Logic and Faith III: Havlicek Steals the Ball

There are many in the scientific community, including some of its most prominent spokespersons, who seem to have embraced a rather militant form of atheism. Richard Dawkins seems to be the most visible just now, but there are many others.

I used to be a strongly committed atheist myself, but my viewpoint has softened, and I would categorize myself now as a curious agnostic. One of the reasons that I abandoned the atheist position is the simple fact that reason itself is silent on the question of God’s existence. Efforts have been made to put faith in God onto a solid naturalist or philosophical foundation, but the fact remains that there is still no way to compel either belief in or denial of the existence of God.

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, has just called our attention to a book by one Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science, that is devoted to a discussion of this tension, in particular as it relates to the ongoing battle between evolutionists and creationists. The point is that natural scientists are overreaching when they go beyond the practice of science into an aggressive push for the broad acceptance of “naturalism” itself: the view that the natural sciences should be assumed to have “full coverage” of all possible phenomena; a view that is logically and explicitly incompatible with belief in an omnipotent God. In other words, these naturalistic, atheistic scientists are evangelists for their faith just as much as Billy Graham is for his.

This is a view I tend to agree with, and have written about in a previous post. But there is a question I would like to raise.

Those who wish to reconcile a belief in God with confidence in the ever-deepening understanding of the world that has been achieved by science often defend their stance by pointing out, as mentioned above, that the phenomena of the world cannot be shown to be inconsistent with the existence of God. But the atheist can respond to that by pointing out that the phenomena of the world are also not inconsistent with the idea that the world was brought into existence by Homer Simpson, or that a thrown baseball is actually carried by a team of tiny invisible winged ferrets (who do so in accordance with Newtonian mechanics merely as a matter of “style”), or that there are actually five Gods, who have the physical appearance of the 1964-65 Boston Celtics, and who rule the Universe by committee from a bus-station locker in Cincinnati (or for that matter, a few dozen more, ruling from Olympus or Asgard). Our naturalists might reasonably point out that if they were to be explicitly “atheistic” about any of those theological models, nobody would object, but somehow it is considered unjustified to believe positively in the nonexistence of a particular God-figure, namely, here in the West, the God worshipped by Christians, Jews, or Muslims (arguably the same underlying God, though that is is big subject all by itself, and far beyond the scope of this humble post). In other words, sure, it’s all possible in principle, but why should we believe any of it, and why should one imaginary God be more worthy of belief than any of the others?

Let’s say such a person did decide to adopt a belief in God. What, other than one’s social context and history, compellingly recommends one unprovable fantasy over another? How, then, is one supposed to choose? From this angle the entire enterprise begins to seem completely unmanageable, and frankly a bit silly. Why not just stick with what we can observe? Why not defend this as the only reasonable course to follow?

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22 Comments

  1. Bob Koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    Belated Joyful Solstice!

    Regarding your post and concluding questions, I don’t think there is just one reasonable course to follow, or reasonable system of belief, whether we’re talking about theism or fly fishing. Certainly there are more reasonable and less reasonable views, but to insist that there is a uniquely reasonable view is itself unreasonable. That’s the human condition, and it ought to encourage humility and charitability in all of us. That said, I’m quite willing to declare that all sorts of particular, highly specific beliefs are utter nonsense because they imply things that we know beyond a reasonable doubt to be false.

    Posted December 24, 2005 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi again Bob, and warmest regards to you as well!

    The point to be made, though, is: why it is more reasonable to asssume the existence of the conventional God than the ’65 Celtics in the bus locker? Many would say that the commonly assumed viewpoint, which includes God as a burning bush in the desert, is a mere social and historical artifact.

    Posted December 24, 2005 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  3. Spur says

    Hi Malcolm,
    We can reject the ’65 Celtics hypothesis on the same ground that we reject many ontologically profligate scientific hypotheses: parsimony. One God of the conventional sort is sufficient to do the trick; no need to posit five of them when one will suffice. So the conventional God is to be preferred over the quintet resembling the ’65 Celts. There are many scientific hypotheses that we have no reason to reject other than this sort of consideration.

    Posted December 24, 2005 at 9:16 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well, a mountaintop full of gods was perfectly acceptable to the Greeks, presumably because they all had different jobs to do, but OK, that’s fine, we can just have John Havlicek, the great No. 17, all by himself, then! That should be parsimonious enough for even the stingiest among us. We can also do away with the Trinity.

    So we’ve narrowed things down considerably. Only monotheistic models from now on.

    Posted December 24, 2005 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  5. Spur says

    It’s hard to take comments like these seriously, but Havlicek is a terrible choice for deity. From what we know of him, he’s a rather finite and limited guy, not at all suited to be the creator of the universe.

    You haven’t raised any serious problem for traditional theism here.

    Posted December 25, 2005 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Spur,

    You must have misread me! I didn’t mean that John Havlicek himself was God, I was only suggesting that there might be a committee of five gods who, for their own inscrutable purposes, had assumed the appearance of the 64-65 Celtics, and who ruled the world from a bus locker (God works in mysterious ways His wonders to achieve, after all; these guys might do so as well). I don’t believe it myself, but to the Richard Dawkinses of the world it is no less preposterous, or more defensible, than other, shall we say more “popular”, theological models. In order to go along with your wish for parsimony I was willing to bench the other four, but the problem of explaining to Dr. Dawkins why the more conventional descriptions are more compelling remains.

    Posted December 26, 2005 at 2:00 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm,

    I see you are siphoning off my top commenters! [grin]

    I agree with Spur that you haven’t raised a serious problem for traditional theism. To add to what he (she?) said, your rival candidates for deity are physical beings. But surely no physical being could be invoked as explanans in any attempt at an ultimate explanation of the physical universe. Isn’t that self-evident? This is why sophisticated theists characterize God as a purely spiritual being.

    There is a lot more to be said, but I tell my commenters to be pithy, so I’d better take my own advice.

    Posted December 26, 2005 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Hi Bill,

    Were the gods of Olympus physical beings? As for my 64-65 Celtics, I hadn’t really specified their physical manifestation as exhausting their ontology. After all, Christ, who is considered to be an aspect of the triune God, was a physical being.

    The point is that one can dream up all sorts of Gods, and the naturalist has no way to choose. To someone with Dawkins’s outlook, the traditional Christian God is no more credible than Zeus.

    Posted December 26, 2005 at 9:21 pm | Permalink
  9. Not my usual topic, but as a “naturalist” atheist myself I find it hard to resist. I too used to be a lot more militant about my atheism (hitting a peak, perhaps, when I was about nineteen), and have since mellowed. Not to the point of labelling myself an agnostic, however, and I’m curious how you yourself reconcile such labelling with the rest of your post — are you equally agnostic re: the “tiny invisible winged ferrets”?

    Militant atheism is another matter, however, and usually takes its militancy from some other ideological source which is at the very least quasi-religious, notwithstanding the lack of a god per se. Not that that’s a bad or even an avoidable thing in itself, but if there’s a failure to recognize its own religious dimensions then it simply becomes a form of bad faith. And that, coupled with a rigid hostility to other forms of religion, can quickly and easily lead to the old ugliness of religious intolerance and bigotry, and to just a different kind of fundamentalism.

    As for traditional religions, I’d suggest that your 64-65 Boston Celtics simply lack the cultural, moral, narrative, mythic, aesthetic, etc. richness that they posses (as do any New Age concoctions I’ve come across) — and that that’s the relevant kind of criteria here, not naturalistic truth. I.e., there may be other kinds of truth than the naturalistic kind.

    Posted December 27, 2005 at 8:13 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Hi Ellis,

    This is exactly the issue that I’m trying to point out here. In fact I am NOT equally agnostic about the tiny winged ferrets – I am quite certain they aren’t there, but there is really no consistent reason for me to be so much more sure of that than of the nonexistence of more conventional versions of God. Sure, my Celtics lack the cultural “fleshing out” of the Catholic God, for example, but that’s just because I, working alone, hadn’t the resources to make them more competitive in that regard. But the cultural, moral, narrative, etc., attributes you describe – and I freely admit that my toy Gods are severely impoverished when it comes to all of that – are nothing more than contingent human embellishments, which I think we may assume should have nothing to do with God’s ontological status. There are many Gods, in various cultures, that are richly endowed with such features; give my Celtics a few thousand years and they could be too. Certainly the Greek pantheon were adequately supplied with the “extras” my example was lacking, but I find myself less of an agnostic, and more of an atheist, regarding them as well – just as I do for the Mayan gods, the Norse gods, etc. But is such an attitude really justifiable? It is quite easy for me to understand the impulse just to dismiss the whole enterprise, and stick to what we can observe. That, it seems to me, is the most parsimonious approach of all.

    But to insist on this godless worldview? Is that really justifiable, even given the difficulties discussed here? Probably not, I think. Knowing that they can’t all be right doesn’t mean that they are all necessarily wrong. “Bad faith”, as you say.

    Posted December 27, 2005 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  11. Andrew says

    Ellis and Malcolm,

    This: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnostic_atheism wikipedia definition was pointed out to me recently. It captures both the doubt and the uncertainty.

    Andrew

    Posted December 27, 2005 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  12. Bob Koepp says

    Well! I’ve got a beantown buddy who would strenuously disagree with any suggestion that the 64-65 Celtics lack the requisite “cultural, moral, narrative, mythic, aesthetic, etc. richness” for deification. But I don’t want to get into a sectarian squabble.

    One way to judge the relative reasonableness of various models of the “we know not what” is to reflect on how strong the claims in question are. The more precise and lengthy the list of attributes, the stronger the claim. Stronger claims require more and more varied evidence for their confirmation, and present more opportunities for falsification.

    Posted December 27, 2005 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  13. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Andrew, for the link. It’s still a Wikipedia “stub”, but for a stub it does a pretty good job. The article mentions three ideas:

    1. 1) The existence and nonexistence of deities is currently unknown and maybe absolutely unknowable.
    2. 2) Knowledge of the existence and nonexistence of deities is irrelevant or unimportant.
    3. 3) Abstention from claims of knowledge of the existence and nonexistence of deities is optimal.

    As for 1), “currently unknown” certainly describes my own status. “Maybe absolutely unknowable” – I can’t argue with that either, given my own state of ignorance. There may be ways of directly knowing these things, though, in a way that is not communicable to others by language or logic.

    Ad 2), it is hard for me to imagine that if deities exist that knowledge of them would be either irrelevant or unimportant. Of course if they don’t then obviously so.

    Regarding 3), we can follow Wittgenstein’s advice:

    “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”

    Posted December 27, 2005 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, that’s why I picked that team for my little pantheon. They were certainly regarded by their fans as deities of the parquet floor, and I’m sure you could find many in the Hub City who would agree that Havlicek’s deflection of the inbound pass from Hal Greer to Chet Walker in the closing seconds of Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals between the defending champion Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers was nothing short of miraculous.

    But the problems with claims made by religions about their Gods, generally, is that although such claims are both strong and numerous, they do NOT lend themselves to falsification. It’s better for business that way.

    Posted December 27, 2005 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  15. Hi again, Malcolm.

    You write: It is quite easy for me to understand the impulse just to dismiss the whole enterprise, and stick to what we can observe. That, it seems to me, is the most parsimonious approach of all.

    And therefore, I’d argue, the most rational (Occam’s Razor sort of thing).

    But only up to a point. I can’t match your knowledge of basketball arcana, but I can see the how it could provide the raw material for myth-making, at the least. Beyond that, and beyond logical arguments over knowledge claims, falsification, and the like, the more interesting question in this area to my mind has to do with whether or not there are other forms of truth than the scientific, naturalistic kind. People are inclined to say, for example, that a great novel is “true” — but they don’t mean that they believe that its events actually happened or its characters actually lived. In fact, I think most would feel that that kind of truth would only trivialize the more significant kind of truth that the novel embodies. So can, in fact, beauty be truth, truth beauty — or was that just a youthful pseudo-profundity?

    In any case, I think it’s as profound a mistake, on both sides of the theist/atheist divide, to try to judge religion by scientific standards as it is to judge science by religious standards.

    Posted December 27, 2005 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    Hi Ellis,

    That novel is “true”, I’d say, because it instantiates some property of human experience that is relevant to all our lives – because of the commonalities we share of species and culture – even though each of our own instantiations is different in detail. I think such a thing actually would be reducible to a naturalistic explanation, in principle at least, though I don’t see why anyone ought to bother.

    I think it’s as profound a mistake, on both sides of the theist/atheist divide, to try to judge religion by scientific standards as it is to judge science by religious standards.

    I agree with that, mostly, because there is so much about religious experience that is entirely beyond current scientific understanding. But I’m not sure that it will always be so. The cultural and organizational apparatus on both sides could certainly benefit from a little more flexibility.

    By the way, I’m really not a much of a basketball fan, actually; I just needed a useful example. It’s amazing what Google can do…

    Posted December 27, 2005 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  17. Thomas says

    Well, it’s a bit late to react, but as this issue is bothering me continually: I used to be, and in a sense still am, an intuitive naturalist and a realistic agnostic but feel attracted to Christianity in a manner I cannot discard just like that. Some of the thoughts that have emerged in dealing with this conflict (not in any logical order):

    – I find it extremely unlikely that our human faculties have developed in exactly such a way, that our minds could, theoretically, understand the universe in its entirety. I feel it is not so unreasonable to assume that the universe contains elements or has features that we humans principally cannot, and will never, be able to observe – let alone understand.

    – I think that, as a human, we cannot just discard this fact like Wittgenstein does. I never did like his famous quote; for me it begs the question: who decides “whereof we cannot speak”? And on what grounds? I think it is important for a human being not just to sit back and decide what is reasonable and natural. Our situation demands from us to actively deal with those features which aren’t plain and naturalistic. Religion is a way of dealing with life – not a way to answer questions. I can only agree with Ellis’ remark about judging religion (which deals with some of life’s more elusive features) by scientific standards.

    – Of course, when dealing with these issues, as Malcolm points out, it is pretty hard to choose rationally for one particular attitude towards these non-naturalistic features. I think Malcolm’s question: “What, other than one’s social context and history, compellingly recommends one unprovable fantasy over another?” is a tough nut. But then again, when we reformulate in terms of something more down to earth: “What, other than one’s social context and history, compellingly recommends one woman over another when falling in love?” This shows the peculiarity of the question.

    This does not mean that one can just choose a silly thing to believe in. I’m not sure, but I think, although religion is by definition non-scientific and non-naturalistic, it is not therefore unreasonable. And to “stick with what we can observe” is, then, not a forteriori the only reasonable thing to do.

    (these thoughts, of course, under construction ;o)

    Posted January 2, 2006 at 5:59 am | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Hi Thomas, and thanks for visiting. It’s never too late to comment – I am notified when new comments appear, and will always read them. There is probably a setting in WordPress to disallow comments after a certain age – or if not I could modify it to do so – but I like it better this way.

    You wrote:

    I feel it is not so unreasonable to assume that the universe contains elements or has features that we humans principally cannot, and will never, be able to observe – let alone understand.

    [I assume that when you said “principally” you meant “in principle”; forgive me if I am misunderstanding you.]
    You may be right about that; but it is also not unreasonable to imagine that there might be a “critical mass” of consciousness or intelligence (or to use a current phrase, a “tipping point”), which once achieved allows intelligence to build on itself indefinitely. The development of mathematics, for example, made comprehensible phenomena that were not otherwise so; it may be that the accelerating pace of human inquiry will one day bring all within our ken.

    I think that, as a human, we cannot just discard this fact like Wittgenstein does. I never did like his famous quote; for me it begs the question: who decides “whereof we cannot speak”? And on what grounds?

    I’d say that Wittgenstein meant that if you knew yourself to be ignorant regarding a given matter, the polite thing is to keep mum. That doesn’t mean that we will always be ignorant, though.

    I think it is important for a human being not just to sit back and decide what is reasonable and natural. Our situation demands from us to actively deal with those features which aren’t plain and naturalistic.

    I agree, and there may be many ways, not all of them logical or scientific, of apprehending the truth of the world. The big advantage of logic, as I have mentioned elsewhere, is that it is public and communicable.

    I think Malcolm’s question: “What, other than one’s social context and history, compellingly recommends one unprovable fantasy over another?” is a tough nut. But then again, when we reformulate in terms of something more down to earth: “What, other than one’s social context and history, compellingly recommends one woman over another when falling in love?” This shows the peculiarity of the question.

    Again, quite so. But love is emotional and intuitive. If, however, we are trying to find a purely rational argument for preferring one religion over another, it becomes more difficult. This is not to say that one should not make one’s spiritual decisions based on emotion or intuition, though; only that we should try to be aware of what informs our choices.

    …although religion is by definition non-scientific and non-naturalistic, it is not therefore unreasonable. And to “stick with what we can observe” is, then, not a forteriori the only reasonable thing to do.

    Right again. It is indeed not unreasonable to consider adopting a religious viewpoint. My point, though, is that we are stuck once again as soon as we try to find a rational way of selecting one, and given that “tough nut” for the rationalist, it is not unreasonable for such a person to forget the whole enterprise.

    Posted January 2, 2006 at 11:32 pm | Permalink
  19. Thomas says

    Malcolm,

    thanks for your comments – it seems we roughly agree about these matters:

    You wrote:

    I’d say that Wittgenstein meant that if you knew yourself to be ignorant regarding a given matter, the polite thing is to keep mum. That doesn’t mean that we will always be ignorant, though.

    In that sense, I couldn’t agree more. I always regret that many people all the time simply have to give their opinions on things they haven’t thought about or have any knowledge of.

    (…) there may be many ways, not all of them logical or scientific, of apprehending the truth of the world. The big advantage of logic, as I have mentioned elsewhere, is that it is public and communicable.

    Yeah. Interesting that you do admit a variety of ways by which we apprehend the truth. Too often I come across dogmatics insisting only on logic & science. And, indeed, love (and religion) are less public and more personal-existential of character – perhaps hence their non-logical elements.

    It is indeed not unreasonable to consider adopting a religious viewpoint. My point, though, is that we are stuck once again as soon as we try to find a rational way of selecting one, and given that “tough nut” for the rationalist, it is not unreasonable for such a person to forget the whole enterprise.

    I think you are very right here. One might say: for a consequent rationalist, a religious world-view is quite unreasonable. I expect there is no example of a person being convinced by rational arguments to embrace a religious worldview.

    A question that has been lingering in my mind is, what the difference is between a reasonable option and a completely rationally defendable option. But that’s another story.

    P.S.: as I am a Dutch writer, sometimes grammatical glitches and the sort creep in, as you noticed.

    Posted January 3, 2006 at 4:50 am | Permalink
  20. Thomas says

    A nice quote in this context:

    “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it” (Pascal)

    Posted January 3, 2006 at 5:36 am | Permalink
  21. Malcolm says

    Hi Thomas,

    I don’t recall seeing that quote from Pascal before. Is it from Pensees? It’s been many years since I read that fascinating collection; I should pull it off the shelf. Pascal was truly remarkable, a visionary, with one foot in another world.

    It does seem that we are more or less in agreement about most of this. Thanks very much for your interesting comments.

    By the way, I would not have guessed that English is not your primary language!

    Posted January 3, 2006 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  22. Thomas says

    Yes, it is from Pensees, in the ET by Martin Turnell (1962), page 209. (I found the quote in the excellent article Fideism from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) I still don’t have a copy of the Pensees myself, I really have to buy it sometime these days. (And, thanks for the compliment – I must say I spent a year studying in England, ehhh, and talking a lot in pubs. That especially helps ;o)

    Posted January 4, 2006 at 4:13 am | Permalink