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  • The Alternate Reality Fallacy

    Posted on September 18th, 2015 Helian 1 comment

    The alternate reality fallacy is ubiquitous.  Typically, it involves the existence of a deity, and goes something like this:  “God must exist because otherwise there would be no absolute good, no absolute evil, no unquestionable rights, life would have no purpose, life would have no meaning,” and so on and so forth.  In other words, one must only demonstrate that a God is necessary.  If so, he will automatically pop into existence.  The video of a talk by Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias included below is provided as an illustrative data point for the reader.

    The talk, entitled, “The End of Reason:  A Response to the New Atheists,” was Zacharias’ contribution to the 2012 Contending with Christianity’s Critics Conference in Dallas.  I ran across it at Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website in the context of a discussion of rights.  We find out where Zacharias is coming from at minute 4:15 in the talk when he informs us that the ideas,

    …that steadied this part of the world, rooted in the notion of the ineradicable difference between good and evil, facts on which we built our legal system, our notions of justice, the very value of human life, how intrinsic worth was given to every human being,

    all have a Biblical mooring.  Elaborating on this theme, he quotes Chesterton to the effect that “we are standing with our feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  We have,

    …no grounding anymore to define so many essential values which we assumed for many years.

    Here Zacharias is actually stating a simple truth that has eluded many atheists.  Christianity and other religions do, indeed, provide some grounding for such things as objective rights, objective good, and objective evil.  After all, it’s not hard to accept the reality of these things if the alternative is to burn in hell forever.  The problem is that the “grounding” is an illusion.  The legions of atheists who believe in these things, however, actually are “standing with their feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  They have dispensed even with the illusion, sawing off the limb they were sitting on, and yet they counterintuitively persist in lecturing others about the nature of these chimeras as they float about in the vacuum, to the point of becoming quite furious if anyone dares to disagree with them.  Zacharias’ problem, on the other hand, isn’t that he doesn’t bother to provide a grounding.  His problem is his apparent belief in the non sequitur that, if he can supply a grounding, then that grounding must necessarily be real.

    Touching on this disconcerting tendency of many atheists to hurl down anathemas on those they consider morally impure in spite of the fact that they lack any coherent justification for their tendency to concoct novel values on the fly, Zacharias remarks at 5:45 in the video,

    The sacred meaning of marriage (and others) have been desacralized, and the only one who’s considered obnoxious is the one who wants to posit the sacredness of these issues.

    Here, again, I must agree with him.  Assuming he’s alluding to the issue of gay marriage, it makes no sense to simply dismiss anyone who objects to it as a bigot and a “hater.”  That claim is based on the obviously false assumption that no one actually takes their religious beliefs seriously.  Unfortunately, they do, and there is ample justification in the Bible, not to mention the Quran, for the conclusion that gay marriage is immoral.  Marriage has a legal definition, but it is also a religious sacrament.  There is no rational basis for the claim that anyone who objects to gay marriage is objectively immoral.  Support for gay marriage represents, not a championing of objective good, but the statement of a cultural preference.  The problem with the faithful isn’t that they are all haters and bigots.  The problem is that they construct their categories of moral good and evil based on an illusion.

    Beginning at about 6:45 in his talk, Zacharias continues with the claim that we are passing through a cultural revolution, which he defines as a,

    decisive break with the shared meanings of the past, particularly those which relate  to the deepest questions of the nature and purpose of life.

    noting that culture is,

    an effort to provide a coherent set of answers to the existential questions that confront all human beings in the passage of their lives.

    In his opinion, it can be defined in three different ways. First, there are theonomous cultures.  As he puts it,

    These are based on the belief that God has put his law into our hearts, so that we act intuitively from that kind of reasoning.  Divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.

    Christianity is, according to Zacharias, a theonomous belief.  Next, there are heteronymous cultures, which derive their laws from some external source.  In such cultures, we are “dictated to from the outside.”  He cites Marxism is a heteronymous world view.  More to the point, he claims that Islam also belongs in that category.  Apparently we are to believe that this “cultural” difference supplies us with a sharp distinction between the two religions.  Here we discover that Zacharias’ zeal for his new faith (he was raised a Hindu) has outstripped his theological expertise.  Fully theonomous versions of Christianity really only came into their own among Christian divines of the 18th century.  The notion, supported by the likes of Francis Hutcheson and the Earl of Shaftesbury, that “God has put his law into our hearts,” was furiously denounced by other theologians as not only wrong, but incompatible with Christianity.  John Locke was one of the more prominent Christian thinkers among the many who denied that “divine imperatives are implanted in the heart of every human being.”

    But I digress.  According to Zacharias, the final element of the triad is autonomous culture, or “self law”, in which everyone is a law into him or herself.  He notes that America is commonly supposed to be such a culture.  However, at about the 11:00 minute mark he notes that,

    …if I assert sacred values, suddenly a heteronymous culture takes over, and tells me I have no right to believe that.  This amounts to a “bait and switch.”  That’s the new world view under which the word “tolerance” really operates.

    This regrettable state of affairs is the result of yet another triad, in the form of the three philosophical evils which Zacharias identifies as secularization, pluralism, and privatization.  They are the defining characteristics of the modern cultural revolution.  The first supposedly results in an ideology without shame, the second in one without reason, and the third in one without meaning.  Together, they result in an existence without purpose.

    One might, of course, quibble with some of the underlying assumptions of Zacharias’ world view.  One might argue, for example, that the results of Christian belief have not been entirely benign, or that the secular societies of Europe have not collapsed into a state of moral anarchy.  That, however, is really beside the point.  Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that everything Zacharias says about the baleful effects of the absence of Christian belief is true.  It still begs the question, “So what?”

    Baleful effects do not spawn alternate realities.  If the doctrines of Christianity are false, then the illusion that they supply meaning, or purpose, or a grounding for morality will not transmute them into the truth.  I personally consider the probability that they are true to be vanishingly small.  I do not propose to believe in lies, whether their influence is portrayed as benign or not.  The illusion of meaning and purpose based on a belief in nonsense is a paltry substitute for the real thing.  Delusional beliefs will not magically become true, even if those beliefs result in an earthly paradise.  As noted above, the idea that they will is what I refer to in my title as the alternate reality fallacy.

    In the final part of his talk, Zacharias describes his own conversion to Christianity, noting that it supplied what was missing in his life.  In his words, “Without God, reason is dead, hope is dead, morality is dead, and meaning is gone, but in Christ we recover all these.”  To this I can but reply that the man suffers from a serious lack of imagination.  We are wildly improbable creatures sitting at the end of an unbroken chain of life that has existed for upwards of three billion years.  We live in a spectacular universe that cannot but fill one with wonder.  Under the circumstances, is it really impossible to relish life, and to discover a reason for cherishing and preserving it, without resort to imaginary super beings?  Instead of embracing the awe-inspiring reality of the world as it is, does it really make sense to supply the illusion of “meaning” and “purpose” by embracing the shabby unreality of religious dogmas?  My personal and admittedly emotional reaction to such a choice is that it is sadly paltry and abject.  The fact that so many of my fellow humans have made that choice strikes me, not as cause for rejoicing, but for shame.

  • Christians, Comic Books, and the Happy and Sad Atheists

    Posted on March 7th, 2014 Helian No comments

    If the world you imagine resembles a comic book, it could be there are some flaws in your fundamental assumptions.  So it is with Catholic apologist Ross Douthat, whose fantasies would not be out of place in the literary productions of Dell or Marvel.  However, they’re actually more likely to turn up on the opinion pages of the New York Times.  That’s where  I found his latest, entitled The Return of the Happy Atheist.  It’s actually the second of a pair of replies to another collection of musings about atheism and the decline of belief by Adam Gopnik entitled Bigger than Phil, which recently appeared in The New Yorker.

    For Douthat and many others like him, it’s impossible to conceive of atheism as simply a lack of belief in God or gods.  He conceives of atheists as a monolithic outgroup, whose atheism implies all sorts of other ideological connections.  He declares himself in broad agreement with Leszek Kolakowski, according to whom there was once a “cozy world”  for our “movement” back in the days of the Enlightenment, under leaders such as Diderot, Feuerbach, and Helvetius, the latter of whom actually happened to be a deist.  Then, Nietzsche announced the death of God, and since that day, “there have been no more happy atheists… that world was transformed into a place of endless anxiety and suffering.  The absence of God became a permanently festering wound in the European spirit.”

    No need to despair, fellow atheists!  Douthat is pleased to announce that “we” have swung from “glad” to “sad” back to “glad” once again.  In his words,

    Among polemicists and philosophers alike, there’s what feels like a renewed confidence that all of the issues – moral, political, existential – that made the death of God seem like a kind of “wound” to so many 20th century writers have somehow been neatly wrapped up and resolved and can now be safely put aside.

    And why have “we” all suddenly become so happy?  Douthat notes that in the piece by Gopnik that he’s supposed to be writing about, the author claims that, at least in part, it’s because of “the broad prestige, in the past twenty years, of evolutionary biology.”  And here is where things get really interesting.  Douthat continues,

    But he doesn’t pursue this idea quite far enough, writing that “the details of the new evolutionary theory are fairly irrelevant to the New Atheism.” which strikes me as quite wrong:  It’s precisely the specifics of sociobiology, of evolutionary psychology, that have helped give atheism its swagger back, because ev-psych promises a theory of human culture in a way that other evolutionary theories don’t.  And with that promise has come a sense, visible throughout atheist commentaries nowadays, that by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial, ground their liberal cosmopolitanism firmly in capital-S Science, and avoid the abysses that seemed to yawn beneath the 20th century’s feet.  This reading of evolutionary psychology hasn’t quite made Nature itself seem completely “friendly” again, but it has ;made a kind of contemporary scientism seem friendlier to moral visions in general and the progressive moral vision in particular, in a way that has made “if there is no God, all is permitted” feel (to many writers, at least) like a less troubling point against atheism after all.

    Amazing!  Apparently David Bentley Hart, who included a fact-free diatribe against evolutionary psychology in his The Experience of God, the latest redoubt of Sophisticated Christians, isn’t just an outlier.  It would seem the unfortunate evolutionary psychologists are doomed to be the whipping boys of ideological zealots of all stripes.  The fact that conservative Christians are now piling on with the rest really stands things on their head.

    Evolutionary psychology, referred to in the vernacular as “sociobiology” after E. O. Wilson coined the term, and even earlier, in the heyday of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, as “ethology,” although all three terms now have separate “academic” definitions, has long been, and to a large extent still is, the bête noire of the very leftist atheist “progressives” who Douthat claims now embrace it.  Quick, someone run and tell John Horgan and Marshall Sahlins!  Where on earth is this fable about New Atheists enthusiastically embracing evolutionary psychology coming from?  Certainly not from Richard Dawkins, who declared in The Selfish Gene that Ur-evolutionary psychologist Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong.”  Jerry Coyne, who also spilled some ink over Douthat’s latest? I don’t think so!  The latest I’ve seen emanating from that realm, Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes, embraces not EP, but John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.  His only interest in evolutionary psychology is in thinking up clever ways to circumvent its findings.

    None of these Christian gentry seem to have the faintest clue that that basis of evolutionary psychology is merely the recognition that there actually is such a thing as human nature.  The fact that it is now supposed to be “in fashion” is really nothing more than that recognition, following decades in which the so-called behavioral “sciences” were in thrall to the ludicrous ideological orthodoxies of the Blank Slate.  Douthat is much more likely to hit pay dirt in his hunt for atheists whose tastes run to leftist progressivism among the flotsam and jetsam left over from the demise of that orthodoxy than in the EP journals.

    None of that matters to the Douthats of the world, though.  EP is too useful to their narrative to pay any attention to the truth.  And it turns out that the narrative in question is nothing more sophisticated than the hoary old naturalistic fallacy.  Quoting once again from the above passage, “…by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial.”  In other words, hidden in some dark cranny of academia, New Atheists, who are not otherwise identified, are supposed to be busily cobbling the “is” of evolutionary psychology into the “ought” of their nefarious, godless philosophy.  Whatever.  I suppose it’s not much of a stretch if you actually believe the rest of Catholic dogma.

    In any case, “we” the monolithic atheist “movement” of today, are now “glad” again, thanks to the crutch of evolutionary psychology combined with a generally benign and prosperous world.  “We” are also no longer embarrassed by Communism, which, of course, “we” foisted on the world.  That revelation came as news to me, an atheist who volunteered to fight Communism in Vietnam at a time when to do so was not considered fashionable.

    No time for the “movement” to relax, though, fellow atheists!  The far-seeing Douthat, after scrutinizing related articles in the opinion columns of the New York Times and running across some other articles in popular magazines that clearly reveal that we face “problems that should be obvious to those with eyes to see,” is convinced that the pendulum will soon swing back from “glad” to “sad” once again.  “Dark forces,” he writes, are driving “secular liberalism toward the kind of intellectual crisis that seems to me to lurk, iceberg-like, somewhere out ahead.”

    Well, to tell you the truth, as a conservative atheist I wouldn’t mind having a front row seat to watch that ship slip beneath the waves, either.  The only problem is that, according to the Douthats of the world, people like me can’t exist.