I’m an atheist, and this raises lots of questions that perhaps religious people do not have to answer. First, the implications. I have to believe in a life of thoughts and feelings and emotions and purposeful action, because of course I experience it. But if I do not believe that there is a supernatural force that acts on nature, I have to believe that matter gives rise somehow to my mental life. However, in a sense its more ethereal than matter – the current understanding of the mind is that it is pure mathematics – individual neurons do simple math but they are interwoven to create patterns of complex math, evolving over time – and those patterns somehow create our thoughts, feelings, etc. That is a very strange belief, if you think about it – almost a spiritual science.
I have to believe that my life’s trajectory is determined, more than I would like. In a sense we would all agree on this. If you put yourself in a situation where you could rescue a drowning friend by throwing a life-preserver, you would no doubt throw the life-preserver. Your do this because of who you are, and who you are is a product of life-experiences, and genetics. You don’t say “I’m going to exert some free will now, and not rescue my friend.”
Or think of a past situation you were in, where you gave in to some temptation. You may reprimand yourself that you should have exerted more free will. But now, no amount of free will can change what happened in the past. The past is determined.
You are the product of a chain of causality. If your parents had not made the choices that brought them to the same city where they met, or if past migrations, continental upheavals, etc. had not happened, you would not be here.
So if we are determined, then how do we define evil? If our minds come from our brains, and our brain circuitry is out of our control, then is anyone responsible for anything – no matter how courageous, no matter how innovative, no matter how good or evil, that the person is?
One problem that religious have to deal with is the cruelty, sometimes the terrible cruelty, of life and of some men toward other men. I remember reading of two American soldiers in Iraq who were captured, tortured, and killed. I thought – here are two men who did not have to be there, and went to defend the U.S., and Democracy, etc, and this is the price they paid for being better men than I will ever be.
But if you are not religious, then it is no surprise that the most evil fates can befall men and women. We are all going to die, and some of us are going to suffer in the process. Recently I read about villages of people demolished in a mudslide in Latin America, or 40 people burned to death in a fire. or a bunch of migrants killed by gang members in Mexico because they did not want to join a criminal gang. Were they good people? Yes. God did not protect them, because God does not exist.
Then we have to ask ourselves – what basis for morality is there, if God did not give us morality? If people are just matter, then are not people expendable? Nature certainly treats us as expendable.
I think the answer that you basically do have to take a morality on faith. You have to have some axioms on which to build the edifice of morality. Or a principle – such as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” or “keeping the world in ecological balance” or whatever.
But in a world without God, there is no guarantee that truth will prevail. There is no guarantee that man will not plunge into a dark ages where free thought is a faint memory. There is no guarantee that good will win. Think of the mass murders in China and Russia, where tens of millions of the best and the most independent types were murdered. Did the good guys win there?
Religion can be cruel to its believers. I remember reading of a survivor of a concentration camp who said one reason he was an atheist was that he saw religious Jews pray in the camp – “and still they died”. Imagine being religious and thinking that what happens to you in such a camp is a punishment for your sins, or that God is not listening to you because you did something wrong?
Now believers do have some interesting arguments. They ask for instance “Why is there something, rather than nothing.” Why should we exist at all? Or if the universe is not eternal, then what cause started the universe? What existed, separate and apart from the universe, that created it?
And if you truly respect and like someone, its hard to believe that they are just dust, and to dust they will return.
I have no answers. But the belief in a purpose and intelligence outside of nature has a lot of problems as well. And if we do not believe in this purpose and creative source outside of nature, then our understanding of evil may have to differ from the religious understanding. If man is not connected to some source of divine knowledge then it is not so surprising that men live their lives believing in all sorts of illusions, and will kill for those illusions, and that men differ radically based not only on their environments, but on the makeup of their temperaments. The temperaments could be biologically based – in other words, the emotional parts of the brain could be wired differently. Of course there is no proof of that at present.
One interesting book that contradicts some of what I say above is by a cognitive scientist named Michael Gazzaniga. His book Who’s In Charge says that physics (both quantum theory and chaos theory) indicates that the universe is not determined. I’m not sure that he’s right about quantum theory or chaos theory – chaos just means that you really have to know the exact initial conditions to perfect accuracy, and then you can determine what happens, and I just read that quantum theory does unfold in a determined way, until you observe it. (Stephen Wolfram, another scientist, shows that simple cellular automata that are determined are still not predictable and he thinks that this fact has bearing on ‘free will’). Gazzaniga also says that the mind is a level of description, just as a lower level of neurons is, and that the mind is just as valid (if not more so) as a causal agent. I may be mis-understanding his book a little here, but I think that is what he is saying. David Deutsch, in his book The Beginning of Infinity also makes the point that reductionist arguments aren’t always the best way to look at things. For instance, physicists have created small areas on earth that are colder than anything in the rest of the universe. Would we explain this phenomenon on the atomic or subatomic level? Or would we explain it with minds and purpose?
In fact, Deutsch believes that the human mind is basically capable of explaining anything for which there is an explanation. Philosopher Daniel Dennett says you can both be determined, and have free will. If he read this post, he would think I am confusing two different concepts.
Professor Gerald Shroeder, who does believe in God, has collected a number of quotes by scientists about the constants of the universe – how even a tiny change in any of them would rule out life. A counterargument has been made that any puddle of water could be amazed at how well it fits the jagged shape around it, but I think this is a poor argument for the following reasons. First of all, some of the constants are really on a knife edge – a slight change means no life, or even no universe. Of course, if we exist, then the probability of those constants being correct is 100 percent, but why should we exist? Physicists sometimes posit an infinite number of universes, and suppose that the huge variety would mean that at least one of them would have the correct constants to produce us. But the concept of infinity means that there would be a subset of these universes, also infinite that are exact clones of our own. The concept of infinity applied to any physical object seems far out to me.
But so much of the limits of science are against intuition, for instance, one respected Physics model says that “beginnings are entities that have to do with time; because time did not exist before the Big Bang, the concept of a beginning of the Universe is meaningless.”
So it could be argued, that while a creator of the universe is against the intuition that all things must obey physical laws, and any entity with purpose and thought must be made of matter, so much of science itself is against intuition that we can’t reject the creator on that basis.
I surprisingly find myself agreeing with religious people often on political issues, and sometimes on social issues, but to agree with them on God, I need a bridge, not a leap of faith.
(for explanation of the demonstration photo see: http://www.andrewbostom.org/blog/2013/04/08/violence-and-mainstream-islam/).