Saturday, March 17, 2007

What Debate - Part 3

But fans of one set of axioms often point out that a conclusion or model derived from the opposite set of axioms fails to explain something about the world we observe. This brings me to the last point I want to make in this post. Remember that these axioms correspond to requirements. So different people have different requirements for what a satisfactory explanation of the universe must be. This means that a Christian "God did it"-style explanation will not satisfy an atheist – an atheist will claim that this is no explanation at all. And an atheist's "it just happened naturally via mechanisms described by math and physical law"-style explanation will not satisfy a Christian – a Christian will claim that this is no explanation at all.

For example, how did life come from non-life?

An atheist would probably give an explanation that goes along the lines of Dawkins' "survival machines" idea, best explained in his essay "The Replicators", which is the third chapter of "The Selfish Gene". To try and summarize that entire chapter into one sentence gives us something like the following: Once self-replicating molecules came around (and, of course, this only needs to have happened once), they competed for resources until the necessary building blocks were used up, and then some random mutations enabled them to "eat" each other, and then some random mutations allowed for self-preserving defense mechanisms, and so on, leading to the prokaryotic cell… or something along these lines. In other words, given that we live in a world where chemistry is possible, it is almost inevitable that life would form.
A Christian would probably focus his explanation on the idea that God created the universe as an environment where life could form, and then set things up (or miraculously acted) in such a way that life did form. (I do apologize if I don't do the Christian view justice. Please believe me when I say I am trying to be as fair as I can).
The Christian may not be satisfied with the atheist's idea that life appeared, and then evolved, through "accidents", without a purpose, for no reason. The atheist may not be satisfied with the Christian's idea that life was deliberately made by a Creator for some reason - because, then, the problem shifts to the origin of the Creator, which could not even be speculated about. To the Christian, the development of the world could not have been an accident. To the atheist, the natural world was all accidents until intelligence (decision-making with foresight) came along sometime in the last million years.
(In fact, I think that what anchors most people to theism is the thought that the world as a whole would have no meaning if it were not deliberately created as part of a plan, and so the atheist world view simply cannot be correct, because the world must have meaning).
To the atheist, one preferred axiom might be "Intelligence is nothing more than a certain pattern of stuff" - a certain very complex kind of chemistry that embodies within itself a model of the world around it and of itself. To the Christian, one preferred axiom might be "Stuff can only exist if it is deliberately created by an intelligence". Surely you can see the incompatibility between those axioms, and the fact that neither axiom can be proven or disproven.
I hope you can see why I think we would all benefit from understanding that the other side is not "wrong", that they are just working on a different set of assumptions, and that there is no way to say that one set of assumptions is better than the other. You may say that the evidence is more elegantly explained by your assumptions, but that's because you have different requirements for what a satisfying explanation is - Christian explanations must address "why" things are the way they are (for what possible purpose), and atheist explanations must address "how" things got the way they are (through what possible naturalistic processes). The Christian vs atheist "debate" focuses on things that the opponent's world view has a little more trouble explaining, and ignores the fact that different people have different expectations for the explanations they find satisfying, and that neither side can be disproven - so in the end, you just believe what works for you, but you can't expect it to work for everyone. Each side should be aiming to convince the other of the validity of their axioms, not of the truth of the consequences of those axioms. It's quite frustrating, really.

3 comments:

Hey Skipper said...

Randy:

I hope you can see why I think we would all benefit from understanding that the other side is not "wrong", that they are just working on a different set of assumptions

That is wrong.

First off, you created an atheist strawman -- a deist might very well come to the same conclusion.

Second, a materialist (the more correct term) is positing a hypothesis that might eventually become testable. This is not an answer, just a best guess.

In stark contrast, a Christian is, in fact, providing a very specific answer as Truth.

The two could not be more differenet.

bernardo said...

"...you created an atheist strawman..."

How's that?

"...a deist might very well come to the same conclusion."

Which conclusion?

"...a materialist ... is positing a hypothesis that might eventually become testable."

What testable naturalistic/materialistic hypothesis rules out a Creator?

"In stark contrast, a Christian is, in fact, providing a very specific answer as Truth."

Not all theists are like that. Not even all self-proclaimed Christians are like that (although some Christians believe that being like that is part of the definition of being a Christian).

You complain about the relativism of this post and then complain that the Christians are too sure that they are right. You have to realize you can't have your cake and eat it too...

Randy Kirk said...

It would be interesting to take a poll of 100 Christians and 100 atheists.

Questions to Christians: Is there any chance that the universe and everything in it came about by natural cause and effect without God?
Can you see how an intellectually honest person could come to that conclusion?

Questions to Athesist: Is there any chance that Jesus Christ is the son of God and rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of God?
Can you see how an intellectually honest person could come to that conclusion?

I think I know how it would come out, because I've kind of done this around the blogosphere. But sometimes people posture in this environment.