Monday, June 25, 2018

Atheism and Agnosticism

Graham Oppy is commonly regarded as the top atheist philosopher of his generation. By that I mean, not necessary the best philosopher who happens to be an atheist, but a philosopher who specializes in the defense of atheism. I'm going to comment on some statements he made in his recent book: Atheism and Agnosticism (Cambridge 2018).

3.7 Anomaly

Some people think that theism can have an explanatory advantage when it comes to reports of the occurrence of miracles. Religions are replete with such reports, in their accounts of the lives and deeds of their founding figure, in the episodes recorded in their central texts, in the accounts passed down in their oral traditions, and, often enough, in their contemporary deliverances.

i) That's a serious overgeneralization. In Islam, the central text is the Koran. That attributes no explicit miracles to Muhammad. Supplemented by the Hadith, there may be two alleged miracles (midnight ride to Jerusalem, splitting moon). 

ii) Not all religions have founders. Hinduism has no founder.

iii) Accounts of Buddha were written long after living memory. 

iv) There are questions regarding the historicity of Lao-Tzu:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/laozi/

Is he even considered to be a miracle-worker? 

In general:

http://bib.irr.org/jesus-zoroaster-buddha-socrates-muhammad

v) Are the Gospels based on oral tradition? 

In order to assess this claim, we need to consider the wider background. True enough, if miracle reports were accurate, they would pose severe challenges to naturalists: miracle reports typically describe events that defy explanation by well-established science. But it should be remembered not only (a) that all religions have their own miracle reports...

Does Oppy think non-Christian miracles are somehow inconsistent with the truth of Christianity? If so, how so? 

...but also (b) that there is a vast range of other reports that are prima facie challenges to well-established science. Consider, for example, reports across the extraordinary range of conspiracy theories, alternative medicines, and cryptids (creatures recognised only in folklore, such as chupacabras, sasquatch and yeti) that are prima facie challenges to well-established science.

Depends on how these are classified. For instance, if the sasquatch existed, what kind of entity would it be? Natural or supernatural? What's possible or probable for a natural entity isn't the same for a supernatural entity. Different rules. 

Likewise, conspiracy theories usually involve human agents (unless you include ufology), so we evalulate conspiracy theories based on what's likely given human psychology. 

It is obvious to pretty much everyone that almost all of these reports of ‘anomalous’ entities and events are cut from the same cloth, and it is obvious to pretty much everyone that almost all of these reports are false. 

See above. In addition, alternate medicine sometimes has a placebo effect. And occasionally, folk pharmacology is genuinely therapeutic. 

Moreover, it is obvious to pretty much everyone how these reports are to be explained. We are all fallible; we all make lots of errors. We all like to have tidy explanations; we are all disposed to make stuff up. We are all prone to false attributions of agency; we are all prone to seeing agency where there is only happenstance. 

Oppy is attempting to dismiss all reports without having to examine any reports. But the rational procedure is to examine the cases with the best prima facie evidence. 

Moreover, we are all disposed to believe what we are told by those we take to be authoritative, and we are all disposed to pass on things that we are told by those we take to be authoritative. 

To begin with, Oppy assumes that evidence for miracles is confined to testimonial evidence. But many people claim to believe in miracles, not because they were told that by someone "authoritative," but based on their personal experience or the report of a trusted friend or family member. Not a religious authority-figure.  

It is entirely unsurprising that there is local uptake of falsehoods, including, in particular, minimally counterintuitive falsehoods, i.e. falsehoods concerning entities and events that are strikingly different from familiar entities and events along just one or two dimensions. Inevitably, some falsehoods become entrenched in particular communities; inevitably, some falsehoods become attractors for further theorisation; inevitably, some falsehoods receive institutional support. While it is never the case that these falsehoods are supported by well-established science, and while it is never the case that these falsehoods have global acceptance, these falsehoods can become deeply entrenched, and they can be accepted by large populations for millennia.

How does Oppy know these reports are never supported by well-established science? What has he actually studied? What about medically verified miracles? 

Naturalists suppose that something like the above account – which everyone accepts for some range of cases – applies to all cases. All reports of miracles and sightings of cryptids, and all conspiracy theories and alternative medicines, that constitute prima facie challenges to well-established science should be rejected. Given their provenance, it would be absurd to give significant credence to reports of any of these things. 

Notice that he's bluffing his way through the issue with airy generalities. 

No one has the time to exhaustively trace the histories of all of the reports of these things, no one has the time to exhaustively weigh the relative merits of the cases that can be made for each of them, but it would be impermissibly arbitrary to accept some without having checked – with at least the same degree of sympathy and attention – whether there are better cases for others.

But that's a straw man. You pick the best examples. And there are collections (e.g. Craig Keener, Robert Larmer).

Given the entirely uniform account that naturalists give of the full range of reports of entities and events that are anomalous with respect to well-established science, it is highly implausible to claim that there is an explanatory disadvantage that accrues to them. 

What if a uniform account disregards specific evidence to the contrary? 

When theists from different religions disagree about who really worked miracles, and about which texts accurately record miracles, and about which contemporary events really are miracles that support particular religions, it is clearly an explanatory advantage for naturalists to be able to chalk all of this disagreement up to special pleading.

How much does he actually know about comparative religion and the state of the evidence? Take The Cambridge Companion to Miracles. The evidence is not on a par. 

3.9 Scripture

Some people think that theism can have an explanatory advantage when it comes to the existence and content of the central texts of theistic religions.

Some people suppose that there is evidence for the non-natural origins of the central texts of given religions in (1) alleged literary merits of those texts, (2) successful detailed predictions of future events in those texts, and (3) confirmation of the material that is found in those texts in (a) the alleged superiority of the distinctive moral and social teachings in those texts, (b) the advanced scientific knowledge that is contained in those texts, and (c) the inclusion of information in those texts that could not possibly have been possessed by the authors of those texts.

These considerations are all very weak. (1) Most central religious texts are canonical literary works for adherents of those religions; judgements about the literary merits of those texts is hopelessly controversial. (2) Given what we know about the redaction of these texts – and the uncertainties involved in dating their initial composition and subsequent redaction – there is no consensus on even one successful detailed future prediction in any central religious text;

What does he actually know about the history of their central religious texts? What secondary literature has he studied? With respect to the Bible, has he studied both sides of the argument? 

(3) Given the many barriers to confident interpretation of these texts, the many uncertainties about their redaction and reproduction, and the depth of disagreement about moral and social matters, there is no consensus that any of the central religious texts is marked by any distinctive kind of superiority.

Atheists are typically quite confident in their interpretation of the Bible. They think it's often mistaken. Can't have it both ways. 

Some people have claimed that, because there is evidence in the historical record for the existence of natural entities and the occurrence of natural events that are recorded in those texts, we have evidence for the reliability of those who compiled them, and hence reason to accept the claims that they make about the existence of non-natural entities and the occurrence of non-natural events.

This argument is also very weak. Even if there were evidence for the reliability of the authors of these texts with respect to the existence of natural entities and the occurrence of natural events, that would be negligible evidence in support of the claim that the authors are reliable with respect to the existence of non-natural entities and the occurrence of non-natural events. 

Why? If they're trustworthy reporters when recording natural events, what suddenly makes the same reporters untrustworthy when recording supernatural events? 

Moreover, typically, there is hardly any evidence that the authors are reliable in connection with the existence of natural entities and the occurrence of natural events. Sure, the texts sometimes refer to genuine historical events involving genuine historical figures in genuine historical locations. But that does not come close to establishing that the authors are reliable recorders of the existence of natural entities and the occurrence of natural events. What are missing from the historical record are multiple independent confirmations of detailed descriptions of the existence of natural entities and the occurrence of natural events – and the existence of non-natural entities and the occurrence of non-natural events – in central religious texts. 

What does Oppy know about archeological confirmations of John's Gospel or the Book of Acts? If these were written by authors out of touch with the historical setting, how can they be so accurate? 

Even where there are multiple detailed descriptions of entities and events in different central religious texts, we always have compelling evidence that the texts were not produced independently of one another.

What's his compelling evidence that that's the case? 

There is nothing in the existence and content of central religious texts that favours theism over naturalism. Every best big picture says that almost all central religious texts, insofar as they are taken to be truth-assessable descriptions, are full of historical, moral, social, scientific, philosophical, and theological falsehoods. Every best big picture must explain the existence and content of all central religious texts. Best naturalistic big pictures have a uniform story to tell about all central religious texts. That leaves them very well positioned, and not in the least in need of engagement in the kind of special pleading characteristic of best theistic big pictures that claim support from the central texts of theistic religions.

He seems to be winging it from start to finish. 

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