Ten Answers from an Austro-Athenian

Scott Pruett has written 10 Questions for the Atheist, and François Tremblay has answered with the first half of 10 Answers from an Atheist (with more to follow).

Darwin as JehovahPruett seems to equate atheism with materialism (“Atheism,” Pruett tells us, “by definition, holds that there is no God and nothing beyond this world of matter, space, time, and energy”!) and theism with creationism, which is a mistake: Chrysippus and Hobbes, arguably, were materialists but not atheists; most Buddhists are atheists but not materialists; Aristotle and the early Spencer were theists but not creationists; and people who think life on earth was designed by aliens are creationists (or intelligent design theorists, anyway) but need not be theists. (Brother Cavil knows he’s the product of intelligent design, but he’s no theist.) But this error on Pruett’s part doesn’t really affect François’s reply, since he is a materialist as well as an atheist.

Since I, on the other hand, am neither a creationist nor a materialist, and since I moreover think that theism and atheism come to the same thing, I’m not really on either side of this dispute; so let me say something about how Pruett’s questions look from my own perspective. My answers are often similar to François’s, but not always. (I’ve shortened Pruett’s questions somewhat, but you can read the full original at the above link.)

1. [W]hat explanation is given to the questions, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and “Where did it all come from?”

I regard these questions as incoherent. It makes no sense to ask for an explanation of the whole of existence – whether that whole includes a God or not. Any attempt to explain existence has to appeal either to something in existence or something not in existence. If it appeals to something that’s already in existence (be it God, quarks, or whatever you like), then you’re not explaining all of existence; and if it appeals to something not in existence, then you’ve offered no explanation at all. The concept of explanation applies only within the realm of existence; that’s why both theists and atheists agree that chains of explanation stop with something whose existence has (and needs) no explanation beyond itself – whether it’s God or energy.

Likewise, if there was a Big Bang, and if it was the first event (i.e., no previous universe perishing in a Big Crunch), then that event has no explanation over and above the natures of the entities involved in the event (again, be they gods or quarks or steam calliopes) – and the existence of those entities has no explanation and needs none.

Incidentally, when François in his answer to this question says that matter “has always existed,” I’m not sure whether he means that matter has an infinite past (in which case I disagree with him – and with Aristotle too) or merely that matter has existed throughout all past time (in which case I agree, since that can be true even if the past is finite).

2. How is it that we live in such an exquisitely fine-tuned universe? Even assuming that the universe could have popped out of nothingness, why should it have been such an orderly and hospitable one?

First, “popped out of nothingness” is a tendentious way to describe the option of Big Bang minus God. If time began with the first event, then there never was a time when nothing existed, and so there was never any nothingness to pop out of. The existence of the universe – be its past finite or infinite – is explanatorily basic.

As for the claim that the universe is “fine-tuned” to support life, this claim presupposes that physical laws other than the present ones are possible. But as an Aristotelean, I reject any form of possibility other than “compatibility with the nature of the actual world.” Just as explanations make sense only within the realm of existence, so the distinction between possible and impossible does so too. Thus I essentially agree with Fraçois’s answer: “Just because we can imagine the gravitational constant being, not 6.674×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, but rather 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2, does not mean that it can actually be 6.252×10^-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2. Just because we can write it down and make calculations based on it doesn’t mean it’s actually possible.”

3. The problem of abiogenesis (the origin of the first lifeform) is one of the thorniest and most intractable issues in chemistry. … What hope for an explanation do you have?

Scientists are constantly discovering new forms of spontaneous order, and I fully expect that trend to continue. Before Newton, it was widely believed that ongoing angelic intervention was needed to hold the planets in their orbits. Newton then proved that gravity and inertia could keep them there without the need for such intervention – but even he believed that some sort of divine intervention was needed to get the planets into the right initial positions. But Kant and Laplace then developed the “nebular” model to show how that too could occur via spontaneous order.

Hume explained how biologically fit species, once they arose, could spread and persist via natural selection; but he couldn’t explain the initial emergence of such a species except via its bursting full-blown on the scene randomly after infinitely many throws of the dice in infinite time. Darwin then improved on Hume’s all-or-nothing conception of fitness by introducing the notion of comparative degrees of fitness, thus drastically reducing the role of randomness in evolutionary theory.

Contrary to the view that all social order derives from wise rulers, the eighteenth-century economists showed that social order naturally arises and persists via the invisible hand of the market; but they generally thought that a consciously designed background framework of legal institutions, as well as a state-sponsored medium of exchange, were needed to secure the peaceful enjoyment of property rights necessary for the market to work. But then the nineteenth- and twentieth-century economists showed how even money and legal frameworks can, and historically have, emerged and persisted via spontaneous-order mechanisms too.

Many early thinkers thought that language had to be a divine creation (you can’t have complex thought without language, and you can’t have language without complex thought, so there was a chicken-and-egg problem, solved by postulating the simultaneous full-blown creation of both together); but modern linguists have explained how the two can arise gradually in tandem.

Given this track record, I see little reason to worry about abiogenesis; and, like Leibniz, I wonder why creationists think God is such a poor craftsman that he constantly has to keep fiddling with his handiwork to make it function properly rather than just setting it up right in the first place.

With regard to some of the more specific problems that Pruett raises (and that I didn’t quote), I recommend François’s detailed answers.

4. Logic and mathematics are abstract principles that have been discovered rather than invented. … What is the source of math and logic? … The existence of this remarkably fine-tuned universe aside, how is it that we have these “languages of reality” to so elegantly describe and interact with it?

Here I think I disagree with François’s answer, which is that math and logic “stem from our observations of reality.” I agree rather with Kant’s observation that “though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all knowledge arises out of experience.” Math and logic, in other words, are a priori, and not the product of observation.

I’m not sure whether Pruett is asking how the universe came to be governed by logical and mathematical principles or how we came to think in logical and mathematical terms (maybe both); but either question is again illegitimate, as I see it. To ask why the universe is logical and mathematical is to suppose that it could conceivably have been illogical and unmathematical; but such a supposition is incoherent and senseless. Likewise, to ask why our minds are logical and mathematical is again to suppose that there could be something that would count as a mind while being illogical and unmathematical, and that too is incoherent and senseless. (For elaboration on this point, see my article Anti-Psychologism in Economics: Wittgenstein and Mises, especially section 6.) It makes no sense to demand an explanation for why something is so when no alternative to its being so is conceivable; it’s like asking “Why not glarvel babu snoorp?” – you haven’t succeeded in asking an actual question or specifying the scenario whose non-occurrence you want explained.

5. With no divine author or judge there is no reason to think that there should be any moral laws that we are obliged to recognize and keep, except for self-serving reasons. … [H]ow do you ground morality; how do you explain where it came from and why we ought to be moral tomorrow?

Like Socrates, Aristotle, and Kant (in their different ways), I ground morality in the structure of practical reason. So morality has a status similar to that of logic and math, and asking where it came from makes no sense. As for why we should obey it, here I think (following Socrates and Aristotle more than Kant in this instance) that whatever we desire logically commits us to desiring moral virtue in the same way that whatever we believe logically commits us to believing the laws of logic. (For more details, see my seminar on libertarian ethics.)

Does my commitment to Greek-style eudaimonism make moral obligation (albeit non-instrumental) “self-serving”? If so, I ask: what is the non-self-serving basis for morality that Pruett offers? (It had better not be hope for heaven or fear of hell, because those would be self-serving motivations, no?)

Indeed, more generally, where does morality come from according to Pruett? Presumably his answer is “from God,” but that by itself isn’t very informative. Is Pruett a divine-command theorist, who holds that God makes things good or bad by commanding or forbidding them? (Not all theists are divine-command theorists; Aquinas and Grotius, for example, were not.) If so, he needs to deal with the well-known problems with divine-command ethics (such as its making it impossible for God to have a good reason for anything he does, since no reason counts as good until his choosing it makes it so); plus it still doesn’t by itself give us a reason for obeying God’s commands. (Locke’s version of divine-command ethics offers respect for our creator as the reason to obey his commands; but the moral principle “respect your creator” either depends itself on a divine command – in which case we have no reason to accept it unless we already have independent reason to obey divine commands – or it doesn’t, in which case divine-command ethics is false.)

Now Pruett might instead hold, like Aquinas, that morality derives from God’s nature rather than from his will. Fine; but Aquinas makes that argument work by in effect identifying God with reason personified; and since it’s the reason part, not the personified part, that seems to be doing all the work, this grounding of morality is as available to the atheist as to the theist.

6. In the atheist worldview we are products of time, chance, and blind forces – there is no objective meaning and value to our human existence. … Does life really have no point other than what you pretend for your own sake?

Actually atheism per se doesn’t obviously entail that “we are products of time, chance, and blind forces,” but leave that aside. The obvious answer to this question is that from the premise “we are products of time, chance, and blind forces,” the conclusion “there is no objective meaning and value to our human existence” simply doesn’t follow. The argument’s not valid. An additional premise needs to be supplied, and I have no idea what it could be (apart from the question-begging conditional “IF we are products of time, chance, and blind forces THEN there is no objective meaning and value to our human existence”).

Why would facts about our origin be the only facts relevant to determining the meaning of our lives? Why wouldn’t facts about what kind of being emerged (and not just how it emerged) be at least as relevant?

7. In the world of atheism, where there is no soul or transcendent “self,” humans are simply biological machines, and our minds are just computers made out of meat. With this in view there is really no room for something like freewill, since we are all just operating according to our “programming” and our environmental influences. … Are you prepared to accept the idea that no one is really morally responsible for their bad behavior and, conversely, that virtuous behavior is not commendable?”

Pruett assumes that a) atheism entails materialism, b) materialism entails determinism, and c) determinism entails absence of free will.

I agree with (c), and moreover I think the supposition of determinism is incoherent (for some of my reasons, see my paper Free Minds and Future Contingents); but a lot of smart people have given interesting arguments against (c), so Pruett needs to grapple with those arguments.

I think (a) and (b) are false; anyway, Pruett has offered no defense of them. (Incidetally, for my Aristotelean view on the soul-body relation, one that attempts to avoid the vices of both materialism and dualism, see here, here, and here.)

8. Every known time and culture is rich with stories of near death experiences, ghosts, angels, demons, prophetic dreams and visions, and miraculous healings. … In addition to this, humans seem to be incurably religious; the idea of God and the spiritual is deeply entrenched in the human psyche, if not in its actual experience. … If man is simply an adapted biological organism, then how is it that we did not manage to adapt to our natural environment in this area – why are we not “naturalists” rather than theists?

A ghost! Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian Pruett offers the atheist a dilemma: either paranormal experiences are real, in which case, theism wins; or else they’re not real, in which case our cognitive mechanisms are badly adapted to our environment, so evolutionary theory fails, so once again theism wins.

Neither half of this argument works. There is no inconsistency in regarding experiences of ghosts, prophecies, spiritual healings, etc., as genuine without thinking they’re caused by God. Has Pruett never heard of Buddhists? Or parapsychologists, for that matter?

On the other hand, there’s also no inconsistency between evolutionary theory and regarding paranormal experiences as delusions. It’s no part of evolutionary theory to claim that we are, or that any species is, perfectly adapted to its environment; quite the contrary. And the paraskeptical evolutionist always has the strategy of explaining maladaptive paranormal experiences as the byproducts of traits that are genuinely adaptive (such as high alertness to purposive activity in one’s environment).

As for the claim that belief in God is “deeply entrenched in the human psyche,” actually for most of human history it seems to have been belief in many gods that’s thus entrenched; the prevalence of monotheism is fairly recent. So if this is a good argument for being a theist, it’s an even better argument for being a polytheist – a conclusion that I suspect Pruett will be hesitant to embrace.

9. The case for the Jesus of Scripture is extremely compelling. There is good evidence that the New Testament was written in the generation of the Apostles. … There is no motivation and evidence for fraud among the apostles and church fathers – most died martyr’s deaths. … What alternative explanation do you offer to the New Testament documentation and the tradition of the church, and what support do you have for your theory? Is it because of the miracles that you doubt the Scriptures? If Jesus really were God in the flesh, how would you expect Him to confirm that fact?

Here the atheist has several options. First: grant the miracles but continue to deny the existence of God. (As we’ve already seen, from the existence of miraculous events, nothing follows about the existence of God. Most Buddhists believe in miraculous events also.) Second: question whether the Gospels in their present form had the approval of the Apostles. (We still don’t have complete texts from the Apostles’ actual era, and we already know that some miracles were added that weren’t present in the original editions, like the very resurrection of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.) Third: deny that the Apostles had no motive for fraud. (The desire to be regarded as an emissary of the divine might easily outweigh the desire to avoid martyrdom; it often does.) Fourth: deny that deliberate deception is the only explanation for false stories of miracles. (Does Pruett think all reports of alien abduction, sightings of the Loch Ness monster, etc., are either genuine or hoaxes? that such factors as false memories and the suggestibility of the human mind never play any role?)

As for how Jesus would have confirmed that he was God, I don’t know, but the point is moot, since Jesus explicitly denied that he was God.

10. If there really is no meaning or purpose to life, no objective good or evil, and the existence of “truth” itself is open to debate, by what standard will you condemn the beliefs of Christians?

This question depends on conflating atheism with materialism and ethical nihilism; I’ve already said why I think that’s a mistake.

Also, why does Pruett assume that the only alternative to atheism is Christianity? There are a lot of other religions out there besides Christianity (as well, of course, as other versions of Christianity than his own).


68 Responses to Ten Answers from an Austro-Athenian

  1. Aster April 29, 2009 at 2:04 am #

    Are you arguing for something close to deism, except that instead of claiming that God sets the rules and does nothing, you’re suggesting that God *is* the rules and that’s it?

    If so, why are the rules any more suggestive of divinity than existence itself?

    And, is logic the only way to apprehend this transcendent structure?


  1. 10 Answers from an Atheist… [part 2/2] « Check Your Premises - April 18, 2009

    […] T. Long posted his own answers on his entry Ten Answers from an Austro-Athenian. Check it out after you’re done.) 6. Meaning In the atheist worldview we are products of […]

  2. 10 Answers from an Atheist… [part 2/2] | Understanding Your Cat - April 20, 2009

    […] T. Long posted his own answers on his entry Ten Answers from an Austro-Athenian. Check it out after you’re done.) 6. Meaning In the atheist worldview we are products of […]

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes