The Reason for No God (The Endless, Pointless Litigation of Existence)

In this section Keller argues that we all must know God exists because we act as if life has meaning, and it can’t without a god. Without God, once human civilization is dead and gone, nobody will remember us, and nobody will remember whether we were peaceful or warlike, or good or cruel.

This is the final argument one of my friends rested on when I discussed god with him as a teenager, and it’s nonsense. The notion that there must be a cosmic scorekeeper for life to have meaning is childish and simplistic. Keller’s implied suggestion is that the only reason to do moral things is because you’re being watched and you’ll get in trouble if you don’t, the most superficial of reasons. The fact that humanity will come to an end and be forgotten is meaningless to the question, “What is right?” You don’t need god to be moral, as I’ve explained in the past few posts.

Do you need god for meaning? No. People don’t even behave this way. We imbue great meaning into all kinds of temporary things, youth, innocence, beauty, athletic ability, emotions, temporary art like sand castles and performances and food. These things are more precious and powerful because we know they are fleeting. On a grand scale the same is true for all of humanity, and on a not so grand scale for each of us individually. If we only care about the ultimate end of things, then youth, beauty and emotions fade, innocence is corrupted, sand castles crumble, and food turns to shit.

Is there meaning? Keller says we live our lives as if they have meaning, so god must exist to give us that meaning. This is another way of saying, “people wish there was a meaning to life, therefor there is, therefor god.” Just because we feel a need to have meaning, doesn’t mean there is. We, people, are perfectly capable of deluding ourselves when it’s productive, and it would certainly be productive in this case.

I know I seem to be contradicting myself, but I don’t think I really am. When discussing god there are often two levels of things. There is meaning, and then Meaning, as in the ultimate meaning. There is no Meaning, there never has been, and we don’t need it. There is regular meaning, though, and that’s nice.

Say you live like Keller, and derive meaning in your life from the knowledge that God is remembering, and will forever. But if he is wrong, he will never know. He will feel just as much meaning throughout his life using this strategy whether god exists or not. So how can the fact that people use this strategy be evidence of god?

If you find this disturbing and you think some meaning from your past may have been misplaced, don’t worry. There is no ultimate meaning, no cosmic plan, no end game but oblivion. I know this, you, hopefully, know this. Should we kill ourselves, or curl up in a ball and wait to die? Why would we? It has always been thus. All the meaning we found in life we gave ourselves, and we can keep doing so.


The Reason for No God (The Argument for God from the Violence of Nature)

Keller is still going on about this whole morality thing. In this section he says that nature is a purely violent place, where might makes right, and that the fact that we think differently argues for a supernatural explanation.

This is just wrong. There is a gradient of intelligence in the natural world and a gradient of “moral” behavior. Many higher complexity mammals display similar behavior to ours, protecting and adopting infants, for example, even if they aren’t of their species. What about all the dogs that wait for their masters and the dolphins that save swimmers? And of course there is all the cooperation we see in nature. The violence of nature is rarely wanton, it is always to survive. We do the same thing. Keller would say it’s wrong to kill people, but it’s right to kill people to keep from being killed, or to stop a killer. That’s what animals do, kill to keep from starving, or keep from being killed.

The difference from us and animals is the extent to which we can self analyze. We use this ability to augment our instincts so we can sometimes do better than nature can by itself. We can take our instinctual notions of what is good and bad and improve them. Modify them to include more people, more species, and in more situations. I don’t think this requires any deity.

Keller says it is wrong to napalm babies, but what he really means is that he can think of no situation in which the act of napalming babies would reduce the suffering of those babies, who we value highly. If there was such a situation, say, the babies were infected with an un-treatable disease that made them invulnerable to anything but napalm, but also caused constant agonizing pain before killing them in a few weeks… wouldn’t napalming the babies be exactly the moral thing to do?

I get that that situation will never happen, which is why it seems fine to make blanket statements about morality, but there are cases of ambiguity that occur all the time and making assumptions, as Keller says we must, is not the reasonable way to find the best outcome. Maybe the expedient, which is probably why the tendency is still in the gene pool.

Here’s a challenge for you to that might help convince you. Think of an example of a moral act that a religious person can perform that a secular person cannot. Now try to think of an immoral thing that a religious person can do that a secular person cannot. I suspect that second one will be easier.

The Reason for No God (The Grand “Who Sez?”)

In this section the unspoken premise from the previous post just becomes spoken, so there’s not too much more to say. The thrust of this section is that everyone knows that human rights exist, but that without god there is no external justification for any moral statement. Keller says without god there can be no “good” only things that you like or don’t like.

As I said previously I don’t agree with Keller’s premise that human rights exist externally to humanity somehow, that we discovered rather than created them. I also don’t agree that without god there is no justification for determining right or wrong. It is true in a philosophical sense that there would be no “true” right or wrong, it would just be what we’ve decided is right and wrong. I think this is how we operate already, some people just don’t know it.

Keller acts as if the alternative to god handing down morality is majority rule. He says this is a problem for anyone who thinks it is wrong for the majority to exterminate a minority, since apparently the majority think that it’s okay. This is extremely over simplified and ignores many alternative scenarios.

On a basic level, all people like the same things. Life is better than death, happiness is better than sadness, wealth is better than scarcity, health is better than sickness, etc. etc. People that disagree with these are in such a minority that they are considered ill and are treated or locked up. Now, clearly people disagree on how best to achieve happiness and health and such, but they are empirical things. They can be measured on a population scale, and therefor can be experimented with. For example, you could, as people have, go around the world and measure how well various populations are doing on these measures (happiness, health, etc.) and score them on variables of interest (women’s rights, wealth gap, etc.) and determine if there are any correlations. This would give a basis for what is right and wrong. If there is a known correlation between women’s rights and happiness, that would empirically suggest women should have rights. Further evidence could be gathered by active study of populations who switch between status of women’s right, one way or the other.

I admit that such a system would be far from perfect, but it seems to me to be a fairly viable third option that Keller ignores, and if there’s a third option, there are likely more.

If you think, as Keller believes everyone does, that human rights were discovered and not created, then how do you know? And how sure can you be? I realize a zealot can convince themselves of anything to 100% certainty, but most people don’t do that. If you’re 90% sure that something 100% evil, then isn’t that same as being 100% sure that the same thing has a 90% chance of being evil? Keller’s implied promise of perfect morality is betrayed because he offers no way of knowing what that perfect morality is. I mean, god, obviously, but as has been discussed previously in his book people disagree greatly on what god is, says, wants, etc.

The conclusion that human rights are universal and external comes from the belief in god, and therefor cannot be used as evidence for a god. Keller’s universe and my universe look the same. There’s no reason to choose his way of thinking unless one already believes in god. If you start with the null hypothesis that there is no god and look about the universe, there is nothing to suggest universal human rights. Keller is taking a mistake brought on by belief in god as evidence for god. Nothing more.

12 steps

I have been annoyed by 12 step programs since high school when I first read the steps after hearing about how many people are sentenced to take them and their success rate (bad). Obvious breach of separation of church and state.

This post has two purposes. One is to make more known what the 12 steps are, since most people don’t realize how faith based, nonsensical, and redundant they are. The second is to promote skepticism, which I’m always about. The most recent Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast contained this gem. I didn’t find it written down on the web anywhere, though, so figured I’d go to the trouble. The skeptics don’t really need 12 steps, so we use some of the extra ones to be cheeky, so it’s not all seriousness.

Original Skeptic
1. We admitted we are powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. 1. We admitted that our cognition, perception, and memory are flawed and pseudoscience and gullibility are rampant.
2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 2. We came to accept that the process of thinking critically is more important than any belief.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood him. 3. Acknowledged the utility of methodological naturalism as a way of empirically understanding the world.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. 4. Made a thorough study of the various mechanisms of self deception, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies.
5. Admitted to God, ourselves, and to other human beings the exact nature of our wrongs. 5. Acknowledged to ourselves, others, and on the internet, that we are skeptics.
6. We’re entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. 6. We vow to listen to the SGU every week without fail.
7. Humbly ask God to remove our shortcoming. 7. Listen to Geologic, too.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. 8. Endeavor to examine our premises and logic and correct any misinformation or misconceptions we may have spread.
9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. 9. Correct errors and false statements on blog posts and within forums unless doing so would make you a dickish troll.
10. Continue to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it. 10. Continue to keep all opinions and conclusions tentative and revise them in the face of new ideas or information.
11. Sought through prayer and medition to improve our concious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out. 11. Sought through study and research to improve our critical thinking skills and keep up to date on basic scientific literacy.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs. 12. Having become more skeptical ourselves we will engage in skeptical activism and outreach to make the world a more skeptical place.

The Reason For No God (The Difficult Issue of Human Rights)

If you’re following along you’ll see that I’ve skipped a section. The section, The Problem of Moral Obligation, is just another anecdote that means nothing and only serves to set the stage for Keller’s arguments. There is nothing directly claimed and therefor nothing to refute or argue about.

This section begins Keller’s long, confusing journey into the issue of human rights. In this section he basically makes two points. First, that there is a basis for human rights if there is a god. Second, that there isn’t if there isn’t.

I have a bit of trouble with this, and some upcoming sections in Keller’s writing. The unspoken premise is that there needs to be some basis for human rights, that they can’t just be a good idea we came up with. I don’t know why this is. It seems clear that that’s what they are. I think the whole argument Keller is making here is pointless. There is no basis for human rights, and the fact that there isn’t is not at all troubling and does not indicate the existence of a god. A lot of Keller arguments seem to be of the form, without god X about the universe sucks, therefor god. This is, literally, the definition of wishful thinking and does not constitute reason.

This need for a god to be the base cause for why being a good person is a good idea is silly to me. It is another version of the extra unnecessary layer problem. Can you spot the unnecessary steps?

Simple View Religious View
Q: How did the universe begin?
A: I don’t know.
Q: How did the universe begin?
A: God did it.
Q: How did God begin?
A: I don’t know.
Q: Why is it good to be good?
A: Just because.
Q: Why is it good to be good?
A: God says so.
Q: Why does God say so?
A: Just because.

If it makes you uncomfortable to think that something like human rights is on shaky ground, I can offer some comfort. First, we are social creatures. We have evolved to try and understand one another and work together, so to a certain extent, empathy and honoring human rights is in our nature. Second, historical evidence suggests that countries with the best human rights policies are the most productive, stable, and happy, so there is no reason to get rid of them unless one is pursuing directly contrary goals, like, say, the Nazi’s. Perhaps not as comforting as a god, but at least mine are logically consistent and verifiable.

Without God, Keller and Nietzsche say, there is no meaning to life, no intrinsic value to humanity. This is correct. The universe does not care that we exist and it will not care when we are dead. We care, because we are humans. We give meaning to our lives. That meaning is not universal and it is not ultimate, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or matter. We can improve, which is exciting, and we can decline, which is scary. We decide what is improvement and what is declination, which is also scary. Keller’s proposal to put your trust in a deity doesn’t ultimately help, though. It might feel nice, but in the end we would still have to figure out what was good, and people would still disagree and we’d still have to work it out. Change, in both directions, is just a lot easier without 2000 year old books and zealotry holding us back.

I figured out why I feel weird about these sections. I am conceding his point. He is correct. Without god, x, y z. I agree. It’s just that the absence of x, y, and/or z is not evidence for god.

The Reason for No God (The Evolutionary Theory of Moral Obligation)

In this section Keller dismisses evolutionary explanations for moral behavior. He claims that there is consensus that natural selection does not work on entire populations, and that there is no mechanism for modern morality to evolve in individuals. He brings up specifically our feeling that it is moral to help those outside our groups and to do so even when nobody will know.

Keller is making a few major mistakes in this section. One is to radically over simplify how natural selection and evolution work. The second is to assume that if he can’t think of a way for natural selection to work, that it cannot work. He makes this second one because he believes is has a better alternative, I assume “god did it”, but as I’ve pointed out over and over, that is not a useful or plausible explanation.

Keller admits that it makes sense for natural selection to favor altruistic behavior amongst those in our community, since if I save my sister’s life and she reproduces that’s half my gene’s being replicated. He then extrapolates that harming those not in the group would also be moral, implying that this is a problem. Except for basically all of human history this was the case. It still is unless you’re being asked a question by a priest. We love killing the bad guy. That’s how you get honor and that’s why the crusades weren’t condemned. If we relied exclusively on our evolved traits I think there’d rarely be a compunction against killing someone not from our tribe.

Modern morality is a largely learned behavior propagated by society. Keller is correct that natural selection does not work on populations, but societal norms, memes, can evolve over populations. Communities that encourage group to group altruism can form alliances to defeat common enemies, and eventually most societies, including our own, teach a morality that defaults to altruism, even to help strangers.

Keller asks why we’d be compelled to do moral things even when nobody is watching. What does that have to do with evolution. Instincts do not normally depend on an audience to kick in. Not that Keller is even right about this. Many studies have shown how people are way more likely to act morally if they are being watched. I would attribute this to the societal origin of much of morality. If god made us moral he certainly wouldn’t have built in caring about whether you’re being watched.

Perhaps my societal model of morality is wrong. The subject is very difficult to study and science is far from having definitive answers on such things. I think it is a more plausible explanation than Keller’s, and I present it as an alternative, since Keller acts as if there are none.

Here’s another. Perhaps humans evolved altruism in order to protect those around us, who, at the time it evolved, were almost certainly a family member, and so had evolutionary benefit. But in the past few thousand years we’ve structured our lives so we are surrounded by more strangers than family members. Our gene’s don’t know this, though, so when we see someone in trouble we spring in to action to help, our genes assuming they’re a cousin at least.

Here’s another. Perhaps we evolved an in-group out-group altruism dichotomy. We form an idea of who’s in the in-group as we develop and help whoever is in it. Early in our history that would be people of the tribe or village we lived in, people we saw every day. However, the mechanism for forming this internal in-group is flexible. As time passes more and more people have expanded the notion of who is in-group to include people of the same language, or race, or nation, or religion, or people with similar philosophical values, or same sports team affiliation, or now the whole world.

I don’t know where human morality comes from. I suspect it is a very complicated thing with many influences. I will continue to think on the subject and support people who want to do experiments to answer the question. Keller doesn’t know where human morality comes from, either, but since he thinks there is a god, he never will. One thing is certain, Keller’s contention that morality could not be a natural phenomenon is wrong. Just because you don’t know how it works, or science doesn’t know how it works, doesn’t mean god must be involved. If everyone thought like that, we’d never have learned anything.

…Also, I’ve come up with three plausible explanations in 15 minutes.

The Reason for No God (The Concept of Moral Obligation)

If you’re following along you’ll know we are on a new chapter, and that I have skipped a section, Free-Floating Morality. I skipped that section because Keller makes no actual claims in it, but instead relates an anecdote about people who don’t know why they believe what they believe. This, like all anecdotes, provides nothing in the way of evidence, the section exists only as a precursor to Keller’s larger point.

In this section Keller asserts that all people feel a set of absolute moral values and moral obligations. He says everyone believes that there are some things that are wrong regardless of what the people doing them think. That’s pretty much all he claims in this section.

Amazingly enough I’m going to disagree even with this assertion. I don’t think this is true of everyone, or anyone. I don’t hold the false dichotomy alternative position Keller offers, that of absolute relativism either, however. I certainly believe that people are doing “wrong” things, even if they think they’re doing “right”, but I don’t think the things are just wrong because they’re wrong. There is an underlying reason. Say, murder is wrong, but it’s wrong because it increases suffering and destroys something that cannot be replaced.

Now, you could say the underlying values are the morals, like that happiness is good and sadness is bad. I would argue that they’re just logical conclusions based on experience, though, which is not what is typically understood by the term “morals”.

I suspect that people that hold classical “moral” beliefs are doing the same calculations I am doing, just unconsciously. Morals is a sort of short hand, a stereotype for actions. Instead of evaluating each circumstance to base values people tend to lump them into categories for faster results.

If you disagree, and you believe, as I suspect Keller is leading to, that god has anointed us with a sense of morality, then I would wonder why morality is so different across the globe. There are no universally held morals, which is odd if god gave them to all his children. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Reason for No God (The Clue-Killer is Really a Clue)

This section is the conclusion of the clues (somehow I thought there’d be more) in which Keller sums up all the inconclusive arguments he’s made and presents the total as extremely compelling evidence for the existence of god. He says non-believers, although they can avoid the conclusion that god exists from each of the clues, must still admit that the big bang happened and the universe is fine tuned and that there is no reason to expect such things without a god. And that non-believers resort to using their faculties and the constancy of nature in assessing the world, but that there’s no reason to expect such things without god.

I don’t wish to rehash all the arguments I made against the individual clues again. From my perspective, and hopefully yours after reading my retorts to each clue, they are all wholly unconvincing. The sum of any number of completely unconvincing clues, to me, is still unconvincing.

The answer to all the assertions Keller makes in this section are in previous posts on the individual clues. Please reference those posts if you have any questions.

If, for some reason, you are convinced by Keller’s clues, I would just like to remind you that he is speaking of an abstract supernatural force, not any particular god. In fact, the god Keller argues for, due to the clue of the regularity of nature, does not interfere with us humans. So, even if I’ve been ineffective in my attempts to persuade against Keller’s position, his position is no where near explaining why the Presbyterian God is what is out there.

The Reason for No God (The Clue Killer)

In this section Keller provides no clue to the existence of a supernatural entity, but refutes a common critique of other clues. The clue killer is evolutionary biology. This section is fairly long but can be summed up concisely, as Keller did in closing.

It comes down to this: If, as the evolutionary scientists say, what our brains tells [sic] us about morality, love, and beauty is not real–if it is merely a set of chemical reactions designed to pass on our genetic code–then so is what their brains tell them about the world. Then why should they trust them?

Earlier, I wrote that Keller seemed to indicate that he understood what science was. This section argues strongly against that.

The simple answer to Keller’s question is that scientists don’t trust what their brains tell them. They do experiments as tests. As I said in the previous post, science was developed as a process to sort out things that are true from things we only think are true because of all the mistakes our brains make.

You could argue that experiments are not good enough. Scientists still have to see with their eyes and think with their brains, ultimately. Even if the experiments can be replicated by others and be used to make airplanes and cell phones, that doesn’t necessarily mean that what we experience is the true reality.

Philosophically this is correct. There is no way to know for certain that what we experience has any relation to reality. Science assumes that the universe exists, that I exist, and that I can observe the universe. From there it went on to double the human life span and stuff like that.

All the advancements and interwoven explanatory power of science might all be an illusion, it’s true, but that doesn’t get a believer in god anywhere. All it does is make any knowledge impossible, making any possible belief equally likely. It would be exactly as likely that a trillion trillion ant gods are dreaming our existence without knowing as they battle for the cosmic corn kernel as that the bible was accurate.

Nobody really thinks this way anyway. If they want to call into question the validity of science they have to reject one of the assumptions of science, and there are only those three listed above. I don’t think they can creditably do that, since rejecting any one makes living fairly impossible, and certainly makes having any sort of argument about the nature of the reality impossible.

This is not to say that science is perfect or that it can never be wrong. Any specific belief in science can, and should, be questioned whenever possible, but Keller is trying to question the entire methodology of science as a way of knowing things, and he has no basis for doing so.

Keller doesn’t like some of the current hypotheses of science and he has proposed alternative explanations as rivals. The alternative explanations are unconvincing, however, since they do not fit in with what is known with the rest of reality, and they are tinged with his obvious bias towards a belief in a Christian deity. He feels ever more threatened because the more we do experiments the more evidence we find against his position. Rather than adjust his beliefs, which would be the reasonable thing to do, he tries to come up with a catch all reason why science doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, the best one he can come up with invalidates all his arguments as well and makes life incoherent and debate meaningless. Still, he includes it in his book about reason. This is a clue to the strength of his position.