Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bad Atheism

Even though I’ve found no reason to believe in God, I don’t claim to have any definitive knowledge on the matter. We are pretty sure that evolution happens, and that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old, but questions about “God” — starting with how one even goes about defining that term — are far subtler. That hasn’t stopped many atheists from rejecting the idea of God so fiercely, I kind of get what people mean when they say that atheism is a religion. They’re talking about bad atheism, a rigid view of the world that’s impoverished of deep curiosity. Bad atheists present current scientific theory as absolute truth, even though some scientific facts considered true now will almost certainly be revised by future theories. I think that atheism should be about humility regarding what we know (which is less than bad atheists think), and a desire to seek out what we don’t know. Unfortunately for some, atheism is just about being right.

It’s great to identify with our fellow atheists and exchange ideas. But when this identification turns into a battle and a desire to win, it becomes bad. The bad atheist seeks out believers with the goal of defeating them. (“I will destroy you!”) Bad atheists would say they are skeptics, but actually, they are pseudoskeptical. Truly skeptical persons keep their minds open but are unswayed by unconvincing arguments. Pseudoskeptics, on the other hand, fancy themselves to be open-minded, when actually they have long since settled their opinion and now their heels are dug in. More than being merely unconvinced, the pseudoskeptic spends effort disproving his chosen foes’ beliefs rather than listening to them. Complicating matters, the more unbiased a person views himself to be, the less likely he is to notice himself dismissing new ideas in a prejudiced manner.

The bad atheist has no problem exchanging one untestable proposition for another. While a Christian would say that the universe is fine-tuned for life because God created it to be that way, the bad atheist addresses this point matter-of-factly by invoking a multiverse and/or eternal inflation. (That is, if he doesn’t reject fine-tuning altogether, perhaps because he can’t disentangle the notion of physical fine-tuning and a supernatural fine-tuner.) The multiverse and inflation are legitimate scientific ideas, but they are merely hypothetical models, a “best guess to date.” For the bad atheist, though, who perhaps has watched too many science shows on the History Channel, they simply are the explanation. Of course, unobservable universes beyond our cosmic horizon are at present no more testable or predictive than saying “God did it.” To declare that fine-tuning is a consequence of an eternally inflating multiverse — not God — you might as well declare that leprechauns don’t steal pots of gold under rainbows, gnomes do.

To the bad atheist, philosophy and metaphysics are useless at best, and flat-out wrong at worst. The irony of this position is that it is inescapably a metaphysical one. But this truth is lost even on some of the world’s top thinkers. “The philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” Richard Feynman famously said — but as philosophers have since pointed out, such knowledge would be useful to birds, if they could possess it! The fact is, physicists answer questions about how the world works, but that’s only because the natural philosophers of the preceding centuries (and some more recent ones) have taught us what questions we should be asking.

For bad atheists, there is no mystery in the world. There are unknowns, such as details on the Higgs boson or quantum gravity, but these will be learned through current lines of research using familiar methodologies. “We’ve got it all under control; nothing to see here” is a common attitude toward the deeper questions. The graduate student head-down studying pi-mesons may have no interest in the measurement problem, the fascinating question of what’s really going on when we measure a particle. He might brush it off, say that there is no problem. The world in its totality consists of particles, fields, and forces, and eventually we’ll figure out everything on those hard terms and those terms alone. So deal with it.

Now, when I say “mystery,” I am not implying anything supernatural. All signs point to the world as operating under thoroughly self-consistent laws, with no external intervention whatsoever. But, in trying to understand the emergence of reality, time, and space at the deepest levels, we’re missing some key insight — most likely, because we are embedded inside of the very same world we’re trying to explain. It’s all terribly fascinating; we are truly at a “blind men and the elephant” moment in history. And we need to put the pieces together and get, at last, a coherent picture of an elephant. What we don’t need are bad atheists holding the trunk and saying, “It’s obviously a fire hose, dumbass. Go home now.”

Monday, April 2, 2012

Do Animals Have Souls?

Of all the bad ideas that Judeo-Christian religion has spread around the world, perhaps none is more obnoxious and dangerous than the belief that man is God’s chosen species. Even many non-religious people believe that humans experience consciousness but animals do not. Others may feel that animal consciousness is a cute but inadequate shadow of human consciousness, the way Animal Planet’s “Puppy Bowl” is an adorable but ridiculous version of our great and advanced human achievement known as the Super Bowl.

Human consciousness is different from animal consciousness, but it is not special or privileged. Humans just have a huge cerebral cortex, which has evolved organically through natural selection. All of the things that make us feel special — the fact that we have language and music and art, we contemplate the meaning of life, and we document the lives of the Kardashians — are merely emergent by-products of this overgrown organic brain of ours. Animals may not ask questions of “why” and “how,” and they may not think in terms of nouns and verbs, but their experience is nevertheless a continuous string of questions about their surroundings: “what,” “where,” and even “who.”

Most Christians believe that the human body is the temple of the soul. The conscious human mind is somehow more than just the physical particles that make up the brain, because we have been endowed with a Special Ingredient (not to be confused with Special Sauce). Animals, meanwhile, have bodies and brains, but not souls, thus setting humans apart as a fundamentally unique species with preferred treatment by the Creator. This view is riddled with inconsistencies and raises countless questions. Consider the following:

1. The state of a person’s consciousness is dependent entirely on the physical state of the body. When you are ill, your consciousness suffers. If you suffer a blow to the head, you may pass out. Stimulant drugs make the mind race; psychedelics and dissociatives such as ketamine alter consciousness radically. What happens to the soul in these cases?
2. At no time does a person’s consciousness remain unaffected when the brain is under stress, even something as simple as a fever. No conscious state is immune to physical conditions in the body. Phineas Gage famously survived a metal rod passing through his skull, but it changed his personality. Did the rod change his soul as well?
3. People’s personalities are rarely the same from youth to old age, which is especially true in cases of dementia or Alzheimer’s. At what age is our consciousness most like the “real” soul? If I went to heaven, would I feel like I feel now, or when I was 18, or right before I died? When a person with Alzheimer’s goes to heaven, do they get their memories back?
4. As any pet owner knows, animals have distinct personalities, which may change over the pet’s lifetime, after an illness, etc. If animals don’t have souls (but people do), what accounts for this continuity?
5. A Christian would say that God gave me a soul, precisely so that I can make a free choice whether to accept his love or take up Buddhism instead. So what allows my cat to choose between Ocean Whitefish and Mariner’s Catch?

The soul might make a little sense if it were thought to be entirely independent of consciousness — that we actually don’t take our Earthly experience to heaven with us, that humans and animals alike join God in the form of “pure energy,” or whatever. But that isn’t what the teachings say. The Big Sell of Christianity and Islam is eternal life, being reunited with loved ones, and experiencing happiness forever. The problem is that eternal paradise, to be experienced and enjoyed at all, would require some form of consciousness. But nobody can say with any consistency what that consciousness (“the soul”) would be like.

It’s funny, if you asked whether a child has a soul, almost any Christian would say yes. Yet, an infant’s interaction with the environment is less coherent and engaged than, say, a squirrel’s. When a soldier and his dog are reunited, and the dog shows signs of incredible excitement and joy, we’re expected to believe that the dog has no soul. But a week-old human fetus does. I don’t get it.