Saturday, August 19, 2006

Dialogue with an atheist (1): what is atheism?

This is part 1 of a fictional dialogue between two friends: a Christian and an atheist. I’ve written this to provide answers to those Christians who I know personally and who wonder about my position with regards to my unbelief in god(s). I don’t speak for all atheists, so corrections to what I've written are welcome. Sam is a fictional character. Thank you to Cori who provided ideas for this dialogue as well as constructive criticism. Enjoy!

Kevin: Hello Sam. How are you doing? Why do you look so down?
Sam: Hi Kevin. I just came back from a church meeting. We had a discussion about atheists and atheism. I can’t understand why so many people don’t accept the fact of God’s love, and why they have such anger towards God. I feel such an incredible burden for those people.
Kevin: Sam, I know we’ve only known each other for a few weeks, and we’ve hit it off really well over this time. But, I don’t know how to break this to you … I am an atheist.
(a moment’s silence)
Sam: An atheist? But how can that be? You are such a nice guy!
Kevin: Well, I try to be (laughs). Look, its okay. Despite the much maligned label, I’m not a Christian bashing kind of person. I’m your normal, average guy. I just lack belief in God’s existence, that’s all.
Sam: I’m sorry, but I’m completely surprised. I never knew that about you. I assumed that you were going to your own church. Wow! I can’t say I’ve ever met a self declared atheist before. I’ve got so many questions to ask you, if you don’t mind.
Kevin: Sure, I don't mind at all.
Sam: If you’re an atheist, why do you say that God doesn’t exist, and why are you so angry at God?
Kevin: These are good questions! Firstly, I don’t make the claim that God doesn’t exist. Secondly, I’m not angry at God at all; I mean, how can I be angry at something I don’t believe exists?
Sam: Let me get this straight: you lack belief that God exists, but at the same time you are not claiming that he does not exist? That doesn’t make sense to me.
Kevin: At face value it does seem confusing. But look, I think that to effectively answer all your questions, we have to start at the beginning. We have to ask: what is atheism?
Sam: Rejection of God and his love?
Kevin: That is an interesting definition, but it is not the one that I subscribe to. Do you know what the word “theist” means?
Sam: A theist is a person who has some belief in a god. I am a theist, for example.
Kevin: Yes, you are. So are Muslims, Hindus and any other individual who believes in some supernatural deity. Well, the “a-“ prefix in the word atheism simply means “non-“ or “not”. Simply put, an atheist is “not a theist”. In its basic form, atheism is not a belief; it is an absence of belief. It is an absence of belief in the existence a supernatural deity or deities. That is all.
Sam: I see.
Kevin: The word atheist has become falsely associated with immorality and arrogance. Despite what many may claim, I believe atheism says nothing about the personality, moral status, political affiliation or character of a specific person. It simply refers to their lack of belief in gods.
Sam: This is fascinating! I’ve got so many questions to ask. If you don’t believe in God, what moral system do you use? How can you find meaning in life? What do you believe will happen to you when you die? Why don’t you believe in God?
Kevin: Gosh, those are good questions! I’ll have to answer them one at a time. It’s going to be a long night, though. Coffee?
Sam: Please!

To be continued. . .


Zoe said...

This is great & I look forward to the continuing story. Kudo's to you & Cori.

marc said...

An Atheist hmmm - If I ask my friends atheist tends to be a catch all lazy term they use for really seeing if God exists or not or exploring their spirituality.

I would associate it in general with people who are not interested in God, but most wouldn't see it as a belief, more a statement.

Dar said...

Hi Kevin,
I'm glad you put this out there. Seems to be alot of discussion on this topic in my blog as of late. So many beleivers question the moral system of the atheist...I'm working on some posts to answer the many questions that have been asked of me. I'm glad you are out there helping to explain in your articulate, mature and non-argumentative fashion.

marc said...

Surely the moral system of an athiest is to do what they please but that of course will be subconciously influenced by context and culture. Chances are if you live in an historically christian nation your choices are going to reflect that culture in some way.

Mike said...

Hi all, I am new and just stumbled across this interesting blog. I appreciate your attitude and cordiality Kevin.

When it comes to atheism and morality, I don't think the central question is whether or not an atheist can be a morally good person. Certainly an atheist can live morally. The central question is rather: what grounds an atheist's morality? In other words, what reasons can an atheist give for why people ought to live a certain way as opposed to another way (if moral relativism is rejected)? I have yet to hear a plausible non-relativistic moral theory from an atheistic standpoint, but perhaps someone here can provide one. Thanks again.

Kyaroko said...

You are so much nicer than I. If I was writing this dialogue it would be something like "I don't live in a deluded fantasy world full of unicorns and fairies like you do".

marc said...

It's very lucky that we can have an adult discussion about such things then. Welcome Kyaroko.

Skywolf said...

It does concern me somewhat that so often the Christian view seems to be that you can't be a decent, moral person without having God in your life. If you're only decent and moral because you're trying to please God, surely that's more cause for concern than simply being a decent moral person because it's in your nature to do so?

I don't consider myself an atheist as such, although I no longer subscribe to any religion. But I certainly don't attribute my morals to a god... they're an intrinsic part of who I am, irrelevant to the existence or not of an ultimate deity.

Mike said...

Hi Skywolf, you bring up some interesting points, but here are some things to consider. What does it mean that your morals are "an intrinsic part of who I am?" Do you believe your morals to be objective - applicable to everyone? If they are objective, what grounds their existence? If not objective, why should other people hold to your morals? Is your nature more "moral" than other peoples' nature? I do not intend this as a personal attack, just some ideas to ponder.

Often I think that people mistake the issue as being whether or not an atheist can live life with morals, or whether an atheist can "see" whether something is right or wrong. But this is not the real issue. The issue is how objective moral values can exist in a world that consists of physical objects (atoms, molecules, complex organisms) alone. It has been a very difficult task for atheists to find a solid ground for objective morals, and this is still a major philosophical project. Many atheists just give in and embrace moral relativism, or you could call it moral creationism (individuals and/or societies create their own values and live by them).

But many see that moral relativism has a fatal flaw, that being that it does not leave room for us to criticize the morals of Nazi Germany for example, or the Aztec human sacrifices, or Christian fundamentalism for that matter.

On a more personal note, I think each person needs to ask him/herself, "Just what does it mean for me to be a decent, moral person? Am I as good a person as I can be? Are there parts of my character that need to be changed? Do I have some character flaws?" I think if we are honest with ourselves we would recognize the flaws in our moral character. If we are REALLY honest we would see an ugly selfishness within that pops up more often than we like, and we long to get rid of this. There is always room for growth. So how do we grow? Should we try to grow? Why?

My take on the Christian position is that Jesus came to show us how we can be free of the ugliness and imperfection we see within ourselves. This freedom comes as a result of realizing that God loves and values us unconditionally, no matter how selfish and flawed and incomplete we are. This humbles us, to know that God loves us no matter what. We don't need to try and please him. He already is pleased with us. But it is precisely this unconditional love from God that puts a fire in our heart to love him in return, to follow him, to do things that he likes, because we simply want to bring him joy. We will fail, we will still do things that he doesn't like, but unconditional love means that nothing we do will cause God to love us any less.

This is my view of the Christian position in brief. I am sorry that some of you have encountered Christians who have not exhibited goodness in their views and behavior. I believe that Jesus himself made popular the term "hypocrite", which referred to a stage actor, and Jesus used it to describe many religious people of his day. Jesus does not like hypocrisy either, but the curious thing is that he still loves hypocrites. Do we?

Sorry for the length of this post.

Skywolf said...

What does it mean that your morals are "an intrinsic part of who I am?" Do you believe your morals to be objective - applicable to everyone? If they are objective, what grounds their existence? If not objective, why should other people hold to your morals? Is your nature more "moral" than other peoples' nature?

Hi Mike,

You make some interesting points too. Certainly food for thought. When I say that my morals are intrinsic to who I am, I mean that I would be a different person without them. The fact that I am clearly me makes my moral views some of the foundations of my personality and the way in which I see the world. That isn't to say that my morals should be everyone else's. I don't think you can force your ethical views onto another person anyway - but I think that perhaps there are basic moral constants that are generally adhered to. Few people would argue the fact that torturing a child for fun, to use an extreme example, is in any way acceptable.

I don't think I've ever sat down and worked out precisely what my exact moral code is. I don't suppose many people actually do that. Moral fibre often seems to be almost instinctive, like knowing the difference between right and wrong. I suppose that's what I mean by saying that those values are simply a part of who I am. I guess there are certain morals that most people stick to, and I do believe there are some that should be universally applicable. But I also know that I have certain ethical principles that not everyone else sticks to, and even though I disagree with their opposing views, I would not presume to tell them that they're wrong, or that they should adopt my moral code in such instances. I personally believe that all life is to be respected, for example, even as I know that there are people who wouldn't think twice about killing a non-dangerous spider that strayed into their house, simply because they don't want it there. That view is not my own, but I wouldn't say that my view has to apply to everyone. Again, it's part of what makes me me - and isn't our individuality what makes us interesting?

As for what grounds the existence of certain objective morals (such as not torturing innocent people for enjoyment), I'm probably the wrong person to ask, as I'm not personally an atheist. I'm not actually sure what direct influence the existence of God has to such objectivity (as I said, I'd find it disappointing if people only stick to their ethical views for fear of upsetting God), but I do believe we have souls, and I do believe the universe consists of more than just atoms and molecules dancing around each other. I can see why believing that we're nothing more than mortal matter would have an effect on the reasoning behind people's morals. But I don't believe this myself, and I suppose that worldview does affect my ethical practices. I believe we have a spiritual responsibility to each other and the world around us... I guess that's the simplest way I can put it.

I wouldn't presume to declare my nature more or less moral than another person's. My morals are absolutely right for me - I couldn't declare that they're completely right for someone else. But obviously there are extreme examples which are hard to deny. I think I'm probably a more moral person than Hitler was, for example. But I'm sure he wasn't completely devoid of moral fibre. He probably loved his mum. He probably took care of his pets. He just placed his moral priorities in a different order to that of most ethically-minded people, and ended up viewed as a horribly immoral person due to his hideous acts.

I agree that we all have flaws in our moral character. I also agree that we should try to be honest with ourselves in order to recognise those flaws and change them. There is always room to grow and change. I consider life to be a series of lessons... what's the point if you don't learn from them?

Mike said...

Hi Skywolf,

Your candor is admirable. Thanks.

I think your view that people do good in order to avoid upsetting God needs to be reexamined. Certainly some people (including many self-proclaimed Christians) operate that way, living in constant fear of God's anger if they do something bad. But this really is not the Christian view.

Jesus spent much of his time hanging out with people who had made a mess out of their lives, people who had made really bad choices, and Jesus told them, "Hey, God thinks you're wonderful. He loves you no matter what." Jesus communicated this most powerfully by actually spending quality time with them, treating them as friends, while everyone else in society shunned them. And it was this unique love of Jesus that transformed their heart and lit a fire in their soul that led them to give their whole lives in passionate love for him.

God's unique love is the driving force behind Christian ethics. Not fear. There is no fear in the Christian life, because there is nothing we can do to cause him to love us any less. The Christian is free to question God, doubt him, complain about what he is doing, to be as honest with him as possible, without fear that he is going to send a plague to smite him/her. 40% of the Psalms are complaints to God.

Does God love those who do not love him? Absolutely. But he's not going to force himself into their lives if they don't want him there. A man might love a woman with everything he's got, but if she does not want anything to do with him, he is not justified to kidnap her and keep her as his slave against her will. He would be a crminal. And so would God if he forced people to live with him against their will.

What do you think Kevin?


Skywolf said...

I appreciate your thoughts too, Mike. :)

I don't actually think that the majority of Christians live moral lives for fear of God's wrath... I just think that the view Kevin mentioned, that atheists are, by nature, immoral, fuels an unhealthy view that theists are only moral because God tells them they should be. I know of many Christians who wouldn't dream of taking this view, but often there seems to be an underlying implication that this may be happening.

My Christian background certainly told me that God would love me no matter what I did; that his love is unconditional and pure regardless of human fallibility. But my own personal background also taught me that, despite this love for all of humanity, God fully intended to send huge numbers of people to Hell. I know this view only becomes extreme in certain denominations of the church, but my own upbringing certainly emphasised it. So, even though I believed God loved me, I also believed that he would send me to a place of eternal suffering if I didn't follow him. This contradiction now astounds me. So I would argue that there is definitely fear in the Christian life - not in all sectors of Christian life, by any means, but in certain sectors, there is a taught fear that runs very deep.

Kevin Parry said...

The whole area of morality is also something that I’ve been working through since I left the faith, and although I think I’ve made some progress, I can’t claim that I’ve reached a place of absolute certainty with the whole issue. So in this regard I’m in the same boat as Skywolf. But the following is a summary of some of my thoughts.

Why do I still adhere to conventional morals? I think that the reason can be divided in two parts. The first part has to do with my own actions that have an affect on me personally. I can eat healthy, exercise, or work to strengthen my relationship with my wife. Or, I can abuse drugs, get totally drunk every night, or sleep around on a regular basis. Some might think that because I’m an atheist I will engage in all sorts of immoral behaviour. But I don’t. And the question is: why don’t I?

Well, I don’t engage in this kind of immoral behaviour simply because it is not reasonable. I can see the results of drug abuse, the pain and hardship that it causes. I value my body and I don’t like pain – so the reasonable thing to do is not to abuse drugs. I’ve seen how infidelity has caused families to break apart; so I don’t sleep around because I value the relationship I have with my wife. In other words, I don’t do certain things because – although they might provide some form of instant gratification – those actions will eventually destroy those things that I value.

The problem with this idea? Well, something that seems ‘reasonable’ to me might not seem ‘reasonable’ to someone else. And someone else’s value system might be totally different to mine. I’m still working through this issue.

The second part of my reason for living ‘morally’ has to do with my role in society and my interaction with other people. But I think I will stop here. I don’t want to give too much away of what I’m planning to write in the Christian-atheist dialogue on morality ;-)

Thank you Mike, Skywolf and others for your excellent comments on this post. It has spurred thinking – and that is always a good thing.

Mike said...

Hi again to Skywolf and Kevin,

It is truly a joy to discuss these things in a warm and reasonable tone isn't it? Thanks you two.

Skywolf writes:
"My Christian background certainly told me that God would love me no matter what I did; that his love is unconditional and pure regardless of human fallibility. But my own personal background also taught me that, despite this love for all of humanity, God fully intended to send huge numbers of people to Hell. I know this view only becomes extreme in certain denominations of the church, but my own upbringing certainly emphasised it. So, even though I believed God loved me, I also believed that he would send me to a place of eternal suffering if I didn't follow him. This contradiction now astounds me."

The idea that God "sends" people to hell needs to be looked at again. I don't see it that way. I believe that people actually choose to be in hell rather than heaven. Yes, I know that sounds strange, and it needs explanation.

Picture it this way. God is offering his love to each person. It's unconditional. It's an eternal offer. What does God want from us? Love. REAL love, not duty, not forced servitude, not flattery. God just simply wants us to want him. If we don't want him, well, he's not going to force us to be with him. Picture heaven as God's house, God's community, where people love him and enjoy his company forever. If you don't want this, if God is unappealing to you, than he is not going to kidnap you kicking and screaming and force you to be there. Hell is populated by people who don't want God, and it's described as a horrible place "with weeping and gnashing of teeth" because life apart from God is inevitably miserable.

You may argue that life now without him is not that bad. But remember that your life now is not completely apart from God. God's goodness permeates this world in all kinds of ways, but in hell this will not be the case. But consider this: It is entirely possible that people in hell would actually rather be there than to be with God, because God is unappealing to them. They don't believe that God is good. People often choose misery over bliss because they don't believe that the alternative choice will actually be bliss. Take the drug addict for example.

A fascinating book that makes the same argument I am making here is "The Great Divorce" by C.S. Lewis. It is a fictional story about a group of people in hell who get a chance to visit heaven for one day. Most of the people who visit are repulsed by heaven. They don't like it. They would rather live in hell. One of these people is a biblical scholar who leads a Bible study in hell! I was gripped by this story that I read it all in one day. It's a short book.

Now you may ask, "Why would God create people knowing that they will not want him and reside in hell forever?" If you want to discuss this question I would be glad to discuss it with you.


Skywolf said...

I would certainly ask that question. But I would also question the very existence of Hell in terms of a loving God. As you say, perhaps people do make the choices that eventually lead them to Heaven or Hell as opposed to God directly 'sending' them there, but to me, that's a simple matter of phrasing. Christians believe that we are given free will by God... in that case, yes, he must give us the choice to be with him or not. But I would question why an eternally loving, forgiving God would create a place of eternal suffering in the first place?

Let's say you have a child, whom you love unconditionally. You have created a beautiful home in which that child can live with you, in peace, safety, and love forever. But, for some reason, you have also created a place of pain and terror, to which that child will have to go if he chooses not to live in your beautiful home with you. Firstly, I would suggest that you are blackmailing your child into living with you, making it so certain that he will suffer unimaginable pain for the rest of his life if he doesn't accept you.

But the child wishes to explore his own mind. He doesn't want to live with you. He would prefer to take his chances with the eternal suffering on the other side of your front door. He rejects your love and sanctitude, and even rejects you. This may hurt you, but you still love him. You love him more than anything that has ever been. You'd die for him. And yet, you would still let him walk out the door of your home of light, love, and safety, straight in to a maw of pain and suffering? Surely, if you have a child who you would do anything for, you would do everything in your power to prevent him going to that awful place. You'd lock him in his room. You'd restrain him if necessary. You'd know that no matter what restraints you put on him, even to the point of removing his free will, it would still be infinitely preferable to a life of excruciating torture.

Parents of determined drug addicts have done more for their children. Why would God not do the same for his?

...I apologise for getting so off the original topic here! But yes, it is so great to be able to discuss these things in a sensible, rational way.

ursa smaller said...

wow.... and kevin hasn't even addressed the question of morality in his dialogue.....

I noticed a few years back that all of stipulations in the bible regarding morality had a lot to do with what was beneficial, or reasonable, as kevin put it, to society. God said "don't kill, don't steal....etc " and low and behold, killing and stealing are antisocial behaviours that are a detriment to society. I have yet to find a satisfying scripture that tells me not to do drugs, but it's generally understood that christians condemn that behaviour. Why? because it's counterproductive to a healthy life. This led me to separate my view of morality from my view of God. Though I may believe in God, I think that "He" simply wants us to live healthy, beneficial lives and gives us some logical suggestions in order to do that.

as for hell, I'm with skywolf.... I think. My rejection of hell has made the rest of my belief in God make a lot more sense. Not only that, but I don't find adequate biblical evidence to support the "conventional" idea of what hell is.

Kevin Parry said...

Skywolf and Ursa have raised some important problems with the traditional view of hell. My biggest problem with hell – as far as I understand the traditional view of salvation – is the gross injustice underlining the whole idea. Hell is an unlimited punishment for a limited crime. And what is the crime? It is not murder, rape, dishonesty or any other kind of evil. The crime is simply the victimless action of unbelief. A serial killer, who has caused much pain and suffering, can get into heaven if he believes and accepts Jesus’ love. A good, honest hardworking atheist – who contributes positively to society – is destined for hell simply because she does not believe in the claims of Christianity. To me, the whole traditional concept of divine punishment seems ridiculously excessive.

Mike said...

Hi all,

Good discussion. You brought up some good points to consider. Here is my thinking in response...

Skywolf's analogy of the child living in a parent's home. Good, challenging analogy. You said that a parent who loves his (I'll just use "his" for simplicity sake) child will do anything for the child, even die for him. This is precisely what the Christian believes God did for us. Jesus endured unimaginable suffering (the "Passion" shows this well) in order to capture our heart, show us what it means to reject our own Creator (Let's at least pursue the seriousness of this offense), and woo us back into God's loving arms. God did do everything he could - without overriding our free will. Just think, once free will is taken away, so is love. God knew what the risk was, but he chose to have real love rather than robots. This is the price.

Kevin, you wrote: "Hell is an unlimited punishment for a limited crime. And what is the crime? It is not murder, rape, dishonesty or any other kind of evil. The crime is simply the victimless action of unbelief." I don't think you have a firm grip on the nature of the crime. It is not just sheer unbeief in the existence of God. From God's perspective - and let's just suppose for a moment that God does exist - from God's perspective you are turning your back on his love. Consider Skywolf's analogy. God loves you more than you could ever know, and he wants so desperately for you to live with him and enjoy his company forever... and you say, "No thanks." You say, "Not enough evidence. I'm not convinced." I think God might disagree. I think God might reply, "Not enough evidence? My child... There must be some other reason you don't want to be with me."

Now I know that you honestly and sincerely do not believe that there is enough evidence, and/or that there is good counter-evidence. But just consider hypothetically, what if God really does exist? What if Jesus really did die and rise again? Preposterous, I know some of you say. But let's pretend. From God's perspective, he has given sufficient evidence, and whoever rejects this evidence must have their reasons...

People like to talk about motives for believing things. We have all heard arguments that Christians believe in God because of the need for a father figure, or that fundamentalist Christians reject evolution because they're afraid of the implications... And then Christians lob back arguments like "athiests don't believe in God because they hated their earthly father" or "atheists don't want to believe in God because they want to live according to their own rules." This back and forth attack on our motives usually doesn't get anywhere does it. It's a stalemate... However, we all must introspect and examine our motives for believing and not believing. There is no purely objective human being capable of making 100% accurate judgments on everything. We all must come face to face with our own heart as best as we can so that we can make as accurate a judgment as possible. I must do it. You must do it. The fundamentalist must do it. The agnostic must do it. And this is an ongoing project throughout our lives.

One last thing. I think people assume that hell will be a place where people DON'T want to be... What if people actually prefer it to heaven? What if God would open heaven's doors anytime for anyone in hell... But they refuse? Isn't this possible? Consider the choices people make in our world now, refusing peace for war, refusing sobriety for the "buzz", refusing their family for a more independent lifestyle...

Thanks again for discussing this with me.

Mike said...

Sorry but I have a few more (brief - thank God!) thoughts...

Hell is not really a place that God created. It's more of a state of heart. It is an inevitable condition given free will. I really think we need to take free will seriously. Thinking again about Skywolf's analogy, the child who wants to get out is basically saying, "I don't want to be with you! Let me go!" And according to Skywolf, God would have to say, "No, I will not let you." The child keeps pushing, "Let me go! Let me go!" And God finally says, "Nope, and I'm going to now have to remove your free will in order to make you stay." But this removal of the will is essentially a destruction of the person. It's turning the person "off." It's pulling the plug. Hell is a state of heart where God says, "Okay, I'll leave you alone." And remember, it's entirely possible that the offer to live with God is always there.

tichius said...

GK Chesterton said, "I will not complain because there are no two ways to enter Heaven, I will thank God that there is at least one."

I agree with Mike's point, Hell is not a punishment for good people who do a few things wrong. Hell is a choice for people who do not want God.

Let's look at Heaven. No one actually deserves Heaven. Christ went through Hell, experiencing separation from God, so that we do not have to. Now, that's not fair.

If you turn from God, who or what do you turn to? I disagree that atheism is the absence of a belief; it is the rejection of belief.

This is the great problem with atheism. It affirms the negative in the absolute (contradiction), arguing there is no God. But, what is there? I believe the article you posted, What an Atheist ought to stand for, nicked the surface of the problem, but Richard Carrier only identifies the problem. He recognized that atheists are clear in what they are against, but unclear in what they support. Unfortunately, he then procedes to argue, quite irrationally, that atheists stand for doubt. So, you stand for being against.

Skywolf said...

I have indeed heard it theorised that Hell is not a physical place at all, but more of a state of mind that can exist in the absence of God. This, I can accept more readily than the idea of an actual place where the soul goes when it dies, as opposed to reaching Heaven. But most Christians I have come across do believe in Hell as an actual place - as the opposite of Heaven. If you believe that Hell isn't actually a place created by God, but a 'state of heart', then what makes Heaven any different? Or perhaps it doesn't. I still love the idea of Heaven (who wouldn't?), but I'm not sure I can accept it as an actual physical place of pure joy and perfection, with everything you love around you for all of eternity. Perhaps Heaven, too, is more of a state of mind that can be eventually attained? And if it's possible to find oneself in Hell and yet still have the option to accept God and therefore reach Heaven, what is the point behind the Christian ideas of salvation and evangelism?

I think I agree with Tichius that atheism is not the absence of belief. If you believe that there is no God, then that's a belief, surely? But as for it being the rejection of belief, I'm not so sure. Although I've heard it from many atheists, I've never quite understood the connection between not believing in God and therefore not believing in anything else either. I can understand the atheist's position that God doesn't exist. I don't follow it, because I still feel that there's something bigger than us out there, even if I can't identify it. But I do have difficulty with the belief that life is no more than animated matter, and once a living thing dies, it completely ceases to exist.

My best friend considers herself an atheist. She doesn't believe in God. But she believes in a lot of other things. She doesn't automatically reject the idea of an eternal soul because she rejects the idea of a supreme being. So why is there this assumption that atheists reject all beliefs just because they reject one?

Lui said...

"But I do have difficulty with the belief that life is no more than animated matter, and once a living thing dies, it completely ceases to exist." But that's all the evidence entitles us to suppose. To be really brutal about it, organisms are throw-away machines used by genes to propagate themselves. Whether we're comfortable or not with the idea that there is no soul is irrelevant to the relaity of their being a soul or not. The universe, as far as we can tell, is indifferent to human sensibilities and aspirations. I agree that there is a certain bleakness in the notion of death being the actual end of your existence, but that's a fact about ourselves, not about the universe. We might find it bleak, but "we" is not something that the universe owes anything to.

There is a variant of atheism called "weak athiesm" that basically says that "I don't believe in God" as opposed to the "strong atheist" stance of "I believe there is no God". To take a somewhat simplistic analogy, someone might say (in the weak atheist sense) "I don't believe there is a yellow building 3 kilometres from my house." That is, they have no REASON, as far as they can see, to suppose to that there is in fact a yellow building situated there, hence they don't believe in that building's existence. (to say otherwise would be nonsensical to them, because it would require them to believe in something for which they themselves think there is no reason to believe) But the strong atheist might say, "I believe there is no building because the very idea of there being a building there (for whatever reason, philosophical or otherwise, this is just a fanciful example) is logically incoherent. Therefore their can't be a building there. The very concept of their being a building their is untenable." I think that's the essential difference of the two, and it explains the difference between not believing in something (pending strong evidence to the contrary) and in believeing outright that that something isn't real. Note that even the weak atheist position is different to agnosticism. (or at least I think it is, unless I'm just confused and deluded)

Mike said...

Hi Lui,

In reading a previous post you wrote about consciousness, I believe you said that consciousness poses a problem for materialism.

If you read the latest literature about consciousness from the top philosophers of mind, such as Jaegwon Kim, Colin McGinn, John Searle, Paul Churchland - all of whom are materialists and thus atheists - none of them has anywhere near a plausible account of the existence of consciousness. Some like Kim basically say that consciousness doesn't exist. Some like McGinn say that our brains do not allow us to discover how the brain produces consciousness, and so it will always remain a mystery. Some like Searle say that there is no problem, just believe that the brain produces consciousness and get on with other things. I do not see how any of these accounts provide a better explanation of consciousness than does substance dualism - or more popularly, "the soul".

The evidence for "no soul" boils down to showing how certain mental events can be correlated to certain brain activity in certain parts of the brain. This part of the brain is involved with these kinds of mental events and this part for those and so on. Now it is very important to note that these are simply correlations. When this thought happens, this brain event happens. That's fine, but how is a brain event (neurons firing) the same exact thing as my thought about a cat for example? They have different properties. Colin McGinn points out this problem in his book "The Mysterious Flame" with a humorous story about aliens who cannot understand how humans think with a brain made of meat. "Thinking meat! Impossible!" The aliens proclaim.

Mere correlation does not entail identity. We know that the brain and our mental events are obviously connected somehow, but this does not rule out substance dualism by any means. It might rule out "ghost in a box" forms of dualism, but there are other forms out there like Thomistic dualism. Just some food for thought.

Lui said...

Hi Mike,

I did mention consciousness but if I said that it poses a problem for materialism I meant to say that it poses a challenge that materialism must rise to to explain. I also mentioned that I think that it's more reasonable (and more in line with the available evidence) that consciousness is an emergent property that arises from physical interactions occurring in the brain. Of course no one knows how consciousness itself actually manifests itself, but that's the subject of current inquiries. Some problems are harder than others, and how consciousness - self-awareness, and all the things it entails - exists as the result of neurons firing is precisely such a problem that has perplexed the greatest of minds. That's not to say it's an intractable problem, only that we need to keep looking. I've been reading Daniel Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" but had to stop because of other commitments and because I was getting bogged down trying to understand it (more a sign of my ignorance than anything, hence my difficulty in following his train of thought). I've also been reading Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate". Both books talk about these challenges. My (very limited) understanding is that while we haven't figured out how it is that "meat can think", we are unravelling some compelling clues. It matters not, apparently, that neurons have different properties to what it is you're thinking of, when you accept the analogy of the brain as a machine that stores and processes information received from the environment in the form of sense stimuli, has built in "place-holders" for the absorption of language (and hence symbolic thought) and can find patterns automatically. Furthermore, it has been known for a long time that changes in the brain can affect changes in personality and behaviour, that electrical stimulation to sections of the brain associated with specific senses can cause that person to feel things (like a tap on the shoulder or a noise). Particularly fascinating is what happens when the corpus callosum (the axon "bridge" that links the two hemispheres and allows them to communicate) is severed: the two sides essentially think independently and make the person do things that they can't explain as someone with linked hemispheres would be able to do (Pinker argues that there the "true self", the "one in control", is an illusion, a trick played on us by the brain. I invite you to look into this amazing area of psychology and be as unnerved as I was). Couple all this with the findings of evolutionary psychology and animal psychology (which explain the context in which our minds evolved, and the challenges faced by our ancestors as they went about their daily experiences), and we are left with a compelling, if somewhat unsettling, picture of the brain as an organ that evolved over eons to equip organisms with the necessary problem-solving tools to think their way out of predicaments and to play out various strategies in the game of life. Somewhere along the way, evolution produced a brain with a true sense of itself. That mind was ours, and we have been perplexed since the day we started to really think about what it really is.
Substance dualism might be able to explain consciousness better than the materialist version, but that alone isn't enough to regard it with reverence, for it leaves the soul itself as a mysterious entity. It seems, to me, a bit like saying that Intelligent Design can explain sodium channels or flagella better than Darwinian evolution: but only at the cost of invoking a far more complex entity which itself can’t be explained. Instead of reducing the problem to its constituent parts, we end up exacerbating it unreasonably. “It’s so complex we may as well stop inquiring and say that God did it” is the flavour of the argument. But just because we currently can’t imagine how something came about doesn’t mean we’re more entitled to think it came about by supernatural means than by natural means. The former invokes a double-mystery: the nature of the entity that did the engineering work, and the means by which that entity did it. It therefore attempts to explain something with something that can’t be explained. Whether this is any kind of explanation is left to the reader to judge. But given that (as far as I know) there is no really compelling evidence for the soul (unless one counts human ignorance as evidence for something; that is, perfectly understandable ignorance about how consciousness manifests itself, an ignorance shared by everyone on this planet) then we are well advised to look elsewhere. The soul is meant to be composed of non-material stuff, and that is clearly beyond the realm of science, and in that case we might as well be done with it and stop doing cognitive studies. But I would argue that that would be misguided, for how then do we fit all that we know, all that strongly suggests that we are, in a very real sense, simply the sum of our neurons’ interactions, into the picture of ourselves as extra-physical beings? We have a moral as well as a scientific responsibility to at least inquire into these difficult matters as objectively as we can, and run the risk of having our cherished notions shown to be inadequate (that goes for the materialists as well).

Mike said...

Hi Lui,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. The findings on the correlations between the brain and mental events that you mentioned are still mere correlations - this happens when this happens - and we still have no idea how meat can produce consciousness, if in fact it even does produce it. I don't think the analogy of the machine/computer eliminates the problem, precisely because machines are not conscious. We can conceive of Zombies moving around and talking and doing things, and yet they are not conscious. I suggest looking into the issue of "qualia" in the field of consciousness. Colin McGinn's book "The Mysterious Flame" discusses this well. Qualia refer to the properties of mental states that describe "what it is like" to have a mental state. E.g., what it is like to see red - this cannot be reduced to an array of neurons firing. This is where the problem really comes to a head for the materialist.

Perhaps the most convincing argument for the soul is first-person awareness of oneself. Introspection. You may believe that we can be deceived by our brain to think that we have a soul... but this deception scenario gets really sticky when you start wondering, "What (or who?) is doing the deceiving? How can meat falsely create a 'Me'" I just think that it's more likely that there is a person there that I am "seeing."

Is it possible that we reject the soul because we are afraid of the implications?

Kevin, please feel free to tell me if there is an unspoken "limit" or boundary to posts here. I realize I have written a lot.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Mike

Keep on typing! There is no limit to the number of comments that can be posted by any person. One of the reasons why I began this blog was to create a place where individuals of different beliefs (atheists, theists, agnostics, etc) could enter into respectful dialogue over those questions that humankind has been asking for thousands of years. I've found the discussion on this post absolutely fascinating, and much of what you have written (as well as Tichius, eddie, lui, SuperSkpetic, skywolf and others) on various posts has given me much to think about.

I appreciate all the discussion, and I’m sure many other readers share the same sentiment.

As long as it is respectful, and as long as it is on topic, write as much as you like.

By the way, forgive me if I don't respond to every discussion, or if I take a bit of time to respond to specific questions - I have limited internet access at the moment.

Lui said...

Hi Mike,

I have a feeling for your concerns, (I share at least some of them) but I still think that they are more "incredulity" type concerns than "objective" ones. I admit, I have no idea at all how consciousness is produced by meat, but I doubt very much that's a reason to automatically assume that the soul is a better explanation. It's true what you say about correlation, but GIVEN THAT many aspects of our minds are directly affected by changes in the brain, coupled with the findings of evolutionary psychology and studies on other animals that strongly suggest that our cognitive faculties are in a sense scaled up versions of theirs, (that’s putting it VERY imprecisely, but I think you can get the gist of my point) our best bet is to look for the "soul" as an emergent property that bubbles out of material interactions. To take an analogy from another (but related) field, when Darwin formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection, he didn't know anything about genetics. It was the details about the natural world that convinced him, or strongly suggested to him, that their was a natural process behind the scenes. It had left its mark, and he could see that, even though the mechanism of heredity was still a mystery, the previous paradigm of creationism was totally misguided. Something similar seems to be happening in neuroscience. What we once thought was the working of a soul or just a blank slate imprinted on by the environment has given way to a conception of a highly complex machine with built-in modules and predispositions to react in certain ways. Steven Pinker says in The Blank Slate that we are flexible precisely because we are programmed (by evolution). This of course doesn't explain HOW consciousness is manifested; that will come from the details teased out by studies on the actual brain.
These are very difficult topics, and my response has obviously been inadequate. On your specific points, I think I have read about qualia and definitely about dualism, but I would have to go and look up what Pinker and Dennett have said to give you a more complete picture (my mind is far from encyclopaedic). I will have a lot more to say about this fascinating area of research, but in the mean time I will say this: we need to start somewhere; neuroscience, linguistics and cognitive studies are hard at work on the problem. Only time will tell if we are able to ground consciousness firmly in biology (my bets are that we will). As for the implications of a soul, I would recommend reading The Blank Slate where Pinker goes into how we needn't give up personal responsibility, ethics and the idea of beauty just because we are, in the end, machines. But anyway, I appreciate that you've brought these issues up because it makes me think deeper about them.

Mike said...

Hi Lui,

I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I really do believe that given a very significant amount of evidence for God's existence, that this makes the case for the soul very strong amongst the alternatives. And when I say evidence for God's existence, I do not mean deductive proofs that leave no room for doubt, but I mean evidences where we make an inference to the best explantion. I say this because most of the so-called "debunking" of arguments for God's existence treat them as deductive proofs, and people think that just providing a seemingly plausible alternative worldview is adequate to destroy these theistic arguments. But if we treat theistic arguments as inferences to the best explanation, and if we look at the cumulative case as a whole, it is a very strong case IMO.

You mentioned genetics (DNA) in your discussion of Darwin. DNA strands are, in reality, codes, or information - a MASSIVE amount of information - and I think we all know that minds produce codes. We can't sweep this under the conceptual rug of natural selection. Natural selection just does not have the conceptual resources to account for information in a purely physical world.

A lot of hoopla is made out of "God-of-the-gaps" arguments, and often rightfully so, but I often encounter "naturalism-of-the-gaps" arguments too, especially when it comes to consciousness.

Thanks again for the discussion.

Lui said...

Hi Mike,

it doesn't follow that just because minds produce codes, that ALL codes are produced by minds. There might well be another process capable of producing information, and that is part of the rationale for evolutionary genetics: to investigating how natural selection is able to do this. No one at all denies that DNA strands are massive rungs of information, and no geneticist or evolutionary biologist wants to sweep it under the rug. It's simply not a problem in the way that you see it. In fact, if anything, it presents more of a problem for the theistic "alternative". The details of genetics are a smoking gun for natural selection: we find reams and reams of so-called "junk" DNA, which can often be removed with no apparent ill effect on the organism (the portion of the human genome that codes for protein is something like 3 percent of the total genome). We find pseudo-genes shared by ourselves and chimpanzees, genes that once had a function but have been "switched off" during the course of time, as well as genes that are clearly related to other genes because they share many of the same nucleotide bases and appear to be duplicates of an original gene (which had a different, though possibly related, function. Embryologists can make organisms revert to ancestral states by tampering with an embryo’s development through chemical or physical means, or via genetic engineering. These cause certain genes and developmental pathways to be "reactivated"). A species of salamander has a genome three times larger than that of human beings. If anything, this implies a messy designer. Salamanders are not, by any measure, three times more complex than human beings. But it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because evolution is an opportunistic process that makes do with what it has. Having no foresight or supernatural talents, it must modify existing structures. Its solutions are often makeshift and inelegant. The salamander genome actually contains a lot of junk it doesn't need, or else it is using that genome in a very convoluted way. Right now, population geneticists are tracking past human migrations by applying sophisticated analyses of pseudo-gene sequences. These movements can be tracked because evolution can be studied mathematically (it is nowadays often defined as "a change in the frequency of genes in a population"). Finally, by studying the different variants of a particular type of molecule in cells we see the "molecular clock" at work. It's the degree to which all these changes match up to one another that leads scientists to conclude that evolution by natural selection is the best explanation. I don't know why you think that natural selection "just does not have the conceptual resources to account for information in a purely physical world"; because from what I understand, it does. Having said that, it's perfectly understandable why someone would be sceptical of the notion that a purely physical, naturalistic process could give rise to something so eerily reminiscent of information technology. But this can be overcome, if we realise that we've got used to thinking of animals, plants, and other organisms the wrong way up. We tend to think, quite naturally, of DNA as being for the sake of the organism. Actually, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes more sense to think of the organism as being for the sake of the DNA. Organisms are "survival machines" (the famous coining by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene"). This idea is subtler than I could convey here, so I recommend just reading The Selfish Gene. It's not a difficult idea per se but it does require a major shift in one's thinking. And it is open to much misinterpretation (later editions of the book contain a section at the back to clear away the conceptual muddle). Apart from that, I can also recommend reading "Nature Via Nurture" and "Genome" by Matt Ridley, "River Out Of Eden" and "The Extended Phenotype" by Richard Dawkins, as well as an article by him called "The Information Challenge" where he goes into some of the issues you’d want answers to; and "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" by Daniel C. Dennett. These books will, I believe, allow you to see how natural selection can and does explain what otherwise would be conceptually quite difficult to grasp.
Clearly, information can be built up over long periods of time when the right entity and the right process are at work. I see this as a far easier question to resolve than that of consciounsess.

Mike said...

Hi Lui,

Why don't we take a few steps back, and ask ourselves, "What exactly is natural selection?" What is driving it? What is behind it? If, as you say, we ought to think that genes are not for the organism but the organism for genes, what is driving genes to "want" to replicate themselves? Can we just say that genes are "survival machines" and be done thinking about it? Just label the gene "selfish" and be done with it? But WHY do they want to survive? Are they programmed to have this survival drive, and if so, for what purpose? Is mere "survival" an adequate purpose to account for the existential questions humans have? Should we just stop asking these questions and say, "It just happens." Is this the same thing as saying, "It's magic"? How about the very basic question... "Why are these molecules MOVING and DOING things like they KNOW exactly what they are doing... Is it just magic?" No, it's biology you say. It's evolution. It's natural selection... Do these concepts provide us with any more than the idea of magic when it comes to these questions? This is what I mean when I say that natural selection does not have the conceptual resources to deal with these questions. Natural selection must be able to provide answers to teleological (purpose) questions in order to have adequate explanatory power. Natural selection can only take us so far. I think we need to go farther.

You bring up "junk DNA" and "messy" genetics, but I am not arguing that the design is perfect. This is a common counter-argument to design (i.e., point out imperfections in biology), but it is a straw man. We're not saying the design is perfect. We're just saying, "Hey look, there's information here (and a LOT of it). What's the best explanation? Well, an intelligent mind seems to be the best explanation." And the messiness of it actually fits into the Christian worldview quite nicely, because the Christian believes that the physical world was thrown for a loop because of humanity's rebellion against God - "creation was subjected to frustration" and longs to "be set free from its slavery to corruption" as Paul says in Romans 8:19. As in chaos theory, one little miscue affected everything else, like dominoes. The world exists as this strange conglomeration of marvelous beauty/order and horrible "messiness"/disorder - like a beautiful painting that someone has sprayed graffiti on. Do you see something like this when you see the world? Do you ever wonder why the world is like this? Just curious.

Lui said...

Hi Mike,

your particular misgivings about natural selection are exactly why I would much rather you just read The Selfish Gene. You ask what is "driving" natural selection. The answer is that it is an AUTOMATIC process that takes place when you have certain conditions that are met in the environment; it is a CONSEQUENCE of having these criteria in place. It's something that pretty much has to happen when you have a population of organisms that differ somewhat in their genetic makeup; when offspring of these organisms are not all going to survive (in nature, most offspring succumb to predation, disease and starvation before they are able to pass on their genes. In many cases, of those that do manage to survive, only a minority are going to find mates to produce offspring. Who survives? Statistically, it's going to be the one that have some sort of advantage over the others. This is differential survival at work); when there is competition for resources like food or mates; and when those who happen to have an advantage over their contemporaries are, on average, going to find more food and mates. To summarise: natural selection happens when you have a population of individuals, when those individuals are somewhat different to one another, when those traits are, at least in part, heritable, and when those with an advantage tend to survive better than those without, and when those advantages are, at least in part, heritable. It is useful to think first of selective breeding, and then applying the analogy to thinking about how nature might be thought of as the "selective breeder". When we selectively breed animals, we select them for a particular feature we like. This can be completely arbitrary (just look at all the breeds of dogs). The point is that we are choosing individuals who please our whim and let only those individuals have offspring. The CRITERIA for being selected might be strange ears, a docile predisposition, or anything else. Now look at the analogy to nature: the criteria being selected for are ability to survive and pass on one's genes. That's it. Think of the silver fox bred in Russia for docility. Individual foxes were chosen for their degree of good-nature and none-aggression towards people. In nature, imagine if instead the most aggressive individuals are the ones that tend to survive better. On average, it will be those individuals that possess this characteristic that will, on average, contribute more of their genes to the next generation, and so on, until we reach a population where most of the population is composed of aggressive individuals. There's nothing at all mysterious about it. Natural selection is so simple in principle that it's hard to understand how it could be so thoroughly misunderstood. Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from the shocking discrepancy between its core simplicity on one hand, and its exquisite products on the other. Something so complex as a genome almost cries out for a supernatural explanation: until we see how it could be otherwise. As Richard Dawkins said, ours is a species with design on the mind. We are surrounded by technology and the prowess of our engineering, so it's only natural that when we're confronted with something as intricate as echo-location in bats and dolphins, we almost automatically assume that it just HAD TO be designed by a mind. But that's a limitation of our minds, a mind that didn't evolve specifically to ponder these things but to survive in a social setting where one had to keep track of all the intrigue and politics of such an environment. There is a mismatch between what our science tells us, and what we were "designed" by natural selection to thrive at. The mind boggles to comprehend many of the things that biology, astronomy and genetics tells us, but that doesn't mean that we have to retreat in the face of nature's intricacies and slap a "God did it" label on everything we find just too amazing, especially when there are far more plausible accounts of it to be found in the mountain of scientific literature.

Contrary to what you said, natural selection most certainly does provide answers to questions of purpose (not conscious purpose, but functional purpose, which is pertinent to the study of adaptation), and it is well known among biologists that it has been doing so for decades. It has nothing at all to do with anything like magic, and no one is suggesting that we treat it as such. That's because we can formulate models about how it operates, and test those models against examples in the real world (the models are actually very sophisticated pieces of mathematics). Furthermore, no one is suggesting that we say "natural selection does this and that, and let's just leave it there", but not for the reasons you implied. Instead, the role of natural selection is hotly contested in particular cases where it appears that perhaps other evolutionary processes are at work (and they really are evolutionary/naturalistic processes, not supernatural ones). But I will admit that I should have been more explicit about the term “selfish gene”. It’s not that genes “want” to do anything; obviously they are molecules with no capacity for selfishness or any other sentiment. It’s that we can BEST THINK OF evolution by treating genes AS IF they had selfish motives. Again in the words of Dawkins, if a gene has the EFFECT that it confers some sort of advantage onto the phenotype of its host organism, then it will, “willy-nilly”, be more likely to perpetuate itself and come to dominate over its rival alleles in the gene pool. Thus can genes be called “selfish”; it’s really just a metaphor that acts as a short-hand for what we’re really talking about (differential reproduction). Selfish genes need not endow their carrier with selfish behaviour; it may well happen that in some circumstances, it is more beneficial to cooperate with other members of ones’ species or group. Thus genes that predispose their carrier to behave “altruistically” to other individuals (especially individuals like close kin who have a high probability of carrying the same genes) can also perpetuate themselves and become dominant (there’s a whole literature about kin selection). Evolution doesn’t work in absolutes; its products are always a compromise, and there are costs and benefits in the equation. Thus we can only ever talk about average pay-offs, not definite ones. Evolution is a game played out on a vast chessboard that has been played out since the first self-replicating entity appeared on this planet, and when conditions change, what was once beneficial may become detrimental, and vice versa. Ideas like game theory and cost-benefit analyses have been deployed to answer some of the questions that have mystified you and many others who have perfectly understandable (but ultimately misguided) misgivings about natural selection. But there is simply no reason to be so mystified if one takes the time to understand what it is the evolutionists are saying; the answers have been publicly available for a long time now. It only remains for the truly curious to look more deeply.

I think that, unfortunately, you don't have a clear enough conception of what natural selection entails. The things it doesn't entail are consciousness and desire. It doesn't need to entail these things in order for it to make sense. In fact, if it did have these things as necessary prerequisites, it wouldn't be natural "selection" anymore, but "Godly" selection.

To answer your final question, "Do you ever wonder why the world is like this?" Yes I do; that's why I'm doing a degree in biology! Nature so enthralls me that I want to be a part of its popular understanding. In the meantime though, I hope I've helped alleviate some of your doubts. I'm happy to continue this discussion and to address your concerns as best I can. (well, at least in bits and pieces to help guide you towards those better equipped than me to answer your questions)

Mike said...

Hi Lui,

Well, I appreciate your biology lessons on evolution/natural selection, but I think we are approaching these problems from two different disciplines - I from philosophy and you from biology. These discipines must work together, but it seems to me like you are confining yourself to the realm of biology without addressing deeper, metaphysical questions. There is philosophy OF science... Science must rely on philosophy in order to provide complete explanations.

I don't know if you are aware of the doubts from many (if not most) evolutionary biologists about natural selection as the catch-all solution to all our biological quandries. There is much infighting as to whether natural selection alone can account for everything. I believe you hinted at this as well. I am not saying that natural selection does not occur, but what I am saying is that it is not enough. It seems to me that natural selection does its wonders with the pieces already in place. But where did these pieces come from? And why? Dennett and Dawkins have not had the last word on this issue, so it is not adequate to quote them and move on.

I suppose my fundamental intuition on this is whether or not atoms and molecules and electrons etc. can produce teleology all by themselves. Aren't we dealing with just physical, mindless, "stuff"? Often it seems when we describe the evolutionary process we borrow from the metaphysical resources of design and mind. Can we say that physical stuff has "goals" and "purposes" and "information"? This is a philosophical question, not biological.

Here is something interesting to think about. A theist can also be an evolutionist. But can an atheist be a creationist? Apparently not. Evolution is the only game in town for the atheist, which means that it must be defended at all costs.

Mike said...

Hi Lui,

P.S. I will investigate some of the books you mentioned. Have you looked into any of Demski's writing on information theory? He argues that that the mathematical models (the ones I think you have been alluding to) of the evolutionary process are fine and good as long as they start with some information input. The models themselves do not originate information, they just describe the flow of information. What do you think?

Lui said...

Hi Mike,

as to whether I'm confining myself to biology, I think that actually you might be allowing your philosophy to cut too deep into the biology. I know there is a philosophy of science; one of my university subjects is called "Science: Good, Bad and Bogus", where we go into what distinguishes "good" science from "bad" science. Furthermore, I might well choose philosophy as a minor. But anyway, I just want to make the point that there are profound and fascinating philosophical implications to evolutionary biology, not just philosophical positions to take from the outset with which to undercut the seemingly sinister world-view that stems from a knowledge of ultimately mindless biological interactions. A respectable argument can be mounted in favour of both sides.

You said: "I don't know if you are aware of the doubts from many (if not most) evolutionary biologists about natural selection as the catch-all solution to all our biological quandaries. There is much infighting as to whether natural selection alone can account for everything."

But that's really beside the point. No one denies that natural selection isn't the ONLY thing going on. But that doesn't mean that therefore, ANYTHING else might be going on. Biologists have disputes about the role of genetic drift in evolution, whether evolution typically occurs in relatively short periods and is then interspersed by long periods of "stasis", at what level natural selection typically operates at (the gene, the individual, the group, the species, perhaps even the phylum), and so on. But what is clear to most biologists (including the ones who would assign natural selection a relatively diminished role) is that complex adaptations like eyes and brains could ONLY have come about by incremental, inter-generation cumulative selection. Such structures are very unlikely to have come into being by chance alone; step-by-step refinement is the only process capable of building them. So for some things, natural selection, and specific types of natural selection, are widely considered the only serious explanations. Controversies in evolutionary biology are a sign of vitality, not of a system in crisis as some creationists would have us believe. (they blow things out of proportion to show that "even the scientists think Darwin is in trouble") All sciences have their controversies. It's a normal PART of science that there will be problems and gaps in knowledge with every theory. But that's no license to introduce any explanation as if it were on an equal footing with every other.

"I believe you hinted at this as well. I am not saying that natural selection does not occur, but what I am saying is that it is not enough. It seems to me that natural selection does its wonders with the pieces already in place. But where did these pieces come from? And why? Dennett and Dawkins have not had the last word on this issue, so it is not adequate to quote them and move on."

This is a problem for biochemistry, and while we are not yet near to a definitive account of how the first self-replicating entities arose, the state of play is a lot more tantalising and compelling than it once was, and we have a much better idea at least of how such a beginning MIGHT have taken place. As for the "why"; I don't see why we should impute motive into the equation, as if it were self-evident. If a self-replicating entity arose from the trillions of permutations of chemical interactions and things went on from there, then that's how it started. There's no "point" to chemical or biological evolution. Evolution is something that happens when those entities are in place, and it's totally irrelevant that those entities aren't conscious to ponder the implications of their interactions with other equally mindless bits of matter. That might be depressing or liberating (depending on the person who tries to comprehend it) but if it's true then it's true. There are some questions that we might FEEL we're entitled to ask. But they may well turn out to be non-questions because they assume from the outset that the phenomena MUST have a "deeper" meaning. (like when someone we hold dear dies. "Why them?" Consciousness is itself an artefact of this universe, but that doesn't mean the universe owes us an explanation. And if the explanation we do stumble upon is not to our liking, then all the worse for us) But do we?
Anyway, it seems to me that if we want to find license to talk about "why" questions (having to do with motive) we must move beyond biology to the very beginning of the universe (if the universe did have a beginning). It might be that there is a God and that he used evolution as the means by which to eventually produce us. It might be that the universe is tuned in such a way that evolution would happen. But that's moving outside of the scope of evolutionary biology and into cosmological issues. (some scientists would dispute even this, though. They think that evolution and theology are incompatible, and they choose evolution. Some theists believe that evolution and theology are incompatible, and they choose theology. I would hazard to say that most theists and atheists would sit somewhere in between. That is, most theists might be willing to fit evolution into their picture of the universe created by God, though with varying degrees of interference by God when he guides the process along instead of just setting up the conditions under which it could occur. That depends on where the theist sits along the continuum. Most atheists might concede the possibility of God, but few would give up evolution even granting that. They would likely also not give up evolution if they were to convert to theism, because they would more probably do that after consideration of arguments for God coming from cosmology or some other field.)

Finally, to Dembski's Intelligent Design ideas. I certainly am not familiar with them (though I have heard of Dembski, have read a little about him, and can get a sense for what he pretty much stands for). What I can say is that it seems that the vast majority of relevant scientists don't agree with his conclusions, (or those of Behe, and this includes statisticians, but also most biochemists) and that he has become "blasé" about peer review. I don't know; there MIGHT be something to them, but I'm not qualified to judge, especially as I haven't looked into them. But I think I will, if only to familiarise myself with what the ID movement is saying exactly. If I may introduce my "gut feeling" into what's meant to be a scientific issue: we've seen this all before. Creationism itself is evolving to make itself more respectable. Literal Bible creationism has given way, in many cases, to a more "sophisticated" outlook that ties together "the findings of genetics, probability theory and biochemistry". As before, scientists are overwhelmingly skeptical, not because "they can't handle the truth, but because the same old creationist ideas are being rehashed in fancy, scientific-sounding language. Basically, the more creationism changes, the more it stays the same. The real goal isn't to open up an exciting new avenue of research and understanding, but to let God slip through by the back door, because evolution is deemed an "immoral" system that "denies" God. I don't want to say that Dembski HAS TO be wrong, only that he may well be and that, given the sordid history of creationist distortion and propaganda, perhaps that he probably is. Still, if anything good can come out of Intelligent Design, it's that it might help me think of how to address things I might not have thought of more appropriately. And if in fact I've been wrong all this time, then all the worse for me.

"Here is something interesting to think about. A theist can also be an evolutionist. But can an atheist be a creationist? Apparently not. Evolution is the only game in town for the atheist, which means that it must be defended at all costs." I agree with most of this, except that I don't see it as a problem as it would only be a problem if the evidence for evolution weren't overwhelming. I do however appreciate that you realise that a theist can also be an evolutionist. This seems to me to be the most sensible position to take if one is a theist. I emphatically don’t agree with the implication that atheists are going to defend evolution “at all costs” because that would include lying. No one needs to lie to defend evolution in this day and age of genomic sequencing and the mountain of complementary evidence. Defence at all costs is something that creationism has been far more adept at, for the “rationale” for creationism isn’t a commitment to science but a desire to impose religious dogma, even to the detriment of science.

Lui said...

I said "But do we?" somewhere in there. That got disconnected from and was meant to follow from the sentence: "There are some questions that we might FEEL we're entitled to ask." It should read: "But are we?"

Mike said...

Hi Lui,

I would look into intelligent design. And please do not allow the "creationist" association to get in the way. ID is not "creationism" in disguise... ID is not anti-evolution, it is a challenge to naturalism/atheism. There are ID theorists who are agnostics, Catholics, and almost every religion in the world. And it was ID that convinced atheist Antony Flew to become a deist.

I would ask you to take seriously the possibility that creationists and ID theorists are not the only ones capable of propaganda, distortion, dismissal, being blase about peer review, and basically being biased about the evidence. Consider that the current scientific establishment is dominated by naturalists/materialists. ID is in the minority. The way that evolutionists were treated in the past by the creationist establishment is the exact same way that ID theorists are being treated today. Frankly, I think that it is rather arrogant to believe that the naturalist establishment is handling things with utmost integrity, incapable of being unfair and biased. This is just a naive idealism of human character. I also ask you to reread Dawkins and see if you can see any arrogance. After reading some myself it is evident that he is not a purely objective judge in the realm of ideas, but a prophet for atheism. Sure, there are fundamentalist Christians who are using ID to push their creationist agenda, but aren't there atheists who are dong the same thing with evolution?

Demski and others present hardcore mathematical arguments in the field of information theory that are frankly being largely ignored. I believe because of this "creationist" label that ID has very unfairly gotten from the establishment. And Demski is not against natural selection, he just argues that it is not enough to explain everything. Behe has received much dialogue probably because his idea of irreducible complexity is a bit easier to grasp. But the arguments that ID is presenting are not going away because they are not being seriously challenged. The challenges basically consist of alternative scenarios that are merely speculative without hardcore scientific evidence - "Just-so" stories as they are called. The challenges really look like a defense of naturalism at all costs and not a noble attempt to understand the arguments being made. We ALL must be willing to hold our worldviews with open hands, regardless of whether we LIKE the evidence or not. Theists mst do this when it comes to the evidence for evolution, and atheists and agnostics must do this when it comes to ID.

About philosophy. Lui, philosophy comes prior to science by definition. That's just the way things are. We can't even do science without starting with certain philosophical assumptions, for example, that the universe is governed by unchanging laws across the board, that numbers exist, that we have cognitive access to these laws, that what we observe is really real. Did you know that Isaac Newton did not believe that his formulae for gravity was gravity itself, but he believed that the force of gravity was the Holy Spirit. What is force? What are natural laws? Why are natural laws the mathematical constants that they are? What is matter? Why is matter ordered the way it is and not another way? Where did this all come from?

Lui these questions matter. I think you believe this, but then it seems that you are content with thinking that these questions are irrelevant to reality. But I would say that the fact that we ask these questions, and that we care deeply about these questions, suggests that there are answers to these questions somewhere. It would be an odd world if we found ourselves with desires/questions that had no fulfillment. You and Dawkins and others may be perfectly content with living in a meaningless world, but I would suggest that your presence in these discussions betrays a contentment. You are interested in this stuff. You can explain away this interest as a strange evolutionary bi-product, or you can belive that there are answers for our interests.

You are truly an intelligent, respectable person. You have inspired me to learn more about biology. I hope that you will continue to grow and learn, and pursue these philosophical questions. Read the best from both sides of the issue. Thanks for the mind-stretching dialogue.

Mike said...

Hi Lui,

lol, I can't leave this discussion!

I wanted to address the idea that design would stunt scientific progress, because it's common to say as you did that if we say, "God did it" then there's no more work to be done. But this is so not true. It is well documented that the modern scientific enterprise was driven by people who yearned to understand the order of the universe that they believed God established. Their scientfic quest was driven by a desire to discover "the mind of God" which they believed was so huge that we would always continually be learning more. This is true of design as well, because rather than stopping and saying "Wow, God did it" the ID person is driven to keep exploring the complexity, order, and beauty. And in fact, ID has spurred on an intense investigation into biochemistry, cellular biology, information theory, and everything surrounding the evolutionary process.

Could it be that naturalism stunts scientific progress? How? By saying, "We must find a naturalistic, law-like explanation, and NO OTHER EXPLANATION can be considered." This is truly confining. Not only that, but if your worldview is that this universe really has no meaning, what is the motivation for trying to understand a meaningless universe? If you believe that there is rich, infinitely vast, beautiful meaning in this universe, as the theist does, this seems to me like a much more compelling motivation for scientific research.

Lui said...

Hi Mike,

you raise some interesting points, but allow me to explain why I think you are still largely mistaken. Starting with Antony Flew's deism as a result of ID: he was initially persuaded by ID, by later retracted his statements in favour of ID, saying "I had made a fool of myself." He is still a deist, but for philosophical reasons rather than ID notions about biology.

Most scientists see ID as a nuisance, and rightfully so I think. The issue isn't that there can't be a supernatural explanation for anything, it's that we have to reject that conclusion until we've exhausted all possible naturalistic alternatives. Time and time again throughout the history of science, what was once thought to be mysterious gave way to a naturalistic explanation. And so it's been in biology too. The scientists have been right to suspend the supernatural as an explanation: they were later rewarded for their skepticism as an evolutionary mechanism was discovered. Darwinian evolution is a solid theory; we shouldn't throw it out just because there are currently some things we can't explain. And just because an explanation is for now "just speculative", it still provides a feasible way for how the phenomenon might have happened. That is more reasonable than going the whole hog and saying God did it, because that invokes something infinitely more complex. To say God did it might be to marvel at something's complexity, but it is also to cut short the study of the possible process. No one ever said these things were going to be easy, but we should at least try. God may very well not have done it, as has been shown innumerable times.

ID tries to circumvent the usual process of scientific review, not because "the establishment" is ideologically committed to naturalism and atheism, but because the "theories" of ID advocates don't stand up to scrutiny, and the ID advocates know it. Dembski claims to have made important contributions to mathematics. If this were so, the establishment would be eager to see those contributions. Instead, Dembski goes straight to a scientifically illiterate public. "Just because two viewpoints are being argued for with equal rigour doesn't mean the truth lies somewhere in between." (Dawkins) There is such a thing as just being wrong. Recently, examples of "irreducible complexity" have been "reduced". And it's not like Dembski's arguments haven't been addressed. It's that the science has been drowned in the noise. Serious scientists have refuted his arguments and have noted their inapplicability to biology. But alas, there are more important things to do than just refuting what someone else is saying. Time spent refuting Dembski and Behe is time spent not doing science. There are many scientists who just "don't have time" for these kinds of arguments. There ARE refuations of them, but there is only so much time to be devoted to that enterprise.

The truth is, Dembski's agenda is political:

"The elite in our culture are materialistic and atheistic. Intelligent design challenges their materialistic science and materialistic evolutionary theory. If you look at discipline after discipline, it's been evolutionized — medicine, business, religion, literature. [...] If we are right, all these superstructures built on evolution need to be questioned.

"Intelligent design is the only view opposed to the reductionist materialism that prevails in the academy and in the scientific view the elites of the culture. Most of the unwashed masses, and I count myself among them, believe there's a sense of purpose. We're giving a voice to those people, saying: 'The science backs you up.'" ("Evolution Revolution", Las Vegas City Life, February 24, 2005)

Note how he appeals to public sentiment, as if that had any legitimate bearing on a scientific issue. It's not hard to see why most scientists view ID as a disingenous and insidious program to undermine science. He is also a supporter of the loud-mouth Ann Coulter, whom he helped advise as she wrote her book "Godless" which apparently is filled with outdated and ignorant anti-evolutionary rhetoric. That reminds me of a quote: "Sometimes, lies must be used to defend a greater truth." Dembski was no doubt aware of Coulter's ignorance, and he willingly used her book as a medium by which to help undermine Darwinian theory. The scientific process of peer-review, while not infallible, and open to its own abuses, still provides a benchmark by which to operate. Cheaters eventually get caught, fraud is exposed and the perpetrators' careers are sent down the toilet. Science requires clarity and the acid-test of systematic, scientific discussion, and to hell with "the unwashed masses". "Science for the masses" is always a bad idea.

The reason IDists and creationists are not debated more often is that scientists don't want to give them the air of respectability that they so anxiously want. If IDists get to debate people Darwinian heavy-weights, they themselves will look like heavyweights. It's a public relations exercise, intended to make talking points instead for public consumption. There have, of course, been debates, and perhaps there should be more (it would be erroneous to claim that the scientists are INCAPABLE of addressing the ID movement's arguments; I remember reading how John Maynard Smith, one of the greatest evolutionary biologists to have ever lived, appeared for a debate. When his opposition saw who he was, they suddenly cancelled the venue). My feeling is that scientists should more actively engage the public. There are signs that this is already starting to happen.

I'm not sure about your position, though. You said that you accept natural selection, but also that there has been degradation in the quality of living things because of our sins and rejection of God. The evidence doesn't bring out the latter. It's not just that there are pseudo-genes and such; it's that NEW and novel solutions have evolved, and the particular patterns of genetic information point to natural selection as the process that has shaped them. There is no evidence for Adam and Eve, no evidence that life was once "perfect" but has degenerated since. The TYPES of things we find in the genome clearly show this. What is the criterion for perfection anyway? In a perfect creation, there would be no waste. Does that mean that there was a time when elephant seals didn't have any bachelor males consuming a large portion of the groups' resources? Or lions that didn't commit infanticide? And what has life in general to do with humanity's sins? Life on this planet shows every sign of having evolved in a ruthless competition for survival. The beauty we see is ironically the product of a bloody killing field. I have seen creationist pamphlets showing Adam and Eve to have been giants; Tyrannosaurus rex to have had nice, small teeth. This ISN'T science. Such things never existed. There never were gigantic human beings and Tyrannosaurus rex was a beast with 30 cm long teeth. And there has always been messiness in biological systems. In fact, it's messiness that has produced the "perfection". Mutations are what have given natural selection the stuff with which to work with. Human beings have, for most of their history, gotten things precisely backwards in their understanding of the natural world. ID and creationism is just the latest attempt to reinistate that paradigm.

As to my views about meaning and my own quest for understanding: the most astonishing thing to me is how meaning can arise from the interactions of the components of a meaningless universe. There is an unsettling beauty about all it that drives me to understand how mindlessness can lead to the mind. All our cultures, religions, and institutions (including that of science) ultimately arose from this "bubbling-up" process. The march of excellence builds upon itself. Somewhere along the line, perhaps the only time it has ever happened in the whole universe, matter arranged itself into machine capable of comprehending itself. Meaning is derived from this machine. It's in our nature to want to know certain things, and certainly I feel this passion.

Anyway, I think that even if I don't accept the ID position, I should at the very least be very familiar with its arguments. I will endeavour to look into and understand them, to see how they might be refuted or if they haven't been refuted, if there is indeeed anything to them, and whether I might be well advised to change my mind. I thank you for bringing this closer to my attention.

MomSquared said...

I really like this format. Maybe you should put out atheist tracts. ;)