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An only half-decent summary - contains errors!,
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This review is from: there was no Jesus, there is no God (Kindle Edition)
Well, Raphael Lataster's book has a provocative title so why not follow suit - `contains errors!' indeed, more of which later, where, if you will bear with me, I will attempt to argue that, contrary to Mr Lataster's conclusion, there most probably is a God.
But before we get to that, a quick overview of the book...which is a somewhat mixed affair.
A large portion of the book (the first 130 pages or so) concentrate solely on the `there was no Jesus' claim. Here, Lataster's writing is clear, well-reasoned and supported by decent footnotes and sources.
It's a good summary of the arguments put forward by independent authors and scholars such as Robert M. Price, Earl Doherty, Richard Carrier and Bart Ehrman.
It's handy to have a concise summary and I would recommend this section of the book as a good primer for the Jesus Myth Hypothesis, though anyone who's already read the aforementioned authors won't discover anything much new here. Up to this point I was impressed by the writing style and the book was heading for a three star review.
Perhaps it was an editor's or publisher's decision to pad out the book with the shorter section `there is no God', and if so, this was surely a mistake. The writing style drops down a gear or two, out goes the sober and scholarly reflection and in comes an all too familiar and tired `New Atheist' style. Glib and predictable humour, sweeping generalisations and more than a touch of over-confidence or arrogance, creep into the writing here. I fully understand why atheists get angry and impatient with similarly glib and arrogant apologists, but this tactic and style is self-defeating, in my opinion.
The 'there is no God' section contains some sloppy writing and dubious reasoning and, as such, cannot be recommended as a good introduction or summary.
The author's attempt to dismiss certain philosophical arguments is rushed and unconvincing and his `evidentialist' conclusion is ill-founded since it, all too casually, dismisses or is unaware of important areas of evidence.
What follows is a somewhat lengthy and self-indulgent, but nonetheless relevant, discussion of some of the arguments raised in this section of the book. I do not believe it is necessary to have read the book to understand my points, but obviously it helps!
As a brief disclaimer: if I have misrepresented the author I apologize, that was not my intent. Also, I do not consider myself immune to sloppy writing or poor reasoning here, but bear-in-mind I am not publishing this in book format nor am I asking you for your hard earned money.
Let the games commence..
The author's little game of debunking the God hypothesis goes something like this:
1. All personal experiences of God or spirit are to be discounted since these experiences are either fraudulent, a sign of mental illness, or are produced by the brain.
2. All historical claims concerning God must be discounted. We must interpret the past in ways that do not allow for a god or supernatural events.
3. All philosophical arguments for God are a waste of time and this can be demonstrated by means of a philosophical argument.
4. The only evidence that counts is scientific and empirical. There is none.
Okay, so I'm aping the author's style here, but it remains, I think, a fairly accurate representation of his position.
Let's examine some possible problems with each of these `moves':
1. Personal experience:
Firstly, the author claims to be an 'evidentialist' - someone who values evidence above all else. Yet he devotes an entire two sentences to this field of possible evidence. This seems suspiciously like he is trying to downplay it. I wonder why...
Bear in mind, it only takes one case to be genuine and the entire 'there is no god' hypothesis collapses.
As the author is backing the claim `there is no god' he falls under the banner of `strong' or 'positive' atheism and thus cannot fall back on the oft repeated get-out clause `the burden of proof lies with the theist'.
The author provides no evidence for the extraordinary claim that all personal experience of God is either a lie or a delusion. All he asserts is that some may be explained in this manner, which is undeniable and given human nature to be expected, and a vague implication that cognitive science might have something to add on the matter - though what that might be is not stated.
At this point, it may be worth mentioning that Lataster also allows for the possibility that `an alternative God' may be the source of personal experience. This is very odd.
If the `alternative God' theory is just a logical possibility, with no evidence to suggest it's a real possibility, then the author is being inconsistent in his arguments - under sections 3 and 4 he argues against philosophical arguments in favour of empirical and scientific evidence. If there is empirical evidence for `alternative gods' then the author's hypothesis fails i.e. `there is a god', and if not he shouldn't use non-empirical/scientific arguments to support his case, since he has stipulated that such arguments are worthless.
In short, he cannot have his cake and eat it.
2. 'history cannot prove the miraculous as it is a probabilistic discipline, and we ultimately determine what is probabilistic on our observations of how the world seems to work' (p172)
The key phrases here are: `how the world seems to work' and 'probabilistic'.
The author's main argument is that 'naturalistic' explanations are always more probabilistic than 'supernatural' explanations.
He says 'any naturalistic explanation makes for a better historical argument' (p149) which reveals exactly where he stands. What was obviously not so clear to the author is that he is engaging in double standards and circular reasoning. Let's unpack this a little...
If any naturalistic explanation is more probable than a miracle, then we have defined a miracle as something so improbable as to be impossible (since we can just keep coming up with more and more naturalistic explanations - no matter how crazily improbable - they always trump the supernatural). This is not reasonable scepticism, or open-minded truth seeking - this is dogma.
Let's take `naturalistic' events and place them on a scale. Some are more probable than others. Some are quite ordinary events (probable) whilst others are extraordinary (improbable). Still keeping within Lataster's `natural' framework it is fair to say that some events can be described as very extraordinary (highly improbable).
Now, if miracles are considered merely `highly improbable', and not impossible, then they cannot be discounted as possible actual events since some actual 'naturalistic' events are also highly improbable but nonetheless occur.
As some of the events that occurred in the past will be extraordinary, unusual or highly improbable events, we thus cannot rule out miraculous events occurring in the past merely on the grounds that they are highly improbable.
To end the game, we need new grounds to reject miracles. Hence, Lataster not only moves the goal-posts, he shifts the entire playing field.
Note, it is not the `playing field' (or method) of secular historians that is faulty, it's the author trying to take the `there is no god' game onto that playing field - where it doesn't fit and can't possibly win.
In simple terms, there are two forms of this argument:
(i) The strong form: miracles are supernatural - only natural events occur - therefore miracles do not occur.
(ii) The weak form: miracles are highly improbable - therefore miracles probably don't occur.
As we have seen, (ii) does not perform the trick Lataster wants, so he slides in (i) without anyone noticing (including himself I suspect).
Argument (i), though logically valid, simply defines miracles as events that do not occur. As I said, dogma. It uses the anachronistic terms 'supernatural' and 'natural' ,which are left undefined by the author, assuming we all know exactly what is meant by them.
Behind them lies the assumption that (a) science fully understands the nature of reality or at the least (b) 'how the world seems to work'. Trouble is (a) is a delusion and (b) cannot conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, that ultimate reality precludes miracles occurring since we are a possibly a long way from, and may never reach (a).
Scientists, or the scientifically minded, may object at this point and say, `the chance of new scientific discoveries rendering humans potentially capable of walking on water is nil'. Fair enough, what about healing miracles? Are they to be dogmatically denied possibility too? What about communication with un-embodied minds? Oh wait, the author has already dogmatically denied that possibility...(see below)
So...we have a historical method that is defined by a contemporary secular ideology that is assumed to be a correct understanding of ultimate reality.
The perceived lack of evidence for God that defines the method leads to explanations derived from using the method which are then used as evidence to disprove God. Circular reasoning par excellence.
`Historical claims of God fail simply because of what history is' (p171)
The author is lost in his own game of semantics. If Lataster thinks this constitutes evidence that there is no God he is fundamentally confused since he is mistaking `what history is' i.e. the past, or `what actually happened', with the historical method i.e. History - as practiced by historians, or `what we can say probably happened (according to fixed, predetermined probably correct assumptions)'.
That Lataster cannot see this suggests that he may have fallen into the psychological and ideological mirror image of his opponents (becoming a dogmatic debunker). Or that he simply rushed this part of the book.
In attempting to decide the truth or falsity of recorded events that occurred in the past it is probably more suitable to act more like private detectives than secular or religious historians.
Private detectives are not bound by a single method. Also, their ideology or world-view is their own and is malleable, not something dogmatically pre-determined or imposed by others. They will use their personal experience of the world as well as evidence derived from a number of professions, but their final conclusions are not constrained by the methods or ideologies of those professions.
3. Suffice to say, it doesn't require a trained philosopher to see this is a little dubious.
Again, the author often dismisses arguments, such as the teleological and cosmological arguments, in a few sentences. This is not good enough, especially when a cursory, and free, online search could produce deeper and more thorough explorations of the subject.
What's more, the author's dismissal of the teleological argument (`fine-tuning') is another case of engaging in double standards.
On pages 150-51, he makes some broad and vicious swipes at philosophers in general, whose arguments have 'not been confirmed by rigorous testing', that simply 'come about by thinking' and are 'lazy, ambiguous, speculative, discriminatory and often appeal to ignorance'. Phew! No room for ambiguity there.
Presumably then, for any argument to be deemed valid by the author, it must be unambiguous, proven (not speculative), indiscriminate and confirmed by rigorous testing.
Pity then, that, according to highly respected philosopher of science Karl Popper, all scientific theories and laws are conjectures i.e. speculative in nature and can never be deemed conclusively proven by any amount of repeated observation or testing, no matter how 'rigorous', and must, to some degree, remain tentative and open to falsifiability.
Perhaps, given his views on the subject, Lataster wishes to precede with his case against God without any examined philosophy of science behind his `evidentialist' position. Fine, but if so, he shouldn't be surprised when his arguments collapse under scrutiny.
The author has been quite clear that he does not value logically plausible explanations unless they are backed by rigorously tested empirical evidence.
Yet, what do we find when it comes to his refutation of the `fine-tuning' argument?
`Given that fine-tuning could plausibly be explained by explanations such as chance or physical necessity, and the total lack of positive evidence for any design hypothesis, the arguments are totally underwhelming.'
What's that? `Could plausibly be explained'? You mean the type of plausible explanation that has just `come about by thinking'? The type of argument that says `well, it could be this or it could be that' - that is, a speculative and ambiguous argument?
And what of this `total lack of positive evidence for' fine-tuning? How was this conclusion reached?
Let's hope, for the author's sake, it wasn't reached by 'simply thinking' or a discriminatory appeal to ignorance, something like:
`well, we don't know how improbable this universe is since there could (according to some theories which are yet to be empirically confirmed), plausibly, be billions of universes - therefore, we can absolutely discriminate against the plausibility of this universe having been fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent life (even though it might appear that way to some people), on the grounds that we just don't know that is the case.'
Another piece of cake, Raphael?
4. Presumably, God will have to enter physical reality in the present moment (since all historical claims are discounted) and perform a number of `supernatural' tricks in front of a conglomerate of world scientists who, having witnessed said events, are then pronounced sane and free from delusion despite our previous insistence that all personal experience is to be discounted. Only then will the God Hypothesis be worth considering.
There is one main problem with this, besides being plainly absurd. The God Hypothesis is not a scientific hypothesis. Lataster has been reading too much Dawkins, perhaps.
Scientific theories or hypotheses are attempts to explain how certain facts fit together. These theories have a universal property in that they deal with classes of facts rather than specific facts. They also have a relational property in that facts relate to one another within the theory, but also - crucially - to possible facts outside the theory.
Scientific theories need to be falsifiable, that is, it is not only the relation of facts inside the theory that count. The theory needs to be able to withstand repeatable experiments involving predictions and observations. If observations do not match predictions and certain facts are deemed to fall outside the theory, then - following peer-review, repeated experiment and subsequent confirmation of said facts - the theory is considered refuted and a new, more encompassing theory is developed.
To suggest that the God Hypothesis is a scientific hypothesis is to suggest that scientists have access to all the facts in existence and are capable of arranging said facts into a Grand Universal Theory of Everything (G.U.T.E. for short).
However, and here is the crux of the argument, in order to be considered scientific, this G.U.T.E. must be open to the possibility of facts existing outside the theory. This is a logical paradox.
It seems to me that - not only can the G.U.T.E. not contain itself as a fact within the G.U.T.E. but the G.U.T.E. by definition would be irrefutable and hence non-scientific.
Note: the G.U.T.E. is not just a theory about physics - it must explain everything - consciousness, art, love, meaning, history, psychology, spirituality etc. etc. Some people believe physics can ultimately explain all these things, but regardless of this reductionist approach the G.U.T.E. will still remain logically non-scientific (and metaphysical) in nature.
Which, thanks for your patience, brings us to those errors, or more specifically - one great clunking error with huge implications...
On page 157 we find,
`So what is the evidence of the existence of unembodied minds? There isn't any.'
Bear in mind, this conclusive claim does not arrive at the end of some lengthy discussion on possible evidence for un-embodied minds. No, Lataster is saying there is no evidence whatsoever. None. Zilch. No room for doubt, `humility' or `not knowing' here - aspects that the author, in his concluding remarks to the book, claims to value.
Let's be clear, this isn't some inconsequential side-issue, this is a game-changer. If it can be demonstrated that there is, in fact,decent evidence to suggest that a mind can exist outside of a physical body then we are some considerable distance closer to the probability of an universal unembodied mind...or God.
So, where is the evidence? Obviously space permits any details here, but a good place for the author to start is Chris Carter's trilogy of books surveying the evidence for the survival of human consciousness after death. If Lataster has another definition of `unembodied mind' I can't think what it might be.
At the end of nearly 900 pages of scholarly and well-researched analysis, Carter concludes,
`..belief in survival is justified by the logical evaluation of the evidence' which `stands up to the most severe critical scrutiny' and that there is `an utter lack of evidence' for alternative explanations of the best cases (such as super-psi, elaborate conspiracies or fraud).
He concludes that, beyond reasonable doubt, the `survival of human consciousness past the point of biological death is a fact.'
(p288-90 'Science and the Afterlife Experience - Evidence for the Immortality of Consciousness', Chris Carter, 2012)
In other words, Carter concludes there is enough evidence, both empirical and scientific, to support the hypothesis that the mind can exist beyond the physical body i.e. `unembodied', (let's ignore subtleties regarding theoretical `spiritual bodies').
This is perhaps Carter's only forceful assertion in the entire course of his study, but after so much work he's earned the right to make such statements whether you agree with them or not. And please note, I am not asking Lataster (or other atheists) to agree with Carter's conclusions, merely some acknowledgment and understanding of the data would be nice.
Lataster clearly hasn't done the work in this area, in fact he is either ignorant of it, lying, or is deluded, (just giving the author a taste of his own medicine here!).
Regardless of which it is, Lataster's false statement is an excellent example of why Bayesian theory (which the author supports) might be flawed, since, in it's calculations of the probability of certain hypotheses, it requires the input of `all the evidence' and , as we can see, vital pieces of evidence can be missed. `Garbage in, garbage out', as Lataster puts it himself, or more accurately - `incorrect assumptions in, incorrect probabilities out.'
So...as we have seen, there may be good reason to doubt that materialism is an accurate description of reality. I encourage all open-minded truth seekers and genuine sceptics to inspect this evidence for themselves.
Science is meant to operate in such a way that when the data is consistently shown to conflict with the hypothesis, the hypothesis is withdrawn. Although there are notable exceptions of renowned scientists accepting the role of consciousness as a fundamental aspect or requirement for physical reality, it is fair to say that acceptance of this hasn't happened within the mainstream, and that materialism is still the default position of many scientists.
Why this may be the case is a huge topic but, suffice to say, science, due to it's origins and the present state of our world, may believe itself to have vested interests in protecting certain dogmas or prefering certain metaphysical hypotheses. Reasonable people don't wish to return to a pre-scientific era and many scientists may fear that allowing for the possibility of an afterlife for example, or the existence of psychic phenomena, might open the door too much to the religious dogmatists and new age cranks. One of the main tactics employed for dismissing these phenomena is to present logical possibilities (`naturalistic explanations') that, no matter how implausible or irrelevant to the actual evidence, are deemed `most probably correct' since the only other option is unthinkable. The `unthinkable' is that the very foundations of science (or perceived foundations) will collapse.
For what it's worth, I feel this fear is ill-founded and erodes the notion of science's objectivity and adherence to the data. It essentially promotes ignorance, dishonesty and delusion - things that, ironically, most atheist sceptics would claim to be working against.
If then, it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that survival of human consciousness beyond biological death is a fact, this fact can be used to support the hypothesis that a universal unembodied mind, or god, exists.
The nature of this mind and it's interaction with the physical dimension, may remain mysterious / open to interpretation, but it's possible, indeed probable existence effects the meaning of all human existence.
Raphael Lataster is simply wrong when he asserts `from an evidentialist perspective, there is simply no good reason to believe in any sort of supernatural god'(p172).
Finally, the author's closing advice on how to live one's life needs a mention. `Have fun and don't hurt anybody' is perfectly fine advice, as far as it goes. Which, in my opinion, isn't very far, or deep.