Friday, August 03, 2007

Atheism Friday: back-to-basics edition

Amidst all the rough and tumble of recent debates about belief and reason, it is sometimes possible to lose sight of the key issues involved. This is partly driven, of course, by the rather circuitous (read: desperate and flailing) logic that emerges from the realms of the faithful. Trying to respond makes nailing jell-o to the wall seem easy.

It is thus sometimes refreshing to have a nice, concise statement of the issues at stake, one that efficiently pierces the theological smokescreen.

It's even better to have two such statements.

First, at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers makes such short work of Alistair McGrath that I almost feel sorry for the poor theology professor. Or, at least I would if he didn't have such a nice cushy job at Oxford despite having such breathtakingly banal thoughts. (If you think I'm being harsh on him, you can see him in full blither in this interview filmed for Dawkins's documentary The Root of All Evil.)

Myers always writes well and gets to the point very quickly, but this filleting of McGrath's arguments has something nicely elegant (and, as Geoff points out, practically surgical) about it.

I am, moreover, grateful to Dr. Myers for bringing this t-shirt explanation of Christianity to my attention:
Christianity: The belief that some cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
(Actually...that makes it sound far more interesting than it typically is...)

Second, for your listening pleasure, A. C. Grayling is interviewed at philosophy bites about atheism (or, as he prefers to call it--and I agree--'naturalism'), science, ethics and death. It's all of 12 minutes long, and it's full of all kinds of relatively basic-but-fundamental (and in many ways profound) insights. (Via Norm)



Rob Jubb said...

Although I don't know the precise details of McGrath's argument, if it is anything like what I guess it is - that not all phenomena are best explained using the set of tools associated with naturalistic scientific investigation, and hence, one shouldn't necessarily expect an adequate explanation of religious claims from such investigations - Myers just asserts the premise McGrath denies against him - when he says that everything is to be explained by naturalistic scientific investigation. That is not a filleting of McGrath's argument. I happen to think that McGrath's claim is true about some non-religious phenomena - a scientific explanation of the pleasures of reading a well-written passage in a novel does not seem the most useful or interesting way to describe that event - although I doubt it is true about religious premises. If Myers wants to argue against McGrath, he needs to engage with that.

Neither is the 'sometimes we posit currently unobservable entities/events as explanations of currently observable entities/events' a gotcha. At best for Myers, McGrath seems pointing out that belief in a god is compatible with a rejection of the premise I am attributing to him. This does not commit him to that claim. At worst for Myers, McGrath is pointing out a feature of explanation in general, rather than scientific explanation in particular; that it relies on unobserved entities - as we might infer my dislike of spinach from my refusal to eat spinach, despite the fact that I have not affirmed the claim that I dislike spinach, none of which is obviously a scientific explanation - to explain observed ones.

J. Carter Wood said...

Rob, thanks for the question. The reply is in a new post. Here .