« Previous | Main | Next »

Malachi O'Doherty's Empty Pulpits

Post categories:

William Crawley | 10:31 UK time, Wednesday, 24 September 2008

MalachiODotherty.jpgLast night, in the Bookshop at Queen's, I helped to launch the new book by my friend and colleague Malachi O'Doherty. Malachi really needs no introduction to viewers and listeners in Northern Ireland: he is one of our best-known journalists and broadcasters, who writes and speaks on politics, religion, art, poetry and culture generally. He does so with characteristic wit and candour, and with the vigour of a natural contrarian. Malachi's new book, Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion, is an analysis of the recent history of Catholicism in Ireland. My speech from the launch is below the line.

Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion by Malachi O'Doherty

Thanks for coming tonight to witness this spectacle of a lapsed Protestant launching a book by a lapsed Catholic about collapsed religion.

Religion is big news these days, internationally and locally. Just last night, Labour's Deputy Leader, Harriet Harmon, was answering complaints at the Labour conference about the appointment of one of Britain's best-known evangelicals, Joel Edwards, to the Equality and Human Rights Commission -- prompting some commentators today to ask why a leading Evangelical Christian shouldn't be a member of a body that celebrates diversity. Is our concept of equality robust enough to include evangelical Christians?

Then there was the Michael Reiss debacle last week. A professor of science education, the author of many books on evolutionary biology, and director of education at the Royal Society, the UK's oldest and most respected scientific institution. Reiss, it appears, was forced to resign from his position at the Royal Society because he gave a speech at the Festival of Science in which he suggested that science teachers should be prepared to discuss creationism and intelligent design theory in the classroom - with a view to explaining why those views are non-scientific.

The fact that Michael Reiss is also a non-stipendiary priest in the church of England in his spare time was sufficient for some to suspect that the gamekeeper had turned poacher. Which is nonsense. Reiss has spent much of his career arguing for evolution and challenging the claim that all Christians are creationists.

It's just as well that the Bible Society has just released a new style guide for journalists - 80 pages of basic information on the Bible and Christianity -- aimed at challenging widespread biblical illiteracy across the media. It came too late for Michael Reiss, who was last week subjected to remarkably uninformed analysis from some of my journalistic colleagues, who simply couldn't understand how an Anglican priest could believe in Creation without believing in Creationism.

Then there's the selection of Sarah Palin, the Miss Congeniality of American Politics, which has guaranteed a slew of increasingly bizarre religion stories all the way to the presidential election in November. And - whisper it nervously - possibly even beyond that.

A Marsian media studies professor might reasonably conclude from the Western press that religion is very much a live issue for human beings. Attitudinal studies across the world would support that conclusion, on a massive scale.

In some ways, a more challenging question we might ask today is not why religion appears to be in retreat in some places, but why atheism is not overwhelmingly on the advance. Where once we used to ask whether God is dead, now sociologists are asking whether secularisation theory is dead.

Re-sacralisation is now a hot topic. The re-enchantment of the post-Enlightenment world, the re-discovery of the mystical in the midst of the mundane, the recognition now given to places of secular mystery. The postmodern mind gives significant space to science - but it is not uncritical space, and there is space left over for art, music, theatre, and God.

But here's the difference that Malachi is calling us to notice. That new process of sacralisation is unmediated by church authorities such as bishops, priests, and prayerbooks. The prophets of the new spiritual revolution are more likely to be singer-songwriters, artists, poets, and novelists.

Let's be clear about what Malachi means when he speaks of Ireland's retreat from religion. He doesn't mean a retreat from God necessarily. Nor does he mean that Ireland is abandoning spirituality. He is chronicling, here, a national walk-away from a certain type of institutional Catholicism; one characterised by intellectual control and moral policing, one that was obsessed with sexual purity and conformism.

Today's Catholics are not walking away from God, nor are they walking away from the place of ritual, or tradition. If there is a loss of faith, it is a loss of faith in the institutions of religion - the presumed guru status of the local priest, in particular, and the church's infallible teaching office in general. Malachi regards this transition as a secularising process. Cynics might just call it Protestantism. Church historians would call it more of the same: this is the history of a church that will be here long after the new atheists have gone to their eternal rest. Plus ça change.

Not that Malachi O'Doherty is a 'new atheist'. Far from it. He has been misrepresented as such already in the press by journalists who haven't read his book and haven't yet receieved their copy of the Bible Society's biblical style guide.

Malachi rejects the stridency -- and, from what I can tell, much of the substance -- of the new atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I heard him on RTE last week calling Richard Dawkins a prat; that's hardly a sign of comradeship. But if he rejects the new atheism, he also rejects old theism. Here again, there are many theologians who have abandoned old-style, sky-god theism, without rejecting some alternative conception of the divine.

Let's consider a spectrum of possible positions on this. At the new atheism end of the spectrum is Richard Dawkins, dismissing believe in God as a worldview on a par with astrology, scientifically illiterate, a form of intellectual adolescence.

At the other end of the spectrum, someone like John Lennox comes to mind. An Ulster mathematician who is now an Oxford don, like Dawkins. Yet Lennox's new book - God's Undertaker - is an extended argument for traditional belief in God as an intellectually tenable perspective. And for my money, Lennox understands philosophy of science a good deal better than Dawkins.

In between those two positions, we find Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh and former head of the Anglican Church in Scotland, who describes himself now as a Christian Agnostic -- which means he doesn't believe in God but still goes to church. Religion, for Holloway, is a kind of language that still makes sense: it comforts us, it encourages heroic moral choices, and it binds us together in communities.

Where is Malachi O'Doherty on my epistemological spectrum? He's not a new atheist. There's not a single argument against belief in God in this book, and, if anything, Malachi thinks most new atheists have simply missed the point about why people are still drawn to religious faith. He's not an old theist. And, from what I can tell, he regards Holloway's in-between stance as tepid and innocuous.

Emperor Joseph II is reputed to have complimented a new work by Mozart moments before offering the composer the helpful criticism that his work contained too many notes. Malachi represents the theological equivalent of that critique: too many doctrines, too many creeds. But he's still drawn to the music, the architecture, the silence, the space, and the people. His is a kind of religionless religion. Or - God forbid - a religionless Christianity.

That phrase -- 'religionless Christianity' -- comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who was executed at the age of thirty-nine for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffher's argument against moralistic and pietistic religion was an argument in favour of personal faith and worldly discipleship. I've a sense, and I stand to be corrected any moment now, that Malachi's book amounts to something similar: an invitation to 'hear new voices around us - champions of the subjective life - who evoke truths about the human heart in language that we would recognise as authentic and natural.'

If that sounds like a sermonic ending, be warned: those are his words, not mine.


Page 1 of 2

  • Comment number 1.

    Noble Dee, Noble Dee
    Quick, stop William! He's introducing Fundamentalism to British Education. It's the beginning of the end!

  • Comment number 2.

    Good speech William.

  • Comment number 3.

    Excellent speech William.

    I've always found both you and Malachi to be some of the most open-minded and well-informed journalists around these parts, and by far the most able to tackle the big issues, as your speech amply illustrates.

    I particularly appreciated the Bonhoeffer references, as I'm just now reading a book on his Christology.

    Well done William, and Malachi!

  • Comment number 4.

    "Ireland's retreat from religion" as a subtitle sounds like a colossal act of discrimination on a quarter of the island's population by the publisher. Where are the Prods? Have they not retreated? Does 'No Surrender' mean exactly what it says on the tin? And, if not, why not? Are they winning the battle for God? How can a book on the decline of religion in Ireland be so one-sided? I blame the BBC!!

  • Comment number 5.

    I agree Brian. The Prods can retreat just as well and just as fast as anyone else when it's convenient.

  • Comment number 6.

    That's a fitting speech. I haven't read the book, and I approach it as someone who also struggles to fit the mould of a traditional adherent to Christianity. At the same time I find Dawkins' value on empirical truth very agreeable. No preacher today makes an appeal for converts primarily on the basis of the truth of the Christian religion, those appeals are made on the basis of feeling better about life, having God on your side, not going to hell, or some other such factor. You shouldn't believe in God because it's true that God exists, you should believe in God out of desire or fear or social cohesiveness.

    And thus Dawkins et al seem to fill a post-Enlightenment gap: he appeals to truth, primarily, rather than other, lesser factors, something which religion doesn't do adequately anymore. Malachi mentions transubstantiation (a topic on this blog not long ago): how many Catholics really believe it? Truth is not of ultimate importance in this regard, but perhaps more a dynamic process of what William describes using the term 'postmodern', finding the 'mystical' etc. etc. I have to say I'm into objective truth and reason, more than subjective 'truth' and mysticism. If Malachi can present this topic in a way that makes it easier to reconcile the two, then I'm very interested.


  • Comment number 7.

    It seems to me that Malachi enjoys being controversial for the sake of being controversial!

  • Comment number 8.

    FaithfulCatholic- That's the sort of thing people say to me when they (1) disagree with me but (2) don't have the faculty to debate me on the issues. As a 'Faithful Catholic' you already meet the first......

  • Comment number 9.

    I found it interesting that William Crawley began his introductory speech by saying:

    'Thanks for coming tonight to witness this spectacle of a lapsed Protestant launching a book by a lapsed Catholic about collapsed religion.'

    It has been my experience that people who have 'lapsed' in their religion, and I mean any religion, cannot possibly have the full capabilities to discuss current religious topics. If they claim to be able to then they surely cannot claim to be 'lapsed' in their religion.

  • Comment number 10.

    FaithfulCatholic says people who describe themselves as lapsed lack the full capacities to even discuss current religious topics. That's a very strange comment. FC do you really believe that only churchgoing catholics and protestants are able to discuss religion? That's a bit bonkers isnt it?

  • Comment number 11.

    I read a comment some time ago which went something like this, "losing your faith in church and losing your faith in God are not necessarily the same thing."

    I also find the comment, "religionless Christianity" fascinating. There is a very real sense in which Christianity is or should be the opposite of religion. Unfortunately, 'religion' as in moralism, and ritualism is often how christianity is understood and presented.

    Brian and Graham also point to the fact that Protestants too can retreat, but it might be interesting to suggest that many Protestants are retreating into multi-million pound building and an ever present, all encompassing programme of events. Of course it doesn't look like retreat, but if it cocoons us from the risk of a 'personal faith' demonstrated in 'worldly discipleship', cosseting us in idiosyncrasies and a language all our own, then maybe it is simply retreat by another name.

    This realignment of religion, faith and the practise of Christianity fascinates me, unfortunately I get the impression that much of the church hasn't realised the debate is taking place yet.

    Good speech William, and I think I'm going to have to buy Malachi’s book.

  • Comment number 12.

    "FaithfulCatholic says people who describe themselves as lapsed lack the full capacities to even discuss current religious topics."

    That's the equivalent of saying that people who aren't good at cooking are incapable of discussing agriculture.

  • Comment number 13.

    A good speech William

    I agree with you when you said:
    "this is the history of a church that will be here long after the new atheists have gone to their eternal rest."
    I believe that the Church in its true form will still be here long after the latest fads are gone

    Jesus built his church founded on Love
    and even if you do not believe in God this is a good statement from Jesus:

    A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.

  • Comment number 14.

    When will some lapsed Presbyterian write about the emptying of the PCI pews which are losing about 70 parishioners every week?

    May be Prof Kirkpatrick could address the reasons behind this issue in depth which he has glanced over in the past on Sunday Sequence.

    At sometime somebody within the PCI will have to deal with this problem before the PCI goes bankrupt as empty pews don’t pay wages.

  • Comment number 15.

    So Malachi referred to Richard Dawkins on RTE as a 'pratt'. Did he mean 'prank', 'vagina' or 'fool'?

    Of course, Malachi's book is not likely to sell 2 million copies, is it, especially with its misleading subtitle?

  • Comment number 16.

    Another lapsed Catholic seeks to justify himself by appeals to general trends and what Fr X once did or said to his auntie.


    And Kevin Myers's book on being a journalist in the early days of the troubles is much better than Malachi's.

  • Comment number 17.

    Personally I don't regard myself as a "lapsed" Christian - I've moved forwards, not backwards.

    Will, your speech is interesting, but you can't seriously suggest that John Lennox's "God's Undertaker" is "intellectually tenable"! It is an extended litany of sophistry, straw-mannery, question-begging, quote-mining and sleight of brain. I gave up counting the number of fundamental crooked arguments after the first 5 pages.

    You say: "for my money, Lennox understands philosophy of science a good deal better than Dawkins" - I might counter that Lennox talks the talk of po-mo "philosophy of science" rather convincingly, but it is very clear that he has very little appreciation of what science involves and what it actually tells us about the world. His treatment of evolution, the origin of life, and universal "fine tuning" are particularly poor.

    You're not the only one to be hoodwinked by Lennox's smoke and mirrors (in that sense, perhaps he deserves some credit for rhetorical trickery). Fooling Alister McGrath is perhaps not difficult, but Alan Emery is a bit bigger game, and he seems to have been suckered too.

    I think we need fewer "philosophers of science" and more "scientific philosophers". Then we might see fewer arsed-up efforts like "God's Underpants". Malachi O'Doherty may regard Richard Dawkins as a "prat", but I would rather have an honest prat than the sort of dishonest cheese reeled out by the undoubtedly avuncular Lennox. GU is, in addition, a graceless, smug and tedious book - Lennox speaks much better than he writes. I would heartily recommend it to the readership if they want to know the sorts of arguments theists *think* cut the mustard.


  • Comment number 18.


    Thanks for your comments on this. Just a couple of points. I didn't in fact suggest that Lennox's book succeeds in making the case for old theism as an intellectually tenable position; I merely said that his book was an extended argument seeking to establish that case. Secondly, on philosophy of science: perhaps you and I will have to disagree about Dawkins's understanding of philosophy of science (in any case, Dawkins doesn't rate this discipline highly so he won't mind the criticism). My comments on John Lennox in this speech are limited to a summary statement of his book's ambition, and a throw-away comment that he has a better take on Philosophy of Science than Dawkins.

    That comment is based on a reading of their works, and on questions I have put to both writers (I have conducted long interviews with both -- Dawkins on a number of occasions). As for creationism, neo-creationism and intelligent design theory -- these are entirely other matters.

    I pressed Lennox on those issues (and indeed challenged him on philosophy of science too) in a long radio interview we broadcast some time ago.

    Helio: let's not try to build a creation museum on the foundations of a couple of off-the-cuff comments in a book launch speech.

  • Comment number 19.

    Hi Will,
    No probs - just stirring! I liked your speech, and I think Malachi (whom I admire a great deal) has interesting things to say - the key word is "subjective", of course, and I can identify with that, without compromising science, or letting any pixies in through the door. I'll be buying the book for sure.

    I guess I just think that Lennox frequently gets given a bit of a free ride because he's at Oxford, can do sums, and originates from our fair shores.

    Have you a link to an mp3 of your interview with him? I think I missed it.

    Right - enough Lennox already! (as our American friends might say).

    Cheers; keep up the good work,


  • Comment number 20.

    Interesting how many commenters have latched onto the word "lapsed" in this speech. How many people here could describe themselves as 'lapsed' in some sense, whether it be specific doctrines of theology or whole religions? I suspect there are quite a few of us who've decided to dissent from religious ideas in the past; in my opinion that derives inherently from free thinking. (Might I take my cheekiness a stage further and suggest that those who have never dissented from any of their religion's precepts are not thinking enough?)

  • Comment number 21.


    Might I be cheekier and replace the word 'religion' with worldview?

  • Comment number 22.

    Peter, I think that's entirely reasonable. On the topic of "lapsed", do any of us consider ourselves "lapsed Santa Claus believers" or "lapsed breast feeders"?

    Falling away from churches is not necessarily falling *backwards*. It does concern me (and it concerned Dawkins in "Enemies of Reason", which dealt with the woo-meisters of the "alternative") that some people move on to other forms of mumbo-jumbo, but in some quarters there does seem to be a notion that this points to the external *existence* of mumbo-jumbo, rather than the sheer brute fact that evolved humans make mumbo jumbo up in their heads. It's all high-level brain stuff, and not remotely connected with what's actually going on in the fundamental nooks and crannies of the universe. It is not disbelief in gods that needs to be engendered - it is critical thinking.

    Maybe it is a cycle. Maybe the sociologists are right, and atheism can't ultimately defeat the woo. But atheism is now socially acceptable in a way that it never was before, and that can only be a good thing.


  • Comment number 23.

    Worked out well in Russia and China.

  • Comment number 24.

    It appears that Malachi O'Doherty is
    someone who does not practise church-based religion anymore but retains some kind of sentimental allegiance to the aesthetics of Catlolic Christianity. It also appears that he lays claims some sort of "middle ground" by attacking atheists who have given up on religion altogether.

    What is meant by the too-clever-by-far term "religionless Christianity"? Is it de-institutionalised Christianity, or simply humanism?

    We are told that Richard Holloway, another "middle grounder" doesn't believe in God and is a "Christian Agnostic" who likes church ceremonials etc. Surely he is by definition an atheist who shares O'Doherty's love of the sacred trappings.

    A process of secularisation has been going on in Europe for some time, and Catholic Ireland is catching up. William Crawley wonders why
    " atheism is not overwhelmingly in the ascendant". Surveys show that the number of God believers in Europe is steadily declining, and many who continue to believe do so weakly. In other places religion is so ascendant that it denies dissent.

    New Ageism is barely "religion" at all but it is largely irrational ; fundamentalism is on the march. Thank goodness therefore for the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. The world needs more of them.

  • Comment number 25.

    SamMergee says: "It appears that Malachi O'Doherty is
    someone who does not practise church-based religion anymore but retains some kind of sentimental allegiance to the aesthetics of Catlolic Christianity."

    If that's the case, is there really much point in Malachi or anybody else pursuing a more intellectual conversation about reconciling parts of religion to a functionally atheist society... it's just an aesthetic, right?

  • Comment number 26.

    I wonder what Malachi attributes, the success of the internationally in demand, academically successful, multi million best selling "prat" to, compared with his own small ripples in a tiny pond. Something divine perhaps?

  • Comment number 27.

    Ach well, populist pseudo-philosophy that turns out to be balls isn't unheard of, is it?

    I must say, I don't share this irritation felt by many theists with Dawkins...I think he genuinely comes across as a nice chap. On his Darwin show he really did give ample time and license to people that he obviously thought were raving lunatics. And some of them may well be.

    My only problem with Dawkins is one that's often levelled at him; he is no philosopher.

    He doesn't claim to be, but, like it or not, he really really does make some drastic, and far from straightforward, metaphysical and epistemological assumptions.
    I'm just not sure he can justify them, in fact he does not even seem to recognise them.

  • Comment number 28.

    Bernard, the problem, however, is that "real philosophers" are often no better. Dawkins is a scientist; he is accustomed to plain speaking. That scares some people, who realise that they can't defend their views without eloquent and fallacy-laden circumlocution.

    Dawkins, quite reasonably, invites people to cut the cr4p and get to the point. Of course, when one does that, there is less fluff for pixies to hide in, and pixie enthusiasts are less than happy about that. So anyone who points out the vacuity of their position has to be labelled as "shrill" or "strident" or "unpleasant".

    It is quite common for Dawkins to be accused of making "some drastic, and far from straightforward, metaphysical and epistemological assumptions", but few people are able to actually point out what they *are*, and unpick them in an honest manner. Indeed, I don't know if there have been *any*...

  • Comment number 29.

    I think I've picked out some major problems with his argument against Theism on this site. Also, plain speaking isn't an excuse for saying things that are just plain dumb. His take on the Theistic Arguments is atrocious.


  • Comment number 30.

    gosh, gveale you should write a book showing how "dumb" poor Dawkins is.A lot of fleas (thats the term thats used to describe them on the site) have tried. Their efforts have been picked apart by Paula Kirby on the Richard Dawkins website, and pinned up like dead crows in a field of corn.

  • Comment number 31.

    Helio- I agree with you, actually. What I - as a theist - appreciate about Dawkins is his complete lack of linguistic frills in general, and his value on empirical truth. He's not interested in weaving an artistic tapestry of language through which various levels of truth can be gleaned; in that respect I find listening to him highly agreeable (and it could be said that he represents a 'modern' rather than a 'postmodern' approach to matters of truth; again, I'm with him).

    At the same time, Dawkins is no philosopher. There are issues affecting the human condition which science does not - cannot - address. Philosophy isn't science, and science isn't philosophy, and that's fine.... don't you think?

  • Comment number 32.

    Hi nobledeebee

    I went for a walk in that corn field, you know the one with all the dead crows in it, and you know what, I found something which looked like one of those crows, and here, it seems, is one of the bullets that killed it, and I have to say, that it's not actually a bad bullet she fires/question she asks, indeed one might say that it demonstrates that as an ex-christian she knows something about christianity.

    Anyway here it is:

    "...if it was The Fall that brought evil and suffering into the world, and Jesus's death on the cross that saved us from the consequences of The Fall, why is there still evil and suffering in the world? Why are there still earthquakes? Why is there still suffering? Why do some humans still commit evil acts? OK, Christianity may save us from the consequences of our sinfulness in the afterlife, but what about this life? Yet again, the religious treat this life – the one, brief life we know we have – as a disposable item, of secondary importance to the serious business of a totally unproven and exceedingly unlikely afterlife."

    There's a lot on the website about her responses to some of the books written in response to The God Delusion and it will take quite some time to read thought them all, but tell me this, does her aim get any better? You see, Malachi might have written a book about it, but Paula's comment isn't really the sort of thing to start me beating the retreat just yet; it's pretty much a standard theological question, and a bit of a leap into the realm of personal opinion in the last sentence.

  • Comment number 33.

    Er, Graham, I've heard that sort of thing before... about how Dawkins' arguments are refuted etc etc - I've just never seen anything vaguely approaching a refutation! I would have thought that McGrath and Lennox at least would have put one or two into their dismal books, but no. Are these refutations some sort of arcane wisdom, only shown to the High Initiates, or is there a nugget or two that the Supreme Priests are prepared to toss to the huddled masses, shivering outside in the relentless Dawkinsian rain, trusting that their Massively Intelligent Clergibots really do have the ultimate umbrella?

    John, I think if you sort out the science, then philosophy (particularly ethical philosophy) can be a far more hygienic and productive endeavour than the self-referential po-mo horsepants that sometimes gets the label undeservedly. Poor science makes poor philosophy. It's a fact. In that respect, Dawkins is a better philosopher than the likes of Swinburne or McGrath or Plantinga *by definition*. The reason those chaps are given so much credit (by their own fans) is because they are better at using verbage to hide the flaws in their premises. Most people don't spot it - even they don't spot the mistakes themselves, often.


  • Comment number 34.

    As what may be the sole convinced post-modern voice posting on this blog (fellow-travellers come out of the wood-work, please) I should state my gratitude for Will's recognition of our existence and admirably succinct statement of our position.

    I rather like Dawkins and find him quite amusing - I must say I adored his interview of the Archbishop of Canterbury in his latest series - try replaying it sometime with the sound off, look at the facial expressions and the body language, it's not hard to imagine Rowan's singing 'If I were a wiggly worm I'd thank the Lord that I could squirm...'

    I have, too, considerable respect for science as investigator of the mechanics of things, where I part company with the believers though is when they argue for science as the mediator of truth to humanity - that just doesn't wash at all.

    I would rather like to think the designer of any aeroplane I am going to fly in acquired his skills from a reputable university rather than a spirit guide but, if I want to understand man's place in world, how to act morally, how to be, how to know the fullness of life, the 'rude mechanical' with his microscope or equations is about as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot.

    There are many limits to science and positing it as the controlling influence in the construction of a world-view is not merely flawed but pernicious. If I understand modern theories of cognition correctly I can see no scientific reason why there should not be abortion on demand, but, beyond that, equally no reason why an infant which is not desired (whether in terms of gender, disability, hair colour, whatever) should not be put down without qualm. One simply cannot elevate science to pre-eminence as source of truth and understanding without dehumanising mankind.

    Science, in my opinion, is rather like money - a certain amount facilitates a comfortable existence but thereafter it is subject to the law of diminishing returns. After the invention of, say, electricity and anaesthesia, science could quite probably have more or less shut up shop without major loss to the actual well-being of humanity.

  • Comment number 35.

    "they are better at using verbage to hide the flaws in their premises. Most people don't spot it - even they don't spot the mistakes themselves, often."

    Well Helio, here's you chance. The thread is about people giving up on religion, so outline the mistakes in the premises of theism. And remember, we're not anti-science, that's not the point being made.


    I'll return to the po-mo (I prefer post-evangelical) mind tomorrow, it's late, but for now... and if I were a fuzzy wuzzy (close your ears Helio) bear I'd thank the Lord for my... isn't contemporary worship great!

  • Comment number 36.

    LOL Peter - I like it!!

  • Comment number 37.

    Helio- Poor science breeds poor philosophy; agreed. Of course philosophy encompasses much more than science, so not all philosophy needs to consult science (it's all a matter of subject). What Portwyne said.

    Portwyne- In response to some of what you said (and I agree re. the place of science, btw) can I offer this: it is also true that an atheist need not come to a conclusion of good moral theory before deciding that there is no god - or, another way to put it, the question of whether or not there is a god has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not we can come to a good and moral way of conducting ourselves if we decide he doesn't exist (assuming we can agree on that anyway). I think that's worth pointing out, because sometimes I think having a way to deal with these moral questions is seen as a prerequisite for atheism and I don't think that's the case at all (and I'm a theist!).

  • Comment number 38.


    I, of-course, am not a Theist but on this point I agree with you. When I meditate in God I become more aware of the connectedness of things and that strengthens my concept of society and social responsibility and weakens my inclination toward selfishness - those who know me would say I've way to go yet!!

    In terms of general morality, I agree, God is neither here nor there. I think an atheistic scientific rationalist pursuing the logic of his position would have to say 'What is morality? - you can't fire protons at it.' It is entirely logical therefore for someone to say God does not exist and there is no such thing as a moral or immoral action.

    I tend to believe most moral systems are constructed on the basis of compromise between selfish instinct and social need and entirely workable models are derived from that negotiation. Selfishness gives us rights, society brings with it responsibilities. God may add extra dimensions to this model and the atheist may, quite reasonably, reject it out of hand. I myself often wonder if in fact morality functions as anything more than a mind shield which, weak-willed, we use to cloak our essential amorality from ourselves.

  • Comment number 39.

    Hi Petermorrow, I think that might be a magpie you have stumbled across not a crow. Read Paula's deconstruction of books by Alistair McGrath et al. Especially "Darwins Angel" for an eg of a particularly mendacious and distorting riposte to Dawkins. Gveale is writing one at the moment called "Dawkins Dumb Delusion".

  • Comment number 40.

    Really interesting description of Malachi O'Doherty on religion, William. Any chance that he might respond here for those of us who weren't at the book launch? What does he believe about God?

  • Comment number 41.

    I didn't say he was dumb, I said his take on some philosophical arguments was dumb.(Though any guy who does a PhD on the behaviour on chickens may be unbalanced).
    But thanks for making me aware of Paula Kirby - I'll check her stuff out.


  • Comment number 42.


    The simile about the crows I got, but you're going to have to enlighten me about the magpie metaphor.

    What is it exactly Paula Kirby pinned up like dead crows in a corn field? Is it the 'twisting' of Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion you are referring to? The parts I read refer to that and Kirby's questions against theism. It was the latter I was referring to.

    Maybe I answered a question you didn't ask.

  • Comment number 43.


    After saying I'd return to the postmodern mind later, I now don't really know what to say; even trying to define the term postmodern is wooly process, that however does not mean that there is no good in it nor does it mean that uncertainty means knowing nothing.

    My practical experience of post-modernity mostly relates to how the thinking manifests itself in the church with either, an abandonment of the idea of scriptural authority (although that idea is not a new one) and/or a reappraisal or deconstruction of one's own tradition doctrine.

    It seems to me that this is one of the reasons for the drift away from traditional religion, although given that some Roman Catholics seem to be rejecting Church authority and and it's traditions, while some Protestants are 'rediscovering' liturgy and sacramentalism, it's hard to see any particular pattern. If there is one, it seems to be that 'authority' means whatever the individual experiences and values, or maybe people are just experimenting.

    This of course is not all bad, but taken to extremes one wonders if it renders all meaningful communication dead; and while I appreciate the critique offered by many in what is called the emerging church my Christianity is still primarily what might be called creedal rather than experiential. That does not mean no experience, rather it means that any 'experience' is guided by an historical 'authority'.

    At a more general level I find I cannot live with the idea that life is a construction of our own minds. For me that merely distances me from my fellow man and would drive this particular person to despair. Anyway no one I know really applies this thinking to their everyday life. At the very least something real seems to be there, that reality seems to be coherent and I take the view that our lives are real and meaningful, and that what is there can be known. As Helio says, the world and the scientific description of it 'works'. Of course the musical, artistic and emotional description of it also often 'works' too.

    It is in this context then that I also say that it is reasonable to suggest a living God who defines the reality that we know, and know truly, but not exhaustively.

    I do not believe we are constructs of our own minds and I do not believe we are merely 'material'.

  • Comment number 44.

    Team, trying to decide moral questions on the basis of science is the naturalistic fallacy. But trying to decide them on the basis of theology is even more stupid. These are questions that we need to resolve, based not on "vertical relationships" to imaginary pixies, or pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo, but on horizontal relationships.

    PeterM, you asked about the faults in the premises of theism. The fundamental mistaken premise is that there is a god. That is a wholly-unwarranted assumption. You may *believe* otherwise, but that is irrelevant.

    Portwyne, you got all misty-eyed over philosophy, not science, forming our worldviews. It is probably the job of philosophy to find ways of allowing humans to adapt their psychology, by whatever mental devices they can muster, to the way the world actually works (as revealed, of course, by science). Worldviews that explicitly reject science (like creationism, for example) are themselves rendered invalid - poor philosophy.

  • Comment number 45.


    "The fundamental mistaken premise is that there is a god. That is a wholly-unwarranted assumption."


    Your statement is not an outline of the faults in the premises of theism, it is a statement, maybe one might say a premise.

  • Comment number 46.

    Helio - I 'got all misty-eyed over philosophy, not science, forming our worldviews'???

    I am not sure I recognise myself there. I who question whether there is even such a thing as morality. I who have questioned on this very thread whether philosophy has very much of worth to say about anything of importance. Now if you had pursued your earlier thought and suggested I might get misty eyed about a tribal shaman embodying the interconnectedness of man and nature in an ecstatic vision - then we might be talking...

    Peter I've just finished work and some productive dreaming beckons - will reply tomorrow.

  • Comment number 47.


    "Now if you had pursued your earlier thought and suggested I might get misty eyed about a tribal shaman embodying the interconnectedness of man and nature in an ecstatic vision - then we might be talking..."

    I'm interested in this thought and what exactly you mean here....

  • Comment number 48.

    Hi Petermorrow, I am referring to an article on the RD website by Paula Kirby called Fleabytes in which she deconstructs 4 books which claim to refute the God Delusion. They are Darwins Angel, Dawkins Delusion,Dawkins letters, and Deluded by Dawkins. These are the crows I was referring to. I do not recognise the quote you posted and you do not say which review it is from so I suggested it might be a magpie rather than one of these crows. Thats all.

  • Comment number 49.

    I had a look at Kirby's arguments. I think she's a little harsh on Cornwell, but otherwise it seems fine. (But there's nothing I wouldn't expect a good GCSE student to be able to point out).
    The problem is that there doesn't seem much in the "New Atheism" worth responding to. There are more rigorous critiques of Theistic epistemology and arguments provided by Elliot Sober, or Adolf Grunbaum. It also seems a bit redundant pointing this out, because I'm not sure that Dawkin's is aiming at a rigorous argument.
    In other words, what has the "New Atheism" provided that "Old Atheism" hasn't done better? What exactly is the point?

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 50.

    Peter asked for arguments. I read a lot of assertions and insults - but I can't even recall an argument tht you've made that showed the flaw in Theism.
    Take the Design Argument, the Cosmological Argument, and my discussion with Brian on how we ground rationality and morality. Where have those arguments gone wrong? As I have advanced them on this blog, mind you , not as Dawkin's advances them.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 51.

    We haven't had a lot of dealings, so just to keep the air clear.

    1) I've only encountered Dawkin's as part of the "New Atheism". But from what I can gather there is a universal consensus that his expositions of science are excellent.
    2) I don't think Atheism is "dumb", or that Atheistic arguments are facile.
    3) Don't take my heckling too seriously - it's just part of the atmosphere on some of these threads. I assume you've picked this up, but I just want to make sure. You've obviously a very good grasp of the issues. If I seem dismissive it's usually because I want to make sure I receive a reply.


  • Comment number 52.

    Your world-view becomes more mysterious by the post. Could you illuminate (i) What can we know (ii) How can we know it (iii) Where science fits into this picture (iv) Where morality fits into this picture.
    I'm beginning to think that you're a thoroughgoing empiricist - which makes you infinitely more sophisticated that Dawkins (at least in his public posturings).

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 53.

    Chaps, the problem is this. You are simply assuming there is a "god" worth doing any theology upon. That is premise number 1 of Theology: There Is A God.

    In order to demonstrate the invalidity of the premise, I do not need to disprove it; merely I need to state that the premise is unfounded. You have no evidence that there is a god, much less one you can do any meaningful study upon.

    Come back when you've established your premise.

    Portwyne: my gripe is that you seem to exclude science from the moral process. Science has a lot to say about what makes us moral; why we *do* morality. We can even inject moral behaviour into our simulations, and treat it as a heritable trait. That all seems very useful, so I think to suggest that there is no input, or that science has nothing to tell us about morality, is incorrect. Maybe that wasn't your point, but it's how it came across to me.


  • Comment number 54.


    Post 53.

    Is that your argument?

    One what basis do you establish your premise, because from what I have read a good few theists here have given good reasons for holding the view that there is a God. Valid reasons for the premise have been established.

    That you don't accept them is a different issue.

  • Comment number 55.

    Here's how I established my argument for the sake of our discussion

    1) Cosmological Argument
    2) Design Argument
    3) The need to presuppose Theism to trust our rational faculties
    4) The need to presuppose Theism as the gound for morality.

    I've spelled out versions of these arguments on the blog - click on gveale, and read them ,then tell me were I've gone wrong.

    (Then tell me why I should accept the Presumption of Atheism, given that you have not advanced an argument for it).

    At the moment you've got your fingers in your ears so you don't have to consider any counter evidence - you're saying I can't prove God exists unless I first prove that God exists.
    Sorry, but it really is a silly position.

    G Veale

  • Comment number 56.

    Helio - I am going to answer you first as some of what I intend to say in response to Peter and John hang on this.

    You say I "seem to exclude science from the moral process" and, if you distinguish morality from utility, that is precisely what I do. As I understand science there is no meaning just mechanism. A man (or woman) is simply a variety of 'machine for living': a vessel which facilitates, for a time, a highly complex organisation of energy. There is no strong self, no enduring identity invariably capable of with-standing either swift brain trauma or slow disintegration of the host tissue.

    We are part of an evolutionary process, one among many animate species just about every aspect of whose conduct can be paralleled in the animal kingdom and I see little evidence of any significant marked effects of ratiocination on core behaviour.

    In certain species of spider the mother feeds herself to her children - is she being altruistic, is there a moral dimension to her actions? In other species the the female attempts to kill and eat the male during copulation (sometimes as willing victim, sometimes despite his attempts to avoid that fate) - is that immoral?

    Science tells us what is behaviour according to nature: throughout the animal kingdom killing a member of a different species is natural, killing a member of the same species is natural, every imaginable form of sexual activity from necrophilia through sex toys to rape and coercive intercourse with juveniles is to be found in the world of nature and the species homo sapiens is simply part of that world.

    The above is what science teaches me and the above, however, unpalatable it may seem expressed so baldly, is what I think.

    I am genuinely interested in your opinion as to whether or not it is bad science and what the fallacies are that you see in it.

    I should add that it is not what I feel and, when I have satisfied the animal need for sustenance I may return to that topic in reply to Peter and John.

  • Comment number 57.


    The quote I gave was taken from the website you referred to and was part of Paula Kirby's response to David Robertson's 'The Dawkins Letters'. It was from the section of her response referring to Letter 8 under subsection (1).

    She seemed, in her 'deconstruction' of this/these books, to be doing two things; 1, saying why they were bad responses to Dawkins, and 2, was responding to the theology stated by the writers. I picked out a comment from her in which she sought to critique some of the theology. The one I quoted, was quoted deliberately, because if you are going to have a go a Christianity then why not go pretty much for the heart, Fall, Atonement, Redemption? And, as I said it was a good question, but it has an answer. Kirby, however, despite her previous experience of christianity, appears not know what it is.

    Here's another couple of her comments from the same response:

    "If Robertson's faith is based on evidence, then his faith is redundant." (it is?) "There is no need for me to have faith that my employer will pay my salary this month if I have evidence that the money is in my account."

    No, one wouldn't need faith here - quite correct; but then if the money was in her account already, the employer wouldn't have to pay her because he... already had. Another bad shot, and a poor understanding and explanation of faith. A better way to describe it might be, faith is trusting the employer enough to work for him again in expectation of another paycheck because he has already demonstrated his character, he ability and willingness to pay his employees. In otherwords it is 'faith' based on 'evidence', the evidence of previous payment or the word of other employees.

    Another comment

    "By the way, have you ever asked a Christian what they actually mean when they say that humans are made in the image of God?" (Yes, actually I have) "And more importantly, have you ever received an answer that made any kind of sense at all?" (Again, yes I have - the ones she suggests are just poor)

    Paula Kirby has some good questions and has offered, within her world view, some alternative answers to the Christian ones, but I also have to say, that her comments to betray a limited understanding of Christian theology.

  • Comment number 58.

    Portwyne- I'm with you entirely so far.

  • Comment number 59.

    Hi team,

    Portie first: evolution has equipped us with a brain that lets us ascribe moral labels to certain actions/outcomes/events etc. We're humans; there are things we find funny, sexy, tasty, repellent, etc. Morality is a thing that humans do. It's biology. That is not to say that it does not have value - it clearly does have value *to us*. We also clearly have a choice in morality, and we base our choices on our experiences.

    1) Cosmological Argument
    2) Design Argument
    3) The need to presuppose Theism to trust our rational faculties
    4) The need to presuppose Theism as the gound for morality.

    Yeah, I know you've spelled them out, but they are all pants. The cosmological argument is a straightforward category error (with a nice dose of question-begging lobbed in for good measure). The design argument is merely evidence of selection, with no pretence towards evidence of an "intelligence", much less a "being". Theism as a necessary means to trust our rational faculties?? Please! Theism as a ground for morality?? Double please! These are at best lame excuses for theism; they hardly achieve the status of "arguments".

    I do not need to presume anything for atheism. There may be a god; there may not. I think it highly unlikely that if there were a god, it would be so good at hiding that we'd have no way of firing a proton beam up its hiney, or that it would consider the whole Christian religion thing as a Good Plan for rescuing a fallen humanity, but that's just me. If we find that we need to plug a god into our models to get 'em to work, that's dandy. But you're the one proposing the magic space pixie; you're the one that has to have the evidence. Moi, je n'ai pas besoin de cette hypothese (pardon my poor French).


  • Comment number 60.


    "I do not need to presume anything for atheism"

    You appear to have presumed the personal pronoun 'I' as I have presumed the pronoun 'you'.

    So, why would you want to do that?

    And if morals is biology, then it really isn't morals, you don't seem to have grasped that.


  • Comment number 61.

    Peter, morals are emergent from biology and interactions between biological organisms. *We* do it - it's how we get along with each other. It's not beamed down from some notional mothership or space pixie.

    As for my presumptions on atheism, you are very welcome to challenge 'em, but since your challenges undermine theism as much as anything else, and we seem to be agreed on them, there's little enough point. Let us know when you have anything cogent...


  • Comment number 62.

    Helio (and I'm developing the argument which will relate to Peter and John's posts)

    You use the word "value" - that word has connotations which are not specifically scientific and which could lead to confusion - if you accept the substitution of the word "utility" I can more or less agree with sentence in which you use it.

    You proceed to say "We also clearly have a choice in morality" but to the rational mini-me that is very far from clear and I would suggest that there is absolutely no scientific consensus that it is in fact the case.

    You say "evolution has equipped us with a brain that lets us ascribe moral labels to certain actions/outcomes/events etc" and that is the point at which I become very interested indeed. The brain function you describe, the process of classification is a fundamental part of the interpretation of experience which we call reason. The modern (as opposed to post-modern) scientific viewpoint posits that interpretation, the rational, as the sole valid approach to the observed world.

    Rationality is, however, the result of a very specific state of brain chemistry. It requires a brain structure with a high degree of conformity to a configuration known to occur with a high degree of frequency, it requires good vascular health, the absence of both traumatic injury and aggressive viral infection, perhaps more importantly it requires a quite specific nutrient mix in the Petri dish which is our flesh. If we look at the history of humanity it is not surprising that rationality developed in settled urban environments with a good and regular supply of well preserved food. Brain chemistry can be adjusted from what is now regarded as its 'normal' state either subtractively or by the introduction of psychotropic chemical agents.

    For by far the greater part of human history poor and irregular food supplies, adulteration of food stocks by fungi, ingestion purposefully or unwittingly of psychoactive plants all point to a human brain where rationality, far from being the sole interpreter of experience, was not even a common experience.

    I intend to return to this thread after work to discuss non-rational approaches to experience.

  • Comment number 63.

    Prepare to tune-in, turn-on, freak-out...

  • Comment number 64.

    Pants to you too. Is that to be the level of discussion?
    As expected you produced insults and assertions. I am now working on two assumptions.
    (i) You do not understand the arguments for theism, much less know how to criticise them
    (ii) You are afraid to confront the arguments, lest they show you are wrong - that there may be some arguments that make Theism a rational position.

    Please feel free to falsify my judgment by providing arguments. Insults and assertions don't qualify.


  • Comment number 65.

    As an example, H, of your mixed up thinking, you cannot say that morals emerge from biology/social interactions AND affirm the Naturalistic Fallacy.

    By the way,how much Plantinga have you read? "God, Freedom and Evil"? "The Nature of Necessity"? Maybe you have consulted the journals?

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 66.

    ha, it strikes me that we might as well amalgamte all the topics on this forum, as they seem to always amount to the same argument.


    I wonder are we any further on?

    Probably not.

  • Comment number 67.

    Funnily enough, there are times when a consensus can unexpectedly emerge. Though significant disagreements remained, I think Peter and I found a lot of common ground with Brian after Iris Robinson's summer crusade.
    Whether that was a triumph of dialogue or secularism I'll leave others to decide.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 68.

    Good grief! Portwyne, yep, that's pretty much it. We are evolved organisms. Our brains have evolved to ascribe pleasure to things that result in the genes that build our brains getting passed on to the next generation. So we ascribe values to certain things. The human propensity to morality would seem to hit that category - we observe certain actions; we see the general effects; we favour ones that lead to desired outcomes in general. We also function within societies, so we program our moralometers with societal cues. This is not (pace, Graham) a naturalistic fallacy. "Is" does not imply "ought", but it does mean that we can (to an extent) forecast the results of a future "maybe", and use that as a weight in our decision-making process.

    Graham, what is the point in firing up 4 flawed arguments and wanting me to play on that basis? A quick tour of Google should show you (as if the foregoing discussions were not sufficient) that they are all flawed. Maybe your position would be stronger if you added 5 or 6? The Santa Claus argument, perhaps? The Warm Fuzzy Glow argument? It's irrelevant. This is your argument to convince you yourself that there is a god. Fine - whatever floats your boat. But they remain flawed, and as such, I do not see any need to incorporate your magic space pixie into my worldview. Yeah, there may in actual fact *be* a magic space pixie, but it's up to you to demonstrate that, not for me to prove its non-existence.

    Cosmological argument? Falls on the basis of the universe not necessarily being contingent on an antecedent state (indeed, since time itself is a property of the universe, the universe does not need a "cause", but an "explanation" - and even a timeless "personal" designer needs such an explanation too - you replace one Black Box with a bigger one. Short back and sides, Mr Occam?).

    Design argument? Retrospective selection. Sorry - doesn't even get off the starting blocks. If a designer spun the dials, then presumably all universes are possible; the only way it would know which ones would work would be to simulate them. In which case, we would have a multiverse anyway. Unless you can demonstrate a designer, there is no way to evidence the designer from the mere fact that we find ourselves in a universe conducive to our existence in one tiny fragment of it.

    Morality argument? Morality is all horizontal. You need to demonstrate the vertical. You have not done this.

    Rational argument? The converse is self-refuting, but so what if we trust our rational faculties? We can make such trust operational - indeed, we *must*, because we all know that there are multiple philosophical concepts, such as the cosmological argument, the design argument and the morality argument that contain hidden assumptions and begged questions that render them nonsensical, but this is not immediately obvious to some folks who are otherwise fairly intelligent.

    I'm not being insulting - I am just pointing out that your arguments don't actually *work*. And IIRC, this has been pointed out several times before on Will's fine blog.


  • Comment number 69.

    Oh I prefer books to Google. You'd be surprised at how much information and reasoning they can contain.
    I'm not sure that your objections to the Cosmological Argument are even coherent. In any case they are formed against the Kalam Cosmological argument, which I've never advocated on this blog. Would you actually read what I've written?
    As I've mentioned before Multiverses can explain absolutely anything, or attribute whatever probabilties you like on any event you like. Just postulate the number of universe you need. And Observer Selection Effects do not explain design as (a) they do not even mention a cause for the design (b) there is more design than is m=necessary for the existence of observers (c) the observers are part of the evidence requiring explanation. That is to say, in this case the act of observation depends on a great deal of order and complexity - it is party of the sample. There is nothing that requires that observation of this universe take place.
    A google search would have taken you to "Firing Squads and Fine-Tuning: Sober on the Design Argument"
    Jonathan Weisberg which argues the last point in detail.
    Also read Atheist Elliot Sober, arguing against design arguments in a famous, well cited article("The Design Argument", Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Religion). He's a statistician as well as a philosopher of religion, and as I've mentioned before does work on cladistics. If he's impenetrable blame the bilogy department.
    "The likelihood version of the design argument consists of two premisses - Pr(O /Chance) is very low and Pr( /Design)is higher. Here o describes some observation of the features of organisms or some feature of the entire cosmos. The first of these claims is sometimes rejected by appeal to a theory that Hume describes under the heading of the Epicurean hypothesis. This is the monkeys-and-typewriters idea that if there are a finite number of particles that have a finite number of possible states, then, if they swarm about at random, they will eventually visit all possible configurations, including configurations of great order.The shorter the time frame, the lower the probability that a given configuration will occur. This means that the estimated age of the universe may entail that it is very improbable that a given configuration will occur.
    Thus, the order we see in our universe, and the delicate adaptations we observe in organisms, in fact had a high probability of eventually coming into being, according to the hypothesis of chance. Van Inwagen (1993, p. 144) gives voice to this objection and explains it by way of an analogy: Suppose you toss a coin twenty times and it lands heads every time. You should not be surprised at this outcome if you are one among millions of people who toss a fair coin twenty times. After all, with so many people tossing, it is all but inevitable that some people will get twenty heads. The outcome you obtained, therefore, was not improbable, according to the chance hypothesis. There is a fallacy in this criticism of the design argument, which Hacking (1987) calls "the inverse gambler’s fallacy." He illustrates his idea by describing a gambler who walks into a casino and immediately observes two dice being rolled that land double-6. The gambler considers whether this result favors the hypothesis that the dice had been rolled many times before the roll he just observed or the hypothesis that this was the first roll of the evening. The gambler reasons that the outcome of double-six would be more probable under the first hypothesis: Pr(double-6 on this roll / there were many rolls) >Pr(double-6 on this roll ¦ there was just one roll). In fact, the gambler’s assessment of the likelihoods is erroneous. ...the probability of double-six on this roll is the same (1/36), regardless of what may have happened in the past. What is true is that the probability that a double-six will occur at some time or other increases as the number of trials is increased: Pr(a double-6 occurs sometime ¦ there were many rolls) > Pr(a double-6 occurs sometime ¦ there was just one roll). However, the principle of total evidence says that we should assess hypotheses by considering all the evidence we have. This means that the relevant observation is that this roll landed
    double-6; we should not focus on the logically weaker proposition that a double-6 occurred at some time or other. Relative to the stronger description of the observations, the hypotheses have identical likelihoods. If we apply this point to the criticism of the design argument that we are presently considering, we must conclude that the criticism is mistaken. There is a high probability (let us suppose) that a chance process will sooner or later produce order and adaptation. However, the relevant observation is not that these events occur at some time or other, but that they are true here and now – our universe is orderly and the organisms here on earth are well-adapted. These events do have very low probability, according to the chance hypothesis, and the fact that a weaker description of the observations has high probability on the chance hypothesis is not relevant.
    A descriptive account of the origin of morality or the function of morality does not give morality any prescriptive force. And prescriptive force is essential to any account of morality.
    Furthermore, that moral practice benefits a species or an individual is to reduce morality to pragmatics, and cannot provide me with any reason to be moral in a universe indifferent to morality. This not only removes the prescriptive force from morality, it removes any motivating force from morality.
    A simple thought experiment - if in some possible world torturing babies for fun determined the survival of the race/species/individual (or whatever) would that be sufficient to make the action moral? (As Darwinian Michael Ruse has argued "Could Rape be Right on Andromeda?)
    I'm assuming your google searches didn't take you as far as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They are quite clever at Stanford you know.
    Finally reason. Since when was skepticism self-refuting? Who solved the problem of induction? As always, the philosophical world awaits with baited breath.
    Why should unguided natural selection provide us with a mind that guides us to the truth and allows us to make large inferences, rather than a mind that simply equips us to survive?
    And naturalistic accounts of the brain/mind often strip away the self. This makes BOTH rationality and morality problematic.

    A few of the many, many problems with your position. (Well, I'm exaggerating - there are a couple more - but many, many sounds better).

    (Don't feel the need to ease up on the insults - I think we know each other well enough by now not to take them seriously).

    Sorry for the long post, but I'm not back till Monday, so I like to get my money's worth. Oh, and my theory about your knowledge of the arguments has been falsified - I know how much you love falsification!

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 70.

    there should be a close quotation mark after "These events do have very low probability, according to the chance hypothesis, and the fact that a weaker description of the observations has high probability on the chance hypothesis is not relevant"

    You'll find it, oh, about a squillion lines down.

    When will this blog include a preview post/edit feature. Liscence payers money at work, I ask you...

  • Comment number 71.


    Your take on morality is curious. Basically what you are saying is that morals are constructed. They are, what was it, (I'm looking it up!) post 59, labels ascribed to certain actions. I see. It is a thing we humans do. Mmmmm. The value it has is of value to us. (emphasis yours) Ahhhhh. And post 61, morals are emergent from biology. Oh, and, interactions between biological organisms.

    Helio, I know you are using a word that looks like 'morals' is spelt like 'morals' and no doubt if spoken, would sound like 'morals' but what you mean is behaviour.

    What you mean is that we construct behaviours which we find acceptable and unacceptable, behaviours and codes of living which help us get along with one another or which might help some of us in not being too antisocial, but what you do not have is anything which might be termed right or wrong.

    Let me know where I'm mistaken, (obviously I can't be 'wrong' in any absolute sense of the word), but only if you have something emmmmm, (you said cogent, I'll say) compelling to say!!

    And while you're at it maybe you might also explain to me how my pointing out that you had just gone right on ahead and assumed yourself, undermines my theism. You assuming you isn't a problem for my world view, it's a problem for yours. But sure, given the fact that you know you exist, and I'm happy to assume you exist, it should be easy for you to provide me with evidence of your existence.

    So, any time you're ready. As Frasier would say, "I'm listening."

    And has Graham has said, the little bite in our correspondence with you is for entertainment purposes only. I suppose you could say that it's Ulster's way of doing encouragement! We know we can all take it!

  • Comment number 72.

    Hi chaps,
    Yes - these aren't insults - they're just a little frisson to make the conversation more fun.

    Where do I start with all that? Let's kick off with Peter - WHY do we need to attach some sort of "external objectivity" to right and wrong? PEOPLE do the deciding, in the context of their social and ethical background. Once something is done, it's done; the concepts of "right" and "wrong" are quite clearly things that humans use in their decision-making processes, to help them make *better* decisions. Their entire validity exists within the sphere of human relationships. Now, I'll grant you that we could spend all day jabbering about the philosophical principles involved, but the fact remains that ethics and morality are contained purely within the human sphere. We know which box it fits into, without (at this stage) having to figure out all the inner workings. So it is most certainly not evidence for theism, unless you're going to revert to the vacuous realm of the god of the gaps. Also, factually/logically wrong is not the same as morally wrong, but you should know that.

    While I'm glad you share my disdain for Craig's Kalamazoo formulation of the cosmological argument, are you not simply falling back on a "first cause=god" malarkey? This solves nothing, and certainly any absence of knowledge of a first cause does not equate to evidence for theism. Are we agreed? Perhaps therefore you would like to show how you get from ??first cause to !!god.

    You're right that multiverses can explain anything, and unless we have some specific reason for proposing them, we're better hanging back. However, it all relates to the fundamental issue of "why is there anything at all?" The problem for theism is that that is immediately translatable to "why is there even a god at all?" It is not necessary to have a god, and given that we have a universe, and a god (presumably) is even harder to explain than a universe, this cannot be used as an argument in *favour* of a deity. Indeed, if multiverses can explain anything, in principle a space pixie can explain even *more* anythings! So it's a crap argument. You may disagree.

    You say that "Observer Selection Effects do not explain design", which is begging the question. "Design" is not what we observe anyway; what we observe is that conditions are met that need to be satisfied for our own existence. This is not surprising, for obvious reasons, but does need explaining. Gods don't do that, for the simple reason that IF you take that argument, a god capable of such design must itself be "designed". Attempts to excuse gods from this problem (like Craig's efforts) are pure sophistry.

    I think you perhaps misunderstand Sober's argument (I hope so, anyway). For one thing, "delicate adaptations of organisms" are predicted effects of evolution, NOT design. Natural selection is highly NON-random. So as long as we have a universe where life can evolve, we have no need to pile this stuff on "design", much less invoke a "designer" (that's just a fallacy).

    I think the point Sober is making is that there are bad arguments against the design argument; that is undeniably true. But the design argument is itself flawed.

    But there is another more telling problem - our universe is spectacularly *more* over-specified than would be necessary to host life. In principle, any Turing-complete "universe" should be up to the job. So why do we HAVE fine-structure constants, gravitation, speed-of-light, etc etc - sure, they help out a lot in *this* universe, but (like in biology) any half-sensible designer would KISS, instead of adding more complications that would (should) actually make the "fine tuning" a heck of a lot more complicated.

    So, yeah, there's serious complexity, but the "design" principally appears to be in order to cope with the complexities of that complexity! The design argument has a major problem here; it strongly suggests that there is something else going on entirely.

    A descriptive account of the origin of morality or the function of morality does not give morality any prescriptive force. And prescriptive force is essential to any account of morality.

    Indeed - that's why morality is irrelevant outwith the context of a community of beings wot do it. My point entirely. It's nothing to do with "benefiting the species" - it is what the species finds it can cope with.

    A simple thought experiment - if in some possible world torturing babies for fun determined the survival of the race/species/individual (or whatever) would that be sufficient to make the action moral?

    The action does not have the attribute "moral" or "immoral" - we apply that label. That's the whole point. On this planet, we eat rabbits. Sharks eat us. The whole point of ascribing the labels to actions is to enable us to make (or influence) human decisions. Like I mentioned to Peter, it's all confined within the human box; gods don't help, nor do the philosophical quandaries induced by it justify chickening out by invoking the pixie.

    Why should unguided natural selection provide us with a mind that guides us to the truth and allows us to make large inferences, rather than a mind that simply equips us to survive?

    Actually, I think you'll find that our mind alone does NOT guide us anywhere near the truth, which was why we invented science. Where's the problem here?

    (Don't feel the need to ease up on the insults - I think we know each other well enough by now not to take them seriously).

    Like I said, they're not insults - they're all in fun. Ye big jammy jessie, ye!

  • Comment number 73.

    "Jammie Jessy!?" And what part of 'The Wee Country' do you come from Helio? Sounds remarkably close to my neck of the woods. "Jammy Jessie!" I could spend the whole of the rest of the post just repeating it! I haven't heard the like of it in years, "Jammy Jessie!", "Jammy Jessie!", "Jammy Jessie!"

    I could add "Cat melodian", "Ye big Girl ye!", "Boyz a dear" and "Wind your neck in!", it’s all so very 'Mid-Ulster' isn't it.

    But I could be wrong, hopefully not morally wrong. But sure even if I was I could just relabel my mistake.

    Seems I was right (factually) about your take on morality, it's not really morality, just labeling behaviour, or what the species can cope with.

    You seem to want all the benefits of morals, that it assists with human relationships, that 'right' and 'wrong' help with our decision making process and so on but you have still failed to grasp that what you are arguing for, under the cosy little idea of consensus, is in fact, the rule of the strong, and that's if we're lucky, cos the strong might actually be benevolent. You also can't just go ignoring the question which relates to why human beings demonstrate morality at all. All you seem to be able to say is that 'we do'. Big deal, within your world view I can do pretty much what I decide to do, which is fine if it doesn't affect you but it's a problem if it does. Helio with your take on the subject, nothing is ever 'wrong', indeed nothing is ever 'right', and I don't really think you really live like that.

    You ask why we need to attach "external objectivity" by which you mean the kind we leap into when we *believe* (you always emphasis the word!) in a sky pixie. Well, apart from the above, which is a pretty basic comment, the *belief* that we need no reference point for morality is something you can't 'prove'. Why don't you examine that *belief*? And don't give me all this 'I don't have to disprove anything' malarky, your world view is your belief. Prove it, you want proof for everything else. I might as well ask WHY do we need to bother about good (is there a good?) human relations at all, or making them better? Anyway what's better mean in this context?

    The direct link to the topic of this thread is that a lot of people say that are walking away from an overt Christian 'authority' while failing to realise that they are only replacing it with some other 'authority', another set of beliefs, which they don't take any time to establish.

    There's a bundle of stuff we could say about this and the implications of it, but at the moment you are just saying 'just is', or 'just because' and that may be OK until someone hits us a 'dig in the face' and then we go getting all outraged about what's right and what's fair and what's not.

    Trouble is if morality is just what we do then nobody has an answer, it's all just made up. If you are going to offer a credible argument against the Christian idea that all morality is defined by God (the external reality with describable characteristics) then you are going to have to do it against the backdrop of a clear understanding of the limits of your own world view. Helio, there are lots of things you *believe*, you just don't say so.

    The weirdest thing of all is that you are sooooo convinced, almost evangelically so, of the facts of science, and I have no gripe with you there, but the very science which gives you confidence in one area of life (and which you desperately seem to need) stands in stark contrast to the most incredible uncertainty you have to have in the realm of human interactions, human identity, human being and right and wrong. And we haven't even discussed why you trust yourself to do it (anything) right, beyond saying "it works." Your view of morals is all the post-modern narrative stuff you say you dislike.

    And I'm still waiting for that evidence you have of your own existence, and I've been waiting along time; is it that you don't have any yet and need to run a few more tests, or is it just that that you know you can't actually 'prove' the person behind the pseudonym. But you're real Helio, aren't you?

    As for god of the gaps. Vacuous indeed. Knowing stuff does not do away with God, why would it?

    Ye big balloon ye. My wife thinks galloot is a better word.

  • Comment number 74.

    It appears Helio, rational mini-Por, and, at least in part, JohnW are in broad general agreement as to what science/reason says about life and living. So far so good...

    We will almost certainly all agree on such statements as:

    the earth orbits the sun;

    even, maybe, we will mostly agree on:

    we can give operational acceptance as truth to a statement or theory which has been subject to rigorous empirical verification;

    what about:

    what we call love is a functional distortion of baseline brain chemistry designed to enhance the chance of success of genetic off-spring through the advantages conferred by the pair-bonding of parents


    the only real reason (other than the obvious self-interest of staying within the law) that we do not seek to kill our parents when they are no longer required as free babysitters and have begun to reduce rather than augment their heritable estate is fear of the example we thereby set our own children?

    Is there still agreement?

    Rational mini-Por does actually believe that all of the above could be seen as reasonable statements. Extended-Por, however, feels that they progressively illustrate the limitations of reason based on scientific investigation and its dis-functionality when regarded as sole repository of truth about life, the universe and everything.

    Helio rightly points out that there is surplus complexity in the universe. I believe there is a very high degree of apparently surplus complexity in human consciousness and that surplus complexity may account for the deep dissatisfaction we almost all of us feel when our emotions, relationships, motivations and, yes, beliefs are reduced to elements in a single determinant factor: the pursuit of genetic advantage.

    Science can account for love but it does not account for how we feel about love; it fails to explain the totality of what filial affection means to a child, of whatever age. Our brains are sufficiently complex to permit and sustain apparently inefficient or otiose drivers and the, undesigned, processes occasioning volition and action are insufficiently precise to exclude those drivers from influence.

    Rational mini-Por thinks this and extended-Por knows that I am right.

    So, can we gain insights into what Helio in one of his Francophil moments might call 'la condition humaine'? If science fails us are there other sources of knowledge for what it means to be human? I would argue that there are and it is at this moment I say to rational mini-me, Bye-bye, baby, bye-bye...

    I have said in a previous post that rationality is fostered by certain variations in the composition of brain chemistry. The diet of modern western civilisation unnaturally sustains a suitable mix in the brains of most of the population for most of the time.

    Many tribal societies in the past and even yet (where contact with civilisation has been limited) would find the experience, not just of reason but of the state of brain chemistry which fosters it, as foreign to them as an acid trip would be to the average Presbyterian minister. The life of people in these societies, in what I would argue is the natural state for humans, is the antithesis of that which most of us know. I would not for a moment suggest we return to the jungle (Corton is preferable to coca) but we need to rediscover the sense of connection to be found there and the ability they possess to tune in, not just to that part of the spectrum of reality we call rational, but to the infra-rational and the ultra-rational as well.

    (I would really commend Ben Okri's 'The Famished Road' for an outstandingly lyrical account of life lived in the daily presence of spirits in modern Nigeria).

    The religious experience is central to extending our reality receptors. Most great religious teachers have practised alteration of brain chemistry to gain insight into life and to experience the divine: the synoptic gospels all record Jesus as practising subtractive adjustment by prolonged fasting. We are not told the mechanism but St Paul 'glories' in knowing a man who had had out of body experiences and himself suffered psychosomatic aphonia after a traumatic visionary encounter with the risen Christ so real was the experience.

    I would argue that it is in this realm of ultra-reason we can encounter God and that experience will have a profound effect on our being, our volition and our actions.

    Back in post #43 Peter seemed to suggest to me that experience needed to be guided by "historical authority" - but I can't agree. I would only need authority to validate my experience or to guide my actions if, at the back of my mind, there were some small niggling doubt that maybe the God I know is not actually real. I have no (NO) such doubt. When you know the living God what other authority or validation do you need. (Abraham had no Bible).

  • Comment number 75.

    Sorry - I think I conflated Paul and Zacharias there!!

  • Comment number 76.


    em? long pause...

    I think that's all I want to say at the moment!

  • Comment number 77.

    Portwyne- I think the feelings you describe as infra- and ultra-rational can still be explained in purely physical / empirical terms, whether or not we understand them fully. In other words, rationality hasn't really failed us as you suggest. I'd argue that it's our knowledge that limits us most in this regard: we don't know there's a God for sure, we don't know there's not a multiverse, we don't know whether our quantum theories are true or not, we don't even know that Bostrom's simulation theory isn't true!! (and I interviewed Bostrom - he thinks there's a fairly good chance of it being true statistically!....)

    So, anyway: what do you make of my assertion that it's our knowledge, not our reason, that most limits our realisation?

  • Comment number 78.

    Right chaps - that's a lot to deal with, and Graham will probably not want to read all of it. Peter - let me just say for the record that I like you and Graham a lot, and my "insults" are actually terms of endearment. I'm also pleased that you chaps are up for the argument, even though a/ you're totally wrong and b/ I don't have as much time to devote to a thorough demolition of your arguments as you probably deserve, ye great clart!

    I suppose if I were to distil my position, it remains that morality is something purely done by humans (to other humans, mainly). The "rightness" or "wrongness" of an action is something that WE assess, and we take all sorts of things into account in that assessment. I have to say, I really do not understand how you think this very interesting aspect of human behaviour/psychology is assisted by proposing that the rules are somehow beamed down from the mothership. I mean, how does that work?

    One aspect that I *think* we are agreed on is that a/ making moral judgements is a thing humans do, and b/ the parameters of "morality" vary from place to place, time to time, sub-group to sub-group. So, for example, some hardline nutters think it is immoral to play football on a Sunday. Most people think it is immoral for some numpties to *prevent* people doing whatever the heck they want on a Sunday.

    So we need to separate out the fact that we all have a "moralometer" (for want of a better word) from the precise programming of said moralometer. I would suggest that the explanation of the fact of the moralometer is entirely reasonably contained within evolutionary biology, and the programming is determined by both genetics and society.

    I simply do not understand how you get from that to proposing the download from the mothership. In case you think I'm avoiding the question of whether or not I exist, I might just point out that I really don't care about that, and if you're simply wanting to distract the argument, then I think you're being a gulpin. You'll recall that Graham suggested that the morality argument was one of the reasons he accepts theism. I would like (genuinely) to understand why he thinks that, because as I have suggested, I think the argument is fatally flawed (as are the others he mentions).

    I do think I need to re-emphasise this point. I used to be an evangelical Christian. I left that behind, not because I wanted to get jiggy with some unclean lassie, or because I couldn't cope with this that or the other. I left because I had heard all these arguments for the existence of god, and I realised that they are all FLAWED. Now, it may just be me, but the question of whether or not there is a god is a rather important one, and it's even more important if he's going to chuck me into a big pit of bubbling sulphur when he does that second coming malarkey. That used to scare the bejaysus out of me when I was a kid (and I agree with Dawkins - that sort of nonsense from some "Christians" is tantamount to child abuse, and should be punishable with a Doctor Marten in the gonads). So if there is a god, I am perfectly happy to believe in it and give it whatever homage it feels it would like me to render, BUT (and this is a big but) I WILL NOT believe in a god or whatever on the basis of a duff argument. If there is a god, but my reason for believing in it is unsound, then I am your proverbial clashing cymbal. I might as well believe in Allah or Zeus or the FSM - they're all in the one pot.

    And, frankly, I value truth and honesty much more highly than anything else. If something is false, I actually *cannot* believe it. I *cannot* believe in the resurrection (for reasons I have outlined), and this has nothing to do with some metaphysical presupposition that there is no god. I start from here, and work outwards. I feel no need to find a "foundation" for my thinking before I can even get started. People used to think that the Earth was the centre of the universe; that everything else revolved around it. That is long gone, and we know that we don't even *need* a zero point in space to do our science. I maintain we don't need any zero point in our philosophy at all. To work out relations between ourselves, we *could* start by working out our relations with a fixed point, and taking it from there. I see no need to do that (nor any evidence of such a fixed point anyway). If I'm stuck on a desert island with you guys, then my negotiations and efforts will be with you guys. Don't worry - I'll not eat you!


  • Comment number 79.

    JW - I shall attempt a proper answer to your post with its very pertinent point about knowledge and reason when I am in a fit frame of mind to do so (probably this evening) but at the moment I want to give way to a rant!

    Scientists, RE teachers and broadcasters have no idea just what hard work post-modernism is - I spent all day yesterday (noon to midnight) thinking about how to hide Red Riding Hood - now I need to explode.

    So, preparatory to tonight's answer, here's a general thought on rationality.

    I am severely limited in my attempt to convey the totality of what I might want to say by the moderation of this blog. Experience tells me that, when a couple of lines of elementary French cause a post to be pulled, several pages of ecstatic utterance are unlikely scrape by unnoticed - although, if I were to dignify the gibberish with the terms metaphysics, ontology, possibly cosmology, experience also tells me it would pass with flying colours.

    While I am on the subject, the biggest piece of sh1*e in the entire mental dung heap is Occam's so-called Razor - did anything ever so fly in the face of knowledge or experience and people accord it superstitious reverence. If anyone uses it with me I shall immediately suspect severe deficiencies in their potty-training - but don't worry, I will blame the parents.

    Anyway - here's hoping work will calm me down...

  • Comment number 80.

    Thankyou for persisting with a long ponderous post.
    As you pointed out, at several stages I needed to change the wording - to say OSE's don't explain design is question-begging. I think the Kalam argument is fine, and easier to grasp than Thomistic or Leibnizian arguments, but I'm a little uncomfortable when too much is built on fairly esoteric scientific models.
    I'll try to respond to your post as best I can. Be careful where you are waving Occam's razor though. We should not multiply entities beyond necessity. But we shouldn't be afraid to posit an unobservable entity, or a metaphysical theory, if we find it necessary to explain our experiences or the evidence.
    If we take Occam's razor as a directive to eliminate entities whenever we logically can, you'll end up with God, you, and a world of images projected by God into your mind. You don't even need God - a dumb powerful Demon will do. Solipsists believe in a simpler universe still. But simplicity is not the only virtue we need in our theories. Explanatory scope and power come into the picture as well.
    On the subject of evidence or proof, I would like to know what standard I have to meet. God wouldn't be like an electron or Nessie. We're not (merely) talking about the existence of one more entity in the universe, but rather the nature of the universe itself. Justifying belief in God is rather like justifying belief in Science, or Morality. (That is that moral judgments refer to real sates of affairs, and that science tells the truth about real entities at least some of the time.) Simple proofs are not available for such beliefs.
    On the nature of God, God would be maximally perfect. This means that he would have all the properties that make one great. One such property would be "necessary existence" (not existence, which may not be a property). Necessary existence means that the entity depends on nothing else for it's existence. The concept of a Theistic God also includes the properties of unlimited power, and of having a mind.
    Mind should not be construed as a collection of ideas. Minds have ideas, minds generate complex ideas, but minds are not themselves complex, but rather the substance that (among other things) produces thought. At least this is the only conception of mind that would fit God, and I don't know of anyone that has shown it to be incoherent.
    Parodies of a Maximally Great Person (Maximally Great Islands and Chickens are generally taken to be incoherent, given their physical limitations) but a maximally great person, existing outside space and time does seem to be coherent.
    Does a Maximally great person exist? I don't think we can define such a being into existence, via the Ontological Argument. But the Cosmological Argument does provide reason for believing in a Necessary Being. The Principle of Sufficient Reason can be defined as - every fact has an explanation. That seems to be verified by experience, to be self-evident, a presupposition of rational enquiry, and absurdities result if we deny it (for we are conceding anything could happen without reason).
    Now it seems unlikely that a physical fact could be necessary - or difficult to explain why it is necessary. So postulating a brute physical fact to explain the universe doesn't help. Whereas the explanation for God is that part of what it means to be a maximally perfect being is to be necessarily existent. If PSR is true, we are led to a Necessary being.
    Why God? Why not some other Necessary transcendent fact that isn't a person. I think defenders of the Cosmological argument can offer reasons, and if you like I can go into that. However, let's take the teleological argument. For if it is sound, and you want to go swishing Occam's razor, then a personal God seems plausible.
    You have two objections. The first, to say that the designer would need explanation, has been dealt with. A mind is not the same entity as it's thoughts.
    The secondobjection, that the abundance of order in the universe counts against design seems immediately dubious. And I think the flaw lies in the fact that we do not need access to a designers goals to detect that an object or event has been designed. The design advocate need not assume that God is more like an engineer than an artist, nor need the design advocate assume that the universe was designed ONLY to sustain human life. (For example, we would not apply KISS to "A View of Delft", or assume that it was only painted for others to view).
    It is worth noting that Theism is not compatible with any state of affairs (and in fact you have conceded this by trying to show that our universe doesn't fit the best examples of design). The Problem of Evil is an attempt to show that Theism not only can be, but has been, falsified. I don't think evil does falsify theism, but it does count as evidence against. However I'm not sure what could count against multiple universes.
    I think you understood Sober perfectly. I was just using his argument against the Many Universe response to universal order and complexity.
    I'll need to come back to morality and reason. However it does sound to me as if you explain morality away, rather tan explain it.
    Sorry for the length of the post, and the lack of insults.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 81.


    What was that about a 'zero point'. Stupid site won't take my posts, might get back later.

    All type, zero post!

  • Comment number 82.

    JW - you will be relieved, indifferent, or disappointed (depending on your level of empathic response) to learn that I am much calmer now! Nonetheless, let me start by saying that when it comes to human reason the one cosmological concept I have no difficulty taking on-board is that of infinite density.

    However; science once followed a path of: observation, the formulation of a testable explanation, experimentation, and consequent falsification or operational acceptance. This model suggests that human knowledge is limited by what a human can observe allowing of-course for the employment of artificial assistance where available. I have no difficulty accepting the formulation: we can speak rationally and knowledgeably about matters that are capable of observation. To that extent rationality and knowledge are in fact inextricably linked: the scope is reason is what is empirically knowable. Some things are not empirically knowable by humans in their current evolutionary state - 'everything that is', God, a singularity...

    Modern theoretical physics is neither scientific nor, strictly speaking, rational - people with a scientific background and training do not observe and experiment they use their informed imaginations to speculate and anticipate. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong, often they revise or retract. There is probably a Ph D for somebody in comparing their success rate with that of a range of socially aware and informed seers in antiquity.

    Philosophy too is simply meaningless drivel when it attempts to apply reason to the unknowable. The tedium one would be spared if only people took Wittgenstein's maxim to heart "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" - except, of-course, he was wrong! What he should have said was Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must sing!

  • Comment number 83.

    Graham, impressive wordplay, but full of sound and fury (would have been better with insults). I would suggest that unless you have some sort of notion as to what a "mind" or "intelligence" actually involved, going around divorcing it from its own thoughts, or shoving one in as a "necessarily existent" explanation is firstly completely unjustified, and secondly begging the question in a rather blatant fashion.

    For example, suppose I was to suggest that the necessary explanation for the universe was nothing other than mathematics, pure and simple. Where would you go from there? In other words, how do you arrive at a "mind"? (Keep it simple - I'm stupid).

    As far as morality is concerned, I'm not entirely sure that I *have* either explained it, or explained it away. I have merely explained the scope of the problem - it is purely human.

    And as for design, evolution shows loud and clear that apparent design does NOT necessarily imply teleology; you need more evidence to adduce that.

    What I would like to know is why you feel that you NEED to believe in a god, rather than keeping an open mind like I do (although I attach a very low probability to the existence of any gods)?

    Sorry that wasn't as ponderous as last time, but I think you're starting to follow me down a road that I'm not sure we want to be on...

  • Comment number 84.

    OK take 2, no, no, no, take 3!!


    Well, you were right about one thing, post 78 certainly wasn't a thorough demolition of our arguments, in fact it wasn't even a dent. Indeed it strikes me that no matter how much you huff and puff you're still not going to be able to knock it down, cos the house is made of bricks, or, if you prefer, built on a rock, as someone once said.

    And if you were right about that then it seems I was definitely right about your view of morality, that it sort of isn't a view on morality at all, just some kind of sophisticated swing-ometer.

    I suppose we are agreed on the fact that moral judgments are a thing humans make, and that these are variable from place to place, but if you'll pardon the pun this doesn't mean doing morality this way makes it the 'right' way. You've failed, you see, to establish any reason for doing it this way, opting instead to repeat your mantra, "we just do."

    And come on, the Sunday football illustration was a bit limited; there's a perfectly good biblical argument for treating Sunday differently to the old Sabbath idea - read Paul.

    I was sort of thinking of more important things like murder and robbery. What makes those things 'wrong', have you any 'authority' or even guidance, for making these decisions?

    You say our moralometer is contained within evolutionary biology and genetics and society. Why?... In fact why? why? why? why? why? why? why? or Why?

    So murderers aren't guilty, just genetically distorted?

    I put it to you Helio that if we are just atoms, well arranged atoms perhaps, but atoms none the less, then there is no reason why we should be 'moral' at all. You say you can't see how morality might suggest theism (which means you haven't read the arguments, and as most churches don't tell us what they are because most churches seem to think that that's being 'intellectual' or something I can sort of understand why your christianity didn't inform you of this but this doesn't mean there isn't, at least, a perfectly logical reason to consider theism)

    But it's the same as your take on you existence, you just can't go round saying it doesn't matter, it, DOES matter, it matters very much. If you don't care whether or not you exist, why should you care about knowledge or morality at all? So much for scientific facts, what do they matter if you are going to ignore the basic fact of your existence?

    As I said before, it is ironic in the extreme that you are so concerned with proof and the validity of evidence yet are so dismissive when it comes to the reality of yourself and the 'rightness' of morality. Frankly it's a contradiction, yet within a purely material view of the world you actually have no option.

    I suggest you know you can't prove your being, your feelings, your sense of morality and so on, yet you know they are real and therefore have no option but to live with a pragmatic yet unsubstantiated view of these things.

    Why are arguments from being, morality and knowledge some of the reasons we might accept theism? Well the answer to that begins with the fact that you have no answers to these things!!!

    And it continues with the fact that your views on morality and being haven't been tested, that they are 'belief systems' and you have to take them on faith, which is the very thing you criticise Christians for doing. (although I'm not doing the faith/evidence conversation again) And don't give me all that I don't need foundations stuff, that is a foundation, establish it.

    So in view of all this, would you reconsider the importance of your own existence, and think about enlightening me on the duff arguments you heard for God, because if they are the ones I heard, then I'll probably agree with you! ;-)

    Sorry of the long post. It seems that Graham and I have given up insults in favour of boring you to tears!!

    Oh, and that fact that the post failed 3 times means I can comment on this.

    You say, "For example, suppose I was to suggest that the necessary explanation for the universe was nothing other than mathematics, pure and simple. Where would you go from there?"

    I see, the MUH again. Well here's were I'd go:

    How did you get there? Sounds suspiciously like another belief!!

  • Comment number 85.


    response one follows the colon:

  • Comment number 86.


    Response 2:

    And what will one sing?

  • Comment number 87.


    Response 3

    Yes, I see, it's not so much what will one sing, it's just sing.

    Or possibly it is that one must listen to the singing?

  • Comment number 88.


    response 4

    Could it be that someone else, he that is thoroughly 'other', has spoken, and indeed, has sung?

    (I hope I haven't put you in a bad mood again!)

  • Comment number 89.

    Far from it!

    "And he hath put a new song in my mouth..."

    Btw, this is just a sort of mischievous thought but I wonder... What do the practising Christians think Helio would make of the thought: "You can take Christ out of the Christian but you can't take the Christian out of Christ"? Three possibilities are milling around in my mind...

  • Comment number 90.

    You really should look up some of the literature on the evolution of altruism, because altrusitic behaviour is an expected result of certain types of organism - the "genes" that favour altruism result in an evolutionarily stable state (ESS).
    Morality (it could be argued) is part of that adaptation, to enhance altruism. Murder and robbery are things that organisms (if they are at risk of being the victim) will evolve defences against. Morality is very arguably such a defence.

    You ask about what is "right" and "wrong", and then you talk about murderers. Well, from the point of view of a rock, it matters not one whit what is "right" and "wrong", but it matters a heck of a lot for society, because societies (collectives of individuals) will react to events like murders, and even for a society to survive, those responses (we're in meme land now) need to try to minimise the number of murders. So we punish murderers, and "rightly" so.

    I actually do care that I exist, but my point is that I don't need to base that on the existence of something else. It is not turtles all the way down.


  • Comment number 91.

    Presumably you're the turtle at the bottom, is that right?

    you say you don't need to base it on the existence of something else, even though every single thing about you and your mind is contingent.

    Perhaps "turtles" covers it does it?

    I reckon that even were there an infinity of turtles all the way down, they'd still have to have an inner foundation, like a supporting rod keeping them all on top of each other, if I can stretch that analogy beyond breaking point.

  • Comment number 92.

    I'm pretty sure you can't keep shouting "word-play" evert time you encounter a technical argument. You certainly advanced technical arguments in post 68. So much so that I bluffed, and queried their coherence.

    Let's keep the arguments separate. (1) aims at precision more than simplicity, but I'm not bright enough to explain this in down to earth terms. (I need to give that some thought, so thanks for pointing it out).

    1) Is the concept of God meaningless word play? I don't think so. It is a coherent concept with explanatory power. God is defined as a maximally great being (MGB)- no greater being can be conceived than a MGB. This definition follows from many statements in the Bible. Now physical beings have limitations by nature, so the concept of a MGB involves transcendence. Moral excellence is a "great-making" property, as is knowledge. So, plausibly, a MGB is something like a person. Also the MGB would be necessarily existent - dependent on nothing else for it's existence. Why? This is due to the lack of limitations on a MGB.
    Now on it's own this proves nothing. But a MGB is a rather different concept than, say, a necessarily existent singularity - for nothing in the concept of a singularity contains the idea that it should be necessary. The necessity is merely stipulated.

    2) Now we need evidence for a MGB - merely being able to imagine one does not make it real (or even possible).
    What is a mind? I don't need a full definition - after all, we don't have one for energy or physicality. I just need to show that a mind is not identical to it's thoughts.

    3) Abstract objects like numbers can't cause anything - never mind physical events. Yet minds interact with the physical world all the time - (you may doubt this. Yet unless you want to identify mind with the brain (just a tad implausible), then you believe that the physical world impacts on the mental continually. I can't see any reason why causation must be one-way).

    4) There are good reasons for saying that a mind is causally prior to it's thoughts - other than the fact that this is what we directly experience. If the mind is simply a collection of thoughts, then personal identity flies out the window. What gives a unity to all those thoughts?What makes them into a person? How does choice, rationality, and personal identity enter the picture?
    We have direct experience of causing thoughts, making choices etc. It seems absurd to take selves as useful fictions. If you don't exist, who am I arguing with?
    What you need is an argument that an unembodied mind is impossible. But that is not what Dawkins' advances as his final proof of atheism. And when Hume first advanced the same argument he never made such an audacious claim. I seriously doubt that Dawkins has seen something that Hume missed.

    5) Of course the temptation is to argue that Dawkins has Natural Selection. But that does not even answer Paley's Watchmaker argument. Paley actually spends some time considering the implications for finding a naturalistic account for the arrangement of the parts of the watch. In Paley's view you either have an infinite regress of ordered processes, or you eventually arrive at a designer. Given that the infinite regress does not explain how order entered the series of events at all, we need to infer to a designer.
    Or to put that another way, Natural Selection doesn't rule out a designer working through natural processes. And many Christians (incorrectly) believed that Paley's design argument implied a very static universe. And they believed this before Darwin arrived on the scene.
    It is worth noting that the problem of evil was the critical issue for Darwin - not the lack of a teleological argument. Or so I'm led to believe.

    6) Morality - I'll leave that side of the debate to Peter. Which is a shame because it seems more fun.

    7) Why do I need to believe in God? That question has been making my head spin since lunch-time. (I typed the rest of this at lunch and break - that's how keen I am to forget I'm a teacher.)
    You are right - I need to believe in Him. And the thought of him not existing is absolutely horrific. That's not the only reason I believe in God - I think Theism is a pretty good philosophical theory. And I've had religious experiences that I've no reason to doubt (to be clearer, my moral experience leads me to believe in objective morality - so my religious experiences lead me to believe in God. But both sets of experiences imply that I'm experiencing an objective morality that my beliefs could be judged against. So many of my moral/religious beliefs could be wrong. It would be nice to be infallible.)
    I'm also fairly impressed by Pascal's wager, and William James' arguments in "The Will to Believe". So I have pragmatic reasons for believing in God.
    Now there are plenty of people who are theists for some or all of the reasons I outlined above. And there are other reasons. So I don't think that what I'll say about my need to believe explains my Theism. I'd probably be a Theist anyway. But that doesn't get to the issue of my need, does it?
    I love God, and I love his Son. How can you imagine that someone you love doesn't exist? I love Him because I believe He gave his Son for me.
    I need him because there is a gap between what I should be and what I ought to be. And I seem to be at fault for a lot of that gap. So I need pardoned, and I need help with my limitations.
    I need to believe that evil and chaos haven't the last laugh - so I need to believe in hope.
    I need to believe that morality makes sense in an unrighteous world. I need to believe that righteousness isn't a game that humans play to pass the time before the stars die.
    Goodness and righteousness are personal qualities not impersonal forces. So I need God.
    I need to express my gratitude to someone, and I need to be accountable.
    There are two passages that are important to me. One is
    John 6 v
    The other is the fisherman's prayer. "Lord your sea is so great and my ship is so small."
    I think those reasons sum up my need. Roughly. Sorry to go on, but you did ask.

    Graham Veale

  • Comment number 93.

    Peter, I liked your response, if I were a preacher man I would say there was a sermon there.

    We can encounter God in stillness and silence, in the emptying of the mind from the noise of life.

    We can encounter God in the quandaries and dilemmas of life, in our choices and decisions, in the identification of what will be the theme of our brief existence.

    We can encounter God in the undifferentiated response of surrender of the totality of our being to him - and, in that harmony, singing and listening will be no different.

    We can certainly encounter God in the greatest song ever sung - indeed I can think of no truer tuning fork by which to set the ultimate good vibration for our lives.

    I hesitated, but only momentarily, before deciding to add the following aside about morality: sometimes a person can be just too stereotypical.

    Howard Marks (makes a change from all those dreary Germans and the like), writing about the Kalasha people of Pakistan, (let's assume he wasn't dreaming about them) notes that they have a very stable form of society but that their lives are governed by ritual concepts of observing difference rather than morality as we would know it.

    Helio says societies react to events like murder and punish them - not so with the Kalasha where the Shaman's instructions in response to such infrequent occurrences as a murder or the theft of goats would be, and I quote, "To sacrifice an animal, so the village eats well, and we can all get drunk". Interesting??

  • Comment number 94.

    Guys, although I don't have much time to participate in it, I'm enjoying reading this discussion, and honestly I think there are two outcomes of this point about morality.

    1) Saying murder is wrong is a substantially different thing than saying that it is going against the evolutionary grain (or some such thing). All the best science in the world will not come up with a reason that some action should be regarded as morally 'wrong', it can only suggest that it's not prudent for the species. And, that this problem exists for the extreme cases like murder only scratches the surface of the extent to which it exists for 'lower' moral issues like theft and abortion and euthanasia or even poverty and equity: none of these are called 'WRONG' by science, they're merely called 'ill-judged' at best, or there's no response at all.

    2) On the other hand, Peter, I'm not sure that it's up to someone who asserts "There is no god" to fix the problems caused by society's realisation that that is the case (ie. lack of a moral compass in God's absence). In other words, it doesn't follow that Helio, because he says he's an atheist, should have to replace human morality with something that looks similar but rests on a premise other than a deity, in order to do so. He can simply say, "Hey, there's no god, I don't think there's such a thing as morality per se, and whaddarya gonna do about it?"

    That's a perfectly acceptable answer for Helio to give.... unless, of course, he wants to assert that there IS such a thing as 'right' and 'wrong'..... in which case he needs to provide the premise for that assertion.

  • Comment number 95.


    I know not aimed at me but the last part of your post #92, once you get past Pascal's wager, was seriously impressive. Passion and conviction are the stuff of faith as well as of life. More of the same please...

  • Comment number 96.

    Hi John

    Useful and interesting post. I think it pretty much sums up the differences in Helio's position and mine. A couple of comments. It may well be unreasonable to expect Helio to fix the problem, but it might be important to recognise that the position he proposes raises a problem which it cannot really answer. It seems to me that within this worldview, that not only are moral decisions something of a problem, but that the reasons lying behind the making of one decision over another are, in the end, another a form of *belief*.

    I think I would also say that we need to assert that there IS such a thing as 'right' and 'wrong'.

    Hi Helio

    What do you think of John's comments? (here's another insult - ya glipe ya - but I warn you I'm running out of colloquial terms of endearment)

    And so to your response. Post 90. I shall look up some literature on the evolution of altruism - thank you for the reference. However I'm immediately wondering if that means the evolution of altruism, or that altruism is necessary for evolution?

    Anyway, I liked the leap to, "Morality (it could be argued)" and "morality is very arguably such a defence".

    From the point of view of a rock, you are correct, I doubt very much that anyone is going to be charged with first degree against a rock. You are correct too that it matters for society and that society will react to murder and so on, but again yours, surely, must remain a pragmatic view. Surely too, you have to be equally open to the possibility that some day murder might be 'right'. Yes? No?

    As for 'meme land' - meme, schmeme, like Thomas of old, when I see the blighters bleed I'll believe it.

    BTW What do you base your existence on? and I'm glad you exist too.

    Maybe I should also add, by way of linking this to John's comments, that you asked why issues like morality might cause us to think of 'God'. I have already suggested two, another might be that (to use your words) human beings *are* moral creatures and these moral behaviours simply cannot be explained in terms of 'material' existence alone, indeed if we limit humanity to the 'material', to the impersonal, we don't really have anything to say about morality. Hence, I suppose, memes.

    However if you are going to say memes, I'm going to say Messiah!

    All we have to do now is argue over the evidence!! Personally I think there's more for a Messiah.

  • Comment number 97.

    Sorry, just another tiny rant, though after a good night's work I'm actually in a like totally grounded frame of mind at the moment...

    Pascal's Wager!!!

    Even writing the words I can feel the blood pressure rising. The author of that sordid and poisonous little formulation deserves to be in a Bosch - take your pick of painting or appliance but I think a microwave is far too good for him.

    There have few thoughts so demeaning to both man and God ever set down on paper.

  • Comment number 98.


    The Wager gets a hard time - but keep a few things in mind.

    1) It assumes that humans cannot be moved to belief by theoretical considerations.

    "God is, or He is not.But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us."

    2) It assumes that the eternal fate of an individual human is of some significance - and better yet, it forces humans to take death seriously.

    "If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."

    3) It makes an appeal to human nature, and takes human desires and needs seriously - that is to say, it takes humanity seriously. To some extent, our nature and circumstances force us to choose. (And human choice is also taken seriously).

    "You have two things to lose: the true and the good; and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness: and your nature has two things to avoid: error and wretchedness."

    4) It makes agnosticism impossible - Faith is more than a theoretical commitment

    "The right thing is not to wager at all. But you must wager. There is no choice. You are already embarked".

    5) The argument is aimed at the person who will not open themselves to Christian experience until they are given rational argument.

    6) The proper response to the wager is not assent to Orthodox beliefs and traditions, but worship, prayer and taking the sacraments.
    The wager does not treat humans as calculating machines (though it does not neglect the rational aspect of our nature). The wager aims to move a skeptic from from self-interest, to the pursuit of the true and the good, and then to giving their whole self over to God.


  • Comment number 99.


    Can't agree with pretty much any of it!

    First it assumes God is very much the standard Christian version of deity and that he is going to punish sin. If I am right and God is unaware of sin far less excited by it then there is nothing to win in terms of escape from hell fire in exchange for a life of meaningless, passionless pietistic religious observance.

    Even if we were to assume a God given to reward and punishment what certainty is there that he would be anything other than seriously annoyed and thinking in terms of brimstone for a person who thought the best he had to offer him was mere acceptance of the divine existence based on a calculation of probabilities succeeded by a life of pietistic observation made comfortable by habit.

    A meaningful encounter with God will make us feel that our lives, our souls our alls are inadequate responses to the suffering of the world - one turns to God, not out of self-interest, but because there is no where else to get the strength and sustenance to live the life of Christ in the face of the overwhelming human need which is all around us if we but open our eyes to see it.

    I personally find the metaphor of a wager offensive; we do not place a bet on God, we join in the sacrifice of Christ by continuing at once to challenge the world and simultaneously to minister to its unknown needs. The call to the Christian, often unheard, is not for denial but for sacrifice and the two things are very, very different.

    I often wonder, and I ask this seriously, how does someone with a high view of scriptural authority argue for intellectual persuasion towards belief - aside from the passage in 1 Corinthians of which I am very fond, the chapter (John 6) from which your own important passage comes contains no less than two assertions that no one can come to Jesus unless prompted by God (v. 44 and v. 65). I might be able to dismiss these easily but I would be genuinely interested in your take.

  • Comment number 100.

    Hi chaps,
    Sorry for lacks of response - v busy lately. I have however read them, and have a couple of comments.

    PM: might murder one day be "right"? Well, yes - sometimes we call it "war". Once again, it is all in the realm of us struggling humans. That is the seat of morality; "rightness" or "wrongness" are not attributes possessed by actions/objects/etc - they are labels applied to them by humans. I think a lot of philosophers get their pants in a knot over this (he says from very recent experience of such).

    GV: Pascal's wanger: which god do you choose? Allah? Yahweh? Zeus? Amun? It is a duff wager, and the reason it gets such a hard time is precisely *because* it is duff.
    Minds being causally prior to their thoughts? Once again, you're into attribute theory, which (I would suggest, having listened to Swinburne and Leftow on the topic) is a big old category error. What we are really doing in applying "attributes" is recognising a pattern, abstacting that, and giving it a name. A dog does not possess an attribute of "dogness" (Leftow here) - it just is what it is, and we recognise commonality with other doggies, and we give that pattern a name. It isn't intrinsic to Rover. This goes back to the morality thing above of course.

    You're horrified by the thought of god's non-existence. Don't be such a big girl's blouse. It's great that god doesn't exist - it opens up all sorts of things, and makes the puzzle of the universe so much more intriguing and exhilarating. Put down the duckie if you want to play the saxophone (Youtube: Sesame street - you won't regret it!)

    Natural Selection doesn't rule out a designer working through natural processes.
    No, but it does remove the *need* for one - it means that you CANNOT simply infer a designer from the mere appearance of "design". You need other evidence. There is no infinite regress of causes - that is simply an attempt at eliding the "design" argument into the "cosmological" argument, and the cosmological argument falls simply on the basis that stopping the regress at "god" is purely arbitrary. Funny enough, I recently heard Brian Leftow say that god was secondary - that it lives within some sort of deeper reality, and structures its "mind" around mathematics and logic. To my mind, that suggests that we could quite straightforwardly bin the god as redundant, and stick with the maths, but hey.

    JW: I don't actually say that there "is no morality" - there clearly is. But it is rooted in humanity, not in some notional deity. There is no need for an "absolute" reference point, any more than there is any need for an absolute co-ordinate reference for the earth in space. Relative does not mean arbitrary.



Page 1 of 2

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.