Atheism and Common Sense

Theists often think of atheists—especially new atheists—as people who take an extreme position by closing their eyes to the obvious existence of God. In fact, atheism is eyes wide open. The atheist turns off the tv show, stops the movie, closes the novel, and takes a real look at the world. No more fantasy—at least for the moment. Put fiction aside. Instead ask, what is true?

That’s the atheist program. Though the average person may not realize it, atheism is based on honest observations about ourselves and the world around us. Some of these observations are the work of scientists, others part of our everyday experiences, but together they make a compelling case for a world without God.

What is the theist program? Theists say God, who is non-physical, existed first. Then God made the physical world. Then God made us with a physical body but placed inside us a soul or consciousness which is non-physical. When our bodies die, this conscious soul that once was inside us escapes and can be punished or rewarded by God.

It is a story with tension, drama, compelling plot lines and, if we pick the right religion, the promise of a happy ending. It’s got everything we expect from a good novel or movie. But is it fact—or fiction?

Let’s open our eyes and look at the world for an answer.

What Thought Can’t Do

Our consciousness comes from our brain, from neurons. How do we know this is true? If neurons get damaged, consciousness gets damaged. Brain scientists have confirmed this fact again and again. But even without the input of scientists, we know it already. We know that alcohol and drugs alter the brain and in turn mess up our consciousness.

On one hand, the physical brain directly affects consciousness. On the other hand, consciousness cannot directly affect the world around us. Our thoughts can’t make physical things come into existence. Thoughts can’t think objects into being. We can think of objects, of course, but thinking of them doesn’t make them exist. Consciousness doesn’t work that way.

Our thoughts, in fact, can’t affect anything in the world around us. Not directly, at least. If we want to affect something in the world, we must engage it with our hands, with our bodies. Otherwise nothing gets done. Although many have claimed that they could bend spoons or move objects with their minds, every scientific attempt to verify such claims has failed. Minds simply don’t work that way.

Thoughts & Neurons

And yet, there must be some location where matter and thought engage each other. It makes sense, for example, that our consciousness and our neurons have a two-way interaction. After all, our thoughts seem to influence our behavior. But the evidence, quite overwhelming, is that interaction between consciousness and matter occurs only in the brain. It is specifically interaction between neurons and consciousness. My thoughts and feeling can’t affect the pair of scissor sitting on the desk in front of me. I can’t move or do anything to the scissors with my consciousness. Except in one specific manner: I can influence my brain to move my arm to pick up the scissors. My body can affect the physical world. My thoughts can only affect the neurons in my brain.

In fiction, of course, things are different. In The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, one of my favorite movies, Lattis and Kro-bar attempt to use Marva mind-meld to control Betty and thwart the Lost Skeleton’s own mind-control efforts over her. Our movies and fantasy novels are full of this kind of thing. But in the real world, we know life doesn’t work that way.  We have only one way of influencing other people’s consciousness and that is through our actions or through physical lines of communication—talking, writing, art, music, movies and so on.

The reality is that we are all experts on consciousness—if only we pay attention to what we know.

And this is what we know: consciousness is intimately associated with the neurons in our brain. Those neurons somehow create our conscious experiences, and in turn our thoughts and feelings can alter our behavior from what it would otherwise have been. We also know that it is the brain—those neurons again—that moves our muscles and makes our bodies do things. And we also know that only by our bodies doing things (or tools we have built with our bodies) can we affect physical changes in the world. We can’t bypass our bodies or our tools and affect those changes directly from consciousness.

We can’t even communicate consciousness to consciousness directly without our bodies being there to mediate the exchange—those physical lines of communication again. The Marva mind-meld doesn’t work in real life, and we all know that. We may wish or dream, but reality is otherwise.

If it requires a body in order for thoughts to have any hope of affecting the world, then it follows—again this is simple common sense—that bodiless beings are powerless. The God and gods of our imagination can’t do anything in the world even if we grant their existence. It takes a body to act. Indeed, scientists have learned that it takes neurons—a brain—even to think or feel. Without a body, God can’t even have consciousness.

Evolution and Consciousness

These are the common sense observations from which atheism springs.  If we take these observations seriously, they lead us not just to atheism but to a natural worldview that contrasts sharply with the supernatural worldview of theists. In the natural worldview, physical reality—not any kind of consciousness or God—comes first. In some form or other this physical reality has always existed. From it, organic life evolved into existence. Later, the brains of some organisms evolved to the point where their neurons began producing experiences—the beginning of consciousness. The ability to experience helped species survive and thrive, and led to more types of conscious experiences evolving: pain, visual and auditory simulacra, and so on.

Among the striking features of experiences is that they are assigned a location (inside the body, on its surface, or outside), they simulate useful information about the world or about the body of the organism, and at varying levels they create value toward action. This last is a difficult concept to put into words, but essentially it means that each experience has a meaning for the organism, and these meanings deliver varying levels of influence upon the organism’s decision-making process.

Eventually (in our own species at the least) higher-level experiences of symbolic thought evolved, enabling us to construct knowledge models of the world around us. It is important to realize that because it’s a product of evolution, knowledge is inherently pragmatic in nature. We never know the “true reality” of the physical world; what we know is a simulacrum of reality which is valuable for its usefulness. What this mean is that in the natural worldview there is no ‘underlying intelligence” to be found in the world; intelligence is something that evolved into existence much later and exists only in organisms with brains that create that sort of consciousness.

It also follows that our way of knowing the world must be based on pragmatic empiricism. Thus if we assert that some statement about the world is “true,” what we mean is that the statement is useful to us, and specifically that it’s more useful to us than competing statements which we might invent in terms of it’s reliability and predictability. If this sounds something like a description of the scientific method, it’s because the scientific method is a codification of the most effective way of developing statements about the world that are useful and reliable. What is important to understand about the scientific method is that it does not and cannot verify knowledge against the “real” world—instead one hypothesis is pitted against another (or against its negation) and then controlled tests are run to see which is more useful for describing and predicting what happens. If an hypothesis is less useful than its negative, we say it’s been falsified. We never know the world directly, never extract knowledge from the world (because that’s not where knowledge exists); instead we invent knowledge and test it against possible alternatives for its usefulness to us in our interactions with the world.

Counter-Attack

I’ve laid out in brief the common sense basis of atheism. It is based, as we have seen, on what we all know about how consciousness and thinking actually works in the world; knowledge that comes either from our common experiences or from the careful observations of scientists. And simply, the way that thoughts and consciousness work just doesn’t fit with there being a God.

Still, I can imagine theists admitting that, on the surface, things may seem to be the way I have described. But—and it’s a big but—asserting that there are nevertheless very good reasons to believe the atheist viewpoint, the natural worldview, just can’t be right.

First of all, theists argue, atheists can’t explain why the physical world exists. Every physical thing has a cause, and the physical world must have a cause too. There has to be a beginning. (This doesn’t apply to God because God is not physical.) But if there is a beginning of the physical world, it can’t be from nothing. Something can’t come from nothing—there is no logical way to explain how it ever could. So atheism doesn’t work. No matter all our common sense observations about thinking and consciousness, the physical world just can’t pull itself up by it’s own bootstraps. There  must be a non-physical cause behind everything.

On examination, however, the argument falls apart. The problem is that causes are confused with explanations. If we look carefully at the natural worldview, we see that the word “cause” means in effect “useful explanation” (or “explanation more useful than any other explanations we’ve come up with so far”). So to say that everything must have a cause is really to say that everything must have a useful explanation. But that’s not true. Nothing has to have an explanation at all. It’s just that we human beings have found that useful explanations are, obviously, useful to us. We like them. They enable us to reliably manipulate the world.

If everything did have to have an explanation, then God would have to have an explanation too. It would be very fair to ask, what explains God’s existence? Who or what created God? Nothing? Then the theist believes something came from nothing.  But that’s impossible, right?

God, in fact, is not very useful as an explanation for the physical world if we can’t actually explain how God creates or causes that world. And we can’t. We can’t because God has no physical attributes. Literally, God can’t touch the world. How can he create it?

Physical & Spiritual Causes

But theists will object to this entire line of argument. I began it with the assertion that causes were being confused with explanations. But I can see theists insisting that causes really exist, over and beyond whether or not we know or can explain what those causes are. Every physical thing really does have a cause. And spiritual things do not, therefore God doesn’t have to have a cause, and doesn’t in fact have one. But why don’t spiritual things have causes? It seems arbitrary.

Perhaps spiritual things have spiritual causes and physical things have physical causes. Granted. But this doesn’t solve the theistic problem. It still means God, being spiritual, should have a cause. And it doesn’t provide an explanation for how physical things, which have physical causes, can have a spiritual cause instead. How does the spiritual interact which the physical in a causal manner? What spiritual something interacts with what physical something to do anything? We have no way to imagine a spiritual entity creating a physical entity except by the fantasy—which we know from experience isn’t true—that physical things can be thought or felt into existence. Consciousness simply doesn’t work that way, and we know it.

Everything physical must have a cause. That is the theist mantra. But in reality God can’t be that cause, because causation of the physical world must include interacting with it. God can’t interact. We know by our extensive common experiences with thoughts and consciousness (after all, we are experts), that bare thoughts cannot create or even move physical things. This brings us back to the original atheist observation: thoughts can’t interact with material things except through the intermediary of a physical body. God doesn’t have a physical body, so he can’t begin to interact with, much less create, the world.

Is God something or nothing? Of course God is something, the theist will say. But God is not something physical. How then can God’s non-physical something cause the physical world’s something? We can fantasize that somehow it does. But that’s as far as anyone can go toward making God an explanation for the world.

A Final Sally

But theists have another objection, and it’s a much better one. The physical world is full of evidence of intelligence, and that intelligence clearly predates the advent of human beings and predates, for that matter, the evolution of organisms. The natural worldview simply can’t account for the intelligence we find in the structure of the physical world. Where could it have come from? Therefore something supernatural—and intelligent—is afoot. No matter what atheists assert or science implies, something intelligent existed first and evidently formed the world. Say all you want about how impossible it is, it must have happened.

But we’ve already blown this up, unfortunately for the theist. Intelligence is a property of minds, and information is mental currency. It is an illusion that these are attributes of the world outside our minds. Everything modern neuroscience reveals about the workings of the brain reinforces this point.

For the mind to do its thing, for it to know the world, it must invent information and map it into a simulacrum of the world. Actually, it is not exactly the mind that does this, but the brain. And the result of the brain’s creation of an information simulacrum is this thing we call knowing. It’s not the brain’s only simulacrum: vision and sound and feelings and tastes are some of its other experiential handiworks. But here’s the rub. When we build hypotheses and theories, when we know, it all happens within the simulacrum. And the subject of our knowledge, the data-source, is not the real world outside of us but rather the collection of other simulacra, the sense experiences, which our brains are constantly creating for us. These stand-in for the presumed world outside us.

Neuroscience tells us that nothing we know is knowledge of the real world outside. Instead it is knowledge of the simulacra of sensations which the brain is constantly creating for us. It follows that only indirectly, through pragmatic empiricism, can we test our knowing and maximize its usefulness. This indirect relationship between knowledge and the world, together with the fact that we directly know only our own simulacra, means that our knowledge of the world is necessarily covered with a patina of our own intelligence.

We think we see intelligence in the universe outside us, but in fact what we see is the patina of our own minds as they know the world.

 

 

 

Posted in Naturalism, Non-Existence Arguments | 10 Comments

Hector Avalos – Six Anti-Secularist Themes

Hector Avalos

There’s a great article by Hector Avalos over at debunkingchristianity which I heartily recommend. Dr. Avalos is a professor of Biblical Studies at Iowa State University and the targets of his post are six rhetorical devices commonly used by “religionist” biblical scholars when they attack the “secular” approach to the Bible taken by scholars like Avalos. The featured six are based on flawed logic, so their effectiveness is merely rhetorical. Yet apparently even in an academic field (and Biblical Studies is supposed to be an academic field) rhetoric often carries the day over logic and evidence.

Atheists will immediately recognize many of these rhetorical “themes”, as Avalos calls them. The six are as follows: the accusation of fundamentalism (secularists/atheists are “no different from religious fundamentalists insofar as they believe that they are correct, and all other positions are wrong”), omnifideism (” all worldviews and approaches are ultimately based on faith, and so deserve equal validity as scholarly methods”), the accusation of exclusivism (that excluding faith as a legitimate method of scholarship is “close-minded”), the angry atheist (ignore us, we’re just angry people), psychoanalysis (the real explanation for atheism can be found in the “biography” of each atheist), proprietary rights (the Bible is a religious book therefore “only people of faith can rightly understand [it], and atheists have no business studying it”). [Quotes are taken from “Six Anti-Secularist Themes: Deconstructing Religionist Rhetorical Weaponry” by Dr. Hector Avalos.]

Secular biblical scholars aren’t alone in being subjected to these rhetorical “weapons.” Most of them have been repeatedly employed against evolutionary scientists (starting with Darwin, of course), skeptics studying occult and “supernatural” claims, and of course atheists.

Read it for yourself. I strongly recommend it.

Posted in Debates, The Bible | Leave a comment

Do Test Tube Babies Have Souls?

Last month God and China got pissed off at the committee that awards the Nobel Prize. China because the Peace Prize went to someone they threw in prison for advocating democracy. And God?  Well, Robert Edwards won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his contribution to the development of In-vitro Fertilization (IVF) in the 1960’s. The award promptly raised the ire of the Vatican, whose position is that Edwards is not a hero but rather someone who has contributed to evil in the world. Since the development of IVF, about 4 million “test tube babies” have been born. The Church—and presumably God—is not happy about it.

In-Vitro Fertilization Diagram

Why wouldn’t God be happy about a procedure that has allowed millions of couples to have babies who otherwise weren’t able to? Well, it appears he didn’t intend for these couples to have babies, and what happened? They did an end-around with this IVF malarky.

Look at it from God’s point of view. Traditionally he’s been in full control of the creation of new beings—and each new being means a new soul must be created. The production and punishment of souls is God’s primary business. Heretofore, he’s been the one to decide not only when but if a new soul will be united with a physical body and brought into life. Now, science has taken that away from him.

Wouldn’t you be pissed?

Christians, especially those unmarried men at the Vatican, think God is very upset. God is so pissed about IVF that Cathy Lynn Grossman, author of the USA Today religion blog Faith & Reason, decided ask her readers if they thought God considered IVF children to be real children? Do they even have souls?

Now I’m sure no one, regardless of their religion, denies that IVF babies are real babies with human souls.

But here’s the rub. Christians adamantly reject the notion that the soul is a product of biology. They disagree with scientists who see consciousness (and the ability to make moral choices about how to behave) as something gradually developing in the womb and after birth as a baby grows. It’s not that Christians deny that our bodies are biological entities. But Christians insist that our soul—our consciousness and free will—does not have a biological source. The soul, they maintain, is a spiritual entity which comes from God.

If soul is to be a separate entity of its own, not just something that results from biological development, then it has to join the body all at once, in a unitary moment. The soul can’t be something that gradually comes into existence over months or years. Furthermore, the magical fusion of body with soul must be God’s doing.

This last point is important because it gets to the heart of God’s role in the whole life business. According to Christianity, God assigns our soul to a body at the beginning of our life, and then at the end God decides whether or not we are deserving of going to heaven. This joining of soul with body therefore has a divine purpose—to judge the soul’s fitness for eternity at God’s side. The cruel act of saddling the soul with a temporal, flawed body is all a part of God’s rather elaborate testing operation.

In short, God creates souls and then tests us—these souls—for fitness by combining us with biologically limited bodies and placing us into trying circumstances. And the reason is to find out which of us are good enough to be trusted for eternity in heaven. Not all Christians see it exactly this way. Some denominations believe our souls will not be judged for how we behave but only for whether or not we accept the redeemer, Jesus Christ, into our hearts. A test of a different sort, in other words, but still a test which we either pass or fail.

The difficulty is how to reconcile all of this with in-vitro fertilization.

God is supposed to be in charge of the creation of souls. He is supposed to be in charge of deciding when and if a soul will be combined with a body and therefore a new test of a soul will be done.  But IVF makes it look for all the world as if God is not in control of the creation of souls at all, much less his whole soul-testing experiment.

When babies are the result of the rather uncertain hit or miss of sexual intercourse, it is easy to imagine that God has some hand in making pregnancy happen—at least for those who are inclined to a supernatural worldview. But now that scientists are deliberately creating new babies in test tubes, it looks like God no longer has any control over the matter. Now he is forced to test souls whether he wants to or not.

So yeah, if there’s a God, he’s got to be pissed. And the theologians in the Catholic Church have got to be pissed too, because now they have to explain away one more thing about life that no longer requires their God.

Posted in Afterlife & Immortality, Christianity | 37 Comments

The Argument from Perfection

Either God is imperfect, God does not exist, or God did not create the physical world. Such is the conclusion to which we are driven by one of the most compelling atheist arguments. The argument from perfection is closely related to the well-known “problem of evil”, but its unavoidable conclusion is more devastating to theism. It forces us to admit that if God exists, either he did not create the world, or he did so imperfectly.

Yet a God who is imperfect or not the Creator is not really God at all, and hardly worth worshiping. What follows is a recap of the argument as I presented it a few years ago in Agnosticism Revisited and the Case for Atheism.  After examining the weaknesses of believing in ghosts and imperfect deities, I turned to the question of God.

In fact, the case for God is weaker than that for Aphrodite. Not only does God come with all the difficulties of ghosts and goddesses, but God is defined with two additional attributes which make his existence even less likely: God is perfect, and God supposedly created the natural world.

A perfect being created an imperfect world? On its face that would seem to be impossible. —Which is enough by itself to render the case for God weaker than the case for Minerva and Mithra, who to their benefit aren’t saddled with perfection.

Theists like to tell themselves there is a way around the perfection problem. One option is to deny that God is perfect. But that demotes him to a god, cavorting (probably) after every Venus or Virgin Mary he sees. Most theists can readily see the problem with adopting this particular option.

A second option is to admit that the world is imperfect but insist that God is not responsible. God created a perfect world, but it “fell” because one of the free beings in that world chose—freely—to disobey God. But this “free will defense” completely misses the problem. Sure, it might explain imperfect decisions made by certain sentient species, but it completely ignores the massively larger and more important imperfection which is the result of the world’s flawed design.

Almost every living thing in existence, due to its inherent physical nature, must eat some other living thing in order to survive. This isn’t the result of disobeying God. It’s the result of anatomy and physiology. It can’t be blamed on sin. It can only be blamed on God—if God is the creator.

My moral decisions can’t change the fact that other living things need to eat me to survive, or that I need to eat other living things to survive. The world of life is designed on deadly competition at its core.

The concept of “the fall” is thus laughably inadequate to explain the imperfection of the world. The only option that remains is for the theist to argue that the world “is the best of all possible worlds”—that a perfect God could do no better.

But this approach only works if we lack imagination. For example, we don’t usually think about it, but in the world we have around us physics trumps everything, even morality. For example, a criminal with a gun can kill a Pope or a saint as easily as he can kill another criminal. To kill the saint all he must do is aim the gun at the right part of the body. Physics is no respecter of goodness.

But why not? Why didn’t God create a world in which goodness trumped physics? In our fantasies and movies, in fact, that is what we often make happen. If he had enough imagination, God could have codified the nature of things so that violence never paid. So that when the bullet from the gun of the criminal reached the body of the saint, it suddenly jumped to the body of the criminal instead. Morality would then trump physics. In such a world violence could only be inflicted on oneself. Or, to put it another way, violent perpetrators would receive immediate punishment, exactly proportional to the harm they would have caused. Since God created physics, he certainly could have chosen to allow goodness to trump it.

Isn’t that the way it is, supposedly, in Heaven?

The advocates of “the best of all possible worlds” excuse have one more shot. Earth isn’t perfect, they explain, because it’s a testing ground for souls. In order to find out which of the “free will” beings he created are ready for the perfection of heaven, this argument goes, God created earth as a kind of testing ground or “vale of soul-making”—something along those lines. But a world that doesn’t need a testing ground is clearly more perfect than one which does, just as a factory which produces cars which don’t need to be tested for defects is more perfect than a factory whose output can’t be trusted. But beyond that, this argument still fails to account for embedded imperfection of the world mentioned earlier. How can earth be an adequate testing ground for heaven if in fact it’s nothing like heaven? If a car is built for the road, it needs to be tested on a road—not by dropping it into a volcano. That’s the wrong kind of test.

Other problems with the soul-testing hypothesis abound. If the idea of the test is to help God determine which free-will souls are inherently good and which are only good for an ulterior motive, then it would be essential that the souls being tested not know they are being tested. It would be best, in fact, for the souls not to even know there’s an afterlife or a God: only then could God be sure their goodness was inherent and genuine, not gamed for the test.

There is also the difficulty which results from God’s prescience. if God has foreknowledge of human events then there is simply no need to run any kind of earthly test. If God feels compelled to run the test anyway despite knowing exactly how it will come out, then it raises the serious difficulty of human freedom. It would appear that choices which are foreknown are effectively foreordained. We can not be free to change our behavior during our “test” because to do so would turn God from infallible to fallible. It would destroy divine perfection.

Other difficulties: why does God only test human embryos and fetuses for a few days or months—completing the trial even before they are born—yet spend 80 years testing the soul of a mass-murderer? Makes one suspect its not testing that’s going on at all. Then there’s the whole problem of natural disasters. Why must a 3-year old child be burned by molten lava, crushed by an earthquake, or racked with leukemia or some other incurable disease? Can there be a legitimate point to such a “test”? Isn’t it obvious that no imaginable future could make a milkshake of perfection out of such experiences.

That is the problem with sentient experience: it is real. What is experienced is really experienced; it can’t be undone. The Biblical story of Job is very instructive here. In a single day, as part of a test (the product of a little side-bet between God and Satan) Job suffers the loss of his livestock, the death of most of his servants, then the death of his ten children. But it’s ok. Because in the end, God “makes it all right” by giving him new livestock, new servants, and new children.

Could that in any way make up for the emotional pain Job endured—could it really bring things back to the way they were before God and Devil entered into their evil little agreement? New sons and daughters are nice, but still, still the first ten died. They lost their lives. And Job suffered the loss. Nothing ever undid that suffering or those lost lives: nothing could ever undo it.

When a child is lost to a tornado or a washed-out bridge, how can the pain of the loss ever be undone. There is only one way: to make it so the loss and the pain never occur in the first place. Wiping away the memory of it, even that is not enough: the loss is still a loss even if the survivors don’t remember. (If anything the loss is greater—more tragic—for not even being remembered.)

This world can’t be the best of all worlds because, put simply, it is too easy to improve upon it. One less deadly hurricane or lightning strike or killer virus. One less fetus lost to natural abortion. In fact, humans have proven time and again by the application of technology that the world can be improved. Every levee or dam, every medical advance, every hurricane warning, every antibiotic improves on God’s original creation and prevents evils which God allows.

This is the point at which theists usually throw up their hands and declare that God’s perfection is beyond human understanding.

When I hear this it always sounds like a concession: an admission that their story about God “doesn’t make sense” as far as human reason is concerned.

But to say “only God can understand it” doesn’t work against the argument from perfection. The reason is pretty simple. A world whose perfection is evident to God but not evident to the sentient beings he created is not as perfect as a world whose perfection is evident to both its creator and the creatures within it.

The problem is that as soon as God creates other sentient beings, the world has to be perfect not just for God but for those other sentient beings as well. God’s perspective is no longer the only one that exists. Even to argue that in the end those beings will also see the perfection of the world—that doesn’t work, because in a truly perfect world its perfection would be evident from the beginning. A perfect world would be perfect all along, to everyone’s experience, beginning to end.

To tell Job, for instance, after the death of his 10 children not to worry, that he will eventually experience perfection—that doesn’t work. The loss of his children and the sorrow he experienced from it was still real, not to mention the experiences of the children and servants who were killed. There was no perfection for them even if God thinks otherwise. When their lives came into existence their point of reference also came into existence, and from that moment on God’s point of reference is no longer the only one. Perfection has to be perfection for everyone.

There is really no way to get around the common sense observation that a perfect God would create a perfect world, and that our world isn’t perfect. And that our experience, our human point of view, is just as valid as God’s when it comes to the experience of evil. Perhaps mores so. If only God experiences the world’s perfection, then things are indeed imperfect.

To put the Argument from Perfection into a logical form:

1 – There is a God.

2 – This God is perfect.

3 – And created sentient beings and the world which these beings experience.

4 – But this world sometimes causes terrible experiences due to its design.

5 – What is terrible is imperfect.

6 – Imperfections cannot be the result of perfection.

7 – Given that 4 is confirmed by human experience and 5 & 6 are true by definition, it follows that either 1, 2, or 3 must be false.

8 – Therefore either God does not exist, God is imperfect, or God is not the creator.

————-

Addendum:

One obvious solution for the theist is simply to admit that God is imperfect. But this strikes me as very unsatisfactory—why would I or anyone else want to worship an imperfect being? We might as well worship each other if we are going to worship imperfection. We know with certainty that our fellow human beings exist, and we already care about them. Why not redirect our worship to earth and ourselves if, after all, there is no perfection elsewhere.

If we worship an imperfect God, how do we know we are not worshipping the devil? How can we be certain we have not thrown our support to the author of all that is evil? Why should we give allegiance to a being who is at worst our enemy and at best indifferent to sentient creatures like us.

Another solution—to me just as unsatisfactory—is the Manichaean or Zoroastrian approach.  Theirs is a worldview which essentially sets up two cosmic Creators, one good and one evil, who battle for control of the world. In Manicheaism what is spiritual (God) is good and what is material (Satan) is evil. Similiarly, in Zoroastrianism Ahura Madza is the good creator, Ahriman the evil principle. Both religions involve multiple deities and the rejection of monotheism.

Admittedly, the Christian concept of the devil reminds us of the polytheism of Zoroaster and Mani, and likely borrowed from them. But the Christian devil is not a full-fledged God, only a rebellious angel. Though he causes mischief and waylays those who fall for his beguiling temptations, in Christianity God—not devil—is responsible for the nature of the physical world.

By abandoning monotheism, the Problem of Perfection can be avoided. But it seems to me that it comes at the cost of coherence. The hypothesis of a single, perfect Creator holds the promise of a unitary, satisfying explanation for existence—that is its appeal over polytheism. If instead we hypothesize two Creators, one responsible for good and the other for evil, we are left wondering why. Where did these two opposites come from, how did they originate?  Is two enough? Indeed, why stop at two. Why not imagine a God for each and every opposite trait: good and evil, justice and injustice, action and inaction, wisdom and folly, strength and weakness, and so on. Before we know it, we need the full pantheon of the Greeks and Romans.

Furthermore, Manichaeism sets our physical body at war with our spirit, evil against good, and although Christianity has never quite managed to extricate itself from the conflict of body with soul, it has mostly managed to substitute an uneasy peace between them. I can see no advantage, and no appeal, in reverting to an earlier and starker dualism. Our bodily needs are not the enemy, and religions which recognize this are vastly preferable to religions which don’t.

Just as scientific explanations have replaced the various roles that polytheistic gods played in controlling and explaining nature, we find that the difficulty of explaining good and evil in our world disappears when approached from an evolutionary perspective. No need for Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, no need to pit matter against spirit in eternal warfare. Evolution allows us another possibility.

If we abandon the concept of a perfect, pre-existing consciousness (or plural consciousnesses) as creator of the world, we no longer have a problem explaining why sentient beings have imperfect experiences. If consciousness or sentience evolved in a physical world via the evolution of species, then the competing interests of conscious animals like us (including the “design” of the physical world which results in our bad experiences) are things which become both comprehensible and coherent. The problem of explaining how imperfection follows from perfection simply goes away.

Posted in Articles Highlighted, Atheology, Non-Existence Arguments | 13 Comments

Antony Flew is Dead

When I was a young atheist, the well-known British philosopher Antony Flew was perhaps the world’s most prominent advocate of atheism. The legendary Bertrand Russell was already dead and gone. Another atheist, Carl Sagan was better-known than Flew, but not for his atheism. Admittedly, Madelyn Murry-O’Hair was far more famous than any them, at least in the U.S. (though I doubt anyone would have tagged “the most hated woman in America” with the word “prominent”). Richard Dawkins, meanwhile, had recently written The Selfish Gene, but his public advocacy of atheism in books such as The Blind Watchmaker (1986) lay several years in the future.

Today most people probably think of Flew as the atheist who late in life changed his mind and converted to deism. That conversion is probably what I most admire about the man. He was intellectually honest, the rare individual willing to publicly state that he had been mistaken, regardless of the effect on his reputation.

Some have argued that Flew, who died earlier this year, was past his mental prime at the time of his conversion. They have comforted themselves with the notion that because of cognitive decline Flew became susceptible to intelligent design arguments which in his youth he would not have found convincing. I think that misunderstands the man. As I see it, Flew’s change of mind is neither surprising nor, in the context of his agnostic atheism, the result of declining mental ability. Rather, it was the result of his approach to the question of God’s existence.

The Presumption of Atheism

Flew came to prominence at a time when most thoughtful religious skeptics identified themselves not as atheist but as agnostic on the subjerct of God’s existence. Flew argued (successfully, it appears in retrospect) that the skeptic position should be embraced as athesim not agnosticism. He did so by arguing that the burden of proof is on the side proposing a proposition. For the same reason that we place the burden in criminal cases on the prosecution—namely the difficulty of proving a negative—so we should do so for the assertion that there is a God.

The result was that the term atheist effectively went from meaning “someone who disbelieves God’s existence” to meaning “someone who disbelieves God’s existence has been demonstrated”. It went from being a negative conclusion about God’s existence to being a negative conclusion about the evidence for God’s existence.

Flew was aware, of course, of arguments which put God’s existence in doubt, such as the problem of evil. But he knew that the problem of evil only applies if God is defined as omnibenevolent, something not all believers necessarily assert. In particular, minimalist deism does not insist on God’s goodness. Thus the primary matter which separated Flew’s atheist position from minimalist deism was his judgment that there was insufficient evidence for the existence of a creator.

True to form, and honest to the bone, in later years, once he became aware of viable arguments for the existence of a creator, Flew embraced minimalist deism.

For my part, I always thought the presumption of atheism was incorrect, or at least inappropriate. The burden, in science (and society generally), properly belongs on whoever is attempting to change the consensus viewpoint. Imagine, for example, a quantum physicist who claims that quarks do not exist, but rather than making a case for his negative position, instead rests his case on the claim that the burden of proof is on all the other quantum physicists who believe in quarks. Prove it to me, he tells them.

What would likely be the response from his fellow scientists? Would they find his aquarkism convincing? Highly unlikely. Much more likely he would find himself ignored or ridiculed until he himself presented good evidence for his negative point of view.

In science, if an established proposition has been found to be more useful and successful than its competitors, it receives the benefit of the doubt. Anyone who wants to challenge that proposition will find the burden of proof is on them. Why, in a world in which the vast majority believe in a creator, should we expect anything different?

The Warren-Flew Debate

My own exposure to Antony Flew began during my first quarter at college—philosophy 101. One of our textbooks was the Flew-edited anthology, Body, Mind and Death. This was, it should be mentioned, a couple years before I became an atheist. Flew had little or no influence over my own conversion to disbelief, but after turning atheist I began to cast around looking for other atheists I could learn from. I looked first to Bertrand Russell, but in Russell I found several important points of disagreement—I was not a Bertrand Russell sort of atheist.

What about Flew? I was introduced to Flew’s atheism by a coworker on an archaeology dig who happened to be a Christian missionary for the Church of Christ. Upon learning I did not believe God existed, he was eager to proselytize. He told me about a four-night debate on the existence of God between Antony Flew and Thomas Warren of the Church of Christ, held in 1976. He claimed that Warren demolished Flew in short order, along with any intellectual justification for atheism.

I bit, and bought the transcript of the debate, the Warren-Flew Debate on the Existence of God (bookvideo),  (For good measure I bought a second book, the Warren-Matson Debate on the Existence of God, another four-night debate which took place in 1978.) A full analysis of the debate between Thomas Warren and Antony Flew will have to wait, but let me say that the notion popular among theists that Warren won the debate strikes me as bizarre. Although I can understand that Warren’s confident tone may have created a visceral feeling in his followers that he was triumphant, any attention to the argument of the debate itself must reverse that judgment.

Warren revealed himself to be incapable of understanding the concept of evolution. His central argument was that it’s impossible to explain how a human being could evolve from something non-human. Either the first human being was a baby which therefore was born of a non-human mother, or else the first human being was a human mother who, inexplicably was non-human at birth. In fact, this was but one of several impossibilities which Warren was convinced impaled the atheist: human from non-human, intelligence from what had no intelligence, consciousness from non-consciousness, and life springing from rocks and dirt—all simply impossible. And because these things are impossible, atheism is dead in the water—so Warren maintained.

Scientists hardly consider these events impossibilities. Warren, however, was adamant that evolution is defeated by a chicken first or egg first dilemma. Either the first human baby was born of a non-human mother, or a non-human baby somehow transformed itself into a human mother—Warren found it impossible to conceive of any other alternative—ipso facto God is necessary to get the human species started.

To his credit, Flew did not laugh out loud. Patiently he explained to Warren how one thing can so gradually transform into another that you can not pinpoint the moment at which it transformed. He provided the example of someone gradually becoming bald, and another example of a language evolving from one form into another until speakers of the latter cannot understand the former. All this sailed over Warren’s head. In the end, Flew spent much of the debate simply explaining the basics of evolutionary theory—not to Warren (that was a lost cause), but to the audience.

But in a sense, Flew did lose the debate. Arguing for the presumption of atheism to an audience of Christians was not a winning strategy. The presumption of Christianity is theism, not atheism. Most Christians find atheism incomprehensible and (since to them it deprives life of all meaning and value) also abhorrent. That was certainly the case in 1976. The audience for this debate was never going to accept a presumption of atheism. Their initial presumption—like Warren’s—was that atheism is a non-starter.

A Different Way to Atheism

Instead of championing atheism as the default until theists provide adequate evidence, it is possible for atheists to take another, more activist tack. Rather than leaving all the intellectual effort to the theist, as if believers have a hill to climb, I would argue that it is better to engage them on a level field—or even admit that it is we atheists who must charge uphill. We should begin by admitting that atheism is predicated on the assertion of a natural worldview, just as theism is built on supernaturalism. Yet the question is not whether naturalism or supernaturalism ought to be the default position—rather, the question to be settled is which worldview best fits the facts of existence as we have them.

Had Flew’s atheism been of this sort, he might might have been better prepared to present atheism in a context that is positive and sensible rather than negative and scary.

Consider Warren’s assertion that consciousness cannot come from that which has no consciousness and thus never could have come into existence without God. Thanks to the legacy of Flew, the typical atheist response today is to ask where the evidence is for God, and follow it up by asking why scientists don’t consider the concept of God necessary (or even useful) in the study of consciousness. Good questions, but they do not upset the theist applecart—after all, scientists have not explained consciousness yet, have they? Nor do these questions make atheism sensible and comprehensible except as a merely skeptical or negative predisposition. To Warren and his Christian audience, atheism seems to rely on “faith” that scientists will eventually have an explanation for consciousness.

A more useful approach, I believe, is to admit that there is a difficulty here for the atheist—but also one for the theist. The difficulty for the atheist lies in explaining how the brain can create our consciousness and cause us to have thoughts and feelings. And yet, there is strong evidence that it does so. We know that tumors and strokes and lobotomies—things that damage portions of the brain—can cause loss of (or warp) consciousness. Even drugs and alcohol alter our consciousness. This stands as prima facie evidence that the brain somehow controls consciousness; it supports the atheist position that the brain causes consciousness. And since scientists can trace the evolution of the brain, it makes sense to believe that consciousness evolved concurrently with it.

That may not mean much to someone like Warren who is incapable of understanding basic evolutionary concepts. But there is another side to this: explaining the mind-brain interaction is a serious difficulty for theists as well. How can soul (mind) and brain interact? How does a soul become intertwined with a specific physical brain? How do we explain the effects on the soul that brain damage seems to cause? From questions like thse we see that similar difficulties exist for the theist as exist for the atheist, and this is because the dependent relationship of consciousness and mind on the brain is today undeniable.

When debating theists, it makes sense for atheists to try to hammer these points home. If the soul or mind is spiritual, how can it interact and intertwine with our very physical brain, even to the extent that it appears to be affected by damage to the brain? It would seem that to be affected by something physical, the soul would need to have a physical aspect. Grant that, however, and you must then explain how the soul’s physical aspect interacts with its non-physical aspect. This is a real difficulty. It is a difficulty the atheist resolves by saying that everything is physical, even our wonderful minds and our lovely feelings. That move simplifies things, even if it doesn’t entirely solve the problem. But the theist needs a different answer, and that is not easy to come by.

Flew’s Conversion

Instead of developing positive arguments for atheism, Flew primarily relied on his confidence that the burden of proof rests on the advocate of theism. Show me the evidence, was his mantra. It is the mantra of most armchair atheists today. In one sense, Flew’s argument for the presumption of atheism has been very successful—among freethinkers. But it’s come at the cost of developing strong arguments for atheism.

As I wrote earlier, thanks to Flew’s influence, the definition of an atheist effectively switched from “someone who disbelieves God’s existence” to “someone who disbelieves God’s existence has been demonstrated.” Instead of being a negative conclusion about God’s existence, atheism was reinterpreted as a negative conclusion about the evidence for God’s existence. It meant atheists could stop studying the board (to use a chess metaphor), stop looking for winning moves, and confidently put the burden on the opponent to make the game interesting.

Well, they have done so. While atheists relaxed, theists have been studying the board, developing new and stronger moves. For example, William Lane Craig resurrected the Kalam Cosmological argument in light of modern cosmology embracing a big bang singularity. And Alvin Plantinga developed an evolutionary argument against naturalism which is downright brilliant. (I wish I’d thought of it myself.) Theists have come up with other new moves as well, such as the Fine-Tuning argument.

The result was predictable. When Flew was finally exposed to these new moves (e.g. interpreting the big bang as evidence of a Kalem-esque single point of creation) the mantra “show me the evidence” had to stop. In reality, theists have always had evidence for their position, but now they have new evidence based on the scientific study of the origin of the universe. Sure, most scientists prefer string theory or weird ideas about multiverses over God as an explanation for the universe appearing to come into existence out of nothing, but from a philosophical perspective a God hypothesis which can’t be tested is (more or less) just as valid as string theory or multiverses which can’t be tested.

So Flew became a deist. He adapted a minimal deism which made no unwarranted claims about the nature of God. It was a deism in keeping with the evidence he had come to accept. He still rejected notions of a personal God, of miracles, of afterlife, of salvation. But given new evidence for a single point of creation, Flew was honest enough, brave enough, and decent enough to accept the God hypothesis.

For that I admire the man, and I regret his death.

Posted in Atheologians, Debates | 7 Comments

Spiritual or Religious?

“Do you consider yourself a spiritual man or a religious man?”

“Well, I don’t like that dichotomy of matter and spirit very much, so you can say I consider myself a religious man.”
[Interview with Wendell Berry by Thomas P. Healy, Counterpunch Apr 15/16, 2006]

A great many atheists lambaste religion as inherently bad, yet have no problem embracing “spirituality,” by which they mean the subjective aspects of bodily existence: thoughts, feelings, emotions, moods, values, the spectrum of experiences which constitute our inner life. But I’m with Wendell Berry.

Berry is no atheist, of course. But traditionally, talk about spirituality hinges on a “two worlds” theory: the “dichotomy of matter and spirit” as Berry puts it. If there is in fact no such dichotomy, then religion belongs as much to matter as spirit—as much, that is to say, to the outer life of the body as the inner life of the mind.

More importantly for the atheist, if there is no inherent dichotomy then there is no role for a divine mind distinct from a physical body. But notice that this applies for someone coming from a religious perspective just as well. They no longer need God. If religion is not based on spirit separate from body or on mind separate from matter, then it is freed from the need for supernaturalism—because suddenly naturalism is self-sufficient.

Perhaps even more fundamental than the theistic question is the matter of afterlife. It is evident to all of us that our bodies die. What should be just as evident is that the two worlds theory exists so we can imagine that some part of us—the most “important” part by necessity—survives the death of the body. The entire point of insisting on an independent spiritual aspect is to entice ourselves with this hope of afterlife.

I want to live forever as much as the next person. But if I can’t have my body, or if my body can’t have the lovely physicality it has here on earth, then afterlife is no good. It is not really life.

To be only a soul, only a spiritual or mental self, strikes me as a kind of half-existence. To spend eternity yearning for completeness, for satisfaction, for a sense of being bodily here and real, to me that sounds like torture.

Atheism rejects that. And so should religion.

Posted in Atheist Culture | Leave a comment

Let’s Make a Deal

I’m a fan of Michael Shermer, a prominent atheist and skeptic who writes a column on skepticism for Scientific American. But in an article entitled “How Randomness Rules Our World and Why We Cannot See It” he has fallen for a mistake common among atheists today. The mistake involves misunderstanding the relationship between probabilities and the physical world—specifically assuming that the physical world is probabilistic in nature. This is wrong. In fact there is no relationship between probabilities and reality at all. Probabilities relate solely to our knowledge or lack of knowledge of something, and as such can tell us nothing at all about the nature of reality.

On its surface, this may not appear to have much to do with atheology. But if you stick with me you will see that the surface is misleading. Underneath the surface this is all about the nature of reality and therefore it is about what sort of natural worldview, if any, fits with the facts of our existence.

Most atheists today, I would guess, assume a version of naturalism based on scientific realism.  The underlying assumption of scientific realism is that correct scientific knowledge is possible and when obtained that knowledge uncovers the fundamental nature of the physical world. I for one think that scientific realism is off base. I don’t think it’s compatible with an evolutionary explanation of the origin of the mind. Since as I have argued elsewhere, naturalism is the proposition that mind was not present from the beginning but came into existence later, it follows that naturalism requires an evolutionary explanation for the mind’s advent. One purpose of this blog is to try to make the case that scientific realism should be rejected by atheists and advocates of naturalism.

My version of naturalism is based on neurological constructivism, the view that knowledge is a model of the world constructed by the brain simply because it’s useful for survival. As such, knowledge is about usefulness, not truth. Our minds evolved to develop knowledge models of the world based on the application of pragmatic empiricism. If I were to give a one sentence explanation of pragmatic empiricism, I would say that it is the idea that there is no way to verify our knowledge of the world against the world itself, other than to observe its usefulness.

I will write more about neurological constructivism and pragmatic empiricism in the future. I mention them here only to give the reader a bit of context for what follows. If we adhere to scientific realism, we assume that probabilities are inherent in things, and we may even conclude that randomness is inherent to reality.

Imagine that you are a contestant on the classic television game show Let’s Make a Deal. Behind one of three doors is a brand-new automobile. Behind the other two are goats. You choose door number one. Host Monty Hall, who knows what is behind all three doors, shows you that a goat is behind number two, then inquires: Would you like to keep the door you chose or switch? Our folk numeracy—our natural tendency to think anecdotally and to focus on small-number runs—tells us that it is 50–50, so it doesn’t matter, right?

Wrong. You had a one in three chance to start, but now that Monty has shown you one of the losing doors, you have a two-thirds chance of winning by switching. Here is why. There are three possible three-doors configurations: (1) good, bad, bad; (2) bad, good, bad; (3) bad, bad, good. In (1) you lose by switching, but in (2) and (3) you can win by switching. If your folk numeracy is still overriding your rational brain, let’s say that there are 10 doors: you choose door number one, and Monty shows you door numbers two through nine, all goats. Now do you switch? Of course, because your chances of winning increase from one in 10 to nine in 10. This type of counterintuitive problem drives people to innumeracy, including mathematicians and statisticians, who famously upbraided Marilyn vos Savant when she first presented this puzzle in her Parade magazine column in 1990. —Michael Shermer, “How Randomness Rules Our World and Why We Cannot See It”

Shermer’s explanation of why the contestant should switch is incomplete and inadequate. Surprisingly, Marilyn vos Savant and before her Martin Gardiner, who presented an earlier version involving cards in his long-running column on mathematical games in Scientific American, have misled Shermer. Their conclusion about the probabilities that apply in this situation only holds if two unstated (and potentially false) assumptions are in fact true. To arrive at Shermer/vos Savant/Gardiner’s calculation of probabilities, we must (1) assume that Monte knows the winning door and (2) assume that Monte intended to reveal a losing door no matter which door the contestant initially choose.  In other words, so long as we can safely assume that Monty will reveal a losing door but not the winning door before offering the chance to switch, the contestant should switch. The problem is, our experts here seem to be unaware of these underlying assumptions, or have failed to consider the possibility that they are false.

Shermer, Gardiner, and vos Savant have erred in this fashion because they mistakenly believe that probabilities are inherent to physical situations. They fail to realize that probabilities are not “discovered” in the physical world around us, but are the result of judgements we make about what we do or do not know—and even, we shall see, about what we believe others do or do not know.

Consider this virtually identical situation, in which there are still exactly 3 possible door configurations: (1) good, bad, bad; (2) bad, good, bad; (3) bad, bad, good.  Monte lets you pick a door, and you pick door #1, exactly as in the original. But then Monte brings another contestant up on stage and lets her pick a door—she picks door #3. Monte now reveals that door #2 has a goat behind it, just as in the first case. Now what should you do if Monte offers you and the other contestant the opportunity to switch doors?

Well, according to these experts, your “folk numeracy” misleads you into thinking it doesn’t make a difference—that your chance is the same with door 1 or door 3. But that would be wrong, according to “expert numeracy”.  After all, to quote Shermer again,

Our folk numeracy—our natural tendency to think anecdotally and to focus on small-number runs—tells us that it is 50–50, so it doesn’t matter, right?

Despite your intuition that two doors remain and one has as good a chance as the other, according to Shermer et. al. you should in fact jump at the opportunity to switch your choice from door 1 to door 3 because, since door 2 has been revealed as a loser, door 3 has twice the probability of being the winner than does your original choice.

But wait—this analysis holds not just for you but for the other contestant as well. According to “expert numeracy” both of you should jump at the chance to switch. The door on the other side really is greener—each of you has a two-thirds chance of winning if you swap choices.

Obviously, there is something wrong with “expert numeracy”. Nothing materially has changed about what’s behind the doors in this second scenario. In both cases, Monte knows which door is the winning door (or more pertinently, as contestants, you assume he does). In both cases, Monte reveals the middle door to harbor a goat. In both cases, there are “three possible three-doors configurations: (1) good, bad, bad; (2) bad, good, bad; (3) bad, bad, good”, but the conclusion that there is an advantage in switching is now false.

In short, the experts have missed something here. They have failed to realize that probabilities differ based on what each individual doing a probability calculation knows. What has changed between the two scenarios is Monte’s motivation in revealing door 2, and the option he had (or might not have had) in following that motivation.

In the first scenario, Monte is presumed by the experts to deliberately want to reveal one of the “bad” doors. If he only has one contestant, there will always be a “bad” door to reveal. But if there are two contestants, then 1/3 of the time there will NOT be a “bad” door to reveal, so Monte can only make the switch offer 2/3 of the time. That materially changes the odds.

But even this is an insufficient analysis. Imagine that a Professor somewhere has carefully studied Let’s Make a Deal, and in that study has observed that 75% of the time when Monte makes a switch offer, it is to a contestant who has chosen the winning door. So let’s go back to our first scenario with the single contestant—but with one difference: our contestant happens to have read about the Professor’s observation. Does that change the odds for that contestant? You bet it does! (But only if the contestant considers the Professor’s study reliable.)

I hope my point is clear: probabilities only pertain to our knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the physical world—probabilities do not pertain to the physical world itself, never have and never can.  If one wants the simplest possible proof of this, it is found in the fact that probabilities can differ for each observer. Consider Let’s Make a Deal again. Up on that stage, Monte knows which door is the winning door—so let’s ask a question: what is the probability that the door Monte knows to be the winning door is in fact the winning door? For the contestant faced with picking a door and knowing nothing beyond the fact that there are 3 doors, each door must be assigned a 1/3 chance. But for Monte, two doors have virtually no chance and one door is a virtual lock. (It’s not 100%, however, because Monte may have remembered incorrectly, or been misinformed by the show’s producer, or a rare snafu may have resulted in the prize being put behind the wrong door). Monte and the contestant have different sets of knowledge, and so the probabilities differ depending on whose perspective we choose.

Different observers have different knowledge and therefore properly assign different probabilities. And this means simply that probabilities are not inherent in things. “Randomness” does not rule our world, any more than “certainty” rules it.

Posted in Naturalism | Leave a comment

Cosmological Arguments

The Cosmological Argument is perhaps the classic argument for the existence of a God. Thomas Aquinas included it in his famous Five Ways, although over the years his argument has been constantly refashioned. It lives on in several distinct versions. I bring this up because of a “customer review” I came across on Amazon.com of a book by John Allen Paulos. The book is Irreligion: a mathematician explains why the arguments for God just don’t add up. The review is by M. Stringer.

Full disclosure: I read the review, I have not read the book.

Stringer, as it turns out, is quite critical of Paulos and his work.

As for Paulos’ book I would hesitate to describe it as even schoolboy philosophizing as it fails to reach any level of academic respectability and is, if anything, even worse than the aforementioned efforts from the `New Atheists’.

His first area of attack is the ‘first cause argument’ which Paulos states can be slightly amended to become the ‘cosmological argument’;

1. Everything has a cause, or perhaps many causes.
2. Nothing is its own cause.
3. Causal chains can’t go on forever.
4. So there has to be a first cause.
5. That first cause is God, who therefore exists.

There are however two major problems with Paulos’ version. Firstly no one in Western philosophical/theological history has even advanced the first cause/cosmological argument in this form. Paulos appears to have just made it up for this book. Secondly his version is not logically valid as the conclusion (5) does not follow from the earlier statements (1-4). All that is presented is a series of unconnected assertions unrelated to each other.

Stringer goes on to present what he considers a sound version of the cosmological argument (one popularized in recent years by the philosopher William Lane Craig). His seems shorter than what I recall as Craig’s version, but since brevity is a virtue, let’s take a look.

A good example a modern first cause argument is the Kalam cosmological argument rediscovered and improved in modern thought by William Lane Craig.

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist
3. Therefore the universe has a cause

This argument is logically valid. The conclusion (3) follows deductively from 1 and 2.

Now, I’m not interested in contesting Stringer’s characterization of the book he’s reviewing—I for one am in no position to do so. Instead what I prefer to do is comment on this rather succinct version of the cosmological argument.  I am aware of course that Craig is a better source for the modern cosmological argument than an Amazon reviewer plucked out of the hat, but, here goes….

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist
3. Therefore the universe has a cause

The short problem with this is that it assumes in the 2nd premise what it needs to prove, namely that everything (here referred to as “the universe”) began to exist.

Let’s take a closer look. This is supposed to be an argument for the existence of a Creator—and yet, it never mentions God or Creator. Of course, God is ever-present in the background, lurking, waiting for an opportunity to jump in. Let’s see if an opportunity presents itself.

Under the Microscope

The syllogism begins by asserting that everything that begins to exist has a cause. Why the phrase “begins to exist”?. It’s there so we can exclude God from the requirement to have a cause. Since by definition God is eternal, no beginning no end, premise #1 doesn’t apply to him.

That’s important. For the cosmological argument to work, it has to make the case that (A) “everything has a cause” and (B) “except God.” Obviously, a large part of the debate about whether the argument is successful centers on whether or not the exception made for God is warranted. What is unusual about Stringer’s version is that it doesn’t even mention God. Still, by asserting that physical things like the universe begin to exist and therefore must have a cause, the implication is that their cause must be something that does not begin to exist, i. e. God.

Yet, nothing in the argument requires causes to be non-physical. Nothing seems to prevent an infinite chain of physical causes; nothing, that is, other than the author’s bare assumption that premise #2 is correct. Well, not quite “bare.”  Actually, the idea is that premise #2 has been established by astrophysicists as a fact—after all, aren’t scientists in agreement that our universe began in a big bang which itself exploded from a singularity? Didn’t time itself have it’s beginning with that singular cosmic bang?

A glance at cosmology (the scientific study of the origin of the universe) makes it appear premise #2 is widely accepted as true, since most scientists heartily accept the big bang. And yet, for most cosmologists, I would argue, the term “universe” does not equal “all physical existence”. In fact, most scientists take it for granted that there is some kind of prior physical state which led to the singularity (itself a physical state) which led to the big bang and our current universe. And recently, some cosmologists (e.g. Stephen Hawking) are questioning the singularity anyway. Which means the big bang is not only not the beginning of all physical existence, it may not be the beginning of the universe either.

This is not fatal, of course. There is way too much uncertainty about the science of cosmology to say whether science will or will not end up supporting premise #2. The fact remains that if there is a God who created our physical world, then we ought to find ourselves living inside a world that had a definite origin at some specific point in the past, and prior to that point in the past nothing physical should be detectable. In fact, this fits reasonably well with current science. Sure, scientists talk about strings and multiverses in existence prior to the big bang—but at this point that’s just theorizing without evidence.

The Long and Short of It

So much for the short problem with the Kalem cosmological argument. But there is also a long problem—”long” in the sense that it won’t be as easy to explain, I’m afraid. But I will try.

There is a subtle problem with premise #1, and it involves the meaning of saying something has a cause. If one operates from a worldview based on mind before matter, then this premise is a founding principle. However, if one operates from a natural worldview (which rejects the principle of sufficient reason), then the negative of this premise is your founding principle. From this latter point of view, postulating “causes” is merely a useful way of describing the physical world.

Causes, in short, are a form of mental currency and not something “real” about matter. Technically, you might say, causes are imaginary. This viewpoint follows naturally from neurological constructivism and pragmatic empiricism. These approaches to understanding knowledge and science paint a picture of a relationship between thoughts about physical nature and the actual stuff of physical nature which is loose and indirect. In fact, it is just the sort of insufficient relationship evolutionary scientists should expect from “unguided” biological evolution.

Some of the key elements of this relationship can be summarized as follows. Knowledge is a virtual reality; its relationship to physical reality is like that of a useful map to the terrain the map represents; all of the logical relationships indicated by the map pertain to the map, not to the terrain. That is to say, the map is an analytical construction that has a synthetic relationship to the world it models. The map is only “true” to the extent that we find it a more useful model of the world than any alternative mappings we happen to have thought up. Knowledge, in other words, is something we invent to model the physical world by testing for usefulness. The scientific method codifies this process.

If matter comes first and mind evolves later (the premise of naturalism) then “causes” are just descriptions, and we choose our causal explanations based on their predictive usefulness, nothing else. The same applies for any non-causal explanations we might embrace, as well.

Imagine, now, if we were to restate Stringer’s cosmological argument from this natural perspective. It might look like this:

1. Everything that begins to exist can be usefully described.
2. The universe began to exist
3. Therefore the universe can be usefully described.

So we see that only by embracing a worldview which presumes that causal descriptions identify innate causal truths about the physical universe can the Kalam cosmological argument become an argument for God’s existence. But the notion that there are innate causal truths about or contained within physical existence is a notion that stems from a supernatural worldview (from mind before matter). It is inherently incompatible with a natural worldview, and no one with a natural worldview should accept it. (Some misguided atheists do, of course, but they are . . . well, misguided.)

We will find that if one accepts the premises of the supernatural worldview, it follows that the premises of the Kalam cosmological argument seem obviously true. If instead one hews to the premises of the natural worldview, the Kalam premises seem obviously false. We can be sure that the reverse is the case as well. Premises which seem obvious to advocates of the natural worldview will likely seem far from obvious to supernatural worldview advocates.

Here Comes the Judge

What we need, then, is a way to judge between the two worldviews independent of their inherent premises. I think this can be done. It involves first finding conclusions which differ between the worldviews and then comparing those conclusions to what we pretty much all agree are facts about the world. In short, which worldview best fits the facts, as we know them? This is not a philosophical endeavor so much as an empirical one—there will be no definitive answer that all can agree on. After all, pragmatic empiricism is the only tool we have to arbitrate this debate.

Notice that if I am right about this last point, in itself that supports the natural worldview. For the natural worldview entails that all matters of fact about existence must be brokered through pragmatic empiricism, the scientific method. But the supernatural worldview, it seems to me, entails that a shortcut to direct knowledge is possible, indeed that classical logical arguments can reveal facts about the world. I believe this contention can be shown to be unuseful, and has been shown unuseful again and again, as far as the determination of facts (rather than logical truths) is concerned.

There is another way to say this, which perhaps has more biological clarity. Over the course of the natural history of the earth, the brain has evolved into an organ which creates sensations which we refer to as the mind. This evolution has resulted in a relationship between “minding” and the physical reality that is the subject of that “minding” which is synthetic rather than analytic. Because the relationship is synthetic, pragmatic empiricism has become the best route to factual knowledge. Were the relationship analytic instead, then analytic statements would provide factual content about the world, and thus would have become the best route to factual knowledge. Yet things don’t work that way. That’s not the way the mind evolved.  Instead, only empirical statements provide factual content about the world—and this is just what we would expect if the premises of naturalism are true.

So what then are analytic statements “about”? They are about the organization of the mind itself, or perhaps more accurately, the organization of the brain’s “minding” faculty. In a real sense, of course, the brain’s “minding” faculty is something physical. So logical statements do have factual content in that limited sense. If I make an analytical statement, eg, 2 + 3  = 5 , I am making a factual claim about the organization of the minding faculty in my brain. Fair enough, but the organization of the minding faculty in my brain exists for the purpose of developing useful facts—descriptions, explanations and causes—about the physical world which lies outside my minding faculty. 2 + 3 = 5 tells me nothing factual about the world outside my minding faculty. That is precisely why we call math statements like that analytic rather than synthetic.

But this very state of things, it seems to me, supports the natural worldview and does not support—is not what would be expected in the case of—the supernatural worldview. With the latter, we would expect analytic statements, purely logical arguments, to provide factual knowledge about the world outside the mind. They do not, and that is one reason why I believe the natural worldview is far more useful as a worldview, why it “wins” the debate.

Terminology and Necessity

At this point let me say something about my terminology. Note that “fact” and “factual” in my usage do not equal “true”—when we say something is a fact we mean simply that it’s the most useful knowledge we’ve got (so far) on the matter, utilizing the pragmatic empiricism of the scientific method. Logical/mathematical knowledge can be “true” but it cannot, under this usage, be factual. Empirical knowledge, on the other hand, can be factual but it cannot be “true.” We can only continue to call factual knowledge “true” if first we redefine the term as a comparative meaning “more scientifically useful” than the alternatives it competes against. Again, this is just the method of pragmatic empiricism.

Now let me make a comment or two about another argument mentioned the book review above.

1. Everything has a cause, or perhaps many causes.
2. Nothing is its own cause.
3. Causal chains can’t go on forever.
4. So there has to be a first cause.
5. That first cause is God, who therefore exists.

As the reviewer points out, no one makes the cosmological argument this way because premise #1 forces God to also have a cause, and premise #2 prevents Him from being his own cause, which vitiates the conclusion. Note also that premise #1 and premise #3 are in flat contradiction: if everything has a cause then causal chains must go on forever. #4 follows from #3, but neither can be true if #1 and #2 are true.

So theologians try to make the argument work by asserting that premises #1 & #2 don’t apply to God but do apply to the physical world. But this is simply a case of special pleading based on confusing the physical world with our knowledge of the physical world. (I will explain this presently.)

Specifically, theologians traditionally define God as a “necessary” being and define the physical world as “contingent” instead of “necessary.” As I say, this is mere special pleading. But even if we accept it, the argument fails because if God is not a contingent sort of being then God can’t be a cause for contingent things—causality, in short, is a two-way street. Causes must be the sort of thing that can bring about what they cause. I have written about this in discussions of the cosmological argument elsewhere.

What does it mean to say something is “necessary”? Well, what is intended is that God’s existence be logically required, whereas the existence of physical things be not logically required. But really it is only another way of saying that something does or doesn’t have a cause—and we are back to special pleading. Can the theologian make a factual case for this distinction? Is there some way to show it is not special pleading? I don’t see how. Look at it this way: just because God was never created, why does it follow that God necessarily exists? Isn’t it just as possible that if God was never created God does not exist? Moving God outside the causal chain does not transform God into a necessary being.

I’m going to come back to this point in a minute, but now let’s consider the contingency side of the matter.

Contingency and Knowledge

The idea behind contingency is that if something has a cause or causes, then had those causes not occurred the something would never have come to exist. While this may seem to be true for individual things in the physical universe, importantly it is not true for the collection of all physical things. The existence of the collection of all physical things is logically necessary—therefore shouldn’t the entire collection (the physical universe in toto) fall into the same category of being necessary rather than contingent—and therefore like God, shouldn’t it be exempt from premises #1 & #2? The special pleading which supposedly exempts God must also exempt the universe taken in its entirety. (Note that the collection necessarily exists even if it’s an empty set.)

I think if we analyze this carefully we see that factual (synthetic) knowledge is “contingent” and analytic knowledge is “necessary”. The distinction is really not about the things known but about the manner in which we know them. Contingent things must be known empirically. Necessary things must be known logically.

There is a problem in this for the theist. It effectively denies that God’s existence is a factual matter and makes it a logical matter instead. That at once puts God into a category that prevents him from interacting as cause with the physical world (the “lack of contingency” problem). 2 + 3 = 5 is necessarily true, but that is because like all analytical knowledge it is not a reference to the world outside our “minding”. It is not a reference to anything factual. So the problem with the subtle cosmological argument is that its premises amount to simply asserting that the central claim of supernaturalism—that mind precedes matter—is true. This assumes what is to be proven, the fallacy of begging the question.

And anyway, it is not at all clear to me why individual physical beings which actually exist aren’t therefore “necessary” beings. True, our knowledge of them is synthetic, therefore merely factual, therefore uncertain to some extent. But it is a fallacy to assume that what it true for knowledge is equally true for the physical subject of that knowledge. We may always know through a glass darkly, but that is because knowing is a synthetic process based on pragmatic empiricism. Regardless of the uncertainty of what we know about a physical being, if it exists then it exists, it necessarily exists.

Whatever “contingent” steps led to your coming into existence, if you exist then you absolutely exist—you necessarily exist. What is, is. Things that exist exist regardless of logical argument or anyone’s factual knowledge of the matter. They exist regardless of what we know about them or how they came into existence.

A Different Necessity

But perhaps theists will reply that this is not what is meant by the term “necessary being”. What is meant is “a being who does not have to have a cause” a being who, if it exists, necessarily exists causeless. To this the special pleading objection obviously applies. For as I pointed out previously, advocates of the natural worldview maintain, as a necessary consequence of that worldview, that “causes” are simply knowledge-descriptions created by our brain’s ”mindings”—that it is a mistake to think that “causes” are true things, or that real physical things have innate causes. They only have the causes our minds find it useful to assign to them—causality literally exists in our minds and not outside our minds. Again, it is the mistake of confusing physical things with our mindings about them.

Thus to say something is contingent is simply to say that we can create knowledge about it through our minding process of pragmatic empiricism. That is, it is something that can be factually addressed. That’s all contingency really boils down to: if something is empirically knowable, subject to synthetic statements, it is contingent. If it is not empirically knowable then it is not contingent. Now we see the problem with defining God as non-contingent. It does serve to effectively distinguish God from the physical world, but at the cost of no longer being able to claim that God factually exists. God only theoretically exists, and the logical arguments which are supposed to “prove” that existence can only do so if we start them with premises which make God necessary rather than premises which do not. They amount to saying, “If things are such that God’s existence is entailed, then it follows that God’s existence is entailed.” True enough. But if things are such that God’s existence is not entailed, then God’s existence is not entailed.

Analytical arguments can’t settle factual questions. And ultimately, God’s existence is a factual question. Pragmatic empiricism, scientific method, is the only way to approach it. But any answer obtained this way will lack the certainty of truth. At best it will only be a fact, and therefore not a final answer.

Posted in Book Reviews, Cosmological, Existence Arguments, Naturalism, Non-Existence Arguments | 3 Comments

Moving to new host

I’ll be moving this site to a new host. I expect this to be seamless, but there may be some disruption for a day or two. Be patient, the site will be available again soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Huckabee and the U.S. Constitution

Mike Huckabee thinks the U. S. Constitution is a problem. What problem is that? Well, it doesn’t adhere to God’s standards. Sheesh, it doesn’t even mention God. Nor Christianity. What were the founders thinking?

So Huckabee wants to amend the Constitution to make it properly subservient to God and his divine standards. He doesn’t exactly say what standards he has in mind, at least it’s not reported here

I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution,” Huckabee told a Michigan audience on Monday. “But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that’s what we need to do—to amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.

Perhaps he’d like us to imitate the current Iraq Constitution, with it’s long religious preamble and enshrinement of Sharia, in contrast to what Americans currently have. . . Continue reading

Posted in State & Church | 17 Comments