Thursday, June 3, 2010

David Hart on New Atheists, the Sequel

I've never been good at leaving something alone once I've started it, so I thought I'd add a few, hopefully final criticisms of Hart's article in First Things. First, I'll comment a bit on his criticism of Dawkin's argument, avoid commenting on Christopher Hitchens, and revisit my comments on the tragic sense atheists are supposed to feel.

To summarize my previous post: Hart criticizes New Atheists in the same simplistic terms he claims New Atheists use in their own arguments. He misunderstands the goals and audience of the New Atheists--expecting them to be presenting sophisticated philosophical arguments when they are addressing philosophically unsophisticated audiences with arguments that should resonate with them. I mostly do not read the New Atheists because I am a professional philosopher and do not expect anything philosophically original from them, and Hart is either disingenuous when he says he expects this of them or he is unrealistic in his expectations of popular books.

To begin: Richard Dawkins has a very odd argument about God and complexity. I don't know that I can do it justice, but here's a brief summary of the point from The God Delusion (quoted in wikipedia):
"The temptation [to attribute the appearance of a design to actual design itself] is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable." (p. 158)

He claims the only way we know how to explain the existence of complexity is through evolution primarily by natural selection. And so in order to explain God's complexity we would either require that sort of explanation or some other unknown explanation. And this leads us to have to confront the very problem--explaining complexity--that God's existence was supposed to obviate.

Hart summarizes the argument this way:
But something worse than mere misunderstanding lies at the base of Dawkins’ own special version of the argument from infinite regress—a version in which he takes a pride of almost maternal fierceness. Any “being,” he asserts, capable of exercising total control over the universe would have to be an extremely complex being, and because we know that complex beings must evolve from simpler beings and that the probability of a being as complex as that evolving is vanishingly minute, it is almost certain that no God exists. Q.E.D. But, of course, this scarcely rises to the level of nonsense. We can all happily concede that no complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos and subject to the rules of evolution, exists. But who has ever suggested the contrary?

This is a bit unfair to Dawkins since he does not claim that God evolved, but if your theory requires that the only explanation for something is that it evolved, and the thing did not or could not have evolved, then you lack an explanation for that thing. Dawkins overlooks the whole idea of a self-existent (as Rowe terms it) being, one whose explanation is self-contained in some sense. We do not need to explain why God exists because God is, as a putatively perfect being, the sort of thing that if it exists at all, it must exist. Something that exists and has the property of necessary existence is greater than something that exists but only has the property of contingent existence. (I'm not really convinced that necessary and contingent existence of things are properties of those things, but that's the basic theist idea anyway.) So, Dawkins really should pursue another line of argument here. Still, arguing that Dawkins is mistaken because he misunderstands divine simplicity is, I believe, completely wrongheaded, and that's Hart's strategy.

Hart criticizes the argument (immediately following) while making some gratuitous insults:
Numerous attempts have been made, by the way, to apprise Dawkins of what the traditional definition of divine simplicity implies, and of how it logically follows from the very idea of transcendence, and to explain to him what it means to speak of God as the transcendent fullness of actuality, and how this differs in kind from talk of quantitative degrees of composite complexity. But all the evidence suggests that Dawkins has never understood the point being made, and it is his unfortunate habit contemptuously to dismiss as meaningless concepts whose meanings elude him. Frankly, going solely on the record of his published work, it would be rash to assume that Dawkins has ever learned how to reason his way to the end of a simple syllogism.

Contrary to Hart's insistence, most of this doesn't really mean anything. (Oh no, I'm "dismiss[ing] as meaningless concepts whose meanings elude" me! I must be stupid or uninformed.) I don't know what the "very idea of transcendence" is or how it could entail simplicity, or what it means for God to be the "transcendent fullness of actuality", but it really is clear that God is complex in at least some sense. Maybe God is a single, non-physical substance with no parts or divisions and so is simple in that sense (assuming that is a coherent proposition), but God must be complex if we are to understand God as intentionally designing the universe. Take Leibniz' idea that God chooses the best possible world to actualize: God must hold the ideas of all logically possible universes and evaluate them for goodness, and then choose to create or actualize the one in which this goodness is greatest. That requires a representation not just of the actual complex universe but also of an infinite number of other universes, some of which must be at least as complex as the actual one. If God is capable of representing the universe, then God must have some mental complexity, something internal to God onto which God can map the possible universes. That is necessary for any concept of informational complexity, and so God must have at least that much complexity (of that sort). Similarly, if God is capable of representing all of mathematics, then God must have an infinitely complex internal representation of it. So, you can claim that God is a simple substance (although I've never been sure this is coherent), but you cannot claim that God is not informationally complex.

I'm sure I will be criticized for trying to understand God in human terms or overlooking his divine mystery or something, but this ability to represent or map is just a condition for anything having any information or knowledge of anything. If God doesn't do this, then God doesn't know it. (Maybe God "offloads" representations onto possible universes themselves, which God directly knows in that divinely mystical way. Then God wouldn't need internal representations. Possibly, but you'd have to accept David Lewis's concretism about possible worlds.)

On to my second point: avoiding defending Christopher Hitchens. I've never been impressed by Hitchens, and I don't particularly appreciate him being associated with atheism. Whether he's lying, arguing fallaciously, or just generally being offensive and insulting about the Iraq war, or whether he's doing those things on behalf of atheism, I wish he weren't making any of these arguments. That's why I haven't read his book, and so cannot defend him against Hart's criticisms.

But I am not just going to disclaim any interest in or responsibility for Hitchens. My purpose in mentioning this is to call attention to the following passage in Hart.

To appreciate the true spirit of the New Atheism, however, and to take proper measure of its intellectual depth, one really has to turn to Christopher Hitchens. Admittedly, he is the most egregiously slapdash of the New Atheists. . .

This is bizarre reasoning. Hart admits that Hitchens' arguments are the sloppiest of all the New Atheist arguments, and then insists that these arguments are the most representative of those New Atheist arguments. It's as though I wanted to criticize the Catholic church's stance on sex with altar boys by saying:
X priest has had more sex with altar boys than anyone in the Catholic hierarchy, but to take the proper measure of the pedophilia of the church overall, one has to focus on X.
Or, arguing that Germans are evil because:
Hitler is the most evil German in recorded history, and to take a proper measure of the moral character of Germany, one really has to turn to Hitler. . .
It's a strawman to take an extreme case as representative of a group in general, and Hart is claiming that we must take the most extreme case as the one most representative of the group. It's hard to imagine a more deliberate use of the strawman fallacy. My critical thinking students should thank David Hart for making their next exam that much easier.

Finally, I must regretfully return to my final comment on the argument about how atheists are supposed to feel about the non-existence of God. I had asserted confidently that it couldn't be that atheists were supposed to be missing something metaphysical such as meaning or objective morality, and concluded that it was probably fear of death and nonexistence that New Atheists were supposed to miss. Regrettably, I was mistaken about this. Hart really does think that if God does not exist, life is meaningless and some objective moral rules are upset.

He writes,

The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists, it seems to me, is rereading Nietzsche. How much more immediate and troubling the force of his protest against Christianity seems when compared to theirs, even more than a century after his death. Perhaps his intellectual courage—his willingness to confront the implications of his renunciation of the Christian story of truth and the transcendent good without evasions or retreats—is rather a lot to ask of any other thinker, but it does rather make the atheist chic of today look fairly craven by comparison.

This could be the first recorded instance of praise of Nietzsche by a Christian apologist, and I think I could be forgiven if I suspected Nietzsche was being used as nothing more than a tool to bludgeon the New Atheists rather than someone genuinely admired. But I am of too suspicious a nature and will let this pass. I do not, of course, know the contents of Hart's mind (or heart, for that matter). The substance of the argument above is only an appeal to emotion--admiration for Nietzsche's courage--rather than cogent argument, so let's move on to see what it is that Nietzsche faced courageously and New Atheists overlook.

Here's the first thing, continuing directly from the above:
Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness.

Hart claims that Christianity set up a system of morality, and rejection of Christianity would require some revolutionary replacement of its morality with a new type of morality. Or, in short, that morality (or our understanding of morality) depends on an overarching worldview such as Christianity, and there cannot be a coherent moral view that does not tie in to or derive from such a view. This is false. Morality does not depend on religion, whether Christian or otherwise. And our understanding of morality does not depend on it either. Take a simple example: no one accepts all the Biblical injunctions--Old or New Testament--we accept only those that make sense to us as good moral rules. Almost no one advocates stoning adulters or drunken disobedient sons. Even the New Testament has rules Christians ignore. Paul required that women submit to their husbands, wear their heads covered at church, and Jesus had some radical stuff to say about caring for the morrow and living in poverty. People test these rules against a preexisting (or logically prior) set of moral beliefs before accepting or rejecting them. So, morality must be independent, and knowable independently, of religion.

No one doubts that the way one is raised can influence one's moral beliefs, and that people raised in (for example) fundamentalist religious cultures will have different particular moral beliefs than people raised in more secular ones. But that does not mean that such a background is necessary for understanding morality. People raised in fundamentalist religious homes are more likely to reject evolution, but it doesn't follow that evolution depends on or is only knowable given some particular cultural background. It is possible to understand morality without accepting any set of religious presuppositions, so when we reject religion, we don't need some radical replacement of a religious worldview. We just need to reason out what the best moral rules are and try to follow them. This is easier said than done, but it's not impossible.

I am not a Nietzsche scholar, so I will not defend him on this, but the times were certainly different then. Atheism was a radical position that freed people from the mistaken moral views of their religion and revalued their values. But, as Hart earlier noted, we are a more secular society now, and we recognize, thanks to Nietzsche among many others, that we can develop a morality without religious input. We don't need Nietzsche's radicalism anymore; what was radical then is commonplace now. In fact, it's almost perverse that Hart wants atheists to reject Christian morality rather than accept that Christianity was simply correct that, say, people should care for others as much as they care for themselves, that we should see nobility in those who suffer as much as we see in those who conquer. These moral insights do not depend on the religion, and they need not be rejected because one rejects the metaphysical systems of theism or Christianity.

But, according to Hart, rejecting Christianity means rejecting much more. Atheism does not just demand a revaluation of values but a recognition of the meaninglessness of life. Hart interprets Nietzsche to be criticizing those like the New Atheists who:
do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

Certainly this is nicely put, but it's not true that meaning depends on God. A mechanistic universe is no more and no less meaningful than a divinely created, purposeful one. That one has been created for a purpose by another being is simply not relevant to the meaning of one's life. Imagine I create a human being in a lab (from chemicals, from quantum "nothingness", or somehow from true nothingness) and give him the purpose to clean my lab. Have I given that creation's life meaning? Is it any more or less meaningful than someone who does exactly the same things with the same enthusiasm (or lack of it) whom I have hired off the street? No, the meaning of this person's life is completely unaffected by whether he was created with a purpose or not. Whatever meaning is, it's not being created with a purpose.

Perhaps one will say that it is God's goodness that determines that his creation of us endows our lives with meaning. But if it is the fact that God created us with a good or correct purpose that makes our lives meaningful, then God's creating us is irrelevant. It's the goodness or correctness of that purpose that does all the work; my life would be meaningful as long as it fulfilled that purpose whether God created me to do it or not.

It may sometimes seem as though meaning is impossible in a mechanistic, cold, uncaring universe where our actions have only limited effects that dissipate into the infinity of the universe, where our plans all come to naught eventually in the heat death of the universe. But this is not relevant; if anything we do matters now, then it matters. That's enough for meaning, and the size and scope of our lives viewed against the infinite size and length of the universe cannot undermine that no matter how it seems to Hart or seemed to Nietzsche. This is not evasion; if what I do matters at all, it is irrelevant whether it matters now or ten million years from now or for all eternity. If it matters at all, that is good enough. (And whether it matters at all is independent of God.)

Atheism need not be bleak, lead to meaninglessness or depression, extinguish the beauty of nature or the goodness of humanity; it need not stifle our creative urges or replace art and poetry with drabness; it cannot destroy our hopes for the future. Atheists only recognize the reality of our universe and our relation to it without spiritual blinders or false hopes. And a world based on reason and love for humanity and all sentient beings in this world rather than a fantastical heaven, one independent of stale dogma and mystical mumbo-jumbo can only have a brighter future.


  1. Have you noticed how insular or parochial Hart is? Most of the people who've ever lived never came into contact with Christianity. Thus they were never able to heroically reject Christianity. Thus they never had meaning according to Hart? Perhaps I should have said that Hart is condescending?

  2. What do you make of all the commenters at First Things with allegiance to Aristotle/Thomas Aquinas? It is as if nothing new has occurred in philosophy/theology for 800 years.

  3. Michael, doesn't that Catholic church hold that the teachings of Aquinas are required belief? I believe related to that Aquinas is known as the apostolic doctor, as he's considered one of the eternal teachers of the church.

    Think of transubstantiation. There's the Aristotlean/Thomistic metaphysics of substance, essence, accidents. If you are a Catholic you're required to believe that at communion the substance wafer (host) becomes the flesh of Jesus (essence), whilst it's appearance (accidents) still that of bread. So, you could run any test you liked and it'd appear bread, but to the believer, it's the body of Christ. It's unfalsifiable, and completely arbitrary. How they then don't believe they're involved in canibbalism is unknown to me. Perhaps they don't think about it too much. But in any case, the Aristotelean/Thomistic metaphysics is central to Catholic doctrine.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Parochialism of Christianity is a problem that I've never seen adequately addressed. For Hart I suppose all the people for whom Christianity is never an option to accept or reject live impoverished lives. God's not giving such people the opportunity to make the momentous choice on which their eternal lives depend is obviously unfair. I think they have to say that God makes himself known to us directly somehow (through the operation of our conscience), but that's not enough for Christianity because you have to accept a lot that's not a priori knowable. I did once see a theist philosopher say that God would make everyone aware of him at death so people could choose whether to follow him with full knowledge of his existence. That's about the only way for God to be just when condemning people to hell but (1) who would fail to believe after that direct revelation? (2) why wouldn't God reveal himself earlier if he was going to do it at all? and (3) that's basically not Christianity as far as I've ever understood it which requires faith without complete knowledge.

    Michael Fugate:
    I barely had the patience to read the article. The few comments I looked at said things like: "I didn't understand a word of this but awesome!" I suppose everyone has mindless cheerleaders.

    The arguments for the existence of God haven't improved much since Aquinas' time, and that was when the Catholic Church represented the pinnacle of intellectual development. Maybe it's simple nostalgia. Maybe it's the last point at which they can all agree; if they cite someone later, they have to start excommunicating each other?

  5. Brian,

    Actually, the Catholic church doesn't require acceptance of Aquinas' philosophy, though many non-Catholics think so. He is only regarded as one of the greatest "teachers of the Church."

    Needless to say, as an atheist myself, I don't think there is anything in Aquinas' arguments, and I think ArithmoQuine has done a good refutation of them (at least on a preliminary level--of course, the arguments continue to get more refined as they rub up against each other). But I think it is important for atheists to understand exactly what Catholics and other religious people believe and don't believe, in order to avoid the attacks by Hart and others who claim that atheists are ignorant of religion.

  6. Hi, I am not a professional philosopher. A little red warning light goes off in me when as a nonprofessinal I may be asked to write in any amount on a "blank check" argument, that being the one said to be a professional, therefore (insert value here). No biggie.

    I ended up here because of a discussion that got into "what is atheism?" which led to David Hart, and then which led to here.

    On the topic of God and thought, it seems to me that there is going to be a foundational problem with the apprehension of God by way of thought. We are saying that we are referring to something infinite, and we are using a relatively finite capacity to do so. Therefore, there will have to be problems with any mind-approach to it, won't there? The words will have to miss something, however; they (thoughts/words) can be self-contained, and possess their own integrity, but they will have to exist, as we say in computer science, logically (not physically or in any real way), and like math there can be a perfect, closed system there, so long as reality is not what it is; so long as logic is what it is - finite and contained.

    Put another way, all of the thoughts are wrong regardless of who is having them.

    The part that I enjoyed the most about all of the discussion I have experienced is to revisit the older meaning of atheism, such as in my 1939 Webster's, where really, it is just a individual who is not using God of religion, and this includes someone who hasn't ever heard of such things.

    I find it a learning experience to see the good arguments presented against religious doctrine. Thank you. I especially like the comment about cannibalism in the case of the Catholic Church. However, I think it is inherent in religious systems to have to be wrong to some extent for reasons stated above, but alos to exist systemically, or mythologically, such as would be described as a system, albeit an imperfect one, in this case because a perfect system would not be finite and therefore is not an option.

    Targeting all of religion, as I see it, is a mistake. God is defined, in this world, too many different ways to do THAT well. Perhaps one at a time? I myself have enjoyed Dharma Hindu schools, but I would have no idea how to use an "ism" to say that I was describing myself well. Perhaps if I talked about it for a week or a month, then that would be a very long and wellconstructed name, but I am too unique.

    And this is where it comes back to finite versus infinite. Perhaps as only eluded to before, all mythological systems, with exception to the Greek, are systems. In architecture they are modeling, not truth. They don't have to be true to work like a system. If the system has its own integrity, then it runs. No doubt the Greeks abandoned their mythology because it was a hodge-podge and an amalgamation drawing from a dozen different cultures - that is their distinction. It is arguably the worst mythology any mythologist has ever seen.

    The limitations of man, and the imnd of man, can be put up on the table for consideration, and faulty arguments can be opposed. I tend to avoid this sort of thing. I do agree in the notion of a Nww Atheism as being something which my more recent dictionaries support that we are experiencing. It has shifted into being primarily defined, not as one who does not have a God, but as one who goes so far as to negate the doctrines of others. I think it takes an extra step to do that. In recent days, I have been given an appreciation for the traditional atheism.

    Thanks for letting me share,