Mind and God
December 5, 2011

For all you New Atheists out there, a little compare and contrast exercise. Tell me if you think this proof makes sense:

  1. My mind is identical to certain neurochemical processes in the brain.
  2. We have observed these neurochemical processes, and have verified that they exist.
  3. Therefore, my mind exists.

If that one sounds valid, how about this one?

  1. God is identical to the whole of nature.
  2. We have observed the whole of nature, and verified that it exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I can think of two objections to the second proof. The first is that a lot of modern theists might not be able to sign onto our working definition of God. Fair enough, but I should note that our pantheistic account is not wholly without precedent — Baruch Spinoza believed in deus sive natura (God or nature) as interchangeable properties, and much of Eastern philosophy contains roughly analogous concepts. (Replace “God” with “tao,” and the proof still holds.)

The second, stickier objection is that “God” in this proof has a form, but not much content. (Same goes for tao.) We can point to physical properties we believe to be correlated with God as much as we’d like, but the deity’s most important properties are entirely spiritual. So demonstrating the existence of certain physical phenomena that we’d expect to exist in a God-created universe really tells us absolutely nothing.

So for atheists who believe in the existence of their own minds, here’s the dilemma: why does that rebuttal apply to the second proof, but not the first?

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On Godless Theology
November 26, 2011

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.


Why Even Atheists Need Myths
December 23, 2010

God is my Partisan
Image via Wikipedia

So yesterday I alluded to the notion that you can’t coherently rebut arguments for the existence of God without either confronting them on their own turf (metaphysics) or challenging the whole concept of metaphysical fact. Ever since I finally rejected the argument from empiricism, I’ve preferred the latter.

Crudely speaking, I’m a logical positivist. My view is that there is no such thing as metaphysical fact, since facts are statements about the word that are verifiable and either true or false. You can create a false statement pertaining to metaphysics if you claim a metaphysical force (like, say, the mind, a ghost, etc.) somehow interacted directly with physical objects, because such a phenomenon is logically impossible. However, statements that are of a purely metaphysical nature can be neither true nor false.

So if you ask me if I think there exists an interventionist God who has agency in the real world, I’m going to give an emphatic no. But if you asked me if I think the God of Einstein and Spinoza exists — an impersonal, abstract intelligence who “reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists” — then I would say you’re asking the wrong question.

When it comes to purely metaphysical claims about God, both the people making them and the people listening tend to mistake them for statements of fact about the universe. Instead, I see them as statements about the conscious state of the speaker, and the structure of her perception and cognition. “God is all around me” isn’t a factual statement like “the dog is brown,” but an expression of sentiment. A clearer way to phrase this expression of sentiment might be: “I am having the experience of being surrounded by an omniscient being.”

Put that way, most forms of metaphysics might be better understood as wayward children of phenomenology, or the philosophical study of the structure of our experiences. This discipline is where philosophy overlaps most closely with good old-fashioned psychoanalysis. It also has a certain literary quality to it: phenomenology can illuminate the inner workings of the human psyche in a manner very similar to (but more direct than) that of brilliant first-person narration. It’s no coincidence that phenomenology overlaps quite a bit with existentialism, probably the one school of Western philosophy to have directly inspired more fiction than any other. The phenomenologist, the psychoanalyst, the existentialist and the fiction writer all share a common mission: to articulate what it means to want, fear, and feel like a living person. We remain fascinated by these efforts because they help explain us to ourselves and make us better at being what we are.

Religious narratives do the same thing, although stylistically they’re obviously closer to fiction than phenomenology. This is why it’s disappointing to hear other atheists refer to them as “myth” and use the term derisively. Since when have myths been less than fascinating? Since when hasn’t pretty much everyone used some fictional narrative or another (whether they were aware it was fiction or not) as an explanatory tool for understanding the self? Even phenomenology is more or less a myth: it’s an ongoing attempt to put into words a structural understanding of our “mind” and “consciousness.” These things are purely metaphysical beasts, not real-world entities. Any attempt to articulate them can only end in crude metaphor.

But if crude metaphor is all we have to go on, it suffices. It may not be capital-T true, but it still reveals something in us we couldn’t even catch a glimpse of otherwise. That’s why I compared it to literature, and that’s why I think religion still has something to teach to the atheist. Remember: When we want to commend authors like Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy for the richness, beauty, purity, and sheer, awe-inspiring might of their fiction, we have a word that encapsulates all of that. We call their work Biblical.

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The Fallacies Of Atheism
December 22, 2010

Moral Enlightenment
Image by jurvetson via Flickr

Playing off of my last post, I think one of the worst intellectual traps the atheist can fall into is the shallow argument. Pretty much everyone has a natural bias to arguments featuring conclusions they happen to agree with, whether or not those arguments are totally sound. And when you take an uncharitable view to people who challenge those arguments, it can be hard to effectively judge their point against your own. So you end up with two fairly common fallacies among ardent atheists:

1.) Failure to distinguish between different religious claims. This one is the less common one. After all, these things should be pretty obvious: Not everyone who calls herself a Christian thinks the Bible is the literal word of God. Not everyone reaching for eternal reward thinks that faith in his deity is the only way to get there. Hell, some religious don’t don’t even think that God is omniscient, or interacts with the physical world in any observable way. I imagine if I were one of those people, I would be pretty weary of being conflated with Creationists.

2.) Overreliance on the argument from empiricism. Let’s talk about this guy:

I love this man. He’s a comic genius, and it’s great that he’s also public about his atheism in a thoughtful, articulate, non-dickish manner. But in his recent column on why he’s an atheist — the one all of my atheist tweeps keep linking around — he makes the appeal for atheism from science. It’s a popular argument, but it’s also a bad one.

The problem with the argument is that it takes multiple arguments and collapses them into one, in a manner not unlike the first fallacy. It confuses empirical claims with metaphysical claims. Science, of course, is only interested in the former.

The difference between an empirical claim and a metaphysical claim is the difference between saying, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts,” and, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts because a divine intelligence was displeased with the pharaoh for keeping the tribe of Israel enslaved.” The first one is definitively true or false, and you can look at evidence in the real world to make a judgment one way or the other. That’s where science comes in. But as far as divine intelligences go, science has absolutely nothing to say. You can’t measure or quantify a mind. You might be able to track physical phenomenon that are correlated with what one might want to call a mind, but science can’t help us make that determination.

(Aside: This cuts both ways, of course. You might witness something you want to call a miracle, because you see no logical explanation for it. But the fact that there is no explanation that science can currently afford us does not mean you can make any definitive metaphysical claim about the event. As the analytic philosopher of logic A.J. Ayer would point out, the solitary fact that the Red Sea miraculously parted does not mean that God did it — not unless your definition of God is solely, “that which parted the Red Sea.”)

My point isn’t that these questions have no definitive answer. My point is that this reliance on science to explain everything is cheap and intellectually lazy. Any argument over the existence of God has to take metaphysics into account as a discipline entirely separate from empirical observation.

That means taking the other philosophical problems of a godless universe seriously as well. For example: If there is no God, do we have any reason to believe that there are actions or consequences that are good and bad independent of our feelings about them? What is good? Do we have any reasons to be good? What’s the point of doing anything, really?

These questions don’t have scientific answers, either.* And all we accomplish by pretending that the answers are easy or obvious is to make ourselves willing accomplices in our own ignorance. Instead, I find it more helpful to see these questions as a gift to atheists: the universe is far more ambiguous without a God to tell us right from wrong, but it’s also full of so much more mystery and wonder. We squander that gift when we dismiss challenges to our premises out of hand. Better to find out what clues believers can bring to the hunt.

*Of course, some prominent atheists, most notably Sam Harris (pictured), disagree. Sam Harris is wrong.

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Wittgenblogging: Proposition 4 and the Cartesian Circle
November 11, 2010

Meditationes de prima philosophia - Renatus Ca...
Image via Wikipedia

Peter highlights one of the more intriguing findings of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ fourth proposition, regarding the slipperiness of trying to describe or prove logic itself. Logic is the underlying framework of the universe; you can’t construct a proof to demonstrate the validity of logic, or precisely describe logic itself, because doing so would require stepping outside of logic. That’s not something we’re capable of. Peter has a good analogy:

Sort of how I can’t really tell you what it’s like to be alive, because both you and I would have to be dead first to actually comprehend the contrast.

I first encountered the problem of how to demonstrate that logic or reason were useful tools for understanding the universe in Descartes’ Meditations. Early on in the Meditations, Descartes decides that if he can’t be certain of the validity of his perception, then reason is all he has to rely on. But then he starts asking himself why he has any reason to think that reason itself is reliable, and the result is the painfully contorted piece of reasoning we call the Cartesian Circle.

It goes like this:

  1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive (meaning, essentially, can hold in my mind and understand wholly from a mental picture) is true.
  2. I know that my clear and distinct perceptions are accurate because they are given to me by God, and God is not a deceiver.
  3. I know God exists because I can clearly and distinctly perceive Him. I just imagine a perfect, infinite being, and understand that it is more perfect for something to exist than to not exist.

I don’t think I need to spell out the problems here. And it shouldn’t be hard to see why I prefer Wittgenstein’s far more elegant answer to the question: “How do we know reason itself is valid?”

Thanks for your response to my last question. Did Kant's a priori have any influence on how Christians perceive their God? For instance, everyone (to my knowledge) in the old testament perceives God through one of the five senses, however I doubt all Christians still claim to experience their God that way. I would ask a Christian this, but I live in Vermont so no one I know is religious.
October 8, 2010

Well, I’m really the wrong person to ask if you’re looking for the opinion of a Christian. But most of the accounts I’ve heard and read from other Christians tend to rely on some sort of a posteriori evidence, be it an external event they’re convinced was caused by God, or just the sensation of His presence (I’m calling this a posteriori because these folks have the phenomenological experience of some external force acting upon them, regardless of whether or not that is actually what’s going on).

On the other hand, maybe claims like, “I was lost until I found God” could be taken to be a priori, because it could mean that these particular individuals found within themselves, entirely through self-reflection, that lack which could only be mitigated by a divine presence. But then again, saying that you’re unfulfilled without God doesn’t imply the existence of God—it could just as easily mean that you’re doomed to be permanently unfulfilled. There’s another step somewhere in there.

So I don’t really know. The only truly a priori argument I can think of for the existence of God—in the Kantian sense, unless I’m mistaken, though this predates Kant—is Descarte’s proof. But Descarte’s proof is a total mess, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to emulate it.

I guess I’ll open this up to the believers in my readership. Not just the Christians, but anyone who places faith in the divine. Are you basing that faith off of external evidence, personal reflection, or some combination of the two?

Philosophers Agree: Existence of God and Nature of Morality are Two Different Questions
July 10, 2010

Well whaddya know. On the same day I argued that the existence of universal moral norms can’t possibly be contingent on the existence of God, the inestimable Massimo Pigliucci (the author of my favorite philosophy blog right now), wrote this:

Despite the fact that more and more people are comfortable “coming out” as atheists, the word is still very much associated with being immoral, or at the very least amoral. This, of course, despite the fact that there is neither logical nor empirical reason to draw that conclusion. Ever since Plato’sEuthyphro dialogue, philosophers have agreed that gods are simply irrelevant to morality, regardless of whether they exist or not. And of course modern sociological research shows that atheists are just as moral as religious believers. Still, the stigma persists.

It’s not uncommon to hear people—mostly critics—say of philosophy that it offers no answers, only further questions. And while that may be true in the sense that you can’t empirically verify a philosophical proposition (at least not since we stopped called science “natural philosophy” a few centuries back), there is such a thing as an overwhelming consensus among philosophers. In the case of folks like Governor Mitch Daniels, it may be impossible to prove or disprove his attacks on atheism, one way or another, but suffice to say that anyone who has made a serious study of philosophy understands that basic logic is not on his side.

By the way, the rest of Pigliucci’s post on the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon is very much worth reading. I don’t have much to add to it except to say that I’ve been planning for a while on writing a post with more or less the exact same conclusions, except probably not as good.

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