Sunday, January 20, 2008

More on Religion

My post on religion seemed to interest a fair number of people, so I thought it would be worth doing another one, summing up my view of the situation.

I think it is unlikely that any particular one of the standard religions is correct in the form in which most believers hold it—a form which includes belief in the falsity of all of the competing religions. In that form, at most one religion can be true—I'm oversimplifying a bit, since there are probably some religions which aren't inconsistent with each other, but most are—so the odds that any particular religion is true are low.

There are then at least three interesting possibilities:

1. All religions are pretty much entirely wrong; there are no gods. This is my view, as it happens, but in this post I want to argue that there are alternative positions that reasonable people might hold.

2. One of the existing religions is correct, or very close to correct, in the form in which most believers hold it. There is supposed to be a tradition of Mohamed saying that, at the day of judgment, his followers would be divided into a thousand sects of which only one would have the truth; I see no logical reason why that couldn't be the case. If it is, the odds of getting the right religion are low. On the other hand, some versions of some religions hold that it is sufficient to get close, which would improve your odds a bit.

3. There is a true religious belief and some, perhaps many, perhaps even all, religions imperfectly reflect it. This makes sense if the reality in question is sufficiently hard for humans to understand that a completely correct account of it would be incomprehensible to them. It corresponds to Haldane's speculation about the physical world, which I mentioned in my earlier post. To me, this alternative is the most interesting and plausible of the versions in which religions are not simply all wrong.

Some critics might object that if my third alternative is correct then almost all religious believers are wrong, and if they are all wrong, what reason do we have to believe there is anything to religion at all? The obvious response is to try to apply the same standard to our understanding of physical reality. In my previous post I offered the example of light. Its behavior can be understood as either a wave or a particle, two explanations which appear inconsistent to our intuition.

In that case, we now know enough to write the equations for an explanation consistent with all of the evidence. But from the standpoint of someone living before the discovery of quantum mechanics, or someone living now who, whether or not he knows quantum mechanics, doesn't intuit it, the situation is very much what I have described for religion. There is a reality out there, we have two inconsistent pictures of it, and both are in part true.

The same holds in lots of other areas. Consider economics. Writing as an economist, I frequently treat economics as if it were the full description of human behavior, but obviously it isn't; indeed, I have one article which tries to use evolutionary psychology to explain patterns of behavior inconsistent with economics. Human beings routinely deal with complicated realities through models that have enough truth to be useful and are simple enough to be usable. There is no particular reason why, if there is a "religious reality" out there—if, for instance, there is something reasonably describable as a god (or gods)—it shouldn't fit the same pattern.

We are left with the problem of how to decide between my first and third alternatives. At one time I thought I had an answer to that, a proof that the existence of God was less likely than the non-existence of God. The argument, which I created when I was about nine, depended on Occam's razor, the idea that simpler hypotheses are to be preferred to more complicated hypotheses. A universe with God includes, as a subset, the universe minus God. Hence the theist picture has to be more complicated than the atheist picture, hence it is less likely.

There are two problems with this purported proof, as I eventually realized. The first is that the "universe minus God" might not be an internally consistent picture; some features of the universe might depend on the existence of God to work. The second is that there is no good reason, at least none I can see, to think that Occam's razor applies to the nature of the universe. It's true that simpler hypotheses are, ceteris paribus, easier to work with—but the question here is not which picture is easier to understand but which is true. And it seems plausible that simple things are more likely to come into existence than more complicated things, again ceteris paribus. But it is hard to see how that is relevant to the universe, with or without a God.

All of which leaves me with the point I made in my previous post. Humans have very good pattern recognition software and routinely use it to solve problems that we could not solve by anything describable as logical deduction—most obviously, the problem of deducing from the data coming from our retinas the contents of our visual field. Our eyes don't see objects, they see patterns of colored light. By the time that information reaches our consciousness, it has already been heavily processed.

Humans use their pattern recognition software to make sense of the world around them, and different people get different results. Since we don't have enough data to uniquely determine the pattern, the best guess someone accepts often depends, in large part, on what he is told by the people around him. That is quite obviously true with regard to our beliefs about the nature of the physical world; none of us has enough first hand data to recreate most of what we believe about it, so we are dependent both on second hand data and on the results of other people's analysis. It isn't surprising if, for those people who believe that there is a religious reality out there, the particular version they accept depends in large part on the beliefs of the people around them.

What about the larger question--alternative 1 vs alternative 3? Once one sees the alternatives as "some version of the atheist world view is true" vs "some version of the theist world view is true," the arguments for atheism become less compelling, since most of those arguments are attacks on particular versions of the theist world view. One is left with the question of which picture one finds more convincing. I observe that different people, even different intelligent and apparently rational people, reach different conclusions.

One further point. In the comment thread to my previous post, I suggested that the quote from Sam Harris on witchcraft that a commenter had offered reflected a pop history view of the subject—witchcraft persecutions driven by the Catholic church's religious beliefs—and that that view was inconsistent with the historical evidence. The commenter responded that the argument Harris was making didn't depend on the historical accuracy of his historical example, which was true.

On the other hand, the reliability of Harris's view of the world as a whole—or mine—does depend in part on the accuracy of the data on which it is based. If his world view includes a history in which religions have been consistently hostile to reason, that makes him more likely to construct a pattern in which religion is simply superstitious, irrational nonsense. If that history is false, as I think it is, that is a reason to distrust the pattern he has built. If the actual historical story shows religions and religious people sometimes sensible, sometimes not, sometimes attacking reason, sometimes supporting it—behaving, in other words, not all that differently from non-religious people and institutions—that weakens the grounds on which his conclusion is based.

My own conclusion, as before, is that I do not think God exists. But neither do I think that conclusion so obviously true that all reasonable people ought to accept it.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you're using the from-intution argument. I think a reasonable person can claim to have an vague intution about something (such as there being "something out there"), but that's really not religion, is it? Religious belief tends to go much farther and that is the crititical difference that makes it unreasonable.

Bad said...

I think your original use of Occam's Razor was flawed to begin with, because the Razor is not really about preferring simplicity, but rather that one should 'do what you can with what you already know, and if you can do what you need, there's no further need to hypothesize anything extra.' (i.e. don't invent unnecessary entities) So in that sense, it already accounts for and agrees with your first objection to the simplicity argument, and it also makes irrelevant your second complaint... all while basically still fitting your final conclusion.

The final conclusion really is simply that we don't know, and may NEVER know enough about the universe to be able to say that this that and the other thing are sufficient to explain everything. So the Razor cannot really help us determine, in the abstract, whether some sort of God interaction is necessary or not.

Thus, the Razor is a great tool against those who would call on a God as an explanation for things we can already explain via known mechanisms, but it is unlikely that "all of existence" will ever fall under that category.

Of course, I'm in the camp that saying that "God" (i.e. a hypothetical being that can do anything in any way) did something is not in any sense an "explanation," as "something unknowable did it in an unknown way" is basically just a creative rephrasing of "I don't know how it happened."

John Kindley said...

Let me just put a plug in here for my own religion -- the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). What distinguishes Quakers for purposes of this kind of discussion is our aversion to reliance on credal formulations of belief, a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture or the authority of an institution; and our reliance instead on the Light within. Also attractive to me is our Peace Testimony against war (though not necessarily, as is often misunderstood, against justified coercion in all instances) and our historical role in, e.g., the Underground Railroad and abolitionism. Unfortunately, many modern day Quakers tend to be liberals, whereas you'd think these testimonies just mentioned and our historical objections to such things as taking oaths in court and calling people by customary honorary titles that elevate them above their fellow human beings (e.g. "Your Honor") would have led to more anarchist attitudes.

Jonathan said...

As you say, whether any kind of god exists or not seems unknowable. Personally, I go through life without concerning myself about it. If there is a god of some sort, his/her/its preferences are also unknowable and therefore I cannot organize my life around them. If it turns out that I'll be tormented eternally for having once worn shoes of the wrong colour, how could I have anticipated that?

People who think they know God's preferences are way ahead of me. Or not, as the case may be.

Mike Huben said...

I view your options 1 and 3 as indistinguishable.

In your option 3 we have no way of discerning how close any religion comes to that incomprehensible truth. Thus we'd expect random walks in an infinitely large space of possible truths. In real life we understand that the walks are constrained by complex facts of human biology, psychology, and history. Even if we had some sort of feedback, we wouldn't be able to tell if it was moving us closer to or farther away from (or around, etc) that ultimate truth, which may or may not concern gods.

Once you realize we're agnostic about "ultimate truths", you don't have to take very much religious or philosophical twaddle very seriously. Without positivist clues, we're stumbling blindly. If we seem to mostly end up in the same place, it is more likely due to our own restrictive nature (a very local truth) than some universal truth.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Friedman,

Though you have provided some insights (such as pointing out the true attitude of the Church towards witchcraft, or noting that Weinberg's statement is poorly phrased), it seems to me you are still focusing on marginal issues, and refusing to acknowledge some key points from Harris and Dawkins. At one time you even went close to taking the opposite stand: you seemed to support the position that Dawkins calls "the God of the gaps" in his book. That is where you say:

"Part [of my skepticism with regards to the efforts of my fellow atheists] comes from weaknesses I can perceive in the foundations for my own view of the world."

But the fact that your understanding of the world may be incomplete, or that your mind may be in principle incapable of understanding the universe, does not provide a reason to put a God in those gaps, or to believe that any religious claim is true. If you don't acknowledge that, it seems to me you are inviting misunderstanding.

Even in this new post, you don't seem to acknowledge the distinction between the possibility that something is true, and having good reasons to believe that it's true. The fact that a particular religion _could_ be true (the same could be said of the Invisible Pink Unicorn) hardly implies that anyone on this planet has a good reason to believe it's true, or that he is being reasonable believing it. Instead of concluding that they too should not be convinced, you seem to conclude that they are being reasonable, because our brain works by pattern-matching. (It is possible I missed your point, in which case I apologize.)

Anyway, please allow me to drop the issue of the truth of religion, because I have a more urgent question to ask you, to which your contribution could be decisive, as it will be clear by the end of this comment. But first I need to ask for your opinion concerning the dangers of religious faith, and the responsibility of religious faith in many events. Would you be so kind as to tell us if you agree or disagree with each of the following quotes?


1. Harris:

"Consider the second commandment; thou shalt not erect any graven images. You remember the Muslims who rioted by the hundreds of thousands over cartoons... All that pious mayhem, the burning of embassies, the killing of nuns... What got them so riled up? Well, this is it, the second commandment.

Do you agree or disagree?

2. Harris:

“If the Koran were exactly the same, and there were just one line added to it, and the line said, ‘If you see a red-haired woman on your lawn at sunset, kill her,’ I can tell you what kind of world we’d live in. We’d live in a world where red-haired women would be killed often. We’d live in a world where people like yourself would say, ‘That’s not the true Islam.’ Twenty women in Baghdad would have their heads cut off and someone would come forward and say, ‘This has nothing to do with Islam. Some of them were strawberry blond. Some of them were strangled.”

Do you agree or disagree?

3. Harris:

"Consider, for instance, the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is now the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The virus infects over half the American population and causes nearly five thousand women to die each year from cervical cancer; the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than two hundred thousand die worldwide. We now have a vaccine for HPV that appears to be both safe and effective. The vaccine produced 100 percent immunity in the six thousand women who received it as part of a clinical trial. And yet, Christian conservatives in our government have resisted a vaccination program on the grounds that HPV is a valuable impediment to premarital sex. These pious men and women want to preserve cervical cancer as an incentive toward abstinence, even if it sacrifices the lives of thousands of women each year."

Do you agree that what those people believe (about God and sex) has something to do with their position?

4. Dawkins:

"In July 2005, London was the victim of a concerted suicide bomb attack: three bombs in the subway and one in a bus. Not as bad as the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, .... The murderers were British citizens, cricket-loving, well-mannered, just the sort of young men whose company one might have enjoyed. Why did these cricket-loving young men do it? Unlike their Palestinian counterparts, or their kamikaze counterparts in Japan, or their Tamil Tiger counterparts in Sri Lanka, these human bombs had no expectation that their bereaved families would be lionized, looked after or supported on martyrs' pensions. On the contrary, their relatives in some cases had to go into hiding. One of the men wantonly widowed his pregnant wife and orphaned his toddler. The action of these four young men has been nothing short of a disaster not just for themselves and their victims, but for their families and for the whole Muslim community in Britain, which now faces a backlash. Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people. "

Do you agree at least in part with the last sentence?

5. Dawkins:

"Once again, Sam Harris put the point with percipient bluntness, taking the example of the Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden (who had nothing to do with the London bombings, by the way). Why would anyone want to destroy the World Trade Center and everybody in it? ..."

Harris: "The answer to this question is obvious - if only because it has been patiently articulated ad nauseam by bin Laden himself. The answer is that men like bin Laden actually believe what they say they believe. They believe in the literal truth of the Koran. Why did nineteen well-educated middle-class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed that they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find the behavior of humans so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why have we been so reluctant to accept this explanation?"


"Our Western politicians avoid mentioning the R word (religion), and instead characterize their battle as a war against 'terror', as though terror were a kind of spirit or force, with a will and a mind
of its own. Or they characterize terrorists as motivated by pure 'evil'. But they are not motivated by evil. However misguided we may think them, they are motivated, like the Christian murderers of
abortion doctors, by what they perceive to be righteousness, faithfully pursuing what their religion tells them. They are not psychotic; they are religious idealists who, by their own lights, are rational. They
perceive their acts to be good, not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up, from the cradle, to have
total and unquestioning faith. Sam Harris quotes a failed Palestinian suicide bomber who said that what drove him to kill Israelis was 'the love of martyrdom .. . I didn't want revenge for anything. I just wanted to be a martyr.' "

Do you tend to agree with Harris' explanation above?

6. Harris:

It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver-lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen: the return of Christ. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do little to help us create a durable future for ourselves - socially, economically, environmentally, or geopolitically. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the U.S. government actually believed that
the world was about to end and that its ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

Do you agree with the last sentence?

I need to know if you subscribe to the above positions, and to what extent, because the next thing I am going to ask you is whether you think that anarcho-capitalism could be the best way to protect the world from religious fundamentalism. The point is that people like Harris and Dawkins cannot figure out a way to oppose the threat of fundamentalism, especially the one offered by Islam. The only thing they can come up with , when asked "what can we do?", are unconvincing replies like "Fight bad ideas in your conversations, wherever you encounter them; do not withdraw your objections for fear of being impolite"; "It is time to cease automatic respect for religious beliefs, which causes them to propagate indefinitely", and also "Try to finance dissent in the muslim world; for example help finance protection to Ayaan Hirsi Ali". As you can see, they probably realize the importance of economics in the issue, but can't figure out a way to exploit economics in such a way as to make fundamentalist laws inconvenient; in such a way to provide the most disincentive to fundamentalists from intruding other people's freedom. Do you see where I am going? I suggest that you have the potential to convince the majority of atheists to embrace anarcho-capitalism.

Thank you very much for your precious attention,


Anonymous said...

Discussion of religion is worthless if it takes the religious at their word, especially at their scripture. It's insulting to call them liars, but revealed belief is no more insulting than revealed preference.

Of course, you should apply the same standard to atheists, but (1) atheists don't have coalitions that falsely claim to have uniform beliefs and (2) atheists don't have scripture that they ignore.

David Friedman said...

Maurizio puts a bunch of questions; I’ve edited them down, since the original version is already in the comment thread:

1. Harris:

"Consider the second commandment; thou shalt not erect any graven images. You remember the Muslims who rioted by the hundreds of thousands over cartoons... All that pious mayhem, the burning of embassies, the killing of nuns... What got them so riled up? Well, this is it, the second commandment.

Do you agree or disagree?

Disagree. Sunni Muslims object to images of living creatures, and Muslims in general to images of Mohammed, for reasons unrelated to the second commandment.

2. I don’t think I see the point of this one.

3. “These pious men and women want to preserve cervical cancer as an incentive toward abstinence, even if it sacrifices the lives of thousands of women each year.

Do you agree that what those people believe (about God and sex) has something to do with their position? "

Yes. But then, quite a lot of people express hostility to the idea of ending aging and greatly increasing life expectancy, and their opposition appears to be non-religious.

4. Dawkins:

" Only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people. "

Do you agree at least in part with the last sentence?

Not if “religious” is used in the usual fashion. Patriotism, for instance, produces similar results. Sane and decent people killed a lot more innocent victims in Dresden some decades earlier, for instance.

5. … “Sam Harris quotes a failed Palestinian suicide bomber who said that what drove him to kill Israelis was 'the love of martyrdom .. . I didn't want revenge for anything. I just wanted to be a martyr.' "

Do you tend to agree with Harris' explanation above?

As before, religious belief is one possible motive for such behavior, but not the only one.

6. “The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes [in the end times] this, purely on the basis of religious dogma, should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.

Do you agree with the last sentence?

I don’t agree with the “fact” on which it is based. As an economist, I judge people’s beliefs by what they do, not by what they say, and that criterion drastically reduces one’s estimate of the number of people who really believe in fundamentalist Christianity (or other religions, for that matter).

“I need to know if you subscribe to the above positions, and to what extent, because the next thing I am going to ask you is whether you think that anarcho-capitalism could be the best way to protect the world from religious fundamentalism.”

I don’t see why. Perhaps I’m missing your argument. But in any case, persuading people to support anarcho-capitalism raises problems similar to persuading them not to support religion, so I can’t see the former as a solution to the problems of the latter.

Anonymous said...

I don’t see why. Perhaps I’m missing your argument.

Here's what I meant. If the current birth rate trends continue, Muslims are going to become a majority. If they become a majority in a democratic state, what's to stop them from using the power of the vote from imposing religious laws (say sharia) on the minority? Say, to make blasphemy illegal, or to make some kind of meat illegal? On the other hand, should Muslims become the majority in an anarcho-capitalist territory, wheere laws must be produced on the free market, it might that they would have string economic disincentives from doing so: that those laws which are more intrusive of other people's freedom would be more expensive to enforce, and therefore the corresponding agencies would be more expensive to patronize. That was the idea. I thought you would find it interesting to shed some light on this, for example by discussing how various "crimes against god" could be enforced under an anarcho-capitalist system, and whether their enforcing would be easier or harder than under democracy. Would anarcho-capitalism even allow the existence of laws which don't directly harm another person, like blasphemy or abortion? And how would it cope with the practice of parents practicing genital mutilation on their children? That would, IMHO, all be interesting issues for an article. And I cannot think of anyone else who could write such an article. I apologize if I failed to arouse your interest. Take care, Maurizio

Anonymous said...

And also:

Would it be more difficult to turn a democracy or an anarcho-capitalist land into a theocracy?

Would laws against apostasy be more or less likely to exist under anarcho-capitalism, and how would they be enforced from a practical standpoint?


Anonymous said...

It seems quite factual based on empirical evidence, that if "God" exists, it is transpersonal.

Anonymous said...

What about the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Is it on an ontological and epistemological par with God? If not, why not?

Anonymous said...

"All religions are pretty much entirely wrong; there are no gods."

It's also possible that there are no gods, but that some religions aren't "wrong" because belief in a god isn't a prerequisite. My knowledge is incomplete, but I believe that Buddhism, Unitarianism, Liberal Quakerism and some liberal Jewish strains fit this description.

Unknown said...

An excellent set of posts, thanks.

Are you familiar with the sociological work of Rodney Stark? If you're not, you should be. You'd enjoy him.

Anonymous said...

All religions claim to be true.
All religions thus imply that "truth is good".

Atheists believe that truth is good, and use this belief to oppose religion.

There are unprovable truths, and far more unprovable non-truths.
If your #1 "there is not god" is true, this will remain unprovable.

Many religions included dogma that were provable untruths; usually these are re-interpreted.

If a religion has re-interpreted its beliefs so that it no longer contains any provable untruths, what is the difference between #1 and #3?

Actually, more importantly, if there is a case where belief in an unprovable non-truth results in a better civilization than belief in an unprovable truth, wouldn't you agree that this is a case where non-truth is better than truth?

Troy Camplin said...

You might find Frederick Turner's book "Natural Religion" quite interesting.

Caboose said...

I should preface this by saying that I do believe in God. Not all things can be measured in a lab, for example love (try telling that significant other you love them two liters worth on valentines day). And finally one of my favorite quotes of mine "all things denote there is a God". I am reminded of this when I go back home to Idaho and look up at the stars. While we can calculate orbits and speed and theorize how all this happened I like to think that its all part of Gods purposes.