and character of each candidate. The accumulation of this information is linear; it generally accumulates in a steady manner until you reach a point where you are able to make a decision. It should make sense then that the degree of certainty should also be linear. Instead of suddenly stating that one candidate is wonderful while the other is evil, one should be making statements such as “based on the evidence so far, X appears 20% more competent than Y. But few of us seldom do this due to our propensity for dogmatism.
While facilitating action, this dogmatism is a detriment when attempting to find objective truth. The polar ends of the god question are over-weighted with atheists and theists in my opinion. I am an agnostic. While I can state that there is a very low probability of a personal god for reasons I’ll discuss later, I am less certain when considering an Einsteinian god. And I do not feel compelled to choose a side without sufficient evidence. However, this probabilistic attitude towards questions is not natural to me. It had to be learned. I started out quite dogmatic as some of you may recall.
Christianity encourages dogmatism. Certainty is a goal in most religions…
In Part I, I discussed the fragility of human cognition, and the myth of the virtue of faith. There remains one more important question. Why do so many people believe in a personal god?
Nearly all religions posit a “god-size” hole of the psyche that only their respective god can feel. However, a careful examination of this hole reveals it to be merely a natural human disposition to have certain emotions that scream for attention and resolution. I’ll try to address the most important.
An aversion to not knowing.
We have an intense drive to explain our world. This emotional intensity causes many to assume that there are answers and that they deserve access to those answers. These conclusions do not follow. Simply having the ability to ask a question does not in any way require that there is an answer and that you have the ability to discover and comprehend the answer. However, religionists assume that they must have access to any question that appears meaningful to them. This does not follow. It may be that we may never have answers to questions that disturb us. This is anathema to many religionists.
Need for significance.
We are all born with the need for significance. This is, however, an emotion, and it does not follow that personal significance exists simply because we feel it must. Successful religions offer significance by typically positioning the believer in a privileged relationship with a god. This emotion, however, does not in anyway validate the existence of a god that bestows significance. The truth may be that we have no significance. We must start our inquiry into truth without the assumption of an objective personal significance. As an added note, this sense of a grand cosmological significance is exhibited as arrogance equally among faiths. If you suppose you are in constant communion with god, it is not at all difficult to become condescending to infidels whom you know must be in rebellion against god…
I have recently been asked by several individuals to detail the reasons behind my de-conversion from Christianity to my current position of agnosticism. As a preface to this, I’d like to state my general disposition towards Christianity.
I spent over 25 years as a Christian, and for most of those years I was quite happy. I forged many significant relationships, and learned much while within a Christian community. I do not feel, as do some non-believers who have never been on the inside, that Christians are, as a whole, evil people intent on forcing their agenda on others. I do, however, believe that most Christians are uninterested in an honest inquiry into what is true due to vested interests of various emotions. I will detail these emotions later.
First, I must comment on what I feel is the greatest overlooked truth when considering knowledge and belief; human minds are not well-equipped to assess what is true. This is in stark contrast to the tacit Christian notion that all truths that matter are immediately accessible to nearly every human without much cognitive effort. Let me elaborate.
Religious sects all around the world subscribe to a set of beliefs that set them apart from other sects. They then claim that these “truths” within their faith are either accessible through common sense, common rationality, or divine revelation. This forces them to conclude that persons in all other sects are self-delusional, and rebelling against the truth that is apparent either through reason or divine revelation. It is assumed that these persons feel some sort of guilt stemming from their rebellion or rejection of truth.
However, this assumption is testable. If Christians were to befriend Muslims, they would discover that this is not true. The Muslims do not possess this sense of guilt, and instead possess the same deep confidence in the tenets of their faith as do Christians. Persons who have spent time among persons of another faith normally do not find people who are evil, bitter and guilty…