The Crowhill Weblog - Content

Thoughts on life — News, culture, politics, beer, art, science, education, religion and ethics

Sites endorsed by Crowhill:
The Krehbiel Report on Publishing

Why stupid arguments about the existence of God are more important than you think

by Crowhill on 24 November 2015

I had a religious experience back when I was in high school. After a night spent consuming things that shouldn’t oughta be consumed, I awoke very cold and very hungry in a cabin on the top of a mountain. I went outside to get some air, and while I was admiring the view down the valley I had the experience that a Huge Being came from some infinite distance in a flash, and was now filling all available space right behind me. I was too afraid to turn around and look.

(Somewhere I heard that this kind of experience is not all that uncommon and is a type of out of body experience.)

Please interpret the words “had the experience” above in a very guarded way. I didn’t see, hear, feel or smell anything. I just knew, with some indescribable sense, that God was standing right behind me, and that he was asking me if I would give up my atheism and believe.

When I decided that I would not, the Huge Being simply disappeared as if he’d never been there.

It’s worth wondering what would have happened to all the atheist arguments I had accumulated over the years if I had said yes. Would they all have immediately lost their persuasiveness? Would I have suddenly believed arguments I had rejected up to that point?

I have never credited this weird experience as anything more than some trick of my brain as my body was disposing of unwanted chemicals. But I thought of it when I read this: The bland leading the blind: a conversation on atheism between Gary Gutting and Alvin Plantinga.

Alvin Plantinga argues that belief in God is analogous to other beliefs that are justified even if they can’t be proven. Similar beliefs would include a belief in the existence of other minds, or a belief that the past actually happened. He calls them “properly basic beliefs.”

A lot can be said for and against that idea, but while I was reading the uninteresting article I link above, it occurred to me to wonder whether any ordinary thing that we believe — such as that Alvin Plantinga is an actual person — could survive the relentless assault that belief in God is expected to survive.

Arguments for the existence of God are often subjected to some pretty strict scrutiny. Some people would say that’s the way it should be, because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

But that’s precisely the rub. Why is a claim that God exists an “extraordinary claim”? Who gets to make that call?

If I were to label “the past actually happened” as an extraordinary claim, you would be hard-pressed to prove it. Clever debaters can come up with all sorts of reasons to doubt the proposition, and none of the arguments that the past actually happened are conclusive. That is, they’re not conclusive if you hold the proposition to a strict level of proof — such as the level of proof some people expect for the existence of God.

I see this sort of thing in Facebook discussions all the time. Someone says there is “no evidence” for X, or that Y has been conclusively proven. But it all depends on how proven “proven” has to be, and how much skepticism you’re going to apply to the evidence.

We all see it every day. Arguments that confirm a person’s prejudices are considered convincing to that person, while unwelcome arguments fall on deaf ears.

When it comes to God — or the existence of the past, or the existence of Alvin Plantinga for that matter — the 800 pound gorilla is your prejudices. If “God exists” is subject to incredibly strict scrutiny, you will never be able to prove it. You can decide for yourself how much scrutiny the question deserves, but it’s important to be honest about it and think about the implications. You can’t prove “Alving Plantinga exists” either, if you subject it to very strict scrutiny.

As a former theology / apologetic geek, I used to look down my nose at silly arguments about the existence of God. But now I’m not so sure.

I’m beginning to think that it all comes down to whether you consider the proposition odd. If it seems perfectly natural to you that there should be a God, then you won’t have a hard time finding arguments to convince you. If, on the other hand, the idea of God seems very strange to you, you’ll never find arguments strong enough to convince you.

The battlefield, then, is not over the ontological argument, or the historicity of Christ, or anything egg-heady like that. The battle is over whether God is like Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy, on the one hand, or whether it’s crazy to believe that order and meaning can come from chaos on the other. That silly stuff is what changes attitudes, and … as we had to say before karate class … attitude is everything.

4 comments  ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-24  ::  Crowhill

Ruled by my unconscious mind?

by Crowhill on 23 November 2015

A lot of brain research that I’ve read about recently promotes the idea that our conscious mind is far less in control than we think it is. Studies seem to show that we make decisions before we are consciously aware of making the decision. (Here’s an example, but there are lots of articles like this.)

Even worse for our self-esteem, in some cases we seem to fill in justifications for our decisions after the fact, and sometimes those justifications are nonsense. For example, some people, for weird medical reasons I don’t understand, have one half of their brain detached from the other. In this situation it’s possible for researches to isolate the interaction with each hemisphere. When they give certain input to one side of the brain, then ask the other side of the brain to explain it, the explanation is ridiculous.

I don’t think it’s wise to make too much of studies on people with their brains cut in half, but … still. There is a growing body of work that seems to indicate that we decide things and then think about them. Some people — especially people who want to promote a mechanical view of human behavior — push this a little far and speak as if the conscious mind is just along for the ride and doesn’t actually contribute much.

Here’s a slightly different explanation for what’s happening, courtesy of me, and based on nothing more than my own perceptions of how my mind works.

Let’s take the basic facts of the research as given. ISTM this is what’s happening. Our reflective conscious mind is constantly training the unconscious mind in how to respond to different issues in the same way that an athlete trains his body with drills. He drills the correct procedure over and over again so that muscle memory can kick in when it’s needed.

It would be silly to say that the body is doing all the work and the drills are irrelevant. Rather, the drills train the body.

In the same way, our conscious evaluations and re-evaluations of our decisions are what’s priming the subconscious mind to know how to act.

As an example, our family recently faced a decision about holiday scheduling. I was immediately certain that one decision was the right way to go, but it took me a while to understand exactly why so that I could express it clearly and explain my decision.

It’s not that my conscious mind is following my subconscious mind, as if my subconscious (mechanical) mind does all the work and my conscious (stupid, post hoc explaining) mind is just along for the ride. They’re both me, and they’re both the result of years of thinking about things and making decisions. They simply have different roles in the process of choice.

14 comments  ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-23  ::  Crowhill

“Self identify” confuses me

by Crowhill on 18 November 2015

I either am something or I’m not.

If I am that something, then what is added by “self-identifying” as it? Isn’t that just … being aware and having a brain and so on?

If I’m not that something, then “self-identifying” as it means that I’m delusional.

The only situation where “self-identifying” sounds like it might be a good thing would be if, for example, someone thought he was a poached egg, and he was in therapy to “self-identify” as a human.

7 comments  ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-18  ::  Crowhill

Today’s Obama word dump

by Crowhill on 17 November 2015

Peevish, petulant, lecturing, sophomoric, posturing, disconnected, annoyed, adolescent, posing, condescending, incompetent.

9 comments  ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-17  ::  Crowhill

The false dilemma in the Syrian refugee debate

by Crowhill on 17 November 2015

It seems to me that we’re only being offered two choices, and are being forced into a false dilemma.

There’s the compassionate but foolish option, where we provide necessary assistance for people who have been displaced by the Syrian conflict, but risk inviting a bunch of lunatics into our country.

Then we have the safe but paranoid and heartless option, where we refuse to help people in need out of fear that some of them are sneaking in to cause mayhem.

Clearly these are not the only options.

We could help them settle elsewhere, such as in the unused refugee camps in Saudi Arabia.

Or we could settle them here, but subject them to strict supervision. American citizens enjoy all sorts of freedoms, but there’s no reason we have to extend those freedoms to refugees. We could, for example, fit them with tracking bracelets and keep an eye on them, which seems like a small thing to ask in exchange for refuge.

6 comments  ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-17  ::  Crowhill

Audacity and ruthlessness

by Crowhill on 17 November 2015

You should read this. A war about nothing.

The West’s response has so far been an impossible combination of recklessness, fecklessness, and denial. We went into Iraq in 2003 with enough force to destroy the Iraqi Army, but without enough boots to enforce the peace. We continue to squander blood and treasure in Afghanistan, 13 years after that war’s main aim — really, its only achievable aim — had been won. We turned our backs on the only government in Egypt willing to take on the Muslim Brotherhood, just as we turned our backs on Iraq for ignoble reasons of domestic politics. An imprudent air war ruined Libya and created a safe haven for ISIS, and added precipitously to the flow of migrants to Europe — jihadis swimming among them in a furtive invasion. Then there is Syria, a cauldron of misery, the birthplace of the Islamic State, a training ground for jihadis, and a proving ground for Vladimir Putin’s newest weapons and for his renewed imperial vision.

And of course Iran, tantalizingly close to becoming the first nuclear-armed terrorist state. Western governments seem inexplicably and obliviously happy to pony up $150 billion for the pleasure of listening to chants of “Death to America” while Iran’s most advanced centrifuges spin and spin and spin.

Bush bungled the Iraq war, but in un-bungling it, President Inept has made things far worse.

After Friday’s attacks in Paris, the only two qualities we should look for in our next president are audacity and ruthlessness. All the rest is fluff ….

He’s exaggerating to the point of being flat wrong, but it’s a perspective that a lot of folk are going to have sympathy with.

People wonder why Trump and Carson have done so well. It’s because they refuse to bow to political correctness, which sensible people are realizing is no longer confined to laughable silliness at universities. It’s come to the point that people are dying because of PC foolishness, and there is legitimate fear that it will only get worse. The useless establishment is complicit. So we see the rise of anti-PC candidates. There’s a nice version and a mean version.

All this faux tolerance and liberal nonsense has to be stopped. If it’s not stopped in 2016, I fear what kind of candidates we’ll have in 2020. They’ll make Trump look like a statesman.

1 comment  ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-17  ::  Crowhill

What ISIS really wants

by Crowhill on 16 November 2015

This is a very interesting and frightening article. What ISIS Really Wants.

These people are serious, and only a dedicated, long-term response from the west will stop them.

 ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-16  ::  Crowhill

How can France bomb an ISIS training center?

by Crowhill on 16 November 2015

Did you ever read or see Patriot Games?

There’s a scene in there where they call up the location of known terrorist training camps all over Africa. They decide to send in a team and take out one of them, but my reaction to the scene was why not take them all out? I simply don’t understand this. If we know that there’s a terrorist training center in a certain location, why is it still there?

On Monday, France targeted a command center, a recruitment center, an ammunition storage base and a training camp in the city, the French military said.

Good for them. But if western intelligence already knews what these things were, why didn’t we bomb them before?

7 comments  ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-16  ::  Crowhill

In a sane country, I would be able to take a gun to work tomorrow

by Crowhill on 15 November 2015

I’m not particularly scared of terrorist attacks. I realize that car accidents and blood clots and mundane stuff like that are far more likely to kill me.

But when crazy people are on the move, it makes sense to take reasonable precautions. Carrying a pistol with me into DC would be such a reasonable precaution.

Unfortunately, I live in an insane country.

 ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-15  ::  Crowhill

“Tolerant,” “multi-cultural” society is a lie

by Crowhill on 15 November 2015

Paris attacks put dagger through heart of liberal Europe

It has always seemed like a foolish dream to me. The sad thing is that innocent people had to die for it.

I hope they wake up.

 ::  Add your comment  ::  2015-11-15  ::  Crowhill

2015-11-05 :: Crowhill // General
A new role for the VP?
2015-11-04 :: Crowhill // General
“They were starved for it”
2015-11-03 :: Crowhill // General
It’s not the law. It’s who acts.
2015-11-02 :: Crowhill // General
Book of the Month?
+ 1 comment