Causes and Rationality

Question from Jon:
At most, we all choose what is rational in believing or being convinced about something. While searching for answers, I have stumbled upon studying atheism as a choice for my belief but a find it highly irrational. Firstly, atheism appeals that believe in a god/cause/deity is highly irrational because there is no objective evidence to back-it up. But when I analyze it in terms of pure rationality (because the counter option can’t also be validated), I stumble upon choosing between

A) the universe is just a brute fact, nothing caused it to exist, its here because it is here
B) the universe is caused into existence by an agent/cause/god (in my case I don’t define the cause)

And option A which is (correct me if I’m wrong) the heart of Atheism is highly irrational, because so far, inferred from the existence of humanity, humans discovered things or events to be caused by “something” and yet option A completely contradicts it. I believe science breaks apart when something is just assumed as a brute fact. If I have inconsistencies in my analysis, please enlighten me. How does atheism become rational with these arguments taken into hand?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheism takes no position on the universe’s origin or lack thereof, except to say that it’s unlikely at best that a god was responsible because belief in a god’s mere existence (let alone agency) isn’t justified. Option B is fine for a lot of atheists because if there was a cause, it doesn’t have to have been anything like a god. It could be the quantum foam, or another universe in an infinite series, or any number of phenomena we haven’t even thought of.

That said, option A is counter-intuitive but it’s not as absurd as it sounds. If the universe is as eternal as many gods are supposed to be, then it doesn’t need a beginning, and it’s simpler to just suppose that the universe has this quality than to inject a hypothetical separate entity. More significantly, though, everything we’ve ever seen come into existence is made of existing material. Human beings are made of elements found all around us on this planet, and fueled by energy largely traceable back to the Sun. Thoughts and ideas come together in networks of neurons in our heads, powered by electrical energy. Most every building is made from things harvested from, or grown in, the earth. If, by contrast, the universe came to existence out of what could be defined as nothing, it wasn’t like anything we’ve ever seen occur and therefore we have no authority to declare that there must have been a cause. Following on from that, there’s no reason to suppose the existence of a god just for the lack of alternative explanations, and if as you say there’s no objective evidence for gods then there’s no reason to believe in them at all. Thus atheism has a rational basis at least to some extent.

The Benefits of Irrationality?

Question from Ariel:

I am interested in your perspective as an atheist on a few things. I am not an atheist, nor am I a theist. I am certainly not an agnostic. As a bit of background: I grew up in an entirely atheistic, secular environment and have only begun exploring religious and spiritual traditions recently. I believe that within all mainstream belief structures that I’ve thus far encountered (predominantly atheist and Christian branches), there arises at some point or another – in some structures it is more hidden and deeply buried than in others – some sort of intellectual dishonesty. In most Christian traditions this dishonesty manifests in a relatively evident form of cognitive dissonance. Obviously very few Christians fully cognize the implications of their beliefs or else they would not be able to function in our pluralistic society. To honestly believe that 3/4 of the people I encounter are going to be punished eternally would put a strain on my existence that would become unbearable. The dishonesty I feel I encounter with atheism is that it cannot provide an answer for the qualitative aspects of our human experience. Answers to questions of beauty, morality, meaning, etc cannot be answered within a materialistic paradigm. Science deals with quantifiable evidence in a horizontal plane of existence while religion deals with qualitative evidence in a vertical plane of existence. It’s been often stated that science deals with the How while religion deals with the Why.

Of course that’s not entirely true. Science can begin to explain Why a particular organism behaves in a certain way by referring to various hypotheses within evolutionary science or psychology or what have you. But any answer to a why in a strictly causal, materialistic paradigm leads to another why, and you end up with an infinite regression. The big questions remain mysteries. When a religious person asks: how does your life have meaning without a God? What do you base your morality on? – those are very valid questions, as much as skeptics seem to want to scoff at them. The answers that often arise are answers of common sense: you make your own meaning, of course! You are moral by treating others kindly and valuing their lives, of course! But none of these answers warrant ‘of course’s.

The way that I see it, atheists have internalized the moral foundations that have been developed in religious traditions and have secularized them without realizing that, in removing ‘God’ from the equation, the ‘foundation’ part of ‘moral foundation’ is eliminated. I believe it might be worth studying / engaging in religious traditions, as well as poetry, speculative philosophy, etc for hints at some sort of higher truth than cannot be captured by adamant rationalism. There is a hugely mysterious aspect to our human experience that should not be suppressed by strict adherence to a particular *method* of thinking, like rationalism, logic, empiricism, the scientific method. These are just that: methods. They are particular closed systems in which we have trained our brains to think according to established rules and patterns. The thing about the aforementioned disciplines of speculative philosophy, religion / theology, poetry and arts in general is that they may, in their most honest and non-dogmatic manifestations, experience a high level cognitive freedom that allows them to delve into the vertical plane of existence. It is in this freedom that we may learn to take the leaps of faith that provide us with the ‘meaning’ that we so desperately crave as human beings. Paul Tillich suggested that with the modern emphasis on rationalism, there has been a removal of ‘depth’ from our experiences. That’s why you see so many people falling victim to consumerism or substance abuse. We are trying to kill an eternal God and substitute him with fleeting things, and it’s not leaving us very fulfilled. It is actually also this rise of rationalism / atheism that has led religions to become as literalized as they are (think about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy established in the early 20th century). Religion feels that it has to move from the vertical to the horizontal in order to duke it out with science, which is why we are now seeing a much more explicit divide between atheist-theism than we may ever have seen in the past.

Anyway. I probably ranted. I am wondering whether you feel there is any space for non-rational thought and belief structures in the ideal future that you envision for humanity.

All the best.

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Ariel.

Science and the associated rational way of thinking does not presume to have all the answers. This is a major difference from religious thinking, which does presume that the ultimate answer to every question is God. This becomes problematic when the questions themselves start to involve God, because it’s difficult for a thing to explain itself. More importantly, a believer can assert knowledge of an ultimate answer and therefore have an answer for everything, but what is the value of an answer if you don’t know whether it’s right?

While the “big questions” remain a mystery, science provides reliable answers for many of the “smaller” questions with practical applications for our daily lives. Because we know the rate at which the flu virus is evolving, we know how often a new flu vaccine must be created and distributed to ensure reasonable coverage (roughly every year). Because electricity applied to a magnetic coil in the right way can cause it to rotate, motors function. Because human beings have near-universal natural instincts towards not only self-preservation but living in social groups, we can develop laws and social contracts that will benefit us all. Meanwhile we keep working on the things we don’t know, so that we might actually discover the facts. (Incidentally, if you search this site for blanket terms like “morality” you’ll find that we’ve done far more than scoff at such questions.)

Rather than atheism secularising religious moral foundations, religions have claimed credit for ethical norms that existed long before they did; atheists simply tend to be the ones to point this out. For instance, the Commandment not to kill from the Book of Exodus was preceded by many entirely secular laws against killing, devised separately by civilisations the world over.

You can philosophise and go as “deep” as you like into any aspect of religion, but as soon as you take as a premise anything for which you have no evidence is true, you are in the realm of the hypothetical. You may experience profound realisations about your chosen topic, but as they may rely on false premises they are built on sand, and it may not be possible to translate your progress into anything which will be of practical help to anyone. This is the main problem with theology, from a non-believer’s perspective. Religion is often touted as another “way of knowing” besides science, but what is it that we “know” exclusively through religion that we actually do know? Comment if you have an example.

If I had to try to boil all of this down, I would return to my first point and say that while science cannot answer everything, religion has no more authority to answer anything and yet does it anyway. Which one you rely on for your worldview depends on whether you care more about having all the answers or being justifiably confident that the answers you have are correct.

Finally, there had better be room for non-rational thoughts and beliefs in the future, because no matter how hard people try to be rational they will always fall short at times. We’re all human, and no one’s always entirely rational. Fortunately, leaps of reasoning can indeed be achieved by taking seemingly illogical or irrational steps, though only if logic and rational analysis are applied to them afterwards. New ideas can come from anywhere, but you have to sift through them once you get them.

Materialism, Free Will and Rationality

“Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics.”

Question from Graham:
If atheism is true then it would seem that materialism – physical matter is all that exists – is also true. If that is so, is it possible for there to be free will?

Materialism would seem to imply that everything functions in a purely mechanical way, with molecules simply interacting according to the laws of physics, and that would seem to leave no room for free will.

If there is no free will then it would seem to be impossible for us to engage in rational discussion. After all, the product of our “minds” would be determined entirely by a long chain of molecular interactions rather than by non-physical reasons.

Atheism implies materialism: materialism implies a mechanistic universe: a mechanistic universe implies no free will: and no free will implies non-rationality.

Do you agree?

I’m with you some of the way, because I don’t believe in free will.

This is for roughly the reason you give. Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics, and for which there is no evidence.

That’s not to say that will doesn’t exist. We still want things, and we do what we want to do. The absence of free will simply means that we can’t choose what to want. We are driven by our desires. If we refuse to do something we want to, it’s because we want something else more. For example, if you want to lose weight, you don’t eat the big cake.

Will is an example of an abstract concept which accompanies the materialistic worldview for functional purposes. It’s a word which effectively describes an action or quality without physical presence except for a representation in the brain. In a physical sense, my will is a subset of my neurons which stores my short-term and long-term desires and coaxes my brain as a whole to think of other things in terms of those.

There is a long list of such concepts, which fall into the category “information”, including opinions, rules, agreements and of course discussions. A rational discussion is taking place between us, as defined thus: relevant, related information is getting from your brain to mine and vice versa, roughly as intended, through the media of our hands, our keyboards and a ton of networked hardware.

The religious or dualist alternative is that the discussion is essentially taking place between our souls through our subservient brains in addition to all the other media. The only difference is the nature of the participants, since the same information is exchanged. I submit then that if a discussion between two souls is rational then the same discussion must be rational between two brains, or for that matter two computers or other groups of molecules. Of course the brain is a computer, so it’s a thin distinction.

I suspect you have a definition of rationality in mind which makes a much larger distinction, and I’d like to hear it.