Sense and Sense-ability

Question from Dante:
I came up with a notion that i have been musing over for months now. It’s an evolutionary notion/question. I will not use it to make any assertions but I would be interested to hear what any sages would have to say and how they would address it. So here goes….

Realism/rationalism is based firmly on a permutation of inputs through our 5 senses, processed through our brains using the tool of what, contemporarily, we agree to be science. In an evolutionary sense, starting with the primordial soup, the first unicellular organisms would have started out with some sort of sense analogous to the tactile or chemical. As we climb the evolutionary tree with time, we find further senses appearing, which did not always exist – till the present time when we are aware of 5 ”top-level” senses which we use to experience our reality. processing their input to produce our rationality.

Here is the ‘punch line’:- Evolution is ongoing. Therefore we have no basis to presume that life on our planet has reached the zenith as far as the development of senses goes. Or do we? Beings on this planet billions of years from now ( it is not irrational to postulate) would have further progressed the sensory perception – 6 senses? maybe 7 I dont know. But I do know it is arrogance to decide that evolution does not progress beyond five, just because that is the limit of our sensory perception at this stage of evolution.

This is my question – is it not true then that our knowledge’/’rationality’/’reality’ even science has to be at least to some degree subjective? At the very worst erroneous? Are we really masters of this universe with the tools we use at this stage of evolution – FIVE SENSES????

Answer by SmartLX:
No, we are hardly masters of the universe, and yes, our senses are highly subjective and very often erroneous. We have far more than five senses now – look up proprioception and chemoreceptors, for instance – but in the future we might develop more of them and improve our existing senses. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot in the universe we currently have no way of sensing or detecting, near and far. Reality goes way beyond that which we’ve seen and recorded.

So why ask this on an atheist site? Most likely because of the possibility that senses we don’t yet have might be able to detect the influence or even the direct presence of a god. Sure, it’s possible that we could discover a god in the future, if we become capable of looking in the right way. That doesn’t change the fact that there’s no substantive evidence for a god available to us right now, and no good reason to believe in anything but the possibility of a god.

Atheism: Endgame

Question from Brian:
Although I am an atheist, I believe that religion serves a very important purpose in our capitalist society. Most of us live, almost like slaves, being controlled by our employers. It gives meaning to those who otherwise cannot find meaning in their lives. For example the idea that a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, allows someone who is poor, which most Americans are, to believe that while this life may suck, the next life they will find some sort of better life. So Christianity serves an important role in appeasing the masses. Now, what is the endgame for atheism? How will a capitalist society continue to sustain itself, when the masses have no hope, and fail to develop some sort of coping mechanism? Let’s face it, the vast majority of the people are biologically and intellectually incapable of surviving in the harsh capitalist system, which is why they turn to religion and the supernatural. Knowing science or understanding the physical world doesn’t help them in a practical sense. It will only make them more miserable. What’s wrong with a little delusion? Isn’t the most rational thing for people to do is try to live a life as happy as they can?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think that modern religion is very good at serving the purpose you ascribe to it, or that the absence of religion would leave the kind of hole in the collective psyche that you and Karl Marx think it would. (That’s not a general insinuation; he wrote something similar in his “opiate of the masses” piece. He wanted to remove the drug so that people would feel their pain and do something about it.)

Yes, Christianity and other religions have traditionally reassured the poor and warned the rich, and if you’re cynical you might think this was to channel money from both groups to the religions themselves. This message has by now been utterly corrupted by “prosperity gospel” and other such doctrines, and religions are brazenly taking congregants for everything they have. This isn’t universal, of course, but religion as a whole appears to be actively making people poorer on average through the way it’s preached. Throw right-wing politics into the mix and religion becomes a way to make the poor vote against their own interests and further enrich the super-rich at their own expense. Religion can make people happy, but so can alcohol, and the cost can be too great – and I’ve only gone into the financial aspect here. The real problem with a delusion is usually what’s happening in the real world at the same time.

I’m sure many people do find meaning in their lives solely through religion, but this is not because there is nothing else. Religion encourages believers to focus their lives on it, and to draw meaning from it alone, so they seldom even look for alternatives. When one is first divested of belief in a god, the threat often looms that one’s whole world will collapse (try searching the site for my term “faithdrawal”) before the realisation comes that the accompanying beliefs that everything depends on the god are also wrong. I honestly think your opinion that the majority can’t survive without religion is terribly patronising toward the majority. If you’re doing it, why can’t they? What makes you biologically and intellectually superior to so many?

You ask about the endgame for atheism, but atheism need not be the first move. There is an inverse correlation between average happiness and the religiosity of a country, as this infographic explains. The happiest countries by a number of standards are those where relatively few people consider religion important at all. This not only flies in the face of your implication that capitalist society would collapse without religion, but it also suggests a way forward for atheists: simply work to improve your society and make people happier, and religion will fade.

To answer your question directly, the endgame or the ideal for atheism from my perspective is universal voluntary abandonment of religion and religious faith as harmful and ultimately useless. Ideally all benefits of religion are replaced by other sources which don’t come with the same drawbacks. People congregate but are not told what to think, they donate to charities which do good work without an agenda, they find personal meaning in the world around them and work to improve it without arguing to a standstill over the meanings. It’ll be hard to achieve, and as you suggest it will require the world to be a nicer place to live in, but that right there is something we can work towards.

The Khabouris Codex: cool name, but proof of God?

Question from Abishek:
Does anyone know the truth about this “Khabouris Codex”?
Some Christians on the internet use it as proof that the New Testament is divine. I am confused, please help me in this.
Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
This was a new one on me. The Khabouris or Khaboris Codex is a manuscript of the New Testament (except for five books) dating back to the 12th century. It contains a note to say it’s a copy of a second-century manuscript, which if true gives it serious bragging rights as one of the most authoritative sources of the NT text in Jesus’ own language of Aramaic.

That doesn’t seem to be what’s important about it for the purposes of proving the divinity of the text. Since it was acquired from Kurdistan in 1966, the manuscript has been physically used to assist in religious healing and spiritual instruction. Reading from it has been claimed to cause minor psychological miracles; the main example is that regularly concentrating on the text in Aramaic – without understanding Aramaic – is said to make one more mature. It was even used in an attempt to calm violent prisoners. It’s a proper Christian relic, with minor powers such as you’d see on items in the ‘relic’ or ‘trinket’ category in a role-playing game. It’s most likely in a private collection at the moment.

The Christians you’re referring to may be arguing for the divinity of the New Testament from any of a few different angles. It might be the idea that the text has barely changed over thousands of years, which is dependent on the unverified claim of the Codex’s own source. It could be the discovery of the Codex, as a new revelation from God. It could be any of the abilities the Codex supposedly displayed after it arrived in the West, which are highly subjective in nature. It could be some passage which differs from the modern Bible and can be interpreted as making a unique prediction about subsequent events. None of these seem to be anything to worry too much about, honestly, but if you have more details of their claims (or a link to their website) please fill us in using a comment.

Some Things Never Change

Question from Caleb:
In an atheistic worldview why are there laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and absolute morality?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you search the site for the above terms you’ll find quite a few relevant pieces already written, and some very long discussions in the comments. These subjects crop up often because many theists think they have the authority on each. This time I’ll try to answer as straightforwardly as possible; if you look through the rest of the material and think I haven’t covered something, do let me know.

There do appear to be many types of total consistency in the universe, primarily physical and logical. The laws of each don’t seem to change, so we have the kind of stable universe where beings like us can develop over billions of years and create civilisations without everything spontaneously collapsing in on itself every few minutes, or turning into chocolate pudding and back.

None of us know why this is. Some think they know, because if they believe the universe was created by an intelligent god then it sounds sensible that this god would make the universe stable enough to support life and eventually cognition, as most worshipped gods have apparently created humanity for some unknown purpose. To one who has not already accepted the existence of such a being (which hypothetically is more exotic and incredible than anything the universe has to offer, and is thus a dismal working assumption for the purpose of explanation) it seems more likely that, somewhat in the manner of Newton’s first law, there is simply no influence upon the universe causing it to change its fundamental qualities and therefore it doesn’t. The absence of a god does not make the reality impossible, merely unexplained. To go any further is to commit the all-too-common fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or else to claim omniscience.

Absolute morality is different from the other two because we don’t know whether it exists in the first place. Morality is disputed all the time, so any absolute morality makes up a very small part of it. Anything we might think of as a moral absolute might just be something the entire human race agrees upon, but is wrong. Any such supposed absolute might also be regarded with the total opposite of its implication for humans when considered from the perspective of other animals, for example ants. Texts like the Bible declare moral absolutes on the authority of a being whose existence is itself in question. This last point is important, because when you’re using the existence of absolute morality to argue for the existence of a god, you can’t use the latter to argue for the former first.

Atheism or A-beliefism?

Question from Sarah:
Atheism or A-beliefism? Suppose we take the whole “Existence of God” question out of the religion and atheism debate. What do we have left? I’m inclined to say that we have a group of people who assert that BELIEF in the absence of empirical evidence is a reasonable and valid way of knowing, and a group of people who claim that it isn’t. My sense is that this fundamental difference in epistemology transcends the entire “God” issue. At the deepest level, an “atheist” isn’t someone who doesn’t embrace a belief in God, but simply someone who doesn’t embrace “belief” as a valid way of knowing. My question is, do you agree or disagree with this assertion and why?

Let’s make it a bit more concrete: Recent insights in astrophysics (eg. the Holographic Principle) and in information science suggest that the foundational components of our universe– rather than being tiny chunks of “solid stuff” (atoms)– might be information (bits). (“It from bit.”) If this is true, then we could actually be living in a Matrix-like universe. This could be a naturally-arising information-based universe, or an artificial one created by an intelligent being or beings. Let’s suppose that we do live in a an artificial “Matrix,” created and maintained by an individual Being. Clearly, that Being would not be an infinite, perfect entity like Jehovah or Allah. However, It would be omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal as far as we are concerned, and it would be supernatural, as far as we are concerned, since It transcends the laws of our universe. I don’t think that most atheists would have a problem with the possibility that this God exists, but they would definitely have a problem with accepting Its existence in the absence of evidence. Why, then, all the debate about God’s existence or non-existence? Why not debate about the REAL issue– which, as I see it, is FAITH as a way of knowing.

Answer by SmartLX:
I agree with you in part. An atheist does not accept the existence of a god or the equivalent, usually due to the lack of evidence or even due to perceived evidence of its absence. To such a person, faith is acceptance of a claim in the absence of evidence and is thus invalid by definition. And yes, I’m fine with the possibility of the existence of a number of different types of gods, including the master programmer version you describe, I just think that each is a very remote possibility and there’s no evidence for any of them.

However, advocates of a god’s existence are not so easily categorised. Perhaps they do generally accept faith as a valid reason to accept it, but when actually arguing the point with non-believers many of them go to the trouble of assembling and presenting what they claim to be evidence that their god exists. A large amount of the past material on this site consists of responses to claims of direct evidence, claims that the entire world IS evidence, claims that certain logical arguments serve as evidence, and attempts to shift the burden of evidence onto non-believers.

I don’t think re-framing the debate into a discussion of “ways of knowing” would be productive, or get anywhere at all. Believers already regularly take our evidence requirement at face value and throw “evidence” at us. Those who do not accept that evidence is necessary often ignore claims that it is, and think to themselves that those who demand evidence are misguided. (Indeed, the Bible explicitly warns against putting God to the test, and that’s good enough for many.) If we were to set our shared position such that some other “way of knowing” were the only valid one, the response from believers would likely be, “Very well, here is how the existence of God is absolutely plain in THAT way of knowing.”

No, the issue of whether God exists is the issue in which people are most often invested, rather than secondary epistemological issues, and I think the debate will stay right there because that’s what everyone wants to talk about.

Secular devotionals, or the equivalent

Question from Ashley:
Can you direct me to any atheist — or, more likely, secular humanist — devotionals or inspiring readings? I have been asked to do a (3-5 minute) devotional at one of the monthly meetings of parents at my daughter’s Christian school and I would really like to do it — not to rub anyone’s face in my atheism or challenge their beliefs, but just to show them that atheists can provide thought-provoking and inspirational ideas without including references to God, religion, Christ, etc. I can probably come up with something on my own, but I’d love some resources to consult. Any suggestions?

By the way, I am grateful to you for all the resources you supply and for your suggestion, years ago, that I consult Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief regarding raising my children without religion. Thank you!

Answer by SmartLX:
I think I’ve found the earlier exchange here, and if so the book wasn’t our idea. Still, glad you found what you were after at the time.

I won’t lie, it was hard to get started on this question. Atheist and secular humanist devotionals are rare, because a devotional is just a (short) prayer by another name. When there isn’t someone to pray to, it seems a bit pointless to devote oneself to, and beg things from, an empty space.

So I started from scratch and simply looked for inspiring and thought-provoking short-form writing. I realised that there’s a common word for that: poetry. I found some great classical poems, and then was shown up when I found most of the best-known ones on a single two-page list here.

Not everything on the list is secular, so to be specific I recommend If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking by Emily Dickinson, The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and In Spite of War by Angela Morgan. They are respectively about living one’s life for others, finding one’s true identity, and finding joy in the midst of adversity and suffering. These are three things that religious people often think are impossible without religion, but a non-religious person could say any one of these poems and absolutely mean it (and therefore the religious beliefs of the poets themselves, if any, are irrelevant).

Depending on your allotted time, you could string the three of them together into one short speech. If any of them is not to your taste, that’s a whole site full o’ poems ya got there, so rummage around to your heart’s content.

Poetry connoisseur I am not, honestly, so everyone’s welcome to add their own favourite secular writings (use links if possible, to save space) in the comments. What could be read aloud in a church or other religious environment and make everyone think or feel something significant, while forgetting about God for a few moments?

Sometimes we’re the only atheists to ask.

Question from Cody:
a) What does it mean to be human?
b) What happens after death?
c) Elaborate on who Jesus Christ is according to your worldview.
d) How does your worldview deal with the concepts of evil and suffering in the world?

These are 4 questions that have come up in my class. The goal is to get the answers for each question for a Christian and atheistic view.

Any help is appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re not the first person who’s asked for help fulfilling an academic requirement to get an atheist’s perspective on philosophical and traditionally theological matters. We did a big piece here specifically to address the questions in a college course called Christian Worldview. I find it interesting how many people are under the impression that they don’t know any atheists. While in some cases perhaps it’s true, in many cases I bet people know more atheists than they think.

Anyway, to the questions. I’ll give my own views, but I’ll also explain where there is any major disagreement among atheists in general.

a) The human being, or Homo sapiens, is a species to which we all belong. Because our physical and neurological makeup is so similar as members of a species, we have a great deal in common. With very few exceptions, we feel great empathy for each other, and at least some empathy for other life on Earth. Systems of law, ethics and morality have come about not just so we can protect ourselves, but so we can help others in society and achieve justice for all. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that, but we make adjustments and improvements as we go.

b) All known evidence indicates that all behaviour which defines life, humanity and identity is driven by the physical brain and the electrical signals going through it, and not an additional ethereal “soul”. (Consider that physical brain damage can alter or destroy any part of a person’s identity, up to complete brain-death which is equivalent to true death.) When a person dies, the electrical signals stop and the structure of the brain is effectively destroyed in a matter of minutes. Therefore, by all indications there is no longer a person after death for anything to happen to.

c) It’s more a case of who Jesus Christ was, as atheists do not accept that he came back from the dead. And it’s too much to accept Jesus Christ without challenging it, as I understand “Christ” in context means “the anointed one of God” and we don’t believe that God exists, let alone that Jesus of Nazareth had any special relationship with him (that is, more than any Christian claims to have a “relationship” with God). Anyway, there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life since everything we have was written after his death, but on balance I’m prepared to accept that there probably was an itinerant Jewish preacher (or several) on whom the Biblical stories of Jesus were based. Beyond that, not a single event in his life can be established conclusively, let alone his miracles or his resurrection, as historians writing afterwards may have been simply repeating the claims of early Christians. Some atheists don’t think there was any real Jesus and it was all a myth, but this is currently a minority view even among atheists and those who hold it are derided as “Jesus mythers”.

d) Evil is an abstract concept and atheists have all sorts of opinions about it; I try not to label anything absolutely good or evil, only beneficial or harmful to specific people, creatures or causes. Suffering on the other hand is obviously real, and I want to minimise it whenever possible. As for why suffering exists, I don’t have to try to explain it in the presence of a loving god who ought to be preventing it. It occurs simply because people get hurt, deliberately or accidentally by other people, and naturally by the world around them.

That about covers everything. Let me know if you want to drill into any of these topics further, but do search the site first because they’re all pretty popular.

Theist Cosmology: As Long As God’s Necessary Somewhere

Question from Physitheist:
I’m going to start this by saying that I’m a Christian, but also someone who believes in science…Here’s my question. According to the laws of thermodynamics energy moves to heat. Also there is no process that is truly reversible because we can not reach absolute zero, and the process would take infinite time. Since entropy continues to increase, and there is a limit of mass and energy how are we here? If there is not a limit of energy and mass, then why do you think so? And if you believe that energy and mass can appear out of thin air balanced out by anti matter why haven’t we ever seen this? After all the amount of unusable heat created is enormous. So basically my question is this, given the laws of thermodynamics, if you extrapolate to the size of the universe how are we here? After all the Big Crunch theory doesn’t really solve the energy problem since no process is 100 percent efficient. We’d still only have heat since there’s no such thing as negligible when the scale is eternity.

Thank you, and have a wonderful day!

Jesus loves you!

Answer by SmartLX:
I answered a similar question in my piece The World of Leftover Energy, so you can comment on that one if you like. Here I’ll just try to address some of your specific points and questions.

If you extrapolate the laws of thermodynamics regarding entropy to account for the entire universe they need to be applied as to a closed system, because we’re not aware of any energy leaving the universe. A hypothetical Big Crunch takes all the matter and energy there has ever been and jams it back together in a singularity – even the “lost” energy that’s been radiated outwards throughout the history of the compressed universe. That could actually achieve 100% efficiency through recycling, as literally no energy would be lost and the singularity could behave exactly the same as the previous singularity.

There is most likely a finite amount of matter and energy in THIS universe. If it’s the only universe, an eternal existence would have to depend on some form of reclamation, like the Big Crunch, or an exponential decrease that never hits zero, like I describe in the other piece. If there are other universes, as many have theorised and some evidence actively suggests, then it’s very possible that the total matter and energy in the multiverse is infinite, and entropy doesn’t mean much on the grand scale. I don’t feel the need to declare one or the other scenario more likely. An eternal universe isn’t certain in the first place, but a non-eternal universe doesn’t guarantee an eternal creator god.

Think about what would happen if a small group of matching matter and antimatter particles suddenly emerged naturally somewhere on Earth, and therefore in an environment saturated with existing particles of matter (e.g. air, water or earth). The antimatter would be annihilated by the existing matter in an instant, and the matter it touched would also be annihilated, so you’d be left with no antimatter and exactly the amount of matter you started with. It could be happening all around us and we’d never detect it without precise instruments. This isn’t proof that it happens, but it makes it impossible to say that it isn’t happening.

Why We Aren’t All Smelling Our Butts Right Now

Question from Blink:
Hi guys. A theist asked me this question.

“Why are our eyes (not the anus) placed near our nose? Can you imagine how disturbing it would be if it were placed below our nose in place of our mouth!”

This is one of the many reasons why he believes in God.

I don’t know how to respond to this question, my instinct tells me maybe it has something to do with evolution. What is the appropriate respond to his question? Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
The anus is placed away from the mouth and nose because if any of our ancestors had developed the two close together, the species would have quickly been wiped out by anal-oral and anal-respiratory infections. On the other hand, the anus is placed near the genitalia and there’s a constant risk of infection between the two because that kind of infection isn’t usually enough to cause a major obstacle to survival, and there hasn’t been any major selection pressure to change it.

To make the same point more generally, if something being the case confers some kind of survival advantage, or if the alternative would make survival difficult, evolution is likely to encourage it to happen, because life will be easier at every stage for those who are closer to the ideal. Bad “ideas” are weeded out when the life forms that manifest them die.

But forget about evolution for a minute. Your theist asks why a particular thing is the case, and implies that if you don’t know, God must have done it. How utterly arrogant to think that just because the two of you may not be aware of any other explanations, reality must align perfectly with what HE thinks. This is a classic argument from ignorance, and the more people know what that is, the better for logic and reason in the world.

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, defeated?

The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible contains a long list of supposed contradictions in the Bible, but apologetics sites such as have published articles reconciling every single one. Is there any remaining argument against the total internal consistency of the Bible, as befitting its divine origins?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve referred to this many times, but it’s always deserved its own piece.

The shortest answer is to point out the fact that the SAB contains links to the responses in each of its articles concerning an apparent contradiction (this one, for example, has three). Why would it do this if the responses in any way undermined the point it’s trying to make?

I’ve read a lot of the responses, and as far as I can tell they all take the same approach. Using this particular interpretation of the relevant passages, they say, there is no real contradiction. Very well, I say, but what is the evidence that this interpretation is the correct one, i.e. the meaning intended by its unknown author(s)?

More to the point, is it more likely that the 2000+ identified passages are each meant to be understood in the specific way a modern apologist has decided, or that the separate authors collectively got a few things wrong here and there when it’s all considered together? If you presume or presuppose not only the existence of God but the divine authorship of the Bible then of course it must be interpreted in whatever way means it’s not wrong, but the whole point of arguing for its incredible consistency is to advocate that it’s the word of God, so you can’t invoke this in the middle of that very argument or you’re “begging the question”.

So, with the thousands of SAB articles and thousands of attempted refutations, where does it ultimately leave us? There are thousands of potential contradictions, each one of which might indicate that the Bible was written by fallible people. For every one of them there’s at least one interpretation that makes it look at least okay. If we say for the sake of argument that no two of these reconciliations contradict each other either, then there is at least one reading of the entire Bible that is internally consistent, but there are still countless others that are self-contradictory, and no objective way to choose between them. Therefore it’s not certain that it’s perfect, and it’s not certain that it’s imperfect, so all we can do is consider probabilities. That approach, in my view, is not favourable to the book.