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Tue, 12 Jan 2010

What Is an Atheist (and Are You One)?

These days many people claim to be atheists. What is an atheist? Are you one?

Atheism is the belief that there is no God. It is different from agnosticism, which is the position that you don't know whether there is a God. Agnosticism is a suspension of judgment; atheism is a type of belief. Atheist belief may be certain (a belief that there definitely is no God) or merely probable (a belief that there probably is no God).

To decide who is an atheist, you first have to know what the word "God" means. What exactly is it that the atheists are denying?

This question is not easy as it seems. The problem is that there are many different ideas of God in human thought. Serious, informed thinkers (and some less serious and informed ones as well) have held a spectrum of different ideas about God. The mental picture of God that you grew up with is not the only possible idea of God.

Some atheists seem to think that the only idea of God is the Biblical idea, and that the word "God" means a supernatural creator of the world. Although many people believe in this idea of God, those who regard it as a definition of the word "God" are on the wrong track. Some philosophers have arrived, through reason, at ideas of God that can be true even if there is nothing supernatural. Some religions have taught that God is not the creator. According to some concepts of God, God is not very humanlike, and is not even what we usually think of as a "person." I've written elsewhere (here, here and here) about various ideas of God, so I won't try to list all the ideas again here.

What do all these ideas of God have in common? The differences can be great. However, most ideas of God (at least most of the well-thought-out ones) have a common core. In one way or another, most of these ideas portray God as a greatest possible being. They depict God as a being or reality that is greater, better, or more perfect than anything else. What is more, these ideas portray God as having mindlike properties of some kind - mental, spiritual, or moral properties. These ideas don't just equate God to something physical, like matter or energy. Instead, they portray God as being a bit more like a "someone" than a mere "something." This is true even of ideas that deny that God is a "person" in the usual sense of the word.

Pantheism is one form of belief in God that is different from the supernatural-creator idea. In its basic version, pantheism equates God to nature or to the physical universe. Some critics claim that pantheism is only a disguised form of atheism, but they are wrong about this. Some forms of pantheism might amount to atheism, but other forms amount to a real belief in God. However, pantheism is not the only possible form of belief in God that denies that God is a supernatural creator. As I pointed out elsewhere, there are other such beliefs. (See here and here.)

The God of real religious thought is very different from the "God" of Biblical fundamentalism. The God of the fundamentalists is a very humanoid, and sometimes very mean, fellow who makes a habit of violating the laws of nature. Other, more reasonable religious thinkers long ago rejected this idea of God. Some of these other thinkers still consider God a supernatural creator - but that isn't the most important part of their understanding of God. These believers could continue believing in God even if it turned out that God was not a supernatural creator.

Some atheists try to define "God" as a supernatural creator of the universe. Then they try to debunk God by proving there is no supernatural creator. The big problem with this line of argument is that it doesn't tell us much about God! At most, it hits one concept of God: the idea that God is a supernatural creator. Even if this atheistic line of argument worked, it would not disprove God. At most, it would disprove the supernatural-creator concept of God. Some sincere believers in God rejected this concept long ago - but they didn't have to give up believing in God.

The atheist trick of defining God as a supernatural creator pins the "atheist" label on anyone who accepts a different idea of God. By claiming that God must be a supernatural creator, the atheists are playing with words. They are defining into existence a whole bunch of "atheists" who might not be atheists at all. This atheist ploy is much like defining the word "dog" to include the concept of being lime green in color. Once you buy into that definition, you can say that lime green dogs are the only real dogs - and anyone who disbelieves in lime green dogs is actually a disbeliever in dogs. (This covers a lot of people, even people who have dogs, because lime green dogs are rather easy to disbelieve in.)

It's easy to label anyone an "atheist" if they disagree with your particular idea of God. However, the fact that you have stopped believing in the Bible, in religion, or in the supernatural isn't enough to make you an atheist. You don't have to become an atheist just because you don't believe in these things. There is another option: rethink your idea of God - and think for yourself.

Some people who think about religion call themselves "atheists" just because they don't believe in a supernatural creator. If that describes you, then you might not really be an atheist at all!

posted at: 20:25 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry

Mon, 11 Jan 2010

Evolution Has No Purpose. So What?

One sometimes hears the following argument about evolution: "When we examine evolution carefully, it shows no sign of aiming for a purpose. Therefore, the apparent design in nature is not really design." Some versions of this argument are more thorough and detailed, but they all boil down to the same idea: no purpose to evolution, therefore no design in nature.

Now I am going to do something that will make certain people angry. I am going to show that this particular line of argument against design doesn't work. Just so there's no misunderstanding, I will state up front that I am not going to give an argument for design in nature. In this post, I am only showing that one particular argument against design is fallacious. Also, I am not going to shed any doubt on evolution, in which I firmly believe, or give any support to creationism or so-called "Intelligent Design" theory, in which I firmly disbelieve. Instead, I am going to show that one particular argument against design is useless. If you want a positive argument for the belief that there is no design in nature, you need a better argument.

The argument against design that I summarized two paragraphs ago makes use of an unstated assumption. Here is the assumption: an object without a purpose is not a designed object. Stated differently: everything that is designed is designed for a purpose.

Human experience shows that this assumption is false. Here's how.

Consider the set of objects created or used by humans. Because of their relationship with humans, these objects are examples of purpose and design. Some of these objects are human artifacts; they exhibit design (by humans) and have purpose (for humans). Other objects are not humanly designed but still serve human purposes; natural objects used as found tools are like this.

Now take note of an interesting fact: among human artifacts, there are some objects that are designed but do not have any particular purpose.

The objects I have in mind are certain works of art. Artists often have conscious purposes when creating a work of art. These purposes can vary widely, ranging from the purely artistic to the economic. However, a work of art does not need to have a specific purpose of this kind. An artist might make a wild work of abstract art with no particular aim in mind - just for the heck of it, as the saying goes. There might be an ulterior motive (such as a profit motive or a desire to do something new), but there does not have to be. The creative process might "just happen," fueled by half-unconscious impulses, a lively imagination, or sheer nervous energy.

This is especially likely for some (though not all) pieces of children's art. A child might make a pattern of colors with crayons, not because of a desire to achieve any aim or to represent anything, but just because of a restless inner urge. Some artwork driven by mental illness or drug use might be even more aimless, arising from stray mental visions and impulses. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that mentally healthy, sober adult artists also can produce works without a specific aim.

Doodles - figures drawn while a person is paying attention to something else - provide other examples of purposeless design. Sometimes doodles seem to pour forth just because a person is nervous or bored - not for any conscious (or perhaps even unconscious) purpose. This is especially likely to happen at long business meetings. However, these doodles can be quite complex - obviously products of design and not of mere chance.

Artworks of these unplanned and aimless kinds clearly are examples of design. They are designed in human brains. The process of designing them is part of the conscious and/or unconscious functioning of those brains. The designs might be strange at times, and art critics might not like them - but still, these artworks really are designed. They are designed, but not created for any predetermined purpose. (Someone might want to ask how much design exists in art that involves randomness, like certain kinds of splatter art. But even splatter art is not completely random.)

Along with designed objects that lack purpose, there are objects in the human world that have purpose but are not designed. I've already mentioned an example: a found tool, like a branch or stone that someone picks up and uses to do a task. Such objects have purpose for humans, but they are not designed.

So, what's the connection between design and purpose? There may be connections, but there is no tight coupling between the two. If an object can have purposeless design or designless purpose, then what becomes of the argument we started with: that if nature has no purpose, then nature is not designed?

This argument against design just doesn't hold water. If you want to argue that the universe isn't designed, you need a better argument than that.

(A warning to skeptics: Don't bother to write to tell me that I am trying to shift the burden of proof for design in nature. If you had read this post, you would know that I am not doing that.)

By now you may be wondering what I think of the traditional "argument from design," which supposedly points to a supernatural designer of nature. For my opinion on this argument, read this document. The argument from design is wrong - but neither theists nor atheists know the real reason why it is wrong. If they understood what's really wrong with that argument, they might have to change their views on design and purpose from the ground floor up.

posted at: 22:30 | path: /religion/science_and_religion | persistent link to this entry

Why I Don't Believe in So-Called Intelligent Design Theory

In case anyone is wondering, I do not believe in so-called "Intelligent Design" theory. I believe in the conventional scientific version of evolution.

My main objection to Intelligent Design theory is not new; others have stated this objection in various forms. Put simply, the problem with Intelligent Design (ID) is that it proceeds by jumping to conclusions. The best arguments for Intelligent Design that I've seen begin with the fact that we don't understand how some particular biological structure evolved. From that, the ID-ers infer that there probably is an external intelligent designer. But this is NOT a good inference! The mere fact that we can't explain something doesn't allow us to assume that some specific explanation is true. Even if a natural phenomenon has us completely puzzled, it's still illogical to infer from this that one particular explanation, or type of explanation, is right. The ID-ers tend to assume a specific explanation, or type of explanation, just because we don't have an explanation. There's a nonscientific name for this kind of reasoning. It's called "jumping to conclusions."

It's like assuming that because we don't know who stole the golf balls, the neighbors' cat must have done it.

This objection to ID is not original with me, though I may have stated it in a slightly different way. It's one of the standard objections to ID - perhaps the most standard objection. But I have not yet seen the ID theorists overcome this objection.

(While I'm on the subject of ID, I should mention that the question of whether nature has an external designer has almost no bearing on the question of the existence of God. This assertion might seem surprising. It has the potential to embarrass ID-ers and creationists - and many atheists too. See this document for further details.)

posted at: 22:19 | path: /religion/science_and_religion | persistent link to this entry


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