Thursday, January 12, 2012

Talking about God (for fun and profit?)

...and we're back! So before I forget, Hairy Eczema and Flappy New Ears to all!

I was recently prompted to do some thinking about God as a result of a piece of debate I was included in on the mighty Book Of Faces. Specifically the thinking I needed to do was about Richard Dawkins' arguments about the non-existence of God, and my problems with Richard Dawkins (and, by extension the people who most commonly argue with him).

Strangely enough, my issue with Dawkins isn't his aggression and regular use of mockery (though I think these are unhelpful) - I object more to his conflation of spiritual and religious thinking with the power structures that tend to grow up around religions over time. Dawkins' opponents seem to me to suffer from a very similar problem. They seem to be stuck in a rut of attempting to defend willfully illogical ideas and corrupted institutions quite uncritically, when it seems to me that by sacrificing some of those more superficial trappings of their religion, they could still salvage the core more or less unscathed.

Now, Richard Dawkins does provide a pretty solid mathematical argument for the probable non-existence of God (or at least an argument that suggests most of the things commonly said about God are wrong)*. This is not necessarily fatal for theists/not-totally-materialists though - Alan Moore, for example, cheerfully admits that the god he worships was probably a sock puppet. More problematic (were it true) is the harm that Richard Dawkins claims is caused by the very act of belief.

He puts the Crusades, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and the various horrors of ultra-orthodox Shariya law*** (amongst many many other things) at the foot of "belief" on the grounds that only by believing in some god could we justify doing such awful things to each other. Unfortunately for Dawkins' argument, humans are quite good at justifying doing awful things to each other on irreligious grounds as well.

I think that most of the stuff that Dawkins (and those who agree closely with him) wish to blame on religion can be more accurately blamed on religious leaders and organisations who are more interested in maintaining their own position of power than in the teachings of their various faiths. The reason this rings true for me is that  you can see the same kind of behaviour by power-elites who exist outside of religious groups - it seems counter-intuitive to me that there's really something magical about religious belief that totally switches people's brains off. Power-worship seems like a far more likely culprit.

Which brings us to Dawkins' detractors. My problem with churches is that they seem to me to be primarily organisations of social control. The spiritual core of most religions is self-improvement along various lines, but this has little to do with the daily machinations of, say, the Catholic Church.

I spent 4 years doing a job which required me to listen intently to a minimum of one church service a week. I was recording them to be broadcast, which meant I had to pay much closer attention than many church-attendees (I suspect) in order to catch any verbal slip-ups so they could be corrected. The thing that struck me was the disconnect between the words of Jesus quoted from the Bible, and the interpretation applied by the church people. The words of Jesus seemed to me to place the power of his message directly in the hands of his Disciples, and by extension his followers. The standard church interpretation, however, claimed that he'd empowered the organisation, rather than the people.

My point is, that the best defense a Theist can take to Dawkins' mathematical info-theory argument, is to abandon some of their dogmatic points about God and the organisations that humans have built up around him. This would result in an infinitely less rules-lawyer-y approach to spirituality****, and make them essentially immune to arguments from the likes of Dawkins. For example, the Dune books provide a good example of what an omniscient being would need to look like for their existence not to violate human free will. Not that all spirituality needs to come from 70s science fiction, but it does provide a blueprint for thinking outside the box about this stuff.

The only problem with my suggestion, as far as I can see, is that by sacrificing dogma and their big Clubs O' The Saved, theists lose the ability to claim that they have a particular right to tell people what to do. And there, I suspect, lies the rub...

* I'm not going to go into it in the main text of the post, because understanding it properly requires being a maths-nerd of the kind which I am not, and because explaining it properly would cause me to ramble even more than is usually my wont. If you're interested, Richard Dawkins explains the relevant bit of information theory in more depth than I can be bothered to here.

A rough summation of his information-theory argument for the non-existence of God goes something like this:

  1. A thing's "informational content" is the amount of bits of information we'd need to make a correct guess about its existence and attributes in the absence of any other context that would explain it for us**.
    1. Therefore, the higher a thing's informational content, the less chance we have of making a correct statement about it without the addition of some provable information.
    2. There's a mathematical formula for precisely how much each bit of information reduces our uncertainty if you want to follow the link, but it's not actually necessary to understand the point of the argument.
  2. Some Theist philosophers have argued that God has an infinite informational content. This is also a potential consequence of interactions between some of the attributes traditionally ascribed to God by Theist philosophers.
  3. You have an infinitely-small (functionally zero) chance to make a correct statement as to the existence or attributes of a thing with infinite informational capacity unless you have an infinite number of bits of information about it.
  4. The possibility of God's existence (or at the very least anybody's ability to make a correct statement about God's existence or attributes) is infinitely-small - functionally zero.
** A neanderthal might find a computer pretty mystifying, but modern people have enough other contextual information for even reasonably un-computer-literate people to know that they're reasonably common in the First World at least, and have some idea of the things they can do.

*** I'm pretty sure that we only ever hear about insane applications of Shariya law in the West - honour-killings and all that madness. I don't know of any sane applications of it (and can't be bothered trawling right now) but I'm pretty sure that if they exist we won't see 'em on the News.

**** And precisely how could a more adaptive spiritual approach possibly be a bad thing? Sure, people will come up with crazy new prejudices to replace the old ones they've abandoned, but they do that with economics and politics already, so why the hell not?


  1. A God with an infinite information capacity is indeed impossible. But anything worthy of being called "God" -- anything that can do what the various putative entities corralled under that name are supposed to be able to do -- has to be at least as surprising (ergo, improbable) as any given individual human being. But of course, any given individual human being is a phenomenally improbable entity, were it not for the phenomenally informative fact that human beings in general are known to exist, which is not the case for God. Ergo, it is phenomenally unlikely that God exists.
    Dawkins does not "put the Crusades" and other horrors solely at the feet of belief and nothing else. His argument is that the meme that says "It is evil to doubt the truth of statements X, Y, and Z", by impairing our ability to question actions justified by reference to X, Y, and Z, thereby opens the door to evil actions. Certainly the Crusades were run by power-hungry bastards, but the fact that they could say "God said to do this and if you question us you'll go to Hell" and be believed was a keystone of their power.

    1. You're entirely right, Mr. C. What I suspect, though, is that if we see a general decline in religiosity worldwide, we won't necessarily see a corresponding decline in people doing awful shit to one another.

      That is to say, I think the meme that stops people questioning what they've been told to do is outside of, but tied to organised religion. I think that element was semi-deliberately added in order to maintain the power of the elite in much the same way as the "consumerism = success" meme has been popularised semi-deliberately to maintain the power of the elite within capitalism.

  2. Also, people seem to volunteer for culturally enforced group think. The mental hack that allows an organisation to build an electric fence in people's minds beyond which nothing may be questioned is extensively exploited. Certainly very well by the church, but as long as the hack exists any organisation with an interest in power and a disinterest in peoples welfare will continue to use it.

    The pointing out of the fact of this event is one step closer to the realisation that much of humanities misery is self inflicted, and that once the electric fence can be seen it can begin to be disassembled.

    Also, we can innoculate ourselves against this hack by agreeing that there is nothing that cannot be questioned.

  3. "I think the meme that stops people questioning what they've been told to do is outside of, but tied to organised religion. I think that element was semi-deliberately added in order to maintain the power of the elite..."

    I doubt it was deliberate, even semi-deliberate. Groups of freely associating individuals don't as a rule tolerate sub-groups taking command; that leads to internal conflict, ending either in quashing the coup or in a schism. I think it far more likely that groups that say "Do not question this belief" are, for that reason alone, especially prone to transferring it to "Do not question this leader".

    1. Right. But the early Christians (pre- the foundation of the Roman Church) don't seem to have had that meme to the same extent. That seems to have primarily become a feature of the religion once it adopted the structures and hierarchies of the Empire that adopted it as an official religion.

      That is to say, there doesn't seem to be evidence of it until the Church has political power which can be maintained and expanded by force and conquest, and requires unquestioning (rather than convinced) support.

  4. There are ghosts in the walls and they crawl in your head through your ears.