Cartesian Doubt

Philosophy begins with science.

How do we know this? We can try to begin with philosophy. We can start with Cartesian doubt. Unfortunately for the history of philosophy, Rene Descartes did not take his first philosophy far enough. He began his night of doubt by questioning the reliability of his senses and came to the recognition that a demon—perhaps beneficent, perhaps malicious—could be the source of all his sensations and thoughts. But all was not lost. Asking “do I even exist?” he noticed, entailed something existing to ask the question. Furthermore, that he experienced this something-asking-the-question as himself was enough to demonstrate that some sort of himself existed, even if produced by a demon. In short, thinking about his existence proved in some fundamental way—Descartes realized—that he must exist. In this sense his existence could not be denied, even by God.

That was easy enough. But there are other things to doubt. Descartes recognized the difficulty of determining whether dreams were more real than waking life—a problem famously presented in the inner chapters of the Chuang-Tzu. But here Descartes failed to recognize that there is an identity problem. The problem is this: my thoughts often go away—when I sleep and do not dream, when I am knocked out, when I am subjected to general anesthesia (although we can excuse Descartes for not being aware of this last). When my thoughts resume, how do I know I am the same “I”? Certainly I feel that I’m a continuing entity, but that could be a simple trick of Descartes’ demon.

And there is an even deeper identity problem. My thoughts are never the same. They are diverse, not just in subject but in content and feel. What connects all these thoughts into a single “me”? We must remember that for Descartes, the word “thought” encompasses not just our internal dialog of words, but all of our feelings and sensations. What unites a pain in the knee with a feeling of elation? What unites a smell of roses with an experience of blueness? What unites any of these with my thought “Cogito ergo sum”?

And there is a continuity problem. One moment I may be thinking about what I am and if I even exist, and the next moment I may be wondering where I should eat lunch. A moment later I feel a muscle twitch in my arm. Perhaps my arm, hunger and lunch are all illusions, but nonetheless I experienced these in succession without any way of explaining (if experiences are all I am) how or why one led to the next. That is the continuity problem, and it only increases the difficulty of identifying all these experiences as the same me. (Of course, I have a sense of them as “me” but that could be a trick by the demon.)

Furthermore, what separates my thoughts from yours? What makes mine belong to me and yours belong to you? It does not seem to be something that our thoughts and feelings themselves control. They just are, and in being seem to belong to me or to you. But why?

At first philosophy, all I know about myself is that I am a bundle of experiences. Or I seem to be. But what “bundles” these experiences together? What makes them mine? What am I—what can I possibly be—that I experience this bundle as myself? These questions need answers, but at this point it is unclear how we can answer them.

Descartes’ Error

Descartes makes a logical mistake here. “I am, I exist—that is certain; but for how long do I exist?” he asks himself. “For as long as I think,” he answers, “for it might perhaps happen, if I totally ceased thinking, that I would at the same time completely cease to be.” From this he draws the invalid conclusion that “[thought] alone is inseparable from my nature.” Yet, if thinking proves his existence, it doesn’t follow that thought alone is inseparable from his nature. And it certainly does not follow, as he writes shortly afterwards, that the

knowledge of my being does not depend on things whose existence is not yet known to me, and consequently and even more certainly, it does not depend on any of those things that I can picture in my imagination. …

But what then am I? A thinking being. What is a thinking being? It is a being which doubts, which understands, which conceives, which affirms, which denies, which wills, which rejects, which imagines also, and which perceives. (All quotes from Second Meditation, Laurence J. Lafleur translation, 1960.)

In attempting to tease out his nature from cogito ergo sum Descartes has fallen into a trap. True enough, thinking about his existence is logically necessary if he is to have knowledge of his existence. But neither his existence nor the nature of his existence is logically dependent upon his having knowledge of his existence. Contrary to his claim, it is entirely possible that Descartes’ “knowledge of my being” is dependent on something whose existence is at this point unknown to him. Logically, for example, it could be dependent upon the actual existence of his physical body (even though he currently can’t be sure it’s real) since it could be his body which generates his thoughts. He has confused “knowledge of my existence” with “nature of my existence”—”I know I am” with “what I am.”

But accusing Descartes of a logical error raises the specter of another doubt. How can we know if our sense of what is logical and illogical is reliable? Where does “logic” come from? And whence my sense of what is logical? Perhaps the demon instilled me with this sense of logic—how then can I know it’s reliable? How am I to determine whether my claim that Descartes made a logical mistake has any truth value? And the same goes for my sense of “truth.” Is it anything more than a preference I have—a preference instilled in me willy-nilly by God or demon?

It seems that we are stuck. If our sense of logic and truth is not reliable, then our thoughts can never be reliable and we are at a dead end, as far as philosophy goes. We must give up on rational thought. So what next? How can we proceed? Or can we?

Of course we don’t know that logic and truth are unreliable. We don’t know if they have a universal basis, or if they’re just something locally instilled in us by the demon. And we don’t know the demon’s game—are its intentions beneficent or malicious?

Rationalism dies here. Analytic philosophy dead-ends. At this point we can only proceed with working assumptions. We are forced to be pragmatic and see where that gets us. And our first working assumption must be that logic is reliable enough, that the tools we have to determine truth are valid enough—at any rate our thoughts are useless (outside of social contexts) without these assumptions. And being pragmatic, we will try to maximize the usefulness of our thoughts. Let’s see where this approach gets us.

It doesn’t lead us to certain knowledge about our nature or the nature of the world—we’ve already seen that. Analytically, we can’t get to final answers. But we seem to have other tools—we can use our senses to study the world empirically, we can develop synthetic knowledge of ourselves and the world using the scientific method (which seems to be a method of maximizing the usefulness of our thoughts). How does this help? Well, we can lay down some possible world views—supernatural, natural, and so on—and see which one seems to fit best with what we discover. Our answers will never be final, since they will rely on empirical knowledge—but maybe this fact itself is an essential component of understanding ourselves.

Back to Identity

But let’s not get too far ahead. We still have an identity problem. Before continuing, it may be fitting to summarize where our Cartesian doubt has left us. Our senses are sometimes not reliable, but it may be that neither are our thoughts, even our sense of logic and truth may be something local instilled in us by a demon. We can know that we exist (at least when we ask the question), and we can presume that we exist whenever we have experiences, but we can’t say what we (as these experiences) are or where we (as these experiences) come from, or what (outside of the demon) provides identity to these experiences we think of as us, or what separates your experiences, dear reader, from mine.

We have not yet—but we must—push these questions to the demon. We will want to do this because if we are reliant on the demon for our existence and identity, then we have to seek the answers to our questions there. When we do so, we discover that if the demon also has thoughts and experiences—if it is through thinking and experiencing that the demon instills us with the same—then it also has an identity problem. Where do its thoughts come from, and what makes those thoughts belong to it? What gives the demon its continuity and identity? We could postulate a regression of demons, but that seems never-ending.

Maybe we are thinking about this wrongly.

The problem with thoughts, we saw earlier, is that they are never the same. Because of this simple fact, there is a problem of continuity and identity. And we must remember that when we talk of “thoughts” we are talking about consciousness—about everything we seem to experience. The smell of cinnamon, the redness of a cardinal flying past the window, the taste of garlic, the dull throbbing of a headache, the excitement of winning a poker hand, thoughts about existence, even thoughts about gods and demons—these experiences are so diverse, so unlike each other that we are hard pressed to identify anything they have in common. (Note that we are not talking about what these experiences reference, but about their internal content. It doesn’t matter to the point at hand whether their references are valid or invalid, exist or do not exist.)

Now, one thing that seems to unite them is that they are all sensations of one sort or another—they are all experienced, yes. But what provides continuity from one to the next, what unites them into my experiences, my sensations? Perhaps I can point outside myself to the demon. But if I attribute these experiences which make up me to an external demon—how does that demon go about creating the experiences that become me, and separating them from the experiences that become you?

Of course, the demon faces the same dilemma—if it also experiences thoughts and feelings.  It seems, logically (and therefore provisionally, given our uncertainties about logic), that the only way to resolve this without an infinite regression of demons, is to assume that the demon does not have thoughts and feelings. Whatever the demon is, it is not like us. It is not experiential. Making this step allows us to have a demon who is our source and accounts for our identity, yet does not have to face its own Cartesian doubt. This move, it seems to me, brings clarity.

In fact, it seems that the only good way to resolve the continuity and identity problems which exist when we consider experience by itself, is to postulate a source for our experiences which—whatever it is—is not experience. If this source is our demon, then it is a demon that does not think or feel. This doesn’t mean we know what the nature of the demon is, but we do know what it is not. And that is a start.

However, one thing we can say about the demon’s nature is this: whatever that nature is, it encompasses the capacity to create our experiences. We must still ask how the demon distinguishes my experiences from yours—the answer, perhaps, is that it doesn’t have to. Perhaps we are products of different demons, since nothing forces us to conclude that there must be a single demon. This thought raises the interesting prospect that Descartes’ demon—and ours—is none other than the body itself. By postulating physical bodies, we have a potential (and common sense) resolution to the continuity and identity issues that have been raised. It would follow that the nature of our bodies must encompass the capacity to create the sensations (including thoughts) which we experience as us.

Previously we saw that when Cartesian doubt is followed to the end, we reach a point where we must abandon rationalism. Even our sense of logic and truth can be questioned, and our only resort is to embrace them with reservations. Like our senses, we cannot be sure of their reliability. Nevertheless, we seem to have no other tools with which to know the world. We have no other manner of addressing our doubts. Answers with rational, logical certainty are beyond us. But we have the usefulness of the scientific method and that is the next best thing. It allows us to move forward from our Cartesian doubt in a pragmatic manner—by postulating alternative world views (naturalism, supernaturalism, etc) and seeing which one best fits the evidence from science and fits the results of our attempt at first philosophy.

I said at the beginning that philosophy begins with science. Perhaps that is not correct. But Descartes’ method has demonstrated, if nothing else, that philosophy must end with science.

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Are Atheism & Morality Compatible (part 2)

We ended part one with three barriers to postulating an  evolutionary source of human morality—obstacles which Henderson considers insurmountable. First, he claims that evolution is incapable of leading to the development of animals who are altruistically unselfish or compassionate. He argues that if morality evolved through biological processes, it would have to be because humans needed it to survive. But, he continues

If this were true, for any claim to be moral, it would have to serve the practical purpose of advancing the human race. So compassion for the dying would be immoral, and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral. Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children.
Morality, in this view, can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it’s always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

He then introduces a second obstacle. Namely that

…morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society’s borders or endure longer than a society’s existence. —Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

Like most theists, Henderson is convinced that a single, objective morality is absolutely needed, and since evolution can’t yield a moral code that is objective, a natural worldview is a non-starter. Without an objective source for morality outside of us, so the argument goes, we lack the necessary foundation for moral judgments about the actions not just of other individuals, but also of other social groups outside our own.

Henderson’s third obstacle, takes this a step further. Without this external source of morality, he argues, social reformers would have no leg to stand on.  Since a culture’s values represent the preferences of the majority and are important for social cohesion, it follows that under a natural worldview the most immoral citizens would always be “not merely the ones who transgress [a particular moral] code but the ones who intend to change it”. Abolitionists such as James Oglethorpe and William Lloyd Garrison would have to be considered immoral for opposing the values of their society—albeit once the abolitionists succeeded in changing attitudes about slavery their opposition becomes praiseworthy. But (and this is Henderson’s point) without an objective morality, whether social reformers are doing good or doing ill depends entirely on whether they are successful or not. And this will not do.

Is Objectively Morality Possible?

Henderson’s argument, in short is as follows: (1) morality must have its source in something objective and outside of us in order for morality to work as needed; (2) God is the only possible objective source for human morality.

But as we will see, both points are wrong. We will see that objective morality simply can’t work—not even within a supernatural worldview. And it can’t work for God because, as it turns out, God is in the same boat we are when it comes to morality. If you remember, I pointed out in part one how different beings in different places must have different values to drive their behaviors. But now let me draw your attention to a more fundamental problem.

Theists say that only when there is an objective set of moral values existing outside of us, does it becomes possible to judge our actions by their rightness (that is to say, to make valid moral judgments). They reason that if values exist within us then they are subjective, not objective, and consequently we cannot prove that they are right—that is, we cannot prove they are preferable to the subjective values claimed by someone else.

This sounds sensible, until we attempt to apply it to God. And it is appropriate to test it by applying it to God. After all, God must be a moral agent too—else it cannot be claimed that God’s actions are good. Let’s look at this more carefully.

If something is good because it is what God dictates (because it comports with God’s values), then God’s goodness is just whatever God prefers. In other words, God has no way of knowing if His chosen values are truly good; all He can confirm is that they are his values. And likewise for us. We have no independent or objective source for determining the goodness of God. We can’t rely on the Bible (or any other holy book) because first we need some objective way of determining if the moral advice in that book is good or bad—i.e. was the holy book inspired by a good God or by a devil falsely claiming to be a good God?

If the Christian insists on reliance on the Bible no matter what, it means that they are declining to judge the goodness of God’s set of values (versus, say, the Devil’s set of values), and instead have decided to arbitrarily defer to God’s power—or at least, to the power of whatever being inspired the Bible, and hope it’s the “one righteous God” the Bible claims.

The problem here is that without a source of morality that lies outside the Bible—and in fact lies outside of any holy writ—we can’t know the true source of that holy writ. But actually, we are in even worse shape than this. Even if we can somehow determine that the morality of the Bible came from God, we have no way of knowing if that morality is actually good or bad. We have got to be able to judge it independent of its source in order to really know whether that source is to be trusted. Is the God behind the Bible really good?

God is more powerful than the Devil, a Christian might argue, therefore his values should be preferable to us. But clearly this is not right. First, how can we ever be sure that the values of the Bible are from this God unless we have an independent way of judging goodness. And second, if we do have an independent way of recognize the goodness of certain actions and the badness of others—then it follows that goodness is not good because it is what is dictated by God, or because God is all powerful and we fear God’s wrath, but rather because we contain our own moral compass to judge what is good and what is bad.

It follows that for objective morality to work, it’s source must be something independent not just of our personal desires and wishes, but also independent of any words written in a particular book—and independent of God himself.

Furthermore, consider this. If an action is good because God dictates it, or because the goodness of that action depends simply on the fiat of the values instilled in us by some greater being, then we have no independent way to know if those values are truly, objectively good. Perhaps the devil instilled them in us rather than God. Or perhaps the being we think is God is really devil, and the being we think devil is the “True and Righteous One”. We are incapable of brokering such questions unless we have an independent source for determining goodness. But what independent source can we have, if not something from within our own nature? We have no manner of determining the reliability of anything else.

Put another way, all that we have to go on is our own sense of goodness and justice. But that is not reliable to judge between God and devil—and specifically not reliable to determine the goodness or badness of the being we worship—unless it provides us a basis which is independent of that being to use as a reference point. But morality based on something within our nature cannot be independent of the creator of that nature. And yet, if there is goodness within us, or a moral sense within us, we have no choice but to rely on it.

This means, for the theist, that we cannot judge whether the values instilled in us by our creator are objectively good. They are simply the values given us. And that has to be good enough. If it happens that those values are objectively evil, that our creator was imperfect, we cannot point to a set of objective values lying outside both us and God to broker the question (and if we could, it would follow that our God is not the true God.)

Perhaps this becomes clearer when we look at it from God’s point of view. Where does God get his sense of right and wrong? If it is from a source outside himself, who created that source? Is there a God beyond God? And how can God answer the question of the actual goodness of the values coming from this outside source? Only by referring to the sense of morality he has within himself. But whence did that come?

To summarize: for God to objectively judge the true goodness of his actions, there must be some referent outside himself. Yet how can he judge the correctness of any outside referent? Only by comparing it to his own internal sense of values.

As we have seen, what applies for God applies for us as well. Morality must stop at a source inside of us. And this solution—the only one which can possibly work—is applicable whether or not our worldview be theist or atheist. It applies whether God or evolution is the source of our human nature.

Thus Henderson’s plea for an objective source of morality is unworkable, It fails no matter the worldview. Morality must be subjective; it must stem from something inside of us. It must be a product of our human nature.

This should make it clear that a natural worldview is at no disadvantage regarding morality—at least, no disadvantage that does not also affect theists and their worldview.

What is Needed for Morality to Work

In order for morality to work in a manner that allows us to legitimately use it to judge individual behaviors as good or bad, or to judge the mores of our society, or to make valid judgments about other cultures and societies, three features are absolutely necessary.

(1) there must exist a difference (at least potentially) between what individuals desire to do and what is right to do.

(2) the source for determining what is right to do must be independent of our individual desires.

(3) this source for determining what is right to do must be the same for all human beings.

Working backwards, if we examine point 3 we notice that the source does not have to be objective; that is, it does not have to come from outside of us. It it perfectly fine if the source lies within us, within our common human nature. As we saw earlier, an outside source doesn’t work anyway—neither for God nor us.

We know already, if we think about it, that morality is species-specific. What is right behavior for a lion differs from what is right for us. We know that we cannot morally condemn a hungry lion for pouncing on a child. We will curse the lion and kill it if we can, but we cannot fault it on moral grounds. It is not human; it is not bound by human  values.

The lesson here is that morality is not and need not be absolute and universal. We can state it this way: the source of human morality must be broad enough to include all human beings, but not so broad that it includes lions and other non-human species. The first part of this, of course, is necessary if we are to legitimately be in a position to condemn a human being who kills a child. From this analysis, it becomes clear that morality is species-specific. We don’t condemn the praying mantis that eats its mate after copulation, but we would certainly be morally shocked if a human being did the same.

Point 2—that the source for determining what is right must be independent of our individual desires—is really the crux of the issue we are facing here. That is because if 2 is present then 1 follows necessarily. And without at least a potential difference between the choices we make and the choices we should make, there can be no valid judgments about human behavior. This is so whether we are a product of divinity or a product of evolutionary history. There must be some way for us to compare what we did to what we ought to have done.

So the question is a simple one, really. Is it possible for a species (specifically us, of course, but more generally any species) to evolve so that there comes to be this potential difference between what an individual member of the species desires to do and what is right as a member of its species for it to do? Is there a potential gap between the decisions an individual actually makes and the decisions the individual should make? Can a species evolve with a decision-making process which allows for this kind of disjoint between actual behavior and behavior that should (or should not) have been carried out?

Henderson can’t imagine it possible, at least not within a natural worldview. Most atheists (and I would suggest most scientists who study the subject) don’t see any theoretical problem in this regard. In part three, I will try to explain why.

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Are Atheism & Morality Compatible? (part 1)

“Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist” That’s the title of a recent blog post by Pastor Rick Henderson on Despite the provocative title, Henderson is sincerely trying to engage atheists in a constructive manner. The title is merely to draw us in.

His goal, not surprisingly, is to lay out an analysis that gets our attention and makes us wonder if atheists have overlooked something important. To accomplish this Henderson doesn’t target atheist arguments directly, but rather focuses on the underlying atheist worldview. He writes,

While it is true that there is no definitive atheistic worldview, all atheists share the same fundamental beliefs as core to their personal worldviews. While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations…
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

Henderson then presents three propositions which he believes are necessary to any atheist worldview; denial of any of the three, he asserts, “will strike a mortal blow to atheism”. And what are these required propositions?

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

We have our first indicator that at a fundamental level Henderson does not understand the natural worldview behind modern atheism. Propositions 1 & 3 are fine, but proposition 2 (as I’ve pointed out elsewhere), is incompatible with a natural worldview based on our modern scientific understanding of the universe and evolution.

Wait—don’t scientists think the universe is scientific? No. Scientists are scientific, but the universe is not. This may seem like nit-picking, but to understand “the atheist worldview” the distinction is vital. Let’s break it down. Is the universe observable? Only indirectly—we are incapable of observing the world directly. Is the universe knowable? Again the answer must be No—our models of the universe are knowable, but the actual nature of the universe (including whether or not it even has a “nature”) lies forever beyond our ken.

Origin of the Laws of Physics

Well then, is the universe not—at the very least—”governed strictly by the laws of physics”? The theist hopes so, since a universe based on uniform natural laws fits well with a worldview where a supreme being lays down the rules of existence at the creation. But atheists must reject this. Nor does it fit with the empirical nature of science.

Science is not prescriptive, but descriptive. The “laws” of physics are part of our model of the universe, not part of the universe itself. The physicist Victor J. Stenger has made this case most forcefully.  ”[T]he laws of physics,” he writes

do not follow from very unique or very surprising physical properties of the Universe. Rather they arise from the very simple notion that whatever mathematics you write down to describe measurements, your equations cannot depend on the origin or direction of the coordinate systems you define in the space of those measurements or the space of the functions used to describe those laws. That is, they cannot reflect any privileged point of view.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, pp 112-113

Stenger uses the term “point-of-view invariance” to describe this scientific goal of eliminating privileged points of view. The drive for point-of view invariance has led to the laws of physics that we have today, and they tell us more about how to obtain point-of-view invariance within the standard model, than anything else.

In order of having a decent chance of representing an objective reality, physicists formulate their models in such a way that they are the same for all observers. When they do so, they find that little more has to be postulated in order to derive the most important of what are traditionally termed the “laws of physics.” Indeed, we only need to make up a few mathematical rules, as simple as possible, add a large dose of randomness, and we have about all we need to describe nature.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 157

The natural worldview underlying modern atheism is based on a fundamentally different understanding of the relationship between matter and mind—one where the underlying physical reality exists independent of knowledge or mind. Stenger again,

So, where does point-of-view invariance come from? It comes simply from the apparent existence of an objective reality—independent of its detailed structure. Indeed, the success of point-of-view invariance can be said to provide evidence for the existence of an objective reality. Our dreams are not point-of-view invariant. If the Universe were all in our heads, our models would not be point-of-view invariant….
Point-of-view invariance is thus the mechanism by which we enforce objectivity. If we did not have an underlying objective reality, then we would not expect to be able to describe observations in a way that is independent of reference frame.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 187 

In contrast, supernaturalism puts mind at the forefront of things; the supernatural universe is essentially thought into existence by God’s conscious effort. This entails a universe in which the currency of knowledge (concepts, properties, relationships, laws of physics, etc) are endemic in such a way that the universe becomes inherently knowable. Even if humans cannot themselves ultimately know the universe, the point is that God can know it; and that is because it was created by divine mind or consciousness.

But if matter is primary, rather than mind being primary, it follows that the currency of knowledge will not be endemic. The universe will not be knowable for the simple reason that it won’t contain within itself any of the artifacts of knowing. Physical things will not possess any inherent, knowable properties—for properties are artifacts of knowledge and are brought into the picture at a later time (when organisms with scientific minds attempt to model the world).

In short, mind or consciousness had no part in the universe’s creation—it only arrives later through the evolutionary process. And this is where any sustainable natural worldview must begin.

What Atheism Requires

Henderson says that denial of any of the three underlying atheist affirmations he listed would deliver a mortal blow. Presumably he means by this that the resulting worldview would not be atheist if any of the three were rejected. He provides no support for this assertion. And indeed, is it unsupportable.

The first proposition—that the universe is strictly natural and contains nothing supernatural—certainly seems to be necessary for the atheist. Likewise for the third proposition—that the universe does not have a consciousness. Of course, the universe does contain organisms which have consciousness. The universe in itself is impersonal, but it contains many beings who are in fact personal.

Likewise, the universe is itself inherently meaningless (a result of not being infused with meaning by God, since in the natural worldview there is no primal mind or consciousness.) But it is nevertheless quite possible for beings within the universe to assign meaning to things, and live lives that are valuable. The universe does not have to be inherently meaningful for this to be so.

However, the second proposition (even if you ill-advisedly believe it true)—that the universe “is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics”—is simply not required by atheism‚ just as it is not required by a natural worldview.

Perhaps Henderson may be under the mistaken impression that his second proposition is necessary for science to do its thing. Although scientific progress is not a requirement for atheism, it is certainly important to scientists. On top of that, many scientists are atheists, and of course most atheists think very highly of science. But these are preferences, not logical entailments.

As a matter of fact, Henderson’s second proposition is not necessary for the scientific method. The universe may not be knowable, but our scientific models certainly are. Scientists continually test those models by experimentation in order to judge their usefulness. Models and hypotheses that turn out not to be useful (e.g., are falsified, or display no statistical significance) are discarded and new ones devised. In this manner, knowledge which has proven most useful rises to the top and becomes accepted as reliable. We call this the scientific method.

We have seen that space, time, and motion are part of a systematic description of observations that provides no independent evidence to confirm their objective existence. Space or the void does not kick back. Motion does not kick back. All that kick back are, by definition, material bodies. The information they kick back to us leads us to assign to these bodies intrinsic properties such as mass, electric charge, spin, isospin, baryon number, lepton number, and so on, which are all operationally defined. That is, they are empirical but not wholly independent of our theoretical constructs. Within the space-time model, rules of behavior for these properties , called laws, arise from applying point-of-view invariance in a particular, idiosyncratic mathematical scheme that might have been formulated in a number of completely different ways if physicists in different cultures had been isolated from one another. Again, this does not imply any old scheme will do, or that physics is just another cultural narrative. The scheme still has to work. The particular scheme adopted by the world’s physicists does work, but this does not allow us to conclude that it is the only one possible.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 175

The point is that the underlying nature of the universe doesn’t have to be knowable for the scientific method to work. Nor does the knowledge thus created have to be true in some absolute sense. Indeed, all we can really say about scientific knowledge is that it is useful. And this is because the scientific method is nothing but a test for usefulness.

As Stenger puts it in describing the standard model of physics,

Note that this space-time description is a model invented to describe those observations. We have no other way of “seeing” the objects so described and no way of verifying that reality is “truly” composed of those objects or that the terms distance, velocity, and acceleration are “true” elements of reality. We can only argue that this model is simple and consistent with the data. As long as it agrees with all the data, we are not being irrational to apply it as far as we can.
Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From, p. 156

Science makes progress because it utilizes this pragmatic empiricism to create a body of knowledge about the world by repeatedly testing our intellectual constructions for maximum usefulness. Of course, deterministic descriptions are preferred whenever possible simply because when they are obtainable they are more useful than descriptions of probability. But it does not follow that any of our models, whether deterministic or probabilistic, reveal the true underlying nature of the universe. All we can say is that they are useful, they work. And if they don’t, we invent better.

Indeed, not only is science not tuned to discover the “true” underlying nature of the universe, the scientific method does not even require that there be an underlying nature of the universe. It is only once the importance of this last point has sunk in, that the coherence of the natural worldview behind atheism begins to emerge.

I have lingered on this issue because, perhaps unsurprisingly, theists often lack a clear understanding of atheist fundamentals. Unfortunately, the same is true of many atheists.

Meaning and Value

The reader may be forgiven for wondering what any of this has to do with Henderson’s article, which after all is entitled, “Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist”.

Specifically, what does the knowability of the universe have to do with morality?

Good question. Let’s see if we can figure it out.

In his blog post, Henderson jumps from his incorrect assertion about the three propositions required for atheism to what appears—at least initially—to be an unrelated argument that morality and atheism don’t mix. Speaking of the atheist worldview, he says,

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

But of course, we can give an action or object any meaning we want to. We do it all the time, whenever we use language. Under Henderson’s worldview, apparently if meaning is not imparted by God it doesn’t really count. But why think this?

Henderson believes meaning is something that is inherent in the things and actions of the universe—as would be the case if the origin of the universe was mind or consciousness. But atheists hew to a different worldview. We see meaning as something that begins and end in consciousness, that is to say as something inherent in language, not in things. This is a vital point. It means that God is no more capable of infusing the universe with meaning than we are—and no less.

In fact, from an atheist perspective, one of the essential underlying mistakes of theism—perhaps its most fundamental mistake—is this confusion about the nature of meaning. Theists think that meaning exists out there in the things and actions of the world. It does not. Meaning is a property of words. It exists in consciousness, and only in consciousness. To be trite, meaning is all in your mind. But in your mind is where it must to be, in order to be useful to us.

So if we think something is meaningful, it becomes meaningful for us. Just as if God thinks something is meaningful, it becomes meaningful for God—or would, if God existed. But God is no more capable of making something meaningful for us, than we are of making something meaning for God. Meaning is necessarily private to each consciousness—and this is because it is the essential stuff of language. Things don’t have meaning, thoughts do. And thoughts are privately experienced.

A similar heuristic applies to value. Whereas meaning is central to words, value is central to organisms. Organisms act within the world by determining what is valuable to themselves and then behave accordingly. Our values drive our behavior. I value foods which my senses make appealing to me. I value the love or companionship of others if that is what my body desires. If I belong to a social species, I value other organisms in my community. There is no shortage of things to value, and without assigning value to things we would be incapable of making decisions in our complex environment—we would literally not know what to do.

What is valuable to one organism or one species will differ from what is valuable to another, simply because we are different beings in different places at different times with differing needs. Even if we throw God into the mix, God is simply a different being with differing needs and values. What is valuable to God and what is valuable to us will, as a consequence, not be the same. We have different natures and exist in different environments and therefore will have different behavioral choices to make.

So if Henderson thinks that an atheist world leaves us without values, then he is ignorance of the nature of value in an atheist world, and of where value comes from. It come from us, and informs all of our decisions. Whether God exists (or doesn’t exist) has nothing to do with it. Our values can’t be God’s values because, simply put, we are not God and God is not us. We are different beings in different places, and therefore will have different values.

Common Values

Yet having said that, common values are crucial to group morality. If we lack common values, we will be unable to agree on which behaviors—among members of our species—are morally acceptable. Moral agreement is essential for social species, otherwise their communities will fall apart. Not all values need to be held in common, but values which are destructive to the community will be harmful to the well-being of the species. Think of it this way: evolution will weed out those social species which lack sufficient community cohesiveness, and those which do survive will as a result have a subset of common values which members share. These values will be built into the nature of each member organism in the form of instincts of one sort or another.

Hold on. Not so fast, says Henderson. He presents three objections to the hypothesis of an evolutionary source for morality.

First, altruism would never develop. There is no evolutionary advantage, Henderson argues, to feeling compassion for the old and sick, nor any advantage to caring for mentally handicapped children. He goes further and suggests that evolution would be likely to reward the practice of raping women and forcing them to bear children. After all, from a strictly biological perspective, passing on one’s DNA is the definition of success. If our values derived from evolution, rape would have to be seen positively rather than negatively—so claims Henderson, at least.

Second, he argues that there must be an objectivity to morality which places it outside the whims of a particular community or society. Otherwise we can have no legitimate basis for objecting when other societies allow behavior we find repugnant, or when they punish actions we find praiseworthy. Morality becomes nothing more than a matter of personal—or cultural—preference.

Third, without an external moral code as reference, social reformers must be seen negatively. Since a culture’s values represent the preferences of the majority and are important to social cohesion, it would follow that under a natural worldview, the most immoral citizens would always be “not merely the ones who transgress [a particular moral] code but the ones who intend to change it”. Henderson presents a modern example,

This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral—that is, until they become the majority and institute change. I suppose they then become moral, and traditionalists become immoral. But it’s the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.
Pastor Rick Henderson: Why There Is No Such Thing as a Good Atheist

These are serious concerns which advocates of a natural worldview must address satisfactorily. I will attempt to do so in part 2.


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Diagoras of Melos

Diagoras of Melos was a lyric poet and the first Greek philosopher known specifically for his atheism. Heavily influenced by Democritus, the early Greek natural philosopher and advocate of atomism, who in fact was his tutor, Diagoras ran afoul of religious conservatives in Athens and had to flee the city with a price on his head (he was wanted dead or alive).

About Diagoras, Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt: A History, wrote

The poet Diagoras of Melos was perhaps the most famous atheist of the fifth century. Although he did not write about atheism, anecdotes about his unbelief suggest he was self-confident, almost teasing, and very public. He revealed the secret rituals of the Eleusinian mystery religion to everyone and “thus made them ordinary,” that is, he purposefully demystified a cherished secret rite, apparently to provoke his contemporaries into thought. In another famous story, a friend pointed out an expensive display of votive gifts and said, “You think the gods have no care for man? Why, you can see from all these votive pictures here how many people have escaped the fury of storms at sea by praying to the gods who have brought them safe to harbor.” To which Diagoras replied, “Yes, indeed, but where are the pictures of all those who suffered shipwreck and perished in the waves?” A good question. Diagoras was indicted for profaning the mysteries, but escaped. A search was out for him throughout the Athenian empire, which indicated that the charges were serious, but he was not found.
“Whatever Happened to Zeus and Hera?, 600 BCE-1 CE” in Doubt: A History, Hecht, Jennifer Michael, Harper, San Francisco (2003), pp. 9–10

The Christian writer Athenagoras of Athens (2nd century AD) writes about Diagoras:

With reason did the Athenians adjudge Diagoras guilty of atheism, in that he not only divulged the Orphic doctrine, and published the mysteries of Eleusis and of the Cabiri, and chopped up the wooden statue of Hercules to boil his turnips, but openly declared that there was no God at all.

Not only did Diagoras chop up a wooden statue of Hercules, but exhibited his wit by declaring that Hercules thirteenth labor would be cooking turnips.

Of Diagoras, JM Robertson writes,

It was about that time [415 BC] that the poet Diagoras of Melos was proscribed for atheism, he having declared that the non-punishment of a certain act of iniquity proved that there were no Gods. It has been surmised, with some reason, that the iniquity in question was the slaughter of the Melians by the Athenians in 416 B.C., and the Athenian resentment in that case was personal and political rather than religious. For some time after 415 the Athenian courts made strenuous efforts to punish every discoverable case of impiety; and parodies of the Eleusinian mysteries were alleged against Alkibiades and others. Diagoras, who was further charged with divulging the Eleusinian and other mysteries, and with making firewood of an image of Herakles, telling the god thus to perform his thirteenth labour by cooking turnips, became thenceforth one of the proverbial atheists of the ancient world, and a reward of a silver talent was offered for killing him, and of two talents for his capture alive; despite which he seems to have escaped.
A History of Freethought, Ancient and Modern, to the Period of the French Revolution, J.M. Robertson, Fourth Edition, Revised and Expanded, In Two Volumes, Vol. I, Watts, 1936. p173 – 174

The following account of Diagoras is translated from the Suda

[Diagoras], son of Telekleides or Teleklytos; a Melian, a philosopher and a lyric poet; whom Democritus from Abdera,[1] seeing that he was naturally talented, bought — since he was a slave — for ten thousand drachmas and made a pupil. And he also applied himself to the lyric art, being in time after Pindar and Bacchylides, but older than Melanippides:[2] he flourished in the 78th Olympiad.[3] And he was called Atheos since he held such an opinion, after the time when someone of the same art, being accused by him of stealing a paean which he himself had made, swore he did not steal this, and performing it a short while later, met with success. Thereupon Diagoras, being upset, wrote the so-called Apopyrgizontes Logoi, which includes his withdrawal and falling away from his belief concerning the divine.[4] But Diagoras, settling in Corinth, lived out his life there.

Diagoras has a Facebook page.

Read more here:


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What Lies at the Dark Heart of Atheism?

Once God is extinct, claimed one of Dostoyevsky’s characters in The Brothers Karamazov, everything is permitted. And this is a common theist mantra.

What unfathomable perversion lies at the dark heart of atheism?

My answer: nothing more salacious than loyalty to life. At the heart of atheism is a single-minded loyalty to this short breath of existence we call life here on planet Earth.

Atheists recognize that we are body beings. That we are inherently physical, that this bit of chemical, experiential life is not just all we have, it is what we are.

Atheist loyalty to life is necessarily paired with something else: antipathy towards death. Our lives are all that matter, and dying is the loss of all that matters. The finality of death imparts a finality to life. This makes life valuable to us as nothing else can.

In contrast, the afterlife religions worship death (which they euphemistically call heaven) and eagerly try to convince us to sacrifice our lives for an incoherent, imaginary state that can only be obtained by dying.

Aliveness requires movement and breath and temporality; it cannot exist in an eternal, timeless state. Life and eternity are inimical opposites. We will not sacrifice life for the eternity of non-existence, even if you sweeten it with names like Heaven or Nirvana.

Atheists embrace and indeed worship reality, because we realize it is all there is. We are human bodies with human feelings, desires, needs, hopes—and we live within a fragile biosphere that is as temporary as we are.

There is no God. There will be no afterlife, no elsewhere.

With this stark embrace of reality, atheism proclaims its loyalty to life.

It follows that we are all in this together. Nothing can be experienced after life ends, and the brutal fact is that life will end. Every one of us will die and cease to exist. This fact forces us to the realization that our fulfillment relies entirely on each other.

No heaven, no hell. There is only Eden, our one earth, and we share it with everyone else.

That’s it. This simple, honest confession about ourselves, about life itself, is what lies at the heart of atheism.

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Absurd Conversation

Two self-styled atheists and a Christian engaged in conversation. Their names were A, J and T. It went something like this.

J – Life is absurd.
T – No. It follows God’s plan.
J – Then it’s an absurd plan.
A – You’re both wrong.
T – You. . .
J – Your problem. . .
A – Your problem. . .
J – is you. . .
A – is you. . .
T – should read. . .
J – take life. . .
A – don’t take life. . .
T – the bible.
J – too seriously.
A – seriously enough.

J – Why should I?
T – If that’s. . .
J – Life is one big. . .
T – your attitude. . .
J – cosmic joke.
T – then the joke’s. . .
J – The joke’s on. . .
T – on you.
J – all of us.
T – You won’t think. . .
A – Life. . .
T – think it’s. . .
A – is not. . .
T – a joke. . .
A – a joke.
T – when you wake up in hell.

J – Cut the religious crap.
T – It’s true.
J – It’s crap. Religion. . .
A – I thought. . .
J – is full of. . .
A – you embraced. . .
J – absurdity.
A – absurdity. . .
T – God is real.
A – of all stripes.
T – It’s not absurd.
A – If it’s a joke. . .
J – It’s a joke. . .
A – one punchline. . .
T – There is a hell. . .
A – is as good. . .
J – and absurd.
A – as another.
T – and a heaven.
A – So you insist. . .
J – Don’t. . .
A – on your. . .
T – Jesus loves. . .
A – denomination. . .
J – misrepresent. . .
A – of humor. . .
J – me.
T – you.
A – instead of T’s.

T – Christianity. . .
A – So life. . .
T – is no joke.
A – is a joke but. . .
J – Ha!
A – only if you. . .
J – It’s. . .
A – get to. . .
T – There is a God. . .
J – one big. . .
A – pick the joke. . .
T – in heaven. . .
J – fucking. . .
A – is that it?
J – joke.
T – above. . .
A – You love to sit. . .
J – This whole. . .
A – on the fence. . .
T – who judges us. . .
J – conversation. . .
A – stabbing your balls. . .
J – proves just. . .
T – and assigns us. . .
A – while you declare. . .
J – how meaningless. . .
A – how absurd. . .
T – to heaven or. . .
J – everything is.
A – everyone is.
T – hell.

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The Bill of Rights is only paper

Senator Rand Paul is conducting a gallant filibuster of the Senate confirmation of John Brennan (architect of the US Government’s drone program) as director of the CIA. Paul is filibustering because Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the Obama Administration considers it within their authority use the CIA drone program to target and kill terrorists on US soil.

Now it is true that Holder said the circumstances would have to be unusual to for them to choose a target on US soil—but that does not make the Administration’s position any less frightening or outrageous.

That’s because no less than the Attorney General of the United States has decided that the “war on terror” trumps any guarantee of due process in the Bill of Rights. And since the drone program is conducted by the CIA, it means the Obama Administration considers it ok for the CIA to conduct domestic operations, including kills on US soil. (It used to be completely illegal for the CIA to carry out operations within the US. Apparently the war on terror has changed that.)

What amazes me is the great number of Americans who just don’t care. Perhaps they don’t understand how precarious liberty actually is. James Madison (in many respects the “father” of the US Constitution as well the Senator who introduced the Bill of Rights to the first Congress) understood very well that the only thing his generation could offer future Americans was a flimsy “paper” barrier to tyranny.

Paper barriers—whether Constitutions or Bills of Rights—are only stout when people actually understand their value and care enough to stand up in defense of their principles. For those of us partial to liberty, Rand Paul has made himself an instant hero. He has stood up to defend the values that have kept us free 200+ years. We may not agree with many of his libertarian and conservative positions, but on this we are with him 100%.

Here is Senator Paul explaining why due process is so vital to freedom.

[President Obama] is not a judge. He’s a politician. He was elected by a majority, but the majority doesn’t get to decide who we execute. We have a process for deciding this. We have courts for deciding this. To allow one man to accuse you in secret, you never get notified you have been accused. Your notification is the buzz of the propellers on the drone as it flies overhead in the seconds before you’re killed.

Paul does not object to using drones to carry out attacks in combat zones. (I should point out, however, that many of the drone attacks the US has conducted under Obama have been outside any legitmate “combat zone”—they have occurred outside the borders of Iraq, Afghanistan, even Pakistan.)

The Obama Administration apparently believes that “combat zone” means anywhere they think they’ve identified a terrorist. That is what has led to this unprecedented assumption that the due process guaranteed in the Constitution simply doesn’t matter. The whole world is their war zone.

Senator Paul again,

But when people say, ‘Oh, the battlefield’s come to America’ and ‘the battlefield’s everywhere,’ ‘the war is limitless in time and scope,’ be worried, because your rights will not exist if you call America a battlefield…

He is undoubtedly right about that.

Now, it’s likely that the Obama Administration has no concrete plans to launch drone attacks within the US. As Eric Holder indicated earlier today, any plans at this point are only “hypothetical”. But it is frightening enough that our government now claims the right to execute people inside our borders without even a pretext of Constitutional due process.

And this “right” will be passed on to the next Administration, and the next, until the day arrives when domestic drone strikes against government defined “terrorists” actually begin.  By then, citizens won’t even bat an eye.

At that point the paper barrier called the Bill of Rights will be worthless.


Posted in Afghanistan, Atheist Culture, Bush Wars, Homeland Insecurity, Iraq | 2 Comments

Atheism is not enough

Rejecting the God and gods of religion is sufficient to make you an atheist. But that is not enough. You can be an atheist and still cling to supernatural beliefs.

It happens too often.

Let’s explore a few examples.

  • the atheist who believes in reincarnation or some other form of afterlife
  • the atheist who worships “Reason” as if it was something existing outside us
  • the atheist who sees intelligence in the universe, or believes the universe operates by inherent & fundamental scientific laws.
  • the atheist who believes in the principle of sufficient reason

Such beliefs make atheism inconsistent, if not incoherent, because to be sustainable atheism requires a natural worldview and all of the above incorporate some form of supernaturalism.  A natural worldview is fairly easy to define: it means a worldview which takes physical existence as a starting point and maintains that everything else—everything involving subjectivity, sensation, consciousness, experience, emotion, thought, intelligence, reason and so on—had to come into existence afterward by process of evolution. Naturalism requires this biological hypothesis for the origin of mind and all its accoutrements, otherwise it fails to stand in opposition to supernaturalism.

I said that atheism requires a natural worldview in order to be consistent, and the reason is simple. If we fail to derive the existence of consciousness, intelligence, reason, sensation and related phenomena from physical existence, then we have no choice but incorporate them into our starting conditions concurrent with (if not prior to) physical existence. Since only agents can have intelligence or consciousness, the unavoidable result is that agency is granted to the universe long before the evolution of actual biological organisms can begin. If this doesn’t throw God into the beginning of things, it at least throws godliness there, and it therefore ought to be anathema to atheism. To allow this would not even be atheism light, but atheism lightheaded.

Returning to my list of beliefs inconsistent with atheism, I think its easy to see why the first two should be rejected by atheists. Reincarnation and afterlife can’t be explained in a physical universe without adding something non-physical to the picture and making it trump physical and biological reality. Likewise, worshiping reason as if were something outside us raises the question of its ante-biological origin, a question that can only be answered supernaturally.

But what about the atheist who sees intelligence in the universe, or believes the universe operates according inherent & fundamental scientific laws? But here too I hope the issue is already plain enough that what holds in the case of postulating ante-biological reason holds for ante-biological intelligence just as surely.

But what about the second clause: shouldn’t atheists embrace the existence of “inherent & fundamental scientific laws”?

The problem here is mostly one of terminology. In the sciences today the empirical nature of scientific laws is readily conceded. They are descriptions subject to falsification and tests of usefulness, not laws laid down as if by some pre-ordained authority. They are not part of a blueprint of existence but (like all other scientific knowledge) useful descriptions of the world. Unfortunately this is widely misunderstood, in large part because the term “scientific law” dates to a period when all scientists were theists and the existence of a God who gave form to the physical world was a given. That bias no longer holds in the sciences, but terms engendered by it continue to confound the public at large.

But what scientific laws (thus clarified) cannot be is “inherent and fundamental” to the universe, for to assert this is to make the same mistake I outlined above with Reason and intelligence. It is to adopt the supernatural premise that rather than being biological products of evolution, mathematical forms and other elements of intelligence are concurrent with the universe. This is not consistent with the atheist project of rejecting supernaturalism.

We come finally to the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). I will be brief and perhaps overly dogmatic. If we assume naturalism and evolution are true, then it is almost certain that reason is imperfectly matched to the physical world. Whatever reasoning faculties humans and other animals possess have certainly evolved for usability and usefulness—not as a system for unlocking the nature of the world, but as a pragmatic method of modeling the world so we can manipulate it to our benefit.

Since the knowledge systems which did evolve in our species are simulacra, it must be extremely unlikely if not impossible for knowledge so acquired to be “true” in anything beyond a pragmatic sense. If we carefully follow scientific methods, our acquired knowledge can be become quite dependable; but that is the most that can be expected of a faculty which evolved by natural selection. Knowledge did not evolve to reveal the nature of things. It evolved to be useful and reliable, and that is all.

My argument here in a sense is a modification (if not reversal) of Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism. If you analyze his argument carefully, you discover that Plantinga assumes the Principal of Sufficient Reason (PSR) as a necessary given, and he then combines it with evolution in order to falsify naturalism (or at least render naturalism extremely unlikely or inscrutable). But the PSR is a relic of theism. No advocate of naturalism and evolution should ever accept it.

Any biological account of the processes by which the sense organs and brain generate simulacra of the surrounding world should be sufficient to impeach the notion of a principle of sufficient reason. When we consider that such processes gradually evolved over vast stretches of time, I would say that no other conclusion is possible unless one postulates a pre-existing intelligence directing the path of evolution. And that of course is anathema to atheism and naturalism.

Evolution (E) + Naturalism (N) + PSR form an inconsistent trinity. If like Plantinga we insist on combining PSR with E, then we must reject naturalism. E + PSR + S (Supernaturalism) is how I would represent Plantinga’s theistic posture. (For my part, I maintain that PSR is not sustainable in light of modern neuroscience, and that supernaturalism brings well-known problems, but otherwise Plantinga’s worldview is at least coherent.)

Atheists have to take a different tact. We have to embrace E + N + PIR (Principle of Insufficient Reason) if we want a coherent position. PSR won’t do.

The day when atheists could reject God, and simply stop at that, is long gone. If atheists are to root out supernaturalism from their thinking, they will need to embrace not just evolution but naturalism. They must learn to think in terms of a natural worldview, and they will need to reassess intelligence, reason, and knowledge in that context.

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Disembodied intelligence and the natural worldview

Roughly speaking, there are two ways of looking at the “big picture” of life, two basic worldviews—which we commonly call the natural and the supernatural. At first glance the difference seems clear. One says everything that exists is natural, the other that there exists something—or some things—beyond what is natural. But what, exactly, does the word “natural” mean? When we try to pin it down, we run into difficulty.

One way of identifying the “natural” is to focus on the source of our knowledge. Whatever we can detect through our senses (or extensions of our senses) is “natural”—anything else is “supernatural.” Following this, the method of science reveals nature; everything else is supernatural.

Yet this distinction is not as clean as it needs to be. For one thing, it doesn’t allow us to identify whether some proposed entity is natural or supernatural until we know where science will take us—and we may not know that for hundreds or thousands of years, if ever. Because the sciences are empirical, we can never be certain of the conclusions (or even the scope) of scientific knowledge centuries hence. In short, this approach leaves us with a distinction between natural and unnatural which is undefinable to the degree that current science is unfinished and fallible. And like it or not, science will always be unfinished and fallible.

Methods of Knowing

As an alternative, we might try to focus less on what is or is not natural, and more on the corresponding method of knowing. Compared to religious revelation, the scientific method is dramatically more reliable—more useful—at uncovering the nature of reality. Yet how do we know that some things supernaturalists believe in today won’t eventually be discovered by scientists as natural phenomena tomorrow? In honesty, we don’t. The best we can assert is that the supernatural approach is flawed—you can’t depend on it. Occasionally it might luck out, but it’s dramatically more likely that it will not.

But there may be another way to look at the natural versus supernatural debate. Supernatural advocates claim that there is an intelligence or consciousness outside of us. And not just outside of us, but outside of any species of animal or plant on any imaginable planet in the universe. Perhaps better put, they believe in the existence of disembodied consciousness and/or disembodied intelligence.* The supernatural method of knowing—religious revelation—involves (so it is claimed) receiving knowledge directly from this disembodied intelligence or consciousness.

With this, the distinction of method becomes clearer. One method is empirical, the other not. The supernatural method doesn’t rely on the hard work of science but on direct reception from disembodied intelligence. Imagine a background intelligence pervading the universe from the moment of its creation, much like scientists speak of the background radiation left over from the big bang. But whereas it takes hard work and carefully calibrated instruments to detect the background radiation, detection of supernatural background intelligence or consciousness is open to any and all, and requires little more than intellectual laziness. The result is that many religious people claim that God speaks to them directly, or that a particular book contains the words of their preferred disembodied intelligence, or that they can mystically perceived the disembodied consciousness in their own consciousness.

What can advocates of naturalism say about this, other than that it is intellectually lazy? Bear in mind that the fact that an approach comes easy or appeals to human lassitude does not make it flawed or render its results incorrect.

For one thing, we can say that the scientific and the revelatory methods of knowledge differ dramatically from each other in their reliability. But that is not the only difference between them.

One method has proven to be reliable in allowing us to engage and manipulate the natural world (even if we can’t exactly pin down what “natural” means). It begins and ends as a method for knowing, one which has been (and continually is being) refined for reliability. The other began not as a method but as an assumption of knowledge—specifically the “knowledge” that disembodied intelligence/consciousness actually exists.

In short, science did not begin as a worldview, but as a method for reliably discovering ways to consistently manipulate the world. We call the world so manipulated the “natural” world partly (or perhaps primarily) because the scientific method is incapable of revealing anything useful about disembodied (supernatural) intelligence or consciousness. What makes something “supernatural” may simply be that it lies outside the purview of science. What makes something “natural” simply that the scientific method “works” for it.

Beyond Method

From this we can see that advocates of supernaturalism may have a counter to the claim that religious revelation is dramatically less reliable than the method of science. It is less reliable, they can argue, not because its method is flawed but because its subject is so inscrutable. The scientific method, they might argue, fails us even more completely than personal revelation when it comes to the primordial disembodied consciousness. Science detects nothing; revelation at least detects something, even if most (or nearly all) of its detections are false positives. And revelation has some kind of logical rationale: if disembodied consciousness exists, what better tool than our own consciousness to detect it? Nothing else—no non-conscious instruments—could possibly do the trick.

I think we are getting somewhere. The real disagreement between the advocates of naturalism and supernaturalism is not as much about method as we have assumed. There is no reason for supernaturalists not to embrace the methods of science when it comes to things natural. But science doesn’t work with the supernatural—and for the most part both sides agree with this.

Naturalists agree because they see supernatural claims as untestable, or about something that simply has not been (and probably never will be) proven to exist.

Supernaturalists also agree, but take it from a different point of view. As they see it,  science only works for natural—that is, embodied—things. Behind the natural world is the one sort of thing scientists are incapable of studying, but that fact doesn’t mean that disembodied intelligence is not there—only that scientific method isn’t the right tool for studying it.

A Natural Response

How is the advocate of naturalism to reply?

I think we can begin by reframing the debate between naturalism and supernaturalism as a debate about the nature and history of intelligence and consciousness. The advocate of naturalism maintains that intelligence and consciousness are brain-based phenomena, and made their appearance in the universe over the course of evolution of species on earth and (probably) other planets. In contrast, the advocate of supernaturalism maintains that intelligence and consciousness can be disembodied and pre-exist the formation of the physical universe.

One says matter existed before mind, the other says mind existed before matter.

Framing the debate this way allows us to disentangle worldview from method, and that is useful because it then becomes possible to move the conversation forward. So long as advocates of each respective worldview reject the other side’s method of knowing, discussion can go nowhere. This is because rejecting everything but the scientific method is tantamount to rejecting supernaturalism, since what science can study defines natural. On the other hand, embracing religious revelation is tantamount to embracing supernaturalism since it presumes a disembodied source of revelation.

As a method of knowing, revelation has a fatal flaw—it is based on direct interactions with disembodied consciousness, and therefore the knowledge revealed is unavoidably hidden and personal. Any method for knowing disembodied consciousness by direct revelation is necessarily going to be private rather than public. If private revelations were in agreement, this would not be a serious problem. But they never seem to be. And there is no way to broker the differences, other than violence. The result is that we have more religious sects than we have nations. Even within a sect, there is often substantial disagreement from individual to individual.

For this reason, revelation is useless for open inquiry. What is needed is a broader intellectual method—one that embraces scientific method but can step outside the natural to address supernatural postulates in a rational and intelligent way without having to resort to claims of revelation.

Theology doesn’t fit the bill—unless if we limit it strictly to “natural theology.” Yet the name itself, natural theology, shows that it assumes supernaturalism as starting point.  In contrast, atheology can be thought of as an equivalent which assumes naturalism as a starting point. One might argue that both follow the same common rules of rationality and logic, but bear different names simply because their practitioners have reached different conclusions or begin with different worldviews. If this be so, then we have agreement, not on assumptions or conclusions, but on approach: these “common rules of rationality and logic.”

In other words, we can all agree on the basic rules of philosophical inquiry. That is an important starting point. But sorting out worldviews is not something that should be or can be relegated to philosophers. It is something we all would profit from doing. The inquiry needs to be engaged at a level and in a manner more practical and less arcane than philosophy as practiced today in academia. Otherwise, the worldview discussion becomes inaccessible to most people. And it must not ignore scientific knowledge.

With this in mind we might ask, how do intelligent people go about deciding which of two disparate and conflicting worldviews best fits the reality around them? The ideal approach is to begin with no preference or assumptions. One should objectively study natural theology and atheology in turn in order to understand the respective supernatural and natural worldviews, and only afterwards come to a judgment about which one provides the more coherent worldview.

But in real life most of us begin with an allegiance to one side of the question. That makes objectivity difficult. But there is a process intelligent people use to ameliorate their biases, and it begins with engaging the issue from your opponent’s point of view. This means temporarily suspending your own beliefs and disbeliefs (much as we do when reading a novel or watching a movie) in order to see the world momentarily from the other side.

Like trying on clothing, we should try on worldviews. Only then can we see what fits.

When I use the terms “disembodied intelligence” and “disembodied consciousness” I don’t mean that either must be singular. Souls are also disembodied consciousnesses, according to most religious people. This makes it clear that at heart what distinguishes supernaturalists from naturalists is the question of whether consciousness or intelligence can be disembodied.

It is my belief that this is a question that can be scientifically addressed. For example, if intelligence and consciousness can be demonstrated to be brain phenomena, then the question is essentially settled. There is also the historical question—when does intelligence/consciousness enter the picture of existence? Is it beforehand, or did it evolve into existence with brains. Is there evidence of intelligence or consciousness before brains evolved? That ought addressable by science. It is, after all, a factual question.

Scientific answers to the above may not be the final word. But they will help clarify what we likely are as human beings. Are we minds who happen (at least now) to possess bodies? Or are we bodies which happen to have evolved minds? Should we define ourselves as essentially body, or as essentially mind, or as an indivisible combination?

Posted in Atheology, Naturalism, Supernaturalism | 2 Comments

Billy Graham on Atheism

Atheism is often misunderstood by the religious—which is not surprising given how foreign disbelief is to the theistic outlook. A recent but typical example comes from Billy Graham, Jr.

Many atheists, I find, reject God for one reason: They want to run their own lives.

It’s an interesting perspective. Graham seems to think Christians (some percentage, at least) yearn to run their own lives, and that this desire to be free can lead them to embrace atheism. Perhaps Graham experiences a bit of this himself. Perhaps wistfully, on occasion, he has wished he wasn’t bound by the dictates of his religion. Perhaps he’s had the sudden thought, if I was an atheist I could do anything I wanted.

Running your own life, making choices, it certainly is appealing. Maybe Graham’s right that Christians sometimes peevishly desire to chuck God for the freedom of atheism. But, for the vast majority of us who are atheists, he’s got it all wrong. We reject God because—surprise!—we do not believe God exists. It’s as simple as that.

Atheism is a conclusion about God’s existence.

If you desire to “run your own life,” you don’t need anything as drastic as atheism. Rejecting God is like traveling a thousand miles further than necessary. There are plenty of religious, God-believing alternatives that can get you out from under the thumb of the know-it-all churches whose leaders like to dictate how their followers should live. If what you want is freedom from the pretenders who claim to speak for God, you’ve got a smorgasbord of options. There’s Unitarianism, Paganism, Wicca, and New Age religions galore. You can stay away from organized religion altogether and become a Deist. Or just stop going to church. Atheism is not required.

Of course, atheists do notice the propensity of religious leaders to constantly claim they speak for God. We notice, and we criticize. We’re pretty sure God doesn’t exist, so we don’t have a high opinion of the God-know-it-alls. Nevertheless, it does not require atheism to see their vanity. Easy enough to break free without ditching God.

If Graham and other religious leaders hope to stem the tide of modern atheism, their best bet is to figure out why there are so many atheists today. Here’s a hint: the real reason has something to do with becoming unconvinced that God exists. Atheists are people who have looked at the world around us, and discovered that it makes more sense if there isn’t a God than if there is.

Unfortunately for theism, it doesn’t help that Graham and myriads of other religious leaders keep throwing dirt on God by insisting that the Bible, or Koran, or Torah, or Book of Mormon is His handiwork. Seriously flawed holy writ doesn’t fit with a perfect Creator, which is why quite a few religious enthusiasts have suddenly discovered, half-way through Seminary, that their religion just isn’t adding up.

Still, you don’t have to chuck out God when you chuck out your religion of birth. There are plenty of alternatives far less drastic than atheism. So why the ongoing exodus to godlessness? The answer, I say, is that a lot of us have noticed that a natural, scientific worldview can be a consistent, intellectually satisfying alternative to supernaturalism. It just works, without all the drama, perplexity, and contradiction that comes with believing in God.

The Basic Questions of Life

Billy Graham has other misconceptions about atheism, it would seem. In the same piece, he writes,

For one thing, atheism has no satisfying answer to the basic questions of life — questions like “Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? How do I know what’s right and wrong? What happens when I die?” Atheism says we are here by chance, and life has no meaning or destiny. Taken to its conclusion, atheism ends in despair.

To those of us who are atheists, this sounds very familiar—religious people like to make such pronouncements. Meaningless life? Despair? Why would anyone ever want to adopt an outlook that can only lead to despair? Graham hopes, of course, that once the atheist comes face-to-face with the cliffs of despair, she’ll come running back to God pronto.

And I’m sure this has happened—for someone somewhere. But the atheists I’ve met don’t seem to know where these cliffs of despair can be found. When they hear or read pronouncements like Graham’s, they usually react in one of two ways. Either they get upset at what feels like slander or misrepresentation—or they laugh.

Laughter is the better reaction, I’d say. Religious leaders like Graham don’t intend to slander—it’s just that they honestly don’t understand atheism.

Maybe I can clarify things for their benefit. It’s pretty simple. Religions and worldviews do (or at least ought to) address the who, how, what, why questions Graham presents. But that is outside the purview of atheism proper.

Atheism, as stated previously, is a conclusion about God’s existence. It’s not a religion or a worldview. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a firm believer that everyone ought to have a well-thought out worldview, if not a well-thought out religion, and this holds for atheists as well. Most atheists, I believe, do have a worldview—though not necessarily the same one.

We draw our answers to Graham’s questions not from our atheism, but from our worldview. Why? Because it requires a worldview in order to have the kind of framework necessary. As I stated earlier, I think most new atheists today adopt atheism because they have discovered that a natural, scientific worldview simply works. It makes better sense of the world than does supernaturalism, and satisfies emotionally as well as intellectually. Science, it turns out, provides an engrossing, wonderful front-seat view of life.

When I answer Graham’s questions…

Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? How do I know what’s right and wrong? What happens when I die?

I get my answers from my natural worldview, based on my understanding of current scientific knowledge. Who am I? A biological being, an individual organism who experiences wonderful sensations created by my very physical body as I move within the physical world. Where did I come from? Other species of organisms who have evolved over billions of years within Earth’s biosphere. How do I know what’s right and wrong? I know, because as my species evolved it acquired a suitable, self-beneficial moral nature. What happens when I die? I will cease to exist as an individual organism (although my body will persist until folded back into the biosphere by the activity of microorganisms).

Billy Graham may not like my answers. But they are honest and, for that reason, satisfying. When I became an atheist, I acquiesced to the reality that I am a biological being who will someday die, and that every aspect of my consciousness will cease to exist. Graham, who characterizes atheists as wanting things their way, seems to be the one who is incapable of acquiescing to the powers that be. Those powers are biological and physical, and they dictate that life is fragile, vulnerable, temporary, and that we die forever.

Graham, and the millions who follow him, can’t accept that. They demand eternity. They invent God, and they fantasize that God will provide a heaven to their liking. Thanks to their supreme selfishness, they are willing to sell out life on Earth. They’ll even sell out the biosphere, so long as they smell the sweet promise of eternal life.

Not me.

I prefer reality to fantasy. And so, I gather, do most atheists. It’s not selfishness which animates us, but honest acquiescence to the reality of being.

Posted in Atheist Culture, Atheology, Naturalism | 9 Comments