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Review of God: The Evidence, subtitled "The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World" by Patrick Glynn

Patrick Glynn rediscovers the spiritual through "dramatic new developments in science, medicine, and other fields..."(p. 2). This rediscovery occurs, coincidentally, during a time he finds new love with Gabriele who is a practitioner of spiritual discipline (like our author, I suppose, a Christian) and catalyst for Glynn's discoveries.

While admitting that faith in god is a goal one cannot reason one's way to (p.11), Glynn nevertheless says these new developments effectively refute his former atheistic perspective (p.19). The atheist’s perspective, by the way, isn't just a lack of god-belief " the personal sense, no afterlife, no soul..." (p.6) but includes anxiety (p. 18), selfishness, arrogance (p.19), and closed-mindedness (p.20). Glynn based his now abandoned atheistic outlook on some kind of philosophic speculation, apparently seeing himself as a modern equivalent of a student of Aristotle (p.13).

Long ago, before Newton and his apple or Galileo and his telescope, philosophers suggested the prime mover as a requirement for making the world work. This prime mover could not be seen or known directly. It could be intuited because nothing the Greeks, or any scientist until relatively recently, could figure out worked without it. The prime mover was known a priori, or, as I said: intuited from how the world was understood to work.

When you threw a spear at your opponent on the battlefield that spear didn't stay in straight-line motion unless acted upon by other forces. The path of that spear wasn’t the vector sum of force components changing over time. The Greeks understood that gravity pulls things to earth, but thought that this pull was proportional to the weight of the object, not to time. A spear would fall unless a mover took that spear from your hand to guide it to whatever target the mover intended. Throw a spear at a bad guy? If you hit the bad guy he was bad...or maybe you didn't forget your prayers. Throw a spear at a bad guy and hit your best friend? The gods called him or maybe you didn't spill the required oblation to the gods, or maybe he didn’t. Righteousness can be seen by how well the movers assist your cause. But who moves the movers? The PRIME MOVER moves the movers. Moslem, Jewish, and Christian philosophers kept some of this idea, identifying it with their gods.

If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound if no one is around to hear it? Sound is vibration of the air; a falling tree will vibrate the air. I don't have to hear the sound to know there is a sound because I trust the physics. The Greek-inspired thinker makes sounds something other than mere vibration, he makes sounds exist only in their perception.

I consider the idea of essences to be similar, in that essences must be to make objects perceivable as what they are. That is, essences make me who I am or you who you are, or a box boxy, or a cat feline. I trust modern neurology...I don't need no stinking essence (that's a pun y'know) to know I'm me and you're you or my cat is my cat. The same goes for that box under my bed. I know it is a box without needing some eternal ideal box to compare my box with and neither does the cat when he sleeps in the box. The Greek-inspired thinker needs essences to explain sounds or cats or boxes.

In a nutshell, this is folk science*. Whether we talk about movers, essences, or sounds it is thinking about metaphysics (literally “after physics”) with a misunderstanding of, or fauly statement of, physics (or of science). The prime mover is definitely replaced by the laws of motion. The personal first cause is replaced by quantom theory. Psychology and neurology replaces souls and essences. There's a chain of philosophers holding on to a chain of old ideas (and the implications of those old ideas) that they refuse to see are now displaced by new ideas.

The idea Glynn can't seem to let go of is: we need a superfriend to make us moral (p.13). It is based on a misapplied science, or so I will argue in the remainder of this review. Because of this reliance on folk science there are some other bad ideas.

Glynn makes a great deal of fuss about the “Anthropic Principle” in chapter one. He takes it to mean that things are as they are because things were designed for us to use. My reading about the A.P. is different then Glynn’s. In Dennis Overbye’s Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos (see especially p. 363) and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (see especially p. 124 – 25) and The Universe in a Nutshell (see especially p. 86) A.P. means that if the universe wasn’t like this nobody like us would be here to observe it, that is, the universe is how we observe it because beings like us couldn’t observe it if it were different. At the most, the A.P. is not a clincher, at least not for non-professional science people, because there are professionals at odds about its meaning.

Chapter two handles the topic of "souls". Dr. Glynn writes optimistically about optimism which he says is "faith and hope" in religious terms (p.74). Faith in god and hope for eternal happiness I guess he means. But he says clearly that optimism for an illusion can be effective too (p.73). But what of offering proof that souls exist? If faith in an illusion can be as effective as faith in truth we are still left wondering why we should believe souls are not illusory.

Through talk of Nietzsche, Freud and Pascal** we come to this pronouncement on page 77: "the effort to give a complete account of...the human mind without reference to [g]od or spirit - has crumbled". And that comes back to a pronouncement on the same page, the paragraph before, that the "morally unrestrained life is not worth living". And that takes us back to his introduction. In sum then, souls are because you cannot be moral without god (a priori). Without anything like evidence for the existence of souls Dr. Glynn claims to have proven them based on the effectiveness of what are possibly illusions?

Chapter three is about medicine and faith. Writing as if the mind is not the manifestation of the brain’s operation Glynn tells us the "mind and body [are] designed for religious faith" (p.80). In general, "prayer works to heal" is the message of this chapter. Reading further reveals that "prayer" is defined as "meditation" too. If clearing your mind and deep relaxation works as well to heal as prayer is supposed to, then what is the difference between belief in god and relaxation? Is this reported healing by prayer and meditation a placebo effect? Remember the previous chapter's admission that illusion can be as effective as truth.

A health promoting relaxation response is written off as unbelievable because "mere evolution" (p.89)*** could not support it. Evidence that evolution can not support a placebo effect to prayer is admitted to be missing as Glynn relates the story of born-of-the-spirit Christian Dr. Byrd whose study of "born-again" prayer groups praying for CICU patients was found wanting (p. 90-91). To his great credit, we are told this upfront along with information on previous negative or questionable prayer-effectiveness studies in 1965 and 1969 (p.90). Glynn does not sugar coat this lack of evidence by making things up. When this book was written in 1997 our author could not have known that other, better controlled, CICU prayer studies would find no difference in prayed for patients compared to control group patients ( Dr. Jennifer Aviles et al in Mayo Clinic Proceedings for December 2001, cited in Skeptical Inquirer for March/April 2002 p. 5 -6) supporting the conclusions of the three studies he mentions.

Medical evidences are continued with the next chapter focusing on out of body and near death experiences. I have few notes in this chapter so this will be short. My skepticism focuses on several things. The availability of videos of resuscitation procedures in popular media, for one, would provide clues to the revived patient to discuss the procedure as if viewed out-of-body. For another, OBE's seem dreamlike to me; and if you are dreaming you still have access to all your senses even if at a diminished capacity. Hearing and seeing imperfectly the activity around you explains how resuscitation can be discussed as if viewed out-of-body. Thirdly, familiar scenes from normal life are sometimes replayed in the mind during normal waking life, why not during death too? Lastly, what explanation can there be for why a child's NDE is so different from an adult NDE? Children see their living friends while adults see their dear departed.

The final chapter is a far ranging one. "Reason and Spirit" is the most openly Christian and feels like Glynn put the most heart felt emotion and reasoning into its completion. Let me mention upfront that I do not think that "heart felt emotion "is a bad thing. I often think that way myself.

"The knowledge of spirit is prior to the knowledge of reason"(p. 166) Glynn writes. This might stand as a truism amongst theists (who take spirit as a literally real object) when speaking of theism. It stands figuratively when applied to science, as Glynn notes on page 163 when he discusses Thomas Kuhn's work on the actual working of happens when a problem's solution is pursued (perhaps badly paraphrased)****. The author tries to put Kuhn’s science into Christian metaphysics. Glynn wants to make spirit the driving force behind reason and discovery. This might stand for those who take spirits to be real things a priori, and who take Christianity to be the religion of god a priori. But the question still remains: why do we take spirits and god to be literal things?

I think a better resultant to combining Kuhn's work with figurative talk of spirits is "intuition proceeds reason". But I don't take spirits to be literally existing things but merely a prejudice of folk science's predilection with "mind/brain duality", with essences, and with tired old ideas informing metaphysics.

Why is taking spirits to be literal a given for Glynn? The historical primacy of the New Testament as a statement on morality (p. 166). How can the identification of modern morality with the handed-down accounts of a First Century C.E. teacher and his followers prove spirits exist? It is a circular argument, because spirit revealed the truth of the account before reason did. Now this may make sense to some, as I already wrote above this “spirit precedes reason” line of thought makes something like sense to spirit believers. Outside of the context of spiritual faith this makes no sense, for all we can say without reliance on folk science is “intuition precedes reason”.

Also, I wonder about the great first century B.C.E. King, Asoka. His kingdom was shaped by belief in Buddhism and he was renowned for his wisdom and the mercy he showed to his subjects. By Glynn’s reasoning no great moral leaders could come before the New Testament and Jesus. Several times, in fact, Glynn proclaims the primacy of New Testament thought in morality (pp. 142, 149, 155, 156, 166) but there we have Asoka. When he claims the New Testament to be the primary source in history for modern morality we should expect to find no pre-Christian examples of modern morality. But we do find at least one example.

Summary of the problems with God: The Evidence.

First: a reliance on new information filtered through old science. The result can’t be other than questionable. This is similar to a NASA engineer designing a heat shield for the Space Shuttle by using the phlogiston heat-fluid model. Second: the belief that morality proves there is a god. This is not supported by the arguments in the book. Outside of Glynn’s book, it is not supported when the work of modern ethicists is examined. Third: belief that repetition bestows higher truth value on a statement. This is seen in his repetition of the morality requires god argument (also in Mere Christianity) and in his argument that modern morality starts with the New Testament. Both are not true. Fourth: uncritical acceptance of the reality of spirits. His arguments for spirits based on OBEs and NDEs, and his discussion of prayer do not prove spirits exist, nor does the invocation of "spirits" make trying to understand and describe OBEs, NDEs, and prayer any more successful. And, fifth: advertising that he has offered proof for god on the cover of his book while offering merely intuitive arguments that only lead to support of the god-idea if you already believe in spirits. This doesn’t mean there are no spirits, only that there is no definite proof for spirits. This means Glynn fails to meaningfully refute an atheistic perspective, either his own or anyone else's. I believe this fully undermines the book.

*Folk science is a phrase I first read in Patricia Churchland's Neurophilosophy.

**Nietzsche is an example of rejection of belief in god, but not an example of not caring about the world. He worked himself almost to death as an ambulance attendant, a position he volunteered for after his rejection of god. Nietzsche had problems (welcome to the club) including problems with his health and, of course, went (so I’ve read) mad from venereal disease. Finally, he destroyed his sister’s happiness. He was not the superman he wrote about but he did care about others before his mind started going stupid.
Freud was a character of his time. A professional thinker, like Glynn, he can be counted on to get some things wrong and some things right, like Glynn.
Pascal's wager is given more credit then it is due. "All things being equal, bet on god" would be a better summation of Pascal then Glynn offers (p. 77) and all things are not equal.

***Selection, selection, selection.

****An account of science unlike others is David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality.

A professionally written review is by Michael Martin. This file, and many more, are available at The Internet Infidels website.

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file created 6/4/04