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Atoms in motion, or just atoms in motion?

Now it’s Dawkins’s turn to be called a bully for no real reason.

This time it’s an Australian theologian. His argument reminds me of the claim of “Froborr” last winter that Greta Christina’s aspiration for a world where religion no longer exists is “evil in one of its purest forms,” although Neil Ormerod is much less clumsy about it. It’s to do with purpose and free will and whether it’s possible to consider reason normative for humans while also considering humans “just atoms in motion.” (But does Dawkins consider humans just atoms in motion? It depends what you mean by “just,” but I think it’s fair to say he doesn’t in the sense that seems to imply. If he did he wouldn’t bother, would he.)

He might view what we think of as our free choices as nothing more than the statistical outcome of more basic physical processes, so that some move one way and others another. In which case, people are not moved by reason to change their position, but by complex forces they cannot grasp. The appeal to reason, then, is simply a mask for other forces which shift the probability of people moving in the direction Dawkins wishes them to move in. It really is then nothing more than an alpha male beating his chest in a display of force seeking to intimidate the weaker members of the group into accepting his leadership. Among human beings, this is called bullying.

No I don’t think so. Substitute the word “ultimately” for “just” and then perhaps you can see why. I, for instance, do think that I am “ultimately” atoms in motion, but I keep busy during this period that the atoms make up a sentient animal. That’s because I don’t think I’m “just” atoms in motion.

So which Richard Dawkins should we accept? Is it the one who implicitly believes that human beings have a purpose to their living, and that this purpose is to be guided by reason, who appeals to the innate reasonableness of every human being and the exigency to be led by that reasonableness? Or it is the one who explicitly eschews meaning and purpose in the universe and whose writings the[n] amount to a form of social bullying, because the decisions we make are nothing but reactions to the ebb and flow of physical forces around us?

See what he did there? Adding the words in the universe makes a difference. I don’t think there is any meaning and purpose in the universe, but down here in the layer of life on this planet, I think humans make meaning and purpose. One way to make meaning and purpose is to encourage and train people to use their faculties – gymnastics, music, reason, whatever. Dawkins does that. Calling it bullying is a stretch.

Comments

  1. InfraredEyes says

    Someone really should introduce these theologians to the concept of emergence. It is through the magic of emergence that we can be, simultaneously, collections of atoms and reasoning apes. Although I would dispute the notion that we exist for the purpose of reasoning, and I seriously doubt if Dawkins has ever made such a claim.

  2. Tony •King of the Hellmouth• says

    Ophelia:

    I don’t think there is any meaning and purpose in the universe, but down here in the layer of life on this planet, I think humans make meaning and purpose.

    THIS. A thousand times.
    How we spend our time, how we love, laugh, work, play, all of it imbues our lives with meaning. What we choose to do with our lives gives our lives purpose.

  3. Aratina Cage says

    Like you say on whether we are “just” atoms in motion or not, relative considerations of scale are quite important. At larger scales of time or space, for instance, a human life (and even life on Earth altogether) hardly registers as a blip or a bump even. It isn’t that difficult to hold all these different measurements up to our lives and see that in a few we stand out–as does all life–as being more than “just” atoms in motion.

    Besides that, a Catholic should realize that in their own theological reasoning, they have to invoke all these mystery substances (like god-given purpose, which is kind of a cloak over our atoms) to distinguish us from everything else. The atheist way of looking at it is just better.

  4. Pteryxx says

    …if just-atoms can’t reason, then shouldn’t just-atoms be unable to intimidate or bully, either? *headscratch*

  5. Ken Pidcock says

    While many of his followers will undoubtedly think of this as a fine and noble aspiration, it is worthwhile pausing to consider what such a claim means, what it presupposes and, if Dawkins is correct in his general scientific naturalism, what it makes of Dawkins himself.

    Um…It means that an author with an argument intends that it will be persuasive. Oh, wait, you didn’t mean to be straightforward, did you? It took me to the end to see that you were a Professor of Theology.

  6. steve oberski says

    Apparently some atoms are sacred, others are not.

    Takes a sophisticated theologian with years of training to tell the difference.

  7. says

    It’s disingenuous to say we make our own meaning and purpose in this context, as it’s not relevant to what the theologists are afraid of – reality. Their understandable thirst to make sense of existence cannot be quenched by anything short of absolute certainty. So they struggle with doubt instead of chaos.

  8. says

    Well, I know – theologians (mostly – theistic ones anyway) don’t accept that we get to make meaning for ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we can’t argue from that premise, surely!

  9. quantheory says

    I don’t make choices; I’m just a collection of atoms, caused to evolve by physical processes that end up “calculating” magnitudes of desires, beliefs, consequences, gut feelings, and so forth, that end up propelling themselves so as to appear to produce “my” decisions. I’m not responsible for my determined physical nature, of which I am not even fully aware.

    I don’t make choices; I’m just an immaterial soul that feels ultimately uncaused (and therefore literally inexplicable) motivations, that produce “my” decisions. I’m not responsible for the inexplicable nature of my soul, which makes it impossible even for me to fully understand or predict my own actions, sometimes even after I have carried them out, and which has one or more flaws on the metaphysical level (e.g. original sin) that I could in no way have prevented, and which, in fact, my choices could have played no causal role in producing.

    Regardless of how you feel about the first of these two paragraphs, I don’t see how anyone can pretend that the first makes fatalism *inevitable*, while the second is *trivially* compatible with reason and meaning and all that jazz. As far as I can see, the only way to argue that spirituality is more friendly to “purpose” is to say that it is so incredibly vague that it does not actually encourage any thought on what “purpose” is in the first place, and therefore trivially inspires no doubt about it.

    Once you start asking about why, for instance, I should consider God’s purpose to be my own personal ideal, or how “free will” is an asset when there’s a clear-cut set of decisions I should always take, or why God simply did not create beings in heavenly bliss, but instead put them through confusing and painful tests first? Well, then religion isn’t really the path that’s friendliest to an understanding of one’s purpose. Instead you get a lot of smokescreens and pressure to stop asking about the details of your purpose, to go along with what the Special Patriarchs teach you to do, sometimes with a not so subtle “or else!” thrown into the mix.

    Of course, it’s the physicalists who are the bullies.

  10. 'Tis Himself says

    Ormerod says:

    This goes some way to explaining why Dawkins and his multitude of followers feel entitled to express such contempt and anger toward religious believers. Nothing religious believers say can be tolerated because they are at heart irrational human beings; they are free to be otherwise, and in not choosing to be rational they are failing in some sense to be what human beings should be.

    Omerod isn’t arguing with Dawkins or any other atheist, he’s arguing with the strawman atheist who lives solely in his head.

  11. Robert B. says

    Yes, I recognize this one. It’s the idea that nothing can exist without a special substance to make it up. The substance for human meaning they call the soul; we’ve looked at humans on the smallest scales and seen none of it. We report that we don’t believe in their special sauce. They think, therefore, that we don’t believe in meaning, because they don’t understand how something can exist without its supposed substance.

  12. Roger says

    Nothing- not even “atoms in motion”- can be “just atoms in motion.” We can calculate the speed with which a planet goes round the sun very accurately. We do this by treating the planet as a single entity, and calculate accordingly, not as a set of “atoms in motion” with each atom needing to be treated individually. “Quantity means quality”.

  13. Alex SL says

    I, for instance, do think that I am “ultimately” atoms in motion, but I keep busy during this period that the atoms make up a sentient animal. That’s because I don’t think I’m “just” atoms in motion.

    This is beautiful, thanks. I am probably going to link to it the next time Jerry Coyne dismisses compatibilist free will.

  14. says

    @Ophelia #14

    [re: make own meaning] But that doesn’t mean we can’t argue from that premise, surely!

    Sure, but argue to what end?

    Theologians will claim that making your own meaning and purpose is gaudily selfish, but they have it backwards. Any arbitrary religious morality is very selfish (e.g. I know I’m right, so others must suffer). In contrast, community ethics are only moderately selfish; playing well with others is important.

    Atheists speak in terms of friends and family, whereas theists selfishly consider their personal god’s issues paramount.

  15. raymoscow says

    Can’t you atheists see that without the magic gody stuff, there is no point to anything? /snark

  16. anubisprime says

    @ Ophelia Benson #14

    theologians (mostly – theistic ones anyway) don’t accept that we get to make meaning for ourselves.

    There is a very simple reason for that.
    If we get to make meaning for ourselves, then sky fairy is superfluous to requirements, simple like so!

    The ‘job’ of theologians is to construct the tacky shambles of bigotry, hatreds, intolerances and utter nonsense that passes for ‘xian feelology’ by gobbly gook or any other random spurious neurone flash that farts a stench of righteousness in an atrophied brain to prop up a shaky delusion.

    Their three chief weapons are their lies and manipulation along with deliberate misinterpretation…(ahh no sorry!!…)

    Their four chief weapons are their lies and manipulation along with deliberate misinterpretation and quote mining…(damn no not right…)

    Their five chief weapons are their lies and manipulation along with deliberate misinterpretation and quote mining and not forgetting appeals to personal incredulity…(shit!…. deep breath…)

    Their six chief weapons are….(well you get the idea!)

  17. jamessweet says

    This is all very simple: To talk of meaning and meaninglessness is, well, meaningless, unless you specify who is doing the meaning. Asking whether universe has any inherent meaning, that’s just word salad. It’s like asking whether jazz is vegetarian. It’s not even the right category for describing the thing you are talking about.

    Humans are the only mean-ers we know of, and imbue a whole lot of meaning to stuff. Therefore, stuff is meaningful. Where’s the problem?

  18. Curmudgeonly Monkey says

    He’s arguing ought from is. Nature (i.e.) the universe IS a bully. Nature bats last and nature doesn’t give a shit. That has nothing to do with how we choose to act in any particular moment of the day, though I suspect if we were to factor in the “Nature bats last” variable into our decision-making process, we might make choices that were more conducive to our survival as a species.

  19. says

    Ormerod says:

    “This goes some way to explaining why Dawkins and his multitude of followers feel entitled to express such contempt and anger toward religious believers. Nothing religious believers say can be tolerated because they are at heart irrational human beings; they are free to be otherwise, and in not choosing to be rational they are failing in some sense to be what human beings should be. They are like a watch that does not properly tell the time. They need fixing. And the proper fix is to be more rational, a better human being, and drop their religious beliefs.

    “If these are not Dawkins’ and his followers’ beliefs about what it means to be human, then all their contempt and anger is nothing more than an attempt at bullying believers, like alpha male primates beating their chests to warn off rivals.”

    I do not consider myself to be a ‘follower’ of Richard Dawkins. I just agree with some of the things he has to say. Dawkins is not infallible: unlike say, the Pope, whose infallibility where it matters Ormerod must surely acknowledge and submit himself to.

    I think that Ormerod is projecting a lot of his own stuff onto the rest of us, via the heave of this word salad. Christianity bases itself on the idea that humanity is a collection of watches that are all flawed, and need its fix. But for myself, I don’t wander the Earth urging others to be more like me, though I do learn valuable things from many other people, whether they realise it or not.

  20. GordonWillis says

    Thanks, quantheory at #15. Yes, what the hell is a “purpose”? Assuming that the purpose of something means that it is “for” something, that there is a reason why it is there, I puzzle about the purpose of god. I mean, what purpose does it serve? What is god for? Why is it there? The only answer I ever seem to hear is something like “God is that which is its own purpose, God is what purpose means“. But when you boil it down, this is no more than to say that god has intentions. Well, in that case I have news for god: I am my own purpose, too.

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