“Atheism Is Not a Belief” — Reposted and Updated

Share

Reviewing thoughts on “Atheism is not a belief”

I’ve posted more than once on “atheism is not a belief.” Today I’m republishing some of that, and adding some updated thoughts at the end.

The following portion of this post was first published on June 15, 2009, except the last item which came later.

“Atheism is not a belief,” atheists often say, “it’s just a lack of belief in a God.” Today [in June 2009, that is] it came up in this form:

And, in addition, I would point out that atheism is not my ideology. It simply refers to my not subscribing to a particular belief (theism). It makes no more sense to treat my being an atheist as my ideology than it does to treat your being a non-Muslim as yours.

What I AM is a humanist.

This is disingenuous at best. To say that atheism is just “not subscribing to a particular belief” is to deny everything that atheism entails (requires as part of its package).

Atheism entails that the universe is impersonal and amoral.

Atheism entails that there is no ultimate good (though some atheists will allow for contingent, local, or particular goods).

Likewise and with the same kind of condition attached, atheism entails that there is no ultimate meaning, no ultimate morality, no ultimate beauty, no ultimate purpose for anything.

Atheism entails that the end of physical life is the end of personal existence.

Atheism entails that all human experience is neuronal/electrical/chemical; and though some atheists have proposed ways to rise above that physicalist description (some kind of epiphenomenalism, for example), they have never been able to explain it.

Atheism entails the same specifically for human consciousness and rationality.

Atheism entails that if any sense of meaning or purpose is to be found in human life, it is found in the contingent and accidental experience of humans—for even the existence of humans is contingent and accidental.

Atheism entails that what I do today will not matter for very long, a few generations at most.

Atheism entails that every religion is wrong.

Atheism entails that the universe will one day be empty.

Atheism entails that humans and animals and plants and bacteria and rats and pigs and dogs and boys (google the last four) are ontologically the same thing.

Atheism entails that if one chooses humanism as one’s form of atheism, that choice is made for entirely contingent reasons, probably related to one’s nation and culture of birth and upbringing, and that there is no better reason than that to choose humanism as one’s ideology, since atheism provides no reason to choose humans as having any particular value.

Atheism entails the belief that “I do not need God in order to live my life.”

What If Someone Claims To Be An Atheist But Won’t Accept This List?

Since posting these articles I’ve softened my position slightly. I believe there could be an atheism that does not entail everything above. I don’t know how it would work as atheism with any of these items missing, but I’m open to the possibility. Thomas Nagel thinks mind might be part of the fabric of reality without God; fine: I still don’t know how that works.

In any event, it seems to me that the above list is at least pretty close to a necessary description of true atheism. So what do we conclude if someone calls him- or herself an atheist but doesn’t agree to at least most of that list? I say this person either:

  • Hasn’t thought through what he or she believes, or
  • Believes contradictions, or
  • Is really an agnostic, not an atheist, or
  • Believes, without no positive evidence, in truly incredible undiscovered and unimagined realities, a la Nagel, or
  • Has made an active decision to avoid believing anything about life, death, the nature of reality, the good, or pretty much anything that matters except how to make it through the day.

In that last case, then we could fairly say that this person has made an active decision that life, death, the nature of reality, etc. don’t matter very much, which isn’t a lack of belief, it’s a positive belief about those things: again, that they don’t matter.

Are there any other options?

107 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    I don’t know why you are so adamant that this isn’t a valid option:

    – Is someone that makes their own decisions based on evidence provided, and has encountered no evidence for a God or Gods.

    It’s as if it somehow damages your faith to let that be my position, so you just deny me it. Or is it that since I’m atheist there’s no way I could just be an honest dude telling the truth about the way I feel?

    I live my life on this planet in a mode of learning, not a mode of already “knowing” the truth. I don’t “know” anything for sure, because I know how often we are wrong about the things we know. Just like I could be wrong on all this Christianity stuff.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    How is that different from agnosticism, Michael?

  3. Michael says:

    An agnostic things there may be a God, but isn’t sure.

    I see no evidence of a God, and think the reality of one of them actually existing is astonishingly small. Yet, there is no pride in my position, and would happily reconsider. I don’t think you’re stupid or anything. By definition, yes, it is irrational, but we all do irrational things and that’s okay.

    I find your articles inaccurate, and I feel like if you were being honest with it, you would jump at the chance to include the opinion of an actual atheist.

  4. David P says:

    Agnosticism relates to (a lack of) knowledge. Atheism relates to (a lack of) belief.

    I am agnostic – I do not know their are no Gods.
    I am atheist – I do not believe there are Gods.

    I am both atheist and agnostic, although I am going to stop using these labels because they are clearly confusing to a lot of people.

  5. Michael says:

    David P, have you noticed we rarely use the labels except when responding to stuff like this? I feel like it’s inescapable, baring everyone on the planet suddenly becoming humble.

  6. David P says:

    Michael
    Yeah, I don’t normally go round labeling myself with all the things I don’t believe. Just for the record, I am also agoblinist, afairyist, aunicornist, ahomeopathicist, asantaist.

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    Michael and David, forgive me, but what you’re saying is confusing. It’s really hard for me to dissociate atheism from disbelief in God, where “disbelief” is a strong, active term. It’s not a matter of honesty (a matter on which I have been pressing David, and will continue to do so). It’s a matter of difficulty apprehending your position.

    So tell me, would it help if I added this bullet at the end?

    • May not actively affirm what’s on this list, but sees no evidence that any of them are false, and is therefore willing to live life as if most or all of them are true even without committing to them being true.

  8. Michael says:

    lol, what a twist of words. Don’t you feel like you’re doing so acrobatics in there?

    It would help if the comment I made was included, but it’s your blog. Anyone truly curious will likely read the comments as well.

  9. Michael says:

    If you wanted to be most accurate, this short point would cover all the rest:

    – Someone that does not believe in a God or Gods

    Unfortunately, this option removes all your strawmen accusations, and would ultimately render the article irrelevant, so I don’t foresee it being added.

  10. Tom Gilson says:

    Michael, thanks for laughing. If we can have a sense of humor we can get further. I trust that was your intent, anyway.

    No, I didn’t think I was doing acrobatics.

    I don’t think your comment’s wording really says much. You wrote,

    – Is someone that makes their own decisions based on evidence provided, and has encountered no evidence for a God or Gods.

    First, everyone makes his or her own decisions when they become an adult–prejudicial stereotypes against unthinking infantile Christianity aside.
    Second, everyone bases his or her decisions on evidence and on background knowledge and experience. I don’t believe you (really, I don’t) if you really mean to say you base your decisions strictly on evidence provided.
    Third, there’s evidence for that very conclusion in your closing clause, “has encountered no evidence…” The terminology of “no evidence” is far too absolute to be rational, but atheists use it all the time. The existence of life is evidence for God. The existence of the universe, when considered against the question of how it came to be (for science and philosophy both tend to agree it could not be eternally old), is evidence for God. The historical record of the Bible is evidence for God. Maybe you think there are counter-evidences that are stronger. We’re aware of those counter-evidences and counter-arguments. We would even label them as counter-evidences. But you say there is “no evidence,” which I think reflects your background and experiences, not a sober assessment of “the evidence provided.”

    So I’m not impressed with your offering here. I’d be happy to put it on the list if you want, but I’ll include this analysis under it.

  11. Tom Gilson says:

    Michael @10: if the word “atheist” is going to mean anything, it’s going to have to mean something. Your definition includes too much. It includes agnostics. It includes the mentally handicapped, unable to form beliefs. It includes the child about to be born in a moment. It includes people who have made a strong active decision to deny the existence of God, and people who are absolutely sure that no such decision is possible. It includes the Christian who is in a coma; for you did not include a time dimension in it.

    In the other thread G. Rodrigues linked to Bill Vallicella’s article on this. It’s denuding the language.

  12. Tom Gilson says:

    Your belief as posted in comment 2 doesn’t get you off the hook of committing to positive beliefs, by the way, for there are some real strong ones entailed in it. Do you know what they are? Do you see them?

  13. Michael says:

    Tom, your analysis is poisoned.

    You Said: First, everyone makes his or her own decisions when they become an adult–prejudicial stereotypes against unthinking infantile Christianity aside.

    My Reply: It’s unfortunate that just by trying to speak for myself you think I’m insulting you. We can get nowhere as long as this bias exists. We need to have an honest conversation.

    You Said: Second, everyone bases his or her decisions on evidence and on background knowledge and experience. I don’t believe you (really, I don’t) if you really mean to say you base your decisions strictly on evidence provided.

    My Reply: That’s fine.

    You Said: Third, there’s evidence for that very conclusion in your closing clause, “has encountered no evidence…” The terminology of “no evidence” is far too absolute to be rational, but atheists use it all the time. The existence of life is evidence for God. The existence of the universe, when considered against the question of how it came to be (for science and philosophy both tend to agree it could not be eternally old), is evidence for God. The historical record of the Bible is evidence for God.

    My Reply: These examples are only considered proof if you “want” them to be, but not in any sort of rational method of thinking, which is something to at least be aware of. You can say “God talked to me last night” as proof, but that doesn’t make it actual, verifiable proof.

    You Say: We’re aware of those counter-evidences and counter-arguments. We would even label them as counter-evidences. But you say there is “no evidence,” which I think reflects your background and experiences, not a sober assessment of “the evidence provided.”

    My Reply: So we are both aware of the counter-evidences, and while I consider them, you reject them. That is the only difference between us. You are sure in your position. I am not.

  14. Tom Gilson says:

    Michael, you write,

    My Reply: These examples are only considered proof if you “want” them to be, but not in any sort of rational method of thinking, which is something to at least be aware of. You can say “God talked to me last night” as proof, but that doesn’t make it actual, verifiable proof.

    How, when, and why did the word evidence get morphed to proof?

  15. Tom Gilson says:

    If you are not sure in your position, Michael, by ordinary English usage you are an agnostic.

    What distinguishes you from an agnostic? Your answer in #4 was that an agnostic thinks there may be a God but isn’t sure. You think there isn’t a God but you’re not sure. Don’t you see how those are logically equivalent positions?

  16. Michael says:

    Tom Says: Michael @10: if the word “atheist” is going to mean anything, it’s going to have to mean something.

    My Reply: I’m an atheist. To me it means “Someone that lacks belief in a God or Gods.” Since there are many believers in the world, it definitely means something.

    Tom Says: Your definition includes too much. It includes agnostics. It includes the mentally handicapped, unable to form beliefs. It includes the child about to be born in a moment. It includes people who have made a strong active decision to deny the existence of God, and people who are absolutely sure that no such decision is possible. It includes the Christian who is in a coma; for you did not include a time dimension in it.

    My Reply: It’s only your opinion that it includes too much, and I assume that’s only to serve the point you’re trying so hard to make. To me, the cases you mentioned are Atheists by definition, save for the Christian, ’cause he’s in a coma of course. In that case, I would say “Well, he was a christian when he went into a coma. It’d be weird to just start calling him an atheist now, and he probably wouldn’t appreciate it.”

    You Say: Your belief as posted in comment 2 doesn’t get you off the hook of committing to positive beliefs, by the way, for there are some real strong ones entailed in it.

    My Reply: The hook? What are you talking about?

    You Say: Do you know what they are? Do you see them?

    My Reply: Sorry, you’ve lost me. Should I be worried about committing to positive beliefs? I don’t care about any of that. I simply lack belief in a God or gods.

  17. Michael says:

    You Say: What distinguishes you from an agnostic? Your answer in #4 was that an agnostic thinks there may be a God but isn’t sure. You think there isn’t a God but you’re not sure. Don’t you see how those are logically equivalent positions?

    My Reply: No, from my perspective, as an actual, living atheist, they are quite different.

  18. Tom Gilson says:

    Speaking of “want,” think of what Bernard Carr, physicist, concluded about the fine-tuning of the universe as evidence for God: “If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.”

    The multiverse is a way out of belief in God, if you want it to be.

    Now, before anyone jumps on that, I do know there are other lines of thought than that contributing to the idea of multiverse. Still, this physicist said it: and it illustrates that “want” can affect opinions on both sides.

    What’s amazing, Michael, is that you used the terms “only,” and “not in any rational way of thinking” (my emphasis). Imagine if I had said “the only reason anyone believes in the multiverse is because they don’t ‘want’ God; and not from any rational way of thinking.” I would have rendered a whole lot of very intelligent people totally irrational. That is, I would have tried; I wouldn’t have succeeded, since it’s an idiotic statement. It’s as moronic as your attempt to render all Christians totally irrational.

  19. Michael says:

    Tom, I make no claims of not being a moron, and had no understanding of your relationship with them.

    Here is one moron pleading to be understood. I think when you write articles like this you are creating a hostile environment for me, and I just wish that wouldn’t happen. I just want to live the life I figure out.

  20. David P says:

    The terminology of “no evidence” is far too absolute to be rational, but atheists use it all the time. The existence of life is evidence for God. The existence of the universe, when considered against the question of how it came to be is evidence for God. The historical record of the Bible is evidence for God.

    None of these is evidence for the existence of God. That is a huge mental leap.

  21. Tom Gilson says:

    Michael @18, that’s really no help. You did want to help others understand, didn’t you?

    You say in 17 that all those categories are atheist “by definition.” On whose authority, and what do you do about those who would never dream of applying the term to unborn children? How do you justify excepting the Christian in a coma?

    You fault me for not getting it, but you haven’t explained what the it is yet. I mean, you’ve put some sentences up here that you say are your explanation, but when I ask you clarifying questions it turns out not to be clear at all.

  22. SteveK says:

    I get the sense the term atheist doesn’t say much about anything – so we are being told. Atheism takes no positive position regarding knowledge or belief in God – is just takes the position of lacking belief.

    So…one could be an atheist who *lacks belief* in a God or Gods, and also a Christian who *affirms* there is sufficient evidence to reasonably conclude that God exists.

    She lacks belief in a God (no position) but has reason to think a God exists (affirming position).

    or saying it another way…

    One could be an atheist who has *encountered no evidence for a God or Gods* and is saying this position does not necessarily entail any particular conclusion about God, and also a Christian who *believes* a God exists because there are sufficient reasons to believe.

    She has encountered no evidence for a God (no position), but believes there are sufficient reasons to believe that a God exists (affirming position).

    So we now have the oxymoron “Christian atheist”. The wonderful marriage of a position that isn’t making any positive claims about God’s existence and a position that is.

    …and it’s nonsense.

  23. Michael says:

    Tom Says: Michael @18, that’s really no help. You did want to help others understand, didn’t you?

    My Reply: It’s your opinion that it’s really no help. I think it’s eloquent and just kinda brilliant in it’s brevity.

    Tom Says: You say in 17 that all those categories are atheist “by definition.” On whose authority, and what do you do about those who would never dream of applying the term to unborn children?

    My Reply: It’s only my opinion, and I would say those people can do whatever they want. I’m not interested in governing others.

    Tom Says: How do you justify excepting the Christian in a coma?

    My Reply: My thought process is: “Well, he was a christian when he went into a coma. It’d be weird to just start calling him an atheist now, and he probably wouldn’t appreciate it.”

    Tom Says: You fault me for not getting it, but you haven’t explained what the it is yet. I mean, you’ve put some sentences up here that you say are your explanation, but when I ask you clarifying questions it turns out not to be clear at all.

    My Reply: I haven’t faulted you for anything. If you think I have, then it’s not a stretch to consider that perhaps you’re misunderstanding more of what I’m saying. I feel like I’m being as clear as possible.

  24. Michael says:

    I said: I think when you write articles like this you are creating a hostile environment for me, and I just wish that wouldn’t happen.

    Does this register at all? Do you think I’m lying, or over-exaggerating? Can’t you just not talk about us? There’s got to be plenty of praising to do.

  25. Tom Gilson says:

    Michael, I’m sorry, but this encapsulates what’s happening here. I said,

    What distinguishes you from an agnostic? Your answer in #4 was that an agnostic thinks there may be a God but isn’t sure. You think there isn’t a God but you’re not sure. Don’t you see how those are logically equivalent positions?

    You replied,

    No, from my perspective, as an actual, living atheist, they are quite different.

    Logic, my friend, is not a matter of perspective.

    Now, if you had had some explanation for why what I said was erroneous, then we could have talked about that. But what you had instead was, “from my perspective.”

    That’s textbook irrationality. You treat two logically equivalent phrases as different because from your perspective they’re different.

    The hostility you’re feeling here is not in my attitude. It’s in my trying to get you to explain something rationally, and your not wanting to do so.

    Why, oh why, oh why do Christians get labeled with the irrationality tag when perspective can trump logic this way?

  26. Michael says:

    I didn’t come here for you to try to explain something to me rationally.

    I came here to say I’m an atheist and I’m not interested in disproving God.

    I try not to speak in absolutes, and I am not an intellectual, so I defer to my perspective over logic. I wish this could just be okay with you.

    The hostility I feel is because you aren’t saying “That’s okay, we’re all God’s children and I love you anyway”, but you’re telling me that the kind way I’m living my life is wrong, and repeatedly telling me what I do and do not believe.

    Those are just assumptions though, aren’t they?

  27. Michael says:

    Do you think that by putting your assumptions of atheism into a popular blog post, that you’re helping me live a kind, quiet life?

    Why do you spend your time doing it? Would Jesus want you judging us so casually? There has got to be plenty of praising to do without having to target a group of people and make up strawmen so they can be despised, and thought of poorly. Just… why?

  28. SteveK says:

    It’s getting deep in here…

  29. Michael says:

    I don’t know, there’s no way for you to know this, but I live in the American South, and being an atheist here is scary enough.

    It’s just so confusing to me that a “religion of love” can cast it aside so quickly and readily when the opportunity to make someone feel different, wrong, alone arises.

  30. Michael says:

    Sorry it got so deep, let’s go back to trying to claim I meant something else when I used a certain word or something. Those are the really awesome parts.

  31. Tom Gilson says:

    Sorry, Michael, but I have issues, too. One of them is the atheists’ incessant claim on the word reason, and the precious little evidence of it that I see demonstrated.

    And though you really, really want to claim a certain meaning for a word, you are not the Queen of Hearts, and words cannot just mean what your perspective says they mean. That is, they can if you’re talking to yourself, but not if you’re trying to communicate with other human beings.

    Anyway, I’m still trying to work this out, and I have another blog post going online soon for you to see if I came closer to what you mean by atheism.

  32. d says:

    I’ll offer my own humble definition for atheism, that I think captures better what most probably should say, instead of “atheism is not a belief”.

    … the position that the best explanation for life, the universe and everything does not seem to be (insert deity here), given the evidence and body of knowledge available to us.

  33. Melissa says:

    d @33,

    Finally, thanks for raising the bar. The conversation up until here was a farce.

  34. SteveK says:

    My experience says that what d offered up is more the mainstream.

  35. Michael says:

    d, that is over-complicated, though at least it doesn’t accuse us of trying to disprove God. An atheist doesn’t need to see evidence to not believe in a proposed God-scenario. They just have to be a little skeptical of unproven claims.

    To clarify, atheism has nothing to do with life or the universe and stuff. Atheism is a lack of belief in a God or Gods.

    Your definition seems familiar to you probably because you mostly talk to other Chrisitians about atheists, and don’t listen to an atheist when he’s clearly defining his position for you. It doesn’t give you a smug pang of self-satisfaction if you just let me speak for myself unchallenged.

  36. Melissa says:

    Michael,

    d is an atheist.

  37. Michael says:

    Great!

  38. Andrew W says:

    I agree. d is making a statement about the world, not just about himself, and in doing so making a philosophical claim. In contrast, the bare statement “I don’t believe in god/s” is an observation, not a position.

    It’s worth noting that d’s position has a trajectory both in and out. In, in that it is a conclusion based on a process of reasoning, and out, in that it has consequences for a whole bunch of stuff. (I’m not saying I agree with his reasoning, just that it gets off the philosophical starting blocks and actually into the race.)

    Can I point out that there is one thing that both Tom and Richard Dawkins agree on? The question of the existence of God is not value-neutral. If he exists, there are serious consequences to behaving as if he does not. If he does not, there may be* serious consequences to behaving as if he does.

    * I say “may be” because it can be argued that one of the consequences is that there is no meaning or purpose, and thus “consequence” is stripped of any values and becomes merely incidence of events.

  39. Michael says:

    I’m not wise enough to make a statement about the world. I’m comfortable being curious and always willing to learn. I don’t happen to believe there’s a God, and I have no desire to try to prove there isn’t one. I’ll just lead a kind, gentle life, endlessly exploring. 🙂

  40. Mr. X says:

    In my experience, whether or not atheism really is just a lack of belief depends on whatever’s most rhetorically effective at that particular moment. So, when somebody points out the absurd conclusions which spring from atheism, we’re told that no conclusions can actually spring from atheism, because atheism’s just a lack of belief, not a belief itself; the next moment, though, it’s taken for granted that every atheist must hold a certain position on, say, Church-state separation, gay marriage, abortion, or what have you.

  41. Keith says:

    No. Just no.

    To quickly cherry-pick:

    Atheism doesn’t entail the universe is impersonal or amoral (what if the universe itself is conscious?), or that the end of physical life is the end of personal existence (what about reincarnation?) or that every religion is wrong (some forms of Buddhism don’t include deities), or that the Universe will one day be empty (not all cosmological models end with an empty Universe).

    Whether or not these statements are widely agreed to by modern atheists is beside the point.

    While it’s a useful simplification for the purpose of categorization or discussion, to state as fact that atheism “entails” or “requires” this, that or the other thing, is incorrect.

  42. Keith says:

    Michael @27, @28:

    This blog is all about the rational (“thinkingchristian”, get it?), and the goal of living a “kind, quiet life” is secondary in this aisle to, ummm, call it “spirited debate”. 🙂

    Also, deferring to perspective over logic is arguably a dangerous choice (especially in heavy traffic).

  43. Michael says:

    Unfortunately I have seen no debate. There was an article detailing how atheists feel, and now there are comments doing the same.

    There’s not even a debate to have. Just let other people live the life they choose and try not to judge them.

    I welcome whatever “danger” this comment thread brings me, lol. All I’m trying to say is that I’m an atheist and I have no desire to try to disprove God. If you can somehow twist that into anything more complicated, you are being disingenuous.

  44. David P says:

    Michael
    You cannot “disprove God” and your continued insistence on bringing the topic up shows how incredibly inept you are. You are telling people “to live the life they choose and try not to judge them”. You are refuting your own argument. What a loser, just like all the other atheist idiots out there.

  45. Michael says:

    David, I don’t follow. We seem to agree with each other. Try to re-read my comment through love-goggle, not hate-goggles

  46. David P says:

    I was trying out Christianity for size (as practised on this forum). 😉

  47. Ray Ingles says:

    Is really an agnostic, not an atheist

    Thomas Huxley, who coined the term ‘agnostic’, defined it as believing that questions about God and such were unknowable. Unanswerable, not simply unanswered. They believe people can’t know if there are god(s) or not.

    There exist people who believe that no gods exist. Those are certainly atheist. But what do we call people who believe that the question is answerable, but not yet answered one way or the other? They’re not agnostics – they believe the question is answerable. They don’t believe there’s no god – they don’t think that’s ruled out.

    In other words, is there a difference between “believe(not(gods))” and “not(believe(gods))”? The former are clearly atheists. The latter aren’t agnostics or theists… so what are they?

  48. d says:

    Michael,

    d, that is over-complicated, though at least it doesn’t accuse us of trying to disprove God. An atheist doesn’t need to see evidence to not believe in a proposed God-scenario. They just have to be a little skeptical of unproven claims.

    To clarify, atheism has nothing to do with life or the universe and stuff. Atheism is a lack of belief in a God or Gods.

    What’s complicated about it? Seems pretty simple to me.

    You say atheism contains skepticism about certain things.. Well, when it comes to *rational* skepticism, I think there are at least two requirements:

    1) Some knowledge of the concept in question. Without this, all we have is ignorance, not skepticism.

    2) At least one good reason why you are hesitant to believe that the concept is a true one – which I think entails that you make some positive claim about something, whether its the trustworthiness of a particular source of information, or the logical coherency of the concept, its plausibility, etc.

    Since rational skepticism should include (1) and (2) above, I think its clear that somewhere in there, there must be more content to one’s atheism than “lack of belief”. There’s a rejection (maybe not outright, or permanent) of the truthiness of some part of god-related concepts, which itself, requires a claim to be made *about* something…. skepticism requires it.

    Blank-slate “atheists”, (that is what I’m calling the few people who have not yet encountered or independently dreamed up the concept of theism), are interesting to think about, but I don’t think they are relevant to this discussion. You can’t call them skeptics [(1) and (2) not being present] and I would even hesitate to call them atheists. And about the only people who I think would even count as such are babies, and maybe people of the Piraha Tribe.

    Your definition seems familiar to you probably because you mostly talk to other Chrisitians about atheists, and don’t listen to an atheist when he’s clearly defining his position for you. It doesn’t give you a smug pang of self-satisfaction if you just let me speak for myself unchallenged

    This is funny because I am atheist, by my own definition. I even at one time, used to use the ole line, “atheism is a lack of belief”. But its really not a very good line, for most of the reasons already stated. I think my definition (while not perfect) does a far better job of describing atheism more than “lack of belief”.

  49. Michael says:

    Bravo David, sublime!

  50. Keith says:

    Michael @45:

    I don’t think that’s an option, on either side of the argument.

    Just for example:

    For many evangelical Christians, evolution questions the creation story, and without a specific act of creation and subsequent fall into sin, how can Jesus’ sacrifice even have meaning? If you believe school teachers and governments are guiding your child to separation from God and an infinity of physical torment in hell, how could you “try not to judge them”?

    For many atheists, belief the Bible is the literal word of God leads to civil rights abuses and widespread human suffering. If you believe the Christian religion incites hatred, how can you let them “live the life they choose”?

    Once you honestly believe the other side’s beliefs harm “the Good”, live-and-let-live becomes an impossibility.

  51. Michael says:

    d, your rules are adorable, but I’m a different person than you. Thank You!

  52. Michael says:

    It’s complicated, Keith. That’s why I follow the Golden Rule. I don’t see how we would conflict if we all did that.

  53. d says:

    That you are “a different” person is relevant to what the truth is or isn’t, how exactly?

    What a joke.

  54. Michael says:

    d, I may be a joke. I’d just like to live in peace. Must you be angry at me for that? Toms articles do peace a disservice.

  55. Tom Gilson says:

    Peace is one of the highest desiderata, but not the only one. There is also life, relationship, truth, justice, courage, and many more.

    See here for more on what I am trying to accomplish here.

  56. Michael says:

    Hi, I’m an atheist. Your bulleted list of conclusions doesn’t include the way I actually feel. Would you care to include it?:

    – Loves his girlfriend and parents. Works 9 to 5. Saved up for an iPad. Reads theories like the Big Bang and wonders how they could possibly be true. Thinks about abiogenesis and how incredibly unlikely it seems. Doesn’t know a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Doesn’t believe in a God or Gods. Is perfectly comfortable with everyone else on the planet believing in a God or Gods. Has no desire to try and disprove it for them, and in fact, thinks that disproving God would be impossible.

  57. Tom Gilson says:

    Michael, the purpose of a definition is to identify and to discriminate. (Discriminate is a bad word only in contexts of justice vs. injustice.)

    So when we define, for example, “Republican” and “Democrat,” we would want to identify each as American political parties, and we would want to discriminate them according to their differing characteristic beliefs, history, leadership, etc.

    There are probably many thousands, maybe millions, of Republicans who have saved up for iPads. There are certainly many millions of Democrats who work 9 to 5. Neither of those pieces of information, however, defines the word “Republican” or “Democrat.”

    No one intends “Republican” or “Democrat” to tell the whole story regarding each individual person’s loves, dreams, struggles, hopes, challenges, or any such thing. We intend the words to tell what they mean, and nothing more.

    The same goes for “atheism” or “atheist.” It only says what it says. What it says, it should (for the sake of communication) say as clearly as possible without distortion. What it does not say, it does not say: for it does not need to say everything.

    And so when I see the word “atheist” I think of something that defines a whole lot less than the whole person, for there is more to any individual atheist than that. I am not stereotyping. I am seeking to say nothing more of atheists as a group than is true of atheists as a group. What is true of individuals in the group need not, and cannot, be subsumed under the one word “atheist.” And yet the word means something, else no one would use it. Please do not fault me for exploring what that meaning is!

    I hope you would say the same about “Christian.”

  58. Michael says:

    I totally agree with all that. I would just like to be represented in your conclusive list of conclusion about atheists. Currently, you’ve left me out.

  59. Tom Gilson says:

    Michael,

    I apologize for not understanding what it has been that you’re trying to say and to do here. It’s been confusing. You posted a concern on another thread, which I think you probably meant to put here because it refers to bullet points and iPads. I’ll try to answer it here.

    The first thing, though, is that I need to try to restate what you’re saying so you can let me know if I got it right. This is not for argumentation but for clarification and communication, okay? So if I get it wrong, it’s only because I’m confused, not because I’m trying to gain ground in any argument.

    This is what I think you’re saying, if I’ve read you correctly.

    In the OP here I listed several things that seem to be entailed by an atheistic position. Then I listed several bullet-point items to try to answer the question, What if someone calls him- or herself an atheist, but doesn’t accept a lot of those things that I had listed as entailed by atheism?

    You answered by saying that the bullet-point list should include this, so as not to leave out someone like you:

    – Is someone that makes their own decisions based on evidence provided, and has encountered no evidence for a God or Gods.

    So as I look back in retrospect, it seems to me that the only reason you might have wanted that bullet point included would have been because these two things were true of you:

    (a) You don’t agree with a majority of the entailments that I listed in italics in the OP. I say that because if you did agree with most of them, then the bullet-point list wouldn’t be for you at all. As I wrote in the OP, that bullet-point list is only for someone who “calls him- or herself an atheist but doesn’t agree to most of that list.”

    (By the way: I hope you don’t think I intended to include all atheists in that bullet-list! It really was intended to cover only those who didn’t accept most of the entailments above it.)

    (b) You don’t find yourself accurately described among the bullet points.

    And the reason you think that is because I didn’t include something like these descriptions that you suggested.

    – Is someone that makes their own decisions based on evidence provided, and has encountered no evidence for a God or Gods….

    – Someone that does not believe in a God or Gods

    Further, you find that my article is lacking in honesty because I’m not “including the opinion of an actual atheist;” and it’s filled with strawmen accusations.

    You think that I have falsely considered you to have been insulting me; rather, you have been speaking for yourself, and something about that renders it not an insult.

    (I’m probably going to need you to clarify further how that works, considering that you had previously questioned my honesty and my willingness to let you live your life as you are; you said I was laughably twisting words, and delivering strawmen accusations. Maybe you can help me understand that better.)

    Anyway, the overall sense I get is that you are an atheist, and you would prefer to live life that way and not have all this additional analysis tacked on; that it creates a kind of hostile environment for you. You would rather I not talk about you (plural, meaning atheists in general, I think). You would rather be left alone so you can live a quiet life with your friends and family. Is that a correct reading of what you’re trying to say?

    If not, I’m listening to find out what you’re really trying to explain about yourself and your position here.

    I’m also curious about (a) above: is it true that you don’t accept the points I listed in italics in the OP? I think that’s what you’ve been implying, but I think it would help if you would say so for sure.

  60. Tom Gilson says:

    I have another question, too, Michael. I’d like to know how I came across as “so adamant” that there wasn’t another “valid option,” when the last line of my OP was, “Are there any other options?”

    In that same comment you went on to say I was denying you something, and I was allowing you no way you could be something other than I had said there. You said I was doing this as if to do otherwise would somehow damage my faith.

    This is strong language.

    But I hadn’t said that; I hadn’t denied other options; I had ended by asking whether there were other options.

    I get the sense that you decided right off the bat that I was boxing you in, when from my perspective I was open to further options in case I hadn’t covered them all.

    You see, Michael, there was something in your very first comment in this thread that seemed rather aggressive toward me, for reasons I don’t understand. Could you help me to know what it was that elicited that response in you?

    I know that since you wrote that comment we’ve covered a lot of territory, and I’m hoping my previous comment to you here will help us sort all that out. For me, though, it would help if you could tell me what I did in the OP to make you feel so boxed in without any other options. If I had a better sense of how this all began, I think I’d be in a better position to understand how it ended up going the way it did from that point on.

  61. oisin says:

    Tom, there were other positions that could have been included in the OP that were not there, let me give some examples:

    -Morality arose and became part of human brains because of evolution, and morality can be defined as “a measure of the flourishing of conscious creatures”

    -Life is an emergent property of the laws of physics and chemistry. All life is centered on reproduction and so through reproduction and continually more sophisticated methods of ensuring its own survival will begin reorganizing the matter in the universe into more beautiful and meaningful constructions.

    -Love and acknowledging the value of other humans isn’t just an emotional way of viewing the world, it is a supremely logical way of living one’s life because we achieve so much more when we work together than as individuals.

    -When I die all the energy and matter in me will be eternally recycled and reused for other purposes, perhaps even as a human someday, or a star.

    These are not based on atheism, science and reason have provided us with simply astounding facts about reality, and from them we get a very different sense of our own place in the universe.

    I’m not saying all atheists believe the above, however it is clear that the term “atheist” is simply not useful enough when trying to understand an individual’s beliefs about reality to claim to know much more than a lack of belief in God, people come at it through science, philosophy, common sense, rhetoric, etc.

    You simply have to ask questions rather than tell the atheist what they believe!

  62. Tom Gilson says:

    oisin, thank you for that.

    It wasn’t my intent to create an exhaustive list, just a representative one. That list was not intended to be a comprehensive description of any atheist, but rather a partial list of what atheism as a system entails. So please don’t read something into it that it wasn’t mean to be.

    I think your first point is likely to be descriptive of many atheists’ beliefs, but not all. Richard Joyce (The Evolution of Morality) takes a long and careful look at evolution and morality and concludes that what evolution produces shouldn’t be called morality because it doesn’t fit any proper definition of the term. So I wouldn’t say that this belongs on a list of beliefs entailed by atheism.

    Your second proposal, with naturalistic evolution (NE) bringing about “more beautiful and meaningful constructions” is not only not entailed by atheism, it’s positively dripping with anthropocentric and contingent value assessments, none of which is entailed by NE. There is no objective meaning to beauty or meaning, on NE; it’s all a human overlay on life, at best. So to think that NE has it as its final end to produce meaning and beauty is (at best) to place that human overlay upon the entire process. Did nature have beauty and meaning in its long-range vision when it was busy creating trilobites? Will it have beauty and meaning in its scope when humans are extinct? And if you think so in spite of good reason, do you consider that belief to be entailed by atheism?

    Your third point, on love, is probably the best accounting that atheism and NE can make of love. I think it’s lacking in many ways, but there’s no reason to belabor it here.

    Your expectation of being recycled for other purposes is interesting. When did purpose enter the picture? Sure, humans have purposes. But stars? And are you trying to sneak in some kind of sentimentalized picture of a grand future for your molecules and energy? Is this entailed by atheism? It doesn’t even make sense, on (naturalistic) atheism.

    I’m not saying all atheists believe the above, however it is clear that the term “atheist” is simply not useful enough when trying to understand an individual’s beliefs about reality to claim to know much more than a lack of belief in God, people come at it through science, philosophy, common sense, rhetoric, etc.

    I’m not trying to describe individuals’ beliefs here. I’m trying to scope out what atheism entails; and I’m saying that if a person believes there is no God or spiritual dimension to reality, then that belief entails the other beliefs I listed in the OP—regardless of what angle they approach it from. I’m not saying persons have no other beliefs, or nothing else interesting or true about them. That would be nuts! I’m just saying what I’m saying.

    You simply have to ask questions rather than tell the atheist what they believe!

    I’m not telling anyone what they believe. I’m saying that atheism is a package, not by anyone’s personal choice and not by my opinion, but by logical necessity. If someone claims atheism as a belief, that’s their choice; but if they think it through rationally, then my list above is a fair representation of what they logically ought to believe, because it’s all (or at least nearly all) a logically necessary part of the package. It’s all part of what it means to hold that there is no God, or no reason to believe in God.

  63. Tom Gilson says:

    As for getting recycled into “perhaps a human someday, or even a star,” there’s a further problem. You seem to think there’s some identity relationship between your molecules and energy on the one hand, and yourself on the other. You speak of “all the matter and energy in me.” I’m sure you don’t view all the matter in you that sentimentally: the vast majority of living cells in your body (by number, not by weight) are bacteria. You eliminate matter on a regular basis and flush it away. You’re constantly cycling matter in and out of your body. You don’t think of that as your self; you think of it as stuff your body does in order to live.

    Your personal claim on “the energy in you” is far more tenuous yet. Your energy is constantly being recycled through your body, or what’s a calorie for? Your kinetic energy will dissipate within a few hours of your death, and your potential energy will be transformed and then dissipated by way of decomposition not too many years after. If you’re not thinking of something grisly and smelly at this point, then you’re not thinking about it at all.

    Was that a little too descriptive? Was it sneaking in some loaded language to taint your picture? If so, was it any less legitimate than your soaring view of your molecules ascending to the stars? No; your view was all sentiment too, only of the opposite valence (value perspective).

    You say your body’s decomposition will allow your molecules to ascend to the stars. Have you really thought through what that means, and how highly you ought to celebrate it?

  64. oisin says:

    Thank you for such a full reply!

    I’d just first like to draw attention to the differences between the way each of us uses language, though I commend how deep an understanding you received from someone of an opposing viewpoint. Here we go:

    You and I disagree about how to define morality.

    Beauty and meaning are completely human terms, but because we are humans I can use them anytime I like without being contradictory. I do indeed mean beautiful to humans, rather than beautiful in the objective sense of being embedded in God or whatever.

    On NE, humans will continue evolving, and going by growth trends and interest in space exploration humans will travel, any useful matter we can find will be used to build currently unimaginable tools. Science fiction has quite literally started becoming reality and there is no reason to think it will stop. Evolution really means that whatever survives the best survives the best, so nihilism is only linked to atheism by tradition, not necessity.

    This idea of the Grand Reorganization is quite rational if you simply follow the trend of what the universe was like in the beginning to what it is like now. It is obvious that human values are driving the reorganization of the matter on Earth, and when humans are considered a naturalistic phenomenon it becomes obvious that these are the values of the universe itself, since we are a part of it and evolved due to its laws.

    Haha, you caught me trying to be poetic! I will concede that stars are giant furnaces and their value as beautiful objects is mostly traditional, though an actual astronomer might slap me for saying that.

    The overall ark of these points is supposed to be that atheists can believe things that are the complete opposite to what you have said in the OP, and those beliefs can be shown to be rational. Simply because other atheists can disagree with my above value judgements, and have their own particular sources of meaning that they derive from the naturally occurring universe should make it obvious that there are no contingent beliefs that go with atheism. Especially when we acknowledge that you don’t necessarily need naturalism to be an atheist, like in Buddhism.

    I think we should focus on words like “value”, “meaning” and “beauty”:

    Beauty, to me, is simplicity in seeming complexity. It is something to value, for obvious survival reasons.

    Meaning, to me, is the analysis of the intention behind behaviour, so to ask what the meaning of life is would be to ask what is the end goal of living beings as a whole. This is something to value, understanding the meanings behind behaviour helps to predict the behaviour of other lifeforms, so on NE this is a property that should naturally emerge in brains.

    A value, to me, is a property of a brain that originally evolved to assist survival and now assists flourishing.

    Even if you don’t see this discussion as being worth pursuing further, I hope it is obvious that we use common words in very different ways.

  65. oisin says:

    Mammoth post, sorry…

  66. Tom Gilson says:

    Thank you for that response, oisin.

    The point of the post was not to discover what positions are possible on atheism (the naturalistic form), but what positions are entailed (logically required) by it. We could discuss whether your position is rationally supportable or not, and it would be an interesting conversation, but the outcome of that discussion couldn’t change the fact that your position isn’t entailed by naturalism. Richard Joyce, an atheistic philosopher has shown that there is at least one other view of morality that is possible on atheism; therefore your position is not entailed by atheism, regardless of how your position succeeds or fails.

    The idea of the Grand Reorganization seems to sneak in some non-naturalistic values. Though I did concede that Thomas Nagelian mysterious and unimagined facts regarding reality could be posited by atheists, his position raises the urgent question, what on earth (or wherever) are you talking about? I would say the same for your conclusion, ”

    It is obvious that human values are driving the reorganization of the matter on Earth, and when humans are considered a naturalistic phenomenon it becomes obvious that these are the values of the universe itself, since we are a part of it and evolved due to its laws.

    What are these “human values” that are driving this reorganization? Which human values?

    And does this make sense?

    1. Humankind is a naturalistic phenomenon.
    2. Humans are part of the universe and evolved due to its laws.
    3. Therefore (it is obvious that) human values are the values of the universe itself.

    Cats are naturalistic phenomena and also are part of the universe and evolved due to its laws. Does that mean cats’ values are the universe’s values? What evolved animals’ values could this exclude?

    So your conclusion is not only not obvious, it doesn’t even follow, unless you make a Nagelian maneuver. If you do that, though, you’ll find yourself as viciously excoriated by naturalists as he has been. His view is (to say the least) not popular among non-theists.

  67. Holopupenko says:

    @66:

    Beauty and meaning are completely human terms…

    No, they are not: you’re proposing a nominalist understanding of reality.

  68. SteveK says:

    No, they are not: you’re proposing a nominalist understanding of reality.

    I’ve never understood how someone could seriously hold onto the nominalist understanding of reality. Where’s the connection between the understanding – which includes the term ‘beautiful’ – and the thing itself? If there is no connection at all between the understanding and the thing itself, then the term ‘beautiful’ is 100% a product of your vivid imagination. That thing is not beautiful in any real sense, you’re just imagining it.

    I hope oisin can see the problem he has introduced by such statements.

  69. Oisin says:

    @69 Holopupenko:

    Excuse me, would “beauty and meaning are about humans” be more appropriate? Stating the view is nominalist doesn’t make it wrong.

    @69 Tom Gilson:

    My actual point is that, because an atheist can logically have views opposed to the ones you claim are entailed by atheism, it should not be claimed that atheism entails anything other than a lack of belief in gods. I’m not claiming my views are entailed by atheism, because I don’t think any are, and in fact hope to soon stop identifying by that moniker completely.

    Art is a reorganization of matter, computers are reorganized matter, buildings are reorganized matter, what values created these? Details, details, humans made them, made them acting on certain values we have. Beauty and meaning are two things we value which drive literature, art, science, etc. (if you use my definitions is obviously what I mean)

    Cats are animals that we selectively bred to be our pets, so human values drove their evolution and their survival is predicated on us valuing something about them. Especially considering many big cats are going extinct, basically saying that their values do not match with reality. If you want some cat values that are valid, how about “i should remain alive”? For an invalid big-cat value you could say “trust no-one but yourself” as a rough example. Values evolved too (memes?) so some values can be incorrect or inferior to others (such as valuing heroin, etc.)

    I presume by Nagellian maneuver you mean claims to mystery? Would it be the same as answering a question with “I don’t know”, or claiming that there are facts about the universe that we are not aware of yet? I don’t know what will happen in the future, but going by the trends so far I am fairly optimistic!

    Would you mind answering some of the questions you would ask me using your own answers? Not about the validity of my opinions, but with what you think values are, what minds are, and how it all interacts with the facts we have from science. I am aware this might be very long so I wouldn’t mind not getting some of the answers.

  70. Holopupenko says:

    No.
    Yes it does because Nominalism is wrong.

    Beauty and meaning are two things we value which drive literature, art, science, etc.
    What–exactly–are “beauty” and “meaning”? Don’t give us examples of beautiful and meaningful things (unless you want to fall into the error of the young man in the Meno), tell us exactly what “beauty” and “meaning” are: show us both of these, i.e., put them on the table for all of us to see. Again, don’t put a “beautiful” or “meaningful” thing on the table; put a “beautiful” or a “meaningful” on the table.

  71. Tom Gilson says:

    oisin, I see now that your point is that if an atheism can coherently hold to views such as you’ve presented, then some of what I’ve said in the OP is not necessarily true of atheism.

    Let me backtrack a bit and make sure it’s clear that the atheism I’ve had in mind all along is the naturalist/physicalist variety. I agree you can make a Nagelian move as an atheist; I doubt, however, that what you have left is naturalism/physicalism. Not only that, but the logical coherence of Nagel’s proposals remains doubtful, but set that aside for now: I doubt your atheism is properly naturalistic or physicalistic.

    You are approximately correct in guessing that a Nagelian move is toward mystery. He says that naturalism cannot explain mind, consciousness, and etc., and in this he is correct. He denies God because he doesn’t want God. (True statement.) He also has problems with the presence of evil in the world. At any rate, he says there is no God, but that naturalism cannot explain mind, so he proposes that mind is somehow inherent in reality in some atheistic mode that no one has ever discovered or even suspected.

    In a vein similar to Nagel’s mysteries you say, “I don’t know what will happen in the future, but going by the trends so far I am fairly optimistic!” I ask you then, which trends? Scientific progress? There has been absolutely no scientific progress — no as in “zero with the rim kicked off” — toward uncovering a Nagelian mystery mode of existence. If you have optimism toward that, then check it: you have no basis for it whatsoever.

    So for example, your matching of human values to the universe’s values is either Nagelian or naive. The physicalist universe simply does not have values. It can’t. By definition, that which is just physical is just physical, and it can’t value anything. To say that big cats’ threatened extinction is a sign that their values are not the universe’s values is, shall we say, spooky, in a way that is completely out of place in naturalism. Is today’s puma more value-aligned with the universe than the saber-toothed tiger? And how does that work out in the day-to-day business of hunting and mating? Was the puma more artistic? More beauty-oriented? More spiritual?

    Do you really understand meme theory (such as it is)? Do you really think it allows for one memed value to be superior to another? Hint: it doesn’t.

    Values in my view are exactly what they seem to be on yours. So are minds: as long as you drop any silliness you might have about them being explained by science. They are grounded in the fact that being itself is mind, and that being itself is characterized by something a lot like values. By “being itself” I mean God, of course.

    Human values and human minds are at home in a reality like that. They’re not explained by science, and they don’t need to be. Science can of course provide tools for descriptive analysis, and it does that very well; but that’s nowhere near being the same thing as explanation.

  72. oisin says:

    @72:
    I actually defined both beauty and meaning earlier Holopupenko, in 66. They were on the table before you even started talking to me.

    @70 SteveK:
    Again, look at my definitions of the words, if beauty is simplicity in seeming complexity then as a very rough example it could be a measure of the physical quantity of memory a concept takes up in the brain. I don’t claim nominalism is true, I just googled it when I saw it here, but just saying the word is not a knock-down argument.

    @Tom (i know all the thanking seems a bit trite, I’m just really having a lot of fun):
    I never claimed any such thing about minds the way Nagellian did, the physical universe is all there is and so minds are physical too. Can you please stop using the phrase Nagellian, I barely understand it and suspect that it might be a distortion of my views. I may be using it incorrectly here, will stop after this comment.

    But of course if a brain can value something, and the universe seems to be very slowly being reorganised into and for life, then some values will be more inherently true than others because they’d basically be overgrown survival mechanisms and some work better than others (refer to my definition of value). Separating minds from matter is a “Nagellian” manoeuvre to me, spooky and without explanation, so to say that the physical universe has no values contradicts the evidence that you and I have values, which is to say that this part of the universe has values, and if life’s desire to expand and spread continues then the rest of the universe will too.

    Memes could not evolve if they were all equal, and they do, so it is not correct to say that. Dawkins invented the word “meme” in ‘The Selfish Gene’, he called them the new replicators. Understanding evolution in-depth is so important to understanding so many things about reality, the word meme was chosen because it was similar to gene, claiming memes don’t evolve doesn’t’t hold water.

    Spooky minds…. Did God say that minds cannot be explained naturalistically? You say that minds are not billions of neurons passing on electrical charges to complete immensely complex computations, then what is “being itself” if not that? What does the mind do that the brain does not, and visa-versa?

    Please try to see why this looks like a God-of-the-gaps argument to me, neuroscience is a brand new field of study with hundreds of years of work ahead of it so of course there is loads we do not yet understand. Will we ever understand the brain completely naturalistically? I say yes, you say no. Which one of those is a Nagellian manoeuvre?

    What are values? Do you agree that they evolved unrealistically, and are grounded in the physical world? (You said you agreed with my definition, which I think may have been a slip of the… finger?)

  73. Tom Gilson says:

    I appreciate the conversation, too, oisin.

    I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that brains can value anything. It is what philosophers call the “intentionality” problem, though they mean that in a technical sense, where the more familiar term would be something like “aboutness.” It is impossible on anyone’s accounting for one physical object to be “about” or directed toward another in the relevant sense. Each physical object’s relation to any other physical object is simply in their participation together in physical necessity (natural law). No piece of wood is about being furniture, or about the person sitting on it. The sun shines on our planet but it is not “about” our planet.

    One of the great issues in philosophy, then, is the mind/brain problem, for the mind is obviously about things, but the brain is a physical entity and therefore cannot be about anything. Theists’ solution to this varies — there are different conceptions of how mind relates to brain — but they share the conception that the physical world is not all there is, and humans are created in God’s image so that we can experience and instantiate mind.

    You have correctly identified an essential contradiction, then:

    to say that the physical universe has no values contradicts the evidence that you and I have values, which is to say that this part of the universe has values.

    This is exactly right; and yet if the universe were physical and nothing but physical, then it could not possibly have values, partly because of the aboutness problem, and partly because a just-physical universe cannot do or be anything but a machine carrying out natural law. It cannot do it in the macro: planets, solar systems, galaxies; and it cannot do it in the micro: inside your brain or mine. It cannot do it.

    The one resolution to this contradiction is to posit that physicality is not the only thing true about reality. Since you don’t like the Nagelian approach as far as you understand it (which is only sensible), and I can’t understand how it could possibly be true, the best candidate by far is theism: that God, not matter and energy and physical necessity, is at the center of all reality; and human minds are a reflection of God’s nature as eternal Mind.

    You ask,

    You say that minds are not billions of neurons passing on electrical charges to complete immensely complex computations, then what is “being itself” if not that?

    Being itself is a very difficult concept; it’s easier to speak of God himself: not physical, but the creator of all that is; not in time but the creator of time; not contingent (depending on any other reality to derive his own reality) but self-existent and the prime mover of all that comes into being, and not waiting for some outside force to bring some potentiality of his own into reality. He is pure reality as opposed to potentiality (my modern-language gloss on the Thomists’ “pure act,” which I mention only because there are a few Thomists here.)

    This is “the God of the philosophers;” there is also what we know of God from his revelation in the Bible. I’ll save that for a blog post I have in mind for later this week.

    This isn’t God-of-the-gaps; this is God as a necessary answer to deep problems of reality.

    Memes could not evolve if they were not inferior or superior? Two problems with that: one is that no one, including Dawkins, can give a coherent explanation of memes, their definition, or their “evolution.” Two, even if we could, their evolution would be based on no other value than survivability. That’s the only relevant value.

    I agree with your view of values, provided that you did not add some physicalist nonsense into the mix. That is, you and I both know what it is to consider something good, or loved, or useful, or evil, or destructive. These are values in operation; and I’m sure this operation in you is much the same as it is in me. I just don’t try to hammer it into a physicalist bed.

    Neuroscience hasn’t even begun to understand the mind. There are neuroscientists who think they have, but their reasoning is weak.

    Hope this is making sense. Thanks for the interchange.

  74. oisin says:

    You are completely correct to say that physical objects are completely bound by the physical laws, and in fact naturalism says that values arise in the brain as a result of physical laws, electrical circuits performing calculations, machinery that grew due to evolution.

    The details of how values are governed by the circuitry in the brain are sadly not known, but we know that the brain works like a computer so it would be presumed that it works the same way everything else we have ever experienced, because we do not have evidence of super-nature apart from mysteries.

    To posit that God explains minds is to create a hypothesis, but it is not useful in understanding the nature of reality. Making this guess does not explain how minds work, or what they are, it just makes us feel awe at the complexity involved. We cannot check if it is true because it could be just as true to say God makes stars go into a supernova state, we cannot say what this would mean or how we can check, it doesn’t help.

    I don’t believe in evil. Confusion, delusion and mental illness (computation problems) account for all human evil. I also don’t believe in free will. I’m not willing to debate this, Sam Harris has simply been too eloquent in explaining it, his videos are on YouTube for anyone interested.

    The words you use to explain what God is do not make sense to me, how do you know anything about this prime mover that is pure reality outside of time and space which makes potentiality into reality? These words are not in the bible, does God speak to you personally or did he tell someone else this or how did this knowledge get passed on to humanity?

    Does God have a direct connection to minds? How does that work? Are memories grounded in God? Is one’s understanding of language grounded in God or the brain?

  75. Holopupenko says:

    No, oisin, you most certainly did not define either beauty or meaning: an essential definition contains a genus and a specific difference. Simply stating beauty and meaning are “completely human terms” defines neither the terms (on the logical level) nor the objects signified by the terms (on the ontological level). Terms are conventional signs that are not the objects they signify.

    All you did was “poetically” hand wave. Try something substantial this time around. And, by the way, approaching defining things the way you do (Not!) is what permits you to play games with the other terms, like mind, brain, intentionality, etc.

    Try again, and leave the “poetics” behind. (By the way, saying, e.g., meaning is “[a] completely human term” is like saying “a pensil is a completely human artifact” true, but not essential to WHAT a pencil IS.)

  76. oisin says:

    @77 Holopupenko:

    It seems as though you have misunderstood, at the end I defined each term by the way I use them:

    “Beauty, to me, is simplicity in seeming complexity. It is something to value, for obvious survival reasons.

    Meaning, to me, is the analysis of the intention behind behaviour, so to ask what the meaning of life is would be to ask what is the end goal of living beings as a whole. This is something to value, understanding the meanings behind behaviour helps to predict the behaviour of other lifeforms, so on NE this is a property that should naturally emerge in brains.

    A value, to me, is a property of a brain that originally evolved to assist survival and now assists flourishing.”

    Not sure if you disagree with these or didn’t see them, you didn’t mention any definition specifically so I got confused. These don’t seem particularly poetic to me.

    I don’t understand a lot of the words you are using, I did a 3 week course on philosophy when I was 14 and I don’t read philosophical works so if you can dumb anything down please do!

  77. Holopupenko says:

    oisin:

    No, you did not provide definitions… and I DID read your initial comment–I just didn’t regurgitate the whole thing. Not a single one of your three “definitions” are proper definitions. What makes it worse is the subjective, opinionated overlay of “to me”. Are you suggesting essential definitions depend on what YOU say they are? I hope not: reality–that is, natural extra mental objects don’t orbit about you, their essence (what they are) do not depend on you. What you’re confusing are nominal definitions (which apply to artifacts) with essential definitions (which provide the meaning–the WHAT it is) of natural objects.

    At best, what you’ve provided are non-definition personal opinions. This blog, if I may speak for Tom, is not about personal, subjective opinions. This blog is about truth and Truth.

    Now, I am NOT going to high jack this blog with a lesson in classical/traditional logic… which is a huge precursor to continued discussion. Moreover, a 3-week course when you were 14?!? And you feel yourself qualified to speak on matters as nuanced and complex as the ones just in the comments section of this one post? You are, of course, more than welcome to comment… but when someone points out to you that you’re not even able to formulate a proper definition, that should tell you something about, among other things, the concept of humility.

  78. oisin says:

    Holopupenko, it is not clear what the intention behind your comment is. What is it that you want from me? My instinct tells me you want me to either defer to the opinions of the philosophical experts, or stop offering my opinions. If I’m wrong about something, educate me, or please feel free to ignore me if I am ignorant. Your anger is poorly judged.

    I was pointing out that we use words in different ways, and I explained what I mean when I use these ones. I made no claims about objective definitions, that wasn’t the point of the conversation. The point was I was explaining how people could value things as an atheist, as Tom seemed to be equating atheism with nihilism, and it is easy to talk past each other when coming from different analytical backgrounds so I thought it prudent to make clear what I meant by certain words.

    I think it’s ironic that you are telling me to be humble, honestly; your comment reads much more like a personal attack than an explanation of where I went wrong and how I can learn more.

    To me, it seems like you use archaic language to obfuscate and confuse the issue, clarity and simplicity should be essential when talking to someone less academic than you, otherwise no learning occurs. If you want to offer better definitions go right ahead, but giving out to me achieves nothing.

  79. Melissa says:

    Oisin,

    Of course atheists can value things – they are human after all. The real question is does that contradict your other beliefs? You claim you can redefine value to avoid the charge if nihilism. For this to succeed the redefined terms need to be able to do the work required to rescue you from nihilism. They don’t.

    That’s ignoring the problems associated with who (or what) is doing the valuing and as Tom mentioned the intentionality problem. I mean look at your comment @77:

    Meaning, to me, is the analysis of the intention behind behaviour, so to ask what the meaning of life is would be to ask what is the end goal of living beings as a whole

    in which you blithely speak of intentionality and the end goal of living things as a whole. Did you forget that you have done away with them? Nihilism is the least if your worries.

  80. oisin says:

    Melissa, you talk about me redefining words, but what alternative definitions have been offered?

    I’m saying that atheists can value thing without contradiction or illogic, I’m saying we don’t need a God hypothesis to explain that.

    Electrical processes in the brain determine what to value through computation, the values acquired are determined by evolution as natural selection favours brains that value things that assist in spreading the DNA. We are robots obeying the laws of physics, our brains are computers which dictate the whole of our mind.

    This is physically possible, and to come up with supernatural explanations is to make up new rules for how reality works without giving any legitimate way of checking if the explanations are true.

    The problem here is that there is no burden on the theists to check whether their claims about the nature of reality are true or not, because the word God covers every possible question so there seems to be no way of doubting whether God exists as everything is evidence of him. There is no way of checking whether you are wrong.

  81. Tom Gilson says:

    oisin,

    I’ve offered the definitions you ask for:

    Values in my view are exactly what they seem to be on yours. So are minds: as long as you drop any silliness you might have about them being explained by science. They are grounded in the fact that being itself is mind, and that being itself is characterized by something a lot like values. By “being itself” I mean God, of course.

    and

    I agree with your view of values, provided that you did not add some physicalist nonsense into the mix. That is, you and I both know what it is to consider something good, or loved, or useful, or evil, or destructive. These are values in operation; and I’m sure this operation in you is much the same as it is in me. I just don’t try to hammer it into a physicalist bed.

    Further: values are opinions, beliefs, and/or attitudes directed toward objects: experiences, thoughts, intentions, propositions, and so on, wherein such opinions, beliefs, and/or attitudes ascribe a positive or negative valence to the object.

    They are not properties of brains, as you said, they are properties of persons. Brains do not value; people do.

    You object that theism has to prove itself before it can be accepted. Of course: nothing to disagree with there. (I do disagree that nothing could falsify it.)But one way it gains rational support is through discussions like this one, where materialistic views of human experiences like valuing are found to be untenable.

    When you say that electrical processes determine through computation what to value, you’re saying that persons do not decide what to value. Perhaps you are content with the thought that we’re robots; but then how did you come to that conclusion? Through electrical computations? Don’t be fooled: a computer doesn’t “compute.” It processes voltages and currents. It doesn’t have a clue what it’s doing with its input, its outputs, it processes. It’s not computing in the human sense of the term, where we begin with a question and move toward comprehending an answer: it’s just being a channel for electrons to flow through.

    For nearly identical reasons, though it should be even more obvious, computers don’t conclude things for reasons. They present outputs interpretable by humans (or usable by other machines) because that’s how electrons flowed through them.

    And this is all on top of the intentionality problem: a computer could never think about what it’s working on: there’s no way for a physical object to do that!

    So therefore, if you really were just a computing robot, you could never have used reasons to come to the conclusion that that was what you were. Computers don’t reason. . But you keep trying to offer us reasons to accept your view!

    This is the essential incoherence of the view you’re trying to present.

  82. Holopupenko says:

    @80:

    I was pointing out that we use words in different ways, and I explained what I mean when I use these ones. I made no claims about objective definitions, that wasn’t the point of the conversation. The point was I was explaining how people could value things as an atheist, as Tom seemed to be equating atheism with nihilism, and it is easy to talk past each other when coming from different analytical backgrounds so I thought it prudent to make clear what I meant by certain words.

    This nicely express the core of your problem: if you make no claims about the objective meanings of the terms you are using, then why are you here… to offer personal, subjective opinions? Well then, noted: conversation impossible… where’s my jet pack? There’s nothing worthwhile to do here.

    “Clarity and simplicity” require some understanding of terms: you offer nothing but subjectivity… you confuse simplicity with simple-minded ness. I, as a physicist, recognize the simple asthetic beauty of Maxwell’s equations. But I also recognize one cannot reduce them to the simple-minded level a sound-bite enamoured person would want them. You want to do violence to complex and highly nuanced terms by reducing them to something they are not. Per your own words, you think it’s sufficient to have a few weeks of philosophy as a 14-year old. You’re not at all interested in the heavy-lifting critical thinking demands. You’re interested in “simplicity and clarity” on your personal terms.

    Good luck with that.

  83. oisin says:

    Tom, I acknowledge that you offered modifications, I apologize if I seemed to dismiss that, I didn’t intend to. I like that further addition, I would accept it, it explains more fully.

    I’m saying that brains are persons, so brains do value. Again, language usage difference. You claim that processing voltages and currents, moving electrons, is not enough to know things or to compute things the way humans do, however there is no reason to think this. The computers we have designed thus far are just ridiculously simplistic, that is why they cannot do what human brains do, though we are currently in the process of designing self-programming ones which exciting things are expected from.

    We know the brain works by electronic processes, we know that damage to certain parts of the brain damages certain parts of the mind/person, why is it not logical to conclude that these processes are the totality of what makes up a person? What aspects of a mind does the brain not govern? What does the brain do?

    Also, separately, how would we know if theism were not true?

    @Holo, you are consistently misinterpreting what I am saying, and from the respect I see the others give you elsewhere I presume it is deliberate. Stop trying to annoy/upset me.

  84. Melissa says:

    oisin,

    You claim that processing voltages and currents, moving electrons, is not enough to know things or to compute things the way humans do, however there is no reason to think this.The computers we have designed thus far are just ridiculously simplistic, that is why they cannot do what human brains do, though we are currently in the process of designing self-programming ones which exciting things are expected from.

    What do you mean there is no reason – Tom gave you reasons. If you don’t think they are reasons then you need to offer an argument that they are not. The difference between current computers is not just a difference in degree but in kind which you would realise if you bothered to read what Tom has written and think on it for more than half a second. You are ignoring the evidence against your view and just repeating what you’ve already said – it’s boring.

    We know the brain works by electronic processes, we know that damage to certain parts of the brain damages certain parts of the mind/person, why is it not logical to conclude that these processes are the totality of what makes up a person?

    It’s not logical because the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises, I’m sure you must have covered that in your three weeks.

  85. oisin says:

    You guys are really going to hold this philosophy education deficit against me, huh? I’d prefer that you engage with my arguments themselves rather than question my authority to argue.

    Melissa, the arguments against a completely physical mind are intuitive, rather than evidence-based.

    The claim is that physical things are not “about” anything, they just act out natural law mechanically. An idea is being smuggled in that says that physical processes governed by natural law could not produce minds like ours, our minds are “about” things in a way that an organic supercomputer could not be, however this is purely saying that this is the way the world is without offering solid reasoning to explain why. How do we know that our minds are “about” things in a way that immensely complicated electrical calculations cannot be?

    There is reason to think that the brain is the entirety of the mind, e.g. cases in which certain parts of people’s brains have been damaged and part of their personality is gone, the fact that drugs affecting the brain affect the mind, and every study in which brains are scanned to learn something about how they work.

    Until questions like I have asked at the end of 86 are answered (and I have asked a lot of important questions that have been left unanswered), the opposing theistic position is nothing more than handwaving and saying “God is magic!”, you need evidence to back up your claims about a non-physical mind, and you need to be able to coherently explain why there is opposing evidence. This has not been done yet.

  86. Tom Gilson says:

    oisin, how is it that the experience of billions of people that they can reason and choose does not count as evidence?

    I’ll answer that for you, thank you very much.

    It’s because it’s not measurable and countable in third-person terms. There is no “objective” scientific stance. It is a matter of direct experience rather than of something that can be externally manipulated. There’s no control condition: no way to ask someone and get an answer, “what is it like not to be able to be asked and to answer questions?”

    No one smuggled in the claim that natural processes could not produce minds like ours. We brought it in openly and with reasons, and the main reason to think that our minds have to be “about” things is because if they aren’t, then you are not thinking about this problem, you are not writing about it, you have not formed any conclusions about it, you have no beliefs about it, you have no opinions about it, you have no knowledge about it, and you don’t care about it.

    Do you see how all of those depend on the aboutness relationship?

    Granted, none of this proves that natural processes alone couldn’t produce beings with the aboutness sensation. It does mean, however, that natural processes alone could not produce beings who know about that state of affairs, who can reason about it, or can come to conclusions about it. Your claim is not utterly impossible to be true, it is only utterly impossible to be thought to be true unless it is false.

    Did you know there are cases where persons are lacking major part of their brains and not much of their rational and relational capacity? (Note: the several links there include some redundancies, but the overlap is not 100%.)

    The “handwaving and saying ‘God is magic'” claim is really quite out of place here. It’s not because I’m personally bothered by it: I’ve seen it often enough. It’s because your position is at least equally handwaving and saying “natural processes are magic.” The reasons we know theism is true have to do with philosophy and with history. There’s so much–where to begin? You’re welcome to read further here. You are incorrect to suggest there has been no coherent presentation of opposing evidence: you just haven’t seen it on this particular thread, which is on a different topic.

    And you are also incorrect to suggest we haven’t backed up our claims about a non-physical mind. We’ve shown that a just-physical mind cannot make its own decisions, because it is subject to natural necessity, and it cannot have attitudes about anything, because just-physical entities do not participate in the aboutness relationship.

    Those two issues are sufficient to undermine a just-physical view of mind.

  87. Tom Gilson says:

    Why, then, do brains have an effect on thinking and behavior?

    We live in a physical world. We know that having functioning fingers affects whether one can use a keyboard. We know that having a properly functioning central nervous system (CNS) affects whether we can control our fingers. Physical conditions have physical effects. Theists wouldn’t think of denying this. But I would think of it as a factor in the expression of mind, not the totality of mind. The common analogy is a good one: a technologically naive person could think that a radio makes music. It doesn’t: it only produces the physical expression of music that’s been carried over the air. But the quality of the radio sets an upper limit on the quality of the music. It could be the greatest performance of the greatest music ever. You could be listening to it on the most expensive stereo system you could buy. But if there’s a blown speaker or an intermittent connection, it won’t sound good at all.

    So if one wants to think of the brain as a sort of transducer between mind and body, that might not be too far from the truth. How does this interaction work? It depends on exactly what your view of the non-physical mind is. I’m wavering between two theories there, and I have some studying to do, but I’ll answer that question according to the hardest one: substance dualism. The other major theory is hylemorphic dualism. The only thing you need to know about that here is that if there’s an answer that works for substance dualism, hylemorphic dualism is easier yet.

    Substance dualism posits that you and I are immaterial persons with immaterial minds inhabiting material bodies, through which we express ourselves in the material world, and interact with the material world and with other persons’ material expressions. It is the idea that we have immaterial souls, or perhaps that our essential selves actually are immaterial souls, living in (I use that somewhat cautiously) material bodies.

    So how does this immaterial stuff make things happen in the material world? We know little, but we know this much:

    1. To assume that no such effect is possible is to beg the question against theism. If we assume that immaterial reality cannot affect material reality, then we assume that God did not create the world. That’s defining God out of existence by mere assumption.

    2. To ask how God does this is to ask something a lot like a non-question. The reason for that is not what you might expect: it’s not about God’s greatness or his mystery (though that does enter in if one wants it to). It’s because we don’t know how to ask how questions that aren’t physical-causal-chain questions (or else rational-reasoning-chain questions, which aren’t in this picture). So “how does God do this?” translates in our minds as, “what was the physical causal chain by which God initiated an act in non-physical reality to produce a physical effect?” The answer would have to be that that’s the wrong question. And we don’t know how to formulate it so it would be a proper question.

    3. So we can’t really conceive of a right way to ask the how question (2); but if we assume therefore that the only is that it can’t be done, then we beg the question against theism (1).

    4. So our best answer is, we don’t know, we can’t know, but in this case that’s not a good reason to assume that it can’t be done, in the case of God.

    5. But if it’s possible, at least for argument’s sake, to entertain the possibility that God can produce a physical effect though God is not himself physical, then it is possible to entertain the possibility that humans can, too.

    6. Further, to assume that humans cannot do it is to beg the question in favor of a just-physical reality; just as making the assumption described in (1) would be question-begging.

    7. Therefore we either (a) assume that physical reality is the only reality, or (b) we take an open-minded view to a reality that is not-just-physical, and explore which conception of reality best explains what we know about ourselves and the world.

    This leaves some unanswered questions, to be sure. But I’d rather have this kind of unanswered question to deal with than (referencing my previous comment), “how do we think about anything at all in a just-physical world?”

  88. oisin says:

    Why is it that our brains cannot make electrical calculations about things?

    What does the brain do?

    People with brain damage whose minds were affected:
    http://listverse.com/2011/05/04/top-10-bizarre-mental-case-studies/
    http://webfusion.net.nz/oliver_sacks_dr.p.html
    http://www.schizophrenia.com/family/sz.overview.htm

    You claim that thinking and reasoning are not possible without a spirit, however that is conjecture. Our brain circuitry thinks about things, and this can be shown in the lab, you are saying that the spirit is what causes/experiences this but that is just like saying that God causes everything in the physical world, an unnecessary layer of complexity when the physical explanation is enough.

    How can things be subconscious? How come you can do things without thinking about them? How can you do things you didn’t intend to do? Physical computation would explain each of these things, you only posit mystery.

  89. Tom Gilson says:

    1. Oisin, I’m sorry, but what’s shown in the lab is that brain circuitry is involved in thinking about things, not that it’s the whole story.

    2. You’re wrong to say it’s conjecture. There’s a world of difference between guesswork and a reasoned position of the sort we’ve been presenting.

    3. I’m not sure what you mean by “God causes everything in the physical world” in your analogy, but I’m willing to bet you haven’t thought it through in terms of primary and secondary causation. If you had, then you wouldn’t have presented this as a problem. Do we need to go into that further, or (since it’s only an analogy) can we relax on that one, and just stipulate that you don’t know what you’re talking about so you’re going to let go of the analogy?

    4. The physical explanation is not enough. We’ve shown that. Your answer to that so far has been to repeat the same thing you said at the beginning. You’re not grappling with the issues we’ve presented, you’re parroting your opening position. Where in here have you shown that the aboutness question is invalid or irrelevant? Where have you shown that neural processes operating by physical necessity can result in a person making rational decisions for reasons?

    5. Your question about the subconscious is underdeveloped at best: yes, you can claim that a physical explanation suffices to explain it. But you haven’t shown how it explains it better than a non-physical one, or why it poses a problem for our position.

    6. I posit mystery. You deny that mystery at the severe pain of being irrational; for you are begging the question against theism, defining God out of existence rather than exploring whether he exists or not.

    7. I posit mystery, but as I said at the end of comment 89, I prefer the mystery I posit over the impossibility that you do.

    oisin, right now my biggest concern with what you’re doing here is at the end of (4). Have you noticed how we have engaged with you: addressing the difficulties of our position that you’ve mentioned, and even (comment 89) some that you haven’t? Have you noticed that you’re ignoring the difficulties of your own position, as we’ve presented it?

    Here’s what you’re doing: you’re saying, repeatedly, that our arguments cannot be correct because “the physical explanation is enough.” When we explain reasons why the physical explanation is not enough, you repeat, “the physical explanation is enough, and besides, you haven’t explained every reason to believe your position.” When we say, “We could explain the reasons for our position”–and provide a link to it, you say, “the physical explanation is enough,” or “God is an unnecessary layer,” which is the same thing in different words.

    Another example: you reference examples of physical brain damage influencing thought and behavior. I acknowledge that, and I provide a way of thinking about it. I even do it in a worst-case scenario, substance dualism. But when I reference examples of physical brain damage having no influence on thought and behavior, you don’t even address it. You just show further examples of that which I’ve already addressed. So what? I’ve already addressed it! What’s your answer to the current question, we want to know; we don’t want you to repeat your last one again.

    Get in the game, friend. Think about these things!

    How do physical brains think about things?

    How do persons make decisions for reasons if our decision-making is fully explained by neuro-electrical-chemical processes operating by natural necessity?

    Don’t try again to say we haven’t addressed your issues until you answer those questions. Don’t say the physical explanation is enough, or that God is an unnecessary layer, until you’ve answered those questions.

  90. Tom Gilson says:

    Note that I just edited that last comment, adding a paragraph or two beginning, “Another example: “

  91. G. Rodrigues says:

    @oisin:

    Our brain circuitry thinks about things, and this can be shown in the lab, you are saying that the spirit is what causes/experiences this but that is just like saying that God causes everything in the physical world, an unnecessary layer of complexity when the physical explanation is enough.

    First, absolutely nothing of the sort you are implying has been shown in the lab; I will repeat with emphasis: *absolutely nothing*. What has been shown is that certain correlations between mental states and physical states obtain. There are two obvious points to be made, so obvious in fact that it is quite embarassing having to make them:

    (1) no dualist of whatever stripe has ever denied that such correlations obtain. None. So pointing out their existence only elicits a shrug of shoulders.

    (2) to repeat: what has been obtained are that certain *correlations* between mental states and physical states obtain. To wit, suppose a test subject is thinking of dogs when men in lab white coats are scanning his brain: what appears in the screen, are *not* little pictures of dogs, but that say, certain regions of the brain light up when the test subject thinks about dogs. By *asking* (or directing), white men in lab coats establish a correlation between certain activity patterns on the brain and the thinking about dogs, but one side of the correlation is only established via direct introspection. Lab men in white coats fundamentally rely on introspection to establish the correlations.

    One more point:

    (3) brains do not think, compute, etc. This is just sloven ignorant talk. It is committing the mereological fallacy of attributing to a proper part, the brain, what is proper only of the whole. It is *persons* that think, not brains. No one has seen a brain thinking and it is in fact an impossibility for if you rip apart a brain from a person you end up with a dead person and a dead brain not a thinking brain.

  92. oisin says:

    Tom, here is a physical explanation of how brains think about things: Our sensory organs take in information about the world around us, this information is stored in the brain. The brain analyses the data, then comes to conclusions about how to behave. The sensory organs detect whether the predictions of the outcomes of behaviour have matched what happened in reality, this information is added into or modifies the previous information and this will produce a new style of behaviour. Repeat ad nauseam. We start off with little-to-no information (depending on what role genetics plays in designing the brain), and with time and brain growth or reasoning becomes more and more complex and nuanced. That is, until the brain machinery begins to break down with age, another phenomenon rendered confusing by the spirit concept.

    The way I see it, your use of the word “reasons” and thinking “about” things is a result of confusion between the objectivity of the objects experienced (philosophical ideas about concepts and abstraction), and the subjective experience of memory formation. Brains are practical, they take in info based on previous experience and relate it all together in an often haphazard way, it is an illusion that we think we somehow see into the objective abstract concept of things, we just create our own based on our past experiences.

    You are asking me to explain every single little detail of how a brain works, and only once every aspect is explained will you consider it rational. I am assuming we can learn everything about brains(=minds), whereas you assume a fundamental mystery.

    Your explanation invariably assumes there is a God that is working to fix all the mysterious parts of your explanation, mine assumes that there are physical processes filling the gaps.

    The difference is I am 100% sure that physical processes exist, but God seems to be nothing more than a word used to explain things we do not understand. Try substituting the word Zeus into one of your explanations everywhere you use the word God, then you will see how baffling and unfounded some of your explanations have seemed to me.

    I can argue about God’s existence until the cows come home, but to me it is enough to say that, if God exists, it should be apparent in the present day whereas I think it’s worthy of note that God talked to people and performed miracles only in the past. Where is God now? Theoretical, hypothetical, mysterious, untouchable, unknowable. Reality is there, hyper-reality just means nothing to me.

  93. oisin says:

    @G. Rodrigues,

    The difference is that we can know that the brain’s physical processes exist, spirits and God are unverifiable. If I renamed them invisi-goo and Zeus, respectively, it would be obvious that the ideas are not based in the real world but in the imaginary.

    Brains are alive, they die, thinking/personhood does not lift off the brain at death , and if it does how do you know that?

  94. G. Rodrigues says:

    @oisin:

    The difference is that we can know that the brain’s physical processes exist, spirits and God are unverifiable.

    Yes, there are differences:

    (1) You did not engage with what I said, but simply regurgitated what I already know you believe.

    (2) You seem to think that verifiability is the sole criterion of truth; if you do, it is yet another sign of your ignorance, as not only it is false, it is demonstrably false and self-refutingly false.

    (3) I mentioned neither spirits nor God, so I am at a loss why you mention them in the first place. It is perfectly possible to say that the physical is not the whole story when it comes to the mind, and thus you are *wrong*, without having a definite positive account to fill the gap (it is not my case, as I favor hylemorphic dualism, but I am not interested in explaining in what it consists of).

    If I renamed them invisi-goo and Zeus, respectively, it would be obvious that the ideas are not based in the real world but in the imaginary.

    So by relabeling “spirit” invisi-goo and “God” Zeus, it is “obvious that the ideas are not based in the real world but in the imaginary”? Maybe you do not realize it, but this is a fallacious argument, and fallacious in a quite obvious way.

  95. oisin says:

    G. Rodrigues,

    You said that just because the brain activity shows a direct correlation to a thought arising in the human mind this does not mean that the brain caused the thought or in any way experienced it.

    You think that the brain is a substance which has form, from the form arises consciousness and life.

    You have no reason to think you are to right, aside from thinking that it is an inherent truth that the physical processes of the brain are not enough to constitute a person. This is not a truth, it is an opinion, one which could be true but there would be no way of knowing if it was.

    Your form of dualism is unverifiable because the idea of forms cannot be checked to seeing it is true or not. Aristotle imagined this explanation through introspection, he did not check to see if the physical world confirmed these ideas, because he could not and we still cannot because it makes no testable predictions. It is the flying spaghetti monster of the mind.

    Making up new explanations for things and imagining things outside reality affecting things in reality is counterproductive because there is no limit to the amount of potential explanations you could come up with. Sticking with reality is the only way to make sure you aren’t just making it all up in your head.

  96. SteveK says:

    Your form of dualism is unverifiable because the idea of forms cannot be checked to seeing it is true or not.

    And 1+1=2 is unverifiable in the same way you are using the term. So what?

    Did you miss the part in 96 where G. Rodriguez said “You seem to think that verifiability is the sole criterion of truth; if you do, it is yet another sign of your ignorance, as not only it is false, it is demonstrably false and self-refutingly false.”

  97. G. Rodrigues says:

    @oisin:

    Once again, you fail to respond to *any* of the points I made, so unless your attitude changes from regurgitating what I already know you believe to actually tackling the points made, consider dialogue over and expect only sniping.

    You said that just because the brain activity shows a direct correlation to a thought arising in the human mind this does not mean that the brain caused the thought or in any way experienced it.

    I never said that. Please pay attention.

    Your form of dualism is unverifiable because the idea of forms cannot be checked to seeing it is true or not.

    I have already answered this, but since you do not care to engage in dialogue I am not going to repeat myself.

    Besides, the reality of form, essence, substance, etc. are metaphysical claims which the modern empirical sciences cannot decide (although here and there, can illuminate), in the same way as the modern empirical sciences cannot decide *any* mathematical claim but instead *presuppose* it, like for example, the following special case of the spectral theorem, a theorem essential to Quantum Mechanics:

    Theorem: Suppose T is a compact self-adjoint operator on a Hilbert space H. There is an orthonormal basis of H consisting of eigenvectors of T. Each eigenvalue is real.

    Aristotle imagined this explanation through introspection, he did not check to see if the physical world confirmed these ideas, because he could not and we still cannot because it makes no testable predictions.

    Please, spare us your ignorance, Ok?

    Making up new explanations for things and imagining things outside reality affecting things in reality is counterproductive because there is no limit to the amount of potential explanations you could come up with.

    First, there is *no* limit to the amount of potential *scientific* models one can give for most natural phenomena. You want a proof?

    Second, there are many things that scientists posit as explanations for natural phenomena of which there is no *direct* observational evidence. Many.

    Third, and just to show that things are slightly more complicated than your simpleton ignorance leads on, scientific theories are accompanied with all sorts of posited beings of reason that have *no* extra-mental existence and yet are fundamental to the theory. Flying Spaghetti Monsters notwithstanding, physical theories do not dictate or drive ontology (though they can illuminate it, sure enough), rather they are evaluated on operational, predictive grounds, which is a whole different kettle of fish.

  98. Tom Gilson says:

    Further:

    Sticking with reality is the only way to make sure you aren’t just making it all up in your head.

    oisin, on your view it would be your head making it all up in you.

    Not just cute: also pointing out that your idea that “brains are persons” (see above) doesn’t compute alongside your idea that “you” could “make it all up in your head.”

    Look, oisin, if your view is correct, then physical machinery does make everything up in our heads. It makes up our view of God. It makes up your view of no-God. It’s all in our heads.

    But if the brain is a person, then we can’t make things up in our heads, we just are the stuff in our heads. Our eyes, hands, mouths, faces: they’re not parts of persons. The person is all inside the skull. Or maybe down the neck and spine a ways, too, if you like to include more of the CNS.

    Do you really think that? Really?

  99. oisin says:

    Rodrigues, you did not try to help me understand, you tried to make me look stupid. Rather than explaining the nature of reality you attacked me.

    Your points have simply not been clear, I am not stupid. I don’t understand why you would say someone was wrong and not tell them the right answer, I assumed (wrongly) that you were trying to inform me about how the world works, which is why I misread your comments.

    Tom, I think that religious people are indoctrinated from childhood, they are taught by the people they trust the most to believe things when they are too young to understand enough to disagree. Pre-scientific beliefs have persisted due to many different factors, most prominently: fear of hell, social pressure and faith.

    Now, once indoctrinated, the prospect of cognitive dissonance causes the believers to seek confirmation for the ideas they have been indoctrinated with, as science progressed and answered more and more questions these sources of confirmation began to diverge further and further from reality e.g. the isolated religious communities preaching nonsense like biblical creationism.

    Here philosophy and metaphysics are one of the last bastions of theism, where God cannot be touched because he is metaphysical, not physical. To you guys, reality is not enough and you need more, more meaning, more value, more everything, so you retreat into the works of men hundreds, thousands of years dead, to explore the minds of people who confirm the lies you have been taught and reaffirm the artificial joys of the imaginary world conjured by charlatans, intelligent people previously indoctrinated and those who did not have the tools or knowledge at the time to know better.

    I may not change your minds here, but please, please mark the moment you read this, and try to find any aspect of your thinking that may not fit the observable world. Notice the moments when you are baffled by something, remember the times when you expect one thing to happen and the complete opposite happens, do your best to doubt that terrible emptiness, the existential dread that sometimes appears that takes all your will to ignore or dispel or quash.

    Thank you for your time everyone, and thank you Tom for your help in clarifying my thinking, you have been fantastic. I am Oisin, (pronounced Usheen), I am 19 years old and I will be starting a 1st year college course this September.

    I wish you all the very best, and I hope you find whatever you are looking for in life as I know your values are probably a lot more like mine than most atheists’. Goodbye!

  100. SteveK says:

    I am 19 years old and I will be starting a 1st year college course this September.

    Enjoy college, oisin. You’re young, you’re smart… and you have a LOT to learn.

    Did you take 2 minutes to think through what Tom said in 100? You didn’t address any of it in 101. You went off in a different direction so it’s difficult to know for sure.

    If you read 100 and weren’t brought to your knees in utter defeat (figuratively, of course) regarding your theory about the brain then my suggestion is that you FIRST take those “last bastion” type classes that you mentioned while you are in college.

  101. G. Rodrigues says:

    @oisin:

    Rodrigues, you did not try to help me understand, you tried to make me look stupid. Rather than explaining the nature of reality you attacked me.

    This is false; I did not “tried to make [you] look stupid”. I pointed out two things:

    (1) You did not respond to a single one of my points. Complaining that I was not clear is unfair, because you never asked for any clarification.

    (2) I pointed out that several of your statements betray ignorance.

    Pax Vobiscum.

  102. SteveK says:

    When oisin gets similar responses from his college professors, I hope he can muster up a little more humility. 🙂

  103. Holopupenko says:

    Oisin stupid? No, at least not in the general context of the human capacity for reason.

    But he is SO indoctrinated in his atheism, so arrogant in his several weeks of philosophy, so ignorant in the many examples pointed out above (including not being able to provide proper definitions), so closed-minded in his lecturing older and more experienced folks… that his capacity for reason is reduced to self-congratulatory “simple” sound bites of subjective personal opinion.

    What is scary to me, as a university professor, is that already at only 19 years old he’s calcified/fossilized in his view of the world. He’ll be going into the university looking for confirmation of his personal opinions, not for truth.

    Pax vobiscum?!? No way! Peace is the last thing oisin needs. Rather I wish–I pray–not peace but real challenges that induce mental anguish: oisin needs to be rattled out if his own small-minded cage. Only then might he see there is only One who brings true peace.

    Unless oisin permits Aslan to breathe upon his petrified stony self, unless he’s woken from his arrogant sleep, oisin’s university experience, apart from any operational benefits it might bestow, will be a waste of time, effort, and resources. oisin is walking into the university betraying the very thing a university is–or should be–about.

  104. Tom Gilson says:

    oisin, your sociological analysis of religious belief is disconnected from empirical reality. In other words, you’re guessing. You’re stereotyping. And for a large number of cases you’re wrong.

    Mark this moment: this is a great time to embrace the cognitive dissonance of adult converts to Christianity. I worked with one you may have heard of, if you are an American: Chuck Colson, one of the chief political villains of the latter 20th century, who came to Christ while awaiting a prison term. I still work occasionally with another: Josh McDowell, who rejected Christianity until he found it was based in truth, and became my generation’s most prominent apologist. Read Cold-Case Christianity to meet another. My friend Nabeel Qureshi is another, a Muslim who turned to faith in Christ. Look at the massive growth of Christianity around the world (read Philip Jenkins): many of these are people who came to Christ when not only their family but their culture was new to Christianity.

    You have a disturbing self-confidence in your knowledge of what is not factual.

    And why would I mark this moment as a time to embrace differences between my views and the world around me? Do you think I’m isolated? I’ve been running this blog for years, interacting with atheists and skeptics. Four of the list nine books I’ve reviewed were by unbelievers. I edited a volume in advance of the Reason Rally to lay out a confrontation of ideas. I attended the Reason Rally. I seek out my atheist friends for coffee whenever I can.

    I applaud you for spending time at a Christian website. I see you shielding yourself from dissonance, though, by failing to truly engage the ideas you’re facing. You see, cognitive dissonance is not mere spookiness. It has objective facets. One objective way to identify it is when an individual faced with a dissonance-producing circumstance resorts to repeating what he has always thought to be true, regardless of the information he is facing, and without grappling with it on the level of reasons why he should or should not change his thinking.

    oisin, I have my irrationalities; just ask my wife and kids. They know me on many more levels than I can express here. But what you have observed in me here on this blog is not the manifestation of cognitive dissonance shielding.

    So therefore one more word to produce some severe dissonance in you, which I hope will induce you to re-think who you really are: your charge of cognitive dissonance here, based on no evidence, is nothing but stereotyping. We used to say that stereotyping was of the essence of bigotry. Is it still true? Look inside yourself and see.

    And so as you enter college I wish you this blessing: I wish for you many great friends of all kinds. I wish for you much learning. I wish for you the paradoxical pain of facing what you have not been willing to face here, finding out you are not who you have thought you were, and finally discovering that you can be so much more as you enter into life in relationship with the God who made you.

    That is my wish; it is my prayer for you. Blessings.

  105. Ray Ingles says:

    A little time to address a few other points. E.g.:

    Atheism entails that the universe is impersonal and amoral.

    The universe could be developing towards personhood. Could already have made it. (Two different takes on that here and here.)

    Atheism entails that the end of physical life is the end of personal existence… Atheism entails that all human experience is neuronal/electrical/chemical;

    There are atheist mysterians, who contend that, while there is no God, consciousness is so strange we can’t understand it. Many of them would hesitate to claim that consciousness can’t survive the death of the body.

    Atheism entails that there is no ultimate good

    One could be a Platonist atheist, holding the Realm of Forms exists but contains no consciousness.

    Atheism entails that every religion is wrong.

    Partly wrong, sure. But even geocentrism was right about a lot of astronomical phenomena, even if for the wrong reasons.

    Atheism entails that the universe will one day be empty.

    Diaspora by Greg Egan and Eon by Greg Bear.

    Atheism entails that humans and animals and plants and bacteria and rats and pigs and dogs and boys (google the last four) are ontologically the same thing.

    Literature entails that Moby Dick and 50 Shades of Grey are ontologically the same thing.

    Atheism entails the belief that “I do not need God in order to live my life.”

    Well, the atheists who are living their lives clearly believe that, but that’s only trivially true.

  1. August 14, 2013

    […] I updated and republished this material on August 14, […]

  2. August 14, 2013

    […] still trying to get a handle on what atheism is. My last post on it did not meet with much approval from the couple of atheist commenters who had something to […]