Atheism and the Illusion of Certainty

Scientists and philosophers agree that certainty is an illusion. Although we’ve learned a lot about nature and the universe, there’s still many very fundamental unanswered questions. Mix in the subjective and limited faculty of human perception and one begins to see the magnitude of ignorance beyond the scope of our meager knowledge. But don’t take my word for it . . .

“Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality.” ~Bertrand Russell

“Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.” ~Voltaire

“Intolerance is the natural concomitant of strong faith; tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.” ~Will Durant

“Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.” ~Bertrand Russell

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs, in different degrees of certainty, about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and of many things I don’t know anything about. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things — by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose — which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” ~Richard Feynman

“The educated in [the critical habit of thought] are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain.” ~William Graham Sumner

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” ~Albert Einstein

We still don’t know the nature of reality. To what extent do quantum effects extend into the classical realm? Is reality really a matter of probabilities, or are there simply too many variables for our feeble minds to grasp? Information is a fundamental property of matter at the quantum level: why would that be? And we’re still not sure what role, if any, consciousness plays in reality.

Then there’s the question of which God we’re talking about: the indifferent Prime Mover of deists and pantheists – or the personal, revealed, creator of the Abrahamic religions? Our knowledge of the former is nebulous at best: there’s not much information available about this absentee God. However, our knowledge of the latter is an entirely different matter: we have plenty of information about him via his allegedly divinely-inspired scriptures. Thanks to these 3 scriptures (the Hebrew bible, the New Testament and the Quran) it is easy to prove the God of Abraham (including his incarnate form as Jesus) is definitively not the omniscient and omnibenevolent source of morality his faithful followers claim him to be.

So, we can rule out the Abrahamic God but if you’re talking about the absentee Prime Mover, then the practical considerations, above, factor into the question of his existence. Atheists who value rational integrity and limit their claims to what they can actually substantiate, can reasonably claim that all evidence seems to point away from God and that the odds of his existence appears to be vanishingly remote. This is enough for many of us to claim the title of atheist with a high degree of confidence. Many others who hold this same position believe they are technically agnostics, because they do admit the possibility of such a God’s existence, however unlikely.

Personally, I rank myself as an atheist. But I don’t claim that God does not exist. I can’t support that claim for all gods; just the God of Abraham – as perceived by his adherents and portrayed by doctrine. I can’t make the same claims about the God of deists and pantheists because there is no scripture or doctrine to base any claims upon. In fact, there’s no information at all about this absentee cosmic creator. Given the ineffable mystery of existence and the depth of our ignorance, it’s not impossible that the universe is created instead of spontaneous or eternal. Occam’s Razor suggests a creator God is less likely than no creator God at all but it does not rule out the possibility. The fact is, we still don’t know how (or if) the universe began.

Certainty about God’s existence – or his nonexistence – is equally unsupportable, either way.

© Copyright 2012

Newt Gingrich Video: Crime versus War

We have our differences but this time Newt Gingrich was right on.

In this short video, Newt dispels an all-too-common (judging by the audience response) misconception about American jurisprudence.  War and crime: what’s not to understand?  Even an (ostensibly) well-educated presidential debate moderator was not clear on the difference!

I was pleased to see the audience response was much louder and more enthusiastic for Newt’s reply than for the moderator’s leftist lie.

And did you hear the moderator, at the end of the video, saying “Well said. Well said.”?

A Reason to Believe

It’s nearly impossible to discuss the concept of free will unless we can agree on what it is. If you don’t believe in free will, then free will is merely an ideal; something that should, hypothetically, be a certain way. If you do believe in free will, how do you define it in any coherent way? Whether or not you believe in free will, it seems no two people agree on how, precisely, free will is supposed to work.

But do we really know how ANY mental process really works? Take reason, for example. We can take the proposition that 1 + 1 = 2, and convincingly reason that this must always be true. Was our conclusion inevitable because of deterministic electro-chemical processes in our brains? Or did we really reason our way to a conclusion? If we were really moved by reason to reach a conclusion, what neurological processes were involved and how are those processes NOT deterministic?

Do you see the problem here? It’s the same material reductionist trap we fall into when discussing free will. We are taking the wrong approach. It is common, in physics, to model a theory using multiple different, yet valid, approaches. We can discuss polymers in narrow terms of atoms and molecules or we can use broader properties like elasticity and strength. Both approaches are valid but one might well serve better than the other to answer a specific question.

Yes, reason can be reduced to deterministic, electro-chemical, processes but that doesn’t tell us anything useful except that the neurological process of reasoning is deterministic at microscopic scales. This does not mean it is also deterministic at macroscopic scales. That’s a false dichotomy which ignores the potential for emergent phenomena: something life has in abundance. Hell, life itself is an emergent phenomenon of inanimate matter.

I wonder: do those materialists who deny free will also deny reason? If not, why not? You can’t have it both ways. Free will and reason are both deterministic neurological processes at the microscopic level. You can’t deny free will, then turn around and embrace reason. And if you deny both free will and reason, then how do you know anything at all? That’s just nuts.

You can be a materialist without reducing absolutely everything to its most basic components. You can apply your materialism where it’s suited and use other models where they’re suited. After all, that’s how physics is done, is it not? Free will can be an emergent phenomenon of the brain without violating the microscopic determinism of electro-chemical, neurological, processes.

And about free will . . . because it’s so hard to nail down a definition of it, let’s use another technique physicists and astronomers are fond of – looking for indirect evidence. If free will did exist, it should produce results that we can predict and look for.

Choice characterizes free will. No matter how you define free will, choice has to enter the picture at some point. What kind of results would choice produce? That would depend on the reasons involved, wouldn’t it? I mean, can a choice be made without a reason? Wouldn’t that just be randomness? So, if choice requires reason, we should look for evidence of reason.

If you’re looking for evidence of human reason, what would you look for? Design. Purpose. Intelligence. Non-random, goal-oriented, types of things: the more complex, the better. Technology fits all these requirements.

Is technology evidence of reason? Of course it is. How can it not be? Technology confirms human reason, choice, design, purpose and intelligence: all the things you would expect to find if we had free will.

What more can we ask for? What more do we need?

© Copyright 2012

Confusing Morality with Religion

Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” ~Jeff L. Lyons

The 2 biggest news stories of my lifetime? Apollo 11’s historic manned moon mission and the tragic events of 9/11. After 911, then-President George W. Bush was confused when he said that extremists have hijacked Islam. In fact, it’s the other way around: it’s Islam that has hijacked extremists. Bush and many who agree with him insist that terrorists aren’t “true” Muslims; that violence in the name of Allah is counter to the Quran and Islam.

Examine that sentiment closely: compare it to what the Quran actually says. The Quran does have a paltry few verses that indicate violence should be reserved for self-defense but there’s far more in the Quran that defends, demands and rewards violence against the infidel. The Quran weaves Jihad against infidels inextricably into the fabric of Islam. It is more than a tenet of belief, it’s the moral responsibility of all Muslims. The terrorists ARE following the Quran. Islam is a rabid dogma.

So what’s really going on when Bush and other apologists for Islam claim that the terrorists have hijacked Islam? What they’re really saying is that their moral sense of God and religion disallows the use of violence in God’s name – especially indiscriminate killing. Terrorism doesn’t fit into their idea of religion.

So, instead of using religion to decide what is moral, they’re using morality to decide what is religious. To be truthful, they all do this. ALL Jews, Christians and Muslims practice their faith selectively: it’s not even possible to follow their contradicory scripture 100%. More to the point, they cherry-pick what they will and will not obey.

This fact incontrovertibly invalidates the notion that we need God and religion to make us moral. It’s the other way around . . . morality is used to decide what is religious. With this in mind, why do we need religion at all?  Religion, by claiming ownership of morality, only serves to obfuscate the truth. Don’t be seduced by this great lie. As Friedrich Nietzsche noted, ‘Morality is the best of all devices for leading mankind by the nose.’ Even the (ex-)leader of the free world didn’t understand this fundamental fact. Scary, isn’t it?

N O T E :
If you’re interested, there’s a related post (‘True Morality‘) available in this blog.

© Copyright 2011

Dualism and False Dichotomies

Many great minds, through the centuries, have tried, without success, to solve the free will versus determinism controversy. I believe this controversy has persisted because it is a false dichotomy stemming from the assumption that free will must be independent of, or opposed to, causality. As I’ll try to explain, free will is produced when human intelligence interacts with the world around us (causality). There is no conflict between free will and causality/determinism. No dualism. It’s entirely natural.

First, let’s get our terms out of the way.

Essential Concepts:

Here’s some brief descriptions of concepts I’ll be using. The names of these concepts will be bolded.

Free will is a controversial concept. People can’t agree on what it means. Most folks think of free will as volition: the ability to make a choice and act upon it. As I’ll explain below, that’s not quite right.

The law of causality (cause and effect) states that: “every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause”. There are no uncaused effects. Science relies on this fundamental law of nature. Everything, everywhere (outside the quantum realm), is subject to causality. Including humans.

Causal factors are the conditions and elements that contribute to an event or effect.

As you probably know, determinism is all about causality. Determinism implies that, if you could know all the causal factors of a closed system, you could predict it’s state for any future point in time.

Consciousness is an interplay between our brains, our sensory organs and the world around us. If we never had any one of these components, consciousness could not exist; there would be nothing to be conscious of.

Time is the 4th dimension. It’s linear: it has just one direction and is continually unfolding into the future. This post will not concern itself with esoteric scenarios of time; we are concerned only with the human, temporal, experience of time.


Now that I’ve got the description of terms out of the way, I’ll lay out my explanation of free will as best I can.

Our brains have evolved to anticipate the future. It’s hardwired into us. We wouldn’t be able to function without this ability. For instance, if I suddenly said, “Hey you, catch this!”, and threw a ball at you, you would extend your hand out to where the ball will be when it arrives – not where the ball was when you first saw it. Our ability to anticipate the future (causality) has a lower limit (reaction time), of about half a second. If it took less than half a second for the ball to arrive, you probably could not have caught it.

We can anticipate the future a half second from now or a half century from now or anything in between. When we anticipate beyond the immediate future, we use words like “strategy” or “plan” to describe anticipation. We are so inured to anticipation (short-term or long-term) that we take it for granted. But we, in fact, anticipate constantly.

Mental Feedback:
Anticipation is not an ephemeral wisp that flits through the mind and is gone. We mentally revisit our plans to revise or adjust them as needed. This is one of many forms of feedback our brains routinely perform. Mental feedback, like anticipation, is another feature of the mind that we take for granted and could not function without.

A Temporal Advantage:
Our ability to anticipate the future and adjust our plans accordingly represents a temporal advantage over causality. Causality must wait for the future to arrive in the present but we can anticipate causality and be ready for it when it arrives. Of course, our plans don’t always work out but they usually do because we adjust our plans when we think it necessary.

Causal Conformance:
Causality does not conform to our plans. Our plans (with any luck) conform to causality. Causality does not stop at the human skull – our brains are also ruled by causality. But this doesn’t mean we’re automatons controlled by external forces. We have anticipation and mental feedback to thank for that.

We are goal-oriented creatures. When we anticipate the future, then make or adjust our plans accordingly, that is mental feedback at work. It is through mental feedback that we direct our actions, step by step, toward our goals. Remember: causality does not stop at the human skull. It’s not just the world around us that supplies causal factors – our own brains, via mental feedback, also contribute causal factors.

Self-Determinism is Free Will
We are constantly flooded by causal factors from the world around us and from less tangible causal factors like experience, heredity, education, emotions, culture and ethics, to name a few. One of the most significant causal factors to get thrown into this mix is our own mental feedback. Because this feedback stems from our own consciousness (self), it carries a lot of weight as a causal factor. Causality determines our actions but thanks to mental feedback those actions are largely self-determined. It’s a paradox. We have no choice but to exercise free will. When causality meets human intelligence, determinism becomes self-determinism. And self-determinism is free will.

Everything is determined by causality. Mental feedback is a causal factor but that doesn’t mean that it will necessarily prevail. Other causal factors (heredity, ethics, an unexpected development, etc.) could override our mental feedback. For instance, you might plan a crime or other dasterdly deed but find that you’re unable – because of your ethics – to perform the deed when the time comes to follow through.

To the extent that we can anticipate causality and follow through with our plans, we are self-determined. This, to me, is what free will is: the ability to act in self-determined ways. If free will is, essentially, self-determinism, then the notion that we are in control of our own destinies is not quite true. It’s not a matter of control: it’s a matter of adjustments. And even then, other causal factors can completely derail our plans and alter our destinies. We are not above or outside the control of causality: we are integrated with it. Anticipation gives us a temporal advantage over causality that enables mental feedback to adjust our actions if necessary. To the extent we are successful at anticipating causality, we are masters over it and are marching into the future in self-determined ways.

Free will is an emergent property of human intelligence; it’s a product of causality – not independent of it – and, thus, is not absolute. But we normally do what we want and live almost entirely in self-determined ways. That is what free will is all about.

© Copyright 2011