Friday, September 18, 2009

Fine-tuning Arguments, Deism, and Why I Don't Think It Matters that Much

Beagle's note: This mini-essay originally appeared in condensed form as a comment at another blog. Why mention it? I think the moral of the story is that writing is nothing if not a good conversation among people with colorful ideas.

My friend the Infuriated SciTeacher (I warn friends like him about such unsubtle blog titles, but there is only so much one can do with scientists) just posted an interesting review of physicist Victor Strenger's The New Atheism, a book which summarizes the last decade of work by the authors Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, as well as some of the arguments in response from theists. I will put it in the queue, although it's going in behind Dennett's own Breaking the Spell, Dawkins' latest take on evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth, and a whole lot of course requirements. A short essay of Strenger's appears in Hitchens' The Portable Atheist, but that's my whole exposure to him at this point. I'm passingly interested in any good popular account of physics, as the so-called anthropic principle seems to be the new(ish) battleground for most theistic apologists. The idea, for those unversed, is that the mathematical constants of the universe, including gravity, the nuclear force which allows atoms to bind, the speed of light, and a number of other factors seem uniquely set to allow for the emergence of complex matter and, eventually, life. It takes no great genius to see where those of a theological bent take this information. An apparently solid explanation of the idea (I haven't read it yet) is laid out in the the British astrophysicist (and agnostic) Sir Martin Rees' Just Six Numbers.

But one need not be a physicist to see the logical tendentiousness of the theistic version of such arguments. Some iteration of it appears in the Roman Catholic biologist/theistic evolutionist Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God all the way through creationist pablum such as Canadian journalist and Intelligent Design advocate Denyse O'Leary's By Design or by Chance? I generally reply to such assertions that physics suggests faith with something along the lines of, "Well, that's interesting, but I'm hardly going to Confession over it." I'm not a physicist, or even popularly educated in physics, so for me to try to argue about something on which I am so ignorant would put me in the same camp as the apologists (who, it bears note, are never physicists either). And I don't like that camp; I get poison ivy there. If I'm going to prioritize, following Plato and Aristotle's views on rhetoric, that we try to know what the hell we're talking about before we convince anyone else of it, then it makes little sense for me to find fault with theists for cherry-picking the esoteric bits they like from science to prove theism sans a more comprehensive understanding, and then cherry-picking the esoteric bits that I like to argue otherwise.

My lack of belief, rather, is a basic extension of observation--the rational causality of the events immediately around us and through the annals of recorded human history. And beyond that, we know that miraculous explanations always turn out to be bunkum when we get direct access to the facts: languages didn't get mixed at the tower of Babel; we know how they branch, and can watch it happen in historical time. It is true that this strictly inductive argument does not itself warrant a priori exclusion of miracles in principle, but I am still waiting for any good reason that we should allow for them when the evidence for them is exactly on par with, or perhaps slightly worse than, the evidence for Bigfoot. We know, after all, that large, probably hairy hominids have existed; we have, conversely, no fossil record for deities, unless it be writ in the annals of dead civilizations and their dead gods. We also know that there is something in the human character which leads us to write such creation narratives in the first place: we're still doing it about phenomena as recent as the creation of the American nation (the cherry tree myth) as well as its national pastime (the Abner Doubleday myth). But while academic sciences offer a great deal of help in broadening the debate and refuting theism on many levels, strictly speaking, I'd probably still be convinced without them. I'm pretty much sold by the English rationalist David Hume, and he was writing 100 years before Darwin.

But as importantly, I'm simply not greedy enough to much need to go past the Deist tradition that refuting the anthropic principle seems to target. I don't find it logically compelling, but I'm not terribly interested in ruling it out, either. In fact, if Christian authors, philosophers, and scientists like Dinesh D'Souza, Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, and Alvin Plantinga would all get together and agree that God crafted the physical constants of the universe and then decided to take a nap for the next 14-15 billion years, we would be witnessing a truly monumental Step Forward, as they would at that point have conceded every meaningful aspect of traditional religion. And to return to the the 18th century (as well as the theme of my upcoming book), I don't think the Deist Thomas Jefferson and the atheist Hume would have found all that much to disagree about, at least in terms of philosophy. Deism may well still be (and probably is) wrong, but it's a really harmless sort of wrong, as it is atheistic at the level of everyday human affairs including (most importantly) human morality.

And this is where the art of living comes in: it is useless to think of conduct and the foundational beliefs that inform them as somehow walled off from one another. While there are certainly human behaviors that are, regardless of religion/nonreligion common across many cultures, at the individual level, our most deeply held beliefs have a profound impact on how we choose to live our lives, particularly in arranging our ethical priorities. And really, as far as ethical priorities are arranged, I cannot think of a morally significant difference in the Deistic and atheistic worldviews. And here I must concede that, perhaps, my belief, that the skepticism and investigation prioritized in both systems are better epistemic tools for navigating human life than credulity and mysticism, is itself lacking in external support, and hence, under an extraordinarily broad definition, religious. But that is a leap of faith that I am willing to take.


  1. "our most deeply held beliefs have a profound impact on how we choose to live our lives, particularly in arranging our ethical priorities"

    I've heard religion defined as "the utmost form of practice" where the author thought of practice or action as also involving an "assertion" (namely, "this is a good thing to do, this is a good way to live"). On that model, people who "believe in the resurrection" are saying "religion is a way of living as if you have been reborn into a new truth--the religious truth." On this model, the "Christian Way" is a mode of practice, ritual is a mode of spiritual exercise, and "God" is the transcendent Other at the end of love or longing. Does this fit your model of religion and its mode of 'truth'?

  2. The unsubtle friend says:
    The deist mode of religious belief is certainly not an issue for me, any more than other irrationally held beliefs that make no demands of one's conduct towards others. I find the labelling of Franklin as a Deist interesting, as I've seen other sources that would put him beyond the pale of belief altogether. Not an important point, as his views as a secularist mirrored Jefferson's, and those are what had the impact on American government of the period.

    Walter, your example appears to fit the above model of religion and its mode of 'truth' for more liberal believers who accept religion as a moral guide more than they accept their particular holy book as a factual account of the world.