I’ve been considering for some time writing a series about some of the courses that various denominations and churches offer their congregations, putatively to help them to understand their faith better. I was intending to start with the Alpha Course, but a Christian friend on facebook posted about attending a course named “Going Deeper”. A quick Google search later, I was duly wincing my way through tortured logic and faulty argumentation designed to help soothe unfortunate bouts of cognitive dissonance. It seemed like a good warm-up to the assault on critical thinking that is the Alpha Course.
It’s far too long to write-up as a single article (and I suspect it would bore you all to tears if I tried), so instead I’ll try to write up one section a week.
Interestingly, the tone of this course is overwhelmingly about trying to find evidence for God, and trying to philosophise God into existing. That seems like a little bit of a cop-out of the whole faith equals belief without evidence thing to me, but maybe that’s why I’m an atheist.
Because the Leaf Fell
This section sets the tone and lays some of the groundwork for the rest of the course. It is also, as we shall see, highly flawed and internally inconsistent. It starts by painting a picture. It’s a picture that has a leaf in it.
“…A leaf breaks off of the branch, floats down through the air, swoops from side to side, being pushed about by a soft breeze and then lands on the ground…”
You can probably guess where this is going already, but just in case you’re immune to things less subtle than being smacked repeatedly with a hammer, we are then treated to a discourse on how some single event must have caused the leaf to fall. We are even given a list of possible causes: Gravity, the breeze, squirrels – All building up to this statement, which I shall call Wince Number 1 (because that’s what happened when I read it):
“…We do have to agree that there had to have been some cause that lead to the falling of the leaf.”
Well… No, not really. The implication here is that there must have been one, single causal event which was responsible for the falling of the leaf. But that ignores the possibility that there may have been many events and contributing factors (which, undoubtedly, there are, even for an event as simple as a falling leaf). Remember: The course doesn’t talk in terms of a triggering-event, it talks about a cause. That’s not the same thing, but the piece conflates the two ideas with startling repetition.
At this point you’ve probably already realised that we’re in the midst of a set-up for the fallacy that cause = intention, but stay with me. It gets worse, I promise.
Now we get to a seemingly uncontentious, statement:
“PRINCIPLE #1: Any activity in this universe creates an effect(s)”
Well… Yes, kind of. Even the act of waving my arm in a vacuum has some effect, if only in terms of glycogen and oxygen burned by my muscles, extra carbon dioxide filtered from my blood by my lungs. So I’ll accept that premise as reasonable until proven otherwise.
There follows a short discourse that we shall call Wince Number 2:
“But that principle is also true when read in the other direction. We also have to agree that in order for it to even be possible for the leaf to fall – a greater, earlier event (cause) must have already taken place: the growth of the limb that the leaf grew from! If that limb had never grown then that particular leaf would have never existed in the first place and thus could never fall. Keep going. If the trunk never grew there would be no limb. Before that, if there were no tree seed – the sprout would have never grown to create a trunk which would never produce a branch that would never grow any leaf to fall.
Did everybody spot the step that was skipped? If we really read the first scenario (that some triggering event caused the leaf to fall) in reverse, we would say that the falling leaf required a trigger event to make it fall. Wince Number 2 skips straight past that unavoidable conclusion, stops talking in terms of triggering events, and instead starts conflating required preconditions for an event with cause for the event. So far, so torturous! All of this leads to Wince Number 3:
“PRINCIPLE #2: Conversely, every effect in this universe is the result of some unified cause(s).”
Just in case I haven’t already pointed out how hard the author(s) of Going Deeper have failed to demonstrate a logical chain from principle #1 to principle #2, let me put it like this:
If all trains are all vehicles, are all vehicles trains? No, of course not. Just because A always equals B, does not mean that B always equals A. This is a common failure among poor arguers: Using the rules of mathematics as interchangeable with the rules of logic.
Another short discourse follows, but it’s largely irrelevant as it assumes that principle 2 is true and proven, and it’s really just a re-statement of it in slightly more complex terms anyway:
“PRINCIPLE #3: All activity in this universe is related through a chain of causes/effects. Nothing in this universe is “uncaused” but rather is dependent upon a prior cause.”
To reiterate: The authors have failed to demonstrate that this is true. Let’s see what they fail to demonstrate next! The next one is fairly straightforward: That the chain of cause and effect is not infinite, it is finite.
I’m not actually going critique the paragraph in which this is asserted, because it is so patently ridiculous – The ignorance it displays is breathtaking all on its own. Here it is:
“To start weighing the facts use this example: Imagine that I am going to travel from my house to yours. I feel like going for a brisk, comfortable jog. Your house is the perfect distance for me to run before I get too tired. So I’m going to head over to take a break at your place! I’ve been conditioned for long distance running. This will equip me for the journey. The only catch – the distance between your house and mine is infinite. There is an endless amount of room between my place and yours!
Can this be true? Can I make the trip from my house to yours by covering the infinite distance between them?
We may not be able to figure out the true distance of space but we can figure this out with absolute certainty – if I am standing at my front door and I claim that I can make it to your house which is an infinite distance away I am rotten a liar!
Why? To travel an infinity is to never, ever stop. There is no such thing as endpoints in an infinity! If I start running no matter how trained I am I will not make it. That fact has nothing to do with my athletic stamina but rather with mathematical laws. An infinite distance means that for every step I take there would be another, and another, and another, and another in a never-ending cycle for all eternity. From whatever point are you standing and looking out onto infinity you will never find an endpoint because that is what defines an infinity – no ending point!”
Um… Yes? And? I’m confused about where this is going. I’ll let you look up the next paragraph yourself if you want to read it – It’s pretty much a restatement of the last one. It’s equally irrelevant, and involves brownies. I’m not making this up. It all leads to this:
“PRINCIPLE #4: All events in this universe have a finite list of causes. Since nothing in this universe is uncaused all things are related to one another through their dependency on a prior cause. Thus all existence in this universe is contingent upon common, ultimate, singular first event.
Do I need to restate the obvious? Absolutely no part of principle 4 has been demonstrated or proven in any way, shape or form. Further, even if they could demonstrate first-cause, how could they rule out many simultaneous but otherwise unrelated first-causes? They could not.
What follows is almost sixteen hundred words that can be summed up very easily in one sentence: “The whole universe is subject to the same physical laws and constants as human beings”. Of course, the authors don’t actually demonstrate (or even reason) this. They just blithely state is as if it were an established fact. I suspect this is the reason for the sixteen hundred words: They’re stultifyingly dull and repetitive. I suspect they’re only there in the hope that readers will skip to the conclusion and assume that it has been proven. It hasn’t been proven, or even vaguely justified, but the conclusion is:
“CONCLUSION: Something transcendent to our universe put the chain of causes/effects of our universe into motion. A “FIRST CAUSE” exists.
Hands up if you saw that coming straight from Wince Number 1. I think that will do for now, not least because I’ve reached my limit for reading such silliness for the day. Stay tuned for part 2 next week.