Thursday, 4 March 2010

Was I even there?

On Friday, I attended the inaugural event of the Kingston University Debate Society, entitled "Is God a Delusion?". I was made to feel welcome, the debaters and the audience were interested and respectful, I learnt new things. Considering many factors, it is my judgement that it was a good event. I started to make notes about how I would write the event up, but then it occurred to me that I should report the event in a way which readers of this post may find unusual. Please allow me to indulge in a very short background.

When I was young I was fascinated by the lives and ideas of many people. Among them I can remember Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare and René Descartes. They were inspirational to me because they evidently had talents in many fields. When it came to choosing which GCSEs to study, I rejected the traditional split between arts and science, I wanted to do both. I was very good at mathematics, but when I went to university I struggled with statistics, and so I later managed to convince the Dean that I should split my time between maths and philosophy. I loved books, and this gave me the chance to read more. I am proud to say that I was the first person to graduate from Bristol University with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, all be it at a pass degree only.

During one year of philosophy we tackled the philosophy of religion. My final essay, for the degree which I very nearly failed, was on the subject of self-deceit. Self deception is a fascinating subject to me: how can one part of you "know something", and yet another part not know? My studies were in the realms of deity and delusion, the subject of the Kingston debate.

Anyone reading this article has a desperate problem of evidence. Can you be sure I was there that night? Am I a reliable witness? Yet I know I was there with complete certainty. Ruwayda Mustafah, President of the debating society knows it too. We exchanged e-mails beforehand, and she was kind enough to bring me a cup of tea before the start. But others will struggle to understand if what I write here is precisely true. Professor Stephen Law, for instance, will know that I occasionally comment on his blog. Hamzas Tzortzis is unlikely to recognise me. To practically everyone else I expect I was quite anonymous.

To me, the question of "Is God a Delusion?" is almost equivalent to asking this: Stephen Law, Hamzas Tzortzis, Ruwayda Mustafah, Martin Wiesner and about 40 to 50 other people were present at the Clattern Lecture Theatre on 5th March 2010. Was God in the room too?

Even though I am an atheist, it may surprise you to hear that I think that the answer is both yes and no. This is not to say that both Law and Tzortzis failed to make compelling arguments. I found Law considered and thoughtful, as one might expect a Professor of Philosophy to be. Tzortzis, who is younger, and a practising Muslim, is both charismatic and engaging. Unfortunately, both speakers suffer from at least two common delusions, which I shall come to later. Before I do this I want to give just a little bit more about my own personal history, and of course try to set out the two arguments I saw laid before me.

Some time after leaving university, I had a breakdown. I suffered quite protracted periods of distress, and then I returned to a much safer place. I currently have a diagnosis of Bipolar I, although I hope to speak to my psychiatrist soon about a full discharge. What I am saying in a roundabout way is that I have had practical experience of delusions. Not many people speak openly about the delusions they suffer from, the stigma of mental illness is all pervasive. Unless you can express the hopes and fears about your own delusions, how can you hope to condemn or discuss them in other people?

The debate

Professor Law spoke first. He defined gods as "agents which are necessarily temporal beings". He questioned why if god is all good, there is so much bad in the world. He used the example of an imaginary distant planet, almost identical to earth, except the people there worshipped an entirely evil good. On planet "Eff", people questioned why there was "just too much good". Comparing the populations of Earth and Eff, he asked: "Which set of beliefs are more reasonable?" He couldn't answer that question.

Hamzas Tzortzis had the advantage hearing Law's arguments before replying. Tzortzis argued that "God makes sense of the meaning of the universe". When he spoke about the idea of the "big bang", he dismissed it as a possibility by saying "out of nothing, nothing comes". However to explain how God came before the universe, he said "this cause must be uncaused". He spoke quite rapidly, and I noticed he quoted very many references and sources. Tzortzis is certain that "God makes sense of the fine tuning of the universe". He felt that Law was not attacking the very God of the Muslims, stating instead that God is not good, but "God is just, god is wise, god is the one who punishes."

Both speakers were allowed to speak for a second time. Law described how his opponent was committing the Salesman's Fallacy - only two goods offered, the God of the Muslims or nothing, when in reality more options may exist. According to Tzortzis, Muslims are "going to be in paradise forever". Members of the audience were keen to ask questions at the end (I am always too shy!), which allowed the two speakers to agree on a couple of points, the substantive one being that the amount of good and bad in the world just about balances out.

In conclusion

So what of the two shared delusions that the speakers hold? The first one I have just referred to. Both believe that you can measure suffering, and having done so, that you can compare it to the amount of joy in the world. But where is the research? Where are the measuring tools, and the charts and the statistics that show that good is roughly equal to evil? Neither referred to such concrete science, so am I right in perhaps inferring that they weren't speaking literally, but that they meant that it feels as though good and evil balance out? So all we are left with is that they agreed that they both felt good and evil were at a balance. I disagree, by the way, I feel that there is always more good than evil, but I am not going to push this further here. I think we will all just have to respect our differences here.

Now for the second delusion. It's to do with the arrow of time. In the hall that evening, time was measured according to the Christian tradition, in hours and minutes, using a nominal date, near to the birth of Jesus as the year dot. Muslims use a different reference point, they would recognise the current year to be 1431. As a human, I have an internal before and after calendar, using my memories of experiences to determine where I was in time. Like most people in the UK I tie my experiences to a reference point called my date of birth, which has a lookup on the Christian calendar. But what is the date on the planet Eff?

Special relativity tells us that distant objects in the universe are separated from us by both time and space. When we the occupants of planet Earth meet the residents of Eff, we can set a new reference point, the date we met. In fact the arrival of people from outer space is likely to be such a fantastic occasion, that we will create a new calender around the event. I can back this up with an example from personal experience. In 1990, I visited Papua New Guinea. It is well documented that in the Central Highlands, a large group of native people were discovered around about the 1930's, perhaps as many as 1,000,000, who were previously unknown to the "outside" world. When I visited, local people often referred to the time before white men arrived as "before", and times after as "after". Once the shared event has occurred, we have a reference point. But at this point in time, before we have met the residents of Eff, how do we know that "today" here on Earth, is "today" on the planet Eff? The "now" that we find ourselves trapped in, only occurs when we meet. Our individual nows collide, and a shared experience occurs.

Having so rudely insulted our two speakers, by calling them deluded, I think it is time to draw this article to a close. Those of a religious bent inform our feeling of what a God is, and perversely those of an atheistic persuasion inform our intellectual understanding of God or Gods. Thankfully, the mysteries of the world are far deeper than any of us has the capacity to fully fathom...


Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Martin,

I know that you and I started off on the wrong foot, to coin a phrase.

I just wanted to say that I thought this was a good post and I appreciate you sharing your experience concerning bipolar. By the way, someone once told me that you can't talk about something if you haven't yet dealt with it, so you obviously have, at least to the extent that you can talk about it.

In regard to the arrow of time, Roger Penrose gives the best disussion on that topic in his book, The Emperor's New Mind though Paul Davies' About Time is also a good read for non-academics.

But to paraphrase Penrose, time is reversible according to both relativity theory and quantum theory, but not according to entropy. It's entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, that actually gives us the 'arrow of time' for the whole universe, and Penrose expounds on that better than anyone else I've read.

On the subject of God, I will only say it's very subjective, more subjective than theists or non-theists tend to admit. I would argue that God is more of a 'feeling' than an external entity, but that's just my interpretation.

Regards, Paul.

Anonymous said...

"On planet "Eff", people questioned why there was "just too much good". Comparing the populations of Earth and Eff, he asked: "Which set of beliefs are more reasonable?" He couldn't answer that question."

Sounds like the scene in the Matrix in which Smith is talking to Morpheus.

The Celtic Chimp said...

What was your point about time?

I kept thinking you were going to make one but if you did I didn't catch it.

Martin said...

What was your point about time?

Extraordinary! You asked exactly the same question this time last year.

Paul thanks for your fine recommendations. When I get the time I will look into these with a little more depth.

Anonymous: same old same old. When are you going to get off your backside and get out into the real world. Next, you'll be telling me you bumbed into Dr Who.

KU Debating Society said...

Hi Martin,

Thank you for coming to the debate, a very thoughtful article on the debate you have here.

I added the review on the Debate website because I think it is helpful and has good points on the topic (even though I would disagree on some of them as a theist).

- Ruwayda Mustafah

Martin said...

Thanks Ruwayda, I had a great evening out, and I think a lot of it was to do with the hard work you put into organising the debate.

If you would like to post a link to you website, please feel to post it here. If you are organising any further debates I am very interested to see the programme.

I am intrigued by your final comment in parenthesis, but I think it may be something you will need time to unravel. Please get back to me when you feel able to express it.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Martin,

I didn't attend the debate, and I haven't seen an online version of it yet (Stephen Law said it should be posted up on Youtube). But I'm guessing that Hamzas Tzortzis performed pretty much as he does in other debates posted here:

His scatter gun fire of 'facts' and references can be dibilitating to an opponent. Peter Cave in his debate with Tzortzis was obviously so stunned by the quantity of holes in Tzortzis's arguments that, as he said, it's hard to know where to start. Tzortzis is oblivious to this criticism and walks away thinking he's won hands down because he thinks he has left his opponent mistified. Watch the after-show section of the video on "Can we live better lives without religion?"

Though Stephen Law and other non-Muslim people present may have thought Stephen did a good job, that definitely won't be how Tzortzis sees it.