Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Doubts about Bugliosi's DIVINITY OF DOUBT

While this blog tends to focus on historical issues, such as the assassination of JFK, the events of 9/11, and other abuses of power and authority, as a professional philosopher, I well know there are other questions that also deserve consideration, such as the existence of God and the place of religion in human experience.

David and I both have relationships with Vince and we find him to be a fascinating fellow. I liked what David had to say about his book, which had dimensions that had not occurred to me in my own reading, and wanted to share. I have replaced the original with a revised version, which I like even better. I trust others will as well.


Doubts about THE DIVINITY OF DOUBT

David W. Mantik

Before I begin my review of Vincent Bugliosi's THE DIVINITY OF DOUBT, here is a sampler of Bugliosi’s own words. Italics for his quotations are used throughout this review. The page numbers are also his. For these opening remarks, as the page numbers increase, the author’s observations tend to become increasingly eccentric (and inconsistent).

“Just because religion makes no sense doesn’t mean that God doesn’t” (p. 58).

“I’m way out of my depth in this discussion”[on improving human morality] (p. 66).

“[W]hile I do not reject evolution, I am not comfortable with the notion at all” (p. 67).

“I would think that the principles of evolution set down by Darwin would be nonselective—yes nondiscriminatory” (p. 77).

“I find many of the claims of science in the area of evolution and the universe . . . just as improbable as the most fanciful of religious beliefs I poke fun at in this book” (p. 88).

“And it [the Bible] does so with an unprecedented power and majesty that has resonated down through the centuries” (p. 102).

“[O]ne cannot reasonably question the book’s [the Bible’s] integrity”
(p. 102).

“They got it [the idea of being born again] from the zaniness of the bible” (p. 109).

“As to falsehoods, an entire volume could be written to support the position that much of the bible is false” (p. 137).

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Introduction

Bugliosi is often wrong, or at least misleading, but he is rarely in doubt. This swaggering attitude characterizes much of his other writing as well, but it is especially incongruous here. In particular, note the use of “Doubt” in his title. By attacking both theists and atheists, he flaunts his self-righteous open-mindedness about the God issue. However, he (ironically) leaves no doubt that, with respect to the Christian God at least, he is a card-carrying atheist. The title of his book will therefore be highly misleading to most readers. Since he clearly does not believe in the God of contemporary Christians, his tactic of using “Doubt” in the title looks like a public relations ploy.

That he is indeed an atheist (about the contemporary Christian God) need not be argued—he baldly admits as much on multiple pages, as follows.

A. The Christian God Cannot Exist (the title of chapter 3).
B. “I’m not an agnostic on the Christian God” (p. 25).
C. “[T]he Christian God cannot exist” (p. 61).
D. “For purposes of this discussion only, I am presupposing the existence of the Christian God, whom I do not believe exists” (p. 188).

That he is an atheist is also proven by the myriad pages that attack the Christian God (or more accurately, the Christian church), although he leaves other forms of monotheism mostly unscathed in his brief summaries. Even though he frequently smirks during these summaries, detailed critiques of these other religions are sorely lacking. Furthermore, he leaves the reader with the distinct impression that he is not agnostic about these other monotheisms—or about other religions in general. In other words, he looks just like an atheist. Most curiously, nowhere does he even acknowledge the following: polytheism, pantheism, panentheism, henotheism, agnostic theism, or impersonal idealism. For a book on the existence of God, the disappearance of these actors from the stage is pure magic.

Deism

Where Bugliosi is indeed an agnostic (about deism), he has surprisingly little to say. Most of the book, in fact, is an unrelenting rant against the practices of contemporary Christianity. Actually, he is so incensed about these practices (aren’t most of us?) that he forgets, for many pages, that his true target is the Christian God. Regarding deism, which he touts as a possibility, he offers only one short chapter (6). However, in this chapter, he cites only two arguments: the teleological (design, i.e., the order in the universe) and the cosmological (first cause). Without explanation, he omits the classic ontological argument—and nearly all other arguments, as well. One possible exception should be mentioned: the anthropic argument, but serious disagreement exists about whether this even favors theism (see THE COSMIC LANDSCAPE by Leonard Suskind). He admits that the cosmological argument is “…strong and seems very difficult to get around” (p. 79). If he truly believes this, he might want to convert to deism. Bugliosi concludes that the teleological (design) arguments fail, although his own idiosyncratic scenarios in this chapter often seem merely silly to me. Since I ultimately agree with his conclusion (that the arguments from design fail), I shall move on.

What certainly impresses Bugliosi, on the other hand, is the cosmological (first cause) argument: he simply cannot accept the possibility that nothing (i.e., the void) could have preceded the entire material universe. On the contrary, he believes that something must have been there, which for him might open the door to deism. This is really the crux of the book: merely because Bugliosi cannot imagine such a void, he thinks that deism just might be possible. Somewhat amusingly, for a similar lack of imagination he takes Dawkins to task: Bugliosi cites Dawkins as being unable to imagine a certain kind of God (p. 54), which is ultimately why he (Dawkins) has remained an atheist. Bugliosi found this mind-set to be totally unconvincing, but here he (Bugliosi) is—adopting precisely the same basis for his own argument, i.e., merely because Bugliosi cannot imagine such a void, he offers deism as a possible option.

Energy

Moreover, he ignores the fact that the total energy of our universe (including the gravitational energy, which is negative) may well be zero, i.e., our universe is probably a free lunch. Even the God of deism could have paid that bill, but so could your local bankrupt bank. But it gets even worse. Physicist Victor Stenger, who Bugliosi does not even cite (GOD: THE FAILED HYPOTHESIS: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist), argues that, at the instant after creation, the universe was maximally disordered. Such fingerprints are not likely consistent with any God of order, deistic or otherwise. In the end, therefore, Bugliosi has offered up only feeble fare, especially given his candid—almost childlike—confession:

“I have no comprehension of things relating to the cosmos” (p. 88).

If he seriously means by this that he cannot comprehend fundamental notions of space and time (e.g., the possible collapse of time and space at the very beginning), then he should remain silent about the cosmological argument. But here is the real horror: his only defense against converting to atheism (from deism) is this same cosmological argument! Does Bugliosi truly believe that he can save us all from atheism via such a tenuous lifeline? Given such a perilous tightrope act, he really must revise his book, i.e., he must radically shore up his attack against the cosmological argument for God’s existence. At the very least, he must immerse his brain a lot longer in modern physics, or else close up shop. Unfortunately, he has a long way to go—he has not even studied high school physics. He might begin with Victor Stenger, who actually calculates the probability of the existence of something (rather than nothing): it is over 60%. Another deserving, but overlooked, book is I DON'T BELIEVE IN ATHEISTS by Christopher Hedges. This book is a profound indictment of both Hitchens and Dawkins and is essential reading. Bugliosi’s case against both of them is pathetic in comparison to the case made against them by Hedges. Finally, devotees of the subject may wish to read (online), “Why Steven Hawking’s Cosmology Precludes a Creator,” by philosopher Quentin Smith.

Atheism

Bugliosi thinks that it is nobler to parade as an agnostic rather than as an atheist. In this he is surely mistaken. After all, many highly talented individuals are (and have been) atheists: http://brainz.org/50-most-brilliant-atheists-all-time/#0_undefined,0. The third most famous man from Hibbing, Minnesota would be hard pressed to join this list. Unfortunately, Bugliosi does not use computers, so he has probably not seen this website. Except for one terse footnote (p. 290) he fails even to try to distinguish among the varieties of atheism. Of course, he also fails to note the varieties of agnosticism. I cannot determine whether these extraordinary omissions are merely due to his stubbornness, or solely due to ignorance.

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The Author: Vincent Bugliosi

To be specific, he states (p. 4) that atheists claim to know (with high certainty) that God does not exist. On the contrary, this is only one form of atheism, a position likely held by only a minority of all atheists. Many would more accurately be called agnostic atheists, i.e., although they do not believe in God, they don’t claim to be certain about this. Even Dawkins (p. 289) rates himself as six (on a scale of seven), when asked about his degree of certainty. Based on his persistent boiling-point frenzies in this book, Bugliosi actually appears to be an agnostic atheist, but he does not so advise his readers.

About Vince

Bugliosi thinks that refusing an atheist label will leave his character unblemished, almost “holier than thou.” Nonetheless, he clearly is an atheist—not only by his own admission, but also as defined by most Americans. His hypocrisy has been unmasked, however, by his failure to attack deism seriously. If he were a pure agnostic, he would pull no punches in his assault on deism. In the end, however, all he offers is his self-admitted poor comprehension of the cosmos and his remarkably second-rate understanding of the cosmological argument. This is very depressing stuff indeed.

This is an egocentric book, too often superficial, and way too often wrong or misleading (see my appendix for dozens of examples). Like many narrowly-trained experts before him, Bugliosi mistakenly thinks that his brainpower will succeed outside his area of expertise. He is not trained in biology or physics or cosmology or theology or philosophy or, for that matter, in any specialty that makes him required reading on God’s existence. He even blunders in history, especially in the history of the early church. Inevitably, therefore, his recurrent idiosyncratic comments are only characteristic of the rank amateur. For these reasons, I cannot even recommend this as an introductory book—the novice reader would not emerge properly grounded. Nor can I recommend it to a moderately sophisticated reader, except possibly for its entertainment value (sometimes unintentional). Such a reader would learn little that was new or valuable. Instead I would strongly propose WHY I BECAME AN ATHEIST by John W. Loftus (an ex-minister). My adjectives about this book are at polar opposites of those about Bugliosi’s book. As we should now expect, though, Bugliosi does not cite this book either.

God’s Existence

The question of God’s existence is indeed profound—for many of us (me, too) it is the most troubling question that life has to offer. That is why I care so much about getting these discussions right. Perhaps Bugliosi can return in ten years with a more mature and less shrill approach (should God will that he lives so long). In my opinion, those who remain theists (e.g., Francis Collins) can do so honestly, although many will disagree with their fundamental assumptions. Michael Novak (NO ONE SEES GOD: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers), a Catholic and a friend of Hitchens, also makes a solid case for theism. However, for those who have abandoned the God of the Bible (i.e., not necessarily the God of St. Anselm), the answer lies between agnosticism and atheism. Both views can be intellectually respectable.

Ultimately though, the choice rests more on one’s interpretation of the evidence rather than on any uncensored data file—and for that one’s genes (see THE GOD GENE by Dean Hamer) and one’s environment play huge, often determinative, roles. Many of us, often due to personality quirks, cannot live with the uncertainty of agnosticism. I see nothing wrong with that, so long as the basic data are acknowledged. Some will leave agnosticism for atheism simply because the obligation is seen to be on God’s side—i.e., He really should reveal himself to us if He exists. This is a kind of protest position—John K. Roth has even argued for a Protest Theology, in order to protest God’s concealment of himself and also to object to the unrelenting evil in the world (especially that caused by Mother Nature). The idea is to shame God into behaving properly! Moreover, even when we choose our own friends, we only choose those who make themselves available to us, but not those who go into hiding.

Chance Events

Others will choose atheism because they understand at a deep level that chance events can yield a false impression of order and purpose, and the universe does seem to be ordered. This whole subject—of serendipity, karma, kismet, and synchronicity—is so shrouded in mystery, that even our best minds are often sidetracked by this issue. For example (after discussions with Einstein and physics Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Pauli) Carl Gustav Jung wrote a paper with Pauli in which they took synchronicity quite seriously. But order can also arise from underlying natural mechanisms. See WHAT DARWIN GOT WRONG—by two atheists—for a profound discussion of what is wrong with our current understanding of evolution, especially in the matter of biological order. And then there is Stuart A. Kauffman, REINVENTING THE SACRED, and his creative work on self-organizing systems in biology—especially see Chapter 8: “Order for Free.” In short, if initial vacuum fluctuations (at time zero) and self-organizing systems (in biology) can explain away the teleological (design) and cosmological (first cause) arguments, then the door to atheism lies wide open.

Regarding theism versus atheism, the differences are not so great. After all, Christians are atheists about all other religions (for this reason, the Romans actually called them atheists); atheists differ only in rejecting one more God. Insofar as deism goes, it’s very hard to argue with a deist, as Bugliosi has proven here. However, it really doesn’t matter much, does it? After all, what practical difference exists between a deist and an atheist? With the God of deism quite out of the picture (external to the universe), He makes no difference to my routine rituals, my morals, or my afterlife. The only God who might matter to me is an immanent God, like the traditional God of monotheism. That is ultimately why Bugliosi is so misleading—despite the book’s title, he is an atheist about an immanent God. In fact, his only possible theism is deism, but that option hangs by his slender (and highly suspect) thread of the cosmological (first cause) argument. For all practical purposes then, Bugliosi is an atheist. In any case, I suspect that most of his readers will not opt for deism. On the contrary, most of us want to know if God (if He exists) is immanent. Only then does His (or Her) existence matter to us as modern men and women.

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The Reviewer: David W. Mantik

My final indictment of this book, after sleeping on it (not the book) for some time, is that it is irresponsible. See my appendix for numerous examples of Bugliosi’s cavalier and arrogant misadventures. This is indeed a harsh judgment, but Bugliosi claims to be “…an extremely critical person…” (p. xiii), so perhaps karma exists, after all.

About Me

I earned my Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin (with a focus in biophysics), completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University, and then entered a tenure-track professorship in physics at the University of Michigan. I later graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School, completed a residency at USC, and then joined the faculty at Loma Linda University Medical School, where I used the proton beam in cancer treatment. I am board certified by the American College of Radiology and have now practiced radiation oncology for 31 years.

I was raised in the Assemblies of God (Pentecostal), during which time I spoke in tongues and experienced a mystic sense of union with the universe. For many years, I taught Sunday School, including multiple classes of college students. I have been a member of the following denominations: Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian. I hold no religious membership cards today, but remain an avid bystander in matters of religion. Unlike Bugliosi (despite his avowed denials to the contrary—see p. 151), I am not angry at religion. I prefer simply to understand it. Therein lies our only hope for progress.

NOTE: While finalizing this review--a more detailed version of which is archived here--I received a 53 minute telephone call from Bugliosi, who offered to send me a copy of the book. Mostly, however, we discussed the JFK assassination—I had reviewed (negatively as well) his RECLAIMING HISTORY: “A Not-Entirely-Positive Review” (online).

David W. Mantik, M.D., Ph.D., is also the world's leading expert on the medical evidence in the assassination of JFK.

9 comments:

  1. I didn't read David Mantik's article. Why did you post it? Vincent Bugliosi, writing on non Kennedy assassination matters, isn't worth your time and blog space. Bugliosi is out of his element when he gets into matters other than his legal experiences. In that way he's like Victor Davis Hanson, another stunner when writing about what he knows, but a bummer when he gets into politics or out of his field.

    Thanks for the link to your review of "Reclaiming History." I'll re-read the review.

    Jim, if you'd suck up to the establishment and be a court historian on the Kennedy assassinations and 911, you'd have a well recognized name, a syndicated column, and a big bank account just like VDH and The Bug.

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  2. My own review of Bugliosi's RECLAIMING HISTORY can be accessed by the following link: http://assassinationscience.com/v5n1fetzer.pdf

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  3. Unfortunately, most atheists are as stridently pompous and ridiculous in their hatred of religion as are religionists in their hatred of atheists and believers in other religions. Both sides behave in a pathetic manner. The best position, disregarding anything Bugsy has to say, is agnosticism with an open mind towards both possibilities. As with any other theory, the real problem is when you pour people into the mix they think they have to fight about everything. Atheists scream and writhe around with rage about people who trust in a deity and religious people think atheists are all demonic nutjobs. Both sides are correct to an extent. It is pointless to fight over what position you think everyone else should believe. My view is that agnosticism can fit most situations better than the other alternatives.

    Move on to more important, immediate, and earthly matters.

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  4. You have that right. The existence or non-existence of God on traditional conceptions is beyond the scope of empirical science, which cannot subject the claim that the course of history is under the influence of God, since it could be consistent with God's will, no matter what, unless we had direct access to God's will! I have discussed these questions in RENDER UNTO DARWIN (2007). So agnosticism is indeed the only rationally defensible position. I have described myself as an intellectual agnostic but an emotional atheist, since I have no need for that hypothesis.

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  5. David Mantik asked me to post this on his behalf, which I am glad to do.

    David Mantik said...

    I agree that Bugliosi, when “out of his element,” is usually not worth reading—and that includes the JFK assassination. On the other hand, when he deploys his specialized expertise, he is often a pleasure. I wrote this review primarily because many online reviews of his book are overly ardent, which means that many readers will uncritically ingest his often frail arguments. Since each generation must be educated anew, traversing well marked paths is often useful, e.g., Victor Davis Hanson's views on the classics. I have also tried hard not to “…scream and writhe around with rage.” In fact, my goal has been to respect all serious parties—and to understand why different conclusions might well fit different personalities. Furthermore, the subject is often a crucial one—one for which many of us need a final verdict before we can indeed get on with “…more important, immediate, and earthly matters.” That quote precisely describes the destination at which I have now arrived.

    For those who actually read my review, please note that the complete version, with footnotes, a reading list, and 50 items in the appendix, will soon be archived and a link will be posted here.

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  6. While this blog tends to focus on historical issues, such as the assassination of JFK, the events of 9/11, and other abuses of power and authority, as a professional philosopher, there are other questions that also deserve consideration, such as the existence of God and the place of religion in human experience.

    David and I both have relationships with Vince and find him to be a fascinating fellow. I liked what David had to say about his book, which had dimensions that had not occurred to me in my own reading, and wanted to share. I have replaced the original with a revised version, which I like even better. I trust others will as well.

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  7. we humans have established 1000's of religions and are still setting up more to try and prove their more right then the others to no avail ! we all have our points of view based on what we believe to be true for us. so go ahead and believe it, but please stop trying to make others believe what you do. thereby you do no harm.

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  8. Vince is arrogant, and that's what has made him great. But his missing the flaw to the first cause argument is embarrassing. However, Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins all need to be taken down---the 4 of them do no have the credentials. There is an embarrassing interview of Harris by Dawkins in which Dawkins asks soft-ball, age-old questions about the problems of utilitarianism, and Harris offers up a nonsense response. Later, a member of the audience, re-asks these questions, and Harris has no response. Not that these 4 should have the answers to age old questions, but the way people flock to them is a joke.

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  9. Vince is arrogant, and that's what has made him great. But his missing the flaw to the first cause argument is embarrassing. However, Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins all need to be taken down---the 4 of them do no have the credentials. There is an embarrassing interview of Harris by Dawkins in which Dawkins asks soft-ball, age-old questions about the problems of utilitarianism, and Harris offers up a nonsense response. Later, a member of the audience, re-asks these questions, and Harris has no response. Not that these 4 should have the answers to age old questions, but the way people flock to them is a joke.

    ReplyDelete