Monday, February 13, 2012

Dualism, Deity, and Faith

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

After having addressed some tangential theist positions as well as both theist and atheist claims of proof, I'm now going to give my responses to the heart of the more basic theist positions; that there are immutable spiritual phenomena, that there can be a believable defition of God, and whether it is good at all to believe beyond what you can know.


Dualism is the position that there are (at minimum) two kinds of phenomena, neither of which derive their causal basis from the other. There's the physical world of matter and energy in space and time, within which all phenomena can be traced chronologically to previous events, and then there's the spiritual world of souls, perhaps conceptual essences, perhaps intermediate spiritual entities of various kinds, typically with God acting as the constant first cause of all of it.

The Dualist position is in contrast with either the Materialist view, in which subjectively demonstrable abstract concepts such as the self and the objects of our minds are treated as emergent properties of matter, most specifically that of the neurological function of our brains; or the Spiritualist view, in which non-material or spiritual phenomena are what actually interact with one another to produce events, and what we can observe in the material world is only a projection or illusion caused by those essential underlying events. The simplest response to the Spiritualist position is that we can and have created predictive theories for the behavior of matter all by itself, without regard to any spiritual events, whereas there are no known testable predictive theories for the behavior of spiritual phenomena, much less why they should translate to a material appearance that itself was predictable.

The trouble with Dualism is that it tries to have it both ways. It admits that spiritual phenomena can interact with material phenomena such as through our senses and will, through miracles, when we are born and when we die, but then it shies away from allowing anything else to cross the border that it maintains between the two kinds of phenomena. But if you've got separate categories of phenomena and admit that there are at least some ways in which each category can interact with the other, then how is such a barrier to be maintained? If there are spiritual phenomena and they do have causal impact on the material world, then we should be able to devise some means of detecting it; if material phenomena can causally impact the spiritual world, then we should be able to devise some means of manipulating it.

Any critical examination of what it would take to maintain such a deliniation must ultimately admit to so many potential violations of it that "Ghostbusters" style technology becomes theoretically inevitable. Spiritually causal phenomena capable of interacting with the material world could be measured and manipulated by materially based technology, once the formal rules governing spiritual phenomena were known. And there's no consistent way (that I can think of, or that I've ever heard of from a Dualist) to devise a law or theory that would prevent the claim of such a barrier from eroding entirely.

But once one admits that the two "kinds" of phenomena are theoretically capable of interacting to a potentially unlimited degree, what's the use of calling them two kinds of phenomena at all? Under such a "Ghostbusters" paradigm, spiritual phenomena would be merely another state of events, little different between the gaseous, liquid and solid states of matter; or between the basic forces of the universe (strong force, weak force, electromagnetism and gravity). Even if presently unsolved, coming up with a theory that unifies these different phenomena is nothing more than a potentially soluble problem. So ultimately, we're left back with only one "kind of stuff." If a phenomenon is real (that is to say if any claim of causal relationship with observable phenomena can be devised and hold up to testing), then both categories of phenomena are all part of only one same universe, and are all ultimately part of one category.

If you create yet another category in which to place the things you'd like to believe in, then the moment that you assert that those things can be causal factors in the real world, or vice versa, then the claim of separation inevitably breaks down, and these become nothing more or less than mere unproven propositions. But if you don't cross the line of separation, then the entire invented category remains completely useless and/or meaningless.

In passing, I'd also like to mention that I prefer the term Monism to Materialism. To call the sole phenomenal category "material" is to suggest that it's something other than "spiritual," which in turn is to suggest that there could be such a thing as spiritual; one might as well state that the universe is right-handed. To characterize the "one kind of stuff" position as merely Monist is simply to suggest that in the end, there are only phenomena, however one chooses to categorize or characterize them.


"God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance."

- Dr. Neils deGrasse-Tyson

Anything that could be demonstrated could not be God. There's no possible display of power short of destroying the entire universe that could demonstrate that the entity who caused it was the same entity who created and now sustains the universe. If a candidate for deity were any actor within the universe (even the most powerful one), then he could not be not that entity. For any vastly-but-finitely powerful entity, a greater being could yet be imagined; one could still ask of him, "who is your God?" Thus in order to fit the criteria by which God must be defined, He must transcend the universe, rather than be contained by it.

As for miracles, each would represent a mistake that God made in the universe, which He then had to correct. From an omniscient perspective, the universe must be (relatively speaking) deterministic, and therefore all later events could be controlled solely by the virtue of correctly setting the initial conditions. A God who needs to meddle in His universe in order to correct it admits to being something less than perfect.

What we're left with at this point is a God who cannot be demonstrated in the universe, and who takes no action in it. This is the position of more "vague" theist positions, such as deism or pantheism, and is also the concept of God posited by agnosticism.

One of the problems with such a conception of God, it that it's hard to assert that your conception has any contents, makes any positive assertions, or has any properties or characteristics at all. Examining what such a God would mean too easily boils away into either merely "God is everything" or "God is nothing," which is to assert nothing at all (much less anything in which one could claim to believe).

But at the very least, such a God must remain confined to the unknown, to that of which we currently remain ignorant; our ignorance is precisely the space that He can fill, and go no further. This is commonly referred to as the "God of the gaps." But if God precisely fills the space of ignorance, then it is also the case that ignorance is the only thing that gives shape to God; He essentially is defined solely by that which we happen to be ignorant of.

This is the case whether you claim that God can only be asserted with respect to phenomena that do not currently know about but might potentially discover, as well as the claim that God can only be asserted with respect to phenomena that under current scientific paradigms are even theoretically unknowable (such as those below Heisenbergian uncertainty, within singularities or beyond the light-cone of astronomically observable phenomena). Even a God so limited might be threatened by a significant shift in one or more scientific paradigms.

Therefore, to define and place belief in God as such, is to essentially worship ignorance itself (or at least grant great respect to it) because that's all there is that remains in this conception of God. One who has such an attitude towards their own ignorance is much less likely to try to discover more about the world, lest they diminish Him even further. In any case, worship of igorance is hardly something that one could or should call virtuous at all.


Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.

- Jean-Paul Sartre

Faith is belief beyond knowledge. To have faith in something is to believe in it not because one has justified knowledge of it, but for some other reason - or preferably, no reason at all. In fact, if one believes something for good logical and evidentiary reasons, then they cannot have faith in it. That's the entire point of faith. That's why it's treated as either a sacred virtue or a miraculous gift.

The above point should seem so obvious to the religious and nonreligious alike that it would seem that it should not even be worth mentioning. And yet still theists seek to argue with reasons, to give evidence, and otherwise provide justified knowledge for their religious positions. But if their positions are so reasonable, then doesn't that mean that they themselves are faithless?

A critical examination of faith as a concept must address why people would adopt it. It certainly can't be for rational reasons, or else it wouldn't be faith. The only reason that could remain (unless I'm going to start throwing around accusations of mental illness) must be through having some strong emotional attachment to an idea, and/or the fear of its contrary.

People adhere to their positions of faith because of many reasons. They fear death, and want its finality refuted, both for themselves and those they've lost. They want to believe that good people (they and others like them) will be rewarded, and that evil people (those they don't like) will be punished. They've had some numinous experiences (moments of intense joy and awe) and want them validated as something more significant than a mere localized neurological effect. They want to live in a universe that comes pre-packaged with purpose and meaning. They want to live in a universe in which justice actually prevails, despite all evidence to the contrary. And they want to believe that somewhere, somehow, all that is unknown is known by somebody, even if it isn't us.

But hope is not knowledge, and it shouldn't be belief. I may hope that I will win the next lottery drawing. But I would be deluded (and might make poor short-term financial decisions) if I chose to believe I that will, based on that hope.

What I think many people of both the atheist and theist persuasion may fail to consider is that one need not "abandon all hope" as a result of withdrawing belief from a proposition based solely on faith. You can still hope that your consciousness will somehow survive your death, without investing emotionally-attached belief in the proposition that it will. You can hope that we're wrong about lots of things. But there's a world of difference between hoping for something, and refusing to admit the situation that is.

As for how atheists deal with these same kinds of hopes and fears, there are a variety of methods.

Many atheists I know have no fear of death, based on the simple observation that there will be no "them" at the time to fear it. This is often expressed as "my situation after I die will be exactly the same as it was before I was born." For others, that isn't enough - the ego balks at conceiving of its own utter dissolution. Another method is to consider things from a greater perspective. Some take comfort in the return of their physical energy to the Earth, to be re-used as future phenomena. Others find comfort in pondering the notion that we are all made from stardust, that the higher elements which comprise our beings came from the nuclear fusion furnaces of distant stars, and on a long enough time frame will ultimately return to them. As for me, I personally enjoy the notion that I will have been a piece of the universe that briefly knew itself. And I hope that this process (of which I am a part) that led to the development of my own complexity will continue, and ever after lead to more and more entities of even greater complexity, self-awareness and more. You might come up with your own ideas.

But the point is that whether or not atheists fear death, we at least confront it head-on. We don't turn away and instead wish for a powerful Father who will make not be real, in order to banish our fear of it. There are very few religious people who don't have moments of even slight doubt - who are completely immune to such fears. In fact, I'd posit that they live in greater fear of death and the unknown than atheists do in the long term, if only because they never actually confront it. Their faith won't allow them to do so.

As for meaning, purpose and justice in the universe, existentialism comes to the clear position that it is our job to create it, both for ourselves and one another. If there is no God to uphold these things by virtue of His very existence, then it falls to us to bring them into existence. This seems to me to be a much better reason to seek a life of purpose, much less to a good person than merely "God commands." Victor Frankl's approach of logotherapy is also based around the notion that participating in the creation of meaning and purpose in our lives is an innate psychological need in humans. We are in a sense, purpose creating engines.

A separate claim regarding faith that must be addressed is the assertion that having it causes one to live a better life than not having it. That whether articles of faith are right or wrong, placing belief in them anyways will have positive benefits in your life. Typically the people making such claims point to former addicts or others who were once engaged in self-destructive behavior, who are no longer and credit their religious conversion with the improvement.

First of all, as an atheist who's doing just fine, I find such a claim to be flatly insulting, if applied across the board. Fuck you very much, as well. But even if we only admit that some people in certain situations can truly be helped by faith at least in the short term (which from a mere observation of statistical possibility I can't deny) then we must also admit that there soem people in certain situations can truly be helped by losing faith, at least in the short term. Which leaves us nowhere regarding a such a claim.

In any case, the claim that believing in something one doesn't know to be true leads to a better life (even to a stastically significant margin between overlapping bell curves) would require some form of (non-anecdotal) evidence in order to be demonstrated. Such has never been presented.

Credulity is no virtue.

Next up: I'll try to construct my own epistemic worldview, from first principles. Without a net.


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