Now You’re Thinking With A Bunch of Atoms

Question from Jeff:
I’m sort of in a searching phase of life where I really don’t know what to believe. I recently heard a compelling argument for the existence of god and want to get some input. The argument goes like this:

If there is no god and the world is just an accident, if everything about people, including what they think and feel, is just the chance combination of molecules and is explained in terms of chemistry and physical laws, why be rational? On the basis of atheism, weeds grow because they are weeds (laws of physics) and minds just do whatever they do. People act like they are free to think about different kinds of ideas and then choose the best one. On the basis of atheism, that’s impossible. Our minds are just a bunch of atoms vibrating and will do whatever they have been programmed to do. If there is no god and the physical world is all there is, there is no logical basis for logic. But people, including atheists, do trust reason and logic even though they have no reason to assume that it works.

Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
Minds, or brains to be more specific, indeed do what is dictated by their physical structure combined with the electrical signals travelling through them, so you could say that they do what they’re programmed to do. The thing is, they are programmed to think. They have the necessary complexity to store something as abstract as an idea, among other information, and they apply ideas to the world around them. This leads them to make choices based on the information available to them, and act upon those choices. This can be called a person’s will. Its ultimately deterministic nature in the absence of supernatural influences (like a soul) leads many to stop short of calling it free will, but it’s will all the same.

We have plenty of reason to assume that reason and logic work, because we live in a world where reason and logic regularly help us make predictions about the world that turn out to be correct. It’s not a matter of philosophy, it’s simply a lifetime of observing the practical power of understanding the logical workings of an apparently consistent universe. We don’t know why it’s that way (and many religious people jump on that fact to make an argument from ignorance in favour of gods – back to this in a moment), but we learn that it is so and we use it to our advantage. That’s what learning is, really. If the world weren’t consistent we couldn’t learn anything.

The argument you heard is rather close to the transcendental argument for God (TAG) and ultimately has the same problem: to establish a god as the source of logic in its premise it has to assert that there’s no other possibility, when there’s merely no other KNOWN source. In fact the possibilities are endless, but the simplest one is that logic has no source and has always been in place, much like God is supposed to have been. The other important thing about the TAG, in my experience, is that its persuasive power is not targeted where you think it is. It almost never convinces non-believers, but it very often convinces believers that their belief is justified when they might be in doubt. It is primarily a tool for reassurance, not conversion. The same may be true of all apologetics at this point, but TAG more than most.

Memories: Brain vs Soul

Question from Marie-Denise:
If memories and thoughts completely come from one’s brain and not from a person’s soul, then why do we keep our memories even though we know every cell in one’s brain is regenerated every few years? Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
Quite simply, they’re passed on.

Memories are stored in the brain as electrical patterns, which don’t reside in individual cells but travel around certain areas of the brain as needed, for instance when you’re figuring out where you left your keys. If a brain cell dies while hosting part of a memory, that part can often be recreated by the rest of the brain, or else there’s another copy in there somewhere, so the impact on your overall memory is minimal. (Daniel Dennett is fond of saying, “Every time you read it or say it, you make another copy in your brain.” He then repeats this twice.)

Actually, brain cells aren’t replaced like the other cells in the body. Glial cells are, but the all-important neurons hardly regenerate at all. Therefore maintenance of memory is not really a matter of tagteaming from old cells to new cells, but rather a process of shuffling between existing cells. The brain is only too happy to do this, because it’s by transferring memories and other thoughts from cell to cell that we “think” about them.

The idea that the soul is the source of certain thoughts carries its own conundrums, chiefly the fact that every known mental process can be permanently impaired or completely disabled by sufficient brain damage. If an ethereal soul is solely responsible for any observable function, that function should be impervious to physical injury, and this has never been observed. If instead the brain functions as a conduit for every “action” of the soul, there is no evidence for the existence of an independent soul. Don’t feel put-upon though – believers in an incorporeal “mind” independent of the brain have the same kinds of problems when justifying their view, so this is not purely a matter of theology.

Short, but not so simple…

Questions from Avi in bold, answers by SmartLX following each one:

Short and simple answers to these questions, having a hard time to answer, voices tend to question my thoughts into confusion. Please don’t waste time, answer it objectively and simple.
Thank you.

I’d bloody well better do short and simple answers, because some of these questions touch on such huge subjects I could take hours to answer them properly.

– Why is there a large growth of Christians in Philosophy, People like Alvin Platinga, Richard Swinburne, John Lennox, William A. Dembski, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William L. Craig, Tim O’Connor?
There have always been a huge number of Christian apologists, compared to any other type. There are a large number of newly publicised apologists now because there’s money in it. These guys sell books, tickets to seminars and other appearances, subscriptions to their regular publications…and some get huge donations from politicians for tacitly endorsing them.

– Are they stupid and delusional, must we force them out of education?
No Christian is necessarily stupid or clinically delusional. They are simply very likely to be wrong, and whenever this can be established with confidence the incorrect teachings should be kept out of the relevant parts of school curricula, for instance biology.

Is it possible to reduce a mental event into a physical events?
Are they interchangeable?

In the naturalistic, materialistic view, a mental effect is a physical effect as the brain is a physical part of the human body, but not all physical effects are mental effects because some of them have nothing to do with the cognitive areas of the brain.

– Can we only define pain as C fibres?
Pain is a signal that travels from parts of the body to the brain, and the reaction that signal creates. C fibres are merely the conduit for the signal.

– Can we as individuals have privileged access to other individuals?
If that’s the way things are arranged, sure. There’s a sci-fi convention coming up in Australia where you can pay through the nose for a small amount of quality time with William Shatner and Richard Dean Anderson. Try getting in for an autograph if you haven’t got a ticket.

– Can reality only be known through the 5 senses?
There are way more than five senses, but anyway, reality may not be known even through the senses. Some idea of reality can only be inferred from the information we receive through our senses, whether we experience things directly or we analyse evidence of past or remote events, but it might all be wrong. We can only amass enough information to reach a certain level of confidence in our opinion of what’s really going on around us. To declare any more surety than that is to delude oneself, which we all commonly do.

– Why is ID allowed in the scientific community in China, why is it free there?
Negligible copyright enforcement has a lot to do with it; English-language books advancing ID and denouncing evolution can be freely translated, copied and sold for a buck, but really I’ve got no evidence that ID is regarded in China’s scientific community any better than in America’s. Some scientists like Professor Paul K. Chien are advocating it there, just like Michael Behe does in the US, but is there any indication that it’s catching on?

– Is it ok to be a Christian? Why are Christians delusional?
As I said, Christians are likely to be wrong in my opinion, and there’s nothing wrong with being wrong except that you have an opportunity to correct yourself. Maybe they were raised with the idea, or they fell for some complicated apologetics, or they had some personal experience which they ascribed to the divine, but every believer has some reason to believe. The question in each case is whether it’s a good reason.

– Do we have to kill Christians in the very end in order to have a free, peaceful and open society?
Even if the existence of Christians absolutely precluded the existence of freedom and peace, killing them wouldn’t be the only answer; they could be persuaded that Christianity is false, for example. So without even discussing whether Christianity is compatible with freedom and peace, the answer to your question is no.

– If nihilism is true in the very end, where did value, and purpose come from? Should we force Christians into nihilism?
We humans place value on things and people ourselves, and we decide what our purpose is. Christians do the same, ultimately, but they attribute their values and perceived purposes to their God long after the fact. There’s no real motivation to force Christians into another philosophy, firstly because it’s almost impossible to change someone’s philosophy by force and secondly because just being Christian isn’t doing the majority of Christians (or everyone else) much harm. It’s the actions of Christians that occasionally do harm, and these should be addressed first.

– Why do I exist, Why am I here, Why do children have value? Why do I love? < Scientific view point
You exist because your parents had sex. There is a line of causality stretching from the fact of your existence to as far back as we can reasonably look into history. The ultimate prime reason for your existence may be the same as everyone else’s, or the line might go back forever. We don’t know. You love because your brain is equipped to form that kind of attachment to other people and living things, and that has a lot to do with why people give children the high value they have in today’s society.

– Do we force our mind into atheism and nihilism?
I certainly didn’t. I didn’t decide to be an atheist at all, I realised I was one already after not seriously thinking about it for more than a decade. You really don’t have to force it.

So, go chew on that lot.