Yesterday, I responded to a series of questions for theists, answering as I would have back when I was a theist with growing doubt. This post responds to some recent questions that matt (over at the Well Spent Journey blog) has posed for atheists: “Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist.” Some of these questions are actually relevant to the kind of issue that I often discuss here. As before, I will quote the question or perhaps an abridged version, before answering. I suggest that you also visit matt’s original post where he poses the questions.
It seems that I am a bit late, in that matt has also posted a summary of replies to his questions (at “Twelve Questions to Ask an Atheist: The Responses“). In some cases, I will also comment on what matt says in that response post.
1. Does the universe have a beginning that requires a cause?
A “no” to that. But some clarification is required. We don’t know how the universe originated, or if it originated. Perhaps we shall never know. However, our meaning for the word “cause” comes from the way that we use it within this universe. I don’t see that it could possibly be an appropriate term to apply outside our universe. And that is part of the reason for my “no” response.
2. Is materialistic determinism compatible with the intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics?
I’ll just say that the best evidence is that our universe is not deterministic. But I don’t think we can ever know that for sure.
3. How do you account for the physical parameters of the universe (the gravitational constant, the strong nuclear force, the mass and charge of a proton, etc.) being finely tuned for the existence of stars, planets, and life?
The weak anthropic principle seem entirely adequate as an answer to this. On his response page, matt seems to say that the weak anthropic principle requires a multiverse. I am not sure where he is getting that idea. The weak anthropic principle is far older than multiverse hypotheses.
4. Why is the human mind naturally fluent in the language of mathematics, and how do you explain the eerie, seemingly unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in describing the laws of nature?
As other responders have said, the human mind does not seem naturally fluent in mathematics. But that’s a side issue. On the main issue, I do not see anything unreasonable about the effectiveness of mathematics.
The was a followup question to this on matt’s response page:
My real goal with this question was to get my atheist friends to ponder the implications of the following quote, from Pope Benedict XVI: “If nature is really structured with a mathematical language and mathematics invented by man can manage to understand it, this demonstrates something extraordinary. The objective structure of the universe and the intellectual structure of the human being coincide.”
I see no implications of that. The Pope simply has it wrong. I see no evidence at all that nature is “structured with a mathematical language.” If anything, it seems to me that the natural world is a highly disorderly place. Where there are regions of relatively more order, those seem to be a result of the work of man.
Scientists are very systematic in the way that they study the natural world. As part of being systematic, they have mathematically structured their ways of investigating the world. The mathematical structure that we see in scientific laws, is primarily the mathematical structure of the scientists’ systematic ways of studying nature.
5. Do you believe that DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and phenomena such as substrate channeling are best explained by naturalism?
Naturalism is a philosophy, not an explanation. The DNA repair mechanisms are best explained by biological evolution. If engineers cannot match this, then that is partly because engineers are designers, and design is inferior to evolution (though it is faster).
6. Do you believe free will to be illusory?
In a word, “no.” I find myself puzzled about what the free will deniers are actually denying, for it seems to me that they are themselves exercising their free will when they choose to deny.
7. Does objective morality exist?
Perhaps the very question itself is wrong. Morality is a matter of behavior, particularly how we behave toward each other. People attempt to codify morality as a set of principles. But I doubt that any such codification is possible.
8. In what terms do you define the value of human life?
I place high value on humans, but I don’t see how we can quantify that. An attempt to qualify would itself seem to diminish that high value. Note that I omitted the word “life” there. There is more to being human than merely being alive. I am not sure that there is anything human about someone in a permanent vegetative state kept biologically alive only by machines.
9. Much attention has been given to alleged cognitive biases and “wishful thinking” contributing to religious belief. Do you believe that similar biases (for example, the desire for moral autonomy) play a role in religious nonbelief?
We are all subject to cognitive biases. It is hard to say whether religion is particularly bad in this respect, for it may depend on the religion. I would guess that the problem is greatest for those who rely heavily on authority in their decision making, and least for those who weigh evidence before making decisions.
10. Do you believe religion (speaking generally) has had a net positive or a net negative effect on humanity. If the latter, how do you explain the prevalence of religion in evolutionary terms?
Right now, in our modern world, religion has a negative effect. It is hard to say how that applies to earlier times.
Instead of looking at religion, I suggest we should be looking more broadly at cultural myths, tradition and folklore. And it seems to me that historically, cultural traditions provided a kind of cultural memory, that allowed hard found knowledge to be brought forward and made available to future generations. These days, because of the invention of writing, printing, the Internet, we have far better ways of providing a cultural memory. But in earlier times, I expect that cultural traditions were very important for that provision of memory.
11. Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?
I suppose that depends on the circumstances. However, humans are not rational anyway, so I’m not sure this matters.
When I say that we are not rational, I am not saying that we are irrational and therefore bad. If anything, I am saying that humankind has done better than a merely rational species would do. We often rise above the limitations of rationality.
12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true?
That’s a bad question. “Christianity” does not name anything that could be either true or false.
Following the teachings of Jesus might be hard, but under suitable circumstances, I might be persuaded to try. But Christianity is not the same thing at all. I tend to see Christianity as consisting mainly of communities of pious hypocrites.