Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What Debate - Part 2

Both sides of the God vs nogod debate love to point out the "evidence" that supports their beliefs. This is BS, whether it's Behe doing it or Dawkins doing it. Sure, some things may seem hard to explain if you restrict yourself to a naturalist world view (such as the human mind, and the origins of many complex but effective biological structures and systems), and some things may seem hard to explain if you restrict yourself to a "The Bible is true" / "God loves us" point of view (such as all the injustice and unnecessary suffering in the world, the self-contradictory nature of Jesus, or the discrepancies between history (and natural history) as told in the Bible and as deduced from archaeological/scientific observations). But the fact is, all those things CAN be explained/rationalized into the axiomatic system of your choice. So yes, I strongly belief that the axioms you pick are a matter of personal preference. Neither set of axioms can be disproven. Both atheism and Christianity are self-consistent and can explain all the things we see in the world around us. It is impossible to prove that one set is "right" and the other is "wrong". These axioms are simply not testable. You choose whichever ones work for you.

Why do some people prefer the atheist axioms and other people prefer the Christian axioms? I don't know. You'd have to ask them. Many factors are probably involved, like upbringing, education (physics/math/engineering vs art/history/literature), maybe even genetics. But one thing is for sure: To some people, the atheist axioms seem more elegant, more satisfying, more believable, and make for a preferable world. And to some other people, the Christian axioms seem more elegant, more satisfying, more believable, and make for a preferable world. I really don't think there's a way to say that one of those groups is right and the other is wrong.

(Some atheists say that the preference for those foolish religious axioms is a byproduct of evolution, as are most things about the brain. On top of that, the persistence of these axioms over time is a result of the evolution and "aggressive marketing" of churches, of the memetic engineering that churches are so good at. Personally I think these atheists have excellent points. Still, I don't think that these points will make the religious axioms seem any less true to religious people, despite the optimism shown in the title of the most famous book about this topic ).


Anonymous said...

What motivates are preferences?
Where do preferences come from and how are they grown and matured in a human. As these preferences are what is forming are axioms of life.

Until we are able to examine ourselves truthfully and choose our preferences I think we are more of a responder or reactionary.

I will go a step further and say most people can't examine themselves truthfully. Most people are old chronologically but not mature adults.

Thus I don't think most people know how to make a healthy decision.

bernardo said...

I agree that a huge question is where the preferences come from, and that we are only responding/reacting until we can examine ourselves truthfully (or at least more truthfully than most people do). However, I would not go so far as to say that most people are too immature to be pragmatic or to engage in self-discovery.

I think the desire to believe in the theistic axioms comes from a few different factors. I'm still developing these ideas, though, so this is a very tentative hypothesis for now.

One, it is very nice to think that the universe has meaning, a purpose, that it was designed as part of a plan. This means you are participating in a huge and uniquely important narrative, one where your life actually has importance, one where events are not random or unguided but actually head towards a goal, a wonderful goal that will fulfill the vision of a loving Creator. Take that away, and a whole dimension of what the world is "about" disappears; The world is uncaring, bleak, and meaningless, nothing has "a point" other than to satisfy each short-lived individual. I think this is what makes most theists so sure that atheism can't be correct: The world must have a meaning. How did they come to be so convinced that the world must have a meaning? That's the real question. From being given this very likable idea as "truth" from a young age (or discovering it and adopting it later), and from that point on seeing the world through a filter where few events happen "by chance", a filter which in turns reinforces the idea, and the whole thing snowballs until a "meaningless world" alternative is pretty much out of the question.

Two, the illusion of the soul. Consciousness is an amazing thing. Our unified perspective, with information from our senses and our thoughts, our emotions, the occasional feeling of a "sixth sense" (yes, unlikely hunches are occasionally confirmed, as statistics dictates), all make us feel that our mind has to be something other than a pattern of molecules. Things have MEANING, we FEEL things, we SEE things, we INTERPRET things, we have IDENTITY. "I think, therefore I am". "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter". However, consciousness might be a simple consequence of a self-referential model of the world, such as the one encoded by the architecture and chemistry of our brain. We might be computers, just structured very differently from the computers we design, and this unique structure makes the mind more confusing to understand (since so many parts interact in hard-to-define ways) and more powerful (since it is flexible in its functioning, it can grow, and it can model things by vague patterns and "feelings" rather than by logical relationships). Most people do not take the trouble to try and understand the mind in such a way that they could appreciate it as a really powerful computer, rather than as a supernatural phenomenon. (On the other hand, ask anyone what parts of our behavior indicate a "sould" - i.e. what would be different about how people behaved if they didn't have a soul, what part of behavior cannot possibly be explained by a brain following physical law - and most people will not know how to answer. This does not disprove the idea of the soul, it just shows that most people like the idea but feel no need to justify it or to define it properly).

Three: For some reason, people have a lot more trouble with "the stuff that makes up the universe has always been around" than with "God has always been around". This is probably because "stuff" is real, it exists, you can't just claim whatever you want about it and rest assured that your explanation is a good one. God, on the other hand, is made-up, and can be assigned any property people can imagine, even (or, especially) when those properties cannot be properly defined. So "God did it" becomes much easier to say than "stuff works like this".

Four (and this is tied to "Three" above), the illusion of design. we are intelligent designers, we make things for a reason, through deliberate intent, as part of a plan. Most of what we do is not an "accident". So, when we see complex things around us that perform some complicated function very effectively through an interplay of almost-optimally-shaped systems, we want to "see" design. In other words, living things - especially humans - seem to be too special, and too good at what they do, to have happened by accident. So a Creator is necessary. (Never mind the strong possibility that accidents plus natural selection could indeed help lifeforms "climb mount improbable", or the fact that this logic means that the Creator must have been created, and his creator must have been created, etc).

Five, the illusion of intent, which is basically a combination of "Four" and "One" above. I am referring to what psychologists call a "hyperactive intentional agency detector", which we have evolved. Basically, there are two types of "causes": Mechanical causes (something happened as a natural physical consequence of a previous state) and intentional causes (a being wanted something and is trying to get it). We have evolved a somewhat paranoid brain, one that sees intentional agency where in fact there is only mechanical agency. In the wild, we benefit from being overly jumpy, from suspecting that there might be agency in the wind-blown grass or in a small mudslide. It is better to be worried that everything is out to get us, as this ensures that we detect (and escape from) the things that ARE out to get us. Our brain is good at seeing anything other than perfect stillness as "alive", or at least as the consequence of an entity that has a desire. So not only do we LIKE to imagine the world as part of a plan, we might have EVOLVED to have this psychological predisposition to begin with. I didn't do a very good job of explaining this, so I beg you to read a much better (and really short) article on the topic here. Or, here is Michael Shermer summarizing Daniel Dennett's theory on the topic: "Humans have brains that are big enough to be both self-aware and aware that others are self-aware. This “theory of mind,” or what Dennett calls “adopting the intentional stance,” leads to a “hyperactive agent detection device” (HADD) that not only alerts us to real dangers, such as poisonous snakes, but also generates false positives, such as believing that rocks and trees are imbued with intentional minds, or spirits. “The memorable nymphs and fairies and goblins and demons that crowd the mythologies of every people are the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us.” This is animism that, in the well-known historical sequence, leads to polytheism and, eventually, monotheism. In other words, God is a false positive generated by our HADD."

There are other possibilities for why people might prefer the theistic axioms. Dawkins thinks it's because we evolved an instinct to believe what our parents say (kids that obey their parents are more likely to survive) and so children of theist parents become theists through this mechanism. (I'm personally not convinced of the power of this idea, but it might be right, or might be one factor). I suppose I ought to get around to reading this book on the topic.

Yay, yet another huge comment from me.

Randy Kirk said...

Short answer. Almost everyone probably thinks they have determined these things with great maturity. And there is commonly and inverse relationship between age and certainty. In other words, the older we get, the more we realize that we don't know as much as we thought we knew.

In theory, Christians are supposed to be humble enough to not think they are the source of knowledge, and not look to self-examination for preferences. Read the rule book, pray and pay attention to the leading of the Holy Spirit. It is only when we "lean on our own understanding" that we get into trouble.

I think this is generally also why strong atheists may get stereotyped as arrogant. Their source of knowledge is by definition their own. To the extent that we then say "my knowledge which I arrived at by my own unique means is better and more correct" this seems pretty dismissive of everyone else.

A Christian my say that he knows a better way, but the Christian is not the source of the knowledge, nor has he found it by his own unique path.

Hey Skipper said...


You generously portray both theism and atheism as intellectually indistinguishable in terms of the truth clailms they make.

IMHO, that amounts to intellectual relativism, and elides several profound differences between the two belief systems.

First, and probably most important, theists make universalist truth claims; materialists do not.

Secondly, in making those claims, theists are in fact making two claims: that God exists, and that their particular instantiation of God, that is, their religion, embodies the nature and goals of that god.

Unfortunately, given the plethora of mutually exclusive religions, unless there is a corresponding plethora of gods, then in at least every case but one, God != Religion.

Compounding this problem, the basis for all these competing religious truth claims is wholly inscrutable. One simply cannot claim, say, Mormonism, is a false religion without aiming that arrow at the heart of one's own religion.

Consequently, your claim that Christianity is internally consistent (generous; unfortunately, the Bible, and Christianity itself is just as full of contradictions as a room brimming with cats) really misses the core point: religion is completely inconsistent; even if one was to grant consistency to Christianity, that does nothing for the underlying dilemma.

Which would be fine, if religions conducted themselves with the attendant humility.

They do not.

bernardo said...

When I compare atheism with theism, by "theism" I mean believing that the universe was deliberately created by an entity as part of a plan. I guess this includes deism as well, not just Christianity and Islam and so on. I am not comparing atheism with the details and specific beliefs of each particular religion, just with the few broad ideas that all religions share.

Indeed, most religions have inconsistencies, but their followers manage to rationalize ways of looking at them so that they are not really inconsistent. So I don't think that claiming that a religion appears to you to be inconsistent is something that will get a religious person to understand your point of view - they'll just think that your concept of God is not as complete as theirs, and if it were, the supposed inconsistencies would not bother you.

What do you mean by "universalist truth claims"? Theists believe that there is probably a God and atheists believe that there probably isn't one. Yes, many theists are CONVINCED that there is a God, and some atheists are apparently CONVINCED that there isn't one. (At least that's what I hear. I have never met such an atheist). The purpose of my writing - currently in this blog, and eventually in a book - is to attack this "convinced" mindset. The bottom line is, one side could be right, and the other side could be right. More importantly from a practical point of view, we could be co-existing much more empathetically than we are right now. And if you claim you know for sure that the other side is wrong, then you're not being honest enough, or careful enough, about their structure of beliefs or yours.

I agree with you that you see that kind of certainty in religious people more than in atheists. But some atheists do act very certain, and I think they need to be more honest about what causes them to see the world as they do, and about what causes other people to see the world as they do.

Randy Kirk said...

Hey Skipper:

You've given me an idea. It seems all original and stuff. Probably isn't, but check out the new post "Path to personal perception of truth."

Hey Skipper said...


I think you aren't being entirely rigorous in your use of terms.

A theist is not the same as a deist, although your use of the term makes them seem almost the same.

theism |ˈθēˌizəm| noun belief in the existence of a god or gods, esp. belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures. Compare with deism .

deism |ˈdēizəm| noun belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe. The term is used chiefly of an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind. Compare with theism.

Except for spelling, there is no difference worth discussing between an atheist, agnostic, and deist. None leave any room for organized religion.

In contrast, theism is the general term for an overarching belief that is the sine qua non for religion.

Theism does not include deism, or vice versa; they are disjoint ideas.

Further, even if one was to construct a completely consistent religion -- who knows, Scientology might just be one -- that is irrelevant.

Okay, let's assume Christianity is internally consistent. However, it is just one instance of theism. It makes exclusionary univeralist claims. Whether those claims are internally consistent is unimportant, because those claims are directly contradict other exclusionary religious claims.

In other words, theism is internally inconsistent in the worst possible way: it is impossible to adjudicate between competing truth claims of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Mormonism, et al.

By stark contrast, it is eminently possible to adjudicate between competing materialist truth claims.

Conclusion: faith is what we use in the absence of knowledge.

Materialists are far better acquainted with that concept than theists.

bernardo said...

"I think you aren't being entirely rigorous in your use of terms."

I don't see how. I know what these terms mean. Where did I use them in such a way that violates the definitions?

"A theist is not the same as a deist, although your use of the term makes them seem almost the same."

I see deism as a form of theism. Deists believe that there was a Creator. Theists believe that there is a God. A Creator is a kind of God, so a deist is a kind of theist. It's just that the deist God set things up right to begin with while the typical theist God needs to keep patching up his work. Some people might say that the deist God is not as powerful, almighty, or omniwhatever as the typical theist God, but there's room for debate there.

"Except for spelling, there is no difference worth discussing between an atheist, agnostic, and deist. None leave any room for organized religion."

Incorrect. The deist's need to believe in a Creator, in the universe as being designed and made for a reason as part of a plan of a deliberate entity, puts the deist closer to the Christian than to the atheist, in my view. And there is plenty of room for organized religion to a deist. (Not as much as there is to someone who believes in miracles, but still plenty). I know one particular Christian, who is very serious about considering himself a Christian (goes to church and to Bible study every week and so on), and who is basically a deist. He works pretty hard to understand how much of Christianity can be accepted through a naturalistic filter - and, it turns out, a whole heck of a lot of it can, when you try. I went to service and to small group with him for a few weeks, and after each time I would ask him "How can you believe in A, B, and C?", and he would give me a naturalist way of looking at them that really impressed me. Maybe he only did it for my benefit, i.e. maybe that's not how he truly believes, just how he presented those ideas to me so that I might accept them. But still, he pretty much demonstrated to me how one could be a deist and a Christian at the same time. A whole lot more naturalism can fit into Christianity than most Christians care to include in their world view, and my friend packed in so much naturalism that I can't find anything to disagree with in his world view - other than what I consider to be the main difference between atheists/agnostics and deists/theists, which is the need for a Creator.

Saying that theism as a whole is inconsistent (and thus invalid as a whole) just because different religions make exclusionary claims is not fair. That's like saying politics is inconsistent (and thus invalid) because politicians (and non-politicians who care about politics) can't agree on how a government should govern or on the ideal society's balance between cooperation and competition. You cannot say that Christianity is clearly wrong just because Muslims disagree with some Christian points, or vice versa. Besides, not every religious person is absolutely convinced that their take on God is the only possibly right one. And there are a few things most religions do seem to agree on - most importantly, a Creator with a plan - so it is worthwhile to compare/contrast/debate that set of things with atheism.

And, on a side note, I prefer "naturalist" to "materialist", since to me "materialist" is someone who is at the mall all the time.