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Humanism

“Atheist v. Theist” – A Humanist’s Response

 In “Hernando Today,” a publication of the Tampa Tribune, an article written by one Allen Walker titled, “Atheist vs Theist” was published on February 20, 2011. In the piece, Mr Walker questions the merits of his version of “atheist beliefs” and tries to deconstruct what he thinks are the atheists’ positions on a number of selected issues. (The entire article can be found at http://www2.hernandotoday.com/content/2011/feb/20/181624/atheist-vs-theist/)

 My purpose here is to try to disabuse Mr. Walker (hereafter, just “W”) and like-minded theists of what I see as their misguided and misinformed opinions regarding non-theists (atheists, Humanists, freethinkers) position on the matters covered in his article. It should be understood, however, that the following comments are strictly the opinions of your humble scrivener, and that I do not represent or speak for any nonbeliever organization. I am also going to assume that the reader has at least a passing familiarity with most of the common arguments and associated logic used as metaphysical proofs pertaining to a supernatural entity known as God.     

1.  God Did It – W starts off with the “anthropic principle” and argues that, “nature’s laws are fine-tuned to ensure the emergence of human life,” and that, “the intricacy, harmony and the sheer organization of the cosmos,” calls for a “cosmic designer.”

My retort here would be that the concepts of intricacy, intelligence, harmony, organization, reason, and design are all derived from the human mind alone. As far as we know, those concepts don’t manifest themselves in any other species. Moreover, I think it’s fair to conclude that such attributes didn’t exist before we humans thought them up and that they will cease to exist when humans cease to exist. 

As to a Cosmic (Intelligent) Designer, well, the theists have yet to tell us who designed the designer and then be able to explain that paradox without falling into the endless loop of circular logic. The Cosmological Argument for a first cause, a.k.a., an uncaused cause, makes the unfounded assumption that there must be a first cause. But the cosmologists and the particle physicists have observed matter being created (and disappearing) ex nihilo via vacuum fluctuations and virtual particles.

Of course, the idea of “Intelligent Design” itself comes from the Teleological Argument, which says that, because there is complexity, order, and purpose in the universe (according to the theists,) then, like the watchmaker of William Paley’s watch, some intelligence must be behind it all. Alas, this is a non sequitur because it presents a false dilemma. For example, in his newest book, “The Grand Design,” Stephen Hawking, along with his co-author Leonard Mlodinow, posit that the universe (or, as Hawking calls it, “you-knee-verse,) would be the way it is without a Deity being necessary. God, therefore, is contingent at best.

W argues too that the odds of our universe coming into existence are astronomically (no pun intended) small because all of the physical constants had to be just so, and all the series of events required for the universe to reach this point had to be perfect. This being the case, W asserts, an intelligent, cosmic, invisible, guiding hand must have orchestrated it. But, this argument is akin to betting on the horse after the race is over. The universe exists the way it does because of all those conditions being what they are. So, the probability of our universe being the way it is, like knowing what horse won the race, is “1,” or exactly 100%. Nobody will take a bet after the race is over.

 The most we can ever know is what is. We can never know what isn’t. The universe doesn’t need statistical probabilities or even the “laws” of nature, humans do.

 2.  A Theist’s Laws of Logic  – W says, “The fundamental laws of logic, the law of non-contradiction for instance, is not a product of human convention. The principal of non-contradiction (nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same way) is not only cognitively necessary and irrefutable, but is ontologically true; it defines the very nature of reality itself.”

Seriously? OK W, draw me a picture of a four-sided triangle, then I’ll believe you. Either 2 + 2 = 4, or 2 + 2 = not 4. The law of non-contradiction is most assuredly refutable; even God can’t break it.  Without this law the universe and “the very nature of reality itself”“ would be incoherent.

 W is wrong too about the ontological truth of his logic. The Ontological Argument requires lots of imagination, along with some not-very-critical thinking. We have to imagine a being as having the best and the most desirable of attributes; omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and moral perfection. Problem is, the Ontological Argument relies entirely on a priori proof derived from reason and intuition alone, as distinct from empirical proof of science. Therefore, the argument in no way approximates nature.

All of these superhuman, supernatural attributes are strictly mental constructs; untestable, unable to be falsified, and therefore unrepresentative of either nature or reality (whatever those are.)

Consider what the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says of these properties (see http://www.iep.utm.edu/o/ont-arg.htm):

“Here it is important to note that all versions of the ontological argument [that God is the Greatest Possible Being] assume that God is simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.

 “There are a number of plausible arguments for thinking that even this restricted set of properties is logically inconsistent. For example, moral perfection is thought to entail being both perfectly merciful and perfectly just. But these two properties seem to contradict each other. To be perfectly just is always to give every person exactly what she deserves. But to be perfectly merciful is to give at least some persons less punishment than they deserve. If so, then a being cannot be perfectly just and perfectly merciful. Thus, if moral perfection entails, as seems reasonable, being perfectly just and merciful, then the concept of moral perfection is inconsistent.

 “It is logically impossible for a being to simultaneously instantiate omniscience and omnipotence. Omnipotence entails the power to create free beings, but omniscience rules out the possibility that such beings exist. Thus, a being that is omniscient lacks the ability to create free beings and is hence not omnipotent. Conversely, a being that is omnipotent has the power to create free beings and hence does not know what such beings would do if they existed. Thus, the argument concludes that omniscience and omnipotence are logically incompatible. If this is correct, then all versions of the ontological argument fail.”

Clearly, the logically challenged theists didn’t think this one through. W’s argument for cognitive necessity, it turns out, results in little more than cognitive dissonance. 

3.  What Means Meaninglessness?  – W writes, “How can such rational enterprises as logic, mathematics and science be justified when the human brain and mind are the result of a non-rational, mindless accident? Naturalism, effectually, purports that life, the mind, personhood, and reason came from a source that lacked each of these profound qualities.

 “The atheist view is the universe is meaningless; but if the universe is meaningless, then human life is meaningless. This concept creates a great paradox in thought. Namely, how could people living in a meaningless world come to the amazingly meaningful recognition that the world has no meaning?

Once again, W falls into this trap of trying to anthropomorphize the universe, which only imposes the sense of determinism that plagues all theists; that the universe can operate only by the consent and through the oversight of a supernatural, but nonetheless anthropomorphic, entity. But, since our understanding of the universe, not just how it works, but what it is exactly, is transient and clearly incomplete, I believe it is impossible to ascribe a reason, scientific or otherwise, for the “meaning” of its existence; whatever W means by meaning.

Our piddling little earth is like one teeny-weeny grain of sand which is just one among all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. The universe doesn’t give a flip about us. We humans are the ones with the problem. We have the arrogance and temerity and hubris to think we can attribute “meaning” and “reason” to the universe; that all those other grains of sand are there for our benefit. This is what the psychologists call “projection.” We want the universe to be like us so we “humanize” it to help understand it. (When I project what I think I know of the universe, it just looks back and gives out the loudest goddamn laugh you’ve ever heard.)

W then gives us this absurd statement: “The atheist view is that the universe is meaningless; but if the universe is meaningless, then human life is meaningless.” Well, I don’t know about you, but W doesn’t know what my views are, much less the views of all atheists.

By saying the universe is meaningless doesn’t make it so. I would simply refer W to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, where the number “42,” is the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.” 

Then there is this from Sam Harris, who, in his “10 myths—and 10 Truths—About Atheism” (http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/10-myths-and-10-truths-about-atheism1/) writes,

“(R)eligious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.”

 3.  I am Human, This I Know, for the Bible Tells Me So  – W continues his rant, “Scripture revels that human beings at their core know there is a God. . . . Our environment supports this inner sense of God on His power, glory and wisdom manifested in the cosmic cathedral that surrounds us, the universe. . . . This inherent and intuitive sense of the Divine explains much about humanity. It accounts for mankind’s deep-seated religious and moral convictions. Some have called humans homo religious because of our basic religious tendencies and nature. . . . In general, atheism appears to be quite contrary to basic human nature.”

You might be surprised, but I actually agree with W on most of what he says here. In fact, there is a very good overview on the subject of the human connection to religion in an article on Wikipedia titled, “Evolutionary Origin of Religions.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_origin_of_religions. Here’s an edited (by me) excerpt from the section called “Evolutionary psychology of religion:”

“There is general agreement among cognitive scientists that religion is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved early in human history. However, there is disagreement on the exact mechanisms that drove the evolution of the religious mind. The two main schools of thought hold that either religion evolved due to natural selection and has selective advantage, or that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other mental adaptations.

“Such mechanisms may include the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm (agent detection), the ability to come up with causal narratives for natural events (etiology), and the ability to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions (theory of mind). These three adaptations (among others) allow human beings to imagine purposeful agents behind many observations that could not readily be explained otherwise, e.g. thunder, lightning, movement of planets, complexity of life, etc. The emergence of collective religious belief identified the agents as deities that standardized the explanation.

“Some scholars have suggested that religion is genetically “hardwired” into the human condition. One controversial hypothesis, the God gene hypothesis, states that some human beings bear a gene which gives them a predisposition to interpret episodes as religious revelation [identified as] the VMAT2 gene. . .  Collective religious belief draws upon the emotions of love, fear, and gregariousness and is deeply embedded in the limbic system through sociobiological conditioning and social sanction. Individual religious belief utilizes reason based in the neocortex and often varies from collective religion. . . Reason is preempted by emotional drives. The religious feeling in a congregation is emotionally different from individual spirituality even though the congregation is composed of individuals. Belonging to a collective religion is culturally more important than individual spirituality though the two often go hand in hand. This is one of the reasons why religious debates are likely to be inconclusive.

‘The evolution of religion can also be explained in terms of the nature of human comprehension and the belief in the supernatural. Human contact with the environment as of all creatures is through the sensory mechanism. The greater the number of senses, the greater is the comprehension. In the case of humans, the message reaches the brain and there it is given meaning in the light of individual experience. The meaning consists of the explanation that the brain provides for the message. When natural causes are not available for comprehending an experience, the brain has to assume imaginary causes and often these are of a supernatural kind. Shared by a group through language, the generally acceptable explanation gains credibility and becomes part of the social consensus and the group’s religion. In time, advance of scientific knowledge based on experimental validation gradually, often after initial social resistance, replaces the unsubstantiated or supernatural explanation as a part of cultural evolution. Beliefs, like the belief in God, that cannot be falsified by experiment continue to form religious belief the strength of which is drawn essentially from emotion.”

So, much of what W says on this issue of our innate religiosity can be validated by the shrinks and the anthropologists. Whether or not W understands the cognitive science behind his assertions is another matter. In any case, I think that the non-theist community might want to consider the foregoing and thereby reconsider their negative attitude toward the mental state of those who hold religious (read theistic) beliefs. Yes, they may have been brainwashed, they may have been raised in a very strict religious household, they may have had a significant, life-altering, come-to-Jesus moment in their lives. But even without such additional mental coercion, the predisposition toward accepting that there is something greater than ourselves is apparently a part of human nature. As Albert Einstein once said,

“Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.”

Not all of us are free or critical thinkers. And you can thank God for that.

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Discussion

4 thoughts on ““Atheist v. Theist” – A Humanist’s Response

  1. In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate, but never completed. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” is a quote by Albert Einstein: …most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is the center of all religion.

    E=mc², Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Love, Grace, Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

    (quoted from “the greatest achievement in life,” my free ebook on comparative mysticism)

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    Posted by Ron Krumpos | December 9, 2011, 4:23 PM
  2. Herb,

    Your three posts on Humanism are an impressive roundup of thought on the general subject of religion. It strikes me as significant that the movements and the philosophies you discuss are compelled to define themselves in terms of religion itself.

    Most of your thoughts are familiar to me and I have come to pretty much the same conclusions as you. I think the anthropomorphic principle applies to the issues that derive from self-awareness: things are as they are because we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it if they weren’t. QED.

    I would define myself as a “non-theist” as you do, but I’m not sure it is productive to try to reason with people who want to be religious. I have no doubt that most people have a strong “God part” of the brain and that religiosity is an evolutionary positive. The problem with that of course is that such evolution occurred when we were in small tribes and it doesn’t travel well into tribes of thousands or millions. Think Republicans and Democrats, or Iranians and Israelites. I believe that people are becoming less religious with time as social structures grow to mitigate some of the threats that our ancestors faced, but it is anybody’s guess whether we will destroy ourselves before we get used to living in such large groups.

    Consider this thought. The principal benefit of religiosity may be that it provides a clear path to humility, thus promoting group cooperation and organizational health to the benefit of all. But the yang to that yin is that the very humility that enables positive aspects also makes people vulnerable to exploitation, as in the Ayatollahs, Rick Santorum, or Jimmy Swaggart and his ilk.

    Well done on your essays, Herb. I am keeping them for re-reading. But meanwhile I am not persuaded to joust with these windmills on a broad public field just yet.

    Jim Wheeler

    Like

    Posted by Jim Wheeler | January 12, 2012, 10:22 AM
  3. Jim,

    Thanks for your kind remarks. I don’t know if you noticed or not (it ain’t easy using WordPress sometimes) but I have a series of 5 posts on “The Alchemy of Religion and the Quantum Theory of Humanism,” which talks to some of the points you bring up here and much more. Click on “December 2011″ under “Archives” and you’ll see a listing of all the posts in that series. Proceed at your own risk, cause most of these essays are pretty lengthy.

    Again, thanks for stopping by.

    Herb

    Like

    Posted by Herb Van Fleet | January 12, 2012, 11:58 AM

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