Belief in God

Discussion forum held at the ANU, Canberra on 9 April 2012 entitled “Belief in God: Prohibitive or Liberating? “. Dr. Lawrence Krauss and Uthman Badar discuss the following and related questions.

Is belief in God rational or irrational? What role should religion play in our private and public lives? Is science sufficient to make religion redundant? Is the way forward for humanity in the 21st century a return to God or the completion of secularisation process of modernity?

Two hours of talk. No death threats!

4 thoughts on “Belief in God

  1. I’m glad I watched this — well, the first 40 minutes, anyway — but I found it disappointing. Both sides engaged in rhetorical excesses while doing little to address the philosophical issues involved. Badar, at least, invoked some relevant philosophy; but his arguments were flawed and his approach seemed irrelevant. Krauss did much worse, I think, and I find it regrettable that he represented a side for which I have more sympathy in this debate.

    In Badar’s opening remarks, he first pointed out at length that many people who helped develop the scientific method were Muslims living in the Islamic world. True — but so what? This doesn’t show or suggest in any way that their ability to reason was somehow the _result_ of their being Muslims or even theists. So that doesn’t really seem relevant. Next, he pointed out, again quite correctly I think, that one needs implicit or explicit philosophical commitments in order to do science. I have no objection there, but what is meant fo follow from all this? Badar seems to think it follows that there is no good basis for accepting a naturalistic presupposition (that is, the preference of a non-supernatural explanation over a supernatural explanation of some range of phenomena). But that doesn’t follow at all. Believers and nonbelievers alike see the importance of preferring explanations that involve only natural, familiar events. Badar concludes his opening remarks by saying that quantum weirdness is no more weird than religious weirdness. There he overlooks an important difference: quantum theory is required in order to explain a range of phenomena that have been tested more precisely and more times than, it seems, any other phenomena in empirical science, while accepting the existence of God entails a greater commitment with no real increase in explanatory power.

    Krauss, instead of exposing these problems, far outdoes Badar in throwing insults at the other side: he repeatedly claims that Islam is ‘irrational’, ‘nonsense’, and so forth, without doing much of anything to substantiate these inflammatory comments. He clearly seems uninterested in persuading his host audience; but that leaves it as unclear what he hopes to accomplish in the debate. He suggests that Mohammad may have been a con man, and does much more to provoke the religious (and particularly Muslims) into hating him, but I didn’t see anything in his arguments that a religious believer can’t easily deal with. Moreover, he misses the point of Badar’s discussion of logic. Badar wanted to show that not everything is justified empirically: for example, the logical framework ‘All As are Bs, C is an A, therefore C is a B’ which is the form of ‘All men are mortal…’, etc. can be apprehended only through reasoning, not by observing anything. Krauss not only misses what Badar is saying, but actually makes matters worse by going on the offensive: he claims that it is only through observation that we see that all men are mortal. But Badar never said that the _premises_ of such an argument were a priori; only that the _logical form_ is.

    I didn’t see much point in watching past the end of Krauss’s response. Did anyone else?

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  2. I got to about 45 minutes when my computer overheated and crashed. After reading jfromc’s comments and fixing the computer problem I decided not to watch the rest. I was hoping for a good debate with Krauss championing the side I am on, but alas he was not very good. His work in this debate reminds me so much of the way discourse has become merely shouting insults and attacking straw men in much of the political “conversations” of the day.

    We do need to combat the anti-science movement in our culture but also the anti-philosophy movement engaged in by several scientists (Krauss is one of them) who could use a refresher course in logic and reasoning (as pointed out in the comment above). I have never been a great fan of debating; it never has seemed to me to provide the best way to discover the truth of a position, but is more of an entertainment (sometimes indeed very entertaining). My favourite fictional debate is in a novel by Peter DeVries who has a local minister and a local atheist square off in the community high school gym to a large crowd of excited citizens. By the time the debate is over the two debaters have switch positions! The atheist now sets up an institution to convert others and the minister has lost his faith. It’s a brilliant scene. The book is “Slouching Toward Kalamazoo”. It is 1963 in an unnamed town in North Dakota, and Anthony Thrasher is languishing for a second year in eighth grade. Prematurely sophisticated, young Anthony spends too much time reading Joyce, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas but not enough time studying the War of 1812 or obtuse triangles. A tutor is hired, and this “modern Hester Prynne” offers Anthony lessons that ultimately free him from eighth grade and situate her on the cusp of the American sexual revolution. Anthony’s restless adolescent voice is perfectly suited to De Vries’s blend of erudite wit and silliness—not to mention his fascination with both language and female anatomy—and it propels Slouching Towards Kalamazoo through, theological debates and quandaries both dermatological and ethical, while soaring on the De Vriesian hallmark of scrambling conventional wisdom for comic effect.

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  3. I agree with you that formal debates are often disappointing. I don’t really know why that is: they’re exactly the sort of thing I think I would love! I do like informal debates better, for some reason.

    Yes, now that you say it, the start of this debate really does remind me of the degenerate way political discourse has gone of late. Have you read Jonathan Haidt’s new book _The Righteous Mind_? Haidt proposes many interesting ways to get political discourse back on track. One etiology he considers for the present state of affairs is Gingrich’s revamping of the model along which political representatives interact. He says that before Gingrich, Republicans and Democrats and their families would often have dinner with one another. But now, representatives are discouraged from moving to Washington with their families, and from fraternizing with the ‘enemy’. This makes it easier, Haidt thinks, to view opposing representatives as no more than exponents of a stupid and evil political view.

    Reading the book made me feel even more strongly that I should make the most of my personal contacts with the political and religious right, and do so in sincere and respectful conversation, so long as those on the other side do so as well. When I think about the friends and colleagues I have whose views are radically different from my own, I come up almost empty. I don’t think that’s a good thing!

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  4. “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.” –Albert Einstein*

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