Some Of The Smart People Are Wrong Too

Question from Rodermac:
I was at some site immediately prior to this. Some questionnaire for atheists – no help at all really. Nice to be somewhere I don’t have to be afraid. Tried to believe in something, seemed to be a somewhat key ingredient in a fellowship i’d joined. Started reading the Bible that had been placed in my room by the Gideons. I guess I never recovered from that exposure. How can it be that so many people, oodles of them smarter than me, conceive that a faith based on this concept of a deity could be a good one?

Answer by SmartLX:
If that deity is real, then faith in it isn’t just good, it’s essential. It’s the only thing which just might save your soul. The fact that this strikes many as a horrible state of affairs is irrelevant if it’s the truth.

If you truly believe it, you are emotionally and often socially driven to use the full force of your intellect to do several things, consciously and subconsciously. You regularly reassure yourself that it’s true in all kinds of ways, which protects you from losing your precious faith and staves off some of the inevitable nagging doubt. You look for opportunities to share your faith with others, either by reinforcing their existing faith or by converting them outright, which you believe is a gift to them and reflects well on you. You try to have God’s will be done on earth, living by (and possibly holding others to) the commands you believe He has given. And through it all you convince yourself that it’s a good thing, for the sake of your own happiness.

When you’ve been doing all of this for years, deliberately examining your beliefs to see whether they hold up sounds like a very dangerous proposition. You risk invalidating all the work you’ve done for the Lord, you’re disobeying direct orders not to question Him, and even if you’re right then you have to accept that you’ve spent all that time before on a fool’s errand and your worldview crumbles around you. It might actually be harder for some very intelligent people to do this as they’ve built better defenses in terms of apologetics, that is, they have more to unlearn. It’s all very well to say you want to know the truth, but sometimes it can seem like if the truth is a certain thing then it’s not worth knowing.

I’m not saying the process is hard in order to congratulate myself for going through it and coming out the other side as an atheist. My journey was very easy compared to most, because I simply let it all lie for more than a decade while I worked on other things. When I eventually came back to reconsider it, my emotional and social connections to Christianity were all but severed; my love of God and fear of Hell had been neglected, and I only went to church with the family at Christmas and occasionally Easter, so the congregation barely knew me. The New Atheist books by the “Four Horsemen” were just coming out, and I was able to consider arguments from both sides quite coldly (this site is one of the places I went looking for where the “fight” was happening). One side won.

5 thoughts on “Some Of The Smart People Are Wrong Too”

  1. I’m an agnostic because I have no conclusive evidence about what happens to us after our bodies die. As a result of that, I have to accept the possibility that when my body dies, I will cease to exist. I have no control over what happens to me after my body dies, but I can influence what happens to me before it dies. Since I care about existing because I get to experience well being while existing, it seems like the logical thing to do is to focus on getting as good as possible at creating and experiencing well being while I exist – for as long as I exist. Religions have some good ideas about how to create well being, like being kind to others, but also some terrible ideas like using actual or psychological violence to bully others into accepting their beliefs. For me at least, Secular Buddhism and Cognitive Psychology have provided some very good ideas for creating well being e.g. recognizing that we can train our minds to respond to life’s circumstances with equanimity, loving kindness and unconditional self and other acceptance and accepting the fact that our well being is our responsibility and to waste time and energy blaming others for our unhappiness. Whether there is an afterlife or not, it seems to me that developing the ability to truly create well being for yourself and others will have the best impact in this life and in an afterlife if that exists.

  2. “The New Atheist books by the “Four Horsemen” were just coming out, and I was able to consider arguments from both sides quite coldly (this site is one of the places I went looking for where the “fight” was happening). One side won.”

    I would be fascinated to know which ‘arguments’ convinced you that atheism is true (the most famous of the ‘four horsemen’ books – The God Delusion – is, let’s be honest, really nothing more than a rant). I have ‘coldly’ considered arguments for atheism for the last 30 years, and not one of them has actually convinced me. This is not to say that Christianity does not have problems, and I have certainly have many reasons to be extremely disappointed with some of the so called ‘orthodox’ formulations of (particularly evangelical) Christianity, as well as disgust as the behaviour of some professing Christians. However, I just cannot see how the idea that we are all just nothing more than walking bundles of chemicals blindly thrown together by the forces of nature (an idea that stretches my credulity beyond the limit) explains the fundamentals of reality, not least the idea of ‘truth’ itself!

    I certainly do not need to ‘reinforce’ my Christian beliefs against “nagging doubts”. I think if I were trying to convince myself to be an atheist I would be struggling with nagging doubts, not the other way round.

    1. Allistair writes:

      “However, I just cannot see how the idea that we are all just nothing more than walking bundles of chemicals blindly thrown together by the forces of nature (an idea that stretches my credulity beyond the limit) explains the fundamentals of reality, not least the idea of ‘truth’ itself!”

      Life isn’t blindly thrown together. There aren’t an infinite number of chemical combinations, and the combinations aren’t random either. Only what is allowed under the laws of chemistry is possible. Life IS chemically possible. There is nothing about living things that violate the rules in chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, or any other rule in the cosmos.

      Your baseless belief system only adds a layer to the onion. You see this massive universe with it’s complex life forms and think that something of this size and magnitude can’t possibly happen on it’s own…so you claim without a shred of empirical data that an even MORE massive and complex thing (your flavor of god creature) is responsible for it all. It’s a delicious logical fallacy, isn’t it? Your god creature is even more complex and huge, yet it doesn’t need creating as the universe and life supposedly do! Instead of saying “I don’t know where the universe comes from”, you rely on a mental crutch that bypasses the tough realities of the cosmos.

      Of course you get the added bonus of getting to live forever, right? You get to go to heaven because, out of all the gods and goddesses that humans have ever worshiped, you just so happen to have the RIGHT god at the RIGHT time in history. A divine being that defies logic by existing forever, and who can create an entire universe, but cares what you think or do on one small planet in a galaxy full of billions of planets in a universe full of billions of galaxies…

      Honesty and humility are not your strong suits…

    2. Tim got in first to engage the argumentative part of your comment, but I will answer the question you asked. The arguments of the Four Horsemen are largely responses to specific arguments for God by apologists, but the idea that had the greatest impact on me once I re-engaged in the discussion was that the onus is on believers to present evidence and/or logical arguments for the existence of their respective gods, not only as opposed to the absence of any gods but as opposed to the existence of gods other than theirs. The concept of an argument from ignorance is a big part of that; while we now have explanations for many phenomena that were previously attributed directly to gods (e.g. lightning, earthquakes and evolution), the lack of a currently available, fully detailed explanation for a given phenomenon (e.g. the origin of the universe, or of life) is not a good reason to accept an explanation which has simply been asserted (e.g. a god). The world does not end, and has not ended, because a big question goes a long time without a definitive answer.

      I did not mean to imply that believers are the only ones with doubts. Of course atheists sometimes wonder whether there might actually be a god of some kind, but that’s not the same as secretly believing in one, as some evangelists claim all atheists do. One needs to be positively convinced of it. Worshipping a god on the off chance is no good because it might be the wrong god.

  3. Tim, SmartLX –

    Thank you for your responses to my comment, although I must admit that Tim’s parting remark about honesty and humility is rather needless and anti-intellectual, and certainly does not help his position. Perhaps this was a reaction to my view of Richard Dawkins’ famous book – dismissing it as a ‘rant’ – (and I confess that that judgment of mine was probably not very helpful, so fair enough…) – but, anyway, let’s not trade insults and let us concern ourselves with arguments rather than empty assertions.

    “Life isn’t blindly thrown together. There aren’t an infinite number of chemical combinations, and the combinations aren’t random either. Only what is allowed under the laws of chemistry is possible. Life IS chemically possible. There is nothing about living things that violate the rules in chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, or any other rule in the cosmos.”

    You say that life is not blindly thrown together. Actually, if the philosophy of naturalism is true, and there is no intelligent creator of life, then yes, life IS blindly thrown together in the sense that the material universe simply produces effects, without any purpose or design. The word ‘blind’ means a lack of vision, a lack of awareness of what one is doing, a lack of consciousness as to one’s actions etc. Clearly the universe is ‘blind’ in this sense, in that the laws of physics and chemistry simply operate without any consciousness or vision as to their effects. As for ‘random’: yes, in the absence of a plan by which conscious selections are made, the laws of chemistry will simply run through combinations, some of which may possibly have effects that could constitute the formation of the building blocks of life. However, effects that are detrimental to the construction of those building blocks also appear, since there is no facility to screen them out. This is why the origin of life without a designer is almost certainly not chemically possible, because there is no efficient way of screening out those effects which reverse those reactions leading to the construction of the building blocks of living systems. This is why constant reference to the Miller-Urey experiment is rather absurd. Science does NOT know how “first life” formed, and therefore we cannot say categorically that “life is chemically possible” without the input of an intelligent designer. Of course, “life is chemically possible” after the event, in that we can analyse organisms and explain their function in entirely chemical terms, but that is not what we are talking about, is it? The analysis of an organism takes place in a completely different environment to the putative naturalistic origin of that organism. In the latter context, the organism must run the gauntlet of a huge number of chemical events which would actually be detrimental to its existence and survival.

    “Your baseless belief system…”

    A rather extraordinary adjective to use, considering that the ‘basis’ of my so-called “belief system” is something called ‘intelligence”! Would you say that the concept of ‘intelligence’ is baseless? The “layer of the onion” that I am supposedly adding to the explanation for the universe is nothing other than the ‘layer’ that science adds all the time, in reality, without often acknowledging it. Let me explain…

    That great atheist scientist, Carl Sagan, championed a project with which I am sure you are familiar: SETI. Now I am sure that very few scientists would dispute that the methodology of SETI is scientific. What is this methodology? Well, the project is predicated on the idea that it is possible for human beings to receive a particular kind of signal from outer space, by which we can infer the existence of unknown, unseen, intelligent beings, who are understood to be the transmitters of that signal. If that premise is not valid then SETI is a waste of time. But this premise surely cannot be accepted, according to the philosophy of naturalism, because it involves “adding a layer to the onion” of explanation, namely, the existence of unknown, unseen, intelligent beings (in this case, alien life forms living somewhere “out there”). If we want to talk about ‘honesty’, then the honest approach for a philosophical naturalist would be to say the following: “we have no direct empirical evidence of the existence of intelligent alien beings, and therefore we are not entitled to infer their existence, even when we detect a seemingly ordered and complex signal from outer space. Even though this signal bears all the characteristics of design, we must dismiss any ‘intelligence explanation’ as scientifically invalid, and assume that only the laws of physics and chemistry acting without design were responsible for this signal. After all, when we analyse the signal and break it down into its constituent parts, we see that it could have been constructed by the laws of physics and chemistry, even though such an effect would admittedly be highly improbable.” This would be the honest and logically consistent approach. After all, the human genome, for example, is far more complex and intricate in terms of information content than any signal received from outer space by which we could infer the existence of alien life.

    So how is it that many scientists are happy to “add the intelligence layer of the onion” to explanations when it suits them, but dispense with the same methodology when, philosophically, it doesn’t? Likewise, when we come to practical science (the kind of science that is actually based on proper empirical evidence, rather than the conjectural science that speculates about the distant past beyond the reach of observation) we see that the principle of “intelligent causation” is indispensable. No sane person would build a bridge using the causative principle of the philosophy of naturalism (the principles of methodological naturalism would be used, of course, but guided by intelligence)! But, after all, isn’t a bridge ‘possible’ according to the laws of physics? It is ‘possible’ in terms of the laws of physics, but only because those laws have been harnessed and applied selectively by an intelligence (in this case, the competent engineers responsible for its construction). Some atheists in the past have objected to this argument by saying something to the effect that engineers would not call on little invisible fairies or angels to hold up the bridge miraculously. This, of course, is a straw man argument, totally missing the point. It is a grotesque caricature of the concept of intelligent design. The idea of “intelligent design” applies just as much to human agency in this world, as it does to the ultimate intelligence responsible for the origin and design of the universe as a whole.

    Therefore we see that science needs this “layer of the onion” called intelligence. The only area of ‘science’ that seems to dispense with this principle is the speculative science of origins, which is conveniently shielded from robust scientific testing, given that we all know that we can have no direct observational evidence of events of the distant past. Therefore no end of ingenious speculations (e.g. the putative evolution of reptiles to birds etc) can be accepted almost as ‘fact’, because they cannot be properly tested.

    “You see this massive universe with it’s complex life forms and think that something of this size and magnitude can’t possibly happen on it’s own…so you claim without a shred of empirical data that an even MORE massive and complex thing (your flavor of god creature) is responsible for it all. It’s a delicious logical fallacy, isn’t it?”

    The idea of ultimate intelligent causation is not a logical fallacy at all. In fact, what you are suggesting is that the only logical explanation for, let’s say, human intelligence, is the claim that it MUST HAVE derived from non-intelligence. This is clearly absurd. There is no logical necessity to such a claim, and yet without it the atheist claim to truth collapses. It is one thing to try to claim that the complexity of life and also reason and human intelligence could have its origin in mere material reactions (a highly dubious position, to say the least), but it is quite another to assert that these realities MUST HAVE had their origin in blind, ultimately meaningless, non-intelligent chemical events, and to say that any contrary position is A LOGICAL FALLACY. Don’t insult my intelligence by implying such a thing, which is what you are doing. It simply cannot be an implicit logical fallacy to argue that mind derives from mind, and that complexity derives from design. If you think that is a logical fallacy, then show me your logic. I would be most interested to see your reasoning!

    I look at reality, and what constitutes the fundamentals of reality (such as design, complexity, reason, free will, morality and consciousness), and seek a logically coherent explanation for these facts of our daily experience. The non-intelligence explanation of deterministic metaphysical naturalism does not pass muster. You seem to think that I am just naively assuming a cause of the universe, whereas, in fact, I could just as easily argue that you are doing the same thing. It gets us nowhere. The more intellectually sound and honest approach is to ask what worldview can adequately and coherently explain the fundamentals of reality. Your philosophical naturalism does not pass the test, as far as I am concerned.

    You insult me by assuming that I resort to a “mental crutch”. This is not sound thinking on your part. You are simply making assumptions about me, and not engaging with argument and evidence.

    I find it ironic that atheists complain that some theists assume that atheists secretly believe in God, but are in denial. And yet atheists are guilty of the very same thing! I think of the billboards in parts of America prior to Christmas a few years ago proclaiming…”You know it’s a myth…” concerning the nativity story of Jesus Christ. They can say “We think it’s a myth…”, but it is dishonest and intellectually invalid to say to complete strangers: “YOU KNOW it’s a myth…” In the same way, you assume that my belief in God is the result of a certain kind of behaviour – the need for a “mental crutch”. If you are going to go down that path, then don’t complain when theists make assumptions about the motives of atheists!

    Finally, the point raised by SmartLX concerning burden of proof. This is a common argument, but it assumes that atheism is a kind of default position or null hypothesis. This is not the case, actually. There is a philosophical and metaphysical basis to atheism, which itself bears a burden of proof. Although some atheists may claim to believe in some kind of supernatural reality, they either have no basis to criticise the views of theists, or their idea of the supernatural is merely an add-on to the natural and is driven by the natural. The vast majority of atheists (at least those who seem to articulate their opposition to theism) clearly subscribe to the philosophy of naturalism. This is a definite claim about the nature of reality, from which flow a wide range of explanations (or, as I would see it, attempts at explanation). Furthermore, the idea of a personal, conscious, intelligent creator (the basic definition of ‘God’) is not a trivial idea. A trivial idea would be Russell’s teapot and all the variations on that theme so beloved of some people in the atheist community (FSM, invisible pink unicorn etc), because no implications flow from it. Profound implications flow from the idea of God, and therefore also flow from the denial of that idea. Therefore there is a burden of proof both on the affirmation and on the denial of that idea. There is therefore an onus on atheists to explain to us – honestly, robustly and consistently – how everything in reality can be explained purely materialistically. I could give many reasons why I don’t accept these (in my view highly speculative) explanations, but I think I have written enough for now.

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