Dear Theist (2): A quick dip in Atheism, Evolution, God, Morality and “Nothing”

Dear Caroline,

I hope you appreciate that I put a lot of thought into my replies and so really do want my thoughts on my blog instead of lost among a comment thread. I also apologise to my readers that Caroline’s response is lost somewhere in the comments to her post (although, you are welcome to look for it).

What is atheism?

I really need to open with how we frame the issue, particularly of what atheism is. I refer you to my first post to you, where I said that atheism is the position held by those that consider belief in God is not fostered by the evidence. For a more exact definition, I can refer back to the etymology of the word, where “A-” means to be without and “-theism” means belief in a god or gods. We can argue this definition for as long as we please, but I think it is better to allow atheists to define their position. If you don’t accept this then I, and most atheists I know, have to find a new word (and “agnostic” isn’t that word). The reason this distinction is important is subtle, but it means I do not actively disbelieve, instead I am an unbeliever. You probably hold to a similar position for faeries; they have never been disproven to you, you have simply never been given reason to believe.

Rejecting the middle ground of “unbelief” between “believe” and “disbelief” means that we have to form an active stance on everything we have ever heard of. And I’m sure you aren’t comfortable doing that for most things, especially those that you are unfamiliar with.

How bad is this designer?

“The obvious design we observe” is actually not something that we share. My spinal cord is the nerve of an animal that is meant to be a quadruped; as a result I suffer from medically redundant headaches. A friend of mine recently had his appendix removed because it was going to kill him; no matter what purpose the appendix might serve, it is not an obvious design if it can easily kill the very system it is meant to support. A giraffe’s laryngeal nerve follows the basic body plan of a fish: from the brain, under the aorta and to the larynx. But in a giraffe’s anatomy that means several feet of nerve go down the giraffe’s neck just to go back up, and it covers only a few-inch distance. Even the structure of haemoglobin is redundantly complex. This is not obvious design.

Evolutionary scientists has offered up things that would falsify evolution; irreducibly complex features are one of those things, but we have never found one. Rabbit fossils from the pre-Cambrian would also be a real problem. As a point of personal policy, I don’t deal with creationism any more, but I can offer some posts I’ve written on the issue (and there’s a third one scheduled soon).

(Further read on creationism: Evolution and the Piltdown Man, On the Illusion of Species)

Our moral senses are not universal

The “universal innate apprehension of the moral law” doesn’t exist. Firstly, we have sociopaths and psychopaths. We have the treatment of women in other countries (and it’s not a myth, either. My aunty is a travelling teacher and visiting her means I have seen these countries). These are examples of large groups of people not understanding any moral law as you would recognise it (and they wouldn’t recognise your moral ideas as moral laws either). This is important, because universal understanding of a moral law, across cultures, really would be something to behold. But most people almost agreeing to a moral intuition is not the same, and this failure to be universal is a real issue.

But there is a deeper question of ‘what moral law?’ I certainly don’t believe in any moral law. Murder is not outright wrong, and killing a terrorist to save the hostages is okay. Taxes are the systematic taking of money, but the services that offers make it morally fine. Nothing that flexible can be thought of as a law.

(Further reading on morality: Objective Morality for the Non-Believer, Evidence for Objective (secular) Morality)

The God hypothesis

I’m not sure what it means to posit something greater than ourselves. But we certainly can posit things to explain evidence. That thing we posit is then a “hypothesis” and we should be able to test elements of it so we can see whether the pattern we posit is true. An omnipotent and perfectly moral being was proven not to be a true pattern around the same time we recognised tsunamis, earthquakes and parasites that burrow into eye balls. There is no reason that a perfectly moral being would want these things to be true, and there is no way an omnipotent being couldn’t stop them. The patterns that better explain these are the callous indifference of plate tectonics and evolution.

(Further reading on the problem of evil: Epicurus and the Problem of Evil, Could God Prevent Human-Caused Suffering?)

Is it easier to believe God did it?

Accepting that a God is real does not demand that I also submit to Him. I could be a knowing rebel; a person that accepts God is true, but believes He is a tyrant and demands immoral things of us. If I were to wake up tomorrow convinced of the truth of Christianity, that is what I would be; I consider it immoral that God asks us to throw our sins on the only innocent person to have ever lived in the hope to be absolved of responsibility. But I don’t even have to go so far as to rebel; I couldn’t simply not care that it is true. Belief does not lead to submission, unless you want it to.

Intellectually speaking, God is the easy answer; He is the previous answer to lightning, harvests, seasons, weather, sunrise and even luck. I have never been a believer, so I cannot comment on whether it is an emotionally easy answer. But I would have thought that promises of ever-lasting life, always being loved, always been cared for and absolution for your sins wouldn’t be burdensome beliefs. Consider that atheists are among the least-trusted people in America and that religion is given special allowances in the UK, then review your thought that religion carries more social costs than a lack of it.

The point of this video is not to build knowledge on quantum mechanics. In fact, it talks about geometry and mathematics, so even if you don’t follow the “quantum weirdness” some of it must have been easily accessible to you. And physicists are in agreement about relativity, another non-intuitive topic covered in the video. But its point was to critique the human method of using pre-theoretic ideas independent of evidence and reason; intuitions. The video is not a scare tactic, and it’s not even an atheist video. It is merely pointing out that guess-work is unreliable.

Oh, nothing. You so crazy.

Forget the word “nothing” for a moment, and consider only the things that we know came into existence at the Big Bang, and therefore didn’t exist before: space, time, energy, matter. These four things are the only things we know came into existence from a stage where they did not exist. Things like the uncertainty principle (which are not dependent on matter) and gravity (which is true even absent of matter) are still fair game to have always existed. So are quantum fields. Some fundamental form of physics may be an eternal truth. This is what our universe may have come from. The use of the word “nothing” does confuse the issue, it’s a remnant of the conversation back when we understood “nothing” to be something very different.

(Further reading on “nothing”: Physics is an Eternal Truth, Can a Multiverse Last Forever?)

Yours sincerely,

Allallt

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3 thoughts on “Dear Theist (2): A quick dip in Atheism, Evolution, God, Morality and “Nothing””

  1. I enjoy the way you write, Allallt. I especially like “Oh, nothing. You so crazy.” 🙂

    I would like to respond, and hope to sometime soon. I don’t expect to persuade you to believe, nor to find any of my core beliefs wavering. But perhaps each of us will at least come away with a better understanding of the other.

  2. Good post.
    Having been a believer, some of these questions didn’t arise especially since I lived in an environment where no one I know of questioned whether a god was involved or not.

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