The Sceptical Believer.

Allan Ramsay, David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher

David Hume portrait by Allan Ramsay

The Scottish Philosopher David Hume wrote  the following defence of his scepticism, in response to  claims circulated, by those opposed to his appointment to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University

In Reality, a Philosopher who affects to doubt of the Maxims of common Reason, and even of his Senses, declares sufficiently that he is not in earnest, and that he intends not to advance an Opinion which he would recommend as Standards of Judgment and Action. All he means by these Scruples is to abate the Pride of mere human Reasoners,  by showing them, that even with regard to Principles which seem the clearest, and which they are necessitated from the strongest Instincts of Nature to embrace, they are not able to attain a full Consistence and absolute Certainty. Modesty then, and Humility, with regard to the Operations of our natural Faculties, is the Result of Scepticism; not an universal Doubt, which it is impossible for any Man to support, and which the first and most trivial Accident in Life must immediately disconcert and destroy.

David Hume  A Letter from a Gentleman to his friend in Edinburgh 1745 taken from The Writings of David Hume#, ed. James Fieser (Internet Release, 1995)

To function as a human being we must act as though we believe in the real existence of the material world.  And this of itself provides evidence that we believe in its existence. We generally also require social relationships and this requires us to believe not only in our own existence, but of the existence of other people.

Many of us go beyond this, believing that reality has purpose. It is not just the theists amongst us that are believers in Providence. My atheist friends are as likely as my theist ones to hold that some things are so right that they are just meant to be. Drawing attention to the illogicality of this kind of  statement coming from an atheist, when that which is being endorsed is positive, seems to me a mean act. One not conducive to the forming of healthy social relationships.

Not every providence related belief expressed by theists or atheists is so positive.  For instance the belief that bad things don’t happen to good people, or that people get what they deserve, are two related negative concepts which can be used to justify our indifference to the suffering of other people, and the endorsement of torture and rape.

It can be argued that this sense that reality is purposeful, has evolutionary advantages and that this is why it is so widespread. Obviously a widespread feeling does not make it so. Nor does a natural explanation for why this feeling is prevalent, mean that it is not a true impression.

But whether or not the believer in Providence, feels the need for capitalisation, the credited actions are widely prevalent, with by and large no suggestion that they require the overturn of natural law.

Providence is experienced within the normal workings of natural law. Which means that miracles, that is events that are contrary to the laws of nature, are as foreign to the experienced reality of believers in divine Providence, as they are to atheists.

David Hume’s claim that the miracles recorded in the Bible did not provide evidence for the truth of Christianity, strikes me as  common sense, possibly rather in the way that the works of William Shakespeare appear to be riddled with clichés.  (An Enquiry Chapter 10)  What was then original appears commonplace now.

However not all Christians understand that recorded miracles only provide evidence of the truth of Christianity if you already believe in the truth of Christianity.

I remember the first time I heard a Christian apologist offer the resurrection as “proof” for the existence of God. I rejected his argument, not because of historical doubts or because of its miraculous nature per se, but because I didn’t even take it seriously.

Jeff Lowder  The Miracle of the Resurrection 1995

In fact even if one believes that Christ is the divine Messiah, the miracles, for most of us anyway, are so different, from the non-showy way in which one experiences God/Providence acting in the world, that they are a cause for doubt.  Something extra that you have to believe.

This, if the Gospels are literally true, does not apply to the first followers of Jesus, who had the chance to experience showy miracles so often, that they were commonplace. For them they would indeed have provided evidence for Jesus divine mission.

That a major world religion is based on the belief that a young man who suffered an agonising and humiliating public execution almost 2000 years ago, is God, seems improbable beyond belief.  And yet it is demonstrably true that this is the case.

It is the sheer improbability of this belief , that is sometimes used as proof that the miracles recorded in the New Testament, most particularly the bodily resurrection of Christ, must have taken place.

Those who make this type of claim, notably the English theologian Tom Wright, are basing it on empirical evidence, the demonstrably real, both historical and present, existence of Christianity.

The claim being made in the following quote is the induction based; similar acts have similar effects. Wright states that in every other case where a proclaimed messiah died, his followers ceased to believe that he was the Messiah, but the same thing didn’t happen with Christ.  He says that this evidence demands an explanation.

The historian is bound to face the question: once Jesus had been crucified, why would anyone say that he was Israel’s Messiah?

Nobody said that about Judas the Galilean after his revolt ended in failure in AD 6. Nobody said it of Simon bar-Giora after his death at the end of Titus’s triumph in AD 70. Nobody said it about bar-Kochbar after his defeat and death in 135. On the contrary. Where messianic movements tried to carry on after the death of their would-be Messiah, their most important task was to find another Messiah. The fact that the early Christians did not do that, but continued, against all precedent, to regard Jesus himself as Messiah, despite outstanding alternative candidates such as the righteous, devout and well-respected James, Jesus’ own brother, is evidence that demands an explanation. As with their beliefs about resurrection, they redefined Messiahship itself, and with it their whole view of the problem that Israel and the world faced and the solution that they believed God had provided.

N.T. Wright Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins 2002

For any given evidence there are a myriad of explanations possible.  We are constrained only by our worldview and the limits of our imagination. And the following quote from Tom Wright is a faith statement. A reiteration  of his belief in his own belief. Anyone holding a different worldview, or expressing the notion that other interpretations are possible must be wrong, because Tom Wright is certain that his worldview is true.

But, as far as I am concerned, the historian may and must say that all other explanations for why Christianity arose, and why it took the shape it did, are far less convincing as historical explanations than the one the early Christians themselves offer: that Jesus really did rise from the dead on Easter morning, leaving an empty tomb behind him.  The origins of Christianity, the reason why this new movement came into being and took the unexpected form it did, and particularly the strange mutations it produced within the Jewish hope for resurrection and the Jewish hope for a Messiah, are best explained by saying that something happened, two or three days after Jesus’ death, for which the accounts in the four gospels are the least inadequate expression we have.

N.T. Wright Jesus Resurrection and Christian Origins 2002

Tom Wright’s claim is not only that something must have happened within 2 or 3 days of the crucifixion, but that this something was the miraculous raising of a man from the dead, as recorded in the gospels.

Such an event does have precedent within the gospels, where others were raised from the dead.  But it is unparalleled in our ordinary experience of life.  This according to David Hume, is what gives us good reason to doubt it.  Tom Wright is not arguing with this.  He is merely claiming that the rise of Christianity is so without precedent, that a miraculous explanation is more likely than any other explanation.

When horrific things happen to human beings, the frequent  response is that they must have been asking for it.  They brought it upon themselves. And those claiming this will use all their powers of intellect in the service of, the possibly instinct driven monster that is, confirmation bias.

That this doesn’t happen with all of the people all of the time, can be demonstrated by events following the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris in January 2015. Then millions marched to proclaim that the dead were risen in them. ‘Je suis Charlie.’

A similar explanation for the rise of Christianity strikes me as possible.  That those very first Christians were proclaiming, that Christ is risen from the dead.  He is risen in us.  ‘Nous sommes tous Christ.’

Evidence that the first Christians did make this kind of claim can be found in the New Testament, in documents written much closer to the events of that first Easter, than were the gospels.

Now you are the body of Christ 1 Corinthians 12:27

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: Galatians 2:20

I think this statement  from 1 Corinthians is also very relevant.

22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:

23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

1 Corinthians 1 22,23

The gospels are full of miraculous signs, and theologians have long since found ways, although they haven’t always agreed, to explain the logic of the crucifixion.  Yet here, comparatively early in the history of Christianity, when Paul proclaims the centrality of the crucifixion, the plain reading is that the signs and the logic did not exist. That the miracles with which the gospels are packed are later additions, which served to confirm for subsequent generations the depth of meaning that the first Christians had experienced.

The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, in arguing for the need to demythologise scripture, made  the following claim, a hostage to fortune, gifted to those who might want to discredit his argument.

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.

Rudolf Bultmann Kerygma and Myth 1948 quote taken from Radical Faith

Here Bultmann strongly underestimates the power of the human mind.  We have evolved with the capacity to believe all manner of things, that our cultures and social groupings expect of us. Even when they are in contradiction of each other. We have also the amazing capacity to affirm these beliefs in all sincerity, while completely failing to notice that our behaviour is at odds with our acclamations.

And he has misidentified the problem. The problem isn’t modern science, but that the miracles are inconsistent with the way we experience the world.

There is within scripture, evidence that the high significance the first Christians placed on the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was wrapped up by later generations, in Jewish Mythology. And it is in this form, that it has been transported through time.

I think  Rudolf Bultmann may have been right that it is impossible to disentangle the historical Jesus from the mythology. But the gospels deliver something else, in the God Man at their hearts. An image of what it means to be good. An image of goodness that exposes the omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent god of traditional Western theology as an imposter.

David Hume argued that the existence of an, omnipotent, omniscient, and all good God was incompatible  with the fact that evil exists in the world. This very much depends on how you interpret the words.

The first two claims are normally interpreted as meaning all the power and all the knowledge that it is possible to have, without logical contradiction. So that for instance the claim that God could not make a stone to big for Himself to lift, and then lift it, is not evidence against omnipotence.

It does seem obvious that if these first two claims are true, and as suffering exists in the world that God cannot be all good. But that depends on how you interpret the word good. There has been a tradition within Christianity from at least the time of St Anselm (1033-1109), the first of the scholastic philosophers, of believing that ‘Might is Right.’

Anselm sees the duty of every rational creature as subjecting every inclination to the will of God. Of this Anselm writes, “This is the debt which angels and men owe to God. No one who pays it sins; everyone who does not pay it sins. This is the sole and entire honor which we owe to God, and God requires from us. One who does not render this honor to God takes away from God what belongs to him, and dishonors God, and to do this is to sin”.

Scott David Foutz  A Brief Survey of Anselm of Canterbury’s ‘Cur Deus Homo’ 1994

In the Medieval Feudal system the weak had a duty to the powerful, but not the other way around.  This is the system that Anselm translated into Christian Doctrine.  In this system it is impossible for an Omnipotent, Omniscient Being’s goodness to be impugned by anything that he does or allows to happen to us.

If you accept this interpretation of the word goodness, then the existence of an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and all good God, is logically possible.

Providentially the Gospels do not restrict themselves to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  They also tell of his behaviour, teaching and miracles.  The incarnated God that walks these pages, is not King Herod.  The God Man at the centre of the Gospels gives the lie, to Anselm’s Omnipotent Monster.

If to be an atheist is to deny the existence, of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent monster of Anselm’s imagination, then  to be loyal to the Gospel of Christ, one must be an atheist.

 

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Honest to God

The then Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, in his 1963 book, ‘Honest to God,’ rejected the notion of a God out there, a superhuman creator, interfering from time to time in human affairs as incompatible with modern scientific thought.  Ironically this superhuman creator, that Robinson so roundly rejected, is one that Richard Dawkins accepts as a logical possibility. Arguing only that such a creator would not in fact be a god, because gods are supernatural beings, and this kind of creator would only be one other part of the natural order.  And therefore neither a god or God.

Which just goes to show that Richard Dawkins theological insight is better than you might otherwise give him credit for. John Robinson was also arguing that such a creator would not be God.

The personal God, that Robinson was arguing for was not this superhuman abomination.

Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted,’ that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home’.

John A.T. Robinson  Honest to God Chapter 3 1963

Robinson was arguing that his emotionally held belief that Love was the central value of life was grounded in his faith in God. And that his belief in God was grounded in his faith that Love was the central value of life.

This view of Love as the central value, was held by the philosophers, William James, who identified as a Christian, and Bertrand Russell, who identified as an agnostic. Just as is the case with Bishop Robinson, neither of these men came to this belief by rational means. It was in both cases an emotionally, not rationally held belief.

William James made the argument that while there was no way of obtaining rational certainty for those things that the heart wished for were true, acting as though that which you wish for is true, is what brings about the emotional certainty that it is so.

At the end of his article ‘Will to Believe’ he used the following quote to illustrate his point.

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we may be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong, and of good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

Fitz James-Stephens quoted in William James Will to Believe 1896

Or that to live fully human and courageous lives we need to, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes had it:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days. Ecc. 11:1

The Bishop of Durham from 2003-2010, Tom Wright was highly critical of the arguments put forward by Bishop Robinson in, ‘Honest to God’ accusing him of being far from  honest.

In particular, Robinson himself seems to me to protest rather too much when he declares again and again that for the most part he remains a traditional Christian—yet says in the preface, revealingly, that he finds less and less of himself to what he calls the right side of the line that runs through the middle of himself. He was of course a complex character, as his biography reveals, and in later life he edited and republished, movingly, his father’s devotional book The Personal Life of the Clergy under the title The Personal Life of the Christian, reaffirming warmly the central disciplines and habits of Christian devotion. But how he kept the two sides of himself integrated, if he did, has never been clear to me. Maybe it was honesty which compelled this unclarity, but the sense of ‘owning up’, of ‘coming clean’, which the title implies is not, I think, borne out by the apparent confusion of the author.

N.T. Wright  Doubt about Doubt: Honest to God 40 years on 2005

The apparent confusion belongs to Tom Wright not John Robinson. Robinson was engaged in providing a meaningful account of Christianity to those for whom the biblical stories held no resonance.  People who would no more have regarded the biblical accounts as evidence of God in action in the world, than they would regard the Star Wars films as evidence for the existence of midi-chlorians.

Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll hear them speaking to you.

Qui-Gon Jinn, to Anakin Skywalker  Taken from Wookieepedia

The attacks and sniping that Tom Wright complains of are found not in ‘Honest to God’ where Robinson almost bends over backwards to acknowledge the truths of those such as C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers who were producing more traditional accounts of the Christian message, but in Wright’s  ‘Doubts about Doubt.’

And it is this misidentification of where the alleged evil lies, that leads me to the conclusion, not that Tom Wright is dishonest but that he is deluded.

One of the things that Tom Wright accused John Robinson of was of ignoring the problem of evil.

I find it quite shocking that Robinson has no account to give of evil, either its existence, its analysis, or the solution offered to it in either traditional or revisionist Christianity. He recognizes that the normal liberal analysis is shallow and inadequate, but has nothing to offer in its place. How a theology rooted and born in the twentieth century could do justice to that twentieth century without a serious account of evil simply defeats me.

N.T. Wright  Doubt about Doubt: Honest to God 40 years on 2005

‘Honest to God’ is a small book, and it didn’t set out to solve the problem of evil.  But Tom Wright in projecting his own behaviour unto John Robinson, illustrates one of the causes of evil in the world.  The ability of the human brain to convince itself, that whatever it wants to believe is true.  An especially devastating ability when what that brain, is highly intelligent, and what it wishes to convince itself of, is that it is certainly right, and that the evil lies in the other.

Human Beings bond on shared ideas. Those who can produce the illusion that beliefs held for social reasons are certainly true, have opportunity to gain status in their social groupings.  If they can at the same time convince their followers that their social groupings and truths are under attack, by the other:

Those Evil  Awful People Over There,

then they are a position to acquire even more power within their group.  And certainly in times past and maybe even today this will have improved their average reproductive fitness.  In other words I am suggesting that the type of self deluding argument exhibited by Tom Wright, the gift that can make Satan himself appear as an angel of light, is an innate deceiver, a human instinct, the product of natural selection.  And you’ll find him waving his noodly appendage wherever humans seek power rather than love, certainty over truth.

 The noodliness of Wright’s thinking is even more clearly obvious, except to those who are similarly noodled, in his arguments against gay marriage, than in his critique of Honest to God.

Tom Wright’s sphere of influence is largely among those who would regard themselves as Bible believing evangelicals, and his views on justification, have led many within these circles to regard him as theologically unsound.

To maintain his sphere of influence, he needs to impress those within it of his ‘orthodoxy.’ They and he are emotionally certain that homosexual relationships cannot be recognised as marriage. And the innate deceiver, the instinct that likes to say,”Yes:” obliges in enabling him to convince himself that he can in fact  rationally justify his emotional response.

He is quoted over at First Things, as objecting to Gay Marriage, because it involves a change of the meaning of the word marriage. Now Tom Wright and I have both lived long enough to know that language evolves over time.  The word gay for instance has changed meaning within our lifetime.

I grew up in the Anglican Church of Ireland, and we regularly prayed that justice should be administered indifferently.  Rather than Christians demanding that word usage remains constant, I think a more sensible case could be made that we recognise the actual usage that words have in the present time, and use them accordingly.

Sarah Moon in More Like N.T. Wrong, does an excellent take down of his arguments based on the creation story of Genesis 1.

I won’t deal with them here.  But I find myself vastly entertained by the ludicrousness of this argument.

The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

N.T. Wright’s Argument Against Same Sex Marriage  First Things 2014

On that gay and glorious day when Christ comes to reclaim his Bride, N.T.Wright  if he believes himself to be a Christian, must surely expect to be there, at least metaphorically, as the Bride to Christ’s Groom.  Not a convincing argument against gay marriage.

The entertaining yet truly scary thing about those operating under the operation of the noodly deceiver, the confirmation bias driven monster that has been given not so much anthropomorphic as pastopomorphic form by Bobby Henderson as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is that you can see that the truth finding mechanisms within their brain are still in operation.

The bits of the brain that are there to test the theory, in the only way possible, by finding arguments against it are there doing their job. Yet the strength of the noodly appendage is such that its deluded servants are able to present evidence against their case as though it is evidence for, with total conviction.

In this same article Tom Wright can also be seen criticising others including Tony Blair the British Prime Minister at the time of the invasion of Iraq, for the holeyness of their arguments, while seeing only holiness, in his own holey arguments.

Tom Wright demanded from John Robinson a theological account of evil. A spaghettiology is all I can offer.  We have inherited from our evolutionary past an instinct that serves to hide our true motives from us, as we seek status and power within our society.  This instinct enables us to believe whatever it is that will gain us that power and status. It enables us to deceive ourselves into believing in our own goodness, and the rightness of our cause.  It enables us to see that the fault lies only in the other.  And thus is monstrous evil born.

If we would resist the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the first place we must look is within ourselves. Only then have we any chance of being, ‘Honest to God.’

 


 

 

 

Football, Santa Claus, Free Will and God

Football, Santa Claus, Free Will and God all at a certain level exist . They exist as concepts which affect human behaviour.

At its very basic level, the football concept means that with enough space  any object that rolls, can be turned into an occasion for fun, competition and social bonding. The environment, the human, and the concept interact to produce that which is conceived, a game of football. Something that, along with the singing of Christmas carols, is associated with the informal truce that broke out in Christmas 1914 between British and German soldiers fighting on the Western Front.

The Santa Claus concept, means that children are motivated to behave well in early December and that the adults get to enjoy maintaining a fantasy for children.  The environment, the human and the concept interact to ensure that children get excitement and presents. Some of that which is conceived relates to events in the external world.  But the central part of this concept, the man in the red suit flying through the sky, delivering presents to children all over the world, exists only in fantasy.

Free will is different from football and Santa Claus in that there is arguably a credible case that it exists externally to the concept. A case that physicist Sean Carroll failed to make in the following quote from a speech he made on naturalism in 2012.

The universe is made up of elementary particles that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgment, don’t have a sense of Right and Wrong. And the fear is, the existential anxiety is that if that purpose and meaningfulness is not given to me by the universe, then it cannot exist. The good news is that that fear is a mistake. That there is another option: that we create purpose and meaning in the world.

“If you love somebody, it is not because that love is put into you by something outside, it is because you created that from inside yourself. If you act goodness (sic) to somebody, it’s not because you are given instructions to do so, it’s that it’s a choice that you made.

Sean Carroll The case for Naturalism 2012. Transcript from Atheism Analyzed 2015

The bad news is that if materialism is true, and like Sean Carroll I ‘instinctively’ believe that it is, then it is these same elementary particles, that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgement, don’t have a sense of Right and Wrong; that we and the rest of the universe are made from.

If we are capable of loving, creating purpose and meaning, and doing good, it is because of how we are made.  Our ability to love, or hate, must come from inside us, but that is not the same as saying that an individual who feels either of these emotions created them.

The individual who exists at any one time is a consequence of nature, nurture, and the environment, including the social and cultural one in which they find themselves.  We do not make ourselves. Everything we do is a consequence of who we are, and the circumstance we find ourselves in with possibly a bit of randomness thrown in.

Bertrand Russell concluded the famous essay in which he introduced the celestial teapot to the world with the following quote.

Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

This is of course a nonsense statement,  our behaviour is subject at every level to the same laws of nature as the rest of the universe.  What we are is determined at a fundamental level, by the behaviour of elementary particles.

Fundamental particles, structured by natural processes, to produce conscious beings. (I am aware of no group who is arguing that modern day humans, come into existence, by anything other than natural processes, regardless of how they believe our ancestors arose.)

We, if materialism is true, exist as a consequence of natural forces, our conscious   and our subconscious are dependent on them.  The person that exists at any given time is the consequence of these natural forces; and that consequence  decides how to interact with his/her environment.

I think it is possible to argue that if you are aware of what you are doing, if you behave as you want to, or take what appears to you at the time to be the best option given your circumstances: that you the consequence of the natural forces that are the immediate cause of your existence, are acting of your own freewill.

This is a very long way from Bertrand Russell’s miraculous Man, not subject to natural forces, or Sean Carroll’s supernatural you, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, creating ex nihilo love, and goodness.  It is sufficient freewill to enable us to take ordinary everyday responsibility for our actions, but not enough to ensure that anyone has the right to claim, or accuse anyone else of ultimate responsibility, or ultimate blame, for the good or evil that they do.  No-one makes themselves.

A problem arises when we have mutually incompatible desires.  What happens then can feel like anything but freewill. It can feel more like being dragged between two masters.  A feeling that St Paul poetically captured nearly two thousand years ago.

O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death!  Roman 7:24

Paul famously despised the human rationality that the Greeks venerated. And in doing so eschewed one of the great ‘benefits’ of the human brain. Its ability to confirm for us, the desired truth, that we are doing one thing  when we are actually doing another, and that the evil must therefore lie in the other.

Sean Carroll provides a demonstration of this skill in action in his, ‘The Case for Naturalism,’ the talk he gave in 2012, the one where he propounded the existence of supernatural You, the Being able to create love and goodness, ex nihilo  You can find a transcript here.

Before his claims of the wonder of You, he first attacks Rene Descartes theory of mind and body dualism as unintelligible.  How can an immaterial mind, act causally on the body?  Then he goes on to mention other scientists, whose materialism he approves of.  Eventually he provides as though it is a culmination of the findings of materialism his own theory, not merely of mind/body but of mind/universe.  Magical Us, able without any help from the universe,  to create purpose, meaning, love and goodness.

By concentrating on rational failures, in what was a real attempt by Descartes to understand consciousness, he has managed to hide from himself, the truth that his own beliefs about consciousness have no rational basis. And project all the despised irrationality on to someone who is a member of what his social group has identified as the not we, the superstitious, religious other.

This speech was his introduction to the, Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop that he had organised. In it he identified his reason for holding the workshop.

And yet! Here we are! We’re having a debate. Why are we having a debate? Because, clearly, religion speaks to people for reasons other than explaining what happens in the world.

Most people who turn to religious belief do not do so because they think it provides the best biology or cosmology. They turn to religious belief because it provides them with purpose and meaning in their lives. With a sense of Right and Wrong. With a community. With hope.

“So if we want to say that science has refuted religion, we need to say that science has something to say about those issues.

Sean Carroll The case for Naturalism 2012. Transcript from Atheism Analyzed 2015

He identifies religion as a belief held for social reasons, and his purpose in this gathering was to attempt to replace religious socially held beliefs with science. Or although he clearly didn’t see it that way, to turn science into another religion.

Human Beings bond on shared beliefs. Beliefs which are held with a high level of emotional certainty. Scientific ideas need to be falsifiable, this makes them inherently unstable, incapable of giving certainty. Problems arise when people confuse the two.

Emotional certainty is possible, rational certainty about things other than logical necessity, is not. When people belong to social groups that demand that their core beliefs are held with rational certainty, then there is a problem.

A problem which the human brain, the organ which as Voltaire had it, has the wonderful ability to enable a man to believe exactly whatever he wants to believe, seems to have special adaptations for dealing with – an innate deceiver.

For compelling social reasons Sean Carroll needs to believe, that his emotional certainty, is rational, and  to convince others of the same.  This unleashes a mechanism for deception of the self.

Bobby Henderson noted a similar response among Scientific Creationists, and produced a brilliant anthropomorphism, for this particular socially induced form of confirmation bias – The Flying Spaghetti Monster.  And Sean Carroll has been well and truly noodled.

Which brings us back again to the question of freewill. Sean Carroll wants to produce a rational argument, to  support his emotional belief. He is enabled by unconsciously operating mechanisms, to deceive himself that he has actually done so.  He is not aware that he is deceiving himself.  For freewill to be operating it is not enough that Sean Carroll is emotionally satisfied with what he is saying.  He has to understand what he is doing.

So no he is not operating of his own free will. The Flying Spaghetti Monster made him do it.

Of course the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not just inflict itself on atheists. It affects the religious also, where it masquerades as faith.  Dr Wendy Dackson who blogs at Past Christian, describes her own relationship with the imposter, a ‘being’ whose reality is a lot nastier than Bobby Henderson’s pastopomorphic projection.

Because I did not “lose” my “faith” (as you define it, not as I do).  I know precisely where it is.

It’s in the corner, lying quietly, where I shot it with a tranquilizer dart to prevent it from doing any harm while I examine it and decide what should be done with it.

Wendy Dackson  What happened to my ‘Faith’ 2015

The socially induced certainty that misidentifies as faith, has the potential to be every bit as destructive, as Dr Dackson alleges. Those who are taken in by this dead ringer, lose touch with reality. Their certainty leaves them unable to connect with or understand the view of others. Being deceived into believing in the integrity of their socially held views, they can see  folly, or evil only in the other.

Those without fear have no need for courage, and those who are certain have no need for faith. Real faith can only be held in uncertainty.

Rowan Williams the former Archbishop of Canterbury, demonstrated many times that the understanding that faith must be held in uncertainty, frees you to understand the truth found in the views of others, even others opposed to the beliefs that you hold. And in recognising similarities between his own beliefs and the belief of the other, he was able to form bonds of understanding.

He demonstrated this in an article he wrote for the Guardian in 2004, on a dramatization of Philip Pullman’s, His Dark Materials.  Rather than being threatened by the death of The Authority, the God Figure, in this play, he was able to acknowledge that there was truth in Pullman’s critique of religion.

If the Authority is not God, why has the historic Church so often behaved as if it did indeed exist to protect a mortal and finite God? What would a church life look like that actually expressed the reality of a divine freedom enabling human freedom?

Rowan Williams A Near Miraculous Triumph 2004

He also noted something else, that was portrayed in the play. The role that power and the desire for power, has in the trampling of the rights of the individual.

Repressors and would-be liberators are equally merciless to the individual; that is why Lyra’s life is at risk from both sides.

Rowan Williams. A Near Miraculous Triumph   2004

Yet the disastrous affair of the failed Anglican Covenant shows that Rowan Williams was also Spaghetti Monstered.  He didn’t believe in a God who needed to be protected. For him Pullman’s Authority equivalent was The Anglican Church. The Anglican Covenant was an attempt to protect the unity of the Anglican Church, with enforced agreed sanctions, even though he wasn’t calling them sanctions, on those branches of the Church, that failed to conform. An attempt to protect a mortal and finite institution.

Apparently failing to understand that this agreement, which thankfully wasn’t accepted, would have handed power over to the faithless believers, they who hold their ‘truths’ in certainty.

It was particularly shameful, because he himself believed that homosexual relationships were compatible with Christian belief, and that those who were opposed to gay marriage were wrong. Yet to prevent a church schism he was willing to tell the LGBT  minority  in the Church that they must respect the views of those within the ‘family’ who held that they were disgusting.

Williams’ fall from grace was linked exactly where Pullman placed the problem – in power structures. And to hold a particular power structure together he was willing to allow the church to continue to discriminate against one group of people. In fact to insist that it happened, even in branches of the Church, where the majority wished to be fully accepting of that difference.

This call to dogma would have if it was accepted, given the strong feelings that it invoked, probably have done the very thing that it was meant to prevent. It could have created schisms, and turned what remained of the Anglican Church into just another sect. Another sect whose beliefs separated them from the society around them, but where Church Leaders would be big fish in  the small pool, thus created. A place where people could have their craving for emotional certainty fulfilled, and where they could be held together by the condemnation of the evil other.  In other words it would be a church held together, not by the love of God, and neighbour, but one held together by the power of faction.

Rowan Williams was, in the hellish position of being in a situation of authority in a church that was tearing itself apart. This reduced rump church  would have been a more comfortable church to have been leading.

Give people certainty, and an enemy to oppose, and you create a faction.  While at a conscious level this is not the kind of church Williams wished to lead, it is one that he would have been able to lead.

And in this, ‘O wretched man that I am,’ scenario the very intelligent Rowan Williams, supported the ‘Anglican Covenant,’ a document that would probably have provoked schism – as a solution to schism.  What his emotional health needed was in opposition to what his rational mind desired. And he plumped for a solution that met his emotional needs.

There are other interpretations, but I believe that Rowan Williams is not only intelligent but also honest, and that therefore he must have been deceived.

Materialist that I am I don’t think that you need to invoke a supernatural presence to explain how this happened.

Where there is a conflict between the best interests of a person, and their own beliefs about what they should do, it would be no surprise to  an evolutionist to find that there is a mechanism in existence to persuade people that they are doing one thing, when they are actually doing the very opposite.  That a particularly vicious strain of confirmation bias would be invoked, one that because it is using a persons own intelligence to deceive them, would actually be more successful in the very intelligent.  An innate deceiver.

The saying, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ is well known. In the mythology of ancient times, this was blamed on the Prince of this World, the devil.  We have discarded the mythology that enabled this belief. Fundamentalists still pay lip service to the reality of a devil, but being blinded by the very same fellow, they are unable to see his tentacles operating through their own certainty.

The old mythology of the devil, created another, on whom to blame the world’s evil.  A better response than blaming people.

 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Ephesians 6:12

The old mythology didn’t tell you how to recognise someone that was in the grip of the deceiver.  The knowledge that the deceiver operates through confirmation bias, gives you a place to start when you are looking to detect it in operation.

You are looking for very simple mechanisms, underlying what may be very fluffed out and convoluted arguments.

Rowan Williams for instance  used the argument from inappropriate guilt.

But who needs the Covenant, it might be said? There’s one very short answer to that. Some bits of our Communion represent needy and isolated parts of the Christian world.  They need relationships. They need the assurance that we won’t drive them into difficult positions. They need to know that we take them seriously enough to engage in conversation with them. And that’s part of what keeps them going and what makes them strong.  It’s very interesting that some of the parts of the Communion that have already said yes to the Covenant are exactly that kind of church.

Rowan Williams Archbishop: Why the Covenant Matters 2012

We must do things the way the poor and needy want them done. Because if we don’t give the poor and needy the power of veto over us, and it is  power that is being demanded not conversation; they will think we don’t take them seriously.

Note that we would not be giving this power to the actual poor and needy, we would be giving it to those who are in leadership positions within those communities. And in the case of LGBT rights strengthening the hand of those who wish to oppress the genuinely poor and needy.

Rowan Williams provides a rationalisation, based on the argument from inappropriate guilt. Sean Carroll, in the following quote, uses a different mechanism to support his socially held belief, truth by circular argument. He defines natural as identical with real, and God as supernatural and therefore not real.  So therefore God does not exist.

 By “naturalism” we mean the simple idea that the natural world, obeying natural laws, is all there is. No supernatural realm, spirits, or ineffable dualistic essences affecting what happens in the universe. Clearly the idea is closely related to atheism (I can’t imagine anyone is both a naturalist and a theist), but the focus is on understanding how the world actually does work rather than just rejecting one set of ideas.

Sean Carroll  Moving Naturalism Forward Discover Magazine  2012

It is not lack of imagination, but rationalising from his basic premises that there is only one reality, and that God does not belong in that reality,that leads him to believe that naturalism is incompatible with theism.

Of course any theist who understood the word natural to be identical with the word real, would argue that God was natural.  This peculiar definition has nothing to say about empirical reality.

Richard Dawkins presented in ‘The God Delusion,’ an unintentionally entertaining riff, on this simple argument.  For Dawkins, because only the natural exists, any real creator, wouldn’t be supernatural, but only superhuman, and therefore couldn’t, by his definition, be God. This argument of course has nothing to say about reality, only what names you should give to different parts of it. My entertainment was compounded by the fact that he then went on to argue that he was agnostic about  this God, which by definition couldn’t exist.

The Innate Deceiver that says, ‘Yes,’ to its devotees, doesn’t appear to be a very complex adaptation.  Where you see certainty expressed, when you got through the fluff, there you  are likely to find it sitting naked and waving its noodly appendage, an argument that has only to fool the logic blinded. It gets away with it because those who agree with the deceived are unable to see any flaw in an argument that is so, to them anyway, self-evidently true. While those who see the flaw become outraged and think that the person making the argument is a truth denier.  Where the opposition are also fully certain members of the noodled brigade, then this effect is magnified.

So far I have considered the real existence of football and Santa Claus.  These have real effects on the world, only because they are held as concepts.  Free will exists independently of the concept, and in a much more limited way than the concept suggests. Our behaviour is determined by the behaviour of the elementary particles that make us.  But as at any given time we are just a particular pattern of the elementary particles that form us, if we understand the truth about what we are doing, and could if we wanted to do differently, then we are acting of our own free will.  Deceiver instincts which cut short this process, must have had, at least in the past, an average positive effect on reproductive fitness.  However the people who are affected by them, have had there free will compromised. They do not know what they are doing.

As to the existence of God, well that does really depend on how you define the term. And I am going to plump for Ultimate Reality, that which brings us into being.  And as we clearly exist that Ultimate Reality must exist.

This is a concept of God, that Richard Dawkins would of course object wasn’t God at all, just a bad metaphor; like Stephen Hawkings, ‘Mind of God.’ And while I would agree with him about Hawking’s phrase, Professor Hawking, is an atheist and is not talking about anything that could reasonably be conceived of as a mind, I don’t think that my definition qualifies as a bad metaphor.

For Sean Carroll the Ultimate Reality, appears to be ‘Elementary Particles,’ and he has a problem, because it is extremely hard to believe that they give us purposefulness and meaning.  To resolve this problem he resorts to the nonsense that is ‘magical you,’ able to create love, goodness, etc., ex nihilo.

It is extremely hard to believe that our experience of consciousness is a product of simple interacting natural forces; that we came into existence through non-purposeful processes. That we are not in fact the consequence of purposeful action, by an Ultimate Reality with a non-metaphorical mind.  So difficult that Sean Carroll’s need to believe this has triggered an innate deceiver mechanism. Richard Dawkins has solved the problem, by creating the extremely bad metaphor of the purposeful selfish gene.  However just because it is hard to believe, and that proponents of the idea have fallen prey of the noodly appendage, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. It doesn’t mean that it is true either.

Richard Dawkins made an argument in the God Delusion that is, although he didn’t realise it, an ontological argument for the existence of God.  He had meant it as an demonstration, that his atheism was rational.

He said that he was logically agnostic, because it couldn’t be proved that God does not exist, but that the existence of God was so improbable, that his existence was no more probable than the celestial teapot, or fairies at the bottom of his garden.  So his agnosticism was compatible with his de facto atheism.

Of course if he is right that there is any probability of God at all, and reality is infinite, then he has just proved that God exists.  But atheists needn’t worry because in writing, ‘The God Delusion,’ he, or probably more accurately his subconscious, took care to define God in such a way that his existence would be a logical impossibility.

The logical position on the existence of an actual, ‘Mind of God,’ is agnosticism.  We really don’t know. And while Richard Dawkins in ‘The God Delusion’ looked forward to a time when we would know for certain, the only way that will be fulfilled is if there is a Mindful God.

What there is evidence for is that any God that actually exists is not all good, and omnipotent.  A point made rather well by Bertrand Russell in the following quote.

I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

The First World War army chaplain, and Anglican priest, G.A. Studdert Kennedy, argued that belief in the omnipotence of God embittered people. Reading Wendy Dackson’s post on Language, where she protests strongly against the delusional use of words like love and goodness, to describe that which Bertrand Russell described as fiendish, you can see how the notion of omnipotent (magical) God, could leave those who are unwilling to go down the path of the noodled deceiver deeply angry with God.  And also angry with those reality deniers within the Church.

We seem to instinctively believe that where there is function there is also purpose. Some of the atheists who argue most strongly against the existence of a God, are driven to locate this feeling that there is purpose where it logically cannot exist.

It is logically possible that the universe and even the multiverse are a work of purposeful creation, the act of a mindful Creator.  It is even possible that that Creator is omnipotent in the sense that he holds all the power that it is possible to have. But traditional Western theology used omnipotence to mean something different from this.  They to honour God made Him the monstrous fiend outlined by Russell, magic god, constrained only by logic. The God that is not there.

 

 

 

The Genesis of Time Travel

 

 

Doctor Who Genesis

In an alternate reality,  people believe that the Universe was bootstrapped into existence by the efforts, of  a time-traveller the Once and Future Man.

They are wrong.

Theirs and a multitude of other universes, the multiverse, were catapulted into existence, unintentionally when an experiment on mind-control across time went awry. The scientists of the original universe had discovered that while they could not transmit matter backwards across time, they could transmit ideas.

They amused themselves by leaving coded messages of their interference, in the literature and art of the past.  They knew the explanation for the smile of the Mona Lisa, and exactly how Jonathan Swift was able to prophesy that the two moons of Mars would be discovered by a non-European scientist.

Providing evidence that you have changed your own timeline is difficult; something our experimenters discovered only after their experience with La Giaconda.  They had successfully changed the famously melancholic beauty, into a lady with an enigmatic smile. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, she had always had that smile.

No reason to believe is a good reason not to believe.

They realised that if their funding was to be maintained, they were going to have to provide independent evidence, that such changes had been made.

Jonathan Swift was their first target, he was easy to find.  They managed to get incorporated within Gulliver’s Travels claims that were only discovered after Swift’s lifetime, to be scientifically and historically accurate.  This then became their modus operandi.  They had the original authors incorporate information into their texts, that could be verified by modern science, but which could not have been known at the time that the text was written.

Sometimes the changes they made, did not get transmitted across time.  They eventually discovered to their horror that these changes were associated with rips in the fabric of time and space, rips that had in some cases given rise to other universes.

Among those universes you will find the universe of the Once and Future Man, and ours. Some evidence of the activities  of the unintentional creators can be found in both  universes. For instance the Mona Lisa has her enigmatic smile, and Jonathan Swift makes his prophetic claims about the moons of Mars.

The tears in reality that brought about the genesis of these two systems, appear to be linked ironically enough to the different interferences made to the Ancient Hebrew scripture, in  Genesis Chapter 1.

In the universe of the Once and Future Man, their ancient scripture gives an account of creation, that is exactly in accord with the findings of modern science. It was this accord that led to the belief  in the Time Traveller.

One of their greatest philosophers, Bertrand Russell, expressed his faith and admiration in this man, a Man not subject to the natural force of time,  in his famous 1952 essay, “Is there a Time Lord,”  in words that are identical to those made by our Bertrand Russell.

Man in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny.  The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.

Bertrand Russell Is there a God? Commissioned, but not published by Illustrated Magazine in 1952

This belief in the reality of time-travel was encouraged by those in the originating universe, who had long since stopped interfering with their own time-line.  But  were using the same technique to misdirect those in the secondary universes so that they did not develop the potentially disastrous ability to manipulate their past through mind-bending.

It was initially believed that the reason for the failure of transmission of the changes to Genesis 1, was that the description of reality, was too different, from the worldview of the Ancient Hebrews.

So the version that our universe obtained was less detailed, and more in accord with what had been there previously.  For instance, the creation was recorded as taking place in days rather than aeons..

The Hebrew writers of the pre-interference script, played down the importance of the sun and other heavenly bodies.  Understandably enough.  They wished to distinguish clearly, their beliefs from the ‘superstitious’  astrological beliefs of the Babylonians, who at that time held them captive. This bias remains in the Genesis account of our universe.

The mind-benders, noted that the description of the separation of land and sea that the writers of the original text had used, ‘let the waters under the heaven be gathered together into one place and let the dry land appear,’ had a parallel in what  modern science had discovered about the history of the earth.  There really had been a time, in fact more than one, when all the waters of the earth had been gathered together into one place, and a dry land had appeared.

This is the state the earth was in at the start of the Mesozoic- the age of dinosaurs.  Rather than trouble the ancients with an account of the monstrous beasts that roamed the earth, or the fact that the giant dry land of Pangaea was breaking up, the scientists picked on something else that clearly marked the later part of Day 3 as the Mesozoic. The flowering plants -the angiosperms, originated in that era.

The scientific name for flowering plants, angiosperms, means enclosed seeds, and it is this defining feature  that they used  as part of their efforts to provide proof that they had interfered across time. As this quote from Genesis demonstrates.   ‘And the earth brought forth….. the tree yielding fruit whose seed was in itself ……..And the evening and the morning were the third day.’ 

The Mesozoic ended with a massive bang, an asteroid hit the earth, and the subsequent environmental disaster, is linked to the extinction of among other things the great sea reptiles, and the dinosaurs.  The scientists seeded the recovery from this period of celestial disruption into the Genesis account as Day 4.  A sort of return to normal service, when the two great lights and the stars again appeared in the skies.  (The idea that the celestial bodies were made at this time, was a later addition, possibly but not necessarily made independently of the scientists.)

The whales originated as part of the earth’s recovery, from the asteroid linked environmental disaster. The scientists decided that these should be the defining feature of Day 5, along with the radiation of modern type birds that occurred at around the same time.

There was obviously a problem in ensuring that the animals that they labelled great sea monsters, and other living creatures, should be clearly identifiable as whales rather than fish, or the previously extinct great sea reptiles.  They did this rather neatly by portraying God as speaking directly to them, something that happens only one other time in Genesis 1, when he speaks to people.  Whales being the only sea creature that there has ever been any reason to believe might be capable of understanding language.

“And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas,”  portrays God as speaking directly to the whales, this was put directly beside his communication about birds in an attempt to emphasize the point being made, “and let fowl multiply in the earth.”

Being satisfied that they had identified Day 5 as beginning no earlier than the Eocene period, they then considered which features should be used to identify Day 6, as later in time again.

They decided that the use of the term living creature, had been established sufficiently clearly as meaning a creature with whom it is possible to communicate, so they used this phrase at the start of Day 6 to describe the hominids that we evolved from.  They also recorded the other creatures that shared the grasslands that were our ancestors home, the grasslands that came into being around 1o million years ago: the ruminants (cattle), the  4-legged predators (creeping things), with everything else included in the catch-all beasts of the earth.

Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind, and it was so.

Then the reference living creature vanishes from the list, to be replaced by man, who is given dominion over the earth.  And with this the scientists stopped their interference, convinced that they had adequately placed their, “Kilroy was here.”

They were mystified as to why these changes didn’t show up in their ancient scriptures; and it was sometime, before physicists made the link between their activities and  various rips in the fabric of space and time.

As a consequence of this discovery a new program was set up by an international commission. It was entasked  with policing their earth’s timeline to make sure no more interference was caused; and also to make sure that  scientists in those universes that had come into being as an accidental artefact, did not acquire the knowledge necessary for time interference.

Efforts were made to ensure that those of us living in the secondary universes, did not come to an understanding of what consciousness is. As it was this knowledge that had made the across time mind-bending experiments possible.

They didn’t actually implant the belief, held by many scientists in our world that the purpose of science is to oppose religion, but it was one that they encouraged the development of. Regarding it as something useful to distract those who might otherwise have directed their talents to finding out what was really going on.

Sometimes, just sometimes the interferers sense of humour gets the better of them, and you will find their in-jokes incorporated into our universe.

One such joke was recorded as part of a report by Massimo Pigliucci  on a naturalism (the view that everything that is, is part of one reality) workshop held in 2012.

During the roundtable introductions, Dawkins (as well as the rest of us) was asked what he would be willing to change his mind about; he said he couldn’t conceive of a sensible alternative to naturalism. Rosenberg, interestingly, brought up the (hypothetical) example of finding God’s signature in a DNA molecule (just like Craig Venter has actually done). Dawkins admitted that that would do it, though immediately raised the more likely possibility that that would be a practical joke played by a superhuman — but not supernatural — intelligence.

Massimo Pigliucci From the Naturalism Workshop Part 1 2012

Richard Dawkins is actually making a sensible, if rather tautological point, when he says that any outside being interfering with our earth would not be supernatural.  Once you define the natural realm as meaning all that is, then by definition, any existent being must be a natural entity.  The joke lies in the fact that he treats superhuman , rather than natural, as the opposite of supernatural.  Our accidental creators are vastly entertained at the notion of themselves as superhuman intelligences.

The notion that they might have left their, ‘Kilroy was here,’ on DNA is a useful distraction, from the reality of where they did leave it.  They know from experience that the Ancient Hebrew Scriptures, are a much better place to acquire literary immortality, than  mutation and transposon vulnerable DNA.

Of course their real purpose in intervening in this conference was to distract these serious minds away from the problem described vividly, if rather histrionically, by the philosopher Jerry Fodor, in the following quote, the problem of consciousness.

“If it isn’t literally true that my wanting is causally responsible for my reaching, and my itching is causally responsible for my scratching, and my believing is causally responsible for my saying… if none of that is literally true, then practically everything I believe about anything is false and it’s the end of the world.”

Jerry Fodor as quoted by Sean Carroll in Downward Causation 2011

What is the relation, between feeling thinking and doing. How do you get a machine, albeit a biological one to experience pain, itching etc.  And if thinking is in anyway causal, how is it done. How we experience the world feels vastly different from the mechanistic explanations that science is delivering. It isn’t enough to say that our experiences are an emergent property, a sort of lusus naturae.  As Jonathan Swift pointed out in Gulliver’s travels, this kind of explanation, is just as much an attempt to deny ignorance, as were the occult explanations of earlier times.

After much Debate, they concluded unanimously that I was only Relplum Scalcath, which is interpreted literally, Lusus Naturae, a Determination exactly agreeable to the modern philosophy of Europe, whose Professors, disdaining the old Evasion of Occult Causes, whereby the followers of Aristotle endeavoured in vain to disguise their Ignorance, have invented this wonderful solution of All Difficulties, to the unspeakable Advancement of human Knowledge.

Jonathan Swift  Gulliver’s Travels 1726

(Jonathan Swift had that which a more gentle satirical novelist, Terry Pratchett, described as the gift of first sight, the ability to see what is really there.  It will not surprise you to learn that the scurrilous attacks upon him by intelligent people such as George Orwell, were the result of our accidental creators efforts to discredit him and what were for their purposes anyway his dangerous ideas.)

The fact that these serious scientists and philosophers are using the argument, Relplum Scalcath, is not unfunny. Our accidental creators do like their little joke. George Orwell accused Jonathan Swift of what can only be described as having the gift of prophecy. But it  really is no secret as to   how come  Swift writing in the early 18th century, could have described so accurately the behaviour of 21st Century scientists. The alternate universe civil servants, are manipulating the scientists behaviour to match that described by Swift.

So focused have they caused  our philosophers and scientists to be on the notion that the purpose of science is to oppose religion, that they are terrified to admit their ignorance in case a supernatural being might be tempted to crawl into the gap.

Not every scientist at the Moving Naturalism Forward Workshop had been implanted with the idea that consciousness was an emergent feature. The  civil-servant who was tasked with minding biologist, Jerry Coyne, has the kind of sense of humour that almost lost him his job.  He has managed to convince the man, who blogs at. ‘Why Evolution is True,’ that the fact that we are subject to the laws of physics, proves something, that if it were true, would be a bigger threat to Darwin’s theory of evolution, than any number of fluffy bunnies hopping around in the Pre-Cambrian Era.

Jerry Coyne believes that as we are collections of atoms whose behaviour is completely determined by the laws of nature, that consciousness has no role to play in decision making.

He quotes the results of experiments done by Benjamin Libet in the 1980’s, which showed that actions that we would normally think of as volitional, had been initiated, before the conscious mind was aware of them, as evidence that consciousness plays no part in our decision making.

To understand why Coyne’s interpretation of these results causes a problem, for Darwinian’s consider the following  hypothetical scenario.

A man is wired up for a brain scan, and then kicked in the groin.  The evidence shows that his hands had moved to protect his testicles, before he was consciously aware that he had been hit, and before he had experienced pain.

This if it were true, would be absolutely consistent with the response being an adaptation, operating, more quickly than conscious processes, to maintain something extremely important in evolution by natural selection, reproductive fitness. One up for Darwin.

But Professor Coyne’s hypothesis is that even in the long-term,  consciousness is not the kind of thing that can have any effect on the physical universe, and therefore that any subsequent actions  that the man took towards his assailant, could not be affected by his conscious experience of pain. And if this is the case it therefore follows logically, although obviously not to Jerry Coyne, that pain and all  other complex conscious effects can not be the product of evolution by natural selection.  Evolution can only select for features that have a material effect on the world.

In standing firm against the notion that consciousness can have an effect on the physical universe, Coyne believes that he is taking a stance against religious superstition.

In reality he has thrown open the front doors and laid down the red carpet for creationists and the intelligent design brigade.

A complex non-adaptive feature or better still range of features, is just the kind of thing that intelligent – designers are looking for.  Although fortunately for Jerry’s guardian civil servant, the kind of god who would inflict pointless confabulations and  purposeless pain on his creation, is  not the one whose existence they  are trying to prove.  So they are not likely to alert his charge to the problem.

It was an incident that took place at the naturalism workshop that almost caused the alternate universe joker to lose his job.

….We all agreed that dualism (often called “nonphysical libertarian free will”) is dead, and that our decisions are determined largely before we become conscious of “making” them.  Surprisingly, Steve Weinberg was the one person who seemed to disagree with this, saying that his consciousness had a “role” in making his decision. I claim that consciousness of making a decision may be merely a phenomenon that follows a decision made unconsciously, and, indeed, may have evolved just for that purpose. That is, confabulating may be an adaptation.

Jerry Coyne Moving Naturalism Forward :My Summary 2012

Coyne’s surprise that someone, whose wisdom he respects as much as he does physicist Steve Weinberg’s, believed that consciousness had physical effects might have led him to, question his own views, if the civil servant had not taken emergency action, and implanted the confabulating notion.  But even then if he had not been further distracted by the free-will problem, he might have had time to realise that evolution is only going to select for deceptive systems that do have an effect on the material realm.

It was the real problem of pain, “How do you get something that is basically a moist machine, to experience pain, and react to it?” that led the scientists of the original universe to the discovery that they are trying to prevent our scientists from making – the  nature of consciousness.

Jerry Coyne is not the only thinker in our universe whose thought processes  have been manipulated.  It was their idea to initiate the belief in our universe that the real problem of pain was, ‘Why does God allow?’

They also, within our universe, corrupted the thinking of René  Descartes. The ‘evil genius, ‘ that he mentions as deceiving him, is yet again an example of the interferers bigging themselves up.

In the original universe, Descartes most famous quote was a response to the death of his much loved young daughter, ‘I am in pain therefore I am.’ In our universe this courageous life affirming statement, embracing the reality that our nature is to be a feeling animal, has been deleted, and replaced with the insipid, ‘I think therefore I am.’ And the claim that to be human is to be a rational animal.

Jerry Coyne has clearly fallen hook line and sinker for the myth that he is a rational animal. More so than Descartes, who first had to convince himself that he was not deluded before he could accept that he existed as an agent, an I, who could trust his own rationality.

Jerry Coyne, thinks that he is deluded and that he has no agency, and yet at the same time he believes he can trust his own rationality.  Immoral as it may seem, I feel a strong urge to high five his guardian deceiver, on a job well done.  Especially after reading this.

The illusion of agency is so powerful that even strong incompatibilists like myself will always act as if we had choices, even though we know that we don’t. We have no choice in this matter. But we can at least ponder why evolution might have bequeathed us such a powerful illusion.

Jerry Coyne What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement 2014

Notice what we are being asked to ponder.  If he had asked the question, ‘How has evolution bequeathed us such a powerful illusion?’ he might have been directed towards the realisation that evolution can only act on those things that make a material difference to the universe.

He is however right that he doesn’t have free will. Not because consciousness doesn’t have an effect on the physical, but because he is the victim of a deception.

 

Postscript:

I don’t know how the correlations between Genesis 1  and the  scientific account of the order in which modern life on earth arose. But they are there.

I agree with Jerry Coyne, that he does not have free will, but not because consciousness doesn’t have real effects on the world.  For humans to have freedom, they have to have the truth.  Jerry Coyne’s ability to recognise truth shows signs of having been suborned by a deceiver. I think the theory of evolution can explain how an innate deceiver could have been selected for. Therefore even though I don’t know how consciousness works, I think it is rational to assume that the innate deceiver, something that works using confirmation bias, is not an occult entity, or an external agent from another reality.

We are social animals, who very frequently bond on shared ideas.  Holding views vastly different from those in ones social group is likely to make social bonding more difficult, and on average thereby decrease our reproductive fitness.

In an environment where those who hold different views are demonised, being seen as a staunch upholder of the correct view, is likely to increase social status, and especially for the male of the species, at least in primitive societies, their reproductive fitness.   It should be no surprise in these conditions to find adaptations in existence, that serve to disguise from those who have a chance to gain high status within their communities, the flaws in their logic.

And it is my hypothesis that it is these deceiver instincts that served to derail the thinking of both René  Descartes and Jerry Coyne. Although obviously I can’t rule out evil geniuses, or alternate universe civil servants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Way of the Pasta Fairy

The Flying Spaghetti Monster meme originated in a satirical open letter, written by Bobby Henderson to the Kansas School Board in 2005, protesting  against a proposal to teach Intelligent Design as an alternative scientific theory to evolution by natural selection.

Based as it is on the justifications that Scientific Creationists present as evidence that their beliefs are scientifically endorsed, it is an intuitively brilliant personification of a human instinct  – confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the instinct that, to paraphrase Voltaire, gives us  humans the wonderful power of being able to find reasons for believing exactly what we want to believe. The instinct that enables creationists to find their own arguments for the literal truth of both Genesis 1 and 2   entirely convincing.

It is a mistake to think that this instinct is limited only to the religious.  Confirmation bias enables us to form strong social bonds including pair bonds. It enables us to see the members of our community through rose tinted spectacles, and hence to value, the people in the group  and our membership of it. It enables us to commit to the shared values and beliefs of our community. It  is involved in creation of the kinds of committed social bonds that are conducive to an average increase in the reproductive fitness of those who successfully form them.

However these gifts come at a price, the price of factionalism. The price of judging those within our group as better than they really are, is that the other  can appear odious by comparison.

Religious beliefs can be used as faction markers. But as Jonathan Swift pointed out, In his satirical essay of 1708, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianityfactions can be formed on much simple identifiers than religion. Anything that allows one group of people to identify themselves as an us, different from another group of people can act as a faction marker

And we in Ireland have reason, now as when Swift was writing, to know only too well that factionalism can have very nasty consequences.

The tendency to judge the actions of our own faction as good, decent, etc.,and those of the other, as morally dubious, can lead to the conclusion that the evil lies exclusively, or almost so, on the other side. It is conducive to violent interaction, because it is obvious to both sides that it is the immorality  of the other that is driving the situation.

Belfast peace wall

Belfast’s Peace Walls – Protecting Those Evil Awful People Over There, from Ordinary Decent People since 1969.

The creationism versus evolution dichotomy that inspired Bobby Henderson’s letter has not, yet at any rate, led to violent conflict between the factions.

Bobby Henderson’s satire on the confirmation bias driven rationality of  scientific creationists is to my mind spot on.  But in the same letter he provides evidence that he too may be a victim of the noodly appendage.

What these people don’t understand is that He built the world to make us think the earth is older than it really is. For example, a scientist may perform a carbon-dating process on an artifact. He finds that approximately 75% of the Carbon-14 has decayed by electron emission to Nitrogen-14, and infers that this artifact is approximately 10,000 years old, as the half-life of Carbon-14 appears to be 5,730 years. But what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage.

Open Letter to Kansas School Board   Bobby Henderson 2005

The most that the carbon dating has proved is that the  material, from which the artefact was made, probably came from an organism that died approximately 10.000 years ago.

This totally unnecessary bigging up of the power of science, is consistent with its author being himself blinded by confirmation bias.  He has unintentionally in his very funny letter, provided evidence that his opponents may see as further evidence of the irrational nature of the theory of evolution.  They would only be entitled to see it as the irrational nature of this one claim, but they too fluff up their evidence.

As the Bible almost says, “First take the noodly appendage from your own eye, before attempting to correct the vision of the other.”

Coming from the source that it does, it should perhaps be no surprise that the American prophet of anti-religion Sam Harris ignored this advice, when in a recent exchange of e-mails he attempted to enlighten the philosopher Noam Chomsky on the true nature of morality.

Sam Harris enters the fray with all the enthusiasm of a Dr Seuss character, convinced that he will be able to demonstrate to Noam Chomsky  the merits of green eggs and ham; or rather of the merits of his belief that even where America does wrong, that it has the moral high ground, because its intentions are good. And Sam Harris does admit that America is not only capable of doing wrong, but has in fact done so, as shown in this quote from his book, “The End of Faith,” which is part of the material he e-mailed.

There is no doubt that the United States has much to atone for, both domestically and abroad. In this respect, we can more or less swallow Chomsky’s thesis whole. To produce this horrible confection at home, start with our genocidal treatment of the Native Americans, add a couple hundred years of slavery, along with our denial of entry to Jewish refugees fleeing the death camps of the Third Reich, stir in our collusion with a long list of modern despots and our subsequent disregard for their appalling human rights records, add our bombing of Cambodia and the Pentagon Papers to taste, and then top with our recent refusals to sign the Kyoto protocol for greenhouse emissions, to support any ban on land mines, and to submit ourselves to the rulings of the International Criminal Court. The result should smell of death, hypocrisy, and fresh brimstone.

Sam Harris   e-mail exchange with Noam Chomsky  2015

Despite all these acknowledgements of American wrong doing Harris  believes that Chomsky is in error in comparing, what Harris considers the real good intentions behind apparent atrocities carried out by the American state, with the delusional beliefs of  for instance Hitler and Japan in World War II, that the atrocities they committed were driven by good intentions.

He sets out to demonstrate the genuine exceptionalism of America, by discussing the American  bombing of the  Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in August 1998, an act which may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, by cutting off their access to medication.

He accepts that the death toll of this act was as Chomsky claimed comparable to that of the “horrendous crime” of 9-11.

He understands Chomsky to be claiming that because the death rates are similar, the two acts are morally equivalent.  He therefore decides to defend his thesis, of moral superiority by proving that the bombing of Al-Shifa was more moral than 9-11.

In an attempt to achieve his aim he initiates the following protocol.

  1. Find a salient difference, between the apparently similar acts carried out by our side, and the other side.
  2. We know that our side are the good guys, and therefore this salient difference, whatever it is, will  demonstrate to all right thinking people, the clear moral superiority of our side.
  3. Suggest/claim that anyone who doesn’t recognize the aforementioned salient difference as clear evidence of our moral superiority, is ethically unsound.

This is the way of confirmation bias, and it is the technique that Sam Harris uses to no effect, on Noam Chomsky at any rate, in this e-mail exchange.

He finds his salient difference, and argues  that deliberately aiming to kill people is intrinsically more evil, than knowingly killing them as collateral damage. And if you didn’t know that you were going to kill them, because you didn’t even consider the possibility, before cutting off vast numbers of people from their only access to medication, that makes you less evil still.

Noam Chomsky argues that this denigrates the value of African lives. It does more than that. It also denigrates the value of the lives lost in 9-11.  The most important factor isn’t that thousands of people have had their lives stolen, but the goal of the perpetrators.

Ethically speaking, intention is (nearly) the whole story. The difference between intending to harm someone and accidentally harming them is enormous—if for no other reason than that the presence of harmful intent tells us a lot about what a person or group is likely to do in the future.

Sam Harris  e-mail exchange with Noam Chomsky  2015

In this e-mail exchange, Sam Harris demonstrates one other technique, frequently used in those following the way of the Pasta Fairy.  He starts off making a very large claim, and then defends a lesser claim. He set out to demonstrate the goodness of American intentions.  Note the thesis that he is actually defending here:

Perhaps we can rank order the callousness and cruelty here:

1. al-Qaeda wanted and intended to kill thousands of innocent people—and did so.

2. Clinton (as you imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill thousands of innocent people. He simply wanted to destroy a valuable pharmaceutical plant. But he knew that he would be killing thousands of people, and he simply didn’t care.

3. Clinton (as I imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily. He simply wanted to destroy what he believed to be a chemical weapons factory. But he did wind up killing innocent people, and we don’t really know how he felt about it.

Is it safe to assume that you view these three cases, as I do, as demonstrating descending degrees of evil?

Sam Harris  e-mail exchange with Noam Chomsky  2015

Being less evil than al-Qaeda is nothing to boast about, something that Harris seems cheerfully oblivious of. Something in fact that he is so unaware of that he regrets that Chomsky’s hostile attitude to him,  means that he has been unable to explore with him the evidence that America is in fact morally superior to Nazi Germany and World War II, Japan.

Sam Harris is, I think,  genuinely hurt by what he understands as Noam Chomsky’s unreasonable hostility towards him. He is discussing an intellectual problem, that has for him no more emotional resonance than the problem in the children’s nursery rhyme:

If all the world were apple pie,
And all the sea were Ink;
If all the trees were bread and cheese,
How should we doe for drink.

Mother Goose Rhymes

He has rationalized the problem as one about intentions, one that has nothing to do with the horrific reality of thousands of human beings deprived of their lives.

He doesn’t see himself as Chomsky does, as an apologist for mass homicide.

He is also extremely irritated by Chomsky’s  use of the words, “as you know.”

I am also sorry that you evade the fact that your charge of “moral equivalence” was flatly false, as you know. 

Noam Chomsky  e-mail exchange with Sam Harris  2015

Noam Chomsky seems to be of the opinion that having access to sufficient evidence, means that a normally intelligent person should be able to recognize the truth.  He therefore judges Harris as being deliberately perverse.

On the evidence of this e-mail, I would suggest that it is probable that Sam Harris doesn’t know that he is misrepresenting Chomsky, or that he has failed to provide an argument showing how the bombing of Al Shifa was an act of good intention.  Arguing that America’s action is less evil, than the action of a terrorist group is not exactly high praise.

But that he has been blinded by a human instinct – confirmation bias.  The gift that makes us, like Douglas Adams’ electric monk, able to believe things that are contrary to all available evidence. Or as a comment on a post from noted atheist blogger P.Z. Myers has it:

Sam Harris’ moral compass reminds me less of a real compass and more of the one from Pirates of the Caribbean, pointing not to true north but rather to whatever his heart desires, in this case whatever conclusion paints him and the US as morally superior.

The Mad Tapper commenting on A Classic Mismatch @ Pharyngula 2015

P.Z. Myers noted in 2009 the operation of confirmation bias in the writings of the religious apologist Karen Armstrong.   He finished an accurate take down of what Karen Armstrong said with the following  intentionally funny quote.

Bleh. What a mess of goo and vapor. I don’t doubt that Armstrong is an intelligent woman, but she’s giving us another reason why religion is bad for people and for nations: it turns good brains to mush. And that’s a condition that can only make toothless zombies happy.

P.Z.Myers The Zombies will Sup on Karen Armstrong with a Straw 2009

I think that the Sam Harris e-mail exchange with Noam Chomsky provides strong evidence that it is not just  religious people that can have their brain turned to mush, by the operation of the noodly appendage.

The inability to see the reality of your own side, compounded by the ability to see only evil in the other is an extremely dangerous instinct, in a world where weapons of mass destruction are extremely real.  And where it is entirely possible that those in charge of those weapons, are operating instinctively under the control of the mythically inebriated Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Related Posts:

Hanlon’s Razor and the Flying Spaghetti monster

The Father of Lies

p.s. I discovered the zombies Karen Armstrong quote when following through allegations made by my fellow islander, Michael Nugent, in the post where Atheist Ireland publicly dissociated itself from the harmful and hateful rhetoric of P.Z. Myers.

P.Z. Myers in his post “The  Brine Shrimp Gambit,” does indeed claim to despise a lot of people, but it is their arguments, that he is targeting. I understand that it is very easy to become angry with people,  when they appear to be justifying, the unjustifiable. So I empathize with both participants in this contretemps, but suspect that Michael Nugent is playing host to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  While P.Z. Myers is being driven by by his anger.

This is his introduction to The Brine Shrimp Gambit.

How adorable! A dodgy fellow has invented what he thinks is a new get-out-of-jail-free card, called the brine shrimp gambit.

P.Z. Myers The  Brine Shrimp Gambit 2012

The brine shrimp gambit is a way of displacing the criticism to something other than its original target, so you can accuse your opponent of being unreasonable.  He is quite right not to give the dodgy fellow the credit of being the first to invent it.  It is used so ubiquitously, by the sophisticated and unsophisticated, that it is rational to treat it as product of a human instinct, that which I like to think of as the Pasta Fairy.

Neolithic Engraving from Carrowkeel, Co Sligo

An engraving from the neolithic passage tomb at Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo

There is no reason to think, that this was not a basic human instinct, even when the passage tombs of Ireland, which are older than the pyramids of Egypt were being built. There is however no reason to believe that the many noodly engravings found therein are  a direct reference to it, or that the first people to settle in Ireland were in fact Ancient Noodlians.

So therefore as the  Book of the Ancient Noodlian, definitely doesn’t say:

If you would resist the Pasta Fairy you must first recognize it.

Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” was composed in the 1950s by Noam Chomsky, as an example of a sentence which was grammatically correct, and yet unlikely ever to have been spoken.

This is not as is sometimes claimed a sentence that has no meaning. It has no inherent meaning, but It is capable according to context of being understood in many different ways.  A fact more than adequately demonstrated by a competition hosted by Stanford University in 1985, where entrants were asked to create contexts in less than one hundred words which made the sentence meaningful.

Some of the entries can be read here.

The different interpretations are possible because words such as colorless and green have more than one meaning, and because metaphor is a recognized way of communicating ideas.

Because green is sometimes used as a synonym for Irish, this inherently meaningless sentence can be linked to the myth that St Patrick drove all the snakes in Ireland into the sea, where the  mythical beasts became the currents around our shores. Colourless green memes sleeping, sometimes furiously.

The story of St Patrick and the snakes is a metaphorical account of the ancient Celtic religious beliefs of Ireland being driven out by Christian beliefs. It is obviously not literally true, and it isn’t metaphorically true either.  The ancient memes weren’t driven out, some of them were incorporated into the new belief system, others remained as myths and legends, part of a system that enabled people to derive meaning from the world around.

The world is like Chomsky’s sentence, all syntax and no obvious semantics, structure without meaning.  It is the stories we know, the memes we bear, that determine how we understand reality. And what new stories we tell about it.

A True Metaphor

Richard Dawkins has argued that memes (ideas) should be regarded as lifeforms whose natural habitat is the human mind.

This strikes me as a rather good way of describing what is happening. Just as the world provides a range of different habitats, so does the mind. The lifeforms that evolved in Australia are different to those that evolved in Africa, or South America.  The Life forms of the Jurassic are different from those that evolved later.  But where there were niches to fill, organisms evolved to fill them.

So it is with culturally transmitted memes, there are niches to fill in the habitat of the mind. Within different cultures these niches are filled in different ways.

But by far the most important variable determining your religion is the accident of birth. The convictions that you so passionately believe, would  have been a completely different, and largely contradictory, set of convictions, if only you had happened to be born in a different place.

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Richard Dawkins is of course right that the religion you hold is pretty much an accident of birth, or at least the society you find yourself in. The same is true for any other culturally transmitted view.

Belief is not a choice. It creeps in unannounced, as does unbelief.

Richard Dawkins was not the first to note that ideas spread by epidemiology. A very similar point was made by Mark Twain in an essay, which he wrote in 1901, although it wasn’t published until 1923, after Twain was dead.

 Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking. A man must and will have his own approval first of all, in each and every moment and circumstance of his life — even if he must repent of a self-approved act the moment after its commission, in order to get his self-approval again: but, speaking in general terms, a man’s self-approval in the large concerns of life has its source in the approval of the peoples about him, and not in a searching personal examination of the matter. Mohammedans are Mohammedans because they are born and reared among that sect, not because they have thought it out and can furnish sound reasons for being Mohammedans; we know why Catholics are Catholics; why Presbyterians are Presbyterians; why Baptists are Baptists; why Mormons are Mormons; why thieves are thieves; why monarchists are monarchists; why Republicans are Republicans and Democrats, Democrats. We know it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination; that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon morals, politics, or religion which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies.

Mark Twain Corn-Pone Opinions  1901

Mark Twain argued that the epidemiology was being driven by an instinct for social conformity.

Richard Dawkins and his friend the philosopher Daniel Dennett, both argue that memes have been liberated from their biological substrate, and it is the meme and not human instinct, that is in control of the relationship. As is illustrated by the following sentence, part of a passage from Daniel Dennett, that provides the introduction to Viruses of the Mind.

The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes.  

Daniel Dennett  Consciousness Explained in Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

Mark Twain’s theory is simpler. We already know that instincts control the behaviour of other animals and there is no reason to believe that memes have the creative powers being attributed to them.

It is Mark Twain’s theory and not Richard Dawkins’ that satisfies the demands of scientific method.

The Serpents of the Mind

Scientific ideas, like all memes are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary and capricious. They are exacting well-honed rules, and they do not favor pointless self-serving behavior. …….

Richard Dawkins  Viruses of the Mind 1993

(Note that in the above passage the entities being exonerated, because of the intercession of Scientific Method, from exhibiting, ‘self-serving behavior,’ are the memes not people. Note also  that the adjectives, pointless and self-serving, which he uses to describe the behaviours, are mutually exclusive.)

Scientific method allows us to make increasingly accurate models of reality , which can then be used to make predictions, and suggest further avenues for research. It can never give certainty but is an excellent way of finding out about the probable structure of the world. This is not how Richard Dawkins is using it.  For him it has become a saving myth, a St Patrick driving snakes from Sacred Ground.

And just as the old Celtic myths were not driven from Ireland, but became incorporated with the new beliefs, so the old myths, including that which theologian Peter Rollins identifies with a belief in the Big Other, are incorporated within new atheism.

The Big Other:

Without getting too caught up in the specifics of what the term means in psychoanalysis, its theological significance relates to the, often unconscious, belief in some Thing that will bring wholeness and overcome anxiety.

Peter Rollins You Don’t Need to be an Atheist to be a Christian February 2015

Richard Dawkins references scientific method as the saving Big Other.  And just as the theologians of Christendom, seem to have felt free to disregard the teaching and example of Christ, when developing their theologies, so in developing his ideas on the Selfish Gene and Meme, Dr Dawkins by his own admission ignored the ‘exacting well-honed rules’ that are used to scrutinize scientific ideas.

I want to argue in favour of a particular way of looking at animals and plants, and a particular way of wondering why they do the things that they do. What I am advocating is not a new theory, not a hypothesis which can be verified or falsified, not a model which can be judged by its predictions. … Rather, I am trying to show the reader a way of seeing biological facts.

Richard Dawkins The Extended Phenotype Chapter 1 1982 

In this way Richard Dawkins has been able to accommodate within atheism people, probably himself included, who intuitively feel that the complexity of nature is such that it must be an act of intentionality.  Rather than quote them something like the following passage, and tell them to get over themselves, their intuitions have no rational justification:

The design stance and the intentional stance are useful brain mechanisms, important for speeding up the second-guessing of entities that really matter for survival, such as predators or potential mates.  But, like other brain mechanisms, these stances can misfire. Children and primitive peoples, impute intentions to the weather, to waves and currents, to falling rocks.  

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion 2006

He merely uses it to argue that the god botherers have been deceived.  And offers them the allegedly scientifically endorsed view that there really is a purpose. Everything is being driven by purposefully acting memes and genes seeking their own survival.

The old niches have been filled.  The purposeful creators, the genes and memes.  The saving myth- scientific method, saving us from our creators, and the chosen people – the intelligent.  The duty of the saved – to mock and ridicule as irrational those who fill the niches differently.

Passion’s Slave

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

David Hume  A Treatise of Human Nature 1739-40

The Scottish philosopher David Hume regarded the desire for truth as a human passion.  This is something that I wouldn’t disagree with, but there are other drives also.  There is for instance the desire to prove that you are right, and the perhaps the even more powerful one, to prove that other people are wrong.

Scientific method evolved as a way of protecting the search for truth, from the noodly many tentacled deceiver, that psychologists identify with the unpoetic label, Confirmation Bias: the instinct that makes the brain, as Voltaire remarked, a wonderful organ for enabling a man to continue believing whatever it is he wants to believe.

Science is an effective way of finding out how the world works.  It can help us produce increasingly accurate models of reality, but it cannot imbue it with either purpose or meaning.  It provides the syntax not the semantics.

Meaning and purpose are the gifts of passion not rationality.

The Meme Bonded Ape

We are social animals who bond on shared ideas.  Crazes and fashions have no depth and last only a short time, they cannot be the basis for a stable society.

One way of acquiring strong within group bonds, is to label those who hold different memes, as evil and dangerous  – those evil awful people over there. i.e. factionalism

It is possible that  factionalism was once a useful adaptation, that caused our species to spread across the world, so that when bad times came, all our eggs, so to speak were not in one basket.  And it may in part explain why our species survived, when all the other species of hominid (upright apes) became extinct.

Those of us living in Northern Ireland have good reason to understand just how dangerous such factionalism can be, in our crowded modern world.

Some atheists such as Richard Dawkins; and Lawrence Krauss, who can be seen here debating with Peter Rollins, believe that the problem lies with religion (the meme).

Lawrence Krauss argues that we don’t need religion, but should bond on the truth of science. Arguing that the wonder and awe that he feels for nature is better than anything that religion can give because it is based on truth.

And this could well be so, but this isn’t what he suggests people actually bond on.  He suggests  rock concerts or music, not science.

The activity that he acknowledges engaging in, is the ridicule of religious believers, to demonstrate how ridiculous this minority are, to the “vast middle the rational people.” Basically he is encouraging people to bond on how rational they are compared to those  ridiculous god botherers.

The laugh of this being that the most ridiculous belief of all is that we are rational animals.  There is, as real world economist Dan Ariely demonstrates scientific evidence that man is not a rational animal. The best science can tell us about the possibility that the Universe has a Conscious Creator, is that there is no reason to believe it.  Probability arguments don’t hold in infinities.

The human passion for truth is not as all compelling as the search for community.  Science is a way of finding out the truth about the world.  It can give us the world’s syntax but not its semantics. It is a very useful tool, but it is too shallow to provide the glue required to hold communities together.

Like Noam Chomsky’s sentence, reality has many possible interpretations.  We can bond in many different ways.  What Northern Ireland  theologian Peter Rollins argued in his  debate with Lawrence Krauss is that the truly dangerous beliefs are those that scapegoat others as those evil awful people, the people who have the problem, while we have the solution.

For him the function of religion, as far as I understand it, is to come to grips with the human realities, the reality that we are all broken and that none of us have the answer. And he argues that this is the ultimate reality that can be found in Christianity.

The Flesh and Daniel Dennett

 Dancing cow

A cow’s reaction to being released unto grass in spring.

The Ancient Greeks believed that it was his rationality which made man, that is – the male of the species, man in the image of God.  They understood man to have two souls, the rational immortal soul which was encased in the head, and a lower mortal soul which was encased in the body.  This mortal soul, incorporated the pleasures, emotions and senses, all of which led to destruction unless ruled by the rational soul.  This belief is given mythic form in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus.

Now of the divine, he himself was the creator, but the creation of the mortal he committed to his offspring. And they, imitating him, received from him the immortal principle of the soul ; and around this they proceeded to fashion a mortal body, and. made it to be the vehicle of the soul, and constructed within the body a soul of another nature which was mortal, subject to terrible and irresistible affections: first of all pleasure, the greatest incitement to evil ; then, pain, which deters from good ; also rashness and fear, two foolish counsellors, anger hard to be appeased, and hope easily led astray. These they mingled with irrational sense and with all-daring love according to necessary laws, and so framed man. Wherefore, fearing to pollute the divine any more than was absolutely unavoidable, they gave to the mortal nature a separate habitation in another part of the body, placing the neck between them to be the isthmus and boundary, which they constructed between the head and breast, to keep them apart.

Plato  Timaeus 360 B.C.Translated by Benjamin Jowett

The negative attitude to the flesh, i.e. the pleasures, emotions and senses, that became incorporated into some versions of Christianity, came from interpreting  the  New Testament in the light of Greek philosophy, rather than directly from the Scripture . A point referenced by Jonathan Swift in the following paragraph of  his satirical argument against abolishing nominal Christianity.

Does the Gospel anywhere prescribe a starched, squeezed countenance, a stiff formal gait, a singularity of manners and habit, or any affected forms and modes of speech different from the reasonable part of mankind? Yet, if Christianity did not lend its name to stand in the gap, and to employ or divert these humours, they must of necessity be spent in contraventions to the laws of the land, and disturbance of the public peace.

 Jonathan Swift  An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708

Jonathan Swift didn’t just object to the Ancient Greek view of the flesh being treated as a Christian truth, he also regarded the notion that man was a rational animal as a fiction, and wrote to his friend Alexander Pope, that he had written Gulliver’s Travels, to illustrate this point.

I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of , that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax.

Jonathan Swift  Letter to Alexander Pope  September 29th 1725

The Scottish Philosopher, David Hume 1711-1776 agreed, arguing that the sole function of human rationality was the service of the passions.

The American philosopher Daniel Dennett takes a different tack. He argued in, “Consciousness Explained” 1991, that pleasures, emotions and perceptions,  i.e. those parts of human experience which Ancient Greek philosophy identified as the flesh, should be regarded as brain generated fiction.

Daniel Dennett contrasts his position with that  of the philosophical dualist René Descartes.(1596 -1650)  Descartes’ vision  was for the most part of a mechanical world of simple matter interacting according to universal laws, something that Dennett has no problem with, but for Descartes the natural world also included an immaterial mind, that in human beings was directly related to the brain through the pineal gland. And this does provide Daniel Dennett with a problem.  For the materialist Dennett, to say that something is immaterial is to say that it is non-existent, yet we do indeed seem to have experiences consistent with that which Descartes identified as the existence of an immaterial mind or soul.  Dennett solves this dilemma by basically accepting that Descartes was right, in regarding  mind experiences as immaterial; and arguing that therefore they have no reality, i.e. they are illusions, tricks of the brain, that are best regarded as fictions.

People do sometimes use words in unusual ways, which can be misleading to those who do not understand that this is what they are doing.  Identifying the word fictional as a synonym for immaterial is one of those  misleading uses.  Time, direction, and process, while they are undoubtedly related to the material, are themselves immaterial.  Yet I think it unlikely that Daniel Dennett regards these as fictional.  I suspect he would take it as proof of their contemptible irrationality, if Creationists used this definition, as evidence that the process of evolution was the brain-generated fiction of godless scientists.

It is possible, as Dennett alleges, that some people’s ideas of consciousness are so tied up with the dualist notion,  that mind substance is an independently acting substance, that their minds are closed to the possibility of there being a materialistic explanation for our awareness of sensation. I think this is unlikely to be the case for very many.  I would for instance be surprised to find even one person, whose immediate reaction, on hitting their thumb with a hammer, was to blame their immaterial soul for the sensation of pain. If however the word consciousness does mislead people into thinking that they understand more about its causes  than the data allows, then it would be a good idea to use a word other than consciousness to name our awareness of sensation.

What Dennett argues isn’t that consciousness needs a rename but that it is fictional; so that for example,  all oaths, expletives, and other reports of pain issuing from the mouth of the thumb hitter, are to be regarded as brain induced fiction, not evidence of awareness of pain. Even if you are the thumb hitter, you are not in pain, you just think/feel you are.

This strikes me as the equivalent of arguing that the term horsepower implies that engines contain immaterial horses, and that as there is no reason to believe that this is true, we must regard those effects that are normally associated with the idea of horsepower, as engine induced fictions.

In neither of the above cases is the argument about reality.  In the horsepower example the vehicle will still move, and in Dennett’s argument the pain will still hurt. All that is different is that the word fiction is being used in a bizarre way.  A bizarre way that  almost makes it appear rational to claim that as the effects of consciousness or the internal combustion engine are fictional, that neither require an explanation.

The Problem of Pain

Daniel Dennett claimed in “Consciousness Explained” that the problem of pain was, “why does it hurt so much?” And I have to say that I really liked his answer.  He suggested that pain was selected for because it discouraged our distant ancestors from eating themselves.

For simpler organisms, it is true, there is really nothing much to self-knowledge beyond the rudimentary biological wisdom enshrined in such maxims as When Hungry, Don’t Eat Yourself! and When There’s a Pain, It’s Yours! In every organism, including human beings, acknowledgment of these basic biological design principles is simply “wired in” — part of the underlying design of the nervous system, like blinking when something approaches the eye or shivering when cold.

Dennett, Daniel C.  Consciousness Explained  1991

Notice that he is assuming,  that simpler organisms are the experiencing subjects of pain and hunger. When you hit your thumb,  stub your toe etc., the affected part of your body moves, before the information reaches the brain; a blink works on the same principle. They are reflex actions.  What reason does he have to believe that simple organisms have any more awareness of pain than is contained in a big toe, or the reflex system that causes the movement?  Or more awareness of hunger than the salivary glands?

Dennett’s argument that pain was selected for  in simpler organisms because it discouraged self-cannibalism, is an interesting idea, but as the pain response is slower than simple reflex, it is reasonable to assume that very simple organisms would be better served by reflex than pain, and that is what would be selected for.  Pain and hunger, a form of desire, are not simple reflexes, and the problem of pain is not, why does it hurt? but  how do you get something that is basically a machine, a biological machine, to be the experiencing subject of pain?

It is bizarre enough to require explanation, that a materialist should equate pain and hunger with reflex actions seeing they involve such very different structures in the nervous system.  It is likewise bizarre that a philosopher should treat the philosophical notion of a zombie, as identical with that of automaton.

The Myth of the Zombie Cow

Whirligig paper cow automatonPhilosophers use the term zombie to mean beings that are indistinguishable from us in every way except that they are without consciousness.  This means that their behaviour is identical to ours and so is their neurological wiring.  Like Bertrand Russell’s tiny orbiting teapot, no-one  actually believes they exist.  The point seems to be that, while there is no reason to believe they exist, and good reason to believe they don’t, there is no way to prove their non-existence.

An automaton is an entirely different concept.  There is good reason to believe that non-conscious mechanical systems exist, and no reason to believe that they don’t.  The only reason, we have to believe that it is possible for some machines to experience conscious awareness, is that we ourselves have the experience of being such a machine.

For most of us the so-called theory of other minds, the idea that other people are experiencing subjects of conscious awareness, isn’t a theory at all, but an instinct. It is something that makes social engagement  easier to manage, than it would be otherwise. This belief isn’t rationally caused, but it is rational to believe that people whose behaviour is similar to our own, and whose neurological wiring we have no reason to believe is different from ours, are experiencing life in a similar way to us.

We apply this theory of other minds instinctively not only to our own species, but to others as well. In Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett makes the  following comment:

 Horses, at least when they are colts, seem to get a kick out of being alive, but cows and sheep usually seem either bored or indifferent.

Dennett, Daniel C.  Consciousness Explained 1991

This suggests to me that he has never seen the way cows behave when they are released unto grass in spring after being cooped up all winter. They enter the field like a high kicking explosion of happiness.  I have seen this a few times and just watching filled me with empathetic joy.

Dancing cowsRationally my pleasure cannot prove that cows are the experiencing subjects of joy.  I cannot prove that cows are not automatons. Even proof that their brains were behaving like human brains experiencing joy, would not prove that they were experiencing similar sensations. Rationally  I am agnostic, but I have faith in the joy of cows.

The Conscious Machine

Number 5 – the robot hero of 1986 film Short Circuit.

It is conceivable that the robot Johnny Five, portrayed in the 1986 film Short Circuit could have failed the Turing test for intelligence in a machine, either by being too honest, or by displaying  too much knowledge to pass as human.

His ability to acquire knowledge, interact with humans, moral nature, and innovative problem solving, demonstrated more than adequately within the fictional world of the film, that Number 5 was intelligent.

He is not however one of the fictional robots that Daniel Dennet mentioned in Consciousness Explained as evidence that we are capable of conceiving  machines as  being conscious .  This may be because Number Five, is a dualistic,not a materialistic conception. He acquired his consciousness not from the running of a computer program, but as a miraculous consequence of being struck by lightning.

It is possible to conceive of ways in which an intelligent computer system could fail the Turing test.  It is also possible to conceive of  the existence of systems which could pass the Turing Test for successful communication as a human, without being themselves intelligent..The philosopher John Searle’s Chinese Room is such a scenario.

Searle asks you to imagine the situation of a person in a room who has no knowledge of Chinese. He  receives Chinese symbols as input, interprets them according to a rule book, and posts them as output.  This output is sufficiently good to convince Chinese people that he understands Chinese, therefore this system passes the Turing Test. He argues that this is the equivalent of what a computer is doing.

Clearly following the rules indicates a degree of intelligence so he has failed in his task, of proving that computers are unintelligent.  However regardless of how intelligent the man in the room is he will not understand Chinese.

Daniel Dennett argues that while the man does not understand Chinese the system does. Searle doesn’t disagree with this, providing you include the programmer or programmers as part of the system.  This is not what Dennett had in mind.  He thinks the room has the understanding.

In a situation like Johnny Five, where the computer is part of a robot, receiving sensory data, the situation is less clear cut.  This is a situation in which the man in the room, could  learn to understand Chinese.  With the right programming a computer could conceivably also learn to understand Chinese.

This in my view would make the computer intelligent, but it is not enough for Searle. For him intelligence also requires consciousness. Without consciousness the robot is an automaton, lacking drive and intentionality.  Or in other words he agrees with David Hume, that rationality is the servant of the passions, and he is arguing that, that which has long been metaphorically referred to as the flesh, is literally dependent on the actual flesh; it is not a digital program. And that it is the flesh that gives us the gift that separates the us from the automatons – consciousness.

Johnny Five acquired the drive to be truly alive by a miraculous strike of lightning.  John Searle is not claiming that we have our consciousness as a consequence of a miracle, but as a consequence of the behaviour of the stuff of which we are made.  He is not claiming that it is impossible for us to build conscious machines, just arguing that their consciousness will not be the result of running a computer program. That is as a good materialist he is arguing that the stuff matters.

An Unjust Accusation

Daniel Dennett, regards John Searle as a dualist in denial of his own beliefs.  And in the academic world where these men dwell, dualism is, according to Dennett, socially unacceptable, the sign of lack of intellectual rigour.

Given that Searle is claiming that the material is essential to consciousness, it was not immediately obvious to me anyway why Dennett was identifying him as a dualist. That is until I realized that Searle is claiming that feelings change things.  That an emotion, in this case drive, has an effect on the material. This is for Dennett just a re-imagining of that dualistic heresy – the Cartesian Theater- with materialistic camouflage.

Before reading Dennett I would have thought there were only two ways of imagining the relationship between thoughts including feelings, and actions. Either our thoughts and feelings, things like I want to finish this post, I’ll type this word rather than that one etc, have an effect on what happens, or they are epiphenomenon, that exist alongside and are caused by the physical, but have no effect on the physical. And as an evolutionist I would have regarded the last one as ridiculous.  Something as complex as emotion and thought is an adaptation, not just a happenstance, and as nature can only select between things that make a difference, then feelings and thoughts are not epiphenomenon.  They make a difference to the average reproductive fitness of the organism experiencing them.

Dennett argues that his is a different imagining of the relationship That thoughts and feelings are just what it feels like to be a brain, running a program. That there is no  difference between conscious and unconscious thought . That beings without the ability to communicate, because they are not running a sophisticated enough information processing program, also lack the ability to suffer.

It follows — and this does strike an intuitive chord — that the capacity to suffer is a function of the capacity to have articulated, wide-ranging, highly discriminative desires, expectations, and other sophisticated mental states.

Dennett, Daniel C. . Consciousness Explained 1991

If desire is not an internal experience or drive, which in Dennett world would be an impossibility, but merely the illusion of reality created by the running of a complex computer program, then there is in Dennett’s fictional world every reason to believe that computers have the ability to suffer, that the person making the most noise at the scene of an accident is hurting the most, unless there is other readily available evidence that this is not true, that babies suffer less than, slightly older children, who have the ability to articulate their desires, and the sufferings of a highly sophisticated man such as Daniel Dennett are immensely greater than those of others with less wide-ranging and highly discriminative desires.  So that it would be reasonable to conclude that Daniel Dennett’s man flu  must involve more suffering for him, than a similar affliction would cause in any less articulate human being.

This certainly strikes an intuitive chord with me, but not I think the one that Dennett is aiming for.

Suffering is not a matter of being visited by some ineffable but intrinsically awful state, but of having one’s life hopes, life plans, life projects blighted by circumstances imposed on one’s desires, thwarting one’s intentions — whatever they are.

Dennett, Daniel C.. Consciousness Explained 1991

Part of the case that Daniel Dennett is attempting to make in Consciousness Explained is that there are no private feelings whose reality can be known only by the being experiencing them. The above comment was made in a section related to animal suffering.  Note that he has defined suffering in a way that does not include physical pain, that ineffable,(for animals any way) intrinsically awful state, which is extremely hard to explain as the running of a computer program, but rather forms of suffering more amenable to his theory.

By this definition a person driving on a  journey, who stops the car because she feels a migraine coming on, and waits the attack out at the side of the road, has suffered not because of the headache, but by having her intention to complete her journey thwarted.

The  factors that caused the migraine suffering driver to stop as she became aware of a headache coming on are open to different philosophical interpretations.  If feelings are epiphenomenon  then the feeling did not have any causal effect, the stopping of the car was a consequence of entirely physical processes and although correlated with, independent of the drivers feeling of pain.  For a Dennettian  the feeling of pain did not have any causal effect on the stopping of the car, it was the fiction arrived at by brain narrative to explain why the car stopped. Only someone holding a view similar to Searle, would believe that the feeling of pain was a causal factor in stopping the car, and if they were a materialist think that this was something that science needed to come up with an explanation for.

I am an intuitive materialist at least on the subject of pain , and have confidence that such an explanation must exist.  .  I also  have confidence that there must be a material cause for the bizarre nature of the argument that Daniel Dennett is making about consciousness.

His description of the Cartesian Theater, and his assumption that this is the natural way that most of us view the world, until we receive enlightenment I think gives a clue.  He for instance argues that the instinctive interpretation of stubbing your toe, is to think that once the signal is sent to the brain another signal must be sent back to the toe.  I would argue that the instinctive reaction is to believe that the pain is in the toe.  The same with the visual images of the world around us.  He argues that we instinctively imagine these as being projected inside our heads in a Cartesian theater.

I would argue that our instincts lead us to believe that what we our seeing is in fact out there, and that this idea of an internal Cartesian Theater is secondary. It is the narrative fiction of someone who instead of just accepting the gift, tries to figure out how consciousness works, while having insufficient information to do so.  My suspicion is that these secondary intuitions are fixed deeply in Daniel Dennet’s thought processes, and that he has found himself in a social milieu where dualist beliefs gain you pariah status.

Now pariah status is something that I would expect to make a difference to the average reproductive fitness of the people experiencing its consequences. Intuitive beliefs arise from the unconscious not the conscious.  An intuitive belief that is contrary to the beliefs of your community could make forming relationships or acquiring positions of dominance within that community difficult.

Just pretending to hold the views required is likely to be recognized by others. Any mechanism that operated to suppress from the holder of the intuitive belief, the true nature of his thought would be selected for.  A great big, socially induced “here be dragons,” would work in conjunction with a submissive nature, and could prevent some from accepting the validity of their intuition.  This won’t  work for more dominant personalities. They would either find themselves expelled from communion, regarded as the community eccentric, or they could engage in a process of rationalisation that manages to successfully disguise from them and those around them the reality of their intuition. It is the last of these activities that is likely to be selected for by natural selection.   An adaptation that gains selective advantage by ensuring that we are not animal rationale but only rationis capax; rationalizers  rather than rational.

Rationalisation processes can be observed in operation in scientific creationist communities, where intelligent people, maybe not as intelligent as Daniel Dennett,  who is as the quality of his rationalizing  shows a very intelligent man,  make very complex arguments against evolution. Arguments that serve to disguise from themselves, and their followers, that they are not capable of for instance, holding a straight forward belief that the kangaroos hopped off the ark and bounced all the way back to Australia.

Bobby Henderson’s imagining, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is I think a brilliant metaphor, for the sheer twisty noodliness, of human rationalisation.

The same noodliness that has resulted in Genesis Park, can also be seen in “Consciousness Explained”  My intuition is that Dennett’s theory of consciousness is the result of his refusal to recognize the dualism of his own intuitions, and his instinct to protect his own social standing by projecting  this socially unacceptable belief unto others, perhaps most notably John Searle.