Five Revelations

I became an atheist through the back door, as explained elsewhere. It wasn’t until after I had been godless for several years that I began to discover the usual arguments that, for most non-believers, led to atheism. It was only as Christians tried to bring me back to God, ironically, that I began to see how ridiculous Christianity and the other revealed religions were, & how bizarre the jump from believing in God to believing in this or that particular revelation.

So Silent He is Not There

After reading Francis Schaefer’s He is There and He is Not Silent, I realized for the first time how silent God actually was. Sure, it was claimed that God had been loud thousands of years ago, that even today God spoke privately to the hearts and minds of individuals, but — and this is the kicker — publicly God is silent. Imagine, I realized, if Congress passed laws but never published them, instead only letting certain “blessed” individuals know, in private, what laws they had passed. In such a case, how could anyone be certain what the laws were, or whose claims to know the laws were legitimate? Yet that is the situation with God’s laws.

That is the great flaw of revealed religion. It is always a matter of a few individuals claiming to be “blessed” with knowledge of God’s laws and intentions. The rest of us always receive the revelations of revealed religions from other humans, not from God direct. In fact, anyone can claim that God spoke to them and therefore that they speak for God, but there is no way to confirm or deny those claims. Unless God speaks directly and universally to all of us, speaks publicly, we have no reliable way of knowing his intentions — other than by studying the nature of the world itself. Continue reading

Posted in Christianity, Faith & Reason, Prayer, Religion, Unsacred Texts | 3 Comments

The Key to Happiness

The key to happiness is discovering—and reconciling with—the fact that we are not minds. If you grow up in a Christian culture this is the most important mental health lesson you must learn.

We grow up instilled with a lie. Nearly everything in Judeo-Christian culture implicitly or explicitly teaches us that we are a mind with a body to do our bidding. Well, what’s wrong with that, you might ask? It makes sense, doesn’t it? Continue reading

Posted in Articles Highlighted, Atheist Culture, Naturalism | 2 Comments

Seeing Red – Understanding Consciousness

An article by John Searle (“Minding the Brain”) in the Nov 2, 2006 edition of The New York Review of Books shows how confused most of us (including philosophers & scientists) are about something as everyday as vision. Searle reviewed Nicholas Humphrey’s book Seeing Red: a Study in Consciousness, with which he largely disagrees. In that book (based on lectures he gave at Harvard in 2004) Humphreys asks the reader to imaging they are looking at a large red screen upon which the color red is projected, and proceeds to argue that the normal interpretation of what happens when we view such a field of red is mistaken.

But what is the normal interpretation of seeing red? Searle explains it this way,

According to contemporary scientific common sense, when we look at the red screen the reflection of light waves sets up in us a series of neuronal events beginning at the retina and ending with a conscious visual experience of red. If we assume that there are no hallucinations or pathological conditions involved, the perceiver sees, and in that way perceives, the red object by having a visual experience. The perceiver sees the object, but he does not see the visual experience of the object. He consciously sees real things in the real world and not his experiences of those things. There are not two red things in the scene but just one, the red screen.

If Searle is correct that this is the standard viewpoint, then I’m with Humphrey right off the bat, for I almost don’t know where to begin with my objections. Continue reading

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Atheism as the Defense of Naturalism

In general, types of atheism match types of gods. For example we often hear about “weak” versus “strong” atheism. While the strong atheist asserts that there is no God, the weak atheist claims only that there is insufficient evidence to support belief in God. Without adequate evidence, one should simply withhold belief; that is, the presumption of atheism, rather than an unwarranted presumption of theism, should be the default.

Put another way, weak atheism (which I have elsewhere dubbed “general atheism”) relies on the application of methodological naturalism, following the scientific method. But why should a theist, who after all adheres to a supernatural worldview, accept the validity of methodological naturalism for questions pertaining to the supernatural? On its surface that is a reasonable question, and not one weak atheism can effectively address.

To be sure, most theists wholeheartedly accept the weak atheist approach in respect to each of the ghosts, demons, and deities whose existence they also reject. But for absolute God, they consider methodological naturalism inadequate. God, in their mind, is a special case.

It is here that strong atheism enters the game.

Strong atheism (which elsewhere I have dubbed “specific atheism”) strikes directly at the nature of God, and purports to prove that God (when defined as a perfect, non-physical being) could not have created the world we find around us. Admittedly, the arguments of strong atheism do not apply to devils and demons and imperfect deities, but rather only to the perfect creator worshipped by most modern monotheists. But that is ok. Taken together, strong and weak atheism provide a one-two punch against all supernatural beings.

In 2001, Quentin Smith proposed an additional role for atheism in an article called The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism published in Philo (vol 4, no 2). Atheism, according to Smith, should be conceived as the defense of naturalism. I only discovered his remarkable essay last month, so I come rather belatedly to the matter. But I find Smith’s argument convincing enough that I have reconfigured the tag line for this website (which is meant as a brief definition of “atheology”) to include Smith’s phrase “the defense of naturalism”. Continue reading

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Zeno & Infinity

Pivotal moments in one’s intellectual development come unexpectedly. For me the key moment arrived in 9th grade English class when Miss Blumenstock gave a brief run-down of Zeno’s “theory of motion” [see footnote] and asked us to write a paper supporting or refuting him. Never could I have guessed it would lead to atheism.

That is exactly where it led, though it would take 5 1/2 years to get there.

Zeno’s “theory”, as she presented it, was that motion was not continuous but rather consisted of discrete segments. The path of an arrow shot across the horizon would actually, according to Zeno, not be smooth (although it might appear so to our eyes) but would in fact jump from segment to segment.

Why didn’t Zeno think motion was smooth and continuous? The answer is mathematics. Zeno realized there could not be an actual infinity of numbers between point a and point b on a numberline: numbers by their nature were inherently finite and countable, and therefore the path of an arrow across the sky had to consist of finite, countable steps.

If we think about it, we realize Zeno’s arrow was an early call for the Cosmological argument, which hinges on the assertion that there cannot be an actual infinity. There can’t be, per the Cosmological argument, an infinite regress of physical causes and there can’t be, per Zeno, an infinite number of steps in the motion of any object.

Just as there are two types of infinity — the macro infinity of going on and on to higher numbers and the micro infinity of more numbers between any two numbers on a number line — so there are two types of physical infinities which one can deny in the world. Zeno denied one, the Cosmological argument denies the other. Continue reading

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Theism’s Rose-Colored Glasses

Atheists often find it difficult to understand why theists continue to believe in God despite lack of evidence and the nearly insurmountable problem of evil. But the theist position isn’t difficult to understand once we recognize that the divide between theism and atheism results from radically different premises about the nature of knowledge.

In his excellent book, The Existence of God (Cornell University, 1965), Wallace I. Matson distinguishes between “crude” and “subtle” versions of the Cosmological argument for God’s existence. It is the suble version that interests me here. Put very briefly, it is this:

If the world is intelligible, then God exists. But the world is intelligible. Therefore God exists. — Matson, The Existence of God, page 62

What is meant by intelligibility? It means, briefly, that the world is explainable in terms of causal relationships, scientific laws, “sufficient reason” (“There is a Sufficient Reason why everything that is, is so and not otherwise.” — Leibniz). In investigating the world, says the theist, scientists uncover this underlying causality and framework, that is to say, scientists tap into and thereby discover the intelligence with which the world is imbued. That it is so imbued is unquestionable; that the source of the imbuing is God is obvious, even if not strictly provable.

The atheist position is that the theist has made a basic mistake. Like the kid who puts on rose-colored glasses and sees a rosy world and concludes that the world is rose-colored, the theist fails to realize that the human mind necessarily imparts a patina of intelligibility to everything it illuminates. The theist sees causal relationships and a blueprint of scientific laws imbued in the physical world, whereas the atheist avers that these are only artifacts of the human mind, the currency itself of human intelligence shining on the world.

Intelligence, says the atheist, isn’t out there, it’s in here. And it got in here as a product of evolution, nothing more. We evolved to have minds, and our minds are essentially information-colored glasses which impart — unavoidably — a patina of information, properties, and relationships upon everything we think about.

Intelligibility is in us, not outside us, but no matter: it is just as useful either way.

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Ingersoll’s Birthday

Robert Green Ingersoll, one of the most famous progressives of the 19th century, was born August 11, 1833. Following in the tradition of Paine & Jefferson, Ingersoll spent his life as an advocate for progressive causes, becoming arguably America’s greatest orator at a time when oratory was practically the national pastime.

Had he not openly rejected Christianity and God, Ingersoll’s speaking skills would have taken him a long way in the political arena, perhaps to the highest office in the land. Few could match his ability to appeal to both heart and intellect at once.

His books and speeches are still impressive today; they are intelligent and eminently quotable despite the patina of more than a century between his time and ours. Continue reading

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Intro to Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) sought to find a workable fusion of Aristotle and the Church; nonetheless he strongly objected to Plato’s formulation of man as strictly a thinker and the Platonic abandonment of matter. In particular, Plato’s program consisted of separating “being” from “becoming”. What exactly is meant by being as opposed to becoming — who knows?1

It is the kind of philosophical mumbo-jumbo that drives people away from philosophy. Whatever the distinction is supposed to be, it’s probably a poorly chosen one. But let’s see if we can figure it out. Being, one must suppose, refers to abstract Form or Ideas existing in our minds (Plato was enamored of mental talk like this) while becoming must refer, in the Platonic canon, to material things: always changing, growing, decaying and generally being messy (something Plato wanted nothing to do with).

Plato’s attitude toward bodily things strikes me more as the product of mental illness than of a rational thought process. Only a diseased mind, cut off from the rest of the self or warped by infection or chemical imbalance, concludes that mental imaginings alone are real, that the body is nothing. Indeed there is something very unreal about such an attitude, something pathological. Nor is the foolishness of the Platonic attitude difficult to show even relying strictly on reason — which brings us back from parenthesis to Aquinas.

Aquinas understood the distinction Plato was trying to make between being and becoming, and he strenuously objected to it. Plato had to try to wash matter — the material world of bodies — out of the picture as if it didn’t exist. But it does exist, Aquinas said, and Plato’s philosophy can’t account for why.

If I understand him correctly, Aquinas maintained that Plato’s abstract ideas (the abstract idea of a tree, for instance) have in themselves (whether held in our mind or in God’s) absolutely no power to bring real, material trees into existence. The particulars of the world can’t be thought into being by thinking universals, no matter who is doing the thinking. But not being able to explain how matter comes to exists is only part of the problem. In the Platonic system, Aquinas saw, there could never be a satisfactory explanation of why matter exists. Continue reading

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Aquinas and the 2nd Way

I was first exposed to Aquinas’ 5 proofs of God’s existence as a college freshman — a strongly religious theistic freshman, at that — yet immediately I saw that his proofs were flawed. They didn’t work to prove God at all. My thought at the time was that if you substituted the human mind for God in the proofs, they worked just as well. The general conclusion I came at the time was that the type of God the proofs addressed was wrong: that our concept of God was too tainted with, too similar to, the human mind itself. The solution had to be in finding a better definition of God than the traditional one.

Surprisingly, at the time rejecting God never occurred to me as an option. Instead, I determined that the nature of God had to be quite different than traditionally conceived. God was not a creator-God, not a logos-God, but had to be some other kind of entity. I spent the next couple years trying to figure out what that entity might be.

Eventually I resolved the difficulty: by becoming atheist.

The Cosmological Argument

To give an idea of some of the stumbling blocks I perceive in the idea of God, let me quote Terry Miethe, himself paraphrasing Aquinas’ “Second Way” or second proof of God’s existence. Continue reading

Posted in Cosmological, Existence Arguments, Non-Existence Arguments | 4 Comments

God’s Physical Problem

In the Warren-Flew Debate* on God’s existence, which took place in the North Texas State University Coliseum from Sept 20 to 23, 1976, Anthony Flew identified 4 ways in which the existence of a postulated being might be challenged.

The first way, he said, is to declare that the being in question is simply not to be found anywhere. This is how most questions of existence get addressed. Are there wolves in Manitoba? Is there a sea monster in Loch Ness? Well, let’s do an exhaustive search and find out.

This is not a useful approach, Flew observed, for settling the question of God’s existence. And the reasons are obvious. For one thing, God doesn’t have a specific locale that we can go to and search; for another, God lacks an observable body. Both those who believe God exists and those who disbelieve would expect the same result from any such search: nada.

The second way the existence of a being can be challenged, Flew explained, is by asserting that it not only can’t be found anywhere, but that it’s existence is biologically or physically impossible.

The third way which Flew presented involves a different kind of impossibility: asserting that the being in question is logically impossible: a round square or married bachelor, for example.

Flew’s forth way to challenge the existence of a being will also sound familiar. It is to claim that the being in question has been qualified to such an extent that it’s existence is untestable. By way of explanation, Flew presented the claim that prayers are always answered. Yet when presented with a situation in which a prayer does not seem to have been answered, the believer replies, “Oh the prayer was answered, but you know, sometimes the answer is ‘No’.” When all possible evidence (whether negative or positive) supports a proposition, that proposition has been rendered meaningless.

In his debate with Warren, Flew challenged God’s existence using the 3rd and 4th approaches above. But what I want to examine here is an argument based on the 2nd approach. Continue reading

Posted in Articles Highlighted, Debates, Naturalism, Non-Existence Arguments | 8 Comments