Five challenges for the atheist

In the conversation between the atheist and theist, there seem to be a communication breakdown of some sort. I would’t want to be in the christian’s shoes, who feels she must be on the defensive, to defend a belief fostered by several years of indoctrination with little or no thought. It is at such times am glad that I became free. Why am I boring you with such verbiage? Some theist blogger feels the time has come to put the atheist on the defensive and has a list of questions/ challenges meant to do just that. When I stated, in the beginning, about one side not doing it’s work, I meant the theist. From where I sit, it appears to me, they do very little, if any, reading and whatever they read must be what bolsters faith but not what challenges it and this will be evident in the post we are going to spend some time on today.

The author’s opening salvo is outlandish and unsubstantiated. He writes

[..]Though it has been persistently marketed to us as a worldview that stands for reason and science, the truth is that the atheistic worldview is riddled with contradictions and outlandish claims.

I hope these claims will be made known to us in a moment.

And because most secular people haven’t studied why atheism is true, an excellent evangelistic strategy for you and your church is to understand these five challenges for atheism.

Isn’t this just awesome! Think about it. You are an atheist and you haven’t studied why it is true. There could be such atheists, that am not denying, but this is not true of the many atheists I have interacted with both online and face to face. Perhaps this author would have cared to name just a few. But lets forget all that. Let us be intrigued by the five challenges to atheism.

He tells his Christians the first matter is to settle definitions, and yours truly agrees. But it is here where he fails. Atheism is lack of belief in god[s] or stated differently a lack of belief in the existence of gods. Nothing more, nothing less. Naturalism is a philosophical position about the world. Therefore in quoting Richard Dawkins et al as having said about their shared viewpoint as:

The view that there is only one realm of existence, the natural world, whose behavior can be studied through reason and empirical investigation. The basic operating principles of the natural world appear to be impersonal and inviolable; microscopic constituents of inanimate matter obeying the laws of physics fit together in complex structures to form intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings

betrays the author’s ignorance of what atheism is. It would not be asking too much that a person looks up the meaning of atheism in a dictionary or a philosophy paper.

The problem statement

The atheist, as defined above, must deal with a logical inconsistency between their commitment to the “impersonal and inviolable” laws of the universe and their inevitable recognition that there exists “intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings.”

Granting that most atheist may ascribe to naturalism, let us see what are the unique five areas where the author thinks he has us at a corner. He identifies the following areas;

  • Consciousness
  • Free will
  • Purpose
  • Reason, including mathematics and science
  • Objective moral facts, including universal human rights and the reality of evil

The problem of consciousness, if we can call it that, has been divided into two: the easy question and the hard question.

The easy problem is

to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.

and the hard problem

is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head–why there is first-person, subjective experience.

It is however not clear to me how it is a problem for naturalism. The naturalist says that he believes that Nature is capable of producing sentient beings. Providing a supernatural answer every moment we are unable to provide a naturalistic one is a lazy way to explain reality.

The theist says we have freewill because his priest has told him so. The naturalist says, as far as we can tell, we observe for every effect a cause. Man being part of nature doesn’t seem exempt from the cause-effect continuum. How then is this a problem for the naturalist? Where is there a contradiction? I have written in several places that I believe free will is an illusion and as such many of the reasons, if not all, given for punishment should be looked at afresh with a view of changing our justice systems. A person can be an atheist and believe there is free will. This has nothing, or if it has, very little, to the question that atheism answers to.

The next challenge on purpose is framed thus

Can your secular friends consistently live within such a meaningless framework?

and why wouldn’t they? I plead guilty to the charge of nihilism. At the same time, I believe to live, as Camus says in the Rebel is to rebel against this meaninglessness. It is to find meaning in a meaningless existence, in short, to find meaning in an absurd world. Maybe am blinded by my position, but how is this position outlandish and/or contradictory?

Reason, including mathematics and science

The author first quotes C.S Lewis [someone please tell me if I should waste valuable time reading this guy?] on mind

If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.[bold mine]

Now, the operative word here is he couldn’t understand, and there is nothing wrong with that. To assert there is a problem because one christian apologist couldn’t understand something is to be ridiculous and to make a joke of our collective efforts in understanding reality and ourselves as part of that reality.

Questions such as

 Further, normative rules govern the reasoning process: 2+2 does not equal elephant. Where do these rules come from? And why do they apply to our brains?

are absurd. The rules, if we can call them that, are things we have extracted from nature by studying her. Every time we have added 2+2 we have got 4. There is no space for the supernatural. To understand nature, one must study her and you can’t do this if every instance you encounter a difficulty, you resort to saying the supernatural did it. No. That has not worked for the entire period the priest was in charge of education and it is not going to work if we allow the priest to sit at the head of education panels. Only those who look to nature, who try to unravel her mysterious can understand her. And these people, my friends include several unnamed people currently living and dead who spent time studying nature.

Objective moral facts, including universal human rights and the reality of evil

We are presented with a problem

In Uganda, Joseph Kony requires his child soldiers to kill escaping child soldiers by biting them to death. Think about it. What horror! Are there any moral facts which we can be right and wrong about, or is this just a difference of opinion? Is same-sex marriage a moral imperative or a completely arbitrary convention, no better and no worse than any other laws?

and then a question

Ask your friend: do you have more evidence that atheism is true or that raping children is wrong? Be sure you ask them to defend their answer with clear and convincing reasons.

As I have said before,, if one needs a god to be moral, this person is a danger to himself and the society in which he is a member. Who in his right frame of mind would not be disgusted and disturbed at the thought of children being asked to kill their agemates by biting them? Seriously tell me, do you need a god to find this thought revolting? Haven’t we developed some level of empathy and sense of good to find such demands abhorrent? Christians shock me, but these follow shocks me the most.

The reasons why atheism is true is has nothing to do with raping children. If that were the measure, then we would simply say Catholicism is true because of pedophilia. It is a case of a weak mind to compare these two things.

The question of what is good or bad, isn’t as easy as the theist thinks he will dispense with by calling on gods. When the theist talks about objective moral values, I would be interested in hearing what he thinks these are and why naturalism cannot arrive at the same conclusion, if at all, such things as objective moral values exist.

From a naturalist point of view, we describe as evil anything that is not amenable to us. The existence or reality of evil is not a problem to the atheist and is in no way contradictory to naturalism. The theist who argues that a benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient god exist has the difficulty of explaining away evil.

On human rights, the atheist and naturalist say we share a common humanity. We shouldn’t be inhumane in our dealings with each other. We should be kind to one another. How naturalism contradicts universal human rights has not been justified just as the above challenges have only been asserted without demonstration.

He at the end asks

So Wait: Why Is Atheism True?

Well, because there are no gods. All the other questions he asked after this question are irrelevant to atheism.

Then he assures his readers

If nothing else, you should have a very interesting conversation! Based on seven years of ministry experience at Harvard, I can assure you that our God can use these five challenges to lead many of our secular friends away from the contradictions of atheism and into the coherence, truth, and love of Jesus.

In response to which I say, those have been 7 wasted years. If in 7 years of fraud, you still cannot tell what atheism is, then what have you been telling those who listen to you. My advice to any theist who intends to use these challenges, is don’t use them. They are not challenges. They will take you nowhere. The same questions could be asked of you and I am in doubt whether you will give an answer beyond god-did-it which would require an explanation. And while at it, the atheist will ask you to describe what you mean by god, what evidence you have of such a thing existing and you will be asked to provide the evidence you have for your Jesus. Am not sure you will like how the conversation will end. Am not saying this as a threat, rather as an encouragement to the theist to think deeply about his faith, then about this questions and what answer or response he can come up with.

In the end, I think, this author has failed in his attempt to provide challenges to naturalism or atheism for that matter.

I end my case :-]

on free will and other questions

Folks, those of you who have followed this blog know yours truly does hold the view that we don’t have free will. I have written quite a number of posts that can be found here, here, here, here and here that try to espouse my thinking on the idea or opinions by other philosophers of old on the same question. At the same time, those who have followed the discussion know of my friend whom whereas we agree on many issues, we don’t seem to find common ground on this question.

He recently did a post where again this question was raised and in which he introduces a new dimension to the conversation. First he offers a definition of consciousness and stages of consciousness that I would like to borrow, especially since I have not read much about it, but which I think is appropriate for our use. He writes,

Firstly, consciousness can be defined as the waking state. This essentially means that to be conscious, one needs to be awake, aroused, alert or vigilant. The stages of consciousness can range from wakefulness, to sleep to coma even. Secondly, consciousness is defined as experience, a far more subjective approach. This notion suggests that consciousness is the content of experience from one moment to another. Consciousness is highly personal, involving a conscious subject with a limited point of view. Thirdly, consciousness can be defined as the mind. Any mental state with a propositional content is considered conscious. Thus this includes beliefs, fears, hopes, intentions, expectations and desires.

We can agree that these definitions, for lack of a better word, represent the stages of consciousness but doesn’t necessarily tell us what consciousness is nor does it add to the knowledge of what the essence of ‘I’ as a being that thinks is.

I want to introduce a third position to this very interesting and ongoing debate. The third is the position, that I believe, Hume, the great skeptic would have offered, that we can’t know whether we have free will or not and should suspend judgement. The reason for this being that we are trying to answer a question about us as an object in itself, a cognition we are not capable of making. Whereas, this answer is not satisfactory to many, I think it is one that need some thought. In advocating skepticism, I shall in the meantime, maintain, not dogmatically, but from reason that we don’t have free will since as things in nature, we are not exempt from the cause – effect continuum.

I have been, in the past 2 or so weeks been reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and he writes that the following four questions are at the apex of all cosmical questions that human reason aspires to find answers but that it can at least as far as we can tell, we can’t have the correct answer. The questions are

  1. does the universe have a beginning and a limit to its extension in space
  2. do we have a soul
  3. are we free agents
  4. is there a supreme being

What are your answers to these questions and can you justify your answers. Are there any other questions that you think I[he] left out and which are these questions?

On mind

Perhaps the greatest faculty our minds possess is the ability to cope with pain. Classic thinking teaches us of the four doors of the mind, which everyone moves through according to their need.

First is the door of sleep. Sleep offers us a retreat from the world and all its pain. Sleep marks passing time, giving us distance from the things that have hurt us. When a person is wounded they will often fall unconscious. Similarly, someone who hears traumatic news will often swoon or faint. This is the mind’s way of protecting itself from pain by stepping through the first door.

Second is the door of forgetting. Some wounds are too deep to heal, or too deep to heal quickly. In addition, many memories are simply painful, and there is no healing to be done. The saying ‘time heals all wounds’ is false. Time heals most wounds. The rest are hidden behind this door.

Third is the door of madness. There are times when the mind is dealt such a blow it hides itself in insanity. While this may not seem beneficial, it is. There are times when reality is nothing but pain, and to escape that pain the mind must leave reality behind.

Last is the door of death. The final resort. Nothing can hurt us after we are dead, or so we have been told.

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Free will is an idle fancy

I have in the past argued against free will and I continue to maintain that we don’t have an iota of free will. Since I can’t say it better than this, let me share with you the words of our priest friend, Jean Meslier on free will. If there are any objections, please I would want so much to consider them and where I can I will respond or suggest farther reading of different texts I have looked at where this matter is discussed.

Theologians tell and repeat to us that man is free, while all their teachings conspire to destroy his liberty. Trying to justify Divinity, they accuse him really of the blackest injustice. They suppose that, without grace, man is compelled to do evil: and they maintain that God will punish him for not having been given the grace to do good! With a little reflection, we will be obliged to see that man in all things acts by compulsion, and that his free will is a chimera, even according to the theological system. Does it depend upon man whether or not he shall be born of such or such parents? Does it depend upon man to accept or not to accept the opinions of his parents and of his teachers? If I were born of idolatrous or Mohammedan parents, would it have depended upon me to become a Christian? However, grave Doctors of Divinity assure us that a just God will damn without mercy all those to whom He has not given the grace to know the religion of the Christians.

Man’s birth does not depend upon his choice; he was not asked if he would or would not come into the world; nature did not consult him upon the country and the parents that she gave him; the ideas he acquired, his opinions, his true or false notions are the necessary fruits of the education which he has received, and of which he has not been the master; his passions and his desires are the necessary results of the temperament which nature has given him, and of the ideas with which he has been inspired; during the whole course of his life, his wishes and his actions are determined by his surroundings, his habits, his occupations, his pleasures, his conversations, and by the thoughts which present themselves involuntarily to him; in short, by a multitude of events and accidents which are beyond his control. Incapable of foreseeing the future, he knows neither what he will wish, nor what he will do in the time which must immediately follow the present. Man passes his life, from the moment of his birth to that of his death, without having been free one instant. Man, you say, wishes, deliberates, chooses, determines; hence you conclude that his actions are free. It is true that man intends, but he is not master of his will or of his desires. He can desire and wish only what he judges advantageous for himself; he can not love pain nor detest pleasure. Man, it will be said, sometimes prefers pain to pleasure; but then, he prefers a passing pain in the hope of procuring a greater and more durable pleasure. In this case, the idea of a greater good determines him to deprive himself of one less desirable.

It is not the lover who gives to his mistress the features by which he is enchanted; he is not then the master to love or not to love the object of his tenderness; he is not the master of the imagination or the temperament which dominates him; from which it follows, evidently, that man is not the master of the wishes and desires which rise in his soul, independently of him. But man, say you, can resist his desires; then he is free. Man resists his desires when the motives which turn him from an object are stronger than those which draw him toward it; but then, his resistance is necessary. A man who fears dishonor and punishment more than he loves money, resists necessarily the desire to take possession of another’s money. Are we not free when we deliberate?–but has one the power to know or not to know, to be uncertain or to be assured? Deliberation is the necessary effect of the uncertainty in which we find ourselves with reference to the results of our actions. As soon as we believe ourselves certain of these results, we necessarily decide; and then we act necessarily according as we shall have judged right or wrong. Our judgments, true or false, are not free; they are necessarily determined by ideas which we have received, or which our mind has formed. Man is not free in his choice; he is evidently compelled to choose what he judges the most useful or the most agreeable for himself. When he suspends his choice, he is not more free; he is forced to suspend it till he knows or believes he knows the qualities of the objects presented to him, or until he has weighed the consequence of his actions. Man, you will say, decides every moment on actions which he knows will endanger him; man kills himself sometimes, then he is free. I deny it! Has man the ability to reason correctly or incorrectly? Do not his reason and his wisdom depend either upon opinions that he has formed, or upon his mental constitution? As neither the one nor the other depends upon his will, they can not in any wise prove his liberty.

If I make the wager to do or not to do a thing, am I not free? Does it not depend upon me to do or not to do it? No; I will answer you, the desire to win the wager will necessarily determine you to do or not to do the thing in question. “But if I consent to lose the wager?” Then the desire to prove to me that you are free will have become to you a stronger motive than the desire to win the wager; and this motive will necessarily have determined you to do or not to do what was understood between us. But you will say, “I feel myself free.” It is an illusion which may be compared to that of the fly in the fable, which, lighting on the shaft of a heavy wagon, applauded itself as driver of the vehicle which carried it. Man who believes himself free, is a fly who believes himself the master-motor in the machine of the universe, while he himself, without his own volition, is carried on by it. The feeling which makes us believe that we are free to do or not to do a thing, is but a pure illusion. When we come to the veritable principle of our actions, we will find that they are nothing but the necessary results of our wills and of our desires, which are never within our power. You believe yourselves free because you do as you choose; but are you really free to will or not to will, to desire or not to desire? Your wills and your desires, are they not necessarily excited by objects or by qualities which do not depend upon you at all?