Friday, January 30, 2009

More on Atheism

William Seward writes in regarding my stance on atheism:
I'm not so sure I buy your defense of atheism. It strikes me as a much better defense of agnosticism. This all seems like basic hypothesis testing. We can't reject the null hypothesis that there is no god, but we really can't reject the null hypothesis that there is a god. We don't have positive evidence either way.

We have plenty of evidence that the Old Testament is wrong: that the world wasn't created in six days, that it didn't take place 6000 years ago, and that we aren't all descendants of Noah. But we don't have any evidence to reject the proposition that there is a god. Because we can't answer definitely to anyone's satisfaction the two key questions: "how the hell did we get here" and "what happens after we die."

Christianity believes it has the answers. So does atheism. To me, on this question, they are no different. And that makes them intellectually inferior to agnosticism.

I mean, if you accept that it's possible that we're in some kid's science project or just a computer simulation in a larger world --- both of which are virtually impossible to refute (and actually rather likely) --- then it seems to me the choice of atheism or agnosticism is plain silly.

I think this critique, which essentially says that both Christianity (or any relgion) and atheism are equally unproven -- that they are "no different" -- doesn't stand up to scrutiny, specifically in terms of what many fields of human knowledge have taught us. I'll point out that I hadn't really meant to defend atheism in my previous post, only note that Douthat was making a somewhat silly argument about atheists and doubt. I do believe that atheism is much more defensible than any religious tradition, which I'll get to in a second.

But first I want to briefly discuss the atheism vs. agnosticism issue. In simple definitional terms, an atheist is someone who does not believe in god, but an agnostic is someone who questions, someone who is undecided on the issue. In my last post, I argued that few atheists are dogmatic non-believers in the same way that many theists are dogmatic believers. In other words, the vast majority of atheists are more than willing to start believing in a deity if that deity decided to give any proof of its existence (indeed, if god was really concerned about us all becoming Christian, you'd think he'd have had the sense enough to hold off on sending Jesus until we had cell phone cameras and YouTube, so his various acts could be documented). Conversely, though, the vast majority of believers are not willing to stop believing, no matter the life-long lack of evidence towards their convictions. I think this relates to the agnosticism issue because the words, as often used, seem to imply that agnostics are open-minded to either possibility, while atheists are close-minded to the possibility of a god -- a notion I reject. To be honest, I don't really know what it means to be agnostic -- does an agnostic believe one day and not believe the next? In that since, I agree with Secretary Seward that the choice between agonsticism and atheism is "a bit silly," although I'm not clear on how the latter is "intellectually inferior" if the difference between them is silly. Personally, I don't think there's functionally much difference between the majority of those who call themselves one vs. the other.

Now, as for why I think atheism is in fact quite different, from an evidence-based perspective than [insert religious tradition here]. First, we actually do have a decent sense for "how the hell did we get here" and it doesn't involve god. I think people underestimate a) the power of evolution and b) the HUGE amount of time that the universe has been around. In just 50 years, a very small handful of underfunded scientists interested in the prebiotic origins of life have come up with some darn good evidence that life can arise spontaneously. Mind you, 50 years is 0.00000005% of the ~10 billion years that a space as large as the entire universe had to tinker with chemical evolution. Give scientists unlimited lab space and 10 billion years and I'm pretty sure they'd make life, too.

But this only answers the question "how the hell did we get here" from a biological perspective, not from a "how did the universe get here." But here the atheist standpoint is much stronger than the religious one. Atheists posit that the universe spontaneously sprang into being, while religions posit that god spontaneously sprang into being and that god then created the universe. Either standpoint has a step we don't understand -- the spontaneous origin of the universe or god -- and it seems to me the height of irrationality to suggest that the latter "makes more sense" than the former. At best, they are equally incomprehensible to minds that evolved to deal with Newtonian cause-and-effect (but not quantum mechanics, which is weird no matter how smart you are, possibly because our brains just haven't evolved in a world in which quantum effects are part of life experience). So why have the extra step of god?

Leaving that aside, however, it is probably the job of the atheist to explain, well, if atheism is right, then why do so many people believe in god? Humans are mammals, and one trade off evolution made for having giant heads with giant brains inside them is that we require a lot of post-birth care in order to surive. This would then select for individuals that really bond with their offspring, as opposed to, say, flatworms that lay thousands of eggs and are not involved at all in the raising of their offspring. Put quite bluntly, love evolved, and you see this as you look at species that are more and more closely related to humans. Birds manifest more of what we'd call love to their offspring than flies do to theirs. Ditto dogs compared to birds. And finally humans compared to dogs (although this comparison I'm not sure on, and I'm sure a lot of dog owners would argue that dogs love just as much as humans do -- and dogs are mammals, remember). My point is, humans, dogs, dolphins, whatever -- the big brained creatures -- feel a lot of love towards other beings.

But love, combined with the fact that bad things happen, and that life is finite regardless, also creates the feelings of dread and loss. Humans (and dogs, etc.) feel very sad when they lose someone they loved. I'd also say that the intensity of this feeling of loss is greater as one moves up the evolutionary ladder -- dogs generally (seem to) recover when you take away their babies and sell them off, but an analgous experience would scar a human for life. So humans, with the biggest, most creative brains and the most intense emotions, invent ways to deal with loss, and god, the afterlive, etc. are the result. While this field is still in its infancy, the evolution of belief is something under examination, and my strong suspicion is that the case for this viewpoint is only going to get stronger with time. Put another way, "what happens after we die?" Exactly what it looks like: nothing.

Indeed, to me that is some of the best evidence for the lack of a god, the which-way-are-things-headed argument. 6000 years ago, humans 'needed' the concept of god to explain all sorts of things -- weather, comets, infertility, you name it. But as time has moved on and as humanity has acquired more and more knowledge, the role for god to play gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Only very recently in human history have (most of us, anyway) gotten to the point where god plays absolutely zero role in day-to-day life (whether one is a believer or not) -- we recognize that god didn't create the traffic jam that made us late to the meeting, or that god didn't make the T pull into the station just as you arrived. But considering how far humanity has come in the last few thousand years -- and, really, the majority of the progress in that regard has been made in the last few hundred years -- isn't it more reasonble to assume that the role for god will continue to get smaller and smaller until it becomes zero?

Post Super Bowl I'd like to write about Atheists in Love, as that is a subject certainly raised by this post, and requires a full discussion.