March 1, 2009

Natural selection: Darwin's God killer

It's been 150 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, yet public acceptance of natural selection seems as elusive as ever. A recent poll in the United States, for example, revealed that most Americans don't believe in evolution; 51% of respondents still believe that God created humans in present form while 30% think that humans evolved, but that God guided the process.

The fact that the majority of Americans reject evolution outright is likely due to the generally weak understanding of scientific principles and the ongoing devotion to biblical literalism in that country. But the explanation as to why 30% believe that God 'guided the process' is a bit more involved, one that speaks directly to the larger problem.

There's a definite 'want to have my cake and eat it, too' aspect to this position. It's often voiced by the statement, 'You can believe in evolution and still believe in God -- there's room for both.'

But what this position flatly ignores is the ultimate power of Darwin's 'dangerous' idea, that natural selection is a stand-alone process that does not require the intervention of a higher power. Consequently, it has become the fuel that powers scientific naturalism -- the conviction that all phenomenon, whether biological or physical, can be explained by autonomous processes.

Since time immemorial, religions of all sorts have offered their creation stories. It was Darwin, however, who finally explained how we really got here. And his explanation -- that we're descended from animals -- was particularly upsetting to Christian sensibilities. No longer a creature positioned between God and the animals, Darwin reduced humanity to nature. The notion that humans were just another animal in the forest was -- and still is -- a very difficult pill to swallow.

This is ultimately why evolution remains largely rejected to this very day. Human arrogance has gotten in the way and many of us fear the implications. If we lack that 'divine spark,' and if God doesn't really exist, what's to prevent us from brutalizing each other? Are humans subject to the laws of nature rather than the laws of God? And what does it even mean to speak of 'human nature?' Is that as seemingly malleable as our physical form?

These may be challenging and provocative questions, but it's in response to the truth. Without it and our devotion to reason we live in a state of confusion and fumble in the dark.

Given the evidence in support of natural selection, and given that sensible people can no longer withhold reasonable consent on the matter, the cognitive dissonance created in the minds of the faithful must pound like a migraine. Their prescription has become this fatuous and pathetic attempt to reconcile religion and science -- the suggestion that God is somehow still in charge and directing traffic. It's delusion as comfort food.

I'd like to end this article by suggesting that we'll eventually get over it, and that someday we'll all accept natural selection as truth. But given that 150 years have passed and we're still largely in denial, it's an open question as to whether or not the greater public will ever come to accept Darwin's creation story and our place in the Universe.


Anonymous said...

An amazing logical fallacy.

The fact that evolutionary selection is a demonstrable fact - we've seen at least one example of it occurring before our eyes in the color selection of English moths in reaction to the changes of bark color of due to Industrial pollution - does not make the belief in "guided evolution" a denial of empirical truth, nor an idea which runs contrary to the data.

A belief in "guided evolution" is, however,absolutely not a scientific belief. It is not a falsifiable idea - so according to a Popperian view of science, it is a non-issue.

Which means that whether or not the seemingly random events that are part of mutation and selection behind the evolutionary process are actually part of an unseen pattern, or that that pattern may be guided by an intelligent will(s) is not a question that belongs in a scientific debate.

The operative phrase is "whether or not". That means that both theist and atheists alike have no right trying to use the success or failure of theory to address issues that fall completely outside of the domain addressed by that theory: the demonstrable existence of evolution creates no cognitive dissonance with the idea of the existence of God. It also creates no cognitive dissonance with the non-existence of God.

Darwin's description of a natural process which cannot be denied if one looks honestly at the facts, does not imply: that "natural selection is a stand-alone process that does not require the intervention of a higher power". Darwin, and evolution, describe a process of change; nothing more. To see God behind the theory, or that the theory is a means to dispose of God, is a metaphysical interpretation by both sides of the debate - and neither has any justification in doing so.

While I agree with you that the denial of the demonstrable mechanisms of evolution in order to keep some narrow interpretation of religious dogma is indefensible, so is the attempt of both theists and atheists alike to read moral justification for a pre-chosen metaphysical position from the description of a natural process.

Anonymous said...

I think you must be more precise in your blogging. Natural selection does not equal evolution. Alone the concept does not produce evolution. More is required. Mutation is also a material requirement. In addition, we have learned from scientists like Kauffman have showed that structure is also a key element. In summary, while I encourage your thoughts please use a more disciplined approach to avoid spurious arguments from arising

david santos said...

Brilliant posting!!! Excellent picture!
Have a nice day!!!!

Anonymous said...

"natural selection is a stand-alone process that does not require the intervention of a higher power."

It doesn't preclude it either. Both claims, "God does exist" and "God does not exist" are equally nonfalsifiable in a disciplined Popperian sense and are both equally unscientific.

There are no logical or empirical means of proving or disproving the existence of God. Claims either way are faith claims.

Frankly I find it tiresome that people like yourself and Dawkins are allowed to palm off faith claims as if they were somehow scientific. That is intellectually dishonest.

Cliff said...

It's interesting to me that directly above this post there's a post on the "biophilic universe." Elsewhere on the blog I've seen posts about the possibility of advanced intelligences designing universes, and the possibility that this universe is one.

Now, I'm not saying I don't regard evolution as the truth. I honestly don't believe that a supernatural force showed up and spliced our DNA, or squashed just the right invertebrate or whatever.

It's just odd to see a post that so firmly rejects the notion of universal design by a higher intelligence - at least on this blog.

George said...

@Cliff: Interesting comment. Much of the content on this site skirts the line between science and philosophy. I should probably do a better job delineating between the two.

When it comes to my overarching worldview I'm best described as an agnostic-atheist. This essentially means that philosophically/epistemologically I'm a skeptic and agnostic; but on matters that are existential and material, I'm definitely atheist. Subsequently, I defer to empiricism, rationality and the scientific method when it comes time for me to make decisions on how I am to live.

So, while I keep an open mind about things like the Simulation Argument (and even God), I am ultimately agnostic about such things. My writings about such topics are pure speculation and mind exercises.

But, until we have more evidence to support these sorts of musings, I will defer to the observations of science. As for natural selection, it reinforces the idea of scientific naturalism -- that's why I use it to show how True Believers (of any kind) are likely mistaken in their convictions.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm strange, but I never saw much of a conflict between science and religion. It seems to me that the two are complementary, not antagonistic. Religion deals with meaning and purpose (teleology), it answers "why" questions. Science deals with functions and processes (mechanism), it answers "how" questions.

Now I know that this is a very old argument, going back at least as far as the Greek philosophers. Plato and Socrates were on the side of teleology. Epicurus and Democritus were on the side of mechanism. Yet it seems to me to be a silly argument, like fighting over which blade of the scissors is the most important.

The more strident atheists (like Dawkins) and the equally rabid fundamentalists both strike me a half blind individuals, each blind in a different eye, and forever arguing over which is the better eye to see with. Me, I prefer to use both my eyes so I can see better. Or to quote an episode of Babylon 5 "Faith and reason are the shoes on your feet--you can get further on both than on just one."

Problems arise when each tries to invade the others turf. A literal reading of Genesis for example is just plain wrong in the face of the available evidence. Genesis is a "myth" in the true sense of the word — a story that relates deeper truths than a mere literal interpretation can provide. The fundy who insists on a literal interpretation is missing the whole point of the story. OTOH, for scientists like Dawkins or Weinberg to state that life and existence has no meaning and purpose because science can find none commit a logical fallacy. Science has nothing to say, good or bad, about teleology. This particular viewpoint is inherently nihilistic.

IMHO, the proper approach is Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magesteria", where each respects the other's turf and sticks to its own knitting.

Besides, only athesits and fundies are stupid enough to take Genesis literally.

As early the 5th century St. Augustine of Hippo warned against a literal interpretation of Genesis. People who do so are what St. Augustine called "people of limited understanding". According to his "Literal Meaning of Genesis", Chapter 19:

"...Christians should not talk nonsense to unbelievers. ...Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men."

biogeek said...


“Frankly I find it tiresome that people like yourself and Dawkins are allowed to palm off faith claims as if they were somehow scientific. That is intellectually dishonest.“

No, it’s dishonest to talk about Popperian falsifiability as if it were the one and only standard of science and rationality.

A vast body of evidence suggests that complex systems emerge when and where they can self-assemble through stepwise selectional and random-walk processes. No evidence supports the idea that they ever came about through divine planning and intent.

Hence unguided evolution follows from observation and the parsimony principle. It describes our reality using the smallest set of unsupported assumptions. Without Occam’s Razor, the number of explanations consistent with the data turns literally infinite and scientific theorizing becomes impossible.

“"God does exist" and "God does not exist" are equally nonfalsifiable”

Incorrect generalization. The non-existence of a non-stealthy god would be falsified if we saw Paley’s watch putting itself together from gold nuggets in a creek, or mammals directly descended from bacteria, or the sea parting right when a group of fugitives stepped to the shore, and so on. (“god” defined as a person who can create and edit physical laws, and enforce improbable events merely by thinking about them.)

Secretive gods concealing their existence from our view are unfalsifiable, but they still are redundant by scientific standards. If someone claimed that redox reactions happen because of a weight- and volumeless phlogiston flowing out of reducing substances during oxidation, or that protein synthesis results from invisible lifeforce gnomes operating the ribosomes, I wouldn’t tiptoe around the issue and say that chemistry creates no cognitive dissonance with these ideas. I’d just call it a load of bollocks, as human experience shows that arbitrary hypotheses most probably won’t lead to supporting evidence later on. The same applies to stealthy designer deities.

A god who operates the universe exactly like the cosmos would do by itself is no different from infinitely many other unnecessary explanations, and can be tossed into the garbage bin of history along with “vis vitalis” and the “universal aether”. Treating gods differently from other unsubstantiated entities is an example of special pleading.

Anonymous said...

God is redundant only if meaning and purpose are redundant. IOW, God is not rrequired only if you are a nihilist.

Your first mistake is to confuse mechanism with teleos, and assuming that mechanism was all there is. Science has nothing to say on the subject sof purpose or meaning. Science is perfectly suited to analyze the movements of pistons in a car engine, their operating pressure, their rpm, their heat cycle, their efficiency, etc. But science can never answer *why* the car is on the road and being driven in the first place.

Logically, as an atheist, you cannot escape nihilism. I would recommend you read Hans Kung's "Does God Exist?", in which he makes a convincing case that atheism is inherently nihilistic:'It is the experience of radical uncertainty of every reality which provides atheism with sufficient grounds for maintaining that reality has absolutely no primal reason, primal support or primal goal. Any talk of primal source, primal meaning, primal value, must be rejected. We simply cannot know these things (agnosticism). Indeed, reality is ultimately chaos absurdity, illusion, appearance and not being, just nothing (atheism tending to nihilism).'

A short hand version of the argument can be found in the Internet encyclopedia of philosophy article on "Nihilism":

"In the twentieth century, it's the atheistic existentialist movement, popularized in France in the 1940s and 50s, that is responsible for the currency of existential nihilism in the popular consciousness. Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) defining preposition for the movement, "existence precedes essence," rules out any ground or foundation for establishing an essential self or a human nature. When we abandon illusions, life is revealed as nothing; and for the existentialists, nothingness is the source of not only absolute freedom but also existential horror and emotional anguish. Nothingness reveals each individual as an isolated being "thrown" into an alien and unresponsive universe, barred forever from knowing why yet required to invent meaning. It's a situation that's nothing short of absurd. Writing from the enlightened perspective of the absurd, Albert Camus (1913-1960) observed that Sisyphus' plight, condemned to eternal, useless struggle, was a superb metaphor for human existence (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942). The common thread in the literature of the existentialists is coping with the emotional anguish arising from our confrontation with nothingness, and they expended great energy responding to the question of whether surviving it was possible. Their answer was a qualified "Yes," advocating a formula of passionate commitment and impassive stoicism. In retrospect, it was an anecdote tinged with desperation because in an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. Enter nihilism."

Nihilism uber alles. In other words, in a world that is inherently nothing more than a meaningless accident, no amount of individual effort will result in true meaning or purpose. All such attempts will be in vain.

So you are wrong from square one. The real question isn't whether or not God exists, but whether or not existence has meaning or purpose. So while it is perfectly legitimate for you to make the faith claim that "God does not exist", don't think that you cansomehow escape that claim's inherent nihilism.

P.S. BTW Popperian falsification IS the one and only way to determine if a claim is scientific. If it can't be falsifeid, it isn't science. Ever.

Unknown said...

Anonymous 2:22 PM has it right. There's no point in the neo-atheists' antagonism of believers. As long as people accept that the universe operates according to materialistic laws (including evolution) and get out of the way of science in schools and health care, who cares what they believe?

You also should have googled for a more recent poll. CBS's 2005 poll was absolute flamebait, riddled with stupid questions (what does "God guided" really mean?). This one by Gallup is much more interesting and optimistic - 39% believe in evolution, and a whopping 36% "don't have an opinion either way". That doesn't sound like a hopeless cause to me, and the breakdowns according to religious declarations show a far more complex situation than neo-atheists acknowledge.

When doing campaign work this summer, one seemingly obvious thing I actually had to learn is that you can never educate from a position of conflict. You have to identify with what people believe to focus on the big picture, and if you do, you'll see that the vast majority of people are simply bewildered by the awesome timescales required for evolution, not willfully ignorant. Do you guys think those people are more likely to listen to you if you try and explain the science they were never taught, or start with "GOD IS DEAD"?

biogeek said...


“God is redundant only if meaning and purpose are redundant. IOW, God is not rrequired only if you are a nihilist.”

This attitude has always puzzled me. We can’t outsource our conscience to God; the motives and intentions of a super-powerful entity should be questioned like our own. Kadavergehorsam is no virtue. To follow God’s direct command to set off a nuke in a city would still be a crime against one’s fellow man and woman, and to protect a heretic from a murderous mob against God’s explicit plan would remain the same good deed. Self-responsibility supersedes any supposed divine purpose. Even if I made God’s purpose my own, it would be my choice rather than God’s unless the deity rigged my thought process. God once again proves unnecessary. The word you are looking for to describe this outlook is humanism, not nihilism.

The “all hail the Ori” storyline of the Stargate series highlights my point. The Ori gave a credible impression of divinity, but they didn’t have a right to impose their sense of cosmic purpose on the whole galaxy. To pass off what priests and shamans believe to be God’s will as everyone else’s preordained goal in life fuels the religious authoritarianism that humanists oppose.

As for the silent god of reality: that one no more helps me know where to focus my energies than I need advice from a digested fortune cookie. It’s absurd to cling to a supernatural giver of meaning and purpose if we don’t have a clue where its interests overlap or collide with ours.

Preferences and ethical values develop in our physically embodied minds due to coherent sensory input, and we tend to feel significant when we see opportunities for making a desired difference to our lives and the lives of others. No magic injections required.

This blog happens to deal with far-reaching worldly possibilities for making our lives matter more, e.g. by longer healthy lives and better problem-solving abilities. Perhaps a future people will look back on us as the seeds of an Orion’s-Arm-spanning civilization that saved from the Sun gone supernova what took many billion years to evolve. I think that’s meaningful enough. You and Hans Küng might beg to differ. Oh well, that’s neural diversity in action.

”Your first mistake is to confuse mechanism with teleos, and assuming that mechanism was all there is.”

The telos of a loving (or malicious) Creator relates to the world at large like Marxist teleology relates to post-Marx history, or free-market heroism to the financial sector. It fails to explain reality unless gutted of meaning until it explains anything. And that’s a conclusion not assumption.

”Science has nothing to say on the subject sof purpose or meaning.”

Neuroscience has plenty to say on our thoughts, drives and emotions. But it doesn’t pass judgment on which of our values and ideals are more desirable and good, on which theology and philosophy have no “objective truth” to offer, either. Since our lives’ purposes are sometimes at cross purposes, social aims are best negotiated in a secular democracy that strives to maximize positive-sum games, and minimize encroachment on personal autonomy.

“BTW Popperian falsification IS the one and only way to determine if a claim is scientific.“

It’s a necessary condition for positive claims (supporters and opponents of string theory may differ on the goal-posts) but it’s not sufficient. A limitless number of falsifiable, non-falsified hypotheses can be posed in accordance with the scientific evidence. Then Occam has to prune back the rank growth of models and explanations.

Anyway: defining god away into the unfalsifiable (while insisting that god is a real entity outside of our imagination) no more renders god-belief compatible with science than shaping the phlogiston model to be untestable is likely to bring it closer to reality.

Anonymous said...

Go back a reread the quotes on the inherent nihilism of atheism.

Simply put, a universe that is an accidental byproduct of the Big Bang is inherently meaningless. Accidents can never have meaning.

OTOH, a deliberately created universe, made by a Creator, has an implied purpose and reason for existing. For the universe to have inherent meaning, God must exist.

Furthermore, in an inherently meaningless universe no individual through their own efforts can create meaning ("...because in an absurd world there are absolutely no guidelines, and any course of action is problematic. Passionate commitment, be it to conquest, creation, or whatever, is itself meaningless. Enter nihilism." )

The best that the individual can achieve is an act of solipcism where meaning exist only in their own head.

But even that escape is denied the individual because of the second atheistic assumption: there is no Soul. Without a soul, the human mind is nothing but an illusion. This can be shown using Dawkin's own meme theory.

Dawkins and his protege Susan Blackmore have taken their hard reductionism to new heights (or lows) with their elimination of the "Self". Dawkins, etal have always hated DesCartes "I think, therefore I am" because it implies some sort of ghost in the machine which can't be accounted for by purely mechanistic explanations. Dawkins meme concept has been taken to its logical conclusion by Susan Blackmore who makes the claim that the Self is merely an illusion. Dawkins has adopted this position. Let the following quotes illustrate this:

In a recent joint lecture, Dawkins asked his colleague Steven Pinker: "Am I right to think that the feeling I have that I'm a single entity, who makes decisions, and loves and hates and has political views and things is a kind of illusion that has come about because Darwinian selection found it expedient to create that illusion of unitariness rather than let us be a society of mind?" Pinker answered affirmatively that "the fact that the brain ultimately controls a body that has to be in one place at one time may impose the need for some kind of circuit . . . that coordinates the different agendas of the different parts of the brain to ensure that the whole body goes in one direction." That hypothetical circuit is all that remains of the illusion of a free-acting self. [The Dawkins-Pinker exchange is available in the archives at]

And from a recent interview: Stangroom: One final question about hard determinism. I think at the end of The Selfish Gene you said that one of the important things about human beings is that they are able to choose to act otherwise than perhaps their selfish genes would have them. Obviously, however, for a hard determinist the choices we make are themselves determined. In an interview with The Third Way you indicated that you had some sympathy with Susan Blackmore's view that "The idea that there is a self in there that decides things, acts and is a whopping great illusion. The self we construct is just an illusion because actually there's only brains and chemicals." Is your position then that statements about consciousness or selfhood will ultimately be reducible to statements about neurons and chemicals?

Dawkins: I suppose that philosophically I am committed to that view because I think that everything about life is a product of the evolutionary process and consciousness must be a manifestation of the evolutionary process, presumably via brains. So I think that has got to mean that consciousness is ultimately a material phenomenon."

Without a soul, Blackmore and Dawkins are quite right, mind, consciousness and self awareness are mere illusions. So the entity which calls itself Biogeek doesn't really exist, its all just an illusion. Dawkins is correct when he claims that illusions are not capable of true volition, meaning or purpose. There is no Biogeek to create his own meaning. The lights are on, but there isn't anybody at home.

Without a God, existence is a meaningless accident. Accidents are inherently meaningless and without purpose.

Without a Soul, the individual is but an illusion. Illusions are incapable of creating meaning or purpose.

Atheism leads inevitably to total, abject and complete nihilism.

biogeek said...

Anonymous keeps rehashing the "inherent meaning" confusion, oblivious to meaning being a high-level emergent property of individual minds. From the scientific perspective, attempts to find it in the vast radiation-bathed emptiness of the universe are about as tragic-comically misguided as seeking to study salmon genetics in the wave equation of the hydrogen molecule. And conceptually speaking, purposes are relations between persons and objects of their intentions; hence God’s reasons for making the world would be God’s and not ours.

So human history either occurred as a “byproduct of the Big Bang”, or its manifold plagues, famines, and mass killings were facilitated by an invisible space monster watching with gleeful curiosity or blasé indifference while imagining itself infinitely good. Now, which is supposed to whip up my existential angst, again? Only by adding further delusions such as restitution in an afterlife can the latter be given an appeal, if you can call deliberate self-lies appealing, and then you are still just the plaything of an inscrutable, maybe narcissistic superbeing that for no human reasons might help or foil your life plans.

A cosmos once completely mindless nevertheless produced the varieties of consciousness. If you are reading this, you are experiencing volition, emotions, and perceptions firsthand. Labeling the mind an “illusion” without further qualifications is self-evident nonsense and nothing in the Pinker/Dawkins quotes mined above suggests otherwise in a strong sense.

The term “society of mind” describes a bottom-up model of decentralized cognitive organization. It doesn’t deny the existence of our interests, thoughts and feelings; it tries to explain how they arise. We know from split-brain patients that parts of the brain can have a distinct will and personality once left on their own. This implies a certain redundancy and diversity in our neural circuits. Jumping further into philosophical musings and pretending that a deciding agent doesn’t exist at the top level would be a peculiar over-interpretation.

Science aims for an understanding of mind using all available good evidence and a minimal number of metaphysical assumptions, and whose outline may go like this: To be a conscious mind is the state of being a synaptic interaction pattern of sub-patterns whose self-recursive nature allows the pattern to observe itself.
In this sense, Susan Blackmore has it right: the self isn’t sitting in the brain looking outward through the eyes – it is what the brain does, not a substance but a manifest process running on a material substrate.

At the lowest level of organization there’s quantum theory, which is understood well enough to model chemistry, and higher up synaptic processes whose psychological dimension is largely yet unknown but illuminable. If we had supernatural souls that actually do something, our minds would function according to otherworldly laws we don’t understand at all, laws that might challenge our self-image even more than natural science if only they were real und testable. Flight to the unintelligible-in-principle is a fool’s game that creates new problems and doesn’t resolve any “deep” philosophical questions.

Anonymous said...

"oblivious to meaning being a high-level emergent property of individual minds."

There are no individual minds. The Mind and the Self are mere illusions - according to Dennet, Dawkins, Blackmore, etal. And they'd be right if the Soul did not exist. So how does a mere Illusion lacking free will and volition create Meaning?

"scientific perspective, attempts to find it in the vast radiation-bathed emptiness of the universe"

Science is inherently capable commenting on or discerning meainag. Science is concerned strictly with mechanism and is incapable of saying anything, good or bad, about teleos.

"And conceptually speaking, purposes are relations between persons and objects of their intentions"

Without the Soul, there are no persons, no intentions, no mind, no free will. These are but illusions.

To repeat:

Without a God, existence is a meaningless accident. Accidents are inherently meaningless and without purpose.

Without a Soul, the individual is but an illusion. Illusions are incapable of creating meaning or purpose.

Atheism leads inevitably to total, abject and complete nihilism.

What part of this are you not understanding?

Anonymous said...

"Labeling the mind an “illusion” without further qualifications is self-evident nonsense and nothing in the Pinker/Dawkins quotes mined above suggests otherwise in a strong sense."


Try rereading the quote:

"The idea that there is a self in there that decides things, acts and is responsible is a whopping great illusion. The self we construct is just an illusion because actually there's only brains and chemicals."

Seems pretty straightforward to me, but then I must lack your sophistication. Actually what we have here is your inability to face the consequences of your belief system and take your atheism to its logical conclusion. To their credit, Dawkins, Dennet, Blackmore, etal have the cojones to do so.

You OTOH retreat into a state of denial, unable to beleive that they meant what they said.

biogeek said...

“Science is inherently capable commenting on or discerning meainag. Science is concerned strictly with mechanism and is incapable of saying anything, good or bad, about teleos.”

Here you reply to a sentence on the factual aspect of meaning vaguely as if I had been referring to its subjective side. (= non-sequitur)

There is a subjective and a factual approach to meaning. When buccaneer Jack Sparrow says his pirate ship is freedom, his very own aesthetic preference to look upon ships as imbued with his desire to be free cannot be refuted or invalidated (subjective truth).

Then again, an emotional investment is also a blunt fact of the psyche. Science is elucidating why we are able to think about meaning in the first place. Researchers strive to put a finger on increasingly specific kinds of neural activity that generate the experience of meaning, and lead to the attendant behaviours. Sufficiently advanced neurotechnology could analyze Jack’s nerve firings and confirm with reasonable certainty that he reports his beliefs truthfully.

I’ve addressed your other assertions before. And stop the quote-mining already. Blackmore contends that there is no linear, continuous stream of consciousness. She doesn’t claim that we literally have no mind and sense of self.
“First we must be clear what is meant by the term “illusion”. To say that consciousness is an illusion is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but that it is not what it seems to be―more like a mirage or a visual illusion. And if consciousness is not what it seems, no wonder it’s proving such a mystery.


It sounds bizarre, but try to catch yourself not being conscious. More than a hundred years ago the psychologist William James likened introspective analysis to “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks." The modern equivalent is looking in the fridge to see whether the light is always on. However quickly you open the door, you can never catch it out. The same is true of consciousness. Whenever you ask yourself, “Am I conscious now?” you always are.
But perhaps there is only something there when you ask. Maybe each time you probe, a retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of consciousness a moment before, together with a “self” who was apparently experiencing it. Of course there was neither a conscious self nor a stream, but it now seems as though there was.
Perhaps a new story is concocted whenever you bother to look. When we ask ourselves about it, it would seem as though there’s a stream of consciousness going on. When we don't bother to ask, or to look, it doesn't, but then we don't notice so it doesn't matter.”

Anonymous said...

Actually, what Blackmore said is "Consciousness is an illusion constructed by memes." Which begs the question as to who or what is observing the illusion (unless you beleive that illusions can observe themselves, at which point you come to a circular answer without explanatory content).

As for memes, they have one serious flaw — they don't exist except in the sense that Platonic ideals "exist".

The memes Blackmore relies upon are the result of words, books, equations, etc. — memes aren't real things. They're only metaphors, mere labels with out true descriptive power and a lot of logical problems:

Memes are not well defined. All this talk of memes and memetic evolution is meaningless unless we can identify exactly what a meme is. Ideas can come in all shapes and sizes, but there seems to be no way to identify their composite memes. How can we point to a memetic unit? How big is a meme? What is the difference between competing memes? How can they be distinguished from each other? How can such a fuzzy conept be considered scientific?

Not having a material existence, memes are an inherently dualistic concept. Its proponents are in effecte sneaking dualism in under the cover of their monism, which is intellectually dishonest.

In their enthusiasm for memes, its adherents seem to have forgotten that the map is not the terrain, and the blueprint is not the building. A classic logical fallacy.

Anonymous said...

I've always puzzled by the statement that the universe has no meaning unless god exists.

If god created the universe for a reason, then that gives it a purpose, but not necessarily any meaning. I have a knife. The knife was created by fellow human beings. Its purpose is cutting. If I know what a knife is, then it holds meaning for me, but it probably doesn't have any meaning to a garden slug (except maybe "thing that I don't like to touch the edge of" if it ever encountered one). So it seems to me that "meaning" is purely in the mind of the observer. So either meaning exists independent of god, or else meaning is an illusion which exists only because of god.

And what if god created the universe more or less randomly for no reason other than boredom? What meaning lies in anything then?

And if meaning exists only because god created something, then what created god to give him/her meaning?

And if no meaning actually exists, whether god has anything to do with it or not, why is that even a bad thing? Because it would make certain lines of philosophical inquiry which people were pursuing for thousands of years to seem like, in retrospect, a colossal waste of time? That sounds like some kind of logical fallacy.

And the idea that if the universe wasn't created, it must have been an accident? That use of the term "accident" seems to imply that anything that happens without some sort of intention for it to occur is an accident. So if a rock falls down but hits no one and nothing except the ground, that's an accident. The wind blows, an accident. You wander around not caring where you end up, accident. You find a piece of driftwood without looking for one, accident. That seems ridiculous, because this would mean that either ultimately everything is an accident, or else nothing is (because god intended everything to happen), so why bother to use the word like that at all?

And if anything here sounds like a "straw man" because it's not really what they're saying at all, then it simply goes to illustrate that I don't understand the kind of mindset that would come to those kind of conclusions in the first place.

Jay said...

Infinity is all possibilities, both conflicting and not otherwise it would not be infinite and it is also not it and it for when it is it it becomes finite and no longer infinite yet for it to be infinite it must also be finite. Consciousness is created by the physical yet the physical is created by the Consciousness. If we loose our sight we do not loose our consciousness, if we loose our hearing we do not loose our consciousness; We only loose those things for which the tools of perception shaped. If we loose our bodies altogether we still do not loose consciousness but rather consciousness of what the body would have been conscious of with its senses. Consciousness without a body remains conscious of itself; It is aware that it is aware and that could either be just its infinite self or that which is finite. Call it God or science but they are labels and means of the same thing and endless are the ways to describe such infinity. It is filled with all manners of paradox and conflict yet so amiable and harmonious. It is that which is inseparable and that which is so distant apart. And so it goes round and round without end or beginning yet certain it is we concur the same.

Anonymous said...

Something came to mind just a minute ago-
No matter how hard anybody wishes it to be so,This 'GOD' thing is still just a theory itself. As far as I can tell,nobody has provided a single scrap of tangible evidence one way or the other. I am happy with my incredible good fortune to be a living,sentient entity. That is just a theory,too.

Anonymous said...

The de-deification of western culture (including the sciences) is our task for the next two hundred years.


FutureNerd said...

George, you said, "I defer to empiricism, rationality and the scientific method when it comes time for me to make decisions on how I am to live." You were discussing how you could cover semi- metaphysical and empirical topics within the same blog. But for religious people the distinction you're drawing isn't sharp.

If religious people-- including those who are happy with empiricism-- didn't think God were relevant to deciding how to live, they would pretty soon drop the concept.

I think true agnostics can get away with not knowing or caring what religion is about. But to be an atheist requires knowing something about what you're saying no to.

I'm not going to get far into what a "belief" in God means here. I think it's selling it short to call it orthogonal to empiricism but God is certainly not an empirical hypothesis.

One old idea about the relationship was that reality is the other volume of the Bible, the other Book God has written for us. In which view, evolution, if it's as solid as it seems, is some important message from God, which we're left to interpret. This is just an example of how there can be a God that is neither contradictory to nor orthogonal to empiricism.

George, you're trying to describe a paradigm shift solely from within the second paradigm. It's what used to be called "preaching to the converted." I think you need to decide between happily not caring about religion, or learning more.

The place I got started was Gregory Bateson's Steps to an Ecology of Mind, the parts about religion as a sort of mode and what it's for.

Nightvid said...

Anonymous is just preaching.

He/she asserts that accidents can have no meaning. This is a bare assertion without support, and, I might add, a false one. If accidents had no meaning, traffic laws would be largely unnecessary and superfluous.

That we are made of "worthless" atoms does nothing to diminish our value - to assume otherwise is to commit a Composition Fallacy.

Finally, one should distinguish between *original purpose* (What something was made for) and *acquired purpose* (What something is used for). If atheism is true, the universe does not have an original purpose. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have an acquired purpose. The same is true of us human beings (We use ourselves to do...anything we do!)

Hence atheism does not entail nihilism. Nihilism is the view that nothing has *any* kind of purpose or value, not that the universe as a whole has no *original* purpose.

Hence Anonymous's arguments fail miserably. To believe in value is just as reasonable for an atheist as it is for a theist.