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Fri Feb 10, 2012, 12:38 PM

Atheist Q&A [View all]

A few weeks ago someone posted a link to this book review:

http://www.tnr.com/article/washington-diarist/magazine/98566/science-atheism-meaning-life?passthru=ZTNhMzMwYzFmMWU4YzdlNGY2ZjYyZTY2YmY2NWZhNDI

...of a book called, "The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions", by Alex Rosenberg. I haven't read the book myself, but I found myself wondering if the book is really as bad and as shallow as the reviewer makes it out to be. Whether or not the book deserves the review above, I decided I'd like to address some of the questions brought up in the review myself, with a few extra questions of my own as a lead-in, and provide something better than parody, straw-man answers.


Q: Do you think the universe is obligated to provide you with answers which you will find emotionally satisfying, answers which will provide you with a sense of purpose, a sense of deeper meaning, or feelings of comfort?

A: No. Maybe the universe can or does at times, but it's not obligated to do so. The fact that you might not like an evidence-based answer to a question, or might not like the lack of any evidence-based answer at all, doesn't make evidence-free, faith-based answers which satisfy your emotional desires better answers.


Q: Does the way the critic of the reviewed book characterizes the supposed answers from the book strike you as suspicious?

A: What the reviewer says the book says sounds more like the over-simplified straw man versions of atheist positions that belligerent anti-atheists throw around, much more than what I've typically heard directly from atheists themselves.


Q: Is there a god?

A: For the most popular meanings of the word "god", I'd say there's no evidence that such gods exist, that it's not even close to a 50/50 proposition that they exist. Some definitions of god are self-contradictory and can thus be categorically denied. Some definitions of god are so vague that it isn't clear what we'd be discussing the existence of. Some more academic definitions (the Prime Mover God, Spinoza's God), if you strip away unstated cultural baggage that people don't mention (but that I think some theists hope will slip by unoticed) are nothing more than synonyms for the natural universe. Such gods might indeed exist, but only as redundancies stated in overwrought language -- they aren't very "god like" by popular meanings for "god", they aren't personal gods with moral codes and plans for humanity, they aren't the kinds of gods one could expect to listen to or answer prayers.


Q: What is the nature of reality?

A: Who really knows? It's not like even the basic Philosophy 101 questions about reality have ever been solved. You don't move beyond those questions by solving them, you move beyond them by knowing you have to live with some uncertainty, then pick what seems like the most fruitful and practical possibilities to explore. Science has demonstrated itself to be a far more practical and fruitful and accountable way to explore reality than religion or "spirituality" ever has.

There are of course plenty of unanswered questions left, and perhaps one can give religion some credit for asking some of those questions. In my opinion, however, it's better to simply appreciate the occasional good questions raised by religious thinking without adopting any of religion's evidence-free, pre-packaged answers. Unlike the common caricature of atheism as a philosophy that claims science has "all of the answers", I'd say atheism, which is often just one aspect of general skepticism, has a whole lot more to do with becoming comfortable with saying, "I don't know" than claiming anyone or anything has all the answers.

What rankles believers most is that the atheist's "I don't know" isn't simply "I don't know", but also "I see no reason to believe that you know either".


Q: What is the purpose of the universe?

A: I'll first answer that question with another question. Purpose in what context? The idea of "purpose" does not exist without a context for a purpose. Why do you work? So you can, among other things, buy food to eat. Why do you need to buy food? So you can stay alive. Why do you need to stay alive? That's hard to answer -- many people just take it for granted that living is something you "need" to do. You could answer, "In order to work", and make the whole issue circular.

Is there a context in which the universe itself could have a purpose? That question doesn't even make much sense. If you say something like, "The universe is it's own purpose", that's a useless tautology. If there's a context outside of the universe where a universe might be created to serve a purpose, then what you're calling a "universe" isn't really the universe, that larger stage within which "universes" might or might not be created would be the true universe.

So my second answer to this question is this: Not a flat-out "none", but a request to clarify the question until it makes sense. If someone finds an answer like "To serve God's plan" satisfactory, I submit that such a person has simply failed to ask the obvious follow-up question, "What's the purpose of God's plan?"


Q: What is the meaning of life?

A: Whatever you want to make of it. Or 42 if you prefer. I see no evidence for any absolute meaning handed down from On High, or any good reason to suspect that such a meaning is out there for us to go looking for.


Q: Why am I here?

A: To pick up your dry cleaning? Pretty much the same problem with this question as with the "purpose" and "meaning of life" questions.


Q: Is there a soul? Is it immortal?

A: Probably not. We might not know everything about human nature, there are plenty of mysteries of the mind left to solve, but there's nothing so perplexing or damningly insufficient about explaining the human mind as a product of chemistry and evolutionary biology as to demand that some unproven entity called a "soul" must exist to explain the way we are.

Someone like the critic in the review can, of course, twist an answer like mine into something like, "So you think we're nothing but an accidental chemical reaction?!", as if their indignation over me not stroking their desire for greater cosmic importance makes my answer wrong and makes some god-based or "spiritual" answer better.


Q: Is there free will?

A: Free will is something that makes sense only when you don't think about it too much. If the universe is completely deterministic, there can't be anything you'd call "free will" no matter how you define it. Chaos theory tells us, however, that even a deterministic universe isn't predictable. Quantum mechanics seems to indicate some aspects of nature may be purely random. Is the existence of randomness and unpredictability enough to lead to something worthy of calling "free will"? Something that's partly deterministic, that takes occasional unpredictable or random turn? That doesn't sound like a very satisfying concept of "free will" either (not that I consider my own personal satisfaction to be an important a metric for truth).

It seems to me that a satisfying concept of free will is something that's neither deterministic or random, neither completely predictable or entirely unpredictable, but also more than a mere statistical bias toward one type of action or another. Does that leave anything left over for free will to be?

Regardless of whether free will exists, or even makes sense, I'm going to keep acting as if I have real choices in my power to make, and that the concept of "responsibility" applies to those choices. The question of the existence of free will is philosophically interesting, it's worth exploring, but in my day-to-day life, it's also a moot point. I don't have "faith" in free will, but I do act as if such a thing exists.


Q: What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?

A: I don't think the difference is based on the rules of a deity sitting in Ultimate Judgment.

Many people fear that if you don't believe in God-given laws of morality society will break down, suddenly murder and rape and theft and bad table manners will be rampant. I have three responses to that: (1) Even if such beliefs kept crime and other immoral conduct under control, that would only show that those beliefs had efficacious side effects, not that the beliefs were true, just as children's beliefs that cleaning their rooms and doing their homework will convince Santa to bring presents might improve children's behavior, but that improvement doesn't make Santa real. (2) No one can agree what the laws are that God or gods expect us to follow -- people typically choose gods and religions which agree with their own opinions of right and wrong. (3) People do all of the stuff their own religions and other people's religions tell them not to do anyway. Given that there is a higher percentage of believers in prison than in the general population, and a lower percentage of atheists in prison than in the general population, the evidence for religion making people behave better is questionable at best.

(There have to some recent studies suggesting that when people have been recently exposed to religious concepts, or the idea of a God watching over them, there can be some short-term increase in avoidance of dishonest behavior. The prison statistics, however, argue against that effect being a lasting effect.)

I certainly don't believe that "good" and "evil" are things in and of themselves, that they are primal forces or incorporeal essences. They are merely classifications of events and behaviors.

While I don't think the differences between right and wrong and between good and bad are clearly, sharply, and definitively defined, I hardly think that a lack of definitive clarity leaves us with the diametric oppositite where "anything goes". I think many moral principles ultimately go back to our evolution as social creatures. Beyond that, it doesn't seem too difficult to arrive at a rough cultural consensus about some of the improvements we can make by trying to go beyond our biological heritage.

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