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Claude Mariottini

John,

Great post. It seems that atheism is losing its foundations by the very instrument that lead many people to atheism: science.

Claude Mariottini

Scott Ferguson

Rumors of the Death of Materialism are greatly exaggerated.

Leave aside the notion that special weight should be given to the utterances of David Brooks on either science or spirituality, and we are left with the idea that identifying possible locations in the brain where spiritual experiences originate lends evidence to their reality. I'm afraid it does no such thing. It could either indicate the way in which the brain reacts to the an experience of God or it could indicate the neurological origin of the illusion of an experience of God. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging can not distinguish the two and, hence, has nothing to say about the truth value of such perceptions. In fact, the ability of some scientists to induce religious-like brain states using simple magnetic fields weakens Mr Brooks argument further.

As to scientists investigating the role of emotions in decision making, only a cretin or an economist would claim that emotions do not play an important role in how we think and act. If "hard-core materialism" was hindered this kind of research in the past than a step forward in science has been achieved. Again, it says nothing about God. Equating Love and Religion is silly and, frankly, denigrating to the humanity of us all. Then again, when I study Christian theology and encounter total depravity, preveniant grace, etc, I begin to think that that's what Christianity is all about.

JohnFH

Scott, you have a very nice blog, and I plan to look at it in more depth. I agree with your Jeremiah Wright post - I've blogged along the same lines.

You make some good points, and you hold Brooks to a very high journalistic standard, a compliment of sorts in his direction, but you seem unwilling to allow people to take the multidimensionality of reality as they experience it and build it into a larger working hypothesis which includes a God-axiom. If all you're saying is that there is no evidence out there that compels belief in God, I'm with you, though that benign assertion holds for materialism as well. But you seem to want to say more, to speak from some agnostic height from which to look down upon the credulous masses. It's not that simple.

It's as if you said to Christopher Reeve, "I know you had an out-of-body experience, and in consequence thereof, became a theist, to be precise, a Unitarian theist, but let me tell you, you are making an unwarranted inference." Now Reeve may have misunderstood his own experience, but his choice to move from an atheistic position to belief in a Unitarian God is a legitimate one, it seems to me, though I myself believe in a different kind of God.

It's not that you're wrong that an atheism-of-the-gaps kind of argument is still possible following an out-of-body experience. It's just that, all other things being equal, having such experiences, which throws into question hard-core materialism, naturally makes it more plausible to believe in a God of some kind, details to be announced as it were.

It's all well and good to say with Einstein that religion is a fertile hotbed of primitive superstitions (or something to that effect: I don't remember the exact words off-hand). That is undeniable. But something is rotten in Denmark, since even Einstein turns around and replaces a robust God-hypothesis with the noosphere hypothesis, according to which there is a tertium quid which relates mind to body. Really now! What's that about materialism not being dead?

Samuel Skinner

I come bearing criticism.

First of, it is quite obvious morality is hard wired- psychopaths are good evidence for this. And hardwired behavior is... materialism.

The shift isn't away from materialism, but reductionism. So you are off by a bit. Reductionism is a method- not a statement about reality.

JohnFH

Samuel, thanks for your comments, but I'm not sure I follow you. If there is a shift away from reductionism, that still sounds like a shift away from hard-core, or reductionistic, materialism.

Justin (koavf)

John,

I read that article on the International Herald Tribune and I thought that David Brooks might be onto something. Then I read two science bloggers who tore into him and I wasn't so sure:
http://scienceblogs.com/islandofdoubt/2008/05/who_are_these_neural_buddhists.php

http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2008/05/what_is_david_brooks_talking_a.php

And I was reminded of Slate's excoriation of the Dalai Lama:
http://www.slate.com/id/2130455/

Then again, maybe the nuns and monks have something to teach us about brains:
http://www.slate.com/id/2165026/

As always, the debate continues.

Neurotheology. Ugh.

-JAK

JohnFH

Justin,

not only does the debate continue, it is an open debate. Neuroscientists who reach conclusions like those of Newberg are not written off by their colleagues, but taken seriously. It's the same with physicists who see the Big Bang theory as supporting some sort of theism. Their colleagues may or may not agree, but they generally do not disqualify their colleagues' views from consideration.

I don't expect the debate to ever reach a conclusion. But I smell a rat when someone says that the theory of evolution, or the fact that so many things are hard-wired into us, albeit in squishy ways, supports materialism. Such theories are compatible with materialism, but also with a range of other views.

Everyone is looking for a silver bullet that proves their point of view. But what if life is such that we cannot be compelled by the evidence to believe or disbelieve in God, but rather, the decision must be an existential one?

Just saying.

Samuel Skinner

Uhh... not really. Reductionism is understanding a system from the working of its parts. In some cases that simply doesn't work- economics is a perfect example. In that case you have to examine whole sections similtanously.

Still materialism. For example... to understand macro economics you have to look at an entire feature of the economy- not just individuals or firms, but things like money, banking- whole sectors of the economy. If you don't you won't be able to understand macro economics.

Blane

Hi John.

I'm a respecter of David Brooks, but I couldn't disagree with you more. He bit off way more than he could chew with this column. My brief response is here.

Brooks awkwardly exposes himself (in many instances, but in the portion you quote, most notably) by appropriating the title of Dawkins' book, The Selfish Gene, even though it takes a reader less than three pages into the book to be disabused of the notion that Dawkins' "selfish gene" has anything to do with human selfishness.

Sam Harris? You'd have to be more specific about what you've heard, but in The End of Faith (2004) he already has an entire chapter on "Experiments in Consciousness" in which he expresses openness to ideas that some might consider "mystical." That doesn't mean he's not a materialist, an atheist.

Blane

JohnFH

Blane,

you have a fine blog. I note how you are learning from your children. Right now my four year old Anna is full of wisdom. I could listen to her all day.

I do confess I struggle with the stretchiness of the terms atheism and materialism. Since there are atheists - including a famous writer - who believe that even rocks are sentient beings, it's clearly possible to be an atheist but not a materialist by any standard definition. Sam Harris has been speaking on campuses around the country, including Christian college campuses I think, and apparently he has shown quite a bit of openness to the Christian God hypothesis as well. I suppose that might be chalked up to the fact that he is a thoughtful, empathetic person, but beyond that, a hard-core atheist. But I'm not so sure anymore.

This is my question for you, Blane. Is there some human trait, love, hate, altruism, selfishness, you name it, which is NOT compatible with the theory that we are what we are because of random genetic variation and selection via environmental pressures?

So far as I can see, the hypothesis as bandied about currently really isn't falsifiable and doesn't qualify as properly formed.

In short, I think David Brooks is onto something, and I'm not sure Dawkins, in any case, is worth the time to read. There are far more insightful evolutionary biologists one might read, both atheist (Stephen Jay Gould) and theist (Kenneth Miller).

Samuel Skinner

Couple things. You can be an atheist and not a materialist- it simply is illogical. Feel free to mock them.

I keep on hearing this "evolution isn't falsible" being spoken in the blogosphere. Here is a hint- it IS falsible, there just hasn't been any evidence against it. Think of the theory of gravity. That theory is also falsible- it just manages to be correct (thank you Einstein!). You are confusing accuracy with falsibility... and with how simple the main idea behind evolution is. It is, quite literally, the supply and demand theory for the natural world- sure it is falsible- it is just impossible to imagine how an alternative would work- especially given the alternatives are chance and "Don't think about it" (Because, God is obviously alive, so where did he come from?)>

JohnFH

Samuel,

thanks for continuing the conversation. But I think you are sidestepping my question. Is there some conceivable human trait, love, hate, altruism, selfishness, inclination to believe in the Bermuda Triangle, you name it, which is NOT compatible with the theory that we are what we are because of random genetic variation and selection via environmental pressures?

It's an honest question, though I realize I put you in a terrible bind by asking you to answer it.

Blane

John,

you wrote:
>>Sam Harris...apparently he has shown quite a bit of openness to the Christian God hypothesis as well.<<

I do not believe this, and--as it is written--will not believe it 'til I see it. ;)

As for your question--I am not a scientist--but I know of no reason not to think that all human traits are compatible with such a theory. What's the alternative? That theory is the only viable one available to us. And, as I think Samuel is saying, in scientific terms a theory is by definition falsifiable. If it's not falsifiable, it's not a theory. But that doesn't mean the theory isn't TRUE.

As for Dawkins, we need to distinguish between Dawkins as the ardent atheist author and Dawkins the evolutionary biologist. You might not want/like to read the atheist, but his credentials as a scientist are unassailable, and his book The Selfish Gene is an important contribution. My only point was that if Brooks is going to refer to the book, he should know better than to completely misconstrue the meaning of the title.

Blane

I may have tiptoed a little around your question, John, and hedged my answer only because of my sometimes false humility. But the answer is really simple--No, there is no human trait that is incompatible with evolutionary theory. Simple.

John
No. None of it isn't compatible. I'll explain.

Love- enables two people to live together without killing each other. Plus insures parents take care of their kids.

Hate- if someone is a threat, smashing them helps make the world safe for you.

Altruism- conversely, not everyone is a threat. Help them out and hope they return the favor. Or help out only those who will return the favor (unconditional altruism seems to have branched off from this).

Selfishness- looking after yourself will help you get ahead. Self explanatory.

Pseudoscience- people obey authorities (in this case science). And if it looks scientific, it must be science! Plus there is the aspect of mystery (triggers curiosity, which is an advantage for finding new tools, food sources, ideas, etc). Authority comes from family set up- children obey parents because they are dependent on them. They are dependent on parents because they are born premature compared to other species. The reason is people have a large brain, but small hips and so must be born early or not at all.

THAT is what evolutionary theory can tell us. Impressive, no?

JohnFH

As you say Blane (and it looks like Samuel agrees):

there is no human trait that is incompatible with evolutionary theory.

Perhaps that's true. If so, it is an impotent theory in terms of predictive value with respect to human traits.

Just to make you guys mad, I can't resist pointing out that theistic evolutionism (which I happen to hold to), based on the double premise of the theory of evolution and the trustworthiness of statements about human nature in the Bible, can predict all kinds of things related to human behavior. Indeed, the evolution part provides, at least some of the time, a plausible etiology for behavior, but says nothing about the future, because, as you say, there is no human trait that is incompatible with evolutionary theory.

Alan Lenzi

Blane, John is a mystic.

JohnFH

And I like "Mystic Mountain" by Hovhaness, too.

Blane

Alan wrote:
>>Blane, John is a mystic.<<
I'm not sure what that means in this context. Does it mean there's no point in trying to reason with him?

I'll make one last comment, just in case. So the difference, John, between a run-of-the-mill evolutionist and a theistic evolutionist (at least as you describe yourself), is that the latter incorporates trustworthy statements from the Bible about human nature? What are some of those statements, and can none of the statements have been arrived at apart from divine revelation? If there are statements from the Bible about human nature that are inconsistent with what we know from other sources, how would you evaluate these discrepancies?

In any case, I don't concede your point that evolutionary theory is not predictive. But I have a feeling that you're asking it to do something that it isn't supposed to do. (I think a read of "The Selfish Gene" would be interesting for you.)

Thanks for the stimulating conversation!

JohnFH

Hi Blane,

this is an enjoyable discussion. Unlike some Christian apologists, I don't believe in biting the head off of non-theists. I like watching praying mantises do that, don't get me wrong, but the doctrine of imitatio dei as concretely explicated in Psalms 111-112 and 145-147 compels me to model my behavior according to other coordinates.

You say: I don't concede your point that evolutionary theory is not predictive.

So what does it predict? Describe something that apart from the theory might be thought to be a possible future development, but which is excluded by the theory.

When I was a teenager and attended the UW-Madison, a really famous evolutionist professor (I wish I could remember his name) would give as his concluding lecture a passionate sermon about how evolution would take humanity to new moral heights. He cited Jesus and Buddha as examples of anticipations of what was to come. Believe me, hundreds and hundreds of young things like myself ate this up every year. To be honest, I think I went to the concluding lecture because it was rumored that the prettiest girls on campus were going to be in attendance as well.

That turned out to be more or less true, so I'm glad I attended, but the "evolution supports the view that humankind is on its way to becoming a race of Buddhas and Jesuses" sermon, nevertheless, was and is hocum. But I knew that already, because the Bible tells me so.

That's one of the trustworthy statements found in the Bible: that as human beings we are caught between what we want to be, and what we would wish to be, a situation that is not supposed to change until kingdom come. See Romans 7:14-24 in a decent modern translation like TNIV. The passage describes the human predicament well. Evolutionary theory, though it claims to be a necessary and sufficient explanation of why and what we are, does not.

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  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.