Sunday, May 01, 2011

Not an impenatrable mystery beyond human understanding

On April 12, 2011, the Huffington Post published an article by Vincent Bugliosi, author of Divinity of Doubt: The God Question, titled "Why Do I Doubt Both the Atheists and the Theists?" advocating for his view that "the question of the existence of God is an impenetrable mystery and beyond human comprehension." As an atheist, I disagree with his conclusion, and here I will attempt to explain some of the reasons why.

Mr. Bugliosi begins by asserting "the fact" that "we can all agree that there cannot be a more important subject than God". Not true. I consider the subject of God to have no day to day relevance in my own life and I think my perspective here is a common perspective among atheists. What is important is the broader issue of how we properly justify our beliefs. The subjects of theism and agnosticism are significant topics because there appears to be a strong tendency for people to rely on poor and bad justifications for those two beliefs. Atheists consider theism, and agnosticism of the sort defined above, to not only lack sufficient justification, but to be held contrary to the overall weight of the evidence. Sam Harris tends to express this as "faith" versus "science", but I consider that framing to be too stark. It is more accurate to say this disagreement centers on our dependency on weight of the evidence for proper belief justification and which side of this question the overall weight of the evidence places us.

Mr. Bugliosi asserts that he devoted years to "objectively look at and draw powerful inferences from the evidence, my only master, to see if almost universally accepted, centuries-old religious beliefs had any merit to them." So he is on the same page as most atheists regarding the centrality of evidence. Yet he disparages atheism for assuming the non-sequiturs that god must be all-good, that evolution rules out god creating the original life forms, that organized religion is synonymous with god belief, and that a creator god is improbable because such a god would be more complex than the universe.

However, atheists simply observe that for many theists, the omni attributes, including the omni-beneficient attribute, are central to their own self-stated, self-justification for their theism. They argue god must exist, and should be worshipped, because such omni attributes must exist to explain the universe. So naturally, and correctly, atheists turn this around and point out that the presence of these omni attributes are inconsistent with accurate descriptions of our universe and are pairwise logically incompatible.

Unfortunately for Mr. Bugliosi's comment that evolution technically does not require abiogenesis to get started, and therefore does not support atheism, the overall weight of the evidence that we have strongly favors the conclusion that life began as self-catalytic chemical reactions which eventually reached a point of complexity where it could begin evolving via genetic-like mechanisms. Maybe the initial chemicals required to get this started were somewhat complex, but the evidence suggests that it is reasonable to think that the chemistry needed for complex molecules to self-assemble would have occurred during earth's early history. We don't have the details to reconstruct and pinpoint the historical details regarding exactly where and how this happened . However, this is not an issue of "ruling out", or proving, in some impossible to achieve, absolute, and total sense, that god did it, or that no god did anything. All belief justification, including theism, agnosticism, and atheism beliefs, is properly about following the overall weight of the evidence.

As for god being more complex than the universe, the point of that argument is that it doesn't make sense to simply assert as an answer a more complex phenomena (God) than the phenomena to be explained (the universe) because that approach takes us backwards, not forwards, relative to the goal of achieving an explanation. God is an assertion that masquerades as an explanation but that actually accomplishes the opposite, it obscures instead of explaining. Mr. Bugliosi's cavalier dismissal of this argument, which does not originate with Mr. Dawkins, is what fails here.

Mr. Bugliosi is convinced that "the other principal argument for his existence, First Cause, is very difficult to get around and goes in the direction, though not conclusively, of a Supreme Being." I very much disagree. First Cause makes too big an assumption that the starting point is "nothing". In this sense it is like the omni attributes must exist arguments for god, it assumes some initial and intrinsic state of affairs that we have no good reason to assume. Why must this perfect, extreme, total, starting-point condition called "nothing" exist and why must that condition be the starting point? In the universe in which we live, quantum mechanics indicates that nothingness is an unstable condition, it is spontaneously filled with the undeniable something of virtual particles. These virtual particles, although they are fleeting in time and place, are as real as any other particles that physics identifies. I think the problem here is that Mr. Bugliosi has not read enough physics and cosmology to have a good appreciation of the possibilities that modern science suggests with regard to the nature of space, time, boundaries, and origins. So his perspective is stilted, it is too constrained by blinkered human intuition. All of our modern understanding of the universe is counter-intuitive, which is why it isn't found in ancient, human-written, documents such as any holy books, or for that matter in many theology books. Mr. Bugliosi quotes Einstein saying he is not an atheist, so I will counter here with a quote from Stephen Hawking: "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to ... set the Universe going."

Mr. Bugliosi quotes Gertrude Stein as describing his agnosticism correctly this way "There ain't no answer. There ain't going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer." Atheism fully respects the reality that we don't have all of the answers, that answers may not always be obtainable even in principle, that saying we do not know is the correct answer to give when the weight of the evidence fails to favor one conclusion over any of the others. Atheists simply disagree that the "existence of God" is one of those questions where relevant evidence is either not available or not favoring one conclusion over the other. The evidences from history, from sociology, from psychology, from the hard sciences, all point persuasively towards the conclusion that all gods are human created fictions and that gods, messiahs, children of god, prophets, jinns, genies, souls, devils, angels, ghosts, or supernatural creatures of any descriptions or names do not exist. In my opinion, atheism is the correct, weight of the evidence based belief for people to adopt.

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