Michael Prescott Tries Theology

Question from Lukas:

First of all I want to thank this site for the answers I received so far. It really helps in discussions with believers.

Now to my new question which is rather long. A friend of mine who is a believer sent me a web address of a blog where he gives his reasons why he is a believer – he is a fan of Michael Prescott. I could not find good answers for these things:

(Shortened for quick reading, but see the full piece here)

1. The anthropic principle and cosmic coincidences. It is now a commonplace of astrophysics and cosmology that our universe appears to be “fine-tuned” to be orderly and habitable.

2. The origin of life. The old idea that the first living cell came together spontaneously by pure chance is no longer seriously argued, now that scanning electron microscopy has shown us the fantastic complexity of even the “simplest” cell.

(Points 1 and 2 are the ones that apparently persuaded Anthony Flew.)

3. All attempts to ground morality in naturalistic laws or brute physical facts have (in my opinion) failed, leaving us with two choices: either moral values are subjective and arbitrary, or they are objective but grounded in something outside nature.

4. Materialism, the view that the physical world is all that exists and that mind is, at best, only an epiphenomenon (i.e., trivial side effect) of matter, leads to a debased view of human beings, who are seen as mere animals, machines, robots, or vehicles for genetic reproduction. The dignity of man is incompatible with philosophical materialism.

5. On a personal level, I feel that life simply has no meaning if “this is all there is.”

6. In studying history, I became aware of the very large contribution to human happiness, well-being, and moral advancement made by religion.

7. Finally, after being an extreme skeptic with regard to paranormal phenomena, I began to study the field and found that much of the evidence was unexpectedly strong. This includes evidence for life after death, such as near-death experiences and the better-documented cases of apparitions, deathbed visions, and mediumship.

If you could please answer these questions I would be very glad.

Also thanks again for your time and this site its really great. Thanks for the answer and have a nice day.

Answer by SmartLX:
Your friend has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at you, and it only took him one link. Let’s dive into the pile, and see if crime writer Prescott has uncovered any real-life mysteries.

1. See my pieces on the fine tuning argument together here. Some of the main points:
– The term “fine-tuned” presumes a tuner in the first place.
– The fact that life is only supported on one tiny world within light years suggests that if it’s tuned at all it’s very poorly tuned.
– Some of the “tuned” constants could actually vary by a great deal and still allow life to form.
– We know at least one universe exists, and a multiverse hypothesis merely posits the existence of more of them. A god is completely without precedent in science and observation.

2. Prescott is just plain wrong here. The idea that the original proto-biology coalesced without being directed to do so is seriously argued, and there are a number of quite detailed models currently in play. He’s also wrong about the unlikelihood of new information emerging from disorder without a capital-M Mind to guide it, because it happens all the damn time. I recently argued this very point here.

3. We can argue about religious vs secular morality, but when you get down to it Prescott is just arguing that if there’s no god there’s no objective morality and this would be bad. Something is not more or less likely to be true based on whether it’s good or bad for us; an earthquake that kills millions is just as real as the discovery of a vaccine that saves millions. To suggest otherwise is a well-recognised logical fallacy called an argument from consequences.

4. Similarly, here he’s only saying that it’s better not to look at ourselves from a materialistic perspective (I disagree), and not bothering to actually argue that materialism is false. Same issue as #3.

5. If he can only find meaning in life if there’s a god, that’s his problem. To say it’s an actual argument supporting the existence of one, even to himself, is a third argument from consequences. Besides, I can find meaning in life without a god, and so can others.

6. Even if he’s right about the historical benefits of widespread religion, it’s a total non-sequitur to say that means there’s a god. Religion can have done everything it’s reliably recorded as having done over the millenia without the assistance of a single real deity. Such is the power of human belief and cooperation, for good or ill.

7. Even if paranormal phenomena were real, he’d have a lot of trouble linking them to any particular god. As for near-death experiences, that consciousness survives death is exactly the claim which lacks empirical evidence. I had my biggest discussion of this almost exactly five years ago on the old site (now archived, so don’t try to comment there) and in my estimation little of relevance has changed since.

So, all up there’s not much “philosophy of religion” from Prescott which is new. If Prescott is happy to use this stuff to convince himself, fine, but it doesn’t convince me.

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.