The Language of God: Questions for Atheists

The Language of God, Chapter 7

By B.J. Marshall

The next part of Chapter 7 shows Collins' poor understanding of atheism. He starts by differentiating between "strong" and "weak" atheism, but then he makes the baseless claim that for the majority of atheists, strong atheism is "generally the assumed position" (p.161). He makes this distinction so that he has a group he can refute. He asks three questions, and I'd like to address them similarly to those posed by Michael Egnor.

But first I would like to address Collins' assertion that most atheists are "strong atheists." I would have liked to have seen some data here on the composition of atheists. I mean, if we're just speaking anecdotally, then I'm perfectly fine to say the majority of atheists I know are weak atheists - that is, we're not making a positive claim that there are no gods, so the burden of proof lies squarely with the theist - so I could go ahead and call that "generally the assumed position."

Here's how I've explained the position to people. I tell my wife that I've stuffed a monkey down my pants again. She rolls her eyes, looks, and doesn't see the usual monkey-shaped bulge; "No no," I reply, "this monkey's really small and invisible!" Knowing that she can't see my monkey, she'll then try to feed the monkey; "No no, see - it doesn't require any food." Can she sense heat from it? Can she hear it breathe? At some point, she's going to say, "You know, love, I really don't think you have a monkey in your pants this time." She's an a-pants-monkey-ist, but only because she lacks belief in my monkey. She isn't definitively saying I have no monkey, because she could not possibly meet the burden of proof. If anything, a-pants-monkey-ism - like weak atheism - may very well be the default position; I don't believe in god because I have not seen compelling evidence to warrant my doing so, and my lack of belief requires no positive evidence.

Now on to the questions. I'll provide Collins' musings on the subject before providing my responses:

1. If this universal search for God [that Collins has argued for previously] is so compelling, what are we to make of those restless hearts who deny His existence?

Recall that Collins has argued previously that humanity seems to have a universal desire to seek God. In this particular section, he tosses out yet another Augustine quote from Confessions: "Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you" (p.162). Since my deconversion, I've thought it odd that a god would create us for himself and stir in us a desire to praise our creator god. What a megalomaniacal tyrant!

The search for god is not entirely universal. There are cultures, like this Amazon tribe, who have no purpose for god and deconverted missionaries sent to them. The search for god might just be our hypersensitive agency detection device. And, as scientific history has amply shown, "Throughout history / Every mystery / Ever solved has turned out to be / Not Magic." (Thank you, Tim Minchin.) So, I first refute Collins' claim that his Universal Search for God Argument is not at all compelling.

Next, why do we atheists deny his existence? Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by an angry God who demanded to know why he had not believed. Russell said his reply would be "Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence" (The God Delusion, p.104). I personally deny god's existence for the following reasons:

2. On what foundation do they make such assertions with such confidence?

Collins doesn't really address this; or, at best, his answer is combined with his assessment of the historic origins. We'll give this one a skip on Collins' part.

For those strong atheists who positively assert there is no god - and by doing so, take on the burden of proof - I would suspect that they predominantly take two paths. Not being a strong atheist (yet), I know I'm putting myself out there are as potentially setting up a straw man. I don't pretend to speak on behalf of the strong atheist community, but I'd like to put my thoughts out there in case any strong atheists can help me correct my thinking.

The first path is arguing that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. I know that apologists like William Lane Craig have argued that this is incorrect thinking. However, I think it is valid when applied correctly, in the same way that the professional exterminator who does a thorough investigation, looking everywhere where evidence might be found, concludes that the absence of evidence of termite damage most probably (almost certainly) means an absence of termites. Michael Martin, as reference by Matt McCormick in an Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on atheism cites that:

A person is justified in believing that X does not exist if:

  1. all the available evidence used to support the view that X exists is shown to be inadequate; and
  2. X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then there is a presumption that would be evidence adequate to support the view that X exists; and
  3. this presumption has not been defeated although serious efforts have been made to do so; and
  4. the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined; and
  5. there are no acceptable beneficial reasons to believe that X exists..

I think the second path also has a lot of power but is seldom used effectively: arguing that certain definitions of god are incoherent due to internal inconsistencies. For example, I think the concept of the Holy Trinity is incoherent (God is "Holy Spirit" and God is "Jesus" but the Holy Spirit is not Jesus; it seems contrary to the transitive property) so I'm quite confident I can rule that type of god out, though I'm not sure whether this is a category error.

As far as weak atheists go, I think it's a simple case that the arguments are not compelling and the evidence is lacking: "The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on nothing; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing and admits of no conclusion." —Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

3. And what are the historic origins of this point of view?

Collins talks about atheism playing a "minor role" until the Enlightenment and the "rise of materialism" (p.162). A more powerful force, Collins says, was a "rebellion against the oppressive authority of the government and the church, partiularly as manifested in the French Revolution" (p.162). Collins states that atheists who equated the organized church with god himself decided it best to discard both. Finally, Collins mentions Freud, who argued that belief in god was just wishful thinking.

I would say the historic origins of atheism have roots in the increasingly open and decreasingly unpunished application of human reason. It was kind of hard to be an atheist when the Spanish Inquisition was around. As societies have become increasingly tolerant of free speech, I think fewer people have shied away from speaking their minds on this subject.

Other posts in this series:

February 20, 2011, 10:58 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

The Language of God: A Biologist in His Element (Sort Of)

The Language of God, Chapter 4

By B.J. Marshall

This chapter is entitled "Life on Earth: Of Microbes and Man." Right from the beginning, you should probably know that there's a lot in this chapter that Collins gets right. It's like how William Lane Craig is totally in his element when he talks about cosmology, because he's an astrophysi ... wait, that's right, he's not. (I couldn't help but slam "The Case for a Creator" my parents got me for my first birthday post-deconversion. Nothing says "Happy Birthday" like "we think you're wrong and we don't want you to burn in Hell.") OK, so it's completely unlike that; Collins totally knows his stuff when it comes to the items in this chapter: DNA and evolution. In fact, Collins at one point asserts that "[t]he study of genomes leads inexorably to the conclusion that we humans share a common ancestor with other living things" (pp.133-134).

That said, there are some things that he mentions in this chapter that should be addressed.

In his introduction to this chapter, he talks about how science has turned beliefs on their heads, giving the example of replacing the geocentric model of the solar system with a heliocentric model. He talks about how the theory of evolution has really done it in for creationists. "Science," Collins says, "should not be denied by the believer; it should be embraced." He continues to say how the elegance of life on Earth is reason for awe and for belief in God. To that, I answer as Douglas Adams did: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

After speaking to paradigm shifts, Collins addresses the mainstay of many theists: Paley's Watchmaker argument. I have to give credit to Collins for adeptly dismantling this, though it is pretty low-hanging fruit. You know the one: You find a watch in a heath, and you know it's complex (the watch, not the heath). Watches have creators. Well, life is pretty darned complex; therefore life has a creator. Collins dismantles it this way:

  1. Electric current in my house consists of a flow of electrons.
  2. Electric current comes from the power company.
  3. Lightning consists of a flow of electrons.
  4. Therefore, lightning comes from the power company (pp.87-88).

Collins spends a little bit of time refuting arguments that evolution would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In so many words, he tells the reader that order can increase in parts of a system while the total amount of disorder in the system never decreases. He warns the reader about falling into a god-of-the-gaps problem, where the reader might say something like, "Hey, science can't explain life's origins, so couldn't we say that God stepped in to intervene?" I found it interesting how Collins plays to his readership: In that hypothetical question, Collins posits that God's intention was to create a universe which would lead to creatures with whom God might have fellowship, "namely human beings." Neanderthals may have had some form of spirituality, so why be so specific about human beings? Furthermore, if Collins holds evolution to be true, couldn't God be desiring fellowship with species that come after us? And do people really think God would set things in motion with the Big Bang and then chill for 13.7 billion years until we came along for his fellowship?

After he's done helping his readers avoid god-of-the-gaps arguments, he then says "there are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge" (p.93). Math and order - really? George H. Smith discusses order in Atheism: A Case Against God as this: "order is simply the manifestation of causality, and causality is a derivative, a logical corollary, of the Law of Identity" (p.150). The nature of an entity determines what that entity can and cannot do. To help explain this, Smith refers to H.W.B. Joseph's "An Introduction to Logic":

... to say that the same thing acting on the same thing under the same conditions may yet produce a different effect, is to say that a thing need not be what it is. But this is in flat conflict with the Law of Identity. A thing, to be at all, must be something, and can only be what it is. To assert a causal connection between 'a' and V implies 'a' acts as it does because it is what it is; because, in fact, it is 'a.' So long therefore as it is 'a,' it must act thus; and to assert that it may act otherwise on a subsequent occasion is to assert that what is 'a' is something else than the 'a' which it is declared to be.

Order and design are not the same, which is something the theist may wish to assert given that God designed the universe. Design alludes to a designer, but order does not necessarily need an orderer. Smith asserts that order is "simply entailed by the nature of existence itself." It makes sense, given order, that mathematics would work. If I have one orange, and I add another orange to it, I get two oranges. That is, unless there is no order and the Law of Identity fails to hold, in which case I may get a pimped-up Mini Cooper and Alyson Hannigan. Sadly, after an hour of holding my very hopeful citrus, I got neither of those. Seems to me that, if order is a derivative of the Law of Identity, then mathematics is a derivative of order. And neither necessarily point to a god.

Now, to be charitable to the theist, I could see where one might say something like the following: If order is simply entailed by the nature of existence, and if God caused the universe to exist, then God caused order via his creation. To that, I would respond that we have a completely naturalistic explanation of order, even if we currently lack a scientifically proven explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. We certainly have naturalistic explanations for why there is something rather than nothing (the universe has zero total energy), but I'm not aware those ideas have been proven out. Furthermore, once again, just because a natural explanation is not yet proven to be true does not mean one can go claiming "God did it."

For all the progress Collins makes toward getting his readership to stop clicking Answers In Genesis and actually understand why evolution is true, he makes a few key blunders about why anyone should believe in a god. The funniest thing is that my father read The Language of God before handing it to me. He said he understands how evolution may have happened, but he's still hung up on micro- vs. macro-evolution, which is like being hung up on walking 200 yards vs. walking two miles. So, in the end, I really wonder how much progress Collins is actually making.

Other posts in this series:

November 8, 2010, 7:38 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink12 comments

Could Creationism Be Rational After All?

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I thought I'd kick off the guest posts with a little philosophical thought experiment (hark, is that the sound of you all clapping your hands in glee?). When I wrote the following, I mean it fairly light-heartedly, but with an eye to the fact that we should perhaps remember we have less reason to be sure of ourselves than we may think.

Despite the insistence of many who champion it, Creationism does not qualify as a scientific theory under any reasonable definition of the term. It makes no testable predictions, invokes a supernatural agent and is supported by no observations of the natural world. But does that really matter? Could the theory of evolution, with all its mountains of empirical evidence, still be as irrational as Creationism?

Perhaps so. To see why, it is necessary to understand the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Both are ways of constructing an argument. The conclusions of a deductive argument however, are logically entailed by their premises. The conclusions of an inductive argument are merely supported by them.

Premise 1 – All horses are mammals.
Premise 2 – Mr Kips is a horse.
Conclusion 1 – Mr Kips is a mammal.

This is a deductive argument. The conclusion is logically entailed by the premises. It would be a contradiction to assert that the premises were true, and yet the conclusion was false.

Premise 1 - Horse no.1 is brown.
Premise 2 - Horse no.2 is brown.
Premise 3 - Horse no.3 is brown.
Conclusion 1 – All horses are brown.

This is an inductive argument. Here each premise acts as a single observation which supports the conclusion. Yet it is no contradiction to assert that while the premises are true, the conclusion may be false. Even if we had observed 100,000 horses and all of them were brown, this would still only act as inductive evidence.

Science is based on inductive reasoning. Observations are made, hypotheses are drawn up and tested, then critically challenged and re-tested, all under the assumption that the observations and results of the experiments are the result of static natural laws.

Indeed, it may be argued that inductive reasoning is the foundation for learned behaviour. If we put our hand on an open fire, the sensation will be extremely painful. Even from only one such experience, we will assume that coming into physical contact with fire will always feel the same and will avoid doing it again. Natural selection would punish those who did not learn from earlier mistakes. So it would seem that inductive reasoning is both reasonable and extremely useful for survival.

Yet there is a fundamental problem with inductive reasoning which David Hume outlined in his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. In a nutshell his argument states that induction rests on the assumption that natural laws are constant and uniform - and that this assumption is wholly irrational.

Stephen Law, in his book The Philosophy Gym, compares this to an ant sitting on a bedspread:

“The ant can see that its bit of the bedspread is paisley-patterned, So the ant assumes the rest of the bedspread – the bits it can’t see – are paisley-patterned too. But why assume this? The bedspread could just as easily be a patchwork quilt… We are in a similar position to the ant. The universe could also be a huge patchwork with local regularities, such as the ones we have observed – the sun rising every morning, trees growing leaves in the spring, objects falling when released, and so on – but no overall regularity.” (p156)

Such local regularities could have boundaries in time as well as space. Perhaps the natural laws of the universe change suddenly every 100,000 years – and the next change is due tomorrow! What is to say that we will not wake up tomorrow to find the sky is red, or that dropped objects remain suspended in mid air? Note that it is no defense to say, ‘the laws of nature have always stayed constant in the past’, since that is itself a piece of inductive reasoning.

The classic mistake is to misinterpret Hume’s argument. He is not saying that we merely cannot be certain of our inductive conclusions: he is saying that we have no reason at all to believe them. We have no justification for expecting the sky to appear blue rather than red tomorrow. Either is just as rational. And the theory of evolution, based as it is on inductive reasoning, is no more or less rational than Creationism.

In conclusion it seems – according to Hume, at least – that we are always unjustified in drawing conclusions via inductive reasoning. It is as rational to expect a dropped ball to float in mid air as it is to expect it to fall. If you think the first proposition sounds ridiculous compared to the second , then this may tell you far more about human reasoning than it does about logical induction.

But it would be a mistake for Creationists to see Hume’s argument as supporting their ideas. Creationism may be as rational an explanation for the existence of the Earth and life on it as any theory science has yet put forward. But, if so, then so is every other explanation you could possibly make up. To reach a point where Creationism is a rational alternative to the theory of evolution, we have reached a point where the whole of science is meaningless and all certainty we have in any knowledge has been cut loose. We really are as justified in believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster as we are in believing in God.

May 16, 2010, 5:08 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink43 comments

Whence Comes God's Nature?

According to the vast majority of religious believers (though perhaps not to the tiny minority of elite theologians), God is basically in nature like a larger and more powerful human being. He has plans and desires which he takes actions to fulfill; he likes some people and things and dislikes others; he experiences emotions like anger, jealousy, love, and forgiveness; he can be persuaded to act on another's behalf; and so on.

The most peculiar aspect of this anthropomorphic theology is its claim that God has preferences: he likes and desires certain states of affairs, while he dislikes others and desires that they not come to pass. For example, in the Old Testament, we are told that God desires animal sacrifice; the text repeatedly says that the smell of burning animal flesh is a "sweet savor" to him. Conversely, the worship of idols or gods other than himself is something he strongly dislikes, to the extent of visiting dreadful punishments on people who do it.

Christianity, too, says that God desires to forgive humanity for its sins, but also desires a blood sacrifice before he will consent to do so, thus necessitating the death of Jesus. The Christian god strongly dislikes the vice of pride, and harshly punishes those who seek to attain equality with him. In Islam, God desires that human beings worship him alone, rejecting belief in any partners; and in the nastier strains of Islam, we're told that God desires glorious martyrdom in battle and will reward anyone who does so with eternal glory.

The belief that God wants and desires certain things is a common thread in monotheism. But when you think about it, this is a profoundly strange belief. Most theists don't recognize this, but that's because the analogy between God and human beings masks the strangeness of it.

After all, we all understand how, and why, human beings come to hold certain desires. We have instinctual physiological drives, installed in us by evolution, for basic things like food, sex and companionship. We have more complex desires as a result of culture, upbringing and past experience for things that we think will add to our happiness or help fulfill the more basic desires. Every one of us has gone through a long, complex and contingent process of development that shaped our likes and dislikes.

But God, so we're told, is eternal and unchanging. He is pure reason, pure mind, pure spirit - no physical needs to fulfill, no past history, none of the contingent events that make human nature what it is. So how is it that he has, just like us, a complex nature with specific likes and dislikes? He did not undergo the process by which human beings acquire their preferences, so where does he get them from? Why does he prefer things one way and not another?

Some believers may find this question difficult to comprehend, so as an imagination-stretching exercise, allow me to propose a variety of different preference sets which it seems, a priori, that God could have had. I invite theists to consider these possibilities, and to ask themselves: why is it that God is this way and not one of those ways?

Self-Sufficient God. This deity knows himself to possess all perfections and sees no reason to create any inferior sentient beings. Therefore, he sits alone in the void for all eternity, contemplating his own perfection, and never creates a world separate from himself.

Sadistic God. His greatest desire is to see maximal human pain and suffering. He desires no worship, offers no opportunity for salvation, and answers no prayer, but deliberately creates a world as hellish as possible and peoples it with sentient beings just so that he can watch them suffer for all eternity.

Moral Relativist God. He creates a world and peoples it with sentient beings, but has no motivation to care about what they do to each other, any more than a person who owns an ant farm would care about the morality of the ants. He gives no commandments and sets no rules, but watches us for his own entertainment, regarding both great acts of good and terrible acts of evil with the same bemused detachment.

Recluse God. His greatest desire is to be left alone. Prayers, acts of devotion and other worship just annoy him, and he has an afterlife of punishment set aside for those devout people who constantly bother him. The people whom he'll reward are the atheists, because at least they let him get some peace and quiet.

Prankster God. His greatest desire is to do the opposite of what we expect (he finds it hilarious). Whenever people pray for something, he does the opposite. When people seek him, he hides from them; when people ignore him, he reveals himself to them. The people who are most certain they're saved, he'll doom to an afterlife of punishment, and people who don't believe in an afterlife will be admitted to a blissful heavenly realm. He's constantly leaving misleading clues and sending incompatible revelations to the world, just to keep us further confused.

Granted, some of these hypothetical gods sound bizarre. But how are they any more bizarre than a god who prefers one particular race of people above all others, or a god who demands the shedding of innocent blood to forgive sins, or a god who demands five prayers at specific times each day, or a god who desires that we ritually consume his flesh and blood each week? It's only familiarity that makes these seem natural while the ones I've proposed seem strange.

There's an interesting parallel here with the "fine-tuning" argument sometimes used by religious apologists. They ask how likely it is that a universe with physical laws conducive to life could just happen to exist with no prior explanation. But atheists can ask an analogous question in return: Out of all the billions of possible gods, each one with a different highly specific and arbitrary set of desires and preferences, how likely is it that there just happens to be one who's benevolent and kindly disposed toward humans? What prior cause can explain that favorable coincidence?

December 23, 2009, 6:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink44 comments

Epicurus' World

The story goes that the renowned physicist Richard Feynman was once asked to summarize the most important finding of modern science in a single sentence. Feynman replied, "The universe is made of atoms."

Although there are many other scientific discoveries that are arguably of equal importance, Feynman's choice makes a lot of sense. The discovery of atoms is so familiar to us that it's easy to overlook its breathtaking significance. We know, at the smallest scale where it still makes sense to talk about distinct objects, what are the fundamental building blocks that matter is made of, and we have described their interactions with astounding precision. Our understanding of everything from why the stars shine, to how DNA replicates, to why a table is solid, relies on our knowledge of the way atoms behave.

Atomic theory is now so well-established, and so widely accepted, that it's easy to forget how controversial a notion it originally was. In fact, atomism was once synonymous with atheism, and it was the bête noire of Western religion not just for centuries, but for millennia.

It was in the fifth century BCE that the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus first proposed the idea that matter was composed of indivisible particles called atoms. But these ideas came to their fullest flowering in the mind of their successor, Epicurus, who lived around 300 BCE. In Epicurean philosophy, the world was ultimately comprised of atoms and the void. All that exists and all that occurs - from flowing water to burning fire to human thought - is due to the movement and collision of atoms and the endless, ever-changing array of patterns they arrange themselves in. The ruling principles of the Epicurean cosmos are natural law and random chance, not purpose or plan, and we who live in it and are part of it can find happiness by learning to accept whatever happens with virtue and tranquility. Epicurus did believe that the gods existed - he saw this as the only way to explain the widespread dreams and visions of them - but in his philosophy, they were not supernatural spirits but material beings composed of atoms, just like humans. More importantly, they did not take any interest in human affairs; they were more like images than actual persons.

In scientific terms, it's impressive how much Democritus and Epicurus got right. They correctly anticipated the very discovery that Richard Feynman called the most important element of modern science. Epicurus even believed that atoms sometimes exhibited "random swerves", a startling point of agreement with modern quantum mechanics. If he had claimed that a god told him all this, it would have been by far the most impressive example of theism anticipating later scientific discovery, and genuinely difficult for an atheist to explain.

Yet to the theologians and churchmen who came after him, Epicurus' ideas were the depths of heresy. His materialist notion of the cosmos - no creator deity, no life after death, everything that exists made of patterns of atoms - was anathema to the monotheist conception of an orderly cosmos arranged and guided by God. For centuries, being accused of "Epicureanism" was a very serious charge indeed. For example, the Jewish writings known as the Mishnah, in 200 CE, had this to say:

And these are the people who do not merit the world to come: The ones who say that there is no resurrection from the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans.

Indeed, the Jewish word for "heretic" - apikoros - appears to be a Hebrew transliteration of "Epicurean". The Hebrew benediction known as the Amidah, which is recited three times daily by observant Jews, contains a prayer which asks that "may all the apikorsim be destroyed in an instant" (source).

As Christianity became ascendant, it treated Epicureans no less kindly. Acts 17:16-18 records how the first Christians viewed them:

"Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods."

Early Christian apologists such as Tertullian, Jerome and Augustine reviled Epicurus, calling him a "pig" and an advocate of "depravity and gluttony", and his philosophy a "frigid conceit" (source; see also).

Throughout the Middle Ages, as Christianity gained secular power, the ridicule and persecution grew worse. The Byzantine emperor Justinian I, who actively suppressed non-Christian faiths, closed down the philosophy schools of Athens, including the Epicurean Garden, which had survived for eight hundred years. The twelfth-century philosopher Nicholas of Autrecourt, who taught an atomist doctrine similar to Epicurus', was condemned and forced to recant and burn his writings. In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts Epicurus and all his followers "who with the body make the spirit die" as imprisoned in flaming tombs for all eternity. As late as the 1600s, Epicurean theories were reviled, as one pamphleteer wrote: "Let that beastly Epicure's mouth be now sealed up in dumb silence."

Yet Epicurus, that sly old Greek, had the last laugh. The church persecuted his followers and sought to stamp out his teachings, but not only did Epicureanism survive, it was vindicated. The universe is made of atoms after all. Natural phenomena like weather, the growth of crystals, even the currents of human motion and thought can be traced back to patterns of atoms and their ceaseless ebb and flow. As in many other areas, this is one where religion arrogantly thought to wade in before science had had its say, and was forced to retreat. We do not live in the medieval church's world, where our bodies are just so much fleshly dust powered by immaterial currents of spirit, and the heavenly bodies move in spheres of celestial ether. We live in a grand cosmic clockwork of atoms and molecules, a vast mesh whose unfolding is determined by random chance and the immutable laws of cause and effect. We live in Epicurus' world.

May 29, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink29 comments

The Happiness Machine

As any regular reader of Daylight Atheism knows, the topic of morality is a major concern of mine. In essays on Ebon Musings, I've sketched out a secular moral theory I call universal utilitarianism. Here on this site, In the past, I've written about the roots of this morality and the virtues that can be derived from it, as well as musings on what UU has to say about some controversial moral topics. In 2009, I plan on taking these explorations in a new direction.

This year, I intend to write some posts further detailing universal utilitarianism and how it can respond to difficult ethical dilemmas - not the practical dilemmas that we encounter in daily life, but thought experiments specifically dreamed up to stretch moral philosophies to the breaking point. If UU can survive being tested in this way, then I think we'll have greater reason for confidence that it can cope with everyday issues. I've already written about one such problem, the "trolley problem", in "The Doctrine of Double Effect". Today I'll confront a different one.

Today's post concerns the Happiness Machine, a hypothetical invention that produces pure pleasure for the user in unlimited quantities - say, an electrical implant that stimulates the brain's pleasure centers, producing a feeling of bliss at the push of a button. It's undeniable that universal utilitarianism counsels us to seek happiness as the highest good. If we follow UU, then if this machine is invented, should our highest goal be to hook ourselves up to it for the rest of our lives?

Lynet, of Elliptica, has an answer in Challenging the Paramounce of Happiness:

I wouldn't. It would be like dying. Even with heaven included, I don't want to die.

I suspect many of my readers share this intuition, as I do myself. Intuitively, there's something deeply repellent about this scenario, but what is it, and can UU justify this intuition despite its promotion of happiness as the highest good?

The first thing to note is that the Happiness Machine is not an entirely hypothetical scenario. It strongly resembles a real-world phenomenon: the use of narcotic drugs for pleasure. And, if such a machine were ever invented, we can be fairly confident that users would end up in much the same way as addicts of these drugs.

First of all, what would keep users of this machine alive? If the Happiness Machine works as advertised - if it truly replaces all suffering with total contentment - then it will make you oblivious to your need for the necessities of life. We satisfy our bodily needs, in the end, because it causes suffering if we do not. If they cannot feel this suffering, users of the Happiness Machine will soon die of starvation and dehydration and miss out on all the further happiness they might have had in a longer life. Clearly, this is not a good outcome.

But if that problem could be solved, another would rapidly follow. Pure sensory pleasure will soon become insipid and unsatisfying. The human mind habituates: if you constantly experience a high level of pleasure, it does not remain equally pleasurable indefinitely. Rather, it soon becomes the base level against which new experiences are judged. The same stimulus produces a steadily diminishing reward. If you use the Happiness Machine often, soon it won't be a source of bliss, but something you'll need to use constantly just to function, and ordinary activities without it will become unbearable. Like any other drug addict, you'll experience a brief period of pleasure, but it will be followed by a much longer period of misery and dependency. In the long run, it will cause far more suffering than happiness, and might even permanently impair the brain's capacity to take pleasure in anything else.

And what about the potential loss of independence? If someone controls the master switch for all the Happiness Machines, or if they hold the patent and are the only ones who can repair it, they will have a population of slaves. The addiction which such a machine would produce would render its users utterly dependent on whoever can supply that continued jolt of pleasure. To anyone who values freedom and autonomy, the thought of being controlled by another in this way ought to be intolerable, and again, a sure pathway to a life of misery and servitude.

The only way to avoid habituation and dependency is to live a life with not just one source of pleasure, but a variety of meaningful pursuits. The most enduring and fulfilling kind of happiness is the kind that has this rich texture of knowledge and experience, the kind that only comes from interacting with the world. (If nothing else, the more you know about what's out there, the better a position you're in to appreciate the things you really like.) Running a wire into the pleasure neurons of the brain is a poor substitute.

Finally, excessive use of the Happiness Machine undermines the development of empathy that UU holds as the highest moral virtue. After all, UU does not counsel us to only seek pleasure for ourselves, but to live in the world and be the source of happiness for others, to work to defeat suffering and improve the lives of our fellow humans. Someone who is anesthetized by this machine, cocooned in a blissful coma and deaf to the cares of other people, is not acting in accord with the principles of UU but against them. Like a greedy millionaire who hoards his wealth and refuses to give to charity, addicts of the Happiness Machine are not doing good but merely indulging their own selfishness.

February 27, 2009, 7:40 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink50 comments

Forms and Essences

In the past, I've written about the origins of religion and how belief in gods likely arises from one of humanity's most common psychological fallacies, the tendency to attribute agency where none exists. (When was the last time you got angry at your computer and felt as if it was trying to balk you? It happens to me much too often - even when I know there's no one inside there.)

There's another, related tendency that often manifests in religious belief, which is that human beings are concrete, categorizing thinkers. Our ability to create abstractions and parse the world into categories is a very successful strategy, one that forms the basis of our science, but it can be taken too far. That point is passed when we lose sight of the fact that our abstractions and categories are just mental conveniences, and begin treating them as if they were real things in their own right. In short, we're susceptible to reification.

One species of reification is the belief that things of this world inherit their nature from cosmic archetypes that exist on another plane. This, of course, is Plato's idea of "eternal forms", and the influence it's had on religion has been enormous. In all the offshoots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we find beliefs about how things that exist on Earth are imperfect reflections of perfect processes in Heaven. Thus, in Christianity, we encounter beliefs that the ritual animal sacrifices of Temple Judaism were inferior precursors to Jesus' once-and-for-all sacrifice of himself. In Islam, each earthly copy of the Qur'an is thought to be a mirror of a preexistent heavenly copy.

But more than anything else, the belief in forms has been the underpinning of creationism. To the naive observer - and the most creationists past and present certainly fall under that category - most living species appear to be distinct, and this supports their conclusion that all life can be classified into "created kinds", which are divided from each other by boundaries beyond which evolution cannot go. Of course, if you include all living species and not just a few carefully chosen representatives, many of the seemingly wide gaps shrink by a significant margin; if you include the many more extinct species known to us by fossils and other traces, those gaps contract still more; and if you examine the genetic commonalities that form a nested hierarchy of descent, the gaps disappear entirely.

A similar concept is the idea of the "essence", as if the qualities that define a thing had an objective existence all their own and could be distilled and extracted like a rare liquid. Again, it seems to be natural for us to think in this way. Consider how easily we accept the notion that Cupid's arrows could be coated with the pure essence of love or that a particular stone or plant could be impregnated with good luck, or how many tribes have believed that they would acquire the qualities of animals by consuming those animals. Or consider the classic sci-fi plot, dating back to Robert Louis Stevenson, of splitting a person into their "good side" and "evil side" - as though these were two separate essences mixed together in the same body, and one or the other could be made to precipitate out of solution by the right technique.

But most of all, the idea of essences gave birth to the notion of the soul. It causes people to think erroneously that the information-processing activity of the mind is not just the product of the brain's functioning, but a separate thing in its own right that can exist independently and survive the death of the body. Given what we now know about how the brain works, this makes about as much sense as believing that a computer could continue to process data and display programs after its hard drive and CPU have been melted down. But when our tendency to reification is not checked by evidence, humans are natural dualists, and find little difficulty in believing in ghosts in the machine.

When well-chosen, our mental patterns accurately capture the way the world is organized and may even point to hidden truths. Consider the twin nested hierarchy of evolution, or Mendelev's successful prediction of undiscovered elements based on the gaps in his periodic table. But even in this case, we must take care to resist the trap of reification. Many superstitions have been born in the minds of people who failed to realize that the patterns they saw were descriptive conveniences, artifacts of human perception, and not things in their own right.

February 11, 2009, 7:50 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink25 comments

On Agent Causation

Among the band of philosophers who hold that free will is supernatural, one of the reigning ideas is called agent causation. This hypothesis states that volitional acts are a special category of event, one that is caused not by any other event but - in some deeply mysterious way - by the agent itself. Philosopher Roderick Chisholm describes this as follows:

If we are responsible... then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen.

The consequence of agent causation is that free will is not a process but some sort of irreducible substance: one that spontaneously originates acts and decisions, unconnected to the causal chain that binds together all other causes and effects. The usual apologetic corollary is that even God cannot intervene in or influence this process short of destroying free will altogether. It's plain that this is just the religious doctrine of the soul, the supernatural "ghost in the machine", portrayed in technical philosophers' language.

Agent causation depicts human free will as a binary state - a quantity which can either be present or not present, but which has no internal structure and cannot be subdivided. However, this is obviously false, which makes this entire view unsustainable. Free will is not a mathematical point; free will is a complex bundle of contingent desires, habits, and predispositions, which can be added to, altered or removed.

You can determine this by empirical studies of human behavior. There are countless things that human beings could do that we do not do and do not feel any desire to do. On the other hand, the vast majority of us do experience desires to have sex with an attractive partner, to consume foods high in fat and sugar, or to form tight emotional bonds with parents and relatives. Human free will, then, is not just an irreducible point source that bubbles up actions at random; it operates within a defined set of parameters, giving rise to a predictable variety of behaviors (anthropologists call them cultural universals).

You can also determine it by the evidence of the human brain: it's well known that certain, specific kinds of brain damage alter desires and behavior in predictable ways. Dementias such as Alzheimer's disease often cause loss of interest in religion, while epileptic seizures in the temporal lobes can induce religious experiences. Damage to the frontal lobes leaves people unable to control their behavior or ignore sudden impulses; injuries localized to the left hemisphere often cause depression, while injuries to the right can leave people constantly and inappropriately euphoric. And of course, drugs and intoxicants also have reliable, predictable effects on behavior.

If free will was an irreducible, nonphysical substance, producing actions free from external causation, then we should not see brain damage affect desires or behavior - much less change them in the predictable ways that neurologists observe. That we do see this shows beyond a reasonable doubt that it is false that "nothing... causes us" to make the decisions we do. Our decisions manifestly are caused.

Of course, there are other varieties of supernatural dualism that are not as clumsy as agent causation. But what these other varieties have in common is that they must give up the line in the sand. They cannot declare, as agent causation does, that we are purely supernatural beings whose decisions ultimately arise from the soul and nowhere else. Instead, these other dualisms must acknowledge that we are, at least in part, material beings, and that changes to the physical composition of body and brain can affect and alter our selves. Whether they realize it or not, advocates of these beliefs are drawing closer to atheism, as they implicitly grant that we are not spirits whose choices arrive from outside the world, but physical beings whose acts are an inextricable part of the fabric of cause and effect.

January 20, 2009, 1:33 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink47 comments

All Things in Moderation

In last month's post "Down to Earth", I discussed Thomas Jefferson's ideal of rich simplicity, what Buddhism calls the Middle Way. Rather than the vain pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of power or material possessions, the true source of contentment lies in the simple pleasures of life that are available to everyone, regardless of social status.

Some of the comments mentioned Epicurus, a person I should write about more often. Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who taught a system of values that was more like modern secular humanism than any other philosophy of the past (with the possible exception of the Carvakas). Although he believed that the gods existed, he taught that they were material beings who took no interest in human affairs, or in anything besides their own blissful contemplation. He also taught that death was not to be feared, because the person who is dead no longer experiences anything and therefore is not suffering.

Epicureanism put the emphasis on pleasure, not as mindless hedonism but as reasonable indulgence in the good things available in life. Valuing intellectual pleasure more highly than sensual pleasure, it recommends the cultivation of friendship, an ethic of simplicity, and an attitude of tranquility in the face of life's trials. Ironically, "epicure" in popular parlance has come to refer to a connoisseur of food and drink, which Epicurus arguably considered the least important of life's pleasures.

The Epicurean view stands in opposition to the religious idea of imaginary crimes, where certain activities are forbidden not because they cause any harm to human beings, but solely because they're believed to displease God. I consider that, when it comes to attracting people, this is an advantage for atheism: we don't have to teach excessive self-denial, nor demand that people abstain from things they would like to do just because an ancient dogma says not to. Nor do we have to teach, as many religions do, that happiness is frowned upon and that the proper attitude toward life is one of renunciation or constant repentance. We should not promote thoughtless indulgence, but we can teach that people can partake responsibly in the good things of life.

For instance: We do not have to believe, as some religions do, that certain foods are off-limits and may not be consumed no matter what. I respect the opinion of people who abstain from eating meat on ethical grounds, but the arbitrary nature of religious dietary restrictions - demanding that foods be prepared only in certain specific ways, forbidding the mixing of foods that are perfectly allowable individually, or banning the eating of some animals but not others that are equally sentient - is nothing but irrational self-denial. An atheist can be a true gourmet, sampling all the different flavors and cuisines of human culture, and tasting the full palate of sensory experience.

We do not have to believe, as many religions do, that alcohol and other intoxicants are sinful or forbidden. Again, there are people who abstain from these substances for valid reasons. But a mature and rational adult is certainly capable of making responsible use of them, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. The quest to alter one's consciousness for pleasure or ritual is as old as humanity, and in moderation, is a source of harmless relaxation and enjoyment.

We do not have to believe, as nearly all religions do, that sex is a mysterious and dangerous thing that must be practiced according to strictly prescribed rules. Everyone is familiar with the arbitrary and irrational restrictions that religious belief places on sexual expression: that sex should never be simply for the sake of pleasure; that you should only have sex with one person over the course of a lifetime; that women should not exercise sexual autonomy; or that sex is always immoral unless a member of the clergy gives consent. None of these rules are grounded in reason; they spring from ignorance, superstition and fear. Sex has real power to form (or shatter) emotional bonds, and if practiced irresponsibly, to lead to the spread of disease or unintended pregnancy. But sexual expression is enriched by diversity just like every other area of human culture, and an atheist knows that there is more than one way to have a healthy sex life.

December 29, 2008, 7:59 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink17 comments

On Analogies, and the Uses Thereof

In essays such as "Three In One", I've scorned the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

If a claim is labeled beyond our ability to understand, then how are we supposed to tell if it is true? What assurance do theists have that the Trinity is a true fact about the world that is genuinely beyond our ability to comprehend, as opposed to a false claim invented by people whose illogical nature is protected from scrutiny by labeling it a mystery we aren't intended to understand?

But is this claim too hasty? A Christian site admits the idea seemingly defies logic and reason, but compares it to modern scientific theories that also have highly counterintuitive implications:

It a strict sense, the doctrine of the Trinity does not violate logic at all—at least no more than quantum physics or general relativity.

We can talk about it rather thoroughly. What we can't do is imagine how it could work. But the same is true for quantum physics and relativity.

It's true that the analogies proposed to explain relativity, like depicting spacetime as a rubber sheet, on the surface seem no more or less comprehensible than C.S. Lewis' analogy of the Trinity as a cube:

On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God's dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube.

But there is a significant point of difference here, which is that in the case of general relativity or quantum mechanics the analogies, are not the whole of the theory. The analogies are just superficial descriptions of an intricate and incredibly precise mathematical framework that allows us to make confident and astonishingly accurate predictions about the natural world. We do not need to be able to fully grasp the principles involved, because we can test and verify in a quantifiable way that the idea is true.

But with doctrines like the Trinity, there is no deeper understanding, no underlying mathematics. The vague and imperfect analogies are not backed by a model of precise predictive power; the vague and imperfect analogies are all there is. From the vantage point of the naive observer, these two might look similar, as I wrote in "The View From the Ground". But it is a false equivalence: though they both have an outer structure of metaphor and analogy, one of these ideas is backed by a solid core of evidence, while the other is built on insubstantial air.

November 17, 2008, 9:33 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink103 comments

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