Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Defending The Argument from Mundanity: A JN Rebuttal

In the faraway land of the Internet Infidels, an individual by the name of Hrvoje Butkovic, who self-identifies as a follower of Panentheism, offered a critique of my recent composition, The Argument from Mundanity. I thought his remarks worthy of rebuttal. Therefore, please find his critique followed by a lengthy response from me.—Ed.

The author of the article draws a sharp distinction between objective knowledge of the natural world, which he deems highly worthwhile, and expertise on other aspects of our lives, such as philosophy, which he attaches little importance to. This position is evident throughout the article. Both religious texts and alleged ET encounters are evaluated against it. Little is offered in its support, however, and what is offered is not analysed, presumably because the author considers this position to be self-evident. I think that some analysis is warranted.

A point is made that religious texts should seek to eliminate human misery by providing advanced medical knowledge. This approach essentially amounts to eliminating misery by avoiding circumstances that we perceive as miserable. Advanced medicine can certainly make a great deal of difference in this regard. Though popular, cancer is not a good example to use since its increased incidence in the recent decades points to shortcomings in the modern lifestyle. Even if medicine were to eradicate illness in all its forms, this would still leave us with numerous other causes of misery, such as war, famine, crime, unemployment, failed relationships, disagreements, disappointments, frailty in old age and death. Most of these are human-induced and lie outside of the domain of hard science. Hopefully this makes it clear just how unrealistic this approach to eliminating misery really is. This is not to say that it should be dispensed with, only that, in isolation, it is not likely to significantly improve the human condition. Alternative approaches are also needed. Religious texts that I’m familiar with recognise this. This is why they concentrate their efforts on matters of personal and social nature, and strive to help us realise that we stand to gain a great deal by changing our perception of the circumstances that we find ourselves in.

Similar comments can be made about encounters with the alleged extraterrestrials. If the accounts are to be believed and we are dealing with beings who are much more advanced than we are in every significant way, then it should come as no surprise that they are not eager to share with us their technological expertise until we have demonstrated our ability to consistently use it for our common good. Giving us even more power when the power that is currently in our possession puts us on the brink of self-destruction would have betrayed their lack of advancement. It is arrogant to dismiss the information that is given on the grounds that we already have too many philosophical platitudes if we haven’t actually incorporated them into our daily lives. It is equally arrogant to expect extraterrestrials to share our political agenda.

Perhaps it is the zeal with which the author has embraced science that has caused him to equate religion with disease that can only spread through indoctrination, and fail to notice anything valuable in the many insights that have been brought forward by spiritual teachers and mystics, partly because these insights were not intended to further our scientific knowledge of the natural world. It might be this same zeal that has resulted in a condescending analysis of the roots of religion, placing them firmly in our ignorance of the world around us and of the true nature of the spiritual experience. This could turn out to be the case, but until it does, confidently proclaiming this view in the name of science reduces it to just another dogma.

Greetings, Hrvoje!

Thank you for your comments and critique. However, I think you have misread my article to a significant extent, and homed in on secondary or even tertiary points. Because of this, I think it prudent to clarify exactly what The Argument from Mundanity was meant to accomplish.

As a former Catholic, I possess considerable insight into the Christian mindset. That insight has been boosted significantly by my internet debates with Christians, during which I attempt to get to the root of their primitive superstition. All religionsChristianity includedare built upon presuppositions. From my experience, no religion is able to substantiate all its truth-claims one by one; thus, each religion has some baseline assumptions upon which the entire faith rests. Although Christianity boasts a plethora of presuppositions, one among them is the assumption of greatest import, representing the core building block: The Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of god. I have yet to meet a Christian who could prove this (insofar as anything can be proved); essentially, all of them simply take it on faith (as a presupposition).

My attack strategy vis-à-vis Christianity’s central presupposition brings together three elements: One of Dr. Carl Sagan’s favorite sayings, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”; Occam's razor, which can be inartfully summarized as, “The simplest explanation usually is the correct one”; and Hume’s maxim, which observes, No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish. With these three arrows in my quiver, I examined the BibleChristianity’s central text.

One must bear in mind exactly what Christians claim about the Bible. Christians allege it is the inspired, inerrant word of god. That is, when one reads the Bible, one is reading words that were directly inspired by the creator of the universe. The idea that Yahweh, who Christians believe created the universe from nothingness, composed a book is entirely extraordinary. According to Dr. Carl Sagan, such a claim hardly could be taken as a presupposition, because extraordinary assertions demand extraordinary substantiation. Hume’s maxim also applies, albeit in a modified form. Although they cannot prove it, Christians testify to the fact that god wrote the Bible; and, as mentioned, an earthly book containing the creator of the cosmos’ ethereal words would be entirely extraordinary (or, in a word, miraculous).

Using two of my arrows, I have shown that Christianity’s central presupposition is irrational, because extraordinary evidence has not been presented to substantiate its inherent extraordinary claim. And, people testifying falsely about the Bible’s divine origin is far more likely than a book actually having been composed by a supernatural deity. With this foundation now laid, I believe Occam’s razor shall fortify my argument.

We only have two options with respect to the Bible’s origins: It was either written by god or written by man. Given the extraordinary nature of the claim that god wrote a book, Occam, divorced from any religious prejudice, almost surely would say a better explanation would be that man wrote the Bible and falsely attributed its authorship to god. After all, it would not be the first time human primates claimed to be speaking on behalf of a deity; there are 10,000 extant religions serving as evidence that man has a wild imagination and a seemingly innate need for the silly. The only way a prosaic conclusion about the Bible’s origin could be avoided would be if the Bible explicitly demonstrated omniscience. The thesis of the article to which you responded is this: The Bible is far too mundane to serve as evidence of omniscient authorship. If anything, the Bible’s contents betray authorship of unlettered primitives.

I do not think the Bible needs to have included information that would prevent all illness in the species. The reason why information on a cure for cancer would be valuable, in my view, is that people living in the first century did not have such information. If a book in the first century had detailed information on cancer and its cures, that would be good evidence of divine authorship. But, for a moment, let us forget health and illness. Why does the Bible not have information about the actual age and size of the universe? Why does the Bible not have information about the vast geography of our own planet? Why does the Bible make no mention of germs? The elimination of human suffering is not the issue; the issue is presenting brand new information that could serve as evidence of omniscient authorship.

Instead of presenting new information, the Bible wallows in mundanity. It wastes page after page talking about the proper way to keep slaves, or the correct method of sacrificing animals. Even the Ten Commandments, which religious zealots want plastered all over our secular country, are utterly banal. As Christopher Hitchens points out, the first few commandments represent “prolonged throat-clearing” on the part of the deityutterly masturbatory self-aggrandizement. The idea that the creator of the cosmos would require constant positive reinforcement from the primates he created smacks of human ego, which a deity presumably would be without.

Whether we are talking about god writing a book or extraterrestrials taking humans aboard their spacecrafts, we clearly are talking about extraordinary claims. In fact, I would go so far as to say these are “miraculous” claims, given that they shake the very foundation of natural reality. It should be evident that the Bible’s divine authorship cannot be taken on faith as a presupposition. It also should be evident that Occam’s razor slices away god when, as Dr. Sam Harris observed, “[The Bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.” In short, when a book wallows in pre-scientific primitivism, it would be patently irrational to believe the book was written by an omniscient being.

Philosophical platitudesno matter how usefulcan be created without omniscience. Any primitive first century commoner could have said, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” No such primitive commoner could have presented a thoroughgoing discussion of the germ theory of disease. And, in my judgment, that is precisely why the Bible lacks such a presentation.




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