Thought v Experience

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

So, where are we, and how did we get this far. This is a short history as I see it, laid out in the order of discovery rather than the chronology of events.

The Dawn (The Preparation)…

Man acquires self awareness and reasoning capacity through evolution. Maybe other members of the 2.4 million year old Homo genus had it too. Details unimportant.

Man’s Journey…

1) Man sees himself think for the first time. At this point he figures: I think therefore I am – thinking starts to dominate. Even though we did have to wait for Descartes to spell that out. Man isn’t aware of The Dawn at this time, and remains ignorant for most of his existence so far. But he soon begins to ponder origins, truth, reality.

2) Millennia of philosophical and theological musings emphasise the primacy of this purist thinking over the rough and gruesome experienced life, to the point that some speculate on the possibility of solipsism and many variations on the theme of idealism, pure spiritual existence. Philosophical logical thought develops and searches for absolute truths. Plato proposes his forms, as perfections distinct from the messiness of bodily earthly life. The simple, the pure, the perfect, become the object of our investigations, whether divine or natural. The divine thoughts invent many origin myths over time – all in the heads of the believers. These myths are expanded upon to produce complete narratives up to some important point, and ideas are refined into a monotheism, the variations of which dominate thinking. A simple but effective story that not only explains origins but is also recruited to the unexplainable of one’s personal life and times.

3) Natural philosophy bumbles along trying to figure out what’s happening in the practical world. Some progress and much nonsense. The difference here is that nonsense becomes evident as such when it turns out not to work. The still primary thinking process doesn’t suffer this setback, since, if you can think it, it must be true, or at least possible. Some start to question the balance of pure reason against a material empiricism, but without any clear headway on the empirical front we find thinking still dominates.

4) Big jump forward. Evolution discovered. It appears we evolved, not only from creatures that have less thinking capacity and self awareness than ourselves, but also from life forms that didn’t have any nervous system as we know it at all. We came from truly experience-only, non-thinking beginnings, which existed long before The Dawn. Experience is our primary means of discovery and had precedence after all – though this was hidden from our enquiring minds. And the supposed superior thinking, it turns out, is an add-on, an upgrade – a new and valuable tool when it appeared, but not the primary route to knowledge acquisition. It’s early use, as fine as that appeared to be, to the brains doing the thinking, was no better than the wobbly child on a bike for the first time, making some progress, but with little control.

5) The Enlightenment starts to show the benefits of empiricism. But there is over confidence. Dogmatic science emerges. Science has a short affair with modernist dogmatism in the 20th century, where it is believed by some that science is infallible. But this is because they too misunderstand what science is and how it is limited in the hands of humans – they are still not thinking straight. Despite the principles that are being developed many scientists and science proponents fall into the same pattern of behaviour that has plagued religion – the truth of authority, the certainty of knowledge. Our child has become a teenager, a boy racer, overconfident for lack of drastic failure, impervious to the effect on others.

6) Roll on the later 20th and the 21st centuries. The science wars break out and expose the fallibility of science, as a very human enterprise. We’re seeing more and more how flawed our individual thinking and experiential capabilities are. But they are all we have. Further revolutions in communication spread dissension against the dogmatic authority of science; with no small help from the feminist backlash to the male domination (and not just in science).

7) Science grows up, recognises its fallibility and the fallibility of it’s methods and the fallibility of its scientists. There’s a real democracy of science: open to all comers, no matter what gender, race, culture, religion; but at the same time the science itself is a democracy of data, not of people – the data speaks, not the people (in theory). Despite all the problems, this is the best route to take to knowledge. It’s not perfect. It will make mistakes. Some philosophers are listening to science, and some scientists are taking on philosophy. Science has to think about how it does science. Sadly, not everyone sees it this way. There are still philosophers in their ivory towers ridiculing science because of its flaws; and theists are still locked into ways of thinking that are being dictated by myths from the pre-scientific times. They mistake ‘ways of thinking’ for ‘ways of knowing’. They don’t see the failures of their own ‘ways of thinking’ (e.g. that faith is a good idea). They are not different ‘ways of knowing’ – since humans have only one way of knowing: experiencing the world and thinking about the experiences. Many point to the emotions, and feelings. But these are no more than internal experiences, to be experienced and reasoned about – they form part of the same one ‘way of knowing’.


So, here we are. This scientific view might not seem as perfect and as pure an outcome as it was anticipated ‘pure thought’ would produce – but the primacy of pure thought was always an illusion anyway. We only thought our thinking was our primary means of discovery. It was not, is not. It is an add-on, an upgrade that we can use to make sense of our senses. But without our senses it’s just a mental machine running on nothing but internal feedback from its own noise, destined to wonder everywhere and anywhere and to take sense and nonsense as indistinguishable justified beliefs.

In fact we can say more than that. Thinking is sensing. The neurons of the senses and the brain are pretty much the same thing. They are ion driven pulse carriers, with internal chemical systems and chemical interfaces to other cells. Brain cells ‘sense’ and ‘activate’ each other much as sense neurons sense and motor neurons activate. It’s a far more complex and incestuous relationship within the brain, but we have no evidence that our experience of thinking consists of anything other than this neuron interaction. We feel thinking is something special, and even feel we have the experience of a free thinking mind in some other realm, the mind realm. But if we consider how inefficient it would be for a thinking system to have to sense its own thinking process in great detail – an infinite regress avoidance system, a filter of internal unnecessary experience – then it seems quite reasonable that a thinking brain cannot detect the actual mechanism by which it thinks. The result is we feel we have minds free of this physical home.

But as far as we can tell we are entirely evolved empirical systems, in which thinking is just one more complex physical component process.

So, is this it? Is this the end of the line. Has science reached its pinnacle?

No, only the start…

Understanding and prediction of nature are still some of the main businesses of science and philosophy – to know how things are and to predict how things will behave. This includes all the mysteries of human nature – though the prospect of demystifying some of this seems to frighten some people – they cry ‘Scientism!’

It’s hard to say where this will lead. We have no more reliable a conception of what science, human knowledge acquisition, will be like a millennium from now, than did those living a millennium ago have of what today’s science would become.

Perhaps we need another mental add-on or upgrade. What’s the next model up from our current emotional but rational feeling mind? What extra mental tricks will we be able to perform? Given our current pace of technological change it looks most likely that it will be an artificial upgrade rather than a biological evolutionary one.

Given our remaining commitment to the primacy of thinking it seems to me like we’ll need an upgrade to progress through this bottleneck of a brain that still sees thought as the primary means of acquiring knowledge. Science seems the best, the only route to success in moving forward. The track record for religion is stagnation in past millennia; and philosophy is hard to shift out of an obsession with long discredited or unevidenced ideas.

Plantinga, Law, Coyne: Theology, Philosophy, Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

Jerry Coyne has moved on to Alvin Plantinga.

His post really picks up a theme from one of his earlier ones: philosophy v science. Here are some additional links that provide further examples of the futility of pure philosophy(and of course theology) – a debate between philosopher Stephen Law and Alvin Plantinga:

1) Stephen Law’s post tackling Plantinga

2) Plantinga’s paper.

3) Stephen Law’s response.

This whole debate goes to the heart of why philosophy alone (i.e. without linking it to empirical observation) is closer to theism than it is to science.

I referenced Jerry Coyne’s earlier post in this one of mine.

As another example, try my take on Stephen Law v Peter Atkins, here.

Part of the problem seems to be that some philosophers, and maybe all theologians, give primacy to the mind as a tool for acquiring knowledge, rather than a tool for analysing information gained empirically, or for suggesting further trains of empirical enquiry. They mistake what they think for what is. They think that epistemology determines ontology, rather than the other way round.

This gap in the understanding of what science is and what mere mortal humans can expect to achieve with their brains is underscored in the comment by Michael on Jerry Coyne’s post.

He attack’s Coyne’s “proof — or, rather, strong empirical evidence” – But this merely clears up the misconception that equates scientific proof (strong evidence) for logical proof (deduction, logic, maths).

In this context (i.e. the criticism of philosophy and theology) the point is that philosophers and theologians think they have logical proofs, because they form valid arguments. But their arguments can always be worked back to unsubstantiated premises, presuppositions, so they never actually achieve sound arguments. But a common tendency seems to be that philosophers and theologians are content with the premises or presuppositions that they find to be ‘obvious’ – and is being so content they mistake their valid arguments for sound arguments. I find it disturbing how many philosophers rely on the ‘obvious’, since that seems to defeat one of the supposed merits of philosophy: challenging the obvious.

I suspect that philosophers and theologians also mistake what scientists call proof, i.e. strong evidence, as a claim to logical deductive proof. They then attack science as having no ultimate logical proof. But that’s the point! None of us do. All our knowledge is empirically acquired, inductively argued and contingent. Scientists know this. Theologians and some philosophers seem to think otherwise.

What we have discovered is that both our reasoning and our empirical observations are inherently flawed. We can’t rely on deductive proof the way theologians and some philosophers like to. We are only biological organisms after all – though we do tend to get ideas above our station, that we have ‘other ways of knowing’ (sensus divinitatis?). But we have no other ways of knowing. And in this respect we have to make do with the flawed tools we have – which is precisely what ‘science’ does: pretty normal human empiricism and critical thinking, along with some constructed methodology to make it as reliable as it can be made, in our hands, and brains. In our very human, very biological, very evolved hands and brains.

For philosophers and theologians to have any chance of convincing science proponents to any other way of knowing they should not only give us good reason to accept their take on how the universe works, but they need to do it in such a substantial way that it refutes all of known physics, chemistry, biology, evolution – which is a pretty big ask. Instead, they resort to the supposed logic of characters like Plantinga, with his fantastic grasp of the application of conditional probabilities to the speculatively metaphysical. Pure bollocks.

A View of Science: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

This is based on the following talk: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections – A Vimeo video

Over at Stephen Law’s blog I’ve been responding to criticisms of Peter Atkins by Stephen Law, Mary Midgeley, and comments on Stephen’s blog.

In his talk Krauss makes two important points that distinguish science from theology, and some philosophy (the ‘only thinking allowed’ type of philosophy, as opposed by Atkins).

The first is on the nature of the scientific method, in principle. I’m not talking about some of the details: come up with the hypothesis, design experiments to falsify it, run experiments, evaluate results, test a theories predictions, etc. I’m talking about the contingency built into science as a principle.

…The big question is, how did the water get here [on Earth]? And the answer is we don’t know – sort of. Which is, by the way, the best answer in science. ‘Cause the other thing people don’t realise about science which differentiates it from religion, is that the most exciting thing about being a scientist is not knowing. Well, there’s two things. Being wrong is up there too. Because that means there’s a lot left to learn. We have some ideas [about how water came to be on Earth]…

… As wonderful as that is, it’s wrong. It’s amazing when something works out perfectly and you find out it’s wrong. I’ve had that experience many times, ’cause I’ve been wrong many times. It just looks elegant and beautiful, and it’s wrong. And that’s the other gift that science has for us. I hope all of you have that experience, at least once in your life: that something you deeply and profoundly believe in because it’s beautiful and elegant and wonderful turns out to be wrong. Because then you can open your mind.

Now, sure enough, this isn’t always how science goes. There will, inevitably, be scientists who are a little too strident in pushing their particular ideas. Not that this matters much within their specific field, because their peers will see through any bluff and thunder and criticise the protagonists without mercy.

Obstinacy in holding to the status quo can sometimes stall progress; but then being open to every new idea leads to chaos and can in its own way prevent progress. It may be that sometimes the balance isn’t right – but scientists, the ones doing the science, are only human.

But there is a problem with the wider perception of science, particular when journalists fail to explain the contingent nature of what seems like an absolute assertion, or when an anti-science theist gets hold of an misrepresents the whole of science using one over egged pudding.

What should we expect from our scientists? Perfection? But the whole point about the benefits of science is, as Krauss frames it, it’s endeavour to look for answers, to make mistakes, to look for better answers, to dare to be wrong. And this in the hands of imperfect fallible human beings – yes, again, scientists are human beings.

The other point that came out of this talk by Krauss is on the benefit of science. Science is often compared unfavourably to other human activities, which we could simply call the arts. Krauss puts things in perspective.

I do theoretical physics, and it’s kind of esoteric. And people say why the hell do you do it. What’s it good for. Which amazes me when they say that because I rarely get asked what’s a Picasso painting good for, or what’s a Mozart concerto good for. But somehow science has to do something, and somehow make a better toaster, or something like that. But the biggest and most important thing about science is not that it does anything, but that it enhances our lives with beautiful ideas that change the way we think about ourselves. ‘Cause that’s what all good art and music and literature is all about; it’s changing our perspective of our place in the universe. And that’s what science does.

Well, I’d add to that. Science is just as enlightening to our lives as the arts, if not more so, since there is much art and beauty in science. But not only that, science also does stuff! It does build better toasters. Science has both beauty and practicality.

The beauty available to the arts is available to everyone, as is the added beauty of science, for those prepared to look for it. This is from Richard Feynman on this very point (no apologies for referring to this yet again). Richard Feynman – Ode on a Flower.

The Depth of Empiricism

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

In the previous post on empiricism I looked at how philosopher Stephen Law missed a few tricks when he debated chemist Peter Atkins.

In this post I pick up on Jerry Coyne’s post making similar points: Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts?

I think the problem for philosophers is two-fold.

One is their commitment to their profession.

I see this as similar to the position of some priests who in many respects seem to accept all the intellectual criticisms of religion and faith, but can’t quite bring themselves to go the whole hog – there’s too much to give up, too much cognitive dissonance to contend with. So they fall back on faith – the only excuse left to maintain belief.

In the case of philosophers it seems to be their indebtedness to the history of the subject. This too is similar to theology – where the ideas of the ancients seem to retain some philosophical sacredness. Philosophers seem to need their ancients more than any other discipline with the exception of history. That “there’s nothing new in history” might well be applied to how some philosophers see their field.

And this brings me to the other problem. It doesn’t matter how much philosophy they claim to do, how much critical thinking they perform, how much evidence they consider, they still seem to retain a conviction to the primacy of thought and reason. It doesn’t matter how much pure reason is criticised, they still indulge in it.

I wonder if this stems from Descartes Cogito. This is a pretty good starting point, and one I use myself, in particular here. But many philosophers, even non-dualists, seem to be stuck with the idea that because we start out by discovering that we think, that this is our natural and primary mode of understanding. I don’t think they get how deep empiricism goes, how much we are empirical creatures before thinking entities.

Okay, so that’s where we start, with thinking about stuff. But before long, when we follow the trail and side-step Solipsism, we are left with a few clues to the fact that we are not primarily thinking entities.

Evolution is the big clue. You have to throw out evolution to avoid inferring the following from it.

We are evolved from creatures that didn’t have brains. Our ancestors were various in nature, ranging from the simple single cellular, through multiple cellular, to entities with multiple organs. Back then we were primarily experiential sensory creatures – and by sensory I mean in the simplest sense: physical and chemical interactions at our surfaces. And where there were neuronal nervous systems they might not be central nervous systems but distributed neural nets. An advantage of electrical communication over purely physical and chemical is the speed and the targeted nature of the connections. As early as neurons might have evolved they weren’t forming what we would call brains – though, given a physicalist perspective, that begs the question of what a brain is anyway. Nevertheless, through physical contact, chemical interaction, neuron transmission, our ancestors were empirical creatures.

This is what we still are, of course. I guess our sensing using light and sound removes us as whole entities from direct contact with much of our environment. Our actual contact with the wider environment, through touch, is often more difficult, and often undesirable: there are many things for which it’s safe to look at but not to touch; and if you can touch you may well be too close. Vision and hearing give us some protection against dangers, but they also isolate us from our environment to some extent.

This gives us the illusion that we stand alone in the world, so that we acquire (once we have thinking brains) the feeling that we are subjective individuals independent of the rest of the world.

We seem to be enclosed minds, when really we are empirical creatures that have brains connected to the outside world by remote sensing.

On top of that, this brain that we each have awakens and becomes aware of itself. This happens to each of us as individuals as we develop from an infant into a fully interactive child, teen, adult. And collectively it has come about culturally, historically, as our collective recorded awareness of our consciousness has dawned on us as a species (and maybe our ancestor species had some of this awareness too).

The dawn of recorded history and the emergent self-awareness of the infant are mutual metaphors, both beginning, or at least becoming sufficiently complex, with the acquisition of written language for the species and language generally for the infant.

The problem has been that our philosophical view has been dominated by this awakening of the mind, as if it is the primary source of knowledge, when in fact it’s our experiential empirical nature that has primacy. Our mind is merely looking at, analysing, speculating, on what we experience – and mostly with very poor access to most of our experiences.

Not only are we not directly aware of most of what our bodies or even our brains are experiencing, but we don’t have access directly to our deep past experiences – those that we have accumulated in our DNA.

I think most people accept now that we are the combination of nature and nurture – to the extent that this dichotomy is considered a very simplistic notion. We are each of us a developing complex system of our inherited biology responding to its environment, and in turn altering that environment through the decision processes that go on in our biological brains, which in turn effects how our biology responds further. We might be inclined, biologically, to be a couch potato or an athlete, but we can generally still become either, and even both – who hasn’t seen a once keen athlete turn to flab after they retire.

Though not specifically part of evolution, abiogenesis seems the only real source of what we call life. And, though there is no direct evidence to support abiogenesis, there is no good alternative hypothesis on the table. It seems that we come from inanimate matter, and we are inanimate matter – just inanimate matter that has become pretty dynamic.

So, there is nothing to suggest there is anything else going on in our heads. There is no evidence for any other source of thinking than it being matter in action. We are ultimately empirical beings, even in our reasoning in our heads. The processes going on in there are real material experiences in their own right; but it is we who categories experiences into externally sensed, or internally reasoned, as if the reason was pure and unsullied by real nasty experience.

In this respect there isn’t a significant difference between the peripheral neurons and the neurons in our brains. Neurons are communication mechanisms, whether in our arms or in our heads. While peripheral neurons connect other tissue to the brain, brain neuron connections are mostly with other brain neurons. So in a very real sense the brain neurons are sensing each other: they are empirical. We are empirical first and foremost. Thinking is an evolutionary add-on.

That some philosophers don’t get how deep empiricism goes is exemplified by the philosopher Steven Law in his discussion with Peter Atkins.

So, some philosophers seem to think that reasoning, while our primary tool of analysis, is actually our primary tool of discovery. They are mistaken. Unless one rejects evolution we can only conclude that we are experiential, empirical beings who acquired reasoning late in the day. It may be true that our reasoning provides us with far more than our sensory bumbling through life alone ever could. But it’s an even greater mistake to think that reasoning alone could do anything – especially since without sensory experience there would be no stimulus for neurons to evolve with which we could do any thinking. Some philosophers have it arse about face.


Jerry Coyne reviews a portrait of E O Wilson.

This bit strikes me as a good assessment of philosophy:

Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain”.

This is part of a set of posts on Thinking.

Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

As much as I like what Philosopher Stephen Law does to debunk theism I still don’t think he gets science and empiricism.

Here is his page where he links to a video set in which he debates with Peter Atkins: Peter Atkins vs myself on limits of science.

What I found astonishing is that in an earlier post Stephen said this, “Anyway, Atkins is not the sharpest philosophical pencil in the box, I think (though he’s obviously good at chemistry). Strong on assertion but remarkably weak on argument.”

On watching the video I found it to be that Stephen wasn’t being that sharp, with regard to science or philosophy.

Stephen’s statement that looking up Peter’s shirt to establish if Peter’s claim he has a cat up there is a simple observation and not empiricism makes me wonder what he thinks empricism is.
Continue reading “Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science”

Theologian Censors Debate?

Jerry Coyne debated theologian John Haught.

Both paties agreed to the debate being taped, but it seems Haught didn’t like the outcome and now doesn’t want it to be shown. Further more, some people have emailed Dr. Robert Rabel, head of the Gaines Center for the Humanities, because he had agreed to Haught’s turnaround, and Rabel didn’t like that. So he’s now threatening to take legal action against Coyne, accoding to Coyne.

Theologians can be really dumb sometimes.

Other coverage:

Butterflies and Wheels

Stating the Bleeding Obvious

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

In the matter of philosophy, such as that of consciousness, the origins of the universe, theism, one of my biggest bugbears is when philosophers tell us something is obvious – and by philosophers I do include professional ones, for which the mistake is almost unforgivable. If it were all obvious we wouldn’t be having philosophical discussions, as we’d all be of one mind, one faith, or none. The game would be over.

Some of the more ‘obvious’ uses of the word that are clearly mistaken in my view is when the lovely Jehovahs Witnesses stand at my door, look around and say, “Look, this is all so wonderful, it’s obvious there must be a creator.”

The opposite is to claim a view to be ‘absurd’ (or perhaps what is meant is that it is ‘obviously absurd’), as when Muslim Hamza Tzortzis, scourge of the debating scene, says things like “..and this would lead to an absurdity as it would imply that the universe created itself.”, when first, there’s no such necessary implication from his argument, and it’s not as if he knows what  is absurd or not, or what is obvious or not, in the matter of the creation of universes. This is probably the most common flaw in attempts by Muslims to ‘prove’ God exists – they feel their assumptions are obviously true.

Atheists philosophers aren’t immune to it. In a discussion with scientist Peter Atkins, the philosopher Steven Law tried to point out that empiricism wasn’t important in some cases, because it was obvious, for example, that if Peter Atkins claimed to have something stuffed up his jumper it would be easy to just look – which sort of makes you wonder what a professional philosopher thinks empiricism is. What Law thinks is obvious is not so much so in the end, and I wonder that he doesn’t get that. What happened to the critical thinking he promotes so assiduously?

And proponents of free-will and the nature of the self are probably the biggest culprits, including atheist Raymond Tallis, in that they feel that how humans experience personal subjectivity is an obvious indication that it’s a real representation of human nature; when most of them know full well that feeling that ‘something is the case’ in matters at the edge of our understanding does not imply that it is obviously true. Many proponents of free-will will happily admit that many other illusions are illusions despite how it feels, but their particular feeling that they have free-will is obviously correct. It’s obvious their double standards are absurd (oh bugger!)

There are countless examples of proponents for some idea or other claiming it is obvious, when the argument itself belies that claim. Where we are of quite different world views it’s even more important to avoid that mistake. What may be patently obvious to me as an atheist, about the nature of the world, clearly isn’t obvious to most theists; and the obvious presence in God in the lives of theists is clearly not so obvious to atheists.

Questioning what is obvious to ourselves is probably the most difficult thing we do. We are challenging our inbred reliance on intuition to examine what might be counter intuitive. Nit picking is essential in this task, and if you have someone tell you something or other is obvious, then that’s the point to challenge – pick that nit. And if you find yourself claiming something is obvious, you need to think deeper about what it is you find so obvious.

Surely all this is obvious, isn’t it? Do I really need to state it?

Duglas Adams (h/t Dawkins)
The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on a gas covered planet going round a nuclear fireball, and think this normal, is obviously an indication of how skewed our perspective is.

Update: Frank Jackson interview by James Garvey

“I had been a dualist for years. I was taught by Michael Bradley, and he had some good arguments for dualism. I always thought it was a plausible view. As I say in the beginning of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, we dualists don’t really need an argument to say that consciousness doesn’t fit into the physicalist world view. It’s just intuitively obvious.”

A shameful example of how personal preconceptions and bias have not only been abandoned by a philosopher, but how it has produced thirty years of paper and megabytes and neuronal confusion. Another example of how philosophers deal with the obvious.


What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?

Discovery Institute has Michael Egnor asking this question…
What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?

And he has some specific questions…

1) Why is there anything?
2) What caused the Universe?
3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?
4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?
5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?
6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?
7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)
8) Why is there evil?

Well, here are my answers…

1) Why is there anything?

We don’t know.

It’s not that this question is nonsense, it’s simply that we don’t have access to the data that would answer it. From a philosophical perspective we have no firm response to the solipsist. The best we can do is say that what appears to be the case most forcefully to our minds and senses (given our senses might be an illusion of the mind) is that the material world is so convincing that we might as well use it as a model for reality until we figure out a better one that actually fits with those facts that the ‘apparent’ material world imposes on us.

For example, if we were entirely mental phenomena (or a single phenomenon) why can’t we get past the apparent material death of another mind (or my illusion of another mind)? The material non-supernatural explanation fits this and many other problems so easily that it’s a sufficient model for now.

The rest of the answers are given with respect to this point of view.

2) What caused the Universe?

We don’t know.

So far we, and our instruments, haven’t had physical presence far beyond our solar system, and in person not beyond the moon. So, all our observations of this universe are restricted to theories based on remote (in time and space) observations. Some theories have mathematical reasoning to lend them some weight. But really, we don’t know.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

We don’t know. We’d need to resolve problem (2) to get any further with this. We observe regularities, but we can’t explain them in any deep sense.

4) Of the Four Causes in nature…

We don’t know.

This is philosophy going beyond the bounds of available or accessible knowledge and is more akin to theology.

Specifically, do final causes exists? Well, if we could answer some more questions on causality that would be a start. But then we come up against the same problem of accessibility of the data. And, the question isn’t clear on the meaning of the term ‘final cause’.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

Given (1) this can only be answered in atheist materialist terms, and within that context the understanding of matter and how life is just a formation of matter in action, and from there on to evolution. I’ll keep this short, but would be glad to expand on request.

All matter responds to interaction with other matter. Things bounce. At some basic levels we have explanations for this – such as the coming together of atoms of my skin with those of the table, where despite that fact that atoms are mostly space, the electric and nuclear forces stop atoms merging or flowing through each other. At yet deeper levels of understanding the particles may be disturbances in fields. I’ve no idea why there are fields.

Basic life is complex formations of matter. We still don’t know anything concrete about the beginnings of life, abiogenesis, but the basic hypothesis is that early replicators began the process – try thinking of something like growing crystals, though even this seems an inadequate analogy. The problem with all of this, life, is that we only have life on this planet to examine, that the origins are in the distant past, and anywhere the same process began spontaneously it would be consumed by local chemical reactions or organisms.

Form there, simple single cell life forms react in very complex ways compared to simple elements and molecules – but their responses to contact with other inanimate matter and other living organisms is basically physical and chemical. They go around bumping into stuff, and when they do, chemical reactions on their surfaces give rise to further activity.

Complex cells formed by the combination of different single celled entities – i.e. mitochondria. Complex multi-cellular organisms formed cohesive bodies and functionality was subsumed to different organs. In a soft celled multi-organ organism think of the combination like a turtle and its shell. The inner soft and delicate organs don’t need protection from the environment if outer organs are dedicated to that task – e.g. skin.

So, at this stage we have complex systems, of which one component is a nervous system that co-ordinates activity for the organism as a whole. Not all organisms use this approach – e.g. plants. But there seems to be a relationship between the motor capabilities of the organism and the complexity of its nervous system.

Given that one aspect of the nervous system is to respond to the environment in order to direct processes in the organism, and to direct it’s motion, required to find food, one natural outcome is that the organism should be able to detect itself. No point in eating your own arm is there. And this is the basis for self awareness, which most organisms have to some degree if they have a nervous system that samples the environment.

Mammals have multi-mode senses – sight, hearing, touch… And these need co-ordination if they are to be useful. The chicken egg answer is that complexity of nervous system and co-ordination of senses probably evolved together, each effecting the development of the other.

It seems a natural progression that when an organism gets to a certain degree of complexity this self-sensing can include sensing the very internal processes of the nervous system itself. In us this isn’t complete, since there’s a big part of our sub-conscious nervous system of which we’re not aware. But basically subjectivity is simply what it appears like when an organism senses it’s own nervous system in action.

6) Why is the human mind intentional…

(5) pretty much answers this.

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artefact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

It’s a subjective (see 5) conceptual product that has evolved in a social sense, but is based on biologically evolved feelings of empathy and sympathy.

See here for more detail.

8) Why is there evil?

There isn’t, in any objective sense, any more than there is moral law (see 7).

Evil is simply a classification of behaviour that humans typically ascribe to the behaviour of other humans.

Sometimes it can be conflated with suffering generally, such as the consequences of natural disasters, but that notion is only the concoction of those religious people who think natural disasters are associated with demons or with divine retribution. Remember this?

The floods that have devastated swathes of the country are God’s judgement on the immorality and greed of modern society, according to senior Church of England bishops.

Religiously induced stupidity.

We don’t ascribe the term ‘evil’ to things that animals do which if performed by humans would be classified as evil. This is again due to the confused thinking of the religious who think that humans have some special gift, or some special place in the universe, or some special relationship with some god or other, and that some or all of these misconceptions give special meaning to human actions we generally disapprove of.

Perhaps the main point I’d want to make in all this is that theists are in exactly the same position as atheists for a lot of the fundamental stuff. They don’t know. But what they do is make up an answer with no substantiating data and claim that to be the case. They think that the combination of ancient tradition and pseudo-profound language gives credibility to their view, but it really exposes their gullibility to ancient stories from a time when such ignorance was excusable for lack of any reasonable data.

There has been no evidence for religious claims that can be substantiated by third party examination. All subjective personal claims about religious experience have plausible explanations in a materialist world view, where various results of brain sciences can replicate or account for those experiences.

Love – Something Humans Do

On Lesley’s post Peter Rollins – What is Religion? I’ve been trying to understand what Rollins is saying, without much success. But in the ensuing comments I claimed that love is just something that humans do – my intended implication being it is nothing to do with a god, or specifically God.

Kathryn asked, “Why do you think this [love] is something humans do? Do you think it is a genetic fluke, or is there some purpose?”, and I wanted to give a more complete response than I could in a comment on Lesley’s post.

It’s a fluke in one sense: the sense that it just turned out that way due to evolution, without any intentionality or direct design or purpose. But that ‘fluke’ is not to be confused with ID critiques of evolution that say evolution relies on impossible odds. Fluke, luck, random events, whatever we might call them, have a part to play in evolution, but the theory of evolution shows that other forces, such as natural selection, play on those flukes in order to cause some change that persists.

The significant point from an evolutionary perspective is that traits that have some benefit in some sets of circumstances are more likely to survive.

Some simplistic examples to make the point and put love in context (for sexually reproductive species)…

A genetic condition (e.g. a mutation) that caused infertility would not be passed on to the next generation at all. Another mutation that didn’t effect fertility but did remove sexual lust would also die out quickly in most animals (though humans, with our cognitive abailities, could overcome this). An emotion like love may not be as necessary at all for short term survival, but may be necessary in some species for greater group cohesion, or perhaps mother-infant bonding. Both fertility and lust are necessary for reproduction in sexually reproductive animals, but love isn’t.

But we can still see how love can provide a greater benefit than not experiencing love, for some species.

Fertility we count as a physiological trait, love as an emotional one, but lust we see more as something of both physiological and emotional – so, where’s the divide between physical trait and emotional trait? When you get down to the chemistry of what’s going on in the brain they are, all three, physiological traits, each with their own contribution to the survivability of a species (along with all other influences). We have no reason to suppose that love is anything other than this, and certainly no evidence that it has any special meaning or value outside the context of humans that, using our brains, give it meaning and value. it’s not something we need to associate with God, despite that fact that theists tend to raise it to the level of the divine.

Evolution doesn’t have a purpose as such – and so there is no purpose for love. There is a trivial descriptive sense in which, looking back, we might use a purposive description – e.g. ‘the purpose of this gene sequence was to cause that trait to emerge…’ (again, a simplistic view of genes) But this isn’t purpose in the sense of an agent intentionally causing some trait to appear for particular purpose of his. We are used to attributing purpose to the things we do, and we can mistakenly attribute purpose to complex causal chains that are otherwise hard to describe. It can be helpful to describe causal chains with such anthropomorphic framing of purpose – but we need to be careful that we understand that this purpose isn’t real, it’s a metaphor for causality.

So, there is nothing in our evolutionary past which could predict, in any reasonable sense, that love would turn out to be a trait that a particular species valued highly. There are clues available to the hindsight we have acquired through the development of the theory of evolution, based on our understanding of empathy and attachment that bond animal parents to young, and in some cases parents to each other. Insects have a very specific type of bond to their fellows nest, which is basically chemical. So, love (or its simpler animal parallel) isn’t necessary for all animals to be evolutionarily successful – though for larger animals with more complex brains it may be particularly beneficial. We think it’s beneficial for us – so much so we have learned to value it highly.

In this sense love is just what humans do, without it having any directive purpose. It’s one of the many things we do, along with hate, fear, lust, empathy and many other traits. They all boil down to having emerged through our evolutionary history, and having been developed in our intellectual and cultural history.

Perhaps a better phrasing might be love is just what humans did in the past as a more refined development of empathy, but which we do now with more purpose and intent as we have come to appreciate it and value it.

We can reasonably explain the relationship between some of these things we do, in this simplified evolutionary context…

Personally and subjectively we like the feeling of love, and we dislike the feeling of fear. Our empathy makes us appreciate the same perspective in others, so we want love for others as well as for ourselves, and part of that is that we get additional pleasure from giving love, and even more from reciprocative love. And conversely we dislike fear, we dislike seeing fear in others, and so we want to alleviate the fear we see in others. And, on top of that we dislike seeing others cause fear, because of our empathy for the victims; and in a simple sense, just as a mother responds to defend her young with the animal equivalent of anger, so we respond with anger towards those that cause fear. These are strong innate emotional responses, honed in our history, with their origins lost in myth.

Many of our basic emotions have parallels in other animals, but have been developed into more refined concepts by us, probably because of the concurrent development of our language and our brain’s ability to be more acute in our understanding of these emotions and the concepts we form about them. Just as a musician can develop a more acute sense of musical notes (an analogy Kathryn uses).

The problem is we don’t often consider the simpler animal basis for our complex emotions – partly because of our ignorance of the evolutionary perspective. This ignorance was understandable for most of human history in which our reach back to the past was only ever measured in terms of a few generations. We could only develop myths out of that ignorance – ironically using the very creative imagination that later allowed us to come up with the science that helped us discover more plausible explanations.

The weight of those myths persists, and is maintained in varying degrees by a continued ignorance of the significance of what evolution is telling us, along with the willing, and sometimes not so willing, indoctrination in and bias towards those myths. Even those theists that have an understanding of evolution find it hard to accept the full implications of evolution and related ideas when they challenge their theological beliefs – they sometimes express a fear of the consequences of following the ideas through – e.g. the fear of the nihilism of atheism, in the absence of God.

To help a theist put this in perspective, consider some of the cosmological ideas that are floating around – many of which theists use as examples of how science has its own myths. In some respects our old myths parallel the current speculations about our cosmological origins – the old myths were speculations in the absence of data, just as some of our cosmological ideas are speculations in the absence of data. In some cases the mathematical theory of the latter replaces imaginative theology of the former, and so cosmologists might feel their theories have a greater legitimacy than theologies. But there may come a time, when we are better informed, when some our current cosmological speculations seem more like myths. So, this is how now atheists see theologies as outdated myths.

The deep history of religion is interesting, but I’m still largely ignorant about it. One particular book on my reading list is The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright. It appears to put the contingency of Christianity in perspective, effectively explaining the myth. It’s the historical perspective that I need to know more about; and I suspect many Christians need to know more about it too, but without their own theological bias. If ever there was a case of the winners getting to write the history, theology is it – I don’t think much of the history of theology sees the light of day. I don’t know to what extent history of theology is taught in this respect. The book’s website gives a good sampling of the book and is worth a read.

Violence with Violence

Talk about selective reading. This is a joke. It’s a bit of religious promotion based on some scientific studies that are confirming common sense. And for some it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

“You can’t fight violence with violence” doesn’t require detailed science, or God. It’s common sense that some members of most societies have figured out is a good general rule, and that goes back well before Jesus. So, it’s hardly as if it was a new idea – but fair enough, Jesus and some of his followers have made a significant contribution to the popularisation of that view and are to be congratulated on that.

And it’s not as if science was around to figure this stuff out. As a science psychology is still relatively new, has many methodological problems, and the detailed thorough science is difficult to do. So, no surprise that science is late in the game.

But hold on, who is it that creates wars, and on what basis do wars begin? It’s usually based on ignorance about differences and dogma, and religion has had a great input here (as have non-religious dogmas). It’s religious politicians, like Bush and Blair that have wanted war on terror; it’s religiously motivated political divisions that have caused conflict, from the Christian crusades to Northern Ireland and former Yugoslavia, to the continuing tribal, racial and religious divisions in Africa.

It certainly isn’t to religion’s credit that it has not sorted these problems out so far, and it is to religions discredit that it has contributed so much to the problems. Perhaps the question should be why has it taken science to step in and provide rational reasons to explain the complexities? It’s because ignorant politics and religion have failed, and reason and science have had to come to the rescue to provide a less biased view that can be taken on board whatever one’s politics or religion (dogma permitting). Science is for everyone everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, Muslim or Jew or Christian, Roman Catholic or Anglican – there are no divisions in science, and no dogma (except when fallible humans screw it up and become dogmatic about the science).

Thorough science isn’t easy. The scientific method is used to overcome the foibles of the human mind, by trying to account for biases, such as those that religion and politics is likely to enforce. It’s thanks to sciences like anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the engineering sciences and technologies like print, radio, TV and satellite that have provided a greater understanding of the natural variety of human nature and culture and education, and the dissemination of that knowledge, that has led to slow but positive progress in lifting the veil of ignorance of a non-scientific view.

But “You can’t fight violence with violence” is a general rule. We are not that good at science yet; or more specifically we are not that good at listening to science yet. We still get ourselves into some serious fixes, through political gaffs, intolerance of the religious and non-religious alike, through ignorance. And sometimes we are left with no choice but to defend ourselves, even if it’s our own fault that got us into the mess.

We are dumb apes – which is what science tells us, and helps explain quite a lot, but which many religious deny. This denial, and the ignorant notion that we of some particular religion or other are chosen in some way fuels the ignorance.

Science fails often, in the hands of fallible humans, despite attempts to develop a scientific method to overcome our fallibilities in seeking truth. Religion fails far more. So, less of the back slapping, a little more humility, and get on with promoting the views of Jesus the peace loving mortal man, and less of the religious dogma.

The Kneeler’s post is typical of the selective reading that the religious have to develop as second nature if they are to make any sense of the Bible. And of course they always apply it to science. Science is great when it’s curing ills – though it hasn’t been beyond the religious to thank God for those cures. But where are most of the religious on evolution? Still in the dark ages. It’s also typical of the religious to claim prior credit for scientific discoveries – though Muslims seem particularly good at this as they often claim the Koran said it first, no matter how vague the reference, and no matter that they got it from the Greeks. No, it only requires the holy book to come up with some common sense notion, like ‘thou shalt not kill’, which anyone can now see is an evolutionarily driven survival strategy, for the religious to claim with self righteous indignation that it’s God’s law, and
they, by association, are the righteous ones.

The Bible is just a book, written by men. Genesis has as much scientific validity and truth as The Flintstones – sure there were dinosaurs, but not at the same time as man (tell that to the curator of the Creationist Museum); see the similarity (talking snake?). The whole Bible is an invention of minds that today would be considered uneducated – not in language, not unintelligent, just ignorant of very basic science and the methods of science and critical thinking that would have debunked many of their ideas in their own day had those methods been available. So there’s no shadow of disgrace on them – they were working with what they had.

The Bible bashers of today have no excuse. It doesn’t take much to pick holes in most of the theological crap. We don’t know how our particular universe started, so we remain ignorant of many things. We have no idea whether there is some ultimate intelligent agency behind it all, or if it is really all soulless fluctuations in nothingness – the metaphysics is beyond our data, just not beyond our imagination. But it’s foolish to build whole systems of belief on that one speculative imaginary idea about the metaphysical inaccessible, and to pile theological bunk on theological bunk on top of ancient books that have to be deciphered in ever more obscure ways to make the theology fit reality (or not).

Science is the best we can do, for now. Ridicule it viciously when it’s wrong, by all means – that’s what it needs, that’s part of the very method itself. We must be challenging our knowledge all the time, because we are not capable of being certain. We don’t have the equipment, whether it’s equipment we’ve invented or that which has evolved between our ears. But for God’s sake don’t rely on religion to tell us anything useful – and I mean ‘for God’s sake’, for if there really is a God, he’s going to be very disappointed in his own creation, if he’s endowed us with brains, and we refuse to use them, to paraphrase Galileo.

Free Will

The concept ‘free-will’ can be considered as one model for how the human organism operates in its outer environment. But this doesn’t show that free-will is not part of the causal framework in which the organism operates. A specific “act of free-will” is simply a model we use to describe what is still basically a causal physical response. It’s the notion of free-will as something independent of all the physical processes that all physicalists are disputing, and in this sense I think autonomous-free-will can be described as an illusion, or at best as a conceptual model.

I say free-will is a ‘model’ of response because thinking in terms of models allows us to accept a level of abstract detachment. We regularly use models for systems – conceptual ideas that represent something on a manageable arbitrary level. We do this probably because we have to – it’s how our brains manage external perceptions as patterns and memories, one of those perceptions being the self, another, free-will, being a model of how that self responds. It may be natural for the organism itself to feel that free-will is something the organism does actively and autonomously simply because of the proximity and complexity of how an act of free-will comes about.

If you accept causality and the level of physicalism that has been discussed here, then I don’t see how free-will in its religious and autonomous senses has any meaning. And without free-will what is religion, other than one more conceptual abstraction of the physical environment of the organism. All religious ideas come to us through reading, listening and seeing – all part of physical environment acting on the organism as a whole, and through layers down to the brain; the brain that already has a history and hence existing interconnections and chemistry that is amenable to these inputs, or not. Even an internally occurring “sign”, a revelation, can be explained as a religious event only in the context of pre-existing knowledge about religion.

For any individual, how does their brain respond to a religious idea (or any input)? As an excited, inhibited, or conditioned response (utilising yet another model of behaviour)? Probably in some complex combination. The emergent response to a religious idea may be whatever the organism’s brain does internally, plus how that operates on the outer organism. So a theist response might be to offer a supportive argument. This particular organism (me) might respond with a criticism. The fact that the response may be complex does not detract from the fact that it came about from a complex interaction of components within the organism, albeit with externally sourced inputs, many of which have been consolidated over time. We call that a free-will response, using the free-will model. But that’s all it is – it is a caused response (still assuming causality).

In this context the only difference between a person performing an act out of ‘free-will’ and one who has been induced into performing the act, say through hypnosis, is that the most influential and most recent causal events that preceded the act came from within the organism for the former, but from outside the organism for the latter.

One of the main objections to physicalist non-autonomous free-will comes about because it’s difficult for some to accept this point of view – but this in itself is a response, to prior physical activity. When you “feel” free-will must be real, that feeling itself is merely a response with a physical base.

The next paragraph is long winded because I’ve gone out the way to put it in terms of a non-agent mechanical reaction. We’re not used to doing this. It’s possible our natural language that describes us as agents that interact is a convenience, and efficiency that has evolved naturally, just as we naturally and conveniently attribute agency and free will to inanimate objects sometimes.

Other objections are associated with justice and culpability. You might ask me, “How can you justify locking up that ‘criminal’ organism, when on your model he didn’t ‘willfully’ carry out the crime?” My response would be, “Well, this organism’s response is to do just that.” All organisms tend to avoid self harm, and through evolved empathetic responses we generally try to avoid harm to others. That particular criminal organism caused harm, albeit indirectly and in a non-autonomous free-will caused sense, so the complex collective socially constructed response of this set of organisms, this social group, is to prevent further harm by locking up that criminal organism. The notion that this sequence of events might act as sufficient causal input to that criminal organism that in time it’s caused actions might be to no longer cause harm to others, is also compatible. Similarly, the desire for retribution can be considered as another physical response. The complexity of these interactions is not evidence against physicalism.

A physicalist view of free-will as an illusion or a model does not entail the collapse of society and morality. It may even inform us better than some of the many arbitrary and conflicting reasonings of the various religions.

Truth Matters

A liberal believer may claim that their faith is benign. They want to get on with their own faith, want to do good, want to enjoy the community and other perceived benefits of their faith. It may be a personal faith, where they at least doubt some of the contents of scripture. If challenged about the evidence that supports their faith they might debate some of the details, but in the end both sides have to acknowledge that for many believers, the faith, the belief, in the end need not be justified by rational argument. Such a benign faith is distinguished from ‘fundamental’ faith, in that there are elements of rationality to it. An atheist might agree with such a person in many ways about what should constitute a moral society, for example. Though the atheist might attribute his moral code to evolutionary and cultural developments, the liberal believer might attribute theirs more to God, even if there is some agreement on the role of evolution and culture.

Given this view that it is personal and benign, a question might arise, “Does it matter?” Or, “What’s it to the atheist what I believe or not?”, Or, “What harm is it doing?”. Or, “Given all the good that religion does, provided it’s a benign religion that isn’t ‘fundamentalist’, doesn’t do harm, what’s the problem?”

For me it’s the truth that matters, and the only route to truth we have as far as I can tell is reason and the evidence of science.

One problem as I see it for any benign faith is that it’s a mix of reason, evidence and faith. The reason helps such a believer to dismiss all the nasty and down right obvious crazy stuff, but it stops short with the basic belief in a God of some sort. To give up on reason and evidence at that point seems to have negated much of the benefit put in it up front. But it’s not always obvious where the reason ends and the faith begins. The reason melds seamlessly into confusion as religious reasons merges into obscure religious language.

Confusion and obfuscation are arguably the best way to go. Obfuscation is legal, it’s easy, there’s always an abundant supply and it often does the trick. The more unclear it is exactly what one is arguing, the more trouble one’s opponents will have in refuting one’s claims. [1]

It’s also arguable that obfuscation is what postmodernism is all about. Clouds of squid ink in the form of jargon, mathematical equations whose relevance is obscure, peacock displays of name-dropping, misappropriation and misapplication of scientific theories are often seen as postmodernist ‘discourse’. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Heisenberg, Einstein, Gödel, Wittgenstein are hauled in and cited as saying things they didn’t say – sometimes as saying exactly the opposite of what they said. … The tactic doesn’t work with people who actually know something of Einstein, Heisenberg or Gödel – but what of it? How many people is that? And it does work with many who don’t. [1]

I’m not out to criticise the ignorant simply for being ignorant. None of us has the capacity to know all that has been discovered – we may be limited by time, access, interest or intelligence. The problem is that those making great claims for their world view that use these references should really check with those that have a better understanding before jumping straight in and acquiring this knowledge in the construction of their pseudo-knowledge.

The confusion of course raises it’s own questions for the believers.

Asking unanswerable questions is an inconclusive but useful tactic. … “But why did all this happen? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there Mind? Why is there order? … The fact that no one can answer such questions is taken by the pure of heart and limpid of mind to entail divine explanation. The fact that such explanation allows the questions to be asked all over again seems not to trouble the divinely inclined. [1]

i.e. God answers nothing.

Of course if the questions are allowed to continue, the contortions of explanation become greater and greater, more obscure language is employed. It is more important that the faith is maintained, at the expense of clarity and reason.

In fact, the contortions are a giveaway not only that the explanation is not the right one, but that something is badly wrong with the method of generating the explanation, that things are back to front, that the enquirer has started, not with a desire to produce an explanation, but with the desire to produce a particular explanation, or a particular kind of explanation. [1]

What is necessary to get at truth?

What should trump what? Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not, what is admissible and what isn’t? [1]

How much do we want the truth?

The truth is important to us, but so are our needs and desires and hopes and fears. Without them we wouldn’t even recognise ourselves. Without them, we think, we would merely be something like an adding machine. An adding machine can get at the truth, given the right input, but it doesn’t care. We want the truth but we also want to care – wanting the truth is indeed inseparable from caring. We want it, we care about it, it matters, and so do various other things we want and care about, some of which are threatened by the truth. … But we have to choose. … If we’ve never bothered to decide that truth matters, and that it shouldn’t be subject to our wishes – that, in short, wishful thinking is bad thinking – then we are likely to be far less aware of the tension. We simply allow ourselves, without much worry or reflection, to assume that the way humans want the world to be is the way the world is, more or less by definition – and endemic confusion and muddle is the result. [1]

The muddle and confusion is so obvious in the Alice in Wonderland nonsense of much religious language – the desire to believe in the impossible (or at least un-evidenced) things manufactures incomprehensible language about incomprehensible beings, agents that interact yet don’t exist, that we can’t know of yet we know what they want from us.

Religion and related modes of thinking such as New Age, Wicca, paganism, the vaguely named ‘spirituality’, are where this outcome is most obvious. Public discourse features talk of God-shaped holes, of a deep human need for ‘faith’, of the longing of transcendence, of the despair and cosmic loneliness that results when God is doubted, and the like … without apparently stopping to notice that there may be reasons to prefer true beliefs rather than false ones. [1]

What reasons? There are many. One is truth is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. It is intimately related to concepts such as consistency, thoroughness, universal applicability, and the like. If one decides that truth doesn’t matter in one area what is to prevent one deciding it doesn’t matter in any, in all? [1]

It’s surely the nature of truth that it has to be all of a piece. It’s norms have to apply here as well as there, if they are to apply at all. That is why relativism about truth is always self-undermining. If we say, ‘there is no truth, truth is an illusion, a myth, a construct, a mystification’ then that statement is not true – so there is truth then. [1]

Does it matter that we kid ourselves?

Our internal private thoughts might not matter at all. … But how we influence each other, how we teach – by writing, by journalism, by talking on the radio, on platforms, in churches, in mosques, in classrooms – it does matter. If we are going to influence people, it’s important we get it right. [1]

This is crucial as far as I can see. There’s enough fog, lack of clarity, confusion, in transcribing thoughts from one mind to another as it is. The last thing we need is the obfuscation of falsehoods. But it doesn’t have to be lies. There doesn’t need to be intentional dishonestly. The transmission of unsupported ideas, non-truths, non-facts, sold as truths, or alternative truths is an easily acquired skill.

It might seem like there are good reasons to hide from truth. When it’s trivial, when it’s short term, then maybe we can excuse it. It might be a useful coping mechanism that allows us to avert pain, to concentrate on work, to withdraw from anger. But this isn’t to deny the truth, it’s just to postpone it, compartmentalise it, to push attention to one side. But this shouldn’t become the rule, if we want to avoid living outside of reality. Truth isn’t subject to our whims, our wishful thinking. But it’s possible to live that way if we get into the habit.

If we minimize true facts that we dislike too often, we may lose sight of the fact that it is our reaction and degree of attention that is subject to our wills, and start to think that the facts themselves are subject to our wills. But on the whole they’re not. [1]

Religious scholarship, theology, seems to me to be worst of the search for the answers. What kind of search for truth is it, when the truth is declared before the search begins, when search is directed at affirming what is already believed to be the truth? This isn’t the discovery of truth; it’s rationalising away the evidence to affirm the truth. Religion is often explained as a journey of discovery. This is the poorest form of journey of discovery; it’s a journey through the front door that ends on the doorstep, where the ‘truth’ is already packaged up neatly into a three letter word, God. The only remaining work to do is to go back inside and rationalise about how this might be, or what it might mean, or how it can be applied to persuade people to conform to it. No evidence is required; in fact evidence has been a nuisance for religion from the start. As soon as someone asked, “How do you know that?”, religion was on the defensive.

Religion is a big part of our lives, even if we are non-believers, because it is so ingrained in our history. But religion is supposed to be an honest affair isn’t it? Don’t we have enough to contend with?

There are fields where indifference to truth is no handicap – advertising, PR, fashion, lobbying, marketing, entertainment. In fact there are whole large, well paid, high status areas of the economy where truth-scepticism, wishful thinking, fantasy, suspension of disbelief, deletion of the boundary between dreams and reality, are not only not a handicap, but essential to the enterprise. … We need our dreams and stories, our imaginaries. They are good for us. We need the cognitive rest from confronting reality all day, we need to be able to imagine alternatives, we need the pleasure of fantasy. But we also need to hang on to our awareness of the difference between dreams and reality. [1]

The more we realise both our fallibilities at knowing, and the more we realise that our only route to knowledge is through our fallible reason and senses, and the more we realise that the best we can do is repeat and repeat, thrash out what we think we know, hammer it into submission to our inquiry, the more religion, mysticism and other ‘ways of knowing’ has to retreat into the obscurity of mystical language.

Given religions penchant for morality, why isn’t it the most rigorous of our philosophies? How wrong can we be in our search for alternative realities, alternative truths? It’s not all religion’s fault, though religion is often happy to jump on the bandwagon of unreason.

There is a profound irony in the situation – in postmodernist epistemic relativism. It is thought to be, and often touted as, emancipatory. It is supposed to set us all free: free from all those coercive repressive restrictive hegemonic totalizing old ideas. From white male western reason and science, from the requirement to heed the boundary between science and pseudo science, from the need to offer genuine evidence for our versions of history, from scholars who point out we have our facts wrong. … Take away reasoned argument and the requirement for reference to evidence – by discrediting them via deconstruction and rhetoric, via scare quotes and mocking capital letters, and what can be left other than force of one kind or another? … This is emancipatory? Not in our view. It is not emancipatory because it helps emotive rhetoric to prevail over reason and evidence, which means it helps falsehood prevail over truth. [1]

Even for benign religion? Well, precisely the same mechanisms, the same poor reasoning, the emotive language, the same style of faith, is used to justify a liberal believer’s opinion as is used to justify a fundamentalist terrorist’s opinion. The subsuming of reason and science to faith is the same in both cases. If you have faith in a benign God, from what stance to you argue against faith in a vengeful God? No matter how much you think you might reason it will do you no good, because you have already abandoned reason yourself – it’s clear to all concerned that any reason you apply is only a token gesture, because to you your core is faith, not reason.

So, why does truth matter? It’s hard figuring out what ‘truth’ is and how to get at it. We have only limited means at our disposal. I’d rather all our efforts go into finding the truth for what it is, not inventing ‘truth’ for which there’s no evidence, no matter how cosy it makes us feel, no matter what the short term pragmatic value.

Why Truth Matters – Ophelia Benson, Jeremy Stangroom

Dan Dennet’s AAI 2009 Talk

This is a reponse to comments on Lesly’s post on Rollins.

In a comment there I posted a video by Dan Dennett to which Lesley responded. My response in turn is a bit too long for a comments section, so here is is…

Hi lesley,

I’ll cover each of your specific points, starting with this one…

“he is called a philosopher, but he adds practically nothing”

Reverse engineering – seeing how things fail in order to understand them. Standard scientific process, used in his case in understanding the brain, psychology, etc. Dennett does know a lot about how the brain works, and how it fails to work. And much of this is about how it fails to work when applied to religious belief.

There is the assumption in the religious community that theologians who think about human behaviour in the context of a religious belief have a real grasp of the human condition, as if they have an insight that religious thought and belief brings to their understanding. Dennett’s purpose here is to point out that they don’t. Rollins and Bell are prime examples of believers who maybe don’t appreciate how their stories and their methods are pure snake oil salesmen tricks. Dennett probably finds it hard to believe that many serious intelligent theologians really believe some of the stuff they come out with; and added to that the experiences he’s had with religious believers you yourself might classify as ‘nutters’, simply because their belief is more literal than yours; then this is why Dennett is appears not to address your position on many of the points he makes.

The part of the video that’s about non-believing preachers is a genuine attempt to understand what is happening. It’s a real psychological investigation. As someone interested in psychology I assume you can appreciate this. Even in this small initial study he classifies them as three liberals and three literals – so already he’s naturally covering a range of beliefs.

“why does everything always revolve around the most extreme form of American evangelicalism?”

First, because that’s a pretty prominent group he encounters, so no surprise their views are tackled most often.

Second extreme evangelism covers some of the same issues raised by the great variety of faith, so no surprise that more literalist views are sometimes tackled.

Dennett’s talk was prior to the study. This paper,, outlines the study. If you think it’s only about ‘nutters’, it isn’t.

Some of the clergy interviewed express very similar beliefs to your own. Just because all the examples don’t match your own doesn’t invalidate them.

“at college… there was no sense of not believing what we were taught because it challenged preconceived ideas”

This may have been your experience, but if you read the experiences of those interviewed you’ll see it’s not always like that.

“as far as I know vicars are among the happiest and most satisfied people, and they live longest too.”

That may be the case for many who get through. But on your own blog there are often comments about struggles with faith, so theologians are not always among the happiest and satisfied.

But I don’t think anything controversial has been said that can’t be backed up. Much of what Dennett covers comes from religious people who have rejected faith because they have seen problems with it.

Having said that…

“Prior to that I was in a certain mindset, where I didn’t really question, I was too scared to question, and those who did question were looked on as apostate.” – from your Hotel California post.

“There was so much to scared of, top on the list was Liberal Theology which was the slippery slope to unbelief”

“So we all huddled together in the Hotel California for security, we sounded the same, we acted the same, we looked the same. We looked to the Bible to save us from false prophets and various perceived evils.”

“In this stage, our former views of God are radically challenged. The disruption can be so great that we feel like we are losing our faith or betraying loyalties.” – From stage 4 of The Critical Journey, as quoted in your Abyss post.

“Our aversion to stage 4 is increased because of the very real dangers that accompany this stage. ‘Sometimes people drop off the journey totally at this point. Overwhelmed by pain or crises in our lives, we absolutely cut ourselves off from God’.” – Ditto.

These are all from your experience, and they all sound so much like the quotes from the clergy that took part in the study:

Click to access EP08122150.pdf

“regularly uses the words subversive, willful, cunning, trick, liars etc.”

“He suggests that we learn spin when interpreting the Bible. Not true.”

He’s not implying it’s that open, or necessarily intentional, “There isn’t a course [at seminary college] called how to put a spin. It’s taught by example….They’re sort of the truth.” – And this is the point he is making. It’s the mode of religious language that’s deceptive.

In the examples he cites it’s hard not to see it that way. Again, this might not match your experience, or how you see it.

But much of the work of Bell and Rollins for example does sound like the willful misuse of terms; there is trickery in the language and production that is intended to persuade.

Some of the clergy in the study have said they weren’t telling the whole story:

“I knew I’m not going to make it in a conventional church. I didn’t believe the conventional things, even then. I mean, sure, I’m studying theology with Paul Tillich — and Bultmann who says we can’t know much about Jesus, and Paul Tillich’s philosophical stuff about ‘God is the ground of being’. I’m not going to go into a church and talk like this; I’m not going to, I’m not going to – I did not believe the traditional things even then.”

In the cases he cites of those clergy who have to effectively misrepresent to hide their own degree of disagreement with the doctrine, then it is applying spin. And there’s no way that some of the works he cites by religious authors, such as Spong is not spin.

“He suggests that those who lose their faith at college ‘get out while the going is good’… as far as I know vicars are among the happiest and most satisfied people, and they live longest too. What does he mean?”

He’s referring to those like the ones in the study. Read the quotes.

Click to access EP08122150.pdf

It also ties in with this:

“In this stage, our former views of God are radically challenged. The disruption can be so great that we feel like we are losing our faith or betraying loyalties.” – From stage 4 of The Critical Journey, as quoted in your Abyss post.

“He suggests that theology is to answer ‘awkward questions’.. not true.”

But that’s the history of theology, and it’s been going on for centuries, trying to address the awkward questions. This is what Augustine, Aquinas etc. did, putting so much effort into building a more robust doctrine.

You often comment on versions of the faith that you don’t agree with, and you’ve said yourself that much of what you read is disagreeable. Dennett simply finds it all disagreeable.

“He suggests that we try to stop people having inquiring minds.. not true.”

we? – not you. The hierarchy, the establishment of the church.

You’ve said yourself that the there’s a resistance to inquiry that you feel you struggle against yourself.

“And he says that either you believe God has existence or you are an atheist.. why?”

Because to believe in God as expressed by Christians is to believe in an agent. We have no experience of agents that do not have existence.

We can conceptualise God as an agent, just as we can conceptualise pink elephants and unicorns. But you really want to say God IS, and yet claim he does not exist, then you are reducing him to a mere concept, not an actual God.

In this sense God can be a metaphor for something – but then Dennett says, in that case he too can believe in that God, because he too believes in metaphors, he knows what they are.

This is what the ‘History of God’ reference was about. Many religious explanations describe the history of the religion – which is fine, because religion does have a history.

But in saying it’s a history of God implies that there is a God to have a history about, when really it’s a history of the concept of God, not of God.

Dennett says that he too believes in the ‘concept of God’, i.e. he understands what concepts are, and he gets what this specific concept is. He just doesn’t believe in the content of that concept – i.e. God.

This is related to the Use-Mention Error – next.

” ‘History of God’ … And he relates God to the Easter Bunny..”

First, the Easter Bunny, unicorns, flying spaghetti monster, Russell’s teapot, or God, are all examples used to demonstrate the idea that having a concept of something isn’t the same as that something actually being real. All the inexplicable attributes of God, his incomprehensibility, can all be applied to these other examples, but it doesn’t make them any more true. The argument here is about the similarities with the type of claim being made, and not actually equating God to an Easter Bunny.

The example he uses for his deepism is lousy ‘Love is just a word’” – This is to do with the common use-mention error, which he explains clearly. Here’s some detail on it:

This is what it means:

And here:

The specific History of God error:

It’s a point I’ve picked up on in Bell and Rollins. It’s a way of conflating ideas, where the obvious and literal meaning of the sentence is easy for the brain to accept, and primes the brain for the more profound intention, even though the more profound intentional interpretation doesn’t actually make any sense as a sentence.

So, (as I commented on your Rollins post) Rollins (and Bell) provide many examples of what Dennett calls a ‘Deepity’:

– A proposition that seems to be profound because it is logically ill-formed.

– It has (at least) two meanings, and balances precariously between them.

– On one reading it is true but trivial.

– On the other reading it’s false, but would be earth-shattering if true.

And it’s the failure to recognise the U-M error that allows these double readings to be conflated.

When this usage is mixed in with lots of other emotive sentences and vague notions they’re easy to just absorb as if they have meaning. Dennett expresses something like, “Well, sounds okay, but?….well, I suppose I get it…” With repeated exposure this sort of stuff takes on a life of its own as if it actually means something.

Whenever a theist is asked to explain the detail of what is meant, then the simple claim that it’s too deep, beyond our language to express, is what the rationalisation of the problem resorts to.

“I am honestly appalled…so sickeningly prejudiced…I am shocked that Richard Dawkins…you are better than this, I can’t believe you can stomach it…anything racist or anti-gay or politically obnoxious…I find it distasteful…it seemed at the level of the Sun newspaper to me…It is just appalling…If he said these things about black people you would be rightly outraged and liken his propaganda to Hitler…these vile things…I think that is similar to racists equating black people to apes…as unpleasant as him. He represents for me the worst sort of bigotry.”

I can only put this down to you being genuinely disturbed by it. Yes, he’s preaching to the converted and does use some humour, which if you’re on the receiving end could be considered puerile.

But your response raises another issue that is problematic – there is no right of the religious not to be offended, simply because what’s being said is distasteful.

These are serious challenges to claims of ways of knowing things, and religious claims about what is known and how it is known do not stand up to scrutiny. The fact that you genuinely believe what you do does not make it any more viable, and Dennett is under no obligation to pull his punches when criticising ways of thinking that bamboozle so many people.

There are two topics covered seriously.

One, treated second, is the issue of religious language applied to the explanation of religious belief that has been adapting to criticism of literal meaning for centuries. He clearly shows up some of the flaws in the religious language that is used. he bases much of this on his understanding of philosophy, linguistics, psychology and the study of the mind, and the ideas are consistent with those of many leaders in those fields.

The other is the study that is underway to look into the effect of this religious language. In this particular case it’s about how language is used in situations: where clergy struggle with the disparity in types of belief; where there is a wide range of literal to metaphorical meaning, from traditional fundamental theism to near or actual atheism; where clergy have to deal with these conflicts in their own minds and conscience.

I’m sorry you find much of Dennett’s video so distasteful, but I think the arguments are fair, even if you don’t like the presentation.


Belief in Belief & Practical v Factual Realism

I seems to go unsaid by ‘believers’, most of the time, but occasionally on blogs it might be admitted to explicitly, that there might be no God. Or it might be said that it doesn’t matter if there is no God.

To some extent this is a step in the right direction. But I can’t help but feel it smacks of being ungenuine; there appears to be a dishonesty there, buried somewhere deep in the otherwise honest view that faith is good for us, even if it’s a faith in something that doesn’t exist. If faith developed by some evolutionary mechanism and had some purpose in the past, is it okay to go on believing now, even if you feel there’s nothing there, or if you feel it doesn’t matter if there’s something there of not?

Dan Dennett, in his AAI 2007, Good Reasons for “Believing” in God talk covers a number of reasons for believing, and addressed this particular notion.

He identifies a self-censorship by preachers, who wouldn’t dream of saying openly that God does not exist. Maybe some are more open in their true beliefs – certainly enough to say it on a blog, and for those this might turn out to be a brave move. Fessing up to this hidden truth is something Dennett concedes is courageous in his talk.

Dennett says the God of old, Yahweh, is like Mount Everest – it’s there for all to see and exists without question. But, he explains, God has been watered down, until it has become like low rolling hills – not quite so obvious. But in the minds of the modern theologian it resembles more of an insubstantial mist, a fog.

What follows is some of Dan’s talk. Towards the end Dennett includes words from David Sloan Wilson’s book, as if in debate. In what follows the two parts are identified by DD and DSW.

DD – Gradually, over the years, the concept of God is watered down. These personal revisions are passed on without notice. not just from preachers, but from parents talking to their children. Gradually, from what started out as a Mount Everest type concept of God, becomes a sort of amorphous cloudy mysterious concept that nobody really knows what it is. Mystery is itself elevated and considered to be wonderful. And we get the privatisation of the concepts – this is particularly true in the cases of the mega churches in this country [USA] where, “We don’t care what your concept of God is, just so long as you’re One With Jesus and you come to the church.” So they’re actually allowing to freelance and come up with your own concept of God. It doesn’t matter what concept of God you have, “[whisper] because nobody believes it anyway.”

DD – So we get the almost comical confusion of today. It’s very important this happened [the change in what God is] imperceptably. If it was sped up it would just be hilarious; the revision piled on revision; and all in one direction.


DD – Here’s a quote:

“It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us”

DD – Now, that’s a wonderful joke by Peter De Vries in his hilarious novel The Mackerel Plaza, back in 1958. But…

“God is so great that the greatness precludes existence.” – Raimon Panikkar in The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha (1989)

DD – That is not a joke. That is said in all po faced seriousness.


Dennett finally addresses one of the ways of treating this God that isn’t there, as a myth, as another form of reality. He tackles David Sloan Wilson’s account of ways of believing, form Wilson’s book, Darwin’s Cathedral, 2002, in which Wilson uses the terms:

Factual Realism and Practical Realism. He quotes from the book…

DSW – It’s true that many religious beliefs are false as literal descriptions of the world, but this merely forces us to recognise two forms of realism: a factual realism based on literal correspondence, and a practical realism based on behavioural adaptiveness. An atheist historian who understood the real life of Jesus but who’s own life was a mess as a result of his beliefs would be factually attached to and practically detached from reality.

DD – So he ought to believe a myth even at the expense of his factual knowledge in order to keep his life not a mess? That seems to be the implication.

DSW – Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought.

DD – If this were a philosophical audiance and it weren’t so late at night I’d take issue with that, but I just draw your attention to these passages.

DSW – It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective. If there is a trade off between the two forms of realism such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time.

DD – So he seems to be giving what he thinks of as an evolutionary endorsement for practical realism over factual realism.

DSW – Many intellectual traditions and scientific theories of the past decades have a similar silly and purpose driven quality once their cloak of factual plausability has been yanked away by the hand of time. If believing something for its desired consequences is a crime, then let those who are without guilt cast the first stone.

DD – I want to point out the fundamental difference betwee factual realism and practical realism is that the truth or faslity of factual realist theories is always an issue. Imagine if a priest were to say, “of course there really isn’t a God who listens to your prayers; that’s just a useful fiction, an over simplification.” No, even the Unitarians don’t just blurt out the fact that these may be useful fictions, since it’s quite apparent that their utility depends on their not being acknowledge to be fictions. In other words, practical realism as recommended by David Sloan Wilson is paternalistic and disingenuous.

DSW – It appears that factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate adaptive bahaviour. AT time a symbolic beliefe system that departs from factual reality fairs better.

DD – At what? At motivating behaviour. Well, you know I think he’s right about that. Is this a recommendation that one should lie when it will lead to adaptive behaviour? Does Wilson recognise the implication of his position?

[Dennett shows a photo of the Bush Adminsitration team: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld]

DD – Let us consider, practical realism of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. In a chilling article several years ago by Ron Suskind, White House correspondent, we get the following quote, “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

DD – There’s practical realism for you. It seems to me that David Sloan Wilson hasn’t thought this through. He maybe though actually saying that we are confronted with a sort of tradgedy. It may be that our quest for scientific truth has somehow trapped us: It’s too late for practical reality, that was for bygone days, we’re stuck now with factual reality, which some times won’t motivate us. We just know too much. We can never again act honestly, and honestly follow the path of practical realism.

DD – I don’t believe it. But that might be the position that he holds. Well if so we will just have to do the best we can guided by our knowledge. We will have to set ‘practical’ realism aside; it’s too late for that. there’s no going back.

DD – But, I’m actually optimistic. here we see the Vatican [picture]. Twenty years ago If I had stood up and said in a few years the Soviet Union woill evaporate, it will not exist any more, people would have laughed. If I’d sai Aprteid will be gone in just hew years, people would have laughed. Sometimes institutions that seem to be massive and have tremendous inertia can just pop like a bubble. So, how do we know until we try? Maybe within our childrens’ lifetime the Vatican will become the European Museum of Roman Catholicism. And maybe mecca will become Disney’s Magic Kingdom of Allah. If you think that’s funny just bare in mind that the hagia Sofia in Istanbul started off as a church, then it was a mosque, and today it’s a museum.

Of course Dennett is seeing the possible consequences of the lying that is implicit in this position of holding to a fictional practical realism over a less comfortable factual realism. It’s no good simply saying that continuing to believe in belief, while knowing that the belief you’re believing in is false, is okay because if makes people feel good, or behave well. Those you incite to believe false beliefs have a habit of interpreting those beliefs for themselves.

So, no matter how stupifying the belief is, I don’t think it’s worth it in the end.

According to Dennett, “it’s quite apparent that their utility depends on their not being acknowledge to be fictions. In other words, practical realism … is paternalistic and disingenuous.”

It’s also dangerous.

Human Fallibility

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

From my previous post, on the contingency of knowledge, I’ve arrived at the point where our working model is that we think with our minds and we have senses to sense the natural world.

But on closer examination, by our minds, these senses appear to be fallible, so we concoct methods for gaining confidence in particular sense experiences. On even closer examination we discover that our reasoning and other cognitive faculties can also be fallible, so we take steps to account for that observation too. So all we can do is construct experience and look for multiple ways of confirming what we experience to gain confidence in it, to give credibility to it, to compensate for the fallibilities. When we do this rigorously we call this science. Science gives us the best and most reliable explanation of our cognitive and sensory experiences, accounting for and accommodating for our fallibilities the best it can.

Note that this is an entirely inductive experience, from the particular to the general. It is true that induction lies on top of no firm and absolute foundation. An inductive argument indicates some degree of support for the conclusion but does not ensure its truth. So, just to make it clear, none of this is offered as a proof! Of anything.

For any of the detail along the way we might use deductive reasoning, which is often thought to be more thorough than induction, more concrete. This does not mean that deduction is always the better choice. Deduction is fine if you construct a valid argument; and if you have true premises then you have yourself a ‘sound’ argument, the most sure argument there is. But it’s an illusion to think you can have a sound deductive argument at the limits of philosophy, in metaphysics – you can never be sure your premises are true! Why? Because all we have are our thoughts and our senses – we have no prior premises and arguments upon which to build our starting premises. So, if someone tells you they have a proof that, say, God exists, it’s baloney, because it always relies on presupposition, and the presupposition can’t be guaranteed to be true. If someone wants to offer you ‘evidence’ for God, that’s a different matter and should be treated seriously.

We are fallible human beings. The very best we can do is accumulate data, examples, lots of them, and compare them and subject them to any tests we can. We create hypotheses, of which Richard Feynman said they could just as well be guesses. Any old random guess won’t usually do – we could be here forever checking every possible hypothesis – something some theists think atheist are claiming (and what Pirsig mistakenly thought was a problem, in ZAMM – more of that in another post). Of course we base hypotheses on prior experience that appears to work. This is induction and science in action.

Science concludes (this means best explanation so far, not we’re absolutely certain) that according to our senses and reasoning there is a physical world out there. It gets a bit quirky sometimes – e.g. quantum physics – but so far nothing has been found to refute this tentative conclusion. I mean, really, nothing! You have to consider what it would mean to refute this. You would have to find something that isn’t physical. This is a tall order. Before sub-atomic particles were figured out the world was still physical. Discovering the sub-atomic particles didn’t introduce some magic into the universe – it was simply that we discovered something we didn’t know was there before, but is still considered part of the physical universe.

This is what will happen with any ‘paranormal’ effect or ‘energy’ that might exist. If it exists, then when it is found, that is when there is evidence of it, then it too will become a part of our physical description of the universe. The reason the paranormal is ridiculed so much isn’t because we know it to be false absolutely, it’s that fantastic claims have been made, but no evidence has been found to support them.

Astrology? No evidence. And further more, many of these ‘crank’ pseudo-sciences, are actually shown not to fit with scientific ideas that have much more support. The moon clearly has an immediate impact on our lives, with the tides; and has influenced us over a long evolutionary period. The other planets contribute to the stability of the solar system, and provide attractors for debris that might otherwise come our way. A supernova going off too close would have a significant impact too. Some cosmic events could wipe out life on our planet. But the suggestion that the particular arrangement of planets and stars at the time of our birth has some impact on the formation of our individual character? No only is it a dumb idea, but we now know of many more personal localised biological, psychological and sociological influences that are involved in the formation of our character. Astrology is a good representation of how bad ‘mystical’ nonsense can be – it doesn’t even rate as pseudo-science.

Evidence is the route to discovery and the support and maintenance of ideas and theories and facts. No evidence? Then it might as well not exist.

Not, you note, that it doesn’t exist! Science does not have to assert that anything in particular does not exist. It only says to what extent there is evidence to support an idea or the existence of something.

In everyday life, if we can’t see it, taste it, feel it, etc., then we might as well act as if it doesn’t exist, even if it does, for how can we tell the difference. We can happily go about our daily lives as if the speed of light does not have a limit, because in our daily lives we never reach that limit, and where it does impact on our lives, we are usually ignorant of it. Many cities around the world are built as if earthquakes don’t exist, because in those regions they rarely experience any of significance – and yet on a larger scale, for thos eliving in safe zones, we not only know they exist but we consciously participate in relief for those that suffer from them.

The extent to which reality affects us has some influence over how much we live as if some aspect of relaity exists or not. So, what about God?

We can ignore God as an entity because whether he exists or not makes no apparent difference. And even based on reason alone, so many varieties of teleological entities can be dreamed up, the limited theisms of the religious don’t really cover the bases they are trying to protect. And as for actual effects, … prayer does nothing to the event being prayed for, and has only psychological effects on believers. This means that despite the fact that theists can’t prove God exists and atheists can’t disprove it, it’s irrelevant, because there is no evidence, and that’s sufficient. We can act as if God does not exist because there is no evidence that such an entity does exist.

Many theists realise this and no longer require the existence of God as an entity ‘out there’ – See Rob Bell (h/t Lesley’s Blog). But that doesn’t mean theists have dealt with the problem of human fallibility in relation to faith. I’ll get to that in another post.

Of course, those people that believe God exists do themselves exist, and they do have an impact on the reality of the rest of us, which is a bit of a nuisance at times.

Contingency of Knowledge

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

I’m an atheist who is an atheist as a consequence of where science leads me – my atheism is a working conclusion rather than a presupposition, and certainly not a faith. I’m occasionally asked how I get to that point, so this is where it starts.

I like to take the track credited to Descartes and his Cogito[1] – I think therefore I am; or, if I’m thinking I can only conclude that something is doing the thinking, and that something I’ll call ‘me’. I’m not claiming this as a proof that I exist, but I am saying that it is the only evidence available to me that I exist. Feel free to criticise this; but it would be helpful if you could provide an alternative that is as all invasive as the experience that I am having of thinking.

I’m not sure what it would mean, what the consequences would be, if I were to say I am thinking but it’s not me, it’s something else thinking these thoughts, or, that my thoughts are an illusion (but what is it that is having the illusion of thinking), or that there is no thinking going on full stop.

So, based on this thinking experience, I accept the experience that is ‘thinking’, i.e. I think. I’ve had some people tell me this is my presupposition, but I don’t think it is, I think it’s a direct experience that I can’t refute.

Next I notice some senses, some apparent external inputs from some apparent external world – I see objects and people, I hear them, they appear to respond when I talk to them. Is this a phantom world created by my mind? Is there only thinking? This solipsism is a distinct possibility, I can’t deny it. Trouble is I can’t for the life of me tell the difference between the solipsism of imagined senses and real actual senses. Since that’s the case I’ll continue from here by choosing the arbitrary path – that my senses are real inputs from the external world, external to my thoughts. It’s important to realise that this is an arbitrary choice because I can’t tell the difference, I can’t refute solipsism.

Form there, through these senses, imaginary or real, I accept the discovery of other people who appear, according to my senses, to have the same experiences – at least that’s what they tell me. Not being able to refute any of this my basic working model, my working philosophy, is that we all exist and interact as our senses show us and our cognition (mind) understands us. This experienced world is the one we know as the physical world, or natural world, that applies to all of us.

At this point we can’t say to what extent our mind and senses report on the real, actual, universal, ultimate reality (or whatever you want to call it) that’s out there. We can’t even be sure there is such a thing. So note again the contingency of our position: we only think that we have a mind, and with this thinking mind we think that we have senses, but can’t be certain, and if we do have senses we think that they show us something of reality, but we’re not sure, and we don’t even know if this reality exists. But despite how contingent, how flaky and inadequate this position is that we’re in, it’s all we’ve got!

Next, I want to cover how humans deal with thinking about stuff in the light of these limitations: Human Fallibility.

[1] Cogito – Note I don’t consider too many of the options that Descartes does, because I can’t figure out what to do with them. And since nobody else takes us any further than this I am left to take from it what I’ve stated above.

Secret Agents

In many of the arguments about God and mind-body dualism there is the underlying notion of agency, or of an agent – an entity that has some autonomous control of its actions, some intent (i.e intentionality). If we can challenge the notion of agency then we can take a different view of the universe.

Dualists have an appreciation of the mind as something distinct from the physical brain. This dualism may be adapted to create the similar notion of the soul, as used by religions. The mind or the soul is the agency that to some extent or another exists or emerges out of the human brain and body; and familiarity prevents us accepting that we are totally physical entities.

This notion of mind, soul, or even self, conscious self, identity, seems to be a natural instinct that on the face of it appears difficult for the physicalist to explain. What seems clear to a physicalist, particularly one that also accepts Darwinian evolution as a satisfactorily explained process, is that this notion of agency has been projected, extended, by human creative imagination, to hypothesise the existence of gods. But from the physicalist evolutionary point of view there seems little doubt that this God is made in man’s image, not man in his. God is a construct of the human imagination.

If we imagine and follow the developmental and evolutionary path, from physical inanimate objects, to the first replicators, through simple life forms, lesser animals, mammals, primates, and on to man, it is clear that there is no evidence of any mechanism, or any intervention, that suddenly switches on or enables agency. Agency, like free-will, and consciousness, are illusory, so the physicalist hypothesis goes. They are simply hypothetical models of complex systems in action. The fact that we, in the complex biological process of responding to our environment and our current inner physical (chemical and electrical brain system) state, respond as if we are agents, as if we have free-will and consciousness, is merely an efficient mechanism that helps us to operate.

Watch the video clips of the ‘insects’ created by Robert Full’s and other teams. I challenge you not take an inner or explicit gasp as you inevitably look on these machines as being alive in some crude sense – that is your agency recognition system kicking in and recognising agency where there is none. We recognise agency in ourselves, in other animals, in some robots, in cartoon characters, in toys. We are built to perform this recognition of agency.

Did I say “We are built to perform this recognition.”? See? “We are built…” We are not built, in the active sense that someone built us. That’s precisely the point. We can’t help but think in this way. Richard Dawkins did the same throughout his book The Selfish Gene – his actual words, the title, imparted apparent agency upon genes, when of course this is precisely what he didn’t intend. We use phrases implying agency all the time, even when that’s exactly what we are arguing against. The phrase “We evolved (intransitive) to do …” itself could be interpreted as “We actively, through our own will, evolved (caused) ourselves to do …”, or as “We were evolved (transitive) by the agency of Evolution itself to do …” Our language is so evolved to inherently assume agency we have to resort to quite contrived language to describe the physicalist view without agency. So, when talking about something I do, to make it clear there is no intention and free-will in my action I have to resort to words like, “This complex responding organism (me) responded in such a way…”

Agency is a vehicle that gets us through the journey of life efficiently and quickly. But we need to get out of this vehicle now and then and ruminate in the grass, stroll through the woods, take in the view. Once we park agency on the road side we can proceed to walk carefully through life examining in more detail the arguments that tell us that agency is all there is, and just suspend that notion. Simply review the arguments as if there is only physical stuff; put agency to one side.

Some theists will happily tell you how necessary God is to explain the physical universe – he’s the first cause, he’s infinite, etc. But let a physicalist propose that the universe might be infinite, or that there might be multiple inanimate universes, with no agency, and the theists will ask how this is possible. They will raise paradoxes that physicalism appears unable to explain. But there really is no difference between any hypothesised cause of the universe, whether it be theistic or physicalist – except for the presence or absence of agency. Both theists and physicalists have to struggle with the fact that they don’t know what lies beyond the known; we don’t know if it’s infinity all the way or not; it’s hard enough to be sure that the concept of infinity has any significance, any reality. So, the only difference between any proposed God creator and an equivalent non-theistic beginning is the presence of God as the agent.

But if there is no concrete evidence for agency’s instantiation, no evidence of it springing into existence, then there is really no argument for it existing outside the universe, as God. And since we are the only agents we do have evidence for, if we figure we are complex stuff but not agents, then there is no known concrete evidence of agency anywhere.

Now, having said all that I’m still happy to use terms like agency, free will, consciousness, mind, etc., as creative notions, as convenient models, for complex physical systems and processes, like ourselves. I’m happy to say “evolution built us this way” without any teleology implied. It’s how I’ve evolved to think, so I can’t help it.

God Releases Linux (Unsubstantiated)

I could quite easily fit my understanding of science into any religious view – God can do anything, so he made the world this way, and even made atheists to challenge my faith. Once I believe in magic I can invent anything. It’s all down to the premises; so that a valid argument can be claimed to be a sound argument, or I can simply claim that it’s beyond reason and the premises stand alone unchallengable.

I could quite justifiably, by the absolutist religious view, believe that in fact there is a God. But my God isn’t omnipotent, though he is omnibenevolent … this world is his software development project.

Linux Earth 1.0 – Code Name ‘Genesis’ – He spontaneously came into existence about 20 billion years ago, came up with a plan for our universe, and currently we are its latest enhancement.

Linux Earth 1.1 – Code Name ‘Jesus’ – He’s really sorry about the crappy mess he’s left us in, and has wanted to atone – that’s why he created a representation of himself as Jesus. That got a little weird, so he added a patch:

Linux Earth 1.1.1 – Code Name ‘Crucifixion Patch’ – He hadn’t anticipated our design flaws, so we screwed that up for him. An online compaign was started by fans of the 1.1 version that there was a resurrection bug.

Linux Earth 1.2 – Code Name ‘Islam’ – He tried again with Mohammed, but that was a real viral cock-up.

Linux Earth 2.0 – Code Name ‘Enlightenment’ – Eventually he settled on the Enlightenment. It was always going to be difficult – unlike his future creation Microsoft he decided to avoid any pretence at compatibility with previous versions – it was his Linux, and it had its own flaws, but did have certain benefits in that it wasn’t proprietary, it was open source! Anyone could contribute and everyone could benefit. As with all good projects the Enlightenment is an ongoing development, new anti-religious security patches are being contributed by many sources. He hopes to eventually convert all customers. And there’s an incentive for existing and upgrading customers alike – a free pass to heaven, where you’ll be met by Steve Jobs with some great gifts.

Unauthorised code branches: ‘Gold Plated Linux’ by rogue programmer Joseph Smith; ‘Scientology’ or ‘Gullible Celebrity Pseudoscienctology’, by RLH.

I suppose if I believed the above I could be aspect blind, in that I don’t see how my premises upon which it all stands can be at fault. But I’d KNOW I’m not wrong, wouldn’t I? Any objections?


In response to Barefootbum I tried to figure out my take on ‘knowledge’:

I’ve been struggling with this for a while. I can’t really get a handle on knowledge with regard to truth or justification. My mind tends to work in the concrete rather than the abstract, so maybe that’s why.

So, what I can get a handle on, or at least I feel I can, is information (e.g. Shannon). Information is merely laid down in the brain, using the physicalist view, in patterns that vary according to person, time, current brain state, etc., acquired through the combination of genetics, development and sensory input and so on.

Sticking with the physicalist view that consciousness is a manifestation of brain activity that gives an appearance of the ‘mind’, then the processes of the mind consist of the manipulation and regurgitation of an individual brain’s information at any particular time – outwardly, to others, an external representation of the internal information.

So what we call individual ‘knowledge’ is nothing more than continuously changing pattern of transformed information. Add into the mix other brains all trying to perform the same task, each with their own internal mix of this ‘knowledge’, then it’s no wonder we struggle to find agreement on what we understand any particular piece of knowledge to be. If there is any ‘truth’ out there beyond human experience then we’re unlikely to acquire or agree on any ‘true’ interpretation of it.

Why do we want to search for a truth of any kind? Why must we agree? I don’t know what the biological driving forces might be, other than it could be viewed as yet another manifestation of the consequence of housing selfish genes. But it’s pretty clear we are motivated to question, to understand, and to agree on ‘truths’.

In this model there is no absolute truth, at least not that we can get at. There is only knowledge as information. What we make of it and how useful it is determines whether or not it is ‘justified true belief’, though I’ve never liked that phrase (because I couldn’t understand it). And I think this is how such variety in understanding can be explained; how we arrive at such a debatable position about what ‘truth’ is, what god is, if god exists, what morality is, etc. In some respects this is a utilitarian view, but I don’t see anything wrong with that.

If this interpretation is the case then it also explains in some way the success of science and its methods and why we find them useful: the use of repeatability to establish knowledge as a consistent set of information over time, space and environment; the use of logic to establish what we can conclude or at least what we can use as a working model. Science even goes to great lengths to iron out the noise and the vagaries of human fallibility by using double blind tests and performing statistical analysis on the data to make sure, as much as we can, that the results actually represent useful knowledge/information. In other words science helps us to get as good an agreement on any ‘truth’ as we can reasonably expect.

Beyond this view of knowledge I struggle with much of the philosophical contemplation of it. It seems to me that it’s quite easy to analyse yourself until you vanish up your own ass, and I feel that that’s what some philosophers do when considering truth and knowledge. Maybe it’s just my ignorance of some of the finer points.