A blog about 'Intelligent Design', natural theology, Christian apologetics, philosophy and anything else that takes my fancy.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Cambridge Union Debate: 'This house believes God is not a delusion''
This debate, on the motion 'This house believes God is not a delusion', took place on Thursday 20th October 2011 at a packed Cambridge Union Society. The motion was carried by 14 votes (cf. the end of this video and also here).
Here are Craig's post-debate thoughts in interview with Frank Beckwith:
Here's my own post-debate analysis...
Defining the issue
It seemed clear to Bill and myself that the proposition before the house was not 'Does God Exist?' or 'Is the belief that God exists true?' Rather, the motion was 'This house believes belief in God is not a delusion' - i.e. that the opposition would have to argue, a la Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006), that belief in God was a delusion, not merely false or mistaken. All we would needed to argue, by contrast, was that whether or not belief in God was correct, it isn't a delusion. Of course, one way to argue this is to argue that God actually exists, since if belief in God is true then by definition it cannot be a delusion. While 'delusion' can mean simply 'a false belief', given the context of the motion before the house and what we would explicitly state that we were arguing for, it would clearly not be enough for the opposition to merely argue that belief in God was false; rather, they would need to argue that belief in God was a delusion in the stronger sense of the term. Hence, in my opening speech I gave a standard medical definition of what it is for a belief to be a delusion. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV 2000, p. 765) a delusion is:
‘A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustaineddespite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertibleand obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted byother members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religiousfaith)…’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
It seems to me that it is perfectly legitimate for the house to set the terms of the debate to which the opposition should respond, at least if they avoid using 'squirrel' terms (i.e. non-standard definitions employed to achieve a hollow definitional victory). In defining 'delusion' using a standard medical textbook quoted by a standard encyclopedia of philosophy we certainly avoided using 'squirrel' terms to win a cheap victory. Indeed, since it followed from this medical definition that belief in God is not a delusion, the house had to waive a definitional victory in order to allow the debate to proceed. This was not merely a rhetorical gambit on our part to appear magnanimous! It was, however, only fair to point out that in agreeing to argue against the motion the opposition were accepting the high burden of proof that came with arguing that belief in God is a delusion. If this were not so the motion before the house would surely have taken the more usual form of 'This house believes God exists'.
However, the opposition decided to ignore the interpretation of the motion offered by the house and to treat 'delusion' as a synonym for 'a false impression'. In his opening speech Andrew Copson said:
'On our side of your chamber we have a copy of the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary... from 1993 and our dictionary defines delusion as "a false impression or opinion" and with respect to the assembled medical knowledge cited by the proposition we're going to go with that if that's alright by you. Obviously it's up to you whether or not our definition, or the more involved and impossible to argue against definition advanced by the proposition, is the one you should be making your decision on the basis of this evening.'
Since the house won the motion, the audience apparently took Copson at his word and decided that it was legitimate for the house to interpret 'delusion' as more than a synonym for 'false' in the motion. This was certainly how Bill and I understood the motion, and it seems that on this basis the house was (on balance) willing to endorse the motion.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionaryon historical principles, third edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) defines a delusion as: 'a fixed false opinion with regard to objective things, esp. as a form of mental derangement.' (p. 514). TheConcise Oxford Dictionary, tenth edition (OUP, 1999) defines a delusion as: 'an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is not in accordance with a generally accepted reality.' (p. 379) So generally accepted a belief as theism, whether true or false, can hardly be called idiosyncratic. The Oxford Dictionary of English, third edition (OUP, 2010) defines a delusion as: 'an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder.' (p. 464.) Likewise, the online Oxford Dictionaries provides the following definition of 'delusion':
an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality orrational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder:
the delusion of being watched
[mass noun] the action of deluding or the state of being deluded:
what a capacity television has for delusion
delusions of grandeur
a false impression of one’s own importance.
late Middle English (in the sense 'act of deluding or of being deluded'): from late Latin delusio(n-), from the verb deludere (seedelude).'
Here's a (somewhat hot under the collar) analysis and response to Copson's smears:
Copson gave three arguments for the opposition's position that God is a delusion:
1) He launched an attack upon all explanations of the natural world framed in terms of intelligent design, on the grounds that these explanations are arguments from ignorance that illegitimately extend our knowledge of intentionality to explain things that lack it. Copson thus straw man's design arguments as arguments from ignorance and begs the question in favour of metaphysically naturalistic explanations of the natural world. The house didn't make a design argument, but had we done so we wouldn't have offered an argument from ignorance!
Moreover, Andrew's contention that since some gods 'originate as ideas to explain what we cannot understand and not because people look around them and draw a reasonable conclusion that God exists...' therefore belief in God is a delusion commitsthe genetic fallacy (cf. Michael Murray, 'God and Neuro-Science').
It's interesting to note that in response to the first audience question, Copson affirms: 'I am treating God as a similar hypothesis, so, a theory advanced in the same way as a scientific theory.'
2) He argues that God is a delusion because if God existed then He would be very different to us, but reference to the finite gods of Greek polytheism shows that 'gods tend to be suspiciously like us.'
Indeed, whilst everything is necessarily analogous to everything else to some degree, the gods of polytheism are suspiciously like us. However, the infinite theistic God is as unlike us as a deity could be (the maximally great being)! Humans making gods in their own image would indeed invent the likes of Zeus and Apollo; but not the Holy and personally demanding deity of the Bible!
The fact that people tend to project their political beliefs onto their image of God hardly shows that God doesn't exist, still less that God is a delusion. That would be like arguing that the fan who is just certain that a certain pop idol simply must like the same things they like thereby proves the non-existence or deluded status of belief in the existence of the pop star concerned!
Interestingly, Copson admits that Jesus is 'unconventional in some ways', such that if one thinks Jesus is divine one has an image of God that is at least partially unconventional.
3) He recycles the early twentieth century 'history of religions school' of thought, resurrecting long abandoned claims about multiple gods who die and rise from the dead, etc! As Michael Green explains:
'The idea of a copycat religion really arose in Germany at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth century. It was put forward by the "History of Religions" school. It was popularised by Sir James Frazer in Britain when he published his readable, but unreliable, The Golden Bough in 1906 – the first book in English to compare Christianity to the mystery religions... This seemed an attractive hypothesis for a while, but subsequent scholarship has examined this hypothesis and found it wanting, for a number of reasons. Nowadays it is regarded as a dead issue by almost all scholars.' (Lies, Lies, Lies! Exposing Myths About The Real Jesus, IVP, 2009, p. 59-60.)
Edwin M. Yamauchi (Professor Emeritus of History at Miami University) recounts that ‘by the mid-twentieth century, scholars had established that the sources used in these writings were far from satisfactory and the parallels were much too superficial.’ (Yamauchi in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus, Zondervan, 2007, p. 165.)Moreover, Green observes:
'The really special thing [about Jesus] was this: nobody had ever attributed divinity and a virgin birth, resurrection and ascension to a historical person whom lots of people knew. And certainly nobody claimed that the one and only God, the creator and judge of the whole earth, had embodied himself in Apollo, Hercules, Augustus, and the rest... Augustus had temples erected to him as divus Augustus in the East (whilst being more circumspect in the Roman West), but of course neither he nor anybody else imagined that by so doing he laid claim to embody the Godhead... Vesputin, dying in the seventies, quipped ‘Alas, I fear I am becoming a god!’ It is very difficult to see the Christian conviction about Jesus springing from such roots. But no better ones have been put forward. Analogies from the Hermetic literature, the Gnostic Redeemer myth or the Mandean literature are all post-Christian and therefore quite unable to account for the rise of the Christian belief; they may all also be influenced (two of them certainly are) by Christian beliefs.' ( ‘Jesus in the New Testament’, in The Truth of God Incarnate, p. 36-38.)
Alister McGrath comments with respect to Jesus’ resurrection:
'Bultmann was among many scholars who... proceeded to take the logically questionable step of arguing that such parallels discredited the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Since then, however, scholarship has moved on considerably. The parallels between the pagan myths of dying and rising gods and the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus are now regarded as remote, to say the least... Furthermore, there are no known instances of the myth being applied to any specific historical figure in pagan literature... It is at this point that the wisdom of C.S. Lewis – who actually knew something about myths – must be acknowledged. Lewis intuitively realized that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection of Jesus bore no relation to ‘real’ mythology... Perhaps most important, however, was the realization that the gnostic redeemer myths – which the New Testament writers allegedly took over and applied to Jesus – were to be dated later than the New Testament. The challenge posed to the historicity of the resurrection by these theories has thus passed into textbooks of the history of ideas.' (‘Resurrection and Incarnation’, Different Gospels: Christian Orthodoxy and Modern Theologies, ed. Andrew Walker, SPCK, 1988, p. 30.)
Michael Licona points out that, unlike anything in the mystery religions, Jesus’ resurrection ‘isn’t repeated, isn’t related to changes in the seasons, and was sincerely believed to be an actual historical event by those who lived in the same generation of the historical Jesus.’ (Licona in Strobel, op cit, p. 161.) Licona notes the nearly universal consensus of modern scholarship that ‘there were no dying and rising gods that preceded Christianity. They all post-dated the first century.’ (ibid, p. 160.) Gary R. Habermas concurs: ‘there is no case of a mythical deity in the mystery religions for which we have both clear and early evidence that a resurrection was taught prior to the late second century A.D. Thus, it is certainly a plausible theory that the mystery religions borrowed this aspect from Christianity, not the reverse.’ (The Verdict of History, p. 39.)Swedish scholar T.N.D. Mettinger takes what he admits is the minority position that there are three to five myths about dying and rising gods that do predate Christianity, but he nevertheless concludes that none of these serve as parallels to Jesus, let alone as causal factors in the Christian understanding of Jesus: ‘There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct... The death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions.’ (The Riddle of Resurrection, Almqvist & Wicksell, 2001, p. 221.)Lee Strobel summarises the case against the ‘history of religions’ school:
'First, "copycat" proponents often illogically assume that just because two things exist side by side, one of them must have caused the other. Second, many alleged similarities are exaggerated or fabricated. Writers frequently use language borrowed from Christianity to describe pagan rituals, then marvel at the ‘parallels’ they’ve discovered. Third, the chronology is wrong. Writers cite beliefs and practices that postdate the first century in an attempt to argue that they influenced the first-century formation of Christianity. Just because a cult had a belief or practice in the third or fourth century AD doesn’t mean it had the same belief or practice in the first century. Fourth, Paul would never have consciously borrowed from pagan religions; in fact, he warned against this very thing. Fifth, early Christianity was exclusivistic; any hint of syncretism in the New Testament would have caused immediate controversy. Sixth, unlike the mystery religions, Christianity is grounded in actual historical events. And seventh, what few parallels remain could reflect a Christian influence on pagan beliefs and practices. Pagan attempts to counter the influence of Christianity by imitating it are clearly apparent.' (The Case for the Real Jesus, Zondervan, 2007, p. 186.)
Ronald H. Nash reports: ‘The tide of scholarly opinion has turned dramatically against attempts to make early Christianity dependent on the so-called dying and rising gods of Hellenestic paganism.’ (The Gospel and the Greeks, second edition, Phillipsburg, 2003, p. 162.) As Craig observes, today’s quest for the historical Jesus is firmly grounded in the realisation that ‘pagan mythology is simply the wrong interpretative context for understanding Jesus of Nazareth... Jesus and his disciples were first-century Palestinian Jews, and it is against that background that they must be understood.’ (Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Crossway, 2008, p. 391.)
Of course'Judaism influences Christianity', since Christianity claims to be the fulfillment of Judaism. Copson simply begs the question against the truth of the Christian revelation claim here. Likewise with Islam!
Copson is magnanimus enough to affirm that 'If it can be demonstrated that there is evidence and good reason to believe that a god or gods exist, we should not have your support this evening.' However, of the arguments given by the house (besides a snide remark about the ontological argument), Copson only engaged with the moral argument, stating: 'The problem I'll have here, with the moral argument, is this idea, this claim that objective moral values exist.' Copson affirms that 'morality is not subjective in the sense that it is something that every individual human being makes up arbitrarily for their individual self', and he incorrectly intimates that the moral argument relies upon the false dilemma that either this type of subjectivism is true or else moral values must come 'from some source outside of human beings collectively.' This is, of course, a straw man of the moral argument I presented.
The rest of Copson's discussion consists of a collection of red herrings (e.g. the 'genocide' of the Cainnanites, the existence of differing moral opinions, an appeal to socio-biological explanations of moral behaviour).
Points and questions from the floor
1) A point (that should have been in favour of abstention) that incorrectly complained about a lack of definition given to the term 'God'. My opening speech gave a definition of God in the process of giving the ontological argument. God is the maximally great being.
2) An attempted 'charicature' objection to the ontological argument that focused upon the possibility of a maximally stupid being - but as I pointed out in response (cf. clip), 'stupidity' clearly isn't a 'great-making property'.
3) A complaint about the opposition not addressing the monotheistic concept of God.
4) A good point against Copsons' argument about God being like us. In response Copson seems to misunderstand this objection as an attempted argument for theism.
Bill Craig got his first word in here (cf. clip) and was also drawn into responding to a subsiduary question from the floor. The point about Copson's frequent references to the gods of polytheism (as point 3 noted) is that as finite beings these gods are far more analogous to humans than is the monotheistic deity the debate is clearly about.
6) A question from someone who thinks that the house is mistaken concerning the burden of proof because while the questioner thinks that God exists, they think that their belief in God might possibly be a delusion and that it is impossible to convince a delusional person that they are delusional. It is of course possible for the atheist and the agnostic, no less than the theist, to say that they have their particular belief on the God question but that they might possible be delusional, etc. Indeed, one could say this of any belief! This 'sceptical threat' argument is obviously unsound.
7) A science student who offers some anecdotal evidence for a miracle and a tacit appeal to the design argument (although contra this student, it matters a great deal whether or not we designate events as an instance of randomness or as a miracle/instance of design).
Arif Ahmed's response is itself both confused and ungenerous. Ahmed dismisses the argument from miracles as confusing temporal order and causation (i.e moving from the data of visiting a shrine before getting better to the conclusion that the visit caused the cure), but the significance of a healing occurring after a prayer for healing is that the prayer specifies the unlikely (i.e. complex) event of the cure. The student's argument is thus more charitably interpreted as a design inference from specified complexity; likewise her design argument. Ahmed's response is like arguing that one can't infer from the fact that an arrow has hit the center of a target that it was shot by someone who is good at archery because that is to argue from the fact that the arrow was shot before it hit the target to the conclusion that the mere fact of shooting the arrow explains why it hit the target!
Ahmed is of course correct to point out that the evidence supports the claim that in general'going to shrines on the whole doesn't stop you dying of diseases', but this is besides the point when it comes to assessing the merits of a particular healing claim. After all, miracles are by definition rare events!
Dr Ahmed brings up Intelligent Design theory and responds with an appeal to authority.
8) 'If God created everything (that is, the space-time continuum) then what created God?'
As I pointed out (cf. clip), this question only follows from a straw man of the cosmological argument - besides which, God is both argued to be and is by definition an un-caused being. It makes no conceptual sense to ask what caused the un-caused being!
9) An objection to the motion on the grounds that it has no pragmatic value. However, everyone has to act one way or another with respect to the question of how they are going to relate to God if there is a God. Hence the motion is intensely practical.
Dr William Lane Craig
Craig's speech was concerned with: a) The correct interpretation of the motion and b) the consequent correct burden of proof in the debate; c) the arguments given against the existence of God by Andrew Copson (Craig responded to Copson's first two arguments, but either missed the 'Jesus is just another dying and rising god' argument or else ignored it as irrelevant to the question of monotheism per se) and d) defending the three arguments for theism given in my opening speech (on the grounds that if God exists then belief in God is not a delusion).
There's a good discussion here of moral objectivism in response to a student question. Craig also rebuts a student's objection to the ontological argument that mistakenly assumes the argument holds that 'existence' per se is a predicate.
Dr Arif Ahmed
(William Lane Craig & Arif Ahmed debated the rationality of belief in God in 2009, cf. here.)
Dr Ahmed accused Dr Craig of 'flip flipping' on whether the question at issue was about the truth or the alleged delusional nature of belief in God. However, if belief in God is true then (by definition) it cannot be a delusion; hence one cannot critique belief in God as a delusion whilst ignoring the question of the belief's truth without thereby begging the question.
On the issue of brain scanning raised by a student from the floor and picked up by Ahmed in his address, one cannot simply make an (un-referenced) appeal to a scientific study that supposedly showed that the brain scans of theists matched the brain scans of people holding known delusions, as if this warrants the conclusion that belief in God is a delusion:
1) Examined cases of A (belief in a delusion) exhibit (brain-pattern) B
2) Examined cases of C (belief in God) exhibit (brain-pattern) B
3) Therefore all cases of C (belief in God) are cases of A (belief in a delusion)
Ahmed says that, as in the 2006 debate between William Lane Craig and Bill Cook ('Is God A Delusion?'), and like the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, he (Ahmed) is simply going to take the motion to mean that belief in God is not 'a false belief'. Of course, this ignores any privilage one might think the proposers of a motion might have to set the terms of the debate and the context of discussion set by Richard Dawkins' God Delusion.
Ahmed turns to the three theistic arguments given by the house:
1)Ahmed agrees with Copson's rejection of objective moral values, and he specifically rejects the existence of epistemic moral duties. This commits him to affirming that one has no moral responsibility to even try to be rational - which undermines the entire process of having a rational debate!
Having falsely stated that the issue of rational oughts was the only argument given by the house in defence of premise two, he contradicts himself by dismissing out of hand the appeal to properly basic moral intuitons (as given by fellow atheist Peter Cave), ignoring the principle of credulity.
Ahmed suggests that if one believes in objective moral values then one could simply believe in the existence of objective moral reasons as either brute or supervienent facts that have nothing to do with the existence of God. A couple of points are made from the floor at this point about consequentialism and about it's not being enough for an account of moral value be internally coherent to believe that it is true. Ahmed's appeal to consequentialism buys him the objectivism that 'the effects of an act are the effects of an act, whatever anyone else believes', but at the expense of being about the objective effects of acts rather than about objective moral values! Whether or not the objective effects of a certain act are objectively good or bad is a further question left unaddressed here!
Ahmed's (surely supernaturalistic) concession to the moral objectivist also completely fails to address the arguments made by the house about the need to explain the ideal/prescriptive/obligatory nature of moral values on such an account.
Ahmed conceeds that theism can combine morality and prudence in a way that naturalism cannot.
2) Responding to premise 1 of the cosmological argument (the principle of sufficient reason), Ahmad denigrates the illustration of the glass ball (which he's amusingly misheard as 'glass bowl', and which actually comes from philosopher Richard Taylor, cf. 'The Cosmological Argument: A Defence') as 'naive', before jumping into a red herring discussion of quantum mechanics.
Even given an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics, one has to have a space-time reality governed by the laws of quantum mechanics before one can have anything coming into existence from a vacuum fluctuation. As Craig observes:
'While the mathematical core of quantum theory has been confirmed to a fantastic degree of precision, there at at least ten different physuical interpretations of the mathematics, and no one knows which of these, if any, is correct, since they are all empirically equivalent. Only some of these, principally the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation, are causally indeteministic. Others are fully deterministic… Moreover, even in the Copehagen Interpretation things don’t come into being without a cause. It’s true that in this interpretation so-called virtual particles can arise spontaneously out of the quantum vacuum. But… the quantum vacuum is not nothing; rather it’s a sea of fluctuating energy that serves as the indeterministic cause of such virtual particles… Thus, even in the disputed Copenhagen Interpretation, the quantum vacuum is a physical cause of the entities it is alleged to spawn.' (God? A Debate Between A Christian And An Atheist, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 56-57.)
Ahmed suggests the universe might have come into existence though 'a random event without any cause at all', which is either a self-contradictory suggestion (in that it posits the existence of something able to undergo or produce a random event) or else the rejection of the time-honored metaphysical principle that 'from nothing, nothing comes'!
On premise 4, Ahmed attacks a straw man, offering a very confused attempted reconstruction of the argument given by the house for this premise - which, contrary to what Ahmed states, was actually that the cause of the universe could not be an abstract objected, and which didn't hinge upon anything to do with God's relationship to time (on which there is a complex range of options). He also assumes that in a causal explanation the cause must be temporally prior to the effect. However, a cause can be logically prior to an effect without being temporally prior. For example, when my hand moves a pen it is the cause of the pen's movement even though it moves at the same time as the pen. Besides, I'm not personally attached to the idea that God is timeless without creation and the argument given made no assumptions or deductions on this issue.
3) Ahmed accuses our (standard, indeed, introductory textbook) presentation of the ontological argument of being 'confusing' and 'almost incomprehensible', and he then confuses 'being possible' with 'being necessary', which leads him to say that a necessary being is an impossibility (something that would commit him to an actually infinite regress of contingent realities in the world)!
He then rejects the intuitively obvious idea that necessary being is a great-making property by noting that contingent things can have great-making properties besides necessary existence (of course they can) and that it would be stupid to say that a contingent thing (such as a piece of music by Mozart) that had great-making properties besides necessary existence would be greater than it was if it also possessed the great-making property of necessary existence. This sounds an odd thing to say because a necessarily existent piece of music couldn't also be something composed by Mozart. This thought experiment asks one to imagine a piece of music that both is and is not the product of a contingent process of composition by a specific contingent person, which is of course an incoherent notion.
Moreover, like the notorious objection concerning the idea of a 'greatest possible Island', it's worth pointing out that 'the greatest possible piece of music' is likewise an incoherent notion (the island could always have a few more lovely coconuts, and the music could always have a few more fantastic bars or another melody). None of this goes to show that necessary existence is not a great-making property, or that this property couldn't be possessed by anything (i.e. that it couldn't be a property of the maximally great being). Necessity is a great-making property for any reality that could coherently have it.
Turning to arguments against God's existence Ahmed argues:
1) God is defined as a necessary being
2) Necessary beings cannot exist
3) Therefore God cannot exist
Ahmed actually rejects premise 1 of this argument, but I'd reject premise 2. Note that the Leibnizian cosmological argument argues for the contrary of Ahmed's second premise.
Although Andrew Copson seemed concerned to argue against any and all kinds of deity, rather than against the monotheistic God in particular, Ahmed made much of the false claim that no reason has been given in the debate for the existence of one God as opposed to many. However, the ontological argument clearly argues for the existence of the greatest possible being. Besides, Occam's razor limits the number of deities one posits to explain the evidence offered to the house.
Ahmed ends by stating: 'when I told a colleague of mine that I was going to enter this debate, he said "Well, you don't want to debate with the Christians because they're all mad and impervious to reason" and of course my being here shows that I deny that, of course that's not only false, it's plainly false.'