Saturday, May 16, 2015

Things That Keep Atheists Up At Night (According to Randal Rauser)

Here's a list of what Randal Rauser thinks keeps atheists up at night from his blog. Let me provide brief answers.

1. Nobody to thank for all my “blessings” and nobody to blame for the converse.
    This is not a problem for the atheist and I've never heard a single one tell me this keeps them up at night. No one is blessed or cursed under atheism. Our fortunes and failings are due to chance, by way of our genetics, our families, our environment, and innumerable other contingent factors. We accept that based on the evidence. We're thankful to the things that have actually mattered in our lives, which in most cases are other human beings.

    2. Implications of nihilism.
      If you view nihilism as there simply being no objective meaning or purpose to life, then the atheist is fine with that. It's only someone who feels that life is required to have objective meaning or purpose that is bothered by the idea of not having it. That's one of the reasons why religions try to make you emotionally dependent on them. They try to make you feel as if you need these things and then they try to offer you them. I explain this in my religion/heroin analogy. Atheism doesn't imply that there cannot be any meaning at all. Meaning and purpose in life are subjective, and many of us atheists find this a lot more comforting.

      3. Failure to rebut moral relativism. 
        Some atheists are fine with the idea of moral relativism, but those who are not have plenty of moral philosophies to choose from that address the issue. But the question is, what kind of moral relativism are we talking about? Is it cultural relativism? Situational relativism? Even most theists acknowledge situational relativism. Also the Euthyphro dilemma addresses the claim that god gives us objective morality quite well.

        4. Classical theism makes the strongest case for (what I would label) objective morality. 

        If you define objective morality (which Randal didn't do on his post) in such a way that it can only be served by theism, then perhaps. The claim that only theism can make a strong case for objective morality is again challenged by the Euthyphro dilemmaIs something good because god commands it, or does god command it because it's good? The first part makes morality arbitrary, and the latter makes god irrelevant to what's good. The standard response is that god is the good – god is the ontological foundation of goodness because he is intrinsically loving, compassionate and fair, etc. But then we can ask, is god good because he has these properties or are these properties good because god has them? In order to avoid compromising god's sovereignty and admitting that these properties are good independently of god, the theist who wants to hold to the moral argument must say that these traits are good because god has them. But how is love, compassion, fairness or any other positive attribute good only because god has them? They would be good irrespective of god's existence, as would be evident by their effects. The theist would bear the burden of proof to demonstrate that they wouldn't be good without god, which I haven't yet seen anyone successfully achieve. Thus it's clear to me at least that objective moral values - if they exist at all - exist independently of god.

        5. Relationship with God is transformative in the life of a believer in ways that the atheist will never experience. One example is the hope believers have in the face of death. 
          Plenty of false gods and false beliefs transform people in ways a Christian will "never experience." The way belief in god effects you is not an indicator that the god you believe in is real. Hope for an afterlife is just false conciliation, and most atheists reject this belief for exactly that reason (and because there's no good evidence for it). Atheists live in the here and now. We live for this life, not some fairy tale existence promised to come. Belief in an afterlife often devalues this life. 

          6. Our experience is the one thing we cannot deny – I think, therefore I am. Naturalistic explanations of this qualia are inadequate to say the least. 

          There are many views on this that naturalists have. Religious explanations for this are not backed up by any good evidence and they are not compatible with known science, like quantum field theory. Understanding qualia scientifically requires nothing less than a full explanation of consciousness, it would seem, and we are no where near such knowledge. This is probably because the human brain is the most complex thing in the known universe. But all the data from neuroscience indicates that the brain causes consciousness because every experiment shows our brains "decide" for us what we "choose." This is perfectly in line with the naturalistic view of a material universe where consciousness is created by the brain.

          7. How can a material brain give rise to my subjective sensations?

          I don't know. Positing some kind of dualistic immaterial substance, or soul, to explain subjective sensation offers us nothing close to an actual explanation, and may not even be a potential explanation. It would have to be shown that it is physically impossible for the brain to give rise to subjective sensations. No theist has been able to demonstrate this, and such a view, if held, would hinder our intellectual progress. And that makes this form of theism dangerous.

          8. How can there be binding moral judgments?

          There are none outside of adherence to principle and social obligations.

          9. Why is there something rather than nothing?

          To ask "why" already presumes that there is a reason or purpose for existence, so already the question is loaded in that favor. And to say "rather than nothing" presupposes that "nothing" should be the ontological default state, as if something cannot be. I reject these assumptions and many atheists do too. However, this is a question that I do often think about and I think many atheists are honestly perplexed by. I just think that to answer this question with god only opens the door to many other unanswerable questions, and it doesn't make sense of the natural history and state of the universe. Thus, atheists like me are open to the existence of the universe (in this case the totality of spacetime) being a brute fact.

          10. Abiogenesis. Scientists do not know, and to my knowledge there is no widely accepted theory, how that first self-replicating molecule appeared. Evolution is an elegant and well-supported explanation for the complexity and diversity of life, but it starts at a point where life already exists. 
            This is just an argument from ignorance. There are many hypotheses in abiogenesis including the RNA-world model that give us the possibility of understanding the origin of life. Randal's question suggests that unless the atheist can explain every single thing in nature, or at least every big mystery, the default position should be theism. I see no good reasons to accept such a stance. We already have an understanding of how some RNA molecules combine. It will serve us no purpose to cave in to an argument from ignorance and think "God did it" is the best explanation for the origin of life. Besides, this mystery motivates many scientists, atheist and theist alike, and there are Nobel prizes waiting for those who will resolve it. So far from keeping atheists up at night, this motivates us to advance our knowledge further, which theism has the tendency to hinder.

            11. The complexity of DNA. While science has clearly shown that complex organisms naturally develop from simpler ones, even the simplest ones are incredibly complex at the cellular level. I’m not aware of any theory that explains this phenomenon satisfactorally. 
              Yet another argument from ignorance. Randal's on a role here. Interestingly, we just found a missing link in the evolution of complex cells as was reported by the New York Times. This is inching us closer to finding the origin of life, which DNA is a salient component of. If Randal's answer to the question of DNA is also "God did it," it's just another argument from ignorance. It also suggests that belief in god should be contingent upon current scientific mysteries. Randal may not have been aware at the time of his writing how awful the god-of-the-gaps type arguments are. As with the previous question, atheists are more likely to see this mystery as a motivating factor to go out and find the answer, or at least read up on it, rather than think this is reason to believe god exists and created DNA. God intervening this way is also challenged by theists who argue such Humean miracles are incompatible with god's rationality. And finally, if the scientific community adopted Randal's view our research and understanding into this field will stop, and this is why I argue that theism has the tendency to hinder our intellectual progress. 

              12. Infinite regress. My obviously flawed intuitions about time tell me that there cannot have been a first moment, and also that there cannot not have been. So my intuition must be wrong about one or the other of these, or maybe even both. Likewise, it doesn’t seem possible that there was a first event, nor does it seem possible that there wasn’t one.
                I'm not sure how the problem Randal articulates here is a problem for the atheist. It would seem that if he cannot imagine an infinite regress of time nor a first moment, that is a problem for everyone, atheist and theist. Or it's just a problem for people like Randal, since I can imagine the universe having a first moment.

                What really keeps me up at night is how so many educated adults can still believe in fairy tales just because they're labeled "religion" and what negative effects this is going to have on society.

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