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Evangelical Outpost on Atheism

John on January 19, 2006 at 9:55 am

Joe Carter at EO has an interesting post on atheism today. He challenges atheist readers to make sense of 6 seemingly illogical positions which are required for a materialistic view of existence. I’m a Christian of course, but as an ex-atheist I’d like to accept Joe’s challenge. I’ll make an honest attempt to explain the 6 items in a materialistic fashion reminiscent of my 19 year old self and then offer my own comments.

1) Emergent properties ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities (i.e., matter) and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them. Consciousness, for example, is an emergent property of the brain, arising – like magic – from a specific arrangement of molecules. This magical property which is created by the physical can also turn around and affect the physical matter from which it came.

2) Everything that is real is, in some sense, really physical. Therefore, mental states such as beliefs, desires, and sensations do not exist. Mental states such as the belief that mental states do not exist, do not actually exist but are merely physical states in the brain.

Atheist Response to 1 and 2: Consciousness only presents an “emergent problem” if you believe there is something “irreducable” about it. However, if you assume (as in #2) that the brain is simply another organ and that what we call consciousness is simply the interaction of chemicals in that organ, the mystery disappears. The stimulus-response chain in the human brain is infinitely more complex than that in an amoeba but essentially the same. The illusion of consciousness is simply based on the fact that we can not observe or “feel” that chain of events happening. What we take to be thought is simply a chaotically complex chemical reaction. This is confirmed by the effect of brain diseases on consciousness.

3. Our cognitive faculties have resulted from blind mechanisms like natural selection, working on sources of genetic variation such as random genetic mutation, yet are reliable for distinguishing between truth and false aspects of reality, such as the claim that our cognitive faculties have resulted from blind mechanisms.

4. Evolution is a blind process that has no teleology; whatever behavior works is the behavior that survives. Yet ethical norms of behavior should not be based on what works or what will lead to survival but should be based on concepts not found in nature (even though nature is all that exists).

Atheist Response to 3 and 4: Obviously not all brains are capable of distinguising truth from falsehood, otherwise we wouldn’t have so many religious people (Sorry, Joe, but I can’t pretend to be an atheist without the replicating the proper tone). As for ethical behaviour, the survival value of many ethical positions is well established. Vampire bats, for instance, will often share a portion of their meal with a member of their group who has not eaten. This increases the overall survival chances of the group in the long run. Morals are simply group survival principles.

5) The brain is nothing more than a physical system whose operation is governed solely by the laws of chemistry and physics. Nevertheless, a person’s beliefs (i.e., about the purported existence of deities) are not determined by random fluctuations in the natural laws but are chosen by the individual and should be considered “rational.”

Atheist Response to 5: As Feurbach made clear, beliefs about a supreme being are simply wishful thinking masquerading as truth. Belief in life after death is simply the ultimate desire to survive. Thus the existence of religious beliefs are perfectly rational, though the beliefs themselves are utterly without merit.

6) A human being has a finite ability to know yet should be taken seriously when making claims that no infinite beings exist.

Atheist Response to 6: Of course perfect knowledge is not possible, however it’s really not necessary. One can simply observe that everything we do know confirms that a mechanical account of the universe is sufficient to account for all that we see and experience. God is extraneous.

Whew! It’s hard work being that skeptical. Now the problems with the responses.

1 and 2: It is of course possible that the mind is, in essence, an illusion of our personal experience. However, what is very clear is that no amount of knowledge of this fact seems to overcome that illusion. Thus, Sam Harris, chooses to spend his time bashing religion and does not choose to walk off the top of a tall building. Like everyone else, he is quite content to exist within the illusion of consciousness. He simply wishes people would disregard the “religious portion” of said illusions. This is not logical thinking.

The only consistent atheist is an atheist who actually values his own life and the lives of others in keeping with his knowledge of life’s arbitrary nature. In sum, when Sam Harris walks off a tall building, I’ll believe he’s smoking what he’s selling.

3 and 4: Some minimally ethical behaviour may indeed be biological in nature, at least for communal animals. We see this ethic in place in ancient Rome where the concept of doing good unto those who might return the favor was in vogue. The Christian view, however, raises the bar quite a bit higher. There can be no biological necessity for tithing and charity and a life dedicated to sacrifice for strangers. And yet, as I’ve discussed before, this type of “moral entrepreneurship” has proven extremely efficacious (at least if you value human life) and has led to social innovations such as orphanages and hospitals which most atheists take for granted. Yet these things are not biologically mandated.

5: Feurbach and Freud were right about the inherent religious nature of man. I only question their assumptions of the source of this nature. The claim that it is a byproduct of evolution is not demonstrable. It is equally possible that we seek that which we lack and yet somehow expect or need. As Joseph Campbell said, the core of all mythic beliefs is the desire to escape “mere naturalness.” Indeed, and why should evolution produce such a desire, which is evident in all of written history.

As for 6, a mechanical account of the universe certainly is true to a point. However, science has limits. We can not and probably will not ever be able to account for the existence of the universe itself. (The mechanists are also –leaving evolution aside — having a very difficult time accounting for the existence of life on earth.)

As I’ve written before, mechanistic accounts of existence require “probabalistic resources” well beyond the imaginations of most people. To our knowledge, there are not “many worlds.” There is only one and its existence is, at best for the atheist, a complete mystery. At worst (again, for the atheist) it is evidence for the defense.

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