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Bill O’Reilly and God

March 12, 2011

Several months ago we all heard Bill O’Reilly offer his proof for the existence of God by simply stating, “the tides go in, the tides go out, never a miscommunication.”

I had completely forgotten about this until just earlier today when I was reading Bertrand Russell’s book The Analysis Of Matter and I came across the following (I boldfaced key points):

“Common sense does not initially distinguish as sharply as civilized nations do between persons, animals, and things.  Primitive religion affords abundant evidence of this.  A thing, like an animal, has a sort of power residing within it: it may fall on your head, roll over in the wind, and so on.  It is only gradually that inanimate objects become sharply separated from people, through the observation that their actions have no purpose. But animals are not separable from people on this ground, and are in fact thought by savages to be much more intelligent than they are.

The notion of cause is part of the apparatus of common sense.  I do not think it would be true to say that common sense regards objects as the causes of our perceptions; it would not, unless challenged, think of bringing in causation in this connection.  It looks for causes when it is surprised, not when an occurrence seems perfectly natural.  It demands causes for a mirage, a reflexion, a dream, an earthquake, a plague, and so on, but not for the ordinary course of nature.  And the cause which it looks for, wherever the event concerned has great emotional interest, is pretty sure to be animistic:  the anger of the gods, or something analogous.  The idea of universal causation, and of causation divorced from purpose, belongs to a later stage of mental development, and marks the beginnings of philosophy and science.

Bill’s conception of God and reality reminds me a lot of egocentrism in the sense Piaget used the term.  I’d like to quote a passage from Henry Glietman’s textbook Psychology:

The inability of preoperational children to consider two physical dimensions simultaneously has a counterpart in their approach to the physical world.  They cannot understand another person’s point of view, for they are as yet unable to recognize that different points of view exist.  This characteristic of preoperational thought is often called egocentrism.  As Piaget uses the term, it does not imply selfishness.  It is not that children seek to benefit at the expense of others; it is rather that they haven’t fully grasped that there are other selves.

An interesting demonstration of egocentrism involves a literal interpretation of “point of view.”  If two adults stand at opposite corners of a building, each knows that the other sees a different wall.  But according to Piaget, preoperational children don’t understand this.  In one study, children were shown a three-dimensional model of a mountain scene.  While the children viewed the scene from one position, a small doll was placed at various other locations around the model.  The child’s job was to decide what the doll saw from its vantage point.  To answer, the child had to choose one of several drawings that depicted different views of the mountain scene.  Up to four years of age, the children didn’t even understand the question.  From four to seven year olds, their response was fairly consistent — they chose the drawing that showed what they saw, regardless of where the doll was placed (Piaget and Inhelder, 1956).

In the same way that small children can’t comprehend other minds and different points of view, those like Bill O’Reilly can’t comprehend a universe existing that is unlike the mind of a human being.  They’re unable to understand a universe devoid of human intent and purposes.  Bill imagines a great and powerful being, which is invisible, with motivations, thoughts, and desires similar to his own, and that this being orchestrates all of these events for some grand plan where the human race is smack dab at the center.  Interestingly, when scientists from all across the globe pointed out to him that the tides are caused by gravitational influences from the sun and the moon, and that we’ve known this since Issac Newton, he quickly posted a reply, basically saying, “No, you guys don’t get it.  That’s not the sort of why I’m talking about.”

He seems to be demanding a human like motivation and purpose for the tides.  If you explain the universe in terms different from human mental processes, the event has not been explained.  You could direct him to the nebular hypothesis, but then he’d say, “How’d the gas and dust clouds get there?”  Then you could direct him to the Big Bang, baryogenesis, and nucleosynthesis, but he’d just keep begging the same question in an infinite regress.

Topics: Philosophy, Psychology | No Comments »

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