20 Questions for Atheists

Recently, a post by Peter Saunders mentioning twenty questions atheists struggle to answer has created discussion around the blogosphere. He has followed up with some further explanations of why he asked the questions he did (1-6, 7-11). I thought it would be interesting to see how various atheists have tried to answer the questions and to stake out my positions on such matters. Obviously such a blog post is not going to provide exhaustive thoughts on all these matters. The reader is encouraged to make up his own mind.

1. What caused the universe to exist?

Saunders himself seems to have the kalam cosmological argument in mind in posing this question. I think it is important to note that there are other cosmological arguments that can tell us something about the First Cause too. The mere existence of causation strongly suggests the existence of a First Cause. I find cosmological arguments particularly strong because, unlike many other arguments, the conclusion logically follows from the premises if the premises are true. When properly understood, most cosmological arguments are logically valid. This forces the atheist to deny one or more premises in the argument. There is no wiggle room for the atheist to say that the argument is sound but not persuasive to them (at least if they want to be taken seriously).

Rosa Rubicondior notes that scientists cannot examine the first 10^-43 seconds of the universe’s existence. This completely ignores the premises of the cosmological arguments altogether. Cosmological arguments are philosophical, not scientific, in nature.

Richard Carrier begins by suggesting it is possible that our universe began to exist but was caused by another universe. This merely moves the question back a level. He then suggests that the universe itself is just as good an explanation as God. If God just exists then maybe the universe just exists. If God is a necessary being then maybe the universe is a necessary being. This might sound plausible unless you understand cosmological arguments. The kalam cosmological argument provides philosophical reasons for rejecting an eternal past. Since the universe is temporal it could not be the First Cause posited by the kalam cosmological argument. Thomas Aquinas argues that the First Cause is Pure Actuality. The universe contains potentiality and therefore cannot be the First Cause determined by the Five Ways.

Ricky Carvel tries a similar tactic but merely exposes his ignorance of cosmological arguments. Like many atheists he has a hard time grasping the nature of a deductive argument (at least when it concerns God). A sound deductive argument proves its conclusion. The argument explains why God does not have a cause. The argument explains why the regress must stop at the First Cause (God). Asking vague questions does not undermine the argument. You need to attack the argument’s premises or logical validity.

2. What explains the fine tuning of the universe?

Saunders notes that the universe is fine tuned for the existence of life. There are three general explanations for this fact: (1) chance, (2) necessity, and (3) creation by God. The first option is widely improbable but technically possible. The second option leads one to ask what made the fine tuning necessary, thus moving the question back a level. I don’t think this is a strong argument in favor of theism, but I think it is reasonable to conclude that we would expect a universe fine tuned for life if it was created by a God who wanted to know His creatures. The atheist could admit this while believing other considerations make atheism more likely than theism on the whole.

Richard Carrier notes that the universe could have been made more habitable to life. This does not change my opinion that it is more probable for life to exist (at all) given theism than atheism.

3.Why is the universe rational?

By this question Saunders seems to be asking why the universe is intelligible. Why can we make sense of the universe at all? It is certainly conceivable that we could live in a world where we were in a constant state of bewilderment. As with the fine tuning argument, I think this is a weak argument in favor of theism. We would expect a universe to be intelligible if it was created by a rational and intelligible God.

Rosa Rubicondior says the human brain has evolved to be good at pattern matching. In other words, the universe is rational because we’ve rationalized it. But this doesn’t answer the question of why there are patterns to be matched in the first place.

4. How did DNA and amino acids arise?

5. Where did the genetic code come from?

6. How do irreducibly complex enzyme chains evolve?

Questions 4-6 all tie in with intelligent design in regards to biology. From my reading, a decent number of atheists will admit that various cosmological constants must be within a very small range for life to exist. This gives me more confidence, as a non-expert, that the fine tuning argument has decent footing. On the other hand, very few atheists seem willing to give serious consideration to intelligent design. While I would describe myself as a theistic evolutionist I am not aware of solid naturalistic answers to these questions (I do not consider just-so stories to be solid answers). I am at least open to the possibility that intelligent design may one day prove correct. At the same time, if a purely natural answer to these questions is forthcoming it would not effect my faith since God can work through secondary causes.

7. How do we account for the origin of 116 distinct language families?

Saunders notes that some language families have no discernible connection to other language families (some language families are clearly related to another language family). According to him, this is to be expected if God sowed confusion at the Tower of Babel. I find this argument unpersuasive for three reasons. First, one does not need to interpret the Tower of Babel account in the way Saunders does. It is possible that Genesis 11:1 means that, while each nation had its own language, there was a lingua franca that allowed the nations to communicate with each other (see commentary). Second, it is possible that language arose independently in multiple locations. Third, it is possible that language arose once but we can no longer trace every language that was ever spoken.

8. Why did cities suddenly appear all over the world between 3,000 and 1,000BC?

Saunders argument here is that if modern humans (biologically speaking) have existed for 50,000 years it is hard to explain why it took so long for cities to appear. Perhaps, he says, humans have only been around for a few thousand years. I am not in a good position to evaluate whether man should have been able to build cities, say, 40,000 years ago instead of 5,000 years ago. But I am skeptical of this argument because there is evidence that modern humans (biologically speaking) have been around for more than 5,000 years. I know there are young earth creationist tactics to try to explain away this evidence but I don’t find them at all persuasive.

9. How is independent thought possible in a world ruled by chance and necessity?

10. How do we account for self-awareness?

11. How is free will possible in a material universe?

Question 9-11 are all related to the philosophy of mind. Technically, an atheist could accept the existence of an immaterial mind (soul) while rejecting the existence of God. However, these are reasons to doubt that the mind is nothing but the brain. In addition to the issue of consciousness (self-awareness) there is also the issue of qualia and intentionality. The materialist can bite the bullet and deny the existence of independent thought and free will. But it is absolute desperation to deny that the mind is conscious, experiences qualia, and exhibits inherent intentionality (though eliminative materialists try). If we can know anything it is certainly that we are conscious. I find arguments for dualism (of some kind or another) based on these facts to be persuasive while not locking myself in to a specific form of dualism (e.g., Cartesian dualism). This does not prove theism but it does make the existence of an immaterial mind, such as God, plausible while making materialism untenable.

Richard Carrier bungles this issue. First, he falsely claims that dualists can’t make predictions from their theories, but this is untrue (see Irreducible Mind or Soul Hypothesis). Second, most dualists believe there is interaction between the brain and mind, meaning pointing out correlations in the brain does not help us decide between materialism and dualism.

Dude Ex Machina suggests that a certain level of complexity will result in consciousness. But there is simply no reason why we should expect matter to be conscious. He brings up the topic of artificial intelligence and non-human brains. As someone with a BS in Computer Science I fully expect that no computer will ever become conscious (mimicking consciousness is a different matter) barring a revolution in how computing is implemented.

12. How do we account for conscience?

13. On what basis can we make moral judgements?

14. Why does suffering matter?

15. Why do human beings matter?

16. Why care about justice?

Questions 12-16 concern morality. The main problem I have had with all purely secular meta-ethical theories I have come across is that they provide no reason for the evil person to perform good deeds if he can avoid punishment from other people. On the other hand, an omniscient God that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked provides such an evil person a reason to perform good deeds. But this is beside the point since the atheist can grant that objective morality does not exist or that there is no reason for the evil person above to perform good deeds. This may be unpalatable to many of us but it does not make it false.

17. How do we account for the almost universal belief in the supernatural?

18. How do we know the supernatural does not exist?

19. How can we know if there is conscious existence after death?

Saunders has not elaborated (yet?) on what he had in mind with these three questions. If I were forced to turn these questions into arguments it would involve pointing out that millions of living people claim to have witnessed or experienced the supernatural (admittedly the distinction between natural and supernatural is vague but I’m talking about the kinds of things most atheists deny, such as miraculous healings, apparitions, the afterlife). One could then note specific instances of the apparently supernatural and how atheists struggle to adequately explain these cases. It has been my personal experience that atheists can struggle mightily in explaining specific cases and often need to resort to outright denial.

Rosa Rubicondior thinks we settle for easy answers. This might be true in some cases but there are other cases where a person looks for natural explanations and simply can’t find them. She also asserts that the supernatural cannot be detected or measured. While it may be true that supernatural entities cannot be experimented on in controlled situations there is no reason to believe they cannot be detected at all. Whether you believe them or not, people routinely claim to have detected the supernatural in some sense (e.g., they saw a ghost).

Richard Carrier seems to think that science will somehow extinguish belief in the supernatural (at least if we all followed it perfectly). But the fact is that scientists have come to believe in the supernatural after thorough investigations (e.g., the Rosenheim poltergeist, miraculous healings).

20. What accounts for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances and growth of the church?

I assume Sanders’ point is that the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead best explains these three historical facts (or at least the first two). Books on the subject from Michael Licona and N. T. Wright provide detailed arguments to this effect. I agree with Saunders on this matter. The atheist must rely on an anti-supernatural bias to overcome his lack of positive historical evidence.

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7 thoughts on “20 Questions for Atheists

  1. Thanks for interacting with my post. I very much doubt I deserve to be included in such illustrious company as the other bloggers you cite. The original post consisted of mostly off-the-cuff responses to Saunders’ questions. My answers were never intended to be exhaustive and due to brevity, many assertions were left undefended.

    Briefly on the subject of AI, I don’t have a degree in computer science. I’m working on a PhD in philosophy, but philosophy of mind isn’t my area of specialty, although I read around in the subject. I’ll be the first to admit that there is no consensus among philosophers of mind on AI. There does seem to be something of a consensus against dualism though. Even those philosophers, like David Chalmers, who see consciousness as irreducible to mere matter opt for panpsychism rather than dualism. Now consensus doesn’t determine truth, but it might be an indication.

    Although there is no consensus on AI among philosophers of mind, the number of optimists, as far as I can tell, is growing. See the arguments of the aforementioned David Chalmers and also papers by Nick Bostrom. On a more popular level, Douglas Hofstadter is good on this subject. Granted, these men are all philosophers. But unless we follow Lawrence Krauss in thinking that philosophers are the gym teachers of the academic world, we might do well to take their opinion on this question seriously.

    Having said that, AI remains a promissory note. My point is simply to say that if consciousness could be replicated in non-human intelligences, this would be empirical confirmation that it’s possible for matter to think. I suspect some might say that we could never be sure whether a machine is conscious or just mimicking consciousness as you say. This is largely the point of Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. But the problem of detection is secondary, and is also present in the classical philosophical problem of other minds. I don’t think AI would prove a unique case in this regard.

    You also qualify your claim ‘barring a revolution in … computing.’ Would quantum computing count? I confess again to being an interested amateur in these matters, but it seems imprudent to bet against progress. If you had told someone at the dawn of computing that a machine would eventually beat a chess grandmaster (or Ken Jennings at ‘Jeopardy!’) you would have been met with incredulous stares. I confess the problem of consciousness is a lot harder to crack, but if I had to guess, I’d say that it will probably be solved by some collaboration between neuroscience and computer science. Despite my respect for philosophy, I don’t think it’s likely to be solved by philosophers reflecting on qualia or intentionality, etc. Introspection has limits.

    I think an analogy can be drawn with the unlocking of the human genome. For centuries it was thought impossible to reduce life to matter. The difference between living and non-living things seemed too great that it was hypothesized that there must be a mysterious life-force to explain it. However, that theory was falsified by the discovery of DNA. This is not something we could have discovered through introspection. We do not experience ourselves phenomenologically as spirals of DNA molecules, but nonetheless we are. I suspect what’s called the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness will be solved in a similar way.

    Anyways, it’s probably time to draw this lengthy comment to a close. Thanks for engaging with my post and providing a link to it. If you feel inclined to respond to my comment, I’d be happy to engage further.

  2. dudeexmachina:

    The original post consisted of mostly off-the-cuff responses to Saunders’ questions. My answers were never intended to be exhaustive and due to brevity, many assertions were left undefended.

    I understand. I certainly don’t consider my post to be in any way exhaustive either.

    My point is simply to say that if consciousness could be replicated in non-human intelligences, this would be empirical confirmation that it’s possible for matter to think.

    I would clarify this to say that consciousness would have to be replicated in a human-built machine of some kind. We assume at least some animals are conscious but I don’t think that fact settles the physicalism/non-physicalism issue. An intelligent machine would probably not rule out some forms of emergentism either. On the other hand, if we built a replica of the human brain and it did not achieve consciousness that could be taken as an argument against physicalism (the physicalist could always contend we failed to build a true replica however).

    You also qualify your claim ‘barring a revolution in … computing.’ Would quantum computing count?

    My understanding is that a quantum computer still stores information and that the information may exhibit derived intentionality (just like a classical computer) but not inherent intentionality. I also see no reason why using qubits would lead us to expect a quantum computer to be conscious or to experience qualia.

    Despite my respect for philosophy, I don’t think it’s likely to be solved by philosophers reflecting on qualia or intentionality, etc. Introspection has limits.

    Consciousness, qualia, and intentionality are the kinds of data that a true philosophy of mind has to make sense of. I don’t see how further third-person study of the brain or computers will advance our knowledge of such matters. While it is and will be very controversial, perhaps some kind of NDE study or paranormal research could make a breakthrough.

  3. *My point is simply to say that if consciousness could be replicated in non-human intelligences, this would be empirical confirmation that it’s possible for matter to think.*

    Yes, in this context I’m referring to human created machine intelligence. You’re also right that were this to happen it wouldn’t rule out emergentism. You could be a property dualist and believe that strong AI is possible. The only position that would be decisively ruled out if consciousness were replicated by machines would be substance dualism. In your original post you don’t commit yourself to substance dualism. What kind of dualist are you?

    Thanks for the info on quantum computers. I don’t know much about the subject, but I’ve heard it raised in the context of AI. I’ll research it some more down the line.

    You say, “Consciousness, qualia, and intentionality are the kinds of data that a true philosophy of mind has to make sense of. I don’t see how further third-person study of the brain or computers will advance our knowledge of such matters.”

    That’s assuming that these phenomenological aspects don’t turn out to be reducible to ‘lower’ level ontology. I suspect that a major difference between us is that for me such an outcome is a live option and for you it probably is not. The point of my DNA analogy is that it’s possible for the problem of consciousness to be solved in a ‘deflationary’ way. Just as vital energy or a life force was a mistaken way to conceptualize the difference between living and non-living things, so too our conceptual categories for thinking about the mind — our ‘folk psychology’ — might be mistaken. But I haven’t a settled opinion on the matter. If anything, my sympathies are with the likes of Chalmers, Nagel, and McGinn who actually see a problem here as opposed to Dennett who deny there’s a problem at all. So I agree with you that these data need to be accounted for and that it’s still a challenge to do so. What I meant is that I doubt these data will be explained by an armchair phenomenological approach. The best chance of solving these problems would be through an empirical research program. I think neuroscience and computer science should be part of that program, along with cog sci, philosophy of mind, and experimental psychology.

    You say “While it is and will be very controversial, perhaps some kind of NDE study or paranormal research could make a breakthrough.”

    I’m afraid I’m as pessimistic about this route as a viable research program as you seem to be about “further third-person study of the brain or computers” advancing our knowledge of consciousness. But maybe you could persuade me otherwise. What kind of NDE/paranormal study did you have in mind and how would it advance our knowledge of consciousness?

    Side bar: In your original post, you say of the seemingly intractable problems of consciousness, qualia, and intentionality and their implications for dualism: “This does not prove theism but it does make the existence of an immaterial mind, such as God, plausible while making materialism untenable.” Couldn’t an argument be made in reverse? Since we know that consciousness is dependent on the brain, and all (finite) minds that we know of are physically instantiated, that the existence of an immaterial mind is rendered less plausible? The point is not meant to be a knock-down argument, but a reminder that the evidence is ambiguous. At best aren’t we left with agnosticism?

  4. This is very interesting. May I try? I hate to say Im an Atheist, since that implies that my position is formulated in opposition to Theism, but I am a monist and naturalist.
    I agree with you about the Cosmological Argument. However, the kalam version seems to depend on the physics as much as the philosophy. It assumes that the the beginning is a normal event, which makes causal principles derived from our experience applicable. Without addresssing the nature of a singularity, if the beginning is a normal event to which our expectations of causation apply, that leaves open the possibility that history extends beyond that event. This leads to infinity problems, not just the one that everyone rightly reviles (turtles all the way down) but the closed ones too where you consider things underlying (if that is the an applicable term) the beginning and beyond the edge (if that is an applicable term) of space and time proper parts of the universe. People talk about these things. Certain Mathematicians say they have visualized a five dimensional object. Forgive me if I have my doubts. Maybe I’m just not smart enough, but I don’t think anyone’s understanding of the beginning provides the basis for a solid argument. Because it depends on the assumption that the beginning is a normal event, I think that first part of the kalam argument is subject to a fallacy of composition criticism.
    I always found the contingency argument more compelling. The idea of a “pure actuality” is a bit vague, but provides more solid ground than claims of a working understanding of singularities and infinite sets from a philosophical standpoint. If the thing that cannot not be is analogous to the idea of a ‘secondary abstract’, then I think it is a useful idea, but I think it leads to a monist or purely idealist conclusion – the world is one kind of stuff or entirely an indirect experience. I don’t think any version of the cosmological argument implies a personal cause. It doesn’t get around the interaction problem in dualism. Intent is contingent. It has a subject, an object and a predicate. An intended beginning or an ongoing creative intent seems to have a place in time and so seems to lead you back around to the stack of turtles. I can’t see how the mechanics of the dualistic arrangement can be made to work in cosmology or elsewhere (bad joke, couldn’t resist). Again, maybe I’m just not smart enough.
    Enough yakking from me. I see that you didn’t invite this kind of response, if it’s off base or annoying, don’t post it. Anyway, thanks for the conversation; I appreciate your points, they are well considered.

  5. dudeexmachina:

    In your original post you don’t commit yourself to substance dualism. What kind of dualist are you?

    I am convinced that the mind is not merely the cells and chemical processes that make up the brain. I believe the brain influences the mind and vice versa. Beyond that I don’t find any specific form of dualism/non-physicalism to be clearly better than another.

    Thanks for the info on quantum computers. I don’t know much about the subject, but I’ve heard it raised in the context of AI. I’ll research it some more down the line.

    Please don’t take my comments on quantum computing as anything approaching an expert opinion. It’s not as if quantum computing was covered in my undergraduate studies. I think the main point is that we would need to discover a different kind of matter or a new property of matter in order for any computer made of matter to truly replicate the mind.

    I have also seen speculation on quantum mechanics (not computers) and the mind. It’s another avenue to look into if you’re interested.

    That’s assuming that these phenomenological aspects don’t turn out to be reducible to ‘lower’ level ontology.

    If those aspects can be reduced and adequately explained by a lower level ontology then I think that would be progress. Currently such reduction often seems to entail that I am not really conscious, that I don’t really have experiences, and that my thoughts really aren’t about anything. I can’t accept this kind of reduction because it runs counter to my direct experience.

    I suspect that a major difference between us is that for me such an outcome is a live option and for you it probably is not.

    For the most part that is correct, although some breakthrough discovery could change my mind.

    What kind of NDE/paranormal study did you have in mind and how would it advance our knowledge of consciousness?

    If physicalism is correct it should be impossible for a mind to acquire knowledge that is not mediated through the body. If someone is unconscious or dead he should not be able to identify the person who took his dentures out of his mouth during the resuscitation and where the dentures were placed. Yet there is just such a veridical NDE case (Michael Prescott’s blog has a few posts on the subject). Auto-ganzfeld experiments seem to give results not predicted by phsyicalism. If you find such examples persuasive then you probably won’t be a physicalist even if you still have many questions.

    Couldn’t an argument be made in reverse? Since we know that consciousness is dependent on the brain, and all (finite) minds that we know of are physically instantiated, that the existence of an immaterial mind is rendered less plausible? The point is not meant to be a knock-down argument, but a reminder that the evidence is ambiguous. At best aren’t we left with agnosticism?

    I don’t think the reverse works if you believe that consciousness, qualia, and intentionality point to an immaterial mind. You already believe that the mind is not physical to some degree. It at least makes the notion of God as an immaterial mind less problematic than if you believed consciousness, qualia, and intentionality are purely physical states.

  6. keithnoback:

    While the kalam cosmological argument (KCA) may be the best known cosmological argument, I too don’t think it’s the best one. But there are philosophical reasons to believe that the past does not extend back in time infinitely (the KCA existed before modern science). Big Bang cosmology has merely added extra support to the argument. I think the problem of an infinite past is avoided. The only causal principle that the KCA invokes is that whatever begins to exist has a cause. While we can never be absolutely sure this is the case I find it a plausible metaphysical belief.

    Depending on what is meant by a “personal cause” you might be right about cosmological arguments not leading to this conclusion. Some theologians believe we can’t fully understand the divine (in this life anyway) and that our language about God is analogical in nature.

  7. If the “brain influences the mind and vice versa” is it fair to say that the mind is dependent on the brain in some sense? If so, I take it that spelling out exactly how mind/brain causality works is the challenge for dualism.

    Yes, some forms of reductionism, like eliminative materialism, entail that consciousness is essentially illusory. But as I mentioned, I’m not wedded to this view. I do think that consciousness probably arises from lower level ontology, but this doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t take the phenomenology seriously. I think it was Owen Flanagan, in Consciousness Reconsidered, who criticized Dennett on this point. He argued something to the effect that one could believe that science will (dis)solve the problem of consciousness without eliminating phenomenology. Unfortunately, the details of the argument escape me.

    On the NDE stuff, I’ve read several of the accounts. If taken at face value, further research may lead to some interesting discoveries about the extent of consciousness, i.e. it may extend further than our current theories would lead us to believe. But I’m not sure that gets you dualism. Same goes for the Auto-ganzfeld experiments. Both of these phenomena, to the extent that they can be straightforwardly taken as evidence of anything, are evidence of ESP. However, there are theories of ESP (including quantum ‘spooky action at a distance’ effects) that don’t invoke a soul or any additions to our current ontology. If we follow Ockham’s razor, we should be cautious about invoking a soul to explain this data. I think NDE proponents sometimes overstate their case here.

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