Monday, March 11, 2013

The Case Against Cheerful Humanism

I think one very annoying feature of many of the present group of cheerleaders for atheism is the idea that somehow if we get rid of religion as a society we will simply all become cheerful humanists, and take all of what we put into God and put it instead into ourselves, thus being so much the better off.

In fact, I think that while atheism in itself is not a threat to the future of civilization, I think that a belief in what I will call the secular paradise is perhaps the most destructive idea that we can have, and will bring down civilization if people who believe in it have enough political power. The Christian heaven is not of this world, and it can't be achieved by the exercise of political power, although Christians have, throughout history, attempted to use political power for what they have taken to be divine purposes. The results have typically left black marks on the history of Christendom. Nevertheless, if Christianity is true, there are limits on what we humans can do to bring in the Kingdom of God. Religious belief, for many of us, needs to be a choice, and God is ultimately in control, not us. But the secular paradise is to be achieved my man and his own efforts. The end is noble, and it thus justifies whatever means we might use to get there. It is the combination of atheism and belief in the secular paradise that leads to the kinds of horrors we saw from the Communists.

I do not know whether the author of this essay is an atheist, but it is entitled "Where are all the honest atheists."


39 comments:

ingx24 said...

My comment didn't post for some stupid reason, so let's try this again.

Why is it assumed that atheism entails that death is annihilation? Why on earth would anyone assume that God is needed for it to be possible for there to be an afterlife? All that atheism entails is that, if there is an afterlife (and no one can know this for sure one way or the other), it won't involve God or reward/punishment in any way. There is NO logical connection between atheism/theism and whether or not there is life after death. The only thing I can think of is that people are assuming that atheism entails materialism. But again, this is just a blind assumption with nothing backing it up. If I were an atheist (and I'm not, I'm an agnostic) I certainly wouldn't assume materialism or that death is annihilation. The God/religion issue and the afterlife/materialism issue are logically separate.

What the hell is going on? Are people really just that stupid? Or is there something I'm missing here?

Walter said...

@ingx24

I am assuming that you do not believe in some form of reincarnation or resurrection without a deity controlling the process, so what would a "natural" afterlife be like? Would we be ghosts, i.e. disembodied minds capable of self awareness and possible interaction with other minds?

ingx24 said...

That's how I pretty much imagine it (although, again, I claim no real "belief" one way or the other; this is just a hypothetical). Do people just assume that an afterlife must be heaven/hell/reincarnation/resurrection and never think of the (obvious, in my opinion) alternative? Or do people think of "ghosts" and immediately assume the concept is too ridiculous to be taken seriously (due to stereotypes associated with the concept, most likely)?

B.L.T. said...

I think what makes immaterial entities unlikely on atheism is that they often reject God for the same reason they reject anything immaterial. Further, if we do have immortal souls, have we always existed but only become material a finite time ago? Did our immaterial soul come into existence when we were born? If so, how could that happen without some sort of God-like force directing the process? These questions among many others pose a serious problem for the atheist who doesn’t reject a dualistic view of human nature. But these things make perfect sense on theism, so it seems to me that immaterial entities are more likely on theism, than they are on atheism.

ingx24 said...

I think what makes immaterial entities unlikely on atheism is that they often reject God for the same reason they reject anything immaterial.

If what you mean is "lack of evidence", isn't first-person experience of your own thoughts and feelings evidence enough for something immaterial? I mean, it's not like you can see thoughts and feelings in the brain (all you can see in the brain is electrical impulses, releases of chemicals, etc. as far as I'm aware, although you can obviously correlate these things with thoughts and feelings. But correlation is not identity.).

Honestly, I think that the argument from the existence of minds to the existence of God is a good one, but I hesitate to accept it because of the logical possibility that a better explanation could come along for how our minds got here (Hasker's emergent dualism is a decent alternative, although the emergence seems to be more of a brute fact than anything else. But then again, the emergence of gravity from mass is a kind of brute fact as well).

Joshua said...

Atheism doesn't entail *lack* of ultimate punishment, any more than it entails lack of afterlife.

im-skeptical said...

ingx24

"The only thing I can think of is that people are assuming that atheism entails materialism."

I think it is rather that materialism entails atheism, as BLT alluded to. I certainly can't speak for all atheists, but many people like me, having made an effort to understand our world, conclude that there is no valid reason to believe that anything immaterial affects our existence in any way. Therefore, there are no gods, either. As for your first person experience of mind, it is difficult for me to understand why you think that it must be an immaterial phenomenon, unless someone told you that and you simply accept it without question. That's what I call dogma.

ingx24 said...

As for your first person experience of mind, it is difficult for me to understand why you think that it must be an immaterial phenomenon, unless someone told you that and you simply accept it without question. That's what I call dogma.

Can you directly see thoughts, feelings, and mental images in the brain? Could you look in my brain and, without having to have any knowledge of correlations, know everything about my mind?

im-skeptical said...

ingx24,

No, what we do is experience thoughts and feelings.

Even lowly creatures feel pain or see images. They have some kind of subjective experience to which they react. This is what we call sentience. Animals with bigger brains experience a broader range of mental phenomena. I think the experience of a 'thought' is closely tied to language. If we can put a mental experience into words, that is what we see as a 'thought'. And it's this same cognitive function that people see as somehow being immaterial in nature.

ingx24 said...

If mental phenomena cannot be publicly observed, then they have a characteristic called "privacy" that is not characteristic of any material phenomenon. By Indiscernability of Identicals, mental phenomena cannot possibly be material unless you change the meaning of "material" (which I think is what A-T types are up to, although to be fair they were here first so they aren't really "changing" anything per se).

im-skeptical said...

There have been some interesting experiments recently, in which thoughts are translated into electrical signals and back again (in a different brain). This would tend to confirm the idea that thoughts are indeed observable. Check this out:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/01/science/new-research-suggests-two-rat-brains-can-be-linked.html?_r=0

ingx24 said...

No, what is observable is the electric signal. The actual mental activity that is correlated with it is not observable. Correlation is not identity. And even then, the correlation is not as tight as some materialists would have us believe.

im-skeptical said...

I think it's more than a correlation. What they are doing is taking mental activity from a brain and implanting it into another brain, resulting in the same or similar experience.

An experience (as the mental experience of a thought or the sight of an image) is subjective by definition. To say that a private experience is not objectively observable is a tautology. That's not the same as saying it must be immaterial. If it were that easy to prove the existence of immaterial phenomena, I would not be a materialist.

ingx24 said...

But material phenomena, by definition, are (at least in principle) publicly observable. To say that something is material and yet subjective seems to be flat contradiction. This is why materialists attempt to reduce subjective experience to "information processing" or some other functional concept so that it can be ultimately reduced to structure and dynamics as described in physics.

im-skeptical said...

It's not "material yet subjective". It's a material thing, in some part, at least, observable, but there is an aspect of it that is subjective.

Consider an electron, which you might picture as a little ball. That's a thing we can observe, or at least detect, and I'm sure you would agree that it's a material thing. But what does it look like from the inside? That's an aspect of it that isn't observable, because we have no way of getting inside an electron. Does that imply that it's not material? I don't think so.

ingx24 said...

It seems that the view you're describing is more of a kind of property dualism than a kind of materialism. In that case, what we disagree about is relatively insignificant except for usage of terminology (and the fact that I'm much more open to substance dualism than you are).

im-skeptical said...

I'm not sure that it would be correct to say that I'm a property dualist. I still think that subjective mental experiences are entirely physical. It's just that the subjective aspect of something is not something that is objectively observable. To be honest, I have a hard time understanding exactly what property dualism is, but if it entails that there is something immaterial going on, I don't believe that.

ingx24 said...

What do you define as material and immaterial?

im-skeptical said...

I guess that gets into what things really are. I am a nominalist (as I understand the term). I believe there are no abstract objects or universals. I believe that mental phenomena are purely physical things. Even a subjective experience, such as a thought, is a physical thing.

ingx24 said...

You didn't really answer my question. What is your definition of physical/material?

im-skeptical said...

OK, physical is something that exists in space-time. It would be characterized as having mass or energy, or it could be a potential field, such as an electric or gravitational field.

ingx24 said...

Well, under the definition "exists in space-time", I would probably count as a physicalist/materialist too, as would Victor Reppert :P It really seems like all we're disagreeing on is terminology at this point. My understanding of the physical is as something that is tangible - something that can, in principle, be observed or quantified. Mental states and processes, for obvious reasons, would not count as physical under this understanding - which is why materialists attempt to explain the mental out of existence by saying that it's really nothing but chemical reactions, electrical impulses, etc. in the brain, and typically do so by redefining "mental" in functional or computational terms.

im-skeptical said...

Well, that's something that people just see differently, and I suppose it's understandable. Mental images and thoughts appear to have an existence apart from the physical, but things aren't always what they seem. The physics of Aristotle was based on an intuitive view of things that has since been shown to be not representative of physical reality. I think the same can be said of mental phenomena. As our knowledge continues to grow, the time will come when we look upon dualism as an anachronism, the way we now see Aristotelian physics.

ingx24 said...

Well, by the way you defined "physical" (which is far more broad of a definition than most people use), there's no problem with calling mental phenomena physical unless you don't allow that minds are located in space-time. If you define physical the way most people do, as being something tangible, observable, and quantifiable, then there are a lot of problems with calling the mental physical.

grodrigues said...

@im-skeptical:

"OK, physical is something that exists in space-time."

space-time does not exist in space-time, therefore by your criteria it is not physical, therefore there are non-physical things.

im-skeptical said...

Good morning, grodrigues. As I'm sure you know, I wasn't making a formal definition. It's just the way I would distinguish physical things from any immaterial things, if ever I encountered such a thing.

grodrigues said...

@im-skeptical:

"As I'm sure you know, I wasn't making a formal definition. It's just the way I would distinguish physical things from any immaterial things, if ever I encountered such a thing."

And I just pointed that you do have on your hands, metaphorically speaking, a non-physical thing, namely space-time. Do with the conclusion whatever you wish.

im-skeptical said...

Yes, that is a matter for further investigation and pondering.

ingx24 said...

The problem with your (im-skeptical's) definition of "physical" is that it seems to encompass everything. It's hard to see what could possibly count as immaterial on your definition.

im-skeptical said...

ingx24,

I tried to include everything that exists in the material world. Something like a soul would not qualify, since it has no mass or energy that we can discern. And anything that is 'transcendental' (ie - things that may exist apart from space-time) also don't qualify.

ingx24 said...

Are you saying that a subjective experience has mass or energy? If so, how can we measure it given that it is by definition subjective? Furthermore, what is your definition of a soul?

im-skeptical said...

A subjective experience in a phenomenon. It is something that happens rather than some kind of object. Should I have included in my description of physical things phenomena as well? Maybe so.

ingx24 said...

Well, if you want to include subjective mental phenomena under the label "physical", I guess that's ok, but at that point the word "physical" is pretty much meaningless in my view. John Searle does the same thing - he takes a property dualist view while calling the mental "physical" in order to escape the label "dualist" because of its negative stigma (although he'll never admit that's what he's doing).

im-skeptical said...

"at that point the word "physical" is pretty much meaningless in my view"

I disagree with that. Consider a celestial body in orbit around another body. The orbit is a physical phenomenon, but it isn't a physical object. It's something that happens. Such is the case with conscious experiences. They are purely physical phenomena, even though by definition a subjective experience can't be observed by anyone other than the one who has that experience.

ingx24 said...

What would you consider to be "immaterial"? If subjective mental phenomena are allowed to count as physical events under your definition, then what, to you, would qualify as immaterial?

im-skeptical said...

"what, to you, would qualify as immaterial?"

Souls.

Gods.

ingx24 said...

And how would you define "soul"?

im-skeptical said...

I think that's what they call the immortal, immaterial being that inhabits the body and serves as the seat of consciousness, intelligence, and morality.

Collin said...

I don't see how the question of whether thought is "material" is even meaningful. The physical laws known to apply to matter already contain variables that it's a stretch to say exist. But they are believable because they cause (at least in principle) measurable effects on more substantial variables in special circumstances.

A living brain is impossible to analyze. Structurally, it's a lump of wet felt. A brain with or without a dualistic mind is indistinguishable.

If thought were claimed to be found only within brains, such a claim could simply be delivered to the biology department and forgotten about. The problem is that thought seems to be present in physics, specifically in the agreement between quantum measurement and Bayesian inference. All the so-called rationalists get tongue-tied trying to deny this, but there's something obvious they're all missing.

Even if Bayesian inference does occur in the laws of physics, it doesn't support a claim for spontaneous thought, because thought is not Bayesian! Thought doesn't follow any method of inference at all; it's utter chaos.

The claim that thought is merely computation seems at face value to be a bold attack against the common claim that thought is numinous. But it's actually just another way of lending support to a more insidious claim, that thought is logical. And considering what's been happening to human society these past few years, that claim is no longer tenable!!!