Thursday, 28 October 2010

What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?

Discovery Institute has Michael Egnor asking this question...

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 hypotheses based on remote (in time and space) observations. Some hypotheses 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 meaning of '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.

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 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 artifact 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 as a consequence 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.

We don't ascribe the term 'evil' to thinks 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 is that theists are in exactly the same position. 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.


2 comments:

Dan Rodger said...

Really interesting blog just found you from a blog you posted a comment on. At work at the mo but I will hopefully remember to come back here and comment as you seem like a good guy to chat with!

Sadly im not a Notts County supporter or I would gloat haha :P

Take care

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Dan,

Thanks for dropping by.

Yes, being a Man City supporter is a real article of faith.

Liked your blogs too. Just left comments on the D'Souza v Loftus debate.