Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Debate with Atheists About...Well...Just About Everything





On December 5, Luke “the Common Sense Atheist” published a blog post predicting that “immortality/consciousness uploading” would be achieved by the year 2150.

This sparked a comment thread in which I debated atheists on several topics, including the nature of consciousness, artificial intelligence, memes, the HBD movement, the Holocaust, and other issues.

At first, I merely wanted to disagree with Luke's prediction. I wrote...

Consciousness is not a material thing, so it can never be “uploaded.”

This led to an exchange between me and “Justfinethanks…”

JFT: A “song” isn’t a material thing, so that must be why it’s impossible to create an MP3.

TW: A song IS a material thing; it’s words set to music.

JFT: A “song” is the product of material things, like a guitar, vocal chords, drums, but the “song” itself is merely an emergent property of these combined things. Much like “consciousness” is merely an emergent property of neurons, chemicals, and electrical discharges.

TW: See, that’s your mistake. You assume consciousness is an “emergent property” of matter when there’s no evidence of that, and a lot of evidence against it.

Consciousness interacts with matter, but is not equal to matter; it is a non-material agent. And as such, it cannot be uploaded into a machine.

Then Urbster and I crossed paths…

Urb: There’s tons of evidence for consciousness being produced by the brain (by contrast, no one has ever produced evidence for the existence of any kind of “soul” or extraphysical, dualist property) or successfully explained such an interaction with physical matter.

TW: To take one example most people can relate to, let’s look at the placebo effect: Who is the “I” that thinks he’s getting healthier, and MAKES his body healthier, even if the pill he took is just a sugar bill? To the Reductionist, the “I” just an illusion. But the facts of science (plus common sense) suggest there really is an “I” (distinct from the body) which can influence the body.

Then Jeff interjected:

“Occam’s Razor would seem to shave off the idea of a soul, but were we to map out the brain in more detail and find that the consciousness function eludes us, it might still be plausible to come up with some notion of a “mind” or “soul”.

I replied…

I’m not a big fan of Occam’s Razor (especially in science, ironically). The universe is a pretty big, complicated place, and while every generation of scientists answers some questions, they usually get dwarfed by the number of new questions that spring from the tremendous complexity that is the world and life itself.

I’m just glad there wasn’t an Occam’s Razor’s in Galileo’s time. I’m sure the Church would’ve used it against him: “The Earth goes AROUND the sun? Surely, you jest Galileo! That goes against Occam’s Razor.”



Then Fortuna arrived…

FTA: The placebo effect, and related instances of biofeedback, do not strictly require us to postulate anything spooky or ethereal.

TW: I don’t think there’s a “strict requirement.” However, if you take the placebo effect (and similar evidence), and then contrast it with the materialist paradigm, I would argue that “an inference to the best explanation” leads one to conclude that the best explanation is that the mind has a non-material element.

FTA: Also, Occams’ razor slices complex things all things being equal. Galileo had evidence that unbalanced that equation.

TW: True, but too often, Occam’s razor is used for scientific enterprises in which so much of our data is fuzzy (like consciousness studies). Unfortunately, the mere fuzziness leads people to use Occam’s Razor in favor of materialism, and I think that’s lazy – especially when, as I said before, we know from experience that the universe is a pretty big, complicated place.

FTA: How do you propose to “contrast” biofeedback with the materialist paradigm? We know that the brain has a great deal of chemical interplay with the rest of body, up to and including dramatically altering various aspects of your physiology.

TW: I’m not sure if I understand the question. The way I see it, biofeedback exists in a pro-mind paradigm too. Mind can influence the body, and vice versa. But the mind does not equal the body.

In the case of the placebo effect, the act of thinking itself is what drives the biochemical changes. What I am suggesting is that the origin of thinking (the irreducible “I”) is an immaterial process. There is no inherent reason to believe that matter can create mind; it’s a theory of materialist science. I won’t be arrogant enough to say it’s an illogical theory or a theory that could never be proven, but I don’t think it fits the evidence discovered by science over the past century.

Then Jeff came back…

Jeff: Because we know that the brain controls the body, it seems reasonable to assume that the brain would be responsible for the placebo effect (an effect on the body).”

TW: If thinking was on the same level of complexity as digestion, that might express my opinion too. But thinking/consciousness is on an order of complexity so startling that science today struggles to even define it, never mind explain it. Thus, I don’t feel inhibited in suggesting that we are grappling with something which can not be understood in strictly materialist terms, and has has a non-material dimension.

I don’t know to what extent you’re familiar with the writer John Derbyshire, but he’s a proud Darwinist and a critic of Christianity who – despite all that – feels the “hard problem of consciousness” is so vexing, he rejects atheism.

Then came my discussion with Urbster about the existence of “I” which "I" (no pun intended) already described in my essay, The Cannibals of the Scientific Revolution.

After that bout, it was Fortuna's turn…

FTA: The evidence with which I’m familiar has only ever suggested that biochemical changes drive the act of thinking. Neurons fire, and then one wills their arm to move, or tastes ice cream, or gets angry, or what have you. As far I know, whenever we have been in a position to observe the matter, we have never observed the chain of causality flowing from thought to brain chemistry, only the reverse.

TW: I’ve seen some research which suggests that, and other research which contradicts it. However, I have to cast a skeptical eye toward research which suggests that “I” am just a random firing of neurons, and that this cohesive “I” which imposes order on my thoughts and actions doesn’t exist. I don’t think it’s unfair of me to say that that totally contradicts my daily experience, and the experience of most civilized people, for that matter. The research is legit, I’m sure, but I’m confident it will be superseded by better research in the future.

FTA: I’d like you to cite the contradictory research please.

TW: I think this example should qualify, but if it doesn’t, let me know:

In 1991, investigators told a group of 48 men who were about to watch porn to suppress their sexual arousal – and surprisingly enough (according to penile plethysmography), while watching the porn, they were able to do so.

This, in my mind (pun intended), is evidence that “I” exist; “I” is capable of using reason to suppress instincts; and the very act of using reason can initiate biochemical reactions.

This example comes from The Spiritual Brain.

Then I faced Urbster again:

Urb: How could it possibly be that the brain can produce emergent consciousness? Well, how could it be that complex computers can produce emergent (”artificial”) intelligence?

TW: What is often billed as “artificial intelligence” is not even close to “biological intelligence.” It’s not even intelligence; it’s just algorithms.

Urb: Computers work. Does this take faith to believe? Computing is an EMERGENT phenomenon.

TW: I think your statement indicates a common misperception of what consciousness is and how it compares to strictly material objects like computers. As I hinted at above, there is no comparison between a human being and a computer. A computer can perform many seemingly intelligent functions (like Spellchecker or organizing newspaper articles alphabetically) but that intelligence does not require – and shows no evidence of – consciousness. Is the Internet conscious? Does it think and act and emote on its own volition? Of course not. And it’s reasonable to suggest it never will. As I said above, the idea that “consciousness emerges from matter” is a theory but not a fact, and given the evidence accumulated so far, it’s actually better described as a hope; a wish; a matter of faith. See for instance, Why the Mind is Not Like a Computer.

Urb: The more highly complex the brain is, the more intelligence an animal has. Surely it’s not just “conscious” or “not conscious” but there is a range of conscious behavior; some animals are more self-aware than others. Some animals can predict things farther ahead into the future and recognize objects and words. Therefore it is possible for evolution to produce conscious beings.”

TW: I’m OK with everyone you said until the final line, “Therefore it is possible for evolution to produce conscious beings.” That conclusion does not necessarily follow from the evidence you provide. In fact, there is no reason to believe that consciousness is a product of evolution. See for instance, Rob Rosenbaum’s recent article, The Dangerous Mysteries of Consciousness. Rosenbaum is a Darwinist but he’s upfront on how Darwinism cannot explain consciousness, and probably never will.

Urb: Even if we choose to separate talking about ‘the mind’ from ‘the brain,’ the mind is still just a function of my brain like the Windows operating system is the function of the computing processes of the electronic hardware.

TW: Again, that is a faulty analogy based on a misconception of what consciousness is.

Urb: There are as many examples of religion acting as a “parasitic meme”…It makes me wonder if you even understand what a “meme” is.

TW: I understand “memes” very well, which is precisely why I object to Dennett’s statement. The only legitimate description of “meme” is a “good idea which aids survival.” From that description, 3 problems arise: 1) Dennett apparently believes that “memes” are something of a biological nature; something that is mentally equivalent of genes. That is – at a minimum, unproven; at a maximum, absurd. And in either case, it puts Dennett’s credibility into doubt. But further, there are more problems. A “parasitic meme” is a contradiction in terms; either it’s a “meme” or it’s not. A parasitic meme would not aid survival and is thus NOT a meme. So again, Dennett is using sloppy language to advance his agenda. And finally, I genuinely object to the causal statement that “religion is a parasitic meme.” It is atheism – not faith – that is a destroyer of happiness and culture.

See, for example, The Despair of the Selfish Gene.

Then Fortuna came back…

FTA: There is no necessary connection between atheism and unhappiness; the vast majority of atheists are doing just fine, thanks, just like the general population.

TW: As The Economist notes, “sociologists agree that the practice of a faith and broad happiness with life do seem to be related, though nobody has much idea why.” In fairness, that same article also suggests that atheism *might* be more conducive to happiness than agnosticism, and for a predictable reason: Atheism – like Christianity – is a “life philosophy” which can provide people with some sort of ethical guidelines on how to live life; agnosticism – almost by definition – can not do that.

FTA: Ditto the destruction of culture; last I checked, Scandinavia was doing just fine.

TW: I don’t have the data in front of me, but I’m pretty sure it would be inaccurate to call Scandinavia “atheist.” I’m pretty sure most people in Scandinavia believe in God (and probably even the Christian God) but they lack the emotional investment in Christianity that we see in other parts of the world (like the U.S.). Also, on a related note, I would call Scandinavia a culture in decline and inferior in most ways to the Anglosphere (where Christianity is more vibrant).

FTA: You claim that teaching people about natural selection (which is an empirical fact, by the by) will somehow poison peoples’ outlook on life.

TW: I resist the assertion that natural selection (in the context of macroevolution) is an “empirical fact.” I would never call it a “fact” in the same way other scientific laws are facts, such as gravity.

FTA: That’s artifical selection. If your own chosen example [the Columbine massacre] had actually understood natural selection, he wouldn’t have done a damn thing, because actual “failures of natural selection” don’t survive and/or don’t reproduce, without any conscious interference on anyones’ part.

TW: I don’t disagree that [the Columbine killers] were morons, but if they were alive, they would probably say: We can see where natural selection is going. It weeds out the “unfit.” I am a mortal being and I will not live long enough to see the climax of natural selection millions of years from now. I want to live in a society without the unfit NOW. And that’s precisely what they did. Eugenics is an idea with a long scientific pedigree; Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galston, boldly used Darwinism as the foundation of eugenics. Eugenics is unpopular today because the Holocaust tainted it, but I would wager that – if current secular trends continue – it’ll make a nice comeback in the next 15-30 years.



FTA on memes: “My understanding of the term merely implies that memes are ideas that can replicate themselves through transmission from person to person.”

TW: To define “memes” as “ideas that can replicate themselves” – as you and Dennett do – is, IMHO, a real stretch of the imagination, to put it mildly.

On a theoretical level, the problem with memes is the same as the one with “selfish genes.” It assumes intent for something that – by definition – cannot have intent. Ideas are not conscious. They have no purpose…They have no desire to “replicate”…They are just, um, ideas!

At Neuroanthropology.net, Greg Downey (who favors Darwinism) states…

I think ‘memetics’ is one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades, hiding in the shadow of respectable evolutionary theory’…

It’s one thing to reify a concept, it’s another thing to start attributing it a whole complex personality, drives, desires, and levels of different reification. If defining gene as ’self-replicating’ is playing a little free with the details, defining meme, as ’self-replicating’ beggars the imagination it’s so stupid….

Arguing this reveals so little understanding of how brains work, especially how hard it is for ANY pattern to repeat completely. That is, even repetitive action typically involves constant changes in patterns of neural activation; maintaining consistency requires constantly shifting neural resources, even slightly, to take account to changes even in the organism itself…

Has anyone, ever, anywhere, seen an idea ‘replicate’ itSELF? Although this may seem like a semantic point, I think it’s a bigger logical problem with reifying culture as ‘memes’ and then attributing agentive power to the memes.

FTA: It is simply not the case that there is no reason whatsoever to think that consciousness is a product of evolution. We know that all life on the planet evolved, and that it exhibits a range of ability with respect to sustaining consciousness that correlates to evolved brain structure. That in itself is a powerful reason to infer that consciousness evolved.

TW: I think in some way you are validating my criticism of Dennett (and other materialists). They basically argue: “If life is a product of evolution – and nothing else – then consciousness must – someWAY, someHOW – be a product of evolution too.

As I said, that’s a theory worthy of consideration, but there is no evidence to support that theory (yet); it is merely a deduction based on a materialist philosophy.

Then DRJ arrived…

DRJ: It is now a widely held belief that broad genetic diversity of populations is one of the most important, if not the most important, measure of a populations fitness. Old forms of eugenics are actually counter-productive to that measure of fitness.

TW: I can think of at least one group of Darwinists who disagree: Those involved in the “Human Biodiversity Movement.” They are pro-Darwin atheists who are entranced by the link between race and evolution. For example, they encourage high-IQ racial groups (specifically, whites and Asians) to avoid reproducing with low-IQ racial groups (basically everyone else). They believe that the blending of the races in America is weakening the collective IQ of our country and thus, weakening our economy, national security, etc. That’s why they want to ban immigration, rescind racial discrimination laws, etc.

Steve Sailer is one of their most vocal advocates.

She his article, Darwin’s Enemies on the Left.

Needless to say, I don’t endorse Sailer’s views; I’m merely showing that “ideas have consequences” and even decent people (like yourself, presumably) can’t always control those consequences.

This did not sit well with Fortuna.

FTA: “There is no way to control for misinformed racists eager to seize on data that they hope will vindicate them.”

TW: Unfortunately, that doesn’t jive with my analysis of the HBD movement. They are not “misinformed racists.” No, they are highly-educated young men who found materialist science as a gateway drug to racism and sexism. See, for instance, the words of HBD blogger, “Thursday…”

“Two of the biggest shocks in my life came when, first, I discovered the truth about race and intelligence through people like Steve Sailer, Arthur Jensen, Charles Murray, Vince Sarich and then later discovered the truth about women and sex through Roissy and the seduction community generally. Suddenly, things that you have seen all around you start to make sense. You realize that, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been lied to all my life.’”

FTA: “If atheism is nothing less than a destroyer of culture, that ought to have a measurable effect, and yet those countries are doing fine.”

TW: They’re doing relatively OK for now. Let’s check back in 10-25 years, though, as the growth of their Muslim population hits a critical mass. I’m not optimistic. Atheists, almost by definition, are not people who are going to risk their lives for abstract ideas like “freedom” and “democracy.” They would rather be slaves than corpses.

FTA: You can’t even assent to the proposition that organisms that are less able to survive and/or reproduce than their peers will have their genes progressively less well-represented in subsequent generations?

TW: That’s microevolution. So yes, I accept that.

FTA: It makes no sense whatsoever to gun down a bunch of kids at random, or because you don’t like them personally, and call yourself a ‘natural selector.’

TW: It’s not rational, I agree; but rationality is an all too rare trait among our species. Indeed, I’m tempted to say atheism itself is irrational.

FTA: What “climax”?

TW: In retrospect, “climax” isn’t the best word. I’ll suggest “progression” as a substitute. The “progression” of the human species. The arrival of Nietzsche’s “Superman,” or something to that effect.

FTA: There is no assumption of intent implied in the selfish gene concept. I have to wonder how much of the primary literature on the subject you’re actually familiar with, because I can’t really even discuss this with you until you understand just how bad of a misconception that is.

TW: With all due respect, I’m tempted to repeat that line back to you. How else would you interpret this line by Richard Dawkins, the author of the “selfish gene” concept: “Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.” That implies the genes have “intent,” does it not?

FTA: Similarly, I can’t begin to respond to any criticisms of the meme concept that you may have until said criticisms are no longer spurious. There is no attribution of agency going on.”

TW: A quote from Dennett: “There is considerable competition among memes for entry in as many minds as possible. This competition is the major selective force in the memosphere, and, just as in the biosphere, the challenge has been met with great ingenuity. For instance, whatever virtues (from our perspective) the following memes have, they have in common the property of having phenotypic expressions that tend to make their own replication more likely by disabling or preempting the environmental forces that would tend to extinguish them.” And it goes on from there. And it’s all B.S.

FTA: The act of using reason is itself initiated by biochemical reactions.

TW: That is an assumption based on a materialist paradigm, but there is no solid proof of that. Indeed, based on the seeming impossibility of matter to account for the mind, I have no qualms about positing a non-material source for consciousness.

A quote from the Dalai Lama:

“I said to one of the scientists: ‘It seems very evident that due to changes in the chemical processes of the brain, many of our subjective experiences like perception and sensation occur. Can one envision to reversal of this causal process? Can one postulate that pure thought itself could effect a change in the chemical processes of the brain?’ I was asking whether, conceptually at least, we could allow the possibility of both upward and downward causation.

The scientist’s response was quite surprising. He said that since all mental states arise from physical states, it is not possible for downward causation to occur. Although out of politeness, I did not respond at the time, I thought then and still think that here is as yet no scientific basis for such a categorical claim.

The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact. I feel that, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, it is critical that we allow the question to remain open, and not conflate our assumptions with empirical fact.”



DRJ again...

DRJ: It seems as if your trying to vaguely dancing around the old argument that such racist beliefs (school shootings and the like too) are the inevitable result materialist science, but without actually saying it so matter of factly.

TW: No, let me clarify: Fortuna said that the Columbine killers were “irrational” according to Darwinian principles. I challenged that view. I said it really wasn’t clear whether “weeding out the unfit through violence” is “rational” or “irrational.” Using Darwinism alone, that can’t be determined. The Darwinist fetish for eugenics, for example, seems to indicate that the question is an open one.

DRJ: If you are, in fact, trying to make a case that materialist science leads people towards anti-social beliefs, like racism, then you’ll need to back it up with more than anecdotes of people in the fringe.

TW: This is a complicated subject, and there’s no way I can summarize my views (at least not persuasively) in one comment. However, I’ll make a few assertions and you can critique them as you wish…

1) If you a materialist, the most logical religion is atheism.

2) If you an atheist, ethics either don’t exist or should be founded on materialist/Darwinist principles.

3)Darwinian principles are ambiguous (as I just explained). Using Darwinism, you could justify the Holocaust (as Hitler did) or you can justify liberal democracy (as contemporary scholars like Larry Arnhart do). I will say this, though: I do think the Darwinist denigration of humanity (“we’re just apes who wear pants") makes it easy for people to initiate violence and/or tyranny. A tolerant form of theism (such as 21st Century Christianity) is superior in that regard.

FTA comes back...

FTA: Did you not read what I said? Racial differences in IQ evaporate when you control for education and socio-economic background.

TW: Personally, I don’t want to touch that issue with a 10-foot pole. I’ll just humbly say that if you talked to those guys, they would happily whip out different studies which show the opposite conclusion.

FTA: Nietzche’s “superman” is not a scientific concept. Evolution isn’t teleological, natural selection is not interested in progress.

TW: I never claimed that the “Superman” was a scientific concept. No, it’s an ideological goal – a goal that Nietzsche, Hitler, and many others shared, while using Darwinism to justify it.

FTA: Have…you…read….his…work?

TW: Yes, I read The Selfish Gene.

FTA: You are categorically wrong to think that A.) Memes have to aid survival to be considered memes at all and B.) Memes have to be treated as having intent, by definition

TW: I’ll take this one at a time.

I originally wrote, “A ‘parasitic meme’ is a contradiction in terms; either it’s a ‘meme’ or it’s not. A parasitic meme would not aid survival and is thus NOT a meme.”

It’s not clear to me why you consider my statement inaccurate. To quote Wikipedia, “Richard Dawkins introduced the word ‘meme’ in The Selfish Gene as a basis for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena”…As we all know, the main evolutionary principle is “survival of the fittest” …If religion is a “meme” and a meme is a fitness strategy, it’s not clear to me why – in Dennett’s words – religion is a “parasitic meme.” I’m almost tempted to say it’s illogical; “a contradiction in terms.”

Onto the next point…

Personally, I don’t believe in “memes” so debating whether or not they have intent is the equivalent of debating “does the flying spaghetti monster have intent?” If Dennett believes that memes don’t intent, fine…but then he should STOP talking about them as if they DO have intent…See the Dennett quote I used above…Another Dennett quote: “Thousands of memes, mostly borne by language, but also by wordless ‘images’ and other data structures, take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind.” Again, this sounds like intent; memes compete for minds, become part of the mind, and then that mind tries to spread its memes to other minds…If there’s any confusion on this issue, Fortuna, blame Dennett; not me.

FTA: The problem you haven’t addressed is that the Columbine killers did not act to weed out the unfit. As far as I know, the majority (if not the entirety) of their victims were not otherwise likely to die young or be unable to reproduce. They were fit.

TW: The Columbine killers would probably define “fitness” the way Darwinists do: Anyway they like! :)

FTA: Every time we are in a position to observe the matter, brain chemistry happens first and then thought follows, including higher reasoning. There is research to back this up, and I’ll happily reference it for you if you like.

TW: I’ll take a look at the research – assuming it’s not like a 40-page research paper; a 5-7 pages news article or Wikipedia page will suffice.

FTA: Evolution is purely descriptive, so indeed it should not be surprising that it doesn’t tell you what you should do. That would be like looking to the theory of gravitation to determine the desirability of falling off a tall building.

TW: I respect your opinion, but that doesn’t change the fact that many scientists such as Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, and others ARE using evolution as the basis of moral theory. And needless to say, it’s an endeavor I don’t support.


FTA: While it’s certainly the case that Hitler was anti-Christian in some respects and/or at particular times, you can’t just say he was anti-Christian and leave it at that.


TW: A few counter-points. First, Hitler was a politician, especially from 1920-1933, when Germany was a democracy, and thus, Hitler needed to coax the masses to accept his program. Therefore, it would make sense for Hitler to say some nice things about Christianity in public venues. Even when Hitler was dictator after 1933, his position wasn’t totally secure, and it made sense for him to be on decent terms with the church. Thus, when the church protested his first sterilization program in 1937/38, he withdrew it, and waited til the chaos of WWII to commit genocide.

Second, Hitler’s private comments should carry more weight than his public comments, and here we have Hitler’s ruminations that Christianity is a slave morality that prevented Aryans from forcefully achieving their natural superiority over other races. Since this accords better with his behavior as a genocidal dictator, I think it’s a truer reflection of his inner faith.

Last but not least, Hitler’s behavior was “unChristian” to put it mildly. And this is actually an important point. If Hitler committed the Holocaust in the name of Christ (in the way, say, Osama bin Laden commits crimes in the name of Allah), that would be one thing; but Hitler committed the Holocaust in a quest for racial domination. That is totally against the spirit of Christianity.

___________________________________________________________


DRJ: It seems implied that Dawkins et al are somehow building their moral theories in a Hitler-ish fashion, to which I strenuously object.

TW: Oh goodness, no. I don’t think Dawkins et al have malignant intentions, just like I don’t think Darwin himself had malignant intentions. Dawkins is an academic, with all that implies. As Plato might say, he doesn’t have a “tyrannical soul.”

DRJ: There are a wide variety of ethical theories developed in godless worldviews.

TW: Yes, but some ethical theories are more logical than others given a materialist/atheist foundation, and dare I say, over time, the more logical ones will have more influence over the less logical ones.

DRJ: Dawkins, from what I know appears to be somewhere in the secular humanist territory.

TW: Yes, and dare I say, that is one of the “less logical” foundations.

To quote the Darwinist writer John Derbyshire…

“A Darwinian view of human nature really is quite sensationally revolutionary. In particular, it makes a hash of intrinsic human equality. We may of course — and we should, and I hope we ever shall! — hold equal treatment under the law to be an organizing principle of our civilization; but that is a social agreement, like driving on the right, not a pre-existing fact in the world.”

12 comments:

Justin said...

Wow, nice work. People seem to be largely incapable of examining their own presupositions. I think the arrogance of the science "meme" is partly responsible. I have heard many a religious person say "hey, we could be wrong, but here's what we believe" but I rarely hear a scientistic person say that.

Your exchange regarding Darwinism and ethics reminds me of a story line I'd like to write: a former Christian, who goes about assassinating prominent atheists, because he has been convinced by their atheistic arguments that there is no afterlife, so there is no moral reason NOT to kill, but he hates them for destroying his faith, so wants revenge! Kind of like a religious Sodini.

Grant said...

If consciousness wasn't an emergent property of the physical structure of the brain then damage to that physical structure wouldn't alter consciousness.

Since brain damage does alter consciousness, we know perfectly well that consciousness is an emergent property of those physical structures and arguing otherwise is just silliness.

Grant said...

Justin: did you seriously just argue thay only the existence of an afterlife provides any imperative not to run around slaughtering your fellow human beings?

In other words, you just declared all people are sociopaths whose homicidal impulses are kept in check only by an ever present threat of punishment if they indulge them and promise of reward if they deny them? That would suggest you have a disturbingly warped view of humanity if you expected that to be taken seriously.

Fortunately atheists tend not to be sociopaths, and hence are entirely capable of acting morally and ethically through the application of things like empathy and compassion without ever once needing to believe there is an all powerful law enforcement figure looming menacingly over them 24/7 with a big stick or holding out a giant bribe... hence the lack of stories on the news about all of the atheists running wild all over the world on killing sprees even though they don't belive in an afterlife.

Todd White said...

J:I have heard many a religious person say "hey, we could be wrong, but here's what we believe" but I rarely hear a scientistic person say that.


TW: Yeah, the lack of humility among atheists is a real turn-off. And the irony is that they claim to be REAL seekers of truth (compared to those brainwashed masses of believers).

J: Your exchange regarding Darwinism and ethics reminds me of a story line I'd like to write: a former Christian, who goes about assassinating prominent atheists, because he has been convinced by their atheistic arguments that there is no afterlife, so there is no moral reason NOT to kill, but he hates them for destroying his faith, so wants revenge!

TW: I like that. I like that a lot, actually. I would definitely read a book like that. And I think others would too.

Todd White said...

Grant: Justin, did you seriously just argue thay only the existence of an afterlife provides any imperative not to run around slaughtering your fellow human beings? In other words, you just declared all people are sociopaths whose homicidal impulses are kept in check only by an ever present threat of punishment if they indulge them and promise of reward if they deny them? That would suggest you have a disturbingly warped view of humanity if you expected that to be taken seriously.

TW: I can’t speak for Justin, but here’s my perspective: Needless to say, most hard-core atheists are NOT sociopaths, but I could see how an unhappy person could latch onto atheism, absorb it, and use it to justify abhorrent behavior. Personally, when I was an atheist, I was just as “moral” as I am today as a theist, but it was a “folk morality.” I knew – on an intellectual level – that morality was an illusion, but I “liked” being moral, and why? Probably because I had spent 15 years absorbed in a Christian culture, and still had the residue of faith on my soul. Being “bad” morally made me feel “bad” emotionally. Furthermore, nearly every person has an inherent need for “purpose.” That hunger doesn’t end when faith in God disappears. For example, see the almost evangelical fervor among the atheist community today. So let’s imagine a person who 1) has never been immersed in a religious culture, 2) is convinced of the “truth” of atheism, and 3) seeks a purpose that goes beyond, say, getting laid (which seems to be a sufficient motivation for a lot of atheists, if my squabbles with the “Game community” are any indication).” That person could be a smart killer with a cause: a jihadist for atheism, if you will. Hence, the feasibility of Justin’s book idea.

Grant: Fortunately atheists tend not to be sociopaths, and hence are entirely capable of acting morally and ethically through the application of things like empathy and compassion without ever once needing to believe there is an all powerful law enforcement figure looming menacingly over them 24/7 with a big stick or holding out a giant bribe.”

TW: To repeat slightly what I said above, I think the morality of atheists is a consequence of being born and raised in a religious culture for a long, long time before they even begin to question their faith. As religious culture fades away (partly because of the efforts of atheists, btw) morality (among atheists and theists, too) is likely to wither away. I’ve started writing an essay explaining this position in more detail, so stay tuned.

Todd White said...

Grant: If consciousness wasn't an emergent property of the physical structure of the brain then damage to that physical structure wouldn't alter consciousness. Since brain damage does alter consciousness, we know perfectly well that consciousness is an emergent property of those physical structures.

TW: Biologist Rupert Sheldrake likens the brain to a TV set—drawing an analogy to explain how the mind and brain interact.

“If I damaged your TV set so that you were unable to receive certain channels, or if I made the TV set aphasic by destroying the part of it concerned with the production of sound so that you could still get the pictures but could not get the sound, this would not prove that the sound or the pictures were stored inside the TV set.

“It would merely show that I had affected the tuning system so you could not pick up the correct signal any longer. No more does memory loss due to brain damage prove that memory is stored inside the brain. In fact, most memory loss is temporary: amnesia following concussion, for example, is often temporary.

http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/index2.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3486&pop=1&page=0&Itemid=1

Grant said...

Todd, saying you could imagine a person could latch onto atheism and use it to justify something is a pretty meaningless statement. I could imagine a person latching onto effectively any belief and using it to justify atrocities. And it doesn't take a lot of imagination to do so.

If Justin wants to make the argument that without an afterlife there is no moral imperative against wanton slaughter however then he should probably try defending his belief. *His*, not atheist's. And frankly the fact that he thinks that doesn't do wonders for my confidence in the moral foundations imparted by a religious upbringing. The moral of his story would probably be "look how morally and ethically impaired a person raised to depend on religion for moral guidance is... ends up being totally incapable of self control without external coersion".

Which isn't the message I think he was hoping to send... but it IS the one he's sending.


And I'm confused about where you think youre going with the TV set analogy. First of all, you can't make a television aphasic, that's a comprehension impairment. Televisions don't comprehend. And do you think vocalizing sounds is any defining part of consciousness? If you do I'd love an explanation of how mute people are only somewhat conscious. If not, I fail to see what damaging the speakers or visual display on a television has to do with the subject we're discussing. It's hardly analogous.

On the other hand, we have multiple examples of brain damage clearly altering not just basic functionality but *personality* and even *self identity*. How do you argue that's nothing but a reception or display problem unrelated to consciousness being an emergent property of the physical structures of the brain?

And yes, memories are sometimes recoverable... because the areas of the brain in which they were stored were intact but the neural pathways which normally access them were damaged and the brain had to unergo some adjustment before it could access them again. And the fact that access to those memories can be disrupted at all by nothing but physical events effecting the brain demonstrates quite clearly that the brain is responsible for memory storage and retreival. This is relatively well understood stuff Todd.


(Oh: and on a cloising note, science is nothing but conditional conclusions pending further evidence... so seeing someone say they've never seen a "scientistic person" say they might be wrong is a laugh out loud hilarious demonstration that they don't know the first thing about science, since scientists spend their entire careers in a perptual state of "we might be wrong about this" and testing to see if they are. That's the entire point of the scientific method for crying out loud. Might want to keep that in mind before praising Justin's insight on the matter)

Todd White said...

Grant: Todd, saying you could imagine a person could latch onto atheism and use it to justify something is a pretty meaningless statement. I could imagine a person latching onto effectively any belief and using it to justify atrocities.

TW: To clarify, I would argue that the foundation of atheism – when compared to other religious/philosophical/political systems - is one of the best ways to motivate and justify an atrocity. Off the top of my head, the only belief system that might be more deadly is Islam (when the violence is directed against “infidels”).

Grant: If Justin wants to make the argument that without an afterlife there is no moral imperative against wanton slaughter then he should probably try defending his belief…The moral of his story would probably be "look how morally and ethically impaired a person raised to depend on religion for moral guidance is... ends up being totally incapable of self control without external coersion".

TW: Speaking only for myself… I don’t think “disbelief in an afterlife” equals “no moral imperative against wanton slaughter.” However, it is easy to see how such a perspective would gain currency in an increasingly atheist society. In today’s age, an atheist almost certainly has to be a materialist, and a materialist almost certainly has to be a Reductionist. And how do Reductionists see human beings? According to them, we're just mindless meat puppets manipulated by our selfish genes to survive and reproduce. Does that seem like a positive attitude toward humanity? Is that an ideology that can sustain human dignity? I think not. And once we absorb that attitude toward our fellow man, is there anything beyond fear of the law that can motivate a person to respect the lives of others? No. Once you start peeling the onion a little bit, you see that atheism is intellectually defenseless against the subjection and destruction of humanity. One caveat, though: It is not so much the disbelief in God that is lethal; it is the reductionist materialism that is the foundation of atheism.

I’ll respond to your other points in a little bit.

Grant said...

There is only one aspect of atheism, let alone a "foundation" of it. The lack of a belief in the existence of a deity is the sum total of what atheism is. How you think you get from there to motivating anything is baffling. Atheism is not a philosophy or worldview. It does not have teachings or doctrines. It's simply a... state.

"In today’s age, an atheist almost certainly has to be a materialist, and a materialist almost certainly has to be a Reductionist. And how do Reductionists see human beings? According to them, we're just mindless meat puppets manipulated by our selfish genes to survive and reproduce."

While it's fascinating to hear you explain to me what I almost certainly must be I think I'll fall back on the fact that I have known hundreds of atheists and never met a single one who thinks people are "mindless meat puppets" to declare they you have no idea what you're talking about here. As far as I can see you are confusing what atheists themselves must believe with what you think you would believe if we took away your theology and didn't replace it with anything. Which is exactly the same thing Justin is doing.

Todd White said...

Grant: I'm confused about where you think you’re going with the TV set analogy… I fail to see what damaging the speakers or visual display on a television has to do with the subject we're discussing. It's hardly analogous.

TW:

Physical structure of TV = brain.

The electromagnetic waves make the TV “work” = consciousness.

What Sheldrake is saying is: If you damage the physical structure of the TV, and your TV program starts to suck, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the TV is ONLY its physical structure and the existence of electromagnetic waves are an illusion. Using that analogy, if you sustain an injury to your brain, and your mind is affected, it doesn’t mean that the brain = the mind; the non-material source of the mind still exists.

Grant: We have multiple examples of brain damage clearly altering not just basic functionality but *personality* and even *self identity*. How do you argue that's nothing but a reception or display problem unrelated to consciousness being an emergent property of the physical structures of the brain?

TW: I think you’ll have to elaborate on what you mean by “personality” and “self-identity.” I’m aware that, for example, pharmaceutical drugs (such as, say, Prozac) can make moderate adjustments to a person’s personality. But we shouldn’t get too hung up on that. Personally, I’ve had several personality changes throughout the 30 years of my life (I would just call it “growing up”), but there is something indivisible about “me” that is constant and whole despite all those many changes. It’s hard to describe, but the deepest, most personal essence of “me” (the core) has always been there. In fairness, this is only my personal experience; I don’t have any studies to back me up. Then again, considering that today’s scientific establishment seems determined to disprove the idea of a unified mind/soul, it shouldn’t be surprising that what I’ve just described isn’t an active area of research.


Grant: And yes, memories are sometimes recoverable... because the areas of the brain in which they were stored were intact but the neural pathways which normally access them were damaged and the brain had to undergo some adjustment before it could access them again. And the fact that access to those memories can be disrupted at all by nothing but physical events effecting the brain demonstrates quite clearly that the brain is responsible for memory storage and retreival.”

TW: I think what you’ve just described doesn’t necessarily prove the “brain = mind” paradigm, and is actually quite consistently with my TV analogy above.


Grant: Science is nothing but conditional conclusions pending further evidence... so seeing someone say they've never seen a "scientistic person" say they might be wrong is a laugh out loud hilarious demonstration that they don't know the first thing about science, since scientists spend their entire careers in a perptual state of "we might be wrong about this" and testing to see if they are.

TW: I think anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the recent “ClimateGate” scandal would have a hard time taking that fantasy seriously. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the Scientific Elite has been corrupted by an anti-life ideology, and that ideology is demonstrated through their work. As someone who is adores the concept of reason, it sobers me to acknowledge that. The truth is, even science – which should be the beacon of reason in today’s civilization – is irrational. Until we acknowledge that, I don’t see how the situation can be improved.

http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/11/climate-gate-and-why-it-matters.html

http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/12/who-is-spiritual-rationalist.html

Todd White said...

Grant: There is only one aspect of atheism, let alone a "foundation" of it. The lack of a belief in the existence of a deity is the sum total of what atheism is. How you think you get from there to motivating anything is baffling. Atheism is not a philosophy or worldview. It does not have teachings or doctrines. It's simply a... state.

TW: I think that’s a very romanticized version of atheism. The truth is, modern atheism has taken on many of the trappings of an organized religion. Darwin is a hero; evolution is a creation story; there are good guys (scientists) and bad guys (religious people – especially Christians). Critics will be punished (anyone who speaks favorably toward Intelligent Design). And while the moral tenets of atheism are in flux, some things are clearly immoral (such as any form of sexual repression). Sorry, I call it like I see it.

Grant: While it's fascinating to hear you explain to me what I almost certainly must be I think I'll fall back on the fact that I have known hundreds of atheists and never met a single one who thinks people are "mindless meat puppets."

TW: Ah, now we’re coming to the nub of the matter. I’ll try to incorporate your statement into a new observation: While atheists DO think people are “mindless meat puppets” in a scientific sense (sorry, but that is how atheism is articulated by people like Dawkins and Dennett), the atheists DON’T ACT like people are “mindless meat puppets.” They still act like people have inherent dignity. And that’s good! They are resisting the teachings of their leaders. They can’t overcome their desire to live in a teleogical, moral order. And again, that’s good! So the question becomes…Why can’t atheists understand that? Why can’t they see the discrepancy between their philosophical atheism and their daily behavior? If they COULD see it, they might question their atheism, and start groping toward a new spirituality.

Grant said...

"Using that analogy, if you sustain an injury to your brain, and your mind is affected, it doesn’t mean that the brain = the mind; the non-material source of the mind still exists."

As far as I can see all talk of the "non-material" source in question is purely speculative. All evidence we have, every observation and test ever performed, tells us that the brain generates thought... it is not some kind of relay station. When brain damage occurs we don't start picking up static or something, where an otherwise unaltered signal has some kind of interference superimposed on it. There isn't some unaltered intelligence communicating to us and we're just haivn reception issues. We see clear impairment of mental capacity. That does not mesh with claims that the mind is immaterial and independent of the physical structures of the brain.

FMRI imaging shows us which sections of the brain are being utilized for which functions. Which go active when we're telling the truth and which when we're lying. Which when we access visual memories and which when we access olfactory ones. If all the brain was doing was receiving and transmitting messages from some nebulous disembodied mind it wouldn't need separate processing centers depending on what was being said. If you want to use the television analogy, (which I still maintain is inappropriate), if I broadcast a message to you on a television I wouldn't need to use different channels depending on whether what I was saying was true or false. That's the brain in action generating the message and needing to use different functional centers based on what kind of information it's trying to compose it out of. Whether it's retrieving facts or inventing fairy-tales.

People having suffered brain trauma can have dramatically altered ability to regulate their emotions, how exactly is the immaterial mind getting irrationally enraged or thrown into a fit of depression because of trauma to the physical brain?

I'm sorry, but nothing about this claim of an immaterial mind is consistent with what we know about how the mind works. And I can't help but notice that every time someone hypothesizes about the mind being non-material and having independent existence from the brain it just happens to be of such a nature that it makes the mind immortal and eternal... and thus immune to death. Which would mean they're not going to die. Which is convenient. But from where I'm standing I see a lot of people engaged in attempts to avoid facing their own mortality without any evidential support whatsoever.

And regarding "Climategate"... someone remotely familiar with it might have trouble with what I said. Anyone who is significantly more informed than "remotely" however, won't.

As far as the atheism and morality discussion goes, I just have to say you seem to have an absolutely bizarre idea of what atheism is. Which I think may be best illustrated by this statement:

"They still act like people have inherent dignity. And that’s good! They are resisting the teachings of their leaders."

We don't have any leaders. And there are no teachings.

I don't know where you're getting these ideas from but it's difficult to even know where to begin to respond to them, your frame of reference is just so far off I don't know how to get started formulating a rational response.