Monday, September 7, 2009

In Answer to Pastor Mike (I)

In his most recent comment, Pastor Mike has asked a number of questions and entreated me to give "honest" answers. This I intend to do. Let me also add, while I am thinking of it, that Pastor Mike has as much right to post here as anyone else. If his views and convictions diverge from ours this is to be expected, as his life experience and exposure has proceeded along a different direction. I welcome his comments, as well as arguments to any blog entries I have.

At the same time, I do make it known here and now I am not seeking "debate" with him, or prolonged argument or conflict. I merely (as one blog poster) noted, have had recourse to use some of his material on his site(s) for my own blog subjects. In response to those blog entries, and if Pastor Mike has any questions or counter arguments, I am quite willing to see and address them. But again, not to have a prolonged debate.

Anyway, as to his questions and my answers. Since he has asked a lot of questions, I have divided them into roughly equal segments, with the end segment appearing tomorrow.

Pastor MIKE: These are SERIOUS questions , that I would like HONEST answers to . Thank You! 1 ) Are you a moral relativist, or do you believe in absolute morality? In other words, do you believe that cultures, or even individuals, can define their own rules on what is moral and what is not, or do you believe that every action has one unique, absolute, and true moral assessment ?

It isn’t a case of relativism or absolutism in morality but whether the concept of moral naturalism is valid, and whether the evidence supports it. Moral naturalism presumes a secular and scientific approach to morality so that the issue of whether a God exists becomes immaterial. (Which is just as well because the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven)

Thus, given a scientific grounding (the only objective one which we – humans- have available- one can adopt an investigative approach that is naturalistic, i.e. all effects have natural causes that can be subjected to analysis.

The latest research published in numerous places, discloses that human moral sentiments and the recognition of moral principles evolved naturally- primarily through the agency of natural selection. There were two main phases of this evolution: i) brain expansion, and ii) cultural-social expansion.

In (i), the normative human brain evolved over a period of about 1 million -1.5 million years from an organ of roughly 1000 cc volume and 0.9 kg mass, to an organ of roughly 1500 cc volume and 1.4 kg mass. The primary change entailed a massive growth of the neocortex in relation to the paleo-cortex or reptilian brain regions (such as the amygdala, limbic system) left over from earlier stages.

This evolutionary brain change marked the first potential for behavioral change in ancient-primitive humans. Whereas before, the primacy of reptilian needs, and drives was paramount, this became muted under the influence of the neocortex. The neocortex then became the center for the growth of human language and thought, including abstract thought. This abstract thought also incorporated notions of what was “right” and “wrong”.

This was possible because the emergence of full human consciousness via the neocortex made it possible to perceive that earlier reptilian – dictated behaviors, e.g. killing another tribe’s chief and seizing his mate, was not the thing to do. It effectively made the other tribe one’s own tribe’s enemy with costly results.

As natural selection of the brain in the social context continued, more changes arrived. This largely emerged via group selection acting on specific populations. Thus, if a tribal member took a chunk of meat from a child’s mouth he would be ostracized by the tribe, and shunned. Shame and guilt resulted. As this extended to many more behaviors….e.g. seizing a tribal companion’s wife and having sex with her, the sense of shame and guilt was reinforced…as was the capacity for tribal punishment.

In no uncertain terms, then, it became known among tribes which behaviors were accepted and which were not. No god intervened to do this or to set out tribal laws, humans did it themselves.

Those tribal members who then conformed their behaviors to the tribe’s ideals then derived from their compliance a sense of feeling good, and a sentiment of righteousness or pride resulted. Those who flouted tribal customs or laws, conversely, earned only negative emotions engrained in deep shame or guilt. Often times, to remain as part of the tribe, they would have to suffer temporary banishment, or be shunned….no verbal or other interaction permitted.

In this way, human natural morality became established. Not by the force of divine fiat, or absolute edict, but by the evolutionary force of natural selection – operating first on the brain and then on human tribal interactions, given the appearance of new, larger brains.

Now, since evolution has not ceased, but continues, then it follows that the brain phase and level of moral interaction we behold now is not the final or ultimate form. We can surmise that in 1 or 2 million years (as the late Carl Sagan theorized in his ‘Dragons of Eden’) all the remaining reptilian regions of the brain will disappear, or no longer have any pronounced effect on human moral decisions.

This means that the human moral decisions (and by extension, laws) perceived with today’s human brain, cannot be the same as those perceived in the far future with a modified human brain. It stands to reason, therefore, that human morality must EVOLVE with the brain, and not be fixed or final. If it cannot be fixed or final, it cannot be absolute…since to be so would imply that a specific morality or moral perception tied to THAT brain stage must remain applicable to all stages of evolution.

Thus, cultural or social mores must also evolve – they can never be absolute or final. The laws or morals accepted by a given society today will not necessarily be those accepted 100,000 or 1 million years hence… because the brain’s basis for ascertaining them will have altered.

2 ) Is your trust in science based on faith or based on science ?

Obviously, it must be based on actual scientific evidence, and testing. For example, the THEORY of celestial mechanics allows me to use the detailed equations of dynamics (e.g. Kepler’s equation) to calculate the position of Mars in 2013. This calculation in turn means I can find Mars in the sky exactly at the position when I look.

If the science was taken on “faith” this could not occur. The fact that Mars is actually visible where it is predicted to be must mean that the motions of Mars conform to specific natural laws.

Taking it in reverse, the Mars Viking lander in 1976, would never have made it to the Red Planet based on “faith”. It was only after the computations from celestial mechanics disclosed it to be at such and such location, that the Mars rocket could be launched to arrive at that location.

Thus, celestial mechanics works! It isn’t based on any “faith”. The mathematics proves that it works.

In a similar way, when I take the mass of an element, say radium, and I know its half-life, then I know that after so much time (measured in half lives) its total mass will decrease according to a given process of decay. At the end of so many half –lives I can then measure the mass left and make deductions from it.

3 ) Is absence of proof the proof of absence ?

Actually “proof” is too strong a term. In science we do not look for proof so much as we look for evidence. In the real world, things are only proven in a relative sense, not for all time….unless in the realm of abstract mathematics. For example, Newton’s theory of gravitation while “proven” for relatively small scale domains (a falling object on Earth) was found to break down when extended – as Einstein showed in his General Relativity. (E.g. the advance of Mercury’s perihelion by about 43” per century could not be predicted by Newton)

In the same way, Bohr’s quantum theory was replaced by Max Born’s in which quantum probability waves replaced electrons circling atom nuclei as if in a miniature solar system.

In terms of evidence, we demand it be of high QA and fully replicable. It also has to be in some sense predictable. As Carl Sagan once put it: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” But he also said:

“Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” which most people (i.e. science skeptics) forget or give short shrift to.

Thus, if you make any kind of extraordinary claim, you will need extraordinary evidence to back it up.

4 ) What does the atheist position offer people ? How has it improved your life? Why will it improve others’ lives ?

First, atheism is not a “position”. It is really predicated on a philosophy. That philosophy asserts that all of reality is reducible to natural elements and processes and we must live our lives accordingly. Not looking for some heavenly deliverance….from death or our worldy problems, but from our own resources and those of our cohorts. Once one ceases to look for solutions to the ‘next life’ he or she is more fully able to deal with the real world problems emerging in THIS life, such as overpopulation, global warming etc.

As to atheism “improving one’s life” – I do not believe that to be a necessary purpose, offshoot or function. If I wish to improve my life I take up jogging, or join a book blub maybe, enhance my cooking and the quality of the food I eat, join a social club to increase social contacts.

Atheism instead offers a fuller more real perception of life. It offers life without the blinders, blinkers, or rose colored glasses. I am thereby able to see or perceive things for which others’ unjustified (in my mind) faith blunts or deflects attention from. For example, IF people truly believe there is an afterlife they will be less invested in caring for the world-planet we have now. Thus problems like overpopulation, famine, global warming will be of minor or no concern to them. After all, they can look forward to their next life!

Since this is how I view atheism’s role, then it follows I do not see it as the panacea to “improve” anyone’s life. There are definite and specific routes for improving one’s life, whether its psychological or physical milieu. I already mentioned them. Atheism is for those who wish to drop the feel good metaphysics of make belief ontologies and accept the world and life as it is. That is, there is one life to live, there are no souls, no afterlives, and no deities to appeal to.

I do not claim here that atheism is for everyone, or that everyone ought to pursue it. It is only for the mentally tough –minded who can accept that their lives terminate when they cease breathing, or more accurately, their brain EEG goes flat.

5 a) When you attempt to use logic to conclude facts about religion, are you starting at the conclusion (God is not real), or are you starting at true premises? Be honest.

Okay, you want honesty you shall have it. First, religion and God are two separate things. One can in fact argue about the deficiencies of religion without even addressing the issue of the existence of God. I believe it was the philosopher Joseph Campbell who once remarked (in his book The Power of Myth): that “Religion is a defense against the experience of God”

So even he recognized the domain of religion is not necessarily identical with questions of God. I believe the reason is that as an organized construct of humans religions often serve to divide more than to seek common cause or vision. Meanwhile, “God” as formulated in the ideal sense, is more accepted as an ultimate unifier. At the same time, spirituality and belief in the divine can exist without being based in a religion. The latest Pew religion survey shows this occurring on a major scale in the USA. Many are leaving their born into religions and either joining others, or more often, adopting a generic spiritual path that is not contingent on a religion.

Thus, my point is that to “conclude facts about religion” is not contingent on concluding anything about God. Or about God being real. One can show all religions’ essential falsity merely by their existence, since logically 1100 religions cannot all be true. Hence, it follows they each refute the claims of each other without me even entering.

OTOH, one cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, so it follows that arguing about God cannot begin with either the premise of existence or non-existence. We (atheist) merely say that as positing God amounts to an extraordinary claim, then the burden is on the positers, or claimants to make their case. In the absence of hard evidence, this means at least providing the necessary and sufficient conditions for its existence.

5 b) If you are starting at true premises, then what are they ? And how are they true ?

See my detailed explanation above. Obviously if religion and God entail distinct (and arguable) counter-factual sets of premises, then the arguments related to one are not necessarily related at all to the other.

Thus, one is entitled to query the validity of this or that religion, THEN query the existence of God - presumed to issue from the necessary and sufficient conditions that said religion allows. Indeed, I would contend that to even logically argue God's existence, a firm definition must be given if the n-s conditions aren't.

Wheras no such preliminaries are needed to argue the validity of a religion, since all one needs are it revelatory sources or source material which can them become subject to scientific (e.g. radiocarbon dating) testing, analysis and so on.

More to come with Mike's remaining questions, tomorrow.

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