Redefining “explanation”

I claimed just yesterday that in 2007 I wouldn’t post any reposnses to basic ignorance coupled to religious world views I find on the Web unless science is somehow involved. I realize that this grants an arbitrary amount of wiggle room, and I’m going to utilize some of this now.
I haven’t read any of the comments under this post, by a serial offender, but the entry itself is a comprehensively muddled attempt on the part of a reviler of godlessness with no apparent science grounding to explore what scientists actually do, how their findings are imparted to humanity, and how they relate to theism in the minds of scientists themselves.
I’ve reproduced the whole post and have kept my responses brief (and, I admit, conspicuously incomplete). I’ve also written it as if I had posted it as a comment on his blog, meaning that it’s marginally more polite and perhaps more didactic than what I’d normally produce. Wiggle room or not, I still shouldn’t be wasting time on this, and while I encourage people to read the comments (if there are over 160 of them under one entry on that blog, there have to be some doozies), I hope to let this one sink to the bottom of my mental septic tank as quickly as possible.

“Agnostics traditionally believe that it is impossible to know whether or not God(s) exists, whereas atheists assert as fact that there is no God.”
Atheism is the lack of a belief in any gods. Some atheists go on to assert that there is no god, but most simply posit because there is no objective, independent evidence for any gods, there is no reason to believe in any of them. This is a philosophically unassailable position.
“The only reason Christianity feels compelled to combat evolution is because Christians are told that science, and evolution in particular, somehow disprove God, or at least make God an unnecessary hypothesis.”
If anyone is telling Christians that evolution rules out God, it’s not scientists, it’s other Christians. True, the scientific facts at our disposal today render strict Christian beliefs about the creation of the universe, geoscience, astronomy, and many other things increasingly ludicrous, but this isn’t because scientists have an instrinsic anti-religion agenda. When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile barrier in 1954, decades after physiologists reportedly assured everyone it could never be done, it wasn’t because he hated them (today he’s a neurologist). Science pushes some ideas to the curb simply because they turn out to be bad ideas, but those with a lifelong (or eternal) stake in such ideas seem to have problems with this.
“But science is no more capable of disproving God than it is of proving Him. It will always be out of the realm of the scientific method. Most atheists, particularly those who aggressively cling to evolution, are easily offended by YEC Creationism and will be the first to claim that science has no place in a debate of theology, moral theory, and the like. I agree, which is why the atheist tactic of using science to somehow make God unnecessary also has no place.”
Science doesn’t seek to “disprove” anything. It is trivial to point out that proving the nonexistence of anything (gods, garden fairies, the Flying Spaghetti Monster) is beyond the scope of investigation. But it is not inappropriate at all to assert that gods are indeed not necessary to explain anything. There is no evidence for gods (as Tim at least tacitly admits by claiming that gods are beyond the reach of science), and yet we continue to expand the scope of human knowledge further and further each day — and in ways that make the Bible and other religious texts appear — to be charitable — increasingly unreliable.
Atheists are not “offended” by YEC (“YEC creationism” is redundant, by the way; think “ATM machine” or “HIV virus”) any more than they are offended by other divine notions. They simply have no use for them. YEC is especially silly because the earth is known to be billions of years old, and many human inventions date well back beyond 4,000 BCE, including glue, the domestication of dogs, and Helen Gurley Brown.
“As my I stated a few posts down, science is unable to explain “why”. It can explain the “how” or the “what”, but not ‘why’. Therefore, basing one’s belief or disbelief in God based on scientific evidence is ridiculous. What is also interesting is the hostility that atheism often brings toward religion, particularly Christianity, insulting the intelligence of many who believe. Why is this ironic? Because atheism, especially the naturalism end of the spectrum, is unable to come up with a better explanation.”
Tim appears to be hitched firmly to the present, as if we all happen to be living in a climactic endpoint rather than serving as eddies in a slowly meandering but implacable stream.
When the Bible was first released in full, as it were, scientists had not yet explained a great many things, such as the approximate age of the universe, the speed of light, the depth of the seas, the very nature of matter (atoms and subatomic particles, the periodic table of elements, etc.). So people drew on the “wisdom” of the Bible. Well, now we know a great deal about these things. Tim seems to believe that progress has ground to a halt, and that because scientists have not in 2007 fully explained the material aspect of things like emotions that God is the only explanation. He is thinking like a Luddite at best.
He also confuses his terminology with great enthusiasm. “Atheism” is, as I stated, simply a rational position. It doesn’t seek “better explanations” for anything. But Tim mean “scientists” in this context, then yes, scientists do have far better tools for investigating the world than relying on a static text thousands of years old — it’s hard to imagine any means of describing phenomena more ramshackle than a collection of allegorical tales penned by ancient tribal people.
“Therefore, they write the question of ‘why’ off as something unnecessary. But the question of meaning in our lives lingers on, despite atheism and naturalisms’ condecension toward the question itself. Many will state that faith in God is born out of fear, but this is no more true than if I said that not believing in God was born out of fearlessness. For the atheist and the naturalist to claim that Christianity’s explanation of ‘why’ is counter-feit, they first would actually need to have the authentic explanation. But they don’t, and don’t even bother to try. Basically, they’ve written off all proposed answers simply by ignoring the question.”
Some thinkers are hard at work on elucidating the “whys”; we call most of them philosophers, and a subset of these we label theologians. Scientists at large make no effort to explain the “why” of existence, because this is a philosophical matter. And atheists are just as facile as anyone else at drawing meaning from life. It is, quite simply, what we make of it. We assign value to our own lives (and ideally to the lives of others). The fact that there is no underlying cosmic imperative or greater consciousness with any stake in the outcome is irrelevant. The fact that no one reading this knows what I’m going to do the rest of the day, and that only a vanishingly small fraction of people on the planet will be affected by what I do with my day, doesn’t mean that these things are unimportant to me. Tim is simply blinded by the limitations of the manifestly untenable “without-gods-there’s-no-point” canard drummed into him at some point during his Christian upbringing.
He is also wrong in claiming that in order for someone to refute an explanation for something, he must have in hand a full, alternative explanation. I don’t know who left a giant, corn-stippled turd in my front yard yesterday, but if you told me a unicorn left it there I could swiftly dispense of this explanation. In fact, it was probably me.
“Also worth noting is the fact that evolution is crippled by the atheistic worldview. Evolution or natural selection is the process in which individual organisms best adapted to their circumstances are more likely to survive and successfully reproduce. Basically the superior will survive while the inferior will not. But evolution in the atheistic worldview is crippled because evolution and natural selection are unable to define in absolute terms what makes the human race or any other species ‘superior’.”
Well, this is a bit f*cked up. Tim surely hasn’t taken a lot of biology. “Superior,” in terms of evolution, imeans more or less exactly what Tim said it means before he turned around, threw his hands in the air, and said that scientists can’t offer a definition. Any organism suited to its environment is superior to coexisting organisms less suited to that same environment. However, bacteria may be regarded as superior to human beings in almost every way — they’re far more numerous than us, have been here longer, and will be here long after we’re gone. And in terms of sheer survivablity of nothing else. I’m superior to a trout as I sit here breathing about 21% oxygen at around 300 feet above see level, but I’d find myself adjusting this idea if sunk in Lake Winnipesaukee. We’re all inferior to certain curious microoganisms if plunged to a depth of 20,000 feet in the vicinity of a vent in the ocean floor.
We humans typically label ourselves superior because we’re the most intelligent organisms on the planet by most applicable measures, but this fails to provide any reason for why a deity would be responsible. To pimp from Sam Harris a little, if my arm is cut off it won’t grow back, but salamanders can regrow parts of themselves that are removed. Does this make them superior? Or are they merely better at praying?
“A common argument presented from atheism is that basing one’s moral code in God and the Bible is not only unnecessary, but rather immoral. It is common then for the atheist to pick out and point to various passages in the Old Testament portion of the Bible, the most gruesome and gory aspects of each narrative, in an attempt to make God out to be a violent, hate filled cosmic being. The atheist will point to such examples as something aweful and immoral.”
It appears that Tim agrees that operating in accordance with OT standards would be grossly immoral, and that many of its passages are, in fact, gruesome and gory. Who knew?
“What is interesting about this is that the atheist, in an attempt to blame religion and faith for the world’s ailments, picks out quotes and passages of historical narratives that give an account of actuale events to condemn the morality of God, rather than actually ponder the teachings that the Christian is commanded by Christ to follow. The atheist also ignores the fact that the same atrocities can be found in the encyclopedia, committed by man, and often in the name of man. Yet the atheist sees nothing wrong with mankind sort of democratically electing what values are to be considered moral. Basing moral value on mankind’s experience and intelligence has produced the same type of atrocities that the atheist would condemn when read in the Bible. Joseph Stalin, one who butchered millions (current tolls are actually up to 15 million. That’s right, they are still counting) did so in the name of anti-religion. Why is it then that belief in no God is not seen just as dangerous as belief in a God?”
Here Tim has probably managed to place himself at odds with Christians, the godless, scientists, grammarians, historians, and practically everyone else, including Stalinists. Most importantly, he has simply iterated a point atheists themselves make. Believers and avowed atheists both commit scads of atrocious acts (although much more slaughter has been perpetrated in the names of gods than not, and you won’t see atheists rioting in the streets because some political cartoonist has mocked them).
There is simply zero evidence that good morals (or bad ones) are externally provided, and in fact it is easy to demonstrate both biologically and philosophically why they surely are not. If god allegedly decreed that murder is bad, why? Because it just is? If so, we don’t need god as a middleman or cheerleader. If god turned around and made murder a good thing tomorrow, would Christians flock to the streets and kill one another? Probably not — because this is an inherently nasty thing, and each of us, as a part of the human circus, knows it without needing voices above to tell us.
Plenty of animals besides humans play by moral rules — punishing thieves and “sex offenders” as well as killers. Certain acts are simply destructive to the fabric of any biological community. We like to create celestial policemen and put them in charge of our doings because it seems to make thse doings more important, but again, there is fundamentally no difference, on average, in the ways believers and nonbelievers behave in civilized society (although I’ve never seen anyone blow himself and those around him up on the name of “nothing”).
“There are other problems with atheism, problems much more obvious. For instance, the atheist, though most will claim that their lives are valuable and have meaning, are unable to explain what gives their lives this meaning. Though it must be said, that the naturalist doesn’t even go that far, and is at least consistent in that they believe in no God, and believe that there is no real purpose for our existence, we just are. The obvious problem with this, is that the atheist and naturalist alike still would use words such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ though they can’t explain why such concepts exist.”
Here Tim merely champions his own laziness in stating that god gives his life meaning. If this were true he wouldn’t say half the things he says on his blog, but that’s not the point, which is that god introduces an element that is simply not required in order to live well. I don’t need to provide a list of atheists as examples of people who have contributed to the good of the world in, if you’ll pardon the term, miraculous ways.
Also, there’s no problem with using labels to describe things that are otherwise difficult to clarify. Claiming that using words like “love” and “hate” without believing in gods is patently dumb, tantamount to claiming that a blind person cannot use words like yellow and orange. We know exactly what these represent in our minds, but try to describe the visible color spectrum to someone who has never seen colors. We know precisely what wavelength of light corresponds to each labeled color, but this isn’t necessary to confidently state that colors need not be a divine construct.
Tim is also hopelessly caught up in “purpose.” It is unfortnate that he believes his life and everything in it lacks a purpose iunless someone or something he will never see, hear or converse with is watching.
“They base their morality on the dictates of social and cultural factors. But evil and good can’t exist in a purely materialistic world. There can’t be good and evil, just is. What I do is what I do. The concepts of love and hate are also lost in this worldview. Science has attempted to observe brain activity to explain love and hate, but at this point cannot explain ‘why’. Also, once the research is observed, we don’t see any real explanation of love, but rather attachment. Love is a choice one makes. It is not a collection of warm fuzzy feelings that seduce the brain into infatuation. That is infatuation. I doubt if any wives would get swept off their feet by their husband saying ‘I love you, I can’t help myself, the chemicals in my brain are reacting in such a way that I’m literally brainwashed into falling in love with you.'”
Tim has gotten a little repetitive here. Well, no one says, “Wow, I’m glad I just drank that milkshake, the carbon, nitrogen oxygen and hydrogen molecules undergoing enzymatic decomposition in my stomach are contributing to satiety and a rise in blood sugar and ameliorating my hunger pangs,” yet we know that biochemistry, not mysticism, underlies the appeal of eating when famished.
“If morality is truly just a concept that determines how man can best inhabit the world together, love and hate are actually errors in evolution. Love isn’t necessary for peaceful cohabitation, and hate is actually a detriment. Yet apparenly, evolution saw fit to evolve our brains in such a way that we are programmed to love, hate, and question the meaning of our existence.”
It is, again, superfluous to explain why the emotions generated by certain stimuli and the physical and physiological reactions they inspire and incite may be beneficial to survival. Love is essential for nurturing, hate often required for violent defense of life and property; other examples exist in abundance. Tim seems to think that evolution as described by biologists would inevitably produce races of smiling, zonked-out clones with no need to squabble, like something from a Huxley yarn. Does he not understand that organisms are in competition with one another for food, mates and other resources, and that combat is unfortunately an essential component of this? Does god directly command him to hate atheists or is this the result of his genetics and environment and the interplay between them? Evolution not only does not fail to account for the range of our emotions and attendant behaviors, but explains them perfectly.
“Nature had no need to create us capable of enjoying or not enjoying ourselves, pleasure is an unnecessary phenomonen. Therefore, one must still question “why”? Let us look to nature. Animals kill each other daily, and the atheist and naturalist would consider this merely nature running its course. Yet when man does it, it is defined as “murder” and condemned as immoral by the atheist and theist alike. How is this consistent?”
Animals kill each other, humans do the same for much the same reason(s). How is this inconsistent? Because our brains have evolved to the point at which we know what we’re doing, whether it’s right or wrong? A dog knows it’s in the wrong for swiping a steak off your plate when you’re not looking or (if housebroken) taking a dump on the floor. And we aren’t the only animals to police ourselves; we simply happen to be the only ones using language and strictly expressed rules to define how we do this (and many other things).
“Evolution and natural selection have obviously created humanity with such tendencies as murder, therefore murder, if the atheistic worldview is going to remain consistent, is simply nature running its course. If murder is not a product of natural selection, then these tendencies came to humanity by some other means. If natural selection is responsible, then one must still wonder ‘why’? What value to the survival of the favored races does killing have if man is not suppose to kill?”
Let’s leave aside already-visited biological fragments here. It’s perfectly fine to wonder why people kill (rather than simply berate or flee from, I guess) each other, although given the amount of wanton killing in the Bible — replete with justification — you’d think this is the least thing theists would marvel over. Tim’s entire religion is based on a murder and symbolized by an instrument of same. Somehow, he just doesn’t perceive that the moral ideal of nonviolence he apparently feels should be built into any evolutionary scheme is simply not a part of it, no more than a conscious guiding force is.
I said I didn’t read the comments, but I did catch this blip from Tim while scrolling down and rather wish I hadn’t:
“Stalin’s massacre is a direct result of atheism, and Hitler is a direct result of natural selection.”
Much of what Tim writes can be counted on to be parodically bad, but this is grandly ignorant. I thought that certain stereotypical indictments of pseudoatheism were off limits even to the dingbats nowadays.
Totalitarianism of the Stalinesque variety is much more closely related to a theocracy than to any atheist utopia in which free inquiry and skepticism are encouraged, not squashed. Ever heard of Lysenko? And claiming that Hitler is a by-product of natural selection (aren’t we all, though) is like saying that the barely readable stuff Tim posts is a direct result of English. Hitler was an avowed Christian, by the way, and his ideas spring from traditional Christian antisemitism.
I don’t doubt that all of this was already written in the responses on Tim’s blog, but what I refuse to look into won’t affect me or my ideas at all. This clearly works for some people.

5 thoughts on “Redefining “explanation””

  1. “What is interesting about this is that the atheist, in an attempt to blame religion and faith for the world’s ailments, picks out quotes and passages of historical narratives that give an account of actuale events to condemn the morality of God, rather than actually ponder the teachings that the Christian is commanded by Christ to follow.

    In other words, “Do what God says, not what God does.”
    This fellow is deep.

  2. Sounds like he was dealing with the same tired old arguments. A nice refutation.
    I am amused by people who claim that they need an external force telling them what to do with their lives – and THIS makes them moral. Yet we’ve seen people gladly carry out atrocities in the name of their gods.
    I also think that Stalin and his ilk should be given the title of Honorary Theist. The kind of person who believes that, again, some external force compels them to behavior and doesn’t take responsibility. They’re just less anthropomorphic.

  3. Humbly propose that the new year be referred to as ‘007, a la James Bond. We can only use this shorthand every 1000 years, and it distinguishes this year from 1907 or 2107.

  4. One minor quibble…

    And we aren’t the only animals to police ourselves; we simply happen to be the only ones using language and strictly expressed rules to define how we do this (and many other things).

    That we know about. Primates and many toothed whales are quite intelligent, display moral behaviour, and possess forms of communication. It’s entirely possible that they express rules for morality in language, although it may not be quite on the same abstract level as our own thought.
    Otherwise, quite a nice refutation. (Though your opponent made it all rather easy.)

  5. My own minor quibble:

    Atheists are not “offended” by YEC (“YEC creationism” is redundant, by the way; think “ATM machine” or “HIV virus”) any more than they are offended by other divine notions

    Personally, I’m offended by the idea that we’re supposed to be grateful to a god who created us sinful and then “saved” some of us from hell. Otherwise, point taken.

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