Answering some questions posed to athiests

by Neil Rickert

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.

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14 Comments to “Answering some questions posed to athiests”

  1. “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.”

    If we have a multi-verse or perhaps an infinite amount of Big-Bang-Big-Crunch cycles (with each one carrying slightly different physical constants) than the idea of an incredible coincidence goes away because the next universe that forms (after ours is crunched if that is our fate) or another one or perhaps infinitely more that exist alongside ours don’t have life. If our universe is the only one, and it actually had a cause (i.e. if time has a finite beginning which I don’t believe to be the case), then human life is a much larger coincidence.

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  2. “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.”

    I am an illusionist. I don’t know why you are puzzled by my illusionism. I believe that my denial of free will as well as all of my actions, values, opinions, etc., are all a part of a causal chain and/or a result of quantum randomness, and thus I have no control over them. It’s really not that difficult to comprehend. The trouble you may be having is failing to understand the concept of an illusion. If free will is an illusion, then your believing that I am exercising free will be denying it, is just another illusion. See what I’m saying? I’m not exercising my free will by denying it. Rather I have no choice but to believe it is an illusion because of my rational faculties given, the scientific evidence that I value highly which argues against it, etc. The fact that I have opinions doesn’t mean that I have free will. It just means that the illusion is a very persuasive one.

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  3. “1. Does the universe have a beginning that requires a cause?

    A “no” to that.”

    I completely agree. I think it is much more probable and consistent with scientific evidence that the universe has no beginning, that is, time didn’t start at some point. It makes more sense that time is infinite, as well as the mass and energy in the universe, since the law of conservation of mass and energy imply that either mass and/or energy have always existed. It seems to make more sense that the universe is cyclical, that is, that there are a series of “Big Bang’s” and “Big crunches” even if Doppler shift doesn’t currently agree with the idea of a Big Crunch (due to the cosmological constant, the universe expanding at an increasing rate, etc.). However one thing that most people don’t realize is that we can see our universe expanding even if it is leading back to where it came from (i.e. a more compressed state). If the fabric of space is bent in such a way that our universe is actually shaped like a toroid, even though our light cone is ellipsoidal in shape. We can think of the current step in our expansion/contraction to be the region on the toroid located between exiting the center hole and traveling to the region where our distance from the center of this toroid is maximal. Once we pass this outer region, space could compress back onto itself eventually entering the other side of the center hole. This would be a model that would explain the cosmic Dopplar shift’s current trend yet still allow a theory of eventual contraction. It’s true that many people define the Big Bang to be the beginning of the universe, but I think that most also think that this was the beginning of time and all existence. To say that implies that time, existence, etc., all came from nothing which violates all of my currently accessible mental faculties.

    “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.”

    I think that they are compatible only in the sense that the effects of quantum probability on such a large number of particles (that we refer to being materialistically determinable) is seemingly small. So we can have a mixture of randomness and determinism, which many including myself refer to as adequate determinism.

    “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?”

    I think that humans are excellent and thus fluent at pattern recognition. If humans found a way to symbolize quantities and functional properties, and relate them to one another by use of pattern recognition, and this leads to a mathematical description of the world, then it is still a result of that fluent pattern recognition. So I would say that humans are naturally fluent in the language of mathematics, but only in the sense that we are fluent in pattern recognition and have a great ability to symbolize those patterns. From my experience, this is mostly what mathematics is.

    “5. Do you believe that DNA repair mechanisms, catalytically perfect enzymes, and phenomena such as substrate channeling are best explained by naturalism?

    If engineers cannot match this, then that is partly because engineers are designers, and design is inferior to evolution (though it is faster).”

    I’m not sure what you mean by saying that design is inferior to evolution. If you are implying that the designers were a result of evolution and thus caused by it, then I agree — but I wonder if you could clarify. There are a few ways of interpreting your comment.

    “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.”

    Well I don’t think that “good” and “evil” exist, ergo objective morality can’t exist either. I will say however that my one moral principle that I try to uphold to all other human beings is the golden rule. This is my moral code if there is one. It is one principle that I see encompassing all others that I think are important without having to individually name all of them.

    “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.”

    It’s definitely hard to quantify this. I can think of plenty of negative things coming out of religion, but to say that they outweigh the positives of many of the religions that exist is difficult to do. In my experience with those that are religious, probabilistically I find more negatives than positive, but then again, the majority of religious people in this country are from a branch of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. I believe that these religions have a negative impact to society overall. Outside of the most prominent theistic religions however, there are very beneficial teachings which I see as affecting society in the best ways, including the principles of acceptance and cyclicality resulting from Hinduism, the principles of pain and suffering being caused by desires (which can promote immaterialistic lifestyles and other benefits), etc.

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  4. I’m not sure what you mean by saying that design is inferior to evolution.

    Yes, I was a little brief on that.

    In some sense, evolution is a kind of self-building. The organism builds itself, though it got a start from its parents. Because of the self-building, the builder is around to carry out repairs as needed. With design, the designer has a one-time involvement, but once it is built the designer is no longer around to work on the repairs. And because the designer is no longer around, the thing deteriorates over time.

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    • What if a designer designs something to repair itself or to evolve?

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      • I guess that happens at times. Think of the self-cleaning oven.

        Even in this case, though, I think there is less care in self-repair than you see with evolved organisms.

        Probably the closest example would be a skilled craftsman who makes something for his own use, and thereafter he periodically tweaks things to make it continue to work well.

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        • Imagine a machine that is designed to repair itself in all ways. It’s main processor (brain) is redundant (there are at least two of them) and it is able to renew and repair every component as needed (and preventatively before they severely fail). This would be analogous to an evolved organism. On top of this, if the machine was able to learn or adapt as the environment changes (even with sophisticated sensors and future data projections), the machine could also be designed to evolve as needed. Just a thought.

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          • We can “imagine” lots of things. Implementing is harder than imagining.

            If we look at the computer software scene, software really doesn’t break so self-repair should not be needed. Nevertheless there are many bugs reported.

            Some of the software bugs are because the original software failed to meet specifications. However, many more of the bugs were of the form where the original specifications were deemed inadequate, because of changes elsewhere.

            So what does “self-repair” mean? If it means keeping the system acting according to original specifications, then that’s fairly limited. If, however, we want “self-repair” to also be able to redesign the specifications, then you are getting outside of what we would normally consider a “machine” and you are into the territory of adaptive evolution.

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          • “So what does “self-repair” mean? If it means keeping the system acting according to original specifications, then that’s fairly limited.”

            Yes but it would still compare to the biological organism.

            “If, however, we want “self-repair” to also be able to redesign the specifications, then you are getting outside of what we would normally consider a “machine” and you are into the territory of adaptive evolution.”

            Regardless of what we want to call it, my point was that a designer can make something that self-builds, self-repairs, self-evolves to meet new environmental needs, etc. The only reason I’m playing the devil’s advocate here is because you said that design is inferior to evolution and I don’t think this is the case because one could design something to evolve (in the sense of mutation and/or natural selection). Are you trying to say that natural selection specifically is superior to design? Or any kind of evolution?

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          • Are you trying to say that natural selection specifically is superior to design?

            I’m not a fan of natural selection as the primary explanation of evolution. My view is that the self-adaptive nature of biological organisms is more important. And I take that self-adaptive nature to be a result of the homeostatic processes that are a major part of biological organisms.

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          • A machine can be designed to do this as well (homeostasis) as well as adapt.

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          • Either way, the self-adaptive nature of biological organisms that you mentioned (e.g. homeostasis, etc.) doesn’t appear to play a primary role in evolution.

            Populations of biological organisms can also be adaptive. In effect, they can explore and adapt to other enviromental niches.

            What I don’t like about natural selection, is that it tries to describe adaptation to the current environmental. It seems to me that evolution usually involves change of niche. I see the production of random mutations as a kind of statistical exploration of alternative niches.

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          • “Populations of biological organisms can also be adaptive. In effect, they can explore and adapt to other enviromental niches.”

            I see this as similar to finding food and other resources, even if its populations of organisms doing it. I don’t consider exploration to be evolution or adaptation. I see an organism changing something about itself as adaptation.

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          • “I’m not a fan of natural selection as the primary explanation of evolution. My view is that the self-adaptive nature of biological organisms is more important.”

            Natural selection (which includes sexual selection and the Baldwin effect in my opinion) appear to be the coarse driving forces behind evolution (in terms of the gene pool changing as a response to the environmental pressures), where mutation and poor fecundity (i.e. copying errors with DNA) appear to be what prevents a homogenous gene pool and allow new species to develop (new number of chromosomes, etc.), however these latter fecundity factors are not a result of responding to the environment in the sense of increasing their fitness within it — rather they are more a result of information entropy mediated partly through quantum randomness and other factors.

            Either way, the self-adaptive nature of biological organisms that you mentioned (e.g. homeostasis, etc.) doesn’t appear to play a primary role in evolution.

            Machines can be designed to regulate their internal temperature, humidity, pH, etc. for a means of homeostasis. Even an automobile or a computer are designed with the ability to regulate their internal temperature based on sensors that detect changes in the external/internal environment. These machines much like organisms do this such that they can perform their functions in optimal conditions. The only differences between them are the actual physical/chemical interactions/mechanisms that perform the regulation, and that the machine was not designed to reproduce (with errors in it’s code or hardware during replication) in order to facilitate the benefits of natural selection. So the only difference that I see between evolution and what we typically consider to be “design”, is that we don’t typically design things to reproduce close copies of themselves. This is possible to do, however. If a designer designed something to make CLOSE copies of itself such that the design survives in an ever-changing environment, then would you still believe that design is inferior to evolution for the reasons you’ve stated?

            (e.g. “…evolution is a kind of self-building. The organism builds itself, though it got a start from its parents…the builder is around to carry out repairs as needed…With design, the designer has a one-time involvement…the designer is no longer around to work on the repairs…the thing deteriorates over time.”)

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