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One debate, many responses: Response #4 (Clinton Armitage)  @psychohistorian.org

One debate, many responses: Response #4 (Clinton Armitage)

posted: 3976 days ago, on Monday, 2009 Jul 06 at 07:59
tags: atheism, atheism media.

In "By" (Die Burger, Saturday June 27) prof Amie van Wyk, a theologian, published an article titled "Three debates, many questions".

Response by Clinton Armitage.

 1   "The third debate is being carried out between atheism and Christian faith. Personally I view this debate as meaningful, if it is carried out responsibly."

I fear that in the disparity between how scientists define "responsible debate" and how Christians define "responsible debate", is where the production of meaningful communication will fail. The nature of each polar model in this "debate" (in parenthesis for a reason – see next point) is a classic example of fundamentally opposite views, definitions and paradigmatic orientation – I put forward the thesis that there must be some degree of intersubjectivity between the participants in the debate to bootstrap a debate into existence. What I mean by intersubjectivity is an agreement in principle to find common ground for the delineation of strength or weakness, success or failure of a position on either side of the debate. If there is none, and that is my suspicion in this case, then there is no debate. Instead we have two different species, one speaking English, the other waxing lyrically in some unintelligible North Eastern Jovian dialect – no commonality, no communication.

What I am more inclined to propose is that, as a scientist and moderate atheist (if such a creature could exist, somewhere between Dawkins and Gould) that atheism, with a basis in science, is better positioned to generate meaningful debate as opposed to the Christian theologians who I fear, and know from experience, will circumvent any meaningful process in any debate.

Atheists, like myself, are inclined to be respectful of other peoples religious beliefs, even if we may see them as illusory and delusional in a strictly rational examination. We do this because, I feel, it has functional value within the context of social dynamics and group behaviour (some of our compatriots who were disinclined to do the same were dispatched in various ways), and because there are great difficulties in proving something (we prove the null hypothesis or work with increasing or decreasing levels of probability that make the closest approximations to our experience of the subject of study), making us tantalizingly close, but never 100% sure of our position. I personally feel it more meaningful to know within myself what is meaningfully true, than to assert that by tearing away another persons religious illusions. I contrast this with the process of proselitization employed by the religious to convert me to their way of "thinking", and their lack of respect for any alternative view.

At the same time, I also think that the debate can be meaningful – not all Christian people are lost fully, and perhaps there exist a proportion that can be rescued from fundamental error.

 2   "It sets the stage for both atheists and Christians to re-state their arguments clearly in terms of how sensible [meaningful? "sinvolheid"] and feasible [defendable? "houdbaarheid"] their points of view and assumptions are."

 3   "Amongst others it is about the question of the relationship between faith and knowledge/science."

 4   "For the atheist there is no relationship. The more the science, the less the faith; more faith, less science. Such a (rationalistic) approach excludes faith and science from each other. To believe in God is not scientific and is an expression of a primitive or superstitious belief."

Mistaken assumption 1 – To the atheist, without religious belief and explanation, all that's left is "science" (the implication being that the latter is less meaningful than the former)

There is not "just" science left – science is the basis of meaning for the Atheist, and why not. Once you have done away with the need to reduce everything to the supposed influence of an all powerful unseen god, then there are many alternate paths to meaning and experiencing life as meaningful. The meaning we attribute to life comes from our predisposition to find and create patterns of linkages and associations between vast and varied elements of our experience – to see the connections between different parts of the ecosystem, insects dependent on the death of old animals, and higher order animals feeding on the bugs, a circle of life, for example – as an atheist, I have just as much, if not a more meaningful experienced during these experiences because science gave me the linkages and thereby made it more meaningful to me. A Christian may also see the linkages and even accept the scientific exposition of the relationship between animals and the cycle of life and death, but when they add an additional layer (that their god made this happen or had some hand in it), I feel that it detracts from the intrinsic beauty and wonder of appreciating the process. The added layer of their gods involvement is like a catch all description, a limited point of reduction, the loss of appreciation of complexity and therefore layers of beauty. If god has a hand in everything, then why must we ask the important questions – we can stop thinking all together.

If anything, there is a great danger in depending on the "answer to every question, creator of everything" paradigm because it becomes a catch all answer to everything we do not yet understand. Science provides an alternative option – the exposition of the fundamental workings of the world as we all experience it, through the systematized and replicable demonstration and discovery of processes and elements underlying the operation of all we see around us. It is a great fantasy to think of a finite point in time in the future at which we will have a coherent and complete explanation for all the operations of the universe – I have my doubts though, not because of some misguided fear that we cannot have the "mind of god" but rather that we are so infantile in our present understanding of the universe, and yet we know so much already, and like apocalyptic Christians who announce the "End of days" at every turn of a millennium, I feel the excitement of the idea of being tantalizingly close to even greater breakthroughs in scientific discovery.

And it is science and the dedicated and intelligent practioners thereof, who get us there, and keep us moving forwards towards the ultimate goal of "the theory of everything", certainly not the Christian religion which does not seem to have introduced anything new for the last two thousand years, and has been the basis for many wars and much suffering. Religion has a shadow, like anything else in this complicated and paradoxical world, even science. Science has given us the atom bomb, chemical weapons, and likely been the means by which many wars and much suffering have been carried out. I would argue that religion, and the tendency of religious people to operate on the basis of in group and out group politics, has been the impetus behind much of the instigation of the use of the weapons of science – I like to think of it as my "guns don't kill people – religion kills people" theory. So much for the god of peace – we seem to have very little peace and yet so much talk of god.

Mistaken Assumption 2 – atheists must answer the big questions or their lack of belief is inferior or not as sound as religious answers to these same questions.

Sometimes the most intelligent response, the most intellectually and morally ethical answer to a question is "I don't know". Scientists try not to answer questions with made up answers when they don't have any evidence or strong concordance between theory and experimental result.

 5   "In contrast, the Christian faith accepts it that faith and science are not competing, but are complementary world views. The God that makes himself known in nature (and science) is the same God that reveals himself in the scriptures of Christ."

The assertion that the Christian faith accepts science as a complementary world view seems spurious. Christians accept science because it profers clearly apparent and demonstrable benefit – medical treatment for their children ultimately a fruit of science, not religion – whereas religion offers no appreciable reciprocal benefit of the same magnitude.

 6   "Another question atheism raises is: How can an omnipotent and good God of love allow (or dispense) ["toelaat (of beskik)"] so much pain and suffering? And: how can such a God allow (or dispense) ["toelaat (of beskik)"] that people are lost forever? These are deep, engaging ["ingrypende"] questions to which no cheap answers ought to be given."

Well, if god does not exist, then these things are explained. The more we investigate the bible as the purported "word of god" and see a growing number and degree of inconsistency in its content, the more we are convinced that religion is the production of man, and his fear and ignorance. If any religion has an explanation for these things it is Buddhism. Buddhism contends that suffering and impermanence are characteristics of this life and this world. If we stop at this description, we find it in high concordance with our experience of the world. To extend beyond that point and attempt explanations involving the influence of deities is where religious delusion thrives and we enter the murky depths of philosophical debate which seems to hold only highly subjective and un-testable conclusions.

 7   "The Christian faith still answers this with reference to God's promise of caring proximity ["sorgsame nabyheid"] and his love in Christ for a broken world, as well as man's personal responsibility. Regarding those who never hear the scriptures, theology makes no comment."

 8   "But the Christian faith also asks important questions of atheism. The first is about the origin of the universe: Where does it all come from? What (or who) existed before the big bang? Don't we (yet) know, or did everything come into existence by chance?"

"I live on Earth at present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe."

Buckminster Fuller

I like Buckminster Fuller's idea that he is a verb not a noun. I personally find great satisfaction in asking and reading about the possible answers to big and small questions about the universe. In some ways there seem to be long range and short range questions about the universe. Science has so far, in its relatively short history, been quite successful at answering short range questions – what causes disease? (the germ theory of transmission), why do we see such diversity of plants and animals? (natural selection, evolutionary fact).

Science also seems good at providing highly plausible and highly reliable answers to long range questions, the category into which the big questions fall. We have a credible theory of the evolution of the universe from a singularity, a point of infinite temperature and density, which expanded into all that we observe – the "big bang" as it is colloquially referred to. Are there still unanswered questions – yes, and I hope they keep coming – it is so interesting to ask and then find answers to these questions, but atheists put a lot more stead in scientific processes and methods to acquire these answers versus religious arguments loosely modified from one "explain all" text.

Science does not claim to be perfect, religion does. Science does not claim to have generated all the answers to all questions, yet – religion claims to have ultimate truth written inside the cover of its texts. Each scientific discovery of an previously god attributed process knocks down another pillar of the foundation and credibility of religious arguments. If a village died after drinking from their well, religion would say that they were smote by the hand of god. Science would find a pathogen in the water and evidence in the bodies, treat the water and restore the health of the well. One could argue that I am taking modern religion out of context here – modern Christians accept scientific explanations and the benefits of clean drinking water all thanks to science, but deny that this sliding down the slippery slope of failing to answer with any credibility the advances of science on their position, is a gradual and steady advancement to the overthrow of their entire world view. Atheists see no loss if that happens.

 9   "But if everything came about "by chance", then this event is a rather unreliable instance. You don't know what it is, can't address it, and also don't know where it leads."

If everything evolved by chance, and it is important to note that evolution is not actually conceptualized as a fundamentally chance driven process, and it is discovered through the process of science that that was and is the nature of the process, then I for one, could accept that with ease. It would not detract from the wonder of our world and the process of meaning generation through my experience of this world.

Gould has written about the different senses of "random" and "chance" in science:

"In ordinary English, a random event is one without order, predictability or pattern. The word connotes disaggregation, falling apart, formless anarchy, and fear. Yet, ironically, the scientific sense of random conveys a precisely opposite set of associations. A phenomenon governed by chance yields maximal simplicity, order and predictability--at least in the long run. ... Thus, if you wish to understand patterns of long historical sequences, pray for randomness."


 10  "I immediately have to point out that this argument cannot be held as evidence for God's existence. It merely serves to argue that it is more meaningful to believe in God as the origin of everything than in that everything came into existence by chance."

 11  "Another question: what is the destination of the universe? Here, too, the same questions are valid. If the future of the universe is open and can go in any direction, then humans are leading a hopeless and meaningless existence. Life of earth is then a freak."

 12  "The Christian faith argues that God, with his creation, is on a path of renewal and completion."

 13  "The third question follows from this: If God does not exist, what then is the meaning of life? Or is life meaningless and absurd (as existentialists argue)? As the Greek philosopher Menander said, "Let us eat and drink (and be merry) because tomorrow we die." Is pleasure (hedonism) the meaning of life? Or is serving the kingdom of God in its widest dimensions the meaning of life?"

 14  "A fourth question concerns ethics. Where does atheism get its ethical code? How is good and evil discriminated, and where do norms and values come from? Assume that I somehow discover what is good and evil where do I get the will-power and motivation to do the good thing?"

Norms and values are the product of social network feedback, they are local and relative to the specific geographic and community based networks of people. Norms and values are social glue, and a consequence of our evolution in and participation in group settings. We are social animals, and the "functional value" of a particular value or social norm serves to either add benefit or deficit to the follower or detractor of that value or social norm within the context of their specific society.

In the same way that the norms of the Old Testament (a menstruating woman must be kept isolated in a tent for the length of her period, for example) are not the norms of today, these things change over time, evolve and take on new forms. A likely explanation is that they are memes.

Schermer provides and interesting argument that the traditionally religious idea of the golden rule (do unto others as you would like done unto you) is flawed, and that it is more morally useful to follow the alternative (do unto others as they would like to be done unto). He calls people to ask others how they would like to be treated, instead of assuming that they would find what we would find acceptable to be acceptable for them. People are not completely rational, we also have a dark emotional side, and it has been well established that human beings do not always act "morally" or altruistically. Evolutionary psychology has interesting arguments and explanations for deception and other morally reprehensible behaviours - for example, the perceived degree of attractiveness of a person in distress is a factor in whether or not bystanders will offer assistance, some people will even step over a less attractive person in similar distress to help a more attractive person. See the work of Tooby and Cosmides for more info.

We do not get the willpower to do good from our fear of god – Dawkins argues that it is morally flawed to behave morally just because god may be watching. I like to believe that people behave morally because they see greater functional value in that behaviour than bad behaviour – either they get a reward in the form of social currency or the possibility of a great reward in the future for a small bit of difficulty or pain now. I see more answers and possibility of credible explanations here through science rather than religion.

 15  "The last question: why does the atheist choose mankind's reason as the highest authority (rationalism), and also that the only way of knowing is that all knowledge should necessarily be verifiable (positivism)?"

That is like claiming that a carpenters only tool is a hammer. Science is increasing in complexity, and scientists and atheists can be eclectic in adoption of the many tools and sometimes divergent viewpoints provided by science. In between divergent theories, there may be our greatest chance of getting as close as possible to the truth of a thing. Religion offers one explanation as ultimate truth, does not attempt to become more complicated, and provides no new tools to establish truth or falsity of our experience. When we fail to find explanations for new discoveries in the pages of the bible (like credible explanations of the presentation of the geological record) then Christians get upset and have to turn to re-interpreting the same document (bible text) to account for the evidence, instead of evaluating whether the evidence refutes the credibility and usefulness of the document altogether. Atheists have just grown past this point.

 16  "Do these two models present feasible answers to life's deepest questions? Have they ever succeeded in solving humankind's problems meaningfully? Isn't this a case of working with a very reduced view of mankind (and a closed world view)?"

If I had cancer, I for one would rather receive a scientifically based and derived treatment for cancer, than sit in a room and have a doctor pray for me.

 17  "Isn't post-modernism, with its search for spirituality and constant reminder of the provisional nature of human knowledge, providing powerful criticism of cold rationalism (and hence atheism)?"

 18  "The Christian faith avails itself of another vast source of knowledge: the revelation of God, in nature and in the Bible, but also in Jesus Christ as God's greatest, last and highest self-revelation."

 19  "If He falls away, the whole edifice of the Christian faith collapses like a house of cards."

Each scientific discovery of an previously god attributed process knocks down another pillar of the foundation and credibility of religious arguments.

Related links

  1. Original article: Three debates, many questions
  2. Response by Auke Slotegraaf
  3. Response by Bruce Dickson
  4. Response by Paul
  5. Some questions about Amie van Wyk

nothing more to see. please move along.

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