Friday, 2 September 2011

Uncommon sense

The Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft (see his website here) writes about the existence of god and has a large following. Google returns about 470,000 results from a search on his name. His writings are a splendid example of alphatuosity and as good a place as anywhere to start my crusade.

Most arguments for the existence of God turn out to be variants of one of three ideas: the argument from first cause, the argument from design and the argument from natural law. In this post I am going to discuss only the first of these, which Aquinas was the first to articulate. The argument says that all effects have causes in a chain that extends back into history until we arrive at the First Cause. The first cause is declared to be itself uncaused. It is a brute fact, stated as a premise of the argument. That's all there is to it. Aquinas was simply saying that there must have been a first cause, which we call God.

Aquinas's reasons for thinking the premise reasonable are subtle and ingenious, especially when viewed in the context of what passed for an argument elsewhere in the 13th century. He didn't know about atoms and quarks and quantum mechanics and therefore couldn't have realised that it is very far from clear that all effects have antecedent causes or, at any rate, that these effects are independent of observation. The reason the argument fails, however, even if one allows Aquinas's unbroken chain of cause and effect, is that the premise - that there must be a first cause and we might as well call it god - is silly. For it begs the question that every thoughtful child eventually asks. Who made god? In Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell disarms the idea with an analogy. 

'It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindus view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the ele­phant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, How about the tortoise? the Indian said, Suppose we change the subject.' 

1. All effects have tomatoes.
2. The first tomato was a turnip.
3. Therefore turnips are ultimately responsible for all effects.

In this argument, 1 and 2 are premises. They are stated as facts, not to be disputed within the bounds of the argument. Point 3, the conclusion, is logically inescapable if the premises are accepted.

1. All effects have causes.
2. The first cause was God.
3. Therefore God is ultimately responsible for all effects.

Hopefully it is now clear that the difficulty with these arguments is not in the internal logic, which is inescapable, but with the soundness of the premises.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the fact that smart children spontaneously appreciate this flaw in Aquinas's great argument is sometimes taken as a reason to doubt that the flaw exists (what, that old argument?). This objection is truly feeble. If a fatal flaw in an argument is so obvious that untutored children appreciate it, surely that should be cause to doubt the argument, not the children?

I am not especially concerned here to establish the validity or falsity of the argument from first cause. So far as I am concerned, Russell's question about what the tortoise is standing on demolishes the argument. If you disagree with me and agree with Kreeft that it's tortoises all the way down, we are just going to have to park that disagreement for a time, while you go away and think about it.

What I am interested in is showing how alphatuists fool others, and perhaps themselves.

At the end of his essay, Kreeft approvingly quotes C.S. Lewis:

'I felt in my bones that this universe does not explain itself'.

There are two curious things about this quotation.

The first is that these words were written by G.K. Chesterton, not C.S. Lewis. Perhaps Kreeft felt in his bones that it was the sort of thing that CS Lewis might have written. Perhaps the error doesn't matter very much because C.S. Lewis certainly did have such intuitions about the universe. He wrote, for example, in Encounter With Light, the unanswerable and moronic question:

'If you are really a product of a materialistic universe, how is it that you don't feel at home there?'

and, in Miracles,

'How could an idiotic universe have produced creatures whose mere dreams are so much stronger, better, subtler than itself?'

A better question might have been 'How come natural selection didn't expel such idiotic alphatuists very early in its history?'

The second odd thing about Kreeft's use of the phrase is his evident approval of the notion that gut instincts are a good guide to the truth. He makes this point explicitly at the start of his essay when he says that the First Cause argument is 'basically very simple, natural, intuitive, and commonsensical'.

Appeals to intuition and common sense are frequent in alphatuosity. Practitioners regularly encourage their disciples to trust their intuitions even, or especially, when they conflict with reason. You do not have to be an evolutionist to see why intuition is a terrible guide to the truth, though it helps to have a grasp of how natural selection works.

Consider for a moment the theory of relativity. According to this theory, the faster you travel, the slower time passes, relative to an observer at rest. So if you get into your starship and whizz off to Mars at light speed, you'll have aged a little bit less than your friends back home when you return. If you spend decades rushing very fast around the galaxy, like Lieutenant Ripley in the Alien movies, you will return to find that your children have grown old and died before you get home. Does this make sense? If it does then perhaps you are a genius on a par with Einstein, whose counter-intuitive insight makes him one of the most revered figures in the history of science. Or what about quantum mechanics? Is Schrodinger's cat alive, dead or undead? Or, bringing the debate back down to earth, can a gene for tasting great to predators spread? Yes it can.

Common sense is in ordinary language the name for the rules of thumb we use to evaluate minute-to-minute decisions in life. It works really well because ancestors whose rules of thumb encouraged them to discuss vegetarianism with the saber-toothed tiger did not leave descendants. Our ancestors never faced situations in which they were traveling at warp factor nine, nor did their survival depend upon an appreciation of the quantum mechanical events 'occurring' in the subatomic particles of which they were composed, Common sense is therefore silent on these issues and it requires a huge intellectual effort to grasp, let alone manipulate the equations that govern these counter-intuitive truths.

The argument from first cause is a historical curiosity that gives us a glimpse into the frightening minds of our not-very-distant ancestors. Aquinas, enlightened by the standards of his day, also wrote 'Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.' As Richard Dawkins put it succinctly in The God Delusion, 'nice man'.

Whereas Aquinas had an excuse for being a complete wanker, Peter Kreeft does not. Whereas G.K Chesterton (just about) had an excuse for thinking that feeling something in your bones is grounds for rejecting the entire post-enlightenment scientific enterprise, you have no such excuse. If you listen to the siren calls of alphatuists who command you to obey your intuitions, you are destined to founder on the unforgiving reefs of reason. The truth, as Fox Mulder so rightly said, is out there. Go find it. Or if you really still want to believe in God, here are 666 reasons to do so. Thanks again to R, the source of all interesting factoids and websites for directing me to the link.

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