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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.

----------

Notes

[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, [http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2007/marapr/1.21.html], accessed 5/10/2009.)

[2] Nobel Lectures, Physics 1901-1921, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1967, [http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1905/lenard-bio.html], 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.

-----

Notes

[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



 

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