Today, I started reading this article on the Philosopher’s Eye. It’s an atheist blog, or at least the writer of this article is. They are discussing a book by Alex Rosenberg entitled “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. Should you read the book? Only if you want some laughs, I guess. Why is it when someone has an opposing point of view they always attack straw men? I see this from the theists and get tired of it, and yet the atheists do it too. Must be the natural human thing. In this blog post, I’m going to respond to the article bit-by-bit, addressing the arguments within their own context. This may take awhile, so fasten your seat-belts.
First, let me establish the fact that I am an existentialist of the same kind as Kierkegaard, or at least Soren Kierkegaard has the point of view closest to mine. That is to say, I don’t believe things can be proven. Don’t let that scare you. That’s not to say they don’t exist. (Note: I am going to make tons of assumptions for this article.) In a series of blog posts, I intend to fully develop my philosophy, but for now you can read this article and proceed to finishing this one.
What we rely on….
I understand most people want something to rely on. Most people want to accept the real world. Let’s make the assumption that it is real, then, right? What can we know about it? The article cited above and the book it addresses both agree that science is all we can know. What is science? Using the context of the article, we will consider “science” to be “common sense”. I will first discuss why this only hurts their argument, and then I will present my definition of science (which is the more common definition) and speak of why it also does not support their point of view.
First, evidence of what they said:
Those who oppose scientism usually operate under the misapprehension that science is some kind of intellectual subculture or institution, which some hope to promote above other subcultures and institutions. Rosenberg cuts through this pernicious nonsense by pointing out that the word ‘science’, used properly, only refers to common sense rigorously applied.
I’m not sure who Rosenberg is talking to, but they certainly aren’t my friends. Subculture? What? When did that ever disqualify something from being accurate / correct / truthful?
Ah, science as common sense. I can see where they get this from (see next paragraph). Common sense seems… reasonable. After all, the relationship between common sense and reason is that they are, by nature, mutually dependent – two different descriptions of the same reality. Not so fast! If you look at what is commonly associated with “reason”, you see the scientific community making careful deductions about reality based on already known facts. When you think of common sense, you may, like me, think of wise decisions on-the-fly. Both take intelligence, but the latter doesn’t take precise derivation or correctness, whereas the former does (after all, when we use reason, we are trying to find the exact truth, not exactly what might be the better bank to invest in). Almost anyone can exercise common sense (well, maybe), since an exact answer about reality isn’t necessary: just one that gets us a good result. Common sense gets us Newton’s laws. For example, an object in motion is going to stay in motion unless sliding on a carpet floor (on which it experiences friction, slowing it down). The moon doesn’t fall because it is flying around the Earth really fast. Nevermind relativity or how the Earth is considered to be “sitting” with respect to the moon. The only thing we care about with common sense is that the model of reality works. That’s exactly why the Flat Earth Society exists. When we use reason, on the other hand, we want to know the actual truth. This requires knowing the mechanism. For example, though the arbitrary law of friction works (force = coefficient of friction * normal force), we look deeper and discover atoms and electromagnetic forces are what is actually at work. This looking in deeper is the scientific method, which brings me to my next paragraph.
Unfortunately, the author is mixing up science with the scientific method. The former, in my opinion, is simply observation of reality (more like conscientious: you are trying to learn about reality by paying close attention to it). That’s what it has always been. We perform science all the time (you are awake and carefully reading this blog, right?). The latter (scientific method) is actually making logical deductions based on those observations. Ironically, scientific method isn’t going to give us perfect truth, either. Allow me to explain.
Spontaneous Generation was once a credible theory. Test after scientific test showed that maggots and microorganisms arose out of dead meat. Then one day, someone performed a test (they put the meat in a capped jar) and killed the theory. For the longest time, people had believed such a lie until someone did something to show it was wrong. In retrospect, you would think it was a simple mistake with a simple solution and science triumphed. Right? Actually, what it did was give me evidence for this article to point out how science can be wrong for hundreds of years and people not even realize it. The same thing could be said about many scientific “discoveries” and theories today, which today seem flawless. It isn’t perfect people. Don’t be gullible, willing to accept the “expert” opinion on science. (The deeper I go into the scientific community, the more I realize how much of a joke some scientific work really is, despite some of it being “corrected” with statistical analysis. That’s not to say all work is bad, but there is a ton of work out there that I imagine people trust despite the illegitimate claims.)
I’ve established the fact that science isn’t perfect, but if you read the article I posted above, you’ll realize I would go farther than that and say there is an indeterminate possibility (that is, maybe small, maybe very large) that science doesn’t speak of truth at all. I made the assumption above that there is a reality (and it’s not really an assumption, depending on how you define / what you consider to be “reality”). However, what we know about that reality can be very limited. It can be especially limited if you put reality inside of a box. Let me explain…
The God in a Box
Back to the article that started this post, we read the following…
Science – i.e. common sense – tells us that atheism is pretty much a certainty. The reason is quite straightforward. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that disorder and homogeneity steadily increase everywhere in the universe. Whatever physics has left to tell us, it almost certainly won’t contradict this fundamental law. But a purposeful agent, arranging things according to a conscious plan, would be transforming disorder to order. And this is never possible according to the second law (strictly speaking, it is possible, but so improbable as to be ruled out). This rules out most conceptions of God straight away.
And I lolled. It’s another God-in-my-box sort of thing. You’d think the author might have considered the fact that the laws of physics didn’t exist when God created the universe. Apparently, the author didn’t think that far. For Pete’s sake, even time didn’t exist – God had to create that too. This should say something about the awesomeness of God, not limit Him. Why does God have to be limited? Don’t people understand that they don’t have to put God in a box? If God doesn’t fit, it doesn’t mean that the idea of a supreme being is false – it may mean that their concept of this supreme being is too small, too limited to be correct. Thus, the God who fits that definition really does NOT exist! Thus, if we are to have a correct understanding of a real God, we must be willing to accept that this God is bigger than the boxes people want to put Him in.
I could go on ranting about how people use the crappy argument about God of the gaps. Seriously people: there will always be gaps. Your very existence (which will never be explained by scientific method because it is always assumed) will never be explained. Certainly people have come up with explanations for how you just popped into existence, but no one but theists have ever offered an explanation as to why you, a finite object of limited power, are still in existence. You can call this existence-sustaining force whatever you want. I call it “God”, though I attach more to that word than you would. At the very least, however, “God” is that which sustains the existence of everything.
Oh yeah, something about gaps. Science always has them. Science should give you more questions, not less. If you don’t have them, there’s a problem: you’re not being open-minded enough. Your knowledge is limited (unless you’re God), so you should have questions. I have a simple analogy for science and religion: religion is like a ghost block. It’s completely solid, but you’re not sure whether it’s real. Science is like a solid block, but when you look closer, you start seeing cracks. A closer look reveals you are standing on sand. An even closer look reveals you are standing on ever tinier particles. The closer you look, the more you begin to wonder if you are actually standing on anything at all. If you ever reach that point, you’re welcome to join the existentialist club: we’ve known this problem for centuries if not millennia. Moving on…
A Quick Glance at Design and Evolution…
At some point, I would like to discuss design and evolution, but that’s not really fitting for this article of mine. I mention it because it is in the book being addressed by the instigating article and leads to the next point of discussion. Do note that I do not deny the possibility of [macro] evolution, though I do have many reasons for not believing it.
I have to say, Rosenberg does see the natural, scientific conclusion about consciousness, though I laughed at the irony.
Vividly and painstakingly, Rosenberg undermines our fundamental belief that we consciously direct our actions. He argues that it is impossible that any of the processes occurring in our brain can have representative content. They can’t be about anything at all.
But science compels us to believe that brain processes are the only causes of our voluntary actions. They are the only identifiable physical causes of our actions, and the supposition that our actions have non-physical causes is scientifically indefensible. This means that our actions can’t, however much they seem to, be caused by thoughts about intended results, or indeed thoughts about anything at all. Nothing is more natural than believing that part of what caused me to buy bread today was a thought about the absence of bread in my house and my intention to have toast in the morning. But this can’t be right; what caused my action was a group of brain processes that were not about bread, nor about tomorrow morning, nor about my house, nor about anything at all.
And I thought about what this article said. Really? I didn’t think about it? It depends on the definition of “about”. I guess Rosenberg never thought about what he was saying. Okay, okay, enough of the silly criticism. After all, he is correct if we are to assume that the physical world is all that there is and that the brain is the only source of voluntary action. (Although, some would argue that the randomness in the atomic wave-function does conceal a hidden “free will” so-to-speak, but I’m not of the camp of a statistical interpretation of the wave-function. I may explain why that is in another post.) Think about it: if the brain is all we have, where do we get the idea of consciousness? Denying it is silly (at least from my perspective, since I have a consciousness) – it only rejects the basis for believing a world exists in the first place. If the world didn’t exist, why talk about it? What are we going to say about it then? Apparently, consciousness must not be a scientifically explainable thing, then. Hm… that implies there is more to this world than just the physical. Weird no? Not really. Scientists are already talking about a multi-dimensional universe; why not throw another universe into the bag? Of course, now we’re entering ground that can’t be explained by naturalistic science (observation of the physical). This requires a different kind of science, but unfortunately for the atheists, this is ground that only the religious and the philosophers have trodden upon.
The anti-purpose-driven life…
I like how Rosenberg carves into [imaginary] stone the logical conclusion of things: Life if meaningless (assuming the naturalistic perspective). Rosenberg’s conclusion about consciousness leads the author of the article to state:
Once Rosenberg has this claim in place he can go on to debunk history, biography, literature, and the social sciences. All of these explain human actions as if they are caused by conscious intentions. Their explanations are, therefore, no more accurate than the ‘rough indicators’ of ordinary folk psychology.
It is worth dwelling on what this entails. Human life as a whole has no meaning, no goal, and no purpose. Neither our individual lives nor human history in general are governed by purposes – not our own, and not anybody else’s.
Then he states some consequences and reaches another controversial point:
Life is a walking shadow. History is one damn thing after another. This is not a worldview or a belief system; it is a mere reading off of the scientific facts as they apply to human life and history. Freedom from illusions of progress and purpose should, Rosenberg says, allow us to enjoy life. Hence the subtitle of the book. Strut and fret your hour upon the stage, then out brief candle. No worries.
“Life is a walking shadow” – No doubt a line put in there to be memorable, but indeed, how expressive. “This is not a worldview” – Ahem. It is according to my definition of “worldview” and the definition of those who agree with me. lol. “… or a belief system.” Some would say this is redundant, but the author put it in there in case people had a different definition. Bravo for covering the bases.
Oh freedom from illusion! Isn’t all of human knowledge an illusion? I’m sensing a “duh” moment coming on. Anyways… To some people, no purpose may seem like freedom, but to some, it’s cause for concern. Suppose you are wrong – suppose there IS purpose, and you happen to be missing out on it. If you want to miss out, suit yourself. From my experience, people like having a purpose; think of how much better people work when they have a goal. Surely there is a reason for bonuses or salary raises, no? Surely there is a reason for religion, no? Surely there is a reason for doing anything, no? Why enjoy yourself if there is no point to it all? If people want to believe in purpose and/or God, why not let them? Is there something wrong with believing that there is a purpose in things even if it’s wrong? It reminds me of a conversation Ben Stein had with renowned atheist Richard Dawkins.
Specifically, what I remembered was the following (I don’t expect you to watch the video and try to figure out what I was referencing, so I’m putting it here):
Ben Stein asked:
How ’bout if people believed in a God of infinite lovingness and kindness and forgiveness and generosity, sort of like a modern-day God – why spoil it for them?
Dawkins went on to call the lack of God “liberating”. Surely, it is liberating in the sense that you are no longer held accountable for your actions, assuming God is going to judge you for them. On the other hand, I find it rather liberating believing and following God: I am more free to do what I want and not simply succumb to doing whatever my impulses feel like. Whatever… that’s all a matter of perspective anyways.
The Atheist’s Guide is perhaps too popular in its tone for serious philosophers to respond to, while its most interesting arguments are far too complex for non-philosophers to engage with in a productive way…
I would define myself as a serious philosopher, though most people wouldn’t recognize me as one because I don’t have a degree in philosophy. lol. Academia! Now there’s a topic for ya! Anyways… the article does begin to note something I discussed:
Should we give up on believing in his insightfulness just because we learn that the causal mechanisms he invoked are fictional as well? And Faulkner was perhaps right to remind us that even if life is a tale told by an idiot, there remains some interest beyond mere entertainment in commenting upon the sound and the fury.
That is, it’s possible that what was said was wrong, just as what I said might be wrong. Now doesn’t make my article worth re-reading. LOL!