Ricky Gervais: Funny Comedian, Bad Philosopher


David Brent

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I like The Office, I really do. But lately people related to the show have me putting my face in my palm when they stray from comedy and into philosophy. Last week it was Michael Schur, this time it’s none other than the man himself, Ricky Gervais.  First let me say that David Brent >Michael Scott, and I happen to like Michael Scott, although I quit watching the show a couple of years ago.

Anyway, I failed to notice this a week ago, but in the spirit of spreading holiday cheer, Mr. Gervais tells us why he’s an atheist at the WSJ. I’m all for hearing one’s reasons for their beliefs or lack thereof, but I think his arguments for being an atheist are dodgy at best.

(A blog post I wrote was once mentioned in the WSJ’s Daily Fix blog, so I’m somebody, too! I drive a Dodge Stratus!)

Why don’t you believe in God? I get that question all the time. I always try to give a sensitive, reasoned answer. This is usually awkward, time consuming and pointless. People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary. They are happy with their belief. They even say things like “it’s true to me” and “it’s faith.” I still give my logical answer because I feel that not being honest would be patronizing and impolite. It is ironic therefore that “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe,” comes across as both patronizing and impolite.

If Christians are saying “it’s true for me” in some sort of relativist type of terms, then why are they slandered as being narrow-minded? Theists are caricatured this way because they believe this is one way to God, whether they are Christian, Jew or Muslim.  The Christian message is unpopular because it’s not something they think is true “for them”, but it applies in the absolute sense to all mankind. And please, I welcome whatever arguments against God that can be produced. I’m not afraid of them. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. By the same token, the unexamined faith is also not worth following. It’s not just blind faith for me at all; I am operating in my epistemic rights. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity is well-grounded in reason and logic. This is knocking down straw men.

Arrogance is another accusation. Which seems particularly unfair. Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -­- evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge. It doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray. Whatever you “believe,” this is not as effective as medicine. Again you can say, “It works for me,” but so do placebos. My point being, I’m saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.

I’m all for science. I thank God for science. But science does not refute faith. In fact, science has strengthened my faith in many areas. All truth is God’s truth. One evidence of many in the case for God that has been augmented by science is that the universe came into existence, literally, out of nothing. I feel like I need my man-card revoked for dropping a reference from The Sound of Music, but when Maria sang “nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could” she was expressing some fundamental knowledge of metaphysics. Literally time, matter and space all came into existence at the Big Bang. In comparison to the alternatives, I find that the most plausible inference we can draw is that an infinitely powerful, timeless, un-embodied mind created the universe out of nothing. I would hope Mr. Gervais’ own experience tells him things don’t just pop into existence out of nothing. And if he does, holding such a belief does not make it true. Experience tells us that everything that begins to exist has a cause.

What Mr. Gervais seems to be saying is that he holds to scientism, which is the view that the sciences are the only way to know anything.  I mean no disrespect, but this is also a faith, and the principal of empirical verifiability is not without its problems. In fact, it’s circular and self-defeating. The principal of empirical verifiability says there two sorts of meaningful propositions:

  1. Those true by definition.
  2. Those empirically verifiable.

Since the principal of empirical verifiability itself  is neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable, it self-destructs.

Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said, “Why don’t you believe I can fly?” You’d say, “Why would I?” I’d reply, “Because it’s a matter of faith.” If I then said, “Prove I can’t fly. Prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?” You’d probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ‘’F—ing fly then you lunatic.”

Cue the laugh track. Regarding the burden of proof, the assertion “there is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “God exists.”  Both require justification. At least the agnostic is safe because she says she doesn’t know whether there is a God or not.

This, is of course a spirituality issue, religion is a different matter. As an atheist, I see nothing “wrong” in believing in a god. I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me. It’s when belief starts infringing on other people’s rights when it worries me. I would never deny your right to believe in a god. I would just rather you didn’t kill people who believe in a different god, say. Or stone someone to death because your rulebook says their sexuality is immoral. It’s strange that anyone who believes that an all-powerful all-knowing, omniscient power responsible for everything that happens, would also want to judge and punish people for what they are. From what I can gather, pretty much the worst type of person you can be is an atheist. The first four commandments hammer this point home. There is a god, I’m him, no one else is, you’re not as good and don’t forget it. (Don’t murder anyone, doesn’t get a mention till number 6.)

When confronted with anyone who holds my lack of religious faith in such contempt, I say, “It’s the way God made me.”

More sarcasm (he is a comedian, so I can forgive him for that) and more straw men, and a real lack of any basic theological understanding, which seems to indicate that either a.) he’s done little investigation of the bible of his own or b.) he got a dose of bad theology growing up. The latter, judging by his story, sadly, is quite possible, but that doesn’t let him off the hook.

Now on Mr. Gervais’ view, men are nothing but the byproduct of some sort of purposeless cosmic accident, and that man is really no different or more special than an animal. Only through a blind, unguided process do we have men who evolve from crumbs to comedians. But then Mr. Gervais seems to go on to say that it is objectively wrong to kill in the name of religion. I agree with him that needless evil tragically and inexcusably has been done in the name of religion, but on what grounds does Mr. Gervais have to condemn such behavior? If there is no God, then it seems implausible that objective moral values and duties exist. So what makes human beings special given atheism? Merely asserting that we are special doesn’t make it so.

To his point of God’s sovereignty, God is clearly not responsible for everything that happens, because we are not automatons. God does not make men to be atheists, but in His love and patience He gives them cognition and enough clues for them to reach out to Him if they’ll have Him.  For Him to take away free will, that would be evil.

For the sake of length I’ll jump into Gervais’s own story of how and why he became an atheist.

But anyway, there I was happily drawing my hero when my big brother Bob asked, “Why do you believe in God?” Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. “Bob” she said in a tone that I knew meant, “Shut up.” Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong it didn’t matter what people said.
Oh … hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

Wait a sec. I thought he didn’t believe in God because of logic and reason? It looks like he became an atheist apart from science or logic, but more like on a whim based entirely on relationships. In giving us what he thinks are scientific reasons, he justifies a stance that he took long before he had scientific reasons. Isn’t that what exactly Christians are all too often accused of?

Evolution of plants, animals and us –- with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.

But living an honest life -– for that you need the truth. That’s the other thing I learned that day, that the truth, however shocking or uncomfortable, in the end leads to liberation and dignity.

This is just so inconsistent. If life is really absurd, then you’re trapped with just the physical world around us. To try and create meaning, value and purpose is merely an exercise in self-delusion. You give your life one meaning, I give it another meaning, and no one is right. This is just playing dress-up; make believe, which is exactly what the theist is accused of. If atheism is true, then life is objectively meaningless.

Oh, and on naturalism (or at least consistent naturalism) love, humor, fun, etc. are all just chemical reactions in your brain, and you really have no free will. One of the core beliefs of most atheists is determinism (take Stephen Hawking, for instance)- the idea that every prior action affects human actions and choices. This means that human behavior is ultimately controlled by genes that control personality, by brain neuro-chemistry, and interactions with the environment.

“Do unto others…” is a good rule of thumb. I live by that. Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. But that’s exactly what it is -­‐ a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I’m good. I just don’t believe I’ll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life. And that’s where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you’ll burn in hell.”

You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway.

Why? If God does not exist, then life is absurd, and as Dostoyevsky said, “all things are permissible”. I’m not at all saying an atheist cannot be good. But if naturalism is true, “being nice” is really illusory. You’d have to borrow from the theistic worldview for such qualities of objective meaning, purpose and good. Anything else is just acting; kidding one’s self.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be all crusty and negative, but some people eat this stuff up and I just think arguments like these have gone unanswered for too long. My heart goes out to Mr. Gervais and those who swallow these bad arguments.

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18 thoughts on “Ricky Gervais: Funny Comedian, Bad Philosopher

  1. Howdy, Erik. I’m baaaaack. xD

    First off, I definitely agree with the assertion of the title of this post. Gervais’ atheism routine is funny–though I’d say the best part is when he gets off the religion track and does philosophy/history jokes–but it trivializes the important and logical reasons that drive people to atheism. You’ve already heard my reasons, though, and I yours, so I’m here on a more tangential mission.

    Near the end of this piece, you raise the argument that, even in the atheist/absurdist viewpoint, one must draw one’s morality from theism. Not going to argue with that right now, even though I disagree with it, because I want to ask you a question, first: Where does your morality dome from? What I mean by that is: Is any given action or thought right because God said it was? Or does God tell you to do it because it’s right?

  2. Excellent. You’re definitely a better philosopher than Ricky Gervais. To answer your question…ah yes, the famous Euthyphro Dilemma. I think it’s actually a false dilemma, there’s a 3rd alternative. God wills something because is it good. What do I mean by that? I mean God’s own nature is the standard of goodness, and His commandments are an expression of his nature. In short, our moral values and duties are determined by a just and loving God. They are not independent of God because God’s own character defines what is good. God is essentially just, loving, impartial, etc. . His nature is the standard of defining moral good and bad, his commands reflect his nature. Therefore, they’re not arbitrary.

    If one was to say “what if God commanded us to beat our wives, would we be obligated to do that?” That’s like asking “if there were a square circle, would its area be the square of one of its sides”? It’s a logical impossibility. The morally good/bad is determined by God’s nature, and the morally right/wrong is determined by his will. God wills something because He is good, and something is right because God wills it.

    Next. 🙂

    • If I understand you correctly, what you’re saying is that God’s inherent nature is good, and therefore the only actions He would undertake or command us to undertake would be good, correct? So what God would wish is what is “good” because his very nature is goodness, and what he will is “right”?

      My next question, I suppose, would be this: How d you propose to understand what God approves of? How do you know what is “good” and, following from that, what is “right”? All you have to go on, it seems, is instinct and analysis of Scripture, both of which seem to be to be fairly subjective.

  3. Step 1: Attempt to define “God”
    Step 2: Use “God” in a sentence explaining why you believe in “God”
    Result: The truth value of all subsequent statements = undefined

    • OK, Tim. I think you’re trying to trick me into using circular reasoning. Call me on this one if it doesn’t fit and I’ll try and rethink this after I had some coffee, but on the fly…

      Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe had a beginning. Therefore, the universe had a cause. For time, space and matter to all come into existence at the big bang, it seems most plausible that it had to be created by an unembodied, timeless, all-powerful being. That being matches the description of the God of the Bible, so therefore, it is rational to for me to believe in God.

      • I wasn’t trying to trick you into circular reasoning. I was trying to nudge you away from reasoning altogether. The (self-described) most important and compelling thing about Christianity is its emphasis on Love. Reason, as it pertains to proof of exclusive monotheism, isn’t important. The Bible takes great pains to describe the belief in the existence of yahweh as something entirely unrelated to reason. It’s faith in something unseen. I don’t have that faith, but Love, OTOH, I can get behind. God is Love (agape variety). I like that god. Let’s focus on her and stop using logic and reason to attempt to define the supernatural. Reason is only good for losing faith, not gaining it. Trust me on that one–I’ve lost it.

  4. It sounds to me like you understand correctly what I’m saying.

    For your next question, you are right about moral instinct and Scripture can be dependent on people’s opinions. But are we discovering objective moral values and getting closer or further from the standard, or are we making them up as we go along? I would say that we are discovering them.

    For example, let’s say the Nazis won WWII and brainwashed us all to believe the holocaust was right. Let’s imagine that they even hired clergy who used scripture and brainwashed Christians into thinking Jews were “Christ-killers”, and that Christians really were doing God a service by executing them. The holocaust would still be objectively wrong.

    • I guess I see what you’re talking about. Have you ever read the Isaac Asimov essay on the spectrum of right and wrong? I’ll try and track it down; I think you’ll enjoy it. Essentially, he lays out that, while we still get things wrong, we get them less wrong than we used to. That’s what you’re saying, essentially, right?

      My caveat to that would be that, in my belief, we are approaching a consensus with our morality but not an objective. That is: our morality is becoming generally more uniform. Where we differ is that I don’t think there is anything inherently good about that uniformity. From the inside, however, it seems to us to be a universal improvement.

      • No, I’m not necessarily saying we get things morally less wrong than before, per se. We may be getting them more right in some areas (say with slavery for instance) but less right in other areas (sexuality).

        What I’m saying is that our experience tells us that there is such a thing as objective moral values and duties. It’s always wrong to torture the innocent for pleasure, for instance. But even if everyone thought it was OK, it wouldn’t make it OK. So I don’t think uniformity would be correct, either. A transcendent, loving and just God is the grounds for objective moral values and truths, and I doubt we will all get “uniform” with that anytime soon, given man’s free will and nature.

        “Stubborn” humanism fails to ground object moral values and duties as it strikes me as arbitrary and implausible, as does some sort of atheistic moral platonism, where objective morals are just “there”, which seems improbable and gives us no basis for duty.

        I think on your view, nihilism I think, is that objective moral values and duties don’t exist, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But again, I think our experience would deny this. I don’t think it is ever OK, say to rape innocent women, or beat our wives, or be a pedophile, etc. I think our experience tells us that at least some objective moral values and duties exist, that they’re not merely ephemeral.

        As for your denial of things that exist contingently, well, it’s not enough to say I don’t believe in contingent properties and things and not explain why you hold that view.

  5. good stuff erik. more christians should be able to show the “there is no God” crowd there really is without insulting them like this. good, good stuff

  6. You say that the universe had to be created by something because you can’t create something from nothing… but you don’t explain how God came from nothing.

    “I would hope Mr. Gervais’ own experience tells him things don’t just pop into existence out of nothing.”

    What or who then created God?

    • That’s a fair objection, I believe Richard Dawkins is rather famous for it although he wasn’t the first to ask the question.

      For one thing, an basic point in the philosophy of science is that you don’t need an explanation of the explanation, that just leads to an infinite regress so nothing could be explained and science would actually be destroyed. For the purpose of illustration, if astronauts were to come upon a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in thinking that it was the product of some kind of intelligence, even if they had no idea whatsoever who left them there or how they got there.

      But to answer your question – No one created God. God is a necessary being. Let me explain –

      There are two kinds of things. a) things that exist necessarily b.) things produced by an external cause.

      Things that exist necessarily exist by the necessity of their own nature. It’s impossible for them not to exist. Many mathematicians think of think that numbers, sets and other mathematical entities exist in such a way. They’re not caused to exist, they just do out of their own nature. In comparison, things caused to exist don’t exist don’t exist necessarily. So everything exists has an explanation, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. Therefore God is an uncaused, necessary being.

      • Just wanted to chime in and say that the explanation of necessary causes has never really satisfied me. I don’t believe it holds true for numbers, nor for God.

  7. @Tim Sorry to hear that, but I don’t think reason is the wrong way to approach faith, but I’m not saying it alone will get you there. I liken skepticism to like a dial that we can set really high or really low, depending on our heart condition. Some people (and I’m certainly not saying this is the case in your life, don’t misunderstand me) would never be so skeptical about things in real life, but then dial up the skepticism when approaching the subject of God.

    There are a lot of things we can’t see that we believe in, like other minds, morality, etc. So I think reason is important and I truly think it will lead you to belief in God and and to some important facts about the person of Jesus, but we can’t reduce faith to a set of arguments or principals. It’s relational with a person of agape love.

    Feel free to share with me how you’ve come to lose faith if you so wish. I’m open to some friendly discussion if you wish, but I understand if you wouldn’t want to get it..it’s just an open invitation

    – eriknmanningATgmailDOTcom

  8. “No, I’m not necessarily saying we get things morally less wrong than before, per se. We may be getting them more right in some areas (say with slavery for instance) but less right in other areas (sexuality). “

    Do you in fact believe we are getting things less right in terms of sexuality? Why?

    “What I’m saying is that our experience tells us that there is such a thing as objective moral values and duties. It’s always wrong to torture the innocent for pleasure, for instance. But even if everyone thought it was OK, it wouldn’t make it OK. So I don’t think uniformity would be correct, either. A transcendent, loving and just God is the grounds for objective moral values and truths, and I doubt we will all get “uniform” with that anytime soon, given man’s free will and nature.

    “Stubborn” humanism fails to ground object moral values and duties as it strikes me as arbitrary and implausible, as does some sort of atheistic moral platonism, where objective morals are just “there”, which seems improbable and gives us no basis for duty. “

    I definitely see the validity of this argument, but in my opinion, while stubborn humanism and objective morality are arbitrary, a belief in God doesn’t solve that problem. It simply defers the arbitrary thing. Now it is the existence of God, the “unmoved mover”, the “first cause”, that is arbitrary–it exists because it’s “impossible for them not to”. Why is that, exactly?

    As for why I don’t believe in the existence of necessary causes. . . well, I’ll use the example you raised of numbers. I don’t think numbers exist necessarily. I think they are a concept that developed out of our understanding of multiplicity. That is, we can comprehend definitions (you know what I mean when I say “table”) AND we can comprehend distances and separations (my table and your table are different). Quantification simply came about as a result of the realization that there was rock and rock, which became TWO rocks. The way mathematicians tend to look at numbers–and other mathematical concepts–is as absolutes. The issue here is that they are entirely deductive; like theology, all we are doing is exploring the definitions we ourselves have laid out. It tells us nothing about the nature of reality.

    “I think our experience tells us that at least some objective moral values and duties exist, that they’re not merely ephemeral. ”

    How so? There have certainly been societies that have believed many of the things we now see as wrong to be right, and some still exist. Sure, most modern societies are fairly close on this sort of thing, but even the most similar have important differences. What evidence do you have about the rightness or wrongness of anything other than A. your belief in God, B. your “gut feeling” or personal reaction, or C. your logical process of ethics, be that deontological, utilitarian, etc.

    • Do you in fact believe we are getting things less right in terms of sexuality? Why?

      Unfortunately I’m in the middle of moving (yes, in December) so forgive me if this is a bit rushed. I’m the one who brought this up and I feel like this could be a total red herring, but take porn for instance. We as a culture have mostly grown to accept it, but its effects on individuals and society is much more negative than positive.

      I definitely see the validity of this argument, but in my opinion, while stubborn humanism and objective morality are arbitrary, a belief in God doesn’t solve that problem. It simply defers the arbitrary thing. Now it is the existence of God, the “unmoved mover”, the “first cause”, that is arbitrary–it exists because it’s “impossible for them not to”. Why is that, exactly?

      Well, moral argument aside, because from nothing comes nothing. As for how objective moral values required God – If God does not exist, what is the basis of moral values? On an atheistic view there doesn’t seem to be anything special about homo sapiens that makes morality objectively true. For us to think humans as special and our morality as objectively true is to give into the specieism. Take God out, and you’re left with apelike creatures on some speck in the universe with delusions of moral grandeur.

      As duties are concerned, if God is out, who imposes moral duties on us? Where do they come from? It’s hard to see them merely as byproduct of social conditioning. If the are, the rapist or pedophile that goes against the herd morality is doing nothing more different then the person who talks during movies, or farts in public. If there is no moral law giver, then there is no objective moral law we should obey.

      Now unlike #’s which are abstract, that means they can have no cause, God is concrete, meaning he can cause effects in the universe.

      How so? There have certainly been societies that have believed many of the things we now see as wrong to be right, and some still exist. Sure, most modern societies are fairly close on this sort of thing, but even the most similar have important differences. What evidence do you have about the rightness or wrongness of anything other than A. your belief in God, B. your “gut feeling” or personal reaction, or C. your logical process of ethics, be that deontological, utilitarian, etc.

      Again, even if everyone was brainwashed into thinking it was right, that would make it right, because society has deemed it OK? I think it is a “gut feeling” to a degree, it’s a better explanation that we’re made in the image of God with a sense of rightness and wrongness in our consciousness than to believe that morality is just the outworkings of sociobiological factors only.

      If you have more responses, be aware it might take me a couple days to get back to you. Back to the land of no fun now. 😦

    • Luckily, I have a sec to respond to this. I hear this a lot.

      Truth about how we came to hold a belief is independent of how we came to hold it. You could get your moral beliefs from fortune cookies, and they could still be true, it doesn’t invalidate it. That’s what philosophers call the genetic fallacy, discrediting a belief based on where it came about, but maybe you’re not saying objective moral values and duties do not exist, but how we’ve discovered them…

      Sociobiological accounts of morality at best proves our perception of moral values and duties have evolved. But if they are gradually discovered and not invented, then our gradual and fallible perception no more undermines their objective reality, than our gradual, fallible perception of the physical world undermines its objective reality.

      Also, if your moral beliefs have been shaped by evolution, then we cannot have much confidence in them b/c evolution isn’t aiming for truth, it’s aiming for survival. our moral values would be selected for survival, not truth. so we really can’t trust our moral experience and therefore we can’t know if there are objective moral values and duties do exist. But this assumes atheism is true, and if so, then our moral beliefs are really just illusory. But if God exists, he probably would want to us to have correct moral beliefs and so would either guide evo to produce right beliefs or else put them in us. So apart from presupposing that atheism is true, we have no reason to deny our moral experience.

      Also, given naturalism all our beliefs, not just moral ones, are the result of evo and social conditioning. Thus, the evo account leads to radical skepticism about knowledge in general, which defeats itself, b/c the evo account also is the product of evo and social conditioning. Given the warrant provided of the premise that objective moral truths exist by our own experience, we’re probably right in thinking that they do exist.

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