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Fri, 25 Dec 2009

Happy Holidays! (And Incidentally, Science Can't Disprove Religion)

It's the holiday season again. Christmas is here, and Hanukkah is recently past. For many people today these holidays have a significance that is purely cultural. However, many others still observe these holidays as religious occasions.

I'd like to take this opportunity to spread some "Joy to the World" by stating an important point about religion - not any particular religion, but religion in general. Here it is:

Science has not debunked religion and never will succeed in debunking religion.

The reason is simple: the most important claims of religion cannot be tested by scientific means. Science can't prove these beliefs right or wrong, or even prove them highly improbable. Today's noisy militant atheists might not like this fact, but it is a fact nonetheless.

Science can pass judgment on religious beliefs that are scientifically testable. For example, science has ruled out creationism - the belief that living species and the Earth are results of miraculous acts of creation instead of products of natural processes like evolution. Clearly science can debunk some religious beliefs. Many traditional religious beliefs have gone out the window for this reason. We can expect some more to go out the window in the future. However, science cannot debunk the really important ideas in religious thought.

Here's an example.

For many religions, the most important religious doctrine is the belief that there is a God. Who, or what, is God supposed to be? There are different opinions. Some people think of God as a ghostly being, perhaps cruel and violent, who created natural objects through supernatural acts. Some believers picture God this way; so do some atheists. But is such a "God" really worthy of the name "God"? Is he (or she, or it) worthy of our unswerving love? And why should we believe in those miraculous acts of creation when science offers better explanations of natural phenomena? People of conscience and reason often have trouble with this idea of God - and well they might!

If we think about the religious feelings of the more conscientious and thoughtful believers, we find that the God they believe in is not an angry ghost. Instead, their God might be described as a supremely good being - a being embodying great love, kindness, and spiritual beauty. If there is such a being, then He, She or It is indeed worthy of our love. (Believers who think of God this way often also believe that God is a supernatural creator. However, this other belief is not really indispensable to their thinking. They could believe in a good God even if God didn't create the universe. What matters in their daily lives is not how the universe started, but that God is good.)

Science can't debunk the idea that there is a supremely good being. The reason is simple. This idea of God depends on the idea of the good - and science, acting alone, cannot make judgments about what is good!

It is impossible to prove or disprove moral judgments, like "mercy is good" or "hate is bad," by means of scientific methods alone. The same goes for aesthetic judgments, like "This meadow is beautiful." It isn't possible to confirm or disconfirm such statements through scientific methods alone, without resorting to other ways of knowing, such as moral and aesthetic reasoning. This isn't news to philosophers, but nowadays it's too easily forgotten. The possibility that values are partly a matter of opinion doesn't change all this. Even if someone claimed (implausibly) that nothing has objective value, that claim still wouldn't be scientifically testable. Needless to say, scientists can make value judgments on their own, as human beings. However, no one can succeed in making value judgments using scientific methods alone. Science can study some questions about morality, like what makes people behave in ways commonly regarded as moral. However, science cannot say whether any moral standard (regardless of its origin) is objectively right.

Now back to the subject of God. We have seen that the idea of a supremely good being is one idea of God - and such a God is much more admirable than the angry ghost. So here's the big question: How can science prove that there's no supremely good being, when science, acting alone, can't even tell us whether anything is good or evil? The answer is simple: it can't. The very idea of science proving that there is no supremely good being is silly. It's like trying to prove scientifically that pulling the cat's tail is naughty. Any "scientific" argument that pretends to prove such conclusions must involve hidden side assumptions that are not scientific. Any plausible argument for or against God will be philosophical rather than purely scientific.

Some atheists have tried to debunk God on scientific grounds by arguing that God would have to be a very complex being, and that very complex beings are intrinsically improbable. This argument starts from an inadequate concept of God, but the argument also has another, more glaring flaw. The argument overlooks the fact that the improbability of complex beings is a consequence of the laws of nature. If the laws of nature had been different, things might have had probabilities vastly different from the ones they actually have. If we take God to be supernatural (as many people do), then we don't know whether the laws of nature apply to God - so we have no way to tell whether God would be improbable or not. If, on the other hand, God is natural (as some people believe), then the complexity of God is just all or part of nature's complexity. Either way, the argument that God is too complex to be believable is bad logic on a monumental scale. This objection to the argument certainly doesn't prove there is a God, but it shows that one "scientific" line of argument against God is wrong. For the details of this objection, and for some other objections to the same argument, see this paper. Similar problems face any argument that compares God to "Russell's teapot" or other improbable natural objects.

Until now I've been using the idea of God as an example of a scientifically untestable religious belief. Certain other important religious beliefs are like this too.

For example, there is the idea of an afterlife. Scientists often seem to think that science has debunked the afterlife once and for all. They argue that science has proven the self or personality to be a feature of the brain. Therefore (the argument goes) the self must disappear when the brain dies. But does this argument really work? Even if your self is only an attribute of your brain, why can't another brain have the same attribute after the end of your present brain?

It's nothing special for an attribute of a physical object to occur later in another physical object. Here's an example: Suppose that there were only one object having a certain shade of green. Then that object is destroyed. Later, a painter mixes new paint and just happens to create an object having exactly that same shade of green. In this example, one object has an attribute (a particular color) for a while - and later, after a delay, another object has the same attribute. Yet nothing passed between the two objects, and nothing miraculous happened.

If your self or identity is an attribute of your brain, couldn't that attribute occur again later in another object (brain)? The answer isn't obvious; when you begin to think carefully about the question, the question turns out to be quite complicated. The important thing is that when we look at the afterlife this way, we find that the scientific view of the mind cannot rule it out. Even if the self is an attribute of the brain, it's still logically and physically possible that there is an afterlife. What is more, the existence of an afterlife doesn't have to involve any kind of complexity that would make it statistically improbable. (See here for more details.) This certainly doesn't prove there is an afterlife - but it shows that the scientific view of the mind doesn't rule out an afterlife of some kind. The existence of the afterlife is a philosophical question, not a scientific one.

This post is not meant to persuade anyone to believe in God or in an afterlife. (Fanatical atheists, take note of this last sentence before you start calling me a hack, a fairy believer, and all your other usual hate words.) Also, I'm not asking anyone to believe in standard forms of religion. (As you know if you perused my website, my own ideas about religion aren't exactly standard and tend toward the disgustingly logical.) I'm just trying to point out that science cannot debunk the essential ideas of religion. Science can dispose of some outdated forms of belief, but science has little to do with the most important ideas at the heart of religion. So-called "scientific" disproofs of religion are simply pseudoscience. Away with them, along with the flat earth theory!

Now go have a very happy holiday season. Of course, this might be difficult if you are a militant atheist. In that case, you might prefer to spend the time putting the evil eye on me - an act just as rational as any so-called "scientific" argument against God.

posted at: 02:27 | path: /religion/science_and_religion | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 17 Dec 2009

Is Everything Abstract?

In my past writings I have had a lot to say about the reality of abstract objects. I have argued that these entities are real, though not in the same way that concrete things (like tables and chairs) are real. This is one of the standard philosophical positions about abstract objects [1]. One of the main lines of argument against this position is that accepting abstract objects adds unnecessary new things to the world. (In other words, accepting abstract objects supposedly violates Occam's Razor.) I do not believe that abstract objects pose any threat of this sort. The claim that abstract objects exist tells us little beyond what we already know when we say that objects have properties or relationships. See my earlier writings (here, here and here) for more about these ideas.

In this post I'd like to explore another, far more daring question about abstract objects: Might everything be abstract?

The speculation that everything might be abstract has precedents in philosophy. One precursor is the idea that the world is basically mathematical. This goes back to Greek philosophy (especially the Pythagoreans). The idea that the world might actually be a mathematical object occurs in modern times [2]. At first glance, the possibility that everything might be abstract seems implausible. How could everything be abstract when there's this solid, obviously concrete world around us? How could physical objects be abstract when abstract objects seem to be placeless, timeless, and devoid of the ability to cause events? (These are negative features that philosophers often attribute to abstract objects [3].) Also, how could everything be abstract when abstract objects are mainly just features of concrete objects? Wouldn't there have to be some concrete objects to begin with?

These worries become less pressing if we can begin to overcome the habit of picturing all abstract objects as intangible, ethereal, or not quite real. The worries might lose force even more when we explore the relationship between ordinary physical objects and their properties.

Before starting this exploration I'll make a few preliminary remarks about abstract objects.

If we accept the reality of abstract objects, then our picture of reality has room for many different kinds of existence. Tables and chairs are real, but so are properties like shapes and colors. Stars and galaxies are real, but so are relationships like being more massive than and being hotter than. Atoms and molecules are real, but so are mathematical items, like the set of all atoms in a DNA molecule (not the same as the molecule itself!) and the number of atoms or nuclei in a hydrogen molecule.

Mathematical logicians often think of abstract objects as forming systems of "logical types," or domains of abstract objects of different levels. For example, we might take physical objects to have logical type 0. Then a property of physical objects (like rectangularity) is of logical type 1. A property of a property of physical objects (like the property of being a shape property) is of logical type 2. And so on through type 3, 4,.... There also can be other types not in this series, such as types of relations. Logicians sometimes visualize an endless tower of logical types starting with the world of concrete things. Set theorists use a more flexible idea of levels, but the core idea is the same.

Often it's convenient to think in terms of towers of types, but we shouldn't get stuck thinking that every abstract object has to belong to one of these types. We need to keep an open mind and consider other possibilities - like sets that are members of themselves, or properties that are properties of themselves, or perhaps even two sets that are members of each other. Some logicians and mathematicians study things like these, mostly under the banner of "non-well-founded sets."

With these preliminaries in mind, I'd like to ask a key question: Where is the dividing line between concrete things and abstract objects?

I tried to answer this question in a talk called "Abstract Objects and Physical Reality," which you can find in a book of mine called The Unfinishable Book. (As of the date of this post, the book is downloadable for free - where "free" means "free except for the usual internet charges.") The gist of my answer is that there is no uniquely determined boundary between concrete objects and abstract objects.

This idea is not really new. Both Carnap's Aufbau [4] and Quine's thesis of ontological relativity [5] recognized that the choice of a domain of "concrete" entities might not be unique. However, what I'm proposing here is different from these earlier ideas. I am not embracing Quinian ontological relativity, and I am not proposing to use logical constructs, Aufbau-style, as substitutes or ersatzes for anything. I am only proposing that there is no unique domain of objects which alone are objectively "concrete."

Here is a brief introduction to the argument.

First, a bit more background on abstract objects. Concrete physical objects seem to be very different from abstract objects. However, when we begin to analyze physical objects, we find out that a physical object is an item that unites, or joins together, several properties and relations. A physical object has properties and relations which determine what the object is like. A physical object without properties and relations would be essentially "nothing." The most useful thing we could say about such an indefinite object is that it is able to hold several properties and relations together.

If we mentally distinguish a concrete object from its properties and relations, what is left of the object? Almost nothing! There would be only the factor that unites the properties and relationships.

Some philosophers have held that this uniting factor is a "bare particular" - a sort of simplified concrete object that does little more than hold together its properties and relations. Other philosophers (the "bundle theorists") deny bare particulars and view the uniting factor as something abstract, like a class.

Now here is the key insight behind my answer: It's hard to believe that a "bare particular" really is a concrete object. A bare particular looks more like a special property, shared in common by the properties and relations that it unites. I would argue that there is no significant contrast between a bare particular and a special property of this kind. Thus, if there is a bare particular, a concrete object is, at bottom, an abstract object. If there is no bare particular (and bundle theory is right), then a concrete object is, at bottom, abstract too. Either way, a concrete physical object can be analyzed into a combination of abstract objects of some kind.

If this view of existence is true, then there is no strong dividing line between the concrete and the abstract. The difference depends on where you begin your analysis. If you take concrete physical objects as the starting point, and don't try to analyze them into entities of other kinds, then you get the usual picture of abstract objects. You find that there are concrete objects, and then there are the various properties, relations, properties of properties, etc. of those objects. However, if you start your analysis with entities usually called abstract, you can portray concrete objects as properties or classes of them.

An obvious (but weak) objection to this view is that it can lead to circles of attribution, in which a physical object is a feature or class of abstract objects, while abstract objects are in turn features of physical objects. I don't think we should worry about these circles. They aren't vicious. They are no more illogical than the non-well-founded sets that I mentioned earlier. We can always postpone the circle in practice, by taking some fixed domain of objects as "concrete" and building up from there. The fact that everything is analyzable into other items doesn't make anything less real.

Another obvious objection is that physical objects have features that abstract objects don't have. For example, physical objects have spatial and temporal locations and causal powers - features that philosophers often deny to abstract objects. I don't think this objection is fatal either. Bare particular and bundle theories have to face this objection too. (Where is a bare particular located, when its spatial location has been stripped away along with its other properties? The "bundle" in bundle theory is an abstract object such as a class; how can it "be" a locatable, causality-ridden physical thing?) If this objection is not fatal to those theories, then it is not fatal to what I am proposing here.

For further details of the above argument, read Talk #9, called "Abstract Objects and Physical Reality" in The Unfinishable Book.

What, then, is the answer to our initial question, "Might everything be abstract?" The answer is "yes - in a way." Any given thing might be analyzable in a way that shows it to be an abstract object. However, that wouldn't prevent us from labeling some objects as concrete and using them as a "ground floor" for defining further abstractions. Normally we use physical objects as the concrete objects, but do we have to? Physical objects are the objects that seem most concrete to us - but perhaps that's just because we can detect many of them through our sense organs, which also can be analyzed as abstract objects if we have the nerve! (Pun intended.)


Concluding Cryptic Remark:

And now, for something really strange to think about.

Normally we equate the "world" to the world of concrete physical objects. We tend to regard other entities as mere features of that world. To borrow a term from mathematics, this amounts to taking a kind of "section" through the universe - picking out a preferred set of objects and treating them as basic. Usually the entities we treat as basic are the concrete physical entities. We regard them as the basic "world," with all other things mere features of that world.

What if we broke away from this unnecessary practice? What if we took a different "section" by choosing some different family of abstract objects as basic? What if we regarded all other entities, including our familiar physical objects, as mere features of those other objects? What would the resulting view of reality be like? Can we even do this without inconsistency?

This proposal sounds a bit like certain relativism-soaked ideas in philosophy - I'm thinking especially of Quine's ontological relativity thesis. However, it's not the same, because my proposal begins with a domain of real entities. All the abstract objects really exist, each in its own way. What is "relative" is the classification into abstract and concrete.

A conjecture: I suspect that if we began with data structures in the human brain as basic objects, we might arrive at a picture of reality in which the "basic" entities are experiences or their contents, and the physical world is a system of features of experiences or of their contents [6]. This would be a form of metaphysical idealism. However, this idealism would be fully compatible with naturalism, because both these viewpoints are just alternative analyses of the same world. See Chapter 13 in my book From Brain to Cosmos for my early thoughts on the possibility of a naturalistic idealism.

End of Cryptic Remark.



[1] The position that abstract objects are real is called ontological realism or platonism. My version of it is a modest version.

[2] Rudy Rucker wrote about the idea that everything is a set. See pp. 200-201 in Rucker's book Infinity and the Mind: the Science and Philosophy of the Infinite (Boston, Basel and Stuttgart: Birkhäuser, 1982).

[3] See the following article: Rosen, Gideon, "Abstract Objects", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = [].

[4] Carnap's Aufbau exists in several editions, including the following: Carnap, Rudolf (1928). The Logical Structure of the World. In The Logical Structure of the World; Pseudoproblems in Philosophy, trans. R. A. George (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969).

[5] Quine, W.V.O. Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).

[6] This seems reminiscent of what Carnap tried in the Aufbau, but actually it's different from the ground up (pun intended again). We aren't substituting logical constructions for anything. There is just a domain of objects, and there are different ways of classifying them.

posted at: 23:58 | path: /ontology | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 15 Dec 2009

Beyond Atheism, Theism, and Agnosticism: What Am I?

Sometimes people ask me whether I am an atheist, a theist, or an agnostic. Instead of giving simplistic answers to these questions, I'm going to take a few minutes to explain what I really think.

1. Am I a theist?

Theism is the belief that there is a supernatural God who created the universe and intervenes in it. Some people use the word "theism" to mean belief in a deity of any kind at all. However, this isn't the way the word usually gets used today. Usually "theism" is used to mean belief in a supernatural God who created and intervenes in the universe. Here I'll use "theism" in that sense.

According to this "standard" definition, I am not a theist. My problem with theism is not with the idea of a supreme being of some kind; my main problem is with the idea of the supernatural. I'll say more about that later.

Now that I've said this, I can almost hear the atheists printing my membership card. But wait! Things aren't as simple as they seem...

2. Am I an atheist?

I have a one-word answer to this question. However, the answer would be very misleading if I didn't explain a few things first.

The word "atheist" gets flung around rather freely today. However, labeling someone an "atheist" can be philosophically tricky. The problem with the word "atheist" is that the meaning of the word depends on which idea of God you accept. For example, a Christian might call an unbeliever in the biblical God an "atheist" just because that person accepts a concept of a supreme being different from the biblical God. Modern atheists sometimes make a similar mistake. They define the word "God" to mean a supernatural creator. Then, when they argue against belief in a supernatural creator, they think they are debunking God. The truth is more complex: you can believe in God without believing in a supernatural creator.

Philosophy and religion, both Eastern and Western, contain several different ideas of a supreme spiritual reality or supreme being. Some of these ideas do not portray the supreme being as a supernatural creator. I don't mean just the well-known "scientific" pantheism that equates God to the physical universe. There also are other ideas of God that don't involve supernatural creation but that don't equate God to the physical universe. Some of these ideas can do without belief in the supernatural. (Click here and here for further details.) Those who define the word "God" to mean only a supernatural creator, and who refuse to admit that there are other views of God, are just redefining the word "God." The idea that God is a supernatural creator is only one way to think about God. There are other ways.

Although I don't accept theism (defined as above), I am not anti-spiritual. I think the universe has a spiritual aspect to it. This spiritual aspect is not supernatural; humans can learn about it through the rational methods of philosophy (no religious faith required). I even think there is a supreme spiritual reality of sorts. This is not supernatural, but it fits pretty well with the philosophers' definition of a "greatest possible being" - a definition that I consider crucial to the idea of God. For more details, read this document.

So, do I believe in God? Those who insist on defining God as supernatural will conclude that I don't believe in God. However, I have a different answer: I do believe in God. Not the supernatural God of theism, but a supreme spiritual reality that's worthy of the name "God." My one-word answer to the question "Am I an atheist?" is "No."

If you think "God" can only mean a supernatural creator, then you might prefer to call me an atheist. My feelings won't be hurt, but I'll tell you that your definition of God needs some repairs!

3. Am I an agnostic?

My answer to the atheism question shows that I am not agnostic about the existence of a supreme spiritual reality. I think reason supports that idea. However, I am an agnostic of sorts about the existence of the supernatural. I don't believe there is anything supernatural (though there might, of course, be things in nature that seem supernatural to us). However, I don't know of any convincing argument for the nonexistence (or even the extreme improbability) of the supernatural. Thus, I am neither a believer nor a hard-core disbeliever in the supernatural. Followers of supernatural religions might want to consider me an agnostic for this reason. But I am not agnostic about the existence of some kind of supreme spiritual reality.

For further information, read this document, and explore the rest of this blog and this other blog.

posted at: 23:53 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 06 Nov 2009

My Other Blog Is Now Complete

The blog you are now reading is not my only blog. I have another blog, named "Religion: the Next Version." I created that other blog for one specific reason: to explore some ideas about a rational approach to religion.

"Religion: the Next Version" is now a completed work. I have done what I set out to do there. I plan to continue my blogging about religion (and everything else) on the blog you are now reading. I will leave "Religion: the Next Version" in place as a finished document. (There's a tiny chance that I might still add something to "Religion: the Next Version," but that's not in my current plans.)

Be sure to visit "Religion: the Next Version" today. The ideas you will find there might prove irritating to theists and atheists alike. However, visionary poets and true rationalists might find those ideas rather friendly.

posted at: 01:52 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 01 Sep 2009

Study Does Not Show that Fat People Are Brain-Damaged

A recent study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping [1] suggests that obesity and overweight are statistically linked to brain degeneration in elderly people. The LiveScience news website reported these results in a way that suggests that all obese people have brain damage [2]. The LiveScience article's title, "Obese People Have 'Severe Brain Degeneration'," is enough to create this misunderstanding. Other news outlets, such as [3], have reported the same story in a similar manner.


The study does NOT prove that fat people are brain damaged.

The study does not even show that being fat causes brain degeneration in the elderly.

The study suggests there is a statistical correlation between a high body mass index (BMI) and certain kinds of brain deterioration in elderly people. This is not the same as saying that being fat causes anything. One part of the original journal paper suggests that high BMI is not likely to be the actual cause of the observed brain changes, and that something else might be causing both the high BMI and the brain changes ([1], p. 9).

Misinformation about this study is a serious matter. If the media present this study the wrong way, people might take it to mean that all fat people are brain-damaged. This misunderstanding is sure to increase the widespread hatred of fat people, and to worsen the abuse of fat children, who often suffer vicious bullying, teasing, and social rejection because of their size. Even though the study involved elderly people and not children, the idea that being fat causes brain damage plays right into the "fat kids are stupid" stereotype, which already causes great harm to children who are genetically heavier than average.

There are at least two possible ways to explain the study's results without assuming that fat causes brain damage.

One explanation, which the paper already mentions, is that something could be causing both the high BMI and the brain changes. The paper mentions "reduced exercise" as one such possible cause ([1], p. 9). If this were the real cause, then fat people who get enough exercise should be able to avoid the brain problems. (Despite the widespread belief that fat people don't exercise, in reality many fat people do exercise - and some remain fat even when they are exercising a lot. [4])

Another possible explanation is that social stress and isolation are causing the brain problems. Fat people experience serious discrimination in our society, and this discrimination can affect health. (See reference [5] for relevant information.) Few thin people can fully imagine how much teasing, bullying, loneliness, and employment discrimination many fat people go through. It's no secret that social stress has bad effects on physical and mental health. Maybe some fat people develop brain problems because of a lifetime of social stress. If this is the explanation, then discrimination, not fat, is the cause of the brain problems. We can address this cause by working to end the discrimination.


Aside from the misleading media coverage, the study itself contains a feature that can be called into question. This is the study's use of BMI as an indicator of overweight and obesity. Although it is common to use BMI this way, BMI does not appear to be a very good measure of fatness or of poor health. (See references [5], [6] and [7] below for relevant information.)

Any scientific study is subject to future criticism by other scientists; results sometimes fade in the light of further studies. However, even if this study withstands the test of time, it does not show that fat people in general are brain-damaged.

These same warnings apply to any study that suggests that fat people of any age have brain problems. Studies of this sort do not automatically show that fat causes brain damage, or that fat people are stupid. The cautionary remarks given here might well carry over to other studies also.



[1] Cyrus A. Raji, April J. Ho, Neelroop N. Parikshak, James T. Becker, Oscar L. Lopez, Lewis H. Kuller, Xue Hua, Alex D. Leow, Arthur W. Toga, and Paul M. Thompson. "Brain Structure and Obesity". Human Brain Mapping (2009). Published online in Wiley InterScience ( DOI: 10.1002/hbm.20870. Accessed 8/25/2009.

[2] "Obese People Have 'Severe Brain Degeneration'". ( Posted 8/25/2009. Accessed 8/29/2009.

[3] "Study: Obese People Have 'Severe Brain Degeneration'". (,2933,542480,00.html) Posted 8/25/2009. Accessed 8/29/2009.

[4] For relevant information, see the following article on a U.S. government website: Marcia Wood, "Health At Every Size: New Hope for Obese Americans?" ( Published in Agricultural Research magazine, 3/2006. Accessed 8/29/2009. See also The Obesity Myth (reference [5] below).

[5] Paul Campos, The Obesity Myth (New York: Gotham Books, 2004).

[6] Raj Jayadev. "Muscle vs. Fitness". Metroactive. From Metro (newspaper), December 1-7, 2004. ( Accessed 8/29/2009.

[7] "Science of HAES". ( Accessed 8/29/2009. Includes articles by Dr. Paul Ernsberger.

posted at: 11:30 | path: /political | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 14 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 11: A Summary of the Papers, and What It All Means

This post is the last in a series that I call "The Anti-Dawkins Papers." Together, these posts form a critique of the main ideas in Richard Dawkins' atheistic book The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here. (Actually, the papers aren't against Dawkins; they are only against some of his ideas.)

Will I add more to the critique after this post? Is this really the last of the Papers? Those are open questions. (Update: I've written more about Dawkins' ideas elsewhere. See the note at the end of this post.)

In the previous ten posts, I refuted the main arguments from The God Delusion. Here are summaries of what I did.

  • In post 1 I showed that Dawkins' concept of God is hopelessly inadequate. Dawkins' definition of God describes only one idea of God among many possible ideas. Therefore, The God Delusion is not really a line of argument against God at all. Even if the arguments in the book were right, the book would be a refutation of one traditional concept of God - not of the idea of God as such. In post 1 I also showed that Dawkins' attack on Gould's NOMA concept is unjustified, and that Dawkins' grasp on philosophy, at least as deployed in this book, is weak.
  • In post 2 I refuted Dawkins' central argument: the argument from improbability. (Actually I did not do this in the post, but in a paper to which I linked from the post.) The argument from improbability is Dawkins' best atheistic argument; he even suggested that it might be "unanswerable" (p. 113). Since that argument is the central argument of The God Delusion (see pp. 157-158), its downfall effectively guts Dawkins' case for atheism. So much for unanswerability! After disposing of this argument, I also undermined Dawkins' critique of agnosticism.
  • In post 3 I addressed Dawkins' criticisms of personal religious experience. I showed that Dawkins' examples of religious experience were stunningly poor examples. I pointed out that real spiritual experience also exists, and can be a good source of knowledge whether or not there is anything supernatural. Also, I suggested that religions might grow out of legitimate spiritual experiences, and then become irrational when those experiences are forgotten and misunderstood.
  • In post 4 I showed that Dawkins' argument against design in nature is surprisingly weak. I gave links to some of my writings that describe an alternative view. According to this alternative view, evolution is exactly as science says it is (with no Intelligent Design theory or other aberrations), but there still can be real design in nature.
  • In post 5 I showed that Dawkins' ideas about the origins of religion are irrelevant to the truth of belief in God. Even if religion comes from lowly evolutionary sources, it may still turn out to be partly true. Also, I offered my own suggestion for a source of religious belief.
  • In post 6 I took on Dawkins' claim that religion causes evil. I pointed out that his many examples of religious evil are examples of "bad" religion (as defined in the post). These examples show that "bad" religion causes evil, but they tell us absolutely nothing about "good" religion (also defined in the post). Also, I showed that Dawkins' polemic against faith works only against unreasonable, morally insensitive forms of faith.
  • In post 7 I pointed out two places where Dawkins grossly misrepresents the ideas of opposing thinkers. These examples don't bear directly on arguments about God, but they raise doubts about the credibility of the book.
  • In post 8 I showed that the higher percentage of atheists among scientists and other educated people proves nothing about the truth or rationality of atheism.
  • In post 9 I rebutted Dawkins' claim that science rules out miracles. I did not argue for the reality of miracles, but I showed that some miracles might be compatible with science.
  • In post 10 I exposed Dawkins' harsh anti-religious rhetoric for what it is: a form of discourse which, if used in other circumstances, might be considered hate speech. Also, I pointed out some bad reasons why people might find The God Delusion convincing.

From the arguments in these posts, we can conclude that Dawkins has failed to make a convincing case against God. We are back where we started before Dawkins wrote his book: with the question of God's existence wide open. Belief in God remains a reasonable option for thinking people; so do atheism and agnosticism. Dawkins may have succeeded in debunking fundamentalism, religious extremism, and other unreasonable forms of belief - but you do not have to be an atheist to see that these are wrong. (Incidentally, those interested in rational approaches to spiritual issues may want to peruse my website, and especially the documents of mine that I cited in these posts.)

On the dust jacket of my copy of The God Delusion (the edition I cited in post 1 and used throughout the posts), a quote from Steven Pinker challenges those who hold some particular beliefs to "see if you can counter Dawkins's arguments." Well, we've done it! We have shown that the most important arguments in The God Delusion are wrong. Even if you don't agree with my counterarguments, the fact that it's possible to find substantive rational objections to Dawkins' arguments shows that he has not conclusively settled the question of God. Dawkins has not delivered any unanswerable final stroke in the debate over God's existence. Instead, he has just added his two cents' worth to that debate. (And a nasty two cents' worth it is!)

Despite the nastily self-assured tone of his book, Dawkins is not a voice of reason (or of Reason). As far as religious thought is concerned, he is only another purveyor of opinion in the age-old debate over the existence of God - and his arguments for his opinion aren't even convincing. It's time for rational thinkers to reject The God Delusion and move on to more rewarding pursuits.



Note added after posting: In the time since I posted "The Anti-Dawkins Papers," some criticisms of my arguments have shown up on the web. So far, the criticisms I have seen have not been convincing. I'm answering these criticisms, as time permits, on a separate rebuttals page. Also, I've written more about Dawkins' ideas since I wrote "The Anti-Dawkins Papers." These new writings are in the atheism category. Those interested in my views on religion in general are invited to explore the religion category as a whole.


Post updated 2/7/2011


posted at: 03:07 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 13 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 10: Hate by Any Other Name?

This post continues my critique of the ideas in Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. You can find the whole critique here.

Until now, I have concentrated on factual and logical problems with The God Delusion. However, one of the main problems with the book is neither a factual nor a logical problem, but an ethical one. I am referring to the book's extremely mean-spirited tone. (I am not the first to comment on this mean-spiritedness [1].) Early in the book, Dawkins says he wants to remove the respect traditionally accorded to religion (pp. 20-27). This part of the book even bears the title "Undeserved respect" (pp. vii, 20). In the rest of the book, Dawkins does not merely remove the undeserved respect. He spews a stream of hostile and corrosive rhetoric, mercifully interrupted by stretches of more level-headed material. If language as hostile as that in The God Delusion were found in a book on race or ethnicity, it might well get condemned in some quarters as hate speech.

I will not try to point out all the instances of vitriolic or insulting language in The God Delusion. There are far too many instances for that. Instead, I will just point out a few telling examples.

  • Dawkins quotes from a speech by noted religious physicist Freeman Dyson, made while Dyson was accepting an award (pp. 152-153). In between the lines of Dyson's speech, Dawkins inserts made-up words that Dyson never said, making it look as if Dyson were speaking insincerely. Dawkins admits that the added italicized words are not Dyson's, but still he puts them into Dyson's mouth, making Dyson look insincere. This attack on the brilliant Dyson is not simply a criticism of Dyson's beliefs. Instead, it amounts to a below-the-belt personal attack. Later, Dawkins seems to be trying to cover himself when he characterizes Dyson as "way above being corrupted" (p. 153). However, this quick disclaimer does little to reduce the suggestive power of the fabricated words, or the impressions of Dyson that those words leave in the reader's mind.
  • In his discussion of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA concept (which tries to reconcile science and religion), Dawkins surmises that Gould really did not believe NOMA at all, and was merely "bending over backwards to be nice to an unworthy but powerful opponent" (p. 57). In other words, he is suggesting that Gould lied. Again, a below-the-belt attack - but this time against a deceased man who cannot even answer back.
  • At one point (p. 108), Dawkins suggests that those involved with theology "are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they'd like to be true." In other words, if you are on the other side of the debating table from Dawkins, there's a good chance you are living in a fantasy world. Rational argument indeed!

These few examples are enough to expose the ratty tone of the book's rhetoric. Just imagine these examples multiplied many times over. The book leaves the impression that if you think differently from Dawkins, then you are insincere or cowardly at worst, ignorant and confused at best - and perhaps senile to boot (p. 98 n.). It is sad to see such rhetoric in a book whose author is known as a distinguished scientist.

Perhaps the most hateful aspect of The God Delusion is its constant carping on the evils of religion. I have dealt with these examples of bad religion collectively in an earlier post. There I showed that these examples prove nothing about the existence of God or about the goodness of religious thought in general. These examples only show that some particular religious beliefs are desperately wrong. (You don't need to be an atheist to figure that out; you just need to watch the evening news.) However, the failure of Dawkins' polemic against religion is not its worst defect. Even though it does not succeed in proving anything, Dawkins' insistent ranting about the evils of religion has the potential to whip up rage against ordinary religious people.

Imagine what would happen if the author of this book were not an atheist criticizing religion, but a member of a particular faith criticizing another faith. Suppose, for example, that a Christian wrote a book against Judaism with the same degree of hostility and ridicule that Dawkins uses to attack religion in general. Suppose further that this Christian author hinted that unconverted Jews constitute a danger to humanity. What would we say about such a book? Many of us would consider it a work of hate. The author of the anti-Jewish book might try to defend himself by saying: "But I wasn't attacking Jews, I was only attacking their beliefs!" That argument would not wash well with many of us. Anyone who portrays adherents of a belief as menaces to humanity is attacking the people, not just the belief. That kind of criticism goes beyond mere criticism of ideas.

Dawkins does almost the same thing as our imaginary Christian. The main difference is that he attacks a different group of mostly good people. (The two groups - religious believers and Jews - even overlap.) Dawkins doesn't only attack religious criminals, such as al-Qaeda or child-abusing priests, though he does criticize these (see especially pp. 303-304, 315-318). Instead, he portrays all religion as a menace (chap. 8) - and he does so in a way that suggests religious people are vehicles of that menace. (He even likens religion to a contagious virus (pp. 176, 186-188).) In effect, he portrays religious people, not only religious ideas, as a problem for the world. Why should Dawkins get a free pass? Why are we afraid to call The God Delusion a hateful book? As I pointed out in my earlier posts, the book is full of faulty arguments. What makes this book significantly better than, say, a fiery Christian polemic against Judaism that uses weak arguments as talking points?

I suspect that many readers give The God Delusion more respect than it is worth because they are afraid to question the opinions of a well-known scientist. However, this fear should not stop them from using their reason. Personally, I am a lifelong supporter of science, but even an ardent admirer of science must admit that scientists are not perfect. Occasionally a scientist messes up just as badly as anyone else could. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Philipp Lenard became a follower of Adolf Hitler and served as "Chief of Aryan or German Physics" for the Nazi Party. [2] The tragic stories of eugenics and of lobotomies provide other examples of scientific error. These errors eventually got corrected, but not in time to prevent harm. I am not suggesting that Dawkins would embrace errors as gross as these. I am only pointing out that his scientific credentials do not guarantee that his ideas always are right. Critical thinking is necessary in this imperfect world. You need it even when reading a book by a "big" scientist.

Another reason people might take The God Delusion seriously is that Dawkins is a good writer. It's true that he's a good writer, but of course this says nothing about the truth of his ideas. It is unfortunate for humanity, but nevertheless true, that people who hold lousy ideas sometimes write well.

Still another possible motive for undue reverence toward The God Delusion is the sheer density of information in the book. This book is packed with scientific and historical information and ideas. The reader may get the feeling that the book is full of new insights, perhaps even revelations. However, this does not tell us anything about the book's truth. A good science fiction novel can create the same feeling, and can be just as full of ideas and information. That doesn't mean that the plot of the novel is factually true. (The difference, of course, is that the science fiction novel is not meant to be true.)

I suggest that we abandon any undue reverence toward The God Delusion, and start telling it like it is. The God Delusion is not a book that a rational thinker should believe. For reasons discussed here and in my earlier posts, the book does not succeed in building a credible case for atheism. It's still possible for a thinking person to be an atheist - but if you are going to be one, you need to find better reasons than the faulty arguments and misguided rhetoric in The God Delusion.



[1] See, for example, Alvin Plantinga's comments on the nastiness found in The God Delusion. (Plantinga, Alvin. "The Dawkins Confusion." Books & Culture, March 1, 2007, [], accessed 5/10/2009.)

[2] Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967, [], accessed 7/8/2009.

posted at: 23:59 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 09 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 9: Of Science and Miracles

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' ideas about religion as found in his book, The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

In this post I will take on one of Dawkins' claims about miracles. This post is not an argument for belief in miracles. I am only trying to show that the topic of miracles is not as simple as Dawkins makes it seem.

The line of thought in The God Delusion is unfriendly to miracles. Dawkins even claims that "miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science" (p. 59). What "definition" does Dawkins have in mind? Is there a hard-and-fast definition, written down somewhere, that dictates the "principles of science"? No, there is not.

Science is a set of methods that have proven extraordinarily useful in understanding and controlling the natural world. Scientists follow certain working rules because those rules have proven useful. However, science does not bow and kneel before any a priori list of inviolable principles. If a miracle ever happened, no so-called principle would bar scientists from studying it! If scientists ever did confirm that there was a miracle (in the sense of an event that violates natural laws), they would not say "Well, we have conclusive evidence for this miracle, but we still can't believe it happened, because believing it would violate The Very Principles of Science Itself." At least scientists who have thought it over would not say that! If scientists ever gained conclusive evidence for a miracle, they would have to accept that some natural laws have occasional exceptions. However, science would not collapse. Science would not even have to change in any fundamental way. A thoughtful scientist might say "Well, there's an exception to one of our known natural laws. Now we know that this particular law isn't invariably true. Instead of holding all the time, it only holds statistically - it's usually reliable but can be violated on occasion." Scientists already know of statistically true natural laws. The law of entropy in thermodynamics is not invariably true, but only statistically true. The allowed violations of the law of entropy are not miracles; instead, these stunningly rare violations have a known physical basis. However, the statistical nature of the law of entropy does show that a natural law doesn't have to be 100 percent right to be useful. In layman's terms, stuff happens!

Science does not resort to miracles to explain puzzling facts. This scientific policy has proven itself useful, and is indispensable as a working rule. (If we explain something odd by assuming it's a miracle, then we might be missing some other, non-miraculous explanation that we haven't thought of yet.) But does science really rule out miracles?

Imagine a miracle that only happens once, with no advance warning and with no closely similar miracles before or after. Such a once-off unrepeatable miracle would be no threat to science at all! As far as science is concerned, such a miracle probably would be undiscoverable. Here's why. If scientists found apparent evidence for such a miracle, they would favor the simplest, least extravagant possible explanation for the evidence. (The working rule of scientific method called Occam's Razor says this is the appropriate thing to do.) However, any non-miraculous explanation would be less extravagant than the hypothesis that a miracle had occurred. Therefore, scientists would not conclude that there was a miracle, even if there was no other apparent explanation for the evidence.

What does this mean? It means that if a single unrepeatable miracle really happened, scientists would have no intellectual obligation to believe that it happened! Scientists would be justified in acting as if there were no miracle. A once-off, unrepeatable miracle would pose no threat to our scientific knowledge. It would not even touch our scientific knowledge. The miracle would not have to be incorporated into our scientific knowledge, even if it really happened. Science can simply ignore the possibility of such a miracle.

It's all too easy to forget that science deals with repeatable phenomena and with hypotheses that are testable through scientific methods. Science does not necessarily encompass all possible phenomena, and ignores hypotheses that cannot be scientifically tested. An unrepeatable event can be of scientific interest, but scientists will try to explain it using laws that have repeatable consequences. Ignoring some phenomena and beliefs may be the correct thing for scientists to do, even if they risk missing something that way.

Science does not trade in miracles. That is as it should be. However, science does not force us to believe dogmatically that there are no miracles. A once-off miracle might not be scientifically confirmable. Note that we cannot say this about a repeatable miracle (for example, if certain prayers were answered dependably). Such a miracle might well be subject to scientific testing. (Dawkins gives an example of this sort of testing in his section on "the Great Prayer Experiment" (pp. 61-66). In that case, the miracle turned out not to be there.) However, an unrepeatable miracle might be impossible to pin down scientifically.

This is not an argument for belief in miracles. As readers of my writings may have noticed, my own view of spirituality does not require miracles, if a "miracle" means a violation of natural law. I only want to point out that the relationship between science and miracles is not as hostile as it seems. Science can operate perfectly well without an absolute assumption that there are no miracles. If you believe in miracles, that doesn't automatically make you an enemy of science. Whether miracles really happen is a separate question.

posted at: 17:03 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Wed, 08 Jul 2009

Why Science Cannot Disprove the Afterlife

Part 1. The Afterlife and the Scientific Argument Against It

One of the important beliefs of traditional religions is the existence of an afterlife. Some religions teach that humans have immortal souls that leave the body at death and continue to exist afterwards. Other religions teach that there is no persisting soul, but that a person's mental life, or some aspect of it, starts up again in a new body. (This second view is typical of Buddhism.)

Science-minded skeptics often reject the idea of an afterlife out of hand. Their standard argument against the afterlife goes like this: The mind is only a process in the brain. Therefore, the mind cannot survive the death of the brain.

Is this argument against the afterlife sound? No, it is not. The reason is simple: a process can continue after its physical medium is destroyed. A process that exists in one medium now can continue in a different medium later. Therefore, the fact that the mind is a process in the brain does not imply that the mind must end with the brain. Instead, the mind might continue later in a new brain or in some other physical medium. [1]

There are many examples of processes that start on one medium and continue in another. Examples of these processes are water waves, computations, and fires.

An ocean wave is a process. A single wave can pass from one part of the ocean to another. In doing so, the wave first occupies one stretch of seawater, then another, then another. The water molecules themselves move around in place; they do not travel with the wave. If the part of the sea where the wave started were removed (say, displaced by a big ship), the wave might continue as if nothing happened - provided that the wave already had traveled to a new piece of water.

A computation is a process. It can start on one processor and finish on another. If the computation isn't going to use the first processor anymore, then the first processor normally can be shut off with no harm to the computation.

A fire is a process. It can start on one chunk of fuel and continue on another. Once the fire reaches the second piece of wood, the first piece might already be destroyed. However, the fire can continue to burn. The fire needs fuel, but the fire's existence doesn't depend on any particular piece of fuel. A different piece of fuel will do just fine. (The analogy between the spread of a fire and the continuation of the mind occurs in Buddhist thought. Apparently the old-time Buddhists understood the behavior of processes better than do today's skeptics.)

A process can continue even after the demise of its original medium. Therefore, the common "scientific" argument against immortality is neither scientific nor convincing. Even if the mind is only a process in the brain, the mind might still continue after death by continuing in another brain, or in some other physical system capable of supporting mental processes.

This finding isn't an argument for the existence of an afterlife. It is only a rebuttal to the standard "scientific" argument against the afterlife. The skeptics who use this argument are way off track. The mind may be a process in the brain, but this fact alone does not tell us whether the mind can continue to exist after the brain is gone. If the skeptics want to think that the afterlife is impossible, they are going to have to find better reasons than that one!

Part 2. Of Toads and Timing: How Might the Mind Survive Death?

It's possible for a process to outlast its medium. How could this happen for the human mind?

This question brings us to the many scientific speculations about artificial immortality. Scientists, philosophers, and science fiction writers have asked whether we might be able to become immortal by transferring our minds into new brains or into computers. This kind of artificial mind transfer is one way that the mind might outlive its brain. (I discuss an even wilder variation on this in note [2].)

Artificial immortality is an exciting prospect, but it isn't what I want to write about in this post. I am thinking about spontaneous immortality - a mind's survival of death without artificial means. Spontaneous immortality is similar to what present-day religions believe in. Is spontaneous immortality logically possible and compatible with modern scientific knowledge?

The simple answer is YES. Nothing in logic or in science rules out the possibility of a mind spontaneously starting up again after the death of its original brain. For this to happen, the mind would have to start up again in some other brain spontaneously, without artificial intervention. We have no proof that this happens, but nothing we currently know rules it out. I'll spend most of the rest of this post justifying this answer.

Could an old mind really start up again spontaneously in a new brain? How could this happen?

If it happens, it might work something like this. The mind stops operating when the brain dies. Then a new mind, starting up naturally in a newly formed infant brain somewhere, happens to have some crucial features of the old process. In fact, it is so much like the old process that the two processes constitute the same mind. The new process in the new brain acts as a continuation of the old process in the old brain.

If something like this happened, then a kind of "rebirth" could occur without the need for anything controversial like persisting souls. It wouldn't require any objects besides human bodies and their brains.

Does this scenario even make any sense? Yes! We already know of many physical processes that restart like this. They stop happening for a while, and then start happening again later.

One prime example is a computation. Someone can set up a computer program to do a specific task (for example, calculate pi to 1 million decimal places). If the program saves its in-progress data to the hard disk, then if the program is interrupted (say by a hardware reboot), the program can be started up again later and finish the same task. There is no reason to think of the second part of the computation as a totally new computation. It is part of the same computation as the first part.

Other examples of such processes come from the migration of animals. Many types of animals migrate from one geographical area to another. Perhaps the movement is caused by external stimuli alone, or perhaps internal "clocks" and interactions among animals play roles - but in any case, the result is a process that we call a migration. Now imagine a migration in which the animals' movement is triggered by external stimuli alone. Imagine further that these particular animals are not very excitable, so that only one animal is traveling at any given time. If you want a specific example, imagine a bunch of toads moving across the landscape - and imagine that the toads are rather placid, so it happens that only one toad is hopping at any given time. This process (if it really happened) would be a perfectly good example of an animal migration. However, it would not be a continuous process, but would be a frequently interrupted one. At any given time, a single toad is moving - but in between times, no animals are traveling at all. In spite of the gappy and disconnected nature of the movements, the sum total of these movements is a process of migration. A migration really is happening. It would be an abuse of language to say there is no "migration" just because the migration consists of discrete jumps. [3]

These examples show that a single process can be made up of several consecutive subprocesses or stages ("hops"), each of which spans a different interval in time and space. It's possible for a process to stop and then start up spontaneously later, even if some time elapses between the stages of the process, and even if the restart happens in a different place from the stop.

What does that tell us about the mind? The toad and computer examples show that a process can be made of several stages that happen in sequence, with time gaps (and even space gaps) separating the stages. The stages don't have to be connected directly together to make up a single process. Thus, the process that we call the mind could (for all we know) consist of several separated stages. The fact that the mind is a process in the brain does not rule out the possibility that this process has more stages later, in other brains. When a mind stops, some later process that starts up in some other brain might be a future stage of the same mind. We have no proof that this happens, but we can't rule it out by shouting that tired old skeptical battle cry, "the mind is only a process in the brain"!

If minds really could start up again like this, then after you die, your mind might start up again in the brain of some new baby who is just beginning to gain consciousness. (Babies appear to become conscious gradually, not all at once - but still they do become conscious, so we can speak of the experiences that happen as a baby becomes conscious.) In other words, you might die, then wake up as a new baby somewhere in the world. This would be a modern version of the ancient doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth. Of course, there would be nothing that actually "reincarnates," because there is no substantial soul to pass over to the new body. There also would be none of those so-called "past-life memories" that bemuse so many New Agers. Instead, your mind during this life would be only one time-phase of a larger process, which has gaps and also includes the mind of a future brain. This larger process would be your mind as a whole. Your mind as it exists during this life would be only part of your mind - a single stage.

The Buddhist idea of rebirth is much like this: a kind of restart of one's inner life in a new body, without any substantial soul to pass over to the new body. However, the idea I am proposing here is much simpler. Among other differences, my idea can do without the belief in karma, which is important to the Buddhist view.

Part 3. The Perils and Possibilities of Persons

So far I have been talking about an abstract logical possibility: a single mind that exists in two or more different bodies, one after the other. Before we can consider this a real possibility, we need to think about a huge question: Why would the mind of a new body - a body born after you die - be your mind? What would make a particular new mind a continuation of you, instead of just a new person? Could anything do that?

Offhand, it doesn't seem as if the mind of a later body could be your mind. The very idea seems bizarre. After all, the baby born after you die doesn't have your memories, and probably no information or influence has passed from you to the baby! This kind of "rebirth" isn't exactly like a fire passing from one stick to another, where the first phase of the fire causes the second phase to begin. It's more like our migration of toads, where two independent hops can be stages of the same overarching process. It's just you (hop number 1) and a future infant (hop number 2) - with no important influences passing in between.

Could the baby be the same person as you? I don't have a final answer to this question, but I do know a possible way to an answer. This way is the theory of personal identity - a field of philosophy that uses logic to analyze questions about the persistence of persons through time. Let me explain this a bit. I won't go into personal identity theory in depth here (there already are many books on that topic), but I'll try to indicate what the field is about, drawing on general background knowledge about the field. Those interested in a deeper treatment are invited to explore the many books and articles on personal identity.

During your present life, your mind and body continue through time. As they continue, you undergo many different moments and stages of life. All these time-phases of your life are stages of a single history of a unique person. There is a unity to your history; the history isn't just a scattered series of random experiences or disconnected moments of existence. There must be some shared feature that the stages have in common, or some relationship among the stages, that unites all the stages into the history of a single person. Philosophers studying personal identity have created various theories, ideas and guesses about the nature of the unifying feature or relationship.

Let's look at a few known ideas about personal identity, and what they say about the possibility that a new baby, born after your death, might be you all over again.

(Note to philosophers: As a philosopher, you might agree or disagree strongly with some of the theories I'm hinting at here. Remember that I am not advocating a specific theory of personal identity. I only want to show that different views of personal identity can give very different verdicts on the idea of rebirth. I am well aware that there are arguments for and against each of these views. If an objection is standard, I've probably already heard it.)

Idea 1. Essentialism.

According to so-called "essentialist" views of personal identity, what unites the stages in your life is a set of essential characteristics. These would be the characteristics that make you uniquely you, and that differentiate you from all other persons.

If persons or their minds really have essential characteristics like this, then a baby might be born who is literally a continuation of you. People are born with many different sets of characteristics as a result of chance and the genetic lottery. Given any possible set of essential characteristics, some future baby might happen to be born with that same set of characteristics, just by chance. The longer the time after your death, the more likely such an infant will be born somewhere. Thus, you might be "reborn" in the future by virtue of raw chance. In effect, the chance genetic processes that created you in the first place might accidentally create you again!

Idea 2. Continuity of experience.

According to other views of personal identity, what unites your stages into one history is the continuity of experiences in your life. At each conscious moment, you have certain experiences (sensations, feelings, etc.). These experiences give way to each other as you go along, creating what's called a "stream of consciousness."

If this apparent continuity is what ties your life together, then a baby might be born who is literally a continuation of you. A baby, once conscious, can have various experiences. Some of these experiences (perhaps most of them at first!) will be dreamy and unreal - so they will include experiences of things that aren't really present. Given the vast complexity of brains, some of these dreamlike experiences might even be rather random. What if the baby's earliest experiences started with impressions that just happened, by chance, to duplicate your last moments - either in detail, or at least in certain crucial respects? That might be enough to make the new baby's consciousness count as a continuation of yours.

Idea 3. Continuity of viewpoint.

Each of us has what philosophers call a "first-person point of view" - a unique standpoint from which one experiences the world. As philosophers often have pointed out, conscious experience has a subjective "feel"; it has an inner, subjective, felt aspect as well as an outer, behavioral one. [4]

This provides a clue to another way that a new baby could be literally a continuation of you. As I pointed out under Idea 2, a baby's earliest experiences may be partly random. What if the baby's earliest conscious moments just happened, by chance, to feel as though your last experiences had just happened? Given certain ideas about first-person viewpoint, that might make the baby's first-person viewpoint a continuation of yours. [5]

This idea is especially relevant if a first-person perspective is a kind of abstract object. (Elsewhere I have suggested that the first-person perspective at any given moment of awareness is a kind of modality, which can be taken to be an abstract object. See reference [6] and also here.) If a first-person perspective is an abstract object, then it might be possible for a brain not physically connected to yours to realize the same abstract feature.

Idea 4. The abstract self

As I have pointed out elsewhere, it's reasonable to assume that the self is an abstract object - a feature or property of the brain or of the brain's activity. (This idea isn't a theory of personal identity, but it has a similar impact on the rebirth scenario we are discussing.)

If this idea is true, then a new baby might be literally a continuation of you. How? The baby's brain might have the same feature that served as a self when your brain had the feature!


By presenting these four ideas about personal identity or the self, I'm not arguing for any of them. Nor am I arguing for any of the four possibilities for rebirth. Those who think they have fatal objections to one or more of these ideas need not be too upset. I know that much of what I have said is speculative. (Critics, pay attention to the preceding sentence before writing.) All I am trying to show is that it is not out of the question for a later human organism to be the same person as an earlier human organism. Nothing illogical, supernatural, or antiscientific is required. These four scenarios for survival of death do not violate the scientific principle known as Occam's Razor; they do not assume any extra objects (like ghostly souls) or extra complexity in the physical world. (The only objects required are human bodies and brains, with all their usual properties and features.)

Note that these four proposals do not add up to proof of an afterlife, or even to proof that an afterlife is likely. (I repeat: I am not claiming to have a proof of the afterlife.) Besides the four views of personal identity that I've hinted at here, there are other views that make spontaneous survival very unlikely. Examples are views based on the continuity of bodies or on the continuity of most of a person's memories. I am not going to argue for or against any of these theories here. I have presented the above four ideas to make one point: that we can't disprove the afterlife merely by stating that the mind is nothing but a process in the brain.

These examples also teach us another important lesson: if the mind is a process in the brain, then the possibility of an afterlife is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. If the mind is a process in the brain, then the answer to the question "Can a person spontaneously survive death?" depends on the solution to the problem of personal identity. That problem is philosophical, not scientific. Science cannot decide among alternative logically consistent solutions to that problem, for we cannot make that decision using only physical facts about bodies and their behavior. We also need philosophical analysis of concepts, such as the concept of a person. No matter which view of personal identity is right, the physical facts about bodies, brains and behavior will look exactly the same.

Part 4. Some Parting Remarks (pun intended)

What lessons have we learned from this merry romp through philosophy, logic and life? There are two.

1. The standard scientific argument against the afterlife is wrong. It might be possible for persons and their minds to survive death, even if the mind is "only" a process in the brain and the self is "only" a feature of the brain.

2. If the mind is a process in the brain, then the existence of the afterlife is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. If the mind is indeed a process in the brain, then only the philosophical analysis of personal identity can settle the question of the afterlife rationally - if anything ever can settle that question rationally. At very least, science cannot disprove the existence of the afterlife. Science can test particular ideas about the afterlife (such as beliefs about ghosts or past-life memories), but it cannot show that there is no afterlife of any kind.

If the mind is a process in the brain, then the standard "scientific" argument against the afterlife is not scientific. To present this argument as science is to practice pseudoscience! The argument is not scientific, but all too often it gets passed off on the unwary as science.

Before finishing, I should touch on the subject of religion. The ideas I have presented about the afterlife do not support any particular religious view of the afterlife. (For that matter, they don't support other specific religious beliefs either. An atheist can accept these ideas just as well as a theist can.) The ideas presented here come closer to Buddhist views than to any other religious teaching on the afterlife. However, adherents of other religions might want to speculate on the relevance of this post to their own beliefs. (For example, could "heaven" be interpreted as rebirth in some alternate universe?) Discussing these possibilities would take me too far into the realm of faith, where I do not want to go right now. My aim in this post is not to prove any part of any religion, or any specific picture of the afterlife. I only want to show that the standard "scientific" argument against the afterlife is wrong. And that, I would suggest, I have done.



[1] As I will mention in a moment, the Buddhists recognized this fact long ago. It is amazing that the proponents of the skeptical argument do not take this old discovery into account.

[2] Combine artificial immortality with time travel - another staple of science fiction - and you raise the possibility of artificially continuing the minds of people who already have died. Some physicists have seriously asked whether time travel might be possible. If it were possible, and if it could take us to any past time, then why not start resurrecting everyone? The result would be every bit as good as the "general resurrection" that some religions believe in. (Liberal Christians often interpret "creation" in a non-supernatural way as the process of evolution. They might also be interested in the idea of a resurrection without supernatural miracles!)

[3] There is little question that an animal migration counts as a single process. The migration as a whole has specific overall effects on regional animal populations and on the natural environment in general. It plays a role in the natural world that goes beyond any of the individual activities of its component hoptoads. To deny that the migration is a real process, while also claiming that only the individual hops of the toads are real, would be silly.

[4] To better understand this idea, see the classic article "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" by Thomas Nagel (The Philosophical Review, 83 (1974):435-450).

[5] See the treatment of "conscious subject identity" in chapter 5 of my book, From Brain to Cosmos. (Sharlow, Mark F. From Brain to Cosmos. Parkland, FL: Universal Publishers, 2001.)

[6] From Brain to Cosmos (cited above), chapter 3 and especially pp. 65-66.

posted at: 01:49 | path: /religion/science_and_religion | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 06 Jul 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 8: Are Scientists and Other Smart People Atheists?

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' ideas about religion as found in his book, The God Delusion. You can find the whole critique here.

Dawkins' claim that most good scientists are atheists (pp. 97-103) does not provide one shred of support for atheism. The majority of scientists might be atheistic, or appear to be atheistic, for reasons having nothing to do with the truth or falsity of atheism. I can think of four such reasons without even trying very hard.


Reason 1. Academic politics.

This explanation for scientific atheism is crashingly obvious to those of us who have observed the rise of other persistent academic fads, like postmodernism. If the top layers of the scientific profession contain lots of atheists, then it might be hard for religious scientists (even liberal ones) to move up in their fields. Over time, this process of selection would make atheism more and more common among scientists. This mechanism alone could explain the abundance of atheists in science.

Of course, this explanation will work only if there was an initial surplus of atheists to start the process. It isn't hard to see where that surplus could have come from. There could have been a temporary surge of atheism among scientists in the wake of some scientific discovery that seemed to support atheism. Evolution is one candidate for such a discovery. (Evolution doesn't actually support atheism, but it rules out some simplistic beliefs about God, and it seems to support atheism. See here and here for relevant ideas. Also see my e-books God and Darwin - Buddies! and God, Son of Quark.) Another possible source for the initial surplus of atheists is pure chance. For example, the top universities might have happened to recruit more atheists than usual for a short time. (This is what mathematicians call a statistical fluctuation.) No matter how the atheistic trend got started, it easily could have become self-perpetuating and stubbornly hard to reverse.

Reason 2. Philosophical ignorance and "philosophobia."

In my personal experience, I have found that many scientists are frighteningly ignorant of philosophy. Some even speak as if they held preposterous beliefs about philosophy - like the belief that philosophers think the physical world is only a dream. A few scientists are downright hostile to philosophy in spite of knowing little about it. Worse yet, most scientists are not skilled in the kind of reasoning used in philosophy - the subtle, nuanced analysis of ideas and shades of meaning, so different from the visual thinking and physical intuition that pervade most scientific reasoning.

This ignorance about philosophy might seem to be a simple case of overspecialization. It might seem to have nothing to do with religion. However, this ignorance easily could trap scientists into becoming atheists or agnostics. Here's how that could happen.

Scientists are highly educated. Because of this, they know that many traditional religious beliefs are wrong. The most obvious example of such a belief is the doctrine that God created each living species through a special supernatural act. When people become educated enough to reject a lot of beliefs like that, they will lose faith in the old-time religion they grew up with. What outlook will they adopt instead? There are only two real choices. Either they will abandon religion, or they will try to find a more rational type of spiritual belief. How can one find those better forms of belief? Only through philosophical reasoning - the kind of fine-grained qualitative thinking, often about unvisualizable concepts, that is typical of philosophy. You don't have to be a philosopher to figure out rational alternatives to the old-time religion. However, you do need to be able to think like a philosopher. Scientific reasoning, with its emphasis on pictorial thinking about visible things, is not the right tool for this job. When confronted with ideas like the various personal and impersonal concepts of God, scientific reasoning will simply draw a blank. Scientists who no longer believe what they were told to believe, but who can't think philosophically, will not find any rational alternative besides unbelief.

For this reason, a scientist who can't think philosophically is likely to feel that religion is wrong, period. Without the background to think out better answers, what else can a scientist do?

Reason 3. Atheism of convenience.

Maybe the statistics about atheism among scientists aren't as accurate as they seem. Dawkins hints that people of earlier times (including scientists) may have pretended to be religious for political or social reasons (see p. 98). This seems like a very reasonable assumption. However, in today's scientific community, atheism and not religion is the fashion. Thus, the opposite deception might occur. I wonder how many scientists pretend to be atheistic for the sake of their careers, when really they are believers!

This mechanism could not account for all scientific atheism. I think most scientists are more or less honest about their beliefs. However, this mechanism could increase the apparent number of atheists in science.

Reason 4. Mislabeling.

I wonder what scientists and those who observe them really mean when they label scientists as atheistic. If they take "atheism" to mean disbelief in a personal God or in a supernatural God, then a scientist might be labeled an atheist and still believe in a full-fledged supreme being! (See my earlier post on alternative ideas of God.) Perhaps some scientists are not really atheists, but are just skeptical of traditional ideas about God. Also, I wonder how many "atheistic" scientists really are agnostic instead of atheistic. Do the scientists, with their typically inadequate philosophy backgrounds, fully understand the difference?


These four sociological mechanisms, acting together, easily might explain why scientists tend to be atheists or to be labeled as atheists.

These sociological mechanisms don't affect only scientists. They also could explain Dawkins' observation that educated and intelligent people in general are more likely to be atheistic (pp. 101-103). To explain that fact, we don't have to assume that the idea of God is so irrational that only dumb people fully accept it. (Dawkins doesn't quite make that assumption in The God Delusion, but his selective carping on the stupidest examples of religion strongly suggests it.) The fact that scientists and other educated people tend to be atheistic does not prove anything interesting about the real world.

Incidentally, professional philosophers (like other educated people) could be affected by these sociological mechanisms. Can reason 2 apply to them? Philosophers, by definition, are not ignorant of philosophy. However, they still can suffer from a kind of partial "philosophobia," because present-day philosophy is so deeply fragmented into subdisciplines. One easily can imagine a philosopher of science or a philosopher of mind being ignorant of the philosophy of religion, and thinking there must be something fishy about it because it has to do with religion.

posted at: 00:15 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 25 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 7: Dawkins Misrepresents Some Opposing Ideas and Thinkers

This post continues my critique of the ideas about religion found in Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. You can find all posts in this critique, including the present one, here.

There are many things wrong with the line of argument in The God Delusion. Besides the faults I discussed earlier, there are two passages that misrepresent opposing thinkers so grossly as to strain belief. I will take up these two passages in turn.

1. Some Silliness about Dualism

One of the ideas that Dawkins criticizes is dualism - the view that the mind is something distinct from the body (pp. 179-180). This criticism is not surprising, since dualism is unpopular in academic circles today. Dualism was more popular among scientists and philosophers in the past. The great philosopher-scientist Descartes was a dualist, as was the Nobel Prize-winning brain scientist John Carew Eccles [1]. Even today, "property dualism" (a mild form of dualism) remains under consideration among philosophers.

In light of these facts about dualism, consider the following two utterly amazing statements by Dawkins (p. 180):

"Dualists readily interpret mental illness as 'possession by devils' []"

"Dualists personify inanimate physical objects at the slightest opportunity, seeing spirits and demons even in waterfalls and clouds."

When I first read these incredible statements, I thought, "Which dualists could Dawkins have in mind?" The answer came quickly: not any philosophical dualist I've heard of! The most prominent dualist philosopher of all time was Descartes. Descartes believed that humans were the only animals with non-bodily minds. To accuse Descartes of "personify[ing] inanimate physical objects at the slightest opportunity" is sheer claptrap. The same can be said about other serious dualistic thinkers besides Descartes.

What Dawkins calls "dualism" in this passage is not dualism, but animism. [2] Animism is a feature of some tribal religions. Animism is dualistic, but it is not a reflective or philosophical form of dualism. Scientifically aware dualists are not animists. You can like dualism or hate it, but either way, confusing dualism with animism is simply nonsense.

I don't pretend to know why Dawkins made this mistake. I wish I could give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he just goofed and used the wrong word, taking "dualism" to mean what's usually called "animism." Alas, his characterization of dualism on the previous page (p. 179) shows that things are not so simple. He knows the approximate definition of dualism, but he confuses dualism with animism anyhow. The resulting passage in the book makes dualists look far more foolish than any rational criticism could make them appear.

This confusion is rhetorically convenient. If real philosophical dualists believed in waterfall spirits, then dualism would be oh-so-easy to debunk!

2. Nonsense about a Major Psychologist

In another place (p. 50-51), Dawkins makes unsupported statements about the noted psychoanalyst C. G. Jung.

First, Dawkins makes it sound as though Jung were an unshakable believer in a supernatural creator. Dawkins repeats a famous quote, attributed to Jung, about the existence of God: "I do not believe, I know." From this quote, Dawkins infers that Jung was a theist and was 100 percent certain that there is a God (p. 50). (Earlier, Dawkins defines a theist as a believer in a supernatural God of a certain sort (p. 18).)

There are two things glaringly wrong with this reading of Jung's statement.

First, Jung almost certainly did not believe in the kind of God that Dawkins is trying to disprove. Jung's idea of God is not the God concept of theism as defined by Dawkins. Anyone who has studied Jung knows that Jung regarded God as having a psychological reality, in the sense that belief in God arises from a deep part of the unconscious mind. According to Jung, the God images of myth and religion arise from the conscious mind's contact with unconscious parts of the psyche (what Jung called the "archetypes"). These unconscious parts of the mind are not actually the gods of religion and mythology. Instead, they are elements of our inherited mental capacities. Their presence in us makes us tend to believe in God or gods and to have religious experiences. In Jungian psychology, "God" is "real" in the sense that the part of the mind upon which God-images are based has an objective psychological reality. It's safe to suppose that this psychological reality is what Jung had in mind when he said that he knew God was real. To suppose otherwise is to ignore the entire thrust of Jung's psychological theory.

Whether Jung personally believed in the supernatural is a difficult question. Like many scientists in his time, he was interested in so-called paranormal phenomena, but he tried to understand these as parts of nature. However, this distracting side issue has little bearing on his idea of God. Jungian psychological theory, and even Jung's idea of God, could exist perfectly well without the "supernatural" as Dawkins understands that word. Jung's concept of a psychological God, found in the depths of the human mind, is very far from the supernatural concept of God that Dawkins is trying to refute!

As if this confusion were not enough, Dawkins does something even sillier: he reads Jung's "I know" as meaning that Jung was 100 percent sure there is a God (p. 50). Why 100 percent sure? Why not assume instead that Jung was confident to a high level of probability, but less than 100 percent? This is what scientists normally mean when they say they "know" something. They do not usually mean they are 100 percent sure. So, why does Dawkins take Jung's "I know" to mean that Jung was absolutely certain? I don't claim to know the answer to this, but once again the confusion is rhetorically convenient. Jung's psychological theory, with its strong strain of spirituality, is a threat to Dawkins' antireligious world view. It's easier to make Jung look foolish if you paint him as a 100 percent confident True Believer.

I'd like to know exactly what Dawkins was thinking when he accused Jung of "holding a belief without adequate reason to do so" (p. 51). Has Dawkins studied Jung's clinical and historical research on the psychological basis for the God concept? I don't know, but based on what I know of Dawkins' ideas, I have serious doubts. If Dawkins is accusing Jung of unreasoned belief without first looking at Jung's reasons, then Dawkins is making an unreasoned claim. Jung, on the other hand, was trying to be scientific. Whether Jung succeeded is a separate question, but he did build up an interesting body of supporting information for his ideas.

Dawkins then attributes another belief to Jung: "that particular books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang" (p. 51). Dawkins states this in a context that makes Jung seem silly. The truth about these so-called exploding books is far more complex, and far less helpful to Dawkins.

As far as I can tell, Dawkins' exploding-books claim is based on a well-known story found in one of Jung's books [3]. The story, in summary, is this: Jung and Sigmund Freud were in a room when Jung began to feel an odd physical sensation. Then Jung and Freud heard a loud popping noise in a bookcase. After the first noise, Jung felt strongly that there was going to be a second noise, and said so. Then there was a second bang. Jung's feeling that there was going to be a second bang is the only spooky thing about this incident. The bangs themselves, which seem to worry Dawkins, could have had many possible natural causes, such as accumulations of flammable dust from old books, or overloaded weak bookshelves. (A confirmed skeptic like Dawkins is not likely to be troubled by Jung's odd feeling of things to come, for a skeptic always can dismiss strange events as coincidences.)

If this really is the incident Dawkins had in mind, then he has reduced this incident (with two witnesses!) to a mere belief of Jung's. He mentions the affair in an inaccurate way that makes Jung seem foolish. Why? History supports the view that Jung did not merely believe in the noises; he heard them. So did another observer, Sigmund Freud, who is known to have had a skeptical streak. You don't have to be deluded to witness peculiar events. You don't even have to be religious.

Why does Dawkins portray Jung's ideas and experiences in such a bad light? Again, I don't know why (for I am not Dawkins). It's possible that Dawkins' misreading of Jung is just a random mistake. However, we must not forget who C. G. Jung was. Jung was a psychoanalyst who was not only scientifically inclined, but also took the spiritual side of human nature seriously. He thought the findings of psychology lent some credence to human spirituality. Jung saw grains of truth in the world's religions and mythologies, and he collected some facts in support of his position. If Jung was right to any degree at all, then his ideas represent a threat to Dawkins's fire-breathing antireligious crusade. Once again, the mistake is rhetorically convenient!

3. Concluding Personal Opinion

These gross misinterpretations of some of Dawkins' opponents - the dualists and Jung - helped to convince me that The God Delusion is off the map intellectually. It is good policy not to believe anything said in The God Delusion without first investigating the facts for yourself. Of course, that is good policy when reading any book tagged as "nonfiction." It is especially important for a book as problem-ridden as this one.



[1] Curtis, D.R., and Anderson, P. "Biographical Memoirs. John Carew Eccles 1903-1997." Australian Academy of Science. (accessed June 25, 2009).

[2] The word "animism," like many philosophical terms, has been used to describe more than one idea. Here I am using the most common meaning: the belief that natural objects are inhabited or controlled by spirits.

[3] Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed. Aniela Jaffe'; trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Rev. ed. (pbk.) N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1989. The story is on pp. 155-156 of that edition.

posted at: 01:48 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Wed, 24 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 6: Does All Religion Cause Evil?

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. You can find all posts in this critique, including the present one, here.

One of the main lines of argument in The God Delusion is the argument that religion leads to evil. The book is chock-full of descriptions of the evils of religion. However, these examples, dramatic as they are, prove absolutely nothing about the existence of God. The examples do not show that belief in God leads to evil. They only show that certain beliefs about God lead to evil. You don't need to hold these particular beliefs to believe in God.

It is silly to jump from the premise that religion has caused evil, to the conclusion that belief in God causes evil. A careful observer of religions should be able to figure out that belief in God, by itself and without other beliefs, does not force you to do evil. What causes the evil is not belief in God, but certain beliefs about God. Specifically, the evil comes from two kinds of beliefs about God: beliefs that imply that people should harm others, and beliefs that cause harm to the people who believe them.

Here are a few examples of beliefs that imply that people should harm others:

  • The belief that God has ordered us to force our religion on others.
  • The belief that God has ordered believers to kill infidels.
  • The belief that God has ordained cruel laws and punishments.
  • The belief that God has ordered women to obey men.
  • The belief that God has told us to beat our children.

Here are two example of beliefs that cause harm to the people who believe them:

  • The belief that sinners or unbelievers go to an eternal hell. (Dawkins is right when he shows this belief can cause horrible unnecessary misery right here on earth (pp. 317-322).)
  • The belief that committing a sin makes God want to punish you, or otherwise puts some kind of spiritual stain on you. (Guilt about sin is one of the greatest of all evils inflicted in the name of religion. It lies at the basis of many of the other evils. I'm not talking about the simple moral belief that wrongdoing should be avoided. I'm talking about the theological idea of sin with all that it entails.)

Dawkins' book contains references to these beliefs and more. However, you can believe in God without accepting any harmful beliefs of these two kinds. It is these other beliefs that cause problems - not belief in God as such. Belief in God is not the cause of the evils that Dawkins points out. At most, Dawkins has built a case against religion as it exists today, with its many and sometimes strange beliefs. He has not built a case against the simple belief in God as such. That is something different.

Dawkins has failed to build a case that belief in God is evil. Has he built a convincing case that religion is evil?

Dawkins' examples of the evils of religion form a strong case against bad religion - that is, religious beliefs that deny fact (as creationism does) or that deny sensible, humane moral feelings (as jihad does). His examples do not form a case against good religion - that is, personal views of the meaning of existence that do not try to overrule testable fact or decent morality. Dawkins' book is not friendly to distinctions between good and bad religion (see, for example, pp. 301-308), but the difference is real. Some liberal, moderate personal interpretations of religion are examples of good religion. Whether or not these good interpretations are right, they are not causes of evil behavior, provided that they actually respect fact and real morality. A belief system that respects ordinary human decency (including the rejection of murder and cruelty) cannot approve cruel or murderous behavior, because its moral outlook frowns on such behavior. A belief system that respects scientific facts (including evolution) cannot endorse superstition, because its very essence is to deny superstition.

Do genuinely moral and fact-respecting forms of religion exist? Yes! Many religious believers already are following this kind of religion. They may claim that they belong to some traditional sect or other, but if so, they interpret the teachings of their sect in a humane and realistic way. I have known many Christians and Jews of this kind. I am confident that they have counterparts in all the other major religions. I have known Christians who focused almost exclusively on the Golden Rule and on the universal love that Jesus symbolizes. They believed in a good God, ignored the nasty stuff in the Old Testament and in Paul's writings, and did not really believe in hell. A skeptic might accuse such people of being selective about their scriptures (compare the example of nonviolent Muslims on p. 307). However, this complaint, even if true, pales beside the fact that these believers put kindness and reason ahead of authority and dogma. In any case, selective reading of scriptures can make sense if you do not believe your scriptures are literally true.

Dawkins also claims that faith is bad, even in liberal religions, because if people are encouraged to believe things on faith then they are more likely to become extremists (pp. 301-308). This argument ignores the obvious fact that faith does not have to be unquestioning blind faith. There also is such a thing as informed faith. Informed faith respects science, reason, and humane moral sentiments. It does not challenge these, but only takes stands on questions that science, reason, and ethics cannot answer. Examples of such questions might include the ultimate meaning and purpose (if any) of existence. Taking an optimistic stand on this question might be a desirable thing to do from the standpoint of human life, even if we don't know the answer. [1]

Faith might not even be necessary for belief in God. I've argued elsewhere that there are ways to know about God without faith. The God we find this way might not fit Dawkins' overly narrow idea of God, but still it is a supreme being.

Dawkins shows a tendency to carp on bad forms of religion and to downplay more plausible and rational forms. His book is full of examples of crazy or strange religions: cargo cults, militant sects, and the rest. Suggesting that these represent religion is like suggesting that a newspaper horoscope represents the science of astronomy. Just as there is good science and bad science (or pseudoscience), so also there is good religion and bad religion. Dawkins focuses on bad religion and thinks he is building a case against good religion too. You can't prove much about religious beliefs in general by focusing on the bad examples.

Has Dawkins built a convincing case against religion? No. Has he built a convincing case against ignorant and cruel forms of religion? Yes - but thoughtful believers already know these forms are wrong, without being lectured by an atheist.



[1] The philosopher William James made essentially this same point about faith, and argued it very well. See "The Will to Believe," in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Dover Publications, 1956).

posted at: 00:58 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 22 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 5: The Causes of Religion Cannot Prove Religion False

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

In this post I will comment on Dawkins' ideas about the causes of belief in God.

In Chapter 5, Dawkins points out several causes that might make people tend to believe irrationally in God or religion. Some of the causes have to do with evolutionary biology, mostly focusing on religion as a "by-product" (p. 172) of evolved tendencies or behaviors. Other causes are cultural; they have to do with the spread and persistence of beliefs and ideas in societies. By proposing these explanations of religion, Dawkins is trying to counter the common view that religion must be right because it is so widespread (see pp. 2 and 159).

It's interesting to watch how Dawkins prejudices the debate by using biased language to describe these phenomena. He uses the term "misfiring" to describe situations in which something in the brain starts to perform a new function that supports religion (p. 188). Regardless of this word's scientific connotations, it clearly suggests there is something wrong. (Why not use "redirection" or some other, more neutral word? Elsewhere Dawkins acknowledges that "misfiring" isn't always a bad word (p. 221). He sure doesn't insist on that point when he discusses religion.) When the alleged cause of religion is cultural, Dawkins often describes it in terms of the spread of "memes" (pp. 191-201). This post isn't the place for a debate on the merits of the meme concept in general. However, it is interesting that Dawkins uses language that paints mental pictures of the automatic spread of a disease germ. He even compares religion to a virus (pp. 186, 188). By using these loaded metaphors, Dawkins marginalizes the fact that the spread of an idea involves conscious, and sometimes even thoughtful, decisions by human thinkers. If you voluntarily decide to change your religious beliefs, that is your decision. The fact that you can make this one decision for yourself is more important than any amount of talk about how beliefs spread. The possibility that human behavior is predictable does not make this fact less significant [1].

Dubious language aside, Dawkins' argument about the causes of religion is irrelevant to the question of whether there is a God. His suggestions about evolutionary and cultural causes for religion are interesting, and may even be wholly or partly right. Dawkins' proposed causes of religion may indeed help to explain why religion is so widespread. However, these claims about the causes of religion have little bearing on the truth of belief in God. Why? Simply put, people sometimes arrive at correct beliefs for the wrong reasons - so the mere fact that a belief has irrational causes doesn't imply that the belief is wrong.

As Dawkins and many others know well, some widely held religious beliefs are grossly wrong. The idea that the world was created in seven literal days is one example. It is easy to imagine that beliefs like these gain their force from irrational causes like the ones Dawkins discusses. However, the vagaries of evolution and culture sometimes cause us to hold true beliefs, too. Evolution created the features of our brains that enable us to recognize that one plus one equals two. The fact that evolution prompts us to believe this does not make 1+1=2 false! Cultural processes, like evolutionary ones, don't just perpetuate false beliefs. They also perpetuate true beliefs. Probably you haven't personally verified every single "fact" that your teachers taught you in school. Perhaps you accepted most of these "facts" when they were taught to you - yet most of these alleged "facts" really are facts. (Dawkins recognizes that children absorb truth, as well as error, from authority figures; see pp. 174-176.) The fact that authority or irrational tendencies tilt us toward certain beliefs does not make those beliefs wrong. To think otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy - a logical mistake in which a thing (or a belief) is assumed to have the features of its source or cause.

If we want to find out how much of religion is true, we must examine specific religious beliefs to find out whether they are true or false. Finding out why we tend to favor these beliefs is not the same as finding out whether the beliefs are true. If we find that we are holding a belief for a stupid reason, then the belief still might be true. After all, people sometimes hold true beliefs for the wrong reasons. The important question is not "Where did it come from?", but "Is it right?"

In one especially funny place (pp. 184-186), Dawkins compares religion to falling in love. He suggests (mentioning Dennett as a source for the idea) that religion may be a side effect of the evolved mechanisms that produce romantic love. My first reaction when I read this was: Well, duh! Many mystics have known of the kinship between religious and romantic experience. This is not a new discovery, nor is it an argument against religion. Mystics of many different traditions know that emotions related to sex and love can be harnessed to produced unusual states of consciousness and spiritual insights. The Tantric tradition, especially its Hindu branch, offers some extreme examples of this. The romantic poets of all nations and traditions offer other examples. If Dawkins thinks the link between sex, romance and religion is a new discovery, he has some studying to do. Likewise if he thinks this link is evidence against religion.

Dawkins' arguments about the causes of religion cannot help to discredit religion. To think that they can is to commit a logical fallacy, and to ignore a basic fact about evolution and culture: "irrational" forces sometimes shape organisms so that the organisms hold true beliefs.

Dawkins' supposed causes of religion might form part of the reason why people believe. However, I'd like to offer another possible cause for the stubborn persistence of belief in God. (I've already said something about this subject, and the origin of religions, near the end of an earlier post.)

As I've explained elsewhere, certain subjective personal experiences seem to offer deep insights into reality that ordinary experiences do not provide. (I'm not talking about Dawkins' silly examples of so-called "religious" experiences (pp. 87-92); see here for the differences.) Often these deeper experiences show the world to be a unity, or "one," in an unexpected way. These experiences can reveal an awesome goodness and beauty in the universe - a goodness and beauty so perfect that one's immediate emotional reaction is one of soaring love. What is more, some of these experiences are accurate in a certain sense: they contain true insights even if they also contain an element of illusion.

A spiritual experience of this sort might prompt a person to believe that there is a single ultimate reality underlying the universe, or a supreme good that encompasses all other goods, or a supreme beauty of which all other beauties are visible manifestations. In other words, these experiences can lead people toward belief in a supreme being of some kind. This being isn't the same as the supernatural God that Dawkins likes to bash (defined on pp. 12-13 and p. 31), but it is a supreme entity nonetheless - and an entity that is not just "dead" matter, but is full of meaning, value, and other "mindlike" qualities.

If people have these experiences and understand them, that is real spirituality. If people have these experiences and misunderstand them, the result might well be belief in a dogmatic supernatural idea of God. A person with a limited background of ideas to choose from might confuse a perceived supreme good with a ghostly spirit of some kind, or with a mythical humanoid creator figure. This would be especially likely to happen in the early days of the human race, when mythological and supernatural explanations were the rule.

As I've argued in God: the Next Version and elsewhere, some real spiritual experiences actually do disclose a being worthy to be called "God." It isn't hard to imagine how people who have heard secondhand of these experiences might invent distorted supernatural beliefs about God. Eventually, when the original experiences are forgotten, confused or malicious people might hijack the resulting belief systems, and invent tragic perversions such as fundamentalism and fanaticism in the name of an imagined superbeing. The best response to these perversions is not atheism, but an effort to reproduce and understand the original experiences.

Many people have had legitimate spiritual experiences. Many have had them without even knowing what they had. (Perhaps they thought they only had a breathtaking moment of romantic love, or of amazement at the vastness of the cosmos, or of "being at one with nature.") If the possibilities of human nature include these spiritual experiences, that might help to explain why belief in God is so persistent.

Dawkins' explanations of religion might form part of the reason why we tend to believe in God. However, there might be another, nobler reason as well. People tend to have real spiritual experiences, and those experiences can show us a supreme being - even if we are not always smart enough to understand what that being is like.



[1] Note that I am not begging the question of the predictability of human action. Whether your decision was predictable or not, it was your voluntary decision. (Many philosophers think predictability is compatible with free will. This idea is called "compatibilism." See my own compatibilist article here.)

posted at: 21:49 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Sat, 20 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 4: Evolution and the So-Called Illusion of Design

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. You can find the entire critique here.

One of the main ideas in The God Delusion is that the apparent design in the biological world is only an "illusion of design" (p. 2 and chap. 4; see also p. 79). Dawkins is convinced that evolutionary theory shows there is no real design in the biological world. He trots out the old claim that Darwinism refutes the design argument for the existence of God (p. 79). Chapter 4 of The God Delusion is partly a rehash of the old argument that evolution shows there is no design in the biological world.

No matter how it is stated or obscured, the central idea of the evolutionary argument against design runs along the following general lines. The evolution of life is simply a resultant of small natural events involving living organisms and their genes. None of these events involves any design; each of them is mechanistic, fully obeys all natural laws, and is caused by other natural events. Therefore, the products of evolution cannot really be products of design.

This argument sounds good at first, but there is something deeply fishy about it (evolutionary pun intended). To see how questionable the argument is, compare it to the following argument about the human brain: Human thought is simply a resultant of small natural events involving neurons and their connections. None of these events involves any design; each of them is mechanistic, fully obeys all natural laws, and is caused by other natural events. Therefore, the products of human thought cannot really be products of design.

If we applied the skeptics' standard for design to the human brain instead of to Earth's biosphere, we would conclude that humans never designed anything! So much for Michelangelo and Edison! According to the scientific view of the mind and brain, human thought processes are neither more nor less than sum totals of small physical events, no single one of which itself involves any design. To avoid the absurd conclusion that humans never designed anything (which is really just an abuse of language, twisting the meaning of the word "design"), we have to admit the possibility that a natural process, composed of small unplanned physical events, can add up to a process of design. Once we admit this possibility, the argument that nature's design is an illusion ceases to be convincing. As with human feats of design, the fact that evolution is purely mechanistic and natural does not imply that its products can't be real designs. Nothing supernatural is required.

Another common argument for the illusion of design points to the flawed and conflict-ridden nature of many of the products of evolution. These faults, according to the argument, show that the designer, if there is one, must be far from perfect. It's more reasonable just to assume the products are not designed. Dawkins pulls this gambit (p. 134). However, this argument is even shallower than the above argument about small natural events. By the standard of this second argument, we should conclude once again that human creations are not designed - this time on the grounds that the human brain often (even usually) produces flawed products and preliminary versions instead of perfect final products.

I will not continue this line of rebuttal here, since I already have done that elsewhere. For the rest of my argument, see this document - and if you like, also read my book God, Son of Quark. For now I will just point out that the argument for an "illusion of design" is not as strong as it seems. In fact, it unravels at the slightest touch.

Can those who believe the orthodox scientific version of evolution (as I do) live with this conclusion? Is there any alternative to the "illusion of design" besides supernatural tinkering? Yes! To learn what the alternative is, read the two documents of mine that I just mentioned.

posted at: 23:52 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 19 Jun 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 3: Dodging the Issue of Personal Religious Experience

This post continues my critique of Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion. In this post I will look at Dawkins' argument against personal religious experience.

Dawkins tries to debunk personal experience as a source of religious knowledge (pp. 87-92). He builds his case in the weakest possible way: by giving flawed examples of so-called "religious" experiences. Some of the examples are experiences of real things wrongly interpreted. For example, someone hears the "diabolical" cackling of a bird (the Manx Shearwater) and thinks it is the voice of the Devil (p. 87). Other examples involve hallucinations, such as supposed ghosts or voices in one's head. Dawkins attributes these phenomena to the "simulation software" of the brain (pp. 88-90).

Despite Dawkins' apparent fascination with them, these experiences are not "religious" in any interesting sense. If Dawkins wants to build a rational case against religion, instead of merely a noisy case, he should know better than to use examples like these. Scholars of religion know of other kinds of experiences radically different from, and much subtler than, these simple mistakes. Some of these other experiences cannot be mere illusions or hallucinations, for reasons I will explain below.

There is one type of experience that, in a sense, cannot be wrong. I am referring to the experience of a property or a quality. [1]

Take, for example, Dawkins' example of the Manx Shearwater. The people who heard the noise certainly did not experience the Devil. They did not experience anything that really was devilish; the bird was not devilish, though it sounded that way. However, they did experience a sound which, as they perceived it, sounded diabolical. This quality of diabolicalness - of seeming devilish or overpoweringly sinister - is a real quality that some sounds have. This quality is not fundamentally mysterious. Presumably we could analyze it in terms of the reactions of the human nervous system, just as scientists do with other perceptible qualities of sound, like pitch, dissonance, or the phonetic qualities of speech. [2] Cultural factors, as well as physiological ones, may figure in this. Certain sounds seem devilish to some people under some circumstances. That much we know.

The people who heard the cry of the Manx Shearwater did not actually experience the Devil. However, they really did experience the quality of diabolicalness. They did not experience an evil being. They did experience a bird, but only tangentially (they didn't know it was a bird). But whatever else they experienced, they really did experience a quality. The sound really did seem devilish to them.

Experiences of qualities happen all the time in much less dramatic ways than this. When you see a red brick, you have experienced the color red, which is a quality. When you see one side of that brick, you see that it is rectangular; you perceive the quality of rectangularity. The interesting thing about perceptions of qualities is that, in some cases at least, the experience can contain a strong element of illusion and still be right. Suppose that the red brick turned out not to be red. Instead, it was yellow, but odd lighting and bright colors nearby, together with your expectation that bricks are red, made it look red. When the simulation software in your brain created the experience, it registered the brick as red instead of yellow. What happened here? You saw a brick; the brick was not actually red; but still, you really saw the color red. The property or quality of redness was, for a moment, an object of your awareness. The same idea works for rectangularity. Even if the brick did not really have rectangular sides (maybe some sides were trapezoidal but the brick was tilted), the property of rectangularity still was present to your mind.

Experiences of a quality may be reliable even if the object that seems to have the quality isn't there. To repurpose Dawkins' pink elephant example (p. 88), I would add that if you get drunk and experience a pink elephant, you have not really seen an elephant - but even though you did not see an elephant, you did experience the color pink.

What do these examples tell us about religious experience? Perhaps a lot - for, as it turns out, the only religious experiences worthy of the name are experiences of qualities. Based on what we know about colors, shapes, and the like, it's possible that these experiences really show what they seem to show, even if they also contain a strong element of illusion.

The best examples of these experiences come from a family of special states of mind known by several names: "poetical," "transcendental," "enlightened," "illuminated," or "mystical." (I prefer not to use the word "mystical," because people use that word for all kinds of silly things, including sheer occult folly.) Here I will stick with the more neutral term "spiritual experience." [3] Real spiritual experiences are not the silly experiences that Dawkins calls "religious." Instead, they are deep, refined states of mind that may happen even to the best scientists and artists. A spiritual experience is a subjective experience that seems to bring a powerful intuitive insight into the ultimate meaning of existence.

Real spiritual experiences do not happen only in connection with religion. Often they happen to poets and artists, to alert observers of nature, or to lovers. They may be called poetic insights, artistic inspirations, or moments of transcendent awareness.

Most spiritual experiences have several features in common. One of these features is the sensation of a supreme goodness or beauty that pervades or underlies the universe. Some spiritual observers come away from their experiences with the conviction that the universe is basically good, or that something perfectly and supremely beautiful lies behind the universe we see. Usually the observer also feels that he or she has gained a momentous knowledge of the true nature of reality - a knowledge that cannot be put fully into words. Interestingly, spiritual observers often feel far more awake or alert than normal. These spiritual states are not mere dream states. It feels as if consciousness expands to take in a truth deeper than anything that ordinary awareness can reach.

Can an experience like this be true? Can it give the observer genuine knowledge about reality? Elsewhere I have shown that the answer is "yes." Some experiences of this kind do yield knowledge of reality - and even knowledge that science cannot reach.

My argument for this point is laid out in my e-book God: the Next Version. (Those who want to criticize this post should read that e-book first; my full, unabridged argument is there, not here.) In that book I pointed out a way in which experiences of sublime beauty or love can give rise to experiences of a perfect being. At bottom, this perfect being is an abstract entity (actually a quality!) instead of a physical object or a ghostly "spirit." Just as with other abstract objects like redness and rectangularity, we can experience this abstract entity authentically, regardless of what in our brains is causing the experience.

Because this perfect being isn't supernatural, it doesn't fit Dawkins' definition of God. However, I showed in an earlier post that Dawkins' definition of God (p. 31) is hopelessly inadequate - it just doesn't capture most actual ideas of God. In God: the Next Version I showed that the perfect being has mental characteristics of a sort, and also encompasses the physical universe. If we regard this perfect being as God (and I think that is a logical thing to do), then some spiritual or poetic experiences really do yield knowledge of God.

This conclusion may sound mysterious at first. Certainly it will make the professional skeptics angry. However, there is nothing supernatural about all this - it's just a matter of logic! Perceptions like this can happen because the perfect being is partly an abstract entity. This brings us back to the most important part of my argument: the fact that some experiences of an abstract entity can be trustworthy, in the sense that if it seems that you have experienced the abstract entity, then you really have experienced it. I should say a few more words about this potentially upsetting idea.

The reason that even an "illusory" experience of an abstract entity can be right is that you can experience an abstract entity by means of the internal information processing that happens naturally in your brain.

Think about it this way. Ordinary sense experiences involve energies from the perceived object that cause events in the observer's brain. For example, when someone sees something, light travels from the object to the observer's eye, causing nerve impulses that in turn influence the observer's brain. For hearing, it is sound that causes events in the brain; for touch, stimuli like pressure do it; for taste and smell, chemicals cause the events. This is the way we perceive concrete physical objects with our five senses: the objects cause events in our brains.

However, not all experiences work this way. When you experience an abstract object, like a pattern or a relationship, the abstract object does not need to cause anything. Instead, your brain knows about the object by processing information that already is in your brain. One good example of this is the perception of a Moire' pattern in a print of a digital photograph. When you look at the photo, the colored toner on the print reflects light and causes events in your brain. You see the colored areas on the photo. You also notice the Moire' pattern. You don't have to reason about the pattern to see it. You just see the pattern, suddenly and intuitively. The pattern itself doesn't cause anything; only the colored toner on the print is causing events in your brain. However, you still can perceive the pattern. Your brain does this by processing information that's already in your brain from what you saw. In this way, you can verify that the pattern exists and learn much about the pattern - without once receiving a stimulus from the pattern instead of from the colored material.

Another example of knowledge without signals from an object is the understanding of a theorem in mathematics. No new sense experiences are needed. The brain just mulls over the information it already has, and a new insight emerges. In this instance too, you learn about abstract objects and relationships by processing information that's already in your brain. Your brain gains new knowledge by processing and analyzing information that it already has.

Neuroscience strongly suggests that the human self is an abstract object (a feature of the brain) instead of a separate soul. (See here and here for my take on this.) In God: the Next Version I argued that God also is an abstract object, combined with the physical and abstract objects that exemplify or show that object. If spiritual items like God and the self are abstract objects, then we should be able to learn a lot about spiritual realities the same way we learn about other abstract objects - through the brain's processing of existing information. In this way, spiritual intuition and illumination can occur without supernatural intervention. (This conclusion, by the way, is independent of my particular ideas about the nature of God and the self. If God and the self are at least partly abstract objects of any sort, then we might be able to know about spiritual realities through abstract intuition of some kind.)

The lesson from all this is that some "religious" experiences can be for real. Subjective personal experiences can indeed yield knowledge about the existence of God. I want to emphasize that there is nothing supernatural about this. It's all a matter of logic, and of the brain's capacity to recognize abstract features in existing information. Once again, the details of this line of argument are in God: the Next Version. Other relevant ideas are in my other blog, with the kindred title Religion: the Next Version.

As if I haven't said it enough, I wish to emphasize it again: Real, qualitative spiritual experience is completely different from Dawkins' silly examples of "religious" experience, such as cackling birds and voices in the head. Dawkins' attempt to debunk all religious experiences with these examples is simply too shallow and biased to go unlaughed at. Even an experience cooked up by the brain's simulation software can be a source of knowledge, as long as we focus on the qualities it shows and ignore the concrete objects it seems to reveal.

Incidentally, a correct view of spiritual experience also demolishes the argument that Dawkins gives in the section titled "The Argument from Beauty" (pp. 86-87). Dawkins points out that people often feel that the beauty of art shows there is a God. He dismisses this feeling on the grounds that no one has stated a logical argument for this link. Well, we just found the argument! Perceptions of beauty can lead to real spiritual experiences, and according to the argument in God: the Next Version, these experiences can disclose a perfect being. Perhaps the people who put forward ill-formed arguments from beauty are having spiritual experiences caused by beauty, but they just can't put their experiences into words. Dawkins' suggestion that the argument from beauty arises from "jealousy of genius" (p. 87) is as fanciful as it is nasty.

Spiritual experiences frequently give other insights besides the existence of a perfect being. For example, poets and mystics often feel that reality is unified in some deep way ("all is one"). Some mystics, mostly Buddhist meditators, get the impression that the physical universe is empty and impermanent. I won't say much about these other insights here, except to point out that they have a basis in fact. The natural world really is one, in the sense that everything is interconnected. A careful observer of nature can begin to realize this fact; no supernatural knowledge is required. A poet who focused intensely on this unity might have a sudden flash of insight that nature is One. The Buddhist who sees the universe as Void might seem to be in contradiction with the nature mystic who sees the universe as One. However, the Buddhist also is right: all physical things are impermanent, and since all physical things depend on other things for their existence, they are empty of any permanent and stable existence. The viewpoint of science and everyday consciousness, which tells us that the world is a collection of objects, also is right. Each of these three perspectives reflects a one-sided and biased view of reality, but each of them is correct in its own way. (Aren't all human experiences biased and one-sided?) Interestingly, the experiences of unity and of emptiness both involve a kind of abstract intuition: the discovery of new features in a universe that we already know.

Ironically, Dawkins comes close to recognizing the true nature of spiritual experiences. Judging by his book, he has had at least one such experience himself. Dawkins admits to having had a "quasi-mystical" experience of the natural world (p. 11). He describes his poetical attitude toward the physical universe (pp. 11-12), which could just as well be called mystical or near-mystical. The first chapter of his book is significantly titled "A Deeply Religious Non-Believer."

Dawkins obscures the link between religion and spirituality when he claims that his own deeply poetic attitude toward nature should not be called "religion" (p. 12). Dawkins is wrong about this. The poetic attitude, and the experiences that it fosters, can reveal deep aspects of reality and even can disclose the divine. What could be more religious than that? The professor whom Dawkins mentions on p. 12 was right: such experiences are indeed religious. Dawkins might have been able to figure this out if he didn't insist on a narrow definition of God that makes God supernatural (pp. 12-13, 31). Apparently, Dawkins thinks we are confused if we connect transcendent experiences to belief in God (pp. 12-13). In reality, the connection between spiritual experiences and God is real and perfectly logical. Experiences of the sublime and transcendent in nature actually are experiences of God, whether we know it or not. The God that they show us is a perfect being - not just a poetical name for the scientists' universe, as Dawkins finds some pantheists using the word "God" (p. 18). However, there is no reason to think that the God of spiritual experience is a supernatural being. Therefore, He, She or It is not quite the "God" that Dawkins is against. (Incidentally, a poet can use any of these three pronouns.)

In this post I have only begun to touch on the subject of religious experience. It took many words to do even that much. The important point is this: if Dawkins wants to address the subject of religious experience, he should concentrate on real religious or spiritual experiences, not on obviously flawed experiences. He should take into account the remarkable experiences discussed in the writings of contemplatives of East and West. He should take special account of the experiences that do not involve simulated visual or auditory images. Those experiences are the most likely to disclose something real. Dawkins also should study the insights of romantic poets from all over the world. Their poetic experiences often are spiritual to the core.

Whatever one thinks of real spiritual experiences, they are not the same as the simplistic mistakes, illusions, and mental simulations that Dawkins deploys as examples. These bogus experiences are nothing but straw men - easy to knock down if one wants to hide from the real intellectual challenge that religious experience poses. The problem of the validity of religious experience is a complex topic with many nontrivial philosophical angles. One cannot simply handwave away the whole subject, as Dawkins tries to do in The God Delusion.

Before wrapping up this post, I should mention my own view of the relation between spiritual experience and religion [4]. In my opinion, personal spiritual experience is the most important aspect of religion. It is the human mind's main method for exploring spiritual realities. I suspect that it also is the original source of most of the world's major religions. Here is how a religion might start. Some brilliant teacher, a spiritual genius, has personal experiences of the divine. This teacher, or his/her followers, write down what the teacher learned from these experiences. Since it is almost impossible to put these experiences into words, the writings are easily misunderstood. Thus we have the beginnings of an organized religion - a body of people who, though possibly well-intentioned, don't really know how to keep the original teacher's insights alive. If the original writings contain poetical words of inspiration or exhortation, these words are misunderstood and turned into dogmas and rules. Fear replaces love, and irrational faith replaces the spark of intuitive insight. In this way dogmatic religions are born - irrational systems of thought which are corrupted versions of great teachings, but which nevertheless contain grains of truth that a perceptive believer may be able to pick out from amidst the errors.

Such might be the origin of today's major world religions. Since you and I weren't there, who knows?



[1] Note to philosophers: I am bypassing the philosophical debates about infallibility and incorrigibility. If you read on, you will find out what I mean when I say that experiences of qualities "cannot be wrong." Feel free to interpret this according to your own ideas about infallibility and the like.

[2] Dawkins mentions the brain's handling of sounds and speech (p. 90).

[3] The general information on spiritual experience that I am using in this post has been distilled from the literature of religious mysticism and related topics, and also from the insights of poets. Most of the ideas are not attributable to any single source, but are part of general knowledge on these topics.

[4] My guess about the origin of religions is not original. It owes much to ideas widely held among experience-friendly thinkers on the subject.

posted at: 22:51 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 26 May 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 2: Why Dawkins' Main Argument Against God Is Wrong

In my earlier anti-Dawkins post, I explained why Richard Dawkins' conception of God, as presented in his book The God Delusion, is too narrow to be of much use. In this post I will confront Dawkins' most important argument against God: what he calls the "argument from improbability."

The "argument from improbability" is the main argument in The God Delusion. The gist of the argument is that God, if there is one, would have to be extremely complex. According to the argument, only a very complex being could create the universe or do the other tasks that God is thought to do (such as answering prayers). However, a highly complex being is very statistically improbable. Therefore (the argument goes) it is very probable that there is no God. What is more, using God to explain the complexity in nature is useless, because the assumption that God exists just adds to the complexity that it supposedly explains. (This is only a brief summary of the argument; the original is in The God Delusion, especially in chapter 4.)

Unfortunately for Dawkins, the argument from improbability is wrong. The argument might appear convincing at first glance, but it turns out to be hopelessly weak once you see the illogical spots. It is like a magic trick: the believability goes away once you notice how the trick is done.

I started to write a post explaining the flaws in the argument, but the post got rather long, so I turned it into a paper. Here is the link to that paper. (The paper is in PDF format.)

Of course, this paper is not a disproof of atheism or a proof of the existence of God. However, it debunks one seemingly "good" reason for being an atheist. If you are going to be an atheist, you will have to find a better reason than the argument from improbability.

posted at: 15:15 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 18 May 2009

Anti-Dawkins Paper No. 1: Overlooking the Idea of God

Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion is one of the cornerstones of the so-called New Atheism. After reading this book, I found that it utterly fails to build a convincing case for atheism. I'd like to offer my opinions on this book in a series of posts to this blog.

The most serious flaw in The God Delusion is that it misses the idea of God almost completely. Dawkins focuses on one particular idea of God: that of a supernatural creator of the universe, as presented in traditional theism and deism (pp. 11-15, 18-19, 31). He admits that he is trying to debunk only the supernatural idea of God (pp. 15, 31). The only other idea of God that Dawkins even considers is pantheism, which he equates to the poetic use of the word "God" to describe the physical universe or its laws (p. 18). By leaving the reader with only these choices, Dawkins bypasses the many well-considered philosophical conceptions of God that do not fit either of these categories. Thus, he cannot debunk these other ideas.

Dawkins begins this mistake by ignoring all forms of pantheism that do not fit his narrow definition of "pantheism." Dawkins' description of pantheism fits some versions of pantheism, but is grossly inaccurate for other forms. Among these other forms are the pantheistic viewpoints of Schelling, Heraclitus, and Bruno, and Eastern philosophies such as Advaita Vedanta. In various ways, these philosophies identify God or the divine with the whole of reality or with the underlying principle of the universe. However, they do not equate God to a universe regarded as a mere collection of material particles. Some forms of pantheism depict the mental and spiritual features of reality as real and significant — at least as significant as the physical features of the cosmos. Thus, they do not reduce God to a mere poetic name for the physical universe known to science.

Dawkins' handling of Spinoza is especially revealing. Spinoza probably is the best known of Western pantheists. His philosophy, born in the early days of modern science, stressed the unity of nature and the immutability of natural law. Dawkins mentions Spinoza and notes that Einstein approved of Spinoza's idea of God (p. 18). However, this mention of Spinoza seems ironic, because Spinoza's pantheistic philosophy simply does not fit Dawkins' narrow definition of "pantheism." Spinoza identified God with nature, but he also held that nature has mental as well as physical properties [1]. According to Spinoza, the natural universe itself is not merely a physical system, but also is intrinsically spiritual. Spinoza's God is impersonal, but has mental and spiritual features, making it a bit more like a "someone" than a mere "something." After reading Spinoza's Ethics, it would be silly to equate Spinoza's pantheism to "sexed-up atheism" — which is Dawkins' characterization of pantheism (p. 18). Indeed, Spinoza himself denied that he would equate God to nature if nature were thought of as strictly material [2]. Spinoza's God is impersonal and natural, but is a real supreme being, not merely a sexed-up collection of lumps of matter. Despite the sharp differences between Spinoza's view of God and the standard Christian views, the Christian writer Novalis had good reason to label Spinoza "the god-intoxicated man" [3].

Besides neglecting most forms of pantheism, the book also ignores many other philosophical conceptions of God. There are ideas of God that portray God as something besides the physical universe, but that do not involve (or could exist without) belief in miraculous supernatural action. Some philosophers have proposed theories of God like this; offhand, the names of G. H. Howison, Charles Hartshorne and Aristotle come to mind [4]. Dawkins' polemic bypasses these ideas almost as if they did not exist. He simply sorts ideas of God into two bags — the supernatural, miracle-working creator from traditional religion (together with its simpler variant, the God of deism), and the poetically described material world with no real God. Any form of belief in God that doesn't fit into one of these two bags simply fades from view.

By ignoring all these philosophical conceptions of God, Dawkins forfeits any claim to have built a case against God. At most, he has shown that traditional Western religious conceptions of God are inadequate. This does not imply atheism. At most, it implies that those who believe in the traditional version of God should either become atheists or adopt improved ideas about God. (Whether Dawkins has accomplished even this much is a separate topic.)

This slighting of non-supernatural ideas of God contributes to Dawkins' high-handed treatment of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA concept (pp. 54-61). According to NOMA, science and religion each have their own areas in which they are authoritative. If NOMA is right, then religion should not dictate about matters in the area of science, such as evolution and cosmology, and science should not dogmatize about matters of the meaning of existence, which belong to religion. The NOMA idea is quite reasonable. It is close to what many liberal, modernist believers in God already believe. (If you think the Genesis story can't be literally true because it contradicts science, then you already are practicing NOMA to some degree.) Of course, most religions today do not obey NOMA. Instead, they postulate literal miraculous happenings that science might, in principle, be able to evaluate. Dawkins correctly recognizes this, and observes that a religion that follows NOMA would be quite different from most religions practiced today (p. 60). Dawkins could have taken this observation to some reasonable conclusion. For example, he could have claimed that today's religions need to be reformed and modernized, leading to liberal forms of religion that take miracle stories to be spiritual lessons instead of physical facts. Instead, he uses the occasion to rake NOMA over the coals. He even makes the nasty suggestion that Gould was insincere in his embrace of NOMA (pp. 57-58). To support this putdown of the brilliant Gould, Dawkins trots out the claim that Gould personally was skeptical of the existence of God (p. 58). Needless to say, Gould's personal belief or disbelief in God is totally irrelevant to Gould's sincerity in embracing NOMA. One can believe that religion is a legitimate field of study and still come to a personal decision to be an agnostic or an atheist in the field of religion. (It's much like studying a particular field of physics and finally embracing a theory that denies some commonly accepted concepts in that field. No insincerity required!) None of Dawkins' overheated criticisms of NOMA cast any doubt on the rational acceptability of NOMA. Of course, making NOMA look bad is useful for Dawkins, because if NOMA were right his science-centered polemic against God might lose its grip.

The main line of argument in The God Delusion is an attempt to debunk supernatural concepts of God, especially those that involve supernatural creation or intervention. Because not all concepts of God require supernatural happenings or even a supernatural God, the book does not succeed in debunking God. It fails as a polemic for atheism. The most this book can do is undermine traditional religious conceptions of God, then leave us on our own to decide about the conceptions of God put forth by philosophers and reason-friendly religionists. Whether the book can do even that much is a separate question.

Why does Dawkins ignore almost all philosophical conceptions of God? It might be a symptom of a more general problem: a striking failure to handle philosophical ideas correctly [5]. One can catch a whiff of this failure at various points in the book. I'll give a few examples here.

In a discussion of traditional Christian ideas about the Trinity (p. 33), Dawkins refers to a teaching of Arius that makes use of the philosophical concepts of "substance" and "essence." Philosophers (including atheistic ones) are likely to have some idea of what these terms mean, for philosophers have thought about puzzles involving substance and essence since the time of the ancient Greeks. However, when Dawkins asks rhetorically what these terms mean, his answer is " 'Very little' seems the only reasonable reply" (p. 33). This is simply wrong. One can love or hate theology, but either way, the terms "substance" and "essence" do mean something. They are standard philosophical terms with real meanings.

Another example of bad philosophy (and also of substituting ridicule for thought) is Dawkins' discussion of the ontological argument for the existence of God (pp. 80-85). This is a famous argument put forth by Anselm of Canterbury in the Middle Ages. Dawkins' treatment of this argument is both emotional and coarse. He calls the argument "infantile," and then gives a silly scenario in which children on the playground argue about God using some of same words used in the real argument (p. 80). Despite the tone of snide self-assurance in that passage, Dawkins gets the ontological argument wrong! Scholars have known for decades that Anselm wrote down at least two distinct versions of the ontological argument [6]. The first version was more or less preliminary; apparently Anselm himself was dissatisfied with it, for he presented a second version in the next chapter of his book. The second version is more sophisticated and is not nearly as vulnerable to attack. The full analysis of this second version requires modern techniques of logic. However, the version that Dawkins quotes is the first version (p. 81). It is pretty clear that his ridiculous playground scene also is based on this first version. As Hartshorne pointed out in 1965, many past philosophers made the mistake of critiquing the first version of the argument and ignoring the second [7]. However, there is no excuse for this mistake today; we simply know better. Dawkins either does not know or does not bother about the second version of the argument. He just goes ahead and quotes and ridicules the weak first draft of the argument, as if that were an effective attack on the ontological argument.

Toward the end of his attack on the ontological argument, Dawkins mentions the time he presented a bogus argument, resembling the ontological argument, to a meeting of philosophers and theologians. Dawkins says: "They felt the need to resort to Modal Logic to prove that I was wrong." (p. 84; capitalization in original). Read in context, this remark seems snide, as though forcing the philosophers and theologians to use modal logic were a gloating victory. Does Dawkins even know that modal logic is a respectable mathematical discipline, and that modal logic is necessary for the rational analysis of almost any argument about possible entities that might not be real? To me at least, the book gave no answer to this question.

Still another example of a crude approach to philosophy comes from Dawkins' discussion of mind-transfer scenarios (p. 180). Dawkins mentions two fictional stories in which people find that they have swapped minds, with the mind of one now existing in the body of the other. Dawkins claims, without much argument, that "the plot makes sense only to a dualist" and that such stories could happen in real life only if the personality is somehow distinct from the body (p. 180). A little philosophical reading shows that the truth is not so simple. In real life, philosophers have studied mind-transfer scenarios in great detail — and some materialist philosophers have seriously considered that they might be logically possible [8]. One can be a materialist, with no belief in a nonphysical mind, and still find it possible for the mind of person A to enter the body of person B. All one has to do is suppose that the two persons' brains are reorganized in a way that makes one of the brains continue the memories and conscious life of the other. Needless to say, this experiment would be an enormous feat in real life. Today's science is nowhere near being able to do it. However, this feat would be possible in principle even if dualism is false. If Dawkins offered any real argument for his opposite opinion on this topic, I might take his opinion seriously — but he offers no real argument.

These examples are far from my original topic of the idea of God. I mention them only to show that Dawkins' book contains some strikingly crude treatments of philosophical ideas. Perhaps this helps to explain why the most interesting ideas of God — the philosophically well-considered ones — are almost entirely absent from this book.




Page numbers for The God Delusion refer to the edition listed under "Works Cited," below.

[1]   Spinoza, Ethics. See especially Part 2 Proposition 7, including the following "scholium" or note, and Part 2 Proposition 13, especially the following note. Also see Durant, pp. 134-143.

[2]   See the excerpt from Spinoza's letter, in Durant, p. 132.

[3]   Quoted in Durant, p. 149.

[4]   The works of Aristotle are well-known. Hartshorne's ideas are well-known too, within the rubric of "process theology." His idea of God is discussed in his several books. Howison also is important in the history of philosophy, but appears to be less well-known than Aristotle and Hartshorne. His main work is The Limits of Evolution and Other Essays.

[5]   I am not the first to comment on Dawkins' inadequate treatment of philosophical ideas. Plantinga has mentioned Dawkins' "jejune" and "sophomoric" handling of some philosophical matters (see Plantinga, "The Dawkins Confusion").

[6]   See Hartshorne. The first version of Anselm's ontological argument is in Anselm's Proslogium, Chapter 2. The second version is in Chapter 3.

[7]   Hartshorne, especially pp. 12-18.

[8]   See Shoemaker, pp. 108 ff.


Works Cited

Anselm. Proslogium. Trans. Sidney Norton Deane, ed. Paul Halsall. [], accessed 5/18/09. In: Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook (cited below).

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006)

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy. (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1953)

Halsall, Paul (ed.) Internet Medieval Sourcebook. [], accessed 5/18/2009.

Hartshorne, Charles. Anselm's Discovery. (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1965)

Howison, G. H. The Limits of Evolution and Other Essays. (N.Y.: The Macmillan Co., 1901)

Plantinga, Alvin. "The Dawkins Confusion." Books & Culture, March 1, 2007, [], accessed 5/10/2009.

Shoemaker, Sydney. "Personal Identity: a Materialist's Account." In: Sydney Shoemaker and Richard Swinburne, Personal Identity. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984)

Spinoza, Baruch. Spinoza Selections. Ed. John Wild. (N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958)

N.B.: Spinoza's Ethics comes in several versions. Durant's chapter on Spinoza is a valuable introductory discussion of this philosopher. See especially Section 2, "Matter and Mind."


(Post slightly updated on 22 May 2009.)


posted at: 23:21 | path: /religion/atheism/god_delusion | persistent link to this entry

Sun, 03 May 2009

The Unfinishable Book Is Now Free

One of my main e-books, The Unfinishable Book, is now available for free download. (The usual Internet connection charges still apply, but the price of the book is a great big zero.) The book is in PDF format.

posted at: 01:06 | path: /general | persistent link to this entry

Thu, 19 Mar 2009

Drawing a Blank: In Search of Empty Consciousness

Think about your conscious experience as it is right now - everything that's going on in your inner mental world.

Now imagine the items in that world (sights, sounds, thoughts, the feeling of time passing, and so forth) disappearing one by one, until there's nothing left.

The result is a totally blank inner world - a mental world with no impressions or other contents at all.

What is left over? Just your consciousness - a "pure" consciousness, with no contents.

Now ask yourself a question: Is this any different from no consciousness at all?

What is the difference between a completely empty consciousness and no consciousness? Is there a difference?

This mind-bending question might seem purely theoretical. After all, how often does anyone have a pure, empty consciousness? Perhaps this happens sometimes during states near to unconsciousness, or during deep meditation - or perhaps not. In either case, empty consciousness seems to have little to do with our ordinary mental lives.

If you think about it further, the question of empty consciousness turns out to be important. This question might bear on the puzzle of the mind-brain relationship. Here's why.

If an empty consciousness is not possible, then the absence of conscious experience - the lack of a "stream" of impressions and other mental contents - is the absence of consciousness itself. If (as we usually suppose) the brain is responsible for creating these contents, then consciousness is entirely dependent on the brain.

On the other hand, if an empty consciousness is possible, then the absence of conscious experience might not spell the complete absence of consciousness. All the contents caused by brain activity could stop for a while, and some residue of consciousness - an empty consciousness - would remain. This empty consciousness would exist without any of the contents that correspond to brain activity. This raises the possibility that consciousness itself, in the form of an empty consciousness, might exist even in the absence of brain activity. In other words, maybe the mind is not simply reducible to the brain.

It is hard to see how scientific evidence could rule out this possibility. We can use scientific observations to study behavior, mental activity, and the processing of information in the brain. However, it is hard to imagine how science could test for the existence of a hypothetical "pure" consciousness in which no mental events happen. Suppose that a comatose person or a really good meditator were truly devoid of mental contents for a while. What observations would you do to tell whether this person was truly nonconscious or was in a state of empty, contentless consciousness? No set of scientific observations could tell the difference. Science studies consciousness by collecting and interpreting data about behavior (including verbal reports) and the functioning of the nervous system. The absence of behavior, and of the kind of brain activity associated with experiences, would point to the absence of any impressions, thoughts, feelings, or the like - any contents. However, if there were an empty consciousness, it would not be associated with any impressions or experiences. There is no compelling reason to expect that such a consciousness would be evidenced by any behaviors, or by any happenings at all. To use a colloquial English phrase, such a consciousness would be "nothing doing." Even if there were some type of observable brain activity associated with empty consciousness, how could a scientist decide whether this activity is associated with empty consciousness or with nonconsciousness? The subject would behave the same way in either case. From a first-person standpoint, neither empty consciousness nor nonconsciousness would involve any distinguishable experiences, so the subject would not have any grounds for making different reports. Thus, the question of the existence of an empty consciousness does not seem to be an empirical question at all.

Why should we even worry about empty consciousness? It seems like an outlandish possibility - the stuff of thought experiments at best. So why worry about this possibility? One potential answer comes from the strange world of mathematical logic. If we apply a little formal logic to the question of empty consciousness, we find that empty consciousness might have to exist, even if science cannot decide its existence one way or the other!

The most striking feature of consciousness is the existence of a way things seem - an "inner world" of facts that seem, to the conscious subject, to be true. If you are conscious right now, things seem a certain way to you. This "way things seem" is different from the objective, external world in many ways. Things can seem to be the case that are not the case (as when illusions occur), and many things really are the case that do not seem to anyone to be the case. The important fact is that there is a way things seem. For any conscious subject, a fact may seem to be the case or may not seem to be the case. These "subjective facts" of an observer's consciousness can be quite different from the facts of the objective world.

If you are conscious, you have a world of subjective facts. A "conscious" system that does not have such a world is not really conscious at all.

In my book From Brain to Cosmos, I used ideas from modern logic to explore the idea of subjective fact. I stressed the fact that consciousness defines what logicians call a modality.

The idea of a modality is somewhat involved. To show what a modality is like, I'll present two examples of modalities. (For more information, see a book or encyclopedia article on modal logic.)


Example 1: Possibility. Given any statement, you can create a new statement by adding the words "It is possible that" to the beginning of the statement. The new statement then describes what is possible instead of what is actual. For example, you could begin with the statement "There is a zebra in Moscow." From this you can form a new statement: "It is possible that there is a zebra in Moscow." This statement describes what is possible - what might possibly be true. This statement can be true even if there actually is no zebra in Moscow. After all, the mere fact that there is no zebra in Moscow doesn't rule out the possibility that a zebra might end up there!

The phrase "It is possible that" stands for an important modality - the modality of possibility. (Philosophers recognize several different kinds of possibility, but I won't explore those details here.)


Example 2. Pastness. For any statement, you can make a new statement by adding the words "It was the case that" to the statement. The new statement then describes what was true in the past, instead of what is true now. For example, you could begin with the statement "There is a zebra in Moscow." From this you can form a new statement: "It was the case that there is a zebra in Moscow." A less awkward and more grammatical way of saying this is: "There was a zebra in Moscow." This statement describes what was true in the past. This statement might be true even if today there is no zebra in Moscow. If today there is no zebra in Moscow, this doesn't rule out there having been a zebra in Moscow in the past!

The phrase "It was the case that" stands for an important modality - the modality of pastness. (Philosophers also recognize several other modalities having to do with time. The mathematical subject of "tense logic" makes use of these modalities.)


These two examples illustrate what a modality is. It's like a function that changes a statement into a statement of a different kind. Phrases like "It is possible that" and "It was the case that" change ordinary statements about the actual, present world into statement of other kinds - statements about possibilities and about the past, respectively. You can think of a modality as a way in which propositions can be true. A proposition (like the proposition that there is a zebra in Moscow) might be actually true - but it also might be possibly true, or true in the past. Even a proposition that isn't actually true can be "true" in one of these other ways.

Students of logic know of many different modalities. For our purposes here, the important thing is that seeming is a modality. The phrase "It seems to me now that" changes a statement about how things are into a statement about how things seem. If I say "It seems to me now that there is a blue door," I am making a statement about how things seem to me now - in other words, about my experience. This statement does not imply that there really is a blue door. Maybe I'm looking at a window and misinterpreting it as a door, or maybe I'm only dreaming about a blue door. Or maybe I really am seeing a blue door. In any of these cases, it seems to me that there is a blue door.

Now, what does all this talk of modalities have to do with the problem of empty consciousness?

Suppose that you really did attain a period of empty consciousness, like I described earlier. Would there be anything of your consciousness left over during that period?

Yes, there would. Even if you were having no experiences, there still would be a modality of seeming. There would be the modality of how things seem to you now - and this modality is an important element of your consciousness!

At any given moment during your period of empty consciousness, there still would be the modality of seeming to be the case for you now. This modality, like all modalities, is a way that propositions can be true. Even if there currently are no propositions that are true in this way (that is, nothing seems to be the case for you now), there still is this modality of seeming to be the case for you now. We still can make meaningful statements using this modality, even if nothing seems like anything to you. At very least, we can make the statement "It is not the case that it seems to you now that P," where P is any proposition at all. (Translation of this statement into plain English: "Nothing seems like anything to you now.") If you are conscious of nothing at all, then the statement "It is not the case that it seems to you now that P" is true, and describes an actual state of affairs. The statement could not be true in this way if the phrase "It seems to you now that" were meaningless. We know what this phrase means; it means the same as it meant before you went blank! Since that phrase still has its meaning, it follows that there still is a modality of seeming to be the case for you.

The bottom line is that there is something left of your consciousness even if your consciousness is absolutely empty! This "something" is a modality of seeming - a modality that is essential to being conscious. Even if you are not conscious of anything, there still is such a modality.

Of course, the modality is not an extra thing that exists besides your brain activity. The modality isn't a "thing" at all. It's an abstract logical item, just as are the other modalities like possibility and pastness. The important fact is that the modality of seeming does not go away just because your consciousness is empty. It continues being what it was before: just a modality.

Now we can answer the question that started this post. Is there any difference between an empty consciousness and no consciousness at all? Yes, there is! With an empty consciousness, there still is a modality of seeming, similar to the one that the conscious subject used to have when his/her/its consciousness was not empty. This applies to a subject whose consciousness didn't used to be empty, but is empty now. This situation is very different from the existence of no consciousness at all. If a physical system (like a rock) has no consciousness at all, then there is no modality of seeming associated with that system. There simply is no way that things seem for that object - not even an empty, blank, void way.

The fact that seeming is a modality suggests that there can, in principle, be an empty consciousness. There is no fundamental logical reason why an empty consciousness of some kind cannot exist. This is true because there is more to consciousness than just the contents of experience. There also is the modality of seeming - which is equally real whether or not consciousness has any contents.

Earlier I pointed out that if empty consciousness is possible, then consciousness has a feature that science cannot detect. Since empty consciousness is possible in principle, we are stuck with an interesting conclusion: that there is at least one fact about consciousness that science cannot know. This conclusion may seem dangerous to the scientific approach to nature, but actually it is not dangerous at all. Mathematics constantly deals with facts beyond the reach of scientific methods - for example, the fact that the Pythagorean theorem follows from the axioms and postulates of plane geometry. No one thinks that such formal mathematical facts are threats to science. The existence of an untestable feature of consciousness is a fact of much the same sort. It is a formal fact that becomes apparent when we apply modal logic (a type of mathematics) to the idea of consciousness. The facts of mathematics and logic are not threats to science - so the fact that empty consciousness is possible cannot be much of a threat either!



(Post updated slightly 10/18/2010 - one link changed)

posted at: 21:48 | path: /mind | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 13 Feb 2009

Merry Darwinmas - Now Let's Get Evolution Right!

Yesterday was the two hundredth anniversary of the birthdays of two important historic figures: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Lincoln's legacy is stronger than ever today, especially since the election of America's remarkable new president, Barack Obama. While Lincoln's well-deserved fame continues to grow, Darwin's reputation has been tarnished somewhat by the world's failure to understand his theory of evolution.

Two main problems plague the theory of evolution today. One is the persistence of antievolutionist beliefs, with seven-day creationism as the extreme example. The other problem is the stubborn misunderstanding of the meaning of evolution by so-called skeptics and rationalists. Scientists have done a good job trying to address the first problem by explaining the massive evidence for evolution to the public.

In honor of this anniversary of Darwin's birth, I'd like to say a few words about the second problem - the misinterpretation of evolution by those who claim to think rationally. Some of what I will say here has been said before, but it bears repeating because many seem to have ignored it.

The theory of evolution is not a philosophy or a religion. It is a scientific theory that explains how types of living organisms come into being. It is a theory supported by massive and convincing evidence. The theory of evolution shows how new species can develop without the help of supernatural acts of creation. However, the theory of evolution does not contradict the basic religious ideas that there is a supreme being and that the universe is meaningful.

The theory of evolution does NOT say there is no God. It says that natural events, not supernatural miracles, created living things - but that is not the same as saying there is no God.

As I explained in my ebook God and Darwin: Buddies!, there are at least two ways that God could have created the universe even if evolution is true. (I'm talking about the real, scientific, Darwinistic version of evolution - not so-called "intelligent design," which is watered-down creationism.) God could be the creator of the universe even if there are no violations of natural law (not even at the Big Bang!) and no interruptions of the flow of natural causation by divine doodling. Religious believers are free to adopt this alternative view of creation if they wish. Evolution does not rule out the possibility of a creator of the universe. It only rules out certain ancient, literalistic beliefs about that creator.

What is more, there can be a God even if there is no supernatural creator at all! In my online article "God: The Next Version" I presented an idea of God that does without the supernatural. The God I portrayed there is a real God - not just a fancy name for the physical universe (as in some forms of pantheism), but an ideal being who embodies the supreme good. You don't have to believe in any supernatural beings or forces to believe in such a God.

When skeptics claim that evolution rules out God or makes God obsolete, they are talking baloney. The concept of God is a philosophical idea that can take many forms. Not everyone's idea of God is incompatible with evolution!

Evolution also does not imply that humans are "only" animals. Yes, we are animals - but the difference between humans and other animals is so obvious that we don't need God or Darwin to help us see it. Humans are animals, but humans are special. We are special, not because of where we came from, but because of what we are right now - and specifically, because of what our brains are. No discovery about our origins can make us less special. The discovery that our "specialness" resulted from evolution makes us all the more remarkable.

Finally, evolution does not imply that the universe is meaningless. Our experiences of meaning and value may be truthful experiences that reveal real, objective meaning and value in the world. The fact that evolution gave us the ability to have these experiences does not make them any less important. The questions of whether existence has real meaning, and of whether values are objectively real, are philosophical questions that cannot be answered through scientific methods alone.

I hope these remarks will clarify some of the common confusions about the meaning of evolution. Let's celebrate Darwin's two hundredth birthday by finally getting the implications of his theory right!

posted at: 22:45 | path: /religion/science_and_religion | persistent link to this entry


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